Hitchens says somewhere that he didn't suffer from cognitive dissonance of the sort that arises when a deeply internalized religious upbringing collides with the contrary values of the world, since he never took religion or theism seriously in the first place. But then I say religion was never a Jamesian live option for him. But if not a live existential option, one that engages the whole man and not just his intellect, then not an option explored with the openness and sympathy and humility requisite for understanding.
So why should we take seriously what Hitchens says about religion? He hasn't sympathetically entered into the subject. He hasn't fulfilled the prerequisites for understanding. One such prerequisite is openness to the pain of cognitive dissonance as suffered when the doctrines, precepts and practices of a religion taken seriously come into conflict with a world that mocks them when not ignoring them. But in Hitchens by his own account there was not even the possibility of cognitive dissonance.
Consider two working class individuals. The first is a sensitive poet with real poetic ability. His family, however, considers poetry effete and epicene and nothing that a real man could or should take seriously. The second is a lout with no appreciation of poetry whatsoever. The first suffers cognitive dissonance as his ideal world of poetic imagination collides with the grubby work-a-day-world of his unlettered parents and relatives. The second fellow obviously suffers from no comparable cognitive dissonance: he never took poetry seriously in the first place.
The second fellow, however, is full of himself and his opinions and does not hesitate to hold forth in the manner of the bar room bullshitter on any and all topics, including poetry. Should we credit his opinions about poetry? Of course not: he has never engaged with it by practice or careful reading or the consultation of works of literary criticism. He knows not whereof he speaks. His nescience reflects his lack of the poetic 'organ.'
Similarly, a fellow like Hitchens, as clever as he is, lacks the religious 'organ.' So religion is closed off from him and what he says about it , though interesting, need not be taken all that seriously, or is to be taken seriously only in a negative way in the manner of the pathologist in his study of pathogens.
A world-wide bestseller, apparently. A religious novel that emerges from the wasteland of Soviet atheism. God just won't stay dead.
One of the things that leftists and evangelical atheists never understand is that, even if religion is pure buncombe, wholly lacking in transcendent reference, it yet supplies people with immanent meaning. People want their lives to have meaning, a meaning that cannot be had by the pursuit of name and fame, loot and land, food and sex. Not everybody of course: there are 'human' robots among us. But most people at least some of the time in however confused and obscure a fashion.
The want and the need are not going away. How would a leftist or an evangelical atheist like Dawkins supply it? By the erection of an idol? The State? Science?
Me, I'm heading over to Amazon.com right now to order me up a copy. Wonderful company. So not all corporations are evil? Did it arise in some communist paradise? In North Korea? In Cuba? The service is astonishingly good. They promise me a book in two days and I'll sometimes get it a day early. Who built Amazon? Obama? The government? Imagine the government in charge of all book distribution . . . it's easy if you try . . . See link below.
Haecceitism is the doctrine that there are haecceities. But what is an haecceity?
Suppose we take on board for the space of this post the assumptions that (i) properties are abstract objects, that (ii) they can exist unexemplified, and that (iii) they are necessary beings. We may then define the subclass of haecceity properties as follows.
A haecceity is a property H of x such that: (i) H is essential to x; (ii) nothing distinct from x exemplifies H in the actual world; (iii) nothing distinct from x exemplifies H in any metaphysically possible world.
So if there is a property of Socrates that is his haecceity, then there is a property that individuates him, and indeed individuates him across all times and worlds at which he exists: it is a property that he must have, that nothing distinct from him has, and that nothing distinct from him could have. Call this property Socrateity. Being abstract and necessary, Socrateity is obviously distinct from Socrates, who is concrete and contingent. Socrateity exists in every world, but is exemplified (instantiated) in only some worlds. What's more, Socrateity exists at every time in every world that is temporally qualified, whereas Socrates exist in only some worlds and only at some times in the worlds in which he exists.
Now suppose you are a classical theist. Must you accept haecceitism (as defined above) in virtue of being a classical theist? I answer in the negative. Franklin Mason answers in the affirmative. In a comment on an earlier post, Mason gives this intriguing argument into which I have interpolated numerals for ease of reference.
 When God created the world, he knew precisely which individuals he would get. Thus  he didn't need to have those very individuals in front of him to know which ones they were. Thus  there must be a way to individuate all possible individuals that in no way depends upon their actual existence.  Such a thing is by definition a haecceity. Thus  there are haecceities.
I don't anticipate any disagreement with Mason as to what an haecceity is. We are both operating with the Plantingian notion. We disagree, however, on (i) whether there are any haecceities and (ii) whether classical theism is committed to them. I deny both (i) and (ii). In this post I focus on (ii). In particular, I will explain why I do not find Mason's argument compelling.
My reservations concern premise . There is a sense in which it is true that when God created Socrates, he knew which individual he would get. But there is also a sense in which it is not true. So we need to make a distinction. We may suppose, given the divine omniscience, that before God created Socrates he had before his mind a completely determinate description, down to the very last detail, of the individual he was about to bring into existence. In this sense, God knew precisely which individual he would get before bringing said individual into existence. Now either this description is pure or it is impure.
A pure description is one that includes no proper names, demonstratives or other indexicals, or references to singular properties. Otherwise the description is impure. Thus 'snub-nosed, rationalist philosopher married to Xanthippe' is an impure description because it includes the proper name 'Xanthippe.' 'Snubnosed, rationalist, married philosopher,' by contrast, is pure. (And this despite the fact that 'married' is a relational predicate: necessarily, to be married is to be married to someone or other.) Pure descriptions are qualitative in that they include no references to specific individuals. Impure descriptions are nonqualitative in that they do include references to specific individuals. Thus 'person identical to Socrates' is a nonqualitative description.
Now if God has before his mind a complete pure description of the individual he wills to create then that description could apply to precisely one individual after creation without being restricted to any precise one. (Cf. Barry Miller, "Future Individuals and Haecceitism," Review of Metaphysics 45, September 1991, p. 14) This is a subtle distinction but an important one. It is possible that Socrates have an indiscernible twin. Call his 'Schmocrates.' So the complete description 'snub-nosed, rationalist philosopher, etc.' could apply to precisely one individual without applying to Socrates, the man in the actual world that we know and love as Socrates. This is because his indiscernible twin Schmocrates would satisfy it just as well as he does. The description would then apply to precisely one individual without being restricted to any precise one. So there is a clear sense, pace Mason, in which God, prior to creation, would not know which individual he would get. Prior to creation, God knows that there will be an individual satisfying a complete description. But until the individual comes into existence, he won't know which individual this will be.
As I see it, creation understood Biblically as opposed to Platonically is not the bestowal of existence upon a pre-existent, fully-formed, wholly determinate essence. It is not the actualization of a wholly determinate mere possible. There is no individual essence or haecceity prior to creation. Creation is the creation ex nihilo of a new individual. God creates out of nothing, not out of pre-existent individual essences or pre-existent mere possibles. Thus the very individuality of the individual first comes into being in the creative act. Socrates' individuality and haecceity and ipsiety do not antedate (whether temporally or logically) his actual existence.
Mason would have to be able rationally to exclude this view of creation, and this view of the relation of existence and individuality, for his argument to be compelling. As it is, he seems merely to assume that they are false.
Could God, before creation, have before his mind a complete impure description, one that made reference to the specific individual that was to result from the creative act? No, and this for the simple reason that before the creative act that individual would not exist. And therein lies the absurdity of Plantingian haecceities. The property of identity-with-Socrates is a nonqualitative haecceity that makes essential reference to Socrates. Surely it is absurd to suppose that that this 'property' exists at times and in possible worlds at which Socrates does not exist. To put it another way, it is absurd to suppose that this 'property' could antedate (whether temporally or logically) the existence of Socrates.
We are now in a position to see why Mason's argument is not compelling. If  is true, then  doesn't follow from it. And if  follows from , then  is false. Thus  conflates two distinct propositions:
1a. When God created the world, he knew precisely which pure complete descriptions would be satisfied.
1b. When God created the world, he knew precisely which individuals would exist.
(1a) is true, but it does not entail
2. God didn't need to have those very individuals in front of him to know which ones they were.
(1b) entails (2), but (1b) is false.
I conclude that classical theism does not entail haecceitism. One can be such a theist without accepting haecceities. This is a good thing since there are no haecceity properties!
You can reasonably ask how there could be a God given the fact of natural and moral evil. You can also reasonably ask how there could not be a God given the transcendent moral heroism and selflessness of Kolbe and others like him.
I'll grant you that evil argues the nonexistence of God if you grant me that evil also argues the existence of God. (Click on the first hyperlink and locate the argument from evil for the existence of God.)
My point is that there are no rationally compelling arguments for or against the existence of God.
Here is an old Powerblogs post from some years ago. Still seems right to me. A student in the area wants to discuss Dawkins and his New Atheist gang with me. So I'm digging up and reviewing all my old Dawkins materials. The New Atheism is already old hat. A movement for cyberpunks and know-nothings. The old atheism of J. L. Mackie et al. is respectable and I respect it.
Richard Dawkins and Jerry Coyne have a piece in The Guardian entitled One Side Can Be Wrong. I will quote a bit of it and try to determine what exactly the argument is, and whether it is cogent and tells against Intelligent Design. The link in the text is my interpolation.
Similarly, the claim that something - say the bacterial flagellum - is too complex to have evolved by natural selection is alleged, by a lamentably common but false syllogism, to support the "rival" intelligent design theory by default. This kind of default reasoning leaves completely open the possibility that, if the bacterial flagellum is too complex to have evolved, it might also be too complex to have been created. And indeed, a moment's thought shows that any God capable of creating a bacterial flagellum (to say nothing of a universe) would have to be a far more complex, and therefore statistically improbable, entity than the bacterial flagellum (or universe) itself - even more in need of an explanation than the object he is alleged to have created.
Observe first of all that there is a difference between what Dawkins and Coyne impute to the proponent of ID, namely, "the bacterial flagellum is too complex to have evolved" and what they should have imputed to him, namely, "the bacterial flagellum is too complex to have evolved by natural selection." The proponent of ID, as I understand the position, need not deny evolution construed as the fact of common descent with later forms of life arising from earlier ones by numerous successive and slight modifications. What the proponent of ID questions is the mechanism of this descent, namely, natural selection. The question is whether there are forms of organizational complexity that cannot be accounted for by natural selection.
Once this is appreciated, it is easy to see that if something is too complex to have evolved in one way, by natural selection, it does not follow that it is too complex to have evolved in another way, i.e., by being created by an intelligent designer.
Dawkins and Coyne, however, think that ID is involved in an error of reasoning. What the proponents of ID are doing is giving a circular explanation. To be explained is a complex entity, the bacterial flagellum say. But the entity invoked in the explanation is itself a complex entity. So complexity is being explained in terms of complexity -- which is circular. Thus they write,
If complex organisms demand an explanation, so does a complex designer. [. . .] the "default" logic of the creationists remains thoroughly rotten.
But this shows a complete misunderstanding of what the proponent of ID is doing. It would be circular to try to explain complexity in terms of complexity. But it is not circular to explain one form of complexity in terms of another. The complexity that needs to be explained is the complexity that seems to have been designed. To invoke a crude analogy, it is not the complexity of a pile of rocks that needs personal explanation, but the complexity of a cairn, a pile of rocks whose assembly shows that they mark the trail. Now I cannot account for a pile of rock's being a cairn by invoking natural processes; I need to invoke an intelligent designer, a person such as a trail-blazer or trail-maintainer. Of course, this person is even more complex than his product. But there is no circularity since material complexity is not being explained by material complexity but by the thoughts, intentions and actions of a person. Material complexity is being explained by personal complexity. Hence there is no circularity in the explanation.
It is also worth pointing out that if A explains B, the explanation can be good even if A remains unexplained. Why so many wildfires this year? Because of a profusion of brush which in turn was caused by unusual spring rainfall. If this is a good explanation, its goodness does not require an explanation of why there was an unusual amount of rainfall.
So as far as I can see the proponent of ID is not committing any logical error. Dawkins is simply mistaken to accuse the IDist of "thoroughly rotten" logic. Of course, the IDist is violating a rule of natural science, namely the rule that everything be accounted for naturalistically, i.e., in terms of the space-time system and the laws that govern it. Thus living processes must be explained using the same laws as govern nonliving processes. One is no longer playing the scientific game if one invokes irreducible mentality or irreducible vitality.
But to violate the rule I just mentioned is not to violate any logical rule.
And it's no solution to raise the theologian's plea that God (or the Intelligent Designer) is simply immune to the normal demands of scientific explanation. To do so would be to shoot yourself in the foot. You cannot have it both ways. Either ID belongs in the science classroom, in which case it must submit to the discipline required of a scientific hypothesis. Or it does not, in which case get it out of the science classroom and send it back into the church, where it belongs.
If natural science must play by the rule mentioned above to be natural science, then ID is not natural science. To invoke an irreducibly intelligent designer (whether or not identical to God as traditionally conceived) is to invoke something that is not a mere part of the space-time system. But it is equally true that naturalistic evolutionary biology is not strictly science either since it rests on philosophical assumptions that cannot be justified scientifically. Naturalism, the thesis that nothing (or perhaps nothing concrete) exists apart from the space-time system is a philosophical thesis. Cognate doctrines such as physicalism and scientism are also philosophical, not scientific doctrines strictly speaking. So I conclude as follows:
If ID should be removed from the science classroom and relocated in church, then Dawkins' evolutionary biology should also be removed from the science classroom and relocated in the philosophy lecture hall. For neither is science strictly speaking. But before Dawkins is allowed in the philosophy lecture hall he must take some logic courses. (You will have noticed above how refers to a syllogism as false -- that is logically inept.)
In Omnibus of Fallacies, Ed Feser applies his formidable analytic and polemical skills to that sorry specimen of scientism, Jerry Coyne. The First Things review begins like this:
Faith versus Fact is some kind of achievement. Biologist Jerry Coyne has managed to write what might be the worst book yet published in the New Atheist genre. True, the competition for that particular distinction is fierce. But among other volumes in this metastasizing literature, each has at least some small redeeming feature. For example, though Lawrence Krauss’s A Universe from Nothing is bad as philosophy, it is middling as pop science. Christopher Hitchens’s God Is Not Great was at least written by someone who could write like Christopher Hitchens. Though devoid of interest, Sam Harris’s Letter to a Christian Nation is brief. Even PZ Myers’s book The Happy Atheist has at least one advantage over Coyne’s book: It came out first.
Why do I refer to Coyne as a "sorry specimen of scientism?" Is that a nice thing to say? See here, for starters.
The following entry has been languishing in the queue for years. I just now finished it for what it's worth.
Which is worse, the fundamentalism of a Jerry Falwell or the snarling hatred of religion of a Christopher Hitchens, who, in his anti-Falwell diatribe, shows just how far someone who is a leftist about religion can sink?
Readers of this blog know that I have little patience with fundamentalist forms of religion. But whatever one thinks of Falwell's views, he was a decent human being capable of compassion and forgiveness. (I recall with admiration the kindness and forbearance he displayed when he confronted his tormentor, the pornographer Larry Flynt, on Larry King Live.) Can one say that Hitchens is a decent human being after his unspeakably vicious attack on a dead man while he was still warm? I have in mind the matchbox quotation. In "Faith-Based Fraud," Hitchens wrote:
In the time immediately following the assault by religious fascism on American civil society in September 2001, he [Falwell] used his regular indulgence on the airwaves to commit treason. Entirely exculpating the suicide-murderers, he asserted that their acts were a divine punishment of the United States.
The problem with Falwell's statement was that he was in no position to know that the 9/11 attacks were divine punishment. What is offensive about such statements is the presumption that one is en rapport with the divine plan, that one has some sort of inside dope as to the deity's designs. In his credulousness and self-confidence, Falwell displayed a lack of respect for God's transcendence and unsearchableness. But this is just part of what is wrong with fundamentalism, which is a kind of theological positivism.
It is also offensive to hear some proclaim in tones of certainty that Hitchens is now no longer an atheist. They know that God exists and persons survive bodily death? They know no such thing, any more than Hitchens knew the opposite. Convictions, no matter how strong, do not amount to knowledge. (Here is a quick little proof. Knowledge entails truth. So if A and B have opposite convictions, and convictions amount to knowledge, then one and the same proposition can be both true and not true, which violates the Law of Non-Contradiction.)
But although Falwell's 9/11 statement can be criticized, he can't be criticized for making it. He had as much right to make that statement as Hitchens had for his cocksure proclamation that no God exists, not to mention his assaults on Mother Teresa and who all else. After all, that was Falwell's view, and it makes sense within his system of beliefs. There was certainly nothing treasonous about Falwell's statement, nor did it "entirely exculpate the suicide-murderers." Perhaps Falwell was a theological compatibilist, one who finds no contradiction in people acting freely in accordance with a divine plan.
So while we should certainly not follow Hitchens' nasty example and trash the dead, we should not go to the other extreme and paper over the foul aspects of Hitchens' personality. And we should also give some thought to the extent to which his viciousness is an upshot of his atheism.
For in the end, the atheist has nothing and can be expected to be bitter. This world is a vanishing quantity and he knows it; and beyond this world, he believes, there is nothing. That is not to say it isn't true. But if you are convinced that it is true, then you must live hopelessly unless you fool yourself with such evasions as living for some pie-in-the-future utopia such as Communists and other 'progressives' believe in, or for some such abstraction as literature.
Nobody will be reading Hitchens in a hundred years. He'll be lucky if he is still read in ten years.
Have you ever heard of Joseph McCabe (1867-1955)? Not until now. But he too was a major free-thinker and anti-religion polemicist in his day. Who reads him now?
Thomas Nagel writes that “whether atheists or theists are right depends on facts about reality that neither of them can prove” [“A Philosopher Defends Religion,” Letters, NYR, November 8]. This is not quite right: it depends on what kind of theists we have to do with. We can, for example, know with certainty that the Christian God does not exist as standardly defined: a being who is omniscient, omnipotent, and wholly benevolent. The proof lies in the world, which is full of extraordinary suffering. If someone claims to have a sensus divinitatis that picks up a Christian God, they are deluded. It may be added that genuine belief in such a God, however rare, is profoundly immoral: it shows contempt for the reality of human suffering, or indeed any intense suffering.
Strawson is telling us that it is certain that the God of Christianity does not exist because of the suffering in the world.
How's that for pure bluster?
What we know is true, and what we know with certainty we know without the possibility of mistake. When Strawson claims that it is certain that the Christian God does not exist, he is not offering an autobiographical comment: he is not telling us that it is subjectively certain, certain for him, that the Christian God does not exist. He is maintaining that it is objectively certain, certain in itself, and thus certain for anyone. From here on out 'certain' by itself is elliptical for 'objectively certain.'
And why is it certain that the Christian God does not exist? Because of the "extraordinary suffering" in the world. Strawson appears to be endorsing a version of the argument from evil that dates back to Epicurus and in modern times was endorsed by David Hume. The argument is often called 'logical' to distinguish it from 'evidential' arguments from evil. Since evidential or inductive or probabilistic arguments cannot render their conclusions objectively certain even if all of their premises are certain, Strawson must have the 'logical' argument in mind. Here is a version:
If God exists, then God is omnipotent, omniscient, and morally perfect.
If God is omnipotent, then God has the power to eliminate all evil.
If God is omniscient, then God knows when evil exists.
If God is morally perfect, then God has the desire to eliminate all evil.
If evil exists and God exists, then either God doesn’t have the power to eliminate all evil, or doesn’t know when evil exists, or doesn’t have the desire to eliminate all evil.
Therefore, God doesn’t exist.
It is a clever little argument, endlessly repeated, and valid in point of logical form. But are its premises objectively certain? This is not the question whether the argument is sound. It is sound if and only if all its premises are true. But a proposition can be true without being known, and a fortiori, without being known with certainty, i.e., certain. The question, then, is whether each premise in the above argument is objectively certain. If even one of the premises is not, then neither is the conclusion.
Consider (5). It it certain that evil exists? Is it even true? Are there any evils? No doubt there is suffering. But is suffering evil? I would say that it is, and I won't protest if you say that it is obvious that it is. But the obvious needn't be certain. It is certainly not the case that it is certain that suffering is evil, objectively evil. It could be like this. There are states of humans and other animals that these animals do not like and seek to avoid. They suffer in these states in a two-fold sense: they are passive with respect to them, and they find the qualitative nature of these states not to their liking, to put it in the form of an understatement. But it could be that these qualitatively awful states are axiologically neutral in that there are no objective values relative to which one could sensibly say something like, "It would have been objectively better has these animals not suffered a slow death."
The point I am making is that only if suffering is objectively evil could it tell against the objective existence of God. But suffering is objectively evil only if suffering is objectively a disvalue. So suffering is objectively evil and tells against the existence of God only if there are objective values and disvalues.
Perhaps all values and preferences are merely subjective along with all judgments about right and wrong. Perhaps all your axiological and moral judgments reduce to mere facts about what you like and dislike, what satisfies your desires and what does not. Perhaps there are no objective values and disvalues among the furniture of the world. I don't believe this myself. But do you have a compelling argument that it isn't so? No you don't. So you are not certain that it isn't so.
And so you are not certain that evil exists. Evil ought not be and ought not be done, by definition. But it could be that there are no objective oughts and ought-nots, whether axiologically or agentially. There is just the physical world. This world includes animals with their different needs, desires, and preferences. There is suffering, but there is no evil. Since (5) is not certain, the conclusion is not certain either.
Now consider (2): If God is omnipotent, then God has the power to eliminate all evil. Is that certain? Is it even true? Does God have the power to eliminate the evil that comes into the world through finite agents such as you and me? Arguably he does not. For if he did he would be violating our free will. By creating free agents, God limits his own power and allows evils that he cannot eliminate. Therefore, it is certainly not certain that (2) is true even if it is true. Reject the Free Will Defense if you like, but I will no trouble showing that the premises you invoke in your rejection are not certain.
Pure ideologically-driven bluster, then, from an otherwise brilliant and creative philosopher.
It is important to distinguish between the problem of evil and the argument from evil. The first is the problem of reconciling the existence of God, as traditionally understood, with the existence of natural and moral evils. As J. L. Mackie points out, this "is essentially a logical problem: it sets the theist the task of clarifying and if possible reconciling the several beliefs which he holds." (The Miracle of Theism, Oxford 1982, p. 150) Mackie goes on to point out that "the problem in this sense signally does not arise for those whose views of the world are markedly different from traditional theism." Thus the theist's problem of evil does not arise for an atheist. It might, however, be the case that some other problem of evil arises for the atheist, say, the problem of reconciling the existence of evil with life's being worth living. But that is a separate matter. I discuss it in A Problem of Evil for Atheists.
The argument from evil, on the other hand, is an attempt to show the nonexistence of God from the fact of evil, where 'fact of evil' is elliptical for 'the existence of natural and moral evils.'
THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN THE PROBLEM OF EVIL AND THE ARGUMENT FROM EVIL
The main difference between the problem of evil and the argument from evil is that the former is an ad hominem argument whereas the second is not. I am using ad hominem in the way Peter Geach uses it on pp. 26-27 of his Reason and Argument (Basil Blackwell 1976):
This Latin term indicates that these are arguments addressed to a particular man -- in fact, the other fellow you are disputing with. You start from something he believes as a premise, and infer a conclusion he won't admit to be true. If you have not been cheating in your reasoning, you will have shown that your opponent's present body of beliefs is inconsistent and it's up to him to modify it somewhere.
As Geach points out, there is nothing fallacious about such an argumentative procedure. If A succeeds in showing B that his doxastic system harbors a contradiction, then not everything that B believes can be true. Now can an atheist prove the nonexistence of God in this way? No he cannot: at the very most he can prove (with the aid of various auxiliary premises that he and his interlocutor both accept) that God exists and Evil exists cannot both be true. But it does not follow therefrom that God exists is not true. For the atheist to transform the ad hominem problem of evil into a non-ad hominemargument from evil, he would have to establish, or at least assert, that evil exists, and not merely that the theist believes that evil exists. To see my point consider the following conditional, where P is the conjunction of auxiliary premises:
C. If evil exists & P, then God does not exist.
The atheist who raises the problem of evil for the theist asserts (C), or rather a proposition of that form. But to assert a conditional is not to assert its antecedent, or its consequent for that matter; it is to assert an entailment connection between the two. Now although it is the case that for each argument there is a corresponding conditional, and vice versa, arguments must not be confused with conditionals.
Transforming (C) into an argument from evil yields:
God does not exist.
Clearly, an atheist who gives this argument, or rather an argument of this form, must assert both premises. Doing so, he ceases his ad hominem examination of the consistency of another person's beliefs, beliefs he either rejects or takes no stand on, and 'comes clean' with his own beliefs.
THE ARGUER FROM EVIL NEEDS TO AFFIRM OBJECTIVE EVIL
If the atheist's aim is merely to poke holes in the logical consistency of the theist's belief set, then it doesn't matter whether he thinks of evil as objective or subjective. Indeed, he needn't believe in evil in any sense. He could hold that it is an illusion. But if the atheist's goal is to support his own belief that God does not exist with an argument from evil, then he needs to maintain that evil is objective or objectively real.
Consider all the enslavement of humans by humans that has taken place in the history of the world. Suppose it is agreed that slavery is morally wrong. What makes this true? Define a moral subjectivist as one who agrees that the claim in question is true, but holds that the truth-maker of this moral truth, and of others like it, is an individual's being in a psychological state, say, the state of being repulsed by slavery. For the moral subjectivist, then, sentences like 'Slavery is wrong' are elliptical for sentences like 'Slavery is wrong-for-X,' where X is a person or any being capable of being in psychological states. Furthermore, the moral subjectivist grants that moral claims have truth-makers, indeed objective truth-makers; it is just that these truth-makers involve psychological states that vary from person to person.
Now if our atheist subscribes to a theory of evil along those lines, then, although there will be objective facts of the matter regarding what various individuals feel about the practice or the institution of slavery, there will be no objective fact of the matter regarding the wrongness or moral evil of slavery.
If so, the fact of evil subjectively construed will have no bearing on the existence of God, a fact, if it a fact, that is objective.
Suppose a torturer tortures his victim to death solely for the satisfaction it gives him. And suppose that moral subjectivism is true. Then the torturing, though evil for the tortured, is good for the torturer, with the upshot that the torturing is neither good nor evil objectively. Now if I were on the scene and had the power to stop the torturing, but did not, would my noninterference detract from my moral goodness? Not at all. (The same goes a fortiori for God.) For nothing objectively evil is transpiring: all that is going on is that one person is securing his pleasure at the expense of another's pain. If you insist that something evil is going on, then that shows that you reject moral subjectivism. But if you accept moral subjectivism, then nothing evil is going on; the torturing is evil only in the mind of the victim and in the minds of any others who sympathize with him. If you accept moral subjectivism and continue to insist that the torturing is evil, then you would also have to insist that it is good, since it is good from the perspective of the torturer. But if it is both good and evil, then it is (objectively) neither.
What I am claiming, then, is that the atheist arguer from evil must construe evil objectively. This will result in trouble for the atheist if it can be shown that objective evil cannot exist unless God exists. For then the atheist arguer from evil will end up presupposing the very being whose existence he is out to deny. No doubt this is a big 'if.' But it is worth exploring. The problem for the atheist is to explain how there can be objective good and evil in a Godless universe. I wish him the best of luck with that.
And another line worth exploring is a theistic argument to God from the fact of objective good and evil. No such argument could PROVE the existence of God, but it could very well have the power of cancelling out the argument from evil.
A mercifully short (9:17) but very good YouTube video featuring commentary by name figures in the philosophy of religion including Marilyn Adams, William Alston, William Wainwright, and William Lane Craig. Craig recounts the experience that made a theist of him. (HT: Keith Burgess-Jackson)
As Marilyn Adams correctly points out at the start of the presentation, the belief of many theists is not a result of religious experience. It comes from upbringing, tradition, and participation in what Wittgenstein called a "form of life" with its associated "language game." I myself, however, could not take religion seriously if it were not for the variety of religious, mystical, and paranormal experiences I have had, bolstered by philosophical reasoning both negative and positive. Negative, as critique of the usual suspects: materialism, naturalism, scientism, secular humanism, and so on. Positive, the impressive array of theistic arguments and considerations which, while they cannot establish theism as true, make a powerful case for it.
But my need for direct experience reflects my personality and, perhaps, limitations. I am an introvert who looks askance at communal practices such as corporate prayer and church-going and much, if not all, of the externalities that go with it. I am not a social animal. I see socializing as too often levelling and inimical to our ultimate purpose here below: to become individuals. Socializing superficializes. Man in the mass is man degraded. We need to be socialized out of the animal level, of course, but then we need solitude to achieve the truly human goal of individuation. Individuation is not a given, but a task. The social animal is still too much of an animal for my taste.
It is only recently that I have forced myself myself to engage in communal religious activities, but more as a form of self-denial than of anything else. My recent five weeks at a remote monastery were more eremitic than cenobitic, but I did take part in the services. And upon return I began attending mass with my wife. Last Sunday a man sat down next to me, a friendly guy who extended to me his hand, but his breath stank to high heaven. Behind me some guy was coughing his head off. And then there are those who show up for mass in shorts, and I am not talking about kids. The priest is a disaster at public speaking and his sermon is devoid of content. Does he even understand the doctrine he is supposed to teach? And then there are all the lousy liberals who want to reduce religion to a crapload of namby-pamby humanist nonsense. And let's not forget the current clown of a pope who, ignorant of economics and climatology, speaks to us of the evils of capitalism and 'global warming' when he should be speaking of the Last Things. (Could he name them off the top of his head?)
But then I reason with myself as follows. "Look, man, you are always going on about how man is a fallen being in a fallen world. Well, the church and its hierarchy and its members are part of the world and therefore fallen too. So what did you expect? And you know that the greatest sin of the intellectual is pride and that pride blinds the spiritual sight like nothing else. So suck it up, be a man among men, humble yourself. It may do you some good."
I read about your recent experiences with communal
religion. Your self-reflection reminded me of something Rabbi Harold Kushner
writes about in his book WHO NEEDS GOD. He talks about visiting with a young man
who told him, "I hate churches and synagogues, they're full of nothing but
hypocrites and jerks"...Kushner says he had to fight the urge to say, 'yep, and
there is always room for one more'.
Note first that atheism cannot be identified with the lack of theistic belief, i.e., the mere absence of the belief that God or a god exists, for that would imply that cabbages and tire irons are atheists. Note second that it won't do to say that atheism is the lack of theistic belief in persons, for there are persons incapable of forming beliefs. Charitably interpreted, then, the idea must be that atheism is the lack of theistic belief in persons capable of forming and maintaining beliefs.
But this cannot be right either, and for a very simple reason. Atheism is something people discuss, debate, argue for, argue against, draw conclusions from, believe, disbelieve, entertain, and so on. Atheism, in other words, is a PROPOSITION: it is something that can be either true or false, that can be the object of such propositional attitudes as belief and disbelief, that can stand in such logical relations to other propositions as entailment, consistency, and inconsistency. But one cannot discuss, debate, argue for, . . . believe, etc. a lack of something. Atheism redefined as the lack of theistic belief is a PROPERTY of certain persons. Now a proposition is not a property. Atheism is a proposition and for this reason cannot be redefined as a property.
Someone who understands this might nevertheless maintain that 'negative atheism' is a proposition, namely, the proposition that there are people capable of forming and maintaining beliefs who simply lack the belief that God exists. Admittedly, one could use 'atheism' as the label for the proposition that there are such people. But then atheism so defined would be trivially true. After all, no one denies that there are people capable of beliefs who lack the belief that God exists. Furthermore, if 'atheism' is so defined, then theism would be the view that there are persons capable of belief who have the belief that God exists. But then theism, too, would be trivially true. And if both are true, then they cannot be logical contradictories of each other as they must be if the terms are to mean anything useful.
Now what is the point of the terminological mischief perpetrated by these 'negative atheists'? It is terminological mischief because we have just seen it ruin two perfectly good words, 'atheism' and 'theism.' If atheism and theism are worth discussing, then atheism is the view that no gods exist and theism is the view that one or more gods exist.
The point of the cyberpunk definition is to avoid being pinned down, to avoid being committed to a positive thesis. But of course the claim that there is no God is a positive claim about Reality, namely, the claim that Reality is godless. And so our cyberpunk commits himself nolens volens.
Does the world really need another "new atheist" manifesto? Another attack on the ludicrousness of religion and the childishness of belief in God? Another paean to the spiritual and intellectual satisfactions of secularism, materialism, and humanism? Do the efforts of Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, the late Christopher Hitchens, and their many lesser imitators really require further reinforcement? British philosopher A.C. Grayling must think so, since that is precisely what his latest book (The God Argument, which will be published on March 26) aims to provide.
I appreciated your recent post with the above title. However, I note that you didn't connect your comments there with your ongoing discussion with Dale Tuggy. From point 3 of your post:
Ryan seems to think that to believe in God is to believe that there is a special object in addition to the objects we normally take to exist. But this is not what a sophisticated theist maintains.
People like Ryan, Russell, Dawkins, and Dennett who compare God to a celestial teapot betray by so doing a failure to understand, and engage, the very sense of the theist's assertions. To sum up. [...] (iii) God is not a being who simply exists alongside other beings.
Yet Tuggy apparently affirms [the negation of] (iii) and thus agrees with Ryan et al. on that point at least. So should we conclude that Tuggy isn't really a theist? Or that he isn't a sophisticated theist? Neither seems fair! But then if Tuggy (and his fellow non-classical theists) can be appropriately categorized as theists, it seems your analysis of "theist-atheist debates" needs some qualification.
Just some more grist for the mill!
Thanks, James. The entry in question is an old post from six or seven years ago. That explains the lack of reference to my present conversation with Dale Tuggy. So let me now bring Tuggy into the picture.
Let us first note that 'God is a being among beings' does not imply the existence of God. It is a claim about how God exists should he exist. It is like the claim 'Chairs are not (subjective) concepts.' That is true whether or not there are any chairs. It says something about how chairs exist should any exist, namely, extramentally. The same goes for 'God is not a concept,' which is true whether or not God exists.
A second point to note is that 'God is a being among beings' is not equivalent to 'God is a physical thing among physical things.' Maybe Yuri Gagarin believed in that equivalence, and maybe Dawkins does, but surely it would be uncharitable in the extreme to impute such a belief to Russell despite his comparison of God to a teapot. That wasn't the point of the comparison. And of course Tuggy does not hold to the equivalence.
Is Dale a sophisticated theist? Well, he is sophisticated, holding a Ph.D. in philosophy from Brown University, and he is a theist. So he is a sophisticated theist. But it doesn't follow that his theism is sophisticated. I say it isn't. A sophisticated X-ist can hold to an unsophisticated X-ism.
God, if he exists, is not just one more thing that exists having properties that distinguish him from everything else that exists. God is the ultimate source, the absolute ground, of the existence, properties, intelligibility, and value of everything distinct from himself. As such, he cannot be just one more thing that exists, one more item in the ontological inventory. Why not? Here is one argument.
God creates ex nihilo, out of nothing, everything (or at least every contingent thing) distinct from himself. So everything distinct from God depends on God for its existence, while God does not depend on anything for his existence. The Being of creatures is their Being-created-by-God while the Being of God is not his Being-created-by-God. Therefore, there are two very different modes of Being in play here, one pertaining to God, the other to creatures. Since God and creatures exist in different ways (modes), God is not a being among beings. For when we say that God is a being among beings part of what we mean is that God exists or is in the very same way that everything else is or exists.
Is this not a good argument? It is not a compelling argument, but then no argument for any substantive claim in philosophy is compelling.
Rather than say more in defense of the above sketch of an argument, I will enable Comments and let my esteemed and astute readers poke holes in the argument if they can.
It seems to me that there is a sort of 'disconnect' in theist-atheist debates. It is as if the parties to the dispute are not talking about the same thing. Jim Ryan writes,
The reason I'm an atheist is straightforward. The proposition that there is a god is as unlikely as ghosts, Martians amongst us, and reincarnation. There isn't the slightest evidence for these hypotheses which fly in the face of so much else that we know to be true. So I believe all of them to be false.
This is a fairly standard atheist response. Since I picked up the use of 'boilerplate' in philosophical contexts from Jim, I hope he won't be offended if I refer to the quoted passage as atheist boilerplate. It puts me in mind of Russell's Teapot, part of the drift of which is that there is no more reason to believe in God than there is to believe that "between the Earth and Mars there is a china teapot revolving about the sun in an elliptical orbit . . . ."
There are three points that strike me in the above statement by Ryan. First, to believe in God is to believe that there is a special object in addition to the objects we normally take to exist. Second, there is no evidence for the God hypothesis. Third, the God hypothesis contradicts what we know to be true. I will take these in reverse order.
1. I would be interested in hearing from Jim which propositions he thinks we know to be true that entail the nonexistence of God. Could it be the proposition that everything that exists is a material thing? This proposition does entail the nonexistence of God, but we don't know it to be true. And if one simply assumes it to be true, then one quite blatantly begs the question against the theist.
To explain this a bit further, let us adopt a definition of naturalism. I submit that D. M. Armstrong's definition is quite serviceable and captures what many nowadays mean by the term:
It is the contention that the world, the totality of entities, is nothing more than the spacetime system. . . . The positive part of the thesis, that the spacetime system exists, is perhaps not very controversial . . . . The negative thesis, that the spacetime system is all there is, is more controversial. (A World of States of Affairs, p. 5)
If we accept Armstrong's definition — and I see no reason not to accept it — and if naturalism so defined is true, then the following do not, and presumably cannot, exist: God as classically conceived, disembodied minds/souls, unexemplified universals, and a whole range of objects variously characterizable as ideal, Platonic, or abstract, including Fregean propositions, Fregean senses in general, numbers, irreducible mathematical sets, and the like. In sum, naturalism is the thesis that reality is exhausted by the space-time system.
Now I hope it is obvious that naturalism as lately defined is not a proposition of natural science. Nor is it a presupposition of natural science. Natural science studies the space-time system and what it contains. It does not and cannot study anything outside this system, if there is anything outside it. Nor can natural science pronounce upon the question of whether or not the whole of reality is exhausted by the space-time system. Of course, there is nothing to stop a physicist or a chemist or a biologist in his off hours from waxing philosophical and declaring his allegiance to the metaphysical doctrine of naturalism. But he makes a grotesque mistake if he thinks that the results of natural-scientific work entail the truth of naturalism. They neither entail it nor entail its negation.
So I am quite puzzled by Ryan's claim that the existence of God is contradicted by much of what we know to be true. I would like him to produce just one proposition that we know to be true that entails the nonexistence of God. The plain truth of the matter, as it seems to me, is that nothing we know to be true rules out the existence of God. I cheerfully concede that nothing we know to be true rules it in either. Pace the doctor angelicus, one cannot rigorously prove the existence of God. One can argue for the existence of God, but not prove the existence of God. By 'argue for the existence of God,' I mean give good arguments, plausibly-premised arguments free of formal and informal fallacy, arguments that render theistic belief reasonable. What I claim cannot be done, however, is provide rationally compelling arguments, arguments that will force every competent philosophical practioner to accept their conclusions on pain of being irrational if he does not.
2. Ryan also claims that there is no evidence for the God hypothesis. This strikes me as just plain false. There are all kinds of evidence. That it is not the sort of evidence Ryan and fellow atheists would accept does not show that it is not evidence. People have religious and mystical experiences of many different kinds. There is the 'bite of conscience' that intimates a Reality transcendent of the space-time world. Some experiences of beauty intimate the same. There are the dozens and dozens of arguments for the existence of God. Add it up and you have a cumulative case for theism.
The atheist will of course discount all of this. But so what? I will patiently discount all his discountings and show in great detail how none of them are rationally compelling. I will show how he fails to account for obvious facts (consciousness, self-consciouness, conscience, intentionality, purposiveness, etc.) if he assumes that all that exists is in the space-time world. I will expose and question all his assumptions. I will vigorously and rigorously drive him to dogmatism. Having had all his arguments neutralized, if not refuted, he will be left with nothing better than the dogmatic assertion of his position.
3. Ryan seems to think that to believe in God is to believe that there is a special object in addition to the objects we normally take to exist. But this is not what a sophisticated theist maintains. God is not at all like Ed Abbey's angry unicorn on the dark side of the moon, the planet Vulcan, or Russell's celestial teapot.
One problem with the teapot and similar analogies is that God as traditionally conceived in the West is not an isolani — to use a chess expression. He is not like an isolated pawn, unsupported and unsupporting. For if God exists, then God is the cause of the existence of every contingent being, and indeed, of every being distinct from himself. This is not true of lunar unicorns (lunicorns?) and celestial teapots. If there is a lunar unicorn, then this is just one more isolated fact about the universe. But if God exists, then everything is unified by this fact: everything has the ground of its being and its intelligibility in the creative activity of this one paradigmatic being. Such a paradigmatic being is, as Aquinas appreciated, not just another being among beings, but Being itself, not one more ens but ipsum esse subsistens.
This is connected with the fact that one can argue from very general facts about the universe to the existence of God, but not from such facts to the existence of lunar unicorns and celestial teapots. Thus there are various sorts of cosmological argument that proceed a contingentia mundi to a ground of contingent beings. But there is no similar a posteriori argument to a celestial teapot. At least I am not aware of any argument from contingent beings to a celestial teapot. What explanatory job would such a piece of space junk do? There are also arguments from truth, from consciousness, from apparent design, from desire, from morality, and others besides.
The very existence of these arguments shows two things. First, since they move from very general facts (the existence of contingent beings, the existence of truth) to the existence of a source of these general facts, they show that God is not a being among beings, not something in addition to what is ordinarily taken to exist. Second, these arguments give positive reason for believing in the existence of God. Are they compelling? No, but then no argument for any substantive philosophical conclusion is compelling. (If you disagree with this metaphilosophical assertion, please send me an argument for a substantive philosophical conclusion that you believe is rationally compelling.)
People like Ryan, Russell, Dawkins, and Dennett who compare God to a celestial teapot betray by so doing a failure to understand, and engage, the very sense of the theist's assertions. To sum up. (i) God is not a gratuitous posit in that there are many detailed arguments for the existence of God; (ii) God is not ruled out by anything we know; (iii) God is not a being who simply exists alongside other beings. God is quite unlike a celestial teapot, a lunar uncorn, an invisible hippopotamus, and suchlike concoctions.
To pursue the teapot analogy just one step further: it leaks like a sieve.
Chad McIntosh spotted the sloppiness in something I posted the other day. A retraction is in order. And then a repair.
The simple atheist -- to give him a name -- cannot countenance anything as God that is not ontologically simple. That is, he buys all the arguments classical theists give for the divine simplicity. It is just that he finds the notion of an ontologically simple being incoherent. He accepts, among others, all of Plantinga's arguments on the latter score. His signature argument runs as follows:
1. If God exists, then God is simple. 2. Nothing is or can be simple. Therefore 3. God does not exist.
First of all, one could be a simple atheist (simplicity atheist) as I have defined him without holding that nothing is ontologically simple. Surely there is nothing in the nature of atheism to require that an atheist eschew every ontologically simple item. And the same goes for the character I called the ontic theist, Dale Tuggy being an example of one. Surely there is nothing in the nature of ontic theism, according to which God is not ontologically simple, to require that an ontic theist eschew every ontologically simple item.
Second, while Alvin Plantinga does argue against the divine simplicity in Does God Have a Nature? (Marquette UP, 1980) he does not (as I recall without checking) argue that nothing is ontologically simple.
There is no little irony in my sloppiness inasmuch as in my SEP entry on the divine simplicity I adduce tropes as ontologically simple items to soften up readers for the divine simplicity:
We have surveyed some but not all of the problems DDS faces, and have considered some of the ways of addressing them. We conclude by noting a parallel between the simplicity of God and the simplicity of a popular contemporary philosophical posit: tropes.
Tropes are ontologically simple entities. On trope theory, properties are assayed not as universals but as particulars: the redness of a tomato is as particular, as unrepeatable, as the tomato. Thus a tomato is red, not in virtue of exemplifying a universal, but by having a redness trope as one of its constituents (on one version of trope theory) or by being a substratum in which a redness trope inheres (on a second theory). A trope is a simple entity in that there is no distinction between it and the property it ‘has.’ Thus a redness trope is red , but it is not red by instantiating redness, or by having redness as a constituent, but by being (a bit of) redness. So a trope is what it has. It has redness by being identical to (a bit of) redness. In this respect it is like God who is what he has. God has omniscience by being (identical to) omniscience. Just as there is no distinction between God and his omniscience, there is no distinction in a redness trope between the trope and its redness. And just as the simple God is not a particular exemplifying universals, a trope is not a particular exemplifying a universal. In both cases we have a particular that is also a property, a subject of predication that is also a predicable entity, where the predicable entity is predicated of itself. Given that God is omniscience, he is predicable of himself. Given that a redness trope is a redness, it is predicable of itself. An important difference, of course, is that whereas God is unique, tropes are not: there is and can be only one God, but there are many redness tropes.
Not only is each trope identical to the property it has, in each trope there is an identity of essence and existence. A trope is neither a bare particular nor an uninstantiated property. It is a property-instance, an indissoluble unity of a property and itself as instance of itself. As property, it is an essence; as instance, it is the existence of that essence. Because it is simple, essence and existence are identical in it. Tropes are thus necessary beings (beings whose very possibility entails their actuality) as they must be if they are to serve as the ontological building blocks of everything else (on the dominant one-category version of trope theory). In the necessity of their existence, tropes resemble God.
If one can bring oneself to countenance tropes, then one cannot object to the simple God on the ground that (i) nothing can be identical to its properties, or (ii) in nothing are essence and existence identical. For tropes are counterexamples to (i) and (ii).
Matters are quickly set right if I 'simply' ascribe to the simplicity atheist the following less committal argument:
1. If God exists, then God is simple. 2*. God cannot be simple. Therefore 3. God does not exist.
To the ontic theist we may ascribe:
2*. God cannot be simple. ~3. God exists. Therefore ~1. It is not the case that if God exists, then God is simple.
Question 1: Has anyone ever argued along the lines of the simplicity atheist? Have I stumbled upon a new argument here?
Question 2: Can you think of any non-divine ontologically simple items other than tropes?
The simple atheist -- to give him a name -- cannot countenance anything as God that is not ontologically simple. That is, he buys all the arguments classical theists give for the divine simplicity. It is just that he finds the notion of an ontologically simple being incoherent. He accepts, among others, all of Plantinga's arguments on the latter score. His signature argument runs as follows:
1. If God exists, then God is simple. 2. Nothing is or can be simple. Therefore 3. God does not exist.
The classical theist makes a modus ponens of the above modus tollens, arguing:
1. If God exists, then God is simple. ~3. God exists. Therefore ~2. Something is and can be simple.
The ontic theist -- to give him a name -- holds that God is a being among beings. He argues:
2. Nothing is or can be simple. ~3. God exists. Therefore ~1. It is not the case that if God exists, then God is simple.
Joseph B. Soloveitchik's The Lonely Man of Faith (Doubleday 2006) is rich and stimulating and packed with insights. I thank Peter Lupu for having a copy sent to me. But there is a long footnote on p. 49 with which I heartily disagree. Here is part of it:
The trouble with all rational demonstrations of the existence of God, with which the history of philosophy abounds, consists in their being exactly what they were meant to be by those who formulated them: abstract logical demonstrations divorced from the living primal experiences in which these demonstrations are rooted. For instance, the cosmic experience was transformed into a cosmological proof, the ontic experience into an ontological proof, et cetera. Instead of stating that the the most elementary existential awareness as a subjective 'I exist' and an objective 'the world around me exists' awareness is unsustainable as long as the the ultimate reality of God is not part of this experience, the theologians engaged in formal postulating and deducing in an experiential vacuum. Because of this they exposed themselves to Hume's and Kant's biting criticism that logical categories are applicable only within the limits of the human scientific experience.
Does the loving bride in the embrace of her beloved ask for proof that he is alive and real? Must the prayerful soul clinging in passionate love ecstasy to her Beloved demonstrate that He exists? So asked Soren Kierkegaard sarcastically when told that Anselm of Canterbury, the father of the very abstract and complex ontological proof, spent many days in prayer and supplication that he be presented with rational evidence of the existence of God.
A man like me has one foot in Jerusalem and the other in Athens. Soloveitchik and Kierkegaard, however, have both feet in Jerusalem. They just can't understand what drives the philosopher to seek a rational demonstration of the existence of God. Soloveitchik's analogy betrays him as a two-footed Hierosolymian. Obviously, the bride in the embrace of the beloved needs no proof of his reality. The bride's experience of the beloved is ongoing and coherent and repeatable ad libitum. If she leaves him for a while, she can come back and be assured that he is the same as the person she left. She can taste his kisses and enjoy his scent while seeing him and touching him and hearing him. He remains self-same as a unity in and through the manifold of sensory modes whereby he is presented to her. And in any given mode, he is a unity across a manifold. Shifting her position, she can see him from different angles with the visual noemata cohering in such a way as to present a self-same individual. What's more, her intercourse with his body fits coherently with her intercourse with his mind as mediated by his voice and gestures.
I could go on, but point is plain. There is simply no room for any practical doubt as to the beloved's reality given the forceful, coherent, vivacious, and obtrusive character of the bride's experience of him. She is compelled to accept his reality. There is no room here for any doxastic vountarism. The will does not play a role in her believing that he is real. There is no need for decision or faith or a leap of faith in her acceptance of his reality.
Our experience of God is very different. It comes by fleeting glimpses and gleanings and intimations. The sensus divinitatis is weak and experienced only by some. The bite of conscience is not unambiguously of higher origin than Freudian superego and social suggestion. Mystical experiences are few and far-between. Though unquestionable as to their occurrence, they are questionable as to their veridicality because of their fitful and fragmentary character. They are not validated in the ongoing way of ordinary sense perception. They don't integrate well with ordinary perceptual experiences. And so the truth of these mystical and religious experiences can and perhaps should be doubted. It is this fact that motivates philosophers to seek independent confirmation of the reality of the object of these experiences by the arguments that Soloveitchik and Co. dismiss.
The claim above that the awareness expressed by 'I exist' is unsustainable unless the awareness of God is part of the experience is simply false. That I exist is certain to me. But it is far from certain what the I is in its inner nature and what existence is and whether the I requires God as its ultimate support. The cogito is not an experience of God even if God exists and no cogito is possible without him. The same goes for the existence of the world. The existence of God is not co-given with the existence of the world. It is plain to the bride's senses that the beloved is real. It is not plain to our senses that nature is God's nature, that the cosmos is a divine artifact. That is why one cannot rely solely on the cosmic experience of nature as of a divine artifact, but must proceed cosmologically by inference from what is evident to what is non-evident.
Soloveitchik is making the same kind of move that St. Paul makes in Romans 1: 18-20. My critique of that move here.
A recent talk by Fr. Robert Barron delivered at the University of St. Thomas. Serendipitously relevant to the discussion thread directly below on this blog. Fr. Barron is introduced by our friend Tim Pawl. What are the New Atheists right about? That a God who is a being among beings does not exist. Fr. Barron very skillfully presents the Thomist doctrine according to which God is not a summum ens but ipsum esse subsistens, but not in a way that will alleviate the concerns of Dale Tuggy and Alan Rhoda and other theistic personalists.
Fr. Barron refers to Hitchens and Dawkins in a couple of places as 'Ditchkins.' That suggests to me 'Hairnet' as a moniker for the Harris-Dennett tag team.
Last Wednesday morning, just as Old Sol was peeping his ancient head over the magnificent and mysterious Superstition range, I embarked on a drive down old Arizona 79, past Florence, to a hash house near Oracle Junction where I had the pleasure of another nice long three and one half hour caffeine-fueled discussion with Dale Tuggy. For me, he is a perfect interlocutor: Dale is a serious truth-seeker, no mere academic gamesman, analytically sharp, historically well-informed, and personable. He also satisfies a necessary though not sufficient condition of fruitful dialog: he and I differ on some key points, but our differences play out over a wide field of agreement.
I incline toward the view that God is not a being among beings, but Being itself. Dale rejects this view as incoherent. In this entry I will take some steps toward clarifying the issues that divide us.
A Being Among Beings
First of all, what could it mean to say that God is a being among beings? As I see it, to say that God is a being among beings is to say that God is no exception to the logical and ontological principles (pertaining to properties, property-possession, existence, modality, etc.) that govern anything that can be said to exist. It is to say that God fits the ontological or general-metaphysical schema that everything else fits. It is to say that God is ontologically on a par with other beings despite the attributes (omniscience, etc.) that set him apart from other beings and indeed render him unique among beings. To spell it out:
a. Properties. Some properties are such that God and creatures share them. Consider the property of being a self. For present purposes we may accept Dale's definition: "a being capable of consciousness, with intelligence, will, and the ability to intentionally act." God is a self, but so is Socrates. Both are selves in the very same sense of 'self.' 'Self' is being used univocally (not equivocally and not analogically) in 'God is a self' and 'Socrates is a self' just as 'wise' is being used univocally in 'God is wise' and 'Socrates is wise,' and so on.
Dale is uncomfortable with talk of properties and seems to prefer talk of concepts. Well then, I can put my present point by saying that some concepts are such as to be common to both God and creatures, the concept self being one example.
b. Property-possession. God has properties in the same way that creatures do. My first point was that there are some properties that both God and creatures share; my present point is a different one about property-possession: the having of these shared properties is the same in the divine and creaturely cases. Both God and Socrates instantiate the property of being a self, where first-level instantiation is an asymmetrical relation or non-relational tie that connects individuals and properties construed as mind-independent universals.
The point could be put conceptualistically as follows. Both God and Socrates fall under the concept self, where falling under is an asymmetrical relation that connects individuals and concepts construed as mind-dependent universals.
c. Existence. God is in the same way that creatures are. Given that God exists and that Socrates exists, it does not follow that they exist in the same way. Or so I maintain. But part of what it means to say that God is a being among beings is to say that God and Socrates do exist in the very same way. Whatever it is for an item to exist, there is only one way for an item to exist, and God and Socrates exist in that very same way. For example, if what it is for x to exist is for x to be identical to some y, then this holds both for God and Socrates.
d. It follows from (a) and (b) taken together that God is really distinct from his properties, and that his properties are really distinct from one another. God is in this respect no different from Socrates. Really distinct: distinct in reality, apart from our mental operations. (What is really distinct need not be capable of separate existence.) And both items have their properties by instantiating them.
e. It follows from (c) that God is really distinct from his existence (just as Socrates is really distinct from his existence) and that God is really distinct from existence (just as Socrates is distinct from existence).
f. It follows from (d) and (e) taken together that God is not ontologically simple. Contrapositively, if God is ontologically simple, then God is not a being among beings as I am using this phrase. It is therefore no surprise that Dale rejects divine simplicity whereas I am inclined to accept it. See my SEP entry for more on this.
If I understand Dale's position, he maintains that God is a being among beings in the above sense. If he is right, then God cannot be Being itself. But he presumably has a more direct reason to think that God cannot be Being itself.
Suppose God is not a being among beings in the sense I have just explained. And suppose, as we have been all along, that God exists. Does it follow that God is Being itself? It depends on what 'Being itself' refers to. For Dale, if I understand him, it doesn't refer to anything, or at least not to anything mind-independently real. If so, then God, who we both believe exists, cannot be identical to Being itself. For God is mind-independently real. In conversation, Dale owned up to being a subscriber to what I call radical ontological pluralism:
ROP: In reality, Being (existence) divides without remainder into beings (existents).
What (ROP) says is that in reality outside the mind there is no such 'thing' as Being. There are only beings. Since in reality there are only beings, Being itself, Existence itself, does not exist. A partisan of (ROP) may admit a distinction between Being and beings, Sein und das Seiende, esse et ens, existence and existent, but he will go on to say that Being in its difference from beings is nothing real, but only something verbal or conceptual. Thus Dale granted in conversation that we can use 'existence' and 'Being' to refer collectively to existents or things that are, but he denied that 'existence itself' and 'Being itself' refer to anything that really exists other than these existents. There is no one item, distinct from each of them and from all of them, in virtue of which the many beings ARE. Thus there is no Platonic Form, Existence itself, or any other sort of universal or property or entity or stuff for 'Being itself' or "Existence itself' to refer to. These high-falutin' words, if they refer to anything, refer to concepts we excogitate. If this is right, then there just is no Being itself for God to be identical to. On Dale's scheme all we've got are beings; it is just that one of these beings is the omni-qualified God of the Judeo-Christian tradition.
Dale did not give the above argument, but it is available to him, given that he accepts (ROP). The argument is formidable and cannot be dismissed out of hand. In sum:
Existence itself does not exist; God exists; Ergo, God is not (identical to) existence itself.
This argument, if sound, puts paid to any conception like that of Aquinas according to which Deus est ipsum esse subsistens, "God is self-subsistent Being." Framing the matter as I have shows that the fundamental issue is as much about the 'nature' of existence as it is about God.
Here is an antilogism or aporetic triad corresponding to the above syllogism:
Existence itself exists. God exists. God is not (identical to) existence itself.
The limbs of this aporetic triad cannot all be true given the following assumptions that I believe Dale accepts. (A1) God is the source/ground of everything distinct from himself. (A2) Existence itself, if there is such a 'thing,' is the source/ground of the existing of what exists. The difference between Dale and me can now be put concisely as follows.
I accept the first two limbs and reject the third while Dale accepts the second two limbs and rejects the first. We agree on the second limb.
Five Possible Views
By my count there are five combinatorially possible views:
V1. God exists, Existence exists, and they are identical. (BV) V2. God exists, but Existence does not exist. (DT) V3. Existence exists, but God does not exist. (A version of non-naturalistic atheism) V4. Both God and Existence exist, but they are different. V5. Neither God nor Existence exists. (Naturalistic atheism)
You might think that no one holds (V4). You would be wrong. Theist J. P. Moreland insists that existence itself exists while holding that it is a special property, the property of having properties, and thus not identifiable with God. (Universals, McGill-Queen's UP, 2001, pp. 134-139.)
Why Should We Think that God is identical to Existence itself?
I hope Dale will agree that I have made sufficiently clear the issue that divides us. We now need to look at some arguments. Here is one argument for the view that God is Existence itself.
Classically, God is causa prima, the 'first cause,' where 'first' needn't be taken temporally. Now God cannot play the role of first cause unless he exists. There are five 'possibilities' regarding the divine existence. Either (P1) God causes himself to exist, or (P2) God is caused by another to exist, or (P3) God exists contingently as a matter of brute fact without cause or reason, or (P4) God is a necessary being, but nonetheless a being among beings really distinct from his existence and from Existence itself, or (P5) God is (identically) Existence itself.
Each of the first four possibilities can be excluded.
Nothing can cause itself to exist. For that would require a thing to exist 'before' it exists whether temporally or logically-ontologically. Since that is impossible, God cannot cause himself to exist. On the other hand, nothing other than God can cause God to exist -- else God would not be God, would not be the ultimate metaphysical ground of all else. God is the Absolute, and it is self-evident that the Absolute cannot depend for its existence or nature on anything 'higher up' or 'farther back.' Please note that one can accept this, and Dale will, even while holding that God is a being among beings as I explained this notion.
On (P3), the existence of God is a brute fact. But then God is a contingent being in which case, again, God is not God. God is the Absolute, and no absolute worth its salt is a contingent being. No absolute just happens to exist. It is built into the divine job description that God be a necessary being, and indeed one whose metaphysical necessity is from itself and not from another as the necessity of certain propositions is necessary from another if they are divine thoughts.
I think Dale will agree with my rejection of the first three possibilities. I expect him to opt for (P4) according to which God is a necessary being but nonetheless a being among beings, and not Being itself. But if God is a necessary being, what is the ground of his necessity if it is not the divine simplicity? We agree that God cannot not exist. But I ask: why not? If in both God and Socrates there is a real distinction between essence and existence, and if in Socrates his contingency is rooted in the real distinction, then God too will be contingent. Dale needs to supply a ground for the divine necessity, and the only plausible ground is the identity in God of essence and existence.
I hope it is obvious that existing in all possible worlds cannot be the ground of the divine necessity. For that puts the cart before the horse. God exists in all possible worlds because he is a necessary being; it is not the case that he is necessary because he exists in all possible worlds.
Now there are only the five 'possibilities' mentioned above. (Or can you think of a sixth?) Since the first four are eminently rejectable and herewith rejected, the fifth alone remains standing: God is (identically) his existence and Existence itself. If so, God is not a being among beings. He transcends the general-metaphysical framework to which all else must conform. God is self-existent Existence.
Is the Argument Rationally Compelling?
Unfortunately, it is not. I think Dale would be within his epistemic rights were he to object: "You have reasoned logically toward a conclusion that makes no logical sense. The discursive intellect simply cannot 'process' any such claim as that God is identical to self-existent Existence. And the same goes for all of the characteristic claims of the divine simplicity to which you are committed by your denial that God is a being among beings."
So we end this round with a stand-off at an impasse. I continue to insist that the divine necessity, transcendence and aseity require divine simplicity as underpinning while granting that simplicity cannot be formulated in a way that satisfies the exigencies of the discursive intellect.
I am disposed to say either that the problem is insoluble at the level of the discursive intellect, a genuine aporia, or that there may be a way forward via the analogia entis. But, like Dale, I find the latter exceedingly murky. Erich Pryzwara's recently translated (into English) and published Analogia Entis certainly hasn't helped. Nor have the reviews I have read of it. Rigor of thought and clarity of expression are not phrases I would use to describe most of the writers on this topic. But then there is more to philosophy than rigor of thought and clarity of expression.
Actually, the preceding sentence is ambiguous. The thought is that at least one leftist understands that religion has far deeper roots in human nature than a typical leftist analysis can expose, let alone eradicate. The following quotation borrowed from the weblog of Keith Burgess-Jackson:
The left has always had difficulty recognizing the power of religion. Aren’t all religions the ideological tools of the ruling class? And aren’t all millenialist and messianic uprisings the ideologically distorted response of subaltern groups to material oppression? Religious zealotry is a superstructural phenomenon and can only be explained by reference to the economic base. These ancient convictions are particularly obfuscating today. Parvez Ahmed, a Florida professor who is fully cognizant of the “scourge” of Boko Haram, provides a typical example in a recent blog [sic]. He argues that “much of the violence [committed] in the name of Islam is less motivated by faith and more so by poverty and desperation.” Similarly, Kathleen Cavanaugh from the National University of Ireland, writing on the Dissent website, insists that “the violent and oppressive actions [of ISIS] have little to do with religion per se,” but rather are “underpinned” by material interests. But is this right? Why don’t poverty, desperation, and material interests produce a leftist rather than an Islamist mobilization? In fact, the religious revival, not only among Muslims but around the world, among Jews and Christians, Hindus and Buddhists, has enlisted supporters from all social classes, and the driving motive of revivalist activity seems, incredibly, to be religious faith (Fawaz Gerges’s Journey of the Jihadist: Inside Muslim Militancy provides ample evidence of religion’s power).
(Michael Walzer, "Islamism and the Left," Dissent 62 [winter 2015]: 107-17, at 112-3 [brackets in original])
Although Walzer has a better understanding of human nature than most lefties, he betrays his residual leftism by his use of 'incredibly' in the last sentence above.
Why is it "incredible" that people should have religious faith? Only a benighted leftist, soulless and superficial all the way down, bereft of understanding of human nature, could think that human beings could be satisfied by a merely material life. Religion answers to real needs of real people, the need for meaning, for example. Some meaning can be supplied by non-exploitative, mutually beneficial social interaction. But not ultimate meaning, meaning in the face of death. To put it cryptically, an "existing individual" (Kierkegaard) standing alone before God and eternity is no Marxian Gattungswesen.
Whether any religion can supply ultimate needs for sense and purpose and transcendence is of course a very different question. Suppose that no religion can. It would be a mistake to conclude that the needs are not real. It would be even more of a mistake to conclude that something as paltry as the utopias envisaged by Marxists could satisfy religious needs. Supplying everyone with a overabundance of natural goodies will never sate the human spirit. But it takes spirit to understand this point.
Leftists, and atheists generally, typically have a cartoon-like (mis)understanding of religion.
No higher religion is about providing natural goodies by supernatural means, goodies that cannot be had by natural means. Talk of pie-in-the-sky is but a cartoonish misrepresentation by those materialists who can only think in material terms and only believe in what they can hold in their hands. A religion such as Christianity promises a way out of the unsatisfactory predicament in which we find ourselves in this life. What makes our situation unsatisfactory is not merely our physical and mental weakness and the shortness of our lives. It is primarily our moral defects that make our lives in this world miserable. We lie and slander, steal and cheat, rape and murder. We are ungrateful for what we have and filled with inordinate desire for what we don't have and wouldn't satisfy us even if we had it. We are avaricious, gluttonous, proud, boastful and self-deceived. It is not just that our wills are weak; our wills are perverse. It is not just that our hearts are cold; our hearts are foul. You say none of this applies to you? Very well, you will end up the victim of those to whom these predicates do apply. And then your misery will be, not the misery of the evil-doer, but the misery of the victim and the slave. You may find yourself forlorn and forsaken in a concentration camp. Suffering you can bear, but not meaningless suffering, not injustice and absurdity.
Whether or not the higher religions can deliver what they promise, what they promise first and foremost is deliverance from ignorance and delusion, salvation from meaninglessness and moral evil. No physical technology and no socio-political restructuring can do what religion tries to do. Suppose a technology is developed that actually reverses the processes of aging and keeps us all alive indefinitely. This is pure fantasy, of course, given the manifold contingencies of the world (nuclear and biological warfare, terrorism, natural disasters, etc.); but just suppose. Our spiritual and moral predicament would remain as deeply fouled-up as it has always been and religion would remain in business.
It helps to study history. The Communists slaughtered 100 million 'cows' in the 20th century alone. But where's the beef?
It could be like this. All religions are false; none can deliver what they promise. Naturalism is true: reality is exhausted by the space-time system. You are not unreasonable if you believe this. But I say you are unreasonable if you think that technologies derived from the sciences of nature can deliver what religions have promised, or any socio-political re-arrangement can.
As long as there are human beings there will be religion. The only way I can imagine religion withering away is if humanity allows itself to be gradually replaced by soulless robots. But in that case it will not be that the promises of religion are fulfilled by science; it would be that no one would be around having religious needs.
 The new atheists rarely mention Friedrich Nietzsche, and when they do it is usually to dismiss him.  This can’t be because Nietzsche’s ideas are said to have inspired the Nazi cult of racial inequality – an unlikely tale, given that the Nazis claimed their racism was based in science. The reason Nietzsche has been excluded from the mainstream of contemporary atheist thinking is that he exposed the problem atheism has with morality.  It’s not that atheists can’t be moral – the subject of so many mawkish debates.  The question is which morality an atheist should serve.
Five sentences, five comments.
2. Granted, the Nazis claimed their racism was based in science. But this is consistent with their racism having other sources as well. So it doesn't follow that it is an "unlikely tale" that the Nazis drew inspiration from Nietzsche. I say it is very likely. See Nietzsche and Nationalism Socialism.
3. Spot on!
4. Agreed, atheists can be moral. Indeed, some atheists are more moral that some theists — even when the moral code is the Decalogue minus the commandments that mention God. The question whether an atheist can be moral, however, is ambiguous. While it is clear that an atheist can be moral in the sense of satisfying moral demands, it is not clear that an atheist can be moral in the sense of recognizing moral demands in the first place. It is an open question whether an atheist, consistent with his atheism, could have justification for admitting objective moral demands.
5. Before one can ask which morality an atheist should serve, there is a logically prior question that needs asking and answering, one that Gray glides right past, namely,
Q. Is there any morality, any moral code, that an atheist would be justified in adhering to and justified in demanding that others adhere to?
If a negative answer is given to (Q), then Gray's logically posterior question lapses.
Most of us in the West, atheists and theists alike, do agree on a minimal moral code. Don't we all object to child molestation, female sexual mutilation, wanton killing of human beings, rape, theft, lying, financial swindling, extortion, and arson? And in objecting to these actions, we mean our objections to be more than merely subjectively valid. When our property is stolen or a neighbor murdered, we consider that an objective wrong has been done. And when the murderer is apprehended, tried, and convicted we judge that something objectively right has been done. But if an innocent person is falsely accused and convicted, we judge that something objectively wrong has been done. Let's not worry about the details or the special cases: killing in self-defense, abortion, etc. There are plenty of gray areas. The existence of gray, however, does not rule out that of black and white. Surely, in the West at least, there is some moral common ground that most atheists and theists, liberals and conservatives, stand upon. For example, most of us agree that snuffing out the life of an adult, non-comatose, healthy human being for entertainment purposes is objectively wrong.
What (Q) asks about is the foundation or basis of the agreed-upon objectively binding moral code. This is not a sociological or any kind of empirical question. Nor is it a question in normative ethics. The question is not what we ought to do and leave undone, for we are assuming that we already have a rough answer to that. The question is meta-ethical: what does morality rest on, if on anything?
There are different theories. Some will say that morality requires a supernatural foundation, others that a natural foundation suffices. I myself do not see how naturalism is up to the task of providing an objective foundation for even a minimal code of morality.
But of course one could be an atheist without being a naturalist. One could hold that there are objective values, but no God, and that ethical prescriptions and proscriptions are axiologically grounded. (N. Hartmann, for example.) But let's assume, with Nietzsche, that if you get rid of God, you get rid of the Platonic menagerie (to cop a phrase from Plantinga) as well. It needs arguing, but it is reasonable to hold that God and Platonica stand and fall together. That is what Nietzsche would say and I think he would be right were he to say it. (The death of God is not an insignificant 'event' like the falling to earth of a piece of space junk such as Russell's celestial teapot.)
No God, no objective morality binding for all. Suppose that is the case. Then how will the new atheist, who is also a liberal, uphold and ground his 'enlightened' liberal morality? John Gray appreciates the difficulty:
Awkwardly for these atheists, Nietzsche understood that modern liberalism was a secular incarnation of these religious traditions. [. . .] Nietzsche was clear that the chief sources of liberalism were in Jewish and Christian theism: that is why he was so bitterly hostile to these religions. He was an atheist in large part because he rejected liberal values. To be sure, evangelical unbelievers adamantly deny that liberalism needs any support from theism. If they are philosophers, they will wheel out their rusty intellectual equipment and assert that those who think liberalism relies on ideas and beliefs inherited from religion are guilty of a genetic fallacy. Canonical liberal thinkers such as John Locke and Immanuel Kant may have been steeped in theism; but ideas are not falsified because they originate in errors. The far-reaching claims these thinkers have made for liberal values can be detached from their theistic beginnings; a liberal morality that applies to all human beings can be formulated without any mention of religion. Or so we are continually being told. The trouble is that it’s hard to make any sense of the idea of a universal morality without invoking an understanding of what it is to be human that has been borrowed from theism.
Gray is right. Let me spell it out a bit.
Consider equality. As a matter of empirical fact, we are not equal, not physically, mentally, morally, spiritually, socially, politically, economically. By no empirical measure are people equal. We are naturally unequal. And yet we are supposedly equal as persons. This equality as persons we take as requiring equality of treatment. Kant, for example, insists that every human being, and indeed very rational being human or not, exists as an end in himself and therefore must never be treated as a means to an end. A person is not a thing in nature to be used as we see fit. For this reason, slavery is a grave moral evil. A person is a rational being and must be accorded respect just in virtue of being a person. And this regardless of inevitable empirical differences among persons. Thus in his third formulation of the Categorical Imperative in his 1785 Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals, Kant writes:
Act so that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in that of another, always as an end and never as a means only. (Grundlegung 429)
In connection with this supreme practical injunction, Kant distinguishes between price and dignity. (435) "Whatever has a price can be replaced by something else as its equivalent; on the other hand, whatever is above all price, and therefore admits of no equivalent, has dignity." Dignity is intrinsic moral worth. Each rational being, each person, is thus irreplaceably and intrinsically valuable with a value that is both infinite -- in that no price can be placed upon it -- and the same for all. The irreplaceability of persons is a very rich theme, one we must return to in subsequent posts.
These are beautiful and lofty thoughts, no doubt, and most of us in the West (and not just in the West) accept them in some more or less confused form. But what do these pieties have to do with reality? Especially if reality is exhausted by space-time-matter?
Again, we are not equal by any empirical measure. We are not equal as animals or even as rational animals. (Rationality might just be an evolutionary adaptation.) We are supposedly equal as persons, as subjects of experience, as free agents. But what could a person be if not just a living human animal (or a living 'Martian' animal). And given how bloody many of these human animals there are, why should they be regarded as infinitely precious? Are they not just highly complex physical systems? Surely you won't say that complexity confers value, let alone infinite value. Why should the more complex be more valuable than the less complex? And surely you are not a species-chauvinist who believes that h. sapiens is the crown of 'creation' because we happen to be these critters.
If we are unequal as animals and equal as persons, then a person is not an animal. What then is a person? And what makes them equal in dignity and equal in rights and infinite in worth?
Now theism can answer these questions. We are persons and not mere animals because we are created in the image and likeness of the Supreme Person. We are equal as persons because we are, to put it metaphorically, sons and daughters of one and the same Father. Since the Source we depend on for our being, intelligibility, and value is one and the same, we are equal as derivatives of that Source. We are infinite in worth because we have a higher destiny, a higher vocation, which extends beyond our animal existence: we are created to participate eternally in the Divine Life.
But if you reject theism, how will you uphold the Kantian values adumbrated above? If there is no God and no soul and no eternal destiny, what reasons, other than merely prudential ones, could I have for not enslaving you should I desire to do so and have the power to do so?
Aristotle thought it natural that some men should be slaves. We find this notion morally abhorrent. But why should we if we reject the Judeo-Christian God? "We just do." But that's only because we are running on the fumes of the Judeo-Christian tradition. What happens when the fumes run out?
It is easy to see that it makes no sense, using terms strictly, to speak of anything or anybody as a creature if there is no creator. It is less easy to see, but equally true, that it makes no sense to try to hold on to notions such as that of the equality and dignity of persons after their metaphysical foundations in Christian theism have been undermined.
So there you have the Nietzschean challenge to the New Atheists. No God, then no justification for your liberal values! Pay attention, Sam. Make a clean sweep! Just as religion is for the weak who won't face reality, so is liberalism. The world belongs to the strong, to those who have the power to impose their will upon it. The world belongs to those hard as diamonds, not to those soft as coal and weak and womanish. Nietzsche:
Here one must think profoundly to the very basis and resist all sentimental weakness: life itself is essentially appropriation, injury, conquest of the strange and weak, suppression, severity, obtrusion of peculiar forms, incorporation, and at the least, putting it mildest, exploitation - but why should one for ever use precisely these words on which for ages a disparaging purpose has been stamped?
Beyond Good and Evil, Chapter 9, What is Noble?, Friedrich Nietzsche Go to Quote
The following is an excerpt of an e-mail from the Barcelona lawyer, Daniel Vincente Carillo. As I mentioned to him in a private e-mail, I admire him for tackling these great questions, and doing so in a foreign language. The pursuit of these questions ennobles us while humbling us at the same time. Carillo writes,
In the contest between theism and metaphysical naturalism we have only four possible scenarios:
1st.An uncaused and necessary universe: It doesn't exist by another being and it cannot cease to exist (absolute and eternal universe).
BV: This is indeed a doxastic possibility. (By calling the possibility doxastic, I leave it open whether it is a real possibility.) But one ought to distinguish between omnitemporality and eternality. The omnitemporal exists at every time, and is therefore 'in time.' The eternal does not exist 'in time.' A universe that cannot cease to exist is in time and therefore not eternal. This could be a merely terminological matter.
2nd. A caused and necessary universe: It exists by another being but it cannot cease to exist (infinite series of universes).
BV: It is true that what is caused to exist is caused by another, since nothing can cause itself to exist, not even God. To say that God is causa sui, then, does not mean that he causes himself; it means that he is not caused by another. 'Causa sui,' shall we say, is a privative expression. So far, so good.
But Carillo may be conflating the necessary with the omnitemporal. To say that a universe is necessary is to make a modal claim, one that is much stronger than the merely temporal claim that the universe in question exists at every time. Suppose time is actually infinite in both past and future directions and that the universe (or a universe) exists at every time. Then the universe is omnitemporal: it exists at every time. But it doesn't follow that the universe is necessary. Metaphysical necessity is a modal, not temporal notion. The necessary is that which cannot not exist. An omnitemporal universe could well be contingent, i.e., possibly nonexistent.
In the jargon of 'possible worlds,' a necessary being is one that exists in all possible worlds. An omnitemporal being is one that exists at every time in a world in which there is time. Clearly, if x is omnitemporal, it does not follow that x is necessary.
3rd. An uncaused and contingent universe: It doesn't exist by another being but it can cease to exist (universe from nothing).
BV: But even if an uncaused universe could NOT cease to exist, it might still be contingent. Suppose that there is an uncaused universe U which is such that: if it exists, then it cannot cease to exist. U's being contingent is not ruled out. If it is necessary that U continue to exist if it does exist,it does not follow that U necessarily exists. For there might not have been that universe at all.
4th. A caused and contingent universe: It exists by another being and it can cease to exist (created universe).
BV: But again, if U exists ab alio, this is logically consistent with U's never ceasing to exist. Suppose God creates a universe which has the essential property of being omnitemporal. He creates a universe out of nothing that exists at every time. Since it exists at every time, there is no time at which it does not exist. And because there is no time at which U does not exist, it never ceases to exist. (If x ceases to exist, then there are two times, t and t*, t < t*, such that x exists at t but does not exist at t*.) So a universe can depend for its existence on God even if it cannot cease to exist.
The first three options characterize atheism/naturalism, while the last one is peculiar to theism. But are they equally rational? Definitely not.
BV: A minor point is that atheism and naturalism are not the same. The latter entails the former, but the former does not entail the latter. (The case of McTaggart, atheist but non-naturalist).
Despite my criticism above, the three naturalist options Carillo lists do seem to exhaust the possibilities if we assume that a metaphysical naturalist is also a metaphysical realist, an assumption which is quite 'natural.' But if one were a naturalist and some sort of anti-realist or idealist, that would be a further option.
Now how does Carillo exclude the third option? He writes:
It looks like the 3rd possibility is the weakest, since nothingness cannot create anything at all. The act of creation, like any other act of producing something, presupposes that the creator and the creature exist simultaneously at least in some moment. However, by its very notion, nothingness cannot exist simultaneously with the universe at any moment. Therefore, a universe from nothing is impossible . . . .
This is entirely too quick. True, nothingness cannot create anything. But someone who holds that the universe just exists as a matter of brute fact, i.e., contingently without cause or reason, is not committed to maintaining that nothingness has creative power. As I recall from Russell's debate with Copleston, Russell ends up saying that the universe just exists and that is all! That is not a good answer, in my opinion, but one cannot refute it by pointing out that nothingness cannot create anything. The whole point of naturalism is that there are neither creatures nor creator.
Yesterday I quoted Christopher Hitchens as saying that nothing is sacred. I now ask what it means to say that nothing is sacred. I think it means something like the following. Nothing, nothing at all, is holy, venerable, worthy of worship; nothing is an appropriate object of reverence. (One cannot appropriately revere one's spouse, 'worship the ground she walks on,' etc.) If nothing is sacred, then nothing is so far above us in reality and value as to require our submission and obedience as the only adequate responses to it.
If nothing is sacred, then man is the measure of all things; he is not measured by a standard external to him. Man is autonomous: he gives the law to himself. Human autonomy is absolute, the absolute. There is nothing beyond the human horizon except matter brute and blind. There is nothing that transcends the human scale. If so, then it makes sense for Hitchens to maintain that the right to free expression is absolute, subject to no restrictions or limitations: "the only thing that should be upheld at all costs and without qualification is the right of free expression."
The right to mock and deride religious figures such as Muhammad follows. For if nothing is sacred, then there is no God, no Allah, and hence no prophets of God. And of course no Son of God. If nothing is sacred and there is no God, then there is no revelation of God in any form, not in nature, not in a human person such as Jesus of Nazareth, and not in any scripture. If there is no God, then the Koran and the Bible are not the word of God; they are books like any other books, wholly human artifacts, and subject to criticism like any other books. And the same goes for physical objects and places. There are no holy relics and holy sites. Mecca and Jerusalem are not holy because, again, nothing is sacred. If there is nothing that is originally sacred, then there is nothing that is derivatively sacred either.
One obvious problem with Hitchens' position is that it is by no means obvious that there is nothing sacred. I should think that something is originally sacred if and only if God or a suitably similar transcendent Absolute exists. No God, then nothing originally sacred. Atheism rules out the sacred. And if nothing is originally sacred, then nothing is derivatively sacred either. If there is no God, then there are no prophets or saints or holy relics or holy places or holy books. And of course no church of God either: no institution can claim to have a divine charter.
I reject the position of Hitchens. I reject it because I reject his naturalism and atheism. They are reasonably rejected . But I also reject the position of those -- call them fundamentalists -- who think that there are people and books and institutions to which we must unconditionally submit. Here is where things get interesting.
I do not deny the possibility of divine revelation or that the book we call the Bible contains divine revelation; but I insist that it is in large part a human artifact. As such, it is open to rational criticism. While man cannot and must not place himself above God, he can and must evaluate what passes for the revelation of God -- for the latter is in part a human product.
God reveals himself, but he reveals himself to man. If the transmitter is perfect, but the receiver imperfect, then one can expect noise with the signal. Rational critique aims to separate the signal from the noise. To criticize is to separate: the true from the false, the reasonable from the unreasonable, the genuine from the specious.
I insist that religion must submit to rational critique. Religion is our affair, not God's. God has no religion. He doesn't need one. He needs religion as little as he needs philosophy: he is the truth in its paradigm instance; he has no need to seek it. Since religion is our affair, our response to the Transcendent, it is a human product in part and as such limited and defective and a legitimate object of philosophical examination and critique.
It is reasonable to maintain, though it cannot be proven, that there is a transcendent Absolute and that therefore there is something sacred. But this is not to say that what people take to be embodiments of the sacred are sacred. Is Muhammad a divine messenger? That is a legitimate question and the right to pose it and answer it negatively must be upheld. To answer it negatively, however, is consistent with holding that something is sacred. Is Jesus God? That is a legitimate question and the right to pose it and answer it negatively must be upheld. To answer it negatively, however, is consistent with holding that something is sacred.
My position is a balanced one. I reject the New Atheist extremism of Hitchens & Co. These people are contemptible in a way in which many old atheists were not: their lack of respect for religion, their militant hostility to any and every form of religion, shows a lack of respect for the unquenchable human desire for Transcendence. Religion is one form of our quest for the Absolute. This quest is part of what makes a human. This quest, which will surely outlast the New Atheists and their cyberpunk acolytes, must not be denigrated just because many of the concrete manifestations of the religious impulse are fanatical, absurd, and harmful.
One ought not mock religion, and not just for the prudential reason that one doesnot want to become the target of murderous Muslim fanatics. One ought not mock religion because religion testifies to man's dignity as a metaphysical animal, as Schopenhauer so well understood. Even Islam, the sorriest and poorest of the great religions, so testifies.
But while I reject the extremism of Hitchens and Co., an extremism that makes an idol of free expression, I agree that what passes for religion, the concrete embodiments of same, must submit to being hauled before the bench of Reason, there to be interrogated, often rudely. Reason, in its turn, must be open to what lies beyond it. It must be open to revelation.
A reader sent me an argument expressed in an idiosyncratic and unnecessarily technical terminology. But his idea is a very interesting one. I'll present and then evaluate my version of the reader's argument.
1. There are several actual and many possible positions on the nature and existence of God. Call them God-positions. One who occupies a God-position takes a stand on the existence of God, yes or no.
2. All but one of these God-positions are theistic: they affirm the existence of God, though they differ as to the divine attributes.
3. Only one of these God-positions is atheistic: only one affirms the nonexistence of God.
4. Exactly one of these God-positions is true.
5. The probability that one of the many theistic God-positions is true is much greater than the probability that the one atheistic God-position is true.
6. The claim that God exists is much more likely to be true than the claim that God does not exist.
I should think that the first three premises need no support: they are well-nigh self-evident. If support is wanted for (4), it can be found in logic. By Bivalence, there are exactly two truth-values. By Excluded Middle, every proposition is either true or not true.
But how is (5) supposed to follow from (1)-(4)? Here is where I think the problem lies. Intuitively, (5) does not follow from the premises.
Consider a parody argument. There are several actual and many possible positions on the nature and existence of the Lost Dutchman Goldmine. All but one of these LDM-positions are affirmative of the mine's existence; the remaining one is negative. But only one LDM-position is true. Therefore, it is more likely than not that the LDM exists.
This is obviously a fallacious argument. If it is, then so is the original argument. But this leaves us with the task of explaining why both are fallacious. This is not so easy.
Either the LDM exists or it does not. At most, these contradictory propositions are equiprobable. (Given my knowledge of the geology of the Superstition Wilderness, I would deny that these propositions are equiprobable; but let's assume that they are.) The number of different conceptions of the LDM has no bearing on the probability of its existence. One cannot raise (lower) the probability of the mine's existence by adding to (subtracting from) the conceptions of the LDM. Why not? Well, if the mine exists, then exactly one of the conceptions is instantiated, and all the other conceptions are uninstantiated. And it seems obviously true that the probability of some concept's being instantiated does not vary with the number of similar concepts that might have been instantiated instead.
The same goes for God even if the existence and nonexistence of God are equiprobable. There are many different conceptions of God even within a broadly Abrahamic ambit. On one conception, God is triune and simple; on another, triune but not simple; on a third, simple but not triune. And so it goes. Some hold God to be absolutely unlimited in power; others hold that logic limits God's power. And so on. Each of these conceptions is such that, if it is instantiated, then God exists. But surely the number of God-conceptions has no bearing on the probability of one of them being instantiated.
John Anderson's rejection of God is radical indeed. A. J. Baker writes:
Anderson, of course, upholds atheism, though that is a rather narrow and negative way of describing his position given its sweep in rejecting all rationalist conceptions of essences and ontological contrasts in favour of the view that whatever exists is a natural occurrence on the same level of existence as anything else that exists. From that position it follows, not merely that the traditional 'proofs' of the existence of God can be criticised, but that the very conception of a God or a supernatural way of being is an illogical conception -- God is an ontological category mistake as we may say. (Australian Realism: The Systematic Philosophy of John Anderson, Cambridge UP, 1986, 118-119)
If someone said that the average thought has such-and-such a volume, you would not say that he was factually incorrect; you would say that he had committed a category mistake inasmuch as a thought is not the sort of item that could have a volume: it is categorially disbarred from having a volume. Someone who says that God exists is saying that there exists something whose mode of being is unique to it and that everything other than God has a different mode of being. But the idea that there are two or more modes of being or two or more levels of reality, according to Anderson, is 'illogical" and ruled out by the exigencies of rational discourse itself. To posit God, then, is to involve oneself in a sort of ontological category mistake, in the words of A. J. Baker.
Let's see if we can understand this. (This series of entries is booked under Anderson, John.)
The Andersonian thesis is an exceedingly strong one: the very concept of God is said to be illogical. It is illogical because it presupposes the notion, itself illogical, that there are levels of reality or modes of existence or ways of being. What makes the argument so interesting is the implied claim that the very nature of being rules out the existence of God. So if we just understand what being is we will see that God cannot exist! This is in total opposition to the tack I take in A Paradigm Theory of Existence (Kluwer 2002) wherein I argued from the nature of existence to (something like) God, and to the tack taken by those who argue from truth to God.
The Andersonian argument seems to be as follows:
1. There is a single way of being.
2. The single way of being is spatiotemporal or natural being.
3. If God exists, then his way of being is not spatiotemporal or natural.
4. God does not exist.
Note that the argument extends to any absolute such as the One of Plotinus or the Absolute of F. H. Bradley or the Paradigm Existent of your humble correspondent. Indeed, it extends to any non-spatiotemporal entity.
The crucial premise is (1). For if 'way of being' so much as makes sense, then surely (3) is true. And anyone who accepts (1) ought also to accept (2) given that it is evident to the senses that there are spatiotemporal items. So the soundness of the argument pivots on (1). But what is the argument for (1)?
Note that (1) presupposes that 'way of being' makes sense. This is not obvious. To explain this I first disambiguate 'There are no ways of being.' Someone who claims that there are no ways of being could mean either
A. There are no ways of being because there is a single way of being.
B. There are no ways of being because the very idea of a way of being, whether one or many, either makes no sense or rests on some fallacious reasoning: either a thing exists or it does not. There is no way it exists. We can distinguish between nature (essence) and existence but not among nature, existence and way of existence. What is said to belong to the way a thing exists really belongs on the side of its nature. A drastic difference such as that between a rock and a number does not justify talk of spatiotemporal and non-spatiotemporal ways of being: the drastic difference is just a difference in their respective natures.
Many philosophers have championed something like (B). (See Reinhard Grossmann Against Modes of Being. Van Inwagen, too, takes something like the (B)-line.) If (B) is true, then Anderson's argument collapses before it begins. But I reject (B). So I can't dismiss the argument in this way.
Anderson's view is (A). The problem is not with the concept of a way of being; the problem is with the idea that there is more than one way of being. This is clear from his 1929 "The Non-Existence of Consciousness," reprinted in Studies in Empirical Philosophy, wherein we read, "If theory is to be possible, then, we must be realists; and that involves us in . . . the assertion of a single way of being (as contrasted with 'being ultimately' and 'being relatively') [a way of being] which the many things that we thus recognise have." (SEP 76) Thus what Anderson opposes is a duality, and indeed every plurality, of ways of being, and not the very notion of a way of being. One could say that Anderson is a monist when it comes to ways of being, not a pluralist. To invoke a distinction made by John Passmore, one to be discussed in a later entry, Anderson is an existence-monist but not an entity-monist.
Now what's the argument for (1)? As far as I can tell the argument is something like this:
5. Truth is what is conveyed by the copula 'is' in a (true) proposition.
6. There is no alternative to 'being' or 'not being': a proposition can only be true or false.
7. There are are no degrees or kinds of truth: no proposition is truer than any other, and there are no different ways of being true. (5, 6)
8. (True) propositions are concrete facts or spatiotemporal situations: propositions are not intermediary entities between the mental and the extramental. They are not merely intentional items, nor are they Fregean senses. The proposition that the cat is on the mat just is the concrete fact of the cat's being on the mat. And the same goes for the cat: the cat is identical to a proposition. Anderson's student, Armstrong, holds that a thick particular such as a cat is a proposition-like entity, a state of affairs; but Anderson holds the more radical view that a cat is not merely proposition-like, but is itself a proposition. But if a cat is a proposition, then
9. Being (existence) = truth.
1. There is a single way of being. (from 7, 9)
Therefore, by the first argument above,
4. God does not exist.
A full critique is beyond the scope of this entry especially since brevity is the soul of blog, as some wit once said. But what I am about to say is, I think, sufficient to refute the Andersonian argument.
If everything exists in the same way, what way is that? Anderson wants to say: the spatiotemporal way. He is committed to the proposition that
A. To be is to be spatiotemporally
where this is to be construed as an identification of being/existence with spatiotemporality. Good classical metaphysician that he is, Anderson is telling us that the very Being of beings, das Sein des Seienden, is their being spatiotemporal.
Now there is a big problem with this. A little thought should convince you that (A) fails as an indentification even if it succeeds as an equivalence: one cannot reduce being/existence to spatiotemporality. For one thing, (A) is circular. It amounts to saying that to exist is to exist in space and time. Now even if everything that exists exists in space and time, the existence of that which exists cannot be identified with being in space and time. So even if (A) is true construed as telling us what exists, it cannot be true construed as telling us what existence is. A second point is that, while it is necessary that a rock be spatiotemporal, there is no necessity that a rock exist, whence it follows that the existence of a rock cannot be identified with its being spatiotemporal.
Now if (A) fails as an identification, it might still be true contingently as an equivalence. It might just happen to be the case that, for all x, x exists iff x is spatiotemporal. But then it cannot be inscribed in the nature of Being (as a Continental philosopher might say) that whatever is is in space and time. Nor can it be dictated by "the nature and possibility of discourse" (SEP 2) or by the possibility of "theory" (SEP 76). Consequently, the Andersonian battle cry "There is only a single way of being!" cannot be used to exclude God.
For any such exclusion of God as an "ontological category mistake" can only proceed from the exigencies of Being itself. What Anderson wants to say is that the very nature of Being logically requires the nonexistence of God. But that idea rests on the confusion exposed above. For his point to go through, he needs (A) to be an identification when at most it is an equivalence.
Suppose you believe that man has been created in the image and likeness of God. Can you, consistently with that belief, hold that only some possess a religious disposition?
I often say things like the following:
The religious person perceives our present life, or our natural life, as radically deficient, deficient from the root (radix) up, as fundamentally unsatisfactory; he feels it to be, not a mere condition, but a predicament; it strikes him as vain or empty if taken as an end in itself; he sees himself as homo viator, as a wayfarer or pilgrim treading a via dolorosa through a vale that cannot possibly be a final and fitting resting place; he senses or glimpses from time to time the possibility of a Higher Life; he feels himself in danger of missing out on this Higher Life of true happiness. He feels his fellows to be fools endlessly distracted by bagatelles, sunken deep in Pascalian divertissement, as Platonic troglodytes unaware of the Cave as Cave.
I maintain that one in whom this doesn't strike a chord, or sound a plaintive arpeggio, is one who lacks a religious disposition. In some it is simply lacking, and it cannot be helped. I 'write them off' no matter how analytically sharp they are. One cannot discuss religion with them, for it cannot be real to them, any more than one can share one's delight in poetry with the terminally prosaic, or one's pleasure in mathematics with the mathematically anxious. Religion is not, for those who lack the disposition, what William James in "The Will to Believe" calls a "living option," let alone a "forced" or "momentous" one. It can only be something strained and ridiculous, a tissue of fairy tales, something for children and old ladies, an opiate for the weak and dispossesed, a miserable anthropomorphic projection, albeit unconscious, a wish-fulfillment, something cooked up in the musty medieval cellars of priestcraft where unscrupulous manipulators exploit human gullibility for their own advantage.
A perceptive interlocutor raised an objection that I would put as follows. "You say that some lack a religious disposition. I take it you mean that they are utterly bereft of it. But how is that consistent with the imago dei? For if we are made in the divine image, then we are spiritual beings who must, as spiritual beings, possess at least the potentiality of communion with the divine source of the spirit within us, even if this potentiality is to no degree actual. After all, we are not in the image of God as animals, but as spiritual beings, and part of being a spiritual being is having the potentiality to know itself, and thus to know that one is a creature if in fact one is a creature, and in knowing this to know God in some measure."
How might I meet this objection?
One way is by denying that all biologically human beings bear the divine image, or bear the divine image in its fullness. Maybe it is like this. The existence of specimens of the zoological species to which we belong is accounted for by the theory of evolution. God creates the physical universe in which evolution occurs, and in which human animals evolve from lower forms. The story of Adam and Eve in Genesis is not an account of how human animals came to be that is in competition with the theory of evolution. It is not about human animals at all. Adam is not the first man; there was no first man. Eve is not the first woman; there was no first woman. Adam and Eve are not the first human animals; they are the first human animals that, without ceasing to be animals, became spiritual beings when God bestowed upon them consciousness, self-consciousness, free will, and all their concomitants. But the free divine bestowal was not the same for all: from some he withheld the power to know God and become godlike.
I suspect this is not theologically 'kosher.' But it fits with my experience. I have always felt that some human beings lack depth or spirit or soul or inwardness or whatever you want to call it. It is not that I think of them as zombies as philosophers use this term: I grant that they are conscious and self-conscious. But I sense that there is nothing to them beyond that. The light is on, but no one is there. (In a zombie, the light is off.) There is no depth-dimension: they are surface all the way down.
But it may be that a better line for me is the simpler one of saying that in all there is the religious disposition, but in some it is wholly undeveloped, rather than saying that in some it is not present at all.
UPDATE (12/19): The "perceptive interlocutor" mentioned above responds:
To suppose that some persons lack the religious disposition is certainly not theologically kosher, at least not from the Christian perspective. This is more akin to certain varieties of predestinarian gnosticism to which early Christian theologians (e.g., Origen, Irenaeus, et al.) vehemently objected. These gnostic theories proposed that there were various different classes of human persons, some of whom were structurally determined to realize saving knowledge (gnosis) of Reality whereas others were cruder, baser, and doomed to live unenlightened lives in the body. The difference between classes was not choices they had made or anything of the sort; it was simply their ontological structure to reach enlightenment or not. The early Christians objected to this in two ways: first, it is denial of the freedom of the will of the human person, since some evidently are intrinsically incapable of choosing salvation; second, it is incompatible with God's goodness, since if he is good, he desires the salvation of all and works to accomplish it.
I don't disagree that these are among the theologically orthodox responses to my suggestion above. How good they are, however, is a separate question. First, if God does not grant to some class of persons the religious disposition, that is not a denial to them of freedom of the will. They can be as free as you please; they just lack that particular power. I am not free to fly like a bird, but it doesn't follow that I am not free.
As for the second point, there may be a confusion of damnation with non-knowledge of God. The suggestion above is that only some biologically human persons are disposed to seek God and possibly know God. That is not to say that these persons are predestined to a state in which they are conscious of God's existence but cut off from God.
God desires the ultimate beatitude of all that have the power to achieve it -- but not all have this power on the above suggestion. If God desires the ultimate beatitude of all whether or not they have the power to know God, then God desires the ultimate beatitude of dolphins and apes and cats and dogs.
I suppose these are the two greatest problems for the quasi-gnostic position you consider in that post. Another problem would be that it might ethically justify mistreatment and prejudice against persons deemed to lack a religious disposition. After all, if they cannot sense God's existence and enjoy communion with him, how are they any different from animals? If God himself didn't care to make them such that they could know him, why should theists and those having the religious disposition care for them any more than for a dog?
I don't see any problem here either. Not all human beings have the same powers but people like me and my interlocutor would not dream of using this fact to justify mistreatment of certain classes of people.
Thanksgiving evening, the post-prandial conversation was very good. Christian Marty K. raised the question of what one would say were one to meet God after death and God asked, "What did you do with your life?"
Atheist Peter L. shot back, "What did you do with your life, God?"
In my judgment, and it is not just mine, the fact of evil is the main stumbling block to theistic belief. While none of the arguments from evil are compelling, some of them render atheism rationally acceptable. This has long been my view. Atheism and theism are both rationally acceptable and intellectually respectable, though of course they cannot both be true.
This puts me at odds with the Pauline passage at Romans 1: 18-20. I'll summarize it. Men are godless and wicked and suppress the truth. What may be known about God is plain to them because God has made it plain to them. Human beings have no excuse for their unbelief. "For since the creation of the world, God's invisible qualities -- his eternal power and divine nature -- have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made . . . ."
Paul's claim here is that the existence and nature of God are evident from creation and that unbelief is a result of a willful turning away from the manifest truth. There is no excuse for unbelief because it is a plain fact that the natural world is divine handiwork. Now I am a theist and I am sympathetic to Christianity. But although I have one foot in Jerusalem, the other is planted firmly in Athens (philosophy, the autonomy of reason). And so I must point out that to characterize the natural world as 'made' or 'created' begs the question in favor of theism. As begging the question, the Pauline claim about the evidentness of the world's being created offers no support for theism. It is an analytic proposition that there is no creation without a creator. So if the heavens and the earth are a creation, then it follows straightaway that a creator exists.
But is the world a divine creation? This is the question, and the answer is not obvious. That the natural world is a divine artifact is not evident to the senses, or to the heart, or to reason. Of course, one can argue for the existence of God from the existence and order of the natural world. I have done it myself. But those who reject theistic arguments, and construct anti-theistic arguments, have their reasons too, and it cannot fairly be said that what animates the best of them is a stubborn and prideful refusal to submit to a truth that is evident. It is not evident to the senses that the natural world is a divine artifact.
I may be moved to marvel at "the starry skies above me" (Kant). But seeing is not seeing as. If you see the starry skies as divine handiwork, then this is an interpretation from within a theistic framework. But the datum seen can just as easily be given a nontheistic interpretation.
At the end of the day you must decide which of these interpretations to accept. You will not find some plain fact that will decide it for you. There is no fact you can point to, or argument you can give, that definitively rules out theism or rules it in.
If the atheism of some has its origin in pride, stubborness and a willful refusal to recognize any power or authority beyond oneself, or beyond the human, as may well be the case with such luminaries as Russell and Sartre, it does not follow that the atheism of all has this origin.
By the way, here we have the makings of an argument for hell. If someone, post-mortem, in the divine presence, and now fully cognizant of the ultimate metaphysical 'lay of the land,' were to persist in a pride Luciferian, and refuse to acknowledge and worship the ultimate Source of truth, goodness, beauty, and reality, a Source itself ultimately true, good, beautiful, and real, then the only fitting place for someone who freely chose to assert his miserable ego in defiance of its Source would be hell. It would be deeply unjust and unreasonable to permit such a person the visio beata.
The question was put to atheist A. C. Grayling. His response:
No, my views will not change; I am confident in the rationalist tradition which has evaluated the metaphysical and ethical claims of non-naturalistic theories, and definitively shown them to be vacuous in all respects other than the psychological effect they have on those credulous enough to accept them.
Should we perhaps speak here of the faith of a rationalist? And isn't there something unphilosophical about Grayling's stance? He is sure that his views will not change and confident in the rationalist tradition. He is not open to having his views changed by further thought or argument or evidence. Not very philosophical, not very Socratic. Socrates knew only that he did not know. Grayling knows.
He blusters when he speaks of what has been "definitely shown." Nothing of a substantive nature has ever been definitively shown in philosophy, and certainly not the "vacuousness" of the metaphysical and ethical claims of non-naturalism. Besides, it is simply false to say that these claims are "vacuous." Though they may be false, for all we know, they are quite definite and meaningful claims. 'Vacuous' means 'empty.' In this context it means empty of sense or significance.
What you have to understand about Grayling and his New Atheist ilk is that they are ideologues, no different in this respect from their anti-naturalist, religious counterparts. (Compare the Thomist view that it has been definitely shown that God exists, that the existence of God is knowable with certainty by unaided human reason.) Grayling and Co. are not philosophers who love the truth and seek it because they don't have it; they fancy themselves possessors of the truth and its guardians against the benighted.
So if unshakable confidence in the definitive truth of one's position can lead to violence and oppression, why is this a danger only on the religious side of the ideological divide and not on the anti-religious side? That is a question that ought not be evaded. Don't forget what the communists did to the religious people, instituitions, monuments, and sites in the lands where they gained control.
Grayling postsof mine. They are polemical. He polemicizes; I polemicize right back. Meet polemics with polemics, civil truth-seeking dialog with civil truth-seeking dialog.
As one of my aphorisms has it: Be kind, but be prepared to reply in kind.
Firearms instructors sometimes say that every gun is loaded. That is plainly false as it stands, but a wise saying nonetheless if interpreted to mean: every gun is to be presumed loaded until proven unloaded. Presumptions are procedural rules. To presume every gun to be loaded is to adopt a procedural rule to treat every gun as if it is loaded regardless of how antecedently likely it is that it is loaded. Suppose the likelihood is near zero: I examined the gun carefully an hour ago and I found it to be unloaded. Nevertheless, the presumption that it is loaded remains in force. I continue to behave as if it is loaded. For example, I don't point the gun at anything unless I want to destroy it.
I conclude that to presume that p is not to assert that p is true, nor to assert that p is probably true, nor to assume that p is true, but to decide to act as if p is true. A presumption, then, is not a proposition, although it embeds one. A presumption is something like a decision. More precisely, a presumption is the accusative of an act of presuming, an accusative that is not itself a proposition, but embeds one.
A presumption is not like a belief in the following important respect. To presume that a gun is loaded or that a man is innocent is not to believe that it is or that he is. To believe that p is to believe that p is true. But to presume that p is not to presume that p is true; it is to act as if p is true without either accepting or rejecting p. To presume that Jones is innocent until proven guilty is not to believe that he is innocent until proven guilty; it is to suspend judgment as to guilt or innocence until sufficient evidence is presented by the prosecution to warrant a verdict one way or the other. When I presume that p, I take no stand as to the truth-value of p -- I neither accept nor reject p -- what I do is decide to act as if p is true.
Presumptions must be defeasible. (I suspect that an indefeasible presumption is no presumption at all.) The presumption of being loaded is defeated in a particular case by carefully examining the gun and showing that it is unloaded. So while a presumption is not a proposition, it embeds a proposition that can be shown to be false. Defeasible presumption and burden-of-proof are correlative notions. (They are like rights and duties in this respect but also in that both are normative notions.) In a court of law, for example, if the accused enjoys a presumption of innocence, as he does in the Anglosphere, then the accuser bears a burden of proof, a burden which, if properly discharged, defeats the presumption.
Appeal to Ignorance?
So if person A claims to person B that a certain gun is unloaded, the burden of proof is on A to show that it is unloaded; person B does not bear the burden of proving that it is loaded. It is not just that he bears a lesser burden'; he bears no burden. Indeed it seems that B would be within his epistemic rights were he to claim that his ignorance of whether or not the gun is loaded is good evidence of its being loaded. But this is an appeal to ignorance. It has not been shown that the gun is unloaded; ergo, the gun is loaded.
It has not been shown that ~p; therefore p gives us the form of the ad ignorantiam 'fallacy.' Construed as a deductive argument, it is clearly invalid. Construed as an inductive argument, it will be in many cases weak. For example, suppose the gun is straight from the manufacturer and right out of the box. Then the probability of its being loaded is very low, and the argument: This gun out of the box has not been shown to be unloaded; ergo, this gun is loaded is very weak.
Nevertheless, safety considerations dictate a defeasible presumption in favor of every gun's being loaded, whether out of the box or not, a presumption that places the onus probandi on the one who maintains the opposite. So one might conclude that the appeal to ignorance in this case is reasonable even though the argument is deductively invalid and inductively weak.
The situation is similar to that in a court of law. The defendant is presumed innocent until proven guilty, so the burden of proof rests on either the state in a criminal proceeding, or on the plaintiff in a civil trial. In a criminal case the probative bar is set very high: the accused has to be shown guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. Here too there seems to be a legitimate appeal to ignorance: if it has not been shown that the defendant is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, the conclusion to be drawn is that he is not guilty.
We will have to examine this more carefully in a separate post.
There are 'safety' considerations in both the gun example and the law example. It is because we want to be on the safe side -- and not get shot -- that we presume every gun to be loaded. "Better that a hundred guns be unnecessarily examined than that one sentient being be accidentally shot."
And it is because we want to be on the safe side -- and not sentence an innocent person -- that we presume the accused to be innocent until proven guilty. "Better that a hundred guilty people go free than that one innocent person be wrongly convicted."
But now what about God? Don't safety considerations apply here as well? If God exists, then our ultimate happiness depends on getting into right relation with him. So why can't one make a legitimate appeal to ignorance here? Now of course from the fact that no one has proven that God does not exist, it does not follow that God exists. That is an invalid deductive argument. That would be a truly fallacious instance of ad ignorantiam. But it is also invalid to infer than a gun is loaded because it hasn't been proven to be unloaded, or that a man is innocent because he hasn't been proven to be guilty. It just doesn't follow in any of these cases. And yet we reasonably consider the gun loaded and we reasonably find the accused to be innocent. And so why can't we reasonably presume God to exist on the basis of the fact that he hasn't been shown not to exist? If the burden of proof rests on the one who claims that gun is unloaded, why doesn't the burden of proof rest on the one who claims that God is nonexistent? We don't want to get shot, but we also don't want to lose our ultimate beatitude -- if ultimate beatitude there be.
You can't say that that the burden of proof rests on the theist because he is making a positive claim; for there are positive claims that need no proof. And you can't say that the burden of proof rests on the theist because he is making an existential claim; for there are existential claims that need no proof. If you claim that extraterrestrial intelligent beings exist, then the burden is on you. But if you claim that there are Saguaro cacti in Arizona, then the burden of proof is not on you but on the one who denies it. Nor can you say that the burden rests on the theist because he is controverting the widely-accepted; the consensus gentium is that God exists.
Earlier I argued that we shouldn't bring BOP considerations into the God discussion at all. But if we do, why doesn't the BOP rest on the atheist?
Massimo Pigliucci thinks that if one understands who bears the burden of proof in a trial, then one ought to see right away that the burden of proof rests on the theist. For, "the burden of proof is always on the party making a positive claim, not on the one making a negative one." This strikes me as confused. It is true that the party making a complaint or bringing a charge is making a positive claim, but this is not the reason why the BOP rests on the accuser. It rests on the accuser because of the presumption of innocence that the accused enjoys. The BOP rests on the accuser not because his claim is positive but because of the procedural rule enshrined in our system of law according to which one is presumed innocent until proven guilty.
It is not true that the BOP is always on the one who makes a positive claim. 'That hillside is studded with Saguaro cacti' said to my hiking companion needs no proof. I shoulder no probative burden when I make a commonplace observation such as that. Therefore, the following is an unsound argument:
Everyone who make a positive claim bears a BOP. The theist makes a positive claim. ergo The theist bears the BOP in his debate with the atheist.
I argued above that if BOP considerations are relevant to the God debate, then the BOP is on the atheist. To appreciate the argument I gave, you have to realize that the God question is not merely theoretical. It is a practical question. In that respect it is like the gun safety and court room cases. My interest in whether or not a particular firearm is loaded or unloaded is not merely theoretical, or I should say, not at all theoretical. It is a practical interest in maintaining the health and physical integrity of myself and the people around me. Similarly with the law. If you are accused of homicide you are in deep trouble and face the loss of your liberty or your life. Arguably, the God question is in the same boat.
So I invite you to accept one or the other of the following conclusions. The BOP is borne by the atheist. BOP considerations should be kept out of the theist-atheist debate altogether.
. . . by my lights, parsimony might be a consideration that puts the burden of proof on the theist. Theories that multiply entities unnecessarily are less likely to be true and the theist's theory postulates an entity. Now, it may be that the theist will say that we need God as a first cause or something like that-- that could be enough to absolve him of the burden. But in the absence of other reasons for believing in God (known to the interlocutors), the burden of proof would be on the theist.
Let's think about this. I doubt the usefulness in philosophy of burden-of-proof considerations, at least when we are discussing such big questions as God, freedom, and immortality. I also doubt the usefulness in philosophy of considerations of parsimony. What is parsimony anyway?
Parsimony or Occam's Razor is a principle of theoretical economy that states or rather enjoins:
OR. Do not multiply entities beyond necessity.
It is sometimes formulated in Latin: Entia non sunt multiplicanda praeter necessitatem. The principle or rather injunction is presumably to be interpreted qualitatively rather than quantitatively, thus:
OR*. Do not multiply TYPES or CATEGORIES of entity beyond necessity.
Thus it is not individual entities that are not to be multiplied, but types or kinds or categories of entity. To illustrate. Some criticized David Lewis' extreme modal realism on the ground that it proliferates concreta: there are not only all the actual concreta , there are all those merely possible ones as well. He responded quite plausibly to the proliferation charge by pointing out that the Razor applies to categories of entity, not individual entities, and that category-wise his ontology is sparse indeed.
'Multiply' is a picturesque way of saying posit. (Obviously, there are as many categories of entity as there are, and one cannot cause them to 'multiply.') And let's not forget the crucial qualification: beyond necessity. That means: beyond what is needed for purposes of adequate explanation of the data that are to be explained. Hence:
OR** Do not posit types of entity in excess of what is needed for purposes of explanation.
So the principle enjoins us to refrain from positing more types of entity than we need to explain the phenomena that need to be explained. It is obvious that (OR**) does not tell us to prefer theory T1 over theory T2 if T1 posits fewer types of entity than T2. What it tells us is to prefer T1 over T2 if T1 posits fewer types of entity AND accounts adequately for all the data. So there is a trade-off between positing and accounting.
Spencer tells us that "Theories that multiply entities unnecessarily are less likely to be true . . . ." I don't think this is right. Theories that posit entities or types of entity beyond the needs of explanation are uneconomical and to be rejected for this reason. We prefer simpler theories to save cognitive labor, not because simplicity is the mark of truth (simplex sigillum veri) or even because simpler theories are more likely to be true. Now it may be that simpler theories are more likely to be true -- how would one show this? -- but this is no part of the principle of parsimony as I understand it. It is a principle of Denkoekonomie.
The defeasible presumption in favor of parsimonious explanations is very much like the defeasible presumption of innocence (POI) in the law. The accused is presumed innocent until proven guilty even if the probability of his being innocent is low or even near or at zero. The presumption of innocence does not vary with the probability of innocence, and is in fact logically consistent wth guilt. And of course the presumption of innocence does not entail innocence.
POI is a procedural rule: we proceed in the law as if the accused is innocent even if it is evident that he isn't. (Suppose 100 reputable winesses observe a man in a non-self-defense situation bludgeoning a woman to death. There still has to be a trial, the accused will enjoy the POI, and the prosecutors will bear the burden of proof. It's just that this trial will be very short.) Similarly, the principle of parsimony is a principle of procedural presumption. (See N. Rescher, Presumption and the Practices of Tentative Cognition, Cambridge UP, 2006. p. 124 ff.)
Suppose everything could be explained just as well without God as with God. Then we would have no reason to posit God as playing an explanatory role. But it wouldn't follow that God doesn't exist, or even that it is unlikely that God exists. All that would follow is that we would have no reason to posit God as an explanation of the existence, order, intelligibility of the universe: The 'God hypothesis' would not be rationally motivated.
Now one point I want to make is that Parsimony is a fairly useless and trivial injunction. After all, who wants to posit types of entity in excess of what is needed for purposes of explanation? The real question is what is needed for explanation. Parsimony gives us no help with this question. I would argue that God is needed to explain the existence and the intelligibility of the universe. Now that is a meaty set of issues that cannot be resolved by brandishing the Razor. We all agree about the Razor. What we don't agree about is what is necessary for an adequate explanation of what needs explaining.
And so it would be a cheap shot for an atheist to claim that theists violate Parsimony by positing God. Spencer of course understands this. For again, the issue is whether the posit is necessary for explanation.
Burden of Proof
Who bears the burden? Theist or atheist? The question is senseless or else has a trivial answer: both bear it. For it is not evident that God exists, nor it is evident that God does not exist. Neither side can invoke a defeasible presumption.
But there is a defeasible presumption in favor of the reliability of memory as a source of knowledge; so it does make sense to place the burden of proof on one who denies it.
Finally, does parsimony put the burden of proof on the theist as Spencer claims? No and for two reasons. First, Parsimony is a trivial injunction that, by itself, cannot decide between theism and atheism. Second, it is either senseless or trivial to ask where the BOP lies in the atheism-theism dispute.
UPDATE (10/28): Spencer Case e-mails: "I think you should make clear to your readers that your post attributes views to me that I do not hold. The part you quote from me is given in a context that is meant to show how my view of burden of proof would apply to a particular dialectical situation where an atheist thought parsimony mattered for the reason I stated. I wasn't actually subscribing to that view of parsimony. My account of what philosophical burden of proof amounts to was the main point of my comments.
Sam Harris is a liberal I respect and admire. He has not succumbed to the PeeCee delusion and he actively combats it. Although Harris is a contemporary, he is not a 'contemporary liberal' as I use that phrase: he is a classical or old-time or paleo or respectable liberal. But on religion and some philosophical topics he is out beyond his depth.
And just like moderates in every other religion, most moderate Muslims become obscurantists when defending their faith from criticism. They rely on modern, secular values—for instance, tolerance of diversity and respect for human rights—as a basis for reinterpreting and ignoring the most despicable parts of their holy books. But they nevertheless demand that we respect the idea of revelation, and this leaves us perpetually vulnerable to more literal readings of scripture. The idea that any book was inspired by the creator of the universe is poison—intellectually, ethically, and politically. And nowhere is this poison currently doing more harm than in Muslim communities, East and West. Despite all the obvious barbarism in the Old Testament, and the dangerous eschatology of the New, it is relatively easy for Jews and Christians to divorce religion from politics and secular ethics. A single line in Matthew—“Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s”—largely accounts for why the West isn’t still hostage to theocracy. The Koran contains a few lines that could be equally potent—for instance, “There is no compulsion in religion” (2:256)—but these sparks of tolerance are easily snuffed out.
Why does Harris think that the idea of divine (scriptural) revelation is intellectual, ethical, and political poison? Perhaps his reasoning is along the following lines.
1. In every extant scripture there are morally offensive prescriptions and proscriptions which, if followed, would be detrimental to human flourishing, and in that sense 'poisonous.' 2. If one believes that a given scripture is the Word of God, then one believes that everything in that scripture carries divine sanction (approbation): it proceeds from the ultimate moral authority in the universe. 3. If one believes that everything in a given scripture carries divine sanction, then one believes that one has an obligation to commit some morally offensive actions, namely, those enjoined in the scripture in question, actions detrimental to human flourishing. (from 1+ 2) 4. Actions detrimental to human flourishing are 'poison.' Therefore 5. The idea of divine revelation, if accepted, is 'poison.' (from 3 + 4)
I have just imputed to Harris an argument the reasoning of which is correct. Please recall the Logic 101 distinction between correctness/incorrectness of reasoning and truth/falsity of premises and conclusions. (If this argument, or something very similar, is not the argument at the back of Harris's assertion, then I have no idea what that argument would be).
But no defender of divine revelation need be troubled by the above argument. For such a defender may simply deny premise # 2. If a given scripture is the inspired Word of God, that doesn't change the fact that it is written down by men -- and we know what they are like: fallible, sometimes foolish, liable to embellish and distort, biased, limited in ever so many ways.
To put it very simply, I can accept a scripture as divinely inspired while rejecting parts of it as merely human accretions. Why not? There are things that St. Paul says, for example, that are pretty obviously nothing but reflections of his own personal preferences and biases, or else those of his time and place.
Notice that Harris is attacking the very idea of divine revelation: the acceptance of that idea is 'poison.' But he has given us no good reason to accept this wild claim. Of course, if there is no God, then there cannot be divine revelation. But the existence of God is not at issue here. The above argument is logically independent of the existence/nonexistence of God. Indeed, a theist could deploy the above argument.
And the issue is not whether particular portions of some scripture are credible or not. The issue concerns divine revelation as such and in general.
Harris may be assuming that anyone who accepts scriptural revelation must be a fundamentalist in the sense of someone who believes that everything in the Christian Bible, say, wears its meaning on its 'sleeve' and is literally true. But obviously, not everyone who accepts scriptural revelation need be a fundamentalist!
So much for the second of the two bolded sentences above.
The first sentence reads: But they nevertheless demand that we respect the idea of revelation, and this leaves us perpetually vulnerable to more literal readings of scripture. This sentence encapsulates an inference which, unfortunately for Harris, is a non sequitur. If one respects the idea of divine scriptural revelation, how is it supposed to follow that one is vulnerable to literalism? It obvously doesn't follow. And what exactly is literalism?
Harris ought to read Augustine on the interpretation of Genesis. Here is a sampler of some of the issues that arise.
As I said, Harris is way out of his depth when he enters these theological waters.
Allegedly, the New Atheism has a "shocking woman problem": Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins are "misogynists." Thus Amanda Marcotte in Salon. (See also Kathe Pollitt in The Nation). This appears to be the latest PC purge.
It is true that the New Atheism is male-dominated. But why? According to Marcotte,
The reason has, in recent years, become quite apparent: Many of the most prominent leaders of the New Atheism are quick to express deeply sexist ideas. Despite their supposed love of science and rationality, many of them are nearly as quick as their religious counterparts to abandon reason in order to justify regressive views about women.
One such prominent leader is Sam Harris, a man of "knee-jerk Islamophobic tendencies" who has recently "added women to the category of people he makes thoughtless generalizations about."
Let's remind ourselves that a phobia is an irrational fear. Fear of radical Islam, however, is eminently rational, especially in the light of recent events. (You may wish to consult the Christians of the Middle East on this point.) It is obvious that 'Islamophobic' and cognates are semantic bludgeons used by leftists to silence and discredit their opponents by imputing to them a sort of cognitive/affective dysfunction. It's a shabby tactic and its says a lot about them.
As for "thoughtless generalizations about women," what does Harris actually say? From his weblog:
My work is often perceived (I believe unfairly) as unpleasantly critical, angry, divisive, etc. The work of other vocal atheists (male and female) has a similar reputation. I believe that in general, men are more attracted to this style of communication than women are. Which is not to say there aren’t millions of acerbic women out there . . . . But just as we can say that men are generally taller than women, without denying that some women are taller than most men, there are psychological differences between men and women which, considered in the aggregate, might explain why “angry atheism” attracts more of the former. Some of these differences are innate; some are surely the product of culture. Nothing in my remarks was meant to suggest that women can’t think as critically as men or that they are more likely to be taken in by bad ideas. Again, I was talking about a fondness for a perceived style of religion bashing with which I and other vocal atheists are often associated.
How can any reasonable person be offended by what Harris is saying above? He is giving an explanation of why men are 'over-represented' among active, or as I would call them 'evangelical,' atheists. Surely it is a plausible explanation and it may even be true. Anyone with any experience of life knows that there are differences between men and women and these are reflected in different styles of communication.
There is an interesting logico-linguistic question here. Is the sentence 'Women can think as critically as men' a modal statement? Note the modal auxiliary 'can.' The sentence is grammatically modal, but is it logically modal? Does the sentence express the proposition that it is possible that women think as critically as men? Or does it express a proposition about actuality? If the latter, then it is equivalent to 'Some women think as critically as men' which does not feature any modal words. The second sentence is clearly true, especially when spelled out as 'Some women think as critically as some men.'
Later in his post, Harris reports a dialog with an offended woman. Here is part of it:
She: [. . .] What you said about women in the atheist community was totally denigrating to women and irresponsible. Women can think just as critically as men. And men can be just as nurturing as women.
Me: Of course they can! But if you think there are no differences, in the aggregate, between people who have Y chromosomes and people who don’t; if you think testosterone has no psychological effects on human minds in general; if you think we can’t say anything about the differences between two bell curves that describe whole populations of men and women, whether these differences come from biology or from culture, we’re not going to get very far in this conversation.
The irate female is indisputably in the right if she is saying that some women think just as critically as some men, and that some men are just as nurturing as some women. But then she has no dispute with Harris who would not dream of denying these truths. The following, however, are false:
1. Every woman thinks just as critically as every man. 2. Every man is just as nurturing as every woman. 3. Every woman is possibly such that she thinks as critically as every man. 4. Every man is possibly such that he is as nurturing as every woman.
I leave undecided the following two de dicto claims:
5. It is possible that every woman think as critically as every man. 6. It is possible that every man be as nurturing as every woman.
Here as elsewhere many on the Left substitute the hurling of epithets for serious discussion. Why think carefully and responsibly when you can shout: sexist, intolerant, xenophobic, homophobic, racist, bigoted, Islamophobic, etc.?
One of the basic errors of the Left is the assumption that we are all equal. It is is simply not the case. Men on average are taller than women on average. That's just the way it is. Now it is good to be tall, but it is also good to be nurturing, and women on average are more nurturing than men on average. No one can responsibly be labelled a sexist or a bigot for pointing out such plain facts as these.
Leftists often compound their error with a fallacious inference. They infer that since there is no equality of outcome, then there must have been sexism, or racism, etc. at work. Non sequitur!
Finally, if atheists draw their inspiration from natural science and oppose religion as superstition, then they ought to give some thought as to how they will ground empirically and scientifically key tenets of the leftist worldview. If you say that we are all equal, with equal rights, and equal dignity, and equal value as persons, etc. what is the basis of all that? Why isn't this just residual ideological claptrap left over after the death of God and the collapse of Christianity?
A reader requests some help in a debate he is having with some atheists re: the problem of evil. My advice: don't debate atheists. Read their arguments and consider them carefully. Then think the problem through for yourself in as intellectually honest and existentially serious a manner as you can. Then decide whether to accept and practice a religion. Debate with atheists is like debate with leftists: it is unlikely to be fruitful.
But the following way of looking at the matter of God and evil may be of some help to my reader. In this entry I distinguish generic theism from specific theisms and then I claim that (i) the logical complexion and tractability of the problem of evil depends on the type of theism adopted, and that (ii) for something close to an orthodox -- miniscule 'o'-- Christian theism the problem of evil is more tractable than for generic theism.
Suppose we define a 'generic theist' as one who affirms the existence of a bodiless person, a pure spirit, who is omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent, and who in addition is perfectly free, the creator and sustainer of the universe, and the ground of moral obligation. This generic theism is common to the mainstream of the three Abrahamic religions. Most theists, however, are not 'generic' but adopt a specific form of theism. Christians, for example, add to the divine attributes listed above the attribute of being triune and others besides. Christianity also includes doctrines about the human being and his ultimate destiny in an afterlife. The (philosophical) anthropology and eudaimonology of Christianity is just as important to it as its theology. Generic theism is thus an abstraction from the concrete specific theisms that people accept and live. And let's be clear that while doctrine is essential to religion, pace Wittgenstein, or perhaps pace only certain epigoni of Wittgenstein, no religion is exhausted by its doctrine. Each concrete religion is a way of life and a form of life. Each concrete religion seeks an orthodoxy and an orthopraxy.
Now the point I want to make is that, just as we ought to distinguish between generic theism and specific theisms, we ought to distinguish between the generic problem of evil and specific problems of evil. The generic problem of evil is the problem faced by the generic theist of reconciling belief in a God possessing the standard omni-attributes with the existence of evil in the kinds and amounts encountered in the actual world. A specific problem of evil, on the other hand, is the problem a specific type of theist has in reconciling the existence of God with the existence of evil.
We need to examine whether the problem a theist of a specific stripe has in reconciling God and evil is easier to solve or perhaps harder to solve than the problem a generic theist has.
To see what I am driving at, imagine a version of theism — call it version A — that affirms God, immortal souls, and the eventual blissful communion of all souls with God. On this version of theism there is purgatory, but no hell defined as a state of everlasting separation from communion with God. Thus on this version of theism there is post-mortem evil, the pain of purgatory, but this purgatorial evil is instrumental for the achieving of a higher good and is to that extent redeemed by this higher good.
Now compare this theism-A with a theism-B which affirms God but denies post-mortem existence whether in the form of immortal souls or in the form of resurrected (ensouled) bodies. On this alternative the God of the generic theist (defined above) exists, but for human beings this life is all there is: at death a human being ceases to exist utterly. Now does it not seem that the theist-B faces a much tougher problem than the theist-A when it comes to reconciling a good God with the fact of evil? So it seems to me.
For the theist-B, the horrendous evils of this life are not compensated for by any life to come. One suffers pointlessly, meaninglessly. But for the theist-A, the transient evils of this short life are as nothing compared to the endless bliss of the soul's communion with God and with other purified souls. Thus gratuitous evil for the theist-A is a vanishing quantity. To appreciate this, you must understand that for the theist-A, God is Being itself in its full plenitude while this world, though real, is entirely derivative and entirely dependent, at each instant, on the divine Reality for its existence, nature, and intelligibility. The supreme Reality is like the sun outside of Plato's Cave; this world is the cave, its furnishings, and its benighted troglodytes.
[By the way, right here is a chief reason for the pointlessness of discussions with atheists. The typical atheist is a naturalist/materialist/physicalist for whom this physical world is the ens reallissimum. One cannot have a fruitful discussion with someone whose sense of reality and value is entirely different from one's own. Analogy with the political: if you have a traditional notion of justice you won't get far with someone who thinks of justice as 'social justice.' But I digress.]
Most atheists share the very strong intuition that the probability of this world's containing the amount of evil it does is much greater on the hypothesis that God does not exist than it is on the hypothesis that God exists:
Prob(E/~G) >> Prob(E/G).
They take this as evidence that there is no God. For if there were a God possessing the standard omni-attributes, why would there be the amounts of evil that we actually encounter? But to properly evaluate this inequality, how can one leave out the rest of what most theists believe? The amount and kinds of evil in this world enter the calculation, no doubt. But the absence of gratuitous evil, and the presence of unending bliss in the next world, are also relevant if the question concerns reconciling God and evil within theism-A.
Here is an analogy. Some of us had rotten childhoods but are enjoying very good adulthoods. Suppose Sam is such a person, now age 60. Up to age 23 Sam's life was on balance not worth living; after age 23 it became worth living. Suppose Sam claims that his life is overall rotten due to his lousy first 23 years. You would point out to him that his judgment is ridiculous and unjust. The quality of one's life overall depends on the whole of it, not just on part of it. There is also the consideration that there is a surplus of value due to the life's going from bad to good, rather than in the other direction (bonum progressionis.) Similarly, a just evaluation of the value of life in this world cannot be based solely on what goes on in this world, but must also take into consideration what goes on in the next.
To sum up:
1. Real live theists are not generic theists, but theists of some particular stripe or other. Generic theism is an abstraction. Real live theists hold specific doctrines that are embodied in specific practices. Among these doctrines will be a theory of the nature of man, his ultimate destiny, his final felicity, and his relation to God. Although the question of the existence of God is logically distinct from the question of the nature of man, in a specific theism such as Christianity, the theology and the anthropology are mutually influencing so much so that if there is no God, then there is no Man either. (If what distinguishes man from other animals is imago dei, then no God, no Man.)
2. The problem of evil, if it is to be a genuine existential conundrum bearing on how one lives one's life and not a mere logic puzzle, is the problem of reconciling the existence of the God of a particular religion with the fact of evil as evil is understood from within this particular religion.
3. A theism that affirms God, post-mortem existence, and the eventual unending blissful communion of all souls (or resurrected persons) with God does not face the same problem of evil as a version of theism which denies post-mortem existence. The problem of evil for the former type of theist is much less serious than it is for the theist of the latter type.
4. It is dialectically unfair for atheists to argue against all (classical) theists from the fact of the evil in this world when (i) not all theists are generic theists, and (ii) some theists believe that the transient evils of this short life are far outweighed by the unending bliss of the world to come.
5. It is arguable that there is no insoluble problem of evil for theists-A. Suppose this world is a "vale of soul-making" (the phrase is from John Keats) in which human beings, exercising free will, make themselves worthy, or fail to make themselves worthy, of communion with God. Combine this soul-making idea with post-mortem existence, and the existence of purgatory but not hell, and we have perhaps the elements of a solution to the problem of evil. (Cf. John Hick, Evil and the God of Love, Part IV)
Let me conclude by noting that a theism-C which holds to eternal damnation for some may exacerbate the problem of evil. Here I refer you to David Lewis' posthumous "Divine Evil" in Louise Antony, ed., Philosophers Without Gods, Oxford 2007, pp. 231-242. Lewis, may God rest his soul, maintains that the usual logical and evidential arguments from evil are a "sideshow" compared to a "simpler argument, one that has been strangely neglected" (p. 231) that focuses not on the evils that God fails to prevent, but on the one's he perpetrates. And then he goes on to speak of hell and eternal torment. You can guess what conclusion he comes to.
We shall have to examine Lewis' simpler argument from evil in a separate post. But I am happy that he in effect concedes one of my points, namely, that a serious discussion of the problem of evil must address the whole of a theistic position and not focus merely on God and his attributes.
Richard Dawkins reviews Richard Swinburne, Is There a God? (Oxford, 1996) here. What follows are the meatiest excerpts from Dawkins' review together with my critical comments. I have bolded the passages to which I object.
Swinburne is ambitious. He will not shrink into those few remaining backwaters which scientific explanation has so far failed to reach. He offers a theistic explanation for those very aspects of the world where science claims to have succeeded, and he insists that his explanation is better. Better, moreover, by a criterion likely to appeal to a scientist: simplicity. He shows that his heart is in the right place by convincingly demonstrating why we should always prefer the simplest hypothesis that fits the facts. But then comes the great banana skin experience. By an amazing exploit of doublethink, Swinburne manages to convince himself that theistic explanations are simple explanations.
It is not true that Swinburne offers an explanation for those very aspects of the world where science claims to have succeeded. Part of what Swinburne is saying is that there are aspects of the world that theism can explain but that materialism cannot explain. But let's back up a bit.
Swinburne rightly points out that "intellectual enquiry demands that we postulate the smallest number of brute facts." (49) But on a materialist explanation there are more brute facts than on a theistic explanation, and Swinburne takes this as a point in favor of theism. One thing that science cannot explain but that theism can explain is the fact that every electron has the same causal powers and liabilities as every other one in the universe. Indeed, the same goes for every kind of particle and every kind of macro-object as well: tigers here behave like tigers elsewhere, bread nourishes an Eskimo no less than it nourishes a Mexican, etc.
A rational enquirer, however, cannot just accept that it is a brute fact that every electron has the powers and liabilities of every other one. Reason demands an explanation of that fact. Swinburne offers the following analogy. "If all the coins found on an archaeological site have the same markings, or all the documents in a room are written with the same characteristic handwriting, we look for an explanation in terms of a common source. The apparently coincidental cries out for explanation." (50) Now back to Dawkins:
Science explains complex things in terms of the interactions of simpler things, ultimately the interactions of fundamental particles. I (and I dare say you) think it a beautifully simple idea that all things are made of different combinations of fundamental particles which, although exceedingly numerous, are drawn from a small, finite set. If we are sceptical, it is likely to be because we think the idea too simple. But for Swinburne it is not simple at all, quite the reverse.
His reasoning is very odd indeed. Given that the number of particles of any one type, say electrons, is large, Swinburne thinks it too much of a coincidence for so many to have the same properties. One electron, he could stomach. But billions and billions of electrons, all with the same properties, that is what really excites his incredulity. For him it would be simpler, more natural, less demanding of explanation, if all electrons were different from each other. Worse, no one electron should naturally retain its properties for more than an instant at a time, but would be expected to change capriciously, haphazardly and fleetingly from moment to moment. That is Swinburne’s view of the simple, native state of affairs. Anything more uniform (what you or I would call more simple) requires a special explanation.
[I]t is only because electrons and bits of copper and all other material objects have the same powers in the twentieth century as they did in the nineteenth century that things are as they are now. (Is There a God? Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996. p. 2. [Dawkins gets the pagination wrong. This passage is on p. 42.])
Now where does Swinburne say what Dawkins attributes to him in the bolded passage? What Swinburne is saying is that science must take it to be a brute fact that electrons (e.g.) have the same powers and liabilities everywhere and everywhen. He is not saying that their natural tendency is not to have the same powers and liabilities. In other words, Swinburne does not invoke God to explain why electrons don't follow a natural tendency to collapse into irregularity; he invokes God to explain why they are regular. Returning to Dawkins:
Enter God. God comes to the rescue by deliberately and continuously sustaining the properties of all those billions of electrons and bits of copper, and neutralising their otherwise ingrained inclination to wild and erratic fluctuation. That is why when you’ve seen one electron you’ve seen them all, that is why bits of copper all behave like bits of copper, and that is why each electron and each bit of copper stays the same as itself from microsecond to microsecond. It is because God is constantly hanging on to each and every particle, curbing its reckless excesses and whipping it into line with its colleagues to keep them all the same.
It seems to me that Dawkins, whose tone betrays an unwillingness to grapple seriously with what Swinburne is saying, simply does not understand Swinburne's point. It is not that the fundamental particles are inclined to erratic fluctuation and that God must be brought in to keep them in line. It is rather that the fact of their regular behavior cannot be explained by science but must be taken to be a brute fact -- in violation of the principle that animates all science and inquiry, namely, to push explanations as far as one can and to admit as few brute facts as possible.
Swinburne, impressed by the regularity of nature, asks why it is regular. Dawkins, however, takes the regularity for granted and considers it to be a brute given. Thus at any time the regularity of nature has no explanation. But it is worse than this since over time there can be no explanation of why things having certain powers exist at all. As Swinburne puts it, "The present powers of objects may have been brought about by a past cause, but their present continuing in existence is -- on the materialist hypothesis -- an ultimate brute fact." (42)
In other words, the materialist must take to it to be a brute fact that the universe continues to exist.
Theism is arguably superior to materialism because it explains more with less. Its explanation is relatively simple whereas that of materialism must postulate innumerable separate objects that just happen to have the same powers as each other.
The materialist, one could say, tolerates an unacceptable amount of brute-factuality. Consider all the samples of boiling water that have ever existed. Not only is it a brute fact that all of these samples exhibit the propensity to boil at 212 degrees Fahrenheit at sea-level, but is is also a brute fact that each of these samples exists. But it is worse than this since each sample is composed of H2O molecules which are composed of hydrogen and oxygen atoms, which are composed of electrons, protons, and so on down the line, where at each level there are inexplicable regularities and inexplicable existences.
I don't say that Swinburne's case for theism is absolutely compelling, but it is quite reasonable, and indeed more reasonable that Dawkin's case for materialism. But even if you disagree with me on the last point, I hope I have convinced you that Dawkin's critical remarks contra Swinburne are quite worthless.
"Not enough evidence, God, not enough evidence!" (Bertrand Russell)
It may well be that our predicament is such as to disallow conclusive or even sufficient evidence of the truth about it. If Plato's Cave Allegory is apt, if it lays bare the truth of the human predicament, then it must be that the evidence that the cave is a cave and that there is an outer world, whether it be the evidence of someone's testimony or the evidence of one's own rare and fleeting experiences, is scant and flimsy and easily doubted and denied. What I merely glimpse on rare occasions I can easily doubt. One can also doubt what any church teaches for the simple reason that there are many churches and they contradict each other on many points of doctrine and practice. And the same goes for what I believe on the testimony of others.
We don't know that the human condition is a cave-like predicament along Platonic lines, but if it is then we have an explanation of the paucity of sufficient evidence of its being what it is. (By sufficient evidence for a proposition p I mean evidence that renders p more likely than its negation.)
It is vitally important to us whether God or some form of Transcendence exists, and whether a higher life is possible for us beyond the miserably short and indigent predicament in which we presently find ourselves. But it may be that the truth in this matter cannot be known here below, but only believed on evidence that does not make it more likely than not. It may be that our predicament is such as to make impossible sufficient evidence of the truth about it.
Do I violate an ethics of belief if I believe on insufficient evidence? But don't I also have a duty to myself to pursue what is best for myself? And seek my ultimate happiness? Why should the legitimate concern to not be wrong trump the concern to find what is salvifically right? Is it not foolish to allow fear of error to block my path to needed truth?
Lately I've heard bandied about the idea that to have faith is to pretend to know what one does not know. Now that takes the cake for dumbassery. One can of course pretend to know things one does not know, and pretend to know more about a subject than one does know. The pretence might be part of a strategy of deception in the case of a swindler or it might be a kind of acting as in the case of an actor playing a mathematician.
But in faith one does not pretend to know; one honestly faces the fact that one does not know and ventures beyond what one knows so as to gain access to a needed truth that by its very nature cannot satisfy the strictures that we moderns and post-moderns tend to build into 'know.'
Thesis for consideration: It can reasonably be maintained that some arguments from evil beg the question against theism.
Suppose we consider the following passage from J. J. C. Smart:
It looks as though the theistic hypothesis is an empirically refutable one, so that theism becomes a refuted scientific theory. The argument goes: (1) If God exists then there is no evil, (2) There is evil, therefore (3) It is not the case that God exists. Premiss (1) seems to follow from our characterization of God as an omnipotent, omnsicient and benevolent being. (2) is empirical. We can hardly reject (2). It seems therefore that the theist has to find something wrong with (1) and this is not easy. (J. J. C. Smart and J. J. Haldane, Atheism and Theism, Blackwell 2003, 2nd ed, p. 60)
Smart's argument from evil is plainly valid, being of the form modus tollens. But for an argument to be probative, other conditions must be met. One of these conditions is that the premises be true. Another is that the argument involve no 'informal fallacy' such as equivocation.
So let us ask: how would 'evil' in (1) have to be construed so that (1) comes out true? I suggest that 'evil' must be short for 'gratuitous evil.' But then, to avoid equivocation, we would have to replace 'evil' in (2) with 'gratuitous evil.' The result would be:
1*. If God exists, then there is no gratuitous evil. 2*. There is gratuitous evil. --- 3. It is not the case that God exists.
The resulting argument is valid, and (1*) is plainly true, unlike (1) which is not plainly true, but false. That (1) is false can be seen from the fact that an omniqualified God could easily permit the existence of an evil that was necessary for the attainment of a greater good. So it is just false to say, 'If God exists, then there is no evil.'
But (1*) is plainly true. Now it may be — it is epistemically possible that --(2*) is also true. The reformulated argument would then be sound. A sound argument, by definition, is a deductive argument that is both valid in point of logical form and whose premises are all of them true. And for the record, a proposition p is epistemically (doxastically) possible for a subject S if and only if p is logically consistent with what S knows (believes).
But note that a sound argument will be probatively worthless if it begs the question, if it is such that one cannot know a premise to be true without already knowing the conclusion to be true. So let us ask a very simple question: How does one know that (2*) is true? Smart tells us that (2) is empirical. 'Empirical' is a term of epistemology. It is applied to those propositions that are known from experience, by observation via the senses and their instrumental extensions (microscopes, telescopes, etc.) Now I am willing to grant that (2) — There is evil — is an empirical truth. (2), however, is not what Smart needs to make his argument work. He needs (2*). But is (2*) an empirical truth? Can one know from experience (whether inner or outer) that there is gratuitous evil? Is gratuitousness an empirical attribute of the evils one experiences?
Consider the evil of intense pain. I am acquainted with pain by 'inner sense.' And I am willing to grant arguendo, though it is not quite obvious, that I am acquainted empirically with the evil of intense pain. But I am surely not acquainted empirically with the gratuitousness of experienced evils. Gratuitousness is no more an empirical attribute than the createdness of the natural world. It is not evident to the senses that nature is a divine creation. Similarly, it is not evident to the senses that instances of evil are gratuitous. Is it not epistemically possible that they are all non-gratuitous?
To say that an evil is gratuitous is to say in effect that it is an evil inconsistent with the existence of the omniqualified God. It is to say that it is an evil that no such God could have a morally sufficient reason for permitting. Clearly, one cannot 'read off' such a complex relational attribute from any instance of evil.
The conclusion I am driving towards is that Smart's argument supra is question-begging. For in order to know that premise (2*) is true, I must know that the conclusion is true. That is, to know that there are gratuitous evils, I must know that God does not exist. For if God exists, then then there are no gratuitous evils.
Smart tells us above that the theistic hypothesis is empirically refutable. But I say Smart is mistaken: he needs (2*) for his argument to work, but this proposition -- There is gratuitous evil -- is not empirical. It may be true for all that, but it is not knowable by experience. You may be convinced that it is true, and I won't blame you if you find it much more plausible than the truth of 'God exists'; but it is not an empirical truth, if it is a truth. It is an interpretation imposed upon the data. It is as metaphysical as 'God exists.'
J. P. Moreland is against it. Me too. More generally, I oppose any amalgamation of classical theism and materialism about the mind. (See my "Could a Classical Theist be a Physicalist?" Faith and Philosophy, vol. 15, no. 2, April 1998, pp. 160-180.) Here are some excerpts from Moreland's piece:
Christianity is a dualist, interactionist religion in this sense: God, angels/demons, and the souls of men and beasts are immaterial substances that can causally interact with the world. Specifically, human persons are (or have) souls that are spiritual substances that ground personal identity in a disembodied intermediate state between death and final resurrection . . . .
[. . .]
In my view, Christian physicalism involves a politically correct revision of the biblical text that fails to be convincing . . . .
[. . .]
The irrelevance of neuroscience also becomes evident when we consider the recent best seller Proof of Heaven by Eben Alexander. Regardless of one’s view of the credibility of Near Death Experiences (NDEs) in general, or of Alexander’s in particular, one thing is clear. Before whatever it was that happened to him (and I believe his NDE was real but no not agree with his interpretation of some of what happened to him), Alexander believed the (allegedly) standard neuroscientific view that specific regions of the brain generate and possess specific states of conscious. But after his NDE, Alexander came to believe that it is the soul that possesses consciousness, not the brain, and the various mental states of the soul are in two-way causal interaction with specific regions of the brain. Here’s the point: His change in viewpoint was a change in metaphysics that did not require him to reject or alter a single neuroscientific fact. Dualism and physicalism are empirically equivalent views consistent with all and only the same scientific data. Thus, the authority of science cannot be appropriated to provide any grounds whatsoever for favoring one view over another.
I'm with J.P on the irrelevance of neuroscience to the philosophy of mind, and vice versa, but with three minor exceptions that I explain in the third article cited below.
Over at the The Philosopher's Stone, Robert Paul Wolff waxes enthusiastic over a quotation from Hobbes:
"Fear of power invisible, feigned by the mind, or imagined from tales publicly allowed, RELIGION; not allowed, SUPERSTITION."
Just think what Hobbes accomplishes in these eighteen words! The only distinction between religion and superstition is whether the tales that provoke our fear of things invisible are allowed or not allowed. It is the law, the will of the sovereign, that constitutes the difference betwixt the two. I think that single sentence may be the most powerful argument against religion faith ever written.
There, now I can face another evening of bloviating pundits.
I grant that the Hobbes quotation is a stylistically dazzling English sentence. But I find no non-question-begging argument in it, just a series of assertions:
1. The object of religious belief is an invisible power. 2. This object evokes fear. 3. The fear-evoking object of religion is imaginary, hence nonexistent. 4. Religious and superstitious belief have the same object. 5. There is no intrinsic difference between religion and supersition; the only difference is a relational one. Belief in an imaginary, fear-evoking invisible power is religion if the sovereign allows it. Otherwise it is superstition.
If this is the best the anti-religionists can do, they are in sad shape.
Meanwhile over at Oxford University, Vince Vitale maintains that God or rather God-belief is not dead. Watch the video. My old atheist friend Quentin Smith is quoted. (Note that 'old friend' does not imply that the friend is old; but Quentin is.)
Gary Gutting recently interviewed Alvin Plantinga in the pages of The New York Times and brought up the business about Bertrand Russell's celestial teapot. The following response of Gutting to Plantinga comes early on in the interview:
G.G.: You say atheism requires evidence to support it. Many atheists deny this, saying that all they need to do is point out the lack of any good evidence for theism. You compare atheism to the denial that there are an even number of stars, which obviously would need evidence. But atheists say (using an example from Bertrand Russell) that you should rather compare atheism to the denial that there’s a teapot in orbit around the sun. Why prefer your comparison to Russell’s?
Russell's comparison has long struck me as lame, and so I want to revisit and rethink this topic. What follows is an old post from August 2010 amended and substantially expanded:
Gutting, Dawkins, and Russell's Celestial Teapot
In his recent NYT Opinionator piece, On Dawkins's Atheism, Notre Dame's Gary Gutting writes, describing the "no arguments argument" of some atheists:
To say that the universe was created by a good and powerful being who cares about us is an extraordinary claim, so improbable to begin with that we surely should deny it unless there are decisive arguments for it (arguments showing that it is highly probable). Even if Dawkins’ arguments against theism are faulty, can’t he cite the inconclusiveness of even the most well-worked-out theistic arguments as grounds for denying God’s existence?
He can if he has good reason to think that, apart from specific theistic arguments, God’s existence is highly unlikely. Besides what we can prove from arguments, how probable is it that God exists? Here Dawkins refers to Bertrand Russell’s example of the orbiting teapot. We would require very strong evidence before agreeing that there was a teapot in orbit around the sun, and lacking such evidence would deny and not remain merely agnostic about such a claim. This is because there is nothing in our experience suggesting that the claim might be true; it has no significant intrinsic probability.
But suppose that several astronauts reported seeing something that looked very much like a teapot and, later, a number of reputable space scientists interpreted certain satellite data as showing the presence of a teapot-shaped object, even though other space scientists questioned this interpretation. Then it would be gratuitous to reject the hypothesis out of hand, even without decisive proof that it was true. We should just remain agnostic about it.
The claim that God exists is much closer to this second case. There are sensible people who report having had some kind of direct awareness of a divine being, and there are competent philosophers who endorse arguments for God’s existence. Therefore, an agnostic stance seems preferable to atheism.
I have a serious problem with Gutting's response to the Russell-Dawkins tag team. Gutting concedes far too much in his reply, namely, that it even makes sense to compare the claim that there is an orbiting teapot with the claim that God exists. Instead of attacking this comparison as wrongheaded from the outset, Gutting in effect concedes its aptness when he points out that, just as there could be (inconclusive) scientific evidence of a celestial teaspot, there could be (inconclusive) experiential and argumentative evidence for the existence of God. So let me try to explain why I think that the two existence claims ('God exists' and 'A celestial teapot exists') are radically different.
If someone asserts that there there is a celestial teapot orbiting the Sun, or an angry unicorn on the far side of the Moon, or that 9/11 was an 'inside job,' one will justifiably demand evidence. "It's possible, but what's your evidence for so outlandish a claim?" It is the same with God, say many atheists. The antecedent probability of God's existence, they think, is on a par with the extremely low antecedent probability of there being a celestial teapot or an irate lunar unicorn, a 'lunicorn,' if you will.
But this is to assume something that a sophisticated theist such as Thomas Aquinas would never grant, namely, that God, if he exists, is just another being among the totality of beings. For Aquinas, God is not an ens (a being) but esse ipsum subsistens (self-subsistent Being). God is not a being among beings, but Being itself. Admittedly, this is not an easy notion; but if the atheist is not willing to grapple with it, then his animadversions are just so many grapplings with a straw man.
Why can't God be just another being among beings in the way an orbiting teapot would be just another being among beings were it to exist? I hope it is clear that my point is not that while a teapot is a material object, God is not. That's true, of course, but my point cuts much deeper: if God exists, he exists in a way dfferent from the way contingent beings exist.
First of all, if God exists, then God is the metaphysical ground of the existence of every contingent being. Every such being on classical theism is continuously maintained in existence by the exercise of divine power. Thus every contingent being is radically dependent for its existence on divine activity. The same cannot be said about an orbiting teapot. If 'ontic' means pertaining to beings, and 'ontological' means pertaining to the Being of beings (the esse of entia), then 'God exists' is both ontic and ontolological. It says that there is a being possessing such-and-such divine attributes, but it also says something about the Being of what is other than God, namely, that its Being is createdness, a form of continuous ontological dependency. 'An orbiting teapot exists,' however is merely an ontic claim. It says or implies nothing about the Being of anything distinct from it. Now this difference between an ontic-ontological claim and a merely ontic one strikes me as very important. It is a difference that throws a spanner into the works of such facile comparisons as Russell's.
Second, on some accounts necessarily existent abstracta are also dependent on God. If (Fregean) propositions are divine thoughts then they are dependent on God despite their metaphysical necessity. The exist necessarily, but they have their necessity not from themselves but from another. Not so for the teapots and the unicorns.
Third, God is not only the ultimate ground of all beings, both contingent and necessary (except himself); he is also the ultimate ground of the intelligibility of all beings, of their aptness to be understood by us or anyone, their aptness to be subjects of true predications. Propositional or sentential truth is made possible by ontic truth, the intelligibility of that which is veridically represented by true propositions. But I don't think one would want to say that an angry unicon on the far side of the moon is the ultimate ground of intelligibility.
Fourth, God is the ultimate source of all value.
Fifth, God is the all-pervasive One, immanent in each thing yet transcendent of all things. This is not true of lunar unicorns and celestial teapots. If there is a lunar unicorn, then this is just one more isolated fact about the universe. But if God exists, then everything is unified by this fact: everything has the ground of its being and its intelligibility and its value snd its unity in the creative activity of this one paradigmatic purely spiritual being, a being who does not have existence like a teapot but is its existence
So, on a sophisticated conception, God cannot be just one more being among beings. The Source of being is not just another thing sourced. The ground of intelligibility is not just another intelligible item. The Thinker behind every thought is not just another thought. The locus and source of all value is not just another valuable thing. The One is not just another member of the Many.
These differences between God classically conceived and outlandish specimens of space junk is connected with the fact that one can argue from general facts about the universe to the existence of God, but not from such facts to the existence of lunar unicorns and celestial teapots. Thus there are various sorts of cosmological argument that proceed a contingentia mundi to a ground of contingent beings. But there is no similar a posteriori argument to a celestial teapot. There are also arguments to God from truth, from consciousness, from apparent design, from desire, from morality, and others besides. But as far as I know there are no similar arguments to teapots or unicorns or flying spaghetti monsters.
The very existence of these arguments shows two things.
First, since they move from very general facts (the existence of contingent beings, the existence of truth) to the existence of a source of these general facts, they show that God is not a being among beings, not something merely in addition to what is ordinarily taken to exist. Affirming and denyng the existence of God is not simply a matter of adding to or subtracting from a pre-given ontological inventory. For God does not make a merely ontic difference, but an ontological one as well. The existence of God changes the ontology. For if God exists, then the Being of non-divine entities is createdness, hence different from what it would be were there no God. Socrates is a being whose existence/nonexistence makes no difference to the system of ontological categories, and no difference to the nature of existence, property-possession, etc. God, however, is a being whose existence/nonexistence does make such a difference.
Second, these arguments give positive reason for believing in the existence of God. Are they compelling? No, but then no argument for any substantive philosophical conclusion is compelling.
People like Russell, Dawkins, and Dennett who compare God to a celestial teapot betray by so doing a failure to understand, and engage, the very sense of the classical theist's assertions. To sum up. (i) God is not a gratuitous posit in that there are many detailed arguments for the existence of God; (ii) God is not a physical being; (iii) God is not a being who simply exists alongside other beings. In all three respects, God is quite unlike a celestial teapot, a lunar uncorn, an invisible hippopotamus, and suchlike concoctions.
God is a not a being among beings, but the very Being of beings. To deny God, then, is not like denying an orbiting teapot; it is more like denying Being itself, and with it, beings. Or it is more like denying truth itself as opposed to denying that a particular proposition is true.
One who appreciates this ought to find discussions about the antecedent probability of theism as compared to teapotism faintly absurd. The question of the antecedent probability of something like Russell's teapot makes sense and has an easy answer: very low! The question of the antecedent probability of there being truths has no clear sense. The probability of a proposition is the probability of its being true. Hence, that there is truth, or that there are truths, is a presupposition of any meaningful talk of probability. It is therefore senseless to ask about the antecedent probability of there being truths, and the following answer is clearly absurd: the antecedent probabilty of there being any true propositions is extremely low.
Now my point is that the God question is like the truth question, not like the teapot question.
Unfortunately, the line I have sketched here will be rejected both by all atheists, but also by many theists, those theists who think of God as a being among beings, uniquely qualified no doubt, but no different in his Being or in the way he has properties than any other being qua being. Or, in the quasi-Heideggerian jargon employed above, these theists will say that 'God exists' is an ontic, not an ontic-ontological claim, and as such no different than 'Socrates exists' or 'Russell's celestial teapot exists.'
And the widely-bruited 'death of God?' It is an 'event' of rather more significance than the discovery that there is no celestial teapot (or Santa Claus, or . . . ) after all. As Nietzsche observed, the death of God is the death of truth.
According to Bryan Magee ("What I Believe," Philosophy 77 (2002), 407- 419), nobody knows the answers to such questions as whether we survive our bodily deaths or whether God exists. Citing Xenophanes and Kant, Magee further suggests that the answers to these questions are not only unknown but impossible for us to know. Assuming that Magee is right on both counts, what follows?
One inference one might draw from our state of irremediable ignorance about ultimates is that it provides us with 'doxastic wiggle-room' (my expression): if one cannot know one way or the other, then one is permitted either to believe or not believe that we survive and that God exists. After all, if it cannot be proven that ~p, then it is epistemically possible that p, and this epistemic possibility might be taken to allow as reasonable our believing that p. Invoking the Kantian distinction between thinking and knowing (Critique of Pure Reason, B 146 et passim) one could maintain that although we have and can have no knowledge of God and the soul, we can think them without contradiction, and without contradicting anything we know. Does not the denial of knowledge make room for faith, as Kant himself famously remarks? CPR B xxx: Ich musste also das Wissen aufheben, um zum Glauben Platz zu bekommen... "I have therefore found it necessary to deny knowledge in order to make room for faith...." (And given that contact with reality is a great good, would it not be better to venture contact with the unknowable portion of it via faith rather than have no contact with it at all by insisting that only knowable truth is admissible truth?)
This inference, however, the inference from our irremediable ignorance to the rational allowability of belief in the epistemically possible, is one that Magee resolutely refuses to draw, seeing it as a shabby evasion and an "illegitimate slide."(408) Thus he holds it to be illegitimate to move from the epistemic possibility of post-mortem survival to belief in it. As he puts it, "What I find myself wantingto drive home is not merely that we do not know but that the only honest way to live and think is in the fullest possible acknowledgment of that fact and its consequences, without ducking out into a faith of some kind, and without evasion or self-indulgence of any other sort." (417) Near the beginning of his essay, Magee cites Freud to the effect that no right to believe anything can be derived from ignorance. (408)
The relevance of the Freudian point, however, is unclear. First of all, no one would maintain that ignorance about a matter such as post-mortem survival justifies, in the sense of provides evidence for, the belief that one survives. And a person who thinks it rationally allowable to believe where we cannot know will presumably not take a deontological approach to belief in terms of epistemic rights and duties. In any case, the issue is this: Is it ever rationally permissible to believe where knowledge is unavailable? Magee answers this question in the negative. But I cannot see that he makes anythingclose to a convincing case for this answer. I will simply run through some questions/objections the cumulative force of which will be to neutralize, though perhaps not refute, Magee's view. Thus I play for a draw, not a win. I doubt that one can expect more from philosophy. This post presents just one of my questions/objections.
One problem with Magee's argument is that it seems to prove too much. If we have no knowledge about such metaphysical/religious matters as God and the soul, and so must suspend belief in them lest we violate the putative epistemic duty to believe only on sufficient evidence, then we must also suspend belief on a host of other issues in respect of which we certainly cannot claim knowledge. Surely, the very same reasons that lead Magee to say that no one knows anything about God and the soul must also lead us to say that no one knows whether or not there are cases in which justice demands capital punishment, or whether or not a just society is one which provides for redistribution of wealth, or whether or not animals have rights, etc. Indeed, we must say that no one knows what justice is or what rights are. And of course it is not merely about normative issues that we are ignorant.
Do we know what motion, or causation, or time are? Do we know what properties are, or what is is for a thing to have a property, or to exist, or to change, or to be the same thing over time? Note that these questions, unlike the God and soul questions, do not pertain to what is transcendent of experience. I see the tomato; I see that it is red; I see or think I see that it is the same tomato that I bought from the grocer an hour ago; applying a knife to it, I see or think I see that slicing it causes it to split apart.
For that matter, Does Magee know that his preferred ethics of belief is correct? How does he know that? How could he know it? Does he have sufficient evidence? If he knows it, why do philosophers better than him take a different view? Does he merely believe it? Does he believe it because his fear of being wrong trumps his desire for the truth? Does he want truth, but only on his terms? Does he want only that truth that can satisfy the criteria that he imposes? Would it not be more self-consistent for Magee to suspend belief as to his preferred ethics of belief? Why is it better to have no contact with reality than such contact via faith? Isn't it better to have a true belief that I cannot justify about a life and death matter than no belief about that matter? Does the man of faith self-indulgently evade reality, or does the philosopher of Magee's stripe self-indulgently and pridefully refuse such reality as he cannot certify by his methods?
No one knows how economies really work; if we had knowledge in this area we would not have wildly divergent paradigms of economic explanation. But this pervasive ignorance does not prevent people from holding very firm beliefs about these non-religious issues, beliefsthat translate into action in a variety of ways, both peaceful and violent. It is furthermore clear that people feel quite justified in holding, and acting upon, these beliefs that go beyond what they can claim to know. What is more, I suspect Magee would agree that people are often justified in holding such beliefs.
So if Magee is right that we ought to suspend belief about religious matters, then he must also maintain that we ought to suspend belief about the social and political matters that scarcely anyone ever suspends belief about. That is, unless he can point to a relevant difference between the religious questions and the social-political ones. But it is difficult to discern any relevant difference. In both cases we are dealing with knowledge-transcendent beliefs for which elaborate rational defenses can be constructed, and elaborate rational refutations of competing positions.
In both cases we are dealing with very abstruse and 'metaphysical' issues such as the belief in equal rights, a belief which manifestly has no empirical justification. And in both cases we are dealing with issues of great importance to our welfare and happiness. On the other hand, if Magee thinks that we are justified in holding beliefs about social and political matters, something he does of course hold, then he should also maintain that we are justified in holding beliefs about religious matters. There is no justification for a double standard. In this connection, one should read Peter van Inwagen's Quam Dilecta, in God and the Philosophers, ed. T. V. Morris (Oxford University Press, 1994), 31-60. See especially 41-46 for a penetrating discussion of the double standard.