Monday, September 30, 2013

Plantinga, Satan, and the Problem of Evil

From guest blogger, Joshua. 

In Alvin Plantinga’s “Satan” Alvin says, “The more free creatures resemble God the more valuable they are and the more valuable are the worlds in which they exist” (Plantinga, 139). Alvin Plantinga believes it is better to have free creatures in the world that have the ability to do bad things then to have limited choices. I think Plantinga’s assumption of more free creatures being a good thing is wrong. The underlying assumptions Plantinga is making by saying more freedom is better is that many choices are better then one.

First off Plantinga makes the assumption a world with free creatures is better then one with limited creatures. Plantinga makes this assumption because he needs to explain the necessity of evil in the world. Plantinga uses free will to account for the two different types of evil in the world. The first kind of evil is an egregious evil. An example of an egregious evil would be someone torturing another person for fun. This action is not justified which is what makes it an egregious evil. Plantinga’s assumption though justifies this kind of action. The reason the person is being tortured is because having a world with free creatures is a good thing. For Plantinga, the good of having choices outweighs any of the evil that could be done because of free will.  The 2nd evil Plantinga has to account for is a natural evil. A natural evil is one where no human has a choice in it. For example a natural evil would be a tornado or volcano erupting that kills many people. No human was the cause of these things happening, yet it seems these occurrences are simply evil. Plantinga says the cause of all these natural evils is the Devil and his cohorts. Plantinga then uses his free will assumption to justify the existence of Satan. Plantinga says “God therefore created a world in which there are creatures with […] a great deal of power, including the power to work against God and the freedom to turn their backs against God” (Plantinga, 139). For the world to be a full of free will there needs to be a creature with the power and freedom of Satan. Therefore these evils of tornados and volcano’s are simply Satan acting against God’s will. The assumption Plantinga makes about free will is his way of explaining away the evils of the world, and getting God off the hook as it were for the evil actions going on around humans.

Plantinga’s assumption of people being more free relies on the underlying assumption that many choices are better than one. At first glance this underlying assumptions seems correct to most people. When I go to eat dinner, if I only have pizza as a choice it doesn't seem as good as having the choice between pizza, spaghetti, or hamburgers. Well this seems to be a slam-dunk case; it seems better to have even one more choice. Throwing nachos in with the other three selections seems better then having just the three selections. If this is true, you could keep expounding until you had 100 choices for food, lets look at this example. If you had 100 choices you would have to look at all the different options and evaluate which one you would want to choose. Most people would see all these choices as to overwhelming and wouldn't know which one to choose. They would feel pressured to try and make the “right” decision in this case. I say, “right” because there doesn't seem to be an inherently right decision here. With 100 of different options to weigh it might seem impossible to know which one to choose and if the decision you are making is the best one. It would seem having the a more limited array of options would make things easier on most people, and have them not feel as pressured by all the different decisions one could make. In some cases then people would say fewer options are better, and that having the fullest or more freedom isn’t necessarily a better thing in every case. If this is true, then Plantinga’s assumption about more freedom being better is no longer valid.

On the Necessity of Evil

From guest blogger, Isaac.

In class we have been discussing the problem of evil and how if God is a perfectly good and all powerful being, how could he let evil exist. I think this problem can be solved by showing that evil necessarily must exist if a perfectly good being exists. My argument starts with these premises.

1.      Good exists
2.      God is perfectly good and is not anything other than good
3.      Anything that exists necessarily must have something from which it can be distinguished
4.      Evil is anything that is not: good and/or something lacking moral value
5.      There is at least one thing that exists that would be considered good in some way and that thing is not God

If (1) and (3) are true, then there is necessarily something from which good can be distinguished. If (4) is true, then evil is what we distinguish from good and it also necessarily exists. Now, if we take (2) to be true, then there is necessarily something from which God can be distinguished from. God in this sense is distinguishable from anything that is not perfectly good or more precisely, anything that contains some evil or has no moral value. In order for God to create something other than himself, he must then necessarily create something that contains at least some evil in it or something that has no moral value. If God has created a world in which (5) is true, then there is necessarily at least one thing that exists that has some evil in it. So, if God is a morally perfect, perfectly good being, He must necessarily create evil in the world.

This is a pretty "good" argument but there are many problems that are left untouched. The first is that this argument doesn't tackle the problem of evil on different magnitudes. Even if one is convinced that this argument is correct, it doesn't explain problems of why God allows there to be genocide, murder, torture, etc. One could also say that we could have all been created to be one notch under the goodness of God and if God is omnipotent he could still of made us this way.

There are also ways in which people could argue against this argument. The first being that (1) could be rejected. This however seems to give up morals in general. The argument doesn't depend on any one conception of the good; any conception will do. Another argument could be that God is not something outside of our existence and he is fact all the good that exists in the world. This criticism would depend on rejecting (5) and would bring up a problem of God's omnipotence because it seems the criticism is suggesting something other than god is creating all the evil, plus god cannot create something other than himself.

Can't wait to hear what you guys think. If you could help me with expanding my argument to cover other problems with evil and also some better criticisms of the argument I would really appreciate it.

Necessary Evil and the Problem of Evil

From guest blogger, Andrea.

For my first paper, I want to write about a response to the problem of evil. So the problem of evil says that if there is a god that is omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent, why then is there evil in the world. Wouldn't a perfectly omnibenevolent god not want evil and suffering in the world?

A possible theist response is one that explains the presence of evil. Suffering is a necessary evil that results from evil events happening around us and to us. Evil can be anything “bad” and can be measured on a large scale. Why does god allow us to suffer? He uses it as a learning experience for his creations. Suffering is a stress in our lives and we need stress to survive. For example, on a biological level, we need stress and resistance for our hearts to keep beating. Muscles need stress and resistance so they do not experience atrophy or deterioration. Are these necessary struggles “exercises” to keep us strong mentally and/or emotionally or to keep our faith strong? For believers, this may be the case, to keep faith strong, but what about the nonbelievers? Why do nonbelievers experience suffering and stresses? Does god just want the best for his creations whether they believe in him/her or not? Keeping the presence of suffering and evil to create suffering is necessary to “build” the person; if not in faith then….character?

Our society has looked well on the individual who is always positive and happy all the time, but more adoration goes to the hero. The individual that has seen adversity/sufferings, experienced them, and has overcome them.

I think this is just a positive spin on suffering and presence of evil for the theist. I saw similarities in the ideas of Arthur Schopenhauer. In his writings on the idea of happiness, he explains that individuals do not like to be happy. The idea of complete, perfect happiness scares us because once we reach that level, there is nothing after that can make us that happy. So in order to make sure we haven’t reached that level yet, we create stresses in our life, like we do in biology, to keep us going. The stresses create a distance from happiness and makes us appreciate good or happiness that much more. He plays on Darwin’s idea of survival of the fittest. Only the strongest will be able to overcome the stresses in front of us.

What did you guys think of the theist response to the problem of evil I provided? My paper wants to focus on the validity of the explanation the theist has provided, so if you have criticisms for the argument, or some kind of connection with the response and the survival idea, please let me know. 

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Ultimate Responsibility and the Free Will Defense to the Problem of Evil

From guest blogger, Zachariah.

Given that there are several types of “free-will” defenses to the problem of evil, each taking on subtle nuances to include or explain different aspects of the environment (e.g. Plantinga's attribution of seemingly gratuitous evils to Satan), they all share the idea that evil is the consequence of free will granted by God to (some of) his creations, and that free will is good enough in itself to justify any evil.  It seems to me that this defense only works when assuming  incompatibilist (libertarian) notions of free will.

Incompatibilists, in general, hold the following to be a necessary condition of free will:
The Condition of Ultimate Responsibility (UR): “to be ultimately responsible for an action, an agent must be responsible for anything that is a sufficient reason, cause, or motive for the action's occurring,” and an agent that has true free will must be ultimately responsible for her actions (Kane, Robert. "Ultimate Responsibility." A Contemporary Introduction to Free Will. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2005)
The interesting and relevant connections between UR and the free will defense surface when discussing reasons, causes and motives in context of a defense of the Anselmian God.  

For our purposes, let's make a few assumptions:
A1: UR is true
A2:  Having control of the all of the sufficient reasons, causes, and motives for an agent's action (usually thought of as the laws of physics, events in the past, an agent's genetic makeup, and the agent's own initial/early desires and character) is impossible for any agent that exists and is not God
A3: God has the power to control these things (by virtue of his omnipotence and omniscience)
A4: Determinism is true
If we then postulate a version of free will that is OK with these assumptions and maintains that free will is true, it seems like it will necessarily be the case that any attempt to use this view of free will will be vulnerable to the “it could be better” objection.  If God controls all sufficient reasons, causes, and motives for an agent's action's occurring, or really even just one of those (the essential (e.g. dispositional or genetic) makeup of His creation), it follows He could always have set the circumstances for every agent's every action to be good, or minimally unpleasant (if unpleasantness/evil is necessary for good to exist); He could have reined in the magnitude of evils that exist AND preserved free will at the same time.  And of course, if these heinous acts are not necessary for free will to exist, which would be the case as postulated, then they cannot be justified by free will's existence; in short, we could have had free will without heinous acts.

So, what is the employer of the free will defense to do? What are the alternatives? She could challenge A2, arguing that we can, in fact, control all the sufficient reasons, causes, and motives for our actions. But, this seems prima facie false, and would require a ton of argumentation to support this claim, not to mention a complete rethinking of other positions in metaphysics, philosophy of religion, and epistemology, among others. The burden of proof for this objection is on the proponent of this objection, and will most likely turn out  impossible to prove.

She could challenge A3, arguing that God cannot control all the things that will affect the future actions of an agent.  But, in a deterministic system, this seems to conflict with the Anselmian conception of God as omnipotent and omniscient.

She could object to A1, but it seems as though this objection will undermine the free will defense itself for the same reason given above; if an agent does not have to be ultimately responsible for her actions to have free will, then God could make the sufficient reasons, causes, or motives for her actions in such a way that she causes no (or little) evil while also preserving her free will. If God created every human being with an essentially good nature, and this nature did not affect free will (as would be the case with compatibilist, soft determinist theories), it does not seem like the heinous evils follow necessarily from free will (and therefore can't be justified by the existence of free will).

Taking an indeterminist approach (rejecting A4) seems to be the only way to make the free will defense sensible. Indeterminism allows for true randomness, might more easily lend itself to explaining God's ability or inability to control future events, and posits that there are some actions that don't necessarily have sufficient reasons or motives, and that, on account of the random aspects of the view, even if characters and motives could be defined for a person, they would merely “incline without necessitating” the relevant agent to act in a certain way.

What do you all think?  Can the free will defense make sense within a soft determinist framework, or should those using the free will defense brush up on their libertarianism?

Some Lessons From An Invisible Monster with Purple Skin!

From guest blogger, Aviva.

Imagine a world where most philosophers rely on the following premise.

          P1: The invisible monster has purple skin.

To those who have no prior understanding of the purple monster, this premise may seem weak. To what monster does this premise apply? Where is this monster. Has it always been invisible? If it has always been invisible, how could any person conclude that it has skin at all, let alone purple skin?
In response, some philosophers are quick to point out that if a monster does exist, it is only logical that its skin is purple. Other philosophers point to the essays written by those before them about the monster, and promise that they begin their premise with the understanding that their audience has read their predecessors, who vehemently insisted on  and proved the purple skin of this invisible monster. When one examines further, one finds that those philosophers pointed to ancient books, which tell of unique and special characters who speak directly with the invisible monster, which promises them that its skin is in fact purple. When one searches to find the author of these books wherein the purple monster reveals the color of its skin, one finds that it is agreed upon, by those who cite the books as the source of their philosophy, that the monster told the story to a special man or a few special men, who we trust to have transcribed accurately the monster’s account.

This seems absurd to a visitor from our world, and yet it seems that most people in this other world readily adhere to the view of the monster having purple skin. Most of these believers recognize that many others believe the monster to have no skin, or green skin, or translucent skin, and this in no way discredits their personal belief in purple skin.

What I aim to argue here is not the existence of G-d, or the arbitrary nature of institutionalized religion, but rather the practice of basic assumptions about G-d. What are the grounds for our understanding of G-d’s omnipotence, or omnibenevolence, or of G-d’s volition or desires? It seems that where in virtually every other case philosophers believe in empiricism and logical deduction, in instances of G-d, this pragmatism is entirely abandoned. It baffles how premises such as “G-d is a benevolent being” or responses such as those to the stone paradox or to the problem of evil are justified as epistemological conclusions. Epistemology is meant to distinguish fact from opinion; how then, is a conclusion about G-d’s nature possibly deemed factual, if its very nature defies epistemological investigation?
I do not believe it is possible to even logically assume any trait of G-d’s essence (let alone G-d’s existence). When you read the word “chair,” you may see in your mind a wood chair, and the next reader a plastic, and the reader after that a Lay-Z-Boy, and yet each reader is able to prove that what he or she sees in his or her mind’s eye is, in fact, a chair, and that he or she is correct in the created image. When you read the word “G-d,” you may imagine an old white man with a staff, while the reader after may see a crucifix, and the next a purple cloud, ad infitum, and not a single reader could be proved empirically to be wrong.

I propose then, that the philosophical community acknowledge than when one uses the term “G-d,” it is only a term, empty of actual definition, and rather used to name a multitude of concepts or entities, none of which with factual, provable origin. Philosophical discussions of G-d ought to remove themselves so fully from the societal conception of a religious or spiritual G-d so as to create a new concept. I believe that if philosophers continue to discuss G-d as a philosophical concept, it is necessary that we distinguish between the theological and the philosophical existences of G-d. While the theological G-d can exist in infinite understandings, the philosophical G-d ought to exist on its own, as a discrete being. In doing so, we can begin discussions of G-d with premises that do not infringe on the fundamental indescribable aspect of a spiritual or religious G-d. I understand this as a radical proposal, but I see no place for scripture or spirituality in epistemology, thus a distinction must be made. 

On the Proper Analysis of God in the Face of Free Will

From guest blogger, Talia.  

In my paper, I'm trying to pinpoint the definitions of omnipotence, omniscience, and omnibenevolence under which individuals can still maintain their free will. Basically, my argument is that God's omnipotence is limited by his immateriality and by logical consistency, his omniscience is limited by his lack of foreknowledge, and his omnibenevolence remains intact by attributing evils to free agents. These limitations, as I'm understanding them, aren't necessarily restrictions on his moral perfection, since they are all dependent on logical impossibilities for the Abrahamic conception of God. For example, God cannot do the logically impossible, as they are not things that are capable of being done. Similarly, God cannot know everything because what will occur in the future isn't a knowable topic. And finally, God cannot intervene in order to prevent evils from occurring because that would infringe upon our free will. I know these are all things we've discussed in class, so I'm hoping for suggestions as to how I can introduce a new thought or criticism into the mix. My paper is still in the new stages of development, so any suggestions as to how I can improve my thoughts would be helpful!

Saturday, September 21, 2013

A Critique of Absolutism

From guest blogger, William C. 

It would seem that after many inconclusive debates in Phi 501 the Absolutist position is unshaken; we cannot refute via logical arguments a position which intrinsically abhors logic.  The absolutist may conveniently reply to any perceived discrepancy that all is still well and good and that God will somehow sort out these problems which our puny human minds cannot comprehend.

Now, if one really accepts this idea then the floor is all of a sudden opening beneath us.  What can we really know at all?  Can I use logic sometimes and not others?  Are all contradictions simultaneously true?  Why does it “seem” like there are any consistent rules at all?  Is there any hope for a sound epistemology?  Shall we just give up any hope of having coherent thoughts at all…

Not so fast!

A little thought will show that the debates were not so inconclusive after all.  If a statement is contradictory or illogical it is simply “wrong” by any normal meaning of the word.  Thus, we can safely conclude that Absolutism is “wrong” with any reasonable interpretation of what this word means in the English language.  Done deal, there is no more debate to be had on this point.

The question is, why is there a debate on this issue at all? 

First, it seems that people tend to believe that discussing philosophy gives one the liberty to stretch the meaning of any word to any extent, often only for the brief joy of seeming profound.  While this exercise can sometimes be thought provoking, it really becomes meaningless and frustrating when some of the most essential concepts such as “right” and “wrong” or “exist” and “not exist” tend to lose their usual meaning.  Thus, when an absolutist says, for instance, that, “This banana simultaneously exist and does not exist”, all I can say is that following the usual interpretation of these words this statement is patently false.  If an absolutist insist that it is true I can only conclude that:
1.      The absolutist means something different by ‘exist’
2.      The absolutist means something different by ‘true’
3.      The absolutist is mentally insane.
Being generous, I would assume that it is one of the first two options.  However, while the notions of ‘existence’ and ‘truth’ have many debatable features, the absolutist usage seems to stray far outside of what any normal English speaker would consider to be appropriate.  Thus, the question I pose to the absolutist is:  What is meant by “truth” to begin with?  The common man on the street has an intuitive answer to this question which the absolutist seems to be at odds with.  Moreover, scientist have a very sophisticated answer to this question which the absolutist are diametrically opposed to.  Even if the absolutist were able to answer this question in a way which still allowed for some common sense statements to be true, some ‘obviously wrong’ statements to be false, and God’s omnipotence to somehow fall in the category of ‘true’, it seems very unlikely that such a definition would mesh very well with either the dominant scientific or popular meanings of the word.  Thus, I can only conclude that the absolutist do not speak English properly.

Secondly, another driving force of this debate is the notion that somehow the burden of proof is on the non-absolutist.  Indeed, many people seem to jump to the defense of Absolutism by saying, “Oh yeah, but an absolutist would just say that (insert something non-sensical).”  This is not an argument for anything; the fact that a madman can “say” he is being pursued by aliens is not a good reason to believe that this is true.  Moreover, we repeatedly see the claim that we “have” to play the absolutist game, or we “have” to concede some key point to the Absolutist for the sake of discussion.  We really don’t have to do anything of the sort.

Again, we’ve established that this philosophy is patently wrong.  (Excuse me for not tacking on “within the normal sense of the English language”.)  However, it seems that the tendency is to strain very hard to give this viewpoint some credence while we have been given no good reason to do so.  By way of comparison, the dominant scientific worldview has been subjected to centuries of grueling, painstaking tests.  This worldview and the notion of ‘truth’ that comes with it has consistently passed test after test with no reliable documentation of any discrepancies.  (Here I’m referring to the worldview which says that the universe is described precisely by mathematics and is essentially ‘knowable’.  Specific theories will, of course, change with time.)  However, despite the enormous success of the scientific notion of ‘truth’, it somehow seems that people take this to be on equal footing with not-so-well established notions.  Thus, in all fairness, it seems that in order to even merit consideration for a serious debate, the absolutist should first precisely define what they mean by ‘true’ at the same level of rigor as has been done by modern science, and then offer some convincing evidence as to why their notion would be more useful than the definition that essentially everyone else uses.  Only then does the burden begin to switch over to the rationalist. 

I conclude with an analogy.  If I were I psychiatrist working in a mental hospital, I would naturally want to treat my patients and free them from their delusions.  I would try my best with different means to convince the patient that the aliens were not actually pursuing him.  However, the mentally ill are often skilled at concocting ever more elaborate conspiracy theories to support their delusions and, in the end, there might simply be no way to cure the patient.  Now, having completely and utterly failed, should I now myself conclude that their must be aliens pursuing this poor man?  Am I myself now bound to go insane as well?  It seems that the discussion of absolutism can easily head in this direction.

On God's Omnibenevolence

From guest blogger, Danny W.

I sort of wind-about in this post. My area of concentration, however, is confined to God’s omnibenevolence and questions about defining evil. I begin by setting the scene with one formulation of the Problem of Evil. I detail a possible counterargument to Argument I, and follow with Argument II (an objection to the theist’s hypothetical recasting of premise 4 below). The last few paragraphs are where I’m trying to focus my future paper. I think my aims actually depart from trying to grant the orthodox theist escape from the Problem of Evil; instead, my goal is to seriously question the attribution of classical omnibenevolence to God. I don’t get that far into this, however, and comments or criticisms would be much appreciated! My tangential aim was simply to put more blog-worthy material on the table for discussion…

I want to start by laying out the deductive argument which strongly concludes that it is logically impossible for God (specifically, the Anselmian-conceived god) to exist while evil simultaneously exists. The following valid argument states such a conclusion about God and evil coexisting (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy):

Argument I:

  1. If God exists, then God is omnipotent, omniscient, and morally perfect.
  2. If God is omnipotent, then God has the power to eliminate all evil.
  3. If God is omniscient, then God knows when evil exists.
  4. If God is morally perfect, then God has the desire to eliminate all evil.
  5. Evil exists.
  6. 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.
  7. Therefore, God doesn't exist.

There are various counterarguments that can be made against the abovementioned argument. Most theists take special care to preserve premises 1-3; thus, the theist will likely attempt to argue against the framing of premise 4 or 5 and thus refute premises 6 and 7—the conclusion that God doesn’t exist. Several camps of theists will pay special attention to premise 4, and argue that God’s moral perfection does not sufficiently entail Him willing that evil does not occur. The theist who takes this approach might cast God as a utilitarian of sorts; God permits necessary evil, which causally yields a net increase of moral goodness (despite the instantiated evil). Thus, premise 4 would turn into something along the lines of the following:

Premise 4*= If God is morally perfect, then God has the desire to maximize moral goodness.

Under the newly-rendered premise 4*, the deductive argument becomes invalid; the existence of evil does not pose a logical contradiction (i.e., an omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent God could also exist). Again, God’s omnibenevolence (in this case) is manifested as the will to maximize moral goodness—not the will to eliminate all evil.

Most atheists could argue that if we accept Premise 4* as true, then it would need to logically coexist with our other Godly attributes, such as omnipotence. The truth of Premise 4*, however, seems to logically contradict the attribute of omnipotence, as demonstrated in the following argument:

Argument II:

1. If God is morally perfect, then God has the desire to maximize moral goodness (premise 4*). 
2. God is morally perfect by nature.
3. God has the desire to maximize moral goodness.
4. If maximal moral goodness (or perfect moral goodness) exists—in a logical reality—only good things exist (i.e., no morally undesirable things occur).
5. Morally undesirable things (such as evil) do exist.
6. Maximal moral goodness does not exist.
7. If God is omnipotent, then for every desire X that God has, He brings about the existence of X.
8. God is not omnipotent.

If the theist should take such a route—namely, altering premise 4 as demonstrated—they will be back to square one (as long as my argument is sound).

There are countless objections surrounding the Problem of Evil Argument that focus on the framing of premise 4. Counter-objections soon rise in response to said objections (as demonstrated) due in large part to the murky parameters which characterize omnibenevolence. Isolating a robust definition of omnibenevolence seems to be difficult at best; the lack of a cogent definition put forward by the theist permits the atheist ample imaginative space to characterize it on some type of moral spectrum. Omnibenevolence, seemingly pegged to moral perfection, is equated with desiring no evil or desiring only good (negative and positive definitions, respectively).

Basically, the theist’s dilemma is that it seems logically impossible for omnibenevolence to be defined in any meaningful way, unless an agent only wills for morally good occurrences (i.e., is morally perfect). Is there any other way we can define moral perfection/omni-benevolence? Perhaps it is false that omnibenevolence necessarily entails moral perfection. If that is the case, how would we define omnibenevolence in more accurate terms? What, besides morality, could benevolence be contained by?

However, it seems like most theists make the analytic proposition that omnibenevolence does necessarily entail moral perfection. Can we make analytic proclamations about some unseen, unobserved, difficult to conceive-of predicate such as “omnibenevolence”? If we are going to make an analytic proposition about omnibenevolence, it seems that we cannot actually extend beyond some discussion of ultimate goodness in a moral sense. That being said, it seems that the dilemmas that exist in ethics (e.g., moral realism versus anti-realism) might be significant in determining our ability to characterize God in moral terms (i.e., as necessarily being omnibenevolent).  

In a general sense, to what degree are good, bad, and morality-in-general anthropocentric constructs as opposed to metaphysical reality? Some might argue that we will quickly digress from the main point—God’s omnibenevolence. However, given the fact that omnibenevolence seems to rest so heavily on our conception of morality, understanding the tacit connections between omnibenevolence and morality seems a worthy goal.

From a dialectical perspective on the original Problem of Evil argument, it seems that premise 5—the idea of evil—might also be open to questioning (as we saw in class). Our inability to hone in on a common definition is a red flag that our definition of evil requires careful consideration. Is evil something metaphysically real and perhaps distinct from something that we can plainly observe from our natural surroundings. We observe it in events and actions in our lives, but what exactly are we observing? My main goal for my paper are to explore some epistemological concerns with evil and how we as humans come to know it—if we can actually know it, as opposed to just observing something very undesirable to us. Perhaps our understanding of good and evil is a product of social conditioning, a binary that has been etched out and cultivated in Western thought since the origins of Abrahamic religions. What if evil can be described naturally, as say a choice based on the agent’s degree of “empathy” at a neurological level. For example, could we describe Hitler’s evil as a reflection of neural circuitry (brought about by Hitler’s genetic makeup and experiences) which left him with strong desires for power, delusions about what is just, and zero empathy for the people he slaughtered. Under such mental framework, Hitler then went out and did the unthinkable; what’s wrong with that conception of evil? Or, evil could be some non-natural entity or force superimposed on natural events and we “observe” it simply by intuition. If so, what is the epistemological characterization of that connection between our intuitions and some non-natural realm of events? That is where I’m headed. I don’t have arguments for anything yet, but this seems to be getting at what evil actually is. Now, let’s discuss!

P.S.--I thought that this article provides a fairly leveled discussion about evil as a natural versus non-natural entity; however, it is not philosophically-rigorous in its form or intent.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

An atheist’s problems with the term “God”

From guest blogger, Andrew J. 

This is a topic I have thought about before and was reminded of during our discussions of “God”.  As an atheist activist, someone who has actively tried to convince Christians and Muslims to become atheists, I have put some thought into different strategies to use to accomplish this.  One of these strategies involves how we refer to gods.  In the three main forms of Abrahamic mythology, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, there is supposed to be one god.  This god is called “God” with a capital G.  Zeus from Greek mythology is also a god, but is called a “god” with a small g.  Since Greek mythology is polytheistic, this is makes some sense.  Though Zeus may be the leader of the gods, he is one of many gods.  But in Abrahamic mythology, there is not this god and that god, but one god, who is very revered (and jealous), so he gets a big G to show that he’s the only one.  I think the resulting term “God” is a hindrance to atheist activism and causes imprecise thought about religion and Abrahamic mythology.

Here are some of the effects I think result from the use of the term “God”:
1.  It muddies things up.  It lends itself to becoming a very vague term which each person can shape into what they prefer in a supernatural being.  You have people saying things like “God is the universal spirit”, “I don’t believe in organized religion, but I believe in God”, “I’m not a Jew, Christian, or Muslim, but I believe in God”, “I believe that we are all God”, or “God is nature” etc.  Thus the term “God” is used in ways that have nothing to do with the god in Jewish mythology or the god in Christian mythology, or the god in Muslim mythology.  This is frustrating and annoying. 
2.  It creates a sense of mystique and unapproachability about the idea.  Instead of referring to a specific god with a specific name and specific characteristics to be considered, it creates the feeling that it is some mysterious thing, behind the title “God”, which we cannot comprehend.  The capital G is supposed to show reverence and respect and put the god it labels above us and unanswerable to us.  Thus the term “God” seems non-conducive to a skeptical, analytical approach to the idea, which I also find to be an annoying effect.
My suggestion: Replace the term “God” with something more specific.

If we are going to talk about the god in Jewish mythology, we should be clear and use his name “Yahweh”, the equivalent of “Zeus”, rather than the foggy, mysterious title “God”.  This will help people to remember that we are talking about a specific being with specific properties, who did specific things, who wants specific things, who will do specific things etc.  We should make it clear that if someone believes in a god that does not have these properties, then they do not believe in the god of Jewish mythology; they do not believe in Yahweh, they believe in some other god.

This helps for atheist activism because it moves from “God” a vague, high above you, concept you cannot latch onto, to Yahweh, a specific being with such and such properties as described in book X, and which seems much more evaluable.  Once you use the term Yahweh, or “the god described in Jewish mythology” or “the god described in the Torah”, you can actually nail some properties to him and ask whether they make sense and whether there is any reason to think that this god, with properties x, y, and z, actually exists.

Another point, on differentiating between gods of the different Abrahamic mythologies:  The god described in Jewish mythology is different from the god described in Christian mythology, and both are different from the god described in Muslim mythology.  Each of these religions describes a god that has some different properties from the gods described in the other religions.  They should therefore not be called the same god.  I think the best way to refer to these gods is “the god described in X mythology” or “the god described in book X”.  Once again, this nails the concept down, which is good for atheist activists, because it allows us to criticize the specifics in the scriptures which describe whichever god (and there is a lot to criticize in the Torah, New Testament, and Quran).  But it is also useful for clarity in general in religious and philosophical discussion.

I’d be interested in comments about whether people think the term “God” has the effects I suggested, or whatever else you’d like to comment about.

As an aside, readers of this blog might find the following links of interest:

“The thing god doesn’t know”:
“The thing god can’t do”:
“10 reasons why the bible is repulsive”:

Sunday, September 15, 2013

How to undermine Absolutism—A Focus on Methodology and Potential Pitfalls

From Guest Blogger, Danny W.

Before I tried to come up with a refutation to the core absolutist tenet (i.e., God can do anything), I needed to understand why our class had such a hard time wrestling with a counterargument. It’s tricky to refute absolutism, but why? The nature of the absolutist “argument” reaches the conclusion that God can do everything. A necessary outcropping of such a conclusion leads the absolutist to contend that God is not constrained by logical possibility; God can bring about conditions that yield a logical contradiction (i.e., the square-circle). Despite the attempts to pose logical arguments against the absolutist, many philosophers fail to say anything that damages the absolutist’s view about God’s absolute omnipotence. The following general exchange is common: (1) the anti-absolutist lays out a deductive argument which identifies a logical contradiction in the metaphysical reality hypothesized by the existence of the absolutely omnipotent God; (2) the absolutist concedes that such logical contradictions can indeed exist if brought about by an absolutely powerful God; (3) the absolutist argument seems to remain completely intact and the anti-absolutist seems to be out of rational ammunition.

Originally, I felt an inkling of despair when it seemed that the absolutist had effectively torpedoed the logical techniques that philosophers cling to as the only viable methodology for argumentation. The absolutist conception of God’s omnipotence—namely, that he can bring about every (il)logically conceivable state of affairs—creates a metaphysical space which houses both logical proceedings and those which contradict logic (e.g., three is greater than seven). We’re not used to having this “illogical realm” have any significant metaphysical value—and in everyday life it seems that it obviously does not (e.g., we have always experienced the fact that 3 marbles is necessarily less than 7 marbles)—however, it is undeniably “in existence” for the absolutist insofar as God has the luxury of bringing about logical contradictions. Fine, it reeks of ivory-towerism, but you have to play the absolutists game and concede (for the time being) that God has the power to do the logically impossible. For this very reason, we cannot attempt to sway the absolutist by highlighting logical contradictions after we grant the assumption that God can do what is logically possible and impossible; the absolutist’s theorized metaphysical space permits all of that!

Once we accept this fact, we can start to think about the best method for refuting the absolutist claim. Have no fear, logical reasoning hasn’t been invalidated in any way; the critic of absolutism simply needs to resist the conditioned tendency to strive for a logical inconsistency in the absolutist’s metaphysical account—such tactics, as we have seen, will not win over the absolutist. 

The optimal refutation—which holds traction despite the absolutist’s willingness to permit logical inconsistencies—seems to first grant the assumption that God can do anything (the logical and illogical) and then follows such an assumption with an argument that doesn’t have a logical contradiction. It would seem that the best maneuver to counter the absolutist claim is to show why a God operating “only within logic” is supremely powerful, and specifically why such a God is more powerful than the God that can do “anything”—having the power to do both logical and illogical actions.

And this is exactly the route that Louis Groarke takes in his paper, Reconsidering Absolute Omnipotence. Groarke’s thesis is identical to that put forth by Aquinas—among other philosophers. The thesis goes: if God is omnipotent (i.e., possesses most possible power), He must possess logical omnipotence rather than absolute omnipotence. Groarke makes his argument with three subsidiary arguments:

Argument I. “Power means being able to act”
Argument II. “Power is a function of will”
Argument III. “God’s will cannot be separated from his nature”

Argument I suggests that action—what I assume means the ability or potential to act—is a necessary condition for an agent possessing power. Consequently, Groarke seems to suggest that degree of action (or the potential to act) is directly correlated to amount of power. Thus, Groarke is making the implicit argument that one should not measure power in terms of bare possibility; we should peg power to action only. From the absolutist conception of God, He can act and not act. Thus, the absolutist God exhibits inaction and lacks power whenever He does not act.

I might not be capturing the nuanced shades of Groarke’s argument I, but it seems like the absolutist would easily dismiss the assumption that power is necessarily defined by action. I can imagine the absolutist would hold to their repetitive mantra that God’s power is absolute, and that having the potential to both act and not act (and even execute both options simultaneously) is the ultimate expression of power. Additionally, I would assume that the logically constrained God, who can act or not act (just not simultaneously) still has moments of inaction when He is not demonstrating power. There does not seem to be any discrepancy between the possibility of acting and the respective power exercised by our logical and absolute God. The absolutist appears to remain unscathed.

Arguments II and III focus on God’s will necessarily being constrained only by his nature—if there was an external constraint on God’s will, He would not be omnipotent. So, Groarke now characterizes power as a function of will—namely, an agent is more powerful if they act in perfect accordance with their own will. For example, if God wants to act logically but fails to act in such a manner (e.g., he makes squircles), then he is not being powerful in any sense of Groarke’s new definition. Thus, the argument is that the absolutely omnipotent God is defying his natural will—specifically, He is not always acting according to reason and logical parameters—and consequently lacks power.

This argument seems to be more convincing at first blush, but serious limitations exist for arguments II and III. Groarke’s argument heavily relies on the assumption that God’s will is constrained only by something within God’s nature; it also relies on the assumption that rationality is a necessary attribute of God’s nature which controls will. However, is God necessarily a rational being, as Groarke claims? Under the context of the Anselmian (Perfect Being) theology, is it fair to say that God must be rational? On one hand, it would seem that we could allow our evaluation of what is perfect to necessarily include rationality. Is rational art better than irrational art, which seems to lack a coherent message? Is a rational person more desirable than an irrational person? I’m not sure, how do we make evaluative claims about beings based purely on embodied or exercised rationality. Things seem to get muddy quickly; isn’t our ability to judge what is better or best based on some social context or anthropocentric justification? It seems like attributing rationality to God’s nature or essence is a derivative of our observations about our reality—which seems to be logically constructed. But, must God be rational to be perfect? Thus, securing the assumption that God is necessarily logical (or at least that His will is contained by logic) is the major area of the argument that needs to be fleshed out before any serious consideration can be given to Groarke’s attempt at refuting absolutism.

My aim with this post is to provide a dialectic which focuses on methods for refuting the claim that God is absolutely omnipotent. It is clear that finding logical contradictions in the metaphysical reality permitted by the absolutist seems a useless direction to travel. I like where Groarke is headed; he turns his attention towards connections between God’s nature, will, actions, and how these variables connect to an agent’s power. He wrestles with definitions and relationships (e.g., the relationship between God’s will and nature). I’m not sure if these tactics fall prey to the absolutist’s acceptance of logical contradictions; that might be a good spot to start the discussion. If any of this interests you, it might help to read over the latter portion of Groarke’s paper (link posted by Jesse Steinberg on blog) and see if I adequately captured the intentions of each argument. What are some other limitations to Groarke’s argument that need to be fleshed out or fortified? Can we work with elements of Groarke’s argument, and is he using a better method for refuting absolute divine omnipotence? Feel free to join the discussion; getting multiple perspectives is always a great way to better digest these complex ideas!

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

The Absolutist Conception of Omnipotence

According to absolutists like Descartes (and more recently Nick Trakakis), an omnipotent being is able to do anything, including things that are logically impossible. As we discussed in class, most philosophers take this view to be false and dismiss it as implausible.  However, it's difficult to find an argument that is dialectically persuasive.  What I mean by this is that the sorts of criticisms of absolutism that are typically provided rely on certain basic assumptions about the status of logic and argumentation, but these assumptions are not shared by the absolutist.  So there's no way to "get your foot in the door," as it were.  I wonder what readers of this blog think about absolutism and how, if at all, one might go about undermining it.

For an interesting take on this debate, you might find this article by Louis Groarke interesting.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

The Stone Paradox

We discussed a piece by Thomas Morris on the nature of omnipotence today in class.  In it, he considers the Stone Paradox.  Here's how he put the paradox:
The question is this:  If God is omnipotent, then can he create a stone which he cannot lift (cause to rise)?  If the answer is 'no' then , the critic reasons, there is something God cannot do, namely, create the sort of stone in question, and so he is not, after all, omnipotent.  If the answer is 'yes', he can create such a stone, then again there is a task he cannot perform, namely, lift the stone once created, and therefore again he is not omnipotent. Regardless of which answer is given, the conclusion follows that God is not omnipotent (p. 408).  
The upshot of the paradox is not simply that God must fail to be omnipotent, but rather it's that omnipotence isn't a coherent property--no being could be omnipotent.

Morris dismissed the paradox as a "silly little brain-teaser." Morris thought that the theist can consistently say that God isn't able to create such a stone and that God is omnipotent. He thought that the description of the action of creating a stone too heavy for God to lift is incoherent and so we do not specify any activity that is beyond God's power when we say that "God can't create a stone too heavy for Him to lift." Morris also suggested that the theist can consistently claim that God could create a stone too heavy for Him to lift while still maintaining that God is omnipotent. Morris claims that "...we can block the inference to his (God's) lacking omnipotence by explaining that the subsequent inability to lift cannot be thought of as reflecting the lack of any power it is possible to have" (p. 410).

I'm going to focus on his second suggestion.  It certainly appears that one has described a possible power when one says "the power to lift that really heavy stone, S, that God just created." But Morris contended that this is a mistake. His argument is subtle. Following Kenny, Morris argued that if God were to create a stone that had the property of being unliftable (even by God), then this "power to lift that stone" doesn't actually pick out or specify any coherent power that a being could have. This is because, the stone is unliftable and it's not possible to have the power to lift something that cannot be lifted. As Morris put it, "Thus, lacking a power to lift S is not lacking a possible power, a power possible to have, and so no such lack would detract from God's being omnipotent."

What do you make of Morris's argument here?  Do you find it persuasive?  How might one object to this line of reasoning?