Thursday, December 20, 2012

A Murderer in the Forest: An Exercise in Moral Philosophy

A Murderer in the Forest: An Exercise in Moral Philosophy

     When the world seems to be completely upside down, when shootings and mass murders are becoming more and more common, ethical and theological questions hit the spotlight. As someone who is a devout Christian, I find that the theological questions fascinate me the most, such as the problem of evil. However, instead of giving a direct answer to a very important theological difficulty, I wanted to focus on the presuppositions of those questions by posing certain philosophical problems that we all need to answer before such accusations are hurled at God. Using a hypothetical situation, I wish to reveal these difficulties and show that ultimately God is the best, most coherent, answer to the problem of evil as well as the proper foundation for morality.

     The hypothetical situation I wish to present is pulled directly from that familiar metaphysical question: If a tree falls in the woods and nobody is around to hear it, then does it still make a sound? This of course pulls in the topic of subjective priority and its influence on the objective world outside of us. Instead of a metaphysical question, my hypothetical question offers a moral twist. It goes as such:

If someone is murdered in the woods, and nobody was around to witness it, then has the murderer done anything wrong?

It might be argued, before I even begin to delve into this issue, that this hypothetical question is question begging.  It could be argued that ‘murder’ is a moral term presupposing ‘wrongness’, and asking whether what the murderer did was wrong is simply to state an unhelpful tautology.  However, since the question is asking whether a wrong act was committed, then one should assume that the term ‘murder’ is treated slightly differently here. Only the observable act itself should be taken into consideration, that is, one human actively killing another. This question isn’t attached to some other argument, such that it could serve as a question begging premise, but rather is to solely frame the issue. Even accepting the tautology won’t rid us of the deeper question within the hypothetical, for one could always ask, “Why is murder wrong?” And that precisely leads us to the real topic at hand.

     So how might one begin to answer this hypothetical? One might begin by seeking as much clarity as can be given. There are obviously two people involved in a murder: the murderer and the victim. Does it make sense to suggest that there are no witnesses? This inevitably points us to the issue of the relation between two or more subjective experiences. First, after the murder is complete, there is only one witness remaining: the murderer himself. Yet moments prior to the murder, the victim was alive and had opinions on the matter. So in a metaphysical sense, we know that two subjective experiences do not cancel each other out, for the truth of a subjective statement is contingent on the subject (person). But this presents us with a difficulty. To explain, consider two people, A and B, discussing the properties of an apple. Imagine if A states, “This apple tastes amazing! It’s so sweet!” and imagine that B says, “No, no, this apple is mediocre, it tastes bitter!” The difficulty is that the apple cannot be both amazing and mediocre, as well as sweet and bitter, at the same time. Rather, the apple doesn’t possess the property of ‘amazing’, ‘mediocre’, ‘sweet’, or ‘bitter’ intrinsically. Neither does the subject, the person, have these properties. What occurs is a relational, emergent, property existing ‘in-between’ the subject and the object. So the subjective experience, then, is an experience where a certain state of affairs comes about by virtue of the presence of the subject. So the truth of a subjective experience is contingent upon the subject’s preference and faculty.

    The difficulty in relation to this moral hypothetical situation becomes evident when one considers the fact that each subject, or person involved, can have their own take on the situation. What if the murderer is operating under the principle, “Killing other people is ok if they are X type of person” and the soon-to-be victim is in fact a member of X? What if the soon-to-be victim operates under the principle, “It is wrong to murder any person?” In this situation, the subjects serve as each other’s object. However, now you have two sets of relational properties between each subject, and conflicting properties at that. So who is correct here? Or can there even be a ‘correct’ here?

     One way to answer this is to suggest that morality is purely a subjective preference. It follows, then, that the statement “murder is wrong” is not objectively true, and is not true independent of a human agent. [It holds as much value as saying, “Strawberry ice cream is the best there is!”]  It follows that when the murderer is finished with his victim, it is his morality that remains in the picture. To agree with this conclusion is, I suggest, conceding the whole case. The answer to the hypothetical is simply that the murderer did nothing wrong because his subjective preference ‘won out’ over the victim. But even while the victim is alive, one would be hard-pressed to suggest that one’s morality was superior over the other. Would the criteria for the more correct morality then fall on who is more physically fit?

     Instead of conceding that morality is subjective, and despite the fact that I claimed that one would be hard pressed to maintain that either morality was superior in this case, one might wish to argue that there is a way to get around this. Perhaps, it might be argued, that it is society, with all of its intelligentsia, that serves as the true relational property between the murderer and victim.  In this case one can respond to the hypothetical in the affirmative; yes, the murder still did something wrong despite being alone in the woods. However, and this is a big ‘however’, this is to evade the central issue by presenting a slightly puffed up defense, which inevitably brings us back to the beginning. First off, this explanation is vague for it assumes, and leaves unaccounted for, why society deemed the victim’s morality superior rather than the murderer’s; it merely assumes that which is under investigation (“Why is murder wrong?”) and becomes a circular response. The Nazi society thought that wiping out the Jews was a good thing, so should we say that Nazi morality was ok ‘for them’? Further, if the difficulty between two subjective preferences remains problematic, then why think adding ‘society’, which is simply a collective of persons, changes anything? Moreover, even with the appeal to majority aside, there is also another problem: Society wasn’t present in the woods. This is a fatal blow to such a concept, for although there are many in a society, even if it can be said to own the land the murder took place in, there is still no physical presence of society during the moment of the crime. The only way to avoid this is to appeal to some sort of ‘omnipresent’ obligation. However, this is to apply qualities that don’t exist in a society. The truth is, a ‘member’ of society would have to be present in order for ‘society as a whole’ to be present. But this gets us into a deeper issue.

     Can obligation fix this problem? No, for there was already an internal conflict with the problem of society to start with. However, answering this will actually set up another defeater to a potential escape route one might wish to use. Perhaps it will be conceded that society can’t determine morality without a hint of arbitrariness. However, they can still make it in the best interest of individuals to follow it. Punishments can serve as a motivating force that leads to obedience. Maybe the murderer would be found and punished accordingly by his societies’ law enforcers. But already we have strayed into territories almost irrelevant to the hypothetical question--- “then did he do anything wrong?” What happens is that ‘wrong’ is being understood as ‘failing to adhere to obligation’. This is a totally different issue, however. For example, I could be ‘obligated’ by my peers to murder a Jewish person. However, if it is wrong to murder a Jewish person, but my society obligates me to kill Jews, then there is a direct conflict between wrongness and obligation. Several more examples are available that would defeat this ‘obligation’ notion. Although obligation plays a huge role in a sound moral theory, it isn’t sufficient enough to use as the solution to the hypothetical. Moreover, the internal problem existing in the previous issue supersedes this section. If society cannot declare what is right and wrong without being completely arbitrary, then neither will obligation help to define that which is right or wrong. Further, society isn’t always present, so if it is even possible that the murderer get away, then does talk of obligation even matter in the end?

     If society and obligation fail to answer this question, then is there another route one can take? What if humans are equipped with a moral faculty, such that we share an inherent love for one another? And to not love your neighbor is to go against some natural inclination? “The murderer was wrong to murder because he went against his human nature.” The problem with this account is that it actually stands in favor of the murderer. If consistent behavior of the human race, the norm, is considered ‘right’ and to go against ‘wrong’, then we have a huge problem! Bad behavior is actually more observable than ‘good’ behavior, as is lying, cheating, greed, etc. This type of behavior goes on all the time in the animal kingdom; perhaps ‘murder’ is just something species-specific to humans. Moreover, the worst thing one can do at this point is to appeal to some neo-Darwinian ethics of ‘survival’. There are many instances of unethical behavior yielding higher survivability for both the individual and the collective. Perhaps the murderer was fending off a competing male in order to have dominance over his tribe and his women. Farfetched? One only needs to look to nature to see how cruel it can be. Appealing to nature makes the hypothetical situation morally indifferent.

     But what if we are simply over complicating this issue? What if our subjective experiences are more aligned than not? Is it not the case that the majority, if they are in the right state of mind, value themselves enough to have sympathy for others? Aren’t concepts like, love, intelligence, and other feelings and emotions simply valuable? One might say, as I’ve often heard, “I wouldn’t kill another human being because as I reflect on the matter, I value my sense of love and wisdom, and understand that my neighbor possesses these same attributes. To kill someone else is to hate oneself, and that certainly is wrong.” Although this is filled with poeticism and appeals to common experience, it still doesn’t answer the question. Without a point of reference, this is merely a rehash of the problem of subjective preference in ethics. Obviously the murderer didn’t feel the same as the proponent of such morality. And the fact that the murderer killed off the victim doesn’t therefore mean the murderer hated himself. Simply because humans possess the ability to exhibit emotion and to practice reason says nothing about why these attributes are in fact valuable such that they become ‘facts of value’ about the world. Even if one could theoretically point to some fact about the world and state that it is intrinsically valuable, then this would say nothing about why we have an obligation to that fact or why failing to perform such duties makes a difference.

The Theme Brought to Life

    So far we’ve only been able to prove that morality is at best purely subjective. The answer to the hypothetical question thus far becomes, “No, the murderer technically didn’t do anything wrong, for his subjective preference is all that remains in relation to the victim.” This doesn’t mean that our investigation was a waste a time. Far from it! It actually revealed a theme of what is necessary for a sound morality. First, in order to say that murder is in fact wrong, there has to be something more than the subjective preferences of the two parties involved. The mere fact that I believe that the Earth is flat doesn’t therefore change the fact that it is spherical. Likewise, there needs to be an objective nature to such moral truths, such that they stand true irrespective of the opinions or subjective preferences of individuals. Second, there needs to be an obligation to perform these moral truths. Without obligation, moral objectivism becomes a mere fact about the world that one can wave at distantly. Without obligation, murdering an individual is ‘wrong’ on the same level as answering 1+1= 5; it becomes a distant, almost existentially indifferent, truth. Finally, third, there must be some sort of reparation, or punishment, for failing to perform one’s duties and obligations. It has to matter on some deep human level whether we follow that which is moral. So we can safely say that without all of the following three criteria present, there can be no sound morality:

(1)    Moral objectivism- moral truths that exist independent of human opinion.
(2)    Moral obligation- what one ought to do; makes moral truths existentially relevant.
(3)     Moral reparation- punishments for failing to perform one’s duties and obligations, emphasizes existential relevancy.

Enter God

     I argue that it is God who can satisfy these three criteria. Although I haven’t made an argument for his existence, I can at least assume that He exists in a “Given-that-He-exists” kind of way, not unlike the problem of evil espoused by atheists by assuming that God exists to further their problem with Him. There is a moral argument that can be offered, and there are ways to derive his existence from what has been discussed here, but my main objective is to show why God is necessary for a sound moral theory, not necessarily reasons why He exists.

     In Plato’s dialogue The Euthyphro Socrates asks Euthyphro whether something was pious because the gods said so, or the gods said so because it was pious. Making the dialogue relevant to God, one can say, “Is it right because God says so, or does God say so because it is right?” The former portion of the dilemma makes morality almost arbitrary as if the simple fact that this being utters a word makes something right or wrong. Although this isn’t a horrible explanation, it doesn’t serve the theistic framework properly, for it ignores God’s inner attributes. The latter portion places morality as something higher than God Himself, which destroys the concept of God being the greatest conceivable being, while making God subservient and morality a mindless brute fact. Yet we tend to ignore a third alternative, which would destroy this false dilemma. If the ‘Good’ existed as an essential property of God, was a part of His very nature, then any divine command would be a necessary reflection of God’s character. The proper answer to the dilemma would be, “It is right because God is wholly good by nature.”

     God is necessary for the existence of moral objectivism because He is a necessary being. At no point could God have ever failed to exist. Although it’s conceivable that the Good exists as an abstract object independent of a mind, it leads into more difficulties. If the Good existed outside of a mind, then the two remaining criteria would not hold, for how can a mindless force issue decrees and make us obligated to it? Moreover, moral terms seem inherently conceptual. Stating it’s a mere abstract object robs morality of its main content.

     If God created us for a specific purpose, then it seems completely coherent that we have a real obligation to fulfill our duties. Moreover, we would then be equipped with a certain moral faculty to recognize whether we have fulfilled or failed to fulfill our moral duties and obligations. There would be no sense of having obligations if we lacked some sort of inner awareness of a general right and wrong. And moral reparation seems more in line with the concept of justice, but serves as a motivating factor for human obedience. Although the first two criteria are sufficient for humans to perform acts of righteousness for its own sake, having a very real consequence for failing to adhere to the moral law only emphasizes the existential relevancy of the moral life. It has to matter that you and I are moral. Obligation without the reality of punishment turns obligation into a softball coach’s kind words despite the fact that his team lost. “Well, it didn’t really matter either way” is not something obligation should tip its hat to.

    Some of this can be derived through pure philosophical investigation, and even by using what is given in this very work. However, a lot of this is simply information that comes from revelation. Merely stating what would make morality coherent doesn’t exactly prove that it is so. It does matter what god we are talking about here. But instead of making a case for Christianity, I’ll simply leave this open. But not all is lost in a sea of revelation, for our moral experiences point to this being more of a reality than not. The fact that we feel guilt, are compelled to have a sense of compassion, and are in general ‘morally aware’ individuals points more so to a transcendent anchor than a mere ‘Darwinian survival ethic’.

The Long Awaited Answer

     So in relation to my hypothetical question, we are left with two possible answers. If we say that the murderer did in fact do something wrong, then there was a Witness the entire time who stands in absolute relation to him. If, however, we maintain that no witnesses of any kind were around, then there is no way to maintain that the murderer did anything wrong. The hypothetical question hinges on the emphasis of the subjective experience or the objectivication of wrongness; emphasize one, and the other suffers. Either one maintains that it is impossible for there to be no witness, or the murderer's subjective experience is the dominant remainder.

The Problem of Evil

     What is left for the atheist to covet is the so-called problem of evil. Although I fully concede that this is a very powerful emotional problem, intellectually it holds no weight. To ask, “How could God allow 20 children to die by an evil gunman” is to presuppose that God exists in order for the question to say anything at all. Given that God exists, it would seem that He would permit evil events only if that particular evil event would yield a greater good in the long run. The atheist would have to say that it is impossible for God to have such morally sufficient reasons. But the atheist can never be epistemically justified in sustaining such a charge. Does the atheist know all the variables in question? Can the atheist know the consequences of a present evil event 20 years into the future? The atheist is stuck in a pit of ignorance and only succeeds in complaining that he doesn’t know ‘why’ an evil event happened.

      Perhaps it’s his humanism that is complaining about why human reason cannot comprehend divine things. Perhaps it’s the atheist’s assumptions about the supremacy and ability of human cognition to grasp these things. Yet the Christian remains humble, not presuming to know precisely how a particular evil event will yield a greater good, but only that the possibility that a greater good can come about leaves him warranted in his conclusion that his faith in God is completely justified. It’s the atheist, however, that stands on a foundation not epistemically available to him in order to hurl such complaints at God in the first place. Terms like ‘necessary evil’, ‘unnecessary evil’ or even ‘evil’ in general aren’t terms available to the atheist’s worldview (naturalism or otherwise). Ironic, then, that he possesses these concepts regardless? It’s faith that God knows the future, knows the effects of every cause, real and possible, in order to stand above the world to make those judgment calls. It’s this faith that humbles; it’s this faith that comforts. 

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

On Truth, Existential Concern, and the Relationship to my Contemporaries

 *Originally entitled On Talking to Myself, this note was written on February 29th, 2012*

     As I become more inward, I become more outcasted. This thought occasionally puts a smile on my face, not unlike the smile you put on after observing yourself in a carnival mirror. What silliness to think that this should bother me in the slightest. "Woe to you, Max, for not conforming to the herd mentality and the canonicity that we have established." If the criterion of a good life is whether it would make good entertainment, like a reality show, then I must confess my failure. Yes, woe to me for failing to adopt the idiocy of my contemporaries, those who hold their noses up to smell the next best thing. "Alas, Max, you have changed." Yes, indeed! But they often fail to point out what's wrong with that.

     "No, No, Max, it's just that you are so difficult sometimes, using all that logic and inquiry." Ah, so the mystery is revealed. The outcast comes to the crowd and asks them a few simple questions and he is asked to leave and further banish himself for failing to ask questions according to their sensuous standards. But even if the outcast were to occupy his isolation with thinking of a better method of delivery, then the comical would occur: He would return to appeal to their sensuousness, but now they would reject him for the subject matter. I suppose they would banish him again, and if he were to return with a new method and subject, then he'd most likely be welcomed among their ranks, but only because he abandoned everything that offended them in the first place, and thus becomes a water drop falling into a lake to be obscured.

     "No, it's the fact that you think I'm wrong." And now we get more comical. But I wonder if it's the fact that I tell them that they are wrong that bothers them or that they are in fact wrong. With regards to the former, all I can say is that, to the best of my knowledge, I've never told anyone this bluntly. The problem with this criticism is that it assumes that I already know that they are wrong to begin with, and so take some sort of pleasure in pointing my finger at them while giving them no reasons. But usually when it gets to that point (a rare occurance) there has already been established concepts on my behalf and, most importantly, disclosure by the participant. This disclosure by the participant (if I'm lucky, in the form of a dialectic) prompts me to give a response, and at that point I declare whether what they say is true or false. With regards to the latter, that they are bothered by the fact that they are wrong, all I can do is offer them a pat on the back and remind them that it isn't easy changing beliefs. However, the rest is up to them and if they want to continue to be stubborn then their criticism of me becomes as effective as a pile of ash resisting the wind. But most of the time it seems like they are upset to have their positions examined, as if they'd rather believe in shallowness, comparable to the kiddy pool with all of its 'additions'.

     "Why do you care?" Why do I care? This assumes some very telling things. First, it assumes that he (the one who asks why I care) is genuinely interested in the answer, or that he cares enough to ask. Or perhaps he's more interested in trying to trip up his opposition in order to make him look like a fool. Would any answer satisfy this questioner's appetite? Assuming that this question is asked in earnestness, I'd have to respond by appealing to epistemic obligations: It's better to believe in the truth. Sadly, I doubt this is very convincing. Instead, I appeal to the fact that we all strive for something in this life, and it certainly helps to be able to know why you believe something, or at least how it fits into your web of total beliefs. Why? Because our beliefs often (almost always) determine our actions, and if you believe in something false then any actions you take will lead into further discord.

     "There is no one right answer on how to live life. Therefore, your evaluations are pointless and mere utterances of your subjective preference." And this is the reason why I get involved. Instead of challenging this relativistic understanding of life, I'll avoid it by asking a greater question: If there is a 'correct' way to live life, then wouldn't it make all the difference in the world? "That is preposterous! Every person is different precisely because they have various talents and hobbies!" This would indeed be a valid objection if I was suggesting that there is only one proper hobby or talent one should adopt. However, this isn't my case at all. Instead, I'm suggesting that it's possible that there is a "highest Good" for man to set out for. It certainly seems plausible that there exists a path in life, an attitude, which is the highest a man can achieve. "Yeah? Says who?" Alas, it would be difficult to answer this question with a straight face, but I may be successful with another approach. By focusing on my flaws, one is condemning some sort of behavior or attitude that I have which they have an issue with. It seems clear that they mean this criticism in a real way, that is, they are listing flaws which I have and are also implicitly declaring that something is wrong with those flaws. Take, for example, my alleged hubris; some believe that I, Max, talk down to others on my tower of loftiness. Their condemnation presupposes some sort of standard of what is permissible behavior. If they deny this presupposition, then it appears that their criticism isn't much of a criticism, but more of a burp of displeasure. With that in mind, I return to their original question, "Says who?" It seems to me that this question can be used as a trap, and I'll treat it as such by ignoring it and returning to what I originally brought up.

     The issue is: Is it possible that there is a highest Good that people ought to follow? Most people, who don't take pleasure in playing devil's advocate every time a serious topic comes up, will agree that it is possible. However, most will deny it and opt for some relativistic existentialism. Their reasons? Most go off topic, but the few that don't are easy to sum up. The first type of denial comes to us in the form of what I call 'probability overgrowth'. "There are many religions and philosophies that claim to house the "Truth", so what makes yours so special?" This objection brings to the table issues of epistemology and ontology, but ultimately fails to cast much doubt on my proposition. Why should one think that the presence of other "truths" somehow invalidates the 'Truth', if there is such a thing as that? Why think that relativism follows? Perhaps all one could conclude from this is that people can be wrong but think they are right. However, I think this objection aims to show that it's incredibly hard to sort out all of these 'truths', and because of this one ought to remain skeptical of anything that claims to be "the Truth." Alas, this hits a dead end in a cavern filling up with water. The main problem here is that claiming "truth is relative" or "You ought to remain skeptical", is itself a claim to knowledge/obligation. The former implies a contradiction and the latter suggests that skepticism is correct (ignoring that it follows that one should doubt skepticism as well), and so becomes an option, or a 'truth', amongst many. The second objection is what I call the "I-I-Me-Me" attitude. Here one suggests that we make the meaning of our lives and that meaning becomes our 'own' truth. The problem with this outlook is twofold: First, it says nothing of the fact that a highest good could exist, or how our subjective truth/purpose would interact with that highest Good. Second, it's simply ignores obvious moral parameters. With regard to the latter, how does one avoid nihilism this way? It seems silly to say, "We make our own meaning and truth to follow", but also say "As long as it isn't rape, murder, incest, theivery, greed, deception, intolerance, etc". One may believe this, but the other person, the nihilist, can reject the parameters while claiming that it's his own truth and to butt out of his life. So whoever accepts the "I-I-Me-Me" attitude must choose between allowing absurdity (nihilism) or abandoning that idea all together.

     Hopefully, in light of this, the offense of my inquiring personality will lessen. Most will see no problem with voicing (quite loudly) their concern if they see a small child playing dangerously close to a cliff's edge. However, when it comes to actually talking about that which this sympathy stems from, the ethical, the religious, then it becomes offensive. If a highest Good exists, which ought to be the telos of every person, and there are real consequences to ignoring it, then, if I know this, why wouldn't I call out to warn others of a grave mistake? I am reminded of Plato's Allegory of the Cave, and the fate of the prisoner, who escaped the life long illusions given to him by his captors, to see the real world above. When he returned, nobody believed him, and when he persisted, he was killed.

     Or perhaps thinking that you have the truth can come across as audacious and pompous. It could be the case that when one hears another say "This is the truth" that he may respond by saying "Maybe, but I'm too humble to think that I possess the truth by believing you." Of course I find this rather silly since disagreement does not entail any sort of hostility. One who claims to know something shouldn't hate or fear questions, and if he does then his 'knowledge' might turn out to be comforts supported by pillars of wish-fulfillment, at which point means that reasoning will cause offense. And one who values the truth should be willing to listen to those who claim to know, even if there may be a multitude of people claiming to know. But if one does not value the truth, then what a sad state of affairs has taken place! I find it highly depressing that some of my contemporaries need reasons why truth has special 'connotations'. These are tragic signs of the times! Saying this person is beyond hope seems accurate. What could one say to such a person in order to convince him that truth, by the very nature of the case, is the highest pursuit? Would this person be that stupid to demand an argument from one who values truth? Would this person be that shamefully ignorant as to reject any attempts at being convinced simply because he fancies himself with immediacy? Or would this person be bold enough to justify his stupidity by saying, "Truth has no special connotations since pleasure feels so good that it cannot be the lesser." I am quite convinced, however, that such a person says these things due to his sheltered lifestyle, for I'm confident that when faced with unfairness or harm that he will shout complaints as high as Mt. Washington.

     Despite what I feel is completely self evident to even the most simple among us, I will answer that annoying devil's advocate, that stubborn brick of an attitude, in order to show the supreme laziness that rests ever so comfortably behind the curtain. So there are few among us (and may it remain few) that think truth is relative because it has no special connotation over immediacy (pleasures). To such a person I say, "speak". And when they attempt to explain their position, I will nod my head with satisfaction, for they have just bathed themselves with comedy, akin to the general who rides on his white horse in front of his army while delivering a courageous and motivating speech full of valor, and then tells them to charge, but in the direction furthest away from the enemy. O, you foolish men, don't you realize that you're appealing to truth in order to denounce it? Do you not, when you are confronted with two piles of pleasures, appeal to truth when you contemplate which pile has given you the greatest pleasure? Or would you be sand in the wind and choose the pile that gives you the least amount of pleasure simply because the salesman was a good 'pleasure-appealing' speaker? No, you bag of dumb, you would trust the truth to give you pleasure. However, if you allow truth this honor, then why do you say that it has no special connotation? Laziness!

     But nobody seems to want to listen to me, and this to me is the most comical. Yes, I do indeed outcast myself as I become more inner; and yes, I have become hated among my peers. But one thing I'm not ashamed of is allowing myself to be open with others in order that I may save a few. I hear so many people complain on Facebook and elsewhere, but instead of thinking deeply about the source of their unhappiness, they'd rather adopt silly postmodern bandage solutions, which they pray will prolongue their inevitable anguish. Some are so close to the edge that help is doubtful. But I pray that God gives me the faith to care, and moreover, the strength to help these people by provoking them to see the truth and, if they're willing, to take the first steps on the right path. Call me 'self-righteous', but if you were to see what I have seen, then you'd understand why I care about them.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Necessity Concluded

     This blog is the final segment of a 3 part series. In the blog An Argument from Contingency and Necessity, I began formulating an argument for God’s existence based on Leibniz’s argument. In that blog I essentially argued that if something exists then ‘nothing’ could not have ever existed. Because of this fact, I argued, something necessary must exist. However, in the blog Necessity Revisited, I criticized some of the decisions I took with regard to my original formulation of the argument.  After some back and forth, I offered the revised argument at the end with some descriptions preceding it. This blog will present this revised argument and go into more detail with each of its premises. Since the argument is long, possessing a total of 3 conclusions within it (2 minor, 1 final), I’ll break it up into three parts. 


1.) If something exists, then it is impossible for nothing to have ever existed.
2.) If it is impossible for nothing to have ever existed, then there exists something that is necessary in its existence.
3.) Something exists.
4.) Consequently, something is necessary in its existence.

     Premise (1) shouldn’t be too controversial so long as terms are properly defined. By ‘nothing’ I mean the complete negation of being, no properties. With this in mind, I base this premise on the metaphysical axiom, Ex nihilo nihil fit, or “Out of nothing, nothing comes.” Those who object to this axiom either inevitably argue in favor of it by presenting nothing as ‘something’ with properties, or reject it simply because of some epistemological barrier (e.g. naturalistic scientism). Both of these rejections fail to understand that ‘nothing’ and ‘something’ are contradictories as is demonstrated in the following sentence: Nothing can cause something. The property ‘causes’ contradicts the subject ‘nothing’. This is akin to saying, “The married bachelor got a divorce”; it doesn’t mean anything. Since there is no way to object to this first premise without contradicting yourself in the process, I’ll simply move on.

     Premise (2) expresses the implications of ex nihilo nihil fit. The subsequent in the conditional doesn’t seem to suffer from any powerful defeaters. One could contest by saying that necessity doesn’t follow since a contingent ‘something’ is just as likely to exist. However, necessity means that it exists in all possible worlds and could not have failed to exist. Contingent things, however, can fail to exist since their existence is dependent on factors ‘outside’ itself. Claiming that a contingent thing ‘just exists’ is the same as saying that there exists a necessarily contingent thing, which is a contradiction in terms.  Contingency points beyond itself and so a state of nonbeing ‘prior’ to this makes no sense. This will be defended later in the argument as well.

     I anticipate that only solipsists would offer doubt concerning premise (3). However, even solipsists acknowledge that something exists, namely themselves. This is all that premise (3) requires, that something, whether people, mountains, water, a single atom, exists. Since it’s arguably self-evident that something exists, then the conclusion found in premise (4) logically follows.  This conclusion isn’t too controversial, for even naturalists typically agree that something necessary exists. What follows will test this ‘necessary’ something against the physical world.


5.) If the universe is necessary, then its properties could not have been otherwise.
6.) Potentiality presupposes that something's properties could have been otherwise.
7.) The universe has potentiality.
8.) Therefore, the universe is contingent.

     Since it was established that something necessary exists, it’s now the goal of the argument to test the identity of this necessary thing against the physical world. Premise (5) uses ‘universe’ very broadly to mean all (the totality) of space, time, matter, and energy. The subsequent merely presents what necessity entails. Necessity, again, is a property which makes the thing in question exist in all possible worlds; it could not have failed to exist.  I argue, however, that this freezes the essential properties of a thing. If a particular property could have been otherwise, then there is a possible world in which the entire ‘thing’ itself is different, and hence not necessary. This will be developed in the next premise.

     Premise (6) might be where this entire argument receives the most traffic. Since in many circles potentiality and possibility are seen as the same thing, I have to define how I’m using this term. Potentiality expresses an inner movement determined by some previous state of affairs that works for one end. A perfect example of this is a sunflower seed. Of course, through intense genetic manipulation, this sunflower seed is a ‘possible’ tulip, but it certainly lacks the potentiality to do this. The sunflower seed has only one end goal, that of a sunflower. Even if the proper external conditions are not met to make this happen, the sunflower seed still has this inner movement, this essence, within it. I argue, however, that a sunflower seed is not the same as a sunflower, because a seed lacks properties that would make it a flower. Because of this, I argue, potentiality is a sign of contingency. However, what if the sunflower seed exists necessarily such that it couldn’t fail to exist and its properties couldn’t have been otherwise? Would it make sense to say that this seed was a potential sunflower? I don’t think so, for then there is a possible world in which the sunflower seed fails to exist (i.e. seeds fall out of existence when they become a flower; there is no ‘seed’ left). Perhaps one might object and say that I’m using a simple example and stretching it to fit my conclusion. But consider another example, which doesn’t include life: Imagine a pond that has existed in a frozen state from eternity. The property ‘ice’ presupposes the property ‘is below 0 degrees’. Now if this pond existed in this state necessarily, then would it make sense to suggest that this ice is potentially water? No, otherwise it wouldn’t be necessarily frozen. Since potentiality seems to contradict necessity, and something is either contingent or necessary, then whatever is potential is contingent.

     As was mentioned above, the word ‘universe’ is defined very broadly to include the totality of space, time, matter, and energy. Now the only way to object to premise (7) is to offer reasons why the universe is necessary, rather than contingent. But what would a necessary universe look like? I appeal to the ‘sunflower seed’ and ‘frozen pond’ examples listed above. Similar to those examples, it would mean that the universe’s properties couldn’t have been otherwise. Consequently, then, it would forbid the universe having the property of potentiality. But we know, from various scenarios, that the universe had a prior state in which the properties we witness currently didn’t exist. According to Big Bang cosmology, even space, time, and matter had a definite starting point. One could argue that, given naturalism, this pre-Big Bang state, by definition, possessed properties that the post-bang state didn’t have. Therefore, one can conclude that the universe had potentiality; it ‘became’ something else by virtue of adding essential properties. One can even observe atoms and quarks and conclude the same thing. Since matter is composed of atoms, and atoms could be otherwise (see the periodic table), and the universe is the totality of matter, then one can conclude that the universe is contingent as premise (8) states. But if the universe is contingent, then we know it isn’t the identity of this ‘necessary thing’.


9.) This necessarily-existing thing either decided to create the universe or it didn't decide to create the universe.
10.) If this necessarily-existing thing didn't decide to create the universe then the universe would never exist.
11.) Only minds can decide.
12.) The universe exists.
13.) Therefore, a mind decided to create the universe.

     Premise (9) will most likely be charged with begging the question. One might say, “You would only believe in this premise if you already believed in God.” However, I offered a tautology in the form of an absolute dichotomy. The only way premise (9) can be false is if one could present a third alternative. But as it stands, all of reality can fit into these two categories, albeit most of reality will fit in the ‘non decide’ category. Since there are both alternatives listed in this premise then one cannot say I’ve begged the question. When someone says “true” to premise (9), he is committed to the truth of the dichotomy, not one individual half of the disjunction.

     Premise (10) mirrors the claim that the universe, its properties, cannot come from nothing.  This means that this necessary ‘thing’ stands in some high causal relationship with the universe.  If the universe is the totality of space, time, matter, and energy, then that which creates these things cannot possess any of them. These physical properties entail each other such that if one were taken out the rest would follow. So if this always-existent ‘thing’ didn’t decide to create the universe, then the casual connection between itself and the nonexistent universe remains highly questionable. Again, this necessary absolute cannot have potentiality, an inner movement, to bring about the existence of the universe without already possessing the properties in question. This premise, then, seems more plausibly true than its negation.

     But then how did this always-existent ‘thing’ create the universe? Premise (11) answers this. The fact that only minds can decide isn’t controversial; what is controversial, however, is (a) how this mind created the universe, and (b) how this mind did so without having potentiality. With regard to (a), consider our own minds. The imagination is a powerful force in forming concepts and taking properties from our ‘knowledge pool’ and putting them together. Innovation would be nonexistent without the imagination. But we know from experience that if we ‘conceptualize’ a red ball in our minds, and will that concept to form outside of us in the physical world, it won’t do so. No matter how earnestly we conceptualize, our minds simply have no control over the forces of nature. Why? For one, we are under the jurisdiction of the physical world. There are statutes in place that govern nature, and those under the law cannot change the law. However, with a mind that is not physical in any way, there would be no such jurisdiction, for what ‘barrier’ could exist that would prevent complete volition? The atheist seems to be stuck with saying that since we cannot will things into physical existence that therefore this mind cannot either. Again, inevitably their explanation will come to this concept of physical jurisdiction, but this wouldn’t apply to a mind not under such jurisdiction. Perhaps the atheist might argue that one needs to have a concept of something before creativity can be achieved.  So how can such a mind have any concepts of the physical world such that it can create it? Where did this mind acquire the knowledge of these properties if they never existed? I don’t think it’s hard, however, for this being, this necessary absolute, to have perfect knowledge of ‘being’ and then with imagination negate and manipulate that which it knows to form what we would call ‘physical’ entities.

     With regard to (b), the question of how this mind can ‘will’ anything without having the potentiality to do so might appear problematic. I clearly stated, and it’s important for this argument to work, that ‘potentiality’ is a sign of contingency. But surely ‘thinking’ and ‘willing’ entail potentiality, an inner movement, right?  I think this question is wrongheaded for two reasons. First, it might presuppose a ‘temporal’, linear, flow of thinking that we are accustomed to. Our thoughts certainly ‘take time’ to think, and could, if one wished, be measured in seconds. However, does this mean that non-temporal thinking is impossible? No. Consider my eternally frozen pond example again. From eternity’s past the ice and below 0 degree temperature existed parallel to each other, one not coming before or after the other. However, even in eternity one has logical priority over the other. In this case, although existing temporally the same, the below 0 degree temperature exists logically prior to the ice, for the temperature causes the ice and not ice the temperature. Likewise, this mind’s thoughts would all occur at the same time, but they would have logical order. But how does this provide an answer to the ‘potentiality’ problem? If you remember, potentiality was more narrowly defined than possibility; it entails an inner movement for a specific end goal. A sunflower seed has the potentiality to become a sunflower, not a potato. I hesitate to limit potentiality to a ‘single’ end goal, but the more  likely end goals that exist, the less ‘potential’ the thing is. With a ‘free’ mind, however, there are almost an infinite amount of possible routes it can take. This mind didn’t have to create anything even if it has the ‘potential’ to create. This is why I prefer the term ‘possible’ with regard to this mind, since the amount of possible ends are so numerous. To say this mind had the ‘potential’ to create the universe suggests to me that a ‘universe essence’ existed along with this mind, such that its coming into existence was inevitable. One may wish to argue that if this mind created something, that the introduction of accidental or relational properties would mean that this mind ‘could have been otherwise’. However, premise (6) never precluded something gaining accidental properties, for if these accidental properties were to fall, the thing in question would still be necessary while possessing its essential properties. With this understood, the problem of ‘potentiality’ seems to dissolve.

     I don’t imagine that anyone would object to premise (12). The totality of space, time, matter, and energy, exists. Since only solipsists may wish to contest this, I will simply ignore any robust argument against solipsism. All I could do is argue that their epistemology is flawed and, hence, their ontology as well. However one wishes to define ‘exists’ in this premise wouldn’t affect the larger point being made. From this it follows that a mind has indeed created the universe and happens to be the necessary absolute this argument was trying to discover the whole time. The only problem with the conclusion might be that it doesn’t say ‘God’. However, God is implied for the following reason: If the properties of this mind were spelled out then one would get monotheism. Simply put, the creator of space, time, matter, and energy, must transcend those properties, otherwise it didn’t create them. This would give us a spaceless, timeless, immaterial mind.  Furthermore, this mind would be extremely powerful in order to will into existence the known world (and holding all ‘being’ in its power), and incredibly intelligent for possessing the conceptual blueprints, as well as the direct and pure knowledge of those concepts. With the creation of the physical world, this being would experience every moment, every object, immediately and purely, such that it can be said to be ‘everywhere’ in the conscious sense. And since we aren’t justified by multiplying the causes (as well as for ontological reasons), we can only conclude a single mind. Therefore, this argument establishes monotheism.

    This argument is indeed valid and, as I’ve argued, sound. One could say, as some atheists do in debates, that as a Christian I have to prove that ‘my’ God exists, not just a generic god. Surely, this argument doesn’t demonstrate that this mind is good; one might as well conclude the malevolence of this being. However, if I were to argue for this being’s goodness then this argument would be way too long. Another argument would have to be offered for that. But I like to see the conclusion of this argument as a ‘breather’ for a greater case for a religious-specific god, my God. It would make no sense to argue for God’s goodness if the atheist will merely reject the metaphysical possibility of this being’s main properties. With this argument in place, the atheist would have to stick to the topic of goodness, instead of accusing me of arbitrarily concocting God’s properties. Such a cumulative structure keeps the discussion orderly. 

     The additional beauty of this argument is that it also directly refutes naturalism, which is the atheist’s common (positive) worldview for their rejection of God. The physical, natural, world is not all there is, and so the naturalist is left to the drawing board. This argument also lends support for substance dualism in philosophy of mind. No longer can naturalists reject the notion of ‘spirit’ without first refuting this argument. So at the end of the day I find this argument powerful. Whether this convinces the atheist is more a topic for existential/psychological philosophy. No logical conclusion can serve as an existential shift of mood. If only it were that easy!

Friday, September 14, 2012

On Science and Philosophy

                                         “Philosophy? What can you do with that?”

     When most people think of philosophy they think of toga-wearing ancient Greeks sitting near marble statues or pillars pondering deep things. Today, philosophy is seen as a novelty, a fun thing to study, but with nothing practical to offer society. Discovery is science’s job, technology is the engineer’s job, and history and English cover everything else. With the growth of science and postmodernism, philosophy is grouped somewhere between art and religion, both increasingly seen as useless. But this misconception has yielded several problems for young thinkers who unknowingly buy into this ‘goods-determine-the-value-of-disciplines’ mentality. It’s my aim to clarify what philosophy is, its relationship and hierarchy over science, and its inevitability in human life.

     To start this off, I want to draw together some of the themes that arose from a small debate I had with an atheist blogger recently. His blog was critical of another debate between an atheist and a Christian. His main criticism of the debate was that both parties were appealing to philosophy to answer the question, “Does God exist?” His main point was that philosophy is only good at discussing concepts, ‘what if’ ideas, but has no jurisdiction to declare what is and isn’t real. He was implicitly arguing that science deals with real existence and philosophy with conceptual existence. At the end of the day he claims that debates between philosophers are nothing more than an act of philosophical ‘masturbation’, a ‘who-is-smarter’ game of words.
     But as was evident from this dialogue, this particular science enthusiast, although highly critical of philosophy, was presenting philosophical arguments to defend his way of seeing the world. This is an expected thing with such people, even with prominent figures like Richard Dawkins and Stephen Hawking.  The results of such ignorance are bad arguments, horrifically circular arguments. If you don’t understand philosophy, you are doomed to make the mistakes it has so wisely warned us about. In fact, atheists who adopt this epistemology, this scientism, are some of the most close-minded and angry individuals I come across, despite their painting themselves as “defenders of free speech and free thought”.  I’ll explain why.

     Consider the atheist’s claim that in order for something to be ‘real’, or count as knowledge, it must be demonstrated by the scientific method. This maxim certainly has a wide range of effectiveness. For example, the statement, stars converted light elements into heavy elements, is either true or false. The scientific method (in simple terms: observe the world, reveal a problem, form a hypothesis, experiment, match data to hypothesis, conclude the validity of the hypothesis) will deliver the scientists to the truth (high certainty). However, consider another proposition: “Murder is wrong.” The scientist can observe various acts of humans harming others, could explain the psychology behind it, yet would not observe anything in the data that would yield ‘wrongness’. Wrongness is a description of some human action, a statement about how things really are. Even the statement, which you would think follows from this epistemology, “Murder is subjective”, is also not something accessible by science, for it is possible that despite various opinions, there is still one standard. Science, then, must remain agnostic with regard to moral claims.

     Consider also a proposition that science bases its entire foundation off of, “The physical world is real.” The scientist might think this an easy and silly challenge to meet. So the scientist goes out to the world, finds a rock, performs the scientific method, and concludes the following: “The rock that is before me weighs 3.6 pounds, is subjected to gravity, is brittle, can absorb heat, and is rough to the touch. Therefore, with all things being equal, the physical world exists.” The problem, however, is that his argument is completely circular; it presupposes that which it was attempting to prove, that the physical world is real. The scientist might at this point get furious over such a ridiculous challenge. “Of course the physical world exists!”, he says, “What are we manipulating, what are we seeing if not something real? We create buildings, we make technology, and we make medicine! Illusions do not yield such things, you foolish philosopher!” The problem is that no matter how much one appeals to practicality, it does not yield truth, let alone the truth of the aforementioned proposition. To falsify a proposition making a truth claim, one only needs to point to one example in which it fails to hold. With regard to the atheist’s (naturalist’s) maxim, that something is real if and only if it can be demonstrated via the scientific method, it turns out to be a false statement because there exists a proposition that is held true without science. Reality, therefore, seems to appear a lot bigger than science which, consequently, proves that there is a reality outside the scope of science. Enter philosophy.

     Philosophy is much more than ‘thinking deeply’ (whatever that truly means). It, like science, makes observations about the world, but not just the physical, replicable, world. Philosophy can ask, “What is it for something to be wrong; what sort of conditions must be in place for such a word to represent an aspect of reality?” To answer the question, philosophy makes use of a discipline it defined: logic. The branch of philosophy, logic, sets up parameters for the inquirer to use in order to eliminate various contradictory answers. For example, they might start with thinking of ‘wrong’ as that which violates moral law. They then test this proposition, this premise, against defeaters: “If men determine the moral law, then what happens when two or more disagree on what is wrong? Surely, murder cannot be wrong and not wrong at the same time. But how, then, do we determine whose moral law is correct? Only he who has a perfect understanding of goodness can be the proper author and giver of the moral law. Therefore, we report our findings as such: (1) If a person exemplifying perfect moral knowledge declares a moral statement true, then the moral statement expressed is true; (2) The morally perfect person says that murder is wrong; (3) Therefore, murder is wrong.” Obviously this wouldn’t give us an answer, but it sets up the parameters which could lead us to declare whether the conclusion is true or false. The two premises would have to be debated and shown reasonably true before the conclusion can be true. For example, one might object by saying that it’s not possible that there be a perfectly moral man (objection to premise 1), or that even if there was it remains questionable how his ‘word’ simply determines reality, how he acquired this knowledge in the first place, or why he would be obligated to follow his own standard (objecting to premise 2). These would be arguments to counter the conclusion, thus showing that ‘murder is wrong’ is a false statement. But not all is lost, for one may wish to argue for the original conclusion further. Suppose one believes that there is a transcendent Creator of all that is; surely this being would possess knowledge of moral truth, given that it provides moral truth ‘being’. Therefore, such a being would possess moral goodness in its nature necessarily, thus evading the previous objections.  Once these premises are tested, and a worldview formed, the original conclusion can be adopted as true and consistent with reality. This is just a small and shallow account of ‘philosophizing’.

   The problem with science is that the ‘goods’ it produces are often seen as a sign of its supremacy.  Some feel that because science gives us laptops, cell phones, missiles, tanks, medicine, etc, therefore it is the beacon of truth and knowledge. Philosophy seems to produce ‘behind-the-scenes’ goods, almost like an anonymous donor. Even if one were to reveal the limitations of science, such that one acknowledges that it has jurisdiction only in certain (although arguably large) aspects of reality, it might not be convincing for one who is content playing video games their entire life. This leads me to my final point.

     The most practical thing philosophy gives humanity comes from ethics and existentialism. What is good, how do I become a virtuous individual, and what am I living for? It’s a great shame in America that most people base their entire philosophy of life on simple shallow slogans like, “If it doesn’t hurt anyone then it’s ok”, or, “Do whatever makes you happy.” The problem is that these slogans hardly cover any aspects of reality and make people morally desensitized. Egotism is often cultivated by such shallow philosophies of life, because individuals ‘expect’ that they will get ‘theirs’. Everything becomes for some end to increase their happiness, even to the point that giving money to charities is to make them feel good and justified. It doesn’t take much thought, however, to see that these slogans just don’t cut it. There are too many defeaters for them. But this also brings into view the proper mood for individuals to adopt when developing a philosophy of life: that truth should stand as the compass, not pleasure. Once pleasure is adopted as one’s compass, then any sort of statement can be believed. A person with a philosophical mind knows what they believe, why they believe it, and can formulate a worldview to guide them through the world and its various experiences.  An adept philosopher will have each belief backed up to some degree by other propositions so that an intricate web of beliefs is formed into a worldview.

     The expression, “Everyone is a philosopher” is only a half-truth. Yes, everyone ‘does’ things for reasons that, when expressed, can be some sort of philosophy. However, not everyone is a good philosopher. Scientists are probably the perfect examples of this. It’s one thing to offer an explanation on how stars formed, what makes up matter, how ecosystems work, but an entirely different thing to tell people (based on these facts) that no supernatural beings exist, that morality is ‘this’ way, that governments should be like ‘this’, that people should strive for ‘this’. Often times these statements hold little weight philosophically and are based on a shallow naturalistic epistemology.  Richard Dawkins puts forth very little science in his book The God Delusion, but rather passes his very wide but shallow philosophy off as science. The result?  An angry, close-minded, ‘science-or-myth’ mentality that predominates most of the New Atheism movement.

    In short, without an understanding of philosophical concepts, one is doomed to develop shallow worldviews which inevitably fail. One who criticizes philosophy is more likely to place walls around themselves which serve to cover up that which they disagree with. Not knowing why you believe something, and the presuppositions behind them, will usually result in pleasure serving as the compass, instead of truth. One who appreciates truth also appreciates the challenges it offers to the way they see things, and thus are more open. Viewing disagreeing viewpoints in a noncontroversial manner allows the individual to be more tolerant of others. In an age where disagreement is seen as intolerance, we need individuals who can think and communicate their ideas more than ever before.