Monday, August 27, 2012

An Argument from Contingency and Necessity

 **UPDATE: I've since revised this argument. See my new blog post, Necessity Revisited.**

      If you've ever observed lay discussions concerning the existence of God, you'll typically hear the theist state that God created the universe. A typical retort by the atheist is to reply, "Well, who created God?" Upon hearing this objection the theist usually says, "God is eternal, He isn't created." However, the conversation usually takes a sour turn when the atheist says, "The universe is eternal, therefore God is not necessary as an explanation." The problem with such a debate is that, more often than not, both are declaring that their object (God vs the Universe) is a brute fact that 'just exists'. Until this idea of necessity and contingency is drawn out, then both will be merely assuming necessity. This work is an attempt to give an account for why theists claim that God is the necessary absolute, rather than the universe.

  One such argument a theist can make is the following I created:

1.) If something exists, then it is impossible for nothing to have existed.
2.) Something exists.
3.) If something has properties that could have been otherwise, then that thing could have failed to exist.
4.) Matter has properties that could have been otherwise.
5.) The universe is the totality of matter.
6.) Consequentially, the universe could have failed to exist and it is impossible for nothing to have existed.
7.) Something that has always existed can either decide to create the universe or it doesn't decide to create the universe.
8.) If that always-existent something doesn't decide to create the universe, then the universe will never be created.
9.) Only minds can decide to create things.
10.) The universe exists.
11.) Therefore, a mind has created the universe.

     Premise (1) is true no matter how the problem is configured. It only requires that something exists, whatever that may be. And by 'nothing' here I mean 'nonbeing' or that which lacks any properties at all; complete negation of being. Some in the science community have tried to define nothing as the quantum vacuum. However, the quantum vacuum is 'something' that 'does' stuff; therefore premise (1) holds, since there is no third option. Moreover, appealing to the 'multiverse' theory doesn't get the objector a third option, for even if there was a world with no matter, there is still a world with matter. Since premise (1) is dealing with reality as a whole, multiverse or universe, then the disjunction holds. And since nothing (nonbeing) cannot have the potentiality to bring something into existence, then any objection to premise (1) seems doomed from the start.

    Premise (2) is self-evident. I at least exist, therefore something exists.

     The third premise seems dubious at first since it might be argued that the phrase "has properties that could have been otherwise" doesn't make something contingent. One could say that a ball can exist in various sizes, colors, textures, locations, weight, etc; and this only means that it can be manipulated, not that it is contingent. I argue, however, that this is precisely why something would be contingent. To say that it is impossible for a rock to lose its properties is to say that its properties are necessary, and couldn't have been otherwise.But if the properties of a 'thing' could have been otherwise, then it follows that the thing itself could have been otherwise, and possibly not exist. [I've since rejected this premise- see the revised version found in my blog post, Necessity Revisited]

     Premise (4) is confirmed both in science and from logic. I define matter here very loosely, since I know some would reject that the particles that make up matter would be considered matter. Fair enough. However, I understand matter in this argument to mean that which is governed by the laws of nature, whether atom, proton, quark, etc. If I defined matter to simply mean 'atom' then premise (4) is easily shown true since the Standard Model confirms that atoms didn't always exist. But since I'm defining it more broadly, to include fundamental particles, then I have a little more work to do before this premise is shown reasonably true. So the question really becomes whether quarks (fundamental particles) can be necessary things. First, let's imagine what they would be like if they were eternal, or necessary, in this way. They would have the property of giving birth to the universe as we know it, not sooner, not later. But this seems absurd upon closer examination. Let's call this property, this potentiality, S. This property S, the potentiality for creation (Big Bang), could only exist as a potentiality forever. What property would make what S entails active? Ice, for example, has the potentiality to become water, but if this ice existed for an infinite amount of time prior, or even worse, necessarily, then it would never become water unless some condition changed. Why? A necessarily existing piece of ice, and all the conditions surrounding that state, would remained 'frozen' (pardon the pun), fixed, for the property 'below 0 degrees' would not change. If it's even possible that the 'ice' conditions change, then this ice wasn't a necessary thing to begin with. I relate this to property S and go even further to suggest that quarks (fundamental particles) either have or lack this potentiality. If they have this potentiality, and this pre-(Big) Bang state is necessary, then this potential state remains 'forever potential'; but I argue that a forever-potential thing isn't potential at all (that is the same as saying that one can win a race that is infinitely extended). A necessary seed has no potentiality to become a flower, neither does a necessarily existing 'pre-(Big) Bang" state have the potentiality to become a universe. Matter, then, is a poor candidate for necessity.

     A naturalist, or materialist, is committed to premise (5). The theist, too, would agree with this premise, but the main difference between the materialist and theist (dualist) is that the materialist defines reality as the universe, whereas the theist (dualist) defines the universe as a part of reality, not the entirety. It would indeed be odd for the materialist to agree that there is a nonphysical reality that is necessarily the cause of the universe. They might suggest that the laws of nature are nonphysical, necessary, entities that gave rise to the physical universe. However, laws don't stand in causal relations to anything, nor can they create things. And it would be mightily convenient to suggest that these laws described that which would later be, almost as if it 'knew' the universe was coming.

     Premise (6) follows from premises 1-5 and presents the reader with the problem of necessity, this odd predicament. The totality of matter and energy, the universe, could have failed to exist; however, 'something' exists regardless. This always-existing something, by definition, is necessary. We know that the universe isn't self explanatory and so cannot be the cause of itself. The following premises (7-11) explain this strange conjunction.

    It may be argued that premise (7) begs the question in favor of God, and assumes that which it has yet to demonstrate. However, 'decide' doesn't beg the question because I've presented its negation to form an absolute dichotomy. All of reality can be grouped into things that decide or things that do not decide. The dichotomy 'red' and 'not red' describes all of reality, even if 99.9% of reality would fit in the non-red category. Likewise, whatever created the universe either decided to create the universe or it didn't. Since tautologies cannot be false, then premise (7) is necessarily true.

     If, as premise (8) suggests, this always-existent (necessary) thing did not decide to create the universe, then we wouldn't have a universe. This has support from premise (3), for if a thing exists necessarily then it's properties have been always-existent. The property of potentiality, if existent from infinity's past, is nothing more than an incoherent illusion. Nor could this potentiality be encoded with a detonator clock, such that the property essentially says "At time t, explode into the universe." However, unless one wants to believe that the universe can beg the question, that is, assume that which doesn't yet exist, then this objection is futile.

     Premise (9) presents us with the only possible way to overcome this 'necessity/potentiality' difficulty. A mind is the only thing that can satisfy the 'decide' category. Without appealing to a transcendent mind at this point, consider an example from everyday experience. Science, as you know, can predict with high accuracy, almost with certainty, that a ball rolling down a hill will hit a wall erected at the bottom. However, scientists cannot say that a man running down a hill will hit the wall with any certainty at all. "It all depends", says the scientist, "whether the man decides to run into the wall, because it's possible that he [decides] to avoid it." Now it's obvious that by this point 'mind' cannot mean a physical brain (since dualists reject that mind equals brain). Therefore, this mind has existed eternally 'before' the universe (in a logical sense). Unlike matter, which cannot overcome the problem of eternal potentiality, a mind can exist in a state eternally while deciding to create something that is contingent. Of course, this requires that the mind have a will that is free, for determination presupposes that which governs actions, and that which is governed 'to be' is contingent. The only way to object to premise (9), besides presupposing materialism, is to suggest that it's impossible for a mind to stand in a causal relationship with the universe such that it creates it. However, this is to understand a mind through human limitations. I argue that the word 'potentiality' ought to be replaced with 'possibility' in terms of minds. If, for example, you place a human being in a room with a few objects, then this human has the possibility of doing several things with those objects; he can 'decide' (will) to manipulate the room as he sees fit. But this human can only do things that are feasible for him. Although the human can will that a ball come into existence, he cannot do so because the human himself is under the physical laws, the physical realm of existence. However, a transcendent mind wouldn't be under such physical jurisdiction, and so the possibility of willing the creation of a physical world remains coherent. Until the materialist can demonstrate that it is impossible for a mind with no physical limitations to create a physical thing, then premise (9) is true since there is no third option in the decide/not decide dichotomy.

     Since premise (10) is self-evident, and presupposed by the materialist, then the conclusion, that a mind has created the universe, logically follows from the previous premises of the argument. But one thing remains to be explained, and that is whether this can be called a theistic argument, rather than a mere demonstration that a mind exists outside of the universe. God, although a mind, is much more than that. I would have argued further by making 'mind' into 'God' in the argument, but that would have made the argument too lengthy. But the properties that this mind would have would take us to deism, and since deism isn't atheism, then it serves to refute anti-theism . The traditional properties of God (omnipotence, omniscience, omnipresence, eternality) could be derived logically from each other, since they entail each other in some way. Moreover, since minds have privileged access to their thoughts, such that others cannot know the information unless the one in question reveals it, then revelation is that much more possible since it's likely that a mind would have an opinion on ethics and conduct. But this would go beyond what is necessary to refute atheism, and since my project was merely to demonstrate that the theist possesses the true account for necessity, then there is no need to deal with revelation. Thanks to Ockham's razor, one can confidently defend the claim that a god exists, and consequently that atheism (naturalism) is false.

Friday, August 24, 2012

The 'Evil God' Objection and Other Shenanigans




    Stephen Law, an atheistic philosopher, debated philosopher and theologian Dr. William Lane Craig on the existence of God. Law, when presented the cosmological argument, ignored it because it didn’t prove that God was good. According to Law, Craig had the responsibility to prove the Christian God, not just any old god. Since this debate I’ve seen other atheists use similar arguments. However, behind Law’s debate strategy rests a few philosophical and theological issues that I wish to deal with.  My aim is to critique them from all angles and conclude that Law’s criticisms fail.

An Irrelevant Argument or a Poor Excuse to Dodge an Issue?

     Law speaks truthfully when he claims that the cosmological argument doesn’t prove that God is good. Fair enough. However, Dr. Craig was building a cumulative case for theism, and the cosmological argument certainly adds additional probability that theism in general is true. Christianity, as a type of theism, enjoys more warrant with the cosmological argument than without. If I entered my apartment and saw shoes on the ground that weren’t mine, dishes in the sink when I knew they were clean before, and could hear that the shower was on, then the probability that my roommate is home is higher with, rather than without, these facts. Likewise, the probability that Christianity is true given that the cosmological and teleological arguments are true is much higher.

    The atheist could object by claiming that their atheism is a lack of belief in the Christian god, and that the cosmological argument doesn’t demonstrate the Christian god. And rightfully so! No philosophical argument could ever prove this much, since the facts relevant to the Christian God could only be revealed by God Himself.  Persons have private access to certain facts about themselves that no other person can see. Therefore, you must reveal this information, not derive it from argument. Either way, defining yourself as an atheist in the sense that you have a mere lack of belief in the Christian God isn’t very helpful. One’s atheism stems from a worldview which, more often than not, rejects all supernatural entities, and hence is a form of naturalism (materialism). What in their worldview would allow for the existence of Allah, but not God? If the atheist holds back on what they truly affirm, then they can get away from a burden of proof, but this is intellectually dishonest.  In a casual setting, the cosmological argument would prove deism, and consequently refute atheism.

Law’s ‘Evil God’ Objection

"If you believe in a good God, you face the problem of explaining why there’s so much bad stuff in the world. If you believe in an evil god, you the face mirror problem of explaining why there’s so much good.
So why, we might ask, if the problem of good is fatal to the evil god hypothesis—and surely it is—, is the problem of evil not similarly fatal to the good God hypothesis? If one hypothesis is pretty straightforwardly falsified by observation of the world around us, why isn’t the other one?"

     I take issue with Law’s ‘evil god’ objection for a few reasons. First, the very definition, or essence, of evil is to reject and go against moral obligation and duty. If there was an evil god, then what moral obligations would he be rejecting if not for some higher good above him? Since the ‘good’ is conceptual, then it would be embedded in a mind, and hence if an evil god exists, then God exists. Moreover, there is also another difficulty given that such an evil being would exemplify all the vices to the maximal extent (lust, gluttony, greed, sloth, wrath, envy, and pride). Impatience, embedded in this type of wrath, would be one property this being would have, but this would contradict the good we see in the world. A supremely impatient being would snuff out any good in the world instantly, but a patient god would work for some good end while tolerating the evil in the world. Law's question, therefore, is answered by noting that it is asymmetrical. The properties of an evil god make it susceptible to 'observational refutation', while the properties of a good god make it more likely that he would tolerate evil in order to bring about a greater good; and since in our world we do observe good, then we can conclude either (1) God is morally indifferent, or (2) God is good. Law’s mistake is to think that Christians argue for God’s goodness based on observations of the world (with regard to responding to the problem of evil). If this were so, we might conclude (1). However, Christians have traditionally argued for God’s goodness from the top down, that is, through philosophical and theological arguments.

    Christians argue that God is good because we adopt what’s called ‘perfect being theology’, or a view of God as the maximally great being such that nothing greater can be conceived. Unlike concrete objects which cannot possess ‘great-making properties’, a being can possess certain attributes such that they can be called great. A great making property includes power, wisdom, moral perfection, necessity, etc. Now the most contestable among these properties would be ‘moral perfection’ since it could be argued that whatever that being ‘is’ and ‘does’ would be considered moral. Instead, we must work with the terms evil, good, and indifference in order to pinpoint what ‘moral perfection’ could mean. Evil was already eliminated above because it was shown to be a dependent property rather than an independent property. It’s now up to ‘goodness’ or ‘indifference’ to take the stand. But how could one argue for the greatness of indifference? Indifference, after all, is a lack of concern or interest in something. Think about how it would play out with a being possessing infinite power and knowledge; it would appear odd that such a being would have no opinion on the matter, either positive or negative. Since this being would know all truths, then any action he performs would already be known. However, this presupposes that there be some concern behind the action, for absolute indifference would yield no action. Action requires some motivation, an end, and hence ‘concern’. Therefore, indifference only seems to be a human flaw stemming from ignorance. Would anyone take seriously Michelangelo if he said, while sculpting David, “Ah, I really don’t care that I’m doing this, it really makes no difference whether I sculpt or not; in fact, I just don’t care.” Of course not! Therefore, I think it’s safe to conclude that indifference is not a great making property. But this entails that a perfect, maximally great, being would possess goodness by nature. Consequently, then,  Law’s objection fails.

One-sided Burden of Proof…All the Time?

     There seems to be the misconception, a misunderstanding, that the theist has the sole burden of proof in any debate where God’s existence is being discussed. In a round-based debate, the theist has the burden of showing why the proposition, God exists, is true. Likewise, the person representing the negative has to provide arguments that the proposition, God does not exist, is true. It’s been common practice, however, to have an agnostic sit in the negative seat and ‘critique’, or call into question, the theist’s arguments. Although I agree wholeheartedly that an agnostic enters into these debates with no burden of proof, I reject that they cannot accumulate it later in the discussion. Even if the agnostic succeeds in critiquing the theist’s argument, this in no way shows that the negative position is true; it may vindicate or confirm their agnosticism, but perhaps not for the person in the audience.

     I’m more or less willing to concede that the theist should be more robust and active in round-based debates. However, in every other situation where the theist and atheist are discussing these questions, other topics can enter into play which forces the atheist (agnostic) to bite the bullet, so to speak, and take a stance on an issue. For example, an atheist might begin by saying, “I don’t believe in God because there is no evidence that He exists.” The theist could respond, and rightfully so, “Can you please be more specific by what you mean by evidence?” If the atheist says, “Facts about the world that are agreed upon and demonstrated by the scientific community, and also serve to demonstrate another fact about the world", then this would be a valid and honest answer; but the theist could immediately shift the burden of proof to the atheist by asking the following: “Are you saying that in order for something to be demonstrated as ‘existing’ it must be proven via the scientific method?” If the atheist agrees, then he or she has affirmed a stance on epistemology. The theist would rightfully challenge this by saying, “You’re asking me to prove an immaterial being with a method that can only demonstrate physical truths; what reasons can you give me to conform to this epistemology?” The theist certainly hasn’t dodged the main question (Does God exist?), but rather is asking the atheist to clarify an issue that stands between any reasons he could give. It makes no sense, for example, for the theist to use a pure philosophical argument for God’s existence if the atheist will merely reply with the classic ‘science of the gaps’ reasoning: “Well, science just doesn’t know yet.” Clarifying epistemology saves time (headaches) and makes the agnostic own up to his positive claims about the world around us.

Atheism Is?

     Another issue that comes up in these types of discussions is what I call “the problem of agnosticism.” There is a subtle, but very active, debate in the atheist community as to what ‘atheism’ actually is. Most have acknowledged that it is a mere agnosticism. Fair enough. However, this is a very misleading thing to lean on. After all, what is agnosticism? As was mentioned above, propositions have either a positive or negative truth value; that is, propositions are either true or false. When it comes to beliefs, however, one doesn’t have to affirm either in the dichotomy, but could rather choose not to commit or believe in any of them.  But one can refrain, or be ‘agnostic’, with regard to any proposition. It’s a negative term that tells us what the person is not, rather than what the person is.

    For example, if I told you that I’m a non-republican, then does this mean that I am a democrat? No. I could be a democrat, a libertarian, a communist, an anarchist, etc.  However, if I told you I was in fact a democrat then I've told you everything that I stand for in a general political sense. Likewise, someone who is non-Christian could be a Muslim, a Jew, a Hindu, a Buddhist, a Sikh, a Taoist, a Pagan, or even an atheist.  But this leads me to my final point.

     There is, after all, a worldview which says that any supernatural beings (i.e. gods, angels, demons, etc) do not exist. In philosophical circles, this is known as naturalism. All naturalists are atheists, but not all atheists are naturalists. Some atheists could be realists, that is, they could believe in abstract, nonphysical, objects. But regardless of the niceties, the view these two flavors have in common is the rejection of supernatural beings of any sort. These naturalists would be able to defend the positive claim that God(s) does not exist, so why not give the title ‘atheist’ to these people?  The term ‘atheism’ is an umbrella term including both naturalists and agnostics (after all, if you don’t believe in god, for whatever reasons, then you are an atheist), but I think this is where the confusion comes in.  I think agnosticism with regard to God should be separated from the term ‘atheist’. If you asked me my stance on the ‘X’ interpretation of the quantum theory, I would have to say, “I don’t know”, or, “I don’t know enough to have an opinion.” It would be absurd to take my comments and group me with those who reject ‘X’ interpretation of the quantum theory. So I ask, why should agnosticism be included under this umbrella term, “atheism”? Agnosticism simply isn’t very helpful in discussions.

     After all, a simple retort to the agnostic’s, “I have a lack of belief in God”, is to simply ask, “Why?” If they reply, “I just find myself unconvinced”, simply reply, “Why?” Inevitably the ‘agnostic’ will have to offer a positive claim somewhere down the road, thus revealing the worldview behind their agnosticism, which I argue, more often than not, is true atheism. An agnostic cannot object to the Kalam cosmological argument by saying, “The universe has always existed” without offering a positive claim about how reality is. The theist would rightfully reply, “Oh, so it isn’t that you are unconvinced by the Kalam argument, but rather you have positive reasons for suggesting that it is false.” Instead of beating around the bush with this, “I have a lack of belief” or “I’m not convinced”, the agnostic should have been more upfront with the positive worldview that he believes in, and which serves as a relevant part in the God discussion. Although adopting agnosticism in discussions allows you to fold your hands and merely criticize the other person’s view (while offering nothing positive yourself) might be easy, it is, in the end, a dishonest thing to do when a positive worldview is held behind the mask of mere ‘nonbelief’.

God bless.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

The Problem of Evil and Hostile Surroundings



The Problem of Evil

     I’m currently engaged in a discussion with an atheist concerning the problem of evil. This specific problem of evil emphasizes that the amount of unnecessary evil in the world makes it unlikely that God exists. Usually if the probabilistic version of the problem of evil is used, then it’s a concession that the logical version (i.e. attempting to reveal a logical contradiction between the existence of God and evil) fails. The conclusion that follows from the probabilistic version, that God is unlikely to exist, can serve as additional warrant for soft atheism (agnosticism), and serves as a potential premise for hard atheism (“God does not exist”). A successful defeater of the probabilistic version weakens the warrant the agnostic (non-theist) might have for their lack of belief in God.

     As is evident from my current discussion, the probabilistic version of the problem of evil is weak against two defeaters depending on how the atheist argues. First, if the atheist attempts to use the term ‘unnecessary evil’, then he or she must be able to provide an account that explains how they distinguish between unnecessary evil and necessary evil. In other words, what criterion can the atheist use that can be applied to evil events in the world such that event P can be assigned the property unnecessary evil, and event Q the property necessary evil?  If atheism is true, then it would appear that all evil is unnecessary (along with reality as a whole), but to use this as a premise for the problem of evil actually begs the question. The only other option the atheist can take is to provide facts that would show that some evil event is pointless; but how would he do this? In order to show that a particular evil event is pointless (unnecessary), the atheist must be able to demonstrate that the alleged pointless evil event cannot yield a greater good or is excessive to some end. But in order to stake a claim like that, the atheist must be able to know the truth value of future tense propositions (counter-factuals). However, since no human being can know the future, then neither can the atheist know that an evil event is pointless. The theist, however, doesn’t argue from the bottom up, but instead argues in this fashion: Given that God exists, the effects of any current evil event serves to bring about a greater good. Therefore, unnecessary evil doesn’t exist.

      The second defeater for the probabilistic problem of evil follows from the abandonment of the term ‘unnecessary evil’.  The atheist might say that the amount of evil in the world makes it unlikely that God exists, for He could have chosen a path that yielded as much good, but with less suffering.  But it remains dubious how the atheist, through his inductive observations, can declare what is and isn’t excessive evil without already knowing the moral ends in question. Although the atheist can fathom a reduction of evil from an actual evil event, it says nothing about whether such an option is feasible for God. Sure, a city block full of people with headaches seems like a large amount of evil that can be reduced.  The atheist’s possible solution? Give everyone Tylenol.  But the theist only has to offer one possibly true example to show that this solution may not be a feasible solution for God. For example, giving Tylenol to someone causes them to get better, rise early, get in the car, and head to work. However, it’s possible that on the way to work the driver crashes into a school bus killing 15 children, a worse evil. Because a worse evil comes about, God prefers to prevent that person from receiving Tylenol.  Although humans cannot say for sure which future tense propositions are true, God, who possesses foreknowledge, and can assess the truth value of counter-factuals, can do so. Excessive evil, then, turns out to fail in the same manner that unnecessary evil did in the first defeater.

Why the Universe is Hostile

     But despite the fact that the theist can adequately evade the problem of evil, there still remains a tricky issue concerning natural evil.  Atheists have argued that the universe is too hostile for us humans and that an all-loving and good God wouldn’t (shouldn’t) have made it that way. Although an earthquake may serve as a means for God to deal judgment, or further His will, it doesn’t explain why earthquakes even exist alongside of human beings to begin with (it’s not as though God needs earthquakes to punish people when he can just snuff out their existence). Earthquakes and the like were chosen with the knowledge that they would kill human beings. Therefore, says the atheist, God is directly responsible for natural evil since He could have designed the universe in a less hostile way.

     This certainly has some force. It’s one thing to explain evil as the actions of free willing human beings, and another thing to explain why the stage, so to speak, tries to kill the actors. However, I think the Christian can respond in the following way:

“And He saw that it was very good.” –Genesis 1:31

     This verse can start us off with a possible response. After all, there is nothing inherently ‘evil’ about earthquakes, floods, and fires. In fact, even if humans are within the vicinity of an earthquake or flood, one would be hard pressed to call that evil. It’s only when a human is injured or killed that we call it an evil event. Although not explicitly mentioned in Genesis, there are good reasons to suggest that these natural forces did exist while humans were created.  So when did the natural world become evil in relation to human beings? Genesis tells us that the world as Adam and Eve knew it was changed forever; God explained it to Adam:  cursed is the ground because of you; in pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you; and you shall eat the plants of the field.”( Gen 1:17-18)

     The question becomes, why did the natural world become hostile towards humanity? Although some of creation was corrupted as a result (introduction of disease and ‘thorns’), earthquakes and the like didn’t change in form. What happened, I argue, is that Adam and Eve lost the foundation for a proper relationship with God: faith. Man from that point gained a wisdom that made it more likely to rely on himself rather than God. If Adam and Eve hadn’t sinned, then they would have remained in communion with God in such a way that their faith would have protected them from severe injury or death. It’s questionable whether the fruit had any special properties that gave them this wisdom; It could be that the command, “Do not eat from the tree”, combined with the Serpent’s cunning ability to bring Eve to doubt God’s authority, caused this wisdom to come about. Evil, after all, is fundamentally the rejection of intended purpose, and doubting God’s good command forced an existential decision in Eve’s mind. Choosing to eat the fruit was akin to relying on oneself, rather than God. With man’s limited knowledge of the natural world, and his ignorance of the future, he walks into nature with clouded eyes that can lead him into danger. Moreover, humans were assigned the honor of being stewards of the Earth, so the introduction of diseases into the world can be explained by some casual connection between man’s sin and the world he was supposed to take care of. The expression, “A happy gardener is a healthy garden” seems to apply here.  

    But this doesn’t explain why there is danger to begin with. Couldn’t God have made a world that lacked such hazards? Does creation need earthquakes and floods? I’m sure that God could have made a world, a physical world, which was essentially fixed, such that no hazards could exist. After all, God created angels, which are spiritual beings with no experience of earthquakes in that realm. But I think we need to look at God not only as an engineer, but as an artist who takes pleasure in what He creates.  After all, it is one thing to ask, “Why did God allow an earthquake to kill hundreds of people”, and another to ask “Why did God create earthquakes to begin with?” The former can be answered by refuting the presuppositions in the problem of evil (see above). The latter question is answered by noticing that the physical world isn’t inherently evil (an inanimate object cannot be), nor does evil emerge when humanity is set alongside it (for all of creation, the six days, were good).  The assumption here is that God would have allowed earthquakes, fires, and floods to kill humans prior to the Fall. Since there was no evil tainting humanity at that point, there would be no reason why God would use natural disasters to further His will against evil.

    The last point the theist can make is to argue that all of this fits perfectly within the Christian narrative, so that the charge of ‘special pleading’ fails. Humans were designed to be above the natural world as stewards, yet also dependent upon the physical world, and ultimately God. The fierceness of the natural world serves as a sign of man’s finitude and dependence. A fear of God is proper in a creature/Creator relationship, an ‘awestruck’ feeling at the power of God’s creation. This fact turns the table around for the atheist, because his whole point in offering this criticism is to cast doubt on God’s existence. However, a simple question can reveal a greater point: Who is more likely to have faith in God, a rich man who feels above everything such that he never contemplates his finitude, or a poor person who understands what it means to be hungry and understands his dependency on forces outside of himself? History sides with me when I say that the poor in spirit, the oppressed, are more likely to find faith in the face of evil. It was observed in Psychology Today, “believers usually experience a strengthening in their faith after a disaster. There may be a time of questioning, and some believers may see their faith shaken deeply, but for most, tragedy brings greater commitment to religious faith, not less.”(http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-hidden-brain/201001/haiti-natural-disasters-and-religious-belief) Therefore, it’s easy to see what positive effect such awesome power has on the human psyche.  There may be no better way to understand one’s finitude and dependency than to witness the forces of nature. Just as one looks up into the heavens and feels small, so too does one look at a hurricane while being reminded of his finitude and contingency. We are stewards, not masters, of this world, and earthquakes serve to remind us of that, revealing our finitude in order to be existentially interested in regaining communion with God.

    So is there a problem for the Christian here? I think not. There is no explicit contradiction between God and the existence of natural forces that can kill us. There is nothing inherently ‘evil’ about an earthquake, neither is this the case when humans exist alongside them.  Only when an earthquake kills a human being do we call it evil. But to criticize God for allowing earthquakes to kill people presupposes a post-Fall world in which the answers to the problem of evil come into play. Prior to the Fall, however, there is no reason to suspect that humans were in any danger from these forces because (1) they were in proper communion with God and their faith protected them, and (2) Human evil did not exist yet, so God would not allow earthquakes to harm them for some greater good. Although the reason why earthquakes were created might appear arbitrary, as long as the theist can maintain that they are not inherently evil, then there is no contradiction the atheist can lean on. Finally, these powerful forces fit within the creature/Creator narrative since they serve as symbols of man’s finitude and dependency on nature, and ultimately the God who created them. These two factors are the formula for faith, the foundation for a proper relationship with God and the one attitude of the mind that is the opposite of trusting in oneself. With these things said, I believe that the problem of evil, from all angles, is only an emotional problem that is conquered by faith in the Most High, trusting that He, not the creature, knows all ends.

Praise be to God.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

RE: Scott's Argument from Nonbelief


    Hovering over Youtube proved to be worthwhile a few days ago. I try to keep up to speed with the New Atheism and what sort of things they are saying. Occasionally I run into very good thinkers who offer reasonable challenges to my faith. One such user, TheoreticalBulls**t, aka as Scott Clifton, came up with with what he calls the argument from nonbelief. I'm not sure whether this is originally his argument, but it certainly has the same flavor as the problem of the hiddenness of God and the problem of predestined unbelievers. He certainly isn't like most Youtube atheists who merely recite soundbytes in the hopes of having good dialogue with Christians. Although at times Scott can be foul, and at times exhibits hasty arguments, he is still a very impressive thinker who deserves respect. The depth of his videos and his 'humoresque' eloquence makes him a formidable challenge to Christian thought.

     The argument from nonbelief isn't too strong syllogistically. Scott even admits this in a follow-up discussion when he mentions that the Christian only has to show a possible reason why God would allow so many nonbelievers to perish when they might have otherwise believed; in this case, the argument loses force. However, existentially the argument is powerful, especially if you're an atheist who knows how sincerely you've tried to find God. The argument can be summed up as follows: If God is all-powerful, all-knowing, and wholly good, then He knows what it takes for the unbeliever to convert. If an unbeliever is sincerely searching, then why doesn't God reveal himself in a way that is clear such that the unbeliever would become convinced? Why does God remain hidden for those who are looking? According to this argument, there are many unbelievers that are in Hell right now that would have believed if God revealed himself in a convincing way. So essentially the argument is saying that the very fact that there are so many non-Christians is a problem for Christianity especially when the Bible says that God "desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth." (1 Tim. 2:4)

     Scott is generous enough to reduce his argument into a syllogism:

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1.) If God exists, He desires for us to know X.
2.) If God exists then He has the power to make us believe X.
3.) If God exists we should know X (given 1 & 2)
4.) We do not know X
5.) Therefore, God does not exist (given 3 & 4)

Let X equal  the basic facts about Christianity such that one can make an existential decision whether they accept the salvation offered by Jesus Christ.

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     Premise (1) is true insofar as it serves as a means to an end. Knowledge itself is not enough to get saved, although it is a necessary precondition for saving faith. The basic facts about Christianity, or what X entails, are the following: (a) The recognition that one is a sinner and that this sin causes a separation with God, and (b) The only way out of this predicament is to have faith in Jesus Christ and trust that His work on the cross has justified you before God. This is essentially the 'formula' for conversion, which ought to yield repentance. Unlike the majority of religions and worldviews, Christianity emphasizes a relationship that is sustained through faith. However, there cannot be any existential decision if X is not known. As Romans 10:14 says, "how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard?"

    Premise (2) is where I take issue with the argument. 'Power' here ought to be understood in the proper usage of omnipotence. Traditionally, God's omnipotence has been understood to mean that God has logical limitations. However, a logical limitation isn't really a limitation, for to go outside the bounds of the logical is to dwell in the illogical. God, being perfect, cannot be illogical. Something is illogical if it violates a law of logic, and actualizing a contradiction is one example of something illogical. I argue that God cannot make one believe X if that person possesses free will, for to do so would be a contradiction.

    Scott's defense against the free will objection is that beliefs cannot be resisted. Instead, according to Scott, free will only deals with the actions concerning what to do about the beliefs we acquire. At minute 17 and 30 seconds (video: Nonbelief Revisited), Scott says the following: "Belief is an involuntary reaction." This is actually the cornerstone of his defense against the free will objection, for as long as our beliefs cannot be helped, then one loses the responsibility for what they believe, and consequently God is held responsible for the unbelief of a person. However, this proposition is simply false. I believe Scott is confusing the immediate experience of something, which supplies the content of belief, with the belief itself.

     As I sit in front of my laptop, I am currently being appeared to in a laptop-like way, such that I can believe in the proposition, "There is a laptop in front of me." The experience of the appearance is not identical with the belief formed from the experience; there exists a gap between them. To prove my point, that believing is an action, I'll demonstrate that it's possible to be appeared to in a positive way, yet believe in a negative way. For example, if you stand above water and place a stick a few inches into the water, you'll notice that the stick appears bent. At that moment one is being appeared to in a 'bent stick' way. However, one can believe (upon reflection, past experience) that the stick is not actually bent. Therefore, one is being appeared to in a positive way (bent stick), yet believes in a negative way (i.e. the stick is not bent). Although the gap between the experience and the belief is small, almost to appear instantaneous and automatic, there is a choice about what to believe.

     I think Scott draws his conclusion from what one might call 'uncontested beliefs'. An uncontested belief is a belief that is adopted without much consideration of its truth value. This type of gullibility isn't necessarily a bad thing, for it is indeed practical to go about life without questioning every single appearance and checking the truth value of every single belief. To be so meticulous would drive one mad, and would probably do more harm than good (solipsists come to mind). But despite these uncontested beliefs, there still exists the ability to choose what to believe and what not to believe. Scott goes further to add that one cannot force oneself to 'believe' or become convinced that Santa Claus exists, you simply know that you don't believe in Santa Claus. Quite true. However, all this would show is that the atheist, however desperate he wants to believe in God, couldn't do so. The feeling of epistemic 'rightness' would fail to hold here. But this certainly doesn't show that beliefs are automatic or involuntary. In fact, to be convinced is the same as believing something; it is a mere switching of beliefs ( from a negative to a positive, or vice versa). But then wouldn't this prove my point that 'to believe' is an action that can be under the jurisdiction of one's will?

     The expectation that God would know what state of affairs would cause belief in the unbeliever is misplaced. I'm sure God would know what would need to come about in order to make you arrive at belief, but the issue is with whether the conditions for belief are feasible for God without violating logic. But since God cannot interfere with one's will, then the situation becomes a co-op, and the person has some responsibility over how they react to what they're presented. This makes it all the more likely that there are people who, until they remove their biases, simply will never come to belief due to the willful action of clinging to certain propositions that prevent faith. Someone struggling with math can receive all the help in the world, but until they piece together the puzzle in their head, they will never have knowledge. Perhaps a serious deconstruction of oneself is necessary in order for X (see above) to be known.

     But as I hinted above, 'apparentness' and 'to be convinced' are subjective terms. This is why this argument ought to be applied on an individual basis, and so long as it attempts to make universal claims then I think the force of the argument is weakened. For example, there may very well be people that are sincerely searching for God, but this mental property of 'earnestness' is invisible to others. This is why it would be odd for a Christian to lessen his or her faith simply based on an atheist's testimony about not being able to believe. I'm sure Scott would acknowledge that there are those who 'say' they are searching with all of their hearts, but prefer to play Batman on the Xbox for hours straight. The fact that one can be sincerely wrong about being sincere also weakens the force of the argument. And the situation remains, for both Christians and atheists, that it's impossible to prove one's intent or sincerity.

     I mentioned earlier that the immediate experience, the phenomenon, provides content to one's belief. Obviously it makes no sense to have a belief about daisies if one has had no experience of daisies. Scott could easily escape all I have said by claiming that God has not appeared to him in a positive way such that he can believe in a positive or negative way. Scott could argue that my bent stick example argued from a positive experience to a negative belief, but that the reverse couldn't happen. I agree. There can be no  experience of nondaisey and then a positive belief of a daisy. This is what his Santa Claus analogy was getting at. Making a leap from nonbeing to being violates the feeling of epistemic 'rightness' akin to a feeling of guilt from a moral violation. The only possible way to escape this epistemic 'rightness' is to base your beliefs on pleasures, not truth. But Scott has to admit that it's possible to be appeared to positively yet fail to notice the appearance. Even with our natural senses we can fail to notice that which was in front of our eyes the entire time; same for when the consciousness can separate background noise into something specific, a specificity that was always there.

     Failing to notice something is either the subject's fault, or the object's obscurity in relation to the subject's range of sensation. Obviously a person cannot be held responsible for failing to notice a ninja in the shadows, but the question becomes whether God is like a ninja in the shadows. If so, then it really isn't our fault for not believing. But this conclusion is a bit too presumptuous without looking at the subject's responsibility first. One can fail to notice something either because of a distraction or one's worldview (especially the deep presuppositions in it) filters out that which is necessary to 'see' the thing in question. If one was brainwashed in a cave to believe that every single human being outside of the cave is really a sophisticated android, then they will obviously fail to see the 'others' as objects of sympathy should they exhibit mournful behavior. Now imagine further that a man in the cave ventures out into the world and meets someone who he thinks is an android. Imagine that they strike up a conversation such that the alleged android tries to convince the man from the cave that he is indeed a real person. The man in the cave replies, "I'm sorry my friend, I'm taking everything you say very seriously and earnestly trying to seek the truth here, but I am not convinced that you are like me." Both parties were active in persuasion, case and rebuttal,  but although the man in the cave was earnest in his investigation, he was still earnestly searching from inside a box. No matter how persuasive the alleged android was, if the man in the cave didn't 'see' the falsehood of his cave worldview, then he would never become persuaded.

     When setting out for a journey, or even better yet, a hunt, one must equip himself with the necessary tools for the job. Some game require patience as you hide in the bushes for several hours or days, while some game require you to move quickly before the ecological conditions change around you. My point is that God has listed what is necessary to find him. First, and most obvious, one must seek the kingdom of God and his righteousness (Matt 6:33). This means that one must have this before his mind's eye at all times. Second, "blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God" (Matt 5:8). This isn't necessarily a moral purity because the words 'holy' or 'pure in soul' could have been used. I think this is referring to pure and honest intent, that is, seeking God for His own sake, not for human approval, immediate benefits of some kind, etc. The task of the religious person is to be aware of their intent at all times, because as I will soon explain, the final requirement of God could be confused with wishful thinking or psychological comforts. Another factor that people often fail to take into consideration is patience. In several places in the Bible long periods of waiting had to occur before the presence of God was felt. Most people in America consider waiting for an hour to be unbearable, what would most do if they had to wait 7 days for an answer or sign? But what's the point in talking about these criteria? I don't know Scott, but has he evaluated himself to the point that his worldview went through a deconstruction? Has he looked for the presuppositions in his worldview which would prevent him from seeking God? Is he seeking God with a pure heart, that is, with pure intent for true belief? If yes to the first two, has he actively waited for God with open ears for hours, days or weeks, or has he asked God to reveal Himself, but after 10 minutes preoccupied himself with something else (effectively to end the search)? His answers to these questions will only be useful for himself, for no matter how earnest his tone is in response, his intentions are invisible to me. I ask these first before moving on to the last requirement.

     So let's say there is an atheist who, wanting to be intellectually honest, cannot believe in God without a positive experience of God. Furthermore, he has deconstructed his worldview to the point that he is aware of his presuppositions that may interfere with actively seeking God properly. Moreover, he is motivated by the truth such that no matter how pleasurable or unpleasurable the truth may be, he finds it virtuous to look at reality for what it is. One who has a pure heart will not pretend to have experienced God, even if a crowd of atheists all suddenly praised God around him; the one with pure intent would not stand with them if he has not felt God. Finally, this atheist has waited for many days for a sign from God that would hit him immediately as a sign. However, despite all this, he has not 'felt' that experience that so many Christians claim to have. What is lacking? Faith. But isn't this to argue in a circle? Isn't faith the end goal of this entire deliberation, not the means? How can one have faith in that which he doesn't believe in?

     Let's identify what I don't mean by 'faith' here. I don't mean, for example, the misplaced idea that faith is mere trust in something. Some pastors wrongfully apply the word faith to atheists when they say something along the lines like, "Atheists have faith that the building they are in now was built soundly." In this case I'd say the atheist has a subconscious trust, for there are no immediate signs that the building was poorly made. This attitude is practical, for to verify all facts such that one can say with 99% certainty that the building is made correctly would be time consuming and inefficient. Contrary to this position, I don't mean what converted Christians experience. Post-conversion faith is sustained by the Holy Spirit and is more intense than what I'm referring to here. No, what I'm talking about here is similar to a child on a high platform about to jump into the hands of his father. Two conditions must be fulfilled here, doubt and then faith. Doubt forces the situation on the person, makes the decision an active endeavor unlike the subconscious, practical, assumption in the 'sound building' example. The child, before jumping, has doubts, has 'what-ifs' run through his mind. "What if my father misses? What if he only 'says' that he'll catch me?" There can be no analyzing here, for the relevant facts to the success of the catch do not rest in you. Nor could the child know the intent or skill of the father. Yet the child jumps regardless. This is the type of faith I'm talking about.

     Although the end goal of X in Scott's argument is to achieve saving faith in Jesus Christ, and due to the fact that beliefs are under the jurisdiction of the will, faith as I described above is needed in order arrive at X. However, unlike the example I used with the father catching the child, God by definition is the proper object of faith. Knowing 'what' God is is obviously necessary to place faith 'in' God. Coming to grips with the general properties of God, as well as revealed information found in the Bible, one knows that with God anything is possible. So as a sincere atheist sits alone in his room and prays that God will reveal Himself, the atheist must do so while 'believing' that it will occur. This same feeling of trust occurs when your most trusted friend makes a promise to you. Although the promise hasn't been fulfilled, you 'believe' that he will do so, and might even plan your life around that promise. The same goes for the atheist. Although the atheist is asking for a sign from God such that he can directly experience Him, he must ask with faith, he must ask while believing it will be so, because God is revealed as perfectly loving and trustworthy.

     The atheist, however, can take a few measures to escape this or call it into doubt. First, he can offer the problem that there are many religions in the world, all of which can be believed through faith. But the problem with this objection is that it's ultimately irrelevant to Christianity. Obviously the mere fact that other religions claim to be true and that its followers believe it on faith doesn't call into doubt the validity of Christianity or the faith of its followers. Each individual has his or her own reasons for believing; some believe things because of cultural familiarity, cultural expectation, emotional comforts, etc. In short, faith's nemesis is wishful thinking, and since one's intent is invisible, focusing on what other religions say about their motivations doesn't say much against Christianity. Moreover, Christianity emphasizes the importance of faith and gives it a context in its narrative, while other religions treat it differently (more like the building example above). Second, the atheist can maintain that there is no difference between wishful thinking and faith. But there seems to me a big difference between saying, "I want P to be true, therefore I will believe P" and "I know or have heard that person S is reliable, therefore I anticipate/believe that P." It's the mood that's important for the atheist at this point.

     Regardless of the niceties, there is a greater point to be made about faith, and it's directly related to the problem of the hiddenness of God. I argue that since Christianity is concerned with faith, especially in the historical figure of Jesus of Nazareth, that God would remain hidden. This requirement isn't beyond our abilities, because faith as I described above is common in human experience. Just as I don't have faith that my table exists, God being apparent as the stars in the sky or the water in the ocean would yield the exact opposite of faith. Remember, faith is the one attitude of the mind that is opposite of relying on oneself, and in a creature/Creator relationship, this is fitting, especially in our sinful state. It certainly seems the case that before the Fall Adam and Eve experienced God in a more obvious way, but after the Fall our "sensus divinitatus", or God-sense, was damaged. Either way, faith fits perfectly in the salvation narrative, for the solution rests outside of ourselves and our abilities. I think many apologists miss this point and only emphasize that God wants a relationship with the individual, when in reality faith is the foundation and means for such a relationship to begin with. A mere relationship can occur with a physical appearance, but faith must be launched from doubt. Doubt must be experienced in order for faith to be an act, an event, not a subconscious acceptance or an assumption.

    To conclude, I want to pull all the points I've made and forge a recap to send my audience off to their books. Premise (1) of Scott's argument is only true insofar as X serves as a means to an end. The problem with syllogistic thinking is that is often fails to motivate an existential shift of mood. It's easy to accept a truth, yet do so at a distance. Premise (2), I argued, is false due to a logical contradiction caused by God's 'forcing' a free man to believe in X. Moreover, Scott's objection against the apologist's free will defense, that beliefs are involuntary reactions, is simply asserted as self-evident, when I gave a few reasons to think otherwise. Although the gap between the immediate sensation, which provides the content for beliefs, and the belief formed afterward is small, there still exists this gap such that a belief can be under the jurisdiction of one's will. The fact that one can experience something positive, yet believe negatively disproves Scott's undeveloped assertion. Moreover, Scott's only justification for his 'involuntary belief' idea is that one couldn't force oneself to believe in Santa Claus. However, this actually doesn't show that one's beliefs are involuntary, but that one who is after truth cannot go from a negative experience (nonbeing) to a positive experience (being) without violating the epistemic conscience. The only way one could go from a negative experience to a positive is if one is motivated by pleasure, such that the violation of epistemic responsibility is masked with a certain pleasure. Furthermore, I revealed that the argument is only effective on an individual basis, since 'earnestness' and 'sincerity' are subjective terms. The fact that one can be sincerely wrong about being sincere weakens the force behind this argument. A person's intent and sincerity are invisible to the Christian and so cannot be used offensively against the Christian; therefore argument is only effective existentially for the atheist. Furthermore, one's worldview by definition filters how one sees the world, and until the atheist reflects honestly on how their worldview could potentially effect knowing X, then X, despite all sincerity, will pass by. Finally, I argued that faith explains the hiddenness of God. Doubt must be present initially before faith so that faith becomes an act and an event, not an assumption in the subconscious. Therefore, when the atheist asks God to reveal Himself, then he should 'believe' that God will do so provided they are patient. Until Scott revises his argument, or can successfully bypass my criticisms, I think I left his argument bleeding.