The Cosmological Argument

A commenter on another post brought up the cosmological argument, so here are my reasons for rejecting the cosmological argument. I’m going to be fairly brief, but keep in mind that I’ve read Swinburne, Craig, Aquinas, Aristotle, etc., so I know more about cosmological arguments than I will be using here.

A very simple form of the cosmological argument asserts that since everything has a cause, the universe must have a cause, but the chain of causes cannot go back forever, so there must be a first cause, which is God. The problem with this argument is that the first premise contradicts the conclusion – if everything has a cause, then there is no first cause.

A more sophisticated form of the cosmological argument says that everything that begins to exist has a cause, and the universe began to exist, so the universe has a cause. The problem here is that the universe did not begin to exist. Beginning to exist assumes that there was a time at which the thing that began to exist did not exist, and there was no time prior to the universe at which the universe did not exist, since time is defined in terms of the universe.

The theist might respond to this last point by saying that something begins to exist if there is a time such that it is not the case that prior to that time, the thing in question existed. The universe began to exist by this definition, because it is not the case that prior to the first point in time, the universe existed – after all, there was no time prior to the first point in time. The reply to that is simply that by that definition God began to exist as well, so we fall back into the infinite causal regress that the theist was trying to avoid in the first place.

Another form of the cosmological argument says that everything contingent has an explanation, and the universe is contingent, so the universe must have an explanation in something that is not contingent but necessary, and this necessary being is God. The problem here is that there is no way to explain what “contingent” means without begging the question. For example, we could say that something is contingent if it depends on something else for its existence, but then calling the universe contingent is question begging.

So, I don’t think there are any sound versions of the cosmological argument. Again, I’ve read a lot more than I’ve used here, but this should give you the basic idea of why I don’t think there are any sound versions of the argument.

Atheism, Science, and Philosophy

I think a lot of atheists go through a process like the following. They apostatize from Christianity because the scientific evidence seems to indicate that it is false, and then they become an atheist. They still need a worldview (don’t we all?), so they latch on to contemporary science as a way of figuring out the nature of reality, knowledge, and morality.

I’m sympathetic to this form of atheism. After all, science is the most obviously successful knowledge gathering enterprise out there, so why wouldn’t we want to base all of our beliefs on contemporary science? Non-experimental methods of knowledge gathering must be a waste of time, or at best a source of aesthetic satisfaction.

However, science rests on a certain set of assumptions, like the assumption that there is an external world, that we are conscious and can gain knowledge, that falsifying experimental data is morally wrong, and so forth. These assumptions are not themselves based on experiments. They are perfectly reputable, of course, and in no way do they provide an opening for religion, but they are not based on controlled experimental inquiry.

Where do these assumptions come from? Presumably, at some point in the early modern era, a group of people noticed that conclusions that were based on controlled experimental inquiry were generally much more reliable than results that weren’t based on experiments (perhaps Francis Bacon was one of these people). They didn’t do an experiment to verify this, because there is no way to perform such an experiment. They just reflected on their experience with a bunch of different experimental and non-experimental generalizations and the relative utility that all of the generalizations in question turned out to have.

This sort of reflection is philosophical reflection. It is not based on experimentation, but it is based on powerful inductive arguments from life experience. Philosophical reflection can help tell scientists what areas of research they should look into next and what methodologies they should use. For example, biologists know from philosophical reflection that trying to prove Intelligent Design theory is not a useful way of spending their research time, because it violates a philosophical assumption of science, namely naturalism. Again, philosophical reflection on the nature of free will has helped researchers in psychology decide how to construct experiments investigating what laypeople believe about free will.

So, I think atheists with an interest in science should also look into philosophy and the philosophical assumptions of the things we do in science, as well as in everyday life. Philosophy is a valuable way of learning about the world in addition to science.

Two Spinoza Quotes

I really like this quote from Spinoza:

There is no singular thing in Nature which is more useful to man than a man who lives according to the guidance of reason.

Spinoza’s Ethics is full of great little quotes like this. Here’s another:

Hatred is increased through return of hatred, but may be destroyed by love.

This surprising conclusion is based on a couple of premises that Spinoza has put forward previously. According to Spinoza, our fundamental desire is for our own self preservation, because everything that exists strives to persevere in being (this is a claim in physics which is called the conatus – it is false, but that doesn’t affect what follows). Spinoza defines joy as an increase in one’s power of acting, and love as joy accompanied by the idea of an external cause.

So, according to Spinoza, if someone hates us, we can turn his hatred into love by increasing his power of acting. This will cause him to see us as an object of love rather than hatred, and he will love us more intensely than he hated us, because the new love is mixed with the joy of finding that a previous object of hatred is really an object of love.

The Rise of Fundamentalist Christianity

Millions of people in the United States are fundamentalist Christians who think that the Bible is infallible, the Earth is only a few thousand years old, and Jesus is due to return within half a century or so. Starting in the 1950s, fundamentalists began to engage in vigorous political campaigning against policies like sex education, the legalization of abortion, and state recognition of homosexual marriage.

Why do fundamentalists campaign against these policies, and why did they start doing so when they did? Based on what I have read, fundamentalism as a political movement started in reaction to events like Watergate, the loss of the Vietnam War, and student rebellions on college campuses. They interpreted these events as analogous to when, in the Old Testament, God would pass judgment against Israel for turning away from God, and they think that the only way to get God back on our side is to make our nation as “Christian” as possible.

To this end, fundamentalist leaders like Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson have developed an enormous media empire dedicated to spreading the message of fundamentalism. Fundamentalists have numerous television shows, radio shows, and websites, in addition to having a collective captive audience of millions in the pews across the country every Sunday. Fundamentalists exert considerable political influence as well. Ronald Reagan, for example, went out of his way to appeal to the evangelical voters, and explicitly said in several of his speeches that he agreed with them on many points, like abortion.

Fundamentalist Christians think that the family is central to the survival of the United States, and they think that the husband should be at the head of the family and that the wife should try to make herself subservient and appealing to him, as the Bible allegedly requires. Accordingly, they generally oppose movements like feminism and the gay rights movement which they see as threats to the family. They were also generally opposed to the civil rights movement, although there were dissenters among fundamentalist preachers on this point.

Just as they think that the Bible should determine family roles, fundamentalists think that the Bible should be the arbiter of our scientific conclusions as well. Among fundamentalists, Young Earth Creationism is considered a legitimate, albeit controversial, scientific theory, and a serious competitor to the theory of evolution.

The odds of routing fundamentalism are not very good, but I think atheists who want to make a difference could try to do two things. First, they could explain why fundamentalism is not intellectually credible. Fundamentalist leaders repeatedly assert in their speeches that fundamentalist Christianity is intellectually tenable, and that is a clear weak point in the movement’s narrative. Second, they could explain why atheism does not imply nihilism or moral decay. As I mentioned above, one of the main concerns of fundamentalists is that abandoning Christianity will leave us without moral guidance, so atheists need to combat that claim if they are to persuade fundamentalist Christians to leave the movement.

Descartes, Spinoza, and Hume on Free Will

I’ve been reading a lot of early modern philosophy recently, so here are a few different perspectives on free will from that era. Descartes was a libertarian, Spinoza was a hard determinist, and Hume was a compatibilist.

Descartes was, famously, a substance dualist, which meant that he thought that the mind was actually an immaterial thing distinct from the brain. He thought that it was self evident that we have libertarian free will, conceived as the ability to affirm, deny or suspend judgment about a proposition that has been put before us and as the ability to choose what actions we perform. Descartes also thought that all of the actions that occur in the physical world are completely determined by the mechanistic laws of physics, which made it difficult to explain how the mind, which was immaterial and non-deterministic, could interact with and effect change upon the body, which was material and deterministic. His “solution” was that the soul exerts control over the body through the pineal gland, which is hardly a solution.

Spinoza was a little more consistent than Descartes. He was a panpsychist, meaning that he thought that everything physical was conscious in some degree. He actually thought that everything physical was identical to a conscious state, conceived under a different aspect. My mind and my body are just different ways of looking at the same thing, on this view. The body is governed by the laws of physics, which Spinoza claims reduce to a few self evident principles that we know a priori (he lays these out in the Ethics, and yes, they are all wrong), and the mind is governed by a different set of principles that always have the same results as the laws of physics. So for example, my belief that I am wearing a green shirt is identical to some physical state of my body, and my body is acting according to the laws of physics, and my mind is acting according to the laws governing states of consciousness, but both the laws of physics and the laws governing consciousness have the same result, namely that I currently have this belief.

Spinoza is not a substance dualist, because he thinks that the mind reduces to a bunch of different beliefs and desires that don’t have a common underlying substratum. There is no “self,” for Spinoza, just a bunch of different mental states. Further, Spinoza thinks that everything that happens is absolutely necessary, like it is necessary that 1+1=2. So, there is no question of our having free will, in Spinoza’s view, because there is no one to exercise the free will and even if there was, their decisions would be completely determined by the laws of physics and logic. The appearance that we have free will is an illusion created by our ignorance of our own mental processes.

This raises a problem for Spinoza that I mentioned in a previous post. Namely, if there is no self and everything we do is determined by the laws of physics, why should we trust any of the conclusions that we arrive at? Spinoza would address this concern, I think, by dissolving the distinction between truth and justification. He says at one point that “truth is its own criterion.” Spinoza thinks that if one of your beliefs is true, as opposed to arrived at by accident, then you have proved it by such a powerful a priori deductive argument that there is no way you can be wrong. So, the issue of justification doesn’t really come up for Spinoza, because there is no way of questioning the conclusion of an overwhelmingly powerful deductive argument like he requires for knowledge (although one might wonder whether we ever have knowledge that is this powerfully justified).

Hume’s conception of free will is based on his moral psychology. For Hume, as for Spinoza, the mind is a succession of beliefs and desires rather than a single, unitary entity. According to Hume, we act when a belief aligns with a desire. For example, I perform the action of going to the store because I want ice cream and I believe that there is ice cream at the store. This is a deterministic account of action, but Hume doesn’t see it as opposed to free will. Instead, he argues that free will consists in “liberty of spontaneity,” the ability to act without being coerced by an external force. Hume thinks that liberty of spontaneity is not only the only kind of free will we could possibly have, but also the only kind of free will that is consistent with the institution of moral responsibility.

I view my position on free will as distinct from any of these. I am a libertarian, like Descartes, and I agree with Descartes that libertarian free will is self evident, but unlike Descartes, I don’t view consciousness or free will as supernatural. Free will is not a puzzle to be explained by means of mysticism, but rather a normal part of the natural world that can in principle be studied and understood by science.

The Self Refutation of Determinism

In this post, I will expand on my earlier posts “Free Will” and “The Experience of Free Will.” Those posts presented positive arguments for the existence of free will, and this post will present a negative argument against determinism.

Let’s first think about the claim that the determinist is making. The determinist typically claims that our minds operate by means of mechanical cause and effect relationships, like any other chemical process. One way of spelling this out is to say, with Daniel Dennett, that the mind is a collection of different, basically independent neurological processes including reason, memory, and perception. These processes in turn reduce to yet simpler processes, which reduce yet more until we reach neurological reactions so simple that they are not recognizable as being conscious. There is no one “in charge” of your mind, on this view, just billions of neurons operating according to the blind laws of physics and chemistry.

Suppose this were true. Clearly, in that case, all of our beliefs would be the product of deterministic chemical and neurological reactions. I would just believe that I enjoy programming computers because the chemical reactions going on in my brain had percolated in that belief. But if that is true, then there is no reason to trust any of my beliefs.

Suppose I want to know what book is on my desk, and I decide that since the book looks blue, it must be my book on John Stuart Mill. The problem with this strategy is that I also have a number of other blue books in my possession, so the fact that the book is blue doesn’t prove that it is my book on John Stuart Mill. The evidence I have under-determines my conclusion. This is the position that the determinist is in with respect to his beliefs – there is a very real possibility that he is being tricked by his brain into holding beliefs that are false, and he has no way of finding out whether or not this possibility is actually the case. He might hold his beliefs if they were true, granted, but he might also hold them if they were not true. But this would also apply to his belief in determinism, so his belief in determinism is self refuting.

If we have free will, then we don’t get into this trouble, because we have direct control over our belief forming process and can make sure that it is based on evidence and logic at every step. If I am solving a problem for my math class, I can be confident of my conclusion because I have done a number of examples of the same type of problem before and I have consciously guided my thought processes in such a way that I applied the rules of inference correctly. This doesn’t mean that I’m infallible, but it means that my mind is generally pretty reliable. By contrast, if determinism is true, there is no reason to think that an argument that seems reasonable to me is any more likely to be true than one that doesn’t seem reasonable.

Now, the determinist might say that he can escape my argument by asserting that his belief forming process is guided by reason. This overlooks the fact that the belief that the determinist’s belief forming process is guided by reason is itself subject to the skepticism that determinism entails. If determinism is true, it’s quite possible that the determinist is deceived about his belief that his belief forming process is guided by reason, for the reasons I have given.

That concludes my argument that determinism is self refuting. I have another negative argument against determinism, which I may give in another post.

The Experience of Free Will

In this post, I plan to expand on my earlier post “Free Will” by explaining what I take to be the nature of the experience of free will. In other words, when I say that I observe my free will, what am I actually saying?

The primary attribute of the experience of free will is that I observe myself doing something, as opposed to being passively receptive of my sensory input and emotions, the spontaneous thoughts that sometimes emerge from my subconscious, and the other non-volitional aspects of my mental life.

It is readily observable that I can drift, i.e., I can relax the mental reins and let myself be pulled along by whatever feelings or thoughts I find myself with. In this state, a person does not criticize or analyze the feelings or thoughts that they are having – they do not wake up and ask “why do I feel this way? What might be causing this emotion right now?” or “is this inference valid? Do I really have good evidence for this belief of mine?” (One is almost inclined to conclude that this is the state determinists think we are always in, since it so accurately depicts their conception of the human mind as a passive, responsive entity.)

It is also readily observable that I can focus, i.e., I can use effort to bring my cognitive resources to bear on an issue. This is the moment when we wake up and start asking questions and rigorously analyzing the answers that we get, looking for concrete examples to test our generalizations against, and so on. Focus allows us to do two things.

First, focus allows us to narrow in on a specific issue. Our subconscious is constantly presenting us with a variety of different thoughts that are relevant to our current situation, and we do not directly control which thoughts it presents to us, as determinists love to point out. However, we do have the ability to direct our attention to specific items that our subconscious presents us with. If I have the sequence of thoughts “capitalism is good; capitalism depends on money; money is the root of all evil,” I have the ability to notice that there is something inconsistent here, then work on analyzing the claim that capitalism is good and the claim that money is the root of all evil in a disciplined fashion until I figure out what is wrong.

Second, focus allows us to draw connections between different issues. I was once writing an essay on Descartes when I realized that I would better understand Descartes’ ontological argument if I went back to the original author of the ontological argument, Anselm. This enabled me to find a connection between the problem of universals in Descartes and Anselm and their respective ontological arguments. If I wasn’t paying attention, I wouldn’t have been able to find this connection. Our ability to draw connections is also related to our ability to narrow in, because the better we have analyzed our beliefs in detail, the stronger the connections we will be able to draw between disparate issues.

So I think it should be clear that focus is starkly distinct from drift. When we focus, we observe ourselves doing something – whether that something be analyzing a specific issue in a disciplined fashion or synthesizing different issues together. During drift, we just sit there and watch the parade of thoughts and feelings that our subconscious spins out before us. These observations lend strong support to the claim that we have free will in the libertarian sense, and are not merely passive automatons, as determinists claim.