Author Archives: William

“The Lessons of History” by Will and Ariel Durant

I just finished this book, and I thought I would recommend it here. Will Durant is a famous historian who wrote an eleven volume series on the history of the world, together with Ariel Durant, who I assume is his daughter. The Durants are known for having a beautiful writing style.

The Lessons of History is a summary of what Durant learned about human nature over the fifty years he spent assembling his massive series on the history of civilization, distilled down to about 100 pages. As you would expect, it is a fascinating book. I think a historian could choose almost any individual sentence in this book and write a whole book explaining the evidence for that sentence, and that book would still be quite interesting in its own right.

If you’re interested in potentially buying the book or borrowing it from a library, there is a free preview on Amazon.

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Swinburne’s Concept of Omniscience

I’ve long been an advocate of the omniscience – free will paradox as an objection to the existence of God.

Briefly, the argument goes like this:

  1. If God is omniscient, then he already knows what I will do next.
  2. If God already knows what I will do next, then I do not have free will.
  3. Therefore, if God is omniscient, I do not have free will.

A naive response to this argument is that God’s knowing what I will do next does not cause me to do what I will do next. However, this can be overcome with a simple revision or clarification of the argument.

  1. If God is omniscient, then he already knows what I will do next.
  2. If God already knows what I will do next, then there is already a fact about what I will do next.
  3. If there is already a fact about what I will do next, then I do not have free will.
  4. Therefore, if God is omniscient, then I do not have free will.

This revision illustrates clearly that the paradox does not depend on a causal connection between God’s knowledge and my next action, but only on the existence of a fact about what I will do next, which is a precondition of anyone’s knowing with certainty what I will do next.

Swinburne’s response to the paradox is more sophisticated. He responds by redefining omniscience as knowing everything that it is logically possible to know. On this view, God does not in fact know what we will do next, but this is only because it is not logically possible to know what an agent with free will will do next. Swinburne makes an exception for actions which the agent has overwhelming reason to perform, which he does think can be known ahead of time.

However, the problem with this account of omniscience is that it leaves God knowing little, if anything, due to the fact that he himself has free will on Swinburne’s view. God has no way of predicting with certainty whether he will decide whether to perform a miracle in the future, altering the course of history. The only way of responding to this that is consistent with Swinburne’s position is to say that God has overwhelming reason not to perform miracles, but as an orthodox Christian Swinburne cannot say that.

What do you think about the omniscience – free will paradox? Let me know in the comments!

J. L. Schellenberg’s Ultimism

J. L. Schellenberg is an atheistic philosopher who has advocated a kind of secular religion. The following is based on my imperfect recollection of his work from a couple of years ago and some cursory research.

Essentially, we are very young as a species from the perspective of deep time (think millions of years), so our best religious ideas might still be ahead of us. Based on that premise, “ultimists” would explore different contemporary conceptions of ultimate reality without committing to any of them.

Schellenberg does think he has good reasons to believe that there may be an ultimate reality which (a) everything that exists depends on, (b) is the greatest thing possible, and (c) benefits humanity when they act on the premise that it exists. These reasons are adaptations of the classic arguments for God’s existence, although he thinks the original versions fail, and his reformulations are very different from the originals. However, he believes that the problems of evil and divine hiddenness show that the Christian conception of God cannot exist, so that can’t be the ultimate reality he is in search of.

I would say Schellenberg is at least as interesting an author as many Christian authors writing today, so he’s worth reading if you have a serious interest in philosophy of religion.

An Old Post on Why I Think Theism is Irrational

Note: I posted this elsewhere a few years ago, and I’m posting it here to save it.

Consider the following argument.

  1. The belief that God exists needs to be supported by evidence to be rational.
  2. The belief that God exists is not supported by evidence.
  3. Therefore, the belief that God exists is not rational.

The conclusion follows deductively from the premises, so the question is whether the premises are true. Both premises of this argument are controversial in philosophy of religion.

Premise 1 is primarily denied by Reformed epistemologists like Alvin Plantinga. I have read a number of Plantinga’s books, and I don’t find his arguments convincing. However, Plantinga has gone through multiple phases in his intellectual development and it would take considerable space to address all of these phases convincingly. Instead, I’ll just list a couple of general considerations and let people ask questions.

First, the belief that God exists is not comparable to beliefs like belief in the external world or belief in other minds, because a sane, informed person can seriously deny that God exists and not that the external world or other minds exist. Even people who believe that the external world or other minds don’t exist have to assume that they do exist in order to put forward their arguments.

Second, we do have some evidence that the external world or other minds exist, even if this can’t be put in the form of a deductive argument for the conclusion that an external world and other minds exist. We observe the external world, and we see other people move in ways that suggest that they are conscious. Plantinga does claim that we have this sort of evidence for God’s existence as well through religious experience and the like, but it seems unlikely that religious experience could sufficiently ground a large scale cosmological hypothesis.

Premise 2 would require a lot of analysis to establish convincingly. What one would have to do would be to choose a dozen or so of the most prominent arguments for God’s existence, then analyze each of them in depth to show that they do not support the claim that God exists. However, this has been done by atheists like Michael Martin in his book Atheism: A Philosophical Justification and Herman Philipse in his book God in the Age of Science?, and I cannot repeat their whole analysis here. Again, what I will do is offer up some general considerations and let people ask questions.

There are a number of versions of the problem of evil that cast doubt on any attempt to establish the God hypothesis. Here are a few examples.

  • The problem of animal suffering argues that God would not allow animals to suffer so horribly over the course of millions of years of evolution. We would expect a loving, omnipotent, omniscient God to avert these millions of years of suffering if at all possible, so the fact that we do observe that these millions of years of suffering have happened seems to count against the God hypothesis.
  • The problem of divine hiddenness argues that people who seek God honestly should always find him if God is loving and wants to establish a relationship with everyone, but they do not, so divine hiddenness seems to count against the God hypothesis. This has been developed in more detail by J. L. Schellenberg.
  • The problem of horrendous suffering argues that particularly horrific cases of suffering count against the existence of God. For example, suppose a man comes across a woman alone in the forest, cuts off her arms with an axe, rapes her, and leaves her to die. It seems like a loving, omnipotent, omniscient God would prevent this if we know anything at all about what is good or evil, but he does not, so horrific suffering seems to count against the God hypothesis.

Now, I recognize that these arguments may be objected to on the grounds that we cannot know for sure what God has good reasons to do or not do, since we are not omniscient like he is. I have two responses to this.

First, I am not offering these arguments from evil as attempts to disprove or provide evidence against the existence of God, but as attempts to provide observations that count against the God hypothesis in the sense of making the God hypothesis more difficult to establish. The real work here is being done by premise 1, which says that the believer needs to provide evidence for God, and these arguments from evil are really just attempts to make it harder for the believer to accomplish that.

Second, arguing that God might have reasons of which we are unaware for allowing apparently bad events creates a skepticism about whether we ever know what we have reason to do. If a man coming across a woman in the forest, cutting her arms off with an axe, raping her, and leaving her for dead can be overall a good thing, how can we say that we know that anything is ultimately good or bad?

So, I conclude that the belief that God exists is not rational on the basis of my initial argument. Thanks for reading, and I look forward to your comments.

Response to the Claim that Atheists Can’t Justify Believing in Free Will

Blogger Wintery Knight argues that atheists cannot ground the claim that we have libertarian free will.

Atheist Jerry Coyne explains why morality is impossible for atheists

He quotes atheist Jerry Coyne:

And that’s what neurobiology is telling us: Our brains are simply meat computers that, like real computers, are programmed by our genes and experiences to convert an array of inputs into a predetermined output. Recent experiments involving brain scans show that when a subject “decides” to push a button on the left or right side of a computer, the choice can be predicted by brain activity at least seven seconds before the subject is consciously aware of having made it. (These studies use crude imaging techniques based on blood flow, and I suspect that future understanding of the brain will allow us to predict many of our decisions far earlier than seven seconds in advance.) “Decisions” made like that aren’t conscious ones. And if our choices are unconscious, with some determined well before the moment we think we’ve made them, then we don’t have free will in any meaningful sense.

First of all, giving examples of atheists who believe that there is no free will does not establish a logical connection between the two positions. There is considerable diversity among atheists in terms of what they believe about free will. Two examples of atheists who believe in libertarian free will are Ayn Rand and John Searle. Robert Kane and E. J. Lowe have also presented accounts of libertarian free will that are consistent with atheism. So, quoting an atheist who happens to be a hard determinist doesn’t prove anything.

Secondly, this is bad evidence for determinism. The decision about which of two buttons on a computer to press is not a significant one, and there is no real basis for making the decision given the experimental setup, so subconscious influences may have a bigger role here than they would in a decision that something actually rode on.

Thirdly, it is self evident that we are capable of making decisions rationally, and the determinist’s own argument presupposes that he is capable of rational deliberation. If his conclusion is correct, then his own belief in determinism is merely the result of arbitrary subconscious influences, which means that it is invalid.

In conclusion, Wintery Knight has provided no reason to think that atheism is inconsistent with libertarian free will.

Subjective

Sometimes people are inclined to describe an area of inquiry, like morality, as subjective. However, it is important to separate out two senses of the word “subjective,” which I will call the metaphysical sense and the epistemological sense.

  • An area is metaphysically subjective if there actually are no objective criteria for deciding questions in that area of inquiry.
  • An area is epistemologically subjective if there are objective criteria for deciding questions in that area, but we don’t know what they are.

Every area of inquiry is epistemologically subjective prior to discovering the objectively correct criteria to employ, by definition. For example, logic was epistemologically subjective prior to Aristotle, since no one had explicit rules for how to reason properly or identify logical fallacies. People just reasoned using intuition until the objective logical standards were discovered.

Some areas of inquiry are metaphysically subjective, like astrology. There are no objective criteria for what your horoscope should say, because the field has no basis in reality. If the objective criteria for an area of inquiry are not known, then that may be used as an argument for the position that that area of inquiry is metaphysically subjective – that is, that there are in fact no such criteria. This is the basis for the philosophical position that morality is subjective.

It is critically important that we not rest content with a subjective approach to any legitimate area of inquiry, but rather work to define objective standards for everything we do. In the absence of objective standards, disagreement will proliferate, and skepticism and mysticism will run rampant.

Plato’s Dialectic

Plato held that in philosophy, we arrive at the truth by means of a process of “dialectic.” Dialectic, for Plato, works as follows:

  • We begin by having one person put forward an answer to the problem in question on the basis of certain arguments.
  • Another person then comes along, points out flaws in the first person’s answer, and puts forward his own answer.
  • Then a third person comes along, criticizes both viewpoints, and puts forward an answer that is better than either of them.
  • etc.

Plato held that, over time, this process leads us closer and closer to the truth. This is illustrated by some of his dialogues.

Plato’s theory assumes that we have a way of rationally evaluating an answer to a philosophical question as plausible or implausible. Plato held that we could see this “intuitively,” but his account of intuition depends on his metaphysics, which most philosophers have rejected.

Another perspective on dialectic comes from David Hume. Hume agrees that it often happens in philosophy that one person puts a position forward, and then another person criticizes it and puts their own position forward. However, according to Hume, the intuitions that this process depends on are subjective products of “habit or custom.” So, while dialectic can arrive at conclusions that better appeal to a given person subjectively, it is not a source of objective truth like Plato thought.

I think the only way to answer Hume once and for all is to present a body of demonstrably true conclusions in philosophy. So long as philosophy is seen as an endless debate, many will be inclined to question whether it has any cognitive status at all. There have been a number of attempts to do this since Hume, and evaluating all of them is beyond my scope here.