Tag Archives: religion

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!

Advertisements

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.

Putting God on Trial

A lot of atheists hold that although they don’t have any evidence that God exists, and therefore don’t believe in God, he might exist. It’s just very unlikely.

One of the atheists who hold this position is Matt Dillahunty, who compares the atheist’s position on God’s existence to a trial verdict. In a trial, the defendant is not found to be innocent, they are found “not guilty” – meaning that there wasn’t enough evidence to convict them of a crime. Analogously, according to Dillahunty, the atheist is not finding God innocent of existing, i.e., concluding that God does not exist. Rather, he is finding God “not guilty” of existing, meaning that there isn’t enough evidence to conclude that God exists.

I agree that there isn’t any good evidence for God’s existence, but the conclusion Dillahunty draws is not the correct one.

I like the analogy to a trial, so I’ll stick with that. Before a trial is held, there is a preliminary hearing to determine whether there is enough evidence to warrant even having a trial, which is a lengthy and laborious affair. Similarly, before considering a position, it is necessary to have some evidence indicating that it might be true, and is worth investing one’s limited time and energy in exploring further. Positions that fail this initial inspection are “arbitrary.”

Once we have concluded that a position is arbitrary, there is no need to consider it further. We are not obligated to assign it some “degree of probability,” since it has no relation to our knowledge, and hence there is no basis for such a probability assignment. Nor are we obligated to say that it is “possible” or “might be true.” A claim is possible, epistemically, if there are some facts in its favor, but there are no facts in favor of a claim if it is just an arbitrary assertion.

The correct position for an atheist to hold on God’s existence isn’t “it’s very unlikely, but it might be true,” it is “I have no reason to consider that idea.”

A Bad Argument for Moral Subjectivism

I have seen moral subjectivists imply the following argument at times:

  1. Either morality is based on God or morality is subjective.
  2. Morality is not based on God.
  3. Therefore, morality is subjective.

The argument is rarely put this clearly, but I suspect it’s a pattern of reasoning many moral subjectivists follow. They start out as Christians, accept that God doesn’t exist, and conclude that there is no morality, since the only concept of morality they are familiar with is supernatural. (This premise could also be seen as suggested by much of the moral debate in certain areas of the internet, which is mostly between divine command theorists and moral subjectivists.)

This is a bad argument because the first premise is unjustified – there is no reason why objective morality would have to be based on God. This is a Christian premise that there is no reason to accept on a secular worldview.

On a secular worldview, objective morality is much more likely to be based on the desire to live a good life. Everyone reading this likely wants to be happy, and you will be happier if you develop certain character traits in yourself over time. One example of such a character trait is productivity. People who are characteristically productive are likely to be happier than people who are lazy, because they will have accomplished more, so they will have higher self esteem, and they will likely be materially better off (more so than they would have been, at any rate).

This is the approach to morality moral subjectivists need to be considering when they make their case for moral subjectivism, not the much less plausible supernaturalist approach. We don’t use the pattern of reasoning “not supernatural, therefore subjective” in scientific issues, so we shouldn’t use it in philosophical issues.

Objective Meaning

The anonymous author of the blog Believe or Doubt recently made a post about objective meaning with respect to theism and atheism. According to believeordoubt, atheists do not have objective meaning, meaning based on something other than their feelings. Therefore, atheists do not have meaning at all, i.e., they do not have true meaning.

There is a fundamental assumption that religious people make and atheists deny, without it often coming into consciousness: true meaning must be objective. That is, the feeling of meaning is not the same as real meaning.

believeordoubt, being religious, sides with the religious people on this. She gives the analogy of Nozick’s experience machine, a machine that could give you the illusion of a completely perfect life. According to believeordoubt, most people would not enter the experience machine, because it isn’t real. In the absence of objective meaning, there is no meaning.

In my view, the atheist has no problem supplying his or her life with objective meaning, as defined by believeordoubt.

A conclusion is objective, not based on feelings, if it is based on observation and logic. An atheist should have no problem gathering observations about his or her own desires and interests, the world around them, and the available productive careers. By reflecting rationally on those observations, the atheist could fashion for him or herself an objectively meaningful life (and I submit that many of them do).

Such a meaning is not properly described as based on feelings, since the atheist is not just saying “welp, I feel like being a doctor today.” One’s life would be meaningless if one went into a career by whim, without thinking about it, but the application of evidence and logic to the issue removes that possibility.

Now, believeordoubt may mean something other than this by “objective meaning,” but if she does then I don’t know what it could be. Since no definition is provided, one could reasonably assume that she is tacitly defining objective meaning as meaning provided by God, in which case her argument is viciously circular.

 

Prayer

I think prayer is, in part, a way of attempting to control complex systems that we do not understand. To illustrate, here are some examples of prayers people might say:

  • “God, please let my candidate win the election.”
  • “God, please don’t let the hurricane tearing through town hit my house.”
  • “God, please don’t let Bob die of cancer.”

Each of these prayers have surely been said many times, in various forms, and each of them attempts to exert control over a complex system that we do not understand – the election, hurricane, or cancer. The prayer is a way of allaying our fear about an uncertain outcome.

We are much less likely to pray about things that we know will happen, because in those cases we understand all of the variables, so we don’t feel any need to appeal to a mysterious force to influence the outcome.

Variation

I posted the following on a forum I belong to, and I think the point is general enough to post here as well:

I doubt that any two people on this forum have exactly the same beliefs and values, or even exactly the same beliefs and values about all of the major issues we discuss here.

For example, Christians like to paint atheists as moral subjectivists, but this isn’t quite right. Atheists disagree about whether morality is objective. In addition, the atheists on this forum who think morality is objective all have different ideas about what objective morality looks like, and the atheists who think morality is subjective on this forum all have different ideas about what subjective morality looks like (e.g., HRG’s ideas on the subject vs. Corvidal’s).

Christians aren’t a uniform group, either. No two Christians on this forum have exactly the same views. There are Catholics and Protestants, liberal Christians and evangelicals, Christians in favor of homosexual marriage and Christians opposed to it, and Christians in favor of legalizing abortion and Christians opposed to it. And there are all kinds of different specific variations within each of these camps.

The metaphysical reason for this is that people have free will – they choose how they interpret the evidence available to them, and no two people have exactly the same evidence or make exactly the same decisions. To take an example we’re all familiar with, if you post a story about a Christian terrorist blowing up an abortion clinic, one person will interpret it as an isolated incident, another will interpret it as representative of the logical implications of Christianity.

My point is that you have to learn what each individual poster thinks by talking to them. Broad generalizations about what a group believes are necessary for some purposes, but don’t rely on them too much when you’re dealing with a specific member of that ideology.