Tag Archives: theism

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!


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.

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.”

Undermining the Case for Theism

I’m an atheist, so my position on God’s existence is based on the premise that the arguments for God’s existence fail.

I can’t go through every argument in an internet post, obviously, but I will list a few sample arguments and explain why I reject each of them.

The Kalam Cosmological Argument

1. Whatever begins to exist has a cause.
2. The universe began to exist.
3. Therefore, the universe has a cause.

This argument is based on an equivocation between different arrangements of matter and matter itself. We have sufficient evidence that every arrangement of matter has to have a cause, but no evidence that matter itself requires a cause. Actually, the first premise implies that the universe is eternal, interpreted properly, since every arrangement of matter would need to have a cause in a prior arrangement of matter, all the way back forever.

In addition, this argument does not establish that the cause would have to be God. Craig attempts to give a conceptual analysis of the cause of the universe, but it is very weak, especially the principle of determination that he uses to justify the inference to a conscious cause.

The Fine Tuning Argument

This argument attempts to support the claim that God exists using the alleged fine tuning of the constants of the universe. These constants had to be within incredibly small, specific ranges to allow life to emerge. This fine tuning is very unlikely given naturalism, but it is at least not incredibly unlikely if God exists. Therefore, the fine tuning is evidence for God. (Robin Collins is an example of a theist who uses this argument.)

The problem with this argument is that none of the premises can be objectively supported. It’s controversial among physicists whether the fine tuning even exists. It isn’t clear in what sense the constants of the universe might have been different from what they are or how we could objectively determine the “probability” of their being at the values they are, either.

Finally, we have no basis for the crucial premises about what is likely given naturalism and theism. Who is to say that this sort of fine tuning is unlikely given naturalism – on what basis? Further, how could we objectively predict what God would be likely to create, given that our human preferences and values do not necessarily track the preferences and values that God would have? The fine tuning argument’s claims about God are based on nothing more than unjustified anthropomorphism.

The Argument from Miracles

The argument from miracles attempts to establish that God exists on the basis of miracles that allegedly occurred. One alleged miracle that is popular among apologists, and crucial for the Christian religion, is the alleged miracle of Christ’s resurrection. The textual evidence in the Bible, particularly the Gospels, is alleged to contain enough evidence to establish the claim that Jesus rose from the dead.

The problem with any argument from miracles is that there cannot be sufficient evidence for an event that violates the laws of nature. A law of nature is supported by countless observations over the course of human history, so we cannot allow one event, which is only supported by ancient texts of dubious reliability, to overturn it. Our experience uniformly shows that people who die stay dead, and we cannot allow the Gospels, which were written by fanatics, to overturn such a strong generalization.

Sometimes apologists say that the credibility of miracles depends on establishing the existence of God first, but this only shows that miracles cannot be evidence for God’s existence, since they presuppose it. If we have to believe in God to believe in miracles, then we cannot use miracles as evidence that God exists on pain of circular reasoning.

In conclusion, the case for God’s existence is very weak indeed.

Note: I copied and pasted this post from an internet forum post that I made elsewhere.

Evidence that there is no Evidence for God’s Existence

In this post, I will explain why atheists like myself are justified in saying that there are no good arguments for God’s existence. I will not be engaging with any specific arguments for God’s existence in this post, but merely justifying the inference from a specific atheist’s not having come across a good argument for God to the conclusion that there are no good arguments for the existence of God.

First of all, atheists who are familiar with science usually feel that believing in God is profoundly unscientific and therefore unlikely to have good arguments in its favor. There are a number of good reasons to think this.

  • Science is explicitly naturalistic, at least in methodology. For several hundred years, explanations in terms of God or the supernatural have been automatically ruled out by almost all scientists. The belief that God exists seems to be in tension with the naturalism of science in a fairly straightforward way, namely that science would probably not have set up a rule explicitly barring appeals to God if God played a significant role in the operation of the world.
  • Science uses an epistemology that is inherently hostile to belief in God. Science requires empirical evidence for every claim, and most claims that are made in science have to be supported with numerous experiments and agreed upon by all relevant experts before they are regarded as established. The belief that God exists transparently does not meet these criteria, and the success of science gives us a very strong reason to think that these criteria are the ones we should use.
  • Science has constructed a nearly comprehensive view of the world with an unprecedented degree of coherence, detail, and independent support that never appeals to God at any point. The fact that we can construct a comprehensive view of the world that is this powerfully supported without ever appealing to God is a pretty strong reason to think that God doesn’t exist.

These reasons are so powerful, especially in conjunction, that an atheist could reasonably conclude that there are no good arguments for the existence of God on the basis of these reasons alone, without doing a serious investigation of the arguments for the existence of God that philosophers have put forward. If he did investigate the existence of God, he would be justified in operating with a strong presumption in favor of naturalism and atheism.

If an atheist does consider the arguments for the existence of God, he will find ample reason to think that they all fail.

The original versions of the classic arguments for the existence of God, like the cosmological, teleological, and ontological arguments, have well known refutations which are very forceful and can be found easily by doing a search on the internet. This justifies an atheist in thinking that there are no good arguments for the existence of God because these arguments are still usually the ones put forward by theists who want to argue for their faith. If there were significantly better arguments for the existence of God, then we would expect them to spread rapidly through the theist community and come into wide use.

An even stronger reason to think that there are no good arguments for the existence of God is available to the atheist who chooses to review the contemporary academic debate about God’s existence. The arguments for God’s existence that contemporary academic philosophers put forward are typically just variants on the classic arguments for God’s existence mentioned above, and even these sophisticated variants have all been refuted dozens of times by atheist philosophers of religion. For example, William Lane Craig’s kalam cosmological argument, a variant on an argument put forward a millennium ago by Islamic philosophers, has been refuted many times in the literature, such as Michael Martin’s refutation in Atheism: A Philosophical Justification and the very detailed refutations given by Graham Oppy and Jordan Howard Sobel.

The repeated failure of theistic philosophers of religion to provide tenable arguments for the existence of God is very strong evidence that there are no such arguments, since they are in the best position out of anyone in the world to provide good arguments for the existence of God. They have been immersed in theology and philosophy of religion for decades, they can explain the ins and outs of Augustine and Aquinas, and they generally have much more familiarity with modern science than most theists do. If they can’t do it, then no one can.

To recap:

  1. Atheists have no intellectual obligation to investigate the issue of God’s existence, since having a decent familiarity with science should give them a good reason to think that there will be no good arguments for God.
  2. If atheists do investigate the issue of God’s existence, a rudimentary review of the classic arguments for God’s existence should tell them everything they really need to know about the issue.
  3. If atheists decide to investigate the issue in detail, which is well beyond what they are obligated to do. they will find only confirmation of their atheism in contemporary philosophy of religion.

This is not to say that atheists never have a good reason to study the arguments for God’s existence. There are two types of atheists who have a moral obligation to study the arguments for God’s existence: Atheists who are trying to get a degree in philosophy or have some other academic obligation to study the arguments for God’s existence, and atheists who intend to publicly advocate atheism by debating formally or arguing with a lot of theists. An atheist can also have a good reason to study the arguments for God’s existence, albeit not a moral obligation per se, if they want to become more familiar with how people thought about the world in the past.