Friday, 27 November 2015

A Short Note on Aristotelianism

Several people have in some way suggested to me that my problem with the cosmological arguments are easily resolved if I just accepted Aristotelianism, and after all, I should have if I was a Catholic at all to begin with. To the first point I would say, sure, cosmological arguments can be sound if the principles of Aristotelian metaphysics are accepted, but I have no good reason to think them all true. To the second, I disagree: despite comments from Popes defending the importance of Aristotelian-Thomistic philosophy in Catholic theology, nobody could possibly claim with intelligence that such comments are de fide. So their rejection is not heresy (cf. CIC. c.751). It is also manifest that such comments were not infallible acts of the papal magisterium, so canon 750 does not apply. What does seem to come into play is canon 752, which stipulates religious submission for papal exercises of the authentic magisterium (also those of the college of bishops, and c. 753 makes similar provisions for a bishop or collection thereof as such). But I have previously had such religious submission. This is giving the rather generous assumption that every time a Pope puts pen to paper in a teaching document, they are exercising this magisterium authentically.

I view Aristotle's metaphysics as one way of making a formalised view out of intuitions about the world. I have drawn the analogy in the past between his natural philosophy and metaphysics, and people have been quick to point out that they are distinct fields; that may be, but Aristotle employs the same approach to both, it is simply harder to falsify metaphysics. Once Galileo has the idea of putting to experiment Aristotle's doctrine that heavier objects fall faster than lighter ones (a pretty common sense notion) it becomes clear that it is false. Anybody can do the experiment. However something more philosophical such as Aristotle's direct realism is still defended by a tiny minority, even though it is pretty standard to refer to it as naive realism, owing precisely to its naivete.

As I think I have made sufficiently clear, I reject basing any justification of knowledge on intuition. Our intuitions about how the world works, as evidenced by both psychology and physics, are absolutely terrible. Humans see agency, meaning and patterns where there is none, we anthropomorphisise to no end, have a hard time believing things we strongly want to believe are false, are absolutely terrible with probabilities ... I could go on for a long time more with our rational defects and biases. Even if we lacked those, our brains think in such a mundane way that our only hope to understanding how the world fundamentally is physically is to fall back on mathematics (which proceeds by strict logic) and endure physicist's perpetual polite apologies for not being able to put four dimensions on a graph. Or not showing all of Hilbert space. I do not like to play the quantum weirdness card, but if there is one thing it illustrates is just how far reality is from our intuitions. Things do not work as we think they do. Things are not obvious. So principles which seem common sense and obvious cannot be justified on those grounds.

I reject Aristotelian metaphysics because its basis is intuition and not evidence. This is not a rejection of logic: if anybody can show that a metaphysical principle follows logically from a principle of logic, then it is logically true and I will believe it. But Aristotelian metaphysics is not an enterprise of pure logical argumentation, it smuggles in human intuitions all the time.

This might seem like a strawman to someone who finds Aristotle unituitive so I will offer an example of what I consider a major flaw with Aristotle's conception of the world, one which affects his cosmology, his physics and his metaphysics: Aristotle's view is teleological. Everything is about the endgame. Why do things fall? Because they want to get to the centre of the earth. Why do planets  move in circles? They want to. And metaphysically, what is one of the four causes of things? What they are wanted to do, or its final cause. How do we know this is true? We do not. We just normally think of things in terms of it's purpose, so Aristotle made it into its own metaphysical principle.

If you think the world has final causes, prove it. If you think substance theory is the best way to think of the universe and its constituents, good for you, but don't expect me to believe arm-chair pontifications about them without demonstration. I do not even think Aristotle is necessarily wrong, but nothing is true because of Aristotle's fiat.

Thursday, 5 November 2015

The Cosmological Argument: Doubts, Difficulties and My Thoughts

About three years ago I became a theist because I found the cosmological argument irresistibly compelling at a rational level. I did not become affiliated with any religion straight away, although I became a Christian not too long after. Today I no longer believe the cosmological argument is sound or can be known to be sound. Let me emphasise this point because it has two parts: (1) I do not find any version of the cosmological argument known to me to be rationally compelling and (2) I do not believe that such an argument can be formulated such that the conclusion (that God exists) is known with certainty.

Where that places my Christianity or theism more broadly is unclear to me. Some people contend that it should remain entirely unaffected because I have a personal relationship with God which transcends rationality. However, relationships seem to me to be based on elements of reason and other elements which go beyond reason. This can be illustrated with the usual analogy used for arguing faith as a virtue: if there seems to be evidence that my spouse is cheating on me, I give her the benefit of the doubt because of how much faith I have in her. But what is the basis of this faith? It is the experience of my spouse in the past and from there, the knowledge of her character. It is a faith built on evidence.

Belief in God, I would say, is much more like online dating without the benefit of cameras or telephones. Certainly, over the course of an online friendship, two people would get to know each other and some degree of trust could establish itself. In the back of their mind, however, is always the knowledge that in the past these people have turned out to be fake, always the knowledge that there exist master deceivers online in these forums. So faith is possible but it seems to lack certainty. Is this a problem? Perhaps not. Few things in life are certain. For me, nonetheless, the cosmological argument had given me a scrap of the closest thing to certainty I could have outside of the truths of mathematics and those most likely truths gleaned from the natural world. So for the argument to be unsound is tantamount to having the online dating website put a marker on the beloved's profile marking it as "Doubtfully Genuine." Any semblance of a relationship is viewed with suspicion and as perhaps the cunning ploy of a deceiver.

Let me enumerate the reasons that I do not think that the known cosmological arguments are sound. First of all, I have never been Aristotelian in my metaphysics (I have viewed with much more agreement the views of Locke and on occasion Hume and Kant, though I have no established metaphysics within which I operate) which means that I invariably find the arguments of St Thomas Aquinas to need reformulation, if only linguistic and cosmetic at points. Aristotle's metaphysics suffers from the same problem, in my opinion, which besets his natural philosophy: despite beginning with some observation, the addition of wildly speculative elements and, more importantly, ontologically realising his linguistic constructions renders a metaphysics which seems common sense but lacks critical grappling with real metaphysical problems. Aristotle's defenders continually accuse his critics (at least in my non-professional experience) of rejecting first principles which should be assumed as axiomatic, and yet this label given to common sense principles does not allow for their critical analysis. It is not the job of philosophy to make common sense reputable, but rather to seek for actual truth, and if common sense is misleading or false, then all the worse for common sense.

Secondly, to his first and second ways I say that I am entirely comfortable with the possibility of an "actual infinite," and so deny that there needs to be some first mover or first efficient cause. I can see why a naive view of infinities leads to paradoxes but in my studies of mathematics I have found no logical contradictions when infinity is rigorously defined; this is by no means to say that the conclusions of operating with infinities are common sense. However, un-intuitive should not be taken to mean false lest one makes of one's common sense an idol.

Thirdly, when it comes to arguments from contingency (as Aquinas' third way is), claims are made which are entirely unverified and implicitly deny, again, the possibility of an actual infinite. How does one know what sort of entity produces a contingent event? Clearly we know from experience that contingent events are produced by other contingent events. Why is it not possible for this to have gone on eternally in the past? More importantly, arguments from contingency are liable to the fallacy of composition which asserts that because the members of some whole have a property, then the whole must have it. This is sometimes true (if all the parts of a car are red, then the whole car is red) but it is not necessarily true (carbon atoms do not have the same properties as carbon allotropes like diamonds or graphite, or diamond and graphite would be identical). I see of no way of inferring that the universe is contingent based on its parts, particularly since:

Fourthly, even if a necessary agent was somewhere necessary in a sequence of contingent events, there is no reason to think that this agent is personal. It is quite conceivable that laws of nature are metaphysically necessary and so can produce contingent events. Why is the world the way it is? We explain everything in it by natural laws, so it is plausible that it can be explained as a whole by natural laws (though here I am asserting only possibility and plausibility). It is sometimes objected that natural laws only explain how to go from one state of affairs to another, not how the whole chain started, to which I reply with two points:

Fifthly, that the only natural laws we know are the ones that take one existing state of affairs to another by some means and mechanism, but this does not imply that these are the only natural laws that exist. This is particularly important because when cosmological arguments make claims about the beginning of all time-space and further claim that such an event would be impossible without a personal agent, they are implicitly are claiming knowledge about atemporal causation. What caused the Big Bang, they ask? But such a question requires a different type of causation to the one we are familiar with in day-to-day life because our daily notions of causality are that some event A which precedes B in time can be the cause of B. Yet there is no possible event of this type preceding the beginning of time, and so we must remain entirely agnostic as to what sort of causality is required. If the Big Bang was really the absolute beginning of all of time and space, then when it is said that it had a cause we are importing an entirely foreign notion to the event. When an argument like the Kalam says that everything that begins to exist has a cause for its existence, it makes a claim bigger than the one we have experience of: that everything that begins to exist within time has a cause preceding it in time for its existence. So to that premise I simply say: I cannot know.

Sixthly, the rather major point that I am an instrumentalist and so I do not believe that the scientific theory of the Big Bang can be thought to have metaphysical implications. If you want to know more about the point of view known as "scientific anti-realism", have a look at the article on the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. This means that in arguments like the Kalam where the universe is said to have a beginning, that premise must be proved by non-scientific means. If I was convinced of scientific realism, however, or even realism with respect to certain tenets, then I would furthermore believe two final points about quantum mechanics:

Seventhly, that the probabilistic nature of quantum mechanics (or in other words, its under-determinism) leads to profound implications for the Principle of Sufficient Reason (PSR) which underlies most if not all cosmological arguments. Where previously it was held to be certain that, if one measured something in a laboratory then it could in principle be explained uniquely by a preceding event, set of events or series of conditions, this need no longer be held. Every known result of quantum mechanics is consistent with the idea that an identical experiment can have different outcomes to which the only explanation is that the different outcomes were all possible. Because of Bell's theorem and its violation, I think a substantial case can be made that this result of quantum mechanics can be known to be metaphysically true.

Eightly, the interpretation of quantum mechanics which I favour as satisfactorily and elegantly explaining the results of physics is the many worlds interpretation. This actually is in dissonance with point seven and yet it still undermines some varieties of cosmological argument (albeit in a different way). This is because it removes the probabilistic nature of quantum mechanics so much that it makes every event uncontingent. In technical terminology, all of physical reality is in a superposition of quantum states which make up a wavefunction that never gets collapsed. The classical analogue would be like flipping a coin and both heads and tails came up in different worlds which branch off from each other, equally real, but we experience only one of the two. To those who believe that many-worlds is quantum mumbo jumbo, I refer this article from Sean Carroll. The consequence of the many worlds interpretation is that the sum of all the contingent worlds makes a necessary whole, much like the sum of the two outcomes of the coin toss makes a necessary whole. That falsifies the claim of the argument from contingency.


For those who are still reading I am going to add a final point in support of my claim that the soundness of the cosmological argument is unknowable with certainty by reason and experience that is available to us without extra revelation (which would be in contention anyway). It is, you might say, an argument from pessimistic induction: as our knowledge of science progresses and we learn more about the natural world, what we learn above all is how alien to our common sense it is. This makes evolutionary sense: the minds of human beings were not formed to contemplate quarks or comprehend how energy produces the curvature of space-time.

It is unsurprising that we intuit things that are false, but if we are honest with our findings we must acknowledge that the world is a weirder place than we could previously assume. The more we realise how unlike our daily life the real world is on scales that exceed it (the very small, the very fast, the very big, the very hot, the very cold, etc.) the more we must acknowledge how little we can justify on the basis of what appears obvious. Cosmological arguments are obvious arguments but the cosmos is not obvious. Therefore, to any claim of knowledge furnishes the premises of such arguments I respond "How do you know that?" Do not be surprised if I do not consider "It is obvious" to be an answer.

Monday, 2 November 2015

Why the Problem of Evil Creates a Problem

Undoubtedly the problem of evil is the most viscerally appealing, intuitive and ancient argument against the existence of an omniperfect God. In its oldest form, the argument from the existence of evil seems to have been adequately addressed. It went something like this:

(1) If God exists, evil does not.
(2) But evil does exist.
(3) Therefore, God does not exist.

The issue with this form of the argument is that it is too easy to show that the claim made in premise 1 is too strong; any plausible theodicy shows loopholes in the idea that God and evil cannot coexist. They standardly point to some good that could only be attained by allowing some evil, such as free will (part of Augustinian theodicy) or the importance of evil in spiritual growth (Irenaean theodicy). Some evil is a consequence of free will, which is important enough to tolerate that evil. Hence, it cannot be true that the existence of God is disproved by evil, since clearly God has reason to allow some evil.

The more modern and poignant form of the argument from evil is the evidential argument where evil is presented as something which lessens the probability of the existence of God rather than outright makes it impossible. These sorts of probabilistic arguments seem too nebulous to me to consider them seriously, so instead I will refer to the logical problem of evil with a more precise first and second premise: the argument from gratuitous evil.

(1) If God exists, gratuitous evil does not.
(2) Gratuitous evil does exist.
(3) Therefore, God does not exist.

Here, gratuitous evil is defined as evil that is not necessary to achieve some greater good. Explaining evil as required for some good is obviously not going to work here, but it does at least seem like gratuitous evil exists. Natural evils such as disease or natural disasters seem, in at least some proportion, to be gratuitous. Now, I think the theist has a very good counter at this point: just because it seems unclear to us why some particular evil exists does not mean that no such reason exists. We should be sceptical of our capacity to see the reason for evil if only because from out own experience we know that hindsight has shown particular events in our own lives which we evaluated as negative at the time to have redeeming positive qualities. Whoever had a day's sickness when the World Trade Centre went down, for instance, probably was not too pleased to be sick at the time and yet was rather pleased afterwards to know that they avoided a terrorist attack. God, however, has infinite foresight, so can see all the effects of any event and would be able to evaluate whether the good outweighs the bad.

This position is commonly known as sceptical theism and I think it is essentially correct. However, it implicitly contains ramifications which are disastrous for the religious person if not adequately addressed for it says something of the nature of God: God is clearly willing to tolerate evil for the sake of good. That is the implicit assumption of sceptical theism. This means that, in some sense, God is a consequentialist with regards to God's own actions (even if not for anyone else). What if God lies to us, or at least, allows some untruth to be said by some authoritative representative? Perhaps it could be responded that God would have no reason to do so - but sceptical theism has already postulated quite reasonably that God could have reasons which are beyond our comprehension or knowledge for allowing evil, therefore, God could allow such falsehood in divine revelation.

This in turn undermines the reliability of divine revelation as a whole, for the whole of sceptical theism is the statement that the absence of evidence for a reason does not imply evidence for the absence of a reason when it comes to what God allows or not. The philosopher Stephen Law goes further and argues that sceptical theism is a downwards spiral to the pits of scepticism, since all our faculties could be faulty if God had reason to deceive us, and for all we know God does in fact have such a reason. Law claims that full bodied scepticism is the logical end of sceptical theism, and whilst I disagree, it is irrelevant to the weaker claim which is that God's reliability is undermined.

Some theists reject sceptical theism because it leads to such consequences. To reject sceptical theism, however, is to claim that we must know the reasons behind God's actions, which seems patently false in general and more certainly false from a Christian perspective: the theodicy of the book of Job, for instance, seems essentially to assert sceptical theism. The unfathomable will of God, in turn, is cited by St Paul in his epistle to the Romans as the reason that salvation comes only to those whom God has elected. So sceptical theism, from the point of view of Christianity, seems true.

What can the Christian respond? I can only see one way out: faith. Let me be clear, however, by what I mean when using the word. I do not mean to say at this moment that Christians should believe God because they should trust that God could not have reasons to lie to them. That avenue is expressly ruled out by sceptical theism as a priori. What I mean is rather more inductive: based on the relationship to God as a person, Christians should bridge the gap and trust God. This is done every day by humans everywhere; we trust people who we know could be lying because we think we know them well enough to determine that they are not, in actual fact, lying. I believe this position at least safeguards the possibility of Christians considering divine revelation to be trustworthy. Once that is accepted it becomes a self-protecting belief because the Bible makes claims about God to the effect that God cannot lie, which can be interpreted as the claim that God could not have reasons to lie in actual fact.