Showing posts with label theism. Show all posts
Showing posts with label theism. Show all posts

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.

Friday, 28 June 2013

The Road From Unbelief

In the British TV show Blackadder Goes Forth, Baldrick asks:

"The way I see it, these days there is a war on, and ages ago there wasn't a war on, right? So, there must have been a moment where there not being a war on went away, right? And there being a war on came along. So what I want to know is, how did we get from one case of affairs to the other case of affairs?"

 That is a very long way of asking how the war started, but in some ways, it's making a more accurate question: because "how did we change states of affairs?" sounds like a process. And a question about the process is exactly the right question for how WWI began.

Similarly, I cannot conceive of my becoming a Christian as anything other than a process. "When and how did you become a Christian?" is a misleading question, since no precise time or methodology can be named, whereas "what process led to your conversion?" is much more answerable.

I was raised atheist in England and Spain, mainly, in a lower middle class household to a Chilean dad and English-Australian mother. The only times religious things that were brought up in my family were a couple of comments made by my dad about some Jehovah Witnesses
[1] that he coached tennis for, some other comments made by him around Christmas time about how Christmas should not be about presents, bringing up how Jesus was humble and not materialistic (which led to going to a midnight church service a couple of times, but I do not remember anything from there), a storybook of David and Goliath[2], and probably a few other times that have slipped my memory. The point is, it was not a religious, or anti-religious, upbringing. It was a caring, secular environment.

Having never been taught or told anything religious, I nonetheless developed into quite the atheist. Particularly in Spain, my friends were all atheists with two exceptions (perhaps three, but the third was an atheist in terms of daily life and attitudes), even though many of them had been through confirmation and first communion, and all except for one had been baptized. I knew there were religious people around, I just didn't have any contact with them. I thought religion was a childish thing that humankind had inherited from its history. In my diary from when I was fifteen I wrote (this is dated 13-XI-2009 (Friday) at 8:52 AM in my Lengua or Language and Literature class):

"God. The idea of god is as old as mankind. Since the beginning, God or Gods have been used to explain things without explanation.

For example, the Ancient Greek and Roman Gods. Zeus was the god of lightening and thunder. Storms of this kind were chalked up to divine intervention.

Monotheism is far newer. Most religions practiced in modern times have only one God, although by different names:
In Islam, it's Allah.

In Christianity, it's just "God."
In Judaism, it's God, or Yahweh, the Hebrew word.

All these religions have a lot more in common than commonly thought.

The Holy book of the Jews, the Torah, and other scriptures (they have 5 books) makes up the old Testament of the Bible, which is the Christian Holy Book. What does that mean? It means that Jews abide by the same rules as Christians do.

In fact, Christianity proceeds from Judaism. It was formed by a break-away from Jewish beleifs, and Christ himself, prophet of Christianity, was a Jew.

So how did Christianity develop to almost "rival" Judaism, when All The Bible comes from the Jews.

Well, I think it's for the same reason the Church of England, and the Protestant ways, broke from the Roman-Catholic Church.

It brings power and individuality to a religion. If you follow a certain idea, you are bound by it. However, if you create your own ideals, based on another, you are free to develop it, and that means power.


I went on in that entry in my diary to articulate some of the differences in ideology between Christianity and Islam, and how it reflects in the judicial practice of the culture. There are factual errors (the Torah has 5 books, but the Old Testament has more), theologically dubious claims (that Jews and Christians have the same rules) and errors in spelling, but this was my understanding of religion: that God was originally an explanation for phenomena and the newer monotheism was more sophisticated (though still nonsense) where people believed some particular book was holy. I also thought it was weird that people fought so much when they mostly believed the same thing. In general, by the time I turned sixteen, I was decidedly anti-religion.

So how I became a theist, and then a Christian, seems like a very important question to me. What led to my conversion?

The reasons why I suddenly became more critical of my beliefs - which I assumed to be the rational ones, as so many still believe unquestioningly (see here for more on that) - and think about reality, as well as my place in it, is unclear. The usual story I tell has to do with how I enjoyed physics so much that I couldn't explain it, and found my love for it unreasonable, leading me to question whether there was any value in studying physics, but I think that's just an illustration of various things that were bubbling under the surface. The reality is, I'm not quite sure why I decided to think more. But I did.

To avoid being accused of falling into the cultural religion, I explored Islam first. Though some of the ideas seemed reasonable, I did not find the system of belief compelling, the manner in which it arose to be endearing or the treatment of aspects of reality as illuminating, that is, that it seemed more like man-made theological philosophy with a holy book than the divine revelation to man. At some point during this time, however, I began to find it reasonably tenable that God should exist. A prime-mover God, but God nonetheless. I still find the first-cause argument compelling, and the ontological (modal) argument to be a very interesting one for agnostics, though I am unsure whether I should believe in modality or not, and the first premise has the potential for a fallacy of equivocation between two ideas of possibility (known sometimes as epistemic possibility and broadly logical possibility).

It may never cease to amuse me how I got on to the Christian faith. I was told that to completely disprove the biggest religion in the world, and be able to ridicule all the adherents I had ever known and would meet, I just had to look into history and show that the resurrection never happened. Christianity hinges on this one fact, so my first thought was "brilliant, that will be quick, people do not come back from the dead." Which is mostly true, but as I trawled scholarship and the evidence, I became convinced that Jesus had in fact risen from the dead.

Now, may I point out something important: it is not proven historically that Jesus rose from the dead. Ancient historical studies do not work in terms of proof - only mathematics and logic do that. Newly found belief in God meant that I did not think such an occurrence was impossible, though indeed, to assume it is impossible for someone to be raised from the dead would be to beg the question on the matter of the historicity of the resurrection. I find the resurrection to be the most rationally compelling explanation for the facts, and I have not got philosophical barriers to considering it an option.

To end, there are notable but rare examples of people who believe in the resurrection but are not Christians, but for the most part, to believe in the resurrection is to be Christian of some sort. Essentially, this was the beginning of my being Christian: believing in the resurrection from the dead, heeding therefore what I thought Jesus would have said (which meant applying historical criticism to the gospel accounts), and finally ending up believing that the Scriptures were a reasonably solid thing, at least the New Testament, which I had then read. It can be said that I at least believed the first part of the Apostle's creed (the part in bold):

"I believe in God the Father almighty, Creator of heaven and earth, and in Jesus Christ his only Son, our Lord, who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died and was buried. He descended into hell and on the third day he rose again from the dead. He ascended into heaven, and sits at the right hand of God, the Father almighty. He shall come again to judge the living and the dead. I believe in the Holy Spirit, the Holy Catholic Church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body and life everlasting."

The second part of this four part series can be found here.

[1] Perhaps because of this, my dad does not quite believe me when I say that virtually all Christians believe Jesus is fully God.
[2] In my memory of this book, it was a completely secular story about how underdogs can win - but since we still own it, I checked and it does in fact reflect the faith of David coming against the Philistine Goliath.