Jun 07

Greater Good Theodicies

A common response to the problem of evil is to appeal to what I call greater good theodicies. Theodicies generally accept that a being with the attributes of God would have some moral obligation to prevent evil, all other things being equal.[i] They then attempt to provide a plausible reason why God might allow evil. In the case of greater good theodicies, this is accomplished by appeal to some good being made possible in virtue of there being evil or the opportunity to do evil. This is a balancing act where the good outweighs the evil, thus, it is worth it for God to allow the evil.

One of the common intuition pumps used to support this idea is exercise. No one likes to sweat excessively and push his or her body toward its physical limits, but we accept the discomfort because of the benefits it will bring. In other words, general health is greater than a small amount of pain.

We are told by many that God performs a similar measurement when deciding to allow evil. By evil being in the world, many theists say, wonderful things are made possible, including free will, “morally significant” action, soul-making, orderly natural laws, and the opportunity to show admirable character traits, like bravery, charity, and compassion. The greater good theodicy appeals to one or more of these goods and says, “Look at the good that is made possible by God allowing evil.”

I will argue that none of these theodicies can possibly describe why God would allow evil. In fact, no greater good theodicy can possibly do this. Let’s review what we have covered so far in the form of numbered premises:

(1) If God exists, then such a being would have an obligation to prevent evil, all other things being equal.

(2) When making choices (i.e., things are not equal), God would prefer to maximize greater goods over minimizing evils.

(3) Therefore, the obligation to prevent evil can be overcome if said evil brings about a greater good.

Greater good theodicies claim that God has a preference for greater goods, even if there are undesirable consequences brought about by instantiating those greater goods. They recognize it is undesirable that people die in car accidents and hurricanes, that children are born with terrible diseases and mutations, and that people starve. But they still maintain the goods mentioned above outweigh the evils. So, God is justified in allowing evil. I suspect that most theists reading this will agree with everything I’ve said so far, as long as they accept premise (1). But let’s continue the argument and see where it leads.

Now, if it is true that God has such a preference as long as it outweighs the negative consequences, then God would instantiate the greatest possible good, if there is one. If there is a good greater than admirable character traits or the making of human souls, then it should be instantiated even though doing so might cause us to lose out on those lesser goods. When there is a greatest possible good, then appeal to any other consequences fails if we accept the reasoning of the greater good theodicies.

To see this point more clearly, think of what is happening in cases like car accidents and hurricanes. There is some evil happening, like death and destruction, but there is also some good being thwarted. A person who suffers and/or dies misses out on getting to go on experiencing good in this world. Free will, for example is said to be important to God, but Hitler’s use of free will stopped millions of people from being able to continue to exercise their own free will. So, the continuation of that good (millions of individuals continuing to live and make free choices) must have been less valuable to God than the more abstract goal of free will with never a single interference from God. So, we might say that just like God maximizes greater goods over specific evils, he also maximizes them at the expense of lesser goods.

(4) When making choices, God would prefer to maximize goods of value GN over lesser goods of value GN-X.

So, we’ve said that God makes this choice and that explains evil. But can that really be so? Once you see that premise (4) is implied, you ought to realize that this means the greatest possible good should be instantiated by God, even at the expense of lesser goods. If there really is any greatest good, then any other good is necessarily of some lesser value (N – X).

Is there a greatest possible good in a theistic universe? It is God. Any method by which God accomplishes something is the greatest possible way the thing can be accomplished. The way God chooses and acts, the way God’s soul exists, the character traits of God, etc. are all as good as anything can possibly be. Period. This brings in another premise:

(5) The greatest possible good in a theistic universe is anything done in the same manner as God.

This causes greater good theodicies to collapse. It is said that we must have these evils in order to experience the good of free will, morally significant choices, soul-making, character building, etc. Yet, God is alleged to have a soul and to make morally significant choices and to have character, but God does not commit evil or experience suffering. Clearly, evil is not necessary to bring about those higher order goods. This leads me as an atheist to ask, “Why doesn’t God just create us with that same kind of soul or free will or whatever is in question?” Clearly, there is a God-like way of doing these things and a human way of doing them and the human way is also clearly of lesser value, given premise (5). And just as evil is not necessary to have a soul or to have character or to be morally free, neither is a human way of doing these things necessary. In fact, the God-like way ought to be preferred, per premise (4).


Conclusion and Objections

With all that in place, we should now be able to see that any appeal to a greater good is in vain in a theistic universe. Since there is a greatest good that does not require the existence of evil acts, both (1) and (2) can be satisfied by a possible world that includes no evil and also includes beings making morally significant free choices. In short, it cannot be the case that some God has a goal of maximizing greater goods because if that were so, this God would be maximizing the greatest possible goods.[ii]

Two potential objections come to mind. First, some might object that we will be losing out on all the good things we experience in this life if we just lived a God-like state. I tried to be very explicit in my development and explanation of (4) with this objection in mind. It is true that there are many good things that come from the typical human experience. But, if the reasoning of the greater good theodicies is correct, then that really doesn’t matter because an even greater good should be preferred by God. It wouldn’t matter to God any more than a woman who dies in childbirth will not get to see her child grow. God does not intervene, so we are told, because of the greater good.

The second objection may be stronger, but I’m not convinced. I think many would argue that God cannot give humans a soul like its own or the ability to make moral choices like it does. My initial reaction is, “Why not?” I’ve never heard a persuasive answer to this. Furthermore, even if you deny that we could go all the way to God-like, surely you would allow we could be closer than we are now, and that’s really all I need for the argument to work.

[i] There are other responses to the problem of evil which deny any obligation on God’s part, but that will have to be the subject of another post.

[ii] As it stands, this is an objection to greater good theodicies, but it could also be turned into an argument against the existence of God. In short, given the lack of certain maximized goods, any all-powerful God seeking to maximize these goods must not exist.

May 19

Foundations of New Atheism in the Radical Enlightenment

If you ask an educated person to name prominent French figures of the Enlightenment, there is a pretty good chance he or she will name Voltaire and/or Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Atheists will likely view these Enlightenment figures positively, especially Voltaire, for laying the foundations for modern secular thought. In this essay, I want to discuss just how right atheists are to think their foundations lay in the Enlightenment, but their views are more closely shared by forgotten figures that Voltaire actually opposed. There was a socially subversive group of intellectuals that were an important and influential component of the European Enlightenment, especially in France. Despite their influence at the time, we rarely hear their names in popular forums today. This subversive movement is commonly called the Radical Enlightenment.


Philipp Blom, in A Wicked Company: The Forgotten Radicals of the European Enlightenment, illustrates one present day manifestation of this divide by recounting his personal search for the graves of two of these radical figures—Denis Diderot and the Baron Paul-Henri Thiry d’Holbach. Both Voltaire and Rousseau were honored by being buried in the Pantheon in Paris (shown below).



This lavish and grandiose method of burial is quite distinct from the resting places of Diderot and d’Holbach. It is widely believed that both men were interred beneath a church near Baron d’Holbach’s home. Blom discovers “they are resting in unmarked graves, under the well-worn stone slabs in front of the main alter”[i] of the church Saint-Roche. The situation becomes even more bleak when the priest of Saint-Roche tells him that the ossuary has been desecrated multiple times and no one knows anymore which scattered bones beneath the alter belong to who. While Voltaire and Rousseau lie in places of honor, these two important figures are in an unmarked heap of bones.


Such disparity is one useful way to illustrate the relative importance placed on certain figures of the Enlightenment over others. So, just who were Diderot and d’Holbach? What were their ideas and why are they not honored? I’ll very briefly discuss a few of their ideas to show just how much common ground they share with modern “New Atheists”; they even faced similar criticisms. These are the figures we ought to be honoring when we discuss our roots in Enlightenment thinking.


It is difficult to understand the culture of eighteenth-century French intellectual circles without understanding the importance of salons. The salons offered a gathering place for intellectuals where ideas could be shared more freely than in the public square. As Blom points out, there was still significant censorship at this time:


In eighteenth-century France, no work could legally appear in print without a royal privilege indicating that it had gone through the hands of the church censors and been approved.[ii]


Most successful salons were run by women, but d’Holbach’s was an exception in this regard. Attendees included Diderot, Rousseau, David Hume, Georges-Louis Leclerc de Buffon, John Wilkes, Adam Smith, and possibly even Benjamin Franklin, though, the latter has never been confirmed. Those were probably the best known names, but several other important French intellectuals and authors, both men and women, also attended.


The members of d’Holbach’s salon expressed radical opinions on a number of topics, including politics, biology, religion, and morality. They produced works, such as the infamous Encyclopédie, that sought to introduce these opinions to the world outside the salon in a subtle manner. Many of their articles drew criticism from Voltaire and others. Several members of d’Holbach’s salon were known to be outspoken atheists, including d’Holbach himself and Diderot. While the Enlightenment was progressive in some respects, the world still did not seem ready to embrace atheism as a viable position. Even deists, like Voltaire, thought it was contrary to reason to be an atheist and was seen as potentially dangerous to many. As Shirley Roe points out:


Were nature to be separated from God as creator and explained solely in terms of natural or material categories, this source of religious belief would be seriously threatened. And thus the foundations of morality and social order could be undermined.[iii]


This response to atheism should not surprise us too much, since we have public figures today that still hold that view. Newt Gingrich and Ronald Reagan, as well as Christian apologists, have expressed concern over what atheism entails for morality in the public sphere.


The members of d’Holbach’s salon, however, actually saw the problems lying within claiming religion was the impetus for morality:


Why would God trouble to carve the commandments of the law into stone tablets if he could have engraved it directly into every human heart?[iv]


They approached morality not as something revealed through a holy scripture, but as something akin to common sense. There seemed to be self-evident axioms from which moral obligations could follow.


What was giving rise to this outspoken and combative atheism amidst a largely religious society? We know that atheism and doubt were not new, by any means, but it did seem to be gaining acceptance among public intellectuals. Advances in biology (and remember, these ideas were even before Darwin) certainly contributed, as did the increased importance placed on reason by Enlightenment thinkers. Combining reason with the quickly growing corpus of scientific work led to some radical ideas.


The Breton La Mettrie, who influenced d’Holbach, especially in his younger years, had taken the anti-Cartesian stance that the mind could not be separate from the body. Instead, La Mettrie argued that the mind depended on the body. Blom describes his views as follows:


If a bodily state, having a fever, could be translated into a clear mental reality such as a hallucination, then mental activity could be seen as merely an aspect of physical activity, not something existing separately.[v]


Bodily states clearly gave rise to mental states and this relationship appeared to be causal. This was problematic for a dualist view. As we’ve seen today, injuries to the brain affect so-called mental capacities. If such a body-to-mind causal direction is not the true picture, then some explanation is needed by the dualist.


Buffon had similar ideas about a materialist picture of human beings:


Far from being the crown of creation, humans are a part of nature, different from all other animals by degree, not by kind, only a few nuances away from monkeys, dogs, and horses. The fossil record […] suggested not only that a human was an animal among others, but that all animals contend to change in patterns much like a game of chance.[vi]


There was a developing materialist picture of biology describing humans as part of the animal kingdom and possibly a product of chance. As Roe tells us, these ideas concerning biology definitely influenced Diderot and d’Holbach and appeared in their later work and were also opposed by Voltaire:


Another effect [of the new theories of generation] was to promote materialism and to provide biological evidence for the existence of active and self-creative matter. This is most clearly seen in the works of Diderot and d’Holbach, and in the rising concern over materialism expressed by Voltaire.[vii]


With theories of self-creation, God was no longer needed as an explanation for human life and intelligence. This idea was, and still is, vehemently resisted by the devoutly religious members of society. Even those sympathetic to forms of biological evolution, though, may still think we have a lot to explain before ridding ourselves of a creator. For example, how did the Universe come into existence? Diderot described his response to such questions in nearly the same terms used by Richard Dawkins in The God Delusion:


The knot of nature may be impossible to disentangle, but introducing the idea of a being who does not obey laws such as cause and effect and who cannot be perceived, an uncreated Creator, simply makes the knot more complicated.[viii]


It does not help us much to introduce a solution to a problem of complexity and uncertainty that introduces even more complexity and uncertainty. The traditional notion of God as a Creator operating outside of natural law seemed almost unfathomable to Diderot. And it is difficult to hold a belief that an unfathomable thing exists.


We see very similar ideas in d’Holbach regarding explanations. For example, Blom quotes d’Holbach as saying:


Nature, you say, is totally inexplicable without God: that means that to explain something you understand badly, you need a reason which you do not understand at all.[ix]


These materialistic ideas if left in the salon may not have been so detrimental, but Diderot sought fame and influence through the publication of the Encyclopédie. This was a project spearheaded by Diderot which featured articles written by fellow members of the salon, including several by d’Holbach on scientific subjects. The stated goal of the project was to present in an ordered manner a summary of current knowledge on a huge variety of topics, especially topics of natural philosophy. You can imagine, though, the slant of such a project given the outlook of those writing it. They may not have been able to overtly promote materialism for fear of the church, but they could do so subtly. The Encyclopédie was published over decades, featured thousands of articles, and was wildly successful.


In the end, though, the views discussed here were too radical, even for the Enlightenment. Blom succinctly describes the dilemma as follows:


From its inception the bold moral vision articulated by the friends of the rue Royale met with fierce resistance from critics who argued that godlessness would lead to immorality and debauchery, that the pleasure calculus would automatically turn the world into a Hobbesian war against all.[x]


This distrust, which is still prevalent regarding atheists, was just too much to allow these radical figures to be honored in the manner of Voltaire and Rousseau, who eventually broke ties with the group. And still today, you’ll never hear their names unless talking to a historian. But as modern atheists, we can clearly see the foundation of modern ideas regarding religion, the mind-brain connection, a natural basis for morality, and a materialist picture of biology. They were also willing to speak out about their ideas in a time when that set them against the religious mainstream. Despite being hundreds of years old, their ideas would still seamlessly fit into the discussion today.



[i] A Wicked Company, p. xii

[ii] A Wicked Company, p. 4

[iii] Biology, atheism, and politics in eighteenth-century France, p. 37

[iv] A Wicked Company, p. 87

[v] A Wicked Company, p. 32

[vi] A Wicked Company, p. 60-61

[vii] Biology, atheism, and politics in eighteenth-century France, p. 46

[viii] A Wicked Company, p. 48

[ix] A Wicked Company, p. 161

[x] A Wicked Company, p. 305

Apr 25

Is naturalism a type of faith?

In this essay, I’m going to take on a common claim that a form of narrow naturalism can rightly be called faith. The form of naturalism I have in mind is one that says for any given unexplained event, it is overwhelmingly likely that the real explanation will be a naturalistic one. So, for example, such a person would claim that something natural probably caused our universe via the Big Bang or other means. Or they would claim that something natural probably brought about the origin of life on this planet. These are events currently not explained by science, but the narrow naturalist is confident that science can one day explain them, if the opportunity actually presents itself.

I don’t want to get too mired in a discussion of what we may rightly call faith, so I’ll just consider whether that confidence in science’s explanatory capability is justified and to what extent it is justified. If the belief is very justified, say at a probability of 0.75 or higher, then I don’t think we can rightly call it faith under any definition except those that are too all encompassing to be useful.

What will be our method of determining this probability? You probably guessed it, if you’re a regular reader—Bayes’ Theorem! If you just read that and thought, “WTF is Bayes’ Theorem?” then you may want to start here, here, and here to see my attempts at instruction.

As a reminder, here is Bayes’ Theorem, and the sections below will attempt to replace these abstractions with real numbers so we can run the formula:

p(h|e.b) = p(h|b) x p(e|h.b)  /  [ p(h|b) x p(e|h.b) ] + [ p(~h|b) x p(e|~h.b) ]


Prior Probabilities: p(h│b) and p(~h│b)

To determine our prior probability, we’ll use Laplace’s Law of Succession. This offers a great advantage in determining our prior probability compared to situations that require more subjectivity. Laplace’s Law is p = (r + 1) / (n + 2) where r is the number of times in past trials that an outcome has occurred and n is the total number of trials. I’ll give a quick explanation: If you were rolling a die that you knew was biased, but weren’t sure toward which number, you could test it by rolling it several times. Let’s say that the 6-side is rolled 47 times out of 100 rolls. The expected prior probability of rolling a six is 1/6, but on this particular die we see it’s 48/102 or simplified is 8/17. When you have past data, Laplace’s Law is a good way to provide an objective prior probability.

Now, in the case of naturalistic explanations, we have an extensive track record. In fact, everything that has ever been conclusively explained has been done so by a naturalistic process. This includes the birth of every person, the formation of rivers and mountains, diseases, genetics, the outcomes of wars, and on and on. All of these things used to be attributed to the acts of gods or other divine creatures, but are now understood as natural phenomena. This means that using Laplace’s Law, r and n are the same. This can quickly get out of hand because so many things have happened like these in the history of Earth. I’m going to limit my occurrences to 100 billion. That’s the number of people estimated to have ever lived. So, even if we were only counting the number of sneezes that have ever occurred, we would be justified in using this large of a number. If we run Laplace’s Law, we get a result of p(h│b) = 0.99999999999. This is the probability that our hypothesis of narrow naturalism is true given our background knowledge of history and science.

The other number we want here is simply derived from the previous number: p(~h│b) = 1 – p(h│b) = 0.00000000001. Now we have two of the four terms necessary to calculate an answer.


Consideration of Evidence: p(e│h.b) and p(e│~h.b)

We’ve just seen that prior to considering any particular example, like the Big Bang, naturalism has a significant statistical advantage in its potential to explain based on a strong track record. What this tells us is that even if we are very generous to the opponent (like a supernaturalist) in the consideration of evidence, h (narrow naturalism) should still come out as much more probable. So, let’s try and be generous so that no one can accuse me of bias. I’m going to offer three sets of possible numbers that stack the deck in favor of supernaturalism by making the likelihood of evidence given ~h way more probable than the likelihood of evidence given h.

  • Scenario 1
    • p(e│h.b) = 0.01
    • p(e│~h.b) = 0.99
  • Scenario 2
    • p(e│h.b) = 0.001
    • p(e│~h.b) = 0.999
  • Scenario 3
    • p(e│h.b) = 0.0001
    • p(e│~h.b) = 0.9999



Now, we are able to solve for p (h│e.b), which stands for the probability our hypothesis of narrow naturalism is true given available evidence and background knowledge. I’m going to show the outcome for all three scenarios:

  • Scenario 1
    • p (h│e.b) = 99.999999901%
  • Scenario 2
    • p (h│e.b) = 99.9999990009999%
  • Scenario 3
    • p (h│e.b) = 99.9999900010002%

Even in the best case scenario, the result of the confidence we should place in narrow naturalism being true given history is practically 100%. And that is with the likelihood of available evidence being 9,999 times more probable under supernaturalism!

Unless someone can start coming up with confirmed supernatural causes in the past (and it had better be a whole lot of them if they plan to make a dent in the probabilities), then narrow naturalism is incredibly well justified. To call this level of confidence faith is misleading at best, dishonest at worst.


Mar 29

Current Thoughts on the Kalam Cosmological Argument

I recently had a comment on one of the first posts I ever wrote. In this post, I discussed classic arguments for God, including the Cosmological Argument. This is the traditional argument that asserts that everything that exists must have a cause. The standard reply to that premise is to say that God is something that exists, thus, would also require a cause. To this specific premise, that reply is correct. However, there have been modern updates to the classic argument that sidestep this reply.

The comment on the old post asked questions that led away from the classic cosmological argument and into the newer Kalam Cosmological Argument (KCA). I thought it would be worthwhile to provide an updated summary of my thoughts on the KCA using his comments as a guide to my discussion, since I assume other readers might have roughly the same questions. Following are the questions from Andrew (in bold) and my responses. I also wrote about a general problem I have with the KCA and similar arguments in my previous post, False Dilemmas.


1. Surely from a neutral, philosophical point of view if there is such a thing as God, then she/it/he is generally accepted to be an eternal, infinite, causeless being. If we don’t accept those preconditions, we are not talking about what philosophers generally refer to as God. But if we do accept those preconditions as to what God is, then God is not held to the restrictions of causality you refer to?

Whether or not we should accept these preconditions depends on the argument. If we are trying to disprove the Christian God, then, yes, we should make sure our critique actually covers what they believe. However, in the case of the KCA, we don’t have to grant this. The KCA is a positive argument and bears the burden of showing that the universe must have a cause and what that particular cause must have been like. If you read or listen to Craig’s full version, you’ll see that he argues both of these points. He thinks the argument shows certain aspects about God; it is not simply taken as a given, nor should it be in any positive argument.

The causality restrictions were not simply placed by me onto God in the old Cosmological Argument. Instead, they are placed onto God by the wording of the argument’s own first premise because God is part of everything. The KCA gets rid of that problem not by assuming something about God, but by rephrasing the premise. In Craig’s version of the KCA, he replaces the idea that everything that exists must have a cause with “everything that begins to exist has a cause.” That allows a potential escape from the causal chain for anything that does not “begin” to exist. Even that, though, is not enough to simply assign it to God. This potential escape could be available to the universe itself or to God or to any other relevant options. So, Craig tries to give reasons why we might think this option is really not available to material causes, but is available to God.

In short, we can think of it this way. If a theist is trying to prove that a God like x exists and they start with an assumption in their argument that a God like x exists, then they are begging the question. Or you might say their argument is showing that if they assume x, then x. Not much of a conclusion. Atheistic arguments, on the other hand want to start with the assumption x, then try and contradict it to show not-x.


2. Surely it is both philosophically and scientifically accepted that the universe must be finite in time? From a scientific point of view, the expanding nature of the space/time continuum indicates the existence of a start and of the big bang. From a philosophical point of view, it is incoherent to speak of an actual infinite set of events in time. If it is therefore incoherent or non-factual to talk of an infinitely old universe, the counter argument that God is not the cause because the universe might also be infinitely old is not therefore available?

Actually, it is not scientifically or philosophically accepted that the universe must be finite in time. I personally consider an infinite universe or multiverse to be a completely live option. A few weeks ago, I emailed Caltech physicist Sean Carroll (unrelated to this post) to ask his opinion on certain aspects of the KCA since he was one of the leading scientists working on theories of time. He had this to say:

I don’t think a lot of these concepts are very grounded in things we understand about the universe.  For one thing, there’s no reason at all to doubt that actual infinities are possible.  On a more technical level, I can imagine time having a beginning, but like you say I can’t really imagine something “outside of time” creating the universe at some particular moment. That might be a lack of imagination on my part; more likely, it’s an absence of a sensible theory underlying those words.

Quite frankly, I don’t know of many leading physicists that think Craig’s arguments tell us anything useful about the creation of the universe. Craig used to appeal to the Big Bang as scientific evidence of a beginning. In my opinion, that’s problematic for at least a few reasons:

  1. There is no accepted theory that actually takes us back to the Big Bang itself. That’s because General Relativity breaks down on certain scales. So, the implication of our expanding universe and standard general relativity is that the observable universe was once confined to a smaller, denser, hotter space. Anything more will require argument and evidence.
  2. Those theories that actually may take us to the actual “bang” seem to take us through the Big Bang singularity (or whatever it actually is) and onto the other side, according to the mathematics, meaning something existed prior to it (that is my interpretation of M-Theory, but I welcome any correction as this is not my main area).
  3. As theoretical physicist Brian Greene shows in The Hidden Reality, we actually reach a “many worlds” conclusion through several independent branches. They aren’t all identical, but many of them are and they all at least point to aspects of existence beyond our perception. In other words, the multiverse is not simply an ad hoc reply to certain philosophical problems. It really is entailed in a number of ways, if one of the theories entailing them is correct.

I think Craig also realizes that appeals to the Big Bang have now become problematic. That is why he now refers to the Borde-Guth-Vilenkin Theorem as evidence. As I understand it, the BGV Theorem is supposed to show that a first singularity is implied by the theory of inflation. Now, going down that path is going to get very complicated, very quickly. Just look over the linked paper and see if you grasp the equations. The vast majority of us do not have a sufficient background in either cosmology or mathematics to understand and evaluate the argument properly, much less its further implications. This means the apologists presenting these arguments don’t really understand them. They are simply parroting William Lane Craig. Actual physicists, like Sean Carroll, are hesitant with what we should conclude from the BGV Theorem and inflation in general, and that’s enough to know that the evidence is not rock solid proof, as Craig would have you believe. His case hides a lot of assumptions that are contentious.

For my thoughts on the philosophical perspective, you can read my previous article here or philosopher Wes Morriston on the subject here and here. There are several more papers by both philosophers and mathematicians, but these should be a good start. In short, intuition pumps about the impossibility of actual infinites only work because they are false analogies. They require a beginning in order to make sense. For example, you cannot build an actual infinite through successive addition or if you knock down an infinite set of dominos, you’ll never reach the end. These rely on you to start counting or start the dominoes. When viewed in the correct light, it’s no longer a problem. If the dominoes are falling for an infinite number of moments, then how many dominoes will have fallen? An infinite number!

The other problem raised by Craig is based on Hilbert’s Hotel and variations of it. I’ll offer three very brief criticisms because this sucker is getting long. First, it is not clear what real problem it poses for us in determining the possibility of an infinite past. Second, mathematicians accept the seemingly paradoxical result because he is trying to apply finite operations to infinite sets and then complains when he doesn’t get the same results as finite sets. No one is suspecting that you should! To move from these issues to impossibility is a non sequitur. Third, we have good reason to suspect our intuitive problem is one of limitations in our experience. In the old paradoxes of Zeno, we had the everyday experience to know there must be a solution, but we didn’t have the mathematics to solve the problem until Newton. In the case of actual infinites, we do have the mathematics to deal with actually infinite sets, but we are missing the experience (and always will). I suspect if we had the right perspective, these would seem no more problematic to us than Zeno’s paradoxes.


3. In participle physics, it is accepted that there is quantum fluctuation in which participles come into and out of existence where there is potential for them to exist. Surely that is a different philosophical category to the explanation of the origins of existence, where it is incoherent to speak of any potentiality unless that potentiality is also infinitely old and therefore runs into the same philosophical difficulties as an infinite universe?

I think you’re saying that Stenger, Krauss, and others are wrong to call this sort of thing “coming into being out of nothing.” If so, I would agree. That’s equivocating on the use of the word “nothing.” However, I don’t find it problematic for something to be infinitely old, as I explained above.

I believe Stenger said these things popped into being with no apparent or intelligible cause, but I think we can actually dismiss that now as a proper rebuttal. I see no reason why we ought to infer they have no cause at all.



So, those are a few of my thoughts on the Kalam. I think this article, along with my False Dilemmas article, are a strong reply to the KCA. We have good reasons to question its scientific and philosophical assertions. I have other issues, but that’s probably enough to digest for one day.

Mar 25

Podcast Interview

I was interviewed on the most recent episode of the An American Atheist podcast. I discussed my recent article about speaking in tongues as a young kid at a charismatic church camp.

You can choose to listen via either of these options: Streaming or iTunes. I come in around the 38:20 mark.

Mar 21

False Dilemmas

One of the many problems we face in arguing about gods is the danger of running into a false dilemma. I am specifically concerned with arguments for theism, which I think contain many false dilemmas, but arguments for atheism should also be wary of the problem.

What we will see in many apologetic arguments in favor of the traditional monotheistic God is a case of dilemmas presented. Here are two such examples:

  • In the Kalam Cosmological Argument, we have immaterial minds versus abstract objects as the potential cause of the universe.
  • In the Fine Tuning Argument, and in teleological arguments generally, we have design versus chance.

These arguments set up two opposing options and say these are the only options. Then, they eliminate one option and say the other, by default, must be correct. To understand why I think this is abhorrent, we should first understand what makes a true dilemma and we can then compare that to the arguments for God.

I think the best demonstration of a true dilemma can be found in mathematics. Take this chart I created using this free online graphing calculator. This is a graph of a parabola. It is a line with the formula y = x^2.

What you’ll notice from the parabola is that, for every y, there are two appropriate answers for x. If y = 1, x can equal either 1 or -1, and so on. Graphically, this can be seen in the chart because as you move up the y-axis, there is a corresponding x plotted to each side of the axis. This is a perfect dilemma. We know with certainty there are two—and only two—options.

It’s very easy to get certainty in this two-dimensional graph world. It’s simple and you know all the rules. In the actual world, we are unfortunately faced with a great deal of epistemic uncertainty. Consider a case of how this uncertainty can creep into an apparent dilemma.

Imagine an experienced farmer driving through a rural county and he notices a big red barn off in the distance. The farmer, drawing from his experience in raising animals, thinks ‘I bet that barn is used for either horses or cattle.’ The farmer does not know a movie is being shot on location in this county and what he actually sees is a barn façade with no animals.

We can see that even a commonplace belief is subject to epistemic uncertainty. Many will admit that the farmer is quite justified in making his assertion, but he still produces a false dilemma. The good news is that we can recognize that the movie scenario is extreme and highly unlikely. So, most of the time, these dilemmas will be pretty good. In other words, even though they don’t cover 100% of the possibilities, they cover a substantial portion of them. Movie sets probably occur in between 0-1% of all rural counties, so the other alternatives shouldn’t necessarily bother us without some other contrary piece of data (and also assuming the farmer has reliable knowledge of barn uses).

It might help to visualize this. You can move away from certainty, which is a dilemma that accounts for 100% of the probabilistic sample space. In everyday scenarios with the only alternatives being incredibly unlikely, it’s not a big deal. You may still have 99% of the relevant options covered. But the further you move into areas of uncertainty and ambiguity, the less you can say that you have covered all or most of the real alternatives.

If we really worked out the sample spaces for the examples above, we would see moving further right means moving further into uncertainty. The line formula for a parabola offers no alternatives, the shirt example offers a few (sweater, etc.), and the angels example…well, we just have no idea how to determine that. The first is a perfect dilemma, the second a decent dilemma, and the third is a terrible dilemma. We simply have no justification in the third case for favoring one of the options or ruling out other options.

So, that is the long way of saying this: The further you delve into areas of uncertainty and ambiguity, the less likely it is that you can produce a real dilemma.


Why does this matter?

Good question! Let’s think back to the two arguments for theism I mentioned. On the way to asserting the dilemma for the Kalam argument, we have to trudge through such muddy epistemic waters as whether there can be infinite time and/or space, the role of quantum mechanics in explaining our current universe, the correct interpretation of the inflationary model, whether the universe as a whole requires a cause, whether all of space and time began at a Big Bang singularity, and much more. We basically need to know very specific information about what took place during and perhaps before the Big Bang. Right now, we really don’t know very much about this and these may never be settled issues. We can infer a great deal of what happened after the Big Bang, but not before or during it—whatever it was. Craig’s dilemma that the universe was either caused by an immaterial mind or an abstract object, like a number, requires a stance on such matters. But with the uncertainty surrounding these questions and even the additional questions that branch off of these, we cannot adequately define our sample space. While it probably isn’t as bad as the angels example, it’s definitely at that end of the spectrum. Whatever quotes Craig throws out during his debate from select physicists, always remember he’s in Plato’s cave trying to decipher the shadows on the wall.

How about the Fine Tuning Argument? According to this argument, the values of various constants either occurred by design or by chance. I question whether we really know the sample space for each constant. What could they have been other than what they are? If you are playing poker, for example, you know the next card coming will be limited to the 13 unique options in the deck. Even though there are infinitely many numbers, your sample space in the game is restricted. You’ll never be dealt a 127 of clubs. Christian philosophers Tim and Lydia McGrew also pointed out that the ranges were so large, it wouldn’t matter how much the constants could vary, making the appeal to fine tuning somewhat meaningless because a coarsely tuned universe would be just as improbable.

What could restrict the sample space? There could be underlying factors that actually greatly reduce our estimation of the “chance” option. In other words, the dilemma posed by this argument isn’t really design versus chance. It is design versus some particular value assigned to the chance option. It’s a false dilemma because there are plenty of reasons to think the small numbers given, like 1 in 10^50, are not really the only options to consider. I’ve written before on how we can misjudge chance if we don’t recognize underlying factors. The same thing might just be happening here. It seems quite plausible that some law-like feature of the universe might account for the existing range of constants.



Be wary of the deductive arguments used by apologists that produce these and similar dilemmas. Go back to the beginning. How did you get to the dilemma? What assumptions are being made without warrant? I’m willing to bet many of the apologists’ arguments, which are being presented as if they are just obvious rational deductions, are actually sweeping quite a bit under the rug.

Mar 09

The first time I spoke in tongues

I attended camp every summer as a kid. Most of the time, this camp would be indistinguishable from other summer camps. My friends and I would play basketball, pass notes back and forth with girls, listen to music, etc. The rest of the time, however, the camp was quite different. You see, this was a charismatic Bible camp,like the one in the movie Jesus Camp. It was held in rural Missouri, and they would bus in kids from Assemblies of God churches all across the State.

The camp served basically the same purpose as old-time tent revivals. When you’re in a charismatic community, it’s difficult to maintain the same level of intensity. You have to be feeling something to really motivate you to hold your hands up high, sing loudly, or dance around. And that’s just the “normal” stuff. Occasionally, someone might decide to run up and down the aisles or shout in tongues or fall on the ground and convulse. These aren’t the sort of things one can do outside of a certain environment.

Now, if God’s presence were really palpable and causing these people to do this, then the occasional recharge by a revival week would not be necessary. Imagine if a real thing like electricity constantly ran through your body. You would show the effects regardless of your surroundings. Since such urges were not due to the presence of God, we needed these special weeks to whip us back into a frenzy. Of course, a different story was sold to us. We were told (and I’m sure the pastor believed this) that our reduced enthusiasm at normal times was not because the imagined effects were wearing off from the revivals. No, it was because we were being bad Christians. We were becoming complacent and not honoring God properly.

Now, take this environment where everyone is pressured that the right kind of Christian is a charismatic one and add children to the mix. This was a strange and confusing time for me, and I suspect the other kids felt the same. We were never quite sure what to make of the ridiculous displays going on around us, but we knew that this was how good Christians were supposed to behave. Yet, seeing adults acting this way wasn’t an effective motivator. We would stand there awkwardly and perhaps shyly put our hands in the air. Sometimes a particularly bold kid, like the pastor’s son, might go further. But everyone approached it a bit timidly. It wasn’t true peer pressure. Enter Summer Camp.

In camp, the composition of congregations was completely transformed. Instead of being surrounded by nearly all adults, we were around all kids. These were the same kids that were just on the basketball courts that seemed cool. This was a chance for the church leaders to break through (sneak through, actually) the natural defenses created by hesitance in circumstances that might embarrass you.

There were two church services each day. The first service in the morning was perfunctory. Announcements would be made, we would be told to act in a godly way as we did our activities, a prayer would be said, and we’d go off to breakfast. The evening service was where the fireworks happened.

One year of camp really sticks out in my mind because it was the year when the focus of the evening services was to get everyone to speak in tongues (glossolalia). When I look back I recognize all the reasons why this was ridiculous, but at the time I was frightened. I had never done this before (among charismatic kids, this could be like shaving where it was something to brag about if you did it early). I also knew it was supposed to just happen to you when the power of the Holy Spirit would surge through your body and take control of your voice. You had to ask God for this gift and, unsurprisingly, he may not respond. It was not something that could be faked, or so I thought.

Church services in this community are pretty standard. They sing songs, send around collection plates (God needs your allowance, kids), then preach a sermon, and end with an altar call. The altar is a place at the front of the church where you go for some kind of special prayer need. They might call people up to be prayed for if they need special healing (except for amputees) or if you were “giving your life to the lord.” But for this particular week of camp, every altar call was devoted to praying for those people who had not yet spoken in tongues. So, night after night I would have to go to the front with several dozen other kids and have all the kids I knew from church who had already done it pray with me. When I say they prayed with me, I mean they all had their hands on me and were basically shouting. And of course they were probably anxious to show off their own skills, so they were shouting in tongues. In one ear I might hear “hamunuh-hamunuh-hamunuh.” In my other ear, I would hear “sha-na-na-sha-na-na.” I’m not kidding; it was a wild scene.

This went on for several nights. And each night went on for hours. Spending over two hours in prayer like this was not unusual. I didn’t know what to do. I felt on display, left out, awkward, and I wasn’t feeling any Holy Spirit surging through me as we prayed. I wanted to be done. So, I eventually started speaking in nonsense. This made the people around me cheer over their victory and God’s great blessing. Then they would start chanting their own nonsense even louder, creating a reciprocal effect. Unfortunately, my wish for this to end did not come true because then we had to spend several hours all showing off our tongues speaking skills as we shouted our prayers to God in the special language of Heaven (that’s what we thought our gibberish was).

I knew I was faking it, and I was trying as hard as I possibly could to push that out of my mind. I would never have admitted it to anyone else and I didn’t want to admit it even to myself. Now I wonder how many other kids were doing the exact same thing. We were put into a frenzied environment that pressured us to compete over who could be the most “on fire for God.” And for that one week, we would be even more out of control than the adults at the tent revivals. Then, we would return home and things would basically be back to normal. It’s funny how the effects of being in God’s presence can just wear off like that by a change of scenery.


Mar 06

New Philosophy of Physics Blog

There is a new blog that I recommend you follow, if you’re interested in the philosophy of physics. http://philocosmology.wordpress.com/

I’m personally excited about this prospect because there should be top-notch philosophers involved, and I expect the discussion to reflect that. This means it offers an excellent learning opportunity within a very difficult subject.

Physics rears its head in several philosophical arguments both for and against God. It’s very difficult to comment on these articles without some background. For example, suppose you are discussing the Kalam Cosmological Argument with someone who says the Borde-Guth-Vilenkin theorem definitively shows the past must be finite. Would you have a response or just be caught out of your element? Other relevant discussions include the multiverse hypothesis, the nature of laws/causes, the “fine-tuned” constants, and theories of time.

One warning I will offer is that you may encounter a good deal of philosophical jargon. This is unfortunate, but is bound to occur in forums meant for the interaction of specialized professionals who already have some shared understanding and language. My advice is just to try and look into terminology and ideas as you encounter them. If that isn’t working, ask for clarification. These people are probably all educators and will understand that students or non-professionals will also want to follow the conversation. I’ve emailed with philosophers, even well-known ones, and they have always been receptive to questions.

Finally, I’ve already noticed several references to Sean Carroll’s work in the first few posts. You can find his website here: http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/.

H/T to exapologist for pointing out this website.


Mar 02

On Framing an Opponent’s Argument

It is generally considered good practice to frame your opponent’s argument in the best possible light–to try and explain it charitably and discuss your own assumptions in addressing it. The practice is a good one for more than just the sake of manners. It helps your audience to evaluate the arguments more objectively and enables them to better spot flaws. And, if he or she is open and honest, it will do the same for the writer of the rebuttal. We all stray from this at times, but one oft repeated argument continues to catch my attention. It is the quick dismissal of atheism by apologists as a hopeless sort of worldview. Here is a recent example from a Christian website:

Atheism posits that we are accidents of evolution, with no transcendent or lasting purpose. The universe just happens to exist and we just happen to be the unintended byproduct of a string of events which were set in motion randomly untold billions of years ago. We pass our brief moments in the sun, and in the end, we simply return to dust. The quality of the lives we lived, and our desire to continue thinking and growing and being count for nothing. There is no ultimate arbiter of right and wrong, neither punishment for evil deeds nor rewards for the good that was done. It’s hard to view this worldview as anything but futile and barren.

Now, hopefully the tactics at work here are obvious enough that I don’t have to completely deconstruct it. It suffers from straw men, ambiguity, and loads of assumptions, among other issues. Yet, just like that, atheism is dismissed as a viable worldview. It’s dismissed by one short paragraph that both fails to engage with a proper treatment of atheism and fails to establish any reasons for falsifying atheism. It’s simply trying to motivate action based on what the author hopes the reader will find distasteful.

These are the tactics that lead to the depressing results of studies, like those that show believers distrust atheists as much as rapists. This is not the making of a civil discussion. If apologists want to be viewed as anything more than a joke among philosophical communities, then perhaps they should start fixing a few of their tactics. They can begin with working to understand an opponent’s argument and to frame it in the strongest light. If you have an actual counterargument, it should be able to work against such a charitable framing.

Or you can continue on the current path, which, as far as I can tell, has no regard for the damage being done in the court of public opinion and the much wider effects that result from such opinion.

Feb 21

The Greatest Possible World: Comments on Leibniz, Voltaire, and Skeptical Theism

One can extract the following argument from Gottfried Leibniz in the Leibniz-Clarke Correspondence:

(1) Acts of God cannot contain a flaw.

(2) The creation of the world was an act of God.

(3) Therefore, the world is without flaw.

This view was in response to certain aspects of Isaac Newton’s mechanical philosophy published mainly in OPTICKS and PHILOSOPHI NATURALIS PRINCIPIA MATHEMATICA, commonly referred to as “the Principia.” Leibniz—one of the few people in the world who could actually understand Newton’s mathematics of fluxions—expected such a mechanical philosophy to work like the perfect clock or a perpetual motion machine. Newton, however, had proposed based on his analysis that God must occasionally intervene and recharge things. This is incredibly oversimplified, but the ideas of Newton aren’t the subject of this post; I just wanted to offer some context.

Leibniz argued that this need for intervention to keep things going implied an imperfect design, which God would never do. God would sooner create nothing at all than create something imperfect. So, since God created our world (universe), we can rest assured it is as good as it can possibly be.

At this point, we are tempted to laugh. How could Leibniz possibly think this world the best of all possible worlds? If you simply look around it shouldn’t take long to find something you might improve. This view was later famously skewered by Voltaire in Candide. As you may know, the unfortunate character Pangloss was modeled after Leibniz.

I’ve always felt the same way toward the argument. Furthermore, since I agree with premise (1), then the flaw found in the world is actually significant evidence against God. If a person denies (1), then we ought to seriously question what they think the act of a being perfect in every way would be like.

Yesterday, however, in a particularly charitable mood, I wondered whether Voltaire’s response commits a serious error. Consider the following reply as we extend the argument:

(4) Flaw is measured in terms of what is valued by God.

I wondered whether Voltaire or I could be accused of erroneously judging the flaw in the world based on my own values, rather than God’s supposed values. I consider this response to be appropriate, but not ultimately successful.

We then might wonder whether we have access to the things valued by God so that we might properly assess the argument. Does God value murder, for example, or love, charity, salvation, praise, or even the beauty of geometry? What is it that God values and has established in this act of creation as perfectly as possible? There are two routes one can take here. The first is to suppose that we do have fairly good access to what God values. After all, we have the Bible, we have our conscience, we are able to communicate with God (or at least one or two of the parts of God), and we were created in the image of God, which many have taken to mean we reason like God. This route should offer at least some tentatively testable claims. The other route is that of skeptical theism, which says we do not truly understand the goals or nature of God.

(5a) Humans have some amount of access to the values of God.


(5b) Humans do not have access to the values of God.

Let’s first consider the case that follows from (5a). Every conceivable answer seems to run into trouble. Does God want to maximize the number of souls freely choosing salvation, the number and diversity of living things, the good deeds accomplished, the praises God receives, etc.? I cannot conceive of any answer one might give down this road that would avoid the same ridicule aimed at Pangloss. How could one maintain with even a shred of dignity that these things could not be improved by a single iota?

Hence, we are faced with the attractiveness of skeptical theism. Its lure has shown up in nearly every persuasive argument against theism as a mechanism to retreat behind the fog of God’s different-ness. This argument is effective because it is technically correct. We really don’t know what a particular god might plan to do or think about or value.

As I have said on several occasions, I consider this skeptical theist response to be untenable when compared to how believers actually behave. Believers, for example, act is if they know a great many things about God. They think they even have a strange sort of conversation through prayer. They think they know the way to salvation. They think they know, in general, what God wants to do and how God wants them to behave. Sometimes they’re even so bold as to attribute a political position to this God. The inconsistency that skeptical theism presents when compared to almost every believer on the planet is astounding. This is the sort of desperate appeal extreme skeptics invoke when they say you don’t know that we aren’t in The Matrix. Is it technically true? Yes. Is it respectable? Not at all. So, I simply don’t find this response to be valid unless the believer is prepared to truly live the life of a skeptic and avoid hypocrisy. But don’t hold your breath for that to happen.

In conclusion, I think we are still on solid ground to conclude that the lack of a perfectly maximized good from among those values commonly attributed to God is significant evidence against such a God’s existence.

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