Sep 07

Lawless Events and Evidence for God

There is a very interesting post by Kenny Pearce on The Prosblogion called Lawless Events and the Existence of God. He gives two versions of an argument—one inductive and one deductive—for thinking that a God with the traditional attributes would create a world with few lawless events (or none). I’ll only quote Pearce’s inductive version of the argument from the original post here:

    

Inductive Version

1. A perfectly rational being who could create a world would, ceteris paribus, create a world in which there was as little disorder as possible.

2. Lawless events would be instances of disorder.

3. It is (subjectively) highly probable that, among all the worlds an omnipotent being could create, there are some which are just as good as the actual world in other respects and have no lawless events.

Therefore,
4. On the hypothesis that the world was created by an omnipotent and perfectly rational being, it is highly probable that there are no lawless events.

 

One of the interesting aims of the article is a discussion of miracles. Miracles are believed by some to be lawless events (some law is broken). This is then used as evidence that there must be a supernatural power capable of bringing about a state of lawlessness. If the argument above is correct, though, then law breaking miracles actually count as evidence against God. Accepting the argument above would instead lead to a position that miracles are lawful, but incredibly improbable events. If I were a theist, I would hold this position. I’m not even sure we can adequately make sense of a notion such as lawlessness on certain definitions.

 


 

The reason I bring this argument up is not to parse out how we should regard miracles. No, this would be a strange task for an atheist. Instead, I want to talk about some further implications of the above conclusion. Let’s try continuing the argument:

 

5. A world with no lawless events is one in which every event can be explained by a natural cause.

6. A world in which every event can be explained by a natural cause is the type of world postulated by naturalism. 

Therefore,
7. On the hypothesis that naturalism is true, it is highly probable that there are no lawless events.

 

We now have arguments that mirror each other with opposing conclusions. The trouble I see for theism is that everything naturalism will want to claim as evidence will then be co-opted as consistent with God, even though we have opposing conclusions. Let’s see how this might happen.

 

Popular-level claims might say something like, “life cannot come from non-life without supernatural intervention”. Fast forward into the future and imagine we have successfully demonstrated this can be done naturally with no intervention. Their initial assertion is wrong. But you might think there is an escape route with the lawful approach. The person holding the position regarding lawless events would agree with the naturalist all along. They would never say that life could not naturally come from non-life. Instead, they would say it had to come naturally because God works naturally. But this reaches a strange stopping point. We would both be looking for the exact same thing as evidence of our position. So who is really favored by natural explanations? Well, naturalism is favored ceteris paribus. If something is explained naturally, then why insert God into the causal description? A popular mocking version of this is to say that leaves rustle because of the wind…but also because there is a spirit within the tree.

 

The theist must turn elsewhere to tip the scales in their favor. Then they might say in light of these other arguments, we have reason to favor theism. These arguments must be strong enough to overcome the initial improbability in favor of naturalism. That means that if we can rebut or at least cast significant doubt on these other arguments, then we are still justified in saying that lawful events favor naturalism.

 

So, I think this argument actually leads us to realize that either option—lawlessness or lawfulness—counts as evidence against the existence of God.

Sep 02

Should the 9/11 ceremony be religious?

The Huffington Post currently has an article describing some controversy over the exclusion of religious clergy/material from the 9/11 memorial service. Bloomberg has pledged to maintain his position despite conservative religious group protests. A spokesperson for the Mayor said, “The ceremony was designed in coordination with 9/11 families with a mixture of readings that are spiritual, historical and personal in nature. It has been widely supported for the past 10 years and rather than have disagreements over which religious leaders participate we would like to keep the focus of our commemoration ceremony on the family members of those who died. This year’s six moments of silence allow every individual a time for personal and religious introspection,” according to the article.

I think that response is actually quite good, but I’d like to delve a bit deeper into the substance. There are a lot of ways we could discuss this controversy, but I will frame it by asking three questions:

  • Is it constitutional?
  • Why would we want to include prayer?
  • Is the whole exercise misguided?

 

Is it constitutional?

I feel arguments over the Christian/Secular origins of our country or the meaning of the First Amendment are often wrongheaded. The original intent is of less importance to me than whether an application fits our time and situation. So, court cases and opinions of early Americans are of less value in deciding the constitutionality of something than modern opinions and applications of law. So, when presented the former, you could argue with the David Barton’s of the world over what the founders really believed or you could simply point out the irrelevance. That this should be our method of approaching constitutionality should not really be up for debate. We already have advanced past several ideas held by our founders that are either barbaric or unnecessary; they just choose to harp on this particular issue because it affects their god-belief.

That being said, what is the proper modern perspective for the interaction with religion in official government-sponsored ceremonies? There are several court decisions over the past 60 years on the side of secularism in this case—I’ll just name a few.

  • Engel v. Vitale, 82 S. Ct. 1261 (1962)
    • Public school prayer, regardless of denomination, is unconstitutional
  • Lemon v. Kurtzman, 91 S. Ct. 2105 (1971)
    • The famous Lemon Test stems from this case (every secularist should know this case). Government actions should have a secular purpose, should not inhibit/advance religion, and should not involve excessive entanglement between the two.
  • Wallace v. Jaffree, 105 S. Ct. 2479 (1985)
    • Public school moment of silence deemed unconstitutional since it was revealed the motivation for the “moment” was to encourage prayer.
  • Lee v. Weisman, 112 S. Ct. 2649 (1992)
    • Clergy cannot perform prayers/religious ceremonies at public school graduation.

You’ll notice that these tend to focus on schools. That’s because the courts are more wary when a case may involve coercion of children. This ceremony will not be primarily for children who are obligated to be there, but they will certainly be involved (and it’s not like they can leave if their parents bring them).

I can see the constitutionality case going one of two ways—either it is blatantly unconstitutional by having representatives from one or two denominations (no, having a Christian pretend to stand in for “everybody” doesn’t count) or they invite a whole host of religious groups. The former is almost certainly unconstitutional and the latter is almost certainly ridiculous. Maintaining a secular ceremony is a responsible, moderate approach with respect to this question.

 

Why would we want to include prayer?

I’m not actually sure I understand why religious groups want to pray there at all. The article offers this gem of a quote from Tim Wildmon, president of the American Family Association, for some insight: “I’m stunned. This event affected the whole psyche and soul of the country, and you are going to have no prayer? What’s a memorial service if you are going to leave God out of it completely? It seems kind of hollow.” There you have it—a bit of intellectually vacuous reasoning that barely makes a discernible point. Let’s see what we can draw out of his statement, though.

The first claim seems to be that you cannot have a memorial service without involving God. I have a couple of issues here. I’m not clear on how you involve God. Is it by having ministers there? Is it by praying? Won’t ministers be there anyway in the crowd and won’t people in the crowd be praying? He must think they need to be officially designated on the stage if God is going to accept an invitation. Furthermore, isn’t god always present? My other problem with the claim is it’s not clear why you can’t remember someone or something if you’re not doing so in an explicitly religious way. This is clearly false, and I’m not even going to bother addressing it with a fuller rebuttal.

The second claim is that it will be hollow without God. We can first apply the same questions I already asked about God’s presence. We can also verify whether the claim is even correct—at last, a falsifiable claim! Watch the ceremony, and see if you are moved. Ask people who attended if they found it hollow in any way. I bet that will not be the common opinion. Mentioning God is certainly not a prerequisite for a substantive, meaningful, or moving ceremony.

 

Is the whole exercise misguided?

There are a wide variety of intellectual issues that I have with the very idea of creating a religious memorial service.

It seems like, according to religious dogmas (excluding Mormonism), the eternal fates of the victims would already be set. God would know their ultimate destination and, depending on which dogma, they may even already be there. So, the exercise does nothing to help the victims, who should be the focal point of a memorial service.

I also find it a bit insulting to the victims that they are so concerned to pray about these attacks now, but did not do so in advance. Why not entreat your particular god in advance to keep everyone safe instead of after s/he fails to do so? The point could also be made that a fundamentalist understanding of religion caused this tragedy. These are both important points, but I fear I would go too far off track if I explored them more here.

 

Conclusion

I think a pretty strong case can be made against this controversy. A prayer-filled ceremony of the kind envisioned by the American Family Association, the Family Research Council, and others is unconstitutional, based on false ideas, and isn’t even intellectually consistent with their beliefs.

What else should we expect, though, from any idea supported by Pat Robertson?

Aug 30

The Problem of Divine Hiddenness

I like to think of The Problem of Divine Hiddenness as atheism’s version of the Fermi Paradox. If God exists, where is he? If God is real and honestly wants me to come to know him, then he would give me the evidence I need to believe. Or, at the very least, he could have given me better evidence when I actually did believe so that I would not stray (the bar would have been much lower then).

An atheist might say it’s reasonable to think that God could show up in human form for everyone to see, proclaim himself to be God, and perform wonders to make us believe. Since he doesn’t, the reasoning goes, this counts as disconfirming evidence. Consider the following argument:

 

1. God desires as many people as possible to come to him (Christian premise).

2. God is omniscient and omnipotent to know how to reach non believers and is able to accomplish it (Christian premise).

3. There are numerous reasonable unbelievers who would accept sufficient evidence.

4. No evidence is presented to these unbelievers, and they do not come to God.

5. Therefore, either God does not exist or one/both of the first two premises are false.

 

The most popular Christian response[i] here is to say that our first premise is wrong. They would revise it to say:

 

1`. God desires as many people as possible to freely come to him.

 

The implication of this is that God revealing himself in such a direct way would be coercion, thus, we would not be making truly free choices. It’s kind of like that movie A Cinderella Story (don’t judge me). Hillary Duff just wanted to be liked for who she really was—not for the dolled-up version of herself at the ball. If she had revealed her secret, she wouldn’t know if he really wanted to be with her or was just smitten by their one magical night.

So, they conclude, God would not reveal himself in the way I described. This is a major component of Plantinga’s free will theodicy and other arguments that rely on a non-coercive or non-invasive God. They may phrase it in terms of free choices, soul-making, character-building, etc.

But wait. There is a serious problem here for Christians. Let’s construct a new argument that assumes this defense is true:

 

1. God desires as many people as possible to freely choose him. (restated from 1`)

2. God would not perform an act that would interfere with this free choice.

3. Therefore, God would not show up in person, proclaim himself to be God, and perform wonders so that we might believe.

4. Jesus showed up in person, proclaimed himself to be god, and performed wonders.

5. Therefore, Jesus was not God.

 

Now that can’t be the desired result for Christians.

 


[i] There are other responses, but in the interest of brevity, I’ll only tackle this one for now.

Aug 26

Parade of Fools

A new nationwide Gallup poll provides insight about who the current frontrunners are for the GOP nomination. As you can see in the figure below, the only candidates I would ever support—Newt Gingrich and Jon Huntsman—didn’t even crack the top four. These two didn’t even make a respectable showing.

 

Now, I don’t think Gingrich and Huntsman are the best choices because I completely agree with them. Rather, I think they would be the most responsible candidates of those available and are clearly the most qualified. This is simply based on evaluating them against their peers.

I’ve hesitated to comment on the Republican proceedings so far (other than to point out a few contradictory positions). There are so many people making the same comments, it seems unnecessary. All that being said, I do feel inspired to make at least this one post on the subject. I want to briefly explain why the potential of any of these four candidates being elected should scare any reasonable person shitless. Let’s begin.

 

Rick Perry

Perry is either incredibly dim-witted or incredibly conniving—neither of which are admirable traits. His constant barrage of anti-science comments show an incredible lack of awareness for the most basic of concepts. His prayer rally, which was promoted to help with the problems beyond our control, shows a real lack of governance and essentially is on par with rain dances. These things don’t work; a smart person would already know that. And when you consider the caliber of people attending and speaking at the rally, you just spiral into the blackest hole of stupidity ever produced by humans. But possibly worse than stupidity is delusion. A delusion is a false belief held with absolute conviction despite superior evidence. This describes Perry incredibly well. He does not let scientific results or actual research dissuade him from opinions. These positions include abstinence-only sex education (an oxymoron, I know), climate change, and evolution. You can’t brush this off by saying particular science beliefs are unimportant to the office of the President. A delusion will affect any area that runs counter to prior beliefs. This is a character trait that can affect legislation, economic strategies, international affairs, and many other important aspects of the job.

If, on the other hand, this is all just playing to the Evangelical base and he doesn’t really believe it, then we know that he will deceive the citizenry in order to gain power. Either option is troubling.

 

Mitt Romney

If Romney actually ran the country like he ran Massachusetts, it wouldn’t be all that bad. It certainly wouldn’t be bad enough to qualify as scary. But the demographics of people he was trying to please in Massachusetts is markedly different from the national landscape that includes fundamentalist Evangelicals and today’s Tea Party. You can look at his positions and clearly see that he is bending to the will of the common folk. He has gone from fairly moderate to espousing more and more highly conservative opinions. We don’t need an ideologue in office while the country is so divided, and we certainly don’t need a fake one. I doubt he believes a lot of what he says and I think that lack of true conviction (see entry on Bachmann) is hurting him in the polls. So, we have a candidate who very likely disagrees with many Tea Party principles, yet tries to please them for votes while completely ignoring the half of this country that is fairly liberal. That is not a good sign.

In addition, Romney is a Mormon. Anyone who adheres to a religion that is obviously false should have their critical thinking skills seriously questioned. Maybe in the end they will show they do value critical thinking and don’t let religion get in the way (like Huntsman to an extent), but most do not. Mormonism, Scientology, Heaven’s Gate—these are not religions worth even entertaining as moderately convincing. They have been empirically disproven, making any long-term adherents either ignorant or delusional (this is a recurring theme).

 

Ron Paul

Paul is the political equivalent of a butterface. There are some things you may really like about him, but they are ultimately outweighed by the statements that sound eerily similar to things your crazy uncle says. Therein lies the problem. As much as I may like a few of his opinions, we have to be cautious of catastrophe. Whatever people think of him, it is not reasonable to expect him to make any sweeping changes for the better. Instead he will cut a number of things and then sit back and try to do as little as possible. That is essentially what he proposes. The outcomes to be expected from this in the short term will either be marginal improvements from reduced government spending and gained state freedom or a downward spiral into Hell. We would have even worse unemployment than we do now by slicing up the Federal government, and he has many ideas that are viewed as crazy nonsense by markets around the world, which could scare things into a sharp fall. These are just the tip of the iceberg of how things could potentially go wrong. The potential gain is not nearly worth the risk. You might argue that some of these policies are better for the long term, but we are not currently in a strong enough position as a country to take that gamble.

 

Michele Bachmann

The thing about Bachmann is that she is actually crazy. There is nothing about her that indicates she is a sane person—nothing. Her history of statements that take the most nonsensical positions, her version of religion, her belief in the LaHayes’ end times bullshit, her methods for curing homosexuality…do I really need to keep going? She is nuts. This is not about attacking her because she is a woman or because she is a Christian. She is actually bat shit crazy. I would seriously consider moving to Canada if she were nominated. The fact that she has already held office in this country should be considered a blight on our reputation.

Aug 19

Should the clay judge the potter?

I’ve never understood why people, especially Evangelicals, use this question as if it has force. The answer seems like an obvious “Yes,” but to clearly see why, let’s unpack the assumptions.

First, let’s consider the analogy: the clay should not judge the potter. Humans (and I presume animals) are supposed to be the clay and God the potter. Right off the bat I hope you notice something. Clay is not sentient. The ethical theories to which most of us subscribe consider consciousness to be of considerable importance. Just for a quick intuitive example, consider whether you feel wrong kicking a rock versus kicking a human being or a cat. Or, if we do value non-sentient objects, it is because of some attachment to a sentient being. For example, I would be morally culpable for destroying a painting that someone else really valued – not for the sake of the painting, but for the person. So, clearly the analogy is a flawed one, but there are some unstated assumptions to consider too.

These assumptions generally say that we cannot even rightly call certain acts by the creator unjust. They will argue that we owe respect, or maybe even allegiance, to a creator or authority figure. I will argue two contentions with these points. First, just because a creator gives life does not make it just to take life. Second, an authority figure who creates laws is not then above those laws.

Let’s imagine you are a creator of artificial intelligence. You are wildly successful in a way no one has been before, and you create a sentient creature. It is not human, but it reasons, it has feelings, it feels pain – basically, it is just like a human, but with different components. Suppose you create 100 of these creatures and 98 of them are acting in a way that you didn’t intend through your programming. Would it then be moral to destroy them in a painful way, like drowning them or setting them ablaze? Realize that I don’t mean reprogramming (like an equivalent of a surgery to fix something) and then activating them again to resume their lives. I mean actually extinguishing their lives permanently and painfully. I don’t see how that can be just.

Now imagine that you are under a sovereign king. This king has created a law of the land; he is the author and enforcer of this law. Since he is your sovereign, you are bound to keep the law. One of the laws says it is illegal to steal from anyone else in the kingdom. Yet, the king’s men regularly steal from the commoners to increase the king’s wealth. Another law says it is illegal to murder. Yet, the king’s men regularly kill anyone—man, woman, or child—who does not respect them. Is it just for this king to advocate these laws and not keep them himself? I don’t think so. And neither, by the way, did the people of Europe who eventually overthrew many of these kingdoms.

If the “potter” kills his creatures and breaks his own laws, then it seems perfectly correct to call him unjust.

Aug 16

God, No!: Signs You May Already Be an Atheist and Other Magical Tales

Penn Jillette, along with his partner Teller, are part of a great American tradition of debunking. Not nearly enough people know about this tradition, but that is precisely why it’s needed. The efforts of people like them, along with James Randi and Houdini, have already had a considerable impact on belief in psychics, witchcraft, faith healers, homeopathy, and all manner of nonsense. But one area of magic remains strong and largely unquestioned – religion.

God, No!: Signs You May Already Be an Atheist and Other Magical Tales by Penn Jillette is not your typical atheist tome. You will not find a thorough defense of the Problem of Evil or a dissertation against irreducible complexity. But you will find laughter, interesting stories, and a hell of a lot of {insert atheist equivalent of soul here}.

So, if you are looking to counter the arguments of William Lane Craig or Alvin Plantinga, look elsewhere. If you are looking to view a handful of strange interactions through a distinctly humanist lens, then this is the book for you. Oh, and for those of you who simply cannot live without a defense of evolution, there is one given by a stripper. Now, I’ve never met Richard Dawkins, but I have met strippers. And I know that if strippers had been teaching me evolution, I would have quit being a creationist long before I actually did.

The book is laid out as a Ten Commandments for humanists with personal stories intermingled forming a loose theme. For example, rather than “Thou Shalt not commit adultery,” Penn offers, “Keep your promises.” Rather than “Thou shalt not make for thyself any idol,” we might say, “Do not put things or even ideas above other human beings.” I call this humanist because atheism isn’t really a thing except in a very naive sense. It’s a belief that does not itself prompt any action, just as not believing in unicorns has no significant impact on my day-to-day life. Being a humanist, though, that requires something. It requires you to recognize that you are part of something – that you have obligations.

That is important to note because it is, in my opinion the real undercurrent of this book. Penn is not arguing for the absolute truth of atheism. I think I would sum up his message like this: “Hey, none of us really has any fucking clue (the cursing is necessary, you’ll see). We’re all really doubters. So, let’s just focus on treating each other well. We should at least be able to agree on that.” And along the way, you’ll get to enjoy a cast of characters that includes carnies, ex-Hasidic Jews, professional magicians, porn stars, and more. If that all sounds good to you, then buy this book. Hell, as I’m writing this, it’s only $13.58 on Amazon. I used to work for Borders, so I hold a slight grudge at their fantastic prices, but that is a great deal.

 

Aug 15

Mendeleev and the Fossil Record

What can the history of chemistry teach us about the popular-level objection to evolution regarding the “gaps” in the fossil record? I think we can gain insight from Dmitri Mendeleev and the creation of the Periodic Table of Elements.

Mendeleev (1834 – 1907) sought to group the known elements in an organized and informative way. He arranged the elements into columns (groups) and rows (periods). These are based on certain properties of their atomic components. Based on these components, say, the number of protons in a nucleus, you can recognize a pattern. These days, we even understand how this came to be—the heavier elements were built inside the nuclear furnaces of stars. But here’s the part that may interest you concerning the fossil record. Mendeleev, once he could clearly see this pattern and how elements must have formed, could then postulate gaps in his table.

 

1871 version of the Periodic Table

 

His initial table only had roughly half the elements of a complete modern table. But it wasn’t just an incomplete table—it was a table that recognized where and how it was incomplete. It left spaces to be filled in later. Mendeleev recognized that his organization had an X _ Z, and he could postulate that a Y existed, but was not yet discovered. This indeed turned out to be the case.

There is a great irony that I think is lost on unscientific objectors to evolution. The gaps that we can recognize are evidence for, rather than against, evolution. The fact that we can pick out gaps at all tells us that we have found a pattern and have identified that there are missing pieces, just like Mendeleev. Those elements existed, but they awaited discovery. Mendeleev used atomic weight and other indicators to identify his own gaps. Biologists also have a variety of features to use, but we have one very similar to that of chemistry and highly accurate. Of course I mean DNA. We compare the DNA of humans and other animals and can see a relationship; we can see the structure of a family tree.

There is a lot we could say about the fossil record. I find the following all to be compelling:

  • Most animals don’t fossilize
  • Those that do fossilize tend to live in shallow water
  • The fossils we do have support evolution
  • Fossils are not our only way of knowing ancestry (DNA)

I think these are enough to dismiss the popular objection about gaps. But I love to think about how the only reason creationists can give that objection is because of the evidence that led us to realize there were gaps in the first place!

Aug 14

Is Hell simply separation from God?

Dave Grohl as the Devil in Tenacious D: The Pick of Destiny

There is something called the Problem of Hell. It goes a bit like this:
 
1. Hell is a place of eternal punishment and torture.
2. God is all-loving and all-good.
3. A God that has these properties (from 2) would not send people to Hell.
4. Therefore, either Hell does not exist or God does not exist.
 
This is a pretty strong emotional argument against God, and even Christians have a hard time with it. Possibly because of this difficulty, there is an alternate, non-physical account of Hell used by some. It is sometimes downgraded from a lake of fire to eternal “separation” from God. It’s not clear to me what this separation really entails, but I want to consider it and the problems I think it poses for certain theistic arguments.
 
What is separation from God?
Let’s first dismiss a naive account of separation that simply says God doesn’t answer your prayers or play an active role in your life. As an atheist, I don’t think God is doing those things in my life now, so it wouldn’t be a very apt punishment. It seems like the implication is that there is some separate realm that is devoid of God’s presence. We might turn to 2 Thessalonians 1:9, which says, “They will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might.”
 
But then what does it mean to be away from the Lord? I can see it meaning a lot of things, but I want to focus on some negative implications for theists that lie down a few paths of interpretation.
 
Negative Implications
There are certain ways we could define separation from God that I think raise problems with certain theistic arguments. If Hell is truly some other realm of existence devoid of the presence of God, then that has serious implications for the Modal Ontological Argument. This argument says that, since God is defined as a necessary being, if God exists in some possible world, the God exists in the actual world. In other words, if God is possible, then God is necessary. Now, consider that we’ve said there is a way to exist without God. It could use clarification, to be sure, but this could be admitting there is a possible world without God. Via the aforementioned Ontological Argument, if there is a possible world without God, then God does not exist since a necessary being would exist in all possible worlds.
 
Or how about certain Transcendental Arguments for God? These generally argue that God accounts for our ability to know things, have scientific discovery, use logic, etc. God is the grounding of all of this, so without God, logic would not exist. Now, if Hell is devoid of God, then it seems like it ought to be devoid of those things that naturally emanate from God, like love. People who use Transcendental Arguments think of logic in the same way or the orderly state of affairs that account for the success of science. Think of a Hell that didn’t contain these things. It would not be effective punishment because we wouldn’t even know we were being punished. We wouldn’t be able to connect events or make sense of them. If you think those things remain without God, then it seems like you have to abandon the original arguments.
 
Conclusion
The idea of separation from God is in desperate need of definition if theists who use it want us to take it seriously. As I’ve laid out, though, such a path might just cause more problems than it’s worth where other arguments are concerned. In addition, it’s difficult to reconcile the notion with certain verses of the Christian Bible. Hell as separation seems to be more of an ad hoc escape route from the Problem of Hell. If so, then we’re back to facing the problem of reconciling Hell with God’s love. Philosophers and theologians have proposed answers for this, the most popular of which is probably that Hell is a free choice, but that will have to be the subject of another post.

Aug 12

What ethical system best describes God?

Ethical or moral systems can generally be described as consequentialist or non-consequentialist. Let’s consider a popular example to help define these terms – the trolley problem.

Imagine you are the driver of a trolley and you suddenly notice that your brakes have stopped working. But that is not your only problem. Just ahead are five workers who don’t seem to notice you. Take it as a given that if you do nothing, you will crash into these people and they will all die. Then, you see a side track with one worker on the track. You can switch tracks, but then you will kill the one. What do you do?

A good consequentialist will answer that they would switch tracks. Why kill five when you can kill one? The consequence, or outcome, determines the best course of action. The non-consequentialist makes that determination based on some other reason. Perhaps it is virtue or the inherent value of an action. They might argue in return that you have to act to kill the one worker in a way that doesn’t apply to the five. This is not always intuitively clear to people, but it should be if we alter the example some.

Instead of imagining yourself as the driver, you will be a bystander on a bridge. You see the driver is asleep and five people are ahead on the tracks. You then notice a man near the railing of the bridge. Consider it a given that you could push this man off the bridge to fall in front of the train, killing him, but saving the five. Would you do it? A lot of people who would have answered the initial case by killing the one decline to do so here. This would imply they think there is some virtue in not pushing the man off the bridge. The action drives your decision instead of the numbers/result.

Now that we have some foundation in the reasoning behind each, let’s turn our attention to God.

There is a lot going for a theory of God’s ethics being based on some kind of inherent virtue. We might argue for this in two ways. First, there are troubling cases for consequentialists in the Bible. God, on more than one occasion, kills many people*. Two examples that come to mind are Noah’s flood and the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah (this is assuming a literal interpretation of these two stories). Second, a virtue account seems more consistent with traditional notions of God as the ground of morality and instilling inherent value in things.

But now think about one of the most popular responses to the problem of evil that says God can have sufficient moral reasons for allowing bad acts. If this is correct, we have two reasons to question the initial virtue account. First, if the acts are inherently bad, how could God allow them? It should be the virtue, rather than the ultimate outcomes that matter. Second, it is the outcome that is often the type of example employed by the defender of this argument. They generally employ a response to the problem of evil along the lines of the suffering serving some greater good or preventing greater suffering. One variety: Perhaps a man dying in a crash would have otherwise killed the doctor who cures cancer.

Obviously, we have a tension here. If it weren’t for unexplained problems, like suffering in the world, I think theists would clearly favor a virtue account. But considering that problem won’t be going away any time soon, how do they think of God’s ethics in a consistent manner?

 ____________________

*I think we would be right to question here whether this is even consistent with a virtue account, since God would be doing something not virtuous or sinful. The response to that is generally that God cannot sin or that God has no moral obligations, like we do. I’m not particularly convinced by either claim.

Aug 09

A Mormon President

We have two Republican presidential candidates that are Mormon. In lieu of this, Joanna Brooks discusses here how Mormons aren’t so bad (she is a Mormon herself). She looks to dispel five myths people believe about Mormons.

The campaigns by Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman Jr. for the GOP presidential nomination, along with the popular and profane Broadway musical “The Book of Mormon,” are putting Mormons in the public eye. But common caricatures — not to mention some of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ public relations efforts — create confusion about this 14 million-strong religion.

I am not one to support any religious test for office, but I find something very odd here. We have a religion that is despised by Evangelical Christians able to have two prominent candidates for President. This a religion that is obviously false and has obviously crazy beliefs, yet, here these men are.

How many atheists are in this country? I would guess more than 14 million. But we cannot have a serious candidate for President. Something has gone wrong when reason cannot garner as much respect as lunacy.

This is not a Mormon-bashing post. This is me in awe that we seem to have a place for nearly every opinion in the American political landscape, save a few. Americans, it seems, can abide almost anything as long as it isn’t atheistic.

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