Sunday, January 28, 2007

The Problem of Evil Is a Problem for Everyone

The most oft-discussed objection against theism is the problem of evil, and it runs basically as follows:
  1. If an all-good, all-knowing, all-powerful God exists, then he obviously wouldn't allow an evil unless he had a sufficiently good reason for doing so.
  2. Cite numerous examples of apparently gratuitous evils (i.e., evils for which there does not seem to be any sufficiently good reason for God to allow).
  3. Conclude that the examples cited in (2) count as evidence against the existence of God as defined in (1).
Every theist that I know concedes that this is a real difficulty. This accounts for the many thousands of pages that have been written over the centuries in an effort to develop more-and-more adequate theodicies, that is, attempts to reconcile the existence of apparently gratuitous evils with the justice of God. In short, theists have a problem here, but it's one they recognize and have worked hard to come to grips with, satisfactorily or not.

What is seldom recognized, however, is that atheists have a problem here too. In fact, the problem confronting the atheist is, arguably, at least as serious as that confronting the theist. The problem for the atheist can be posed in the form of a trilemma:
  1. Either (a) the atheist affirms that there is objective evil or (b) he affirms that there is none or (3) he remains agnostic on the matter.
  2. If (a) then the atheist is committed to an objective standard of goodness, but whence does this standard of goodness come from?
  3. If (b), then the atheist flies in the face of moral commonsense and gives up any objective basis for moral complaint.
  4. If (c), then the atheist has the burden of explaining how it is possible that there be objective evil and also flies in the face of moral commonsense, which takes it as obvious that some things (e.g., torturing a baby for fun) are wrong.
None of these options is particularly attractive for the atheist. If, like nearly all modern Western atheists, he believes that the physical universe is all there is, then it is really hard to see where objective moral laws could come from. What arrangement of matter, energy, and space-time could give rise to a moral obligation? Of course, he can try to give an evolutionary explanation of why we have the moral intuitions we do, but at most that explains why we think that some things are moral and others aren't. It does nothing to explain how something could be moral or immoral.

And if the atheist, as many do, denies that there is any objective morality, then he bites a rather large bullet. On the face of it, it just seems obvious, even an a priori truth, that torturing babies, rape, murder, the Holocaust, etc. are just plain evil. If the atheist is going to say that such thing are not really evil, then he's saying something that is prima facie highly implausible. And it's hard to see how this admission is any less implausible on its face than is the typical theistic response to cases of apparently gratuitous evil, namely, the suggestion that God may have reasons for allowing it that are inscrutable to us. (Indeed, it is arguable that the theist gets the better end of this exchange.)

My conclusion, then, is that the problem of evil is a serious problem for everyone, theist and atheist alike. Consequently, examples of apparently gratuitous evil have little tendency to support atheism over against theism.

God vs. the Flying Spaghetti Monster

There's an interesting post over at Bill Vallicella's blog on whether belief in God is in the same rational boat as belief that there is a tiny china teapot orbiting the sun, an angry unicorn on the dark side of the moon, or the flying spaghetti monster. Bill says no, and I agree.

He notes a number of salient points of difference. The most important is simply that there are lots of principled, positive arguments for God's existence grounded in very general features of reality (for a sampling, see here), whereas there are no such arguments for lunar unicorns, flying spaghetti monsters, and such. Moreover, many theistic arguments have had defenders from among the brightest minds who have ever lived (e.g., Aquinas, Descartes, Leibniz, etc.). To my knowledge, no one - or at least no one of recognized intelligence, erudition, and sanity - takes belief in celestial teapots, lunar unicorns, or flying spaghetti monsters seriously.

Another relevant issue here is the burden of proof. Bertrand Russell seems to think that belief in God is just as unsubstantiated, and therefore just as irrational, as belief in a celestial teapot. But, as the preceding paragraph (and Bill's post) shows, the two cases are not at all on par with each other. Here's what I wrote in reply to Bill:
Every claim faces a burden of proof in that it is always fair to challenge the claim by asking for its grounds or justification. That said, ... it seems to me that the extent of this burden can be modified by at least three factors:
  1. Prima facie plausibility. All other things being equal, one who makes a claim having less prima facie plausibility has a greater burden of proof than one who makes a claim that has greater prima facie plausibility.
  2. High stakes. All other things being equal, the more deleterious the consequences of a claim's being false, the greater the burden of proof on the one making the claim....
  3. Conventional stipulation: In some contexts (e.g., a formal debate, or a criminal trial) there is a conventional burden of proof that each of the participants implicitly accepts.
Assessments of (1) and (2) ... exhibit a degree of audience-relativity. Thus, an atheist like Russell may judge that the idea of God is so antecedently implausible that, given the inconclusiveness of the standard arguments for God's existence, the theist has failed to meet his burden of proof and thus has failed to establish his rational bona fides in believing in God. A theist or an agnostic, however, may find the traditional theistic arguments more than adequate to establish the rationality of theism because they don't judge theism to have such a high prima facie implausibility.

Granting all that, however, ... Russell fails to appreciate the fact that principled arguments can be given for theism and that, even if all of those arguments prove unconvincing, that's still a lot more than can be said for invisible unicorns and such.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

From the Mail: On Miracles

I received the following reply to an earlier blog post concerning whether it was possible for someone to rationally believe in the miraculous.
Dear Alan,

I am a Czech grad student in philosophy who wants to write a dissertation concerning contemporary analytical philosophy of religion, mainly the evidence for the resurrection of Jesus Christ. I am interested especially in R. Swinburne and W. L. Craig. Your post about Ehrman is very useful, so I will try to ask you for an advice.

Currently, I have, say, a problem with an argument against miraculous events in Jordan Howard Sobel’s Logic and Theism (2004, Cambridge UP).

There is, in Sobel, pp. 332f., a proof of a Bayesian proposition which Sobel calls Hume’s Theorem. It concerns conditions of the establisment of an event by a testimony and, in adapted notation, reads as follows: [(P(tM) > 0) and (P(M/tM) > 0.5] only if [P(M) > P(tM and not-M)]. P: probability; M: an event occurs; tM: a testimony for M occurs.
Nice to make your acquaintance, Vlastimil. I've not yet had the chance to read Sobel's book, so I'm relying on your summary. My first question is why Sobel presents "Hume's Theorem" (HT) as
(HT) [(P(tM) > 0) and (P(M/tM) > 0.5] only if [P(M) > P(tM and not-M)]
and not as
(HT*) P(M/tM) > 0.5 only if [(P(tM) > 0) and P(M) > P(tM and not-M)]
In other words, why put P(M/tM) > 0 on the LHS of the "only if" rather than on the RHS? It may not matter much, but (HT*) seems much more natural to me.
Now, if M is a miraculous event, P(M) is, according to Sobel, ALWAYS extremely small: nearly 0. Why? It seems Sobel gets the value of P(M) as the [ratio] of miraculous events of certain kind on the one hand [versus] of all events of this kind on the other. E.g., sum of human-water-walking-events / sum of human-water-walking-events + sum of human-disability-of-water-walking-events; or sum of the resurrected people / sum of those people who died.
So Sobel is relying on a simple ratio definition of probability (# of cases of a specified type / total # of cases). I can see why he would. Not only is that how Hume would do it, and not only does it make the probability estimations more straightforward, but it also easily gets him his desired conclusion, namely, that P(M) be very low. And if P(M) is inevitably really small, then it's going to be very hard to satisfy (HT) because P(M) will very rarely, if ever, be greater than P(tM and not-M).

But why think that the simple ratio definition of probability is the appropriate conception of probability to apply here. Offhand, it seems to me that an epistemic definition of probability (e.g., betting quotients) makes more sense. Isn't P(M/tM) supposed to be an epistemic probability. Isn't it supposed to measure the degree of rational credence of M given tM? And obviously we should apply the same conception of probability on both sides of (HT). So if P(M/tM) is read as an epistemic probability, then so should P(M), and now it's not at all clear that P(M) must invariably be low. In fact, depending on one's background beliefs, P(M) may in some cases be moderately high, or at least high enough to beat out P(tM and not-M).

For this reason, I'm not much impressed with Sobel's argument. By appealing to additional background beliefs here I am essentially endorsing a version of your (b) proposal, namely, that P(M) needs to be assessed in the light of one's total relevant evidence, not simply in the light of past event-type ratios, as Sobel wants to do. But the relativization of P(M) to background beliefs means that whether P(M/tM) turns out to be greater than 0.5 may vary from person to person. In relation to the background beliefs of someone like Sobel, I suspect that P(M) is effectively zero, such that no amount of testimony could even in principle qualify a miracle-report as worthy of credence for him.

PS. The lottery example in your Appendix does a really good job of showing why a simple ratio definition of probability is the wrong one to use. Unsurprisingly, Sobel responds to the problem by tacitly shifting to an epistemic notion of probability when he appeals to the background assumption that "in common circumstances, nothwistanding the antecedent improbability, we should believe [a] report according to how we consider the reporter to be."

Sunday, January 14, 2007

Another Review of Dawkins

Here's another recent review of Dawkins' The God Delusion. This one from The New York Review of Books, January 11, 2007 edition. It's written by H. Allen Orr, a biologist, religious agnostic, and noted critic of the Intelligent Design movement.

All in all, Orr's review strikes me as a balanced one. He's got no particular religious axe to grind, which makes his sharp criticism of Dawkins all the more telling. Here are some key paragraphs:

The most disappointing feature of The God Delusion is Dawkins's failure to engage religious thought in any serious way. This is, obviously, an odd thing to say about a book-length investigation into God. But the problem reflects Dawkins's cavalier attitude about the quality of religious thinking. Dawkins tends to dismiss simple expressions of belief as base superstition. Having no patience with the faith of fundamentalists, he also tends to dismiss more sophisticated expressions of belief as sophistry (he cannot, for instance, tolerate the meticulous reasoning of theologians). But if simple religion is barbaric (and thus unworthy of serious thought) and sophisticated religion is logic-chopping (and thus equally unworthy of serious thought), the ineluctable conclusion is that all religion is unworthy of serious thought.

The result is The God Delusion, a book that never squarely faces its opponents. You will find no serious examination of Christian or Jewish theology in Dawkins's book (does he know Augustine rejected biblical literalism in the early fifth century?), no attempt to follow philosophical debates about the nature of religious propositions (are they like ordinary claims about everyday matters?), no effort to appreciate the complex history of interaction between the Church and science (does he know the Church had an important part in the rise of non-Aristotelian science?), and no attempt to understand even the simplest of religious attitudes (does Dawkins really believe, as he says, that Christians should be thrilled to learn they're terminally ill?).


One reason for the lack of extended argument in The God Delusion is clear: Dawkins doesn't seem very good at it. Indeed he suffers from several problems when attempting to reason philosophically. The most obvious is that he has a preordained set of conclusions at which he's determined to arrive. Consequently, Dawkins uses any argument, however feeble, that seems to get him there and the merit of various arguments appears judged largely by where they lead.

The most important example involves Dawkins's discussion of philosophical arguments for the existence of God as opposed to his own argument against God, which he presents as the intellectual heart of his book. Considering arguments for God, Dawkins is care-ful to recite the many standard objections to them and writes that the traditional proofs are "vacuous," "dubious," "infantile," and "perniciously misleading." But turning to his own Ultimate Boeing 747 argument against God, Dawkins is suddenly uninterested in criticism and writes that his argument is "unanswerable." So why, you might wonder, is a clever philosophical argument for God subject to withering criticism while one against God gets a free pass and is deemed devastating?

The reason seems clear. The first argument leads to a conclusion Dawkins despises, while the second leads to one he loves. Dawkins, so far as I can tell, is unconcerned that the central argument of his book bears more than a passing resemblance to those clever philosophical proofs for the existence of God that he dismisses. This is unfortunate. He could have used a healthy dose of his usual skepticism when deciding how much to invest in his own Ultimate Boeing 747 argument. Indeed, one needn't be a creationist to note that Dawkins's argument suffers at least two potential problems. First, as others have pointed out, if he is right, the design hypothesis essentially must be wrong and the alternative naturalistic hypothesis essentially must be right. But since when is a scientific hypothesis confirmed by philosophical gymnastics, not data? Second, the fact that we as scientists find a hypothesis question-begging—as when Dawkins asks "who designed the designer?"— cannot, in itself, settle its truth value. It could, after all, be a brute fact of the universe that it derives from some transcendent mind, however question-begging this may seem. What explanations we find satisfying might say more about us than about the explanations. Why, for example, is Dawkins so untroubled by his own (large) assumption that both matter and the laws of nature can be viewed as given? Why isn't that question-begging?

The rest is well worth reading.

Saturday, January 13, 2007

Presentism, Actualism, and the Triviality Objection

Roughly stated, presentism is the view that the only time at which anything exists is now. Past events are no more; future events are not yet. If it doesn't exist now then it doesn't exist, period.

One common objection to presentism is known as the triviality objection. According to this objection, presentism is either (a) trivially true or (b) obviously false, depending on how it is interpreted. On the one hand, if one takes presentism to be the thesis that

(1) For all x, if x does not exist now then x does not exist at the present time.

then presentism is true but seemingly trivial. On the other hand, if one takes presentism to be the thesis that

(2) For all x, if x does not exist now then x does not exist at some time or other.

then presentism seems to be obviously false. For consider the truth that "Caesar crossed the Rubicon". This event occurred in 49 B.C. and implies, of course, that Caesar existed then. But then it seems that we are committed to saying that Caesar does exist (tenselessly) at some time or other, namely, in 49 B.C. So the known truth of "Caesar crossed the Rubicon" is incompatible with (2), which means that (2) is false.

What I want to point out is that this objection is really a false dilemma for the presentist. It arises from the non-presentist assumption that there are such things as past and future times at which individuals like Caesar could possibly exist. But as the presentist sees it, to exist now is not to exist at one time out of several other possible times, it is just simply to exist. In other words, "exist now" is strictly redundant. That is the significance of the presentist's claim, and neither (1) nor (2) captures it because both of them cash out existing in terms of existing at one or more times. But "existing" is a more fundamental concept than "existing at", so to analyze the former in terms of the latter is to get things backwards.

Compare the presentist's claim that "exists now" is strictly redundant to the modal actualist's claim that "actually exists" is strictly redundant. In contrast, the modal possibilist insists on analyzing "existence" in terms of "existence at" one or more possible worlds. In these terms an exactly parallel triviality objection can be posed against modal actualism. And like the argument against presentism, it too misses the point. In both cases the objector first imagines a domain of multiple locations populated with a different "times" or "worlds". Then, when the objector hears the presentist or the actualist say that only present or only actual things exist, he imagines the presentist singling out one of those locations and either (a) saying trivially that that location has the content it does, or (b) saying falsely that the contents of all locations are the contents of that location.

But the problem arises from the objector's starting from an imagined domain of multiple locations. According to the presentist and the actualist, by contrast, we ought rather to start from what simply is, not from what is now understood in relation to other times, nor from what is actual understood in relation to other possibilia. The now and the actual, says the presentist / actualist, are not to be analyzed in terms of relations to other things. Rather, they are primitive notions, notions that we grasp immediately and in terms of which the notions of other times and of other possible worlds have to be defined. Thus, the time of Caesar's crossing of the Rubicon is how things presumably were but no longer are. Likewise, that pigs can fly is how things presumably could have been but are not.

The error of the triviality objector in both cases is to confuse the properties of a mental image or representation with the reality represented. The objector against presentism imagines time as a timeline, a stretched out series of times, and forgets the immediacy, the nowness, of his own lived experience. Consequently, he feels a need to analyze nowness in terms of relations to the other times on his timeline. Similarly, the objector against actualism imagines reality as a streched out space of possibilities and forgets the immediacy, the actuality, of his own lived experience. Consequently, he feels a need to analyze actuality in terms of relations to other possibilia in his imaginary "space".

Plantinga on Dawkins

I just came across a review by Alvin Plantinga, a distinguished Christian philosopher, of Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion. It's a fun read, and Plantinga does a good job of skewering Dawkins' woefully overrated "Who designed the Designer?" objection against theism. Here's Plantinga's summary prior to his examination of the particulars of Dawkins' main argument:
[O]ne needn’t look to this book for evenhanded and thoughtful commentary. In fact the proportion of insult, ridicule, mockery, spleen and vitriol is astounding (could it be that his mother, while carrying him, was frightened by an Anglican clergyman on the rampage?). If Dawkins ever gets tired of his day job, a promising future awaits him as a writer of political attack ads.

Now despite the fact that this book is mainly philosophy, Dawkins is not a philosopher (he’s a biologist). Even taking this into account, however, much of the philosophy he purveys is at best jejune. You might say that some of his forays into philosophy are at best sophomoric, but that would be unfair to sophomores.
On the whole, I think Plantinga does a good job of showing that Dawkins' main argument against theism is completely without force. More specifically, he shows that the only way to make the argument logically strong is to either (a) straw man the theistic position by assuming that God is a complex material object, or (b) beg the question by presupposing the materialist thesis that mind cannot be explanatorily basic.

Plantinga closes with a brief presentation of his famous "evolutionary argument against naturalism" to suggest that Dawkins' materialism may actually be incompatible with scientific rationality.