Monday, October 22, 2007

Private vs. Public Morality and "Collateral Damage" in War

Here's a nice post by Bill Vallicella arguing, correctly in my opinion, that it can sometimes be morally obligatory for a government to wage war even if doing so brings about the deaths of noncombatants.

The key point is that we must not confuse the norms of private morality (the Golden Rule, turning the other cheek, etc.) with the norms of public morality - the duties that governments qua governments have to protect their citizens.

Deep Thoughts

A colleague called my attention to this Foxtrot comic (┬ęBill Amend). It originally appeared October 11, 2006.

(HT: Rick Beckman by way of James Woodbridge)

Saturday, October 06, 2007

Why I'm Not a Theological Determinist

My wife sent me a link to this hilarious story from a parody news website:

Theism, Platonism, and Abstract Objects

In the comments section of a recent post at one of Victor Reppert's blogs I've been engaged in a very interesting and stimulating conversation with a fellow who calls himself 'exapologist' about the status of abstract objects (propositions, numbers, sets, etc.). I'm arguing for theistic conceptualism (abstract objects exist necessarily as ideas in the mind of God). Exapologist is arguing for a form of Platonism (abstract objects exist necessarily independently of anything else, including God).

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

The Problem of Evil and the Problem of Suffering

By "suffering" I mean pain, whether physical or emotional.
By "evil" I mean moral evil, i.e., sin, wickedness.

It is important to keep these distinct. For one thing, not all suffering is evil - it was a good thing that my parents disciplined me, even though it hurt sometimes. In addition, while evil acts may cause suffering, a person can have evil thoughts without acting on them and thus there can be evil without (overt) suffering.

Because suffering and evil are two different things, the so-called "problem of evil", a popular objection to theism, should be distinguished from the "problem of suffering".

To appreciate the importance of the distinction, consider this claim attributed to Socrates:

It is always better to suffer evil than to do it.

His rationale is that doing evil harms the most important part of you - your soul. Suffering can only harm the body. Others can inflict suffering on your body, but only you can harm your soul. To the extent that your soul is unhealthy, you cannot know real happiness, joy, peace, or love. By contrast, a person of exceptional virtue can know real happiness, joy, peace, and love in the midst of intense suffering.

Now, I think Socrates is right about this. Indeed, I think the Socratic principle is foundational to morality, as foundational as the Golden Rule.

The principle does, however, carries implications that will seem counterintuitive to many:
  • It means that you should not do evil even if your own life is at stake.
  • It means that the evil in the heart of the rapist, murderer, etc. are worse (objectively speaking) than the suffering of their victims.
  • It means that natural disasters are not as bad (objectively speaking) as murder, rape, theft, hatred, envy, etc.
I think most of us don't really believe Socrates. We are generally far too caught up in the affairs of this world - the sights and sounds, the hustle and bustle, etc. - to appreciate the depth and seriousness of our own evil. Suffering gets our attention, however. And so we tend to feel that the really bad stuff, the stuff that (if possible) ought to be fixed first in the world before anything else is the suffering that smacks us in the face. Evil, on the other hand, is mostly hidden in the recesses of the heart, where it is easily forgotten.

One's attitude toward the Socratic principle is, I believe, a reflection of one's operant worldview. If you accept a materialist or physicalist worldview according to which you just are your body (brain) and according to which the death of your body (brain) is the end of you, then it is natural (though perhaps not inevitable) to think that protecting and providing for your body/brain should be your highest priority. Socrates doesn't believe that. He doesn't think that you are your body. Rather, he believes that you are your soul and that you have a body. Consequently, he believes that it is very plausible to suppose that the death of your body will not be the end of you. From that perspective, Socrates' principle makes good sense.

This yields a partial explanation of why atheists (who tend to be materialists) think that the problems of evil and suffering (especially suffering) are so bad that belief in an all-good, all-powerful, all-knowing God is just plain irrational, whereas, in contrast, theists tend to see evil as the main problem, not suffering. Suffering can be a bitch, to be sure, but from a theistic perspective that's the symptom, not the disease. Nor is the death of my body the end. This life is only a way-station before moving to something different, and - if one humbly submits to God - better. So why get hung up over natural disasters and such? We should work hard to ameliorate suffering, but ultimately as a means to healing the soul.

This also yields a partial explanation of why atheists have often been charged with immorality. Clearly, the charge is not a fair one if left unqualified. Many atheists are decent, hard-working, upstanding citizens who would gladly help a neighbor in time of need. But if your worldview is exclusively centered on this world. And if you believe that this life is the only life you've got, then it's hard to see why you should obey the demands of what we might call "higher morality" - especially when it might involve sacrificing your life. For example, if someone gives you a loaded gun and makes a credible threat to kill your family unless you shoot an innocent bystander, do you do it? Socrates would say absolutely not, even if it means your own death by slow torture. His worldview, and the theist's, has a built-in rationale for such self-sacrificial behavior. I doubt, however, that the typical atheist's worldview has enough resources to encourage sticking to moral principle under extreme situations.

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Why Teapots and Spaghetti Monsters Miss the Point

In connection with the topic of my preceding post, I just noticed a comment that David Tye had left on a previous post of mine about half-a-year ago. His comment is very insightful:
Flying spaghetti monsters and teapots are things immanent with respect to the universe. God - if He exists - is utterly transcendent. Proving the transcendent and proving the immanent are such radically different proposals that it is questionable whether the same word "proof" should be used in both cases. For a skeptic to blithely compare reflection on God's existence with reflection on the existence of a china teapot is to betray a gross misunderstanding of the categories of the discussion.

Every demonstration of the existence of God has the same form. The universe, the world, ourselves, or whatever is shown to be radically incomplete. It suffers from a lack of being in some respect or other. This lack of being points beyond itself to the fullness of being, in that being or ground of being that transcends the universe altogether. St. Thomas's Five Ways are variations on this theme.

Whether we buy the argument depends on two things. 1) Whether we accept that the universe suffers from the lack of being supposed, and 2) Whether we accept that the lack of being requires fulfillment in a transcendent being. Whatever our answer, atheist or theist, our basic stance with respect to the universe is called into question when the question of God arises. The question of God is one of the fundamental "limit" questions of philosophy, like the question of freedom. Not so with spaghetti monsters and teapots.

The spaghetti monster argument is not an answer to God, but evidence that the skeptic never understood the question.
A lot of people, including many atheists, mistakenly believe that the questions
  • Does God exist?
  • Does Zeus exist?
  • Do dogs, cats, trees, rocks, quarks, etc. exist?
  • Is there a celestial teapot floating in space between the orbits of Earth and Mars?
  • Is there a Flying Spaghetti Monster?
are all questions about the internal constituents of the universe - whether it includes a being of such-and-such a sort. But the God question isn't like the others, for God, as such, cannot be just another constituent of the universe. Indeed, he can't be a constituent of the universe at all. Rather, if there is a God, he must be a transcendent ground of being, a necessary condition for the possibility of there being anything else. As David puts it, the existence of God is one of the fundamental limit questions of philosophy. It can't be confirmed or disconfirmed in the same way as the others - whether by direct observation or scientific experiment. Rather, it takes metaphysical argument employing substantive (and non-empirical) premises.

Moral: When some atheists say things like this:
I contend that we are both atheists. I just believe in one fewer god than you do. When you understand why you dismiss all the other possible gods, you will understand why I dismiss yours. (Stephen F Roberts)

I do not pretend to be able to prove that there is no God. I equally cannot prove that Satan is a fiction. The Christian god may exist; so may the gods of Olympus, or of ancient Egypt, or of Babylon. But no one of these hypotheses is more probable than any other: they lie outside the region of even probable knowledge, and therefore there is no reason to consider any of them. (Bertrand Russell)
they betray a misunderstanding of the issues. God, if he exists, is not and cannot be just one more deity, alongside the members of the ancient polytheistic pantheons.

Monday, October 01, 2007

God Is Not a Celestial Teapot

In a short essay entitled "Is There a God?" Betrand Russell famously compared religious belief, including belief in God, to believing in the existence of celestial teapot:
Many orthodox people speak as though it were the business of sceptics to disprove received dogmas rather than of dogmatists to prove them. This is, of course, a mistake. If I were to suggest that between the Earth and Mars there is a china teapot revolving about the sun in an elliptical orbit, nobody would be able to disprove my assertion provided I were careful to add that the teapot is too small to be revealed even by our most powerful telescopes. But if I were to go on to say that, since my assertion cannot be disproved, it is intolerable presumption on the part of human reason to doubt it, I should rightly be thought to be talking nonsense. If, however, the existence of such a teapot were affirmed in ancient books, taught as the sacred truth every Sunday, and instilled into the minds of children at school, hesitation to believe in its existence would become a mark of eccentricity and entitle the doubter to the attentions of the psychiatrist in an enlightened age or of the Inquisitor in an earlier time.
The last sentence quoted is obviously satirical. Russell's point is that, absent a cogent argument for theism, the existence of a monotheistic God (of the sort affirmed by the Abrahamic faiths - Christianity, Judaism, and Islam) can be summarily dismissed in the same way that the utterly unsupported hypothesis that there exists a celestial teapot hanging in space should be dismissed. The burden of proof, says Russell, is squarely on the theist (or the believer in celestial teapots), not on the atheist.

Now, I agree that Russell's got a point. Any claim, once made, may be fairly challenged by asking "Why should I, or anyone, believe that?" For some claims (e.g., "1+1=2", "water is wet", etc.) the availability of reasonable answers to that challenge is obvious. For other claims (e.g., "string theory is correct"), it is not nearly as obvious that reasonable answers are available or forthcoming. The claim that God exists is, I think, plausibly thought to be more like the latter than the former.

In addition, I think Russell's right that there is often an asymmetric burden of proof in favor of skeptical denials (negative existence claims) over against the corresponding positive claims. But I would reject the idea that this is always the case or the claim that when such asymmetry obtains it does so simply because one claim is negative and the other positive. Rather, I return to my point above that all claims, simply because they are claims, face a burden of proof. In some cases this burden is relatively easy to satisfy. In others it is very difficult, or even impossible. So it all comes down to the issue of how easy or hard it is to give a cogent reply to the "Why believe it?" challenge (as posed by a neutral third party). In some cases, the positive claim is much easier to justify (e.g., "Some people exist" versus "No one exists"). In others, both positive and negative claims are more-or-less equally hard to justify (e.g., "For every even number greater than four, there exists a pair of primes that add up to that number"). In such cases, agnosticism would seem to be the appropriate default.

How does "God exists" compare to "God does not exist" on this measure? The answer is: It depends on who you ask, for it is hard to secure agreement on how an allegedly neutral third party would adjudicate the matter. Atheists tend to think that it is much more obvious (and so easier to justify) that God does not exist. Many theists, particularly those who believe themselves to have had profound religious experiences, think that the existence of God is much more obvious (and so easier to justify) than its denial. In the end, I think that debates over who really has the burden of proof on this issue are mostly unproductive. Better to start by reflecting on the nature of the 'God' whose existence is under question and then by diving in to examine the arguments, pro and con, that bear on that conception of God. After the dust has settled we can judge for ourselves whether either side has met its own burden of proof.

Returning to Russell's teapot, I believe that as an analogy for belief in God the analogy is seriously misleading in two respects:
  1. First, there are no reasons whatsoever for believing that the teapot exists, whereas there are lots of positive arguments for believing that a being like God exists - arguments that many of the brightest minds in history have found compelling. Philosopher Alvin Plantinga lists a couple dozen such arguments here. His list is not exhaustive.
  2. Second, the teapot hypothesis is trivial - even if there were cogent teapot arguments, nothing of importance would hang on them. So what if there's a celestial teapot? The question of God's existence, in contrast, is anything but trivial. The reason is that the concept of God is that of a being who is not only the ground of being of everything, but also the supreme exemplar of all pure perfections - knowledge, wisdom, power, goodness, love, and so forth. Consequently, if God exists, then all of philosophy - metaphysics, epistemology, and ethics - has a common, unifying focus. If God does not exist, however, then either there is no fundamental unity to reality, or it is a unity-by-reduction, a reduction that ultimately either purges reality of things like knowledge, wisdom, power, goodness, love, etc., or reduces them to thinner substitutes. In the limit, all that remains is matter floating in the void, which is, more-or-less, Russell's view.
To be fair, prior to the passage I quoted above, Russell does examine a few theistic arguments. But he does so in a sloppy manner. For example, here is his discussion of the First Cause (cosmological) argument:
This argument maintains that, since everything that happens has a cause, there must be a First Cause from which the whole series starts. The argument suffers, however, from the same defect as that of the elephant and the tortoise. It is said (I do not know with what truth) that a certain Hindu thinker believed the earth to rest upon an elephant. When asked what the elephant rested upon, he replied that it rested upon a tortoise. When asked what the tortoise rested upon, he said, "I am tired of this. Suppose we change the subject." This illustrates the unsatisfactory character of the First-Cause argument.
Now, anyone who has any expertise in the philosophy of religion knows that this is a straw man of grotesque proportions. Russell's critique rests on the assumption that the causal principle appealed to in the argument (in his formulation, the principle that "everything that happens has a cause") would have to apply to God in the very same way in which it applies to anything else. Accordingly, Russell must either take "everything that happens has a cause" to mean "everything has a cause (of the same general sort)" or he must be supposing that God, if there is such a being, is something that "happens". Since the latter is incompatible with how theists conceive of God, I presume that Russell means the former. But now the problem is that that no carefully developed version of the cosmological argument either assumes or entails that the causal principle (however formulated) applies to God in the same sense as it does to everything else. Indeed, it is of the very nature of a cosmological argument to argue to God's existence from the need to stop an otherwise infinite explanatory regress. Accordingly, whatever sort of God such arguments encourage us to posit cannot be a being to whom the causal principle applies in the same sense. Thus, Aquinas' First Way postulates that things that are in motion (motus) need to have a cause and concludes that there must be a First Cause that is not in motion. Similarly, the Kalam cosmological argument postulates that things that began to exist need a cause and concludes that there must a First Cause that did not begin to exist. Finally, the Leibnizian cosmological argument postulates that all things have a sufficient reason and concludes that there must be a First Cause that, unlike everything else, has an intrinsic sufficient reason. In short, Russell's critique completely misconstrues the nature of a cosmological argument. What he knocks down here is nought but a superficial straw man.

I believe that one reason for such sloppiness on the part of an otherwise accomplished philosopher like Russell is that he has overlooked my second point above, the non-triviality of the theistic hypothesis. If it is a trivial matter whether or not God exists, then there's not much point to examining the arguments pro-and-con very closely. But if, as I contend, the existence or non-existence of God has momentous implications, then that kind of intellectual nonchalance is simply inexcusable.