Tuesday, January 18, 2011

An Intro to the Philosophy of Religion, Ch. 5 Part 1 (Ontological arguments)

Religious experience might justify belief in the absence of propositional evidence and undercutting defeaters; however, not all persons have religious experiences.  In addition, some religious experiences may be defeated, or else propositional evidence (the problem of evil, divine hiddenness) outweighs experience.  Therefore, regardless of a reformed epistemology, good theistic arguments are indispensable.

Ontological Arguments
Anselm's starting point is that God is the being than which none greater can be conceived.  The argument goes as follows:
1. God is the greatest conceivable being.
2. God exists in the understanding.
3. To exist in reality is better than merely to exist in understanding.
4. Thus, if God exists merely in the understanding, then we can conceive of something greater than God, namely a being just like God, but who also exists.
5. But it is impossible to conceive of a being that is greater than the greatest conceivable being.
6. Thus it is impossible that God exists merely in the understanding.
7. Thus God exists in reality as well as in the understanding.
8. Thus God exists.
One popular objection to this argument is that other greatest conceivable things could be plugged into this argument.  For example, the Lost Island is the greatest conceivable island and thus exists.  But not so fast, how would an island be the greatest of its kind?  How many miles of beach would it have, potentially infinite?  Certain types of perfection do not have an instrinsic maximal value, and thus not just any old greatest conceivable thing can be plugged into this argument.  But this objection might cut both ways, since some of God's alleged great-making properties don't seem to admit of instrinsic maxima (eg., perfectly loving).  In other words, some intrinsic great-making properties may be problematic for this argument.

But is existence a property at all, much less a great-making property?  Kant answered in the negative.  To ascribe properties to something presupposes its existence.[1]  Murray and Rea point out that Kant is assuming that a precondition (for ascribing other properties) can't itself be a property.   "Taking up space" is a precondition for having the property of "being red", but "taking up space" is also itself a property.  Likewise with existence, except that existence the precondition for all properties (or so Kant argues).  Perhaps it is, but this still doesn't show that existence can't be a property.  On the other hand, Rea and Murray don't give any arguments in favor of predicating existence either (my guess is this gets deep under the hood of language).  So, I'm not sure about Kant's objection.

Some maintain that the ontological argument begs the question.  The first premise would need to be modified to be conditional. "[5.1**] For anything to count as God, that thing would have to be the greatest conceivable being."  But now the conclusion only says "Thus anything that counts as God would have to exist."

Recent work in the area of philosophy known as modal logic has produced a new rendition of this argument.  Modal logic deals with claims/inferences that are about/from possibility and necessity.   Rea and Murray define a possible world as "a comprehensive description of the way the universe might be...the maximally comprehensive description of our universe is the actual world."  Next, they define a necessary being and necessary property possession.  A necessary being is one that would exist in all possible worlds.  A being possesses a property necessarily if it has that property in all possible worlds.  For example, Arnold Schwarzenegger is 6 feet tall ascribes a property to Arnold, but Arnold could be 5 feet tall in some possible world.  On the other hand, Arnold Schwarzenegger is a person ascribes a property to Arnold that holds in all possible worlds.  Hmm, but what about Kant's objection?  Arnold can only hold a necessary property in the worlds that he exists in, right?  Consider the proposition Arnold is an existent.  Is existence a property or not?  Not sure what Plantinga says on this issue, but here is the modal argument:
5.20 God is the greatest possible being
5.21 The greatest possible being is one that possesses all perfections necessarily
5.22 Necessary existence is a perfection
5.23 It is possible that the greatest possible being exists
5.24 If it is possible that the greatest possible being exists, then that being exists necessarily
5.25 God exists necessarily
5.26 God exists
Premise 5.23 is susceptible to refutation.  For instance, some philosophical theologians think that the concept of a greatest possible being entails a contradiction.  Thus, it is not possible that the greatest possible being exists.  In other words, if a perfect being is shown to be conceptually impossible, this argument fails.  A more modest critic might just insist that we withhold judgement on this argument until we have resolved all the apparent contradictions in philosophical theology.  But a powerful rebuttal can be given to both critics here.  Since premise 5.23 asserts the possibility that the greatest possible being exists, then the response to conceptual impossibility is to adjust our concept accordingly to be in line with what is possible. Does omnipotence and impeccability entail a contradiction?  No problem, just adjust the concept.  The point here is that some philosophical concepts are hard to pin down and declare impossible.  The concept of the greatest possible being, by its very nature, is damn near impossible to deem impossible.

But someone can still object that necessary existence is impossible.  After all, the being must exist (or possess existence?) in all possible worlds for this argument to work.  Rea and Murray don't think that any convincing arguments have been offered in this direction.  A few references would have been nice.  But regardless, it looks like "its possible until shown impossible" isn't exactly a compelling reason to accept 5.23 either.  But, compelling reasons are hard to come by in these types of arguments (or so it seems to me at least).

[1] Alvin Plantinga, in God, Freedom and Evil (1977)proceeds meticulously through the details of Kant's objections in a section entitled "The Irrelevance of Kant's Objection."

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Maitzen on purpose

"On God and our ultimate purpose"

Friday, January 14, 2011

Feser on Classical Theism

Edward Feser's two posts on classical theism are well worth a read (or two).

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Stephen D. Hales debunks internet rhetoric

"You can prove a negative"

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

An Intro to the Philosophy of Religion, Ch. 4 (Faith and rationality)

The nature of faith
Rea and Murray categorize faith as a species of belief, i.e., a "cognitive stance towards a proposition."  They consider four definitions of faith: as believing in something "[1]in the absence of proof...[2]in the absence of supporting evidence...[3]in the face of overwhelming counter-evidence...[4]that we do not know to be true."

Reflection on these definitions shows that each falls short of capturing the whole picture.  Apropos [2], what constitutes evidence?  Philosophers are interested in propositional evidence, that is, evidence that can be the object of belief.  But not all knowledge enjoys propositional support, for instance, skeptical hypotheses such as whether or not we are brains in a vat.  A precise distinction between knowledge and faith proves difficult to draw.  Murray and Rea offer their account of faith as follows:
"We therefore tentatively propose the following as our positive account of faith: to say that a person S has faith in proposition p is to say that S believes p despite the fact that (a) there are alternatives to p that are compatible with whatever evidence supports S's belief that p, and b) there is genuine and somewhat weighty evidence in favor of one or more of those alternatives.  Of course, the phrase, 'genuine and somewhat weighty evidence' is hopelessly imprecise; but in our view, the imprecision does not diminish the value of this account as at least a viable first pass at a positive account of faith."
Reliabilism and Evidentialism
The evidentialist maintains that the justificatory status of religious belief x depends on the strength of the arguments produced for x.  The reliabilist maintains that a belief can be rationally held if (a) they are produced by reliable, cognitive faculties and (b) the believer has no overriding reason to doubt the belief's rationality.  (Rea and Murray side with reliabilism.) Neither camp would deem beliefs rational in the absence of any evidence whatsoever; however, reliabilists disagrees with evidentialists over whether one needs proposition evidence--as opposed to other kinds, such as experiential evidence.  "Experiential evidence comes in varying degrees and can be defeated by other evidence."  For instance, the fact that a great many people throughout history have claimed to have an awareness of God might confer experiential evidence on belief in God--more so than, say, the belief in the Great Pumpkin.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Staring at a picture, thinking how absurd

How absurd: to experience the external world and my inner thoughts simultaneously
How absurd: that a lump of particles composed this sentence
How absurd: that one should believe himself to be a lump of particles

meditative man and the roving mind

Roving mind eagerly traverses the jungle of ideas
Meditative man seeks to extinguish the endless chatter between his ears

A moment of solitude passes, and he finds himself sitting in the rover again
On some fruitless expedition down memory lane

Wednesday, January 05, 2011

Paradox of the Question

Ned Markosian presents the "Paradox of the Question."  Responses by Theodore SiderAlexander D. Scott and Michael ScottAchille C. Varz, and Ryan Wasserman and Dennis Whitcom.

Acronyms and Initialisms

NASA doesn't take an article, but the FBI does. (Daily Writing Tips)

Tuesday, January 04, 2011

An Intro to the Philosophy of Religion, Ch. 3

The first two chapters have broadly examined theistic belief, but Murray and Rea will now discuss the Christian doctrines of the Trinity and the Incarnation.  Can they be established philosophically, apart from scripture?[1]  A brief discussion of  heresies proceeds into some philosophical critique of the orthodox (officially recognized) doctrines. Orthodox practitioners may disagree with this conclusion :
"So if it turns out that Christian doctrine as interpreted by those creeds and councils is incoherent, then, at the very least, large segments of Christendom will be forced to revise their religious views and also, perhaps, to revise their views about the authority and reliability of the relevant creeds and councils." (emphasis original)
The Trinity
Monotheism holds that there is one God.  Unitarianism holds that God is one person, and Trinitarianism holds that God is three persons (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit).  Three heresies regarding this doctrine are as follows:
  1. Modalism - Denying the distinction of three persons.  God manifests himself in different ways like Superman and Clark Kent
  2. Polytheism - Denying the oneness of God
  3. Subordinationism -  Denying the divinity of all three persons.  Christ is not fully divine, or the Holy Spirit is not fully divine.  
The authors critically examine some analogies to see if they partially/fully illuminate the orthodox view.

Sunday, January 02, 2011

A New Year's resolution

One of my goals this year will be to improve my writing skills, as I am quite disgusted with my present habits of prose.  I started the new year with George Orwell's Politics and the English Language.  The salient point of his essay is that language and thought are inextricable, and thus improving language can improve the quality of thinking (and ultimately political discourse).
A man may take to drink because he feels himself to be a failure, and then fail all the more completely because he drinks.  It is rather the same thing that is happening to the English language.  It becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts.  The point is that the process is reversible.  Modern English, especially written English, is full of bad habits which spread by imitation and which can be avoided if one is willing to take the necessary trouble.  If one gets rid of these habits one can think more clearly...
Specific things to work on:
  1. Slow down
  2. Use the active voice
  3. Improve diction, structure, and cadence
    • Work through a book on revising prose
    • Consult a daily word calendar
  4. Rewrite clumsy sentences
  5. Proofread
  6. Resist publishing a post immediately, and read over it again later
  7. Extinguish childishness: 
    • Excessive cowardice: like, almost, perhaps, often  and might
    • Overuse of the first person and relativistic mushiness:  It's only my opinion, I believe sincerely that, it appears that, it seems to me that, that doesn't strike me as, my problem with this argument is, etc.
    • Fanboyish exclamation points!!
    • Emoticons: they simply absolve the writer of being subtle or using tone
  8. Lofty attempts at being clever rarely succeed 

Saturday, January 01, 2011

Washing your hands is only half the battle

"Dr Snelling and her team found that rubbing the hands together whilst using traditional hand dryers could counteract the reduction in bacterial numbers following handwashing."

Nagel on Intelligent Design and Public Education

An atheist has weakened my stance on intelligent design...towards permitting it in the classroom.  Nagel seems to have a compelling argument , but I suppose most scientists won't buy it.  I am definitely going to revisit this article in the future, but here are some excerpts from "Public Education and Intelligent Design":

"The real issue over the scientific status of ID is over what determines the antecedent belief in the possibility that a nonphysical being should intervene in the natural order...If these prior probabilities have a large effect on the interpretation of the empirical evidence, and if neither of them is empirically based, it is hard to imagine that one of them should render the resulting reasoning unscientific whereas the other does not."

"If one scientist is a theist and another an atheist, this is either a scientific or nonscientific disagreement between them.  If it is scientific (supposing this is possible), then their disagreement is scientific all the way down.  If it is not a scientific disagreement, and if this difference in their nonscientific beliefs about the antecedent probabilities affects their rational interpretation of the same empirical evidence, I do not see how we can say that one is engaged in science and the other is not.  Either both conclusions are rendered nonscientific by the influence of their nonscientific assumptions, or both are scientific in spite of those assumptions." (emphasis mine)

"Public schools in the United States may not teach atheism or deism any more than they may teach Christianity, so how can it be all right to teach scientific theories whose empirical confirmation depends on the assumption of one range of these views while it is impermissible to discuss the implications of alternative views  on the same question?"