Thursday, March 31, 2011

New blogger views

Kind of cool

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Metaphysical Possibility

As I've said in a previous post, I wonder (and in great ignorance, no doubt) what could confer support on the proposition possibly, God exists.

Edward Feser has an intriguing, short article on Plantinga's ontological argument in which he says,
"...a failed attempt to discover a contradiction in some concept itself provides at least some actual evidence to think the concept describes a real possibility"
The distinctions between logical, broadly logical and metaphysical possibility are quite confusing to me.  If a concept doesn't entail any contradictions, then this would surely imply (narrowly) logical possibility.  But what kind of conceptual analysis takes us further into broadly logical possibility?  William F. Vallicella often discusses this perplexing topic (on which he is has also written at length in published journals) on his blog, but I am still a bit fuzzy on these distinctions.

Monday, March 28, 2011

The Definition of Blubber

"Wolff's perennial textbook, now in its eighth edition, has faults. This is a given for any book or other work in the print medium, and, for that matter, for any human artifact.  Nevertheless..."

Searle on consciousness

Berkley Webcasts: Searle and the Philosophy of Mind

Alongside a host of free academic courses, there are two free philosophy courses available here via webcast.berkley.  I have listened to John Searle's course on the Philosophy of Mind (Philosophy 132) twice now, thanks to my 25 minute commute to work each morning and afternoon.

These 32 mp3 recordings capture virtually everything that happened during that semester of the course: lectures, lucid accounts from Searle about his life experiences and about philosophy in general, student questions, a couple of lively teacher/student debates (one student defensively launches some theistic arguments at Searle after he makes a few unsympathetic remarks about religion), and most importantly, Searle's exposition of his philosophy of the mind, aka "biological naturalism."  (For a concise description of biological naturalism, see Edward Feser's unpublished paper entitled, "Why Searle Is a Property Dualist."  Another summary is given in this article.)

The clarity and depth of Searle's teaching can't be overstated, especially regarding the various arguments against materialism (Nagel's bat, Mary's color, the Chinese Room, etc).  Almost half of the course is geared towards evaluating materialism, while the other half explores perception and intentionality.  If you think naive realism has been ruled out, think again.  Also, if you think naturalism precludes intentionality, Searle might at least challenge you to move beyond the usual rhetoric that gets tossed at naturalists regarding intentionality (I still maintain that intentionality is a serious problem for most naturalistic theories of the mind).

I'm no expert on Descartes but suspect that a few of Searle's comments would raise a few hackles among the Cartesian crowd. For instance, he stressed that Descartes distinguished the body from the mind but he doesn't mention how they can interact together to constitute a third substance.  He also doesn't mention that Descartes may not have exclusively identified person with their minds (see Feser, Philosophy of Mind, p. 21).

Searle gives out a suprisingly quick and dirty response to Plantinga's modal argument for dualism. Here's a rough formulation of Plantinga's argument:

1. If me = my body, then whatever is true of me is true of my body and vice versa.
2. 'Possibly exists when body doesn't' is true of me but not true of my body.
3. Therefore, I am not identical to my body.

A student presents the argument and asks him what he thinks of it, and almost without hesitation Searle replies, "thinkability is not a property."  Others have criticized Plantinga's argument in similar fashion.

Overall, I found this course to be immensely helpful and insightful.  Surely I didn't comprehend the material as well as the students who attended the class and did the required readings.  But that wasn't the goal.  The goal was to absorb the landscape, to make a mental map of the bigger picture before attacking a full-length text on the subject.

Before reading a serious text, if I haven't familiarized myself sufficiently with the topic or author, I will skim through an introductory text or listen to audio material on the topic (there is something about passively listening while driving or running on the treadmill that soaks the information into your neurons in a different, but nonetheless useful way).  If intro texts or audio aren't readily available, I scan the entire text very quickly (as quick as you can run your eyes down the page), only pausing at the topic sentences of the main sections.  I can sprint through a book in about 20 minutes in this fashion, and believe it or not, I find that pre-scanning increases my ability to understand the material once I start reading it at a normal pace.  Sometimes a third reading is required if I'm going to take detailed notes and really interact with the material.  Perhaps others can get away with just reading difficult books once, but not this fellow!

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Taking notes

Taking Notes On Philosophical Texts, by Peter Suber

Possible Worlds

In many cases, philosophers consider something possible if it hasn't been shown to be impossible.  So much the better for asserting possibly God exists.  But suppose we wanted to confer support on that proposition anyhow.  As any good theist should be, we aren't satisfied with relying on the prevalent attitudes among philosophers.  Can we show that possibly God exists?  Sounds easy enough, doesn't it?  I mean come on, all these arguments for God's least cumulatively they should give us a remote possibility.

This is where philosophical language is tricky if we don't pay close attention.  There is a difference between asserting what's possible to be known, and asserting what's possible period.

For example:
It's possible that it will rain today.
It's impossible for Clark Kent to jump over a tall building in a single bound.

These are normally taken to be a statements about the actual world given what we know.  In the first case, given what we know about weather systems, we maintain that rain is epistemically possible.  In the second example, given what we know about the laws of physics, we might intend to say that this feat is physically impossible.  There are other forms of possibility that philosophers talk about.

We wouldn't say that it's logically impossible for Clark Kent to clear a tall building.  But we would say that it's logically impossible for 2+2=5.  Thus, in that sense, it is possible for Clark Kent to jump over a tall building in a single bound.  Perhaps the laws of nature could have been different such that this would be permitted (interestingly, some have argued that he laws of nature could not have been different).  Assuming we think the laws of nature might have been different, we could say that it's metaphysically possible for Clark Kent to make his jump.

So to which kind of possibility do we refer when we say that God's existence is possible?  Metaphysical possibility ... or is it broadly logical possibility?  It depends on who you ask.

And thus, as far as I can see, a posteriori arguments for God's existence won't help the theist show that God exists is metaphysically possible.  I'm honestly not sure (and this is a statement about my ignorance) how one would go about showing that something is metaphysically possible.  Perhaps this is why philosophers tend to assume it unless shown otherwise?  We can show that something is conceptually incoherent and thus logically (and I will assume this entails metaphysically) impossible.  But how do we show something is metaphysically possible if it isn't already subsumed under what's physically possible?  Does this require mere conceptual analysis?

Saturday, March 26, 2011

The Modal Ontological Argument

I've been paying attention to this argument lately, mostly thanks to a discussion with Peter Lupu about the problem of evil. Here's the basic argument:

1 God is the greatest possible being (GPB).
2 The GPB is one that possesses all perfections necessarily.
3 Necessary existence is a perfection.
4 It is possible that the GPB exists.
5 If it is possible that the GPB exists, then that being exists necessarily...[thus, GPB aka God exists]

Let's revise premise 3 to only say that "existence is a perfection." Now, what's the problem here? If God's perfections accompany him in all the possible worlds where he exists, then we already know that existence accompanies him in those worlds. Ahh, but for all we know there are no possible worlds where God exists. So we definitely need premise 3 to stay as is.

Let's revise premise 2 to say that "the GPB is one that possesses all perfections." If God's perfections may/may not accompany him in all the possible worlds where he exists, and God has the perfection of necessary existence in merely one possible world...doesn't he exist in all possible worlds?  Yes, but then again, how do we show that there is a possible world where God exists and also happens to possess the property of necessary existence?  It would seem that this premise is more driven by our concept of God.  Our concept of a GPB seems to demand that he possess all perfections necessarily, and not merely contingently...since presumably a being who possesses perfections necessarily is better than one that doesn't.

Hmm, so it seems like the argument does indeed need to be exactly as stated.  If we can show that God possibly exists, we have shown that he actually exists.  Much more to think about, but a very interesting argument at first glance.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

On the Reading Rack

I can't decide which of Edward Feser's books to read first....suggestions?

Seeking God

"It's a waste of time to ask about God's existence if we lack understanding of the kind of God in question.  If we leave the notion of God amorphous, our question about God's existence will be similarly obscure and resistant to worthwhile reflection.  We would then not know what kind of evidence for God to expect if God does in fact exist.  Many philosophers of religion are in exactly this disadvantaged position.  They do expect a certain kind of evidence for God, as we shall see, but their expectation lacks a cogent basis in the notion or character of God, at least is the Hebraic God is our concern.  The notion of God and God's purposes suggests what kind of evidence for God one should expect.  It is odd, therefore, that philosophers of religion rarely attend adequately to that notion."
- Paul Moser in M. Peterson and R. VanArragon (eds.), Contemporary Debates in the Philosophy of Religion (2004)


"On Wikipedia, which sources material from the crowd, anyone’s view counts the same as any other. Wikipedia: the encyclopedia that anyone with an agenda can edit."

Sunday, March 20, 2011

An Intro to the Philosophy of Religion, Ch. 6 Part 2 (Arguments from Evil)

[Rough Draft - comments welcome]

The Evidential Argument part 2: "The Distribution Argument"
Rather than focusing on particular instances of evil, this argument hinges on the distribution of evil; specifically, it claims that the distribution of evil we find is better explained by a non-theistic hypothesis (one in which the universe is indifferent towards humans). [1]

Unlike direct arguments, this argument doesn't provide a quick route to supposing the truth of atheism.  Observing some particular phenomena and concluding that it is better explained by one competing hypothesis over others seems insufficient to confirm that hypothesis.  It is unclear how this argument should be weighted alongside other theistic and atheistic arguments.

The Argument from Hiddenness
An excerpt from Neitzsche summarizes the problem cited against theism.
"A god who is all-knowing and all-powerful and who does not even make sure his creatures understand his intention – could that be a god of goodness? Who allows countless doubts and dubieties to persist, for thousands of years, as though the salvation of mankind were unaffected by them, and who on the other hand holds out the prospect of frightful consequences if any mistake is made as to the nature of truth? Would he not be a cruel god if he possessed the truth and could behold mankind miserably tormenting itself over the truth? – But perhaps he I a god of goodness notwithstanding – and merely could express himself more clearly! Did he perhaps lack intelligence to do so? Or the eloquence? So much the worse! For then he was perhaps also in error as to that which he calls his “truth”, and is himself not so far from being the “poor deluded devil”! Must he not then endure almost the torments of Hell to have to see his creature suffer so, and go on suffering even more through all eternity, for the sake of knowledge of him, and not be able to help and counsel them, except in the manner of a deaf man making all kinds of ambiguous signs when the most fearful danger is about to befall on his child or dog?"
Rea and Murray then move onto John Schellenberg's argument, which I'll briefly construct as follows (bracketing concerns over the necessity that God is perfectly loving):

1 If a perfectly loving God exists, reasonable non-belief does not occur.
2 Reasonable non-belief does occur.
3 No perfectly loving God exists.

The second is very plausible.  Reasonable non-belief refers to people who have reflected on the arguments for God's existence an remained unconvinced.  The first premise seems plausible as well, since a loving God would want to ensure the possibility that humans enter into a relationship with him.  One necessary condition for this to happen is that those humans must believe that God exists.  So God must make his existence known to humans in a way escapable only by irrational means.

Rea and Murray think we should append an important qualification to the first premise: that there may be some reasonable non-belief permitted (in the world) as long as God has morally sufficient reasons.  And thus, the second premise is modified:

2' Reasonable non-belief does not occur unless there is a morally sufficient reason.

This move mimics the evidential arguments move from evil to gratuitous evil.  So now we appear to be left with gratuitous reasonable non-belief.  This modified premise doesn't appear as threatening to theism as the original formulation.  Rea and Murray think that this modified premise can be evaded via skeptical theism, since the justification for it will likely involve a noseum inference (no reason is apparent, therefore there is no reason).  Schellenberg has defended the contention that this noseum inference is valid, and not subject to any kind of skeptical theistic evasion (that we shouldn't expect to detect these reasons in every case).  Though Rea and Murray are clearly unconvinced by this, they move on to discuss potential theodicies that might apply if skeptical theism evasions are inadequate. [2]

Theodicies focused on the goods of free choice of soul-making
Natural order theodicies maintain that certain conditions, such as the predictable regularities of the physical world, are required in order for God to achieve the good of having morally free creatures who exercise their freedom.  Likewise, this theodicy discussed here adds another condition: that humans should have "real incentives" for exercising their freedom.  In other words, if God was apparent in a way that precluded rational disbelief, humans might be coerced in a way that precludes morally significant freedom.  In response to this argument, some note that religious believers are still capable of doing good and bad despite their (alleged) high degree of belief that God exists.

Theodicies focused on the good of filial knowledge
Paul Moser claims that God's hiddenness is necessary so that we can come to know him in the proper way. [3]  In addition to acquiring basic propositional knowledge, Moser thinks that we must cultivate a filial knowledge--that is, "humbly, faithfully, and lovingly standing in a relationship to God as our righteously gracious Father." [4]  This kind of knowledge of God can only come by approaching him in a manner much differently than one approaches a philosophical question.  As Hebrews 11:6 says, "Anyone who wants to come to him must believe that God exists and that he rewards those who sincerely seek him."  Of course, a serious objection to this is that there appears to be a number of people who have made earnest efforts to seek God and have come up empty handed.  Moser maintains that if there are such cases, we can presume that God is waiting for his "appointed time" to bestow filial knowledge.

[1] Paul Draper has offered an argument of this kind in an online article entitled, "Natural Selection and the Problem of Evil."  Alvin Plantinga responds with "Objections to Draper's Argument from Evil."  Finally, Draper gets the last word in his article, "On the Plausability of Naturalism and the Seriousness of the Argument from Evil."
[2] Some other details about this argument are noteworthy, since it is a hot topic right now:

, Ted Poston and Trent Dougherty have argued that distinctions between types of belief (de re/de dicto) create problems for Schellenberg's formulation.  Schellenberg's reply is available, but unfortunately not for free.  
Second, the Infidels library has another good remark/reply/closing remarks series of articles between John Schellenberg and Jeffrey Jordan.  
Third, Stephen Maitzen has given a unique spin to this argument in his article, "Divine Hiddenness and the Demographics of Theism."  Jason Marsh argued that Molinistic assumptions about what worlds God can create defeat this argument in his article,"Do the demographics of theistic belief disconfirm theism? A reply to Maitzen." (not available for free)  Maitzen gets in a last word in the article,"Does Molinism explain the demographics of theism?"  Stephen Maitzen has also defended his thesis (in brief, blog fashion) against objections by Randal Rauser and Mike Almeida.  

[3]See the Prosblogion
reading group series that discusses Paul Moser's book, The Elusive God.
[4] Moser, "Divine Hiddenness Does Not Justify Atheism," in M. Peterson and R. VanArragon (eds.), Contemporary Debates in the Philosophy of Religion (2004), p. 49.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Poythress on Gen 1

I conclude then, that Genesis 1 harmonizes with fiat creation.  Yes, God could have created each kind of animal instantly, by his word.  But it also harmonizes with theistic evolution, because it does not teach that God used no means.  Rather, it is silent about means in order to concentrate on the main point.
- Poythress, Vern.  Redeeming Science (Crossway, 2006) .  p. 255

RTS paper on free will

"The 'Corrupted-Will' Model: A Reformed Theological Appraisal of Neuroscience and Cognitive Psychology of Human Will and Responsibility."  Tobias Alecio Mattei, M.D.

In the latest years significant advances have been made on both fields of neuroscience and cognitive psychology regarding the understanding of the psychological dynamics as well as the biological structures of the brain underlying intentionality and decision-making. In the following essay, the author reviews the insights such empirical data might provide to the classical theological debate about Human Will and Responsibility.  Employing the Multiperpectival approach proposed by the reformed theologian John Frame, the analysis is divided in three main sections...

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Uncritical Thinking about Theistic Evolution

This post by Jamin Hubner concerns me for several reasons.

He has been blogging on "Lessons in Logic and Argumentation," and yet his post about theistic evolution lacks  critical interaction with the folks being criticized, or with the literature on theistic evolution in general.  Take this little tidbit:
And somehow, we are supposed to believe that all of this is compatible with Christian orthodoxy and that none of it negatively changes our understanding of what it means to be God's images. Just bow the knee to "science," say we all came from monkeys, and keep going to church with a smile and everything will be fine.
We were given one reason to accept that theistic evolution is "a serious threat" to the Christian worldview: "man came from non-God and non-image."  But what exactly does this mean?  Is he implying that if God saw fit to use evolutionary means to make creatures of the kind he intends, then this would entail that man "came from" non-God and non-image?  In one sense, I came from my mother.  In another sense, my father.  (And perhaps in yet another, both!)  It's not clear to me how theistic evolution implies that man "came from" non-God and non-image, except to say that we were not directly created by God.  But, of course, all humans after Adam and Eve weren't directly created by God.  So what's the argument here?  Perhaps an argument wasn't even intended, and this should be interpreted as a high-five-to-my-comrads kind of post.  But then, would a post like this belong on an apologetics blog or was this more appropriate for Twitter?

Next, we are told that theistic evolution "negatively changes our understanding of what it means to be made in God's image."  I can grant that theistic evolution radically alters how Christians have viewed the subject, but exactly how does this constitute evidence against belief in theistic evolution?

Thirdly, he accuses Tim Keller of supporting theistic evolution by virtue of his association with BioLogos.  Does Tim Keller "Just bow the knee to 'science,' say we all came from monkeys, and keep going to church with a smile and everything will be fine?"  What  does Pastor Keller have to say for himself?

Well, actually in this article (linked from Keller's bio which Hubner directs us to in his post), Keller attempts to lend a helping how to Hubner's "somehow, we are supposed to believe that all of this is compatible with Christian orthodoxy."  He discusses the exegetical concerns, the implications for orthodox belief, the philosophical assumptions, and he replies to objections.  He argues that the Christian can believe in "evolution through biological processes" without necessarily affirming the "grand theory of evolution."  And at the end of his article, Keller says:
"Is this the only model possible for those who believe in an historical Fall yet who believe God used evolution to bring about life on earth? No. Some believe in theistic evolution."
Of course, Hubner paid no attention to Keller's position.  He only directs our attention to an organization that Keller has joined, and asserts that this means Keller has given his approval to theistic evolution.  Instead of explaining or interacting with Keller's position, Jamin just sticks a big fat label on Keller (and others).

Morally Significant Freedom and the Logical Problem of Evil

Below is my response to Peter Lupu in a comment thread over at Bill Vallicella's blog.
You contend that God could "circumvent the causal laws and bring about the higher goods while preventing the evils the existence of which are causally necessary for such goods."

Consider a possible world where God does intervene to eliminate all gratuitous evils...the higher goods simply obtain by divine command at the appropriate time. How [could] a free agent make genuine moral decisions in a world like that?

For instance, assume that some choices contribute to the overall good of building one's character. Allison is faced with some character-building choice between good and evil. If she chooses evil, she cultivates her character. Otherwise, all remains the same.
God sees that Allison intends to choose evil. So, God intervenes to have her choose the good and yet still reap the benefits to her character as if she's chosen the evil.

No evil obtained outside of Allison's free intentions, and Allison still "got the goods" so to speak. But, unless God overwrites her memory (and perhaps others), then she will not continue to make morally significant choices.

Perhaps you had specific evils in mind that could be eliminated by divine intervention? Hopefully this was clear, I only thought of it over dinner and didn't have time to proof-read this thoroughly. Cheers.

But, if I understand the logical problem of evil correctly, the goal is to show that the theist is committed to some set of propositions that are contradictory in some sense.  And so it would seem, if the theist can show that all evils are possibly consistent with God's existence, then he has succeeded.  But then, could not even the fawn in the forest be possibly consistent with some state of affairs that God cannot prevent without damaging free will?

Since Dr. Lupu is far more capable and experienced in this area, he will probably show that I am mistaken or else that I haven't fully responded to his argument.  I should have spent more time anticipating his objections and responding to them.  I came up with a few potential objections while walking the dogs.  Such is the life of the amateur philosopher...stealing away a few minutes of critical thinking here and there...over dinner (apologies to the wife), walking the dogs, mowing the grass, driving to work, exercising at the gym.

Craig's Quantum-Measurement Cosmological Argument

I finally got a chance to listen to the debate between Bill Craig, Alvin Plantinga and Quentin Smith, Richard Gale.  Even though each speaker was only allotted 10 minutes for remarks (and rebuttal), this turned out to be an excellent debate.  After remarks and rebuttals, there was some open discussion time among the four of them and the moderator (himself being a philosopher).

Craig and Smith went back and forth for a bit on issues related to the philosophy of time and the Kalam cosmological argument.  Alvin Plantinga also gave a pretty good summary of his evolutionary argument against naturalism, and Richard Gale raised some well-informed concerns.  It was nice (for a change) to see some capable philosophers debating issues that they are qualified to speak on.  Much can be gleaned from this debate, but one noteworthy element was Craig's use of a cosmological argument in response to the question 'Can religion help to solve metaphysical problems found in science?'  Here is what Craig says:
"        A possible example is the so called measurement problem in quantum physics.  According to quantum physics, subatomic particles do not have all of their properties intrinsically, but only in relation to a measuring apparatus.  The problem is that the measuring apparatus itself can also be described by quantum physics.  But then it too lacks certain intrinsic properties unless it is related to another measuring apparatus.  But that apparatus can also be described by quantum physics, and off we go on a vicious infinite regress.  Unless there's some way to break the chain, nothing would possess any of these properties, which is absurd.
        Now some physicists have proposed that the chain is broken when the measurement is observed by consciousness.  But, it seems outrageous to say that the whole universe depends on human consciousness for its existence.  Moreover, human consciousness is linked to a physical substratum: the brain, which can be given a quantum physical description.  So the question inevitably arises: who observes the human observers?  What is needed here is a sort of transcendent, cosmic observer who observes immediately the result of any quantum measurement situation.  But, this is exactly the being in whom the theist believes.  And thus, the person who believes in God seems to have the resoureces needed to resolve the measurement problem plaguing quantum physics." 
Related to this argument, I found a paper written by Craig in 1996 entitled, "Cosmos and Creator."

Sunday, March 13, 2011

A humorous counterexample

During their recent debate, Quentin Smith argued that no religious statement about God could be empirically verified.  Plantinga responds:
"That seems to me to be whoppingly false.  Here's a counterexample: God has not created 700 pound rabbits in Cleveland.  One can certainly verify that.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

An Intro to the Philosophy of Religion, Ch. 6 Part 1 (Arguments from evil)

[Rough Draft - comments welcome]

The logical argument
An omniscient, omnipotent, and omnibenevolent would be aware of, able to prevent, and willing to prevent all evil. Thus, the existence of any evil presents a problem for theists. Rea and Murray quickly dispense with attempts to deny premise 2 (evil exists) or else deny God's absolute goodness.  They move on to denials of this premise: "a wholly good being would prevent the occurrence of every evil [they can]." They point out that some evils might be a necessary precondition for securing outweighing goods. Now we've honed in on the gratuitous evil rendition of this argument.
6.9 If there were a God, there would be no gratuitous evils (GEs).
6.10 There is at least one GE.
6.11 Therefore: there is no God.
A question about the premise 6.10 that will likely be pursued later, what exactly is our epistemic situation with respect to identifying gratuitous evil? The atheist might argue for premise 6.10 in at least two ways. First, he might argue that no outweighing good could possibly justify some evil (for instance, a child being cruelly beaten).  Second, he might argue that some evil could not possibly be necessary to obtain an outweighing good. Rea and Murray argue that it is logically impossible for God to creature free creatures that conform to his will, and thus it is possible that a universe with free creatures has some evil.  Furthermore, some theists argue that a universe with free creatures results in more overall goods.[2] Rea and Murray don't find the support for premise 6.10 to be compelling; however, we haven't yet covered William Rowe's noseum inference, which aims to establish premise 6.10 probabilistically.

The Direct Evidential Argument
This argument is like the one above except that the second premise here asserts GE as likely or probable.  Thus, while the theist can show it possible that God has a good reason for GE, this argument requires him to show that it is probable that God has a reason for GE.

Reply One: Moorean Shift
Rea and Murray discuss how a theist might reply by G.E. Moore's reply to skepticism.  Moore famously argued against skeptical threat arguments by showing the premise being denied (via the skeptic) was more plausibly true, and thus a refutation of skepticism and not the other way around.  Here is my own rendition:

Skeptical Argument
If God exists, no GE exists
Probably, GE exists
Therefore: Probably, God does not exist

Moorean Shift
If God exists, no GE exists
Probably, God exists
Therefore: Probably, there is no GE

This looks to me to be just another example of the old adage that one man's modus ponens is another man's modus tollens.  One argument asserts If P then Q.  P, therefore Q.  The Moorean shift asserts If P then Q.  Not-Q, therefore not-P.  Whether or not the Moorean Shift succeeds depends on which premise is more plausible: Probably, GE exists....or probably, God exists?  So now the theist can refer to his arsenal or arguments in favor of God's existence, and if they form a stronger case than whatever case can be made for gratuitous evil, it seems we have defeated the argument.

Because of this, this seems to me to be an argument that atheism is reasonable, rather than an argument that theism is false.  One needs to reject (or at least provisionally put aside) all the other arguments for God's existence in order for this to have any purchase.  I recall William Rowe beginning an essay[3] by saying something to this effect, so perhaps I'm not too far off.  In addition, the atheist needs some good reasons to think that there is GE.  William Rowe argues this way:

P1. If there were a reason were E1, we would probably conceive of it
P2. We can't conceive of a reason for E1
C.  Therefore, there probably isn't a reason for E1.  (Thus, probably GE exists.)

E1 is some particularly cruel evil (such as a deer experiencing a painful death in a forest fire) that is representative of similar evils that we can't see any good reason for.[4]  This argument is seductive because in common experience we assume that "If ya can't see it, it probably ain't there."  But in what situations is this kind of inference appropriate versus not?  Rea and Murray give a us this criteria:

1. You must be looking in the right place.  For instance, you can't conclude that there is no milk in the fridge because you don't see any in the pantry. How might this play into the current discussion? Perhaps the atheist is only looking for a present reason that would justify some evil, but in fact the explanation lies in some complex group of contingent facts that brought about a future good, prevent a future evil, resulted from some past good, or resulted from avoiding some past evil.

2. If the thing were actually there, you would be able to see it.  For instance, you can't conclude that there are no germs on a needle because you don't see any there.

Reply Two: Skeptical Theism
Some philosophers adopt the position of "skeptical theism" and argue that we are not complying with #2 above.  We simply aren't in a position to see all the reasons for evil, and thus the fact that we don't see a reason for E1 doesn't justify an inference to the conclusion that there probably isn't one.[5]  Firstly, the skeptical theist might say we don't know the full range of goods which God might be trying to achieve.  Second, there is good reason to doubt that "we would have any idea what role particular evils might play in bringing about those goods."

How does Rowe respond to skeptical theism?  First, he claims that the skeptical theist is in a position that forces him to be skeptical about gratuitous evils even in a different world that contains much more evil than ours.  Second, he argues that a noconceivum argument is stronger than a noseeum argument.  In other words, it isn't just that we can't find any actual reasons, it is that every possible reason brought forth (even remotely possible reasons) seems to be inadequate.  Why?  Because, as discussed before, the evil in question must be necessary to bring about some greater good or prevent some greater evil.  Nothing we can even imagine fits this case for E1.

Reply Three: Theodicies
Perhaps the theist can offer some good reasons why God permits various evils.  One such reason is that evil results from divine punishment for human wrongdoing--and all the better if punishment secures an outweighing good.  Unfortunately, it looks as if God could have brought about such outweighing goods (e.g., rehabilitation, deterrence, societal protection) in other non-punitive ways.  Rea and Murray briefly consider the thesis that divine punishment is retributive (God is penalizes us for doing something wrong), and conclude that this might be necessary for securing the good of a "globally just universe."

Free Will

The free will theodicy aims at explaining why moral evil, which results from the actions of free creatures, is permitted by God.  Moral evil might arise as a consequence of a free choice, or it could simply be the case that a choice itself is evil.  Rea and Murray are unconvinced that we could have one without the other, and reject notions that God could have put us in a virtual playpen where our evil choices would have no actual effect (imagine running over a mailbox and it magically popping back into place).  Thus, if it is good for humans to have significant moral freedom, it appears inevitable that some moral evil exists.

Natural Law

The natural law theodicy focuses on the conditions that must be in place for human freedom to exist in the first place.  One such requirement for freedom is that "the environment around us be governed by regular, orderly laws of nature."  Without knowing that a particular action will bring about a particular response, one simply wouldn't know how to intend to do such an action. You might wish to split wood, but you would have no consistent background knowledge (in a chaotic world) such as, "When I swing an axe and strike the wood, it will usually split."  But unfortunately, the same laws of nature that permit an axe to split wood also permit an avalanche to engulf a village.

1. Human choices are a good which God would want to actualize in creating the world
2. In order to actualize human choices, the world must exhibit natural order
3. Natural order also results in natural evil
4. Therefore, natural evils are permitted by God because God desires that humans have choices

But are all natural evils necessary, and could God have yielded slightly less natural evil with slightly different natural laws (and still preserve human freedom)?  Unfortunately, knowledge of this sort would require an extraordinarily detailed account of how different laws (and the resulting events produced) might create a different overall outcome.

But a more formidable objection asks if some natural evils (which result from the natural order) could be prevented without impacting human freedom at all, for instance, kidney stones.  "The only answer avaiable to the theist is that natural evils serve as necessary conditions for a variety of good ends, and that some of them are just unknown."

Soul Making Theodicies
Perhaps evil could be necessary for a different sort of good than just free choice.  One such candidate is the good of moral and spiritual growth, particularly of the kind that one couldn't experience in a perfect world.  For instance, we could not be courageous unless there were real dangers to be confronted.

[1] See the clear and concise introduction to these arguments by Bill Vallicella.
[2] For a more details exposition of the Free Will Defense, see Alvin Plantinga's God, Freedom, and Evil (1977).
[3] Peterson, Contemporary Issues in the Philosophy of Religion, Ch 1.
[4] Stephen Wykstra has labeled the general inference from "I can' see an x" to "There probably is no x" the noseum inference.  "The Human Obstacle to Evidential Arguments from Suffering:" On Avoiding the Evils of 'Appearance'." International Journal for Philosophy of Religion 16 (1984), pp. 73-94.
[5] A well-written blog series on (and against) skeptical theism is available at Philosophical Disquisitions

Friday, March 11, 2011

John Cleese on Creativity

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Book Review: You're Not as Crazy as I Think

Paul Manata reviews Randal Rauser's latest book, You're Not as Crazy as I Think.

Update: Rauser's response.

Update: Manata's response.

Update: Rauser's response.

Tuesday, March 08, 2011

Keith DeRose on Universalism

The blogosphere is buzzing about universalism.  I had some brief interaction with Keith DeRose over at the Prosblogion this morning.  Check out his article entitled, "Universalism and the Bible."

Monday, March 07, 2011

Random coolness

From an annual downhill bike race in Chile, known as the The Valparaiso Cerro Abajo Race. This helmet cam footage is amazing!

Sunday, March 06, 2011

Science and Religion Debate (Craig, Plantinga vs Gale, Smith)

Saturday, March 05, 2011

Rob Bell controversy

If you don't know, don't's not worth the explanation.

Greg Boyd received an advanced copy of Love Wins and shares his thoughts on it here.

Who cares what Google thinks

Inspired by a post from Richard Beck, I decided to ask Google, "Why are {Christians, Buddhists, Jews, Muslims, Atheists} so..."   Let's see what Google filled in the dots with:

Apologies to my agnostic friends, but Google wasn't sure what to suggest about you.

Update: I left out the intolerant of me!