Blog Archive

Followers

Come Reason's Apologetics Notes blog will highlight various news stories or current events and seek to explore them from a thoughtful Christian perspective. Less formal and shorter than the www.comereason.org Web site articles, we hope to give readers points to reflect on concerning topics of the day.

Powered by Blogger.
Showing posts with label philosophy. Show all posts
Showing posts with label philosophy. Show all posts

Tuesday, August 05, 2014

What is the Uncaused Cause of the Universe?

Christianity has always been a faith that relies on reason and evidence for its beliefs. Paul models this in his challenge in 1 Corinthians 15, where he hangs all of Christianity on the fact of Jesus' resurrection from the dead "(if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile").1 After the apostles, we have the witness of early church fathers, such as Justin Martyr, through thinkers like Augustine, Anselm, and Aquinas who all contributed to not simply the church's mental development, but to the growth of reason the world over.

 One of the more famous defenses by Thomas Aquinas is his Five Ways argument for God's existence, one of which argues that God is the Uncaused Cause2. This particular argument is sometimes misunderstood as arguing that all events are caused by preceding events, like a chain of dominoes. So, it you were to trace all events back in time, you'd eventually get to a first cause that starts the dominoes falling. That description is closer to another of Aquinas' Five Ways arguments, the Unmoved Mover. The Uncaused Cause isn't a time-dependent argument, but rather an explanation of contingency. Just as my life is contingent on me breathing air right now, not just in the past, so all effects can point to their current state of existence as contingent on something else.

Aquinas rightly notes that to try and explain an effect (say the existence of the universe) by pointing to itself is impossible. This also applied to multiverse scenarios, since we must ask what causes the multiverse "engine" to produce multiple universes. Aquinas rightly says that such claims are simply not explanations. We must ground all effects in an ultimate cause, otherwise we have explained nothing.

Peter S. Williams has a great little video clip clearly explaining Aquinas' Uncaused Cause argument.  Check it out below:


References

1. See: Esposito, Lenny. "Why is the Resurrection so important?" Come Reason Ministries. Web.
http://apologetics-notes.comereason.org/2013/03/why-is-resurrection-so-important.html 10 March 2013.
2. Aquinas, Thomas. "Whether God exists?" Summa Theologica. (Benziger Bros. edition, 1947). Web.
http://www.ccel.org/ccel/aquinas/summa.FP_Q2_A3.html 5 Aug 2014.

Monday, August 04, 2014

Would Rape Be Moral If God Commanded It?

Last week, I recounted a time speaking with an atheist woman on the campus at UC Berkeley who said that rape would be OK if the person doing so truly believed he was right. It showed the folly of those who held to moral relativism. The post spurred a comment by Mark, who asked, "If the man had been commanded by God to perform the rape, would it then be a moral act?"


While Mark's question seems to offer a twist on the concept of grounding morality in God, the objection itself is not a new one. In fact, we know it's been around for at least 2,300 years because the Greek philosopher Plato set it forth in one of his dialogues, where the protagonist Socrates asks Euthyphro basically "Is God good because he follows some intrinsic goodness independent of Him, or is good whatever God declares to be good?"

Euthyphro's dilemma is famous because both options have disastrous consequences. If there's some independent concept of goodness, then even God is obligated to be good. But what or how does one then discover that concept? What grounds it? And how can God be God if He must obey laws like the rest of us? Doesn't this make God a little less omnipotent? But if we take the other option, that good is simply whatever God says is good, it makes good and bad pretty arbitrary. God could conceivably do what Mark asks (command that rape is now a good thing) and sins become virtues while virtues turn to sins. What kind of morality is that?

Splitting the Horns of Euthyphro's Dilemma

Christians have not been unaware of Euthyphro's dilemma. God's relationship with morality has been written about extensively by the likes of Augustine, Anselm, Aquinas, and others. However, the solution to this dilemma is not as hard as one may think. The answer lies in the fact that there are more than the two choices that Plato laid out in his original dialogue. Christian theology teaches that God has certain intrinsic properties within Himself, such as love. Love cannot exist without a person to express it and when the Bible says "God is love" it communicates that it is a fundamental part of God's nature to love. Similarly, goodness is something that flows from the nature of God Himself. When we talk about doing what is right or wrong, we are comparing our actions to those that God would naturally approve or disapprove of us performing.

For an example of actions flow from nature, we can look to ourselves. Human beings are naturally linguistic creatures; we think in terms of language. If I asked you to plan your evening in your mind right now, you would invariably use words as you thought about your options. We don't think in only pictures but we use words and sentences, even if we aren't communicating our thoughts to someone else. Language is part of human nature and it simply flows from us. To try and violate this nature is pretty much impossible, because there is no other way to think about abstract ideas like morality.

As language flows from human nature, so goodness flows from God's nature, and it would be impossible for Him to violate His nature. Because of this, we see the question Mark asked becomes nonsensical. To ask if rape would be a moral act if God commanded it makes as much sense as to ask whether God could make a rock so big that He couldn't lift it. God simply would never command rape to be moral. We can therefore split the horns of Euthyphro's dilemma and provide a third option.

By grounding moral attributes in God's nature, we achieve two things: 1) moral attributes are objective, they don't change because God' nature doesn't change and 2) God isn't somehow obligated to follow an independent law, but He follows the law within Himself. Thus, objective moral values make sense and we can know that the good is just that.

Photo courtesy Emmanuel Huybrechts via the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 generic license.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Your Mind is Not Your Brain

Historically, Christianity has taught that human beings are creatures made up of two fundamental kinds of "stuff"—body and soul. We are physical creatures, interacting with the world around us, and we are spiritual creatures who can interact meaningfully with God and with one another. However, there is a trend today that dismisses the spiritual side of humanity and seeks to only affirm the physical aspects of our existence. Atheists, scientists, and others claim that we are only our bodies. There is no such thing as a soul. All of who we are may be explained in terms of scientific understanding. There is a big problem with this view, though. There are certain aspects of the human condition that simply cannot be explained in physicalist term, such as the attributes of the mind.

In order to better understand the problem, I'd like to look at the attributes of the mind. Whenever on seeks to classify a certain thing, it is the attributes of that thing that help us in so doing. For example, when British naturalist began to explore Australia, the discovery of the platypus gave them fits! Here was an animal, kind of shaped like a beaver with a bill and webbed feet of a duck. Further, the creature laid leathery eggs and produced venom like a reptile. How would one classify such an animal? It is because the platypus was warm blooded, covered in hair (not feathers or scales), and nursed its young that naturalists listed the animal as a mammal. The attributes of the animal help us categorize it.

Similarly, there are specific attributes of the mind which clearly demonstrate that the mind cannot be reduced to brain activity. Brain activity is electro-chemical and can be described using physical nomenclature. For example, if their instruments are sensitive enough, one could measure the amount of dopamine present in the brain or tell if certain neurons were firing at x point in time. But as Daniel N. Robinson has succinctly noted, "One who spoke of pounds of thought or volts of memory would be considered not a native speaker! Equally bizarre, at least in the area of common sense and ordinary judgments are the claims to the effect that brain tissue makes moral judgments and wishes nothing but happiness for the bride and groom."1

Here are at least five attributes of the mind that can in no way be explained in physical terms:

  1. Thoughts - Thoughts are one of the most basic elements of the mind. A thought is any idea that can be expressed in the form of a sentence. I can ask you to think about pink elephants right now and you can picture a pink elephant in your head.
  2. Beliefs – Beliefs are different from thoughts. Beliefs carry a truth value to them. If I believe that the Los Angeles kings will win a third Stanley Cup championship, then I hold the statement to be true. I currently believe that I am sitting in front of my computer right now typing this blog post. Such a belief is not hard to hold. However, I also believe that the memories I have of yesterday are true. That belief is harder to prove.
  3. Intentions – Intentions are mental events that are usually tied to some action or event. I can intend to raise my hand and my hand will rise. My intention caused m hand to go up. However, intentions are not the same thing as the action. People who suffer from Tourette's syndrome move parts of their body without intending to do so. Also, I may have intentions without being able to execute them. If my hand is tied down, I will not be able to move it, even though I'm intending to do so.
  4. Desires – Desire are primarily natural inclinations that one experiences. Hunger is the desire to eat food. Desires can produce thoughts or intentions, but they are different. They sometimes have a biological basis, but not always. One can have the desire to solve a particularly pressing math problem for example.
  5. Sensations – Sensations are how our minds comprehend sensory input from our bodies. While our ears can translate sound waves into electrical signals and send them to our brains, only our mind can have the experience that the sound is pleasing or annoying. Feeling pain or heat happen at the mental level. Even seeing the color red, one has an experience of "redness." Red has a certain quality to it that green doesn't and one cannot explain such qualities by talking about wavelengths of light any more than one cannot warn a two-year-old about burning her hand on a hot oven with talk of high energy molecules.
All of these attributes above are real and each of us has experienced them. You have had thoughts, beliefs, intentions, desires, and sensations. These things are real and, as J.P. Moreland states, they are "puzzling entities that cry out for an explanation."2 Even atheist philosopher Thomas Nagel states that mental events need to be explained Nagel holds that "certain things are so remarkable that they have to be explained as non-accidental if we are to pretend to a real understanding of the world"3 and the mind is one of those. He later writes that "the physical sciences will enable us to understand the irreducibly subjective centers of consciousness that are such a conspicuous part of the world."4

Tomorrow, we will look more closely at why physicalist explanations of the mind fail. But for now, it is important to realize that your mind is not your brain. It is something with different attributes, which means it falls into a separate category: the category of the soul.

References

1. Robinson, Daniel N. "Neuroscience and the Soul." Philosophia Christi Issue 15:1, Winter 2013.
(La Mirada, CA: The Evangelical Philosophical Society, 2013.) 13.
2. Moreland, J.P. The Recalcitrant Imago Dei: Human Persons and the Failure of Naturalism.
(London: SCM Press, 2009). 24.
3. Nagel, Thomas. Mind and Cosmos: Why the Neo-Darwinian Conception of the World is Almost Certainly False.
(Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012.) 7.
4. Ibid. 42.

Monday, April 21, 2014

The Need For God in Government

A lot of attention has been given to the expression of religious belief in government institutions. We see people more and more claim that religion should not be part of the political process. Religion, they would argue, is personal while politics can affect us all. But politics uses legislation as its tool, and any legislation has a moral makeup. Politicians seek to pass laws "for the good of the people." But how can we understand what "the good" is? Are we justified in holding to any laws at all if we exclude God as the basis of their authority?


Now, this may seem like a strange question. "Of course we should have laws," you may think. "Without laws, how would society function?" That's fair. However, my query is based not on the pragmatic effects of laws, but on their authoritative nature. What right do legislatures have in making rules for me to live by? Why should I be obligated to follow rules created many times by people with whom I disagree? If you're a human being and I'm a human being, then what makes your rules better than mine?

1. Natural Law

Much of what we base western society on today is derived from the concept of natural law. Natural law says that the ideas of good and evil, justice and injustice are divine in origin. When God designed man, He created us in a way so that we can identify these concepts. St. Thomas Aquinas called the ability to discern good and evil "nothing else than an imprint on us of the divine light." 1

The English philosopher John Locke took the concept of natural law even further. Locke said that not only did God design us to recognize concepts of good and evil, but He also created us to be "free, equal, and independent." 2 However, Locke understood that man is also naturally a communal creature. Complete independence was impossible, partly because of the need for other people and partly because of man's sinful nature. Man was selfish and would seek his own benefit above that of his neighbor's. He writes "The state of nature has a law of nature to govern it... that, being all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty, or possessions."3 Locke goes on to explain that because we are God's creation and we serve His purposes every individual must try to "as much as he can, preserve the rest of mankind, and may not, unless it be to do justice on an offender, take away, or impair the life, or what tends to the preservation of the life, the liberty, health, limb, or goods of another."4

2. The Need for Government

It is the need to do justice that creates the need for government. Philosopher John Locke wrote extensively on this concept. Locke felt that because man seeks selfish interests, a governing institution must exist to judge between individuals and to protect the liberties of all its citizenry. "The law of nature would, as all other laws that concern men in this world be in vain, if there were no body that in the state of nature had a power to execute that law, and thereby preserve the innocent and restrain offenders." 5

In forming  governmental structures, Locke said that individuals would willingly give up certain freedoms in order to gain the safety and advantage of living in a community. He termed this exchange a "social contract". We give up a small amount of freedom (such as driving as fast as I like) and instead obey the laws of our community, but in return we become safer on the road since we know other drivers are to also obey those laws. In the end, everyone benefits.

By continuing to live in the community, we continue to agree to that exchange- it is what Locke calls "tacit consent". We participate in and enjoy the benefits of the community's laws, so we therefore support the contract. But all this is predicated on the idea that the state should seek to preserve the rights of the individual as much as possible. When a political system fails to do so, the individuals have the right to dismiss that system as corrupt. 6

3. God and State

Notice that in Locke's view, the government becomes necessary to enforce laws out of a obligation to justice, a justice that is based on the concepts of right and wrong established by an omnipotent God who created all men as equal. If God is removed from the equation, then where does the authority and mandate for the existence of government come from?

Some have suggested that government is there to enforce the will of the majority, but this cannot be the entire basis of government. If it were, then where do the rights of the minority come from? Do we really believe that slavery was right because it was legal or that the majority held it to be correct? Was the extermination of Jews appropriate in WWII Germany because it was legal? Thinking the majority makes something right is a fallacy. Martin Luther King, Jr. said as much when he was questioned by church leaders as to whether his civil disobedience was the Christian thing to do. He wrote:
One may ask: "How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?" The answer lies in the fact that there are two types of laws: just and unjust. I would be the first to advocate obeying just laws. One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that "an unjust law is no law at all".

Now, what is the difference between the two? How does one determine whether a law is just or unjust? A just law is a man-made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law. To put it in the terms of St. Thomas Aquinas: An unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law. 7
We hear so much about the separation of church and state today that I'm afraid we have forgotten the need for God as the basis to justify government's existence and our personal liberties. To be sure, this doesn't mean that we should mandate a specific religion for the citizenry, for that would be intruding on individual liberties. But it does mean that we cannot separate God from government or from liberty and equality. To do so would be to lose all justification for both.

References:

1.  Aquinas, Thomas, Summa Theologica as quoted in Questions That Matter Ed. L. Miller
McGraw Hill Companies, New York 1996 p.503
2.  Locke, John Second Treatise of Government, VIII, 95
http://www.constitution.org/jl/2ndtr08.txt
3.  Ibid. II, 6, 8
http://www.constitution.org/jl/2ndtr02.txt
4.  Ibid. II, 6
5.  Ibid. II, 7
6. The Founding Fathers of the United States appealed to this principle when they sought to gain independence from George III. Locke's influence on the Declaration of Independence is evident in its opening lines: "When in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the Powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and Nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to separation. We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness." As you can see, it is by appealing to God from which the ideas of freedom and equality stem.
7. King Jr., Martin Luther "Letter From the Birmingham Jail"
http://almaz.com/nobel/peace/MLK-jail.html

Friday, March 28, 2014

Problems with Utilitarianism

One of the most prevalent moral systems adopted by many in higher learning is that of utilitarianism. It is popular because it purports to have a rational basis for morality while not requiring a God to be the originator of such a system. Here we hope to discuss the claims of utilitarianism and see if they accomplish what they assert.

This system of ethics was an answer to conflicting moral dilemmas, such as lying to save a life. Many people argued against moral absolutism by claiming that if lying is always wrong, then it is sinful to lie even when you are lying to prevent a bigger atrocity, such as hiding Jews during World War II, for example. This strikes many people as unreasonable that God would hold one guilty for committing a sin when they were trying to save lives.

The idea of a moral system based on utility was first put forth by Jeremy Bentham in 1789. It quickly became influential but was taken to even greater heights when John Stuart Mill advanced his version. Though there are some deviations between Mill's and Bentham's version, both maintain the basic belief that people should act in such a way as to promote the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people.1

Before we go too far, I want to unpack these ideas a little bit. Utilitarians cannot base actions on intrinsic rightness or wrongness, because that would require someone higher than humanity to set those standards. Therefore, there must be a self-supporting reason to do action A instead of action B.

Bentham and Mill say that that no action is good or evil in itself, but the results of those actions are the only things that matter. However, the question then arises how do you judge results of an action for their morality if good and evil don't really exist? The answer for the utilitarian is happiness is really what we mean by good. Whatever makes people happy, whatever brings pleasure is a good thing, and what gives people pain is what we mean by evil. This is why utilitarianism is also known as "social hedonism". You should maximize pleasure for the most people while minimizing pain.

What this means when we put it into practice is that lying in and of itself isn't wrong. If you lie and it makes people feel good with no negative effects, you've done nothing wrong. The actions you choose are only considered good or evil based on the results they produce.

While utilitarianism solves some of the problems of conflicting moral situations, it doesn't follow completely. First off, utilitarianism isn't a true moral framework. I say this because it confuses facts with values. Doing that which gives the most people the most pleasure is a statement of circumstance, not a good prescription of actions.

Let me give an example: imagine a married salesman visiting a distant town. He meets a woman, also married, and they instantly feel a powerful attraction to each other. Knowing that they'll never be found out, they embark on a passionate affair for the three days they're together. According to utilitarian ethics, they have not done anything wrong. On the contrary, it would be morally wrong for them to not sleep together because one would be denying the other pleasure!

Another situation shows the problem of the opposite situation. Imagine a young child pinned down in a burning building. Two firemen see her and know they can free her if they work together, but they will almost certainly die in doing so. In such a situation, we would regard the firemen as heroes, but in a consistent utilitarian outlook their actions would have to be labeled a bad. More pain was inflicted in the two men dying than in the saving of the one child.

Besides some of the strange circumstances one may face in utilitarian philosophy, the bigger problem is with the compulsion of subscribing to the philosophy at all. If everyone was a utilitarian, then all actions might be able to be judged within that framework, but you can't call the system itself  "good" because that implies a separate criterion.

Lastly, utilitarianism cannot work because, like all morally relative beliefs, it is self-defeating. Suppose everyone in the world were utilitarians. Now, suppose they all met and agreed that it was just too difficult always having to worry about what effects their actions would have on other people. The constant analysis was making their lives miserable. The consistent thing to do, according to utilitarian ethics, is to give up utilitarianism. In order to follow utilitarian beliefs you would have to abandon utilitarian beliefs! Can you see how contradictory this is?

Utilitarianism, while a popular way to try to ground moral truths, doesn't really succeed as a moral system. I takes a pragmatic approach to duties and values and fails to make a distinction between what's right and what's going to make most people happy. It smuggles in the idea that happiness is the greatest good, but it doesn't prove that point. It merely assumes it based on our human nature. However, if Christianity is true, then our nature is corrupted by original sin and it cannot be trusted to provide a grounding for good and evil. So, along with everything above, utilitarianism begs the question. Even though it is so that all people have the desire to maximize pleasure and reduce pain, why should we assume that those desires are right?

References

1. While Bentham's view of utility is based solely on the amount of pleasure or pain the actions ultimately produce for the people, Mill felt that some pleasures, such as the pursuit of knowledge, the arts, and music were more weighty than others. Yet, at its core either version of utilitarianism seeks pleasure over pain, happiness over unhappiness. There is nothing more to warrant labeling things good or bad.

Monday, March 10, 2014

Science owes a debt to theology

Although we hear a lot today about faith and science being enemies, the scientific enterprise as we know it today wouldn't exist without Christianity and how it saw the world. This may seem surprising to you, but when you think about it, you can see how it makes perfect sense. Prior to the modern era, the primary view of how we can know things was based on the thinking of Aristotle, who believed that we can only start with things we know and simply reason to an outcome. This "First Principles" idea infiltrated much of science since Aristotle, until the 13th century, when a couple of Franciscan monks began to challenge the idea.1 What ultimately fuelled their investigation was the idea that the Christian God was a rational being, and therefore we could uncover His ways if we investigated his creation in a rational manner.

Asking a question about the function of the world

Is the world discoverable? Before we can begin any scientific enterprise, we must first know if it is ever possible to find the answer to certain questions we are asking. This is no trivial point. If you were to have all the latest brain scanning and most sensitive neurological equipment, you could tell a person is dreaming, but you could never tell what that dream is about. The question of content is outside of science altogether and must be reported by the dreamer. However, Christians such as Robert Grosseteste, Roger and Francis Bacon, and others knew they could begin to investigate the world scientifically, because God would create a world to work in a specific order.2 And since the Christian God isn't capricious, he wouldn't "change the rules" so to speak and change the laws of nature from one day to the next.

So today, when a scientist builds a hypothesis, he or she has already assumed that the world is really the way we experience it. But why is he or she justified in such an assumption? Remembering the hit movie The Matrix may help you get a clearer picture of my point. In The Matrix, most people believed they were living normal lives in a well-developed world when in reality they were simply being fed a computer simulation straight into their brains. The things they experienced weren't real, but a forgery. However, science assumes that we can talk about the real world and find out new things about it. Grosseteste and other Christians answered such objections by appealing to their theological framework: that God is the kind of God that wouldn't lie or change the rules on us. Science needs this grounding in theology to justify its assumption of consistency in experimental results.

Scientism dismisses theology as a fairytale

Of course, science's evil twin scientism would never acknowledge that Christian theism is the basis for the modern scientific enterprise. In fact, you many times hear scientism's claim that theistic beliefs are the enemy of science3; they hold back the true advancement and if we would only throw off the shackles of belief in God, we could somehow progress to a new era of scientific discovery.

Physicist Paul Davies, who is by no means Christian, reflected on why scientists should believe the laws of nature exist at all and why they're rational. He questioned his colleagues about them. Davies writes, "Over the years I have often asked my physicist colleagues why the laws of physics are what they are. The answers vary from 'that's not a scientific question' to 'nobody knows.' The favorite reply is, 'There is no reason they are what they are — they just are.' Davies goes on:

"All science proceeds on the assumption that nature is ordered in a rational and intelligible way. You couldn't be a scientist if you thought the universe was a meaningless jumble of odds and ends haphazardly juxtaposed… The idea that the laws exist reasonlessly is deeply anti-rational. After all, the very essence of a scientific explanation of some phenomenon is that the world is ordered logically and that there are reasons things are as they are. If one traces these reasons all the way down to the bedrock of reality — the laws of physics — only to find that reason then deserts us, it makes a mockery of science."4(emphasis added)
As Christians, we believe that God orders the universe and makes it discoverable. It offers reasons why we can trust our senses as reporting reality, and trust the fact that there are certain laws undergirding specific interactions in the world. Scientists assume a framework that theology grounds. This is why historian Lynn T. White writes:
"The preaching of a monk in the fastnesses of the German forests may seem far removed from the modern laboratory; yet the monk was an intellectual ancestor of the scientist. As the triumphant chant, 'I believe in one God, the Father Almighty,' rang through the new churches of the northern frontier, another foundation stone of the modern world was laid, the concept of an orderly and intelligible universe."5
To read the previous articles in this series, click here and here.

For the next article, click here.

References

1. For a good overview of this point, see Schmidt, Alvin J. How Christianity Changed the World.
Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2004 218-219.
2. Schmidt. Ibid.
3. See MacKenzie, Richard "Is Faith the Enemy of Science?" where MacKenzie argues that it is. Lawrence Krauss responded affirminigly to MacKenzie and commented, "I have asked Richard if his recent purpose is to destroy faith or teach science, and he has indicated that destroying faith at the moment is a higher priority. I accept that argument, however for me the latter purpose, teaching science, is higher priority."
4. Davies, Paul. "Taking Science on Faith" The New York Times. 24 November 2007.
5. White, Jr., Lynn T. "The Significance of Medieval Christianity". The Vitality of the Christian Tradition, 3d ed., edited by George F. Thomas New York: Harper & Bros, 1944. 97.

Sunday, March 09, 2014

God is making an impact in philosophy


In April of 1966, Time magazine ran one of its most talked about covers of all time. It didn't include a photograph or hint at lasciviousness. Instead, it was a plain black cover with a red border and three simple words emblazoned on the cover in the form of a question: "Is God Dead?"

Nearly 50 years later, we can confidently say that God is not dead. He's very much alive and not only in evangelical churches across North America, South America, Africa, and beyond, but also in certain halls of academia where most had assumed he was all but extinct. God is alive and well in philosophy departments.

Below is a great, short clip by Oxford University professor of philosophy Vince Vitale telling s just how much theists are impacting this hugely influential discipline today.

 

Friday, March 07, 2014

Scientism rejects philosophy as a form of knowledge

Yesterday, I began a series called "Science versus its Evil Twin: Scientism:." I had written that there are five major clues that distinguish the pursuit of science, and I examined the first in yesterday's post. Today, I'd like to look at the first part of Clue #2 – Scientism rejects other forms of knowledge.


In most cheesy b-movies, we see the storyline play out predictably. The villain has made some advancement in pushing his agenda and the world starts to play by his rules. Therefore, in order to maintain his grip of power, our villain seeks to silence anyone who may disagree with him. He will discredit, disgrace or imprison anyone who offers up a contrary view to his plan. He seeks to be the only authority on all matters that he wants to control. In our look at science versus scientism, we also see a wrestling for power. There are those using science as one way of understanding the world, and there are those who say since science tells us about the natural world, that means that only science can tell us about anything. Scientism discounts all other forms of knowledge as either imperfect or not really knowledge at all.

Science owes a debt to philosophy

As we mentioned above, science has at its core the idea of observing interactions and critically examining their causes. Anyone beginning to study the subject of science is taught the scientific method, one of the primary ways scientists accomplish their task. Usually the method is divided into basic steps: a person has a question about some function of the natural world, he constructs a hypothesis, then tests that hypothesis with experiments, and analyzes the outcome. Lastly, he determines whether the original hypothesis is true and reports the results. This is a fundamental notion of what makes up our lab sciences. However, assumed in those steps is a lot of philosophy! Several philosophical principles must exist before the scientific method can even get started! Let's take a look at the components more closely and see where these assumptions lie.

Testing Hypotheses with Experiment

When scientists perform tests, one of the things they assume is a cause and effect relationship. If we are studying some effect, such as the attraction of magnets, we assume that there is a cause and effect relationship between the material of the magnets and their attraction. But we only make such an assumption because our past experience has shown that whenever material of this nature gets close to certain metals, a force is exerted between the two. How do we know that making such an assumption is warranted? Isn't one of the goals of science to eliminate assumptions and instead provide explanations for why functions happen? But then, aren't we starting with an assumption that cause and effect relationships are going to show us that? How do we know that the relationship we see isn't just a fluke of timing? Since it is only our experience that tells us about cause and effect, we are assuming our experience can tell us about the relation between the two, but we have no other reason to do so.

Realize, this line of doubt is not my own. Skeptic David Hume argued at great lengths to say that our experience may work for us, but that does not mean there is really a causal connection between two things, simply because one happens to come prior to the other.1 Basically, Hume asserts that science cannot test its own assumption about repeatability. Hume says trying to prove such things by experiment is really question-begging since you're using the very testing method that's in question! Therefore, in order to say that we know condition A produces effect B, we must rely on theories of what makes our knowledge justified. This again is the realm of philosophy. The scientist cannot scientifically prove that experience is a good indicator of what will happen in the future if the same conditions were to be produced; he relies on a philosophical framework to justify his assumptions.

Analyzing Outcomes

Once the scientist has performed experiments, he analyzes the outcome and draws conclusions as to whether it matches his hypothesis or not. But how can he be sure whether the results do indeed match his expectations? Philosophy comes into play here as well. In chapter 6 of this book, we took a moment and discussed the Three Standard Laws of Thought, also referred to as the Laws of Logic. We discovered that these laws were the main way that anyone compares and contrasts claims to see if they make sense or not. The Law of Identity states that a thing is equal to itself. So if the results of an experiment match the hypothesis, then the hypothesis can be considered valid in that instance.

We also learned from the Laws of Non-Contradiction and Excluded Middle that the result has to be either consistent with the hypotheses or inconsistent with the hypothesis.2 That means scientists use the Laws of Logic in analyzing their outcomes. Logic in all its forms is clearly identified as the only way a scientist can draw any conclusions that would continue to make sense.

Scientism dismisses philosophy as unnecessary

So, philosophy plays a crucial role in doing science well. It becomes the measuring stick on truth claims. But when our evil villain scientism enters the picture, he challenges this authority. While he uses philosophy, he sees anything other than what he defines as science as a threat and therefore dismisses it as unimportant or dead. Famous physicist Stephen Hawking, began his most recent work The Grand Design by doing just that. He writes:
"…philosophy is dead. Philosophy has not kept up with modern developments in science, particularly physics. Scientists have become the bearers of the torch of discovery in our quest for knowledge. The purpose of this book is to give the answers that are suggested by recent discoveries and theoretical advances."3
Of course, such claims as "philosophy is dead" and "Scientists have become the bearers of the torch of discovery in our quest for knowledge" are highly problematic. For one thing both claims are themselves not scientific; there is no test that fits the scientific model one may perform and come up with those statements. No, saying "philosophy is dead" is making a philosophical statement itself; it's doing philosophy! The claim becomes self-refuting and can be dismissed. This is why Hawking's claim has been so widely criticized by philosophers of science, even those who are atheists!4

To read the next article in this series, click here.

References

1."This proposition, that causes and effects are discoverable, not by reason but by experience…You say that the one proposition is an inference from the other. But you must confess that the inference is not intuitive, neither is it demonstrative. Of what nature is it, then? To say it is experimental, is begging the question. For all inferences from experience suppose, as their foundation, that the future will resemble the past, and that similar powers will be conjoined with similar sensible qualities. If there be any suspicion that the course of nature may change, and that the past may be no rule for the future. All experience becomes useless, and can give rise to no inference or conclusion. It is impossible, therefore, that any arguments from experience can prove this resemblance of the past to the future, since all these arguments are founded on the supposition of that resemblance." (Emphasis mine) Hume, David. ""Skeptical Doubts Concerning Human Understanding"." Paul Edwards and Aurther Pap, Eds. A Modern Introduction to Philosophy. New York: The Free Press, 1973. 131, 136.
2. I am assuming here that the hypothesis in question is well-formed and the results can be accurately determined. Many times experiments either do not factor I all the initial values or perhaps the hypothesis is so broadly stated that results can be inconclusive. Usually, those instances will be studied further or other scientists will try to refine the original experiment to find a more specific answer to the question at hand.
3. Hawking, Stephen and Leonard Mlodinow. The Grand Design. New York: Bantam Books. 2010. p5.
4. To see several critiques of this stance, see Christopher Norris' "Hawking contra Philosophy" in the March/April 2011 magazine Philosophy Now, Roger Penrose has taken the entire thesis proposed by the book and dismissed it by saying, " What is referred to as M-theory isn't even a theory. It's a collection of ideas, hopes, aspirations…" (http://afterall.net/clippings/491891).

Saturday, March 01, 2014

Science, God, and Knowing


Today, people look to scientists to find the answers to our problems in the world. But does science have limits? Are there other ways to know something as fact? And how are questions about God and religion tested scientifically? In this series of audio podcasts, Lenny shows why scientific objections to God fail.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Understanding Necessary and Sufficient Conditions

One of the bigger misunderstandings when conversing with others is the issue of necessary and sufficient conditions. Recently, my friend Max Andrews posted an article to his blog entitled "The Incoherence of Claiming to be an 'Ex-Christian'". You can read the whole post, but basically Max argues that folks like atheists who hold that they were one Christians but now are not are actually stating a contradiction. To be a Christian, one must believe things like God exists and that the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ were real events. In fact, one must trust in those beliefs, relying upon them for one's salvation. You cannot be a Christian without being saved, so, salvation is necessary to be a Christian. And it is necessary to believe in God's existence and the resurrection of Christ in order to be saved.


The problem comes in, then, when an atheist says that he or she is not now a Christian. Atheists reject the very points that are necessary to be a Christian at all. But that's the rub. If you claim that you used to be a Christian, you are then saying that the concept of being a Christian can obtain. Thus, you are also saying that God does exist, that Jesus did die and rise again, and any other point that is also necessary for salvation also obtains. But at the same time, as an "ex-Christian" you are denying these very points!

As the comments on Max's article seems to show, there are a lot of people who are confused about the concept of necessary and sufficient conditions.  These distinctions are crucial in clear-thinking and I found a wonderful video that pretty clearly spells them out. I hope this will help you better in your conversations.


Saturday, February 08, 2014

Identifying an Argument - Looking for Hidden Premises

Our culture is changing. The Christian worldview, which was widely accepted when I was a kid has given way to a much more fragmented view of reality. Because of this, Christians cannot assume that those we share with will have the same framework on matters of religion, morality, God, or even the nature of truth. So, it becomes crucial that we learn to listen well, identify the beliefs of those with whom we're conversing, and understand what kind of argument they are making for their position.


As I said last time, many times when people give reasons for their beliefs, they express only part of what they believe. In order to build an argument, the conclusion must follow from the premises, but many times, one of the premises is only implied, not specifically stated. Let's look again a couple of objections we normally hear from non-believers: "I see an abundance of evil in the world. So, God does not exist."

Here we have a premise ("I see an abundance of evil in the world") and a conclusion ("God does not exist"), but how did the person get from the premise to the conclusion? Christians are aware of the evil that exists in the world just as much as anyone else, but they believe in God's existence. So, there must be a something that's implied in the statement, but not said. Now, we don't really know what that second premise is, but we may be able to take a guess. It seems that by using the word "abundance," the speaker is trying to say something about the amount of evil in the world. Maybe he or she thinks there is too much evil. So, I can make an initial assumption that the person is trying to argue this way:
  1. If God exists, He would not allow an abundance of evil in the world. (Hidden Premise)
  2. There is an abundance of evil in the world.
  3. Therefore, God does not exist.
That argument is valid, in that if both premises are true, the conclusion follows. Before the conversation goes any farther, though, one should make sure that the assumption you make is the correct one! I can't stress this enough. It isn't enough to think that you've figured out your debater's opinion, you need to ask and clarify it with him or her. So, you may want to ask "Are you saying that if God exists, He would not allow an abundance of evil in the world?" By verbally expressing the hidden premise, you can confirm the person's argument and you know you are moving in the right direction instead of arguing against a position the other person doesn't really hold.

Now, you can begin to focus on the problem with the argument. It isn't at all clear that premise #1,the hidden premise, is true. How do we know that God does not allow a certain amount of evil for a short time in order to achieve other ends? How do we know what "an abundance" means? How do we know that the world wouldn't be even worse than it is now except for the restraining hand of God (think the alternate 1985 of Back to the Future II)?

Here's another "I don't believe in God. How can you believe in an all-loving God that would send people to hell?" This one is a bit trickier, since it's a single sentence, but you can at least identify that the questioner is juxtaposing God's love with His sending people to eternal punishment. So we build the argument by rephrasing the question as different statement:
  1. You believe in an all-loving God.
  2. You believe God sends people to hell.
  3. If an all-loving God exists, He wouldn't send people to hell. (hidden premise)
  4. Therefore, the God you believe in does not exist.(implied conclusion)
You can see right away there are a couple of different ways you can take this argument, the most effective would be to question the hidden premise. Why should someone believe that an all-loving God wouldn't send at least some people to hell? Did Hitler deserve hell? Is it all-loving to allow criminals to escape without penalty? How does an all-loving God promote justice?

By trying to identify hidden premises and the underlying arguments your challenger is making, you can hone your discussion to a more fruitful area. The key here is to keep asking questions until you understand all parts of the actual objection. Then you can begin to argue more effectively.

Monday, February 03, 2014

Identifying an Argument: Looking for Trigger Words

I've been taking some time on this blog to discuss ways to witness and defend your faith more effectively by using logic and argumentation. This isn't some stuffy, intellectual exercise. Using logic is simply thinking in an orderly and intentional way. It allows one to be persuasive while avoiding errors in thought. In fact, logic is the very tool one can use to identify errors in thought, which means that it can be a great help in identifying why the reasons another person gives for their beliefs may be flawed.


Being thoughtful and building a proper argument for one's beliefs takes a little work. As I mentioned in my previous article, when building an argument one normally supplies reasons for why he believes the way he does. The reasons for a belief could be labeled the premises while the belief itself could be labeled the conclusion.

While many Christians who seek to defend their faith may be familiar with some of the formal arguments and can present them as such, it is just as important to learn how to listen effectively and define the argument your converser is making. Identifying the arguments that another person is voicing can sometimes be a bit more difficult, since conversation doesn't normally present itself in a formally organized way. You must listen carefully and try to identify booth the belief and the reasons why the other person holds that belief if you want to be fair and address the belief as he or she holds it. Luckily, there are ways you can learn to do this with more ease. The biggest help is to look for what I call "trigger words" that separate a belief and its supporting evidence.

Trigger words are simply words in English most people use to show reasoning. We do the same thing when we talk simple arithmetic problems, so I will use those as an example. Usually, you would see a problem presented this way: "If Johnny wants to take three apples in his right hand and four in his left, how many apples will he have?" The word "and" in the sentence above signals that this is an addition problem. If the sentence would have said "less than" it would have signaled a subtraction problem. The words help you understand the nature of the problem itself.

Similarly, there are trigger words that signal whether a person is making a conclusion or providing a premise for his belief. Here's a short list of words that will frequently be used as triggers to signal a conclusion:

Conclusion trigger words:

  • Therefore
  • Thus
  • So
  • Hence
  • Implies
  • Indicates
  • It would follow
  • It's likely that
  • It stands to reason.
Thus, if a person states "I've read about so much fossil evidence, it's likely that evolution is true," we can see the trigger words of "it is likely" showing that the person is drawing a conclusion about the truthfulness of evolutionary theory based on the reason (premise) of an abundance of fossil evidence. Another may be "I see an abundance of evil in the world, so God does not exist." Here, the word "so" acts as a trigger. It points to a conclusion drawn from the previous statement.

Since sentence structures are flexible, it is not always the case that the second clause in a sentence is a conclusion or that the conclusion uses those trigger words. Sometimes, it's the premises you must be looking for. Your discussion may go this way, "God cannot exist because there are so many religions that contradict one another," or "If your God existed, He would do something about evil." The words "because" and "if" are trigger words to show that a premise is being employed. Here are some more to look for:

Premise trigger words

  • If
  • For
  • Because
  • and
  • Since
  • In that
  • May be inferred from
  • Given that
  • Seeing that
  • Owing to
One more thing in my examples above: they hold what I would call a hidden premise in each of them. A hidden premise is a premise that isn't stated but implied. I will get into more of that next time, but for now it's enough that you learn to identify premises and conclusions in conversations with people so you can begin to argue more effectively.

Saturday, February 01, 2014

Tools for the God-Fearing Mind


Jesus commanded us that we are to love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength, but many Christians simply don't know how to love God with their minds. Before we can think rightly about God, we need to learn to think rightly, to think logically. In this talk, Lenny teaches you how you can tell the difference between good arguments and bad ones and how you can offer unbelievers rational, persuasive arguments for your faith.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Beginning to Argue Effectively

In my previous post, I discussed the need for Christians to engage others by using argumentation. We use argumentation while looking for fallacies for flaws to determine unsound or invalid arguments and assertions by others, all the while seeking to find the truth of a matter. Arguing in a logical, thoughtful manner helps us look for the flaws in other people's stances and helps us to effectively assert our own. Arguments highlight those things that can change a belief.


In fencing, there is a technique to sparing with an opponent. It isn't always a hard attack. There is some give and take. One may lunge and thrust, but one must also be able to guard and parry. Similarly, when arguing, one must be skilled in providing a thoughtful exchange. One must know the techniques in arguing and how to properly argue. It is tragic that so many Christians today seek to engage those who hold to different beliefs with the truth of the gospel, but offer terrible reasons for their beliefs. I think Christianity has the best arguments, but without an understanding of what comprises a sound argument, many people are coming to a sword fight with boxing gloves, and they will only get themselves skewered as a result.

Learning the structure of a well-formed argument belongs to a field of study known as logic or critical thinking. Logic teaches one what the components of an argument are, how to properly argue, and how to identify others' arguments. It will also teach how to identify flaws or fallacies in arguments.

How to Build an Argument

So what makes up an argument? What are its components? The biggest component is the conclusion. The conclusion of an argument is the main fact you are trying to get across. This is where we are going; this is our destination. If you are to map out an argument the conclusion is the endpoint. But a conclusion cannot rest on its own. Just as the roof of a house needs walls to hold it up, a conclusion needs one or more facts or reasons to support it. These facts or reasons are known as premises.

As an example, we can look at the following argument:
  1. The Esposito family watches hockey.
  2. Hockey is a sport.
  3. Therefore, the Esposito family watches sports.
This argument presents two premises or facts: The Esposito family watches hockey, and hockey falls inside the category of sports. Knowing these two premises, one can now have knowledge that the Esposito family is a sports-watching family. Now, you may not know our family, or you may not know if we would be the type of people who would watch sports or not. But if you know statement #1 is true and statement #2 is true, you can safely conclude that the Esposito family watches sports. You have gained a new fact based on the first two facts that you already know.

Let's look at another, the Kalam argument for the universe's existence. It is formed like this:
  1. Whatever begins to exist has a cause.
  2. The universe began to exist.
  3. Therefore, the universe must have a cause for its existence.
The conclusion we are arguing towards is that the universe had to rely on something else for its existence. Like our previous argument, the first two statements are the premises that hold up the conclusion and if we know both of those facts, we can know that the universe doesn't exist because of itself, but must rely on something or someone else for its existence.

It is the strength of gaining new information from facts that we already have that makes arguments so powerful. While knowing that my family is sports fans is not particularly interesting, knowing that we must look outside of the universe for its cause helps up on our way to making an even bigger argument, one that argues for God's existence. However, when we talk with others, we don't always get to hear their arguments in such a straightforward manner. In my next post, I will talk about ways you may identify arguments that your interlocutor may be making in casual conversation.

Monday, January 13, 2014

Should Christians Never Argue?

Photo courtesy Cobalt123
As Christians we seek to spread the truth of the Gospel to a lost and dying world. However, as our culture continues to lose its Christian underpinnings, many people are finding that communicating that Gospel isn't quite as easy as it used to be. Previously, most people on the west would have more or less a shared set of beliefs about how the world works, a common worldview based on Judeo-Christian principles. Today, though, that isn't necessarily true. Moral relativism and materialistic views have replaced much of the previous beliefs that grounds one's understanding of who we are and how we should behave. 

So, Christians need to understand that now part of sharing the gospel entails changing beliefs. As I've written before, there are two basic ways I can think of to change a person's beliefs: either provide new information to that person or show how the beliefs one currently holds are contradictory. It requires input of some kind so that people will begin to think a little bit differently, to reassess or reevaluate what they actually hold to be true.

Engaging Others to Change Beliefs

There are at least four ways all people have engaged one another, but not all of them are effective in helping a person change their beliefs. The first one is pretty easy, it's simply discussion. Discussions by themselves can be about anything, what the weather is like, what you did over the weekend, or even what your favorite food is. Discussions are usually non-confrontational and they allow you to connect with the other person. They are friendly and casual. However, they don't necessarily push towards any kind of conclusion.

Sometimes, simple conversations can reveal conflicts or strong opinions on a belief, and people can find themselves in a disagreement. Sometimes we disagree with one other, but just having a disagreement doesn't necessarily provide knowledge. "He thinks tapioca pudding is the greatest dessert on earth and I think it's fish eggs and glue. We have a disagreement.” Simply disagreeing with someone shows that your beliefs on some matter diverge, but disagreements themselves don't seek to come to a conclusion. No one gains in knowledge simply because they recognize that they disagree with one another.

Many times disagreements devolve into fights. Unfortunately, this is the way many disagreements end up when someone seeks to change another's beliefs. People take offense that their beliefs are challenged and they strike back at the other person. Fights usually generate much more heat than light. People attack one another personally, and emotions rule over reason. Little if any real knowledge is exchanged, and what has is usually tainted by the person's hurt feelings and desire to protect him or herself.

Simply Agree to Disagree?

Because disagreements have devolved into fights, a lot of people in our culture think that whenever a disagreement arises, everyone should just leave it there. Agree to disagree on everything, the thinking goes. But, as I said, no real knowledge is gained simply by recognizing a disagreement. Therefore, Christians need to employ another technique in our interaction with others, and that is argumentation.

I use the word "argument” in a very specific way. I use it in its classical sense not in the common usage as a kind of fight or loud disagreement. An argument is simply supplying reasons or evidence for a view, belief, or contention. A prosecuting attorney will present an argument to the jury in order to make them believe that the defendant is guilty of whatever crime he is accused of. When the Christian builds an argument for something like the existence of God, he or she argues by providing statement that serve as evidence for the proposition "God exists.” There are reasons to believe in the proposition.

As Christians, we are commanded to provide arguments for our faith in the Bible. The Apostle Peter writes to the church and instructs them, "but in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect” (1 Peter 3:15 ESV). So, biblically, we are not to simply stop at disagreement, nor are we to let ourselves lapse into fights. We are to argue and provide reasons. However, most Christians have never been instructed on argumentation; they simply don't know how to argue effectively. We will cover that in an upcoming post. But it is important for anyone who seeks to share the gospel, that is anyone who is seeking to change a belief, to learn to argue appropriately and effectively.

Thursday, January 02, 2014

If We're Only Our Bodies, Life Is Meaningless

What is the thing that makes me me? I found an interesting comic on the Internet the other day that does a great job in unpacking one of the problems of the materialist position that all we are is the sum total of our physical makeup. You can read the whole thing here, (it's rather long) but I will summarize.

The comic depicts a day where science has finally invented a machine to transport objects instantly from one location to the other. Think Star Trek. Of course, everyone hails this great technological feat, but at least one man, the protagonist of the strip, is disturbed. The comic states:
The machines did more than transport people. They also killed them. Since the machines didn't use exactly the same atoms in exactly the same position, what arrived on the other side wasn't the original but only a copy. However, because the copy had the memory of the original's past, it believed it was the same person.
The man is disgusted at the wholesale death that people were accepting for the sake of convenience, which he deems immoral. He eventually meets the inventor of the machine and confronts him on such wanton disregard for human life. The inventor counters by answering, "My boy, surely you don't think that 'you' are the individual atoms of your body, do you? One carbon atom is the same as the next! And your body itself flushes out and replaces atoms all the time, yet you say nothing of copies. 'You' are not the atoms in your body but the pattern of the atoms." The man realizes now that every day he awakes his atoms are different. He dies every night as he loses consciousness and a copy wakes in the morning with the memories of the past. The man goes into an existential crisis.

The question of identity that the strip portrays is one that has a long history in philosophy, going back to ancient Greece. Known as Theseus' Paradox, it is usually represented as a ship piloted by Theseus whose weather-worn components are replaced one at a time until eventually there are no original parts. Is this still Theseus' ship? What if one were to take all those original pieces and reassemble them right next to the repaired ship? Which would properly be Theseus' ship now?

What is the Essential Element?

Both the transporter machine and Theseus' paradox ask the question of what makes up the essential element of a thing. If we are only a pattern of atoms arranged in a certain way, then can two specific identical patterns of atoms both claim to be the same person? The comic assumes that our material nature is really all there is to us. Our consciousness and our memories are what inevitably come from a specific arrangement of those atoms. That means the mental reduces to the material, and you can recreate a consciousness by duplicating the specific material components.

As the comic shows, if this is true then life can be seen to be meaningless. What one does doesn't matter since a real you doesn't continue through life, but a bunch of copies. When viewed through a materialist lens, there is really no meaning to life at all. However, Christianity offers an answer to this dilemma. The Christian view of humanity teaches that we are not merely the assembly of atoms. Human beings have not only a body but a soul, an immaterial aspect of ourselves that stays the same throughout our existence. The soul is not replaced bit by bit. It is fundamentally the same thing. The soul is our essential self. While humans are made to be both body and soul, it is in our souls where our conscious selves reside. Even when we sleep, our souls continue and we don't cease to be.

Implications of a Soul

The idea that each of us possesses a soul has incredible implications. It not only provides continuity in this life (I am the same person tomorrow when I awake and I am today), but it gives us an understanding that people who are born without things like arms and legs are still fully valuable as human beings because they do not have less of a soul. It helps us understand why unborn human beings are valuable individuals. It also helps us to understand that what we do in this life matters because even if our material elements are destroyed in death, our souls will continue on.

J. P. Moreland has quoted J. Gresham Machen who said, "I think we ought to hold not only that man has a soul, but that it is important that he should know that he has a soul." We can clearly see why it is so important. If we are to take the materialist position, we are entirely consistent to believe there is no meaning to anything at all and there's really nothing to live for. But because we are body and soul, God has given us real meaning for this life as well as for the next.

Thursday, December 05, 2013

Some Problems with Consequentialism

This month, I got to interact with students at a local college, as part of a panel hosted by The Well club. Four of us answered questions from students about the nature and evidence of Christianity. One questioner, the president of the newly-minted atheist club on campus, engaged in a discussion on morality. I've maintained that if morality is objective it must be grounded in God.  He said that he held to an objective moral standard based on "ethical consequentialism." In a separate discussion at a later time, another atheist also offered consequentialism as a basis for morality.


For those that don't know, consequentialism is an ethical system that seeks to root moral values and duties in the consequences one's actions will produce. In other words, an action is moral if it produces consequences that are seen as beneficial in some sense. Utilitarianism is the most well-known version of consequentialism, with philosophers like Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill arguing that what is moral is that which promotes the greatest good for the greatest number. I don't think any kind of consequentialism works to ground moral values and I want to offer three initial reasons why.

1. Consequentialism results in immoral acts being identified as moral

The first thing one should realize is that consequentialism makes the claim that rightness and wrongness are not found in any action itself, but in the consequence of the action, that is what the action will produce. So, adultery isn't in itself wrong, it is wrong only when the result is one that causes adverse effects, like the harm it causes the offended spouse. But what if a "Same Time Next Year" scenario were to present itself? In this film, the once-a-year tryst not only produces no adverse effects on the marriage the rest of the time, but each participant actually helps the other through different emotional trials. In such a case consequentialism would say that their adultery is the moral thing to do and it would be immoral to withhold this meeting form either party. Calling adultery moral shows the absurdity of consequentialism played out consistently.

2. Consequentialism asks too much

Another problematic aspect of consequentialism is the fact that one must determine one's consequences when performing any action. How are we to do this? Many times, seeing what the actual consequences of an action are is nearly impossible! How could one see all the ramifications of a simple lie? Sometimes it amounts to nothing; other times it can have devastating effects on a third party, perhaps a party whom you never realized would be privy to the lie at all! And is it reasonable to ask people to really reflect on every consequence of all their actions or should they do the right thing for no other reason than it's the right thing to do? If the consequences in question are not personal but are weighed at a societal level, the problem becomes even more egregious. No one could possibly know the outcome their actions would inflict  upon an entire culture. Such knowledge would truly require a form of omniscience, but then we're arguing for God.

3. Consequentialism fails because it assumes what it is supposed to prove

While the two problems above are serious issues with consequentialism as a workable moral system, the biggest problem is with the understanding of how consequences benefit either the individual or the society. You see, by appealing to actions that produce a benefit, the consequentialist has smuggled in a concept of good and evil to measure against. But you cannot do that if you are talking about a system that is supposed to define what good and evil are in the first place.

Consequentialist will say, "We can know what is good because those things allow humans to survive and flourish." But this doesn't solve the problem. First, why is it "good" that all of humanity flourish instead of just the individual? Who says that one should sacrifice one's life for the sake of the society? Just because I would want someone to feed me when I'm hungry doesn't mean that I want to go hungry for the sake of someone else. If I can achieve the first and not the second, I have advanced the good for myself.

Secondly, where did this idea of advancing "the good" for all humanity come from? Philosopher Peter Singer argues that when we think this way, we are committing a kind of speciesism and other species hold the same rights as humans. Maybe by allowing humans to thrive we are denying the cockroach a chance to evolve into the next ruling species on the planet!

No matter which base point one chooses for "the good" consequentialism has no way of answering "why that point and not this one over here?" Instead of defining what is "the good", consequentialism assumes the good and begins to argue from there. It becomes question-begging! Therefore, consequentialism can never really be considered a basis for understanding good and evil. It is simply another subjective viewpoint that doesn't ground right and wrong, but describes them based on assumptions of the individual espousing it.

Morality must be prescriptive if it is to be binding. Consequentialism fails to be even descriptive, since it cannot ground ultimate concepts such as "the good." Most consequentialists are moral, but only because they borrow from Christian ideas, like the inherent worth of persons, in order to begin their calculations of end results. Thus, consequentialism fails as a basis for true morality.

Tuesday, December 03, 2013

Arguing from Ignorance

After posting my podcast series "Why the Origin of Life Requires a Creator," I received a response from an atheist friend of mine who charged me with committing a logical fallacy. In the comments section he wrote, "It is all a logical fallacy called 'Appeal to Ignorance.' 'Not knowing' isn't evidence for, nor against, the existence of God."


For those who are not familiar with the discipline of logic, there are two types of fallacies one can commit when advancing an argument: one is a formal fallacy, which is when the conclusion one presents doesn't follow from the premises. In casual conversation this sometimes happens, but one is more apt to run into an informal fallacy. An informal fallacy is one where you present something as evidence that really isn't evidence for your conclusion at all.

The fallacy known as appeal to ignorance (formally argumentum ad ignorantiam) was first coined by philosopher John Locke in his Essay Concerning Human Understanding. The Lander University Philosophy Dept. web site gives us a good definition:
  1. Argumentum ad Ignorantiam: (appeal to ignorance) the fallacy that a proposition is true simply on the basis that it has not been proved false or that it is false simply because it has not been proved true. This error in reasoning is often expressed with influential rhetoric.

    The informal structure has two basic patterns:
    • Statement p is unproved.

      Not-p is true.
    • Statement not-p is unproved.

      p is true.
  2. If one argues that God or telepathy, ghosts, or UFO's do not exist because their existence has not been proven beyond a shadow of doubt, then this fallacy occurs.
  3. On the other hand, if one argues that God, telepathy, and so on do exist because their non-existence has not been proved, then one argues fallaciously as well.
Of course, anyone who has listened to the series would know that I don't claim that God exists because no one has proven otherwise. However, I've heard this charge before, that by claiming a creator I am somehow committing an appeal to ignorance. In my conversation, my friend said:
"If caveman are sitting around talking about what causes thunder, and one says it is the gods in the sky fighting, and the other says he doesn't know, does that prove it is the gods fighting (inference to the best conclusion)? We don't know anything about origin details just like the cavemen... running to belief in superstition doesn't equate to discovering truth.

"I agree we should always use 'inference to the best conclusion' but in these categories no one knows. So to claim this as evidence for god is the fallacy of 'appeal to ignorance.' It is a classic example of that basic fallacy."
Notice the equivocation in the example above. The "cavemen" not only know nothing about the origin of lightning, but they also know nothing of the nature or property of lightning. Understanding the nature of a thing can help us to identify or eliminate its origin. Knowing the nature of a thing is real information that must be considered when weighing the cause.

My friend Jim Wallace recently explained to me that a homicide detective, when confronted with a dead body, knows that there are only four explanations for a person's death. The person may have died of natural causes, he may have died from accident, he may have committed suicide, or he may have been a victim of homicide. If there are no witnesses and no recording of the events, the detective doesn't know which scenario is true. However, homicide requires there to be another person present, where the other three causes do not. If you can examine how the person died and show that this person could not have died without the actions of another, then you are reasonable in holding homicide as a viable option.

When arguing with my atheist friend, I used a similar analogy:
"If I were to say 'The origin of a bullet in a man's heart requires a shooter,' would that also be an appeal to ignorance? There's evidence and there is an inference to the best explanation of that evidence. That is not a logical fallacy, but an inductive argument."
You see, we know that bullets don't just grow inside of people. We also know that life requires certain initial conditions. We can understand what replication entails, how DNA to mRNA to amino acid strings to their folding a certain way in order to create required proteins necessary for life. We know about chirality in amino acids and sugars and the long odds of homochirality happening randomly. All of these points I brought up in my series, and they all argue that life simply could not have arisen through only natural processes.

It is easy to throw out the charge of fallacy, such as "you're appealing to ignorance!" but by misusing the term it simply becomes a dodge to avoid the evidence presented. Argumentum ad Ignoraniam takes a very specific form. Don't fall for the charge of committing a fallacy when the fallacy doesn't apply.

There are many of these informal fallacies, and the Internet is awash in lists of them. For those who wish to dig deeper into learning about logic and critical thinking, including identifying fallacies, I recommend The Thinking Toolbox and The Fallacy Detective, both by Nathaniel and Hans Bluedorn.

And in all of your reasoning, "Let's be careful out there."

Friday, July 05, 2013

Defining Morality: Objective Morals Must Be Grounded in God


Last time, we looked at the three main concepts of morality offered today. In that post, I showed why neither the emotive definition nor the subjective definition can properly ground moral values since neither provides a prescription for the way people ought to behave, but only expresses the opinion of the holder. Even if the holder of a moral view is the community at large, it doesn't follow that the community opinion is the moral one. (See my post "Relativism sinks into the quicksand of meaningless morality" for more.)

I'd like to now look at the last definition of morality, that morality is objectively discerned from a source outside of us. If morality is objective, it means that we can hold opinions on moral issues that are wrong; moral duties and values are prescriptive, and they tell us what we should do rather than merely describing what we are doing or what we're most likely to do. This view is also called moral realism, because it holds that moral facts are real and they can be true independent of one's beliefs. Indeed, under moral realism, a moral statement can be true even if no one believes that it is.

However, between those who hold to an objective moral framework, there is still a significant disagreement on where those moral duties and values are rooted. The Christian worldview holds that moral values and duties are binding on the individual simply because these things have the property of being good and right. We are created by a good and righteous God who wishes us to be morally upright, and we are morally aware. Therefore, it is incumbent upon us to behave in a morally upright manner. Rightness and wrongness are rooted in God's nature; they are independent of our whims or opinions. This idea doesn't yet account for how we know certain things to be right or wrong, which is a topic that I'll examine in a later post.  But it does say that morality is objective and transcends human opinion.

Others, such as naturalists, offer that morality is rooted in the way the world works. That is, they hold that morality is simply describing actions that allow human beings to thrive. If people were to be more selfish or less altruistic then we as a species would not do as well. They argue that values like cooperation and empathy give human beings an advantage in a hostile world and since that advantage falls outside of only human opinion, this qualifies as an objective morality.

There are several problems with this view of morality, though. First, it isn't clear at all how certain moral constraints actually work in such a view.  I've offered an example in the past of seeking to euthanize felons sitting on death row in order to harvest their organs. The inmate is sentenced to die anyway and the organs can possibly go to someone who can greatly benefit the society. Beyond this, the government is spared from spending all that money housing the inmate.

Secondly, an idea such as the equality of all human beings doesn't naturally follow from such a view. Certainly, there are incredible differences in the aptitude of each person. If the Darwinian view of natural selection is to hold, then the weaker humans must give way to the stronger, fitter ones. To protect the weaker is to actually inhibit the advancement of the species, as the proponents of the eugenics movement argued a century ago. Darwinian natural selection only works when the best of any species is allowed to overtake (e.g. leave the most offspring") its competitors. Certainly, the only true competitor to a Nietzschean superman is the common man who completes with him for resources.  I think that Michael Ruse got it right when they said that "morality simply does not work (from a biological perspective), unless we believe that it is objective.  Darwinian theory shows that, in fact, morality is a function of (subjective) feelings but it shows also that we have (and must have) the illusion of objectivity."[1]

Lastly, it seems to me that in assuming human flourishing is itself an intrinsic good, the naturalist is actually begging the question. He assumes that good exists in stating that human beings should be able to flourish, and then argues that these steps will lead to that end. But why should one assume that the universe is ordered in a way to desire human flourishing if God is not at the center of it? If the laws of nature are all there is, then it seems pretty obvious that nature is indifferent to whether human beings continue or go extinct. Would the naturalist conclude that the mass extinction of dinosaurs was a moral travesty in wiping out the dominant species on the planet? If not, why?  Perhaps our culture is simply a stepping stone for the cockroaches that will evolve in some 200 million years to flourish on the earth.

When looking at morality, we can see that in order for morals to have force, they must be objective in nature, and in order for them to be objective, they need to be rooted in something bigger than ourselves. God is the only source from which concepts such as right and wrong or good and bad can stem.  Other systems ultimately break down. Without an external lawgiver, moral laws become either opinion or assumptions, neither of which would be binding on all people.

References

1. Ruse, Michael. Taking Darwin Seriously. (New York: Prometheus Books, 1988. 253.
Come Reason brandmark Convincing Christianity
An invaluable addition to the realm of Christian apologetics

Mary Jo Sharp:

"Lenny Esposito's work at Come Reason Ministries is an invaluable addition to the realm of Christian apologetics. He is as knowledgeable as he is gracious. I highly recommend booking Lenny as a speaker for your next conference or workshop!"
Check out more X