a broad Plantingian spirit

Alvin Plantinga is famous for (among other things) his claim that if Christianity is true, then Christian belief is probably justified and warranted. What is interesting about Plantinga’s account of religious epistemology is the “move to metaphysics” (so named by Tyler Wunder), that is, that what it is rational to believe, or what we think is rational to believe, can be very much dependent on our metaphysics (or should be, if we understand the entailments between our beliefs correctly.) So the theist qua theist ought to have different beliefs or expectations when it comes to epistemology than the atheist qua atheist. To place the expectations of one’s own metaphysical camp on the other is to beg the question against them. I think he’s right and I want offer up a similar move myself.

It’s actually a simplification of Plantinga’s own argument for Christian belief enjoying warrant. I think we can reach Plantinga’s basic conclusion while bypassing most of the detail of his epistemological account. Doing so (hopefully) produces an argument which helps make the spirit of Plantinga’s project escape the confines of reformed epistemology. Here’s a stab at expressing what I have in mind:

1. If Christianity is true, then probably God has designed/orchestrated/prepared/enabled a way for at least some people to believe Christianity in a warranted manner.
2. Some people P believe in Christianity.
3. [1 and 2] Therefore, if Christianity is true then God has probably designed/orchestrated/prepared/enabled a way for at least some of the members of P to believe Christianity in a warranted manner.
4. There are quite typical reasons, motives, impulses, pushes, experiences etc. (call this package R) which produce Christian belief in the members of P.
5. [3 and 4] Therefore, if Christianity is true, then probably R produces warranted Christian belief for P.

It seems to me that the weakest premise is (4). It might be doubted that there really are discernible patterns to the believings of different people. But then both Christians and sceptics often act as though there are. Christians believe for emotional comfort, a sceptic might say, thus drawing up a common manner of believing for all Christians (or all the religious generally). People comes to Christ once they come to the end of themselves, Christians might say, again drawing up a general theory of how these believings are conducted. Of course, details may vary massively, and they’ll always be some bizarre cases but it doesn’t seem implausible to me that we could discern broad patterns.

Of course it’s open to the sceptic to argue that, in fact, Christian belief isn’t warranted, and that therefore Christianity isn’t true (a kind of reversal of the move). I grant that this move is open, but they’ll have to support their argument for this conclusion and I don’t think that will be easy to do (not that my reservations ought to stop anyone).

But really, I propose this more for Christian ears as a invitation to conduct religious epistemology in a certain way. It seems to me that certain apologetic methodologies construct their epistemological theories and wield those to support religious belief, all the while oblivious to the fact that the vast majority of believers find these theories utterly removed from their own experience of belief. The evidentialist insists that belief in God is rational because upon a disengaged calculation of the facts, theism comes up top. The presuppositionalist insists that belief in God is rational because we all reason in circles, and only Biblical theism can validly complete a circle while also holding on to the existence of the external world, of morality, logic, truth, and the like. Never mind that probably no ancient Israelite ever doubted the existence of the external world, or saw a need to ‘justify it’ or anything else on that list.

The argument above is that Christians should expect that the more typical influences toward Christian beliefs are those which probably have warrant. Maybe there are also other, more exotic modes of acquiring warrant, but if it’s apologetics that one is interested in, then surely one is concerned to defend the faith that most people actually have. Christians, then, should perform their religious epistemology first of all by a study of religious belief and its phenomenology. Why, actually, do most people believe in God (or not)? What is adopting religious belief like for most people? And in fact, this sort of study involves a honest reflection on what one’s own religious experience is like, which we are often quite deceived about, especially if we’re intellectuals (the tendency to rationalism). This I think is the manner in which Plantinga engaged his project. He often comments on what it is like to believe in God – that it isn’t similar to what it’s like to believe a scientific theory, for instance. (It is interest to note as well how humble is attitude towards his belief seems to be). Now I’ve recently come to believe that his theoretical account of what religious belief is like is in fact wrong (closer than most people’s account, but not fully there – Charles Taylor hits it, in my opinion), but his methodology is certainly on the right track. It’s that methodology which we need.


community as a subversion of modernity

I love Andrew Fellows and this lecture of his, I think, is a powerful vision for Christian mission, worship, and life in the modern world.


book recommendation: Charles Taylor’s “Sources of the Self”

Here’s a review I offered up for J.P.Holding to use. Thought I’d post it here as well.


Thanks to the work of the Context Group (and for myself, to JPH for making their ideas accessible), we have been confronted with the fact that our Western experience of self-hood is not a given of human nature. Even the term ‘self-hood’ is one which should be used with qualification when applied to other cultures to avoid anachronism and ethnocentrism. This revelation (or retrieval) opens up a field of questions. How can human beings express and genuinely experience such radical differences in their sense of agency? What are the benefits or costs, psychologically, socially, or ethically, in these different modes of being? Is there an expression of self-hood which is really the true one? These questions also fuel those of more direct apologetic significance; is there a Biblically prescribed view of identity? If there is, is it accessible to us or have we gone beyond the possibility of taking it up?

This tome by Canadian philosopher, Charles Taylor, explores what makes a self, and particularly, what has made the modern self. It is a book of both history and philosophy, or perhaps it should be described as history read through a certain philosophically attuned lens. It is a philosophical anthropology, perhaps. This theoretical bent might suggest a certain flimsiness in the account and certainly Taylor’s reading of modernity’s roots is contestable, but it’s nonetheless cogent enough (down right persuasive I’d say) that no-one who touts a simplistic view of our cultural situation can justifiably do so while this narrative stands.

The first one hundred pages are dedicated to explicating the philosophical insights which serve as Taylor’s hermeneutic key to his historical interest. Within it he confronts the error of thinking that humans beings have “selves the way we have hearts and livers, as an interpretation-free given,” and the motives in contemporary thought that sustain it. Self-hood, Taylor argues, is fundamentally linked with notions of the Good, which modern moral philosophy, with its emphasis on merely defining the content of obligation, blinds us to. Indeed he argues that one cannot even be a self without having some orientation to a perceived Good; to lack a strong evaluative basis is to not know where one stands, to not know where one is coming from, to be lost – it is what constitutes an “identity crisis.” And indeed, as different ideas of the Good come into vogue so do different ideas of what human agents are (and vice versa); to see individual freedom as the Good is to see human beings as monads, to see rational self-control as the Good is to see human beings as agents concerned with maximising utility. In a myriad of ways Taylor spells out a link between identity and the Good.

With this legwork done he sifts through the writings of significant voices throughout Western history in a staggering display of learning, highlighting the Goods that captivated them and moulded new visions of human agency. From Descartes’ love of instrumental rationality construing a subject radically disengaged, to the Romantics’ notion of nature’s voice within, stirring our sentiments and fuelling our sense of inner depths, Taylor chronicles the fateful moves that have lead to where we are today. He is aware, of course, that too much is missed out for his account to be one of sufficient historical causation. Much of the sociological factors that would feature in a fuller story is omitted; his project centres on the articulators, the voices that sensed change in its infancy and gave it voice, which in turn empowered and propelled it.

Any decent account of origins will bring clarity to the thing explained and Taylor’s work certainly helps to bring modernity into focus, shedding light on its motives and struggles. The book should no doubt be sought for a deeper understanding of our times and of the issues that underlay the questions posed above. It will absolutely not, however, accommodate a quick and easy apologetic for the Bible, though Taylor is a committed Catholic himself (a fact I didn’t know approaching the book, and which is gently confessed but not made much of throughout it). The only views that this work swiftly rebuts are simplistic ones; he aligns himself neither with whole-hearted repudiations of modernity and its individualism, nor equally strong affirmations. Modernity is neither unambiguously good or bad, and there may be certain Goods that can’t be recovered without forfeiting those we already value. We exist in a field of dilemmas and tensions. It is material for the thoughtful reader to reflect on and build on; there are no easy answers here.

More straight-forwardly, it does provide powerful resources for challenging those skeptics (and Christians too) who are incredulous over the very idea of such disparity between ancients and moderns. Taylor’s narrative, by showing the progressive change, necessarily makes the gap more traversable. Additionally, by providing an analysis of the transcendental conditions of self-hood, he shows the human nature that unites us with the ancients, combating our instinct to recoil at how alien their world sounds. On a more basic point, the sympathy with which Taylor writes will help carry those open but overly cautious of the idea through its counter-intuitive barriers and on to the other side.

The book probably takes some background in philosophy to appreciate, though general readers should be encouraged that it is neither as technical as analytic philosophy, nor as impenetrable as continental philosophy. The space between conceptual clarity and beauty of prose is sought and exploited – Taylor is an excellent writer. My only reservations are that, by the end, it feels a little too drawn out. It’s also not entirely clear whether Taylor’s moral realism really is moral realism, and one also gets the sense that he is unjustifiably dismissive of natural theology. But those are asides, the main thrust of the work is not burdened by these minor gripes. Anyone concerned with seriously thinking through modernity and individualism owe this work a study.

Stephen Law and Glenn Peoples revisit the “evil god” challenge

Since the Law vs Craig debate I’ve been interested in the “evil god” challenge and so I was very excited to hear that Stephen would be discussing the issue with Glenn Peoples on the Unbelievable? radio show. Having followed Peoples’ blog Say Hello To My Little Friend for a while, I was keen to hear his take on the matter. The podcast of the discussion has finally been released and having given it a listen, I can make some comments.

Many interesting issues were brought up by the thinkers, but it also seemed like there was a fair amount of talking past each other. I think this was largely because they thought they were in agreement over a core issue when in fact they weren’t.

As a very quick recap, the evil god challenge basically points out that the evidence of goodness in the world seems to discount the hypothesis that the creator god is maximally evil. But it also points out that most of the salvaging work that a believer in good God can do in defence against the evidence of evil can be flipped by the proponent of evil god to defend against the evidence of goodness. But this defence still obviously fails (so Law claims), and so, since the two cases are roughly even, so too do the defences of good God as a shield against the evidence of evil.

Now Peoples agreed that, roughly, good God fairs the same with the evidence of evil in the world as evil god fairs with the evidence of goodness in the world. However what failed to be made explicit in the discussion was that Peoples thought the two faired equally well in handling the alleged evidence against them, but Law thought the two handled the evidence equally poorly. Thus Glenn thought that there was no particular problem in relation to the empirical evidence of goodness and evil in the world for belief in either good God or evil god. But Law’s contention was that both hypotheses were equally made highly improbable by the empirical evidence and that it would take a large amount of counter-balancing evidence to believe either of them.

Because of this fundamental difference there was no agreement between the two on what role Peoples’ moral argument for good God’s existence was supposed to play in diffusing the evil god challenge. Peoples thought that all he had to do was use the moral argument to slightly tip the evidence in good God’s favour (though he would himself say the tipping from that argument would be more than slight), whereas Law required that the argument negate all the evidence against good God he supposes that the evidence of evil marshals against that belief, and indeed make the good God hypothesis sufficiently more probable than not to warrant the conviction that such a being exists.

As I explained in my previous post on the evil god challenge, I think that evil does indeed count as evidence against the existence of good God (or more accurately, it renders other hypotheses more rational to believe, relative to evil alone). I think that Law probably sees evil as constituting greater evidence against good God than I do, but nonetheless we both agree that to be rational, the believer in good God needs some grounds for believing that God is in fact good that outweighs the evidence against that belief. Can the moral argument provide that basis?

Here is a recap of the moral argument:

1. If [good] God does not exist then objective moral values and duties do not exist.
2. Objective moral values and duties exist.
3. Therefore [good] God exists.

Stephen does not believe the first premise but he grants it for the sake of argument seeing as he thinks it doesn’t ultimately help the believer in good God, and I shall grant the same. He thinks the premise irrelevant because one can make the following argument with that same premise:

1. If [good] God does not exist then objective moral values and duties do not exist.
2. [good] God does not exist.
3. Therefore objective moral values and duties do not exist.

The question, then, is whether there is greater support for the premise 2a “Objective moral values and duties exist” or 2b “[good] God does not exist”. Stephen argues that there is far greater support for 2b seeing as it enjoys large empirical support whereas 2a is derived from intuition only. He compares the relation between the two to the example of belief in a flat earth in times gone (it was either that or geocentrism – either way the point is the same); such a belief would have been considered obviously true, that is, until strong empirical evidence was stacked against it, which in fact was exactly what happened. So too, Law thinks, it is reasonable to believe 2a so long as there is no strong empirical evidence against it. But if the first premise of the moral argument is true, and evil is decent empirical evidence against good God, then 2b is better supported than 2a.

To further weaken 2a Law comments that evolution could explain how we have moral intuitions even if those intuitions didn’t produce true beliefs. In response I’d say that mere explanations are easy to come by. It is possible to give any ‘just-so’ story to explain anything, what matters is a powerful explanation. Perhaps if evolution predicted, or made probable the existence of false moral intuitions then Stephen would have a point, but he did not develop his case in this way.

At any rate that is a secondary considertation. I think his comparison between moral intuition and the past belief in a flat earth is the main point, although a comparison not quite justified. Still I shall argue that ultimately the point he wants to make goes through.

The disanalogy between the two is down to the fact that it is psychologically possible to believe that the earth, contrary to first impressions, is round, but it is not psychologically possible to abandon the belief that moral facts exist. It is perfectly possible for psychologically healthly adult human persons to believe that the earth is roughly spherical. But it seems that psychological healthy persons cannot help but believe that there are moral facts, at least deep down. A person may voice their philosophical commitment to some non-realist view of morality, but it seems that nobody can get by acting consistently with that belief. No sane human being really treats the question of whether we should rape small children like it is as open to preference as the question of whether we as a nation should drive on the left or right side of the road. Moral intuitions, then, are not exactly equivalent to the kind of intuitions that express false notions about science.

Can moral intuitions rationally be denied then? Yes, I think so, though it will be unpleasant.

Imagine the doctor tells you that you have a rare disease whereby your cognitive faculties often produce the belief that you are seeing pink elephants. When this happens you truly believe in these pink elephant apparitions and behave accordingly. But later, in a moment of philosophical reflection you remember your doctor’s instructions and acknowledge that your belief in pink elephants is false. The next day the beliefs return and it is again only in a time of reflection that you dismiss these beliefs.

Now it is true here that you are unable to live without (at least sometimes) believing and acting as if pink elephants exist. Yet when you enter the philosophy classroom (so to speak), you deny the existence of pink elephants. Would it be fair to accuse you of irrationality because of your denial? Would it be fair to say that you ought to always believe in pink elephants because you are unable to consistently deny it? I would think not.

Well is this situation not comparable to a person who believes, say, that her cognitive faculties evolved to produce moral beliefs which are pragmatically beneficial but are not actually true? This person denies moral realism and is unable to live consistently with that denial. But is she irrational in not accepting moral realism? I’m not convinced she is.

Therefore it is possible that the evidence for 2b outweighs that for 2a. I’m not exactly sure how much weight I’d put on each, but it certainly seems plausible that a person could rationally deny 2a because of 2b. So if a moral argument doesn’t necessarily help the good God hypothesis, what can be said?

It is possible that the Christian could bring in some uniquely Christian arguments such as the resurrection, and argue that the facts surrounding that event are best explained by a morally good God. But I’ll leave that aside for now and simply say that most believers in good God believe that his moral character is good not from some argument but in something like the manner that Plantinga describes, that is, in a properly basic way. Like the man in court who knows from his properly basic memory beliefs that he is innocent despite the publically accessible evidence in favour of his guilt, the theist, certainly the Christian theist, can rationally believe in good God in a properly basic way, even if there is some evidence against the belief.

how narratives ground human value

Most of us agree that human life has intrinsic value. But how are we to explain this fact? What is it about human beings that grant them greater worth than slugs, or rocks? And if this fact can be given a true explanation, would that explanation be able to fit with just any worldview?

Some people believe that naturalism has a hard time accounting for the intrinsic worth of human beings – that it lacks some important metaphysical resource for getting the job done. Indeed given that the ‘decline of religion’ is often cited as the cause of a widespread existential uncertainty in regards to one’s own value and purpose, it might be safe to say that this view of a dischord between naturalism and human value is intuitively felt on some level by many. But what is the lack in naturalism supposed to be?

Consider the following from William Lane Craig;

“If theism is false, why think that human beings have objective moral value? After all, on the naturalistic view, there’s nothing special about human beings. They’re just accidental byproducts of nature which have evolved relatively recently on an infinitesimal speck of dust called the planet Earth, lost somewhere in a hostile and mindless universe, and which are doomed to perish individually and collectively in a relatively short time (Reasonable Faith, third edition, page 173).”

I’ll lay my cards on the table and say that I also think that naturalism cannot adequately account for the value of human beings, and that Craig has given the correct explanation as to why. That said, I’ve very sympathetic to the naturalist who is unconvinced that her worldview harbours such an unattractive failing. After all, Craig’s explanation is hardly a sustained and carefully laid out argument. There’s no clearly structured argument demonstrating this poverty within naturalism. Craig’s comments will ring true with those who share his intuitions on the matter, but he hasn’t given much to persuade anyone else. If we can more carefully explore the issue it will be good to do so.

As it happens I think that given the standard philosophical methodology, anyone who wants to subject claims like Craig’s above to caferul critical scrunity will find that it’s very hard to pin-point where the alleged problem with naturalism is supposed to be. Or at least, it’s hard to pin-point why the problem is uniquely a problem for the naturalist. This is something I myself found; although I had a strong intuition that there was a problem, when I set about analysing what it was, I struggled to make sense of it. Now, however, I think I understand why it seems so hard to explain the problem with naturalism. It’s because we have been trained to approach the problem ontologically.

What advantage is Christianity supposed to have over naturalism? Our instinctive response is to compare the different accounts of what human beings are in terms of their composing substance on these two worldviews. Traditionally Christian theists have viewed human persons as embodied souls, whereas on naturalism humans are purely physical entities, or at least emergent on physical entities. Is this supposed to be where the significant difference lay? Certainly it would be easy to read that kind of thinking into the sorts of things Christians might say on the matter. After all it’s common to hear people say that the problem with naturalism is that humans “are just a bunch of chemicals.” But I think that would be the wrong way to read those sentiments.

It’s incredibly hard to make sense of human worth as a matter of what sort of stuff humans are made of. How exactly is it supposed to make a difference in terms of worth whether human persons are immaterial beings or material beings? Would a jellotine being be of more value than a being made of rock? There doesn’t seem to be any sensible way of judging things in this manner. Of course, some might argue that unless human beings are immaterial souls, then we could not possess rationality or freedom of the will. But that would be to argue that human worth is down to human capacities, and not really the substance of our existence after all.

To view the issue in terms of capacities is another tempting move, one that again thinks fundamentally in terms of the features of what humans are, or have, as features of their being. But this too is problematic. If we think that human worth boils down to our rationality, then how do we avoid saying that the worth of a person is determined by their IQ, or something equivalent? Humans are not equal in terms of their mental ability, but they are surely equal in terms of worth. Additionally, why would rationality of all things give humans worth? The brain is surely impressive, but why favour that organ over any other? On what grounds? Freedom of the will is just as inexplicable as a foundation of worth. How does the proposition “humans have freedom of the will” entail “humans have instrinsic moral worth”? That logical jump there is inexplicable. Moreover the intuitive sense of the problem with naturalism doesn’t seem to focus on these aspects. No doubt there are many folk who think that naturalism also struggles to explain human rationality and free will, but these are surely distinct topics from the question of value. Certainly I don’t think these factors feature in my intuition on the matter.

So then, what is the answer?


The advantage Christianity has over naturalism is that Christianity provides a narrative which gives human beings an important role. On Christian theism the world is created and given to humans to rule over, the creator takes a special interest in their affairs and even steps into their history to rescue them from their sin. On Christian theism creation is to a certain extent about human beings. The significance of being made in the image of God for human value is not in its signifying that humans have particular capacities, or are made from certain materials, but that humans have an important role in the great cosmic drama that God has penned. Caparably, on naturalism humans have no such special role. The universe isn’t about human beings in any sense. If anything, humans are a sort of after-thought of an unintentional process. Go back and read’s Craig’s quote again in these terms and see if it doesn’t make more sense.

This, then, is the first problem of human value for naturalists: naturalism cannot provide a plausible narrative which gives human beings any prominence. This I think correctly drives the intuition that naturalism is at odds with human value.

But there is also a second problem for the naturalist. Obviously, the fact that we can tell a narrative about human beings does not entail that such a narrative is true. And the second problem for the naturalist is that no naturalistic cosmic-narrative could ever be true, simply because on naturalism there is no cosmic story-teller. Sure, it’s possible that naturalism as a mere metaphysical doctrie could be true: it could be true that there are no supernatural beings or anything of the like. But it’s impossible for a naturalistic narrative of the universe to be true. Stories are about things, but a naturalistic universe cannot be about anything because there is no intentional narrator behind it.

Naturalism, then, doubly fails to account for human value. Human value requires a true cosmic narrative that is to a great degree about human beings, but naturalism cannot have any true cosmic narratives, and even the false ones we could make fail to give human beings any prominence.

the “evil god” argument

William Lane Craig has recently responded to the “evil god” argument put forward by Stephen Law in their debate, and Law has himself responded to that response.

I thought that now might be a good time to share my own thoughts on the argument, and where my agreements/disagreements with these two thinkers lay.

First of all, here’s a summary of a basic evidential argument from evil (as given in Philosophy of Religion by C. Stephen Evans & R. Zachary Manis):

1. If God exists he does not allow any pointless evil.
2. Probably, there is pointless evil in the world.
3. Therefore, God probably does not exist.

Craig’s response to this argument is to challenge the justification for (2) by noting our cognitive limitations in relation to God’s, employing what is known as the “skeptical theist” defence. The proponent of skeptical theism points out that the supposed justification for thinking that (2) is true is simply that it appears that it is. Sure, the skeptical theist says, we may utterly fail to discern any justifiable reason for, say, the agonising death of a deer whose legs are crushed beneath a fallen tree, but why think that our inability to discern such a reason is evidence that there is no reason? This failing on our part would only be evidence against there actually being such a reason if it’s likely that, were there a reason, we would be able to spot it. But why would we be likely to know the reasons why an all-intelligent being allows something horrible to occur? God’s cognitive capabilities far exceed our own, and thus it would hardly be surprising if God has reasons that we would fail to discern.

I think this a perfectly reasonable response to the argument. But here’s where Stephen Law’s “evil god” argument kicks in. He thinks we can run a parallel argument:

1. If evil god exists he does not allow any pointless good.
2. Probably, there is pointless good in the world.
3. Therefore, evil god probably does not exist.

In this argument, a particular good is pointless if it does not contribute to a greater evil. After all, evil god is perfectly bad, and entirely hate-filled, so he wouldn’t allow anything good unless it contributed to a greater evil. But it seems like there are goods that don’t contribute to any greater evil. What about some particularly beautiful yet undiscovered species of flower? What about the excessive cuteness of children? Aren’t these evidence against evil god?

Law notes that the same theodicies open to the defender of God are open to evil god (one can have a reverse free will defence, or a soul-destroying theodicy etc). But also, Law claims that the tactics of skeptical theism are just as available to the evil god proponent too. What justifies us in thinking that, just because many goods seem ‘pointless’, then many goods are pointless? Evil god is omniscient and supremely intelligent, so we can say in regard to him too that we aren’t likely to know whether or not there are greater evils that justify the goods. The arguments against both God and evil god seem to be even, Law says. BUT, he claims, nobody takes skeptical theism seriously in regard to discounting all the evidence against evil god. Nobody thinks that, after pointing to the smile of a child, or a stunning sunset, that a defender of the belief in evil god would be rational in saying, “hold on, we can’t recklessly draw such an inference here – we simply aren’t likely to be able to discern evil god’s reasons for permitting all this gratuitous good.” But since there is parity between the evidential argument from evil and the evidential argument from goodness, if skeptical theism doesn’t bail evil god out, it doesn’t bail God out either.

Craig denies that the defender of evil god would be irrational to appeal to skeptical theism. He claims that one simply cannot confidently conclude what the character of the creator is like based on the evidence of evil and good in the world. Which of them is correct? Is skeptical theism in defence of evil god justified? Or is the existence of inscrutable goods evidence against evil god? I actually think they’re both right.

It is quite clear to me that it is not at all likely that we’d be able to discern all the underlying reasons for an omniscient good being or an omniscient evil being to run the world as he does. But that isn’t the whole story. The above isn’t the only form an evidential argument from evil/goodness can take. I think skeptical theism shows this form to be a weak one, but a stronger one can be made through a comparative case.

the comparative argument

In a comparative argument, the God hypothesis, or the evil god hypothesis, is pitted against another hypothesis and judged on its power to explain some data, in this case, the existence of certain quantities/kinds of evil/good. Following Paul Draper, we can call this hypothesis “the Hypothesis of Indifference”, though I will describe it in my own way as follows:

HI: the universe is not ordered or guided by any all-powerful intelligent being that has a primary preference for good things, or a primary preference for bad things, nor a primary preference for the well-being of creatures, or a primary preference for the suffering of creatures.

HI is consistent with naturalism, and also a deism whereby god’s character is morally indifferent, but it isn’t consistent with theism, nor belief in evil god. Now, what about the data which the hypotheses will be “fighting” over? Let’s call the following observation about the world ‘O’:

O: There is roughly the same amount of good in the world as there is evil, and there is roughly the same amount of inscrutable evil/good as there is “meaningful” evil/good.

The truth of O is no doubt contentious, but let’s assume for the sake of argument that it’s true. It certainly doesn’t seem obviously false. Note: “meaningful evil/good” should here be understood as evil which, through an agent’s intention or not, contributes to a good, or good which, through an agent’s intention or not, contributes to an evil.

We can ask then, whether O is more surprising on theism/the evil god hypothesis, than on HI. For simplicity, we’ll keep to a comparison between HI and theism (the God hypothesis) – seeing as there is parity between the two, what counts for one will count for the other anyway. A comparative argument from evil might run like this then:

1. O is probable given HI.
2. O is improbable given theism.
3. Therefore, HI is a better explanation of O than theism.

Is (1) defensible? Well seeing as on HI there is no preference for either a wholly good, or wholly evil universe, it figures that, just by luck, the distribution of both would be about even. And since, on HI, there is no intelligent agent intending to bring about good or pleasurable states of affairs, there will likely be instances where evil or suffering fail to contribute to goods or pleasure, but also instances where such contributions occur via luck or incidentally, thus balancing out. So O is not all that surprising given HI. But is O surprising given theism?

I’d have to say that we can’t be sure. Again the considerations of skeptical theism (I think rightly) come into play. Can we really say with confidence that God couldn’t have achieved the amount of good there is (or will be) in the world without the amount of evil there is? I’d have to say that we can’t be so confident. I think the probability of O on theism is inscrutable. Thus (2) is a little strong and needs to be replaced by the following:

(2*): The probability of O on theism is inscrutable.

Does the conclusion still follow from (1) and (2*)? Yes, I think so. Put it this way; if you knew that one horse had a high chance of winning the race, but as for another, you had no clue as to their odds, you’d be a fool to pick the one you didn’t know about, even if in reality that horse had an even higher chance of winning. So yes, HI is a better explanation of O than theism. O is thus evidence against theism.

retaining rationality

Is HI’s explanatory power over theism in regards to O a problem for the theist? Does it make her theism irrational? I don’t think so. Perhaps relative to O theism is improbable, but theism is probable all things considered. Perhaps the theist’s being evidentially challenged here is no more significant than the kind of evidential challenge found in the following scenario:

Say (1) there is a pet store that I know is nearing the end of its transition from being an all-purpose pet store, to one that sells only cats and things relating to proper keeping of cats: the only non-cat left for sale is a solitary dog. Say also (2), I have a friend who is very familiar with the contents of this store, and is heading out to buy a single pet from there tomorrow. And (3) this friend has told me that she is going to buy that solitary dog. Now relative to (1) and (2), (4): “my friend is going to buy a cat” is much more probable than (3). (1) and (2) count as evidence against (3) in favour of (4). But surely I am rational in still believing that my friend is buying the dog. After all, I know that she is! But if I didn’t know (3), I would be much more justified in believing (4) over (3).

Similarly, O might not be a problem for the theist if she has good grounds for her theism! But if she didn’t know that theism were true, or didn’t have good grounds to so believe, she would be more justified in believing HI over theism. And by virtue of the symmetry of the circumstances, the same would be true of the evil god hypothesis. The evil god hypothesis isn’t the best explanation of O, but for someone who has good grounds for believing in evil god, this fact need not make the belief irrational.

So both Craig and Law are right. Skeptical theism is a perfectly legitimate move, but, nonetheless evil is evidence against God, and goodness is evidence against evil god. The agnostic, atheist and evil god proponent are justified in believing that evil counts against the existence of God. The agnostic, atheist and theist are justified in believing that good counts against the existence of evil god. But both the theist and evil god-believer need not be deterred when their own beliefs encounter this evidential challenge.

one role of valuing in reasoning

Recently I have become very interested in “the objectivity thesis.” Although there are likely a lot of ways this thesis can be construed, the basic idea is that rational enquiry ideally requires maximal objectivity, or neutrality. According to this view, we should suspend our emotions and the particular values associated with our ideological position, in order to take a sort of God’s eye view on a matter. The Christian, then, ought to examine, say, the evidence for the resurrection of Jesus, without any particular emotional disposition involved in that assessment. One should calmly follow the evidence where it leads and then form emotions or values in response to the best supported position after that process.

I confess, I’ve come to be a little suspicious of this absolute rejection of the role of emotion and value in reasoning. My suspicions are fuelled by a few factors. One, I’m convinced by Charles Taylor’s argument in his incredible book Sources of the Self that this view is one perculiar to modernity. He identifies this move to the ‘disengaged subject’ as one on the path away from the collectivism of pre-modernity, to the individualism of modernity. Of course, the cultural uniqueness of the objectivity thesis isn’t an argument that it’s wrong, but it ought to make us realise that it might not be necessarily true – it hasn’t been obviously the right way to other cultures, and perhaps there are alternate positions to take. Additionally, I unashamedly take into account the teachings of the Christian faith, which seem to indicate that one’s attitudinal disposition toward God has a drastic effect on one cognitive assessment of Christianity. Paul teaches in Romans that sinful desires suppress or draw attention away from, the evidence of God’s existence. But it isn’t just that negative attitudes prevent arriving at the truth, rather, positively, one needs the correct attitudinal dispositions. Indifference doesn’t draw one to God, rather a heartfelt yearning for God does. Additionally, I am not afraid to say that I find such absolute neutrality practically impossible. I am emotionally involved in my view of the world. I think I am an honest thinker, but I know I’m not a neutral one. I’m also sure that I’m not alone in this, and I wonder whether, rather than being just a let-down of human nature, there might be legitimate need for this sort of “bias” in reasoning.

So those are some of the reasons why I’m not totally sold on the objectivity thesis. But that said, I recognise that an alternative which just opened the door to an emotional merry-go-round would not be satisfying either. I think a position with more nuance than cold objectivity, or raw emotionalism needs to be sought. I don’t have such an account yet, but I do have some ideas as to why values and desires are an integral part of rationality. Today I’d like to share one:

Why is it that I spend so much time reading and thinking about religion and philosophy, and not so much time doing the same for Albanian Politics, or Jurassic plant life, or ancient Egyptian farming? Because I enjoy religion & philosophy and not so much those things? Well yes, I do, but is that a full answer? I think, plausibly, the answer (or a large part of it) is that I think religion and philosophy are more important topics than those. I don’t think it’s the only important topic, (Albanian politics certainly isn’t a matter of indifference to those directly effected by it), but I do think that philosophy and religion are more ultimately important. Of course, someone else might not agree with me. Someone else might think that questions about the existence of God, and what morals are, and what human beings are, are pretty trivial and uninteresting. Instead such a person might think that what really matters is, say, what mating habits flatworms have. Perhaps this persons reads endless journals on flatworms and partakes in flatworm forums and discussion boards. Clearly this person would have invested far more effort into learning about flatworms than myself.

Should I have done the same level of thinking about flatworms? Should I be investing more time in researching them? Is my opinion on flatworms unjustifiably ill-informed? Have I forsaken my intellectual duty in not giving this topic more attention? But that isn’t the only question we could ask. It isn’t just flatworms I haven’t thought very deeply about. There’s A TON of topics I just haven’t got much clue about. Should I think more deeply about the properties of glue? Should I take more of a keen interest in submarine engineering? Ought I be more involved in computing developments from the 70s-80s?

It seems to me that without reference to some sort of value system, my preference for philosophy and religion would be purely arbitrary. If every matter is of equal importance (or if every matter is equally without worth), then no topic deserves more attention than any other. But I don’t have infinite cognitive resources! I can’t treat every single subject with the same level of care and depth. I simply must prioritise, otherwise I couldn’t make any sense out of my intellectual life. Imagine what it would be like if we truly couldn’t let our values interact with our intellect…

You pass a newspaper on the floor. “Ah I’m in a rush, it’s contents are unimportant! Oh wait, hang on, I can’t rank things like that. I need to treat this newspaper with the same level of intrigue I ought to treat everything else. No impartiality! And I’m a deep thinker so I ought to study it carefully.” You read through it and inside hundreds of truth claims are made, ranging from claims about local history, to claims about politics. “Ah, politics! I don’t know much about politics but it’s really interesting. This guy is claiming that conservative ideals are the best for running a country. I might have to get some books on these topics and look into all the different views! Ah… right, yeah I forgot, I can’t prioritise politics. Guess I need to equally research the history of that bridge behind the post office. And the police reports from the stabbing in ’79. And then after lunch, every other truth claim made. And then tomorrow, I need to look into all the claims today’s research will have brought up! Better call the boss and tell him I’m quitting.”

How absurd! Unless you have some values already in place, you cannot sensibly discern where to focus your cognitive gaze. Moreover, you cannot first be value-less and neutral in a rational quest to find the right values, because that quest would itself be similarly unmanageable. This mean, then, that we have to approach our intellectual life with some values in place already. It would be horrible if we didn’t! Values thus have a crucially important role to play in reasoning. We cannot come from a completely neutral position.

thoughts on two objections to Plantinga’s religious epistemology

Earlier today I listened to an episode of ‘Conversations From The Pale Blue Dot’ with Tyler Wunder on the topic of Alvin Plantinga’s religious epistemology.

During the interview Tyler raised a number of objections to Plantinga’s project, but there were two in particular that he concentrated on. I happen to think that Plantinga is basically on the right track with his approach, and that Tyler’s objections aren’t anything for the reformed epistemologist to fear. So let’s have a look at what Tyler took issue with…

universal sanction

Tyler correctly points out that classical foundationalism need not be the only epistemological position that can support evidentialism in regard to theistic belief. That is, perhaps there are other criteria for proper basicality that aren’t given by classical foundationalism, and which don’t suffer from the same setbacks, yet still exclude theism. Tyler thinks there is such an alternate principle for identifying proper basicality, one which relies on the notion of universal sanction.

Essentially the idea of universal sanction is that a certain kind of belief can be properly basic only if sincere skepticism in regard to all beliefs of that kind would render human life unmanageable. Thus perceptual beliefs are properly basic because, if we truly took seriously the idea that we cannot trust our senses, our lives would be impossible to sanely live out. The same goes, on this view, for belief-kinds that served as counter-examples to the criteria of proper basicality given by classical foundationalism. Memory beliefs, for instance, are the kind of beliefs such that, were we to sincerely entertain the idea that we couldn’t trust any of them, we just couldn’t function. And the same goes for beliefs about other minds, and the existence of the external world. True, we might sensibly doubt particular instances of these beliefs – I might come to doubt that a particular memory of my childhood is veridical – but I cannot sensibly doubt all my memory beliefs.

In favour of this view is that all the belief-kinds that are non-controversially accepted as properly basic seem to meet this condition. At least, I can’t think of any that don’t. So we have a prima facie plausible principle for proper basicality. The trouble for the theist is that it seems like beliefs about God, or gods, can be sincerely doubted without rendering human living unmanageable. There might be emotional or existential difficulties in living without belief in God, but these are surely nothing like the kind of practical impossibility posed by denying the reliablity of our sensory perceptions, or memory beliefs. So the principle of universal sanction excludes theistic belief, thus supporting evidentialism.

Without some non-controversial counter-example, what can the reformed epistemologist say in response? Well clearly universal sanction does not meet its own criteria for proper basicality. It can be denied easily without rendering human living practically impossible. For it to be coherent, then, it must be supported by argument. An a priori argument for its truth doesn’t seem to be available, so presumably the argument is inductive and looks something like this:

1. Total sincere skepticism in regard to all non-controversial properly basic belief-kinds cannot be held without rendering human living practically impossible.
2. Most, if not all, non-controversial non-basic belief-kinds can be regarded with total sincere skepticism without rendering human living practically impossible.
3. Therefore, probably a belief-kind is not properly basic unless regarding it with total sincere skepticism renders human living practically impossible.

But this argument can easily be handled with the resources of reformed epistemology. If Plantinga’s A/C Model is viable, or something like it is, then if Christian theism is true, belief in Christian theism probably can be a properly basic. So if Plantinga is correct, and Christian theism is true, any full inductive survey of basic beliefs will include Christian theism, and thus no such survey will imply that universal sanction is a necessary condition for proper basicality. In other words, universal sanction can only be inferred as a result of such a survey if it is presupposed that Christian theism is false. And this is perfectly in accord with the aim of Plantinga’s project, which is to show that there is no de jure objection without a de facto objection. Nothing here overturns that conclusion. Sure, one could restrict the survey to only non-controversial beliefs, but if one believes that there are more basic beliefs than those that are non-controversial, then such a survey will be arbitrary, or question-begging. Why should the convinced proponent of Plantinga’s model take the dispute about it as evidence of it being flawed? I conclude, then, that Tyler has to show that Plantinga’s model is incoherent, or in some sense faulty – that is, he would have to show that, actually, if Christian theism is true it isn’t likely that Christian theism is properly basic – in order for the argument to work.

the retreat to metaphysics

Now Tyler doesn’t (at least here) seem to dispute the coherence of Plantinga’s model so much as argue that the tactics it employs can be equally utilised by belief-systems that are clearly unwarranted. The effect of this argument, then, is to say that since clearly unwarranted beliefs can make use of Plantinga’s strategy, this strategy cannot be epistemically useful – we can’t use it as a measure of a belief’s warrant, or as a shield against de jure objections to that belief. Remember that Plantinga’s strategy is to argue that if Christian theism is true, then probably Christian theism is properly basic. That is because (in summary form), if Christian theism is true, there is a God who wants us to know him, and his salvation, and does not want us to have to be intellectually elite or lucky in order to do so. Moreover, there seem to be teachings in the Christian scriptures and theological traditions that imply or give support to the idea that belief in God is generated by an innate sense of God, or by certain experiences, or the activity of the Holy Spirit, or something similar. Thus, if Christian theism is true, probably Christian theism is a properly basic belief, and there is no way to make a purely epistemic objection to Christianity without objecting to its truth. This strategy is what Tyler calls ‘the retreat to metaphysics’.

Plantinga concedes that the same move to metaphysics can probably be used by other relevantly similar belief-systems, like Islam, or Judaism, or maybe Hinduism and some others, but insofar as one strays away from some sort of theism, the prospects of successfully making such a move are poor. Tyler thinks that Plantinga is far too quick in thinking that the retreat to metaphysics is so restricted. He thinks that such a move is available to all sorts of dubious beliefs, like the belief in a flat earth, or voodooism.

I think Tyler’s approach here is flawed. Obviously, for pretty much any belief, we could give an account consistent with that belief of how that belief could be properly basic. But that does nothing to show that the proper basicality of that belief is probable given its truth. It isn’t enough to show that it is possible that on, say, naturalism, that naturalism is a basic belief. One must show that it is probable, given naturalism, that naturalism would be a basic belief. It isn’t enough to say that is possible that, if voodooism is true, then voodooism is a properly basic belief. It has to probable for it to be analogous to Plantinga’s A/C model! Without doing that, one cannot show that Plantinga’s model lends itself to such unwelcome allies. Tyler did not consider these sorts of probabilities in this interview, though perhaps he does in his dissertation on the topic.

That said, there is another approach one could take to try and make Tyler’s objection stick. One could just forge an account of the proper basicality of a belief, into the belief itself. For the sake of argument, let’s concede that on voodooism simpliciter, it is not probable that, if voodooism is true, then voodooism is a properly basic belief. But now consider voodooism+ which is the belief that voodooism is true, and that, through some supernatural power, belief in voodooism can be properly basic. Clearly, if voodooism+ is true, the probablity that voodooism can be a properly basic belief is 1, because voodooism+ by definition includes the claim that voodooism can be a properly basic belief. Voodooism+ seems to be able to take advantage of the retreat to metaphysics. Is this, then, analogous to Plantinga’s A/C model? I think not because voodooism+ is entirely ad hoc. It is posited just to provide justification for making the move to metaphysics. But the same is not true for Christian theism. The components of Christian theism that lend themselves to the move to metaphysics can’t sensibly be said to have been invented just for the purpose of allowing that move.

So again, Plantinga’s model meets with no serious objection.

Bill Craig loses a debate! (and all sorts of goodies are revealed)

William Lane Craig recently debated Stephen Law on the question “Does God Exist?” (the audio is available here)

I’ve listened/watched/read loads of Craig’s debates and I think he’s comfortably won every encounter. However, I think that Stephen Law actually got the best of him in this excellent debate, and provided better arguments for the claim that “God does not exist” than Craig did for the claim that “God does exist”, at least so long as “God” is defined with philosophical rigour. In fact, the brilliance of Law’s approach to the debate is that it completely concentrated on disproving (or providing evidence against) one of God’s attributes, not ALL of them; in particular, he attacked the good character of God. He employed an argument involving the notion of an “Evil God” and Craig in fact let out an admission which gave Law’s strategy great power, which is that the definition of God necessarily implies God’s goodness. And indeed that is the philosophically correct way to understand God. But that means that, so long as Law could successfully argue against God’s goodness, Law would, by virtue of doing that, be arguing against the existence of God. So long as one attribute of God is shown to be rationally untenable, God full stop is shown to be rationally untenable. I think he pulled off his strategy brilliantly.

Craig opened with only three of his usual arguments for God’s existence, the Kalam Cosmological Argument, the Moral Argument and a (very) minimal facts case for the resurrection of Jesus. Craig normally brings 5 arguments and I think his dropping two actually suited Law well. Law didn’t touch the KCA since his strategy was to target only God’s goodness and that argument doesn’t say anything about the character of the first cause of the universe. Craig didn’t go into nearly enough detail with the resurrection argument for it to be at all dialectically useful. I can’t imagine any non-Christian being persuaded from that extremely bare bones presentation. He reduced the standard 4 or 5 facts to a mere 3 and relied solely on authority to uphold them, rather than delve into the reasons why they are generally conceded as facts. As such, Law didn’t have to do much to shake the audience’s confidence in the case except point out some general worries that “supernatural” theories have when appealed to as the best explanation. Because of this the debate was entirely focussed on the moral argument and Law’s rather novel and intriguing argument from “Evil God”, or “Anti-God” as Craig re-named him.

Craig didn’t help himself in that he actually misunderstood the argument. He thought that the argument was trying to show that, on an inductive survey of the evidence, an evil creator god is as likely as a good creator god. But that wasn’t the argument. It was actually something like this:

1. There is just as much evidence from the goodness/evil of the world that the creator god is evil, as there is that the creator god is good.
2. We are justified in believing that evidence of goodness in the world demonstrates that there is not an evil creator god.
3. Therefore, we are equally justified in believing that the evidence of evil in the world demonstrates that there is not a good creator god.

The argument was thus designed to support the general evidential argument from evil, and undercut the attempts to soften the argument by appeals to “skeptical theism”. After all, Law contended, nobody takes considerations of sceptical theism seriously in dismissing evil god, so why good god? Craig did implicitly counter the argument by incidentally denying the second premise, but his misunderstanding meant that he didn’t make it explicit and so Law’s argument appeared unchallenged.

As for the moral argument, again Law took the upper hand and made similar criticisms that I myself made in a post here. That is, Craig didn’t show that, necessarily, atheism cannot account for objective moral values and duties. Now perhaps Law, and myself, have misunderstood the argument. Even granted that, Craig didn’t clarify it to make an adequate response and so failed to defend it. Craig also revealed something interesting about the moral argument; in the Q&A he spoke of it in terms of induction and “best explanation”. So perhaps it shouldn’t be formulated deductively, as it leads to confusion.

Moreover, although this wasn’t discussed as a feature of the debate, I wonder if Craig’s moral argument could be twisted to support the existence of “Anti-God”? Perhaps there is a transcendent being with all the attributes of God except necessary existence and moral goodness (to concede that maximal greatness entails moral goodness). We’ll give him moral badness instead and call him “Anti-God” as Craig does. What makes this argument any more or less compelling than the standard moral argument?

1. If Anti-God does not exist, objective moral values and duties do not exist.
2. Objective moral values and duties exist.
3. Therefore, Anti-God exists.

After all, what’s required for objective moral values and duties is a transcendent source of moral values and duties. But what stops that source being an inherent evil being, rather than an inherently good being? Either way, objective values find a source. Craig could say such a being can’t exist because God necessarily exists, but at that point he’s forced to use the ontological argument, and the moral argument ceases to be dialectically useful.

Again that argument wasn’t made, but I do find it interesting. I conclude that Stephen Law won because he provided a better case for the non-existence of God (who is necessarily good) than Craig did for the existence of God. However, I imagine that Craig might take the moral victory. After all, with the KCA untouched he did put forward an unchallenged case for an immaterial, all-powerful, spaceless, timeless, unchanging, personal being. Although not technically theism, it is theism in spirit. So perhaps both debaters can walk away happy. Law had a narrow and focussed objective, which he succeeded in achieving, but it may not have been broad enough to satisfy his fellow atheists.

Overall it’s a wonderful and refreshing debate that I highly recommend listening to. It was nice not to see Craig’s opponent make the same typical blunders and misunderstandings. Law clearly has a sharp mind and I’m keen to look into his work; I was smiling all throughout his inventive “Evil God” argument. Craig was by no means white-washed, but his opening hand set him up for a difficult time given Law’s tactics.

If it seems I’m being harsh on Craig, I should balance this with the fact that I’m extremely excited to hear him talk (and hopefully to meet him) at the be-thinking.org apologetics day conference this Saturday! Can’t wait!

EDIT: I now have some further comments on the evil god argument over here, and thoughts on Law’s discussion with Glenn Peoples on the argument over here.

argument against materialism from moral accountability (revised)

Imagine that ‘Sally’ (S) robs a bank (call this event R) in 1975 (t1) and is caught. However, due to various complications with the prosecution, she is not put on trial until 2011 (t2). During this time, via natural processes, various atoms that compose her body have been replaced with other ones. Now for the argument.

Let’s say that x “strictly survives” some occurrence if x exists before that occurrence and x exists after that occurrence.

1. A person can be morally accountable for an event iff they are numerically identical to an object that causally contributed to that event.
2. S at t1 is the only object that causally contributed to R which S at t2 could be numerically identical to.
3. From (1) and (2), S can be morally accountable for R’s occurrence at t1, even at t2, iff S at t2 is numerically identical to S at t1.
4. If S is a material object, S lost some composing parts between t1 and t2.
5. From (3) and (4), if S is a material object, S can be morally accountable for R’s occurrence at t1, even at t2, iff S strictly survives the loss of some of her parts.
6. S can be morally accountable for R’s occurrence at t1, even at t2.
7. From (5) and (6), either S is an immaterial object, or S is a material object that strictly survives the loss of some of her parts.

8. Material objects cannot strictly survive the loss of any of their parts.
9. From (7) and (8), S is an immaterial object.

Premise 8 is the most contentious one, and below is an argument to support it. The argument does not originate with me, a friend posted it on a theologyweb thread (and apparently it is well-known in the literature anyway).

“Consider your body. Name it “Body”. Consider the part of Body that consists of all of Body except your left pinky. Call that part “Body-minus”. At time t0, let’s say, Body is intact; it includes your left pinky as a part. Suppose that at t1, however, your left pinky is annihilated. Call the pinkyless, human-body-shaped, material object that remains in your vicinity after this unfortunate event “Deformed”. Note that the following argument appears to be sound:

(1) At t1, Body-minus still exists (because nothing happened to Body-minus except that something external to it was detached from it).
(2) At t1, if Body still exists, Body is identical to Deformed [What else could Body be at that time?].
(3) At t1, if Body-minus still exists, Body-minus is identical to Deformed [What else could Body-minus be then?].
(4) At t1, Body-minus is identical to Deformed [This follows from 1 and 3].
(5) At t1, if Body still exists, Body is identical to Body-minus [This follows from 2, 4 and the fact that identity is an equivalence relation].
(6) At t1, it is not the case that Body is identical to Body-minus [Note, for example, that at t1 if Body and Body-minus both exist, they have different historical properties – Body-minus used to be a proper part of Body, for example, but Body was never a proper part of Body].
(7) Therefore, at t1 it is not the case that Body still exists [5,6].”

A parallel argument could be given with respect to any material body that is said to have survived the loss of a part, so it seems that premise 8 in the first argument is true.