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Morality- Desirism vs. Goal Theory


 Tonight I had a debate with Richard Carrier on morality. He believes that Goal Theory is the best account of morality, and I believe desirism is more accurate. After any debate, you go back and think of some things that you should have said better, but I think overall it was a great exchange. Video of the debate will be posted soon, but for now, here's the text of my opening speech:

First off, I'd like to thank Ben and the Ethical Society for hosting tonight's debate. I'd also like to thank Dr. Carrier for that excellent opening speech. Like Dr. Carrier, I think it's important to use reason to discover moral truth. We must expose our views to scrutiny and embrace the possibility that we're wrong, for that's the only way we learn. I hope that however tonight's debate turns out, we all walk away slightly closer to the truth. Far too much evil has already been done by people who thought they were doing good.

While I think morality is important, there's nothing magic about the word itself. If someone defined morality as following some person's arbitrary whim, then morality wouldn't matter to me. I don't care about how you choose to define the word morality; I care about making the world a better place.

To figure out what a better world would be, I think we have to start with desires. As Dr. Carrier said in a recent blog post, desire is the root of all value. Among other things, I want to eat a tasty slice of pizza, have fewer people die of preventable diseases, and live a happy life. Those things have value to me. That value is real. The objects of of my desires have real value. But morality is about more than my desires. In order to make the world a better place where everyone gets more of what they value, we have to consider ALL desires.

How do we bring about such a world? We do that by promoting good desires. In a world where everyone hated being hurt but wanted to hurt as many people as possible, everyone would be miserable. But in a world where everyone wanted everyone else to be happy, everyone's desires would be fulfilled. So a moral desire is one that tends to fulfill other desires, and a moral action is one that someone with those good desires would perform.

Some people think that morality should be focused on what action maximizes happiness. But I disagree. If a mother had to either kill one of her children or have them both be killed, happiness would be maximized by her gleefully killing one of her children without hesitation or remorse. This would minimize their suffering, as well as her suffering. However, think about the kind of mother who would do that. If she had a strong desire for her children to be happy and healthy, it would have been very difficult for her to kill either of them and if she did decide to kill one of them, it would at least have been an immensely painful decision for her to make. A loving mother cannot instantly turn off her love in cases like this. Since desiring that your kids be happy and healthy generally fulfills a lot of other desires (like their desires to be happy and healthy), it's a good desire, one that we should promote. We should not praise a mother who gleefully kills her child regardless of the circumstances, because we want parents who have a strong desire to care for their children.

If we promote good desires, we will make the world a better place, and will also make ourselves better off. If everyone had more good desires which fulfilled more of the desires of others, then more of our own desires would be fulfilled. It is in our own interest to get people to have good desires.

In order to promote good desires, we need to make better use of tools like praise and condemnation, reward and punishment. Although those words may have a negative connotation, there's nothing sinister about them. We already use these tools every day. For example, a simple “Thank you” to someone who helped you out can make them more likely to help you in the future. A football coach might praise his team and reward them with an extra day of rest after a well-played game. Your wife might punish you for your indiscretions.

We should focus on improving desires since our desires determine our actions. If I desire to go see the latest Disney movie, and I believe it is showing at 5pm at the local theater, I drive to the theater.

Almost everyone wants to be happy. But it is not the only thing we desire. I would want my children to go to college, even if I knew I would not live long enough to derive any happiness from seeing it happen. I would rather make a groundbreaking scientific advance that was only recognized after my death than be famous in my lifetime for a discovery that later turned out to be false and which ended up holding back scientific progress. The second life might be happier, but I would prefer the first. So happiness, which Dr. Carrier defines in his book as “an abiding contentment” is not the only thing people value. A content world is not necessarily a better world. We must consider everything we care about.

Dr. Carrier could respond by using a different definition of happiness, in which you can become happier even after you're dead. One problem with this approach is that it is misleading since it is so far from how people normally use the word “happiness”. It also doesn't make much sense to say that happiness is the one thing we want more than anything else, if by happiness you just mean everything that we value.

While we're typically happy when our desires are fulfilled, happiness and desire fulfillment are not the same. People who are moderately depressed may still desire that their family does well even if nothing makes them happy. We also may be willing to sacrifice our own life to save someone else's. Even if we know that we will die instantly and get almost no happiness from the action, we will lay down our life if we care enough about the cause.

For these reasons, I think it is wrong to say that happiness is the goal of morality. Morality should take into account everything that we value.

I think Dr. Carrier is also mistaken when he says in his writings that since people will always do what they most desire to do, we should focus on making sure that all moral agents act rationally and with sufficient information. It's important to be rational and well informed, but I think he's mistaken when he argues that everyone would act morally if only they were fully informed and rational. The problem is that everyone has different desires. Some people have more evil desires than good ones and could best fulfill their desires by acting immorally. If your only desire is to kill as many people as possible, being more informed and rational will not prevent you from killing.

Of course Dr. Carrier could respond by slipping morality into his definition of rationality, but I think this is problematic. A theist could simply define rationality as acting based on the Bible. By that definition, the theist could rightly argue that if only atheists were rational, they would believe in God. Rationality is about acting consistently with your reasons for action and the only reasons for action that have been shown to exist are desires.

I think Dr. Carrier would respond by saying that even if someone has bad desires, they would be happier if they acted perfectly morally. For the moment, let's set aside my concern that happiness is not the only thing we value. What reason do we have to think that someone would be happier if they were perfectly moral? There are definitely some moral traits that make us happier, but it seems like an extraordinary claim to say that evolution would just happen to result in all our brains working in such a way that every moral trait would increase our happiness. Evolution works on the individual gene level. If an immoral trait makes it more likely that you'll pass on your genes, that trait will become more common. Even one of the works that Dr. Carrier cites to defend his claim that acting virtuously makes you better off argues that evolution promotes some negative traits like aggressiveness. Sometimes doing good makes us happy, and sometimes doing evil makes us happy. Sometimes evolution favors good, sometimes evolution favors evil. With all the violence in the animal kingdom, and our own species, it seems unreasonable to assume that every trait which helps others would also help one's own genes. So I see no reason to think that evolution would make it so that acting morally would always make us happier.

In addition to happiness, many of us value the freedom to be ourselves and pursue the things we want to pursue. If we could become fully informed and rational, and then had the same desires that all the other fully informed and rational people have, we would lose everything that makes us unique. We would no longer have our own unique memories, or our own unique wants. Even if a fully informed perfectly morally person was maximally happy, that person would not and could not be me.

So I reject Dr. Carrier's claim that knowing about morality causes you to act like an angel regardless of your desires. Many philosophers argue that in order for something to count as morality, it has to provide a reason-for-action that motives all people to follow it. I don't think that such a morality exists, but I also don't think this is an essential part of morality. People have many contradictory beliefs about what morality is and no definition could satisfy all of them. But this doesn't disprove morality any more than some people believing that God is supernatural and others believing that he's the entire natural world proves that God could not exist. If our definition of a word had to be consistent with everything people ever took the word to mean, then we would have to throw out all language.

Atoms used to be defined as the indivisible building blocks of everything. But when we discovered that they could be divided, we didn't say “I guess atoms don't exist after all”, we just said that they're slightly different than we once thought. However, when we discovered there was no mass-less inside things which was released by fire, we stopped using the term phlogiston because there was nothing for it to refer to. Even though morality does not compel evil people to be good, it still has all the important components of morality. Under my view of morality, we can still say that regardless of individual opinion, certain actions are wrong because they tend to hurt other people by depriving them of things they care about. We have good reason to praise those who do good, and condemn those who do evil.

We can condemn slavery as the evil that it is. Even if everyone on Earth thought slavery was moral and  wanted to be enslaved, it would still be wrong since it deprives people of things they want, like freedom to make decisions for themselves, freedom from pain, and the ability to choose one’s spouse and protect one’s family. Evil desires like the desire to enslave others thwart more and stronger desires than they fulfill.

Thankfully, today there are few people who actually want to own a slave. This is a huge change in just 200 years. We didn't get rid of slavery by presenting everyone with a logical case for why slavery is wrong. It's not like those who supported slavery hundreds of years ago had a logical case for it or that most people today oppose it because of logical arguments against it. It's that people are far less likely to want to enslave others today since slavery is seen as reprehensible. We need to condemn and punish those who hurt others in order to change their desires and make the world a better place .

That is why tonight's debate matters. If something like happiness is the root of all value and acting morally makes us perfectly happy, we could just get people to be moral by showing them that only morality leads to happiness. But if not, then we have to work to change desires. It may not be easy, but if we try, we can make the world just a little bit better. Thank you.

The Moral Argument for God

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I recently did another debate with my friend Ben.  We've been taking turns defending some of the most popular theistic arguments.  This month, he was defending William Lane Craig's version of the moral argument for the existence of God.  Here's the basic argument:

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

I think there are a lot of problems with this argument, but have been disappointed to see how poorly atheist debaters typically respond.  The argument is not saying that you need to believe in God to be good, just that in a world without God, there would be no such thing as goodness.  I think my opening statement provides a pretty good (though brief) summary of my views on the moral argument and morality overall.  Here it is:

Although riddled with flaws, I think that the moral argument is one of the most persuasive arguments for belief in God. We all want to say that Hitler was wrong, and for many of those raised in Christian homes, God seems like the most reasonable foundation for morality. But, if we care about truth, we need to see whether the argument actually works.

The first problem is that my opponent provided no evidence for his second premise, that objective moral values exist. We may really really want them to exist, but this doesn't prove that they do any more than really really wanting to have an eternity of bliss proves that heaven exists, or that really really wanting to have won the lottery proves that you did. But maybe my opponent is saying that our strong revulsion to the Holocaust is itself evidence that it is immoral. Even if we assume that icky feelings are good evidence of something's immorality, this evidence for objective moral values exists even if God does not exist, which undermines his first premise that objective moral values cannot exist without God. Either his first premise is clearly false, or he has provided no support whatsoever that his second premise is true. Thus his argument fails.

Another problem with his argument is that moral values do exist regardless of whether God exists. Morality is a very difficult word to define. If you look in a dictionary, you'll find that acting morally means acting ethically, doing what is good. But what do those words mean? If all we have is a group of synonyms that have no relation to anything else in the world, then obviously we can't show that morality exists. If a zivafil is defined as a fritibal and a fritibal is defined as a zivafil, we'd have no way to say whether either exists, and we also wouldn't have any reason to care about whether they do.

We care a lot more about whether morality exists than about whether a zivafil exists.  Yet what do we believe about morality that makes us care so much about it? Is it that we see morality as requiring that everyone who does evil be punished and want to think that Hitler is suffering for his evil deeds? I don't think so. I care about right and wrong, but don't care at all about exacting retribution for it's own sake. Also, many Christians believe that God forgives everyone for their sins, but we don't say this would prove that morality does not exist.

Do we think that morality means that merely telling someone what is moral will make them behave like angels? This would certainly be nice, but I don't think it's reasonable to think that morality can do this. Thinking that it's immoral to have sex with children certainly hasn't stopped Catholic priests or Protestant pastors from raping them. People who have evil desires will do evil, even if they know what is right and wrong.

I believe we care so much about morality because we want make the world a better place. We want to think we've made things better rather than worse. I think we can figure out what is good- not by asking God or Jiminy Cricket, but by using reason.

All of us have desires. Among other things, I want a tasty slice of pizza, fewer people starving to death in Africa, and to live a happy life. There's no halo of goodness around that slice of pizza, but getting it has value to me. This value is real. The fulfillment of my desires has real value. But if we want to know a more general good, and not just what is good for me, we need to look at all desires. A better world would be one where more people get what they desire. Some of our desires are bad and tend to make the world worse, while other desires are good and tend to make the world better. Knowing this, we should do what we can to change people's desires so they want to do good. We can punish people for rape, condemn people for lying, and praise people for generosity. The world will never be perfect, but we can all work to make it just a little bit better.

Now some people will say that my view of morality, known as desirism, is not true morality, because some people think that true morality must magically compel everyone who knows about it to be moral. Others may reject it because they think that morality is synonymous with God's commands and God's commands cannot exist without God. If there is nothing that satisfies everyone's beliefs about morality, does that mean that morality does not exist? I think not; people have a wide variety of incompatible definitions of God, but that alone does not prove that God does not exist. In the end, I don't care that much about how you define morality. What I care about is doing what I can to help others and making the world a better place. I'll still be doing this, even if you choose to define it as evil.

Not only is there morality without God, this morality is objective. William Lane Craig defines objective as “independent of people’s opinions.” Regardless of my opinion of it, slavery does a lot of harm. Even if everyone on earth believed that slavery was good, it would still be wrong because it deprives people of things they strongly desire, such as the freedom to make decisions for themselves, freedom from pain, and the ability to choose one’s spouse and protect one’s family.

But one question that rarely gets asked is whether objective morality is possible WITH God. If what is moral is grounded in what a personal God thinks is moral, then morality is not independent of people's opinions. A morality based on God's opinions seems just as subjective as a morality based on the opinions of some space alien that visits earth.

This gets to the biggest problem with theistic morality: the Euthyphro dilemma. It asks whether God commands things because they are good, or whether they are good merely because they are commanded by God. If things are only good because they are commanded by God, then morality is subjective. It also makes it meaningless to say that God is good, because he could have made love evil and rape good. Whatever God happened to choose, he could have made us think that those things are good or evil. If morality is nothing more than what God wills, then we can't even say that we're lucky that God ended up favoring good things, because there's nothing good about them other than that God happened to will them. If good is whatever God wants, then God being good means nothing more than that God does whatever he wants.

The other option is that God commands things because they are good. This seems much more reasonable, though believers who think that God is the creator of everything might have a problem with it. If God commands things because they are good, then theists still have to explain what the source of morality really is. However, if they are Christian, then they have the added problem or reconciling this view of morality with the God of the Old Testament. According to 1 Samuel 15, God commanded: “Now go, attack the Amalekites and totally destroy everything that belongs to them. Do not spare them; put to death men and women, children and infants, cattle and sheep, camels and donkeys.” At least when God commanded genocide in Numbers 31, he said that the virginal girls should be kept alive for the use of the soldiers, which I guess is slightly better than death. Genocide thwarts a hell of a lot of desires, such as the desire for people to live, and I don't see how it could be moral to promote genocide. Maybe Christians can disprove my moral theory and come up with their own theory of morality apart from God under which God's actions in the Old Testament happen to be morally perfect, but that seems absurdly unlikely.

The most common response to the Euthyphro dilemma is to say that morality is grounded in God's perfectly good nature. But this only pushes the problem back a step. You can then ask whether God is good because his nature has the properties of moral goodness, or whether those properties are good merely because God has them (See this excellent article by Christian philosopher Wes Morriston for a more detailed explanation of the problem). You still either have to either come up with a theory of morality apart from God and explain how promoting genocide and permitting the Holocaust are consistent with that theory, or accept that morality is somewhat arbitrary and that it is meaningless to call God good.

While emotionally powerful, the moral argument does not actually work. My opponent has not provided any evidence that objective morality exists which does not also undermine his first premise, that objective morality cannot exist if God does not exist. But the larger problem is that objective morality makes far more sense under atheism than under theism. I have shown that morality does exist even though God does not exist, and shown that if a meaningfully good God did exist, it's very difficult to see how objective morality could exist.

Why I Want to Die

No, I don’t want to die right now. For all its problems, I genuinely love my life. Even if I live to be a hundred, I will probably want to live a hundred years more. But I do not want to live forever.

Some argue that death is not bad since we didn’t care about not being alive before we were born and we won’t be around to care after we die. This argument has been around for at least a couple thousand years, since Epicurus stated in his Letter to Menoeceus that “Death, therefore, the most awful of evils, is nothing to us, seeing that, when we are, death is not come, and, when death is come, we are not. It is nothing, then, either to the living or to the dead, for with the living it is not and the dead exist no longer.”

However, I think Epicurus got it wrong. There are things we value very deeply that death would take away from us, whether it’s the ability to fall in love and get married, to be there when your child takes her first steps, to write that book you’ve always wanted to write, or simply to have one more day with the one you love. Death takes away things of great value, even if we won’t be there to mourn their loss.

We want to go on living because there are things we want to do, whether those goals are long term goals like becoming a nuclear physicist, or short term goals like going to see our son’s play. We have far more things we want to do then we have years to do them. Even if we live for one thousand years, there will still be things left that we want to do.

While I love life, I would not want eternal life, either on earth, or in heaven. I don’t think most people have really thought about what it would mean to live forever. It would mean that you would have time to accomplish every single goal that you’re capable of accomplishing. You could be a conductor, a teacher, and a marine biologist. You could hike every mountain and sing every conceivable song. But you might also lose motivation to accomplish your long term goals. Why put in the hard work to become a brain surgeon if you could always put it off until tomorrow? But regardless of how motivated you are to accomplish your goals, there will come a point at which you will have accomplished every goal you really wanted to accomplish. You will have nothing left that will make life worth living.

Even if we were in a realm where we could do anything, from walking through walls to talking to George Washington, there are only a finite number of possible things a finite mind can experience in one minute. There is only so much sensory data we can take in, and only so many ways that our neurons can fire. Since there are only a finite number of one minute experiences, there would only be a finite number of billion minute experiences too (just like how there are finite digits and also finite billion-digit numbers). We could even do every possible googolplex year experience a googolplex times.

However there are some things we want to do again and again. Just because I achieve my goal of eating a delicious pizza doesn’t mean I would never want to eat an identical pizza in the future. Even if I do everything I could possibly do, I would still want to redo some of it. But eventually, the pleasure would diminish. I don’t think sex with Brad Pitt would be as much fun if you’ve already done it a googolplex times.

At some point, there would be nothing new to accomplish or experience, and all I could do is relive past experiences. It may be fun for a while, but I think eventually I would find it unfulfilling.

But maybe we’re not in a heavenly realm where we can do anything, and there are barriers preventing us from achieving all our goals right away. Let’s say that I was only able to achieve one new goal every billion years. Since there are finite goals, there would still come a point where I achieved all my goals, and then a point where I had achieved all my goals a googolplex times.

One way to avoid the problem of getting tired of things would be if I kept forgetting what I did in the past. I could then do exactly the same series of things over and over again without ever getting bored. However, I don't see why living an identical life over and over again is necessarily more valuable than living that life once.  Either way I end up achieving and enjoying exactly the same things. I also think that my memories are such an important part of what makes ‘me’ ‘me’, that if you took them all away, it may no longer be ‘me’ that is living forever.

Another way around the problem would be if my brain was changed so that I behaved differently. Maybe the brains of pigs (or some other animal) are set up so they would enjoy eternal life. If so, my brain could be gradually changed until it was identical to that of a pig. "I" would then enjoy eternal life.

I’ve thought a lot about it, and I can’t think of any type of immortality worth wanting. Not only would eternal life be endlessly repetitive, it would deprive life of its value. It is because life is finite that every moment of my life is precious. I will do some amazing things in my life, but there will be other things that I will never get to do. What I get to do will be based on the choices I make and the work I do. I will not have infinite time to try again, and that makes my life’s successes so much sweeter. My choices matter. Every minute matters. That is why I love life, and why I want to die.

Review of “The Reason for God” (Part 1)

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In The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism, Tim Keller (pastor of the popular Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan) tries to not only preach to the choir, but persuade non-believers to become Christians.  Keller makes a lot of claims in the book, and if someone does not examine whether those claims are actually true, they will probably think that Keller makes a very compelling case for Christianity.

Even though I believe the book fails at persuading thoughtful nonbelievers, it has become quite popular.  It has been the top selling apologetics book an Amazon for months and even reached #7 on the New York Times Best Seller list for non-fiction.  I’ve also spoken to a couple people who highly recommended Keller’s work.

Although I find the book unpersuasive, Keller does make a lot of good points.  He even recognizes that religion is one of the main barriers to world peace.  “Each religion informs its followers that they have “the truth,” and this naturally leads them to feel superior to those with differing beliefs. … Therefore, it is easy for one religious group to stereotype and caricature other ones.  Once this situation exists it can easily spiral down into the marginalization of others or even to active oppression, abuse, or violence against them” (page 4).

I also completely agree with what he says about doubt.  “A person’s faith can collapse almost overnight if she has failed over the years to listen patiently to her own doubts, which should only be discarded after long reflection.  Believers should acknowledge and wrestle with doubts—not only their own but their friends’ and neighbors’.  It is no longer sufficient to hold beliefs because you inherited them” (xvii).

This should apply not only to believers, but to atheists as well.  Atheists should be just as willing to consider objections to their beliefs.  As Keller points out, if someone believes that God does not exist because she says that “There can’t just be one true religion,” but does not have good evidence to back up that statement, believing it is an act of faith.

However, Keller errs when he says that “All doubts, however, skeptical and cynical they may seem, are really just a set of alternate beliefs.  You cannot doubt Belief A except from a position of faith in Belief B. … Every doubt, therefore, is based on a leap of faith” (xvii).  If I say that I’m going to flip a coin and it will come up heads, you can doubt that it will come up heads without having to believe that it will come up tails.  If you don’t think that we have a good enough idea of the values in the Drake equation to say whether there is intelligent life on other planets, you can doubt someone’s claim that there is extraterrestrial life without believing that there isn’t.  It is possible to simply say, “I don’t know.”

In order to doubt that Christianity is true, you don’t need an argument to show that it is false, just as you can doubt that invisible unicorns exist even without an argument showing that they do not exist.  Of course, many atheists do believe that things like the problem of evil are evidence against Christianity, but even if all those objections were refuted, it would not show that Christianity is true.  There could still be no good reasons to believe in it, just as there are no good reasons to believe in invisible unicorns (as far as I know).

Early in the book, Keller describes his own religious journey.  Growing up in the ‘60’s, he saw “two camps before [him], and there was something radically wrong with both of them.  The people most passionate about social justice were moral relativists, while the morally upright didn’t seem to care about the oppression going on all over the world” (xii).  He was drawn to the former camp, but kept asking himself: “If morality is relative, why isn’t social justice as well?”  I agree with Keller that both of these camps have it wrong, but these are definitely not the only camps.  While Keller ended up in the camp of Christians who care about social justice, I ended up in the camp of atheists who reject moral relativism and care about making the world a better place.

The Reason for God is broken up into two parts.  In the first half, Keller attempts to refute what he sees as some of the incorrect faith beliefs of nonbelievers which stand in the way of them believing in God.  In the second, Keller explains what he sees as sufficient reasons for believing that Christianity is true.

He opens the first half of the book by addressing the claim that “There can’t be just one true religion.”  I agree with him that this is a bad reason for thinking that Christianity must be false.  The diversity of religions does mean it’s unlikely that we happened to be raised into the one true religion and gives us a good reason to examine whether there is evidence for our religious beliefs.  But it does not show that all religious beliefs are false or that all religious beliefs are true any more than a diversity of moral beliefs proves moral nihilism or moral relativism.

In the next chapter, he engages with the biggest objection many non-believers have: the problem of evil.  He rightly points out that “just because you can’t see or imagine a good reason why God might allow something to happen doesn’t mean there can’t be one” (23).    I agree with Keller that my own inability to think of good reasons why an omnibenevolent God would permit the Holocaust is no proof that there aren’t any.

Even if horrendous evils are not a logical disproof of God, they at least seem like evidence against the existence of such a God.  This world is far different than what I would expect if the world had been created by a perfect God.  However, a lot has been written on the problem of evil, so I feel I should read more before being confident that the evidential argument from evil can withstand all objections (I’m particularly interested in reading The God Beyond Belief, in which Christian philosopher Nick Trakakis argues that the evidential problem of evil does provide evidence against Christianity).

But even if Keller’s approach, which is known as skeptical theism, is a sufficient answer to the problem of evil, it has consequences that Christians might be unwilling to accept.  Skeptical theism asserts that an inability to think of a morally sufficient reason for God having done something is no evidence that God didn’t have a morally sufficient reason.  As I discussed in previous post, if skeptical theism is true, then our inability to think of a morally sufficient reason for why God would lie to us about heaven existing is no evidence that God didn’t have a morally sufficient reason to lie about heaven.  Accepting skeptical theism means accepting that you have no good reasons to believe that the most basic tenants of the Christian faith are true.

Keller also describes people who went through periods of suffering and became better because of it.  This is a good point.  I’ve had some rough periods in my own life, and I definitely think that temporary suffering can sometimes help change one’s life for the better.  However, it is very hard for me to accept that that the Holocaust made all the Jews better off or that a young girl who is gang raped and then killed benefits from the experience.

Keller then argues that evil is actually a bigger problem for atheism than for theism.  He says that without God, there is no good basis for saying that an action is good or evil.  But here he is guilty of what he just accused atheists of.  He assumes that an inability to think of a good basis for morality outside of God means that there can’t be one.  I, as well as many moral philosophers, do believe that morality can exist without God.  But even if we are all wrong, this wouldn’t prove that God exists, it would instead show that theism would be more desirable than atheism for people who want morality to exist.  Similarly, belief in God is more desirable for people who want to live forever, but this doesn’t prove that God actually exists.

Christianity also has a problem of saying what the basis of morality is.  Many Christians say that it is God’s benevolent nature.  But is his nature good just because it happens to be God’s, or is it good because it is consistent with some principles of moral goodness.  If it’s the former, then if God had thought murder was good and love was evil, murder actually would be good and love would be evil.  It would then be omnibenevolent of God to hate and kill everyone.  In this case, it seems meaningless to call God good.  But if you take the latter approach and say that God’s nature is good because it adheres to principles of moral goodness (such as kindness and fairness), then you still have to give a basis outside of God for those moral principles.  And this is even more problematic for Christians, since it is very hard to come up with an ethical system under which all the things the Bible says that God did would be moral (1 Samuel 15, Numbers 31, and Exodus 11 are particularly problematic).

Not only does atheism provide a better answer to why there’s evil in the world (animals that kill and eat other animals have a better chance of surviving and passing on their genes), it is also better able to give a basis for morality.

Is Porn Harmful?

I recently got into a discussion with a Catholic friend of mine about the morality of porn.  He thinks that masturbating to porn is immoral because it goes against God’s natural law, while I don’t think there is anything immoral about it.  He thinks it is very harmful to society, while I don’t think there is anything necessarily harmful about porn.

After our discussion, my friend sent me a bunch of articles which attempt to show how evil pornography is.  These articles made a lot of bad arguments, far too many to explore in this post, but I’d like to lay out some of the problems I see with two of them.  In Pornography’s Effects on Interpersonal Relationships, Ana J. Bridges argues that pornography has a very harmful effect on marriages and romantic relationships.  In Industry Size, Measurement, and Social Costs, K. Doran argues that there is no good statistical evidence that consuming porn has positive or negative effects, but says that there are still good reasons to limit its distribution.

On page 3, Bridges comments that porn typically provides a flawed script for real life relationships.  I agree.  Porn emphasizes “culturally accepted beauty standards”, typically focuses on male rather than female pleasure, and often focuses too much on penetration.  But I would argue that mainstream movies are also a terrible guide to real life relationships.  They also emphasize “culturally accepted beauty standards”, make it seem like couples always end up living happily ever after, treat women as if they need validation from men, and make it seem like all men and women are supposed to conform to certain behaviors within relationships rather than being themselves.  I think that both should be improved, but I support banning neither porn nor mainstream movies.

I also think the author draws a ridiculously unsubstantiated conclusion in the section titled “Pornography increases negative attitudes to women”.  She bases this conclusion on a study that showed a very slight correlation between viewing degrading porn and a less positive view of women.  But correlation is not causation.  If porn use had no affect whatsoever on views of women, I would still expect that those who had a negative view of women and wanted to dominate them would prefer porn that showed women being dominated.  Without the seemingly unjustifiable assumption that attitudes towards women have no effect on taste in porn, we can draw absolutely nothing from the slight correlation shown here.

Yet the very next section “Pornography decreases empathy for victims of sexual violence” is even worse.  In an attempt to support the claim that porn decreases empathy for victims of sexual violence, the author cites a study showing that people who were shown R-rated slasher films were significantly less empathetic to rape victims then those shown X-rated porn or R-rated teen sex films.  They found no difference between those who viewed the porn and those who viewed the R-rated teen sex films.  The author misleadingly refers to the slasher films as “graphically violent sexual films”.  In reality, the authors of this study said that at most, the slasher films contained “mildly erotic scenes”.  This study did not show that viewing porn was worse than viewing any other film, and showed that mainstream slasher movies were far worse.

Bridges also talks about the negative effects of porn within romantic relationships, but the examples she gives are primarily problems with how porn is perceived rather than problems with porn itself.  She says that while porn can be used together by couples to enhance their sex life, it is often used in secret without the knowledge of one’s partner.  Since openness and honesty are important to a successful relationship, this is not good.  But this doesn’t mean that porn is bad, just that if a person does use it, he/she should not hide that from his/her spouse.  Another piece of evidence given is that porn can be addictive and can cause people to spend more time alone rather than with their spouse.  However, this is true of many entertaining diversions, such as video games.  Some people spend several hours a day playing video games instead of spending that time with their spouses, but this doesn’t mean we should get rid of video games, just that we should encourage people to use them in healthy amounts.  We should do the same with porn.  Finally, Bridges mentions that women are reluctant to enter into a relationship with porn users.  But this is a problem caused not by porn itself, or by its users, but by people like her who encourage people to have a negative view of it.

Bridges further argues that porn is bad because it leads to decreased sexual satisfaction.  To support this, she cites a study which found that happily married people viewed less porn.  But instead of porn making people less happy, it seems far more likely that the causal arrow points in the other direction.  People who are feeling sexually unsatisfied in their relationship almost certainly have less sex and therefore will need to get a greater percentage of their orgasms from looking at porn.  Bridges also provides evidence that looking at porn leads to people viewing their partner as less attractive.  This seems plausible.  Just as watching Hollywood movies where even ugly women are played by beautiful actresses could lead one to have unrealistic standards of beauty, so could watching porn movies where everyone is beautiful and has unnaturally large breasts.

Finally, Bridges brings up a New York study that she says showed that porn use “nearly doubled the odds that a woman reported being sexually assaulted by her partner.”  I have some concerns over their choice of control group, but setting that aside, this study still does nothing to establish that pornography caused the abuse.  Violent sexual criminals may be more obsessed with sexual content more than the average person, but this doesn’t mean that viewing pornographic content causes someone to become a violent sexual criminal.  Killers generally tend to like guns, but guns don’t make people killers.

Given her frequent abuse of statistics to further her case, it seems far more likely that she started with her conclusion and then tried to find evidence to support it, rather than following the evidence where it led.

I thought Doran’s piece was much better.  Unlike Bridges, Doran does not recklessly leap from correlation to causation.  Doran instead critiques the methodology of other studies and concludes that “there is no convincing statistical evidence that consumption of pornography does or does not affect behavior.”  And while it may initially seem contrary to my position, I even agree with Doran’s statement that “some people do appear to have a strong incentive to prevent themselves from consuming pornography, and to pay more for this prevention than for the pornography itself. This suggests that there may be large personal costs of consumption associated with pornography, and opens up the possibility that it may be optimal for the state to use regulation to limit the distribution and consumption of pornography.”

The government should impose some regulations.  I do not think that hardcore pornography should be plastered on buildings so that young children can’t even go outside without seeing anal penetration.  I think the government’s role in regulating porn should be a lot like the government’s role in regulating food.  The government makes sure the people producing the food have safe working conditions.  The government restricts what foods are available to children (for example, banning soda in school vending machines).  But the government does not restrict what foods people are able to enjoy in the privacy of their own homes.  Like with porn, there are some people who eat a lot, but who want to eat less.  Some of them spend more on weight loss plans than they do on the food itself.  But this does not mean we should ban food, or even ban people from eating fattening foods.

Just because someone wants to view less porn does not mean that he/she should.  In many cases, people are taught by their religion that all porn use is sin and so see their perfectly normal level of porn use as a problem.  Similarly, many people who are perfectly healthy and have an about average weight are taught by societal norms that the only good body is supermodel skinny.  These people may desperately want to reduce their weight, turning to weight loss fads or even bulimia, but this doesn’t mean that they should become skinnier.  If society had healthier attitudes towards porn and weight, then maybe there would be less money spent trying to fix what was never broken.

Neither of these articles provides good evidence that porn is necessarily harmful.  Unless such harm can be demonstrated, I don’t think there is any justification for the government limiting what people can view in the privacy of their own homes.

Why Most Catholics are Heretics

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Based on the Catholics I’ve talked to, it seems like most Catholics are heretics and don’t even realize it. Many Catholics are firm believers in God, but do not think that God’s existence can be proven with certainty. They merely have ‘faith’ that God exists. However, based on some of the statements which the Catholic Church identifies as infallible, such people are heretics.

According to the Catholic Catechism, “Our holy mother, the Church, holds and teaches that God, the first principle and last end of all things, can be known with certainty from the created world by the natural light of human reason.” This was declared infallibly by both the first and second Vatican Councils. While the Catholic Church does not claim that one single argument proves all of God’s attributes, it does claim that proofs for the existence of God allow people to use reason to attain certainty that God exists (Catholic Catechism).

According to the First Vatican Council, anyone who says that God cannot be known with certainty from the natural world is considered anathema. The word ‘anathema’ is often misunderstood, so I turn to a quote from Catholic apologist Jimmy Akin’s article which clears up a lot of Protestant misconceptions about anathema and explains what it really is:

Catholic scholars have long recognized that when an ecumenical council applies this phrase to a doctrinal matter, then the matter is settled infallibly. (If a council applied the phrase to a disciplinary matter, then the matter would not be settled infallibly, since only matters of doctrine, not discipline, are subject to doctrinal definition.)

Thus, when Trent and other ecumenical councils employed anathema sit in regard to doctrinal matters, not only was a judicial penalty prescribed but a doctrinal definition was also made. Today, the judicial penalty may be gone, but the doctrinal definition remains. Everything that was infallibly decided by these councils is still infallibly settled.

This has consequences under current canon law. Those things that are both divinely revealed by God and proposed as such by the Church cannot be obdurately denied or doubted without the offense of heresy (CIC [1983] 751). Heresy does carry a penalty of automatic (latae sententiae) excommunication (can. 1041, 2ยบ), though this does not apply to those who have never been members of the Catholic Church (can. 11), and even then there is a significant list of exceptions (can. 1323).

So someone who denies that the existence of God can be known with certainty is considered a heretic and is automatically excommunicated (excommunication applies only to mentally capable adults who knowingly and without coercion deny that God’s existence can be known with certainty). Someone cannot deny the teaching that God’s existence can be proved with certainty from the natural world without being automatically excommunicated from the Catholic Church.

This poses a problem for many Catholics who merely have faith in God but do not think that the natural world definitively proves that God exists. This also poses a problem for Catholics who have seriously studied the arguments for and against God’s existence and who conclude that while the evidence leans towards God’s existence, it is not enough to establish his existence with certainty.

According to the Catechism, some people may not believe that the existence of God can be known with certainty due to not being willing to surrender oneself or due to “disordered appetites” that lead men to believe what they want to believe rather than what is true. However, this is not a good answer for those people who really want Catholicism to be true and are willing to humbly submit themselves.

If someone has studied all the arguments people have given for the existence of God and thinks they provide evidence for God’s existence but fall short of establishing it with certainty, is there any way to avoid being seen as a heretic who is automatically excommunicated? One escape route I can find is to say that it only says that God ‘can’ be known with certainty, not that he ‘is’ known. Perhaps it is true that God can be proved with certainty, it’s just that no one has figured out how to do it yet after thousands of years. Perhaps it is also true that pigs can fly, it’s just that no pig has yet decided to fly in the presence of humans. There is also the problem that this interpretation appears inconsistent with the Bible, which says that “since the creation of the world God's invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse” (Romans 1:20).

I guess another response would be to say that even if something is declared infallible, that declaration might not itself be infallible, and even if the declaration was declared infallible, the declaration that the declaration was infallible might not itself be infallible. I think this is true, but if someone rejects even the most firmly established Catholic doctrines, then the label ‘Catholic’ loses all meaning. Someone could believe absolutely anything (the pope is the anti-Christ, Jesus never existed, Oprah Winfrey is God) and consider themselves a Catholic. So this Catholic doctrine seems to be a serious problem for those who do not think that the existence of God can be proved with certainty.

It is also a problem for convincing an atheist that Catholicism is true. You would not only have to convince him or her that God probably exists, but that God’s existence can be established with certainty based on the evidence from the natural world. This would require a great deal more evidence than merely establishing that the likelihood of God existing is more than 50%.

I believe that this is a doctrine that more Catholics should be aware of (and if you agree, pass the word along to your Catholic friends). I know that if I was a Catholic who didn’t think that God could be proven with certainty and I heard about this doctrine, I would really want to investigate and find out how God can be proven. If my religion taught that the creator of all space and time had profoundly demonstrated his existence through the natural world, I wouldn’t just say “Whatever, I don’t really care”, I’d be taking advantage of the opportunity to witness God’s power and goodness through his creation, to connect the everyday world with the divine creator. If I found the proof I sought (proof that could withstand even the best atheist arguments), I would come away with greater admiration and respect for God’s majesty and would feel a deep sense of peace. And if I searched and searched and did not find any proof that God exists, I may realize that the religion I thought was true may not be true after all.

Why Kalam Fails (Part 1)

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A couple months ago, I had a debate with fellow atheist blogger Saint Gasoline about whether the Kalam cosmological argument proves the existence of God and I posted some of our speeches here, here, and here. In the debate, I tried to make the strongest possible case for Kalam, and I think I was reasonably effective. A pastor friend of mine who was in the audience even said that it was like I was channeling William Lane Craig (one of the top apologists and the foremost proponent of the Kalam argument).

Kalam is a complex argument and it can be very effective in debates, but when examined more closely, it does not provide any reason for thinking that God exists. I think that neither the general public, nor professional philosophers, should find it convincing. In later posts, I’ll try to explain the problems I see with various parts of the argument.

But first, there’s a more general problem. Kalam rests on a very shaky foundation since it makes a wide array of questionable assumptions about the nature of reality. There are some of these assumptions that most people in the general public would agree with, and others that few would agree with. There are some of these assumptions that most philosophers would agree with and others that very few philosophers would agree with. When William Lane Craig needs to make an assumption that he knows most people will agree with, he appeals to their intuition and casts the alternative as absurd. When he needs to make an assumption that he knows most people will disagree with, he gives a philosophical argument for that assumption. This tactic is very effective, since those who want to believe in Christianity and who see Craig as an authority figure will readily accept his assumptions. While a Christian may see it as absurd if an atheist tried to argue that the number 2 does not exist, he may readily accept that numbers don’t exist when the argument is made by Craig. Craig says that Kalam works, and they trust Craig, so barring irrefutable disproof of any of Craig’s assumptions, they conclude that Kalam works. This is really no better than believing in God because you know a smart guy who also believes in God. The existence of a smart believer no more proves the existence of God than a smart nonbeliever disproves it.

Craig assumes that the A-theory of time is correct, while the B-theory is false. Craig assumes that the relational view of time is correct, while the absolute view of time is false. Craig assumes that numbers do not exist, and actually believes that the existence of numbers would refute theism. Craig assumes that something can be called eternal, even if it has only existed for a finite amount of time. Craig assumes that there are not infinitely many points in space or moments in a day. These are just a few of the many assumptions Kalam relies on.

Someone putting forth an argument has a duty to justify his assumptions, and a critic merely has to point out that there is insufficient reason for thinking that those assumptions are true. For example, consider this argument:

  • Premise 1: Condoms exist.
  • Premise 2: If condoms exist, then God exists.
  • Conclusion: God exists.

This is a valid argument, so if the premises are true, the conclusion must be true. A critic of such an argument only needs to point out that there is no reason to believe that premise 2 is true and does not actually have to prove that it’s false. If God is defined as a necessary being, then if he exists, he exists in all possible worlds. It would thus be true that if condoms exist, God exists, since condoms could never exist without God. So unless you can prove that God does not exist, you cannot disprove premise 2. Yet this argument is absurd.

To his credit, Craig has published a great deal of work defending some of his assumptions. Many of these assumptions are on issues that philosophers have debated for centuries, with no resolution in sight. While it may be appealing for a Christian to ignore the other side of these debates and just assume Craig is right on every point, the argument should not compel anyone else to believe in God when it relies on so many questionable assumptions.

However, even if every one of the assumptions I listed is correct, I still do not think the Kalam cosmological argument gives good reason to think that any God or gods exist. In future posts, I will explore the problems I see with various parts of the Kalam argument.

Debating Kalam: My Response to Dustin

As discussed in my previous two posts, I recently debated the Kalam cosmological argument with fellow atheist blogger Saint Gasoline. My previous two posts had our opening statements, so you might want to read them before reading this post.

Since I only had 5 minutes to respond to Dustin’s opening statement, I had to make a lot of points very quickly. I ended up not responding to everything that I thought could be reasonably criticized. For example, Dustin (in the written, but not the spoken, version of his opening statement) said that modern physicists do not seriously entertain the idea of God. This is an overgeneralization and could be easily refuted by pointing out that Nobel Prize-winning physicists like Charles Townes, William Phillips, Arno Penzias, Antony Hewish, and Joseph Taylor all currently affirm that God was the cause of the universe. Since a decent number of top physicists not only seriously consider the idea of God as the cause of the universe, but affirm that he was the cause, Dustin’s statement seems to simply be factually incorrect (even though the large majority of physicists do not believe in God).

Dustin also argued that modern physics denies that everything that begins to exist has a cause. Since he was the one making an aggressive claim, I was able to shift the burden of proof onto him and argue that modern physics does not deny that everything that begins to exist has a cause by saying it’s still possible that all things may be caused. Of course, saying that premise 1 of the Kalam argument has not been disproven is different than giving good reasons for thinking that it is true.

In response to my second premise, Dustin argued that there are other models of the universe in which it could have been eternal. Not being a physicist, I don’t really know how viable these models are. But William Lane Craig has a pretty comprehensive argument against the plausibility of these models, which I tried to summarize in my response.

In my next post, I’ll explain some of the reasons why I find Kalam unpersuasive, but first, here’s my response to Dustin’s opening speech:

I'd first like to clarify that by 'universe', I mean not just the observable universe, but the entire material world. My opponent acknowledges that the observable universe was created at the singularity, but hypothesizes that it may have been materially caused by what he calls “fantastic elements”. This may once have been plausible, but in 2003, Borde, Guth, and Vilenkin proved that as long as the average expansion has been positive, the material world must have had a beginning. Their theorem made no other assumptions and holds even if the universe has extra dimensions or if our theory of gravity is wrong. There are only three ways around the Borde-Guth-Vilenkin theorem: an infinitely contracting universe, a static universe followed by our present expansion, or an infinitely cycling universe. The problem with eternal contraction before our present expansion is that the collapse would become increasingly chaotic (BKL chaos) in a way that is inconsistent with the type of Big Bang that took place. Static universe models also fail since, as Vilenkin points out, “Small fluctuations in the size of the universe are inevitable according to the quantum theory, and thus Einstein’s universe (the pre-expansion state) cannot remain in balance for infinite time.” And cyclic universe models do not work since in order for them to have been eternally cycling, entropy must be preserved, yet as physicist Thomas Banks points out, during collapse higher and higher energy states would be entered, maximizing entropy. It would be impossible for subsequent cycles to still begin at a low entropy state, like that right after the Big Bang. So the observable universe cannot be the latest in an infinite series of cycles. As Vilenkin observes, “an argument is what convinces reasonable men and a proof is what it takes to convince even an unreasonable man. With the proof now in place, cosmologists can no longer hide behind the possibility of a past-eternal universe. There is no escape, they have to face the problem of a cosmic beginning.”

My opponent also did not respond to my hotel and book examples which demonstrated the extreme absurdities that would result from an actual infinity, other than to say that some things once thought absurd have later been shown to be true. He is correct, but scientists did not embrace seeming absurdities like general relativity merely because they best fit with their prior prejudices, they did so because that’s where the evidence led. I don’t think my opponent should be so willing to go against the evidence and accept an absurdity merely because of his prior beliefs.

Accepting that there could be an infinite series of events in time leads not just to absurdities, but even outright contradictions. Consider the Grim Reaper paradox, which recently won over Joshua Rasmussen, a published critic of the Kalam argument. Infinitely many grim reapers each set their alarms to between 8 and 9 and kill you as soon as they wake up if you’re not already dead. Unless they all conspire so that one of them wakes up at some time, say 8:15, and everyone else wakes up later, there will, with probability 1, for each grim reaper, be a grim reaper that woke up before him. So it is impossible for any one grim reaper to kill you, but it is also impossible for you to survive. Unless there’s some magic force making the reapers chose a non-problematic set of times, you either accept that someone could be killed without ever being killed, or recognize that an actually infinite series of temporal events is impossible. While events can go on without end, there can never come a time at which an infinite number of events have been completed.

My opponent claims that physics has shown that there are uncaused events. This is false. There are both deterministic and non-deterministic interpretations of quantum physics. As Victor Stenger explains, “Other viable interpretations of quantum mechanics remain with no consensus on which, if any, is the correct one”; hence, we have to remain “open to the possibility that causes may someday be found for such phenomena.” But even under non-deterministic interpretations of quantum physics, virtual particles do not come out of nothing. They arise out of the conditions of the quantum vacuum, which constitute a probabilistic cause of their origination.

In my last speech I explained why the creator of space and time can rightly be called God. While we do not fully understand immaterial agency, we also do not fully understand material agency and have no good material explanation for qualia or answer to the hard problem of consciousness. And since the creator of all matter cannot be material, an immaterial agent is the only reasonable explanation. So we still reach the conclusion that there is a personal creator of the universe who is beginningless, immaterial, and incredibly powerful.

Debating Kalam: Dustin’s Response

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Dustin and I agreed to exchange opening statements before the debate, so I’m going to be posing the text of the first half of the debate we had on Wednesday. My previous post has my opening statement, this post has his response, and the next one will have my response to his response. He didn’t end up reading his speech exactly as he prepared it, but hit on pretty much all the same points and I didn’t have to make many changes to my prepared response.

Although I don’t think it mattered much in this debate, if you are going to be arguing against Kalam in a debate, do not agree to exchange opening statements. It helps your opponent much more than it helps you. If you took the time to prepare, you should be pretty familiar with all the arguments in favor of Kalam. But if your opening statement contains objections that are difficult to answer, giving it to your opponent before the debate might allow him or her to come up with something that sounds like an adequate response. It’s a little harder to come up with bullshit that doesn’t sound like bullshit in the middle of a debate.

Anyway, here’s Dustin’s speech:

The kalam cosmological argument, though it pretends to be based on scientific principles, is nevertheless riddled with flaws. Allow me to restate the argument:

  • The first premise is that everything that begins to exist has a cause.
  • The second premise is that the universe began to exist.
  • The conclusion is that the universe was caused, and this cause is known as God.

The argument is indeed valid, but the problem is that all of the premises can indeed be rejected, most notably the first premise, and even accepting the premises, the conclusion does not necessarily demonstrate that a God defined in the traditional senses exists.

Does everything that begins to exist have a cause? Modern physics denies this premise. Many events at the subatomic level are completely random and occur without a cause. The energy fluctuations that occur in vacuums are just one example of an uncaused event. My opponent argues that we never see macroscopic entities like dogs, cats, and hamburgers randomly pop into existence, and that is correct. That is because these uncaused events only occur on a subatomic level, where the science of quantum mechanics applies. Macroscopic objects like dogs and cats, of course, are not subject to these fluctuations for a variety of proposed reasons, of which the most prominent is decoherence. To use another example, it is well-known that quantum mechanics shows that photons can behave in ways similar to particles and waves, depending on the experiment. But no one then argues that wave-particle duality is impossible because we never see cats and dogs behaving as both particles and waves. If you shoot a cat toward a slit in the double slit experiment, it will not create an interference pattern characteristic of a wave, but instead a particle-like and flustered cat imprint in one spot on the wall! My opponent has also claimed that denying causality would impede science, but this is clearly not the case if one gives only a cursory glance at the flourishing fields of cosmology, quantum physics, and other areas of theoretical physics that accept uncaused events. Because the events are uncaused, scientists can't say with deterministic certainty whether an event will occur, but he or she can use statistical analysis to get an idea of the probability. Hence, science can still be practiced even without assuming every event is caused, contrary to the claims of my opponent. The idea that uncaused events exist is so well demonstrated that the kalam cosmological's first premise is highly unlikely to be true, even if it does seem intuitively true to those of us who live in the macroscopic world. Physics, unfortunately, is not intuitive.

Given the seemingly insurmountable problems with the first premise, it is not necessary to also deny the second premise. If the first premise is incorrect, the whole argument fails. As such I can accept that the universe began to exist with ease. Even so, I will make a few general comments about ways in which the second premise could potentially be incorrect, and rebut some of the philosophical justifications made for the premise.

One of the reasons given for the premise that the universe began to exist is that an actual infinite cannot exist. That is, if the universe always existed, its eternal extension backwards through time would be an actual infinite. This is not necessarily true, though. It is important to note that the argument does not deny potential infinites. The universe can continue to exist throughout the future indefinitely, but this is not an actual infinity. It only means that the universe's existence is limitless. But if this applies to the universe's future, it can also apply to its past. If the universe never began, it would be limitless, not infinite.

Many appeals are made to the weirdness that results when adding and subtracting different infinite sets in the Hilbert Hotel example, but merely because it leads to weird results doesn't mean an actual infinite is impossible. Subtract all odd numbers from all even numbers, and you are left with the result of infinity. (That is, infinity minus infinity equals infinity.) But subtract all numbers greater than 3 from all positive numbers, and you are left with 3. (That is, infinity minus infinity equals three.) This is certainly weird! It is also weird that light behaves like a wave and a particle. But the reason it is weird is only because there are different classes of the infinite. It is only confusing if you think of infinity as a single number, not unlike 3, and not a class of various sets of numbers containing infinite members. It is also important to remember that physicists are not claiming that the number infinity exists. Numbers are only tools used to describe reality, not existing entities in their own right. Thus, it isn't that the number infinity exists, but that the universe has existed for an infinite number of years. There is nothing problematic about saying that. But as I noted previously, it is more proper to say the universe has no limit forward or backward in time. As such, it seems the philosophical justifications in support of this premise are not unquestionable. In the end, a priori arguments such as these should not decide the case of whether infinity exists---we should let reality and empirical evidence decide.

What does the empirical evidence say concerning the matter of a universe beginning to exist? My opponent is correct to point out that the universe implies a beginning in time. This is because observations of the cosmic microwave background radiation, the expansion of the universe, and so on show that the universe was once condensed into a single point. The mathematics show the laws of physics breaking down at the point of the Big Bang known as the singularity. Time and space are thus created at that point. The evidence listed in support of the Big Bang is correct, and I will not question it. However, while it seems clear our own universe had a beginning in time (and time itself had a beginning), it doesn't necessarily imply that our universe was caused by God. Before the Big Bang, physicists cannot say what happened. God, in fact, is the least likely explanation, and modern physicists do not seriously entertain that idea. Because uncaused events are common at the subatomic level, and the universe was once reduced to a subatomic point, we can explain the creation of the universe as an uncaused event. This would certainly be the most parsimonious explanation. However, physical models of the universe are not complete; we are working with lots of missing puzzle pieces. For example, relativity and quantum mechanics are not consistent with each other. As such, some cosmological theories have been proposed that hypothesize extra dimensions, multiple universes, and other fantastic elements in a manner that renders relativity consistent with quantum mechanics. These are generally known as String Theory, M-Theory, and a host of other names. Some propose that there are multiple universes, with our own universe being a single bud among an endless landscape of possibilities. While these are not quite empirically supported, they at least have the advantage over conjectures about God in that they attempt to render the mathematics consistent! But the most reasonable stance to take concerning the creation of the universe, given our current knowledge, is to admit we don't know. These ideas also show that the cause of the universe may not have been God, but budding from other multiverses.

It should also be said that even if the argument were valid, it would not demonstrate that God exists in the traditional sense of the word. All the argument demonstrates, if true, is that the universe was caused by something. There is no additional evidence as to what attributes this cause may have (or even that it was the first cause), much less that it has the qualities of a personal God, like the ability to think and the characteristics of omnipotence and moral perfection. It strikes me that if the argument succeeds, it does so only by relying on the elusiveness of properly defining what God is. It is not unlike proving that a plastic object used to heat bread exists on my kitchen counter, and then proclaiming that this object is God. No, it is not a God, but a toaster. And to the kalam argument I can respond that, no, it is not a God, but a cause, and this cause may very well be what string theorists allude to when speaking of our universe budding from additional universes. My opponent argues that the cause must be immaterial, but presumably if the universe arose out of nothing (as in a vacuum fluctuation or sea of virtual particles), then in a sense we can call that immaterial, but it is not a god. The attempt to argue that the cause is personal and capable of thought is likewise faulty. Big Bang cosmology only demonstrates that the current laws of physics as we know them break down at the time of the big bang. My opponent argues that there cannot be a scientific explanation since there was no natural world before the Big Bang, and therefore it cannot be accounted for by laws operating on initial conditions. He then concludes that the cause is best explained in terms of agents and volition. But there are plenty of other possibilities that I've mentioned, including the idea that our universe is one of many in a multiverse, or that there was nothing prior to the Big Bang and our universe simply resulted from a quantum vacuum fluctuation. These are possibilities that are taken seriously by physicists that do not require characteristics like agency, and hence my opponent is simply wrong to think the physics points to agency as the only reasonable cause. In fact, it is the most unreasonable cause of the three, because in science we generally observe that agency results from brain function, and there is no model for agency existing in some immaterial sense. Likewise, vacuum fluctuations are already known to exist so that explanation in particular is more parsimonious than any God hypothesis.

Debating Kalam

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Last Wednesday I took part in debate night, where a bunch of us St. Louis atheists get together and debate various things. It was an interesting experience since this is the first semi-serious debate I have done, and because I was the one arguing for the existence of God. My opponent was Dustin (Saint Gasoline) and the topic was William Lane Craig’s Kalam Cosmological Argument.

Since I didn’t think Kalam was a sound argument and had a long list of things I thought was wrong with it, I figured I should do some research to see how Craig would respond to those objections. I didn’t want to just concede the debate as soon as Dustin pointed out something I thought was a fatal flaw in Kalam. And I figured that I couldn’t get away with just evading or pretending to answer one of his criticisms since he’s pretty good with philosophy and great at lampooning absurdities:

So I decided to read a lot of the published work on Kalam, both pro and con. I tried to put myself in the shoes of a believer and focus not on finding fault with the argument but on finding the best arguments for Kalam and finding the best responses to arguments against it. I think I was able to do a pretty good job of this, perhaps because I would have no problem believing in God if I actually thought there were solid arguments for his existence. It was a pretty weird experience though. After reading many of Craig’s responses to objections to the argument, whenever I read a new objection I would feel sure that Craig would have a good response. And sure enough, he did, or at least one that seemed good when you were predisposed in favor of Kalam. Eventually though, I came across serious objections that neither I nor Craig seemed to have good answers to. Fortunately for my chances in the debate, Craig had reasonable responses to many of the most common objections to Kalam.

Does the fact that Craig has good answers to some of the most common objections mean they are bad objections? Not necessarily. If someone does not provide any support for the premises of the Kalam argument, then a reasonable objection is to say that you haven’t seen any reason to think that either premise is true. If someone provides some arguments for the premises, but those arguments have flaws, it’s perfectly reasonable to point out those flaws. It may be possible for a theist to get around some of those flaws by making a more complex version of the argument that has new and different flaws, but that doesn’t make the original objections bad. However, I think it is a big mistake for people debating William Lane Craig to focus on the more basic objections. Craig can respond by quickly rebutting these objections and can then use the rest of his time to make even more arguments in favor of Kalam. That’s what I hoped to do in the debate, and I think this strategy was pretty successful.

So it’s important for anyone debating Kalam to not only know a lot of objections, but to know how a proponent of Kalam will likely respond. Since Kalam is one of the most popular arguments for the existence of God, I think that anyone wanting to debate the existence of God should have a good understanding of the arguments for Kalam.

I’m planning on doing a series of posts which will hopefully give people a better idea of what to expect when debating Kalam. But before I get into arguments against Kalam, I’m going to post the opening speech I prepared for the debate so you can see Kalam at its strongest (or at least my attempt to present it as strongly as possible). Here’s the speech:

The question of whether God exists is one of the most important questions we will ever have to answer. The decision we reach has the potential to not only affect how we live our lives, but what will happen to us after we die. For that reason, I think that all arguments for and against God’s existence should be exposed to intense scrutiny. My opponent tonight is an atheist writer and cartoonist who has previously written on, and debated, the Kalam cosmological argument. I expect him to have a long list of objections, which I will do my best to answer. I believe that the Kalam cosmological argument will withstand his criticisms, but you will have to judge that for yourselves.

The Kalam cosmological argument is actually remarkably simple. Its first premise is that everything that begins to exist has a cause. Its second premise is that the universe began to exist. Therefore, we conclude that the universe has a cause. This is a valid argument, which means that if the premises are true, the conclusion must be true. So an atheist must reject at least one of these premises if he wants to avoid believing that the universe had a creator.

I will begin by talking about why I think that the universe must have had a beginning. One argument in favor of this is as follows: Premise 1: An actual infinity cannot exist, Premise 2: an infinite temporal regress of events would be an actual infinity. Therefore an infinite temporal regress cannot occur. Something may be potentially infinite; you may be able to keep dividing it, or adding to it. But you can never reach the point where you actually have an infinite quantity of something. While the concept of an actual infinity can be expressed mathematically, as in Cantor’s system of transfinite arithmetic, mathematicians Kasner and Newman have noted that “’Existence’ in the mathematical sense is wholly different from the existence of objects in the physical world.” In the words of the influential mathematician David Hilbert, “The infinite is nowhere to be found in reality. It neither exists in nature nor provides a legitimate basis for rational thought… The role that remains for the infinite to play is solely that of an idea.”

For the existence of an actual infinity would have absurd consequences. Imagine a book whose first page is 1/2 inch thick, whose second page is 1/4 thick, etc. Although there is no last page, the book is of finite thickness and each page is still a finite number of pages away from the first page. Now take the book, close it, turn it over and lift up the back cover. There is nothing there to see! Now imagine trying to touch the last page. The problem is that after any page, there are infinitely more after it. So if you are able to touch any page at all, your hand must have somehow already penetrated infinitely many pages. This example demonstrates the absurdities inherent in having actual infinities exist in reality.

This point is further emphasized by the example of Hilbert’s Hotel. In a hotel of infinitely many rooms and with no vacancies, you could still find room for infinitely many new guests merely by shifting the current guests to the even numbered rooms and putting the new guests in the odd-numbered rooms (assigning the old guests to the rooms that are twice their old room number). And you could even have infinitely many guests check out (all those in odd numbered rooms) and still have a full hotel merely by shifting people to rooms that were half their old room number. But if the infinitely many guests that leave are all those in rooms numbered above 3, then the hotel would become virtually empty and there would be no way to shift the guests around to avoid this. Thus you can have the same number of people leave, and get radically different results. Can anyone genuinely believe that such an absurd hotel could exist in reality?!

And any infinite temporal regress must be an actual infinity because every event takes a certain amount of time, for an infinitely slow event would actually be a changeless state. Regardless of how long each event took, infinitely many events would have taken place given an infinite amount of time. Since an actual infinity cannot exist and an infinite temporal regress would be an actual infinity, the universe must have had a beginning.

There is also ample empirical evidence that the universe had a beginning. Over the last century, scientific discoveries such as cosmic microwave background radiation and the cosmological redshift have provided strong evidence in favor of the Big Bang model. We now know that the universe is expanding, and if you were to travel back in time, you would see the universe getting smaller and smaller. In the words of physicist P.C.W. Davies, “If we extrapolate this prediction to its extreme, we reach a point when all distances in the universe have shrunk to zero. An initial cosmological singularity therefore forms a past temporal extremity to the universe. …the big bang represents the creation event; the creation not only of all the matter and energy in the universe, but also of spacetime itself.” Under the Friedmann-Lemaitre model, which is the standard Big Bang model, matter and time originated ex nihilo a finite amount of time ago at the initial cosmological singularity. There have been countless attempts over the years to avoid the inescapable conclusion that the universe began to exist. The steady state model was proposed and then discarded. The oscillating universe model was proposed and then discarded. There have always been, and will continue to be, plenty of fanciful speculations, but none of them are realistic. Time does not permit me to explain the problems with every alternative ever conceived, but I would be happy to explain the problems I see with any alternatives that my opponent thinks are viable. Since there is no plausible way in which the universe could have existed for eternity and because of the strong philosophical arguments against a beginningless universe, we reach the conclusion that the universe began to exist.

Of course an atheist could still argue that maybe there’s some a-causal way in which the universe could have come about. To do this, he must argue that the entire universe just suddenly appeared for no reason whatsoever. But no one seriously believes that things like dogs and sports cars can just pop into existence without a cause. However, if things could come into existence from nothing, why just universes, why not airplanes, hamburgers and construction workers? Why is nothingness so discriminatory? How can there be some property of nothingness that favors universes, since nothingness has no properties? And believing that things do not need causal explanations would wreak havoc on the sciences. If scientists had simply assumed that things could appear uncaused out of nothing, there would not have been such a wealth of groundbreaking scientific discoveries over the last century. Scientists could always label something uncaused and never have to search for a causal explanation for it. We should be very careful not to cut off the search for explanations too soon.

While I do not think the universe could be eternal for the philosophical and scientific reasons I listed, if all my philosophical arguments turn out to be misguided and our current understanding of physics turns out to be merely a mythic narrative with no basis in reality, we should obviously reconsider. But barring this, I think we need to go with what seems like the only reasonable explanation, that some entity created the universe a finite amount of time ago.

Once we realize that there must be a creator of the universe, the next step is to try to figure out what properties this creator possesses. Since everything that begins to exist has a cause, we have (by contraposition) that the uncaused creator did not ever begin toexist. Since he is the creator of all matter, he must himself be immaterial. He must also be unbelievably powerful since he brought all matter, energy, and even space-time itself into existence without any material cause. There is also good reason to think that this cause is personal. There are two types of causal explanations: scientific explanations in terms of laws and initial conditions, and personal explanations in terms of someone’s will. For example, if you asked, “Why is the kettle boiling?”, I could say that heat from the burner is being conducted through the metal bottom of the kettle to the water, causing the water molecules to vibrate so violently that they break the surface tension of the water and escape in the form of steam, or I could say that I put the water on because I wanted some tea. In this case, both are legitimate explanations, though some people may look at me a little funny if I responded with the former. But with the universe, there cannot be a scientific explanation since there was no natural world before it came into being and therefore it cannot be accounted for by laws operating on initial conditions. So the most plausible explanation is in terms of an agent and their volitions. Therefore, we have good evidence for an uncaused personal creator of the universe who is beginningless, immaterial, and incredibly powerful. This is what we mean by God. Of course this does not prove that the Christian conception of God is correct while the Muslim one is false. For that we need to look at things like the historical evidence for Jesus’ resurrection, and the countless miracles that have taken place over the years. But if sound, the Kalam cosmological argument invalidates atheism. I urge you to carefully consider this argument, for the conclusions you reach tonight may have consequences far greater than you realize. Thank you.