Philosophy of Religion
Phil 270 Course Notes
(These notes are based, in part, on the texts: Doing Philosophy, by T. Schick and L. Vaughn; W. Rowe’s, Introduction to the Philosophy of Religion; as well as our texts, God Matters, by R. Martin and C. Bernard; and Seven Theories of Religion, by D. Pals)
Notes for God Matters
Part I: The nature of god
Theism (theist): one who believes in a God who is creator of the material world, has a personality (i.e., can think, desire, will, act, love, etc.), and has a concern for humanity. Usually, theists hold that there is heaven and hell, and that the material world is a test for humanity (such that all morally good people, or possibly just those morally good people who believe in God, will be rewarded with heaven). Essentially, most of the major Western religions (Judaism, Islam, and, especially, Christianity) accept theism.
Deism (deists): one who believes in a creator of the material world, but rejects the view that God has any personal qualities, or (usually) that there is any form of afterlife. Deists accept a sort of “clock work” universe, such that God’s role is only as the maker of world, and that the machine runs on its own after its creation.
Atheism (atheist): one who believes that God does not exist.
Agnosticism (agnostic): one who believes that there is not sufficient evidence to determine either that God exists or that God does not exist. An agnostic, by the way, believes that no person can determine whether God does, or does not, exist.
God's properties (Western conception of God, largely based on Aquinas' Theories)
God is Omnipotent (all-powerful): God has the power to do anything.
Problem: Can God make a rock so big that even He can't lift it? If God can make such a rock, then He is not all-powerful, since He can't lift it; and if God can't make such a rock, then he is also no longer all-powerful (since He can't make that rock). Conclusion: God is not all-powerful (or the concept is contradictory). Mavrodes' suggested solution to this problem, following Aquinas, is to declare that God cannot do what is logically impossible: given God's property of omnipotence (all-powerfulness), the alleged act, “making a rock so big that you can't lift it”, is a logically impossible task. Mavrodes claims that the action could be described as “a rock too heavy to lift by God, who is a being that can lift anything” (which clearly shows the contradiction). Is this a plausible solution? Some philosophers (Descartes, for example) believed that God could do anything, even the logically impossible (e.g., God could make a “square circle”, or “2+2=5”) if God desired. In fact, does Mavrodes' solution imply that God is subject to logical laws, and thus logic is “greater” than God (or at least co-equal with God), such that God must obey the laws of logic (namely, the law of non-contradiction, which states that: nothing can have a property and lack that property at the same time and in the same way)? However, as argued by Mavrodes, and Frankfurt, it could be argued once God makes a stone that is by definition too heavy too lift, then it is logically impossible for God to lift it—and since God can’t do what is logically impossible, thus God’s inability to lift the stone doesn’t count as a lack of powerfulness on God’s part. One can then make the same argument the other way around, such that God by definition can lift anything, thus an unliftable rock is a logically impossible, etc. This is a nifty reply, but it doesn’t resolve all of the problems with omnipotence. For, there are many actions that are logically possible and which appear to be impossible for God to perform, such as murder or stealing (since God is all-good, and for the reason that God doesn’t have a body to commit such acts), or committing suicide (since god can’t die). Since God can’t perform these actions, due to the very definition of God, then he is thus not all-powerful.
God is Omniscient (God is all-knowing, such that God knows everything that has or will happen):
Some of the problems raised in the previous discussion are also relevant here; namely, God would seem to be incapable of knowing many things (which are logically possible to know), such as knowing what it is like to have a material body, or to know what it is like to be mortal, or to have committed sins, etc. Thus, God is not all-knowing. The Theist may attempt to argue that God can somehow know about such things, but in a general, conceptual, or distant manner—but, this is not the same type of knowledge that we have (since our knowledge is actual knowledge of those actions, and not conceptual), thus we still know things that God doesn’t know.
God's omniscience and the problem of free-will:
Is human free-will compatible with God's omniscience? Since God knows everything that will ever happen, then God must know what I will do (and God cannot be wrong, of course). But, if God knows what I will do before I actually do it, then in what sense are my actions really free? Some theists, such as Jonathan Edwards, freely accepted this conclusion; that is, that humans are not free. Other claimed that God does not have knowledge of the future. But, most theists reject either of these attempted solutions.
Two versions of free-will:
Compatibilism: Acting freely (i.e., having free-will) is doing what one wants to do, and not being coerced to do something against one's will. This view accepts causal determinism (that all events are caused, and could be predicted with complete certainty if we knew all of the laws of nature and states of matter in the universe). Compatibilism nonetheless holds that we can still be free, even if our lives are determined (and completely predictable), since “free-will” is defined by them as simply doing what you want without being forced to do otherwise.
Libertarianism: Acting freely (i.e., having free-will) is doing what one wants to do, and not being coerced to do something against one's will; but, one also has the power to choose options other than the ones we finally decided upon (i.e., we could have chosen differently), and thus Libertarians reject determinism, and thus reject Compatibilism. (Why?: since, if determinism is true, then we could not have done otherwise, because it would violate the deterministic laws of nature).
(1) Adopt the definition of free-will provided in Compatibilism: On this attempted solution, it is claimed that even though God knows what we will do, God does not force us to do it (such that we are coerced to do something against our will). In short, God knows how our lives will end up, but God does not force us to make those decisions and choices. On this interpretation, God would seem to know of our actions the way someone who watched a movie knows about the actions of the characters in the movie; namely, God knows what they will do, but doesn’t make them do it by giving them their scripts.
Problems: (A) Many people find this solution unacceptable, since one only has free-will if one has the power to do otherwise; that is, many accept Libertarianism. That is, if God knows that I will drink coffee right now, then I have to do it (because God’s knowledge of the future is certain), and thus I couldn’t have done otherwise. (B) There is a serious inconsistency in this attempted solution when one recalls both that God will supposedly judge us on our choices in life (by sending us to Heaven if we choose correctly, or to Hell if we choose incorrectly), and that God made the world. That is, since God made the world, and God knew ahead of time what choices we would make in the world, then how can we be judged for our actions at all? This fact, moreover, demonstrates the weakness of the “movie” analogy above (Why?: because God made the movie, and thus did give the characters their scripts). The Davison article doesn’t bring up this point, which is a serious problem for all attempts to reconcile human free-will with God’s divine properties. In short, if God doesn't like the choices we made in life, then He should have made a different world (wherein we made different choices)! In fact, the responsibility for those actions would seem to rest largely, if not entirely, on God. For example: if someone makes a machine, and she knows ahead of time that the machine will cause death and destruction once it is completed, but she continues to make the machine regardless of this foreknowledge, then we would ultimately lay the blame for the deaths on her shoulders. Likewise, God must be ultimately to blame for the evil committed by humans (since God knew that we would commit those evil actions if he made the world, but God made the world anyway).
(2) Adopt the definition of free-will provided by the Libertarian: On this reply, problem (A) above is obviously solved, but other problems arise.
Problems: (C) Since the Libertarians reject causal determinism (at least as regards human actions and choices), human choices are not caused (they are indeterministic), and thus human choices are not predictable. But, that means that no one, not even the person who chooses the action, knows what that choice will be before that choice occurs (why?: because if the person knows exactly what choice she will make, then her choices must be determined). Now, if not even the person who makes the choice knows what that choice will be before the choice is made, then that choice is completely unknown and mysterious, even to the person who ultimately makes that choice; and so it seems that something like a mental process that runs purely by chance or randomness is the cause of our actions. Yet, if this is the case (that something like chance governs our choices), then how can God hold us responsible for our actions? If we don’t even know what choices we will make, then we are just as ignorant of this choice as anyone else, and so it would seem that we are just as innocent, too. (D) If we really could have done otherwise, and our choices are thus indeterministic, then God must not have knowledge of what that choice will be (since, if he did have knowledge of that choice, then that the person could not have done otherwise, contrary to libertarianism). Therefore, God is not omniscient, or at least doesn’t know the future of human choices. One could try to avoid this problem by claiming either that (a) our choices change the past, thus the past, present, and future are dependent on our choices (and thus God doesn't have necessary knowledge of the future independent of our choices); or (b) simply deny that God knows the future. Both of these options are not popular with believers in the West since they demote God from his alleged all-powerfulness and omniscience. That is, God must be the “greatest being conceivable” (as Anselm argued), and since a God that doesn't know the future is limited, options (a) and (b) violate the definition of God. Furthermore, option (a) is just plain crazy, since it entails that our actions change the past, and since God is in the past, thus our actions change God as well (and so God becomes dependent on our choices, which entirely undermines the concept of the Western God)!
God is Eternal: There are many ways to try and relate God's existence to time. Below, I have sketched a few of the main views on what eternal could mean for God (but this is not an exhaustive list, since there are many possibilities; once again, see Davison’s article, as well as, Stump and Kretzmann).
(A) God exists throughout all time; that is, God exists at every moment of time. This theory usually involves the notion that God exists “completely”, or “wholly”, at each instant of time, such that God does not have temporal parts that are located at each instant of time. Why?: if God had temporal parts (as humans and ordinary objects do), then God could be conceived as comprised of parts; but, this would lead to the problem of how to understand the parts of a perfect, infinite being! (Are the parts of a perfect being less perfect than the whole? or equally perfect? Either way, the problem is monumental.) In addition, there is the huge logical problem of how a being can be present, which means “simultaneous with”, other moments of times, both past and future, which are not simultaneous. Put differently, even if we accept that God exists “completely” at every instant of time (whether past, present, or future), how do you make sense of such a being? How can something have its complete temporal life located at several separate moments of time? Moreover, these problems can be obviously raised against the attempts by Stump and Kretzmann to explain how an eternal being relates temporally to a non-eternal being.
(B) God exists outside of time, and thus does not partake of time. This view was popular during the Middle Ages, when Aristotle's theories of time and the universe were the common Western conceptions. In short, time is the measure of change; so, to be subject to time is to also be subject to change. However, God is perfect, and thus cannot change (since change means that you go from one state to another, and thus God would have to change to either a more perfect state or a less perfect state, which is impossible, since God is already perfect, and can't become less or more perfect). However, how does a being that exists outside of time interact with the world? Our conceptions of a personal God includes the view that God can think, desire, and act (such as when He made the universe). Yet, if God can't change, then God can't think, desire, act, etc. (since these are changes), and this realization seems to contradict the very Western conception of a personal God! Stump and Kretzmann seem to accept this last problem, but still think some mental functions can still be attributed to God (such as knowledge)—but, these few mental remnants would not seem to be enough to satisfy the Western conception of a personal God, who supposedly does think, desire, act, etc. (see also Wainwright on this issue). Stump and Kretzmann suggest that an eternal being could be angry, but how does one make sense of a “timeless anger”? They define “an eternal being” as “a being that coexists with any temporal entity at any time at which that temporal entity exists” (p. 33; i.e., an eternal entity exists completely, or is “fully realized”, throughout all past, present, and future moments of time, although that eternal entity is not in time). Given this definition of an eternal being, it seems to follow that if God is “angry”, then God is angry throughout all moments of time (past, present, and future)! But, this clearly contradicts our concept of a “person”, since people are only angry for short periods of time, and not eternally. In addition, if God is also “happy”, or “non-angry”, then God would be both angry and non-angry throughout all moments of time, which is a contradiction. One might try to avoid this potential criticism by saying that if God is angry about a certain topic or subject, then God can never change to a non-angry state about that topic (since it was the change in attitude, from anger to non-anger, that caused the potential contradiction). Yet, the fact that an eternal being could never change their attitude towards a certain topic only highlights how the concept of personhood fails to apply to God, for a being who can never changes their feelings or attitudes sounds more like a machine, or a lower form of life, than a person. More problems for the timeless conception of God will be investigated in the discussion of Craig’s article below.
Other properties of the Western God:
God is separate from the world (thus rejecting pantheism: i.e., that god is identical with nature and the material world)
Self-Existent: God was not created by another being, and also was not created by Himself (since this last possibility would mean that God existed before himself, which is impossible).
God is a personal God (i.e., God has some sort of mind, such that he is conscious, can think, desire, etc.), and God promises an after-life to humans.
God is all-good, and is the basis of morality. In a later section, we will address the problem of the relationship of God to morality in more detail.
Part II: Arguments for the existence of god
The Ontological Argument for God’s Existence:
Anselm's version of the ontological argument:
1) God, by definition, is the greatest conceivable being.
2) If God exists only in our minds, then it is possible for there to be being greater than God, namely, one that exists in our minds and in reality.
3) But it is not possible for there to be a being greater than God.
4) Conclusion: therefore, God must exist in reality
Descartes’ version of the ontological argument:
5) God, by definition, possesses all possible perfections.
6) Existence is a perfection.
7) Conclusion: therefore, God exists.
Unlike the Cosmological and Teleological arguments (discussed below), the Ontological argument only relies on the definition of God, and does not rely on any experience or evidence from the physical world. This, the Ontological argument is “a priori” (i.e., based only on reason, and not experience).
(A) Guanilo's “perfect island” argument: If the Ontological argument works for God, why can't it work for other objects, such as “islands”? Thus, “the greatest conceivable island” (or “perfect island”) must exist in reality because it would not be the greatest island (or perfect island) if it did not exist! But, then it follows that we can prove that any object in the world exists if we simply attach the label “greatest conceivable.....” to the concept of the thing. The absurdity of this conclusion demonstrates that the Ontological argument is not valid.
Anselm's response to Guanilo's objection is very difficult to understand, but he seems to be trying to say that his Ontological argument only applies to the greatest conceivable being, and not just to any particular being. However, Anselm just assumes this, whereas he needs to provide an argument to establish this point necessarily. In fact, it seems perfectly reasonable that the same argument can be applied to any being (such as an island).
Or, Anselm may be saying that his argument only applies to beings who exist necessarily, and not contingently (where a “necessary being” exists necessarily, such that it cannot not exist; and a “contingent being” may or may not exist—i.e., its existence depends on some other being, and so it does not exist necessarily). However, if Anselm does assume this distinction, then he has essentially presumed that God exists before he has even started his Ontological argument. If a necessary being must exist, and the existence of any contingent beings, such as humans, depends on a necessary being, then our very existence proves that God exists. So you don't even need to use the Ontological argument to prove that God exists, because it has been assumed in the premises of the argument. (Thus, we have here a classic case of “circular reasoning”, which is a fallacious form of argumentation when you “assume what you were supposed to prove”).
It is sometimes argued that Anselm could get out of Guanilo's objection if one accepts that a limited being cannot have an unlimited perfection. That is, since an island is a limited being, adding a perfection to it may lead to a contradiction: e.g., if an island is “perfect”, what makes it perfect? How many palm trees and beaches must it have in order to be perfect? Since these questions cannot be answered, this proves that limited beings, like islands, cannot be the subject of perfections (only God can).
Counter-Reply: But can one really make sense of God's perfections, as well? The problem of an unlimited being (God) having unlimited perfections seems just as problematic as a limited being having unlimited perfections: e.g., “if God is all powerful, then he should be able to commit suicide, or sin. But, since he can’t perform these actions, therefore God is not all-powerful (see the discussions above for more of these contradictions in God’s defining properties).” Just like the “how many palm trees?” question above, the problems associated with trying to grasp God’s perfections do not admit an obvious or uncontroversial method of resolution; therefore, the suggestion above fails to demonstrate how perfect beings are any more coherent than perfect islands. Furthermore, there are many natural objects that seem to allow us to conceive of an unlimited perfection of that object—for example, a credit card: the perfect credit card allows you to buy whatever you want, for all time, and without having to ever make a payment! Thus, some ordinary objects seem to have a clear “unlimited” generalization (even if you reject this possibility for “islands”).
(B) Many philosophers, especially Kant, have argued that “existence” is not a property of an object, in the way that “red”, “square”, or “cold” are real properties of objects, and thus “existence” cannot be treated in the same way as those real properties. In particular, “existence” is not something which when added to an object changes the conception of that object. Real properties, like “red”, when added to a subject modify (change) that subject—but adding existence to a subject adds nothing. The “imagine” game can help here: take an object and imagine that object without a property (such as a “car” without “wheels”, or “color”, or “solidity”). Every time you take a real property away from the object, you've changed the concept of the object (since it is not the same “thing” it was before the property was removed). But, if you remove “existence” from the object, the concept remains the same—the only difference is that now there is no such concept in existence (but that is not a change in the concept, only a change in whether or not anything instantiates the concept in the real world). As another example, imagine “a car that lacks all properties”, and now imagine “a car that lacks all properties except existence”: Is there any conceivable difference between these two imagined objects? It would seem not, since “a car that lacks all properties except for existence” is identical to nothing at all (i.e., it is the same as “a car that lacks all properties”). This demonstrates that existence is not like the “real” properties of bodies, and thus its addition or deletion from an object does not make that object any more or less “perfect”, or a “greater conceivable being”. Only “real” properties are such that their addition or deletion can make an object more or less great, perfect, etc. In fact, for Kant (and categorical logic in general), existence is not a predicate, 'P'; rather, existence is implied in the copula, 'is', in the statement “all S is P” (and where 'S' is the subject). Existence is something inferred in the statement, as a part of the form of this statement, and is not a predicate ascribed to the subject. The same point is made even more clearly in modern propositional logic. In modern logic, the statement, “God exists”, is translated as “(Ex)Gx”, which roughly states: “there exists at least one thing such that that thing has the property of being God”. Notice, here, how modern logic treats “existence statements” in a manner opposite to the Ontological argument: that is, rather than add the predicate “existence” to a pre-given concept, such as God, modern logic states that there exists a thing which has the property of “being God”. In modern logic, therefore, the existence of something comes prior to, and is assumed before, the discussion of what that existing thing happens to have as properties. So, existence can’t be built-into the concept first, as the Ontological argument would have us believe.
The argument by Davis (p. 48), which tries to argue that a “really existing hundred dollars” has properties that the “pure concept of a hundred dollars” does not, fails to grasp the point of Kant’s argument. Davis thinks that a real hundred dollars “has purchasing power in the real world”, and that this is a property that a purely conceptual hundred dollars lacks. But, this is not correct, for the concept of a hundred dollars has, in fact, the property, “purchasing power (in any possible world where dollars are accepted)” So, if we assume that the hundred dollars exists (by instantiating the concept, “hundred dollars”; and where “instantiate” means “exists in our real world”), then the property also gets instantiated (“purchasing power”)—but, the instantiation of this property is “purchasing power in the real world”, and note that this is just a special case of the more general and conceptual property “purchasing power (in any possible world that accepts dollars)”. Therefore, contrary to Davis, the concept of a hundred dollars does contain the property “purchasing power in the real world”, but one has to instantiate the hundred dollars first (in order to specify in which world the purchasing power resides)! Davis’ mistake is that he thinks he can talk sensibly about an instantiated property (purchasing power in the real world) that is a property of an uninstantiated subject (concept of a hundred dollars).
(C) Following up on the last point, it has often been claimed that the correct formulation of the Ontological argument should replace premise (5), in Descartes’ version above, with:
(5*) If God exists, then God possesses all possible perfections.
The reason for replacing (5) with (5*) is that one cannot assume that there already is such a being as God, which is what is seemingly implied by (5). Consequently, by replacing (5) with (5*), the conclusion of the Ontological argument is now replaced with the new conclusion:
(7*) If God exists, then God exists.
Of course, conclusion (7*) is not a very convincing proof of God's existence. It does not tell us if God really does exist: It only tells us that if God exists, then He exists (which is not very informative).
Rowe makes a similar point (using categorical logic, rather than modern proposition logic): he contends that if we build “existence” into the concept of some object, the most we can claim is that “no nonexisting thing can exemplify the concept” (or, more simply, “all nonexisting things do not exemplify the concept”)—we cannot infer that “some existing thing exemplifies the concept”, which is what the Ontological argument attempts to prove.
Malcolm’s version of the Ontological argument:
Malcolm presents an interesting version that tries to define God as a “necessary being” (but don’t get confused with other meanings of “necessary”, since we will examine a different one below while examining the cosmological argument). The problem with Malcolm’s version is that it, too, is subject to criticisms similar to those raised by Kant.
Malcolm claims that the existence of God is either logically impossible or logically necessary. Malcolm thinks this follows from the “greatest conceivable being” conception of God (via Anselm). He reasons that “if God, a being greater than which cannot be conceived, does not exist then he cannot come into existence. For if he did He would either have been caused to come into existence or happened to come into existence, and in either case He would be a limited being, which by our concept of Him He is not.” (p. 54-55) If God depends on an outside cause to come into existence, reasons Malcolm, then he is dependent on these outside causes, and thus is not the greatest conceivable being (and for similar reasons God cannot go out of existence). So, Malcolm thinks that what follows from this is that God’s existence is either necessary (must be the case), or impossible (cannot be the case). But, claims Malcolm, God can’t be impossible, since the only way a being can be impossible is if the concept of such a being is logically impossible or absurd in some way (and he assumes that the concept is indeed coherent). So, Gods existence must be necessary, and thus God exists.
But, the problem with this argument is that from the claim “God cannot come into or go out of existence” we can only infer the more limited claim that: “if there is a time at which God exists, then God must exist at every other time” (and, conversely, “if there is a time at which God does not exist, then God does not exist at any other time”). But, as pointed out earlier, this does not tell us which possible world we inhabit; and thus our world may be a world where God does not in fact exist (and from which we can infer via the argument that he can’t come into existence). There are other problems with this argument, as well, such as the possibility that the concept of God may, in fact, be incoherent, since the problems discussed in earlier chapters concerning the inconsistencies in the concept of the Western God would seem to support the alleged absurdity of the God concept. Furthermore, it appears that one could use Malcolm’s argument to prove that the “perfect island” must necessarily exists, etc.
(D) Even if we accept the Ontological argument, it does not establish the existence of the all-good Western God: all it gives you is a “greatest conceivable being” or a “perfect being”, and this may be nothing like the Western conception (which is the “fully-loaded”, all-powerful, all-knowing, etc. version). For example, maybe the “perfect” being is beyond good and evil, or is both good and evil, or is morally neutral?
(E) Do people all have the same concept of “perfection” or the same “greatest conceivable being” concept? It is unclear just what such a being must be like. If we all have different concepts of “perfect” and “greatest conceivable”, maybe “existence” is not a universally accepted property of a “perfect being” or a “greatest conceivable thing.” Also, if our minds are finite and limited, how is it even possible for us to understand such a concept! Many theologians argue that God is infinite, and thus cannot be understood by our limited minds—unfortunately, this claim implies that God's properties also cannot be understood, and thus we cannot know whether God possesses or lacks any particular property (such as “goodness”, “perfection”, etc.).
The Cosmological Argument for God’s Existence
Aquinas’ “First Cause” version of the Cosmological Argument:
Since the Cosmological Argument relies upon our experience of causation, and/or necessary and contingent beings, this argument is “a posteriori” (which is defined as an argument that is based on experience through the five senses).
1) Everything is caused by something other than itself
Problem: Who caused God? If this premise is accepted, it refutes the entire cosmological argument, because God will need a cause! So, replace (1) with (1*).
1*) Everything except God has a cause other than itself.
2) The string of past causes in the material world cannot extend infinitely into the past.
3) If the string of past causes is not infinite, then there must be a first cause.
4) Conclusion: There must be a first cause, namely (the Western) God.
(A) Problems with Premise (1*):
(i) If we are willing to admit the existence of an uncaused thing, then why not simply allow the universe to be that uncaused thing (and cut out the middleman)? In fact, maybe God is the universe (Pantheism)?
The atheist/agnostic can appeal to “Ockham's Razor” Principle in defeating the Cosmological argument: If two theories explain the phenomenon equally well, then choose the simplest theory (i.e., choose the theory that has the fewest theoretical entities, that doesn't conflict with known physical laws, and that makes the most verifiable predictions). A theory that only postulates an uncaused natural universe is much simpler than a theory that postulates a caused natural universe plus an uncaused supernatural God (Why?: because God is, in principle, an unknowable being, so invoking God doesn't really explain anything); thus one should choose the theory that postulates an uncaused natural universe.
(ii) Modern physics, namely Quantum Mechanics, accepts indeterminism (i.e., that some event are uncaused), thus premise (1*) is probably false.
(B) Problems with Premise (2): There is nothing logically inconsistent in the concept of an infinite causal chain that extends forever into the past, and thus most physicists believe that it is physically possible. That is, Aquinas' argument against the possibility of an infinite series of past events is seriously flawed. The problem in Aquinas’ reasoning is that he thinks that if there is not a first cause in a series of causes, then there is something missing in that series: that is why he concludes that if there is no first cause, then there can be no second cause (since the first caused the second), and thus no third cause, etc., ultimately leading to there being no cause of the present moment (which means the present moment should not have occurred, which is obviously false). Yet, to claim that there is no first cause is not to take away something from a chain of causes, such that there is a gap in the series (which leads to the problem). Rather, to say that there is no first cause means that, if you think you have found a first cause, then you are mistaken (since that cause was preceded and brought about by an earlier cause, and so on for any cause you can possibly pick).
The Kalam Version of Cosmological Argument:
5) Everything that had a beginning in time has a cause.
6) The universe had a beginning in time.
7) Therefore, the universe had a cause
8) The only thing that could have caused the universe is God.
9) Therefore, God exists
(A) Problems with Premise (5): Same problem as (A)(i) above (for “First Cause” version), since this premise conflicts with modern physics. Quantum particles can be created out of a vacuum fluctuation in an underlying quantum field, and this event is uncaused because it is purely random (indeterministic). That is, since the event is completely random, it cannot be planned or determined, and thus no person (or God) can be the cause of the event. There is, however, a weaker sense of “cause” that explains the creation of the particle; namely, the energy of the field out of which the particles is created—but no one can determine when, and if, a particle will come into existence, so it cannot have a “cause” in the normal sense of the term (where the normal understanding of “cause” usually means “determined”, “predictable”, or “a knowable sequence of events”).
(B) Problems with Premise (6): This premise may conflict with our contemporary understanding of both causation and time. On the modern view, time begins with the universe (i.e., that time and universe are coterminous—they exist together). On our ordinary understanding of causation, the cause of an event must precede (come before) that event in time, therefore the cause of the Big Bang (which is the event which started the universe) must have preceded the universe in time. But, time did not exist before the universe began, thus nothing could have caused the universe. A believer of the Kalam argument might argue, here, that our understanding of causation is simply wrong, and that we can have an idea of a cause that is outside of time (but this is hard to imagine, since it would be a non-temporal cause of a temporal entity, the universe). Yet, it must be admitted that many physicists do talk about causes of the universe, since the “Big Bang” theory holds that the universe came into existence roughly 15-20 billion years ago, and many of these physicists attempt to construct causes of the universe.
Yet, many of these theoretical physicists/cosmologists also believe that the causal processes that are responsible for the existence of the universe are not deterministic: the universe began as a vacuum fluctuation created out of an underlying quantum super-space. As mentioned in (A) above, these quantum processes are indeterministic, random events, and so they cannot be planned or determined causes. And, more importantly, the processes involved in this explanation of the Big Bang have the great advantage of being compatible with the laws of physics, since this account of the Big Bang obeys the laws of Quantum mechanics, Relativity theory, and the conservation laws of mass-energy (i.e., our universe borrowed energy from the super-space, but it must ultimately give it back, so mass/energy conservation is upheld in the long-run). Where did the Quantum super-space come from? Many physicists believe that it is infinitely old (it has always has existed, and always will), and that an infinity of universes are created out of this super-space. Our universe, with our particular laws of nature, is merely one of the infinity of different universes created out of the super-space. Of course, since the super-space does not exist in time, you cannot really apply the temporal term “infinitely old” to it: the super-space is an atemporal being, and thus temporal properties cannot be meaningfully stated with respect to it (and which also holds for those who claim that God is atemporal).
(C) Problem with Premise (9): Even if we accept the cosmological argument up to this point, it still does not prove that “cause of the universe” has to be God. Maybe it is the god of Eastern philosophy? Maybe the “cause” is a purely impersonal and mechanical force, and nothing like the Western conception of God? This problem also arises for the “First Cause” version of the Cosmological argument provided above.
The “Necessary/Contingent Being” version of the Cosmological Argument:
Contingent being: Beings that do not have the reason for their existence in themselves: i.e., contingent beings depend upon other beings for their existence. This interpretation of the Cosmological argument is probably how Aquinas, following Aristotle, intended the argument to work (see the nice discussion by Copleston).
Necessary being: these beings do have the reason for their existence in themselves; so they can exist independently of all other beings.
10) Every being is either contingent or necessary.
11) Not every being can be contingent.
12) Therefore, there exist a necessary being, and this being is God.
(A) Problem with Conclusion (12): Once again, this argument doesn’t give you the Western God, but only a necessary being, and that necessary being could have all sorts of properties incompatible with the all-good God of the West.
(B) Problem with Premise (11): Why couldn't there be an infinity of contingent beings? Maybe the universe is a contingent being, or an infinite series of contingent beings existing over time, without need of an extra, necessary being?
Also, premise (11) is a possible fallacy of composition: “since every being in the world is contingent, thus the whole set of beings is contingent.” Therefore, the whole set needs a necessary being as its cause. But, this is a fallacy, just like Russell’s famous example: “every human has a mother, thus the whole set of humans has a mother.” (In the book, this is called the “birthday fallacy”.) That is, since every individual person has one mother, the entire collection of people must also have one mother (that gave birth to the entire set of people at once)—Yet, this is obviously false, so the reasoning behind the “Necessary/Contingent being” version of the Cosmological argument is quite faulty! In fact, we have a great deal of evidence supporting the notion that what is true of the parts of the universe is not necessarily true of the whole universe: namely, conservation laws in physics. As regards the conservation law of mass/energy, even though all of the individual bodies that make up the universe can gain and lose energy, it is not true that the entire universe (that is comprised from all of those bodies) can gain and lose energy (Why?: because the mass/energy of the entire universe always remains at the same amount, which is what a conservation law means).
The Principle of Sufficient Reason
Various philosophers claim that we can discern two versions of the “Principle of Sufficient Reason” at work in the Cosmological argument:
PSRa: There must be an explanation of the existence of every being.
PSRb: There must be an explanation of the existence of every fact.
The numerous counter-arguments that we have raised against the Cosmological Argument are effective in undermining PSRa, but not necessarily PSRb. For instance, our criticism of Premise (11) stated that maybe the whole universe can be viewed as a series of contingent beings, and these beings may have always existed (infinitely into the past). Yet, even if each contingent being in an infinite series is caused by the contingent being prior to it, and is the cause of the contingent being that follows it, we still need an explanation for why there is a series of contingent beings at all! That is, why does the infinite series of contingent beings exist with its particular set of properties, and not some other set of properties? There must be some explanation for why this series as a whole exists, and God must be the answer.
Problems: (i) Of course, this argument can also be used against God: Why does God exist with His particular set of properties, and not some other set of properties? (Or, more simply, Why does God exist at all?) If one is willing to admit the existence of something that does not require an explanation, namely God, then why can't the universe also qualify as a being/thing that does not require a further explanation? In short, it seems that one can always keep asking “why” questions for any explanation given to explain some event or thing, even when God is given as an explanation. So, what advantage does invoking God really offer? (ii) Also, the attempts to justify either PSRa or PSRb fail miserably, since it is not an obvious truth that all things require an explanation—and, as mentioned above, Quantum Mechanics would seem to undermine these notions (at least for some properties of particles at the sub-atomic level). (iii) Furthermore, appealing to the fact that each separate material object seems to be dependent, and therefore the whole collection of material objects (i.e., the universe) needs a cause/explanation, would appear to commit the “fallacy of composition”, since it could be the case that the whole universe is a necessary being or a basic fact (not requiring a further explanation).
Problems with Craig's article on the Kalam Cosmological Argument:
(A) Craig's arguments against an actual infinity (of things) are seriously deficient: The problem seems to stem from his mistaken belief that you can sum an infinite series (such as 1+2+3+4.....), but such series cannot be summed to find a final total number (at least with respect to adding the natural numbers). Thus, when he argues that the orbits of the earth are always 3 times greater than the orbits of Jupiter, and concludes that it is impossible for these two actual infinities be of equal magnitude, the answer is quite simple: at any single temporal moment in the future, you can sum the two finite series (and it will reveal that the total sum of earth's orbits are greater than Jupiter's sum), but you cannot sum the infinity of orbits which extend into the infinite future (or into the infinite past). Whether or not the infinite series is actual, or only potential, does not make a difference, since the real issue is the un-summable nature of any infinite series of that sort (regardless of whether it is actual or merely conceptual). In short, the concept of infinities having different cardinal numbers (i.e., having different sizes) is a consistent and successful branch of mathematics, thus Craig's arguments really only demonstrate how counter-intuitive the mathematics of infinity can be. Overall, mathematics often runs counter to our intuitions—but that doesn’t prove that the mathematics is wrong, or that it is impossible for physical objects/events to instantiate the mathematical structures. In fact, it is almost a law of philosophical/scientific thinking that whatever is mathematically and logically consistent, or meaningful, can potentially be actualized by objects/events in the real world. For example, Craig believes that the ability to add a book to an infinite series of books shows that an actual infinity of books is impossible, but most mathematicians/logicians would reply that this just shows that our intuitions about the infinite are mistaken (since you can add further numbers to an infinite series).
The problem with Craig’s concept of infinity is nicely explained in the Morriston article, which has quotes from other Craig publications. In another work, Craig argues that an actual infinity would violate what he calls “Euclid’s Maxim” (EM), which holds that “a whole is greater than its parts”. Since an infinite set has the same number of members as a subset of that infinite set, Craig argues that an actual infinity cannot exist, for the whole would not be greater than one of its parts, thereby violating EM (example: the set of odd numbers has the exact same size, or cardinal number, as the natural numbers, since both sets can be put into a one-to-one correspondence). But, while Craig is correct to argue that there is a sense of the word “greater” under which the odd numbers are greater than the natural numbers, since the natural numbers also have the even numbers, this does not include the size of the sets. Both the set of all odd numbers and the set of all natural numbers (which are both the odd and even numbers) have the exact same number of elements (since both sets can be put into a one-to-one correspondence, which is how sets of infinite size are measured). The natural number are “greater” in that they also have the even numbers, but both sets are still the same size—and Craig’s claim that there is a contradiction, or an impossible state-of-affairs, seems to turn on the implication that the natural numbers are “greater”, and thus must have more members. But, if this is his argument, then he is simply wrong.
Furthermore, Craig must explain how it is possible for God to exist, since God is the perfect being, and thus must be infinite! If God is not infinite, then God must be limited (since he is finite), but how can God be limited? God must also have knowledge which is infinite, since time extends into the future infinitely, and thus God must know everything about the future (since he is omniscient). So, if an actual infinity, as opposed to a mere potential infinity (which Craig accepts), is not possible, then the Western God is impossible.
Likewise, Craig is incorrect in appealing to the (quite old) argument that you cannot have time extend infinitely into the past because this would mean that there can't be a present moment: That is, if one conceives that all of the past temporal instants comprise an infinite series, and that the present moment, or “now”, is at, say, January 30, 2006, then the present moment had to traverse the infinity of past temporal instants to reach Jan. 30, 2006. But, since you can't traverse an actual infinity, the “now” moment cannot reach Jan. 30, 2006 (and this is absurd, because Jan. 30, 2006, is the present moment). Consequently, Craig concludes that time must not extend infinitely into the past. This argument is fallacious for a number of reasons. First, many believe that the theory that the present moment, or “now”, moves along the infinite series of temporal instants (from past to future) is incoherent (since it seems to imply that time moves, but motion is defined with respect to time, so this quickly becomes circular). Second, even if we accept the (apparent) absurdity of a moving temporal present (which assumes some sort of time in which the present moment “moves”), and we accept that there exists an infinite series of past moments, the moving “now” still had an infinite amount of time to reach Jan. 30, 2006—so, there really is no conceptual problem.
The debate above concerns the possibility of an infinitely old universe (that has existed from eternity), but most physicists accept that the universe is finite (at least in the past), and thus had a beginning moment; namely, the Big Bang. Craig thus tries to argue against the possibility that the universe can have a cause other than God.
(B) Craig tries to argue that unless one accepts that there is a cause of the Big Bang, then one must accept that the universe was a “creation out of nothing” (p. 92); and since philosophers can't make sense of something coming from nothing, the only other alternative is that something caused the Big Bang, namely God. This is a rather embarrassing mistake for Craig, because modern cosmologists believe that the Big Bang came from a “Black Hole” state: i.e., the initial state was a singularity in which the entire mass-energy of the universe was condensed—and a Black Hole of infinite density is a very substantial something! (In fact, Craig mistakenly claims that the initial singularity had no size at all, which is false: its size was of the magnitude of 10 to the power of -33 centimeters). As also mentioned, our universe may have come from an underlying quantum space, which means it came from something. More importantly, as discussed above, many physicists contend that the universe was uncaused, since the quantum processes responsible for the universe are indeterministic. Craig also argues that the universe was caused to exist “by something beyond it and greater than it.” (p. 93) This doesn’t follow at all, however, since the cause of each human is just another human; and thus our universe could have been caused by another purely material process (which is exactly what the cosmologists claim). Finally, even if one were to accept that the universe came from nothing, maybe it is possible for something to come from nothing? Who knows?
(C) Craig tries to argue that the creator of the universe is a personal God who chose to create the universe, but that this “choice” was eternal and not “in time” (since time doesn't exist until the universe is created). But, can one make sense of an “eternal choice” as he defines it? Implicit in Craig's theory is the contention that it is meaningful to talk about such concepts as “choice”—which are actions, and thus presuppose time—in a non-temporal world. But, since the entire concept of a timeless being is beyond our comprehension, how can you ascribe such temporal notions, like “choice”, to nontemporal beings or things? Moreover, there is this additional problem, and it centers upon Craig's use of “eternal choice” to explain why the universe is temporally finite (rather than eternal, as is God): God can’t choose to make the universe at a given time, since that would assume that there is a time at which God makes the universe (and thus there is time outside of time, which is a contradiction), thus Craig has to hold that God’s choice to make the universe is eternal, such that “God intends from eternity to create a world in time” (quoted in Morriston, p. 106), and, of course, God’s willing or choosing to cause the universe is sufficient to produce it (since God must have that ability). But, if God wills (or intends, chooses, undertakes, etc.) eternally to produce a world, then that world must also be eternal. In fact, since there is no time in the eternal realm that God inhabits, it doesn’t make sense to claim that there is a difference between God’s willing to make the universe and His actual cause of the universe. If there was some sort of difference between the two, then this would amount to a “gap” or “period” during which God existed, but not the universe, followed by a period during which both God and the universe exist—but, this implies that there is time before time began, since we are discussing a period before time came into existence (and, once again, time only comes into existence with the world). Craig, as reported in Morriston, later tries to make a distinction between “willing” and “undertaking”, but the same problems arises for the latter notion, as Morriston quite correctly points out.
There are many other problems with Craig's analysis, but these seem to be some of the major ones.
Bertrand Russell's arguments against the Cosmological Argument
(1) To infer a creator of the universe is to infer a cause, but “causes” as utilized in science are only allowed if they proceed from observed causal laws. Yet, creation of the universe “out of nothing” by God (or, more simply, a supernatural cause of the universe) can never be observed or inferred from the evidence presented in natural phenomena. (In other words, since we don't even know what a supernatural cause would be like, because we have no experience of them, how can we use our experience of everyday, non-supernatural phenomena to argue for a supernatural cause?) Consequently, there is no better reason to infer that the world was caused by a God rather than to infer that it was uncaused (since both equally go against what we can observe).
(2) Some people argue that the universe must be created by God because an infinitely old universe would undermine the laws of thermodynamics (which I won't bother to explain since it is not relevant to the following criticism). This argument can be made more general by simply claiming that an uncaused universe must violate some natural law. Yet, if the argument is successful against an uncaused universe, then it is also successful against God: either (a) God is subject to the laws of physics, or (b) God is not subject to the laws of physics. If (a), then the thermodynamics argument, or the violation of some natural law, now applies to God's existence because God is uncaused and infinitely old. If (b), then God is not subject to the laws of physics, and thus God cannot be inferred from physical phenomena (as argued in problem (1) above). Therefore, physics can't be used to infer God's existence.
The Teleological Argument for God’s Existence (or, The Argument from Design)
The Teleological argument is often presented as an argument from analogy, which tries to prove that some property must hold true of an object (or event) based on the fact that this object closely resembles some other object which we know does have that property: e.g., “My new car is exactly the same model as my old car. And my old car gave me good service. Thus, I believe that my new car will give me good service, too.”
To be more specific, an “argument from analogy” has the following structure:
Object X and object Y are similar in many ways (or at least in one way).
Object X has an additional property p.
Object Y has property p, as well.
The success of an Arguments from analogy largely depends on the first premise (listed above), since it has to be demonstrated that the similarities between X and Y are “relevant” (to use the standard jargon): that is, the similarities need to be such that we have good reason to believe that any additional properties seen in X will also hold for Y.
The Design Argument (Paley’s version):
1) The universe resembles a watch
2) Every watch has a designer.
3) Conclusion: therefore, the universe probably has a designer, namely, God.
Of course, since this is an argument from analogy, it will only be a strong and convincing argument if premise (1) is true; that is, if the universe really does resemble a watch. William Paley (circa late 18th century) was one of the leading advocates of this argument. He reasoned that the universe seemed to resemble a watch more than it did a rock, and since a rock doesn't seem to “call out for a designer”, but a watch does, it must be the case that the universe (like the watch) demands a designer. It should be noted that this is an “a posteriori” argument for God's existence, since you need to appeal to experience of the universe, and designed things, to accept premise (1), and possibly (2), as well.
(1) Even if the argument is successful, it does not prove the existence of the all-good, all-powerful, etc., God of the West. Maybe more than one God made the universe? Or, maybe the God that made the universe has since died? Our experience of designers, such as watch-makers, seems to support this latter notion, since all designed things that eventually run down are made by designers who ultimately die—and since cosmologists say the universe will eventually die (by a thermodynamic “entropy” death, to be exact), this would imply that the universe-designer will die, too. Hume argued this point, noting that we should only infer into the cause of something (such as the cause of the universe) as much perfection or reality as exhibited in that effect (i.e., the universe)—and since the universe is finite (as our best theories tell us), then we should also conclude that the “universe-maker” is finite, too. (Example: since watches eventually break down, we don't infer that the people who make watches our infinitely perfect!)
In fact, John Stuart Mill criticized the design argument, quite ingeniously, by noting that the very fact that God uses a designed universe to accomplish his goals (whatever they might be) in itself undermines God's (supposedly) infinite and unlimited powers. Since designed objects are devices aimed at achieving some end, and since the universe is a designed object, and, moreover, since only limited beings use devices (because, being limited, they cannot achieve their goals directly without such devices), this entails that God must be limited in His powers.
Moreover, if the universe is designed specifically for the development of human life (as most Teleological argument supporters believe), then the workings of this “device” leave much to be desired. Since human life is constantly visited by terrible natural disasters—including a potential “dooms day asteroid” which will destroy all life on the planet (and it is only a matter of time before one comes along)—the evidence seems to go strongly against the Western conception of God as the designer of the universe. That is, even if we accept the argument, the evidence would seem to support the notion that the designer is either limited in His powers (so He cannot prevent natural disasters), or that He is not all-good (since He does not prevent natural disasters).
(2) Does the universe really resemble a watch? Or does it resemble a living organism? Between the two, the universe seems to resemble a living organism much more than a watch. As cosmology informs us, the universe started as a seed (black hole) which blossomed into its present growing state; and ultimately the universe will “burn out” and die (and this same story holds for every single individual entity in the universe, too). Thus, the universe much more resembles a living organism, namely, a plant, than a watch. And, here is the main point, our experience of living organisms reveals that they are natural objects that arise without being consciously designed and constructed. We do not have experience of plant-makers running around in the Spring constructing flowers (possibly by adding atom upon atom until it is completely built)! Flowers just occur naturally on their own from their seeds, just like the universe seems to have arisen from its seed—so, the Teleological argument has reached the wrong conclusion. Rather, it should deem the universe a naturally-occurring organism.
Hume, in fact, very ingeniously pointed out that the reason we infer a designer when we examine the watch, and not the rock, is because we have experience of watch-makers, but no experience of rock-makers. Thus, the inference to the universe is quite weak because we have no experience of universe-makers, and therefore cannot really tell if our universe more closely resembles the watch or the rock (or a plant). If we had no experience of watches previous to seeing one on the beach, would we infer that it had to be designed? Or, would we assume that it is just another naturally occurring, complex object, like a plant? This hypothetical argument takes on more power when we imagine the case of a native (“pre-watch-making”) tribe that has throughout its history encountered watches lying around in an equal proportion to its experience of rocks and plants: in this scenario, would the tribe judge that the watch was “less natural”, and thus a designed object, any more or less than it would judge the rock or plant to be designed? If you are unsure of the answer, than Hume has scored an important point: whether we take an object to be designed, or not-designed, depends ultimately on whether or not we have past experience of humans actually designing that object! And since we have no such experience with respect to the properties of a designed or non-designed universes, and never can, the argument is quite week.
More notes on problem (2)
Paley’s “watch argument” proceeds as follows:
1) The universe resembles a watch.
2) Every watch has a designer.
3) Conclusion: therefore, the universe probably has a designer, namely, God.
Paley intended his argument to be an “argument from analogy” since he clearly compares the structure of the watch and the universe, and rejects an analogous relationship between the rock and the universe. Now, as previously mentioned (in Problem (2) above), Hume submits premise (1) to a series of devastating arguments, and ultimately concludes that the universe seems to more closely resemble a plant than a watch. Why is this a problem for Paley (or any other advocate of the Teleological argument)? Well let’s try to run the argument using a plant instead of a watch.
4) The universe resembles a plant
5) Every plant has a designer.
6) Conclusion: therefore, the universe probably has a designer, namely, God.
Why is this “plant argument” weak (in fact, rather silly), while the “watch argument” seems (at least, at first glance) much stronger? Obviously, the problem resides with premise (5) of our “plant” argument: While everyone agrees that premise (2) is true, no one would agree that premise (5) is true! As mentioned before, plants grow on their own (without people running around intentionally designing and constructing them each spring)! In short, Paley’s argument works because he has skillfully tried to separate the world into two classes: those objects which seem to “call out for a designer” because they have a complex structure, which he believes must have a supernatural (non-natural) origin, and those that are not complex structurally, and thus can have natural causes. But, this is where the “plant” argument raises severe problems for his nice distinction: some natural objects, like plants—i.e., which our experience does not reveal to have supernatural origins—are also quite complex structurally. But, if natural objects can be structurally complex, then our universe may likewise be a naturally occurring, complex structured thing.
Now, at this point, a theist might reply: “But, I believe that plants are designed, too”! That is, he would have to prove that premise (5) is true: But, how could you ever prove this? There are two possibilities: (a) he could try to construct a new argument from analogy with premise (5) as its conclusion—but it is unclear how one could do this without “begging the question” (i.e., assuming in the premises what you were supposed to prove in the conclusion); or, more likely, our theist could try to prove the following claim:
(7) all objects with a complex structure are designed.
Of course, the problem with statement (7) is that it is just plain false! As previously noted, science has a whole stock of well-confirmed theories (gravity, evolution, chaos, etc.) which generate extremely complex structured objects and beings from simple natural causal laws. Our theist, in fact, is ultimately appealing to the Principle of Sufficient Reason, again: i.e., “something can’t come from nothing”. But, once again, we don’t know if the principle of sufficient reason really is true. In fact, as mentioned in class, it is my suspicion that the Teleological argument is really just a more elaborate version of the Cosmological argument, since it seems to fall back upon the belief that there must be a cause of natural order that was not itself not caused. Unfortunately, as we have seen, the Cosmological argument is quite weak, and thus any Teleological thinking based on the Cosmological argument is also weak.
(3) Hume argued for all of the points above, and he also noted that the Teleological argument is weak because it relies on the very fact that humans tend to “see” a designed order in the world where no “design” may exist. The world is ordered, but that is not the same thing as being “designed”. Many naturally occurring, simple processes can result in a very intricate order: e.g., gravity causes the heavier particles on a beach to settle to the bottom, leaving the lighter ones on top. This “structure” is very elaborate, leading from minute particles on top gradually to bigger ones on the bottom—and this structure seems very much like it was intended (i.e., designed, rather than the unintentional outcome of a simple natural law). For another example, take the solar system! In fact, the theory of Evolution (which contrary to the Creationists is one of the best confirmed theories in the history of science) gives us a very detailed story on just how such complex patterns can arise from simple mechanical processes.
(4) The “Who Designed the Designer?” Argument
If we accept the Teleological argument, then it leads to an infinite “regress” of designers. Since the Teleological argument relies on the hidden premise that “whatever possesses an intricate order or structure has been designed”, and since God must be an elaborately ordered and structured being, if not the most elaborately ordered and structured being in existence, then it must be the case that God was designed, and thus God had a designer. Consequently there is a Super-God that designed God, but then this super-God must have an elaborate structure, which requires a superduper-God as its designer, and so on to infinity. The problem with a regress argument of this variety is that it is “vicious”, which means that before the first God can make the world, the Super-God must make the first God, but then the Super-God must first be created by the Superduper-God, etc. That is, the infinity of Gods must first exist before the world is created. But since there are an infinity of Gods, the infinite series can never be completed, so that the world is never created. Alternatively, if one thinks that such an infinite series of Gods can exist, then one is simply stuck with the silly conclusion that there are an infinity of Gods! Furthermore, if one were to deny the claim that God is an elaborately ordered and structured being, then this admission is tantamount to claiming that God is not ordered or structured, and thus He is really random or chaotic, which is clearly not the case (given the Western conception of God).
The following applies to Collin’s attempts to defend against this objection (p. 127-128). As a first attempt, Collins seems to say that the “Who designed the designer?” argument can only work against versions of the Design argument that utilize the principle that “all organized complexity requires a design”. But, what is the argument here? Is he claiming that the universe shows an “organized complexity”, whereas God does not exhibit an organized complexity?! Yet, the term ‘organized’ is synonymous with ‘designed’ in this context (i.e., both seem to refer to the same definition, such as “arranged in a systematic manner such as to bring about some end or action”). It is hard to follow Collins’ argument, but, to be more specific, he may be claiming that God’s complexity is not “organized”, whereas the universe’s complexity is “organized”. Yet, if that is what he is claiming, then he is “begging the question” against the “Who designed the designer?” argument. That is, the latter argument claims that both God and the universe are complex, and thus both need designers; but, Collins insists that God’s complexity is not organized, which can only mean “not designed”, while the universe’s complexity is “organized”, which means “designed”. But, if that is Collin’s argument, then he has assumed what he was supposed to prove, since the assumption that God is “not organized” is identical to the suggestion that “God is not designed”, and thus Collins has assumed in the premises (that “God is not designed”) what he was supposed to prove as the conclusion of the argument. Thus, if we have interpreted his attempted argument correctly (and this part of the article is obscure, probably intentionally), then Collins has committed a basic fallacy of reasoning in his rejoinder to the “Who designed the designer?” argument. Put differently, someone who rejects the theistic explanation of the universe (i.e., caused by God) will quite correctly insist that the “organized complexity” of the universe is the precisely the point at issue: to say that the universe exhibits “organized complexity” seems to mean, as given by Collins, “designed complexity”, but then the Theist has unfairly assumed, before they have even given their argument, that the universe is designed.
Collins also attempts to argue, in response to the “Who designed the designer?” argument, that God is “simple”, and thus is not subject to the argument (i.e., God is “simple”, and not complex). But what does “simple” mean in this context?! How can a being that has human-like traits (e.g., can love, choose, will, act, etc.) possibly be simple? In fact, if God is simple, then we should be simple as well, since we have similar properties (personality traits, such as the ability to love, choose, act, etc.), and thus humans are not subject to the design argument. It is possible that Collins may mean that God “doesn’t have parts” when he uses the term “simple”. First, unless Collins gives up on the personality traits of God, this defense doesn’t work. What we know of beings that have mental properties (such as acting, loving, willing, etc.) is that they are incredibly complex, and so Collins “has a lot of arguing to do” (using his own words) to try and convince us that a being can have human-like properties and not be complex. Collins seems to be using the “argument from ignorance” at this point, which is a fallacy: that is, he seems to think that it’s up to the skeptic to prove that God is not simple (!?). On the contrary, its Collins job to prove that God is simple, especially given all of the complex abilities that he assigns to God (and, if he can’t do it, as he apparently can’t, then we can reject his suggestion). Second, even if we were to accept his claim that God doesn’t have parts, God still has powers and abilities that must make God the most sophisticated and powerful being in all existence—and an entity of such sophistication is complex under any meaning of the term, and thus it demands a designer, just as the Design argument would insist. So, the absence of parts does not clear the Design argument of the infinite regress (as above). In conclusion, Collins simply assumes that God is “simple”; but he needs to prove this, rather than simply assume it. Therefore, unless one wants to accept an embarrassing infinity of designers, which the theist would clearly reject, the theist must then simply declare either that not all structured, ordered, or complex beings are designed (and this undermines the whole Teleological argument), or the theist must hold that God is self-designed (whatever that may mean). But, once again, if you are willing to allow an exception to the rule, why does it have to be God? That is, if you are willing to admit the existence of an entity that is self-designed (and thus does not require an outside creator), then why not simply allow the universe to be that self-designed thing (and cut out the middleman—”Ockham’s Razor” again, as mentioned in the notes to the Cosmological argument)? In fact, as stated before, maybe God is the universe (Pantheism)?
The “Fine-Tuning” versions of the Design Argument
Since the probability of life occurring on earth, or in the universe, is quite low (that is, the conditions for life to occur are very precise, and these conditions appear to be such that they could have easily been different), some argue that this shows that these precise conditions must have been built-into the universe (i.e., designed) in order to create human life. That is, the universe seems “fine-tuned” for life to occur. This argument is sometimes called the “Strong Anthropic Principle”, or SAP. Collins’ article attempts to defend a SAP type theory, from which he infers that God is the best explanation of the fine-tuning.
Below, we will examine Collins’ attempts to argue for his “fine-tuning” version of the Design argument. Collins uses an argument he calls the “prime principle of confirmation” (PPC), which states that if two hypotheses, or explanations, are offered to explain some event or state-of-affairs, then we should choose the hypothesis (of the two) that has the highest probability of being true. On the whole, its unclear what to make of this principle, since it seems to be a form of IBE, or “Inference to the Best Explanation”. That is, how can we know which hypothesis has a higher probability of explaining the event? Collins wants to claim that God makes the existence of our universe more likely, or probable, than any “atheistic” hypothesis, but it’s difficult to know what this means unless he intends his arguments to show that God is the “best explanation”. One thing seems certain, Collins thinks that the atheistic explanations have a very low probability of having occurred, and this low prior probability is apparently one of his main arguments for holding that the theistic hypothesis is better. (Roughly, a “prior probability” is the probability that a process, or being, would bring about some particular event, but the calculation is done prior to the process, or being, actually bringing about that event: example, if you were to calculate the probability of getting four aces in a hand of poker prior to the hand being dealt out to you, then the calculation is a prior probability.) In short, Collins thinks that, since God wants humans to exist, the theistic hypothesis gives a better explanation for why our universe came into existence, rather than any of the other universes where no life would have occurred. So, our universe is highly probable given a Western type God, but the atheistic hypotheses do not have this high probability, since nothing favored our form of universe.
Collins’ Arguments Against “Atheistic Single-Universe Hypotheses”:
Many physicists and cosmologists have claimed that our universe is the only universe that we do, or can ever, know (and this is to be contrasted with the multiple-universes hypothesis, below). Consequently, these scientists have tried to formulate the conditions or causes under which a universe of our type can come into existence. Collins asserts that the theistic hypothesis (i.e., that God caused the universe) is more probable than the atheistic explanations that must rely on material processes, since the possibility of these atheistic natural processes generating our universe is quite low.
Problems (in addition to those discussed above for the Design argument):
(A) Contrary to Collins, the best explanation for the universe is a natural explanation, and not a supernatural explanation. That is, if we take an “abductive” (i.e., “best explanation”) interpretation of the design argument, rather than treating it as an argument from analogy, then the Teleological argument is seriously weakened: put simply, the “best explanation” of the universe will not favor any interpretation that appeals to unknowable supernatural beings who (somehow) must interact and cause a knowable, non-supernatural material world. Since the natural explanations of the universe do not appeal to such mysterious, non-material causes, and are both consistent with what we know about science and possibly testable (at least indirectly), the best possible explanation will favor the natural explanation. Collins’ attempts to show that the natural causes of the universe are either too complex, or their precise details are still unknown, to make it the best, simplest explanation are thus misguided. Although the natural explanations for the cause of the universe might be quite complex (and are not yet worked out in detail), the fact that they are natural automatically makes them simpler, and thus preferable, to any supernatural alternatives. Moreover, the natural explanations utilize known processes of physics to explain the creation of the universe (although, as noted, the exact details are still in being worked out), whereas the super-natural explanation cannot claim this powerful advantage. God as the cause of the universe is unknowable in principle, and thus unverifiable, since science cannot gain any information on super-natural causes (see Russel’s arguments against the Cosmological argument, above).
(B) In reply to (A), Collins might rely on his PPC argument (defined above), since he wants to claim that our universe is more likely given God’s alleged existence (regardless of God’s unknowable properties and causal processes). That is, as argued by Collins, the “Fine-Tuning” version of the Design argument claims that the probability that a physical process could cause a universe like ours is very low, and thus a designer is needed to explain our universe, whereas the Western God makes this probability much higher. Unfortunately for Collins, this is false. Overall, the “prior” probability that God would create a universe exactly like ours (from the set of all possible universes) is as equally low (if not more so) than a natural explanation, so there is no advantage to invoking a designer (i.e., the same low probabilities are also present in the theist’s explanation). More carefully, if one were to try to guess what kind of world God would create given God’s properties, it would be nearly impossible to infer the material world we presently inhabit (since, there are many universes God could have created, such as one with slightly more or less matter, or with different laws of physics, etc.). So, the “prior” probability that God would make this world must be at least as low as the prior probability that natural processes could make this world. Consequently, if there are unknown low prior probabilities in the theists’ explanation of the world that are of the same magnitude as that for the natural explanations, then the theistic account has no explanatory advantages over the natural accounts of the world (as regards the presence of these low prior probabilities, that is).
(C) Some physicist believe that this is the only universe that can form out of the quantum pre-space, since there may be a deeper law of physics that makes this universe the only physically possible one. Others have argued that our universe may be the only logically possible universe. Collins responds by claiming that these attempted solutions just move the problem of the low prior probabilities up a level, to where these deeper laws of physics operate. That is, he claims that now the atheistic hypotheses have to consider the low prior probability of these deeper laws of physics having been true (which he claims, or so it seems, must be as low as the prior probabilities for the whole universe). First, Collins’ reply, here, is still subject to the same problems raised above; since, as in (A), these deeper laws of physics are still natural, as opposed to super-natural processes (which gives them the advantage over theistic hypotheses), and the problem (B) still holds, of course. Second, many cosmologists believe that a large number of short-lived universes (false starts) may have preceded this one, but this response may form an instance of the multiple-universe hypothesis (examined below).
(D) Of course, life as we know it requires the precise conditions that currently prevail in the universe, but it may be the case that other, different forms of life (presently unknown to us) can arise given a different structured universe. Collins claims that this doesn’t work, since some of the physical constants of our universe would prevent any form of life from coming into existence: namely, the “cosmological constant”, which describes the rate at which the universe is expanding. If the universe were expanding too fast, he claims, then no form of chemical life would be allowed (since the conditions needed for stars to form would not be present in such a universe, and stars make the chemistry of life). The problem with Collin’s reply is (i) that other types of physical processes, not currently operating in our universe, could allow life to form if the constants were different. That is, given a more rapid rate of the expansion of the universe, maybe other, quite different processes would come into play in the universe that would allow a quite different type of life to form. In short, who knows what might have happened given a different set-up of the universes constants? How can Collins rule these possibilities out? More importantly, (ii) many physicists think that the actual laws of nature may have been different if another universe (different from ours) had been created, and thus maybe the laws of chemistry in that possible universe would allow life to form in conditions much different than ours (e.g., with a much more rapid rate of expansion, etc.). Collins is assuming that the laws of nature must be the same in all possible creations of a universe, but that is a claim that is not only rejected by many cosmologists, but is just plain unknowable (and so he can’t simply assume it).
(E) The “fine-tuning” argument relies on the alleged fact that the creation of a stable universe is extremely uncommon, but there is much evidence to show that stable, potentially life-generating universes are much more likely than the theistic theorists would like to admit: e.g., the work of Stenger and Weinberg, among others, have claimed that variations in the constants of the universe could still allow life to form. Whether or not substantial changes in the constants of the universe would allow life are unknown, but cannot be ruled out, of course.
Collins’ Arguments Against “Atheistic Many-Universes Hypothesis”
If our universe is just one of a possible infinity of universes that arise out of the quantum pre-space, then the existence of universes like ours is probably fairly common, or at least very likely. This theory is very influential these days among physicists/cosmologists (e.g., Rees), and, as noted, it would make the existence of a universe like ours very likely. In short, the Many-Universe (or Multiple-Universes) hypothesis claims, quite consistently, that if our universe was created out of an underlying quantum space, then that pre-space should allow many other universes to come into existence as well, and each of these universes may have different constants for the laws of nature, or different laws of nature altogether. So, this hypothesis is a big threat to Collins’ version of the Design argument, since his version relies on an allegedly low prior probability of the universe coming about by purely natural processes (as noted above). Collins’ reply to the Multiple-Universes hypothesis is quite lame, to say the least, since he claims: “[the Multiple-Universes hypothesis] seems to need to be ‘well-designed’ in order to produce a life-sustaining universe” (p. 132). Collins’ argument, in short, seems to be that the mechanisms (of the pre-space) responsible for the creation of the multiple universe is just too complex to have occurred naturally, and thus God is a simpler, or more probable, explanation. Although Collins is correct to say that the natural mechanisms that account for the Multiple-Universes hypothesis may be quite complex, they are still natural mechanisms—that is, as in (A) above (from the Atheistic Single-Universe Hypotheses), these mechanism are both purely natural, and not super-natural, and these mechanisms are consistent with the known laws of nature. So, given both the Theistic hypothesis and the competing Atheistic Many-Universes hypothesis, the Many-Universes hypothesis will be, by far, both the simpler explanation (since it does not appeal to unknowable, super-natural causes) and the more consistent explanation (since it conforms to the known laws of nature; whereas any super-natural explanation is, in fact, a violation of the known laws of nature). In addition, problem (B) above (from our examination of the Atheistic Single-Universe Hypotheses) still applies, of course, to the Theistic hypothesis. So, to claim that the prior probability for the Many-Universes mechanisms is lower than the prior probability of the Theistic hypothesis is simply false. Finally, all of the other problems for the Design argument mentioned earlier also apply.
The Moral Argument for God’s Existence
The “Moral” argument tries to account for the moral properties of human beings—such as the fact that all humans have a sense of moral right and wrong, a moral conscience (e.g., guilt), and the sameness of human values, etc. The argument claim that only a God can explain why all humans have these same properties, such as the fact that all humans value honesty, kindness, etc. Presumably, the moral argument claims that there is an objective morality, which means that there is one set of moral codes that is the same for all people, or, at least, there is one set of moral values (and not necessarily moral codes) which is the same for all people. On the whole, this is a very feeble argument, indeed! The argument would only be plausible if there were no other explanations for the moral properties of humans. But, of course, there are alternative, natural explanations, from psychology, sociology, and biology (genetic). An Evolutionary account of the development of morality in the human species is currently very popular among scientists. These investigations constitute a fruitful area of research in biology, psychology, and sociology, since morality seems to be a necessary ingredient for the rise of civilizations (without it, anarchy would prevail, which explains why we would naturally develop this useful trait). These natural explanations do not appeal to unknown, super-natural causes to explain our moral properties, so they are much simpler than the Theistic alternative. And the natural explanations also account for why, say, different cultures or the differences in individual psychological development can lead to, respectively, the fact that different cultures have different moral codes and the fact that individuals can have different moral sensibilities (which is hard to explain if all human morals and values came from the same source, namely God). In addition, the claim that all humans have the same moral values may not be correct, and many have claimed that the objectivity of morality is simply false (since different cultures and people do, in fact, have different moral codes and values). Alternatively, even if one were one to claim that morality is an objective property, it could be simply a natural property of the entire human species (like gravity is an objective, natural property of the universe). Many theories of morality assert that morality is objective, but base this objectivity on a purely natural foundation, such as “happiness for the most people”, “self-interest”, or “individual human rights”. Consequently, for these reasons, the moral argument is not considered to be plausible by most philosophers and theologians. On a similar note, some have argued that God’s existence is necessary for morality, since there is no rational reason (as opposed to biological, sociological, etc., explanations of religion) to behave morally if there is no God to enforce punishment or reward for our actions. But, there are many good reasons to behave morally even if God doesn’t exist: for example, morality is necessary for the very existence of a civilization, and thus for the happiness of humans (since, as mentioned above, anarchy would prevail without morality). And, even if there is no eternal reward for our behaving morally, the short-term, worldly rewards of acting morally is that it makes our world a better, happier place (and what more reason do you need than that?).
Part III: Faith and Reason
The Evidential Challenge
Flew’s article, “The Presumption of Atheism”, contends that the best attitude to take to questions about the existence or non-existence of a being is to side with its non-existence, unless evidence or sound arguments are provided which would make the existence of the being more probable than its non-existence. For example, if someone claims that “unicorns exist”, we would be skeptical of the person’s claim, and thus side with the non-existence of unicorns, unless good evidence or arguments are brought forward. Flew calls this “negative atheism”, which is the view that the burden of proof is on the believer to prove that God exists (just as it is for the believer in unicorns), and one is thus justified in being a non-theist (atheist), although the negative atheist cannot claim that “God does not exist” (since you need arguments or evidence to claim that God doesn’t exist). The “positive atheist”, in contrast, does hold that the evidence and arguments favor God’s non-existence. Negative atheism seems to differ from agnosticism in that an agnostic does not presume atheism as a default position, but rather the agnostic simply claims that the evidence does not favor either the believer or non-believer, and so one cannot decide whether God does or does not exist.
Geivett’s article tries to blunt the force of Flew’s claims by calling into question the presumptions that motivate negative atheism. Geivett seems to think, probably correctly, that the motivation for Flew’s negative atheism is to acquire knowledge while minimizing the risk of falling into error. In contrast, Geivett claims that there are other motivations, one of which is his “Pascalian rejoinder”, which claims that “belief that God exists, at the risk of being mistaken, is more desirable than belief that God does not exist, if it too is attended by the risk of being mistaken” (p.172). Geivett seems to think, like Pascal (to be examined below), that there are benefits to having a more positive attitude towards God’s existence (whether agnostic or some other attitude). He thinks that negative atheism may make a person less willing to look for evidence for God’s existence, and he/she may therefore miss out on some of the evidence or arguments put forward by the believers. In fact, Geivett seems to think that negative atheism is much closer in content to positive atheism than it is to agnosticism. Geivett’s position is dubious for several reasons. (1) It is not necessarily true that negative atheism leads one to be less careful or open-minded to the evidence and arguments for God’s existence (it only says that one should remain an atheist if no such evidence is found). Geivett needs to back up his assertion, that negative atheism does leads to a closed-minded attitude, with evidence, and he has not. He seems to think that the negative atheist will place such a high burden of proof on the theist, that the theist can never meet this challenge. But, this doesn’t follow at all. Philosophers are aware of the relative merits of arguments and evidence, and they can be thus trusted to give an objective evaluation of these arguments (to the best of their ability). (2) One gets the sneaking suspicion that Geivett is trying to rewrite the normal methodology for inquiring into the existence of things in such a way that it makes the inquiry into God’s existence favor a positive conclusion (i.e., the conclusion that God exists). But, why not take this attitude for all other claims about the existence of beings, such as for the existence of extra-terrestrial life (who fly in UFOs), or ghosts, etc.? Why not take a Pascalian attitude towards the existence of those beings, such that they are easier to prove exist? The fact that Geivett favors an attitude towards investigating claims to knowledge that would make God’s existence more likely to be accepted is therefore troubling, since where do we stop? Flew, in his reply to Geivett, seems to hint at this problem, for he claims that the main reason for his article was, and remains, “to try to ensure that we should approach the fundamental questions of the possible existence and nature of God without prejudice” (p. 176). Flew then tells a story about a person, from another culture, who rejects nearly all of the properties of God that are common in our Western world. In essence, this person has a different attitude towards the super-natural, and the alleged properties of God, and this is in large part due to the different cultural and philosophical background in which that person was raised. The overall point is, of course, that we are prejudiced or conditioned in the West (or anywhere else) to accept claims and arguments about God in a very uncritical manner—and it would seem that this is exactly what Geivett wants us to do!
Clifford’s Argument against Religious Belief:
If a ship owner was told that his ship may be unseaworthy, but he decided to let the ship sail because he had “faith” that the ship would not sink, then we would judge that the ship owner's actions were morally wrong (or, at least, unjustified), especially if the ship did indeed sink. Conclusion: There is no justification for believing in a claim if there is no evidence for the truth of the claim. We should remain agnostic (or undecided) if there is no evidence that favors the truth of the claim. In fact, believing in something where there is no evidence is dangerous and immoral—why?: because belief in the absence of evidence increases human credulity or gullibility, and this weakens the human species (and can cause disasters, as in the “ship owner” case). Problem: Is believing in God really like believing in a non-seaworthy ship, such that the belief will lead to disastrous results? Some will argue that religious belief is not dangerous, but rather beneficial for people. We will pick up this point in the discussion of James article below.
Mavrodes article, in this section, makes some fairly controversial claims about the nature of proofs, but that is beyond the bounds of our investigation. His main conclusion seems correct, however: he asserts that, before we can start offering proofs for or against God’s existence, we need to know, or agree, about the ontology of God (i.e., God’s nature or properties, and what can be legitimately stated to hold true of God). But, since it will probably never be the case that we all agree on God’s nature, proofs for and against God will hence probably never be acceptable to all parties engaged in the controversy.
Verification and religious experience:
Many philosophers, such as Antony Flew, have argued that religious beliefs, such as “God exists”, or “God is all-good”, are meaningless, such that there does not appear to be any form of evidence that would disprove these claims for a believer. To give an example, the religious person often claims that “God loves us”; but, it would seem that no matter how much suffering a theist observes in the world, they will still believe in the truth of the claim. Essentially, Flew claims that there is no conceivable experience that could force a religious person to stop believing in the truth of the assertion “God loves us (or exists, or is all-good, etc.)”, thus the assertion must be meaningless. It is meaningless because it is no different from asserting nothing at all; or, it is no different from the assertion that “God does not love us, or does not exist, or is not all-good, etc.” (since no experience can ever disprove these claims either). Flew's criticism may reveal an important truth about the nature and function of religious beliefs for the ordinary person (since religious beliefs seem to function as a form of general hope or desire that things will go well in our lives—and there is no evidence to back up these purely faith-based belief tendencies). Nevertheless, his belief that religious claims are “meaningless” is a much stronger, and more problematic, conclusion. Is it really the case that no evidence could ever disprove, or prove, God's existence? If Flew is stating that a claim is only meaningful if there exists a completely certain (100%) disproof/proof of the truth of that claim, then practically all of our beliefs would be rendered meaningless (because there are still people around who claim that no evidence has ever disproved the claim, “the Earth is flat”, or completely proven the opposite claim, “the Earth is round”, thus both claims are meaningless—and this is an absurd conclusion to reach, of course). In fact, if God were to descend from the sky tomorrow, it seems that there would be ample evidence to prove God's existence; so, it seems that God's existence is hypothetically verifiable (i.e., it is conceivable), and thus talk of God's existence is meaningful. Flew's argument relies upon a version of the “verificationist theory of meaning” (namely, only claims that can be verified through experience are meaningful); but, as demonstrated above, this theory is very suspect when taken to extremes, as may be the case with Flew's argument.
Belief without Evidence: A Defense
Pascal’s “Wager”: An Argument for believing in God:
This is an argument that tries to prove that it is to your advantage to believe that God exists. The argument doesn’t try to prove that God exists, however, but only states that you are better off believing in God. That is, believing in God is a better bet than not believing in God (because the rewards are better). If you believe in God, you will have eternal happiness in the afterlife, and only sacrifice a small amount of happiness in this life; whereas, if you don't believe in God, you will gain a small amount of happiness in this life, but be punished with eternal unhappiness (i.e., Hell) in the afterlife. So, it is to your long-term advantage to believe in God.
Problems: (1) One has to accept that God punishes non-believers with eternal damnation, and only rewards believers (with Heaven)—but many would reject this conception of a harsh and cruel God that only rewards believers, and punishes non-believers. (2) Would a God who sends people to Hell for not believing in Him really be happy with a person who believes only because they see a profit in believing?! Lycan and Schlesinger claim (p. 198) that once one becomes a believer, then the person would then have a sincere belief. But, the rational motivation is still a self-centered motivation, and this harsh God would certainly not be happy about that motivation. For example, suppose I were to make this plan: I will first steal a million dollars, and I will then undergo a mental transformation that makes me believe that stealing is morally wrong. Thus, I can steal a million dollars, and still be a good person who believes stealing is wrong. What a great plan! Unfortunately, as anyone can plainly see, the underlying motivation (and plan) is still based on self-serving reasons—and this exactly the self-serving message that Pascal offers us. (3) The obvious shortcoming of this argument is that is based on the Western conception of God. But, why accept only this possibility? Maybe the Eastern god is the one true god? (4) Following up on the last point, it seems like you could make a version of the argument that proves that you are better off to not believe in God: Suppose there is an Evil-God that punishes people who believe in God, and rewards people who don’t believe in God. So, if you evaluate the choices, you are better off not believing in God, and much worse off believing in God. (5) Is it possible for a person to believe in a claim (such as “God exists”) if the evidence is really insufficient (or neutral)? Are you really believing in the claim, or are you just pretending that you believe? That is, is it psychologically possible to believe in a claim if your reason informs you that the claim cannot be known? Pascal seems to think that you can change your behavior and just start acting as if you believe (by going to church, etc.), and that, eventually, you’ll just start to believe, supposedly, out of force of habit! But, it is unclear that this transformation can take place for a thoughtful or reflective person: that is, a person who constantly wonders and thinks about their beliefs may not be so easily transformed. Besides, this sounds a lot like an attempt to brain-wash yourself into being a believer, and isn’t all brain-washing morally wrong? Clifford would agree that it is wrong, since you are making yourself more gullible. Lycan and Schlesinger claim that this can be done (p. 198), but notice that their explanation says that you have to stop reading certain things, acting in certain ways, etc., and this sounds a lot like a self-induced form of brain-washing, such that any kind of skeptical thinking about God is banished from your mind. But, this is a dangerous game to play, since you may be setting a bad precedent for yourself, and thus start believing many other things because it is convenient or such that you see a benefit in it. In fact, it is dangerous because you are demoting skeptical thinking, and thus, as Clifford would argue, you are making yourself more gullible in general.
James' Argument for Religious Belief:
If the evidence is not sufficient to either support or reject a claim, it is acceptable to believe in that claim if believing in it will provide useful or beneficial results. So, since the evidence does not deny or prove that God exists, then it is permissible to believe in God due to its beneficial effects (e.g., the belief allegedly makes people happier, etc.). James believes, furthermore, that belief in God is a “forced” option: you either believe, or you do not believe, in God's existence (with no possible agnostic position).
(1) Is the evidence for God really neutral? Many would claim that the evidence shows that God does not exist. (2) Is a person really justified in believing in something even if the evidence favoring it is neutral? Wouldn't this promote human gullibility, just as Clifford claims? (3) James believes that the benefits of believing in God obviously outweigh the cost, but is this true? As history informs us, belief in God also promotes many harmful effects; such as war, hatred, etc. Thus, maybe belief in God is overall a detriment to human happiness, rather than an increase in happiness. (4) James argument that belief in God is a “forced” option cannot be based on the “truth” of the belief, but must be based on its alleged beneficial effects. That is, the agnostic (neutral) position is a plausible position to take if one is concerned with the truth of God's existence (i.e., does such a being exist?), but one cannot take an agnostic position if one is concerned with eternal reward and punishment (because being an agnostic is the same as not believing given that Heaven and Hell are the only options, and so the agnostics “go to Hell” alongside atheists). Consequently, James' argument seems to be turning into another version of “Pascal's Wager” (as above), and there are numerous problems with Pascal's argument, of course. (5) Same problem as above for Pascal: Is it possible for a person to believe in a claim (such as “God exists”) if the evidence is really insufficient (neutral)? Are you really believing in the claim, or are you just pretending that you believe? That is, is it psychologically possible to believe in a claim if your reason informs you that the claim cannot be known? Like Pascal, James seems to think that you can change your behavior and just start acting as if you believe (by going to church, etc.), and that, maybe, you’ll just start to believe, supposedly, out of force of habit! But, it is unclear that this transformation can take place for a thoughtful or reflective person: that is, a person who constantly wonders and thinks about their beliefs may not be so easily transformed. (Besides, this sounds a lot like an attempt to brain-wash yourself into being a believer, and isn’t all brain-washing morally wrong? Clifford would say that it is wrong because your making yourself more gullible, and that is always wrong.)
Kierkegaard: Fideism, and “Subjectivity is truth”
Kierkegaard (1813-1855) does not believe that reason can bring about a resolution of the tension between our finite existence (temporary experiences, desires, beliefs, and our understanding of our limited being) and our infinite aspirations for some overall unity of the temporary events that comprise our lives (and thus would give meaning and significance to these moments). Kierkegaard thinks that our separate temporary experiences lack meaning and significance on their own. Reason cannot resolve this dichotomy, and, since reason cannot either prove or disprove God’s existence, reason cannot solve the problem of finding meaning in our existence. Thus, Kierkegaard is often judged to be a “fideist”, which claims: reason cannot be used to support or reject faith. Often, fideists go further, claiming that “faith” (belief in God) does not require reason, since it is above or beyond reason. In other words, reason is “limited” (and God lies outside these limits), whereas faith is not. Faith is thus important to fideists. (Mysticism, or mystics, can also be regarded as a form of fideism.)
Problems with fideism:
(1) if you give up reason, how do you evaluate different “belief” systems, or pseudo-sciences, or any kind of nonsense? What if somebody has “faith” in UFOs, ghosts, or the “Great Pumpkin”? If we can’t use reason to judge the plausibility and consistency of these belief systems (because, of course, the fideists claim that faith is above and beyond reason), then it seems that all belief systems are equally worthy or valid (and this seems crazy). In fact, reason works well for all of our human functions, so why should we reject reason simply because we can’t use it to get something we desire (namely, God’s existence)?
(2) How can a fideist even argue that faith is above, beyond, or better than reason (as some do)? To make that claim, one has to compare and contrast the benefits and value of both faith and reason—but, comparing and contrasting two concepts requires reason, and is a rational process! So, one can’t meaningfully declare that faith is better than reason—on the whole, this demonstrates the absurdities and contradictions involved in trying to think about or discuss something that is “non-rational”. In short, something which is non-rational to us (in the sense that it is not subject to rational investigation) is something that we cannot comprehend at all. And, something which we cannot comprehend is something that we cannot have any meaningful ideas about, or discuss coherently (and thus we can’t make comparisons of “better” or “worse”).
David Hume made the following argument against all mystics or those who would state that God is beyond reason:
“The Deity, I can readily allow, possess many powers and attributes, of which we can have no comprehension: But if our ideas, so far as they go, be not just and adequate, and correspondent to his real nature, I know not what there is in this subject worth insisting on. Is the name, without any meaning, of such mighty importance? Or how do the MYSTICS, who maintain the absolute incomprehensibility of the Deity, differ from skeptics or atheists, who assert, that the first cause of All is unknown and unintelligible?” (David Hume, 1711-1776, Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion)
(3) Furthermore, how can you know or prove that reason is limited (as some fideists do)? It would seem that you would have to use reason to prove that reason is limited, and is this even possible? More problematically, even if one accepts that reason has limits, how can one know that there are truths/facts “outside” reason (i.e., things we cannot in principle know anything about)? Is the idea of non-rational knowledge meaningful? Without a relation to our reason, could we even be aware of such non-rational knowledge? It would have to be “knowledge” which has no relationship with our rational knowledge, and thus it would seem to entail that we had a “split personality” as regards knowledge claims (that is, one part of us deals with rational knowledge, and one part of us concerns non-rational knowledge—which seems impossible, or, at the least, goes against our experience of humans and there claims to knowledge). More specifically, the hypothesis that knowledge may be either rational or non-rational, and that different, non-communicable parts of our mind process these different types of knowledge, does not see to be true of people who declare they have knowledge of God. People who claim to know God often talk about this knowledge and compare it with other things they claim to know. Therefore, since this claim to knowledge, i.e., God, seems to be knowledge that they can meaningfully discuss and compare, it must be a normal claim to knowledge after all (and thus not non-rational knowledge).
Kierkegaard made some interesting statements on the “absurdity of faith”, of which he was completely aware:
“What then is the Unknown? It is the limit to which the Reason repeatedly comes, and in so far . . . it is the different, the absolutely different. But because it is the absolutely different, there is no mark by which it could be distinguished.” (Philosophical Fragments)
“[What] a tremendous paradox is faith, a paradox which can transform a murder into a holy act pleasing to God, a paradox by which Isaac is returned to Abraham, a paradox which no thought can encompass because faith begins where thought leaves off.” (Fear and Trembling)
Truth is Subjectivity:
There are different interpretations of Kierkegaard’s “truth is subjectivity” claim.
(A) When the meaning and fulfillment of one’s life is at stake, one’s attitude towards the object of one’s concern takes precedence over the issue of whether one is actually right about some fact. As thus described, (A) is the weak reading of “truth is subjectivity”, since it doesn’t deny objective truth, but merely places more emphasis on the passion and intensity of the believer. Problems: (1) But why can’t all people (even atheists) obtain this passion towards something they believe, and not simply the religious (as he believes)? (2) The passion to believe in God seems irrelevant if it is an objective fact that God doesn’t exist. Incidentally, many of Kierkegaard’s claims seem to favor the strong reading below.
(B) The passion and intensity of the belief actually makes the belief true. This is the strong reading of “truth is subjectivity”. Problem: Believing something is true doesn’t make it true!
More Problems for both interpretations (A and B): For Kierkegaard, Christianity is the ultimate paradox because it is the belief that God (infinite/eternal) became human (finite/temporal), or “the eternal is in time.” But, this defies rational understanding and is thus “absurd.” We must take the “leap of faith” to accept this view—but can we? If our reason tells us that God is absurd (incoherent, illogical, etc.) can we really have a belief in it (or are we just pretending to believe in it)? Alternative reading: by “absurd,” Kierkegaard simply means “not understandable through reason,” and not “illogical (or contradictory or incoherent)” —so, God is possibly logically. Problem: he seems to mean the stronger reading, and it is still unclear if you can really believe in something passionately which is not understandable through reason.
Adam’s article raises some interesting problems for Kierkegaard’s arguments. As noted by Adams, Kierkegaard seems to think that faith is not only incompatible with objective reasoning, but that faith must also reject any doubts about what it believes (although other passages may go against this). First, Kierkegaard dismisses any appeal to historical evidence or possible future evidence that would make the belief objectively justifiable. All evidence for him, is only an approximation (i.e., it only has a probability of being true), and “believing in something” cannot be approximate, rather it must be total and certain. And, counting on the possibility of future evidence means that you might change your beliefs in the future if evidence goes against it. But, reasons Kierkegaard, a person who has faith in God must be totally committed to the truth of God’s existence, and so possible future evidence must be irrelevant to that person’s faith. As Adams correctly points out, “faith” for Kierkegaard means being absolutely certain and not even considering the possibility of changing your belief. Yet, this is not “faith” as many people understand or practice “faith”. Rather, faith can mean just believing that the evidence favors God’s existence, or, that you simply believe in God’s existence, but it is possible that you might change your belief. Kierkegaard’s form of “faith” is really a form of fundamentalism about faith, such that the person has complete certainty, and thus cannot be wrong. Yet, as we all know, this type of religious faith is very dangerous, and, as Adams argues, seems to be contrary to the humility and open-mindedness often preached by religions. Finally, Kierkegaard holds that the passion of the belief is extremely important, and that, the more improbable is the truth of the being or state-of-affairs that one believes in, the greater is the faith of that person. So, if you believe in something totally contradictory, the more passion you will need to believe in it, and the greater will be your faith. But, doesn’t that make “faith” a possibly dangerous thing (as argued above)? Also, as Adams notes, the passion that Kierkegaard recommends brings with it much sacrifice and pain (since believing in such improbabilities entails that the person is constantly at odds with their own reason, as well as with other people); and, is that what an all-good God would prefer?
Reformed epistmology: Plantinga
Plantinga wants to argue that our belief in God is a “justified” belief (where “justified” can be interpreted as a belief that it rational or legitimate for a person to hold). Plantinga also seems to want to say that religious beliefs can constitute “knowledge”, but for a claim to count as knowledge, it has to be true; and Plantinga seems to shy away from coming right out and saying that God’s existence is true. So, the justification of religious belief is Plantinga’s main goal, and he appeals to a sort of “divine sixth sense” to try to prove his point (p. 221). Plantinga appeals to the “Aquinas/Calvin” thesis, which seems to hold that our belief in God is “occasioned” by certain circumstances, such as contemplating the night sky, or reading the Bible: that is, these circumstances produce in us a belief, and that belief, according to Plantinga, just spontaneously is produced in us under the appropriate conditions obtaining. Plantinga wants to compare the rationality of religious in this way to the rationality of our perceptual beliefs. If I have a perception of a chair, then the belief “I see a chair” just spontaneously arises in me, or, the belief “1+1=2” just comes to me (once I know enough mathematics, supposedly). Plantinga wants religious beliefs to be like these types of belief claims, and he uses the term “properly basic”. A “properly basic” belief is a belief that we are justified in holding as long as no evidence counters or undermines the belief: for example, the belief that “I see a chair” is a properly basic belief, since I am justified in holding that belief unless good evidence is presented that shows that my belief really is mistaken (such as a hologram image deception, or a dream, etc.). So, it would seem that Plantinga would like us to go one step further and accept that the truth of the claim “God is talking to me” for the same reason that I would accept the truth of the claim that “I see a chair”. Why? Well, let us return to the chair example: since I have no reason to doubt that “I see a chair”, or “1+1=2”, is true unless someone presents solid evidence or arguments against this belief, it appears that Plantinga wants us to reach the same conclusion with respect to religious claims, such as “God is talking to me”. Like the other properly basic beliefs, Plantinga seems to want to argue that such claims as, “God is taking to me”, must also be accepted as true, since properly basic beliefs are, as a matter of fact, considered true (unless challenged by evidence, etc.).
(1) Many skeptics would claim that there are good arguments and sufficient evidence to disprove such claims as “God is talking to me”: e.g., the theories that hold that religious experiences are a natural psychological event, and thus do not come from a supernatural source (to be discussed further in another section). Plantinga’s attempt to compare religious beliefs with other “properly basic” beliefs is really the problem, here, for other properly basic beliefs are much more certain, and thus likely to be true, than religious beliefs. Take, for example, “I see a chair”: Now, it could be the case that I’m currently dreaming of seeing a chair, but the belief “I see a chair” is still properly basic (and probably true) because the circumstances involving such dreams or hologram deceptions are very unlikely, and, we also have past experience of sorting out dreams from reality, etc. But, this cannot be true in the case of religious beliefs, because we just don’t know anything about the supernatural circumstances that occasion religious beliefs. In fact, there seems to be very plausible (non-supernatural) explanations for the occurrence of our religious beliefs and, importantly, this is not the case for the other properly basic beliefs, where you have to invoke very unlikely explanations for, say, “I see a chair” being false (such as a really deceptive dream or hologram, etc.).
(2) As is obvious, Plantinga's argument quickly leads to the absurd conclusion that the existence of many imaginary beings and gods, such as the “tooth fairy” or “the Great Pumpkin”, can also be proven (because many people will claim to have “basic beliefs” of these entities, too): e.g., I have a “basic belief” that a UFO alien is trying to abduct me, thus the UFO alien must exist. Plantinga tries to counter this objection by claiming that ultimately some evidence will show that other competing basic beliefs are false. In short, he holds that evidence (“inductive” support, p. 225) will eventually show that the properly basic belief, “I see God's hand in nature” (which he believes supports the existence of the Christian God) is really a properly basic belief, while the competing properly basic belief that “the Great Pumpkin is talking to me” is not. Yet, how can one ever prove that God is talking to me rather than the Great Pumpkin, or the god of some other religion, or simply a mental process that erroneously makes me think that I’m talking to some being? For these reasons, Plantinga seems to invoke “epistemic communities” (i.e., groups of people who have the same outlook or general beliefs about the world) as means of determining the status of properly basic beliefs: to be specific, he seems to hold that a belief can only be properly basic if there is a community that, from their perspective, judges the belief to be properly basic. Plantinga’s assertion that the Christian community need not consider the examples or arguments of an atheistic community seems to prove that the judgment of “properly basic” can only come from within a community. In addition, he seems to want to argue that there is no “Great Pumpkin” community, and that is why such claims as “the Great Pumpkin is talking to me” are not properly basic (see, also, Sennett’s defense on p. 227). Yet, this is a terrible reply, since there are many other (actually existing) communities that would not only reject Plantinga’s set of properly basic beliefs, but would have their own set of properly basic beliefs as well (such as voodoo communities, or the communities of other gods or cults; see both Parson’s article, and Martin, p. 235). That is, Plantinga’s response seems to allow a community of voodoo practitioners to claim that, within their own community, such claims as, “voodoo magic caused the event” is indeed properly basic. So, Plantinga’s theory leads to a form of relativism, such that each community has its own set of properly basic beliefs (and thus it has beliefs that it thinks are true). Unfortunately, a theory that leads to this form of relativism is not acceptable, for the simple reason that not all of the gods and supernatural beings that are claimed to exist by different communities can all be true!
Aquinas’ argument for reason and revelation as complimentary
For Aquinas, there are truths about God that can be discovered by reason and evidence, and there are truths of God that can only be known by a revelation from God. For him, revealed truths surpass reason and evidence, and are of a higher order. Philosophical reason can be useful in (1) defending faith against philosophical objections raised by non-believers, and (2) providing the foundation for faith by proving the existence of God and certain fundamental attributes of God, or by showing God’s existence is not impossible (negative theology). Supposedly, revealed truths are not a mystical or “non-rational knowledge” with its own form of logic; rather they are truths that human reason cannot attain due to our intellectual limitations. Also, the truths of reason cannot contradict revealed truths. In addition, for Aquinas, “grace” allows the will of the believer to “assent” to God as the guarantor of the truth of the propositions of revelation (thereby allowing us to assent to these truths). The will assents to rational truths based on evidence (which is unavailable in the case of revealed truths).
Problems: On Aquinas’ view, philosophy is the “Handmaid of Religion”, since revealed truths are supposedly greater than the truths which our normal rational thinking can obtain, and the faculty of reason is inferior to revelation as means of obtaining truth. Yet, this does not appear to be the case, since faith is still dependent on philosophy. For Aquinas, fundamental religious concepts must be first shown to be philosophically meaningful, and thus reason must first prove that revelation makes sense before one can take it seriously. Accordingly, reason “usurps the role of the mistress of the house”. In fact, Aquinas seems to think that his arguments for God’s existence (discussed earlier) provide the foundation for claiming that revelation is legitimate—yet, as we have seen, these arguments do not succeed; moreover, it may be impossible to ever formulate arguments that do prove the existence of supernatural entities. In fact, given the contradictions in the Western conception of God (raised earlier, and more will be discussed), maybe reason concludes that revelation is without any legitimacy at all! Finally, what is the status of “grace”? How can one know that the alleged revealed truths really come from God, and are not merely natural, psychological events (more on this in another section)?
Part IV: The Problem of Evil
This is an argument that tries to prove that the western God does not exist. In the context of this argument, “evil” means “human suffering”. There are different formulations of the argument. One version of the argument (such as Mackie’s) claims that it is “deductive”, such that God must not exist because the definition of God (as all-good) is straightforwardly contradicted by the existence of human suffering (evil). Some versions of the argument rely on “induction” (which is making a generalization based on experience): that is, all of the individual theistic attempts to solve the problem of evil have failed, thus we can infer that no theistic solution can solve the problem. Also, some believe that the argument from evil is an instance of “abduction” (or “inference to the best explanation”); that is, the best explanation of the existence of evil is that God does not exist. Both the inductive and abductive versions are essentially the same, and can be given the following formulation:
1) If the all-good (all-powerful, all-knowing, etc.) God exists, then God would prevent unnecessary evil from occurring in the world.
2) There does exist unnecessary evil.
3) God does not exist.
Two types of Evil:
Human Evil (also called Moral Evil): the suffering caused by humans or by other higher beings with free-will (e.g., murder, stealing, etc)
Natural Evil: the suffering caused by nature (e.g., earthquakes, hurricanes, tsunamis, etc.)
Hume on the problem of evil:
Hume argues that if we were to make an inference about God's properties based on what we observed and experienced with respect to good and evil in the world, we would not conclude that God was all-good. Rather, given the presence of so much suffering in the world, in conjunction with our occasional happiness, we should judge that God is neither good nor evil (i.e., God has no moral properties at all). For Hume, this is the “best explanation” of the presence of pain/happiness in the world. It is interesting that Hume also hints to the theory of Evolution, for he states that our experience seems to show that it is the preservation of the species that is promoted in the world, and not the happiness of the individuals that constitute the species.
Attempts to resolve the Problem of Evil (called “Theodicies”):
A) The Limited God Option: This reply accepts the argument from Evil, but claims that it only shows that God is limited. In other words, God exists, but God is either not all-good, or not all-powerful, or not all-knowing. That is, one can get out of the problem if one assumes any of the following options: (i) that God cannot prevent evil because his powers are limited (but he would like to prevent it); (ii) or that God is morally neutral with respect to the suffering of humans (and thus God doesn’t try to stop it because it is not a concern of his), or that God just doesn’t know what will happen in the future, and thus doesn’t know what actions will cause suffering until it is already too late to prevent it (but he would like to prevent it). These attempts to solve the problem are not very popular in the West, since we normally conceive of god as the “greatest conceivable being”, and these versions of God seem to make him quite limited.
(B) The Knowledge Defense: We must experience “evil” in order to know the meaning of “good”. This reply rejects premise (2) of the argument from Evil, since it wants to claim that all suffering is necessary.
Problems: (i) Since God is all-powerful, why couldn't God just give us the knowledge of evil (without us having to experience it)? Giving us the knowledge of evil would not jeopardize our free-will, since we would still be able to commit evil if we so choose. (ii) Why is there so much evil? A small amount of evil would be sufficient to teach us the nature of good. Also, the fact that humans experience so much evil may have a negative effect in that humans eventually become desensitized to it (i.e., humans often become apathetic to something when they encounter too much of it). (iii) Finally, it seems crazy to declare that we can only know what “good” is by experiencing evil: Why can't we form the idea of evil from our experience of greater and lesser good things?—that is, we form an abstract concept of “evil” by taking the idea of some good thing and mentally taking away properties of that idea until we form the idea of an “evil” thing: e.g., take the idea of a good cup of coffee, and imagine it cold, and bitter, and expensive, etc. (which is the way we form ideas of many non-existent entities, such as unicorns, “perfect” movies or songs, etc.)
(C) John Hick's “Soul Making” Defense: The suffering in the world, both natural and human, ultimately serves to make us better humans because the pain we experience teaches us valuable lessons about life (i.e., it teaches us what to value, the morally right decisions to make, and it encourages sympathy, love, etc., for others). He also thinks that suffering brings us closer to God. If the world were not filled with suffering, argues Hick, then we would never grow up and mature morally Thus, evil eventually has a beneficial effect on humanity. This reply rejects premise (2) of the argument from Evil, since it also wants to claim that all suffering is necessary.
Problems: (1) The soul-making defense provides us with a false dichotomy, since it wants to claim that either God makes a world like ours with exactly as much suffering, or that God makes a world where people cannot develop their souls at all. But, why couldn’t God make a world where humans develop morally good virtues (such as love, charity, compassion, etc.) by another process, or by only experiencing suffering very rarely. For example, it is logically possible that humans could have been made by God such that they develop good virtues through just doing good deeds for others, as opposed to experiencing suffering: so, why didn’t God make that world, since it would only take a change in our human psychology (which is logically possible, and God can do what is logically possible)? Furthermore, the amount of suffering seems very excessive, and thus could have been a great deal less (and, as in the Knowledge-defense, the amount of suffering we experience in our world may actually be detrimental to the process of soul making, since we can easily become desensitized to something that we experience so often, or become cruel or cowardly as a result of experiencing so much evil). Surely, God could have made a world where suffering is very rare, but that the effects the suffering has on us is very great as regards developing good moral virtues. (2) Hick’s system also seems to be terribly unjust, since it is ultimately using the suffering of innocent people to improve other people's souls, as well as using our own suffering to improve ourselves. Most of us would consider this an immoral system, since we believe that all innocent suffering is morally wrong, and that the use of other people for personal advantage, or the use of suffering in general for gain, is morally wrong. (3) In addition, if suffering is needed to develop souls, then all attempts to lessen the suffering in the world (if successful) would actually decrease the ability of the world to develop souls (since there would be less suffering), and thus trying to stop suffering actually goes against what God wants for our world! (By the way, couldn't many immoral actions use the same soul-making defense?: e.g., slave owners could claim that the suffering of the slaves improves the lives of the non-slaves, so slavery is really a beneficial thing for society). (4) Part of Hick’s theory is that God keeps an “epistemic distance” from us by not revealing himself to humans, since that would spoil the soul-making theodicy. In other words, if we knew that God existed, then we would all behave morally due to fear of punishment, etc., but then we would not develop moral virtues (rather, we would just go along with what God wants for self-interested reasons). But, this does not seem correct, for humans could still choose to go against God’s commandments even if they knew God existed, or at least disagree with those commandments. In fact, God seems to be so “distant” that the effects may be contrary to his plan: that is, many people, especially non-Western people, may have never heard of God, and thus could interpret the presence of so much evil as proof of an Evil God (who prefers suffering over happiness). (5) Much suffering is not observed by anyone, and thus does not benefit anyone. Example: a fawn that is trapped and killed by a forest fire in an uninhabited woods, such that no one ever knows or discovers the event. What soul-making “lessons” are learned from this suffering? Rowe uses this example as the centerpiece of his argument that much suffering serves no purpose at all, and so is evidence of God’s non-existence. (6) Finally, when confronted with the fact that many people don’t improve morally in this world (e.g., Hitler, Stalin, etc.), and that so many innocent children and infants die (obviously without developing their souls), Hick has claimed that the majority of their soul-making must occur in the “next life”. But, this reply is quite lame, such that the skeptic will judge it to be an ad hoc attempt to save the soul-making hypothesis from a devastating counter-example. Moreover, how do we keep developing our souls in the next life? It would seem that God would have to remain hidden from us, just as in our worldly existence (as described above); but how can God fail to reveal himself in the next life?!
(D) Leibniz and “The Best of All Possible Worlds” Defense: This defense is essentially another version of the kind of reasoning found in Hick’s soul-making defense, since it holds that our world is the “best of all possible worlds” that God could have created, and so human suffering must ultimately serve some purpose that makes the world a better place. Moreover, the limitations of human reason will not allow us to discover what that purpose might be. The problems with this hypothesis are the same as with Hick’s soul-making theodicy, but there are some additional difficulties. In particular, if our world is the best possible world, then if anything were different in our world, it would not have been the best possible. So, if any major or minor suffering in our world had been removed, then the world would not have been as “great”—but, this seems implausible, because it means that my anger over my coffee getting cold right now is necessary for the world to be a better place (or pick something else, like a toothache, or stubbing your toe, etc.)! In essence, our world sure seems like it could have been better if there were less suffering—and the “best of all possible worlds” believer must deny that seemingly common-sense observation.
Adam’s article is interesting in that it tries to argue for a case such that God is not always required to do the best possible action. Adam’s uses a lot of “legalistic”-type arguments to make his case, such as his contention that humans do not have a right to claim that they God has treated them unfairly if God makes a world that is not the best possible. Why?: since we would not have existed if God did not make any world, we thus don’t have a right to complain about the one we got! I think this type of reasoning in silly, and offensive to many theists, since it appears to be falling back upon a lawyer’s weasel-like interpretation of moral rights and obligations. Overall, Adams wants to defend some form of the “best of all possible world” defense, but he wants to allow God more options in making that best possible world. Yet, one of the features of God’s choice that Adams thinks must be the case is criterion (3): “Every individual creature in the world is at least as happy on the whole as it would have been in any other possible world in which it could have existed” (p. 282). But, this criterion does not seem to be true of our world, since we can easily imagine a vast number of people who would be, or could have been, more happy, and thus there is a possible world where those people are happier; and since God didn’t make that world, God must not exist.
(E) The Free-Will Defense: God has granted humans “free-will”, which entails that humans are ultimately responsible for their own actions, and thus God will not interfere with our freely-chosen actions, even if we choose actions which cause suffering in the world for others.
Problems: (1) The Free-Will defense only works for the evil caused by humans (human evil), while it does not explain the occurrence of evil caused by nature (natural evil), such as earthquakes, asteroids, disease, etc. Thus, the Free-Will defense does not resolve the entire problem. (2) Even if our choices are entirely free, God could have set up the world in such a way that our choices would have not caused as much suffering in the world. For example, humans could have been made much harder to injure or kill, so that any evil actions directed at other people would have to take a less-lethal form (but they would still be evil, and thus God could still judge us as before on the basis of our choices, etc.). Or, God could have given us laws of nature that are such that it very difficult to cause serious harm to other people (this is Gale’s argument, p. 299).
A Bad Response to the Problem of Evil: One often comes across this reply to the argument from evil: “God’s knowledge is so much greater than ours that we just cannot understand God’s reasons for allowing suffering; but there is a reason.” First, it is important to note that this is not a solution to the problem of evil, but only a hope to find a solution. Until the theist can explain why a supposedly all-good God allows such suffering in the world, we have every reason to discount this “promised explanation”, or give it a very low probability of being true.
Bernard’s article contains the following flawed arguments (p. 331-332): He thinks that the claim, “God does not exist”, based on the evidence of unnecessary suffering, is analogous to making a claim that, “alien life does not exist in the universe”, based on the fact that we haven’t found any alien life in our very small part of the universe. And, since the last inference is not justified (because we only know a small portion of the universe), therefore claiming that “God does not exist” is equally unjustifiable (since God, supposedly, has knowledge that we don’t). But, this is a false analogy, since there are relevant differences in the two cases. First, one is only justified in making claims about life within the whole universe if: (i) one has examined large portions of the universe, or (ii) one can show (somehow) that alien life cannot occur anywhere else in the universe due, say, to the fact that the laws of nature will not allow it. Therefore, if one can show that life somewhere else in the universe violates some law of nature (or some other physical process), then we are justified in making claims such as, “alien life does not exist in the universe”, even though we haven’t examined much of the universe. Consequently, it is not (i), but rather (ii) that is exactly analogous to the claim made by the atheist, that “God does not exist”, since both the presence of unnecessary evil and the failure of all known theodicies directly contradicts the claim that “God is all-good”, even though God may have knowledge that we don’t have. Or, put differently, not finding alien life on our little corner of the universe does not directly contradict the claim “alien life exists in the universe”, since it is quite plausible that it does exist in other places. But, we do have powerful evidence that directly contradicts the claim “God exists” (based on the presence of unnecessary suffering and the lack of a successful theodicy), and so it seems quite implausible to think that there are reasons that God has, and that we don’t, which would solve the problem of evil. At one point, Bernard appeals to the “argument from ignorance” to try to make his case. He claims that: “[skeptics] have not provided any reason to think that if God has good reasons to permit evil, we would be the first to know them” (p. 331). But, this is the “argument from ignorance” again, which is a fallacy (example: “the skeptics have not disproved the existence of ghosts, so ghosts must exist”). It’s not the job of the critic to prove that God must share all of his alleged knowledge with us (which would be impossible to do, just as proving the non-existence of ghosts is impossible); rather, it the job of the theist to give us a plausible explanation for why God would keep his reasons (for the existence of evil) from us. And, if the theist cannot provide a plausible explanation (and they haven’t), then the skeptic is justified in holding that evidence of evil strongly favors God’s non-existence (which is what the inductive and abductive versions of the argument claim).
Problems with Plantinga’s Free-Will Defense
Plantinga gives an overly complex attempt to resolve the problem of evil, but his main effort is aimed at trying to prove that God could not make a world where humans have free-will but never choose evil (i.e., never choose to perform actions that cause human suffering). Plantinga’s position is subject to the other problems mentioned above, but even his more limited defense fails. One of the problems resides in his understanding of free-will as Libertarianism (and so the section above on the “problem of free-will and God’s omniscience” will need to be examined; in particular, problem (C)). In fact, Plantinga’s hypothesis seems quite muddled, since he also thinks that God know what choices we will make, and that God makes the world knowing beforehand which choices we will make (p. 312). So, if God makes the world, and knows what choices we will make in any world that he chooses to make, then why couldn’t God make a world where the choices we make are always the morally good choices? Plantinga never responds to this criticism, and thus apparently didn’t see the troubling consequences of his own hypotheses.
Incidentally, Plantinga has argued (in other works) that natural evil may be due to demons or other powerful supernatural agents in the world who are causing these natural disasters of their own free-will(!?). It’s hard to know what to say to person who actually believes such things!
Part V: Religious Experience
Many people claim to have “experience” of God, and thus they claim that they “know” that God exists. As used in this context, these “experiences” are of a special type: i.e., they are not based on reason or sensory experience (through the 5 senses), rather, they are a form of “intuition”, such that the person just claims to “know” that “God exists”, or that they “know” that “God is talking to them”—but they don't know how they have acquired this knowledge. Sometimes this process is described as being like sense experience, since the person claims to “experience” God, and so that they know God exists because the allegedly experience God. The problem with this view is, of course, how one can have knowledge in this way (i.e., without knowing where the knowledge came from and how/why that you know it is true)? Is this really knowledge, or is it just a strongly held belief? (That is, having a belief is not identical to having knowledge.)
There are 2 types of these experiences:
(1) Mystical experiences: the person feels a “oneness-with-the-world”, or that they are a part of a greater world that encompasses much more than is revealed by normal experience (through the five senses). One can further divide these experiences into one of two sorts: Extrovert, where the person acquires the mystical experience through contact or interaction with the outside world; and Introvert, where the person obtains the experience by an inward contemplation or reflection (and thus not through the outside world).
(2) Religious experience: the person has an experience of a personal God (god) or being (such as Jesus, Abraham, Vishnu, etc.) in a one-on-one manner. These types of experiences are very problematic, and are usually rejected by philosophers (and even many theologians) because they lead to a hopeless form of relativity or contradiction. That is, since there are people from many different religions who claim to have these religious experiences, and these religions often disagree quite drastically on the fundamental properties of the god (or God), we end up in the unfortunate position of having to acknowledge either the simultaneous existence of several mutually-incompatible Gods/gods (e.g., we have to accept the existence of several Gods, each claiming to be the “only God”, which is a contradiction); or, we have to acknowledge that there exists a single God/god who possesses contradictory properties at the same time (e.g., all-good and not all-good, personal and not personal, etc.). One might try to embrace the relativism, and declare that God's properties really are relative to a particular culture or world view. Yet, this admission implies that, say, God is only “all-good” for the Western world, and not for all of the cultures of the East, or other regions and times throughout history—and making God's properties relative in this way is usually considered to undermine the very nature or concept of God (since, returning to our example, these people want to hold that God is really “all-good” for all people and at all times, since anything less would not be God). A second huge problem for religious experiences concerns how we actually “experience” God. In short, how do you experience an all-powerful God that has no material body? What are you experiencing, in fact? If God reveals himself as some kind of lesser being, say, by taking on the form of a normal looking person, then how do you know that it is God (and not just a normal looking person pretending to be God)? It is partially for this reason that some take religious experience to be more like knowing something than perceiving something.
The “Unanimity” Thesis:
C. D. Broad argued that there is a unanimity (similarity) in the reports of the details of mystical experiences among many people from many different cultures, races, and ages throughout human history: in other words, many different people have allegedly had the same mystical experiences, and he thought that this was a reason to believe that these experiences must be truthful, and thus must really come from some supernatural source (since it would be too much of a coincidence if all these different people had the same experience.
Problems for the Unanimity Thesis (and other problems for both mystical and religious experiences):
(1) Do all these people have the same mystical experience, or are they just using the same language and concepts to describe them? Since these experiences are hard (if not impossible) to describe using our ordinary concepts and words (i.e., they are “ineffable”, as William James calls them), how can we know that one person's mystical experiences really are identical with another person's experiences? If you can't describe or conceptualize the experience, then how can you compare it with anything at all? It could be the case that all of these experiences are really quite different, but that we group all of them under the same vague heading, which we call a “oneness-with-the-world” experience.
(2) Maybe these mystical experiences are just natural experiences that occur when you contemplate, say, something beautiful in nature, of the starry sky, or just think about the vastness of the universe—and so they may not have a supernatural source after all. In fact, they may be purely “natural”, psychological experiences which we mistakenly think have a supernatural source.
(3) How do you verify that someone is having a “real” religious or mystical experience, and is not simply delusional/mad, or lying, or simply experiencing some form of bodily or chemically induced hallucination? Since these experiences are unverifiable through the use of our (normal) sensory experience, or by using reason, how can they ever be proven to be true, and thus how can they constitute convincing evidence for the existence of God?
(4) Much work has been done recently on the brain science relating to religious and mystical experience or belief, and it is now known that certain types of brain activity, or brain stimuli, can trigger experiences which many people will interpret as religious (or mystical). So, science has purely natural explanations for these experiences (e.g., it is known that sensory deprivation can induce hallucinations, and many monks practice a sensory-depriving form of meditation). And since these natural explanations are both simpler and consistent with what we know about the world, they are much more plausible explanations of these experiences than the supernatural explanations.
(5) Why is it a fact that most people who claim to have had religious or mystical experiences are already believers? That is, the overwhelming majority of non-believers have not had religious or mystical experiences (or, if they have had that “oneness-with-the-world” feeling, they have simply regarded it as a natural experience). But, if God provides these experiences to all people, and we assume an equal distribution of these experience among all different types of people, then one would assume that non-believers should get these experiences in the same numbers or proportion as the believers (or maybe the non-believers should get more, since God would want to convert them). The best explanation for why non-believers don’t have religious or mystical experiences, of course, is that they are not pre-disposed or biased towards having them, as the believers are pre-disposed. Specifically, the believer may be expecting or wishing to have an experience of God, and so they are much more apt to confuse a natural experience as an experience of a supernatural sort (just as believers in the reality of ghosts or UFOs, for example, are the people who report the vast majority of the sightings of ghosts and UFOs, because they confuse odd sounds in their house as ghosts or the planet Venus as a UFO).
(6) How does a supernatural, immaterial agent causally interact with our natural, material brain to bring about an experience of God? Which part of the brain is involved? If religious and mystical experiences are like a “sixth sense”, as some claim (like Plantinga), then where is that sense organ? We know where the other five sense organs are located, and how they function and give information to the rest of the brain, so where is the “divine sense organ”?
Part VI: Miracles
Hume’s argument against miracles. The argument against the possibility of miracles comes from Hume, and has generated a lot of controversy, even from Hume's admirers.
For Hume, miracles are: (1) violations of a law of nature, and (2) caused by God (or some other supernatural entity). Now, if someone reports that they have witnessed a miracle, then, by Hume’s definition, this miracle must violate some law of nature (such as a person floating through the air, which violates the law of gravity). Hume argues that the evidence that supports a miracle is always insufficient to overturn the evidence which supports the law of nature that has allegedly been violated by that miracle. In other words, since laws of nature are just causally related events that have always been observed to hold true (i.e., this is Hume's analysis of causation), it follows that the evidence in favor of the law of nature will always be substantially greater than the evidence in favor of the miracle (which supposedly violates that law). Thus, Hume concludes, the rational judgment, based on the preponderance of evidence, should be to reject the truth of the purported miracle that violates a law of nature. In fact, Hume states that it is only reasonable to believe in a miracle if it would be more miraculous to disbelieve in the evidence supporting the miracle (but presumably this is never the case).
Problems: Hume's argument is so strong that it would seem to rule out the possibility that any evidence could overturn a natural law, even the evidence that undermines a false natural law (e.g., the evidence of asteroids that undermined the Aristotelian theory of the universe). That is, if some new evidence comes along that were to contradict a law of nature, it seems that applying Hume's argument to this case would entail that we should reject the new evidence and simply accept the natural law (since, presumably, more past evidence has greatly favored the law). Yet, if this is what Hume's theory amounts to, then it must follow that no accepted law of nature can ever be overturned by new evidence—and this is clearly an unfortunate outcome for Hume, since many past, well-supported theories of nature have been overturned by new evidence.
Reply: Hume could claim, here, that the evidence needed to overturn a law of nature must be repeatable, consistent with our other natural laws, as well as verified by reputable investigators or an overwhelming number of observers: only then can a natural law be overturned by new evidence. (Hume even suggests this last interpretation, that there must be an overwhelming amount of evidence to overturn a natural law, when he discusses the “eight days of darkness” case.) But, highly verified and repeatable evidence in favor of some alleged event is not the kind of event that can claim to be a miracle; rather, that repeatable event would seem to be a new natural phenomenon covered by some new natural law. In fact, this is the real basis of the disagreement between Hume and his critics: since the supporters of miracles claim that a miracle is, by definition, a rare and unrepeatable event, there can never be enough evidence to overturn the natural laws that deny the occurrence of that miracle—but, they will claim, why couldn't there be such rare and unrepeatable events? Can you really dismiss outright the possibility of miracles? At this point, Hume could reply that miracles may really occur, but we can never know or prove their existence. Put differently, we are simply never justified in accepting the evidence put forward to support that some alleged event (that is brought before your attention) really was a miracle!
Another way to interpret Hume is to claim that, since we can never have complete knowledge of all the laws of nature (and if the laws we accept really are true), we can thus never know if a purported miracle is really a miracle rather than simply a newly discovered natural law. Since our knowledge of natural laws is based on evidence, and we can never know if we have accounted for all of the evidence, an alleged miracle may just be a rare natural phenomenon.
Problem: In response to this point, someone could claim that some events, if they were to occur, would be impossible to explain using natural, as opposed to super-natural, causes or forces. For instance, if a dismembered body were to have its detached parts instantaneously fly together (bringing back the life of the person, as well) after a certain religious ritual was performed, it could be claimed that this is certain proof of miracles. However, can anyone really be certain that this event was caused by a supernatural force, as opposed to a natural (if rare) force?
Part VII: Evolution
A thorough examination of this topic is beyond the bounds of this course (so take my Philosophy of Science course, where we discuss it at length). In short, evolution is the theory that explains the development of complex living organisms by demonstrating how small changes in the structures of living things can give an advantage to these beings in their natural environment. These advantages for the organism, in some cases, can increase the chance of its survival and reproduction, which means that the new trait is more likely to be passed on to the next generation of the species—and the small changes that follow from this process ultimately have led to the wide diversity of different life forms on earth (over the course of billions of years, of course). Evolution is one of the most well confirmed theories in science, both in terms of the evidence supporting the theory and the fact that the theory perfectly fits in with all of our other accepted theories of science. The claims by critics that the theory is not confirmed by evidence from the fossil record, etc., are false. In fact, Plantinga’s claim (p. 438) that the fossil record “is at best spotty and at worst disconfirming” is an outright distortion. “Creationists” believe in a supernatural creation of the universe, following the Genesis story in the Bible, and usually take a literal reading of the Bible (and so they accept, for instance, that Noah’s ark really existed, etc.). Most Creationist are “young-earth” believers, such that they believe the earth is only about 6,000 years old, and was created in six days by God as described in the Genesis account (so they take a literal, word-for-word interpretation of the Bible). Young-earth Creationists reject evolution, of course. In contrast, some Creationists, such as the “Intelligent Design” believers, accept the ancient age assigned by scientists for the universe and earth (roughly 15 billions years for the former, and 4.5 billion years for the latter), but they reject evolution; or, if they accept that species have evolved, think that a “higher intelligence” was the cause (i.e., God). The most common fallacious argument offered by the Creationists (and they offer a lot of fallacies, by the way) is that a person only has two choices: either accept a God-less universe with evolution (and no afterlife, etc.), or accept the Creationist story that contains God (and an afterlife, etc.) and rejects evolution. But, as noted previously, this is a “false dichotomy” since there are many other possibilities that the Creationist is not considering; in particular, maybe God does exist (and so there is an afterlife, etc.) but chose evolution as the means of bringing life into the universe. Many Christians accept that hypothesis, which is at least as consistent, as a religious thesis, as the Creationist alternative, and is certainly much better as a scientific thesis.
The article by the Kitchers nicely discusses these points, along with several others (and is highly recommended reading). Johnson’s article claims that evolution is against religion, and is trying to undermine religion, and is thus not neutral (as it supposedly claims to be). But, this is misleading, because science is the study of natural causes and processes, and so it cannot proclaim either the existence or non-existence of any supernatural being or process. Science just does not deal in, or work with, the supernatural, and so science cannot say anything about it. Science assumes a natural, and not supernatural, methodology. (For, how can you trust that a scientific experiment is providing real knowledge of the natural world if supernatural forces can effect the process?: that is, you can’t control, or determine the effects of, supernatural forces.)
What is Johnson upset about? He may think that not appealing to Gods or the supernatural is the same as saying that Gods or the supernatural do not exist—but this is a false conclusion to draw. For example, the fact that science does not use or involve artistic or moral processes in its explanations does not entail that science claims that art and morality do not exist! Biology teachers don’t reject God’s existence, they just don’t discuss God!
However, Johnson may be partially right to worry about the overall effect of the naturalistic, scientific view on religion. If science cannot claim that God does not exist, it does appear to make God redundant, such that God is entirely removed from the natural world as a causal force or agent. That is, if a conflict with science is to be avoided, then God would not appear to be a being who can interact physically in the universe, or even as a cause of the universe (since God would then by directly involved in physical processes, as noted above, and thus would be relevant to understanding the natural world—and this is a position that science cannot endorse). The controversy, therefore, concerns those claims made by the religious believers concerning God’s alleged causal intervention in the natural world, as in cases where God allegedly caused a miracle, or created the world (as in Genesis). There is a conflict with science if the religious person takes a “literal” interpretation of miracles and other supernatural acts (where “literal” means these events really occurred exactly as described in the Bible), since the religious person seems to be claiming there really are such supernatural causes. However, there is no problem with science if the religious person holds a “metaphorical” understanding of these alleged supernatural events (where “metaphorical” means that they didn’t really occur, but are simply stories that reveal certain moral or spiritual truths that God would want us to learn, etc.). But, since many religious people do believe that God can interact with the world, etc., there is thus a potential conflict with science.
Some philosophers and scientists have tried to downplay this possible conflict, by stating that both religion and science have their own domains of study or authority. Stephan Jay Gould, for instance, claims that religion deals with morality and meaning, and not science, so they need not conflict:
“No such conflict [between science and religion] should exist because each subject has a legitimate magisterium, or domain of teaching authority—and these magisteria do not overlap . . . . The net of science covers the empirical realm: what is the universe made of (fact) and why does it work this way (theory). The net of religion extends over questions of moral meaning and value. . . . Many of our deepest questions call upon aspects of both magisteria for different parts of a full answer—and the sorting of legitimate domains can become quite complex and difficult.”
Richard Dawkins counters this claim by stating that this reduces religion to just morality and questions about the meaning of life. But, he insists, this is wrong, both for the reason that science (and philosophy) can contribute much to the study of morality and the meaning of life (and may, in fact, be preferable to religion in studying these issues), and for the reason that most religious people don’t accept that their religion only involves morality and meaning (rather, for many of the religious, they also believe in an afterlife, souls, heaven, hell, God’s miracles, etc., which entail a supernatural intervention in the natural world studied by science). Dawkins argues:
“A universe with a supernatural presence would be a fundamentally and qualitatively different kind of universe from one without. The difference is, inescapably, a scientific difference. Religions make existence claims, and this means scientific claims. . . . The Virgin Birth, the bodily Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Resurrection of Jesus, the survival of our own souls after death: these are all claims of a clearly scientific nature. . . .”
Is it possible to find a middle ground between these two positions, such that God does not conflict with the naturalistic world view, but secures for religion a more substantive role in the world (rather than as just a basis for understanding questions about morality and the meaning of life)? Can there be a non-material, supernatural aspect of human existence, but which is causally separate from, and does not interfere with, the natural, material part of human life?
Part VIII: Immortality
Most theories of immortality claim that what survives the death of the body is the “soul”, which is usually associated with the mind (i.e., thoughts, feelings, beliefs, desires, etc.). The soul is considered to be akin to supernatural beings in that it is eternal and not material. The defining trait of immaterial entities is that they do not occupy space (i.e., they have no spatial dimensions). In contrast, material entities occupy space. The soul is also a form of “substance”, where “substance” is defined as an entity whose existence is independent, such that its existence is not dependent on any other substance (except God, of course). A good way to envisage a substance is as a sort of container in which properties inhere: therefore, a mental substance contains mental properties (e.g., thoughts, desires, memories, pains, sensory experiences, etc.). The theory that holds that a person is a combination of a soul and body is called “dualism”, while the view that regards mental properties as just properties of the brain is called “materialism”. Materialism only posits one substance, matter, while dualism holds that there are two substances, matter and soul.
There are three types of immortality: (1) the soul survives the death of the body but its existence is inferior to the joint body-soul existence (this is the Pre-Socratic Greek view); (2) the soul survives the death of the body but its existence is superior to the joint body-soul existence (this is the Platonic/Medieval Christian view); (3) the body (or a body) and the soul are united in the afterlife (this is the Early Christian/Aquinas view).
Problems with immortality (and Moreland’s article):
(1) What is the “self”?: soul, body, mind, brain states, or something else? The philosophical exploration of this concept is called “personal identity”, and the chief problem that it investigates is what constitutes a person’s identity over time. The most popular theories concentrate on the mind or brain, but not the soul. The problem with using the soul is that, as Locke noted, the soul is not observable or verifiable; specifically, we observe mental properties, such as thoughts, sensory experiences, etc., but we don’t observe the soul, which is the substance that contains mental properties. Locke argued that if a person exchanged their soul with another person, then it would be impossible to determine that anything had changed, since the person would still have the same mental properties (thoughts, desires, memories, etc.), thus the soul can’t be the basis of personal identity.
(2) There are numerous scientific arguments against the concept of an immaterial soul. In particular, brain science has shown that mental activity is dependent on brain activity, such that if you impair the brain, then you impair the mind—and this greatly supports materialism, which regards the mind as the functioning of the brain, and not a separate substance that can exist apart from the brain. Also, brain science has discovered that many mental faculties can be localized to specific regions of the brain, and thus there is a sense in which we can give a spatial location to mental properties, and this contradicts the claim that the soul has no spatial properties. Overall, no scientists accept dualism, and it is regarded as an antiquated view having no scientific merit, a fact that Moreland’s article fails to discuss.
(3) Another problem with the soul theory of personal identity (as mentioned in (1) above) is that it holds that the mind is unified by the soul; but this is contradicted by split-brain cases, where both halves of the brain have been isolated from one another (by removing the connection between them). In split-brain cases, both halves of the brain can operate independently of one another, and thus have different thoughts of which the other half is unaware (and this has been confirmed by evidence). But, if the soul unifies our mental life, as the Moreland article claims, then how can this happen? Are there now two souls? This strongly suggests that our mental life is best explained by materialism.
(4) Moreland attempts to defend dualism by claiming that mental properties are not like the physical properties of the brain, and so mental properties must not be physical (rather, they must be immaterial, like the soul): e.g., a mental pain is not like a neurochemical brain event, since a pain is a “feeling” and a brain event is not, thus they cannot be the same (and the materialist claims that they are the same, of course). But, this argument fails because all physical objects are similar in that way. For instance, the properties of subatomic particles, such as their charge, spin, etc., are not like the properties of ordinary objects, which includes color, solidity, texture, etc. (i.e., subatomic properties have no color, solidity, texture, etc.), even though subatomic particles make up large, macroscopic material objects. So, following Moreland’s reasoning, macroscopic objects must be classified as a different type of substance than the particles that comprise them—but that is absurd! So, Morelands’s argument leads to obviously false conclusions, and must be rejected.
(5) The final, and most important, problem for dualism (at least in the history of philosophy) can be put simply: How can an immaterial, non-spatial soul causally interact with a material, spatial body? This interaction seems physically impossible, and was largely responsible for consigning dualism to the trash heap of failed theories of the mind.
(6) Moreland claims that “near death experiences” (NDEs) support dualism, where NDEs are alleged cases where a person had nearly died, but supposedly experienced events during this time period; for instance, some have later reported watching people in the hospital room while floating in the air above their body, etc. However, there is no credible evidence for NDEs, despite what Moreland claims (p. 455). Over the past twenty years, much new evidence on these experiences has been discovered, and it seems that lack of oxygen to the brain is responsible for them (in essence, the person enters a dream state where they reconstruct their recent memories and experiences: other cases of oxygen deprivation to the brain also exhibit the same effects, such as when pilots “black out” in centrifuges). Moreland tries to give evidence for NDEs by referring to the case of a women who supposedly described in accurate detail what their family was doing at the time that they were near death. But this is pretty pathetic evidence for the reality of NDEs: not only is this evidence too subjective to take seriously (since it could have been misreported, misremembered, or faked), but most of us can probably give a fairly accurate guess as to what our family members are doing at certain times of the day! In short, the best scientific investigations of NDEs have found no evidence to support them.
(7) Moreland gives an argument that is seriously lame: he argues that, because we want to live after death, it must be the case that we can; and he basis this belief on the alleged fact that “all natural desires correspond to some real state of affairs that can fulfill it” (p. 460). He gives examples: humans have desires for food, and we know that food exists, or we desire love, and love exists, etc., therefore, since we desire heaven, heaven must exist?!! People desire things all the time which are impossible, such as to float in the air, talk to animals, read people’s minds, etc,—but, as we all know, those desires do not correspond to real things or possibilities!
Part IX: Religion, Ethics, and the meaning of life
There are interesting problems associated with God’s relationship to morality: if God is all-good, does that mean that God cannot do evil, and therefore God is not all-powerful? Also, if God is the basis of all living things, such that all beings are an “emanation” from God, or a part of God (as the Neo-Platonist believe), does this mean that evil (and the devil) are part of God? If yes, then God is not all-good, since he contains some evil. If no, then some things exist which are separate from God, contrary to the emanation theory.
Divine Command Theory (DCT)
Morality comes from, or is based on, God. So, following God’s commandments is the morally right thing to do.
Problems with DCT:
(A) Basing morality on God’s commandments seems to lead to an immature and self-centered morality, since the main motivation for a person to follow God’s commandments is to avoid punishment and gain reward (or, because God said so, and you just trust God). Thus, morality is based on a self-centered motivations. (Alternatively, since the believer may simply accept the word of the Bible or their religious authorities as regards morality, the reason for their moral actions is thus not thought about at all—and this is an equally disturbing outcome.)
In the article by Gensler, he tries to state that theistic morality has a deeper motivation than atheistic morality, since the theist has a personal relationship with God. But, Gensler ultimately invokes reward in heaven in discussing this deeper moral motivation (p. 485), and thus human self-interest becomes central to morality—and many people will find this a morally unenlightened justification.
In fact, some theists have claimed that an atheist has no reason for behaving morally, since God doesn’t exist to enforce morality for an atheist. Yet, this argument is quite silly, for the very foundations of human civilization and human happiness depend on a code of ethics in society; and, in addition, one can point to evidence that morality is based on an intrinsic human sense of compassion and sympathy, which is a fundamental biological trait. (Reason plays a role as well.)
(B) Which God is the “true” God? Since all religions have different moral codes, you not only have to prove that God exists, you also have to prove that only your God exists.
(C) Even if one religion is singled out, which religious text, which passage in that text, and which interpretation of that passage do you choose?
(D) Do people really get their morality from the Bible, or some other religious text, or their religious authorities? People often pick and choose what they want from their religion as regards moral rules, and this seems to conflict with DCT (since the individual seems to be basing morality on their own moral preferences). In fact, since nearly every type of human action is both endorsed and condemned in different parts of the Bible, it is more likely that the individual is constructing their own morality among the many options.
Plato’s “Euthyphro” argument against DCT
Are actions morally good because God commands them, or does God command them because they are morally good? There are two options:
1) God commands actions because they are morally good.
Problem: God is no longer the creator or foundation of morality but is merely the messenger of morality. That is, the goodness of actions seems to be independent of God since God commands them because they are good; but, then we still need to determine why actions are good (and DCT was supposed to have provided this basis).
2) Actions are morally good because they are commanded by God.
Problems: This means that whatever God commands is good; so, if God commands that “murder is morally good”, then it is morally good to commit murder! Therefore, this option leads to a “might makes right” form of morality, which many people find morally wrong. If someone were to respond to this criticism by saying, “God only chooses actions which are based on reason when he makes morality (and a system that accepts murder is irrational),” then God is using reason to determine morality. But, God is then using a process (reason) that must be outside or separate from himself, and thus we are back in option (1), which we have seen has its own problems. Likewise, if the theist were to respond by stating, “but God loves us, so he wouldn’t pick a morality that causes us harm”, then the theist is relying on “love” as an independent moral value that constrains God’s actions, such that God can only love us by being nice to us (and this is option (1) again). Overall, if a theist accepts option (2), then it appears that there can be no other basis for morality then God’s mere commandments or will; and this seems troubling, for it makes morality both arbitrary (i.e., it could have easily been different) and such that humans can never understand morality. By the way, most theists do not like option (2), probably because the human experience of the horrors associated with “might makes right” forms of morality has made it simple unacceptable. It is interesting that Kaye, who was supposed to have given a defense of option (2), ends up by rejecting it and accepting option (1) instead (p. 484), as Gensler correctly points out (p. 486-487).
Also, if “(morally) good” is defined as “what God commands”, then the statement “God is good” is really the statement “God does what God commands.” But, this is not what a person intends to say when she claims “God is good”, since the person intended to provide real information about God (namely, that he is good), whereas the person did not intend to state the useless tautology that “God does what he commands”. In short, the claim “God is good” seems to state that the property of “goodness” can be ascribed to God, thus “goodness” must be separate from God (and not identical to “what God commands”).
part x: religious pluralism
There are numerous differences between religions: one versus many gods, personal versus impersonal gods, afterlife versus no afterlife, moral codes, religious life, etc.
“Exclusivist”: one's own religion is true, all the other are false. Problem: which religion is the true religion? For the exclusivist, salvation comes from faith in that one true religion; but, the following cases present problems: (i) people who didn't hear the religion's message; and (ii) those virtuous and good people who did hear the religion's message but rejected it. One way to solve these problems is to accept “Inclusive”: this view still accepts that there is one true religion (and all the others are false), but who is included in that religion is increased to include all of the people covered in cases (i) and (ii). Besides the same difficulty mentioned above, of determining which religion is the one true religion, this theory also suffers in that it seems to undermine the importance of being one of the people who actually hears and follows the message of that one religion. Since merely being a virtuous person is enough to get into heaven, it no longer seems to be all that important to hear the one true religion's message, and this weakens the motivation for following that religion.
“Pluralism” (John Hick's version): this theory holds that all religions are just different expressions of the same divine reality.
Problems with pluralism:
(1) How is it possible for all religions to be truthful descriptions of the identically same ultimate reality? Either God is personal or impersonal, there is an afterlife or no afterlife, etc.—they can't all be correct because this would be a violation of the law of non-contradiction (which is the thesis that it is impossible for something to possess a property and lack it at the same time and in the same way). Hick’s pluralist might attempt to resolve this problem by arguing that God is personal from one religion's perspective, and not personal from another religion's perspective; and this would avoid violating the law of non-contradiction because God is not both personal and impersonal from the same perspective (religion); rather, God is only personal from one religious perspective, and impersonal from another religious perspective. Yet, the problem still remains, since one is admitting that God is not ultimately or completely personal (or impersonal), and the believers of those religions will not accept that God only has those qualities from a certain perspective. Since it has just been acknowledged that some other religion has an equally valid view of God, a view which contradicts the person’s own religious view, this conclusion once again undermines the justification for believing in the specific theories of God espoused by that particular religion. Moreover, Hick’s article seems to prefer the personal conception of God over the impersonal, since he claims that the impersonal conception of God allows for the possibility of a personal conception (p. 507), whereas he doesn’t discuss the possibility that a personal conception of God can be interpreted as an impersonal God. So, Hick may not really accept this form of reply after all.
(2) More importantly, Hick is simply wrong to claim that different perspectives on God are consistent with all, or some, major religions. For instance, some religions would not seem to allow any form of personal God or afterlife: namely, Buddhism (or the most important versions of that theory). The rejection of both a personal God and a survival of the self is one of the central doctrines of Buddhism, so to say that the “divine reality” allows these properties, even if only from a certain perspective, is just not compatible with Buddhism. The Buddha’s main message is that one reaches a harmonious and ideal state of mind (nirvana) only if one rejects strong personal desires and goals, and the belief in a personal God and the reward of an afterlife strongly encourages personal desires. In addition, the article by Wiredu questions just how far you can compare the different conceptions of the “divine” among different religions. Wiredu notes that many African religions really have no conception of the super-natural, or religious worship, etc., so Hick is open to the criticism that he is trying to force a Western conception of God on the religions of other cultures. Along these lines, Meeker gives other examples of religions that attribute properties to God which seem totally incompatible with the properties assigned to God by the Western religions: such as the destructive or negative approach to life espoused by the “Thug” version of Hinduism, or Satanism, Nazi religion, etc. Meeker argues, quite convincingly, that Hick is not really a pluralist, but only wants a pluralism with respect to religions that he finds acceptable; namely, religions that have an altruistic basis (i.e., that respect all forms of life).
Plantinga’s defense of exclusivism
Plantinga claims that it is acceptable to be an exclusivist about religion, in particular, he wants to defend a fundamentalist form of Christianity (such that salvation requires a belief in Jesus). He argues that as long as one is fully aware of other religions, considers these other religions to demonstrate at least as much piety as one’s own religion, and believes that no arguments would convince these other believers to accept one’s own religion, then being an exclusivist is justifiable. Plantinga states that the religious pluralist or inclusivist argues in the same way for their view (although they defend pluralism or inclusivism, of course); so why claim that the exclusivist position is, say, irrational or bigoted if the other religious approaches use the same form of reasoning and justification. However, as the Stairs article points out, Plantinga assumes that there are good arguments for his own religion, and none for other religions, and the argument that Plantinga relies upon is his concept of “properly basic beliefs”. But, as noted in a previous section, the concept of a “properly basic belief” is very problematic, and so Plantinga really has no basis for using it to declare his religion preferable to other religions.
Other Attempts to Define God
We will only discuss Paul Tillich's views, since his liberal brand of religion has been a major theme in twentieth century theology.
Tillich argued that God is Being, where “Being” represented the ultimate reality that underlies all existence, whether natural or supernatural. In fact, Being need not pertain to a personal God at all. Tillich wanted to make Being stand for the ultimate concern of all humans, conceived in the broadest sense. Furthermore, any attempt to define what Being is, by giving it the name of a particular God, fails to capture the true Being—in fact, Tillich thinks that all particular conceptions of Being that we are familiar with in the West constitute idolatry (i.e., worshipping idols and religious symbols, and just engaging in religious rituals). Tillich believes that when we give these religious symbols too much importance, then we have fallen into mere idolatry. Problem: How is it possible for a religion not to fall into idolatry (as Tillich conceives it)? It might be plausibly argued that a religion must possess religious symbols and rituals to qualify as a religion—but, if this is true, then all religions must be idolatrous according to Tillich (which seems too strong a claim to make).
Notes for Seven Theories of Religion
Chapter 1: Animism and Magic (E. B. Tyler and J. G. Frazer)
Tyler and Frazer worked independently of one another in the nineteenth century (Frazer’s work came later and was partially influenced by Tyler’s work). They were interested in mythology and the history of religions, but they were especially interested in the approach to religion and mythology among other cultures. In many ways, they were early anthropologists, but they did not really work “in the field”, since their approach was more philosophical. In a nutshell, they look upon religion as continuous with a magical view of the world, such that religion is a “proto-science”; i.e., a primitive or early manner of explaining events in the natural world. For instance, pre-historic cultures may have tried to explain why certain unfortunate natural events occurred, such as floods or crop failures, and their explanations would draw upon their own personal experiences of what causes harm in their cultures. These explanations would come in the form of our common experience of human agents causing damage due to anger or some sort of grievance against other people. So, these cultures essentially use the same form of explanation, but the natural damage obviously needs to be explained by super-powerful agents in natural objects—and later, a god—who is angry at that society. Thus, the concept of supernatural beings comes about in an anthropomorphic way (where “anthropomorphic” means projecting human qualities on non-human events, processes, or beings).
But, before a religion is developed, a society develops “animism” (or hylomorphism), which is the belief that all objects have a soul (or mind, spirit). Animism is closely related to magic, since the supernatural spirits in nature can (at least sometimes) be controlled through magical acts or ceremonies. The evidence for animist beliefs comes from (i) dreams, and (ii) death. That is, if a person dreams of someone who has died, then that might convince the dreamer that some aspect of the dead person still lives on, and this belief is also encouraged by the fact that there does not seem to be much difference between a dead and live human (and thus a soul must make the difference). The development process for Frazer is first magic, then religion, and then science. That is, in the attempt by humans to understand the world, an explanation that appeals to supernatural agents in nature, and thus magic, gives way to religion, and then science replaces religion. Frazer thought that religion was a better explanation than magic, because a magical view of the world seems to entail that if you understand the magic that underlies the world, then you can always bring about the desired effect through the magical ritual or ceremony. For example, if magic caused crops to grow, then performing the magical ritual should always bring about the desired result. But, since the desired result obviously doesn’t always happen, a religious explanation is better, since the gods are not always led to do what we want.
Features of theory: (1) it relies upon anthropology, so it should be testable by exploring the historical record of different cultures; (2) it is an evolutionary account of religion, since religions develop out of more primitive forms of supernatural belief systems (such as magic and animism); (3) it is an account that relies on the individual’s intellect in explaining the development of religion (i.e., to explain natural events).
Problems: (1) some have claimed that it relies on a biased interpretation of myths and fables from different cultures (i.e., Frazer downplays the differences among cultures, and may overemphasize the similarities); (2) the evolutionary account may not work since often religion and magic exist simultaneously (whereas Frazer thought magic preceded religion); (3) and the theory may neglect the social aspects of religion in favor of the individual intellectual portion of religious belief.
Chapter 2: Religion and Personality (S. Freud)
Sigmund Freud was one of the founders of the modern theory of psychology, although many of his contributions are no longer accepted (especially his views on the interpretation of dreams and the sexual incest desires of children). His views on religion owe much to the work of Tyler and Frazer, as well as L. Feurbach (who was an early nineteenth century philosopher). Feurbach believed that God was an anthropomorphic projection into the world of an “ideal” human type (e.g., humans have limited power, and often act immorally, so we construct the idea of a being who is all-powerful and all-good, etc.); and, much like Tyler and Frazer, this ideal being was used to explain our experience of the world. In other words, religion is the glorification of an idealized humanity. Feurbach argued that once humans constructed this ideal type of being, the concept became a sort “Frankenstein’s monster”, such that the being was eventually viewed as our creator and judge (and, of course, has judged humans to be inferior to it, causing much self-loathing and shame on our part). Freud’s view is similar, but is seen as having a basis in our experience of the world as infants and children. Freud centered on our early experience of our parents as care-givers and protectors. Overall, Freud believed that religious experiences were simply illusions: they were a projection of the “father-figure” (from our past experiences of our fathers) into the world. According to Freud, people want to believe that someone is taking care of them, and that someone will make things better (as our fathers supposedly had done when we were young), thus we project this psychological desire into world as a whole, and call it “God”. So, religious belief is a psychological left-over of our early experience of our parents, as well as a suggestive of the fact that we still have the same psychological needs. Freud doesn’t necessarily say that Gods do not exist, but the fact that he calls these beliefs “illusions” strongly suggests that he does think that they are false (much as Tyler and Frazer thought, although everyone else that we study in this book probably holds the view that religions are false).
Problems: (1) Freud’s view seems to work better for monotheism (the belief that there is only one God), but it doesn’t seem to work for religions that believe in many Gods (since we only have one father, of course). (2) Freud’s theory of religion is very similar to the views of Tyler and Frazer, such that it is based on an individual person’s beliefs and desires. However, this overlooks the social aspects of religion; that is, the motivation for religious belief that is based on group and cultural needs or beliefs.
Chapter 3: Society as sacred (E. Durkheim)
In the late nineteenth/early twentieth century, Durkheim helped to lay the foundation of modern sociology, so it is not surprising that his theory of religion is closely tied to the social aspect of religion.
Durkheim believed that religion concerns the “sacred”, which is the superior or extraordinary, rather than the “profane”, which is the normal or mundane. He does not think that morality or the supernatural are the basis of the sacred, however. The sacred unites a group of people into a religion (and magical beliefs cannot do this), since the sacred are things that are important to the group (and magic is personal). Religion is “totemistic”, where a “totem” is a symbol, usually of an animal, that is honored or revered by the religious group. The totem is sacred, and represents an impersonal, hidden force in its first manifestation, and only later becomes a God. Durkheim thinks that the totem not only represents the God of the group, but it also represents the group (clan), and thus helps to bond the clan into a unified group. So, when the clan worships the totem, it is also worshipping itself. Furthermore, the soul is a representation of the clan within us, and this helps to explain how religion can control the actions of the individuals within the clan. For instance, the denial of bodily desires (e.g., lust, greed, etc.) is a way that the group controls the actions of its individuals, since the actions that follow from those desires may threaten the group (i.e., the religion accomplishes this by declaring that certain desires are “sinful”, and thus endanger the soul). Also, group rituals come before the beliefs that are formulated to explain the rituals (e.g., mourning for the dead, celebrations for marriage, etc., come before a religious explanation is given for those rituals; whereas Frazer thought that the religious belief came before the ritual was formed, and the belief was the cause of the ritual). Rituals are important ways to renew clan ties and demonstrate the individual’s commitment to the clan, and this supposedly explains why many rituals still exist in societies even though the beliefs associated with those rituals have been questioned or discarded. Durkheim held that all societies need such group rituals.
Problems: (1) The main problem, of course, is that Durkheim regards religion as entirely social, and this seems to be too strong a claim. While there is clearly a social aspect and social benefit to religion, the individual’s beliefs and personal benefits have been totally ignored in Durkheim’s theory, and this constitutes a major weakness of the theory. (2) Durkheim’s belief that the sacred is natural, and not supernatural, is also a problem, since many religions, even in their early stages, embody supernatural beliefs.
Chapter 4: religion as alienation (k. marx)
Karl Marx was a nineteenth century philosopher of politics and society who developed the modern concept of communism. Like Freud, he was influenced by Feurbach, but he developed a theory of religion that (not surprisingly) centered upon religion’s social role in the class struggle between the rich and the poor. Marx argues that humans invent religion to escape their intolerable social conditions, since religion eases the pain of our earthly existence. The poor working class, called the “proletariat”, are pacified by religion, since it encourages the belief that their reward will come in the afterlife, and thus they should meekly endure their harsh conditions on earth. Thus, religion is a useful tool of the rich, the “bourgeoisie”, since it keeps the working class pacified, and thus less willing to protest their intolerable conditions. Once we see this, he says, we should reject religion as an escape and turn instead to the correction of those conditions that make such an escape necessary. Marx made the famous line “religion is the opiate of the masses”, which means that it helps to ease our pain, but also that it is like a delusional drug. Marx’s claims are really quite strong, it should be pointed out, since religion is a psychological need caused by class struggles, and thus religion is reducible to class struggle.
Problems: (1) If this theory is true, then there should not be a religion in a society that doesn’t have class struggles and class divisions. But, this is not verified by the evidence, since many primitive cultures, if not most, have religions without the types of class struggles and divisions that Marx claims are necessary. (2) In fact, rather than politics causing changes in religion, we have much historical evidence of religions causing changes in politics and society (such as the Protestant revolution in seventeenth century England, which helped to bring about an expanded form of capitalism in that country). (3) Marx’s theory of religion is based upon his theories of politics (and class warfare), and few people find his theory acceptable today. Modern theories of politics have superceded his views, even among communist theories. (By the way, many people think that his overall system of politics is very much like a religion view.)
Chapter 5: The reality of the sacred (m. Eliade)
Mircea Eliade was a twentieth century philosopher of comparative religion and mythology who was interested in developing a theory of religion that combined some of the best features of the Tyler-Frazier view, as well as Durkheim’s work. He argued that religion was a special type of human phenomena that could not be reduced to other types of human activity (such as Durkheim had tried to reduce religion to society). He agreed that religion was a universal human trait (i.e., it is common to all peoples), and he even used Durkheim’s notions of the sacred and the profane, but he reasoned that the sacred was supernatural (and not natural, as Durkheim had believed) and was a personal experience or belief (and not social) that was unique and unlike any other type of personal experience. The most important part of his theory was that religious people (or people who hold myths) believe that their society can regain, or enter into, the sacred (where the sacred is a special realm, much better than our earthly existence, that the people had once lived in, but have since become separated from). An example is, of course, Heaven in the Western religions. Profane time is the time spent on earth while separated from the sacred (whereas sacred time is the time in which we had once lived in that sacred world, and which we would like to return to). So, humans are trying to recapture sacred time, and eliminate profane time. Since religious experiences are too difficult to put into words, Eliade thought that humans developed myths and symbols to represent them; so, symbolic imagery plays a big role in his theory (as it did for Frazer, too). Eliade also claimed that modern Western religions have tried to deny the unimportance of profane time by claiming that the time here on earth is necessary for the coming of God (i.e., in order to prepare for God’s arrival, or for believers to prove their worthiness to enter sacred time, etc.). Thus, modern Western religions think that profane time is important for God’s plans, whereas earlier, archaic religions had no such view.
Problems: Many of the criticisms of Tyler and Frazier apply here, such as the fact that Eliade overplays the similarities among religions, and downplays their differences, in order to get his theory to fit the evidence. For instance, Eliade seems to allow many things to count as “sacred” or “profane” which are quite different, so his concepts are too vague, and thus it is hard to test his theory.
Chapter 6: Society’s “Construct of the Heart” (E. E. Evans-Pritchard)
Evans-Pritchard was one of the founders of modern, twentieth century anthropology, and, not surprisingly, his orientation towards studying religion and mythology is from an anthropological standpoint. Consequently, he is quite skeptical of theories that rely on explanations from a psychological (Tyler and Frazier, Eliade) or sociological (Durkheim, Marx) perspective. His work mainly consisted of studying particular cultures and their religions in the field, and then writing very detailed studies of their practices. He was a critic of those people (such as Tyler and Frazier) who thought that primitive societies were not logical, or engaged in irrational practices. He argued that primitive societies had very rational practices, the same as modern peoples, but that they simply had a different rational system of beliefs. For example, he argues that, much like religious believers in the West, if a belief is very important to a culture, and the people in the culture come across evidence that appears to discredit the belief, then the people will try to come up with alternative explanations (ad hoc reasoning) that will explain away the alleged contradiction such that they can retain their cherished belief.
Problems: Evans-Pritchard was right too criticize the overly theoretical accounts of religion given by his predecessors. However, the problem with his theory is that it is under-theorized, and is, in fact, not really much of a theory of religion at all. That is, Evans-Pritchard fails to explain, or even address, why different religions have different features, or similar features. And thus, by not attempting to explain these essential similarities and differences, his work really does not constitute a theory of religion.
Chapter 7: religion as cultural system (C. Geertz)
Like Evans-Pritchard, Clifford Geertz is a modern anthropologist who takes an anthropological standpoint when examining religions. Geertz also rejects the psychological and sociological theories of religion offered by his predecessors. He seems to reject any overall theory of religion, and favors studying religions in individual cultures as separate and different belief systems. Geertz focuses on “cultures” as the most important aspect of anthropology (which is essentially the society), and he thinks, more radically, that the particular culture provides the meaning of the concepts and beliefs in that culture’s religion. Consequently, the terms and beliefs in that religion have a unique meaning, such that you have to be an active member of that culture to understand those concepts and beliefs. An interesting feature of this view, however, is that as religions change (which happens in all religions), the meanings of the terms and beliefs change, and so, for example, a modern Christian’s beliefs are quite different from the beliefs of ancient Christians, even though the terms may be the same (why?: because the cultures have changed, and thus their terms and beliefs have changed).
Geertz gives the following definition of religion: (1) a system of symbols which acts to (2) establish powerful, pervasive, and long-lasting moods and motivations in men by (3) formulating conceptions of a general order of existence and (4) clothing these conceptions with such an aura of factuality that (5) the moods and motivations seem uniquely realistic. (Problem: Is this a good definition, or is it “too broad” such that it can also apply to non-religions, such as a “sports tradition”? Then again, maybe belief systems like sports traditions are forms of religion?)
Problems: (1) Like Evans-Pritchard, Geertz theory (or lack there of) doesn’t try to explain the similarities and differences among all religions (although he did give the above definition). That is, he mainly just explains, in painstaking detail, the features of particular religions. (2) Geertz also seems to err by not examining the contents of the religious beliefs of the individuals in a religion. Rather, he mainly focuses on the religious values, feelings, and actions of the people. Yet, if you don’t know what the underlying meaning and content of those actions happens to be, how can you even be sure that they are religious actions (and not, say, some other non-religious actions following from non-religious motivations or beliefs)? (3) Finally, Geertz’s view that the religious beliefs in a culture are entirely relative to that culture, such that you can only understand those terms from inside (relative to) that culture, is very problematic. Obviously, the god of a certain culture has certain nuances of meaning and various properties that may be unique to that culture’s religion, but there are probably many ways in which it can be compared to the gods of other religions. That is, there are enough similarities among cultures, and their religions, to compare and contrast their concepts, at least in an approximate manner. To claim otherwise is rather farfetched, for it would entail that you can never compare any concepts across cultures (and not just the religious ones), and clearly we do make such comparisons, and they are often quite meaningful and informative comparisons.