God or Blind Nature

Philosophers Debate the Evidence (2007-2008)

General Introduction (2007) Paul Draper

God is not dead, but the Supreme Being’s academic health is far from perfect. This is not a comment about God, of course. It is a comment about the professoriate, especially at elite universities and especially in the arts and sciences. Metaphysical naturalism, which is a form of atheism that denies the existence of all supernatural entities, is now a respected, influential, and even popular view among university scientists and scholars[1]. What accounts for this? According to William Wainwright, disbelief rarely results from intellectual objections to belief. More often, it results from a “clash between religious beliefs and … sensibilities … shaped by an environment that leaves little room for God or the sacred.”[2] If the issue is what directly causes disbelief, then Wainwright is plainly right. I suspect, however, that intellectual objections have played a significant role in creating the secular academic environment that shapes the sensibilities that clash with belief.

For example, while clear cases of supernatural intervention are nonexistent, the search for natural causes of natural phenomena has been extremely successful. Over time, this success has led scientists and others to become strict methodological naturalists–in other words, they no longer even entertain explanations appealing to the supernatural. And since methodological naturalism in turn has borne an abundance of fruit, especially in the natural sciences, the almost inevitable result is an intellectual environment in which traditional religious belief begins to seem outdated, superstitious, or “unscientific,” possible only for those who are, as the philosopher John Searle puts it, “in the grip of faith.”[3]

Now whether or not one believes that the process I have just described is a fully rational one, one must admit that there is a serious intellectual objection to traditional religious belief at the core of it. For a very simple explanation of the great success we have had in discovering natural causes of natural phenomena is that there are no nonnatural causes–that nature[4] is a closed system. Metaphysical naturalism, in other words, provides a rather elegant explanation of the success of methodological naturalism. Further, because of its simplicity, this explanation is much more plausible than the alternative explanation that there really are supernatural beings but for some unknown reason they so rarely exercise their powers that nature seems to be a closed system when in reality it is not[5]. Has this sort of objection to belief in the supernatural played an important role in creating disbelief in the academy? I believe it has, even if this role is not a direct one.

Still, to be fair, it is important to emphasize that this is just one objection and it does not by itself amount to disproof. It is also important to emphasize that there are serious intellectual objections to disbelief as well, and perhaps these objections (and not just “blind faith”) help to explain why God is not dead, not even among scientists, and certainly not among philosophers. Indeed, the view, which is called “theism,” that the natural world depends for its existence on the existence of a perfect supernatural person (God), remains a live option for a large number of philosophers. I include myself in that number. Though I am not a theist, I regard God’s existence to be a real possibility, an object of both bittersweet hope and passionate inquiry[6]. This was more than enough to make me the “religious one” in my old department atFloridaInternationalUniversity, where God’s condition is very grave indeed. In my new department atPurdueUniversity, however, and in the discipline of philosophy as a whole, a sizable minority of faculty members believe in God. And for many of those, theism is much more than a private belief; it is either explicitly defended or in some important way presupposed in their scholarly research and professional publications. So when it comes to the discipline of philosophy, the stereotype of an academy that uniformly regards religious belief with hostility or indifference is not accurate; and if we narrow our attention to philosophers whose primary area of specialization is the philosophy of religion, then it is the nontheists like me who are outnumbered, at least in the English-speaking world.

The goal of this book is to bring together a group of distinguished philosophers with diverse religious and metaphysical beliefs to participate in a series of four nonpartisan debates. Unlike most debates about God’s existence, however, each of these debates will focus on different specific areas of evidence for and against naturalism and theism. Of course, this project makes sense only if it is possible to test metaphysical claims like naturalism and theism by evidence. Obviously I believe this is possible, but I encourage those who are still skeptical after reading this introduction to read the rest of this book before making up their minds. (The best way to prove something can be done is to do it.)

The first of the four debates will address evidence having to do with the mind and the will. Andrew Melnyk argues that minds are not immaterial souls and that this is evidence supporting naturalism over theism. His interlocutors are Charles Taliaferro and Stewart Goetz, who hold that consciousness and free will cannot be reduced to mere physical phenomena and thus cannot be explained adequately by naturalism. In the second debate, I construct an argument from evil against theism that is informed by evolutionary biology, while Alvin Plantinga uses evolutionary biology to argue that naturalism is “self-defeating” (in the sense that, if it were true, then it would be unreasonable for informed naturalists to believe that it is true). The third debate focuses on evidence from the physical sciences. Quentin Smith uses this evidence to construct a cosmological argument against theism, while Robin Collins uses it to construct three design arguments against naturalism. Neither of the two authors in the fourth and final debate are naturalists. John Schellenberg, who is not opposed to all religious faith but does reject theism, asks why, if God exists, he remains hidden from so many people, including some who are open to believing in him. Jeff Jordan agrees with Schellenberg that the available evidence fails to establish God’s existence, but argues on practical grounds that theistic belief is nevertheless reasonable.

Anyone familiar with the postings on the Secular Web knows that these four debates are not comprehensive: many arguments for and against theism and naturalism are not discussed. For example, none of the authors develops an argument against naturalism based on biological complexity or on the objectivity of morality, and none develops an argument against theism based on the alleged incoherence of the theistic conception of God. Since any attempt to make this book comprehensive was doomed to failure, I exercised my editorial prerogative by choosing as topics those areas of evidence on both sides that I consider to be the most compelling. Reasonable people can, of course, and no doubt will, disagree with my choices. Indeed, in all likelihood, further inquiry will eventually lead me to question my selections.

One choice I will never second guess, however, is my decision to pursue this project. Opportunities to take philosophy outside the walls of the academy are rare, and I firmly believe that such engagement with the public benefits both the public and the discipline of philosophy. There is, however, an important reason why such engagement is rare. Like most academic disciplines at the dawn of the 21st Century, philosophy has become very specialized and often very technical. Thus, while every effort was made to make the chapters of this book accessible, the debates in this book are real, and philosophers engaged in real debate will almost inevitably produce material that is very difficult to grasp. To mitigate this problem, many of the chapters include helpful explanatory footnotes, and each of the four main sections of the book is preceded by a brief introduction.

I would like to close this introduction by thanking the anonymous donor whose generosity made this book possible. I would also like to thank Keith Augustine, Jeff Lowder, and all of the board members of Internet Infidels for their assistance with this book and for providing an excellent website on which to publish it.

Notes

[1] This view is often (incorrectly) called “atheism.” The term “metaphysical naturalism” is used mainly by philosophers. It’s not clear what percentage of professors are metaphysical naturalists. In theU.S., atheist and agnostic professors are not as common as many people think, at least according to one recent survey: <http://www.wjh.harvard.edu/soc/faculty/gross/religions.pdf&gt;

[2] “Skepticism, Romanticism & Faith,” in God and the Philosophers, ed. Thomas V. Morris (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994), p. 85.

[3] The Rediscovery of the Mind (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1992), pp. 90-91.

[4] By “nature” I mean the collection of all physical entities and their effects. This definition is neutral on the issues of whether nature is a universe or a multiverse and whether or not mental events are all physical.

[5] I develop this argument more fully in “God, Science, and Naturalism,” in The Oxford Handbook of Philosophy of Religion, ed. William J. Wainwright, Oxford Reference Library of Philosophy, ed. Paul K. Moser (Oxford University Press, 2005), pp. 272-303. Essentially the same argument can be found in work by Keith Augustine and others that is posted on the Secular Web. See <http://www.infidels.org/library/modern/nontheism/naturalism/&gt; and <http://www.infidels.org/library/modern/keith_augustine/thesis.html#meta&gt;.

[6] I will leave it to others to decide whether that inquiry is, in spite of its passion, an objective one.


Introduction to Section One: Mind and Will (2007) Paul Draper

What sort of entity is the human mind? Also, what is freedom of the will, and do human beings have such freedom? Determining the correct answers to these questions is crucial for determining which of naturalism and theism is more credible. In order to introduce our first debate, I will briefly explain why.

According to theism, God, who is or at least has an immaterial mind, created the physical universe for one or more good reasons. This implies that mind preceded matter, that teleological and more specifically personal explanation[1] is fundamental, and that acts of will, in God’s case at least, do not involve physical causation. Thus, on the assumption that theism is true, it would not be surprising to discover that human minds are also immaterial and that these minds are also capable of making free choices that are removed from the nexus of physical causation. Indeed, theism appears to entail that human beings have such radical freedom since otherwise God would be blameworthy for the morally bad choices that humans perform, which conflicts with God’s moral perfection. Suppose, on the other hand, that naturalism is true and hence that matter both preceded and produced mind. Then one would expect to discover that human minds and acts of will, like other concrete entities with which we are familiar, have physical causes and are themselves physically realized.

So the controversial issue in this first debate is not so much whether facts about human minds and wills provide crucial evidence. Rather, the controversial issue is what exactly those facts are. Andrew Melnyk argues that our minds are physical and that our wills are caused. If he is right, then the facts support naturalism over theism. Stewart Goetz and Charles Taliaferro argue that our minds are immaterial and that at least some of our mental actions are uncaused. If they are right, then the facts support theism over naturalism. So who has their facts straight? To answer that question, we must examine the arguments, and many interesting ones are offered on both sides of this debate.

Notes

[1] A “teleological explanation” explains why an event occurs by stating that the event furthers some goal or purpose or end. This is contrasted with a “causal explanation,” which explains why an event occurs by specifying earlier or perhaps simultaneous events that caused it to occur. A “personal explanation” is a teleological explanation that appeals to the goals or purposes of (human or non-human) persons.


A Case for Physicalism about the Human Mind (2007)

Andrew Melnyk

In this chapter, I describe evidence for the view that the human mind is a physical entity, in much the same way in which the human digestive system or the human immune system are physical entities. The first section characterizes this view more fully. The second section explains the evidential relevance of physicalism about the mind to theism. The third section sketches two kinds of evidence that support physicalism about the human mind, while the final section considers an antiphysicalist response to the reasoning of the previous section.[1]

1. What Is Physicalism about the Human Mind?

Humans have minds, exemplify mental properties, and undergo mental processes. Some examples of mental properties are thinking that one’s keys are in the ignition, hoping that the gas gauge is broken, wishing that the weather will be fine tomorrow, fearing that the repair will be costly, and doubting that all politicians are crooks; other examples of mental properties are smelling the distinctive smell of gasoline (in the absence of actual gasoline), seeing the distinctive blueness of a cloudless sky (in the absence of any blue sky), having an ache in the shoulder, and feeling stressed. Examples of mental processes are figuring out what is causing one’s child’s fever, planning a trip toColorado, and deciding to have no dessert.

There’s a narrow sense of the word “physical” in which minds, mental properties, and mental processes are clearly not physical phenomena: terms like “mind,” “thinking,” and “feeling” don’t appear in the theories of fundamental physics. In this same narrow sense of “physical,” however, a kidney isn’t a physical object, respiring isn’t a physical property, and digestion isn’t a physical process; for the terms “kidney,” “is respiring,” and “digestion” also don’t appear in the theories of fundamental physics. So to concede that mental phenomena aren’t physical in this narrow sense isn’t to concede very much. Yet surely there’s a broad sense of the word “physical” in which kidneys, respiring, and digestion are indeed physical phenomena. What physicalism about the human mind claims is that human minds, mental properties, and mental processes are physical in this broad sense of “physical.”

How best to articulate this broad sense of “physical” is controversial in the philosophy of mind.[2] But the view I happen to favor says roughly this:

An individual item (e.g., object, property-instance, or process) is physical in the broad sense if, and only if, it meets either of two conditions: (1) it’s an item of a kind that can in principle be defined in the distinctive vocabulary of fundamental physics; or (2) it’s a physically realized item of a functional kind.

Condition (1) is straightforward, but condition (2) obviously requires explanation. A functional kind of thing, as I shall understand it, is a kind of thing whose existence consists in the existence of something or other that meets a certain specification, where the composition and working of the “something or other”–the realizer–don’t matter, so long as it meets the specification in question. For example, a kidney is a functional kind of object in my sense: for a kidney to exist is just for something or other to exist that can filter blood, no matter what it’s made of or how it works. Likewise, respiring is a functional kind of property: for an organism to be respiring is just for it to have some or other property that produces an exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide between the organism and its environment. And digestion is a functional kind of process: for digestion to occur is just for some or other process to occur–it doesn’t matter how–that converts food into useable nutrients. An item of a functional kind is physically realized when, and only when, (i) its realizer can in principle be defined in the distinctive vocabulary of fundamental physics, and (ii) its realizer meets the specification in question solely in virtue of the holding of physical laws and perhaps of other physical conditions. So human kidneys, for example, are very plausibly regarded as physically realized–as items of a functional kind that are (ultimately) realized by vast and unimaginably complex systems of microphysical particles that do the kidney thing by operating in strict accordance with physical laws.

I can now say more precisely how I’ll be understanding physicalism about the human mind:

Physicalism about the human mind: Every human mind, every instance of a human mental property, and every human mental process is either (1) an item of a kind that can in principle be defined in the distinctive vocabulary of fundamental physics or (2) a physically realized item of some functional kind.

Thus understood, physicalism about the mind is, of course, an exceedingly abstract view. To make it seem less so, let me sketch an account of what minds, mental properties, and mental processes might be that is consistent with physicalism about the mind. This account strikes me as promising, but I’m not saying it’s true, and the truth of this account in particular certainly isn’t required by physicalism about the mind; its purpose is just to make it easier to imagine the truth of physicalism about the mind.

Humans have minds, but it doesn’t follow that minds are genuine persisting objects. Just as humans have minds, they also have personalities, but no one imagines that human personalities are persisting objects, not even nonphysical ones. In fact, however, physicalism about the human mind can easily treat minds as persisting objects–by treating an organism’s mind as its mental system, on a par with its digestive system or immune system. As a rough-and-ready first approximation, we might suggest that an organism has a mental system just in case it houses some complex object or other that can use sensors to form representations about the organism’s environment and internal states, that can store some of these representations, and that can undergo internal processes in which these representations interact with one another and with representations of goal-states so as to produce organismic behavior, which behavior, often enough, achieves the organism’s goals. To be more specific about the human mind, in particular, we might suggest that an organism has a human-type mental system just in case it houses some complex object or other that meets the conditions already mentioned, but in addition generates representations of states of affairs far removed from the organism in time, space, or magnitude, representations of regularities in the world, and representations of its own representations.

In keeping with this representational conception of the mind, such mental properties as thinking, hoping, wishing, and doubting can be understood as different kinds of mental representing. For example, thinking that one’s keys are in the ignition might be a mental property that a human possesses just in case he or she internally represents that his or her keys are in the ignition, where this internal representation plays one kind of causal role with regard to effecting behavior (the belief role) in his or her overall mental system. By contrast, hoping that the gas gauge is broken might be a mental property that a human possesses just in case he or she internally represents that the gas gauge is broken, where this representation plays a different kind of causal role with regard to effecting behavior (the hope role) in his or her overall mental system.[3] And a very similar treatment can be given for such mental properties as smelling the distinctive smell of gasoline (in the absence of actual gasoline) and having an ache in the shoulder. Smelling the distinctive smell of gasoline (in the absence of actual gasoline) might be a mental property that a human possesses just in case he or she internally represents (in this case, misrepresents) the presence of gasoline vapor, but does so by using a system of mental representation importantly different from the system used when thinking that gasoline vapor is present. Having an ache in the shoulder might be a mental property that a human possesses just in case he or she internally represents damage in a certain subregion of his or her shoulder region, but does so by using a system of mental representation importantly different from the one used when thinking that a part of his or her shoulder region is damaged.[4] The different intentional contents of different mental representations (i.e., the fact that thinking that one’s keys are in the ignition isn’t the same as thinking that it’ll rain tomorrow) can be accounted for by appeal to the different causal or nomological or historical relations that the different mental representations bear to the different states of affairs external to the organism.[5]

Mental processes such as figuring out what is causing something or deciding to act can also be understood in keeping with the representational conception of the mind. Such processes can be identified with particular kinds of causal sequence involving mental representations. For example, figuring out the cause of a child’s fever might involve mentally representing the possible causes of the fever, deriving mental representations of the observable phenomena that each possible cause would produce, and then searching for stored mental representations of actually observed phenomena that rule out every causal hypothesis bar one.[6] Such a mental process, despite its occurring in accordance with causal laws, could still be a rational or reasonable one in virtue of its reliability in generating true answers to causal questions.[7] Similarly, deciding to act might involve mentally representing a goal-state, mentally representing various action-outcome relations that hold in the world, using a trial-and-error procedure to generate a mental representation of a sequence of actions that will eventually result in the represented goal-state, and then storing a mental representation of the first action in that sequence in a buffer whose contents feed into a subsystem that controls bodily movements. Such a process, despite its occurring in accordance with causal laws, could still amount to a free decision in virtue of its meeting further conditions, e.g., its occurring through the operation of properly functioning mechanisms of deliberation, or the mentally represented goal’s being a goal that one approves of oneself having.[8]

2. Physicalism about the Human Mind and Theism

Physicalism about the human mind is logically consistent with theism. That’s because, if mental phenomena are functional phenomena in the liberal sense of “functional” sketched in section one, then they might be physically realized in the human case but nonphysically realized in the divine case. However, physicalism about the human mind is still evidentially relevant to theism. The hypothesis of theism, as typically understood by philosophers, says there exists a special, nonhuman kind of person–God–who enjoys unlimited versions of the capacities to know, to love, and to decide to act that human persons possess. But since these capacities are mental, and since God is supposed to have no physical body or brain, the hypothesis of theism must say there exists a nonphysical and nonphysically realized mind. Now, if we want to assess the probability of theism given the available evidence, we must first assess its prior probability, i.e., its probability given our background knowledge. However, given theism’s commitment to a nonphysical and nonphysically realized mind, its prior probability will be raised if we already know of examples of nonphysical and nonphysically realized minds (even if those minds, unlike the hypothesized divine mind, are finite). Thus, if we learn that human minds are neither physical nor physically realized, the prior probability of theism will get a boost. By the same token, however, if we learn that human minds are physically realized, so that we don’t already know of any examples of nonphysical and nonphysically realized minds, then the prior probability of theism will fail to get that boost. To the extent that physicalism about the human mind rather than dualism is well evidenced, therefore, theism should be assigned a lower prior probability.

Is physicalism about the human mind evidentially relevant to theism in any other way? I think it is.[9] To avoid being disconfirmed by the existence of moral evils (and perhaps for other reasons as well), theism requires that human agents freely choose to act in one way rather than another. But so-called compatibilist accounts of free choice–which say that what makes a choice free is not its being causally undetermined but rather its being causally determined via a special kind of causal route–will not suit theism’s needs. For every compatibilist account of free choice, to be plausible, must insist that no human choice is free if the causal chain culminating in the choice can be traced back to an intentional agent who intended or at least foresaw that choice. But if God created the world and instituted the causal laws that govern its workings, then all human choices result from causal chains that can be traced back to an intentional agent who intended or at least foresaw those choices, and so no human choices are free. What theism requires, therefore, is that human agents freely choose in some way that entirely removes the free choice from the nexus of laws of nature, be those laws deterministic or statistical. However, if physicalism about the mind is true, then human choices are as much a part of the nexus of laws of nature as any other events in the physical world. So if physicalism about the mind is true, then theism cannot have what in fact it requires.

3. Some Evidence for Physicalism about the Human Mind

Whether physicalism about the human mind is true turns on whether there exist any human minds that aren’t physically realized; and the existence of such contingent entities as nonphysically realized human minds is a poor candidate to be known a priori. So, it’s hard to see how there even could be an a priori case for physicalism about the human mind (or against it, for that matter). In this section, therefore, the case I sketch for physicalism about the human mind is an a posteriori one. Moreover, although an a posteriori case could in principle take the form of a deduction from a posteriori premises, this case for physicalism about the human mind is irreducibly inductive: it consists of mustering two bodies of empirical fact each of which raises the probability of physicalism about the human mind (but without raising that of dualism too).

3.1 An Enumerative Induction[10]

There is a strong empirical case for holding that concrete phenomena of many different kinds–chemical, biochemical, cell-biological, histological, physiological, geological, meteorological, and astronomical–are physical or physically realized. Indeed, there is a strong empirical case for holding that all concrete phenomena that aren’t mental phenomena or–like social-scientific phenomena–partially constituted by mental phenomena are physical or physically realized (see Melnyk 2003a, ch. 6.1-6.6).

Of course, that all nonmental phenomena are physical or physically realized doesn’t deductively entail that mental phenomena are too. But it can still be some evidence that they are; and it is. Consider an analogous case: the discovery that all noncarnivorous plants are biochemically realized is clearly some evidence that all plants, including therefore all carnivorous ones, are biochemically realized. (Each biochemically realized species of noncarnivorous plant is a so called positive instance of the universal hypothesis that all plants are biochemically realized.) Likewise, the discovery that all nonmental phenomena are physical or physically realized is some evidence that all phenomena, including therefore all mental phenomena, are physical or physically realized. (Each physical or physically realized kind of phenomenon is a positive instance of the universal hypothesis that all phenomena are physical or physically realized.)

Some might object that nonmental phenomena are the sorts of thing you’d be quite unsurprised to discover are physical or physically realized, whereas just the opposite is true of mental phenomena; so evidence about nonmental phenomena isn’t relevant to the case at hand, i.e., mental phenomena. In truth, however, the fact that nonmental phenomena have turned out to be physical or physically realized is very surprising. Superficially, the nonmental world exhibits a breathtaking diversity–just think, for example, of the thousands of species of plants and animals or the dozens of kinds of rock that are discernible by casual observation alone, not to mention the vast numbers that systematic inquiry has revealed. Yet if all nonmental phenomena are physical or physically realized, then beneath this incredible diversity lies a profound unity; underlying them all are fundamental physical phenomena. But the world needn’t have been that way. Each different kind of rock, for example, might have turned out to be unique, sharing no constituents with any other kind of rock, still less with living things; each animal species might have turned out to be made of its own unique kind of matter; and so forth, as far as imagination permits. Moreover, not only was this profound unity in nonmental phenomena but one possibility among many, it was not in fact expected. For example, Aristotle, and the long tradition of physical science he inspired, didn’t even think that celestial and terrestrial phenomena shared basic constituents! The scientifically trained philosopher C.D. Broad, in 1925, could claim chemical phenomena to be plausible instances of phenomena that are emergent relative to physical phenomena, and hence not physically realized. The idea that such life processes as metabolism and growth are biochemically and hence physically realized was resisted well into the twentieth century. Any feeling that nonmental phenomena are the sorts of thing you’d be unsurprised to discover are physical or physically realized merely reflects the penetration into ordinary thinking of centuries of hard-won scientific discoveries; in hindsight, many truths (not all, of course) seem obvious.

3.2 Evidence from the Neural Dependence of Mental Phenomena[11]

As far as we can tell, all human mental phenomena are dependent on neural phenomena; we never catch the human mind at work without also catching the human brain at work. Since this dependence is best explained by physicalism about the human mind, it’s evidence that physicalism about the human mind is true. In a nutshell, that’s the reasoning of the present subsection.

More carefully expressed, the finding to be explained is this: for any (human) person you like, and for any mental state or mental process that person might be in or might undergo, in order for that person to be in that mental state or to undergo that mental process, there is neural activity of some distinctive kind that has to be going on–simultaneously–in that person’s brain. In the numerous studies that support this finding, a brain-imaging technique is applied to the brain of a human experimental subject who has been subjected to some stimulus (e.g., spoken words, objects placed in the hand) or instructed to perform some mental task (e.g., to read silently, to clench a fist). What is found in the studies is that in each subject distinctive regions of the subject’s brain are especially active when a particular stimulus is presented or mental task performed. (Often, of course, the distinctive region is the same in all subjects for each stimulus or task; but not invariably.) Of particular importance is the very wide range of mental tasks that experimental subjects in such studies are asked to perform. They include mentally rehearsing a learned motor task, doing mental arithmetic, attending to an unstimulated body part, and visualizing a scene. Although these mental activities seem far removed from the processing of sensory input or the generation of motor output, they too don’t occur without accompanying neural activity of a distinctive sort.

This remarkable dependence of the mental on the neural is simply explained by physicalism about the human mind, since it’s an almost immediate consequence of physicalism about the human mind. For if all human mental phenomena are physically realized, then presumably they’re realized by human neural phenomena (perhaps plus physical environmental conditions); and if all human mental phenomena are realized by human neural phenomena, even in part, then whenever someone exhibits a mental phenomenon, he or she must exhibit some neural phenomenon too–the neural phenomenon that (in part) realizes the mental phenomenon.[12] Moreover, the explanation of the neural dependence of the mental that physicalism about the human mind can provide is the best available explanation, since, for two reasons to be given shortly, it’s a better explanation than its dualist rival. Dualism about the human mind, in taking human mental phenomena to be numerically distinct from and not even realized by neural phenomena, has to explain the neural dependence of human mental phenomena by hypothesizing that human mental phenomena are connected to human neural phenomena by hitherto unrecognized–and physically irreducible–laws of nature. The reason why we don’t ever catch the human mind at work without also catching the human brain at work is that these laws of nature yoke every human mental phenomenon to some or other human brain phenomenon.

This dualist explanation is inferior to the physicalist explanation because, first, it’s less economical in its ontological commitments, and ontological economy is a good-making feature of an explanation.[13] The dualist explanation, precisely because it’s dualist, treats mental phenomena as existing over and above their associated neural phenomena: if dualism is true, then a divine creator who’d already created the associated neural phenomena would have to do extra creative work to produce mental phenomena. The physicalist explanation, by contrast, treats mental phenomena as perfectly real, but as physical phenomena or as functional phenomena that are realized by their associated neural (hence physical) phenomena: if physicalism about the human mind is true, then a divine creator who’d already created the neural phenomena associated with human mental phenomena (in appropriate physical environmental conditions) would have to do no more work to produce mental phenomena. If human mental phenomena are one and the same as certain neural phenomena, then the reason why the creator would have to do no more work to produce mental phenomena is that if X is one and the same as Y, then to create X is to create Y. If mental phenomena are instead realized by certain neural phenomena (plus physical environmental conditions), then the reason why the creator would have to do no more work is that if they are so realized, then, given the laws of physics, those neural phenomena (plus appropriate physical environmental conditions) must meet functional job descriptions the meeting of which by some things or other just is the existence of the realized mental phenomena. Hence, if the realizing neural phenomena (in appropriate physical environmental conditions) exist, and if the laws of physics hold, then the realized mental phenomena must exist too (in the strongest sense of “must”).

The second reason why the dualist explanation of the neural dependence of the mental is inferior to its physicalist rival is that the dualist explanation is not only committed to the laws of physics (to which the physicalist explanation is obviously committed as well) but also to a huge number of physically irreducible laws of nature connecting human mental phenomena to the human neural phenomena on which they depend. By contrast, the only fundamental laws to which the physicalist explanation is committed are the laws of physics. The dualist explanation’s commitment to these additional laws–laws that are irreducible to the physical laws that its rival acknowledges–is, of course, a second reason why the dualist explanation is less economical than its physicalist rival, and hence a less good explanation. In addition, however, these irreducible mental-to-neural laws prompt puzzling questions to which no answers are forthcoming. Why are nonphysically realized human mental phenomena connected by law to the particular human neural phenomena to which they are (allegedly) in fact connected, rather than to others? Why do all nonphysically realized human mental phenomena have to be connected by law to particular physical phenomena at all? Why can’t nonphysically realized human mental phenomena mostly interact among themselves, with just some of them sensitive to the outputs of the neurons running to our brains from our sensory transducers and others of them supplying the inputs to the neurons that run from our brains to our muscles? In short, why do nonphysically realized human mental phenomena need a brain at all? These questions don’t arise for the physicalist explanation of the neural dependence of the mental, since it’s not committed to the laws that prompt them.

4. An Antiphysicalist Response

One possible response to the preceding section does not deny that the evidence presented there favors physicalism about the human mind over dualism. Instead, it claims that dualism enjoys some advantage in credibility over its physicalist rival, some advantage great enough to outweigh the advantages which physicalism was shown to enjoy over dualism in the preceding section. But what might that advantage in credibility be? In my view, there turn out to be no promising candidates.

Could dualism about the human mind enjoy an advantage over its physicalist rival in explanatory power? That is, could there be some aspect of human behavior for the causal explanation of which it was necessary to suppose that its mental causes weren’t physically realized? In principle, I say, there could be such an aspect of human behavior; but in practice, there very probably isn’t. There could be in principle, because if human physiologists had known that human behavior is caused by signals carried by motor neurons that run from the skull, and had then opened up some human skulls for the very first time only to find that they were quite empty, or merely full of blood, then the positing of a nonphysically realized mind to explain the complexities of human behavior would surely have been unavoidable; there would simply have been no physical candidate of sufficient complexity to do the explanatory job.

The reason why there very probably isn’t in fact any aspect of human behavior for the explanation of which it’s necessary to posit dualistically construed mental states takes a little longer to explain. The proximate cause of human behavior is the contraction of our muscles, which contraction is caused in turn by the firing of motor neurons, which firing is caused in its turn by the firing of neurons in the brain, and so forth. But there’s abundant evidence for thinking that the various kinds of neurons, as well as the specialized cells that make up our muscles, are physically realized (i.e., realized by fundamental physical phenomena governed by fundamental physical laws); so they aren’t at all special biochemically or fundamental-physically.[14] There’s also abundant evidence for thinking that all fundamental physical phenomena, to the extent that they can be explained at all, can be explained by appeal only to fundamental physical phenomena and laws. (The evidence is simply the track record of successful fundamental physical explanation of a wide variety of fundamental physical phenomena.) So it looks like there’s no human behavior for the causal explanation of which it’s required to assume the existence of anything that’s neither physical nor physically realized. A fortiori, it looks like there’s no human behavior for the causal explanation of which it’s required to assume the existence of anything mental that’s neither physical nor physically realized. To put it in a nutshell, the dualistic interpretation of ordinary mental phenomena as neither physical nor physically realized is a hypothesis which, from the standpoint of causal explanation of nontendentious phenomena, we can do without. And so the prospects are dim for dualism about the human mind to gain any advantage in explanatory power over its physicalist rival.[15]

It strongly seems, therefore, that if dualism about the human mind is to enjoy any advantage in credibility over its physicalist rival, the advantage will have to derive from some a priori source. And, indeed, the most discussed argument for dualism in recent years has been a priori in character: David Chalmers’ zombie argument (1996). I find this argument inconclusive, but to explain why would take another chapter.[16]

References

Chalmers, David. 1996. The Conscious Mind: In Search of a Fundamental Theory.New York:OxfordUniversity Press.

Churchland, Paul. 1988. Matter and Consciousness: A Contemporary Introduction to the Philosophy of Mind.Cambridge,Mass.:CambridgeUniversity Press.

Dretske, Fred. 1988. Explaining Behavior: Reasons in a World of Causes.Cambridge,Mass.: The MIT Press.

Fodor, Jerry. 1975. The Language of Thought.New York: Crowell.

Fodor, Jerry. 1986. Psychosemantics: The Problem of Meaning in the Philosophy of Mind.Cambridge,Mass.: The MIT Press.

Fodor, Jerry. 1990. A Theory of Content and Other Essays.Cambridge,Mass.: The MIT Press.

Goldman, Alvin. 1986. Epistemology and Cognition.Cambridge,Mass.:HarvardUniversity Press.

Kitcher, Phillip. 1993. The Advancement of Science.New York:OxfordUniversity Press.

Laudan, Larry. 1996. Beyond Positivism and Relativism: Theory, Method, and Evidence.Boulder,Colo.: Westview Press.

Melnyk, Andrew. 2001. “Physicalism Unfalsified: Chalmers’ Inconclusive Conceivability Argument.” In Physicalism and Its Discontents, eds. Carl Gillett and Barry Loewer, 329-347.Cambridge:CambridgeUniversity Press.

Melnyk, Andrew. 2003a. A Physicalist Manifesto: Thoroughly Modern Materialism.Cambridge:CambridgeUniversity Press.

Melnyk, Andrew. 2003b. “Some Evidence for Physicalism.” In Physicalism and Mental Causation: The Metaphysics of Mind and Action, eds. Sven Walter and Heinz-Dieter Heckmann, 155-172.Exeter: Imprint Academic.

Millikan, Ruth. 1984. Language, Thought, and Other Biological Categories: New Foundations for Realism.Cambridge,Mass.: The MIT Press.

Millikan, Ruth. 1993. White Queen Psychology and Other Essays for Alice.Cambridge,Mass.: The MIT Press.

Smart, J.J.C. 1959. “Sensations and Brain Processes.” Philosophical Review 68: 141-156.

Tye, Michael. 1995. Ten Problems of Consciousness: A Representational Theory of the Phenomenal Mind.Cambridge,Mass.: The MIT Press.

Notes

[1] Most of the material in this chapter is presented more fully, carefully, and rigorously elsewhere (see Melnyk 2003a, chs. 5 & 6; 2003b). Here, I sacrifice some detail, care, and rigor for concision and, I hope, accessibility.

[2] What I say in this and the following paragraph is a much simplified version of ch. 1 of Melnyk 2003a.

[3] The representational theory of mind sketched here is developed and defended by Jerry Fodor; see, for example, his 1975; 1986.

[4] The representational theory of phenomenally conscious mental states sketched here is developed and defended by Michael Tye; see, for example, his 1995.

[5] For different theories of how nonrepresentational and possibly physical facts might determine the representational content of mental states–even when mental states misrepresent–see, for example, Millikan 1984; 1993; Dretske 1988; Fodor 1990.

[6] For more on reasoning of approximately this kind, see Philip Kitcher’s account of eliminative induction in his 1993, ch. 7.4.

[7] For elaboration of this idea, see, for example, Alvin Goldman’s (1986) discussion of reliabilist epistemology in his 1986 and Larry Laudan’s discussion of scientific methodology in his 1996.

[8] There is a huge literature on so-called compatibilist accounts of free decisions, i.e., those accounts according to which what makes a decision free is not its being causally undetermined but rather its being causally determined via one kind of causal route and not another.

[9] Thanks to Paul Draper for suggesting this line of argument to me.

[10] For a slightly fuller presentation, see Melnyk 2003a, 283-285. The line of reasoning apparently originated with J.J.C. Smart; see his 1959, 142.

[11] For a fuller presentation, together with sources for the experimental results reported, see Melnyk 2003a, 298-304. I first encountered this line of reasoning (albeit used for a slightly different purpose) in Churchland 1988, 20 & 28.

[12] The parenthetical phrases in the preceding sentence are included because most philosophers of mind are so called externalists about mental properties, holding that mental properties are typically such that an organism possesses them only if it’s appropriately related to an environment of a certain kind; for example, no organism can think thoughts about water unless in the organism’s environment there does exist or has existed actual water.

[13] For defense of the claim that ontological economy is a good-making feature of an explanatory hypothesis, see Melnyk 2003a, 245-251.

[14] For evidence to support this claim, see Melnyk 2003a, Ch. 6.5.

[15] For a full defense of the claims in this paragraph, see Melnyk 2003b.

[16] See Melnyk 2001. I am grateful to Paul Draper for helpful comments on earlier drafts of this chapter.


Objections to Melnyk’s Case for Physicalism (2007)

Stewart Goetz and Charles Taliaferro

1. Philosophy of Mind

We are grateful for this opportunity to reply to Professor Melnyk’s systematic, clear paper entitled “A Case for Physicalism about the Human Mind.”

According to Melnyk (henceforth M), “An individual item (object, property-instance, or process) is physical in the broad sense if, and only if, it meets either of two conditions: (1) it’s an item of a kind that can in principle be defined in the distinctive vocabulary of fundamental physics; or (2) it’s a physically realized item of a functional kind.” As is evident from M’s explication of the concept of deciding to act in light of (2), physicalism implies that what we ordinarily take to be a causally undetermined mental action is both caused and determined.

Consider, now, M’s writing of his paper. If M is at all like us, when he was approached by Professor Draper about participating in this exchange, M mulled over the reasons for and against getting involved and freely chose (decided) to write his paper for a reason. In our paper, we explained that from the first-person point of view, which is the point of view of M as a conscious subject, a choice is an uncaused mental event and a reason is a purpose that provides an ultimate and irreducible teleological explanation of that choice. For the sake of discussion, we will assume that M chose to write his paper in order to make a clear and persuasive case for physicalism. Given M’s choice and its explanation, a mental event (e.g., the choice itself or a resulting intention) causally produced events in M’s brain that eventually causally led to the movements of his fingers and the production of his paper, all of which ultimately occurred for the purpose that explained M’s choice.

If physicalism is true, important elements of this first-person point of view are mistaken. If M made a choice to write his paper, then that choice was not ultimately and irreducibly explained teleologically by a purpose. Instead, M’s choice was ultimately and irreducibly explained causally and it or something else it caused in turn causally produced events in his brain, which in turn causally produced the movements of his fingers and the production of his paper, where no event in this sequence ultimately occurred for an irreducible purpose. Rather than there being two irreducible kinds of explanation (a dualism of explanations), teleological and causal, the former of which obtains prior to and accounts for the obtaining of the latter, there is only one kind of explanation (causal). And rather than there being two kinds of events (a metaphysical dualism of events), free (undetermined) and determined, the former of which occurs prior to and accounts for the obtaining of the latter, there is only one kind of event (determined).

Given these implications of physicalism, why think it is true? According to M, “as far as we can tell, all human phenomena are dependent on neural phenomena; we never catch the human mind at work without also catching the human brain at work…. So it looks like there’s no human behavior for the causal explanation of which it’s required to assume the existence of anything that’s neither physical nor physically realized.” (The emphases are M’s.) Contrary to M, if we take the first-person data seriously, not all human phenomena are dependent on neural phenomena in the sense that occurrences of the latter always explain occurrences of the former. In the case of choices, the occurrences of some neural phenomena are dependent on, because they are causally explained by, the occurrences of some mental phenomena, which are in turn ultimately explained teleologically by other mental phenomena (reasons or purposes).

As we noted in our paper, a reason for choosing involves conceiving of a way the world might be but presently is not. The content of our reason for acting now is to bring about the state affairs that you come to read our reply to M, arguing that there are no good objections to the view that we make uncaused free choices. This common sense understanding of action creates two difficulties for physicalism: the problem of accounting for the conceptual content of intentional activities (our conceiving states of affairs that we wish to bring about) and the problem of accounting for reasoning itself.

Consider first the problem of conceptual content: it seems apparent that we can indeed conceive of states of affairs that do not obtain as well as propositions about the world (Minneapolis is a city in Minnesota) and about mathematics (6 is divisible by 3 and that 3 plus 2 plus 1 equals 6). These entities or objects are not definable in the distinctive vocabulary of fundamental physics. While the content of a conceptual entity (a proposition or a state of affairs we conceive) might refer to or be about something that is physical and located in space (e.g., writing an essay or Minneapolis, Minnesota), it seems to be neither physical nor spatially located, nor comprised of parts that are physical and spatially related to one another. Thus, while the written sentences ‘The Minnesota Twins play baseball in the city of Minneapolis’ and ‘Minneapolis is the city where the Minnesota Twins play baseball’ are both themselves physical entities that are spatially located on this page and about a sports team that is spatially located in an American city, the content of the conceptual entity (the proposition) that is expressed by these two written sentences seems as if it is not physical and not located anywhere in space. It is because of the seemingly nonphysical nature of conceptual entities that Plato affirmed the existence of the nonspatial world of abstract objects called Forms. We believe that contemporary physicalists have yet to overcome the challenge of avoiding abstract, nonphysical objects.

There is a second problem for physicalism that arises from our conception of states of affairs and the existence of abstract objects. The problem is that physicalism seems incapable of accounting for the mental causation that is involved in reasoning or inference to a belief that occurs because of the apprehension of states of affairs. When we reason to a belief, mental events seem ultimately and irreducibly to explain the occurrences of other mental events. Consider an example in which you are asked “What is the smallest perfect number (a number that is equal to the sum of its divisors, not including itself)?” If you seek to discover an answer to the question, you are acting for an ultimate and irreducible purpose, whose optative content is that you acquire knowledge of the smallest perfect number. Now, as you think about the question and apprehend (a mental event) that 6 is divisible by 3, 2, and 1, which when added together equal 6, and apprehend that there is no number less than 6 that is equal to the sum of its divisors, you are caused by these apprehensions to believe (a mental event) that 6 is the smallest perfect number. The fact that on this occasion you come to believe that 6 is the smallest perfect number is ultimately and irreducibly explained in terms of the contents of the propositions that you apprehend. In other words, acting for an ultimate and irreducible purpose (that you acquire knowledge of the smallest perfect number) ultimately and irreducibly explains the occurrence of ultimate and irreducible mental-to-mental causation (apprehensions of contents causing a belief that has content). If you go on to convey verbally your belief that 6 is the smallest perfect number to the questioner, your choice and/or intention to do so (or some other mental event) will cause your mouth to move in the appropriate ways for the purpose of telling the answer to the questioner. Here there is mental-to-physical causation that is ultimately and irreducibly explained by a purpose.

If M is right, however, and physicalism is true, there is neither an ultimate and irreducible teleological explanation of your seeking to discover the answer to the question nor ultimate and irreducible mental-to-mental and mental-to-physical causation. There is neither of these because (in M’s words) “all human phenomena are dependent on neural phenomena.” (The emphasis is ours.) What this seems to imply is that everything that occurs in our mental lives, including our beliefs, is ultimately explicable in terms of physical causation alone without any explanation of that which is irreducibly mental by something else which is ultimately and irreducibly mental. If physicalism is true, it seems that the ultimate explanation of M’s belief that physicalism is true will mention only neural phenomena and/or more fundamental physical constituents. There will be no mention in that explanation of anything that is ultimately and irreducibly mental. So, even if our first objection is answerable and there are irreducible contents of apprehensions and beliefs which are physically realized (which we doubt), physicalism entails that M believes that physicalism is true, not because his apprehensions of irreducible contents ultimately cause his belief with its irreducible contents but because physical (neural) realizers of those apprehensions causally produce physical realizers of that belief. In short, physicalism seems to entail that apprehensions of contents are explanatorily impotent and epiphenomenal. This is a hard pill to swallow. Given the truth of epiphenomenalism and the explanatory impotence of apprehensions of contents, why should any of us try to reason with others about anything with the hope of changing their beliefs by having them apprehend contents of conceptual entities?

At this point, M might interject that physicalism does not exclude the ultimate explanatory efficacy of the mental. That which is irreducibly mental and physically realized (e.g., apprehensions of content) is sometimes ultimately causally efficacious in producing both other irreducible mental events which are physically realized (e.g., beliefs) and other physical events (e.g., finger movements) which do not serve as realizers of anything that is mental. If M were to respond in this way, then he would have moved a long way toward dualism because he would have conceded the reality of both ultimate and irreducible physical-to-mental and ultimate and irreducible mental-to-physical explanation. And if he were to allow for such ultimate and irreducible mental-to-physical causation (as well as mental-to-mental causation), it would be interesting to know why he is a causal determinist who will not allow for ultimate and irreducible teleological explanation.

There are, then, at least some elements of the first-person point of view that seem incompatible with the truth of physicalism. Is there something that we know from the third-person point of view, the point of view of an observer of the physical world that is used to support physicalism, which conflicts with what we know from the first-person point of view? M says that “if human physiologists had known that human behavior is caused by signals carried by motor neurons that run from the skull, and had then opened up some human skulls for the very first time only to find that they were quite empty, or merely filled with blood, then the positing of a nonphysically realized mind to explain the complexities of human behavior would surely have been unavoidable; there would simply have been no physical candidate of sufficient complexity to do the explanatory job.”

Unless human physiologists are already committed physicalists, M’s description of them is highly questionable. Given that human physiologists are individuals with first-person points of view, what they believe about their own choices before they ever open up human skulls implies that some of what happens in their physical bodies only happens because it is ultimately and irreducibly teleologically explained by what happens in their minds. M states that human physiologists would posit a nonphysical mind (and, one can reasonably assume, a teleological explanatory role for the mental), if they opened up human skulls and discovered that they were empty. What we know from the first-person point of view, however, is not posited or hypothesized. It is a fundamental datum that itself must be acknowledged, as opposed to explained away, by an adequate account of reality. And as we argued in our paper, there is nothing that a human physiologist or any other scientist discovers or is required to assume in his work as a scientist that is incompatible with or undermines this first-person datum.

M makes much of a representational account of human action. This stress on representation, however, eclipses an additional, vital, and evident feature of our mental lives: subjective experience. Consider, for example, an experience of pain. Unlike choosing, an experience of pain seems not to have any representational content. When we are in pain, we do not pain that such-and-such. Rather, pain is a nonrepresentational experience of what we can think of as hurtfulness or, to use an awkward expression, ouchiness.

Suppose, now, that prior to writing his essay, M had boiled some water for tea and accidentally touched the burner. Other things being equal, M would have experienced pain and withdrawn his hand from the burner, run it under cold water and iced it for a purpose, namely, that he alleviate the pain and minimize damage to his hand.[1] At least, that is the ordinary view of what would have been going on with M. What does physicalism say would have been going on with M? Well, something like the following functionalist account will be offered: given that M is a mental system, he had (i) a sensor that formed a representation about his environment (the tea kettle, the burner), (ii) a mental representation of damage to a subregion of his hand, and (iii) a representation of a goal state where the hand is withdrawn from the burner. Given the event process that involved the representations in (i), (ii), and (iii), and other things being equal, M’s hand would have been caused to move away from the burner in accordance with the relevant physical laws. Notice, however, that on the functionalist account of what happens when M experiences pain, the ouchiness of pain (its subjective feeling) has disappeared. All that we are left with is a system of causal inputs provided by or in the form of representations that produce certain causal outputs. In other words, on the functionalist understanding of the mind, an experience of pain is exhaustively characterized in extrinsic, relational terms (inputs and outputs). There is nothing it is like intrinsically to be in pain that is not reducible to a relational analysis.

It is precisely this inadequacy of the functionalist characterization of pain that we pointed out in the story about Mary in our essay. Contrary to what physicalism would have us believe, the fundamental datum provided by an experience of pain is dualistic. When people experience pain, they experience an event of a kind that is nonrepresentational in nature. They also come to have desires that they alleviate their pain, beliefs that this alleviation is accomplished by withdrawing their limbs, and form intentions that they withdraw their limbs, where each of these mental events is representational in nature. Moreover, their experiences of pain do not cause the withdrawal of the limbs. Rather, on the basis of the stated desires and beliefs, people are given purposes or reasons to act, which are that they alleviate their pain and that they minimize damage to their limbs. These purposes then teleologically and noncausally explain agents forming their intentions to withdraw the limbs, where these intentions (or some other mental events) causally produce the physical events that ultimately lead to the relevant movements of the limbs to accomplish the stated purposes. There are two kinds of mental events, representational and nonrepresentational, and two kinds of explanation, teleological and causal, neither of which is reducible to the other. Physicalism fails to provide an adequate account of this fundamental datum. Instead, it disregards it.

When we chose to author our paper and provide a response to our interlocutor’s essay, we presupposed as a fundamental datum that we are substantial individuals with the potential or capacity to endure or persist across time into the future. While we have properties such as (i) the power to think and the power to choose, and exercise them as agents when we think and choose, and (ii) the capacity to desire, the capacity to believe, and the capacity to experience pain, which are actualized in us as patients when we believe, desire and experience pain, we are neither identical with our powers and capacities or their respective exercisings and actualizations nor systems that consist of them. We are substantial individuals that have powers and capacities.

Once again, physicalism gives us a completely different picture of ourselves. According to M, “Humans have minds, but it doesn’t follow that minds are genuine persisting objects.” Though minds are not genuine persisting objects, “physicalism about the human mind can easily treat minds as persisting objects–by treating an organism’s mind as its mental system, on a par with its digestive system or immune system.” In our view, this involves a profound category mistake; persons are not, and cannot be systems. While we think systematically when we author our essay, we are neither the same as systematic thinking nor a system of thought, just as a runner is not the very same thing as his running. M says “an organism has a human-type mental system just in case it houses some complex object or other that … generates representations of states of affairs far removed from the organism in time, space, or magnitude, representations of regularities in the world, and representations of its own representations.” Surely, however, we are something more substantial than some complex objects or other which are housed in organisms and generate representations. As we pointed out in our essay, what we seem to be are simple substantial individuals (souls) that have a multiplicity (complexity) of properties. And it is because we are such entities that we strictly persist self-identical (without the addition or loss of separable parts, of which we have none) through time.

Given everything counterintuitive that physicalism implies about what we are as human beings, it is imperative that we focus on the most general consideration that M claims supports physicalism. This consideration is that physicalism provides a more economical explanation than that provided by dualism in so far as it requires fewer ontological commitments, and this principle of economy is a good-making feature of an explanation. Well, it might be a good-making feature of an explanation given certain data. It is not a good-making feature of an explanation, however, when the ontological commitments implied by that explanation are simply used to eliminate the data that need to be explained. It is this eliminativist nature of physicalism that undermines M’s enumerative induction argument for physicalism. According to M, “[t]here is a strong empirical case for holding that concrete phenomena of many different kinds–chemical, biochemical, cell-biological, histological, physiological, geological, meteorological, and astronomical–are physical or physically realized…. Of course, that all nonmental phenomena are physical or physically realized doesn’t entail that mental phenomena are too. But it can still be some evidence that they are.” It can be some evidence that they are, if you have already eliminated all of the fundamental data of the mental that are not physical or physically realizable. We agree wholeheartedly that if there are no events such as uncaused choices that are ultimately explained teleologically and experiences of pain and pleasure that have intrinsic, nonrelational natures, then there might be some reason to think that what is mental is physical or physically realizable. This eliminativist position, however, will not convince anyone who is not already a committed physicalist. In the end, it seems to us that physicalists simply assert that the mental is physical and, because it is, anything about the mental that seems not to be physical must simply be eliminated.

It is important that we stress that we do not deny that there are neural-mental correlations of the kind that M highlights. What we insist upon is that these correlations are discovered and the fact that they are discovered presupposes that there are two metaphysically distinct kinds of events, physical and mental, whose instantiations are temporally correlated. In other words, correlation of this kind is not sufficient for identity. M is well aware that a dualist can acknowledge the existence of correlations and two-way causal interactions between physical and mental events. What often goes unmentioned by physicalists is that the seemingly substantive simplicity of the self (again, see our essay) is presupposed by, and sets the agenda for, an interesting issue in brain science known as the binding problem. The binding problem originates with first-person experience and the unity of our conscious lives.[2] Neurobiologists wonder about how this unity relates to the workings of the complex brain. For example, scientists are aware that the visual system has cells and regions of the brain that are especially responsive to stimuli originating from properties (e.g., color, lines, angels, shape, and movement) of physical objects. When we see a physical object, however, we have a first-person unified experience of a single object. The neurobiologist is interested in discovering where in the brain all of the effects of these diverse stimuli are bound together into a single, unified visual experience of an object. In other words, in light of the unified nature of our first-person visual experience, the neurobiologist searches for a corresponding single point in the brain which in virtue of its singularity captures the nature of our first-person experience.

The binding problem also encompasses different modes of perception. For example, because one of us is currently hearing voices in the distance, feeling the keys of his computer, smelling the odor of brewing coffee, and seeing words on the screen, the neurobiologist is interested in locating the singular spot in this person’s brain wherein all of the effects of corresponding stimuli are bound together. So far, scientists have failed to find what they are looking for. Our point, however, is not that the failure to find a point of binding in the brain is evidence for the existence of the soul as the substance in which the binding is located. Rather, it is that the mere fact that the binding problem exists is confirmation of the reality of the apparent substantive simplicity of the self. The existence of the binding problem is confirmation that practicing scientists themselves, unlike philosophical physicalists, take seriously our first-person experience of ourselves as unified, simple subjects. And it is because we take seriously our experiences of ourselves as simple substantial individuals that we remain convinced that the dualist view of the self is true.

Though the binding problem presents a problem for M’s physicalism of acknowledging and accounting for a subject’s unity at any particular moment of time, it leads to a corresponding problem of acknowledging and accounting for the identity of that subject over, across, or through time. For example, while it is true that you are the numerically same person over seven years, it is not the case that (strictly speaking) your body is the numerically same body over seven years, as most of its parts are acquired and lost during that time. The bare fact of personal identity over time haunts the physicalist elimination of the soul.

2. Mind and Theism

Though we are at odds with M’s physicalism, we find some of his comments about the evidential relationship between dualism and theism very informative. For example, we agree with M’s statement that “given theism’s commitment to a nonphysical and nonphysically realized mind, its prior probability will be raised if we already know of examples of nonphysical … minds.” Of course, where we differ with M is that we believe, while he does not, that there are examples of nonphysical minds. Moreover, we agree with M that in order for theism to “avoid being disconfirmed by the existence of moral evils, theism requires that human agents freely choose to act in one way rather than another.” Of course, where we differ with M is that we believe, while he does not, that human agents indeterministically freely choose to act in one way rather than another for ultimate and irreducible purposes. In short, we agree with M’s more general point that if one believes that this world is a certain way, then one will be much more inclined to believe that theism is true.

What about God’s creative activity, given the truth of theism? M compares an account of God creating the world whereby, in one case, physicalism is true and in the other dualism is true. He suggests that in the latter case, God would need to do more work. We understand creation to be, in one sense, complex (God wills there to be and to be sustained a complex, contingent good world) and singular and unified (God wills that the world be itself unified causally). So, on a dualist view, there is no reason to think that God would sequentially be involved in many discrete acts of creating this or that law, that moon or that bush, and so on. The whole of creation can reasonably be understood as the outcome of a singular but determinate divine will.

In conclusion, a theistic framework successfully accounts for both the reliability of fundamental physics and the origination of conscious life. Unlike physicalism, it recognizes the reality of our mental lives and exhibits the extraordinary simplicity of providing a single explanation for them and our bodily lives. In terms of economy of explanations, theism has a comprehensive, explanatory power that locates the existence and continuation of the cosmos with all its laws in a single, divine, good reality.

Notes

[1] Even if the heat of the burner caused an initial small movement of M’s hand away from it before he experienced pain, this movement was quickly followed by movements whose source was M, not the heat of the burner, and which were teleologically explained in the way that we describe in light of M’s experience of pain.

[2] For a nice explication of the binding problem, see John Searle’s “The Mystery of Consciousness: Part I,” The New York Review of Books (November 1995): 60-66.


Physicalism and the First-Person Point of View:
A Reply to Taliaferro and Goetz (2007)

Andrew Melnyk

In my paper, “A Case for Physicalism about the Human Mind,” I didn’t attempt to defend physicalism about human mentality (henceforth, just physicalism) against the many objections that philosophers, and others, have made to it. Instead, I tried to assemble positive evidence that physicalism is true, while insisting that no aspect of human behavior, including human linguistic behavior, makes it necessary to adopt any kind of dualism about human mentality. In their reply to my paper, Professors Taliaferro and Goetz (henceforth, TG) don’t engage in any detail with my positive case for physicalism[1], and they offer no examples of human behavior that can’t be explained unless some kind of dualism is assumed. Their main objection to my paper is, rather, that, because it only takes account of evidence “from the third-person point of view,” it entirely overlooks “the first-person point of view,” which, they hold, shows us that human mentality has certain features incompatible with physicalism. Examples of such features would be that “a choice is an uncaused mental event,” and that “a reason is a purpose that provides an ultimate and irreducible teleological explanation of that choice.” In my reply to TG, I’ll respond to this objection only; I won’t take up every disagreement I have with TG’s reply.

I

Before I can respond to TG’s main objection, however, I must clarify it. Since “the first-person point of view” is presumably just the point of view provided by introspection, TG’s main objection must be that introspection of one’s mental states somehow shows one that human mentality has certain features incompatible with physicalism. However, it’s important to distinguish between the following two claims:

(TG1) By introspecting one’s own (say) choices, one acquires some reason to think that they are uncaused mental events.

(TG2) By introspecting one’s own (say) choices, one acquires an indefeasible reason to think that they are uncaused mental events.

By “an indefeasible reason to think that so-and-so,” I mean a reason that can’t be outweighed, or defeated, by any reason to think it’s not true that so-and-so.

TG apparently endorse the stronger of these two claims, i.e., TG2. For example, they write that “What we know from the first-person point of view … is a fundamental datum that itself must be acknowledged, as opposed to explained away, by an adequate account of reality.” TG’s commitment to TG2 is revealed by their insistence in this passage that first-person evidence could never be explained away. For if TG merely held that introspection gives us a defeasible reason to think that so-and-so about our own minds, then they would allow that there could also be evidence against thinking that so-and-so about our own minds, evidence so strong that we should reject what introspection is telling us, give up thinking that so-and-so about our own minds, and then try to explain away what introspection tells us, i.e., explain why during introspection something seems to be true about our own minds that in fact isn’t. Since TG deny that what introspection tells us can ever be explained away, they must hold that introspection gives us indefeasible reasons to think certain things about our own mind. Indeed, whenever TG speak of fundamental data about the mind, they seem to mean deliverances of introspection that introspection gives us indefeasible reason to believe. Attribution of this view of introspection to TG explains their lack of attention to the details of my empirical case for physicalism: because, on their view, there is no quantity of third-person evidence that could overturn what introspection tells us about our own minds, it really doesn’t matter what merely third-person evidence I (or anybody else) can produce.

TG2, however, is open to serious doubt. The doubt arises because, on the face of it, introspection is a perceptual faculty like vision or touch, different from more familiar perceptual faculties only by being directed upon one’s mental states rather than upon one’s surroundings. But perceptual faculties like vision and touch can only ever yield defeasible reasons to believe their deliverances–partly because their deliverances are influenced by fallible background theory, partly because they’re prone to malfunction, and partly because they aren’t perfectly reliable even when they’re functioning properly[2]. Therefore, barring any reason to think that introspection is special, we should suppose that introspection too can only ever yield defeasible reasons to believe its deliverances. TG might reply that introspection is special precisely in giving us indefeasible reasons to believe its deliverances. But TG can’t just say that introspection is special in this way; they must offer some reason to think that it is, some reason other than that introspection’s being special in this way helps out their case–or is itself another of their fundamental data. Moreover, on a physicalist view of the human mind, introspection must somehow be accomplished neurophysiologically, hence fallibly, and therefore couldn’t yield indefeasible reasons to believe its deliverances; so the bare assumption that it could sounds suspiciously like begging the question against physicalism.

I’m not inclined to allow, then, that introspection gives us fundamental data, in TG’s sense, and indeed I suspect that nothing gives us fundamental data in that sense. Of course, I agree that there are data–in the sense of things that we have reason to take to be true at the start of some particular inquiry; but I deny that these data are ever fundamental in TG’s sense of our having indefeasible reason to take them to be true. So, for example, a particular episode of scientific inquiry, into the causes of cancer, say, will begin with many data supplied both by naked-eye observation and by elaborate observational techniques such as video-microscopy. Over the course of inquiry, however, some of these data may be abandoned as false because of their poor fit with otherwise well-supported theory; and typically they will be explained away, i.e., some explanation, consistent with their falsity, will be offered of how they were generated. It was quite right at the start of the inquiry to take these data at face value, but later on it was right to treat them instead as misleading appearances.

II

Thus far I have responded to TG’s central objection to my paper by denying the very strong claim about introspection–TG2–on which it rests. But fairness requires that I now consider how much force their objection has if they retreat to the weaker claim, TG1, and thus assert that introspection gives us defeasible reasons to believe that human mentality has certain features incompatible with physicalism. Of course, if TG2 is replaced by the less ambitious TG1, the dialectical situation changes significantly, and TG will need to take on a new argumentative burden. For suppose TG2 is true. Then we each possess indefeasible reasons to think that our minds have features incompatible with physicalism, and so no amount of empirical evidence for physicalism can outweigh those reasons and TG are entirely within their rights to ignore the details of my empirical case for physicalism. However, if nothing stronger than TG1 is true, then we only possess defeasible reasons to think that our minds have features incompatible with physicalism, and so those reasons might be outweighed by opposing considerations, e.g., my empirical case for physicalism. If nothing stronger than TG1 is true, therefore, then, in order to complete their objection to my paper, TG would have to show not only (i) that TG1 is true but also (ii) that my empirical case for physicalism is too weak to outweigh the case against physicalism that they say introspection provides. But never mind (ii); I deny that TG have even shown (i), i.e., that introspection provides us with reasons–even defeasible ones–to think that our mental states possess features incompatible with physicalism. Since TG make three claims to the effect that introspection provides reason to think that our mental states possess features incompatible with physicalism, I must consider each of these three claims in turn.

First, TG claim that the first-person, or introspective, point of view tells us that “a choice is an uncaused mental event and a reason is a purpose that provides an ultimate and irreducible teleological explanation of that choice.” Should we believe their claim? I’ll start with choices. The claim that introspection tells us that our choices are uncaused is, when you think about it, rather puzzling, because it’s hard to see how introspection could tell us that our choices are uncaused. How would introspection get the job done? Because uncausedness is an entirely negative and relational property of whatever is uncaused, it seems that introspection couldn’t be a faculty that’s directly sensitive to the uncausedness of a choice in anything like the way in which vision is directly sensitive to the redness of an apple. Introspection also seems unlikely to be a faculty that nonconsciously infers the uncausedness of an uncaused choice by first considering all the possible causes of the choice and then noting its own failure to detect any of these possible causes; the cognitive process hypothesized here seems way too elaborate to attribute to introspection. So why are we meant to think that introspection tells us that our choices are uncaused? I don’t believe that TG tell us; they seem to treat their claim as obvious. But it isn’t obvious. We can all agree that introspection doesn’t represent our choices as having causes; but that doesn’t entail what TG are claiming, i.e., that introspection represents our choices as not having causes. Likewise, if we introspect while we are deciding whether to do action A or action B, introspection doesn’t always represent us as being pushed, as it were, toward one option rather than the other; in that sense, we feel that our choice could have gone either way. But for introspection not to represent us as being pushed toward one option rather than another is not, of course, for introspection to represent us as not pushed toward one option rather than another.

Now consider reasons. That a reason is a purpose that provides an ultimate and irreducible teleological explanation of a choice is a highly sophisticated philosophical proposition that even most adults can’t understand without considerable explanation. But introspection doesn’t seem to be in the business of informing us of propositions of such sophistication; the deliverances of introspection don’t seem conceptually rich enough even to express them. So introspection seem rather unlikely to inform us, in particular, that a reason is a purpose that provides an ultimate and irreducible teleological explanation of a choice. So why are we meant to think that it does? To make the question concrete, suppose I grant that introspection indeed tells me that a reason is a purpose that provides a teleological explanation of a choice, but I insist that introspection is simply silent on the all-important question of the reducibility and ultimacy of the teleological explanation. As far as I can see, TG say nothing that might persuade me that my insistence is mistaken–for example, that I’ve directed my introspective attention to the wrong thing, or underdescribed what I’ve introspected, or something like that.

TG’s second claim to the effect that introspection provides reason to think that our mental states possess a feature incompatible with physicalism is this: “the fundamental datum provided by an experience of pain is dualistic. When people experience pain, they experience an event of a kind that is nonrepresentational in nature.” Why should we believe their premise here–that introspection presents pains as nonrepresentational? Their argument is this: “…an experience of pain seems [sc. to us, as we introspect our pain] not to have any representational content. When we are in pain, we do not pain that such-and-such.” But the argument is inconclusive. To this extent I agree that pains seem not to have any representational content: when we introspect our beliefs, we indeed think of ourselves as believing that so-and-so, but when we introspect our pains, we don’t think of ourselves as in pain that so-and-so. On the other hand, introspection of our pains naturally leads us to think and speak of “crushing pains” and “stabbing pains,” and it’s at least possible to understand such expressions on the model of phrases like “baby photos” and “ghost stories.” “Baby photos” refers to photos that represent a baby; “ghost stories” refer to stories that represent–that are about–ghosts. Understood in this way, “crushing pains” refers to mental states that represent crushing, and “stabbing pains” refers to mental states that represent stabbing (in some region of the body). And our pains do seem, introspectively, to be “in” certain bodily regions, and the most attractive way (to my mind) of accounting for this appearance is to suppose that pains represent–and sometimes misrepresent–occurrences as being in some or other bodily region[3].

So TG’s argument for their premise that introspection presents pains as nonrepresentational is, as I say, inconclusive. But TG seem to want to infer from this premise that introspection presents pains as nonphysical. The intended conclusion, however, doesn’t follow, since pains might be nonrepresentational brain-states, and hence physical. I hesitate to ascribe such an obviously fallacious inference to TG; but if they don’t intend this fallacious inference, then their claim that “the fundamental datum provided by an experience of pain is dualistic” is just an unsupported assertion.

TG’s third claim to the effect that introspection provides reason to think that our mental states possess a feature incompatible with physicalism is that “what we seem to be [sc. from the first-person perspective] are simple substantial individuals”; and later on they speak of “our first-person experience of ourselves as unified, simple objects,” and of “our experiences of ourselves as simple substantial individuals.” The conflict with physicalism arises because what TG think introspection reveals is that our minds–ourselves, as TG suppose–are simple entities in the sense of entities that lack parts, contrary to any suggestion that minds are brains (which obviously do have parts), or to the suggestion endorsed in my paper that minds are mental systems (and hence complex) in exactly the sense in which (good) digestions are (good) digestive systems and (poor) circulations are (poor) circulatory systems[4].

Are TG right that introspection represents our minds (or ourselves) as entities that lack parts? Apparently not, because introspection has a very restricted representational repertoire. It represents us as having a variety of mental properties–as undergoing perceptual and bodily experiences, as thinking various thoughts, and as feeling various emotions; but it doesn’t represent us as possessing any other properties than mental ones[5]. Therefore, it no more represents us as lacking parts than it represents us as having parts, or as spatially located, or as electrically charged, or as divisible by two prime numbers. And, as usual, we mustn’t conclude that introspection represents us as lacking parts just because it doesn’t represent us as having parts. Perhaps TG have in mind the point that introspection represents one’s mental properties as possessed by a single entity–oneself. But it doesn’t follow that introspection represents the single entity as lacking parts. After all, vision can represent redness and roundness as possessed by a single apple without representing the apple as lacking parts.

I don’t know why TG think that introspection represents our minds (or our selves) as lacking parts. But in the course of claiming that “the seemingly substantive simplicity of the self … is presupposed by, and sets the agenda for, an interesting issue in brain science known as the binding problem,” TG do assert that, “When we see a physical object … we have a first-person unified experience of a single object.” They mean, I take it, that, if we introspect while looking at an apple that’s both red and round, introspection represents us as enjoying a unified visual experience of the apple–despite the fact that different parts of the brain handle visual representations of color than handle visual representations of shape[6]. However, because enjoying a unified visual experience of something patently isn’t the same thing as being an object that lacks parts, TG’s assertion, even if true, doesn’t show that introspection represents our minds as lacking parts. Actually, it may well not be true that, if we introspect while looking at an apple that’s both red and round, introspection represents us as enjoying a unified visual experience of the apple. Introspection may merely represent us as visually representing an apple as red and round, without pronouncing either way on the question of whether our visual representing itself is unified. As so often, it’s hard to say exactly what introspection is telling us[7].

Notes

[1] Early in their reply, TG place within a single set of quotation marks two sentences from my paper, and because the second quoted sentence begins with the word, “so,” they make it seem as if I meant to infer the second sentence from the first. I did not, and in fact the two sentences quoted come from distinct sections of my paper, separated by some 1,500 words.

[2] My vision is unreliable about the relative lengths of the two horizontal lines in the Muller-Lyer illusion; but it’s still functioning properly.

[3] A pain felt “in” a limb that has been amputated–a phantom pain–would be an example of a misrepresentation of something as occurring in the limb.

[4] TG charge this suggestion of mine with involving “a profound category mistake.” They say, as if to correct me, that “we are neither the same as systematic thinking nor a system of thought.” But I never said that we were either of those things! My suggestion was that minds are systems in the same sense in which we all agree that our bodies have immune systems and our houses have air-conditioning systems.

[5] As a first approximation, one might even say that mental properties are precisely those properties–whatever their ultimate nature–that introspection represents us as possessing.

[6] TG go on to claim that, because of what introspection allegedly reveals, “the neurobiologist searches for a corresponding single point in the brain which in virtue of its singularity captures the nature of our first-person experience.” However, it’s not at all my impression that cognitive neuroscientists are searching for such a point, or even think that they need to find one in order to solve the binding problem.

[7] Thanks once again to Paul Draper for his acute and helpful comments on an earlier draft of this paper.


An Argument from Consciousness and Free Will (2007)

Stewart Goetz and Charles Taliaferro

Naturalism and theism are two powerful accounts of the nature of the cosmos. While there is common ground between the two–for example, both affirm the existence of a stable physical world with laws of nature–they differ profoundly on foundational matters. Thus, naturalists tend to hold that there is no more than the physical world. Some of them think that the physical world is whatever is disclosed in an ideal physical science, which excludes the existence of conscious persons with free will and moral lives. Others are more capacious and allow that there is more to the cosmos than what is disclosed in the physical sciences. Some of these naturalists hold that conscious persons with free will and moral lives have emerged through nonpurposeful, evolutionary processes, where these emergent phenomena are not completely reducible to the physical structures of the cosmos. Most naturalists today insist, however, that the cosmos itself is not explainable in terms of purpose or teleology. They maintain that the processes that brought about and sustain the cosmos were and are blind, not being guided by a preconception of some goal or end.

Rather than follow the naturalist and explain the existence of consciousness and purposive beings (humans and nonhuman animals) in terms of nonconscious, nonpurposive forces, theists see the whole cosmos as ultimately explained in terms a conscious, purposive, divine reality. In theism, it is important to appreciate that God and the cosmos are not on an equal footing in terms of their being; the cosmos exists contingently, and thus neither its coming to exist nor its continued existence from moment to moment is necessary. If classical Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are right, God’s existence is necessary; it is not derived from any law of nature or from some higher supergod who was in turn created by an even higher deity, and so on. God’s ultimacy in terms of goodness, power and knowledge is not derived or bestowed by any external, impersonal law of nature, or by chance. In brief, theism represents one of the more developed, mature accounts of reality that gives a fundamental place to purposeful explanation, whereas naturalism gives the most central role of explanation to nonpurposeful and (typically) causal explanation.

There are many arguments for the existence of God or, more modestly, arguments for a powerful, transcendent divine reality (that may or may not have all the theistic attributes in terms of omnipotence and so on) or, more modestly still, arguments against naturalism which at a minimum open the door to acknowledging a Creator. We believe that many of these arguments are best seen as cumulative and interconnected. Our task here, however, is to focus on one line of reasoning in support of theism. We shall briefly lay out why we believe that the existence of consciousness and free will are more reasonable given theism than given naturalism. Although consciousness is more fundamental than free will (consciousness is a precondition for free will, at least in the prime cases in which we weigh reasons for and against some end), we first consider the reality of free will and the difficulty it causes for naturalism.

1. Free Will

When we were presented with the invitation to write this essay, we did not immediately accept because each of us had reasons for and against writing it. In this situation, each of us (for ease of reading, from here on we will talk in terms of ‘we’) had to make a choice and the fact that you are now reading these words indicates that we chose to write the essay. What, however, is a choice? At a minimum, it is a mental action, where an action is something that we do or perform as opposed to something that happens to us. When we make choices, we are agents. When things are done to us, we passively undergo events and, therefore, we are patients. Because a choice is a mental action, it is not causally determined. Indeed, it is not caused at all, and therefore it has no causal explanation[1]. Nevertheless, because a choice is an event, it has an explanation. What kind of explanation does it have? Its explanation is a purpose, where a purpose makes reference to a goal or end that presently does not exist and to or for which the action that is chosen is a means of bringing about. Purposes are typically expressed in the contents of psychological attitudes such as desires and beliefs and, strictly speaking, are optative in form. For example, in light of both our desire that we make clear that there are no good objections to the idea that we make uncaused choices and our belief that writing this essay would fulfill that desire, we chose to write it for the purpose that we make clear that there are no good objections to the view that we make free choices. Philosophers call explanation in terms of a purpose teleological explanation, where teleological and causal explanations are distinct and irreducible kinds of explanation.

There is a fairly universal consensus that human beings believe that they make undetermined choices for purposes and that the basis for believing this is that they are simply directly aware or have the experience of making such choices. Some opponents of the freedom of the will claim that a belief in free will has religious roots. According to them, people believe that they have free will on the basis of their belief in God. While it would be foolish to deny that some people might claim that they arrive at their belief that they have free will in this way, it would be equally misguided to claim that all or even a majority do. Indeed, there are atheists who believe that we have free will, and it is far more plausible to think that they, like theists and ordinary people in general, believe that they make undetermined choices for purposes (reasons) because they are directly aware of making them. While there are atheists who believe that we have free will, it is nevertheless correct to say that theists are more likely than atheists to believe that we have free will. This is because if one believes that one makes undetermined choices for purposes, then one is less inclined to be skeptical of a view like theism that holds that a nonhuman, good, intentional agent (God) chooses to create the cosmos for a purpose.

Given that the foregoing is an accurate description of our freedom, what reason, if any, is there to doubt that we have free will? Many naturalists believe that while it might be true that we fail to be aware of any causes or other determining conditions of our choices, we cannot be aware of the lack of causes or other determining conditions. According to these naturalists, it is reasonable to think that we cannot be aware of the lack of causes or other determining conditions of our choice because science (physics, chemistry, biology, etc.) requires that we believe in the existence of causes or other determining conditions for anything that occurs in this world. In the view of these naturalists, it is because science supposedly makes this regulative assumption that it has been able to make such remarkable explanatory progress in curing diseases, developing technology to enhance communication and the exploration of space, etc. This argument against free will from science is known as the argument from causal closure or the causal closedness of the physical world. In what follows, we state and respond to this argument.

To introduce the argument from causal closure, consider the movements of our fingers right now on the keys of our keyboards as we work on this essay. If we have free will, these movements are ultimately explained teleologically in terms of the purpose for making our choice to write this essay. In other words, these movements are ultimately occurring in order that we make clear that there are no good objections to the view that we have free will. According to naturalist proponents of the argument from causal closure, this purpose or reason for choosing cannot be the ultimate explanation of the movements of our fingers. Their argument goes something like this: Suppose you are a neuroscientist who is seeking to discover what goes on in the brains and bodies of people when their fingers move. Assume that through your experimental work you find out that on occasions when people move their fingers, there are nerve impulses that reach appropriate muscles and make those muscles contract with the result that their fingers move. These nerve signals likely originate in the activation of certain neurons in their brains. What causes those neurons to fire? According to the proponent of the causal closedness of the physical world, we now have a quite detailed understanding of the process that leads to the firing of a neuron in terms of complex electrochemical processes involving ions in the fluid inside and outside a neuron, differences in voltage across cell membranes, and so forth. In other words, we have a pretty good picture in terms of the laws of physics, chemistry and biology of the processes at the microphysical level that ultimately explain the movements of peoples’ fingers. If, by hypothesis, the movements of fingers of essayists are ultimately teleologically explained in terms of purposes, and those essayists are agents who cause movements of their fingers to occur as means to accomplishing those purposes, then there must be room (sometimes called a gap) in the causal story for those agents to intervene and initially cause, say, a neuron to fire, which eventually leads to the movement of a finger. Does, however, the requisite gap exist in the causal story? According to the advocate of causal closure, the neuroscientist, in order to have a complete explanation of the complex processes that lead to the movements of an essayist’s fingers, does not need to include reference to an agent and a purposeful explanation. Indeed, this scientist allegedly cannot allow for an agent and a purposeful explanation because were he to do so, he could not practice his science. As a scientist, he is methodologically committed to not allowing for anything other than explanations in terms of physical causes. He needs to presuppose the principle of causal closure because were he to abandon it, then whenever he could not discover a physical cause of an event in the physical world, he might or would be tempted to terminate his empirical work and appeal to a noncausal or teleological explanation of that effect. The advance and success of science, however, in principle requires that no such appeal be permitted. In short, the closedness of the physical world is a regulative idea of science. Without it, science as we know it would not exist.

In order to evaluate the argument against free will from causal closure, it is necessary to consider what it is about physical entities that a scientist is trying to discover. Take our neuroscientist. It is reasonable to claim that he is trying to discover how the capacities of particles or microphysical entities such as neurons are causally affected by causal powers of other physical entities including other neurons. For example, in his pioneering work on the brain, the neuroscientist Wilder Penfield stimulated cortical motor areas of patients’ brains with an electrode, which resulted in movements of their limbs[2]. As Penfield observed the neural impulses that resulted from stimulation by the electrode, he had to assume that during his experiments the relevant areas of the patients’ brains were causally closed to other causal influences. Otherwise, he could not justifiably conclude that the electrode causally produced the neural impulses, which in turn causally produced both additional neural impulses down a causal chain and ultimately the limb’s movement. There is no reason, however, to think that because Penfield’s investigation of the brain required the assumption of causal closedness in the context of his experiments that he had to be committed as a scientist to the assumption that the physical world is universally causally closed such that the capacities of microphysical entities to be causally affected could only be actualized by other physical entities. That is, there is no reason to think that because a neuroscientist like Penfield must assume causal closure in his experimental work in order to discover how physical entities causally interact with each other that he must be committed as a scientist to the nonexistence of agents who choose to act for purposes and have the power to causally affect physical entities to realize those purposes. All that a neuroscientist such as Penfield must be committed to, as a physical scientist, is that agents that choose for purposes, if they exist, are not causally producing events in the relevant neurons during his experiments. If a neuroscientist like Penfield makes the methodological assumption that microphysical entities can have their capacities causally actualized only by other physical entities, then he does so not as a physical scientist but as a naturalist.

Consider, now, the movements of our fingers as we write our essay. While Penfield and his ilk could produce movements of our fingers by inserting electrodes into the cortical motor areas of our brains and discover what goes on in those and other areas of our bodies on those occasions, is there any reason to think that the present movements of our fingers while typing cannot adequately be explained without ultimately invoking a teleological explanation in the form of the purpose for which we chose to move them? It would certainly seem so. After all, these movements seem purposeful to an observer to the extent that they are producing what are (hopefully) intelligible sentences, and from the perspective of our first-person experiences, we remember choosing to write this essay and it now seems to us that we are carrying out our plan to do so. In short, it simply stretches one’s credulity to the breaking point to claim that what is presently taking place in our bodies in relationship to the movements of our fingers can be explained without any ultimate or final reference to the teleological explanation of our choice to write this essay. Yet, that is precisely what the naturalist proponent of the argument from causal closure would have us believe. Not only would he have us believe this, however, but also he would have us believe that no events in our bodies (or minds) ultimately occur for a purpose. They cannot, if one assumes the causal closure of the physical world. Given, however, that there is no good reason to think that the practice and progress of science requires causal closedness, there is as of yet no reason to think that naturalism is true.

Before proceeding, it is important to point out that people typically see the disagreement between naturalists and their opponents (whom we will call ‘teleologists’) about what is an acceptable explanation manifested in the public square in debates about creation versus evolution. The argument in the public square is about whether God should, in popular vernacular, be allowed into the biology class, or whether certain complex phenomena in our physical bodies (e.g., the complex arrangement of parts in organs such as our eyes or in our cells) are indications of purposeful design by a mind (here, one can think of the position advocated by members of the contemporary Intelligent Design movement). According to naturalists, the scientific method (causal closedness) requires that no matter how designed some complex biological organism or organ might appear[3], it is in principle impermissible to appeal to a teleological explanation of it. What a reader should be aware of, however, is that the argument from causal closure that is used by naturalists to exclude teleological explanations of biological phenomena is the very same argument they use to exclude teleological explanations of the movements of an essayist’s fingers on a keyboard. If the argument from causal closedness against the teleologist in the public disputes about evolution versus creation is sound, then it is sound when used against the teleologist in debates about bodily and mental events in our everyday lives. If the argument is no good in the latter realm, then there is no reason to think that it is any good in the former.

The argument from causal closure has led naturalists to propose some highly counterintuitive understandings of the relationship between our physical and mental lives. The most popular contemporary naturalist view of this relationship is the thesis that reality is a multilayered hierarchy consisting of levels of entities with their characteristic properties and events. According to this view, the lowest, fundamental or bottom level of reality consists of microphysical particles. On top of this lowest level are higher, intermediate-level entities (e.g., chemical, biological) with their distinctive properties and events. Mental properties and events are features of human beings (brains or central nervous systems) that are higher- (highest-?) level macroentities. There is a dependency relationship between the lower-level, physical properties and events of micro-objects and the higher-level mental properties and events of human beings: no human being can have mental properties and events unless he has physical properties and events, and the lower-level physical properties and events determine the higher-level mental properties and events in the sense that nothing can be just like a given human being physically without it also being just like it mentally. Thus, there is an ontological primacy of the physical over the mental, and physical indiscernibility (two entities are physically identical) entails mental indiscernibility (two entities are mentally identical).

The deterministic dependency relationship of the mental on the physical world is typically characterized by naturalists as a supervenience relationship: higher-level mental properties and events supervene on lower-level physical properties and events. Because a choice is a mental event, it supervenes on a physical event or events. This implies that a choice is determined to occur by those physical events on which it supervenes. The implication of this supervenience relationship between the mental and the physical is that free will in the form of undetermined choices explained by purposes is impossible.

If the argument from causal closure fails and we have free will, a choice does not supervene on a physical event or events. What, then, is the most plausible view of the ontological status of a choice? In the remaining space that is allotted to us in this opening case for theism, we briefly highlight the difference between our mental, conscious life and the physical world and explain why we believe that there is good justification for holding that we, the beings who make choices, are immaterial minds (souls). We conclude by indicating why we believe our existence as minds is more plausible given theism rather than naturalism.

2. Consciousness

To illustrate the difference between our conscious, mental life and that which is physical, consider a well-known argument in the philosophical literature that concerns a hypothetical scientist named ‘Mary.’ For whatever reason, Mary has spent her entire life up till now locked in a room and has never experienced pain[4]. While locked in the room, Mary has devoted her life to learning all the physical facts that can be known about pain, such as that pain is produced by such-and-such physical objects that cause so-and-so neural happenings which lead people to utter expletives, etc., etc. Her knowledge is exhaustive. One night, Mary is freed from the room and is invited to go bowling for the first time. As she picks up a bowling ball, she accidentally drops it on her foot and bleeps out an expletive. She asks her host what it is that she has just experienced and he informs her that she experienced pain.

Did Mary learn something new about pain? The obvious answer is ‘Yes.’ She learned for the first time what the intrinsic nature of pain is. While in the room, she only learned about extrinsic, relational features of pain. The conclusion of the argument is that there are more facts (nonphysical or psychological/mental facts) than physical facts and, therefore, that physicalism is false. Why couldn’t Mary learn from her studies about the intrinsic nature of pain during the time that she was in the room? Part of the answer seems to be that the ouchiness nature of pain (the sensory feel of pain) can only be known from the first-person perspective which Mary lacked with respect to pain. None of the features of the physical world as identified by the physical sciences (mass, size, weight, electric charge, physical structure and constitution) captures what it is to experience pain (or think, feel, smell, taste, etc.). Another part of the answer as to why Mary learns something more when the bowling ball hits her foot seems to be that physical explanations of the intrinsic natures of things/events are typically given in terms of part-whole compositional and spatial relationships. Take the solidity of the tables on which our computers presently sit. The solidity of our tables vis-à-vis the computers is explained in terms of a lattice structure of microparts held together by attractive bonds which are sufficiently strong to withstand pressures to be split apart that are exerted by the computers. Such explanations, however, won’t work for an experience of pain or the making of a choice because it is a defining characteristic of these events that they lack compositional event structures. That is, they are simple in nature in the sense that they are not made up of event parts. As Colin McGinn has stated, “Consciousness defies explanation in [compositional, spatial] terms. Consciousness does not seem to be made up out of smaller spatial processes…. Our faculties bias us towards understanding matter in motion, but it is precisely this kind of understanding that is inapplicable to the mind-body problem.”[5]

Given that it is exceedingly difficult and seemingly impossible to provide a compositional, spatial analysis of the intrinsic nature of an event such as an experience of pain, can a metaphysical naturalist reasonably promise us some other kind of explanation of its nature? If not, as we think he cannot, and he must simply acknowledge its nature as an irreducible mental reality, can he at least provide a plausible explanation of how it came about that the universe contains occurrences such as experiences of pain and pleasure? We doubt it. Recall that naturalists do not posit any intentional, purposive agency undergirding or explaining the existence or continuation in being of the cosmos. Assuming contemporary cosmology, all that existed (matter and energy) fourteen or fifteen billion years ago in space and time lacked consciousness, experiences, intentions, choices or purposes. From this original state, through a process of explosion and expansion, the formation of hydrogen masses (stars, galaxies), the fusion of hydrogen and helium and the development of heavier elements (planets), there supposedly gradually emerged life and finally conscious life with experiences, choices, moral awareness, and so on. Some naturalists (e.g., the Churchlands, Quine, Stich) recognize that the emergence of consciousness constitutes such a radical development, that they actually deny that consciousness exists. One can appreciate the motive for doing so, as it appears that with the emergence of consciousness we observe the development of a reality that is unlike any other. Some (e.g., Searle) try to explain away the radical difference by noting how solidity emerges from microparticles, liquidity emerges from molecules, heat is accounted for in terms of molecular theory, and so on. But, as we have already argued, solidity (and a similar analysis applies to liquidity) is fundamentally a compositional relationship among parts vis-à-vis some other object, and when the example is heat–when this is understood in terms of kinetic energy–a compositional analysis in terms of molecules in motion seems to suffice. But if we think about the emergence of subjective experience in the form of the conscious feeling of heat, no amount of molecular theory will explain, let alone describe the sensations or experiences themselves. If we restrict ourselves (as naturalists like Armstrong and Dennett want) to the explanatory framework of an ideal physics with mass and energy, it is hard to see how any configuration of the physical world can constitute let alone explain the emergence of consciousness. And those who claim that consciousness ‘supervenes’ upon the physical seem to us to posit a mysterious, brute relationship, where one is labeling the occurrence of a radical emergence rather than offering an explanation.

What, then, is the theistic alternative? Theism begins by acknowledging that experiences of pleasure and pain and choices are events that occur in subjects which refer to themselves by the first-person pronoun ‘I.’ What is remarkable about these selves is that they too seem to be simple in nature in the sense that they seem to lack substantive parts. As the theist René Descartes wrote, “When I consider the mind, that is to say myself inasmuch as I am only a thinking thing, I cannot distinguish in myself any parts, but apprehend myself to be clearly one and entire…. And the faculties [powers and capacities] of willing, feeling, conceiving, etc., cannot be properly speaking said to be parts, for it is one and the same mind which employs itself in willing and in feeling and understanding.”[6] In other words, while the mind lacks substantive parts, it has a multiplicity of properties (faculties, powers and liabilities) which enable it to make choices, experience pain, form beliefs, etc. So the theist believes that we must not only account for the existence of mental events, but also for the existence of the substantial selves that are the subjects of those events. The existence of minds like ours is not a mystery in a theistic universe, however, because theism takes the most fundamental fact of reality to be a conscious and purposive mind. In other words, the conscious, purposive reality, God, did not emerge from anywhere but was there all along as a necessary existent, and God created nonphysical minds such as us for the purpose of experiencing complete or perfect happiness through, at least in part, the adoration of God.

It might seem that naturalism is in a somewhat similar position to theism insofar as it too posits something fundamental, and foundational: a nonconscious, nonpurposive, physical cosmos, which did not emerge from or is sustained by some other force. But most naturalists acknowledge the contingent character of the cosmos. There is nothing about the cosmos or in the cosmos that exists necessarily or is self-sustaining; the cosmos is contingent. Theism, unlike naturalism, offers an account of the cosmos which does not leave one with bare contingency or without some overall reason as to why there should be a contingent cosmos at all, let alone one with stable laws of nature and the emergence of conscious, purposive beings with free choice. The naturalist is committed to believing that it is reasonable to seek explanations for the occurrence of events within the cosmos. We believe that this seeking of explanations should ultimately also be directed upon the very existence and nature of the cosmos itself. Why is there a contingent cosmos such as ours with conscious life that has free will? We believe that the existence of such a cosmos is more plausible given theism as opposed to naturalism.

3. Closing Remarks

In closing, we briefly comment on the nature of our argument and our understanding of nature.

First: Have we advanced what some would classify as a ‘God of the gaps’ argument? This is a popular label for a line of reasoning that insists we need to posit God’s existence in order to close a gap in a naturalist account of the cosmos; for example, it has been argued that some of the gaps in the fossil record require supernatural explanations. Our argument is not of that form; we are not arguing that there is some gap in an otherwise seamless naturalist view of reality. We are, rather, pointing to the very existence and nature of free will, purposive explanations, conscious minds and the contingency of the cosmos as evidence for theism. This is an argument from the fundamental character of reality and what kinds of things exist (purposes, feelings, the contingent cosmos) to what best accounts for them. It is not like an argument in, say, geology, about whether some skeletal remains do or do not demonstrate the descent of human beings from mammals and so on. Our argument, then, differs from typical ‘God of the gaps’ strategies insofar as our reasoning is categorical and comprehensive in nature and not limited to some specific scientific issue about, say, the relationship of human beings to other animals.

Second: If theism is right and our arguments sound, do we somehow treat persons or free will as not natural or not part of the natural world? By no means. We believe that it is part of our nature that we exercise freedom, that we are conscious beings with moral lives, and so on. Our concept of ‘nature’ is both different from and wider than the naturalist’s. We believe the argument between naturalism and theism is best seen as a dispute over the scope and character of ‘nature’ and wish to discharge straight away any suggestion that theism lands one with some kind of ‘unnatural’ or ‘nonnatural’ enterprise. Indeed, we believe the naturalist’s account of nature is itself ‘nonnatural’ and denatures the natural world insofar as it denies the existence of both nonphysical minds that freely act for purposes and a Creator.

Much more needs to be said about the nature of theistic and naturalist explanations, the existence of consciousness and the soul, and the goodness of the cosmos. We look forward to doing that in the next part of this project, in replying to Professor Melnyk and to you, our readers.

Notes

[1] Some advocates of free will argue that choices are either caused by their agents or that initial event-parts of choices are caused by their agents, where the causation by the agent (agent causation) is not caused at all. Because of limitations of space, we avoid this controversy. On either our view (the noncausal view of agency) or the agent causationist view of agency, something is done by the agent which has no cause.

[2] Wilder Penfield, The Mystery of the Mind (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1975).

[3] It is worth pointing out here that metaphysical naturalists like Richard Dawkins concede that some things in the biological world look designed. They argue that the appearance of design is illusory. Cf. Dawkins’ The Blind Watchmaker (New York: W. W. Norton, 1987), pp. 5, 21.

[4] The story about Mary is Frank Jackson’s, and he told it in terms of Mary learning all of the physical facts about a color such as redness without ever seeing red. See “Epiphenomenal Qualia,” Philosophical Quarterly 32 (1982): 127-136.

[5] Colin McGinn, The Problem of Consciousness (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1991), p. 18, n. 21.

[6] René Descartes, Meditations, Sixth Meditation.


Naturalism, Free Choices, and Conscious Experiences (2007)

Andrew Melnyk

As I understand them, Charles Taliaferro and Stewart Goetz (hereafter, TG) are best viewed as making two main objections to a certain kind of naturalism. In Section 1, I clarify what this kind of naturalism claims. In Section 2, I defend it against their first objection, and in Section 3 I defend it against their second objection.

1. The Kind of Naturalism in Question

The word “naturalism” has been used by philosophers, scientists, and others to denote many different views. But in this reply I’ll use it to denote just one view, the kind of naturalism that TG reject and I’ll defend. What does this view claim? TG write: “In brief, theism … gives a fundamental place to purposeful explanation, whereas naturalism gives the most central role of explanation to nonpurposeful and (typically) causal explanation.” I think I agree. Naturalism claims that nothing has a fundamental purposeful explanation. Something (e.g., some action) has a purposeful explanation when it occurs for some purpose. Naturalism can agree that some things have purposeful explanations. For example, naturalism can agree that I visit the gym for the sake of my health, i.e., for the purpose of maintaining my health. What naturalism denies is that anything has a purposeful explanation that’s fundamental. Naturalism says that whenever an occurrence has a purposeful explanation, it has that explanation in virtue of certain nonpurposeful (e.g., merely causal) facts. So, to continue my example, my visiting the gym really does have a purposeful explanation–I really do visit the gym for the sake of my health; but my visiting the gym for the sake of my health is simply the fact that my going to the gym is caused by my mental state of wanting to be healthy and my mental state of believing that visiting the gym promotes my health. A purposeful explanation isn’t some kind of noncausal explanation; it’s just a special kind of causal explanation–one that cites the wants (or purposes) and beliefs of an agent. (For the classic defense of this claim, see Davidson 1963.)

So naturalism implies that everything that has a purposeful explanation has it in virtue of nonpurposeful facts–presumably, facts about the interactions of fundamental physical particles in accordance with impersonal physical laws. But TG object that some things that have purposeful explanations don’t have them in virtue of nonpurposeful facts: the purposeful explanations they have are fundamental. Specifically, TG claim that free choices have fundamental purposeful explanations, and the fact that the universe contains conscious mental states such as pains has a fundamental purposeful explanation.

2. Free Choices

Naturalists can agree that free choices have purposeful explanations, since they can understand purposeful explanations simply as those causal explanations that cite the actor’s beliefs and desires (or purposes). But TG claim that free choices have fundamental purposeful explanations. If a free choice has a fundamental purposeful explanation, then the choice has no cause, but still has a purposeful explanation; and since the choice has no causal explanation for this purposeful explanation to be reduced to, the purposeful explanation must be fundamental. For example, if my free choice to write this paper has a fundamental purposeful explanation, then, although my choice to write this paper has no cause, it still has a purposeful explanation (perhaps I chose to write this paper in order to keep a promise) that must therefore be fundamental.

Accordingly, to persuade us that free choices have fundamental purposeful explanations, TG must first persuade us that free choices have no causes. Their argument is apparently that (1) we experience our free choices as uncaused, that (2) this experience is some evidence that our free choices really are uncaused, and that (3) there is no evidence that our free choices aren’t uncaused. Let me explain why I disagree with premises (1) and (3).

Premise (1) is far from obviously true. It’s certainly true that we don’t experience our free choices as caused, but that’s not the same thing as experiencing our free choices as uncaused. The distinction may sound pedantic, but it isn’t. Suppose that I’m standing in front of aLondonbus with a blindfold on. Then, because I can hear and smell the bus but not see it, I don’t experience the bus as red; but it doesn’t follow, and it’s not true, that I experience the bus as not red. Moreover, my not experiencing the bus as red is no evidence at all that the bus is not red; the reason why I don’t experience the bus as red is that my senses of hearing and of smell just don’t inform me about the colors of things, and neither do my other nonvisual senses. Likewise, if I introspect while making a free choice, I don’t experience the choice as caused, but it doesn’t follow that I experience it as uncaused. Moreover, for all we know, the reason why I don’t experience the free choice as uncaused is that introspection just doesn’t inform me about the causes of my choices; and if that’s so, then my not experiencing a free choice as caused is no evidence at all that the choice is uncaused.

Premise (3) strikes me as definitely false; I say there is evidence that our free choices are caused. If TG are correct, and our free choices are uncaused, then those of our bodily movements that constitute actions must result from chains of neural events that begin in the brain, the first events in such chains being caused by choices that are themselves quite uncaused. But there’s ample evidence that this isn’t so, i.e., that those of our bodily movements that constitute actions result from chains of neural events that don’t begin in the brain. Part of this evidence is negative, i.e., the failure of neuroscientists over the past century to discover any chains of neural events that begin in the brain, lacking neural causes. Surely there would’ve been a Nobel Prize for such a discovery! But the most important part of the evidence is positive, i.e., positive evidence that all neural events are realized by (and hence are nothing over and above) physical events, and that every physical event has a physical cause. I’ve sketched such evidence, providing references to full treatments, in section four of my opening essay, “A Case for Physicalism about the Human Mind.” However, TG don’t consider any evidence of this sort, apparently because they assume that their opponent would have to be advancing a merely methodological claim.

Let me very briefly review this positive evidence. The many explanatory successes of biochemistry provide evidence that we can account for all the distinctive properties and behaviors of neural events on the assumption that they are realized by certain biochemical events. Similarly, the many explanatory successes of physical chemistry provide evidence that we can account for all the distinctive properties and behaviors of biochemical events on the assumption that they are realized in turn by certain physical events. Thus, biochemistry and physical chemistry strongly suggest that all neural events are realized by (and hence are nothing over and above) physical events. The evidence for thinking that every physical event has a physical cause (to the extent that it is caused at all) is simply the remarkably successful track record of physics in identifying physical causes of a wide variety of physical events. Of course, physicists still expect to have to change their theories to accommodate anomalous physical phenomena; but they expect to find such phenomena in, say, the large-scale structure of matter or high-energy particle colliders, not in human brains.

A further ground for thinking that free choices are caused is the peculiar consequences of supposing that they’re not caused. I’ll mention two such consequences[1]. First, consider the fact that people very often freely choose to act in character; that is, they very often freely choose to act in ways that make sense given the beliefs, preferences, and moral principles that they profess at other times. For example, it’s a rarity if an accountant who’s hitherto been diffident and frowned upon ostentation chooses one morning to wear to the office a hot pink denim suit; it’s a rarity if a notoriously loud-mouthed sexist who thinks he’s automatically more intelligent than all women puts in for a transfer to a team with a female boss. Now, if free choices are uncaused by anything, and hence uncaused by the chooser’s beliefs, preferences, and moral principles, then there’s no obvious way to explain why, time and again, the chooser’s choices make sense in light of his or her beliefs, preferences, and moral principles; the supposition that free choices are entirely uncaused makes the fact that people generally choose to act in character an extraordinary coincidence. It might be replied that a person’s beliefs, preferences, and moral principles are defined by reference to their actual choices, and that’s why their choices mesh so smoothly with their beliefs, preferences, and moral principles. But this reply doesn’t explain the notable fact that over time a person by and large makes the same kind of free choices, i.e., those that mesh with a fairly stable set of his or her beliefs, preferences, and moral principles. If free choices were entirely uncaused, then you’d expect them not to conform to any pattern at all. For example, I freely choose about the same time every afternoon to drink a decaf mocha. Why so if each free choice is causally unconnected with my beliefs and preferences and indeed uncaused by anything?

Second, consider the evidence on the basis of which we’re prepared to say that someone else freely chose to act in a certain way. For example, nearly all viewers of the 2006 soccer world cup final between France and Italy will have concluded, very reasonably, that French star Zinedine Zidane quite freely chose to head-butt an Italian player in the chest. But what was their conclusion based on that made it reasonable? Well, the viewers saw that Zidane was subject to no force majeure, that he did not trip or fall, and that his head-butt was not a tic, or a spasm, or some kind of compulsive behavior. They also had no reason to suspect insanity or sudden brain damage, especially because both before and after the head-butt Zidane provided abundant evidence that his abilities to deliberate, to engage in practical reasoning, and to control his limbs were intact[2]. However, if free choices were uncaused, then these bases for reasonably concluding that Zidane freely chose to head-butt an Italian player would be inadequate, since none of them makes it at all reasonable to think that some neural event in Zidane’s brain had no neural cause. The actual evidence we rely on in judging that someone else has chosen freely seems to fit poorly with the view that free choices are uncaused; it fits much better with the view that free choices are those (caused) choices that result when one’s mechanisms of deliberation, practical reasoning, and bodily control are functioning properly, and one’s beliefs and preferences get translated into choices in a biologically normal way[3].

I very much doubt, then, that the choices we classify in everyday life as free are counterexamples to the naturalist claim that nothing has a fundamental purposeful explanation.

3. The Fact That the Universe Contains Conscious Mental States

But what about the fact that the universe contains conscious mental states? TG can be interpreted–fairly, I hope–as arguing thus:

(1) Naturalism can’t plausibly explain how it came about that the universe contains physically irreducible conscious occurrences such as experiences of pain and pleasure.

(2) Theism can plausibly explain how it came about that the universe contains physically irreducible conscious occurrences such as experiences of pain and pleasure.

Therefore, physically irreducible conscious occurrences such as experiences of pain and pleasure are evidence that the fact that the universe contains conscious mental states has a fundamental purposeful explanation.

Theism’s explanation of the universe is, of course, a purposeful explanation (i.e., God created the universe for a purpose) and presumably a fundamental one.

Both premises of this argument are questionable. Let me discuss (1) first, temporarily going along with the argument’s assumption that conscious occurrences really are irreducibly mental events, and that physicalism about the mind is therefore false. Even so, (1) seems to be false. Naturalism can easily explain how the universe came to contain physically irreducible conscious occurrences. It can do so by supposing that, among the fundamental laws governing the universe, there are some according to which, whenever such-and-such complex nonconscious occurrences occur, so-and-so conscious occurrences occur; perhaps such a law says that, whenever a human brain attains a certain kind and degree of complexity, a pain is experienced. Given such laws, the capacity for consciousness that some creatures enjoy, like the capacity for breathing, can be explained as having arisen through natural selection. Through mutation, some creature was born with a brain of the requisite kind and degree of complexity to generate conscious experiences; and then, because these experiences increased the creature’s fitness, such creatures were selected for. I see nothing implausible about such an explanation, so I think (1) is false.

Why, then, do TG think that (1) is true? The only argument I can find occurs in this passage:

If we restrict ourselves (as naturalists like Armstrong and Dennett want) to the explanatory framework of an ideal physics with mass and energy, it is hard to see how any configuration of the physical world can constitute let alone explain the emergence of consciousness.

Now I quite agree that, if the only fundamental laws are physical laws (i.e., laws linking physical events of one kind with physical events of another kind), then it’s impossible to explain the emergence of physically irreducible conscious events. But naturalists needn’t hold that the only fundamental laws are physical laws; they can also believe in fundamental laws connecting physical events with irreducibly conscious events. Of course, naturalists who believe in such laws are thereby rejecting physicalism about conscious events. But that’s no problem, since naturalism doesn’t logically require physicalism about conscious events: a universe in which nothing has a fundamental purposeful explanation might still be one in which consciousness is physically irreducible. It’s true that nearly all naturalists in fact endorse physicalism about conscious events as well; but that doesn’t show that naturalism logically requires physicalism about conscious events.

So far, I have been going along with the assumption of premise (1)–and indeed of premise (2) also–that conscious occurrences really are irreducibly mental events, and hence that physicalism about the mind is false. In fact, of course, I reject this assumption, for the reasons given in my opening essay, “A Case for Physicalism about the Human Mind.” But since TG argue for the assumption, I must explain why I find their argument (generally known as the Knowledge Argument) unpersuasive[4]. According to this argument, we can coherently imagine a scientist of the future, Mary, who has never actually experienced pain herself, but who has come to know everything that a completed multidisciplinary science of pain (including psychology, neuroscience, and biochemistry) has to say about pain. But still she doesn’t know everything about pain. For we can imagine that, once her studies are over, Mary stubs her toe and thus experiences pain for the first time in her life. And, in doing so, she learns something: she comes to know that having a pain in the toe is like that. But since she already knew everything that a complete multidisciplinary science of pain has to say about pain, but didn’t know that having a pain in the toe is like that, the property of being like that must be a property that a complete multidisciplinary science of pain fails to mention. Such a property couldn’t therefore be a physical property, and so physicalism about the mind can’t be true.

I think the Knowledge Argument fails, because it relies on a general principle that’s false. According to the Knowledge Argument, since Mary knows all the science of pain, but then learns something new (i.e., that pain is like that), it must be that the subject matter of the new knowledge (i.e., pain’s being like that) is a feature of reality that the science of pain didn’t refer to or talk about at all. The general principle underlying this reasoning seems to be this: if someone knows a certain body of knowledge, but then learns something new, it must be that the subject matter of the new knowledge is a feature of reality that the old body of knowledge didn’t refer to or talk about at all. However, this general principle seems false; it holds true of very many but not all situations. Consider the following story. Because of a blow to the head I suffer terrible amnesia and forget who I am. But I read in the newspaper that tomorrow, for reasons that don’t matter, one Andrew Melnyk will be publicly flogged. “Bad news for this Melnyk fellow,” I think to myself, but I soon return to my quest to find out who I am. Later, however, I discover that I am Andrew Melnyk, and then, of course, I realize, to my horror, that tomorrow I will be publicly flogged! The point of the story is that, when I learn that tomorrow I will be publicly flogged, I thereby gain vitally important new knowledge. According to the general principle on which the Knowledge Argument relies, the subject matter of my new knowledge must be a feature of reality that my old body of knowledge didn’t refer to or talk about at all. But the subject matter of my new knowledge isn’t some feature of reality that my old body of knowledge didn’t refer to or talk about at all. On the contrary, the subject matter of my new knowledge (that tomorrow I will be publicly flogged) is exactly the same feature of reality as the subject matter of my old knowledge (that tomorrow Andrew Melnyk will be publicly flogged)–simply because my being publicly flogged tomorrow just is Andrew Melnyk’s being publicly flogged tomorrow. So the general principle on which the Knowledge Argument relies is false, and the Knowledge Argument fails to prove its intended conclusion.

Of course, you might well ask what is the difference between my new knowledge (that tomorrow I will be publicly flogged) and my old knowledge (that tomorrow Andrew Melnyk will be publicly flogged) if the subject matter in each case is the same. In broad strokes, the answer is that two items of knowledge can represent the very same feature of reality, but still differ from one another in representational format (think, for example, of how a photo of someone differs from a verbal description of the same person) and in how they are processed (for example, “Mary loves John” is easier to process than “John is loved by Mary”) and perhaps in other ways too. So, for all that the Knowledge Argument shows, pain’s being like that might be a straightforward physical property of the brain that, before she stubs her toe, Mary can represent using concepts drawn from the science of pain, but that afterwards she can represent by using special representational formats that can only be used by someone who has actually experienced pain[5].

Let me now turn to premise (2). How do TG suppose that theism can plausibly explain how it came about that the universe contains physically irreducible conscious occurrences? They write this:

The existence of minds like ours is not a mystery in a theistic universe, however, because theism takes the most fundamental fact of reality to be a conscious and purposive mind. In other words, the conscious, purposive reality, God, did not emerge from anywhere but was there all along as a necessary existent, and God created nonphysical minds such as us for the purpose of experiencing complete or perfect happiness through, at least in part, the adoration of God.

Premise (2) presumably implies that such an explanation of why the universe contains physically irreducible conscious occurrences is plausible. But is it?

Theists can always explain why so-and-so exists by saying that God decided to create so-and-so, and that whatever God decides to create comes into existence. But if they leave the explanation at that, there’s no explanatory gain. For we can always ask why God decided to create so-and-so, and explaining why God decided to create so-and-so (rather than such-and-such) looks no easier than explaining the phenomenon we started with–why so-and-so exists. Another way to see the same point is to notice that, if this is the theist’s game, then naturalists can play it too. Just as theists can always explain why so-and-so exists by saying that God decided to create so-and-so, naturalists can always explain why so-and-so exists by saying that something quite mindless, a new kind of particle perhaps, once existed whose nature it is, in accordance with some hitherto unknown fundamental law, to cause so-and-so. Of course, this naturalistic explanation is worthless; but if so, then so is its theistic analog, from which it differs in no relevant respect. In principle, however, theists can do better–by exhibiting God’s decision to create so-and-so as one manifestation of some standing desire or characteristic that has, or can have, other manifestations too. And presumably this standing characteristic would be God’s moral perfection or, perhaps, his perfect love.

Bearing in mind these points, let’s evaluate TG’s specific suggestion that “God created nonphysical minds such as us for the purpose of experiencing complete or perfect happiness through, at least in part, the adoration of God.” Clearly TG aren’t just saying that nonphysical minds exist because God created them; commendably, they’re also trying to explain why he created them. Their explanation assumes that God desires to create other minds that experience complete or perfect happiness and that we are such minds[6]. However, this assumption seems inconsistent with the fact that many, perhaps even all, human minds are less than completely or perfectly happy. If God desires to create other minds that experience complete or perfect happiness, and we are such minds, and if God is omnipotent and hence able to fulfill any of his desires, then why aren’t we all a lot happier than we are? Evidently TG have some explaining to do. Now I’m not saying they couldn’t do this explaining; several possible explanations are imaginable, though they might only lead to further difficulties. My point is merely that, until TG actually do this explaining, and successfully, their hypothesis concerning why the universe contains nonphysical minds can’t be called plausible–contrary to their premise (2).

TG argue that the fact that the universe contains conscious mental states has a fundamental purposeful explanation. However, if what I’ve been arguing is right, the fundamental purposeful explanation that they offer isn’t–yet–a plausible one; and there’s a rival naturalistic explanation that at least isn’t implausible[7].

References

Davidson, D. 1963. “Actions, Reasons, and Causes.” Journal of Philosophy 60: 685-700.

Hobart, R.E. 1934. “Free Will as Involving Determination and Inconceivable Without It.” Mind 43: 1-27.

Jackson, F. 1982. “Epiphenomenal Qualia.” Philosophical Quarterly 32: 127-136.

Jackson, F. 1986. “What Mary Didn’t Know.” Journal of Philosophy 83: 291-295.

Ludlow, P., Y. Nagasawa, and D. Stoljar. 2004. There’s Something about Mary: Essays on Phenomenal Consciousness and Jackson’s Knowledge Argument.Cambridge,MA: The MIT Press.

Papineau, D. 2002. Thinking about Consciousness.New York,NY:OxfordUniversity Press.

Stampe, D. and M. Gibson. 1992. “Of One’s Own Free Will.” Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 52: 529-556.

Notes

[1] My arguments in this paragraph and its successor are distinct from but inspired by those inHobart1934.

[2] Furthermore, Zidane’s remarks to the press several days later made it clear that he did not regret his action, and that it was a deliberate response to a grave insult; it had not resulted from an insuperable surge of anger.

[3] One version of this sort of understanding of free choice can be found in Stampe and Gibson 1992.

[4] The argument was first advanced by Frank Jackson (see his 1982 and 1986), though he has now abandoned it. It was and continues to be the subject of a large philosophical literature; see, most recently,Ludlow, Nagasawa, and Stoljar 2004, whereJackson’s recantations can also be found.

[5] For an account of what these special representational formats might be, see, for example, Papineau 2002, ch. 2.

[6] That God desires to create other minds that experience complete or perfect happiness looks at first sight like a good candidate to follow from God’s perfect love or moral perfection. On closer examination, however, I think the matter is not so clear. Perfect love requires benevolent treatment of minds that already exist, but doesn’t seem to require bringing new minds into existence. Must a morally perfect being desire to create other minds that experience complete or perfect happiness? Perhaps; but surely the question raises difficult questions in moral philosophy.

[7] Thanks to Paul Draper for helpful comments on an earlier draft.


Reply to Melnyk’s Objections (2007)

Stewart Goetz and Charles Taliaferro

We thank Andrew Melnyk (hereafter, M) for his thoughtful response to our essay and begin with his suggestion near the end of his response that in principle theists can provide a good explanation of the emergence of consciousness. Our position is that theists can do this (and not just “in principle”) because their worldview offers an explanatory framework in which the goodness of conscious life and libertarian free will provides the fundamental reason why conscious, free subjects exist. Because naturalists such as M offer a nonpurposive, nonintentional account of the cosmos, they posit at the most basic level of explanation processes that have no prevision of an end that is brought about and thus they cannot contend that the processes that produced our cosmos did so in order to produce the cosmos and what is good in it. M rightly notes that naturalists can simply posit that consciousness emerges when there is sufficient physical complexity, but this is not the same thing as locating the existence of consciousness in an overall framework in which its existence is a good, purposeful end.

M is correct that a full articulation and defense of a theistic worldview must address the problem of evil. Each of us have addressed the problem of evil elsewhere, but we make just one observation of our approach to evil vis-à-vis M’s naturalism[1]. Given M’s compatibilist view of free will, all the horrors of human-made evil must be seen as deterministically written into the very fabric of the cosmos. If all minds are unhappy, this could not be otherwise, given the laws of nature and the condition of the cosmos going back to the Big Bang or earlier. On libertarian, theistic grounds, many human evils may be seen as not essential but as byproducts of a misused freedom, a freedom we are called to use for good. We do not have space to pursue the ethical implication of theism and naturalism. We suggest, however, that in a longer, wider debate naturalism ends up having to recognize evil as a natural feature of the world whereas theism sees it as unnatural.

As we defined ‘Naturalism,’ it is the view that nothing has a fundamental purposeful explanation. M agrees with our characterization of naturalism. He claims that while naturalism can concede that some things have purposeful explanations, these explanations are never fundamental (ultimate and irreducible). Rather, they are special kinds of causal explanations. For example, to say that M visits the gym for the sake of his health is to provide a purposeful explanation of that visit. But this purposeful explanation is really a causal explanation in the form of M’s wanting to be healthy and his believing that visiting the gym promotes his health causing him to visit the gym.

A purposeful explanation isn’t a causal explanation. It is a teleological explanation. M’s insistence that it cannot be a kind of explanation other than causal should alert the reader to the fact that there is a fundamental divide between naturalists and antinaturalists. This divide starts at the very bottom with how we understand the explanations of our own actions, particularly our mental actions, and percolates all the way up to different views about the existence of God. The divide does not start with different views about God’s existence and seep down to how we understand ourselves.

Is there, then, any reason to think that our belief that our actions start with our mental lives and fundamental teleological explanations is mistaken? M appeals to Donald Davidson’s classic defense of the causal view of action[2]. Davidson presents a challenge to anyone who believes that reasons are fundamentally anything other than causes of the actions (choices) that they explain. He maintains that when we say things like ‘He chose to play golf because he wanted to close the business deal, and not because he wanted to avoid mowing the lawn,’ the sense of ‘because’ in this statement must be causal in nature in light of the distinction between having a reason (e.g., wanting to avoid mowing the lawn) and choosing to act with it and having a reason (e.g., wanting to close the business deal) and choosing to act because of it. One may justify a choice to act by citing a reason one has even if one did not choose because of it. One cannot explain a choice by citing a reason, however, unless one chose because of it. Davidson argues that if the sense of ‘because’ is not causal, then we are left without an analysis of ‘because’ in ‘He chose to do such-and-such because… ,’ where we go on to name a reason. Explanations in terms of reasons must, therefore, be causal explanations.

For clarification, consider an example of Carl Ginet’s in which agent S urgently needs her glasses which she has left in R’s room where R is now sleeping. The narrative that follows is complex, but it will repay close attention to help assess M’s Davidsonian position:

S has some desire to wake R, because she would then have R’s company, but also some desire not to wake R, because she knows that R needs the sleep. S [chooses] to enter R’s room in order to get her glasses, knowing as she does so that her action will satisfy her desire to wake R. Could it nevertheless be true that S did not intend of her action that it wake R?… It seems right to say that S did not intend to wake R if S was so disposed that had it turned out that her entering the room did not wake R, S would not have felt that her plan had failed to be completely realized, and she must then either wake R in some other way or decide to abandon part of her plan. And S’s being thus uncommitted to waking R is quite compatible with S’s expecting and desiring to wake R.[3]

According to Davidson, S has two reasons to enter R’s room, namely, a desire to wake R (and a belief about how to fulfill it) and a desire to get her glasses (and a belief about how to fulfill it). S has two reasons that justify her entering R’s room. If S chooses to enter R’s room because of one of the reasons but not the other, this can only be because one of the reasons caused her so to choose. The reason that causes S’s choice explains that choice.

Contrary to what Davidson would have us believe, we contend that the distinction between justifying a choice and explaining a choice can be preserved when ‘because’ is understood teleologically. Understanding ‘because’ teleologically implies that S chose to enter R’s room in order to achieve the purpose that she get her glasses but not in order to achieve the purpose that she wake R. Thus, the distinction to which Davidson draws our attention can be preserved when a reason explains a choice teleologically and not causally.

Not only do we maintain that choices are fundamentally explained teleologically, we also maintain that they are uncaused. M concedes that we are not aware of our choices having causes, and points out that it does not follow from this that we are aware of them not having causes. We agree that this distinction is an important one and made it ourselves in our opening essay. What we contend is that we are aware of our choices not having causes.

A choice is only one kind of mental event. It is a mental action and the awareness of it as such leads to our grasp of the fundamental distinction between being a mental agent (mental activity) and being a mental patient (mental passivity). As minds, we both act and passively experience things happening to us. Choosing and focusing our attention on a philosophical problem fall in the former category, while believing and desiring belong in the latter.

The distinction between being a mental agent and being a mental patient is grounded in two types of mental properties, namely, powers and capacities[4]. These two kinds of properties are inherently different from each other and each is an ultimate ontological category. Corresponding to these two kinds of mental properties are two kinds of events, namely, an agent’s exercising of a mental power and the actualization of a mental capacity in him. Like the properties themselves, these two kinds of events are intrinsically different from each other such that any token or instance of the kind ‘being the exercising of a mental power’ is intrinsically distinguished from any token or instance of the kind ‘being the actualization of a mental capacity.’

The intrinsic natures of mental powers and capacities respectively have important implications for causation. Because an agent’s exercising of a mental power is essentially intrinsically active, it is essentially uncaused, and because an actualization of a subject’s mental capacity is essentially intrinsically passive, it is essentially caused. Any instance or token of mental action by nature lacks an efficient cause, and any instance or token of mental passion by nature has a cause.

Consider a choice. Its ontological status as a mental action is specified in terms of an agent’s possession of the power to choose and his exercising of that power. Thus, on our noncausal view of libertarian freedom, the power to choose is ontologically an ultimate and irreducible mental property of an agent, where the exercising of that power by the agent is a primitive or simple event in the sense that it has no event parts (it lacks an internal causal structure) and is intrinsically active and, thereby, essentially uncaused. It should be clear, then, that our assertion that a choice is essentially an uncaused event is not an ad hoc claim arising out of a commitment to libertarian freedom. It is instead rooted in a general ontology of mental powers and capacities and their respective exercisings and actualizations.

Given the ontology of mental powers and capacities that is at the basis of our account of agency, it is the case that no exercising of a mental power can be causally determined because no exercising of a mental power can be causally produced. Moreover, an agent’s belief that he makes essentially uncaused choices is not justified by a failure to be aware of a determinative relationship between happenings in the micro- or macroworld and his choices. That is, an agent does not conclude that a choice of his is not an effect event on the basis of an investigation that he conducts and in light of which he fails to find any causes of it, whether at the surface or a deeper level of the physical world. If knowledge of whether or not a choice is uncaused depended on the results of such an investigation, then an agent would never know whether or not a choice of his was an effect event because it would always be possible that the choice had a cause that was beyond his introspective ken. Hence, his failure to observe the cause would count for nothing. A belief in libertarian freedom is not the conclusion of such an investigation. Given the fact that an individual knows that he is making a choice, it follows that he is aware of performing a mental action that is his exercising of a mental power and whose nature as such entails that it is an essentially uncaused event. An agent does not fail to find causes and then conclude (unjustifiably) that his choice is not an effect event. There is no need for the agent to look for causes of his choice at all. The agent only needs to be aware of his mental act of choosing to know that it is uncaused. In short, it is the simple experience of choosing along with the conceptual truth that a choice is essentially uncaused that is the ultimate support for a belief in the occurrence of uncaused choices.

So much for the nature and epistemology of choice. How does an agent’s choice relate to what goes on in his physical body? If our libertarian view of freedom is correct, then the physical origins of some movements of our bodies are events in our brains whose ultimate causes are irreducible mental events and not other physical events. This entails a gap in the physical causal story in our brains. M claims “there’s ample evidence that this isn’t so,” and the evidence that it isn’t comes in two forms, positive and negative.

The positive evidence (noted by M in his original essay) is that concrete phenomena of many different kinds (e.g., cell-biological, chemical) are physical or physically realized and every physical event has a physical cause. We responded to the realizability claim in our second essay. We add here that to assert that every physical event has a physical cause is simply to beg the question at issue by assuming the principle of causal closure of the physical world, which we critiqued in our original essay. We earlier contended that M’s explanatory naturalism actually undermines what we believe to be an evident feature of reasoning itself, namely the fact that we accept conclusions in virtue of our grasping premises and entailment (or evidential) relations.

The negative evidence is “the failure of neuroscientists over the past century to discover any chains of neural events that begin in the brain, lacking neural causes. Surely there would’ve been a Nobel Prize for such a discovery.” Surely, however, M is mistaken in suggesting that a Nobel Prize in physical science would be awarded for such a discovery (assuming for the moment that it could be made). It wouldn’t, because Nobel Prizes in physical science are awarded for discoveries of relationships (e.g., causal relationships) between physical events. Discovering such relationships is what scientists are in the business of doing, which is in no way incompatible with there being ultimate and irreducible mental causes of physical events.

Let us set aside Nobel Prizes. Could a neuroscientist, as a scientist, ever discover a chain of neural events that begins in the brain and has no physical cause? Surely not, but the explanation of this inability is not that no such chain exists. The explanation has to do with the methodology of science and involves the distinction between failing to find a cause and finding the absence of a cause, which is, as M says, a distinction that may sound pedantic but is not. An empirical investigation of a causal chain can never establish that there is no physical cause. At most, a scientist can fail to find such a cause. Indeed, this happens all the time. Is M’s position that the failure to find such a cause would lead him to believe that there is a gap in the physical story? We doubt that this is the case. We suspect that were someone to try (we think wrongly) to convince M of the existence of such a gap on the basis of a failure to find a physical cause, he would simply respond that the failure to find such a cause does not in any way suggest the nonexistence of such a cause. Given that M is a naturalist (and physicalist), what else could he say? What we believe this debate shows is that philosophical views are not held on the basis of empirical investigations. They are brought to empirical investigations. And it is because they are brought to empirical investigations that we suggested in our second essay that M eliminates certain fundamental mental data that are not physical or physically realizable in order to make the world conform to his philosophical theory.

M, however, in his reply to us raises a different kind of argument against the existence of uncaused, teleologically explained choices. He points out that people very often choose to act in character, that is, they choose to act in accordance with their beliefs, preferences, and moral principles. If choices were uncaused, “then there’s no obvious way to explain why, time and again, the chooser’s choices make sense in light of his or her beliefs, preferences, and moral principles; the supposition that free choices are entirely uncaused makes the fact that people generally choose to act in character an extraordinary coincidence.”

M seems to assume that if one believes agents make uncaused, teleologically explained choices, then one must also believe that they are always making such choices. Such an assumption is fallacious. We believe that much of our lives is routine in nature and choiceless. There is an important philosophical distinction between deterministically forming an intention to perform act A and choosing to do A. Though both mental actions are made for reasons (purposes) and, thus, explained teleologically, the latter only occur in situations where there is a reason recommending an alternative course of action (two-way rationality). When there is a reason for only one course of action (one-way rationality), agents cannot and need not choose; instead they deterministically form an intention to do what that reason recommends. Hence, M’s notoriously loud-mouthed sexist is determined not to put in for a transfer to a team with a female boss because he has no reason to do so but only reasons not to do so. Given the nature of his reason-giving structure (it is one-way rational in nature), he cannot choose to put in for a transfer to a team with a female boss.

M puts forth one other example that supposedly poses problems for our view of freedom. The incident concerns the French soccer star Zinedine Zidane who head-butted an opposing Italian player. If Zidane chose to head-butt his opponent, he had a reason for doing so and a reason for not doing so. Given that observers believed that Zidane had two-way rationality and that the other conditions obtained which M stipulates, they could reasonably conclude that Zidane chose to head-butt the Italian. M says that “if free choices were uncaused, then these bases for reasonably concluding that Zidane freely chose to head-butt an Italian player would be inadequate, since none of them makes it at all reasonable to think that some neural event in Zidane’s brain had no cause.” Our view of freedom, however, does not imply that some neural event in Zidane’s brain had no cause. What it implies is that if Zidane chose to head-butt the Italian opponent, then some neural event ultimately had an irreducible mental cause.

We now turn from the issue of freedom to that of pain. In our opening essay, we presented the example of a scientist named ‘Mary’ who is locked in a room and, by hypothesis, has learned all the physical facts that can be known about pain (in M’s terms, a complete multidisciplinary science of pain). Upon being freed from the room, Mary picks up a bowling ball and drops it on her foot (M has Mary stub her toe) and learns for the first time what it is like to feel pain. We maintained that Mary learned something new that she did not know before, namely, what the intrinsic nature of pain is, and, therefore, that there are more facts than physical facts.

M responds that the general principle underlying an argument like ours involving Mary is that if someone knows a certain body of knowledge, but then learns something new, then it must be the case that the subject matter of the new knowledge is a feature of reality to which the earlier body of knowledge did not refer. As a counterexample to this general principle, he presents a different story:

Because of a blow to the head I suffer terrible amnesia and forget who I am. But I read in the newspaper that tomorrow, for reasons that don’t matter, one Andrew Melnyk will be publicly flogged. ‘Bad news for this Melnyk fellow,’ I mutter to myself, but I soon return to my quest to find out who I am. Later, however, I discover that I am Andrew Melynk, and then, of course, I realize, to my horror, that tomorrow I will be publicly flogged.

M says that he has acquired new knowledge, but it is false that the subject matter of the new knowledge is a feature of reality about which he had no knowledge before discovering that he is Andrew Melnyk. The subject matter is the same, namely, Andrew Melnyk. What are different are the two items of knowledge (namely, that of himself and associated with his use of the first-person pronoun ‘I’ and that of himself and associated with the name ‘Andrew Melnyk’), where each refers to the same subject but by means of different representational formats. Melnyk’s new knowledge is that he is identical with Andrew Melnyk. Similarly, Mary’s new knowledge about pain does not refer to a feature of reality to which her scientific knowledge did not refer. Rather, Mary learns about the identity of what she experiences when she drops the bowling ball on her foot with the referent of the scientific knowledge she possessed before leaving the room.

In response, we maintain that our argument does not presuppose the general principle that if someone knows a certain body of knowledge, but then learns something new, it must be the case that the subject matter of the new knowledge is a feature of reality to which the earlier body of knowledge did not refer. Nevertheless, we believe that Mary’s new knowledge is not of an identity statement, for two reasons.

First, unlike M, who while suffering from amnesia continued to have first-person awareness of himself (which was reflected by his use of ‘I’), Mary had no awareness of how pain feels (what, in our original essay, we called its ouchiness) before she left the room, which is the period of time that corresponds to the temporal period when M suffered from amnesia. Hence, while M acquires knowledge of an identity between what he took to be two different entities but which were really one thing of which he was previously aware in two different ways, when Mary leaves the room she becomes acquainted with something (the ouchiness of pain) of which she was not previously aware. That of which she was not previously aware is the intrinsic nature of pain. Prior to leaving the room, Mary was only aware of extrinsic, relational features pain.

Second, if ‘two’ things are in fact one, it must be the case that they share all of their properties in common. As we suggested in our opening essay, however, there is good reason to think that the ouchiness of pain, which is the intrinsic nature of pain, has properties that are not shared by that about which Mary learns before leaving the room. The ouchiness of pain seems to be simple in nature in the sense that it is not made up of event-parts (or other structural parts). Physical explanations of the intrinsic natures of things/events are typically given in terms of part-whole compositional relationships. Hence, if Mary learned anything about the intrinsic nature of a physical phenomenon when she learned all the physical facts about pain (again, we suspect she learned about only extrinsic, relational features of pain), then what she learned could not have been about the intrinsic nature of pain.

Notes

[1] See Stewart Goetz’s “A Theodicy,” Philosophia Christi 5 (2003): 459-484; and Charles Taliaferro’s Contemporary Philosophy of Religion (Oxford: Blackwell, 1998).

[2] Donald Davidson, “Actions, Reasons, and Causes,” in Essays on Actions and Events (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1980), pp. 3-19.

[3] Carl Ginet, On Action (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990), pp. 145-146. The emphasis is Ginet’s.

[4] As David Chalmers points out, basic particles in the physical sciences are also characterized in terms of powers and capacities (he terms them forces and propensities). See his The Conscious Mind: In Search of a Fundamental Theory (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996), p. 153.


Introduction to Section Two: Evil and Evolution (2007)

Paul Draper

Do the claims of evolutionary biology conflict with theistic religion? According to one very popular view about the relationship of science to religion, they cannot or at least should not because the proper relationship of science to religion is one of isolation. On this view, science and religion never conflict so long as each is properly conducted.[1]

Arguments in support of this view are diverse, but they all involve an attempt to carve out separate domains for science and religion within which each has authority. For example, according to the well-known geneticist, Theodosius Dobzhansky, “Science and religion deal with different aspects of existence. If one dares to overschematize for the sake of clarity, one may say that these are the aspect of fact and the aspect of meaning.” Of course, this raises the question of the meaning of “meaning.”[2] Mary Midgley, interpreting Dobzhansky, associates it with the way in which facts connect to form “world pictures.”[3] Stephen Jay Gould, an advocate of the isolation view, narrows Dobzhansky’s “aspect of fact” to facts about “the empirical constitution of the universe” and includes “ethical values” in the domain of religion (2001, 500).[4] Others who would want to explicitly allow for theological facts recognize the expertise of scientists on factual questions concerning the natural world while deferring to theologians on factual questions concerning God or the supernatural.

None of these suggestions, however, successfully drives an absolute wedge between science and theology. World pictures will inevitably influence what one takes the facts to be. Values, even if they cannot simply be “read off” nature, nevertheless depend on natural facts. And by definition a supernatural and theistic God can and does affect nature.[5]

Another position on the relationship of evolution to theistic religion is that the two are in some fairly straightforward way logically incompatible. This view, however, seems just as problematic as the isolation view. Although certain theistic creation stories, if taken literally, are logically incompatible with the claims of evolutionary biology, I know of no good religious or other reason why theists should take those stories literally, and many theists, including theists likeSt. Augustinewho lived long beforeDarwin, don’t take them literally. Indeed, many ofDarwin’s earliest and strongest supporters were clergy and many of his initial opponents were members of the scientific establishment. So the whole idea that the Victorian dispute overDarwin’s theory was a battle between science and religion appears to be a sort of secular myth that should also not be taken literally.

So what, then, is the relationship between evolutionary biology and theism? In the second section of this e-book, two very different views are defended. Following a suggestion by Darwin, I argue that evolutionary biology makes the argument from evil against theism stronger by providing explanations of certain facts about good and evil that work very well on the assumption that naturalism is true but not on the assumption that theism is true. Alvin Plantinga, also following a suggestion by Darwin, claims that it is naturalism–not theism–that conflicts with evolution. He argues that naturalists have a problem, not because they believe in evolution–as suggested above, many theists also believe in evolution–but because they believe in blind evolution, in evolution that occurs without any prior supernatural planning or concurrent supernatural guidance. According to Plantinga, blind evolution is not likely to lead to reliable cognitive faculties, which means that naturalists who recognize this cannot rationally trust those faculties, and so cannot rationally believe anything at all, including naturalism itself. Plantinga’s recommendation to such naturalists would be to reject, not evolution, but naturalism, replacing it with theism.

Notes

[1] Cf. Mary Midgley, Evolution as a Religion: Strange Hopes and Stranger Fears (London: Methuen, 1985), p. 13. Midgely does not defend the isolation view.

[2] The Biology of Ultimate Concern (London: Fontana, 1971), p. 96.

[3] Midgely, pp. 13-14.

[4] “Two Separate Domains,” in Philosophy of Religion: Selected Readings, 2nd edition, ed. Michael Peterson, William Hasker, Bruce Reichenbach, and David Basinger (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001), p. 500.

[5] This is not to say that no conception of religion or science effectively isolates the two activities. For example, if Paul Tillich is right that God is not a supreme being or any other kind of being (and so is not limited by the condition of existence!) but rather is being-itself, then he may also be right that science can neither confirm nor disconfirm “the truth of faith” because “scientific truth and the truth of faith do not belong to the same dimension of meaning” (Dynamics of Faith [New York: Harper & Row, 1957], p. 81). But others will insist that Tillich distorts religion or that he takes the idea of God’s transcendence to an absurd extreme. Another way to isolate both science and religion is to defend an extreme anti-realist position about science. Most scientists and many others will, however, reject such a portrayal of science, and most religious believers will see a wolf in sheep’s clothing if such a portrayal implies an equally extreme antirealist position about theology.


Natural Selection and the Problem of Evil (2007)

Paul Draper

By the “problem of evil,” philosophers mean, roughly, the question of whether the suffering, immorality, ignorance, and other evils in our world are strong evidence against theism.[1] My opening case in this debate will address this question and also the question of what relevance, if any, natural selection has to the problem. Darwin himself suggests two radically different answers to this second question. On the one hand, in a passage sympathetic to theism that he wrote in 1842, he points out that, according to his theory, “death, famine, rapine, and the concealed war of nature,” led directly to “the highest good, which we can conceive, the creation of the higher animals.”[2] On the other hand, in a letter about religion that he wrote in 1879, he says that the argument from suffering against theism “is a strong one; whereas . . . the presence of much suffering agrees well with the view that all organic beings have been developed through variation and natural selection.”[3]Darwin’s earlier remark is unhelpful to the theist. A good theistic explanation of natural evils like death and famine must do more than show that such evils lead to a greater good like the existence of higher animals. It must show that a creator, despite being all-powerful, could not obtain that good without those evils. His later remark is more interesting, especially if it is intended to suggest that his theory provides a “naturalistic” explanation of various facts about suffering that is superior to the best theistic explanations.

Still, that is just a suggestion and not an argument. What is needed, in order to show that evolutionary biology makes a theistic solution to the problem of evil more difficult, is a serious argument from evil against theism in which evolutionary theory plays a significant role. My goal here is to construct just such an argument. A key component of my strategy for accomplishing this goal will be to compare theism to a specific alternative hypothesis, which I will call “naturalism.” I should mention that in referring to theism and naturalism as “hypotheses,” I mean nothing more than that they are statements[4] that are neither certainly true nor certainly false. I will begin by explaining these two hypotheses. Then I will show that naturalism has both smaller scope and greater simplicity than theism and for that reason is more plausible than theism. Next I will use certain known facts about good and evil in order to test the two hypotheses. Specifically, I will show that the “predictive power” of naturalism with respect to these facts is much greater than that of theism. (It is here that evolutionary biology will play an important supporting role in the argument.) I will close by explaining why my argument provides a very strong reason to reject theism.

1. Theism and Naturalism

Successfully comparing hypotheses requires clarity about the hypotheses being compared. So let’s begin with some definitions. First, by “theism” I mean not just the vague claim that “God exists,” but the more specific hypothesis that an omnipotent, omniscient, and morally perfect entity–I will call such an entity a “perfect God” for short–created[5] the natural world. To say that God is “omnipotent” (all-powerful) and “omniscient” (all-knowing) is to say that it is logically impossible for something to have more productive power or more propositional knowledge than God has.[6] It is more difficult to define “moral perfection,” but God’s being morally perfect entails at a minimum that God never performs a morally wrong action. Second, “naturalism” is the hypothesis that the natural world is a closed system, which means that nothing that is not a part of the natural world affects it. Naturalism is logically incompatible with theism because theism implies that the natural world was created (and so affected) by a supernatural entity (namely, God), while naturalism implies that there are no supernatural entities, or at least none that actually exercises its power to affect the natural world. By the “natural world,” I mean the collection of all existing physical entities (past, present, and future) together with any entities whose existence depends (either causally or ontologically) on the existence of those entities. “Natural” entities are entities that are part of the natural world so defined, and a “supernatural” entity, if there is such a thing, is simply an entity that can affect the natural world despite not being a part of it.

Now that we know what our two hypotheses assert, one might be tempted to ask which is better. This is a bad question, however, because it is doubtful that it has a single answer. We use hypotheses to pursue a variety of different practical and epistemic goals, and a characteristic of a hypothesis that furthers one of our goals may not help us or may even hinder us in our pursuit of some other goal. My own goal, as an old-fashioned philosopher, is truth. I want to know which of the two hypotheses, naturalism and theism, is more likely to be true. Thus, I will restrict my attention to theoretical virtues and vices that are virtuous or vicious because they affect the probability of a hypothesis’ being true. Specifically, I will compare the scope, simplicity, and predictive power of naturalism and theism. The first two of these factors, scope and simplicity, affect the probability of a hypothesis by affecting its intrinsic probability–its probability independent of what anyone knows or believes or perceives or remembers. The other factor, predictive power, affects probability only relative to the specific features of one’s “epistemic situation.” I do not deny that there are other factors besides these three that affect how probable a hypothesis is, but one can only do so much in the limited space allowed by my stingy editor.

2. Scope

Let’s start with scope. Roughly speaking, scope is a measure of how much a hypothesis purports to tell us about the contingent features of the world.[7] Relative to certain practical goals, the larger the scope of a hypothesis, the better; but relative to the goal of truth, large scope is a vice rather than a virtue. For the more that a hypothesis says that might be false, the more likely it is to say something that is false, and hence the less likely it is to be true. For example, the statement that there is an animal behind the door says much less than the statement that there is a dog behind the door which in turn says much less than the statement that there is a collie wearing a red scarf behind the door. Thus, the first of these statements is intrinsically much more probable (though perhaps less useful) than the second and the second is intrinsically much more probable than the third. Similarly, the statement that there is no collie wearing a red scarf behind the door says much less than the statement that there is no dog (of any kind) behind the door which in turn says much less than the statement that there is no animal behind the door, not even an ant or a spider. Thus, of these three statements, the statement that there is no collie wearing a red scarf behind the door is the most probable intrinsically, while the statement that there is no animal of any kind behind the door is the least probable intrinsically.

It is not as easy to compare the scope of hypotheses like theism and naturalism, because neither entails the other and they are asymmetrical in more than one important respect. They both make a claim about the natural world, but the claims they make about the natural world are not symmetrical. Naturalism claims in effect that natural entities all lack supernatural causes, which is very different from saying, as theism does, that they all possess (proximate or remote) supernatural causes. Of course, theism says much more than this. It says that all natural entities share a single ultimate supernatural (necessary) cause, and while it doesn’t say that this common supernatural cause is wearing a red scarf, it does say that it is omnipotent, omniscient, and morally perfect. Because of the great specificity of these claims, I conclude, somewhat tentatively, that theism has much greater scope than naturalism does. I also conclude, quite confidently, that naturalism does not have greater scope than theism.

3. Simplicity

A hypothesis can be simple in more than one way, and simplicity can make a hypothesis better just by making it easier to use and understand. When, however, the simplicity of a hypothesis is understood to be a measure of the degree of (objective) uniformity that the hypothesis attributes to the world, then it is more than a merely pragmatic theoretical virtue. It is a sign of truth. Two examples will, I hope, help to make this point clear. First, compare the hypothesis that emeralds will remain green in the future to the hypothesis that they will sooner or later change from green to blue or from green to some other color. The former hypothesis is more probable than the latter, not because (or not just because) we have evidence that color changes of this sort never occur. Rather, it is intrinsically more probable because it attributes objective uniformity over time to the world while the latter hypothesis attributes objective change.[8] A second example concerns Aristotle’s theory that physical objects are of two fundamentally different sorts: terrestrial and celestial. Unlike terrestrial objects, celestial objects are not composed of earth, water, air, or fire; and the laws that govern their behavior are not the same as the laws that govern the behavior of terrestrial objects. Even in the ancient world, it was recognized that attributing such ontological variety to nature was a weakness in Aristotle’s physics. Alternative theories that postulated greater uniformity were intrinsically more probable than Aristotle’s theory. Of course, Aristotelian physics was widely accepted for centuries, but only because it appeared to have much greater predictive power than its simpler competitors. In the end, of course, it proved to be false.

This position on simplicity is controversial. I am convinced that it is correct because our reliance on inductive reasoning is clearly justified and this is possible only if objective uniformity, either over time or at a single time, is intrinsically more probable than change or variety. This is not to deny, of course, the obvious fact that many hypotheses postulating change or variety are highly probable. The evidence supporting them can more than make up for their low intrinsic probability. Notice, though, that when we do discover change or variety we favor hypotheses that claim that this change or variety is itself uniform! For example, having observed that some freely falling bodies change their speed by accelerating, the Galilean hypothesis that they all accelerate at the same rate is taken to be more likely than other hypotheses that yield the observed data equally well.

Considerations of simplicity understood in this way provide another reason to believe that naturalism is intrinsically more probable than theism. On the one hand, theism postulates that one sort of entity–a perfect God–is the ultimate cause of other entities of a fundamentally different sort–natural entities. Naturalism, on the other hand, attributes one kind of ontological uniformity to the world: all entities that affect the natural world are themselves natural. Since naturalism attributes greater uniformity to reality than theism, it is simpler than theism in the crucial sense of the word. And since, as we have seen, it is also no larger (and probably much smaller) in scope, it is safe to conclude that, prior to testing our two hypotheses, naturalism has a significantly higher probability than theism. It is, one might say, a more plausible hypothesis.[9]

4. Predictive Power: Preliminary Points

Although theism is less plausible than naturalism, I believe that it is more plausible than other forms of supernaturalism. More to the point, I do not believe that it is so implausible that it should not be tested. Thus, a comparison of the predictive power of our two hypotheses is called for. When I speak of the “predictive power” of a hypothesis, I am referring to the ability of that hypothesis to “yield the data” either deductively or inductively. In other words, the predictive power of a hypothesis with respect to some fact is the degree to which that fact should be expected to obtain on the assumption that the hypothesis is true. For example, suppose that money is missing from a safe and a reliable police detective tells us that he found Smith’s fingerprints on the safe. Does the hypothesis that Smith stole the missing money have a high degree of predictive power with respect to the fact that his fingerprints are on the safe? The answer will be “yes” if, independent of the detective’s testimony, the probability of Smith’s fingerprints being on the safe on the assumption that he stole the money is high. In other words, the answer is “yes” if a reasonable person who has not spoken to the detective and who assumes that Smith stole the money would expect his fingerprints to be there.

It is crucial to recognize, however, that what is important is not a hypothesis’ predictive power per se, but rather the ratio of its predictive power to the predictive power of the hypothesis or hypotheses to which it is being compared. For example, if Smith is the manager of the store and so his fingerprints are likely to be on the safe whether or not he stole the money, then those fingerprints will not provide strong evidence of his guilt because both the hypothesis that he is guilty and the hypothesis that he is innocent predict the presence of his fingerprints equally well. By contrast, suppose that Smith is not the manager of the store. Instead, he is a thief, but a thief who we know usually wears gloves. In this case, it is unlikely that his fingerprints would be on the safe if he stole the money. In other words, the predictive power of the hypothesis that he stole the money is low with respect to the fact in question. Nevertheless, if it is even more unlikely (or much more unlikely) that his fingerprints would be on the safe if he didn’t steal the money, then those prints are still evidence (or strong evidence) favoring the hypothesis that he stole the money over the hypothesis that he didn’t.

One last preliminary point. A hypothesis can have a much higher degree of predictive power with respect to some fact than a competing hypothesis even if that fact obtained and was known to obtain prior to the formulation of either theory. Some scientists and philosophers of science (mistakenly) give “extra credit” to hypotheses that predict facts that are not known to obtain at the time the prediction is made, as opposed to just “retrodicting” previously known facts. Since, however, this distinction is utterly irrelevant to evidential strength, I will use a single term, “predictive power,” to refer to the ability of hypotheses to do either.

5. Predictive Power: Main Points

My task, then, is to compare the predictive power of naturalism to the predictive power of theism. But with respect to which facts? I cannot examine all of the relevant facts in a short essay. (That is one of the reasons this book contains several sections, each dealing with a different area of evidence.) Here I will focus on the facts reported by the following statement, which I will call “E”:

E: For a variety of biological and ecological reasons, organisms compete for survival, with some having an advantage in the struggle for survival over others; as a result, many organisms, including many sentient beings, never flourish because they die before maturity, many others barely survive, but languish for most or all of their lives, and those that reach maturity and flourish for much of their lives usually languish in old age; in the case of human beings and some nonhuman animals as well, languishing often involves intense or prolonged suffering.

It may seem intuitively obvious that naturalism has greater predictive power with respect to E. However, a surprisingly large number of philosophers are skeptical of claims like this. Further, the claim that naturalism has greater predictive power with respect to E is not by itself all that significant. What needs to be established is that naturalism has much greater predictive power with respect to E. Given all this, appeals to what seems intuitively obvious will simply not suffice. Supporting arguments are needed, and I will provide two. First, I will show that, on the assumption that theism is true, we have good reasons to be surprised by E, reasons that we do not have when we assume that naturalism is true. Second, I will show that, on the assumption that naturalism is true, there are good reasons to expect E, reasons that we do not have when we assume that theism is true.

I am willing to grant, at least for the sake of argument, that suffering, when it contributes in a biologically appropriate way to the flourishing of a human being or animal, is not all that surprising on theism. From a theistic perspective, it makes sense to say that we are supposed to suffer in this way. That’s just the sort of organisms we are. But from a theistic perspective, it also makes perfectly good sense to say that sentient organisms are supposed to flourish. (Or at least this would make perfectly good sense if we did not already know that countless sentient beings do not flourish.) The argument for this has three premises. First, almost all sentient organisms are capable of flourishing in biologically realistic circumstances. This is proven by the fact that many do flourish and by the fact that the differences between those that do flourish and those that do not are in almost all cases relatively small. Second, sentient organisms have a good–they certainly can be benefited or harmed–and the failure to flourish is incompatible with achieving that good. Third, a perfect God, being perfect in moral goodness, could not care more deeply about sentient beings achieving their good, and being perfect in power and knowledge, could not be better positioned to ensure that sentient beings achieve their good. Therefore, the fact, reported by E, that countless living organisms, including sentient beings, never flourish at all and countless others flourish only briefly is extremely surprising given theism. It is not what one would expect to find in a living world created by a perfect God.

Of course, this argument assumes that a perfect God would be concerned with the good of individual sentient beings and not just with the good of one or more larger “holistic entities” like populations of organisms, ecosystems, or the biosphere. Few, however, will challenge this assumption,[10] and so few will deny that, other moral considerations held equal, a morally perfect God would strongly prefer that every sentient being flourish for a significant portion of their lives. Granted, it is possible that an omniscient God would have good moral reasons unknown to us to permit sentient organisms to languish. This is why claims about what a perfect God would prefer must be prefaced with “other moral considerations held equal.” But it is also possible, and no less likely, that such a God would have good moral reasons unknown to us to prevent sentient organisms from languishing–reasons in addition to the reasons that are known to us. Thus, the probability of E given theism will depend largely on the moral reasons concerning E that we know about, not on the ones we don’t know about, and the reasons we know about all lower the probability of E given theism, which is to say that they all lower the predictive power of theism with respect to E. Since no parallel reasons lower the predictive power of naturalism with respect to E, it follows that E creates a serious intellectual problem for theists quite apart from evolutionary biology.

Evolution, however, makes this problem much worse for the theist, because it provides reasons to expect E given naturalism that we do not have given theism, and thus increases the ratio of the predictive power of naturalism to the predictive power of theism many-fold. The key point here is that naturalism, together with relevant background knowledge, is not neutral with respect to Darwinian evolution: given naturalism, it is very likely, not only that common descent is true, but also that what I will call “Darwinism” is true: natural selection accounts for all or almost all of the fantastic complexity we find in the living world.

Granted, when we assess the predictive power of naturalism with respect to E, we must abstract from the observations and testimony upon which our knowledge of E is based, and that involves abstracting from much of the evidence we have for the operation of natural selection. But even apart from that evidence, Darwinism is almost certainly true given naturalism because no other viable naturalistic explanation of biological complexity is available. Evolutionary change may have many causes besides natural selection (e.g., genetic drift), but that’s because not all evolutionary change involves increased complexity. The gradual development of highly complex organic systems requires something that can coordinate or give direction to a series of small evolutionary changes across many generations. And if naturalism is true, then what could possibly do that besides natural selection, broadly understood?[11] Thus, when we assess the predictive power of naturalism with respect to E, we can equate it with the predictive power of Darwinian naturalism–that is, of naturalism conjoined with Darwinism. And E is far from surprising given Darwinian naturalism, for natural selection (and in particular “survival selection”[12]) cannot operate unless there are winners and losers in the struggle to survive and reproduce. In the absence of supernatural assistance, a Darwinian world containing sentient organisms is almost inevitably cruel.

6. Objections and Replies

I will now consider three objections to my arguments in the previous section. First, one might object that what works for the naturalistic goose will also work for the theistic gander. In other (less fowl) words, if the naturalist can use Darwinism to help predict E, then why can’t the theist do the same?[13] This objection misses the mark for two reasons. The first is that theism undercuts many of the predictions that Darwinian evolution makes about good and evil. For example, while survival selection is not at all surprising on Darwinian naturalism, other less brutal forms of natural selection would be more likely on theism. Thus, E is not as likely with respect to Darwinian theism as it is with respect to Darwinian naturalism.

The main reason, however, that this first objection fails is that one would not expect Darwinism to be true given theism. Darwinism differs from common descent in this respect. We have overwhelming evidence for a single tree of life (or at least for the thesis that the all life forms currently well known to science are related by descent). This evidence makes common descent extremely likely both on theism and on naturalism. Darwinism, however, though perhaps compatible with theism, is not particularly likely on theism (especially when one abstracts from the observations and testimony upon which our knowledge of E is based, which we must do in order to assess the predictive power of any hypothesis with respect to E). For Darwinism is the hypothesis, not just that natural selection can cause some evolutionary change (which has been proven experimentally), but that it accounts for all or almost all biological complexity. Given naturalism, we are justly confident in the truth of Darwinism, not because we know in any historical detail exactly how natural selection led to biological complexity, but rather because natural selection provides a way of explaining such complexity without having to appeal to the purposes of a supernatural designer. If theism is true, however, then natural selection is not needed to solve the problem of apparent teleological order in the living world. Theistic evolution could be Darwinian, but it could also proceed in a variety of other non-Darwinian ways. As long as a perfect God is guiding evolutionary change, natural selection is not crucial for the development of biological complexity. Thus, given theism, it would not be surprising at all if natural selection played no significant role in the development of such complexity. This means that, if E is to be expected on Darwinism, then that is a predictive success for naturalism, but not for theism.

This leads, however, to a second objection. Even if naturalists have Darwinian resources not available to the theist, don’t theists likewise have resources not available to naturalists? Specifically, theists have for centuries tried to explain various evils in terms of theism by appealing to morally significant libertarian free will. By “morally significant libertarian free will” I mean the ability to make choices for moral reasons, and to be morally responsible for those choices, without being causally determined to make them. The view that human beings have such freedom–I will call that view “libertarianism”–is very controversial. Among philosophers, most though not all naturalists reject libertarianism while most though not all theists accept it.

Let’s suppose, for the sake of argument, that the reason for this particular pattern of disagreement is that libertarianism is likely on theism but not on naturalism, in the same way that Darwinism is likely on naturalism but not on theism.[14] Can libertarianism enhance the predictive power of theism with respect to E as much as Darwinism enhances the predictive power of naturalism with respect to E? The answer is clearly “no.” For while the free choices of human beings do have some impact on which sentient beings flourish and which languish, it is simply not true that, if there were no human beings making bad free choices, then most other sentient beings would flourish for all or most of their lives. One might be tempted to make an appeal to the doctrine of the Fall here, but that doctrine, if taken in the literal way necessary to make free will responsible for the failure of living organisms to flourish, is incompatible with the fossil record, which reveals that sentient beings existed and often failed to flourish long before human beings existed.

Finally, a third objection to my arguments concerning predictive power is that E doesn’t report everything we know about the kinds, amounts, and distribution of goods and evils in the world. This is true, but then the crucial question is whether we have any reason to think that this other knowledge helps the theist. I don’t have the space here to deal adequately with this complex issue, but my position is that this other knowledge just makes matters worse for the theist. Consider, for example, what we know about the good of knowledge (and the corresponding evil of ignorance). Human beings know a lot about their immediate environment and about other matters upon which their survival directly depends. Our cognitive faculties are, however, much less reliable when it comes to moral and religious matters. Surely this is much more surprising on theism than on (Darwinian) naturalism. Or consider the moral qualities of human beings. Humans are as a rule very strongly disposed–I’m tempted to say “hard-wired”–to act selfishly. They are instinctively much more concerned about their own interests than about the interests of others. They do possess some altruistic tendencies, but these are typically very limited. This combination of a deeply ingrained selfishness and limited altruism can be given a plausible Darwinian explanation, but is very hard to understand if, for example, God wants human beings, through the exercise of their free wills, to make substantial moral progress in their short time on earth.

Generally speaking, the pattern of good and evil in the world appears quite random from a moral point of view. It does not systematically promote or reflect any discernible moral ends. This fact is further evidence for naturalism, because, while it is compatible with theism, it is exactly what one would expect on naturalism. As David Hume wrote, “The whole presents nothing but the idea of a blind nature, impregnated by a great vivifying principle, and pouring forth from her lap, without discernment or parental care, her maimed and abortive children.”[15] Hume (being dead) will not object if I replace his colorful appeal to a “blind nature impregnated by a great vivifying principle” with the more specific thesis of Darwinian naturalism.

7. Conclusions

I have shown in this essay that naturalism is, by virtue of its smaller scope and greater simplicity, a more plausible hypothesis than theism and also that naturalism has much greater predictive power than theism with respect to the facts reported by E. Of course, there may be other facts about the world that theism predicts better than naturalism, and there may be other factors besides scope, simplicity, and predictive power that affect the probabilities of these two hypotheses. Still, it follows from what I have shown that naturalism is much more probable than theism, all else held equal. And that entails that, all else held equal, theism is very probably false.[16]

Notes

[1] Philosophers typically distinguish the “logical” problem of evil from the “evidential” problem. The logical problem of evil is the question of whether any known facts about evil are logically incompatible with theism and so conclusively disprove theism. Few contemporary philosophers defend an affirmative answer to this question. The “evidential” problem of evil is the question of whether any known facts about evil bear some negative evidential relation to theism other than the relation of logical incompatibility. Philosophers of religion are divided on the correct answer to this question. This essay defends an affirmative answer.

[2] The Foundations of the Origin of Species: Two Essays Written in 1842 and 1844, ed. Francis Darwin (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1909), pp. 51-52.

[3] The Autobiography of Charles Darwin and Selected Letters, ed. Francis Darwin (New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1958), p. 64.

[4] To say that a hypothesis is a “statement” is to say that it makes an assertion and so is either true or false.

[5] Although the word “created” is past tense, I do not intend to assume that the creator is, according to theism, a temporal being rather than a timeless one, nor do I assume that the natural world is not infinitely old. I only assume that, if theism is true, then the natural world depends for its existence on a perfect God. This implies that the natural world is “affected” by God in the broad sense that God makes a difference to whether it exists and what it is like, but the exact nature of the dependence relation between God and the world is left open.

[6] This sentence employs a number of technical terms. First, to say that something is “logically” impossible is to say that it is impossible by virtue of entailing a contradiction. For example, it is logically impossible for a five sided triangle to exist because that would entail the existence of something that both has and does not have three sides. “Productive” power is the power to create or produce or bring about events, objects, etc. This is distinct from the power to be affected by other things and the power to perform actions. “Propositional” knowledge is knowledge that a proposition (statement) is true or that it is false. It is distinct from acquaintance knowledge, which is knowledge one has of something (e.g., boredom or the taste of chocolate) by experiencing it and thus being directly acquainted with it.

[7] A feature of the world is “contingent” if it is logically possible that the world not have that feature. For example, the world has the feature of containing me. Since it is possible that the world not have contained me, it follows that this is a contingent feature of the world. By contrast, the world also has the feature of either containing me or not containing me, which is not a contingent but a necessary feature of the world.

[8] Those familiar with Goodman’s paradox may object that uniformity is language relative. This is one of the reasons I use the adjective “objective” in front of uniformity. The claim that emeralds change from “grue” to “bleen” attributes objective uniformity to the world while the claim that emeralds change from green to blue attributes objective change to the world.

[9] There is an implicit premise in my argument here, namely, that theism is not significantly more “coherent” than naturalism, where the degree of “coherence” of a hypothesis depends on the evidential relations between its parts.

[10] Notice that this assumption does not deny that holistic entities like ecosystems are just as “real” as individual organisms. It also does not explicitly deny that holistic entities have moral standing, although I don’t believe they do because I don’t believe that entities lacking any sort of subjective awareness can be literally harmed or benefited.

[11] William Dembski makes this sort of point in more than one place. See, for example, The Design Revolution: Answering the Toughest Questions about Intelligent Design (Downers Grove,Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 2004), chap. 36. See especially pp. 261-263.

[12] I use the term “natural selection” to refer, not just to cases in which a characteristic is selected because it enables an organism to survive long enough to reproduce (“survival selection”), but also to cases in which a characteristic is selected either because it makes an organism that survives long enough to reproduce more likely to find a willing mate (sexual selection) or because it makes an organism that finds a willing mate likely to have a greater than average number of surviving fertile offspring (fecundity selection). Other variations involving group selection are also possible.

[13] William Hasker has helped me to appreciate this objection.

[14] See Stewart Goetz and Charles Taliaferro’s opening case (“An Argument from Consciousness and Free Will”) in section one of this e-book for more on the tension between naturalism and libertarianism.

[15] Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, Part XI.

[16] I am grateful to Glenn Branch, Jeff Jordan, Jeff Lowder, and John Schellenberg for helpful comments on earlier drafts of this paper.


Objections to Draper’s Argument from Evil (2007)

Alvin Plantinga

I. The Argument

In his interesting and challenging paper, Paul Draper proposes to set out a “serious argument from evil against theism in which evolutionary theory plays a significant role.” He takes theism to be the proposition that the natural world has been created by an omniscient, omnipotent and morally perfect being; he takes naturalism to be the proposition that the natural world is closed–such that nothing that is not part of the natural world has any effect on it. He then proposes to argue three things: (a) naturalism has smaller scope (less content) than theism, (b) naturalism is simpler than theism, and (c) naturalism has much greater predictive power than theism with respect to E, which states, roughly, that there is a great deal of suffering connected with the fact (as he sees it) that our living world has come to be by way of the processes endorsed by current evolutionary theory. He concludes that “naturalism is much more probable than theism, all else held equal. And that entails that, all else held equal, theism is very probably false.”

Say that a belief P is subject to a Draper Challenge (‘Challenge,’ for short) when there is a proposition Q incompatible with P that is simpler and has less scope than P, and a true proposition R that is much more probable with respect to Q than with respect to P. If a belief is subject to a Challenge, then, he says, all else being equal, it is very probably false; and of course what Draper argues is that theism is subject to a Challenge. This looks initially like a serious problem; what can the theist say for herself? I’ll argue that there is less, here, than meets the eye. That is because (as I’ll argue) very many, indeed most of the propositions P we believe are subject to Draper Challenges. If I am right, the disability with which Draper charges theism is widely shared, in fact shared by most of what we believe.

But first, just a word about scope and simplicity. “Roughly speaking,” says Draper, “scope is a measure of how much a hypothesis purports to tell us about the contingent world”; and if p has larger scope than q (tells us more about the contingent world than q), then p is less likely, all else being equal, than q. We might put this as follows: if p has larger scope than q, then p is true in fewer possible worlds than q.[1] Now Draper points out that according to theism, “all natural entities share a single ultimate supernatural (necessary) cause.” According to theism, that is, God, the ultimate cause of all natural entities, is a necessary being–one that exists in all possible worlds. This is certainly so according to most varieties of theism. But that means that the proposition there is such a person as God is true in all possible worlds, and hence has minimum content. Further, according to those same brands of theism, God has his central properties–omniscience, omnipotence, moral perfection–essentially; he has them in every world in which he exists. Therefore (according to these versions of theism) the proposition there is an omniscient, omnipotent and morally perfect being is true in every possible world, has minimal scope, and has an intrinsic logical probability of 1. Still further, according to these same brands of theism, it isn’t possible that there be a contingent being that isn’t created by God (directly or indirectly); nothing can just pop uncaused into existence. But that means that in every possible world in which there are natural beings, in Draper’s sense, those natural beings are created by a supernatural being. It means further that naturalism is necessarily false. Naturalism, therefore, will be maximally improbable; theism, on the other hand, will be true in every world in which there are natural beings. According to these brands of theism, therefore, theism has vastly less scope and content than naturalism. But then Draper’s claim that naturalism has smaller scope than theism is true only if the most common varieties of theism are false. His argument, therefore, assumes from the start that the most common varieties of theism are false. But isn’t that dialectically deficient, something in the near neighborhood of begging the question? In any event, what he says doesn’t in any way constitute an argument against theism, so understood.

There are equally interesting things to say about simplicity as a mark of truth, but I don’t have the space to say them (there’s that stingy editor Draper mentions…). Let me just mention two of them, without going on to develop them. According to Aristotle, probability is Janus-faced: on the one hand, “a probability is that which happens for the most part,” and on the other a probability is a proposition that is approvable, worthy of belief.[2] The first is objective probability: logical, statistical, or some amalgam. The second is epistemic probability, the epistemic probability of a proposition (in a given context) being the rational or reasonable thing to believe (in that context).[3] Now simplicity, obviously, has something to do with epistemic probability. Draper also (apparently) thinks it is important for objective probability; the simple, he says, is a mark, not just of the right thing to believe, but of the truth itself. The reason for this is that “our reliance on inductive reasoning is clearly justified, and this is possible only if objective uniformity [simplicity–AP] either over time or at a single time, is intrinsically more probable than change or variety.”

Now for the two points about simplicity (as I say, I won’t have the time for more than bare assertion). First, it isn’t exactly simplicity that is at issue for epistemic probability; what counts is something more like naturalness, where the latter is to be explained in terms of what a properly functioning human being would think or believe in the relevant circumstance (WPF pp. 3-17). Draper proposes to gloss simplicity in terms of uniformity (“either over time or at a single time”). But what is uniformity? A diachronic situation is uniform if it doesn’t involve change, i.e., doesn’t involve something’s having a given property P at a time t, and at some later time failing to have P. But things always change in some respects–e.g., with respect to how long they have been in existence: which respects are relevant? Well, being grue (gruesomeness?), says Draper (footnote 8), is not a relevant respect: a thing’s changing from green to blue involves an objective change, but a thing’s changing from grue to bleen doesn’t (in fact it involves an objective uniformity). But why say (or think) a thing like that? True: grue and bleen are ordinarily defined in terms of blue and green; but blue and green can also be defined in terms of grue and bleen. The difference between blue and green, on the one hand, and grue and bleen, on the other, I suggest, is a difference in epistemic naturalness: we human beings are naturally inclined to think in terms of blue and green but not grue and bleen; we naturally project the former but not the latter. Blue and green are epistemically natural for us, while grue and bleen are unnatural, repellent, repugnant, disgusting, and hard to employ. This is a feature of our cognitive architecture, but it isn’t cognitively inevitable. There could certainly be creatures who naturally thought in terms of grue and bleen, defining green and blue in terms of them. For them, what is epistemically probable (i.e., what a properly functioning creature of that sort would think in a given situation) might be quite different from what it is for us.

So let’s suppose epistemic probability depends in part on naturalness. Now there is a good deal of empirical research according to which belief in God, or at any rate supernatural beings, is natural for human beings.[4] Indeed, this is evident just from the nearly universal distribution of religion and religious beliefs across the world. But then if what is relevant here is not just simplicity but naturalness, theism would presumably be, so far forth, epistemically more probable than naturalism.

Second point: as we have seen, Draper believes that simplicity (uniformity), clearly a mark of epistemic probability, is also a mark of truth and hence a mark of objective probability. Simpler propositions are true in more possible worlds than complex propositions; hence they have greater objective probability. Why should we think this? Draper answers that “our reliance on inductive reasoning is clearly justified, and this is possible only if objective uniformity [i.e., simplicity–AP] either over time or at a single time, is intrinsically more probable than change or variety.” But this doesn’t seem entirely accurate. It could easily be that complex propositions were more probable (objectively) than simple ones, and that nonetheless our ways of thinking, which involve preferring simple to complex propositions, are justified, rational, warranted and reliable. That could be, for example, if God has created us in such a way that we prefer simple to complex propositions, and also created our world in such a way that (in our world) simplicity is a mark of truth (even though it isn’t in possible worlds generally).

II. Challenges

Draper argues that theism faces a Challenge: naturalism is both simpler and smaller in scope than theism, and also has much greater predictive power than theism with respect to that proposition E about the suffering and misery involved in that long evolutionary process. I’ve already argued that it is far from clear that theism has larger scope than naturalism: if God is a necessary being whose main properties are essential to him, as most theists who have thought about it have maintained, theism will have as small a scope as (will be as probable as) any proposition entailing that there are natural beings, while naturalism will be necessarily false. As for simplicity, I’ve argued that what is really at issue is epistemic naturalness; and here theism enjoys a clear advantage over naturalism.

But suppose we set these points aside. Further, suppose, just for purposes of argument, we concede Draper’s claim that naturalism is simpler and has less scope than theism, and also enjoys much greater predictive power than theism with respect to that proposition E–i.e., suppose we concede that theism suffers from a Challenge. Do I really have a serious problem when one of my beliefs is Challenged?

By way of looking into the matter, we should note first that many of the beliefs we actually hold are Challenged. We’re playing bridge: after the first hand is played, I believe I was dealt the 4, 7, 9, 10, queen and ace of spades, the 2, 5, 6, and queen of clubs, and the 3, 6, and 10 of diamonds, and that you were dealt the 3 of spades. You are not dealt any hearts. Now the probability that you were dealt no hearts, given that I’ve been dealt the cards I was dealt, is pretty low. So we have

P I was dealt the 4, 7, 9, 10, queen, and ace of spades, the 2, 5, 6, and queen of clubs and the 7, 8, and 9 of diamonds, and you were dealt the 3 of spades

and

R You were not dealt any hearts.

The probability of R on P is pretty low: if I wasn’t dealt any hearts, it’s very likely that you were dealt some. But there is another proposition in the neighborhood that is incompatible with P, simpler, has less scope, and has much greater predictive power with respect to R than P, namely

Q you were dealt only clubs and diamonds.

Although questions of scope are difficult, using what seem to be Draper’s criteria for scope, Q seems to have less scope than P; P is a rather detailed proposition asserting the existence of a very specific state of affairs; R is much less specific. Questions of simplicity are if anything more difficult; but if we equate simplicity with uniformity, as Draper seems to, then it would also seem that Q is simpler than P: P doesn’t seem to assert much by way of uniformity, and Q does assert a uniformity, namely that you were dealt only clubs and diamonds. And clearly Q has much greater predictive power with respect to R than P: P(R/P) is low and P(R/Q) = 1. But my learning that P is thus subject to a Challenge clearly doesn’t constitute an epistemic problem for me; the fact is I might have carefully examined and recorded the cards I was dealt, and also seen you play the 3 of spades. Then I would know P, despite its being subject to a Challenge.

Another example: some friends used to have an overweight Siamese cat named ‘Maynard’ who, oddly enough, liked green beans. So we have

P Maynard is an overweight Siamese cat who lives inSouth Bend,Indiana,

and for R we have

R Maynard likes green beans.

Here we can choose for Q

Q Maynard is a Frenchman.

Q is incompatible with P. Q also seems to be less specific than P, and hence is presumably of smaller scope. On most measures of simplicity, furthermore, Q would also be simpler than P. And P(R/Q) is much greater than P(R/P): the proportion of Frenchmen who like green beans is much higher than that of Siamese cats who do. But surely I don’t have an epistemic problem by virtue of believing P. The fact is I know P.

You might object that Q is impossible: it isn’t possible that something that is in fact a cat, should have been a human being, let alone a Frenchman. Well, perhaps so (although this isn’t just obvious: it depends upon the ontology of cats and human beings);[5] let’s add to Draper’s conditions that R must be contingent. Then consider instead

P Sam is a mean-tempered obese Frisian lifeguard who lives in Leeuwarden
R Sam is climbing El Cap

and

Q Sam is a climbing ranger inYosemite.

Once again, Q is incompatible with P; Q also seems to have less scope than P (it is much more specific about Sam), and furthermore Q is plausibly thought to be simpler than P (in that P goes against a plausible uniformity, i.e., the uniformity that Frisian lifeguards are not obese). Finally Q has much greater (greater, one thinks, by several orders of magnitude) predictive power with respect to R than P: very few obese Frisian lifeguards climb El Cap.

My guess is that most of the propositions we believe are challenged.

III. Is a Challenge a Problem?

What sort of problem is a Challenge supposed to present? Draper says of theism, “all else held equal, theism is very probably false.” So the suggestion is that a belief subject to a Challenge is, all else held equal, very probably false. But how do we understand this “all else held equal”? Equal to what? What Draper means, I think, is this:

D If a belief P is subject to Challenge and the epistemic merits of the challenging belief Q are equal to those of P, then P is very likely false.

Now there is a problem with this ‘very likely false’: what is this probability conditioned on? What proposition X is it such that (under these conditions) P(P/X) is low? That’s not an easy question to answer, but let’s set it aside for the moment, and let’s assume that D is true. Let’s also suppose that the relevant epistemic merit is warrant, that quantity enough of which is sufficient to distinguish knowledge from mere true belief. And let’s suppose still further that the epistemic problem in question, the problem posed for someone S who holds a belief P that meets the conditions specified in the antecedent of D, is that S holds a belief for which he has a defeater. (More exactly, a “reflective rationality defeater,”[6] in that if he became aware that P meets those conditions, than he could no longer rationally believe P.) I’m sure Draper would point out that in the examples I cited in the last section, all else isn’t equal: the challenging belief doesn’t have nearly as much by way of warrant as the challenged belief. In those cases, therefore, a Challenge does not beget a defeater.

But then what about theism? Does the fact (as we are conceding for purposes of argument) that theism faces a Challenge mean that the theist has a defeater for her theism? I’d say it doesn’t. One kind of belief for which a Challenge begets a defeater is the kind of belief that get its warrant from its explaining or predicting some range of data; scientific hypotheses come to mind. If theism were a hypothesis of this sort, then perhaps it would be subject to defeat. But even here the defeater is only a prima facie defeater; it might be that a hypothesis H is subject to Challenge with respect to one proposition R, but survives that Challenge by explaining or predicting a whole range of other data better than alternatives. So even if theism were such a hypothesis, it might still be preserved from defeat by the fact (as I see it) that it explains many other things–that we have reliable faculties, that we can do philosophy, physics and evolutionary psychology, that there is such a thing as objective morality, that the universe is fine-tuned, that there are such things as propositions, properties, sets, and numbers, and the like–much better than atheism.

But of course most theists don’t take it as a mere hypothesis designed to explain other things; most theists, I think, accept theism on the basis of experience of one sort or another. Indeed, if theism is true, perhaps theists know that it is true. In Warranted Christian Belief I argued that if theism is true, then very likely God would want human beings to be able to be aware of his presence and would have arranged for human beings, under certain conditions, to believe that theism is indeed true. If theism is true, then we human beings were created by God, who very likely intended that we have belief-producing processes that produce theistic belief. Under those conditions, these processes would presumably be functioning properly in producing such belief in us; furthermore they would be reliable processes, and would be successfully aimed at the production of true belief. If the belief in question is held with sufficient firmness, therefore, the belief constitutes knowledge.[7] Under those conditions, and for those people, therefore, theism wouldn’t be a hypothesis: it would be something they know, and know in the basic way. So the consequence is that if theism is true, then very likely there are some or many theists who know that it is; those theists, of course, wouldn’t have a defeater for theism in the fact (if it is a fact) that theism faces a Challenge. (D) would be irrelevant with respect to them, since they don’t satisfy the conditions of its antecedent. The same goes, presumably, for theists whose theistic beliefs have some warrant, but not warrant sufficient for knowledge; for them too presumably all else isn’t equal in that naturalism doesn’t have for them as much warrant as theism does.

If theism is true, therefore, the fact (if it is a fact) that it is subject to a Challenge does not constitute a problem for most theists. It is like my belief that Maynard is an overweight Siamese cat who lives in South Bend: that belief too is subject to a Challenge, but its being so subject doesn’t produce a defeater. In each case, the challenged belief has more warrant than the challenger. To produce a “serious argument from evil against theism in which evolutionary theory plays a significant role” along these lines, therefore, Draper would first have to show that theism is false; if it is true, then the fact that it is subject to Challenge won’t ordinarily produce a defeater. What really follows from the premises he has proposed, is that if theism is false, then theism is subject to a prima facie defeater by virtue of the Challenge Draper specifies. This is a conclusion in which the theist can happily acquiesce.

Notes

[1] Of course things are complicated by the fact that (as seems reasonable) there are at least uncountably many possible worlds. (Thus presumably for any real number n in the interval [70, 71], it is possible that you be n inches tall.) To mend matters, we can think of possible worlds as occupying a logical space; the intrinsic logical probability of a proposition p will be given by the proportion to the total logical space of the space occupied by the worlds in which p is true. (See John Bigelow, “Possible Worlds Foundations for Probability,” Journal of Philosophical Logic 5, no. 3 [1976]: 299-320.) The greater the content or scope of a proposition, the smaller the area occupied by the worlds in which p is true and the smaller the probability of p. A proposition with maximal scope (the book on a possible world, for example) will have minimal probability; a proposition with minimal scope (a necessary proposition, for example) will have maximal probability. Various problems arise here (e.g., is the appropriate measure on this space countably additive?); let us resolutely ignore them.

[2] Rhetoric I, 2 (1357 a 35, p. 2157) in J. Barnes, ed., The Complete Works of Aristotle (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1984).

[3] See my Warrant and Proper Function (hereafter WPF) (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993), pp. 159 ff.

[4] See, e.g., Justin Barrett, “Exploring the Natural Foundations of Religion,” in Trends in Cognitive Sciences 4, no.1 (2000): 29-34; Barrett, Why Would Anyone Believe in God? (Lanham, MD: Altamira Press, 2004); Pascal Boyer, The Naturalness of Religious Ideas: A Cognitive Theory of Religion (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1994); Boyer, Religion Explained: Evolutionary Origins of Religious Thought (New York: Basic Books, 2001); and Deborah Kelemen, “Are Children ‘Intuitive Theists’? Reasoning about Purpose and Design in Nature,” Psychological Science 15, no. 5 (2004): 295-301.

[5] See my The Nature of Necessity (Oxford: the Clarendon Press, 1974), “Could Socrates have been an Alligator?” pp. 65 ff.

[6] Roughly (very roughly) a rationality defeater of a belief B for a person S, is a belief B* S acquires such that one in S’s epistemic condition can’t rationally accept both B* and B. A reflective rationality defeater of a belief B for a person S is a proposition P such that if S were to reflect on her epistemic condition, she would come to believe P, thereby acquiring a rationality defeater for B. One who has a reflective rationality defeater for a belief B also has a warrant defeater for B.

[7] Assuming my account (WPF chaps. 1 and 2) of warrant. The same conclusion would follow, I think, on many other accounts of warrant.


On the Plausibility of Naturalism and the Seriousness of the Argument From Evil (2007)

Paul Draper

Introduction

In my opening case, I defended an argument from evil based on the following evidence statement:

E: For a variety of biological and ecological reasons, organisms compete for survival, with some having an advantage in the struggle for survival over others; as a result, many organisms, including many sentient beings, never flourish because they die before maturity, many others barely survive but languish for most or all of their lives, and those that reach maturity and flourish for much of their lives usually languish in old age; in the case of human beings and some nonhuman animals as well, languishing often involves intense or prolonged suffering.

Notice that E does not, contrary to what Plantinga states in the first paragraph of his reply, claim that our living world has come to be by way of the processes (e.g., natural selection) endorsed by current evolutionary theory. No doubt evolutionary theory (when combined with metaphysical naturalism) does do an excellent job of explaining the facts E reports. But our knowledge of those facts does not in any way depend on knowing or assuming that the central tenets of evolutionary biology are true.

My argument from evil can be summarized as follows:

  1. We know that E is true.
  2. Naturalism has much more predictive power with respect to E than theism does (i.e., E’s truth is antecedently many times more probable given naturalism than it is given theism).
  3. Naturalism is more plausible than theism (i.e., naturalism is more probable than theism independent of all evidence).
  4. So, other evidence held equal, theism is very probably false.

Plantinga misconstrues my goals in formulating this argument. He seems to think that I’m an “atheologian” trying to show that all theistic belief is irrational or “unwarranted” (the result, perhaps, of malfunctioning cognitive faculties). In reality, I couldn’t be less interested in trying to show such things. My argument from evil is an argument for the probable falsity of theism, other evidence held equal, where “other evidence” means other things besides our knowledge of E that can affect the probability of theism being true. Not all false or improbable beliefs are irrational or unwarranted and not all true or probable beliefs are rational or warranted. Indeed, to the extent that I am interested in theistic belief, as opposed to just theism, the particular epistemic merit I’m interested in is the merit of being probably true as opposed to the merits of being rational or warranted.[1] Accordingly, I disown the proposition that Plantinga calls “D” and attributes to me.

This misunderstanding of my project may explain why Plantinga ignores what I take to be the most important details of my opening case, though I would, of course, prefer an alternative explanation, namely, that he agrees with my central claims. In any case, it is important to note, for starters, that he does not offer any reason for thinking that my argument’s conclusion (4) does not follow from its premises (1) – (3). Plantinga appears to challenge my reasoning when he says that “what really follows from the premises he has proposed, is that if theism is false, then theism is subject to a prima facie defeater by virtue of the Challenge Draper specifies.” But Plantinga’s implicit point here is just that it does not follow from my premises that theistic belief is subject to a rationality defeater. Since I wasn’t trying to show that theistic belief is subject to a rationality defeater, I need not (which is not to say that I do not) disagree with Plantinga here. What I was trying to do is to establish (4)–that, other evidence held equal, theism is very probably false. And that conclusion does follow from my premises, as I suspect Plantinga would admit.

Even more importantly, Plantinga does not challenge the truth of my argument’s first two premises. In fact, he completely ignores the reasons I offer in support of the second premise, which I take to be the heart of my opening case. This is significant, because the first two premises, if true, are all that I need to justify the subconclusion that E reports strong evidence favoring naturalism over theism. (This is undeniable so long as “strong evidence favoring naturalism over theism” means “evidence that raises the ratio of the probability of naturalism to the probability of theism many-fold.”) Thus, by not challenging my first two premises, Plantinga in effect concedes that E is strong evidence favoring naturalism over theism.

Since the purpose of this e-book, as its title strongly suggests, is to examine or “debate” whether or not there is evidence for or against theism and naturalism, one might be tempted to conclude that a counterreply to Plantinga is unnecessary. That, however, would be a mistake; for although Plantinga does not challenge my argument by challenging its reasoning or its central premise, he does challenge it in two other ways. First, he challenges my third premise, which claims that naturalism is more plausible than theism. And second, he challenges the seriousness of my argument from evil–that is to say, he tries to show that the fact, if it is a fact, that the premises of my argument are all true is of little or no significance. To be more precise, he argues for the following conclusion (which I will call “Plantinga’s First Conclusion” or “PC1” for short):

PC1: if theism is true, then the truth of the premises of Draper’s argument (probably) isn’t a problem for most theists.

From PC1 he draws the further conclusion that

PC2: Draper’s argument is not a serious argument against theism (even if it is sound).

After addressing his criticisms of my third premise, I will show both that Plantinga fails to establish the truth of PC1 and that PC2 does not follow from PC1.

Plantinga on Plausibility

It is worth noting that my third premise, which states that naturalism is more plausible (i.e., more probable independent of the evidence) than theism, is overkill. Since my first two premises imply that E is strong evidence favoring naturalism over theism, my conclusion that, other evidence held equal, naturalism is many times more probable than theism and hence that theism is very probably false will follow so long as naturalism is at least as plausible as theism. Indeed, even if theism is more plausible than naturalism, so long as it is not much more plausible, it will follow that, other evidence held equal, naturalism is more probable than theism and hence that theism is probably false, though it won’t follow that theism is very probably false. I point all this out, not because I intend to back off my claim that naturalism is more plausible than theism, but because it is important to see how short the logical distance is from the first two premises of my argument to its conclusion and how very short the distance is from those premises to a more modest though still significant conclusion.

I defended my premise that naturalism is more plausible than theism by arguing that naturalism is both a simpler hypothesis than theism and no greater in scope than theism. Plantinga disagrees. Concerning scope, he says that my comments are “dialectically deficient” because most theists who have thought about it believe that theism is a necessary (i.e., noncontingent) proposition and in particular a necessary truth. Necessary propositions include logical truths and logical falsehoods like “some dogs are not dogs” (which is a logical and so necessary falsehood by virtue of having the logical form “some As are not As”), and also conceptual truths and conceptual falsehoods like “all triangles have three sides,” which is a conceptual and so necessary truth because the concept of having three sides is included in the concept of a triangle. Necessary propositions are distinguished from contingent propositions like “some dogs are brown” (which is a contingent truth) and “Al Gore is President” (which is a contingent falsehood). If theism were a necessary proposition and also true, then atheism would be, not just false, but self-contradictory, and so theism would (at least in Plantinga’s opinion) have an intrinsic probability of one–i.e., independent of all evidence, it would be absolutely certain that theism is true.

I don’t believe Plantinga is right that all necessary truths have a probability of one, but put that aside. I assumed in my opening case that theism is a contingent proposition, a proposition that is possibly true and possibly false.[2] Is this assumption dialectically deficient? Generally speaking, in the absence of some positive reason for believing that a hypothesis is necessarily true or necessarily false, objective inquiry into whether that hypothesis is true or false should (and in fact almost always does) proceed on the assumption that the hypothesis in question is a contingent proposition. So in the absence of good reasons to believe that theism is a necessary proposition, my assumption that it is a contingent proposition is dialectically appropriate. Plantinga disagrees, on the grounds that most of the (tiny percentage of) theists who have thought about this issue have held that theism is a necessary proposition. I suspect that the sample of theists upon which Plantinga bases this judgment is not representative, but it really doesn’t matter one way or the other. Regardless of how many or what percentage of theists believe that theism is a necessary proposition, the only important question is whether there is any good reason to believe that it is a necessary proposition. Plantinga offers no reasons in his reply; so I’ll just note here that the reasons that have been offered are not, in my opinion, good ones.

Suppose, however, that my assumption is false. Suppose that theism is not a contingent proposition. Then it is much more likely that it is necessarily false than that it is necessarily true. This is made clear by any objective comparison of the available reasons for thinking that theism is necessarily true to the available reasons for thinking that it is necessarily false. The former are limited to various versions of the ontological argument, which is almost universally rejected by philosophers. Indeed, even Plantinga admits that this argument fails to prove its conclusion. The latter include a whole host of serious arguments for the incoherence of theism.[3] Keep in mind that I’m not convinced by these arguments for the necessary falsehood of theism, but they are clearly more persuasive collectively than the notoriously unpersuasive ontological argument. Further, theism asserts that the natural world was created by an omnipotent, omniscient, and morally perfect person, which assumes, not only that there is a maximum possible degree of power, knowledge, and moral goodness,[4] but also that these three attributes are compatible with each other and with the existence of natural entities. Even ignoring specific arguments, clearly it is much more likely that some hidden incoherence lurks in the assertion that there exists a creator of nature possessing the highest possible degree of several distinct scaling[5] properties than in the simple assertion that no such creator exists. Therefore, if I am mistaken and theism really is a necessary proposition, then it is very probably a necessary falsehood, which means that my assumption in my opening case that it is a contingent proposition is not only dialectically appropriate (for the reasons given in the previous paragraph), but dialectically generous.

Turning now to simplicity, Plantinga challenges my account of it and offers an alternative account. My position is that the simplicity of a hypothesis depends on how much objective uniformity it attributes to the world. Plantinga worries that we can’t distinguish objective uniformity from language-relative uniformity. He mentions Goodman’s paradox, which some philosophers believe establishes that all uniformity is language-relative. Goodman (as usually interpreted) defined a new color word, “grue,” roughly as follows: an object x is grue at a time t if and only if either (i) x is green at t and t is earlier than Y2K (the year 2000) or (ii) x is blue at t and t is simultaneous with or later than Y2K. Similarly, an object is bleen when it is blue prior to Y2K or green after Y2K. Given these definitions, did emeralds change color in Y2K? Whether they did, seems to depend on what language one speaks. English speakers would claim that emeralds remained green in Y2K. But those who speak the grue-bleen language would say that they changed colors from grue to bleen. And if one objects that the definition of grue and bleen make reference to a specific time, the reply is that for those who speak the grue-bleen language, the definitions of green and blue will make reference to a specific time. The lesson, according to some philosophers, is that the claim that nature is uniform, or that uniformity has a higher prior probability than variety or change, is empty of content, since whether one finds uniformity in a situation depends on the language one uses to describe that situation. There is no such thing as “objective” uniformity.

As George Schlesinger has pointed out,[6] this argument, though influential, is completely without merit. Surely a world in which emeralds remain green is, other things being equal, an objectively more uniform world than one in which emeralds remain grue. That is why no reasonable person, regardless of what language he or she speaks, would have predicted in 1999 that in the coming year all emeralds would remain grue. If one doubts that this preference for projecting greenness instead of grueness is grounded in a judgment of objective uniformity and not in a judgment of what seems, because of the language one speaks, to be natural, then I would suggest a simple thought experiment. Imagine someone who speaks the grue-bleen language trying, in 1999, to teach their young children their color words in the usual way, by pointing to various colored objects and saying the appropriate color-word. Then imagine their dismay on New Year’s Day in the year 2000 when their children suddenly “forget” what they previously learned and can no longer correctly identify the grue or bleen objects in the house. Gee, I wonder what went wrong.

As far as Plantinga’s own account of simplicity is concerned, there are at least two problems with equating simplicity with naturalness and using that to compare the plausibility of theism and naturalism. First, what seems natural to a person depends on cultural factors that are completely irrelevant to how likely it is that a hypothesis is true. Of course, one could try to overcome this first problem by seeing what beliefs are held across all or most cultures, but then theism won’t pass such a plausibility test any more than naturalism will, for the idea that theism (as opposed to belief in invisible agents) is a natural belief in some culturally neutral sense is not supported by any serious study of the history of religion (as some of the authors Plantinga cites in support of his position are careful to point out). A second problem is that whether a hypothesis seems natural to a person may very well depend on the conceptual or mathematical or philosophical or other intellectual skills or background possessed by that person. Hypotheses that require any significant degree of such skills or background in order to be expressed or fully understood won’t of course seem natural to most people. But surely it doesn’t follow that such hypotheses are all implausible. Naturalism is just such a hypothesis (as is the sort of theism defended by Plantinga). Belief in entities that philosophers might classify as supernatural is common in many cultures, but those cultures did not distinguish the natural from the supernatural in the way philosophers do; so it is misleading to say even that belief in the supernatural is natural, let alone belief in a theistic God. Most people who have the conceptual framework and intellectual skills needed to really understand metaphysical naturalism hardly find it “unnatural.” Many accept it and even some who reject it find it difficult to resist the simplicity of denying the existence of all supernatural entities without exception as opposed to denying the existence of all supernatural entities with the sole exception of God and any supernatural entities created by God. Thus, Plantinga’s suggestion that the scarcity of naturalists proves the unnaturalness and hence implausibility of naturalism, just isn’t credible.

Plantinga’s Main Point

Let us now turn to the heart of Plantinga’s reply to my opening case. Plantinga says that “a belief P is subject to a Draper Challenge when there is a proposition Q incompatible with P that is simpler and has less scope than P, and a true proposition R that is much more probable with respect to Q than with respect to P.” He proposes to show that a Draper Challenge (“Challenge” for short) is not a “problem” for theists “because . . . very many, indeed most of the propositions P we believe are subject to Draper Challenges.” His point, of course, is that we still believe them and reasonably so in spite of their being subject to Challenges. Plantinga concludes that my argument is not a “serious” argument from evil.

The first half of this compound argument (and hence the entire second section of Plantinga’s reply) turns out to be something of a red herring for two reasons. First, although Plantinga says that he will argue that most of our beliefs are subject to Challenges, he ends up giving only three imaginary examples followed by the appropriately hesitant comment that “My guess is that most of the propositions we believe are challenged” (italics are mine). Second, and more importantly, it’s no mystery why a rational person might have a belief, learn that it is subject to a Challenge, and yet still reasonably retain that belief. Strong evidence favoring one hypothesis H1 over another H2 can be outweighed by other even stronger evidence favoring H2 over H1. Indeed, even if H1 is also more plausible than H2, the other evidence favoring H2 might be so strong that H2 would be, all things considered, more probable than H1. This is why my conclusion includes the ceteris paribus clause “other evidence held equal.” Notice too that this other evidence might be inferential or noninferential, propositional or experiential. Still, while all this is fairly obvious, it is equally obvious that in many cases, including cases in which H2 is not a scientific hypothesis or anything like a scientific hypothesis, there is no outweighing evidence on the other side and so H2 is probably false all things considered. So the important question is not how many or what percentage of our (reasonably held) beliefs are subject to Challenges, nor is it how often there is outweighing evidence in such cases. What matters is whether there is outweighing evidence in this particular case. Plantinga does not try to show that there is, and I cannot be expected to examine all of the alleged relevant evidence in a single paper; hence the need for my ceteris paribus clause and the need to divide this e-book into different sections on different areas of evidence.

I conclude that, contrary to what Plantinga suggests in the second paragraph of his reply, the fact (if it is a fact) that most of our beliefs are subject to Challenges fails to support his claim that PC1 is true. PC1, recall, is the claim that, if theism is true, then the fact that the premises of my argument are true is probably not a problem for most theists. Of course, if my opening case had consisted solely of my pointing out that theistic belief is subject to some Challenge or other, then the (alleged) fact that most of our beliefs are subject to Challenges would support PC1. But that’s not what I did. I gave a specific Challenge, the significance of which depends partly on its specific features. Moreover, if one were to ask why, in each of Plantinga’s three examples, the Challenge in question creates no intellectual problem for the “believer,” the answer is clear. In each of those cases, it is obvious that there is outweighing evidence favoring the belief in question over the relevant alternative hypothesis. In the case of my Challenge to theism, the existence of such outweighing (inferential or noninferential) evidence is far from obvious. Hence the problem.

Since, however, it isn’t always obvious what’s obvious, let us suppose, for the sake of argument, that PC1 is true. Plantinga infers from PC1 that PC2 is true, that my argument is not a serious argument from evil. Plantinga makes it clear that he wants to draw this further conclusion when he says that, “To produce ‘a serious argument from evil against theism . . .,’ Draper would first have to show that theism is false.” I will close by showing that Plantinga’s inference here is incorrect: PC2 does not follow from PC1. The reason it does not follow is that there are very many people who, like me, don’t believe they already know that God exists (or that God doesn’t exist), and for that reason believe that it is appropriate and important to engage, not in apologetics, but in genuine inquiry designed to determine, to the best of their ability, whether or not God exists. Included here are agnostics as well as theists and atheists who have doubts about God’s existence or nonexistence. These skeptical souls have no choice but to do their best to objectively assess the available evidence. Thus, for them, the fact that E is strong evidence favoring naturalism over theism, which my argument demonstrates, is of great significance. For them, my argument from evil is very serious indeed. Notice also that, for them, indeed for anyone who doubts that God exists, it doesn’t help to be told by Plantinga that, if God does exist, then some theists probably know he does![7]

Notes

[1] No doubt there are some interesting connections between these three ways in which a belief can have merit, but that doesn’t undermine my point here.

[2] When I said that God, if he existed, would be a necessary cause of every natural event, I meant that God, if he existed, would at least be a necessary if not a sufficient cause of every natural event. I did not mean that God would be a cause that exists necessarily!

[3] For a fairly comprehensive collection of such arguments, see Michael Martin and Ricki Monnier, eds., The Impossibility of God (Amherst,NY: Prometheus Books, 2003).

[4] I assume here that the optimal degree of power, knowledge, and moral goodness would, if there is one, be the maximum degree.

[5] A “scaling” property is a property that comes in degrees–an object can have more or less of it. For example, beauty is a scaling property while the property of being pregnant is not.

[6] In The Sweep of Probability (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1991), chap. 4, section 6.

[7] In April of 2006, Nicholas Wolterstorff delivered a paper at an APA symposium in which he carefully distinguished the epistemic merit of probability from the merits of warrant and rationality. Reading that paper helped me to write this one, as did e-mail discussion with Michael Bergmann and Michael Rea.


Naturalism vs. Evolution: A Religion/Science Conflict? (2007)

Alvin Plantinga

Naturalism is the view that there is no such person as God or anything like God. So taken, it is stronger than atheism; it is possible to be an atheist without rising to the heights (or sinking to the depths) of naturalism. A follower of Hegel could be an atheist, but, because of his belief in the Absolute, fail to qualify for naturalism; similarly for someone who believed in the Stoic’s Nous, or Plato’s Idea of the Good or Aristotle’s Prime Mover. This definition of naturalism is a bit vague: exactly how much must an entity resemble God to be such that endorsing it disqualifies one from naturalism? Perhaps the definition will be serviceable nonetheless; clear examples of naturalists would be Bertrand Russell (“A Free Man’s Worship”), Daniel Dennett (Darwin’s Dangerous Idea), Richard Dawkins (The Blind Watchmaker), the late Stephen J. Gould, David Armstrong, and the many others that are sometimes said[1] to endorse “The Scientific Worldview.”

Naturalism is presumably not, as it stands, a religion. Nevertheless, it performs one of the most important functions of a religion: it provides its adherents with a worldview. It tells us what the world is fundamentally like, what is most deep and important in the world, what our place in the world is, how we are related to other creatures, what (if anything) we can expect after death, and so on. A religion typically does that and more; it also involves worship and ritual. These latter are ordinarily (but not always) absent from naturalism; naturalism, we could therefore say, performs the cognitive or doxastic function of a religion. For present purposes, therefore, we can promote it to the status of an honorary religion, or at any rate a quasi-religion. And now we must ask the following question: is there a conflict between naturalism, so understood, and science? If so, then indeed there is a science/religion conflict–not, however, between science and Christian (or Judaic, or Islamic) belief, but between science and naturalism.

Why should we think there might be such a conflict? Here the place to look is at the relation between naturalism and current evolutionary theory. But why should we think there might be conflict there, in particular since so many apparently believe that evolution is a main supporting pillar in the temple of naturalism?[2] Note, first, that most of us assume that our cognitive faculties, our belief-producing processes, are for the most part reliable. True, they may not be reliable at the upper limits of our powers, as in some of the more speculative areas of physics; and the proper function of our faculties can be skewed by envy, hate, lust, mother love, greed, and so on. But over a broad range of their operation, we think the purpose of our cognitive faculties is to furnish us with true beliefs, and that when they function properly, they do exactly that.

But isn’t there a problem, here, for the naturalist? At any rate for the naturalist who thinks that we and our cognitive capacities have arrived upon the scene after some billions of years of evolution (by way of natural selection and other blind processes working on some such source of genetic variation as random genetic mutation)? The problem begins in the recognition, from this point of view, that the ultimate purpose or function of our cognitive faculties, if they have one, is not to produce true beliefs, but to promote reproductive fitness.[3] What our minds are for (if anything) is not the production of true beliefs, but the production of adaptive behavior. That our species has survived and evolved at most guarantees that our behavior is adaptive; it does not guarantee or even suggest that our belief-producing processes are reliable, or that our beliefs are for the most part true. That is because our behavior could be adaptive, but our beliefs mainly false. Darwin himself apparently worried about this question: “With me,” saysDarwin,

the horrid doubt always arises whether the convictions of man’s mind, which has been developed from the mind of the lower animals, are of any value or at all trustworthy. Would any one trust in the convictions of a monkey’s mind, if there are any convictions in such a mind?[4]

Perhaps we could putDarwin’s doubt as follows. Let R be the proposition that our cognitive faculties are reliable, N the proposition that naturalism is true and E the proposition that we and our cognitive faculties have come to be by way of the processes to which contemporary evolutionary theory points us: what is the conditional probability of R on N&E?I.e., what is P(R/N&E)?Darwinfears it may be low.

There is much to be said forDarwin’s doubt. Natural selection rewards adaptive behavior and penalizes maladaptive behavior, but it cares not a whit what you believe. How, exactly, does this bear on the reliability of our cognitive faculties? In order to avoid irrelevant distractions or species chauvinism, suppose we think, first, not about ourselves and our ancestors, but about a hypothetical population of creatures a lot like ourselves on a planet similar to Earth. Suppose these creatures have cognitive faculties; they hold beliefs, change beliefs, make inferences, and so on; suppose further these creatures have arisen by way of the selection processes endorsed by contemporary evolutionary thought; and suppose naturalism is true in their possible world. What is the probability that their faculties are reliable? What is P(R/N&E), specified, not to us, but to them?

We can assume that their behavior is for the most part adaptive; but what about their beliefs; is it likely that they are for the most part true? In order to evaluate P(R/N&E), for those creatures, we must look into the relation between their beliefs and their behavior. Their behavior, we suppose, is adaptive; but what does that tell us about the truth of their beliefs or the reliability of their cognitive faculties? We’ll consider the probability of R on N&E and each of two possibilities (C and -C), possibilities that are mutually exclusive and jointly exhaustive.[5] Given P(R/N&E&C) and P(R/N&E&-C), we can determine P(R/N&E). (Of course, we won’t be able to assign specific real numbers, but only vague estimates such as ‘high,’ or ‘low,’ or ‘in the neighborhood of .5.’)

What are these two possibilities C and -C? First, what sort of thing will a belief be, from the perspective of naturalism? Here I’ll assimilate materialism (about human beings) to naturalism: human beings are material objects and neither are nor contain immaterial souls or selves. (All or nearly all naturalists are materialists, so there will be little if any loss of generality.) And from this point of view, i.e., naturalism so construed as to include materialism, a belief would apparently have to be something like a long term event or structure in the nervous system–perhaps a structured group of neurons connected and related in a certain way. This neural structure will have neurophysiological properties (‘NP properties’): properties specifying the number of neurons involved, the way in which those neurons are connected with each other and with other structures (muscles, sense organs, other neuronal events, etc.), the average rate and intensity of neuronal firing in various parts of this event, and the ways in which the rate of fire changes over time and in response to input from other areas. It is easy to see how these properties of a neuronal event should have causal influence on the behavior of the organism. Beliefs, presumably, will be neurally connected with muscles; we can see how electrical impulses coming from the belief could negotiate the usual neuronal channels and ultimately cause muscular contraction.

So a belief will be a neuronal structure or event with an array of NP properties. But if this belief is really a belief, then it will also have another sort of property: it will have content; it will be the belief that p, for some proposition p–perhaps the proposition naturalism is all the rage these days. And now the question is this: does a belief–a neural structure–cause behavior, enter into the causal chain leading to behavior, by virtue of its content? C is the possibility that the content of a belief does enter the causal chain leading to behavior; -C is the possibility that it does not.

Let’s begin with -C (which we could call ‘semantic epiphenomenalism’): what is P(R/N&E&-C)? Well, it is of course the content of a belief that determines its truth or falsehood; a belief is true just if the proposition that constitutes its content is true. But given -C, the content of a belief would be invisible to evolution. Since natural selection is interested only in adaptive behavior, not true belief, it would be unable to modify belief-producing processes in the direction of greater reliability by penalizing false belief and rewarding true belief. Accordingly, the fact that these creatures have survived and evolved, that their cognitive equipment was good enough to enable their ancestors to survive and reproduce–that fact would tell us nothing at all about the truth of their beliefs or the reliability of their cognitive faculties. It would tell something about the neurophysiological properties of a given belief; it would tell us that by virtue of these properties, that belief has played a role in the production of adaptive behavior. But it would tell us nothing about the truth of the content of that belief: its content might be true, but might with equal probability be false. Now reliability requires a fairly high proportion of true beliefs–for definiteness, say 3 out of 4. On this scenario (i.e., N&E&-C), the probability that ¾ of these creature’s beliefs are true is low. Alternatively, we might think this probability is inscrutable–such that we simply cannot tell, except within very wide limits, what it is. This too seems a sensible conclusion. P(R/N&E&-C), therefore, is either low or inscrutable.

Turn to C, the other possibility, the possibility that the content of a belief does enter the causal chain leading to behavior. As I’ll argue below, it is difficult to see, on the materialist scenario, how a belief could have causal influence on behavior or action by virtue of its content. Nonetheless, suppose C is true. This is the commonsense position: belief serves as a (partial) cause and thus explanation of behavior–and this explicitly holds for the content of belief. I want a beer and believe there is one in the fridge; the content of that belief, we ordinarily think, partly explains the movements of that large lumpy object that is my body as it heaves itself out of the armchair, moves over to the fridge, opens it, and extracts the beer. What is P(R/N&E&C)? Not as high as one might think.

Could we argue that beliefs are connected with behavior in such a way that false belief would produce maladaptive behavior, behavior that would tend to reduce the probability of the believer’s surviving and reproducing? No. First, false belief by no means guarantees maladaptive action. For example, religious belief is nearly universal across the world; even among naturalists, it is widely thought to be adaptive; yet naturalists think these beliefs are mostly false. Clearly enough false belief can produce adaptive behavior. Perhaps a primitive tribe thinks that everything is really alive, or is a witch; and perhaps all or nearly all of their beliefs are of the form this witch is F or that witch is G: for example, this witch is good to eat, or that witch is likely to eat me if I give it a chance. If they ascribe the right properties to the right ‘witches,’ their beliefs could be adaptive while nonetheless (assuming that in fact there aren’t any witches) false.

Our question is really about the proportion of true beliefs among adaptive beliefs–that is, beliefs involved in the causation of adaptive behavior. What proportion of adaptive beliefs are true? For every true adaptive belief it seems we can easily think of a false belief that leads to the same adaptive behavior. The fact that my behavior (or that of my ancestors) has been adaptive, therefore, is at best a third-rate reason for thinking my beliefs mostly true and my cognitive faculties reliable–and that is true even given the commonsense view of the relation of belief to behavior. So we can’t sensibly argue from the fact that our behavior (or that of our ancestors) has been adaptive, to the conclusion that our beliefs are mostly true and our cognitive faculties reliable. It is therefore hard to see that P(R/N&E&C) is very high. To concede as much as possible to the opposition, however, let’s say that this probability is either inscrutable or in the neighborhood of .9.

Now the calculus of probabilities (the theorem on total probability) tells us that

P(R/N&E) = [P(R/N&E&C) x P(C/N&E)] + [P(R/N&E&-C) x P(-C/N&E)]

i.e., the probability of R on N&E is the weighted average of the probabilities of R on N&E&C and N&E&-C–weighted by the probabilities of C and -C on N&E.

We have already noted that the left-hand term of the first of the two products on the right side of the equality is either moderately high or inscrutable; the second is either low or inscrutable. What remains is to evaluate the weights, the right-hand terms of the two products. So what is the probability of -C, given N&E, what is the probability of semantic epiphenomenalism on N&E? Robert Cummins suggests that semantic epiphenomenalism is in fact the received view as to the relation between belief and behavior.[6] That is because it is extremely hard to envisage a way, given materialism, in which the content of a belief could get causally involved in behavior. According to materialism, a belief is a neural structure of some kind–a structure that somehow possesses content. But how can its content get involved in the causal chain leading to behavior? Had a given such structure had a different content, one thinks, its causal contribution to behavior would be the same. Suppose my belief naturalism is all the rage these days–the neuronal structure that does in fact display that content–had had the same neurophysiological properties but some entirely different content: perhaps nobody believes naturalism nowadays. Would that have made any difference to its role in the causation of behavior? It is hard to see how: there would have been the same electrical impulses traveling down the same neural pathways, issuing in the same muscular contractions. It is therefore exceedingly hard to see how semantic epiphenomenalism can be avoided, given N&E. (There have been some valiant efforts but things don’t look hopeful.) So it looks as if P(-C/N&E) will have to be estimated as relatively high; let’s say (for definiteness) .7, in which case P(C/N&E) will be .3. Of course we could easily be wrong; we don’t really have a solid way of telling; so perhaps the conservative position here is that this probability too is inscrutable: one simply can’t tell what it is. Given current knowledge, therefore, P(-C/N&E) is either high or inscrutable. And if P(-C/N&E) is inscrutable, then the same goes, naturally enough, for P(C/N&E). What does that mean for the sum of these two products, i.e., P(R/N&E)?

We have several possibilities. Suppose we think first about the matter from the point of view of someone who doesn’t find any of the probabilities involved inscrutable. Then P(C/N&E) will be in the neighborhood of .3, P(-C/N&E) in the neighborhood of .7, and P(R/N&E&-C) perhaps in the neighborhood of .2. This leaves P(R/N&E&C), the probability that R is true given ordinary naturalism together with the commonsense view as to the relation between belief and behavior. Given that this probability is not inscrutable, let’s say that it is in the neighborhood of .9. Under these estimates, P(R/N&E) will be in the neighborhood of .41.[7] Suppose, on the other hand, we think the probabilities involved are inscrutable: then we will have to say the same for P(R/N&E). P(R/N&E), therefore, is either low–less than .5, at any rate–or inscrutable.

In either case, however, doesn’t the naturalist–at any rate one who sees that P(R/N&E) is low or inscrutable–have a defeater[8] for R, and for the proposition that his own cognitive faculties are reliable? I think so. Note some analogies with clear cases. I hear about a certain substance XXX, a substance the ingestion of which is widely reputed to destroy the reliability of one’s belief-forming faculties; nevertheless I find it difficult to estimate the probability that ingestion of XXX really does destroy cognitive reliability, and regard that probability as either high or inscrutable. Now suppose I come to think you have ingested XXX. Then I have a defeater for anything I believe just on your say-so; I won’t (or shouldn’t) believe anything you tell me unless I have independent evidence for it. And if I come to think that I myself have also ingested XXX–at an unduly high-spirited party, perhaps–then I will have a defeater for R in my own case. Suppose, in the modern equivalent to Descartes’ evil demon case, I come to think I am a brain in a vat,[9] and that the probability of my cognitive faculties being reliable, given that I am a brain in a vat, is low or inscrutable: then again I have a defeater for R with respect to me.

Perhaps it seems harder to see that one has a defeater for R in the case where the relevant probability is inscrutable than in the case where it is low. Well, suppose you buy a thermometer; then you learn that the owner of the factory where it was manufactured is a Luddite who aims to do what he can to disrupt contemporary technology, and to that end makes at least some instruments that are unreliable. You can’t say what the probability is of this thermometer’s being reliable, given that it was made in that factory; that probability is inscrutable for you. But would you trust the thermometer? It’s outside your window, and reads 30°F; if you have no other source of information about the temperature outside, would you believe it is 30°F?

Another analogy: you embark on a voyage of space exploration and land on a planet revolving about a distant sun, a planet that apparently has a favorable atmosphere. You crack the hatch, step out, and immediately find what appears to be an instrument that looks a lot like a terrestrial radio; you twiddle the dials, and after a couple of squawks it begins to emit strings of sounds that, oddly enough, form English sentences. These sentences express propositions only about topics of which you have no knowledge: what the weather is like inBeijingat the moment, whether Caesar had eggs on toast on the morning he crossed the Rubicon, and whether the first human being to cross theBering Straitwas left-handed. Impressed, indeed awed, by your find, you initially form the opinion that this instrument speaks the truth, that the propositions expressed (in English) by those sentences are true. But then you recall that you have no idea at all as to who or what constructed the instrument, what it is for, whether it has a purpose at all. You see that the probability of its being reliable, given what you know about it, is inscrutable. Then you have a defeater for your initial belief that the thing does in fact speak the truth. In the same way, then, the fact that P(R/N&E) is low or inscrutable gives you a defeater for R.

But here an objection rears its ugly head. In trying to assess P(R/N&E), I suggested that semantic epiphenomenalism was probable, given materialism, because a neural structure would have caused the same behavior if it had had different content but the same NP properties. But, says the objector, it couldn’t have had the same NP properties but different content; having a given content just is having a certain set of NP properties. This is a sensible objection. Given materialism, there is a way of looking at the relation between content (as well as other mental properties) and NP properties according to which the objector is clearly right. We must therefore look a bit more deeply into that relation. Here there are fundamentally two positions: reductionism or reductive materialism on the one hand, and nonreductive materialism on the other. Consider the property of having as content the proposition naturalism is all the rage these days, and call this property ‘C.’ According to reductive materialism, C just is a certain combination of NP properties.[10] It might be a disjunction of such properties; more likely a complex Boolean construction on NP properties, perhaps something like

(P1&P7&P28…) v (P3&P17 &…) v (P8&P83&P107&…) v …
(where the Pi are NP properties).[11]

Now take any belief B you like: what is the probability that B is true, given N&E and reductive materialism? What we know is that B has a certain content; that having that content just is having a certain combination of NP properties; and (we may assume) that having that combination of NP properties is adaptive (in the circumstances in which the organism finds itself). What, then, is the probability that the content of B is true? Well, it doesn’t matter whether it is true; if it is true, the NP properties constituting that content will be adaptive, but if it is false, those properties will be equally adaptive, since in each case they make the same causal contribution to behavior. That combination of NP properties is the property of having a certain content; it is the property of being associated with a certain proposition p in such a way that p is the content of the belief. Having that combination of NP properties is adaptive; hence having that belief is adaptive; but that combination of NP properties will be equally adaptive whether p is true or false. In this case (reductionism) content does enter into the causal chain leading to behavior, because NP properties do, and having a certain content just is displaying a certain set of NP properties. But those properties will be adaptive, whether or not the content the having of which they constitute, is true. Content enters in, all right, but not, we might say, as content. Better, content enters the causal chain leading to behavior, but not in such a way that its truth or falsehood bears on the adaptive character of the belief.

But, someone might object, given that the belief is adaptive, isn’t there a greater probability of its being true than of its being false? Why so? Because, the objector continues, the belief’s being adaptive means that having this belief, in these or similar circumstances, helped the creature’s ancestors to survive and reproduce; having this belief contributed to reproductive fitness. And wouldn’t the best explanation for this contribution be that the belief accurately represented their circumstances, i.e., was true? So, probably, the belief was adaptive for the creature’s ancestors because it was true. So, probably, the belief is adaptive for this creature in its circumstances because it is true.[12]

This objection, beguiling as it sounds, is mistaken. The proper explanation of this belief’s being adaptive is that having the NP properties that constitute the content of the belief causes adaptive behavior, not that the belief is true. And of course having those NP properties can cause adaptive behavior whether or not the content they constitute is true. At a certain level of complexity of NP properties, the neural structure that displays those properties also acquires a certain content C. That is because having that particular complex of NP properties just is what it is to have C. Having those NP properties, presumably, is adaptive; but whether the content arising in this way is true or false makes no difference to that adaptivity. What explains the adaptivity is just that having these NP properties, this content, causes adaptive behavior.[13]

So consider again a belief B with its content C; what, then, given that having that belief is adaptive, is the probability that C is true, is a true proposition? Well, since truth of content doesn’t make a difference to the adaptivity of the belief, the belief could be true, but could equally likely be false. We’d have to estimate the probability that it is true as about .5. But then if the creature has 1000 independent beliefs, the probability that, say, ¾ of them are true (and this would be a minimal requirement for reliability) will be very low–less than 10-58.[14] So on naturalism and reductionism, the probability of R appears to be very low.

That’s how things go given reductive materialism; according to nonreductive materialism, the other possibility, a mental property is not an NP property or any Boolean construction on NP properties, but a new sort of property that gets instantiated when a neural structure attains a certain degree of complexity–when, that is, it displays a certain sufficiently complex set of NP properties. (We might call it an ’emergent’ property.) Again, take any particular belief B: what is the probability, on N&E & nonreductive materialism, that B is true? What we know is that B has a content, that this content arises when the structure has a certain complex set of NP properties, and that having that set of NP properties is adaptive. But once again, it doesn’t matter for adaptivity whether the content associated with those NP properties is true or false; so once again, the probability that the content is true will have to be estimated as about .5; hence the probability that these creatures have reliable faculties is low. Either way, therefore, that probability is low, so that P(R/N&E) is also low–or, as we could add, if we like, inscrutable.

Now for the argument that one can’t rationally accept N&E. P(R/N&E), for those hypothetical creatures, is low or inscrutable. But those creatures aren’t relevantly different from us; so of course the same goes for us: P(R/N&E) specified to us is also low or inscrutable. We have seen furthermore that one who accepts N&E (and sees that P(R/N&E) is either low or inscrutable) has a defeater for R. But one who has a defeater for R has a defeater for any belief she takes to be a product of her cognitive faculties–which is of course all of her beliefs. She therefore has a defeater for N&E itself; so one who accepts N&E has a defeater for N&E, a reason to doubt or reject or be agnostic with respect to it. If she has no independent evidence then the rational course would be to reject belief in N&E. If she has no independent evidence, N&E is self-defeating and hence irrational.

But of course defeaters can in turn be themselves defeated; so couldn’t she get a defeater for this defeater–a defeater-defeater? Maybe by doing some science, for example, determining by scientific means that her faculties really are reliable? Couldn’t she go to the MIT cognitive-reliability laboratory for a check-up? Clearly that won’t help. Obviously that course would presuppose that her faculties are reliable; she’d be relying on the accuracy of her faculties in believing that there is such a thing as MIT, that she has in fact consulted its scientists, that they have given her a clean bill of cognitive health, and so on. Thomas Reid (Essays on the Intellectual Powers of Man) put it like this:

If a man’s honesty were called into question, it would be ridiculous to refer to the man’s own word, whether he be honest or not. The same absurdity there is in attempting to prove, by any kind of reasoning, probable or demonstrative, that our reason is not fallacious, since the very point in question is, whether reasoning may be trusted.

Is there any sensible way at all in which she can argue for R? It is hard to see how. Any argument she might produce will have premises; these premises, she claims, give her good reason to believe R. But of course she has the very same defeater for each of those premises that she has for R; and she has the same defeater for the belief that if the premises of that argument are true, then so is the conclusion. So it looks as if this defeater can’t be defeated. Naturalistic evolution gives its adherents a reason for doubting that our beliefs are mostly true; perhaps they are mostly mistaken. But then it won’t help to argue that they can’t be mostly mistaken; for the very reason for mistrusting our cognitive faculties generally, will be a reason for mistrusting the faculties that produce belief in the goodness of the argument.

This defeater, therefore, can’t be defeated. Hence the devotee of N&E has an undefeated defeater for N&E. N&E, therefore, cannot rationally be accepted–at any rate by someone who is apprised of this argument and sees the connections between N&E and R.

But if N&E can’t rationally be accepted, there is indeed a conflict between naturalism and evolution: one can’t rationally accept them both. But evolution is an extremely important scientific doctrine, one of the chief pillars of contemporary science. Hence there is a conflict between naturalism and science. The conclusion seems to be that there is a religion/science conflict, all right, but it isn’t between Christian belief and science: it is between naturalism and science.[15]

Notes

[1] Erroneously, in my opinion. There is no inner connection between science and naturalism; indeed, as I’ll argue, naturalism clashes with science.

[2] Thus Richard Dawkins: “Although atheism might have been logically tenable before Darwin, Darwinmade it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist.” The Blind Watchmaker, (New York: Norton, 1986), pp. 6-7.

[3] As evolutionary psychologist David Sloan Wilson puts it, “the well-adapted mind is ultimately an organ of survival and reproduction” (Darwin’s Cathedral [Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002], p. 228).

[4] Letter to William Graham, Down, July 3rd, 1881. In The Life and Letters of Charles Darwin Including an Autobiographical Chapter, ed. Francis Darwin (London: John Murray, Albermarle Street, 1887), Volume 1, pp. 315-16. Evan Fales has suggested thatDarwin is thinking, here, not of belief generally, but of religious and philosophical convictions and theoretical beliefs. If he is right,Darwin’s doubt would not extend to everyday beliefs to the effect, e.g., that bread is nourishing but mud is not, but to religious and philosophical beliefs–such as naturalism.

[5] [Editor’s note: Plantinga uses a hyphen here to abbreviate “it is not the case that.” Thus, “-C” can be read “it is not the case that C,” or “it is false that C,” or just “not C.” C and -C are “mutually exclusive” because they cannot both be true. They are “jointly exhaustive” because at least one of them must be true.]

[6] Meaning and Mental Representation (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1989), p. 130.

[7] Of course these figures are the merest approximations; others might make the estimates somewhat differently; but they can be significantly altered without significantly altering the final result. For example, perhaps you think the P(R/N&C) is higher, perhaps even 1; then (retaining the other assignments) P(R/N) will be in the neighborhood of .44. Or perhaps you reject the thought that P(-C/N) is more probable than P(C/N), thinking them about equal. Then (again, retaining the other assignments) P(R/N) will be in the neighborhood of .55.

[8] [Editor’s note: When Plantinga says someone has a “(rationality) defeater” for a belief B, he means, (very) roughly, that the person in question has one or more other beliefs that make it irrational for him or her to believe B.]

[9] [Editor’s note: Rene Descartes was a 17th Century philosopher who famously entertained the possibility that an all-powerful evil demon was trying to deceive him (e.g., by making him think that his senses provide him with accurate information about the physical world when in fact there is no physical world including no bodies or sense organs. The “modern equivalent” to Descartes’ evil demon case involves the supposition that one has no body but instead is just a brain in a vat being stimulated by scientists in just the right way so as to produce a completely realistic but delusory experience of living a normal human life. Notice that Plantinga is not claiming here that the (alleged) impossibility of proving that one is not being deceived by an evil demon or that one is not a brain in a vat makes it irrational to trust one’s cognitive faculties. Instead, he is making the much more plausible claim that if one were to actually believe that one is being deceived by an evil demon or that one is a brain in a vat, then it really would be irrational for one to believe that one’s cognitive faculties are reliable.]

[10] Or (to accommodate the thought that meaning ‘ain’t in the head’) a combination of NP properties with environmental properties. I’ll assume but not mention this qualification in what follows.

[11] [Editor’s note: The symbol “v” means “or” in the sense of “one or the other or both.”]

[12] Here I am indebted to Tom Crisp.

[13] In this connection, consider dream beliefs. Take a given dream belief with its content C: Having the NP properties that constitute the property of having C is presumably adaptive; but it makes no difference whether or not that content is true.

[14] As calculated by Paul Zwier. This is the probability that the whole battery of cognitive faculties is reliable; the probability that a given faculty is reliable will be larger, but still small; if its output is, say, 100 beliefs, the probability that ¾ of them are true will be no more than .000001.

[15] For wise counsel and good advice, I am grateful to Thad Botham, E.J. Coffman, Robin Collins, Tom Crisp, Chris Green, Jeff Green, Dan McKaughan, Brian Pitts, Luke Potter and Del Ratzsch.


In Defense of Sensible Naturalism (2007)

Paul Draper

Should awareness of one’s evolutionary origins make one skeptical about one’s cognitive faculties? In other words, should it lead one to question the reliability of the psychological mechanisms that produce one’s beliefs? Darwinwas worried that it should, but he did little more than raise the question. Other thinkers since Darwinhave developed this idea in more detail,[1] but none with more rigor and sophistication than Alvin Plantinga. Plantinga holds that naturalists, but not theists, should share “Darwin’s doubt,” not because they believe in evolution–many theists also believe in evolution–but because they believe in blind evolution, in evolution that occurs without any prior supernatural planning or concurrent supernatural guidance. According to Plantinga, blind evolution is not likely to lead to reliable cognitive faculties, which means that naturalists who recognize this cannot rationally trust those faculties, and so cannot rationally believe anything at all, including naturalism itself. Plantinga’s recommendation to such naturalists would be to reject, not evolution, but naturalism, replacing it with theism.

Plantinga’s well-known argument, which he reprises in his opening case, can be boiled down to one key premise and two key inferences. Plantinga calls his key premise the “probability thesis”:

(1) P(R/N&E) is low or inscrutable.

This says that the (objective) probability that R is true, given that naturalism (N) and current evolutionary theory (E) are both true, is either low or impossible to assess. R is the proposition that our cognitive faculties are, on the whole, reliable, which Plantinga equates with the claim that the vast majority of the beliefs produced by our cognitive faculties are true. From his probability thesis, Plantinga infers (in my words) that

(2) Informed naturalists cannot rationally believe that R is true.

By “informed naturalists,” I mean naturalists who know (or at least have a true belief about) whether or not the probability thesis is true and who cannot rationally reject evolutionary theory without also rejecting naturalism. From (2) Plantinga infers that

(3) Informed naturalists cannot rationally hold any beliefs at all, including their belief in naturalism.

If this argument is sound, then (informed) naturalism leads irresistibly to its own demise–it leads irresistibly to the conclusion that belief in naturalism is irrational. This is why Plantinga says that naturalism is “self-defeating.” If he is right about this, then naturalism is in serious trouble.

Fortunately for naturalists, he is not right. I agree with Plantinga that the probability thesis (when understood in a “local” sense to be explained later) is true, but my reasons for believing that it is true are not identical to Plantinga’s. While Plantinga seems unsure whether P(R/N&E) is low or inscrutable, I am convinced that it is inscrutable. My objection to Plantinga’s argument is that (2) does not follow from (1): his preliminary conclusion that informed naturalists cannot rationally believe that R is true does not follow from his probability thesis. The precise reason that (2) does not follow from (1) is that (1) says that P(R/N&E) is low or inscrutable, instead of just saying that it is low. If Plantinga replaced his probability thesis with the more specific thesis that P(R/N&E) is low, then (2) would follow, but the argument would still fail because (1) would be false. Before I can develop this critique of Plantinga’s argument, however, some preliminary remarks are needed both about the relationship of naturalism to materialism and about the relationship of beliefs to behavior.

Varieties of Naturalism

Plantinga defines naturalism as the thesis that there are no supernatural beings. I have no objections to this definition. But then Plantinga claims that all or almost all naturalists are materialists. Of course, even if he were right about that, it still wouldn’t be legitimate to equate, as he sometimes does, naturalism with materialism. But he’s not right. An increasingly large number of naturalists reject materialism, if by “materialism” is meant the view that a complete description of what the natural world and human beings in particular are like can be given in terms of their “third-person” properties. Materialism defined in this way conflicts with the fact that human beings and some other animals have properties that are irreducibly “first person,” properties like “being in pain.” When I am in pain, I know about this in a way that no one else can know about it. I know about it from the “inside” (in a sense of “inside” that has nothing to do with any spatial relationship to my skull). Others who know about my pain cannot know about it in the way I do, by feeling it. In this sense my pain is “private.” Others who know about my pain do so by observing my behavior or by detecting certain neuronal activity in my brain or by my testimony or by some other “public” means. This epistemological distinction points directly to what is so special about consciousness, to the fact that there is something it is like (from the “inside”) to be in pain or to see colors or to feel anger or even to think about philosophy. In other words, human beings, in addition to their third-person physiological characteristics also have first-person characteristics.

Materialists claim that human beings and other conscious animals either don’t really possess first-person properties or else they do possess them, but to possess them just is to possess certain third-person properties. Naturalists need not (and in my opinion should not) make either of these claims. Naturalists will hold that the world’s having first-person features depends causally on its having certain third-person features. To put the point in a popular though somewhat misleading way, matter existed long before mind, which didn’t arise until matter was organized in the right sort of way (e.g., in the form of complex nervous systems). There is no reason, however, why naturalists cannot hold that conscious states are real, irreducibly first person, and yet also fully natural biological states of brains. Epiphenomenalists claim that, although the world has irreducibly first-person features, these features lack causal efficacy. Once again, naturalists need not (and should not) agree. Naturalists hold that nature is causally closed. But there is no reason why naturalists must hold that first-person events are not a part of nature and thus no reason why naturalists must hold that the causal structure of the natural world includes only third-person events. Am I suggesting that naturalists should be “dualists”? Perhaps, but it is not a dualism of supernatural souls and natural bodies, nor is it a dualism of the physical and the mental, as if these were mutually exclusive categories. It is a dualism only because it admits, quite sensibly I think, that the natural world has both first-person and third-person features and that no complete description of nature is possible without mentioning both sorts of features.[2]

What does this have to do with beliefs? The existence of beliefs, even nonconscious ones, depends on the existence of first-person states. Our beliefs have content, they are about propositions, and this is possible only because we have first-person features.[3] With this as background, I am now prepared to distinguish what I will call extreme naturalism from what I will call (no doubt to the great annoyance of extreme naturalists) sensible naturalism. “Extreme naturalism” is the conjunction of naturalism with the thesis that

X: Either (i) beliefs don’t exist (eliminativism) or (ii) they exist but they don’t affect behavior at all (epiphenomenalism) or (iii) they exist and they affect behavior but not by virtue of their content (semantic epiphenomenalism) or (iv) they exist and they affect behavior by virtue of their content, but to have a certain content just is to display a certain set of third-person properties (reductive materialism).

Notice that X is compatible with a variety of distinct materialist views about beliefs and also with one nonmaterialist view, namely, “epiphenomenalism,” which does not deny the irreducibly first-person character of conscious beliefs, but does deny their causal efficacy. Sensible naturalism is just naturalism conjoined with the denial of X. In other words, it conjoins naturalism with

S: Beliefs exist, they affect behavior by virtue of their contents, and a belief’s having a particular content is not the same as its displaying a certain set of third-person properties.

It is my view that sensible naturalists are not as vulnerable to the sort of reasoning Plantinga employs as other sorts of naturalists (though for reasons I won’t explain in this essay reductive materialists may be able to withstand Plantinga’s assault as well).

Plantinga’s Objective Probabilities

To see what is wrong with Plantinga’s argument, it is crucial to understand his probability thesis. Recall that the probability thesis asserts that the objective probability of our cognitive faculties being reliable, given naturalism and current evolutionary theory, is low or inscrutable. There is a problem of interpretation concerning the conditional probability[4] in this thesis because, according to Plantinga, R has a high degree of initial warrant and probability, both for theists and for evolutionary naturalists. We all start out with strong noninferential grounds for believing that R is true and thus R is, to use Plantinga’s terminology, “properly basic.” The point of his argument is to show that R becomes improperly basic for evolutionary naturalists once they recognize that the probability thesis is true. All of this is compatible with his view that P(R/N&E) is low or inscrutable as long as it is understood that this probability thesis is not a claim about how likely it is for the naturalist that evolution produced reliable cognitive faculties, given everything we know now. Instead, we are supposed to abstract from the fact that naturalists know how things turned out–they know that whatever produced our cognitive faculties managed to make them reliable. We are supposed to ask instead how likely it was “beforehand” that things would turn out the way we know they did.

I suspect this is why Plantinga thinks he can support the probability thesis with an analogy to an imaginary population of mysterious nonhuman beings, mysterious not just because they inhabit another planet but also because we know very little about them other than that they, like us, have beliefs and belief-producing mechanisms. When we consider this population of alien beings, it forces us to make the right abstractions from what know about ourselves, which helps us to see that the reliability of our cognitive faculties, which we ordinarily take for granted, is actually quite surprising on the assumption that the source of those faculties is naturalistic or “blind” evolution. Of course, this is not to say that in assessing P(R/N&E) we are supposed to abstract from all of our background knowledge, even knowledge of a very general sort. If we did that, then Plantinga couldn’t even get as far as he does in his deliberations about P(R/N&E). But we are supposed to abstract from any specific evidence for R, whether that evidence be inferential or noninferential.[5]

Given this “local” interpretation of the objective probability in Plantinga’s probability thesis, I believe that the thesis is true. As I mentioned earlier, however, my reasons for believing this are not identical to Plantinga’s. Unlike Plantinga, I am confident that P(R/N&E) is inscrutable (and if it is inscrutable then of course it is either low or inscrutable). This is important, because I believe that step (2) of the argument does not follow from Plantinga’s probability thesis as it stands, but would follow from it if it were restated to claim that P(R/N&E) is low. Thus, to show that Plantinga’s attack on naturalism fails, I need to show first that P(R/N&E) is not low but rather inscrutable and second that the informed naturalist can rationally believe that R is true in spite of the inscrutability of P(R/N&E).

The Inscrutability of P(R/N&E)

To calculate P(R/N&E), we will need to use a theorem of mathematical probability. Since S just is the denial of X, we can use the same theorem that Plantinga uses when he calculates P(R/N&E) to derive the following equation:

P(R/N&E) = P(R/S&N&E) x P(S/N&E) + P(R/X&N&E) x P(X/N&E).

Let’s begin with P(S/N&E) and P(X/N&E), keeping in mind our local interpretation of Plantinga’s objective probabilities. Without knowing how things have in fact turned out, it would seem quite impossible to predict or even guess whether naturalistic evolution would lead to the truth of S or to the truth of X. Such objective probabilities are clearly inscrutable. After all, as David Hume warned, we can’t simply examine the nature of physical entities and draw justified conclusions or even justified guesses about what they can or cannot produce. Plantinga seems sympathetic to this position, but he thinks one can also sensibly believe that P(X/N&E) is high. I disagree with this partly because, as I explained earlier, I see no reason to believe that naturalism, which after all just denies the existence of supernatural entities, makes X (the disjunction of materialism and epiphenomenalism) likely. Granted, naturalists do not yet know exactly why irreducibly first-person features arise in nature, but that doesn’t commit them to denying either their existence or their causal efficacy!

Of course, from the fact that P(S/N&E) and P(X/N&E) are inscrutable, it doesn’t follow that P(R/N&E) is inscrutable. According to our equation, it could still be low if both P(R/S&N&E) and P(R/X&N&E) were low. Moreover, I am willing to grant, at least for the sake of argument, that P(R/X&N&E) is low. P(R/S&N&E), however, is not low; it is high. To see why, notice first that, if S is true, then it is not difficult to see how blind evolution could produce reliable cognitive faculties. As Plantinga himself has said,

Now if content of belief did enter the causal chain that leads to behavior–and if true belief caused adaptive behavior (and false belief maladaptive behavior)–then natural selection, by rewarding and punishing adaptive and maladaptive behavior respectively, could shape the mechanisms that produce belief in the direction of greater reliability. There could then be selection pressure for true belief and for reliable belief-producing mechanisms.[6]

The difference between me and Plantinga, however, is that while I take this scenario to be highly likely given sensible evolutionary naturalism, Plantinga regards it as merely possible. He says:

That our species has survived and evolved at most guarantees that our behavior is adaptive; it does not guarantee or even suggest that our belief-producing processes are reliable, or that our beliefs are for the most part true. That is because our behavior could be adaptive, but our beliefs mainly false. [my italics]

Plantinga makes a mistake here when he adds the words “or even suggest” to his conclusion. His premise is that our behavior could be adaptive in spite of our beliefs being mainly false. In other words, this scenario is possible. While this premise is true and while it does follow from this premise that our survival and evolution do not guarantee that R is true, it does not follow that they do not even suggest that R is true. In fact, when we assume that sensible naturalism is true, they not only suggest this, they provide strong evidence for it.

To see why, consider the following example. Suppose that when I go to take a bath there is an alligator in my tub. It is certainly possible that I survive these unfortunate circumstances without having true beliefs like “there’s an alligator in my bathtub” and “alligators are dangerous animals.” For example, the beliefs that “there’s a beautiful mermaid in my bathtub” and “mermaids, especially beautiful ones, are dangerous animals” may do just as well (depending on how much I’m willing to risk in order to bathe with a beautiful mermaid). Notice, however, that the vast majority of false beliefs I might have in these circumstances (e.g., there’s nothing in my bathtub, there’s a gentle alligator in my bathtub, there’s a rubber ducky in my bathtub, there’s a dangerous alligator in my bathtub but I can easily overpower it, etc.) will not do just as well, but will lead instead to a, shall we say, “maladaptive” bathing experience. So my survival in these circumstances is much more to be expected if my beliefs about the contents of my bathtub are mostly true than if they are mostly false. More generally, the long term survival of our species is much more to be expected if our cognitive faculties are reliable than if they are unreliable, and that entails that the long term survival of our species is strong evidence for R.[7]

In addition, it is very unlikely that belief-producing mechanisms that do not track the truth would systematically promote survival in a very diverse and often rapidly changing environment. This is why, when Plantinga tries to give examples of how our cognitive faculties could systematically deceive us and still be adaptive, the best he can do is to take essentially reliable faculties, faculties that do track the truth in a diverse and changing environment, and then make them unreliable by tacking on some false “extra.” For example, Plantinga suggests that there might be a primitive tribe, the members of which refer to everything as a “witch,” so that in circumstances in which we would have the true belief that this is an alligator, they would have the false belief that this witch is an alligator. Their beliefs could, however, be just as adaptive as ours, assuming that their behavior is not affected in some maladaptive way by the fact that they believe everything is a witch.

One problem with this example, however, is that while the cognitive faculties of these beings would not be as reliable as ours, they would still be very reliable. For anyone who believes “this witch is a dangerous alligator” would also believe, at least implicitly, “this is dangerous,” “this is an alligator,” “this is an animal,” and so on.[8] Indeed, even if these beings could not express these implicit beliefs in their language, they would still have the crucial concepts and so still have those beliefs.[9] This is not to say that a philosopher as resourceful as Plantinga could not dream up some complicated or bizarre way in which beliefs, including implicit ones, could vary from the truth and yet still allow for survival; but then one has to ask how likely it is that such complicated or bizarre variations would be available for nature to select.[10]

I conclude that P(R/S&N&E) is high. The most that Plantinga can establish is the possibility of cognitive faculties that are both unreliable and adaptive. This does nothing to refute the fact that by far the most likely way for blind evolution to produce adaptive cognitive faculties is to make them reliable. At times Plantinga seems willing to concede this or something close to it. Such a concession is, it seems to me, highly warranted. Therefore, since P(R/S&N&E) is high, since P(S/N&E) and P(X/N&E) are both inscrutable, and since P(R/X&N&E) is (I’m willing to grant) low, it follows from the equation stated at the beginning of this section that P(R/N&E) is inscrutable.[11]

Plantinga’s Faulty Inference

Plantinga might very well grant that P(R/N&E) is inscrutable since he thinks that this is enough to justify an inference to step (2) of the argument, which states that an informed naturalist cannot rationally believe that R is true. This inference, however, is incorrect. In making it, Plantinga seems to forget that informed naturalists start their inquiry into the origins of their cognitive faculties with a rational belief in R. Thus, the purpose of the inquiry is not to move from a state of skepticism about R to forming a belief about its truth or falsity. Rather, the purpose is to determine whether information about the origins of their cognitive faculties will (i) justify their current level of confidence in R, (ii) justify increased or decreased confidence, or (iii) undermine the rationality of their belief in R entirely. Sensible naturalists will be pleased to discover that P(R/S&N&E) is high, thus confirming their initial confidence in R. The fact that deleting S from S&N&E makes it impossible to assess R’s probability should not worry sensible naturalists at all. So long as N&E does not confer a low probability on R, no lowering of their confidence in R is called for.

The two analogies Plantinga uses to suggest otherwise are both seductive but ultimately flawed because they do not make it clear whether or not we begin with a rational belief in the analogue of R. Consider Plantinga’s thermometer example. If, on the one hand, I have no initial reason to trust my thermometer, then discovering that it was produced in factory F and that I cannot assess the objective probability of its being reliable given that it was produced in factory F leaves me in the same position in which I started–I still have no reason to trust the thermometer and so cannot rationally believe that it is reliable. But interpreted this way, the thermometer case fails because it is disanalogous to the case of the informed naturalist, who starts out with a rational belief in R. If, on the other hand, I start out with a rational belief in the reliability of the thermometer, where what makes the belief rational doesn’t depend on any false belief about its origins (e.g., that its origins are relevantly similar to other thermometers most of which are reliable), then discovering completely unhelpful information about its origins won’t render that belief irrational. So whichever way we interpret the thermometer case, it fails to support Plantinga’s inference from the inscrutability of P(R/N&E) to the conclusion that informed naturalists cannot rationally believe that their cognitive faculties are reliable.

One might object here that Plantinga should simply retract his claim that we are initially rational in believing R. But he can’t do that! For then everyone, theist and atheist alike, would be trapped in a skeptical bog, unable to provide good reasons for trusting their cognitive faculties because any reasons they offer will require the use of their cognitive faculties and so will be viciously circular.

If Plantinga’s analogies don’t work, do I have a better one? Try this. Consider evolutionary theists, theists who accept the major claims of contemporary evolutionary biology. Like everyone else, they begin their inquiry into R with a rational belief in its truth. Further, just as sensible naturalists, for example, would be pleased to discover that P(R/S&N&E) is high, so too evolutionary theists, who believe God worked through evolutionary processes to produce our cognitive faculties, will be pleased to discover that P(R/T&E) is high. (“T” stands, of course, for theism.) But now suppose we remove T from this probability and consider only P(R/E). On E alone, it will be impossible to assess the likelihood of R. To make this point clear, consider the following equation, which follows from the same theorem of mathematical probability we used previously:

P(R/E) = P(R/N&E) x P(N/E) + P(R/~N&E) x P(~N/E).

I have already argued that P(R/N&E) is inscrutable. This implies that P(R/E) is inscrutable since P(N/E) is clearly inscrutable. Should this worry the evolutionary theist? No, of course not. Similarly, naturalists shouldn’t worry about P(R/N&E)’s being inscrutable. Subtract enough from the propositions about origins upon which one conditionalizes and inscrutability will inevitably result. This shouldn’t worry either evolutionary theists or naturalists because they both start out with a rational belief in R.[12] Thus, the failure of Plantinga’s argument turns out to be a good thing not just for naturalists but also for evolutionary theists! I should add that whatever is good for evolutionary theists is good for all theists, since not even theists, if they are well-informed, can rationally reject the theory of evolution![13]

Notes

[1] See, for example: C. S. Lewis, Miracles: A Preliminary Study (London: Geoffrey Bles, 1947, revised 1960); and Richard Taylor, Metaphysics (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1963).

[2] Many of my views here echo John Searle’s “biological naturalism,” as explained in, for example, in The Rediscovery of the Mind (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1992). Searle denies he is a property dualist, but he does believe that the world has first-person features and that these features cannot be reduced ontologically to third-person features.

[3] For two distinct defenses of the claim that intentionality depends on subjectivity, see Searle, Ch.7, and Colin McGinn, “Consciousness and Content,” Proceedings of the British Academy 76 (1988), 219-239.

[4] A “conditional probability” is a statement’s probability “conditional on” or “given that” or “on the assumption that” some other statement is true.

[5] Cf. section II of William Alston’s essay, “Plantinga, Naturalism, and Defeat,” in Naturalism Defeated? Essays on Plantinga’s Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism, ed. James Beilby (Ithaca,NY:CornellUniversity Press, 2002), pp. 176-203.

[6] “Reply to Beilby’s Cohorts,” in Beilby, p. 257.

[7] The fact that our cognitive faculties did not evolve simultaneously and yet produce beliefs, the vast majority of which are consistent and a significant portion of which overlap, further enhances P(R/N&S&E).

[8] Jerry Fodor, “Is Science Biologically Possible?” in Beilby, pp. 30-42. Fodor makes this point on p. 34.

[9] Further, even ignoring these implicit beliefs, the cognitive faculties of these beings would still be reliable, not in Plantinga’s sense, but in the sense that they produce beliefs the vast majority of which at least approximate the truth.

[10] Cf. section 1.3 of Branden Fitelson and Elliott Sober’s 1997 essay, “Plantinga’s Probability Arguments Against Evolutionary Naturalism,” <http://philosophy.wisc.edu/sober/fitelsoon%20and%20sober%20on%20 plantinga.pdf>

[11] Plantinga might respond that he could replace R with the statement, call it R*, that the cognitive faculties responsible for scientific beliefs like E and metaphysical beliefs like N are reliable. He could then base his argument on the premise that P(R*/N&E) is low. Of course, this is not the argument he gives in his opening case and so I don’t feel obligated to refute it here. Very briefly, however, my reply would be that the reasoning involved in science is not unique to science. More generally, the psychological mechanisms that produce scientific beliefs like E are in fact the same ones that produce the everyday beliefs that are so important to our survival. Further, as my opening case suggests and as I have argued elsewhere (“God, Science, and Naturalism,” in The Oxford Handbook of Philosophy of Religion, ed. William J. Wainwright [Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005], pp. 272-303), a case for N can be made that is “scientific” in a broad sense.

[12] Cf. Michael Bergmann, “Commonsense Naturalism,” in Beilby, pp. 61-90.

[13] I am grateful to Sean Allen-Hermanson and John Schellenberg for helpful comments on a preliminary draft of this essay.


Against “Sensible” Naturalism (2007)

Alvin Plantinga

First, I’d like to thank Paul Draper for his interesting and challenging criticism of my evolutionary argument against naturalism (EAAN). He proposes that my argument can be boiled down to one key premise:

(1) P(R/N&E) is low or inscrutable.

and two key inferences: from (1) to

(2) Informed naturalists cannot rationally believe that R is true.

and from (2) to

(3) Informed naturalists cannot rationally hold any beliefs at all, including their belief in naturalism.

Here ‘informed’ naturalists are naturalists who see (believe) that (1) is true. Draper’s fundamental criticism is that (2) doesn’t follow from (1), at least if the ‘N’ in (1) is what he calls “sensible” naturalism. He agrees that (2) does follow from

(1*) P(R/N&E) is low,

but claims that (1*) is false.[1] Now Draper agrees that a naturalist who believes (1*) has a defeater for R (and hence for naturalism); so Draper seems to agree that if (1*) is true, the argument against naturalism is cogent. Contra Draper, I believe (2) follows from (1); at present, however, I propose to argue in reply that in fact (1*) is true.

A word (or two) about sensible naturalism. (a) Draper objects to my claim that nearly all naturalists are materialists; he argues that many are not. But his definition of ‘materialism’ is quite different from mine (perhaps I was too brief). I was taking materialism to be a metaphysical thesis about the constitution of human beings: the thesis that human beings are material objects. They are not immaterial minds or souls that stand in a special relation to a body; they are not body-soul composites; they do not contain as a part an immaterial soul or mind. Draper’s account of materialism is an epistemological thesis: it is the thesis that human beings don’t have irreducible first-person properties. What makes a property a first-person property is an epistemological quality: first-person properties are private, he says, in the sense that the subject of the property has an epistemic access to his having (or lacking) that property, an epistemic access not available to anyone else. Now a materialist, so he says, is one who claims “that human beings and other conscious animals either don’t really possess first-person properties, or else they do possess them, but to possess them just is to possess certain third-person properties.” So a materialist is one who denies that human beings have irreducible properties to which they have privileged epistemic access. Thus construed, materialism (as I say) is an epistemological thesis. But then a person could be a materialist in my sense without being a materialist in Draper’s sense. Such a person might think human beings are material objects, but have properties such as being in pain to which they have that sort of privileged access, and which are irreducible to properties to which no one has such access.

In fact I believe the most widely accepted form of materialism (in my sense), ‘nonreductive materialism,’ as it’s called, is materialism in my sense but not in Draper’s; someone who accepts nonreductive materialism would be a materialist in my sense but not in his. Such a person would believe that human beings are material objects without immaterial parts, but would also believe that mental properties, including the ones Draper takes to be first-person properties, are irreducible to physical properties (which would presumably, according to Draper, be third-person properties). In fact, as far as I can see, Draper’s sensible naturalism is very close to the conjunction of naturalism with nonreductive materialism.

My main project in what follows is to argue that (1*) is true, i.e., that P(R/S&N&E) (S&N being Draper’s sensible naturalism) is low. (To expedite matters, I’ll henceforth use ‘N’ to denote the conjunction of S with N.) The argument is essentially a development of one I gave in my opening statement. We can begin by observing that, given metaphysical materialism about human beings and other conscious animals, a belief, presumably, will be something like a neural structure or longstanding neural event–for definiteness, let’s say it’s a neural structure. Such a structure, as explained in my opening statement, will have two sorts of properties. First, it will have neurophysiological properties (NP properties); and second, it will have content properties, where a content property is the property of having such and such a proposition as its content. NP properties will presumably be among Draper’s third-person properties, and content properties among his first-person properties; content properties are not reducible to NP properties, but according to Draper’s sensible naturalism, do depend on them causally: a structure’s having a given NP property[2] (or group of properties) causes that structure to display a given content property. To conform to sensible naturalism, we must add (against semantic epiphenomenalism) that the structure in question is a (part) cause of behavior, and causes what it does by virtue of having the content it does. The rough and ready test for causation by virtue of: e causes e* by virtue of having P just if e would not have caused e* if it had not had P.

Now for the argument for (1*). We ordinarily think that belief content depends, to at least some degree, on complex neural circuitry. Bacteria probably don’t have beliefs; human beings do. As we go up the scale from simpler to more complex, at some point we start getting actual belief content, something we can properly call a belief, something that is true or false. So suppose we start with creatures that don’t have beliefs at all, and go up the scale until we arrive at the first creatures that do in fact display belief. Of course there will be questions of vagueness. They won’t matter for present purposes; just consider one of the first occasions on which some creature has what is clearly a belief. For definiteness, imagine that we first encounter actual belief content in an early member of C. elegans.[3] This small but charismatic beast, we suppose, harbors a neural structure that displays an NP property P that is the cause of the property of having a certain content; P is an NP property that causes C, the property of having a certain proposition Q as content.

We may assume that P is adaptive in that it is a part cause of adaptive behavior.[4] But (given no more than sensible naturalism), we have no reason at all to suppose that this content, the proposition Q such that C is the property having Q as content, is true. We know that P, the NP property that causes S to have Q as content, is adaptive: but that provides not the slightest reason to think Q is true. (We do not, for example, have any reason to think having P causes S to have Q as content because Q is true.) Q might be true, but it might equally well be false; it doesn’t matter to the adaptiveness of P. Possibly some true proposition is that first bit of content; equally possibly, some false proposition is. Further, given just sensible naturalism and E, it is as likely that Q, that first bit of content, be false as that it be true. P is indeed adaptive; it is adaptive by virtue of the fact that it causes adaptive behavior. But (given just E and sensible naturalism) there is no more reason to suppose that content true than to suppose it false. Sensible naturalism doesn’t give us any connection between the truth value of Q, the content of that belief-structure S, and the adaptiveness of the behavior caused by S. This property P is selected for, not because it causes the content it does, but because it causes adaptive behavior. S causes adaptive behavior by virtue of its content, all right; but it doesn’t cause adaptive behavior by virtue of having the property of having true content. There would have to be something special about the situation–something beyond sensible naturalism–if P’s being adaptive made it more likely than not that Q is true. Natural selection will ordinarily select for adaptive properties, properties that cause adaptive behavior; but that gives us no reason at all to think Q is in fact true.

What holds for that first bit of content will hold for subsequent bits as well. Take any subsequent belief-structure S* and the property P* it has such that having P* causes S* to have some proposition Q* as content: P* will have been selected for, not because Q* is true, but because P* causes adaptive behavior in the relevant circumstances. And P* can cause adaptive behavior whether or not Q* is true. But then it is not likely that natural selection, in modifying the structures that cause beliefs in the direction of greater adaptiveness, will also modify them in the direction of greater reliability–in the direction, that is, of producing a greater proportion of true beliefs.

What holds for C. elegans, naturally enough, will hold for other species as well, including that hypothetical species we’ve been considering. We can assume that the NP properties P displayed by the beliefs enjoyed by members of that species are adaptive; in accordance with sensible naturalism, we can suppose that these properties cause content properties, properties of the form has Q as content. But (given sensible naturalism) it doesn’t follow that these content propositions are likely to be true. We are supposing that the relevant NP properties cause content properties: a neural structure’s having that NP property causes that neural structure to have a certain content. We are therefore supposing there is something like a causal law linking the possession of NP properties of that sort to the possession of content: all neural structures that have that NP property P also have the property of having such and such a proposition as content. Here sensible naturalism differs from ‘sensible theism’ (the conjunction of theism with Draper’s S); according to sensible theism, God has created us human beings in his image, part of which involves giving us the capacity for knowledge. If so, however, he would have instituted causal laws linking NP properties with content properties in such a way that the beliefs in question would be (given appropriate qualifications) mostly true. Not so for sensible naturalism; it doesn’t even give us reason to think that content in any way represents environmental circumstances of the creature in question. That NP property Q is adaptive; sure enough. No doubt it is adaptive by virtue of causing behavior (in a wide sense of the term) that is adaptive in that creature’s environmental circumstances, whether short term or long. That same NP property, furthermore, causes content. But why think that content would be true? Indeed, why think it would be in any way connected with the circumstances of the creature in question? The content of these beliefs could be anything at all. Perhaps it’s like the way we think things go in our dreams. I dream that I am climbing a steep rock face inYosemite; I believe that I am climbing that rock face. No doubt it’s by virtue of the instantiation of a certain NP property P that I have a belief with that content; and no doubt my having P is adaptive. But it doesn’t follow that the belief in question is probably true, or even in any way about my current environmental circumstances.

Natural selection, in modifying content properties in the direction of greater adaptiveness, is therefore not likely to be modifying belief-producing processes in the direction of greater reliability. So consider a belief-structure B with its content Q and content-causing property P; what, given that having that belief is adaptive (and given sensible naturalism), is the probability that Q is a true proposition? Well, since we have no reason to think the adaptivity of P makes the truth of Q likely (given sensible naturalism), Q could be true, but is equally likely to be false. We’d have to estimate the probability that it is true as about the same as the probability that it is false. But then if the creature in question has 1000 probabilistically independent beliefs, the probability that, say, ¾ of them are true (and this would be a modest requirement for reliability) will be very low–less than 10-58. And even if the beliefs in question are maximally dependent, probabilistically speaking, P(R/N&E) could not be greater than ½–low enough to provide a defeater for R. So on sensible naturalism (and E), the probability of R appears to be very low: P(R/N&E) (N being sensible naturalism) specified to these creatures, is low.

This is my argument for thinking that P(R/N&E) is low, specified to that hypothetical population, and taking N to be sensible naturalism; of course the same goes for us. Draper, on the other hand, thinks the fact that we have evolved and survived provides strong evidence for R. “More generally,” he says, “the long term survival of our species is much more to be expected if our cognitive faculties are reliable than if they are unreliable, and that entails that the long term survival of our species is strong evidence for R.” What Draper presumably means is that the probability of the long term survival of our species is much more likely on N&E&R than on N&E&-R. So let’s suppose that hypothetical species we’ve been thinking about has in fact survived for a very long time. Does that give us good reason to think its members have reliable cognitive faculties? That depends on how broadly we conceive ‘cognitive faculty.’ We might limit the term to belief-producing processes; then if our cognitive faculties are reliable, most of our beliefs will be true. On the other hand, we might use the term more broadly, as indeed is often done, in such a way that, for example, the frog who tracks and captures flies has cognitive faculties, whether or not it has beliefs. What the frog clearly does have are “indicators,” neural structures that receive input from the frog’s sense organs, are correlated with the path of the insect as it flies past, and are connected with the frogs muscles in such a way that it is able to flick out its tongue and capture that unfortunate fly.

But of course indication of this sort does not require belief. In particular, it does not require belief in the obtaining of the state of affairs indicated; indeed it is entirely compatible with belief inconsistent with that state of affairs. Fleeing predators, finding food and mates–these things require cognitive devices that in some way track crucial features of the environment, and are appropriately connected with muscles; but they do not require true belief, or even belief at all. The long term survival of organisms of a certain species certainly makes it likely that its members enjoy cognitive devices that are successful in tracking those features of the environment–indicators, as I’ve been calling them. Indicators, however, need not be or involve beliefs. In the human body there are indicators for blood pressure, saline content, temperature, insulin level, and much else; in these cases neither the blood, nor its owner, nor anyone else in the neighborhood ordinarily holds beliefs on the topic.

The fact that a population of animals has survived is evidence for its having indicators of this sort, cognitive features that vary with the environment and enable the creatures in question to respond appropriately to their environment. It doesn’t follow, as I say, that these creatures have mostly true beliefs, or even beliefs at all. But suppose we are thinking about that hypothetical population of creatures like us; of course they do have beliefs. Given that they have beliefs, does their survival make it likely (relative to N&E) that these beliefs are mostly true? Does their survival make it likely that their belief-producing processes are reliable? Draper argues that false belief would lead to maladaptive behavior. Why does he think that? Consider Draper in the bathtub with that alligator–or rather, consider some member m of that hypothetical population in a bathtub with an alligator. Suppose m holds false beliefs, believing at the time in question that the alligator is a mermaid, or even that he’s sitting under a tree eating mangoes. Will that adversely affect his fitness? Not just by itself. Not if m has indicators and other neural structures that send the right messages to his muscles, messages that cause his muscles to contract in such a way as to bring it about that he hops out of that tub. It’s having the right neurophysiology and the right muscular activity that counts. We are supposing that belief content supervenes on neurophysiology; as I argued above, however, we have no reason to think that if the neurophysiology is adaptive, the belief content will consist in true propositions. If belief content supervenes on neurophysiology, there will be causal laws connecting NP properties with belief content; but why suppose these laws are such that if the NP properties are adaptive, the belief content, those propositions, will be true? It doesn’t matter whether the propositions believed, the content of the belief, are true or false; it doesn’t matter whether the causal laws that connect neurophysiology with belief content and behavior associate true content with adaptive action, or false content with such action.

If so, however, false belief doesn’t make maladaptive behavior likely, even if the beliefs cause the behavior, and do so by virtue of their content. So think again about m, that Draper counterpart in the tub with an alligator. Suppose m has a certain belief B. B has NP properties that cause him (it) to leap out of the tub, thus frustrating the alligator. B also has NP properties on which its content supervenes. B causes the behavior it does by virtue of that content: if it hadn’t had that content, it would not have caused that behavior. But the content needn’t be true; and indeed there is no reason to think it would be true. If it is false content that gets associated by the causal laws with those NP properties, then false content will cause the adaptive behavior; and there is no more reason to think the causal laws will associate true content with those properties, than false content. Hence the probability of maladaptive behavior, given false content, will be no greater than the probability of adaptive behavior. That means, contra Draper, that the long term survival of this hypothetical species is not much more probable on their having reliable belief-producing processes than on their having processes that produce mostly false belief.

Why does Draper think or assume that those causal laws would be such as to associate mostly true content with adaptive NP properties? Given theism, of course, that is what we would expect: according to theism God has created human beings in his image, an important part of which involves our being able to have knowledge. But given naturalism, it seems just as likely that the causal laws in question would associate false content with adaptive action. Still more likely, perhaps: truth or falsehood is just irrelevant; sometimes true content gets associated, but just as often false content does.

So why does Draper believe or assume that those causal laws would be such as to associate mostly true content with adaptive NP properties and behavior? Why does he assume that if N&E were true, the relevant causal laws would associate true belief with adaptive neurophysiology and behavior? So that if a population has survived, it is likely that it displays adaptive neurophysiology and behavior, and hence also likely that its beliefs, if it has some, are mostly true and its belief-producing processes reliable? If the cognitive faculties of these creatures were in fact reliable, this would be a sensible assumption. But of course in the present context, in the context of EAAN, we can’t sensibly assume that our cognitive faculties are reliable. To do so would be to argue, not that P(R/N&E) is high, but that P(R/N&E&R) is high. Indeed it is, but it has no bearing whatever on the question whether (1*) is true.

I therefore conclude that Draper has failed to show any problem with EAAN.

Notes

[1] If, as he says, he thinks P(R/N&E) is inscrutable, he shouldn’t also claim that (1*) is false; what he should say, perhaps, is that there is no reason at all to believe it.

[2] To accommodate the thought that “meaning ain’t in the head” we should add that content properties may depend, causally, upon environmental properties as well as NP properties. I’ll assume but not mention this qualification in what follows.

[3] Famous for having its neural circuitry completely mapped.

[4] The property itself, naturally enough, doesn’t cause anything; the relevant cause will be the structure that has the property. Following current practice I will ignore this distinction in what follows.


Introduction to Section Three: Science and the Cosmos (2008)

Paul Draper

Sometimes philosophers defend conventional wisdom, but it’s always more fun when they challenge it; and that’s exactly what both of the interlocutors do in our third debate. Consider the following two examples of conventional wisdom about religion. (1) According to conventional (proreligious) wisdom, if there is no God, then the existence of the universe is just a big accident. Many philosophers of religion (including both theists and naturalists) agree, though they would put the point a little differently. They would say that, if naturalism is true, then the existence of the natural world (whether it is a universe or a multiverse) is a “brute fact”–that is, a fact that has no explanation. (2) According to conventional (antireligious) wisdom, the design argument for God’s existence died when Charles Darwin published Origin of Species. Again, many philosophers of religion (including both naturalists and theists) agree, though some would claim that the argument was already on its deathbed in 1779 when David Hume’s Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion was published. Quentin Smith challenges the first of these philosophical sacred cows, and Robin Collins challenges the second.

Smith challenges the view that naturalism leaves nature unexplained by arguing that the universe explains itself. To be more precise, he argues that the parts of the universe and the causal relations between them provide a complete explanation of the existence of the universe, an explanation that leaves no room for chance or for supernatural design. His argument depends on showing that, even if the Big Bang Theory is true and the universe is finitely old, there was no first instant of time, no t0 at which the Big Bang took place. Instead, no matter how close a real instant of time t1 is to the imaginary t0, there will be another instant of time (e.g., t½), indeed infinitely many instants of time t½, t¼, t⅛, etc.), that are even closer. Thus, there is no earliest instant of time, and thus no instant of time at which the state of the universe at that time can’t be explained by earlier states of the universe, which means that every state of the universe can be causally explained without appealing to causes “outside” of the universe. Smith adds that the existence of the universe as a whole is entailed by, and so is logically explained by, the existence of the infinitely many states that compose it. Thus, since all the states of the universe are explained by earlier states and the universe as a whole is explained by the existence of the states that compose it, it follows that the universe explains itself and that this explanation is complete. And since this explanation is complete, no logical space remains for a God or for any other external cause of the universe, and this implies that theism is false.

In Collins’ opening case, he offers three design arguments in support of theism. Not one of these arguments appeals to the sort of biological order that evolutionary biology can explain. Indeed, Collins’ main argument is based on data that wasn’t discovered until long after Darwin’s death and that was discovered, not by biologists, but by physicists. Specifically, scientists learned in the twentieth century that our universe is “fine-tuned” for life. In other words, life or intelligent life depends for its existence on the fact that a number of physical parameters of the universe have (numerical) values that fall within a range of life-permitting values that is very narrow. (This range is “very narrow, not in some absolute sense, but in the relative sense that the range is very small when compared to the range of values that are compatible with current physical theory). Collins maintains that, given this fine-tuning, the existence of life is much more surprising given naturalism than it is given theism. Whether or not he’s right about that, it is clear thatDarwin’s theory is not directly relevant to this sort of design argument, and it’s hard to see how that theory could be adapted so as to make it relevant.[1] So, like Smith, Collins threatens to undermine conventional wisdom about religion. And speaking of challenging popular views, another reason Collins’ opening case is so interesting is that, if any of his three arguments succeed, then many scientists and most of the media will need to rethink their views on the relationship of science to religion. No longer will it be possible to hold that religion and science are so isolated from each other that neither could ever confirm or disconfirm the other.

Notes

[1] Perhaps, however, it is not impossible to use Darwinian resources here, as I explain in “Where Does Teleological Thinking Stand Today? A Reinterpretation of Michael Ruse’s Darwin and Design, Florida Philosophical Review 4(1): 5-11 (Summer 2004), <http://www.cah.ucf.edu/philosophy/fpr/journals/volume4/issue1/draper7.pdf&gt;


A Cosmological Argument for a Self-Caused Universe (2008)

Quentin Smith

Introduction: The Meaning of “The Universe Causes Itself”

I intend to argue for the conclusion that the universe, be it infinitely old or finitely old, causes itself. One might object that no such argument could possibly succeed, because the claim that “the universe causes itself” is incoherent. I agree that this claim is incoherent if it is understood to mean that one individual, the universe, causes that same individual to come into existence. No individual can bring about its own existence, because no individual can bring about anything unless it (already) exists. What I mean by “self-caused” in this paper is that there is a certain type of whole of parts, namely, a temporal and causal sequence of different individuals, with each individual being caused by earlier individuals in the sequence. What I mean by “the universe is self-caused” is that (a) the universe is a whole of parts, specifically, a sequence of states of the universe, with each part or state being an individual; (b) the existence of each part (state) of the universe is caused by earlier parts of the universe; and (c) the reason the universe as a whole exists is either because it is composed of or is identical with these successively caused parts.

A clear representation of these two senses of “self-caused” can be made if we use the letters x, y and z. If an individual x caused itself, this would be expressed by “x causes x.” I reject the formulation, x causes x, and explain “self-cause” in a way that applies only to a sequentially extended whole of parts. The universe is a sequence of states and “the universe is self-caused” means that there are successive states of the universe x, y, z, etc., with x causing y, and y causing the later state z. The arrow means causes; x → y means that x causes y to exist. The brackets { } denote the sequence as a whole and x, y, z are successive parts of this sequence. Accordingly, if the universe sequentially causes itself to exist, this is expressed by

{. . . x → y → z . . .}

But we cannot stop here in explaining the meaning of “the universe is self-caused”; this paper’s argument that the universe is self-caused is also an explanation of what “the universe is self-caused” means, and this is a progressive task.

This paper is divided into three main parts followed by an appendix. In Part One, I defend what I call the entailment argument for a universe that is self-caused in the sense just explained. Roughly, this argument claims that each part of the universe is sufficiently caused by earlier parts and the existence of the universe as a whole is entailed by the existence of all of the parts that compose this whole. The obtaining of this entailment relation between the causally explained parts and the universe they compose is the sufficient reason why the universe exists. If I am right about this, then the traditional ways of thinking about the cosmological argument for God’s existence, both pro and con, are false. Defenders of the cosmological argument, going back at least as far as Leibniz and Clarke, have thought that, while the state of the universe at a time is caused by earlier states of the universe, the whole universe composed of all of its states is caused by God. Critics of the cosmological argument have claimed instead that the existence of the whole universe has no cause or explanation–its existence is just a brute fact. According to the entailment argument, both of these positions are mistaken. The universe has an explanation, but that explanation is not God or anything else distinct from the universe and its states.

In Part Two, I show that this entailment argument is consistent with a finitely old universe, and in particular with the most widely accepted cosmological theory of the universe, the Big Bang theory. In Part Three, I defend my position that the entailment argument is itself a complete explanation of the universe. Finally, in an appendix to this paper, I develop an alternative argument for a self-caused universe, one that does not assume that there is a universe distinct from all of its states. This argument is called the abbreviation argument since it assumes that the term “the universe” is used merely as an abbreviation of “all the states that exist” or other plural phrases that refer to all the states. There is no individual that is distinct from all the states and that is composed of all the states; the whole of all the states is identical with all the states, and its existence is either uncaused, or caused by God, or entailed by the existence of the states. In the abbreviation argument, the universe is “self-caused” because it is not distinct from all the states that exist and each state that exists is causally explained by earlier states. The motivation for this additional argument may be obscure to those without a background in philosophy, which is why I have placed the argument in an appendix. If the reader is not concerned about whether the universe exists as an individual distinct from all of its parts, then there is no need to read this appendix.

Part One: The Entailment Argument for a Self-Caused Universe

This argument supposes that the universe is a whole, an individual existent, that is different from all the parts of the whole. We are using “U” as the name of this whole. It is an “entailment” argument in the sense that the explanation of why the universe U exists is that its existence is entailed by the existence of its parts, each of which is causally explained in terms of earlier parts.

U, the whole of all the parts, is not causally explained by all the parts, since its parts do not cause it to exist. Rather, each part of U is caused to exist by earlier parts of U, and the causally explained existence of all the parts of the whole U logically require or entail the existence of the whole U, and in this sense the existence of the whole U is logically explained by the causally explained existence of its parts. It is a logical truth that if the parts of the whole U are caused to exist, then the whole U also exists. Once the existence of each of the parts is causally explained, the existence of the whole is logically explained, since it is a logical consequence of the existence of the parts of the whole that the whole exists.

It is either senseless or logically self-contradictory to suppose that, even if all the parts of the whole have a causal explanation of their existence, there still needs to be (or even can be) a causal explanation of the existence of their whole. There cannot be an external or divine cause of the whole, since a cause is logically “too late” in the following sense. It is logically necessary that if there exist parts of a whole, the whole exists. Each part of the whole has a sufficient cause of its existence in earlier parts. Accordingly, the existence of each part has a causal explanation and the existence of the whole has a logical explanation. Regardless of whether or not some (purported) external causal act is directed upon the whole, the whole exists because it is logically required to exist by the existence of its parts. Since this (alleged) external causal relation or causal act has no affect whatsoever on the logically necessitated existence of the whole, it is ineffective and so is not a “causal relation” in any intelligible sense of this phrase. This is stated more clearly if we say there is no such purported causal relation; there is no external cause or divine cause of the universe.

Part Two: A Universe that Causes Itself to Begin to Exist

The most widely accepted cosmological theory of the universe since the late 1960s is not the “oscillating universe” version that implies that there are infinitely many past cycles of expansion and contraction. Rather, it is the version that implies that the universe began to exist 15 billion years ago in a Big Bang singularity. To say that its beginning is a “singularity” means that the universe begins to exist but there is no first instant t=0 at which it begins. The cosmic singularity is a hypothetical time t=0 at which all the laws of nature, space and time break down. It is hypothetical or merely imaginary because if it did exist, it would be a physically impossible state, due to the breakdown of all laws, even the laws required for time to exist. This breakdown at the hypothetical t=0 implies there is no first instant t=0 of the finitely old time-series and that each instant is preceded by earlier instants. An instant is a time that is instantaneous or has zero duration. An interval is a time that is temporally extended and has a duration of a certain length, such as one hour or one minute.

Since there is a Big Bang singularity, the first interval of each length is “past-open,” which means that there is no instant t that is the first instant of each earliest interval of any length, be the interval an hour, minute or second, etc. Before any instant in an earliest hour, minute, second, etc., there is an infinite number of other instants. Formulated in terms of instantaneous states of the universe, this means that before each instantaneous state of the universe, there are other instantaneous states, and each instantaneous state of the universe is caused by earlier instantaneous states. Accordingly, the universe causes or explains itself in the sense that, even though it began a finite number of years ago, say 15 billion years, each instantaneous state in any earliest interval is caused to exist and hence explained by earlier instantaneous states. In terms of the entailment argument for a self-caused universe, this means that the states are parts of a whole, the individual U, and U causes itself in the sense that (a) each instantaneous part S of the whole U is sufficiently caused by earlier instantaneous parts of U; (b) U is finitely old in the sense that there are no instantaneous parts of the whole that exist earlier than some finite number of equal-length, nonoverlapping intervals; and (c) the existence of all these parts of the whole U entails the existence of the whole U.[1]

Some philosophers have argued that if the first instant of the first hour after the Big Bang can be “deleted” (i.e., regarded as a nonexistent), then the first instant of any hour can be deleted. This would allow one to say that any hour or hour-long process has no external cause, since each of its instantaneous states is caused by earlier instantaneous states that are internal to the hour-long process. They say a cannon ball’s flying through the air could then be “causally explained” without referring to the relevant external event, the explosion of the gun powder in the cannon, by saying that each instantaneous state of the ball’s movement is caused by earlier instantaneous states of its movement, implying that the external event, the gun powder explosion, is not the cause of the ball’s movement. Their mistake is failing to realize that the first hour after the Big Bang lacks a first instant because of a unique circumstance, that there is a cosmic singularity. There is no cosmic singularity at the present hour or at the various hours they mention and Big Bang cosmology implies these hours or hour-long processes must have a first instant. The first instantaneous state of the cannon’s ball movement is externally caused by the explosion of the gunpowder.[2]

Part Three: Complete Explanations

Not every argument is an explanation, but some arguments are explanations and my entailment argument is a causal explanation of the universe’s existence. The universe and its parts are contingent in the sense that they might not have existed. Since the existence of each state is caused by an earlier state, and since the existence of all these states entails the universe’s existence, there is an explanation for each of these contingent beings.

Some philosophers, like Jordan Howard Sobel, maintain that, “if anything is contingent, then it is not possible that, for every fact or entity, x, there is a reason of some sort or other for x” (Sobel, 2004, p. 222). I disagree. I believe that something is contingent, but I also believe that every fact or entity x has a reason. If x is a part of the universe, it has a reason in earlier parts; if x is the universe, it has a reason for its existence in the existence of its parts. We shall shortly discuss some contingent facts or entities that some allege cannot be explained.

The entailment explanation of the universe’s existence invalidates Sobel’s argument that a complete explanation of the universe’s existence requires that the premises all be necessary truths and that the conclusion thereby be a necessary truth. The entailment cosmological argument for a self-caused universe, for example, is a complete explanation of the universe’s existence and its premises are the contingent truths that each state S contingently exists, that S’s existence is sufficiently causally explained by earlier states, and that the existence of the whole universe, U, is explained by virtue of being logically necessitated by the existence of its parts, the states. This can be formulated as an argument with premises and a conclusion, such that the conclusion logically derived from these premises is the contingent truth that the universe exists. Accordingly, a complete explanation of the universe’s existence does not require that the premises all be necessary truths and that the conclusion be a necessary truth.

William Rowe says that a dependent being is a being whose sufficient reason for existence lies in the causal activity of other beings. He writes that “if every being were dependent, it does seem that there would be a contingent fact without any explanation–the fact that there are dependent beings” (Rowe, 1998, p. xiii). I would ask, if every being were dependent, why would it then seem that the contingent fact that there are dependent beings has no explanation? How could one logically proceed from the premise that every being is dependent to the conclusion that there is no explanation for the fact that there are dependent beings? Rowe holds that “the sufficient reason for a fact is another fact that entails it” (Rowe, 1998, p. xvii). But it seems clear there are many facts that entail the fact that there are dependent beings. For example, the fact that there is a state of the universe S2 entails the fact that there are dependent beings; S2 is a dependent being since S2’s “sufficient reason lies in the causal activity of other beings.” If we interpret Rowe’s sentence as meaning that a sufficient reason for a fact is an explanation for the fact, then the fact that S2 exists is an explanation of the fact that there are dependent beings.

But Rowe can be more charitably interpreted as meaning that the sufficient reason for a fact is another fact that entails it, but not every sufficient reason for a fact also explains that fact. If we adopt this interpretation, there is some further feature F that a sufficient reason must possess in order for the sufficient reason to explain the fact that it entails. But Rowe does not indicate what F is; furthermore, it is not obvious that what I called “the charitable interpretation” is what Rowe had in mind by his statement. He might be read as saying that sufficient reasons are explanations, but that some of these explanations are circular or viciously circular (and perhaps some are noncircular). Rowe offers another example of something that he believes cannot be explained. He says that the fact

t: there being positive contingent states of affairs

cannot have a sufficient reason for obtaining. However, it seems clear that this fact does have a sufficient reason for obtaining. There obtains the positive contingent state of affairs, there being an occurrence of the state of the universe S2, and this entails the fact t: there being positive contingent states of affairs. Rowe would say of a proposed explanation of this type that “such a proposed explanation is circular” (Rowe, 1998, p. xvi). But what does “circular” mean here? Rowe does not explain what he means by this word and it is hard to see why or how “circular” could mean something different than the positive theoretical virtue of being a valid argument. The premise entails the conclusion. If “circular” means that the premise entails the conclusion, then circularity is a necessary property of any deductively valid argument. However, I do not think that “circular” as this word is used in works on the logic of explanations means this; rather, it means that the conclusion of the argument not only is entailed by the premise, but also entails the premise. For example, S1’s being earlier than S2 entails that S2 is later than S1. But S2’s being later than S1 also entails that S1 is earlier than S2. Thus, to use one of these facts to explain the other is circular. By contrast, S2’s occurrence entails the fact that there are positive contingent states, but the fact that there are positive contingent states does not entail S2’s occurrence. Therefore, to use S2’s occurrence to explain the fact that there are positive contingent states of affairs is not circular (unless of course one insists on calling any valid argument circular, in which case it is not “viciously circular”).

But Rowe could be read as meaning that an explanation is circular if what is explained is a general fact and the explanation is a particular fact involving a being of the kind that the general fact is about. It is alleged that a general fact such as there are contingent things cannot be noncircularly explained by a particular fact about contingent things. But no justification is offered for believing this sort of explanation is “circular” in a sense of this word that implies that the explanation is defective or not very good or is in some way not satisfactory. Consider this example: Why do any red things exist? Why are there red things? Why is this general fact not explained by the particular fact that a green apple exists and that a causal process involving internal changes in the apple eventually produced a certain change of state in the apple resulting in the apple losing its green color and acquiring a red color. When the apple’s red state has been caused to exist, there exists something that is red, namely, the red apple. This is a causal explanation of why there exists at least one red thing. If this is a “circular explanation” in some bad sense of “circular,” then all causal scientific explanations (or almost all of them) are “circular” in a bad sense and a good or noncircular causal explanation is impossible.

The fact that the contingent being S2 is caused to exist by earlier contingent beings, each of which is also caused to exist by earlier contingent beings, explains why it is true that there is at least one contingent being. Nonetheless, the feeling still remains that something along the lines of what Rowe has in mind is true and that, whatever this is, it shows that my argument that the universe is self-caused is unsound, or else it shows that this explanation of the existence of the universe is not complete or is unsatisfactory in some respect. But what could this be? What seem to be worrisome are such questions as these: Why do these parts or states exist rather than other parts or states, or no states at all? Why does this whole exist rather than some other whole? Why does any contingent being at all exist?

Our questions can be phrased in terms of the metaphysics of possibilities. A “possible world” is a complete way things might have been. Why are these possibilities actual, rather than some other possibilities? Why, for example, is it true that our universe exists but false that there exists a universe that lasts for only one minute before ceasing to exist, and that never becomes larger than the size of the head of a pin? Regarding the false statement, the reason this is false is that nothing caused there to exist a universe of this small size and brief duration. Rather, the sequences of causes and effects has resulted (at present) in the existence of a universe that has lasted for at least 15 billion years and that is infinite in size or (talking only about the observable universe) has a radius of 13 billion light years, where one light year is 6 trillion miles. In other words, there is a concrete sequence of causes and effects that made actual the possibility mentioned, namely, that there is a universe at least 15 billion years old and at least 13 billion light years in radius, and there is no concrete sequence of causes and effects that actualized the possibility of a pinhead-sized universe that lasts for only a minute. This is why it is true that our universe exists but false that the other universe exists.[3]

Appendix: The Abbreviation Argument for a Self-Caused Universe

If we adopt the theory that there is no individual U, no universe that is a whole that is a distinct existent from all of its parts, then the reason for the universe’s existence cannot be that U’s existence is entailed by the existence of U’s parts. There are no parts and there is no whole in the sense of “parts” and “whole” that I used in the entailment argument. Consequently, either there is a different sort of sufficient reason for the universe’s existence or else there is no reason at all.

Hume and others were mistaken when they said that once each part of any whole is explained, the whole is explained. But whether or not Hume was mistaken is irrelevant to the abbreviation argument for a self-caused universe, since this argument implies that the universe is not the whole U and that there are not parts of the whole U. There is no individual, the universe U, which is a distinct existent from all of the parts of this individual. Rather, “U” or “the universe” does not refer to an individual, but is used as an abbreviation of “all the states” or “S1 and S2 and S3, and all the other states” or “S1, S2, S3, etc.”

Each state includes the maximal three dimensional space that exists at a time t, and includes all the other contingent concrete beings that exist at the time t, such as galaxies and organisms as they are at the time t. The sentence “S is a part of the universe” is stipulated (in the abbreviation argument) to have the sense expressed by “S is one of all the states.”

The states have various ordering relations among themselves. For example, each instantaneously existing three-dimensional space, each different maximal 3D space at each different time t, has a wider radius than all earlier 3D spaces, which is one way of suggesting a cosmological theory that space (or space-time) has been expanding since the Big Bang 15 billion years ago. Accordingly, we can have a consistent theory if we adopt the convention or stipulation that “the universe” does not refer to a distinct, individual existent, but is instead an abbreviation of “all the cosmological states.” If the existence of each state has a sufficient reason by virtue of being caused by earlier states, then each state has a sufficient, causal, explanation for its existence and there is no state that is either uncaused or that has an external or divine cause of its existence.

I have adopted the convention that “the universe” is an abbreviation of such plural expressions as “S1 and S2 and S3 and so on.” There is no logical or empirical contradiction or problem that results from adopting this convention and one could argue by Occam’s razor (which tells us not to postulate any more individuals than is necessary) that since there is no need to postulate an individual whole U, we should not posit an individual U and instead stipulate that “U” is an abbreviation of “all the states.”

Both basic and nonbasic laws of nature are dispositional properties possessed by each state and in some cases they are actualized in the form of an occurrent property or relation. For example, the law of evolution is a dispositional property of states and it was not actualized or occurrently realized until life began to exist, perhaps 4.5 billion years ago on the earth. Since these are dispositional properties of a state S, the cause of S is ipso facto the cause of the possession by S of all its dispositional properties. Since each state is caused to exist by other states, so each law, including the basic laws of nature, is caused to exist as a dispositional property of each state. These laws of nature include all the causal laws, which are causal dispositions of a state, many of which are occurrently realized. Each state has sufficiently many occurrent actualizations of causal dispositions to cause a later state to exist. Here “cause” means total cause; a state S1 causes S2 in the sense that sufficiently many causal dispositions are occurrently realized for S3 to be caused, and all of these occurrent causal relations make up the “total cause” of S3; this total cause of S3 is what I have been calling the “cause” of S3. For example, state S1 at t1 causes the state S2, which exists at t2, to actualize its disposition to cause the state S3, which exists at the later time t3.

There are no particulars, initial conditions or basic laws of nature that are causally unexplained. To say that a universe is self-caused is not only to say that each of its initial or boundary conditions or particulars are caused to exist (by earlier states), but also that all of its laws of nature are caused to exist and obtain (by earlier states).[4]

References

Clarke, Samuel (1738). A Discourse Concerning the Being and Attributes of God, 9th ed.London: Knapton Publishers.

Gale, Richard (1991). On the Existence and Nature of God.Cambridge:CambridgeUniversity Press.

Hume, David (1779). Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion.

Leibniz, Gottfried. (1934). “On the Ultimate Origination of Things” in The Philosophical Writings of Leibniz, trans. by M. Morris.London: J. M. Dent and Sons (Everyman Library), pp. 31ff.

Rowe, William (1998). The Cosmological Argument. Fordham:FordhamUniversity Press.

Rowe, William (1997). “Circular Explanations, Cosmological Arguments, and Sufficient Reasons.” Midwest Studies in Philosophy 21: 188-201.

Smith, Quentin (1999). “The Reason the Universe Exists is that it Causes Itself to Exist.” Philosophy 74: 136-146.

Sobel, JordanHoward (2004). Logic and Theism.Cambridge:CambridgeUniversity Press.

Notes

[1] In terms of the Abbreviation Argument for a self-caused universe, this means the universe causes itself to begin to exist in the sense that (a) each instantaneous state S is sufficiently caused by earlier states and (b) there are no instantaneous states that exist earlier than some finite number of equal-length, nonoverlapping intervals. For example, all of the states are such that each state is caused by earlier instantaneous states but no state exists earlier than 15 billion years ago.

[2] If one does not want to talk about a current scientific theory of the universe, but about mere logical possibilities, one can correctly say that it is logically possible for a universe to begin to exist with a first instantaneous state. But it is false to say that there are only two possibilities, that this state is either uncaused or caused by God (or some sort of cause external to the universe). There are instantaneous causal relations (as is shown to be the case in the actual universe by the Bell-Aspect experiments) and a self-caused universe of this sort causes itself to begin to exist in the sense that the different spatial parts of the first instantaneous state of the universe are each sufficiently caused to exist by other spatial parts of this first state. I have argued this elsewhere (Smith, 1999), but the length of the argument prevents it from being restated here.

[3] Why is the possibility that there is some contingent concrete being an actualized possibility? Why was not the possibility that there are no contingent concrete beings actualized instead? The answer is that the first possibility was caused to be actualized, leaving the second possibility unactualized. For example, the cause of the present state of the universe, the cause consisting of the various causal processes in the previous states of the universe, caused there to be a contingent concrete being, namely, the present state of the universe. Since the present state of the universe is some contingent concrete being, the explanation of why this contingent concrete being exists explains why “there is some contingent concrete being” and why “there are any contingent concrete beings at all.” Suppose the possible world P is the actual world. Why is the possible world P actual rather than some other possible world Q? I will follow Adams, Pollock and others and adopt as my possible world metaphysical semantics the thesis that a possible world is a maximal proposition p, such that the actual world is a conjunction p of all and only the true propositions. For every proposition p’, p includes p’ as one of its conjuncts or it includes the negation of p’ as one of its conjuncts. The actual world P is (identically) the actually true proposition p. Why is P actual rather than some other world, or, asking this same question but using different terminology, why is the maximal proposition p true, rather than some other maximal proposition q? Consider all the propositions that assert that some state S of the universe exists, such that each of these propositions is a long, conjunctive proposition that describes all the physical and mental events, relations, parts or properties of the state S. The proposition r asserts that the state S3 exists. Why does S3 exist? Because it was caused to exist by earlier states, states mentioned in some other conjunctive proposition t. The various conjuncts in the proposition t can be ordered as premises and inference relations. Their conclusion is that proposition r is true. The reason r is true, the reason the possibility r is actual, is because the explanatory theory or series of propositions that make up the conjunctive proposition r is true and this theory explains why t is true or why the possibility t is actual. One may take each conjunct in the actual world P and explain why it is true by some other conjunction in P. Why is the whole conjunction true? If the truth of each conjunct is explained, the truth of the entire conjunction is explained.

[4] I am grateful to Paul Draper for his significant help with this paper.


Objections to Smith’s Cosmological Argument (2008)

Robin Collins

 Summary of Smith’s Argument

In his opening case, Quentin Smith has presented an ingenious argument for the claim that the universe is self-caused, and hence its existence is self-explanatory. He then goes on to claim that the fact that the universe is self-caused, and hence self-explanatory, is inconsistent with theism. His main argument is based on the assumption that each temporal part of the universe has an explanation in terms of the temporal parts existing prior to it. The fundamental temporal parts that Smith uses are instantaneous universe states. Before going into Smith’s argument, we need to mention two technicalities that the impatient reader may skip.

The first technicality is that according to Albert Einstein’s theory of special relativity, one cannot speak of the instantaneous state of the whole universe in any absolute sense, since two spatially separated events can only be considered to occur at the same time relative to a specified inertial frame of reference. For example, consider two light bulbs that flash on for a trillionth of a second, one in theUnited Statesand one inChina. The flashing of each light bulb would be an event. If these two events were simultaneous relative to a stationary observer on the ground, they would not be simultaneous relative to an observer moving in an airplane. (The ground and the airplane each constitute an “inertial frame of reference,” according to the terminology of special relativity.) For the case of the universe, therefore, one must choose a particular frame of reference, and then define a set of instantaneous states with respect to that frame. If one does this, one can think of the universe as being sliced into a continuous series of instantaneous universe states (IUS)–called hypersurfaces of constant time in the literature–recognizing that the choice of the set of events that belong to those instantaneous states depends on the frame of reference one chooses to use in defining the hypersurfaces.

The second technicality involves the issue of the laws of nature being indeterministic, which is implied by the standard interpretation of quantum mechanics. This presents some difficulties for the way Smith presents his argument. If the laws of nature were deterministic, then any IUS at time t1 would completely explain an IUS at any later time t2 in the sense that the existence of the IUS at time t1 conjoined with the laws of nature would logically entail the IUS at time t2. If the universe is indeterministic, however, then in general the IUS at t1 plus the laws of nature would not entail the IUS at some later time t2. Further, it is doubtful that even all the IUS prior to time t2 plus the laws of nature would entail the IUS at t2. Thus, Smith’s assumption that each IUS is causally explained by the previous IUS is at best very doubtful. For the remainder of my response, however, I will ignore the problems that indeterminism might present and accept the way Smith sets up the argument.

The key principle that Smith invokes is the following, which we will call Smith’s Principle of Causal Explanation (PCE):

PCE: “Once the existence of each of the parts is causally explained, the existence of the whole [or aggregate] is logically explained, since it is a logical consequence of the existence of the parts of the whole that the whole [or aggregate of parts] exists.”

Applying this principle to the universe, the parts of the universe are the total set of IUS defined above. The sum total of all IUS logically entails the existence of the universe, whether the universe is considered to consist simply of the sum total of all the IUS or to consist of something over and above the sum of its parts. Thus, since any IUS has a complete causal explanation in terms of a previous IUS, by PCE the existence of the universe is logically explained.

To deal with the standard Big Bang cosmology in which the universe is only a finite number of years old, Smith makes the clever move of noting that in standard Big Bang cosmology, there is no first moment to the universe, even though the universe has a “beginning” in the sense that the universe only exists after some time t0 corresponding to the initial singularity, but does not exist at the singularity. So, for any IUS at time t, there will always be an IUS existing before t, but after the singularity, indeed an infinite number of them. For instance, there will always be an IUS existing halfway between t0 and t, for any time t, and of course another IUS halfway between this halfway point (i.e., ½t) and t0, ad infinitum. He can therefore apply PCE to the universe even though it has a “beginning.”

My Response to Smith

In response to Smith, I will first present a modification of the cannonball example that he considers in his opening case, where the instant containing the explosion is deleted. First, we need to introduce some terminology regarding temporal intervals. A closed interval is an interval that includes its endpoints, whereas an open interval does not include its endpoints; a half-open interval includes one of its endpoints but not the other. Thus, for example, if the gunpowder in the cannon started exploding at exactly 12:00pm, then the interval of time from 12:00pm to 12:02pm that includes both the time 12:00pm and the time 12:02pm would be a closed interval. On the other hand, the interval of time that consists of all times that are later than 12:00pm but earlier than 12:02pm (and hence contains neither the moment 12:00pm nor the moment 12:02pm) would be an open interval.

Now consider the example above in which the gunpowder explodes at 12:00pm and the cannonball hits the ground at 12:02pm. Further, consider the open interval 12:01pm to 12:02pm. Any instantaneous cannonball state in the open interval (12:01pm-12:02pm) is causally explained by the infinite set of prior instantaneous cannonball states plus environmental states within the same open interval. Thus, by PCE the entire aggregate of cannonball states in the open interval (12:01pm-12:02pm) is logically explained without reference to the exploding of the gunpowder, or even the states at or before 12:01pm. Consequently, the exploding gunpowder is not needed to explain any of the cannonball states in the open interval (12:01pm to 12:02pm).

Smith responds to a somewhat similar argument to mine involving a cannonball in his opening case. He says that

Their mistake is failing to realize that the first hour after the Big Bang lacks a first instant because of a unique circumstance, that there is a cosmic singularity. There is no cosmic singularity at the present hour or at the various hours they mention and Big Bang cosmology implies these hours or hour-long processes must have a first instant. The first instantaneous state of the cannon ball’s movement is externally caused by the explosion of the gunpowder. [Italics mine]

Whatever merits this response has to the cannonball argument Smith considers, it is irrelevant to the argument I present. My argument does not depend on the cannonball’s movement lacking a first instance. It only depends on there being an infinite temporally ordered continuum of cannonball states after 12:01pm; it assumes nothing about the existence of a first instant for the motion of the cannonball. In order for Smith’s argument to work, however, he must assume that the universe consists of such an infinite temporally ordered continuum of states; my assumption in the cannonball example, therefore, is just a specific instance of Smith’s overall assumption. If such a continuum exists, then it logically follows by the rules of mathematics that the open interval with an infinite number of cannonball states exists.

This implication of PCE means that either Smith must: (i) Deny PCE; (ii) Deny that the explosion caused the sequence of cannonball states; or (iii) Retain PCE, but claim that the explosion provides an additional explanation of the sequence of cannonball states. Presumably, Smith does not want to take either options (i) or (ii). If he takes option (iii), however, then the theist can claim that this is the sort of additional explanation that God provides for the existence of the universe. Further, insofar as the explosion is essential to providing a complete explanation of the cannonball states in the open interval (12:01pm-12:02pm), the theist could argue that God is essential to providing a complete explanation of our universe, even though the universe contains no beginning point.

I believe the above cannonball example shows the inadequacy of Smith’s overall argument. Locating the exact flaw is trickier, however. The problem is that we are dealing with an infinite sequence of causes, and often paradoxes arise when dealing with infinity. To illustrate one such paradox, consider the universe as consisting of a continuous sequence of instantaneous universe states (IUS), as Smith assumes in his argument. So conceived, between any instantaneous state U(0) and a later state U(1), there will be an intermediate state, U(½), that is halfway between them. In order for U(0) to cause U(1), it must first cause U(½). But, in order for U(0) to cause U(½), it must first cause U(¼), and in order for it to cause U(¼), it must first cause U(⅛), ad infinitum. Since this sequence is never completed, it is puzzling how in the case of contiguous causation one event ever causes another. Put differently, one can never locate the direct cause of U(1).[1] No state between U(0) and U(1) is the direct cause, since it always causes U(1) via some intermediary, which in turn always causes U(1) via another intermediary, ad infinitum. The worry here is that there is what philosophers call a vicious infinite regress in which one state never manages to cause another.

One fundamental philosophical worry with Smith’s explanation of the universe’s existence is that it is circular. PCE asserts that the existence of the whole is explained if each of the parts is explained. But the explanation of each of the parts of the universe is in turn explained by appealing to other parts of the universe. So, the whole is effectively explained by other parts of itself: the existence of the total set of parts (all the IUS) explains the whole, and each of the parts is causally explained by temporally prior parts of the whole. Another worry is an infinite regress problem. One part of the universe (an IUS) is explained by one or more previous parts, which in turn is explained by one or more previous parts, ad infinitum. Thus, the part of the universe one starts with is never fully explained, since the part doing the explaining always is further in need of an explanation. It is just this complete sort of explanation the theist is after. In any case, whether these are the correct diagnoses of the problem with Smith’s argument, I believe the cannonball case above shows that his overall argument cannot be correct.

Notes

[1] Contiguous causation is causation in which there are always intermediaries between cause and effect, which is the type of causation that Smith envisions since between any two instantaneous universe states there are always an infinite number of other instantaneous universe states.


The Case for Cosmic Design (2008)

Robin Collins

Theoretical physicist Paul Davies writes that, when looking at the overall structure of the universe, “the impression of design is overwhelming” (1988, p. 203). I agree. And the famous atheist philosopher, Antony Flew, has also come to agree, citing the appearance of cosmic design as the main reason for his conversion to belief in some sort of intelligent designer.[1] During the last one hundred years, physicists have discovered at least three features of the universe that point to a transcendent, intelligent designer:

(i) The so-called fine-tuning of laws, constants, and initial conditions of the universe for complex life of comparable intelligence to ourselves.

(ii) The extraordinary beauty and elegance of the laws and mathematical structure of the universe.

(iii) The intelligibility and discoverability of the basic structure of nature.

I will briefly look at each of these in turn, and then at why they count as significant evidence for design.

The Evidence

Fine-Tuning of Laws for Life

The fine-tuning for life refers to the fact that the laws of nature, the constants of physics, and the initial conditions of the universe are set just right for life to occur. To begin, consider the laws of nature. To say that the laws are fine-tuned means that if we did not have just the right combination of laws, complex intelligent life would probably be impossible. For example, according to current physics, there are four forces in nature–gravity, the weak force, electromagnetism, and the strong nuclear force that binds protons and neutrons together in an atom. The existence of each of at least three of these forces is necessary for complex life, and probably the fourth. If gravity did not exist, masses would not clump together to form stars or planets; if the electromagnetic force didn’t exist, there would be no chemistry; if the strong force didn’t exist, protons and neutrons could not bind together and hence no atoms with atomic number greater than hydrogen would exist. Other principles of physics also appear necessary for embodied observers. For example, as Princeton physicist Freeman Dyson has pointed out (1979, p. 251), if the Pauli exclusion principle did not exist–which is what keeps two electrons from occupying the same energy state in an atom–all electrons would occupy the lowest atomic energy state, and thus no complex atoms could exist. Thus, if any of these fundamental laws or principles were missing, the existence of complex, intelligent life would probably be rendered impossible.

Fine-Tuning of Constants

Next, consider the fine-tuning for life of the constants of physics. The constants of physics are fundamental numbers that when plugged into the laws of physics determine the basic structure of the universe. An example of a fundamental constant is Newton’s gravitational constant G, which determines the strength of gravity via Newton’s law F = Gm1m2/r2. Many of the fundamental constants must fall into a relatively narrow range in order for complex life to exist.

To illustrate this fine-tuning, consider gravity. Using a standard measure of force strengths–which turns out to be roughly the relative strength of the various forces between two protons in a nucleus–gravity is the weakest of the forces, and the strong nuclear force is the strongest, being a factor of 1040–or ten thousand billion, billion, billion, billion–times stronger than gravity. If we increased the strength of gravity a billion-fold, for instance, the force of gravity on a planet with the mass and size of the earth would be so great that organisms anywhere near the size of human beings, whether land-based or aquatic, would be crushed. (The strength of materials depends on the electromagnetic force via the fine-structure constant, which would not be affected by a change in gravity.) Even a much smaller planet of only 40 feet in diameter–which is not large enough to sustain organisms of our size–would have a gravitational pull of one thousand times that of earth, still too strong for organisms of our brain size, and hence level of intelligence, to exist. As astrophysicist Martin Rees notes, “In an imaginary strong gravity world, even insects would need thick legs to support them, and no animals could get much larger” (2000, p. 30). Of course, a billion-fold increase in the strength of gravity is a lot, but compared to the total range of the strengths of the forces in nature (which span a range of 1040 as we saw above), it is very small, being one part in ten thousand, billion, billion, billion. Indeed, other calculations show that stars with lifetimes of more than a billion years, as compared to our sun’s lifetime of ten billion years, could not exist if gravity were increased by more than a factor of 3000. This would have significant intelligent-life-inhibiting consequences (see Collins, 2003).

The most impressive case of fine-tuning for life is that of the cosmological constant. The cosmological constant is a term in Einstein’s equation of general relativity that, when positive, acts as a repulsive force, causing space to expand and, when negative, acts as an attractive force, causing space to contract. If it were too large, space would expand so rapidly that galaxies and stars could not form, and if too small, the universe would collapse before life could evolve. In today’s physics, it is taken to correspond to the energy density of empty space. The fine-tuning for life of the cosmological constant is estimated to be at least one part in 10^53, that is, one part in a one hundred million, billion, billion, billion, billion, billion. To get an idea of how precise this is, it would be like throwing a dart at the surface of the earth from outer space, and hitting a bull’s-eye one trillionth of a trillionth of an inch in diameter, less than the size of an atom! Nobel laureate Steven Weinberg, a critic of fine-tuning, himself admits that the fine-tuning of the cosmological constant is highly impressive (2001, p. 67; also, see Collins, 2003).

Further examples of the fine-tuning for life of the fundamental constants of physics can also be given, such as that of mass difference between the neutron and the proton. If, for example, the mass of the neutron were slightly increased by about one part in seven hundred, stable hydrogen burning stars would cease to exist (Leslie, 1989, pp. 39-40; Collins, 2003).

Other Types of Fine-Tuning for Life

Two other types of fine-tuning should be mentioned. One is that of the initial conditions of the universe, which refers to the fact that the initial distribution of mass-energy–as measured by entropy–must fall within an exceedingly narrow range for (intelligent) life to occur. According to Roger Penrose, one of Britain’s leading theoretical physicists, “In order to produce a universe resembling the one in which we live, the Creator would have to aim for an absurdly tiny volume of the phase space of possible universes” (Penrose, 1989, p. 343). How tiny is this volume? According to Penrose, if we let x =10^123, the volume of phase space would be about 1/10x of the entire volume. (p. 343). (Phase space is the space that physicists use to measure the various possible configurations of mass-energy of a system.) This precision is much, much greater than the precision that would be required to hit an individual proton given the entire visible universe were a dart board! Finally, in his book Nature’s Destiny, biochemist Michael Denton extensively discusses various higher-level features of the natural world, such as the many unique properties of carbon, oxygen, water, and the electromagnetic spectrum, that appear optimally adjusted for the existence of complex biochemical systems (1988, p. 300).

It should be pointed out that some physicists and scientists have been skeptical of some of the prominent cases of fine-tuning in the literature. As I have shown in detail elsewhere, in some cases this skepticism is warranted, but in other cases the arguments based in physics for the fine-tuning are solid (see Collins, 2003). Nonetheless, even if none of the cases of purported fine-tuning were well-established, the argument would still have significant force. As philosopher John Leslie has pointed out, “clues heaped upon clues can constitute weighty evidence despite doubts about each element in the pile” (1988, p. 300).

Summary of Fine-Tuning for Life Argument

These cases of fine-tuning presented above have often been cited as providing significant evidence that the cosmos is designed. The reason is that, because of the exceedingly special conditions required for the existence of life, it seems very improbable or surprising that the initial conditions, laws, and constants would be adjusted just right for highly complex life under what I call the naturalistic single-universe hypothesis, but not surprising under theism. Thus, the fine-tuning provides significant evidence for theism over the naturalistic single-universe hypothesis. (The naturalistic single-universe hypothesis is the hypothesis that there is only one universe and it exists as a brute, inexplicable fact.)

Beauty and Elegance of Laws

The beauty and elegance of the laws of nature also point to Divine design. Nobel Prize winning physicist Steven Weinberg, for instance, devotes a whole chapter of his book Dreams of a Final Theory to explaining how the criteria of beauty and elegance are commonly used with great success to guide physicists in formulating laws. As Weinberg points out, “mathematical structures that confessedly are developed by mathematicians because they seek a sort of beauty are often found later to be extraordinarily valuable by the physicist” (1992, p. 153). Later, Weinberg comments that “Physicists generally find the ability of mathematicians to anticipate the mathematics needed in the theories of physics quite uncanny” (1992, p. 157). Indeed, one of the most prominent theoretical physicists of this century, Paul Dirac, has gone so far as to claim, as Einstein did, that “it is more important to have beauty in one’s equations than to have them fit experiment” (1963, p. 47). The beauty, elegance, and ingenuity of mathematical equations make sense if the universe was purposefully designed like an artwork, but appear surprising and inexplicable under the nondesign hypothesis. Weinberg, who is a convinced atheist, even admits that “sometimes nature seems more beautiful than strictly necessary” (1992, p. 250).

Some have claimed that the beauty we see in nature is merely subjective, like seeing the Big Bear or Big Dipper in the random pattern of stars in the night sky. To say that the beauty of the mathematical structure of nature is merely subjective, however, completely fails to account for the amazing success of the criterion of beauty in producing predictively accurate theories, such as Einstein’s general theory of relativity. We would not expect merely subjective impressions to lead to highly successful theories.[2]

Intelligibility and Discoverability

Finally, the laws of Nature themselves seem to be carefully arranged so that they are intelligible, and in addition discoverable, by beings with our level of intelligence–like solving a clever puzzle. This has been stressed by many prominent physicists. Albert Einstein, for example, famously remarked that “the eternal mystery of the world is that it is comprehensible…. The fact that it is comprehensible is a miracle” (Quoted in Calaprice, 1996, p. 197). Similarly, in his famous essay, “The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics in the Physical Sciences,” Eugene Wigner, one of the principal founders of quantum mechanics, famously claimed that “The miracle of the appropriateness of the language of mathematics for the formulation of the laws of physics is a wonderful gift which we neither understand nor deserve” (1960, p. 14). As theoretical physicist Paul Davies notes,

a common reaction among physicists to remarkable discoveries of the sort discussed above is a mixture of delight at the subtlety and elegance of nature, and of stupefaction: ‘I would never have thought of doing it that way.’ If nature is so ‘clever’ that it can exploit mechanisms that amaze us with their ingenuity, is that not persuasive evidence for the existence of intelligent design behind the physical universe? (1984, pp. 235-36)

Further, Davies notes, “uncovering the laws of physics resembles completing a crossword in a number of ways…. In the case of the crossword, it would never occur to us to suppose that the words just happened to fall into a consistent interlocking pattern by accident….” (1984, pp. 235-36).

Work on articulating detailed examples of this intelligibility and discoverability has just begun in the last ten years. For example, Philosopher Mark Steiner’s recent book, The Applicability of Mathematics as a Philosophical Problem (1998), is devoted to this issue, where he concludes that the world is much more “user friendly” for the discovery of its fundamental mathematical structure than seems explicable under naturalism (1998, p. 176)[3].

Summary of Argument: Method of Inference

All these features of the laws of nature, let alone the fact that our best theories seem to require that the universe have a beginning, give the impression that the universe was created by some transcendent intelligence. The form of inference here can be thought of as what philosophers call a cumulative case argument in which many factors, such as the fine-tuning, the beauty, intelligibility, and discoverability of the laws of nature, all point in the same direction, and seem difficult to explain on any other hypothesis. In this sense, the above case is very similar to the sort of arguments offered for scientific theories, such as the theory of evolution by descent with modification. As evolutionary biologist and geneticist Edward Dodson summarizes the case for evolution, understood as the thesis of common ancestry:[4]

All [pieces of evidence] concur in suggesting evolution with varying degrees of cogency, but most can be explained on other bases, albeit with some damage to the law of parsimony. The strongest evidence for evolution is the concurrence of so many independent probabilities. That such different disciplines as biochemistry and comparative anatomy, genetics and biogeography should all point toward the same conclusion is very difficult to attribute to coincidence” (1984, p. 68).

The case for design as I have presented is of the same form and, I believe, as strong as that for evolution. The cumulative case form of our argument is particularly strong, since even if skeptics can explain away one type of evidence for design, they would still have to deal with the other types of evidences listed above.

At this point, one might want to inquire further as to why each feature mentioned above counts as evidence in favor of design. What rule of inference is being used? One rule of inference is that if a body of data E is inexplicable under one hypothesis H1, but makes sense under another hypothesis H2, then it counts as evidence in favor of H1 over H2. The fine-tuning of the universe for life, and the beauty, elegance, intelligibility, and discoverability of the laws of nature each seems inexplicable under naturalism (or in the case of the fine-tuning for life, the naturalistic single-universe hypothesis).[5] Theists, however, have traditionally held that God is the greatest possible being and hence is perfectly good and has a perfect aesthetic sense. Given these attributes of God, it makes sense that God would create a universe that is fine-tuned for the existence of embodied, conscious moral agents and that has an elegant underlying mathematical structure, since both the existence of conscious moral agents and beauty are positive goods, everything else being equal. Further, given that God is the ultimate cause of both the universe and the human mind, it makes sense that the universe would be intelligible to us. These features of our universe, therefore, make sense under theism, but are inexplicable under naturalism, and hence provide evidence for theism over naturalism.

This argument gains additional force when we note that these features are not only inexplicable under naturalism, but seemingly very improbable or surprising. This in turn leads to an additional way of articulating why these features count as evidence for theism over naturalism in terms of what is known as the likelihood principle, a principle that not only taps into much current work on the nature of scientific inference but, I believe, articulates why many find this cumulative case argument so powerful. Because of this, I will spend some time explaining this form of the argument, though I would stress that we could rest our case on the above rule of inference based on the inexplicability of these features of the universe under naturalism. The likelihood principle simply provides another somewhat independent means of securing and strengthening our claim that these features provide significant evidence for theism.

Elaboration of Likelihood Principle

According to the likelihood principle, an event or state of affairs E counts as evidence in favor of an hypothesis H1 over H2 if E is more probable under H1 than H2, with the degree of support proportional to the ratio of probabilities under the two respective hypotheses.[6] The likelihood principle shows why an ink splotch that looks like the face of Abraham Lincoln would support the idea that the splotch was designed, whereas a splotch of random looking ink marks would not. Although the exact details of both kinds of ink marks are highly improbable under the chance hypothesis, only in the former case are the ink marks not highly improbable under the design hypothesis.

One common objection to our likelihood account of why these features count as evidence, which is based on a misunderstanding, is that we are merely arguing from the purported improbability of the existence of one of the above features under naturalism (or the naturalistic single-universe hypothesis). Then the objection goes, very improbable events occur all the time. For example, the exact pattern of any ink splotch is very improbable–never to be repeated in the history of human beings–and yet most of them do not signal design. The premises of the likelihood version of the design argument, however, are not merely that the existence of certain features of the universe are improbable (or surprising) under naturalism or the naturalistic single-universe hypothesis, but that they are also not very improbable (or surprising) under theism. As we saw in above example of the Lincoln-like ink splotch, both of these conditions are necessary for one to claim that these features support theism over naturalism using the likelihood principle.[7]

It is critical to point out that the sort of probability used here is not statistical probability, since this would require that the universe be generated by some physical process that churns out life-permitting universes at some relative frequency, contrary to the assumption of typical forms of naturalism that claim the universe is simply a brute fact. Rather, the probability used here is what philosophers call epistemic probability, which can be thought of as a measure of rational degrees of expectation. For example, when scientists say that the theory of evolution is probably true, they are clearly not talking about statistical probability: they are not referring to some repeatable trial in which the theory turns out true with some relative frequency. Rather, they are saying something to the effect that given the total body of available evidence, a rational person should expect that the theory of evolution is true.

Put in terms of epistemic probability, the likelihood principle can be reworded in terms of degrees of expectation instead of probability, in which case it becomes what I call the expectation principle. According to the expectation principle, if an event or state of affairs E is more to be expected under one hypothesis H1 than another H2, it counts as evidence in favor of H1 over H2–that is, in favor of the hypothesis under which it has the highest expectation. The strength of the evidence is proportional to the relative degree to which it is more to be expected under H1 than H2. Rewording the likelihood principle in this way is particularly helpful for those trained in the sciences, who are not familiar with epistemic probability and therefore tend to confuse it with other kinds of probability, even when they are aware of the distinction. Given this rewording, the central premises of our argument become that the various features of the universe mentioned above are very surprising (unexpected) under naturalism (or the naturalistic single-universe hypothesis), but not under theism, and thus they provide evidence for theism over naturalism.

One might question this use of epistemic probability on the grounds that it is merely subjective. One response to this objection is that epistemic probability is used, and needed, for many widely accepted inferences in everyday life and science. For example, as the above quotation by Edward Dodson illustrates, the support for the thesis of common ancestry (evolution) is based the claim that a variety of features of the world–such as the structure of the tree of life–would not be improbable if evolution is true, but would be very improbable under the other viable nonevolutionary hypotheses, such as special creation. This improbability is not statistical improbability, nor can it be justified by an appeal to statistical improbability, since we have no statistics regarding the relative frequency of life on a planet having these features under either the evolutionary hypothesis or some nonevolutionary hypothesis. Neither do we have any model from which to derive those statistics. Thus, if it were a statistical probability, it would be completely unjustified. Rather, it should be understood as a form of epistemic probability–e.g., as claiming that various features of the world would be very unexpected under the various contender nonevolutionary hypotheses, but not under the evolutionary hypothesis. Further, since we have no statistical models on which to base our judgments of epistemic probability (especially for the nonevolutionary hypotheses), I contend that these judgments of epistemic probability are not rigorously justified. Rather, after (hopefully) doing the best job of looking at the evidence, scientists and laypersons make judgments of what kind of world we should expect under each hypothesis, and then they simply trust these judgments. This sort of trust in our judgments of epistemic probability–that is, what we should rationally expect under various hypotheses–is a pervasive and indispensable feature of our intellectual life.

This same kind of reasoning is what is going on in the likelihood rendition of our argument: we look at the various features of the universe mentioned above, and judge that they are very surprising under naturalism, but not under theism. Then, as in the case of evolution, after a careful analysis of the evidence, we trust our judgments of epistemic probability in deciding the strength of the evidence. What if someone does not share these judgments of epistemic probability? One can either appeal to how widely shared these judgments are by those who are relevantly informed, or one can attempt to provide a deeper justification of them. In this regard, it should be noted that the judgment that features of the universe such as beauty and discoverability are surprising under naturalism is widely shared by intelligent, informed individuals, as some of the scientists and philosophers cited above illustrate. I believe, however, that a more rigorous, deeper justification can be offered.[8] For example, in the case of the fine-tuning for life, I base the claim that an (intelligent) life-permitting universe is very surprising under the naturalistic single-universe hypothesis on the relative smallness of the range of the parameters of physics that allow for embodied, intelligent life, along with a revised version of the probabilistic principle of indifference. My point here, however, is that although such justification is nice to have, even if it were not offered, that should not undermine the claim that the above features provide evidence, via the likelihood principle, for theism over naturalism, just as it does not in the analogous scientific cases.

Of course, the skeptic might object that scientific theories are testable, whereas the theistic explanation is not. But why should testability be epistemically relevant? After all, testability is about being able to find evidence for or against a theory in the future. What matters for the likelihood of an hypothesis’s (approximate) truth, however, is the current evidence in its favor, not whether it is possible to find evidence for or against it in the future. Thus, I contend, the design argument is on as solid ground in terms of the method of inference being deployed as many arguments we accept in science. It is dishonest, therefore, to accept one sort of inference without rigorous justification, but reject the other merely because it purportedly lacks such justification.

Because these features of the universe offer a prima facie case for design–based both on the inexplicability under naturalism and on the likelihood principle–the burden is now on the skeptic to show what is wrong with the argument. To get a sense of the sort of objections commonly raised to the argument for design from the above features, along with the sort of responses that can be given, we will end by considering two major objections raised against the most discussed version of this argument, that from the fine-tuning of the cosmos for life.[9]

Objections to the Fine-Tuning for Life Argument

Grand Unified Theory Objection

One common objection is that, as far as we know, the values of the fundamental parameters will eventually be explained by some grand unified theory. Hence, it is argued, we do not need to invoke a designer to explain why these parameters have life-permitting values. As astrophysicists Bernard Carr and Martin Rees note, however, “even if all apparently anthropic coincidences could be explained [in terms of such a unified theory], it would still be remarkable that the relationships dictated by physical theory happened also to be those propitious for life” (1979, p. 612). For the theist, then, the development of a grand unified theory would not undercut the case for design, but would only serve to deepen our appreciation of the ingenuity of the creator. Instead of separately fine-tuning each individual parameter, in this view, the designer simply carefully chose those laws that would yield life-permitting values for each parameter.[10]

Many-Universes Objection

Another objection to considering fine-tuning for life as evidence for design is one that takes us almost into the realm of science fiction: the proposal that there are a very large number of universes, each with different values for the fundamental parameters of physics. If such multiple universes exist, it would be no surprise that the parameters in one of them would have just the right values for the existence of intelligent life, just as in the case where if enough lottery tickets were generated, it would be no surprise that one of them would turn out to be the winning number. Further, it is no surprise that we observe that our universe has these values, since they are necessary for our existence.

How did these universes come into existence? Typically, the answer is to postulate some kind of physical process, what I will call a “universe generator.” Against the naturalistic version of the universe-generator hypothesis, one could argue that the universe generator itself must be “well designed” to produce even one life-sustaining universe. After all, even a mundane item such as a bread-making machine, which only produces loaves of bread instead of universes, must be well-designed as an appliance and have just the right ingredients (flour, yeast, gluten, and so on) in just the right amounts to produce decent loaves of bread. Indeed, as I have shown in detail elsewhere,[11] if one carefully examines the most popular and most well-developed universe-generator hypothesis, that arising out of inflationary cosmology, one finds that it contains just the right fields and laws to generate life-permitting universes. Eliminate one of the fields or laws, and no life-sustaining universes would be produced. Finally, neither the universe-generator hypothesis nor even the hypothesis that all possible universes simply exist as a brute fact can explain the other design-indicating features of our universe mentioned above, such as why our universe has an elegant, intelligible, and discoverable underlying mathematical structure.

Despite these objections to the naturalistic version of the universe generator hypothesis, I am not objecting to the notion of many universes or even a universe generator. For the theist, the existence of a many universes would simply support the view that creation reflects the infinite creativity of the creator, who is so creative that he/she not only creates a reality with an enormous number of planets and galaxies, but also one with many universes. God could create these universes directly or by means of creating a universe generator.

Conclusion

Much work still remains to be done on the above argument from design to make it more rigorous. In the meantime, we can confidently say, many features of the fundamental structure of the universe strongly point to a transcendent intelligence behind the universe.

References

Calaprice, Alice, editor (1996). The Quotable Einstein.Princeton,NJ:PrincetonUniversity Press.

Carr, B. J., and Rees, M. J. (April, 1979). “The Anthropic Cosmological Principle and the Structure of the Physical World.” Nature, Vol. 278, 12 April 1979, pp. 605.

Collins, Robin (2002a). “God, Design, and Fine-Tuning,” in God Matters: Readings in the Philosophy of Religion, ed. Raymond Martin and Christopher Bernard.New York,NY: Longman Press.

Collins, Robin (2002b). “The Argument from Design and the Many-Worlds Hypothesis,” in Philosophy of Religion: A Reader and Guide, ed. William Lane Craig.New Brunswick,NJ:RutgersUniversity Press.

Collins, Robin (2003). “The Evidence for Fine-Tuning,” in God and Design: The Teleological Argument and Modern Science, ed. Neil Manson.New York,NY: Routledge.

Davies, Paul (1984). Superforce: The Search for a Grand Unified Theory of Nature.New York,NY: Simon and Schuster.

Davies, Paul (1988). The Cosmic Blueprint: New Discoveries in Nature’s Creative Ability to Order the Universe.New York,NY: Simon and Schuster.

Denton, Michael (1998). Nature’s Destiny: How the Laws of Biology Reveal Purpose in the Universe.New York,NY: The Free Press.

Dirac, P.A.M. (May, 1963). “The Evolution of the Physicist’s Picture of Nature,” Scientific American.

Dodson, Edward (1984). The Phenomena of Man Revisited: A Biological Viewpoint on Teilhard de Chardin.New York,NY:ColumbiaUniversity Press.

Dyson, Freeman (1979). Disturbing the Universe.New York,NY: Harper and Row.

Gonzalez, Guillemo and Richards, Jay (2001). The Privileged Planet: How our Place in the Cosmos is Designed for Discovery.Washington D. C.: Regnery Publishing, Inc.

Leslie, John (1988). “How to Draw Conclusions From a Fine-Tuned Cosmos,” in Physics, Philosophy and Theology: A Common Quest for Understanding, ed. Robert Russell et al.Vatican CityState:Vatican Observatory Press, pp. 297-312.

Leslie, John (1989). Universes.New York,NY: Routledge.

Penrose, Roger (1989). The Emperor’s New Mind: Concerning Computers, Minds, and the Laws of Physics.New York,NY:OxfordUniversity Press.

Rees, Martin. (2000). Just Six Numbers: The Deep Forces that Shape the Universe.New York,NY: Basic Books.

Steiner, Mark (1998). The Applicability of Mathematics as a Philosophical Problem.Cambridge,MA:HarvardUniversity Press.

Swinburne, Richard, editor (2002). Bayes’s Theorem (Proceedings of theBritishAcademy).Oxford:OxfordUniversity Press.

Weinberg, Steven (September/October 2001). “A Designer Universe?” Reprinted in Skeptical Inquirer. Originally published in the New York Review of Books, October 21, 1999.

Weinberg, Steven (1994). Dreams of a Final Theory.New York: Vintage Books.

Wigner, Eugene(1960). “The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics in the Natural Sciences,” Communications on Pure and Applied Mathematics 13: 1-14.

Zwiebach, Barton (2004). A First Course in String Theory.Cambridge,UK:CambridgeUniversity Press.

Notes

[1] See, for example, the interview of Flew in Philosophia Christi, available at <http://www.biola.edu/antonyflew/flew-interview.pdf&gt;

[2] For more on beauty in physics as evidence for design, see Collins, 2002b and my website, <www.fine-tuning.org>

[3] See also a brief discussion of my work on discoverability, which presents some concrete examples, in Gonzalez and Richards, 2001, pp. 214-215 and at <www.fine-tuning.org>

[4] According to the thesis of common ancestry, all life arose from an initial simple life form by the process of descent with modification. The evidence cited below is really evidence for this thesis, not the more general thesis that unguided chance plus natural selection was the mechanism by which this happened.

[5] By naturalism I mean the thesis that physical reality was not a result of some transcendent intelligence.

[6] To deal with certain potential counterexamples, one might also restrict the principle to non-ad-hoc hypotheses, such as hypotheses which were advocated by people before the discovery of these features of the universe. For current discussions of the likelihood principle, see Swinburne, 2002.

[7] The fine-tuning of the constants of physics for life only confirms theism over the naturalistic single-universe hypothesis, since it is not improbable under naturalistic versions of the many-universes hypothesis. (See below.)

[8] See, for instance, Collins, 2002a and <www.fine-tuning.org>

[9] Other objections are given in my articles and on my website <www.fine-tuning.org>

[10] I am, however, skeptical that such a unified theory will be developed: current attempts have been unsuccessful at reducing the number of free parameters–the standard model of particle physics has twenty four, and it looks like string theory generates its own effective free parameters that have to be set just right for a complex life-permitting universe to exist (Zwiebach, 2004, p. 9).

[11] See Collins 2002b; also, <www.fine-tuning.org>


Collins’ Case for Cosmic Design (2008)

Paul Draper

Robin Collins offers three design arguments, one appealing to the existence of intelligent life and the fine-tuning upon which that life depends, one appealing to the beauty of the laws of physics, and one appealing to the intelligibility of the universe. It’s not completely clear what the conclusions of these arguments are. Sometimes Collins seems to be arguing for theism–for the hypothesis that an omnipotent, omniscient and morally perfect person created our universe. Other times he seems to be arguing for a much less specific hypothesis, one stating simply that a transcendent intelligent being (of some sort) designed our universe. I will call this second hypothesis the “generic design hypothesis.” Both hypotheses are mentioned multiple times in his opening case.

Although these two hypotheses are obviously compatible, a rigorous evaluation of Collins’ arguments is impossible if he is allowed to vacillate between them, precisely because the generic design hypothesis is much less specific (i.e., much smaller in scope) than theism.[1] On the one hand, this lack of specificity makes the generic design hypothesis more “plausible” than theism–i.e., more probable than theism independent of the evidence. Thus, it is less vulnerable than theism to the objection that, even if some supernaturalist design hypothesis explains or predicts our total evidence better than naturalism, naturalism is still more probable all things considered because of its greater plausibility. On the other hand, the lack of specificity of the generic design hypothesis is also a handicap. Theism posits a morally perfect designer and thus implicitly attributes certain prima facie preferences to that designer. This makes it possible to construct a plausible argument for the claim that the existence of intelligent life is expected or probable given theism: since intelligent life has special value, a perfectly good God would have reason to create a universe containing it. The generic design hypothesis, however, says nothing about the goals or intentions or preferences of the designer or designers it posits. Thus, it hard to see why the assumption that the generic design hypothesis is true leads to any expectations at all about what the world would be like. In particular, it would seem that, given the fine-tuning data, intelligent life is just as unlikely given design with unspecified motives as it is given “chance.”[2]

Clearly Collins can’t have it both ways. He can’t use the less specific generic design hypothesis when the issue is plausibility and then use the more specific theistic hypothesis when the issue is predictive or explanatory power.[3] Since I believe that the disadvantages of employing the generic design hypothesis in Collins’ arguments are greater than those of employing theism, I will assume in the remainder of this chapter that Collins wants to formulate his three design arguments in terms of theism.

Another worry I have about Collins’ selection of hypotheses concerns the hypothesis to which Collins compares theism. That hypothesis is naturalism in the case of two of his three arguments, but it is “single-universe naturalism” in the case of his main argument: the so-called fine-tuning design argument. By “naturalism” Collins means the hypothesis that physical reality did not result from transcendent (nonnatural) intelligent design. By “single-universe naturalism,” Collins means naturalism conjoined with the view that physical reality consists of nothing more than our own (expanding) cosmos. According to Collins, single-universe naturalism has greater difficulty accounting for the fine-tuning data than (generic) naturalism because the latter hypothesis is compatible with the existence of multiple universes. Notice, however, that in addition to this disadvantage, single-universe naturalism is also intrinsically less probable than naturalism because it is more specific–single-universe naturalism says everything (generic) naturalism says and more; so it is more likely to say something false. Why on earth, then, would any atheist choose to defend single-universe naturalism instead of naturalism? Why saddle oneself with a more specific (and thus intrinsically less probable) hypothesis that actually explains the data worse than a less specific one?

Before I examine the details of Collins’ three arguments, I would like to respond briefly to his claim that his case for cosmic design is as strong as the scientific case for common descent. Some would call this a “bold” claim; others outrageous. But whatever one calls it, I suspect Collins himself would admit that his opening case falls far short of establishing it.[4] It is important, however, to realize just how very far short it falls. For even assuming that his three core arguments are flawless, the best case scenario for Collins is that the various pieces of evidence to which those arguments appeal together raise the ratio of the probability of theism to the probability of single-universe naturalism many-fold. That’s all he can get from an application of the expectation principle or the likelihood principle. To get from there to the more significant conclusion that theism is more probable than single-universe naturalism, all things considered, he would have to perform three other very difficult tasks. First, he would have to show that his evidence isn’t offset or outweighed by the fact that single-universe naturalism is much more plausible than theism. (Of course, scientists rarely explicitly assess plausibility, but that doesn’t mean that plausibility considerations are not crucial in scientific reasoning or that they make no difference to how probable the evidence makes hypotheses like common descent or naturalism.) Second, he would have to show that his evidence favoring theism is not offset or outweighed by other evidence favoring single-universe naturalism, such as the existence of horrific undeserved suffering. And third, he would have to show that his evidence is not offset or outweighed by a combination of plausibility considerations and other evidence. He doesn’t even attempt any of these three tasks in his opening case. So he has not shown that theism is more probable than single-universe naturalism–not even close.

Suppose, however, that Collins somehow managed to perform these three tasks and thus justify the conclusion that theism is more probable all things considered than single-universe naturalism. It still doesn’t follow from that conclusion that theism is more likely to be true than naturalism, since, as mentioned above, naturalism is more probable than singe-universe naturalism. And even if he were able to show that the theism is more probable than naturalism, it doesn’t follow from that conclusion that theism is probably true since theism and naturalism are not contradictories and thus might both be improbable even if one is (many times) more probable than the other. Finally, it would be one thing to show that theism is probably true and quite another to show that it is highly probable like common descent is. The lesson here is that establishing the truth or even probable truth of a substantive positive metaphysical or scientific hypothesis like theism or common descent is an extraordinarily difficult task, much more difficult than showing the probable falsehood of such a hypothesis. Collins is nowhere near to accomplishing such a task.

All of my remarks so far assume that the core reasoning in Collins’ opening case is sound. This reasoning, however, has been challenged in a variety of ways. Some of these challenges are highly technical. I will restrict myself, however, to a single nontechnical challenge that so far as I know is defended here for the first time. I will contend that all three of his arguments commit what I call “the fallacy of understated evidence.” This fallacy (i.e., mistake in reasoning) is committed when one uses some relatively general known fact about X to support a hypothesis when a more specific fact about X (that is also known to obtain) fails to support that hypothesis. For example, a prosecutor might try to mislead a jury by pointing out that the defendant bought a knife just days before the victim was stabbed, neglecting to mention that the knife that was purchased is a butter knife. Of course, in Collins’ case, there is no intention to mislead; he doesn’t realize that he is understating the evidence. But the mistake is the same, whether intentional or not.

Consider first his main argument, the fine-tuning design argument. Collins summarizes this argument as follows:

These cases of fine-tuning presented above have often been cited as providing significant evidence that the cosmos is designed. The reason is that, because of the exceedingly special conditions required for the existence of life, it seems very improbable or surprising that the initial conditions, laws, and constants would be adjusted just right for highly complex life under what I call the naturalistic single-universe hypothesis, but not surprising under theism. Thus, the fine-tuning provides significant evidence for theism over the naturalistic single-universe hypothesis.

This argument commits the fallacy of understated evidence. Specifically, by understating what we know about life, Collins makes the fine-tuning data appear to support theism more than it really does. Notice that his evidence statement does include one detail beyond the bare fact that (complex) life exists, namely, that some of this life is intelligent. This serves to strengthen his case because, given that life exists, one has more reason on theism than on naturalism to expect some of that life to be intelligent. But he ignores other more specific facts about life that we know to obtain, facts that I contend favor single-universe naturalism. For example, while he bases his argument on the fact that complex intelligent life of some sort exists in some universe or another, he ignores the fact that the only sort of intelligent life we know to exist is specifically human and exists specifically in this universe.

This is important. To see why, suppose that Collins is right that the existence of intelligent life of some sort in some universe is very many times more probable on theism than on single-universe naturalism. This will be of no significance whatsoever if it is also true that

D: given that intelligent life of some sort exists in some universe, the fact that the only intelligent life we know of is human and that it inhabits this universe is very many times more probable on single-universe naturalism than it is on theism.

If D is true (or even if it just can’t be shown to be false), then the more fully stated evidence about intelligent life won’t (clearly) favor theism over single-universe naturalism. Similarly, suppose that the defendant’s recent purchase of a knife is more likely on the hypothesis (which I will call “GUILT”) that the defendant stabbed the victim than on the hypothesis (“INNOCENCE”) that he did not stab the victim. This is of no consequence if we also know that the knife he purchased is a butter knife and that, given that he did buy a knife, it is more likely on INNOCENCE than it is on GUILT that the knife is a butter knife. But is D true or at least not provably false? There is very good reason to believe so. To begin with, given the existence of intelligent life, it is certain on single-universe naturalism that it exists in this universe. This is not so on theism, which as Collins admits, makes the existence of many universes likely.

More importantly, if theism is true, then God is not only morally perfect, he is omnipotent and so could make many different sorts of intelligent life, probably infinitely many, including intelligent beings that are much more impressive than human beings. On single-universe naturalism, by contrast, one would expect that, if there is intelligent life, it will be relatively unimpressive. I want to emphasize the word “relatively” here, because I am not denying that human beings are impressive in many ways. But examined from the perspective of what is possible for an omnipotent being, we are, in terms of intelligence, a hair’s breadth away from monkeys. Again, one would expect this on single-universe naturalism because the more intelligent the life, the less likely it is that naturalistic processes would produce it. Of course, if one believes in God and, looking around, finds nothing more impressive than human beings, one will be forced to conclude that God wanted to make beings with very limited intelligence. But surely one would not have predicted this beforehand. There are indefinitely many different kinds of creatures that an omnipotent being would have the power to create and that, other things being equal, would be more valuable to create than humans. Antecedently, a God would be more likely to create these more impressive creatures than to create us.

One might object, however, that a good God would not be obligated to create the best and that a loving God might very well want to create and love inferior beings like us, especially since that doesn’t preclude his also creating other more impressive beings. I don’t deny that a God might create beings like us–that is certainly possible. Similarly, Collins admits that fine-tuning is possible even if single-universe naturalism is true. The issue, however, is what is antecedently likely–what a reasonable person would expect beforehand. And human beings have many features that make them an unlikely choice, no matter how many other sorts of beings God creates. This is especially true, if we take the term “human” not merely in the biological sense but in a fuller sense that implies some of our most notable and notorious characteristics. In this sense of the term “human,” the sense intended when someone says “I’m only human,” being human implies being naturally selfish (not to mention territorial and aggressive), which greatly limits our potential for developing morally, especially given our limited life span. It also includes the fact that we are profoundly ignorant beings, especially when it comes to moral and religious matters, as is obvious from the fact that we disagree or are uncertain about many important moral and religious issues. We also naturally identify with others that we perceive to be like ourselves, leading, if not always to prejudice and intolerance, at least to isolation for those different from the norm. (I could go on and on, but it’s too depressing.)

Now I don’t mean to claim that there is no good in humanity, that we are not wondrous simians in many respects. But again, when evaluated in the light of what is possible for a being that literally has no nonlogical limits to its power, we hardly belong on any list of “creatures a God would be most likely to create.” One might respond that God would be likely to create us precisely because of our inferiority, precisely because we would require a relationship with God in order to achieve our greatest good, in order to be “saved.” But we have no antecedent reason to believe that is the case. In fact, we have two antecedent reasons to believe or at least suspect that this is not the case. First, a morally perfect God would have no need to glorify herself by creating deeply flawed beings just so that she could play the role of savior. Second, it is doubtful that an omniscient (and morally perfect) God could have a meaningful personal relationship with human beings–not because of God’s limitations but because of ours. The “cognitive distance” between the mind of such a God and our minds is vastly greater than the distance between our minds and the minds of earthworms (assuming earthworms have minds). So who knows whether a relationship with such a being would be our “greatest good”? (It seems rather more likely that the greatest good of animals like us would be much more “down to earth.”) Granted, a God would be omnipotent as well, but not even an omnipotent being can bring about logically impossible states of affairs like my having a meaningful relationship with an earthworm. In any case, given our ignorance of what a mind like God’s would be like, there doesn’t seem to be any way to settle this issue, which suffices to rebut the objection that a God would be likely to create inferior intelligent beings like us.

To sum up, my main point is that, while it may be true that on single-universe naturalism the existence of anything as impressive as human beings is very unlikely, it is also true that on theism the existence of intelligent beings as unimpressive and flawed as humans is very unlikely. Further, given that human beings do exist, it is certain on single-universe naturalism, but not on theism, that they exist in this universe (i.e., in the one universe that we know to exist). Therefore, Collins’ fine-tuning design argument is unconvincing. To repair it, he would need to show that the availability to an omnipotent God of infinitely many apparently better alternatives to creating human beings doesn’t make the existence of human life at least as improbable given theism as it is given single-universe naturalism. Collins does not show this; he doesn’t even address the issue.

Collins’ other two design arguments are no more convincing than his fine-tuning argument. The first is an argument from the beauty or elegance of the laws of physics. Unfortunately, short on space, Collins doesn’t tell us what it means for a mathematical equation to be “beautiful” or “elegant.” If it just means simpler, then such beauty is not surprising on naturalism. Typically, the more uniform nature is, the simpler the mathematical equations that can describe it. And uniformity is intrinsically more probable than variety or change whether or not naturalism is true. But putting that aside, even if some aspects of the universe are quite beautiful, it certainly doesn’t appear to be as beautiful as one would expect if God made it. For example, while it has an abundance of visual beauty, it contains relatively little auditory and tactile beauty. Again, if one wants to construct a truly convincing “argument from beauty,” then one must not understate the evidence. One must not just focus on known facts about beauty that favor theism and ignore other things we know about beauty that favor naturalism.[5]

Collins’ third argument also understates the evidence. I agree with him that a highly intelligible universe is somewhat more likely given theism than it is given naturalism. But here again this evidence is offset by other more specific evidence about the same topic. Specifically, I argued at the beginning of the general introduction to this e-book that, given that the universe is comprehensible, the fact that so much about it can be understood without any appeal to supernatural agency is much more likely on naturalism than on theism. So the fully stated evidence concerning the intelligibility of the universe doesn’t seem to support either theism or naturalism over the other.

I conclude that none of Collins’ three arguments is convincing. Each understates the evidence in a way that makes what we know about some topic appear to favor theism more than it really does. Further, as I argued in the first part of this essay, even if Collins’ arguments were convincing, it would not follow that there is “significant evidence that the cosmos is designed,” for whether the evidence in question is significant (as opposed to just strong or potentially significant) depends on whether that evidence makes theism or the generic design hypothesis credible or at least more credible than its denial, and, as I have shown, that in turn depends on a variety of issues that Collins does not address. Granted, he cannot be expected to cover all of these issues (e.g., plausibility, other evidence, alternatives to theism and naturalism, etc.) in a short paper, but then he should be willing to admit that whether or not his evidence is significant is an open question.[6]

Notes

[1] For an explanation of how probability depends on specificity or scope, see section 2 of my opening case, “Natural Selection and the Problem of Evil.”

[2] One might object that we can sometimes detect human design without knowing what the designer’s goals were. My reply is that we can do this because we know by experience that humans often design objects composed of metal, stone, etc. that have gears or smooth surfaces or other distinctive features. Given this background knowledge, one can infer that an object found in an area currently or previously inhabited by human beings was made by human beings, and one can make this inference without knowing what the purpose of the object is. This background knowledge is of no use, however, when the designer in question is not only nonhuman, but transcendent.

[3] I don’t mean to imply here that Collins actually is trying to have it both ways. He completely ignores the issue of plausibility in his opening case.

[4] He says he believes this claim but does not say that he has established it.

[5] The argument has other problems as well. For example, who is to say that a more complicated mathematical structure would not be even more beautiful than a simple or “elegant” one? Also, a simpler universe seems more likely on naturalism than on theism; so if there is beauty in simplicity, it’s hard to see why that is evidence favoring theism.

[6] I am grateful to Robin Collins and William Hasker for helpful email discussion of some flawed ancestors of the points I make in this paper.


Clarifying the Case for Cosmic Design (2008)

Robin Collins

Clarifying My Argument

First, I would like to thank Quentin Smith and Paul Draper for participating in this debate and pointing out some weak points in my presentation of my opening case. This has helped me clarify the nature of the argument that I presented, which I believe is the primary benefit of a debate such as this. I agree with several of Draper’s points, especially since having further thought about the argument in the two years since I originally wrote the opening case. I agree, for instance, that the evidence I cite (e.g., the fine-tuning evidence), gives us no reason to believe in a generic design hypothesis. Indeed, I now think that the language of design is the wrong way to frame the argument, for the very reasons Draper cites: namely, a generic design hypothesis gives us no reason to expect a universe with the features I discuss since it tells us nothing about the motives of the designer. Therefore, by the likelihood principle, the features I cited provide no support for this hypothesis.

I also agree with Draper that my opening case by no means establishes the existence of God, and contrary to the impression one might get from my essay, I did not intend it to. Rather, I was thinking of the data I cited as offering evidence for the existence of God. The approach I was taking is that of what I call the restricted version of the likelihood principle: given two non-ad-hoc hypotheses, H1 and H2, and a body of data E, if E is much more surprising (that is, has a much smaller epistemic probability) under H2 than H1, then E offers significant evidence in favor of H1 over H2. I then claimed that the evidence I cited was much more surprising under the naturalistic single-universe hypothesis (NSU) than under theism, and thus counted as evidence for theism over the NSU.[1]

The restricted version of the likelihood principle is simply the standard likelihood principle of confirmation theory with the restriction that the hypothesis being confirmed is not ad hoc. A sufficient condition for a hypothesis not being ad hoc is that there are independent motivations for believing the hypothesis apart from the data E itself. To illustrate the need for the restricted version, suppose that I roll a die twenty times and it comes up in some apparently random sequence of numbers–say 2, 6, 4, 3, 1, 5, 6, 4, 3, 2, 1, 6, 2, 4, 4, 1, 3, 6, 6, 1. The probability of this sequence coming up by chance is one in 3.6 x 10^15, or about one in a 3.6 million billion. To explain the die coming up in this sequence, suppose I invented a hypothesis that there is a demon whose favorite number is just the above sequence of numbers (i.e., 26431564321624413661), and that this demon had a strong desire for that sequence to turn up when I rolled the die. Now, under the assumption that the demon hypothesis is true, it would not be surprising (i.e., epistemically improbable) for the die to come up in this sequence. Consequently, by the unrestricted likelihood principle, the occurrence of this sequence would strongly confirm the demon hypothesis over the chance hypothesis. But this seems counterintuitive: given a sort of common sense notion of confirmation, it does not seem that the demon hypothesis is confirmed.

Now consider a modification of the demon case in which, prior to my rolling the die, a group of occultists claimed to have a religious experience of a demon they called “Goodal,” who they claimed revealed that her favorite number was the number 2643156432162441366, and that she strongly desired that number to be realized in some continuous sequence of die rolls performed by Robin Collins in the next month. Suppose they wrote this all down in front of many reliable witnesses days before I rolled the die. Certainly, it seems, the sequence of die rolls would count as evidence in favor of their “Goodal hypothesis” over the chance hypothesis, given that the die was a fair die. Of course, in this circumstance, the Goodal hypothesis was already advocated prior to the rolling of the die, and thus the restricted likelihood principle implies that the sequence of die rolls confirms the Goodal hypothesis.

Even though the sequence of die roles would count as evidence in favor of the Goodal hypothesis, it would not establish that it is likely: we might have other strong reasons to reject it, such as philosophical arguments against the existence of such disembodied beings. So, this likelihood approach to arguing for theism leaves open the question of whether, when all the evidence is considered, theism is objectively more likely to be true than the NSU. In order to do this within the likelihood framework, one would have to assess the prior epistemic probability of theism–that is, its epistemic probability before the evidence E that I cited is considered–something I believe is difficult to do. (I briefly discuss this issue at the very end below.)

Nonetheless, since theism was advocated prior to the fine-tuning and other sorts of evidence that I cited, it follows from the restricted version of the likelihood principle that this evidence counts in favor of theism, even if we cannot say at the end of the day that theism is true. This more limited claim, I submit, is nonetheless highly significant. One could argue, for example, that in everyday life and science we speak of evidence for and against various hypotheses, but seldom of their prior probabilities. If, for example, one were to ask most scientists why they (provisionally) accept general relativity’s approximate truth or future adequacy for doing cosmology, they would probably cite the evidence in its favor, along with some of Einstein’s motivations. They would probably not talk of the prior probability of his theory, either epistemic or otherwise. I can imagine them saying, “I have no idea what the prior epistemic probability of Einstein’s theory is; all I will say is that Einstein had motivations for considering it and there are at least three strong pieces of empirical evidence in its favor.” Indeed, I think it would be very difficult to estimate the prior probability of general relativity’s approximate truth or adequacy in any objective manner, since we would have to weigh incommensurable factors against each other–the simplicity of the mathematical framework of general relativity against such things as the philosophically puzzling character of the idea of a four-dimensional space-time being curved. Theism suffers an analogous problem with prior probabilities. One can avoid the issue of prior probabilities, however, by using the restricted version of the likelihood principle to argue that the fine-tuning and other features of the universe I cited offer significant evidence for theism over the NSU, though they do not themselves show that theism is likely to be true.

Draper’s “Understated Evidence” Objection

Now let’s consider Draper’s understated evidence objection. According to Draper, “while [Collins] bases his argument on the fact that complex intelligent life of some sort exists in some universe or another, he ignores the fact that the only sort of intelligent life we know to exist is specifically human and exists specifically in this universe.” Further, Draper claims that, “given that intelligent life of some sort exists in some universe, the fact that the only intelligent life we know of is human and that it inhabits this universe is very many times more probable on single-universe naturalism than it is on theism,” a claim he labels claim D. Draper then goes on to make two major claims in support of D:

  1. “Given the existence of intelligent life, it is certain on single-universe naturalism that it exists in this universe. This is not so on theism, which as Collins admits, makes the existence of many universes likely.”
  2. “It is also true that on theism the existence of intelligent beings as unimpressive and flawed as humans is very unlikely.”

In response to (1), I consider the claim that “human life exists in this universe” tautological and hence true by definition. The reason is that we have no independent means of specifying the universe that “this universe” refers to other than “the universe we inhabit,” since we cannot stand outside our own universe to establish a basis for an independent reference of the indexical “this.” Consequently, the claim that “human life exists in this universe” simply becomes the tautology “human life exists in the universe that we [that is, human beings] inhabit.”

In response to (2), I think it is likely that God created other universes, other “systems of nature,” and other creatures. Consequently, an advocate of the fine-tuning argument need not claim that humans are more valuable than other possible beings, a point which Draper acknowledges. All one has to argue is that it is plausible to suppose that the type of creatures that we are–finite, vulnerable moral agents–add an overall positive value to reality, thus giving God a reason to create a world in which such beings could arise. One such positive value is the ability to act virtuously in the face of temptation, such as acting with courage or self-sacrificial love; another is the ability to make a difference for good or ill in another creature’s life. A world in which these goods can be realized is likely to look a lot like our world, one in which creatures are limited, subject to natural laws, and the like. Thus I think God would have significant reason to create a world that could give rise to embodied, highly vulnerable moral agents, in addition to other types of worlds and creatures. As Swinburne argues in some detail, the significance of the body is that it functions as “a public place where our intentions are translated into basic actions, and incoming stimuli are translated into sensations and beliefs, and processes give rise to desire and thoughts. When there is such a physical object, we and others can damage or improve these processes.” Hence, he argues, “in order to have the kind of limited freedom and responsibility [for each other’s welfare] that I have analyzed, creatures need bodies” (2004, p. 127).

This response, however, raises a more serious understated evidence problem for the argument based on the fine-tuning for embodied moral agents (but not the elegance of the laws of nature) that is implicit in Draper’s response: the existence of evil in the world. Until thinking carefully about Draper’s objection, I had always assumed that one could address the problem of evil separately from the fine-tuning argument. I now realize that the type of embodiment that results in the goods mentioned above (e.g., being vulnerable to one another) will almost certainly bring with it various sorts of evil (e.g., suffering as a result of natural law or the free choices of other embodied agents), unless God constantly intervenes, which would defeat the good of embodiment mentioned above. Thus, apart from an adequate theodicy, it is not clear that a reality which contains a universe with embodied moral agents is, all things considered, better than a reality without such agents.

Nonetheless, unless we have good reason to believe that the existence of evil could not be outweighed by the goods that come from embodiment, I think it is plausible to hold that the existence of a universe with embodied beings subject to natural laws is not improbable under theism (and perhaps also plausible to hold the opposite of this claim). If the argument in my opening case is correct, however, we have good reason to believe that a universe in which the constants and laws are fine-tuned to allow for such beings–and has the other features that I mentioned–is epistemically very improbable under the NSU. Accordingly, we can be more confident of the improbability of such a universe under the NSU than under theism. Thus, unless we have good reason to believe that the existence of evil is very improbable under theism (see section 2 of this online book), the combination of the fine-tuning data and the existence of evil supports theism over the NSU. The beauty and elegance of the laws of nature tip the balance in favor of theism even more.

The Idea of Probabilistic Tension

Finally, part of Draper’s objection results, I believe, from not clearly understanding what I meant by the naturalistic single-universe hypothesis, which perhaps is the result of my own lack of clarity. According to Draper,

[B]y ‘naturalism’ Collins means the hypothesis that physical reality did not result from transcendent (nonnatural) intelligent design. By ‘single-universe naturalism,’ Collins means naturalism conjoined with the view that physical reality consists of nothing more than our own (expanding) cosmos [italics mine].

One major problem with this way of defining naturalism is that the phrase “physical reality consists of nothing more than our own (expanding) cosmos” builds into the hypothesis of naturalism that our particular universe exists. As I defined it, the naturalistic single-universe hypothesis (NSU) is the hypothesis that “there is only one universe and it exists as a brute, inexplicable fact.” This does not build in any hypothesis about the structure of the single universe that does exist; it also excludes any transcendent explanation of the universe, not just a theistic one. One can, of course, always reject this definition of single-universe naturalism, and instead build into one’s hypothesis that our particular universe exists–the one with the laws of nature that are structured just right for the existence of embodied moral agents. But then, one has just transferred the improbability up one level to that of this new NSU hypothesis itself.

This new NSU, which I will call the elaborated NSU hypothesis (NSUe), simply consists of the conjunction of the old NSU and the claim that the universe that exists has an embodied-moral-agent-permitting structure (EMAS): that is, NSUe = NSU & EMAS. In that case, the new hypothesis exhibits a high degree of what I call probabilistic tension, which I define as one conjunct of the hypothesis (in this case EMAS) being very improbable conditioned on the other conjunct (NSU): that is, P(EMAS/NSU) << 1.[2]

Now, probabilistic tension is a black mark against a hypothesis. To illustrate, consider cases in which a jury takes a defendant’s fingerprints being found on the murder weapon as evidence that the defendant is guilty. In such cases, the fingerprints are taken as evidence of guilt because the jurors implicitly reason that it is very unlikely that the fingerprints would have occurred on the murder weapon if the defendant is innocent, but not unlikely if the defendant is guilty. Thus, by the likelihood principle, the fingerprints strongly confirm the guilt hypothesis over the innocence hypothesis. But it does not confirm the guilt hypothesis over an appropriately formulated innocence hypothesis, say, for example, the hypothesis that the defendant did not touch the murder weapon conjoined with the hypothesis that someone else, with almost identical fingerprints, touched the weapon. The reason is that this hypothesis entails that the fingerprints will appear to match, and hence the matching will not be more surprising under this hypothesis than under the guilt hypothesis. Nonetheless, this hypothesis suffers from severe probabilistic tension. One conjunct of the hypothesis (that some other person with almost identical fingerprints touched the weapon) is very improbable on the other conjunct (that the defendant is innocent), since it is extremely rare for two people to happen to have virtually identical fingerprints. Thus, this probabilistic tension gives us strong reason to favor the guilt hypothesis over this latter innocence hypothesis, even though this new innocence hypothesis is not itself disconfirmed by the fingerprints.

Similarly, I argue, the elaborated naturalistic hypothesis suffers from a probabilistic tension from which even an elaborated theistic hypothesis does not suffer. The elaborated theistic hypothesis builds into the theistic hypothesis that God “desired” or “intended” to create a world with embodied, highly vulnerable moral agents. It is reasonable to think, I would argue, that this does not suffer from a similar sort of probabilistic tension as the elaborated atheistic hypothesis. To see this, note that, as Swinburne has argued (2004, pp. 99-106) the hypothesis that God is perfectly free and omniscient means that God’s desires would be entirely the result of what is objectively good–that is intrinsically desirable. The reason is that to understand a state of affairs as objectively good in and of itself gives an agent a reason to bring that state of affairs about. Since God is perfectly free, God has no countervailing desires, and hence God would desire the good. Now as argued above, it is reasonable under the theistic hypothesis to think that the existence of limited, vulnerable moral agents is an overall good despite the evils that almost certainly would accompany the existence of such agents. Given that the existence of such agents is an overall good (for the reasons stated above), God would have some motive to bring them about, and hence God’s desire to bring such a world about would not be surprising under the theistic hypothesis. Hence it is reasonable to think that the elaborated theistic hypothesis does not suffer from the same sort of probabilistic tension, even when the existence of evil is considered.

Beauty of the Laws of Nature

Draper also questions my use of the beauty of the laws of nature as evidence for theism. What I mean by the beauty or elegance of the underlying structure of the universe is that it exemplifies simplicity with variety: our world seems to have enough complexity to sustain intelligent life (and to be endlessly fascinating!), while at the same time this complexity can be organized via an underlying mathematical structure with a relatively high degree of elegance and simplicity. Indeed, if, as physicist Euan Squires hypothesizes (1981), our universe is the simplest that could allow for complex life, this balancing would have to be quite extreme. This sort of complexity with underlying simplicity exemplifies the classical notion of beauty as defined, for example, by William Hogarth in his 1753 classic The Analysis of Beauty, where he famously used a line drawn around a cone to illustrate his definition of elegance as simplicity with variety. According to Hogarth, simplicity apart from variety, such as a straight line, is boring, not elegant or beautiful; with variety, however, it exemplifies elegance, such as illustrated by a line wrapped around a cone.

I thus agree with Draper that if all one means by the universe being elegant is that it is simple, then this elegance does not support theism: one could simply explain it by an appeal to a principle according to which the world is more likely to be simple than complex. The problem with such an explanation is that the universe is not nearly as simple as it could be, both in terms of the structure of its laws and its initial conditions. For example, a universe with only two particles and a single law that dictated that they move at a constant velocity with respect to each other would be a much simpler world. It is the balance of simplicity and complexity that makes it elegant, and thus points to a theistic explanation.

Final Comments: The Intrinsic Probabilities of Theism and Naturalism

So, I think Draper’s objections can be adequately answered. If I were an atheist, I would raise a different sort of objection. I would grant that the fine-tuning and related evidence supports theism, but nonetheless ask whether or not at the end of the day the theist is really better off than the atheist who accepts the type of universe (or multiverse) that we inhabit simply as an inexplicable fact. Against this, the theist could claim that the elaborated atheist hypothesis (labeled NSUe above) suffers from severe probabilistic tension that the elaborated theist hypothesis does not.

Although I think this response is good as far as it goes, the atheist could then press the case that theism suffers from other severe defects. These purported defects can be nicely illustrated by Draper’s comments about my previous belief (as expressed in my opening case) that the evidence for theistic design was as strong as that for common ancestry. The reason I believed this is that barring the considerations of the problem of evil above, both hypotheses render unsurprising a range of facts that would be surprising under the major contender hypotheses. Nonetheless, I recognize that one could argue that the theistic hypothesis is in some sense much more puzzling. The thesis of common ancestry involves a fairly small extrapolation from the common observation of offspring being both similar and different from their parents, and then simply extrapolating this process of minor differences occurring over a vast stretch of time. In contrast, one might argue, the God of classical theism is truly radically different from human beings or anything else we observe. For example, in classical Western theism, God not only creates the world ex nihilo, but also “decides” what to create in some timeless or “logical” moment before all time, whatever exactly that means. Because of the purported radical otherness of God, in much of the tradition this has led to claims that we can only truly say what God is not, not what God is. Richard Swinburne’s concept of God as simply an everlastingly omnipotent, omniscient, and perfectly free agent (Swinburne, 2004, pp. 93-96) is certainly less puzzling than the God of much of the classical theistic tradition, though much of the puzzle still remains.

Perhaps these issues can be resolved on their own terms. For example, Swinburne has extensively argued for the coherence of his definition of God (Swinburne, 1993). Here I will only briefly discuss one response that I would give to this issue.[3] The response begins by noting that the world seems to contain two radically and irreducibly distinct kinds of entities: impersonal entities such as rocks and personal, conscious agents such as ourselves. Given this, we naturally are led to initially speculate that ultimate reality–that is, what ultimately lies behind everything else–is either personal or impersonal (or more like the personal than the impersonal), or some combination of the two. Suppose that it is more like the personal. Then since agency and consciousness are the essence of the personal, if everything originates in the personal, then that ultimate reality would not be limited by any contingent thing (since it gives rise to all contingent reality), and thus plausibly could be thought to possess agency and consciousness that would only be limited or constrained by what is absolutely impossible, such as not being able to do what is logically contradictory. Unlimited consciousness implies that such an agent would know which states of affairs are objectively good (both aesthetically and morally) and which are not. Also, as argued above for God, an agent’s being completely unconstrained by anything contingent seems to imply that the only motivations such a being would have is the perceived intrinsic value of a state of affairs.[4] Thus, such a being would be perfectly good–e.g., unlike humans, such a being would not have desires grounded in bodily needs, or resulting from having evolved, but only based on perceived objective value. Such an unlimited, perfectly good, personal agent is at the core of what theists have meant by God.

Now, one might legitimately find the hypothesis of such an agent puzzling and paradoxical, and be uncertain of its ultimate coherence. In reply, the theist could point out that the alternative that reality ultimately is grounded in the impersonal is also puzzling, paradoxical, and arguably incoherent. This, I believe, is the main thrust of the cosmological argument, which basically argues that assuming contingent things (such as our universe) exist without a personal cause is deeply metaphysically problematic, if not incoherent. Currently, for me, the cosmological argument draws a tie: on the basis of the mere existence of the universe (without considering its structure), I find both the personal and impersonal hypotheses deeply puzzling and worry about their coherence. When I look at the underlying structure of the universe, however, it seems to me that it provides significant evidence in favor of theism over the naturalistic alternative. Or put in terms of probabilistic tension, given that my arguments based on the fine-tuning and other features of the universe are correct, we know that naturalism suffers from a high degree of probabilistic tension, whereas even when the existence of evil is considered, we do not know this about theism.[5] Thus, given that, everything else being equal, it is rational to choose the hypothesis with the least amount of known probabilistic tension, theism is the intellectually rational choice.[6]

References

Collins, Robin (forthcoming). “The Argument from Fine-tuning” in The Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology, 2nd edition, ed. William Lane Craig and J. P. Moreland.Oxford,UK: Blackwell.

Hogarth, William (1753). The Analysis of Beauty.London,UK: J. Reeves.

Squires, Euan J. (1981). “Do We Live in the Simplest Possible Interesting World?” European Journal of Physics 2 (January 1981): 55-57.

Swinburne, Richard (2004). The Existence of God, 2nd edition.Oxford,UK:OxfordUniversity Press.

Swinburne, Richard (1993). The Coherence of Theism, revised edition. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

Notes

[1] In the opening case, I briefly argued that multiverse naturalism had similar problems to single-universe naturalism and thus I will not consider it further here.

[2] If P(EMAS/NSU) << 1, then since P(EMAS & NSU) = P(EMAS/NSU) x P(NSU), it follows that P(NSUe) = P(NSU & EMAS) << 1.

[3] I find another response, based on the ultimacy of value, even more powerful, but I cannot adequately develop it here. See Collins (forthcoming).

[4] For philosophers who believe in objective value, the intrinsic value of a state of affairs is typically considered a necessary property of the state of affairs, and thus not contingent.

[5] Of course, this assumes that the evidential problem of evil can be largely neutralized by a defense or a theodicy and that the sum total of other considerations does not weigh heavily against theism.

[6] I would like to thank the John Templeton Foundation for a grant that helped support this work, and David Schenk and Caleb Miller for reading through an earlier version of this response.


Introduction to Section Four: Faith and Uncertainty (2008)

Paul Draper

In the first three sections of this book, naturalists have debated theists about the evidence for and against naturalism and theism. Some philosophers (like me) think that the evidence, taken as a whole, is not conclusive–that while it may justify leaning in one direction, it does not justify certainty. But even if I am mistaken about what the evidence does or does not show, no one will deny that subjective uncertainty about God’s existence is very common. The purpose of the fourth and final section of this book is to examine the implications of such uncertainty. Does it provide a good reason to reject theism, since a loving God would not leave us in the dark about her existence? J. L. Schellenberg thinks so. Or, in the face of uncertainty, should we (seek to) believe in God for pragmatic reasons–i.e., because it is in our best interests to do so? This is the position defended by Jeff Jordan.

The topic of Schellenberg’s opening case is the so-called “problem of divine hiddenness.” This problem arises because God, as traditionally conceived, is a personal being–a being that has knowledge, power, and purposes and that uses that knowledge and power to perform actions designed to accomplish those purposes. Further, those purposes are not completely mysterious to us, since this God is thought to be loving and, more than that, perfectly good. From this it appears to follow that God would want a loving personal relationship with us both to benefit us and perhaps also to benefit God. Personal relationships, however, are impoverished at best when one of the persons involved in the relationship doesn’t even believe the other exists. Thus, God would want us to believe in him. But then one can’t help but wonder. If such a God exists, then why is he “hiding” from people who are open to having a relationship with him? Why doesn’t God make his existence known to everyone who could benefit from that knowledge? This is the problem of divine hiddenness. Schellenberg believes that the problem can’t be solved and accordingly turns the problem into the following argument for atheism. If God exists, then the only people who do not believe in her are people who aren’t ready for a relationship with her. In other words, if God exists, then nonresistant nonbelief does not exist. But there are nonresistant nonbelievers in the world. So God does not exist.

While some say that, appearances notwithstanding, no nonbelievers are genuinely open to a relationship with God, such a position isn’t credible. Were it not for the doctrine of a Hell for nonbelievers and the need to reconcile that doctrine with God’s justice, I doubt anyone would make such an outrageous claim. In short, Schellenberg’s second premise appears to be rock solid: nonresistant nonbelief exists. Therefore, since his conclusion that God does not exist follows necessarily from his two premises, the only real issue is whether his first premise is true. Is it really true that a loving God would limit nonbelief to those who resist belief? Schellenberg makes a powerful case for the truth of this premise, butJordan challenges that case by suggesting that God might very well want us to freely seek him prior to actually believing that he exists.

Jordan’s opening case has its roots in the thought of the famous 17th-century French mathematician and philosopher, Blaise Pascal. Pascal’s response to the religious skepticism of some of his fellow Frenchmen was to argue that their nonbelief (or at least their failure to seek belief) was unreasonable in the practical sense even if God’s existence is improbable. An analogy to gambling is helpful here. As any good gambler knows, it is often unreasonable not to bet on an improbable proposition. For example, it would be unreasonable not to bet that the next random draw from a standard deck of cards will be a club if one’s opponent is willing to give you $1,000 if a club is drawn and accept only $100 if a spade, diamond, or heart is drawn. Similarly, Pascal reasoned as follows. Since there is no conclusive proof that God does not exist, the probability that she exists is greater than zero. Further, if God does exist, then belief in God is required to maximize one’s chances of obtaining everlasting happiness, which has infinite value. If God doesn’t exist, then the price, if there is any, of false belief in God is finite (e.g., wasted time attending Mass), while the benefits, if any, of nonbelief are also finite. Therefore, analyzing the situation like a good gambler, Pascal concluded that the most reasonable course of action (the one with the “highest expected utility” to use terminology from decision theory) is to (seek to) believe in God. This is so even if the probability of God’s existence is extremely low, so long as it is not zero; for the positive chance, no matter how small, of an infinite payoff will always outweigh the risk of finite loss, no matter how great. In short, the “smart money” is on God. For obvious reasons, this argument is known as “Pascal’s Wager.”

Unfortunately, some of the assumptions upon which Pascal’s Wager depends are questionable. For example, the argument seems to assume that a God would withhold everlasting happiness from a person just because that person doesn’t believe that God exists. Since the sort of God we are talking about here is by definition just, and since nonbelief in God is not, at least in many cases, the result of any wrongdoing on the part of the nonbeliever, this assumption appears to be false. Another questionable assumption made by Pascal is that, in deciding what to do, one should only consider two possible states of affairs–the existence of the sort of God in which Pascal believed and the existence of no deities of any kind. The problem with this assumption is that there are other possible deities besides Pascal’s God, including gods who have a nonzero chance of existing and who would reward nonbelief in Pascal’s God with everlasting happiness or punish belief in Pascal’s God with everlasting torment. Once these other possible outcomes are factored in, Pascal’s premises no longer justify his conclusion. This is called the “many-gods objection” to Pascal’s Wager.

In an effort to avoid the problems faced by Pascal’s argument, Jordanconstructs a new pragmatic argument for believing in (a traditional theistic) God. He calls it the “Jamesian Wager” because, like the famous American philosopher William James, Jordanemphasizes the benefits of believing in God that believers receive prior to death. According to Jordan, social scientific research suggests that, on average, believers in God live a longer and happier life than nonbelievers. The key to Jordan’s argument is that increasing the chances of a longer or happier life is a benefit of believing in God that doesn’t depend on God’s actually existing. The social scientific research supports the claim that believers will receive this benefit, even if it turns out that God does not exist–that is, even if no deities of any kind exist and even if some deity other than God exists. This means that the believer in God (at worst) risks no more in terms of the afterlife than anyone else, but can expect to benefit more in this life no matter who turns out to be right. LikePascal,Jordan concludes that, in the face of inconclusive evidence, seeking to believe in God is the most reasonable course of action.

Schellenberg raises a number of objections to Jordan’s Wager. For example, Schellenberg maintains that seeking to believe in God when the evidence doesn’t make God’s existence probable will inevitably involve self-deception, and rationality does not require one to deceive oneself in the pursuit of the sort of benefits to which Jordan’s argument appeals. It is worth noting here that neither Jordan nor Schellenberg holds that belief in God is voluntary. One can’t simply decide to believe in God and then as a result of that decision form that belief. Generally speaking, we have direct control over what we do, but not what we believe. We can, however, affect our beliefs indirectly. For example, acting as if one believes that God exists might eventually result in one’s coming to believe that God exists. Jordan and Schellenberg disagree, however, on whether or not pursuing this course of action as a means of acquiring belief involves self-deception.

So could the path to Heaven cross the River Jordan and take a detour through Caesar’s palace? Or is a God who plays hide and seek no more real than countless other extraordinary entities (e.g., fairies, ghosts, and alien visitors from outer space) who reveal their existence only obscurely or to a select few? For fascinating responses to these intriguing questions, proceed to the debate between Jeff Jordan and John Schellenberg.


What Divine Hiddenness Reveals, or How Weak Theistic Evidence is Strong Atheistic Proof (2008)

John Schellenberg

I start with a disclaimer. To be persuaded by my argument, readers need not first accept that the previous arguments of the debate have left us with a draw, with both sides–theism and atheism–about equally well (or ill) supported. Given the banner of ‘faith and uncertainty’ that flies over the present section of this debate, one might be forgiven for having supposed otherwise. However, the point about evidence relevant to theism on which I will depend is not that the arguments it generates on one side can all be matched by arguments on the other side, but rather that whatever the objective force of the arguments, they leave room for nonresistant nonbelief in relation to the claim that God exists–the claim that the ultimate reality is an omnipotent, omniscient, perfectly good and loving creator of the universe. (That such is the case is what each of the terms ‘divine hiddenness’ and ‘weak theistic evidence’ should in this essay be seen as pointing to.) Nonresistant nonbelief clearly can occur even if previous arguments of this debate leave the evidence objectively tilting towards theism. What is more, it may itself function as powerful evidence pushing things decisively back the other way or, if the evidence tilts towards atheism, a good deal further in that direction. Now of course, perhaps my readers will include individuals who do upon reflection feel that previous arguments have shown nothing, finding themselves just as undecided about God’s existence as when the debate began. If you fit this description, then the message for you is that your very condition of reflective uncertainty is connected to another argument you ought to consider, which you may well find more convincing!

I

But what exactly is this ‘nonresistant nonbelief’ to which I have referred, and why should we suppose that it exists? The basic idea here is the following: that there are in the actual world persons who do not believe that there is a God, and that in at least some of these people the absence of theistic belief is not in any way the result of their own emotional or behavioral opposition towards God or relationship with God or any of the apparent implications of such a relationship.[1]

This claim is not hard to substantiate, and is not itself resisted by many. As support, consider those who have always believed in God and who would love to go on believing in God but who have found, as adults, that serious and honest examination of all the evidence of experience and argument they can lay their hands on has unexpectedly had the result of eroding their belief away. These are individuals who were happy and morally committed believers, and who remain morally committed but are no longer happy because of the emotional effects of an intellectual reorganization involving the removal of theistic belief. Perhaps they will be happy again, but the point is that for the time being, it is the removal of theistic belief that they are inclined to resist, if anything.[2] For they were still on friendly terms with God and benefiting in a variety of ways from what they took to be contact with God when their belief in the existence of such a being was whisked away. (Since by ‘belief’ I understand an involuntary tendency to see the world a certain way–a ‘seeing’ that involves being passively represented to instead of actively representing the world to oneself by imagining or picturing it a certain way–what we are talking about here is something that can be ‘whisked away’ when the evidence no longer seems to support it.[3])

Perhaps even more convincing support for the existence of nonresistant nonbelief is provided by all those–both at the present time and throughout the past–for whom theistic belief has never been a live option. In some such individuals, quite other beliefs, supported by authority or tradition or experience, have held sway instead of theism. In others, the basic conceptual conditions of so much as entertaining the idea of a being separate from the physical universe who created it, and who is all-powerful, all-knowing, and perfectly good and loving in relation to it, have never been satisfied.

Given these different forms of support, it would take something like willful blindness to fail to affirm that not all nonbelief is the product of willful blindness (even if some of it is). Being a generous sort, I will assume that none of my readers is willfully blind and accordingly take it as having been established to everyone’s satisfaction that there is nonresistant nonbelief.

II

So where can we go from there? Well, an argument can be developed for supposing that nonresistant nonbelief would not exist if there were a God. Let me set out the argument as clearly as possible, and then we can discuss its nature and its force.

  1. If there is a perfectly loving God, all creatures capable of explicit and positively meaningful relationship with God who have not freely shut themselves off from God are in a position to participate in such relationships–i.e., able to do so just by trying to.
  2. No one can be in a position to participate in such relationships without believing that God exists.
  3. If there is a perfectly loving God, all creatures capable of explicit and positively meaningful relationship with God who have not freely shut themselves off from God believe that God exists (from 1 and 2).
  4. It is not the case that all creatures capable of explicit and positively meaningful relationship with God who have not freely shut themselves off from God believe that God exists: there is nonresistant nonbelief; God is hidden.
  5. It is not the case that there is a perfectly loving God (from 3 and 4).
  6. If God exists, God is perfectly loving.
  7. It is not the case that God exists (from 5 and 6).

This argument has been given a variety of labels in the literature since I first presented it a dozen years ago.[4] Here I will simply call it the hiddenness argument. It is evident that the hiddenness argument commits no error of logic–that is, each of its conclusions (3, 5, and 7) follows deductively from premises before it. Let me now identify a bit more fully and informally what those premises say and why we should accept them as true, and thus (given that its conclusions do follow from these premises) why we should accept the hiddenness argument as sound and hence its conclusion that God does not exist as true.

Readers will notice, first of all, a link being forged between perfect divine love and the availability of relationship with God. (Hereafter I will not always explicitly use the words ‘explicit and positively meaningful,’ but remember that they are there!) Some creatures in the world are capable of relationship with God (they have the equipment required to believe that God exists and trust in God and feel God’s presence, for example), and what I am suggesting is that there is something remarkably odd about the idea that, supposing there really is a God whose love is unsurpassably perfect, such creatures should ever be unable to exercise their capacity for relationship with God–at least so long as they have not got themselves into that position through resisting the divine in the manner earlier indicated. What sense can we make of the idea that capable creatures should be open to relationship with a perfectly loving God, not resisting it at all, perhaps even longing for it, and yet not in a place where they can have such a relationship, if there really is a perfectly loving God? I suggest that if we look carefully at the matter, we will not be able to make any sense of that at all. A perfectly loving God–if those words mean anything–would, like the best human lover, ensure that meaningful contact with herself was always possible for those she loved.

Notice how our everyday use of the language of love pushes us in this direction. The perfectly loving mother or husband or brother or friend will see to it that nothing he or she does ever puts relationship out of reach for the loved one. That is just part of love. A perfectly loving human being might, to be sure, occasionally stand to one side and let the loved one take some responsibility for the relationship’s development, and would want to avoid suffocating the loved one with attention, and now and then might even withdraw for a time to make a point. But it is important to notice that these are important moments within a love relationship. We might also reluctantly accept the fact that our loved one is (at least for the moment) unwilling to participate in relationship or has deliberately taken steps that (at least until his attitudes change) put it out of reach for him, respecting his decision. But insofar as we are truly loving parents or spouses or siblings or friends, we will never take such steps ourselves, and thus, if the object of our love takes no such steps, he will always (insofar as we are able to ensure it) be in a position to interact with us. As we might also put it, the possibility of some form of meaningful contact will always be there for him. Surely this is overwhelmingly plausible. What loving mother or husband or brother or friend would ever, for any length of time, allow this possibility to be taken completely away, if he or she could help it? And to this we must surely add, given that God’s love for us would have to be far more unremitting and indefectible than the best human love (and given that ‘if she can help it’ has no application to the divine): What perfectly loving God would ever allow this possibility to be taken completely away?

Now perhaps many of us are not accustomed to thinking of God this way due to features of our environment and of the religious teaching to which we have been exposed, all of which make it easy for us to go along with the idea of a God who is more detached and aloof. There are indeed many factors which may cause us to underestimate the force of love-based arguments like the one I have given. We have, for example, a tendency to think of God as male and father, and of males and fathers as forgivably distant. Perhaps more important, we have been influenced by the many attempts of theology to make God fit the actual world. Theology starts off by accepting that God exists and so has to make God fit the world: in a way, that is its job. But our job as philosophers, faced with the present topic, is to fight free from the distractions of local and historical contingency, to let the voice of authority grow dim in our ears, and to think for ourselves about what a truly ultimate reality that was fully personal and really was perfectly loving would be like. And I am suggesting that if we do so, a somewhat different picture of God from the one we are used to will emerge. When we think about the idea of God, we cannot assume that probably God’s nature is in accord with what the actual world is like, and so we cannot take as our guide a picture of God fashioned by theology over the centuries on that assumption. We must be open to the possibility that the world would be completely different if there were a God. For the properties we ascribe to God have implications, and these place constraints on what the world could be like if there were a being with those properties. If we recognize all this, perhaps what I have said about divine love and the availability of relationship, though quite foreign to the actual world, will come to seem perfectly natural and appropriate to us.

So much for a clarification and initial defense of premise 1 of the hiddenness argument. (Notice that if what I have said about it is right, then it expresses a conceptual truth about divine love and thus is necessarily true.) That first premise is the critical one. If you accept it, you will find it easy to go the rest of the way with the argument. For the belief that God exists is obviously and necessarily one of the aforementioned conditions of being in a position to exercise one’s capacity for relationship with God–how can I hear God speak to me or consciously experience divine forgiveness and support or feel grateful to God or experience God’s loving presence and respond to it in love and obedience and worship if I do not believe that there is a God? That gets us premise 2. And because belief is one of those conditions and because God in willing a certain state must obviously will all of its conditions, we may quickly infer from 1 and 2 the further claim (3) that, if there is a perfectly loving God, creatures capable of relationship with God who do not resist God will always be in possession of such belief. The presence of God will be for them like a light that–however much the degree of its brightness may fluctuate–remains on unless they close their eyes. But just by looking around us with our eyes open, we can see that this state of affairs does not obtain. As noted earlier, there is plenty of nonbelief in the world that does not reflect free resistance of God. Much nonbelief, as we have put it, is nonresistant nonbelief. So we have the additional premise, 4. But from 3 and 4 it clearly follows (5) that no perfectly loving God exists. Now it is surely a necessary truth that if God exists, God is perfectly loving. How could a personal being of the sort worshipped by Western theists be unsurpassably great, as the Western God is said to be, without unsurpassable love? That point gives us 6, another premise. But by 5 and 6 we are clearly led–at 7–to the final conclusion of the argument: God does not exist. What careful reasoning and consideration of the heart and soul of love combine to show is that nonresistant nonbelief itself provides a basis for drawing a conclusion in the debate over whether God exists in the actual world, and that conclusion is atheism.

III

So how forceful is this argument? In particular, does it have the resources to meet and defeat objections? Let us first set aside some misguided attempts to defeat the argument.

There is, for example, a failed attempt to make a connection between the hiddenness argument and the problem of evil. The suggestion here is that, since the problematic nature of divine hiddenness consists in the suffering that uncertainty or the loss of theistic belief may sometimes involve, and since there are far worse forms of suffering than that, which discussion of the problem of evil has shown can be handled by theists, the so-called problem of hiddenness may safely be ignored. I hope it will be obvious that this approach is misguided. For one thing, as suggested above, there are plenty of types of nonresistant nonbelief that do not involve regretted doubt or loss of belief and so cannot be linked to suffering in the manner imagined by the objection. But more fundamentally, it is not the anguish of doubt and the empathy of God that, in the first instance, should lead us to wonder why there are nonresistant doubters. It is rather the natural inclination of any loving parent (and so of any loving Parent) to make relationship with herself possible for her children–for their sake, certainly, but also for its own sake, and even where there would be no pain and suffering if it were not made available. The Divine Parent’s motivation to make divine-human relationship possible therefore includes much more than do the motives to which we appeal when we argue, if we do, that God would prevent pain and suffering.[5]

Other misguided moves may be dispatched more summarily. It has been said that a God shouldn’t be expected to entertain us with spectacular cosmic performances or overwhelm us with miracles. But it doesn’t take much imagination to see how nonresistant nonbelief in its various forms might be prevented through–for example–the provision of more subtle and interesting forms of evidence, such as religious experiences whose character and force are modulated according to our intellectual and moral needs. It has also been said that God would not force us into relationship or coerce our love. But a close look at the argument shows that I have not suggested that God would bring us into divine-human relationship, only that God would put in place the conditions necessary for us to be able to bring ourselves into such relationship, if we so choose. Another criticism we may immediately reject is one claiming that a relationship with God of some unnoticed or implicit kind is perfectly possible without explicit theistic belief: this simply overlooks that I have been talking about explicit, reciprocal relationship, or else presupposes rather than proves that a perfectly loving God would be content with a more distant and ‘second best’ mode of relating. Yet another point that would miss the boat makes the question-begging judgment that a God might for all we know be distant, thus ignoring what I have had to say about the nature of love, which if forceful entails the falsity of that judgment, and ignoring as well all the factors in our culture that would conspire to make such a judgment tempting even if (as I have argued) it has no plausibility. Setting all such shortsighted objections aside, what are we left with in the way of objections to my argument, and can they be convincingly answered?

The objections worth taking more seriously all have this in common: they refer to some reason God might have–some great good God might seek to realize–in virtue of which God might possibly permit nonresistant nonbelief for some or all of some individual’s earthly career, despite the divine motivation to make divine-human relationship at all times available to individuals. Now various goods we know of might be enumerated and discussed in dealing with this objection–such goods, for example, as moral freedom, serious responsibility (both intellectual and nonintellectual), the cultivation of character, a choice of destiny, cooperation with others, spiritually efficacious revelation of moral/spiritual deficiencies, nurturance of a deeper spiritual maturity, and occasions for meaningful investigation and intellectual debate. But discussing all the issues that arise in connection with such goods would obviously take a great deal of time. Fortunately, there is a way around that. First, let’s notice that if the most fundamental spiritual reality is a personal God, then all serious spiritual development must begin in what I have emphasized–namely, a personal relationship with God. Second, such relationship with an infinitely rich personal reality would have to be the greatest good any human being could possibly experience, if God exists. But then why this talk of some other good, for the sake of which God would sacrifice such relationship?

Perhaps it will be replied that God only sacrifices some time in the relationship, not the whole relationship, and that what is gained thereby may contribute to the flourishing of a future relationship with God. But it is hard to see how someone who is not resisting God, perhaps even seeking God, could possibly be in a state such that the belief that God exists would inhibit or prevent the success of the relationship in the long term, as this point requires. Indeed, such an individual would seem to be in just the right position in this respect–certainly their state is no less appropriate to relationship with God than that of many who would be declared by theists to be enjoying it already.

Consider also, in this connection, the infinite resourcefulness of God, and again–but in a slightly different way–the infinite depth and richness of God. If God indeed possesses these attributes, then there must at any point in time after the commencement of relationship with God be literally an infinite number of ways of developing in relationship with God and experiencing wonderful new goods. Given the richness and multileveled nature of any personal relationship with God, there must always be more to discover and overcome. Indeed, at virtually any stage along the way, there would be new opportunities for the exercise of moral freedom and responsibility, the cultivation of character, choices affecting one’s destiny, cooperation with others, and meaningful investigation and intellectual development, not to mention the need for awareness of one’s moral/spiritual deficiencies and for the nurturance of a deeper spiritual maturity! In light of this fact, it seems extremely odd that anyone should think it possible that, on account of reasons of the sort we see in this list, some creature should be prevented by God from so much as seriously beginning the spiritual journey. And yet this is what the defenders of divine distance must make intelligible to us!

One particular form the exercise of God’s resourcefulness might take may be highlighted here. Strange as it may seem, there is an important form of ‘hiddenness’ that is quite compatible with–and indeed requires–a situation in which God is revealed to everyone. To see this, suppose that God exists, and that there are no nonresistant nonbelievers. Indeed, go further and suppose that every capable creature responds to her belief by entering into personal relationship with God, ‘conversing’ with God in prayer, feeling God’s presence, living her whole life in the context of divine-human communion. (Notice that we need not suppose that these ‘capable creatures’ include the human beings who actually exist: there is no reason to suppose that a God would antecedently find our existence preferable to the existence of any of an infinite number of collections of other creatures.) Suppose also that some of these creatures subsequently lapse into some inappropriate state–say, arrogance or presumption–or more generally that one or other of the goods that have been mentioned as providing reasons for divine hiddenness becomes a divine desideratum in relation to them. What can God do? Well, there is still the possibility of a sort of divine withdrawal within relationship. What I have in mind here is analogous to what has traditionally been called ‘the dark night of the soul’–a state in which there is evidence for God’s existence on which the believer may rely, but in which God is not felt as directly present to her experience, and may indeed feel absent. While not removing the conditions of relationship, such a ‘withdrawal’ would severely test the believer’s faith, and clearly would provide an occasion for the realization of any goods (if such there be) that are easier to acquire given withdrawal. In other words, it would be capable of accomplishing everything that theists sometimes say the other sort of hiddenness is designed to do! But if this sort of hiddenness can produce the goods in question and is compatible with God having been revealed to the nonresistant, what possible reason could we have for insisting that God would leave anyone in doubt and nonbelief in order to further those goods?

Look at it this way. The choice we face here is basically between (i) a picture in which the self-revelation of God is basic–God’s existence is beyond nonresistant nonbelief–and God withdraws if and when such withdrawal is needed to facilitate hiddenness-related goods but without ever removing the possibility of relationship with God, and (ii) a picture in which withdrawal is basic–God’s existence is not beyond nonresistant nonbelief–and God is selectively revealed to some individuals or to none at all, leaving many in a position where they are unable to enter into relationship with God, even if they should earnestly wish to do so. To which picture should we be drawn, intellectually speaking, in light of the divine bias toward relationship that anyone aware of the nature of divine love must acknowledge, and also the divine resourcefulness? If you were thinking about some other possible world in a manner uninfluenced by religious tradition, and were handed the description of the being we have been talking about (all-powerful, all-knowing, perfectly good, perfectly loving) as well as the two pictures, and asked which picture best represents what that world would include should the being in question exist in it, which picture would you choose? Obviously it is (i). Surely this is, in light of all we know about love and the greatness of any God there may be, a more adequate picture than one in which a personal God is presented to us as not naturally loving in the first place–too much of a ‘distant father’ to relate easily with children–or as suspicious and controlling or insufficiently equipped to satisfy both the impulse to make relationship possible and the desire to nurture the growth and flourishing of creatures. Indeed, the second picture has nothing going for it at all. But if so, then we must also conclude that objections to the hiddenness argument, requiring as they do a different answer, are unsuccessful, and that the weak theistic evidence of the actual world is indeed strong atheistic proof.[6]

Notes

[1] In previous writing I have spoken of reasonable or inculpable nonbelief, nonbelief that arises through no fault of one’s own, construing this as representing a sufficient condition of nonresistant nonbelief whose occurrence is fairly easy to establish. But as I have been (mis)understood to suggest that a general inculpability is not just sufficient but necessary for a situation in which God would–according to the argument of section II–be revealed to someone, I here speak otherwise.

[2] Notice that I am not introducing the unhappiness of these individuals as evidence that something bad has occurred (which might be turned into a variant of the argument from evil–more on this below), but only as evidence that they are not resisting God or belief in God.

[3] For much more on ‘belief,’ ‘faith,’ ‘skepticism’ and other such fundamentals, see my Prolegomena to a Philosophy of Religion (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2005).

[4] See my Divine Hiddenness and Human Reason (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1993).

[5] Perhaps the suggestion will instead be that the hiddenness argument is reducible to the argument from evil because the former, like the latter, is arguing from things bad. But even if in some sense the hiddenness argument can be said to be arguing from what is bad (and this is questionable), to say because of this that the hiddenness argument is reducible to the argument from evil would be like saying that because the theistic teleological argument, like the cosmological argument, argues from things contingent, the teleological argument is reducible to the cosmological argument; or that because the argument for God’s existence from religious experience, like the argument from miracles, is concerned with apparent terrestrial manifestations of Divine action, the argument from religious experience is reducible to the argument from miracles. Such claims are manifestly unconvincing, and so–for the same reason–is the reductionist claim about the relation between the hiddenness argument and the argument from evil. Whatever one’s view of the latter, the former will require independent consideration.

[6] The phrase ‘strong atheistic proof’ could give rise to endless discussion involving considerations of logic and epistemology and the philosophy of language. My use of it here should be understood by reference to the following. As I see it, atheists may appropriately use the hiddenness argument in defense of their own reasonableness as atheists, and they may also appropriately use it to convince others (whether wavering agnostics or previously convinced believers of one stripe or another–e.g., evangelical Christians), with some expectation of success where those others engage it responsibly, fulfilling all intellectual duties and contravening no relevant virtue. For if, as I have argued, the argument must be found in itself convincing, then one could reasonably be prevented from embracing atheism on its account only by some apparently equally strong and convincing evidence on the side of theism (even then agnosticism would be the rational result). And given that we are talking about a deductive argument here, ‘apparently equally strong and convincing evidence on the side of theism’ is a tall order indeed, one that not many responsible agnostics and theists will be in a position to fill.

There is also another level–I only have space to mention it–at which we might understand my use of that phrase ‘strong atheistic proof.’ For we might think of the hiddenness argument as a contribution to the perennial debate over theism (of which this Internet discussion is a part) that might conceivably lead to a consensus as to the falsity of theism and the truth of atheism among investigators who are seeking to establish the objective state of the evidence and the objective status of theism and atheism. In that context, one of the investigators–myself–is putting forward an argument, having experienced it as strong atheistic proof in the sense of the previous paragraph, and advertising it as ‘strong atheistic proof’ to his fellow investigators, seeking thereby to stimulate discussion and perhaps move things further in the direction of some consensus of the aforementioned kind. If that consensus came to be, and if it came to be because of the hiddenness argument, then of course we would be able to use the phrase ‘strong atheistic proof’ in yet another way, perhaps the strongest way of all! I am certainly not claiming that it can appropriately be used in that way now, but I do think it is appropriately used in the other two ways I have mentioned.


The Sounds of Silence: Why the Divine Hiddenness Argument Fails (2008)

Jeffrey Jordan

John Schellenberg has presented an argument noteworthy in several respects. One interesting respect is that his “divine hiddenness” argument is a philosophically interesting innovation in a debate that has raged for millennia. Innovation in philosophy, especially an interesting innovation, is not an easy task, but Professor Schellenberg has accomplished it. The divine hiddenness argument (DHA) runs:

  1. If there is a perfectly loving God, all creatures capable of explicit and positively meaningful relationship with God who have not freely shut themselves off from God are in a position to participate in such relationships. And,
  2. No one can be in a position to participate in such relationships without believing that God exists. So,
  3. If there is a perfectly loving God, all creatures capable of explicit and positively meaningful relationship with God who have not freely shut themselves off from God believe that God exists. And,
  4. It is not the case that all creatures capable of explicit and positively meaningful relationship with God who have not freely shut themselves off from God believe that God exists: there is nonresistant nonbelief. So,
  5. It is not the case that there is a perfectly loving God. And,
  6. If God exists, God is perfectly loving. Therefore,
  7. It is not the case that God exists.

A key idea of the DHA is that a perfectly loving being would desire the best for its beloved. Another key idea is that a deep relationship or friendship with God would constitute a very great good for creatures. So, God, if he exists, would desire that each creature enjoy the benefit of a deep friendship with him. Of course, very little is said about what an “explicit and positively meaningful relationship with God” consists in. And this dearth of detail may be important, as much hangs on what such a relationship would be.[1]

In what follows I argue that interest and innovation aside, Schellenberg’s argument is unsound. My argument for this judgment proceeds along three paths. The first two paths are but short sketches for thinking that the DHA is unsound. My third objection is developed in greater detail. Before looking at the objections it will be useful to note several assumptions required by the DHA.

Assumptions of the Divine Hiddenness Argument

The DHA has, like all arguments, assumptions or unstated premises. One assumption of the DHA is the proposition that:

A1. The probability that God exists, given the available supporting evidence, is significantly greater than one-half, if God exists.

Importantly, proposition (A1) is supposed to be a necessary truth, a proposition true in all possible circumstances. We might symbolize (A1), using standard notation, and employing as placeholders G for God exists, E for the evidence indicating that God exists, this way:

[G → P(G/E) >> 0.5][2]

Notice that if (A1) were false, Schellenberg’s argument would fail. If it were possible that the probability that God exists, given the available supporting evidence, were equal to, or nearly so, one-half, then it would not be a necessary truth that that probability had to be significantly higher than one-half (assuming the existence of God). In symbols, (A1) is false if

◊[P(G/E) ≈ 0.5 & G]

Proposition (A1) makes it clear that no middling probability assignment for God is allowed if the DHA succeeds.

A second assumption of the DHA is that absolute evidentialism is true. Absolute evidentialism (AE) is the thesis that:

for all persons S and propositions p and times t, S ought to believe that p at t if the evidence renders p more likely than not at t; and S ought not believe that p if the evidence does not render p more likely than not at t.

A famous anecdote involving Bertrand Russell vividly captures the absolute evidentialist attitude: having been asked what he would say to God if after death he were to find himself before the divine throne, Russell answered, “not enough evidence God, not enough evidence.” That the DHA assumes AE can be seen by remembering that the argument is erected upon the alleged consequences of the notion of perfect divine love; a love without limits, or defects. According to Schellenberg, God would ensure that each competent creature is exposed to evidence sufficient to generate theistic belief. The level of evidence would be so high that only an irresponsible disregard could produce nonbelief. Put another way, the DHA requires that each person has strong reason to believe. A Pascalian, of course, would point out that that is what we in fact do have. It is in the interest of each person to form the belief that God exists. Schellenberg does not countenance that response, assuming that the divine insurance would be purely evidentiary and not pragmatic in nature.

A third assumption is that doxastic voluntarism is false. According to doxastic voluntarism, believing is a direct act of the will, with which propositions we believe under our immediate control. A basic action is an action that a person intentionally does, without doing any other basic action. Jones’ moving of her finger is a basic action, since she need not perform any other action to accomplish it. Her handing the book from Smith to Brown is not basic, since she must intentionally do several things to accomplish it. According to doxastic voluntarism, forming a belief is in some cases a basic action. We can will, directly and voluntarily, what to believe and the beliefs thereby acquired are freely obtained and are not forced upon us. In short, one can believe at will. Schellenberg rightly assumes that doxastic voluntarism is false. But of course even if doxastic voluntarism is false, it does not follow that we have no control over our beliefs. The falsity of doxastic voluntarism is compatible with our having indirect or roundabout control over our beliefs. So, while we lack direct control of our beliefs, we do have indirect or roundabout freedom over our beliefs.

A fourth assumption is that God, being perfectly loving, loves universally and equally; that every human is beloved and, as a consequence, is a recipient of equal treatment on the part of God. It is a common claim of theists that God is perfectly good, and by that they mean not just that God perfectly loves, but that God is perfectly just. God’s love, then, would have to be calibrated to that degree compatible with the other properties essential to divine perfection. Divine love may not have the consequence Schellenberg assumes if that consequence is incompatible with divine justice. Schellenberg’s assumption blithely ignores a venerable theological tradition populated with names like Paul, Augustine, Thomas, Luther, and Calvin, which asserts that divine love is constrained by divine justice.[3] This tradition holds that grace is necessary for one to appreciate the evidence in support of theism; without grace, one will not believe. But grace is a divine gift of which justice precludes a universal distribution. If this tradition were correct, premise (6) would be false as understood in the sense necessary for the validity of the DHA.

Objection One

The first objection focuses on premise (2) of the DHA. In support of (2) Schellenberg asserts that:

For the belief that God exists is obviously and necessarily one of the aforementioned conditions of being in a position to exercise one’s capacity for relationship with God–how can I hear God speak to me or consciously experience divine forgiveness and support or feel grateful to God or experience God’s loving presence and respond to it in love and obedience and worship if I do not believe that there is a God?[4]

So, according to (2), belief is required to enjoy a deep relationship or friendship with God. But there is good reason to doubt this. To see why, consider the distinction between belief and acceptance. Accepting a proposition, unlike believing, is an action that is characterized, in part, by one’s assenting to the proposition, whether one believes it or not.[5] One accepts a proposition when she assents to its truth and employs it as a premise in her deliberations. What is it to believe a proposition? Believing a proposition is being disposed to feel that it is probably the case. Belief and acceptance typically converge, but they can diverge, since one can believe a proposition that one does not accept. For example, think of the gambler’s fallacy. One might believe that the next toss of the coin will very probably come up Tails, since it has been Heads on the previous seven tosses. Nevertheless, one ought not to accept that the next toss must come up Tails, or that the probability that it will is greater than one-half. Acceptance, unlike believing, is an action that is under our direct control. If one accepts a proposition, one can also act upon it. Acting upon a proposition is behaving as though it were true. The two-step regimen of accepting a proposition and acting upon it is a common way of inculcating belief in that proposition. And, importantly, there is no hint of self-deception tainting the process.

The relevance of this distinction is that one can accept that God exists, even if one does not believe that God exists. Since acceptance is under our direct control, one can choose to accept, even if one cannot choose to believe. Indeed, God, if he exists and perfectly loves, may value acceptance, since God would know that doxastic voluntarism is false. Keeping in mind that one way to inculcate a belief is by accepting the proposition and acting upon it, one might think that acceptance is an action that God, if he exists, would value. Of course, much hangs on just what an “explicit and positively meaningful relationship with God” is. If we anthropomorphize that idea, I suspect we’ll have one result; and if we don’t, I suspect we’ll have a different result.[6] In any case I know of no good reason for thinking that, if God were to value acceptance, acceptance would preclude one from a deep relationship with God. If this is correct, premise (2) is false. And if (2) is false, the DHA is unsound. While more needs to be said here, we move on to the second objection.

Objection Two

The second objection is directed toward Schellenberg’s absolute evidentialism. According to AE, it is wrong to form beliefs or to preserve beliefs which lack the support of adequate evidence. To inculcate a belief on the basis of a pragmatic argument is wrong, whether morally or cognitively, according to AE.

But as argued in my opening case, AE cannot be sustained. If AE were true, it would be necessarily true. There are, however, possible situations in which taking steps to form or maintain a belief lacking adequate evidence is morally obligatory. And since no one is irrational in doing her moral duty, AE is false. Think of it like this. Suppose you’re married, and you’ve been confronted with evidence that your spouse is a bank robber. Knowing well your spouse you have reason to believe that your spouse has been mistakenly accused of the crime. Weighing the evidence, pro and con, in as disinterested a manner as you can, you find that you have just about as much reason to doubt your spouse’s innocence as you do to affirm it. Although the evidence is balanced, you do not suspend judgment on the matter. Remembering your vow to love and cherish, you take steps to maintain the belief that your spouse is innocent by continuing to accept her innocence. If more con-evidence were to become available, you’re prepared to concede; but until then and as long as the evidence is at worst balanced, you aspire to honor your vow by maintaining the belief that your spouse is innocent. If AE were true, you’d be wrong not to disabuse yourself of the belief that your spouse is innocent. But no one could justly charge you with irrationality or with immorality in this circumstance. AE is, therefore, false.[7]

Since AE is false, arguably no one would be wrong, in certain circumstances, to form beliefs on the basis of a pragmatic argument. A Pascalian holds that it is permissible to form a theistic belief on the basis of a pragmatic argument when one finds oneself with as much reason to believe as not to believe. If the Pascalian is right, then everyone has overwhelming reason to inculcate theistic belief, since, as I showed in the opening case, the Jamesian wager is a dominance argument–depending on how the world turns out, taking steps to form the belief that God exists may be in your best interest, and doing so never renders you worse off than any other action open to you.

Why is the falsity of AE relevant? Schellenberg dismisses the response that nonbelievers are in fact culpable for nonbelief. While it is true that the evidentiary situation may be ambiguous, it is manifest that the pragmatic situation is conclusively tilted toward theistic belief. All persons have overwhelmingly good reason to accept that God exists, and to inculcate theistic belief. This is a point clear enough for all to see. A common way of trying to elude this point is via an unfounded allegiance to AE. An allegiance that proclaims, perhaps arrogantly, not enough evidence God, not enough evidence–despite the fact that there is abundant reason to believe.

Objection Three

An old joke may aid in developing this objection: a devout Calvinist is trapped on top of his house surrounded by rising flood waters. His neighbor from the north comes by in a canoe and tells the Calvinist to climb in. “No, I will wait on the succor of the Lord” he says. Later, as the waters rise, his neighbor from the south floats by in a boat and tells the old man to climb in. “No, I wait upon God to rescue me” the old man answers. As the waters rise even higher, a neighbor from the west arrives on a barge and implores the old man to climb aboard. “No, I wait upon the Lord” the Calvinist replies again. Soon the old man is swept away by the flood and drowns. Finding himself postmortem before God, the old Calvinist asks God, “Lord what happened? I faithfully waited for your rescue.” God says to him, “Did you not see the three boats I sent?”

The target of objection three is assumption (A1):

A1. The probability that God exists, given the available supporting evidence, is significantly greater than one-half, if God exists.

Keep in mind that (A1) is, allegedly, a necessary truth. The only reason Schellenberg provides for thinking that perfect divine love would necessarily ensure that all persons are presented with strong evidence if God exists is an analogy with human parents. It appears that Schellenberg thinks it is obvious that it is impossible that both God exist and that the pro and con evidence be roughly equal. But there is good reason to doubt that this is a necessary truth. To see this, consider what we will call “the Story”:

Suppose God exists and desires that humans choose to enter into a relationship with Him. God desires, that is, that humans accept Him as a vital concern in their lives. Moreover, since belief is a passive state over which one has no direct control, God would not present one with evidence sufficient to elicit theistic belief, since such “automatic belief” would not preserve the free choice to align oneself with God. What God values is the initial choice to freely accept, the freedom to choose to align oneself with God, and the effort to try to bring about belief, the free inculcation of belief. God would present reason sufficient to motivate one to choose to accept God, but God would not expose one to strong evidence, since he desires the decision to accept to be as unfettered as possible. Presenting a religiously ambiguous creation God preserves the freedom of both acceptance and the inculcation of belief.

Suppose it’s not clear whether two propositions, P and Q, are logically compatible. One way of showing that they are is to come up with a third proposition, R, which is itself a possible proposition and is consistent with both P and Q, and to conjoin R to P (or to Q). If the conjunction (P & R) entails Q, then the conjunction (P & Q & R) is possible. And if (P & R & Q) is possible then so too is (P & Q). And, hence, P and Q are compatible.

In the Story I conjoined the proposition that God exists with various propositions about belief and acceptance and about God valuing free acceptance and the free inculcation of belief. It follows from my conjunction that we would expect the evidence that God exists to be as likely as not. For our purposes, of course, the Story need only be possible. Even if the Story is far-fetched, it is far from inconceivable. Perhaps the Story is false; it may well be. But as long as it is not necessarily false, the Story serves its point, since it implies that there could be a situation in which both God exists and the evidence does not render the existence of God significantly greater than one-half. If the Story is possible, (A1) is false:

◊[P(G/E) ≈ 0.5 & G] → ~[G → P(G/E) >> 0.5]

Is the Story possible? Clearly it is, since, for one thing, it entails no contradiction. And if (A1) is false, Schellenberg’s argument is unsound.

Why might God value the conjunctive state of affairs of free acceptance and free inculcation? Keeping in mind that it only need be possible that God values these, support for the possibility of that valuation can be gleaned in at least a couple of ways. One way would build upon the recognition that belief ebbs and flows with one’s grasp (whether reliable or not) of the evidence. Perhaps God would value acceptance as a kind of protection for the believer, since one can control one’s acceptances, even if one cannot directly control one’s beliefs. According to this idea, God, desiring that no one would be harmed by an erosion of belief caused by their grasp (whether reliable or not) of the evidence, provides strong reason to accept even in the absence of strong evidence. A second way builds upon what we might call the Celebrity Case:

Suppose you are a rich and famous celebrity. You know that among your entourage are many who associate with you just because you’re rich and famous. You seek, however, true friends. You realize that celebrity gets in the way of establishing a deep relationship as the lure of wealth, power, and fame lead people away from you as a person and toward your celebrity. To establish deep friendships requires that you try to find persons ignorant of your celebrity, or indifferent to it, who will like you for who you are, regardless of your celebrity status.

In a situation like this it makes sense for one to hide her celebrity, as she seeks friends. What is important is that an appropriate foundation is laid, which will support the superstructure of a deep friendship. As a celebrity might hide that fact about herself, perhaps God has a similar reason to hide certain facts about himself in order that an appropriate foundation might be laid that’ll support a deep and free relationship.

One might object that there’s a big difference between God the creator and a celebrity. The celebrity thinks of friendships as a good for herself; while God would not, since it is the good of the creation that’s important. Moreover, in the celebrity case, what’s hidden are facts about wealth and fame, but with God the fact allegedly hidden would be existence, and how could hiding divine existence be good for God’s creatures?

In response to this objection think of a teacher preparing his students for a standardized exam the results of which will determine the student’s life-chances (admission to the best schools say). While the teacher should certainly not provide the answers by showing the students a purloined copy of the exam, s/he should provide three things: enough information to prepare the students for the exam, the motivation to try their best, and the requisite skills to apply what they’ve learned in original ways (as opposed to being “taught to the test”). S/he should do this for the good of the students, since otherwise s/he is harming them for life.[8] In like manner a theist could hold that God obscures his existence to preserve both the freedom to accept and the freedom to inculcate belief, while at the same time providing enough evidence of his existence such that it is as likely as not, and strong reason to motivate the effort to inculcate saving-belief. Divine hiddenness could be good for God’s creatures by preserving the dual freedoms of acceptance and inculcation, which are necessary for establishing a deep, free and genuine relationship.

I suspect that something very much like the story is true. Mentioning that hunch, however, is needlessly extravagant as truth in this context is overkill. All I need is that the Story is possible, and enough has been said to make manifest that possibility. Since the Story is possible, (A1) is false. And with (A1) false, the DHA is unsound, since premise (2) is false. Premise (2) asserts:

No one can be in a position to participate in such relationships without believing that God exists.

But if the Story is possible, it may be that every human is in a position to freely accept that God exists, and to freely take steps to try to bring about the belief that God exists, without the occurrent belief that God exists. A deep and meaningful relationship with God may require, for all I know, that the requisite belief is earned through free acceptance and taking steps to inculcate that belief, rather than just finding oneself saddled with it.[9] Clearly enough, since the Story is possible, the DHA is unsound. Religious uncertainty does not provide a coup de grâce to theistic belief, by tipping the scales decisively toward skepticism.[10]

Notes

[1] I owe this point to Joel Pust.

[2] The symbol P(x/y) should be read: the probability of x given that y. The symbol x >> y should be read: x is significantly greater than y. The symbol x << y should be read: x is significantly less than y. The symbol x ^ y should be read: either x or y. The symbol (x) should be read: It is necessarily true that x. The symbol x → y should be read: if x, then y. The symbol (x) should be read: It is possibly true that x. The symbol x ≈ y should be read: x is almost equal to y.

[3] Schellenberg comments on a different aspect of this tradition in his important book, Divine Hiddenness and Human Reason (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1993): 74-82.

[4] Schellenberg, “What Divine Hiddenness Reveals, or How Weak Theistic Evidence is Strong Atheistic Proof.”

[5] My development of this distinction owes much to the discussion in William Alston, “Belief, Acceptance, and Religious Faith” in Faith, Freedom, and Rationality, eds. Jeffrey Jordan & Daniel Howard-Snyder (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 1996): 3-27.

[6] By “anthropomorphize” I mean understanding the relationship with God as in all relevant respects being the same as human relationships.

[7] Richard Gale formulates a similar argument contra evidentialism. See his The Nature and Existence of God (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993): 357.

[8] I owe a variant of the “teacher case” to Doug Stalker.

[9] This debate has been about the appropriateness of theistic belief given religious uncertainty. Importantly, belief, while the attitude usually favored, is not the only attitude which could serve as a foundation for theistic commitment. One might embrace theism because one accepts it, or even out of hope.

[10] I thank Paul Draper, Michael Murray, Joel Pust, and Doug Stalker for their comments.


The Sounds of Silence Stilled: A Reply toJordanon Hiddenness (2008)

John Schellenberg

Jeffrey Jordan’s response to my hiddenness argument is essentially an extension and application of his pragmatic stance on matters religious. The result is an interesting and original solution to the problem of divine hiddenness. But I’m afraid it cannot be called convincing. Here I explain why. Before doing so, however, let me briefly identify and root out certain other mistaken views that appear along the pathJordanfollows to his main argument, lest the reader be tripped up by them or lose his way in a thicket of error.

1. Love is Not Love that without Love of Unity Unites

Jordanstarts off with the claim that “a key idea” of the hiddenness argument is that “a perfectly loving being would desire the best for its beloved”; “another key idea,” he says, “is that a deep relationship or friendship with God would constitute a very great good for creatures.” He then goes on to suggest that the conjunction of these two ideas is the sole basis for my claim that a loving God would seek relationship with creatures. But I have repeatedly argued that a perfectly loving being would value relationship for its own sake and not just on account of the benefits that might thereby be conferred on the beloved. The mother or sibling or friend whose love we admire does not value relationship with us just because it is good for us! (Later in his paper Jordan does mention my appeal to human parents, but he ignores this fundamental point about the nature of the best love that I am making by reference to them, and he ignores that it is not just parents but admirable lovers of every kind–parents, siblings, friends, and so on–that I have mentioned in support of it.) Accordingly, we could know that a God whose love for creatures was a perfect love would value relationship with creatures even if we knew nothing about what such relationship might involve. Now of course we aren’t bereft of information about what an explicit and positively meaningful relationship with God would consist in, contrary to whatJordan suggests. (It would mean an ever-deepening acquaintance and interaction–through such things as trust and responsiveness to the variable content of religious experience–with the greatest possible personal being, unspeakably beautiful and rich in every conceivable aspect.) But the point here is that by ignoring how a perfectly loving divine being would seek such relationship with us not just for instrumental reasons but also and centrally for its own sake,Jordan prejudices his case from the very start.

2. Ought-Nots and Will-Nots

In the first main section of his paper, Jordanoutlines four assumptions which he attributes to the hiddenness arguer. The first of these, his A1, is on the right track–though it could be clearer that it is the evidence available to nonresistant nonbelievers (which might be something nonpublic like religious experience) that we are talking about here.[1] But while A1 can be countenanced, Jordan’s next suggestion, that the hiddenness argument rests on the assumption of absolute evidentialism (AE) and its claim that one ought not to believe when evidence is lacking, is false. It is not hard to see why he was led to make this suggestion: if the reason to believe I am saying God would provide is construed by me as purely evidential in nature, mustn’t I be opposed (and thinking that God would be opposed) to nonevidential, pragmatic reasons? Otherwise, why exclude the latter from the category of relevant reasons to believe? But something important has been missed here. This is that if God wants to ensure that everyone is, barring resistance, always in a position to participate in explicit relationship with God–which is to say (as I say in my original case but as Jordan omits to say) if God wants everyone to always be able to do so just by trying to–then even if God is not opposed in principle to belief on pragmatic grounds, God will provide more than pragmatic reasons to believe, for the latter–as Jordan himself admits–take time to implement. If God wants to ensure that belief is held in such circumstances by means of reasons to believe, then the constant availability of evidence causally sufficient for belief is the only way to go.

Now there is a principle in the neighborhood of AE that I do accept and that does enter into my thinking about the hiddenness argument–though it must be stressed that it is a psychological-cum-logical claim rather than a moral one (the bits I have emphasized are those that deviate fromJordan’s AE):

For all persons S and propositions p and times t, S will believe that p at t if what she takes as evidence seems to her to render p more likely than not at t; and S will not believe that p at t if what she takes as evidence does not seem to her to render p more likely than not at t.

My acceptance of this principle influences my view, indicated just above, as to what we might expect God to provide in the way of reasons and why, but as we will see in a few moments, the principle also allows us to expose an important difficulty in Jordan’s pragmatic recommendation–a difficulty that does have a moral dimension.

Just before coming to that, though, let me comment on the last two assumptions Jordanattributes to me. The third (which opposes what Jordancalls doxastic voluntarism), like the first, is unproblematic. But the fourth, like the second, reflects misunderstanding or neglect. According to this fourth assumption which I am alleged to have made, God loves universally and equally in a manner that is at odds with any emphasis on love tempered by justice. God is the cosmic Pure Utilitarian who distributes the divine grace equally among creatures without concern for whether the responsibility of creatures might not call for more variable treatment. But while Jordan here says that I have blithely ignored a large tract of theological thinking representing a different view of divine love, it is rather he who has blithely ignored the fact that, according to the hiddenness argument, it is only nonresistant nonbelievers who may expect to always find evidence sufficient for theistic belief available to them. God’s treatment of creatures, on my view, would vary with the nature of their disposition toward God. Though I have interpreted this variability of treatment as itself a manifestation of love (God’s openness to being freely rejected by creatures and unwillingness to coerce belief where it is resisted), it is not hard to see how any plausible and relevant requirement of justice must implicitly be recognized by it. For if justice prevents God from being revealed to some creatures, if some deserve to be left in ignorance, will it not be because in some way, at some level, they have culpably resisted God? Will they not be the ones who reject the divine overtures, who will not have anything to do with God? If instead a creature were open to God, not culpably resistant at all, how could justice prevent God from being revealed to that creature?

3. Why a Pragmatic Solution Won’t Work

And now, without further ado, let me addressJordan’s pragmatic solution directly. His three objections to the hiddenness argument all represent different facets of that solution: considerations from the first and second are subsumed in the third, which develops the pragmatic response in its fullest form and is clearly given pride of place byJordan. The implicit progression is as follows. Belief isn’t necessary for a relationship with God; acceptance will do (Objection 1). And there is pragmatic reason to inculcate the belief that God exists through acceptance (Objection 2). Finally, it is possible that God would want a relationship to be formed on the basis of acceptance in response to pragmatic grounds instead of evidence, for it is possible that God is motivated by a desire to preserve a free choice to align oneself with God (Objection 3).

Jordan himself wants us to consider the three objections separately. But it is a good thing for him that he has more than the first two objections, separately construed, to rely on. For on their own, without being integrated into the third, they are completely implausible. Only by integrating central considerations from the first two objections into the third can certain obvious problems for the first two objections, taken separately, be circumvented. Unfortunately, the third objection faces insurmountable difficulties of its own, which leaves the pragmatic solution useless in the end.

Let us see how this assessment can be defended. Notice first why Objections 1 and 2 are unsuccessful on their own. By itself, Objection 1 must be taken as claiming that acceptance can substitute for belief in an explicit and positively meaningful relationship with God. But it is evident that explicit and positively meaningful relationship in every loving context with which we are familiar is explicit in a sense requiring mutual recognition, and that ‘mutual recognition’ must be taken in a sense entailing each party’s belief in the existence of the other. To suggest otherwise–at least without independent reasoning to support the notion that God would rest content with the seriously diminished ‘relationship’ compatible with acceptance (no clear hearing of God’s voice; no conscious experience of divine forgiveness and support; no assurance of God’s loving presence)–is nothing more than sophistry.[2] As for Jordan’s Objection 2: if this is to function as a stand-alone objection, it must–as he sees–involve the claim that pragmatic reasons to inculcate traditional theistic belief are overwhelmingly forceful and will be seen as such by any careful investigator who is humble and nonresistant (thus removing the possibility of nonresistant nonbelievers on which the hiddenness argument relies). This claim is overwhelmingly strong, and while it may not evince arrogance, it does suggest remarkable overconfidence and a remarkable myopia in the face of the many forms of religious belief and devotion which clearly must procure the pragmatic results Jordan wants to associate strictly with his familiar traditional theism. It also ignores how someone who accepts theism as a means of inculcating belief of theism after investigation has generated the view that the evidence is ambiguous is willingly giving herself over to self-deception. (This is where the principle enunciated above–my variation on Jordan’s AE–becomes relevant; such a one cannot arrive at theistic belief without getting herself to see the relevant evidence as more strongly in favor of theism than her best investigation has suggested it is–in other words, without fooling herself about what the evidence shows.) Surely some who are humble and nonresistant might find such self-deception to be a nonoverridden obstacle to belief (even if they are willing to go along with acceptance alone). But since I have expressed myself fully on related points in response to Jordan’s opening case, I will say no more about Objection 2 here.

Objection 3 gets around the worries I have identified. Its way of doing so has two parts: (i) taking the idea of an acceptance-based relationship and supporting the notion that God might possibly rest content with this on the way to belief and a fuller relationship and because of certain benefits obtainable thereby (and only thereby); and (ii) taking the idea of an attempt to self-induce belief through acceptance and arguing–at least implicitly–that the negative feature of such an effort (opening oneself to self-deception) is overridden by the possibility of obtaining the just-mentioned benefits. So what are the benefits at issue here? According to Jordan, they have to do with freedom: the freedom to “align oneself with God,” which one couldn’t have given “automatic belief.” God would value the “initial choice to freely accept” and “the free inculcation of belief,” and so would provide only pragmatic reasons for belief (which are sufficient to motivate acceptance) and avoid strong evidence (which only produces ‘automatic belief’).

Many difficulties bristle here. Clearly if–as I argued in “Jordan’s Jamesian Wager”–pragmatic considerations support no more than acceptance or faith that some religious claim is true, then the pragmatic support for specifically theistic belief that Jordan’s argument requires simply does not exist. More fundamentally, however, the point about ‘freedom to align oneself with God’ ignores the distinction between being in a relationship with God and being in a position to enter (or remain in) such a relationship through one’s free choice to do so. Even if one believes in God, one is not necessarily in the first of these states; only the second. (Many who believe in God have resisted aligning themselves with God.) And the second state is (by definition) compatible with just the sort of choice Jordan values. If one believes in God and is in a position to enter into relationship with God, one has a choice to make–will one do so or not? If one does so, one is aligning oneself with God; if one refuses to do so, one is not. So it is hard to see how the freedom Jordan wants is absent from the situation the hiddenness argument describes a loving God as necessarily realizing.[3] Indeed, there is a way of bringing the first two difficulties I have mentioned together to show that only in some such situation is the freedom Jordan wants really available to us. For if without strong evidence to positively distinguish theism from other religious possibilities, pragmatic considerations are impotent to move us in a theistic direction instead of others, why should one align oneself with theism as against other possibilities? For there to be a clear rational choice in favor of alignment with theism that the nonbeliever can freely make or refuse to make in the morally consequential sense that Jordan evidently has in mind, there must be good, nonpragmatic reason to prefer theism.

I conclude that, while many things can be learned from Jordan’s response to the hiddenness argument, that a pragmatic solution to the hiddenness problem works is not one of them.[4]

Notes

[1] Also,Jordanfalls into a curious tautology in discussing this alleged assumption. He says that if A1 were false my argument would fail, and then in fleshing this out gives us a proposition that reduces to ‘If A1 were false, A1 would be false’: “If it were possible that the probability that God exists, given the available supporting evidence, were equal to, or nearly so, one-half, then it would not be a necessary truth that that probability had to be significantly higher than one-half [assuming the existence of God].” We can certainly agree with this conditional, but we are still left waiting for something to show that the claim embedded in its consequent–A1–really is essential to the success of my argument!

[2] Jordan tries to avoid such a charge by watering down the idea of relationship with God, again suggesting that we know little about it, and in particular, that to speak of it as I do is to “anthropomorphize”–which he defines as “understanding the relationship with God as in all relevant respects being the same as human relationships.” Now this definition might be all right (and any illustration of it a problem) were the word ‘relevant’ to be removed. But if we only say that the two sorts of relationship are similar in relevant respects, surely we do not anthropomorphize. (Any two sorts of relationship are going to be alike in some respects.) And Jordan knows that the relevant respect I will emphasize is conscious reciprocity (no more than a filling out of the meaning of ‘explicit and positively meaningful’ there) and that I have allowed that in many other respects the divine-creature relationship might be as different from creature-creature relationships as night from day.

[3] For much more on this, see Chapter 5 of my Divine Hiddenness and Human Reason (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1993).

[4] Jordan has a trio of additional points to which the reader may expect a response: (i) acceptance is perhaps preferable to belief because it is not subject to the waxing and waning, ebbing and flowing, properties of involuntary belief (no talk of ‘automatic belief’ here!); or (ii) perhaps it is preferable because there is a need to avoid the ‘celebrity effect,’ whereby persons align themselves with God but for the wrong reasons; and moreover (iii) all that is required to defeat my claims is that the story he tells be logically possible, which it clearly is. However (i) simply ignores how easily God could see to it, in any possible world in which God exists, that our evidence was adjusted according to the vicissitudes of life and kept always causally sufficient for theistic belief. Perhaps Jordan is influenced by the ebbing and flowing to which theistic belief appears to be subject in the actual world. But then he is in danger of question-beggingly assuming that religious effects in the actual world are indicative of what the effects of God’s behavior in self-revelation would really be. Why suppose that the actual world reflects all that God could produce in the way of stable belief unless you are assuming that its instances of theistic belief are produced by God–and thus assuming that God actually exists? As for (ii): how does the accepter avoid the problem represented by the celebrity effect, if a problem it is? To do so, she would need to be unaware of just Whose existence she is accepting, and surely she is not. Finally, in response to (iii), since Jordan’s story includes the suggestion that an acceptance-based relationship is necessary for certain freedom-related goods to obtain, he is committed to the view that it is possibly necessary that this is so, which–according to standard modal logic–nothing can be without being necessary in all possible worlds, including the actual. And so the distinction between actual and possible to which he appeals is in fact unavailable to him.


Theistic Belief and Religious Uncertainty (2008)

Jeffrey Jordan

A castaway builds a bonfire hoping to catch the attention of any ship or plane that might be passing nearby.[1] Even with no evidence that a plane or ship is nearby, he still gathers driftwood and lights a fire, enhancing the possibility of rescue. The castaway’s reasoning is pragmatic. The benefit associated with fire building exceeds that of not building, and, clearly, no one questions the wisdom of the action.

Of course the castaway’s building of the fire does not require that the castaway believes that it will be seen. It requires only a belief that it might be seen. Now consider the question of God. What if there is no strong evidence that God exists? What if, that is, religious uncertainty obtains? Could one still believe, justifiably believe, that God exists? Or is belief when faced with religious uncertainty illegitimate and improper? Pragmatic arguments for theism are designed to motivate and support belief even in the absence of strong evidential support. These arguments seek to show that theistic belief is permissible, even if one lacks evidence that renders it likely that God exists.[2] Theism is the proposition that God exists. God I understand as that individual, if any, who is omnipotent, omniscient, and morally perfect. A theist is anyone who believes that God exists.

Pragmatic arguments employ prudential reasons on behalf of their conclusions. A prudential reason for a proposition is a reason to think that believing that proposition would be beneficial. Other theistic arguments–the ontological proof or the cosmological argument for example–provide epistemic reasons in support of theism. An epistemic reason for a certain proposition is a reason to think that that proposition is true. Blaise Pascal (1623-1662) is famous, in part, for his contention that, if the evidence is inconclusive, one can properly consult prudence: “your reason suffers no more violence in choosing one rather than the other… but what about your happiness? Let us weigh the gain and the loss involved by Wagering that God exists.”[3] According to Pascal, theistic belief, because of its prudential benefits, defeats its doxastic rivals of atheism and agnosticism. Pascal’s contention is encapsulated in what’s famously known as Pascal’s wager.

Pascal’s wager is the most prominent member of the family of pragmatic arguments in support of theism. Another prominent member of the family is found in the 1896 essay, “The Will to Believe,” authored by the American philosopher William James (1842-1910).[4] James’s argument is concerned in large part with the immediate benefits of cultivating theistic belief, rather than any alleged benefit in the hereafter. This world is the primary concern, not the world to come.

It is the contention of what follows that one version of the wager–what we will call the “Jamesian wager”–provides good reason in support of theistic belief. The Jamesian wager contends that benefits associated with theistic belief hinge not just on a world to come, but also on this world. According to the Jamesian wager, theistic belief as such is beneficial, whether God exists or not. If the castaway’s fire provides warmth, and a means to cook, as well as a signal, then the castaway has all the more reason to build the fire.

Decision Theory

Having an idea of the basic theory of decision-making greatly facilitates understanding pragmatic arguments. The theory of decision-making codifies the logic of rational action in situations in which one’s knowledge is limited. The usual limitation is a lack of a reliable basis on which to know or estimate the probabilities of various states of the world. In decision-making situations three elements are of importance: actions, states, and outcomes. Actions are the alternative ways of acting available to the deliberator: either wearing a coat or discarding it are two alternative actions. States are ways the world might be–it might be sunny or cloudy. Outcomes are the anticipated consequences or effects of each action if a particular state occurs–staying warm having worn my coat on a day that turns out chilly. A decision matrix usefully represents the relationships of these elements:

States

Actions

Outcomes

The outcomes will be arranged in cells, the number of which depends on the number of acts and states (2×2, or 2×3, or 3×3…). The cells are numbered sequentially from the upper left-hand cell across:

State 1

State 2

Act 1

F1

F2

Act 2

F3

F4

For simplicity’s sake, let’s stipulate that we’re concerned only with actions and states that are causally independent. One’s actions, that is, do not causally influence which state obtains. The deliberator values some outcomes; others she does not. “Utilities” is the term employed to represent the worth of the various outcomes for the deliberator. Some outcomes have a high value or utility for the deliberator, some a low or even negative utility (a disutility).

Probabilities, or the likelihood, of the various states play a large role in rational decision-making. If one knows the relevant probabilities (the risk involved), then a well-established rule is available: the Expectation rule. According to the Expectation rule, for any person S, and any number of actions available to S, if one of those actions has a greater expected utility than does the others, S should choose to perform that action. One calculates the expected utility of an act ψ by (i) multiplying the utility and probability of each outcome associated with ψ, (ii) subtracting any respective costs, and then (iii) summing the totals. So, for example, suppose one were deciding whether to carry an umbrella today. One prefers not to do so, but one also prefers even more not to get wet. We can use a 2×2 (two actions and two states) matrix to model these preferences, with the numbers within the cells representing the agent’s preference ranking of the various outcomes (the higher the number assigned to an outcome the greater the desire of the agent that the outcome obtains):

Rain

No rain

Carry

10

2

Don’t carry

1

5

Suppose there is a 50% chance of rain today. The expected utility (EU) of carrying an umbrella is greater than that of not carrying, since:

½ (10) + ½ (2) = 6 = EU(carry)

½ (1) + ½ (5) = 3 = EU(do not carry)

This kind of decision-making or deliberation with knowledge (or estimation) of the relevant probabilities and utilities of the outcomes is what’s known as “decisions under risk.” Typically, decisions under risk employ objective evidence for estimating probabilities; even so, decisions under risk can employ subjective probabilities (probabilities that are degrees of belief or estimations of likelihood).

On the other hand, when deliberating with a knowledge of the outcomes but no knowledge of the probabilities associated with those outcomes, one faces a “decision under uncertainty” (sometimes called a “decision under ignorance”). No single rule governs decisions under uncertainty. Various rules are relevant depending upon one’s circumstances and preferences.[5]

The Jamesian wager employs a decision-theoretic principle I call the “Next Best Thing Principle”:

D. Next Best Thing Principle: For any person S making a forced decision under uncertainty, if one of the actions, α, available to S has an outcome as good as the best outcomes of the other available actions, and never an outcome worse than the worst outcomes of the other actions, and, excluding the best outcomes and worse outcomes, has only outcomes better than the outcomes of the other actions, S should choose α.

This principle advises choosing an action whose middling outcomes are better than those of its competition, whenever the best outcomes and worse outcomes of the alternatives are equal in value. If a particular action has no outcome worse than the worst outcomes of the other alternatives, and has an outcome as good as the best outcomes of the others, and, moreover, in every other state has an outcome better than that of the others, then that action is rationally preferable.

Pragmatic Arguments

There are, broadly speaking, two kinds of pragmatic arguments that have to do with belief formation. The first is an argument that recommends taking steps to believe a proposition because, if it should turn out to be true, the benefits gained from believing that proposition will be impressive. This first kind of pragmatic argument we can call a “truth-dependent” pragmatic argument, or more conveniently a “dependent-argument,” since the benefits are obtained only if the relevant state of affairs occurs. A prime example of a dependent-argument is Pascal’s best-known version of the wager: no matter how small the probability that God exists, as long as it is a positive, noninfinitesimal, probability, the expected utility of theistic belief exceeds the expected utility of disbelief because the reward for theistic belief is infinite if God exists. Recognizing the distinction between (A) having reason to believe a certain proposition is true, and (B) having reason to believe that proposition, it may be that taking steps to generate a belief in a certain proposition might be the rational thing to do, even if that proposition lacks strong evidential support. The benefits of believing a proposition can rationally take precedence over the evidential strength enjoyed by a contrary proposition; and so, given an infinite expected utility, Pascal’s wager contends that forming the belief that God exists is the rational thing to do, no matter how small the likelihood that God exists.

The second kind of pragmatic argument, which can be called a “truth-independent” pragmatic argument, or more conveniently, an “independent-argument,” is one which recommends taking steps to believe a certain proposition simply because of the benefits gained by believing it, whether or not the believed proposition is true. This is an argument that recommends belief cultivation because of the psychological, or moral, or religious, or social, or even the prudential benefits gained by virtue of believing it. In David Hume’s Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, for example, Cleanthes employs an independent argument, “religion, however corrupted, is still better than no religion at all. The doctrine of a future state is so strong and necessary a security to morals that we never ought to abandon or neglect it.”[6] Unlike independent pragmatic arguments, dependent ones are, in an important sense, truth-sensitive. Of course, being pragmatic arguments, dependent-arguments are not truth-sensitive in an evidential sense; nevertheless they are dependent on truth since the benefits are had only if the recommended belief is true. In contrast, independent pragmatic arguments, yielding benefits whether or not the recommended beliefs are true, are insensitive to truth. Independent-arguments, we might say, are belief-dependent and not truth-dependent. The Jamesian wager, as we will see, is an independent-argument, with the premise that theistic belief more likely generates a better life now than does nontheistic belief, whether or not God exists.

Evidentialism

One interesting question regarding pragmatic arguments concerns their relation to the influential tradition of evidentialism. As a first stab we might understand evidentialism as asserting that:

EV. for all persons S and propositions p and times t, it is permissible for S to believe that p at t if and only if believing p is supported by S’s evidence at t.

The notion of support encapsulated in (EV) is that of a preponderance of evidence: a person may believe a proposition p just in case p is more likely than not on S’s evidence. Put more familiarly, (EV) asserts that one should believe a proposition only if it is supported by adequate evidence.

Endorsing principle (EV), many philosophers have held that pragmatic reasons for belief-formation are illegitimate since such reasons do not constitute adequate evidence for the truth of the belief. No doubt the best-known statement of the evidentialist imperative is that of W. K. Clifford (1845-79), “it is wrong always, everywhere, and for any one, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence.”[7] Clifford presented (EV) in a moral sense: it is morally impermissible to believe anything that lacks adequate evidence. This understanding of (EV) might be called “ethical evidentialism.” The most plausible construction of ethical evidentialism builds on the claim that one should obey any rule that is such that, if everyone were to follow it, collective utility would be maximized.[8] Since the baneful consequences of believing upon insufficient evidence are so great, this argument goes, there is a general duty not to subvert civilization by promoting credulity. One is obligated to follow (EV) because the pernicious consequences of everyone violating it are so great.

The normative force of (EV) can also be understood in an epistemic or intellectual sense: it is unreasonable to believe something without adequate evidence. This second understanding of (EV) is “cognitive evidentialism.” Here the idea is that a violation of (EV) is impermissible because doing so makes one unreasonable. Something like this is implied by Locke’s claim that “there are very few lovers of Truth for Truth’s sake… How a man may know whether he be so in earnest is worth enquiry: and I think there is one unerring mark of it–the not entertaining any proposition with greater assurance than the proofs it is built upon will warrant,”[9] and in Hume’s dictum that “the wise man proportions his belief to the evidence.”[10] The lack of sufficient evidence means, if Locke and Hume are correct, that the wise person lacks belief as well. Notice also that the dicta of Locke and Hume concern the strength of one’s belief. The idea here is that one’s degree of belief regarding a given proposition should be proportional to the probability of that proposition. This idea, along with the cognitive evidentialist understanding of (EV), is widespread in philosophy.[11]

What is the stringency of the evidentialist imperative? Is it absolute or defeasible? Absolute evidentialism holds that there are no exceptions, every proposition falls under its purview. In either the ethical or cognitive sense, principle (EV) taken in the absolute sense consists of two normative claims: (E1) it is permissible to believe only propositions supported by sufficient evidence, and (E2) one’s degree of belief concerning a proposition ought to be proportional to the strength of the evidence enjoyed by that proposition. Claim (E1) supplies a lower bound on permissible belief; while (E2) renders the degree of belief, the strength of one’s believing, a function of the strength of the evidence. Taken together (E1) and (E2) imply that one ought to believe a proposition if it is supported by a preponderance of the evidence, whether propositional or experiential, and that one is permitted to believe a proposition only if it is supported by a preponderance of evidence.

Absolute evidentialism implies that if the evidence is balanced, or one finds oneself in a state of radical uncertainty, then one should neither believe, nor disbelieve. One should withhold belief. The only option open to one when the evidence is silent is to suspend belief. Understood in the absolutist sense, (EV) should be revised to read:

AE. for all persons S and propositions p and times t, S ought to believe that p at t if S’s evidence at t supports p; and S ought not believe that p if S’s evidence at t does not support p.

Defeasible evidentialism allows exceptions. Not every proposition falls under its purview, since it assigns the evidentialist imperative a limited scope, allowing the possibility that some propositions reside outside its jurisdiction. Defeasible evidentialism asserts that one ought to believe propositions supported by sufficient evidence, but it leaves open the possibility that one may have grounds other than the evidential from which to believe. Understood this way, (EV) would be revised to read:

DE. for all persons S and propositions p and times t, if S’s evidence at t supports p, then S ought to believe that p at t.

According to (DE), if the evidence is adequate, then the question is settled. If there is a preponderance of support for p, then one is required to believe p. Where the evidence definitely speaks, one must listen and obey. (DE) differs from (AE) in part since it says nothing about those occasions in which the evidence is silent, or is inadequate. If one assigns p a probability of one-half, then there is not a preponderance of evidence in support of p. (DE) says nothing about believing p in that case. Principle (AE), on the other hand, forbids believing p in that case.

While (AE) and (DE) are very attractive, neither passes muster, since there are occasions in which one has a moral duty to disbelieve a proposition that she takes to be well-supported. And since no one is irrational in doing her moral duty, it follows that there are occasions in which disbelieving a proposition that is well-supported is not only morally obligatory, but rationally permitted as well. Consider the following thought experiment. Suppose you were abducted by very powerful and very smart extraterrestrials that demonstrate their intent and power to destroy the Earth. Moreover, these fiendish ETs offer but one chance of salvation for humankind–you must disbelieve a proposition for which you have adequate evidence. You adroitly point out that you cannot, by a simple act of will, reject a proposition you have good reason to think is true. Devilish in their anticipation and in their technology, the ETs produce a device that can directly produce the requisite disbelief in willing subjects, a serum, say, or a supply of one-a-day disbelief-producing pills. It’s clear that you would do no wrong by swallowing a pill or injecting the serum, and, hence, bringing about and maintaining disbelief in a proposition for which you have adequate evidence, done to save humankind. If (AE) or (DE) were true, you’ve impermissibly dirtied your hands in the service of humankind, by violating a basic obligation. But that conclusion is too wildly implausible to take seriously.

To accommodate this development requires a revision of (EV):

EV*. for all persons S and propositions p and times t, if S’s evidence at t supports p, then S ought to believe that p at t, unless S has good reason to do otherwise.

Understood this way, evidentialism clearly has a prima facie status. (EV*) allows that one may be obligated to disbelieve or withhold belief from a proposition that in fact fits one’s evidence at a particular time.

For example, think of an Alpine hiker who, because of an avalanche and a blinding blizzard, is stranded on a desolate, mountain path facing a chasm.[12] The hiker cannot return the way he came because of the avalanche, yet if he stays where he is, he will die of exposure as the temperature plummets. The hiker’s only real hope is to jump the chasm. Knowing that exertion generally follows belief the hiker realizes that his attempt will be half-hearted, diminishing his chance of survival, unless he brings himself to the belief that he can make the jump. But suppose the hiker takes himself to have strong evidence that he probably cannot make the jump. In circumstances like these, one is clearly justified in forming beliefs motivated by pragmatic reasons, since one’s best chance for survival depends on belief. The point of the Alpine hiker case is that pragmatic belief-formation is sometimes both morally and intellectually permissible.

This argument in support of the moral and rational permissibility of employing pragmatic reasons in belief-formation is an instance of what we might call the ‘basic argument‘ (or perhaps more precisely, the ‘basic argument scheme’):

A. Necessarily, no one is (overall) irrational in doing what he’s morally obligated to do. And,

B. it is possible that doing α is a moral obligation. Therefore,

C. it is possible that doing α is (overall) rational.

The ‘basic argument’ employs the alpha as just a placeholder for actions, or kinds of actions. The locution “(overall) rational” or “(overall) irrational” presupposes that there are various kinds of rationality, including moral rationality, epistemic rationality, and prudential rationality. The idea that there are various kinds of rationality recognizes that at any time one could have conflicting obligations. One might be obligated to do various things, doing all of which it’s not possible to do. Overall rationality is the all-things-considered perspective. It is what one ultimately should do; having taken into account the various obligations one is under at a particular time. Overall rationality, or all-things-considered rationality (ATC rationality), is one’s actual duty in the particular circumstances; even if one has other conflicting prima facie duties. The ‘basic argument’ can be formulated without presupposing that there are various kinds of rationality, by replacing the principle that no one is ever irrational in doing her moral duty, with the principle that moral obligations take precedence whenever a conflict of obligations occurs. In any case the ‘basic argument’ assumes that if in doing something one is not ATC irrational, then it follows that one is ATC rational in doing it. The relevance of the ‘basic argument’ is this. The action of forming and sustaining a belief upon pragmatic grounds can replace the placeholder. That is, pragmatic belief formation could be one’s moral duty. This is evident with the stranded Alpine hiker, whose only real chance of survival requires that he believe a claim for which he has little or no supporting evidence. If this is correct, then the chasm between the pragmatic and the permissible is, at times, bridgeable.

The Jamesian Wager

Consider the following decision matrix. Let “D” represent the existence of a nonstandard deity, a “deviant” deity, whether personal or impersonal. Such a deity is inclusivist in doling out the benefits of afterlife, rewarding not only its own devotees but also those who believe in no supernatural agency at all. Let “N” represent the world with no deity of any sort (call this state “naturalism”), and let “G” represent the god of theism.

    G

    N

    D

Believe in G

F1 ∞

F2

F3

Believe in Neither

F4

F5

F6 ∞

Believe in D

F7

F8

F9 ∞

With this matrix theistic belief is not obviously preferable, since infinite utility resides in columns G and D, and, the values of F3, F4, and F7, are presumably the same. This matrix illustrates the objection most frequently leveled against Pascalian wagers, what’s known as the “many gods objection.” According to this objection, the Pascalian is left with an embarrassment of riches, since one can construct a Pascalian wager for any number of deities, belief in which is incompatible with theistic belief.

Still all is not lost for the Pascalian. As long as F3 = F4 = F7 and the lower two cells of the D column are the same as the upper cell of the G column, the Pascalian can employ the N column as a principled way to adjudicate between believing theistically or not. That is, whether one believes theistically, or believes in a deviant deity, or refrains from believing in any deity at all, one is exposed to the same kind of risk (F3 or F4 or F7). The worst outcomes, that is, of theistic belief, of deviant belief, and of naturalistic belief are on a par. Moreover, whether one believes theistically, or believes in a deviant deity, or refrains from believing in any deity at all, one enjoys eligibility for the same kind of reward (8 = 8 = 8). The best outcomes, that is, of theistic belief, of deviant belief, and of naturalistic belief are on a par. But this “tie” can be broken in favor of theistic belief as long as we have reason to believe that the utility associated with F2 exceeds that of F5 and F8. Are there positive empirical benefits that correlate with theistic belief but not with belief in a deviant deity or belief in naturalism? To be sure there’s no reason to think that belief in a deviant deity correlates with positive empirical benefit, and especially when conjoined with the obvious opportunity costs associated with such a belief, there’s reason to think that F2 exceeds F8. Indeed, no matter how we might expand the matrix in order to accommodate the exotica of possible divinity, we would have reason to believe that F2 exceeds any this-world outcome associated with the exotica. So, the crucial question is: does the utility of F2 exceed that of F5?

If it does, then a Pascalian beachhead is established by employing the Next Best Thing Principle:

  1. For any person S making a forced decision under uncertainty, if one of the alternatives, α, available to S has an outcome as good as the best outcomes of the other available alternatives, and never an outcome worse than the worst outcomes of the other available alternatives, and, excluding the best outcomes and worse outcomes, has only outcomes better than the outcomes of the other available alternatives, then S should choose α. And,
  2. theistic belief has an outcome better than the other available alternatives if naturalism obtains. And,
  3. the best outcomes of theistic belief are as good as the best outcomes of the other available alternatives, and the worst outcomes of theistic belief are no worse than those of the other available alternatives. Therefore,
  4. one should believe in God.

Since (1) – (4) is strikingly similar to William James’ famous “Will-to-Believe” argument, let’s dub (1) – (4) the “Jamesian argument,” or the “Jamesian wager.” But is premise (2) true? Nicholas Rescher suggests it is not: “from every purely this-worldly point of view–material, social, and psychological–our interest is strongly engaged on the side of disbelief. As this world runs–to all appearances–every mundane advantage lies with disbelief.”[13] On the other hand, William James thought the appearances ran the other way. In The Varieties of Religious Experience James suggests that religious belief produces certain psychological benefits:

A new zest which adds itself like a gift to life, and takes the form either of lyrical enchantment or of appeal to earnestness and heroism…. An assurance of safety and a temper of peace, and, in relation to others, a preponderance of loving affections.[14]

If theism were true, we would expect theistic belief to be beneficial in this world as well as the next. But are there empirical benefits to believing? To seek an answer requires our leaving philosophy and venturing into the social sciences. The question–whether theistic belief is more beneficial than not believing–is very difficult and complex, in good part because of the variability involved. Since there is a significant body of social science literature reporting empirical measures of well-being and theistic religiosity at the individual level, two possible benefits seem worth investigating here: happiness and mortality (life span). To get a grip on this complex issue, let us stipulate that theistic belief provides more empirical benefit than not believing, even if no deity exists (a better “this-world” outcome), if, on average, believing theistically ranks higher than not believing theistically in at least one of the two categories of happiness and mortality, and is not lower in either of the two. Also, let us assume that happiness correlates with greater life satisfaction. What do the studies show? Two commentators (neither of whom could be called theistic apologists) characterize the relevant social science literature as “a huge, and growing literature that finds religion to be a reliable source of better mental and even physical health … regardless of the age, sex, race, ethnicity, nationality, or time period of the population being studied.”[15]

With regard to happiness in particular, one researcher asserts “extensive studies have found the presence of religious beliefs and attitudes to be the best predictors of life satisfaction and a sense of well-being.”[16] While this claim may be inflated, there is reason to think the correlation between religious belief and life satisfaction is significant. A study from theUniversityofMinnesotaof 3,300 parents of twins found a small but statistically significant correlation (.07) between religious commitment and happiness.[17] More generally, a recent analysis of 100 studies, which examined the association of religious belief and life satisfaction, found that 80% of the studies reported at least one significant positive correlation between the variables.[18] This analysis grouped studies as being either statistically significant in one direction, or in the other direction, or having no statistical significance at all, and then “counted votes.” With regard to happiness, there is sufficient evidence that believing theistically outranks not believing, at least slightly. This conclusion is no surprise, since it seems likely that theistic belief would generally produce a greater optimism among its adherents than would be found among nontheists. And, if optimism were a significant component of happiness, then we would expect the population with the greater incidence of optimism to also have a greater incidence of reported happiness.

The effect, if any, of theistic belief on mortality has been an object of study for well over a century. In 1872 Francis Galton, a cousin ofDarwin, conducted a retrospective study of the life span of royalty, compared with others of similar economic status.[19] Galton hypothesized that royalty have their length of life prayed for more often than do their economic peers, and yet there appeared to be no noticeable effect (“long live the Queen”). To no one’s surprise Galton’s methodology has not survived the test of time. A much more recent and sophisticated meta-analysis of 29 independent studies conducted in 2000, involving data from 125,000 subjects, found that “religious involvement had a significant and substantial association with increased survival.”[20] In particular, frequent religious attendance (once a week or more) is associated with a 25-33% reduction in the rate of dying during follow-up periods ranging from 5 to 28 years. The increased survival rate associated with religious involvement was found to hold independent of possible confounders like age, sex, race, education and health status. This meta-analysis provides good reason to think that theistic belief provides a better this-world outcome with regard to mortality than does nonbelief.[21] Of course, one might say that this result is not surprising given the evidence on happiness. If it is true that happiness is more frequently found among the religious, and if we expect happier people to generally live longer than unhappy people, then we would expect the mortality rates of the religious to be greater than those of the nonreligious. Still, until we have good evidence causally linking mortality rates with happiness rates, we can take the two as independent measures of empirical benefit.

Even a conservative reading of the evidence produced to date supports the judgment that believing in God is probably better for the individual than not believing with regard to happiness and mortality. As is the nature of social science, one’s judgment is subject to revision as new data are discovered. And, of course, the studies are population studies, so what is true on average may not hold in a particular case. Further, there is no obvious downside to these benefits. Or put another way, there seems to be no greater benefit generated by disbelief, which overcomes the advantages enjoyed by belief.[22] So, even when these qualifications are noted, premise (2) of the Jamesian wager is more likely than not. Thus, the Pascalian has a sound escape from the many-gods objection, and we all have a means of navigation in the fog of religious uncertainty.

Notes

[1] Much of what follows is adapted from my book Pascal’s Wager: Pragmatic Arguments and Belief in God forthcoming from Oxford University Press.

[2] Some versions of the various theistic pragmatic arguments are intended to persuade even if it is extremely unlikely that God exists. I ignore that employment here.

[3] Pensées, translated by Honor Levi, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995): 153-6.

[4] “The Will to Believe” in The Will To Believe and Other Essays in Popular Philosophy (1896; reprint, NY:Dover, 1956): 1-31.

[5] There are various proposed rules, some well-established, some not, for decisions under uncertainty. Informative introductions to decision theory include Michael Allingham, Choice Theory: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002); Ian Hacking, An Introduction to Probability and Inductive Logic (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001); and Michael Resnik, Choices: An Introduction to Decision Theory (Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press, 1987).

[6] Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, edited N. Kemp Smith (1779; reprint,Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1947): 219.

[7] Lectures and Essays, Vol. II (London: Macmillan, 1879): 186.

[8] In other words, an indirect consequentialist formulation.

[9] An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1689; rept.,Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1975): 697.

[10] Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding (1748; rept.,Oxford:OxfordUniversity Press, 1982): 110.

[11] See for instance the important book Evidentialism: Essays in Epistemology by Earl Conee and Fred Feldman (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2005). See also Bertrand Russell, Human Knowledge, Its Scope and Limits (NY: Simon & Schuster, 1948): 397-98; Brand Blanshard, Reason and Belief (London: Allen & Unwin, 1974): 400ff; Alan Gibbard, Wise Choices, Apt Feelings (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1990): 36-7; and Simon Blackburn, Truth: A Guide (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005): 3-22.

[12] I have adapted this example from William James. See his essays, “Is Life Worth Living?” 59; and see “The Sentiment of Rationality,” 96-7, both in The Will To Believe and Other Essays in Popular Philosophy.

[13] Nicholas Rescher, Pascal’s Wager: A Study of Practical Reasoning in Philosophical Theology (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1985): 31.

[14] The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902; rept. NY: Modern Library, 1936): 475-6.

[15] Rodney Stark and Roger Fink, Acts of Faith: Explaining the Human Side of Religion (Berkley, CA: University of California Press, 2000): 31-2. See also Harold Koenig, Michael McCullough, and David Larson, Handbook of Religion and Health (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001): 394.

[16] Quoted in Ralph W. Hood, Jr., Bernard Spilka, Bruce Hunsberger, and Richard Gorsuch, The Psychology of Religion (NY: Guilford Press, 1996, 2nd ed.): 384.

[17] David Lykken, Happiness (NY: St. Martin’s Press, 1999): 18-9.

[18] Koenig, McCullough, and Larson, Handbook of Religion and Health, 117, 215-5.

[19] Francis Galton, “Statistical Enquires into the Efficacy of Prayer” The Fortnightly Review 12 (August, 1872): 125-35.

[20] Koenig, McCullough, and Larson, Handbook of Religion and Health, 328-30. For detail on the meta-analysis, see M.E. Cullough, W.T. Hoyt, D. Larsen, H.G. Koenig, and C. E. Thoresen, “Religious Involvement and Mortality: A Meta-analytic Review.” Health Psychology 19 (2000): 211-22.

[21] See also the interesting report on religiosity and mortality and morbidity rates in Jeffrey S. Levin, “How Religion Influences Morbidity and Health” Social Science and Medicine 43/5 (1996): 850. For a contrary view, see W. Matthews, et al. “God’s HMO: Prayer, Faith, Belief & Physical Well-being,” Skeptic Magazine 8/2 (2000): 68.

[22] One might object that perhaps there is a similar empirical benefit to be had with non-Western religions; we just lack the studies to know this. And if so, the set of Pascalian approved choices once again inflates. The problem with this objection is that it ignores that we are discussing a forced issue.


Jordan’s Jamesian Wager (2008)

John Schellenberg

Jeffrey Jordan’s pragmatic argument for the rational preferability of theistic belief in circumstances of indecisive evidence is resourceful and interesting, but I shall argue that it fails even if we assume–as I would not, in light of my hiddenness argument–that the evidence relevant to the truth of theism can be all-things-considered indecisive. Evidently the success of his argument depends on the success of his claims about the relative utility of various responses given a naturalistic state of affairs–specifically, that (i) the value of F2 (the box of his matrix representing theistic belief) is greater than the value of F8 (the box representing belief in a nontheistic ‘deviant deity’) and that (ii) the value of F2 is also greater than the value of F5 (the box representing the option of holding no religious belief of any kind). I shall argue that even if the evidence relevant to theism is indecisive, we have no good reason to suppose (i) true, and we have good reason to suppose (ii) false.

1. The ‘Many Gods’ Objection Revived

Notice first that Jordan’s somewhat disparaging remarks about various nontheistic religious possibilities (which must be taken as collected disjunctively under his notion of a ‘deviant deity’–else there would be alternatives not accommodated by his matrix) cannot be upheld.[1] Indeed, even his own studies do not uphold them. Those studies–which represent only the beginning of a discussion that would need to be taken much further to produce definitive results–suggest that any form of religious belief, whether theistic or nontheistic, can be life-enhancing. Take, for example, this passage (howJordan introduces it is telling, so I have included that):

Two commentators (neither of whom could be called theistic apologists) characterize the relevant social science literature as “a huge, and growing literature that finds religion to be a reliable source of better mental and even physical health regardless of the age, sex, race, ethnicity, nationality, or time period of the population being studied.”

The reference here to “religion” and to the irrelevance of “race, ethnicity, nationality, or time period” could hardly be taken as supporting specifically theistic religion! Other citations follow suit–what we find are references apparently to the beneficial effects of any form of religion, which Jordan interprets as applying specifically to theistic religion (the reader is encouraged to look once more at the last few pages of Jordan’s essay to confirm this for herself).

Perhaps Jordanwill reply that ‘religion’ is in these American sources being used as synonymous with ‘theistic religion’–after all, most of the studies involved Jews or Christians. But take, for example, perhaps the most reputable source Jordancites, the massive Oxfordvolume Handbook of Religion and Health. Very broad understandings of ‘spiritual belief’ are used by it, and both traditional, organized religion and nontraditional and individualized forms of religion are represented. Moreover, while the studies from non-Western religions are few, the results they show are the same as those generated in connection with theistic forms of religiosity.

Though, as I have said, we need more studies (and careful analysis of studies) to reveal the truth about such matters, there is some a priori reason to expect that the nondiscriminating tendency here detected will also be found in them. For all forms of religion can be construed as seeking to put us in touch with a reality that is metaphysically and axiologically ultimate (ultimate in the nature of things and also in value) and as holding out for their practitioners the possibility of an ultimate good, said to be realizable in relation to the ultimate reality. This is true whether (in the words of John Hick) we are talking about “the Jahweh of the Torah, or the Vishnu of the Bhagavad Gita, or the Heavenly Father of the New Testament, or the Brahman of the Upanishads, or the Dharmakaya of Mahayana Buddhism.”[2] All forms of religion, therefore, are fundamentally optimistic–and moreover they make available forms of community support and psychological integration grounded in this cosmic optimism. Surely if religion is to be associated with this-worldly benefits of the sort Jordan emphasizes, it may be expected to be on account of features such as these, which unite its various forms, rather than because of anything that can be said specifically on behalf of theistic religiosity.[3] Notice that these days more and more new forms of nontheistic religion, as well as old ones taking root in new ways, can be detected in North America and throughout the world, precisely because of the this-worldly benefits they appear to make available: think here of Buddhist meditation groups or of Wicca or of the various New Age phenomena which, if anything, promise their adherents more in the way of this-worldly peace and mutual support, grounded in a sense of harmony with the Earth and each other, than do theistic forms of religion (e.g., fundamentalist Christian theism), and also seem at least as good at delivering on such promises–as, again, their flourishing itself attests. (Notice that at least some of these forms of religion will represent ‘live options’ for many Westerners and Easterners alike, and at least some of them will have claims as shrouded by any “fog of religious ambiguity” there may be as theism’s–if only because of Westerners’ continuing neglect of truly comprehensive religious investigation.) Thus–for all these reasons–what Jordan says about the comparative value of F2 and F8 is completely unconvincing. There is no good reason to believe that the value of F2 (the box of his matrix representing belief of theism in a naturalistic state of affairs) is greater than the value of F8 (the box representing belief, in the same state of affairs, of one or other of the relevant nontheistic religious claims).

2. The ‘Many Attitudes’ Objection Introduced

But the more serious problem Jordanfaces concerns his assessment of F5. Notice first that he isn’t always clear in his presentation of this option, sometimes suggesting, correctly, that it is a matter of not believing either that God exists or that any other religious proposition is true, but at other times saying that it is a matter of “belief in naturalism,” or “not believing theistically,” or theistic “disbelief.” The states referred to here are not at all the same as each other, nor is any one of them the same as not believing any religious proposition. The latter state is really a big disjunctive state — either naturalistic belief or complete doubt about the options or doubt plus hope that theism is true, and so on–involving all the ways (including naturalism) in which one might fail to believe any religious proposition.

Now Jordan may wish to reply that the alternatives to (theistic or nontheistic) religious belief are all practically equivalent to naturalistic belief, and that while his expressions do not always convey this clearly, it therefore is indeed naturalistic belief that F5 ultimately must be taken as representing. But this is false. Perhaps surprisingly, it is even the case that one might be a religious nonbeliever (believing no religious proposition) while adopting a decidedly religious attitude–for example, hoping that a religious proposition is true, or acting as if it is, or having faith (without belief) that it is–and so adopting an attitude quite nonnaturalistic in its practical implications, capable of undergirding a religious way of life and producing whatever benefits may be associated with such a life.

Perhaps Jordanwould seek to quash my developing argument here by reference to the stronger or fuller benefits to be associated with belief as opposed to hope or acting-as-if or faith. But now we will see the point of listing all of those alternatives, as I have done, and making clear that they are to be distinguished. The alternatives to belief are no more the same than are theistic disbelief, theistic nonbelief and belief of naturalism, which (as we saw above) Jordan conflates. And in particular, the option of nonbelieving faith is pragmatically superior to both hope and acting-as-if, and capable of being developed in such a way as to also effectively rival and indeed supersede theistic belief in this context.

Let us take a moment to explore the faith option. The nature of propositional faith (faith-that) has been much neglected in the history of philosophy, but it has recently been receiving attention. In my own work I have described faith that p as involving a purely voluntary attitude of assent toward p, undertaken in circumstances where one evaluates the state of affairs to which it refers positively but lacks evidence causally sufficient for belief. In having faith (and notice that religious language strongly suggests that faith is something one can have just by trying to, which clearly distinguishes it from belief) one tenaciously represents the world to oneself as including the truth of the proposition in question–picturing or imagining the world as one in which it is true–and gives one’s assent to what is thus held before the mind (mentally stamping it with a kind of cognitive approval, meanwhile pushing alternatives aside and leaving the issue of its accuracy behind).[4] Such an attitude is different from belief, which is more a matter of involuntarily being represented to than of actively representing. (In religious faith we deliberately don a pair of glasses that we realize will color our picture of the world in a religious way; in religious belief we are wearing the glasses without knowing it.) Now the positive evaluation of faith may be instantiated by hope, which entails such an evaluation, but it could also exist without hope (one might make the favorable evaluation but without the desire that is also part of hope). Even where faith involves hope, it is clearly not the same as it: the one who has theistic faith moves past hope and intentionally casts in her lot with the proposition that God exists through the assent referred to above.

Suppose now that someone has such faith as I have described. (Notice that it need not be theistic: it might be some brand of nontheistic faith, or a perfectly generic faith directed toward a proposition I call ultimism, which all more specific religious claims entail–the proposition, mentioned earlier, that there is an ultimate reality in relation to which an ultimate good can be attained.) Why should she not build upon it a religious life? Having not simply the tentativeness of hope but the intellectual commitment that is propositional faith, why should she not also act accordingly, doing what seems appropriate to the truth of the propositions(s) held before her mind? If she does combine her intellectual attitude with such a practical commitment, she will be seen fully and authentically engaging in religious practices and also experiencing their rewards, whatever those may be. In particular, if other, belief-based, forms of religion are conducive to benefits such as happiness and prolonged life because of such things as community support, psychological integration, and an optimistic attitude, then surely a faith-based form of religion, in which the latter elements may also be found, will be conducive thereto as well.

Here we should notice that Jordan and other pragmatists construe ‘benefit’ very broadly, so as to embrace any psychological, moral, religious or social improvement of life. We have already seen reason to suppose that religiously, psychologically, and socially, propositional faith is on par with propositional religious belief. What I want to argue now is that morally it is quite far ahead. For implementing the option of faith can be to one’s moral credit in a way that a selection of the belief option can never be. This is because when exercised by the rational inquirer, it is in an ongoing way something deliberate, done for the sake of the good (notice that the relevant goods may include not just peace or comfort or happiness for oneself, but also such things as ‘moral support’ for difficult humanitarian projects, which may be easier to sustain with the positive attitude of nonbelieving faith). And surely it is morally beneficial to be able to become worthy of moral credit in this way. The intrinsic value of the virtue one may thus acquire or deepen is surely worth having, and surely it improves one’s life to have it. Moreover, seeking to implement the belief option is morally objectionable in a way that faith can never be. Belief too is something one must “take steps” to acquire (Jordan uses that phrase several times, without letting us in on its ominous implications); one must indeed work at having belief if one wants to have it in circumstances where one lacks at least probabilifying evidence. And given the nature of belief, the work one has to do is of a special sort, involving self-deception. Unlike faith, which is voluntary all the way down the line and involves an ‘eyes-open’ effort to keep a certain picture of the world before one’s mind, never completely losing sight of the evidential situation presupposed by such activity (after all, the person of faith has no new evidence and would, if asked, give the same assessment of the old), belief involves involuntarily thinking the world to be as it is believed to be (someone experiencing belief that something is so supposes–unqualifiedly–that that is how the world is). And this state is incompatible with a recognition that the evidence is unsupportive. Given the involuntariness of belief, no one aware of the unsupportive evidence Jordan’s pragmatic argument presupposes can have belief without fooling herself about what the evidence shows, without coming to believe the evidence on one side stronger than the evidence on the other side, contrary to what is in fact the case and what, at least initially, she believes to be the case. Such a person, wanting the benefits associated with Jordan’s F2, must inculcate in herself a false belief about the evidence, and indeed–given that the evidential support she takes herself to have found will naturally be taken to justify numerous other beliefs indirectly–many false beliefs. Such self-deception involves dishonesty (lying to yourself is still lying, and even if you are upfront with your present self about the fact that you will be lying to your future self!) and a lack of integrity for the individual involved. There is a part of herself that must be kept hidden from what has become very important to her and indeed central; a deep dark secret which cannot be revealed without the central things in her life being undermined, which would show that they are not built on the firm epistemic basis she has led herself to suppose she possesses.

Now Jordanmay think he has already met the challenge presented by such facts through his arguments concerning the Alpine hiker and the bargain made with extraterrestrials to save the Earth.[5] But it is important to notice that when considering moral reasons in this connection, he focuses on consequentialist considerations, ignoring the intrinsic badness of self-deception and its tendency to sponsor vice instead of virtue. But, you say, surely sometimes, in some conceivable circumstances, the moral reasons for self-deceptively inducing belief will outweigh whatever moral reasons may be brought against such behavior. Perhaps. But those would have to be circumstances in which faith is not an option, and here (where theistic belief is at issue) it is. Our question is really whether the moral status of theistic belief (F2) can match or exceed that of some form of religious faith (that version of F5), despite the self-deception and prima facie morally objectionable qualities to be associated with the former and the creditworthiness of the latter, when in other respects the two attitudes are pragmatically on par. And one need only phrase the question that way to see that the correct answer is no.

It follows that when F5 is interpreted in terms of beliefless religious faith, F5 comes out ahead of F2–which means thatJordan’s claim about the relative values of F2 and F5 is false. Indeed, given our results concerning faith, we can go further and set up our own principle, on the basis of which an argument for the denial ofJordan’s pragmatic conclusion can be developed:

(P1) It is all things considered irrational to take steps to self-deceptively induce theistic belief on pragmatic grounds in circumstances of religious ambiguity when benefits at least as great as those one seeks to achieve thereby can be procured without self-deception by fostering a positive religious attitude that does not require belief.

As we have seen, the condition mentioned here is satisfied, and so the truth of the claim that it is all things considered irrational to take steps to self-deceptively induce theistic belief on pragmatic grounds may immediately be inferred.

3. Conclusion: More Twists in the Tale

PerhapsJordanwould now wish to argue that all of this still leaves religion ahead of naturalism, given ambiguity. (Naturalism too involves belief, so–he might say–presumably it too would be problematic in circumstances of ambiguity because of the need for self-deception, and outclassed by some form of religious faith.) I have two sets of points in response, and with these I conclude.

Notice first that no assessment of the pragmatic benefits to be associated with naturalism has been suggested by Jordan. And now–given what we have learned–such an assessment would have to be done with a sensitivity to the possibility of naturalistic faith. (The naturalist is no more required to actively believe in circumstances of indecisive evidence than is the religious person.) It is clear that Jordan owes us such an assessment. To avoid it would be like showing that theism can be used to explain some phenomenon and concluding that it is therefore superior to naturalism without checking to see whether some naturalistic hypothesis might explain it equally well. And though I have no time to go into details, it is not at all obvious that a proper assessment would come out on the side of religion (after all, we have been talking about this-worldly benefits, not the sort that a God might be able to provide in a happy afterlife). Consider, for example, that adopting naturalistic belief or faith might have the effect of taking a huge load off our minds: instead of carting around those very heavy ideas involved in theism or other forms of religious belief, we would be freed to enter more completely into the here and now, and to appreciate exclusively for its own sake the beauty and wonder of our marvelously intricate planet and universe–a natural system to which we would now consider ourselves fully to belong.[6] We might see the natural world more for what it is, instead of thinking of it as a showpiece of divine creativity or the medium of a transcendent spiritual energy or an illusion that we need to see through in order to find a reality yet more ultimate. Viewing the spring green of trees and the undulating hills awash in sunset, feeling the bite of the wind and tasting the salty sweat of hard work, we could say, “Yes, this is it,” and truly enter into the experience of being this natural spark of consciousness, however briefly lit, recognizing that every moment counts–for itself. At the same time, appreciating other sentient beings for what they are–alive to their natural beauty, unhindered by the sometimes distorting effects of religious ideology–we might, as naturalists, be able to enter with deeper sympathy and dedication into the task of creating justice in the world. If we really believed that no one and nothing else is responsible, that it is all up to us, might we not be moved actually to do something about suffering where we find it? Freed from metaphysical angst and transcendent aspirations, perhaps we would be more able to open ourselves to fellow travelers and the world during the short time we share the latter with the former, and then simply let it all go as our spark is extinguished, recognizing that we are making room for others to experience the marvel of consciousness–who will appear like a new crop of dandelions or butterflies in the spring, just as beautiful as those, now vanished, that we saw before.

There is an undeniable attractiveness in the naturalist’s perspective, charitably and sympathetically construed. Why assume that someone who really gave herself to this perspective should experience less in the way of pragmatic benefits such as peace and happiness than the person of religious faith? Though this might turn out to be the case, it is not at all obvious at the start.

A second point here is this. Even if religious faith of some sort came out ahead of naturalism in the pragmatist’s calculation, notice how very far we would have come from what Jordanwas supposed to defend–namely belief in the God of theism. Indeed, now we would have something with which even my hiddenness argument is compatible! As I suggested at the very beginning, the hiddenness argument provides a basis for rejecting pragmatic arguments like Jordan’s as applicable to our actual intellectual situation. But adopting the generic ultimistic faith I earlier contrasted with theistic faith is quite compatible with accepting the hiddenness argument as sound. For even if we have good reason to think theism false, it is arguable that ultimism is at most doubtful,[7] and so ultimistic faith remains an option.

What follows–and this is the last twist in our tale–is that no one who encounters my hiddenness argument and accepts it as sound should be led to infer that it rules out the possibility of rational religion. What it really may do, in conjunction with all the other points I have emphasized herein, is to show us in which direction we must look if rational religion is to be found.

Notes

[1] By collected disjunctively under his notion of a deviant deity, I mean that, where the nontheistic possibilities (the various nontheistic religious existence claims) are listed as >N1,N2, N3…Nn and the existence of a deviant deity is represented by >D, >D must be taken as equivalent to >N1 or N2 or N3…or Nn.

[2] John Hick, An Interpretation of Religion (London: Macmillan, 1989), p. 6. For more on the nature of religion, see Chapter 1 of my Prolegomena to a Philosophy of Religion (Ithaca: Cornell, 2005).

[3] In his last endnoteJordanhas a surprising (and surprisingly brief!) response to an objection much like the one I have pressed here. To the suggestion that “a similar empirical benefit [is] to be had with non-Western religions,” he says this: “The problem with this objection is that it ignores that we are discussing a forced issue.” This is something less than illuminating. Just how is the issue ‘forced’? And how, without pretending that we are completely ignorant of vibrant nontheistic forms of religious belief, can it be thought to be forced in a manner excluding all nontheistic religious options other than some narrowly construed and completely imaginary ‘deviant deity’?

[4] See my Prolegomena to a Philosophy of Religion, chaps. 5 and 6.

[5] The Alpine hiker example may seem, upon reflection, to have some inconvenient features. For does the hiker have one of the belief-producing pills Jordanrefers to in another connection, or is there any other way she can quickly produce belief? Clearly not. Self-deception takes time. The most she can do is to have faith that she can make the jump!

[6] And this even if, say, some form of property dualism turned out to be the correct solution to the mind-body problem: even if our existence introduces both physical and nonphysical properties into the world, so long as the latter are generated naturally, we can still ‘fully belong’ to the natural world.

[7] I provide the argument here alluded to in The Wisdom to Doubt: A Justification of Religious Skepticism (Ithaca,NY: Cornell University Press, 2007).


On Joining the Ranks of the Faithful (2008)

Jeffrey Jordan

When approached about participating in a debate on the implications of “religious uncertainty” for religious commitment, I was asked to represent the theistic side. This I was happy to do. My opponent was asked to represent the atheistic side. Little did I imagine then that the debate would devolve into quibbles about faith commitments, with John Schellenberg, like a prophet founding a new religion, advancing “ultimism” and variously suggesting “beliefless religious faith,” “naturalistic faith,” “ultimistic faith,” and “rational faith” as the proper attitudes to adopt toward his fledgling faith. The fuzziness of these New-Age-sounding attitudes is enough to make one nostalgic for that old-time atheism of J. L. Mackie and Antony Flew. Schellenberg suggests that his ultimism is preferable to the old-fashioned theistic commitment I advanced since, he claims, theistic commitment is incurably tainted with self-deception, while ultimistic faith (whatever it is) is not. But let’s see about that.

Is it morally and rationally problematic to engage in pragmatic acceptance, or pragmatic belief-formation, insofar as these involve self-deception? While self-deception may be a serious problem with regard to inculcating a belief which one takes to be false, it does not seem to be a serious threat with the inculcation of a belief which one thinks has as much evidence in its favor as against, nor does it seem to be a threat when one takes the probability of the proposition to be indeterminate, since one could form the belief knowing full well the evidential situation.[1] Even if it is true that believing that p is being disposed to feel that p is probably the case, it does not follow that believing that p involves being disposed to feel that p is probably the case based on the evidence at hand. Second, this is an objection not to pragmatic belief-formation per se, but an objection to pragmatic belief-formation that involves self-deception. Suppose it is true that the employment of self-deceptive belief-inducing technologies is morally and rationally problematic. This says nothing about belief-inducing technologies that do not involve self-deception. If there are belief-inducing technologies free of self-deception and which generate a belief on the basis of a pragmatic reason, then Schellenberg’s objection fails.

Is there a belief-inducing technology available that does not involve self-deception? Consider a technology consisting of two components, the first of which is the acceptance of a proposition, while the second is a behavioral regimen of acting on that acceptance. Keep in mind that accepting a proposition, unlike believing, is an action that is characterized, in part, by one’s assenting to the proposition, whether one believes it or not. One accepts a proposition, when she assents to its truth and employs it as a premise in her deliberations. One can accept a proposition that one does not believe; and one can believe a proposition that one does not accept. One might be disposed to believe that the next toss of the fair coin must come up tails, since it has been heads on the previous seven tosses. Nevertheless, one ought not to accept that the next toss must come up tails, or that the probability that it will is greater than one-half. Acceptance, we should remember, unlike believing, is an action that is under our direct control.

If one accepts a proposition, then one can also act upon the proposition. Acting upon a proposition is behaving as though it were true. The two-step regimen of accepting a proposition and then acting upon it is a common way of generating belief in that proposition. And, importantly, there is no hint of self-deception coloring the process. So, it is false that self-deception must taint pragmatic belief-formation; and false that a Pascalian theistic commitment is incurably infected with self-deception.[2]

Perhaps Schellenberg holds that to accept or knowingly cultivate belief in a proposition not supported by the evidence is an intrinsic evil so bad as to always fall on the far side of impermissibility. We might understand this idea by employing the notion of a basic evil. A basic evil, or what is sometimes called ‘evil per se,’ is an action that is always wrong for an agent intentionally to do, no matter what instrumental benefits may follow from it. Suppose that lying were a basic evil. It would be wrong to lie even if the heavens should otherwise fall. Likewise, one might suppose, to knowingly cultivate belief in a proposition unsupported by the evidence is to expose oneself to the great wrong of basic evil.

It’s hard to take this idea seriously. Consider the Alpine Hiker case again. Is it really plausible to hold that the hiker commits a basic evil by maximizing his chance for survival? Or recall the “ET case.” If this objection were valid, you’ve impermissibly dirtied your hands in the service of humankind, by committing a basic evil. But that conclusion is too wildly implausible to take seriously. It is clear enough that there are occasions in which it would not be a basic evil to knowingly cultivate belief in a proposition that’s just as likely as not.

Schellenberg also argues that there’s good reason to think that the expected value of F5 exceeds F2, when we consider only the “N” column.[3] Schellenberg thinks that adopting naturalism means that one will no longer have to cart around “those very heavy ideas involved in theism…” Ideas that include, among others not found within naturalism, that one’s life has an eternal meaning, that justice will be satisfied, and that the vital goods of this world are not extinguishable.

Consider just those three “very heavy ideas” of theism. Whatever their weight, they are clearly very optimistic and very hopeful ideas.[4] When we talk about optimism and hope, with regard to theism and naturalism, it is important to keep in mind that one worldview asserts that this world is all there is; while the other asserts that there is more to this world than meets the eye, and that human life and relationships have a permanency that extends beyond the grave. So, within a context of “religious uncertainty” in which there is no decisive evidence which worldview is false, the palm must be awarded to theism rather than naturalism with regard to hopefulness and optimism. The opportunity for hope and optimism is far greater with theism than with naturalism, and it is silly to assert otherwise.

In addition, there is an interesting possible postmortem asymmetry noted by Pascal:

Who has the most reason to fear hell: he who does not know whether there is such a thing as hell and who is sure of damnation if there is, or he who is certainly convinced that hell exists, but hopes nevertheless to be saved?[5]

If the theist dies and theism is false, it is likely that she will never have occasion to regret her theistic commitment. The atheist, however, who dies could very well have the occasion to regret his lack of theistic commitment if theism were to prove true. The exposure to regret is far greater on the atheistic side than on the theistic.

As if whistling past a graveyard one can invoke as many visions of “undulating hills” and the “biting wind” as he wants, but it will still be the case that a grasping for a vague ultimistic faith betrays the atheist cause and is itself an acknowledgment that the expected benefits associated with a religious commitment swamp those of naturalism, even if religious uncertainty obtains. And not realizing this is perhaps itself an interesting case of self-deception.

Well, what about F2 exceeding F8? Schellenberg holds that there’s no reason to think that the expected value of F2 exceeds that of F8, despite the paucity of studies involving nontheistic religions. Perhaps there is a similar empirical benefit to be had with non-Western religions as with Christian theism. If there is it is hard to see how this would comfort the naturalist. I addressed this issue in an endnote, but Schellenberg complains that the note was too short, so allow me to expand. We are discussing a forced decision. A decision is forced whenever failing to decide is practically equivalent to having chosen one of the alternatives. So, suppose you were making an important medical decision for a loved one, some one under age perhaps, or incapacitated. You must decide which therapy, if any, to choose. Suppose therapy X has some experimental support. It would be irrelevant to point out that there are therapies no one has yet thought of. It would also be irrelevant to point out that there are alternative therapies, of which little study has been done. Clearly, it would be irresponsible to forego therapy X, which has some experimental support, in favor of an alternative therapy with no experimental support. It is true that if the situation is desperate enough, you may consider an alternative therapy, but part of the desperation will be that the conventional therapies have all been tried and have failed. Likewise, those religions lacking the sort of social science support enjoyed by theism would have a value comparable to what’s found in cells F5 or F8, and, hence, less than cell F2.[6] Of course, if more information were to become available, assignments may change. As exploration proceeds what had been designated terra incognita becomes a region now known. But until the exploration is done, terra incognita it remains.

Schellenberg also attempts to revive the many-gods objection. This objection is, of course, an arrow found in nearly every quiver of those attacking Pascal’s wager since the 1700s. According to the many-gods objection, Pascal’s wager proves too much as a wager similar to Pascal’s is possible for any number of incompatible religious options. Let’s quash this revival by driving a stake into the heart of the many-gods objection by noting that a principle found in nearly all versions of that objection is false:

F. every logically possible proposition has a probability greater than zero. According to (F) logical possibility is sufficient for an assignment of positive probability.[7]

Why is (F) false? There are propositions that are both logically possible and yet plausible candidates for a zero probability assignment. For instance, when I consider the statement that:

J. there is not at present a living human body which is mine

and call to mind that I enjoy neither necessary existence nor self-existence, and for that matter, with just a tiny change in the cosmological constants of the universe, or a slight revision of history, I would not exist, it would be absurd (and unduly modest) for me to assign (J) anything other than zero. And, of course, there is nothing unique about me with regard to (J); it would be absurd for anyone to assign (J) a positive probability. Or think of the proposition that:

K. human beings exist.

It would be absurd for any human to assign (K) a value less than one, and its denial anything greater than zero, even though (K) is not a necessary truth and its denial is not a contradiction, since there are possible worlds that contain no humans. Or consider the proposition that:

L. I had parents.

While it is logically possible that I had no parents, it would be madness for me to assign any value less than unity to the proposition that I in fact had parents. But if I assign unity to (L), then the denial of that proposition, although logically possible, receives a zero value. Even without listing examples, it is clear enough that there are many propositions in addition to (J), (K) and (L) which are logically possible but deserve a zero assignment. As there are logically possible propositions that deserve a zero probability assignment, (F) is false.

One might object that rejecting (F) leads to a semi-Dutch book situation (a situation in which one is open to a series of bets that one cannot win, but there is a possibility of loss). Perhaps it does. Of course, semi-Dutch books, or even a strict Dutch book for that matter (a situation in which one cannot win and can only lose) are threatening only if there are Dutch bookies about. And since a level of knowledge approaching omniscience would be required to gain a Dutch book, one can rest assured that no Dutch bookie will ever be encountered. So even if a semi-Dutch book situation arises from the rejection of (F), this is insufficient to show the rejection irrational.

Another objection might run as follows. Only contradictions and other necessarily false propositions have an objective probability value of zero. Further, it is absurd for one’s assignment of subjective probability to a proposition not to reflect the objective probability value of that proposition. Since a possible proposition is not necessarily false, it follows that (F) must be taken as true as regards subjective probability (by subjective probability is meant, roughly, one’s personal assignment of probability values to various uncertain propositions, with the assignments reflecting the strength of one’s belief in those propositions).

The problem with this objection can be seen by generalizing one of its premises:

M. if the objective probability of a proposition p is not equal to n (and one knows that), then it would be irrational for one’s subjective probability of p to be n.

Goldbach’s conjecture asserts that every even integer, save two, can be expressed as the sum of two prime numbers. This conjecture, despite many attempts, has never been proved or disproved. If true, the conjecture is necessarily true; if false, then, necessarily false. According to the probability calculus, a necessarily true proposition is assigned probability one, a necessarily false one, zero. So, the objective probability of Goldbach’s conjecture is either one or zero. Nevertheless, it is perfectly reasonable to assign it a subjective probability that falls somewhere between one and zero. I, for one, suppose it to be true, based on the authority of others. I would not, however, take a bet with much at stake that it is true, and certainly not a bet with everything to lose and nothing to gain. So, I do not assign it probability one–and this seems perfectly reasonable. Given that one does not know whether the conjecture is true, one is not required to assign it either one or zero, even though its objective probability is either one or zero.[8]

The same point holds, clearly enough, if we switch from subjective probability to epistemic probability (by epistemic probability is meant, roughly, the likelihood of a proposition relative to one’s evidence). Relative to what one knows or what one justifiably believes, there are many logically possible propositions that are properly assigned a zero probability. In any case, given the falsity of (F) the revival of the many-gods objection is doomed to fail.

Let me end by way of a point made earlier, a point worth repeating as it has been widely neglected: the divine hiddenness argument rests on the shaky foundation of absolute evidentialism. Absolute evidentialism, recall, implies that one should refrain from believing or accepting any proposition that is not rendered more likely than not by the evidence. Quite apart from quibbles about theistic faith and ultimistic faith, the vulnerability of absolute evidentialism to easily constructed counterexamples is the bane of the divine hiddenness argument. With the collapse of absolute evidentialism, the divine hiddenness argument topples into irrelevancy, as there is overwhelming reason supporting theistic faith as compared to atheism, naturalism, or ultimistic faith, even in the fog of religious uncertainty.

Notes

[1] I will concentrate on pragmatic belief-formation ignoring pragmatic acceptance, although what I say about belief-formation can also be applied to pragmatic acceptance of a proposition.

[2] Additionally, it is far from clear that every case of self-deception is morally or rationally problematic. It seems plausible enough that just as it is sometimes permissible to deceive other people (for instance, leaving the lights on when one goes out for the evening is a permissible way of deceiving would-be burglars), it is likewise sometimes permissible to deceive oneself. For a useful discussion of this, see Mike W. Martin, Self-Deception and Morality (Lawrence, KS: University of Kansas Press, 1986).

[3] The figures F2, F5, and F8 and N all refer to the three-columned matrix found in my initial installment in which “D” represented the existence of a nonstandard deity, “N” represented the world with no deity of any sort, and “G” represented the god of theism.

    G

    N

    D

Believe in G

F1 ∞

F2

F3

Believe in Neither

F4

F5

F6 ∞

Believe in D

F7

F8

F9 ∞

[4] Schellenberg’s use of “heavy ideas” is, clearly, just a question-begging epithet.

[5] Blaise Pascal, Pensées, trans. J. Warrington (London: J.M. Dent & Sons, 1960), 97.

[6] Recall the social science evidence that shows, in effect, that the value of F2 exceeds that of F5 and F8.

With regard to that evidence, one might worry about the old bugaboo of statistical studies showing correlations. Do they show merely a correlation, or causality, and if there is a causal connection, which way does it flow? For instance, it may be true that the depressed drink more than those not depressed, but is the depression caused by the excessive drinking, or the drinking by the depression, or do both flow from some other factor? Typically, the flow of causality is shown by a counterfactual dependency of an event or phenomenon upon another. In any case a Pascalian response to this worry builds upon our ignorance. In the absence of an answer that settles the correlation question, the prudential response is to proceed as if the religious commitment produces the benefits, or plays a significant role in their production (which in fact the studies tend to support). There is little if any harm in doing so, and much that might be gained.

[7] A proponent of the many-gods objection can avoid employing (F) if she uses only actual religions (Christianity, Judaism, Islam..) in the construction of the objection. But constructing the many-gods objection this way provides no comfort for the naturalist, since, the infinite value in cell F6 is thereby converted into a finite value.

[8] My response to this objection owes much to Richard Otte, “Subjective Probability, Objective Probability, and Coherence.” Southern Journal of Philosophy 25 (1987): 373-80.

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