Monthly Archives: June 2012

On Skepticism

I take skepticism to be a kind of virtue—a habit of thought that is directed towards a particular end. According to Aristotle, a virtue is, “…a state that decides, consisting in a mean, the mean relative to us, which is defined by reference to reason, that is to say, to the reason by reference to which the prudent person would define it. It is a mean between two vices, one of excess and one of deficiency” (Aristotle 1999 25; EN II.7.15, 1107a1-4). Understanding skepticism as a kind of virtue that is relative to us, to our ends, makes great sense of how it is that we form beliefs and when we ought to suspend our judgment. For instance, we can let the evolutionary biologists slug it out over whether natural selection favors “group” selection or “kin” selection. Us laymen, and women, can merrily withhold judgment until the facts are in and the dispute is settled. Siding with Wilson, over Dawkins, seems imprudent and overly credulous. And what great end is achieved by deciding the issue too hastily? Instead, we duly dial up our skepticism and resist belief formation with it comes to such scientific mishegas. Within the context of science, skepticism is a healthy attitude to take.

If skepticism is a state that consists in a mean, we see that the deficiency of credulity is something to be avoided. On the other side, in excess, we sense that there is a kind of hard-nosed skepticism that is equally vicious. We might imagine a person who refuses to assent to a belief even with all of the evidence staring him down—like the man who keeps checking his iron and stove before he leaves the house, because he refuses to trust his short-term memories of turning them off. After the third or fourth check, we begin to wonder if he suffers from some sort of compulsion.

But how is it that I, as a Christian, can also laud skepticism as a virtue? Aren’t Christians, by definition, credulous? Perhaps I somehow guard my faith, quarantining it off from creeping doubts while remaining skeptical of all other sorts of woo woo. Not at all! Like many Christians who are interested in apologetics, and the philosophy of religion, I crave learning about the best objections to my beliefs. I want to understand opposing world-views as best as I can. But this raises another important question. Why don’t I suspend my judgment until all of the facts are in? Why shouldn’t I treat Christianity like the Dawkins-Wilson kerfuffle, and wait until the evidence is in and the matter is settled?

For me, the answer comes from William James in his essay “The Will to Believe” (1896). There, James lays out various criteria for when it is permissible to form a belief even when the evidence is not definitive on way or the other. Understanding James’ essay is the first step towards undermining the old “Default Position” line given by so many atheists today. In a nut shell, James argues that it is reasonable for one to form a belief, so long as that belief is a) a living option, i.e. relevant and not clearly or demonstrably false, b) forced, i.e. the belief presents itself as something to accept, or go without, and c) momentous, i.e. utterly life changing (see 1896, n.p.). Whether evolution is directed towards “groups” or “kin” selection (yawn) simply does not meet these criteria. Believing Wilson, or Dawkins is not forced on us, as we can withhold our judgment. Whichever position happens to be correct will not profoundly change one’s raison d’être—at least it isn’t apparent that it should. Contrast this with whether I should have waited to propose to my girlfriend until I had definitive evidence that I ought to marry her.  She might never have become my wife. I came to trust and believe that I should marry her, a decision that was very much living, forced, and momentous.* Analogously, my choice to be in a relationship with Christ is a decision that I could suspend until further evidence, but then the opportunity to have such a life-changing relationship might just slip through my fingers, i.e. I could die tomorrow.

Lately, I’ve encountered many atheists define themselves as “lacking a belief in God”. In understanding atheism as a lack of belief, such atheists avoid the messy trouble of trying to argue soundly for God’s non-existence. In simply lacking a belief, they make no claim and so carry none of the onus in disproving God’s existence. And while I sweat away carrying my burden by constructing obscure and overly-metaphysical proofs, they can simply fall back on the skeptic’s position of demanding evidence every step of the way—evidence to their satisfaction. It is that last part that is the kicker, and it there that my discussion of skepticism becomes relevant. When I ask what would satisfy my atheistic friends, they’ll blurt out the oft-repeated Saganism “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence”, or its Humean cousin “A wise man proportions his belief to the evidence”(see Hume 2010, 170). And while these dictums sound nice and rational, they are in fact ill-defined and, as I will argue here, arbitrary.

When atheists appeal to something like the above two imperatives, they are no longer treating skepticism as a virtue when it cited as the justification for disbelief as the general default position. As such, the “lack-of-belief”-atheist treats skepticism as a universal and absolute normative epistemological principle—what I call “deontological skepticism”. It should be noted that if skepticism is absolute duty, then there is no excess in skepticism—it pervades the system. According to deontological skepticism, one should suspend judgment on any and all beliefs until sufficient evidence is presented. But is this position rational? I contend that it is not rational, and is in fact arbitrary. This might seem like a shocking claim, especially for those within the “Skeptic Community” who so often equate skepticism with rationality. But if deontological skepticism is arbitrary, then it lacks a foundation in reason.  The argument is as follows:

  1. Either the normative principle underpinning deontological skepticism is entirely subjectively determined, or it is not entirely subjectively determined.
  2. If deontological skepticism is entirely subjectively determined, then the subject does not appeal to any principle beyond herself in determining the nature of sufficient or compelling evidence.
  3. If the subject does not appeal to any principle beyond herself in determining the nature of sufficient or compelling evidence, then the decision to accept a deontological principle of skepticism is arbitrary.
  4. If the normative principle underpinning deontological skepticism is not entirely subjectively determined, then a deontological principle appeals to objective, i.e. mind independent, facts to determine the nature of sufficient or compelling evidence.
  5. If a deontological principle appeals to objective, i.e. mind independent, facts to determine the nature of sufficient or compelling evidence, then objective facts must be accepted prior to and without regard for a deontological principle of skepticism.
  6. If objective facts must be accepted prior to and without regard for a deontological principle of skepticism, then the choice to accept those facts is not based upon any principle that would objectively determine whether there is sufficient or compelling evidence for those facts.
  7. If the choice to accept those facts is not based upon any principle that would objectively determine whether there is sufficient or compelling evidence for those facts, then the decision to accept a deontological principle of skepticism is arbitrary.
  8. Therefore, the decision to accept a deontological principle of skepticism is arbitrary.
  9. If the decision to accept a deontological principle is arbitrary, then deontological skepticism is not rationally defensible.
  10. Therefore, deontological skepticism is not rationally defensible

Basically this argument, a dilemma, reveals the fact that the principle that is appealed to by the deontological skeptic must be exempt from skepticism itself. But there cannot be a justification for this exemption, as the deontological skeptic claims to subject all beliefs to this universal skeptical principle. Skepticism, as a principle, cannot sustain itself.

The alternative, that skepticism is a virtue, has the virtue [pun intended] of being an intellectual habit that stands as a mean relative to contexts. As a virtue, the mean is ultimately determined by our end. But what is our end? As William James notes, “Believe truth! Shun error!-these, we see, are two materially different laws; and by choosing between them we may end by coloring differently our whole intellectual life. We may regard the chase for truth as paramount, and the avoidance of error as secondary; or we may, on the other hand, treat the avoidance of error as more imperative, and let truth take its chance” (1896, n.p.). I think this perfectly illustrates why skepticism must be a virtue. We are all trying to navigate through life believing as many true things as possible, while avoiding as many errors as we can. Flourishing intellectually requires striking a balance between these two “laws”. And this means that we need the art of a virtue, not the science of an inflexible maxim.  Insofar as skepticism is a virtue, a Christian can express it while balancing it against the theological virtues of faith, and hope. Under this view, skepticism is not the foundational principle of one’s epistemology, so it is not subject to the same dilemma as sketched out above. Instead, it is a skill that one acquires in light of realizing that one’s end/telos requires heeding to both of  these two great laws. And so it is our end that becomes the foundation and impetus for adopting a skeptical attitude if and when the circumstances call for it. Contextualized in this way, skepticism is understood as a filter whose permeability depends upon the kind of beliefs in question.  The alternative view offered by the lack-of-belief atheist is, ultimately, irrational in that it places skepticism at the foundation—as the same dense membrane through which all propositions must pass. Yet it never questions the membrane itself!  This is a kind of insensitivity that leads one to the presumption that the default position for any matter is one of disbelief.  But the fact is that we shouldn’t always begin with doubt. So often, we rightly begin with a more credulous attitude—and work things out from there.

The question might remain: what if I’m wrong about Christianity? I think James said it best, “For my own part, I have also a horror of being duped; but I can believe that worse things than being duped may happen to a man in this world…” (1896, n.p.). Indeed, I could imagine worse things, namely missing out on the possibility that Christianity is true.

*My wife objects to the depiction of our marriage as forced.

References:

Aristotle. 1999. Nicomachean Ethics. 2nd ed. Trans. T. Irwin. Cambridge, MA: Hackett Publishing Company.

Hume, D. 2010. An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding. Ed. T.L. Beauchamp. New York: Oxford University Press.

James, W. 1896. “The Will to Believe.” Accessed June 25, 2012.

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A Meta Version of a Modal Ontological Argument

[Update again: Revised version of the argument is here]

[Update 7/19/2012: On further reflection on this argument, I’ve discovered that it does not succeed.  The second level of symmetry does permit identity between the two entities described in each argument.  I hope to continue to work on this argument in the future and develop a version that is immune.  For now, I cannot see how to get this argument off the ground]

It’s been quite a while since I last posted on this blog. My program has been keeping me busily preparing for my comprehensive exams.  But I wanted to air an argument that I am working on.  This is by no means a finished draft.  It’s just an argument that I’ve been thinking for some time.  I call it a “Meta Version of a Modal Ontological Argument”.

In the latter half of the twentieth century, the ontological argument enjoyed a remarkable revival.  This was due, primarily, to the work of Norman Malcolm, Charles Hartshorne, and Alvin Plantinga.  Perhaps the best known is Plantinga’s “A Victorious Modal Version” which Robert Maydole (2009, 573) succinctly reconstructs as:

P1 The property of being maximally great is exemplified in some possible world.

P2 The property of being maximally great is equivalent, by definition, to the property of being maximally excellent in every possible world.

P3 The property of being maximally excellent entails the properties of omniscience, omnipotence, and moral perfection.

P4 A universal property is one that is exemplified in every possible world or none.

P5 Any property that is equivalent to some property that holds in every possible world is a universal property.

Therefore,

P6 There exists a being that is essentially omniscient, omnipotent, and morally perfect (God).

Much ink has been spilled in defending an critiquing the soundness of this argument, and its sister versions developed by Malcolm and Hartshorne.  Maydole remarks,

And what should we think about the first premise of each of these arguments, which effectively says in each case that it is possible for God to exist? None of the authors of these respective arguments is particularly sanguine about proving this. Hartshorne merely suggests that we might “employ one or more of the other theistic proofs . . . to demonstrate that perfection must at least be conceivable” (1962, p. 52). Plantinga treats the possibility premise as a philosophical hypothesis, which he says it is rational to accept because otherwise “we should fi nd ourselves with a pretty slim and pretty dull philosophy” (1974, p. 221). (Hardly the highest standard for what counts as rational!) And Malcolm says that he does “not know how to demonstrate the concept of God . . . is not self-contradictory” (1967, p. 318). Yet he assumes that it is not self contradictory because it has “a place in the thinking and lives of human beings” (1967, p. 318).

In other words, the force of these arguments hangs and, unfortunately, falls on the key possibility premise that is difficult, if not impossible to defend.  At best, then, these modal ontological arguments demonstrate the reasonableness of believing in God, granting that God is at least possible.

There are further problems with these arguments, namely, that they are easily parodied.  Maydole (2009, 573-574) explains:

For example, one might easily validly argue contra Hartshorne that Anselm’s Principle, and the premise that it is possible that a supremely perfect being does not exist, jointly entail that a supremely perfect being does not exist. If we were merely to postulate that, possibly, a supremely perfect being exists, then we could also rightfully postulate that, possibly, a supremely perfect does not exist. But then the parody would refute Hartshorne’s argument because we should not be able to rightfully claim that the premises of the parody are less justifiable than those of Hartshorne’s argument.

In other words, one could run a symmetrical version of the ontological argument that seeks to prove God’s non-existence.  All that such an argument would require is a parallel possibility premise–one that suggests that, for instance:

P7 The property of being maximally great is not exemplified in some possible world.

But since being maximally great is defined as being maximally excellent in every possible world, it would follow from P7 and P4 that maximal greatness is a universal property only insofar as it holds in no possible world, thus refuting God’s existence or:

P8 There does not exist a being that is essentially omniscient, omnipotent, and morally perfect (God).

Trent Dougherty has offered some helpful insights into the problem of the possibility premise.  And much of his discussion will be crucial for understanding the meta argument that will be developed here.  However, I do not think Dougherty’s argument ultimately succeeds in rescuing modal arguments of the Malcolm-Hartshorne-Plantinga variety.

Dougherty explains that the possibility premise has its origins in Leibniz, who argued that there was a gap in Anselm’s original formulation of the argument.  That is, God’s existence could not be inferred, unless it is established that God could at least possibly exist.  But Leibniz also notes that possibility can be safely assumed unless there is proof to the contrary.  Dougherty sums this doctrine up as the benefit of the doubt or BOD, and contrasts it with actuality claims which bear a burden of proof (Dougherty n.d. 4-5). In effect, I am permitted to assume the logical possibility of God, broadly construed, unless and until it can be shown that the concept of God is logically impossible.  But the benefit of the doubt is a benefit short lived for those who are hopeful for a sound modal ontological argument, for if BOD is granted to the possibility of God, or a maximally great being, then fair is fair and BOD must also be granted to the possibility of ~God, or there not being a maximally great being.  Dougherty (n.d. 6) refers to this as the symmetry problem.  To break the deadlock, he suggests an asymmetry that gives the possibility of God a certain kind of edge over the possibility of there not being a God.  What is this advantage?  Dougherty invokes a conceivability principle.  According to this principle (ibid.):

P9 For any sentence S and agent A, if A can conceive ~S, then A can conceive S.

Dougherty holds that supposing ◊~G, where G is God–the key premise to the atheologian’s parody, requires via P9, that ◊G has prima facie support.  And if ◊G has prima facie support, we can infer via the ontological argument that □G, or ~◊~G, which serves as a defeater for ◊~G.

I find Dougherty’s asymmetry argument to be rather weak in that it is not apparent to me why the atheologian might restore symmetry by offering a parody of the conceivability principle that:

P10 For any sentence S and agent A, if A conceive S, then A can conceive ~S.

Thus, if the theologian supposes ◊G, then by P10 ◊~G has prima facie support.  With symmetry restored, it seems there is no reason to prefer the ontological argument to the atheologian’s parody version.

What I would like to offer is a version of a modal ontological argument that is immune to parody by generously granting possibilities, come what may.  What we will see, is that even if parody is attempted, possibility granted, and the balance of symmetry achieved, the conclusion that God exists cannot be avoided.  It is in embracing the perceived shortcomings of previous versions of the ontological argument, that I hope to produce a truly victorious version.  To achieve this end, my possibility premise will be drawn from the arch-critic of ontological arguments, Graham Oppy.  Summarizing some of the primary objections to ontological arguments Oppy (2011) then goes on to say:

Even if the forgoing analyses are correct, it is important to note that no argument has been given for the conclusion that no ontological argument can be successful. Even if all of the kinds of arguments produced to date are pretty clearly unsuccessful—i.e., not such as ought to give non-theists reason to accept the conclusion that God exists—it remains an open question whether there is some other kind of hitherto undiscovered ontological argument which does succeed.

This stunning admission has led me to generate the following meta version of a modal ontological argument:

P11 Possibly, a sound version of the ontological argument is discoverable that is impervious to parody.

P12 If possibly a sound version of the ontological argument is discoverable that is impervious to parody, then possibly there is a true concluding proposition to an argument such that necessarily there is some being x that is omnipotent, omniscient, and morally perfect.

The plausibility of P12 is in the very fact that premises imply their conclusions.  So if there is a sound ontological argument, it certainly would establish the necessary existence of the being it purports to prove.

P13 If possibly there is a true concluding proposition such that necessarily, there is some being x that is omnipotent, omniscient, and morally perfect, then it is possibly necessary that there is some being x that is omnipotent, omniscient, and morally perfect.

P14 It is possibly necessary that there is some being x that is omnipotent, omniscient, and morally perfect (From P11-13)

P15 Necessarily there is some being x that is omnipotent, omniscient, and morally perfect (P14, S5 axiom).

P16 There is a being x that is omnipotent, omniscient, and morally perfect (P15, NE).

Note that the possibility premise of this argument is with regard to an argument, rather than God.  Thus, we are able to grant the possibility of the symmetrical proposition,

P17 Possibly, there is not a sound version of the ontological argument is discoverable and is impervious to parody.

Of course P17 is perfectly compatible with P16, for God’s necessary or actual existence does not necessitate there being a sound ontological argument that cannot be parodied.  Perhaps, for instance, God’s existence simply cannot be demonstrated a priori.  Or maybe God’s existence could be demonstrated a priori, but there are possible worlds where no such argument is ever discovered.  Or perhaps any sound ontological argument, will nonetheless always be subject to parody.  Of course one possibility is that God, in fact, does not exist.  But so long as these other possibilities remain, P17 remains compatible with the rest of the argument.  So the symmetry of P17 with P11 does not generate a parody.  But couldn’t there be a deeper symmetry by which a parody would be generated?  I have my doubts that another level of symmetry would generate a parody.  But, let us take this up in form of an argument.  Let us suppose, for a moment the following argument:

P18 Possibly, a sound version of an anti-ontological argument is discoverable that is impervious to parody.

P19 If possibly a sound version of the anti-ontological argument is discoverable is impervious to parody, then possibly there is a true concluding proposition to an argument such that necessarily there is not some being y that is omnipotent, omniscient, and morally perfect.

P20 If possibly there is a true concluding proposition such that necessarily, there is not some being y that is omnipotent, omniscient, and morally perfect, then it is possibly necessary that there is not some being y that is omnipotent, omniscient, and morally perfect.

P21 It is possibly necessary that there is not some being y that is omnipotent, omniscient, and morally perfect (P18-20).

P22 Necessarily there is not some being y that is omnipotent, omniscient, and morally  perfect (P21, S5 axiom).

P23  There is not a being y that is omnipotent, omniscient, and morally perfect (P22, NE).

Incidentally, we would also grant that that there is a symmetrical possibility premise:

P24 Possibly, there is not a sound version of an anti-ontological argument is  discoverable that cannot be parodied.

Likewise, there are a wide variety of disjunctive possibilities that might account for the compatibility of P23 and P24, i.e. that no such argument is possible, that there are possible worlds where no such arguments might be discovered, etc.  The pressing question is whether P16 and P23 are contradictory.  If they are, then this symmetry would result in a parody that would once again push off our discovery of a sound ontological argument, since there would be no good reason to prefer one contradictory over the other.  But P16 and P23 are not contradictory, at least not explicitly.  For the atheologian to succeed in parody, she would have to prove,

P25 x = y

That is, she would have to prove that whatever being is proved to exist in P11-16 is identical with the being proved not to exist in P18-23.  But what arguments might the atheologian provide to prove this identity relationship?

For one thing, the atheologian might try to establish the identity between x and y through their shared properties, i.e. omniscience, omnipotence, and moral perfection.  Of course neither argument argued that such properties were exhaustive of the essential, or even accidental, natures of the entities established in each. So the atheologian could not make use of the identity of indiscernibles to establish the identity claim.

Might the atheologian establish identity because symmetry simply demands it?  I counter that such a demand is question-begging.  Furthermore, if P11 is granted by the benefit of doubt, then it is granted that it is possible that there is a sound ontological argument that is not parodied.  This is granted to the symmetrical claim in P18 that there is a sound anti-ontological argument that is also parody proof.  Therefore, whatever possible argument is invoked in P11-16, it is not going to be related to the argument invoked in P18-23 by way of parody.  So, if the same entity that is established to exist in P16 is identical to the being established not to exist in P23, then the fact that these two propositions are contradictories could not be relied upon by invoking the possibility that there are parallel premises and deductive steps in the possible ontological/anti-ontological arguments.  In other words, an identity between x and y would require two entirely independent sound ontological arguments reaching contradictory conclusions.  This is far more than a coincidence!  It is to affirm the existence of the grossest kinds of contradiction actually do obtain.

So while I have been overly generous in granting the possibilities of symmetrical premises for the atheologian, I will not grant an identity between x and y without an adequate argument.  And I have provided two reasons to think the atheologian will not succeed in this task.  If my argument is indeed successful, then it would be actually be the kind of argument that is supposed possible by the argument.  That is, the argument appears to be valid, with true premises.  And despite attempts at symmetrical parody refutations, it has shown to be impervious.  Of course this is not to say that the existence of this argument can serve as evidence in support of P11, as that would be question-begging.  Nonetheless, I think the existence of God, or a being with God-like attributes, can be demonstrated.

References:

Dougherty, T.  N.D. “Conceivability, Defeasibility, and Possibility: A Defense of the Modal Ontological Argument” URL =< http://apollos.squarespace.com/ontological-argument/A%20Defense%20of%20the%20Modal%20Ontological%20Argument.pdf>

Maydole, R. 2009. “The Ontological Argument” in The Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology. Ed. J.P. Morland & W.L. Craig. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell.

Oppy, G. 2011. “Ontological Arguments” in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2011 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL =<http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2011/entries/ontological arguments/>.

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