Monthly Archives: February 2014

The Ontological Dilemma Against Gratuitous Evil

Here is a quick one, two, as it were… A good reason to think God exists and that the problem of evil is unsound1:
1. Either the concept of a maximally great being (a being that is omniscient, omnipotent, and morally perfect in every possible world) is self-consistent or not.
2. If the concept of a maximally great being is self-consistent, then there is at least one possible world where a maximally great being exists.
3. If there is at least one possible world where a maximally great being exists, then a maximally great being exists in every possible world.
4. If a maximally great being exists in every possible world, then a maximally great being exists.
5. If the concept of a maximally great being is not self-consistent, then the atheologian does not provide sufficient justification for arguing that the existence of a maximally great being entails the impossibility of gratuitous evil.
6. The atheologian provides sufficient justification for premise that the existence of a maximally great being entails the impossibility of gratuitous evil.
7. A maximally great being exists.
8. If the atheologian provides sufficient justification for the premise that the existence of a maximally great being entails the impossibility of gratuitous evil, then the existence of a maximally great being entails the impossibility of gratuitous evil.
8. Gratuitous evil is impossible.

I think the atheologian would have to object to (5) or (6). Giving up on (6) would mean that the atheologian abandons defending the problem of evil. I am more interested in denying (5). The denial of (5) means that the atheologian can provide sufficient justification for the premise of the problem of evil while the concept of a maximally great being is not self-consistent. This seems implausible to me, since most atheologians appeal to a conceptual analysis moral perfection, omnipotence, and omniscience in explaining what might be entailed by those properties. No atheologian whom I am aware of appeals to the non-self-consistence of a maximally great being in justifying those premises. So the practice of atheologians betrays the fact that they rely on a justification grounded in self-consistency rather than, say, the principle of explosion.

One might object and say that the atheologian is agnostic towards whether a maximally-great being is self-consistent. Instead, they use the problem of evil to defeat the idea that a maximally excellent being exists (a maximally excellent being has omniscience, omnipotence, and moral perfection). They reason that if a maximally excellent being fails to exist in this world, then a maximally great being is impossible. A couple of responses might be ventured. 1) Given divine simplicity, God is identical to God’s attributes. This means that a maximally excellent being is essentially distinct from a maximally great being, if it is not the case that a maximally excellent being’s attributes are non-identical to necessary existence. So the non-existence of a maximally excellent being would not rule out the possible existence of a maximally great being. And 2) the self-consistency of a maximally great being should not be undermined by something external to it. Since gratuitous evil is said to be external to maximal greatness, it should not be a defeater for self consistency, and so no a defeater for the logical possibility of a maximally great being. A maximally great being, on the other hand, is a deafeater for gratuitous evil, if our atheologians have done their homework properly.

1The formulation of the argument in terms of consistency is inspired by the formulation of Plantinga’s modal ontological argument here:
K.E. Himma. “Anselm: Ontological Argument for God’s Existence” in The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

The Imperative Mood and Immateriality

I think James Ross’s Immaterial Aspect of Thought offers one of the most powerful counter-arguments to physicalism. That said, the argument is difficult to grasp. Edward Feser has an article that unpacks the argument a bit more, and some blog posts on the argument, which can be found here. Also, I think this post by Rocket Philosophy does a good job explaining the relevance of Kripkenstein’s quus to Ross’s argument.

Part of the reason that this argument is difficult is because we have to be clear on what terms like “determinate” and “formal” mean. When I’ve tried to explain this argument to others, I’ve emphasized the ways in which formal thinking is truth-preserving in all relevant cases. But my interlocutors often counter with the fact that we can malfunction in our calculations just like calculators, and more often than not we do! They take this to be evidence that we, like the calculator, simulate adding as best we can with the hardware we have, i.e. the brain. My objection to this is that a simulation cannot properly assess when a malfunction has occurred, but we often catch our own mistakes. Furthermore, we are capable of recognizing when a calculator fails to preserve the truth of some function in a relevant case, i.e. when it malfunctions. But a calculator could not recognize that its processes cohere with quadding rather than adding. Should two calculators take in the same input and provide different output, neither calculator could adjudicate over the matter. They could only disagree over what physical processes cohere with adding and which with quadding.

I think there may be a more straightforward proof of the immaterial aspect of thought, and it involves the is/ought dichotomy. The argument is as follows:

P1. No physical processes are processes that contain stages literally expressible in the imperative mood.
P2. Some mental processes are processes that contain that stages literally expressible in the imperative mood.
C1. Some mental processes are not physical processes.

A justification of the premises:

P1: All physical processes are matters of fact, and all matters of fact are about what is the case, and so must be expressed by the indicative mood. I say “literally expressible” to avoid the possible objection that one might use the imperative mood in a metaphorical sense, as in saying something like, “the sun ought to rise.” A computer programmer might object by saying that imperative programming is commonplace and computer programs are physical processes containing stages expressible in the imperative. At best, those stages involve the mental processes of the computer programmer who thinks, “if the program receives this input, it should provide that output”. The programmer then utilizes her knowledge of causal relationship between the software and the hardware, and the hardware with itself, so that it behaves according to the way she thinks it ought to behave, that is, given the ends the programmer has in mind. The computer program itself is fully described and explained according to descriptive physical laws, without reference to the normative logical laws or the practical reasoning employed by the programmer. When we think that a program issues and follows commands, we are speaking metaphorically. The program isn’t literally “oughting” its way through the command lines.

P2: Some mental processes contain stages that are normative. For instance, formal thinking is normative in that it appeals to rules so as to preserve truth. Likewise, moral reasoning involves an appeal to normative rules that preserve goodness. So a certain stage in a mental process could be literally expressed in the imperative mood. A person might express a certain stage in a mental process as “I shall conclude with the consequent of this conditional, since I have affirmed the antecedent” and so engage in the formal processes of modus ponens, or he might think “I ought to stop that mugging from happening” as part of a mental processes whereby his mind resolves to apprehend some villain and restore justice. A physicalist could object that one might be able to express all mental processes in the indicative, that is, with the appropriate adjustments, say, by burying all imperative verbs in noun-phrases, e.g. “the thought that I ought to stop the mugging from happening is occurring in my mind.” But the ability to avoid the imperative isn’t sufficient to avoid the conclusion. My argument runs not only if certain mental processes contain stages that can only be expressed in the imperative, but if such processes are possibly expressed in the imperative. Put simply, it isn’t possible to express physical processes in the imperative, at least if the expression is literal.

Implications for freedom of the will: The physicalist might be tempted to think that mental processes can only be metaphorically stated in the imperative, but the thought process itself should be literally expressed in the indicative, even if the content of those thoughts are expressed in the imperative mood. This naturally leads to the sort of determinism that causes the libertarian to recoil in horror. And the libertarian can hardly be blamed for such a reaction! For the determinist treats the normative content of thoughts as a mere epiphenomenal feature of the thought. The thought processes themselves are extrinsically determined by all of the physical facts involved. The libertarian, on the other hand, believes that the agent contributes uniquely to the causal nexus by willing to adhere to certain normative principles, that is, by allowing her apprehension that she ought to follow those principles to be part of the causal process by which she acts. I would suggest that agent causation can be understood best if one accepts that certain stages of the mental process can be expressed in the imperative mood. This is because mental processes can have genuine normative features, while physical processes cannot. If a mental process includes the apprehension of normative principles such that the apprehension is an actual part of the process (and not an epiphenomenon of the process), then an agent genuinely reason validly, i.e. with formal processes that preserve truth in all relevant contexts. For, to reason validly is not merely to accidentally accord with the formal process of a valid deduction. A process that is “accidentally valid” is just a simulation of validity, since the process of a valid deduction doesn’t just happen to be truth preserving by some coincidence of the physical laws. So to deny that we really reason validly is to undercut any sound argument in favor of determinism. Hence determinism is viewed as self-defeating. Why should I follow the reasoning of someone who concedes that his reasoning process is no more truth-preserving than the processes by which my Mr. Coffee brews my morning cup. The process that Mr. Coffee undergoes has nothing to do with truth preservation. Even if we decide to the coffee grounds stand for “1”, the water for “2” and the coffee that drips out of the machine as “3”, we can’t say that the coffee machine genuinely adds. It merely undergoes processes that we anticipate through induction. We can assign values to the physical components that the coffee-maker predictably modifies, declare by fiat that the modification is some function, and then use the coffee maker as a rudimentary calculator to help us track our own thinking processes (we just have to remember that grounds are a symbol like “1,” water is a symbol like “2,” and coffee is a symbol like “3”).

Daniel Dennett famously argues that religious beliefs originate in our HADD (hyperactive agency detection device). That is, we are evolved to attribute agency to any given phenomenon, whether it is the wind blowing a branch, or a thunder-clap. Ironically, I think it is physicalism that is a result of HADD. But it happens in three stages: 1) the physicalist falsely detects agency in a calculator, 2) the physicalist realizes that the calculator can be completely explained through physical processes, 3) the physicalist concludes by analogy that his own agency can be completely explained through physical processes. Calculators don’t have libertarian freedom, but they can add just like the physicalist without the need of such mystical freedom, or so the physicalist presumes.

If the determinist is correct, the processes by which she arrived at the conclusion contained no normative principles. However, this is why the libertarian says that the determinist abandons morality. The alternative view suggested here is that agent-causation occurs when a mental process becomes normative, which is to say that the normative aspects of thought feature as a genuine part of a mental process. But then agent-causation is not reducible to a physically determined process. To return to an earlier point, when I correctly perform a mathematical operation, I sense my own freedom and ability to take a truth-preserving function and choose to have that function preside over my thoughts. When I make a mistake in mathematics, I realize that my freedom is limited and constrained at times. I think about how I must have failed to remember the proper rules, or forgot which numbers I was dealing with, or lost focus about what I was doing, and so on. But that works well with my own theory of mind arising out of hylomorphism, for I do think that memories are located in the brain, and that there is two-way causation between the physical aspects of the mind and the immaterial intellect. The ability to be free is not a guarantee that I will always act freely, nor is the ability to reason in truth-functional ways a guarantee that we will always think validly. We can make mistakes. But it is our ability to recognize and learn from our mistakes along with our desire to avoid them that makes us more than just physical.

Privileged Access to Minds not Brains

Sometimes pop songs can be quite profound. Consider the following: “Unwritten” by Natasha Bedingfield

I am unwritten, can’t read my mind, I’m undefined
I’m just beginning, the pen’s in my hand, ending unplanned

Staring at the blank page before you
Open up the dirty window
Let the sun illuminate the words that you could not find

Reaching for something in the distance
So close you can almost taste it
Release your inhibitions
Feel the rain on your skin
No one else can feel it for you

Only you can let it in
No one else, no one else
Can speak the words on your lips
Drench yourself in words unspoken
Live your life with arms wide open
Today is where your book begins
The rest is still unwritten

This song always reminds me of a certain argument against the identity of minds with their physical correlates. Each of us has privileged access to our own mental lives. No one can feel the rain on your skin for you. No one can experience your pleasure, or your pain. Even if we could use behavioral analysis or scans of the brain to infer your thoughts, there is something special to the way you access your own thoughts. Whereas the former constitutes publicly accessible knowledge, the latter are intimately and uniquely known to the subject.

The philosopher Richard Swinburne argues that these sorts of mental events are evidence that the supposed identity between the mind and the brain fails.

Swinburne’s point is that it is not at all obvious that a full physical description would include a description of the event from the perspective of the one who actually experiences the mental event. Even if the physicalist were to insist that a full physical description would contain a perspectival description, the physicalist would be in no position to claim that one description logically entails the other. But if there is brain-mind identity, then mental states simply are identical to physical states. Since experiencing rain on one’s skin is a mental state, it would be identical to a brain state. But brain-states lack the sort of special access that mental states have. Even the subject who “feels the rain” on her skin would have to use the same sort of equipment as the neurologist to observe those brain states that occur simultaneously with the experience. That is, we don’t have privileged access to brains, even (or rather especially) the grey matter that is encased in our own skulls.  Likewise, the neurologist cannot use her equipment to have your experience.  At best, she can infer what that experience might be like by correlating physical states with mental states and extrapolating.  But her inference of what your inference is like is not your experience, it can’t be, it is her experience of the extrapolation of what your mental states might be like given physical states.

So the argument is a reductio that goes something like this:

1. Brain states are identical to mental states (Assumption).
2. Some mental states are states for which there is privileged access.
3. No brain states are states for which there is privileged access.
4. Some mental states are not brain states (From 2,3 Festino)

Given that 1 contradicts 4, we must reject the assumption. Therefore:
5. Brain states are not identical to mental states.

You Make Your Own Meaning?

In a recent episode of Unbelievable entitled Is Heaven For Real? Hemant Mehta, the “Friendly Atheist” repeatedly referred to belief in Heaven as “silly.” According to Mehta, belief in heaven is silly because he does not think there is any evidence in support of its existence. He drew an analogy to unicorns, Thor, and Allah, asking his interlocutor, Randal Rauser, whether he was willing to admit that belief in those sorts of beings is silly. Rauser didn’t take the bait and pointed out that heaven is only silly within Mehta’s world-view, and that it is a bit unfriendly for the “friendly atheist” to be so condescending when it comes to beliefs he personally doesn’t think the evidence supports. Indeed.

About 50 minutes into the conversation the host, Justin Brierley, directs the conversation to the question of ultimate meaning and purpose. He raises the specter of the eventual demise of the Earth and the heat death of the universe. Brierley asks if the inevitable heat death of the universe, from an atheistic perspective, ever causes Mehta to wonder whether there was a point to everything. Mehta says that this scientific fact doesn’t make his life any less meaningful. He focuses on how it is amazing to be alive and conscious now and that we must cherish what finite life we have. Better to have lived and lossed than to never have lived at all (a claim that some atheist philosophers seriously question). Perhaps Mehta is correct that life is worth living on an atheist perspective, but he then gives the following account of meaning:

…[I]n terms of the meaning, I mean, you make your own meaning of life, you give your life its own whatever… Whatever makes you happy, you can find your own meaning to life. It doesn’t get cheapened by the fact that ultimately in billions of years we won’t even be around to experience any of this.

Now I obviously think there is meaning to life. And a good deal of that meaning is tied to my belief in God, the immortality of the soul, and the hope that I will one day be reunited with loved ones. Mehta has pointed out that such a belief is “silly” because it lacks evidence. He thinks that most people only believe in an afterlife because it is optimistic and gives them hope. So presumably he must modify his claim from the rather silly notion:

(A) One is permitted to make one’s own meaning based on whatever makes one happy.


(B) One is permitted to make one’s own meaning, so long that meaning makes one happy and isn’t a silly belief, i.e. a belief that lacks (sufficient?) evidence.

Clearly Mehta does not endorse (A) since his entire point during the podcast was that it is silly and wrong-headed for someone to organize her meaning for life around a belief that lacks evidence. (A) permits of such silliness, so it must be dismissed.

So we are left we (B) as the organizing principle for finding meaning. But it is not entirely clear that (B) is coherent. For it advises us to “make” our own meaning rather than, say, “discover” our own meaning. Presumably whatever is made does not exist prior to its creation, and whatever doesn’t exist certainly could not be sufficiently evidenced. So there will be no evidence that a belief in, say, the meaningfulness of friendship, will be a meaning-producing belief prior to the creation of that belief in Mehta’s mind. Anyone who doesn’t happen to share Mehta’s belief, will lack the evidence made apparent by holding the belief, and so infer that the belief is silly. And that makes (B) a rather silly principle.

Perhaps we could say this, Mehta wants us to believe that some state of affairs, call it x, is meaningful. He isn’t demanding evidence for the meaningfulness of x per se, but only for the existence of x. So we might modify what Mehta is claiming to this:

(C) One is permitted to take some state of affairs x as meaningful if there is sufficient evidence that supports x and x makes one happy.

Now this might be a bit more precise. Mehta can say that there is no evidence for a state of affairs where my soul lives an everlasting life of community and bliss, but there is evidence that the mountains and beaches exist, or that family members and friends exist. Mountains, beaches, friends, and family can be meaningful so long as they are a source of happiness for an individual.

Some issues with (C) as a principle of meaning: it is far removed from Mehta’s rather Sartrean über-liberated view that we are free to make our own meaning. Rather, we are restricted to find meaning only in states of affairs for which there is sufficient evidence. Also, rather than an active and free creation of meaning, it sounds as though the states of affairs are meaningful if they create a feeling of happiness in the person. In other words, we are passive in the determination of meaning. So there is tension in what Mehta is saying since he wants to say that we make the meaning, but he bases this on whatever (state if affairs) happens to make us feel happy. Unless Mehta wants to endorse some form of libertarian free will, it’s hard to imagine how “we make our own meaning” is anything like “if there is evidence for x, and x has the effect of making us feel happy, then x has meaning for us.”

These are perhaps minor complaints. The larger issue is whether (C) is really strong enough to prevent something like the belief in God or heaven from being an organizing principle meaning in one’s life. For instance, Mehta might say that there is no evidence that heaven exists, so even though belief in heaven makes one happy, one is not permitted to hold such a silly belief. But one might reply that having a belief in heaven is itself a state of affairs, and the evidence that there is such a belief in one’s mind is self-validating (in the Jamesian sense). Now Mehta might have to modify the principle again such that the state of affairs is restricted to non-mental states of affairs… Perhaps a bit of an ad hoc move, and given what I am about to say, a move Mehta might not want to make…

The most problematic aspect of this theory would be that any such principle would be, in itself, a belief held by Mehta that helped him to determine when it is permissible to take something as meaningful. Presumably a finely honed principle that leads to a non-silly meaning filled life is a meaningful principle to have… One that would that make a person happy, no doubt. Ah, but then we need evidence that this principle correlates with some sufficiently evidenced state of affairs. We can’t just say that the state of affairs is the apprehension of (C) itself, since we are restricting mental state of affairs from being counted (the ad hocmove bites us in the rear). Now let’s suppose Mehta has evidence that supports (C). It is not clear what that evidence would be given our restrictions, but let us suppose it exists. Another problem still looms. Mehta would have to justify his principle of meaning as a “non-silly meaningful belief” by invoking the very principle he uses to justify meaning. So in order to justify that his belief in (C) is permissible to take as meaningful, he must assume that (C) is the right principle by which permissibility of meaning is determined. But that just begs the question, which is, of course, silly. Yet it is clear that (C) would have to be considered meaningful, if it is a principle for determining meaning. So, it cannot be a universal principle. At best, Mehta could call it a rough guide to meaning-making. If it’s just a guide, we can’t know if the guide should restrict meaning formed via religious belief.

Now this is all speculation. I’m really not sure what Mehta meant when he said that we are free to make meaning for ourselves while criticizing those who take religious belief as meaningful. Perhaps his point is that we are all free to make meaning in what ever why we choose and he, as a “friendly atheist” is free to take a condescending posture to the way some people choose to live a meaningful life. If so, I offer the following:

If Mehta grants that we really are free to determine meaning, then I can select Christian doctrine as a set of beliefs that make my life meaningful. Since there is no objective meaning, my appeal to these doctrines is as warranted as any other that a naturalist might invoke. If Christianity is true, then there is a set of objectively meaningful values one must embrace. Those values cannot be fully embraced by a naturalist, since Christian meaning involves belief in God and the soul/after-life (non-natural things). So selecting Christianity is a permissible move whether I am right or Mehta is right. But selecting a naturalist set of meaning and values is valid/right/permissible only if Mehta is correct about naturalism.

Now, you might note that this is something of a wager move. And I can hear the protests! “What about other religious world-views?” My response is to ask the following: why organize my values and ultimate cosmic meaning around any religion that does not posit an immortal soul, or after-life? Why organize meaning around any God who is capricious enough to judge me and not provide sufficient revelation for me to form the relevant sorts of beliefs? Why form meaning around any religious system, which would require the impossible from me, i.e. to merit my own salvation and communion with a perfectly holy being? If there is no soul or afterlife in a religion, then there are no objective cosmic consequences for our beliefs about meaning. If God fails to properly reveal religion by remaining utterly hidden, then I have no chance of selecting the appropriate set of values anyways. So, I wouldn’t concern myself with an unrevealed or long dead religion of the past. So we sweep away unknown religions, and religions that lack souls and after-lives. We are left with a handful of religions to consider. And the majority of non-Christian religions require a set of behaviors to merit heaven/salvation. I don’t think I could ever merit communion with God, so I’m taking those religions off the table. They ask the impossible of anyone who has sinned once. It seems to me that once you work through the alternatives, Christianity is the best bet one can make when it comes to a meaning-generating belief system. At the very least, it offers advantages over any naturalistic system, given that naturalists grant the permissibility of making Christianity the basis for one’s meaning in life. And if they don’t grant that, because it’s a “silly belief,” then we are back to my previous critique of any principle that seeks to prevent one from forming meaning out of a “silly” religious belief.