Category Archives: Atheistic Arguments

A Dilemma for the The Problem of Evil

Just a little fun argument. Oh and by “God,” I mean an omnipotent, omniscience, and morally perfect being. I am just curious as to which premise the atheist might reject…

P1. If God’s existence implies that we should expect the amount of evil and suffering that we actually find in the world, then the problem of evil is a failure.

P2. If there are morally adequate reasons for God to allow the amount of evil and suffering that we actually find in the world, then the problem of evil is a failure.

P3. If God exists, there are morally adequate reasons for God to allow the amount of evil and suffering that we actually find in the world.

C. The problem of evil is a failure.

Defense of P1: The central claim of the problem of evil is that we should expect to see little to no evil, if there is a God, but if God’s existence actually implies precisely the amount of evil that we find in the world, our expectations are not defied when we look and see, and so evil would not really serve as a counter-example to the hypothesis that there is a God. In other words, if God’s existence implies exactly what we do find, what we find is not a reason to reject God’s existence.

Defense of P2: To say that there are morally adequate reasons for God to allow the amount of evil and suffering we actually find in the world is just to say that there is a successful theodicy that undercuts the problem of evil. If there is a successful undercutting theodicy, the problem of evil is a failure as an atheological argument.

Defense of P3: if it is true that God’s nature is all-powerful, all-knowing, and morally perfect, then God would have the knowledge, ability, and desire to eliminate any evil for which there is not some overriding moral reason for allowing, e.g. soul-building, free-will, moral meaning, etc. In other words, if should turn out that there is a God, God would be able to account for the evil we find in the world and adequately explain why He allowed for it.

From these three premises, it follows that the problem of evil, as an atheological argument, is a failure.

Here is the proof:


G ≝ God exists
F ≝ The problem of evil is a failure
M ≝ There are morally adequate reasons for God to allow the amoung of evil and suffering that we actually find in the world
W ≝ We should expect the amount of evil and suffering that we actually find in the world

1. (G ⊃ W) ⊃ F (P1)
2. M ⊃ F (P2)
3. G ⊃ M (P3)
4. ~[(G ⊃ W) ∨ ~(G ⊃ W)] (Assumption for Indirect Proof)
5. ~(G ⊃ W) ∧ ~~(G ⊃ W) (4 DeMorgan’s Theorem)
6. (G ⊃ W) ∨ ~(G ⊃ W) (4-5 Indirect Proof)
7. ~(G ⊃ W) (Assumption for Conditional Proof)
8. ~(~G ∨ W) (7 Material Implication)
9. ~~G ∧ ~W (8 DeMorgan’s Theorem)
10. ~~G (9 Simplification)
11. G (10 Double Negation)
12. ~(G ⊃ W) ⊃ G (7-11 Conditional Proof)
13. G ⊃ F (2,3 Hypothetical Syllogism)
14. ~(G ⊃ W) ⊃ F (12,13 Hypothetical Syllogism)
15. [(G ⊃ W) ⊃ F] ∧ [~(G ⊃ W) ⊃ F](1,14 Conjunction)
16. F ∨ F (6,15 Constructive Dilemma)
17. F (16 Tautology)

The Dilemma Once More

P1. If it is possible that necessarily there is an omniscient, omnipotent, omnibenevolent being, necessarily there is an omniscient, omnipotent, omnibenevolent being. (From axiom 5 of S5)[1]

P2. Either the proposition “necessarily there is an omniscient, omnipotent, omnibenevolent being” entails the proposition “there is gratuitous evil and suffering” or it is not the case the proposition “necessarily there is an omniscient, omnipotent, omnibenevolent being” entails the proposition “there is gratuitous evil and suffering”. (From the Law of the Excluded Middle)[2]

P3. For all propositions p if there is some proposition q such that it is not the case that p entails q, then possibly p. (Contraposition of the Principle of Explosion)[3][4]

C1. If it is not the case the proposition “necessarily there is an omniscient, omnipotent, omnibenevolent being” entails the proposition “there is gratuitous evil and suffering”, it is possible that necessarily there is an omniscient, omnipotent, omnibenevolent being. [From P3][5]

C2. If it is not the case the proposition “necessarily there is an omniscient, omnipotent, omnibenevolent being” entails the proposition “there is gratuitous evil and suffering”, necessarily there is an omniscient, omnipotent, omnibenevolent being. [From P1 and C1, Hypothetical Syllogism][6]

P4. If the proposition “necessarily there is an omniscient, omnipotent, omnibenevolent being” entails the proposition “there is gratuitous evil and suffering”, gratuitous evil and suffering is not counter-evidence to the proposition “necessarily there is an omniscient, omnipotent, omnibenevolent being”.[7]

C3. Either necessarily there is an omniscient, omnipotent, omnibenevolent being, or gratuitous evil and suffering is not counter-evidence to the proposition “necessarily there is an omniscient, omnipotent, omnibenevolent being.” (From P2,C2,P4 Constructive Dilemma)[8][9]

[1] The axiom in S5 can be found here: So, given the axiom 5 of S5: ♢p → ☐♢p

Here is the proof for P1:


Kx ≝ x is omniscient
Px ≝ x is omnipotent
Bx ≝ x is omnibenevolent

1 ~ ☐(∃x)[(Kx ∧ Px) ∧ Bx] (Assump. CP)
2 ~ ☐~~(∃x)[(Kx ∧ Px) ∧ Bx] (1 DN)
3 ♢~(∃x)[(Kx ∧ Px) ∧ Bx] (2 ME)
4 ☐♢~(∃x)[(Kx ∧ Px) ∧ Bx] (3 Axiom 5)
5 ☐~~♢~(∃x)[(Kx ∧ Px) ∧ Bx] (4 DN)
6 ☐~☐(∃x)[(Kx ∧ Px) ∧ Bx] (5 ME)
7 ~☐(∃x)[(Kx ∧ Px) ∧ Bx] → ☐~☐(∃x)[(Kx ∧ Px) ∧ Bx] (CP 1-6)
8 ~☐~☐(∃x)[(Kx ∧ Px) ∧ Bx] → ~~☐(∃x)[(Kx ∧ Px) ∧ Bx] (7 Contra)
9 ~☐~☐(∃x)[(Kx ∧ Px) ∧ Bx] → ☐(∃x)[(Kx ∧ Px) ∧ Bx] (8 DN)
10 ♢☐(∃x)[(Kx ∧ Px) ∧ Bx] → ☐(∃x)[(Kx ∧ Px) ∧ Bx] (9 ME)

[2] The Law of the Excluded Middle can be found here:

[3] Contraposition can be found here:

[4] The Principle of Explosion can be found here:

Here is the proof that P3 is the contrapositive of the Principle of Explosion, which we will state as follows: (∀p)[~♢p → (∀q)(p ⊨ q)], for all propositions p, if p is impossible, then for all propositions q1, p entails q.

1 (∀p)[~♢p → (∀q)(p ⊨ q)] (Principle of Explosion)
2 ~♢φ → (∀q)(φ ⊨ q) (1 UI)
3 ~(∀q)(φ ⊨ q) → ~~♢φ (2 Contra)
4 (∃q)~(φ ⊨ q) → ~~♢φ (3 QN)
5 (∃q)~(φ ⊨ q) → ♢φ (4 DN)
6 (∀p)(∃q)~(p ⊨ q) → ♢p] (5 UG)

[5] Here is the proof that C1 follows from P3:


G ≝ ☐(∃x)[(Kx ∧ Px) ∧ Bx]
E ≝ ‘there is gratuitous evil and suffering’

1 (∀p)(∃q)~(p ⊨ q) → ♢p] (P3)
2 ~(G ⊨ E) (Assump. CP)
3 (∃q)~(G ⊨ q) → ♢G (1 UI)
4 (∃q)~(G ⊨ q) (2 EG)
5 ♢G (3,4 MP)
6 ~(G ⊨ E) → ♢G (205 CP)
7 ~(G ⊨ E) → ♢☐(∃x)[(Kx ∧ Px) ∧ Bx] (6 def. of ‘G’)

Thus Line 7 (C1) follows from Line 1 (P3), QED.

[6] Hypothetical Syllogism can be found here:

[7] This premise is defended on given a Bayesian interpretation of counter-evidence:
(∀p)(∀q){[P(p|q)<P(p)] ⊃ Cqp} (read as: for all proposition p and q, if the probability of q given p is less than the probability of q unconditioned, then q is counter-evidence for p).

If we assume G ⊨ E, then by Logical Consequence P(E|G) = 1, but if E is counter-evidence to G, then it must be the case that P(G|E) < P(G). But both of these statements about probabilities cannot be true.

According to Bayes’ Theorem:

P(E|G) = [P(E)/P(G)] x P(G|E)

So given P(E|G) = 1

We can infer:

P(G)/P(G|E) = P(E)

But given 0 ≤ P(E) ≤ 1, it is not possible for P(G)/P(G|E) = P(E) and P(G|E) < P(G), as whenever the denominator is less than the numerator, the result is greater than 1.

Hence, we must reject the assumption that [P(E|G) = 1] ∧ [P(G|E) < P(G)]. This provides us with the following defense of P4:

1 ~{[P(E|G) = 1] ∧ [P(G|E) < P(G)]} (Result from the proof by contradiction above)
2 ~[P(E|G) = 1] ∨ ~[P(G|E) < P(G)] (1 DeM)
3 [P(E|G) = 1] → ~[P(G|E) < P(G)] (2 Impl)
4 [G ⊨ E] → [P(E|G) = 1] (by Logical Consequence)
5 [G ⊨ E] → ~[P(G|E) < P(G)] (3,4 HS)

And line 5 is just what is meant by P4.

[8] Constructive Dilemma can be found here:

[9] The proof of the entire argument is as follows:

1 ♢☐(∃x)[(Kx ∧ Px) ∧ Bx] → ☐(∃x)[(Kx ∧ Px) ∧ Bx] (Premise)
2 (G ⊨ E) ∨ ~(G ⊨ E) (Premise)
3 (∀p)(∃q)~(p ⊨ q) → ♢p] (Premise)
4 [G ⊨ E] → ~[P(G|E) < P(G)] (Premise)
5 ~(G ⊨ E) (Assump CP)
6 (∃q)~(G ⊨ q) → ♢G (3 UI)
7 (∃q)~(G ⊨ q) (5 EG)
8 ♢G (6,7 MP)
9 ~(G ⊨ E) → ♢G (5-8 CP)
10 ~(G ⊨ E) → ♢☐(∃x)[(Kx ∧ Px) ∧ Bx] (9 definition of ‘G’)
11 ~(G ⊨ E) → ☐(∃x)[(Kx ∧ Px) ∧ Bx] (1,10 HS)
12 ☐(∃x)[(Kx ∧ Px) ∧ Bx] ∨ ~[P(G|E) < P(G)] (2,4,11 CD)

The Dilemma Theodicy

  1. By definition, God is a maximally great being, i.e. an omnipotent, omniscience, morally perfect being in every possible world.
  2. Any argument against God’s existence that depends on a premise of the form “If God were to exist, then we would expect there to be x” (hereafter, the “counterfactual” premise) must have a justification, either by way of a trivial entailment, given the incoherence of the concept of God, and so the impossibility of the existence of God, or by way of the defense of a substantive counterfactual implication, given a thoroughgoing conceptual analysis of the concept of God, and the sorts of states of affairs implied by God’s existence.
  3. If the justification for the “counterfactual” premise is by way of a trivial entailment, given the incoherence of the concept of God, and so the impossibility of the existence of God, then the justification for the “counterfactual” premise begs the question of any argument against God’s existence that depends upon the “counterfactual” premise, which means the argument containing the “counterfactual” premise is informally fallacious.
  4. If the justification for the “counterfactual” premise is by way of a defense of a substantive counterfactual implication, given a thoroughgoing conceptual analysis of the concept of God, and the sorts of states of affairs implied by God’s existence, then the justification depends upon the metaphysical possibility of God, and the sorts of states of affairs that obtain in the nearest possible worlds where God exists, which also serves as a justification for the possibility premise of the modal ontological argument, by which the existence of God can be directly demonstrated from His metaphysical possibility, based upon an axiom of S5.
  5. But, a successful argument cannot be informally fallacious, nor can a successful argument depend on a justification that directly implies the contradictory of the its conclusion.
  6. So, no argument against God’s existence that depends on the “counterfactual” premise is successful.

Escaping the horns would require a substantive justification of the counterfactual premise that does not imply any real metaphysical possibility of God.  Would such a justification be compelling enough for a theist, or neutral party to accept the truth of the counterfactual premise? 

A Response to the Argument from Material Causality

Ex-apologist presents an interesting argument against a form of classical theism that includes a classical view of creation: classical theismcvc (click here to read the original article). The argument is based on what he calls the principle of material causality, or PMC, which features in the first premise of his argument. The second premise states an implication of classical theismcvc and shows that one cannot hold to the PMC and to classical theismcvc at the same time, i.e. the two are inconsistent. Since one has good reason to hold to the PMC, classical theismcvc must be abandoned, so the argument goes.   Ex-apologists formulates it this way:

1. All concrete objects that have an originating or sustaining cause have a material cause of their existence.
2. If classical theismcvc is true, then the universe is a concrete object that has an originating or sustaining cause without a material cause of its existence.
3. Therefore, classical theismcvc is false. [1]

The argument is essentially valid, so the question of soundness comes down to the truth of the premises. In this critique, I will explore the notion of the principle of material causality, PMC, and show why, with a more precise notion of PMC in place, the argument cannot be successful. But first we must understand what ex-apologist means by a few of his terms.

Classical Theism: “…the view that there is a personal god who is omnipotent, omniscient, and morally perfect.”

The Classical View of Creation: “the view that consists in the following three theses: (i) God is wholly distinct from the natural world; (ii) God is the originating or sustaining cause of the natural world; and (iii) God created the natural world ex nihilo.

Originating cause: “…an efficient cause of the temporal beginning of a thing’s existence…”

Sustaining cause: “…an efficient cause of a thing’s continued existence.”

Matter cause: “…the things or stuff from which another thing is made…” [Note: Ex-apologist’s (1), his PMC, is restricted to concrete objects that have either a sustaining or originating cause. So no question is begged against God, since God is typically held to be uncaused. Also, though it is not explicitly stated, I take creation ex nihilo to be defined as the causation of something without pre-existing matter]

My Response:

First, something more should be said about what “universe” means, so as to avoid equivocation. With contemporary talk of multiverses, the word “universe” has been relegated to mean this particular spatio-temporal expanse. There may be parent universes that have generated our own universe along with countless sister universes. Of course, classical theismcvc claims that God has created and sustains the whole natural world, which would include the multiverse and any other natural thing beyond or outside of that. So the argument should avoid talk of the universe and instead just speak of the “natural world” as that which includes the totality of nature, whatever that was, is, or may be.

Ex-apologist uses a disjunction to say that God is the originating OR sustaining cause of the natural world. Now, some theists might object and say that God is both the originating AND the sustaining cause of the natural world. However, I think he is quite right to insist upon the disjunction. The idea of a “first cause” is not necessarily the same as an “originating cause”, which implies that the effect has a temporal beginning or begins to exist. When, for instance, Aquinas calls God the “first cause,” he does not mean to imply that God preceded the existence of the universe in time. In fact, as an Aristotelian, he thought that the best science of his day indicated that the universe could very well be past eternal (see SCG II.33 and SCG II.38).  Instead of thinking that God is temporally first in efficient causal priority, Aquinas thought God, who transcends time altogether, had priority or primacy as a causal explanation of everything, i.e. there is nothing beyond or beside God in the causal series out of which the universe is created. This is not to say that God can use secondary causes, but they are not “beside” God in the sense that they are uncaused and per se necessary. God is pure actuality, and He explains the actuality of all other things. I suspect that this is why ex-apologist is making use of the disjunction “originating or sustaining cause.” For, the universe need not be finite in the past for classical theismcvc to be true, and historically speaking, many proponents of classical theismcvc explicitly embraced the possibility that the natural world or cosmos lacked an originating cause.

Let us consider the principle of material causation more closely and whether it is genuinely inconsistent with creation ex nihilo. Now, as I have said, the doctrine of creation ex nihilo is the claim that God caused the natural world without using pre-existing matter. But this does not mean that the natural world lacks material causality at any moment when it exists. Suppose there were a possible world where God creates, ex nihilo, a singular bronze sphere. Would the principle of material causation hold for this sphere? Yes. The sphere is materially caused by the bronze from which it is composed. The Aristotelian would not say that the sphere lacks a material cause merely because it wasn’t created from pre-existing bronze, or pre-existing copper and tin. Rather, the Aristotelian would say that a material cause did not precede the effect in time. That is, God did not use bronze or the components of bronze that existed prior to His willing the brazen sphere’s existence. In fact, even if the sphere were eternal, we could say that God creates the brazen sphere from no pre-existing matter even though bronze is the matter that “sustains” the sphere in existence as a secondary cause. Thus the brazen sphere is created ex nihilo and has a material cause. Likewise, the natural world could have a material cause at any moment it exists while not coming to be from pre-existing matter.

So what is going on here? How can some object be created ex nihilo and have a material cause? We need to make a parallel distinction to the one we find in efficient causality between originating and sustaining such that there can be an originating material cause for a thing and a sustaining material cause. We can define an originating material cause as the pre-existing matter out of which a concrete object begins to exist (e.g. the unformed bronze, or copper and tin). We can define a sustaining material cause as the matter that composes concrete object at all times that the concrete object continues to exist (e.g. the bronze currently in the sphere while it is existing). As the sphere and the bronze from which it is composed simultaneously exist as an effect of God’s will, the brazen sphere exists ex nihilo, from no pre-existing matter. Now, one might object by saying that this is not “creation” since creation must involve motion or change out of which something comes to be. This would be contrary, however, to what Aquinas argues in, for instance, the Summa Contra Gentiles II.17 where he specifically denies that creation involves motion or change.  For Aquinas, genuine creation is not merely changing one thing into another, but the very actualization of substance itself.  Creation is just what one calls the relationship between the first cause, God, and his effects, i.e. the creation of non-divine substance. Anything actualized by God, i.e. the being of pure actuality, is a created thing. So, for Aquinas, creation ex nihilo merely follows from the notion that God is the uncaused cause of all other things. It should also be noted that matter, the underlying stuff, is always a composite of act and potency. Consequently, on the Aristotelian-Thomistic metaphysical view, there simply cannot be uncaused or uncreated matter that co-exists with God from which other things are made. For such matter would have to receive its actuality from another, and so it must have a caused if it exists—a cause that will somehow trace back to the Being of Pure Actuality. Admittedly this is the Aristotelian-Thomistic notion of matter, and perhaps ex-apologist would like to distance himself from such an understanding of matter towards a more modern notion of matter as pure extended stuff. Perhaps pure extension can exist uncaused along with God. It is less clear whether standard particle theory, which seems to comport better with hylomorphism than early modern notions of matter, can be uncaused or self-actualizing. Either way, I think more needs to be said about what matter actually is.

Now consider ex-apologist’s argument and the disjunctions involved therein. Those disjunctions will prove important to this discussion. We may grant that a concrete object that has an originating OR sustaining [efficient] cause has a material cause, but for ex-apologist’s argument to work, there must always be an originating material cause. Otherwise, one might escape his argument through the following formulation, PCM’:

(4) All concrete objects that have an originating or sustaining efficient cause have an originating or sustaining material cause of their existence.

This reformulation will not force the falsity of classical theismcvc because it need not be the case that the universe has an originating material case. So:

(5) If classical theismcvc is true, then the natural world is a concrete object that has an originating or sustaining efficient cause and not an originating material cause of its existence.

(6) Therefore, if classical theismcvc is true, the natural world has a sustaining material cause of its existence.

Many classical theists will want to reject the notion that all of creation is material, but the thesis isn’t explicitly contrary to classical theismcvc, as ex-apologist defines it. So, the conclusion is consistent with classical theismcvc. To avoid this escape, ex-apologist will have to say that all concrete objects that have an originating or sustaining efficient cause, must have an originating material cause of their existence. This means that he must have an even stronger PMC’’ which states:

(7) All concrete objects that have an originating or sustaining efficient cause have an originating material cause of their existence.

From this, he can argue:

(8) If classical theismcvc is true, then the natural world is a concrete object that has an originating or sustaining efficient cause and not an originating material cause of its existence.

(9) Therefore, classical theismcvc is false.

Now PMC’’, as found in (7), seems a bit odd in that it maintains the disjunction with respect to efficient causality as though something could have an originating material cause (be composed from pre-existing unformed matter) simply because it has a sustaining efficient cause. Return to our possible world of the brazen sphere for a moment. Suppose God, or some other efficient cause, sustained the matter in the appropriate configuration for all eternity. Such a sphere would have a sustaining efficient cause but no originating material out of which the composite concrete object comes to be. This scenario has, at least, prima facie plausibility. So I see no good reason to suppose that a sufficient condition of having originating matter is for a concrete object to have a sustaining efficient cause. If something is eternal and sustained in existence (i.e. it has a sustaining efficient cause and no originating efficient cause), there is no good reason to think it came to be from pre-existing matter, and there is good reason to think that it would be incoherent to suppose it could have an originating material cause. Given that, (7) appears to be a false principle, and we should clarify our principle of material causality once again to PMC’’’:

10) All concrete objects that have an originating efficient cause have an originating material cause of their existence.

From here, one could argue:

11) If classical theismcvc is true, then the natural world is a concrete object that has an originating efficient cause and not an originating material cause of its existence.

(12) Therefore, classical theismcvc is false.

The problem, of course, is that (11) is too strong. Classical theism does not depend upon there being an originating efficient cause of the universe, just that there must be a first cause in order of explanation that could be either originating or sustaining. The universe need not have a temporal beginning at all. So it seems to me that ex-apologist needs argue, independently of whatever classical theismcvc may imply about the natural world, to say that it indeed has originating causes:

(13) All concrete objects that have an originating efficient cause have an originating material cause of their existence.

(14) The natural world has an originating efficient cause.

(15) If classical theismcvc is true, then the natural world does not have an originating material cause of its existence.

(16) Therefore, classical theismcvc is false.

Now what could be said of this argument? One might object to (13). Ex-apologist anticipates a rejection of his PMC via quantum mechanics or libertarian free will. I am not certain that his discussion is successful with respect to libertarian freewill, since he suggests that since an agent’s free will is caused by energy from outside of the natural causal order, freely willed choice is not genuinely caused ex nihilo. According to ex-apologist, the story would be that energy from outside the natural causal order was part of the causal explanation of the will, and so the choice would not be genuinely ex nihilo. It’s not clear to me that such an event would not be ex nihilo because of some supernatural energy.  I am not sure what this energy would be, but it is not clear that it is equivalent to or convertible with matter in any sense of the term, or that a free will choice is somehow composed from this pre-existing supernatural energy.  And it seems to me that if this point is pushed too hard, determinism threatens.  For if this supernatural energy is the something like the “pre-existing matter” out of which an agent’s choices emerges, then even if our choices are inexplicable within the natural causal order (since it is not closed), it may be explicable and determined within the supernatural causal order and determined there within.  The libertarian must maintain that alternative choice is possible, and so whatever this supernatural energy is, it cannot be determining things in the way pre-existing matter/energy determines things within the natural causal order.  So it is a disanalogous energy.

I would think that a more straightforward defeater for (13) would be the creation of immaterial souls or intellects. There are plausible arguments for the immateriality of the soul or part of the soul, and those arguments would have to be addressed by ex-apologist if his argument is to have any merit. My personal favorite is James Ross’s argument for the immateriality of thought (which I have blogged about here), though there are many other such arguments. Ross says that physical and material process are indeterminate, and so do not perfectly align with truth-preserving determinate processes such as we find in the intellect’s formal and deductive rational processes. He concludes that these intellectual processes cannot be material processes. If so, these processes are concrete and also have originating efficient causes in the agent. Insofar as they are immaterial, they lack a material cause in their origination, and they are not sustained by matter. Rather, hylomorphicists, like me, argue that the originating causes are formal and efficient rather than material.

With respect to (14), ex-apologist will have to sustain an enormous burden of proof. For this is not merely the claim that the universe began to exist at some finite point in the past, but that the whole of nature, itself, is a concrete object that began to exist at some point, and so came from pre-existing matter. What’s more, if the totality of nature was composed from pre-existing matter, then that matter would have to be, by definition, beyond that which is within the scope of the natural world, and so would be supernatural. This is, of course, problematic for any sensible definition of “natural” since matter has always been taken to be a prime example of that which is natural. Of course we need to pin down what “natural” and “material” mean to consider whether it is even coherent to talk about supernatural matter. Moreover, natural material things would have to be ultimately composed out of whatever this supernatural matter is. And since other things begin to exist out of this matter, all concreta that begins to exist would have to be ultimately composed out of this supernatural stuff. Also, there would have to be a supernatural efficient cause of the universe, to maintain this argument—some sort of demiurge. This is a very untoward consequence of attempting to sustain (13) and (14), as it would be a defeater for naturalism as much as it would be a defeater for classical theismcvc. In other words, in using  (13)-(15) to defeat classical theismcvc, one is, in effect, arguing in favor of the sort of cosmogony one finds in Plato’s Timaeus. I doubt that ex-apologist wants to defend the notion that there is a demiurge who fashions the natural world out of supernatural matter.

Summary: many classical theists would reject (13) on the grounds that the soul or part of the soul begins to exist, but lacks a material cause. Those arguments should not be ignored. Furthermore, classical theismcvc is neutral with respect to (14), so it is a premise that ex-apologist would need to justify independently. The ultimate problem is that (13) and (14), taken together, would undercut naturalism as much as classical theismcvc and lead to the absurd conclusion that the natural world is made out of some spooky supernatural “stuff”. I doubt any naturalist would want to defend (14) on its own merits, and it would be unfair to saddle the classical theist with defending (14), though there are some theists who seem keen on the idea of a finite past (I’m looking at you, Dr. Craig). It is for these reasons that I do not think a successful argument against classical theism from material causality can be had.

Ultimately the PMC is not incompatible with creation ex nihilo. At best, creation ex nihilo is incompatible with the notion that all concreta which has an originating efficient cause has an originating material cause, but only if it is assumed that the natural world has an originating efficient cause. Does the natural world have an originating cause? I’m not sure we can know. If it does have one, I am not sure that it is so much better to posit that it came to be from a demiurge and supernatural matter than from God ex nihilo.

[1] All quotes taken from Ex-apologist (2014, December, 04) “Theism and Material Causality”. Retrieved from

A Response to Schieber’s Problem of Non-God Objects

The problem of non-God objects is an argument against the Anselmian conception of God, i.e. that being than which none greater can be conceived. Given the target, if the argument were successful, it would provide a decisive reason to be an atheist. The argument, devised by Justin Schieber, runs as follows:

P1: If the Christian God exists, then GodWorld is the unique best possible world.
P2: If GodWorld is the unique best possible world, then the Christian God would maintain GodWorld.
P3: GodWorld is false because the Universe (or any non-God object) exists.
Conclusion: Therefore, the Christian God, as so defined, does not exist.1

The argument is formally valid, so if the premises are true, I think we ought to accept the conclusion. What’s more, P2 and P3 are relatively uncontroversial. It is quite obvious that this world is not GodWorld, i.e. the null world where only God exists. One might try some sort of pantheistic escape, but since pantheism is contrary to orthodox Christianity, such a route concedes the debate. Furthermore, the Christian is committed to the existence of non-God objects. Unless it is logically impossible for God to maintain GodWorld, P2 seems to be true. I can think of no reason to think that God would not be able to maintain GodWorld. And if there is a singular best possible world, it seems a maximally great God ought to preserve it.

Contrary to the implications of this argument, Catholics theology teaches that creation is a gratuitous act. God could have decided not to create anything. This suggests that Catholics are committed to the possibility that God could have maintained GodWorld. But in suggesting that God could have acted otherwise, the Catholic is also committed to the position that nothing in God’s nature would have prevented him from bringing about an alternative reality from GodWorld. If we spend some time considering how this could be, I suspect that we will come to a better understanding of why P1 of Schieber’s argument is not sufficiently justified.

Iron Chariots explicates the argument, and this seems consistent with the way Schieber presents the argument in his debate with Max Andrews. So I will go with their explication for the time being. Iron Chariots writes:

If God exists, he is an ontologically perfect being – meaning he has those great-making properties to their maximal compossible degrees and no such properties to any lesser degree. A world comprised of only the maximally-great being for eternity would be a world comprised of all those great-making properties to their maximal compossible degrees and no such properties to any lesser degree. Unless there is some source of unique Goodness – Goodness that exists outside of and fully independent of God, GodWorld must be the unique best possible world. GodWorld eternally sustains the highest overall ontological purity and, therefore, overall ontological quality to which no other world can compare, therefore it is the unique best possible world.2

I agree that if God exists, God is an ontologically (and morally) perfect being. We might dispute the idea that God “has” great-making properties. For the Thomist, God is identical to God’s attributes, and those attributes are identical with one another. God’s goodness is identical to God’s omnipotence. So Schieber’s understanding of ontological perfection is more in line with the contemporary metaphysics of a certain group of evangelical Christian analytic philosophers as opposed to Anselm and Aquinas, who strongly affirm the doctrine of divine simplicity. And I think a good deal of this argument hinges on contemporary analytic metaphysics, so it is worth noting that God is already conceived of as a complex of great-making properties—a complex whose purity can be threatened and altered in some way. Thus the God described in this argument seems to lack genuine (libertarian) freedom, immutability, and simplicity.

Another aspect of this argument that seems to presume contemporary metaphysics, according to this argument “GodWorld” would be comprised of all the great-making properties to their maximal compossible degree and no such property to any lesser degree. However, it isn’t really clear whether and how possible-worlds receive their predicates. And this will be the crux of my criticism of Schieber’s argument. While I think the semantics of possible-worlds is a helpful way of thinking about modality, it raises some thorny metaphysics questions and may even contain some outright presumptions. I will develop my objection as a trilemma: either GodWorld has the ontological status to be the subject of predication, or it does not. If it has the ontological status to be the subject of predication, then either it has the same predicates as God or it does not.

Let’s consider the first horn, that God has the ontological status to be the subject of predication. For this appears to be Schieber’s position. He wants to predicate “unique best possible world” and “highest purity” of GodWorld. And it seems he does so on the grounds that GodWorld, itself, is comprised of God’s great-making properties. Let’s suppose that this means that GodWorld has the same properties as God (the first horn of our second dilemma). This is to treat the relationship between the predicates of an object in a world as transitive to the world in which that object obtains. That is, God has great-making properties, GodWorld has God, therefore GodWorld has great-making properties. There are prima facie reasons a Christian would find this metaphysical position problematic, since God is not just that than which none greater can be conceived, but also that than which a greater cannot be conceived (Proslogion XV). If great-making properties are transitively predicated to GodWorld from God, then something must be conceived to be as great as the Anselmian God. And so conceiving of both is surely greater than conceiving of God alone. This means that the admission of the metaphysics and the transitivity of properties renders Anselm’s God incoherent. But before the atheologian claims victory through insisting on this view of possible worlds, we must consider it more closely. First, we must be cautious that we don’t commit the fallacy of composition, i.e. that the world has the properties of the beings that occupy the world. God is omnipotent, but is GodWorld omnipotent? We have no reason to think so. God is omniscient, is GodWorld? The world itself doesn’t seem to have powers or knowledge. It seems to be a category mistake to think the world has such abilities simply because its singular occupant has those abilities. This seems highly implausible to me.

Consider, then, the alternative possibility that GodWorld has the appropriate ontological status to be the subject of predication, e.g. ‘the unique best possible world’, but those predicates are not the same as God’s great-making predicates. This seems more plausible than the first alternative that we’ve considered, since God does not have a great-making property of being the “unique best possible world”, and GodWorld doesn’t, itself, seem to be omniscient. They seem to have different properties. Further, we might say that GodWorld is being predicated with some degree of purity on the basis of the quantity and quality of non-divine great-making qualities are predicated of the entities that exist. On this interpretation, there are at least two real things that are ontologically sufficient to receive predication in GodWorld, namely God and GodWorld itself. It seems that Schieber does not seem to think that the purity of God’s great-making properties are made impure by the existence of another thing with other properties God lacks. Now Schieber might say that he never intended GodWorld to be absolutely pure in terms of divine great-making properties, but that it is the world with the “highest purity.” But it is not really clear how we are to assess the level of purity viz-a-viz other worlds. More to it, it is not clear that the world with the highest level of purity of compossible and maximized great-making properties must be deemed to be the “uniquely best”. Ironically, “world with highest purity of great-making properties” is a predicate said of GodWorld and not God, it is not a divine great-making property and so an awkward instance of adulteration. It is especially awkward since what makes GodWorld the “uniquely best” is that it is predicated with a property that God lacks, namely the property of “being the world with the highest amount of purity”. If so, having a non-divine property is a necessary condition for being defined as “uniquely best”. In other words, what makes GodWorld the “uniquely best world” is, among other things, an impurity! This seems counterintuitive, if Schieber is arguing that impurity makes a world less good than it would be without the impurity. What’s more, it might not be the case that GodWorld has less of these compossible maximal great-making properties than other worlds. For instance, GodWorld would have the property of belonging to {GodWorld}, but God wouldn’t have that property. It would also, presumably, have the property of being a world, while God is not a world. Furthermore, it stands to reason that GodWorld might be inhabited by abstract objects non-identical to God and lacking in great-making properties. For if GodWorld is the “unique best” world and God is the only individual, we seem to have an instance of one, and two. It is not hard to generate and define all of the natural numbers within such a world. So Schieber may have to argue against mathematical realism, and even against the mathematical properties that threaten to obtain in GodWorld. For such a world will quickly have an infinitude of properties, like oddness, evenness, and other such mathematical features that belong exclusive to numbers. So while GodWorld might have only one concrete entity, it may have an infinity of abstract objects and an infinity of non-great making properties that obtain within it. This is a damning problem for Schieber’s argument, as far as I can tell.  If GodWorld has an infinity of non-great-making properties, GodWorld is at least as adulterated as some other possible worlds.  And if so, Schieber’s thought experiment fails.

Now keep in mind, this does not mean that GodWorld is infinitely bad. An impurity doesn’t have to be an evil, it just has to be a property that isn’t a maximized great-making property. Perhaps all worlds do, and so God is free from needing to avoid the introduction of more impurities, since any finite addition would not be more. Schieber may want to stipulate that the impure properties of abstract objects don’t count, but such a move seems ad hoc and needs independent justification.

Also, It seems that Schieber’s calculus is too narrow for considering which world would be best. Schieber does anticipate this objection in his debate with Andrews. Schieber considers the Christian who might say that God isn’t interested in purity, but maximizing the amount of goods in the world. He notes that manufacturers don’t think it is wise to sacrifice quality for quantity, nor do people tend to want more trivial relationships rather than a few high quality relationships. But a few examples where one wouldn’t sacrifice quality for quantity won’t really suffice to prove the universal. Cases are complex, and it is sometimes preferable to sacrifice quality for quantity. For a real world example, consider friendship. We value our best friends most of all. Aristotle says that goodness is the object of perfect friendship and one desires the good of the other. But does this mean that having lesser sorts of friends diminishes one’s quality of life? It is practically impossible to have a large quantity of perfect friendships, and only a few suffice for achieving the good life. But supplementing perfect friendship with friends of pleasure and utility is not necessarily detrimental or counterproductive towards human flourishing. So a mixture of different kinds of friends could be as good, or even better than maintaining just a few perfect friendships. Also, consider a piece of music. One might think that harmony is a great-making quality of a score, and discord, silent pauses, etc. are not instances of such harmony. Nonetheless, while some of the greatest pieces of music are entirely filled with harmonies, there are some scores that are equally great, though they are adulterated with moments of jarring discord and abrupt silence. We might also consider a man who is about to buy his fiancée a diamond engagement ring. The man has a budget of $5,000 and is surprised to discover how many different sorts of diamonds he might purchase. Some have a high degree of clarity (purity if you like), but the carat size is smaller than some other stone. Some stones are colorless, others are blue, and still others tend toward yellow. The stones are cut in different ways too. The asher-cut looks almost like a water droplet, while the princess-cut shimmers like fire. This solitary has 57 cuts, that one 55, etc. The man might not be indifferent to which diamond he prefers (or thinks his fiancée would prefer), though he is willing to concede that any diamond he purchases will cost $5,000. Each has the same objective worth, and perhaps he will prefer the flawless diamonds, though they are tiny. Perhaps he will prefer a larger carat and accept a color shade less than D because he wants a dazzling cut. Perhaps he would prefer a yellow diamond because yellow is his fiancée’s favorite color. At the end of the day, it is his free choice, and he will make that choice based on many factors that are both objective and subjective. Perhaps it is the same with God. He could choose GodWorld, with whatever (perhaps infinite) impurities found there. Or God might be willing to create non-God objects, adding a finite sum of impurities to whatever impurities exist in GodWorld. Perhaps those additions are counterbalanced by the other quantities and qualities of goods added. Perhaps it is a zero-sum game, i.e. the additional impurity is balanced against the additional finite goods the object brings to the table such that GodWorld is objectively great as any of a variety of worlds possible for God to select. I think this would have to be case, at least from God’s perspective, if we are to believe that God has freedom. And I think we should think that God has freedom, since that is a traditional attribute ascribed to the Christian God, and it seems to be a great-making property, if it is at all possible, or compossible with God’s other attributes. Schieber’s version of God must maintain GodWorld, and so is not free to act otherwise. This is consistent with the Leibnizian God who was only free in the compatiblist sense that he was not compelled by anyone else to create the best possible world. Nonetheless, God’s nature necessitates the actualization of the best possible world, which raises the question of whether there really are any other possible worlds. For if it is not possible for a world to actualize itself, and God can only actualize the best possible world, then it is impossible that any other world should come into existence.

Perhaps Schieber would like to avoid the messy metaphysical exposition of how worlds receive their predicates, and instead opt for a sort of “anti-realist” position with respect to possible-worlds, i.e. worlds do not have the sort of ontological status that would allow one to genuinely predicate anything of them. So there really isn’t a “uniquely best” possible world. A world is some sort of group-fiction that we use to lump together various propositions that might obtain. There are no “worlds” that can be said to be good bad, best, or worst. Rather there are various sorts of beings that may or may not exist together. But then the question of purity is more difficult to explain, since purity was something that was being said of worlds. Surely the existence of a finite good, like a human, has no effect on the immutable nature of God. They are separate beings with distinct natures and attributes.

In fact, on a Thomistic reading, the way in which God is said to be Good is not equivalent to the way we are said to be good. They are not just different in terms of levels of purity, or quantity. They are as different as a cause is from the effect. There is a relationship between the two, as they are said to be analogous. One might compare this to the Aristotelian example of analogy where health is said of medicine, which is the cause of health, of walking, of a book on the topic of health, of certain foods, and of human beings, where health may be the effect of a good diet, exercise, medicine, and knowledge. In the Thomistic understanding, Goodness is convertible with Being. And this helpful when we are trying to understand how God is a different kind of Goodness than everything else. For God is Being itself, or essentially being, while everything else is a being and only accidentally being. So God is essentially Good and Goodness itself, while everything else is good insofar as its nature is perfected, or actualized. Thomas argues that the good is that which is desirable. And what is desirable for any given thing is the full actualization of its essence. Since God is pure actuality, and the omnipotent cause of all other things, God brings about the good in things. In lacking nothing, God is fully actual and perfect, and so perfectly Good. In being the cause of actuality in everything else, God is the ultimate Good for all created things. Created things are said to be good insofar as they are made more perfect by Goodness itself. And God is more properly Goodness insofar as God is the cause of the goodness in everything else. For example, moral goodness is part of the essence of humans and it is good insofar as our will is sustained in existence by God and properly ordered to goodness as it is found in reality. The point is that these are very different kinds of goodness. In effect, the great-making properties of humans are quite distinct from the so-called divine great-making properties, if we can even speak of divine properties (given the doctrine of divine simplicity). And my limited and corrupted great-making properties do not make God any less God. It does not affect God’s essence as pure actuality. So God does not become impure by creating things that are not purely good. And it is impossible to create another being that is purely good, i.e. perfect or purely actual. For such a being moved from potency to actuality, and so would not possess actuality essentially, but only accidentally. Whatever is accidental can be lost. So God cannot create God. This makes sense, since God is non-contingent, and a created thing is contingent by definition. Typically it is not required that omnipotent beings should be able to do the logically impossible. So then purity does not become the issue of Schieber’s argument, rather it is a question of God’s goodness. Why would a good God actualize anything if he cannot make actual another instance of pure actuality? Why make things that are only accidentally good, accidentally existing? But then Schieber’s God is a funny sort of omnipotent being. For he cannot actually bring anything about, and only participates in the love that exists between the persons of the Trinity, which is eternal and uncreated.

But again, I think the answer is to realize that there is a difference in kind when speaking of God’s goodness and the goodness of created things. When God creates, God does not alter His own nature, so he is not perfecting himself. I think it is for this reason that the null-world, where God chooses not to create, is a possible alternative to one where God chooses to create. For, when he chooses to create, he is not bringing about additional goodness in his own nature, but creaturely goodness. His relationship to creation is, rather, one of grace. I think we find ourselves in this sort of world because God has the personality of an artist, a creator. He isn’t morally obligated to be a creator, nor is he forbidden. His creation is itself a finite good, a reflection of His Goodness. But, just as a reflective surface does not generate light, this additional creaturely goodness does not generate more of God’s goodness. Likewise, even the most perfect mirror degrades the light it reflects, but it does not dim or degrade the source of light in being an imperfect reflector. So why think the introduction of creaturey goods adulterates God’s goodness.  Perhaps creaturely goodness cancels itself out, as I have suggested, a zero-sum game or just a case of adding a finite sum to an already existing infinity of impure properties. God could have existed by himself for all of eternity, or he could have created some finite goods. Let’s take the Anselmian insight seriously, that God is that than which none greater can be conceived. If so, conceiving of everything in the world and God is not greater than conceiving of God alone. The finite goodness of the world does not quantitatively add anything when conjoined to the concept of God. Why think that it should diminish the concept of God?  In fact, a God that can be so easily diminished is less great than the immutable God of classical theism (at least it seems so to me).

In effect, Schieber argues that it is greater to conceive of a God that is not free to create non-God objects than to conceive of a God that freely creates non-God objects. He does so on the basis of purity. I have given reason to think that absolute purity is impossible, once we consider the ontological status of the world, or difficult to assess if we do not predicate anything of worlds. Instead, I offer what I take to be an orthodox Catholic position. God is free to create or not create. But in choosing to create, God does not diminish his own nature, for God is immutable. Pure actuality has no potential to be diminished. Further, it is not clear that the additional greatness, finitude, impurity, and evil found in the world balances out such that this world is objectively as good to create as maintaining GodWorld. If so, God may have subjective reasons for producing this world over others. Those reasons might not make this world objectively better than GodWorld, just subjectively preferred by God’s personalities in the way I might prefer a science-fiction novel to a romance. I can have such a preference while genuinely considering both novels as good enough to read.

I fear that this response has been a bit long-winded. Unfortunately, I think an adequate response to Schieber’s argument involves raising some difficult metaphysical questions, which is my backhanded way of saying that I think it is a philosophically interesting argument. I think I’ve raised some of those questions here, and provided at least some reason to think that the answers to those questions would strongly count against Schieber’s argument. I’ve really appreciated the opportunity to think through all of this, and it is yet another example of what I call, “the indispensability of God.” I’ve argued elsewhere that the concept of the Anselmian God is a philosophically fruitful concept. It is by thinking through this concept that philosophers and theologians have devised many useful concepts, from the relationship between grace and mercy, to the nature of forgiveness, to the concept of personhood, to new theories in identity theory that seek to reconcile paradoxes in the Trinity. Schieber has attempted to explicate exactly what the God-concept entails, and he has done so through unpacking precisely what God’s properties are said to be. I take this as prima facie evidence that the concept of the Anselmian God is self-consistent, and so logically possible. And since the Anselmian God, if possible, necessarily exists, I think Schieber has given us a performative reason to think God is coherent, and so exists. The warrant for his premises were always rooted in the nature of the Anselmian God. He did not once appeal to, say, the principle of explosion, or contradiction so as to derive any entailments. You’d expect that he would, if the God concept were a mere absurdity. It isn’t, God exists.

1”The problem of non-God objects” in Iron Chariots. Retrieved March 22, 2014.

[Edit on March 29, 2014 with a clarification on why the transitivity of great-making properties to GodWorld is incompatible with the Anselmian God]

Dawkins’ Central Argument

Somehow, I feel like I am beating a putrefied horse at this point. But I’ve had a few people challenge me on Dawkins and his central argument in the God Delusion So, I’ve decided it’s time to do analysis of Dawkins’ central argument. Here is (187-189 of my 2008 edition of the God Delusion by Richard Dawkins, Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt):

1. One of the greatest challenges to the human intellect… has been to explain how the improbable appearance of design in the universe arise.

2. The natural temptation is to attribute the appearance of design to actual design itself. In the case of a man-made artefact such as a watch, the designer really was an intelligent engineer. It is tempting to apply the same logic to an eye or a wing, a spider, or a person.

3. The temptation is a false one, because the design hypothesis immediately raises the larger problem of who designed the designer. The whole problem we started out with was the problem of explaining statistical improbability. It is obviously no solution to postulate something even more improbable. We need a ‘crane,’ not a ‘skyhook,’ for only a crane can do the business of working up gradually and plausibly from simplicity to otherwise improbable complexity.

4. The most ingenious and powerful crane so far discovered is Darwinian evolution by natural selection. Darwin and his successors have shown how living creatures, with their spectacular statistical improbability and appearance of design, have evolved by slow, gradual degrees from simple beginnings. We can now safely say that the illusion of design in living creatures is just that — an illusion.

5. We don’t yet have an equivalent crane for physics. Some kind of multiverse theory could in principle do for physics the same explanatory work as Darwinism does for biology. This kind of explanation is superficially less satisfying than the biological version of Darwinism, because it makes heavier demands on luck. But the anthropic principle entitles us to postulate far more luck than our limited human intuition is comfortable with.

6. We should not give up hope for a better crane arising in physics, something as powerful as Darwinism is for biology. But even in the absence of a strongly satisfying crane to match the biological one, the relatively weak cranes we have at present are, when abetted by the anthropic principle, self-evidently better than self-defeating skyhook hypothesis of an intelligent designer.

Therefore, God almost certainly does not exist.

My critique is as follows:

(1) it should be noted that premises (1)-(6) do not validly lead to the conclusion that God almost certainly does not exist. No rule of logic of which I am aware could get us to the conclusion. And this is despite the fact that Dawkins loads entire paragraphs into each premise. He can’t quite make valid connections between the premises, and several of the premises are not doing any work at all in the argument. For instance (1) is a prefatory remark more than a proper premise. (5) is simply an admission of ignorance, and (6) turns that admission if ignorance into an ad ignorantam fallacy by suggesting that an unknown crane explanation is preferable to the alternatives. To put it simply, all six premises could be true, and God could still exist. This is because Dawkins needs to argue not merely that crane explanations are needed or hoped for, but that they are the only game in town. I think this is where he wants to go, but asserting that is essentially begging the question. This leads to my next point…

(2) The argument hinges on a false dichotomy between reductive crane explanations, and skyhooks, which he defines as “magic spells” (99). Dawkins practically stipulates his way to victory on this point by telling his audience that crane explanations are the sort of explanations that actually explain things (Ibid.). So presumably out of the dichotomy between skyhooks and cranes, we are left with only reductive crane explanations, if we want any explanations at all. Of course, there is very little argumentation for there only being two sorts of explanation, and absolutely no argument for why God is a skyhook explanation. But, I think there are some non-reductive explanations that at least claim to explain. For instance, many physicalists will insist that they can offer a non-reductive explanation how consciousness supervenes on the brain. This would not be a simple to complex explanation, for then the physicalist would be stuck with a reductive theory. So Dawkins’ argument hinges on the failure of supervenience as a non-reductive explanation of consciousness (presumably the failure of any supervening explanation whatsoever). Other candidates for non-reductive non-magic spell explanations would include agent causation, and formal causation. One might be skeptical of all this, but the broader point is that Dawkins never proves that only cranes are true explanations, he borrows this from a reductionistic philosopher, Daniel Dennett, and asserts it in the middle of his argument as if it were uncontroversial. Of course, if we accept, without argument, that reductive crane explanations are the only explanations, then we have begged the argument away from God, for any sort of reductive monism is incompatible with theism to begin with. Not that all atheists accept crane explanations alone, but only atheists would accept crane explanations alone.

(3) Dawkins says that any design inference raises a larger problem of who designed the designer. The problem is that neither his atheistic world-view, nor the theistic world-view would insist that every designer was designed. He freely admits that the creator of the watch, the watchmaker, was a person who was not designed. Likewise, the theist holds that God is eternal and uncaused, so without the need for design. So no one seems to actually hold to an “all designers need designers” thesis. Some theists, not all, might argue that the watchmaker needs a designer, but not in virtue of being a designer, but in virtue of being created or contingent. So the question would be whether the need for a designer in the case of the watchmaker transfers over to a God. However, theists reason that God is not a contingent biological life form, so the analogy breaks down.

(4) Dawkins also says that it is no solution (explanation?) to the probability of x, if y must be postulated to explain x, and y is even more improbable than x. But, he has given us no reason to think God is more improbable than the universe. He merely hints that this is what we should think. But isn’t the conclusion that God is improbable? That’s what I take “almost certainly doesn’t exist” to mean. So once again, Dawkins is vague enough that the argument is a non sequitur, but if you fill in the gaps, it’s implicitly question begging. An alternative is that a highly improbable event x might raise the probability of y as the explanation. We simply cannot know. But the answer is going to look like something more akin to Bayes’ formula than Dawkins’ sloppy and vague assertions.

In summary: Dawkins’ central argument is invalid, several premises do no work, and the crucial premises only do some work if we make certain question begging assumptions.

A Response to Law’s “Evil-God Challenge” via Aquinas and Pascal

I’ve been spending a bit of time thinking about Stephen Law’s Evil-God Challenge.   Though I don’t think the challenge is without a response, I think it is something all theists should take the time to ponder.

Law describes the challenge in the following way:

The challenge is to explain why the hypothesis that there exists an omnipotent, omniscient and all-good god should be considered significantly more reasonable than the hypothesis that there exists an omnipotent, omniscient and all-evil god. Theists typically dismiss the evil-god hypothesis out of hand because of the problem of good – there is surely too much good in the world for it to be the creation of such a being. But then why doesn’t the problem of evil provide equally good grounds for dismissing belief in a good god? (Law 2010, 1).

Law develops a symmetry thesis between Good-God and evil-god.  Any reason that a theist might offer to think the Good-God hypothesis is reasonable, can be flipped to show that the Evil-god hypothesis is equally reasonable.   The theist rejects the view that evil should count against the Good-God thesis on the grounds of various defenses, or theodicies.  Law points out that the proponent of evil-god could offer parallel defenses for why evil-god might allow so much good, thus restoring parity in reasonableness between the two hypotheses. If you are interested in how Dr. Law flips each of these theodicies, I recommend reading his article, and blog.

Glenn Peoples’ recent podcast outlines some responses to the “Evil-God Challenge” primarily by way of the moral argument. In the first section of the podcast, Peoples points out that if Law wants to interact with classical theism, as he claims to do throughout his paper, then he must contend with the actual views of the classical theist with regard to fundamental concepts of God, good, and evil.  The classical theist views goodness as a transcendental property of being whereas evil is thought to be a privation of being.  Peoples points out that the concept of a god that is omnipotent, omniscient, and maximally evil is incoherent for the classical theist.

I would develop a classical theist’s response to the evil-god challenge in the following way.  Good-God can be perfectly and completely good.  But in classical theism complete evil cannot exist.  Evil-god must, at the very least, exist, which is a good.  Law points out that evil-god must seek to fulfill his desire for evil.  But desire fulfillment is a good thing.  So Law admits that there are certain logical limits to how depraved evil-god could be.  He compares this to the limits many classical theists put on God’s omniscience, e.g. God cannot create a stone so heavy that he cannot lift it (Law 2010, 18).  The problem, though, is that while there may be symmetry in the ways in which evil-god and Good-God are omnipotent, there is no symmetry between the way in which Good-God can be good and evil-god can be evil.  Thus, of the two “gods” Good-God is superlative and pure with regard to moral-value, whereas evil-God is somewhat adulterated and mediocre in comparison.

This is where Aquinas’ Fourth-Way becomes extremely important in the classical theist’s defense against Law’s argument.  Aquinas writes:

The fourth way is taken from the gradation to be found in things. Among beings there are some more and some less good, true, noble and the like. But “more” and “less” are predicated of different things, according as they resemble in their different ways something which is the maximum, as a thing is said to be hotter according as it more nearly resembles that which is hottest; so that there is something which is truest, something best, something noblest and, consequently, something which is uttermost being; for those things that are greatest in truth are greatest in being, as it is written in Metaph. ii. Now the maximum in any genus is the cause of all in that genus; as fire, which is the maximum heat, is the cause of all hot things. Therefore there must also be something which is to all beings the cause of their being, goodness, and every other perfection; and this we call God (ST I, Q. 1, A. 3).

Presented with either the completely good Good-God and the mostly evil evil-god, I think that the classical theist would find that it is more reasonable to think that a Good-God is the cause of the various degrees of goodness in the universe.  Evil-god, being somewhat good though mostly evil, is not the best explanation for the moral character of various entities throughout this world, since a more complete superlative explanation is forthcoming, caeteris paribus.  After all, there would seem to be some degree of goodness predicated of evil-god that cannot be accounted for by his evil nature alone.

To sum up, the classical theist would say that it is logically impossible that evil-God is perfectly evil, and that this means that there is asymmetry between the Good-God and evil-god hypotheses.    Further, the classical theist would say that the adulterated nature of evil-god’s moral character does not provide the best explanation for the gradations of goodness (and evil) we observe since a more complete paradigm can be postulated beyond evil-god as found in Good-God.

A second response that I would like to offer to the evil-God challenge is more of the pragmatic variety and is inspired by Blaise Pascal.  I consider this argument something of a fail-safe.  If all other attempts to address the challenge fail, there are still reasons to believe Good-God over evil-god simply because one has little to gain from belief in evil-god and possibly much to lose.  Conversely, belief in Good-God offers us little to lose and everything to gain.  Law asked for a reason to believe one over the other, but he didn’t say that the reason couldn’t be of a practical nature.

As a matter of fact Pascal did not think that the existence of God could be settled by theoretical arguments alone, yet he thought belief in God was far more rational than disbelief.  His wager is  essentially a quadrilemma resulting from crossing two sets of disjunctions:  1. Either you believe God exists or you don’t, and  2. Either God exists, or God does not exist.  Pascal’s wager takes into consideration  the possible outcomes of believing or not believing in God:

  1. If you believe in God and God exists, you have the opportunity to develop the proper relationship with God so that you could attain eternal life.
  2. If you believe in God and God does not exist, you your life on the presumption of this error, with some finite harms associated with living under such false presumptions.
  3. If you disbelief in God and God exists, you give up on the opportunity to develop a relationship with God and risk eternal damnation.
  4. If you disbelieve God and God does not exist, you are correct in your belief about God and have a more accurate conception of reality than theists–a small boon.

As a response to the evil-god challenge, I am suggesting that we simply add a bit more to the possible disjunctions.  We might say that the possibilities are that evil-god exist, Good-God exists, or neither of them exist.  You could believe in evil-God, believe in Good-God, or believe in no gods.  The result is nine possible outcomes:

  1. If you believe in Good-God and Good-God exists, then you have a shot at eternal salvation, an infinite gain.
  2. If you believe in Good-God and evil-god exists, then you will be tormented eternally, or annihilated.
  3. If you believe in Good-God and no God exists, then you will be in error and suffer the consequences of behaving a certain way due to an erroneous belief.
  4. If you believe in evil-God and God-God exists, it is possible that you have offended and blasphemed Good-God and denied Him the worship and adoration due.  Salvation is in jeopardy.
  5. If you believe in evil-God and evil-God exists, then evil-God will torment you, because he wants to maximize evil and wouldn’t want to reward even correct belief.
  6. If you believe in evil-God and no-God exists, then you have lived your life with an erroneous belief and suffer the limitations in your behavior due to this error.
  7. If you believe in no gods and Good-God exists, then once again it is possible that you have offended and blasphemed Good-God and denied Him the worship and adoration due.  Salvation is in jeopardy.
  8. If you believe in no gods and Evil-God exists, then he will torment or annihilate you, for he cares little that you were an atheist.
  9. If you believe in no gods and no gods exist, congratulations.  You believed something that is true, and you have the opportunity to live according to this true belief.  A small boon.

Overall, we see that belief in Good-God provides the best possible outcomes. Believing in evil-God offers no advantage whatsoever while believing in no gods offers the same possible limited outcome that Pascal expected the rational decision maker to reject in his original gambit.  But the only point we need to make is that it is not rational to believe evil-god from a pragmatic point of view whatsoever.

I don’t think Law could flip this without supposing that evil-God would offer infinite rewards for true-belief.  But if evil-god offers rewards, he fails to be maximally evil.   This would not be a matter of evil-god running up against the logical limits of evil, it would merely be an attempt by the proponent of the “Evil-God Challenge” to restore symmetry.  But in restoring symmetry in the wager, he destroys the symmetry between there being a maximally-Good God and a maximally evil-god–an integral hypothesis to the challenge.  Therefore, I don’t think any attempt to flip this theodicy could succeed.

There are some criticisms to Pascal’s wager and I cannot take them all on here.  I will limit myself to a couple.  1.  There are many revelations of God, what if we believe Good-God, but the wrong one?  2.  The wager motivates and insincere form of belief that may not be salvific.

Briefly, one could respond to the first point by saying that while the amount of revelations diminishes the possibility of correctly selecting the correct revelation of God, you can’t win if you don’t play.  In other words, this is not an argument against choosing to believe in a Good-God, it merely points out that such a belief may only be a necessary and not sufficient condition for reaping the reward.  So be it.  I don’t think this makes the decision to believe in Good-God any less rational.

Nonetheless, I do think that Christianity is the best religion to place one’s bet upon.  This is because I think the real true Good-God would offer a revelation.  Of the revealed religions, it is better to bet on a religion that believes immortality and some kind if salvation.  Why bet on a religion that offers no salvation when others that are on the table do?  Of salvific religions, it is better to bet on exclusivistic religion rather than a universal/pluralistic one.  After all, if a universalist religion is true, your going to be saved anyways.! Of exclusivistic religions, some offer salvation by works and others offer salvation through cooperation with grace.  It is more rational to be receptive to salvation by grace and do good works, then to do good works and not be receptive to God’s grace.  For if God wants good works, it is possible that those who believe salvation is a gift of grace might yet be saved if they also strive to live a good life.  So while the plurality of revealed religions might make the gambit a little more complicated, I still think we can still navigate it.  We are looking for a religion that is revealed, offers belief in salvation and immortality, is exclusivistic, and its theory of salvation is such that it is achieved through grace, but encourages good works.  I can only think of one religion that fits the bill.  And this does not even get into the historical arguments for the Resurrection!

My response to the second point actually draws upon my response to the first.  Pascal realized this objection, but noted that we can act into our belief.  Knowing that the rational decision is to believe in a Good-God, we can become sincere in our beliefs by participating in services, praying, and worshiping.  I think Pascal is describing a real phenomenon. The alternatives to belief in Good-God will eventually cease to be living options, if I can borrow a term from William James, and we will cease to entertain them in much the way we don’t entertain the possibility of Greek polytheism being true.  With only one living option, I think sincerity will set into place with time.

But even if we can’t act into the belief, Pascal does not think that the right belief will save us.  Rather, his wager removes obstacles to belief.  If the above analysis is correct, the most rational religion to believe is the one that claims salvation is a gift from God with which we must cooperate.  I may not be completely sincere in my belief, but some kind of belief is a necessary condition in cooperating with grace.  One does not earn one’s salvation through sincerity.  So if all we can do is cooperate with God’s grace for ulterior motives, then that is the best we can do.  I think God will meet us where we are and transform our insincere emotions to match the convictions of our wills.

Now this post has gone on far longer than I anticipated.  I would like to continue to refine my arguments.  But for now I hope to read some reactions from my readers.


Law, S. 2010. The Evil-God Challenge. Religious Studies. Vol. 46. Cambridge University Press. DOI: 10.1017/S0034412509990369

Is Evolution Sufficient to Account for the Numinous?

Here the “four horsemen” of the New Atheism discuss reclaiming numinous experiences as natural phenomena:

The philosopher Daniel Dennett, who appears in the video above, argues that in order to understand the origins of religious belief, we must understand something of how our “minds” evolved.  Central to his thesis is the idea that many animals, including humans have a HADD, hyperactive agent dection device.  He writes:

Recent research on animal intelligence has shown that some mammals and birds, and perhaps some other creatures as well, carry these agent-discriminations into more sophisticated territory.  Evidence shows that they not only distinguish between the animate movers from the rest but draw distinctions between the likely sorts of motions to anticipate from the animate ones; will it attack me or flee, will it move left or right, will it back down if I threaten, does it see me yet, does it want to eat me or would it prefer to go after my neighbor.  These cleverer animal minds have discovered the further Good Trick of adopting the intentional stance: they treat some other things in the world as agents . . . (From Daniel C. Dennett, Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon, New York: Viking, 2006)

Dennett contends that early religious belief can be explained in naturalistic terms as a result of our ancestors’ HADD producing false negatives.  He combines this with a theory of memes, i.e. that ideas compete for survival and are passed down in a Darwinian algorithm not too dissimilar from the one by which our selfish genes manage to edge one another out for survival. Agent detection generates ideas about a world filled with intentions, purposes, and designs.  These ideas then compete to form the cultural explanations that both explain nature and foment culture and societal cohesion.   To put it crudely, it is possible that my belief in spirits, souls, demons, and God could be the result of some neanderthal’s overactive imagination combined with a game of religious “telephone” where religious memes are whispered into the ears of succeeding generations of rational apes culminating, at least in my case, in the articulation of the Nicene Creed.

Dennett’s idea is not too dissimilar from that of Freud’s, but without relying on his oh so icky Oedipus complex.  Dennett’s has the advantage of being more scientific, as HADD is something that can be tested while the Oedipus complex is, as far as I can tell, is unfalsifiable.

I think there is something to Dennett’s thesis.  We really do seem to have the ability to sense agency–to feel as though we are being watched.  I’ve experienced it.  The rustle in the bushes can cause a person to be on edge that there is something, or someone, out there.  But what Dennett describes is rather rudimentary.  The phenomenal experience of the supernatural is far more complex, which is why I suspect he falls back on memes to fill in the gaps HADD alone leaves.

On the other hand, consider Rudolf Otto’s analysis of the mysterium tremendum.  This is a religious feeling that seems at least prima facie to buck heads with HADD’s intended evolutionary survival “function”.  Otto describes the mysterium tremendum as evoking feelings of the deepest penetrating dread.  One feels entirely overpowered and reduced to nothing before the numinous.  Along with this feeling of awesome dread, there is a feeling of the “wholly other” wherein one feels as though she is encountering that which is utterly uncanny.  But the most surprising feature of the mysterium tremendum is that it is an attractive rather than repulsive force.  Otto writes:

These two qualities, the daunting and the fascinating, now combine in a strange harmony of contrasts, and the resultant dual consciousness, to which the entire religious development bears witness, at any rate from the level of the ‘daemonic dread’ onward, is at once the strangest and most noteworthy phenomenon in the whole history of religion.  The daemonic-divine object may appear to the mind an object of horror and dread, but at the same time it is no less something that allures with a potent charm, and the creature, who trembles before it, utterly cowed and cast down, has always at the same time the impulse to turn to it, nay even to make it somehow his own. . . (Rudolf Otto The idea of the Holy, Trans. J.W. Harvey, New York: Oxford University Press, 1950)

According to Dennett, our brains evolved to feel religious experiences because HADD has survival advantages. Those who detect watchers in the woods were more likely to survive.  Yet Otto’s description of religious experience moves far beyond mere agent detection.  And rather than triggering a fight or flight response in us, the mysterium tremendum evokes the deepest shuddering within our beings–a shuddering that leads to desires of stillness not through escape but through surrender and communion!  We are drawn towards the force that we sense could overpower us at any moment–a force that could utterly destroy us like the proverbial moth to the flame.  Furthermore, since the mysterium tremendum evokes in us a sense of something non-natural, I struggle to see how this experience can be reduced to HADD or memes resulting from or accompanying HADD.  This is not a natural fear.  It does not trigger fight or flight in us.  So why are we susceptible to this sort of religious feeling?  How is it that we have a natural sense for that which is not natural?  What evolutionary story could be given to explain why this sort of feeling has not been selected out?

These questions lead me to suspect that Dennett’s account of the evolutionary roots of religious experience are inadequate on naturalism.  I do remain open to the possibility of an explanation though.

Why Pascal Won’t Get Mugged

Philosopher Nick Bostrom (2009) imagines that it would be quite easy to trick Blaise Pascal out of his money.  In fact, he thinks a mugger could use the reasoning Pascal applies in his own “Wager argument” to trick him into giving up his wallet willingly.  Bostrom’s fantastic dialogue culminates in the following manner:

Mugger: . . .Well, have I got good news for you! I have magical powers. I can give you any finite amount of money that you might ask for tonight. What’s more, I can give you any finite amount of Utility that I choose to promise you tonight.

Pascal: And I should believe you why?

Mugger: Trust me! OK, I realize this does not give you conclusive evidence, but surely it counts a least a little bit in favour of the truth of what I am asserting. Honestly, I really do have these powers.
Pascal: Your conduct tonight has not inspired me with confidence in your honesty.

Mugger: OK, OK, OK, OK. But isn’t possible that I am telling the truth?

Pascal: It is possible that you have the magic powers that you claim to have, but let me tell you, I give that a very, very low probability.
Mugger: That’s fine. But tell me, how low a probability exactly? Remember, you might think it all seems implausible, but we are all fallible, right? And you must admit, from what you’ve already seen and heard, that I am a rather atypical mugger. And look at my pale countenance, my dark eyes; and note that I’m dressed in black from top to toe. These are some of the telltale signs of an Operator of the Seventh Dimension. That’s where I come from and that’s where the magic work gets done.

Pascal: Gee . . . OK, don’t take this personally, but my credence that you have these magic powers whereof you speak is about one in a quadrillion.

Mugger: Wow, you are pretty confident in your own ability to tell a liar from an honest man! But no matter. Let me also ask you, what’s your probability that I not only have magic powers but that I will also use them to deliver on any promise – however extravagantly generous it may seem – that I might make to you tonight?

Pascal: Well, if you really were an Operator from the Seventh Dimension as you assert, then I suppose it’s not such a stretch to suppose that you might also be right in this additional claim. So, I’d say one in 10 quadrillion.

Mugger: Good. Now we will do some maths. Let us say that the 10 livres that you have in your wallet are worth to you the equivalent of one happy day. Let’s call this quantity of good 1 Util. So I ask you to give up 1 Util. In return, I could promise to perform the magic tomorrow that will give you an extra 10 quadrillion happy days, i.e. 10 quadrillion Utils. Since you say there is a 1 in 10 quadrillion probability that I will fulfil my promise, this would be a fair deal. The expected Utility for you would be zero. But I feel generous this evening, and I will make you a better deal: If you hand me your wallet, I will perform magic that will give you an extra 1,000 quadrillion happy days of life.

Pascal: I admit I see no flaw in your mathematics.

Mugger: This is my final offer. You’re not going to pass up a deal that we have just calculated will give you an expected Utility surplus of nearly 100 Utils, are you? That’s the best offer you are likely to see this year.

Pascal: Is this legitimate? You know, I’ve committed myself to trying to be a good Christian.

Mugger: Of course it’s legitimate! Think of it as foreign trade. Your currency is worth a lot in the Seventh Dimension. By agreeing to this transaction, you give a major boost to our economy. Oh, and did I mention the children? If only you could see the faces of the sweet little orphans who will be made so much better off if we get this influx of hard currency – and there are so many of them, so very, very, very many . . . .

Pascal: I must confess: I’ve been having doubts about the mathematics of infinity. Infinite values lead to many strange conclusions and paradoxes. You know the reasoning that has come to be known as ‘Pascal’s Wager’? Between you and me, some of the critiques I’ve seen have made me wonder whether I might not be somehow confused about infinities or about the existence of infinite values . . .

Mugger: I assure you, my powers are strictly finite. The offer before you does not involve infinite values in any way. But now I really must be off; I have an assignation in the Seventh Dimension that I’d rather not miss. Your wallet, please!

Pascal hands over his wallet.

Mugger: Pleasure doing business. The magic will be performed tomorrow, as agreed (Bostrom 2009, 444-445).1

I think Bostrom incorrectly characterizes how Pascal would respond to the “seventh-dimension” mugger of finite power.    When he is asked how probable it would be that mugger possesses magical powers to give any finite sum of money, Pascal answers 1:1 quadrillion. But it seems to me that it is more likely that a finite being has the magical power to conjure up smaller sums of money or utility than they do to conjure up larger sums.  So my Pascal would say something like: “We in the fourth-dimension have a magical ability too.  We can calculate the probability that a seventh-dimension mugger will be able to produce any given finite sum of money to an amazing degree of accuracy.  So if I ask you to produce finite sum n, I know the probability that you will be able to produce that sum is 1:1,000,000,000,000,000n Consequently, the likelihood that you will not make good on your promise always outweighs the potential reward for taking the risk. Sorry, you can’t have my wallet.” Interestingly enough, if the mugger were to claim omnipotence, and that he could give infinite utility to Pascal, then the risk and reward are balanced. One might just give a wallet to such a god.  But Pascal might just as well take a risk on Christ instead, since Christ never threatened to take his wallet in a dark alley!

Bostrom’s analysis trades on Pascal evaluating the likelihood that a mugger could produce ANY given amount of money rather than evaluating the likelihood that the mugger could produce a PARTICULAR amount of money. We are to take the probability of producing 1 quadrillion dollars as equally likely as the probability of producing 10 quadrillion. But why should we buy into this? If magical power is analogous to any other finite physical power source, then the likelihood that a given quantity of some effect will be produced is directly proportionate to the quantity promised. Sure, we could pretend along with Bostrom that Pascal is some kind of a buffoon, but I don’t think this sheds much light on Pascal’s wager.  It is just an uncharitable characterization of this genius of the 17th century.

1N. Bostrom (2009) “Pascal’s Mugging”, Analysis, Vol: 69 (3), pp. 443 -445.