From a philosophical perspective, the conclusion one can draw from the Milgram experiment is that obedience and evil are linked. In where there is an authority, especially an absolute authority, obedience results in people harming others. Anyone who is a sheep is potentially evil. All that’s required is an authority to get them to cause harm. This readily explains Christians throughout history who have had two authorities (usually absolute) demanding their obedience: god and kings, emperors, despots, and now presidents. Most Christians in this country are obedient sheep; that readily explains their evil. They imagine, for example, that opposing Trump and/or the Republican Party is akin to opposing god’s will. This is why they just do not see how they weaponize their votes against minorities, non-Christians, and women especially.
On a separate note, hopefully they see now that weaponizing their votes in this manner backfires and harms them as well: “In 2016 36.2 percent of SNAP program beneficiaries were White, 25.6 percent were African American, 17.2 percent were Hispanic, 3.3 percent were Asian. [Source: USDA]” Most of the 36 percent of Whites that receive SNAP benefits live in poor, rural areas; these are the same people that were promised jobs and opportunities, and now here they are losing what serves as a lifeline for their families. This is why (as a strict determinist) I value people who expose themselves to an array of positions.
This is why I oppose dogmatic thinking entirely, be it Christian, Muslim, or what have you. You simply cannot acquire truth by way of predilection. Truth does not conform to your beliefs; beliefs must conform to truth. These people that read and follow one book or, in a futile attempt to intellectualize and rationalize their false beliefs, read books that are mostly related to those beliefs cannot acquire the truth and more importantly, cannot empathize with people who don’t share those beliefs. In other words, I am an atheist now because when I was still a Christian, I exchanged my pond of very limited determinants for a vast ocean of determinants, which is to say that I expanded my knowledge with the unwavering belief that if Christianity is true, nothing I expose myself to will disprove that. Today, I am not a Christian and even though I identify as an atheist, I do not read one religious text or books that confirm or are related to atheism.
In the end, despite my violent and sometimes justified anger, I return to empathy. Trump supporters are entranced sheep who believe they have a lot to lose if they separate from their herd. To their minds, Trump is god’s appointed servant. The Republican Party has fooled them into thinking that they are the party of family values and moral exemplification. Their families and friends share these beliefs and I strongly believe that there are Republicans out there who have second thoughts, but the fear of being alienated or even disowned by the people close to them keeps them in line. To you, I say the following.
Stop pressing the button! I won’t lie to you. You will lose some friends and people in your own family might turn their backs on you. However, you will gain something as well. You will learn who is there for you in a more unconditional manner. Eventually you will make new friends. Should your fear be that you are in disobedience to god, consider your own beliefs again.
Do you not believe in a loving, merciful god? Did he not forgive others for disobedience? Did Jesus not die for the forgiveness of all sins? So what sin can you possibly commit that cannot be forgiven and moreover, that god did not already know about? Is he not omniscient and sovereign? It then follows that he orders all of your steps. Once you revisit your own beliefs, ask yourself: Would god truly appoint someone who commits adultery and fornication? Would he appoint someone who is on record saying that he sexually assaults women? Would he appoint someone who forcibly separates children from their parents and puts other human beings in cages? Then remind yourself that immigrants, illegal or otherwise, are people and that a lot of them share your beliefs. So why would god appoint someone who is harming people who believe in and pray to him?
Stop pressing the button!
For starters, I will reiterate what I wrote in my response to Hellenistic Christendom:
Both Irenaeus and Hick systematized human (Libertarian) free will.1 Arguably, there’s an inconsistency in their view of free will because they don’t focus on the origin of the human propensity for evil, i.e., original sin. If one were interested in a systematic reconciliation of the Original Sin Theodicy and Hick’s theodicy, it would be a rather simple task. The only issue would be in assuming that God allowed the Fall because he wanted human beings to ascend to moral perfection. He wanted to give us a choice and of course, a choice isn’t real unless there are alternatives. You can choose to lead an immoral life, to live in sin, or you can, per the Old Testament, keep God’s commandments or, per the New Testament, confess your sins and accept Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior. This sort of theodicy would run into exegetical issues, however. Human beings do not, on their own will, ascend to moral perfection. According to Ephesians 2:8, “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God.”
Moral perfection or perhaps better put, holiness, isn’t a summit one reaches; it is more like, especially given allusions in the Bible (e.g. Colossians 3), a garment that you are adorned with. So Irenaeus and Hicks failed at this systematization because they forgot that “he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit” (Titus 3:5). As a person driven by great personal pride, I can see the allure of Irenaeus and Hicks’ point of view; we are essentially Sisyphus, but we succeed at pushing the boulder to the summit! It is, however, not a Christian point of view.
But can it be a naturalistic, atheistic point of view? There’s quite a lot to unpack if one were to entertain the pertinent and yet tangential discussion on determinism and free will. If human beings have free will, it is highly probable that it is not congruous with the Libertarian view, the notion that ceteris paribus, one could choose a different course of action. Suffice to say that a Nietzschean view is more probable: the great person is distinct from the ordinary person and it is through great people that we achieve moral nobility.2
I happen to think that Nietzsche was right in his conclusion though one would be hard pressed to find in his works anything resembling a cogent argument supporting said conclusion. Nietzsche thoroughly explains the difference between great people and the herd and these allusions are present in his treatment of master and slave morality and in his idea of the Übermensch. Nietzsche, however, does not provide us with a road map detailing how a slave becomes a master, how a member of the herd ascends to greatness. In fact, for Nietzsche, it’s not so much an ascent to greatness, but rather a descent, especially given how important suffering and solitude were to him and should be for a great person.
So I want to offer an informal argument because, to my mind, determinism is the wind at the back of every member of the herd. Even absent Irenaeus’ omniscient god, in where it would be hard to reconcile human free will with this deity’s predetermination, on naturalism, there is a sense in which most actions, moral or otherwise, are predetermined. Although I don’t think determinism applies to mundane actions (see here), I think it certainly applies to actions carrying greater consequences and moral implications. So before a person becomes great and strives for moral perfection, one must first become aware of as many determinants as possible, so that in having this awareness, one assumes control of the determinants that would otherwise determine a given decision.
Nietzsche’s great person does not leave the herd by accident, but rather by getting to know the chaos. Nietzsche describes it thus:
Cause and effect: such a duality probably never exists; in truth we are confronted by a continuum out of which we isolate a couple of pieces, just as we perceive motion only as isolated points and then infer it without ever actually seeing it. The suddenness with which many effects stand out misleads us; actually it is sudden only for us. In this moment of sudden- ness there is an infinite number of processes that elude us. An intellect that could see cause and effect as a continuum and a flux and not, as we do, in terms of an arbitrary division and dismemberment, would repudiate the concept of cause and effect and deny all conditionality.3
A great person therefore has the kind of intellect that doesn’t separate and breaks things, and categorizes them as causes and effects. Such a person would see the entire continuum and moreover, their role within that continuum. As such, this individual would not be controlled by cultural norms, societal expectations, religious tenets, and so on. This person would be able to act free from all determinants, assuming a well-placed tumor doesn’t dictate his/her behavior.4
An atheist who subsumes Irenaeus’ theodicy or perhaps more accurately, the thinking that underlies his theodicy, has to be the kind of individual that becomes great. Then s/he is free to pursue moral perfection. In keeping with Sartre’s atheistic existentialism, such an atheist would will meaning for the suffering and evil we see in the world and may take it upon themselves to help others transcend the herd mentality. This thinking is implicit on the Kardashev scale. Michio Kaku, for instance, thinks of the human race as a type 0 civilization, on the cusp of a worldwide language (English), interconnected (the Internet), and technically advanced enough to harness the energy of the planet. It is not, however, a type I civilization capable of harnessing the energy of its star (e.g. Dyson Sphere) or controlling natural disasters like hurricanes and earthquakes.5 Scientists and philosophers alike have entertained the idea that the destiny of humanity is an ascent up the Kardashev scale, but prior to doing so, what’s implied is a moral ascent, for it will take a moral species to disarm its militaries and set aside its sociopolitical and cultural differences.
So while Irenaeus’ theodicy is incongruous with Christian theology, it is not inconsistent with atheism. We do not need a god who wants us to achieve moral perfection. We can very well expect that of ourselves and of one another. Unfortunately, there’s a lot of work to be done both personally and collectively. Assuming Nietzsche was right, greatness is reserved for a select few while mediocrity awaits the herd. Perhaps then what’s needed is the right kind of master so that the subordinates have a good example to follow. I hold that Irenaeus had in mind a noble view of the human species and that regardless of the fact that his view is not in keeping with Christian theology, for an atheist to write off his theodicy either as an ineffective justification of suffering and evil or an interesting heresy is tantamount to tossing the baby out with the bath water. Irenaeus saw the great potential in the human race and he thought it possible that we could, of our own will, achieve moral perfection. It is a noble view that any atheist should adopt; it is probably the view at the heart of humanism. We are truly better without a god!
1 Cramer, David C. “John Hick (1922-2012)”. International Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Web. ND.
2 Anderson, R. Lanier. “Friedrich Nietzsche”. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. 17 Mar 2017. Web.
3 Kaufmann, Walter. “The Gay Science”. Nietzsche, Friedrich Wilhelm, 1844-1900. The Gay Science; with a Prelude in Rhymes and an Appendix of Songs. New York :Vintage Books, 1974. p. 173.
4 Choi, Charles. “Brain tumour causes uncontrollable paedophilia”. New Scientist. 21 Oct 2002. Web.
5 Creighton, Jolene. “The Kardashev Scale – Type I, II, III, IV & V Civilization”. 19 Jul 2014. Web.
So that there’s no confusion, Steven at Hellenistic Christendom is referring to a post on my Tumblr blog titled An Open Letter to Christians. The letter is admittedly polemic, especially given that I was in the process of revisiting (for lack of a better word) Christian bloggers who I have had debates and discussions with in the past. The Christians who have become even more repulsive, professing things that are shocking even for them, are the individuals the letter was mostly intended for.
In discussions and debates, or in my more general rhetoric, I employ two similar, albeit subtly different, tools meant to end a discussion. The one is a tool meant to tell a given opponent that I have no respect for them personally. To put it mildly, it’s my way of telling them to shove off because I don’t feel the individual is treating me, first and foremost, like a human being. An apotheosis would be most Trump supporters. While I still try to reason with some of them because I recognize they deal with cognitive dissonance borne from disenfranchisement (i.e., they support Trump because, to their mind, it’s the same as supporting the Republican Party; otherwise, there’s no longer a Party for them to belong to), the lot of them don’t see me as a human being and by their own admission, would rather see me dead. There’s no use in having a discussion with anyone who isn’t convinced of one’s basic humanity.
The letter was more so designed to be a definitive end to any discussion or debate with those kind of Christians and it was successful given that none of the individuals I had in mind came forward to respond. Another tool I employ may seem identical, but it is more so intended as a sort of non-fallacious Courtier’s Reply. As Steven can attest, one gets frustrated speaking to someone else who isn’t on the same level, which is to say, I get frustrated speaking to someone who is either an ultracrepidarian or someone who has succumbed to the Dunning-Kruger effect and as such, doesn’t know as much as they think they do about the topic(s) in question. Steven briefly mentioned debates on evolution and creationism; I rarely come across a creationist that deserves intellectual respect and because of that, I often admonish them to study evolution more in-depth. Even when they have a perfunctory grasp of an evolutionary concept, like speciation, they quickly show that they’re not as versed on the topic as they claim to be, conflating or even failing to see the differences between sympatric and allopatric speciation, for instance.
So while I do accept Steven’s apology, I feel like an apology of my own is in order. I apologize because the latter tool ran the risk of knocking the wind out of your sails. Setting aside that you peered over the shoulders of giants, it was unfair to level accusations of intellectual dishonesty, pretense, and hollow thought, no matter how accurate they might have been. The accusations could have resulted in a loss of intellectual interest and curiosity; I’m glad that only confidence was lost for a time. I wouldn’t want to be responsible from having further discouraged you from studying already dismaying disciplines. Philosophy and science are not easily apprehended, as you well know and as evidenced by how esoteric each discipline has become, largely relegated to the confines of the ivory towers of academia.
Otherwise, you have nothing to apologize for. Discussions like these don’t persist for our (mine and yours) benefit. They persist for the benefit of the audience. Given this, whenever I do decide to have such discussions or debates, despite being a post-theist, the hope is that my opponent is an intellectual equal, give or take. It is of no benefit to the audience if there’s a intellectual skew, so to speak. It is my desire, given that anyone is to decide between an array of positions, that each position be represented charitably and accurately. Because of this, in participating in a discussion or debate in where one is at an intellectual (dis)advantage, one is robbing the audience of an accurate and holistic rendering of a given position(s). This is why so many people reject not the position in question, but a misrepresentation of said position, e.g., feminism.
Despite your youth at the time, you didn’t respond with your own surmises. I should have appreciated that more at the time. At the very least, you turned to people you considered authorities on the matter, so even if you couldn’t accurately and holistically represent a given position, you gave the audience a path to follow. Some paths, though dead-ends, are still worth taking if only because they have become undeservedly popular, e.g., mainstream evidential apologetics. Other paths, even if erroneous, are worth taking because I still wholeheartedly believe that the best response to a flawed path comes from someone who walked it. This is why I often start a discussion or debate with a Christian by telling them that I believed as they did; I stood where they stood. So the question I want to stick with them is: why am I now standing over here?
I stand here because I don’t think the Christian system succeeds. This is when some readers would scoff. “Christianity has convinced some one-fourth of the world’s population! How dare he say it’s not successful!?” To which I would say that it takes a depraved Western mind to equate popularity with success. Never mind that Islam is more “successful.”
Look to your brother! Steven has the right idea. Christianity should extend as an overarching philosophy, a fact recognized by Patristic thinkers like Irenaeus, Augustine, Origen, etc. If ever there were a “true” religion, it would have to make sense of reality and experience in toto and for everyone. In this (!), I do not think Christianity is successful.
With no intentions of scaring Steven, he finds himself at a particular place in my own journey that I consider the turning point. For me, it was shortly thereafter when I realized, Christianity is false. It’s not a true religion or philosophy; it is an inadequate system.
To keep this response brief and on topic, one of the reasons I came to this realization is because Christianity doesn’t succeed at logically explaining, defending against, and/or justifying suffering and evil. Before I proceed, it is admirable that Steven is doing what a lot of Christians don’t: leaning on “The Word of God.” Though it isn’t uncommon for a Christian to find comfort in the Bible, some so-called Christians act as though the Bible is beneath them! They would much rather rely on personal insults or less egregiously, on scholarly input devoid of any biblical exegesis, let alone “sound” doctrine. So they end up pursuing what they think is a robust philosophical explanation, but don’t stop to consider whether that explanation is theologically consistent.
The Problem of Gratuitous Suffering and Evil
I take issue with Steven’s idea of “truth that is true for them.” It has the particularly putrid scent of epistemic subjectivism. While I don’t deny that perspectives are important, I wouldn’t say that perspectivism, Nietzschean or otherwise, is equivalent to subjectivism. Although I don’t see Nietzsche as saying that each perspective is as true as the next, even if he did alluded to such a conclusion, I would only agree that each perspective seems as true as the next. Nietzsche, however, isn’t alluding to such a conclusion, let alone drawing that conclusion. So I can understand, given the story of Job, how someone might come to the conclusion that I don’t have the full story. It is, after all, how things seem from Steven’s perspective. I can also understand why Steven would say the following:
The full picture, then, is contained somewhere between the lessons established with the anxieties of the Old Testament man, the judgement of God (“Wail, for the day of the Lord is near,” Isaiah 13:6), the coming of the New Covenant and finally the death and redemptive execution of Jesus’ resurrection. Surely there must be some answer from the Son of God whom has conquered death.
This is where it is once again useful to remind Steven, along with everyone following this discussion, that I walked the Christian path. The story of Job represents not just the anxiety of Old Testament men, men who lived under the old covenant; it also represents the optimism of every worshipper of the Judeo-Christian god from the Old to the New Testament and beyond. God is not just a consuming fire; he is also merciful. The optimism expressed in Job is the optimism modern Christians express as well: “God’s grace and abundance will arrive! He will have mercy. This is just a trial, a tribulation. It means something, it is for something!”
In fact, all of the Sunday School stories are meant to give children a cohesive narrative: “God is like any caring parent. His punishments can be harsh, but even his punishments are informed by his love.” Job’s story ends with God restoring Job’s fortunes: he gave him twice as many friends, ten children (seven sons and three daughters), 14,000 sheep, 6,000 camels, and so on. Likewise, Jonah survives in the belly of a large fish and is eventually released after a repentant prayer. God floods the world save Noah, his family, and two to seven of each kind of animal. All of these are stories borne of, as Steven alluded to, “childish” optimism. Moreover, they are stories intended to instill trust in god.
These stories are taught in Sunday school for two reasons, one far more insidious than the other: 1) they are allusive to the archetype of Jesus’ redemptive sacrifice on the cross in that god’s wrath during the old covenant is supplanted by his grace via the salvation one can find in Jesus Christ, the advent of the new covenant; 2) it is not so much an instillation of trust in god, but rather what I’ll call first indoctrination. First indoctrination is much harder to instill in an older convert; that is perhaps one reason why it was easier for me, a convert at 18-years-old, to pull away from Christianity. From what I gather, it is much more difficult for a lifelong Christian to even question Christianity, let alone renounce it. First indoctrination is, as many atheists have pointed out, tantamount to the psychology of abuse: “even if god hurts you, it is for your own good; never forget that he loves you no matter what!” Even if god sees fit to make you orphaned, homeless, infertile, sterile, diseased, or what have you, it is for a purpose and, even if you lose sight of the fact and can’t explain why this has happened to you, he loves you.
This is precisely the mentality I had when my relationship with my relatives became strained, when at 19-years-old, I was kicked out of my house. I was homeless for four years and I remember my resolute determination: there’s a reason for this! God still loves me! I’ll make it out of this! Yet my making it out found no better explanation in Christianity than it did in naturalism.
The key was to give myself and the people who supported me credit rather than “give God all the glory.” No! It’s not that god put a certain drive in me, a drive that has made me the kind of person that doesn’t like to lose and that certainly doesn’t quit. It’s not that he put supportive people around me. Rather, given multifarious facts relating to me, my upbringing, what I’ve been exposed to, my genetics, my neurophysiology, and the upbringings, exposures, etc. of them who supported me, I found a way out of homelessness. It’s the proverbial Spanish Pentecostal tale that goes around: “Woe is me! I’m stranded in the ocean! From where does my help come from! It comes from God!” Then God sent a boat. And you said, “no, I will wait on the Lord!” Then God sent a ship. And you said, “no I will wait on the Lord!” Then God sent a helicopter. And you said, “no, I will wait on the Lord!” Then you drowned because you didn’t see that God uses people to bless you!
As Steven alluded to, “God’s hiddenness puts one in a state of ‘existential vertigo.'” That is when one ought to sit still and come to realization that god is not hidden, but rather replaced. Perhaps Christianity has suffered from a base bifurcation: the notion that there’s a scapegoat, a vessel for god’s good use. If there be any value in the Sunday School stories and moreover, in the story and ministry of Jesus, it is perhaps in the realization that redemptive salvation, if indeed you require such a thing, is not in some outside celestial figure, but rather in you. God and man are concomitant in you. So perhaps it’s not so much that man created god in his own image, but that god is the apotheosis of man and that Christianity is thus better apprehended as a full revelation of man himself. The light at the end of the tunnel has nothing at all to do with some invisible figure pushing you along, but rather in you finding it within yourself to keep walking, or even crawling on bloodied knees and knuckles, until the end is reached. Yet why do we make so much of our own suffering?! Other people have it much worse. Furthermore, there are other religious philosophies that have succeeded where Christianity doesn’t, e.g., Buddhism. That’s another reason why I renounced Christianity, but I digress.
The Problem of Gratuitous Suffering and Evil requires a pivot. One must imagine oneself as a Christian, first and foremost. You must step into the Christian’s shoes, adopt the Christian position. You have to commit to the proposition that God exists and that there is an undeniable and observable degree of suffering and evil, both moral (human-driven) and natural (not human-driven) in the world. As a Christian interested in the project of systematizing reality, the onus is on you to reconcile these two propositions. How can a perfectly moral, good god allow so much suffering and evil? As Steven mentioned, there are several defenses and justifications. Unfortunately, none are satisfactory.
A Summary of Defenses and Theodicies
Because my interest is not only to inform, but to inform well, I will take it upon myself to go over two theodicies that are commonly offered. I will discuss the Free Will Theodicy and the Best of All Possible Worlds Theodicy. Then, I will circle back around to Steven’s “Full Story Theodicy,” which Michael Martin coined the “Ultimate Harmony Theodicy.” It is a theodicy based on optimism, on the notion that there’s a good reason for all of the suffering and evil we observe in the world, no matter how gratuitous.
The Free Will Theodicy
Though Alvin Plantinga is often, albeit wrongly, credited for this theodicy, this theodicy goes back to Irenaeus. It was further developed by John Hick, a twentieth century philosopher of religion. Both Irenaeus and Hick systematized human (Libertarian) free will.1 Arguably, there’s an inconsistency in their view of free will because they don’t focus on the origin of the human propensity for evil, i.e., original sin. If one were interested in a systematic reconciliation of the Original Sin Theodicy and Hick’s theodicy, it would be a rather simple task. The only issue would be in assuming that God allowed the Fall because he wanted human beings to ascend to moral perfection. He wanted to give us a choice and of course, a choice isn’t real unless there are alternatives. You can choose to lead an immoral life, to live in sin, or you can, per the Old Testament, keep God’s commandments or, per the New Testament, confess your sins and accept Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior. This sort of theodicy would run into exegetical issues, however. Human beings do not, on their own will, ascend to moral perfection. According to Ephesians 2:8, “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God.”
Moral perfection or perhaps better put, holiness, isn’t a summit one reaches; it is more like, especially given allusions in the Bible (e.g. Colossians 3), a garment that you are adorned with. So Irenaeus and Hicks failed at this systematization because they forgot that “he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit” (Titus 3:5). As a person driven by great personal pride, I can see the allure of Irenaeus and Hicks’ point of view; we are essentially Sisyphus, but we succeed at pushing the boulder to the summit! It is, however, not a Christian point of view.
Plantinga, however, does extend the Free Will Theodicy in a way that my open letter alluded to. One proposition he holds is “God is omniscient, omnipotent, and morally perfect; God has created the world; all evil in the world is [the result of free actions by created creatures]; and there is no possible world God could have created that contains a better balance of [moral good and evil].”2 So, according to Plantinga, natural evil is a type of moral evil in that Satan and his demons are responsible for it. It’s worth repeating what I said in my open letter should suffice:
The appeal to spiritual entities has an evidential problem that I’ll set aside, i.e. they already have trouble proving their god exists, but now they’re talking about other spiritual entities that they can’t prove exist. What’s important here is that, unlike their god, these malignant entities are not omnipotent. If their power is finite compared to that of their god’s, the villains in this story would never win. So either the hero isn’t all-powerful or the hero is indifferent. A bystander who stands idly by when someone needs help, given that they’re human, might not help for fear of their own safety. God, on the other hand, would not be susceptible to bystander effect! An eternal, omnipotent being can’t possibly fear for his safety, so why does your god stand idly by when children suffer!?
Per Plantinga, Hurricane Katrina wasn’t caused by God. It was caused by Satan or a very powerful demon(s). Setting aside the dubious notion that New Orleans is filled with concupiscent people who deserved to be made examples of, there were well-meaning Christians and children in New Orleans. God is omnipotent, but Satan and his generals are not. So even if I granted that Satan himself or some powerful demon(s) created a destructive hurricane and aimed it at Florida and Louisiana, with every intent of bringing New Orleans to its knees, there is still the free will of God to contend with! Why did the omnipotent hero stand idly by as less powerful villains enacted their evil plot? Plantinga’s Free Will Theodicy doesn’t explain evil and suffering because God’s will is infinitely more powerful than mine, yours, Satan’s, and any demon’s. So what gives?
We come full circle to Hicks. Perhaps Katrina was allowed to help us on our moral journey. Yet given what the Bible says, we have no such moral journey. Once we repent, we are made clean by Jesus’ blood. We don’t have to do the work of cleansing ourselves. Given this doctrinal truth, there’s no sense in which Katrina or any other catastrophe was intended to strengthen our moral fiber. Tragedies aren’t intended to test us, to call us to action. Perhaps this is why so many Christians are content with “thoughts and prayers”! There isn’t much we can do. All is in God’s hands.
Best of All Possible Worlds Theodicy
Perhaps this is why Plantinga alludes to the Leibnizian Best of All Possible Worlds Theodicy: “there is no possible world God could have created that contains a better balance of [moral good and evil].” Plantinga falls into a trap that Leibniz was well-aware of:
Leibniz was aware of this argument denying God’s obligation to create the best, but he was firmly committed to rejecting it, in virtue of a central principle of his philosophical system, the Principle of Sufficient Reason. According to the Principle of Sufficient Reason, for any state of affairs, there must be a sufficient reason that explains why that state of affairs and not some other state of affairs obtains. When it comes to our world, then, there must be some reason that explains why it, and not some other world, obtains. But there can be no such reason if it is the case that the goodness of worlds increases ad infinitum. Leibniz therefore concluded that there can be no infinite continuum of worlds.3
Given the Principle of Sufficient Reason, a Christian must reconcile the purported existence of a perfectly moral, good god and the observable existence of evil and suffering. From the Christian perspective, these two states of affairs obtain and as such, require an explanation. That, however, doesn’t explain why Leibniz saw this world as the mean of all possible worlds. If there exists infinitely many worlds with decreased goodness and infinitely many worlds with increased goodness, what makes this one the desired middle? This statistical manner of looking at the existence of our world is all too human because means imply margin for error, but for God, there is no error and he therefore, requires no margin for it.
Leibniz scholars, however, have identified what has been called the Holiness Problem. God is tarnished by the existence of evil because something can’t exist unless he deems it so. Per Leibniz, even if one holds that all evil is a privation of good, there is no way God isn’t also the author of all privations. Leibniz draws an analogy of two paintings, one of which is a smaller-scaled version of the other:
To say that the painter is the author of all that is real in the two paintings, without however being the author of what is lacking or the disproportion between the larger and the smaller painting… . In effect, what is lacking is nothing more than a simple result of an infallible consequence of that which is positive, without any need for a distinct author [of that which is lacking].4
We can agree that art isn’t about exactness or at least, not all art is about that. A portrait or landscape can be photorealistic, but no one would conclude that the artist captured the existence of a thing or even its essence. It is still, in the end, a representation. If an artist makes any conscious choice while rendering his representation, he also chose against some alternative. If s/he chooses to represent a person or landscape in black and white, s/he also chooses against representing a person or landscape in color. As such, the privation of color present in the painting is by choice. Privation is collateral and can, at times, be consciously selected. So God, in demarcating this world as the mean among all possible worlds, is to blame for Attenborough’s parasitic worm:
But I tend to think instead of a parasitic worm that is boring through the eye of a boy sitting on the bank of a river in West Africa, [a worm] that’ going to make him blind.
‘And [I ask them], “Are you telling me that the God you believe in, who you also say is an all- merciful God, who cares for each one of us individually, are you saying that God created this worm that can live in no other way than in an innocent child’s eyeball? Because that doesn’t seem to me to coincide with a God who’ full of mercy.5
In making this the best of all possible worlds, either because it’s the mean of worlds of increasing goodness or because it is the most parsimonious of worlds, God is responsible for parasites of this sort. There would be no getting around that. As with the Free Will Theodicy, there’s also a theological issue with the Leibnizian theodicy: Heaven. God has already created a world with maximum goodness and no evil at all. So we can then ask why human beings weren’t created to inhabit heaven from the start. Even a Christian can start to sense that perhaps, as other Christians have noted, theodicies do more harm than good.
The Full Story Theodicy
Steven’s line of thinking here is not uncommon. In other discussions with Christians, they remind me that god is omniscient and I’m not. I recall one odious Christian telling me something along the lines that I can’t conclude that this doesn’t look like a universe created by god because I’m stupid and god is infinitely more intelligent than I am. Steven’s line of thinking, while not disrespectful, is more or less the same. While he concludes that it’s likely that no one can know the full story in this life, he cites C.S. Lewis who said it would be arrogant of anyone to say there’s a moral dilemma though they’re half-way through the story.
Yes, Job suffered; he suffered enough for three or four different people, but as the story goes, good recompense awaited Job at the end of it all. The same goes for Noah and Jonah. Steven’s Full Story Theodicy rests on the same optimism present in these Sunday School stories. All evil and suffering exists for some good end. That still doesn’t explain how this good end compensates for the degrees of evil and suffering we observe and experience in this world. Even if I agreed that heaven, a place with no tears and suffering, is the good end to these observances and experiences, there’s still the issue that in the present, these things exist. Perhaps a thought experiment can work here.
Imagine a poor boy living in an Arab territory. His father is sick. His mother is unable to work because she is caring for the boy and his younger siblings. So he takes it upon himself to steal bread from a local vendor. Unfortunately, he is caught and he loses his right hand. Eventually, he receives a prosthetic hand that allows him to lift ten times his body weight. It works just as well as the biological hand he once had. Yet this prosthetic hand doesn’t take away the pain he felt when they cut off his hand. It doesn’t change the years he suffered, like the struggles he experienced relearning to do simple things with his left hand. It doesn’t change the nerve pain he still experiences till this day.
On the assumption that there’s a continuance of consciousness between this life and an afterlife in Heaven, no blissful experience there would change the trauma, the pain, the memories from here, and to do so, would be to fundamentally change one’s identity. So, there’s already an issue with that assumption. To delete one’s memories of a loved one because s/he didn’t make it into Heaven would be to change one at a fundamental level. So the version of me that enters Heaven isn’t the person I am now; so there would be no way in which my homelessness at 19-years-old is justified by living in a heavenly mansion. The heavenly version of me would have forgotten all of my earthly trials. Or, to make it so that I can’t suffer or cry would be to change me into the automatons early theologians thought animals were. We know better now, but to exist in a state in where I can’t reflect on my trauma, no matter how distant they are in my past, is tantamount to existing in a state in where I can’t reflect on my bliss either! So if my thinking here is accurate, there’s no sense in which past evil or suffering can be justified by some future good, even on the assumption that a perfectly good world (Heaven) exists.
Steven, it’s not that there are no arguments capable of changing my mind and heart because I’m obstinate. Obstinacy features in a person who is wrong and yet fails to correct himself. What do we say of a person who is right and refuses to budge? My mind and my heart are in the right place because I have done my due diligence in exhausting most of the ways in which Christianity might be true. Aside from systematizing reality, this system would have to be as simple as it is esoteric. Sure, a mature Christianity isn’t the proverbial walk in the park. There is much philosophical and theological ground to cover for any Christian who takes their devotion seriously. You recognize that and I admire that about you.
Likewise, any naturalist who takes their position seriously has arguably more ground to cover. I’m not only a non-Christian, but just as much, I’m a non-Muslim, non-Jew, non-Hindu. I also do not mystify consciousness. I reject nonphysicalist theories of consciousness, for example. I am as fervent in my rejection of panpsychism as I am in my rejection of Cartesian dualism. Just as fervently, I reject a theodicy based on reincarnation: suffering and evil exist because some accumulative karma from past lives determined that. Like you, I do not allow for systemic inconsistency, so it can’t be that I’m a naturalist with regards to the origin of the universe, but a non-naturalist with regards to consciousness. While there are philosophers who entertain such inconsistencies, I don’t think cognitive dissonance is a good leg to stand on. If anything, it’s a temporary crutch while one is in limbo between two seductive positions.
In any case, even though naturalism arguably spreads itself in more directions, it is a far simpler system, especially given that , assuming the naturalist in question believes in agency, only deals with the agency of entities that can easily be shown to exist. So when there’s a particularly pungent stench in the corner of my bedroom coming from a yellowish puddle on the floor, I now have to decide whether my girlfriend or my cat urinated on the floor. I can point to both agents and others can also verify that they both exist, and naturalist, Christian, or otherwise, everyone will agree that my girlfriend is the culprit! Jokes aside, we both know that even in esoteric matters, the simplest and, more often than not, naturalistic explanation is not only preferred, but also the case. No one would reason that a ghost urinated on my floor!
For many reasons not outlined here, I no longer identify as a Christian. It is not because, as some immature Christians would have it, I deny god in my unrighteousness or because I’m angry with him for causing a rift between me and my family, and making me homeless. Truth is, I’m responsible for that rift! Sure, I was young and far more hotheaded then than I am now, but I disrespected the Matriarch of my family, my grandmother and I did so when she was older and more fragile. I was an existential risk to her. My aunts, recognizing this, thought it best to separate me from her. Maybe they knew I was too stubborn to commit suicide or stay homeless or go insane. Maybe they knew I’d find a way.
Since then, we have had a short, but welcome reconciliation. At my father’s wake, which I was afraid to even show up to, my family forgave me. There were hugs and love and memories all around and ironically, this was all to do with my father’s example: he was a forgiving man, a forgiveness he adopted from the teachings of Jesus Christ and one that resonated with them. Yet it was still on me to accept their forgiveness and I did because even though I’ve matured and made someone of myself, I still recognized that my past self was someone who needed to apologize, someone who needed forgiveness. I was wrong!
I am, however, not wrong for being human. I do not think I’m totally depraved and I don’t think humans, by nature, are either. I can elaborate, but what I see are proclivities towards one vice or another for reasons mostly outside of our control. This would explain why even the most publicly devout Christians are the most privately immoral people. This explains why a guy in one of my old churches molested his daughters and granddaughter and explains why one of his sons molested his younger brother. This explains why evangelists seek out prostitutes. This explains why young couples commit fornication near universally. And yet the latter is contingent on the notion that marriage justifies sexual intercourse. I, on the other hand, believe that if both parties are educated, especially with regards to the consequences, and are in a position to consent to one another, then they are doing nothing wrong by having sex.
Where does it end? Let’s say a future good justifies a past evil, if a Christian guy’s girlfriend eventually becomes his wife, then is their past fornication justified by their future marriage? It can be argued that the couple never did anything wrong because God, being omniscient, saw their marriage. Never mind that this relies on what I think is a fault theory of time! On the A-theory, talk of past, present, and future are germane. In fact, on any realist theory of time, these concepts must be entertained. Time, on my view, is purely conceptual and not fundamental, but even in concept, we can visualize it as a line in which all points between a beginning and an end already exist. This is why we can visualize, plan, and execute our plans. This is why we meet someone, see a future with them, and take steps to ensure that that future, and not some other future, happens. So given this, a young man sleeping with his present-day girlfriend is not doing anything wrong if she’s his future-day wife, but I digress.
There’s much more I can say explaining why I’m not a Christian, but suffice to say I’m not a Christian. My reasons are exhaustive and spread out in a lot of different directions, but I think the crux has been aptly captured here: as a system, Christianity fails. This is what I intend when I say that Christianity is not true. For any experience or observation or entity x, Christianity must serve as a cogent and superior explanation for x. No other system should be able to outperform Christianity on any of these fronts. Should there be a system that does outperform it, then the likelihood of Christianity being a good system, let alone the best system, decreases. This is what I found as the scales fell from eyes. Christianity fails to account for many things x, y, and z. Suffering and evil are just a small part of that.
1 Cramer, David C. “John Hick (1922-2012)”. International Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Web. ND.
2 Arguing About Evil: Plantinga’s Free Will Defense”. Common Sense Atheism. 25 Oct 2009. Web.
3 Murray, Michael J. “Leibniz on the Problem of Evil”. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. 27 Feb 2013. Web.
5 Firma, Terry. “Naturalist Sir David Attenborough Loses His Patience With Bible Literalists”. Friendly Atheist. 15 Feb 2014. Web.
Whenever philosophers speak of the human condition, of either a specific group or in general, their treatment can be seen as proto-psychological. Consider, for instance, Nietzsche’s influence on Freud.1 While I do not think Christianity is true, I am now considering whether, from the perspective of a given individual, it is necessary. I do not mean to invoke philosophical necessity, but rather a necessity akin to inevitability. When considering Korsgaard’s proto-psychological prognosis on morality, namely the internalization of man, there is the idea of instincts that discharge themselves outwardly, and one such instinct is forgiveness.2
Since self-forgiveness is difficult to come by, especially when given that a greater degree of guilt or shame sometimes corresponds to a greater offense, some may feel that forgiveness has to be discharged outwardly. It would appear that most Christians don’t feel guilt for the “sins” they commit, but rather shame. The distinction, although subtle, is important and crucial to understanding why the externalization of forgiveness is an unhealthy coping mechanism. Tangney explains:
“When people feel guilt about a specific behavior, they experience tension, remorse, and regret,” the researchers write. “Research has shown that this sense of tension and regret typically motivates reparative action — confessing, apologizing, or somehow repairing the damage done.”
Feelings of shame, on the other hand, involve a painful feeling directed toward the self. For some people, feelings of shame lead to a defensive response, a denial of responsibility, and a need to blame others — a process that can lead to aggression.3
From a Christian perspective, feelings of guilt would result in repentance. He has fornicated with his girlfriend. He then thinks that if he can get himself to feel that Jesus has forgiven his sin it is tantamount to forgiving himself. As most Christians can begrudgingly attest, this is not what happens. Most Christians go on to “live in sin,” which is to say that they persist in an “ungodly” lifestyle. They go on to reoffend because they enjoy “sin.” Therein lies what makes Christianity inevitable: the subservient are a shameful rather than guilty lot. Their propensity for shame only continues the cycle because in Christ they find the ultimate scapegoat who grants them unconditional, boundless forgiveness. There’s no personal responsibility to be had.
Guilt is the positive correlate to shame because guilt is reformative. Guilt is the precursor to changed behavior. A guilty person doesn’t blame their “accomplice,” namely the girlfriend he’s sleeping with outside of marriage. A guilty person is also actualized in that they realize their contribution to the “sin.” The need for Christ to forgive an offense is the mark of immaturity and even puerility. Forgiveness should not be discharged outwardly, externalized; it should instead and always be internalized, for when it is externalized, it is shame serving as motivation rather than guilt, and as such, one can readily predict that repentant behavior will not follow.
Perhaps this is why Christians, especially in the United States, tend to be vile individuals who curse at, threaten, and dehumanize non-Christians, especially atheists. This may explain their penchant for censorship and execution throughout the centuries as well because most of them are incapable of feeling guilt and therefore, reforming unacceptable, even unlawful, behavior. What they feel is shame and the externalization of forgiveness is more than enough for them to feel better about themselves. While self-forgiveness is difficult to come by, it is imperative that you learn how to do so because when you place the responsibility on someone else’s shoulders, it is likely that you don’t feel guilt over what you’ve done; what you feel is shame.
In doing away with the onus to hold oneself responsible, one then rationalizes one’s behavior. It’s the old “she made me do it” an abusive partner defers to after hitting his significant other. In Christian circles, it can take a more base, preordained turn: “God already knew how you would sin, when, and how often, so you just have to realize that you’ve already been forgiven!” This is how I’ve heard young people justify fornication. This is how I’ve heard cheating spouses justify adultery. This is how I’ve heard Christians justify losing their temper. While such a Calvinistic idea isn’t the norm in all Christian circles, it is a popular idea among American Christians.
On atheism, Christ’s sacrifice is meaningless because atheists reject the concept of sin. We reject the notion that Christ died for offenses we did not commit. Actualized atheism will lead an atheist to truly divorce himself from the religion he once subscribed to. For atheists in the United States, Christianity is that religion. Even in known atheist circles, guilt hasn’t replaced shame and that’s why some atheists are no more morally admirable than Christians. They have not internalized forgiveness.
The most damning and refutable idea that Christians hold is that someone else is ultimately responsible for forgiving you. While it is true that the person you’ve hurt has to forgive you, it is still left to you to figure out a way to forgive yourself for hurting that person. There is no Christ, no priest, no brethren that can do that deed for you! Forgiveness is resolutely characterized by self-forgiveness; forgiving oneself is primary, indeed the true end of moving on from something you’ve done wrong.
So long as forgiveness is externalized, in that the responsibility is rested on the shoulders of someone else whether ideal or actual, you will remain a subservient, shameful person prone to reoffending. The Christian psyche is prone to such shame and given the widespread influence of Christianity, an influence that extends into Islam, more than half the world’s population is wallowing in shame. Collectively, we must unlearn the feeling of shame and its ensuing, destructive proclivities. Anyone who has rejected Christianity has this responsibility, first and foremost.
1 Chapman, A. H., and Mirian Chapman-Santana. “The Influence of Nietzsche on Freud’s Ideas.” British Journal of Psychiatry, vol. 166, no. 2, 1995, pp. 251–253., doi:10.1192/bjp.166.2.251.
2 Korsgaard, Christine M. 2010. Reflections on the evolution of morality. Amherst Lecture in Philosophy. The Department of Philosophy at Amherst College. http://www.amherstlecture.org/korsgaard2010
3 Tangney June. “After Committing a Crime, Guilt and Shame Predict Re-Offense”. Association for Psychological Science. 11 Feb 2014. Web.
My purpose here is to respond to a post published by Steven Dunn over at Philosophic Augustine. I met Steven several years ago in conversations on Tumblr. Over the years, he has maintained a resolute interest in philosophy, which is something I greatly admire about him. Few things remain constant over several years, so the fact that he has retained his passion for philosophy is impressive. He’s also grown a lot with respect to his knowledge and that’s to be applauded.
Prior to reproducing our discussion hitherto, I want to be clear about what I’ll be looking to accomplish in this response: a) address his latest response that features Aristotelian personalism and metaphysics b) circle back around to Bill Vallicella’s argument. I think it’s important not to lose sight of the argument, especially given that that’s the reason I commented on Steven’s Facebook post to begin with. I will make it clear that even if one granted the undeniable personhood of a fetus, it still would not follow that an abortion is equivalent to murder. With that said, here is the discussion as it stands; my reply to Steven’s latest response will follow.
Steven Dunn: Philosopher Bill Vallicella over at his blog Maverick Philosopher considers a brief but important argument:
(a) Abortion is murder.
(b) Abortion ought to be illegal.
The question: Can one consistently hold (a) and not (b)? Suppose an added proposition:
(a) Abortion is murder.
(b) Abortion ought to be illegal.
(c) Murder is illegal.
I posted this argument on my personal Facebook page which wrought the response of one of my old friends from the Tumblr blogosphere, R. N. Carmona. Carmona is a philosophic tour de force, one of whom I’m familiar with conversing and debating since I was 17 in 2013 (now I’m 24).
There was a lot of heated exchanges between me and Carmona. After learning of his upcoming book, Ending the Abortion Debate, I knew that this issue was something he was well-versed in and felt passionate about. The following exchange doesn’t do full justice to Carmona’s overall position, but the highlights I’m sure are as he would see fit. Enjoy!
R. N. Carmona: (a) is unsound, hence making the whole argument unsound. Aborting an embryo or non-viable fetus simply is NOT murder. Most abortions happen before week 16, with a majority of them happening before week 9. At no point in those times does a fetus resemble an infant and more importantly, the hallmarks of a person aren’t present yet. That happens at around week 22, hence the hard cut off in most states at 20 weeks. Specifically, EEG waves register in the neocortex at around week 22 and the neocortex isn’t full developed till around week 36. I’d argue that it’s murder after week 22.
The only time I make exceptions after that many weeks is if there’s a threat on the mother’s life, but if the choice is between the quality of life of a mom and her family and a nine week old fetus, it’s an easy choice. Keeping abortion legal prior to week 20 reduces maternal mortality, which, if you’re pro-life, you should care about. Moreover, restrictive policies increase infant and maternal mortality. We’ve had lots of tries at the conservative Christian way: Northern Island, the Muslim World, the Philippines, etc. Restrictive policies do not work.
This is precisely what my next book is about. Want to end abortion? Get behind the issue. Address poverty, lack of education, lack of access to contraception, domestic violence, etc. That’s the only way to slow the rate of abortion. Restricting it won’t work and those conservative states that have passed heartbeat bills are about to find out the hard way.
Steven Dunn: There is actually a large extent in which I agree with you. I’ve read a lot of your writing on this issue and I appreciate you’ve pointed the dangerous restrictive policies that do currently exist. There is also an importance as you say in addressing poverty, lack of education, etc.
However, my initial problem began when you claimed that aborting an embryo or non-viable fetus is not murder. Even though non-viable fetuses have no chance of survival, that still does not warrant moral permissibility to end its life. I don’t see where the line of moral difference changes with an embryo, fetus, or fully grown human infant. Is it a spatial difference? Is it a temporal difference? Does the week, day, or trimester matter when ending the life of a *potential human?
Of course, we could have a metaphysically more significant conversation than the kinds of questions I’m asking you. I just think that these questions are a good starting point. Also, what is the “hallmarks of a person”?
R. N. Carmona: The hallmark of a person is quite simply, the consciousness attributed to human beings and higher order animals like dolphins and the great apes: neuroplasticity, memory acquisition, language capacity, etc. Even simpler than that, the capacity to apprehend taste, texture, sound, and so on. Even them who are mentally disabled, assuming they aren’t blind or deaf, can have these experiences. The blind and deaf, though lacking an important sense, still have propensities for memory acquisition, language, and so on.
And that’s the difference: spatio-temporal. Of space, because the potential person now occupies a uterus, taking nutrients from the would-be mother; of time because the potential person is currently not in the world, i.e. is not a citizen of a given country; is not protected by laws.
Potential simply is not enough. The fetus is potentially stillborn or potentially going to die of SIDs or will potentially be an ectopic pregnancy or will potentially be born to become a serial killer that will make Ted Bundy blush. You can’t speak of potential as though it’s solely and predictably positive; potential can be very negative. In fact, this child can be the reason the mother dies and leaves behind a husband to raise several kids, including the newborn, on his own. Potential simply isn’t enough to obligate a woman to continue a pregnancy she’d rather terminate.
So yes, the week matters because so long as a fetus isn’t viable, abortion should be permissible. The moral difference changes once the fetus is viable. Potentiality simply isn’t a good argument. Viability is a much stronger argument.
Furthermore, the moral difference changes when purposeful modification comes into play. Sure, an infant doesn’t have that capacity: it doesn’t, for example, set goals for itself. However, the parents, once they are told that the fetus is developing well, start to purposely modify on the fetus’ behalf: they start thinking of a name, buying clothing, setting up its room, putting money in its college fund, etc.
No parent, even if they’re a Christian conservative, begins to purposely modify at conception or even in the early weeks. It’s simply not enough to go on and tells you that, behaviorally speaking, most parents write off potential. Potential isn’t enough for anyone to go on and that’s why most people need something concrete before they begin to purposely modify on their baby’s behalf.
So yes, there’s a simple line to draw between a non-viable fetus and a viable one. I can speak of organismality as well, namely comparing and contrasting between organisms to come to a good conclusion regarding what a non-viable fetus most closely resembles, and it’s clear that they don’t resemble a newborn. There are marked differences, but I digress.
Steven Dunn: I would clarify that you are *technically correct in saying that potentiality is not enough. A potential X of course is not an X. Because I am a potential speaker of the French language doesn’t mean I can speak the French language. However, potentialities are still nonetheless grounded in being: they are realities not merely possibilities.
They are actual human beings with various potentials.
Though they are not realized among differing spatial and temporal locations/positions, I don’t think you’ve provided a meaningful account of persons. Human persons, as I see it, are instances of personalized being; persons possess phenomenological qualities that make them eligible for relationships – or interpersonal love. I think our definitions of persons should capture something specific (and simple), rather than be a construct of various qualifiers (neuroplasticity, apprehension of the senses, etc).
One biological example worth mentioning that I think you’ll appreciate is the cognitive capacity of bonobos – which is one of my favorite areas of primatology to examine their analogous behavior with humans. They’re sympathetic, they can experience pain, they are highly intelligent, they can have an extensive non-verbal vocabulary, etc.
Despite these striking qualities, they do not fit under the definition of persons I’ve provided above.
What does it mean to be a real person? A couple things: (i) what W. Norris Clark has called the “participation structure of the universe”; rational-intelligibility that allows for human persons and the universe to find meaningful relations/predictions; (ii) existence as a dynamic act of presence and (iii) action as a [self] manifestation of inner-being.
I think your definition of persons is merely conditional; it’s dynamic but not exhaustive. Human beings – that is, if a personalized being possesses such potentialities – are intrinsically valuable; there can be no moral difference among this being’s spatial or temporal location.
In summary. . . I think you are raising issues that aren’t typically addressed by conservatives. It’s important that we better handle areas of women’s reproductive healthcare, which can be dealt with through better and intentional education, personal conviction, etc. However, I think we need to agree that the moral question is not somehow addressed because we’ve raised current social or political problems surrounding abortion. There are consequences and symptoms that need to be taken care of, by all means. However, if structurally we are dealing with the intentional ending of a human life then we need to talk about it.
R. N. Carmona: I disagree there. What I hear is Aristotelian language here and I reject his metaphysics all the way through. Potentialities are not realities grounded in being. I think even Aristotle makes a distinction between potentiality and actuality, and as I recall, he doesn’t conflate them in this manner.
Persons do, however, possess phenomenological qualities, like phenomenal consciousness, but that isn’t what makes them eligible for relationships and interpersonal love. What’s needed there is simple empathy and bonobos and chimps, in general, are capable of that; that’s one reason why some advanced nations recognize them as persons. So rather than a construct of qualifiers, it’s more a recognition of qualifiers taken together to get a basic definition of person.
The base anthropocentrism of theists doesn’t allow them to accept that other higher order animals are persons, and that’s what you’re doing here. Dolphins call each other by name and remember individuals for decades. Elephants can also remember individuals after years of not seeing them. So while there’s certainly a distinction between a human person and a dolphin person, there is overlap that qualifies them both and that overlap is found in the sciences. The issue here is that your definition relies less on science and more so on an implied belief in the soul or on metaphysics rather than science.
I agree with (I) as it’s pretty much purposeful modification paraphrased. (II) relies heavily on Aristotelian metaphysics and I reject it outright. (III) stems from two, but alludes to libertarian action of will, which I don’t think anyone has. There’s no [self] without the [other] and other is much more crucial in action, especially willful. I think human persons can change course, but only after realizing enough deterministic conditions underlying their actions, thus empowering them to experience determinants that may lead to an overall change of course.
Think of the proverbial alcoholic; he doesn’t willfully change his bad habit, but what he does is “change” a given number of determinants so that his actions may change and out of a recognition that if he doesn’t make these changes, he is pretty much enabled: a) stops associating with friends who drink regularly b) doesn’t go to bars when invited c) goes to rehab. And so on and so on and so on.
Action itself isn’t in a vacuum, but dynamic and intertwined with the flux of all there is. So human potential takes course in a deterministic manner and any human looking to have any semblance of control over that will reposition herself with respect to determinants. A fetus is incapable of this sort of purposeful modification, which I think is the most actualized of all.
So my definition, while not alluding to souls or anything religious, is also sufficient because it recognizes the role of the other in the shaping of the self. The embryo and non-viable fetus do not interact with the other in the manner in which persons do and it is simply potentiality and not actuality, to use your language. What is commonly aborted is (what can be) rather than (what is), so that spatio-temporal difference lays the groundwork for a moral difference and the moral difference lies in purposeful modification which I think your (I) paraphrases.
Any metaphysic that doesn’t account for the other, even something as arbitrary as a chair, isn’t complete. Hegel understood this and is the forefather, I think, of modern metaphysics, starting in the phenomenologists that soon followed him. Hurssel relied a lot on Aristotle too and I’m not alone in seeing that he was mistaken for doing so, but again, I digress.
Steven Dunn: I would respond to your outlook on Aristotelian personalism as not fully appreciating what the system has to offer. In our personal conversations on abortion I have mentioned to you that yes, personalism and the potentiality principle has largely been carried and grounded in Catholic moral theology. I understand, therefore, we both don’t share views in the inspiration of Christian theology.
Hence, we need to find anthropological and philosophical commonalities in which we can meaningfully proceed in a discourse about human persons and what exactly is developing in the womb. The best system that does this, in my view, is Aristotle’s conception of being from his Metaphysics and the further extension from Thomas Aquinas’ doctrine of persons (with some modifications).
Aquinas argued that persons are that which is “perfected in all of nature.” This essentially means that persons are not merely special “modes” of being amongst others, but that personhood is being when it is allowed to be at its fullest. In other words, persons are not restricted by sub-intelligent matter. There are a number of reasons why persons – humans – possess the special status that they do, and while I think there are theological reasons for this I think I can still demonstrate that apart from any inspired or “revealed” source.
First, Aquinas’ notion of person was conscious of the distinction between person and nature, because providing a consistent account of personhood meant that a consideration of God as Triune (one divine nature amongst three persons) and Christ as the God-man (divine person possessing two natures) needed to be contextually consistent.
Therefore, it has been an accusation by some leading Catholic philosophers (Wojtyla, Ratzinger, Clarke, etc) that Aquinas falls short of a comprehensive philosophical definition of person because the medievals relied primarily on the Boethian definition of person: “An individual substance of a rational nature.” Hence, I would argue for a further inclusion of the concept of “relation,” which is fundamental to our understanding of what it means “to be.”
Aquinas moved away from the what has been called “self-diffusiveness” of the Good as seen by the NeoPlatonists (the collaboration of the Good with all “substances”) and instead moves to Supreme Being, where Existence (esse) – as I said before – now becomes the root of all perfection. Supreme Being is the subsistent Act of Existence, where now the self-diffusive Good now becomes self-communicative Love.
Hence we have three primary qualities for the relationability of persons: being is (1) self-communicative (showing that persons are intelligible [ratio] by their actuality); (2) being is self-manifesting (persons are immediately relatable to other beings); and (3) being is intrinsically active (persons are not merely present but actively present).
Suppose a being for example that existed in reality but didn’t or couldn’t manifest itself to other beings, or if it didn’t or couldn’t act in any way. If this kind of being lacked such properties then other beings couldn’t have knowledge of its existence; it would be almost as if it had no being at all. Now imagine if all beings existed in this sort of way; the universe itself wouldn’t be connected in the unified sense that philosophers and scientists typically speak of the rationality of the universe.
Now combine this with the potentiality principle. According to Current Anthropology (2013), potentiality is a principle not so foreign to them: potentiality “denotes a hidden force determined to manifest itself – something that with or without intervention has its future built into it.”1
Let me be clear that potentiality is the only relevant metaphysical principle worth considering for abortion. My position, to be clear, is not:
- X is a creature of a certain sort.
- Creatures of this sort have right R.
- Therefore, X has a right R.
Premise 2 of course begs the question in favor of what I want to prove. In summary, my position is that the full and perfect realization of being is always inherent in its nature. All living things, including mindless plants, dolphins and gorillas have a proper end or “good” which is naturally directed within their nature – even from a formless or potential state. Nothing can exist without potentials, and potentials cannot be realized apart from something actual.
Now the metaphysical picture I’ve provided is not mere conjecture but is what historically has served as the foundation of Western intelligentsia for over 1,500 years, until the advent of the modern model by Descartes and Newton. And I would argue that that move away from the model of classical metaphysics has been one of the greatest errors and blunders of Western thought. It was an illegitimate move because it’s not as if new physical discoveries were made, hence “outdating” the Aristotelian system.
Descartes, among other French intellectuals at his time were responsible for the shift away from potential/actual, the four causes, and his metaphysic of being. Bad move.
R.N. Carmona: While not mere conjecture and arguably the foundation of Western intellgentsia for over 1,500 years, one would have to gloss over important bits of history to make that argument. One of the more significant bits of history I have in mind is the Christian and Muslim censorship and destruction of texts that were not in agreement with monotheism, especially works that were of a more naturalistic flavor. Carlo Rovelli puts it succinctly:
I often think that the loss of the works of Democritus in their entirety is the greatest intellectual tragedy to ensue from the collapse of the old classical civilization…We have been left with all of Aristotle, by way of which Western thought reconstructed itself, and nothing of Democritus. Perhaps if all the works of Democritus had survived, and nothing of Aristotle’s, the intellectual history of our civilization would have been better … But centuries dominated by monotheism have not permitted the survival of Democritus’s naturalism. The closure of the ancient schools such as those of Athens and Alexandria, and the destruction of all the texts not in accordance with Christian ideas was vast and systematic, at the time of the brutal antipagan repression following from the edicts of Emperor Theodisius, which in 390-391 declared that Christianity was to be the only and obligatory religion of the empire. Plato and Aristotle, pagans who believed in the immortality of the soul or in the existence of a Prime Mover, could be tolerated by a triumphant Christianity. Not Democritus.2
It’s not a mere coincidence that Aristotelian metaphysics stood in fashion for so long, nor was it established that the Aristotelian system was better than other systems. In that same time period, theists, especially Christians, held a virtual monopoly on ideas and as such, metaphysical frameworks with more naturalistic bents were destroyed or censored. Due to this, there was a reluctance on the part of skeptics and naturalists to offer a naturalistic metaphysical system. They were rightfully afraid of The Inquisition. So, Aristotelian metaphysics didn’t dominate the landscape because it was the best framework, but rather, because the game was rigged in its favor.
Copernicus and Galileo, for instance, dealt with the consequences of challenging theistic thought. Copernicus’ De revolutionibus “was forbidden by the Congregation of the Index ‘until corrected’, and in 1620 these corrections were indicated. Nine sentences, by which the heliocentric system was represented as certain, had to be either omitted or changed.”3 Galileo’s house arrest is a well-known historical fact and there’s no need to tread over old coals here. More to the point, “Bruno [was]…much more of a philosopher than a scientist. He felt that a physicist’s field of study was the tangible universe, so he challenged any line of thought that utilized nonphysical elements and avoided what he considered the juvenile exercise of calculation. To him, computational astronomy missed the true significance of the sky.”4 Bruno held to eight purportedly heretical theses and they served as the reason for his execution. Among these theses were patently naturalistic positions: the universe is spatially infinite, there are other planets very similar to ours, there were humans before Adam and Eve, the Earth moves in accordance with Copernican theory.5 In all but one of these positions, Bruno has been proven correct. So the notion that Aristotle’s system is best overall or, at the very least with respect to defining personhood, is already disputable because as has been demonstrated, competing, especially naturalistic, frameworks were discouraged. Despite this, before I set out on my own exploration with regards to what best explains potentiality, I will challenge Aristotle’s personalism.
Even if I were to grant that Aristotle offered much in the way of explaining personhood, there’s still the question of how any of these criteria apply to embryos and early fetuses. Take for instance, (1) self-communicative (showing that persons are intelligible [ratio] by their actuality). To my mind, embryos and early fetuses are not self-communicative nor intelligible, and that’s because they have yet to develop the organ that makes this possible, namely the brain. Now, while I recognize that Aristotle offers an interesting conundrum worth considering, i.e., as you put it, “Nothing can exist without potentials, and potentials cannot be realized apart from something actual,” I don’t see that a fetus’ obvious intelligibility and self-communication follows. As we will see shortly, there’s a better explanation for the notion that nothing can exist without potentials and that no potentials can be realized separate from something actual.
In like manner, let’s consider also (2) being is self-manifesting (persons are immediately relatable to other beings). On the assumption that Aristotle was correct, I don’t see how embryos and early fetuses are self-manifesting and immediately relatable to other beings. If anything, it is only relatable to its parents and siblings, assuming they had children already. Since it has not emerged independently within the world, it is not relatable to other people, the ecosystem in its locale, nor the wider biosphere. The fact that it isn’t independently within the world makes so that it isn’t relatable to any other beings. Furthermore, it’s relation to its parents and siblings is best explained and anticipated by genetics, which we will get to shortly.
Let’s also consider (3) being is intrinsically active (persons are not merely present but actively present). Again, embryos and early fetuses are not present, let alone actively present for the same reasons they aren’t self-manifesting. The fact that it is not independently within the world, once again, proves problematic for the third criterion. I can grant that it is actively present once born, for its parent(s) is now self-modifying on its behalf. It is interacting with other persons in a very obvious manner and relies on them for its physical, emotional, and psychological growth, growth that is crucial for its potential to eventually become a person who has a theory of mind, a sense of self, an ego, memories, desires, goals, and so on. Within the womb, that simply is not the case early in any pregnancy. The woman’s voice and music can help with brain development starting at 29-33 weeks. So harkening back to what I said earlier, interpersonal interaction is only possible when the brain is sufficiently developed, which strongly favors the thesis that the brain is integral to a human person rather than a soul.
Now to the matter of what better explains the predictable potential of a human fetus, after which three conclusions should be immediately clear: either 1) that we do not require a metaphysical explanation for potentiality and personhood or 2) that given genetics and evolution, what’s necessary is a metaphysical framework that is congruous with and readily predicts scientific facts and 3) that nothing can exist without potentials and that potentials are not realized without actuals has been solved.
One of the primary reasons I reject Christian theism as a worldview is because it gives human beings an undue “special status” all while ignoring human evolution. Human potential or more specifically, homo sapien potential wouldn’t exist without an ancestor’s (probably homo antecessor) potential. Furthermore, homo sapien potential would not have been realized without the actuality of ancestors and likewise, without the divergence of ancestors, great apes would not have progressed as they have. As you well know, we share about 98.5% DNA with chimpanzees and some 96% with gorillas, two facts that establish a common ancestry. So this “special status” is actually an example of special pleading because it’s not at all clear why chimps and gorillas do not qualify for such status; also, neanderthals, given what we currently know about them, are in many respects like homo sapiens (a fact that made their interbreeding possible) and as such, would qualify for such status without question. Yet on Christian theism, no human ancestor qualifies for this status, an attitude I find very suspicious.
Human evolution, like evolution in toto, has an underlying genetic component that explains these variations in populations over time. That same genetic component continues among all populations of species and thus, better explains “the perfect realization of being…inherent in the nature of mindless plants, dolphins, and gorillas.” Furthermore, potentiality does not denote a “hidden force determined to manifest itself,” but a rather statistically predictable pattern present in the genome of an organism; it isn’t hidden at all, but rather in plain sight. The pattern is so predictable that one can readily explain how and why that which is formless becomes something with form.
So prior to circling back to Vallicella’s argument, I will offer a brief overview showing how the actuality of parents results in the potentiality and probable actuality of a child. It is also important to note that given genetics, there are a number of factors that determine morphological sex, eye color, hair color, skin tone, and so on. So let’s imagine that in universe A, Jack and Jill have a baby girl named Janice and that in universe B, they have a boy named Jake. Let’s consider the important differences in each child, differences that explain why Janice exists in A and Jake in B.
In universe A, Jack and Jill are both 24-years-old when they agree to having a child. Jack and Jill are wealthy and have spent the last four years of their relationship traveling. Neither of them are stressed and have no trouble being happy and grateful for all that they have. When considering that high stress increases the probability of having a boy, it is no surprise that Jill gives birth to Janice nine months later. Yet that still does not explain why Janice has brown eyes (though both her parents have blue eyes), her mother’s hair color, and her father’s hitchhiker thumb. In the main, had another sperm fertilized the egg, Janice very likely would have been born with completely different features. Despite low stress levels, there’s also the fact that Jack has five sisters and no brothers, therefore increasing the probability of having a girl. This still does not explain why Janice has brown rather than blue eyes, blonde rather than brown hair, and a hitchhiker thumb rather than a straight thumb.
Allelic combination is important in explaining her phenotypic features. Should both parents pass on recessive genes, Janice is born with a hitchhiker thumb. Or alternatively, if there’s a combination of dominant and recessive genes, she may have a chance to have a hitchhiker thumb or a straight thumb. If there’s a combination of dominant genes, then she will predictably have a straight thumb (see reference). Eye color tends to be similar, albeit more complicated.
For instance, the assumption is that since Janice’s parents have blue eyes, she will also have blue eyes. There are two genes integral to determine eye pigmentation: OCA2 and HERC2. An active HERC2 activates OCA2, which determines pigment; given this, we know that this is what explains Janice’s brown eyes. Her counterpart in universe B, Jake, has either a broken HERC2 or a broken OCA2 and therefore, has blue eyes (see reference). He also has brown hair and a straight thumb. He has a straight thumb because instead of a recessive and dominant gene (what we find in Janice’s genome), we find two dominant genes in Jake’s genome. Their disparate hair colors are also explained in this manner as well. It is also likely that in Universe B, Jill gave birth to Jake because of the high levels of stress she experienced during pregnancy. Jack and Jill decided to conceive at the ages of 31. During the pregnancy, they moved from Middletown, NY to New York City because they both wanted more job opportunities. The crowded commutes, her career, the noise pollution, among other things, stressed Jill out to no end and this increased the probability of having a boy, hence (probably) the birth of Jake.
Form, likewise, follows suit. Drosophila have been important in research in evolutionary biology and genetics. In observing curious mutations in these flies, geneticists discovered homeotic genes that determine the body pattern of all organisms. The research gets very technical and makes for quite the tangent, but homeotic, or Hox genes themselves come from a Hox-like ancestor that explains the similarities Hox genes have from organism to organism (see reference). The graphic makes the extrapolations of their research clear.
What is also clear is that the following turns out to be false: “All living things, including mindless plants, dolphins and gorillas have a proper end or “good” which is naturally directed within their nature – even from a formless or potential state.” It’s not so much that there’s a natural tendency even from a formless, potential state, but rather, that there’s an evolutionary and genetic history that informs how a comparatively formless embryo develops into a human being. There are also traits that are arbitrary as there’s no purpose as to why someone would have brown rather than blue eyes or a hitchhiker thumb rather than a straight thumb. Some traits are inconsequential with respect to who a given person is.
Aristotelian metaphysics is considered outmoded by contemporary philosophers and scientists because it is incongruous with various scientific paradigms. Setting cosmology and physics aside, as I think I’ve shown, Aristotle’s concept of a person is incongruous with evolution and genetics and the system did nothing in the way of anticipating the advent of evolutionary biology and genetics. His system speaks of personhood in a patently non-naturalistic or even supernatural manner whereas genetics and evolution show that personhood is linked to certain types of purely physical organisms. What is required is either no metaphysical framework at all (à la logical positivists) or a framework that coincides with modern philosophical and scientific paradigms. Aristotle’s system doesn’t accomplish that and far from a “bad move,” Copernicus, Galileo, Newton, and everyone who eventually stood on their shoulders have every justification to move away from the Aristotelian system. Although interesting, that potentials can’t exist apart from actuals is explained by genetics for that which is animate and memetics for that which is inanimate. In fact, Aristotle was closer to correct with regards to universals and particulars, an explanation that can be applied to inanimate objects rather than living entities. Yet despite the potential for a human embryo to become an actual human person, a roughly predictable, naturalistic set of occurrences take place before every human birth. The process is also a fragile one as an injury to the would-be mother can end the pregnancy; genetic anomalies and an implantation anywhere other than the uterus can make it so that this potentiality never results in an actuality. Aristotle’s system also doesn’t explain the fragility of this process not just in humans, but in other organisms as well. It should therefore be clear that conclusions aforementioned have been firmly established and that if metaphysics remains a concern for philosophers, we have to do better than what Aristotle and his disciples rendered us.
Now to circle all the way back to Vallicella’s argument. Even if one were to grant the undeniable personhood of a fetus, either through the medium of Aristotelian metaphysics or another metaphysical framework altogether, there’s still the issue that the intentional killing of this person doesn’t constitute a murder. The pivotal error pro-choicers make is that they tend to define abortion and ignore what it’s being equated to. They should also consider the legal definition of murder, since Vallicella is alluding to the legal rather than the moral definition.
The killing of an embryo or fetus is done with intentions and motives altogether different from those underlying homicide, and as such, from a legal standpoint, it can’t be approached as murder or even a lesser offense like manslaughter. There is no degree of murder applicable to abortion; the intention and motive are not the same either, so even from a legal perspective, abortion is not murder. It would constitute an intentional killing of a different sort, of an even benevolent sort. Therefore, a woman who has an abortion can’t be tried and convicted as a murderer, neither can the doctor who performed the abortion. Let’s consider first degree murder. Premeditation is already an issue for Vallicella’s argument; the prosecution wouldn’t be able to argue that the mother had a malicious intent to kill this person. As for second degree, even though lacking the premeditation criterion, implies a reckless disregard for human life. The prosecution can’t accuse a woman of that either.
What’s more is that, if you were right in that a fetus is a person despite its viability, then restrictive policies would be the only choice we’d have. Like Vallicella’s argument implies, murder is treated in an extremely restrictive manner; even self-defense has to be established with no room for doubt. So if abortion were murder, it would be dealt with in like manner. So setting metaphysics and ethics aside, from a practical point of view, we should be wary of equating abortion with murder because we have dealt with the latter in a restrictive manner and we should know better, especially given the deadly consequences of such policies. So even if for solely practical reasons, we should shy from such equivalence even if it could be proven that abortion is murder. The issue here is that no pro-lifer has qualified that statement in any manner that doesn’t make for a bare assertion. Abortion is simply not murder and to think of women who have abortions as murderers is to misunderstand this issue altogether. What we should be addressing are the common motivations for seeking an abortion: poverty, domestic violence, lack of employment opportunity, and so on. I can go on, but I’ve probably overstayed my welcome as it is, so for the time being, I will leave this here.
The featured image to this article was taken from https://www.ngv.vic.gov.au/explore/collection/work/4291/
The featured image to this article is Rembrandt’s Two Old Men Disputing (1628).
-  Taussig, Karen-Sue, Klaus Hoeyer, and Stefan Helmreich: “The Anthropology of Potentiality in Biomedicine: An Introduction to Supplement. Current Anthropology (vol. 54). 2013.
-  Rovelli, Carlo, et al. Reality Is Not What It Seems: the Journey to Quantum Gravity. Riverhead Books, 2018, pp. 32-33.
-  “Nicolaus Copernicus.” The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 4. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1908.20 Jun. 2019 <http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/04352b.htm>.
-  NA. “Bruno and Galileo in Rome.” Honors Program in Rome, University of Washington. 2003. <https://depts.washington.edu/hrome/Authors/pev42/BrunoandGalileoinRome/pub_zbarticle_view_printable.html>
-  Ibid. 
Let’s start with well-known, often disputed verses:
For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great, the mighty, and the awesome God, who is not partial and takes no bribe. Deuteronomy 10:17
God has taken his place in the divine council; in the midst of the gods he holds judgment. Psalms 82:1
There is none like you among the gods, O Lord, nor are there any works like yours.Psalms 86:8
And the king shall do as he wills. He shall exalt himself and magnify himself above every god, and shall speak astonishing things against the God of gods. He shall prosper till the indignation is accomplished; for what is decreed shall be done. Daniel 11:36
Recently, I brought up the fact that modern Christians are polytheists. On the one hand, they believe in the God of the Bible and on the other, the so-called god of philosophers or as they would put it, the god of monotheism. A commenter on my post over on WordPress brought up the fact that the early Jews were polytheists. He provided a number of verses like the ones above. I responded to him and stated that Christians have a go-to copout. They’ll argue that this is merely a recognition that people at the time worshipped other gods, gods that were mere idols. That, however, demonstrates that they are either ignorant of historical context or they know of the context and yet ignore it. We can discuss the polytheistic origins of Judaism further, but that’s not my purpose here.
My purpose here is to debase the notion of a god of (mono)theism, to disrupt that convenient narrative. A Christian on Facebook recently offered an ontological argument he confused with Godel’s Ontological Argument. That wasn’t the argument he offered. He offered another ontological argument in where ‘God’ could be replaced with ‘Allah’ or ‘Ahura Mazda’ and the result wouldn’t change. Two other people then responded and said that the refutation fails because the argument sets out to prove the god of monotheism.
The god of (mono)theism, as William Lane Craig posits, is timeless, personal, omniscient, and so on. I’ll set exegesis aside because there are ways to prove otherwise given passages in the Bible (e.g. why did god ask Adam questions in Genesis 3 if he’s omniscient?). What I want to offer instead is a new argument against the notion of a so-called god of (mono)theism. We know from mathematics that there are different infinities. Since infinity is already a large value, if we can even call it such, there’s no way for the human mind to apprehend one infinity or another, let alone distinguish them. So given that line of thinking, there’s an element of vagueness we can introduce to debase the notion of a god of (mono)theism.
Take, for instance, timelessness. A Christian will posit that their god has no beginning; he’s eternal and exists outside of time. All well and good. Let’s say there’s another being who had a beginning outside of the universe billions of years ago, e.g., Satan. What disqualifies this being from being timeless as well, especially given that we can’t ascertain the beginning of this being’s existence? In other words, if god is present at point 0 and then Satan at point 0.00000005, what difference is there? There are some beginnings that result in a virtual eternity and so, just like there are different infinities, there are different eternities, different versions of timelessness.
The same goes for omniscience. What if there’s a being that knows all things except one thing; let’s suppose this being doesn’t know how to play billiards. What is the difference between an omniscient being who knows all things and another being who knows all things save the required know-how to play billiards? Again, as there are different infinities, there are different levels of omniscience and we simply wouldn’t be able to distinguish between a being who knows everything and one who knows everything except for how to play billiards.
Omnipotence, omnipresence, the capacity to be personal, and so on, all fall victim to vagueness, and as such, the same defeater that exists for Godel’s Ontological Argument, namely that parallel arguments work just as well (see Oppy 1996), also exists for the notion of the so-called god of monotheism. There is no such entity. It is logically possible that, given vagueness, there are millions of beings that fit the description. However, one should not draw ontological conclusions on the basis of logical considerations. Just because there could be a million such beings doesn’t mean they actually exist; likewise, just because one such being is logically possible doesn’t mean it actually exists. The god that apologetic arguments allude to is a product of Christian obfuscation.
Given that Christians are overly fond of deductive arguments, I will do my best to formulate an Argument From Vagueness, which isn’t necessarily an argument on its own. Let’s consider Plantinga’s Victorious Ontological Argument:
- A being has maximal excellence in a given possible world W if and only if it is omnipotent, omniscient and wholly good in W; and
- A being has maximal greatness if it has maximal excellence in every possible world.
- It is possible that there is a being that has maximal greatness.
- Therefore, possibly, it is necessarily true that an omniscient, omnipotent, and perfectly good being exists.
- Therefore, it is necessarily true that an omniscient, omnipotent and perfectly good being exists.
Now, consider a parallel Argument from Vagueness. D1 is crucial to the argument.
D1: A being with maximal excellence* has omnipotence* (which is to be so close to all-powerful that its lone incapacity is negligible; it once failed to push a universe to the left), omniscience* (which is to be virtually all-knowing; it doesn’t know how to play billiards), and perfectly good* (which is to be virtually morally perfect, but it once told a white lie). Maximal greatness* is to have maximal excellence* across all possible worlds.
- A being has maximal excellence* in a given possible world W iff it is omnipotent*, omniscient*, and wholly good* in W.
- A being has maximal greatness* if it has maximal excellence* in every possible world.
- It is possible that there is a being that has maximal greatness*.
- Therefore, possibly, it is necessarily true that an omniscient*, omnipotent*, and perfectly good* being exists.
- Therefore, it is necessarily true that an omniscient*, omnipotent* and perfectly good* being exists.
Once this counter-argument is offered, what a Christian has left is the bare assertion that a being with maximal excellence* isn’t truly god because it has negligible limitations. The question remains: how do we know that the purported attributes of god are true? It is, as it will always be, a matter of faith. There is no way to ascertain that god is eternal, omnipotent, and omniscient. We can ask whether he is perfectly moral, but that’s a separate issue entirely. The thrust that Arguments From Vagueness drive is that there’s no justification for speaking of any infinity with such certainty. There may be an infinity so near to the one a theist reveres that the differences are negligible. That’s precisely what these arguments are designed for.
In the past, I’ve argued that modern Christians, especially them with apologetic bents, worship two gods. A couple days ago, I got into a debate with one of the moderators at Capturing Christianity. Eventually, this moderator, who another moderator called a “firecracker” whose behavior online is worth examining, got upset after demanding a deductive argument to prove my point. I reiterated to him that philosophy proper isn’t done that way, so while he’s use to the deductive arguments Christian apologists are overly fond of, actual philosophical works don’t proceed in that manner. One is tasked with reading and deciphering paragraph after paragraph of philosophical thought and insight in order to grasp either an argument or the overall philosophy of a given philosopher.
Regardless of this, I obliged and provided a deductive argument that was patterned after Craig’s Moral Argument. I did this so that he wouldn’t be able to deny its validity. He would have then been obligated to discuss whether the argument is sound. Unfortunately, as is the case with a lot of wannabe apologists, this moderator was philosophically inept and therefore, devoid of any knowledge, perfunctory or otherwise, of how philosophy works. I will present that argument here and then present a fuller argument to show that Christians with apologetic bents indeed worship two, irreconcilable gods. The argument is as follows.
P1 If moral values and duties come from god, he wouldn’t violate moral universals
P2 God does violate moral universals
C Therefore, moral values and duties do not come from god
Like Craig’s Moral Argument, this is a modus tollens argument. If the consequent is false then we can infer that the antecedent is also false. Of course, someone may then ask what exactly do I mean by “God does violate moral universals.”
The specific moral universal he and I were discussing isn’t simply the more common universal against murder, but specifically the universal against infanticide. I told him that even the most ardent relativist accepts that different cultures do not routinely murder infants, especially in large numbers. He could at least grasp the concept of moral universals and as such, he didn’t disagree with that. What he could not do is disprove the fact that his god, per the Bible, committed infanticide, and on more than one occasion (Exodus 12:29-30; 1 Samuel 15:3)! He eventually removed me from the page because it’s clear he didn’t want other Christians to see what he thought was a dangerous line of thinking, the same line of thinking that has led many to atheism.
In the same breath, such Christians maintain that they worship a perfectly good god from whom moral values and duties extend from and that they worship a god who committed infanticide. There are other inconsistencies still; for example, Christians are usually against abortion and yet they worship a god who committed abortions. My interest, as always, is whether a Christian can reconcile these two concepts. Given my argument above and my extended argument, the answer is a resounding no. The extended argument, in the deductive logic that Christians love, would look as follows.
P1 If moral values and duties extend from a morally perfect god, this god wouldn’t violate moral universals
P2 The Judeo-Christian god violates moral universals
C Therefore, moral values and duties do not extend from the Judeo-Christian god
C2 Inference: The Judeo-Christian god is not a morally perfect god
C3 Inference: Moral values and duties might extend from another god who is morally perfect
Given my extended argument, either a Christian is tasked to find a candidate that better fits the description of a morally perfect deity from who moral values and duties extend from (which is what I allude to in C3) or admit that the Judeo-Christian god is incompatible with the god alluded to in the Moral Argument. An honest Christian would seek the truth and eventually run into my Argument From Assailability. There isn’t a god in any religion who fits that description. So they are left with two conclusions: a) the Judeo-Christian god doesn’t fit the description b) the gods of other religions don’t fit the description. From there, atheism is all but inevitable because P2 can easily read “Allah violates moral universals” or “Ahura Mazda violates moral universals” or “Shiva violates moral universals,” and so on and so forth. Of course, the conclusion would then follow that moral values and duties do not extend from any of these gods, and after so many of these exercises, you will also have the following, what is clearly an explosive, pun very much intended, conclusion:
C4 Inference: Moral values and duties do not extend from a god who is morally perfect
So it’s not simply that atheism becomes inevitable, but that one is now left with the much harder work of explaining the origin of morality and also explaining how it works: Why are there universals? Why does morality appear to differ from culture to culture and throughout time? What role, if any, does reason play in morality? What school, if any, has succeeded at explaining how morality works? What school, if any, has succeeded in the project of moral ontology? What merit does moral pluralism have? Is the assumption that law proceeded morality mistaken?
There are so many questions one can ask and seek answers for. The issue is that philosophy proper isn’t really appealing to Christians because they purport to know all the answers and are thus, enamored with the notion that there’s one, absolute answer to any question. Because of this, they can’t accept that some questions have nuanced and even convoluted answers; other questions simply don’t have an answer. Philosophy proper deals with a lot of unknowns and uncertainty, which is far from the absolute knowledge Christianity purports to offer.
In any case, what’s clear is that the two concepts they have are incongruous and the false congruity they present is borne of cognitive dissonance. Christians routinely ignore what god did according to the Old Testament. Yet this is the being Jesus called “father”! This is precisely what led Marcionites and his followers to conclude that Yahweh was, in fact, an evil deity and that he wasn’t the father Jesus referred to. Christians routinely ignore most of the Old Testament because a lot of it contradicts what they’re told to believe about god: he’s good, merciful, loving. The Old Testament reveals a god who is far from that! So it may not be that just wannabe apologists are polytheists; it’s also that everyday Christians believe in two distinct concepts of god as well: the god portrayed in “the word of god,” which includes the Old Testament, and the more palatable figment borne of the human need for moral sanity and decency.
So when a wannabe apologist approaches you with the highbrow nonsense “Where do you get your morals from!?”, please refer them to this argument or present it to them. I guarantee you what will follow is frustration, name calling and insults, and an abrupt end to your conversation because Christians don’t want the skin falling from their eyes; they don’t want the veil lifted on their cognitive dissonance. It’s akin to opening a wound. Some of them are painfully aware of this, but continue to subscribe to false beliefs. They also don’t want to be made to realize that they don’t have the moral high ground and that their take on the origin of morality is woefully wrong. Despite Capturing Christianity’s cocksure insistence, Christianity is not true!
I wrote the following in response to a Muslim on a New York Times opinion piece on Facebook. Everyone who discusses the actions of the Judeo-Christian and/or Muslim gods focuses far too much on the moral and legal ramifications of said actions. No one realizes that, per the theist, their god is perfectly logical. As such, the logical dimension of an action attributed to this god has to be captured. With that in mind, I offered the following.
Even if punishing children for the crimes of their parents is either moral or legal, though we haven’t apprehended that as of yet, there’s still the issue that it isn’t logical. Logic is a priori and therefore, logic for humans is logic for the god of monotheism. Just as we can’t make a round square or sided circle, neither can god. Per the philosophically inclined theist, the laws of logic, as an extension of his creative power, are part of him and as such, he can’t violate his own nature. As such, god would be perfectly logical and would thus reason perfectly, which means he wouldn’t commit logical fallacies. Given that, he wouldn’t commit an act that’s based in the fallacy of guilt by association. To punish a child for their parents crimes is exactly that! God would be finding someone guilty do to their association or more specifically, their relation to a sinner.
To my mind, this is the ultimate defeater because it should be clear that the Judeo-Christian and Muslim gods have acted on the basis of fallacious logic. It would make more sense that such actions are the actions of people who wished to attribute said actions to a god, perhaps for sake of justifying their actions and attempting to spare themselves any guilt they might have felt. Clearly, however, a perfectly logical god wouldn’t base any of its actions on fallacious logic. The doctrine of original sin, for instance, is itself based on guilt by association. So even if a Christian fails to see the moral failing in such a doctrine, they would have to concede that there’s certainly a logical failing.
As is commonplace when discussing religion, there’s always someone who will disagree, either because they’re religious or are agnostics who favor belief over non-belief. This individual contended that the soundness of informal fallacies is established a posteriori rather than a priori. He also stated that god might have written guilt into our DNA and that therefore, it is heritable. I found that both of these contentions neither change my argument nor succeed at defeating it.
The reason for this is because I don’t think that every informal fallacy’s soundness is determined a posteriori. If soundness is reached via reason, and I see no reason to add an empirical dimension to determine the soundness of an informal fallacy, then that is also a priori. Even still, however, a perfectly logical being wouldn’t reason fallaciously, let alone base his actions on fallacious reasoning. Even if inherited guilt was built into our DNA, which no empirical research has shown, there’s still a logical issue with making a child pay for their parents sins. So even if I somehow inherit the guilt of my mother’s marital infedility, that doesn’t mean that I should pay the price for her adultery.
Collective guilt, for example, is a thing. I am, for instance, ashamed of my country’s actions. I am American and at the moment and for practically my whole life, I haven’t been proud to be one. I feel guilty being a citizen of a country that murdered millions of Native Americans and stripped them of their lands, allowed slavery, incarcerated Japanese citizens in internment camps, and incarcerates rates Blacks and Latinos disproportionately in comparison to other ethnic groups — aside from the many other human rights infractions this country has committed. That, however, does not mean that I should pay the price for American crimes. While some people may be perfectly content to make me pay on the basis of guilt by association (i.e. well, he’s an American, so his arrest or death is good enough for me!), a perfectly logical being simply should not and would not be content with passing such a sentence. It isn’t logical, just, or moral, but alas, the Judeo-Christian and Muslim gods are said to behave accordingly. If a theist or an agnostic who favors theism is reluctant to admit that there are moral or legal failings in the actions of these theistic gods, they must admit that there are clear logical failings in their actions. That poses yet another problem in a long list of problems for theism.
By R.N. Carmona
As sort of a reply to the article I posted earlier, I have decided to present Chapter 4 of my book Philosophical Atheism in full. Plantinga’s version of the Ontological Argument is seen as the most updated and formidable. It also makes use of the clause in Nagasawa’s article, namely that since it’s possible that god is necessary, it follows that he is necessary. In my book I explain why I’m extremely skeptical of that clause because I see the leap from logically conceivable to logically possible as flawed; moreover, I see the jump from logically possible to logically probable as flawed, and therefore, see the leap from logically probable to actual as flawed. Never mind that the necessity of such a being is without warrant. Despite the supposed strength of Plantinga’s argument, it is irreparably more flawed than its predecessors. Please read below to find out why.
In order to be charitable to theists, I will forgo discussing Anselm’s Ontological Argument altogether, especially since most of them consider it less preferable when compared to Plantinga’s version or the modal argument. Since Plantinga’s version fails for the same reasons, I will discuss the modal ontological argument. The modal version is as follows:
P1 If God exists then he has necessary existence.
P2 Either God has necessary existence, or he doesn’t.
P3 If God doesn‘t have necessary existence, then he necessarily doesn’t.
P4 Therefore: Either God has necessary existence, or he necessarily doesn’t.
P5 If God necessarily doesn’t have necessary existence, then God necessarily doesn’t exist.
P6 Therefore: Either God has necessary existence, or he necessarily doesn’t exist.
P7 It is not the case that God necessarily doesn’t exist.
P8 Therefore: God has necessary existence.
P9 If God has necessary existence, then God exists.
C Therefore: God exists.
The first bad assumption is found in the first premise. Before I demonstrate why, it is useful to define necessary existence. An entity that exists in all possible worlds necessarily exists, i.e., a being that cannot fail to exist. Leibniz coined the term when he put forth the idea that god created “the best of all possible worlds,” which is one of the earliest theodicies. Philosophers conclude that it is probable that god is a necessary being; however, that conclusion isn’t indicative of truth. Therefore, it is a bad assumption to begin an argument with such an obscure probability.
Philosophers do not state how probable the necessary existence of god is. It is probable that god does not necessarily exist. That allusion can be found in premise two. Also, one could just as easily argue that either there are seven perfect beings who necessarily exist or any other random number of gods so long as we are able to begin with the unwarranted assumption that there are necessary beings. Nothing but our intuition of simplicity is reason to choose one necessary being rather than seven or eight. The possibility of god not having necessary existence is entirely ignored in premise seven — the second bad assumption and the worst of the two. By what authority does one arrive at that premise? Therefore, it follows that what comes after premise seven isn’t true.
God is believed to have necessary existence for a number of reasons; the greatest of these reasons is the assumption that he is eternal, a belief stemming from Anselm. From there, believers posit that god’s existence doesn’t require an explanation. Richard Dawkins and other atheists ignore this assumption when asking, “where did god come from?” From a believer’s point of view, god isn’t a contingent being. Therefore, to them, the question is nonsensical. There is, however, a better option for atheists and it’s the option normally chosen perhaps without realizing: god is an impossible being. An impossible entity is an entity that doesn’t exist in any possible world, i.e., a being that fails to exist in all possible worlds, e.g., a seven sided octagon; a rectangular oval. With that said, I present the equally valid Modal Anti-Ontological Argument:
P1 If God doesn’t exist then he has impossible existence.
P2 Either God has impossible existence, or he doesn’t.
P3 If God doesn’t have impossible existence, then he necessarily doesn’t.
P4 Therefore: Either God has impossible existence, or he necessarily doesn’t.
P5 If God necessarily doesn’t have impossible existence, then God necessarily exists.
P6 Therefore: Either God has impossible existence, or he necessarily exists.
P7 It is not the case that God necessarily exists.
P8 Therefore: God has impossible existence.
P9 If God has impossible existence, then God doesn’t exist.
C Therefore: God doesn’t exist.
If apologists want to argue that their argument is valid, they must grant that the above argument is also. What’s left is to consider which of the two is sound. Unlike the probability apologists put forth, a probability that is bolstered by theological motivations, I can put forth a concrete probability: it is highly probable that the Judeo-Christian god — the god that the Ontological Argument was designed to defend — does not exist. Thus, the modal anti-ontological is sound. I am, of course, putting the cart before the horse as I have yet to argue for that conclusion. That will, in part, be the task of the second part of this work.
It is time now to turn to Plantinga’s version of the argument and to show why it falls into the same trap. I will also address one of the primary motivations driving believers to accept some version of the ontological argument. Plantinga’s version is considered “victorious” not because it is an ironclad, unassailable version of the argument, but rather, because it succeeds at showing that belief in god is rational. The jury is still out with regards to that, but one thing is for certain, Plantinga’s argument does not succeed where the other versions have failed. In fact, it falls victim to a similar contra-argument. Plantinga’s version can be formulated as follows:
P1 A being has maximal excellence in a given possible world W if and only if it is omnipotent, omniscient and wholly good in W; and
P2 A being has maximal greatness if it has maximal excellence in every possible world.
P3 It is possible that there is a being that has maximal greatness.
P4 Therefore, possibly, it is necessarily true that an omniscient, omnipotent, and perfectly good being exists.
C Therefore, it is necessarily true that an omniscient, omnipotent and perfectly good being exists.
The contra-argument would begin with (1) and (2); it would, in other words, accept the definitions of a being with maximal excellence and a being with maximal greatness. It would diverge beginning at (3) and would therefore continue as follows:
(3) It is impossible that there is a being that has maximal greatness.
(4) Therefore, possibly, it is necessarily true that an omniscient, omnipotent, and perfectly good being does not exist.
(5) Therefore, it is necessarily true that an omniscient, omnipotent and perfectly good being does not exist.
Like in the case of the modal version, if a believer claims that Plantinga’s version is valid, s/he must also admit that this version is also. We would again be obligated to consider which of the two is sound.
Curiously, the first premise has another glaring problem. It has, more specifically, an inescapable entailment. The first premise appears to imply that it is possible that there exists a being that has maximal excellence but doesn’t have maximal greatness. There is a being that is omnipotent, omniscient and wholly good in Y, but not in X. This possibility leaves the door wide open for polytheism and also implies that in some possible world(s) there exists beings who can rival god in the worlds in which they happen to exist. Certainly Plantinga doesn’t intend to allow for these implications, but the first premise obviously entails precisely that. Far from being “victorious,” the argument leads to issues that are simply not found in Anselm’s version.
It is useful to note that even if Plantinga or any Christian rejects the contra-argument, the first premise can be challenged. Rather than quibble with what is meant by maximal excellence, an atheist can accept the definition as it stands. The atheist can, however, question whether this is possible world W in where a being of maximal excellence exists and explore the consequences if it turns out that this isn’t that possible world. In other words, if this isn’t that specific possible world, then the argument is speaking of a possible world that is inaccessible to the believer and the believer is therefore in no better position to convince the non-believer. Put another way, if a being of maximal excellence doesn’t exist in this possible world, then it possibly exists in another world that cannot be accessed by any of the inhabitants in this world. There is therefore no utility or pragmatic value in belief. The argument would only speak of a logical possibility that is ontologically impossible in this world.
The atheist can take it a step further. What Christian theists purport to know about god stems from the Bible. The Bible, in other words, gives us information about god, his character, and his history as it relates to this world. Assuming this is possible world W, does he represent a being having maximal excellence? Is he, for instance, identical to a being who is wholly good? Any honest consideration of parts of the Bible would lead one to conclude that god is not identical to a being who is wholly good; god, in other words, isn’t wholly good. So obvious is his evil that Marcion of Sinope diverged from proto-Orthodox Christians in concluding that the Jewish God in the Old Testament is an evil deity and is in no way the father of Jesus. Yet if he’s evil, then he isn’t wholly good and if he isn’t wholly good, he fails to have maximal excellence. Moreover, and much more damning to Plantinga’s argument, is that a being of maximal greatness has maximal excellence in all worlds. Therefore, if this being does not have maximal excellence in one of those worlds or more specifically, in this world, then it does not possess maximal greatness. Far from victorious, Plantinga’s argument would taste irreparable defeat and this, in more ways than one.
It is time now to consider one motivation a believer may have for accepting a given version of the ontological argument, namely abstract objects. The prevalent school of thought among such believers is that all abstract objects depend on god for their existence. More specifically, abstract objects depend on god for their existence. When one considers that abstract objects need not depend on god for their existence, one should no longer have any motivation to accept the ontological argument as sound. Without entering the metaphysical waters of Lewis’ counterfactuals, one can consider specific abstract objects. One can consider the sort of moral truths discussed in the previous chapter and see that they have naturalistic origins.
One can also consider universals. When concerning universals, there are three views: Platonic, Aristotelian, and Nominalist. Given these three views, some have located a controversy. Yet one can dismiss one of the views on a number of grounds. Prior to dismissing one of the views, it is necessary to elaborate on them.
On the Platonic view, known as Platonic realism, universals exist in a supernatural realm, the realm of forms. These forms give meaning to the terms we use. These abstractions actually exist. So when we speak of all people having ‘humanity’, humanity exists in the realm of forms. That is to say that the form ‘humanity’ is an incorporeal form that corresponds to what all people have in common.
According to the Aristotelian view, Aristotelian realism, which was championed by Peter Abelard, universals are properties or relations held in common by given objects. Humanity therefore exists in the natural realm and not in a supernatural realm. It is a relation all people hold in common and the universal is a term that represents this relation. ‘Manhood’ or ‘blackness’ are instantiated in all men and all black things respectively. This leads to a glaring issue. Clearly, a black table, a black chair, and a black shirt are different objects and yet, they have in common the same property. These objects are thus qualitatively equal. The response to this is that though universals are natural, they do not act as natural objects.
The nominalist view denies that universals exist. There are two ways to go about that. The one denies that universals exist altogether whilst the other accepts commonalities like ‘humanity’, ‘manhood’, and ‘blackness’, but denies that they can be aptly called universals. To apply these approaches, one need only offer a paraphrase of sentences that are true and entail universals. Thus, for a sentence like “all men are mortal,” the nominalist need only offer a paraphrase that denies the universal ‘mortality’ or denies that it can aptly be referred to as a universal. There are several ways to confront this.
A nominalist can take the predicate, concept, mereological, class, modal, or resemblance routes. Both the predicate and concept routes accept commonalities, but deny that they can dubbed universals. On the predicate view, the predicate “mortal” applies to men because they’re mortal and this entails the universal “mortal.” On the concept view men fall under the concept “mortal,” but there’s no such thing as “mortality.” The mereological view says that a man is mortal because he is a part of the whole of things that are mortal. Unfortunately, the mereological view cannot be used when speaking of mass or shape, for instance, since the mass or shape of the parts do not equal the sum of the mass or shape wholes. That is to say that the sum of the sides of all equilateral triangles do not themselves equal an equilateral triangle.
Class nominalism avoids these pitfalls by offering that man is mortal by virtue of belonging to the class of all mortal things. This view also runs into issues. So does David Lewis’ Modal Realism, which posits possible worlds on the basis of counterfactuals. There’s also resemblance nominalism, which offers that mortal beings don’t resemble each other because they’re mortal, but rather, they’re mortal because they resemble each other. In the case of sentient beings, resemblance nominalism seems to do well.
There are other versions of nominalism that can be discussed, e.g., causal nominalism, but much of the so-called controversy can do with some butchering. One should therefore employ Ockham’s Razor to cut off some fat. For one, Platonic Realism is simply unnecessary. If one is to offer only necessary postulates, then a realm of forms in where universals exist is unnecessary. Them who have looked instead to the way in which we employ language have the right idea. Either Aristotle’s view is correct or one of the nominalist views is correct.
On the nominalist view, there’s more fat that can be cut off. Color, for instance, is experienced in a particular way by human beings. Some animals don’t see the colors we see; others see no color; others can see in infrared; still others, one can imagine, may see in ultraviolet; we can also imagine a creature that can see the entire electromagnetic spectrum. Color, in any case, is reducible to light and need not be a property, particular or universal, of any object. On the basis of abstraction, in the same way we imagine a similarity in all black things, we can imagine these objects without ‘blackness.’ Put another way, the black sofa, the black table, and the black chairs can be as they are with no color to be found. The color need not be a part of them.
What we’re left with then is shape, mass, and other extensional properties, and also the space these objects appear to occupy. With color out of the way and with Platonic realism disqualified, we can make progress in solving the problem of universals. Obviously the answer isn’t obvious, since it’s still widely discussed. But for creatures lacking the capacity of a language formed by subjects and predicates, particulars and universals may not occur to them. It is likelier that human language leads to problems such as these and the related one-many problem. The controversy is then lifted by paying more attention to how language creates more problems than it solves.
Given the nominalist views surveyed above, it is clear that universals do not depend on god for their existence. In fact, universals may not have existence proper. In other words, if they don’t exist in a Platonic realm or within the divine thoughts of god, then they do not have a property of existence. One will find that other abstract objects can be explained in similar fashion.
Numbers, for instance, need not be Platonic in any sense. The number 4 or the a priori truth of some equation need not depend on god for their existence. Such a tangent isn’t necessary given that I discuss nominalism as it relates to numbers in chapter eleven, but at every turn when confronted with a so-called abstract object, the atheist can offer the following questions: does this abstract object have the property of existence? What is meant by existence in this case? Certainly abstract objects do not exist in the same way a person or an animal exists. The use of the word existence in this case warrants caution and skepticism. In any case, when thinking of examples of abstract objects, it is clear that all abstract objects can be explained in one or more of the following ways: (a) nominalism (b) reductionism, e.g., colors are reducible to an astrophysical phenomenon, namely light (c) the Lockean thesis, i.e., an abstract object can’t be abstracted in isolation from its physical counterpart or the object on which it acts upon. A bit of elaboration is in order.
According to the Lockean thesis, one cannot think of motion abstractly without also thinking of an object in motion. The same applies to abstract objects. One cannot think of a moral truth, e.g. murder is wrong, without thinking of or imagining a murder. One can’t think of the number 4 without reference to the number as it appears in a book, a sheet of paper, or a chalkboard. Even if one imagines a blue number 4 within one’s mind, one is still representing in one’s mind the number as s/he has seen it before. The numbers and their sequence aren’t innate; we all learned of their value and their appearance at some point in childhood and there’s no way to think of them as abstract in the absence of some physical counterpart. Much more can be said about abstract objects and numbers specifically, but it should be clear now that the purported relation between god and abstract objects is a dubious motivation for accepting the ontological argument. Despite this, there’s a specific abstraction that warrants much attention and it is for this reason, I’ve devoted the entire next chapter to it.
All citations can be found in my book Philosophical Atheism.
By R.N. Carmona
Before I express my most current thoughts about the idea of god and where I now stand, it is important to go over exactly what relation the Game of Thrones character Bran Stark has to a common concept of god. Bran Stark, who is currently an entity known as the Three-Eyed Raven, has omniscience as it concerns people and events. It has been shown that he can be touched in the future (when the Night’s King grabbed his arm), manipulate the present (by employing his warg ability), and influence the past (as shown when he called out to a younger version of his father Ned and when young Hodor heard Meera in the present telling present-day Hodor to hold the door). Yet despite his omniscience, he is powerless to prevent the war between the living and the dead, the armies of men and the Night’s King and his army of White Walkers and wights.
In fact, many theories concerning Bran have been circulated. One theory says that Bran Stark is Bran the builder. Bran the builder, legend has it, built the Wall where Jon Snow completed his watch and also Winterfell. Another postulates that Bran is the Lord of Light, the god of the Red Priestesses who reveals future events in fires. According to such theories, Bran reincarnates and lives forever in a repeating loop or he’s ascended to the role of an all-knowing god. Game of Thrones could be a literal time loop in where Bran is trying to prevent a number of catastrophic events like the creation of White Walkers by the Children of the Forest, the Mad King’s holocaust of Westerosi citizens, and the events that have yet to transpire – which may include the deaths of Daenerys and Jon, not to mention every person in Westeros.
Game of Thrones could literally be a story about an omniscient and all-powerful or nigh-all-powerful mystic or god being rendered powerless by chaos theory. In other words, per Littlefinger: “Chaos is a ladder” and only that ladder is real. All else is illusion. In trying to prevent the creation of the White Walkers or the Mad King’s holocaust, Bran unintentionally sets off other horrific events. The prevention of one bad outcome or consequence results in the emergence of a new bad outcome or consequence. Thinking about Bran’s predicament got me thinking about the idea of an omniscient being.
God’s predicament, should one exist, wouldn’t be any different. Preventing a murder on one side of the world only ensures the emergence of a new, unintended one on the other side of the world. If the flapping of a butterfly’s wings results in a derailed train that kills dozens, a god might reason to prevent the flapping of the wings, but in doing so, an unintended volcanic eruption wipes out dozens in a separate location. The idea of omniscience along with omnipotence would ensure that such a being is rendered powerless! Westeros may not work very much like our world; there is after all magic, undead, dragons, and voices speaking from fires. Chaos theory might not feature in Westeros, but it certainly features in our world. A being like the Three-Eyed Raven would have incredible power, but will resign himself to inactivity.
God, should one exist, might have realized this long ago and has thus resigned himself to inactivity and indifference. Omniscience entails foresight and omnipotence entails prevention of what one foresees, but the two powers together would inevitably result in voluntarily powerlessness. In a world of chaos, an order that prevents all evil and all suffering is simply not possible; it is unachievable. Should there be a god, Nietzsche might be best read literally. God is effectively dead. He is a celestial vegetable, eternally inactive upon realizing that he could never achieve a perfect world. I am firmly a post-theist in that I am beyond entertaining the ideas of religion and writing extensively and frequently about such topics. But should there be a god, I would approach it with compassion and pity because despite having all that power, it’s as though it has no power.
A simply corollary might make things clearer. Humans are no doubt limited and finite in their power to prevent unappealing outcomes and consequences. They are equally limited in their capacity to formulate and execute contingency plans. Yet even when one succeeds at preventing one’s business from failure by taking out a sizable loan, there’s now the unintended consequence of realizing several months down the line that an extensive layoff is necessary to turn enough profit to pay off the debt and continue to operate the business. Preventing one bad outcome seems to ensure the emergence of another. Though some regard this study as debunked, the jury is still out on whether extensive gene editing results in hundreds of potentially harmful mutations.
It could be that chaos requires a balancing of the scales and it is only in that balance that order is achieved. God might have done all he could to prevent the abusive childhood of one person only to ensure the emergence of another person’s abusive childhood. The Three-Eyed Raven’s predicament might not be any different from what a god’s would be if it existed. Joan Osborne’s song comes to mind in thinking that perhaps god is essentially one of us. The poor bastard has all that power and can do absolutely nothing with it.