By R.N. Carmona
The motivations for Christians to reject subjectivism boils down to their tendency to think in binaries. What is also clear is that they are blind to subjectivism in their own circles or they ignore their hypocrisy. They often deride atheists with the charge of subjectivism while failing to see that epistemic subjectivism pervades Christian theology to such a degree that the enterprise has nothing close to a consensus on even the most important matters. Christian theology, indeed Christianity as a whole, is so intoxicated on the elixir of subjectivism that there are a vast number of contradictory theological schools and an even larger number of denominations. For all the talk of objectivism proceeding from God, he has been so notorious at authoring confusion that Christians cannot agree on a number of things: whether there is an elect or whether Jesus died for everyone; whether one can lose their salvation or not; whether or not there is a rapture; whether or not non-Christians can make it to heaven. There are also widespread disagreements on whether babies can be baptized and whether the gifts of the Spirit are still active or if they have ceased. This is to say nothing about the fact that disagreements in the past were resolved by way of violence, exile, and execution. Every now and again, Christians make it clear that they wish they were still able to brutalize, ostracize, or murder the voices of dissent.
When it conveniences them, Christians openly admit that subjectivism is fine, preferring to value their Pastor’s opinion more than the average pew-sitting brother in Christ. Their favorite apologist or theologian’s words take the most precedence. The evidentialists will follow William Lane Craig over a bridge if it came to it while the Aristotelians prefer Edward Feser. Meanwhile, Van Tillians have their own go-to theologians and fideists are sticking to Sola Scriptura and infallibility of the Bible or taking the more complicated route of following after Kierkegaard. In any case, for the Christian in any of these camps, the theology of his camp is so obviously superior to the theologies of the other groups. He can simply assert this with a clear conscience. This is not to give the impression that these schools are mutually exclusive, but in the majority of cases, Christians do not mix and match.
The tacit admission that all opinions are not equal is one that Christians rarely explore. Yet that is precisely the reason why subjectivism appeals to people. Furthermore, this is an appeal that even philosophers recognize. Marcus, a character in Rebecca Goldstein’s Plato at the Googleplex: Why Philosophy Won’t Go Away, states the following:
There’s some ideal algorithm for working it out, for assigning weights to different opinions. Maybe we should give more weight to people who have lived lives that they find gratifying and that others find admirable. And, of course, for this to work the crowd has to be huge; it has to contain all these disparate vantage points, everybody who’s starting from their own chained-up position in the cave. It has to contain, in principle, everybody. I mean, if you’re including just men, or just landowners, or just people above a certain IQ, then the results aren’t going to be robust.Goldstein, Rebecca. Plato at the Googleplex: Why Philosophy won’t Go Away. New York: Pantheon Books, 2014. 105. Print.
Giving more weight to admirable people who have lived satisfying lives is precisely what people tend to do. The issue with that is that admiration should not be our barometer. In moral matters, this works only because moral exemplars set a precedent for others to follow, e.g. Budda, Jesus. Concerning epistemic matters, our tune has to be different. No one takes advice from a mechanic when it comes to their teeth. No one would let the mechanic give them a medical opinion. People turn to experts on such matters. The failure to do so on other fronts traces to beliefs that are integral to someone’s identity; these beliefs are usually religious, but do not have to be as can be observed in people who believe in conspiracy theories, e.g., anti-vaxx. Getting one’s science from a Christian apologist would be ludicrous if Christianity were not so integral to one’s identity. This is the only reason Christians do not consult cosmologists about the origin of the universe because even the proverbial mistrust for science stems from the impression that science is invariably at odds with Christianity. What is at odds with the conclusions of science is Christianity, but I digress.
Kai Nielsen does not see a problem between subjectivism and objectivism in ethics. It is a problem of our own making. While he ultimately concludes that subjectivists have failed to make a philosophical claim that is not either incoherent or false, he thinks subjectivists are on to something. He states:
So far it looks as if ‘Is morality objective or subjective?’ is indeed a pseudoquestion, for ‘All moral claims are subjective’ is either plainly false, in an appropriate sense vacuous or opaque. Where subjectivism is vacuous, ‘There are no objective moral realities’ has no force because given the construction put on ‘moral realities,’ we do not understand what could count as an instance of such a reality.Nielsen, Kai. “Does Ethical Subjectivism Have a Coherent Form?” Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, vol. 35, no. 1, 1974, pp. 93–99. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/2106603. Accessed 13 Dec. 2020.
Nielsen goes on to grant that the subjectivist could be saying that it makes no sense to speak of moral realities. If that is the case, then asking for an objective justification of moral claims is akin to demanding a valid inductive inference when one is only willing to accept a deductive one. The Problem of Induction has been identified as pseudoproblem by other philosophers as well, most notably C.S. Peirce who identified all forms of reasoning within one another. Peirce, in other words, equated the three modes of reasoning. The image below makes his equivalence clear:
The Christian objectivist is demanding more than a simple justification of a moral claim. He is demanding a fixed reality on which all moral and epistemic claims rest. This importunate exigency stems from an outmoded foundationalism. Christians have an unresting need for absolute certainty in a claim and so, they settle for verisimilitude rather than accepting that even truth is not fixed. That is not to say that an immoral act was right in the past when it was generally agreed upon. Instead, the intention is to point out that truth is rarely, if ever, static. Given enough time, even a seemingly immutable truth will change or cease to be true. The sunrise has been true for 4.5 billion years. Someday, the Sun will not rise. This sort of relativism is uncontroversial spatiotemporally and may, in fact, underlie the manner in which reality is constituted. Location and time are never fixed and always in flux. Our epistemic positions should follow suit, without controversy. Of course, we do not want our moral positions to look this why, but upon reminding ourselves that all opinions are not equal, we can always remain open to better perspectives.
This is the best hope for subjectivism. Christians might not have the utmost confidence in a subjectivist’s capacity to identify the best opinions, but then, the Christian would have to address their own hypocrisy because it is clear that the same deity cannot be guiding them to one theology while drawing others in disparate directions, unless God himself is drunk on the elixir. Nietzsche believed in the internalization of man, namely the idea that sufficiently realized adults come to internalize external moral authority, primarily one’s parents. At some point in adulthood, the voice of one’s conscience is no longer mom’s or dad’s, but one’s own. Implicit in that is that we can come to question our parent’s choices and even, their values. Likewise, we come to question the decisions and values of our nations, particularly by way of identifying issues in the way our officials govern.
Therefore, if we can internalize authority to this extent, the charge that subjectivists cannot identify better opinions is false. In fact, in my own country, the United States, what prevents widespread acceptance of better opinions are perceived threats to one’s political identity. This is why the Right is so intent on believing that the Left wants to murder babies, take everyone’s guns away, and censor dissent. When a belief or affiliation has become so crucial to one’s identity that neither are questioned, moral progress is stalled. This is precisely what is entailed in the subjectivist position, however: some opinions have no right to be at the table and are of no value at all, and thus, should not be paid mind to. For subjectivism to truly flourish, only the brightest and the best need sit at the table, which should alarm absolutely no one because this is how most of us consent to be governed, except for in cases when the people with less qualified opinions get their way.
In any event, the fear of subjectivism is overstated. As has been made abundantly clear, Christians only take issue with opinions when they are not in keeping with Christianity or even, when those opinions are not in agreement with their specific denomination or theological school. Atheists, by contrast, do not disqualify opinions out of hand. For instance, while the vast majority of Christians continue to worship a vengeful God that will impose post-mortal retributive justice on anyone who did not accept Jesus as Lord and Savior, it is becoming pressingly obvious to most people that retributive justice is quickly approaching obsolescence and that it needs to be supplanted with a rehabilitative and reformative approach. All opinions are not equal and if that is the only thing subjectivism has going for it, it is a lot more than the Christian would like to admit.
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.
“When we stop to reflect on the questions of whether our pre-reflective beliefs are justified, a host of different biases go to work. We better remember evidence which supports the beliefs we hold than evidence we encountered which runs contrary to them. We better remember occasions on which we have been correct than those on which we have erred. We have a tendency to judge arguments which support our beliefs quite favorably, while arguments which run contrary to our beliefs are held to a very high standard. When we form judgments about the processes by which our pre-reflective beliefs were formed, we seem to employ as a minor premise the belief that we are, all things considered, quite reliable in our judgements, and we thus have a strong tendency to see our beliefs as based on evidence which we ourselves take to be highly probative, whether the beliefs were in fact formed on such a basis or not. As a result, far more often than not, the result of reflection turns out to be little more than a ratification of the beliefs held prior to reflective evaluation. Rather than serving as a source of correction…reflection tends to act in ways which further cement our pre-reflective beliefs into place within the larger web of our convictions. Many reflective processes thus act not to correct our pre-reflective beliefs, but only to increase our confidence in them; we thus become more self-satisfied, even if no more accurate, epistemic agents.”
Hilary Kornblith as quoted in Experimental Philosophy: An Introduction by Joshua Alexander
By R.N. Carmona
Them who, for philosophical reasons, adopt perspectivism or them who, in the interest of preserving their beliefs, adopt perspectivism misunderstand what Nietzsche intended to achieve. Nietzsche was not arguing that all perspectives are created equal; he recognized that some were better than others. Neither was he arguing that objectivity was not possible. He wrote: “The more eyes, different eyes, we know how to bring to bear on one and the same matter, that much more complete will our ‘concept’ of this matter, our ‘objectivity’ be.”1
The truth isn’t a democratic process. Taken together, he was arguing that if we to consider all perspectives worth considering, namely those perspectives that are among the best, we can arrive at a more objective conclusion. On political, legal, moral, philosophical, and even scientific matters, informed perspectives can help us arrive at the objective truth. Nothing at all is shielding people from the facts of the matter. Our perspective may be wrong or distorted, but if we account for other perspectives, especially better ones, one can adopt a better perspective.
This take is more accurate than a take which argued that the truth is equal to opinion. Nietzsche would not have argued that. Most contemporary perspectivists miss that crucial point: objectivity is not impossible; in fact, the more complete one’s accounting of better perspectives is, the closer one gets to achieving objectivity with regards to the case in question. Opinions are not created equal; some are better than others. Opinions and perspectives are virtually interchangeable. While opinions are informed by one’s given perspective, one’s opinion would differ given that one’s perspective differed; this is to say that opinions are contingent on one’s perspective. An opinion might even be considered an iteration of one’s perspective, a way of explaining one’s perspective or putting it into words.
This isn’t necessarily a post-truth era, since truth still exists. The truth can be avoided or flat-out denied, but this doesn’t imply that we now find ourselves in an era in where there’s no truth. There are still truths, both mundane and profound–from your particular date of birth to the fact that the universe is roughly 13.8 billion years old. We are, unfortunately, free to deny these truths, but that doesn’t change their status. Contemporary perspectivists have bastardized Nietzsche’s view and presented it as an enemy of truth. In fact, perspectivism may be the only account of truth that makes sense, both philosophically and practically. If one were to consider that, for instance, arguments were needed to tell people why slavery was wrong, one will begin to see that a fuller consideration of better perspectives helps us to see reason. Arguments were also needed to show people why misogyny was wrong; arguments were needed to overturn the nonsense law that allowed men to keep the belongings of their former wives. This new Act allowed women to have rights to their inheritances and property–even the property they acquired during marriage.
In a post-God era, Nietzsche’s view makes sense. If God is truly dead, the only unity of human reality we can achieve is one that accounts for as many human perspectives as possible. Nietzsche’s perspectivism, when considered fully, is a valid theory of truth. Contemporary proponents of a more simplistic perspectivism would fool one into thinking that there’s no objectivity to be had. Nietzsche clearly didn’t argue that. His perspectivism is much more careful in how it proceeds and gives us a way to achieve objectivity — a way that is in keeping with history. This should come as no surprise coming from a philosopher who was concerned with the use and abuse of history. It is only fitting that his theory of truth is one that is supported by historical trends.
1 Nietzsche, Friedrich Wilhelm. Beyond good and evil ; and the genealogy of morals. New York: Barnes & Noble , 1996. Print.
By R.N. Carmona
If I’m right to assume that all Gettier Problems involve a change either in the true aspect of our beliefs or the justified aspect of our beliefs, then there’s a way to salvage this intuitive definition of knowledge. Knowledge is ceteris paribus justified true belief. That is to say that knowledge, assuming that all things remain equal, is justified true belief. Gettier problems are set up using luck and fallibility. Clearly, most of what we think counts as knowledge doesn’t involve luck. When I say that I know there’s milk in my fridge, there’s no luck to be had. If all things remain equal, there’s definitely milk in my fridge and I know it. This discounts milk drinking ghosts or dairy loving burglars. In that case, the only reason I don’t actually know what I thought I knew is because I don’t know an added and pertinent fact: a) there are milk drinking ghosts or b) there are dairy loving burglars.
Consider a Gettier Problem to see what I mean:
The case’s protagonist is Smith. He and Jones have applied for a particular job. But Smith has been told by the company president that Jones will win the job. Smith combines that testimony with his observational evidence of there being ten coins in Jones’s pocket. (He had counted them himself — an odd but imaginable circumstance.) And he proceeds to infer that whoever will get the job has ten coins in their pocket. (As the present article proceeds, we will refer to this belief several times more. For convenience, therefore, let us call it belief b.) Notice that Smith is not thereby guessing. On the contrary; his belief b enjoys a reasonable amount of justificatory support. There is the company president’s testimony; there is Smith’s observation of the coins in Jones’s pocket; and there is Smith’s proceeding to infer belief b carefully and sensibly from that other evidence. Belief b is thereby at least fairly well justified — supported by evidence which is good in a reasonably normal way. As it happens, too, belief b is true — although not in the way in which Smith was expecting it to be true. For it is Smith who will get the job, and Smith himself has ten coins in his pocket. These two facts combine to make his belief b true. Nevertheless, neither of those facts is something that, on its own, was known by Smith. Is his belief b therefore not knowledge? In other words, does Smith fail to know that the person who will get the job has ten coins in his pocket? Surely so (thought Gettier).
Setting aside my lack of appreciation for outlandish thought experiments like this one, a few things are clear. For one, everyday knowledge and even esoteric knowledge don’t work like this. What’s also clear is precisely what I’ve argued hitherto: what one doesn’t know interferes with what one knew. Assuming the ten coins had any bearing on who got hired, the fact that Smith didn’t know that he himself had ten coins explains why he didn’t know what he thought he knew. Knowledge, in this case, isn’t ceteris paribus. In this specific case, a gap was present in Smith’s knowledge. This is to say that what he called knowledge fell victim to fallibility. The fact that he didn’t know a given pertinent fact led him to draw a false conclusion.
On my estimation, every Gettier-like problem proceeds in this manner. The problems are definitely structured around fallibility. Devisers of such problems ignore the fact that actual knowledge doesn’t contain gaps. Think of the many locations you know, the many people you know, the many facts, both mundane and esoteric, that you know; none of these fall victim to fallibility. You can’t fail to know who your mother and/or father are — unless you develop Capgras syndrome or prosopagnosia, which again, would be a relevant change. You can’t fail to be wrong about the nearest grocery store — unless you develop paramnesia or begin to suffer from a neurodegenerative disorder like Alzheimer’s, which again are important changes to consider.
In the case presented in this article, the woman assumed that the man on the couch was her husband only because her husband is usually the only man in the house. She didn’t know that her husband’s brother was in town. So again (!), there was a change that she was ignorant of. Thus, when we fail to know something, it’s because a gap already exists or because something of importance changed. If I fail to know that there’s milk in my fridge, it’s because there are milk drinking ghosts or dairy loving burglars. It wouldn’t be because I never had actual knowledge of there being milk in my fridge.
Knowledge is ceteris paribus justified true belief. Assuming all facts remain the same and that there aren’t any gaps in someone’s knowledge, a person can claim to know that x. If there’s any fallibility or any change, that belief is false and/or unjustified, and therefore, does not count as knowledge. This is my solution to the Gettier problems — one that hinges on Correspondence Theory.
As always, questions, comments, and rebuttals are welcome. Do you think my solution succeeds? Why or why not? Do you think there’s a solution? If so, what works better?
By R.N. Carmona
Before I talk about the philosophical depths and conundrums of this type of mimicry, allow me to define it. Batesian mimicry is when one species adapts the features of another, usually poisonous species, so as to protect itself from predators. The most common example is the viceroy who adapted the wing patterns of the monarch for sake of avoiding its predators; note: this might actually be an example of Müllerian mimicry. Evolutionary biologists and geneticists have a handle on the genomic going ons that contribute to this, but philosophically speaking, this form of mimicry is intriguing. It boggles my imagination.
Let me preface my remarks by saying that I’m far from sympathetic to pseudoscience and as such, I don’t think creationism gets any closer to explaining the why of Batesian mimicry. Intelligent design doesn’t either. I highly doubt that the god of the Bible is siding with the prey and therefore, harming the predator. The height of benevolence would want what’s best for both prey and predator and wouldn’t actively harm one or the other. There’s also the case of imperfect mimicry, so if one wants to imagine that a designer is writing code into the fabric of reality, the designer isn’t the perfect designer of monotheism. With that said, my philosophical hold up has nothing at all to do with creationism and/or intelligent design.
My question is this: how did the viceroy know that a monarch’s pattern would protect it from predators? Does it have enough intelligence to understand its surroundings that well? Did it, in other words, survey its surroundings to the degree that it understood that birds avoid monarchs because of their wing patterns? Assuming we relinquish our tendency to belittle animal intelligence, how did the viceroy have the power to put these genetic changes into motion? That, that (!) is a question science doesn’t seem to care to answer. We can vaguely say that nature made this happen, but that moves the question of agency into a vague, mindless concept. Furthermore, it doesn’t explain the power of an animal to rewrite its genome.
Philosophers from Plato to Kant suggested that there may be more to reality than we realize. Before the advent of quantum mechanics, philosophers understood that reality might not be as simple as it appears on what Kant called the phenomenal level. There may be more to it. The powers of mimicry may be a hint. In Doctor Strange, the Ancient One, portrayed by Tilda Swinton, suggested that cells can be made to repair themselves and organize in all sorts of ways. She also implied that doctors like him are accustomed to one known way and are unaware of others. Humans do not have powers of genetic changes that are directed to a given end in the way some animals do. Batesian, Müllerian, and acoustic mimicry might be a most unexpected vindication for thinkers like Kant.
Westworld inclines me to ideas of competing engineers coding and recoding the fabric of our reality. Perhaps the true nature of reality is an elaborate game, a desperate reach for data, a simulation aiming to remap history before the present the engineers find themselves in. Perhaps not. Not everything makes sense; not everything has to. The Ancient One was right about that as well, but there are aspects of nature that don’t appear to be confined to nature and certainly can’t be readily explained by nature in and of itself. The noumenal, the Hegelian Absolute is the overarching objectivity that humans, in all their subjectivity, are striving for. There are phenomena available to our perceptions that may suggest that our arms are much too short to reach up and grasp that object of our desire. Perhaps we are doomed to decades of subjectivity, an existence that never apprehends truth. For some of us, there’s certainly no comfort in that.
Maybe this is the price we pay for being aware of our consciousness. In being aware of our consciousness, we have been disconnected from the full fabric of reality. Because of this awareness, maybe we are veiled from that which lies behind the curtain. We believe ourselves to be on the stage performing in the most meaningful way and in the only way that’s considered significant when in actuality, we are the audience that sees but the shadows of the performance. We can explain mimicry in our very limited ways, but we’ve apprehended only shadows. We have nothing in the way of why and nothing in the way of explaining to what is nothing short of a super power. We have nothing in the way of explaining the will and agency that drives such mimicry and much less the awareness necessary to accomplish it. Plato may have been right. Here we sit in the cave…
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.
Book is now available for purchase here! Here are the Table of Contents to whet the appetite:
Chapter 1: Philosophical Approaches to Atheism
Chapter 2: Refuting the Kalam Cosmological Argument
Chapter 3: The Moral Argument Refuted
Chapter 4: Refuting Plantinga’s Victorious Ontological Argument
Chapter 5: On Qualia and A Refutation of the Argument from Consciousness
Chapter 6: Refuting the Fine-Tuning Argument
Chapter 7: The Failures of Aquinas’ Five Ways
Chapter 8: Transcendental Arguments and Presuppositionalism Refuted
Chapter 9: The Argument from Assailability
Chapter 10: The Arguments from History and The Multiplicity of Religions
Chapter 11: The Argument from Cosmology
Chapter 12: On the Leibnizian Cosmological Argument
I hope you guys enjoy!
By R.N. Carmona
Whether Correspondence Theory, Semantic Theory, Coherence theories, Foundationalist theories, Deflationary or Pragmatic theories, every account of truth is missing a factor that philosophers recognize. In fact, attentive, everyday individuals have recognized this factor. So many have captured this factor without confining it to its rightful bottle.
That factor is unpleasantness. A good indicator of truth is the level of unease or discomfort it makes one feel. Let us suppose you believe the complete opposite of a true conclusion, to find out that you’ve been wrong all along is in itself unpleasant. This is not what I’m suggesting. What I’m suggesting is that there’s an unease or discomfort that is inherent to the truth or fact in question, that arises quite often when the truth or fact is expressed.
Take as examples the wage gap in the Western world, evolution, and mortality. If someone were to state that women get paid less than men for doing the same job, an unease or discomfort immediately arises. For he that disagrees, it’s immediate because it’s contrary to what they believe is the case. For one who accepts the fact, the unease arises from the character of the statement itself. To them it is unconscionable that women should make less than men given that they work the same position and stay with the company for a greater or equal length of time. Yet this is the case.
For one who is religious, specifically one subscribing to one of the Abrahamic faiths, the truth that they recognize is the one that coincides with their holy text, be it the Bible, the Torah, or the Qur’an. Evolution, for many of these believers, challenges one of the statements they accept: the notion of special creation. For Christians, human beings were created in God’s triune image. We are distinct from nature in a certain way. Evolution disturbs that portrait and thus, leads to discomfort. But again, this is not the unease I speak of.
The unease I speak of stems from the character of a statement like: we share a common ancestor. If so, we are not distinct from sharks and ants in the way in which we thought. We come from the same source biologically and physics tells us we come from the same source chemically. I am not expressing this to cause debate, but before the beauty of such a picture can be appreciated, discomfort often arises. It was the same unpleasantness that resulted from learning that the Earth is not at the center of the solar system and universe.
In terms of mortality, all people commonly agree. We agree to the degree that we all confirm Terror Management Theory. To some minds, religion and mysticism are ways to cope with and respond to our shared fear of dying. Death is true. Death is inevitable and will happen at one point to me and everyone reading this. Aside from that, its unpredictability is also unsettling. We don’t know when it will happen and we don’t know how; all we know is that it will. Add to that the fact that we also know it’ll happen to those we love. So we are grief stricken long before it happens and once it does, a common stage of dealing with death is denial. The truth in this case is so discomforting that we do not immediately accept it.
On these grounds and others not mentioned, I think unpleasantness should be a pivotal factor in any account of truth. I am speaking here of concrete facts and hard truths, usually philosophical and scientific in nature. I’m not speaking of mundane truths like the location of your local grocery store or the names and ages of your parents.
This factor can be challenged and I’m aware of that. Someone may raise the point that falsehoods can be unpleasant. They will mention the oft stated belief that the more absurd a thing is, the likelier it’s true. A Christian might say that the fact that we’re sinners makes people uncomfortable. The nature of human psychology does make me uncomfortable; we agree in principle, but not on the source of such shortcomings. So this unpleasantness can cut both ways as it is indicator of what may be false as well.
We agree that human psychology isn’t perfect, but they go further and tell us that we can be made clean if we repent and accept Jesus as Lord and Savior. There’s an inherent unease in the notion of any scapegoat, divine or otherwise. So while this falsehood is unpleasant if taken as truth, it’s curious that it must be believed as true in order for its unpleasantness to weigh on someone. Then there’s the fact that if it’s recognized as false, one is uneasy and has recognized that this is patently absurd and can’t be the case, especially in light of the fact that any successful system of morality accounts for personal responsibility. If I cast my burdens on Christ, I am no longer accountable for my own improvement; I have passed the buck. So this system can’t be right. A convincing falsehood does well to capture unpleasantness and feature it in its purported truth, so falsehoods confirm unpleasantness rather than challenge it.
So while such a challenge to unpleasantness is interesting and worth attention, it isn’t a decisive blow against this factor. The truth is often tough, if not, outright ugly and horrible. Hard truths and facts are cold, indifferent, and often leave one unsettled. To learn about the children who died in Iraq due to economic destabilization, caused entirely by the US meddling in their affairs, is unsettling for any American with a conscience, any human being who isn’t American, and to anyone who doesn’t have a political axe to grind. To learn that, moreover, the number of children who have died in Iraq is more than the children who died in Hiroshima is more unpleasant still. This is a cold, hard, unpleasant fact that one might deny at first glance. If you find a statement or set of statements that make you feel this way, it is likely you’ve discovered some truth or fact for yourself. As Carl Sagan once stated: “Better the hard truth, I say, than the comforting fantasy.”
Proponents of the Moral Argument share a view known as substantive realism, which is the view that states that “there are correct procedures for answering moral questions because there are moral truths or facts, which exist independently of those procedures, and which those procedures track.”1
Let’s consider the fatal flaws this position has:
- Whether one argues that morality is simply objective or it’s objective because it hinges on god, the view begs the question and thus isn’t justified. Begging the question is a fallacy, so a view that begs the question is either incorrect or must be revised so as to eliminate the fallacy in question.
- The view is unjustifiably metaphysical. It, in other words, argues that morality is innate. It cannot be learned. It is part of the maker’s mark that god supposedly imprinted in us.
- Given the weaknesses of this view, we need to look elsewhere; in other words, given that it isn’t enough to posit that morality is contingent on a deity, we’ve more work to do.
Prior to discussing procedural realism as contrasted with substantive realism, the notion alluded to in the second bullet point–which is, in fact, the notion alluded to by any proponent of the Moral Argument–was put to rest by the father of empiricism, John Locke. He argued that moral principles are not innate. One reason for this is because they aren’t universally assented to. We don’t come to immediate consensus on right and wrong the way we do when concerning the laws of logic. To put it another way, no matter the person or culture, the laws of identity, of non-contradiction, and of excluded middle are universally agreed upon. If any person fails to act in accordance with those laws, that person has failed to think or has lost his/her capacity to reason. This is not the case with morality.
Locke argues, for instance, that the consensus on whether an action is right or wrong has everything to do with how generalized the action was. Proponents of the Moral Argument argue that we all know it’s wrong to lie, to murder, or to rape, and from this, they conclude that morality proceeds from god and since we’re created in his image, moral values and duties have been ingrained in our souls since creation. Yet if we were to get more specific, agreement dissolves. Have a discussion, for example, on euthanasia, self-defense murder, and Anne Frank-esque sort of lies, i.e., lies that literally save lives or keeps one from harm, and you’ll immediately see that there’s absolutely no consensus on these matters.
The reason is because, as Locke further argued, we are likelier to provide reasons and justifications for our moral behavior. If it’s innate or proceeds from god, there will be no disagreement on these epistemic fronts. We would, in other words, be readily able to show why such an action is right or wrong. There would be no need to prove the correctness or incorrectness of an action, since this would already be known to us.2 Unfortunately, this isn’t the only claim implicit in the Moral Argument, so there’s more to be said.
Enter procedural realism: “there are answers to moral questions because there are correct procedures for arriving at them.”3 Such a procedure could be Kant’s CI procedure or a problem-solution model. Or it could be something simpler. The procedures could even vary. In narrowing our focus, we should consider Kant’s CI procedure, which can be expressed in the following ways. There are four formulas for us to consider4:
1) The Formula of the Law of Nature: “Act as if the maxim of your action were to become through your will a universal law of nature.”
Kant placed a lot of emphasis on autonomy. Modern Kantians like John Rawls and Christine Korsgaard place similar emphasis on autonomy, but they also speak of self-legislation. This formulation is compelling because moral truths could arise from mere human agency rather than divine authority. One may contend that a psychopath would will murder as if it were a universal law of nature. However, like Goldstein, I would argue that morality is akin to crowdsourced knowledge; morality is, in other words, the culmination of human efforts spanning centuries. Rebecca Goldstein puts it this way:
There’s some ideal algorithm for working it out, for assigning weights to different opinions. Maybe we should give more weight to people who have lived lives that they find gratifying and that others find admirable. And, of course, for this to work the crowd has to be huge; it has to contain all these disparate vantage points, everybody who’s starting from their own chained-up position in the cave [Plato’s cave analogy]. It has to contain, in principle, everybody. I mean, if you’re including just men, or just landowners, or just people above a certain IQ, then the results aren’t going to be robust.5
This is a point I often make about moral epistemology. I argue that there are moral classes that are roughly analogous to economic classes. Some people have more moral expertise and therefore, lead more admirable and ethical lives. The average person is, at the very least, better than the career criminal. Sam Harris has endorsed this idea. He states:
Whenever we are talking about facts, certain opinions must be excluded. That is what it is to have a domain of expertise; that is what it is for knowledge to count. How have we convinced ourselves that in the moral sphere, there is no such thing as moral expertise or moral talent or moral genius even? How have we convinced ourselves that every opinion has to count? How have we convinced ourselves that every culture has a point of view on these subjects worth considering? Does the Taliban have a point of view on physics that is worth considering? No. How is their ignorance any less obvious on the subject of human well-being?6
Sam Harris is talking about moral classes. One reason some of us are convinced that there can’t be moral expertise, talent, or genius is because of fervent religious belief. Christians argue that without god, true morality cannot be achieved. Without god, all we’re left with is human opinion–-as though all human opinion is equal. Some opinions are undoubtedly better than others. The opinions that have been thus far expressed are better than those of Christians who disagree with them. It should be clear to any impartial third party that one side has thought more, read more, studied more, questioned more, and so on, and that in light of this, one set of opinions is superior to the other.
In the same vein as Harris, Goldstein talked about ruling out the peculiarities of certain people. Every moral opinion doesn’t count and that’s because some people and groups are morally superior to others. Unless one wants to argue that people are generally on par with the Taliban when it comes to morality, they’re admitting to the fact that there are moral classes. As stated, a simple corollary are economic classes. It’s clear that some people are prosperous and others are not. Some people can afford mansions and luxury cars; some people can afford a three-story house; others can barely afford an apartment and still others can scarcely afford a room; still others are homeless. In like manner, some people are simply morally superior to others and when looked at objectively, one will quickly realize that religious affiliation has nothing to do with it.
Some people, for instance, can see the injustice in discrimination and perpetrating acts of prejudice against minorities and gays. Some Christians cannot. Any Christian or non-Christian that has the capacity to see such injustice is in a higher moral class than Westboro Baptist and conservative, right wing Christians.
Some are admittedly anti-gay. This makes clear that they advocate restrictive legislation against them. They will protest the legislation of gay marriage though it’s already been made legal. They likely argue to invalidate the love gay couples share; this is quite common among conservatives. They misrepresent gays by accusing them of succumbing to so called sinful concupiscence. I, for one, wouldn’t advocate restrictive legislation against a group if whatever they’re doing isn’t harming anyone. Other than self-righteousness, what do they care if gays marry? Are they at their weddings? Are they watching them as they consummate their marriages? Are they there when homosexual couples choose to raise children? Conservative Christians might clamor about public displays of affection, but it’s not like straight people don’t forget to get a room! Given their self-proclaimed discriminatory stances, it can be stated without hesitation that they’re in a lower moral class than Christians and non-Christians who don’t think that way.
2) The Formula of the End Itself: “Act in such a way that you always treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never simply as a means, but always at the same time as an end.”
What is meant by treating a person never simply as a means, but always as an end? This means to extend kindness to others with no intention of exploiting them, e.g. I’ll befriend this guy because he’s rich. You may contend that this sounds like Jesus’ Golden Rule. The Golden Rule, first and foremost, isn’t original to Jesus. This will be much more relevant shortly. Patricia Churchland puts it succinctly:
The Golden Rule (“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”) is very often held up as a judicious rule, and exceptionless rule, and a rule that is universally espoused, or very close to it. (Ironically perhaps, Confucius, though known to prefer the development of virtues to instruction by rules, might have been among the first to give voice to a version of this maxim, though given his broad approach to morality, it is likely he offered it as general advice rather than as an exceptionless rule.)7
Like Churchland, I don’t think the Golden Rule is sufficient. Also, this formulation is simply not the Golden Rule. Don Berkich, Philosophy professor at Texas A&M stated the following:
“Some make the mistake of thinking that the First Formulation of the Categorical Imperative is but a badly worded version of the Biblical “Golden Rule”–Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Nothing could be further from the truth. The Golden Rule, as Kant well knew, is a deeply misguided ethical principle. To see this, consider the following somewhat salacious example.
Suppose that Martin is 20 year-old college student. Suppose further that Martin has never been out on a date. The woman of his dreams finally agrees to go out with him. So Martin gets all dressed up and takes her out to a nice dinner, after which they drive up to Lookout Point. And…Martin does unto others as he would have done unto himself, with disastrous consequences. Because the same result cannot be obtained by application of the Categorical Imperative, it follows that the Golden Rule and the Categorical Imperative are not extensionally equivalent.”8
Kant argued that if we were to act to harm others, civilization would come to an end. It follows then that we’ll act to the benefit of one another. This is where Kant’s notion of a Kingdom of Ends comes from. We’ll get this shortly.
On the Golden Rule, a necessary tangent is required. The Golden Rule, according to Christians, is original to Jesus despite historical facts to the contrary. Jesus is, however, considered god incarnate. He is one with Yahweh. He is one mode of the Triune godhead. Therefore, if the Moral Argument is right in stating that moral values and duties exist because god exists, then these moral values and duties are based on a flawed ethical view known as egoism. This is precisely what Jesus advocates in the Golden Rule. In other words, any right action is the product of your own self-interest. The benefits I can reap are the basis of all my actions. Without diverging too far, I reject the Golden Rule and all variants of egoism for the same reason Louis Pojman rejected it:
We do not always consciously seek our own satisfaction or happiness when we act. In fact, some people seem to seek their own unhappiness, as masochists and self-destructive people do, and we all sometimes seem to act spontaneously without consciously considering our happiness.9
Given this, if the Golden Rule is a rudimentary formulation of egoism–-and I see no compelling reason to think it’s not–-we can reject Jesus’ ethical system and therefore, god’s basis for moral values and duties. It follows that the Moral Argument is wrong.
3) The Formula of Autonomy: “So act that your will can regard itself at the same time as making universal law through its maxims.”
This is related to the first formulation, but this formulation puts more emphasis on autonomy and like modern Kantians would argue, self-legislation. This formula of autonomy has manifested itself time and again. Morally superior people are not only admirable, but they compel others to emulate them. This formulation is prominent in rearing children. Children learn moral behavior from their parents, so in a sense, this goes back to Locke; if moral principles are innate, they would, in his words, be known to “children and idiots.” Children quickly learn what’s apt and what’s inappropriate given other people’s feedback. If they do something wrong, they’re scolded. If they do something right, they’re commended. Going back to the notion of inverting authority into oneself, the child then becomes an adult who (roughly) follows the moral values instilled in her during childhood. She then becomes an autonomous self-legislator. God isn’t necessary once again and thus, the Moral Argument is wrong.
4) The Formula of the Kingdom of Ends: “So act as if you were through your maxims a law-making member of a kingdom of ends.”
This formulation is the most compelling given that it absorbs, so to speak, the other formulations. Kant didn’t only speak of wills; he spoke of rational wills. Thus, under this formulation, we are to act in such a way that would be acceptable in a community of rational wills. In a community of rational wills, rape and murder would be unacceptable. Since people are autonomous, taking their lives is a violation of their autonomy. Your fellow rational wills will also recognize you as an autonomous individual and thus, without any need for Jesus’ Golden Rule or more generally, egoism, the rights conferred to them will also be conferred to you. It certainly looks as though developed countries look a lot more like Kant’s Kingdom of Ends than like a society of egoists pursuing their own self-interests. Even despite capitalism, people enjoy charity, sharing, altruism, and equality. People, in other words, recognize one another as autonomous and there are strict laws in place to punish people who violate the autonomy of others.
Ultimately, the Christian demand for an authority is quelled by the fact that we, at the very least, possess the potential to legislate. That is to say that anyone of us can be exemplary moral agents. Kant’s rational will is preferable over the Hobbesian sovereign who can bend and break laws as he pleases. Such a sovereign sounds a lot like god. Also, their demand for a viable non-theistic ethical view has been addressed. The Moral Argument has not only been refuted, but the superiority of procedural realism, as a viable non-theistic view, has also been established.
1 Korsgaard, Christine M., and Onora Neill.The Sources of Normativity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996. 36-37. Print.
2 See Locke, John. An Essay Concerning Human Understanding in Cahn, Steven M. Ed. Classics of Western Philosophy, 7th Ed. Hackett Publishing Company, Inc. Indianapolis/Cambridge. 2006. 630-632. Print.
3 Ibid. 
4 Pecorino, Philip A. “Chapter Two: Ethical Traditions”. Queensborough Community College. 2002.
5 Goldstein, Rebecca. Plato at the Googleplex: Why Philosophy Won’t Go Away. New York: Pantheon Books, 2014. 105. Print.
6 Churchland, Patricia Smith. Braintrust: What Neuroscience Tells Us About Morality. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2011. 168. Print.
7 Pojman, Louis P. Ethics: Discovering Right and Wrong. Belmont, Calif.: Wadsworth Pub., 1990. 84. Print.
8 Ibid. 
9 Bagnoli, Carla. “Constructivism in Metaethics”. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. 2011.