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. 
By R.N. Carmona
The following argument is based on an obvious truth and also on a theistic assumption. The obvious truth comes from John Mbiti who in his African Religions and Philosophy (1975) said: “I am because we are, and since we are, therefore I am.” This isn’t the Cartesian view many people operate from: “I think, therefore I am.” Consciousness, in other words, isn’t born in and doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It isn’t, as it were, a location on a map that can be identified in isolation of other locations; it is like a location that’s identified only in its relation to other locations. I know where I find myself only because I know where all other minds in my vicinity are. Even deeper than that is the unsettling fact that my entire personality isn’t a melody, but rather a cacophony; I am who I am because the people in my lives are who they are and they are who they are because of the influence of others and the circumstances they’ve faced, and so on and so forth. As Birhane explains:
We need others in order to evaluate our own existence and construct a coherent self-image. Think of that luminous moment when a poet captures something you’d felt but had never articulated; or when you’d struggled to summarise your thoughts, but they crystallised in conversation with a friend. Bakhtin believed that it was only through an encounter with another person that you could come to appreciate your own unique perspective and see yourself as a whole entity. By ‘looking through the screen of the other’s soul,’ he wrote, ‘I vivify my exterior.’ Selfhood and knowledge are evolving and dynamic; the self is never finished – it is an open book.
Most people, given the Cartesian view, look at the self through the lens of what Dennett calls the Cartesian theater. There is, to our minds, a continuity between the self when we are children and the self now as adults. We point to attributes, even if only loosely related: our temperament, our competitive nature, the fact that we’re friendly or not, and so on. Few of us consider the circumstances and the people who played a role in molding these seeming consistencies. Where many of us see a straight continuous line, others see points on a graph, and yet, even if there’s virtual consistency in one’s competitive edge, for instance, there are milieus to consider, from the school(s) one attended, to one’s upbringing, to the media one was exposed to. The self is indeed an open and ever-changing book. The Cartesian theater, like the Cartesian self, is a convenient illusion; there is no self without other selves.
The Cartesian view is problematic on its own. “I think, therefore I am” was Descartes’ conclusion, but one can imagine saying to Descartes: “okay, but what do you think about? What is the content of your thoughts?” So even on the Cartesian view, Mbiti’s truth is found. It is, in fact, a tacit admission contained in Descartes’ view because in order to think one must be thinking about something or someone. Some thoughts are elaborate and involve representations of places one is familiar with whether it be one’s living room or local grocery store. Even the content of Descartes’ thoughts acknowledged other people and things, so Descartes didn’t conclude “I think [full stop], therefore I am.” In truth, it was more like “I think [about x things and y people represented in z places], therefore I am.” He identified himself only through other selves.
The theistic assumption is the idea that the mind of god(s) is like ours. On Judaism and Christianity, we were fashioned in his image. This doesn’t apply so much to our physical bodies, but more so to our minds because on the theistic assumption, the mind proceeds from an immaterial, spiritual source rather than from a physical source like our brains or the combination of our brains and nervous systems.
On the assumption that god’s mind is like ours and given the truth expressed by Mbiti, it is impossible for a singular consciousness to have existed on its own in eternity past. In other words, before god created angels, humans, and animals, there was some point in eternity past in when he was the only mind that existed. Yet if his mind is like ours, then there was never a point in where he existed on his own. The only recourse for the monotheist is therefore, polytheism because the implication is that at least one other mind must have existed along with god’s in eternity past.
Muslims and Jews, if Mbiti’s truth is accepted, will have no choice but to concede. Some Christians, on the other hand, will think they find recourse in the idea of the Trinity. Some might try to qualify the notion that the minds of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are distinct from one another. The obvious issue with that idea is that that would undermine the unity their god is said to have. In fact, that has been at the core of much philosophical dispute since the Muslim golden age. As Tuggy explains:
Muslim philosopher Abu Yusef al-Kindi (ca. 800–70) understood the doctrine to assert that there are three divine persons, three individuals, each composed of the divine essence together with its own distinctive characteristic. But whatever is composed is caused, and whatever is caused is not eternal. So the doctrine, he holds, absurdly claims that each of the persons isn’t eternal, and since they’re all divine, each is eternal.
Whether or not these contentions hold is still a matter of dispute and is not our present focus. The Trinity on its own wouldn’t be sufficient because it would require a milieu to exist within. Given this, then there would be other things that also existed in eternity past. Plato’s Forms might be those sorts of things because god’s mind, being like ours, would require a number of things to experience and to assist with maintaining god’s self, per se. Mbiti’s truth applies to cognitive and psychological aspects about humans and other animals even, especially mammals. It also applies, more broadly, to consciousness and as such, the Problem of Other Minds as it is so-called is only a problem if one were to assume that the Cartesian view is the case; other minds and other things are the reasons a self forms and can come to identify itself as distinct. Cognitive and psychological aspects about us don’t exist in a vacuum, but neither does consciousness. The same, on the assumption that god’s mind is like ours, applies to god’s mind.
Ultimately, a singular consciousness could not have existed in eternity past absent other consciousnesses and things. Unless one continues to obstinately assume that Descartes’ “I think, therefore I am” is true over and above Mibti’s “I am because we are, and since we are, therefore I am,” there’s no recourse outside of polytheism. Either there were two or more gods that existed in eternity past or there are no gods. What should be clear from what’s been outlined here is that a singular consciousness that once existed in a vacuum at some point in eternity past, i.e., the monotheistic conception of god, is impossible.
By R.N. Carmona
Far above the claim that Christians have the truth, there’s one claim that has been overlooked by many non-believers: the claim that Christians understand the will and thoughts of an immaterial consciousness. This arrogant claim got me thinking quite a bit about our understanding of human consciousness and the consciousnesses of other organisms. As in other cases, a Christian may be cocksure about their pet theory, Cartesian dualism. They might be quite convinced of their theory of consciousness. Less common is the atheist who thinks they have consciousness figured out. Despite these haughty pretenses, none of these people understand consciousness; nor have they ironed out a viable theory of consciousness.
One well-known theory of where the idea of gods came from posits that humans simply created an ideal and then began to believe that the ideal exists. In other words, humans can be loving, good, strong, and knowledgeable, so given that, there must be a being who’s like us and yet perfect in every respect in which we are not. This they called god. When one considers a cross cultural approach, taking, for instance, Greek and Roman demigods into account, the theory holds an ocean of water. This is perhaps the reason why monotheists, Christians most specifically, think they can comprehend god’s thoughts and will.
Why must an immaterial mind resemble our demonstrably material mind? How can you understand a supposedly infinite consciousness if you can’t even comprehend your own finite consciousness? You also can’t understand the finite consciousnesses of other living things. The fact is that if such an immaterial mind existed, it would be beyond comprehension and certainly not as capricious, malicious, jealous, vindictive, and bloodthirsty as the Judeo-Christian or Islamic gods.
On top of that, the idea of an all-loving being is questionable because love is literally reducible to chemical reactions in the human brain. As Shermer explains:
I find it deeply interesting to know that when I fall in love with someone my initial lustful feelings are enhanced by dopamine, a neurohormone produced by the hypothalamus that triggers the release of testosterone, the hormone that drives sexual desire, and that my deeper feelings of attachment are reinforced by oxytocin, a hormone synthesized in the hypothalamus and secreted into the blood by the pituitary. Further, it is instructive to know that such hormone-induced neural pathways are exclusive to monogamous pairbonded species as an evolutionary adaptation for the long-term care of helpless infants. We fall in love because our children need us! Does this in any way lessen the qualitative experience of falling in love and doting on one’s children? Of course not, any more than unweaving a rainbow into its constituent parts reduces the aesthetic appreciation of the rainbow.
Shermer, Michael. The Believing Brain: From Ghosts and Gods to Politics and Conspiracies–How We Construct Beliefs and Reinforce Them as Truths. New York: Times, 2011. 186. Print.
This isn’t to undermine the experience of love. Rather, this is to highlight the fact that what we call love is very specific to our neuroanatomy–a neuroanatomy that differs from even our closest cousins. I would argue that the jury is still out on whether chimps and gorillas feel or conceptualize anything like love, but one thing’s for certain, an immaterial mind may not even be capable of love or empathy, especially since the latter is dependent on social bonding and care of kin.
All this taken together and it becomes even clearer that humans created an ideal and started to believe that such an ideal must exist. Yet if there were such a thing as a immaterial mind that created the universe as we know it, it would be nothing at all like human beings. There’s more philosophical evidence to consider.
Consider the assertion that god is omniscient. In order for god to be omniscient, he would have to be able to calmly enter the waters of David Chalmer’s important question: what is it like to be a bat? In addition, he’d have to know what it’s like to be a velociraptor, a neanderthal, a wooly mammoth, a dolphin, and a dog. He’d have to be able to fully grasp the somatosensory, auditory, and olfactory experiences of every living being. If you’re persuaded by panpsychism, then god would have to understand what it’s like to be a chair or a blender. So clearly this is an incomprehensible consciousness far exceeding our own and there’s no way we were created in his image.
The fact is that many philosophers have strived and are striving to understand human consciousness; some have tried and are attempting to understand non-human consciousness. We admittedly do not fully understand our own consciousness or the consciousnesses of any other organisms and yet, billions of people claim to be privy to the thoughts and desires of an immaterial consciousness. It is this claim that should drive people away from belief. The claim is highly dubious and certainly wrong. If there were such a thing as immaterial minds, we wouldn’t be able to comprehend them and god being such a mind, is incomprehensible and the so-called revelations rendered to us thus far are woefully inadequate, for it is clear to anyone lacking the deep-seated need to believe that such a mind cannot be like ours, capable of both our feats and our faults.
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…
With some hesitation, I am choosing to respond to Geek From the East’s review of my book Philosophical Atheism: Counter Apologetics and Arguments For Atheism. The reason I hesitate is because though the blogger refers to himself as an “Agnostic seeker,” a brief skimming of his blog will convince anyone that he has a clear bias in favor of theism. I also hesitate because he’s an uninformed layman falling victim to a bit of Dunning-Kruger effect. His book reviews and blog posts have consisted of responses to atheists. He seems to have a vested interest in defending theism whilst pretending to safeguard academic writing from sloppy scholarship. Had he actually read my book, rather than skimmed, he would realize that the book was never intended to be a serious academic work! Serious academic work often intimidates readers and makes them feel incapable of fully grasping what’s being conveyed. In my book’s introduction, I state the following:
I’ve done my best to ensure that the book is accessible to the casual reader who has, at the very least, a faint interest in atheism, religion, philosophy, and science. My hope is that this work will light the dim flame of such a casual reader so as to get them more interested in philosophy and science. Despite this goal, there are places that are quite esoteric. These portions of the work might be difficult to follow, but these portions are not included for sake of discouraging any member of the audience. My hope, with regards to esoteric material, is that the mind of the reader is elevated, that within such an individual a will is awakened to learn more about these topics and get a better understanding of what at the moment appears difficult.
p.14, Print Edition
This adequately deals with his concern that the references and sources I use aren’t used in professional works that are meant to be taken seriously. The purpose of this book wasn’t to enter the discussion on the philosophy of religion. My intent wasn’t to get into a dialogue with William Lane Craig, John Lennox, or any of the other apologists mentioned in my book. While I would welcome such dialogue, assuming it takes the shape of actual dialogue rather than someone obstinately trying their darnedest to convert me, I didn’t write my book for sake of starting such a dialogue. My book is aimed at atheists, particularly atheists who are new to atheism; as such, they likely won’t know how to respond to these arguments.
This brings me to my next issue with this reviewer who unabashedly goes out of his way to misrepresent my work. He states that my book doesn’t “describe a current landscape of the topic accurately” and that, particularly in the chapter on the Moral Argument, I use a net-based reference — as though William Lane Craig’s own Q&A response somehow misrepresents his Moral Argument. If my reader were suspicious of my formulation of Craig’s Moral Argument, they can readily consult dozens of internet sources — including tons of YouTube debates in where he formulates the Moral Argument in the same exact manner. It always sounds like this:
P1 If God does not exist, objective moral values and duties do not exist.
P2 Objective moral values and duties do exist.
C Therefore, god exists.
That is precisely the argument I addressed and it is precisely the argument Craig puts forward. My concern isn’t whether there are other versions of the Moral Argument. There most certainly are. My intent is to address the most known version, the version that atheists will encounter the most. Given that Craig has plenty of admirers here in the US, over in the UK, in Australia, and in parts of Asia, it is only fitting that I address his argument and not Leibniz’s, for example. Most Christians with apologetic bents aren’t even familiar with Leibniz’s Moral Argument, so why address it? If it’s stronger than Craig’s then it stands to reason that they would employ it more often. Since they do not, my book didn’t address it. If it were to ever become more commonplace, then perhaps I will address it in future editions of my book.
Given my target audience (wannabe apologist Christians and atheists new to atheism, but most especially this latter group), I use accessible sources. Those accessible sources usually have further sources should any of my readers choose to consider them. I am not going to fill my book with journal publications that are inaccessible because they’re hard to get copies of or because they’re blocked by a paywall. Furthermore, I am not going to fill my book with sources that will obligate my reader to buy a ton of books. If they choose to consider the books and journal publications I did include, that’s entirely up to them. The point, once again, was to write a book that doesn’t scare the reader away.
Now to the biggest complaint. He talks about the current landscape and accuses me of dishonesty and yet fails to give an example of this so-called current landscape. Moreover and much more importantly, he neglects to mention that apologists like Craig, Licona, Lennox, and so on are guilty of this. I am not guilty of failing to update the discussion. They are most certainly guilty of that. William Lane Craig, who is only the most well-known apologist in both Catholic and Protestant circles, has trotted out the same five or six arguments in debate after debate after debate for about 30 years. That’s three decades of stale arguments and unmentioned objections, talking points, and amendments (assuming there are any) to any of the arguments he employs.
My purpose, I reiterate, is to address the arguments as they are usually offered. You can’t fault a response for basically quoting verbatim. If Craig’s Moral Argument differed today from a version offered twenty years ago, I would have addressed the new version of the argument. More importantly, I address this very point in my book, so had the reviewer sat on his hands a bit rather than prematurely review a book he didn’t read closely, he would have encountered the following:
The first half of this work dealt with as many theistic arguments as possible. There are others and variants of some of the ones discussed, but a theist will acknowledge that some of the arguments that rank as the best were included. Whether they will admit that the arguments were adequately refuted is doubtful. Despite this work, one that attempts to treat the case for theism charitably, I am of the persuasion that theism, most specifically monotheism, is held up by obstinacy rather than reasonable belief. This is to say that belief in god cannot be shown to be reasonable as proponents of apologetic arguments often claim. When their arguments are defeated, the believer will double down and often with no attempt to, at the very least, amend the argument.
C.S. Lewis, for example, offered an Argument Against Naturalism that met bitter defeat in the objections of Elizabeth Anscombe. Briefly, Lewis argued that since all thoughts are the result of irrational causes assuming naturalism is true, then either naturalism is unreasonable or false. Lewis used the example of atoms, which he considered to be irrational. Anscombe corrected Lewis and said that atoms are not irrational, but rather non-rational. Lewis accepted this distinction and attempted to revise his argument by replacing irrational with non-rational. The new conclusion is not the one he intended to arrive at, since a system of thought — which is what he considered naturalism to be — cannot be non-rational.
My intention isn’t to proceed as though I wish to address Lewis’ argument. Instead, I want to suggest that Lewis should serve as an example of how to proceed should one’s argument prove flawed. Lewis revised his argument, but upon realizing that Anscombe’s objection proved fatal to the argument, he abandoned it. The fact that one argument turns out to fail doesn’t mean that the world view has failed. Given theism’s catalog of arguments, this shouldn’t be much of a problem. Unfortunately, the opposition appears to confuse quantity with quality. Over thirty arguments are sometimes offered to make the case for theism, e.g., Peter Kreft. A few good arguments should suffice.
Aside from that, defeaters like the ones presented in the first half of this work aren’t enough to compel the theist to revise their argument, let alone abandon it entirely. The case for theism rests on the stilts of obduracy, the belief that theistic arguments can’t possibly be proven wrong. William Lane Craig offers the same five arguments in one debate after another. Four of the arguments he has employed have been adequately addressed in the first half of this work. What’s more is that I’m far from the first philosopher to refute these arguments. Yet these arguments have not been revised or abandoned.
Once again, I mention Craig’s penchant to trot out the same, tired arguments. I also mention that there are other variants, variants I didn’t consider because atheists won’t encounter them as often — if ever. What I also mention is that apologetics rests on obstinacy; apologists often proceed without amending arguments or abandoning them. I further suggest, as other philosophers have, that apologetics is pseudo-philosophy and pseudo-scholarship. It’s paradoxical in nature because it pretends to be something it isn’t. The field proceeds as though it’s scholarly and yet, it fails to showcase any of the hallmarks of actual scholarship. This is most pronounced in Craig’s refusal to abandon his arguments.
Now, a closet theist, like this reviewer, will no doubt claim that Craig has no reason to change his arguments because they haven’t been defeated. I outline plenty defeaters ranging from Mackie’s to Nielsen’s to Carroll’s and others. In Chapter 3, which this reviewer mentions in passing, I develop an accessible overview of Christine Korsgaard’s procedural realism — to my mind, one of the more viable non-theistic theories of morality. I could have also mentioned Kagan’s No Harm principle or Scanlon’s contractualism. I could have mentioned Carrier’s Goal Theory or the more modern pluralist theory offered by some psychologists. But again, that can be a work all its own and would involve more scholarship than my target audience cares for.
His claim is that popular apologetic arguments are straw mans and yet, he fails to provide even one example. He fails to mention that the Kalam Cosmological Argument isn’t original to William Lane Craig. How is that argument a straw man? Which argument is the real, stronger version? The Moral Argument isn’t a straw man. Again, I offered it, word for word, the same way Craig does. What argument is the Moral Argument a straw man of? How about Aquinas’ arguments — which I carefully formulated using Aquinas’ own words? What are they straw mans of? He actually said that “those popular arguments are mostly just weaker form of those strongest arguments for God. In other words, they are actually straw-manned form of those arguments.” This is the most dubious part of his review and yet he says that I don’t know what I’m talking about. It appears that the shoe fits his foot perfectly.
What’s also golden is that he accuses me of being uncharitable to theistic arguments because I supposedly didn’t include refutations to my refutations or refutations to my arguments for atheism. My arguments for atheism have been on the web for about two years and aside from the one objection discussed in Chapter 12, I have encountered no refutations. This doesn’t mean there aren’t any. It certainly doesn’t mean that I didn’t consider any. In fact, my Argument from Cosmology receives much attention because it runs into a number of difficulties, the biggest of which is one of its pillars, namely mathematical antirealism. I spend much time in Chapter 11 discussing this difficulty, a difficulty that can no doubt be raised in objection to the argument. Craig and most apologists are mathematical realists, so my argument will no doubt strike them as off — hence why I carefully address such an issue. But what can be said about a reviewer who didn’t even get that far or one who didn’t care to read my book carefully?
Had he read Chapter 7, he would have seen a clinical treatment of Aquinas’ notion of privation, which attempts to refute the notion of a perfectly evil being or, using his terminology, a being that is evil to the utmost degree. Had he read Chapter 6, he would have seen that I updated the theist’s philosophy of mind. I replaced the outmoded Cartesian dualism with Chalmer’s property dualism. In Chapter 8, I am most careful in my treatment of Van Tillian presuppositionalism. I make my best attempt to convey what Van Til tried to argue without degrading his language. The entire book is an exercise in charitable presentations of what theists have offered. The fact that I ultimately am not persuaded by any of these arguments or systems of thought is by no means an indication of a secret desire to misrepresent theistic arguments. To the contrary, my intention is to be as charitable as possible so as to increase the strength of my refutations. The first step in any successful refutation is a clear comprehension of the argument or system of thought.
Perhaps he should, once again, fault apologists. Craig does not change his favored arguments. Licona follows his lead. Lennox doesn’t really present arguments in that form. His approach is more informal. I briefly mention Peter Kreft who has as many as 30+ arguments — each receiving adequate refutation. The fault is on the apologist who thinks his argument(s) so ironclad that the discussion never moves forward. My book is a handbook of sorts for people new to atheism, but it is also an indictment of apologetics. I entered a stale discussion if only to inform people new to atheism and cocksure Christians who put too much stock in these arguments. I never intended to move the discussion forward because my opponents don’t think that’s warranted; if they thought so, they would have already done that.
One apologist that attempts to do that is Alvin Plantinga. He has amended his ontological argument a few times. The one presented in my book is considered the strongest version by a vast majority of Christians. It is, after all, the version I encounter the most and the one that is labelled the “Victorious” Ontological Argument. The reviewer may disagree and might offer a slightly different version, but that version will fall victim to the same objections. Plantinga’s god is maximally excellent, which means perfect in a particular world. His god is also maximally great, which means perfect in every world. My refutation is simple, so simple it can be stated in a sentence: if we can find a world lacking a maximally excellent being, then a maximally great being (a being who is maximally excellent in all worlds) doesn’t exist. Given that, I suggest we consider the only world we can access, i.e., the one we find ourselves in. I focus on the idea that he’s perfectly good and ask whether a perfectly good god can exist in this world, ala Problem of Evil. My conclusion is the same as many a philosopher’s conclusion: the natural evil in this world is gratuitous to such an extent that a perfectly good being cannot possibly exist. Therefore, a maximally excellent being fails to exist in this world and by extension, a maximally great being fails to exist.
This is a fatal defeater to Plantinga’s argument in any form unless he chooses to abandon the maximally excellent and maximally great qualifiers. In recent scholarship, Plantinga has not done that. His admirers most certainly haven’t when considering that the version appearing in Chapter 4 of my book is precisely the version presented by wannabe apologists. The reviewer may disagree and offer another, a “stronger” version. What argument can be better than the so-called “Victorious” Ontological Argument? If he were to present one, I will carefully pick it apart as well.
Now I turn to the minor problems he has with “my book” as though these problems are pervasive. I briefly mention a distinction in scientism. That distinction is not important to my book. I mention it for sake of condemning the maximal scientistic attitudes of New Atheists. Despite that, I am not opposed to science informing philosophy and other disciplines. The reviewer says minimal scientism is meaningless to argue and/or indefensible. On minimal scientism, science can inform philosophy. Science has done exactly that in many cases. Any brief consideration of philosophy of mind or of time or of mathematics will prove this quite conclusively. I wanted to be sure to say that I am not opposed to a philosopher mentioning cognitive and neuroscience. I am not opposed to a philosopher talking about cosmology and quantum mechanics with respect to time. I wholeheartedly believe science should inform other disciplines whenever it is deemed relevant and/or necessary. The same applies to history. I suggest a scientism along Pinker’s lines of thinking (see here). If it’s so indefensible, the author has to tell us why cognitive and neuroscience are inapplicable to philosophy of mind. He has to argue against the use of science in philosophy, history, and other disciplines. What’s untenable is his position.
The other minor quibble he has with my book is my discussion on atheism. Yet he has no grasp of the normative-analytic distinction, a distinction I borrowed from the philosophy of law. On natural law, answering the question of normative jurisprudence, namely what should law be, also answers the question of analytic jurisprudence, what is the law. So, if we answer what atheism should be we arrive at what atheism actually is. He alludes to a non-naturalistic atheism, but fails to qualify it. He is all too content with saying that he doesn’t get why atheism should be defined as strictly as I define it. Following Kai Nielsen, I argue that “naturalism, where consistent, is an atheism” (Nielsen, 2001 p.30). I further argue that atheism, where consistent, is a naturalism. That’s why I contrast atheism with Buddhism, a religion that obligates its adherents to believe in metaphysical beings and realities. Should an atheist believe in such things, they are not a naturalist and arguably, not an atheist. So if we answer the question of what atheism should be, we answer the question of what it actually is.
The dictionary tells us that atheism is the lack of belief in gods. Common sense tells us it’s a bit more involved than that. Do atheists lack belief in gods, but still believe in what the holy text(s) convey? They do not. Do they stop believing that there’s a god and continue to believe in angels and demons? They do not. Along with god, atheists lack belief in the efficacy of religious rituals, the divine authority of religious texts, and metaphysical beings and realities. This is precisely why Buddhists, though they don’t worship a god, are not atheists. They revere the Buddha to an extent and attempt to imitate his ways; they also take his words and deeds seriously and believe in the efficacy of their rituals, most especially meditation. On meditation, some forms have proven effective, but Buddhists go beyond a version like Transcendental Meditation and continue to believe that meditation results in samadhi or what the ancient Hindus referred to as moksha. Along with that, some continue to believe in the cycle of death and rebirth, i.e, reincarnation. Atheists cannot and very often do not believe in any of these things. By their own admission, they are naturalists; all that exists is what is sensible, measurable, and quantifiable in the universe. There are no astral planes, heavens, or portals to metaphysical dimensions.
Lastly, my discussion in Chapter 1 is prefaced by much discussion between other philosophers. Atheists make use of the approaches I discussed. They employ naturalism, fallibilism, and deductive and inductive atheology. The best use of atheism, philosophically speaking, is an approach that employs those approaches and more. I also suggested that one approach may work better in one case but not others. We can indict a theist’s conclusion because his knowledge isn’t complete, i.e., fallibilism, in a given case. In another case, however, it might be more useful to employ naturalism. Where one person argues that prayers can be answered, an atheist might be better suited in addressing that conclusion via naturalism rather than waving away the conclusion because the theist’s knowledge is faulty. It is faulty in this case as well, but there are ways to disabuse the theist of such a conclusion that prove more effective. One can, for instance, allude to the Problem of Evil.
Theist: “God answered my prayer! I got the job!”
Atheist: “Why would he give you a job and fail to answer the cries of the little boy being sexually abused by his priest or the cries of a girl being molested by a family friend? Also, plenty of research has been done on this and it has been proven conclusively that prayer doesn’t work. For one, there are psychological biases people have. In other words, you want to see things a certain way. What you’re neglecting in your case is that you interviewed for the position, you worked your butt off to attain all the necessary qualifications, and you ultimately impressed them with your charm and the depth of your answers. You want god to take the credit for something you did. Some cases are like that. Other cases attribute causation from mere correlation or outright coincidence.”
It should occur to anyone that atheists proceed in both ways. Sometimes they’ll go with fallibilism and sometimes they’ll go with naturalism. Other times, as I did in the second half of my book, they’ll platform on naturalism and use actual deductive or inductive arguments. I am not suggesting, as the reviewer thought I did, that we can jump from an ought to an is. What I’m suggesting is that the way atheism is is as it should be. In other words, what atheism ought to be is precisely the form it takes wherever it retains consistency. An atheist who believes in astrology is mildly inconsistent and should address that if they care for the project of making their atheism more consistent. An atheist who believes in astral realms is extremely inconsistent and hasn’t fully come to terms with the conclusion that there’s no god. Perhaps some aspect(s) of religious thinking still appeals to this individual and that’s fine, but a consistent atheist s/he is not. The form it has taken in the likes of Mackie, Ayer, Grayling, Dennett, Russell, Smith, and others is precisely as it should be. So it isn’t that we answer the normative question to get the answer to the analytic question, but rather that in answering the former we simultaneously answer the latter. That point I made absolutely clear.
As for the other parts of his review, I’ll be sure to read them, but given this rough start, I’m not sure I’ll be responding to anything else this particular reviewer has to say. It’s clear to me and should be clear to anyone else — given his blog’s content — that he has a clearly defined bias for theism, almost certainly Christianity. He resides in South Korea, a country with a burgeoning Christian population. He may not be sure that god exists, but it’s clear that he believes in god. He is, to put it another way, an agnostic theist. He believes in god, but doesn’t know or claim to know that he exists. That’s fine so long as he doesn’t pretend otherwise. He may want to give people the impression that he’s impartial and doesn’t care either way, but given his reviews and posts, it is crystal clear that he is opposed to atheism. This review is rife with problems, each of its own creation. Had he read my book more thoroughly or read it in its entirety before reviewing, he may have fared better. What’s more is that he seems to have missed one of the central focuses of my book; this book is written to interested laymen, them who are, in particular, new to atheism. Dawkins, Harris, Hitchens, and other new atheists will not give them any segue into addressing these arguments; I have attempted to provide that in a brief, mostly accessible manner and despite these uncharitable complaints, I strongly believe that I have accomplished that.
I’ll let new readers decide for themselves. My book is available for purchase here. Read, write a review on Amazon or on your blog, or approach me with questions over on Tumblr. Happy reading!
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!