By R.N. Carmona
This will likely be as close as it gets to a personal post from me. I recently tested positive for COVID-19. At the moment, I do not know whether I am still positive. I will be getting another test on Wednesday. My hope is that I can go back to business as usual. I need to work; bills have to be paid. My focus here is a new argument yes, but it goes beyond that as we will see. Rather than the string of symptoms I have encountered, I want to focus on the mental aspects of my experience.
I have two lovely children that I have not been able to hug for almost six days now. I have not been able to kiss them. I have not been able to show any affection to anyone I love. I have not been able to receive any affection either. Because of this, I have been dealing with a lot of loneliness.
My father, who passed away in 2017, although no longer the voice of my conscience, is someone I think of often. I miss him dearly. His lessons still weigh on me and not a day goes by without me thinking whether he would be proud of the man I am today. One of the lessons that I consistently observe is to not get in the habit of letting myopia set in. In other words, yes, I tested positive and I am dealing with symptoms, on top of anxiety, loneliness, and grappling with questions about my mortality; however, other people have had it much worse. It is these people this argument has in mind.
I can easily imagine waking up last Thursday morning at 3am to the same cold sweat and terror I felt. Moreover, I can imagine the object of my terror turning out to be my experience. My mind was racing. I asked, what if I get pneumonia? What if I have to be intubated? What if there is an underlying issue that will pull the rug from under me? In all of this, I could not turn to a loved one. I needed a hug but could not get one. I needed someone to sit close to me and help me relax. Turning to a loved one at this time would put them at risk, so I had no such option.
Over the past few days, my symptoms have gotten progressively better. I am not a priori grateful. My gratitude is after the fact. I am grateful that I will probably have more days with my loved ones. I am seeing the light at the end. Soon I will be able to give my kids a warm embrace. I will be able to feel them in my arms again. My life has, for now, been prolonged and I can be a father to them. But the thought has occurred to me: what if my symptoms got progressively worse? I have not been able to show or receive affection for six days; six days could easily have been 15 to 30, or however long a hospital stay would have lasted.
Then it dawned on me. For many people, including Christians, this was their exact experience. They were isolated at home, probably hoping to be better within a few to several days; the Christians, no doubt, prayed to God for healing, to keep them company in their time of isolation and loneliness. For many of them, the prayers fell on deaf ears. Their symptoms got much worse, many developing life-threatening pneumonia. They were rushed to ICUs and intubated where they would spend more time away from their loved ones. The lucky ones, got back to their families. The Christians, thankful to God, were happy to be back with their families. But what of the people who had not embraced their loved ones for a month and never regained consciousness? What of the people who passed away? Where was God? Where was his comfort when they prayed? Where was his omnipotent power, fully capable of delivering them from a virus some of them did everything in their power to prevent? Why didn’t God answer?
I cannot imagine being my daughter, at an age where my affection can get annoying but also at an age where they are able to appreciate my love. I cannot imagine the fear they would feel seeing me stretchered out the door, to hear news that I had to be intubated, to have to wrestle with the idea that daddy won’t be coming home. They are at an age where losing a parent will be a lucid memory, an enduring pain, a massive loss. This would shape my daughter for the rest of their life. While I am grateful that they will likely not endure this pain, I think of the children who have. Good parents are not replaceable. I do not care if they are a Christian parent and while I am firm in my belief that they teach their children erred beliefs, I know that there are Christian parents who provide for their children, love them deeply, take care of their emotions, protect them, nurture them, and help them grow. I cannot imagine the pain of being orphaned in this way, especially when believing that God has all the power, mercy, and love to ensure that such suffering does not happen.
This is when one hears the old adage that sometimes God puts us through things so that we can better relate to people who go through similar experiences. I ask, how many people have to endure the same experience so that we can better relate to others? It was enough for me to deal with six days of this, to feel as though I was at the brink, to have more than enough time to contemplate my own fragility and mortality. It was enough to realize that others have had it worse and that for many, their story did not end the way they hoped; what’s worse is that the stories of their loved ones continue without them. For the many who survived the people we have lost, they have had to actually live through the devastation I had the privilege of merely worrying about.
We are on our own. If God existed, the extent of periods of isolation, loneliness, depression, anxiety, in addition to having horrible symptoms (in my case, losing most of my sense of smell, a fever, congestion, a loss of taste), would not be necessary to help us relate to others, i.e., soul-making theodicy. For human beings, the thoughts alone are horrifying enough. For a parent, to die too soon, to not see their children become adults, to not dance with their daughter at her Sweet 16, to not walk her down the aisle, to not attend their son’s next baseball game, and so on, the mere thoughts are terrifying enough. The thought of my absence in their life sends shivers down my spine. I do not need to experience the reality of it; I do not need to develop life-threatening symptoms and to settle on my life likely being over. More importantly, my children do not need to experience a reality in where I am dead. They do not need to see me in a suit, hands folded over my stomach, lifeless in an open casket that cost the people who survived me x amount of hundreds or thousands. They do not need to see me lowered into the ground.
Yet this was the reality many, including Christians, faced. Where was God? Where is God? The idea that God would create a social species to “test” them with periods of isolation, loneliness, anxiety, depression, and for some, suicidal thoughts, is puzzling. Especially when considering the damage these things do to people’s mental health, it is more perplexing still. Even if I granted the idea of sin, unrepentant sin is recompensed in Hell; whether eternal conscious torment or something else is for the theologians to argue over. A punishment for sin would not risk impairing someone mentally. What good is someone’s piety if they have lost their sanity?
I am not interested in formalizing this argument. I think the force of it is stronger rhetorically, written informally for readers to take in and think over. I think COVID-19, as Rieux in Camus’ The Plague conveyed about the Black Death, brings theism to its knees. A god that permits pandemics to take so many lives indiscriminately, leaving so many other lives in peril after such loss, either does not exist or is not the god theists so desperately want to exist. This is not about whether atheists/naturalists have an ontologically objective standard of evil because this argument does not focus on the existence of evil. This argument focuses on suffering, specifically mental health. If your beliefs are so biased that your first reaction is to change the topic or overlook the suffering of fellow human beings, including some of your own brethren, you may have to wonder whether you are a sociopath. Only a person with a severe lack of empathy will overlook what the last two years has looked like for our species as a whole. God is not powerful enough to replace a loving father or mother, to replace a son or a daughter.
Ultimately, I think this new angle on the Argument From Suffering is forceful and makes a powerful case against theism, but if it has not been clear, that has not really been my focus. My focus has been to humanize the experience of so many people throughout the pandemic, to get us to think about the severe pain some people are going through and have gone through over the past two years. A theist might respond that everyone will be reunited in the afterlife and while that may be comforting for some, that does nothing to change the reality some people are facing. The holidays just passed and a chair usually occupied by a loved one was empty. Somewhere in the world, a father enters his daughter’s room wishing he could kiss her goodnight and tuck her in. Elsewhere, a wife sleeps in a queen-sized bed hoping that the emptiness beside her is just a bad dream. I might be one of the lucky ones. Time will tell. But I am not taking this for granted and I am not taking it lightly. People have suffered a lot over the last two years. I mourn for them and I wish I could do more to bring them comfort.
The self-righteous will overlook this and find solace in the notion that atheism/naturalism offer no hope. At least with theism we can imagine life after death and seeing our loved ones again. In response to this, I maintain that this leads to one taking one’s short days for granted. One might as well procrastinate on affection, on spending quality time with loved ones if eternity is guaranteed. On naturalism, it is incumbent on us to be more mindful of how fleeting time is; one morning your daughter, just born, is being fed her first bottle and it feels like a blink before she’s in middle school. A defeater for this belief in an afterlife is that it allows some, if not most, believers to forgo finding ways to be there for people who are suffering; it is enough to give a person false hope and move on. A naturalist knows that more can be done and love in the present goes a longer way than a false promise in the future. If only I can sit in that empty chair next Thanksgiving and hope to remind a person of their deceased loved one; if only I can be there to wipe their tears away. People do not need the promise of comfort tomorrow; they need help today, a lot of them being suffocated by their pain at this very moment.
I’ll end with this. While your loved ones are here, hug them, let them know you love them, try to put into words why you value them so much. Belief in the afterlife is a lofty expectation that regrettably will not be met with a loftier disappointment. “Better the hard truth, I say, than the comforting fantasy.”
By R.N. Carmona
In recent years, there has been a surge in the use of Bayes’ Theorem with the intention of bolstering this or that argument. This has resulted in an abject misuse or abuse of Bayes’ Theorem as a tool. It has also resulted in an incapacity to filter out bias in the context of some debates, e.g. theism and naturalism. Participants in these debates, on all sides, betray a tendency to inflate their prior probabilities in accordance with their unmerited epistemic certainty in either a presupposition or key premise of one of their arguments. The prophylactic, to my mind, is found in a retreat to the basics of logic and reasoning.
An Overview on Validity
Validity, for instance, is more involved than some people realize. It is not enough for an argument to appear to have logical form. An analysis of whether it, in fact, has logical form is a task that is seldom undertaken. When people think of validity, something like the following comes to mind: “A deductive argument is said to be valid if and only if it takes a form that makes it impossible for the premises to be true and the conclusion nevertheless to be false. Otherwise, a deductive argument is said to be invalid” (NA. Validity and Soundness. Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. ND. Web.).
Kelley, however, gives us rules to go by:
- In a valid syllogism, the middle term must be distributed in at least one of the premises
- If either of the terms in the conclusion is distributed, it must be distributed in the premise in which it occurs
- No valid syllogism can have two negative premises
- If either premise of a valid syllogism is negative, the conclusion must be negative; and if the conclusion is negative, one premise must be negative
- If the conclusion is particular, one premise must be particular (Kelley, D.. The Art of Reasoning. WW Norton & Co. 2013. Print. 243-249)
With respect to the first rule, any argument that does not adhere to it commits the fallacy of undistributed middle. Logically, if we take Modus Ponens to be a substitute for a hypothetical syllogism, then undistributed middle is akin to affirming the consequent. Consider the following invalid form:
All P are Q.
All R are P.
∴ All R are Q.
When affirming the consequent, one is saying Q ⊃ P. It is not surprising that these two fallacies are so closely related because both are illegitimate transformations of valid argument forms. We want to say that since all P are Q and all R are P, therefore all R are Q in much the same way we want to infer that P ⊃ Q. Consider the well-known Kalam Cosmological Argument. No one on both sides questions the validity of the argument because validity, for many of us, is met when the conclusion follows from the premises. However, one can ask whether the argument adheres to Kelley’s rules. If one were to analyze the argument closely enough, it is very arguable that the argument violates Kelley’s fourth rule. The issue is that it takes transposing from the fifth rule to fourth rule because the argument does not violate the fifth and therefore, appears valid. However, when restated under the fourth rule, the problem becomes obvious. In other words, the universe is a particular in both Craig’s conclusion and in the second premise of his argument. Let’s consider the KCA restated under the fourth rule:
There are no things that are uncaused.
There is no universe that is uncaused.
∴ All universes have a cause.
Restating it this way appears controversial only because the argument seems to presuppose that there is more than one universe. Two negatives must have properties in common. Put another way, since there are many of all things, then the universe cannot be the only thing of its kind, if we even agree that the universe is like ordinary entities at all. Craig, perhaps unintentionally, attempts to get a universal from a particular, as his argument restated under the fourth rule shows. Given this, we come to the startling conclusion that Craig’s KCA is invalid. Analyses of this kind are extremely rare in debates because most participants do not know or have forgotten the rules of validity. No amount of complexity hides a violation of basic principles. The advent of analytic philosophy with Bertrand and Moore led to an increasing complexity in arguments and for the most part, validity is respected. As shown here, this is not always the case, so a cursory analysis should always be done at the start.
Validity is necessary but not sufficient for an argument to prove effective and persuasive. This is why arguments themselves cannot substitute for or amount to evidence. Soundness is determined by taking a full account of the evidence with respect to the argument. The soundness of an argument is established given that the pertinent evidence supports it; otherwise, the argument is unsound. Let us turn to some simple examples to start.
An Overview of Soundness
“A deductive argument is sound if and only if it is both valid, and all of its premises are actually true. Otherwise, a deductive argument is unsound” (Ibid.).
All ducks are birds.
Larry is a duck.
∴ Larry is a bird.
This argument is stated under Kelley’s fifth rule and is no doubt valid. Now, whether or not the argument is sound will have us looking for external verification. We might say that, a priori, we know that there are no ducks that are not birds. By definition, a duck is a kind of bird. All well and good. There is still the question of whether there is a duck named Larry. This is also setting aside the legitimacy of a priori knowledge because, to my mind, normal cognitive function is necessary to apprehend human languages and to comprehend the litany of predicates that follow from these languages. We know that ducks are birds a posteriori, but on this point I digress. Consider, instead, the following argument.
All ducks are mammals.
Larry is a duck.
∴ Larry is a mammal.
This argument, like the previous one, is valid and in accordance with Kelley’s fifth rule. However, it is unsound. This harkens back to the notion that ducks belonging to the domain of birds is not a piece of a priori knowledge. Despite knowing that all ducks are birds, the differences between birds and mammals are not at all obvious. That is perhaps the underlying issue, a question of how identity is arrived at, in particular the failure of the essentialist program to capture what a thing is. The differentialist program would have us identify a thing by pinning down what it is not. It follows that we know ducks are birds because anatomically and genetically, ducks do not have the signatures of mammals or any other phylum for that matter. A deeper knowledge of taxonomy is required to firmly establish that ducks are, in fact, birds.
An exploration of soundness is much more challenging when analyzing metaphysically laden premises. Consider, for example, the second premise of the KCA: “The universe began to exist.” What exactly does it mean for anything to begin to exist? This question has posed more problems than solutions in the literature; for our purposes, it is not necessary to summarize that here. We can say of a Vizio 50-inch plasma screen television that it began to exist in some warehouse; in other words, there is a given point in time where a functioning television was manufactured and sold to someone. The start of a living organism’s life is also relatively easy to identify. However, mapping these intuitions onto the universe gets us nowhere because as I alluded to earlier, the universe is unlike ordinary entities. This is why the KCA has not been able to escape the charge of fallacy of composition. All ordinary entities we know of, from chairs to cars to elephants to human beings exist within the universe. They are, as it were, the parts that comprise the universe. It does not follow that because it is probable that all ordinary things begin to exist that the universe must have begun to exist.
This is a perfect segue into probability. Again, since Bayes’ Theorem is admittedly complex and not something that is easily handled even by skilled analytic philosophers, a return to the basics is in order. I will assume that the rule of distribution applies to basic arguments; this will turn out to be fairer to all arguments because treating premises as distinct events greatly reduces the chances of a given argument being true. I will demonstrate how this filters out bias in our arguments and imposes on us the need to strictly analyze arguments.
Using Basic Probability to Assess Arguments
Let us state the KCA plainly:
Everything that begins to exist has a cause for its existence.
The universe began to exist.
∴ The universe has a cause for its existence.
As aforementioned, the first premise of the KCA is metaphysically laden. It is, at best, indeterminable because it is an inductive premise; all it takes is just one entity within the universe to throw the entire argument into the fire. To be fair, we can only assign a probability of .5 for this argument being true. We can then use distribution to get the probability of the argument being sound, so since we have a .5 probability of the first premise being sound, and given that we accept that the argument is not in violation of Kelley’s rules, we can therefore distribute this probability across one other premise and arrive at the conclusion that the argument has a 50% chance of being true.
This is preferable to treating each premise as an isolated event; I am being charitable to all arguers by assuming they have properly distributed their middles. Despite this, a slightly different convention might have to be adopted to assess the initial probability of an argument with multiple premises. An argument with six individual premises has a 1.56% chance of being true, i.e. .5^6. This convention would be adopted because we want a probability between 0 and 100. If we use the same convention used for simpler arguments with less premises, then an argument with six premises would have a 300% chance of being true. An arguer can then arbitrarily increase the amount of premises in his argument to boost the probability of his argument being true. Intuitively, an argument with multiple premises has a greater chance of being false; the second convention, at least, shows this while the first clearly does not. The jury is still out on whether the second convention is fair enough to more complex arguments. There is still the option of following standard practice and isolating an individual premise to see if it holds up to scrutiny. Probabilities do not need to be used uniformly; they should be used to make clear our collective epistemic uncertainty about something, i.e., to filter out dogma.
Let us recall my negation strategy and offer the anti-Kalam:
Everything that begins to exist has a cause for its existence.
The universe did not begin to exist.
∴ The universe does not have a cause.
Despite my naturalistic/atheistic leanings, the probability of my argument is also .5 because Craig and I share premise 1. The distribution of that probability into the next premise does not change because my second premise is a negation of his second premise. In one simple demonstration, it should become obvious why using basic probabilities is preferable over the use of Bayes’ Theorem. No matter one’s motivations or biases, one cannot grossly overstate priors or assign a probability much higher than .5 for metaphysically laden premises that are not easily established. We cannot even begin to apply the notion of a priori knowledge to the first premise of the KCA. We can take Larry being a bird as obvious, but we cannot take as obvious that the universe, like all things within it, began to exist and therefore, has a cause.
Now, a final question remains: how exactly does the probability of an argument being sound increase? Probability increases in accordance with the evidence. For the KCA to prove sound, a full exploration of evidence from cosmology is needed. A proponent of the KCA cannot dismiss four-dimensional black holes, white holes, a cyclic universe, eternal inflation, and any theory not in keeping with his predilections. That being the case, his argument becomes one based on presupposition and is therefore, circular. A full account of the evidence available in cosmology actually cuts sharply against the arteries of the KCA and therefore, greatly reduces the probability of it being sound. Conversely, it increases the probability of an argument like the Anti-Kalam being true. The use of basic probability is so parsimonious that the percentage decrease of the Kalam being sound mirrors the percentage increase of the Anti-Kalam being sound. In other words, the percentage decrease of any argument proving sound mirrors the percentage increase of its alternative(s) proving true. So if a full account of cosmological evidence lowers the probability of the Kalam being sound by 60%, the Anti-Kalam’s probability of being true increases by 60%. In other words, the Kalam would now have a 20% probability of being true while its opposite would now have an 80% of being true.
Then, if a Bayesian theorist is not yet satisfied, he can keep all priors neutral and plug in probabilities that were fairly assessed to compare a target argument to its alternatives. Even more to the point regarding fairness, rather than making a favored argument the target of analysis, the Bayesian theorist can make an opponent’s argument the target of analysis. It would follow that their opponent’s favored argument has a low probability of being true, given a more basic analysis that filters out bias and a systematic heuristic like the one I have offered. It is free of human emotion or more accurately, devotion to any given dogma. It also further qualifies the significance of taking evidence seriously. This also lends much credence to the conclusion that arguments themselves are not evidence. If that were the case, logically valid and unsound arguments would be admissible as evidence. How would we be able to determine whether one argument or another is true if the arguments themselves serve as evidence? We would essentially regard arguments as self-evident or tautologous. They would be presuppositionalist in nature and viciously circular. All beliefs would be equal. This, thankfully, is not the case.
Ultimately, my interest here has been a brief exploration into a fairer way to assess competing arguments. All of this stems from a deep disappointment in the abuse of Bayes’ Theorem; everyone is inflating their priors and no progress will be made if that continues to be permitted. A more detailed overview of Bayes’ Theorem is not necessary for such purposes and would likely scare away even some readers versed in analytic philosophy and more advanced logic. My interest, as always, is in communicating philosophy to the uninitiated in a way that is approachable and intelligible. At any rate, a return to the basics should be in order. Arguments should continue to be assessed; validity and soundness must be met. Where soundness proves difficult to come by, a fair initial probability must be applied to all arguments. Then, all pertinent evidence must be accounted for and the consequences the evidence presents for a given argument must be absorbed and accepted. Where amending of the argument is possible, the argument should be restructured, to the best of the arguer’s ability, in a way that demonstrates recognition of what the evidence entails. This may sound like a lot to ask, but the pursuit of truth is an arduous journey, not an easy endeavor by any stretch. Anyone who takes the pursuit seriously would go to great lengths to increase the epistemic certainty of his views. All else is folly.
By R.N. Carmona
It is standard procedure in philosophical practice to anticipate rebuttals. In my last post, I explored reincarnation within a naturalistic framework. Strangely enough, my argument leans much too heavily on the nature aspect of who we are. Yes, if consciousness existed in a vacuum, and if the subject were sufficient to account for consciousness, then my argument would be quite forceful. A possible rebuttal takes the nurture angle, arguing that the subject is not sufficient to account for consciousness because the object is just as, if not, of greater importance when attempting to explain consciousness.
If this is the case, then identity is not so elusive after all and Buddhists and people who deny identity are wrong. How then do any of us answer the question: who are you? If you reply with “Sam,” then you have given us nothing but your name. As it turns out, your name is quite common. If your name gave us a full account of who you are, then anyone named Sam is also you. Clearly, we both disagree with this conclusion so your name is not enough. Exercises like this have been done ad nauseam, so I will spare you the runaround and just give you my answer: I am a particular experiencer. As are you.
Now, that requires some explaining and this is where the object comes into focus. What makes me unique and other than you is that I have had an innumerable set of experiences that, when taken together, you have not had. Granted, it is very possible that we share at least one experience, even if we live a world apart. There are billions of people in China whom I have never met or interacted with and I can say with all the confidence in the world that they share experiences with me: being born, coming down with a cold, sweating, shivering, scrolling on a social media app, feeling a certain emotion like anger or sadness, and so on. I can also say that not one of them shares every single experience unique to me. If they are Chinese nationals, then they probably did not grow up in the Bronx. They do not identify as Puerto Rican or American. They do not check the Latino box when filling out a job application. These experiences, however, are overly simplistic.
Experiences are characterized by a given duration of time, an array of qualitative factors that produce in consciousness any number of qualia that go well beyond simply apprehending the color red or the smell of chocolate. It is also quite possible to have an experience too often and become numb to what makes it unique. One experience a lot of us have in common is that of going to a movie theater. There are certain sights, sounds, textures, and smells that are unique to the experience, but few of us can recall the buttery aroma of popcorn somehow mixing with the dull smell of a carpet that has been sullied and cleaned one too many times. There is the scent of leather seats (if you can count yourself fortunate enough to have the new reclining seats, that is) and other people. There is the texture of the seats, one’s footwear against the carpet, in addition to one’s eyes having to adjust in a very dim setting. So if any of my readers have ever pet a tiger in Thailand or jumped out of a plane to skydive, then they have a unique experience, that if described in full detail, does not align with anything I have ever experienced.
The thing is that I, as a particular experiencer, have had a plethora of experiences in my life that are different from yours. The combination of these experiences is a huge part of what makes me me. The combination of your experiences plays a pivotal role in what makes you you. So it is not enough to say that mental states are inherently finite. While it may be the case that experiences are also finite, I need only convince you that the exact combination of my experiences and my distinctive mental states will never be replicated again and that therefore, naturalistic reincarnation is extremely improbable and dare I say, impossible. The sheer improbability of something, however, does not make a thing impossible, so it is not enough to draw this conclusion and move on.
The improbability has to be crushingly discouraging to persuade you that it is simply more likely that naturalistic reincarnation is not the case. To show this, I am going to begin with a generous initial probability that someone else in the future will have any one of my experiences. I will list as many experiences as come to mind:
- Staying awake for 36 hours straight
- Sleeping for 18 hours straight without waking up
- Fasting for three days straight in a church in the Highbridge section of the Bronx
- Eating dole whip at Disneyland about seven meters from the Indiana Jones attraction
- Riding the Nitro at Six Flags in Jackson, NJ in the front row
- Petting farm animals at Kira’s World Exotics Mini Zoo in Hatillo, Puerto Rico
- Hearing the singing of coquis in Puerto Rico
- Getting jumped on a school bus in the E. 161st Tunnel in the Bronx
- Vomiting after too many drinks on the 6 train near Whitlock Avenue
I can think of more experiences that are unique to me, but even when assigning a generous initial probability for any one of these events recurring, the likelihood of all of them recurring is extremely low. What’s more is that I have neglected a lot of variables. What was the weather like? What direction was the wind blowing and at how many miles per hour? How old was I when all of these things happened? I only specified the event and its location because it is already very unlikely that you also vomited on the 6 train near Whitlock Avenue because you had one too many drinks. I did not mention that it was Cinco de Mayo in 2016 and after 8pm. The more and more specific I get, the less likely it is you will share this experience. If I were to include the people who were on the train and some of their reactions, which were surprisingly few given the amount of people on the train, the likelihood decreases even more.
In any case, if I were to assign an initial probably of 40% to each experience, we get the following: .40*.40*.40*.40*.40*.40*.40*.40*.40 = .000262144 or .026%. I listed just nine events in my life in scant detail and the probability of you experiencing all nine events, even starting with a very generous initial probability for each event of 40%, is very low. Now imagine if I were to be as detailed as possible about as many events as I can remember in my life; I am certain that this number will begin to approach at least one thousand. I can, for example, talk about my earliest memory: waking up in my crib, an infant, hungry and so delirious (probably having a hypnogogic hallucination) that I saw a bottle floating just out of my reach as a pendulum does, left and then right, left and then right; I reached for it and my hand went through it and I started wailing. My dad then gave me an actual bottle. Or I can talk about being seven or so years old and seeing a black and white striped insect fly into my room. It landed on my black toy chest and started to crawl like anthropods do. If I did, in fact, see a flying centipede or millipede that day, I saw a yet to be discovered species, I might add; I have scoured the internet for this insect and have yet to come across anything like it. This was before smart phones, so I could not snap a picture before it fluttered its wings and flew right back out. Hypothetically though, if I did count a thousand experiences with an initial probability of 40%, we get .40 ^ 1,000 or about two thousand decimal places before you arrive at any non-zero integers. So you would get a percentage that is virtually zero.
Given how improbable it is that the combination of experiences one has had will be replicated to the tee in a person that, more or less, has the same exact mental life that one does, i.e., is a one-to-one match to oneself with respect to nature, it is therefore, extremely unlikely that another you or me will be born no matter how long the universe goes on for. The universe can continue to exist for quadrillions of years and I do not think it is very probable that someone will have the combination of our respective experiences. I am a unique experiencer because of the combination of experiences I have had, in addition to the admittedly finite mental states that occur in me. While those mental states very well do occur in other people, the probability that she and I have had the same exact set of experiences is extremely low and it is that that makes us different. It is said that experiences mold us into who we are. Given my argument here, that is likely to be the case. If you are convinced that the unique set of experiences you have had in your lifetime make you you, then I think you cannot be convinced of naturalistic reincarnation. What adds more force to this argument is that I have confined it to experiences I can remember despite the fact that experiences I currently do not recall factor into the person that I am. There are so many unconscious joys and traumas that explain a great deal about us. This starts to venture into psychology, which for our current purposes is unnecessary.
Ultimately, reincarnation is incompatible with naturalism, not because it is too mystical, but because even if we were to imagine a version of reincarnation that is consistent with naturalism, i.e., steel man the notion of reincarnation, one’s full set of experiences is very unlikely to recur in the life of another person. Even twins, though sharing a lot of the same childhood experiences, end up having different experiences that, in turn, ensure that they are different from one another. As I have shown, it is extremely improbable, despite a generous initial probability, for another person to have just nine of the experiences I have had, let alone a thousand or the actual and innumerable experiences I have had in my life. Moreover, the longer one lives, the less likely it becomes that someone else will have one’s experiences. It is even more improbable still that someone in the far future will have the same exact set of experiences and have the same mental life as a centenarian in Japan, e.g. 118-year-old Tanaka Kane, who lives in Fukuoka City. Already, you are at a disadvantage since it is impossible for you to be born in 1903, at the time she was born, and to the same parents. It is virtually guaranteed that your set of experiences will differ from hers. Therein lies identity: you are a particular experiencer with a unique set of experiences. As Dave Chapelle said when remembering his late friend Daphne Dorman: “I am someone having a human experience.” At bottom, this is who we all are, but as with most philosophical topics, the devil is in the details, specifically within the details of our distinct set of experiences.
By R.N. Carmona
When one normally thinks of reincarnation, one has in mind a caricature, the spirit of a Jane Doe coming to inhabit a frog, unbeknownst to anyone, but arguably Jane Doe herself. This, however, is an oversimplification. While reincarnation is often considered an idea lauded by Eastern mystics, modern day science can be marshaled in to lend support to the idea of reincarnation, though in ways completely unexpected. For instance, one would usually hear the usual tripe: since matter and energy cannot be created nor destroyed, one’s consciousness must live on after death. The argument I want to offer is more intricate.
Firstly, I want to begin from the finitude of brain states, an extension from the limits of phenomenal experience. I do not disagree that there is accompanying phenomenal experience for any interaction between an object and our senses. I do disagree that what it is like for me to smell roses is peculiar and markedly different from your experience of smelling a rose. I happen to think our experiences are roughly equal. Whether you or I like the smell of roses or not involves more than just the phenomenal experience. In other words, there’s a lot of background noise that explains why you like the smell more than I do. Perhaps I associate the smell of roses with wakes and funerals rather than with candlelit dinners and weddings. The noise is not what I want to focus on.
Instead, I would like to focus on mental states themselves and argue that though there are potentially innumerable brain states, they are finite. Even if we capture every brain state of every organism in the universe, and include also the correlate states of organisms that are conscious though lacking a brain, the total number of mental states do not stretch infinitely. Furthermore, the combinations of brain states, right down to the size and function of my brain or your brain, in particular, are finite. To put it another way, let us say that there is a limitation in the communication between one’s prefrontal cortex and cerebellum. This may result in autism or schizophrenia (Watson, Thomas C et al. “Back to front: cerebellar connections and interactions with the prefrontal cortex.” Frontiers in systems neuroscience vol. 8 4. 4 Feb. 2014, doi:10.3389/fnsys.2014.00004). With these particular disorders, there are a number of hallmark behavioral traits. This gives some credence to the idea that brain states are fundamentally finite and do not, as it were, stretch on forever.
Unfortunately, we are no longer so taken by behaviorists and know that human beings are a lot more than simply a finite set of behaviors. We have our preferences, things we are repulsed by, idiosyncrasies, and personalities to speak of. Even then, I think that the combination of traits that make you you, no matter how multifarious, are finite. This implies that given a long enough time, some sentient being, whether homo sapien or something very similar to our own species, will come to believe in the same you you believe you are. This, to my mind, is how naturalism makes room for reincarnation.
Perhaps not in the next generation of life, or even in the next ten generations, but at some point, a sentient being will be born who believes, perhaps mistakenly, that they are me. To believe this, you need only believe that mental states, whether tied to a brain, or to intricate nervous systems, are finite. If such states are finite and the combination of such states and functions are finite, then there are only so many identities to go around. Given a long enough time, someone will come along and believe that they are exactly who Napoleon thought he was.
This, in fact, falls on the horns of a dilemma Buddhists have. Recall, Buddhists hold to the concept of anattā (no self). While I may have thrown around the word ‘identity’, this need not imply that I believe identity to be real and substantive. In fact, I think it is entirely illusory and that if we interact with enough people, we will find that we have more in common than we would like to admit. Some of us have delusions of grandeur; we have god and savior complexes, see ourselves as fixers, and believe that there is no problem we cannot solve. Others choose to mind their business, to not take on a deep personal investment in the struggles even loved ones go through, and instead choose to let the people around us work through their own problems. In one way or another, it is likely that my two brief sketches of identity resonate with my readers. Either you are one who suffers from delusions of grandeur and you base even your romantic relationships on this futile attempt to save everyone. Or, you are someone who has no deep personal investment in the problems even the people closest to you have; this isn’t to say you refuse to help when asked, but you prefer to let people find their own way. If one of the two people I have described describes aspects of you, then you are further to committing to the premise that mental states are finite and that therefore, identities are limited.
Buddhists have long struggled to reconcile the idea of reincarnation with anattā, but a resolution isn’t difficult to come by. Before offering a solution, I defer to Wildman:
In fact, the anattā (no-substantive self) doctrine of most forms of Indian Buddhism means that there is no jīva (soul) that persists from life to life through death and reincarnation, as there is in most forms of Hinduism. The consequences for samsāra and nirvana of this view are complicated, and perhaps mind boggling, and Buddhists have spent enormous effort in debate over them, both with Hindus and among themselves. So it is not surprising that many Buddhists do not hesitate to picture life and death in rather Hindu terms, as re-enfleshment of an enduring soul, despite their characteristic no-self doctrine. Many Buddhist intellectuals will not do this, however, and their more subtle approach is not registered at all when the word reincarnation is used as the comparative category to comprehend both Hindu and Buddhist versions of the implications of samsāra for living beings.Wildman, Wesley J. Religious Philosophy as Multidisciplinary Comparative Inquiry: Envisioning a Future For The Philosophy of Religion. State University of New York Press. Albany, NY. 2010. 133. Print.
My resolution is that while there is no self, no concrete identity, what persists are the illusions of a self or an identity brought about by the limited combinations of mental states humans experience. This is why so many of us come to have exactly the same ideas about ourselves, despite the fact that we are different people with vastly different past experiences. This is why mental and cognitive disorders feature an array of hallmark symptoms. To illustrate this even better, think of the way genes encode phenotypic features. Straight thumbs, for instance, are expressed with a capital S whereas hitchhiker thumbs are recessive alleles expressed with a lowercase s. This peculiarity, assuming you have it, does not belong to you. There are other people who have hitchhiker thumb and they have it because gene expression in their genomes have resulted in this phenotypic feature. Likewise, our mental states, the manner in which brain regions communicate with one another, and the way in which our particular neurons fire in our brains create the same illusions of a static identity, packaged with a linear life narrative that we can literally draw a straight line through from our first memories in childhood through today.
There is no substantive self that persists, a soul as it were. There is, however, a persistent illusion in all of us and I do not put it passed a being eons from now to think that s/he is exactly who I think I am. Furthermore, I do not discount the idea that s/he will feel, phenomenologically speaking, exactly as I do. There is this sense that I am. Whether or not identity is real, the illusion is powerful enough to lead me to believe I am unique and that there will never be another exactly like me. This is folly. So while there is no substantive soul in me or in my cat, there are a number of mental states, resulting from brain and nerve interactions, that make both of us feel like we are a unique individuals never to be replicated. I conclude that it is far likelier that since there are not infinite mental states to go around, there are not infinite illusions to go around either. What we refer to as the soul or identity has its boundaries and limits. There will be another you, so in that sense, even after death, should the universe persist, you will live again with no recollection of the you you are right now.
This may seem particularly discomforting for some readers. For others, they may think that this idea is not developed enough. I admit, the argument is very bare bones and could use more flesh. That, however, does not mean the argument is unsound. I happen to be convinced, first and foremost, that mental states and what we call identities do not stretch to infinity and that therefore, there are only so many yous to go around. As such, you will live again or be reborn. This is how naturalism makes room for something as mystical as reincarnation. The lesson is that naturalists should shun the habit of dismissing an idea because it is religious or prima facie supernatural. There might be a kernel of truth to the idea of reincarnation. That remains to be seen, but my argument is certainly a good place to start.
By R.N. Carmona
Every deductive argument can be negated. I consider this an uncontroversial statement. The problem is, there are people who proceed as though deductive arguments speak to an a priori truth. The Freedom Tower is taller than the Empire State Building; the Empire State Building is taller than the Chrysler Building; therefore, the Freedom Tower is taller than the Chrysler Building. This is an example of an a priori truth because given that one understands the concepts of taller and shorter, the conclusion follows uncontroversially from the premises. This is one way in which the soundness of an argument can be assessed.
Of relevance is how one would proceed if one is unsure of the argument. Thankfully, we no longer live in a world in where one would have to go out of their way to measure the heights of the three buildings. A simple Google search will suffice. The Freedom Tower is ~546m. The Empire State Building is ~443. The Chrysler is ~318m. Granted, this is knowledge by way of testimony. I do not intend to connote religious testimony. What I intend to say is that one’s knowledge is grounded on knowledge directly acquired by someone else. In other words, at least one other person actually measured the heights of these buildings and these are the measurements they got.
Most of our knowledge claims rest on testimony. Not everyone has performed an experimental proof to show that the acceleration of gravity is 9.8m/s^2. Either one learned it from a professor or read it in a physics textbook or learned it when watching a science program. Or, they believe the word of someone they trust, be it a friend or a grade school teacher. This does not change that fact that if one cared to, one could exchange knowledge by way of testimony for directly acquired knowledge by performing an experimental proof. This is something I have done, so I do not believe on basis of mere testimony that Newton’s law holds. I can say that it holds because I tested it for myself.
To whet the appetite, let us consider a well-known deductive argument and let us ignore, for the moment, whether it is sound:
P1 All men are mortal.
P2 Socrates is a man.
C Therefore, Socrates is mortal.
If someone were completely disinterested in checking whether this argument, which is merely a finite set of propositions, coheres with the world or reality, I would employ my negation strategy: the negation of an argument someone assumes to be sound without epistemic warrant or justification. The strategy forces them into exploring whether their argument or its negation is sound. Inevitably, the individual will have to abandon their bizarre commitment to a sort of propositional idealism (namely that propositions can only be logically assessed and do not contain any real world entities contextually or are not claims about the world). In other words, they will abandon the notion that “All men are mortal” is a mere proposition lacking context that is not intended to make a claim about states of affairs objectively accessible to everyone, including the person who disagrees with them. With that in mind, I would offer the following:
P1 All men are immortal.
P2 Socrates is a man.
C Therefore, Socrates is immortal.
This is extremely controversial for reasons we are all familiar with. That is because everyone accepts that the original argument is sound. When speaking of ‘men’, setting aside the historical tendency to dissolve the distinction between men and women, what is meant is “all human persons from everywhere and at all times.” Socrates, as we know, was an ancient Greek philosopher who reportedly died in 399 BCE. Like all people before him, and presumably all people after him, he proved to be mortal. No human person has proven to be immortal and therefore, the original argument holds.
Of course, matters are not so straightforward. Christian apologists offer no arguments that are uncontroversially true like the original argument above. Therefore, the negation strategy will prove extremely effective to disabuse them of propositional idealism and to make them empirically assess whether their arguments are sound. What follows are examples of arguments for God that have been discussed ad nauseam. Clearly, theists are not interested in conceding. They are not interested in admitting that even one of their arguments does not work. Sure, what you find are theists committed to Thomism, for instance, and as such, they will reject Craig’s Kalam Cosmological Argument (KCA) because it does not fit into their Aristotelian paradigm and not because it is unsound. They prefer Aquinas’ approach to cosmological arguments. What is more common is the kind of theist that ignores the incongruity between one argument for another; since they are arguments for God, it counts as evidence for his existence and it really does not matter that Craig’s KCA is not Aristotelian. I happen to think that it is, despite Craig’s denial, but I digress.
Negating Popular Arguments For God’s Existence
Let us explore whether Craig’s Moral Argument falls victim to the negation strategy. Craig’s Moral Argument is as follows:
P1 If God does not exist, objective moral values do not exist.
P2 Objective moral values do exist.
C Therefore, God exist (Craig, William L. “Moral Argument (Part 1)”. Reasonable Faith. 15 Oct 2007. Web.)
With all arguments, a decision must be made. First, an assessment of the argument form is in order. Is it a modus ponens (MP) or a modus tollens (MT)? Perhaps it is neither and is instead, a categorical or disjunctive syllogism. In any case, one has to decide which premise(s) is going to be negated or whether by virtue of the argument form, one will have to change the argument form to state the opposite. You can see this with the original example. I could have very well negated P2 and stated “Socrates is not a man.” Socrates is an immortal jellyfish that I tagged in the Mediterranean. Or he is an eternal being that I met while tripping out on DMT. For purposes of the argument, however, since he is not a man, at the very least, the question of whether or not he is mortal is open. We would have to ask what Socrates is. Now, if Socrates is my pet hamster, then yes, Socrates is mortal despite not being a man. It follows that the choice of negation has to be in a place that proves most effective. Some thought has to go into it.
Likewise, the choice has to be made when confronting Craig’s Moral Argument. Craig’s Moral Argument is a modus tollens. For the uninitiated, it simply states: [((p –> q) ^ ~q) –> ~p] (Potter, A. (2020). The rhetorical structure of Modus Tollens: An exploration in logic-mining. Proceedings of the Society for Computation in Linguistics, 3, 170-179.). Another way of putting it is that one is denying the consequent. That is precisely what Craig does. “Objective moral values do not exist” is the consequent q. Craig is saying ~q or “Objective moral values do exist.” Therefore, one route one can take is keeping the argument form and negating P1, which in turn negates P2.
MT Negated Moral Argument
P1 If God exists, objective moral values and duties exist.
P2 Objective moral values do not exist.
C Therefore, God does not exist.
The key is to come up with a negation that is either sound or, at the very least, free of any controversy. Straight away, I do not like P2. Moral realists would also deny this negation because, to their minds, P2 is not true. The controversy with P2 is not so much whether it is true or false, but that it falls on the horns of the objectivism-relativism and moral realism/anti-realism debates in ethics. The argument may accomplish something with respect to countering Craig’s Moral Argument, but we are in no better place because of it. This is when we should explore changing the argument’s form in order to get a better negation.
MP Negated Moral Argument
P1 If God does not exist, objective moral values and duties exist.
P2 God does not exist.
C Therefore, objective moral values and duties exist.
This is a valid modus ponens. I have changed the argument form of Craig’s Moral Argument and I now have what I think to be a better negation of his argument. From P2, atheists can find satisfaction. This is the epistemic proposition atheists are committed to. The conclusion also alleviates any concerns moral realists might have had with the MT Negated Moral Argument. For my own purposes, I think this argument works better. That, however, is beside the point. The point is that this forces theists to either justify the premises of Craig’s Moral Argument, i.e. prove that the argument is sound, or assert, on the basis of mere faith, that Craig’s argument is true. In either case, one will have succeeded in either forcing the theist to abandon their propositional idealism, in getting them to test the argument against the world as ontologically construed or in getting them to confess that they are indulging in circular reasoning and confirmation bias, i.e. getting them to confess that they are irrational and illogical. Both of these count as victories. We can explore whether other arguments for God fall on this sword.
We can turn our attention to Craig’s Kalam Cosmological Argument (KCA):
P1 Everything that begins to exist has a cause.
P2 The universe began to exist.
C Therefore, the universe has a cause. (Reichenbach, Bruce. “Cosmological Argument”. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. 2021. Web.)
Again, negation can take place in two places: P1 or P2. Negating P1, however, does not make sense. Negating P2, like in the case of his Moral Argument, changes the argument form; this is arguable and more subtle. So we get the following:
MT Negated KCA
P1 Everything that begins to exist has a cause.
P2 The universe did not begin to exist.
C Therefore, the universe does not have a cause.
Technically, Craig’s KCA is a categorical syllogism. Such syllogisms present a universal (∀) or existential quantifier (∃); the latter is introduced by saying all. Consider, “all philosophers are thinkers; all philosophers are logicians; therefore, all thinkers are logicians.” Conversely, one could say “no mallards are insects; some birds are mallards; therefore, some birds are not insects.” What Craig is stating is that all things that begin to exist have a cause, so if the universe is a thing that began to exist, then it has a cause. Alternatively, his argument is an implicit modus ponens: “if the universe began to exist, then it has a cause; the universe began to exist; therefore, the universe has a cause.” In any case, the negation works because if the universe did not begin to exist, then the universe is not part of the group of all things that have a cause.
Whether the universe is finite or eternal has been debated for millennia and in a sense, despite changing context, the debate rages on. If the universe is part of an eternal multiverse, it is just one universe in a vast sea of universes within a multiverse that has no temporal beginning. Despite this, the MT Negated KCA demonstrates how absurd the KCA is. The singularity was already there ‘before’ the Big Bang. The Big Bang started the cosmic clock, but the universe itself did not begin to exist. This is more plausible. Consider that everything that begins to exist does so when the flow of time is already in motion, i.e. when the arrow of time pointed in a given direction due to entropic increase reducible to the decreasing temperature throughout the universe. Nothing that has ever come into existence has done so simultaneously with time itself because any causal relationship speaks to a change and change requires the passage of time, but at T=0, no time has passed, and therefore, no change could have taken place. This leads to an asymmetry. We thus cannot speak of anything beginning to exist at T=0. The MT Negated KCA puts cosmology in the right context. The universe did not come into existence at T=0. T=0 simply represents the first measure of time; matter and energy did not emerge at that point.
For a more complicated treatment, Malpass and Morriston argue that “one cannot traverse an actual infinite in finite steps” (Malpass, Alex & Morriston, Wes (2020). Endless and Infinite. Philosophical Quarterly 70 (281):830-849.). In other words, from a mathematical point of view, T=0 is the x-axis. All of the events after T=0 are an asymptote along the x-axis. The events go further and further back, ever closer to T=0 but never actually touch it. For a visual representation, see below:
Credit: Free Math Help
The implication here is that time began to exist, but the universe did not begin to exist. A recent paper implies that this is most likely the case (Quantum Experiment Shows How Time ‘Emerges’ from Entanglement. The Physics arXiv Blog. 23 Oct 2013. Web.). The very hot, very dense singularity before the emergence of time at T=0 would have been subject to quantum mechanics rather than the macroscopic forces that came later, e.g., General Relativity. As such, the conditions were such that entanglement could have resulted in the emergence of time in our universe, but not the emergence of the universe. All of the matter and energy were already present before the clock started to tick. Conversely, if the universe is akin to a growing runner, then the toddler is at the starting line before the gun goes off. The sound of the gun starts the clock. The runner starts running sometime after she hears the sound. As she runs, she goes through all the stages of childhood, puberty, adolescence, adulthood, and finally dies. Crucially, the act of her running and her growth do not begin until after the gun goes off. Likewise, no changes take place at T=0; all changes take place after T=0. While there is this notion of entanglement, resulting in a change occurring before the clock even started ticking, quantum mechanics demonstrates that quantum changes do not require time and in fact, may result in the emergence of time. Therefore, it is plausible that though time began to exist at the Big Bang, the universe did not begin to exist—thus, making the MT Negated KCA sound. The KCA is therefore, false.
Finally, so that the Thomists do not feel left out, we can explore whether the negation strategy can be applied to Aquinas’ Five Ways. For our purposes, the Second Way is closely related to the KCA and would be defeated by the same considerations. Of course, we would have to negate the Second Way so that it is vulnerable to the considerations that cast doubt on the KCA. The Second Way can be stated as follows:
We perceive a series of efficient causes of things in the world.
Nothing exists prior to itself.
Therefore nothing [in the world of things we perceive] is the efficient cause of itself.
If a previous efficient cause does not exist, neither does the thing that results (the effect).
Therefore if the first thing in a series does not exist, nothing in the series exists.
If the series of efficient causes extends ad infinitum into the past, then there would be no things existing now.
That is plainly false (i.e., there are things existing now that came about through efficient causes).
Therefore efficient causes do not extend ad infinitum into the past.
Therefore it is necessary to admit a first efficient cause, to which everyone gives the name of God. (Gracyk, Theodore. “Argument Analysis of the Five Ways”. Minnesota State University Moorhead. 2016. Web.)
This argument is considerably longer than the KCA, but there are still areas where the argument can be negated. I think P1 is uncontroversial and so, I do not mind starting from there:
Negated Second Way
We perceive a series of efficient causes of things in the world.
Nothing exists prior to itself.
Therefore nothing [in the world of things we perceive] is the efficient cause of itself.
If a previous efficient cause does not exist, neither does the thing that results (the effect).
Therefore if the earlier thing in a series does not exist, nothing in the series exists.
If the series of efficient causes extends ad infinitum into the past, then there would be things existing now.
That is plainly true (i.e., efficient causes, per Malpass and Morriston, extend infinitely into the past or, the number of past efficient causes is a potential infinity).
Therefore efficient causes do extend ad infinitum into the past.
Therefore it is not necessary to admit a first efficient cause, to which everyone gives the name of God.
Either the theist will continue to assert that the Second Way is sound, epistemic warrant and justification be damned, or they will abandon their dubious propositional idealism and run a soundness test. Checking whether the Second Way or the Negated Second Way is sound would inevitably bring them into contact with empirical evidence supporting one argument or the other. As I have shown with the KCA, it appears that considerations of time, from a philosophical and quantum mechanical perspective, greatly lower the probability of the KCA being sound. This follows neatly into Aquinas’ Second Way and as such, one has far less epistemic justification for believing the KCA or Aquinas’ Second Way are sound. The greater justification is found in the negated versions of these arguments.
Ultimately, one either succeeds at making the theist play the game according to the right rules or getting them to admit their beliefs are not properly epistemic at all; instead, they believe by way of blind faith and all of their redundant arguments are exercises in circular reasoning and any pretense of engaging the evidence is an exercise in confirmation bias. Arguments for God are a perfect example of directionally motivated reasoning (see Galef, Julia. The Scout Mindset: Why Some People See Things Clearly and Others Don’t. New York: Portfolio, 2021. 63-66. Print). I much prefer accuracy motivated reasoning. We are all guilty of motivated reasoning, but directionally motivated reasoning is indicative of irrationality and usually speaks to the fact that one holds beliefs that do not square with the facts. Deductive arguments are only useful insofar as premises can be supported by evidence, which therefore makes it easier to show that an argument is sound. This is why we can reason that if Socrates is a man, more specifically, the ancient Greek philosopher that we all know, then Socrates was indeed mortal and that is why he died in 399 BCE. Likewise, this is why we cannot reason that objective morality can only be the case if the Judeo-Christian god exists, that if the universe began to exist, God is the cause, and that if the series of efficient causes cannot regress infinitely and must terminate somewhere, they can only terminate at a necessary first cause, which some call God. These arguments can be negated and the negations will show that they are either absurd or that the reasoning in the arguments is deficient and rests on the laurels of directionally motivated reasoning due to a bias for one’s religious faith rather than on the bedrock of carefully reasoned, meticulously demonstrated, accuracy motivated reasoning which does not ignore or omit pertinent facts.
The arguments for God, no matter how old or new, simple or complex, do not work because not only do they rely on directionally motivated and patently biased reasoning, but because when testing for soundness, being sure not to exclude any pertinent evidence, the arguments turn out to be unsound. In the main, they all contain controversial premises that do not work unless one already believes in God. So there is a sense in which these arguments exist to give believers a false sense of security or more pointedly, a false sense of certainty. Unlike my opponents, I am perfectly content with being wrong, with changing my mind, but the fact remains, theism is simply not the sort of belief that I give much credence to. Along with the Vagueness Strategy, the Negation Strategy is something that should be in every atheist’s toolbox.
Skeptical Theism is overtly present in Plantinga’s Ignorance Defense. It must be noted here that he does not call it that. The monicker makes sense because it relies on human ignorance in order to work. In other words, the defense states that since human wisdom is incomparable to God’s, we cannot know why he allows evil. Moreover, since it is reasonable that he has some reason, unbeknownst to us, for allowing evil, we cannot reasonably blame God for the evil in the world. Of Plantinga’s explications, Kai Nielsen says the following:
Plantinga grants that, as far as we can see, there are many cases of evil that are apparently pointless. Indeed there are many cases of such evils where we have no idea at all what reason God (if there is such a person) could have for permitting such evils. But, Plantinga remarks, from granting these things it does not follow that “an omnipotent and omniscient God, if he existed, would not have a reason for permitting them” (Plantinga 1993, 400). From the fact that we can see no reason at all for God to permit evils, we cannot legitimately infer that God has no reason to allow such evils. It is not just, Plantinga continues, “obvious or apparent that God could have reason for permitting them. The most we can sensibly say is that we can’t think of any good reason why he would permit them” (Plantinga 1993, 400)Plantinga, Alvin. God, Freedom and Evil. New York: Harper & Row, 1974. 58. Print.
This, in a nutshell, is the Ignorance Defense. Humans are, in other words, ignorant of God’s will and our wisdom pales in comparison to his. Nielsen’s contention, however, has the makings of a perfect defeater. All that is needed is to see his objection from the point of view of one of God’s attributes. Nielsen states that “it looks more like, if he exists and is all powerful and all knowing, that then he more likely to be evil” and adds that “we see that all the same he might possibly be, as Jewish, Christian, and Islamic religions say he is, perfectly good. But we cannot see that he is. The Mosaic God looks, to understate it, petty, unjust, and cruel to us” (Ibid.). This defeater is perfected if we see this from the point of view of God’s omniscience. God would know that we would be incapable of seeing that he is good in light of natural evil. This evil is, in fact, gratuitous. God would have seen, by way of his omniscience, that the quantity of natural evil in the world would be enough to drive so many to doubt. This apart from contradictory revelations, the limited range and capacity of Christianity, i.e., its incapacity to appeal to people of other cultures, e.g., Jews, Muslims, Hindus, and indigenous people across every populated continent, and the negative evidence against the existence of the Judeo-Christian god.
We are then asked “to stick with a belief in what we see to be some kind of possibility, namely that God is, after all, appearances to the contrary notwithstanding, perfectly good” (Ibid.). This as an obstinate appeal to the very faith that needs to be substantiated. Furthermore, this appears to imply the superiority of faith over reason. Like Galileo, who no doubt said this with a different sentiment, I “do not feel obliged to believe that same God who endowed us with sense, reason, and intellect had intended for us to forgo their use” (Galilei, Galileo, “Letter to the Grand Duchess Christina of Tuscany, 1615” (2013). Instructional Resources. 97.).
For a clearer explication of skeptical theism, McBrayer offers:
Skeptical theism is the view that God exists but that we should be skeptical of our ability to discern God’s reasons for acting or refraining from acting in any particular instance. In particular, says the skeptical theist, we should not grant that our inability to think of a good reason for doing or allowing something is indicative of whether or not God might have a good reason for doing or allowing something. If there is a God, he knows much more than we do about the relevant facts, and thus it would not be surprising at all if he has reasons for doing or allowing something that we cannot fathom.McBrayer, Justin P. “Skeptical Theism”. Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Web.
This matches Plantinga’s Ignorance Defense one-to-one. There is therefore, no need to belabor the point. My concern is twofold: the failure of skeptical theism should be clear and since this appeal to human ignorance is an obstinate roadblock borne of a reluctance to accept an atheistic conclusion, it is crucial to develop arguments that make use of its faulty intuition and arguments that leave no room for a skeptical theistic response. In other words, if the intuition can be turned on its head, in a perfect example of how to employ the double standard and outsider tests (see Galef, Julia. The Scout Mindset: Why Some People See Things Clearly and Others Don’t. New York: Portfolio, 2021. 63-66. Print), perhaps the theist is not in a position to see the vast shortcomings of skeptical theism. This is what I want to do because I am at a loss when it comes to understanding why anyone would think such a response works when confronting The Evidential Problem of Evil and Schellenberg’s Divine Hiddenness Argument. For our purposes, I will set aside stating explicitly The Evidential Problem of Evil, as I think it is unnecessary review for the initiated. Schellenberg’s Divine Hiddenness Argument, on the other hand, is not as familiar, even to the thoroughly initiated. Thankfully, Veronika Weidner has explicitly stated the argument accurately:
(1) Necessarily, if God exists, then God is a personal perfect being.
(2) Necessarily, if God is a personal perfect being, then God always loves all human beings perfectly.
(3) Necessarily, if God always loves all human beings perfectly, then God is always open to be in a personal relationship with all those human beings capable of such a relationship with God.
(4) Necessarily, if God is always open to be in a personal relationship with all those human beings capable of such a relationship with God, then God does or omits nothing which would prevent all those human beings to relate to God personally who are capable of a personal relationship with God and also not resistant to a personal relationship with God.
(5) Necessarily, a human being capable of a personal relationship with God who is not resistant to a personal relationship with God is only able to relate to God personally if she believes that God exists.
(6) Necessarily, if God does or omits nothing which would prevent all those human beings to relate to God personally who are capable of a personal relationship with God and also not resistant to a personal relationship with God, then it is not the case that there is a human being capable of a personal relationship with God who is not resistant to a personal relationship with God and yet not able to relate to God personally because she does not believe that God exists.
(7) There is at least one human being capable of a personal relationship with God who is not resistant to a personal relationship with God and yet not able to relate to God personally because she does not believe that God exists.
(8) Therefore, God does not exist. (see Schellenberg, 2015b: 24–25)Weidner, Veronika. Divine Hiddenness. Cambridge University Press, 2021. Web.
Prior to discussing Schellenberg’s argument in some detail, it is crucial to understand why skeptical theism fails:
A) Even if we grant that unforeseen goods balance the scales, as it were, i.e. justifies the 1,800 cancer-related deaths of children per year in the United States, there is no way for finite human minds to causally connect these deaths with the goods whenever they arrive; the most we can do is callously reason that their deaths are akin to necessary sacrifices that enable us to eventually find a cure—which is related to minor problem (a) below and more importantly, is not something we should ever give God credit for; developing cures is a slow, painstaking process that does not involve anything like putative revelation or God whispering the secrets to a much needed vaccine in a doctor’s ear. There is also the issue that the goods may arrive well after our lifetimes, which segues into the next problem.
B) On exclusivism, many of today’s atheists are eternally lost because evil and hiddenness were just too persuasive and the goods never came due within our lifetimes. On universalism, this is all arbitrary. This can be conjoined to Street’s recent response to skeptical theism: we are free to indulge moral aporia because no matter what we believe or not, we will ultimately be saved (see Street, S. (2014). If everything happens for a reason, then we don’t know what reasons are: Why the price of theism is normative skepticism. In M. Bergmann & P. Kain (Eds.), Challenges to moral and religious belief: Disagreement and evolution (pp. 172–192). Oxford: Oxford University Press.). So talk of evil and hiddenness and unknown goods to account for them ends up being null.
I have a sneaking suspicion that theists feel the gnaw of these defeaters. Atheists certainly do. This then becomes an exercise of being overly charitable to a kind of argument that can never prove successful. If skeptical theism fails, it is a thread that should be cut and discarded. There are a couple of minor problems that are important as well:
a) It is utilitarian in its analysis. The evil and hiddenness we experience are lesser in magnitude when compared to the goods that await us, be it in heaven or by way of some earthly recompense. The greater good overtones are palpable. I cannot see how a being who is appealed to as the objective and perfect moral standard can subscribe to utilitarianism given its shortcomings.
b) It begs the question because it really is no different from someone saying “just wait and see!” Many people on all sides died waiting and seeing and per Schellenberg, honestly sought divinity their entire lives and came up empty. If God had a better track record of making do on past atrocities, then we would be able to inductively reason, as many of us do with science, in this manner. The thing is, it looks like the bills for the Holocaust and slavery are overdue and all of us, living ~80 and ~450 years respectively, after these atrocities happened, cannot even begin to causally connect potential goods that God has deployed with the intention of paying this debt. Perhaps it is too much to expect God to pay that debt because those were human crimes; but I can also think of disasters, diseases, pandemics, mass extinctions, and other natural evils that are overdue and again, I am not sure what goods are intended to repay the extinctions of all of our hominid cousins, for example.
c) The whole accounting that is done really puts a lack of value on human life that turns out to be nihilistic and even fatalistic. The Black Plague wiped out millions. Are we really to believe any good repaid that debt? Are we supposed to buy that the life of a child, whose loss emotionally crippled her mother, is worth so little that we can just make do with the fact that some future kid was saved from danger in her place? That does nothing at all to alleviate the suffering the child and her mother experienced, so that is another issue, one of currency: what is the value of this coin God is paying his debts with and how exactly does it exchange with the coin in the sometimes distant past?
Now to turn my attention to an argument that subsumes the observations of The Evidential Problem of Evil and The Divine Hiddenness Argument. This argument is novel, forceful, and to my mind, defeats the idea of not just perfect being, omni-god theism, but theism overall. Weidner already observes the following: “After all, the hiddenness argument, if successful, helps us see the deficiencies of personal perfect being theism” (Weidner, ibid.). My next argument should help one see the deficiencies of theism in general.
Infinity Entails Supererogative Capacity
Weidner’s next stop is to grapple with the conclusion of My Argument From Assailability: “if we find in any being, a characteristic that is assailable, then we have no reason to call it a god.” How is a non-perfect theistic being different from an alien, one might ask. Crucially, if per the hiddenness and evil arguments, God does not seem open to being in a relationship with all human beings and does not intervene when great atrocities happen, then we have located an assailable characteristic. How does an omnipotent or, at least, an incredibly powerful being succumb to bystander effect? Even if God is not all-powerful and could not snap the Nazis out of existence, if he is at least powerful enough to assume a disguise and poison Hitler and his top advisers, why not step in and prevent the Holocaust?
The reason Aquinas and others maximized God to have infinite capacities in all respects is because theists already saw the crippling limitations of a god with finite abilities. The question would immediately follow: what motivation is there to worship a being that is not perfect? Infinity entails supererogative capacity. God would be able to give an infinite amount of love, kinship, succor, power, knowledge, and presence and still retain an infinite amount of each. So why does he seem to blithely refuse to commit to this? Perfect and infinite personal being theism is defeated by the combination of Schellenberg’s Divine Hiddenness Argument, The Evidential Problem of Evil, and my argument from God’s apparent lack of supererogatory agency. What is left is non-perfect being theism.
That, however, falls on the horns of my Argument From Assailability and so, Theism is defeated in all its iterations. This is to say nothing about the fact that even a finite deity would be far more capable of supererogatory acts than we are. In any case, the intuition of my supererogative argument can be turned on its head. We can deduce something about God’s power given this lack. God must be much weaker than a hypothetical infinite being due to the fact that he remains a bystander, utterly apathetic to even the worst atrocities known to man—even ones we played no part in causing. This is an assailable characteristic. We therefore, have no obligation whatsoever to worship a being that is apparently weaker than ourselves. As Tracie Harris famously said: “If I could stop a person from raping a child I would. That is the difference between me and your God” (Bennett-Smith, Meredith. “‘Atheist Experience’ TV Host Shocked By Caller’s Statement About Child Rape (Video)”. Huffington Post. 9 Jan 2013. Web). Ultimately, if God appears to be this much weaker than human beings, who can potentially lose their lives when intervening on the behalf of another person, it is far more probable that God does not exist.
Notes on Necessity
The standard contingency argument looks something like the following:
- There exists a series of events
- The series of events exists as caused and not as uncaused
- This series cannot extend infinitely into the past
- Therefore, there must exist the necessary being that is the cause of all contingent being (credit: Queens Community College)
The intuition of skeptical theism, as I made clear at the outset, can be used to cast doubt on contingency arguments across the board. Aside from the fact that there is a chasm between a necessary cause, e.g., something like the Big Bang, and a necessary being, we can assert that we should be skeptical of our ability to discern what a necessary being is. How do we know that it is one necessary being as opposed to many? If a Triune god solves the one-many problem, then why not the Divine Septad of Zoroastrianism? Since we cannot know what the realm of necessity is like, we should refrain from making these kinds of arguments.
Contingency arguments only accomplish one thing: they point to the existence of metaphysical necessities, quite possibly something like brute facts, that can be explained by something more concrete like physical necessity. In my overview of Rasmussen’s recent contingency argument, I go over what this looks like and it is more plausible than crossing the infinite chasm between a necessary cause and a necessary being on blind faith alone. In any case, since we cannot know what necessity is really like and since we cannot visit the realm of necessity, it is best we accept our ignorance on this matter. The intuition of skeptical theism undermines what many theists consider one of the stronger lines of argumentation in favor of theism.
The Argument From Phenomenal Distance
This novel argument, not to be confused with Mander’s “Does God know what it is like to be me?” (see Mander, W.J. (2002), Does God Know What It is Like to be Me?. The Heythrop Journal, 43: 430-443. https://doi.org/10.1111/1468-2265.00203) completely evades skeptical theism. It is an argument from analogy in where an observation about human behavior is mapped onto God. The argument has been alluded to before, but as far as I know, has not been formally stated or given a name.
RC*: The condition of the argument is as follows: there is a difference between the phenomenal experience of human beings and that of earthworms (if it is even appropriate to think that worms have phenomenal experience). Even if earthworms lack phenomenal consciousness, according to some philosophers, we certainly have phenomenal consciousness and as such, there is a distance between our experience and theirs.
RC1 Human beings have phenomenal distance from earthworms and therefore, are indifferent to them, e.g. we walk through a parking lot on a rainy day and probably trample dozens of them underfoot with no second thought.
RC2 An infinite god or even a vastly powerful deity would have an infinite or incalculable phenomenal distance from humans.
RCC1 Therefore, we should expect God to be indifferent to us.
This argument avoids the nauseating intuition of skeptical theism as it cannot appeal to any ignorance we have. One thing we are not ignorant of, as evil and hiddenness make clear, is that either God does not exist or if any gods exist, they are astoundingly indifferent to us. Camus, in The Plague, observes through the character of Tarrou that if God is not going to provide succor in times of great atrocity, it is up to us to take the helm and do something about our plights. Conjoined to his scathing criticisms of the religious propensity to prefer the abstract over the concrete is Camus’ clearsighted focus on God’s absence or indifference, for even as Jacques Othon dies in agony and Father Paneloux shouts out “My God, spare this child!,” the child dies writhing in pain and wailing across the halls of the auxiliary hospital (Camus, Albert. The Plague. New York: Vintage International Books. 217. Web.). This argument is yet another powerful blow against personal being theism because a friend is there in times of need and a father who loves his children, all the more so. No appeal to our ignorance, as my defeaters make clear, can be marshaled in to salvage the notion of the existence of a personal being who loves us and has our well-being and prosperity in mind. The absence or more tentatively, the indifference of God should disabuse one of the belief in a personal being who loves us infinitely.
In the end, I think the lines of argumentation I have pursued here are by no means exhaustive, in that a lot more can be said about evil, suffering, hiddenness, God’s lack of supererogative agency, and an indifference stemming from the incalculable, if not, infinite phenomenal distance he has from us. I defer to Rieux: “No Father. I’ve a very different idea of love. And until my dying day I shall refuse to love a scheme of things in which children are put to torture” (Camus, Ibid., 218).
By R.N. Carmona
Isms abound and nuance is sorely needed. I think my readers ought to follow my lead and shed their isms. In place of these various isms, they should offer clear definitions of what they mean by these isms. I think definitions are more robust and are more capable of giving, especially detractors, an idea of what a label means in practice. I will now outline a few of my various isms and unpack them, so that people can start to see the absurdity of opposing some of them. In place of these labels, I will offer explanations for why I identity with these views.
Atheism is not merely an epistemic stance concerning belief in god, but a robust philosophical position that contains an analytic component. Analytic atheism is concerned with what is meant by theism and what is meant by God. Atheists, however, will not always agree with the answers provided by theists. A theist may respond to the first question and say that God is existence. An atheist might object by saying that such a definition is inconsistent with what theists commonly profess and that what they usually profess is much more elementary. God, for example, is man-like. He is pleased or displeased; given the latter, he is prone to anger. Furthermore, he purportedly has properties that cannot be attributed to mere existence: he is omniscient, omnipotent, eternal, timeless. The atheist could also respond by stating that defining God as existence is much too vague. The aim of a definition is description; this definition, however, fails to describe what is meant by God.
Analytic atheism also attempts to answer the question: what is atheism? To accomplish this, however, the normative component has to be consulted. The analytic component will provide theories of atheism or more simply, accounts of what atheism should be, therefore providing possible answers to the question of normative atheism. The analytic component is therefore, responsible for determining which account best captures what atheism is or alternatively, what an atheist is.
What an atheist is, is perhaps best defined by the approach s/he chooses. The approach chosen or a combination of these approaches might help us to arrive at a better definition of atheism. There’s fallibilism, deductive atheology, and inductive atheology. The latter two are encompassed by evidentialism. This position is arguably most familiar to modern atheists:
[A]theists have taken the view that whether or not a person is justified in having an attitude of belief towards the proposition, “God exists,” is a function of that person’s evidence. “Evidence” here is understood broadly to include a priori arguments, arguments to the best explanation, inductive and empirical reasons, as well as deductive and conceptual premises. An asymmetry exists between theism and atheism in that atheists have not offered faith as a justification for non-belief. That is, atheists have not presented non-evidentialist defenses for believing that there is no God.
McCormick, Matt. “Atheism”. Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. ND. Web. 21 Dec 2014
A priori arguments fall in the purview of deductive atheology. Such atheists would argue that the traditional view of God is incoherent. Such a God is not possible on this view. The characteristics God purportedly has are contradictory either in and of themselves or when one attempts to reconcile them. Take for example J.L Mackie’s explication of the Omnipotence Paradox: “can an omnipotent being make things which he cannot subsequently control? Or, what is practically equivalent to this, can an omnipotent being make rules which then bind himself?” (Mackie, J. L. 1955. Evil and omnipotence. Mind 64 (254): 200-212. Available on web.). This is a more generalized version of the Omnipotence Paradox, which usually asks: can God create a stone he cannot lift? Therefore, the paradox can be viewed as an argument attempting to show that omnipotence is incoherent in and of itself. The argument attempts to accomplish this by dividing omnipotence into two components, which I call functional and physical. Functional omnipotence is the capacity to will anything whilst physical omnipotence is the capacity to do anything. Therefore, the argument attempts to show that it is possible that God could will something he cannot do, in Mackie’s case, will something that he cannot control or in the general case, will the existence of a stone so heavy that he cannot complete the particular task of lifting it.
Another route such an atheist takes is the attempt to show that any given attributes of God are irreconcilable.
The combination of omnipotence and omniscience have received a great deal of attention. To possess all knowledge, for instance, would include knowing all of the particular ways in which one will exercise one’s power, or all of the decisions that one will make, or all of the decisions that one has made in the past. But knowing any of those entails that the known proposition is true. So does God have the power to act in some fashion that he has not foreseen, or differently than he already has without compromising his omniscience? It has also been argued that God cannot be both unsurpassably good and free.McCormick, Ibid.
Another route available to such an atheist is to argue that we have not been offered an adequate concept of god (see Smart, J.J.C. “Atheism and Agnosticism”. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. 9 Mar 2004. Web. 21 Dec 2014.). Concepts of god are often relative to this or that religion or subjective to this or that individual. Such concepts often do not agree with one another.
Perhaps the final route such an atheist can take is to argue that the failure of theistic arguments entails atheism. In other words, since arguments for God fail, it is reasonable to hold that god does not exist. Such an atheist, for example, will argue that since the Kalam Cosmological Argument fails to prove that God created the universe, we should believe that such an agent did not create the universe. Alternatively, she will argue that since the Ontological Argument fails to show the existence of a necessary being, this being is instead impossible. Whether or not these arguments hold are of no interest at the time. This is, however, how such an atheist will proceed.
An atheist operating under inductive atheology has several possible approaches. Whether or not one can prove a negative is too tangential a topic to cover here, but assuming it’s possible, one could offer Michael Martin’s argument:
P1 [A]ll the available evidence used to support the view that X exists is shown to be inadequate; and
P2 X is the sort of entity that, if X exists, then there is a presumption that would be evidence adequate to support the view that X exists; and
P3 this presumption has not been defeated although serious efforts have been made to do so; and
P4 the area where evidence would appear, if there were any, has been comprehensively examined; and
P5 there are no acceptable beneficial reasons to believe that X exists.Martin, Michael, 1990. Atheism: A Philosophical Justification. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1990.
What makes this argument inductive is P3 and P4. P3 and P4 hold hitherto and thus, there is the tacit assumption that they will hold going forward. In other words, that the future will resemble the past.
Naturalism is another argument available to an atheist operating under inductive atheology. This is, in fact, the prevalent approach among modern day atheists. Atheists may disagree on the details and therefore, espouse different sorts of naturalism. However, the more prominent forms are metaphysical and methodological. Methodological naturalism has two primary forms: constructive and deflationary. Deflationary is based on–not exclusively–the Natural Ontological Attitude (NOA). Arthur Fine describes it as follows:
I certainly trust the evidence of my senses, on the whole with regard to the existence and features of everyday objects. And I have similar confidence in the “cheek, double-check, check, tripe-check” of scientific investigation…So if scientists tell me that there really are molecules and atoms, and…who knows maybe even quarks, then so be it. I trust them and, thus, must accept that there really are such things with their attendant properties and relations.Arthur Fine as quoted in Ritchie, Jack. Understanding Naturalism. Stocksfield, England: Acumen, 2008. 97. Print.
NOA is an alternative to scientific realism and anti-realism. “Both realism and anti-realism add an unwanted philosophical gloss to science” (Ibid.). Therefore, the position neither agrees with scientific realism nor anti-realism. At first glance, NOA may sound exactly like scientific realism, but there are key differences that should be considered (e.g. the correspondence theory of truth doesn’t factor into Fine’s NOA). Constructive naturalism differs from NOA because it “involves commitment to a definite method for resolving ontological matters” (Ibid.).Such a naturalist may make use of, for example, Quine’s Naturalized Epistemology.
Metaphysical naturalism absorbs methodological naturalism. The view could be defined as follows:
Metaphysical naturalism seeks to explain every feature of our reality through only natural entities and causes, without the need of god(s) or the supernatural in any part of one’s worldview and life philosophy. In other words, a “big picture” explanation of reality can be reached without any appeal to religion, making religions such as Christianity unnecessary and extraneous to answering the big questions in life.Ferguson, Matthew. “Thinking about the ‘Metaphysics’ in Metaphysical Naturalism”. Civitas Humana. 26 Apr 2014. Web. 21 Dec 2014.
Metaphysical naturalism is a robust worldview that often requires lengthy elucidation. This has been done by, for example, Richard Carrier who states:
[I]f you want to know what we believe on almost any subject, you need merely read authoritative works on science and history–which means, first, college-level textbooks of good quality and, second, all the other literature on which their contents are based. The vast bulk of what you find there we believe in. The evidence and reason for those beliefs is presented in such works and need not be repeated…Carrier, Richard. Sense and Goodness without God: A Defense of Metaphysical Naturalism. Bloomington, Ind.: Authorhouse, 2005. 67. Print.
Where such authorities are silent, metaphysical naturalism is capable of providing possible answers. Take, for instance, consciousness. Metaphysical naturalism can offer cogent explanations within the physicalist framework. For instance, with respect to consciousness, some naturalists have offered some version of supervenience. On fallibilism, an atheist can argue that a theist has come to a given conclusion because he hasn’t considered all the relevant evidence (McCormick, Ibid.). In fact, part of this attitude plays a role in discussions between theists and atheists. Theists, generally speaking, make it quite obvious that they are not aware of all of the relevant evidence. William Lane Craig, for example, employs a perfunctory or selective grasp of cosmology in order to support his KCA. It is reasonable to conclude that if he were aware of all of the evidence or if he did not omit counter-evidence, his conclusion would be different. Unfortunately, this might be too generous. Craig has been made aware of the evidence and regardless of the fact, he still chooses to endorse the KCA. So in some cases, it is not just that a theist’s knowledge is fallible, but it is that they disregard the fact and do not care to correct it. Even worse, apologists are in the habit of omitting evidence to the contrary.
Lastly, the definition “lack of belief in gods” is inadequate because it alludes to everyday beliefs. It is correct to say I lack or do not have the belief that Jesus died for my sins and resurrected three days later, and then ascended to the right hand of the Father where he now intercedes on my behalf. Religious beliefs of this sort are not properly epistemic beliefs, which are “the attitude[s] we have, roughly, whenever we take something to be the case or regard it as true” (Schwitzgebel, Eric. “Belief”. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. 2019. Web.). Atheists, therefore, have the epistemic belief that the available evidence makes it much more probable than not that there are no gods or spiritual entities whatsoever. Naturalism, whether some of us like it or not, is a framework that has imposed itself on us. Even in cases where we assume supernatural or paranormal explanations, thorough investigation renders a much more mundane explanation. For some people, it is difficult to accept that the world is not fantastical. Severed limbs do not regenerate in the name of Jesus, people do not rise from the dead when a spell is invoked, and our ancestors do not protect us from physical harm. Thorough investigations only yield naturalistic, reproducible explanations. So when someone proclaims a belief that does not speak to knowledge or truth, but rather, faith, I can definitely say I do not share or that I lack that belief. Now when speaking of properly epistemic beliefs, I have the attitude that atheism is the case; atheism is true in that the various claims of religion do not hold up to scrutiny and that moreover, gods are entirely absent in the scope of all of our explanations. In other words, star formation, planet formation, the arrangement of the earliest, simplest metabolisms, the evolution of species, and ultimately, every model of the universe’s origin do not require a god in order to make sense.
When atheism is spelled out in this much detail, detractors are given no room to disingenuously offer a definition they prefer, one that allows them to malign atheists and misrepresent what they stand for. The label of atheism is futile. The definition or perhaps better said, the practice clearly spells out what it is that I stand for. The same applies to naturalism. The label no longer applies. Instead, I prefer to make explicit what I mean by it. Kai Nielsen explains the intimate connection between atheism and naturalism best:
Religions, whether theisms or not, are belief-systems (though this is not all they are) which involve belief in spiritual realities. Even Buddhism, which has neither God nor worship, has a belief in what Buddhists take to be spiritual realities and this is incompatible with naturalism as is theism as well, which, at least as usually understood, is a form of supernaturalism. Naturalism, where consistent, is an atheism.Nielsen, Kai. Naturalism and Religion. Amherst, N.Y.: Prometheus, 2001. 30. Print.
The Fourth Wave may be the most powerful wave yet, but a glaring issue limits its power: there are people who not only misunderstand feminism, but also either stand against feminism or misrepresent feminism. The former and the latter are more related than one realizes. Those who misrepresent feminism are very often responsible for those who stand against it. Some Christians and Muslims believe that women are inferior to men and will therefore oppose feminism by default, but there are anti-feminists who do not have religious reasons for opposing feminism. Their reasons are based on the misunderstandings of self-proclaimed feminists.
To set feminism straight, a return to the basics is required. Once the different schools of feminism are made explicit, misunderstanding should be quelled. Misunderstanding occurs due to oversimplification of the thought of one school or another. I agree with Richard Carrier, who stated that, “Feminism is often badly understood by people who don’t study it well or don’t read widely among contemporary feminist authors” (Carrier, Richard. “A Primer on Fourth Wave Feminism”. Freethought Blogs. 5 Apr 2015. Web. 8 Apr 2015.). A successful movement, of course, has to move against some form of oppression or move toward some end, but it also has to stop and gather its fugitives. It, in other words, should not exclude people who want to identify with it. However, it should be responsible for ensuring that its members understand the movement. It is responsible for its reputation and since the reputation of the movement is based on its members, cohesion and continuity are a must. We are in a digital age in where people listen to someone on a YouTube channel or a blogger in the blogosphere. It is a readily accessible form of media. It is often short and sweet when compared to a book, so the more learned and educated in a movement have to stop to protect the movement from misunderstanding and mischaracterization. To do this, one must gather the fugitives, and to accomplish this, they have to be shown where they have gone wrong. They need to be corrected. Often what is needed is a return to the basics.
Fugitives are the people anti-feminists get these ideas from, young girls who are themselves anti-feminists or who identify a feminists and confess to things that are not at all in keeping with the movement: that feminists hate men; that feminists want to exclude them; that feminists seek female dominance and perhaps a matriarchy; that feminists are looking to devalue masculine attributes; that feminists ignore the effects the patriarchy has on men and that they, in fact, ignore men’s issues across the board. These ideas are not true to feminism, but there’s still the question as to why people think they are. Mackay has a succinct summary of feminism and not surprisingly, she alludes to common misconceptions:
Feminism is one of the oldest and most powerful social movements in history; it is a revolutionary movement, and that means change. There is so much wrong with the present system that we can’t just tinker round the edges, we need to start again; our end point cannot be equality in an unequal world. This is also the reason why feminism is not struggling to simply reverse the present power relationship and put women in charge instead of men (though this is a common myth about feminist politics). Feminism is about change, not a changing of the guard.Mackay, Finn. “Radical Feminism: Feminist Activism in Movement”. Times Higher Education. 19 Feb 2015. Web. 8 Apr 2015.
What kind of change is the label of feminism about? Feminism concerns securing equality for women. Women should have the same opportunities men have. Women should have the same rights men have. Women should be respected in their careers the way men are; they should be paid equally. There should be no sex-based differences in academia, the workplace, at home, or anywhere else. When this is spelled out, it is an uncontroversial perspective. There should be no reason for anyone to oppose the affirmation that women should be equal to men.
IV. Black Lives Matter
Likewise, there should be no opposition at all when I say that Black people and minorities, more generally, should be equal to Whites. There is nothing wrong with saying that if a Black man commits a crime or fails to comply with police, he should not be gunned down. White men have committed crimes on a much larger scale and were escorted away in handcuffs. White men do not have to worry about police officers kneeling on their necks or shooting 41 rounds at them. Timothy McVeigh murdered 168 people, including 19 children, in an act of domestic terrorism, and he walked away with his life (Gumbel, Andrew. “Oklahoma City bombing: 20 years later, key questions remain unanswered”. Guardian. 13 Apr 2015. Web.). That is because he was given the right to a fair trail. In this country, a Black man selling loose cigarettes on a corner can be the victim of extrajudicial execution. There is nothing controversial about saying that even the life of an accused Black criminal matters. Innocent until proven guilty applies to Black people or at least, it should apply to Black people.
The same applies to Asian Americans, who have recently become the target of hate crimes across the country. Implicit here is that I am opposed to anyone who endorses stereotypes about ethnic groups. So when the former President joked about the “Kung Flu” and blamed China repeatedly for the COVID-19 outbreak, that was one of the many reasons I opposed him, his administration, and his supporters. It is absurd to me that right-wingers in America are roundly opposed to racial equality. They are also opposed to women securing equality. There is a sense in which my political opponents are wholly aware of what these labels mean and yet, they routinely choose to ignore the definitions, no matter how clearly they are explained. It is not any lack of clarity or sense on my part, but rather an obstinate decision to oppose progress of this sort at every turn. Political affiliation should not keep anyone from accepting my definitions or identifying with them. If your political party prohibits you from even seeing the need for racial equality, abandon the party or admit to having abandoned your moral integrity. There are no two ways about it.
In the past, I have used this term and I have done so to differentiate myself from Democrats. I am not a Centrist, a sycophant who condones incompetence and corruption on both sides while pretending that they are both exemplary. Neither political party in the United States is morally admirable. While it is the case that Democrats are marginally better, there is still a lot that they get wrong, hence my anti-Democratic, anti-Capitalist stances. I do not support the American idea of Democracy because, like Mbembe, I recognize that it has a nocturnal body: colonialism and every human rights violation that has followed from it from slavery to the Jim Crow era to mass incarceration of Blacks after a fabricated crack-cocaine epidemic. The United States is a hegemony, a pseudo-Empire precisely because it destabilizes entire regions by rightfully overthrowing despots and making the critical mistake of leaving a power vacuum in their place. Terrorist factions are just a small part of this country reaping what it sowed, but I digress.
Proponents of Capitalism are enamored with the idea of Capitalism. They, however, ignore the reality of it. Inequality the world over is perpetuated by Western ideas and interference. In the year that COVID-19 has wreaked havoc in the United States, workers have lost over $3.7 trillion to date while the wealth of top billionaires has increased by $3.9 trillion. This can be seen as one of the largest redistributions of wealth in history (see here and here). A lot more can be said about Capitalism, perhaps in a separate post for another day. The point I am making now is that the labels of Black Lives Matter, feminist, anti-Capitalist, and the like do not necessarily pertain to Far Left politics. Once these labels are made explicit, in that one makes clear what they mean in practice, it should strike anyone as absurd to be diametrically opposed to these positions.
That leaves open the question as to why people on the right see these positions as fundamentally opposed to their brand of politics. Again, if your political party imposes these discriminatory and even racist views on you, it is good sign that you should renounce it. There are ways to be fiscally conservative, a proponent of small government, and so on without subscribing to views that promote racial, gender, and wealth inequality. I fail to see how what I have had outlined is unclear or nonsensical. The isms, once unpacked, should not be as controversial. This is why I prefer stating my positions clearly, so that there is no room for misconstruing, misrepresenting, straw manning, and so on. There is, in my book, a difference between an opponent and an enemy. The enmity I reserve for my enemies has everything to do with the fact that they think their ignorance is better than my knowledge, their apathy superior to my empathy, their desire to oppress groups they dislike equal to my desire for equality. Opponents, by contrast, can have their minds changed. The omission of relevant facts is not the same as ignorance. My enemies intend to ignore that which disagrees with or defeats their views and more importantly, they intend to cause harm to people like myself, so they do so by weaponizing their right to vote to further marginalized groups they want to harm. Then they pretend to be innocent because they are not drawing a firearm. They might as well. Voting for a candidate that does not care about the plights of minorities, women, non-Christians, etc. is a deliberate attempt to harm these groups. You are not innocent.
Ultimately, labels in and of themselves are futile. We should do away with labels and instead flesh out what we stand for. This leaves little room for error and leaves our enemies fully exposed. This is not to say that people cannot disagree with atheism and naturalism, for instance. They are more than welcome to. What this does mean is that they cannot make the vacuous claim that I suppress God in my unrighteousness or that I hate God or that I choose to not believe because I prefer to indulge sinful concupiscence. These are comfortable things Christians say to avoid the fact that people have good reasons for not believing in God. My robust descriptions of atheism and naturalism leave no room for speculation of the sort. It gives them no space at all to go with a definition that allows them to slander people like myself. Labels do not accomplish this. Fuller descriptions of what is meant by a label go much further. Let us abandon our labels and instead, describe in greater detail what we stand for.
By R.N. Carmona
Why a blog post and not a proper response in a philosophy journal? My very first journal submission is still in the review process, close to two months later, for one. Secondly, blogging allows me to be pedantic, to be human, that is, to express frustration, to show anger, to be candid; in other words, blogging allows me to be myself. Probably of highest priority is the fact that I do not want my first publication in the philosophy of mind to be a response. I want to eventually outline my own theory of consciousness, which is strongly hinted at here, and I prefer for that to be my first contribution to the philosophy of mind. I do not find panpsychism convincing and I think there is another theory of consciousness, similar to panpsychism in ways, that is much more cogent. I have outlined some qualms I have with panpsychism before; to people new to the blog, you can read here. In any case, I will be responding to a number of points in Strawson’s Realistic Monism: Why Physicalism Entails Panpsychism. Here I will outline refutations that should leave panpsychism unresponsive once and for all as it is not a productive theory of consciousness, i.e., it does no explanatory work and does not illuminate further research; it gives us no real direction to go in.
Strawson states: “You’re certainly not a realistic physicalist, you’re not a real physicalist, if you deny the existence of the phenomenon whose existence is more certain than the existence of anything else: experience, ‘consciousness’, conscious experience, ‘phenomenology’, experiential ‘what-it’s-likeness’, feeling, sensation, explicit conscious thought as we have it and know it at almost every waking moment” (3). Strawson not only sounds like an absolutist, but he has, no doubt intentionally, boxed out real physicalists like the Churchlands and Daniel Dennett. For my purposes, I deny none of these things. I am not an eliminativist though in the past I have called myself such when I lacked a better term for my own point of view. Now, I believe I have located a better term and so, I call myself a recontextualist. I do not deny qualia. What I strongly deny is what panpsychists think they entail: usually a version of nonphysicalist panpsychism or even covert substance dualism in where mental phenomena are ethereal. In light of this, I suggest that qualia are physically reducible in obvious ways already known to us and in currently non-obvious ways yet to be discovered or understood; we simply have to do the work of demonstrating how what-it’s-likeness is physically reducible. I do not think Strawson dodges recontextualism and this will become clearer as we move on.
He explains: “It follows that real physicalism can have nothing to do with physicSalism, the view — the faith — that the nature or essence of all concrete reality can in principle be fully captured in the terms of physics. Real physicalism cannot have anything to do with physicSalism unless it is supposed — obviously falsely — that the terms of physics can fully capture the nature or essence of experience” (4). I think the word physicSalism is clunky and so, I will exchange it for the word physicsism, which I think ties nicely to its predecessor scientism. There is not a chasm between someone who thinks science is the only way of knowing and someone who thinks physics is capable of explaining everything. Strawson makes the mistake of thinking physics stands alone among the hard sciences, as if it is the ground level of scientific explanation. I think chemistry joins physics in that department and as such, real physicalists can be physicsists if they are also chemistrists, the idea that a great number of physical phenomena are reducible to chemistry. If monism, that there is only one substance, and physicalism, that this one substance is physical in nature, are true then it is incumbent on Strawson to address the notion that science cannot apprehend certain physical phenomena. Strawson, therefore, is guilty of the same dualistic tendencies he accuses Dennett of (5), and he seems to bite the bullet on this in offering his “‘experiential-and-non- experiential ?-ism’” (7). Per his view, there are actual physical phenomena explainable by science, especially ground level hard sciences like physics and chemistry. On the other hand, there are quasi-physical phenomena in where Strawson feigns at physicalism while also betraying the fact that he means nothing more than nonphysicalism. This has to be qualified.
So, let us grant that Strawson would qualify the sense of sight as uncontroversially physical. Now, he claims that the what-it’s-likeness of seeing red is also physical and yet, science has no account for this per his claims; not only does science have no current account, but it can never have a viable account because, in his own words, “experiential phenomena ‘just are’ physical, so that there is a lot more to neurons than physics and neurophysiology record (or can record)” (7). I am a real physicalist and I strongly disagree with this statement. For starters, I think his statement is informed by a conflation some people tend to make: if something is explainable by science, it lacks existential meaning and so, anything that is explained by science enables nihilism. In other words, if we can explain the origin of morality without recourse to God, morality is suddenly meaningless in the so-called ultimate sense and just is relativistic or subjectivistic. This is wrong-headed. Explaining the what-it’s-likeness of red would not change the fact that red is my favorite color; nor would it change my experience of seeing a blood red trench coat hanging in a clothing store, as if begging me to purchase it. In a naturalistic world, meaning is decided by us anyway and so, nihilism does not follow from the fact that science explains something. Love is not any less riveting, captivating, and enrapturing if science somehow explained every detail about falling in love, loving one’s children, loving the species one belongs to, and loving species entirely different from oneself.
This aversion to science eventually explaining qualia reeks of nonphysicalism and to my mind, just is nonphyiscalism being labeled as physicalism, which is really just a nominal label that is so far failing to cohere with what is normally meant by physicalism. The notion that physics, chemistry, genetics, and neurophysiology can never record those aspects of neurons that account for qualia is incompatible with physicalism. If science can apprehend physical substance, and qualia are a physical substance as Strawson claims, then science can apprehend qualia. To say otherwise is for Strawson to admit that what he means by physical in the case of qualia is actually not physical at all. It is covert dualism and nonphysicalism. I have no qualms with scientists fully understanding why red is my favorite color. This does not then dampen my experience or make it meaningless.
Likewise, I know that sexual attraction reduces to mostly superficial, properly aesthetic, considerations and pheromones that induce a reaction in my brain, which then translate to a host of bodily reactions, e.g., feeling flush and then blushing, feeling either nervous, excited, or some combination of both, feeling a knot in my stomach. This does not accomplish making my attraction meaningless or, at least, making it less meaningful because, in truth, while I understand the science of attraction, it does not register when I am in the middle of experiencing attraction. These considerations factor even less when I have fallen in love. I do not think, “well damn, scientists have me pegged and I am only feeling all of these sensations because of serotonin and dopamine releases in my brain; love is ultimately meaningless.” What gives vibrance to experience is the experiencer.
Experience is akin to aesthetics, hence why we find some experiences pleasurable while there are others we can describe with an array of negative words and connotations. Science can also explain why a lot of people hate waiting for a long period of time, why just as many people hate the feeling of being out of breath, and why pretty much anyone hates going to work after a night of inadequate sleep. Science explaining these experiences does not change the interpretation of the experiencer; science does suggest why we have very common associations between most experiences, from pleasurable to painful to everything between, and that speaks to us being one species. So, experience can be explained by science and science can even predict the interpretation of this or that experiencer, but science does not dampen phenomenal experience. Panpsychists confuse that we have phenomenal experience with that we interpret phenomenal experience. Physicalism is not opposed to science fully explaining either of these and in fact, it has done much in the way of explaining both. Strawson tries to avoid this and yet claims: “If everything that concretely exists is intrinsically experience-involving, well, that is what the physical turns out to be; it is what energy (another name for physical stuff) turns out to be. This view does not stand out as particularly strange against the background of present-day science, and is in no way incompatible with it” (8). Well, if indeed it does not stand out as particularly strange against the background of present-day science, then all concrete things can be explained by science. This entailment seems uncontroversial and obvious for anyone identifying as a physicalist.
Strawson stipulates that “real physicalists … cannot deny that when you put physical stuff together in the way in which it is put together in brains like ours, it constitutes — is — experience like ours; all by itself. All by itself: there is on their own physicalist view nothing else, nothing non-physical, involved” (12). This is patently false as it alludes to mind-brain identity theory. It is not just atoms coming together in brains like ours. Human consciousness is compound reductive. In other words, human consciousness is not reducible to just one physical, macro aspect about our biological structure. That is to say that it is not reducible to just our hands or just our feet or just our brains. Strawson’s conflation of physicalism, as usually construed, and mind-brain identity theory leaves out crucial elements of experience, namely our central and peripheral nervous systems; the parts of the brain because anyone versed in the pertinent science knows that when it comes to the brain, the parts are more integral to consciousness than the whole; sense apparatus like our eyes, noses, pain receptors, and so on; and finally, external objects that provide the mind with data to process, interpret, make sense of, and so on.
From the perspective of differential ontology, and given that I have been thoroughly disabused of flippant idealism and solipsism, I know that my thoughts are not organically generated as if in a vacuum, within my brain. My thoughts are invariably and intimately connected to whatever I am occupied with, in the present time by Strawson’s various claims about what physicalism entails. If he had never written his thoughts, then I would not be countering his claims with my own. Perhaps I would be thinking about lunch at 12:26 pm ET, but alas, I am not. The point being that when I do start to think about having lunch, my thoughts about what to eat will be influenced by hunger pangs that amount to a feedback loop between my brain and my gut, again demonstrating the importance of organs other than just the brain in accounting for my experience, and pretty much any human being’s experience, of hunger. That feeling would take priority over my desire to respond to Strawson. Deciding what to eat amounts to constraints, like what food I have in my pantry and refrigerator and a desire not to spend money on takeout. So, I can only end up eating what is already available to me; in this case, only unexpected factors can change this course. Perhaps a neighbor or a relative is decided on bringing me baked lasagna and since I currently do not know that they have these plans, that option does not feature in what I am thinking of having for lunch. In any case, what has become clear is that phenomenal consciousness reduces, in part, to a litany of physical objects, some of which are not even in your vicinity. What is also clear is that the brain alone does not account for phenomenal consciousness.
Strawson and other panpsychists are looking in one of the right places, to be sure, but understanding phenomenal consciousness is like understanding a crime scene, and as such, we have to be aware of various factors that make the crime cohere, from blood spatter patterns to the murder weapon to point of entry (and whether or not it was forced entry) all the way up to possible motive. If we stop short at the murder weapon, then we can conclude the person was stabbed, but we cannot make any conclusions as to how many times, in what areas of the body, by whom, and for what reason. Phenomenal consciousness, uncontroversially, is exactly like that! Strawson and panpsychists sit out on the porch of the brain and do not venture into a mansion with many rooms, light switches, outlets, and the such. Neurons, synapses, neurogenesis, neurodegeneration, memory formation, recollection, confabulation, and so on are critically important in accounting for certain experiences. We cannot say the what-it’s-likeness of déjà vu is due to the fact that particles are conscious. That tells us nothing, does not help us elucidate on this experience, and ultimately, lacks explanatory power. It is simply a vacuous claim. Real physicalists can enter the many-roomed mansion and start to explain why this experience feels a certain way, and why some of us interpret it the way we do; for instance, there is a delay between seeing and being aware that we have seen, and so, in those small intervals of time, we can fool ourselves into thinking we have already seen what we just realized we saw. In other words, your brain “knows” what you see before you realize you have seen it. Generally, however, scientists think that déjà vu is tied to memory, so if we are sitting on the porch, trying to explain what it’s like to have this experience, we are in the wrong part of the house. We have to venture into the hippocampus, for instance (see Hamzelou, Jessica. “Mystery of déjà vu explained – it’s how we check our memories”. New Scientist. 16 Aug 2016. Web.).
I will free to skip the entire section on emergentism because while I find this account intriguing, it is implausible and has, what I think, are obvious commitments. Strawson defines it as follows:
Experiential phenomena are emergent phenomena. Consciousness properties, experience properties, are emergent properties of wholly and utterly non- conscious, non-experiential phenomena. Physical stuff in itself, in its basic nature, is indeed a wholly non-conscious, non-experiential phenomenon. Nevertheless when parts of it combine in certain ways, experiential phenomena ‘emerge’. Ultimates in themselves are wholly non-conscious, non-experiential phenomena. Nevertheless, when they combine in certain ways, experiential phenomena ‘emerge’. (12)
If this is the case, then emergentism is committed to idealism and to solipsism, “sometimes expressed as the view that “I am the only mind which exists,” or “My mental states are the only mental states”” (Thornton, Stephen. “Solipsism and the Problem of Other Minds”. Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Web.). The obvious drawback here is that there is no way to pin down where these properties emerge from. The source will vary from one first person point of view to the next or, to put it facetiously, from one person under the illusion that they have first person perspective to another person under the same illusion. I will claim that all that exists is my mind while someone else can lay claim to their own mind existing. I will then claim that all else emerges from my mental states while the next person makes the same claim. Then the question becomes, when we are both shopping for clothes, why do we both see a blood red trench coat for sale and why is it that my mental state of wanting to buy it does not emerge from his mental state of barely noticing the coat? How can these same properties group together to become the same object from two people under the illusion that their respective mental states are the only mental states? Emergentism, with respect to consciousness, does not evade these problematic commitments.
To understand the next couple of sections in his paper, in where Strawson’s claims go off the rails and get even wilder, the following have to be kept in mind:
- The non-experiential thesis: “[NE] physical stuff is, in itself, in its fundamental nature, something wholly and utterly non-experiential” (11)
- Real Physicalism: “[RP] experience is a real concrete phenomenon and every real concrete phenomenon is physical” (12)
- P-phenomena: “the phenomena of liquidity reduce without remainder to shape-size-mass-charge-etc. phenomena” (13)
- “The central idea of neutral monism is that there is a fundamental, correct way of conceiving things — let us say that it involves conceiving of them in terms of ‘Z’ properties — given which all concrete phenomena, experiential and non-experiential, are on a par in all being equally Z phenomena” (23)
Setting aside Strawson’s side-stepping of chemistry, which easily shows how liquid water can “emerge” from two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom, the reason we cannot have Z phenomena is because the question of how consciousness can come from non-consciousness is itself reducible to a scientific question that has yet to be fully answered: how did life arise from non-life? Consciousness, as we know, is found in living things, so per the combination problem, what criteria need to be met for a consciousness like ours to take shape? Is it size, mass, shape, charge? Buildings and mountains are far more massive than us and by extension, are larger and have more particles generating what should amount to greater charges; and yet, mountains and buildings do not appear to be conscious at all. This is a critical clue because clearly, the haphazard combination of particles when a mountain forms or when a building is erected does not accomplish giving rise to consciousness like ours. Briefly, the combination problem can be formulated as follows:
Take a hundred of them [feelings], shuffle them and pack them as close together as you can (whatever that may mean); still each remains the same feeling it always was, shut in its own skin, windowless, ignorant of what the other feelings are and mean. There would be a hundred-and first-feeling there, if, when a group or series of such feelings where set up, a consciousness belonging to the group as such should emerge. And this 101st feeling would be a totally new fact; the 100 feelings might, by a curious physical law, be a signal for its creation, when they came together; but they would have no substantial identity with it, not it with them, and one could never deduce the one from the others, nor (in any intelligible sense) say that they evolved it.Goff, Philip, William Seager, and Sean Allen-Hermanson. “Panpsychism”. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Summer 2020. Web.
To do away with Strawson’s assertions concerning consciousness coming from experiential ultimates, I summon help from an unexpected source. Though the neo-Aristotelian uses this thought experiment for different purposes, it is enough to show that basic organization does not consciousness make. Jaworski, no doubt inadvertently, presents a version of the combination problem that cuts deeply into Strawson’s thesis. He explains:
Suppose we put Godehard in a strong bag — a very strong bag since we want to ensure that nothing leaks out when we squash him with several tons of force. Before the squashing, the contents of the bag include one human being; after, they include none. In addition, before the squashing the contents of the bag can think, feel, and act, but after the squashing they can’t. What explains these differences in the contents of the bag pre-squashing and post-squashing? The physical materials (whether particles or stuffs) remain the same — none of them leaked out. Intuitively, we want to say that what changed was the way those materials were structured or organized.Jaworski, William. Structure and the Metaphysics of Mind: How Hylomorphism Solves the Mind-Body Problem. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016. 9. Print.
Intuitively, I do not say that what changed is just the organization or structure of these materials. That dodges Jaworski’s neo-Aristotelian commitments. I also add that the spark of consciousness is what changed. There is, in this case, irreparable damage to the claustrum, thus making consciousness impossible to turn back on, so to speak (see Koch, Christoph. “Neuronal “Superhub” Might Generate Consciousness”. Scientific American. 1 Nov 2014. Web.). Furthermore, there is irreparable damage to other pivotal organs that make it possible for us to make any claim to being alive. The liver, heart, stomach, etc. have all lost their function. The matter is still there, but the electric fields that make us conscious are permanently off. This is why I am conscious and an inanimate object, equal in size and weight to me, perhaps a boulder, is not conscious. Non-experiential things can be used to design other non-experiential things or can naturally form into other non-experiential things given that organic compounds and electric fields are entirely absent. The question of how consciousness arises from non-consciousness just is the question of how life arises from non-life. Just because we currently do not have a fuller, more detailed picture does not mean we have license to offer theories like panpsychism, which possess nothing in the way of explanatory power. The panpsychist and neo-Aristotelian think they are headed in some definite direction, but they are both quickly approaching dead ends.
Electric fields theory (EFT) of consciousness, indeed similar to panpsychism, at least prima facie, is where panpsychists should place their chips. Tam Hunt elaborates:
Nature seems to have figured out that electric fields, similar to the role they play in human-created machines, can power a wide array of processes essential to life. Perhaps even consciousness itself. A veritable army of neuroscientists and electrophysiologists around the world are developing steadily deeper insights into the degree that electric and magnetic fields—“brainwaves” or “neural oscillations”—seem to reveal key aspects of consciousness. The prevailing view for some time now has been that the brain’s bioelectric fields, which are electrical and magnetic fields produced at various physical scales, are an interesting side effect—or epiphenomenon—of the brains’ activity, but not necessarily relevant to the functioning of consciousness itself.
A number of thinkers are suggesting now, instead, that these fields may in fact be the main game in town when it comes to explaining consciousness. In a 2013 paper, philosopher Mostyn Jones reviewed various field theories of consciousness, still a minority school of thought in the field but growing. If that approach is right, it is likely that the body’s bioelectric fields are also, more generally, associated in some manner with some kind of consciousness at various levels. Levin provided some support for this notion when I asked him about the potential for consciousness, in at least some rudimentary form, in the body’s electric fields.Hunt, Tam. “The Link Between Bioelectricity and Consciousness”. Nautilus. 10 Mar 2021. Web.
While I am committed to monism, the idea that only physical substance exists, and am therefore committed to physicalism, I am not committed to the idea that particles are the kinds of ultimates that attend to consciousness. Cells are the ultimates that attend to conscious beings like ourselves. This is the reason why the boulder lacks consciousness despite weighing as much as I do. Intuitively, the boulder should have roughly the same amount of particles in its structure as I do, but of utmost priority here is determining what I possess that the boulder does not. I am, as it were, activated by electric fields, receptive to my environment, can respond and adapt to it. The boulder, on the other hand, cannot do this. One might want to ask why, when the boulder finds itself gradually eroding under a small waterfall, it does not simply relocate itself? If, like me, it has a rudimentary spark of consciousness, why does it resign itself to a slow death, i.e., erosion? Bioelectric fields account for why I will move out of the way of an oncoming vehicle while the boulder remains idle under the waterfall, slowing eroding as time goes on.
This is probably the most damning response to Strawson: various domains of science are needed to understand consciousness. If EFT is accurate, and I see no reason for it to be inaccurate, cell biology is just as crucial as physics, chemistry, and neurophysiology. This makes for a comprehensive understanding of consciousness, comprised of the convergence of all our domains of knowledge. Philosophy of mind no doubt has a role to play, but not when it ventures far and wide from what science suggests. There is already a fundamental distinction between non-life and life, between inanimate objects and people. It follows, therefore, that if consciousness is inhered in living things, then it cannot be attributed to non-living things. This smacks of common sense and yet, philosophers are willing to occupy the fringes with popular theories like panpsychism. Some pretty anecdotes have come from this idea. Some say we are the universe experiencing itself, but if the universe already had all the makings of phenomenal consciousness, why does it need overrated chimpanzees who are preoccupied with reality tv, social media, violence against one another, and all manner of mundane and superficial nonsense to understand itself? If any composition at all, even absent bioelectric fields, is enough to account for consciousness, why not just configure itself into a Boltzmann brain that has no potential to develop the silly prejudices and biases humans tend to have?
My account starts to make clear how I can be committed to NE and RP and lead us in the right direction as it concerns Z phenomena. P phenomena are well-accounted for as they pertain to inorganic compounds. Of course, it begs the question to say that we have not quite nailed P phenomena as they concern organic chemistry. To reiterate, our ignorance with respect to how inorganic compounds become organic compounds that are essential to life does not give us license to make as many wild assumptions as we please. Any hypothesis, even within philosophy, especially if it encroaches on the territory of science, has to demonstrate awareness of scientific literature or at least, incorporate science wherever it is germane to one’s theory. Claiming that particles are actually experiential entities that account for why we are conscious pushes the buck back. Panpsychists have moved the goalposts and if they were correct, we would still be tasked with comprehending the consciousness of things utterly unlike ourselves. Thankfully, we do not have to do that and we can focus our energy on understanding why there is a what-it’s-likeness to our experiences. Again, there are important clues: for instance, people who were born blind cannot see while dreaming:
When a blind man is asked if he dreams the answer is immediate: ‘Yes!’ But if we ask him if he sees anything in the dream, the answer is always doubtful because he does not know what it is to see. Even if there were images and colours in his brain during the dream, how could he recognize them? There is, therefore, no direct way, through the dream reports, to evaluate the presence of visual activation in the dream of congenitally blind subjects.Carr, Michelle. “Do Blind People See in Their Dreams?”. Psychology Today. 29 Dec 2017. Web.
If experiential particles give rise to sight, then why do particles seem entirely dependent on eyes? Why do they not simply configure themselves in another way in order to circumvent the blindness of the eyes? It is quite telling that in the absence of a sense, the corresponding phenomenal aspect of experiences associated with that sense are also absent. My compound reductive account predicts this; this is unsurprising on my theory of consciousness whereas on Strawson’s account, and any panpsychists account, there is no way to account for this. Severe retinopathy is usually what causes people to be born blind. There are millions of light-sensitive cells within the retina, along with other nerve cells that receive and process the information that is sent to your brain, by way of the optic nerve. On EFT, therefore, blindness is damage within the electric fields that result in sight. The cure for blindness is to restore the electric fields within these cells so that communication between nerve cells is possible. That would then restore any corresponding phenomenal experiences. The mere organization of particles clearly does not accomplish this. EFT seems to have far more explanatory power than panpsychism does and if we took pains to assess just our five ordinary senses, we would be able to see that like blindness, anosmia, aguesia, deafness, and things like neuropathy, hypoesthesia, and CIP (congenital insensitivity to pain) are all reducible to nerve cell damage in the nose, mouth, ears, and extremities respectively. In simple terms, bioelectric pathways are damaged and thus, turn off communication to the brain, and in turn, cut off the corresponding qualia. This is essentially what I mean by recontextualizing qualia and Strawson clearly does not dodge that bullet.
Ultimately, I think EFT should supplant panpsychism in popular circles. I can agree with the notion of conscious cells because they are among the smallest structures atoms have assembled into within living things. I disagree with the idea of conscious particles because when they organize into air fryers, thermostats, buildings, mountains, and sand dunes, despite having comparable mass, size, shape, and charge to living things, none of these objects appear to be conscious; in other words, none of these objects appear to be aware, awake, attentive, and most importantly, alive. I can knock on a fish tank and the fish with the blankest stare in the tank can respond to a stress signal and move away from that area in the tank. I can throw a rock repeatedly into a harder material and it will continue to remain idle; put another way, I can take a geologist’s hammer to sediment over and over again, whether for a dig or in a fit of sustained rage, and the sediment will remain idle, allowing me to crack and break it as much as I please. Conscious beings, on the other hand, have a bias toward survival and retention of their structure. To use as humane an example as possible, if you were to do something that caused an insect pain, perhaps sending minor electrical charges into one of its legs, its automatic response will be to try to escape the situation. The insect, like you, wants to survive and ensure that it is not crushed or, in this case, burnt to a crisp. The same cannot be said of the myriad, non-experiential macro objects around us day in and day out. Strawson and panpsychists, aside from co-opting terms like physicalism when they really do not mean physicalism, would do well to renounce panpsychism and accept a better theory of ultimates: electric fields theory of consciousness. Then they can come to my pluralist physicalist account that allows for compound reductionism. To my mind, this is the only real way to study consciousness.
By R.N. Carmona
My purpose here is twofold: first and foremost, I want to clarify Rasmussen’s argument because though I can understand why word of mouth can lead to what is essentially a straw man of his argument, especially in light of the fact that his argument requires one to pay for an online article or his book Is God the Best Explanation of Things? which he coauthored with Felipe Leon, it is simply good practice to present an argument fairly. Secondly, I want to be stern about the fact that philosophy of religion cannot continue to rake these dead coals. Rasmussen’s argument is just another in a long, winding, and quite frankly, tired history of contingency arguments. In in any case, the following is the straw man I want my readers and anyone else who finds this post to stop citing. This is decidedly not Rasmussen’s argument:
Rasmussen has no argument called The Argument From Arbitrary Limits. Arbitrary limits actually feature in Leon’s chapter in where he expresses skepticism of Rasmussen’s Geometric Argument (Rasmussen Joshua and Leon, Felipe. Is God The Best Explanation For Things. Switzerland: Palgrave Macmillan. 53-68. Print.). Also, Rasmussen has a Theistic conception of God (omnipresent, wholly good, etc.) that is analogous to what Plantinga means by maximal greatness, but Rasmussen does not refer to God using that term. Perhaps there is confusion with his use of the word maximal conceivable. While given Rasmussen’s beliefs, he implies God with what he calls a maximal foundation, “a foundation complete with respect to its fundamental (basic, uncaused) features” (Ibid., 140). He makes it clear throughout the book that he is open to such a foundation that is not synonymous with God. In any case, his maximal conceivable is not a being possessing maximal greatness; at least, not exactly, since it appears he means something more elementary given his descriptions of basic and uncaused, as these clearly do not refer to omnipresence, perfect goodness, and so on. There may also be some confusion with his later argument, which he calls “The Maximal Mind Argument” (Ibid. 112-113), which fails because it is relies heavily on nonphysicalism, a series of negative theories in philosophy of mind that do not come close to offering alternative explanations for an array of phenomena thoroughly explained by physicalism (see here). In any case, Rasmussen has no argument resembling the graphic above. His arguments rest on a number of dubious assumptions, the nexus of which is his Geometric Argument:
JR1 Geometry is a geometric state.
JR2 Every geometric state is dependent.
JR3 Therefore, Geometry is dependent.
JR4 Geometry cannot depend on any state featuring only things that have a geometry.
JR5 Geometry cannot depend on any state featuring only non-concrete (non-causal) things.
JRC Therefore, Geometry depends on a state featuring at lest one geometry-less concrete thing (3-5) (Ibid., 42).
Like Leon, I take issue with JR2. Leon does not really elaborate on why JR2 is questionable saying only that “the most basic entities with geometry (if such there be) have their geometrics of factual or metaphysical necessity” and that therefore, “it’s not true that every geometric state is dependent” (Ibid., 67). He is correct, of course, but elaboration could have helped here because this is a potential defeater. Factual and metaphysical necessity are inhered in physical necessity. The universe is such that the fact that every triangle containing a 90-degree angle is a right triangle is reducible to physical constraints within our universe. This fact of geometry is unlike Rasmussen’s examples, namely chair and iPhone shapes. He states: “The instantiation of [a chair’s shape] depends upon prior conditions. Chair shapes never instantiate on their own, without any prior conditions. Instead, chair-instantiations depend on something” (Ibid., 41). This overt Platonism is questionable in and of itself, but Leon’s statement is forceful in this case: the shape of the chair is not dependent because it has its shape of factual or metaphysical necessity that stem from physical necessity. Chairs, first and foremost, are shaped the way they are because of our shape when we sit down; furthermore, chairs take the shapes they do because of physical constraints like human weight, gravity, friction against a floor, etc. For a chair not to collapse under the force of gravity and the weight of an individual, it has to be engineered in some way to withstand these forces acting on it; the chair’s shape is so because of physical necessity and this explains its metaphysical necessity. There is therefore, no form of a chair in some ethereal realm; an idea like this is thoroughly retrograde and not worth considering.
In any case, the real issue is that chair and iPhone shapes are not the sort of shapes that occur naturally in the universe. Those shapes, namely spheres, ellipses, triangles, and so on, also emerge from physical necessity. It is simply the case that a suspender on a bridge forms the hypothenuse of a right triangle. Like a chair, bridge suspenders take this shape because of physical necessity. The same applies to the ubiquity of spherical and elliptical shapes in the universe. To further disabuse anyone of Platonic ideas, globular shapes are also quite ubiquitous in the universe and are more prominent the closer we get to the Big Bang. There are shapes inherent in our universe that cannot be neatly called geometrical and even still, these shapes are physically and therefore, metaphysically necessitated. If JR2 is unsound, then the argument falls apart. On another front, this addresses Rasmussen’s assertion that God explains why there is less chaos in our universe. Setting aside that the qualification of this statement is entirely relative, the relative order we see in the universe is entirely probabilistic, especially given that entropy guarantees a trend toward disorder as the universe grows older and colder.
Like Leon, I share his general concern about “any argument that moves from facts about apparent contingent particularity and an explicability principle to conclusions about the nature of fundamental reality” (Ibid., 67) or as I have been known to put it: one cannot draw ontological conclusions on the basis of logical considerations. Theistic philosophers of religion and unfortunately, philosophers in general, have a terrible habit of leaping from conceivability to possibility and then, all the way to actuality. Leon elaborates:
Indeed, the worry above seems to generalize to just about any account of ultimate reality. So, for example, won’t explicability arguments saddle Christian theism with the same concern, viz. why the deep structure of God’s nature should necessitate exactly three persons in the Godhead? In general, won’t explicability arguments equally support a required explanation for why a particular God exists rather than others, or rather than, say, an infinite hierarchy of gods? The heart of the criticism is that it seems any theory must stop somewhere and say that the fundamental character is either brute or necessary, and that if it’s necessary, the explanation of why it’s necessary (despite appearing contingent) is beyond our ability to grasp (Ibid., 67-68).
Of course, Leon is correct in his assessment. Why not Ahura Mazda, his hypostatic union to Spenta Mainyu, and his extension via the Amesha Spentas? If, for instance, the one-many problem requires the notion of a One that is also many, what exactly rules out Ahura Mazda? One starts to see how the prevailing version of Theism in philosophy of religion is just a sad force of habit. This is why it is necessary to move on from these arguments. Contingency arguments are notoriously outmoded because Mackie, Le Poidevin, and others have already provided general defeaters that can apply to any particular contingency argument. Also, how many contingency arguments do we need exactly? In other words, how many different ways can one continue to assert that all contingent things require at least one necessary explanation? Wildman guides us here:
Traditional natural theology investigates entailment relations from experienced reality to, say, a preferred metaphysics of ultimacy. But most arguments of this direct-entailment sort have fallen out of favor, mostly because they are undermined by the awareness of alternative metaphysical schemes that fit the empirical facts just as well as the preferred metaphysical scheme. By contrast with this direct-entailment approach, natural theology ought to compare numerous compelling accounts of ultimacy in as many different respects as are relevant. In this comparison-based way, we assemble the raw material for inference-to-the-best-explanation arguments on behalf of particular theories of ultimacy, and we make completely clear the criteria for preferring one view of ultimacy to another.Wildman, Wesley J. Religious Philosophy as Multidisciplinary Comparative Inquiry: Envisioning a Future For The Philosophy of Religion. State University of New York Press. Albany, NY. 2010. 162. Print.
Setting aside that Rasmussen does not make clear why he prefers a Christian view of ultimacy as opposed to a Zoroastrian one or another one that may be proposed, I think Wildman is being quite generous when saying that “alternative metaphysical schemes fit the empirical facts just as well as the preferred metaphysical scheme” because the fact of the matter is that some alternatives fit the empirical facts better than metaphysical schemes like the ones Christian Theists resort to. Rasmussen’s preferred metaphysical scheme of a maximal foundation, which properly stated, is a disembodied, nonphysical mind who is omnipresent, wholly good, and so on rests on dubious assumptions that have not been made to cohere with the empirical facts. Nonphysicalism, as I have shown in the past, does not even attempt to explain brain-related phenomena. Physicalist theories have trounced the opposition in that department and it is not even close. What is more is that Christian Theists are especially notorious for not comparing their account to other accounts and that is because they are not doing philosophy, but rather apologetics. This is precisely why philosophy of religion must move on from Christian Theism. We can think of an intellectual corollary to forgiveness. In light of Christian Theism’s abject failure to prove God, how many more chances are we required to give this view? Philosophy of religion is, then, like an abused lover continuing to be moved by scraps of affection made to cover up heaps of trauma. The field should be past the point of forgiveness and giving Christian Theism yet another go to get things right; it has had literal centuries to get its story straight and present compelling arguments and yet here we are retreading ground that has been walked over again and again and again.
To reinforce my point, I am going to quote Mackie and Le Poidevin’s refutations of contingency arguments like Rasmussen’s. It should then become clear that we have to bury these kinds of arguments for good. Let them who are attached to these arguments mourn their loss, but I will attend no such wake. What remains of the body is an ancient skeleton, long dead. It is high time to give it a rest. Le Poidevin put one nail in the coffin of contingency arguments. Anyone offering new contingency arguments has simply failed to do their homework. It is typical of Christian Theists to indulge confirmation bias and avoid what their opponents have to say. The problem with that is that the case against contingency arguments has been made. Obstinacy does not change the fact. Le Poidevin clearly shows why necessary facts do not explain contingent ones:
Necessary facts, then, cannot explain contingent ones, and causal explanation, of any phenomenon, must link contingent facts. That is, both cause and effect must be contingent. Why is this? Because causes make a difference to their environment: they result in something that would not have happened if the cause had not been present. To say, for example, that the presence of a catalyst in a certain set of circumstances speeded up a reaction is to say that, had the catalyst not been present in those circumstances, the reaction would have proceeded at a slower rate. In general, if A caused B, then, if A had not occurred in the circumstances, B would not have occurred either. (A variant of this principle is that, if A caused B, then if A had not occurred in the circumstances, the probability of B’s occurrence would have been appreciably less than it was. It does not matter for our argument whether we accept the origin principle or this variant.) To make sense of this statement, ‘If A had not occurred in the circumstances, B would not have occurred’, we have to countenance the possibility of A’s not occurring and the possibility of B’s not occurring. If these are genuine possibilities, then both A and B are contingent. So one of the reasons why necessary facts cannot causally explain anything is that we cannot make sense of their not being the case, whereas causal explanations requires us to make sense of causally explanatory facts not being the case. Causal explanation involves the explanation of one contingent fact by appeal to another contingent fact.Le Poidevin, Robin. Arguing for Atheism: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Religion. London: Routledge, 1996. 40-41. Print.
This is a way of substantiating that an effect is inhered in a cause or the principle, like effects from like causes. This has been precisely my criticism of the idea that a nonphysical cause created the physical universe. There is no theory of causation that permits the interaction of an ethereal entity’s dispositions and that of physical things. It is essentially a paraphrase of Elizabeth of Bohemia’s rebuttal to Cartesian dualism: how does mental substance interact with physical substance? This is why mind-body dualism remains in a state of incoherence, but I digress. Mackie puts yet another nail in the coffin:
The principle of sufficient reason, then, is more far-reaching than the principle that every occurrence has a preceding sufficient cause: the latter, but not the former, would be satisfied by a series of things or events running back infinitely in time, each determined by earlier ones, but with no further explanation of the series as a whole. Such a series would give us only what Leibniz called ‘physical’ or ‘hypothetical’ necessity, whereas the demand for a sufficient reason for the whole body of contingent things and events and laws calls for something with ‘absolute’ or ‘metaphysical’ necessity. But even the weaker, deterministic, principle is not an a priori truth, and indeed it may not be a truth at all; much less can this be claimed for the principle of sufficient reason. Perhaps it just expresses an arbitrary demand; it may be intellectually satisfying to believe there is, objectively, an explanation for everything together, even if we can only guess at what the explanation might be. But we have no right to assume that the universe will comply with our intellectual preferences. Alternatively, the supposed principle may be an unwarranted extension of the determinist one, which, in so far as it is supported, is supported only empirically, and can at most be accepted provisionally, not as an a priori truth. The form of the cosmological argument which relies on the principle of sufficient reason therefore fails completely as a demonstrative proof.Mackie, J. L. The Miracle of Theism: Arguments for and against the Existence of God. Oxford: Clarendon, 1982. 86-87. Print.
Every contingency argument fails because it relies on the principle of sufficient reason and because necessity does not cohere with contingency as it concerns a so-called causal relation. Mackie, like Le Poidevin, also questions why God is a satisfactory termination of the regress. Why not something something else? (Ibid., 92). Contingency arguments amount to vicious special pleading and an outright refusal to entertain viable alternatives, even in cases where the alternatives are nonphysical and compatible with religious sentiments. In any case, it would appear that the principle of sufficient reason is not on stable ground. Neither is the notion that a necessary being is the ultimate explanation of the universe. Contingency arguments have been defeated and there really is no way to repeat these arguments in a way that does not fall on the horns of Le Poidevin and Mackie’s defeaters. Only the obdurate need to believe that God is the foundational explanation of the universe explains the redundancy of Christian Theists within the philosophy of religion. That is setting aside that apologetics is not philosophy and other complaints I have had. The Geometric Argument, despite using different language, just is a contingency argument. If the dead horse could speak, it would tell them all to lay down their batons once and for all, but alas.
Ultimately, contingency arguments are yet another example of how repetitive Christianized philosophy of religion has become. There is a sense in which Leon, Le Poidevin, and Mackie are paraphrasing one another because, and here is a bit of irony, like arguments result in like rebuttals. They cannot help but to sound like they each decided or even conspired to write on the same topic for a final paper. They are, after all, addressing the same argument no matter how many attempts have been made to word it differently. It is a vicious cycle, a large wheel that cannot keep on turning. It must be stopped in its tracks if progress in the philosophy of religion is to get any real traction.
By R.N. Carmona
Skepticism that results from the bias of the skin over one’s eyes is unhealthy. When considering whether skepticism of a view is healthy, what I consider is systematization. In other words, I consider how well a given view coheres with other views one holds. Philosophy is the impetus of systematization because when reasoning, one is to avoid fallacies and cognitive biases, or at least, that is the hope. Unfortunately, I find that there are views, even in philosophy, that put a great deal of stress on making an individual’s philosophy systematic. In truth, I am not so sure most people who fancy themselves philosophers even care or they hold incongruous views with a sort of negligence with regards to whether or not the positions cohere with one another.
Anti-natalism is precisely one of these positions that has fatal issues as far as its coherence with other views. Even more fatal is its allegiance to undeniable implications, some that have been exhausted for over a decade and others that I intend to point out. After outlining David Benatar’s arguments and Christopher Belshaw’s argument for anti-natalism, I will demonstrate the number of ways in which it fails to cohere with other positions an individual might hold.
Arguments For Anti-Natalism
Benatar offers two arguments for anti-natalism: 1) if one’s daughter were to suffer even a pin-prick, then procreation is wrong, the happiness and pleasure that she would have experienced had she been born notwithstanding; 2) despite the accumulated good she might experience, the good is outstripped by the bad (see Benatar, David. “Why it is better never to come into existence.” American Philosophical Quarterly, vol. 34, no. 3, 1997 and Benatar, David. Better Never to Have Been: The Harm of Coming into Existence. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006. Print.). His rationale is that “the absence of pain is good, i.e., better than its presence, with regard to one who could have existed but in fact never will. In addition, the absence of pleasure is not bad, in the sense of no worse than its presence, unless there is someone who exists and would have been deprived of it” (Metz, Thaddeus. Contemporary Anti-Natalism, Featuring Benatar’s Better Never to Have Been. South African Journal of Philosophy 31 (1):1-9., 2012).
Belshaw offers a different argument in where he tries to avoid a fatal implication already present in Benatar’s arguments. Metz summarizes it as follows:
Belshaw suggests that anti-natalism follows from the principle that is wrong to exploit the misfortunes of others, specifically, human babies. The lives of babies, Belshaw argues, are not qualitatively different from those of animals such as rabbits and sheep, where these beings lack an awareness of themselves over time, or at least a very sophisticated one. Instead, they tend to be ‘caught in the moment’, meaning that, for them, a later pleasure cannot compensate for a present pain. Although we might want to keep an animal alive and hence be willing to let it suffer now in the expectation that it will be happy down the road, Belshaw maintains that, from the perspective of the animal’s welfare, it would be better for it to die painlessly than to undergo the burden. And if it would be better for such an animal to die painlessly rather than face any harm, the same is true for babies, whose mental states are more or less the same and who are bound to suffer from hunger, colic, gastrointestinal discomfort, emotional distress, etc. (Ibid., 7)
With both arguments clearly stated, we can now turn to the litany of problems anti-natalism has. First and foremost, we will go through a systematic exercise. We will imagine adopting anti-natalism while subscribing also to other prominent perspectives. After that, the implications of anti-natalism will be made more clear. Finally, I will show that despite Belshaw’s Kantian language, his new argument in favor of anti-natalism misses the mark and is actually not in keeping with neo-Kantian ethics.
The Systematic Exercise and The Fatal Implications Of Anti-Natalism
To reiterate, a systemic exercise can be thought of in the following way. Imagine a collector of puzzles who is not the most organized person. He puts the puzzles together meticulously, often spending hours on them, and even frames the ones he finds aesthetically pleasing. The ones that do not appeal to him as much are partially taken apart and put back in the box. Sometimes, he does not notice when pieces hit the ground and so, over time, pieces from one puzzle end up in the wrong box. A philosopher, apart from ensuring that his philosophy is one of example, in that it is one that he is able to live by, should ensure that his views fit together like pieces of a puzzle. It is often the case that people have incongruous views. What is worse is that some people are fully aware of the dissonance and choose to leave it unaddressed. The point of a systematic exercise, then, is to ensure that the your pieces fit together like a puzzle.
With this in mind, we can now adopt anti-natalism in our philosophy. We can then ask whether it coheres with a given view we are already subscribed to. To my mind, there is no viable way for someone to be pro-choice on the issue of abortion and an anti-natalist. As Benatar and Belshaw have made clear, they have no intention of resigning their view to silence. They very much intend to convince other people that it is wrong to have children. Invariably, therefore, it is their intention to persuade all women not to have children. They, therefore, cannot claim to be pro-choice on the issue of abortion and by extension, any form of birth control. Benatar and Belshaw must argue that all women should avoid pregnancy at all costs.
From this, we can see a fatal implication that has already cropped up in the literature. Anti-natalism implies pro-mortalism, which implies the extinction of the human species. This is what Belshaw is looking to avoid in his argument. Metz states that “Belshaw points out that, although a future good cannot make up for a present bad for a being unaware of its future, it can do so for a being that is aware of its future, namely, a person” (Ibid.). What a person maintains is an optimism that their circumstances will improve. This is not tantamount to actually knowing the future. In fact, no one knows whether they currently have a terminal illness like pancreatic cancer. By the time the symptoms drive one to the hospital, the cancer is likely already in its later stages, in where the chances of survival have dramatically decreased. While one may have it in their heads that their circumstances are bound to improve, it is also likely that they are going to end up worse than anticipated. Babies clearly cannot know their own futures and parents, even if they were to extrapolate from their own experiences, cannot predict that their child’s life will improve beyond gastrointestinal discomfort and emotional distress. Setting aside that not all babies suffer from colic and the lives of all babies are not bogged down by the sort of helpless suffering Belshaw has in mind, he does not avoid the pitfall of pro-mortalism. To add insult to injury, his argument implies a very specific pro-mortalism, namely infanticide.
Briefly, pro-mortalism is the view that if one’s goal is to prevent the suffering of any given individual, then one should ethically kill this individual or put another way, to prevent the suffering of humanity, it is ethical to kill all of humanity. So even if one is too squeamish about pushing an overweight man onto the tracks to save five other people from an oncoming train, it would appear that anti-natalists are just fine with pulling a lever to meet the same end. In other words, while anti-natalists certainly will not go as far as creating a super virus that is guaranteed to kill us all, they are content with prescribing an equally lethal pill that will ensure the same consequence. This is precisely why Belshaw’s argument is not Kantian in spirit. We will circle back around to this shortly.
Continuing on with our systematic exercise, imagine now that you are adopting anti-natalism, but you are a self-described vegan and environmentalist. If an anti-natalist is committed, by implication, to pro-mortalism, then they are in favor of birth control for animals that understand their own suffering and the suffering of other individuals. This means that our favorite pets, cats and dogs, are to be spayed and neutered across the board. This also means that the very animals exploited by the meat industry should be marched to the ultimate slaughter, extinction. It follows, therefore, that one cannot be an anti-natalist and a vegan. Environmentalism is harder to see, but we usually care about deforestation, warming oceans, and so on. The reason for this is because human activity is having detrimental effects on habits that belong to, for instance, polar bears, the great apes, and cetaceans. Anti-natalism would entail the extinction of these higher mammals as well because they no doubt comprehend and even reflect upon their own suffering.
In the same vein, anti-natalism would imply suicide. If the goal now is to prevent your own potential suffering, then you should kill yourself. This is ultimately why I cannot make this view cohere with my neo-Kantian bents. I cannot, from the seat of my own existence, interfere with the will of other ends who see fit to bring children into existence. Inherent in the idea of exploitation is any attempt to dissuade someone from something they want to do, especially if their action harms no one else. While life definitely offers a bundle of experiences that are evaluated as bad, it also offers experiences that are good. To say that it is better for someone to never have existed because pain is bad, despite no one being here to experience it, smacks of unsubstantiated idealism. I can ready a retort: pleasure is good, despite no one being here to experience it. It is inconsistent to idealize a thesis but not its antithesis. It is either that both pain and pleasure exist without a person to experience and evaluate them or that they only exist in a conscious biological being that has physical and psycho-emotional ways to experience pain, and a mind through which it evaluates them and puts them into perspective. The latter is more cogent.
Now, to the charge that I have to be a utilitarian to make an argument concerning the evaluative weights of good and bad in a person’s life; I think it misses the mark. The argument is utilitarian in character, but not ultimately because it does not extend to other persons. I am not saying that if an outsourced factory full of underpaid, outsourced workers leads to the production of expensive phones that will make millions of people happy, then the suffering of the relatively fewer workers is justified, and that in light of this, the practice of exploitative outsourcing should continue. What I am saying is that whether a person decides their life is worth living is entirely their judgment call and that if they choose to assess the value of their life by weighing good versus bad experiences, it is a typical and valid form of assessment. The view is ultimately Kantian because if I recognize this rational being as an end in themselves, and not a means, then their evaluative judgment has to be suitable for their purposes. Insofar as they are not intentionally harming other persons in the process, their choices are entirely theirs to make. I will set aside collateral harm as the result of one’s choice to get euthanized. Like suicide, euthanasia is a complex issue, but I think with respect to suffering, it is better for a family to suffer the loss of their loved one than to see their loved one in a great deal of incessant and tortuous pain. In any case, if upon completing their assessment they decide that they are fit to raise a child and then pursue having one, and they make this decision on the basis that their child can have a life equal to or better than the one they have led, it is not my place to interfere with their choice. This is the true position of a Kantian. Belshaw misses the mark by a wide margin.
The following questions are in order. Why have Benatar and Belshaw put so much weight on suffering? What has driven them to grossly overstate the amount of suffering an individual experiences? This is why I think anti-natalism is fatalistic and ultimately, defeatist. When considering the scourge of poverty, proliferated by restrictive abortion policies, despotism, Capitalist exploitation, and so on, it is easy to resign oneself to the idea that maybe we are better off not having children at all. It is easier still to feel hopelessly small and powerless to effect real change. If we had no way to address suffering, then perhaps anti-natalists would be right. What lies before us, then, are two pills. On the one hand, the anti-natalist is offering a pill that works very much like a slow-working but lethal venom. Take it and humanity is doomed to extinction; higher mammals and other cognitively advanced animals, e.g. ravens and eagles, are also doomed to extinction. On the other hand, the pill of the pro-natalist is the promise of human flourishing by way of reducing suffering. It is better to raise awareness of the myriad problems we face as a species, so that we can come together to articulate, plan, and implement working solutions. With the systematic exercise in mind, it should be obvious that anti-natalism does not cohere with humanism.
To review, anti-natalism is incongruous with veganism, environmentalism, humanism, Kantian ethics, and pro-choice politics. If one subscribes to any of these views, one cannot subscribe to anti-natalism without significant difficulties. The most immediate issue, apart from being defeatist with respect to the problems we face as a species, is that the anti-natalist has succumbed to base individualism. Anti-natalism, therefore, does not cohere with collectivism. In other words, Kant does not speak of one rational being and one end in itself, but ends in themselves and rational beings. It is clear that he is approaching ethics with others in mind as opposed to himself, so again, to think that you have the right to interfere in a person’s decision to procreate is a form of exploitation because in order to convince someone of something that does not benefit them, you have to exploit the fact that they are gullible or, in other words, psychologically weaker than yourself. You have to see them as someone you can manipulate into believing something that is, in the end, ineluctably fatalistic. The thinking goes that even if humanity dodges every bullet, it ultimately will not survive the heat death of the universe. But for us very finite beings, with lifespans of 80 or so years, the prospect of billions of more years for our species is like an eternity. Anti-natalists have no right to prematurely take that from us just because they have given up on offering resolutions for the vast amounts of human suffering in our world.
That is ultimately the main problem stemming from anti-natalism’s incongruity with collectivism. Convincing everyone, everywhere to not have children will be to guarantee an increase in suffering the closer and closer we get to extinction, suffering that would have been avoided had their been just a few more farmers, a few more doctors, a few more people to listen to someone about their mental health struggles, and so on. What you are ultimately taking away is every chance the living will have to meet someone who will add enormous value to their lives. This can be a cutting edge scientist or engineer who solves a longstanding problem, like the incapacity for us to regrow severed limbs. Or it can be someone who would have become an incredible friend, partner, child, or parent.
One might now say that some of these arguments sound suspiciously pro-life. Well, the question has never been whether someone who is pro-choice values human life. The question has always been whether a fetus’ hypothetical rights override the rights of living, breathing people, specifically the mother and her extant family. The question has always been about whether it is my place to interfere with a woman’s decision to have an abortion. My resolve to not interfere in these decisions does not mean I do not value human life at all. Furthermore, my resolve is informed by the fact that forcing women to bring children into poverty or into a household in where domestic violence is a regular occurrence results in a vicious cycle that benefits parties fully intent on exploiting the poor. There is a reason why the more affluent and educated have significantly less abortions.
More specifically, I am fully aware that I am paraphrasing Don Marquis’ Future-Like-Ours Argument:
The loss of one’s life deprives one of all the experiences, activities, projects, and enjoyments which would otherwise have constituted one’s future. Therefore, killing someone is wrong, primarily because the killing inflicts (one of) the greatest possible losses on the victim. To describe this as the loss of life can be misleading, however. The change in my biological state does not by itself make killing me wrong. The effect of the loss of my biological life is the loss to me of all those activities, projects, experiences, and enjoyments which would otherwise have constituted my future personal life. These activities, projects, experiences, and enjoyments are either valuable for their own sakes or are means to something else that is valuable for its own sake. Some parts of my future are not valued by me now, but will come to be valued by me as I grow older and as my values and capacities change. When I am killed, I am deprived both of what I now value which would have been part of my future personal life, but also what I would come to value. Therefore, when I die, I am deprived of all of the value of my future. Inflicting this loss on me is ultimately what makes killing me wrong. This being the case, it would seem that what makes killing any adult human being prima facie seriously wrong is the loss of his other future.Marquis, Don. “Why Abortion is Immoral”. Journal of Philosophy, Vol. 86, 183-202, 1989.
I do not deny the strength of this argument given that the child in question is not born into poverty or domestic violence and more importantly, that the child’s mother is not giving birth under duress, i.e., giving birth because her government leaves her with no other option. Marquis’ argument has considerable force given that a mother or couple are in good position to raise a child. While it is still ultimately her choice, it would be strange if she did not find other recourses to prevent pregnancy, especially given that she is sufficiently educated and affluent. It will be an instance of a bad choice begetting another bad choice, but even cases like this are outside of my jurisdiction. More importantly, this is all beside the point.
We have now come full circle. Anti-natalism overstates the value of suffering while overlooking the fact that good parents want their children to have better lives than their own. We cannot prevent pin-pricks, paper cuts, fevers, and broken bones, but we can be sure to create happiness that far exceeds the pain they experience; one can therefore, explore whether anti-natalism coheres with Libertarian free will or compatibilism because prima facie, it appears that it is at odds with yet another hallmark assumption in philosophy: humans have free will. The position, aside from failing to agree with a number of views people can have, is fatalistic, defeatist, and anti-naturalist. As a naturalist, I cannot ignore the dissonance inherent in a view that would have me argue against the evolutionary drives of species to survive and pass on their genes. While I am in agreement with ethical reasons to avoid pregnancy, e.g., specifically when one is in poverty, I do not condone telling everyone, everywhere to stop reproducing. A good alternative to reproducing is to adopt children that are currently orphaned. Even with that sort of ethical advice, I am not asking everyone, everywhere to solely adopt children.
Ultimately, anti-natalism is useful for sake of systematic exercises. The view is perfect to demonstrate how a wayward puzzle piece finds its way into the wrong box. It is incumbent on a philosopher to ensure that his views cohere with one another. If not, the dissonance that results from two views in conflict implies that at least one of his views is false. In the end, I think an anti-natalist has to resign to participate in no forms of activism. Feeding the homeless, clothing the naked, aiding the needy, and all humanitarian efforts are just arbitrary ways to extend a life that is, according to the anti-natalist, rife with suffering. It is a defeatist, nihilistic, fatalistic position that cannot be made to fit in any philosopher’s puzzle because it is patently false. Let us relegate anti-natalism to a checkpoint in our history of philosophy books, to the dustbin with other thought experiments. Whatever you do, however, do not allow the venom to be injected into your veins.