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
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
In the beginning this world was only brahman, and it knew only itself (ātman), thinking: ‘I am brahman.’ As a result, it became the Whole. Among the gods, likewise, whosoever realized this, only they became the Whole. It was the same also among the seers and among humans. Upon seeing this very point, the seer Vāmadeva proclaimed: ‘I was Manu, and I was the sun.’ This is true even now. If man knows ‘I am brahman‘ in this way, he becomes this whole world. Not even the gods are able to prevent it, for he becomes their very self (ātman). So when a man venerates another deity, thinking, ‘He is one, and I am another’, he does not understand.Olivelle, Patrick. Upaniṣads: A new translation. New York: Oxford World’s Classics, 1996. 15. Print
This passage from the Bṛadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad coincides with the earliest ideas of ātman (the self). The Upaniṣads, unlike the Vedas, explore ātman in greater detail. The “Ṛgveda (c.1200 B.C.E.), the earliest textual source from ancient India, ātman had already a wide range of lexical meanings, including ‘breath’, ‘spirit’, and ‘body’” (Black, Brian. “Upanishads”. Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Web.). Interestingly, the Upaniṣads, taken together, do not yield the same interpretation of the self, so there is a sense in which the concept of ātman anticipated a view in modern philosophy of mind. We will circle back around to that later. Of importance now is laying out a brief overview of the ātman in Hinduism. Then, we will turn to the Buddhist interpretation of the idea, anattā, which has interesting parallels to modern views of mind.
The Vedic idea of ātman never fell out of fashion as is made apparent in Uddālaka’s teachings. His idea of ātman is pretty much identical: it is the life force within all living things, the very essence creating a bridge between the parts and the whole. This is in keeping with Advaita Vedānta in where the “experiencing self (jīva) and the transcendental self of the Universe (ātman) are in reality identical (both are Brahman), though the individual self seems different as space within a container seems different from space as such” (Menon, Sangeetha. “Vedanta, Advaita”. Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Web.). Yājñavalkya offers a different interpretation, equating the self with consciousness rather than a life force. He ” characterizes the self as that which has mastery over the otherwise distinct psycho-physical capacities. He goes on to explain that we know the existence of the self through actions of the self, through what the self does, not through our senses—that the self, as consciousness, cannot be an object of consciousness” (Black, Ibid.). Despite differences from Uddālaka’s interpretation, Yājñavalkya still adheres to Advaita Vedānta. The Advaita school of Vedānta yields a concept of God that accords with panentheism.
Prajāpati also equates ātman with consciousness, but crucially, he also conflates it with the material body. Prajāpati, therefore, presents a strain of another school in Vedānta, namely Dvaita, which is dualistic. In a sense, it is a dualism of mind and body or consciousness and the material, but more importantly, it is a dualism of jīva and the Brahman, e.g., humankind and God. Given Prajāpati’s distinction, we see the beginnings of monotheism or henotheism, and the much later bhakti tradition in Hinduism in where a devotee of a given god is to unite their soul to this god by way of their love and devotion. Though there are other interpretations of ātman and Brahman in Hinduism, Advaita and Dvaita suffice for our purposes.
In Buddhism, there is no ātman. We are, therefore, introduced to the concept of anattā or non-self. There is no static, immutable, essential soul or consciousness. This is crucial for Buddhist teachings regarding suffering (dukkha) and detachment because if one does not have the idea of an essential self, one is less likely to pity himself over others, to regard his own suffering as having higher priority than that of other beings. Coseru elaborates:
The centrality of the not-self doctrine in Buddhist thought is explained on the basis of its pragmatic role in guiding the adept on the path to enlightenment. Furthermore, the not-self doctrine provides a justification for treating endurance, independence, and self-subsistence as neither desirable nor attainable, but rather as what they are: mistaken notions resulting from the habitual tendency to construct an identity from a stream of physical and subjective phenomena.Coseru, Christian. “Mind in Indian Buddhist Philosophy”. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. 2012. Web.
As Coseru also points out, there is a sense in which the Buddhist idea of anattā anticipated Hume who thought that there was no self to apprehend within our perceptions. Along with anattā, Buddhists present “a fluid account of experience as an ever-changing stream of psycho-physical events. This dynamic model of human existence comprises the five classes of phenomena the Buddha referred to as the “aggregates of grasping” (upādāna-skandha), on account of our tendency to grasp after and identify with them” (Ibid.). This is opposed to our idea of a fixed self or consciousness experiencing life in a Cartesian theater.
When considering the Hindu idea of ātman and the Buddhist response of anattā, we can start to see how we could have avoided all of Descartes’ mistakes in the philosophy of mind had we been more studied on Eastern religions or other religions aside from Christianity. Christianity, akin to Dvaita, creates a dualism between God and man. There is never a sense, per Christian theology, in where man and God are identical or one. There is no sense in which man’s consciousness and God’s are identical either. Descartes took this a step further, dualizing the physical body and the mental soul. Hindus adhering to Dvaita Vedānta had already committed this error and the Buddhist idea of anattā, aside from reducing consciousness to the physical domain, suggested that there is no-self to speak of and more importantly, that there is no phenomenal consciousness to capture. It is an illusion.
Interestingly, the non-duality of Advaita Vedanta (monism), can be seen as paraphrasing anattā in that ideas of the self are illusory, a part of the Brahman dream (maya). This leads to the idea of mokṣa, the notion that we can free ourselves from the cycle of death and rebirth. For Hindus adhering to Advaita Vedānta, mokṣa is attained when one accepts the self as being one with Brahman. For Buddhists, Nirvana is the emptying of ideas of self and ultimately realizing that there is no self; this is how one comes to free oneself from the cycle of death and rebirth. Under both interpretations, there is a sense in which there is no self. On the one hand, any self that is at variance with the Brahman is illusory, a product of the maya while on the other, there is simply no self and any erroneous ideas we get about the self proceed from the ego. The ego is the engine through which false narratives of the self are created.
Further exploration of the self and ego delve too far into the philosophy of mind, but brief comments are in order. The Churchlands and Dennett adhere to anattā if ātman is defined as phenomenal consciousness. Ramsey states:
Dennett challenges not just our conception of pain, but all of our different notions of qualitative states. His argument focuses on the apparently essential features of qualia, including their inherent subjectivity and their private nature. Dennett discusses several cases—both actual and imaginary—to expose ways in which these ordinary intuitions about qualia pull apart. In so doing, Dennett suggests our qualia concepts are fundamentally confused and fail to correspond with the actual inner workings of our cognitive system.Ramsey, William. “Eliminative Materialism”. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. 2019. Web.
It can be argued, therefore, that if the history of philosophy of religion had been different, then the history of philosophy of mind would have proceeded differently. In other words, the missteps philosophers have taken throughout the history of philosophy of mind likely would not have happened. Of course, we would be dealing with a set of different mistakes, but some of these mistakes would not prevail till this day due to the obstinacy of apologists who do not want to relinquish the idea of Cartesian dualism. A thorough understanding of ātman and anattā would have at least disabused us of the idea of a theater of consciousness or a fixed self, and related ideas like qualia, which as Dennett points out, are problematic. See my recent “Nonphysicalism in The Philosophy of Mind and Its Shortcomings” for a discussion on why the ideas of qualia and phenomenal consciousness are untenable.
On the philosophy of religion front, the concepts of ātman and anattā are fertile ground for discussions within the cosmotheological and ontotheological traditions (see 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. 248-261. Print. for an overview of these traditions in the philosophy of religion). As stated earlier, we now move away from mono or henotheistic frameworks and consider, for example whether panentheism best explains features of the universe, on the one hand, and features of being on the other. For one, consider the idea that we are star stuff. We are comprised of the same matter and energy that pervades the rest of the universe. In that sense, then, we are not distinct and all things in the universe recede back to the Big Bang singularity. Perhaps our ideas of essentialist distinction are illusory, a dream-like story we continue to tell ourselves. In light of this, there is either no self or the self reduces to the universe. Given the recent resurgence of panpsychism, some have argued that the universe is very much like a supermassive brain (see Ratner, Paul. “The universe works like a huge human brain, discover scientists”. Big Think. 19 Nov 2020). In any case, a closer look at Hinduism and Buddhism will take us in non-monotheistic directions that may prove fruitful in ongoing discussions in the philosophy of religion and of mind.
Ultimately, we begin to see why it is of the utmost importance to break up the Christian monopoly in philosophy of religion, so to speak. We can see how the winding history of ātman and anattā anticipate certain strains in the philosophy of mind while also providing new, fertile ground in the philosophy of religion. In Advaita Vedānta, there is just one self, the Brahman. Every other idea of self is illusory. This has some staggering implications for ongoing discussions about identity as well. In Buddhism, given anattā, we see that the “I Am that I Am” uttered by Yahweh is ultimately an error of the ego, overinflated and now extended into the idea of God. Furthermore, this supports the idea that the jealous, vindictive, tribalist gods so often prone to favoritism, unironically, of the people who happen to worship them, are created in our image. Anattā suggests that gods like Yahweh, Allah, and those pertaining to the various mono and henotheisms around the world are extensions of the ego imposing false ideas of the self. Most philosophers of religion, concerned not only with the nature of but also with the identity of God, seldom wrestle with the idea that perhaps there is no universal ātman, e.g., there is no God. This has some resonating implications all its own. The purpose here has been to move the philosophy of religion in yet another fruitful direction; while I can begin to exhaust possibilities, it is important for me not to create a self-induced echo chamber, especially given that my interest is to encourage philosophers of religion to travel down these newly paved roads. Anattā has far reaching implications for free will, ethics, identity, existentialism, and other areas of philosophy as well. In any case, it should be clear why Christianity’s iron grip on the philosophy of religion needs to be loosened.
By R.N. Carmona
In the last entry in this series, we saw how Buddhism can handle the Problem of Evil. Traditionally, the problem exposed a contradiction between the idea of a perfectly good deity and the abundance of evil and suffering in the world. Buddhism solves this contradiction by eliminating the former variable from the equation, leaving only evil and suffering. With no deus ex machina to rescue us, the issue stands before us, waiting to be resolved by humanity, perhaps by way of adhering to principles similar to the Eightfold Path of Buddhism. What is notable about the Buddhist solution to the problem is that it makes it our problem and makes us responsible for doing something about the evil and suffering in our world; it places the burden on us to lift the world out of degeneracy.
Zoroastrianism, on the other hand, has a solution similar to the ones offered by Christians and Muslims. The key difference is that Zoroastrian theology better explains the origin and persistence of evil and suffering. On Christianity, God is perfect in every way. He is perfectly good and there is no evil in him. In addition to this, he is omniscient, omnipotent, and sovereign. Satan does not come close to matching God’s power and more importantly, he could not have produced degenerated conditions prior to the Fall of Adam. Plantinga argues, on the one hand, that Adam is to blame for why humans are capable of evil (Beebe, James R. “Logical Problem of Evil”. Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. ND. Web.). On the other hand, he blames cosmic and natural evils on the volition of evil, immaterial entities; he adds that God could not create a world with a better balance of good and evil, an allusion to Leibniz’s idea of a best possible world (Plantinga, Alvin. God, Freedom and Evil. New York: Harper & Row, 1974. 58. Print.). The notion that something is not within God’s power contradicts the belief that he is omnipotent. Furthermore, that fallen angels, beings contingent not only on God’s creative power but also on his immutable and incorruptible nature, were even capable of falling into depravity is dubious. Plantinga’s solutions, like other solutions offered by Christian apologists, compounds the problem.
Where Christian theology fails, Zoroastrian theology succeeds. On Zoroastrianism, Ahura Mazda or Ohrmazd is perfect in every way: he is omnipotent, omniscient, perfectly benevolent, immutable, incorruptible, and timeless. He created a material realm (getig) because he foresaw a future in where Angra Mainyu (Ahriman) would be defeated. Since life cannot coexist with non-life, light cannot coexist with darkness, and creation cannot coexist with privation, Ahura Mazda created the world for purposes of luring Angra Mainyu into it and defeating him. Angra Mainyu, unlike Satan, can corrupt creation. On Zoroastrianism, therefore, the viruses, diseases, parasites, and predators we wonder about given the assumption that there exists a perfectly good god are explained by an equally powerful evil god that can corrupt the substances of creation. Clark explains:
As far as their own natures are concerned, Ahura Mazda (Ohrmazd) and Angra Mainyu are completely opposite to the extent that whereas it is appropriate to say that the former has life, it is more correct to say that the latter has “non-life” and that his “creations” are in fact “anti-creations” or deprivative incursions into the Ahuric. Thus although we can characterize Zoroastrianism as a dualism of sorts, this must be qualified since we cannot say that the religion recognizes two gods in Ahura Mazda and Angra Mainyu precisely because of the radical distinction of their natures. This distinction is confirmed textually. The term for “Lord,” for example, is never applied to Ahriman (Angra Mainyu) in the Pahlavi books, and both the Avestan and Pahlavi languages have curious double vocabularies in which certain terms are inherently Ahuric and others inherently Ahrimanic. Even seemingly neutral terms like “leg” and “hand” have different words in Avestan, depending on whether they are used with reference to Ahuric or Ahrimanic entities.Clark, Peter. Zoroastrianism: An Introduction to an Ancient Faith. Chicago: Sussex Academic Press, 1998. 85. Print
The longstanding Theism-atheism debate in the philosophy of religion has inadvertently stumbled upon this solution already. While Buddhism removes God from the equation, Zoroastrianism adds an evil god to solve the problem of evil and suffering. It would be interesting to note the similarity between Zoroastrian theology and Aquinas’ explanation of evil. Aquinas was probably familiar with Zoroastrian theology and subsumed their explanation of evil into his philosophy because in light of Christian theology, Aquinas’ musings are incoherent. Floyd states that “evil has no actuality in its own right. It would be a mistake, then, to speak of evil as an actual “thing,” if by “thing” we mean an existing being or quality. For evil is a deprivation of what is actual, like blindness or sickness. For this reason, Aquinas says that something is evil “inasmuch as it is deprived of some particular good that pertains to its due or proper perfection” (QDM 1.1 ad 1; ST Ia 48.2 passim)” (Floyd, Shawn. “Aquinas: Moral Philosophy”. Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Web.). Alternatively, since Aquinas followed Augustine’s lead here, perhaps Augustine was familiar with Zoroastrian theology and incorporated their explanation of evil into his writings.
What’s more is that the evil god challenge has already been raised and though it was not Law’s intention to argue that this evil god explains evil ontologically, intending instead to pose a new challenge for Theism, Law’s evil god is not far from Angra Mainyu. Law states:
Consider a different hypothesis. Suppose the universe has a creator. Suppose also that this being is omnipotent and omniscient. But suppose he is not maximally good. Rather, imagine that he is maximally evil. His depravity is without limit. His cruelty knows no bounds. There is no other god or gods – just this supremely wicked being. Call this the evil-god hypothesis.Law, Stephen. The evil-god challenge. Religious Studies, 2010 46(3), 353-373. doi:10.1017/S0034412509990369
The key difference is that Law replaces the Judeo-Christian concept of god with a maximally evil being. His concept is more in keeping with monotheism rather than the henotheism present in Zoroastrian theology. Briefly, henotheism entails the worship of one god while not denying that there are other gods or the worship of one god that can manifest itself in other forms or as other gods, e.g., Hinduism. Though Zoroastrians do not address Angra Mainyu as a god, he is not a being created by Ahura Mazda. Furthermore, Spenta Mainyu and Angra Mainyu are recognized as “twin spirits,” co-eternal, and both existing outside of time. Spenta Mainyu, the holy spirit of Ahura Mazda, is hypostatically connected to Ahura Mazda. Clark elaborates:
Just as the good spirit of Ahura Mazda, Spenta Mainyu, and the hostile spirit, Angra Mainyu, are independent of each other, having no connection either conceptually or in any fundamental or primal sense (in that they share no common origin), so evil and good in this world are also completely separate to the degree that one is not only the ideological but also physical antithesis of the other. All that is good, that which we call Ahuric, is a positive quality emanating from the Wise Lord whereas all that is bad is the result of Ahriman’s intrusion into the Ahuric domain, and is in fact a deprivation of the good, a destructive incursion into the created order. That is why the Ahrimanic is sometimes referred to only by what it is not — hence the term ajyati, “not-life” (Ibid., 126).
The maximally great being of Christian Theists and the maximally evil being posited by Law are already present in Zoroastrian theology. Humans are actors on a stage set from eternity; Ahura Mazda and Angra Mainyu have been at variance for all of eternity and we are either ashavans living by Good Thoughts, Good Words, and Good Deeds or we are drugvants leading a life of hostility, deceit, violence, and so on. Any feature of the universe that we qualify as evil or, at the very least, irreconcilable with a perfectly good being, from asteroid impacts to malignant Narcissists, reduces to the Zoroastrian hostile spirit and his capacity to manipulate creative substance so that it succumbs to degeneracy. On Zoroastrianism, therefore, the abundance of evil and suffering we experience in the world, including features of the animal kingdom that do not square with the existence of a perfectly benevolent being, stem from an intrusive, equally powerful evil god whose greatest weapon is death. From a naturalistic, evolutionary perspective, if the Ahuric design was simply for species to acquire adaptive traits enabling them to survive in perpetuity, Angra Mainyu manipulated evolutionary purposes to introduce death and extinction, or simply, “non-life.”
Interestingly, there is a way for a naturalist to subsume the Zoroastrian solution to the Problem of Evil. If we set aside all reification of evil and good, along with any ideas of omni-beings whether good or evil, what Zoroastrianism predicts is that people living by Good Thoughts, Good Words, and Good Deeds will rid the physical realm of evil once and for all. Just as we learned through Buddhism, while we are ultimately not powerful enough to address all aspects of so-called degeneracy, in that we cannot, for instance, remove entropy from the universe or return it to its original state of perfect symmetry, we can rid the world of exploitation, corruption, deceit, and all manner of malice; with enough scientific and technological advancement, we may be able to achieve versions of functional immorality, thereby curbing death (see Reedy, Christiana. “An End to Aging: Can Science Allow Humans to To Become Immortal?”. Futurism. 3 Mar 2017. Web.). The naturalistic Zoroastrian prescription for a solution to the Problem of Evil is similar to the Buddhist’s: Good Thoughts, Good Words, and Good Deeds, which are similar in many respects to Buddhism’s Eightfold Path. What’s more is that according to Zoroastrian mythology, Ahura Mazda created us to be the impetus of his victory over Angra Mainyu. On a naturalistic reading, then, the eradication of evil and the regeneration of our civilization and planet requires us to become ashavans, following after asha (truth) and following an ethical code that would draw us to the incorruptible light of Ahura Mazda. Essentially, there is no distinction between how Ahura Mazda is described and an ashavan, once again implying that we are to reappropriate the moral powers we mistakenly surrendered to the prevailing idea of God.
Ultimately, Zoroastrianism offers a unique solution to the problem of evil, one that its theology was able to anticipate in today’s Theism-atheism debate in the philosophy of religion, so to speak. For anyone looking to maintain belief in a perfectly good deity, it appears reasonable to recognize that there is an equally, or at least, comparably powerful evil deity through whom we can explain evil and suffering. Aquinas, following Augustine, appears to have been familiar enough with Zoroastrianism; otherwise, it will be hard to explain why his rationalizations of evil sound suspiciously similar. The problem is that I do not think Augustine and Aquinas’ ideas cohere with Christian theology; the notion of deprivation or “non-life” makes a lot more sense given the Zoroastrian belief in the “twin spirits.” Christians have long recognized the appeal of this solution, augmenting Satan’s power to the point of near-omnipotence. On some accounts, he can read minds or predict the future. Martin Luther King Jr., communicating a line of Christian thinking, conveyed the idea of “demonic imitation” in where religions like Zoroastrianism, along with its belief in saoshyants born of virgins, were meant to deceive people and lure them away from Christianity (Jr. King, Martin Luther. “The Influence of the Mystery Religions on Christianity”. Stanford University. 29 Nov 1949. Web.). Christianity does not bestow this level of power on its greatest evil. Zoroastrianism, on the other hand, does acknowledge that Angra Mainyu is maximally evil. Zoroastrianism’s solution is provocative though it entails henotheism or even polytheism. Either way, it is a welcome retreat from the Christian monopoly, a viable way to get out from under Christianity’s long shadow in the philosophy of religion.
By R.N. Carmona
The Problem of Evil, as normally construed, needs to be reframed in order to be discussed more generally in the philosophy of religion. When one thinks of the problem, one thinks about the incongruity between the evil and suffering we observe in the world and the idea of a perfectly benevolent deity. In issues of dissonance, the simplest solution is to identify which one of your beliefs is causing the issue. While it is possible that both conflicting beliefs can be wrong, sometimes it is that one is the case while the other is not. Christians might not allow for the radical solution I am going to offer by way of Buddhism, but it is a viable solution nonetheless. Buddhism is a godless religion and as such, one accomplishes reframing the problem by removing one of the elements causing tension. In this particular case, we simply remove the belief in a perfectly good god. What we are then left with is the fact that evil and suffering abound in our world, which is a problem all its own.
What does Buddhism have to say about evil and suffering? What answers might it give us to start mitigating an issue that affects us all? I think that Buddhism will accomplish something in the philosophy of religion that Christianity has not. Not only will it solve the Problem of Evil, but it will redistribute it, as it were, into the real world where it belongs. This is not to say that Christians do nothing to address evil and suffering, but every hour spent on batting around the tired literature surrounding the Problem of Evil is time not spent addressing the actual problem. As we will see later in this series, beliefs about a god serving as deus ex machina and renewing this degenerated existence predate Christianity and Islam. In other words, people have had similar beliefs for thousands of years, convinced that the restoration of the Earth and humankind to a state without blemish would certainly happen within their lifetimes. Thousands of years have gone by and we are still plagued by many of the same issues that they encountered. The solutions that Buddhism will offer will place the responsibility of solving the problem of evil and suffering squarely on our shoulders. There is no god out there waiting for the opportune time to regenerate all of existence. Buddhism makes the problem our problem and takes it out of the hands of philosophers that prefer argument to action.
Buddhism’s Definition of Evil and Suffering
In Buddhism, suffering is the subject of the Four Noble Truths:
- Dukha: There is suffering because we experience a great deal of disappointment in life. Illness and injury are obvious causes of suffering, but even when we do not find our leg in a cast or have to deal with the death of a loved one, we still lack fulfillment and desire more than we currently have. In the Western sense of thinking, we seldom stop to count our blessings.
- Samudāya: Suffering is rooted in craving (tanhā). Greed, ignorance, and hatred, generally speaking, define our addictions.
- Nirodha: To cease suffering, one need only detach oneself from addictions. Detachment is a concept ripe for philosophical exploration, aside from the subject matter currently in focus.
- Magga: The way through which we can end both our own suffering and the suffering of others. This is inhered in the Eightfold Path.
The Eightfold Path to end suffering is as follows:
- Right Understanding – Sammā ditthi: To live by the Buddha’s teachings, not in the Western, submissive sense, but approaching even his teachings with skepticism and discretion
- Right Intention – Sammā san̄kappa: To learn to assess one’s motives and intentions and being sure to see things clearly, without prejudices and assumptions
- Right Speech – Sammā vācā: To speak the truth and to shun destructive lying. This would also require one to avoid gossiping, slandering, and insulting others
- Right Action – Sammā kammanta: To live in harmony with all living things; this entails a commitment to not cause harm, especially killing
- Right Livelihood – Sammā ājīva: To earn a living without exploiting other people or causing harm. This would entail not selling potentially harmful paraphernalia or products
- Right Effort – Sammā vāyāma: To maintain positive states of mind. This involves keeping oneself from thinking in terms of violence, revenge, and so on
- Right Mindfulness – Sammā sati: To be keenly aware of your thoughts, emotions, and any of the body’s corresponding sensations as it pertains to destructive emotions like anger but also positive feelings like pleasure
- Right Concentration – Sammā samādhi: To cultivate the focus necessary to make this deeper awareness of oneself possible
Of interest is Buddhism’s non-duality; Buddhists do not think of evil and suffering the way most of us do in the West. For us, when we think of evil, we think of the psychopathic serial killer. When we think of suffering, we imagine perhaps a homeless person or someone who is terminally ill laying in a hospital bed. We do not realize that the same sources give rise to both evil and suffering. This is not to merely state that an evil person causes the suffering of another person. That is stating the obvious. Rather, it is to say that greed (the rooster), ignorance (the pig), and hatred (the snake) give rise to evil and suffering within the same individual. The same reasons leading a person to be characterized as evil also result in his own suffering. As Kyokai states: “Greed rises from wrong ideas of satisfaction; anger rises from wrong ideas concerning the state of one’s affairs and surroundings; foolishness rises from the inability to judge what correct conduct is” (Kyokai, Bukkyo Dendo. The Teaching of Buddha. 162. Print). Mark Epstein elaborates:
When we refuse to acknowledge the presence of unwanted feelings, we are as bound to them as when we give ourselves over to them indignantly and self-righteously. Religion has traditionally counseled believers to withdraw from aggressive, erotic, or egotistical states of mind, replacing them with the “purer” states of devotion, humility, and piety. Psychoanalysis has encouraged its adherents to be less fearful of these emotions, to understand their roots and recover the energy that has been lost through the failure to accept primitive urges or longings. Buddhism, alone among the world’s religions, has taken a characteristically middle path, recognizing the need to be free from destructive emotions while at the same time seeing that such freedom comes through nonjudgmental awareness of just those emotions we seek freedom from.Epstein, Mark. Thoughts Without A Thinker: Psychotherapy From A Buddhist Perspective. New York: Perseus Books Group, 1995. 24. Print
Buddhism, therefore, does not relocate evil in others. Unlike other religions, it does not paint the worst of men as monsters or as influenced or even possessed by evil entities. Buddhism, first and foremost, identifies a propensity for evil in you. It also identifies the source of suffering in you. This is a good start because it allows us, in the main, to keep ourselves from slipping into behavioral patterns that result in suffering or evil. Of course, the larger issues are still unanswered. There is a great deal of suffering to address, not only in humans, but in animals as well. Buddhism should offer a way to address the wider evil and suffering in the world: political corruption, poverty, genocide, war, and so on. This is, after all, what people have looked to gods to address, so we are left with a staggeringly massive problem once we remove a perfectly good god from equation; evil and suffering are suddenly the literal weight of the world on our shoulders. It is likely that because these issues are so intimidating and have a way of making us feel insignificant and small, we find solace in the idea that something greater and more powerful than ourselves will eventually rescue us. Like children, who make a mess of their rooms knowing their parents will clean up after them, we have made a mess of our planet and look to a celestial father figure to bail us out. It is time now to reckon with the fact that we are adults; we are on our own and this is entirely our problem to fix.
Predictably, then, if Buddhism identifies evil and suffering in us, then it also identifies the solution in us. This is Buddhism’s greatest insight with respect to evil and suffering. Epstein states:
Yet, one of the most compelling things about the Buddhist view of suffering is the notion, inherent in the Wheel of Life image, that the causes of suffering are also the means of release; that is, the sufferer’s perspective determines whether a given realm is a vehicle for awakening or for bondage. Conditioned by the forces of attachment, aversion, and delusion, our faulty perceptions of the realms—not the realms themselves—cause suffering.Ibid., 16
Briefly, the Wheel of Life is comprised of the Six Realms of Saṃsāra. Below is an image to help visualize what is inhered in each realm:
Prior to assuming a panoramic view, Buddhism’s view on animals is crucial. Recall stages three thru five of the Eightfold Path: Right Speech, Right Action, and Right Livelihood. These stages concern Buddhist ethical conduct (śīla). One of Buddhism’s precepts is ahiṃsā (non-violence). Bronwyn Finnigan, Senior Lecturer in the School of Philosophy at the Australian National University, outlines several arguments that extends ahiṃsā to animals. He states: “Since killing and harming animals causes suffering, and since suffering is intrinsically bad and should be prevented, it follows that one should not kill or harm animals” (Finnigan, Bronwyn. Buddhism and the moral status of animals. ABC Religions and Ethics. 21 Nov 2018. Web.). He also remarks: “I do not desire to suffer. If I were killed that would cause me to suffer. Animals are like me in not desiring to suffer. Killing animals causes them to suffer. So, I should not kill animals“; “Psychological states exist but no selves who own those states. If suffering should be removed, given some interest, then all sufferings should be removed, given some interest. Killing and harming animals causes them to suffer. Animals have an interest not to suffer. So, we should not kill or harm animals“; “Not killing or harming animals is a way to cultivate compassion. One should be compassionate. So, one should not kill or harm animals” (Ibid.). One of Finnigan’s four arguments must resonate with everyone. As a neo-Kantian, his second argument is the most compelling. In other words, since animals are like me, in that there is nothing that makes me special or superior to them as Western religions posit, they do not desire to suffer. It follows, therefore, that I should not harm or kill animals. Pursuing animal rights is too tangential for our current purposes, but Christine Korsgaard has an excellent take on this issue (Korsgaard, Christine M. 2011. “Interacting with Animals: A Kantian Account.” In The Oxford Handbook of Animal Ethics, ed. Tom L. Beauchamp and R. G. Frey, 91-118. Oxford: Oxford University Press.).
Now, to assume a bird’s-eye view. What are we to do about all the suffering and evil in the world? If we set aside the historical missteps some Buddhists have taken, e.g. the manner in which some have embraced violence, and try to imagine, instead of a Judeo-Christian-Islamic world, a Buddhist world, would the Eightfold Path solve the real problem of suffering and evil? If we all acquired a deep awareness of our cravings and subsequent addictions; if we all agreed to stop harming and killing others; if we all agreed to stop insulting one another and gossiping; if we all designed to meditate and unravel latent traumas; if we all studied the teachings of Buddha, building upon his initial ideas, do we now find ourselves in a better world? The greatest conceivable human being can be anyone of us, but, to my mind, there is no greater modern exemplary than the Dalai Lama. Boris-Dunchunstang recalls his story:
It was during the early morning hours of February 4, 1997, when three monks who were sleeping a few hundred yards from my living quarters were stabbed to death. They were cut up in a fashion that resembled an exorcism. One of the monks was my dearest friend and confidant, seventy-year-old Lobsang Gyatso. He was found dead in bed. Two younger monks, Ngawang Lodoe and my Chinese-language interpreter, Lobsang Ngawan, had been stabbed fifteen to twenty times, leaving the walls of the small monks’ chamber splattered with blood. I suspect there could have been five to eight attackers. The murderers were sending a very clear message to me.Boris-Dunchunstang, Eileen R. Finding Forgiveness. New York: McGraw Hill, 2006. 60-61. Print.
The Dalai Lama’s response to this tragedy is not what one would expect. He did not seek retribution or vengeance. He analyzed his initial shock and ensuing anger, and ultimately resolved to forgive the assailants. “Forgiveness is about healing suffering for ourselves and others. Until we develop compassion within ourselves and a concern about the welfare of others, we cannot truly forgive” (Ibid., 63). Massive problems like evil and suffering, and everything they entail, require an even greater solution. This, for much of Western civilization, we have imagined to be God. The solution, however, stares back at us every time we look in the mirror.
Buddhism’s solution to the Problem of Evil is to remove gods from the equation and reestablish humanity as both the cause and end of its own suffering. Mbembe, speaking of larger structural forces, invokes the ancient Greek idea that is inherent in the Buddhist definition of suffering:
The vast movement of repopulation of the world inaugurated at the edge of modern times ended in a massive “taking of lands” (colonization) on a scale and using technologies never before seen in the history of humanity. Far from leading democracy’s spread across the planet, the race for new lands opened onto a new law (nomos) of the Earth, the main characteristics of which was to establish war and race as history’s two privileged sacraments. The sacramentalization of war and race in the blast furnace of colonialism made it at once modernity’s antidote and poison, its twofold pharmakon.Mbembe, Achille. Necro-Politics. London: Duke University Press, 2019. 6 Print.
Humanity’s overall addiction can be summed up in the idea of pharmakon. Freud recognized that inherent in desire is dissatisfaction. This is most obvious in destructive addictions like drug and alcohol addiction. When a person gets their fix, they are on cloud nine, immensely satisfied, but the use of narcotics already implies abuse. The fix results in withdrawal and then withdrawal leads to further craving. This applies to money, the things money can buy, sex, power, influence, and so on. Not content with a few thousand followers, the social media influencer desires hundreds of thousands and then millions. There is always this idea in us that there are more steps on the ladder, higher plateaus to reach. Our suffering is already entailed in the deep disappointment we will feel when we fail to reach a goal. When you add layers to one’s ambition involving exploitation, violence, greed, corruption, hatred, and so on, one starts to see how most of the world’s suffering is due to craving becoming addiction and addiction becoming a disregard for the people one knowingly harms and an ignorance of anyone who suffers collateral damage. The Western addiction of colonialism, in America, followed by the institution of its twisted idea of Democracy, is the pharmakon at the root of suffering the world over. America is precisely like The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas, difference being that the suffering of one chid is compounded as the suffering of many children.
It is more probable that the suffering and evil we see in the world is because half of the world population persists under the delusion that the world is supposed to be degenerate. This is par for the course, all a prelude for the second advent of Christ, for instance. While that has not stopped Christians in the West from taking action against suffering and evil in the world, they all believe that there is no ultimate solution that humans, on their own, can implement. They continue to believe that the world will remain in a degenerate state despite our collective efforts. Buddhism does better in this respect, returning all power to humanity, and imbuing us, once again, with the god-like power we continue to identify in our own species. We are the source of our own suffering. Specifically, our lack of self-awareness and our lack of compassion for other people has us in this predicament. What’s worse is that now there are forces much larger than any one person at play and it is required for us to topple these idols before we can renew human civilization: American Democracy, racism, colonialism, Capitalism, and all the greed, corruption, and human rights abuses that flow from them. These are evils that we ourselves have cultivated and evils that perpetuate a bulk of the world’s suffering.
What that leaves, then, is disease, natural disasters, and all manner of suffering that is outside of our control. Inherent in Buddhism, as the Dalai Lama identified, is that these things will happen and they will pass. People we love will die of disease or in a natural disaster. There is no finger to point in this case, no one we can blame. But as it is with anger, jealousy, pleasure, and so on, we have to develop a deeper awareness of our mourning and find a way to work through it. Buddhism has a larger, less naturalistic framework, that is capable of addressing existential crises like the loss of a loved one, e.g. the cycle of death and rebirth (saṃsāra).
Ultimately, Buddhism offers much in the way of a solution for the Problem of Evil. To reiterate, it relieves the cause of tension, namely the belief in a perfectly good deus ex machina that will eventually restore the Earth from its current degeneracy. Buddhism then identifies the true source of evil and suffering, which also happens to be the solution to our suffering; humankind, in other words, is like the notion of pharmakon, both its own poison and antidote. In recognition of this truth, Buddhism then offers us a path to release our cravings and end our own suffering: wisdom (pāli), ethics (śīla), and meditation (bhāvanā). Most importantly, Buddhism gives us the potential to finally stop arguing about the Problem of Evil in the philosophy of religion and turn our attention to the actual problem of evil and suffering in our world. The restoration of our degenerate world rests on our shoulders. Aside from solving a longstanding problem in the philosophy of religion, Buddhism provides a prescription to solve the problem at large. This is the kind of solution we should all get behind.