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
Before starting my discussion of the first chapter of Neo-Aristotelian Perspectives On Contemporary Science, some prefatory remarks are in order. In the past, I might have committed to reading an entire book for purposes of writing a chapter by chapter review. With other projects in my periphery, I cannot commit to writing an exhaustive review of this book. That remains undecided for now. What I will say is that a sample size might be enough to confirm my suspicions that the Neo-Aristotelian system is rife with problems or even worse, is a failed system of metaphysics. I am skeptical of the system because it appears to have been recruited to bolster patently religious arguments, in particular those of modern Thomists looking to usher in yet another age of apologetics disguised as philosophy. I maintain that apologetics still needs to be thoroughly demarcated from philosophy of religion; moreover, philosophy of religion should be more than one iteration after another of predominantly Christian literature. With respect to apologetics, I am in agreement with Kai Nielsen who stated:
It is a waste of time to rehearse arguments about the proofs or evidences for God or immortality. There are no grounds — or at least no such grounds — for belief in God or belief that God exists and/or that we are immortal. Hume and Kant (perhaps with a little rational reconstruction from philosophers like J.L. Mackie and Wallace Matson) pretty much settled that. Such matters have been thoroughly thrashed out and there is no point of raking over the dead coals. Philosophers who return to them are being thoroughly retrograde.Nielsen, Kai. Naturalism and Religion. Amherst, N.Y.: Prometheus, 2001. 399-400. Print.
The issue is that sometimes one’s hand is forced because the number of people qualified to rake dead coals is far fewer than the people rehashing these arguments. Furthermore, the history of Christianity, aside from exposing a violent tendency to impose the Gospel by force, also exposes a tendency to prey on individuals who are not qualified to address philosophical and theological arguments. Recently, this was made egregiously obvious by Catholic writer Pat Flynn:
So what we as religious advocates must be ready for is to offer the rational, logical basis—the metaphysical realism, and the reality of God—that so many of these frustrated, young people are searching for who are patently fed up with the absurd direction the secular world seems to be going. They’re looking for solid ground. And we’ve got it.Flynn, Pat. “A Hole in The Intellectual Dark Web”. World On Fire Blog. 26 Jun 2019. Web.
Unfortunately, against all sound advice and blood pressure readings, people like myself must rake dead coals or risk allowing Christians to masquerade as the apex predators in this intellectual jungle. I therefore have to say to the Pat Flynns of the world, no you don’t got it. More importantly, let young people lead their lives free of the draconian prohibitions so often imposed on people by religions like yours. If you care to offer the rational, logical basis for your beliefs, then perhaps you should not be approaching young people who likely have not had an adequate exposure to the scholarship necessary to understand apologetics. This is not to speak highly of the apologist, who typically distorts facts and evidence to fit his predilections, making it necessary to acquire sufficient knowledge of various fields of inquiry so that one is more capable of identifying distortions or omission of evidence and thus, refuting his arguments. If rational, logical discourse were his aim, then he would approach people capable of handling his arguments and contentions. That is when it becomes abundantly clear that the aim is to target people who are more susceptible to his schemes by virtue of lacking exposure to the pertinent scholarship and who may already be gullible due to existing sympathy for religious belief, like Flynn himself, a self-proclaimed re-converted Catholic.
Lanao and Teh’s Anti-Fundamentalist Argument and Problems Within The Neo-Aristotelian System
With these prefatory remarks out of the way, I can now turn to Xavi Lanao and Nicholas J. Teh’s “Dodging The Fundamentalist Threat.” Though I can admire how divorced Lanao and Teh’s argument is from whatever theological views they might subscribe to, it should be obvious to anyone, especially the Christian Thomist, that their argument is at variance with Theism. Lanao and Teh write: “The success of science (especially fundamental physics) at providing a unifying explanation for phenomena in disparate domains is good evidence for fundamentalism” (16). They then add: “The goal of this essay is to recommend a particular set of resources to Neo- Aristotelians for resisting Fundamentalist Unification and thus for resisting fundamentalism” (Ibid.). In defining Christian Theism, Timothy Chappell, citing Paul Veyne, offers the following:
“The originality of Christianity lies… in the gigantic nature of its god, the creator of both heaven and earth: it is a gigantism that is alien to the pagan gods and is inherited from the god of the Bible. This biblical god was so huge that, despite his anthropomorphism (humankind was created in his image), it was possible for him to become a metaphysical god: even while retaining his human, passionate and protective character, the gigantic scale of the Judaic god allowed him eventually to take on the role of the founder and creator of the cosmic order.”Chappell, Timothy. “Theism, History and Experience”. Philosophy Now. 2013. Web.
Thomists appear more interested in proving that Neo-Aristotelianism is a sound approach to metaphysics and the philosophy of science than they do in ensuring that the system is not at odds with Theism. The notion that God is the founder and creator of the cosmic order is uncontroversial among Christians and Theists more generally. Inherent in this notion is that God maintains the cosmic order and created a universe that bears his fingerprints, and as such, physical laws are capable of unification because the universe exhibits God’s perfection; the universe is therefore, at least at its start, perfectly symmetric, already containing within it intelligible forces, including finely tuned parameters that result in human beings, creatures made in God’s image. Therefore, in the main, Christians who accept Lanao and Teh’s anti-fundamentalism have, inadvertently or deliberately, done away with a standard Theistic view.
So already one finds that Neo-Aristotelianism, at least from the perspective of the Theist, is not systematic in that the would-be system is internally inconsistent. Specifically, when a system imposes cognitive dissonance of this sort, it is usually good indication that some assumption within the system needs to be radically amended or entirely abandoned. In any case, there are of course specifics that need to be addressed because I am not entirely sure Lanao and Teh fully understand Nancy Cartwright’s argument. I think Cartwright is saying quite a bit more and that her reasoning is mostly correct, even if her conclusion is off the mark.
While I strongly disagree with the Theistic belief that God essentially created a perfect universe, I do maintain that Big Bang cosmology imposes on us the early symmetry of the universe via the unification of the four fundamental forces. Cartwright is therefore correct in her observation that science gives us a dappled portrait, a patchwork stemming from domains operating very much independently of one another; like Lanao and Teh observe: “point particle mechanics and fluid dynamics are physical theories that apply to relatively disjoint sets of classical phenomena” (18). The problem is that I do not think Lanao and Teh understand why this is the case, or at least, they do not make clear that they know why we are left with this dappled picture. I will therefore attempt to argue in favor of Fundamentalism without begging the question although, like Cartwright, I am committed to a position that more accurately describes hers: Non-Fundamentalism. It may be that the gradual freezing of the universe, over the course of about 14 billion years, leaves us entirely incapable of reconstructing the early symmetry of the universe; I will elaborate on this later, but this makes for a different claim altogether, and one that I take Cartwright to be saying, namely that Fundamentalists are not necessarily wrong to think that fundamental unification (FU) is possible but given the state of our present universe, it cannot be obtained. Cartwright provides us with a roadmap of what it would take to arrive at FU, thereby satisfying Fundamentalism, but the blanks need to be filled, so that we get from the shattered glass that is our current universe to the perfectly symmetric mirror it once was.
Lanao and Teh claim that Fundamentalism usually results from the following reasoning:
We also have good reason to believe that everything in the physical world is made up of these same basic kinds of particles. So, from the fact that everything is made up of the same basic particles and that we have reliable knowledge of the behavior of these particles under some experimental conditions, it is plausible to infer that the mathematical laws governing these basic kinds of particles within the restricted experimental settings also govern the particles everywhere else, thereby governing everything everywhere. (Ibid.)
They go on to explain that Sklar holds that biology and chemistry do not characterize things as they really are. This is what they mean when they say Fundamentalists typically beg the question, in that they take Fundamentalism as a given. However, given Lanao and Teh’s construction of Cartwright’s argument, they can also be accused of fallacious reasoning, namely arguing from ignorance. They formulate Cartwright’s Anti-Fundamentalist Argument as follows:
(F1) Theories only apply to a domain insofar as there is a principled way of generating a set of models that are jointly able to describe all the phenomena in that domain.
(AF2) Classical mechanics has a limited set principled models, so it only applies to a limited number of sub-domains.
(AF3) The limited sub-domains of AF2 do not exhaust the entire classical domain.
(AF4) From (F1), (AF2), and (AF3), the domain of classical mechanics is not universal, but dappled. (25-26)
On AF2, how can we expect classical mechanics to acquire more principled models than it presently has? How do we know that, if given enough time, scientists working on classical mechanics will not have come up with a sufficient number of principled models to satisfy even the anti-fundamentalist? That results in quite the conundrum for the anti-fundamentalist. Can the anti-fundamentalist provide the fundamentalist with a satisfactory number of principled models that exhaust an entire domain? This is to ask whether anyone can know how many principled models are necessary to contradict AF3. On any reasonable account, science has not had sufficient time to come up with enough principled models in all of its domains and thus, this argument cannot be used to bolster the case for anti-fundamentalism.
While Lanao and Teh are dismissive of Cartwright’s particularism, it is necessary for the correct degree of tentativeness she exhibits. Lanao and Teh, eager to disprove fundamentalism, are not as tentative, but given the very limited amount of time scientists have had to build principled models, we cannot expect for them to have come up with enough models to exhaust the classical or any other scientific domain. Cartwright’s tentativeness is best exemplified in the following:
And what kinds of interpretative models do we have? In answering this, I urge, we must adopt the scientific attitude: we must look to see what kinds of models our theories have and how they function, particularly how they function when our theories are most successful and we have most reason to believe in them. In this book I look at a number of cases which are exemplary of what I see when I study this question. It is primarily on the basis of studies like these that I conclude that even our best theories are severely limited in their scope.Cartwright, Nancy. The Dappled World: A Study of The Boundaries of Science. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999. 9. Print.
The fact that our best theories are limited in their scope reduces to the fact that our fragmented, present universe is too complex to generalize via one law per domain or one law that encompasses all domains. For purposes of adequately capturing what I am attempting to say, it is worth revisiting what Cartwright says about a $1,000 bill falling in St. Stephen’s Square:
Mechanics provides no model for this situation. We have only a partial model, which describes the 1000 dollar bill as an unsupported object in the vicinity of the earth, and thereby introduces the force exerted on it due to gravity. Is that the total force? The fundamentalist will say no: there is in principle (in God’s completed theory?) a model in mechanics for the action of the wind, albeit probably a very complicated one that we may never succeed in constructing. This belief is essential for the fundamentalist. If there is no model for the 1000 dollar bill in mechanics, then what happens to the note is not determined by its laws. Some falling objects, indeed a very great number, will be outside the domain of mechanics, or only partially affected by it. But what justifies this fundamentalist belief? The successes of mechanics in situations that it can model accurately do not support it, no matter how precise or surprising they are. They show only that the theory is true in its domain, not that its domain is universal. The alternative to fundamentalism that I want to propose supposes just that: mechanics is true, literally true we may grant, for all those motions whose causes can be adequately represented by the familiar models that get assigned force functions in mechanics. For these motions, mechanics is a powerful and precise tool for prediction. But for other motions, it is a tool of limited serviceability.Cartwright, Nancy. “Fundamentalism vs. the Patchwork of Laws.” Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, vol. 94, 1994, pp. 279–292. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/4545199.
Notice how even Cartwright alludes to the Theistic notion of FU being attributable to a supremely intelligent creator who people call God. In any case, what she is saying here does not speak to the notion that only the opposite of Fundamentalism can be the case. Even philosophers slip into thinking in binaries, but we are not limited to Fundamentalism or Anti-Fundamentalism; Lanao and Teh admit that much. There can be a number of Non-Fundamentalist positions that prove more convincing. In the early universe, the medium of water, and therefore, motions in water, were not available. Because of this, there was no real way to derive physical laws within that medium. Moreover, complex organisms like jellyfish did not exist then either and so, the dynamics of their movements were not known and could not feature in any data concerning organisms moving about in water. This is where I think Cartwright, and Lanao and Teh taking her lead, go astray.
Cartwright, for example, strangely calls for a scientific law of wind. She states: “When we have a good-fitting molecular model for the wind, and we have in our theory (either by composition from old principles or by the admission of new principles) systematic rules that assign force functions to the models, and the force functions assigned predict exactly the right motions, then we will have good scientific reason to maintain that the wind operates via a force” (Ibid). Wind, unlike inertia or gravity, is an inter-body phenomenon in that the heat from the Sun is distributed unevenly across the Earth’s surface. Warmer air from the equator tends toward the atmosphere and moves to the poles while cooler air tends toward the equator. Wind moves between areas of high pressure to areas of low pressure and the boundary between these areas is called a front. This is why we cannot have a law of wind because aside from the complex systems on Earth, this law would have to apply to the alien systems on gas giants like Jupiter and Saturn. This point is best exemplified by the fact that scientists cannot even begin to comprehend why Neptune’s Dark Spot did a complete about-face. A law of wind would have to apply universally, not just on Earth, and would thus, have to explain the behavior of wind on other planets. That is an impossible ask because the composition of other planets and their stars would make for different conditions that are best analyzed in complex models, accounting for as much data as possible, rather than a law attempting to generalize what wind should do assuming simple conditions.
Despite Cartwright’s lofty demand, her actual argument does not preclude Fundamentalism despite what Lanao and Teh might have thought. Cartwright introduces a view that I think is in keeping with the present universe: “Metaphysical nomological pluralism is the doctrine that nature is governed in different domains by different systems of laws not necessarily related to each other in any systematic or uniform way: by a patchwork of laws” (Ibid.). I think it is entirely possible to get from metaphysical nomological pluralism (MNP) to FU if one fills in the blanks by way of symmetry breaking. Prior to seeing how symmetry breaking bridges the gap between MNP and FU, it is necessary to outline an argument from Cartwright’s MNP to FU:
F1 Theories only apply to a domain insofar as there is a principled way of generating a set of models that are jointly able to describe all the phenomena in that domain.
MNP1 Nature is governed in different domains by different systems of laws not necessarily related to each other in any systematic or uniform way: by a patchwork of laws.
MNP2 It is possible that the initial properties in the universe allow these laws to be true together.
MNP3 From F1, MNP1, and MNP2, the emergence of different systems of laws from the initial properties in the universe imply that FU is the probable.
Lanao and Teh agree that F1 is a shared premise between Fundamentalists and Anti-Fundamentalists. As a Non-Fundamentalist, I see it as straightforwardly obvious as well. With respect to our present laws, I think that FU may be out of our reach. As has been famously repeated, humans did not evolve to do quantum mechanics, let alone piece together a shattered mirror. This is why I’m a Non– as opposed to Anti-Fundamentalist; the subtle distinction is that I am neither opposed to FU being the case nor do I think it is false, but rather that it is extremely difficult to come by. Michio Kaku describes the universe as follows: “Think of the way a beautiful mirror shatters into a thousand pieces. The original mirror possessed great symmetry. You can rotate a mirror at any angle and it still reflects light in the same way. But after it is shattered, the original symmetry is broken. Determining precisely how the symmetry is broken determines how the mirror shatters” (Kaku, Michio. Parallel Worlds: A Journey Through Creation, Higher Dimensions, and The Future of The Cosmos. New York: Doubleday, 2005. 97. Print.).
If Kaku’s thinking is correct, then there is no way to postulate that God had St. Peter arrange the initial properties of the universe so that all of God’s desired laws are true simultaneously without realizing that FU is not only probable but true, however unobtainable it may be. The shards would have to pertain to the mirror. Kaku explains that Grand Unified Theory (GUT) Symmetry breaks down to SU(3) x SU(2) x U(1), which yields 19 free parameters required to describe our present universe. There are other ways for the mirror to have broken, to break down GUT Symmetry. This implies that other universes would have residual symmetry different from that of our universe and therefore, would have entirely different systems of laws. These universes, at minimum, would have different values for these free parameters, like a weaker nuclear force that would prevent star formation and make the emergence of life impossible. In other scenarios, the symmetry group can have an entirely different Standard Model in where protons quickly decay into anti-electrons, which would also prevent life as we know it (Ibid., 100).
Modern scientists are then tasked with working backwards. The alternative to that is to undertake the gargantuan task, as Cartwright puts it, of deriving the initial properties, which would no doubt be tantamount to a Theory of Everything from which all of the systems of laws extend, i.e., hypothesize that initial conditions q, r, and s yield the different systems of laws we know. This honors the concretism Lanao and Teh call for in scientific models while also giving abstractionism its due. Like Paul Davies offered, the laws of physics may be frozen accidents. In other words, the effective laws of physics, which is to say the laws of physics we observe, might differ from the fundamental laws of physics, which would be, so to speak, the original state of the laws of physics. In a chaotic early universe, physical constants may not have existed. Hawking also spoke of physical laws that tell us how the universe will evolve if we know its state at some point in time. He added that God could have chosen an “initial configuration” or fundamental laws for reasons we cannot comprehend. He asks, however, “if he had started it off in such an incomprehensible way, why did he choose to let it evolve according to laws that we could understand? (Hawking, Stephen. A Brief History of Time, New York: Bantam Books. 1988. 127. Print.)” He then goes on to discuss possible reasons for this, e.g. chaotic boundary conditions; anthropic principles.
Implicit in Hawking’s reasoning is that we can figure out what physical laws will result in our universe in its present state. The obvious drawback is that the observable universe is ~13.8 billion years old and 93 billion lightyears in diameter. The universe may be much larger, making the task of deriving this initial configuration monumentally difficult. This would require a greater deal of abstraction than Lanao and Teh, and apparently Neo-Aristotelians, desire, but it is the only way to discover how past iterations of physical laws or earlier systems of laws led to our present laws of physics. The issue with modern science is that it does not often concern itself with states in the distant past and so, a lot of equations and models deal in the present, and even the future, but not enough of them confront the past. Cosmological models, for purposes of understanding star formation, the formation of solar systems, and the formation of large galaxies have to use computer models to test their theories against the past, since there is no way to observe the distant past directly. In this way, I think technology will prove useful in arriving at earlier conditions until we arrive at the mirror before it shattered. The following model, detailing how an early collision explains the shape of our galaxy, is a fine example of what computer models can do to help illuminate the distant past:
Further Issues With The Neo-Aristotelian System
A recent rebuttal to Alexander Pruss’ Grim Reaper Paradox can be generalized to refute Aristotelianism overall. The blogger over at Boxing Pythagoras states:
Though Alexander Pruss discusses this Grim Reaper Paradox in a few of his other blog posts, I have not seen him discuss any other assumptions which might underly the problem. He seems to have focused upon these as being the prime constituents. However, it occurs to me that the problem includes another assumption, which is a bit more subtle. The Grim Reaper Paradox, as formulated, seems to presume the Tensed Theory of Time. I have discussed, elsewhere, the reasons that I believe the Tensed Theory of Time does not hold, so I’ll simply focus here on how Tenseless Time resolves the Grim Reaper Paradox.
To see the difference between old and new tenseless theories, it is necessary to first contrast an old tenseless theory against a tensed theory that holds that properties of the pastness, presentness, and futurity of events are ascribed by tensed sentences. The debate regarding which theory is true centered around whether tensed sentences could be translated by tenseless sentences that instead ascribe relations of earlier than, later than, or simultaneous. For example, “the sun will soon rise” seems to entail the sun’s rising in the future, as an event that will become present, whereas the “sun is rising now” seems to entail the event being present and “the sun has risen” as having receded into the past. If these sentences are true, the first sentence ascribes futurity whilst the second ascribes presentness and the last ascribes pastness. Even if true, however, that is not evidence to suggest that events have such properties. Tensed sentences may have tenseless counterparts having the same meaning.
This is where Quine’s notion of de-tensing natural language comes in. Rather than saying “the sun is rising” as uttered on some date, we would instead say that “the sun is rising” on that date. The present in the first sentence does not ascribe presentness to the sun’s rising, but instead refers to the date the sentence is spoken. In like manner, if “the sun has risen” as uttered on some date is translated into “the sun has risen” on a given date, then the former sentence does not ascribe pastness to the sun’s rising but only refers to the sun’s rising as having occurred earlier than the date when the sentence is spoken. If these translations are true, temporal becoming is unreal and reality is comprised of earlier than, later than, and simultaneous. Time then consists of these relations rather the properties of pastness, presentness, and futurity (Oaklander, Nathan. Adrian Bardon ed. “A-, B- and R-Theories of Time: A Debate”. The Future of the Philosophy of Time. New York: Routledge, 2012. 23. Print.).
The writer at Boxing Pythagoras continues:
On Tensed Time, the future is not yet actual, and actions in the present are what give shape and form to the reality of the future. As such, the actions of each individual future Grim Reaper, in our paradox, can be contingent upon the actions of the Reapers which precede them. However, this is not the case on Tenseless Time. If we look at the problem from the notion of Tenseless Time, then it is not possible that a future Reaper’s action is only potential and contingent upon Fred’s state at the moment of activation. Whatever action is performed by any individual Reaper is already actual and cannot be altered by the previous moments of time. At 8:00 am, before any Reapers activate, Fred’s state at any given time between 8:00 am and 9:00 am is set. It is not dependent upon some potential, but not yet actual, future action as no such thing can exist.
I think this rebuttal threatens the entire Aristotelian enterprise. Aristotelians will have to deny time while maintaining that changes happen in order to escape the fact that de-tensed theories of time, which are more than likely the correct way of thinking about time, impose a principle: any change at a later point in time is not dependent on a previous state. That’s ignoring that God, being timeless, could not have created the universe at some time prior to T = 0, the first instance of time on the universal clock. This is to say nothing of backward causation, which is entirely plausible given quantum mechanics. Causation calls for a deeper analysis, which neo-Humeans pursue despite not being entirely correct. The notion of dispositions is crucial. It is overly simplistic to say the hot oil caused the burns on my hand or the knife caused the cut on my hand. The deeper analysis in each case is that the boiling point of cooking oil, almost two times that of water, has something to do with why the burn feels distinct from a knife cutting into my hand. Likewise, the dispositions of the blade have a different effect on the skin than oil does. Causal relationships are simplistic and, as Nietzsche suggested, do not account for the continuum within the universe and the flux that permeates it. Especially in light of quantum mechanics, we are admittedly ignorant about most of the intricacies within so-called causal relationships. Neo-Humeans are right to think that dispositions are important. This will disabuse of us of appealing to teleology in the following manner:
‘The function of X is Z’ [e.g., the function of oxygen in the blood is… the function of the human heart is… etc.] means
(a) X is there because it does Z,Larry Wright, ‘Function’, Philosophical Review 82(2) (April 1973):139–68, see 161.
(b) Z is a consequence (or result) of X’s being there.
It is more accurate to say that a disposition of X is instantiated in Z rather than that X exists for purposes of Z because in real world examples, a given X can give rise to A, B, C, and so on. This is to say that one so-called cause can have different effects. A knife can slice, puncture, saw, etc. Hot oil can burn human skin, melt ice but not mix with it, combust when near other mediums or when left to increase to temperatures beyond its boiling point, etc. One would have to ask why cooking oil does not combust when a cube of ice is thrown into the pan; what about the canola oil, for a more specific example, causes it to auto-ignite at 435 degrees Fahrenheit and why does this not happen when water is heated beyond its boiling point?
As it turns out then, Neo-Aristotelians are not as committed to concretism as Lanao and Teh would hope. They are striving for generalizations despite refusing to investigate the details of how models are employed in normal science, as was made obvious by Lanao and Teh’s dismissal of Cartwright’s particularism and further, in their argument against Fundamentalism, which does not flow neatly from Cartwright’s argument. For science to arrive at anything concrete, abstraction needs to be allowed, specifically in cases venturing further and further into the past. Furthermore, a more detailed analysis of changes needs to be incorporated into our data. Briefly, when thinking of the $1,000 bill descending into St. Stephen’s Square, it is a simple fact that we must ask whether there is precipitation or not and if so, how much; we are also required to ask whether bird droppings may have altered its trajectory on the way down?; what effect does smog or dust particles have on the $1,000 bill’s trajectory; as Cartwright asked, what about wind gusts? What is concrete is consistent with the logical atomist’s view that propositions speak precisely to simple particulars or many of them bearing some relation to one another.
Ultimately, I think that Lanao and Teh fail to establish a Neo-Aristotelian approach to principled scientific models. They also fail to show that FU and therefore, Fundamentalism is false. What is also clear is that they did not adequately engage Cartwright’s argument, which is thoroughly Non-Fundamentalist, even if that conclusion escaped her. This is why I hold that Cartwright’s conclusions are off the mark because she is demanding that generalized laws be derived from extremely complex conditions. It is not incumbent on dappled laws within a given domain of science to be unified in order for FU to ultimately be the case. It could be that due to symmetry breaking, one domain appears distinct from another and because of our failure, at least until now, to realize how the two cohere, unifying principles between the two domains currently elude us. Lanao and Teh’s argument against FU therefore appeals to the ignorance of science not unlike apologetic arguments of much lesser quality. The ignorance of today’s science does not suggest that current problems will continue to confront us while their solutions perpetually elude us. What is needed is time. Like Lanao and Teh, I agree that Cartwright has a lot of great ideas concerning principled scientific models, but that her ideas lend support to FU. A unified metaphysical account of reality would likely end up in a more dappled state than modern science finds itself in and despite Lanao and Teh’s attempts, a hypothetical account of that sort would rely too heavily on science to be considered purely metaphysical. My hope is that my argument, one that employs symmetry breaking to bolster the probability of FU being the case, is more provocative, if even, persuasive.
For starters, I will reiterate what I wrote in my response to Hellenistic Christendom:
Both Irenaeus and Hick systematized human (Libertarian) free will.1 Arguably, there’s an inconsistency in their view of free will because they don’t focus on the origin of the human propensity for evil, i.e., original sin. If one were interested in a systematic reconciliation of the Original Sin Theodicy and Hick’s theodicy, it would be a rather simple task. The only issue would be in assuming that God allowed the Fall because he wanted human beings to ascend to moral perfection. He wanted to give us a choice and of course, a choice isn’t real unless there are alternatives. You can choose to lead an immoral life, to live in sin, or you can, per the Old Testament, keep God’s commandments or, per the New Testament, confess your sins and accept Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior. This sort of theodicy would run into exegetical issues, however. Human beings do not, on their own will, ascend to moral perfection. According to Ephesians 2:8, “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God.”
Moral perfection or perhaps better put, holiness, isn’t a summit one reaches; it is more like, especially given allusions in the Bible (e.g. Colossians 3), a garment that you are adorned with. So Irenaeus and Hicks failed at this systematization because they forgot that “he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit” (Titus 3:5). As a person driven by great personal pride, I can see the allure of Irenaeus and Hicks’ point of view; we are essentially Sisyphus, but we succeed at pushing the boulder to the summit! It is, however, not a Christian point of view.
But can it be a naturalistic, atheistic point of view? There’s quite a lot to unpack if one were to entertain the pertinent and yet tangential discussion on determinism and free will. If human beings have free will, it is highly probable that it is not congruous with the Libertarian view, the notion that ceteris paribus, one could choose a different course of action. Suffice to say that a Nietzschean view is more probable: the great person is distinct from the ordinary person and it is through great people that we achieve moral nobility.2
I happen to think that Nietzsche was right in his conclusion though one would be hard pressed to find in his works anything resembling a cogent argument supporting said conclusion. Nietzsche thoroughly explains the difference between great people and the herd and these allusions are present in his treatment of master and slave morality and in his idea of the Übermensch. Nietzsche, however, does not provide us with a road map detailing how a slave becomes a master, how a member of the herd ascends to greatness. In fact, for Nietzsche, it’s not so much an ascent to greatness, but rather a descent, especially given how important suffering and solitude were to him and should be for a great person.
So I want to offer an informal argument because, to my mind, determinism is the wind at the back of every member of the herd. Even absent Irenaeus’ omniscient god, in where it would be hard to reconcile human free will with this deity’s predetermination, on naturalism, there is a sense in which most actions, moral or otherwise, are predetermined. Although I don’t think determinism applies to mundane actions (see here), I think it certainly applies to actions carrying greater consequences and moral implications. So before a person becomes great and strives for moral perfection, one must first become aware of as many determinants as possible, so that in having this awareness, one assumes control of the determinants that would otherwise determine a given decision.
Nietzsche’s great person does not leave the herd by accident, but rather by getting to know the chaos. Nietzsche describes it thus:
Cause and effect: such a duality probably never exists; in truth we are confronted by a continuum out of which we isolate a couple of pieces, just as we perceive motion only as isolated points and then infer it without ever actually seeing it. The suddenness with which many effects stand out misleads us; actually it is sudden only for us. In this moment of sudden- ness there is an infinite number of processes that elude us. An intellect that could see cause and effect as a continuum and a flux and not, as we do, in terms of an arbitrary division and dismemberment, would repudiate the concept of cause and effect and deny all conditionality.3
A great person therefore has the kind of intellect that doesn’t separate and breaks things, and categorizes them as causes and effects. Such a person would see the entire continuum and moreover, their role within that continuum. As such, this individual would not be controlled by cultural norms, societal expectations, religious tenets, and so on. This person would be able to act free from all determinants, assuming a well-placed tumor doesn’t dictate his/her behavior.4
An atheist who subsumes Irenaeus’ theodicy or perhaps more accurately, the thinking that underlies his theodicy, has to be the kind of individual that becomes great. Then s/he is free to pursue moral perfection. In keeping with Sartre’s atheistic existentialism, such an atheist would will meaning for the suffering and evil we see in the world and may take it upon themselves to help others transcend the herd mentality. This thinking is implicit on the Kardashev scale. Michio Kaku, for instance, thinks of the human race as a type 0 civilization, on the cusp of a worldwide language (English), interconnected (the Internet), and technically advanced enough to harness the energy of the planet. It is not, however, a type I civilization capable of harnessing the energy of its star (e.g. Dyson Sphere) or controlling natural disasters like hurricanes and earthquakes.5 Scientists and philosophers alike have entertained the idea that the destiny of humanity is an ascent up the Kardashev scale, but prior to doing so, what’s implied is a moral ascent, for it will take a moral species to disarm its militaries and set aside its sociopolitical and cultural differences.
So while Irenaeus’ theodicy is incongruous with Christian theology, it is not inconsistent with atheism. We do not need a god who wants us to achieve moral perfection. We can very well expect that of ourselves and of one another. Unfortunately, there’s a lot of work to be done both personally and collectively. Assuming Nietzsche was right, greatness is reserved for a select few while mediocrity awaits the herd. Perhaps then what’s needed is the right kind of master so that the subordinates have a good example to follow. I hold that Irenaeus had in mind a noble view of the human species and that regardless of the fact that his view is not in keeping with Christian theology, for an atheist to write off his theodicy either as an ineffective justification of suffering and evil or an interesting heresy is tantamount to tossing the baby out with the bath water. Irenaeus saw the great potential in the human race and he thought it possible that we could, of our own will, achieve moral perfection. It is a noble view that any atheist should adopt; it is probably the view at the heart of humanism. We are truly better without a god!
1 Cramer, David C. “John Hick (1922-2012)”. International Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Web. ND.
2 Anderson, R. Lanier. “Friedrich Nietzsche”. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. 17 Mar 2017. Web.
3 Kaufmann, Walter. “The Gay Science”. Nietzsche, Friedrich Wilhelm, 1844-1900. The Gay Science; with a Prelude in Rhymes and an Appendix of Songs. New York :Vintage Books, 1974. p. 173.
4 Choi, Charles. “Brain tumour causes uncontrollable paedophilia”. New Scientist. 21 Oct 2002. Web.
5 Creighton, Jolene. “The Kardashev Scale – Type I, II, III, IV & V Civilization”. 19 Jul 2014. Web.
Whenever philosophers speak of the human condition, of either a specific group or in general, their treatment can be seen as proto-psychological. Consider, for instance, Nietzsche’s influence on Freud.1 While I do not think Christianity is true, I am now considering whether, from the perspective of a given individual, it is necessary. I do not mean to invoke philosophical necessity, but rather a necessity akin to inevitability. When considering Korsgaard’s proto-psychological prognosis on morality, namely the internalization of man, there is the idea of instincts that discharge themselves outwardly, and one such instinct is forgiveness.2
Since self-forgiveness is difficult to come by, especially when given that a greater degree of guilt or shame sometimes corresponds to a greater offense, some may feel that forgiveness has to be discharged outwardly. It would appear that most Christians don’t feel guilt for the “sins” they commit, but rather shame. The distinction, although subtle, is important and crucial to understanding why the externalization of forgiveness is an unhealthy coping mechanism. Tangney explains:
“When people feel guilt about a specific behavior, they experience tension, remorse, and regret,” the researchers write. “Research has shown that this sense of tension and regret typically motivates reparative action — confessing, apologizing, or somehow repairing the damage done.”
Feelings of shame, on the other hand, involve a painful feeling directed toward the self. For some people, feelings of shame lead to a defensive response, a denial of responsibility, and a need to blame others — a process that can lead to aggression.3
From a Christian perspective, feelings of guilt would result in repentance. He has fornicated with his girlfriend. He then thinks that if he can get himself to feel that Jesus has forgiven his sin it is tantamount to forgiving himself. As most Christians can begrudgingly attest, this is not what happens. Most Christians go on to “live in sin,” which is to say that they persist in an “ungodly” lifestyle. They go on to reoffend because they enjoy “sin.” Therein lies what makes Christianity inevitable: the subservient are a shameful rather than guilty lot. Their propensity for shame only continues the cycle because in Christ they find the ultimate scapegoat who grants them unconditional, boundless forgiveness. There’s no personal responsibility to be had.
Guilt is the positive correlate to shame because guilt is reformative. Guilt is the precursor to changed behavior. A guilty person doesn’t blame their “accomplice,” namely the girlfriend he’s sleeping with outside of marriage. A guilty person is also actualized in that they realize their contribution to the “sin.” The need for Christ to forgive an offense is the mark of immaturity and even puerility. Forgiveness should not be discharged outwardly, externalized; it should instead and always be internalized, for when it is externalized, it is shame serving as motivation rather than guilt, and as such, one can readily predict that repentant behavior will not follow.
Perhaps this is why Christians, especially in the United States, tend to be vile individuals who curse at, threaten, and dehumanize non-Christians, especially atheists. This may explain their penchant for censorship and execution throughout the centuries as well because most of them are incapable of feeling guilt and therefore, reforming unacceptable, even unlawful, behavior. What they feel is shame and the externalization of forgiveness is more than enough for them to feel better about themselves. While self-forgiveness is difficult to come by, it is imperative that you learn how to do so because when you place the responsibility on someone else’s shoulders, it is likely that you don’t feel guilt over what you’ve done; what you feel is shame.
In doing away with the onus to hold oneself responsible, one then rationalizes one’s behavior. It’s the old “she made me do it” an abusive partner defers to after hitting his significant other. In Christian circles, it can take a more base, preordained turn: “God already knew how you would sin, when, and how often, so you just have to realize that you’ve already been forgiven!” This is how I’ve heard young people justify fornication. This is how I’ve heard cheating spouses justify adultery. This is how I’ve heard Christians justify losing their temper. While such a Calvinistic idea isn’t the norm in all Christian circles, it is a popular idea among American Christians.
On atheism, Christ’s sacrifice is meaningless because atheists reject the concept of sin. We reject the notion that Christ died for offenses we did not commit. Actualized atheism will lead an atheist to truly divorce himself from the religion he once subscribed to. For atheists in the United States, Christianity is that religion. Even in known atheist circles, guilt hasn’t replaced shame and that’s why some atheists are no more morally admirable than Christians. They have not internalized forgiveness.
The most damning and refutable idea that Christians hold is that someone else is ultimately responsible for forgiving you. While it is true that the person you’ve hurt has to forgive you, it is still left to you to figure out a way to forgive yourself for hurting that person. There is no Christ, no priest, no brethren that can do that deed for you! Forgiveness is resolutely characterized by self-forgiveness; forgiving oneself is primary, indeed the true end of moving on from something you’ve done wrong.
So long as forgiveness is externalized, in that the responsibility is rested on the shoulders of someone else whether ideal or actual, you will remain a subservient, shameful person prone to reoffending. The Christian psyche is prone to such shame and given the widespread influence of Christianity, an influence that extends into Islam, more than half the world’s population is wallowing in shame. Collectively, we must unlearn the feeling of shame and its ensuing, destructive proclivities. Anyone who has rejected Christianity has this responsibility, first and foremost.
1 Chapman, A. H., and Mirian Chapman-Santana. “The Influence of Nietzsche on Freud’s Ideas.” British Journal of Psychiatry, vol. 166, no. 2, 1995, pp. 251–253., doi:10.1192/bjp.166.2.251.
2 Korsgaard, Christine M. 2010. Reflections on the evolution of morality. Amherst Lecture in Philosophy. The Department of Philosophy at Amherst College. http://www.amherstlecture.org/korsgaard2010
3 Tangney June. “After Committing a Crime, Guilt and Shame Predict Re-Offense”. Association for Psychological Science. 11 Feb 2014. Web.
My purpose here is to respond to a post published by Steven Dunn over at Philosophic Augustine. I met Steven several years ago in conversations on Tumblr. Over the years, he has maintained a resolute interest in philosophy, which is something I greatly admire about him. Few things remain constant over several years, so the fact that he has retained his passion for philosophy is impressive. He’s also grown a lot with respect to his knowledge and that’s to be applauded.
Prior to reproducing our discussion hitherto, I want to be clear about what I’ll be looking to accomplish in this response: a) address his latest response that features Aristotelian personalism and metaphysics b) circle back around to Bill Vallicella’s argument. I think it’s important not to lose sight of the argument, especially given that that’s the reason I commented on Steven’s Facebook post to begin with. I will make it clear that even if one granted the undeniable personhood of a fetus, it still would not follow that an abortion is equivalent to murder. With that said, here is the discussion as it stands; my reply to Steven’s latest response will follow.
Steven Dunn: Philosopher Bill Vallicella over at his blog Maverick Philosopher considers a brief but important argument:
(a) Abortion is murder.
(b) Abortion ought to be illegal.
The question: Can one consistently hold (a) and not (b)? Suppose an added proposition:
(a) Abortion is murder.
(b) Abortion ought to be illegal.
(c) Murder is illegal.
I posted this argument on my personal Facebook page which wrought the response of one of my old friends from the Tumblr blogosphere, R. N. Carmona. Carmona is a philosophic tour de force, one of whom I’m familiar with conversing and debating since I was 17 in 2013 (now I’m 24).
There was a lot of heated exchanges between me and Carmona. After learning of his upcoming book, Ending the Abortion Debate, I knew that this issue was something he was well-versed in and felt passionate about. The following exchange doesn’t do full justice to Carmona’s overall position, but the highlights I’m sure are as he would see fit. Enjoy!
R. N. Carmona: (a) is unsound, hence making the whole argument unsound. Aborting an embryo or non-viable fetus simply is NOT murder. Most abortions happen before week 16, with a majority of them happening before week 9. At no point in those times does a fetus resemble an infant and more importantly, the hallmarks of a person aren’t present yet. That happens at around week 22, hence the hard cut off in most states at 20 weeks. Specifically, EEG waves register in the neocortex at around week 22 and the neocortex isn’t full developed till around week 36. I’d argue that it’s murder after week 22.
The only time I make exceptions after that many weeks is if there’s a threat on the mother’s life, but if the choice is between the quality of life of a mom and her family and a nine week old fetus, it’s an easy choice. Keeping abortion legal prior to week 20 reduces maternal mortality, which, if you’re pro-life, you should care about. Moreover, restrictive policies increase infant and maternal mortality. We’ve had lots of tries at the conservative Christian way: Northern Island, the Muslim World, the Philippines, etc. Restrictive policies do not work.
This is precisely what my next book is about. Want to end abortion? Get behind the issue. Address poverty, lack of education, lack of access to contraception, domestic violence, etc. That’s the only way to slow the rate of abortion. Restricting it won’t work and those conservative states that have passed heartbeat bills are about to find out the hard way.
Steven Dunn: There is actually a large extent in which I agree with you. I’ve read a lot of your writing on this issue and I appreciate you’ve pointed the dangerous restrictive policies that do currently exist. There is also an importance as you say in addressing poverty, lack of education, etc.
However, my initial problem began when you claimed that aborting an embryo or non-viable fetus is not murder. Even though non-viable fetuses have no chance of survival, that still does not warrant moral permissibility to end its life. I don’t see where the line of moral difference changes with an embryo, fetus, or fully grown human infant. Is it a spatial difference? Is it a temporal difference? Does the week, day, or trimester matter when ending the life of a *potential human?
Of course, we could have a metaphysically more significant conversation than the kinds of questions I’m asking you. I just think that these questions are a good starting point. Also, what is the “hallmarks of a person”?
R. N. Carmona: The hallmark of a person is quite simply, the consciousness attributed to human beings and higher order animals like dolphins and the great apes: neuroplasticity, memory acquisition, language capacity, etc. Even simpler than that, the capacity to apprehend taste, texture, sound, and so on. Even them who are mentally disabled, assuming they aren’t blind or deaf, can have these experiences. The blind and deaf, though lacking an important sense, still have propensities for memory acquisition, language, and so on.
And that’s the difference: spatio-temporal. Of space, because the potential person now occupies a uterus, taking nutrients from the would-be mother; of time because the potential person is currently not in the world, i.e. is not a citizen of a given country; is not protected by laws.
Potential simply is not enough. The fetus is potentially stillborn or potentially going to die of SIDs or will potentially be an ectopic pregnancy or will potentially be born to become a serial killer that will make Ted Bundy blush. You can’t speak of potential as though it’s solely and predictably positive; potential can be very negative. In fact, this child can be the reason the mother dies and leaves behind a husband to raise several kids, including the newborn, on his own. Potential simply isn’t enough to obligate a woman to continue a pregnancy she’d rather terminate.
So yes, the week matters because so long as a fetus isn’t viable, abortion should be permissible. The moral difference changes once the fetus is viable. Potentiality simply isn’t a good argument. Viability is a much stronger argument.
Furthermore, the moral difference changes when purposeful modification comes into play. Sure, an infant doesn’t have that capacity: it doesn’t, for example, set goals for itself. However, the parents, once they are told that the fetus is developing well, start to purposely modify on the fetus’ behalf: they start thinking of a name, buying clothing, setting up its room, putting money in its college fund, etc.
No parent, even if they’re a Christian conservative, begins to purposely modify at conception or even in the early weeks. It’s simply not enough to go on and tells you that, behaviorally speaking, most parents write off potential. Potential isn’t enough for anyone to go on and that’s why most people need something concrete before they begin to purposely modify on their baby’s behalf.
So yes, there’s a simple line to draw between a non-viable fetus and a viable one. I can speak of organismality as well, namely comparing and contrasting between organisms to come to a good conclusion regarding what a non-viable fetus most closely resembles, and it’s clear that they don’t resemble a newborn. There are marked differences, but I digress.
Steven Dunn: I would clarify that you are *technically correct in saying that potentiality is not enough. A potential X of course is not an X. Because I am a potential speaker of the French language doesn’t mean I can speak the French language. However, potentialities are still nonetheless grounded in being: they are realities not merely possibilities.
They are actual human beings with various potentials.
Though they are not realized among differing spatial and temporal locations/positions, I don’t think you’ve provided a meaningful account of persons. Human persons, as I see it, are instances of personalized being; persons possess phenomenological qualities that make them eligible for relationships – or interpersonal love. I think our definitions of persons should capture something specific (and simple), rather than be a construct of various qualifiers (neuroplasticity, apprehension of the senses, etc).
One biological example worth mentioning that I think you’ll appreciate is the cognitive capacity of bonobos – which is one of my favorite areas of primatology to examine their analogous behavior with humans. They’re sympathetic, they can experience pain, they are highly intelligent, they can have an extensive non-verbal vocabulary, etc.
Despite these striking qualities, they do not fit under the definition of persons I’ve provided above.
What does it mean to be a real person? A couple things: (i) what W. Norris Clark has called the “participation structure of the universe”; rational-intelligibility that allows for human persons and the universe to find meaningful relations/predictions; (ii) existence as a dynamic act of presence and (iii) action as a [self] manifestation of inner-being.
I think your definition of persons is merely conditional; it’s dynamic but not exhaustive. Human beings – that is, if a personalized being possesses such potentialities – are intrinsically valuable; there can be no moral difference among this being’s spatial or temporal location.
In summary. . . I think you are raising issues that aren’t typically addressed by conservatives. It’s important that we better handle areas of women’s reproductive healthcare, which can be dealt with through better and intentional education, personal conviction, etc. However, I think we need to agree that the moral question is not somehow addressed because we’ve raised current social or political problems surrounding abortion. There are consequences and symptoms that need to be taken care of, by all means. However, if structurally we are dealing with the intentional ending of a human life then we need to talk about it.
R. N. Carmona: I disagree there. What I hear is Aristotelian language here and I reject his metaphysics all the way through. Potentialities are not realities grounded in being. I think even Aristotle makes a distinction between potentiality and actuality, and as I recall, he doesn’t conflate them in this manner.
Persons do, however, possess phenomenological qualities, like phenomenal consciousness, but that isn’t what makes them eligible for relationships and interpersonal love. What’s needed there is simple empathy and bonobos and chimps, in general, are capable of that; that’s one reason why some advanced nations recognize them as persons. So rather than a construct of qualifiers, it’s more a recognition of qualifiers taken together to get a basic definition of person.
The base anthropocentrism of theists doesn’t allow them to accept that other higher order animals are persons, and that’s what you’re doing here. Dolphins call each other by name and remember individuals for decades. Elephants can also remember individuals after years of not seeing them. So while there’s certainly a distinction between a human person and a dolphin person, there is overlap that qualifies them both and that overlap is found in the sciences. The issue here is that your definition relies less on science and more so on an implied belief in the soul or on metaphysics rather than science.
I agree with (I) as it’s pretty much purposeful modification paraphrased. (II) relies heavily on Aristotelian metaphysics and I reject it outright. (III) stems from two, but alludes to libertarian action of will, which I don’t think anyone has. There’s no [self] without the [other] and other is much more crucial in action, especially willful. I think human persons can change course, but only after realizing enough deterministic conditions underlying their actions, thus empowering them to experience determinants that may lead to an overall change of course.
Think of the proverbial alcoholic; he doesn’t willfully change his bad habit, but what he does is “change” a given number of determinants so that his actions may change and out of a recognition that if he doesn’t make these changes, he is pretty much enabled: a) stops associating with friends who drink regularly b) doesn’t go to bars when invited c) goes to rehab. And so on and so on and so on.
Action itself isn’t in a vacuum, but dynamic and intertwined with the flux of all there is. So human potential takes course in a deterministic manner and any human looking to have any semblance of control over that will reposition herself with respect to determinants. A fetus is incapable of this sort of purposeful modification, which I think is the most actualized of all.
So my definition, while not alluding to souls or anything religious, is also sufficient because it recognizes the role of the other in the shaping of the self. The embryo and non-viable fetus do not interact with the other in the manner in which persons do and it is simply potentiality and not actuality, to use your language. What is commonly aborted is (what can be) rather than (what is), so that spatio-temporal difference lays the groundwork for a moral difference and the moral difference lies in purposeful modification which I think your (I) paraphrases.
Any metaphysic that doesn’t account for the other, even something as arbitrary as a chair, isn’t complete. Hegel understood this and is the forefather, I think, of modern metaphysics, starting in the phenomenologists that soon followed him. Hurssel relied a lot on Aristotle too and I’m not alone in seeing that he was mistaken for doing so, but again, I digress.
Steven Dunn: I would respond to your outlook on Aristotelian personalism as not fully appreciating what the system has to offer. In our personal conversations on abortion I have mentioned to you that yes, personalism and the potentiality principle has largely been carried and grounded in Catholic moral theology. I understand, therefore, we both don’t share views in the inspiration of Christian theology.
Hence, we need to find anthropological and philosophical commonalities in which we can meaningfully proceed in a discourse about human persons and what exactly is developing in the womb. The best system that does this, in my view, is Aristotle’s conception of being from his Metaphysics and the further extension from Thomas Aquinas’ doctrine of persons (with some modifications).
Aquinas argued that persons are that which is “perfected in all of nature.” This essentially means that persons are not merely special “modes” of being amongst others, but that personhood is being when it is allowed to be at its fullest. In other words, persons are not restricted by sub-intelligent matter. There are a number of reasons why persons – humans – possess the special status that they do, and while I think there are theological reasons for this I think I can still demonstrate that apart from any inspired or “revealed” source.
First, Aquinas’ notion of person was conscious of the distinction between person and nature, because providing a consistent account of personhood meant that a consideration of God as Triune (one divine nature amongst three persons) and Christ as the God-man (divine person possessing two natures) needed to be contextually consistent.
Therefore, it has been an accusation by some leading Catholic philosophers (Wojtyla, Ratzinger, Clarke, etc) that Aquinas falls short of a comprehensive philosophical definition of person because the medievals relied primarily on the Boethian definition of person: “An individual substance of a rational nature.” Hence, I would argue for a further inclusion of the concept of “relation,” which is fundamental to our understanding of what it means “to be.”
Aquinas moved away from the what has been called “self-diffusiveness” of the Good as seen by the NeoPlatonists (the collaboration of the Good with all “substances”) and instead moves to Supreme Being, where Existence (esse) – as I said before – now becomes the root of all perfection. Supreme Being is the subsistent Act of Existence, where now the self-diffusive Good now becomes self-communicative Love.
Hence we have three primary qualities for the relationability of persons: being is (1) self-communicative (showing that persons are intelligible [ratio] by their actuality); (2) being is self-manifesting (persons are immediately relatable to other beings); and (3) being is intrinsically active (persons are not merely present but actively present).
Suppose a being for example that existed in reality but didn’t or couldn’t manifest itself to other beings, or if it didn’t or couldn’t act in any way. If this kind of being lacked such properties then other beings couldn’t have knowledge of its existence; it would be almost as if it had no being at all. Now imagine if all beings existed in this sort of way; the universe itself wouldn’t be connected in the unified sense that philosophers and scientists typically speak of the rationality of the universe.
Now combine this with the potentiality principle. According to Current Anthropology (2013), potentiality is a principle not so foreign to them: potentiality “denotes a hidden force determined to manifest itself – something that with or without intervention has its future built into it.”1
Let me be clear that potentiality is the only relevant metaphysical principle worth considering for abortion. My position, to be clear, is not:
- X is a creature of a certain sort.
- Creatures of this sort have right R.
- Therefore, X has a right R.
Premise 2 of course begs the question in favor of what I want to prove. In summary, my position is that the full and perfect realization of being is always inherent in its nature. All living things, including mindless plants, dolphins and gorillas have a proper end or “good” which is naturally directed within their nature – even from a formless or potential state. Nothing can exist without potentials, and potentials cannot be realized apart from something actual.
Now the metaphysical picture I’ve provided is not mere conjecture but is what historically has served as the foundation of Western intelligentsia for over 1,500 years, until the advent of the modern model by Descartes and Newton. And I would argue that that move away from the model of classical metaphysics has been one of the greatest errors and blunders of Western thought. It was an illegitimate move because it’s not as if new physical discoveries were made, hence “outdating” the Aristotelian system.
Descartes, among other French intellectuals at his time were responsible for the shift away from potential/actual, the four causes, and his metaphysic of being. Bad move.
R.N. Carmona: While not mere conjecture and arguably the foundation of Western intellgentsia for over 1,500 years, one would have to gloss over important bits of history to make that argument. One of the more significant bits of history I have in mind is the Christian and Muslim censorship and destruction of texts that were not in agreement with monotheism, especially works that were of a more naturalistic flavor. Carlo Rovelli puts it succinctly:
I often think that the loss of the works of Democritus in their entirety is the greatest intellectual tragedy to ensue from the collapse of the old classical civilization…We have been left with all of Aristotle, by way of which Western thought reconstructed itself, and nothing of Democritus. Perhaps if all the works of Democritus had survived, and nothing of Aristotle’s, the intellectual history of our civilization would have been better … But centuries dominated by monotheism have not permitted the survival of Democritus’s naturalism. The closure of the ancient schools such as those of Athens and Alexandria, and the destruction of all the texts not in accordance with Christian ideas was vast and systematic, at the time of the brutal antipagan repression following from the edicts of Emperor Theodisius, which in 390-391 declared that Christianity was to be the only and obligatory religion of the empire. Plato and Aristotle, pagans who believed in the immortality of the soul or in the existence of a Prime Mover, could be tolerated by a triumphant Christianity. Not Democritus.2
It’s not a mere coincidence that Aristotelian metaphysics stood in fashion for so long, nor was it established that the Aristotelian system was better than other systems. In that same time period, theists, especially Christians, held a virtual monopoly on ideas and as such, metaphysical frameworks with more naturalistic bents were destroyed or censored. Due to this, there was a reluctance on the part of skeptics and naturalists to offer a naturalistic metaphysical system. They were rightfully afraid of The Inquisition. So, Aristotelian metaphysics didn’t dominate the landscape because it was the best framework, but rather, because the game was rigged in its favor.
Copernicus and Galileo, for instance, dealt with the consequences of challenging theistic thought. Copernicus’ De revolutionibus “was forbidden by the Congregation of the Index ‘until corrected’, and in 1620 these corrections were indicated. Nine sentences, by which the heliocentric system was represented as certain, had to be either omitted or changed.”3 Galileo’s house arrest is a well-known historical fact and there’s no need to tread over old coals here. More to the point, “Bruno [was]…much more of a philosopher than a scientist. He felt that a physicist’s field of study was the tangible universe, so he challenged any line of thought that utilized nonphysical elements and avoided what he considered the juvenile exercise of calculation. To him, computational astronomy missed the true significance of the sky.”4 Bruno held to eight purportedly heretical theses and they served as the reason for his execution. Among these theses were patently naturalistic positions: the universe is spatially infinite, there are other planets very similar to ours, there were humans before Adam and Eve, the Earth moves in accordance with Copernican theory.5 In all but one of these positions, Bruno has been proven correct. So the notion that Aristotle’s system is best overall or, at the very least with respect to defining personhood, is already disputable because as has been demonstrated, competing, especially naturalistic, frameworks were discouraged. Despite this, before I set out on my own exploration with regards to what best explains potentiality, I will challenge Aristotle’s personalism.
Even if I were to grant that Aristotle offered much in the way of explaining personhood, there’s still the question of how any of these criteria apply to embryos and early fetuses. Take for instance, (1) self-communicative (showing that persons are intelligible [ratio] by their actuality). To my mind, embryos and early fetuses are not self-communicative nor intelligible, and that’s because they have yet to develop the organ that makes this possible, namely the brain. Now, while I recognize that Aristotle offers an interesting conundrum worth considering, i.e., as you put it, “Nothing can exist without potentials, and potentials cannot be realized apart from something actual,” I don’t see that a fetus’ obvious intelligibility and self-communication follows. As we will see shortly, there’s a better explanation for the notion that nothing can exist without potentials and that no potentials can be realized separate from something actual.
In like manner, let’s consider also (2) being is self-manifesting (persons are immediately relatable to other beings). On the assumption that Aristotle was correct, I don’t see how embryos and early fetuses are self-manifesting and immediately relatable to other beings. If anything, it is only relatable to its parents and siblings, assuming they had children already. Since it has not emerged independently within the world, it is not relatable to other people, the ecosystem in its locale, nor the wider biosphere. The fact that it isn’t independently within the world makes so that it isn’t relatable to any other beings. Furthermore, it’s relation to its parents and siblings is best explained and anticipated by genetics, which we will get to shortly.
Let’s also consider (3) being is intrinsically active (persons are not merely present but actively present). Again, embryos and early fetuses are not present, let alone actively present for the same reasons they aren’t self-manifesting. The fact that it is not independently within the world, once again, proves problematic for the third criterion. I can grant that it is actively present once born, for its parent(s) is now self-modifying on its behalf. It is interacting with other persons in a very obvious manner and relies on them for its physical, emotional, and psychological growth, growth that is crucial for its potential to eventually become a person who has a theory of mind, a sense of self, an ego, memories, desires, goals, and so on. Within the womb, that simply is not the case early in any pregnancy. The woman’s voice and music can help with brain development starting at 29-33 weeks. So harkening back to what I said earlier, interpersonal interaction is only possible when the brain is sufficiently developed, which strongly favors the thesis that the brain is integral to a human person rather than a soul.
Now to the matter of what better explains the predictable potential of a human fetus, after which three conclusions should be immediately clear: either 1) that we do not require a metaphysical explanation for potentiality and personhood or 2) that given genetics and evolution, what’s necessary is a metaphysical framework that is congruous with and readily predicts scientific facts and 3) that nothing can exist without potentials and that potentials are not realized without actuals has been solved.
One of the primary reasons I reject Christian theism as a worldview is because it gives human beings an undue “special status” all while ignoring human evolution. Human potential or more specifically, homo sapien potential wouldn’t exist without an ancestor’s (probably homo antecessor) potential. Furthermore, homo sapien potential would not have been realized without the actuality of ancestors and likewise, without the divergence of ancestors, great apes would not have progressed as they have. As you well know, we share about 98.5% DNA with chimpanzees and some 96% with gorillas, two facts that establish a common ancestry. So this “special status” is actually an example of special pleading because it’s not at all clear why chimps and gorillas do not qualify for such status; also, neanderthals, given what we currently know about them, are in many respects like homo sapiens (a fact that made their interbreeding possible) and as such, would qualify for such status without question. Yet on Christian theism, no human ancestor qualifies for this status, an attitude I find very suspicious.
Human evolution, like evolution in toto, has an underlying genetic component that explains these variations in populations over time. That same genetic component continues among all populations of species and thus, better explains “the perfect realization of being…inherent in the nature of mindless plants, dolphins, and gorillas.” Furthermore, potentiality does not denote a “hidden force determined to manifest itself,” but a rather statistically predictable pattern present in the genome of an organism; it isn’t hidden at all, but rather in plain sight. The pattern is so predictable that one can readily explain how and why that which is formless becomes something with form.
So prior to circling back to Vallicella’s argument, I will offer a brief overview showing how the actuality of parents results in the potentiality and probable actuality of a child. It is also important to note that given genetics, there are a number of factors that determine morphological sex, eye color, hair color, skin tone, and so on. So let’s imagine that in universe A, Jack and Jill have a baby girl named Janice and that in universe B, they have a boy named Jake. Let’s consider the important differences in each child, differences that explain why Janice exists in A and Jake in B.
In universe A, Jack and Jill are both 24-years-old when they agree to having a child. Jack and Jill are wealthy and have spent the last four years of their relationship traveling. Neither of them are stressed and have no trouble being happy and grateful for all that they have. When considering that high stress increases the probability of having a boy, it is no surprise that Jill gives birth to Janice nine months later. Yet that still does not explain why Janice has brown eyes (though both her parents have blue eyes), her mother’s hair color, and her father’s hitchhiker thumb. In the main, had another sperm fertilized the egg, Janice very likely would have been born with completely different features. Despite low stress levels, there’s also the fact that Jack has five sisters and no brothers, therefore increasing the probability of having a girl. This still does not explain why Janice has brown rather than blue eyes, blonde rather than brown hair, and a hitchhiker thumb rather than a straight thumb.
Allelic combination is important in explaining her phenotypic features. Should both parents pass on recessive genes, Janice is born with a hitchhiker thumb. Or alternatively, if there’s a combination of dominant and recessive genes, she may have a chance to have a hitchhiker thumb or a straight thumb. If there’s a combination of dominant genes, then she will predictably have a straight thumb (see reference). Eye color tends to be similar, albeit more complicated.
For instance, the assumption is that since Janice’s parents have blue eyes, she will also have blue eyes. There are two genes integral to determine eye pigmentation: OCA2 and HERC2. An active HERC2 activates OCA2, which determines pigment; given this, we know that this is what explains Janice’s brown eyes. Her counterpart in universe B, Jake, has either a broken HERC2 or a broken OCA2 and therefore, has blue eyes (see reference). He also has brown hair and a straight thumb. He has a straight thumb because instead of a recessive and dominant gene (what we find in Janice’s genome), we find two dominant genes in Jake’s genome. Their disparate hair colors are also explained in this manner as well. It is also likely that in Universe B, Jill gave birth to Jake because of the high levels of stress she experienced during pregnancy. Jack and Jill decided to conceive at the ages of 31. During the pregnancy, they moved from Middletown, NY to New York City because they both wanted more job opportunities. The crowded commutes, her career, the noise pollution, among other things, stressed Jill out to no end and this increased the probability of having a boy, hence (probably) the birth of Jake.
Form, likewise, follows suit. Drosophila have been important in research in evolutionary biology and genetics. In observing curious mutations in these flies, geneticists discovered homeotic genes that determine the body pattern of all organisms. The research gets very technical and makes for quite the tangent, but homeotic, or Hox genes themselves come from a Hox-like ancestor that explains the similarities Hox genes have from organism to organism (see reference). The graphic makes the extrapolations of their research clear.
What is also clear is that the following turns out to be false: “All living things, including mindless plants, dolphins and gorillas have a proper end or “good” which is naturally directed within their nature – even from a formless or potential state.” It’s not so much that there’s a natural tendency even from a formless, potential state, but rather, that there’s an evolutionary and genetic history that informs how a comparatively formless embryo develops into a human being. There are also traits that are arbitrary as there’s no purpose as to why someone would have brown rather than blue eyes or a hitchhiker thumb rather than a straight thumb. Some traits are inconsequential with respect to who a given person is.
Aristotelian metaphysics is considered outmoded by contemporary philosophers and scientists because it is incongruous with various scientific paradigms. Setting cosmology and physics aside, as I think I’ve shown, Aristotle’s concept of a person is incongruous with evolution and genetics and the system did nothing in the way of anticipating the advent of evolutionary biology and genetics. His system speaks of personhood in a patently non-naturalistic or even supernatural manner whereas genetics and evolution show that personhood is linked to certain types of purely physical organisms. What is required is either no metaphysical framework at all (à la logical positivists) or a framework that coincides with modern philosophical and scientific paradigms. Aristotle’s system doesn’t accomplish that and far from a “bad move,” Copernicus, Galileo, Newton, and everyone who eventually stood on their shoulders have every justification to move away from the Aristotelian system. Although interesting, that potentials can’t exist apart from actuals is explained by genetics for that which is animate and memetics for that which is inanimate. In fact, Aristotle was closer to correct with regards to universals and particulars, an explanation that can be applied to inanimate objects rather than living entities. Yet despite the potential for a human embryo to become an actual human person, a roughly predictable, naturalistic set of occurrences take place before every human birth. The process is also a fragile one as an injury to the would-be mother can end the pregnancy; genetic anomalies and an implantation anywhere other than the uterus can make it so that this potentiality never results in an actuality. Aristotle’s system also doesn’t explain the fragility of this process not just in humans, but in other organisms as well. It should therefore be clear that conclusions aforementioned have been firmly established and that if metaphysics remains a concern for philosophers, we have to do better than what Aristotle and his disciples rendered us.
Now to circle all the way back to Vallicella’s argument. Even if one were to grant the undeniable personhood of a fetus, either through the medium of Aristotelian metaphysics or another metaphysical framework altogether, there’s still the issue that the intentional killing of this person doesn’t constitute a murder. The pivotal error pro-choicers make is that they tend to define abortion and ignore what it’s being equated to. They should also consider the legal definition of murder, since Vallicella is alluding to the legal rather than the moral definition.
The killing of an embryo or fetus is done with intentions and motives altogether different from those underlying homicide, and as such, from a legal standpoint, it can’t be approached as murder or even a lesser offense like manslaughter. There is no degree of murder applicable to abortion; the intention and motive are not the same either, so even from a legal perspective, abortion is not murder. It would constitute an intentional killing of a different sort, of an even benevolent sort. Therefore, a woman who has an abortion can’t be tried and convicted as a murderer, neither can the doctor who performed the abortion. Let’s consider first degree murder. Premeditation is already an issue for Vallicella’s argument; the prosecution wouldn’t be able to argue that the mother had a malicious intent to kill this person. As for second degree, even though lacking the premeditation criterion, implies a reckless disregard for human life. The prosecution can’t accuse a woman of that either.
What’s more is that, if you were right in that a fetus is a person despite its viability, then restrictive policies would be the only choice we’d have. Like Vallicella’s argument implies, murder is treated in an extremely restrictive manner; even self-defense has to be established with no room for doubt. So if abortion were murder, it would be dealt with in like manner. So setting metaphysics and ethics aside, from a practical point of view, we should be wary of equating abortion with murder because we have dealt with the latter in a restrictive manner and we should know better, especially given the deadly consequences of such policies. So even if for solely practical reasons, we should shy from such equivalence even if it could be proven that abortion is murder. The issue here is that no pro-lifer has qualified that statement in any manner that doesn’t make for a bare assertion. Abortion is simply not murder and to think of women who have abortions as murderers is to misunderstand this issue altogether. What we should be addressing are the common motivations for seeking an abortion: poverty, domestic violence, lack of employment opportunity, and so on. I can go on, but I’ve probably overstayed my welcome as it is, so for the time being, I will leave this here.
The featured image to this article was taken from https://www.ngv.vic.gov.au/explore/collection/work/4291/
The featured image to this article is Rembrandt’s Two Old Men Disputing (1628).
-  Taussig, Karen-Sue, Klaus Hoeyer, and Stefan Helmreich: “The Anthropology of Potentiality in Biomedicine: An Introduction to Supplement. Current Anthropology (vol. 54). 2013.
-  Rovelli, Carlo, et al. Reality Is Not What It Seems: the Journey to Quantum Gravity. Riverhead Books, 2018, pp. 32-33.
-  “Nicolaus Copernicus.” The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 4. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1908.20 Jun. 2019 <http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/04352b.htm>.
-  NA. “Bruno and Galileo in Rome.” Honors Program in Rome, University of Washington. 2003. <https://depts.washington.edu/hrome/Authors/pev42/BrunoandGalileoinRome/pub_zbarticle_view_printable.html>
-  Ibid. 
Let’s start with well-known, often disputed verses:
For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great, the mighty, and the awesome God, who is not partial and takes no bribe. Deuteronomy 10:17
God has taken his place in the divine council; in the midst of the gods he holds judgment. Psalms 82:1
There is none like you among the gods, O Lord, nor are there any works like yours.Psalms 86:8
And the king shall do as he wills. He shall exalt himself and magnify himself above every god, and shall speak astonishing things against the God of gods. He shall prosper till the indignation is accomplished; for what is decreed shall be done. Daniel 11:36
Recently, I brought up the fact that modern Christians are polytheists. On the one hand, they believe in the God of the Bible and on the other, the so-called god of philosophers or as they would put it, the god of monotheism. A commenter on my post over on WordPress brought up the fact that the early Jews were polytheists. He provided a number of verses like the ones above. I responded to him and stated that Christians have a go-to copout. They’ll argue that this is merely a recognition that people at the time worshipped other gods, gods that were mere idols. That, however, demonstrates that they are either ignorant of historical context or they know of the context and yet ignore it. We can discuss the polytheistic origins of Judaism further, but that’s not my purpose here.
My purpose here is to debase the notion of a god of (mono)theism, to disrupt that convenient narrative. A Christian on Facebook recently offered an ontological argument he confused with Godel’s Ontological Argument. That wasn’t the argument he offered. He offered another ontological argument in where ‘God’ could be replaced with ‘Allah’ or ‘Ahura Mazda’ and the result wouldn’t change. Two other people then responded and said that the refutation fails because the argument sets out to prove the god of monotheism.
The god of (mono)theism, as William Lane Craig posits, is timeless, personal, omniscient, and so on. I’ll set exegesis aside because there are ways to prove otherwise given passages in the Bible (e.g. why did god ask Adam questions in Genesis 3 if he’s omniscient?). What I want to offer instead is a new argument against the notion of a so-called god of (mono)theism. We know from mathematics that there are different infinities. Since infinity is already a large value, if we can even call it such, there’s no way for the human mind to apprehend one infinity or another, let alone distinguish them. So given that line of thinking, there’s an element of vagueness we can introduce to debase the notion of a god of (mono)theism.
Take, for instance, timelessness. A Christian will posit that their god has no beginning; he’s eternal and exists outside of time. All well and good. Let’s say there’s another being who had a beginning outside of the universe billions of years ago, e.g., Satan. What disqualifies this being from being timeless as well, especially given that we can’t ascertain the beginning of this being’s existence? In other words, if god is present at point 0 and then Satan at point 0.00000005, what difference is there? There are some beginnings that result in a virtual eternity and so, just like there are different infinities, there are different eternities, different versions of timelessness.
The same goes for omniscience. What if there’s a being that knows all things except one thing; let’s suppose this being doesn’t know how to play billiards. What is the difference between an omniscient being who knows all things and another being who knows all things save the required know-how to play billiards? Again, as there are different infinities, there are different levels of omniscience and we simply wouldn’t be able to distinguish between a being who knows everything and one who knows everything except for how to play billiards.
Omnipotence, omnipresence, the capacity to be personal, and so on, all fall victim to vagueness, and as such, the same defeater that exists for Godel’s Ontological Argument, namely that parallel arguments work just as well (see Oppy 1996), also exists for the notion of the so-called god of monotheism. There is no such entity. It is logically possible that, given vagueness, there are millions of beings that fit the description. However, one should not draw ontological conclusions on the basis of logical considerations. Just because there could be a million such beings doesn’t mean they actually exist; likewise, just because one such being is logically possible doesn’t mean it actually exists. The god that apologetic arguments allude to is a product of Christian obfuscation.
Given that Christians are overly fond of deductive arguments, I will do my best to formulate an Argument From Vagueness, which isn’t necessarily an argument on its own. Let’s consider Plantinga’s Victorious Ontological Argument:
- A being has maximal excellence in a given possible world W if and only if it is omnipotent, omniscient and wholly good in W; and
- A being has maximal greatness if it has maximal excellence in every possible world.
- It is possible that there is a being that has maximal greatness.
- Therefore, possibly, it is necessarily true that an omniscient, omnipotent, and perfectly good being exists.
- Therefore, it is necessarily true that an omniscient, omnipotent and perfectly good being exists.
Now, consider a parallel Argument from Vagueness. D1 is crucial to the argument.
D1: A being with maximal excellence* has omnipotence* (which is to be so close to all-powerful that its lone incapacity is negligible; it once failed to push a universe to the left), omniscience* (which is to be virtually all-knowing; it doesn’t know how to play billiards), and perfectly good* (which is to be virtually morally perfect, but it once told a white lie). Maximal greatness* is to have maximal excellence* across all possible worlds.
- A being has maximal excellence* in a given possible world W iff it is omnipotent*, omniscient*, and wholly good* in W.
- A being has maximal greatness* if it has maximal excellence* in every possible world.
- It is possible that there is a being that has maximal greatness*.
- Therefore, possibly, it is necessarily true that an omniscient*, omnipotent*, and perfectly good* being exists.
- Therefore, it is necessarily true that an omniscient*, omnipotent* and perfectly good* being exists.
Once this counter-argument is offered, what a Christian has left is the bare assertion that a being with maximal excellence* isn’t truly god because it has negligible limitations. The question remains: how do we know that the purported attributes of god are true? It is, as it will always be, a matter of faith. There is no way to ascertain that god is eternal, omnipotent, and omniscient. We can ask whether he is perfectly moral, but that’s a separate issue entirely. The thrust that Arguments From Vagueness drive is that there’s no justification for speaking of any infinity with such certainty. There may be an infinity so near to the one a theist reveres that the differences are negligible. That’s precisely what these arguments are designed for.
I wrote the following in response to a Muslim on a New York Times opinion piece on Facebook. Everyone who discusses the actions of the Judeo-Christian and/or Muslim gods focuses far too much on the moral and legal ramifications of said actions. No one realizes that, per the theist, their god is perfectly logical. As such, the logical dimension of an action attributed to this god has to be captured. With that in mind, I offered the following.
Even if punishing children for the crimes of their parents is either moral or legal, though we haven’t apprehended that as of yet, there’s still the issue that it isn’t logical. Logic is a priori and therefore, logic for humans is logic for the god of monotheism. Just as we can’t make a round square or sided circle, neither can god. Per the philosophically inclined theist, the laws of logic, as an extension of his creative power, are part of him and as such, he can’t violate his own nature. As such, god would be perfectly logical and would thus reason perfectly, which means he wouldn’t commit logical fallacies. Given that, he wouldn’t commit an act that’s based in the fallacy of guilt by association. To punish a child for their parents crimes is exactly that! God would be finding someone guilty do to their association or more specifically, their relation to a sinner.
To my mind, this is the ultimate defeater because it should be clear that the Judeo-Christian and Muslim gods have acted on the basis of fallacious logic. It would make more sense that such actions are the actions of people who wished to attribute said actions to a god, perhaps for sake of justifying their actions and attempting to spare themselves any guilt they might have felt. Clearly, however, a perfectly logical god wouldn’t base any of its actions on fallacious logic. The doctrine of original sin, for instance, is itself based on guilt by association. So even if a Christian fails to see the moral failing in such a doctrine, they would have to concede that there’s certainly a logical failing.
As is commonplace when discussing religion, there’s always someone who will disagree, either because they’re religious or are agnostics who favor belief over non-belief. This individual contended that the soundness of informal fallacies is established a posteriori rather than a priori. He also stated that god might have written guilt into our DNA and that therefore, it is heritable. I found that both of these contentions neither change my argument nor succeed at defeating it.
The reason for this is because I don’t think that every informal fallacy’s soundness is determined a posteriori. If soundness is reached via reason, and I see no reason to add an empirical dimension to determine the soundness of an informal fallacy, then that is also a priori. Even still, however, a perfectly logical being wouldn’t reason fallaciously, let alone base his actions on fallacious reasoning. Even if inherited guilt was built into our DNA, which no empirical research has shown, there’s still a logical issue with making a child pay for their parents sins. So even if I somehow inherit the guilt of my mother’s marital infedility, that doesn’t mean that I should pay the price for her adultery.
Collective guilt, for example, is a thing. I am, for instance, ashamed of my country’s actions. I am American and at the moment and for practically my whole life, I haven’t been proud to be one. I feel guilty being a citizen of a country that murdered millions of Native Americans and stripped them of their lands, allowed slavery, incarcerated Japanese citizens in internment camps, and incarcerates rates Blacks and Latinos disproportionately in comparison to other ethnic groups — aside from the many other human rights infractions this country has committed. That, however, does not mean that I should pay the price for American crimes. While some people may be perfectly content to make me pay on the basis of guilt by association (i.e. well, he’s an American, so his arrest or death is good enough for me!), a perfectly logical being simply should not and would not be content with passing such a sentence. It isn’t logical, just, or moral, but alas, the Judeo-Christian and Muslim gods are said to behave accordingly. If a theist or an agnostic who favors theism is reluctant to admit that there are moral or legal failings in the actions of these theistic gods, they must admit that there are clear logical failings in their actions. That poses yet another problem in a long list of problems for theism.
In this, Erdogen can learn a valuable lesson that will vastly reduce the negative impacts women in Turkey are currently facing. The return of restrictive policies also marks the return of illegal contraceptive and abortion methods, which, in turn, are a prelude to higher maternal deaths. Turkey, like Albania before it, must not go back to the days when abortion was criminalized. There is precedence in the Muslim World and in the world at large that should discourage Erdogen from continuing his de facto ban on abortion and eventually passing legislation that would officially ban abortion. If nothing else, the history of reproductive rights in the Muslim World not only serves as exemplary for majority-Muslim countries, but also countries around the world — especially countries currently enforcing prohibitive abortion policies.
Restrictive policies do not end abortion. Such policies end the lives of many women. In country after country, women literally bleed to death after experiencing complications related to unsafe, illegal procedures. Legalizing and decriminalizing abortion not only saves their lives, but also slows the cycle of poverty. For women in Afghanistan, the Philippines, Chile, Brazil, Northern Ireland, and other countries not surveyed here, the battle is ongoing. We are morally obligated to see what measures need to be taken in order to provide these women with safe, legal access to reproductive healthcare. Also, once this access is provided, we must ensure that there are no barriers keeping some women, be it for economic, educational, or other reasons, from getting and being able to meet the costs related to reproductive healthcare.
By R.N. Carmona
Before I express my most current thoughts about the idea of god and where I now stand, it is important to go over exactly what relation the Game of Thrones character Bran Stark has to a common concept of god. Bran Stark, who is currently an entity known as the Three-Eyed Raven, has omniscience as it concerns people and events. It has been shown that he can be touched in the future (when the Night’s King grabbed his arm), manipulate the present (by employing his warg ability), and influence the past (as shown when he called out to a younger version of his father Ned and when young Hodor heard Meera in the present telling present-day Hodor to hold the door). Yet despite his omniscience, he is powerless to prevent the war between the living and the dead, the armies of men and the Night’s King and his army of White Walkers and wights.
In fact, many theories concerning Bran have been circulated. One theory says that Bran Stark is Bran the builder. Bran the builder, legend has it, built the Wall where Jon Snow completed his watch and also Winterfell. Another postulates that Bran is the Lord of Light, the god of the Red Priestesses who reveals future events in fires. According to such theories, Bran reincarnates and lives forever in a repeating loop or he’s ascended to the role of an all-knowing god. Game of Thrones could be a literal time loop in where Bran is trying to prevent a number of catastrophic events like the creation of White Walkers by the Children of the Forest, the Mad King’s holocaust of Westerosi citizens, and the events that have yet to transpire – which may include the deaths of Daenerys and Jon, not to mention every person in Westeros.
Game of Thrones could literally be a story about an omniscient and all-powerful or nigh-all-powerful mystic or god being rendered powerless by chaos theory. In other words, per Littlefinger: “Chaos is a ladder” and only that ladder is real. All else is illusion. In trying to prevent the creation of the White Walkers or the Mad King’s holocaust, Bran unintentionally sets off other horrific events. The prevention of one bad outcome or consequence results in the emergence of a new bad outcome or consequence. Thinking about Bran’s predicament got me thinking about the idea of an omniscient being.
God’s predicament, should one exist, wouldn’t be any different. Preventing a murder on one side of the world only ensures the emergence of a new, unintended one on the other side of the world. If the flapping of a butterfly’s wings results in a derailed train that kills dozens, a god might reason to prevent the flapping of the wings, but in doing so, an unintended volcanic eruption wipes out dozens in a separate location. The idea of omniscience along with omnipotence would ensure that such a being is rendered powerless! Westeros may not work very much like our world; there is after all magic, undead, dragons, and voices speaking from fires. Chaos theory might not feature in Westeros, but it certainly features in our world. A being like the Three-Eyed Raven would have incredible power, but will resign himself to inactivity.
God, should one exist, might have realized this long ago and has thus resigned himself to inactivity and indifference. Omniscience entails foresight and omnipotence entails prevention of what one foresees, but the two powers together would inevitably result in voluntarily powerlessness. In a world of chaos, an order that prevents all evil and all suffering is simply not possible; it is unachievable. Should there be a god, Nietzsche might be best read literally. God is effectively dead. He is a celestial vegetable, eternally inactive upon realizing that he could never achieve a perfect world. I am firmly a post-theist in that I am beyond entertaining the ideas of religion and writing extensively and frequently about such topics. But should there be a god, I would approach it with compassion and pity because despite having all that power, it’s as though it has no power.
A simply corollary might make things clearer. Humans are no doubt limited and finite in their power to prevent unappealing outcomes and consequences. They are equally limited in their capacity to formulate and execute contingency plans. Yet even when one succeeds at preventing one’s business from failure by taking out a sizable loan, there’s now the unintended consequence of realizing several months down the line that an extensive layoff is necessary to turn enough profit to pay off the debt and continue to operate the business. Preventing one bad outcome seems to ensure the emergence of another. Though some regard this study as debunked, the jury is still out on whether extensive gene editing results in hundreds of potentially harmful mutations.
It could be that chaos requires a balancing of the scales and it is only in that balance that order is achieved. God might have done all he could to prevent the abusive childhood of one person only to ensure the emergence of another person’s abusive childhood. The Three-Eyed Raven’s predicament might not be any different from what a god’s would be if it existed. Joan Osborne’s song comes to mind in thinking that perhaps god is essentially one of us. The poor bastard has all that power and can do absolutely nothing with it.
It is useful to note that even if Plantinga or any Christian rejects the contra-argument, the first premise can be challenged. Rather than quibble with what is meant by maximal excellence, an atheist can accept the definition as it stands. The atheist can, however, question whether this is possible world W in where a being of maximal excellence exists and explore the consequences if it turns out that this isn’t that possible world. In other words, if this isn’t that specific possible world, then the argument is speaking of a possible world that is inaccessible to the believer and the believer is therefore in no better position to convince the non-believer. Put another way, if a being of maximal excellence doesn’t exist in this possible world, then it possibly exists in another world that cannot be accessed by any of the inhabitants in this world. There is therefore no utility or pragmatic value in belief. The argument would only speak of a logical possibility that is ontologically impossible in this world.
The atheist can take it a step further. What Christian theists purport to know about god stems from the Bible. The Bible, in other words, gives us information about god, his character, and his history as it relates to this world. Assuming this is possible world W, does he represent a being having maximal excellence? Is he, for instance, identical to a being who is wholly good? Any honest consideration of parts of the Bible would lead one to conclude that god is not identical to a being who is wholly good; god, in other words, isn’t wholly good. So obvious is his evil that Marcion of Sinope diverged from proto-Orthodox Christians in concluding that the Jewish God in the Old Testament is an evil deity and is in no way the father of Jesus. Yet if he’s evil, then he isn’t wholly good and if he isn’t wholly good, he fails to have maximal excellence.
Moreover, and much more damning to Plantinga’s argument, is that a being of maximal greatness has maximal excellence in all worlds. Therefore, if this being does not have maximal excellence in one of those worlds or more specifically, in this world, then it does not possess maximal greatness. Far from victorious, Plantinga’s argument would taste irreparable defeat and this, in more ways than one.