By R.N. Carmona
When one normally thinks of reincarnation, one has in mind a caricature, the spirit of a Jane Doe coming to inhabit a frog, unbeknownst to anyone, but arguably Jane Doe herself. This, however, is an oversimplification. While reincarnation is often considered an idea lauded by Eastern mystics, modern day science can be marshaled in to lend support to the idea of reincarnation, though in ways completely unexpected. For instance, one would usually hear the usual tripe: since matter and energy cannot be created nor destroyed, one’s consciousness must live on after death. The argument I want to offer is more intricate.
Firstly, I want to begin from the finitude of brain states, an extension from the limits of phenomenal experience. I do not disagree that there is accompanying phenomenal experience for any interaction between an object and our senses. I do disagree that what it is like for me to smell roses is peculiar and markedly different from your experience of smelling a rose. I happen to think our experiences are roughly equal. Whether you or I like the smell of roses or not involves more than just the phenomenal experience. In other words, there’s a lot of background noise that explains why you like the smell more than I do. Perhaps I associate the smell of roses with wakes and funerals rather than with candlelit dinners and weddings. The noise is not what I want to focus on.
Instead, I would like to focus on mental states themselves and argue that though there are potentially innumerable brain states, they are finite. Even if we capture every brain state of every organism in the universe, and include also the correlate states of organisms that are conscious though lacking a brain, the total number of mental states do not stretch infinitely. Furthermore, the combinations of brain states, right down to the size and function of my brain or your brain, in particular, are finite. To put it another way, let us say that there is a limitation in the communication between one’s prefrontal cortex and cerebellum. This may result in autism or schizophrenia (Watson, Thomas C et al. “Back to front: cerebellar connections and interactions with the prefrontal cortex.” Frontiers in systems neuroscience vol. 8 4. 4 Feb. 2014, doi:10.3389/fnsys.2014.00004). With these particular disorders, there are a number of hallmark behavioral traits. This gives some credence to the idea that brain states are fundamentally finite and do not, as it were, stretch on forever.
Unfortunately, we are no longer so taken by behaviorists and know that human beings are a lot more than simply a finite set of behaviors. We have our preferences, things we are repulsed by, idiosyncrasies, and personalities to speak of. Even then, I think that the combination of traits that make you you, no matter how multifarious, are finite. This implies that given a long enough time, some sentient being, whether homo sapien or something very similar to our own species, will come to believe in the same you you believe you are. This, to my mind, is how naturalism makes room for reincarnation.
Perhaps not in the next generation of life, or even in the next ten generations, but at some point, a sentient being will be born who believes, perhaps mistakenly, that they are me. To believe this, you need only believe that mental states, whether tied to a brain, or to intricate nervous systems, are finite. If such states are finite and the combination of such states and functions are finite, then there are only so many identities to go around. Given a long enough time, someone will come along and believe that they are exactly who Napoleon thought he was.
This, in fact, falls on the horns of a dilemma Buddhists have. Recall, Buddhists hold to the concept of anattā (no self). While I may have thrown around the word ‘identity’, this need not imply that I believe identity to be real and substantive. In fact, I think it is entirely illusory and that if we interact with enough people, we will find that we have more in common than we would like to admit. Some of us have delusions of grandeur; we have god and savior complexes, see ourselves as fixers, and believe that there is no problem we cannot solve. Others choose to mind their business, to not take on a deep personal investment in the struggles even loved ones go through, and instead choose to let the people around us work through their own problems. In one way or another, it is likely that my two brief sketches of identity resonate with my readers. Either you are one who suffers from delusions of grandeur and you base even your romantic relationships on this futile attempt to save everyone. Or, you are someone who has no deep personal investment in the problems even the people closest to you have; this isn’t to say you refuse to help when asked, but you prefer to let people find their own way. If one of the two people I have described describes aspects of you, then you are further to committing to the premise that mental states are finite and that therefore, identities are limited.
Buddhists have long struggled to reconcile the idea of reincarnation with anattā, but a resolution isn’t difficult to come by. Before offering a solution, I defer to Wildman:
In fact, the anattā (no-substantive self) doctrine of most forms of Indian Buddhism means that there is no jīva (soul) that persists from life to life through death and reincarnation, as there is in most forms of Hinduism. The consequences for samsāra and nirvana of this view are complicated, and perhaps mind boggling, and Buddhists have spent enormous effort in debate over them, both with Hindus and among themselves. So it is not surprising that many Buddhists do not hesitate to picture life and death in rather Hindu terms, as re-enfleshment of an enduring soul, despite their characteristic no-self doctrine. Many Buddhist intellectuals will not do this, however, and their more subtle approach is not registered at all when the word reincarnation is used as the comparative category to comprehend both Hindu and Buddhist versions of the implications of samsāra for living beings.Wildman, Wesley J. Religious Philosophy as Multidisciplinary Comparative Inquiry: Envisioning a Future For The Philosophy of Religion. State University of New York Press. Albany, NY. 2010. 133. Print.
My resolution is that while there is no self, no concrete identity, what persists are the illusions of a self or an identity brought about by the limited combinations of mental states humans experience. This is why so many of us come to have exactly the same ideas about ourselves, despite the fact that we are different people with vastly different past experiences. This is why mental and cognitive disorders feature an array of hallmark symptoms. To illustrate this even better, think of the way genes encode phenotypic features. Straight thumbs, for instance, are expressed with a capital S whereas hitchhiker thumbs are recessive alleles expressed with a lowercase s. This peculiarity, assuming you have it, does not belong to you. There are other people who have hitchhiker thumb and they have it because gene expression in their genomes have resulted in this phenotypic feature. Likewise, our mental states, the manner in which brain regions communicate with one another, and the way in which our particular neurons fire in our brains create the same illusions of a static identity, packaged with a linear life narrative that we can literally draw a straight line through from our first memories in childhood through today.
There is no substantive self that persists, a soul as it were. There is, however, a persistent illusion in all of us and I do not put it passed a being eons from now to think that s/he is exactly who I think I am. Furthermore, I do not discount the idea that s/he will feel, phenomenologically speaking, exactly as I do. There is this sense that I am. Whether or not identity is real, the illusion is powerful enough to lead me to believe I am unique and that there will never be another exactly like me. This is folly. So while there is no substantive soul in me or in my cat, there are a number of mental states, resulting from brain and nerve interactions, that make both of us feel like we are a unique individuals never to be replicated. I conclude that it is far likelier that since there are not infinite mental states to go around, there are not infinite illusions to go around either. What we refer to as the soul or identity has its boundaries and limits. There will be another you, so in that sense, even after death, should the universe persist, you will live again with no recollection of the you you are right now.
This may seem particularly discomforting for some readers. For others, they may think that this idea is not developed enough. I admit, the argument is very bare bones and could use more flesh. That, however, does not mean the argument is unsound. I happen to be convinced, first and foremost, that mental states and what we call identities do not stretch to infinity and that therefore, there are only so many yous to go around. As such, you will live again or be reborn. This is how naturalism makes room for something as mystical as reincarnation. The lesson is that naturalists should shun the habit of dismissing an idea because it is religious or prima facie supernatural. There might be a kernel of truth to the idea of reincarnation. That remains to be seen, but my argument is certainly a good place to start.
By R.N. Carmona
Every deductive argument can be negated. I consider this an uncontroversial statement. The problem is, there are people who proceed as though deductive arguments speak to an a priori truth. The Freedom Tower is taller than the Empire State Building; the Empire State Building is taller than the Chrysler Building; therefore, the Freedom Tower is taller than the Chrysler Building. This is an example of an a priori truth because given that one understands the concepts of taller and shorter, the conclusion follows uncontroversially from the premises. This is one way in which the soundness of an argument can be assessed.
Of relevance is how one would proceed if one is unsure of the argument. Thankfully, we no longer live in a world in where one would have to go out of their way to measure the heights of the three buildings. A simple Google search will suffice. The Freedom Tower is ~546m. The Empire State Building is ~443. The Chrysler is ~318m. Granted, this is knowledge by way of testimony. I do not intend to connote religious testimony. What I intend to say is that one’s knowledge is grounded on knowledge directly acquired by someone else. In other words, at least one other person actually measured the heights of these buildings and these are the measurements they got.
Most of our knowledge claims rest on testimony. Not everyone has performed an experimental proof to show that the acceleration of gravity is 9.8m/s^2. Either one learned it from a professor or read it in a physics textbook or learned it when watching a science program. Or, they believe the word of someone they trust, be it a friend or a grade school teacher. This does not change that fact that if one cared to, one could exchange knowledge by way of testimony for directly acquired knowledge by performing an experimental proof. This is something I have done, so I do not believe on basis of mere testimony that Newton’s law holds. I can say that it holds because I tested it for myself.
To whet the appetite, let us consider a well-known deductive argument and let us ignore, for the moment, whether it is sound:
P1 All men are mortal.
P2 Socrates is a man.
C Therefore, Socrates is mortal.
If someone were completely disinterested in checking whether this argument, which is merely a finite set of propositions, coheres with the world or reality, I would employ my negation strategy: the negation of an argument someone assumes to be sound without epistemic warrant or justification. The strategy forces them into exploring whether their argument or its negation is sound. Inevitably, the individual will have to abandon their bizarre commitment to a sort of propositional idealism (namely that propositions can only be logically assessed and do not contain any real world entities contextually or are not claims about the world). In other words, they will abandon the notion that “All men are mortal” is a mere proposition lacking context that is not intended to make a claim about states of affairs objectively accessible to everyone, including the person who disagrees with them. With that in mind, I would offer the following:
P1 All men are immortal.
P2 Socrates is a man.
C Therefore, Socrates is immortal.
This is extremely controversial for reasons we are all familiar with. That is because everyone accepts that the original argument is sound. When speaking of ‘men’, setting aside the historical tendency to dissolve the distinction between men and women, what is meant is “all human persons from everywhere and at all times.” Socrates, as we know, was an ancient Greek philosopher who reportedly died in 399 BCE. Like all people before him, and presumably all people after him, he proved to be mortal. No human person has proven to be immortal and therefore, the original argument holds.
Of course, matters are not so straightforward. Christian apologists offer no arguments that are uncontroversially true like the original argument above. Therefore, the negation strategy will prove extremely effective to disabuse them of propositional idealism and to make them empirically assess whether their arguments are sound. What follows are examples of arguments for God that have been discussed ad nauseam. Clearly, theists are not interested in conceding. They are not interested in admitting that even one of their arguments does not work. Sure, what you find are theists committed to Thomism, for instance, and as such, they will reject Craig’s Kalam Cosmological Argument (KCA) because it does not fit into their Aristotelian paradigm and not because it is unsound. They prefer Aquinas’ approach to cosmological arguments. What is more common is the kind of theist that ignores the incongruity between one argument for another; since they are arguments for God, it counts as evidence for his existence and it really does not matter that Craig’s KCA is not Aristotelian. I happen to think that it is, despite Craig’s denial, but I digress.
Negating Popular Arguments For God’s Existence
Let us explore whether Craig’s Moral Argument falls victim to the negation strategy. Craig’s Moral Argument is as follows:
P1 If God does not exist, objective moral values do not exist.
P2 Objective moral values do exist.
C Therefore, God exist (Craig, William L. “Moral Argument (Part 1)”. Reasonable Faith. 15 Oct 2007. Web.)
With all arguments, a decision must be made. First, an assessment of the argument form is in order. Is it a modus ponens (MP) or a modus tollens (MT)? Perhaps it is neither and is instead, a categorical or disjunctive syllogism. In any case, one has to decide which premise(s) is going to be negated or whether by virtue of the argument form, one will have to change the argument form to state the opposite. You can see this with the original example. I could have very well negated P2 and stated “Socrates is not a man.” Socrates is an immortal jellyfish that I tagged in the Mediterranean. Or he is an eternal being that I met while tripping out on DMT. For purposes of the argument, however, since he is not a man, at the very least, the question of whether or not he is mortal is open. We would have to ask what Socrates is. Now, if Socrates is my pet hamster, then yes, Socrates is mortal despite not being a man. It follows that the choice of negation has to be in a place that proves most effective. Some thought has to go into it.
Likewise, the choice has to be made when confronting Craig’s Moral Argument. Craig’s Moral Argument is a modus tollens. For the uninitiated, it simply states: [((p –> q) ^ ~q) –> ~p] (Potter, A. (2020). The rhetorical structure of Modus Tollens: An exploration in logic-mining. Proceedings of the Society for Computation in Linguistics, 3, 170-179.). Another way of putting it is that one is denying the consequent. That is precisely what Craig does. “Objective moral values do not exist” is the consequent q. Craig is saying ~q or “Objective moral values do exist.” Therefore, one route one can take is keeping the argument form and negating P1, which in turn negates P2.
MT Negated Moral Argument
P1 If God exists, objective moral values and duties exist.
P2 Objective moral values do not exist.
C Therefore, God does not exist.
The key is to come up with a negation that is either sound or, at the very least, free of any controversy. Straight away, I do not like P2. Moral realists would also deny this negation because, to their minds, P2 is not true. The controversy with P2 is not so much whether it is true or false, but that it falls on the horns of the objectivism-relativism and moral realism/anti-realism debates in ethics. The argument may accomplish something with respect to countering Craig’s Moral Argument, but we are in no better place because of it. This is when we should explore changing the argument’s form in order to get a better negation.
MP Negated Moral Argument
P1 If God does not exist, objective moral values and duties exist.
P2 God does not exist.
C Therefore, objective moral values and duties exist.
This is a valid modus ponens. I have changed the argument form of Craig’s Moral Argument and I now have what I think to be a better negation of his argument. From P2, atheists can find satisfaction. This is the epistemic proposition atheists are committed to. The conclusion also alleviates any concerns moral realists might have had with the MT Negated Moral Argument. For my own purposes, I think this argument works better. That, however, is beside the point. The point is that this forces theists to either justify the premises of Craig’s Moral Argument, i.e. prove that the argument is sound, or assert, on the basis of mere faith, that Craig’s argument is true. In either case, one will have succeeded in either forcing the theist to abandon their propositional idealism, in getting them to test the argument against the world as ontologically construed or in getting them to confess that they are indulging in circular reasoning and confirmation bias, i.e. getting them to confess that they are irrational and illogical. Both of these count as victories. We can explore whether other arguments for God fall on this sword.
We can turn our attention to Craig’s Kalam Cosmological Argument (KCA):
P1 Everything that begins to exist has a cause.
P2 The universe began to exist.
C Therefore, the universe has a cause. (Reichenbach, Bruce. “Cosmological Argument”. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. 2021. Web.)
Again, negation can take place in two places: P1 or P2. Negating P1, however, does not make sense. Negating P2, like in the case of his Moral Argument, changes the argument form; this is arguable and more subtle. So we get the following:
MT Negated KCA
P1 Everything that begins to exist has a cause.
P2 The universe did not begin to exist.
C Therefore, the universe does not have a cause.
Technically, Craig’s KCA is a categorical syllogism. Such syllogisms present a universal (∀) or existential quantifier (∃); the latter is introduced by saying all. Consider, “all philosophers are thinkers; all philosophers are logicians; therefore, all thinkers are logicians.” Conversely, one could say “no mallards are insects; some birds are mallards; therefore, some birds are not insects.” What Craig is stating is that all things that begin to exist have a cause, so if the universe is a thing that began to exist, then it has a cause. Alternatively, his argument is an implicit modus ponens: “if the universe began to exist, then it has a cause; the universe began to exist; therefore, the universe has a cause.” In any case, the negation works because if the universe did not begin to exist, then the universe is not part of the group of all things that have a cause.
Whether the universe is finite or eternal has been debated for millennia and in a sense, despite changing context, the debate rages on. If the universe is part of an eternal multiverse, it is just one universe in a vast sea of universes within a multiverse that has no temporal beginning. Despite this, the MT Negated KCA demonstrates how absurd the KCA is. The singularity was already there ‘before’ the Big Bang. The Big Bang started the cosmic clock, but the universe itself did not begin to exist. This is more plausible. Consider that everything that begins to exist does so when the flow of time is already in motion, i.e. when the arrow of time pointed in a given direction due to entropic increase reducible to the decreasing temperature throughout the universe. Nothing that has ever come into existence has done so simultaneously with time itself because any causal relationship speaks to a change and change requires the passage of time, but at T=0, no time has passed, and therefore, no change could have taken place. This leads to an asymmetry. We thus cannot speak of anything beginning to exist at T=0. The MT Negated KCA puts cosmology in the right context. The universe did not come into existence at T=0. T=0 simply represents the first measure of time; matter and energy did not emerge at that point.
For a more complicated treatment, Malpass and Morriston argue that “one cannot traverse an actual infinite in finite steps” (Malpass, Alex & Morriston, Wes (2020). Endless and Infinite. Philosophical Quarterly 70 (281):830-849.). In other words, from a mathematical point of view, T=0 is the x-axis. All of the events after T=0 are an asymptote along the x-axis. The events go further and further back, ever closer to T=0 but never actually touch it. For a visual representation, see below:
Credit: Free Math Help
The implication here is that time began to exist, but the universe did not begin to exist. A recent paper implies that this is most likely the case (Quantum Experiment Shows How Time ‘Emerges’ from Entanglement. The Physics arXiv Blog. 23 Oct 2013. Web.). The very hot, very dense singularity before the emergence of time at T=0 would have been subject to quantum mechanics rather than the macroscopic forces that came later, e.g., General Relativity. As such, the conditions were such that entanglement could have resulted in the emergence of time in our universe, but not the emergence of the universe. All of the matter and energy were already present before the clock started to tick. Conversely, if the universe is akin to a growing runner, then the toddler is at the starting line before the gun goes off. The sound of the gun starts the clock. The runner starts running sometime after she hears the sound. As she runs, she goes through all the stages of childhood, puberty, adolescence, adulthood, and finally dies. Crucially, the act of her running and her growth do not begin until after the gun goes off. Likewise, no changes take place at T=0; all changes take place after T=0. While there is this notion of entanglement, resulting in a change occurring before the clock even started ticking, quantum mechanics demonstrates that quantum changes do not require time and in fact, may result in the emergence of time. Therefore, it is plausible that though time began to exist at the Big Bang, the universe did not begin to exist—thus, making the MT Negated KCA sound. The KCA is therefore, false.
Finally, so that the Thomists do not feel left out, we can explore whether the negation strategy can be applied to Aquinas’ Five Ways. For our purposes, the Second Way is closely related to the KCA and would be defeated by the same considerations. Of course, we would have to negate the Second Way so that it is vulnerable to the considerations that cast doubt on the KCA. The Second Way can be stated as follows:
We perceive a series of efficient causes of things in the world.
Nothing exists prior to itself.
Therefore nothing [in the world of things we perceive] is the efficient cause of itself.
If a previous efficient cause does not exist, neither does the thing that results (the effect).
Therefore if the first thing in a series does not exist, nothing in the series exists.
If the series of efficient causes extends ad infinitum into the past, then there would be no things existing now.
That is plainly false (i.e., there are things existing now that came about through efficient causes).
Therefore efficient causes do not extend ad infinitum into the past.
Therefore it is necessary to admit a first efficient cause, to which everyone gives the name of God. (Gracyk, Theodore. “Argument Analysis of the Five Ways”. Minnesota State University Moorhead. 2016. Web.)
This argument is considerably longer than the KCA, but there are still areas where the argument can be negated. I think P1 is uncontroversial and so, I do not mind starting from there:
Negated Second Way
We perceive a series of efficient causes of things in the world.
Nothing exists prior to itself.
Therefore nothing [in the world of things we perceive] is the efficient cause of itself.
If a previous efficient cause does not exist, neither does the thing that results (the effect).
Therefore if the earlier thing in a series does not exist, nothing in the series exists.
If the series of efficient causes extends ad infinitum into the past, then there would be things existing now.
That is plainly true (i.e., efficient causes, per Malpass and Morriston, extend infinitely into the past or, the number of past efficient causes is a potential infinity).
Therefore efficient causes do extend ad infinitum into the past.
Therefore it is not necessary to admit a first efficient cause, to which everyone gives the name of God.
Either the theist will continue to assert that the Second Way is sound, epistemic warrant and justification be damned, or they will abandon their dubious propositional idealism and run a soundness test. Checking whether the Second Way or the Negated Second Way is sound would inevitably bring them into contact with empirical evidence supporting one argument or the other. As I have shown with the KCA, it appears that considerations of time, from a philosophical and quantum mechanical perspective, greatly lower the probability of the KCA being sound. This follows neatly into Aquinas’ Second Way and as such, one has far less epistemic justification for believing the KCA or Aquinas’ Second Way are sound. The greater justification is found in the negated versions of these arguments.
Ultimately, one either succeeds at making the theist play the game according to the right rules or getting them to admit their beliefs are not properly epistemic at all; instead, they believe by way of blind faith and all of their redundant arguments are exercises in circular reasoning and any pretense of engaging the evidence is an exercise in confirmation bias. Arguments for God are a perfect example of directionally motivated reasoning (see Galef, Julia. The Scout Mindset: Why Some People See Things Clearly and Others Don’t. New York: Portfolio, 2021. 63-66. Print). I much prefer accuracy motivated reasoning. We are all guilty of motivated reasoning, but directionally motivated reasoning is indicative of irrationality and usually speaks to the fact that one holds beliefs that do not square with the facts. Deductive arguments are only useful insofar as premises can be supported by evidence, which therefore makes it easier to show that an argument is sound. This is why we can reason that if Socrates is a man, more specifically, the ancient Greek philosopher that we all know, then Socrates was indeed mortal and that is why he died in 399 BCE. Likewise, this is why we cannot reason that objective morality can only be the case if the Judeo-Christian god exists, that if the universe began to exist, God is the cause, and that if the series of efficient causes cannot regress infinitely and must terminate somewhere, they can only terminate at a necessary first cause, which some call God. These arguments can be negated and the negations will show that they are either absurd or that the reasoning in the arguments is deficient and rests on the laurels of directionally motivated reasoning due to a bias for one’s religious faith rather than on the bedrock of carefully reasoned, meticulously demonstrated, accuracy motivated reasoning which does not ignore or omit pertinent facts.
The arguments for God, no matter how old or new, simple or complex, do not work because not only do they rely on directionally motivated and patently biased reasoning, but because when testing for soundness, being sure not to exclude any pertinent evidence, the arguments turn out to be unsound. In the main, they all contain controversial premises that do not work unless one already believes in God. So there is a sense in which these arguments exist to give believers a false sense of security or more pointedly, a false sense of certainty. Unlike my opponents, I am perfectly content with being wrong, with changing my mind, but the fact remains, theism is simply not the sort of belief that I give much credence to. Along with the Vagueness Strategy, the Negation Strategy is something that should be in every atheist’s toolbox.
Skeptical Theism is overtly present in Plantinga’s Ignorance Defense. It must be noted here that he does not call it that. The monicker makes sense because it relies on human ignorance in order to work. In other words, the defense states that since human wisdom is incomparable to God’s, we cannot know why he allows evil. Moreover, since it is reasonable that he has some reason, unbeknownst to us, for allowing evil, we cannot reasonably blame God for the evil in the world. Of Plantinga’s explications, Kai Nielsen says the following:
Plantinga grants that, as far as we can see, there are many cases of evil that are apparently pointless. Indeed there are many cases of such evils where we have no idea at all what reason God (if there is such a person) could have for permitting such evils. But, Plantinga remarks, from granting these things it does not follow that “an omnipotent and omniscient God, if he existed, would not have a reason for permitting them” (Plantinga 1993, 400). From the fact that we can see no reason at all for God to permit evils, we cannot legitimately infer that God has no reason to allow such evils. It is not just, Plantinga continues, “obvious or apparent that God could have reason for permitting them. The most we can sensibly say is that we can’t think of any good reason why he would permit them” (Plantinga 1993, 400)Plantinga, Alvin. God, Freedom and Evil. New York: Harper & Row, 1974. 58. Print.
This, in a nutshell, is the Ignorance Defense. Humans are, in other words, ignorant of God’s will and our wisdom pales in comparison to his. Nielsen’s contention, however, has the makings of a perfect defeater. All that is needed is to see his objection from the point of view of one of God’s attributes. Nielsen states that “it looks more like, if he exists and is all powerful and all knowing, that then he more likely to be evil” and adds that “we see that all the same he might possibly be, as Jewish, Christian, and Islamic religions say he is, perfectly good. But we cannot see that he is. The Mosaic God looks, to understate it, petty, unjust, and cruel to us” (Ibid.). This defeater is perfected if we see this from the point of view of God’s omniscience. God would know that we would be incapable of seeing that he is good in light of natural evil. This evil is, in fact, gratuitous. God would have seen, by way of his omniscience, that the quantity of natural evil in the world would be enough to drive so many to doubt. This apart from contradictory revelations, the limited range and capacity of Christianity, i.e., its incapacity to appeal to people of other cultures, e.g., Jews, Muslims, Hindus, and indigenous people across every populated continent, and the negative evidence against the existence of the Judeo-Christian god.
We are then asked “to stick with a belief in what we see to be some kind of possibility, namely that God is, after all, appearances to the contrary notwithstanding, perfectly good” (Ibid.). This as an obstinate appeal to the very faith that needs to be substantiated. Furthermore, this appears to imply the superiority of faith over reason. Like Galileo, who no doubt said this with a different sentiment, I “do not feel obliged to believe that same God who endowed us with sense, reason, and intellect had intended for us to forgo their use” (Galilei, Galileo, “Letter to the Grand Duchess Christina of Tuscany, 1615” (2013). Instructional Resources. 97.).
For a clearer explication of skeptical theism, McBrayer offers:
Skeptical theism is the view that God exists but that we should be skeptical of our ability to discern God’s reasons for acting or refraining from acting in any particular instance. In particular, says the skeptical theist, we should not grant that our inability to think of a good reason for doing or allowing something is indicative of whether or not God might have a good reason for doing or allowing something. If there is a God, he knows much more than we do about the relevant facts, and thus it would not be surprising at all if he has reasons for doing or allowing something that we cannot fathom.McBrayer, Justin P. “Skeptical Theism”. Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Web.
This matches Plantinga’s Ignorance Defense one-to-one. There is therefore, no need to belabor the point. My concern is twofold: the failure of skeptical theism should be clear and since this appeal to human ignorance is an obstinate roadblock borne of a reluctance to accept an atheistic conclusion, it is crucial to develop arguments that make use of its faulty intuition and arguments that leave no room for a skeptical theistic response. In other words, if the intuition can be turned on its head, in a perfect example of how to employ the double standard and outsider tests (see Galef, Julia. The Scout Mindset: Why Some People See Things Clearly and Others Don’t. New York: Portfolio, 2021. 63-66. Print), perhaps the theist is not in a position to see the vast shortcomings of skeptical theism. This is what I want to do because I am at a loss when it comes to understanding why anyone would think such a response works when confronting The Evidential Problem of Evil and Schellenberg’s Divine Hiddenness Argument. For our purposes, I will set aside stating explicitly The Evidential Problem of Evil, as I think it is unnecessary review for the initiated. Schellenberg’s Divine Hiddenness Argument, on the other hand, is not as familiar, even to the thoroughly initiated. Thankfully, Veronika Weidner has explicitly stated the argument accurately:
(1) Necessarily, if God exists, then God is a personal perfect being.
(2) Necessarily, if God is a personal perfect being, then God always loves all human beings perfectly.
(3) Necessarily, if God always loves all human beings perfectly, then God is always open to be in a personal relationship with all those human beings capable of such a relationship with God.
(4) Necessarily, if God is always open to be in a personal relationship with all those human beings capable of such a relationship with God, then God does or omits nothing which would prevent all those human beings to relate to God personally who are capable of a personal relationship with God and also not resistant to a personal relationship with God.
(5) Necessarily, a human being capable of a personal relationship with God who is not resistant to a personal relationship with God is only able to relate to God personally if she believes that God exists.
(6) Necessarily, if God does or omits nothing which would prevent all those human beings to relate to God personally who are capable of a personal relationship with God and also not resistant to a personal relationship with God, then it is not the case that there is a human being capable of a personal relationship with God who is not resistant to a personal relationship with God and yet not able to relate to God personally because she does not believe that God exists.
(7) There is at least one human being capable of a personal relationship with God who is not resistant to a personal relationship with God and yet not able to relate to God personally because she does not believe that God exists.
(8) Therefore, God does not exist. (see Schellenberg, 2015b: 24–25)Weidner, Veronika. Divine Hiddenness. Cambridge University Press, 2021. Web.
Prior to discussing Schellenberg’s argument in some detail, it is crucial to understand why skeptical theism fails:
A) Even if we grant that unforeseen goods balance the scales, as it were, i.e. justifies the 1,800 cancer-related deaths of children per year in the United States, there is no way for finite human minds to causally connect these deaths with the goods whenever they arrive; the most we can do is callously reason that their deaths are akin to necessary sacrifices that enable us to eventually find a cure—which is related to minor problem (a) below and more importantly, is not something we should ever give God credit for; developing cures is a slow, painstaking process that does not involve anything like putative revelation or God whispering the secrets to a much needed vaccine in a doctor’s ear. There is also the issue that the goods may arrive well after our lifetimes, which segues into the next problem.
B) On exclusivism, many of today’s atheists are eternally lost because evil and hiddenness were just too persuasive and the goods never came due within our lifetimes. On universalism, this is all arbitrary. This can be conjoined to Street’s recent response to skeptical theism: we are free to indulge moral aporia because no matter what we believe or not, we will ultimately be saved (see Street, S. (2014). If everything happens for a reason, then we don’t know what reasons are: Why the price of theism is normative skepticism. In M. Bergmann & P. Kain (Eds.), Challenges to moral and religious belief: Disagreement and evolution (pp. 172–192). Oxford: Oxford University Press.). So talk of evil and hiddenness and unknown goods to account for them ends up being null.
I have a sneaking suspicion that theists feel the gnaw of these defeaters. Atheists certainly do. This then becomes an exercise of being overly charitable to a kind of argument that can never prove successful. If skeptical theism fails, it is a thread that should be cut and discarded. There are a couple of minor problems that are important as well:
a) It is utilitarian in its analysis. The evil and hiddenness we experience are lesser in magnitude when compared to the goods that await us, be it in heaven or by way of some earthly recompense. The greater good overtones are palpable. I cannot see how a being who is appealed to as the objective and perfect moral standard can subscribe to utilitarianism given its shortcomings.
b) It begs the question because it really is no different from someone saying “just wait and see!” Many people on all sides died waiting and seeing and per Schellenberg, honestly sought divinity their entire lives and came up empty. If God had a better track record of making do on past atrocities, then we would be able to inductively reason, as many of us do with science, in this manner. The thing is, it looks like the bills for the Holocaust and slavery are overdue and all of us, living ~80 and ~450 years respectively, after these atrocities happened, cannot even begin to causally connect potential goods that God has deployed with the intention of paying this debt. Perhaps it is too much to expect God to pay that debt because those were human crimes; but I can also think of disasters, diseases, pandemics, mass extinctions, and other natural evils that are overdue and again, I am not sure what goods are intended to repay the extinctions of all of our hominid cousins, for example.
c) The whole accounting that is done really puts a lack of value on human life that turns out to be nihilistic and even fatalistic. The Black Plague wiped out millions. Are we really to believe any good repaid that debt? Are we supposed to buy that the life of a child, whose loss emotionally crippled her mother, is worth so little that we can just make do with the fact that some future kid was saved from danger in her place? That does nothing at all to alleviate the suffering the child and her mother experienced, so that is another issue, one of currency: what is the value of this coin God is paying his debts with and how exactly does it exchange with the coin in the sometimes distant past?
Now to turn my attention to an argument that subsumes the observations of The Evidential Problem of Evil and The Divine Hiddenness Argument. This argument is novel, forceful, and to my mind, defeats the idea of not just perfect being, omni-god theism, but theism overall. Weidner already observes the following: “After all, the hiddenness argument, if successful, helps us see the deficiencies of personal perfect being theism” (Weidner, ibid.). My next argument should help one see the deficiencies of theism in general.
Infinity Entails Supererogative Capacity
Weidner’s next stop is to grapple with the conclusion of My Argument From Assailability: “if we find in any being, a characteristic that is assailable, then we have no reason to call it a god.” How is a non-perfect theistic being different from an alien, one might ask. Crucially, if per the hiddenness and evil arguments, God does not seem open to being in a relationship with all human beings and does not intervene when great atrocities happen, then we have located an assailable characteristic. How does an omnipotent or, at least, an incredibly powerful being succumb to bystander effect? Even if God is not all-powerful and could not snap the Nazis out of existence, if he is at least powerful enough to assume a disguise and poison Hitler and his top advisers, why not step in and prevent the Holocaust?
The reason Aquinas and others maximized God to have infinite capacities in all respects is because theists already saw the crippling limitations of a god with finite abilities. The question would immediately follow: what motivation is there to worship a being that is not perfect? Infinity entails supererogative capacity. God would be able to give an infinite amount of love, kinship, succor, power, knowledge, and presence and still retain an infinite amount of each. So why does he seem to blithely refuse to commit to this? Perfect and infinite personal being theism is defeated by the combination of Schellenberg’s Divine Hiddenness Argument, The Evidential Problem of Evil, and my argument from God’s apparent lack of supererogatory agency. What is left is non-perfect being theism.
That, however, falls on the horns of my Argument From Assailability and so, Theism is defeated in all its iterations. This is to say nothing about the fact that even a finite deity would be far more capable of supererogatory acts than we are. In any case, the intuition of my supererogative argument can be turned on its head. We can deduce something about God’s power given this lack. God must be much weaker than a hypothetical infinite being due to the fact that he remains a bystander, utterly apathetic to even the worst atrocities known to man—even ones we played no part in causing. This is an assailable characteristic. We therefore, have no obligation whatsoever to worship a being that is apparently weaker than ourselves. As Tracie Harris famously said: “If I could stop a person from raping a child I would. That is the difference between me and your God” (Bennett-Smith, Meredith. “‘Atheist Experience’ TV Host Shocked By Caller’s Statement About Child Rape (Video)”. Huffington Post. 9 Jan 2013. Web). Ultimately, if God appears to be this much weaker than human beings, who can potentially lose their lives when intervening on the behalf of another person, it is far more probable that God does not exist.
Notes on Necessity
The standard contingency argument looks something like the following:
- There exists a series of events
- The series of events exists as caused and not as uncaused
- This series cannot extend infinitely into the past
- Therefore, there must exist the necessary being that is the cause of all contingent being (credit: Queens Community College)
The intuition of skeptical theism, as I made clear at the outset, can be used to cast doubt on contingency arguments across the board. Aside from the fact that there is a chasm between a necessary cause, e.g., something like the Big Bang, and a necessary being, we can assert that we should be skeptical of our ability to discern what a necessary being is. How do we know that it is one necessary being as opposed to many? If a Triune god solves the one-many problem, then why not the Divine Septad of Zoroastrianism? Since we cannot know what the realm of necessity is like, we should refrain from making these kinds of arguments.
Contingency arguments only accomplish one thing: they point to the existence of metaphysical necessities, quite possibly something like brute facts, that can be explained by something more concrete like physical necessity. In my overview of Rasmussen’s recent contingency argument, I go over what this looks like and it is more plausible than crossing the infinite chasm between a necessary cause and a necessary being on blind faith alone. In any case, since we cannot know what necessity is really like and since we cannot visit the realm of necessity, it is best we accept our ignorance on this matter. The intuition of skeptical theism undermines what many theists consider one of the stronger lines of argumentation in favor of theism.
The Argument From Phenomenal Distance
This novel argument, not to be confused with Mander’s “Does God know what it is like to be me?” (see Mander, W.J. (2002), Does God Know What It is Like to be Me?. The Heythrop Journal, 43: 430-443. https://doi.org/10.1111/1468-2265.00203) completely evades skeptical theism. It is an argument from analogy in where an observation about human behavior is mapped onto God. The argument has been alluded to before, but as far as I know, has not been formally stated or given a name.
RC*: The condition of the argument is as follows: there is a difference between the phenomenal experience of human beings and that of earthworms (if it is even appropriate to think that worms have phenomenal experience). Even if earthworms lack phenomenal consciousness, according to some philosophers, we certainly have phenomenal consciousness and as such, there is a distance between our experience and theirs.
RC1 Human beings have phenomenal distance from earthworms and therefore, are indifferent to them, e.g. we walk through a parking lot on a rainy day and probably trample dozens of them underfoot with no second thought.
RC2 An infinite god or even a vastly powerful deity would have an infinite or incalculable phenomenal distance from humans.
RCC1 Therefore, we should expect God to be indifferent to us.
This argument avoids the nauseating intuition of skeptical theism as it cannot appeal to any ignorance we have. One thing we are not ignorant of, as evil and hiddenness make clear, is that either God does not exist or if any gods exist, they are astoundingly indifferent to us. Camus, in The Plague, observes through the character of Tarrou that if God is not going to provide succor in times of great atrocity, it is up to us to take the helm and do something about our plights. Conjoined to his scathing criticisms of the religious propensity to prefer the abstract over the concrete is Camus’ clearsighted focus on God’s absence or indifference, for even as Jacques Othon dies in agony and Father Paneloux shouts out “My God, spare this child!,” the child dies writhing in pain and wailing across the halls of the auxiliary hospital (Camus, Albert. The Plague. New York: Vintage International Books. 217. Web.). This argument is yet another powerful blow against personal being theism because a friend is there in times of need and a father who loves his children, all the more so. No appeal to our ignorance, as my defeaters make clear, can be marshaled in to salvage the notion of the existence of a personal being who loves us and has our well-being and prosperity in mind. The absence or more tentatively, the indifference of God should disabuse one of the belief in a personal being who loves us infinitely.
In the end, I think the lines of argumentation I have pursued here are by no means exhaustive, in that a lot more can be said about evil, suffering, hiddenness, God’s lack of supererogative agency, and an indifference stemming from the incalculable, if not, infinite phenomenal distance he has from us. I defer to Rieux: “No Father. I’ve a very different idea of love. And until my dying day I shall refuse to love a scheme of things in which children are put to torture” (Camus, Ibid., 218).
By R.N. Carmona
Isms abound and nuance is sorely needed. I think my readers ought to follow my lead and shed their isms. In place of these various isms, they should offer clear definitions of what they mean by these isms. I think definitions are more robust and are more capable of giving, especially detractors, an idea of what a label means in practice. I will now outline a few of my various isms and unpack them, so that people can start to see the absurdity of opposing some of them. In place of these labels, I will offer explanations for why I identity with these views.
Atheism is not merely an epistemic stance concerning belief in god, but a robust philosophical position that contains an analytic component. Analytic atheism is concerned with what is meant by theism and what is meant by God. Atheists, however, will not always agree with the answers provided by theists. A theist may respond to the first question and say that God is existence. An atheist might object by saying that such a definition is inconsistent with what theists commonly profess and that what they usually profess is much more elementary. God, for example, is man-like. He is pleased or displeased; given the latter, he is prone to anger. Furthermore, he purportedly has properties that cannot be attributed to mere existence: he is omniscient, omnipotent, eternal, timeless. The atheist could also respond by stating that defining God as existence is much too vague. The aim of a definition is description; this definition, however, fails to describe what is meant by God.
Analytic atheism also attempts to answer the question: what is atheism? To accomplish this, however, the normative component has to be consulted. The analytic component will provide theories of atheism or more simply, accounts of what atheism should be, therefore providing possible answers to the question of normative atheism. The analytic component is therefore, responsible for determining which account best captures what atheism is or alternatively, what an atheist is.
What an atheist is, is perhaps best defined by the approach s/he chooses. The approach chosen or a combination of these approaches might help us to arrive at a better definition of atheism. There’s fallibilism, deductive atheology, and inductive atheology. The latter two are encompassed by evidentialism. This position is arguably most familiar to modern atheists:
[A]theists have taken the view that whether or not a person is justified in having an attitude of belief towards the proposition, “God exists,” is a function of that person’s evidence. “Evidence” here is understood broadly to include a priori arguments, arguments to the best explanation, inductive and empirical reasons, as well as deductive and conceptual premises. An asymmetry exists between theism and atheism in that atheists have not offered faith as a justification for non-belief. That is, atheists have not presented non-evidentialist defenses for believing that there is no God.
McCormick, Matt. “Atheism”. Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. ND. Web. 21 Dec 2014
A priori arguments fall in the purview of deductive atheology. Such atheists would argue that the traditional view of God is incoherent. Such a God is not possible on this view. The characteristics God purportedly has are contradictory either in and of themselves or when one attempts to reconcile them. Take for example J.L Mackie’s explication of the Omnipotence Paradox: “can an omnipotent being make things which he cannot subsequently control? Or, what is practically equivalent to this, can an omnipotent being make rules which then bind himself?” (Mackie, J. L. 1955. Evil and omnipotence. Mind 64 (254): 200-212. Available on web.). This is a more generalized version of the Omnipotence Paradox, which usually asks: can God create a stone he cannot lift? Therefore, the paradox can be viewed as an argument attempting to show that omnipotence is incoherent in and of itself. The argument attempts to accomplish this by dividing omnipotence into two components, which I call functional and physical. Functional omnipotence is the capacity to will anything whilst physical omnipotence is the capacity to do anything. Therefore, the argument attempts to show that it is possible that God could will something he cannot do, in Mackie’s case, will something that he cannot control or in the general case, will the existence of a stone so heavy that he cannot complete the particular task of lifting it.
Another route such an atheist takes is the attempt to show that any given attributes of God are irreconcilable.
The combination of omnipotence and omniscience have received a great deal of attention. To possess all knowledge, for instance, would include knowing all of the particular ways in which one will exercise one’s power, or all of the decisions that one will make, or all of the decisions that one has made in the past. But knowing any of those entails that the known proposition is true. So does God have the power to act in some fashion that he has not foreseen, or differently than he already has without compromising his omniscience? It has also been argued that God cannot be both unsurpassably good and free.McCormick, Ibid.
Another route available to such an atheist is to argue that we have not been offered an adequate concept of god (see Smart, J.J.C. “Atheism and Agnosticism”. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. 9 Mar 2004. Web. 21 Dec 2014.). Concepts of god are often relative to this or that religion or subjective to this or that individual. Such concepts often do not agree with one another.
Perhaps the final route such an atheist can take is to argue that the failure of theistic arguments entails atheism. In other words, since arguments for God fail, it is reasonable to hold that god does not exist. Such an atheist, for example, will argue that since the Kalam Cosmological Argument fails to prove that God created the universe, we should believe that such an agent did not create the universe. Alternatively, she will argue that since the Ontological Argument fails to show the existence of a necessary being, this being is instead impossible. Whether or not these arguments hold are of no interest at the time. This is, however, how such an atheist will proceed.
An atheist operating under inductive atheology has several possible approaches. Whether or not one can prove a negative is too tangential a topic to cover here, but assuming it’s possible, one could offer Michael Martin’s argument:
P1 [A]ll the available evidence used to support the view that X exists is shown to be inadequate; and
P2 X is the sort of entity that, if X exists, then there is a presumption that would be evidence adequate to support the view that X exists; and
P3 this presumption has not been defeated although serious efforts have been made to do so; and
P4 the area where evidence would appear, if there were any, has been comprehensively examined; and
P5 there are no acceptable beneficial reasons to believe that X exists.Martin, Michael, 1990. Atheism: A Philosophical Justification. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1990.
What makes this argument inductive is P3 and P4. P3 and P4 hold hitherto and thus, there is the tacit assumption that they will hold going forward. In other words, that the future will resemble the past.
Naturalism is another argument available to an atheist operating under inductive atheology. This is, in fact, the prevalent approach among modern day atheists. Atheists may disagree on the details and therefore, espouse different sorts of naturalism. However, the more prominent forms are metaphysical and methodological. Methodological naturalism has two primary forms: constructive and deflationary. Deflationary is based on–not exclusively–the Natural Ontological Attitude (NOA). Arthur Fine describes it as follows:
I certainly trust the evidence of my senses, on the whole with regard to the existence and features of everyday objects. And I have similar confidence in the “cheek, double-check, check, tripe-check” of scientific investigation…So if scientists tell me that there really are molecules and atoms, and…who knows maybe even quarks, then so be it. I trust them and, thus, must accept that there really are such things with their attendant properties and relations.Arthur Fine as quoted in Ritchie, Jack. Understanding Naturalism. Stocksfield, England: Acumen, 2008. 97. Print.
NOA is an alternative to scientific realism and anti-realism. “Both realism and anti-realism add an unwanted philosophical gloss to science” (Ibid.). Therefore, the position neither agrees with scientific realism nor anti-realism. At first glance, NOA may sound exactly like scientific realism, but there are key differences that should be considered (e.g. the correspondence theory of truth doesn’t factor into Fine’s NOA). Constructive naturalism differs from NOA because it “involves commitment to a definite method for resolving ontological matters” (Ibid.).Such a naturalist may make use of, for example, Quine’s Naturalized Epistemology.
Metaphysical naturalism absorbs methodological naturalism. The view could be defined as follows:
Metaphysical naturalism seeks to explain every feature of our reality through only natural entities and causes, without the need of god(s) or the supernatural in any part of one’s worldview and life philosophy. In other words, a “big picture” explanation of reality can be reached without any appeal to religion, making religions such as Christianity unnecessary and extraneous to answering the big questions in life.Ferguson, Matthew. “Thinking about the ‘Metaphysics’ in Metaphysical Naturalism”. Civitas Humana. 26 Apr 2014. Web. 21 Dec 2014.
Metaphysical naturalism is a robust worldview that often requires lengthy elucidation. This has been done by, for example, Richard Carrier who states:
[I]f you want to know what we believe on almost any subject, you need merely read authoritative works on science and history–which means, first, college-level textbooks of good quality and, second, all the other literature on which their contents are based. The vast bulk of what you find there we believe in. The evidence and reason for those beliefs is presented in such works and need not be repeated…Carrier, Richard. Sense and Goodness without God: A Defense of Metaphysical Naturalism. Bloomington, Ind.: Authorhouse, 2005. 67. Print.
Where such authorities are silent, metaphysical naturalism is capable of providing possible answers. Take, for instance, consciousness. Metaphysical naturalism can offer cogent explanations within the physicalist framework. For instance, with respect to consciousness, some naturalists have offered some version of supervenience. On fallibilism, an atheist can argue that a theist has come to a given conclusion because he hasn’t considered all the relevant evidence (McCormick, Ibid.). In fact, part of this attitude plays a role in discussions between theists and atheists. Theists, generally speaking, make it quite obvious that they are not aware of all of the relevant evidence. William Lane Craig, for example, employs a perfunctory or selective grasp of cosmology in order to support his KCA. It is reasonable to conclude that if he were aware of all of the evidence or if he did not omit counter-evidence, his conclusion would be different. Unfortunately, this might be too generous. Craig has been made aware of the evidence and regardless of the fact, he still chooses to endorse the KCA. So in some cases, it is not just that a theist’s knowledge is fallible, but it is that they disregard the fact and do not care to correct it. Even worse, apologists are in the habit of omitting evidence to the contrary.
Lastly, the definition “lack of belief in gods” is inadequate because it alludes to everyday beliefs. It is correct to say I lack or do not have the belief that Jesus died for my sins and resurrected three days later, and then ascended to the right hand of the Father where he now intercedes on my behalf. Religious beliefs of this sort are not properly epistemic beliefs, which are “the attitude[s] we have, roughly, whenever we take something to be the case or regard it as true” (Schwitzgebel, Eric. “Belief”. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. 2019. Web.). Atheists, therefore, have the epistemic belief that the available evidence makes it much more probable than not that there are no gods or spiritual entities whatsoever. Naturalism, whether some of us like it or not, is a framework that has imposed itself on us. Even in cases where we assume supernatural or paranormal explanations, thorough investigation renders a much more mundane explanation. For some people, it is difficult to accept that the world is not fantastical. Severed limbs do not regenerate in the name of Jesus, people do not rise from the dead when a spell is invoked, and our ancestors do not protect us from physical harm. Thorough investigations only yield naturalistic, reproducible explanations. So when someone proclaims a belief that does not speak to knowledge or truth, but rather, faith, I can definitely say I do not share or that I lack that belief. Now when speaking of properly epistemic beliefs, I have the attitude that atheism is the case; atheism is true in that the various claims of religion do not hold up to scrutiny and that moreover, gods are entirely absent in the scope of all of our explanations. In other words, star formation, planet formation, the arrangement of the earliest, simplest metabolisms, the evolution of species, and ultimately, every model of the universe’s origin do not require a god in order to make sense.
When atheism is spelled out in this much detail, detractors are given no room to disingenuously offer a definition they prefer, one that allows them to malign atheists and misrepresent what they stand for. The label of atheism is futile. The definition or perhaps better said, the practice clearly spells out what it is that I stand for. The same applies to naturalism. The label no longer applies. Instead, I prefer to make explicit what I mean by it. Kai Nielsen explains the intimate connection between atheism and naturalism best:
Religions, whether theisms or not, are belief-systems (though this is not all they are) which involve belief in spiritual realities. Even Buddhism, which has neither God nor worship, has a belief in what Buddhists take to be spiritual realities and this is incompatible with naturalism as is theism as well, which, at least as usually understood, is a form of supernaturalism. Naturalism, where consistent, is an atheism.Nielsen, Kai. Naturalism and Religion. Amherst, N.Y.: Prometheus, 2001. 30. Print.
The Fourth Wave may be the most powerful wave yet, but a glaring issue limits its power: there are people who not only misunderstand feminism, but also either stand against feminism or misrepresent feminism. The former and the latter are more related than one realizes. Those who misrepresent feminism are very often responsible for those who stand against it. Some Christians and Muslims believe that women are inferior to men and will therefore oppose feminism by default, but there are anti-feminists who do not have religious reasons for opposing feminism. Their reasons are based on the misunderstandings of self-proclaimed feminists.
To set feminism straight, a return to the basics is required. Once the different schools of feminism are made explicit, misunderstanding should be quelled. Misunderstanding occurs due to oversimplification of the thought of one school or another. I agree with Richard Carrier, who stated that, “Feminism is often badly understood by people who don’t study it well or don’t read widely among contemporary feminist authors” (Carrier, Richard. “A Primer on Fourth Wave Feminism”. Freethought Blogs. 5 Apr 2015. Web. 8 Apr 2015.). A successful movement, of course, has to move against some form of oppression or move toward some end, but it also has to stop and gather its fugitives. It, in other words, should not exclude people who want to identify with it. However, it should be responsible for ensuring that its members understand the movement. It is responsible for its reputation and since the reputation of the movement is based on its members, cohesion and continuity are a must. We are in a digital age in where people listen to someone on a YouTube channel or a blogger in the blogosphere. It is a readily accessible form of media. It is often short and sweet when compared to a book, so the more learned and educated in a movement have to stop to protect the movement from misunderstanding and mischaracterization. To do this, one must gather the fugitives, and to accomplish this, they have to be shown where they have gone wrong. They need to be corrected. Often what is needed is a return to the basics.
Fugitives are the people anti-feminists get these ideas from, young girls who are themselves anti-feminists or who identify a feminists and confess to things that are not at all in keeping with the movement: that feminists hate men; that feminists want to exclude them; that feminists seek female dominance and perhaps a matriarchy; that feminists are looking to devalue masculine attributes; that feminists ignore the effects the patriarchy has on men and that they, in fact, ignore men’s issues across the board. These ideas are not true to feminism, but there’s still the question as to why people think they are. Mackay has a succinct summary of feminism and not surprisingly, she alludes to common misconceptions:
Feminism is one of the oldest and most powerful social movements in history; it is a revolutionary movement, and that means change. There is so much wrong with the present system that we can’t just tinker round the edges, we need to start again; our end point cannot be equality in an unequal world. This is also the reason why feminism is not struggling to simply reverse the present power relationship and put women in charge instead of men (though this is a common myth about feminist politics). Feminism is about change, not a changing of the guard.Mackay, Finn. “Radical Feminism: Feminist Activism in Movement”. Times Higher Education. 19 Feb 2015. Web. 8 Apr 2015.
What kind of change is the label of feminism about? Feminism concerns securing equality for women. Women should have the same opportunities men have. Women should have the same rights men have. Women should be respected in their careers the way men are; they should be paid equally. There should be no sex-based differences in academia, the workplace, at home, or anywhere else. When this is spelled out, it is an uncontroversial perspective. There should be no reason for anyone to oppose the affirmation that women should be equal to men.
IV. Black Lives Matter
Likewise, there should be no opposition at all when I say that Black people and minorities, more generally, should be equal to Whites. There is nothing wrong with saying that if a Black man commits a crime or fails to comply with police, he should not be gunned down. White men have committed crimes on a much larger scale and were escorted away in handcuffs. White men do not have to worry about police officers kneeling on their necks or shooting 41 rounds at them. Timothy McVeigh murdered 168 people, including 19 children, in an act of domestic terrorism, and he walked away with his life (Gumbel, Andrew. “Oklahoma City bombing: 20 years later, key questions remain unanswered”. Guardian. 13 Apr 2015. Web.). That is because he was given the right to a fair trail. In this country, a Black man selling loose cigarettes on a corner can be the victim of extrajudicial execution. There is nothing controversial about saying that even the life of an accused Black criminal matters. Innocent until proven guilty applies to Black people or at least, it should apply to Black people.
The same applies to Asian Americans, who have recently become the target of hate crimes across the country. Implicit here is that I am opposed to anyone who endorses stereotypes about ethnic groups. So when the former President joked about the “Kung Flu” and blamed China repeatedly for the COVID-19 outbreak, that was one of the many reasons I opposed him, his administration, and his supporters. It is absurd to me that right-wingers in America are roundly opposed to racial equality. They are also opposed to women securing equality. There is a sense in which my political opponents are wholly aware of what these labels mean and yet, they routinely choose to ignore the definitions, no matter how clearly they are explained. It is not any lack of clarity or sense on my part, but rather an obstinate decision to oppose progress of this sort at every turn. Political affiliation should not keep anyone from accepting my definitions or identifying with them. If your political party prohibits you from even seeing the need for racial equality, abandon the party or admit to having abandoned your moral integrity. There are no two ways about it.
In the past, I have used this term and I have done so to differentiate myself from Democrats. I am not a Centrist, a sycophant who condones incompetence and corruption on both sides while pretending that they are both exemplary. Neither political party in the United States is morally admirable. While it is the case that Democrats are marginally better, there is still a lot that they get wrong, hence my anti-Democratic, anti-Capitalist stances. I do not support the American idea of Democracy because, like Mbembe, I recognize that it has a nocturnal body: colonialism and every human rights violation that has followed from it from slavery to the Jim Crow era to mass incarceration of Blacks after a fabricated crack-cocaine epidemic. The United States is a hegemony, a pseudo-Empire precisely because it destabilizes entire regions by rightfully overthrowing despots and making the critical mistake of leaving a power vacuum in their place. Terrorist factions are just a small part of this country reaping what it sowed, but I digress.
Proponents of Capitalism are enamored with the idea of Capitalism. They, however, ignore the reality of it. Inequality the world over is perpetuated by Western ideas and interference. In the year that COVID-19 has wreaked havoc in the United States, workers have lost over $3.7 trillion to date while the wealth of top billionaires has increased by $3.9 trillion. This can be seen as one of the largest redistributions of wealth in history (see here and here). A lot more can be said about Capitalism, perhaps in a separate post for another day. The point I am making now is that the labels of Black Lives Matter, feminist, anti-Capitalist, and the like do not necessarily pertain to Far Left politics. Once these labels are made explicit, in that one makes clear what they mean in practice, it should strike anyone as absurd to be diametrically opposed to these positions.
That leaves open the question as to why people on the right see these positions as fundamentally opposed to their brand of politics. Again, if your political party imposes these discriminatory and even racist views on you, it is good sign that you should renounce it. There are ways to be fiscally conservative, a proponent of small government, and so on without subscribing to views that promote racial, gender, and wealth inequality. I fail to see how what I have had outlined is unclear or nonsensical. The isms, once unpacked, should not be as controversial. This is why I prefer stating my positions clearly, so that there is no room for misconstruing, misrepresenting, straw manning, and so on. There is, in my book, a difference between an opponent and an enemy. The enmity I reserve for my enemies has everything to do with the fact that they think their ignorance is better than my knowledge, their apathy superior to my empathy, their desire to oppress groups they dislike equal to my desire for equality. Opponents, by contrast, can have their minds changed. The omission of relevant facts is not the same as ignorance. My enemies intend to ignore that which disagrees with or defeats their views and more importantly, they intend to cause harm to people like myself, so they do so by weaponizing their right to vote to further marginalized groups they want to harm. Then they pretend to be innocent because they are not drawing a firearm. They might as well. Voting for a candidate that does not care about the plights of minorities, women, non-Christians, etc. is a deliberate attempt to harm these groups. You are not innocent.
Ultimately, labels in and of themselves are futile. We should do away with labels and instead flesh out what we stand for. This leaves little room for error and leaves our enemies fully exposed. This is not to say that people cannot disagree with atheism and naturalism, for instance. They are more than welcome to. What this does mean is that they cannot make the vacuous claim that I suppress God in my unrighteousness or that I hate God or that I choose to not believe because I prefer to indulge sinful concupiscence. These are comfortable things Christians say to avoid the fact that people have good reasons for not believing in God. My robust descriptions of atheism and naturalism leave no room for speculation of the sort. It gives them no space at all to go with a definition that allows them to slander people like myself. Labels do not accomplish this. Fuller descriptions of what is meant by a label go much further. Let us abandon our labels and instead, describe in greater detail what we stand for.
By R.N. Carmona
Why a blog post and not a proper response in a philosophy journal? My very first journal submission is still in the review process, close to two months later, for one. Secondly, blogging allows me to be pedantic, to be human, that is, to express frustration, to show anger, to be candid; in other words, blogging allows me to be myself. Probably of highest priority is the fact that I do not want my first publication in the philosophy of mind to be a response. I want to eventually outline my own theory of consciousness, which is strongly hinted at here, and I prefer for that to be my first contribution to the philosophy of mind. I do not find panpsychism convincing and I think there is another theory of consciousness, similar to panpsychism in ways, that is much more cogent. I have outlined some qualms I have with panpsychism before; to people new to the blog, you can read here. In any case, I will be responding to a number of points in Strawson’s Realistic Monism: Why Physicalism Entails Panpsychism. Here I will outline refutations that should leave panpsychism unresponsive once and for all as it is not a productive theory of consciousness, i.e., it does no explanatory work and does not illuminate further research; it gives us no real direction to go in.
Strawson states: “You’re certainly not a realistic physicalist, you’re not a real physicalist, if you deny the existence of the phenomenon whose existence is more certain than the existence of anything else: experience, ‘consciousness’, conscious experience, ‘phenomenology’, experiential ‘what-it’s-likeness’, feeling, sensation, explicit conscious thought as we have it and know it at almost every waking moment” (3). Strawson not only sounds like an absolutist, but he has, no doubt intentionally, boxed out real physicalists like the Churchlands and Daniel Dennett. For my purposes, I deny none of these things. I am not an eliminativist though in the past I have called myself such when I lacked a better term for my own point of view. Now, I believe I have located a better term and so, I call myself a recontextualist. I do not deny qualia. What I strongly deny is what panpsychists think they entail: usually a version of nonphysicalist panpsychism or even covert substance dualism in where mental phenomena are ethereal. In light of this, I suggest that qualia are physically reducible in obvious ways already known to us and in currently non-obvious ways yet to be discovered or understood; we simply have to do the work of demonstrating how what-it’s-likeness is physically reducible. I do not think Strawson dodges recontextualism and this will become clearer as we move on.
He explains: “It follows that real physicalism can have nothing to do with physicSalism, the view — the faith — that the nature or essence of all concrete reality can in principle be fully captured in the terms of physics. Real physicalism cannot have anything to do with physicSalism unless it is supposed — obviously falsely — that the terms of physics can fully capture the nature or essence of experience” (4). I think the word physicSalism is clunky and so, I will exchange it for the word physicsism, which I think ties nicely to its predecessor scientism. There is not a chasm between someone who thinks science is the only way of knowing and someone who thinks physics is capable of explaining everything. Strawson makes the mistake of thinking physics stands alone among the hard sciences, as if it is the ground level of scientific explanation. I think chemistry joins physics in that department and as such, real physicalists can be physicsists if they are also chemistrists, the idea that a great number of physical phenomena are reducible to chemistry. If monism, that there is only one substance, and physicalism, that this one substance is physical in nature, are true then it is incumbent on Strawson to address the notion that science cannot apprehend certain physical phenomena. Strawson, therefore, is guilty of the same dualistic tendencies he accuses Dennett of (5), and he seems to bite the bullet on this in offering his “‘experiential-and-non- experiential ?-ism’” (7). Per his view, there are actual physical phenomena explainable by science, especially ground level hard sciences like physics and chemistry. On the other hand, there are quasi-physical phenomena in where Strawson feigns at physicalism while also betraying the fact that he means nothing more than nonphysicalism. This has to be qualified.
So, let us grant that Strawson would qualify the sense of sight as uncontroversially physical. Now, he claims that the what-it’s-likeness of seeing red is also physical and yet, science has no account for this per his claims; not only does science have no current account, but it can never have a viable account because, in his own words, “experiential phenomena ‘just are’ physical, so that there is a lot more to neurons than physics and neurophysiology record (or can record)” (7). I am a real physicalist and I strongly disagree with this statement. For starters, I think his statement is informed by a conflation some people tend to make: if something is explainable by science, it lacks existential meaning and so, anything that is explained by science enables nihilism. In other words, if we can explain the origin of morality without recourse to God, morality is suddenly meaningless in the so-called ultimate sense and just is relativistic or subjectivistic. This is wrong-headed. Explaining the what-it’s-likeness of red would not change the fact that red is my favorite color; nor would it change my experience of seeing a blood red trench coat hanging in a clothing store, as if begging me to purchase it. In a naturalistic world, meaning is decided by us anyway and so, nihilism does not follow from the fact that science explains something. Love is not any less riveting, captivating, and enrapturing if science somehow explained every detail about falling in love, loving one’s children, loving the species one belongs to, and loving species entirely different from oneself.
This aversion to science eventually explaining qualia reeks of nonphysicalism and to my mind, just is nonphyiscalism being labeled as physicalism, which is really just a nominal label that is so far failing to cohere with what is normally meant by physicalism. The notion that physics, chemistry, genetics, and neurophysiology can never record those aspects of neurons that account for qualia is incompatible with physicalism. If science can apprehend physical substance, and qualia are a physical substance as Strawson claims, then science can apprehend qualia. To say otherwise is for Strawson to admit that what he means by physical in the case of qualia is actually not physical at all. It is covert dualism and nonphysicalism. I have no qualms with scientists fully understanding why red is my favorite color. This does not then dampen my experience or make it meaningless.
Likewise, I know that sexual attraction reduces to mostly superficial, properly aesthetic, considerations and pheromones that induce a reaction in my brain, which then translate to a host of bodily reactions, e.g., feeling flush and then blushing, feeling either nervous, excited, or some combination of both, feeling a knot in my stomach. This does not accomplish making my attraction meaningless or, at least, making it less meaningful because, in truth, while I understand the science of attraction, it does not register when I am in the middle of experiencing attraction. These considerations factor even less when I have fallen in love. I do not think, “well damn, scientists have me pegged and I am only feeling all of these sensations because of serotonin and dopamine releases in my brain; love is ultimately meaningless.” What gives vibrance to experience is the experiencer.
Experience is akin to aesthetics, hence why we find some experiences pleasurable while there are others we can describe with an array of negative words and connotations. Science can also explain why a lot of people hate waiting for a long period of time, why just as many people hate the feeling of being out of breath, and why pretty much anyone hates going to work after a night of inadequate sleep. Science explaining these experiences does not change the interpretation of the experiencer; science does suggest why we have very common associations between most experiences, from pleasurable to painful to everything between, and that speaks to us being one species. So, experience can be explained by science and science can even predict the interpretation of this or that experiencer, but science does not dampen phenomenal experience. Panpsychists confuse that we have phenomenal experience with that we interpret phenomenal experience. Physicalism is not opposed to science fully explaining either of these and in fact, it has done much in the way of explaining both. Strawson tries to avoid this and yet claims: “If everything that concretely exists is intrinsically experience-involving, well, that is what the physical turns out to be; it is what energy (another name for physical stuff) turns out to be. This view does not stand out as particularly strange against the background of present-day science, and is in no way incompatible with it” (8). Well, if indeed it does not stand out as particularly strange against the background of present-day science, then all concrete things can be explained by science. This entailment seems uncontroversial and obvious for anyone identifying as a physicalist.
Strawson stipulates that “real physicalists … cannot deny that when you put physical stuff together in the way in which it is put together in brains like ours, it constitutes — is — experience like ours; all by itself. All by itself: there is on their own physicalist view nothing else, nothing non-physical, involved” (12). This is patently false as it alludes to mind-brain identity theory. It is not just atoms coming together in brains like ours. Human consciousness is compound reductive. In other words, human consciousness is not reducible to just one physical, macro aspect about our biological structure. That is to say that it is not reducible to just our hands or just our feet or just our brains. Strawson’s conflation of physicalism, as usually construed, and mind-brain identity theory leaves out crucial elements of experience, namely our central and peripheral nervous systems; the parts of the brain because anyone versed in the pertinent science knows that when it comes to the brain, the parts are more integral to consciousness than the whole; sense apparatus like our eyes, noses, pain receptors, and so on; and finally, external objects that provide the mind with data to process, interpret, make sense of, and so on.
From the perspective of differential ontology, and given that I have been thoroughly disabused of flippant idealism and solipsism, I know that my thoughts are not organically generated as if in a vacuum, within my brain. My thoughts are invariably and intimately connected to whatever I am occupied with, in the present time by Strawson’s various claims about what physicalism entail. If he had never written his thoughts, then I would not be countering his claims with my own. Perhaps I would be thinking about lunch at 12:26 pm ET, but alas, I am not. The point being that when I do start to think about having lunch, my thoughts about what to eat will be influenced by hunger pangs that amount to a feedback loop between my brain and my gut, again demonstrating the importance of organs other than just the brain in accounting for my experience, and pretty much any human being’s experience, of hunger. That feeling would take priority over my desire to respond to Strawson. Deciding what to eat amounts to constraints, like what food I have in my pantry and refrigerator and a desire not to spend money on takeout. So, I can only end up eating what is already available to me; in this case, only unexpected factors can change this course. Perhaps a neighbor or a relative is decided on bringing me baked lasagna and since I currently do not know that they have these plans, that option does not feature in what I am thinking of having for lunch. In any case, what has become clear is that phenomenal consciousness reduces, in part, to a litany of physical objects, some of which are not even in your vicinity. What is also clear is that the brain alone does not account for phenomenal consciousness.
Strawson and other panpsychists are looking in one of the right places, to be sure, but understanding phenomenal consciousness is like understanding a crime scene, and as such, we have to be aware of various factors that make the crime cohere, from blood spatter patterns to the murder weapon to point of entry (and whether or not it was forced entry) all the way up to possible motive. If we stop short at the murder weapon, then we can conclude the person was stabbed, but we cannot make any conclusions as to how many times, in what areas of the body, by whom, and for what reason. Phenomenal consciousness, uncontroversially, is exactly like that! Strawson and panpsychists sit out on the porch of the brain and do not venture into a mansion with many rooms, light switches, outlets, and the such. Neurons, synapses, neurogenesis, neurodegeneration, memory formation, recollection, confabulation, and so on are critically important in accounting for certain experiences. We cannot say the what-it’s-likeness of déjà vu is due to the fact that particles are conscious. That tells us nothing, does not help us elucidate on this experience, and ultimately, lacks explanatory power. It is simply a vacuous claim. Real physicalists can enter the many-roomed mansion and start to explain why this experience feels a certain way, and why some of us interpret it the way we do; for instance, there is a delay between seeing and being aware that we have seen, and so, in those small intervals of time, we can fool ourselves into thinking we have already seen what we just realized we saw. In other words, your brain “knows” what you see before you realize you have seen it. Generally, however, scientists think that déjà vu is tied to memory, so if we are sitting on the porch, trying to explain what it’s like to have this experience, we are in the wrong part of the house. We have to venture into the hippocampus, for instance (see Hamzelou, Jessica. “Mystery of déjà vu explained – it’s how we check our memories”. New Scientist. 16 Aug 2016. Web.).
I will free to skip the entire section on emergentism because while I find this account intriguing, it is implausible and has, what I think, are obvious commitments. Strawson defines it as follows:
Experiential phenomena are emergent phenomena. Consciousness properties, experience properties, are emergent properties of wholly and utterly non- conscious, non-experiential phenomena. Physical stuff in itself, in its basic nature, is indeed a wholly non-conscious, non-experiential phenomenon. Nevertheless when parts of it combine in certain ways, experiential phenomena ‘emerge’. Ultimates in themselves are wholly non-conscious, non-experiential phenomena. Nevertheless, when they combine in certain ways, experiential phenomena ‘emerge’. (12)
If this is the case, then emergentism is committed to idealism and to solipsism, “sometimes expressed as the view that “I am the only mind which exists,” or “My mental states are the only mental states”” (Thornton, Stephen. “Solipsism and the Problem of Other Minds”. Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Web.). The obvious drawback here is that there is no way to pin down where these properties emerge from. The source will vary from one first person point of view to the next or, to put it facetiously, from one person under the illusion that they have first person perspective to another person under the same illusion. I will claim that all that exists is my mind while someone else can lay claim to their own mind existing. I will then claim that all else emerges from my mental states while the next person makes the same claim. Then the question becomes, when we are both shopping for clothes, why do we both see a blood red trench coat for sale and why is it that my mental state of wanting to buy it does not emerge from his mental state of barely noticing the coat? How can these same properties group together to become the same object from two people under the illusion that their respective mental states are the only mental states? Emergentism, with respect to consciousness, does not evade these problematic commitments.
To understand the next couple of sections in his paper, in where Strawson’s claims go off the rails and get even wilder, the following have to be kept in mind:
- The non-experiential thesis: “[NE] physical stuff is, in itself, in its fundamental nature, something wholly and utterly non-experiential” (11)
- Real Physicalism: “[RP] experience is a real concrete phenomenon and every real concrete phenomenon is physical” (12)
- P-phenomena: “the phenomena of liquidity reduce without remainder to shape-size-mass-charge-etc. phenomena” (13)
- “The central idea of neutral monism is that there is a fundamental, correct way of conceiving things — let us say that it involves conceiving of them in terms of ‘Z’ properties — given which all concrete phenomena, experiential and non-experiential, are on a par in all being equally Z phenomena” (23)
Setting aside Strawson’s side-stepping of chemistry, which easily shows how liquid water can “emerge” from two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom, the reason we cannot have Z phenomena is because the question of how consciousness can come from non-consciousness is itself reducible to a scientific question that has yet to be fully answered: how did life arise from non-life? Consciousness, as we know, is found in living things, so per the combination problem, what criteria need to be met for a consciousness like ours to take shape? Is it size, mass, shape, charge? Buildings and mountains are far more massive than us and by extension, are larger and have more particles generating what should amount to greater charges; and yet, mountains and buildings do not appear to be conscious at all. This is a critical clue because clearly, the haphazard combination of particles when a mountain forms or when a building is erected does not accomplish giving rise to consciousness like ours. Briefly, the combination problem can be formulated as follows:
Take a hundred of them [feelings], shuffle them and pack them as close together as you can (whatever that may mean); still each remains the same feeling it always was, shut in its own skin, windowless, ignorant of what the other feelings are and mean. There would be a hundred-and first-feeling there, if, when a group or series of such feelings where set up, a consciousness belonging to the group as such should emerge. And this 101st feeling would be a totally new fact; the 100 feelings might, by a curious physical law, be a signal for its creation, when they came together; but they would have no substantial identity with it, not it with them, and one could never deduce the one from the others, nor (in any intelligible sense) say that they evolved it.Goff, Philip, William Seager, and Sean Allen-Hermanson. “Panpsychism”. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Summer 2020. Web.
To do away with Strawson’s assertions concerning consciousness coming from experiential ultimates, I summon help from an unexpected source. Though the neo-Aristotelian uses this thought experiment for different purposes, it is enough to show that basic organization does not consciousness make. Jaworski, no doubt inadvertently, presents a version of the combination problem that cuts deeply into Strawson’s thesis. He explains:
Suppose we put Godehard in a strong bag — a very strong bag since we want to ensure that nothing leaks out when we squash him with several tons of force. Before the squashing, the contents of the bag include one human being; after, they include none. In addition, before the squashing the contents of the bag can think, feel, and act, but after the squashing they can’t. What explains these differences in the contents of the bag pre-squashing and post-squashing? The physical materials (whether particles or stuffs) remain the same — none of them leaked out. Intuitively, we want to say that what changed was the way those materials were structured or organized.Jaworski, William. Structure and the Metaphysics of Mind: How Hylomorphism Solves the Mind-Body Problem. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016. 9. Print.
Intuitively, I do not say that what changed is just the organization or structure of these materials. That dodges Jaworski’s neo-Aristotelian commitments. I also add that the spark of consciousness is what changed. There is, in this case, irreparable damage to the claustrum, thus making consciousness impossible to turn back on, so to speak (see Koch, Christoph. “Neuronal “Superhub” Might Generate Consciousness”. Scientific American. 1 Nov 2014. Web.). Furthermore, there is irreparable damage to other pivotal organs that make it possible for us to make any claim to being alive. The liver, heart, stomach, etc. have all lost their function. The matter is still there, but the electric fields that make us conscious are permanently off. This is why I am conscious and an inanimate object, equal in size and weight to me, perhaps a boulder, is not conscious. Non-experiential things can be used to design other non-experiential things or can naturally form into other non-experiential things given that organic compounds and electric fields are entirely absent. The question of how consciousness arises from non-consciousness just is the question of how life arises from non-life. Just because we currently do not have a fuller, more detailed picture does not mean we have license to offer theories like panpsychism, which possess nothing in the way of explanatory power. The panpsychist and neo-Aristotelian think they are headed in some definite direction, but they are both quickly approaching dead ends.
Electric fields theory (EFT) of consciousness, indeed similar to panpsychism, at least prima facie, is where panpsychists should place their chips. Tam Hunt elaborates:
Nature seems to have figured out that electric fields, similar to the role they play in human-created machines, can power a wide array of processes essential to life. Perhaps even consciousness itself. A veritable army of neuroscientists and electrophysiologists around the world are developing steadily deeper insights into the degree that electric and magnetic fields—“brainwaves” or “neural oscillations”—seem to reveal key aspects of consciousness. The prevailing view for some time now has been that the brain’s bioelectric fields, which are electrical and magnetic fields produced at various physical scales, are an interesting side effect—or epiphenomenon—of the brains’ activity, but not necessarily relevant to the functioning of consciousness itself.
A number of thinkers are suggesting now, instead, that these fields may in fact be the main game in town when it comes to explaining consciousness. In a 2013 paper, philosopher Mostyn Jones reviewed various field theories of consciousness, still a minority school of thought in the field but growing. If that approach is right, it is likely that the body’s bioelectric fields are also, more generally, associated in some manner with some kind of consciousness at various levels. Levin provided some support for this notion when I asked him about the potential for consciousness, in at least some rudimentary form, in the body’s electric fields.Hunt, Tam. “The Link Between Bioelectricity and Consciousness”. Nautilus. 10 Mar 2021. Web.
While I am committed to monism, the idea that only physical substance exists, and am therefore committed to physicalism, I am not committed to the idea that particles are the kinds of ultimates that attend to consciousness. Cells are the ultimates that attend to conscious beings like ourselves. This is the reason why the boulder lacks consciousness despite weighing as much as I do. Intuitively, the boulder should have roughly the same amount of particles in its structure as I do, but of utmost priority here is determining what I possess that the boulder does not. I am, as it were, activated by electric fields, receptive to my environment, can respond and adapt to it. The boulder, on the other hand, cannot do this. One might want to ask why, when the boulder finds itself gradually eroding under a small waterfall, it does not simply relocate itself? If, like me, it has a rudimentary spark of consciousness, why does it resign itself to a slow death, i.e., erosion? Bioelectric fields account for why I will move out of the way of an oncoming vehicle while the boulder remains idle under the waterfall, slowing eroding as time goes on.
This is probably the most damning response to Strawson: various domains of science are needed to understand consciousness. If EFT is accurate, and I see no reason for it to be inaccurate, cell biology is just as crucial as physics, chemistry, and neurophysiology. This makes for a comprehensive understanding of consciousness, comprised of the convergence of all our domains of knowledge. Philosophy of mind no doubt has a role to play, but not when it ventures far and wide from what science suggests. There is already a fundamental distinction between non-life and life, between inanimate objects and people. It follows, therefore, that if consciousness is inhered in living things, then it cannot be attributed to non-living things. This smacks of common sense and yet, philosophers are willing to occupy the fringes with popular theories like panpsychism. Some pretty anecdotes have come from this idea. Some say we are the universe experiencing itself, but if the universe already had all the makings of phenomenal consciousness, why does it need overrated chimpanzees who are preoccupied with reality tv, social media, violence against one another, and all manner of mundane and superficial nonsense to understand itself? If any composition at all, even absent bioelectric fields, are enough to account for consciousness, why not just configure itself into a Boltzmann brain that has no potential to develop the silly prejudices and biases humans tend to have?
My account starts to make clear how I can be committed to NE and RP and lead us in the right direction as it concerns Z phenomena. P phenomena are well-accounted for as they pertain to inorganic compounds. Of course, it begs the question to say that we have not quite nailed P phenomena as they concern organic chemistry. To reiterate, our ignorance with respect to how inorganic compounds become organic compounds that are essential to life does not give us license to make as many wild assumptions as we please. Any hypothesis, even within philosophy, especially if it encroaches on the territory of science, has to demonstrate awareness of scientific literature or at least, incorporate science wherever it is germane to one’s theory. Claiming that particles are actually experiential entities that account for why we are conscious pushes the buck back. Panpsychists have moved the goalposts and if they were correct, we would still be tasked with comprehending the consciousness of things utterly unlike ourselves. Thankfully, we do not have to do that and we can focus our energy on understanding why there is a what-it’s-likeness to our experiences. Again, there are important clues: for instance, people who were born blind cannot see while dreaming:
When a blind man is asked if he dreams the answer is immediate: ‘Yes!’ But if we ask him if he sees anything in the dream, the answer is always doubtful because he does not know what it is to see. Even if there were images and colours in his brain during the dream, how could he recognize them? There is, therefore, no direct way, through the dream reports, to evaluate the presence of visual activation in the dream of congenitally blind subjects.Carr, Michelle. “Do Blind People See in Their Dreams?”. Psychology Today. 29 Dec 2017. Web.
If experiential particles give rise to sight, then why do particles seem entirely dependent on eyes? Why do they not simply configure themselves in another way in order to circumvent the blindness of the eyes? It is quite telling that in the absence of a sense, the corresponding phenomenal aspect of experiences associated with that sense are also absent. My compound reductive account predicts this; this is unsurprising on my theory of consciousness whereas on Strawson’s account, and any panpsychists account, there is no way to account for this. Severe retinopathy is usually what causes people to be born blind. There are millions of light-sensitive cells within the retina, along with other nerve cells that receive and process the information that is sent to your brain, by way of the optic nerve. On EFT, therefore, blindness is damage within the electric fields that result in sight. The cure for blindness is to restore the electric fields within these cells so that communication between nerve cells is possible. That would then restore any corresponding phenomenal experiences. The mere organization of particles clearly does not accomplish this. EFT seems to have far more explanatory power than panpsychism does and if we took pains to assess just our five ordinary senses, we would be able to see that like blindness, anosmia, aguesia, deafness, and things like neuropathy, hypoesthesia, and CIP (congenital insensitivity to pain) are all reducible to nerve cell damage in the nose, mouth, ears, and extremities respectively. In simple terms, bioelectric pathways are damaged and thus, turn off communication to the brain, and in turn, cut off the corresponding qualia. This is essentially what I mean by recontextualizing qualia and Strawson clearly does not dodge that bullet.
Ultimately, I think EFT should supplant panpsychism in popular circles. I can agree with the notion of conscious cells because they are among the smallest structures atoms have assembled into within living things. I disagree with the idea of conscious particles because when they organize into air fryers, thermostats, buildings, mountains, and sand dunes, despite having comparable mass, size, shape, and charge to living things, none of these objects appear to be conscious; in other words, none of these objects appear to be aware, awake, attentive, and most importantly, alive. I can knock on a fish tank and the fish with the blankest stare in the tank can respond to a stress signal and move away from that area in the tank. I can throw a rock repeatedly into a harder material and it will continue to remain idle; put another way, I can take a geologist’s hammer to sediment over and over again, whether for a dig or in a fit of sustained rage, and the sediment will remain idle, allowing me to crack and break it as much as I please. Conscious beings, on the other hand, have a bias toward survival and retention of their structure. To use as humane an example as possible, if you were to do something that caused an insect pain, perhaps sending minor electrical charges into one of its legs, its automatic response will be to try to escape the situation. The insect, like you, wants to survive and ensure that it is not crushed or, in this case, burnt to a crisp. The same cannot be said of the myriad, non-experiential macro objects around us day in and day out. Strawson and panpsychists, aside from co-opting terms like physicalism when they really do not mean physicalism, would do well to renounce panpsychism and accept a better theory of ultimates: electric fields theory of consciousness. Then they can come to my pluralist physicalist account that allows for compound reductionism. To my mind, this is the only real way to study consciousness.
By R.N. Carmona
My purpose here is twofold: first and foremost, I want to clarify Rasmussen’s argument because though I can understand why word of mouth can lead to what is essentially a straw man of his argument, especially in light of the fact that his argument requires one to pay for an online article or his book Is God the Best Explanation of Things? which he coauthored with Felipe Leon, it is simply good practice to present an argument fairly. Secondly, I want to be stern about the fact that philosophy of religion cannot continue to rake these dead coals. Rasmussen’s argument is just another in a long, winding, and quite frankly, tired history of contingency arguments. In in any case, the following is the straw man I want my readers and anyone else who finds this post to stop citing. This is decidedly not Rasmussen’s argument:
Rasmussen has no argument called The Argument From Arbitrary Limits. Arbitrary limits actually feature in Leon’s chapter in where he expresses skepticism of Rasmussen’s Geometric Argument (Rasmussen Joshua and Leon, Felipe. Is God The Best Explanation For Things. Switzerland: Palgrave Macmillan. 53-68. Print.). Also, Rasmussen has a Theistic conception of God (omnipresent, wholly good, etc.) that is analogous to what Plantinga means by maximal greatness, but Rasmussen does not refer to God using that term. Perhaps there is confusion with his use of the word maximal conceivable. While given Rasmussen’s beliefs, he implies God with what he calls a maximal foundation, “a foundation complete with respect to its fundamental (basic, uncaused) features” (Ibid., 140). He makes it clear throughout the book that he is open to such a foundation that is not synonymous with God. In any case, his maximal conceivable is not a being possessing maximal greatness; at least, not exactly, since it appears he means something more elementary given his descriptions of basic and uncaused, as these clearly do not refer to omnipresence, perfect goodness, and so on. There may also be some confusion with his later argument, which he calls “The Maximal Mind Argument” (Ibid. 112-113), which fails because it is relies heavily on nonphysicalism, a series of negative theories in philosophy of mind that do not come close to offering alternative explanations for an array of phenomena thoroughly explained by physicalism (see here). In any case, Rasmussen has no argument resembling the graphic above. His arguments rest on a number of dubious assumptions, the nexus of which is his Geometric Argument:
JR1 Geometry is a geometric state.
JR2 Every geometric state is dependent.
JR3 Therefore, Geometry is dependent.
JR4 Geometry cannot depend on any state featuring only things that have a geometry.
JR5 Geometry cannot depend on any state featuring only non-concrete (non-causal) things.
JRC Therefore, Geometry depends on a state featuring at lest one geometry-less concrete thing (3-5) (Ibid., 42).
Like Leon, I take issue with JR2. Leon does not really elaborate on why JR2 is questionable saying only that “the most basic entities with geometry (if such there be) have their geometrics of factual or metaphysical necessity” and that therefore, “it’s not true that every geometric state is dependent” (Ibid., 67). He is correct, of course, but elaboration could have helped here because this is a potential defeater. Factual and metaphysical necessity are inhered in physical necessity. The universe is such that the fact that every triangle containing a 90-degree angle is a right triangle is reducible to physical constraints within our universe. This fact of geometry is unlike Rasmussen’s examples, namely chair and iPhone shapes. He states: “The instantiation of [a chair’s shape] depends upon prior conditions. Chair shapes never instantiate on their own, without any prior conditions. Instead, chair-instantiations depend on something” (Ibid., 41). This overt Platonism is questionable in and of itself, but Leon’s statement is forceful in this case: the shape of the chair is not dependent because it has its shape of factual or metaphysical necessity that stem from physical necessity. Chairs, first and foremost, are shaped the way they are because of our shape when we sit down; furthermore, chairs take the shapes they do because of physical constraints like human weight, gravity, friction against a floor, etc. For a chair not to collapse under the force of gravity and the weight of an individual, it has to be engineered in some way to withstand these forces acting on it; the chair’s shape is so because of physical necessity and this explains its metaphysical necessity. There is therefore, no form of a chair in some ethereal realm; an idea like this is thoroughly retrograde and not worth considering.
In any case, the real issue is that chair and iPhone shapes are not the sort of shapes that occur naturally in the universe. Those shapes, namely spheres, ellipses, triangles, and so on, also emerge from physical necessity. It is simply the case that a suspender on a bridge forms the hypothenuse of a right triangle. Like a chair, bridge suspenders take this shape because of physical necessity. The same applies to the ubiquity of spherical and elliptical shapes in the universe. To further disabuse anyone of Platonic ideas, globular shapes are also quite ubiquitous in the universe and are more prominent the closer we get to the Big Bang. There are shapes inherent in our universe that cannot be neatly called geometrical and even still, these shapes are physically and therefore, metaphysically necessitated. If JR2 is unsound, then the argument falls apart. On another front, this addresses Rasmussen’s assertion that God explains why there is less chaos in our universe. Setting aside that the qualification of this statement is entirely relative, the relative order we see in the universe is entirely probabilistic, especially given that entropy guarantees a trend toward disorder as the universe grows older and colder.
Like Leon, I share his general concern about “any argument that moves from facts about apparent contingent particularity and an explicability principle to conclusions about the nature of fundamental reality” (Ibid., 67) or as I have been known to put it: one cannot draw ontological conclusions on the basis of logical considerations. Theistic philosophers of religion and unfortunately, philosophers in general, have a terrible habit of leaping from conceivability to possibility and then, all the way to actuality. Leon elaborates:
Indeed, the worry above seems to generalize to just about any account of ultimate reality. So, for example, won’t explicability arguments saddle Christian theism with the same concern, viz. why the deep structure of God’s nature should necessitate exactly three persons in the Godhead? In general, won’t explicability arguments equally support a required explanation for why a particular God exists rather than others, or rather than, say, an infinite hierarchy of gods? The heart of the criticism is that it seems any theory must stop somewhere and say that the fundamental character is either brute or necessary, and that if it’s necessary, the explanation of why it’s necessary (despite appearing contingent) is beyond our ability to grasp (Ibid., 67-68).
Of course, Leon is correct in his assessment. Why not Ahura Mazda, his hypostatic union to Spenta Mainyu, and his extension via the Amesha Spentas? If, for instance, the one-many problem requires the notion of a One that is also many, what exactly rules out Ahura Mazda? One starts to see how the prevailing version of Theism in philosophy of religion is just a sad force of habit. This is why it is necessary to move on from these arguments. Contingency arguments are notoriously outmoded because Mackie, Le Poidevin, and others have already provided general defeaters that can apply to any particular contingency argument. Also, how many contingency arguments do we need exactly? In other words, how many different ways can one continue to assert that all contingent things require at least one necessary explanation? Wildman guides us here:
Traditional natural theology investigates entailment relations from experienced reality to, say, a preferred metaphysics of ultimacy. But most arguments of this direct-entailment sort have fallen out of favor, mostly because they are undermined by the awareness of alternative metaphysical schemes that fit the empirical facts just as well as the preferred metaphysical scheme. By contrast with this direct-entailment approach, natural theology ought to compare numerous compelling accounts of ultimacy in as many different respects as are relevant. In this comparison-based way, we assemble the raw material for inference-to-the-best-explanation arguments on behalf of particular theories of ultimacy, and we make completely clear the criteria for preferring one view of ultimacy to another.Wildman, Wesley J. Religious Philosophy as Multidisciplinary Comparative Inquiry: Envisioning a Future For The Philosophy of Religion. State University of New York Press. Albany, NY. 2010. 162. Print.
Setting aside that Rasmussen does not make clear why he prefers a Christian view of ultimacy as opposed to a Zoroastrian one or another one that may be proposed, I think Wildman is being quite generous when saying that “alternative metaphysical schemes fit the empirical facts just as well as the preferred metaphysical scheme” because the fact of the matter is that some alternatives fit the empirical facts better than metaphysical schemes like the ones Christian Theists resort to. Rasmussen’s preferred metaphysical scheme of a maximal foundation, which properly stated, is a disembodied, nonphysical mind who is omnipresent, wholly good, and so on rests on dubious assumptions that have not been made to cohere with the empirical facts. Nonphysicalism, as I have shown in the past, does not even attempt to explain brain-related phenomena. Physicalist theories have trounced the opposition in that department and it is not even close. What is more is that Christian Theists are especially notorious for not comparing their account to other accounts and that is because they are not doing philosophy, but rather apologetics. This is precisely why philosophy of religion must move on from Christian Theism. We can think of an intellectual corollary to forgiveness. In light of Christian Theism’s abject failure to prove God, how many more chances are we required to give this view? Philosophy of religion is, then, like an abused lover continuing to be moved by scraps of affection made to cover up heaps of trauma. The field should be past the point of forgiveness and giving Christian Theism yet another go to get things right; it has had literal centuries to get its story straight and present compelling arguments and yet here we are retreading ground that has been walked over again and again and again.
To reinforce my point, I am going to quote Mackie and Le Poidevin’s refutations of contingency arguments like Rasmussen’s. It should then become clear that we have to bury these kinds of arguments for good. Let them who are attached to these arguments mourn their loss, but I will attend no such wake. What remains of the body is an ancient skeleton, long dead. It is high time to give it a rest. Le Poidevin put one nail in the coffin of contingency arguments. Anyone offering new contingency arguments has simply failed to do their homework. It is typical of Christian Theists to indulge confirmation bias and avoid what their opponents have to say. The problem with that is that the case against contingency arguments has been made. Obstinacy does not change the fact. Le Poidevin clearly shows why necessary facts do not explain contingent ones:
Necessary facts, then, cannot explain contingent ones, and causal explanation, of any phenomenon, must link contingent facts. That is, both cause and effect must be contingent. Why is this? Because causes make a difference to their environment: they result in something that would not have happened if the cause had not been present. To say, for example, that the presence of a catalyst in a certain set of circumstances speeded up a reaction is to say that, had the catalyst not been present in those circumstances, the reaction would have proceeded at a slower rate. In general, if A caused B, then, if A had not occurred in the circumstances, B would not have occurred either. (A variant of this principle is that, if A caused B, then if A had not occurred in the circumstances, the probability of B’s occurrence would have been appreciably less than it was. It does not matter for our argument whether we accept the origin principle or this variant.) To make sense of this statement, ‘If A had not occurred in the circumstances, B would not have occurred’, we have to countenance the possibility of A’s not occurring and the possibility of B’s not occurring. If these are genuine possibilities, then both A and B are contingent. So one of the reasons why necessary facts cannot causally explain anything is that we cannot make sense of their not being the case, whereas causal explanations requires us to make sense of causally explanatory facts not being the case. Causal explanation involves the explanation of one contingent fact by appeal to another contingent fact.Le Poidevin, Robin. Arguing for Atheism: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Religion. London: Routledge, 1996. 40-41. Print.
This is a way of substantiating that an effect is inhered in a cause or the principle, like effects from like causes. This has been precisely my criticism of the idea that a nonphysical cause created the physical universe. There is no theory of causation that permits the interaction of an ethereal entity’s dispositions and that of physical things. It is essentially a paraphrase of Elizabeth of Bohemia’s rebuttal to Cartesian dualism: how does mental substance interact with physical substance? This is why mind-body dualism remains in a state of incoherence, but I digress. Mackie puts yet another nail in the coffin:
The principle of sufficient reason, then, is more far-reaching than the principle that every occurrence has a preceding sufficient cause: the latter, but not the former, would be satisfied by a series of things or events running back infinitely in time, each determined by earlier ones, but with no further explanation of the series as a whole. Such a series would give us only what Leibniz called ‘physical’ or ‘hypothetical’ necessity, whereas the demand for a sufficient reason for the whole body of contingent things and events and laws calls for something with ‘absolute’ or ‘metaphysical’ necessity. But even the weaker, deterministic, principle is not an a priori truth, and indeed it may not be a truth at all; much less can this be claimed for the principle of sufficient reason. Perhaps it just expresses an arbitrary demand; it may be intellectually satisfying to believe there is, objectively, an explanation for everything together, even if we can only guess at what the explanation might be. But we have no right to assume that the universe will comply with our intellectual preferences. Alternatively, the supposed principle may be an unwarranted extension of the determinist one, which, in so far as it is supported, is supported only empirically, and can at most be accepted provisionally, not as an a priori truth. The form of the cosmological argument which relies on the principle of sufficient reason therefore fails completely as a demonstrative proof.Mackie, J. L. The Miracle of Theism: Arguments for and against the Existence of God. Oxford: Clarendon, 1982. 86-87. Print.
Every contingency argument fails because it relies on the principle of sufficient reason and because necessity does not cohere with contingency as it concerns a so-called causal relation. Mackie, like Le Poidevin, also questions why God is a satisfactory termination of the regress. Why not something something else? (Ibid., 92). Contingency arguments amount to vicious special pleading and an outright refusal to entertain viable alternatives, even in cases where the alternatives are nonphysical and compatible with religious sentiments. In any case, it would appear that the principle of sufficient reason is not on stable ground. Neither is the notion that a necessary being is the ultimate explanation of the universe. Contingency arguments have been defeated and there really is no way to repeat these arguments in a way that does not fall on the horns of Le Poidevin and Mackie’s defeaters. Only the obdurate need to believe that God is the foundational explanation of the universe explains the redundancy of Christian Theists within the philosophy of religion. That is setting aside that apologetics is not philosophy and other complaints I have had. The Geometric Argument, despite using different language, just is a contingency argument. If the dead horse could speak, it would tell them all to lay down their batons once and for all, but alas.
Ultimately, contingency arguments are yet another example of how repetitive Christianized philosophy of religion has become. There is a sense in which Leon, Le Poidevin, and Mackie are paraphrasing one another because, and here is a bit of irony, like arguments result in like rebuttals. They cannot help but to sound like they each decided or even conspired to write on the same topic for a final paper. They are, after all, addressing the same argument no matter how many attempts have been made to word it differently. It is a vicious cycle, a large wheel that cannot keep on turning. It must be stopped in its tracks if progress in the philosophy of religion is to get any real traction.
Lately, I have been thinking a lot about time, both on a personal level and on a philosophical one. Setting aside all of my thoughts on the kind of freedoms and privileges I would need to truly own my time, the phenomenon of time occupies my thoughts, in many ways from the mundane to the complex. When I was younger and far less patient, I would grow incensed having convinced myself that I picked the wrong bus out of the two that showed up at roughly the same time because the other bus eventually drove past mine. As I got older and my philosophical tendencies started to take root ever deeper, I started to notice how whenever the other bus drove by the bus I was on, it would never get too far ahead. In fact, it would arrive at my stop less than a minute before mine did.
So came my idea of virtual simultaneity. From there, I would imagine a parallel me, a sort of ghost, who in another universe got on the other bus and I would imagine how far ahead of me he would be on his walk toward my building. I would then speed up so that I would catch up to my parallel on my way home as means to feel better about not having been on the bus that arrived earlier. This is how I think about time, in a very intimate sense. Nothing stops me in my tracks like an article about time. My mind could be furtherest from time and from philosophy more generally, reading fan theories about a show I am into or looking up the latest sports scores, and when scrolling, an article about time shows up and I am immediately in that headspace. This was the case two days ago when I read Musser’s article “A Defense of the Reality of Time.”
Time is one of the most difficult phenomena to apprehend in the universe. It is as elusive as it is seductive. It is safe to say that no one has won over this lover’s heart. No one has seduced her enough to understand all of her mysteries and secrets. It is because of this that I am often discouraged to write anything about time, despite growing confidence in my philosophical capacities. But just then, Musser said something that got the gears of my mind running.
“Well, what if time had two dimensions?” As a purely algebraic question, I can say that. But if you ask me what could it mean, physically, for time to have two dimensions, I haven’t the vaguest idea. Is it consistent with the nature of time that it be a two-dimensional thing? Because if you think that what time does is order events, then that order is a linear order, and you’re talking about a fundamentally one-dimensional kind of organization.Musser, George. “A Defense of the Reality of Time”. Quanta Magazine. 16 May 2017. Web.
What if the critical error we continue to make is thinking of time as one-dimensional? What if time has more than one dimension, just like space does? A cursory look at Superstring Theory (ST) will begin to sound exactly like me in a footrace with parallel me. Parallel or possible worlds emerge from the fifth and sixth dimensions of ST. If it were possible to see the fifth dimension, we would be able to take note of similarities and differences between the world we occupy and a parallel world. Perhaps this is what our imagination does. If a runner gets a cramp in her calf a few meters from the finish line, she may envision herself winning the race in a world in where she did not get injured. Perhaps we do, in fact, see the fifth dimension, but I digress.
In the sixth dimension, one would be able to see the universe as it was at the beginning and an array of possibilities. One would, for instance, see universes in where the rate of entropy is lower or higher than in ours. If Boltzmann was correct, and time emerges from basic probabilities, then we would see universes in where .000000001 nanoseconds do not equal a second, but instead, .0.000000001515 nanoseconds equal a second, implying that time moves slightly slower in that universe than it does here. This is to say nothing about the arrow of time, which could move in the opposite direction (see Cartwright, John. “We may have a spotted a parallel universe going backwards in time”. New Scientist. 8 Apr 2020. Web. and De Chant, Tim. “Big Bang May Have Created a Mirror Universe Where Time Runs Backwards”. Nova. 8 Dec 2014. Web.).
In the seventh dimension, one may find themselves in the mirror universe on the other side of the Big Bang, in where the arrow of time travels backwards. The eighth dimension would give one access to exotic universes, with initial conditions so far from our own. In the ninth, one would possess the power to compare and contrast every possible world from worlds very much like our own to worlds decidedly unlike ours. Finally, the tenth dimension exhausts every possibility.
The fact of the matter is that we simply do not fully comprehend our own universe and so, we can be gravely mistaken about time. If one considers ST, and not necessarily whether the theory is true, but rather what the theory can teach us, one quickly notices that ST’s dimensions have consequences for time that are arguably more important than their ramifications for space. If ST is the case or if something close to it is true, time is ultimately nonlinear and therefore, not one-dimensional. So let us walk through what two-dimensional time might look like. First, imagine that the ancestors of homo sapiens in the far off future have invented time machines. If they can travel to and fro in time, time is still one-dimensional. In two dimensions of space, one can move horizontally and vertically. So then the question arises, what would it mean for time to move vertically?
Prior talks about a quasi change or “what is common to the flow of a literal river on the one hand…and the flow of time on the other” (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.). Rivers, in our world, do not rise, but they do fall. Setting aside evaporation, which does speak to water traveling upward, for time to flow vertically downward, we can imagine a powerful waterfall. Though this is completely new territory and may look like a new way of thinking about time, anyone who has ever thought about the past as something long dead and inaccessible implies that the flow of time travels vertically downward, forever making the past impossible to re-experience directly. For instance, Emery, et al. write: “According to presentism, only present objects exist. More precisely, presentism is the view that, necessarily, it is always true that only present objects exist. Even more precisely, no objects exist in time without being present” (Emery, Nina, et al. “Time”. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. 2020. Web.). Presentists therefore, believe that objects in the past are in a state of oblivion, but if Temporal Parts Theory (TPT) is correct, then objects and events in the past are annihilated and their corresponding intervals of time are also annihilated. A brief review of TPT is in order.
The Temporal Parts Theory of Identity (hereon TPT) is derived from the notion of time being, in some sense or to some degree, like space. One can think of, for instance, a linear timeline depicting the years all 46 U.S. Presidents held office. Or one can think of the x-y axis used in physics. Time is represented by the x-axis whilst space is represented by the y. Or one can think of a space-time diagram containing two axes representing space and another to represent time. These sorts of considerations have led some philosophers and scientists to ask whether time is a dimension. According to some accounts, time is the fourth dimension. Time, however, is not always analogous to space. D.H. Mellor discussed these disanalogies at length. He, for instance, concluded that there is no spatial analogue for our feeling of the passing of time. We cannot, in other words, attribute the passing of time to spatial changes (Mellor, D. H. Real Time II. London: Routledge, 1998. 95-96. Print.).
With respect to parts, however, time and space are analogous. Theodore Sider explains:
Temporal parts theory is the claim that time is like space in one particular respect, namely, with respect to parts. First think about parts in space. A spatially extended object such as a person has spatial parts: her head, arms, etc. Likewise, according to temporal parts theory, a temporally extended object has temporal parts. Following the analogy, since spatial parts are smaller than the whole object in spatial dimensions, temporal parts are smaller than the whole object in the temporal dimension. They are shorter-lived.Sider, Theodore. “Temporal Parts”. 2008. Web.
Consider, as an example, the b-moments in Friedrich Nietzsche’s life. Friedrich Nietzsche’s birth on October 15, 1844 is one b-moment and his death on August 25, 1900 is another. The dates of both represent distinct b-times. On TPT, he is spread out from October 15, 1844 to August 25, 1900. If we were to depict him in a space-time diagram, his parts on our diagram will depict his temporal parts. If we were capable of watching Nietzsche in his infancy, we will be observing a temporal part, then another that resembles it, and then another. If one were to watch infant Nietzsche long enough, his later temporal parts will be slightly bigger than the previous ones. That is to say that Nietzsche is no longer an infant; he is now, for instance, a toddler. So on our space-time diagram, Nietzsche grows the further we move away from his birth. It is also worth noting that temporal parts have spatial parts and vice versa. Nietzsche’s hand, like Nietzsche himself, persisted within the interval of time his life occupies. The parts he was comprised of will also be represented on our space-time diagram.
Nietzsche, therefore, has spatio and temporal parts, so if presentism were correct, the interval of time represented by the ~54 years Nietzsche lived would enter oblivion. The flow of time, as it pertains to Nietzsche’s life, ends and yet, continues. Perhaps a better analogy (though in actuality, this is time moving in three dimensions), presentists seem to imagine that time is like a river, at least on the surface, but within it are whirlpools in where intervals of time meet their end. With difficulty, therefore, one can imagine time in more than one dimension even if one is not convinced of presentism. Consider instead the growing blocking theory (GBT). On GBT, the present and the past are real and the future becomes real when the present edge meets it. Similarly, on the moving spotlight theory (MST), only objects within the spotlight are considered present though objects on the peripheries still exist (Emery, Ibid.). How might two-dimensional time look like under GBT or MST?
For simplicity’s sake, I will consider GBT. Since presentists deny the spatio-temporal parts of the past and thus, bury the past, we can imagine that for presentists, time moves to the right on the x-axis (that is, along the first quadrant of the axis) and also downward on the y-axis (along the fourth quadrant). Growing block theorists, on the other hand, since they believe in the future emerging at the present edge, see time moving in the same direction as presentists on the x-axis, but moving along the y-axis in the opposite direction, upward in the first quadrant. In other words, if the death of temporal parts is a downward movement, the birth of temporal parts is an upward movement.
To pursue a brief tangent, not all theories of time think of time as a line. Eternalists see time in one dimension, but their view of time is more in keeping with a circle. Emery, et al. state:
One version of non-presentism is eternalism, which says that objects from both the past and the future exist. According to eternalism, non-present objects like Socrates and future Martian outposts exist now, even though they are not currently present. We may not be able to see them at the moment, on this view, and they may not be in the same space-time vicinity that we find ourselves in right now, but they should nevertheless be on the list of all existing things.Ibid.
Another eternalist conception that has been entertained can be called recurrentism. Nietzsche probably explains it best:
What if some day or night a demon were to steal after you into your loneliest loneliness and say to you: “This life as you now live it and have lived it, you will have to live once more and innumerable times more; and there will be nothing new in it, but every pain and every joy and every thought and sigh and everything unutterably small or great in your life will have to return to you, all in the same succession and sequence—even this spider and this moonlight between the trees, and even this moment and I myself. The eternal hourglass of existence is turned upside down again and again, and you with it, speck of dust!”
Would you not throw yourself down and gnash your teeth and curse the demon who spoke thus? Or have you once experienced a tremendous moment when you would have answered him: “You are a god and never have I heard anything more divine.” If this thought gained possession of you, it would change you as you are or perhaps crush you. The question in each and every thing, “Do you desire this once more and innumerable times more?” would lie upon your actions as the greatest weight. Or how well disposed would you have to become to yourself and to life to crave nothing more fervently than this ultimate eternal confirmation and seal?Nietzsche, Friedrich W, and Walter Kaufmann. The Gay Science: With a Prelude in Rhymes and an Appendix of Songs. New York: Vintage Books, 1974. 373. Print.
On the cosmological interpretation of eternal return (see here), eternalism simply is the idea that time is like a circle. There is a sense in which recurrentism is already implied and though eternalists are usually not committed to the idea of time literally repeating itself, if Socrates and Martian outposts exist, then time and causation are a loop. This implies that some future event will jumpstart the Big Bang and every event in the universe will play out in identical ways all over again. This is precisely the sort of thinking entailed in the presentist’s response to eternalism. Heather Dyke explains:
According to this argument, any theory that assigns ontological privilege to the present moment while also recognizing the existence of non-present times faces an insurmountable problem: it is unable to account for our knowledge that we are located in the present. If anything is certain, surely our knowledge that we are present is! But if past times exist as well as the present time, what is to say we are not located in one of those past times, mistakenly believing ourselves to be present? We might insist that our experience of presentness is so compelling that it must be veridical. But what about Queen Elizabeth I’s experience of presentness? That’s pretty compelling too, yet she is in the past, so her experience misleads her. Perhaps our experience misleads us too.Dyke, Heather. Presentism and eternalism. Time, metaphysics of, 2011, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-N123-2. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis.
We tend to give the present an ontological status greater than that of the past and the future. It appears that the only escape we have is the idea of spatio-temporal oblivion. Queen Elizabeth I is not somewhere in the past under the mistaken impression that she and not us is present. Time, therefore, probably does not have one dimension. Forward implies backward and up implies down, so any linear or circular view of time runs into problems of recurrence and all sorts of time-related paradoxes like the well-known Grandfather Paradox. Without straying too far in quantum mechanics, all of this is already implied in Bell’s Theorem: “Most models of nature are reversible in time; we can run the basic equations backwards in time as easily as forwards in time. This implies that theories with causality forwards in time must also have causality backwards in time; this was ignored by Bell” (t’Hooft, Gerard. “Time, the Arrow of Time, and Quantum Mechanics”. Frontiers. 29 Aug 2018. Web.).
Especially for people high on the idea of the universe being conscious or that there is a god(s), the universe would therefore offer us clues to help us better understand time. Think of the notion of space and time changing places within a black hole. Going back to the paradigm, namely the four-dimensional concept of space-time, time would then have three dimensions and space would have one. As Pösel explains:
Only outside the cylinder does the intersection with a plane at constant height (“at constant time” as seen from the outside) correspond to a snapshot. Inside the cylinder, time and space have switched places. Inside, the intersection image doesn’t show a snapshot – it shows something much more weird: a caleidoscopic combination of many different times. After all, inside, time is not the axial, but the radial coordinate, and all the different distances from the “center” which you see in the sketch correspond to different moments in time. Instead of the spatial structure of the black hole, the sketch shows a strange mix of space and time!Pössel, Markus. “Changing places – space and time inside a black hole”. Einstein Online. 2010. Web.
I would highly recommend getting a handle of Pössel’s illustrations if you would like to better understand how time and space trade places within a black hole. For our purposes, the fact that this happens in a black hole might offer a clue. Perhaps the lesson to be learned from the inner workings of blacks holes is that time has more than one dimension. Maybe the relativity of time inhered in General and Special Relativity has to do with the fact that time is superimposed or even supervenes on space in a different way relative to one’s direction in space. In other words, time has a horizontal behavior, so to speak. It has a slightly different vertical behavior. Further still, it has another behavior along curved or edged spaces within the dimension of depth. On Earth, we commonly move as though we lived in two-dimensions, so thinking of moving in a third dimension is difficult to conceptualize. We would have to travel in space to get a better idea of how the effects of gravity, over long distances, look like traveling along a curved surface. Or, we can simply think of the difference between Mario on Super Nintendo versus Mario on the Nintendo Switch. When Mario performs any movements in the depth dimension, or to add to our x- and y-axes, a z-axis, he is now covering diagonal domains analogous to the width of a cube, for instance.
To exhaust a well-known example, time moves faster at higher altitudes, the further one is from the Earth’s center. This might be suggestive of time behaving differently along the vertical axis. This also readily explains the relative experiences of someone falling into a black hole and another person seeing this happen. Recall the following:
1. The light coming from the person gets redshifted; they’ll start to take on a redder hue and then, eventually, will require infrared, microwave, and then radio “vision” to see.
2. The speed at which they appear to fall in will get asymptotically slow; they will appear to fall in towards the event horizon at a slower and slower speed, never quite reaching it.
3. The amount of light coming from them gets less and less. In addition to getting redder, they also will appear dimmer, even if they emit their own source of light!
4. The person falling in notices no difference in how time passes or how light appears to them. They would continue to fall in to the black hole and cross the event horizon as though nothing happened. (“Falling Into a Black Hole Sucks!”. ScienceBlogs. 20 Nov 2009. Web.)
If the observer never quite sees the faller fall into the back hole while the faller notices no difference in the passage of time and ultimately, crosses the event horizon, time here can be taking on a different behavior along the z-axis, in the dimension of depth along a curved plain. The 3:1 relation of space-time can be simplified with a 3:3 relation which is virtually the same as 1:1 or colloquially, one-to-one. To my mind, if simplicity is the aim, then this is our next recourse. ST was borne out of an attempt to condense the three dimensions of space into one dimension. That unfortunately did not work, at least not as intended. We should therefore attempt to think of time in three dimensions and see how this might help the project of unifying physics.
Ultimately, our theories of time, along with physics, may be impeded by the idea of one-dimensional time. Maybe it is time for us to begin thinking about the behavior of time in two or three dimensions. ST already shows that there are peculiarities about time across multiple dimensions, implying further that the ten dimensions of ST are not dominated by space. In other words, it is not that nine out of the ten dimensions belong to space and still one to time. There could be a disproportion, like a space-time ratio of 6:4, but if ST entails a few dimensions of time, we should begin conceptualizing how time behaves in a multi-dimensional setting. This might help us to finally unravel all of her mysteries and secrets. Until then, I leave you with a mind-bending interpretation of what happens inside of black hole from Christopher Nolan’s “Interstellar.”
By R.N. Carmona
In the beginning this world was only brahman, and it knew only itself (ātman), thinking: ‘I am brahman.’ As a result, it became the Whole. Among the gods, likewise, whosoever realized this, only they became the Whole. It was the same also among the seers and among humans. Upon seeing this very point, the seer Vāmadeva proclaimed: ‘I was Manu, and I was the sun.’ This is true even now. If man knows ‘I am brahman‘ in this way, he becomes this whole world. Not even the gods are able to prevent it, for he becomes their very self (ātman). So when a man venerates another deity, thinking, ‘He is one, and I am another’, he does not understand.Olivelle, Patrick. Upaniṣads: A new translation. New York: Oxford World’s Classics, 1996. 15. Print
This passage from the Bṛadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad coincides with the earliest ideas of ātman (the self). The Upaniṣads, unlike the Vedas, explore ātman in greater detail. The “Ṛgveda (c.1200 B.C.E.), the earliest textual source from ancient India, ātman had already a wide range of lexical meanings, including ‘breath’, ‘spirit’, and ‘body’” (Black, Brian. “Upanishads”. Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Web.). Interestingly, the Upaniṣads, taken together, do not yield the same interpretation of the self, so there is a sense in which the concept of ātman anticipated a view in modern philosophy of mind. We will circle back around to that later. Of importance now is laying out a brief overview of the ātman in Hinduism. Then, we will turn to the Buddhist interpretation of the idea, anattā, which has interesting parallels to modern views of mind.
The Vedic idea of ātman never fell out of fashion as is made apparent in Uddālaka’s teachings. His idea of ātman is pretty much identical: it is the life force within all living things, the very essence creating a bridge between the parts and the whole. This is in keeping with Advaita Vedānta in where the “experiencing self (jīva) and the transcendental self of the Universe (ātman) are in reality identical (both are Brahman), though the individual self seems different as space within a container seems different from space as such” (Menon, Sangeetha. “Vedanta, Advaita”. Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Web.). Yājñavalkya offers a different interpretation, equating the self with consciousness rather than a life force. He ” characterizes the self as that which has mastery over the otherwise distinct psycho-physical capacities. He goes on to explain that we know the existence of the self through actions of the self, through what the self does, not through our senses—that the self, as consciousness, cannot be an object of consciousness” (Black, Ibid.). Despite differences from Uddālaka’s interpretation, Yājñavalkya still adheres to Advaita Vedānta. The Advaita school of Vedānta yields a concept of God that accords with panentheism.
Prajāpati also equates ātman with consciousness, but crucially, he also conflates it with the material body. Prajāpati, therefore, presents a strain of another school in Vedānta, namely Dvaita, which is dualistic. In a sense, it is a dualism of mind and body or consciousness and the material, but more importantly, it is a dualism of jīva and the Brahman, e.g., humankind and God. Given Prajāpati’s distinction, we see the beginnings of monotheism or henotheism, and the much later bhakti tradition in Hinduism in where a devotee of a given god is to unite their soul to this god by way of their love and devotion. Though there are other interpretations of ātman and Brahman in Hinduism, Advaita and Dvaita suffice for our purposes.
In Buddhism, there is no ātman. We are, therefore, introduced to the concept of anattā or non-self. There is no static, immutable, essential soul or consciousness. This is crucial for Buddhist teachings regarding suffering (dukkha) and detachment because if one does not have the idea of an essential self, one is less likely to pity himself over others, to regard his own suffering as having higher priority than that of other beings. Coseru elaborates:
The centrality of the not-self doctrine in Buddhist thought is explained on the basis of its pragmatic role in guiding the adept on the path to enlightenment. Furthermore, the not-self doctrine provides a justification for treating endurance, independence, and self-subsistence as neither desirable nor attainable, but rather as what they are: mistaken notions resulting from the habitual tendency to construct an identity from a stream of physical and subjective phenomena.Coseru, Christian. “Mind in Indian Buddhist Philosophy”. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. 2012. Web.
As Coseru also points out, there is a sense in which the Buddhist idea of anattā anticipated Hume who thought that there was no self to apprehend within our perceptions. Along with anattā, Buddhists present “a fluid account of experience as an ever-changing stream of psycho-physical events. This dynamic model of human existence comprises the five classes of phenomena the Buddha referred to as the “aggregates of grasping” (upādāna-skandha), on account of our tendency to grasp after and identify with them” (Ibid.). This is opposed to our idea of a fixed self or consciousness experiencing life in a Cartesian theater.
When considering the Hindu idea of ātman and the Buddhist response of anattā, we can start to see how we could have avoided all of Descartes’ mistakes in the philosophy of mind had we been more studied on Eastern religions or other religions aside from Christianity. Christianity, akin to Dvaita, creates a dualism between God and man. There is never a sense, per Christian theology, in where man and God are identical or one. There is no sense in which man’s consciousness and God’s are identical either. Descartes took this a step further, dualizing the physical body and the mental soul. Hindus adhering to Dvaita Vedānta had already committed this error and the Buddhist idea of anattā, aside from reducing consciousness to the physical domain, suggested that there is no-self to speak of and more importantly, that there is no phenomenal consciousness to capture. It is an illusion.
Interestingly, the non-duality of Advaita Vedanta (monism), can be seen as paraphrasing anattā in that ideas of the self are illusory, a part of the Brahman dream (maya). This leads to the idea of mokṣa, the notion that we can free ourselves from the cycle of death and rebirth. For Hindus adhering to Advaita Vedānta, mokṣa is attained when one accepts the self as being one with Brahman. For Buddhists, Nirvana is the emptying of ideas of self and ultimately realizing that there is no self; this is how one comes to free oneself from the cycle of death and rebirth. Under both interpretations, there is a sense in which there is no self. On the one hand, any self that is at variance with the Brahman is illusory, a product of the maya while on the other, there is simply no self and any erroneous ideas we get about the self proceed from the ego. The ego is the engine through which false narratives of the self are created.
Further exploration of the self and ego delve too far into the philosophy of mind, but brief comments are in order. The Churchlands and Dennett adhere to anattā if ātman is defined as phenomenal consciousness. Ramsey states:
Dennett challenges not just our conception of pain, but all of our different notions of qualitative states. His argument focuses on the apparently essential features of qualia, including their inherent subjectivity and their private nature. Dennett discusses several cases—both actual and imaginary—to expose ways in which these ordinary intuitions about qualia pull apart. In so doing, Dennett suggests our qualia concepts are fundamentally confused and fail to correspond with the actual inner workings of our cognitive system.Ramsey, William. “Eliminative Materialism”. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. 2019. Web.
It can be argued, therefore, that if the history of philosophy of religion had been different, then the history of philosophy of mind would have proceeded differently. In other words, the missteps philosophers have taken throughout the history of philosophy of mind likely would not have happened. Of course, we would be dealing with a set of different mistakes, but some of these mistakes would not prevail till this day due to the obstinacy of apologists who do not want to relinquish the idea of Cartesian dualism. A thorough understanding of ātman and anattā would have at least disabused us of the idea of a theater of consciousness or a fixed self, and related ideas like qualia, which as Dennett points out, are problematic. See my recent “Nonphysicalism in The Philosophy of Mind and Its Shortcomings” for a discussion on why the ideas of qualia and phenomenal consciousness are untenable.
On the philosophy of religion front, the concepts of ātman and anattā are fertile ground for discussions within the cosmotheological and ontotheological traditions (see Wildman, Wesley J. Religious Philosophy as Multidisciplinary Comparative Inquiry: Envisioning a Future For The Philosophy of Religion. State University of New York Press. Albany, NY. 2010. 248-261. Print. for an overview of these traditions in the philosophy of religion). As stated earlier, we now move away from mono or henotheistic frameworks and consider, for example whether panentheism best explains features of the universe, on the one hand, and features of being on the other. For one, consider the idea that we are star stuff. We are comprised of the same matter and energy that pervades the rest of the universe. In that sense, then, we are not distinct and all things in the universe recede back to the Big Bang singularity. Perhaps our ideas of essentialist distinction are illusory, a dream-like story we continue to tell ourselves. In light of this, there is either no self or the self reduces to the universe. Given the recent resurgence of panpsychism, some have argued that the universe is very much like a supermassive brain (see Ratner, Paul. “The universe works like a huge human brain, discover scientists”. Big Think. 19 Nov 2020). In any case, a closer look at Hinduism and Buddhism will take us in non-monotheistic directions that may prove fruitful in ongoing discussions in the philosophy of religion and of mind.
Ultimately, we begin to see why it is of the utmost importance to break up the Christian monopoly in philosophy of religion, so to speak. We can see how the winding history of ātman and anattā anticipate certain strains in the philosophy of mind while also providing new, fertile ground in the philosophy of religion. In Advaita Vedānta, there is just one self, the Brahman. Every other idea of self is illusory. This has some staggering implications for ongoing discussions about identity as well. In Buddhism, given anattā, we see that the “I Am that I Am” uttered by Yahweh is ultimately an error of the ego, overinflated and now extended into the idea of God. Furthermore, this supports the idea that the jealous, vindictive, tribalist gods so often prone to favoritism, unironically, of the people who happen to worship them, are created in our image. Anattā suggests that gods like Yahweh, Allah, and those pertaining to the various mono and henotheisms around the world are extensions of the ego imposing false ideas of the self. Most philosophers of religion, concerned not only with the nature of but also with the identity of God, seldom wrestle with the idea that perhaps there is no universal ātman, e.g., there is no God. This has some resonating implications all its own. The purpose here has been to move the philosophy of religion in yet another fruitful direction; while I can begin to exhaust possibilities, it is important for me not to create a self-induced echo chamber, especially given that my interest is to encourage philosophers of religion to travel down these newly paved roads. Anattā has far reaching implications for free will, ethics, identity, existentialism, and other areas of philosophy as well. In any case, it should be clear why Christianity’s iron grip on the philosophy of religion needs to be loosened.
By R.N. Carmona
In the last entry in this series, we saw how Buddhism can handle the Problem of Evil. Traditionally, the problem exposed a contradiction between the idea of a perfectly good deity and the abundance of evil and suffering in the world. Buddhism solves this contradiction by eliminating the former variable from the equation, leaving only evil and suffering. With no deus ex machina to rescue us, the issue stands before us, waiting to be resolved by humanity, perhaps by way of adhering to principles similar to the Eightfold Path of Buddhism. What is notable about the Buddhist solution to the problem is that it makes it our problem and makes us responsible for doing something about the evil and suffering in our world; it places the burden on us to lift the world out of degeneracy.
Zoroastrianism, on the other hand, has a solution similar to the ones offered by Christians and Muslims. The key difference is that Zoroastrian theology better explains the origin and persistence of evil and suffering. On Christianity, God is perfect in every way. He is perfectly good and there is no evil in him. In addition to this, he is omniscient, omnipotent, and sovereign. Satan does not come close to matching God’s power and more importantly, he could not have produced degenerated conditions prior to the Fall of Adam. Plantinga argues, on the one hand, that Adam is to blame for why humans are capable of evil (Beebe, James R. “Logical Problem of Evil”. Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. ND. Web.). On the other hand, he blames cosmic and natural evils on the volition of evil, immaterial entities; he adds that God could not create a world with a better balance of good and evil, an allusion to Leibniz’s idea of a best possible world (Plantinga, Alvin. God, Freedom and Evil. New York: Harper & Row, 1974. 58. Print.). The notion that something is not within God’s power contradicts the belief that he is omnipotent. Furthermore, that fallen angels, beings contingent not only on God’s creative power but also on his immutable and incorruptible nature, were even capable of falling into depravity is dubious. Plantinga’s solutions, like other solutions offered by Christian apologists, compounds the problem.
Where Christian theology fails, Zoroastrian theology succeeds. On Zoroastrianism, Ahura Mazda or Ohrmazd is perfect in every way: he is omnipotent, omniscient, perfectly benevolent, immutable, incorruptible, and timeless. He created a material realm (getig) because he foresaw a future in where Angra Mainyu (Ahriman) would be defeated. Since life cannot coexist with non-life, light cannot coexist with darkness, and creation cannot coexist with privation, Ahura Mazda created the world for purposes of luring Angra Mainyu into it and defeating him. Angra Mainyu, unlike Satan, can corrupt creation. On Zoroastrianism, therefore, the viruses, diseases, parasites, and predators we wonder about given the assumption that there exists a perfectly good god are explained by an equally powerful evil god that can corrupt the substances of creation. Clark explains:
As far as their own natures are concerned, Ahura Mazda (Ohrmazd) and Angra Mainyu are completely opposite to the extent that whereas it is appropriate to say that the former has life, it is more correct to say that the latter has “non-life” and that his “creations” are in fact “anti-creations” or deprivative incursions into the Ahuric. Thus although we can characterize Zoroastrianism as a dualism of sorts, this must be qualified since we cannot say that the religion recognizes two gods in Ahura Mazda and Angra Mainyu precisely because of the radical distinction of their natures. This distinction is confirmed textually. The term for “Lord,” for example, is never applied to Ahriman (Angra Mainyu) in the Pahlavi books, and both the Avestan and Pahlavi languages have curious double vocabularies in which certain terms are inherently Ahuric and others inherently Ahrimanic. Even seemingly neutral terms like “leg” and “hand” have different words in Avestan, depending on whether they are used with reference to Ahuric or Ahrimanic entities.Clark, Peter. Zoroastrianism: An Introduction to an Ancient Faith. Chicago: Sussex Academic Press, 1998. 85. Print
The longstanding Theism-atheism debate in the philosophy of religion has inadvertently stumbled upon this solution already. While Buddhism removes God from the equation, Zoroastrianism adds an evil god to solve the problem of evil and suffering. It would be interesting to note the similarity between Zoroastrian theology and Aquinas’ explanation of evil. Aquinas was probably familiar with Zoroastrian theology and subsumed their explanation of evil into his philosophy because in light of Christian theology, Aquinas’ musings are incoherent. Floyd states that “evil has no actuality in its own right. It would be a mistake, then, to speak of evil as an actual “thing,” if by “thing” we mean an existing being or quality. For evil is a deprivation of what is actual, like blindness or sickness. For this reason, Aquinas says that something is evil “inasmuch as it is deprived of some particular good that pertains to its due or proper perfection” (QDM 1.1 ad 1; ST Ia 48.2 passim)” (Floyd, Shawn. “Aquinas: Moral Philosophy”. Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Web.). Alternatively, since Aquinas followed Augustine’s lead here, perhaps Augustine was familiar with Zoroastrian theology and incorporated their explanation of evil into his writings.
What’s more is that the evil god challenge has already been raised and though it was not Law’s intention to argue that this evil god explains evil ontologically, intending instead to pose a new challenge for Theism, Law’s evil god is not far from Angra Mainyu. Law states:
Consider a different hypothesis. Suppose the universe has a creator. Suppose also that this being is omnipotent and omniscient. But suppose he is not maximally good. Rather, imagine that he is maximally evil. His depravity is without limit. His cruelty knows no bounds. There is no other god or gods – just this supremely wicked being. Call this the evil-god hypothesis.Law, Stephen. The evil-god challenge. Religious Studies, 2010 46(3), 353-373. doi:10.1017/S0034412509990369
The key difference is that Law replaces the Judeo-Christian concept of god with a maximally evil being. His concept is more in keeping with monotheism rather than the henotheism present in Zoroastrian theology. Briefly, henotheism entails the worship of one god while not denying that there are other gods or the worship of one god that can manifest itself in other forms or as other gods, e.g., Hinduism. Though Zoroastrians do not address Angra Mainyu as a god, he is not a being created by Ahura Mazda. Furthermore, Spenta Mainyu and Angra Mainyu are recognized as “twin spirits,” co-eternal, and both existing outside of time. Spenta Mainyu, the holy spirit of Ahura Mazda, is hypostatically connected to Ahura Mazda. Clark elaborates:
Just as the good spirit of Ahura Mazda, Spenta Mainyu, and the hostile spirit, Angra Mainyu, are independent of each other, having no connection either conceptually or in any fundamental or primal sense (in that they share no common origin), so evil and good in this world are also completely separate to the degree that one is not only the ideological but also physical antithesis of the other. All that is good, that which we call Ahuric, is a positive quality emanating from the Wise Lord whereas all that is bad is the result of Ahriman’s intrusion into the Ahuric domain, and is in fact a deprivation of the good, a destructive incursion into the created order. That is why the Ahrimanic is sometimes referred to only by what it is not — hence the term ajyati, “not-life” (Ibid., 126).
The maximally great being of Christian Theists and the maximally evil being posited by Law are already present in Zoroastrian theology. Humans are actors on a stage set from eternity; Ahura Mazda and Angra Mainyu have been at variance for all of eternity and we are either ashavans living by Good Thoughts, Good Words, and Good Deeds or we are drugvants leading a life of hostility, deceit, violence, and so on. Any feature of the universe that we qualify as evil or, at the very least, irreconcilable with a perfectly good being, from asteroid impacts to malignant Narcissists, reduces to the Zoroastrian hostile spirit and his capacity to manipulate creative substance so that it succumbs to degeneracy. On Zoroastrianism, therefore, the abundance of evil and suffering we experience in the world, including features of the animal kingdom that do not square with the existence of a perfectly benevolent being, stem from an intrusive, equally powerful evil god whose greatest weapon is death. From a naturalistic, evolutionary perspective, if the Ahuric design was simply for species to acquire adaptive traits enabling them to survive in perpetuity, Angra Mainyu manipulated evolutionary purposes to introduce death and extinction, or simply, “non-life.”
Interestingly, there is a way for a naturalist to subsume the Zoroastrian solution to the Problem of Evil. If we set aside all reification of evil and good, along with any ideas of omni-beings whether good or evil, what Zoroastrianism predicts is that people living by Good Thoughts, Good Words, and Good Deeds will rid the physical realm of evil once and for all. Just as we learned through Buddhism, while we are ultimately not powerful enough to address all aspects of so-called degeneracy, in that we cannot, for instance, remove entropy from the universe or return it to its original state of perfect symmetry, we can rid the world of exploitation, corruption, deceit, and all manner of malice; with enough scientific and technological advancement, we may be able to achieve versions of functional immorality, thereby curbing death (see Reedy, Christiana. “An End to Aging: Can Science Allow Humans to To Become Immortal?”. Futurism. 3 Mar 2017. Web.). The naturalistic Zoroastrian prescription for a solution to the Problem of Evil is similar to the Buddhist’s: Good Thoughts, Good Words, and Good Deeds, which are similar in many respects to Buddhism’s Eightfold Path. What’s more is that according to Zoroastrian mythology, Ahura Mazda created us to be the impetus of his victory over Angra Mainyu. On a naturalistic reading, then, the eradication of evil and the regeneration of our civilization and planet requires us to become ashavans, following after asha (truth) and following an ethical code that would draw us to the incorruptible light of Ahura Mazda. Essentially, there is no distinction between how Ahura Mazda is described and an ashavan, once again implying that we are to reappropriate the moral powers we mistakenly surrendered to the prevailing idea of God.
Ultimately, Zoroastrianism offers a unique solution to the problem of evil, one that its theology was able to anticipate in today’s Theism-atheism debate in the philosophy of religion, so to speak. For anyone looking to maintain belief in a perfectly good deity, it appears reasonable to recognize that there is an equally, or at least, comparably powerful evil deity through whom we can explain evil and suffering. Aquinas, following Augustine, appears to have been familiar enough with Zoroastrianism; otherwise, it will be hard to explain why his rationalizations of evil sound suspiciously similar. The problem is that I do not think Augustine and Aquinas’ ideas cohere with Christian theology; the notion of deprivation or “non-life” makes a lot more sense given the Zoroastrian belief in the “twin spirits.” Christians have long recognized the appeal of this solution, augmenting Satan’s power to the point of near-omnipotence. On some accounts, he can read minds or predict the future. Martin Luther King Jr., communicating a line of Christian thinking, conveyed the idea of “demonic imitation” in where religions like Zoroastrianism, along with its belief in saoshyants born of virgins, were meant to deceive people and lure them away from Christianity (Jr. King, Martin Luther. “The Influence of the Mystery Religions on Christianity”. Stanford University. 29 Nov 1949. Web.). Christianity does not bestow this level of power on its greatest evil. Zoroastrianism, on the other hand, does acknowledge that Angra Mainyu is maximally evil. Zoroastrianism’s solution is provocative though it entails henotheism or even polytheism. Either way, it is a welcome retreat from the Christian monopoly, a viable way to get out from under Christianity’s long shadow in the philosophy of religion.
By R.N. Carmona
The Problem of Evil, as normally construed, needs to be reframed in order to be discussed more generally in the philosophy of religion. When one thinks of the problem, one thinks about the incongruity between the evil and suffering we observe in the world and the idea of a perfectly benevolent deity. In issues of dissonance, the simplest solution is to identify which one of your beliefs is causing the issue. While it is possible that both conflicting beliefs can be wrong, sometimes it is that one is the case while the other is not. Christians might not allow for the radical solution I am going to offer by way of Buddhism, but it is a viable solution nonetheless. Buddhism is a godless religion and as such, one accomplishes reframing the problem by removing one of the elements causing tension. In this particular case, we simply remove the belief in a perfectly good god. What we are then left with is the fact that evil and suffering abound in our world, which is a problem all its own.
What does Buddhism have to say about evil and suffering? What answers might it give us to start mitigating an issue that affects us all? I think that Buddhism will accomplish something in the philosophy of religion that Christianity has not. Not only will it solve the Problem of Evil, but it will redistribute it, as it were, into the real world where it belongs. This is not to say that Christians do nothing to address evil and suffering, but every hour spent on batting around the tired literature surrounding the Problem of Evil is time not spent addressing the actual problem. As we will see later in this series, beliefs about a god serving as deus ex machina and renewing this degenerated existence predate Christianity and Islam. In other words, people have had similar beliefs for thousands of years, convinced that the restoration of the Earth and humankind to a state without blemish would certainly happen within their lifetimes. Thousands of years have gone by and we are still plagued by many of the same issues that they encountered. The solutions that Buddhism will offer will place the responsibility of solving the problem of evil and suffering squarely on our shoulders. There is no god out there waiting for the opportune time to regenerate all of existence. Buddhism makes the problem our problem and takes it out of the hands of philosophers that prefer argument to action.
Buddhism’s Definition of Evil and Suffering
In Buddhism, suffering is the subject of the Four Noble Truths:
- Dukha: There is suffering because we experience a great deal of disappointment in life. Illness and injury are obvious causes of suffering, but even when we do not find our leg in a cast or have to deal with the death of a loved one, we still lack fulfillment and desire more than we currently have. In the Western sense of thinking, we seldom stop to count our blessings.
- Samudāya: Suffering is rooted in craving (tanhā). Greed, ignorance, and hatred, generally speaking, define our addictions.
- Nirodha: To cease suffering, one need only detach oneself from addictions. Detachment is a concept ripe for philosophical exploration, aside from the subject matter currently in focus.
- Magga: The way through which we can end both our own suffering and the suffering of others. This is inhered in the Eightfold Path.
The Eightfold Path to end suffering is as follows:
- Right Understanding – Sammā ditthi: To live by the Buddha’s teachings, not in the Western, submissive sense, but approaching even his teachings with skepticism and discretion
- Right Intention – Sammā san̄kappa: To learn to assess one’s motives and intentions and being sure to see things clearly, without prejudices and assumptions
- Right Speech – Sammā vācā: To speak the truth and to shun destructive lying. This would also require one to avoid gossiping, slandering, and insulting others
- Right Action – Sammā kammanta: To live in harmony with all living things; this entails a commitment to not cause harm, especially killing
- Right Livelihood – Sammā ājīva: To earn a living without exploiting other people or causing harm. This would entail not selling potentially harmful paraphernalia or products
- Right Effort – Sammā vāyāma: To maintain positive states of mind. This involves keeping oneself from thinking in terms of violence, revenge, and so on
- Right Mindfulness – Sammā sati: To be keenly aware of your thoughts, emotions, and any of the body’s corresponding sensations as it pertains to destructive emotions like anger but also positive feelings like pleasure
- Right Concentration – Sammā samādhi: To cultivate the focus necessary to make this deeper awareness of oneself possible
Of interest is Buddhism’s non-duality; Buddhists do not think of evil and suffering the way most of us do in the West. For us, when we think of evil, we think of the psychopathic serial killer. When we think of suffering, we imagine perhaps a homeless person or someone who is terminally ill laying in a hospital bed. We do not realize that the same sources give rise to both evil and suffering. This is not to merely state that an evil person causes the suffering of another person. That is stating the obvious. Rather, it is to say that greed (the rooster), ignorance (the pig), and hatred (the snake) give rise to evil and suffering within the same individual. The same reasons leading a person to be characterized as evil also result in his own suffering. As Kyokai states: “Greed rises from wrong ideas of satisfaction; anger rises from wrong ideas concerning the state of one’s affairs and surroundings; foolishness rises from the inability to judge what correct conduct is” (Kyokai, Bukkyo Dendo. The Teaching of Buddha. 162. Print). Mark Epstein elaborates:
When we refuse to acknowledge the presence of unwanted feelings, we are as bound to them as when we give ourselves over to them indignantly and self-righteously. Religion has traditionally counseled believers to withdraw from aggressive, erotic, or egotistical states of mind, replacing them with the “purer” states of devotion, humility, and piety. Psychoanalysis has encouraged its adherents to be less fearful of these emotions, to understand their roots and recover the energy that has been lost through the failure to accept primitive urges or longings. Buddhism, alone among the world’s religions, has taken a characteristically middle path, recognizing the need to be free from destructive emotions while at the same time seeing that such freedom comes through nonjudgmental awareness of just those emotions we seek freedom from.Epstein, Mark. Thoughts Without A Thinker: Psychotherapy From A Buddhist Perspective. New York: Perseus Books Group, 1995. 24. Print
Buddhism, therefore, does not relocate evil in others. Unlike other religions, it does not paint the worst of men as monsters or as influenced or even possessed by evil entities. Buddhism, first and foremost, identifies a propensity for evil in you. It also identifies the source of suffering in you. This is a good start because it allows us, in the main, to keep ourselves from slipping into behavioral patterns that result in suffering or evil. Of course, the larger issues are still unanswered. There is a great deal of suffering to address, not only in humans, but in animals as well. Buddhism should offer a way to address the wider evil and suffering in the world: political corruption, poverty, genocide, war, and so on. This is, after all, what people have looked to gods to address, so we are left with a staggeringly massive problem once we remove a perfectly good god from equation; evil and suffering are suddenly the literal weight of the world on our shoulders. It is likely that because these issues are so intimidating and have a way of making us feel insignificant and small, we find solace in the idea that something greater and more powerful than ourselves will eventually rescue us. Like children, who make a mess of their rooms knowing their parents will clean up after them, we have made a mess of our planet and look to a celestial father figure to bail us out. It is time now to reckon with the fact that we are adults; we are on our own and this is entirely our problem to fix.
Predictably, then, if Buddhism identifies evil and suffering in us, then it also identifies the solution in us. This is Buddhism’s greatest insight with respect to evil and suffering. Epstein states:
Yet, one of the most compelling things about the Buddhist view of suffering is the notion, inherent in the Wheel of Life image, that the causes of suffering are also the means of release; that is, the sufferer’s perspective determines whether a given realm is a vehicle for awakening or for bondage. Conditioned by the forces of attachment, aversion, and delusion, our faulty perceptions of the realms—not the realms themselves—cause suffering.Ibid., 16
Briefly, the Wheel of Life is comprised of the Six Realms of Saṃsāra. Below is an image to help visualize what is inhered in each realm:
Prior to assuming a panoramic view, Buddhism’s view on animals is crucial. Recall stages three thru five of the Eightfold Path: Right Speech, Right Action, and Right Livelihood. These stages concern Buddhist ethical conduct (śīla). One of Buddhism’s precepts is ahiṃsā (non-violence). Bronwyn Finnigan, Senior Lecturer in the School of Philosophy at the Australian National University, outlines several arguments that extends ahiṃsā to animals. He states: “Since killing and harming animals causes suffering, and since suffering is intrinsically bad and should be prevented, it follows that one should not kill or harm animals” (Finnigan, Bronwyn. Buddhism and the moral status of animals. ABC Religions and Ethics. 21 Nov 2018. Web.). He also remarks: “I do not desire to suffer. If I were killed that would cause me to suffer. Animals are like me in not desiring to suffer. Killing animals causes them to suffer. So, I should not kill animals“; “Psychological states exist but no selves who own those states. If suffering should be removed, given some interest, then all sufferings should be removed, given some interest. Killing and harming animals causes them to suffer. Animals have an interest not to suffer. So, we should not kill or harm animals“; “Not killing or harming animals is a way to cultivate compassion. One should be compassionate. So, one should not kill or harm animals” (Ibid.). One of Finnigan’s four arguments must resonate with everyone. As a neo-Kantian, his second argument is the most compelling. In other words, since animals are like me, in that there is nothing that makes me special or superior to them as Western religions posit, they do not desire to suffer. It follows, therefore, that I should not harm or kill animals. Pursuing animal rights is too tangential for our current purposes, but Christine Korsgaard has an excellent take on this issue (Korsgaard, Christine M. 2011. “Interacting with Animals: A Kantian Account.” In The Oxford Handbook of Animal Ethics, ed. Tom L. Beauchamp and R. G. Frey, 91-118. Oxford: Oxford University Press.).
Now, to assume a bird’s-eye view. What are we to do about all the suffering and evil in the world? If we set aside the historical missteps some Buddhists have taken, e.g. the manner in which some have embraced violence, and try to imagine, instead of a Judeo-Christian-Islamic world, a Buddhist world, would the Eightfold Path solve the real problem of suffering and evil? If we all acquired a deep awareness of our cravings and subsequent addictions; if we all agreed to stop harming and killing others; if we all agreed to stop insulting one another and gossiping; if we all designed to meditate and unravel latent traumas; if we all studied the teachings of Buddha, building upon his initial ideas, do we now find ourselves in a better world? The greatest conceivable human being can be anyone of us, but, to my mind, there is no greater modern exemplary than the Dalai Lama. Boris-Dunchunstang recalls his story:
It was during the early morning hours of February 4, 1997, when three monks who were sleeping a few hundred yards from my living quarters were stabbed to death. They were cut up in a fashion that resembled an exorcism. One of the monks was my dearest friend and confidant, seventy-year-old Lobsang Gyatso. He was found dead in bed. Two younger monks, Ngawang Lodoe and my Chinese-language interpreter, Lobsang Ngawan, had been stabbed fifteen to twenty times, leaving the walls of the small monks’ chamber splattered with blood. I suspect there could have been five to eight attackers. The murderers were sending a very clear message to me.Boris-Dunchunstang, Eileen R. Finding Forgiveness. New York: McGraw Hill, 2006. 60-61. Print.
The Dalai Lama’s response to this tragedy is not what one would expect. He did not seek retribution or vengeance. He analyzed his initial shock and ensuing anger, and ultimately resolved to forgive the assailants. “Forgiveness is about healing suffering for ourselves and others. Until we develop compassion within ourselves and a concern about the welfare of others, we cannot truly forgive” (Ibid., 63). Massive problems like evil and suffering, and everything they entail, require an even greater solution. This, for much of Western civilization, we have imagined to be God. The solution, however, stares back at us every time we look in the mirror.
Buddhism’s solution to the Problem of Evil is to remove gods from the equation and reestablish humanity as both the cause and end of its own suffering. Mbembe, speaking of larger structural forces, invokes the ancient Greek idea that is inherent in the Buddhist definition of suffering:
The vast movement of repopulation of the world inaugurated at the edge of modern times ended in a massive “taking of lands” (colonization) on a scale and using technologies never before seen in the history of humanity. Far from leading democracy’s spread across the planet, the race for new lands opened onto a new law (nomos) of the Earth, the main characteristics of which was to establish war and race as history’s two privileged sacraments. The sacramentalization of war and race in the blast furnace of colonialism made it at once modernity’s antidote and poison, its twofold pharmakon.Mbembe, Achille. Necro-Politics. London: Duke University Press, 2019. 6 Print.
Humanity’s overall addiction can be summed up in the idea of pharmakon. Freud recognized that inherent in desire is dissatisfaction. This is most obvious in destructive addictions like drug and alcohol addiction. When a person gets their fix, they are on cloud nine, immensely satisfied, but the use of narcotics already implies abuse. The fix results in withdrawal and then withdrawal leads to further craving. This applies to money, the things money can buy, sex, power, influence, and so on. Not content with a few thousand followers, the social media influencer desires hundreds of thousands and then millions. There is always this idea in us that there are more steps on the ladder, higher plateaus to reach. Our suffering is already entailed in the deep disappointment we will feel when we fail to reach a goal. When you add layers to one’s ambition involving exploitation, violence, greed, corruption, hatred, and so on, one starts to see how most of the world’s suffering is due to craving becoming addiction and addiction becoming a disregard for the people one knowingly harms and an ignorance of anyone who suffers collateral damage. The Western addiction of colonialism, in America, followed by the institution of its twisted idea of Democracy, is the pharmakon at the root of suffering the world over. America is precisely like The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas, difference being that the suffering of one chid is compounded as the suffering of many children.
It is more probable that the suffering and evil we see in the world is because half of the world population persists under the delusion that the world is supposed to be degenerate. This is par for the course, all a prelude for the second advent of Christ, for instance. While that has not stopped Christians in the West from taking action against suffering and evil in the world, they all believe that there is no ultimate solution that humans, on their own, can implement. They continue to believe that the world will remain in a degenerate state despite our collective efforts. Buddhism does better in this respect, returning all power to humanity, and imbuing us, once again, with the god-like power we continue to identify in our own species. We are the source of our own suffering. Specifically, our lack of self-awareness and our lack of compassion for other people has us in this predicament. What’s worse is that now there are forces much larger than any one person at play and it is required for us to topple these idols before we can renew human civilization: American Democracy, racism, colonialism, Capitalism, and all the greed, corruption, and human rights abuses that flow from them. These are evils that we ourselves have cultivated and evils that perpetuate a bulk of the world’s suffering.
What that leaves, then, is disease, natural disasters, and all manner of suffering that is outside of our control. Inherent in Buddhism, as the Dalai Lama identified, is that these things will happen and they will pass. People we love will die of disease or in a natural disaster. There is no finger to point in this case, no one we can blame. But as it is with anger, jealousy, pleasure, and so on, we have to develop a deeper awareness of our mourning and find a way to work through it. Buddhism has a larger, less naturalistic framework, that is capable of addressing existential crises like the loss of a loved one, e.g. the cycle of death and rebirth (saṃsāra).
Ultimately, Buddhism offers much in the way of a solution for the Problem of Evil. To reiterate, it relieves the cause of tension, namely the belief in a perfectly good deus ex machina that will eventually restore the Earth from its current degeneracy. Buddhism then identifies the true source of evil and suffering, which also happens to be the solution to our suffering; humankind, in other words, is like the notion of pharmakon, both its own poison and antidote. In recognition of this truth, Buddhism then offers us a path to release our cravings and end our own suffering: wisdom (pāli), ethics (śīla), and meditation (bhāvanā). Most importantly, Buddhism gives us the potential to finally stop arguing about the Problem of Evil in the philosophy of religion and turn our attention to the actual problem of evil and suffering in our world. The restoration of our degenerate world rests on our shoulders. Aside from solving a longstanding problem in the philosophy of religion, Buddhism provides a prescription to solve the problem at large. This is the kind of solution we should all get behind.