By R.N. Carmona
This will likely be as close as it gets to a personal post from me. I recently tested positive for COVID-19. At the moment, I do not know whether I am still positive. I will be getting another test on Wednesday. My hope is that I can go back to business as usual. I need to work; bills have to be paid. My focus here is a new argument yes, but it goes beyond that as we will see. Rather than the string of symptoms I have encountered, I want to focus on the mental aspects of my experience.
I have two lovely children that I have not been able to hug for almost six days now. I have not been able to kiss them. I have not been able to show any affection to anyone I love. I have not been able to receive any affection either. Because of this, I have been dealing with a lot of loneliness.
My father, who passed away in 2017, although no longer the voice of my conscience, is someone I think of often. I miss him dearly. His lessons still weigh on me and not a day goes by without me thinking whether he would be proud of the man I am today. One of the lessons that I consistently observe is to not get in the habit of letting myopia set in. In other words, yes, I tested positive and I am dealing with symptoms, on top of anxiety, loneliness, and grappling with questions about my mortality; however, other people have had it much worse. It is these people this argument has in mind.
I can easily imagine waking up last Thursday morning at 3am to the same cold sweat and terror I felt. Moreover, I can imagine the object of my terror turning out to be my experience. My mind was racing. I asked, what if I get pneumonia? What if I have to be intubated? What if there is an underlying issue that will pull the rug from under me? In all of this, I could not turn to a loved one. I needed a hug but could not get one. I needed someone to sit close to me and help me relax. Turning to a loved one at this time would put them at risk, so I had no such option.
Over the past few days, my symptoms have gotten progressively better. I am not a priori grateful. My gratitude is after the fact. I am grateful that I will probably have more days with my loved ones. I am seeing the light at the end. Soon I will be able to give my kids a warm embrace. I will be able to feel them in my arms again. My life has, for now, been prolonged and I can be a father to them. But the thought has occurred to me: what if my symptoms got progressively worse? I have not been able to show or receive affection for six days; six days could easily have been 15 to 30, or however long a hospital stay would have lasted.
Then it dawned on me. For many people, including Christians, this was their exact experience. They were isolated at home, probably hoping to be better within a few to several days; the Christians, no doubt, prayed to God for healing, to keep them company in their time of isolation and loneliness. For many of them, the prayers fell on deaf ears. Their symptoms got much worse, many developing life-threatening pneumonia. They were rushed to ICUs and intubated where they would spend more time away from their loved ones. The lucky ones, got back to their families. The Christians, thankful to God, were happy to be back with their families. But what of the people who had not embraced their loved ones for a month and never regained consciousness? What of the people who passed away? Where was God? Where was his comfort when they prayed? Where was his omnipotent power, fully capable of delivering them from a virus some of them did everything in their power to prevent? Why didn’t God answer?
I cannot imagine being my daughter, at an age where my affection can get annoying but also at an age where they are able to appreciate my love. I cannot imagine the fear they would feel seeing me stretchered out the door, to hear news that I had to be intubated, to have to wrestle with the idea that daddy won’t be coming home. They are at an age where losing a parent will be a lucid memory, an enduring pain, a massive loss. This would shape my daughter for the rest of their life. While I am grateful that they will likely not endure this pain, I think of the children who have. Good parents are not replaceable. I do not care if they are a Christian parent and while I am firm in my belief that they teach their children erred beliefs, I know that there are Christian parents who provide for their children, love them deeply, take care of their emotions, protect them, nurture them, and help them grow. I cannot imagine the pain of being orphaned in this way, especially when believing that God has all the power, mercy, and love to ensure that such suffering does not happen.
This is when one hears the old adage that sometimes God puts us through things so that we can better relate to people who go through similar experiences. I ask, how many people have to endure the same experience so that we can better relate to others? It was enough for me to deal with six days of this, to feel as though I was at the brink, to have more than enough time to contemplate my own fragility and mortality. It was enough to realize that others have had it worse and that for many, their story did not end the way they hoped; what’s worse is that the stories of their loved ones continue without them. For the many who survived the people we have lost, they have had to actually live through the devastation I had the privilege of merely worrying about.
We are on our own. If God existed, the extent of periods of isolation, loneliness, depression, anxiety, in addition to having horrible symptoms (in my case, losing most of my sense of smell, a fever, congestion, a loss of taste), would not be necessary to help us relate to others, i.e., soul-making theodicy. For human beings, the thoughts alone are horrifying enough. For a parent, to die too soon, to not see their children become adults, to not dance with their daughter at her Sweet 16, to not walk her down the aisle, to not attend their son’s next baseball game, and so on, the mere thoughts are terrifying enough. The thought of my absence in their life sends shivers down my spine. I do not need to experience the reality of it; I do not need to develop life-threatening symptoms and to settle on my life likely being over. More importantly, my children do not need to experience a reality in where I am dead. They do not need to see me in a suit, hands folded over my stomach, lifeless in an open casket that cost the people who survived me x amount of hundreds or thousands. They do not need to see me lowered into the ground.
Yet this was the reality many, including Christians, faced. Where was God? Where is God? The idea that God would create a social species to “test” them with periods of isolation, loneliness, anxiety, depression, and for some, suicidal thoughts, is puzzling. Especially when considering the damage these things do to people’s mental health, it is more perplexing still. Even if I granted the idea of sin, unrepentant sin is recompensed in Hell; whether eternal conscious torment or something else is for the theologians to argue over. A punishment for sin would not risk impairing someone mentally. What good is someone’s piety if they have lost their sanity?
I am not interested in formalizing this argument. I think the force of it is stronger rhetorically, written informally for readers to take in and think over. I think COVID-19, as Rieux in Camus’ The Plague conveyed about the Black Death, brings theism to its knees. A god that permits pandemics to take so many lives indiscriminately, leaving so many other lives in peril after such loss, either does not exist or is not the god theists so desperately want to exist. This is not about whether atheists/naturalists have an ontologically objective standard of evil because this argument does not focus on the existence of evil. This argument focuses on suffering, specifically mental health. If your beliefs are so biased that your first reaction is to change the topic or overlook the suffering of fellow human beings, including some of your own brethren, you may have to wonder whether you are a sociopath. Only a person with a severe lack of empathy will overlook what the last two years has looked like for our species as a whole. God is not powerful enough to replace a loving father or mother, to replace a son or a daughter.
Ultimately, I think this new angle on the Argument From Suffering is forceful and makes a powerful case against theism, but if it has not been clear, that has not really been my focus. My focus has been to humanize the experience of so many people throughout the pandemic, to get us to think about the severe pain some people are going through and have gone through over the past two years. A theist might respond that everyone will be reunited in the afterlife and while that may be comforting for some, that does nothing to change the reality some people are facing. The holidays just passed and a chair usually occupied by a loved one was empty. Somewhere in the world, a father enters his daughter’s room wishing he could kiss her goodnight and tuck her in. Elsewhere, a wife sleeps in a queen-sized bed hoping that the emptiness beside her is just a bad dream. I might be one of the lucky ones. Time will tell. But I am not taking this for granted and I am not taking it lightly. People have suffered a lot over the last two years. I mourn for them and I wish I could do more to bring them comfort.
The self-righteous will overlook this and find solace in the notion that atheism/naturalism offer no hope. At least with theism we can imagine life after death and seeing our loved ones again. In response to this, I maintain that this leads to one taking one’s short days for granted. One might as well procrastinate on affection, on spending quality time with loved ones if eternity is guaranteed. On naturalism, it is incumbent on us to be more mindful of how fleeting time is; one morning your daughter, just born, is being fed her first bottle and it feels like a blink before she’s in middle school. A defeater for this belief in an afterlife is that it allows some, if not most, believers to forgo finding ways to be there for people who are suffering; it is enough to give a person false hope and move on. A naturalist knows that more can be done and love in the present goes a longer way than a false promise in the future. If only I can sit in that empty chair next Thanksgiving and hope to remind a person of their deceased loved one; if only I can be there to wipe their tears away. People do not need the promise of comfort tomorrow; they need help today, a lot of them being suffocated by their pain at this very moment.
I’ll end with this. While your loved ones are here, hug them, let them know you love them, try to put into words why you value them so much. Belief in the afterlife is a lofty expectation that regrettably will not be met with a loftier disappointment. “Better the hard truth, I say, than the comforting fantasy.”
By R.N. Carmona
In recent years, there has been a surge in the use of Bayes’ Theorem with the intention of bolstering this or that argument. This has resulted in an abject misuse or abuse of Bayes’ Theorem as a tool. It has also resulted in an incapacity to filter out bias in the context of some debates, e.g. theism and naturalism. Participants in these debates, on all sides, betray a tendency to inflate their prior probabilities in accordance with their unmerited epistemic certainty in either a presupposition or key premise of one of their arguments. The prophylactic, to my mind, is found in a retreat to the basics of logic and reasoning.
An Overview on Validity
Validity, for instance, is more involved than some people realize. It is not enough for an argument to appear to have logical form. An analysis of whether it, in fact, has logical form is a task that is seldom undertaken. When people think of validity, something like the following comes to mind: “A deductive argument is said to be valid if and only if it takes a form that makes it impossible for the premises to be true and the conclusion nevertheless to be false. Otherwise, a deductive argument is said to be invalid” (NA. Validity and Soundness. Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. ND. Web.).
Kelley, however, gives us rules to go by:
- In a valid syllogism, the middle term must be distributed in at least one of the premises
- If either of the terms in the conclusion is distributed, it must be distributed in the premise in which it occurs
- No valid syllogism can have two negative premises
- If either premise of a valid syllogism is negative, the conclusion must be negative; and if the conclusion is negative, one premise must be negative
- If the conclusion is particular, one premise must be particular (Kelley, D.. The Art of Reasoning. WW Norton & Co. 2013. Print. 243-249)
With respect to the first rule, any argument that does not adhere to it commits the fallacy of undistributed middle. Logically, if we take Modus Ponens to be a substitute for a hypothetical syllogism, then undistributed middle is akin to affirming the consequent. Consider the following invalid form:
All P are Q.
All R are P.
∴ All R are Q.
When affirming the consequent, one is saying Q ⊃ P. It is not surprising that these two fallacies are so closely related because both are illegitimate transformations of valid argument forms. We want to say that since all P are Q and all R are P, therefore all R are Q in much the same way we want to infer that P ⊃ Q. Consider the well-known Kalam Cosmological Argument. No one on both sides questions the validity of the argument because validity, for many of us, is met when the conclusion follows from the premises. However, one can ask whether the argument adheres to Kelley’s rules. If one were to analyze the argument closely enough, it is very arguable that the argument violates Kelley’s fourth rule. The issue is that it takes transposing from the fifth rule to fourth rule because the argument does not violate the fifth and therefore, appears valid. However, when restated under the fourth rule, the problem becomes obvious. In other words, the universe is a particular in both Craig’s conclusion and in the second premise of his argument. Let’s consider the KCA restated under the fourth rule:
There are no things that are uncaused.
There is no universe that is uncaused.
∴ All universes have a cause.
Restating it this way appears controversial only because the argument seems to presuppose that there is more than one universe. Two negatives must have properties in common. Put another way, since there are many of all things, then the universe cannot be the only thing of its kind, if we even agree that the universe is like ordinary entities at all. Craig, perhaps unintentionally, attempts to get a universal from a particular, as his argument restated under the fourth rule shows. Given this, we come to the startling conclusion that Craig’s KCA is invalid. Analyses of this kind are extremely rare in debates because most participants do not know or have forgotten the rules of validity. No amount of complexity hides a violation of basic principles. The advent of analytic philosophy with Bertrand and Moore led to an increasing complexity in arguments and for the most part, validity is respected. As shown here, this is not always the case, so a cursory analysis should always be done at the start.
Validity is necessary but not sufficient for an argument to prove effective and persuasive. This is why arguments themselves cannot substitute for or amount to evidence. Soundness is determined by taking a full account of the evidence with respect to the argument. The soundness of an argument is established given that the pertinent evidence supports it; otherwise, the argument is unsound. Let us turn to some simple examples to start.
An Overview of Soundness
“A deductive argument is sound if and only if it is both valid, and all of its premises are actually true. Otherwise, a deductive argument is unsound” (Ibid.).
All ducks are birds.
Larry is a duck.
∴ Larry is a bird.
This argument is stated under Kelley’s fifth rule and is no doubt valid. Now, whether or not the argument is sound will have us looking for external verification. We might say that, a priori, we know that there are no ducks that are not birds. By definition, a duck is a kind of bird. All well and good. There is still the question of whether there is a duck named Larry. This is also setting aside the legitimacy of a priori knowledge because, to my mind, normal cognitive function is necessary to apprehend human languages and to comprehend the litany of predicates that follow from these languages. We know that ducks are birds a posteriori, but on this point I digress. Consider, instead, the following argument.
All ducks are mammals.
Larry is a duck.
∴ Larry is a mammal.
This argument, like the previous one, is valid and in accordance with Kelley’s fifth rule. However, it is unsound. This harkens back to the notion that ducks belonging to the domain of birds is not a piece of a priori knowledge. Despite knowing that all ducks are birds, the differences between birds and mammals are not at all obvious. That is perhaps the underlying issue, a question of how identity is arrived at, in particular the failure of the essentialist program to capture what a thing is. The differentialist program would have us identify a thing by pinning down what it is not. It follows that we know ducks are birds because anatomically and genetically, ducks do not have the signatures of mammals or any other phylum for that matter. A deeper knowledge of taxonomy is required to firmly establish that ducks are, in fact, birds.
An exploration of soundness is much more challenging when analyzing metaphysically laden premises. Consider, for example, the second premise of the KCA: “The universe began to exist.” What exactly does it mean for anything to begin to exist? This question has posed more problems than solutions in the literature; for our purposes, it is not necessary to summarize that here. We can say of a Vizio 50-inch plasma screen television that it began to exist in some warehouse; in other words, there is a given point in time where a functioning television was manufactured and sold to someone. The start of a living organism’s life is also relatively easy to identify. However, mapping these intuitions onto the universe gets us nowhere because as I alluded to earlier, the universe is unlike ordinary entities. This is why the KCA has not been able to escape the charge of fallacy of composition. All ordinary entities we know of, from chairs to cars to elephants to human beings exist within the universe. They are, as it were, the parts that comprise the universe. It does not follow that because it is probable that all ordinary things begin to exist that the universe must have begun to exist.
This is a perfect segue into probability. Again, since Bayes’ Theorem is admittedly complex and not something that is easily handled even by skilled analytic philosophers, a return to the basics is in order. I will assume that the rule of distribution applies to basic arguments; this will turn out to be fairer to all arguments because treating premises as distinct events greatly reduces the chances of a given argument being true. I will demonstrate how this filters out bias in our arguments and imposes on us the need to strictly analyze arguments.
Using Basic Probability to Assess Arguments
Let us state the KCA plainly:
Everything that begins to exist has a cause for its existence.
The universe began to exist.
∴ The universe has a cause for its existence.
As aforementioned, the first premise of the KCA is metaphysically laden. It is, at best, indeterminable because it is an inductive premise; all it takes is just one entity within the universe to throw the entire argument into the fire. To be fair, we can only assign a probability of .5 for this argument being true. We can then use distribution to get the probability of the argument being sound, so since we have a .5 probability of the first premise being sound, and given that we accept that the argument is not in violation of Kelley’s rules, we can therefore distribute this probability across one other premise and arrive at the conclusion that the argument has a 50% chance of being true.
This is preferable to treating each premise as an isolated event; I am being charitable to all arguers by assuming they have properly distributed their middles. Despite this, a slightly different convention might have to be adopted to assess the initial probability of an argument with multiple premises. An argument with six individual premises has a 1.56% chance of being true, i.e. .5^6. This convention would be adopted because we want a probability between 0 and 100. If we use the same convention used for simpler arguments with less premises, then an argument with six premises would have a 300% chance of being true. An arguer can then arbitrarily increase the amount of premises in his argument to boost the probability of his argument being true. Intuitively, an argument with multiple premises has a greater chance of being false; the second convention, at least, shows this while the first clearly does not. The jury is still out on whether the second convention is fair enough to more complex arguments. There is still the option of following standard practice and isolating an individual premise to see if it holds up to scrutiny. Probabilities do not need to be used uniformly; they should be used to make clear our collective epistemic uncertainty about something, i.e., to filter out dogma.
Let us recall my negation strategy and offer the anti-Kalam:
Everything that begins to exist has a cause for its existence.
The universe did not begin to exist.
∴ The universe does not have a cause.
Despite my naturalistic/atheistic leanings, the probability of my argument is also .5 because Craig and I share premise 1. The distribution of that probability into the next premise does not change because my second premise is a negation of his second premise. In one simple demonstration, it should become obvious why using basic probabilities is preferable over the use of Bayes’ Theorem. No matter one’s motivations or biases, one cannot grossly overstate priors or assign a probability much higher than .5 for metaphysically laden premises that are not easily established. We cannot even begin to apply the notion of a priori knowledge to the first premise of the KCA. We can take Larry being a bird as obvious, but we cannot take as obvious that the universe, like all things within it, began to exist and therefore, has a cause.
Now, a final question remains: how exactly does the probability of an argument being sound increase? Probability increases in accordance with the evidence. For the KCA to prove sound, a full exploration of evidence from cosmology is needed. A proponent of the KCA cannot dismiss four-dimensional black holes, white holes, a cyclic universe, eternal inflation, and any theory not in keeping with his predilections. That being the case, his argument becomes one based on presupposition and is therefore, circular. A full account of the evidence available in cosmology actually cuts sharply against the arteries of the KCA and therefore, greatly reduces the probability of it being sound. Conversely, it increases the probability of an argument like the Anti-Kalam being true. The use of basic probability is so parsimonious that the percentage decrease of the Kalam being sound mirrors the percentage increase of the Anti-Kalam being sound. In other words, the percentage decrease of any argument proving sound mirrors the percentage increase of its alternative(s) proving true. So if a full account of cosmological evidence lowers the probability of the Kalam being sound by 60%, the Anti-Kalam’s probability of being true increases by 60%. In other words, the Kalam would now have a 20% probability of being true while its opposite would now have an 80% of being true.
Then, if a Bayesian theorist is not yet satisfied, he can keep all priors neutral and plug in probabilities that were fairly assessed to compare a target argument to its alternatives. Even more to the point regarding fairness, rather than making a favored argument the target of analysis, the Bayesian theorist can make an opponent’s argument the target of analysis. It would follow that their opponent’s favored argument has a low probability of being true, given a more basic analysis that filters out bias and a systematic heuristic like the one I have offered. It is free of human emotion or more accurately, devotion to any given dogma. It also further qualifies the significance of taking evidence seriously. This also lends much credence to the conclusion that arguments themselves are not evidence. If that were the case, logically valid and unsound arguments would be admissible as evidence. How would we be able to determine whether one argument or another is true if the arguments themselves serve as evidence? We would essentially regard arguments as self-evident or tautologous. They would be presuppositionalist in nature and viciously circular. All beliefs would be equal. This, thankfully, is not the case.
Ultimately, my interest here has been a brief exploration into a fairer way to assess competing arguments. All of this stems from a deep disappointment in the abuse of Bayes’ Theorem; everyone is inflating their priors and no progress will be made if that continues to be permitted. A more detailed overview of Bayes’ Theorem is not necessary for such purposes and would likely scare away even some readers versed in analytic philosophy and more advanced logic. My interest, as always, is in communicating philosophy to the uninitiated in a way that is approachable and intelligible. At any rate, a return to the basics should be in order. Arguments should continue to be assessed; validity and soundness must be met. Where soundness proves difficult to come by, a fair initial probability must be applied to all arguments. Then, all pertinent evidence must be accounted for and the consequences the evidence presents for a given argument must be absorbed and accepted. Where amending of the argument is possible, the argument should be restructured, to the best of the arguer’s ability, in a way that demonstrates recognition of what the evidence entails. This may sound like a lot to ask, but the pursuit of truth is an arduous journey, not an easy endeavor by any stretch. Anyone who takes the pursuit seriously would go to great lengths to increase the epistemic certainty of his views. All else is folly.
Skeptical Theism is overtly present in Plantinga’s Ignorance Defense. It must be noted here that he does not call it that. The monicker makes sense because it relies on human ignorance in order to work. In other words, the defense states that since human wisdom is incomparable to God’s, we cannot know why he allows evil. Moreover, since it is reasonable that he has some reason, unbeknownst to us, for allowing evil, we cannot reasonably blame God for the evil in the world. Of Plantinga’s explications, Kai Nielsen says the following:
Plantinga grants that, as far as we can see, there are many cases of evil that are apparently pointless. Indeed there are many cases of such evils where we have no idea at all what reason God (if there is such a person) could have for permitting such evils. But, Plantinga remarks, from granting these things it does not follow that “an omnipotent and omniscient God, if he existed, would not have a reason for permitting them” (Plantinga 1993, 400). From the fact that we can see no reason at all for God to permit evils, we cannot legitimately infer that God has no reason to allow such evils. It is not just, Plantinga continues, “obvious or apparent that God could have reason for permitting them. The most we can sensibly say is that we can’t think of any good reason why he would permit them” (Plantinga 1993, 400)Plantinga, Alvin. God, Freedom and Evil. New York: Harper & Row, 1974. 58. Print.
This, in a nutshell, is the Ignorance Defense. Humans are, in other words, ignorant of God’s will and our wisdom pales in comparison to his. Nielsen’s contention, however, has the makings of a perfect defeater. All that is needed is to see his objection from the point of view of one of God’s attributes. Nielsen states that “it looks more like, if he exists and is all powerful and all knowing, that then he more likely to be evil” and adds that “we see that all the same he might possibly be, as Jewish, Christian, and Islamic religions say he is, perfectly good. But we cannot see that he is. The Mosaic God looks, to understate it, petty, unjust, and cruel to us” (Ibid.). This defeater is perfected if we see this from the point of view of God’s omniscience. God would know that we would be incapable of seeing that he is good in light of natural evil. This evil is, in fact, gratuitous. God would have seen, by way of his omniscience, that the quantity of natural evil in the world would be enough to drive so many to doubt. This apart from contradictory revelations, the limited range and capacity of Christianity, i.e., its incapacity to appeal to people of other cultures, e.g., Jews, Muslims, Hindus, and indigenous people across every populated continent, and the negative evidence against the existence of the Judeo-Christian god.
We are then asked “to stick with a belief in what we see to be some kind of possibility, namely that God is, after all, appearances to the contrary notwithstanding, perfectly good” (Ibid.). This as an obstinate appeal to the very faith that needs to be substantiated. Furthermore, this appears to imply the superiority of faith over reason. Like Galileo, who no doubt said this with a different sentiment, I “do not feel obliged to believe that same God who endowed us with sense, reason, and intellect had intended for us to forgo their use” (Galilei, Galileo, “Letter to the Grand Duchess Christina of Tuscany, 1615” (2013). Instructional Resources. 97.).
For a clearer explication of skeptical theism, McBrayer offers:
Skeptical theism is the view that God exists but that we should be skeptical of our ability to discern God’s reasons for acting or refraining from acting in any particular instance. In particular, says the skeptical theist, we should not grant that our inability to think of a good reason for doing or allowing something is indicative of whether or not God might have a good reason for doing or allowing something. If there is a God, he knows much more than we do about the relevant facts, and thus it would not be surprising at all if he has reasons for doing or allowing something that we cannot fathom.McBrayer, Justin P. “Skeptical Theism”. Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Web.
This matches Plantinga’s Ignorance Defense one-to-one. There is therefore, no need to belabor the point. My concern is twofold: the failure of skeptical theism should be clear and since this appeal to human ignorance is an obstinate roadblock borne of a reluctance to accept an atheistic conclusion, it is crucial to develop arguments that make use of its faulty intuition and arguments that leave no room for a skeptical theistic response. In other words, if the intuition can be turned on its head, in a perfect example of how to employ the double standard and outsider tests (see Galef, Julia. The Scout Mindset: Why Some People See Things Clearly and Others Don’t. New York: Portfolio, 2021. 63-66. Print), perhaps the theist is not in a position to see the vast shortcomings of skeptical theism. This is what I want to do because I am at a loss when it comes to understanding why anyone would think such a response works when confronting The Evidential Problem of Evil and Schellenberg’s Divine Hiddenness Argument. For our purposes, I will set aside stating explicitly The Evidential Problem of Evil, as I think it is unnecessary review for the initiated. Schellenberg’s Divine Hiddenness Argument, on the other hand, is not as familiar, even to the thoroughly initiated. Thankfully, Veronika Weidner has explicitly stated the argument accurately:
(1) Necessarily, if God exists, then God is a personal perfect being.
(2) Necessarily, if God is a personal perfect being, then God always loves all human beings perfectly.
(3) Necessarily, if God always loves all human beings perfectly, then God is always open to be in a personal relationship with all those human beings capable of such a relationship with God.
(4) Necessarily, if God is always open to be in a personal relationship with all those human beings capable of such a relationship with God, then God does or omits nothing which would prevent all those human beings to relate to God personally who are capable of a personal relationship with God and also not resistant to a personal relationship with God.
(5) Necessarily, a human being capable of a personal relationship with God who is not resistant to a personal relationship with God is only able to relate to God personally if she believes that God exists.
(6) Necessarily, if God does or omits nothing which would prevent all those human beings to relate to God personally who are capable of a personal relationship with God and also not resistant to a personal relationship with God, then it is not the case that there is a human being capable of a personal relationship with God who is not resistant to a personal relationship with God and yet not able to relate to God personally because she does not believe that God exists.
(7) There is at least one human being capable of a personal relationship with God who is not resistant to a personal relationship with God and yet not able to relate to God personally because she does not believe that God exists.
(8) Therefore, God does not exist. (see Schellenberg, 2015b: 24–25)Weidner, Veronika. Divine Hiddenness. Cambridge University Press, 2021. Web.
Prior to discussing Schellenberg’s argument in some detail, it is crucial to understand why skeptical theism fails:
A) Even if we grant that unforeseen goods balance the scales, as it were, i.e. justifies the 1,800 cancer-related deaths of children per year in the United States, there is no way for finite human minds to causally connect these deaths with the goods whenever they arrive; the most we can do is callously reason that their deaths are akin to necessary sacrifices that enable us to eventually find a cure—which is related to minor problem (a) below and more importantly, is not something we should ever give God credit for; developing cures is a slow, painstaking process that does not involve anything like putative revelation or God whispering the secrets to a much needed vaccine in a doctor’s ear. There is also the issue that the goods may arrive well after our lifetimes, which segues into the next problem.
B) On exclusivism, many of today’s atheists are eternally lost because evil and hiddenness were just too persuasive and the goods never came due within our lifetimes. On universalism, this is all arbitrary. This can be conjoined to Street’s recent response to skeptical theism: we are free to indulge moral aporia because no matter what we believe or not, we will ultimately be saved (see Street, S. (2014). If everything happens for a reason, then we don’t know what reasons are: Why the price of theism is normative skepticism. In M. Bergmann & P. Kain (Eds.), Challenges to moral and religious belief: Disagreement and evolution (pp. 172–192). Oxford: Oxford University Press.). So talk of evil and hiddenness and unknown goods to account for them ends up being null.
I have a sneaking suspicion that theists feel the gnaw of these defeaters. Atheists certainly do. This then becomes an exercise of being overly charitable to a kind of argument that can never prove successful. If skeptical theism fails, it is a thread that should be cut and discarded. There are a couple of minor problems that are important as well:
a) It is utilitarian in its analysis. The evil and hiddenness we experience are lesser in magnitude when compared to the goods that await us, be it in heaven or by way of some earthly recompense. The greater good overtones are palpable. I cannot see how a being who is appealed to as the objective and perfect moral standard can subscribe to utilitarianism given its shortcomings.
b) It begs the question because it really is no different from someone saying “just wait and see!” Many people on all sides died waiting and seeing and per Schellenberg, honestly sought divinity their entire lives and came up empty. If God had a better track record of making do on past atrocities, then we would be able to inductively reason, as many of us do with science, in this manner. The thing is, it looks like the bills for the Holocaust and slavery are overdue and all of us, living ~80 and ~450 years respectively, after these atrocities happened, cannot even begin to causally connect potential goods that God has deployed with the intention of paying this debt. Perhaps it is too much to expect God to pay that debt because those were human crimes; but I can also think of disasters, diseases, pandemics, mass extinctions, and other natural evils that are overdue and again, I am not sure what goods are intended to repay the extinctions of all of our hominid cousins, for example.
c) The whole accounting that is done really puts a lack of value on human life that turns out to be nihilistic and even fatalistic. The Black Plague wiped out millions. Are we really to believe any good repaid that debt? Are we supposed to buy that the life of a child, whose loss emotionally crippled her mother, is worth so little that we can just make do with the fact that some future kid was saved from danger in her place? That does nothing at all to alleviate the suffering the child and her mother experienced, so that is another issue, one of currency: what is the value of this coin God is paying his debts with and how exactly does it exchange with the coin in the sometimes distant past?
Now to turn my attention to an argument that subsumes the observations of The Evidential Problem of Evil and The Divine Hiddenness Argument. This argument is novel, forceful, and to my mind, defeats the idea of not just perfect being, omni-god theism, but theism overall. Weidner already observes the following: “After all, the hiddenness argument, if successful, helps us see the deficiencies of personal perfect being theism” (Weidner, ibid.). My next argument should help one see the deficiencies of theism in general.
Infinity Entails Supererogative Capacity
Weidner’s next stop is to grapple with the conclusion of My Argument From Assailability: “if we find in any being, a characteristic that is assailable, then we have no reason to call it a god.” How is a non-perfect theistic being different from an alien, one might ask. Crucially, if per the hiddenness and evil arguments, God does not seem open to being in a relationship with all human beings and does not intervene when great atrocities happen, then we have located an assailable characteristic. How does an omnipotent or, at least, an incredibly powerful being succumb to bystander effect? Even if God is not all-powerful and could not snap the Nazis out of existence, if he is at least powerful enough to assume a disguise and poison Hitler and his top advisers, why not step in and prevent the Holocaust?
The reason Aquinas and others maximized God to have infinite capacities in all respects is because theists already saw the crippling limitations of a god with finite abilities. The question would immediately follow: what motivation is there to worship a being that is not perfect? Infinity entails supererogative capacity. God would be able to give an infinite amount of love, kinship, succor, power, knowledge, and presence and still retain an infinite amount of each. So why does he seem to blithely refuse to commit to this? Perfect and infinite personal being theism is defeated by the combination of Schellenberg’s Divine Hiddenness Argument, The Evidential Problem of Evil, and my argument from God’s apparent lack of supererogatory agency. What is left is non-perfect being theism.
That, however, falls on the horns of my Argument From Assailability and so, Theism is defeated in all its iterations. This is to say nothing about the fact that even a finite deity would be far more capable of supererogatory acts than we are. In any case, the intuition of my supererogative argument can be turned on its head. We can deduce something about God’s power given this lack. God must be much weaker than a hypothetical infinite being due to the fact that he remains a bystander, utterly apathetic to even the worst atrocities known to man—even ones we played no part in causing. This is an assailable characteristic. We therefore, have no obligation whatsoever to worship a being that is apparently weaker than ourselves. As Tracie Harris famously said: “If I could stop a person from raping a child I would. That is the difference between me and your God” (Bennett-Smith, Meredith. “‘Atheist Experience’ TV Host Shocked By Caller’s Statement About Child Rape (Video)”. Huffington Post. 9 Jan 2013. Web). Ultimately, if God appears to be this much weaker than human beings, who can potentially lose their lives when intervening on the behalf of another person, it is far more probable that God does not exist.
Notes on Necessity
The standard contingency argument looks something like the following:
- There exists a series of events
- The series of events exists as caused and not as uncaused
- This series cannot extend infinitely into the past
- Therefore, there must exist the necessary being that is the cause of all contingent being (credit: Queens Community College)
The intuition of skeptical theism, as I made clear at the outset, can be used to cast doubt on contingency arguments across the board. Aside from the fact that there is a chasm between a necessary cause, e.g., something like the Big Bang, and a necessary being, we can assert that we should be skeptical of our ability to discern what a necessary being is. How do we know that it is one necessary being as opposed to many? If a Triune god solves the one-many problem, then why not the Divine Septad of Zoroastrianism? Since we cannot know what the realm of necessity is like, we should refrain from making these kinds of arguments.
Contingency arguments only accomplish one thing: they point to the existence of metaphysical necessities, quite possibly something like brute facts, that can be explained by something more concrete like physical necessity. In my overview of Rasmussen’s recent contingency argument, I go over what this looks like and it is more plausible than crossing the infinite chasm between a necessary cause and a necessary being on blind faith alone. In any case, since we cannot know what necessity is really like and since we cannot visit the realm of necessity, it is best we accept our ignorance on this matter. The intuition of skeptical theism undermines what many theists consider one of the stronger lines of argumentation in favor of theism.
The Argument From Phenomenal Distance
This novel argument, not to be confused with Mander’s “Does God know what it is like to be me?” (see Mander, W.J. (2002), Does God Know What It is Like to be Me?. The Heythrop Journal, 43: 430-443. https://doi.org/10.1111/1468-2265.00203) completely evades skeptical theism. It is an argument from analogy in where an observation about human behavior is mapped onto God. The argument has been alluded to before, but as far as I know, has not been formally stated or given a name.
RC*: The condition of the argument is as follows: there is a difference between the phenomenal experience of human beings and that of earthworms (if it is even appropriate to think that worms have phenomenal experience). Even if earthworms lack phenomenal consciousness, according to some philosophers, we certainly have phenomenal consciousness and as such, there is a distance between our experience and theirs.
RC1 Human beings have phenomenal distance from earthworms and therefore, are indifferent to them, e.g. we walk through a parking lot on a rainy day and probably trample dozens of them underfoot with no second thought.
RC2 An infinite god or even a vastly powerful deity would have an infinite or incalculable phenomenal distance from humans.
RCC1 Therefore, we should expect God to be indifferent to us.
This argument avoids the nauseating intuition of skeptical theism as it cannot appeal to any ignorance we have. One thing we are not ignorant of, as evil and hiddenness make clear, is that either God does not exist or if any gods exist, they are astoundingly indifferent to us. Camus, in The Plague, observes through the character of Tarrou that if God is not going to provide succor in times of great atrocity, it is up to us to take the helm and do something about our plights. Conjoined to his scathing criticisms of the religious propensity to prefer the abstract over the concrete is Camus’ clearsighted focus on God’s absence or indifference, for even as Jacques Othon dies in agony and Father Paneloux shouts out “My God, spare this child!,” the child dies writhing in pain and wailing across the halls of the auxiliary hospital (Camus, Albert. The Plague. New York: Vintage International Books. 217. Web.). This argument is yet another powerful blow against personal being theism because a friend is there in times of need and a father who loves his children, all the more so. No appeal to our ignorance, as my defeaters make clear, can be marshaled in to salvage the notion of the existence of a personal being who loves us and has our well-being and prosperity in mind. The absence or more tentatively, the indifference of God should disabuse one of the belief in a personal being who loves us infinitely.
In the end, I think the lines of argumentation I have pursued here are by no means exhaustive, in that a lot more can be said about evil, suffering, hiddenness, God’s lack of supererogative agency, and an indifference stemming from the incalculable, if not, infinite phenomenal distance he has from us. I defer to Rieux: “No Father. I’ve a very different idea of love. And until my dying day I shall refuse to love a scheme of things in which children are put to torture” (Camus, Ibid., 218).
By R.N. Carmona
My purpose here is twofold: first and foremost, I want to clarify Rasmussen’s argument because though I can understand why word of mouth can lead to what is essentially a straw man of his argument, especially in light of the fact that his argument requires one to pay for an online article or his book Is God the Best Explanation of Things? which he coauthored with Felipe Leon, it is simply good practice to present an argument fairly. Secondly, I want to be stern about the fact that philosophy of religion cannot continue to rake these dead coals. Rasmussen’s argument is just another in a long, winding, and quite frankly, tired history of contingency arguments. In in any case, the following is the straw man I want my readers and anyone else who finds this post to stop citing. This is decidedly not Rasmussen’s argument:
Rasmussen has no argument called The Argument From Arbitrary Limits. Arbitrary limits actually feature in Leon’s chapter in where he expresses skepticism of Rasmussen’s Geometric Argument (Rasmussen Joshua and Leon, Felipe. Is God The Best Explanation For Things. Switzerland: Palgrave Macmillan. 53-68. Print.). Also, Rasmussen has a Theistic conception of God (omnipresent, wholly good, etc.) that is analogous to what Plantinga means by maximal greatness, but Rasmussen does not refer to God using that term. Perhaps there is confusion with his use of the word maximal conceivable. While given Rasmussen’s beliefs, he implies God with what he calls a maximal foundation, “a foundation complete with respect to its fundamental (basic, uncaused) features” (Ibid., 140). He makes it clear throughout the book that he is open to such a foundation that is not synonymous with God. In any case, his maximal conceivable is not a being possessing maximal greatness; at least, not exactly, since it appears he means something more elementary given his descriptions of basic and uncaused, as these clearly do not refer to omnipresence, perfect goodness, and so on. There may also be some confusion with his later argument, which he calls “The Maximal Mind Argument” (Ibid. 112-113), which fails because it is relies heavily on nonphysicalism, a series of negative theories in philosophy of mind that do not come close to offering alternative explanations for an array of phenomena thoroughly explained by physicalism (see here). In any case, Rasmussen has no argument resembling the graphic above. His arguments rest on a number of dubious assumptions, the nexus of which is his Geometric Argument:
JR1 Geometry is a geometric state.
JR2 Every geometric state is dependent.
JR3 Therefore, Geometry is dependent.
JR4 Geometry cannot depend on any state featuring only things that have a geometry.
JR5 Geometry cannot depend on any state featuring only non-concrete (non-causal) things.
JRC Therefore, Geometry depends on a state featuring at lest one geometry-less concrete thing (3-5) (Ibid., 42).
Like Leon, I take issue with JR2. Leon does not really elaborate on why JR2 is questionable saying only that “the most basic entities with geometry (if such there be) have their geometrics of factual or metaphysical necessity” and that therefore, “it’s not true that every geometric state is dependent” (Ibid., 67). He is correct, of course, but elaboration could have helped here because this is a potential defeater. Factual and metaphysical necessity are inhered in physical necessity. The universe is such that the fact that every triangle containing a 90-degree angle is a right triangle is reducible to physical constraints within our universe. This fact of geometry is unlike Rasmussen’s examples, namely chair and iPhone shapes. He states: “The instantiation of [a chair’s shape] depends upon prior conditions. Chair shapes never instantiate on their own, without any prior conditions. Instead, chair-instantiations depend on something” (Ibid., 41). This overt Platonism is questionable in and of itself, but Leon’s statement is forceful in this case: the shape of the chair is not dependent because it has its shape of factual or metaphysical necessity that stem from physical necessity. Chairs, first and foremost, are shaped the way they are because of our shape when we sit down; furthermore, chairs take the shapes they do because of physical constraints like human weight, gravity, friction against a floor, etc. For a chair not to collapse under the force of gravity and the weight of an individual, it has to be engineered in some way to withstand these forces acting on it; the chair’s shape is so because of physical necessity and this explains its metaphysical necessity. There is therefore, no form of a chair in some ethereal realm; an idea like this is thoroughly retrograde and not worth considering.
In any case, the real issue is that chair and iPhone shapes are not the sort of shapes that occur naturally in the universe. Those shapes, namely spheres, ellipses, triangles, and so on, also emerge from physical necessity. It is simply the case that a suspender on a bridge forms the hypothenuse of a right triangle. Like a chair, bridge suspenders take this shape because of physical necessity. The same applies to the ubiquity of spherical and elliptical shapes in the universe. To further disabuse anyone of Platonic ideas, globular shapes are also quite ubiquitous in the universe and are more prominent the closer we get to the Big Bang. There are shapes inherent in our universe that cannot be neatly called geometrical and even still, these shapes are physically and therefore, metaphysically necessitated. If JR2 is unsound, then the argument falls apart. On another front, this addresses Rasmussen’s assertion that God explains why there is less chaos in our universe. Setting aside that the qualification of this statement is entirely relative, the relative order we see in the universe is entirely probabilistic, especially given that entropy guarantees a trend toward disorder as the universe grows older and colder.
Like Leon, I share his general concern about “any argument that moves from facts about apparent contingent particularity and an explicability principle to conclusions about the nature of fundamental reality” (Ibid., 67) or as I have been known to put it: one cannot draw ontological conclusions on the basis of logical considerations. Theistic philosophers of religion and unfortunately, philosophers in general, have a terrible habit of leaping from conceivability to possibility and then, all the way to actuality. Leon elaborates:
Indeed, the worry above seems to generalize to just about any account of ultimate reality. So, for example, won’t explicability arguments saddle Christian theism with the same concern, viz. why the deep structure of God’s nature should necessitate exactly three persons in the Godhead? In general, won’t explicability arguments equally support a required explanation for why a particular God exists rather than others, or rather than, say, an infinite hierarchy of gods? The heart of the criticism is that it seems any theory must stop somewhere and say that the fundamental character is either brute or necessary, and that if it’s necessary, the explanation of why it’s necessary (despite appearing contingent) is beyond our ability to grasp (Ibid., 67-68).
Of course, Leon is correct in his assessment. Why not Ahura Mazda, his hypostatic union to Spenta Mainyu, and his extension via the Amesha Spentas? If, for instance, the one-many problem requires the notion of a One that is also many, what exactly rules out Ahura Mazda? One starts to see how the prevailing version of Theism in philosophy of religion is just a sad force of habit. This is why it is necessary to move on from these arguments. Contingency arguments are notoriously outmoded because Mackie, Le Poidevin, and others have already provided general defeaters that can apply to any particular contingency argument. Also, how many contingency arguments do we need exactly? In other words, how many different ways can one continue to assert that all contingent things require at least one necessary explanation? Wildman guides us here:
Traditional natural theology investigates entailment relations from experienced reality to, say, a preferred metaphysics of ultimacy. But most arguments of this direct-entailment sort have fallen out of favor, mostly because they are undermined by the awareness of alternative metaphysical schemes that fit the empirical facts just as well as the preferred metaphysical scheme. By contrast with this direct-entailment approach, natural theology ought to compare numerous compelling accounts of ultimacy in as many different respects as are relevant. In this comparison-based way, we assemble the raw material for inference-to-the-best-explanation arguments on behalf of particular theories of ultimacy, and we make completely clear the criteria for preferring one view of ultimacy to another.Wildman, Wesley J. Religious Philosophy as Multidisciplinary Comparative Inquiry: Envisioning a Future For The Philosophy of Religion. State University of New York Press. Albany, NY. 2010. 162. Print.
Setting aside that Rasmussen does not make clear why he prefers a Christian view of ultimacy as opposed to a Zoroastrian one or another one that may be proposed, I think Wildman is being quite generous when saying that “alternative metaphysical schemes fit the empirical facts just as well as the preferred metaphysical scheme” because the fact of the matter is that some alternatives fit the empirical facts better than metaphysical schemes like the ones Christian Theists resort to. Rasmussen’s preferred metaphysical scheme of a maximal foundation, which properly stated, is a disembodied, nonphysical mind who is omnipresent, wholly good, and so on rests on dubious assumptions that have not been made to cohere with the empirical facts. Nonphysicalism, as I have shown in the past, does not even attempt to explain brain-related phenomena. Physicalist theories have trounced the opposition in that department and it is not even close. What is more is that Christian Theists are especially notorious for not comparing their account to other accounts and that is because they are not doing philosophy, but rather apologetics. This is precisely why philosophy of religion must move on from Christian Theism. We can think of an intellectual corollary to forgiveness. In light of Christian Theism’s abject failure to prove God, how many more chances are we required to give this view? Philosophy of religion is, then, like an abused lover continuing to be moved by scraps of affection made to cover up heaps of trauma. The field should be past the point of forgiveness and giving Christian Theism yet another go to get things right; it has had literal centuries to get its story straight and present compelling arguments and yet here we are retreading ground that has been walked over again and again and again.
To reinforce my point, I am going to quote Mackie and Le Poidevin’s refutations of contingency arguments like Rasmussen’s. It should then become clear that we have to bury these kinds of arguments for good. Let them who are attached to these arguments mourn their loss, but I will attend no such wake. What remains of the body is an ancient skeleton, long dead. It is high time to give it a rest. Le Poidevin put one nail in the coffin of contingency arguments. Anyone offering new contingency arguments has simply failed to do their homework. It is typical of Christian Theists to indulge confirmation bias and avoid what their opponents have to say. The problem with that is that the case against contingency arguments has been made. Obstinacy does not change the fact. Le Poidevin clearly shows why necessary facts do not explain contingent ones:
Necessary facts, then, cannot explain contingent ones, and causal explanation, of any phenomenon, must link contingent facts. That is, both cause and effect must be contingent. Why is this? Because causes make a difference to their environment: they result in something that would not have happened if the cause had not been present. To say, for example, that the presence of a catalyst in a certain set of circumstances speeded up a reaction is to say that, had the catalyst not been present in those circumstances, the reaction would have proceeded at a slower rate. In general, if A caused B, then, if A had not occurred in the circumstances, B would not have occurred either. (A variant of this principle is that, if A caused B, then if A had not occurred in the circumstances, the probability of B’s occurrence would have been appreciably less than it was. It does not matter for our argument whether we accept the origin principle or this variant.) To make sense of this statement, ‘If A had not occurred in the circumstances, B would not have occurred’, we have to countenance the possibility of A’s not occurring and the possibility of B’s not occurring. If these are genuine possibilities, then both A and B are contingent. So one of the reasons why necessary facts cannot causally explain anything is that we cannot make sense of their not being the case, whereas causal explanations requires us to make sense of causally explanatory facts not being the case. Causal explanation involves the explanation of one contingent fact by appeal to another contingent fact.Le Poidevin, Robin. Arguing for Atheism: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Religion. London: Routledge, 1996. 40-41. Print.
This is a way of substantiating that an effect is inhered in a cause or the principle, like effects from like causes. This has been precisely my criticism of the idea that a nonphysical cause created the physical universe. There is no theory of causation that permits the interaction of an ethereal entity’s dispositions and that of physical things. It is essentially a paraphrase of Elizabeth of Bohemia’s rebuttal to Cartesian dualism: how does mental substance interact with physical substance? This is why mind-body dualism remains in a state of incoherence, but I digress. Mackie puts yet another nail in the coffin:
The principle of sufficient reason, then, is more far-reaching than the principle that every occurrence has a preceding sufficient cause: the latter, but not the former, would be satisfied by a series of things or events running back infinitely in time, each determined by earlier ones, but with no further explanation of the series as a whole. Such a series would give us only what Leibniz called ‘physical’ or ‘hypothetical’ necessity, whereas the demand for a sufficient reason for the whole body of contingent things and events and laws calls for something with ‘absolute’ or ‘metaphysical’ necessity. But even the weaker, deterministic, principle is not an a priori truth, and indeed it may not be a truth at all; much less can this be claimed for the principle of sufficient reason. Perhaps it just expresses an arbitrary demand; it may be intellectually satisfying to believe there is, objectively, an explanation for everything together, even if we can only guess at what the explanation might be. But we have no right to assume that the universe will comply with our intellectual preferences. Alternatively, the supposed principle may be an unwarranted extension of the determinist one, which, in so far as it is supported, is supported only empirically, and can at most be accepted provisionally, not as an a priori truth. The form of the cosmological argument which relies on the principle of sufficient reason therefore fails completely as a demonstrative proof.Mackie, J. L. The Miracle of Theism: Arguments for and against the Existence of God. Oxford: Clarendon, 1982. 86-87. Print.
Every contingency argument fails because it relies on the principle of sufficient reason and because necessity does not cohere with contingency as it concerns a so-called causal relation. Mackie, like Le Poidevin, also questions why God is a satisfactory termination of the regress. Why not something something else? (Ibid., 92). Contingency arguments amount to vicious special pleading and an outright refusal to entertain viable alternatives, even in cases where the alternatives are nonphysical and compatible with religious sentiments. In any case, it would appear that the principle of sufficient reason is not on stable ground. Neither is the notion that a necessary being is the ultimate explanation of the universe. Contingency arguments have been defeated and there really is no way to repeat these arguments in a way that does not fall on the horns of Le Poidevin and Mackie’s defeaters. Only the obdurate need to believe that God is the foundational explanation of the universe explains the redundancy of Christian Theists within the philosophy of religion. That is setting aside that apologetics is not philosophy and other complaints I have had. The Geometric Argument, despite using different language, just is a contingency argument. If the dead horse could speak, it would tell them all to lay down their batons once and for all, but alas.
Ultimately, contingency arguments are yet another example of how repetitive Christianized philosophy of religion has become. There is a sense in which Leon, Le Poidevin, and Mackie are paraphrasing one another because, and here is a bit of irony, like arguments result in like rebuttals. They cannot help but to sound like they each decided or even conspired to write on the same topic for a final paper. They are, after all, addressing the same argument no matter how many attempts have been made to word it differently. It is a vicious cycle, a large wheel that cannot keep on turning. It must be stopped in its tracks if progress in the philosophy of religion is to get any real traction.
By R.N. Carmona
You don’t get to advertise all the good that your religion does without first scrupulously subtracting all the harm it does and considering seriously the question of whether some other religion, or no religion at all, does better.Dennett, Daniel. Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon. New York: Viking, 2006. 56. Print
Philosophy of religion needs an overhaul. Put another way, the discipline does not need a soft reboot. It is in dire need of a more diverse, inclusive hard reboot; let us blow up the entire universe and start over. The Christian setting and background that has informed the discipline hitherto, along with its White, predominantly male heroes, all but guarantee that the field is destined to go stale. I can go into specifics, showing how Alvin Plantinga’s Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism is a paraphrase of C.S. Lewis’ Argument Against Naturalism, despite the former being more robust given that it uses the language of modern analytic philosophy. I can point out that Joshua Rasmussen’s Argument From Arbitrary Limits is nothing more than a rehash of the dead horse that is the Argument From Contingency, which has many iterations, none more cogent or persuasive than the other. There is also the issue that the argument makes use of Plantinga’s idea of a maximal being, which makes the argument more vulnerable than its predecessors. I will revisit Rasmussen’s argument in a separate post that is not tied to this current series.
The questions in the reader’s mind are, what’s the point? What would motivate anyone to seek a revamping of the philosophy of religion? The answer is bipartite and the first part of my answer is crucial to understanding the second half of it, which inheres why I am calling for a reformation of the entire field. In recent discussions about philosophy of religion and apologetics, even Christians were hard pressed to demarcate one from the other, with some biting the bullet and settling on the fact that they are virtually the same project. That is my initial problem. I will now reproduce a section from my recent book The Definitive Case Against Christianity: Life After The Death Of God, in hopes that this becomes a lot clearer.
Philosophy, long considered the handmaiden of theology, continues to confront the following problems:
- The philosophy of religion is Christian-centric, as is made painfully obvious by the myriad discussions about the elements of Christianity: the attributes of God; arguments for God, e.g., the Kalam Cosmological Argument, the Moral Argument, the Ontological Argument, etc.; the Problem of Evil.
- Related to the first issue, there is no proper demarcation between philosophy, generally speaking, and apologetics. Moreover, there is no proper demarcation between philosophy of religion and apologetics.
- The works of atheists mostly play according to the apologist’s rules in that Mackie, Martin, Nielsen, Ayer, and so many others have written refutations of popular apologetic arguments. Many atheist philosophers have largely overlooked the first two issues. I will therefore endeavor to right the ship.
In order to solve the first problem, the second problem needs to be solved first. Draper already identifies a glaring issue, what he dubs the paradox of apologetics. What Draper strongly implies is that the enterprise of apologetics is inherently circular. Draper also describes the philosophy of religion as “too partisan…,too narrow in its focus, and too often evaluated using criteria that are theological or religious instead of philosophical,” while adding that “the only viable forms of theism are Muslim, Christian, or Jewish” (Draper, Paul, and Ryan Nichols. “Diagnosing Bias in Philosophy of Religion.” The Monist, vol. 96, no. 3, 2013, pp. 420–446. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/42751260. Accessed 24 Nov. 2020.). Furthermore, he notes that philosophers of religion are dismissive of pantheism, deism, and ietsism. Wildman notes that young philosophers of religion hoping to land a job wonder if they should “stop talking about philosophy of religion in order to avoid being misunderstood as covert theological apologists on behalf of a particular religious tradition” (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. xiii. Print.) For the Christian apologist, Christianity must be true, God must exist, and Jesus must have died and resurrected three days later. These biases are impossible for an apologist to disavow because doing so would result in losing his status and identity as a Christian. Keith Reich also identifies the circular reasoning of religious apologists:
Because of all of this language of logic, research, fact seeking, etc., it can seem as if apologetics and scholarship are the same thing. Yet, they are fundamentally different and the method of apologetics is fundamentally flawed in my mind. The problem with the apologetic method is its starting point. Apologetics starts with the conclusion. The conclusion is firmly fixed before any research begins. Therefore, for the apologist, the conclusion is the starting point which must then be “defended” through research.Reich, Keith. “Scholarship vs. Apologetics”. Know Thyself Blogs. 4 Nov 2015. Web.
Draper adds that religious people, as well as Christian philosophers of religion, have an attachment to God the Father and a deeply rooted conviction that he exists and loves them. Being confronted by arguments concluding that their father figure does not exist prompts negative emotions and inhibits their capacity to weigh the counter-evidence in an impartial manner. This also results in unchecked confirmation bias, which readily explains the issue of circular reasoning among Christian philosophers.
Philosophers, on the other hand, do not proceed from immutable biases of this sort. While it is true that philosophy, like science, is concerned with truth and even with investigating the nature of so-called ultimate reality, philosophy does so using entirely different methodology and fulfills tasks that support science by clarifying the definition of theory or identifying what qualifies as speciation in the animal kingdom, to state a couple of examples. Philosophy is also tasked with securing basic assumptions scientists no longer pay mind to like whether or not the scientist himself exists and whether truth can be apprehended. Philosophy also has a number of aims that once identified make it easier to distinguish between it and apologetics. The overarching purpose is acquisition of truth, but what distinguishes philosophy from anthropology, history, and science is that is has an inherent self-awareness in that it has also attempted to accurately describe what truth is. Likewise, philosophers try to get to the bottom of what constitutes knowledge. Philosophy also investigates a number of propositions, in addition to clarifying distinctions between propositions and the mental activity involved in grasping them (Sokolowski, Robert. “The Method of Philosophy: Making Distinctions.” The Review of Metaphysics, vol. 51, no. 3, 1998, pp. 515–532. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/20130246. Accessed 23 Nov. 2020.). Aside from informing science, philosophy informs other disciplines; for instance, an anthropologist examining the differences between a religion and a cult will offer a series of propositions delineating one from the other, i.e., the anthropologist will philosophize to arrive at the differences between a religion and a cult.
Philosophy also aims to discover the underlying foundations that are irreducible, necessary, and sufficient. It accomplishes this via a formal calculus or logic (“On Method.” Thoughts and Ways of Thinking: Source Theory and Its Applications, by Benjamin Brown, Ubiquity Press, London, 2017, pp. 1–4. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctv3s8tn7.4. Accessed 23 Nov. 2020.). Logic, therefore, is one of the hallmark methods in philosophy. Wildman also observes that analysis is entitled in the process of inquiry and it guides “the elaboration, testing, and refinement of hypothetic explanatory models toward optimal clarity and consistency” (Ibid., 7). Similarly, Penelope Maddy observes “that a large part, if not all, of the philosopher’s job is the careful analysis of the content of concepts like ‘cause’, ‘freedom’, and…’knowledge’. Conceptual analysis led to the advent of analytic philosophy (Maddy, Penelope. What Do Philosophers Do? Skepticism and the Practice of Philosophy. New York: Oxford University Press, 2017. 60, 62-63. Print.). As Reich observed, apologists also use the language of logic, but if they are doing so in a circular manner, then they are misusing the method. Draper’s solution to differentiate between philosophy of religion and apologetics is to require philosophers of religion to use argument construction to test their positions as opposed to using logical arguments to make a case for their positions. Given the issue of confirmation bias, he sees no other alternative (Ibid.).
To see the apologist’s misuse of logic, one need only consider their favorite mode of reasoning, namely deduction. Since apologists proceed from predilections that they confuse for axioms, a lot of them ignore that validity and soundness are not the same thing. That is because propositions do not emerge in a vacuum; nor do they stand alone. In fact, the apologist’s baseless foundationalism would fall victim to an infinite regress of epistemic justification. Take for instance, the observation that all men are mortal. We can now propose that since all men are mortal and Socrates is a man, then he is mortal. If propositions stood alone, it would be impossible to refute the negation of this deductive argument. In other words, one would be able to argue that all men are not mortal and since Socrates is a man, it follows that he is not mortal. Both arguments are valid, but only one of them is sound. The manner in which one decides between the two arguments is through the realization that propositions, generally speaking, have a correspondence to reality.
Tangentially, it can be granted that a weak pluralism should be allowed if only because foundationalist axioms can apply to logical and mathematical theorems. There are pure or abstract logical and mathematical theorems that have no correspondence to reality and as such, correspondence theory of truth has limits. For example, when doing mathematical proofs, there are multiples sets N (the set of natural numbers), Z ( the set of integers), Q (the set of rational numbers), and R (the set of real numbers); there are also D (the set of decimals) and C (the set of complex numbers), which are less common in proofs. One may come across a statement that reads “n ∈ Z,” which states that n is an element within the set of integers. More specifically, one might be asked to prove the statement “∀n ∈ Z . n(n + 1) is even.” This can be done by assuming that some natural number n is either odd or even. Upon making n = 2m, one will find that 2(m(n+1) and 2(nm) are both even, which proves the statement. This mathematical proof does not rely on tangible reality in the way someone may point to a polar bear on television to prove that the proposition “polar bears are white” is true. There are also properties in mathematics that are true by definition, i.e., a priori, e.g., zero product property, associative property. In logic, the laws of logic are also generally considered to be axiomatic.
While foundationalism may have a place at the table of epistemic justification, the Christian apologist’s misuse of it is not tantamount to how it is employed in mathematics and logic. Consider, for example, the first premise of Craig’s Moral Argument: “If God does not exist, objective moral values do not exist.” There is simply something suspicious about this statement when compared to “If it is not raining, I will not take my umbrella.” A satisfactory deductive premise entails generally accepted facts. These facts are not controversial in any way. Any reasonable person would agree that if it is raining, they will take an umbrella or find other means to protect themselves from the elements. However, denying Craig’s first premise is not unreasonable and it is a premise that, in fact, has been and continues to be denied. Craig and other apologists may assert that the premises in their deductive arguments are true, but that does not make them true. The arguments for God continue to be batted around precisely because they start out with controversial premises that stem from an equally contentious foundational assumption.
The fact of the matter is that foundationalism has been largely abandoned. Foundationalists’ obsession with certainty, an infatuation that descends from Descartes, ultimately is not apt for mathematics, despite its limited application to the field. It is also unsuitable for science. Peirce, Dewey, Quine, and other pragmatists introduced a non-foundationalist paradigm know as fallibilism. This is implicit in Popper’s notion of falsification. This new approach assists philosophers in navigating philosophical inquiry for purposes of correcting hypotheses as opposed to instilling in them the confidence that the available resources are already enough prior to engaging in inquiry.
Draper’s solution, although noble, is unlikely to be implemented. Similarly, asking Christian philosophers of religion and apologists to adhere to Maddy and Wildman’s philosophical methods is futile. Nielsen’s solution, despite being more radical, is the only one that makes sense for anyone concerned with Draper’s reservations about the philosophy of religion. Nielsen suggests the following:
It is a waste of time to rehearse arguments about the proofs or evidences for God or immortality. There are no grounds — or at least no such grounds — for belief in God or belief that God exists and/or that we are immortal. Hume and Kant (perhaps with a little rational reconstruction from philosophers like J.L. Mackie and Wallace Matson) pretty much settled that. Such matters have been thoroughly thrashed out and there is no point of raking over the dead coals. Philosophers who return to them are being thoroughly retrograde.Nielsen, Kai. Naturalism and Religion. Amherst, N.Y.: Prometheus, 2001. 399-400. Print.
So Nielsen’s radical solution is to end all discussions about arguments for God or other theological arguments concerning immortality. These matters continue to be discussed because most philosophers of religion and virtually all Christian apologists prioritize their propositions and underlying beliefs over the facts and evidence. Refusing to discuss these arguments further ends the stalemate between Christian theists and atheists that concerns Draper — a concern echoed in the third issue above — and will allow for philosophers of religion to consider the concepts of non-Christian, non-monotheistic religions.
Now, to state my solution less provocatively and controversially, I think that intellectual reparations are in order. Christians need to let other philosophers who practice other faiths have a long turn at the mic. Christianity, for instance, has a meandering history with the problem of evil and virtually anyone can take note of the considerable difficulty Christians have had. All of their theodicies are problematic and there is no reconciliation to be had between a perfectly benevolent deity and the evil and suffering in the world, or with the notion that this is somehow the best possible world God could have created. As Dennett suggests, perhaps another religion can square this problem away. Perhaps Buddhism or Zoroastrianism have better theodicies to offer or some way of explaining evil and suffering that coheres with modern science and offers ways to solve this problem. This series will explore some of these issues. I have no pretenses of exhausting all possibilities with respect to what philosophy of religion can become.
The other, more pressing, issue is that I am not sure whether modern philosophers of religion are competent enough or equipped to start fielding non-Christian perspectives. The problem is akin to having me review some student’s econometrics homework. I have no idea what any of that is about and I am therefore, unfit to review his work. Likewise, if people write about esoteric topics in Near or Far East religions, how can I expect a predominantly Christian group of peers to review their journal submissions? This is perhaps one reason the so-called International Journal For Philosophy of Religion is rife with Christian articles right through this month’s issue. Here is a list of the articles in February’s issue:
- Kant’s religious ethics: the ineluctable link between morality and theism
- The ineffability of God
- God’s place in the world
- Whiteness and religious experience
- Progressive atheism: how moral evolution changes the god debate
- Truth is subjectivity: kierkegaard and political theology.
What are these reviewers to do with a viable submission concerning indigenous African or South American religions? I can go through this same exercise in one philosophy journal after the next; Christian Theism has an iron grip on the entire enterprise, a virtual monopoly. While there has been moderate effort to rectify this, the solution has been to segregate non-Christian perspectives. Someone might be content with the fact that Journal of Indian Philosophy and Religion and Journal of Buddhist Ethics exist, but this is still exclusionary and not integrated enough. Never mind that college-level curricula also prioritize the Christian perspective.
Ultimately, to divorce philosophy of religion from Christianity and from Christian apologetics, a thorough demarcation is necessary. Apologetics is to philosophy what creationism is to science. Apologetics is not philosophy, plain and simple. It is an inversion of the philosophical process, a bastardization of its methods, and ultimately, devoid of sound argumentation and caters to cognitive biases like confirmation bias and fallacious reasoning like circular reasoning, special pleading, ad hoc rationalization, and non sequitur. It is pseudo-philosophy and must be recognized as such and eliminated as an academic field of inquiry. Any Christian who is concerned with this suggestion perhaps recognizes that much of Christian philosophy of religion is indistinguishable from apologetics. Proselytism simply has no place in an academic setting where religious freedom and more importantly, human autonomy is valued. I would not go as far as saying that all of Christian philosophy of religion falls to the wayside if apologetics is ousted in the same way Intelligent Design was. Perhaps there is a baby in the bath water, but it is not my duty to decide that.
Philosophy of religion needs to move forward and the best way forward is in discussing non-Christian perspectives and topics, and giving them ample time to gain traction in the field. I do not see these perspectives coexisting alongside yet another lengthy dialogue about the Kalam Cosmological Argument or yet another reiteration of a long-defeated argument like the Argument From Contingency. Nor can we allow the field to be dictated by Christians because they have controlled the narrative in the philosophy of religion since its inception. Foundationalism became evidentialism, and now both have given way to existentialist fideism on one side and an attempt to undermine scientific explanation with metaphysical explanation, specifically via neo-Aristotelianism, on the other. In truth, exercises of this sort are either not philosophical or if those involved can prove otherwise, these projects ought to be relegated to other specialized journals in philosophy, for sake of satisfying anyone interested in the niche topics discussed in those areas. So long as Christian perspectives monopolize the field, there is no real incentive for philosophers of religion to broaden their horizons and acquire competence with respect to these perspectives. It seems philosophers of religion are in a haste to perpetually rake the dead coals of the theism-atheism debate. There are other perspectives to consider and what better time than now in the 21st century, a period that will be defined by equality, inclusion, and diversity. Philosophy is no longer the handmaiden of theology, and that includes the philosophy of religion. This series will pave a way and show us how we can move on and move forward. The next entry in this series will focus on Buddhism and The Problem of Evil.
By R.N. Carmona
I have submitted a paper to Philosophical Studies addressing Dustin Crummett and Philip Swenson’s paper. Admittedly, this is my first attempt at publishing in a philosophy journal. I took a swing with no guidance, no co-author, and no funding. There is of course a chance it gets rejected, but I am hoping for the best. In any case, I think my paper provides heuristics for anyone looking to refute Evolutionary Moral Debunking Arguments like Crummet and Swenson’s. Let us turn to how I dissect their argument.
They claim that their Evolutionary Moral Debunking Argument Against Naturalism (EMDAAN) stems from Street’s and Korman and Locke’s EMDAs. The latter EMDAs target moral realism while Crummett and Swenson’s targets naturalism. The issue with theirs is that they grossly overlook the fact that both Street and Korman & Locke do not argue that naturalism is threatened by EMDAs. Street argues that her practical standpoint characterization of constructivism sidesteps any issues her EMDA might have presented for her naturalism. Korman and Locke target the minimalist response and in a separate paper, not cited by Crummett, relativism. They do not target naturalism either.
At first glance, I compared Crummett and Swenson’s argument to Lewis’ long-defeated Argument Against Atheism. They state: “The problem for the naturalist here is that, if naturalism is true, it seems that the faculties responsible for our intuitions were formed through purely natural processes that didn’t aim at producing true beliefs” (Crummett & Swenson, 37). One can easily see how they paraphrase Lewis who says:
Supposing there was no intelligence behind the universe, no creative mind. In that case, nobody designed my brain for the purpose of thinking. It is merely that when the atoms inside my skull happen, for physical or chemical reasons, to arrange themselves in a certain way, this gives me, as a by-product, the sensation I call thought. But, if so, how can I trust my own thinking to be true? It’s like upsetting a milk jug and hoping that the way it splashes itself will give you a map of London. But if I can’t trust my own thinking, of course I can’t trust the arguments leading to Atheism, and therefore have no reason to be an Atheist, or anything else. Unless I believe in God, I cannot believe in thought: so I can never use thought to disbelieve in God.Marsden, George M.. C.S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity : A Biography. Princeton University Press. 89. 2016. Print.
This is a known predecessor of Plantinga’s Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism (EAAN). Therefore, the first angle I take in the paper is to show how Crummett and Swenson did not understand Street’s paper. Perhaps it is the sheer length of her excellent paper (over 50 pages) or perhaps they were so intent on addressing New Atheists that they overlooked her more robust approach to showing how anti-realism fares against EMDAs. I think her paper makes a lot more sense when read in conjunction with her overview of constructivism (see here). Bearing that in mind, I attempt to divorce Crummet and Swenson’s EMDAAN from Street’s EMDA against moral realism. Korman and Locke’s project is markedly different, but their work does not help Crummett and Swenson’s argument either.
With the EAAN now in focus, I show how Crummett and Swenson’s EMDAAN just is an iteration of the EAAN. The EAAN applies to general truths. Put simply, Plantinga argues that if we take seriously the low probability of evolution and naturalism being true despite the fact that that our cognitive faculties formed from accidental evolutionary pressures, then we have a defeater for all of our beliefs, most notably among them, naturalism. Crummett and Swenson make the same exact argument, the difference being that they apply it to specific beliefs, moral beliefs. Given that moral beliefs are a sub-category within the domain of all beliefs, their EMDAAN is an iteration of the EAAN. Here is an example I did not pursue in my paper, call it the Evolutionary Scientific Debunking Argument.
RC1 P(Sm/E&S) is low (The probability that our faculties generate basic scientific beliefs, given that evolution and science are true, is low.)
RC2 If one accepts that P(Sm/E&S) is low, then one possesses a defeater for the notion that our faculties generate basic scientific beliefs.
RCC Therefore, one possesses a defeater for one’s belief in science.
Perhaps I would be called upon to specify a philosophical view of science, be it realism or something else, but the basic gist is the same as Crummett and Swenson’s EMDA. I am, like them, targeting a specific area of our beliefs, namely our beliefs resulting from science. My argument is still in the vein of Plantinga’s EAAN and is a mere subsidiary of it.
After I establish the genealogy of Crummett and Swenson’s argument, I turn the EAAN on its head and offer an Evolutionary Argument Against Theism. If Plantinga’s argument holds sway and the Theist believes that evolution is true, he is in no better epistemic shape than the naturalist. Therefore, Plantinga’s conditionalization problem, which offers that P(R/N&E) is high iff there exists a belief B that conditionalizes on N&E, is an issue for Theists as well. In other words, perhaps the probability that our cognitive faculties are reliable given that evolution and naturalism are true increases iff there is an added clause in the conjunction. Put another way, the probability that our cognitive faculties are reliable, granting that evolution and naturalism and (a successful philosophy of mind), is high. This successful philosophy of mind will have to show precisely how a brain that resulted from naturalistic evolutionary processes can generate the sort of consciousness capable of acquiring true beliefs. The theist who says P(R/T&E) is high is begging the question because merely asserting that “God ensured that there would be some degree of alignment between our intuitions and moral truth” ((Crummett & Swenson, 44) does not help the Theist avoid the conditionalization problem.
With that established, and I cannot give too much away here because this is the novelty in my paper, I argue that the only recourse the Theist has, especially given that they have no intention of disavowing Theism, is to abandon their belief in evolution. They would have to opt, instead, for a belief in creationism or a close variant like intelligent design. In either case, they would then be left asserting that a Creationary Moral Confirming Argument in Favor of Theism is the case. I explore the litany of issues that arises if the Theist abandons evolution and claims that God’s act of creating us makes moral realism the case. Again, the Theist ends up between a rock and a hard place. Theism simply has far less explanatory power because, unlike naturalism, it does not account for our propensity to make evaluative errors and our inclination toward moral deviancy. If God did, in fact, ensure that our moral intuitions align with transcendent moral truths, why do we commit errors when making moral decisions and why do we behave immorally? Naturalism can explain both of these problems, especially given the role of reason under the moral anti-realist paradigm. Evaluative errors are therefore, necessary to improve our evaluative judgments; reason is the engine by which we identify these errors and improve our moral outlook. The Theist would be back at square one, perhaps deploying the patently mythical idea of a Fall to account for the fact that humans are far from embodying the moral perfection God is said to have.
With Crummett and Swenson’s argument now thoroughly in Plantinga’s territory, I explore whether the anti-realist can solve the conditionalization problem. I suggest that evolution accounts for moral rudiments and then introduce the notion that cultural evolution accounts for reliable moral beliefs. Cooperation and altruism feature heavily into why I draw this conclusion. So P(Rm/E&MAR) (if evolution and moral anti-realism are true, the probability that our faculties generate evaluative truths) is high given that cooperation and/or altruism conditionalize on our belief that evolution and moral anti-realism are the case. We are left with P[(Rm/E&MAR) & (C v A)] or P[(Rm/E&MAR) & (C&A)]. In other words, if evolution and moral anti-realism are true, and cooperation and/or altruism conditionalize on our beliefs that evolution and moral anti-realism are the case, the probability that our faculties generate evaluative truths/reliable moral beliefs is high.
Ultimately, like Moon, I think my paper will provide fertile ground for further discussion on the conditionalization problem. The jury is still out on whether the naturalist’s belief that evolution and naturalism are true even requires a clause to conditionalize on that belief. In any case, much can be learned about EMDAs against naturalism from the vast literature discussing Plantinga’s EAAN. I think that my arguments go a long way in dispensing with EMDAs in the philosophy of religion that target naturalism. When one considers that the Theist cannot account for moral truths without unsubstantiated assertions about God, it is easy to see how they are on less secure ground than the naturalist. If the Theist is a Christian or a Muslim, then they ought to be reminded that their scriptures communicate things about their gods that are not befitting of moral perfection. If the choice is between naturalism and the belief that a god who made parents eat their children is, despite all evidence to the contrary, morally perfect, I will take my chances with naturalism!
By R.N. Carmona
Weaver’s argument, although robust, commits what I think is a cardinal sin in philosophy: “An objection from logical considerations against atheism is one which attempts to show that some deliverance of logic is at odds with atheism or something strictly implied by atheism” (Weaver, C.G. (2019). Logical Objections to Atheism. In A Companion to Atheism and Philosophy, G. Oppy (Ed.). https://doi.org/10.1002/9781119119302.ch30). One should not get in the habit of drawing ontological conclusions on the basis of logical considerations and though Weaver makes a good attempt to justify his conclusion, there are too many areas in his composite argument that are vulnerable to attack. There are parts of his composite argument that are clearly stated in his own words, but other parts have to be sifted out from his discussions, specifically on logical monism and classical logical consequence (CLC). Also, the conclusion that atheism is false has to be gathered from his discussion following his claim that ontological naturalism is false.
A general note, prior to proceeding, is in order. Weaver’s paper is quite technical and not at all easy for the untrained eye to read, let alone understand, so I will endeavor to avoid technicality wherever necessary; I will only permit pursuing one technical element because I disagree with Weaver’s treatment of supervenience, how he conveniently begs the question regarding reductionist materialism (if only to ensure that his argument is not met with immediate difficulty), and the conclusion he believes follows. More importantly, I think that the domestication of philosophy within the ivory towers of academia was a critical misstep that needs to be rectified. While analytic philosophy has its use, its abuse makes philosophy the slave of academic elites and therefore, keeps it well out of the reach of ordinary people. Philosophy, therefore, if it is to be understood by laypeople, needs to be communicated in ordinary, relatable language. Since my interest is to, first and foremost, communicate philosophy in an approachable way, I tend to avoid technicalities as much as possible. With that said, it is not at all necessary to quibble with Weaver’s logical proofs of validity (especially because validity matters much less than soundness) or Williamson’s notion that contingentist statements can be mapped onto necessitist ones and vice versa, but that “The asymmetry favours necessitism. Every distinction contingentists can draw has a working equivalent in neutral terms, but the extra commitments of necessitism allow one to draw genuine distinctions which have no working equivalents in neutral terms. If one wants to draw those distinctions, one may have to be a necessitist” (Williamson, T.. “Necessitism, Contingentism, and Plural Quantification.” Mind 119 (2010): 657-748. 86. Web.).
Williamson and Weaver, following his cue, are both guilty of ignoring logical atomism, so ultimately, it does not matter if the validity of logical statements suggests that necessitism about mere propositions is probably true because ultimately, we are not talking about mere propositions but rather Sachverhalte, “conglomerations of objects combined with a definite structure” (Klement, Kevin, “Russell’s Logical Atomism”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2020 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.)). This is perhaps Weaver’s motivation for dismissing Carnap who was anti-metaphysical. It can be argued, therefore, that reinstating metaphysics or overstating its importance is necessary for any argument against naturalism and/or atheism or conversely, for Theism, to get any traction. The fact remains, however, that propositions comprising a sound logical argument are dependent on real world experiences via the senses. The proposition “there is a cat” may speak to the fact that either i) one believes they have seen a cat in whatever space they find themselves in ii) one knows and can confirm that there is a cat in their vicinity iii) there is presently a cat within ones field of vision. While I grant that propositions can speak to entirely imaginary or, at least, hypothetical entities, all propositions rely on entities we have identified in our common tongue. Therefore, statements like “there is a cat” will always rely on content not necessarily entailed within a given proposition. There is still a question as to the context of such propositions and the preciseness of what one is trying to say.
Weaver’s Composite Argument Against Naturalism and Atheism, and Its Problems
With these preliminary concerns in our rearview, I can now turn to Weaver’s composite argument and provide a few avenues for the atheist to refute his argument.
W1 Since situationspf do not exist (“I will therefore be entitled to reject…the existence of situationsPF” (Weaver, 6).), situationsC exist.
W2 Given situationsC , classical logical consequence (CLC) is the case.
W3 From W2, necessitism is true.
W4 “If necessitism is true, then ontological naturalism is false.”
W5 “Necessitism is true.”
W6 “Therefore, ontological naturalism is false” (Weaver, 15).
W7 From W6, “Necessitism is true and modal properties are indispensable to our best physical theories.”
W8 If W7, “then there is a new phenomenon of coordination (NPC).”
W9 “Necessarily, (if there is an NPC, it has an explanation).”
W10 “Necessarily, [if possibly both (atheism is true and there is an NPC), then it is not possible that the NPC has an explanation]”
C “Therefore, atheism is false” (Weaver, 18).
Setting aside that Weaver assumes that suitably precisified situations (situationspf) cannot exist and the problems he would face if just one instance of such a situation does exist, there is a way to show that even on the assumption that just classically precisified situations (situationsC) exist, it doesn’t follow that CLC holds. Weaver seems to think that CLC follows from a schema concerning mere validity: “A deductive argument is valid, just in case, there is no situation in which the premises are true and the conclusion false” (Weaver, 4). I think it is straightforwardly obvious that a typical non sequitur already violates this schema. Consider the following:
P1 If it is cloudy outside, there is a chance of precipitation.
P2 It is cloudy outside.
C Therefore, the Yankee game will be postponed.
The first two premises are true perspectively. In New York City, at this present hour, it is partly cloudy outside and there is thus, a chance of precipitation. However, the conclusion is false because the New York Yankees are not even in Spring training and it is out of the norm for them to have a regular season home game in late January. The above argument can prove true given not only at least one extra premise, but also the fact that it is not winter but spring, and that the MLB regular season is underway. This goes a long way in showing that propositions are usually missing crucial content and are true given specified context. Perhaps, then, Weaver should provide a different schema to ground CLC.
Weaver, unfortunately, does not give an adequate account of what he means by situationspf and what such situations would look like. It is enough to reiterate that the existence of even one such situation takes him back to square one. This is aside from the fact that a rejection of pluralism entails a rejection of arguments operating outside of classical logic, e.g., Plantinga’s Modal Ontological Argument, which rests of the axioms of S5 modal logic. A thorough rejection of free logical systems would limit Theists to the domain of classical logic, which will prove unforgiving since nothing like God seems operative in the real world.
Weaver’s dependence on situationsC and CLC proves problematic and is one place for an atheist to focus on. Another avenue for an atheist to take is W4 and W5. Is the notion that ontological naturalism is false conditional on necessitism being true? I do not think Weaver established that this premise is true. Furthermore, aside from exploring whether these clauses have a conditional relationship, one can simply ask whether necessitism is true. The jury is still out on whether necessitism or contingentism is the case, and there may yet be a synthesis or a handful of alternative positions that challenge both. Given the current state of the debate, I am uncommitted to either position, but I am suspicious of anyone siding with one for sake of attempting to disprove a position they already assume is false, which, in Weaver’s case, are naturalism and atheism.
In plain language, the perspective of necessitists falls flat or appears to be saying something nonsensical. Williamson outlines where disagreement lies:
For instance, a contingentist typically holds that it is contingent that there is the Thames: there could have been no such river, and in those circumstances there would have been no Thames. By contrast, a necessitist typically holds that it is necessary that there is the Thames: there could have been no such river, but in those circumstances there would still have been the Thames, a non-river located nowhere that could have been a river located in England. Thus the contingentist will insist that necessarily if there is the Thames it is a river, while the necessitist allows at most that necessarily if the Thames is located somewhere it is a river.Williamson, T.. “Necessitism, Contingentism, and Plural Quantification.” Mind 119 (2010): 657-748. 9. Web.
Contingentists deny the necessity of the Thames, whether river or not. These identity discussions extend further when one considers people. Manuel Pérez Otero explores this and tries to synthesize these two opposing point of views (see Otero, Manuel Pérez. “Contingentism about Individuals and Higher-Order Necessitism.” Theoria: An International Journal for Theory, History and Foundations of Science, vol. 28, no. 3(78), 2013, pp. 393–406. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/23926328. Accessed 25 Jan. 2021.). Though Otero’s synthesis is tangential for our purposes, it shows that this binary Weaver thinks exists is one of his own making, essentially a false dichotomy. Given the issues necessitism presents for ordinary language, and the likelihood of one of its alternatives being true, it follows that necessitism is probably false. An exhaustive defense of a position I am not committed to is not at all required to show where Weaver has gone wrong.
This takes us to Weaver’s treatment of supervenience and his New Phenomenon of Coordination (NPC), which states:
Why is it that modal properties and notions enter the verisimilitudinous fundamental dynamical laws of our best and most empirically successful physical theories given that modal properties do not weakly supervene upon the physical or material? (or) How is it that the material world came to be ordered in such a way that it evolves in a manner that is best captured by modally laden physical theorizing or dynamical laws given that modal properties do not even weakly supervene upon the material and non-modal? (Weaver, 17)
If necessitism is probably false, then ontological naturalism still has a chance of being true. This is despite the fact that Weaver failed to show that the falsity of ontological naturalism is conditional on necessitism being true. A stronger route for him to have took is to argue that ontological naturalism is false iff necessitism is true because even if turns out that necessitism is true, ontological naturalism can also be true. Weaver has not established that they are mutually exclusive. Therefore, an atheist can feel no pressure at all when confronted with NPC. This is setting aside that Weaver appears to be undisturbed by the incongruity of our scientific and manifest images. One would think a reconciliation is required before proclaiming that the material world is organized via modally laden physical theories and dynamic laws that supervene, whether strongly or weakly, on the material world.
The primary issue with Weaver’s assessment is the assumption that all atheists must be committed to reductionist materialism or physicalism to be a consistent ontological naturalist. There are alternative naturalisms that easily circumvent Weaver’s NPC because such a naturalist would not be committed to any version of supervenience. As an example, this naturalist can hold, to put it as simply as possible, that scientific theories and models are merely representations. Therefore, the modality of scientific theories need not supervene on the material world at all. Given a representationalist account of scientific theories, perhaps something like a reverse supervenience is the case.
∎∀𝑥∀𝑦(∀𝐹 𝐹𝑥 ≡ 𝐹𝑦 ⟶ ∎∀R R𝑥 ≡ R𝑦 )
Necessarily for any entity x and for any entity y, [(if for any material property F, (x has F, just in case, y has F), then necessarily, for any representational property M, (x has M, just in case, y has M)].
Scientific theories and models are, in other words, more akin to impressionist paintings than a group of modally laden propositions. This is a more commonsense view in that a scientific model is a portrait of the real world. While there is a feedback between the model and the material world, in that theories have to be tested against reality, theories and models are not conceived in a vacuum. Real world observations impose the postulates of a theory or render a portrait that we call a model. Ptolemy misconstrued planetary orbits and attributed their motions to invisible spheres rather than the ellipses we are familiar with. He was not far off the mark, especially given that there is an intangible involved, namely gravity, but his impression was inexact. This is what a representationalist account of scientific theories would look like and whether something like reverse supervenience is necessary does no real harm to the account.
The last route atheists can take is in Weaver’s conflation of atheism and naturalism. Though I am sympathetic to the conflation, like Nielsen, who stated, “Naturalism, where consistent, is an atheism” (Nielsen, Kai. Naturalism and Religion. Amherst, N.Y.: Prometheus, 2001. 30. Print.), the same need not apply in vice versa. In other words, the following statement need not be the case: “atheism, where consistent, is a naturalism.” While I am also partial to that statement, even going as far as defending it in Philosophical Atheism: Counter Apologetics and Arguments For Atheism, that gods do not exist does not entail that no immaterial beings can exist. It could be the case that no iteration of god exists, but that ghosts do. Weaver’s conflation seems to rest on the assumption that naturalism is the antithesis of supernaturalism. Naturalism is also opposed to paranormal phenomena, so there can be defeaters of naturalism that are not also defeaters of atheism. In other words, a definitive proof of the paranormal does not debase the thesis that gods do not exist. A definitive proof of one’s great grandma roaming the estate does not imply that God or any other god undeniably exists. Nielsen’s statement implies only that a disproof of atheism is also a disproof of naturalism, but this does not work in the other direction.
Ultimately, in light of the composite argument above, one that I think is true to Weaver’s overall argument, fails to disprove ontological naturalism and atheism. There is far too much controversy in a number of places throughout his argument to regard it as convincing. The argument needs to be critically amended or entirely abandoned because in its present form, it does not meet its end. My rebuttal provides fertile ground for further exploration with respect to necessitism, contigentism, and any possible syntheses or alternatives, in addition to what is required to contradict naturalism and atheism. God, whether the idea Theist philosophers defend, or a more common concept tied to a particular religion, is still resolutely resigned to silence, hiddenness, and outright indifference. Therefore, Theists have their own onus that must go beyond even a successful argument against naturalism and/or atheism.
By R.N. Carmona
“If God really existed, it would be necessary to abolish Him.”Bakunin, Mikhail. God and State. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 2012. Print.
What if Christians were right? Imagine if apologetic arguments, the so-called classical proofs of God, held sway. Imagine also that the case for atheism proved untenable. Imagine a world in where the existence of the Christian god is undeniable. Christians do not have to imagine such a world. To them, the world I describe reflects precisely the world we live in. They either believe this and cannot be dissuaded of it or they claim to know that he exists even if they do not exactly understand how it is they know. For others, it is a matter of fervent faith. Whatever the case may be, for the Christian, God indeed exists.
For sake of argument, I am going to agree that we live in a reality perfectly in keeping with what Christians believe. Therefore, for the time being, God exists. Now that I have made this known, I endeavor to learn more about him. I think momentarily about where to acquire this knowledge about God. I want to know as much about him as possible. I do not care so much about what people say about him. Like any real being, there must be a direct way of getting to know him. Christians say quite a lot about prayer, but to spare my knees, I will forgo praying. There has to be another way then.
Even though there are Christians who are not convinced of Sola Scriptura and who do not believe the Bible to be the infallible Word of God, the fact remains that any theologian or apologist I can talk about God with derives what they know or what they think they know from the Bible. It is here that the earliest servants of God made their knowledge of him known to us. This is where I will look. What is even more exciting is that God has revealed to us integral information about his creation, his character, his motivations, and his plan.
In the Christian’s world, we have a word for the position I am now espousing: agnosticism. I do not know that this God exists. Nor do I know that he does not exist. I do not claim any knowledge either way. I am merely interested in this irrefutable case for God’s existence and I want to see if it is possible to get to know him in a more intimate way. My curiosity has led me to the Bible.
Despite Christian claims, Bakunin’s words continue to gnaw at me. What could he possibly mean by this? All I have ever heard is that God is good, merciful, and wants to bless you with life in abundance. He wants to forgive all of your sins, love you, protect you, and aide you in your times of need. So what on Earth is Bakunin on about!?
Since the Bible is the genesis of all knowledge of God, I have made it my mission to read every single word. I am fascinated by Christians who believe it is infallible. It is perfectly written, without fault, lies, or falsehoods, and it contains the very words of God. I wonder about those who profess this belief while having failed to read every word God has written. I will spare everyone the beginning because you are all familiar enough with the story of Adam and Eve. I will just pause to wonder why God would set Adam up for failure. If he did not want Adam to eat from the tree, then why was the tree in the Garden? Perhaps God wanted him to eat from the tree? Well then, why punish him and Eve for doing so? And why would he allow that wily serpent to be in their midst? Surely, God, being omniscient, had to have known that Eve would be powerless to resist the serpent’s deception. And if he saw Adam failing and the cascade of consequences that would follow, why not scrap this plan and start from a reality in where Adam succeeds in obeying him? This is the first, original sin and the reason why I am wretched, the Christian preaches. This just is not fair because who is to say that I would have failed where Adam did. Or you, for that matter! If any one of us would have failed in Adam’s stead, then we were already flawed to begin with. A perfect god created an imperfect man…on purpose.
Oh let’s set this all aside. He is good. He is merciful. He is loving. There will be an explanation for all of this that will help me to make sense of it, surely. I then make my way through Genesis and after Genesis 6 and 7, I am at a loss for words. A family of eight were the only righteous people on the planet!? Please tell me the infants and children were spared. I frantically scour the pages to make sure I am not missing something, but no matter how hard I look, God drowned the entire world except for Noah and his family. He drowned infants and children. He must have because there is just no way everyone on Earth at the time were adults. And aside from the two to seven of a kind spared on the arc, he also drowned every animal. There is something rather odd about the fact that God does not mention plants. I cannot bring myself to understand how they share in our blame.
Collect yourself here, please! Remember, he is good, merciful, loving. There is a reason for all this, I assure you! Enough with the stream of consciousness! If I am writing this now, certainly I have made my way through the entire Bible. That I have! With no hesitation at all, I understand Bakunin now. I cannot be an atheist because this god exists, but it is necessary to disobey, oppose, and ultimately abolish him. I am an advertheist! I stand against God. “Are you mad!?,” yells the Christian. Listen, for just a moment.
At midnight the Lord struck down all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, from the firstborn of Pharaoh who sat on his throne to the firstborn of the captive who was in the dungeon, and all the firstborn of the livestock. And Pharaoh rose up in the night, he and all his servants and all the Egyptians. And there was a great cry in Egypt, for there was not a house where someone was not dead. Exodus 12:29-30
“God has a reason! Your finite mind cannot question the infinite wisdom of God. Just because you’re not privy to why he did this doesn’t give you the right to question God. Who are you to question him!? Where do you get your morals from if not from God?”
So of all the things God could have revealed to us, he decides to leave this a mystery? Does he think so little of me that I would not comprehend a good explanation, assuming there is one, for why he did this? What exactly is the point of telling me this particular story if he isn’t going to address my moral outrage? I have a higher estimation of my own intelligence and I can’t picture modeling human societies after this approach to justice, namely punishing criminals by way of their infants. This does not sit right with me! And it shouldn’t sit right with you! This is why Bakunin said what he said and why I identify as an advertheist. It may be futile to oppose the most powerful being in the universe, but if slaying infants is his way of punishing people who offend him, I don’t want anything to do with this being. And you omitted this truth! You lied to me. You only ever said he was good, merciful, loving, protective, and yet this contradicts that.
“Then if you walk contrary to me and will not listen to me, I will continue striking you, sevenfold for your sins.And I will let loose the wild beasts against you, which shall bereave you of your children and destroy your livestock and make you few in number, so that your roads shall be deserted. Leviticus 26:21-22
“God has a reason!” Let me stop you right there. You’re painfully redundant. Just imagine that you broke the law and police come to your door with a warrant to arrest you. Everything goes as usual: you’re informed as to why you’re being arrested, you’re read your rights, and then you’re handcuffed. Just when you think you’re going to be put into the back of a police car, the officers tell you, “our K9s here are going to now kill your children; this is part of your punishment for breaking the law!” Is this justice? Would it be fair to punish your children, even in the event that you took someone’s life?
Now therefore, kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman who has known man by lying with him. But all the young girls who have not known man by lying with him keep alive for yourselves. Numbers 31:17-19
“Stop quoting the Qur’an!” No, my friend, this is from the Bible. Go see for yourself. You told me God is omniscient, he knows everything. Clearly, the ancients didn’t make much of what we call pedophilia, but if you want to keep claiming my morals are derived from your god, then how come he seems ignorant of pedophilia? The Ten Commandments say nothing about acting on sexual attraction toward children and God appears to tell the Israelites to keep the young girls as sex slaves. Did he not foresee a time in where pedophilia would be widely regarded as taboo and in where remonstrances against child sex trafficking would be common? Perhaps we are more moral than your god is. This is why you should disobey, oppose, and abolish him. If verses like this continue to show up, I will have no choice but to conclude that God is an evil being.
But if it makes no peace with you, but makes war against you, then you shall besiege it. And when the Lord your God gives it into your hand, you shall put all its males to the sword, but the women and the little ones, the livestock, and everything else in the city, all its spoil, you shall take as plunder for yourselves. And you shall enjoy the spoil of your enemies, which the Lord your God has given you. Deuteronomy 20:12-14
God also seems perfectly okay with rape. You mean to tell me that these women, who were forcibly removed from their homes, and this after their husbands were murdered, consented to sleeping with the very men who murdered their husbands? To add insult to injury, these men are now posing as the fathers of their little ones. In what world does God think this is okay? Why did he exclude from his revelation his justification for these actions? If he were good, merciful, loving, and wanted to spare me from eternal suffering, this would be explained because these verses will turn a lot of people away. I wanted to know God and from what I gather, he is like Hitler, Mussolini, and the despots and tyrants in the annals of history. It was necessary to overthrow and abolish these men. The same must be said of God if there is any good in you.
There are many more verses that show that this god of yours is a vicious being. What do you make of this? If God still speaks to you and reveals things to you, perhaps you can get him to explain himself. Plead with him and get him to make known this great justification you continue to allude to. Or will you now admit that there is no such justification and that it is merely a comfortable rationalization you appeal to in order to suppress doubt?
- Leviticus 26:27–29
- Judges 11:29-40
- 2 Kings 2:23-24
- Isaiah 13:15-16
- Isaiah 14:21
- Ezekiel 5:10
- Ezekiel 9:5-6
- Hosea 9:11-16
- Hosea 13:16
The list goes on and on. It really drives home what Dawkins said about God:
The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.Dawkins, Richard. The God Delusion. New York: Bantam Books, 2006. Print.
I am grateful that this being does not really exist, but if he did, as the Christian continues to believe, it would be necessary to abolish him. I would live my life in open rebellion to this god, even if it meant losing my life. God is nothing more than a celestial grifter, the Christians his obedient marks who have gone as far as making atrocities legal so that they can carry them out in his name. This is why I am perpetually flabbergasted by their claims to a moral high ground, to a transcendent, objective morality. There is no way one can pretend, let alone honestly say, that they derive their moral knowledge from a being who mandated a penal system based on guilt by paternity/maternity, pedophilia, sex trafficking, rape, infanticide, and genocide. If Christians are not going to conclude that this being does not exist, then it is a moral imperative that they motion to abolish God. I would not offer even the barest obeisance to this being, let alone devote what remains of my life to him. Neither should you.
By R.N. Carmona
“A little philosophy inclineth man’s mind to atheism; but depth in philosophy bringeth men’s minds about to religion.” — Francis Bacon
Even when philosophy was considered the handmaiden of theology, this statement was patently false. One need only consider the methods of philosophy to disabuse oneself of the notion that depth in philosophy convinces one that religious claims are true or more accurately, that Christian claims are true. Philosophy, first and foremost, is a pre-Christian enterprise. It may not appear that way because works that were not palatable to Christian sentiments were destroyed. Carlo Rovelli outlines this succinctly:
I often think that the loss of the works of Democritus in their entirety is the greatest intellectual tragedy to ensue from the collapse of the old classical civilization…We have been left with all of Aristotle, by way of which Western thought reconstructed itself, and nothing of Democritus. Perhaps if all the works of Democritus had survived, and nothing of Aristotle’s, the intellectual history of our civilization would have been better … But centuries dominated by monotheism have not permitted the survival of Democritus’s naturalism. The closure of the ancient schools such as those of Athens and Alexandria, and the destruction of all the texts not in accordance with Christian ideas was vast and systematic, at the time of the brutal antipagan repression following from the edicts of Emperor Theodisius, which in 390-391 declared that Christianity was to be the only and obligatory religion of the empire. Plato and Aristotle, pagans who believed in the immortality of the soul or in the existence of a Prime Mover, could be tolerated by a triumphant Christianity. Not Democritus.Rovelli, Carlo. Reality is Not What it Seems: The Journey to Quantum Gravity. New York: Riverhead, 2018. 32-33. Print.
The suppression of philosophical ideas that do not blend well with Christianity persists today, albeit in a different form. Since Christianity does not have the sociopolitical power it once had, these tendencies are confined to Christian publications, institutions, and of course, churches. What one encounters in all of these areas is the Christian propensity to overstate philosophical schools or theories that appear to support Christian claims coupled with a disingenuous presentation or outright censorship of competing thought. This is how one gets online Christians, with little to no college experience, professing an immoveable foundationalism, usually stemming from washed up philosophers turned theologians or apologists, like Paul Moser and Alvin Plantinga. Given the suppression of the competition, Christians like this often do not realize how thoroughly retrograde their assertions are. Moser’s opponents recognized, over three decades ago, that foundationalism was out of fashion and that Moser’s iteration was flawed (e.g., Laurence Bonjour, Kevin Possin, Mark Timmons). That is more true today than it was then. Then this sort of Christian will arrogantly claim that Moser’s arguments against the competition were ironclad all while ignoring that in order for foundationalism to remain out of fashion, his arguments must have been defeated by other philosophers.
Wesley Wildman, Associate Professor of Philosophy, Theology, and Ethics at Boston University, states:
The kind of epistemic foundationalism that has prevailed in most modern Western philosophy has now mostly collapsed. Its artless insistence on certainty in the foundations of knowledge proved unsuitable even for mathematics and natural sciences, and it was a particularly inapt standard for big-question philosophy.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. 11. Print.
He adds that since Peirce, Dewey, and later, Quine, a thorough rejection of foundationalism was followed by a fallibilist epistemological framework. This is how philosophy proceeds in the modern day. The history of philosophy should be enough to disabuse such Christians of their tendency to think philosophy was and still is beholden to theology. Unfortunately, it does not suffice. In that same vein, the history of philosophy ought to remind them of the origin of science, in the works of natural philosophers like Boyle, Galileo, Harvey, Kepler, and Newton. Perhaps that would make them more capable of taking C.S. Peirce’s timeless advice:
What I would recommend is that every person who wishes to form an opinion concerning fundamental problems, should first of all make a complete survey of human knowledge, should take note of all the valuable ideas in each branch of science, should observe in just what respect each has been successful and where it has failed, in order that in the light of the thorough acquaintance so attained of the available materials for a philosophical theory and of the nature and strength of each, he may proceed to the study of what the problem of philosophy consists in, and of the proper way of solving it.Charles Sanders Peirce (1891. “The Architecture of Theories”, The Essential Peirce: Selected Philosophical Writings (1867-1893). Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1992. 292. Print.
There is a sense in which philosophy underpins every other discipline and as such, breadth in philosophy is not only a knowledge of philosophy of language, mind, religion, science, and time, in addition to epistemology, ethics, metaphysics, ontology, and so on, but also a knowledge of areas of inquiry that make use of philosophical methodology, particularly logic, reasoning, and the clarification of important distinctions. Furthermore, if the aim of an enterprise is to locate the truth of a matter, then this should be of interest to anyone who purports to have a real enthusiasm for philosophy. To ignore the conclusions of other disciplines is to behave in a patently unphilosophical manner, but I digress.
Wildman is perhaps one of the more important thinkers in the philosophy of religion because he is at the forefront of defining how thinkers in his field will proceed. He recognizes already, unlike Christian theologians and philosophers, that philosophy of religion, as well as philosophy in general, have been divorced from Christianity and apologetics. Philosophers of religion are moving away from Christianized treatments of the issues they discuss, as well as the search for a personal, anthropomorphic deity. In defining the prominent theological traditions, Wildman makes it abundantly clear that the central arguments that got these traditions started, as Kant showed, do not prove the existence of God. This applies most especially to any variant of the Cosmological Argument.
He says, for instance, of the ontotheological tradition that if the entire tradition were based on the ontological argument, “most philosophers would probably consign it to the dustbin of history — and not without reason, despite the ballooning contemporary literature on the subject” (Ibid., 251). He goes on to say that the tradition is far broader and thrives separately from the ontological argument, specifically in that it does not rely on the argument’s anthropomorphic thinking. Similarly, of the cosmotheological tradition, Wildman expresses frustration resulting from the stubborn refusal to field nontheistic arguments. He adds: “Many religious philosophers nowadays recognize that the cosmotheological approach does not produce results that are immediately applicable to the religious beliefs of living theistic religions” (Ibid., 258). Therefore, this makes the tradition useful for nontheistic approaches as well. Wildman makes similar observations as it pertains to the physicotheological, pyschotheological, axiotheological, and other traditions he discusses.
Philosophers of religion are taking Nielsen’s advice, indeed their only recourse at this point after the obstinate insistence on the part of Christians to keep repeating these arguments as though they have yet to encounter any defeaters. This is precisely my gripe with Christians on social media. They have been so taken by Bacon’s statement that they think there is truth to it and that moreover, depth and breadth are equivalent. Further still, depth in a particular author that convinces you is not depth in philosophy. Even if a Christian can name ten philosophers that align with their views, they are doing nothing but indulging their confirmation bias and speaking to the fact that since roughly 30 percent of the world population is Christian, it is then no surprise that a good percentage of scholars harbor Christian sentiments or are sympathetic to Christianity. With respect to the arguments underlying the traditions Wildman discusses, Nielsen states:
It is a waste of time to rehearse arguments about the proofs or evidences for God or immortality. There are no grounds—or at least no such grounds—for belief in God or belief that God exists and/or that we are immortal. Hume and Kant (perhaps with a little rational reconstruction from philosophers like J.L. Mackie and Wallace Matson) pretty much settled that. Such matters have been thoroughly thrashed out and there is no point of raking over the dead coals. Philosophers who return to them are being thoroughly retrograde.Nielsen, Kai. Naturalism and Religion. Amherst, N.Y.: Prometheus, 2001. 399. Print.
Depth and breadth in philosophy would incline a man’s mind to a wide range of possibilities. Atheism and theism are not the only options on the table. Depth and breadth would also disabuse any would-be philosopher of the tendency to think in binaries. When philosophers speak of distinctions, there are not always two choices on offer. Sometimes what muddles the pursuit of proper distinctions is the fact that there are several options to consider. This is often lost on Christians, especially the less initiated who spend their time engaging in sophistry on social media. If that were not the case, they would realize, without much in the way of effort, that the notion of a personal being is utterly at odds with a deity who sparks the universe to then supervise its evolution via physical laws and eventually, evolutionary drivers that finally and ultimately result in his desired creative end: humankind. The notion is incongruous with the virtually instantaneous creation described in Genesis. That is setting aside that the fine-tuning of the parameters just right for life is owed to the gradual freezing and entropy of the universe. There is no indication that the parameters were decided from the start and as such, the idea of a silent creator of this sort is indistinguishable from the conclusion that the universe simply does not require a creator.
Ultimately, breadth and depth in philosophy disabuses one’s mind of binaries. Belief in a personal god or the lack thereof are not the only options on offer. The fact that I identify as an atheist is a consequence of what the evidence seems to dictate. Moreover, the ad hoc inclusion of an agent, especially as it pertains to causation, always struck me as suspicious. That is, until I realized that causation and teleology have long diverged. Therefore, if a thing or an event or an entire universe can be explained without recourse to an agent of any kind, it is unnecessary to attach such an agent to a self-contained and consistent explanation. It is precisely because I realize that the inclusion of a god in any mode of explanation is simply inadvisable that I identify as an atheist. However, since my mind is free of binaries and confirmation bias and other cognitive shortcomings that will hinder anyone from finding the truth of a matter, I am, as I have always been, open to being wrong. Like Wildman though, I realize that if there is a hand behind the curtain, it is unlike anything that most modern religions describe and furthermore, it may be vastly inappropriate to tarnish this being with the monicker of god. Perhaps the concept is so invariably tied to the Abrahamic monotheisms, that there is no real way to isolate the concept. This would imply that philosophers of religion are in pursuit of a sufficiently advanced alien race that may be simulating a universe for purposes of understanding philosophical big-questions like volition in higher sentient beings, consciousness, universals, mathematics, and so on. Or perhaps they are perpetually in pursuit of themselves, the proverbial cat spinning after its own tail.
My purpose here is to respond to a post published by Steven Dunn over at Philosophic Augustine. I met Steven several years ago in conversations on Tumblr. Over the years, he has maintained a resolute interest in philosophy, which is something I greatly admire about him. Few things remain constant over several years, so the fact that he has retained his passion for philosophy is impressive. He’s also grown a lot with respect to his knowledge and that’s to be applauded.
Prior to reproducing our discussion hitherto, I want to be clear about what I’ll be looking to accomplish in this response: a) address his latest response that features Aristotelian personalism and metaphysics b) circle back around to Bill Vallicella’s argument. I think it’s important not to lose sight of the argument, especially given that that’s the reason I commented on Steven’s Facebook post to begin with. I will make it clear that even if one granted the undeniable personhood of a fetus, it still would not follow that an abortion is equivalent to murder. With that said, here is the discussion as it stands; my reply to Steven’s latest response will follow.
Steven Dunn: Philosopher Bill Vallicella over at his blog Maverick Philosopher considers a brief but important argument:
(a) Abortion is murder.
(b) Abortion ought to be illegal.
The question: Can one consistently hold (a) and not (b)? Suppose an added proposition:
(a) Abortion is murder.
(b) Abortion ought to be illegal.
(c) Murder is illegal.
I posted this argument on my personal Facebook page which wrought the response of one of my old friends from the Tumblr blogosphere, R. N. Carmona. Carmona is a philosophic tour de force, one of whom I’m familiar with conversing and debating since I was 17 in 2013 (now I’m 24).
There was a lot of heated exchanges between me and Carmona. After learning of his upcoming book, Ending the Abortion Debate, I knew that this issue was something he was well-versed in and felt passionate about. The following exchange doesn’t do full justice to Carmona’s overall position, but the highlights I’m sure are as he would see fit. Enjoy!
R. N. Carmona: (a) is unsound, hence making the whole argument unsound. Aborting an embryo or non-viable fetus simply is NOT murder. Most abortions happen before week 16, with a majority of them happening before week 9. At no point in those times does a fetus resemble an infant and more importantly, the hallmarks of a person aren’t present yet. That happens at around week 22, hence the hard cut off in most states at 20 weeks. Specifically, EEG waves register in the neocortex at around week 22 and the neocortex isn’t full developed till around week 36. I’d argue that it’s murder after week 22.
The only time I make exceptions after that many weeks is if there’s a threat on the mother’s life, but if the choice is between the quality of life of a mom and her family and a nine week old fetus, it’s an easy choice. Keeping abortion legal prior to week 20 reduces maternal mortality, which, if you’re pro-life, you should care about. Moreover, restrictive policies increase infant and maternal mortality. We’ve had lots of tries at the conservative Christian way: Northern Island, the Muslim World, the Philippines, etc. Restrictive policies do not work.
This is precisely what my next book is about. Want to end abortion? Get behind the issue. Address poverty, lack of education, lack of access to contraception, domestic violence, etc. That’s the only way to slow the rate of abortion. Restricting it won’t work and those conservative states that have passed heartbeat bills are about to find out the hard way.
Steven Dunn: There is actually a large extent in which I agree with you. I’ve read a lot of your writing on this issue and I appreciate you’ve pointed the dangerous restrictive policies that do currently exist. There is also an importance as you say in addressing poverty, lack of education, etc.
However, my initial problem began when you claimed that aborting an embryo or non-viable fetus is not murder. Even though non-viable fetuses have no chance of survival, that still does not warrant moral permissibility to end its life. I don’t see where the line of moral difference changes with an embryo, fetus, or fully grown human infant. Is it a spatial difference? Is it a temporal difference? Does the week, day, or trimester matter when ending the life of a *potential human?
Of course, we could have a metaphysically more significant conversation than the kinds of questions I’m asking you. I just think that these questions are a good starting point. Also, what is the “hallmarks of a person”?
R. N. Carmona: The hallmark of a person is quite simply, the consciousness attributed to human beings and higher order animals like dolphins and the great apes: neuroplasticity, memory acquisition, language capacity, etc. Even simpler than that, the capacity to apprehend taste, texture, sound, and so on. Even them who are mentally disabled, assuming they aren’t blind or deaf, can have these experiences. The blind and deaf, though lacking an important sense, still have propensities for memory acquisition, language, and so on.
And that’s the difference: spatio-temporal. Of space, because the potential person now occupies a uterus, taking nutrients from the would-be mother; of time because the potential person is currently not in the world, i.e. is not a citizen of a given country; is not protected by laws.
Potential simply is not enough. The fetus is potentially stillborn or potentially going to die of SIDs or will potentially be an ectopic pregnancy or will potentially be born to become a serial killer that will make Ted Bundy blush. You can’t speak of potential as though it’s solely and predictably positive; potential can be very negative. In fact, this child can be the reason the mother dies and leaves behind a husband to raise several kids, including the newborn, on his own. Potential simply isn’t enough to obligate a woman to continue a pregnancy she’d rather terminate.
So yes, the week matters because so long as a fetus isn’t viable, abortion should be permissible. The moral difference changes once the fetus is viable. Potentiality simply isn’t a good argument. Viability is a much stronger argument.
Furthermore, the moral difference changes when purposeful modification comes into play. Sure, an infant doesn’t have that capacity: it doesn’t, for example, set goals for itself. However, the parents, once they are told that the fetus is developing well, start to purposely modify on the fetus’ behalf: they start thinking of a name, buying clothing, setting up its room, putting money in its college fund, etc.
No parent, even if they’re a Christian conservative, begins to purposely modify at conception or even in the early weeks. It’s simply not enough to go on and tells you that, behaviorally speaking, most parents write off potential. Potential isn’t enough for anyone to go on and that’s why most people need something concrete before they begin to purposely modify on their baby’s behalf.
So yes, there’s a simple line to draw between a non-viable fetus and a viable one. I can speak of organismality as well, namely comparing and contrasting between organisms to come to a good conclusion regarding what a non-viable fetus most closely resembles, and it’s clear that they don’t resemble a newborn. There are marked differences, but I digress.
Steven Dunn: I would clarify that you are *technically correct in saying that potentiality is not enough. A potential X of course is not an X. Because I am a potential speaker of the French language doesn’t mean I can speak the French language. However, potentialities are still nonetheless grounded in being: they are realities not merely possibilities.
They are actual human beings with various potentials.
Though they are not realized among differing spatial and temporal locations/positions, I don’t think you’ve provided a meaningful account of persons. Human persons, as I see it, are instances of personalized being; persons possess phenomenological qualities that make them eligible for relationships – or interpersonal love. I think our definitions of persons should capture something specific (and simple), rather than be a construct of various qualifiers (neuroplasticity, apprehension of the senses, etc).
One biological example worth mentioning that I think you’ll appreciate is the cognitive capacity of bonobos – which is one of my favorite areas of primatology to examine their analogous behavior with humans. They’re sympathetic, they can experience pain, they are highly intelligent, they can have an extensive non-verbal vocabulary, etc.
Despite these striking qualities, they do not fit under the definition of persons I’ve provided above.
What does it mean to be a real person? A couple things: (i) what W. Norris Clark has called the “participation structure of the universe”; rational-intelligibility that allows for human persons and the universe to find meaningful relations/predictions; (ii) existence as a dynamic act of presence and (iii) action as a [self] manifestation of inner-being.
I think your definition of persons is merely conditional; it’s dynamic but not exhaustive. Human beings – that is, if a personalized being possesses such potentialities – are intrinsically valuable; there can be no moral difference among this being’s spatial or temporal location.
In summary. . . I think you are raising issues that aren’t typically addressed by conservatives. It’s important that we better handle areas of women’s reproductive healthcare, which can be dealt with through better and intentional education, personal conviction, etc. However, I think we need to agree that the moral question is not somehow addressed because we’ve raised current social or political problems surrounding abortion. There are consequences and symptoms that need to be taken care of, by all means. However, if structurally we are dealing with the intentional ending of a human life then we need to talk about it.
R. N. Carmona: I disagree there. What I hear is Aristotelian language here and I reject his metaphysics all the way through. Potentialities are not realities grounded in being. I think even Aristotle makes a distinction between potentiality and actuality, and as I recall, he doesn’t conflate them in this manner.
Persons do, however, possess phenomenological qualities, like phenomenal consciousness, but that isn’t what makes them eligible for relationships and interpersonal love. What’s needed there is simple empathy and bonobos and chimps, in general, are capable of that; that’s one reason why some advanced nations recognize them as persons. So rather than a construct of qualifiers, it’s more a recognition of qualifiers taken together to get a basic definition of person.
The base anthropocentrism of theists doesn’t allow them to accept that other higher order animals are persons, and that’s what you’re doing here. Dolphins call each other by name and remember individuals for decades. Elephants can also remember individuals after years of not seeing them. So while there’s certainly a distinction between a human person and a dolphin person, there is overlap that qualifies them both and that overlap is found in the sciences. The issue here is that your definition relies less on science and more so on an implied belief in the soul or on metaphysics rather than science.
I agree with (I) as it’s pretty much purposeful modification paraphrased. (II) relies heavily on Aristotelian metaphysics and I reject it outright. (III) stems from two, but alludes to libertarian action of will, which I don’t think anyone has. There’s no [self] without the [other] and other is much more crucial in action, especially willful. I think human persons can change course, but only after realizing enough deterministic conditions underlying their actions, thus empowering them to experience determinants that may lead to an overall change of course.
Think of the proverbial alcoholic; he doesn’t willfully change his bad habit, but what he does is “change” a given number of determinants so that his actions may change and out of a recognition that if he doesn’t make these changes, he is pretty much enabled: a) stops associating with friends who drink regularly b) doesn’t go to bars when invited c) goes to rehab. And so on and so on and so on.
Action itself isn’t in a vacuum, but dynamic and intertwined with the flux of all there is. So human potential takes course in a deterministic manner and any human looking to have any semblance of control over that will reposition herself with respect to determinants. A fetus is incapable of this sort of purposeful modification, which I think is the most actualized of all.
So my definition, while not alluding to souls or anything religious, is also sufficient because it recognizes the role of the other in the shaping of the self. The embryo and non-viable fetus do not interact with the other in the manner in which persons do and it is simply potentiality and not actuality, to use your language. What is commonly aborted is (what can be) rather than (what is), so that spatio-temporal difference lays the groundwork for a moral difference and the moral difference lies in purposeful modification which I think your (I) paraphrases.
Any metaphysic that doesn’t account for the other, even something as arbitrary as a chair, isn’t complete. Hegel understood this and is the forefather, I think, of modern metaphysics, starting in the phenomenologists that soon followed him. Hurssel relied a lot on Aristotle too and I’m not alone in seeing that he was mistaken for doing so, but again, I digress.
Steven Dunn: I would respond to your outlook on Aristotelian personalism as not fully appreciating what the system has to offer. In our personal conversations on abortion I have mentioned to you that yes, personalism and the potentiality principle has largely been carried and grounded in Catholic moral theology. I understand, therefore, we both don’t share views in the inspiration of Christian theology.
Hence, we need to find anthropological and philosophical commonalities in which we can meaningfully proceed in a discourse about human persons and what exactly is developing in the womb. The best system that does this, in my view, is Aristotle’s conception of being from his Metaphysics and the further extension from Thomas Aquinas’ doctrine of persons (with some modifications).
Aquinas argued that persons are that which is “perfected in all of nature.” This essentially means that persons are not merely special “modes” of being amongst others, but that personhood is being when it is allowed to be at its fullest. In other words, persons are not restricted by sub-intelligent matter. There are a number of reasons why persons – humans – possess the special status that they do, and while I think there are theological reasons for this I think I can still demonstrate that apart from any inspired or “revealed” source.
First, Aquinas’ notion of person was conscious of the distinction between person and nature, because providing a consistent account of personhood meant that a consideration of God as Triune (one divine nature amongst three persons) and Christ as the God-man (divine person possessing two natures) needed to be contextually consistent.
Therefore, it has been an accusation by some leading Catholic philosophers (Wojtyla, Ratzinger, Clarke, etc) that Aquinas falls short of a comprehensive philosophical definition of person because the medievals relied primarily on the Boethian definition of person: “An individual substance of a rational nature.” Hence, I would argue for a further inclusion of the concept of “relation,” which is fundamental to our understanding of what it means “to be.”
Aquinas moved away from the what has been called “self-diffusiveness” of the Good as seen by the NeoPlatonists (the collaboration of the Good with all “substances”) and instead moves to Supreme Being, where Existence (esse) – as I said before – now becomes the root of all perfection. Supreme Being is the subsistent Act of Existence, where now the self-diffusive Good now becomes self-communicative Love.
Hence we have three primary qualities for the relationability of persons: being is (1) self-communicative (showing that persons are intelligible [ratio] by their actuality); (2) being is self-manifesting (persons are immediately relatable to other beings); and (3) being is intrinsically active (persons are not merely present but actively present).
Suppose a being for example that existed in reality but didn’t or couldn’t manifest itself to other beings, or if it didn’t or couldn’t act in any way. If this kind of being lacked such properties then other beings couldn’t have knowledge of its existence; it would be almost as if it had no being at all. Now imagine if all beings existed in this sort of way; the universe itself wouldn’t be connected in the unified sense that philosophers and scientists typically speak of the rationality of the universe.
Now combine this with the potentiality principle. According to Current Anthropology (2013), potentiality is a principle not so foreign to them: potentiality “denotes a hidden force determined to manifest itself – something that with or without intervention has its future built into it.”1
Let me be clear that potentiality is the only relevant metaphysical principle worth considering for abortion. My position, to be clear, is not:
- X is a creature of a certain sort.
- Creatures of this sort have right R.
- Therefore, X has a right R.
Premise 2 of course begs the question in favor of what I want to prove. In summary, my position is that the full and perfect realization of being is always inherent in its nature. All living things, including mindless plants, dolphins and gorillas have a proper end or “good” which is naturally directed within their nature – even from a formless or potential state. Nothing can exist without potentials, and potentials cannot be realized apart from something actual.
Now the metaphysical picture I’ve provided is not mere conjecture but is what historically has served as the foundation of Western intelligentsia for over 1,500 years, until the advent of the modern model by Descartes and Newton. And I would argue that that move away from the model of classical metaphysics has been one of the greatest errors and blunders of Western thought. It was an illegitimate move because it’s not as if new physical discoveries were made, hence “outdating” the Aristotelian system.
Descartes, among other French intellectuals at his time were responsible for the shift away from potential/actual, the four causes, and his metaphysic of being. Bad move.
R.N. Carmona: While not mere conjecture and arguably the foundation of Western intellgentsia for over 1,500 years, one would have to gloss over important bits of history to make that argument. One of the more significant bits of history I have in mind is the Christian and Muslim censorship and destruction of texts that were not in agreement with monotheism, especially works that were of a more naturalistic flavor. Carlo Rovelli puts it succinctly:
I often think that the loss of the works of Democritus in their entirety is the greatest intellectual tragedy to ensue from the collapse of the old classical civilization…We have been left with all of Aristotle, by way of which Western thought reconstructed itself, and nothing of Democritus. Perhaps if all the works of Democritus had survived, and nothing of Aristotle’s, the intellectual history of our civilization would have been better … But centuries dominated by monotheism have not permitted the survival of Democritus’s naturalism. The closure of the ancient schools such as those of Athens and Alexandria, and the destruction of all the texts not in accordance with Christian ideas was vast and systematic, at the time of the brutal antipagan repression following from the edicts of Emperor Theodisius, which in 390-391 declared that Christianity was to be the only and obligatory religion of the empire. Plato and Aristotle, pagans who believed in the immortality of the soul or in the existence of a Prime Mover, could be tolerated by a triumphant Christianity. Not Democritus.2
It’s not a mere coincidence that Aristotelian metaphysics stood in fashion for so long, nor was it established that the Aristotelian system was better than other systems. In that same time period, theists, especially Christians, held a virtual monopoly on ideas and as such, metaphysical frameworks with more naturalistic bents were destroyed or censored. Due to this, there was a reluctance on the part of skeptics and naturalists to offer a naturalistic metaphysical system. They were rightfully afraid of The Inquisition. So, Aristotelian metaphysics didn’t dominate the landscape because it was the best framework, but rather, because the game was rigged in its favor.
Copernicus and Galileo, for instance, dealt with the consequences of challenging theistic thought. Copernicus’ De revolutionibus “was forbidden by the Congregation of the Index ‘until corrected’, and in 1620 these corrections were indicated. Nine sentences, by which the heliocentric system was represented as certain, had to be either omitted or changed.”3 Galileo’s house arrest is a well-known historical fact and there’s no need to tread over old coals here. More to the point, “Bruno [was]…much more of a philosopher than a scientist. He felt that a physicist’s field of study was the tangible universe, so he challenged any line of thought that utilized nonphysical elements and avoided what he considered the juvenile exercise of calculation. To him, computational astronomy missed the true significance of the sky.”4 Bruno held to eight purportedly heretical theses and they served as the reason for his execution. Among these theses were patently naturalistic positions: the universe is spatially infinite, there are other planets very similar to ours, there were humans before Adam and Eve, the Earth moves in accordance with Copernican theory.5 In all but one of these positions, Bruno has been proven correct. So the notion that Aristotle’s system is best overall or, at the very least with respect to defining personhood, is already disputable because as has been demonstrated, competing, especially naturalistic, frameworks were discouraged. Despite this, before I set out on my own exploration with regards to what best explains potentiality, I will challenge Aristotle’s personalism.
Even if I were to grant that Aristotle offered much in the way of explaining personhood, there’s still the question of how any of these criteria apply to embryos and early fetuses. Take for instance, (1) self-communicative (showing that persons are intelligible [ratio] by their actuality). To my mind, embryos and early fetuses are not self-communicative nor intelligible, and that’s because they have yet to develop the organ that makes this possible, namely the brain. Now, while I recognize that Aristotle offers an interesting conundrum worth considering, i.e., as you put it, “Nothing can exist without potentials, and potentials cannot be realized apart from something actual,” I don’t see that a fetus’ obvious intelligibility and self-communication follows. As we will see shortly, there’s a better explanation for the notion that nothing can exist without potentials and that no potentials can be realized separate from something actual.
In like manner, let’s consider also (2) being is self-manifesting (persons are immediately relatable to other beings). On the assumption that Aristotle was correct, I don’t see how embryos and early fetuses are self-manifesting and immediately relatable to other beings. If anything, it is only relatable to its parents and siblings, assuming they had children already. Since it has not emerged independently within the world, it is not relatable to other people, the ecosystem in its locale, nor the wider biosphere. The fact that it isn’t independently within the world makes so that it isn’t relatable to any other beings. Furthermore, it’s relation to its parents and siblings is best explained and anticipated by genetics, which we will get to shortly.
Let’s also consider (3) being is intrinsically active (persons are not merely present but actively present). Again, embryos and early fetuses are not present, let alone actively present for the same reasons they aren’t self-manifesting. The fact that it is not independently within the world, once again, proves problematic for the third criterion. I can grant that it is actively present once born, for its parent(s) is now self-modifying on its behalf. It is interacting with other persons in a very obvious manner and relies on them for its physical, emotional, and psychological growth, growth that is crucial for its potential to eventually become a person who has a theory of mind, a sense of self, an ego, memories, desires, goals, and so on. Within the womb, that simply is not the case early in any pregnancy. The woman’s voice and music can help with brain development starting at 29-33 weeks. So harkening back to what I said earlier, interpersonal interaction is only possible when the brain is sufficiently developed, which strongly favors the thesis that the brain is integral to a human person rather than a soul.
Now to the matter of what better explains the predictable potential of a human fetus, after which three conclusions should be immediately clear: either 1) that we do not require a metaphysical explanation for potentiality and personhood or 2) that given genetics and evolution, what’s necessary is a metaphysical framework that is congruous with and readily predicts scientific facts and 3) that nothing can exist without potentials and that potentials are not realized without actuals has been solved.
One of the primary reasons I reject Christian theism as a worldview is because it gives human beings an undue “special status” all while ignoring human evolution. Human potential or more specifically, homo sapien potential wouldn’t exist without an ancestor’s (probably homo antecessor) potential. Furthermore, homo sapien potential would not have been realized without the actuality of ancestors and likewise, without the divergence of ancestors, great apes would not have progressed as they have. As you well know, we share about 98.5% DNA with chimpanzees and some 96% with gorillas, two facts that establish a common ancestry. So this “special status” is actually an example of special pleading because it’s not at all clear why chimps and gorillas do not qualify for such status; also, neanderthals, given what we currently know about them, are in many respects like homo sapiens (a fact that made their interbreeding possible) and as such, would qualify for such status without question. Yet on Christian theism, no human ancestor qualifies for this status, an attitude I find very suspicious.
Human evolution, like evolution in toto, has an underlying genetic component that explains these variations in populations over time. That same genetic component continues among all populations of species and thus, better explains “the perfect realization of being…inherent in the nature of mindless plants, dolphins, and gorillas.” Furthermore, potentiality does not denote a “hidden force determined to manifest itself,” but a rather statistically predictable pattern present in the genome of an organism; it isn’t hidden at all, but rather in plain sight. The pattern is so predictable that one can readily explain how and why that which is formless becomes something with form.
So prior to circling back to Vallicella’s argument, I will offer a brief overview showing how the actuality of parents results in the potentiality and probable actuality of a child. It is also important to note that given genetics, there are a number of factors that determine morphological sex, eye color, hair color, skin tone, and so on. So let’s imagine that in universe A, Jack and Jill have a baby girl named Janice and that in universe B, they have a boy named Jake. Let’s consider the important differences in each child, differences that explain why Janice exists in A and Jake in B.
In universe A, Jack and Jill are both 24-years-old when they agree to having a child. Jack and Jill are wealthy and have spent the last four years of their relationship traveling. Neither of them are stressed and have no trouble being happy and grateful for all that they have. When considering that high stress increases the probability of having a boy, it is no surprise that Jill gives birth to Janice nine months later. Yet that still does not explain why Janice has brown eyes (though both her parents have blue eyes), her mother’s hair color, and her father’s hitchhiker thumb. In the main, had another sperm fertilized the egg, Janice very likely would have been born with completely different features. Despite low stress levels, there’s also the fact that Jack has five sisters and no brothers, therefore increasing the probability of having a girl. This still does not explain why Janice has brown rather than blue eyes, blonde rather than brown hair, and a hitchhiker thumb rather than a straight thumb.
Allelic combination is important in explaining her phenotypic features. Should both parents pass on recessive genes, Janice is born with a hitchhiker thumb. Or alternatively, if there’s a combination of dominant and recessive genes, she may have a chance to have a hitchhiker thumb or a straight thumb. If there’s a combination of dominant genes, then she will predictably have a straight thumb (see reference). Eye color tends to be similar, albeit more complicated.
For instance, the assumption is that since Janice’s parents have blue eyes, she will also have blue eyes. There are two genes integral to determine eye pigmentation: OCA2 and HERC2. An active HERC2 activates OCA2, which determines pigment; given this, we know that this is what explains Janice’s brown eyes. Her counterpart in universe B, Jake, has either a broken HERC2 or a broken OCA2 and therefore, has blue eyes (see reference). He also has brown hair and a straight thumb. He has a straight thumb because instead of a recessive and dominant gene (what we find in Janice’s genome), we find two dominant genes in Jake’s genome. Their disparate hair colors are also explained in this manner as well. It is also likely that in Universe B, Jill gave birth to Jake because of the high levels of stress she experienced during pregnancy. Jack and Jill decided to conceive at the ages of 31. During the pregnancy, they moved from Middletown, NY to New York City because they both wanted more job opportunities. The crowded commutes, her career, the noise pollution, among other things, stressed Jill out to no end and this increased the probability of having a boy, hence (probably) the birth of Jake.
Form, likewise, follows suit. Drosophila have been important in research in evolutionary biology and genetics. In observing curious mutations in these flies, geneticists discovered homeotic genes that determine the body pattern of all organisms. The research gets very technical and makes for quite the tangent, but homeotic, or Hox genes themselves come from a Hox-like ancestor that explains the similarities Hox genes have from organism to organism (see reference). The graphic makes the extrapolations of their research clear.
What is also clear is that the following turns out to be false: “All living things, including mindless plants, dolphins and gorillas have a proper end or “good” which is naturally directed within their nature – even from a formless or potential state.” It’s not so much that there’s a natural tendency even from a formless, potential state, but rather, that there’s an evolutionary and genetic history that informs how a comparatively formless embryo develops into a human being. There are also traits that are arbitrary as there’s no purpose as to why someone would have brown rather than blue eyes or a hitchhiker thumb rather than a straight thumb. Some traits are inconsequential with respect to who a given person is.
Aristotelian metaphysics is considered outmoded by contemporary philosophers and scientists because it is incongruous with various scientific paradigms. Setting cosmology and physics aside, as I think I’ve shown, Aristotle’s concept of a person is incongruous with evolution and genetics and the system did nothing in the way of anticipating the advent of evolutionary biology and genetics. His system speaks of personhood in a patently non-naturalistic or even supernatural manner whereas genetics and evolution show that personhood is linked to certain types of purely physical organisms. What is required is either no metaphysical framework at all (à la logical positivists) or a framework that coincides with modern philosophical and scientific paradigms. Aristotle’s system doesn’t accomplish that and far from a “bad move,” Copernicus, Galileo, Newton, and everyone who eventually stood on their shoulders have every justification to move away from the Aristotelian system. Although interesting, that potentials can’t exist apart from actuals is explained by genetics for that which is animate and memetics for that which is inanimate. In fact, Aristotle was closer to correct with regards to universals and particulars, an explanation that can be applied to inanimate objects rather than living entities. Yet despite the potential for a human embryo to become an actual human person, a roughly predictable, naturalistic set of occurrences take place before every human birth. The process is also a fragile one as an injury to the would-be mother can end the pregnancy; genetic anomalies and an implantation anywhere other than the uterus can make it so that this potentiality never results in an actuality. Aristotle’s system also doesn’t explain the fragility of this process not just in humans, but in other organisms as well. It should therefore be clear that conclusions aforementioned have been firmly established and that if metaphysics remains a concern for philosophers, we have to do better than what Aristotle and his disciples rendered us.
Now to circle all the way back to Vallicella’s argument. Even if one were to grant the undeniable personhood of a fetus, either through the medium of Aristotelian metaphysics or another metaphysical framework altogether, there’s still the issue that the intentional killing of this person doesn’t constitute a murder. The pivotal error pro-choicers make is that they tend to define abortion and ignore what it’s being equated to. They should also consider the legal definition of murder, since Vallicella is alluding to the legal rather than the moral definition.
The killing of an embryo or fetus is done with intentions and motives altogether different from those underlying homicide, and as such, from a legal standpoint, it can’t be approached as murder or even a lesser offense like manslaughter. There is no degree of murder applicable to abortion; the intention and motive are not the same either, so even from a legal perspective, abortion is not murder. It would constitute an intentional killing of a different sort, of an even benevolent sort. Therefore, a woman who has an abortion can’t be tried and convicted as a murderer, neither can the doctor who performed the abortion. Let’s consider first degree murder. Premeditation is already an issue for Vallicella’s argument; the prosecution wouldn’t be able to argue that the mother had a malicious intent to kill this person. As for second degree, even though lacking the premeditation criterion, implies a reckless disregard for human life. The prosecution can’t accuse a woman of that either.
What’s more is that, if you were right in that a fetus is a person despite its viability, then restrictive policies would be the only choice we’d have. Like Vallicella’s argument implies, murder is treated in an extremely restrictive manner; even self-defense has to be established with no room for doubt. So if abortion were murder, it would be dealt with in like manner. So setting metaphysics and ethics aside, from a practical point of view, we should be wary of equating abortion with murder because we have dealt with the latter in a restrictive manner and we should know better, especially given the deadly consequences of such policies. So even if for solely practical reasons, we should shy from such equivalence even if it could be proven that abortion is murder. The issue here is that no pro-lifer has qualified that statement in any manner that doesn’t make for a bare assertion. Abortion is simply not murder and to think of women who have abortions as murderers is to misunderstand this issue altogether. What we should be addressing are the common motivations for seeking an abortion: poverty, domestic violence, lack of employment opportunity, and so on. I can go on, but I’ve probably overstayed my welcome as it is, so for the time being, I will leave this here.
The featured image to this article was taken from https://www.ngv.vic.gov.au/explore/collection/work/4291/
The featured image to this article is Rembrandt’s Two Old Men Disputing (1628).
-  Taussig, Karen-Sue, Klaus Hoeyer, and Stefan Helmreich: “The Anthropology of Potentiality in Biomedicine: An Introduction to Supplement. Current Anthropology (vol. 54). 2013.
-  Rovelli, Carlo, et al. Reality Is Not What It Seems: the Journey to Quantum Gravity. Riverhead Books, 2018, pp. 32-33.
-  “Nicolaus Copernicus.” The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 4. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1908.20 Jun. 2019 <http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/04352b.htm>.
-  NA. “Bruno and Galileo in Rome.” Honors Program in Rome, University of Washington. 2003. <https://depts.washington.edu/hrome/Authors/pev42/BrunoandGalileoinRome/pub_zbarticle_view_printable.html>
-  Ibid.