Craig’s moral argument

William Lane Craig has given the following argument for years:

[I]f there is no God, then what’s so special about human beings? They’re just accidental by-products of nature which have evolved relatively recently on an infinitesimal speck of dust called the planet Earth, lost somewhere in a hostile and mindless universe, and which are doomed to perish individually and collectively in a relatively short time. On the atheistic view, some action, say, rape, may not be socially advantageous and so in the course of human development has become taboo. But that does absolutely nothing to prove that rape is really morally wrong. On the atheistic view, if you can escape the social consequences, there’s nothing really wrong with your raping someone. And thus without God there is no absolute right and wrong which imposes itself on our conscience.

If find the argument strikingly odd. I really mean what I just said, it’s not code for calling the argument “obviously wrong”. The argument has a sort of dream-like or fairy tale logic to it, like “if you blow out the lamp the kingdom will fall”. The basic insight is that “what is physical” is divided from “what is normative/ moral” in such a way that one cannot derive the one from the other. Very well. But then why is it that moral or normative being needs to be reduced to a divine cause? Why not just say that moral and physical being are different and that’s that? The most striking way to illustrate this might be to turn the argument around: take the normative as a given,  insist that one cannot derive physical being from it, and then say that this suffices to prove that God must be the cause of physical being. If this argument is radically defective, why is Craig’s argument any better?

Craig can get away with arguments like this since there is a background premise that everyone is assuming: either naturalism or supernaturalism is true,  but our ideas of the natural are so hopeless that Craig is allowed to merely point out something that is different from physical being and immediately conclude that this not only proves the existence of the supernatural, but even that being which is the greatest possible in the supernatural order. But this says far more about the weakness of our account of nature than it does about the power of the moral argument. Craig does have a valuable point, namely that the physical cannot exhaust the real. But this does not prove the existence of God or even make such existence reasonable, it more removes one impediment to the existence of God, namely, the refusal to allow any non-physical reality. Moral experience allows us a way to see that the physical cannot exhaust the real (so does our experience with mathematical things) but one needs to do a great deal more work before this can speak to the fundamental point of disagreement between theism and atheism.

The problem is that given our hopeless understanding of nature, atheists are backed into corners they don’t need to get backed into and theists are left powerless to do anything with the god they think they have found.


It’s not about evolution

I listened to a popular debate about the relation between Christian theism and Evolution yesterday (by “popular” I mean one of those evolution-says-how-not-why debates). Anyone who reads this blog has already heard a dozen such debates so there is no reason to give the details again. Once we know whether the other guy is for it or against it we more or less know how the explanations will go.

There is something unsatisfying and incomplete about these discussions. One part of this stems from boredom, another from the fact that we postmodern people are more comfortable dealing with conflicts by shrugs, irony, and exaggerated irenism. But a very large part of it comes from this: we’re wasting all of our time talking about evolution when in fact our problem is more general. The Christian objection to evolution is identical in all relevant details to an objection against generation or reproduction. There’s no difference between the claim “our species arose from descent with modification, and therefore not from an act of special creation” and saying “I arose from the sexual activity of my parents, and therefore not from an act of special creation”. We know this is the case since Christians have had such an argument before, namely over traductionism, that is, the idea that since human being arose from the sexual activity of his parents, there was no need for an act of special creation to explain them. St Thomas treated this question at considerable length – there was a good deal of dispute about it in his day, and again in the Reformation period, and it was still a live topic during the Enlightenment – and all that’s changed in moving from traductionism to evolution is that gone from asking about any old person being generated from purely natural causes to asking about whether the first member(s) of some population arose from purely natural causes.

The objections that Christians legitimately have to evolution don’t concern evolution as such. We can flip this around and point out that an attempt  show how theism and evolution are compatible also doesn’t concern evolution as such. Darwin’s theory and its various developments are not the problem: the problem of compatibility would be no different if Darwin, upon sailing to the Galapagos Islands, didn’t end up finding various lengths of finch beaks but instead found a large tree that grew new plant and animal species out of giant seed pods.  The fundamental problem remains irrespective of whether nature generates the first member of some new population by seeds or by chance or by aliens. For that matter, the same problem would remain if all species have existed for an infinite time. The fundamental problem is whether natural science suffices to explain human beings. In its present state, natural science never has to be forced to see an inadequacy since it proceeds dialectically, and so whenever one side of a hypothesis would require that it terminate in a supernatural explanation, it can simply choose to follow out any one of the innumerable hypotheses that go the other direction. “Fine tuning” arguments are a case in point: the data can either lead to a supernatural explanation or a natural one (multiverses) and, as a matter of dialectics, one is free to simply choose which path he wants to follow. It suffices to explain the multiverse choice to say that, by choosing it, one can continue with natural explanations, which are exactly the sort of explanations that natural scientists are interested in. Aristotle, on the other hand, was forced out of physics to a supernatural explanation because his physics did not proceed dialectically but in a demonstrative manner from the definition of motion and other facts of nature given in common experience. If Aristotle had the choice to keep his explanations natural, then qua natural scientist, he was duty bound to take them, but demonstration does not allow the same liberty as dialectics in this matter.

The conflict thesis or the lack of interest thesis?

The sweeping narratives in the history of philosophy tend to be conflict-centered: Modern science drives out Aristotelian thought; nominalism drives out other forms of realism; rights theory drives out justice/ virtue based theories, etc. These sorts of sweeping conflict-narratives have their place, but all of them leave out some pretty obvious stuff: no one, for example, thinks that modern science provided new, cutting edge responses to Parmenidean monism or Platonic forms, but a massive amount of Aristotle’s thought consists in exactly this sort of response. Huge tracts of his thought – in fact the very foundations of his thought – are tied up with the idea of how motion could be intelligible at all; but the thought of someone leafing through the pages of the Principia to find an answer to this is just funny. And so in addition to the notion of conflict, we also need some idea of the history of philosophy consisting in people simply losing interest in some ideas, or gaining interest in other things, or simply wanting to do their own thing for a while. This might well turn out to be the better narrative. In other words, the history of philosophy is less like the history of combat or conquest in a single sport and more like the history of people becoming bored with one sport and wanting to play another.

Having and lacking, pt. 1

For whatever reason, I still remember looking on as a guy challenged an old Dominican who had just said (as a throw-off example) that sickness was the absence of health. “Why not argue that health is the privation of sickness!” The Dominican had no answer, but this is not to say he was unprepared. One can’t be held responsible for preparing responses to crazy questions, and privations are ways of falling short of achieving some goal or fulfillment. If this sounds like a description of health to you, you haven’t been sick much. On the other hand, the objection does point to a problem in the privation account. So long as we just trade in synonyms, like “lack” or “absence”, then there is some sense to speaking of the healthy man lacking sickness. Taken in this way, “privation” and “possession/having” give rise to a homogenous dualism- there is in fact no more reason to call one “the privation” except by fiat. But doesn’t this count as another refutation? It would amount to the claim that there is no difference in things between failure and success.

Still, the dualism of having and privation describes a whole view of the world, though it is not clear how we would characterize it: it amounts to a dualism so far as it sees having as equal to lacking, while at the same time it is a monism so far as it makes the opposition between them not a feature of things but simply a fiat. The things themselves are, apparently, some higher mode of being that divides into having and privation. The very principle of contradiction only expresses relative opposition. “Is” or “is not” are opinion all the way down. The difference between them just depends on what you want to do. But at this point it is not clear how we are saying anything about the world, or how we even could say anything about it.

A minimal encounter with the fatherhood of God

Say I’m in pain and it makes me hate my life and view it as vain, pointless, and worthless. Say someone comes to me (a scientist, and angel, a genie, it doesn’t matter) and presents me with two options: I can either remove all the pain from my life, now and forever; or I can see my life, even with the pain, as meaningful and be granted all the virtues necessary to deal with it courageously, with patience, and as a shining example to others. It is very difficult not to acknowledge that the second option is the better choice, since the one who suffers well is a better person that the one who merely lives out his life without pain, irrespective of whatever else he might do with his existence.

Now the immediate response to this either/ or is that it would be best to have both. We need to make a distinction here, however, for on the one hand there is a sense in which one cannot have both. We cannot suffer heroically and also never suffer. On the other hand, there is no intrinsic contradiction between the absence of pain and suffering and the presence of meaning. But though it is possible to have both meaningfulness and absence of pain, it does not appear to be possible in the world we happen to live in now. Our world is one where courage, patience, forbearance, self-denial, mercy etc. are all virtues, and all of these presuppose an encounter with evil.

So there are two facts (a.) our perfection as persons in the actual world we find ourselves in is tied up with evil (though there is no necessary logical connection between meaningfulness and suffering) but (b.) this evil is never such that it could render our lives intrinsically meaningless. The first requires that evil be necessary, though there could be a world without it; the second requires that the righteous or virtuous person could never suffer an evil that would render his life meaningless, and, more generally, there is no evil that a man or animal could experience that would necessarily make their lives meaningless. It seems necessary to reduce two facts to different sorts of cause. Christianity reduces the first to the fall of man, but the second seems to admit of a philosophical explanation. We can take (b) in two ways: we can consider man’s personal and free choice to be a good person, or we can consider the objective state of the world in which the suffering of gratuitous evil (that is, an evil that could not be a part of a meaningful life) is logically impossible for the righteous. Taken in the second way, we find that the very structure of the world is such that meaning is omnipotent and can never be overcome from the outside.  The universe infinitely empowers persons (and even, in a lesser way, animals) and allows nothing the absolute power to make their lives vain or pointless. In this precise sense, it makes sense to speak of God as a loving father, one who, so far as we consider how he delivers man from any evil that could make their live vain, has exercised a perfect fatherhood. That this fatherhood does not protect us from every possible evil is obvious, but this does not mean that we cannot encounter an infinite fatherhood in protecting the righteous from any gratuitous evil.

Phaedo Arguments pt. II

Plato’s arguments for personal immortality divide at the objections from Simmias and Cebes – up until that point he is giving reasons for his claim, many of which are only probable, and which are recognized as such by all discussing them. But in response to Simmias and Cebes, Socrates gives more forceful and rigorous arguments that eliminate all the logical alternatives to his claims about the soul.

Socrates calls soul whatever the intrinsic cause of life is. Simmias raises the possibility that this is nothing other than a harmony, that is, nothing other than an effect of non-living things like chemicals. Cebes’s position is the contradictory of both Simmias and Socrates: Cebes holds that the soul is not merely an effect of non-living things (contra Simmias) but he sees no reason why such a soul would not simply cease to exist (contra Socrates). The soul, according to Cebes, might relate to the body the way an heirloom or monument relates to a generation: just as a monument might outlive a number of generations and yet ultimately pass away, so too the soul might outlive many bodies and yet still survive. What is fascinating about this series of opinions is that they exhaust all the live possibilities on the question of the soul and mortality. The soul is either a mere effect of an organized body (and so obviously does not survive disorganization) or it is not; and if it is, it is either mortal or immortal.

Phaedo arguments pt. I

I first read the Phaedo over twenty years ago, and I’ve been through every possible opinion one could have of its arguments. I started off simply bewildered by the book, and took nothing more from it than that the guys had strange names and that one of them argued against suicide (proof that I didn’t get very far). I figured out some of the arguments later on, and spent a good number of years thinking that they were flimsy and even somewhat ridiculous. Some time ago I started to sympathize with Socrates claim at the end of the dialogue that, even if his arguments were wrong, they were more close to the truth than not. Lately I’ve started to see the arguments as iron-clad, or at least far closer to the truth than any alternative. Plato really was open to follow the truth wherever it led, and would have been happy to have the whole person dissolve at death, if that was where the argument led. He simply thought such arguments were wrong.

Plato’s arguments can be divided into two classes: those that argue for the immortality, and those that eliminate the arguments contrary to his position, and he deals with these respectively.

The central arguments in the first class are from Plato’s theory of contraries and his the theory of recollection. The theory of recollection is more central. Starting with a definition of recollection as to come to know what one knew before Plato lays down three facts of experience:

We come to know “equality” from seeing “equal things”.

We judge that things are equal by using “equality” as a standard.

We must know the standard we judge something by before we judge something by that standard.

If we restrict ourselves to the times when we come to know equality as a standard, then it appears that we both come to know it from equal things, and yet already know it prior to the equal things for which it is the standard. And so our coming to know is of something we already knew before, which is by definition recollection. QED. Given that this recollection is from a time before we knew “equal things”, and we know these equal things by sensation, we knew something prior to ever being able to sense (N.B. one of the impressive things about the argument is that it actually requires that we come to know things by sensation.)


Keats’s “bright star”, degraded by an interpretation.

BRIGHT star! would I were steadfast as thou art— 

 Not in lone splendour hung aloft the night,

And watching, with eternal lids apart,  

Like Nature’s patient sleepless Eremite,

The moving waters at their priestlike task       

Of pure ablution round earth’s human shores,

Or gazing on the new soft fallen mask  

Of snow upon the mountains and the moors—

No—yet still steadfast, still unchangeable,  

Pillow’d upon my fair love’s ripening breast,

To feel for ever its soft fall and swell,  

Awake for ever in a sweet unrest,

Still, still to hear her tender-taken breath,

And so live ever—or else swoon to death.

John Keats

This gives a remarkably clear  opposition between a scientific or object-centered manifestation of the universe (in the image of the unblinking star looking down on all the sublime actions and connections of the whole system of nature) and the manifestation of the universe we have through our relations to other persons in love. The common element that Keats sees in both is “steadfastness” or “unchangeableness”, but it is remarkable how different these things are in the two different manifestations of things. In the first, unchangeableness means to be detached from things, and to see all of them only by being infinitely distant from any one of them, but the constancy of the lover means to remain ever within the heart of another. Again, the star has the steadfastness of the impartial judge: set apart, looking down on, and uninvolved with things; the lover has the steadfastness of being within another and involved with him. While Keats shows a marked preference for the second way in which something can manifest itself, he nevertheless describes the first mode of manifestation in very sublime and attractive terms, such that we still see its grandeur.

Intellect in one sense removes us from things: hence all the stories of the absent minded professors who stare at the stars and fall in wells. The answer to this is not systematic stupidity but the integration of intellect together with the steadfast devotion to the concrete and particular world. Our steadfastness cannot be simply to ideas and ideals, since one can have such steadfastness without ever placing himself upon my fair love’s ripening breast, To feel for ever its soft fall and swell. One thinks of St. John.

Psalms and meaningfulness

One rapprochement between the God of faith and the God of the philosophers is through the idea that those who are righteous – whether by repentance or by virtue or, if one is young, by baptism – cannot suffer any evil that renders their lives meaningless. In this sense there is an infinite power of meaning behind the righteous ones, and a corresponding abyss of meaninglessness that is opened before the unrighteous. For the righteous, gratuitous evil is logically impossible, since any evil (even their own) can be made a part of their own meaningful life; while the unrighteous life itself is a gratuitous evil since nothing in it can be ordered to the good of the one who is living it. This is very suggestive of the God of the psalms, not because their central theme is “meaningfulness” in so many words but because they see an unshakeable solidity to the life of the righteous and a fundamental vanity, instability, and groundlessness to the life of the wicked.

The properly personal as opposed to the fully rational

One paradox of human existence is that while all persons are rational, what is properly personal is opposed to what is rational. The quickest way to see this is through the “test of fidelity” farces, that is, those stories in which a man won’t believe that a woman loves him until he puts her fidelity to the test. The story arises with the Greeks and serves as the central scene in Don Quixote (the inn scene in which there is an inquiry into whether Quixote is mad) and the plot of Mozart’s Cosi Fan Tutte. To explain the test-of -fidelity plot is to show its absurdity – everyone can tell from a mile away that the story will end badly since this is fidelity is not the sort of thing that can be uncovered in this way. To think that those things that belong to the properly personal sphere of existence can be treated as objects to be put to the test and proportioned to our rational power is absurd, shortsighted, and morally repugnant, and so the personal sphere of existence stands as a stark critique of what is rational in the fullest sense of the term, that is, the desire to know for oneself on the basis of evidence seen by oneself, and to believe no further than the evidence allows.

But it is not just a matter of opposing the properly personal to what is most fully rational – for the two are not merely divided from each other as though the former were a mere exception to the extent of reason. Both the personal and the rational make claims to being what is most meaningful and important in human life. Clifford’s axiom is the briefest way of putting the claim of reason; the Cosi Fan Tutte plot is the sharpest way of showing the claims of the personal.

The dichotomy is large and it is difficult to try to harmonize all the facts that arise out of it. Some notes:

-The absurdity of the nerd derives from this opposition: a radiant and high-octane knowing power yoked to a complete tone-deafness to the sphere of personal existence. In this sense, all “education of the nerd” plots are variations on the critique of reason.

-PZ Meyers once claimed that dating was nothing other than science applied to human relationships. This was hilariously funny. The jokes about letting other labs replicate your results almost write themselves.

-Yes, I’m aware that there is a sense in which reason rests on the sort of trust that characterizes our relationships in the personal sphere. Still, all evidence claims and even metaphysical arguments remain outside this sphere of personal existence.

– As soon as the personal sphere is identified as a perfection, it is at once difficult and obvious to understand the opposition between the god of faith and of the philosophers. On the one hand, of course those who are dedicated to the life of reason were all too prone to blindness of personal reality; but at the same time, once one identifies this sphere of reality as a true perfection, how can he insist on the aloofness or distance of God (who deserves no worship, etc.) even considered according to reason? Is the God of the philosophers simply a divine nerd?

-This opposition is part of the reason for the division of knowledge into science and the humanities.

-The opposition serves as both explanation and critique of pornography. Sexual activity essentially mediates love, and mere observation of objects is repugnant to loving them as persons.


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