Thursday, April 30, 2009

God and morality

I have never been much of a fan of the argument from morality for the existence of God. But I now think it's worth distinguishing that argument into two variants: the metaphysical and the epistemological. The metaphysical says that the existence of moral truths is best explained by positing the existence of God. That one I haven't been much of a fan of, though I haven't thought much about it, and quite possibly, were I to think about it more, I'd see more to it than that.

But the epistemological argument seems to me to be quite promising. It says that we do know moral truths, but the best explanations of how we know moral truths presuppose the existence of God. After all, it is really hard to give a non-theistic account of how our beliefs about rightness are responsive to the facts about rightness.

One might think the problem only afflicts certain ethical theories. Thus, it seems that the constructivist or maybe even that elusive beast, the non-theistic natural lawyer, has some hope for an answer. But I think not. For while constructivism could explain how our beliefs about normative and applied ethics (say, that it's right to act generalizably, or that one ought not break promises) claims are responsive to the truth, I doubt that it could explain how the belief that, say, constructivism is the correct account of rightness is responsive to the truth. (The claim cannot simply be a claim about how we use the word "rightness", say that the constructivist account of rightness has the best fit with our use of the word. For then if our use were to shift, the constructivist would be in trouble.)

The issue is simply this: only three plausible metaphysical views make moral goodness as such (as opposed to beliefs about goodness) be explanatorily efficacious, and hence allow for our beliefs to be responsive to the moral facts: optimalism (everything that exists is for the best), theism (possibly widely enough understood to include some varieties of deism) and Aristotelianism. The last of these raises explanatory problems (e.g., about transitions between species) that only theism and possibly optimalism can solve. And optimalism is implausible, since it is not plausible that there is a best world.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009


Berkeley's view that the physical is really mental is a paradigm of a clearly absurd view that does not need more refutation than its being stated. Why shouldn't we take physicalist views on which the mental is really physical as absurd in the same way?

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

A metaphysics lunch

One of the students in my metaphysics class (which meets at 12:30 pm) emailed me if it would be OK if she brought in lunch. I thought: well, that's a polite thing to ask--some students will just eat their lunches in class without asking--and so I said yes, if it doesn't disturb people. And then I forgot about it. Imagine my surprise when today she brings big pots full of fragrant dishes, and proceeds to serve up a delicious lunch for all of us. Wow, and thank you, Hannah!


There is a very nice, and not at all ad hoc, theistic explanation of why there exist beings who like telling stories. Creation reflects the creator. The creator is the author of the universe, and so there is good reason for there to be creatures who also engage in authorship. I have no doubt that a just-so evolutionary story can be given about the practice of story-telling. However, I suspect that, nonetheless, the fact that we tell stories is evidence for theism over and against naturalism.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Quam Dilecta

Oddly, I had never read Peter van Inwagen's wonderful "Quam Dilecta" until today. Mark Murphy reminded me of it, and that reminded me that he earlier advised me to read it. I was particularly struck by one paragraph, which I couldn't have said as well, but which I can nonetheless reiterate (and it's rather relevant to my motivational defense of the ontological argument):
There are Christians I know, however, who are very impressive people, and their impressiveness is of a distinctively Christian sort. A common thread runs through their very diverse lives, and it is a Christian thread. I have never been able to discern an "Enlightenment" thread that runs through the lives of the admirable atheists of my acquaintance. There are five or six Christians I know who, for all the rich individuality of their lives and personalities, are like lamps, each shining with the same, dearly familiar, uncreated light that shines in the pages of the New Testament. I can no more doubt this judgment than I can doubt many of my much more everyday sorts of judgment to the effect that this or that person is kind or generous or honest or loving. When one is in the presence of this light--when one so much as listens to one of these people speak--it is very difficult indeed to believe that one is not in the presence of a living reality that transcends their individual lives.

Evangelization, love and union

One important reason for evangelization is the beneficence aspect of love: Christians would like everyone to share in Christ's gift of new life. But a second reason for evangelization is love's striving for union. Christians would like to be united with neighbor, and thus would like to be members of the body of Christ together with the neighbor. The second reason presupposes the first. For, sometimes, the beneficence aspect of love holds us back from a union that would be harmful to the other—thus, if our company is noxious to someone we are in love with, we should sacrifice ourselves and stay away. However, the union in the body of Christ is beneficial for our neighbor, and hence the beneficence aspect of love does not hold us back here.

Is this paternalistic? Could be. But there is nothing wrong with a proper paternalism.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Explanatory accounts of knowledge

That something like the following thesis is true seems very plausible to me, though some refinement is called for:

  1. We can only know of, and perhaps even have a belief in, the existence of a basic class of properties or entities if some member of that class enters somehow into an explanation of some belief of ours.
We know about electrons, because electrons enter into causal explanations of various physical phenomena, and these physical phenomena enter into explanations of our beliefs. Knowledge of the existence of mathematical entities are harder to reconcile with (1). But perhaps the fact that 2+2=4 explains, in a non-causal way, something going on in our minds.

But what about evaluative properties such as normative or axiological ones? Let me focus on the axiological. I take it to be almost definitive of modern naturalism that axiological properties do not enter into genuine explanations. While the existence of a soup kitchen might be explained in terms of a belief in the goodness of a soup kitchen, the goodness of the soup kitchen is entirely explanatorily impotent if naturalism is right. I think the naturalist's best bet would be to identify the property of goodness with some property such as contributing to organic flourishing. But the problem reappears in regard to the property of "flourishing".

If we reject modern naturalism, we can say that flourishing is a property of accord to a thing's nature, and can account for that nature in an Aristotelian way that makes the nature be explanatorily efficacious. Or we can give a theistic story.

Friday, April 24, 2009

The smallness of the universe

[I am now thinking that the following line of argument is probably deeply spiritually mistaken. Or, maybe, the issue is this: It is the universe conceived of naturalistically that is small. But the universe that we in fact inhabit lacks that kind of smallness for it images the glory of God. So perhaps there is still an ad hominem against naturalism in the line of thought.]

Suppose I and a few other people were born and lived on the inner surface of a sphere that was a kilometer in diameter. Walk 3.14 km, and you're back where you started. And that was all. As far as I could tell, things had always been in the sphere more or less the same as far back as one could tell, with a small stable population and a simple, self-contained ecosystem. There is nothing particularly mysterious in this ecosystem, and there even is a little library containing books written by my ancestors which give complete systmes of physics, chemistry and biology that fit with all the data.

I think there is an intuition one might have after one had surveyed this meager habitat: there has to be more to reality than this. This intuition could be bolstered by arguments from design or causation, but I think it could also be a self-standing intuition: this can't be all there is.

Now our universe is bigger than that sphere. But I do not think that sheer size is what makes a difference. When I reflect on my stargazing, instead of thinking of the vastness and mystery of the physical world, I have lately been thinking about a certain kind of smallness that it has. Sure, there are untold numbers of stars arranged in untold numbers of galaxies. But even that one kilometer sphere had untold numbers of grains of dust, and that didn't make it all that large. The universe is physically large relative to us, but it exhibits a lawlike unity, and while there are many stars, they can mostly be classified into a limited number of types and subtypes. And this vast universe is, nonetheless, one that is small enough that we can have all-encompassing cosmological theories—that we can hold it all in our mind. It is true that our present theories are not good enough. But we seem to be making progress.

If this is right, then I think it is possible to have a similar kind of smallness intuition about the universe as a whole: this can't be all there is to reality. Reflecting on the universe as a whole—a whole made up of physical parts, indeed largely made up of parts like electrons, neutrinos and/or electromagnetic fields that are pretty familiar to us—can make the universe seem small to the mind's eye. Not small physically, of course. The relevant kind of conceptual smallness is compatible with the universe having infinite spatial extent. Rather, it is small in some deeper sense, despite all its wonder and glory.

I think this may be a way in which the physical universe proclaims to us that it is not all there is, that it is not self-sufficient, that while great and full of splendor, it is, after all, but an image. And unless it is seen expressly as an image, it will pale to us. For a while one might enjoy looking at the calligraphy in a manuscript. But eventually, unless one starts reading what the text says, the manuscript will probably stop being all that interesting. But once seen as pointing to something greater, indeed something infinite (and not just in the uninteresting spatial sense), then it takes on a new, and deeper splendor, one that shines through that natural splendor that was in danger of fading.

Thursday, April 23, 2009


I'll take for granted three things:

  1. Long-term incarceration for serious crimes is permissible
  2. Income tax, at roughly the level of taxation in the U.S., is permissible (though there may be particular features of the present U.S. tax code that are unjustifiable)
  3. Torture is wrong.
The last claim is a rough-and-ready claim. I do not mean it to exclude the possibility that there are extremely rare circumstances (such as where there is literally a time bomb placed in a populous area that cannot be evacuated) where torture is impermissible, but I mean the claim in the same sense in which people say to their kids "You need to keep your promises"—they do not intend to exclude the possibility of rare occurrences where promises should not be kept. (On the basis of divine revelation—as expressed in the documents of Vatican II—I take it that torture is literally always wrong, but I am not assuming this strong claim.)

Let's add some further, plausible claims. Some things may be wrong to do due to some complex moral reasoning which shows that even though the action does not prima facie seem to harm anybody, nonetheless the action is wrong (contraception is like that). But some things are wrong for a very straightforward reason: they are wrong because of the clear and obvious harm they impose on the victim. Torture seems to be one of those things:

  1. Torture is wrong because of the harm imposed on the victim.
The following claim is also plausible:
  1. If an action is wrong because of the harm imposed on the victim, then an action which imposes a greater harm under the same circumstances on the same victim will also be wrong.
Finally, add the following two claims:
  1. If a self-interestedly rational and well-informed person would prefer B to A, where B is harmful, then it would be more harmful for her to receive A instead of B.
  2. Some self-interestedly rational and well-informed persons would prefer some (perhaps moderate) instances of torture to a lifetime of taxation (at the level of U.S. income taxes) or to long-term incarceration.
But now we have a paradox. By (6) and (7), together with the fact from (4) that torture is harmful, for some people life-long taxation or long-term incarceration would be worse than some kinds of torture. But then by (5), life-long taxation and long-term incarceration is wrong in the case of these people. And this is in tension for (1) and (2) (I am assuming it is possible for one of these people to be guilty of a serious crime).

I think (1)-(3) are correct. I also think (7) is true. We would not think that someone who endured severe pain for, say, 15 minutes in the course of escaping from a twenty-year jail sentence was self-interested irrational. According to some stuff I found online, the average American in 2004 paid $9377 in income taxes. If this amount were annually invested at 8% (which is I think fairly conservative for such a long-term investment), in 40 years, it would yield $2.4 million. We would not think that someone who ran through non-life-threatening but very painful flames in order to get to a treasure chest containing $2.4 million, even if the chest could only be opened in 40 years, would be irrational in so doing.

So, we need to reject (4), (5) or (6) to get out of the difficulty. Of these claims, I find (5) the most plausible. So that leaves (4) and (6) as candidates for rejection. I think (6) is a bit more plausible than (4), though I am suspicious of the whole concept of self-interested rationality. If so, then (4) should be rejected.

But if torture is not wrong because of the harm inflicted to the victim, what makes it wrong? I am inclined to say the following: It is wrong because to torture someone is unloving, and the duties of love are the whole of the moral law. And it is unloving not just because of the harm inflicted on the victim, because there is more to being loving than providing benefits and more to being unloving than inflicting harms. Love is a unitive relationship, and acts that are innately counter-unitive, such as torture, marital contraception, or lying (I am not putting them all on an equal moral footing—equally, they are wrong, but they are not equally wrong, if you get my drift), are also wrong.

A different way of rejecting (4) might be given by a Kantian.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Explanation and truthmakers

Say that a true proposition is ontologically ungrounded provided that it is not true because of any combination of what things exist, how things that exist exist and what things do not exist. In particular, an ontologically ungrounded proposition lacks a truthmaker.

It would be really nice if one could argue that:

  1. No contingent ontologically ungrounded proposition has an explanation.
For if we could show (1), then we would have a neat argument against those presentist views on which truths about the past are ontologically ungrounded (e.g., Trenton Merricks). For some truths about the past have explanations: that World War II happened is explained by Germany's humiliation after World War I, say. We might also have an argument against the version of Molinism on which conditionals of free will are ontologically ungrounded. For some conditionals can probably be explained in terms of others: That George in circumstances C would greedily accept the bribe explains that he would accept the bribe.

I don't really have a good argument for (1), apart from the fact that it rings true. But, then again, I am no friend of ontologically ungrounded propositions, so my intuitions aren't the best judge here.

However, while (1) is hard to argue for, I think the following is pretty easy to argue for:

  1. No contingent ontologically ungrounded proposition has a causal explanation.
After all, to causally explain a proposition is to give a cause of that in the world which grounds its truth. Causation is a relation between things in the world (possibly including absences, too), while causal explanation is a relation between propositions that depends on causation. I don't know whether (2) is enough to refute Molinism. But it does seem enough to refute the ungrounded past view. That World War II happened is, after all, causally explained by the fact that Germany was humiliated.

Perhaps the presentist will say that World War II was causally explained by the humiliation. But when? As I understand it, when World War II started, the humiliation was already gone. Thus, at no time were World War II and the humiliation both present. Hence, at every time we have a causal explanation relation between two propositions at most one of which reports an ontologically grounded fact. But how can there be a causal explanation relation between two propositions one of which is ontologically ungrounded?

I suppose this is a variation of the old causation objection to presentism.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Laws and theodicy: Some steps in the dialectic

The following steps are quite standard in the problem of evil dialectics:

  1. Atheist: The world contains many instances of suffering, all of which could easily be averted if there were a God, simply by modifying the laws of nature. For instance, there could be a law of nature saying that knives turn to water before they penetrate hearts, etc.
  2. Theist: Such laws of nature would be unduly complex. For instance, they would have to specify exactly when knives turn to water, in what way (does the process happen all at once, starting at the tip, etc.), how close they need to be to the heart for the process to start, etc. Simplicity of law is intrinsically valuable—a world all of whose laws are as elegant as General Relativity is a world of great value, in its diversity reflecting God's infinity in its and in its simplicity God's unity.
  3. Atheist: Any value of such simplicity is far outweighed by the disvalue of suffering for persons.

At this point, we have a serious clash of intuitions and it may not be efficient for the theist to try to bridge it. Instead, the theist might try to argue that humans couldn't coexist with the more complex laws. I am inclined to think that that isn't the best answer.[note 1] Instead I want to consider the following dialectical moves:

  1. Theist: It is valuable for us to be able to figure out the laws, both for the sake of the understanding itself and to enable us to exercise more meaningful agency. But laws complex enough to stop every kind of suffering would be too complex for us to figure out.
  2. Atheist: But God could give us more powerful intellects.

It is at this dialectical point that I want to jump into the fray. Three moves are open to the theist. The first is that there is a value in having a range of beings in the world, ranging through completely mindless electrons, unconscious plants, barely conscious lower animals, moderately smart higher animals, moderately smart human beings, perhaps even smarter non-human persons somewhere else, and in any case a whole range of superhuman intelligences (angels). This great chain of being is of significant value. It is valuable that the chain not have significant gaps in it, as there would be if God refrained from creating agents—us—with intellects that are not all that impressive compared to what is higher up. (And, O how great the glory of God, God then became one of these lower agents, and raised another to be the queen of heaven.)

The second move is to note that there is something odd about complaining that God did not create in our place a smarter species. Whom did God wrong or behave less than perfectly lovingly towards by not creating a smarter species in our place? That smarter species? But you cannot wrong or behave less than perfectly lovingly towards someone who never exists. Or us? But I think our existence is overall worthwhile.

The third and most challenging move is to note that there is a value in having enmattered intellects which do a significant part—if the materialists are right (they're not), all—of their thinking by use of a physical organ (the brain), an organ whose morphology arose through natural physical processes of not too small probability. Now, a more complex set of laws given such conditions might require a more complex brain. But it could well be that the energy usage and evolution of such a more complex brain would require further complexification of the laws. I do not know that this is so, but neither do I know that this is not so, and I doubt that anyone is in a position to claim that it is not so. But the further complexification of the laws may require a further complexification of the brain. And so on. There might be a fixed point to this sequence—a brain that can understand the laws of nature that it is governed by. But we do not know that there is such a fixed point. It's fun and humbling to note how easily our thinking hits up against things that none of us know.

If I were giving a history comprehensive exam...

It seems one can set a history of philosophy comprehensive exam that would be hard and rigorous without knowing almost any history of philosophy—though, of course, to pass or grade, one would have to know a lot. The exam is fun to set. It wouldn't be so much fun to take. Here it is:

Consider the following modal forms of argument:

  1. Mp; M(if p then q); therefore Mq
  2. Lp; if p then q; therefore Lq
  3. L(if p then q); p; therefore Lq
  4. M((exists x)F(x)); therefore (exists x)MF(x)
  5. L((exists x)F(x)); therefore (exists x)LF(x)
It is generally uncontroversial that (1)-(3) are fallacies; it is fairly widely thought that (4) and (5) are fallacies. Write six essays, each about three or four pages long, satisfying the following rules:
  • Each essay chooses exactly one philosopher.
  • Each essay chooses exactly one of the argument forms above.
  • Exactly two philosophers are chosen from each of the following periods: ancient, medieval and modern (up to the end of the 19th century).
  • No two essays concerning philosophers from the same period (ancient, medieval or modern) select the same argument form.
  • Each essay identifies a place where the philosopher in persona propria appears to be making use of the selected argument form. The significance of the inference to the philosopher's more major project(s) is discussed, and it is discussed how the project(s) would be affected were the inference invalidated. Then it is discussed whether the philosopher in question could either to defend the inference (perhaps the philosopher has open to her or him a modal logic on which the inference is not fallacious) or somewhat modify the form of argument so as to avoid the modal fallacy (without simply shifting to a different modal fallacy or including a trivializing premise).

Remark: Part of the difficulty of this is that I think it is pretty rare for a great philosopher to commit a modal fallacy. So one will need to show quite a bit of knowledge of the work of great philosophers, or a fair amount of knowledge of the work of not so great philosophers, to do this. Of course, if one knows ahead of time that this question will come up, one will just read up on some really, really bad philosophers from each period.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Did God act unjustly by kicking us out of paradise?

One might be worried--as a commenter recently has been--that the idea that God kicked Adam and Eve out of paradise, thereby ensuring that their descendants would grow up in our vale of tears, is unjust. Since the focus is on Adam and Eve's descendants, let us grant for the sake of argument that God was just in punishing Adam and Eve with death. The question, then, is whether God was just in having us live outside paradise.

Now, if God was unjust in acting as Genesis says he did, then whom did he wrong? He did not wrong Adam and Eve, for their punishment was deserved. Presumably, he wronged their descendants, namely us. But now consider a sequence of three possible worlds:

  1. God kills Adam and Eve on the spot, and the human race gets no further.
  2. God kicks Adam and Eve out of paradise, and prevents them from reproducing.
  3. God kicks Adam and Eve out of paradise, but does not prevent them from reproducing.
We've granted for the sake of argument that God was right to punish Adam and Eve. So, world 1 is a world where (as far as these sketches go, at least) God does not act unjustly. What about world 2? Does God wrong anybody there? Not at all. He doesn't wrong Adam and Eve: he treats them somewhat less harshly than in world 1. Does he wrong us, Adam and Eve's descendants? Surely not--for we don't exist in world 2, and one cannot wrong the non-existent.

So, in 1 and 2 there is no injustice. What about world 3? If we say that in world 3 there is injustice, then it seems that God's failure to prevent Adam and Eve from reproducing was an injustice--for we have granted that there is no injustice in world 2 which is like world 3, except that Adam and Eve are prevented from reproduction. In other words, if we say that there is an injustice in world 3, we have to say that once God decided to kick Adam and Eve out of paradise, he acted unjustly towards their descendants by letting Adam and Eve have these descendants. But that, I think, is absurd. If we grant it, then by the same token any of us who choose to reproduce in this vale of tears are doing wrong. (Yes, there is a recent book arguing just for the wrongness of reproduction. Few absurdities are such that no philosopher could be found to defend them.)

But that's too simple an argument. After all, maybe the wrong in 3 is not just in the point where 2 and 3 branch off from each other (the prevention of progeny). God is omnipotent after all, and that makes a difference. I think the most plausible alternative way of salvaging the argument for God's injustice is the suggestion that God did wrong in not transporting Adam and Eve's children miraculously back to paradise, perhaps immediately after their conception. However, I do not think that God owed them, as a matter of justice, such miraculous transport, especially given that there were unique kinds of goods that would be available to them outside of paradise that wouldn't be available in paradise, goods such as sacrificial love, forgiveness, and courage.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Images of the soul

I bet a lot of people when they think about the soul imagine something nebulous—a kind of glow, or gas, or force-field, or the like—permeating the body. Certainly, this is how I imagine it. It's funny that nobody imagines the soul to be like a rock. Yet, aren't both images just as much off? The nebulous something—that fails convey the stability and unity of the soul. And the rock—that fails to convey immateriality.

(I am not about to urge that one not imagine anything when thinking about the soul. When I think about mathematical entities, I do imagine physical objects—for instance, graphs—that represent them. But that only rarely leads me astray—much more often, it helps.)

Friday, April 17, 2009

Care and Union

I've just posted a paper on "Care and Union" I'm presenting today at a workshop at Baylor on Nicholas Wolterstorff. A brief summary: Love minus unitive tendencies isn't agape.

Geological reductionism

One way for a naturalist to respond to arguments from, say, morality (such as this argument) is to either deny that our moral perceptions are veridical or to reduce the moral to the non-moral, say to a sentiment.

One should see moves that deny the veridicality of a large class of our perceptions (illusionism), or that reduce apparently objective truths to subjective ones, as epistemically costly. One way to see this is to consider parallel responses that a straw man young earth creationist might make to geological arguments:

  1. Illusionism: Of course, the earth looks like it's billions of years old, but that appearance is non-veridical, being the result of Satan's work at deceiving us into thinking creationism is false.
  2. Reduction: If t is more than 10000 years ago, to affirm that a geological state S of affairs occurred at t is just to affirm that right now it looks as if S occurred at t.
On the correct epistemology, moves such as these should be quite costly. (The above are only straw man versions of young earth creationist responses. In fact, apparently the Satan response is in disrepute among young earth creationists and I have never heard anybody make the reduction response.)

Thursday, April 16, 2009


Lewis's account of a subjunctive conditional is that "if p were to hold, q would hold" is true if and only if

  1. p holds in no worlds; or
  2. some world in which both p and q hold is closer than every world in which both p and not-q hold.
But, plausibly:
  1. No natural concept has a disjunctive account.
  2. The concept of a subjunctive conditional is natural.
Therefore Lewis's account of a subjunctive conditional is not right. (Fortunately, there is a non-disjunctive modification of Lewis's account that has additional merits—see this paper and a reference therein.)

Is this a good argument against Lewis? I am not sure. If no disjunctive account of a natural concept is good, then no account of a natural concept in terms of the material conditional is right. Do we want to say that?

And, after all, the concept of a disjunction seems itself quite natural to us (certainly, much more natural than the connective nor, and probably at least a little more natural than nand). However, this answer may equivocate on "natural". Subjunctive conditionals, perhaps, are natural not in the sense that they are natural ingredients of our language, but in the sense that, unlike disjunctions, they are appropriate ingredients to have inside laws of nature.


Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Observing log: April 14, 2009

Scope: Odyssey 8 (I am now thinking of buying one of the early blue-tube Odyssey 13.1's—do any of my readers have one?). Darkness rating: Yellow. Weather conditions: Flitting light filmy clouds. Seeing: Decent (could see gap between Saturn's rings and Saturn, which I've never seen before).

Observed: Saturn, M 5, M 13, M 49, M 51, M 58, M 59, M 60, M 61, M 68, M 83, M 92, M 99, M 100, M 101, M 102, NGC 3242, NGC 4526, NGC 4535, NGC 4638, NGC 4567, NGC 4568, NGC 5139 (very low on horizon, did not resolve—just a slightly grainy ball, but it was still cool to see Omega Centauri), NGC 5907.

I've now seen 83% of the Messier catalog (I've done all the galaxies and nebulae, and most of the open clusters), 12% of the Herschel 400, and about 20% of the Best of the NGC. Lots of fuzzies to go.

Righting wrongs

The following argument is sound:

  1. (Premise) All injustices are righted.
  2. (Premise) If God does not exist, some injustices are not righted.
  3. Therefore, God exists.

Of course, an argument can be sound but no good. Recall Plantinga's example, which was basically: "God exists or 2+2=5; but not 2+2=5; therefore, God exists", the logic is impeccable, and all the premises are true, but ordinarily only someone who is already a theist will accept the first premise. Is the present argument like this?

Well, I think (2) is fairly plausible. Think of someone innocent who is murdered. Who is there to right that injustice, unless it be God? Of course, one might posit other supernatural hypotheses than that of the existence of God that would suffice to ensure that injustices are righted, but the other hypotheses just do not strike me as very plausible—finite beings like the Furies aren't likely to be able to know and right all injustices.

Of course, premise (1) is not going to be at all plausible to the typical atheist. However, it may well be that some people have an intuition to the effect of (1). This intuition may be related to intuitions about how everything has a purpose, how bad things come to good, etc. These intuitions are ones that even an atheist can have (I once had an atheist student who had such an intuition about her own life—she wondered if the intuition was compatible with her atheism, and I told her that was something she'd need to figure out herself). So the argument need not always be question-begging.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Justice and causation

Here's a valid informal argument. Again, soundness is the question. If I react to the shape of x, then x's shape plays a role in a causal explanation of my reaction. If I react to the injustice of situation, then, by parallel, the situation's injustice must be play a role (perhaps a privative one) in a causal explanation of my reaction. I do react to the injustice of some situations. But if naturalism is true, then justice and injustice do not enter into causal explanations. Hence naturalism is false.

Monday, April 13, 2009


The following argument is valid:

  1. (Premise) If there is no person who is causally responsible for an event E, then E is not an injustice, but at most a misfortune.
  2. (Premise) There have been injustices (think of a child's dying after horrible suffering in an earthquake) for which no person was causally responsible by means of natural causal processes (in the sense of "natural" that naturalists talk about).
  3. Therefore, some injustices were caused not by means of the natural causal processes of nature. (1 and 2)
  4. (Premise) If naturalism holds, then all causal processes are the causal processes of nature.
  5. Naturalism is false. (3 and 4)
There are two options in (3): either the injustices were caused by a supernatural person (e.g., a devil) or they were caused by a natural person but through processes that go beyond nature (e.g., Adam and Eve in causing the Fall).

The naturalist will likely deny (2). Thus, then naturalist is going to have to be an irrealist about a significant amount of human experience of the world—for people do experience various evils not that are not naturally caused by human beings as injustices.

Friday, April 10, 2009

A regress for bundle theory

According to bundle theory, each individual is a bundle of properties. But what is an individual? Presumably, individuals are existing entities that we can individuate, quantify over and predicate things of. Take that as a sufficient condition for being an individual. But then a property is also an individual. (If one balks at this, I expect that it is simply because one has stipulated this fact away, say by defining individuals as existing entities that we can individuate, quantify over and predicate things of which are not properties. If so, then the class of "individuals" is gerrymandered. But we needn't worry about words. Call something that we can individuate, quantify over and predicate things of an "individual*", and construe what I say below as about individuals*.)

But now the regress is obvious. Socrates, let us say, is a bundle of humanity, maleness, snubnosedness, smartness, hellenicity, etc. Fine. But humanity is also an individual. So, humanity is itself a bundle of properties. What properties? I don't know. Maybe properties like propertyhood, unchangingness, animal-kind-hood, rational-being-kind-hood, etc. Already it gets weird—we have no idea what to say. And then the problem returns for the properties that humanity is a bundle of. What, say, is propertyhood a bundle of? What is animal-kind-hood a bundle of? Obviously, a regress ensues. Is it vicious? I suspect so. We have bundles of bundles of bundles of .... If the bundling is done set-wise, then the sets will violate regularity.

And in any case if the individuation of bundles is by their members, that never bottoms out. On an abundant theory of properties, our non-property individuals all look like {{{...},{...},{...},...},{...},{...}},{...},...}, with exactly the same structure of braces. (That's for the set-theoretic construction. Otherwise, replace the braces by whatever bundling method we have.) On a sparse theory of properties, if it turns out that non-property individuals have finitely many properties, and that properties all have finitely many properties, maybe then we can differentiate these things by the structure of the rooted property-tree (individual x has 7 properties at the first level, the first of which branches has 19 properties, etc.) But that's as crazy as Pythagoreanism.

So maybe the bundle theorist will limit her theory of predication to individuals that are not themselves properties. But if she does that, she still needs a story about how we manage to predicate things of properties. For we do. Humanity is a universal. It is unchanging. It is non-spatio-temporal. It is different from hellenicity. And so on. And whatever non-bundle theory of predication that we give for the properties of properties, the opponent of bundle theory will say: Why not just simplify and give that for the individuals that are not properties?

Or one might take first-order properties to be bundles of individuals. But that's terrible. First, they'd have to be bundles of possible individuals. Second, we now have circularity in place of regress, which is worse.

This arguments seems to force the bundle theorist to say that eventually we get to properties that have no properties (what about their abstractness? their propertyhood? maybe we say that these are not genuine properties--maybe abstractness is just the denial of concreteness). Todd Buras then points out to me that these properties with no properties are just like the bare particulars avoiding which was one of the main motives for bundle theory!

Note: The argument works equally well if we have bundles of tropes instead of bundles of universals.

I know that these issues have been worked over, and regress-finding is a fun game for the philosophical family, so this regress is quite likely known. (If you have a reference, please let me know.)

Thursday, April 9, 2009


Jerry waltzes. According to the Platonist, this means that Jerry instantiates the universal waltzing. So, where initially we thought we had Jerry alone, we now have Jerry, instantiation and waltzing. But we also, equally, have Jerry, instantiation and waltzing when Jerry is sitting instead of waltzing. After all, instantiation and waltzing are universals, and so they exist necessarily, even when Jerry isn't waltzing. So, what is different between the situation where Jerry instantiates waltzing and the one where he does not? It won't help to say that the ordered pair <Jerry, waltzing> instantiates instantiation. For the same problem reappears. Whether Jerry waltzes or not, Jerry, waltzing, the ordered pair <Jerry, waltzing>, and instantiation necessarily exist. Going to further levels of the regress will get us more entities, but it will not help resolve the problem. For we will simply get more beings that exist even when Jerry isn't waltzing, and those beings don't help to differentiate betweent he case of him waltzing and him not waltzing. (Nor does this depend on time; we can distinguish between the case of Jerry's instantiating waltzing at some time or other and the case of Jerry's not instantiating waltzing at some time or other.)

So what can the Platonist do? Well, she could just say that it's simply a fact, a fact not analyzed in terms of further Platonic entities, that Jerry in fact instantiates waltzing, or that <Jerry, waltzing> instantiate instantiation. But then she says exactly the same sort of thing that the ostrich nominalist does. And if she says it in this case, why bring in instantiation at all? Why not just say that Jerry in fact waltzes, and be done with it? Or maybe the Platonist will say that there is a state of affairs of Jerry's instantiating waltzing or <Jerry, waltzing> instantiating instantiation. Fine, but why do that? Why not just say that there is a state of affairs of Jerry's waltzing, and be done with it? Or perhaps the Platonist will posit a trope of instantiating present in <Jerry, waltzing> or a trope of instantiating-waltzing present in Jerry. But why not, then, just posit a trope of waltzing in Jerry?

I do not think this kills Platonism. It just shows that if Platonism is to do something useful for us, it is something other than helping us understand the nature of predication. For if Platonism is seen as helping with predication, it does this by reducing all predication to predications of the form "x instantiates P" or "<x,P> instantiates instantiation". Now in some cases, it is helpful to ground all instances of a class in terms of a distinguished subclass. Thus, in my dissertation, I argued that all modal claims should be grounded in claims about the powers of things. The latter claims are, of course, modal. However, if such a grounding is to have any usefulness, the distinguished subclass must be somehow preferable, maybe epistemologically, maybe in terms of comprehensibility, or in some other way. But why should, say, the state of affairs of Jerry's instantiating waltzing be preferred to the seemingly simpler state of affairs of Jerry's waltzing?

Now it may well be that Platonism has other uses than helping with problems of predication. It may indeed.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Divine love and union

Is agapê just a benevolence, as on Nygren's view, or does it involve a seeking for unity? I think one way to an answer is to look at God's love as presented in the New Testament.

"For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life." (John 3:16) Now, the damned live forever, too, and it is not this kind of life that the text is talking about. Rather, it is an eternal life of knowing God, of living in the Father and the Son (cf. John 17:21).

God;s love is manifested in his acting that we might be reconciled and united with God. Now we can understand God.s intentions in two ways, which can be conveniently expressed by imagining God telling us of his intention:

  1. I intend your reconciliation and union with God.
  2. I intend your reconciliation and union with me.
Of course, "me" and "God" in these imagined speeches has the same referent, but there is a crucial difference.

On the first version, we can understand this as follows. God, being omniscient, knows that Patricia's highest good is union with God. And being loving, he intends that Patricia achieve that highest good. In this, God has an intention we can all have in the same way. We can all seek Patricia.s highest good, and we can all pursue Patricia's reconciliation and union with God. As it happens, God is the one who can pursue it most effectively. But that does not imply a difference in intention.

On the second version, however, what God pursues is Patricia's union with him, best indicated by Castaneda's quasi-indicator "him*". When we pursue Patricia's union with God, we are pursuing something essentially different from what God is pursuing.

The distinction is easy to see in other contexts. There is a world of difference between drill sergeant who wants to train the soldiers to obey him, and the drill sergeant who wants to train the soldiers to obey their superior, which in this case happens to be the drill sergeant. (The distinction would remain even if the drill sergeant necessarily was their superior.) In the case of the drill sergeant, what is preferable is that he train soldiers to obey their superior.

However, love differs here from obedience. For there is something incomplete about a husband's love if he desires merely that his wife love her spouse, reasoning, perhaps, that it is a good thing for a married person to love the spouse, and his wife is a married person, hence it is good for her to love her spouse. Granted, that is a good, and so he should desire this good for his wife. But he should, over and beyond that, desire that his wife love him*. And if his wife does not love him, it is a sign of something deeply lacking in his love for her if he is merely saddened that his wife is not a spouse-loving person.

Our reconciliation and union with God is a good thing, and being good, it is something that God pursues. But he does not pursue it impersonally. God pursues it in love, in the way that a husband loves his wife, as Scripture emphasizes. He desires our reconciliation and union with him*. I do not have a proof text for this claim. But think what would happen if in all the texts in which God lovingly, often sadly, uses the phrase "my people". Now replace this with "God's people". For instance, in Zechariah, God says: "they shall be my people and I will be their God, in faithfulness and righteousness" (8:8). Consider the replacement: "they shall be God's people, and God (or haShem) will be their God, in faithfulness and righteousness." That would still be happy news, but the lover essentially speaks in the first person, except perhaps as a joke.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

The beauty of mathematics

Consider the claims:

  1. There is exquisite beauty in mathematics.
  2. Mathematics is grounded in the existence of a maximally great being.
Then the following argument might be offered:
  1. P(B|G) > P(B|~G).
  2. Therefore, B is evidence for G.
It does not, however, follow from (2) alone that B is evidence for the existence of God.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Loss of faith

Sometimes, Christians worry whether they might not have lost their faith. Here is a line of thought that might be comforting, though it is probably only acceptable to Catholics. Faith being a gift of grace, it is not possible to lose faith without losing sanctifying grace. It is not possible, however, to lose sanctifying grace but by committing a (formal) mortal sin. Therefore, faith can only be lost through committing a mortal sin. But in a serious Christian, mortal sin is very unlikely to be something done casually—it is a free and conscious rejection of God's love, after all. Faith is not, then, something one can "just lose". It is something one can reject, but only by a mortal sin.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Infinite causal regress

Could everything in existence be explained by an infinite causal regress? I've argued in print that the answer is negative. Here is another thought in favor of the negative answer.

Suppose we have a world where there is an infinite regress of past states and that there is some numerical time-varying property Q(t) in the universe (say, entropy or temperature or charge or volume) that keeps on changing in such a way that the property's having one the value it does in one year determines the value it has in another. Now, consider the claim that the limit of Q(t) as t goes to minus infinity is, say, q0. (Of course, Q(t) might not in fact converge to anything, but since we're stipulating, we can stipulate that it does.) If the regress explains everything, it explains why it was that the limit is q0. But even if a regress explains something, it surely doesn't explain the boundary values at the beginning of the regress, and q0 is precisely such a boundary value. It would be almost as absurd to say that the limit of the temperature in a room tended to 11.0 degrees as t approached noon from above because it was 11.1 at 12:10, and 11.06 at 12:05, and 11.05 at 12:05, and 11.01 at 12:01, and so on, as it would be to say that the temperature of the room was 11.0 degrees at noon because it had such-and-such values after noon.

Suppose that we still insist that the boundary value q0 is explained by the regress. Now suppose that we find another explanation, say in terms of an atemporal being creating the universe. What should we say? That we have two explanations of the same phenomenon, each on its own sufficient? That can happen, but surely that's not what is happening here. The right thing to say is that the regressive explanation of the boundary condition is no explanation at all.

Friday, April 3, 2009

More on the Kalaam argument

Here is another counterexample to the claim that it is impossible to form a concrete and actual infinity through successive addition. Consider a gamma-widget. A gamma-widget is a stochastic critter that, once it is produced, produces at least one offspring. How many offspring it produces and how quickly is random. For every n>0, a gamma-widget has probability 2n of producing exactly 22n offspring in exactly 2n years. The offspring are exact copies of the parent (this is a way in which the gamma-widget differs from the beta-widget). They, too, are gamma-widgets, and hence produce offspring. All the probabilities are independent.

Here is a mathematical fact (at least, it is a fact, if my scribbled calculations are right): There is a non-zero probability that if a gamma-widget comes into existence, it will be an ancestor of infinitely many gamma-widgets a year later. What has non-zero probability is also possible. Therefore, it is possible for this to happen. Here is another fact: The probability that there is a finite number n such that n years later there are infinitely many gamma-widgets is one. What is almost certain (i.e., has probability one) is a fortiori possible. Therefore, it is possible to have an infinite number of gamma-widgets arise through successive addition.

(If one is worried that the addition is not successive because multiple offspring are produced at the same time, we can stagger the productions in some way, and then not count the ones whose productions happen to overlap.)

Does this argument, and that in my previous post, destroy Craig's Kalaam argument? I think not yet. For there two ways that an infinity prima facie can be built up by successive addition. In one way, there is a first addition but no last one. In the other way, there is a last addition but not first one. What my examples show is that the first way is possible—there is a first addition but no last one. But I have not shown that there is no possibility of successive addition of the other sort.

However, the latter possibility follows from a modification of the case. Suppose that each gamma-widget that comes into existence before the year 2020 randomly and uniformly chooses a time during 2020, and completes a mug at that time. Then there is, almost surely, a subset of the mugs that has a last addition but no first one.

Craig can get out of these arguments by supposing that time cannot be infinitely divisible. Or he might just deny the possibility of my widgets. But what grounds would there be for that denial? Consider a variant on the gamma-widget, the delta-widget. It is just like the gamma-widget, except that it has probability 2n of generating n2 offspring in 2n years. The delta-widget is just like the gamma-widget, except it is much less prolific: n2 instead of 22n. I am pretty sure (I haven't checked) that with probability one, delta-widgets do not have an infinite population explosion. So Craig can't object, it seems, to delta-widgets except by denying the infinite divisibility of time. But if delta-widgets are possible, why not the more prolific gamma-widgets?

Maybe my calculations are wrong. But I am pretty sure they're not. If they are wrong, replacing 22n with an even faster growing sequence should fix things.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Infinite numbers of objects

Here is an argument that it is possible for an infinite number of objects to come into existence by successive addition, contrary to William Lane Craig. I am not sure how far I find this argument convincing, but it seems to me to be pretty strong. It's inspired by an idea of Wes Morriston.

An alpha-widget is an entity that has the following property. As soon as an alpha-widget x is made, it spends a year playing the violin, and doing nothing else. At the end of that year, x makes an almost-duplicate of itself in half of the time in which x itself was made: the almost-duplicate is just like x, except that if x has the information that it was made in t units of time, the almost-duplicate has the information that it was made in t/2 units of time. And alpha-widgets are never destroyed.

I now claim that it is possible for an alpha-widget to be made over the period of a year. If it were made, there would be a potentially infinite but never completed sequence of alpha-widgets coming into existence: the first at the beginning of year zero, the second at year 1.5, the third at year 2.75, and so on. Since the spacing between alpha-widgets is always more than a year, because of that year of violin-playing, we do not here have any counterexample to Craig.

It would be difficult, I think, for Craig to object to this possibility. It doesn't violate his strictures against actual infinities. It does require laws of nature different from those of our world, or perhaps divinely mediated miracles, in order to overcome speed of light limits on the production speed of an alpha-widget.

But now consider a beta-widget. Recall that an alpha-widget would first play the violin for a year, and then would make an almost-duplicate of itself in half the time that it itself was made. A beta-widget does the same thing, but in opposite order: it first makes the almost-duplicate in half time, and then plays the violin for a year. Since the alpha-widget is not doing anything in that year of violin playing other than playing the violin (it's not, for instance, setting up a production line for its almost-duplicate), there is no reason to suppose that it would be harder for God to make a beta-widget in a year than to make an alpha-widget in a year. (And, yes, God can make things non-instantaneously if he so chooses.)

So, it should be logically possible to make a beta-widget in a year. But if a beta-widget is made in a year, then half a year later, it makes another beta-widget. That one, then, makes another in a quarter of a year. And so on. By the time two years are up, we have an infinite number of beta-widgets produced by successive addition.

I should, of course, note that while I think there are problems in the Kalaam argument's a priori argument for the finite age of the universe, its a posteriori argument may well be fine, and in any case there are other cosmological arguments that work just fine.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Sexual orientation

Consider the following two claims that some people seem to accept:

  1. Same-sex and opposite-sex sexual relationships are on par.
  2. Heterosexuality, homosexuality and bisexuality are on par, and persons of one orientation do not have reason to try to change to another.
I don't know what exactly "on par" here means—I think it's some combination of morally on par, should be treated equally by society, equally valuable and equally normal.

I will argue that (1) and (2) are in tension.

Suppose that George is sexually attracted to people, male or female, of a particular ethnicity, and not at all towards anybody, male or female, of any other ethnicity. We would think this weird and maybe just a little perverted even if we accepted (1) and (2). After all, why should George limit his romantic options to members of a particular ethnicity? Indeed, his attitude would border on racism. Granted, if George hadn't done anything to choose his pattern of sexual attraction, and couldn't overcome it, we would not morally criticize George for his limiting his sexual interest to that ethnicity. But there would still seem to be something wrong with George.

I am not talking here of a mere preference. Perhaps there is nothing wrong with an Elbonian preferring Elbonians. But to be unable to be sexually interested in anybody but Elbonians is limiting, unfortunate, not quite right. And it is particularly odd if one isn't Elbonian oneself. It is certainly sub-optimal, given that sexual relationships with Elbonians are on par with sexual relationships with non-Elbonians, and it is not a good idea to have artificial limits in the difficult task of finding a suitable romantic partner. Furthermore, if George were not in a relationship, and there were a pill that had no side-effects and could remove the limitation, it would be reasonable for George to take the pill, at least assuming (1).

But the heterosexual or homosexual is in a similar state to George. The heterosexual man and homosexual woman is limited in sexual attraction to to women. The homosexual man and heterosexual woman is limited in sexual attraction to men. If same-sex and opposite-sex sexual relationships are on par (as per (1)), then there is something sub-optimal in value here—an odd limiting of possible partners on the basis of a quality, maleness or femaleness, that is basically irrelevant to sexual relationships according to (1). So, if (1) holds, then there is something not quite right with homosexuality and with homosexuality—it is a limiting of the relational options. Moreover, there would be reason to change one's orientation to bisexuality if one could do so easily and with no side-effects, thereby removing that restriction.

Thus, if (1) holds, bisexuality has a privileged status among sexual orientations, and, in particular, (2) is false.

One can, of course, contrapose the argument—and I think one should. If bisexuality does not have a privileged status among sexual orientations, then (1) is false.