Thursday, June 25, 2009

If the world is your premise

Religious philosophers looking at the natural world are often on the defensive, defending God’s existence from the many miseries the world inflicts upon us. But sometimes they go on the offensive, arguing that the natural world positively demonstrates God’s existence. They claim that the world reflects a certain intelligent order; that (for example) biological organs and organisms reflect the kind of intelligent design we find in our own human artifacts. And indeed it’s easy to be impressed (as the famous 18th century thinker William Paley argued) when you study biology, and tempting, even, to reach the conclusion that like our artifacts the world must have some intelligent designer or maker.

But that, the great Scottish philosopher David Hume (1711-1776) thinks, is a temptation which one ought to resist.

For Paley's argument depends first of all on an analogy between the world as a whole and the human artifacts we know to be caused by designers. But in general we can only reason from effects back to their causes in this way when we have observational experience of the effects following from their causes. With artifacts we have often witnessed their production by human beings. But when the effect is (as in the case of the world) singular, individual, and without specific resemblance to any artifact, and where there is no possibility of observing the production process, we simply cannot reason backwards to its cause.

This becomes clearer when we examine how little the world can really teach us, at least if we restrict ourselves to concluding nothing more about its cause than is strictly warranted by the effect itself. We ought to renounce (for example) the infinity of this alleged designer; for since the world is, as far as we can tell, finite in proportion and nature, we may not infer anything greater of its cause. Nor can we infer the designer’s perfection or his freedom from mistakes. For even religious philosophers (in their defensive mode) admit that the world is riddled with imperfections. If they insist that the world’s “order” demonstrates it has a designer then they must also admit that its imperfections demonstrate his!

Yet even supposing the world were perfect we still couldn’t infer its designer’s perfection, since for all we know he brought the world about very inefficiently, by trial and error, by creating a long series of universes all botched and bungled until he finally got it “right.” And how could we infer that there was just one designer? Complex structures designed and made by humans typically are brought about by whole teams of individuals. If religious philosophers insist on the analogy between the world and our artifacts then they ought to reason their way to polytheism, to the belief in multiple deities!

In fact we can’t legitimately infer there is any designer at all. For all we know the material world has for eons been undergoing randomly changing arrangements of its innumerable particles all on its own. Some of these arrangements appear “ordered,” of course, while others not; and obviously that arrangement which includes ourselves must appear “ordered” since we could only exist on the supposition of order. But that hardly means this order was intentionally designed. It might just be the random product of a long but random series of variations. No designer necessary!

In short, if the world is our premise then it might in the end also have to be our conclusion. No amount of reasoning can legitimately take us to belief in anything beyond the world itself.

Source: David Hume, Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, Parts II, V, VIII. Richard H. Popkin, ed., (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing, 1980).

Friday, June 19, 2009

You "ought" to believe in God

Moral considerations prove the existence of God--or at least oblige us to believe in it, according to the great German philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804).

Kant actually rejects Anselm’s and Descartes’s arguments for the existence of God, but that needn’t mean he rejects theism itself. Indeed he goes on to offer his own rather original argument to that end; although there may be hints of the strategy in Aquinas and others, Kant is the first explicitly to use moral considerations to prove God’s existence. Or perhaps more precisely, morality does not so much “prove” God’s existence as oblige us to believe in it.

Moral agents, it seems clear, ought to promote the realization of the highest good. For surely we would not be acting rightly if we sought to bring about less than the highest good! But “ought implies can,” as philosophers like to say: one cannot say that someone “ought” to do a particular action unless that action is actually possible for them. For example, we would not say of you that you were morally obliged to end world hunger, for that isn’t even remotely possible for you. At most we might say you were obliged to make small steps in that direction, such as giving to charities.

But if we ought to promote the realization of the highest good and if ought implies can, it follows that it must be possible for us to promote the realization of the highest good.

But now the highest good has two components. The first is moral virtue, and this is entirely in our power. But the second is this: the world would not in fact manifest the highest good unless its moral agents were also happy, and happy in strict proportion to their virtue. To be sure, it is not to become happy that we act morally: morality is a matter of doing what is right for its own sake, not in order to promote our happiness. But imagine a world where the virtuous people suffered grossly and the evil people prospered! Clearly something would be wrong about such a world. Just as clearly, therefore, the highest good for the world would be one where one’s happiness is proportional to one’s virtue.

But we ourselves do not directly control most of what goes on in the world. We do not have power over the laws of nature, for example. There is therefore nothing in our power to ensure that happiness be distributed in proportion to virtue. And indeed just looking around it may seem very questionable that happiness in fact is so distributed. But for that even to be possible, to be something it is reasonable to hope for in the long run, it’s clear we need to believe in a being who could bring it about: a being who obviously must be supremely good and powerful and in charge of the causal structure of the world.

For the highest good even to be possible, in short, God must exist. And it is possible: we are obliged to promote it as we saw, and could not be so obliged unless it were possible.

It follows, Kant concludes, that God exists.

Or at least we must believe it to be so. For we are obliged to aim for the highest good and we would be incapable of aiming for that unless we believed that it was possible. Putting it this way may not quite prove that God in fact exists. But it would make belief in God morally necessary for us: something we must believe as strongly as we believe in morality in the first place.

(1) Immanuel Kant, Critique of Practical Reason. Transl. Lewis W. Beck (New York, NY: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1985/1956), 128-136.
(2) Immanuel Kant, Religion Within the Limits of Reason Alone. Transl. T. M. Greene and H. H. Hudson (New York, NY: Harper, 1960), 4-7.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Not even God can know what we will freely do next

Who wouldn’t want to know the future? Think of the mistakes you could avoid, the dreams you could achieve, the profits you could make! And lots of people would like you to believe they can know the future--by astrology, by reading palms, by interpreting dreams, and so on. In reality, of course, these people are more interested in your money than in the truth. According to the famous ancient Roman orator Cicero (106-43 BCE), however, when it comes to having knowledge of the future (or foreknowledge), even God is not much better equipped than Madame Condessa at her little shop behind the bakery.

Why? Because the idea that God has foreknowledge seems to have a very unsettling consequence: that it’s impossible for human beings to have free will. And that we have free will is something we simply cannot give up.

For suppose that God does know all events in advance. Since God could never make mistakes, whatever He knows about the future must in fact come to pass. But nothing can happen unless it is caused to happen by something preceding it. So if it’s really true that a given event will occur, then it must also be true that immediately before that event some other event will occur which causes that event to occur. But then if that other event will truly occur, then it must also be true that yet another event will occur before that one, causing it to occur, and so on. If God foreknows all events, then, all events will be caused to happen by earlier events in turn caused by even earlier events, and so on. But then everything that occurs will be predestined to occur and therefore unavoidable. The choices and actions of human beings are events like any others. So if these too are predestined and unavoidable, then we would never in fact choose or act freely.

So if God knows the future, we do not have free will.

Think about what that would mean! Suppose you choose to do something good, to help a stranger in need. If your choice is caused by events prior to it, events over which you have no control, then you really have no control over your choice. But then there would be no reason to give you any moral credit for your choice since it wasn’t even up to you, ultimately, that you made that choice. By the same reasoning we could no longer blame bad people for their bad deeds, such as murdering and stealing--since they would not be any more in control of their behavior than you are. From this it follows that all praise and blame, all approval and reprimand, all honors and rewards for good deeds and punishments for bad deeds, would be unjustified.

What a disastrous situation--a calamity for human society!

Well, there is a way to avoid it. This disaster follows only if we hold that God knows the future. Since it’s simply unacceptable to hold that human beings have no control over their actions, that there is no point to praise and blame, that--in short--we do not have free will, then we must instead deny that God foreknows our actions.

That may, admittedly, diminish our conception of God to some degree.

But such is the cost of freedom.

(1) Cicero, “On Fate” and “On Divination.”

Monday, June 1, 2009

Could God create a stone so heavy He couldn't lift it?

Believers in God generally agree that God is omnipotent or all-powerful, or able to do all things. But it's also widely held that God is also perfectly good, which would seem to mean that there is something He cannot do, namely sin. It further seems plausible to believe that not even God could change the past, since it no longer exists and is therefore not around for any causal powers to affect it. And then there is our title question, versions of which have been around for centuries, which seems to admit only two possible answers: either God could, or could not, create such a stone. But if He could, then there could be something God cannot do (namely lift that stone); and if He could not, then there already is something God cannot do (namely create that stone). Any way you think about it, it seems there are or could be things God cannot do: sin, change the past, lift or create that stone. And how could God be omnipotent if there could be things He cannot do?

To answer, one must get clearer on what it means to say that
God is omnipotent.

The great medieval theologian, St. Thomas Aquinas, suggests it’s this: that God can do
all things that are possible. But which things are these, exactly? Well, Aquinas says, something is said to be possible in two senses: either in relation to or for some power, or absolutely, in itself. Lifting a spoon is said to be possible for human beings because we have the power to do so; and it is possible absolutely, in itself, because the idea of “lifting a spoon” doesn’t involve any contradictions. Now we shouldn’t say that God can do all things that are possible in the first sense, in relation to His own power, since that amounts merely to saying that He can do all the things He has the power to do –- which is true but rather uninformative. God’s omnipotence should therefore be understood in the second sense, as His ability to do everything that is possible absolutely, in itself; that is, to do everything that is logically possible, that does not involve a contradiction.

Some may feel that this is not enough; that God’s power is
such that He can do not only everything logically possible but even everything logically impossible –- that is, even things involving contradictions. But though this sounds impressive it actually doesn’t say very much. Consider some contradictory thing, such as a round square. You can form the phrase “round square,” but if you think about it you’ll realize that the phrase lacks any real meaning: if something is round it’s not square, and if it’s square it’s not round. To insist that God could make a round square is therefore to utter a literally meaningless sentence; it’s not really to add anything to His power. And if the alleged ability to do this contradictory thing doesn’t really add to God’s power, then neither does the inability to do it detract from His power.

Now understanding that God’s omnipotence is His ability
to do all logically possible (non-contradictory) things, Aquinas may resolve our puzzles. No, God cannot sin. But to sin is to fall short in some way; it is to be limited in one’s power to do as one should. Obviously an all-powerful being would be unable to do this, since His very power ensures that nothing could limit His power. So the idea of an all-powerful being sinning is the idea of an all-powerful being that is limited in its powers –- a contradiction. God’s inability to sin is an inability to do the impossible, so it’s not, therefore, a genuine limit on His power.

Similarly, that something is past means it occurred; to
change it would mean that it didn’t occur, which contradicts its occurring. So expecting God to be able to change the past –- or create a stone so heavy an omnipotent being like Himself couldn’t lift it -– is like expecting Him to create a round square. He can’t do any of these. But that’s not because His power –- to do all possible things –- is limited, but because none of these is, in itself, a logically possible thing to do.

Source: St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica I.25.3