The Aristotelian-virtue atheistic concern
July 24, 2011 — 11:15

Author: Jeremy Gwiazda  Category: Atheism & Agnosticism Existence of God  Tags: ,   Comments: 33

Many people believe that there is: 1) no greatest number, 2) no greatest possible world, and 3) a greatest being (person, agent). The reason many people believe 1 and 2 is that there seems to be procedures to take a number (or world) and return a larger (or better) one. For any number (cardinal), take the powerset to get a larger number. For any world, stick some happy people in a far off corner to get a better world. (Of course, there is far from universal agreement on this second point.) The question arises: Is there any way to take a being, and return a better one?
One way is to try and link beings with the worlds they create. The idea would be that a being who creates a surpassable world is a surpassable being. This line of thought gives rise to a whole body of literature, some quite recent. Going in a different direction, here is another way that any being might be surpassable. Let us imagine that some virtues, e.g. courage, are traits wherein one wants to be at the mean that lies between extremes. We might imagine that ‘courage-level’ runs along a continuum from 0 (totally cowardly) to 1 (totally rash). Then, speaking loosely, somewhere in the middle is best. But, is it clear that any specific point is best? That is, what if the function, F, from courage-level (which runs from 0 to 1) to the value or goodness of the being goes as follows: F(x) = x for x in [0, 0.5] and F(x) = 1.01 – x for x in (0.5, 1]. Then there is no greatest being, as for any being, there is a better one. There is no greatest being, as beings get better as they approach 0.5 from the right on courage-level.
If there is an optimal point on a trait, call that trait ‘closed’. If there is not an optimal point on a trait (for any level a being takes on the trait, there is a better level), as in the courage example above, call that trait ‘open’. The question is, are all traits are closed? Or, what is the best argument to the conclusion that all traits are closed? In the absence of an argument regarding open and closed traits, the principle of indifference might suggest that courage is open with 50% probability and closed with 50% probability.
(One way to respond is to argue along these lines: certain traits/properties are fundamental (e.g., power, knowledge, freedom, goodness), these traits take maximal levels (individually and together), all other traits follow logically from these, and thus all traits take optimal levels and so are closed. Is there a relatively simple and convincing argument along these lines? Also, are there other ways to argue that all traits are closed? In particular, and thinking of approaching the question from a non-theistic angle, am I missing some sort of simple argument or reason as to why all traits are closed?)

Comments:
  • Clayton Littlejohn

    Can you say more about open/closed traits? If you buy into some version of the doctrine of the unity of the virtues, there won’t be some single invariable point between cowardice and recklessness that the virtuous person can strike–that will vary as features of the situation will vary. If you think that for any given circumstance, there’s a proper balance point but reject the idea that the proper balance remains the same in all circumstances, does that affect your argument?

    July 25, 2011 — 12:37
  • Jeremy Gwiazda

    Clayton:
    I tend to find the doctrine of the unity of the virtues a bit implausible. Though I suppose if there ultimately is just Virtue, we could ask whether Virtue was open or closed. The idea of an open trait is a trait where it is impossible to be at the optimal point, because there isn’t one. (Compare: there is no best way to be late to a 1pm meeting — for any time you show up after 1pm, it would have been better to be earlier.)
    It does seem, as your post gets at, that the relationship between traits and circumstances is important. If every circumstance has a proper balance point, then I am happy to accept that all traits are closed. But is this clear?
    Imagine an infinitely divisible world where some part of 1oz of medicine has to be administered to a child. Half is too little to be effective. For any amount over half, less is better, as any amount over half is effective but has a chance of overdoes that diminishes as the amount of medicine diminishes. (And if the function that governs overdosing is somehow random or chaotic, ‘satisficing’ may not be ‘enough’.)
    In such an example agents seem to be in a bit of a bind. (Though perhaps there is work to do in getting from such an example to traits?)

    July 25, 2011 — 17:21
  • Great question.
    If the value of a courage-level is a continuous function of the courage-level, and courage-level ranges from a minimum to a maximum, both inclusive, then there will be an optimal courage-level. So one approach is to ask whether there is continuity.
    Another way is to go for heavy duty metaphysics: perfections are ways of being. For each way of being, to have it fully is to be perfect in that regard. This could be done either on a continuum (Aquinas) or in a binary way (Leibniz).

    July 27, 2011 — 13:33
  • CliveStaples

    Jeremy:
    “…certain traits/properties are fundamental (e.g., power, knowledge, freedom, goodness), these traits take maximal levels (individually and together), all other traits follow logically from these, and thus all traits take optimal levels and so are closed…”
    Doesn’t your example disprove this line of reasoning? Courage takes a maximum value at 0.5, and “goodness” follows logically from it (according to the function you defined), but “goodness” takes no maximum value. So the “maximum value” characteristic isn’t always preserved.

    July 27, 2011 — 22:40
  • Jeremy Gwiazda

    Alex:
    Good point with the continuity. Do you think that all traits are continuous in this sense? I find that I don’t have much of an intuition one way or the other.
    July seems like a good time to reread some Aquinas and Leibniz.
    Clive:
    The example does disprove the line of reasoning. But I think it’s a ponens/tollens sort of issue. The line of reasoning could show that the example cannot occur. That is:
    If the example works, the reasoning is no good.
    But then do you want to keep the example or the reasoning?
    Also, I wasn’t quite sure what you meant by ‘Courage takes a maximum value at 0.5…’.

    July 28, 2011 — 14:23
  • Dianelos Georgoudis

    I take it epistemology follows ontology, i.e. when thinking about a particular ontological hypothesis one should use the appropriate epistemology. Thus there are two ways to think about reality. The first is the naturalistic way, which is characterized by the view that reality is basically of a mechanical nature, that knowledge and explanations are ultimately about objects, that data and values ultimately refer to quantities. This way is similar to the scientific method by which the physical sciences study physical phenomena. The second is the theistic way, which is characterized by the view that reality is basically of a personal nature, that knowledge and explanations are ultimately about subjects, that data and values ultimately refer to qualities. These two modes of thought correspond to the two dominant theories about the nature of existence, namely the naturalistic and the theistic one.
    Thinking about the greatest possible world, or about the greatest possible being, only makes sense in the latter epistemic context, i.e. in the context of theism. But to argue about how adding something good to a given world produces a world with greater value, or to talk about a virtue as a continuous line on which there is an optimal point, only makes sense in the former context, i.e. in the context of naturalism. One shouldn’t think about theism trying to objectify and/or quantify concepts. Math is useful in the context of describing mechanisms (indeed math abstracts mechanisms), but it can easily become superfluous and indeed misleading in the context of describing personal conditions. Happily enough we ourselves are persons, and thus have direct knowledge about how the theistic reality is in itself.
    In the context of the greatest possible being (i.e. St Anselm’s classical definition of God) I think the right way to think is as follows: Reality (which includes God’s foundational nature which is necessary/simple/unchanging and God-the-person who is a dynamic being with whom one can personally interact, as well as the contingent universe in which we exist and which God creates and sustains) defines what is “being” and what is “possible” and what is “greatness”, and thus circumscribes the meaning of “greatest possible being”. But the contingent fact of what “greatest possible being” means does not limit God in two senses. First epistemically, since our conceptual powers are limited the right way to think about this matter is that God is not less than the greatest being we can conceive. Secondly ontologically, it is important to see that whereas the actual state of reality delimits what is possible, the greatest possible being is not limited by that actual state. Presumably God, in the fullness of His/Her creative power, desires to and thus continuously transcends such limits, and in particular transcends what is possible. In short, God creatively increases the space of what is possible. Possibilities and impossibilities, logical or metaphysical, are not prior to God, nor do they limit God in any way.
    In the context of the greatest possible world, what makes our world (the real world) the greatest possible one, is not that quantifiable properties of our world maximize the value of some mathematical evaluative function. A quantitative (and as I argue misleading) conceptualization of value implies that there is no greatest possible world, for one can always conceive of an even better one. What makes our world the greatest possible world is the fact that God creates it. Now we have partial but sufficient cognitive powers to recognize the greatness of the world, for when we perceive that greatness we are in fact perceiving the greatness of its creator in whose image we are made. On theism there is not some background standard of greatness to which both God and God’s creation need conform. On the contrary when something strikes us as beautiful we are simply perceiving a reflection of the beauty that is God. Similarly, when we love we partake in the love that is God. When we discover some truth in any domain then we discover some part of the truth that is God. God is the foundation of all.

    July 30, 2011 — 1:03
  • Jeremy:
    I have no argument for continuity, but the most plausible discontinuity scenarios I can think of are ones where you hit the best position right-on, that is suddenly much more valuable, or ones where you hit a particularly bad position right-on, that is suddenly much less valuable. For instance, if I promise to draw a point precisely at point x, the closer I come to x, the higher the value of my action; but when I draw it right at x, I get the big bonus for fully fulfilling the promise. Likewise, if I promise to avoid drawing a point at x, it might be particularly bad if I hit it right on. Such scenarios do not challenge the existence of a maximum.
    It is, of course, prima facie possible that some fundamental trait would have a value discontinuity of the sort you mention. But such a scenario does not seem particularly likely.
    One might argue like this: Fix a trait. Either we have a compact range or not. If not, the probability of a maximum is 1/2. If yes, then the probability of continuity is 1/2. If we don’t have continuity, the probability of a maximum is 1/2. If we do have continuity, it’s 1. So, the probability of a maximum is (1/2)(1/2)+(1/2)(1/2+1/4)=5/8. Slightly better than 1/2. 🙂
    What then would be the probability that all fundamental traits have value-maxima? If the continuity and maximum questions for different fundamental traits were independent, it would be a product, and hence small if there is more than one fundamental traits. But in fact, the questions aren’t independent, because there are prima facie plausible hypotheses that make them fit together well. For instance, there is a global Leibnizian hypothesis that everything varies continuously. And there is another global hypothesis that all fundamental traits are binary. And another that everything behaves chaotically and messily. The more prima facie plausible hypotheses there are that make the answers to a set of questions the same, the higher the positive correlation between the answers to the questions, and hence the higher the joint probability.

    August 1, 2011 — 12:15
  • Finney

    Suppose the reason there is no greatest possible world is because there could always be more good people. Well then, if God is three persons and one being, there may have been a God who were four persons and one being, and then a God who were 5 persons and one being, to infinity. So how could there be a being the greater of which could not be conceived?

    August 1, 2011 — 17:26
  • Jeremy Gwiazda

    Dianelos:
    I agree that there does seem to be something a bit odd about quantitatively ‘valuing’ possible worlds. But insofar as we do seem capable (at least some of the time) of making judgments like ‘possible world A is better than B’ – doesn’t that indicate that we can, in some cases, value worlds in some sort of a quantitative way? Also, does your position face this worry – if any world that God created would have been the best possible world, then what led to the choice to create this world? I’m also not sure that I see why the following are true – could you expand a bit more on these ideas:
    “Thinking about the greatest possible world, or about the greatest possible being, only makes sense in the latter epistemic context, i.e. in the context of theism.”
    “Presumably God, in the fullness of His/Her creative power, desires to and thus continuously transcends such limits, and in particular transcends what is possible. In short, God creatively increases the space of what is possible. Possibilities and impossibilities, logical or metaphysical, are not prior to God, nor do they limit God in any way.”
    Alex:
    That all sounds sensible to me. I too am having trouble thinking of a realistic scenario that has that sort of a discontinuity. (I am going to have to review some of those topological ideas — but that seems like a neat argument to 5/8.)
    Finney:
    There are a number of ways to go in response. Here is one (perhaps slightly nonstandard) reply to your question, where the reference and abstract are copied from Philpapers.org [where this abstract was in caps]:
    Richard Swinburne (1988). Could There Be More Than One God? Faith and Philosophy 5 (3):225 – 241.
    THERE COULD BE MORE THAN ONE GOD (DEFINED BY THE NORMAL DIVINE PREDICATES), ONLY IF A FIRST GOD BRINGS ABOUT (FROM ETERNITY) A SECOND GOD, AND THE FIRST TWO BRING ABOUT A THIRD GOD. IN ORDER TO EVINCE THE GOODNESS OF SHARING AND COOPERATING IN SHARING, THEY WILL DO THIS NECESSARILY. BUT THEY DO NOT HAVE TO PRODUCE A FOURTH GOD; AND SINCE A GOD MUST EXIST NECESSARILY IF AT ALL, THERE WILL BE AND CAN BE ONLY THREE GODS. BUT SINCE THEY MUTUALLY SUSTAIN EACH OTHER, THEY FORM A TRINITY.

    August 2, 2011 — 13:44
  • Finney

    Hi Jeremy,
    You’ll have to forgive me – I don’t quite understand how the response works.
    One, I don’t see how producing a third God is necessary for the first and second God to express the goodness of sharing. And if it is necessary, why is it not necessary for the third God to produce another God?
    Three, how could the three Gods form a trinity, especially when two of the Gods are created things?
    Finally, I’m not sure how this applies to my objection, which was, isn’t it logically possible that God be three persons and one being – and if so, is the Christian God not the greatest conceivable?

    August 2, 2011 — 16:55
  • Jeremy:
    You can construct particular situations where you don’t have an optimum. Suppose I commit myself to you to draw a point at location x, and I simultaneously commit myself to two other people never to draw a point exactly at x. In the first commitment, I make it clear through my wording that approaching x counts as coming closer to fulfillment. In the second commitment, I make it clear that I am not committing myself to not draw a point close to x; it is only exactly at x that I commit myself not to draw a point. As I vary where I draw the point, moving closer and closer to x, the value of my keeping my more approximate promise to you increases. But if I draw the point at x itself, the value is suddenly overshadowed by the disvalue of breaking a promise to two other people. So there is no maximum value.
    This is a really contrived case, however, and it seems really unlikely that a fundamental trait would behave like this.

    August 3, 2011 — 7:52
  • Jeremy Gwiazda

    Alex:
    The question does seem to be whether these sorts of situations can be somehow linked to traits. I also liked my doctor example above as this sort of situation:
    “Imagine an infinitely divisible world where some part of 1 oz of medicine has to be administered to a child. Half is too little to be effective. For any amount over half, less is better, as any amount over half is effective but has a chance of overdoes that diminishes as the amount of medicine diminishes. (And if the function that governs overdosing is somehow random or chaotic, ‘satisficing’ may not be ‘enough’.)”

    August 3, 2011 — 13:00
  • Jeremy Gwiazda

    Finney:
    I have not read that article for some time, but I think the idea is that there must be cooperation, and cooperation in sharing, but nothing further is necessary. That requires three (two can’t cooperate in sharing, and four aren’t needed). I don’t think that the argument succeeds, but if it did, it would reply to what I took to be your objection, which I thought was that more divine persons (4, 5,…) are better, and so there can be no greatest being.
    “…if God is three persons and one being, there may have been a God who were four persons and one being, and then a God who were 5 persons and one being, to infinity. So how could there be a being the greater of which could not be conceived?”
    That said, this is a topic on which I am far from an expert, and so I’m not sure that I’ll ultimately be able to respond to your satisfaction.

    August 3, 2011 — 13:26
  • Dianelos Georgoudis

    Jeremy,
    On theism value is certainly not mechanizable. On theism we ultimately know values by direct perception, or, if you will, by acquaintance. Therefore, the deeper we think about value the less appropriate it is to think in a quantitative way. I agree that it makes sense to say that world A is better than world B, but this does not imply that therefore values can be used in a way analogous to quantities. So, for example, transitivity does not always hold; it may well be the case that B is better than A, C better than B, but A better than C. This is a common experience while creating art by the way.
    As for any world that God might have created being the best possible world: On theism God is the metaphysically ultimate and thus grounds what is good. Therefore God (being perfectly rational) will never want to create some world which conflicts with that goodness. The Euthyphro dilemma is a false one precisely because it conceptualizes God as one more object existing in some larger world where standards of goodness may exist outside of God. But on theism God is the metaphysically ultimate and therefore all good is grounded in God. So it’s not the case that something is good because God commands it (or creates it) nor that God commands it (or creates it) because it is good in some sense external to God. Rather what makes God’s commands (or God’s creation) good, indeed perfectly good, is the fact that such commands (or creation) are an expression of the nature of God. The real world, which God has in fact decided to create, is the best possible world and couldn’t be anything less than the best possible world under any coherent understanding of theism.
    My argument though goes further: God creates the world not only because of (or as an emanation of) the intrinsic goodness of His/Her nature, but in a way that transcends His/Her nature. In creation God not only creates things ex nihilo but also values ex nihilo. I hold that creation is not external to God, but a process in which God participates in a self-transforming way (a view which I think fits especially well with Christianity). There is the ancient understanding according to which something perfect cannot ever change because such change would imply that it wasn’t perfect before. I hold that, while this principle may hold in some cases, it doesn’t in the case of God, for a being that is incapable of improving is less than the greatest being I can conceive (and thus certainly less the perfect). In short I am saying that in relation to creation, i.e. from our point of view, the right way to think about God is that God is a dynamic being which interacts with creation, and moreover a dynamic being which partakes in creation.
    I don’t think that one can discuss the greatest possible being or the greatest possible world in the context of naturalism, simply because I don’t know what “value” means within a naturalistic reality. Perhaps I can revise my wording thus: “As long as nobody suggests what grounds value in a naturalistic ontology it makes no sense for me to discuss what the greatest possible being or the greatest possible world is in a naturalistic reality.” Speaking of values, one might suspect that the theistic understanding is circular, because it says that all value is grounded in God and also that God is the greatest possible being. The solution to that apparent circularity lies in recognizing that St Anselm’s definition does not specify God (which would be impossible) but specifies how we should think about God, namely as being not less than the greatest being we can conceive. Since we are built in the image of God we possess some cognitive faculty to perceive greatness, and can use that faculty of perception to reason about God. (Indeed both theists and atheists can do that, as evidenced by the sophisticated theological reasoning that atheists are sometimes capable of.)
    What mostly concerns me is the right way to think about theism, and it is here that in my opinion many people including some theists commit the grave epistemic error of using mechanistic/objectifying/cuantitative habits of thought. So, for example, one finds theists speaking of the “phenomenon” of consciousness, or arguing that free will is an incoherent concept, or agreeing that quantum mechanics is mysterious. But the reasons for which consciousness, or free will, or the results of modern science are hard to naturalize (are hard to fit within a naturalistic reality) do not apply to theism, as is immediately apparent when one abstains from using naturalistic habits of thought when thinking about theism.
    As for God creatively transcending what is possible: God, being the metaphysically ultimate, grounds all that exists. Thus God also grounds all necessities and all possibilities. If something is necessarily true, it’s only because it reflects some unchanging fact about God’s will. For example, God, being perfectly good, will never want to be less than perfectly good. Thus it is necessarily true that God will remain eternally perfectly good. Similarly, the space of what is possible does not exist apart or independently from God, but is as it is because God wants it to be so. Since God can increase in value by increasing what is possible, one can see that God will do precisely that. So God remains always absolutely perfect (within what is possible at each time) and also continuously grows in value by transcending His/Her own perfection. Finally, how the space of what is possible will increase is not fixed or necessary, but depends on the continuous application of God’s creative will.
    In this context I think that the common theistic proposition “God can do everything that is not logically impossible” is not only false but also misleading, particularly in the sense that it appears to be saying that there is something beyond God which makes some things impossible. But if that were so then the metaphysically ultimate would not only consist of God, but of God plus several other things, such as what grounds impossibilities. I hold that the right way to understand God’s power is simply “God does what God wants”, and God’s knowledge “God knows what God wants”. Something is impossible only if God wants it to be so.

    August 6, 2011 — 4:55
  • Jeremy Gwiazda

    Dianelos:
    There are some interesting ideas there. One potential issue may be the following. One might come along and say, ok, I agree that — If God exists, then this must be the best of all possible worlds. But this obviously isn’t the best of all possible worlds. So God does not exist. That is, in part it seems that your view makes for a seemingly easy argument to atheism. How do you respond to the intuition, shared by many, that adding some happy beings in a far off corner of the universe would make for a better universe?

    August 9, 2011 — 12:41
  • Dianelos Georgoudis

    I think the intuition that by adding a few more happy people in the world one makes a better world is wrong. Indeed I doubt that this is an intuition shared by many who would reflect on it. After all it leads to an infinite regress. Also nobody has the intuition that the value of a painter is measured by the number of his paintings, or the value of a symphony is measured by the number of melodies it contains. Value is not about quantity. I think this much is more or less recognized in philosophy. One of the most famous saying of antiquity is Aristotle’s “ouk en to polo to eu” (not in the many lies the good).
    In relation to your claim that our world is obviously not the best possible one: Let’s define “perfect” as “best possible”. Then, theism entails 1) that God is perfect, and 2) that God is the creator of our world, which therefore must be perfect too. So, if you had an argument that shows that our world is not perfect then you would indeed have an argument against theism. And if it were obvious that our world is not perfect then it would be equally obvious that God does not exist.
    Now, how should we think about whether our world is perfect or not? From our point of view it looks far from perfect of course, but the point of view that counts is God’s. So the question is: What kind of world would strike God as being perfect? One way to think about this is to try a thought experiment. Suppose then that before creating the world God would create only you, with your current limited but not insubstantial cognitive capacity to perceive greatness. Suppose now God would ask you this: “Jeremy, I am the greatest possible being. I am about to create a world. What kind of world do you think I will create? Please observe that I am not asking what kind of world *you* would like me to create, but rather what kind of world you think *I* would like to create.”
    Now, reflecting on this question I find myself deciding that God would want to create a world quite similar to the world I find myself in, including all its evils. Thus, the presence of evil provides me with a powerful argument against naturalism, which goes like this:
    1. If naturalism were true then it is highly improbable that I would find myself judging that this world is the world that God would want to create. (premise)
    2. I find myself judging that this world is the world that God would want to create. (fact)
    3. Therefore it is highly improbable the naturalism is true.
    The idea behind premise (1) is this: There probably is, at least in principle, a naturalistic account that explains how come behavior consistent with moral and religious beliefs has evolved. (Alex in a recent post argues that the adaptive benefits of moral codes, especially moral codes related to the prisoner’s dilemma, will be more effectively produced if accompanied by belief in some powerful invisible entities who are watching over one’s moral behavior.) But I find it implausible to hold that there is naturalistic account that would explain how one’s sense of personal greatness would lead one to see that the greatest conceivable being would choose to create our world, as full of evils as it in fact is. Thus, a satisfactory solution to the problem of evil not only removes a conceptual problem from theism, but counts as evidence against naturalism. It seems then that, paradoxically enough, the existence of evil of the kind and amount there is in the world, may end up illuminating for us the character of God on the one hand, and also counting as evidence against naturalism on the other.

    August 11, 2011 — 8:13
  • Jeremy Gwiazda

    “I think the intuition that by adding a few more happy people in the world one makes a better world is wrong. Indeed I doubt that this is an intuition shared by many who would reflect on it. After all it leads to an infinite regress. Also nobody has the intuition that the value of a painter is measured by the number of his paintings, or the value of a symphony is measured by the number of melodies it contains. Value is not about quantity. I think this much is more or less recognized in philosophy. One of the most famous saying of antiquity is Aristotle’s “ouk en to polo to eu” (not in the many lies the good).”
    What is the infinite regress? It seems to just lead to the conclusion that there is no best possible world, as for any, there is a better one.
    Then, it is not number alone that goes into value, nobody claims this. But number and quality. The issue of a painter who paints every paining worth painting vs, say, Picasso is an interesting example, I find, in terms of the recent discussions of multiverses. But that’s another topic. But yes, of course it is not only number that matters. Parfit’s repugnant conclusion is going to involve not only numbers of people, but also a discussion of the quality of their lives. The question is: Is a universe with N+10 happy people leading rewarding, flourishing lives better than a universe with N similar people? Here many have held that the answer is yes. (The question is not: Is a universe with N+10 people better than one with N?)
    “1. If naturalism were true then it is highly improbable that I would find myself judging that this world is the world that God would want to create. (premise)
    2. I find myself judging that this world is the world that God would want to create. (fact)
    3. Therefore it is highly improbable the naturalism is true.”
    Here I have some concerns with the structure of the argument (mixing the deductive and the inductive), with premise 1 (more below), and with the weight that should be accorded to 2 in the absence of argument for 2.
    “Suppose now God would ask you this: “Jeremy, I am the greatest possible being. I am about to create a world. What kind of world do you think I will create? Please observe that I am not asking what kind of world *you* would like me to create, but rather what kind of world you think *I* would like to create.””
    I find this line of thought both interesting and not all that helpful. It interests me more from a psychological perspective than philosophical. I never cease to be amazed at how wildly intuitions differ on this very question. But here a number of people want to immediately reply: ‘Just create Heaven, or something like it.’ Then it is possible to reply to this reply with some sort of ‘process’ reply or ‘soul-making’ reply or any other number of replies. But in general I don’t have a strong intuition about the world created. Here is a potential concern. We can change the question. I’ve got a buddy Jake [name changed] who is kind of an idiot and degenerate. He doesn’t do much of anything worthwhile, he only cares about himself, and his idea of a good time is having 18 pbrs, swearing at a few people, losing 50 bucks at Keno, and maybe rounding out the evening with fisticuffs. Consider: “Suppose now Jake would ask you this: “Jeremy, I am an idiot and a degenerate. I am about to create a world. What kind of world do you think I will create? Please observe that I am not asking what kind of world *you* would like me to create, but rather what kind of world you think *I* would like to create.” There is a concern that Jake might come back with this world, or something much like it. Of course, this intuition that Jake would create this world does not at all rule out God’s arriving at the same world. But it gives me pause in the context of your specific question.
    “But I find it implausible to hold that there is naturalistic account that would explain how one’s sense of personal greatness would lead one to see that the greatest conceivable being would choose to create our world, as full of evils as it in fact is.”
    This I do not follow.

    August 11, 2011 — 11:31
  • Jeremy Gwiazda

    To clarity one point, I recognize that in your argument, as stated, 2 does not need any argument. But insofar as some might disagree with your judgment, some argument may be needed to the content of the judgment.

    August 11, 2011 — 11:35
  • Dianelos Georgoudis

    Jeremy,
    Before commenting on the specifics, I would first like to emphasize what it is that interests me here, namely the right way to think about theism. My contention is that given how radically different the theistic and the naturalistic ontologies are, it is wrong to let habits of thought which make sense on naturalism affect how one thinks about theism. Many people will contest that naturalism’s epistemology is the same that the physical sciences use, but this is irrelevant. The scientific method works so well simply because there is mechanical order present in physical phenomena, but this says nothing about whether the same epistemology will work in metaphysics. If theism is true and reality is not ultimately mechanical then, obviously, it won’t. Therefore by trying to use the scientific method when doing metaphysics one is in fact begging the question.
    And here is an interesting case in point: In your previous comment you contrast the philosophical and the psychological perspectives, but on theism there is little difference between the two. If theism is true, and reality is God-estructured, and we ourselves are made in the image of God, then an excellent way to find out about how reality is is psychological. One introspects, considers one’s own condition, and reflects on the image in which one is made. The trick here is to both recognize one’s own shortcomings and one’s own virtues, and by doing this realize the nature of the perfect being in whose image we are made. I think it is fair to say that such a way of thinking is both philosophical and psychological (and moreover experiential). For example consider the argument from evil, which both the theist and the atheist equally well understand. How do they recognize the meaning of that argument? By using their psychological insight to decide that there is a prima facie problem with the idea that a perfect person would allow so much and grave evil to obtain in the world.
    Concerning your claim that value is both about quantity and quality, I beg to disagree. It is not at all obvious to me that a world with 10 more *happy* people will be more valuable, and when I consider the infinite regression it entails it becomes obvious to me that after a point it will be less valuable: I would certainly not greatly value a universe filled with nothing but happy people tightly packed together from end to end. Similarly it is not at all obvious that a painter who has painted 10 more *good* pictures is a greater painter – painting too many pictures may actually decrease the value of a painter even if the additional pictures are good ones. Similarly it is not all obvious that a symphony with one more *good* melody in it is a better one, indeed it may well be a worse one. I find that value is only about quality; when quantity is relevant in it is only because of how it affects quality. (To be more precise, value is about quality and also about unity. So, for example, superficial but unified understanding is more valuable that deep understanding of some part of the whole. Being a little good in all of one’s life is more valuable than being very good in some part of it. I digress, but is important to reflect on our sense of value.)
    I am not sure I understand your point about Jake. An idiot and degenerate would never want to create a world like ours. I mean look at the breathtaking beauty of our world. Or at how deeply mathematical its physical order is.
    As for the bit on the first premise of my argument from evil against naturalism, my wording was sloppy: What I meant was this: Of all naturalistic worlds in which intelligent beings evolve I find it plausible that in many (perhaps most) also moral and religious beliefs will evolve (because of the adaptive advantages they offer). On the other hand I think that in only a very small fraction of these worlds intellects will evolve which would have a perception of greatness according to which God would want to create the world in which they exist. This kind of value perception seems to offer next to zero adaptive advantage, and its presence would count as an extraordinary coincidence in favor of theistic belief in a naturalistic world.

    August 14, 2011 — 10:04
  • Dianelos Georgoudis

    I don’t think it is possible to give an argument about a value judgment, but I can certainly try to describe my value judgment behind (2). So here are the rough outlines of my sense of what kind of world the greatest possible being would want to create, according to my perception of greatness:
    I can see that God will want to create a world which instantiates the greatest possible value. Being God the greatest possible being the primary purpose behind the creation of that world would be to produce in it beings who are in some basic sense similar to God, i.e. creative personal beings. Creative in what sense? Since, again, Godhood is the greatest value, the most valuable creative power these personal beings can possess is the power to create themselves similar to God, i.e. the power for what is known as “soul-making”, the power to ultimately realize the state of what in Greek Orthodox Christianity is called “theosis”. Thus I can see that God will want to create a world with imperfect personal beings who possess unlimited creative power of self-perfection. The best world for such creative power to be exercised will be one where that power is resisted, i.e. a world in which natural evils exist. In conclusion, according to my sense of greatness the world God would want to create is consistent with the world I find myself in. Specifically, I find that the human condition is one of continuous and intensive moral challenge.
    The most serious objection I know against the above soul-making theodicy is that a world with significantly less natural evils (or at least less horrendous evils) than ours would be equally and perhaps even more effective. But how can we possibly know this? Perhaps a “softer” world would be more conducive to moral development, but perhaps a “harder” world would be more conducive to moral development (in the latter context see Duerrenmatt’s great play “Mission of the Vega”). One way or the other I can hardly imagine a world more ethically challenging than the one I live in.

    August 14, 2011 — 10:09
  • Jeremy Gwiazda

    Dianelos,
    You raise a number of interesting points. I’ll focus on a couple clarifications/questions.
    “I would certainly not greatly value a universe filled with nothing but happy people tightly packed together from end to end.”
    This is why the happy people are thrown into a far off corner. They are not “tightly packed together.”
    “I find that value is only about quality…”
    How do you make sense of a powerplay in hockey, which is 6 on 5, and the team on the powerplay – the team with 6 – is at an advantage, or in the more valuable position?
    “I am not sure I understand your point about Jake. An idiot and degenerate would never want to create a world like ours.”
    I might have undersold Jake a bit. He does, for example and at times, appreciate beauty. You also mention math. I suggest that even math is Jakelike-math. A question, on your view, is why is math, at times, so hard and ugly? For example, most people who talk of the beauty and simplicity of math, if locked away in a room for the rest of their lives, could not come close to proving that any positive integer is the sum of 4 squares. Is math at times simple, elegant, and beautiful? Yes. But people often forget that at times it is complex (no pun), clunky, and ugly. If math is what it is, then this needs no explanation. But on your view God, not bound by logic, created math in some sense. Even math then, is a mixed bag. Again there is the Humean worry – why infer perfect goodness from what is a mixed bag?
    (I’ll try to remember to ask him what kind of world he would create. I’m sort of curious now.)

    August 16, 2011 — 15:44
  • Dianelos Georgoudis

    Jeremy,
    The only math I find ugly is the math I don´t understand. Also it´s not always the case that what´s beautiful is simple, sometimes very complex things strike us as beautiful.
    As for the hockey example you mention, an even simpler example would be to point out that 10 dollars have more value than 5 dollars. The “value” I am talking about is not the value of a position in a game of sports, or the value of money in a purse, etc. Rather the value I am talking about is the value which philosophers have always identified with the good.
    My argument here is really simple: Since according to theism reality is ultimately of a personal nature and not of a mechanical nature, an epistemology designed to discover mechanical order (such as the scientific method) will ultimately be misleading when applied to theism. On theism fundamental knowledge can be reached only by acquaintance, i.e. by looking. (In other words I am saying that there are two ways to commit the fallacy of begging the question. One is the traditional way of implicitly assuming what one wants to prove. The other more sneaky way is by assuming the epistemology entailed in what one wants to prove.)
    A major case in point here concerns the problem of evil. Given God´s attributes the only thing that matters is God´s purpose for creation. As I described before, my own sense of greatness tells me that the greatest conceivable being would want to create a world of the same kind I find myself existing in. Thus I find the solution (or resolution) of the problem of evil in my own entirely qualitative sense of greatness, i.e. ultimately in the nature of my mind. In short I understand God´s purpose by the lights of my own sense of greatness.
    In this same context I would like very much to know what your own sense of greatness tells you. What purpose would the greatest being you can conceive have for creating the world (which entails the kind of world that being would want to create)?

    August 17, 2011 — 10:40
  • Jeremy Gwiazda

    Dianelos,
    Yes, I didn’t mean to equate beauty and simplicity, though I think that often there is a link. I do think that your link between ugliness and lack of understanding fails. For example, I claim that I could select 3 proofs of the Pythagorean Theorem, one beautiful, one ugly, and one in the middle. I think that if we showed them to mathematicians who understood all 3, there would be a great deal of agreement regarding their relative beauty: beautiful, middling, ugly.
    Your main point, as I understand it, is that 1) God exists, 2) If God exists, a certain epistemological point follows, and 3) therefore the epistemological point follows. It seems to me that you then need argument for 1) and 2). I think that your posts have been a step in that direction, but I don’t know if you have made a case that would convince those not already inclined to agree. Compare the Zenonians. They are a rather quiet group who are convinced that Zeno’s paradoxes succeed in showing that motion is impossible and that all is one. They also think that if all is one, then it is not good to use language. So they argue: 1) All is one, 2) If all is one, language should not be used, and 3) therefore language should not be used. Well, great. But unless they offer compelling arguments for 1) and 2), most people who are not already Zenonians will keep using language.
    In general, one concern with theism is along the lines of “God created man in his image and man returned the favor” along with “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” We are people with consciousness. Many people then believe that the ultimate creator and sustainer of everything is a person with consciousness. Some have expressed a concern with such anthropomorphism, suggesting that it smacks of arrogance and a lack of imagination. Why, it is asked, assume that the ultimate grounds of being are related to us in such a strong way?
    “In this same context I would like very much to know what your own sense of greatness tells you. What purpose would the greatest being you can conceive have for creating the world (which entails the kind of world that being would want to create)?”
    I’m not sure that I can conceive of a greatest being. In part this was the initial impetus behind this thread. Perhaps for any being there is a better one. And if there is a greatest being, I’m still not sure that I can grasp such a being. And, it’s not clear to me what the greatest being I can conceive of has to do with anything. But indeed, why would there be any purpose to create? That God + creation is preferable to (better than, or some such) God alone does seem problematic. Here’s a question I’ve been mulling over that might help me get some traction on the issue of creation: Why is it possible to sin in the paradisal, pre-fall state, but not in Heaven? And, whatever the answer is, does this suggest any sort of lack in the paradisal pre-fall state?

    August 19, 2011 — 15:05
  • There certainly are ugly mathematical proofs. Two of my papers come to mind.
    But I don’t know if that means that the mathematics is ugly. In both of the cases that came to my mind, I was proving a beautiful theorem, but the proof was quite ugly. I don’t know whether these theorems can be given beautiful proofs, however: it is quite possible that they can. Moreover, the fact that such-and-such a proof (ugly as the proof may be) is, in fact, a valid proof may have a certain beauty to it.

    August 19, 2011 — 19:13
  • Dianelos Georgoudis

    Jeremy,
    You write: “Your main point, as I understand it, is that 1) God exists, 2) If God exists, a certain epistemological point follows, and 3) therefore the epistemological point follows.”
    No, not at all. My main point is this: On any ontological hypothesis some epistemological points follow. Therefore, when one thinks about any particular ontological hypothesis one should not violate the epistemological points which follow from it. Otherwise one is committing a form of the fallacy of begging the question.
    Since on theism reality is ultimately of a personal and not of a mechanical nature, to use only epistemologies which are apt for discovering mechanical order is fallacious. Indeed this is a common fallacy. For example, I have often heard the argument made that theistic explanations are invalid because they “don’t give a mechanism”. Actually the opposite is true: Any system of theistic explanations based exclusively on mechanisms is invalid.
    As for “Zenonism”, if it entails that thinking about it should not involve language, then, clearly, one should not use language when thinking about it. Which I suppose makes things rather difficult for those who are interested in thinking about Zenonism.
    “Most people who are not already Zenonians will keep using language.”
    As they should unless they are thinking about Zenonism. As for Zenonians they may use language when they are thinking about, say, theism.
    “Why, it is asked, assume that the ultimate grounds of being are related to us in such a strong way?”
    Because it is a viable ontological hypothesis. Moreover it offers an important epistemic advantage: If reality is ultimately personal then we can know reality as it is and not only as it seems, and thus can build a much more complete and testable worldview.
    But perhaps you mean why *believe* that the ultimate grounds of beings are related to us in such a strong way? This is a big question, but I suppose the short answer is because the alternative leads to so many and deep conceptual problems.
    “If there is a greatest being, I’m still not sure that I can grasp such a being.”
    Nobody can conceive of the greatest possible being. The idea rather is that the right way to think about God is as being not less than the greatest being one can conceive. This is the right way to think about God, and applies to the dumbest of children to the wisest of philosophers.
    “ And, it’s not clear to me what the greatest being I can conceive of has to do with anything.”
    In my case the greatest being I can conceive would have such purposes in creation as to create a world of the kind I exist in. Which is rather remarkable given the quantity and type of evils that exist in the world. It is in this context I was asking you about what purpose the greatest being you can conceive would have for creation, for I suspect that most people when thinking in the right way about God would arrive at the same conclusion I arrived. My thesis then is that the solution to the problem of evil resides in the nature of the human mind. We are made in such a way as to be able to “see” the solution, in the same way we can “see” moral greatness. In other words I am saying that the same cognitive capacity we have for understanding the problem of evil leads to its solution.
    “That God + creation is preferable to (better than, or some such) God alone does seem problematic.”
    I don’t see any problem. If God wants to create then creation is better than its absence.
    “Why is it possible to sin in the paradisal, pre-fall state, but not in Heaven?”
    I don’t think there is a paradisal pre-fall state. I understand the OT story either as a primitive attempt to respond to the problem of evil, or else as a wise allegory the point of which is that our current condition would be the result of our rational choice if we had the opportunity to choose.
    As for Heaven, my understanding is that it is possible to sin, that one is free to sin, but that one will in fact never choose to do so. Indeed for me “being in Heaven” means to have attained a personal character such that one will in fact never choose to sin. In a personal reality what is ultimately relevant is what one values and not what is possible. It is possible for me to right now smash my head against the wall, but it is in fact impossible that I will choose to do so.

    August 22, 2011 — 10:00
  • Jeremy Gwiazda

    Alex: I agree. Also, it does seem to be an interesting question – is there any beautiful mathematical theorem that has only ugly proof(s)? I’m thinking there has to be, perhaps proceeding along the lines of considering Kolmogorov complexity. I guess the idea would be that proofs just get too damn long. Though, of course, it may be tough to get a formal definition of beautiful and ugly if these can’t be linked simply to minimal length. And your point is well-taken, there can be a certain beauty to (even ugly) proofs.
    Dianelos: One thing I’m missing is why the epistemology is only operative sometimes. It seems that we are talking about sweeping metaphysical claims when we talk about theism or Zenonism. It’s not clear to me why, e.g., the Zenonians should only not talk when discussing Zenonism. Shouldn’t they always be silent? I suppose your idea is, for example, that one can be a theist and an engineer, and adopt a mechanical worldview when engineering? That sounds sensible. Though I am not convinced that the Zenonians should ever talk.
    One concern I have with your proposed solution to the problem of evil is that people are very good at justifying to themselves why the position they are in is swell. Are you concerned that you are simply falling into this trap?
    Also, there is the ever present concern with any reply along the lines of ‘people can just see’ X, namely, a lot of people can’t just see X.

    August 24, 2011 — 14:01
  • 1. A proof could be long but beautiful, going through a number of lemmata which are in themselves beautiful. So length by itself won’t show that there isn’t a beautiful proof.
    2. An example of a beautiful result for which we have no beautiful proof is the Four Color Theorem.

    August 24, 2011 — 15:21
  • Dianelos Georgoudis

    Jeremy,
    You write: “It’s not clear to me why, e.g., the Zenonians should only not talk when discussing Zenonism. Shouldn’t they always be silent?”
    Zenonians and anybody else interested in thinking about Zenonism should not use language, because using language violates an epistemic principle entailed by Zenonism. On the other hand Zenonians and anybody else may use language when thinking about, say, theism, because doing so does not violate an epistemic principle entailed by theism. In short: When thinking about an ontological hypothesis one should not violate the epistemological principles entailed by it, because doing so amounts to committing the fallacy of begging the question. Thus, for example, to insist that theistic explanations must “give a mechanism” is to beg the question.
    “I suppose your idea is, for example, that one can be a theist and an engineer, and adopt a mechanical worldview when engineering?
    Not quite. The engineer will use the epistemology that is appropriate in the domain she is working, which in this case is of a mechanical nature, practical results oriented, etc. But the engineer’s work is not in any way affected by her ontological worldview. The engineer will be neither more nor less effective if she is an atheist, or a Muslim, or believes in the computer simulation hypothesis. (Arguably, an atheist physicist is at a slight disadvantage, because she is apt to waste time wondering what kind of naturalistic reality fits the mathematical order present in physical phenomena – see in this context the debacle of the naturalistic interpretations of quantum mechanics.)
    “One concern I have with your proposed solution to the problem of evil is that people are very good at justifying to themselves why the position they are in is swell. Are you concerned that you are simply falling into this trap?”
    I am. All thinking includes traps of some kind of other, and there is indeed a tendency to find what one expects to find. But there are also good epistemic tools to avoid such traps, including of course empirical testing.
    “Also, there is the ever present concern with any reply along the lines of ‘people can just see’ X, namely, a lot of people can’t just see X.
    It interests me to find out whether other people see what I see. That’s why I was asking you what purpose you see that the greatest being you can conceive would have for creation.
    Having said that, according to all great religious worldviews the human condition is not fixed but is a dynamic thing. The very way one is, and the way one experiences life, and one’s cognitive perception-like faculties – are all variable along an axis from darkness to light. So it’s not like everybody must be able to see the same. Nevertheless I suspect that our cognitive faculties are such that in the case of the problem of evil everybody who can see why there is a problem in the first place can also see its solution.

    August 25, 2011 — 20:21
  • Jeremy Gwiazda

    Alex:
    Another proof that comes to mind is the classification of finite simple groups, though I don’t know enough to know if anyone considers the proof beautiful.
    Dianelos:
    “But there are also good epistemic tools to avoid such traps, including of course empirical testing.”
    Is there any sort of ‘empirical testing’ available in this case?
    “It interests me to find out whether other people see what I see. That’s why I was asking you what purpose you see that the greatest being you can conceive would have for creation.”
    Do I begin by imagining the greatest being I can conceive in some sort of emptiness? Then, as this being is assumed to be a person, I see strong motivations from a social angle and from the angle of banishing boredom. Perhaps the idea is that if I conceived a great enough being then these sorts of considerations would not be, or would be minor, motivations? The being is concerned with others. Well, but there are no others. Potential others then. Ok, but then is this universe what a being who is concerned with potential others creates? Reminds me of an argument that this is not the sort of universe that God would create, because there is too much empty space. (Though this is a dim recollection – I should track down what I think I am talking about to see if I am butchering it.) It is an interesting question – but I find that I have trouble getting much traction one way or another. Could you spell out what you see as the motivation?
    “Nevertheless I suspect that our cognitive faculties are such that in the case of the problem of evil everybody who can see why there is a problem in the first place can also see its solution.”
    When and how is, e.g., Daniel Dennett is going to ‘see its solution’?

    September 1, 2011 — 9:20
  • Jeremy:
    But is the mathematical result itself beautiful in that case?
    I also think the main results in this paper and this one are beautiful, but my proofs are very ugly, especially in the second one.
    Here’s an interesting question. There seem to be positively ugly proofs. But are there any positively ugly theorems? Granted, there are theorems that seem to lack much in the way of aesthetic qualities, such as the theorem that 249949102484018 x 88300019992 = 22070510746321246260487856. But even that isn’t a positively ugly theorem.
    And another interesting question is this. Suppose that it turned out that the proof of the four-color conjecture, or the proofs in my papers, are the best ones possible. Would we still think them ugly?

    September 1, 2011 — 10:04
  • Jeremy Gwiazda

    Alex:
    Interesting questions. The papers also look interesting, I’ll try to go through them at some point.
    I’ve heard it said, and have perhaps come to think, that it’s ugly that 2^3=8 and 3^2=9. It gives hope for the commutativity of exponentiation, that maybe it just fails at the outset, barely, but then will be true from some point on. But no. I suppose 1^2 = 1 and 2^1 = 2. Maybe this hints that we will have a special form of ‘off-by-one’ commutativity, namely, (n)^(n+1) = (n+1)^n – 1. It even seems to hold for 0, in that 0^1 = 1^0 – 1. Terrible that this breaks down after holding for n=0,1,2. I know that there are longer patterns like this, but exponentiation is so basic, and coming ‘after’ addition and multiplication, which do commute, it’s just a tough pill to swallow.
    I tend to think that even the most beautiful (or best) proof could still be ugly.

    September 9, 2011 — 11:49
  • What’s beautiful about exponentiation, though, is that it quickly gives you very big numbers from one small number (say, 2) and one medium sized number (say, 10).
    There is also a more complicated commutativity property;
    x^y = (exp y)^(log x)

    September 12, 2011 — 8:39
  • Dianelos Georgoudis

    Jeremy,
    You write: “Is there any sort of ‘empirical testing’ available in this case?”
    The teaching of all great religions is explicitly empirical, as they teach a path of self-transformation, indeed basically “do this and you’ll experience that”. That religions are not empirical sciences is just another myth. Our context though is that of natural theology, and not that of religion. In our context then the issue to be tested is this: Given that our cognitive faculties are such that they often fall for illusions, what kind of test can we perform to avoid this? I can think of several such tests, but perhaps the most important are based on the insight that illusions do not withstand well critical discourse, and are not consistently useful. It is quite clear how to perform the former test, indeed that’s what I have been doing discussing with you in this very thread. If my claim that one solves the problem of evil just by considering one’s sense of what the greatest conceivable being’s purpose for creation would be – then it should be the case that both I and others do solve the problem of evil just by thinking about it. (By “solving the problem of evil” I mean realizing that the greatest possible being would create a world of the kind we exist in including all its evils.) And if my claim is empirically found to be true then I would argue that one removes the single serious conceptual problem from theism, and at the same time creates a new conceptual problem for naturalism.
    “Then, as this being is assumed to be a person, I see strong motivations from a social angle and from the angle of banishing boredom.”
    Right, I agree. My sense is that the greatest possible being would indeed value society, and would therefore create many and not just one or very few people – which is consistent with the kind of world we exist in. I also agree that the greatest conceivable being would want to banish boredom – indeed I find that’s an interesting insight. Because, it seems to me, the banishing of boredom can only be realized by creating a world where people do not live in some kind of steady state (no matter how otherwise excellent) but in a state of continuous creative striving, as well as, obviously, in a state of personal freedom. Which purposes are again quite consistent with the world we exist in.
    I would like to invite you to continue considering this issue and see where your own sense of greatness leads you. Let me know if your sense of greatness leads you into some purpose which contradicts the kind of world we exist in.
    “Could you spell out what you see as the motivation?”
    Well I have done so already in a sketch in the second post of mine from August 14. It would serve the purposes of my test better though if you would think about this issue by yourself and with as little influence as possible from the sense of others.
    “When and how is, e.g., Daniel Dennett is going to ‘see its solution’?”
    By seriously considering his own sense about what the greatest being he can conceive would want with creation. You don’t have to be a theist to think about this issue, and it would be particularly interesting to find out the sense of atheists in this matter. Would they, I wonder, tend to think that the greatest conceivable being would want to create a world milk and honey?
    (Incidentally, I am sorry for the delay in answering; I had missed your last post. I wonder if there is a way to have the prosblogion send one an email every time something is posted here.)

    September 16, 2011 — 8:18