Oppy on Theism, Naturalism, and Explanation
December 9, 2013 — 21:51

Author: Kenny Pearce  Category: Existence of God Prosblogion Reviews  Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,   Comments: 19

In his contribution to Goldschmidt’s The Puzzle of Existence, Graham Oppy argues that, “as [a] hypothes[i]s about the contents of global causal reality” (p. 51), naturalism is ceteris paribus preferable to theism. Oppy’s strategy for defending this claim is to consider three hypotheses about the structure of global causal reality, and argue that naturalism is superior to theism on each hypothesis. Here are his three hypotheses:

  1. Regress: Causal reality does not have an initial maximal part. That is, it is not the case that there is a part of causal reality which has no parts that stand in causal relations to one another and (b) is not preceded by some other part of causal reality which has no parts that stand in causal relations to one another.
  2. Necessary Initial Part: Causal reality has an initial maximal part, and it is not possible that causal reality had any other initial maximal part. On the assumption that the initial maximal part involves objects, both the existence and the initial properties of those objects are necessary.
  3. Contingent Initial Part: Causal reality has an initial maximal part, but it is possible that causal reality had some other initial maximal part. On the assumption that the initial maximal part involves objects, at least one of the existence and the initial maximal properties of those objects is contingent (p. 49).

According to Oppy, given Regress theism has no explanatory advantage over naturalism, since both appeal to infinite regress, but naturalism is more parsimonious than theism, hence it is preferable.

The idea that causal reality has an initial part, whether necessary or contingent, might be thought most favorable to theism, but Oppy thinks the case here is really no different than Regress. The reason for this is simple: he doesn’t see why an initial supernatural state is any better, from an explanatory perspective, than an initial natural state (regardless of whether we take the initial state to be necessary or contingent). So, from an explanatory perspective, the hypotheses are again equal, but from a simplicity perspective naturalism wins again.

In my last post, I promised to return to O’Connor’s discussion of the ‘all things considered’ preferability of theism to naturalism. O’Connor concedes Oppy’s claim (in previous work) that naturalism is preferable in terms of parsimony, but insists that “Naturalism simply is not a rival explanatory scheme for existence to Theism” (p. 39). In other words, naturalism, according to O’Connor, does not even try to explain what theism tries to explain. What Oppy gives in his article here is an “anything theism can do naturalism can do better” retort. If the theist posits a necessarily existing supernatural being, naturalism can posit a necessarily existing natural state/being. If the theist posits a contingently existing supernatural being, the naturalist can posit a contingently existing natural being.

Now, as Oppy concedes (p. 51), there is some difficulty about this natural/supernatural distinction. But what Oppy essentially has in mind, is that we are better of positing ‘more of the same’ than positing something totally different (like a God).

Oppy’s key point is that positing God as one more ‘billiard ball’ in the sequence of causes studied by science yields no explanatory advantage. Surely he is right about this. As long as God is considered as one more billiard ball, we are better off with a natural billiard ball than a supernatural one. In my view, insofar as O’Connor is considering God as a cause among causes (and he seems to be), Oppy’s critique is devastating.

However, the point that there is no explanatory advantage to positing God as one more billiard ball was already recognized by classical theistic metaphysians such as Aquinas and Leibniz. This is, after all, precisely the point of the traditional distinction between primary and secondary causation: God is not a cause among causes, but rather stands outside the secondary causal sequence and makes that sequence, rather than another, actual. As has long been recognized, this is consistent with the sequence of secondary causes being either finite or infinite, for even if there was an infinite sequence, we could ask, ‘why that sequence and not another?’ and we could still answer, ‘because God so chose.’

Oppy will quite rightly respond that it is incumbent on the theist to render this notion of ‘primary causation’ intelligible. However, recent work in analytic metaphysics on ‘grounding’ and ‘building relations’ (as Karen Bennett calls them) suggests that this can be done. In brief, it is now (again) recognized that there are a plurality of metaphysical relations that can ground explanation. The theist wants to say that this causal sequence exists because God chose it. This ‘because’ need not signify the same causal relation by which (literal or metaphorical) billiard balls are regularly related to one another. Just exactly what the theist should take primary causation to be, and exactly how it should be seen as relating to other grounding or building relations, is an interesting topic for further research. But the long and short of it is, even if not much can be said about exactly what primary causation is, if primary causation is a species of building relation, and we understand building relations in general, and we are independently committed to a plurality of them, then it seems to me that the ideological cost of believing in primary causation is not so great as to offset the benefit of explaining something the naturalist doesn’t even try to explain: namely, why this causal sequence is actual.

Now, that theism can overcome this ideological cost is not enough to show that it is preferable, for this is not the only cost of theism. God is supposed to be a really (fundamentally) existing entity, and hence positing a God is itself an ontological cost. If God is a sui generis entity in a fairly strong sense (as opposed to, for instance, to literally being a mind), then there is also a significant ideological cost here. One alternative is to posit some necessary laws of nature (or something like that) to make the causal sequence go the way it does, but if one uses the word ‘God’ in such a way that ‘impersonal God’ is not a contradiction in terms, then this sounds like an impersonal God. Let’s set that aside. There’s a more basic issue to concern us. One way or another, we’re paying a lot to get an explanation of why this causal sequence is actual. If, as Shieva Kleinschmidt argues in the very next chapter, the Principle of Sufficient Reason is false and explanatory comprehensiveness is merely one theoretical virtue among many, then perhaps the cost is greater than we should be willing to bear. More on this next time.

(Cross-posted at blog.kennypearce.net.)

O’Connor on Explaining Everything
December 6, 2013 — 17:31

Author: Kenny Pearce  Category: Existence of God Prosblogion Reviews  Tags: , , , , , , , , ,   Comments: 0

Goldschmidt’s volume opens with an essay by Timothy O’Connor who defends the traditional answer to the question of why there is something rather than nothing: God. More specifically, the traditional answer O’Connor defends holds that a necessarily existent immaterial agent chose that contingent beings should exist.

There are several well-known difficulties for this kind of view. The first difficulty is, if there must be an explanation of why there are contingent beings, then mustn’t there be an explanation of why there is a God? This is, of course, a version of the much-ridiculed ‘what caused God?’ retort, and O’Connor’s (implicit) answer to it is that God exists necessarily. (O’Connor implies this response by restricting his ‘principles of explanation’ to contingent beings/events/truths; pp. 35-37.) Now this (standard) answer can be understood in one of two ways: either necessary truths don’t need explanations, or else we claim that any necessary truth p is explained by the fact that necessarily p. That is, on the second option, you explain a necessary truth by asserting that it is necessary. However, the second option by itself doesn’t solve the problem, because we can always ask why it is that God necessarily exists. Based on O’Connor’s discussion of ‘opaque necessities’ I suspect that he endorses the first option, denying that necessary truths need explanations. (To me, brute necessities seem intuitively worse than brute contingencies, but I won’t pursue that point here.) So God’s existence, being necessary, doesn’t need an explanation, but the existence of contingent things does.

However, the opponent of the traditional (theistic) view has an easy retort: “Suppose we grant, for the sake of argument, that God exists necessarily. Surely God’s decision to create this world must be contingent, since the world could have been otherwise. So there must be an explanation of why God chose this world.” We actually still haven’t got much deeper than the ‘what caused God?’ question at this point, for there is quite an obvious answer to this challenge. According to the traditional view, the universe’s existence depends on a free choice, and we know how to explain free choices: we cite the agent’s reasons, desires, character, etc.

In traditional treatments of this issue (e.g., Aquinas, Leibniz), the theist would now go on to give some account of the reason why God created this world. O’Connor makes a different move: he argues that the theist need not do this. According to O’Connor, the superiority of theism over its competitors is shown by the fact that it provides an intelligible explanation schema: that is, we can see how an explanation could go, and what sorts of questions would have to be answered in order to complete the explanation.

O’Connor seems to me to be correct that a hypothesis which implies that something is in principle explicable, and specifies a particular sort of explanation it must have, is ceteris paribus to be preferred over a hypothesis which renders that thing in principle inexplicable. This is so even if the hypothesis doesn’t actually explain the phenomenon in question. Now, it is widely held that the existence of contingent beings is in principle inexplicable unless there is a necessary being. Further, since we have some kind of conception of how agential explanations go, the hypothesis that contingent existence is caused by a necessarily existent agent is ceteris paribus to be preferred to the hypothesis that no necessary beings enter into causal relations.

Two important limitations must be observed here. First, no argument has been presented for the claim that the conception of the necessary being as an agent is superior to alternative necessary being theories. Second, the result is merely a ceteris paribus claim. O’Connor accepts both of these limitations, though he does give some consideration to the question of how an all-things-considered comparison of the two views might go. On this latter point, he is criticized by Oppy in the following chapter, so I will leave off discussion of that until my next post.

I should also briefly mention O’Connor’s response to the modal collapse objection. This objection holds that whatever has a necessary explanation is itself necessary, and so the traditional view, far from explaining contingency, denies the existence of contingency. O’Connor’s response is simple: to cite a cause of something is to give one kind of explanation of it, and that’s the kind of explanation he thinks contingent existence needs. Not all causation involves ‘necessary connection.’ Hence, a necessary thing might contingently cause contingent things, and this would not take away their contingency. (O’Connor does not here discuss the regress worry: not only is the proposition this world exists contingent, so is the proposition God causes this world. What’s the explanation of the second proposition? Since O’Connor has written a lot about agent causation, I’m sure he’s discussed this somewhere.) O’Connor thinks that if you are unsatisfied with this it must be because you are looking, as Leibniz was, for a contrastive explanation, an explanation of why things are so rather than otherwise. O’Connor is happy to deny that such explanations exist.

I’m a little concerned about this response; I tend to think that if one has explicability intuitions strong enough to support the argument from contingency, one is unlikely to be satisfied by weak explanations of this sort.

On the whole, O’Connor’s essay is a competent presentation of the traditional view in the context of contemporary analytic philosophy. He departs from the traditional view mostly in his exhortations to epistemic humility. In a way, this essay was a good choice to begin the volume: it lays out the view that most of the other papers will be, in one way or another, attacking. On the other hand, I found each of the three following essays (by Oppy, Kleinschmidt, and Ross – that’s as far as I’ve read) far more interesting. For the specialist, O’Connor’s essay is rather a slow start to the volume.

(Cross-posted at blog.kennypearce.net.)

Introducing The Puzzle of Existence
November 28, 2013 — 0:50

Author: Kenny Pearce  Category: Existence of God Prosblogion Reviews  Tags: , , ,   Comments: 0

I am currently in the process of putting together a review of The Puzzle of Existence: Why Is There Something Rather Than Nothing?, edited by Tyron Goldschmidt, for Faith and Philosophy. For edited volumes like this, reviews never allow enough space for substantive discussion every contribution, which is prima facie unfortunate. (I say prima facie because if the reviews were that long, I, at least, would probably read a lot fewer of them.) In light of this situation, I have resolved, before writing my review, to write blog posts with critical comments on each of the chapters.

This post is mostly just to announce my intention, but let me add a few remarks about the book and its introduction. First: it’s expensive. The list price is $125, and even Amazon is selling it for $105.65. I have taught this topic before and am likely (I hope) to do so again, but unless and until that price comes down (perhaps via the introduction of a paperback edition), I can’t see assigning this book to undergraduates. (I have already read the first two chapters, in addition to the introduction, and I do not think the level of difficulty is prohibitive; it’s just the price that’s the problem!)

The first section of Goldschmidt’s introduction provides a basic account of the philophical concepts used to disambiguate the question (‘why is there something rather than nothing?’) and formulate possible answers. These include the abstract/concrete contrast, the necessary/contingent contrast, and the notion of a possible world. The discussion is brief enough (less than 3 pages) that professional philosophers will not get impatient, but provides enough information, in a clear enough fashion, for those unfamiliar with these topics to get started. The rest of the introduction is devoted to a taxonomy of the possible interpretations of the question followed by an account of possible responses to the question on its various philosophically interesting interpretations. Along the way, Goldschmidt does what introductions do and makes some mention of the aims of each of the contributions to the volume.

As the introduction makes clear, the contributors disagree as much on the legitimacy and interpretation of the question as on the answers (if any) they favor. It appears that most of the contributors will be interested in the question of why there have ever been any beings which are concrete and/or contingent. The dominant responses to this question have been two: either the contingent concrete beings were created by a necessarily existent God, or the question has no answer. Among those who say the question has no answer, there are those who say that the question is somehow illegitimate or ill-formed, and there are those who say that not every well-formed question has an answer. (I suppose there is no reason why someone shouldn’t say both.) To Goldschmidt’s credit, he promises that the volume will canvas several other, less traditional responses as well as these. Stay tuned for upcoming posts to see how these go.

(Cross-posted at blog.kennypearce.net.)

Three Responses to the Argument from Contingency
August 28, 2013 — 13:53

Author: Kenny Pearce  Category: Existence of God  Tags: , , , ,   Comments: 61

In my view, the cosmological argument from contingency is the most powerful philosophical argument for the existence of God. By a ‘philosophical’ argument, in this context, I mean a way of giving reasons for something that does not depend on detailed empirical investigation, or on idiosyncratic features of a particular individual’s experience or psychology. Thus I do not hold that the argument from contingency is the best reason anyone has for believing in God. I think, for instance, that some people have had religious experiences which provide them with stronger reasons than the argument from contingency could, even making very generous assumptions about their ability to grasp the argument.
This belief of mine, about the relative strengths of the arguments, goes rather against the grain of current discussions. I think the recent philosophy of religion literature overestimates the power of the fine-tuning argument and the first cause argument, and underestimates the power of the argument from contingency.

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God’s Existence and My Suspicion: Delusions of Knowledge
July 12, 2013 — 10:02

Author: Keith DeRose  Category: Atheism & Agnosticism Existence of God Religious Belief  Tags: , , ,   Comments: 72

(I thought some Prosblogion folks may find this essay interesting, because it touches on and connects with several interesting philosophical and metaphilosophical issues, and also some interesting issues about the role of faith in the religious life. I don’t mention faith in the essay: that’s one of the “connected” issues that isn’t actually touched on. But it’s interesting to me to see how some theists can be very disturbed at the suggestion that they don’t know that God exists, while others shrug it off with some thought along the lines of “Well, that’s what faith is for.”)

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I know many people who claim to know whether God exists. In each case (individually), I suspect they’re wrong about their having such knowledge. In fact, I suspect that they are all wrong. That is, I suspect that nobody that I know knows whether God exists. So I suspect that delusions of knowledge about this matter run rampant among folks I know. Not a particularly nice suspicion to harbor, I realize. But I thought I’d express and explain that suspicion here, describing my grounds for it.

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Religious Epistemology Discussion (Plantinga & Sosa)
July 6, 2013 — 13:59

Author: Andrew Moon  Category: Existence of God Links Problem of Evil Religion and Life Religious Belief  Tags:   Comments: 0

Wow, I can’t believe I didn’t know about this religious epistemology discussion that happened earlier this year. It is in three parts: Sosa opening criticism, Plantinga response w/discussion, and more discussion.
Other participants I recognized included the following: Michael Tooley, Richard Fumerton, Linda Zagzebski, Trenton Merricks, Louise Antony, Nicholas Wolterstorff, Mark Murphy, and Meghan Sullivan. It was exhilarating to watch top rate philosophers discuss these fascinating topics!

Theism and the just-world hypothesis: would it be unreasonable for a Game of Thrones character to believe in an all-good, omnipotent creator?
June 12, 2013 — 0:00

Author: Helen De Cruz  Category: Afterlife Atheism & Agnosticism Existence of God  Tags: , , , ,   Comments: 5

[X-posted at Newapps] As the third season of Game of Thrones has ended, this interesting reflection, written by Adam Brereton, contends that A Song of Fire and Ice by G.R.R. Martin and the TV series based on it simply don’t work, because they do not obey what Chesterton has termed “elfin ethics”:

according to elfin ethics all virtue is in an ‘if’. The note of the fairy utterance always is, ‘You may live in a palace of gold and sapphire, if you do not say the word “cow”‘; or ‘You may live happily with the King’s daughter, if you do not show her an onion.’ The vision always hangs upon a veto. All the dizzy and colossal things conceded depend upon one small thing withheld. All the wild and whirling things that are let loose depend upon one thing that is forbidden.

In GOT, however, this rule doesn’t apply: people who do break oaths (like Robb Stark) get killed in a horrible way, but people who are honorable, try to do the right thing and don’t break oaths (like Eddard Stark) also get killed in a horrible way. In this, Martin differs from other fantasy writers, like H.P. Lovecraft or J.R.R. Tolkien. We can expect something like the massacre of the Starks at the Red Wedding to occur on a biweekly basis. So, Brereton concludes

Westeros just doesn’t work. Unlike Tolkien, Lovecraft and Peake, it is not a consistent creation. Where does the good exist?…In Martin’s broken world, good only resides in individual acts, only as long they don’t get you killed, which more often than not they do.

The intuition that fantasy works should have some moral compass, or indeed, that fantasy universes should ultimately be just worlds, is compelling. Indeed, as Mitch Hodge argues in this draft paper, we even have a strong intuition that the world, au fond, is a morally just place. People intuitively regard the world as a just place: the good prosper, the wicked suffer.

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The experiential problem of evil and theodicy
December 31, 2012 — 5:23

Author: Helen De Cruz  Category: Existence of God  Tags: , , , ,   Comments: 53

[this is cross-posted from NewApps] These reflections are prompted by Mike Almeida’s interesting post on the question of whether theodicy can ever be successful, and if so what success conditions a theodicy must meet. I want consider ta related, yet distinct question: can theodicies be convincing in the light of specific instances of evil, and the immediate sense this provokes: “God, if he exists, would not have allowed this”? In the wake of the tragic shooting incident at Newtown, I have been thinking a lot about the problem of evil and classical theodicies and defenses, such as John Hick’s soul building theodicy and various forms of free will theodicies/defenses (e.g., Plantinga’s; Augustine’s).
One way to approach the problem of evil is to look at it as an abstract puzzle to be solved. Wielding modal logic and other tools that analytic philosophy offers, we can argue that evil is unavoidable even for a loving, powerful and omniscient God, if he wishes specific goods like free will to obtain. A different option is to focus on concrete, vivid examples. William Rowe presented the case of a fawn, trapped in a forest fire that was caused by lightning, the fawn suffers horrible burns, and lies in dreadful agony for days until its death. A pointless instance of suffering that, Rowe argues, God could have prevented. Now for cases like Newtown we could invoke the free will defense, since – unlike the forest fire in Rowe’s example – the incident was caused by a human agent, exercising his free will, and it was made possible by other instances of free will, such as American policies on gun ownership. But it still seems to me quite a different thing to argue in the face of particular, vivid instances like this that suffering is outweighed by the greater good of the unbridled exercise of free will by moral agents. When confronted with concrete evil like this, theodicy, or indeed any theistic response to the problem of evil, becomes a formidable task indeed.

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Theism, naturalism and simplicity
December 20, 2012 — 8:19

Author: Alexander Pruss  Category: Concept of God Existence of God  Tags: , , ,   Comments: 39

When one’s book in sexual ethics is coming out (shameless self-promotion), one’s thoughts naturally turn to the philosophy of science. 🙂 A standard line of thought is that naturalism is a simpler theory than theism in that it only posits one kind of entity, the natural world, while theism posits that and God.

A standard theistic response is to concede the point but say that theism wins out through greater explanatory power. Trent and I have, however, been exploring a different line of thought: One measures the simplicity of a theory (with “simplicity” understood in such a way that it is an intellectual merit of a theory that it be simple) primarily by looking at the simplicity of the theory’s explanatorily fundamental posits (this has some structural resemblance to Huemer’s work) rather than at claims explained by the theory.

For instance, suppose that according to our best physics certain laboratory conditions not occurrent in nature produce a Zeta particle. Alien scientists, who are the only ones ever to have the technology for this, are facing a great natural disaster they cannot avert that will destroy their civilization. As one last hurrah for science, they plan to produce a Zeta before the disaster. Unfortunately, at the last minute, they find that an extremely expensive part, which there is no time to repair, has only probability 1/2 of functioning.

Consider the theories: (S) They will succeed in producing a Zeta due to the part functioning and (F) They will fail in producing a Zeta due to the part malfunctioning. Theory S posits the instantiation of a new kind of particle that F does not. If explained phenomena also count towards the complexity of a theory, S is more complex. But that just seems wrong: S and F are on par simplicity-wise. Besides, if S were more complex than F, then if all other intellectual merits are equal–which they sure seem to be–then we should take S to be more likely than F. But that would violate what seems an unproblematic instance of the Principal Principle–F and S should have the same probability.

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Sacrificing a theistic argument to the Problem of Evil
October 8, 2012 — 10:40

Author: Alexander Pruss  Category: Concept of God Existence of God Problem of Evil  Tags: , ,   Comments: 20

It’s hard to come up with reasonable priors for such theses as Naturalism and Theism and with reasonable conditional probabilities for such evidence as Evils We Can’t Theodicize on Theism. But we can sometimes come up with reasonable comparisons of the strength of evidence. And this might lead to some helpful non-numerical probabilistic reasoning.

For instance, we might have the judgment that the evidential strength of the Problem of Evil (POE) as an argument against theism is no greater than the evidential strength of the Finetuning Argument (FTA) as an argument for theism. Two thoughts in support of this: (1) the low-entropy initial state of the our universe has been estimated by Penrose to be utterly incredibly unlikely (my paraphrase of his 10^(-10^123)) and some of the other anthropic coincidences come with what are intuitively extremely narrow ranges; the theist has proposed various theodicies–they may not be convincing, but it seems reasonable to say that the probability that together they answer the POE is no less, indeed quite a bit greater, than the incredibly tiny probabilities that FTA claims; (2) just as thinking about naturalistic multiverse hypotheses significantly decreases the force of FTA, thinking about theistic multiverse hypotheses significantly decreases the force of POE (cf. Turner and Kraay’s work); (3) just as in the case of FTA we might worry that there is some nomic explanation of the coincidences that we haven’t found, so too in the case of POE we have sceptical theism.

This means that the theist can simply sacrifice FTA to POE: the FTA either balances POE or outbalances POE (I think the latter, because of point (1) above).

Then the theist has a nice supply of other strong and serious theistic arguments, such as the cosmological, non-FTA design arguments (e.g., Swinburne’s laws of nature argument), ontological, religious experience, moral epistemology (theism has a much better explanation than naturalism of how we can know objective moral truths), etc. The atheist has a few other arguments, too, but I think they are not very impressive (the Stone and other issues for the Chisholming of divine attributes, Grim-style worries about omniscience and infinity, worries about the interaction between the physical and nonphysical). At least once POE is completely out of the picture, even if FTA is lost, the theist can make a very strong case.