Conscience, authority and moral intuition
February 28, 2012 — 8:37

Author: Alexander Pruss  Category: Religion and Life Religious Belief  Tags:   Comments: 4

A former student of mine wrote to me with a query on about how institutional Church authority could co-exist with the authority of individual conscience. She argued that ultimately my conscience will decide whether the authority is to be trusted, and quoted Anscombe as saying that one cannot help but be one’s own pilot.

This made me think a bit more about conscience and authority. I had recently been reading about the Charles Bonnet and Musical Ear syndromes. In these, visual or hearing loss, respectively, apparently causes the brain to confabulate visual or auditory data, respectively, to fill in the sensorily deprived blanks. In Charles Bonnet Syndrome, the sufferers see things like colored patterns, faces, cartoons, etc. In Musical Ear Syndrome, they are apt to hear music. The significant thing about both syndromes is that the sufferers are quite sane and fully realize that the incorrect sensory data they are receiving is mere hallucination (that the hallucinations are limited to a single faculty must help there). They may, however, be distressed due to worries that they are insane, particularly if they are misdiagnosed by a psychiatrist, as in a case I recall hearing of.

A reasonable sufferer from one of these two syndromes will accept the testimony of reliable others that what she visually or auditorily perceives isn’t there. In so doing, she is genuinely being her own pilot. Indeed, if she were to uncritically accept the visual or auditory data, she wouldn’t be being her own responsible pilot: she would be replacing considered judgment with the flow of experience. Likewise, my colorblind son defers to the color judgments of others; an object may look light green to him, but when others testify that it is light pink, he accepts their judgment, and in so doing exercises his epistemic autonomy.


Political Liberalism and Religion
September 19, 2011 — 12:33

Author: Matthew Mullins  Category: Religion and Life  Tags: ,   Comments: Off

Not straight forward philosophy of religion, but readers may be interested in the Philosophy TV discussion between Kevin Vallier (BGSU) and Jason Brennan (Georgetown) on Political Liberalism and Religion. From the Philosophy TV site:

“According to some prominent versions of political liberalism, coercive political force is illegitimate unless it is justifiable from every reasonable point of view. But there are many reasonable points of view from which religious beliefs cannot be justified. This seems to mean that religious political convictions are in conflict with political liberalism. However, Vallier resists that conclusion; he thinks that religious reasoning can have a legitimate role in political discourse. In this episode, Brennan and Vallier discuss Vallier’s argument.”

Another argument against divine command theory
September 1, 2011 — 9:02

Author: Alexander Pruss  Category: Religion and Life Virtue  Tags: ,   Comments: 11

A standard line of objection against divine command theories is centered on the counterfactual:

  1. Even if God commanded it, torturing the innocent would be wrong.

But here it is extremely plausible that the antecedent is necessarily false–that God cannot command torture of the innocent. There is still a line of argument against divine command theories that continues past this roadblock, but I think it fizzles out.

But if we replace “God commanded it” with “God didn’t forbid it”, we actually get a much stronger argument. Actually, let’s avoid counterfactuals, since we don’t understand them well enough. We can give this argument:

  1. (Premise) Necessarily, torturing the innocent is wrong.
  2. (Premise) Possibly, God does not forbid torturing the innocent.
  3. (Premise) If divine command theory is true, then it is the case that: necessarily, something is wrong if and only if it is forbidden by God.
  4. Therefore, divine command theory is not true.

The argument is valid. Premise (2) is pretty plausible. It is justified by the same kinds of intuitions as (1) was. Premise (4) is uncontroversial, though it highlights the fact that the argument is specifically being aimed at divine command theories. Pure divine will theories are unaffected by the argument.

Interestingly, I think that if the argument works, it continues to work even if one replaces “God” with “a loving God”, as in Robert M. Adams divine command theory.

The big question now is with regard to (3). A quick move to defend (3) is this. Possibly, God creates a world with no agents other than himself. In such a world, God wouldn’t have any reason to issue any commands. So, possibly, there is a world with no agents other than God where no such commands have been issued. (Maybe you might object that God can issue a command to himself. But why would he need to? After all, the same loving character that might lead him to issue such a command would lead him to refrain from torturing the innocent.)

Now, this particular argument might make one worry that the assent to (2) was too quick. Perhaps instead the divine command theorist should have said:

  1. Necessarily, for every created agent x, it is wrong for x to torture the innocent.

However, I don’t think the quantification in (2) should be restricted to created agents.

But suppose we do grant such a restriction. I think my argument can be rescued. Add:

  1. (Premise) Possibly, there is a created agent x who is not forbidden to torture the innocent.
  2. (Premise) If divine command theory is true, necessarily: for every created agent x and action-type A, A is wrong for x if and only if A is forbidden to x.
  3. So divine command theory is false. (By 6-8)


EAAN in the case of moral knowledge
April 12, 2011 — 14:48

Author: Alexander Pruss  Category: General Religion and Life  Tags: , ,   Comments: 22

I’ve never been strongly moved by Plantinga’s EAAN’s general sceptical conclusions allegedly following from naturalism and evolution.  It has seemed to me that on the best causal (sketches of) accounts of intentionality, it’s pretty much guaranteed that a significant portion of our empirical beliefs are true.  I have serious problems with these causal accounts, but given the accounts, EAAN does not appear that persuasive to me.  

However, I think one can use EAAN-type arguments for a more limited conclusion, namely that if naturalism and evolution are true, then certain important kinds of knowledge are seriously threatened, specifically moral (and maybe more generally normative) knowledge (I think certain kinds of modal and metaphysical knowledge are also threatened, and it may be that metaphysical naturalism falls within the class of threatened knowledge).

The standard naturalistic evolutionary story about how we get moral beliefs is something like this.  Certain kinds of beliefs about what one ought to do promote the fitness of communities and individuals.  Consequently, as a result of certain mimetic and/or genetic evolutionary processes, we have roughly the moral beliefs we do.  There might be causal intermediaries like propensities for making certain kinds of moral inference.  

But notice a crucial difference between this explanation and evolutionary explanations of our ordinary empirical beliefs.  In the ordinary empirical case, Plantinga’s critics can say we are selected for propensities to have tiger-presence beliefs in the presence of tigers, because there is an obvious fitness benefit from having such beliefs when the beliefs are true.  One might worry about details here, but the story has an initial plausibility.  However, in the case of moral beliefs, the benefit of having the beliefs does not come from the beliefs’ being true.  

In the moral case, assuming naturalism and evolution, at best we have a Gettier case instead of knowledge.  If we are lucky, there is a large overlap between those moral beliefs that promote fitness and those moral beliefs that are true.  Our moral beliefs, based as they are on natural propensities to believe, may be justified.  But they are not knowledge, because the connection is too coincidental on this story.

To see that the connection is coincidental, consider this story that is meant to be parallel to the story about moral beliefs. Outside of our community, there is a dark forest. People who go deep into the forest never come back. Eventually, we evolve (mimetically and/or genetically) a propensity to believe that the depths of the forest are full of tigers, and this propensity keeps us out of the forest. In fact, there are tigers deep in the forest, but they are nice tigers and never eat people. The reason people who went deep into the forest never come back is not because the tigers ate them, but because boa constrictors killed them. Maybe we have a justified and true belief that there are tigers in the forest, but it is at best a Gettier case.


Wittgensteinian views of religious language
December 7, 2010 — 11:12

Author: Alexander Pruss  Category: Christian Theology Religion and Life Religious Belief  Tags: , ,   Comments: 36

Wittgensteinians lay stress on the idea that

  1. One cannot understand central worldview concepts without living as part of a community that operates with these concepts.

The non-Christian cannot understand the Christian concept of the Trinity; the Christian and the atheist cannot understand the Jewish concept of God’s absolute unity as understood by Maimonedes; the theist cannot understand the concept of a completely natural world; and the non-Fascist cannot understand the concept of the Volk. It is only by being a part of a community in which these concepts are alive that one gains an understanding of them.

Often, a corollary is drawn from this, that while internal critique or justification of a worldview tradition such as Christianity, naturalism or Nazism is possible, no external critique or justification is possible. In fact, there is an argument for this corollary.

  1. (Premise) One’s evidence set cannot involve any propositions that involve concepts one does not understand.
  2. (Premise) Necessarily, if a proposition p uses a concept C, and a body of propositions P is evidence for or against p for an agent x, then some member of P involves C.
  3. If x is not a member of the community operating with a central worldview concept C, then x does not have any evidence for or against any proposition involving C. (1-3)
  4. (Premise) External critique or justification of a worldview of a community is possible only if someone who is not a member of the community can have evidence for or against a proposition involving a central worldview concept of that community.
  5. Therefore, external critique or justification of a worldview of a community is not possible. (4 and 5)

This is a particularly unfortunate result in the case of something like Nazism, and may suggest an unacceptable relativism.

The argument is valid but unsound, and I think unsalvageable. I think that (5) is false, and on some plausible interpretations of (1), (2) and (3) are false as well.


Why Are More Petitionary-Prayers Helpful?
November 27, 2010 — 17:40

Author: Andrew Moon  Category: Christian Theology Religion and Life  Tags: , , , ,   Comments: 30

This post doesn’t come out of extensive research but just a wondering about petitionary prayer. Consider the following two scenarios:
1) When Percy learns of his wife Sally’s sickness, he says a prayer for her. However, when he hears from the doctor that this sickness is life-threatening, he calls his relatives and church community, asking them to also pray for her healing.
2) Hermione says a prayer for her friend’s well-being. However, Hermione desires more than anything else for her daughter’s well-being in college. She goes to bed every night, asking God for this.
From what I know, many religious communities find the actions in (1) and (2) to be commonplace, normal, and even rational. (We see an analogy to persistent prayer in Jesus’ parable of the woman asking the judge for justice, and we see communal prayer all throughout Acts and the epistles.) But I wonder why, exactly, more petitionary prayers are supposed to be helpful. Here are some possibilities:


Fearing God
September 4, 2010 — 12:37

Author: Andrew Moon  Category: Christian Theology Religion and Life Virtue  Comments: 11

The Bible refers to the “fear of God” as a good thing.
In Deuteronomy, the Israelites are commanded, “Fear the LORD your God and serve him… “(10:20)
David prays “Teach me your ways, O LORD, and I will walk in your truth; give me an undivided heart, that I may fear your name” (Ps. 86:11).
In Proverbs, it says, “Charm is deceptive, and beauty is fleeting; but a woman who fears the LORD is to be praised” (31:30).
Jesus warns, “But I will show you whom you should fear: Fear him who, after the killing of the body, has power to throw you into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him” (Luke 12:5).
Multiple questions arise.
1) Textual questions: Are the above Biblical writers talking about the same sort of mental state? Whether they are talking about the same thing or not, what do they mean? Is what they are talking about close in meaning to what we mean in ordinary English if were to say that a person ought to fear another person?
2) Textual-to-Normativity Question: Given that we can accurately grasp what the above writers are referring to, what sort of normativity is being ascribed? Is it prudential or moral (or both or something else)? Given that we grasp which sort of normativity is being ascribed, are the statements true? Why?
3) A-Specific-Normativity Question: This question makes specific what was described in (2). Suppose that they are making moral statements and suppose that by “fear” they mean “being afraid of”. Is it indeed true that it’s a morally good state off affairs to be afraid of God?
Against a positive answer to the question in (3), Russ Shafer-Landau criticizes,


The ontological argument from desire
April 16, 2010 — 9:47

Author: Alexander Pruss  Category: Existence of God Religion and Life  Comments: 13

Augustine says that our hearts are restless until they rest in God. This is a desire for God, but it is not at all explicit, which is why humans restlessly seek after other things, hoping to satisfy the desire, unaware that it is a desire for God. In this way, it is like hunger in a young child: hunger is a desire for food, but the child may only know that she is miserable, and not that what she desires is food. I shall call this kind of desire “deep theological desire”. The argument form now is this:

  1. (Premise) Every desire has an intentional object.
  2. (Premise) If there is no God, deep theological desire has no intentional object.
  3. (Premise) Deep theological desire exists.
  4. Therefore, God exists.

Premise (1) is a consequence of the standard view of desire which entails that a desire is a state that inclines one in the direction of the intentional object. Observe, that the object is only intentional, so one can have desires for non-existent things. (If presentism were true, such desires would be very common.) I am sceptical of aspects of the standard view of desire, but I say that (1) is still correct. Premise (3) is justified by the lived experience of attentive persons like Augustine.

The really controversial assumption is premise (2), and I haven’t said anything in favor of it yet. It would be mistaken to try to derive (2) from some premise like: “The intentional object of a desire has to exist”, since one can desire a golden mountain. In general, it is possible to have desires with non-existent objects. What is special in the theological case?


Knowing our petitionary prayers have been answered
February 17, 2010 — 8:59

Author: Alexander Pruss  Category: Religion and Life  Tags:   Comments: 25

Assume we know theism is true. Can we theists ever tell that our prayers have been answered? I pray for E and E occurs. Can I ever know that God acted on my prayer rather than E occurring completely independently of my prayer? It turns out that the answer is simpler than one might think, and that we can know this much more often than one might think.

Consider the property of Reasons Maximalism (RM) that an agent might have. An agent has RM if and only if whenever she chooses an action A, she chooses it on account of all the unexcluded reasons she is aware of in favor of A. Suppose, for instance, that I have a duty to visit a sick friend and I enjoy her company even when she is sick, but, on the other hand, it’s a long drive and the hospital is depressing. Nonetheless, I do visit her. If I don’t have RM, I might be visiting her only out of duty or only for pleasant companionship. But if I have RM, I am visiting her because of both duty and pleasant companionship. And if I have RM and decide not to visit her, then I will decide to do that because of both the long drive and the depressingness of the hospital.

I submit that God has RM. Being perfectly morally good and perfectly rational, in every decision God takes into consideration all the unexcluded reasons he has. Of course, in the end, it may not be possible for him to act on all the reasons, because some of the reasons will pull in different ways. But his choice will have been made on the basis of all the reasons he is aware of in favor of it. Moreover, in the case of an omniscient being, the reasons she is aware of in favor of A is the same as the reasons she has in favor of A. Thus, God chooses A on the basis of all the unexcluded reasons he has that favor A.

Now, that I’ve requested something good and grantable is always a reason to grant the request. In rare cases, it will be an excluded reason–perhaps I earlier authoritatively commanded the person to stop granting my requests for a day. But I cannot think of an exclusionary reason God might have against considering our requests for good things. (If God promised not to hear our requests, that would be an exclusionary reason, but he made no such promise.)

I don’t know exactly how to analyze “grantable”. One class of non-grantables are states of affairs ruled out by divine promises. Another class of non-grantables are states of affairs that cannot be brought about, whether because they are metaphysically impossible or because they are metaphysically necessary. It may also be that people’s free choices are non-grantables. However, perhaps when we pray that x (where x is not God) might freely do A, God reinterprets our prayer charitably as a prayer that x be given lots of reason to do A, and that is a grantable. I do not know whether things that God has already promised are grantables, but I am inclined to think they are (cf. the sick friend visit case).

So, our requests for grantable good things are always an unexcluded reason for God to grant the request, and God being omniscient is aware of this. Moreover, God is a concurrent cause in all good events (in fact, in all events, because evil is a mere privation, but nevermind that), so that all good events count as caused by God. Therefore, by RM, if I pray for grantable good, and God brings about the request, then God produces the good in part because of the request. So, a sufficient condition for my knowing that an event has happened as a result of my request is that (a) I prayed for it, (b) it was good, (c) it was grantable and (d) it occurred.

In particular cases, these conditions are very commonly satisfied. If you pray for someone’s safety during a trip, and she returns safely, she does so in part because of your prayers. If you pray that you find a lost object, and you do find it, you find it in part because of your prayers. If you pray that a friend might recover from an illness, and she recovers, she recovers in part because of your prayers.


Nagel’s Review and Craig’s Debate With Ayala
December 12, 2009 — 15:30

Author: Andrew Moon  Category: Existence of God General Links Religion and Life  Comments: 28

In case people missed it, Thomas Nagel gave a positive review of Stephen Meyer’s book defending intelligent design. Brian Leiter gives his response here, along with a number of helpful links to further criticisms. Bradley Monton is more sympathetic with Nagel.
Also, William Lane Craig recently debated Fransisco Ayala on the subject of intelligent design. Ayala is supposed to be a prominent anti-ID proponent. From a quick skim of the blogosphere, it looks like Craig thoroughly won the debate. Monton was the moderator and gives his thoughts here. He also provides some further links.