Physicist Sean Carroll on God and Modern Physics
September 12, 2012 — 15:50

Author: Kenny Pearce  Category: Existence of God Links  Tags: , , , , ,   Comments: 10

I want to draw Prosblogion readers’ attention to a very interesting paper by CalTech physicist Sean Carroll, “Does the Universe Need God?” (hat tip: ex-apologist). The article is to be published in The Blackwell Companion to Science and Christianity. The article is a model of constructive dialog between philosophy and physics. Carroll shows engagement with the major philosophical arguments under discussion, and does not come off as condescending or dismissive. He also provides concise and helpful summaries of the relevant physics. Additionally, the article shows an admirable degree of epistemic humility, noting that there are many unsolved problems in physics and that our theory of the early universe is not polished and completed, while still arguing that we have enough information to shape our views on origins. The article is quite readable, and would certainly be helpful for students.
Let me make a few remarks on Carroll’s actual arguments and positions. Near the beginning of the article, Carroll quickly summarizes the possible responses to ‘first cause’-type cosmological arguments. It seems to me that he is on firm ground here: it is unclear whether there even is a first moment, and if there is then it is not clear that it even makes sense to ask what caused the state of the universe in that first moment, if we are looking for another cause in the series of causes. Besides (although Carroll does not make this point), classical philosophical theology does not conceive of God as one more cause in the series of causes. So the first cause argument isn’t really going anywhere. I myself think that insofar as the first cause argument is tempting, this is because it gets confused with the argument from contingency: people aren’t really asking what caused the first state of the universe, they are asking why was the state of the universe as it was, and it’s quite clear that, if there really is a first moment, then the answer to that question could not possibly be another ordinary physical cause: either it has no answer, or it has an answer of a very different sort.
Carroll next offers detailed criticism of the ‘fine-tuning’ argument. The main point Carroll makes here is that the multiverse hypotheses which physicists take seriously are not just introducing enormous numbers of universes as ad hoc posits for the purpose of getting rid of fine-tuning. One sort of multiverse, for instance, falls neatly out of inflationary cosmology, which is a well-verified physical theory. (Brian Greene’s latest book, The Hidden Reality, surveys the range of multiverse theories and the different degrees of evidence for them.) So to say that the multiverse is excessively complex and so should be rejected is to misunderstand the sort of simplicity we should be looking for. Now, Carroll runs over some distinctions between different multiverse theories here; my understanding on the basis of Greene’s book is that the multiverse theories that do the most to eliminate fine-tuning are the least well-supported and widely accepted among those on offer, and that it is true of some of these theories that their main attraction for their adherents is to get rid of fine-tuning. I’m not, however, convinced that that’s bad: apparent fine-tuning is one of the things physicists try to explain. If a particular multiverse hypothesis provides a simple explanation of a particular apparent fine-tuning, then good for it. And I agree with Carroll on what simplicity should mean here. Leibniz said that God would create the world which was simplest in principles and most varied in phenomena (see, e.g., DM 5). This is the kind of simplicity that matters here: simplicity of the fundamental principles. If they generate many and varied phenomena (e.g. an enormous variety of universes), this is no stroke against them. Again, point Carroll.
Near the end of the article, Carroll does come to discuss the argument from contingency. Unfortunately, he does not, in my view, take it as seriously as it deserves. He essentially says that, although we ought always to look for explanations with respect to things in the universe, there can be no such explanation of the universe as a whole or its most basic laws. In The Principle of Sufficient Reason: A Reassessment Alexander Pruss makes the case that the PSR cannot be restricted in any non-ad hoc way without undermining the assumptions of explainability made in ordinary scientific practice. Carroll ultimately simply pronounces that “There is no reason, within anything we currently understand about the ultimate structure of reality, to think of the existence and persistence and regularity of the universe as things that require external explanation.” He doesn’t give an adequate account of exactly what restrictions he is placing on explainability, or how they are justified. He seems to be supposing that what things we take to be in need of explanation depends on our physical theory. The trouble is, our practices with respect to explanation must be at least partly a priori in character: we have to start looking for explanations before we’ve got any explanations. Furthermore, Carroll’s example, that in modern physics there is no need for Aristotle’s Prime Mover because of the Law of Inertia, neglects the fact that an appeal to the Law of Inertia is itself an explanation of why objects continue in their state of motion. It is not that we’ve discovered that these things don’t need explanation, but rather that we’ve discovered that the correct explanation is of a very different sort from what Aristotle had in mind.
The argument from contingency, however, takes God outside the realm of physics. God here provides a different kind of explanation to a different kind of problem. This, to my mind, is one of the key reasons why the argument from contingency and the ontological argument are far more credible than either the first cause argument or the fine-tuning argument. That theism is not a credible physical theory is transparently obvious. Whether it is a credible metaphysical theory is another question entirely. I also note that the standards of credibility for metaphyiscal theories are quite lax compared to those for physical theories. Might theism enjoy the same level of (objective) support as quantum field theory? Not a chance. Might it enjoy the same level of (objective) support as (say) our best theories of universals? On this latter point I would say, it can, and it does.

Aesthetic reasons for religious faith
August 19, 2012 — 17:34

Author: Helen De Cruz  Category: Uncategorized  Tags: , , , ,   Comments: 34

I am interested in the connection between religious faith and aesthetics, especially in how aesthetic considerations can play a pragmatic role in people’s attraction to a religious lifestyle. C.S. Lewis wrote eloquently about this in his Surprised by Joy and in his short sermon The Weight of Glory, where he identifies the desire for aesthetic experience as a desire for God. Augustine (Confessions) makes this identification as well. “My sin was this, that I looked for pleasure, beauty, and truth not in him but in myself and his other creatures, and the search led me instead to pain, confusion, and error.”
For me the aesthetic dimension has always been a strong motivating reason for adopting a religious lifestyle: the beauty and power of the words of Scripture, the drama of the liturgy, organ music and polyphonic hymns. I am interested in natural theology, but I do not go to evensong because I am convinced by natural theological arguments. It would be interesting to do a survey “What motivates you to attend religious services?” my hunch is aesthetic reasons would figure high up in the list.
Nevertheless, much analytic philosophy of religion portrays faith as a primarily doxastic attitude, as consisting of assent to propositions such as “God exists”. I know not all PoR authors do this – for instance, Audi’s recent book Rationality and Religious Commitment (2011) paints a richer picture. But it seems to me that most PoR does not pay much attention to the aesthetic, non-doxastic dimension of religious faith. Which prompts me to ask: can aesthetic reasons be sufficient pragmatic reasons for adopting a religious lifestyle? Can they also be sufficient for adopting a doxastic form of religious faith (e.g., theism)?

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Necessary Concreta Survey
August 6, 2012 — 10:54

Author: Josh Rausmussen  Category: Uncategorized  Tags: ,   Comments: 13

Continuing in the tradition of Helen De Cruz’s intriguing survey, I present an interactive survey to collect additional data. This survey asks you questions and determines if your answers logically entail that there is one or more necessarily existing concrete particulars (things with causal powers). Your answers will be recorded and analyzed.
Although this is pure metaphysics (on the nature of concreta), the question of necessary beings has of course been of interest to philosophers of religion who view arguments for a necessary being as a first stage in a multi-stage argument for theism. That said, I would like to emphasize that the prospect of necessary concreta can be interesting in its own right, and theorists of all stripes could welcome reasons to include necessary concreta in their ontology (especially since such things can do theoretical work, such as in the philosophy of science).
The link to the survey is here: www.necessarybeing.net. It’s been tested on IE, Chrome, and Mozilla (with the latter two providing a better presentation).
Feel free to report bugs/suggestions, either by comment or by e-mail.

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Do philosophers of religion rate religious arguments differently from other philosophers? (short answer: yes)
May 23, 2012 — 16:30

Author: Helen De Cruz  Category: Existence of God  Tags: , , , ,   Comments: 5

As promised, here is the second fine-grained analysis of the results of my survey. The analyses have been done by Robert O’Brien, a medical statistician from Miami University. The statistics are fairly technical, and below this short summary you can find the complete statistical analysis.

Here I report how philosophers rate the arguments against theism in my survey. I presented 8 arguments against theism (see here for an overview of the arguments and general info on the survey) and asked participants to rate how strong they found them, ranging from very weak to very strong.

What I was interested in is how religious belief (theism/atheism/agnosticism) affects the assessment of these arguments. Initially, pooling all arguments together, it seemed like PoR had little effect, but when considering each argument separately, it turns out that PoR does influence the assessment of individual arguments. There were also gender effects.

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The influence of gender and philosophical specialization on assessing natural theological arguments – part 1
April 27, 2012 — 1:01

Author: Helen De Cruz  Category: Existence of God  Tags: , , , ,   Comments: 8

Earlier on this blog, I have reported results of a survey on natural theological arguments (N=802), see here and here. To briefly recall, the survey asked philosophers to rate the strength of natural theological arguments, grouped into 8 arguments that seek to support belief in the existence of God, and 8 arguments that seek to support belief in metaphysical naturalism. My initial analysis indicated that religious belief (theism, atheism or agnosticism) reliably predicts the extent to which people will evaluate these arguments. However, in my analysis I examined only the effects of religious belief on the total overall assessments, not the arguments individually. In this post, I will report some fine-grained analyses on how philosophers evaluate individual arguments, as a function of their religious belief, gender and whether or not they specialize in philosophy of religion. Since the statistics are quite detailed, I will make this a two-part post, starting out by the positive arguments. The analyses have been conducted by Robert O’Brien, a statistician at the University of Miami.

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Philosophy of Religion and Apologetics
April 12, 2012 — 13:05

Author: Kenny Pearce  Category: General  Tags: , , , ,   Comments: 17

Philosophy of religion, as practiced by religious believers, is often confused with apologetics. (Perhaps it is even so confused, on occasion, by some of its practitioners.) Indeed, if we use the term ‘apologetics’ more broadly, to include not just the giving of an apologia (defense) of religion, but of just any belief system, then we could say that philosophy in general is often confused with apologetics. This is, I think, a serious mistake. The philosopher, qua philosopher, is up to something quite different than the apologist, qua apologist. The ‘qua’ clauses are necessary, because of course the same person may engage in both philosophy and apologetics and, as will emerge, it is even possible to do both at the same time, but as activities they have fundamentally different aims. I will try, in this post, to clarify this difference and explain why it matters.

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Three ontological arguments
April 2, 2012 — 8:44

Author: Alexander Pruss  Category: Existence of God  Tags: , , , ,   Comments: 32

The first and third arguments use S5. I will leave filling in the steps in the arguments as an exercise (maybe not so easy in the case of A) for the reader, though I can help out as needed.

Argument A (in a paper I have in Szatkowski’s forthcoming anthology on ontological arguments):

  1. Necessarily, if a property B is limiting, so is any property A that entails B.
  2. Necessarily, if a property B is limiting, its negation is not limiting.
  3. Possibly lacking existence is limiting.
  4. Possibly lacking omniscience is limiting.
  5. Possibly lacking omnipotence is limiting.
  6. Possibly lacking perfect goodness is limiting.
  7. Possibly not being creator of everything else is limiting.
  8. It is not possible that x is a creator of y while y is a creator of x.
  9. So, there exists a necessary being that is essentially omniscient, omnipotent, perfectly good and creator of everything else. This being has every property that it would be limiting to possibly-lack.

Argument B:

  1. Every first-order truth is knowable.
  2. The conjunction of all basic first-order truths exists and is a first-order truth.
  3. If all the basic first-order truths of a world w1 hold at a world w2, then w2=w1.
  4. Necessarily, if someone knows p, then p is true.
  5. So, there actually is a being that knows the conjunction of all basic first-order truths.

I don’t have an account of “basic”. Perhaps fundamental will do. I am thinking of “basic” here as a placeholder for a notion that makes (11) and (12) true.

Argument C:

  1. Possibly, an unlimited being exists.
  2. Necessarily, for every proposition q that is possibly true, there is a state of affairs p(q) such that p(q) grounds the possibility of q.
  3. Necessarily, if s grounds the possibility of x not existing or the possibility of x being limited, then s limits x.
  4. Necessarily, nothing limits an unlimited being.
  5. So, there is an unlimited being.
Confirmation bias or expertise? The prevalence of theism in philosophy of religion
February 25, 2012 — 8:05

Author: Helen De Cruz  Category: Existence of God Religious Belief  Tags: , , , ,   Comments: 33

One of the striking results from my survey on natural theological arguments is that most philosophers of religion are theists. Even if I restrict my count to a subsample consisting only of those people who are philosophers, who have listed philosophy of religion as one of their areas of specialization, and who are faculty or non-faculty with PhDs, the sample is overwhelmingly theist. Of this select subsample (N = 118), 70.3 % are theists, 16.9% atheists and 12.7% agnostics (the rounding explains why we are not at exactly 100 %). As you may recall, the percentage of theists slightly higher (around 73%) in my general sample philosophers of religion, which also includes graduate students, undergraduates and those outside of academia. Given that the PhilPaper survey gave a similar result, we can be highly confident that about 7 in 10 philosophers of religion are theists. One of the discussions of my preliminary results on Prosblogion is whether we should accord any evidential weight to this (i.e., should we defer to the expertise of those who are studying the existence of God), or whether this should lead us to an increased skepticism about philosophy of religion as a discipline.

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Results of the survey on natural theological arguments
February 17, 2012 — 15:26

Author: Helen De Cruz  Category: Existence of God  Tags: , , , ,   Comments: 27

I would like to thank everyone who has completed my survey on natural theological arguments. This survey’s aim was to get a rough idea on how philosophers today evaluate various natural theological arguments in terms of their strength/plausibility. My study was motivated by the observation that philosophers frequently voice intuitions about the general plausibility of natural theological arguments, e.g., “since Darwin, the argument from design has lost its appeal”, or “the hiddenness argument is a strong contender to the problem of evil as an argument against the existence of God.” However, actual data on philosophers’ assessments of these arguments was, to my knowledge, unavailable. I’m very pleased with the large sample (802 respondents!). The data will be used in a monograph I am currently writing on the cognitive basis of natural theology.
Descriptive statistics about the sample

  • Respondents (N = 802) were recruited through a philosophy mailing list and several philosophy blogs
  • Average age: 36.5 years (SD = 11.8 years)
  • Gender: 75.8 % were men and 24.2 % were women. This is a gender imbalance, but it is not out of line with other philosophy surveys, and may reflect the general gender imbalance of philosophy.
  • Religious self-identification: 40.5 % theists, 40.4 % atheists, 19.1 % agnostic or undecided (I’ll refer to this group as agnostic for short, realizing that not all agnostics see themselves as undecided).
  • Target group: 85.8 % of respondents self-identified as philosophers; the remaining 14.2% did not (the real percentage may be higher, as some respondents said they had some training in philosophy at the undergraduate or graduate level, but moved on to major in other fields).
  • AOS: The most mentioned philosophical specialization was philosophy of religion (33.8 %). The other most mentioned areas of specialization were, in descending order, metaphysics (27.8 %), ethics (26.8 %), epistemology (25.8 %), history of philosophy (22.2 %) philosophy of mind (19.2 %) – The total is more than 100 % because respondents could indicate multiple AOS
  • Academic position: graduate students (33.3 %), faculty including tenure track (32.9), non-tenure track with PhD (15.8%), undergraduates (8 %), non-academics (10 %).

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Survey on natural theological arguments
February 7, 2012 — 10:04

Author: Helen De Cruz  Category: Existence of God  Tags: , , , ,   Comments: 9

I’d like to thank Matthew Mullins for inviting me to post at Prosblogion. My first entry is going to be a request for help. I would be very grateful if Prosblogion readers could fill out the following, very brief survey: https://surveys.qualtrics.com/SE/?SID=SV_6XKYbWbsP5SBsBS

It will take only about three minutes of your time. The survey is part of my current project on cognitive science and natural theology. The aim is to get a better idea of how philosophers today evaluate natural theological arguments for or against the existence of God. Note that you do not need to be a philosopher of religion or a faculty member to complete this survey. I will post a digest of the results in a few weeks. The survey will be active until I have gathered a predetermined number of responses that would allow for statistically robust results or until two weeks have elapsed.