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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.)
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.
In Where the Conflict Really Lies, which James Beebe has nicely reviewed, Alvin Plantinga discusses nomological necessity, the necessity had by physical laws. As he (and everybody else) points out, propositions like
2) Every sphere made of gold is less than 1/2 mile in diameter
are true and universal. However, there is a clear sense in which (2) is not necessary in the sense required for lawhood (the sort of necessity we call ‘nomological necessity’). On the other hand, the proposition that no object can increase from a velocity less than the speed of light to a velocity more than the speed of light is nomologically necessary. Also, it does not seem that this proposition is necessary in the broadly logical or metaphysical sense; the law seems contingent.
How are we to understand nomological necessity? Plantinga suggests:
But numbers and sets themselves make a great deal more sense from the point of view of theism than from that of naturalism. Now there are two quite different but widely shared intuitions about the nature of numbers and sets. First, we think of numbers and sets as abstract objects, the same sort of thing as propositions, properties, states of affairs and the like… On the other hand, there is another equally widely shared intuition about these things: most people who have thought about the question, think it incredible that these abstract objects should just exist, just be there, whether or not they are ever thought by anyone. Platonism with respect to these objects is the position that they do exist in that way, that is, in such a way as to be independent of mind… But there have been very few real Platonists, perhaps none besides Plato and Frege, if indeed Plato and Frege were real Platonists (and even Frege, that alleged arch-Platonist, referred to propositions as gedanken, thoughts). It is therefore extremely tempting to think of abstract objects as ontologically dependent upon mental or intellectual activity in such a way that either they just are thoughts, or else at any rate couldn’t exist if not thought of. (287-288)
I am inclined to think that there are numbers and that they are abstract objects, but I don’t have the second intuition that they must be thought. Is there something I’m missing? I do have the intuition that contingently existing objects must have a cause for their existence, but I don’t have the intuition that abstract objects must be thought, which, if they exist, necessarily exist.
Maybe somebody could help motivate this intuition for me? Or is this intuition not very widely shared (contra Plantinga’s remark)?
[x-posted on Newapps] A few days ago, I had the privilege of attending a lecture by Paul Draper, probably one of the most prominent atheist philosophers of religion today. His lecture had a wealth of ideas (including a proposed solution to Hume’s problem!), but I’d like to focus on one tiny piece of the lecture, viz. his argument that the burden of proof is on the theist, and not on the atheist.
Here goes the argument, which Paul was kind enough to discuss with me, prior to posting it. I apologize if there are any remnant misrepresentations.
Let’s assume that there are a number of epistemically possible world views: some are naturalistic, some are supernaturalistic, let’s even grant there are others (non-supernatural, non-natural, but some third, unknown view). Then we can see that the following diagram exhausts all epistemic possibilities: N (naturalism), S (supernaturalism) and not-N and not-S.
An acquaintance of mine, paleoanthropologist, regularly handles ancient hominid fossils – part of the job requirement. One day, while holding one of these objects (a skull if I recall rightly, but perhaps my memory is infected by imagery of people holding skulls in paintings and plays), he got a profound “areligious experience”. Suddenly it hit him that he was going to die, and there would be nothing beyond his present life – his memories and self-awareness would simply disappear. In the future, the only thing that would be left of him (if he were buried, placed in congenial archaeological context, with an environment that isn’t too dry, too acid etc.) would be a skull similar to the one he was holding, and perhaps a few large bones like the femora. Prior to this, the paleoanthropologist was already an atheist, but the areligious experience intensified his conviction that the natural world is all there is. His areligious experience was strong, non-inferential, and elicited in him a powerful belief in the non-existence of God–an experience in some respects analogous to religious experience.
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.
In case you missed it, Tom Senor reviews Moser’s The Evidence For God: Religious Knowledge Reexamined for Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews.
…The Evidence for God is daring and provocative. Among the important topics it deals with are naturalism, fideism, natural theology, and the role that volition plays in our ascertaining evidence of God’s existence.
The book begins with a parable around which the entire monograph revolves. Imagine that you are hiking in a vast and remote wilderness area that is accessible only to hikers. To your great dismay, you discover that you are hopelessly lost: you have no method of determining either your exact location or a promising route back to civilization. The woods are filled with dangers (e.g., poisonous snakes, hungry carnivores, and potentially freezing temperatures) and you have no means of communication with the outside world. Worse still, you have only a meager supply of food and water. You’ve had one bit of good fortune: you’ve come across an old, dilapidated shack that contains a barely functional ham radio. The battery in the radio still has a bit of juice, although you doubt it will last long once the radio is turned on. In short, your situation is dire but not hopeless. What is your best bet for survival?
- P(the universe has low entropy | naturalism) is extremely tiny.
- P(the universe has low entropy | theism) is not very small.
- The universe has low entropy.
- Therefore, the low entropy of the universe strongly confirms theism over naturalism.
Low-entropy states have low probability. So, (1) is true. The universe, at the Big Bang, had a very surprisingly low entropy. It still has a low entropy, though the entropy has gone up. So, (3) is true. What about (2)? This follows from the fact that there is significant value in a world that has low entropy and given theism God is not unlikely to produce what is significantly valuable. At least locally low entropy is needed for the existence of life, and we need uniformity between our local area and the rest of the universe if we are to have scientific knowledge of the universe, and such knowledge is valuable. So (2) is true. The rest is Bayes.