Grim reapers have recently been employed in an argument against an infinite past (see here and here). I’d like to see if grim reapers may similarly be employed in an argument against uncaused beginnings.
I will begin with a preliminary comment about the modal reasoning involved in a grim reaper argument. Then I’ll review the grim reaper argument against an infinite past. Then I’ll present a new, parallel grim reaper argument against uncaused beginnings.
As I see it, the grim reaper argument against an infinite past is an instance of modal reasoning in which one attempts to subtract credence from a modal claim by “connecting it” with a modal claim that’s evidently false. To illustrate, consider the following argument against the possibility of time travel:
(1) Suppose I could go back in time.
(2) Then I could go back to a time before I was born.
(3) If I could go back to a time before I was born, I could prevent my birth.
(4) If I could prevent my birth, then I could exist without having been born.
(5) I cannot exist without having been born.
(6) Therefore, I cannot go back in time.
In the above example, we start with a somewhat “unclear” (and controversial) modal claim about time travel and then attempt to connect it via a series of (arguably) plausible premises to a claim that is easier to assess. This argument is just an example. Even if this particular argument isn’t sound, you get the gist of the strategy.
The gist (or outline) of a grim reaper argument against an infinite past is something like this.
From all of us here at Prosblogion and the readership I’m sure: Get well soon!
First, Al did NOT have a heart attack. If you hear that, it’s not true (and it’s false if you didn’t hear it). On Friday, Al had triple bypass surgery to remove some blockage. By all accounts he is recovering well.
When I was with Al for an extended time a little more than a month ago, he was quite vigorous and in great shape, so I can’t imagine what super-powers he’ll have when his recovery is complete and he has achieved maximal health.
Atheists and agnostics, it wouldn’t *hurt* if you sent up a few tentative or conditional prayers to join the rest of us! 😉
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.
Is it ever rationally believe in the occurrence of miracles on the basis of testimony of others? I have been of late fascinated by the research of the developmental psychologist Paul L. Harris, who has investigated how young children acquire information through testimony. Harris gauges two psychological hypotheses. The first, which he attributes to Hume, is that children always assess the content of the information: they are more inclined to disbelieve information that widely differs from their earlier experience. The second, which he identifies with Reid’s position is that children are naturally credulous; they are inclined to indiscriminately believe what others testify, no matter who they are or what they tell. Reid thought that this was a “gift of nature” (current cognitive scientists would call it maturationally early or innate), which only gets attenuated over time through experience. I will follow Harris’ attribution of these views to Hume and Reid for convenience’s sake, keeping in mind that their actual positions are more complex.
I don’t normally post such items to the front page of Prosblogion, but this strikes me as warranting everyone’s attention.
From Michael Della Rocca:
Dear Friends and admirers of Ruth Marcus,
Forgive the mass e-mailing, any duplications, or omissions. As you know, Ruth Marcus died over two weeks ago and an obituary has yet to appear in the New York Times. This failure to recognize one of the most prominent and pioneering philosophers of the last 60 years is appalling. There have been multiple communications between Yale and
also NYU (Ruth’s undergraduate alma mater) with the obituary editors at the Times. The Times has received a wealth of information from these sources and still no obituary. I fear that they have decided or are in the process of deciding that Ruth is not a significant enough figure to warrant the recognition of an obituary in the Times. Don’t get me started on this — it’s simply outrageous. Don Garrett, Diana Raffman and I have sent to the Times’ obituary editors a strongly worded message — see below. If you would like to endorse the sentiments in this message please let me know and we will pass on this information to the Times. I plan to be in touch with them again soon. Or if you would like to write a message of your own to the Times that would be great. The obituary editors are Bill McDonald and Jack Kadden.
If there are other philosophers you know of who might be interested in helping out here, please feel free to forward this message and to encourage them to be in touch with me or Diana or Don. Don, Diana, and I will be in touch directly with the APA leadership about this matter so that they may contact the Times too.
Michael (and Diana and Don)
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.
Some responses to the Problem of Evil involve defending the proposition that it is on balance a good thing that the world was created. I want to propose a Problem of Mediocrity or Problem of the Just-Good-Enough or more broadly the Problem of the Not-Great world. As I envision it, it’s disconfirmation of theism is compatible with the world being on balance good. It goes like this:
(1) Being the kind of Being God is, we expect greatness in everything He does.
(2) The world is not great.
(3) Hence, theism is disconfirmed.
I’ll refine it a bit below and raise an objection below the fold
I have been making the circuit presenting a paper which in part defends an argument for atheism from “irreligious experience.” It is similar to work done by Draper in 1991 and Gellman in 1992. I’m sure others have versions of the idea.
This past week, I had a religious experience. I’m not sure what to make of it, and I’ll be thinking about it for some time. It was very vivid and strangely specific. In thinking about it this far, I think there may be an interesting research project worth pursuing (it will be a very long time before I can pursue it, so I put it out here in the hopes that someone else will).
Submissions are invited for the Religious Studies Postgraduate Essay Prize, which is sponsored jointly by Cambridge University Press and the British Society for the Philosophy of Religion. The winning entry will be published in Religious Studies, and the winner awarded Â£300.
The Prize is an international prize, and open to all those who, at time of the deadline, are registered for a postgraduate research degree. The topic of the essay should be in the philosophy of religion and must be no longer than 10,000 words in length. The judges reserve the right not to award the Prize if no submission of sufficient merit is received.
Essays should be submitted in hard copy only (not through the journal’s electronic submission system), in duplicate, and clearly marked ‘Religious Studies Essay Prize’, with the author’s name and contact details in a covering letter but not on the essay. The closing date for entries is 1st December, 2011, and they should be sent to:
Prof Robin Le Poidevin
Editor, Religious Studies
Department of Philosophy
University of Leeds
Leeds LS2 9JT
Let Contingentism be the thesis that no concrete thing must exist. Define ‘concrete thing’ as anything that can cause something, or leave it as primitive. (Side note: Contingentism is hotly debated among philosophers of religion. But surely it is a thesis of metaphysics; so why aren’t metaphysicians debating this?)
Arguments against Contingentism typically take the following form:
1. Every fact of type T has an explanation (else: is explicable)
2. If Contingentism is true, then there is a fact of type T that has no explanation (else: is not explicable)
3. Contingentism is not true.
Committed Contingentists usually either end up denying the principle of explanation employed by (1) or withholding judgment. After all, such explanatory principles tend to be very far-reaching.
But here’s another strategy. We count costs. Rather than searching for sound philosophical arguments for/against Contignentism, we identify costs and benefits of Contingentism. That may be a lot easier. And it can help us make progress without having to make converts: for a committed contingentist can, in principle, come to agree that there are certain costs of Contingentism.
I’m going to propose one cost–to get this strategy started. (I do not claim this is the most serious cost, or that there aren’t counter-costs that ultimately outweigh it.)