Saturday, December 09, 2017

Are there brute facts?

The argument from contingency depends on the principle of sufficient reason (PSR). The PSR states that for anything that exists, there is a sufficient explanation for why it exists rather than not existing. The explanation can take one of two forms--either the explanation is that it exists by necessity (i.e. it's impossible for it to not exist), or it is contingent. If it's contingent, then the explanation will be found in something else that exists and which serves as the basis for, reason for, or cause of the existence of the contingent thing under consideration.

But then there are brute facts. A brute fact is something that happens to be so, and there's no reason or explanation for it. If there are contingent things whose existence are brute facts, then the PSR is false because in that case there would be contingent things for which there is no sufficient reason for their existence.

So what reason is there to think there either is or isn't any such thing as a brute fact? I'm not going to go into all the reasons, pro and con, in this post. I only want to address something I heard a few weeks ago. Ben Shapiro interviewed Ed Feser on his new book, Five Proofs of the Existence of God.

At around 7:40 in the interview, Shapiro brought up the subject of brute facts. Then at about 8:10, Feser began to respond to it. He said there were two problems with it. The first problem is that it's arbitrary and is brought up for no other reason than to avoid the existence of God. There's no independent motive or reason for suggesting brute facts. The second problem with brute facts (9:07) is that it eats away as all explanations in general because if all explanations ultimately rest on a foundation of brute facts, then that takes down the explanatory force of every other explanation. It's all just arbitrary.

While I can see the rhetorical force of Feser's two arguments, I don't think either one of them really undermines the existence of brute facts. The fact that a person might be motivated in an inappropriate way to postulate brute facts doesn't mean they're wrong. To say that they're wrong by pointing to their inappropriate motives is to commit the genetic fallacy. At best, I think this argument only tells us that there is no good justification for believing in brute facts. If there's no rational reason for them, and there are only pragmatic motives for suggesting them, then that does entail that brute facts are nothing more than unjustified hypotheses.

In the second argument, Feser uses an analogy to explain himself. There's a book on a shelf. The shelf is held by brackets. The brackets are held but other brackets. But those other braackets aren't attached anywhere. They're just brute facts. Well, if they're not attached to anything, then the shelf with the book will all fall down. It can't all be held up by brute facts. In the same way, all explanations collapse if they rest of a foundation of brute facts.

I don't think they collapse in the same sense that a book shelf collapses. All that would follow is that you can't give an ultimate explanation for anything. Ultimately, there's no reason for anything. What would Feser say to somebody who bit the bullet and said, "Okay, so there are no ultimate explanations. Everything is, by extension, a brute fact." It seems to me there's something missing in Feser's argument. He's attempting to make a reductio ad absurdum argument against brute facts, but he hasn't explained why the logical consequence of brute facts is absurd.

While I don't think what Feser said amounts to an argument against the existence of brute facts, I do think he successfully undermines rational belief in brute facts. It seems to me that it's unreasonable to postulate brute facts because of Feser's second argument, and brute facts do seem rationally unjustified because of Feser's first argument. That is unless there's some rational reason aside from motivations for brute facts that Feser didn't mention and that I'm unaware of.

Is the universe contingent?

Over the years I've had two reservations about the argument from contingency. The first reservation comes from the possibility that there are brute facts. The argument from contingency depends on the principle of sufficient reason which states that for anything that exists, there is a sufficient reason for why exists rather than not existing. If there are brute facts, then it could be that some things exists for no reason at all. They're just there, and that's all there is to it.

I am highly skeptical of brute facts, but I haven't been able to rule out the possibility completely. But supposing there are no brute facts, that brings me to the second reservation about the argument from contingency. Is the universe a contingent thing? It's hard to say.

If there is a necessary being, and the universe is it, then there would be no need to postulate anything beyond the universe to explain the existence of the universe. But if the universe is contingent, and there are no brute facts, then there must be something beyond the universe that explains the existence of the universe.

Ultimately, if there is anything at all that's contingent, then there must be something that exists by necessity. Ultimately everything contingent that exists must be traced back to something that exists by necessity. In other words, there must be something that exists, and it's impossible for it to not exist.

While I have no problem deducing the fact that there is at least one necessary being, I have a hard time wrapping my mind around anything actually being a necessary being. Whenever I mull over whether any given object is a necessary being, I do two things. First, I try to conceive of it not existing. Second, I try to see if there is any contradiction in the supposition that it doesn't exist.

Although I can see that there must be a necessary being of some sort, whenever I try to imagine such a being, it's just as easy for me to imagine it not existing. God, of course, is the being I think is necessary. But unless I stipulate from the get-go that God is necessary, there's nothing else in the concept of God other than the stipulation that prevents me from imagining his non-existence. So apparently, conceivability cannot help me answer the question of whether or not any given entity is a necessary being or not. The mere fact that I can imagine the universe or God not existing doesn't entail that either is a contingent thing.

But neither can I deduce a contradiction in the denial of the existence of the universe or God. It seems, at least prima facie, that there is a possible world in which God exists, but the universe does not. It also seems, at least prima facie, that there is a possible world in which the universe exists, but God does not. It even seems, prima facie, that there is a possible world in which nothing at all exists. The only way I can see to deduce a contradiction from the non-existence of any named entity or being is to add propositions to it that we have reason to think are true.

We can deduce that God is a necessary being by adding the proposition that God is the source of everything else that exists. If God is the source of everything else that exists, and everything must be traced back to some necessary being, then it seems to follow that God is the necessary being that everything is traced back to. Since the necessity of God would follow from these premises, then the denial of the existence of God would entail a contradiction.

Or, if we add the proposition that only the material world exists, and everything contingent can be traced back to a necessary entity, then it would follow either that the universe is a necessary entity or else some part of the universe is necessary. Since the necessity of the universe or some part of the universe would follow from these premises, then the denial of the existence of the universe would entail a contradiction. (Notice I didn't add "or some part of the universe." That's because if we deny the existence of the whole universe, then we would be denying the existence of every part of the universe as well.)

So what reason is there to think the universe might be contingent that wouldn't just as easily apply to God? Or what reason is there to think God is a necessary being that wouldn't just as easily apply to the universe? Even if we all agree that all contingent things have their origin in something that's non-contingent, we've got to figure out where we're going to halt our explanatory regress. And it can't be arbitrary. There's got to be a good reason for halting it where we halt it, whether we halt it with the universe or with something beyond the universe.

I've been thinking about that over the last two days, so I thought I'd share my thoughts with you. There are two things I have to say about it. First, I think it is plainly evident that anything composed of parts must be a contingent thing. The reason is because if something is composed of parts, then it can be disassembled. For example, my desk is composed of atoms. If those atoms were separated from each other and spread throughout the galaxy, then my desk would no longer exist.

However, it could be that while my desk, as a whole, is contingent, the individual parts that make up my desk might possibly be necessary. Ever since the pre-Socratic Greek philosophers, on down to modern day physicists, we have been trying to find out what the most fundamental thing in physical reality is. Many of the Greeks, like Lucretius and Democritus, said the most fundamental things are atoms. Fast forward a couple thousand years, and our physicists called the basic constituents of elements "atoms." But then we discovered that atoms are composed of protons, neutrons, and electrons. Then we discovered that protons and neutrons are composed of quarks. Now, some physicists think the most fundamental entities are tiny vibrating strings. Some think the most fundamental entities are quantum fields, like the electric field or the Higgs field. There's a field for every particle.

So while I can confidently say that atoms, stars, and people are contingent things, I've got to question whether or not the most fundamental thing (or things) that atoms, stars, and people are made of are also contingent things. If there is some fundamental, non-reducible, physical thing out of which all other physical things are composed, then whatever it is, it is not composed of divisible parts. It is simple in some sense.

That brings me to the second thing I had to say. Supposing the most fundamental things are strings or something yet undiscovered or even hypothesized, it would seem to be the case that there is some particular number of them. Maybe it's 10^500. Who knows? Whatever that number is, if we suppose these entities are non-contingent (i.e. they are necessary), it would follow that the number of them is also necessary. After all, if each one of them is necessary, then it's impossible for any one of them to not exist, and if it's impossible for any one of them to not exist, then there couldn't possibly be fewer of them. Also, if they are necessary, then there couldn't possibly be any more of them either. The reason is because there could only be more if more came into existence. But if something comes into existence, then there had to have been a state of affairs in which it didn't exist, in which case it couldn't have been a necessary thing. So if the fundamental particles, strings, or whatever of physical reality are necessary entities, then there is a fixed number of them, and whatever that number is, it is necessary that it be that number.

Doesn't that strike you as odd, though? That there would be some fixed number of strings, and that there couldn't possibly be one more or one less? While I can't prove it, I am inclined to think the number of fundamental particles/strings/whatever is not necessary. It is contingent. If it's even possible that there could be one more string or one less, then at least one of these strings is contingent. But if one is contingent, why think any of them at all would be necessary? How could we distinguish between contingent strings and non-contingent strings? If we suppose half of all strings are contingent, and the other half are non-contingent, then we're faced with the same issue. There would still be a fixed number of necessary strings.

So I have a hard time believing that any given number of things could be necessary. I have a much easier time believing that if something is necessary, then there's only one of its kind. It's easy for me to imagine that all contingent things have their origin in one necessary thing, but if you suppose that all contingent things have their origin in a multitude of things, say 5, 50, or 10^500, then I'd be left wondering why there has to be just that number and not one more or one less. I would be inclined to believe that the number is contingent, in which case we haven't traced everything back to something necessary yet. We would have to keep going until we traced everything back to one thing before I'd be satisfied.

It is hard for me to explain why I'd be satisfied with one necessary thing that is the source of everything else, but I'll try. We couldn't suppose that there was one less thing, because then there'd be nothing at all, and it wouldn't be the case that everything contingent is traced back to something non-contingent. Rather, everything would be contingent, and that doesn't even seem possible to me. But if we suppose there might two things rather than one, it's hard to see why "two" is a necessary number and why there couldn't be one more or one less. So one necessary thing is the only thing that really resonates with me. I don't know how to explain it any better than that.

If some physicist could show that the most fundamental physical reality is just quantum fields, and if that physicist could somehow show that there's only one quantum field (i.e. that the various fields we now suppose exist can somehow be unified), then I would be hard pressed to find any grounds to argue that the universe is a contingent thing. At that point, I'd probably be 50/50. I might wonder about the properties of the field, though, and whether those properties were necessary or contingent. It seems to me that for anything in motion, each state of that thing is contingent. But I don't think it would follow that the whole thing is contingent.

But supposing the universe is composed of irreducible strings or some other particles, then I would be strongly inclined to believe that the whole universe was contingent. And if the whole universe is contingent, then the explanation for the universe must be something beyond the universe. Now we're getting into God territory. Of course one can always suppose that the universe has it's origin in something else that is contingent, but even if so, that contingent thing would ultimately have to trace its origin to something non-contingent. You can't escape the existence of something non-contingent no matter how many contingent things you put before the universe. Whatever that thing is, and I'm strongly inclined to think it's just one thing for the reasons I've already given, it would have to be god-like. It would be a non-physical necessary being that is the origin of everything else that exists. I think we can attribute those properties at a minimum with a fair degree of certainty. We might be able to infer various other properties, but in that case I think we'd be on less firm ground and we'd be venturing into speculation.

So where do I stand on the argument from contingency? Well, I think the argument from contingency shows with a high degree of certainty that there is a necessary entity, probably just one, that is the source for everything else that exists. It falls short of certainty to the degree that brute facts are possible. This argument, by itself, doesn't show that YHWH exists, although the conclusion of this argument could be used as a premise in a larger argument for the existence of YHWH. For me, this argument could be strengthened if I had better reasons to think the universe is contingent. While I strongly suspect the universe is contingent, I don't really have a strong argument for it. Well, let me back up. I think Kalam-type arguments give us strong reasons to think the universe is contingent, but I'm trying to evaluate the argument from contingency as a stand-alone argument without invoking other theistic arguments to prop it up.

Friday, December 08, 2017

Melinda Penner

I just found out a few minutes ago that Melinda Penner at Stand to Reason had a bad accident a few days ago. She is still in bad shape, so if you're the praying sort, please remember her in your prayers. Thanks!

Monday, December 04, 2017

Cancer and cataracts

I saw this Ted talk recently where this guy was talking about taking white blood cells out, re-engineering them to kill cancer cells, then injecting them back in. They managed to completely cure a little girl of leukemia.

I googled around and found that this treatment is FDA approved, but only for treating leukemia. The reason is that it can't kill tumors. When it attacks the cells on the outside of the tumor and they all die, it creates a wall that the white cells can't get through, so they can't kill the rest of the tumor.

I also read that once you've had some of your white blood cells engineered and re-injected, it's for life. All of your white blood cells will forever be able to fight cancer. It seems to me that if that's true, then this technology ought to be able to be used as an inoculation against cancer. It may not be able to destroy a tumor, but it ought to be able to prevent a tumor from ever forming. I'll have to do more googling around about that. If this were FDA approved for inoculation against cancer, I'd be first in line!

In other news, I'm starting to get old man eyes, which makes it harder to focus on things close up. From what I read that happens to pretty much everybody because the lens in your eye hardens so that it can't change shape as easily. The solution is reading glasses, bi-focals, or interocular lens (IOL) implants. Lens implants are usually for people with cataracts, though.

I started reading around about lens implants and watching YouTube videos. Most implants will only allow you to focus on one distance, but now they have multi-focal lenses that allow you to see clearly both close up and far away. Insurance usually doesn't cover those, though.

There are all kinds of multi-focal lenses now. The coolest one I've seen anywhere is called FluidVision 20/20. It's a liquid IOL that works pretty much like your natural lens. Well, it does the same thing, but not exactly in the same way. Anyway, it supposedly allows you to see 20/20 at every distance. Check this out.

I seriously want that! It's not FDA approved yet, much less will insurance pay for it. I would gladly volunteer for a clinical trial, though. I've been wearing glasses since I was 20, and I've never gotten used to them. I only wear them when I drive. I hate hate hate wearing glasses! Wouldn't it be awesome to have 20/20 vision even when you're old without glasses or contacts? I can't even wear contacts. I tried two or three years ago, but neither I nor the doctors could get them in. I would pay oodles and doodles for FluidVision if I could.

Sunday, December 03, 2017

Spirits and dark matter

I just now had a crazy thought. You see, Mormons think of spirits differently than most of us do. When most of us think of spirits, we think of beings that are immaterial and intangible. But to Mormons, spirit is a kind of matter. In LDS theology, there are two kinds of matter--ordinary matter that we're all accustomed to and spirit which is a more refined form of matter and which is invisible.

I don't know the details about the Mormon view. In Doctrine & Covenants 131:7-8 it says, "There is no such thing as immaterial matter. All spirit is matter, but it is more fine or pure, and can only be discerned by purer eyes. We cannot see it; but when our bodies are purified we shall see that it is all matter." I don't know if there's anything in Mormon scripture beyond that, so it may be that anything beyond that is speculation. I'd like to know what they mean by "fine or pure." What is impure about ordinary matter? I can't even imagine what kind of impurity might exist in atoms or subatomic particles.

But anyway, what just occurred to me is that maybe all this dark matter physicists have been telling us about is actually the Mormon spirit world! Supposedly, there is more dark matter in the universe than there is regular matter, but nobody knows exactly what it is. It's a mystery. It's invisible.

Mormons believe that Heavenly Father is a physical being who exists in this universe. It would stand to reason that the entire spiritual world would also exist as part of this universe. That means all of Heavenly Father's spiritual children exist in this universe. That includes all the angels and demons and everybody who has not yet been born into this world as well as those who have been born into this world but have died. It may also mean that every other god from every other world exists in this universe as well as their spiritual children, though I'm not sure about that. Mormons sometimes say that Heavenly Father is the god of this world, and maybe "this world" means this whole universe in which case other gods would probably be excluded.

Anyway, it's just a thought I had.

Saturday, December 02, 2017

A time to. . .

I'm reading the Tao Teh Ching today, by Lao Tzu maybe. I got to chapter 29, and it said:

In fact, for all things there is a time for going ahead, and a time for following behind;
A time for slow-breathing and a time for fast-breathing;
A time to grow in strength and a time to decay;
A time to be up and a time to be down.

Does that sound familiar to you?

Sunday, November 26, 2017

Review: The Blind Watchmaker by Richard Dawkins, part 2

There are a couple of places in this book where Dawkins addresses intelligent design. He addresses it on page 141 in the context of the origin of life, then again on page 316-317 in the context of evolution. He says basically the same thing he said in The God Delusion. Essentially, he raises the “Who designed the designer?” argument. Here is what he said:

So, cumulative selection can manufacture complexity while single-step selection cannot. But cumulative selection cannot work unless there is some minimal machinery of replication and replicator power, and the only machinery of replication that we know seems too complicated to have come into existence by means of anything less than many generations of cumulative selection! Some people see this as a fundamental flaw in the whole theory of the blind watchmaker. They see it as the ultimate proof that there must originally have been a designer, not a blind watchmaker but a far-sighted supernatural watchmaker. Maybe, it is argued, the Creator does not control the day-to-day succession of evolutionary events; maybe he did not frame the tiger and the lamb, maybe he did not make a tree, but he did set up the original machinery of replication and replicator power, the original machinery of DNA and protein that made cumulative selection, and hence all of evolution, possible.

This is a transparently feeble argument, indeed it is obviously self-defeating. Organized complexity is the thing we are having difficulty in explaining. Once we are allowed simply to postulate organized complexity, if only the organized complexity of the DNA/protein replicating engine, it is relatively easy to invoke it as a generator of yet more organized complexity. That, indeed, is what most of this book is about. But of course any God capable of intelligently designing something as complex as the DNA/protein replicating machine must have been at least as complex and organized as that machine itself. Far more so if we suppose him additionally capable of such advanced functions as listening to prayers and forgiving sins. To explain the origin of the DNA/protein machine by invoking a supernatural Designer is to explain precisely nothing, for it leaves unexplained the origin of the Designer. You have to say something like ‘God was always there’, and if you allow yourself that kind of lazy way out, you might as well just say ‘DNA was always there’, or ‘Life was always there’, and be done with it. (p. 141)
And again:
We cannot disprove beliefs like these, especially if it is assumed that God took care that his interventions always closely mimicked what would be expected from evolution by natural selection. All that we can say about such beliefs is, firstly, that they are superfluous and, secondly, that they assume the existence of the main thing we want to explain, namely organized complexity. The one thing that makes evolution such a neat theory is that it explains how organized complexity can arise out of primeval simplicity.

If we want to postulate a deity capable of engineering all the organized complexity in the world, either instantaneously or by guiding evolution, that deity must already have been vastly more complex in the first place. The creationist, whether a naïve Bible-thumper or an educated bishop, simply postulates an already existing being of prodigious intelligence and complexity. If we are going to allow ourselves the luxury of postulating organized complexity without offering an explanation, we might as well make a job of it and simply postulate the existence of life as we know it! In short, divine creation, whether instantaneous or in the form of guided evolution, joins the list of other theories we have considered in this chapter. All give some superficial appearance of being alternatives to Darwinism, whose merits might be tested by an appeal to evidence. All turn out, on closer inspection, not to be rivals of Darwinism at all. The theory of evolution by cumulative natural selection is the only theory we know of that is in principle capable of explaining the existence of organized complexity. Even if the evidence did not favour it, it would still be the best theory available! In fact the evidence does favour it. But that is another story. (p. 316-317)
I think Dawkins would have a point if what we were trying to explain was the origin of intelligence. To say that intelligence came about because some other intelligence created it is not to explain the origin of intelligence at all because it leaves the intelligent creator unexplained. As long as you’ve got an unexplained intelligence, you haven’t explained the origin of intelligence per se.

That appears to be a perfect parallel to what Dawkins is trying to argue except that instead of intelligence, he says we are trying to explain the origin of organized complexity. If we postulate an organized complex entity, like God, to explain organized complexity, then we haven’t really explained organized complexity at all since we’ve left God unexplained.

Dawkins’ argument commits the fallacy of equivocation. He says that for God to be able to design the DNA/protein replicating machine, God would have to be at least as complex and organized as the machine itself. Maybe one could argue that God would have to be complex and organized in some sense, but surely God would not have to be complex and organized in the same sense that the DNA/protein replicating machine is complex and organized.

Dawkins goes to great lengths on pages 6 through 9 to explain what he means by complexity. He says that a complex entity would have to be heterogeneous, meaning it “has many parts, these parts being of more than one kind.” Then he says the parts must be “arranged in a way that it is unlikely to have arisen by chance alone.” But since any arrangement of parts can be equally unlikely with hindsight, the arrangement must be something that can be “specified in advance.” What he appears to mean is that the parts must be arranged in such a way that the entity is “good for something,” or that it can “succeed in making a living of some sort,” such as “flying, swimming, swinging through the trees, and so on.” To summarize, Dawkins says:

This has been a long, drawn-out argument, and it is time to remind ourselves of how we got into it in the first place. We were looking for a precise way to express what we mean when we refer to something as complicated. We were trying to put a finger on what it is that humans and moles and earthworms and airliners and watches have in common with each other, but not with blancmange, or Mont Blanc, or the moon. The answer we have arrived at is that complicated things have some quality, specifiable in advance, that is highly unlikely to have been acquired by random chance alone. In the case of living things, the quality that is specified in advance is, in some sense, ‘proficiency’; either proficiency in a particular ability such as flying, as an aero-engineer might admire it; or proficiency in something more general, such as the ability to stave off death, or the ability to propagate genes in reproduction. (p. 9)
The reason I accuse Dawkins of equivocation is because God is obviously not complex in the same sense that biological organisms (or airliners and watches) are complex. God may be complex in the sense that he has various attributes and a creative mind, but he’s not complex in the sense that he has various physical parts that are arranged in an unlikely way that results in some function that allows him to make a living and reproduce. Clearly, when we say a biological organism, or an airplane, is complex, we don’t mean the same thing as we might mean if we said God is complex.

Consider one example of supposed intelligent design—information in DNA. Stephen Meyers argued in Signature in the Cell that information always comes from a mind, and since DNA contains information, that information came from a mind. That same argument could not apply to God since God wouldn’t have anything like DNA. He wouldn’t have anything like a digital code written into his parts that codes for proteins. So this intelligent design argument would be immune to Dawkins’ criticism. The best Dawkins could say in response to this argument is that an intelligent designer is unnecessary since information can arise without a designer, but he couldn’t claim that information in DNA hadn’t been explained since the intelligence behind it hadn’t been explained. That would be like saying that programmers don’t explain computer programs since it leaves programmers unexplained or that authors don’t explain books since it leaves authors unexplained.

Neither natural selection nor intelligent design are meant to explain the absolute origin of complexity in general. Both have a more narrow focus. They are trying to explain biological complexity in physical living organisms. In that case, it’s perfectly reasonable to explain complexity in biological organisms by postulating an entity that is not a biological organism, even if that entity is complex in some sense. If I appeal to one complex entity in order to explain another complex entity, I may not have explained the origin of complexity in general, but I have explained the origin of a particular manifestation of complexity.

The difference between God and biological organisms is particularly revealing in how Dawkins responds to the claim that “God was always there.” He says that if we’re going to allow ourselves the luxury of postulating an already existing complex entity like God, you might as well just say, “DNA was always there,” or “Life was always there.” But it is precisely because we already know DNA and biological life were not always there that gives rise to the need to explain them by postulating something that was always there.

As long as anything contingent exists, something necessary must exist. Each contingent thing is explained either by some other contingent thing or by some necessary thing. Necessary things do not require other things to explain them. They exist because they are necessary, and their necessity is a sufficient explanation for their existence. So always-existing things can be invoked to explain contingent things. All parties agree that DNA and protein are contingent things. It is because they are contingent things that we cannot simply postulate them the same way we can postulate an always-existing Designer. Once we trace all contingent things back to some necessary thing or things, our explanation is complete.

And now my review of The Blind Watchmaker is complete. I know I sound mostly negative in this second part, but I was only criticizing a small part of Dawkins’ book. The book as a whole is fantastic, and I recommend it. I would give it four and a half stars.

Review: The Blind Watchmaker by Richard Dawkins, part 1

I just finished reading The Blind Watchmaker by Richard Dawkins. Over all, I would say this is an excellent book. It wasn’t exactly what I expected, though. The subtitle reads, “Why the evidence of evolution reveals a universe without design.” I expected Dawkins to go into some detail about the hard evidence—fossils, geology, geography, genes, heredity, homology, etc. But really, most of the book was theoretical and speculative. For the most part, he showed how evolution could happen without showing that it did.

That’s not to say he didn’t discuss the hard evidence. He did. It just wasn’t the main focus of the book. Concerning the hard evidence, there was one part of the book I found to be especially compelling. It was chapter 10: “The one true tree of life.” More specifically, it was pages 270—276. And even more specifically, it was pages 274—275. I am probably going to butcher this explanation.

Okay, so there are a lot of genes in our DNA that code for proteins, and those same genes and proteins can be found in various species. However, there will be neutral differences, meaning there’ll be differences in the code that don’t affection the shape or function of the protein. That means they are invisible to natural selection. According to Dawkins, a given protein will change at the same rate regardless of what species that protein is found in. And, he says, we can know what that rate of change is, which allows us to know how long ago two species branched off from each other, i.e. how long ago their common ancestor lived. Unfortunately, Dawkins doesn’t tell us how we know about the mutation rate (unless it’s somewhere else in the book and I missed it).

Let’s suppose we have five different species, and we want to see how they are related to each other on a family tree. Well, we can look at the same protein in all five species, and by comparing them, we can tell how they are related to each other by how they differ. It’s a lot like textual criticism. You can tell that a text belongs to the Alexandrian text type or the Byzantine text type by looking at the differences of a given text. Supposedly, we can even tell how long ago each of them branched off from the others—the species, not the texts.

However, it’s always possible that a protein in two different species will change in the same way. It’s just a big coincidence when they do, and it apparently doesn’t happen very much. If it does happen, then looking at the one protein in each of the species will give you the wrong idea about how they are related and when their common ancestor lived.

But there’s a solution to that problem, and this is really the part that I found compelling. You don’t have to just rely on one protein to figure out a family tree. You can look at multiple proteins. The crazy thing is, when you look at multiple proteins, they will all tell the same story. You might get one that tells a slightly different story in case there was some huge coincidence in which the same protein in two different species mutated in exactly the same way. But that false reading can be recognized and corrected since every other protein tells the same story. It’s unlikely that one protein in two species would mutate in the same way, which is why we call it a coincidence, but it’s a whole lot more unlikely that two different proteins shared by two different species would both mutate in exactly the same way. These various proteins not only agree with each other in how the various species are related to each other, but they even agree on how long ago the different species branched off from each other.

I find this to be very compelling evidence for common ancestry. The fact that different species share the same protein, even if slightly modified, is flimsy evidence for a common ancestor. You could only arrive at that conclusion if you already assumed they had a common ancestor, and you were just trying to figure out how closely related they are. But if various species were not actually related by common ancestors, and you analyzed multiple proteins they had in common on the hypothesis that they were related, it seems highly unlikely to me that they would all give the same results. While you might dismiss one protein that points to a certain relationship, it’s hard to dismiss multiple proteins when they all give the same relationship and age of divergence.

It won’t do to say that a designer would, of course, use the same code in various species. Surely he would, but remember that we are talking about neutral differences in these proteins. They are differences that don’t affect the shape or function of the proteins. So there is no reason for them to be different on the hypothesis that a designer created them directly except that it doesn’t matter and they might as well be. But if it doesn’t matter, then we should expect the differences to be arbitrary, and if the differences are arbitrary, then we should not expect multiple proteins shared by different species to all agree on how those species would be related if they shared common ancestors.

That is not to say a designer is unlikely to have been involved. From what I understand, there are different theories in intelligent design about when, where, and how the designer got involved. Maybe he designed and assembled the first cell, and it took off from there. Maybe he interjects new information into DNA on rare occasions, like when he wants to add a brand new gene or disable one. Or maybe he manipulates the environment in such a way as to determine natural selection. All of those, it seems to me, would be consistent with the evidence I’ve been discussing. So a designer is not inconsistent with common descent. I only mean to say that Dawkins gave what seems to me to be a very compelling argument for common descent that suggests to me that each species was not a special creation that God made from scratch.

In part 2, I’ll talk about some problems I had with the book.

Sunday, October 29, 2017

Negative and positive energy

In my last post, I reviewed The Grand Design by Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow. I talked there a little bit about negative and positive energy and how they thought it might explain how the universe could come into existence from nothing. I said I didn't think the argument worked.

Well, I had a conversation a while back with somebody where that same idea came up, and I thought I'd share what I said so as to expand on what I said in the book review. So here ye go. . .

Unless I have some big misunderstanding, it seems to me that Hawking, Vilenkin, Krauss, etc. are eqivocating on terms like "negative energy" and "zero energy." Energy has positive ontological status. In other words, it actually exists as a concrete thing.

So what does "negative energy" mean? It can't mean "less than energy," because that would imply that not only does it not exist, but it less-than-exists. But that can't be the case for anything concrete. I have two cats.* If one ceased to exist, then I'd have one cat. If they both ceased to exist, then I'd have zero cats. But I can't have negative cats. What would that even mean?

So "negative energy" can't mean "less than zero energy." That's incoherent. "Negative energy" is kind of a misnomer that I think Krauss et al exploit by equivocation. "Negative energy" is actually a positive something. It has positive ontological status. It actually exists.

So I don't think balancing "positive energy" and "negative energy" and arriving at "zero energy" means that there is actually no energy in the universe or that the universe could've come into existence uncaused out of absolutely nothing. If there was a state of affairs in which nothing at all existed followed by a state of affairs in which both negative and positive energy exist, then even if they sum to zero, you'd still have a situation in which something came into existence out of nothing.

*I had two cats when I wrote that, but I'm down to one now. :-(

Thursday, October 19, 2017

Review: The Grand Design by Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow

This is a copy of my Amazon review of this book. Be sure to click over there and click "like" so I can feel good about myself. :-)

This book make a pretty simple argument in a pretty simple way. The argument of the book is that God is not necessary to explain the origin of the universe or the apparent fine-tuning of the universe. Both can be explained by M-theory. M-theory predicts something like 10^500 universes with various laws and constants. The wide variety of universes with different constants and laws provides the explanatory resources to account for the fine-tuning of this universe for the possibility of complex chemistry and therefore life. The inclusion of gravity explains the emergence of the universe from nothing.

The book is not technical at all, and it doesn't go into any detail about much of anything. It's very simply written and easy to understand. It's also fairly short. I would recommend it for those reasons.

But there are problems with the book. First, the book is unnecessarily polemical. It starts off criticizing the whole discipline of philosophy as being obsolete. The problem with this criticism is that the authors engage in philosophical reasoning and speculation throughout the book, sometimes poorly. The authors also take pot shots at various kinds of theism throughout the book that seem designed to poison the well or even vent the authors' antagonism toward religion rather than contribute to any argument.

Second, the argument at the end of the book for how the universe could spontaneously pop into existence from nothing seems fallacious. It's based on the fact that positive energy of the matter in the universe is perfectly balanced by the negative energy of the gravity in the universe such that the net energy in the universe is zero. I can see how that could work out as an explanation for how the universe could pop OUT of existence, but I don't see how it serves as an explanation for how the universe could pop INTO existence. It could pop out of existence because the negative and positive energy interact and annihilate each other. But how could the universe pop INTO existence from nothing at all? In that situation, there's no positive or negative energy because there's no mass and no gravity.

Also, as I understand it, M-theory does not predict that any universe pops into existence spontaneously from nothing. Rather, universes are caused to come into existence by the collision of previously existing branes. Maybe I've just got some big misunderstanding, though.

Another weakness I found with the book was that while the authors explained near the beginning of the book that science works on models, and models only have practical value without having to actually describe what the physical world is really like, they argued throughout the rest of the book as if the models of physics accurately describe the world the way it really is. In fact they went so far as to say that M-theory MUST be true because it's the only candidate for a complete theory of the universe.

Based on other things I've read by Stephen Hawking, I'm skeptical that he had much to do with writing this book. I suspect Leonard Mlodinow wrote most of it and that Hawking's name is in big letters on the cover because his name sells better.

Monday, September 04, 2017

Letting an argument go

Some people will embrace (or pretend to embrace) any absurdity before conceding a point in a discussion/debate. For example, let's say you run into somebody who says all knowledge comes by way of our five senses, and you can't know anything apart from your five senses, yet there's quite a lot we can know about the external world. You respond by saying the only way our senses could tell us anything about the external world is if we already knew our senses were giving us true information about the world. After all, it's at least possible that we're plugged into the matrix. To press the point a bit farther, you say that their epistemology leads to solipsism when taken to its logical conclusion since you'd then be stuck inside your head with no epistemological way to make a connection between your perceptions and whatever external reality might exist outside your head. Rather than concede the point, or even qualify their epistemology, the person you're talking to will say, "Okay. Solipsism it is." Yes, I have actually had this very conversation with somebody, and that is what they did.

A long long time ago, I used to argue with people like that. I would argue with them with the goal of convincing them they were wrong. I would take any absurdity they threw at me as if it were a serious argument, and I'd try to respond to it. I'd basically run the argument into the ground. I wasn't really trying to embarrass the other person. I was trying to get my point across because I took them seriously.

Then I read J. Budziszewski's book, How To Stay Christian In College. There was a section in there about what to do when somebody throws up a smoke screen--something you suspect the person doesn't really believe. The example he used was of a moral relativist who, when asked about murder, says, "How do we even know murder is wrong?" Budziszewski suggested that instead of arguing with the person about whether murder is wrong, say something like, "Are you in any real doubt that murder is wrong?" I started using this technique in a lot of discussions, tayloring it to the occasion. I would say that about half the time, it works. The person will come clean and admit they aren't seriously entertaining solipsism, that murder is okay, or whatever the case may be. The other half of the time, I either try harder to get the person to come clean, or I press the argument and go back and forth with them.

A few years ago, I started doing something different, though. You see, sometimes people will dig in their heels in order to save face. They will defend any absurd notion rather than admit to being wrong. Reductio ad absurdum doesn't work with these people because they'll embrace the absurdity rather than concede the point. So what I started doing is once I've made my point, and once the other person has started to dig their heels in defending something that's absurd, I'll drop the subject. I'll let them get the last word. This is the way I look at it. If you push somebody into a corner, causing them to dig in their heels, they'll just get more entrenched in their point of view. They'll convince themselves of the absurdity, and they'll be even more comfortable defending that absurdity later on. But if I allow them to save face, then they'll be able to go off by themselves when the pressure is off and think about it without any fear of embarrassment. I figure people sometimes say things they don't believe in order to save face. So if I resist the urge to argue with them, they'll be able to see the force of my argument. It shouldn't matter to me whether I got them to admit it or not as long as I got my point across. So once I think I've gotten my point across, I'll drop it. I won't argue with them anymore.

I don't know whether it's working or not, but I can tell you it has saved me a lot of frustration. Going back and forth with people--especially people you suspect are just pretending--can be exhausting. Sometimes it's hard to let an argument go and not respond, but I'm a much happier person since I started doing that. Plus, it frees me up to enter new conversations without being bogged down in the old ones.

You might wonder about the audience, though. If you're arguing with somebody on a public forum with other people watching, you might feel the need to continue arguing for their sake. I don't worry about the audience, though. They're not in the position of having to save face, so there's no worry that they're going to dig in their heels. You have to just give people some credit and let them judge for themselves whether or not the other person is just being silly. Trust them to see the force of your argument. You don't have to run it into the ground.

Saturday, September 02, 2017

Forgotten arguments

When I first started reading up about undesigned coincidences, I thought of an objection to them that was pretty strong. Now, I've forgotten what that objection was. That causes a problem because no matter how much I read about them, and no matter how persuasive arguments from undesigned coincidences seem to me now, I still have doubts because I know there's this objection I once had that I can no longer remember. I can't do anything about it either. I can't think about whether it's a good objection, and I can't ask anybody else if they think it's a good objection. So I'm stuck.

This is kind of the opposite problem I brought up on my blog a long time ago in a post about "phantom arguments." Sometimes, we study something out in depth and become convinced of some conclusion. Once we've become satisfied that the conclusion is true, we don't worry about it anymore. We stop studying it and we stop reading about it because we're satisfied. But then years later, we forget why we were so convinced. Now, when we run across objections, those objections may seem on the face to be entirely persuasive, yet we are not convinced because we know we once had good reason to believe. That makes it impossible for us to judge the merits of the objections we're hearing without going back and doing all that studying again.

If you think about it, these forgotten arguments, reasons, and evidences can keep up from progressing in knowledge. Maybe the objection I once had to undesigned coincidence is not a good objection. Maybe the reasons I had for accepting some conclusion were not good reasons or would be overcome by the recent objections I've heard.

It just shows to go you that epistemology is not always tidy. But it's also another reason to cut people slack who don't immediately change their minds when you present them with what you think is a pretty good argument. You don't know what's inside their noetic structure that's keeping them from changing their minds. They're not necessarily being irrational.

Friday, September 01, 2017

Ezekiel 36:26 and regeneration

24 For I will take you from the nations, gather you from all the lands and bring you into your own land. 25 Then I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your filthiness and from all your idols. 26 Moreover, I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; and I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. 27 I will put My Spirit within you and cause you to walk in My statutes, and you will be careful to observe My ordinances. 28 You will live in the land that I gave to your forefathers; so you will be My people, and I will be your God.
Ezekiel 36:24-28

Calvinists (and I include myself here) often point to Ezekiel 36:26 as an explanation of what they mean by "regeneration." Regeneration, so they say, is when God takes out your heart of stone and gives you a heart of flesh. The result is that you stop resisting God and willingly come to Christ for salvation. But I'm not so sure that's what Ezekiel is talking about. First of all, Ezekiel appears to be referring to the eschaton when God gathers all his chosen people from around the world into the promised land, which is something that happens at the second coming. Second, Ezekiel says the result of this renewal (which includes putting his Spirit within us) is that people are caused to walk in God's statues and observe his ordinances. It's not until the resurrection (or at least death) that we become sinless, though. Regenerated people continue to sin. Maybe you could sort of wrap regeneration up with sanctification and say that the change of heart is a process that takes place over time and is never completed before you die, but I'm not so sure about that.

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Neale Donald Walsch's plagiarism

I read this article in the NY Times about how Neale Donald Walsch, author of Conversations With God, got caught plagiarizing a story written by Candy Chand. Walsch's excuse was that he must've read the story a long time ago, and after retelling the story many times in his public talks, he internalized it and actually thought it happened to him. Chand did not buy his excuse. At the end of the article, it says,

"Speaking of Mr. Walsch, she asked: 'Has the man who writes best-selling books about his "Conversations With God" also heard God’s commandments? "Thou shalt not steal. Thou shalt not lie, and thou shalt not covet another author’s property"?'"

The funny thing about that (to me anyway) is that if Ms. Chand had ever read Conversations With God, she would know that Walsch has both heard of the commandments and rejected them.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Materialism, Dualism, and Idealism

There's materialism, dualism, and idealism. As far as I know, that exhausts all the options. That is unless there's tri-ism or nothing-ism. But let's stick with the big three. No matter which one of the three you go with, there's a problem.

For materialism, there's the hard problem of consciousness.

For dualism, there's the interaction problem.

For idealism, there's the problem of solipsism.

Of these three, I think the materialists try the hardest to solve their problem. There are all kinds of supposed solutions to the problem of consciousness. Some people go to the extreme of denying consciousness even exists.

Idealists, as far as I can tell, don't try to deal with their problem. I think it may be because although there are difficulties with idealism, they don't amount to defeaters. I mean if it turns out that I am the only person who exists (or who I can know exists), it wouldn't follow that idealism was false. Or, if idealism is counter-intuitive for reasons I explained in an earlier post, it wouldn't follow that idealism was false.

Dualists fall somewhere in between. A lot of dualists acknowledge that there's an interaction difficulty, but they don't try to solve it. They rest on the arguments for dualism and assume there must be a solution even if they don't know what it is. Some people try to solve the problem. I thought I had a solution to it a while back, but it ended up not working out because it only allowed for causation in one direction.

But still, it seems like no matter what worldview you subscribe to, there's going to be a problem.

Friday, August 11, 2017


I've been reading Four Views On Divine Providence lately. Although I'm reformed, the representative of reformed theology in this book, Paul Kjoss Helseth, advanced the craziest theory of God's providence. He advocated occasionalism, which is the view that nothing in the natural world causes anything else. Rather, everything that's happening in each moment of time is directly caused by God. In fact, our existence in each moment of time is caused by God. He called this view omnicausality. I think it's just nuts.

That's about all I have to say about that.

Wednesday, August 09, 2017

Feasible and infeasible worlds

According to Molinists, people have libertarian freedom, and God knows what each person would freely choose to do in whatever circumstances they might be in. That means there are counter-factuals to human freedom. A counter-factual is an if/then proposition. For example, if Pete were holding a drink at such and such moment, then he would drink it.

Since, according to Molinists, there are counter-factuals of human freedom that tell God exactly what each person will do in whatever situation, that means there are possible worlds that God could not actualize even if he wanted to. That follows from the counter-factuals.

Let's imagine two possible worlds that are exactly alike up until some precise moment that we'll call t. From t onward, the two worlds diverge because although Pete is in exactly the same situation in both worlds, he makes a different choice in each. In one world, Pete chooses to drink at t, and in the other world, Pete chooses not to drink at t.

Suppose God knew before creating anything that if Pete were holding a drink at t, then Pete would freely choose to drink at t. With that being the case, God could not have actualized the other world in which Pete were in the exact same situation at t, but chose not to drink. Even though the other world describes a possible state of affairs, God could not have actualized that world. That's what Molinists mean by "infeasible." An infeasible world is a possible world that God could not actualize because it describes a possible state of affairs that contradicts one of the counter-factuals that God knew before creating anything. If it was true all along that if Pete were in such and such situation at t, then he would freely drink, then God could not have actualized the world in which Pete was in the exact same situation at t but chose not to drink.

It makes you wonder how many possible worlds are infeasible compared to the feasible worlds. You'd think there would be at least as many infeasible worlds as there are feasible worlds since for whatever choice a person makes, they could have done otherwise, given libertarian freedom. But there are Frankfurt cases that show libertarian freedom does not require that a person could have done otherwise even if they have libertarian freedom. Still, it seems that in most of our choices, we could have done otherwise if those choices were free in the libertarian sense.

I think there would actually have to be far more infeasible worlds than feasible worlds. After all, at any moment, it's not as if the very next choice you make is either to act in some particular way or not to act in that way. At each moment, there are a whole slew of things you could choose to do. Let's say you decide to point in some direction. Well, there are a whole bunch of directions you could have chosen to point. You could choose to point north, south, east, west, up, down, or anywhere in between. You'd have 360 degrees to choose from, and that's just in the horizontal plane. But if you choose to point at some precise moment, you're only going to choose to point in one particular direction. There is some counterfactual that says exactly which direction you're going to point if you are in that situation at that particular moment. Yet every direction is possible. For every possible direction you could point at that moment, but don't, there is a possible world in which you do point in that direction, but each of those possible worlds are infeasible for God to actualize.

Think about that. At any given moment, there are a whole slew of things we could freely choose to do, but we don't. We only take one course of action. That means there must be far more infeasible worlds than feasible worlds. Of all the possible worlds, there were relatively few that were feasible for God to create.

Thursday, August 03, 2017

Idealism is counter-intuitive

I don't think idealism can be proven false. The main reason I reject it is because it's counter-intuitive in a way that alternate views (e.g. materialism and substance dualism) aren't.

For this blog entry, I'm going to cut and paste some stuff I said in a conversation I had with an idealist.

I think I reject idealism more because it flies in the face of my common sense notions about the world. When I'm standing in front of a tree or a cat, I can't shake the overwhelming impression that it's a real physical object in front of me. Hearing arguments for idealism is like hearing arguments against motion from Zeno's paradoxes. I see the strength of the arguments, but they are not enough to overcome my strong intuition that something has gone awry.

The idea that a subjective mental experience, like perception, could be shared collectively strikes me as being just as problematic as the interaction problem. Even if it's the case that a single God is feeding the same consistent information into each of our minds so that we each see a tree or a cat, we're not all seeing the same actual tree or cat. In fact, we're not interacting with each other at all. At best, we're interacting with a representation of each other. The other person could cease to exist in reality, and it would be possible for God to continue feeding information into our heads as if the other person were still interacting with us. So there's little reason to think that the people wandering around in our sensory perceptions are real people at all except our hope that God is being honest and consistent.

Let me expand on this with an analogy. Let's suppose you and I both go to sleep and have a dream. And let's suppose that by some strange improbable luck, we both have identical dreams in which you and I have a conversation that goes like this:

RationalThinker: Hi philochristos. What brings you here today?
Philochristos: I don't know how I got here to be honest with you.
RationalThinker: Really? Are you suffering from amnesia or something?
Philochristos: Maybe. Anyway, it's great to finally meet you.
RationalThinker: You, too! Let's find something to argue about.
Philochristos: Hold on. I have to use the bathroom first.

If it just happened by luck than you had this dream of having this conversation with me, and I had this same dream of having this conversation with you, and we both saw the same trees and the same scenery and everything, it would still be the case that you and I were not actually communicating with each other. I was communicating with a projection of my own mind, and you were communicating with a projection of your own mind.

If it turned out that the projections in each of our minds were planted in us by God instead of us dreaming them up ourselves, the only thing that would change is that it would no longer be strange luck that we happened to have mental perceptions of this conversation happening. But it would still be the case that you and I were not actually interacting with each other. I would be interacting with a mental image that God implanted in my head, and you'd be interacting with a mental image that God implanted in your head. I would not even have to exist for you to have that exact same experience, and you would not have to exist for me to have that exact same experience.

I see that as a problem with idealism. Idealism not only goes up against our intuitions about an external world, but it also seems to go up against our intuitions about other minds.

Saturday, July 29, 2017

Gregisms and Jesusisms

Way back in the mid to late 90's, I used to listen to the Bible Answer Man with Hank Hanegraaff.  After a while of listening to him, I noticed that he had certain catch phrases he would frequently use that were peculiar to him.  One of them was, "The resurrection is the capstone in the arch of Christianity."  And he would use the phrase "pale of orthodoxy" a lot.  It's been over 15 years since I regularly listened to him, and I still remember that. If I thought about it, I suppose I could remember more.

I also started listening to James White way back around the end of the 90's or the beginning of the 2000's.  I noticed that he, too, had certain catch phrases he would use frequently.  The one that sticks out most in my mind is, "in any way, shape, form, or fashion."

I haven't listened to Frank Turek as much, but one thing I noticed about him is that whenever he gives a talk, an interview, or anything, he never fails to say, "I'm from New Jersey."  That has always struck me as funny.  After I started noticing it, I would point it out to people.  Then the next time I'd hear something from Frank, he would again say, "I'm from New Jersey."  It still makes me laugh every time he says it because it's so predictable.

Greg Koukl has been my favourite Christian radio host for most of these years.  I've listened to him more anybody else.  I became so familiar with how he spoke that I started keeping a list of what I called "Gregisms."  Here are some of his catch phrases:

After a fashion
A sense in which
As it were
Such as it is

I've come to the conclusion that just about everybody has little peculiar ways of saying things or particular words they use regularly.  If you listen to them long enough, you start noticing them.  It's especially true of people who give public talks.

I don't give public talks, but I've noticed that I, too, form habits of using certain words and phrases in things I write.  It changes from time to time, though.  One friend pointed out to me a long time ago, that I said "presuppose" a lot.  I don't do that anymore.  Sometimes my speech habits get on my nerves, and I make a conscious effort to change them.  One thing that has gotten on my nerves more than anything and that I haven't been able to break out of is my habit of saying, "little."  Whenever I watch one of my own YouTube videos, and I catch myself saying, "little this," or "little that," it makes me cringe.  The most recent habit of mine that I've noticed is that I'll say something like, "Not only. . ., but also. . ." or, "It's not that. . ., but. . ." or "It's not because. . ., but because. . ." That one is starting to annoy me, so I'll probably try to change it.

Anyway, all of this got me to thinking about Jesus.  If Jesus is like most people, he probably has his own catch phrases, and I wondered if anybody had ever done a study on it or if there's enough in the gospels to pick up on patterns.  I have not gone through the gospels with a fine-toothed comb to look into this, but just off the top of my head, there are a couple of things I can think of.  One of them is that Jesus will often say, "Truly I say to you," or "Truly truly. . ."  But he will also say, "The kingdom of God is like. . ." because most of his parables are about the kingdom of God.

These must be Jesusisms because the authors of the gospels never use these phrases, and nobody else in the New Testament does. But Jesus is quoted as using them in all the gospels.  From an historical point of view, it seems like the best explanation is that Jesus really spoke that way.  His followers remembered it because they listened to him so much.  Anybody who wanted to write an account of things that Jesus said would probably include some of those phrases. They contain his voice.

I'm curious if there are any more Jesusisms one might notice if they went looking for them.  Maybe the next time I go through the gospels, I will.  If you know of any, leave a comment.

*I recently binged watched all nine seasons of Seinfeld and noticed that Elaine Benes also says, "Lookit."  I noticed that one because it's my favourite Gregism.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

To be is to be percieved

I have run into a few idealists over the years.  An idealist is somebody who thinks mind and the things that make up minds are all that exist.  There is no mind-independent material world.  Everything is perception.

This idea has always struck me as being kind of crazy.  Well, no, I take that back.  There was a time when I was very young that I entertained the idea that everything was perception, especially my own. I guess I should say that for the last 20 to 25 years, this idea has struck me as being crazy.  I mean it's one thing to allow for the mere possibility and to entertain the idea just for the fun of having and exchanging philosophical thoughts. But it's another thing altogether to take the idea seriously or to actually believe that it's true.

But I've met some really smart people who at least claim to believe it.  Some of them have even been Christians.  I'm not going to go into all of my reasons for rejecting idealism in this post.  I just want to respond to one challenge that is always put to me whenever I run into an idealist.  They always want me to describe mind-independent reality.  The reason they appear to see this as a legitimate challenge is because it will be nearly impossible for me to describe anything in the "external" world without appealing to what's going on in my head.  If I start talking about shape, size, colour, etc., these are all just perceptions in my mind. Since I cannot describe reality apart from my mind, they seem to think that means there's no mind-independent reality.

Let me parody this argument. If there are any idealists out there who think I'm misrepresenting their point when they bring up this challenge, leave me a comment and straighten me out.  In the meantime, here's the parody.

Suppose I challenged you to describe a dinosaur without using language.  Well, obviously you couldn't do that.  Aha!  Therefore, there are no language-independent dinosaurs!  Dinosaurs cannot exist independently of language.  So dinosaurs could not have existed prior to the advent of language.

Surely there's a fly in the ointment.  The fact that I can't describe a dinosaur without the use of language doesn't mean dinosaurs can't exist independently of language.  And just because I can't describe a dinosaur without appealing to perception doesn't mean a dinosaur can't exist without being perceived.  It no more follows that dinosaurs are perception than it follows that dinosaurs are language just because I use language and perception to describe them.

Saturday, July 08, 2017

Calvinism and evangelism

I had a discussion on on Calvinism, and one person questioned me on why Calvinists evangelize since God determines who will come to Christ and who won't.  He was under the impression that if God decrees that some guy will come to Christ, then it will happen whether we evangelize or not.  That makes evangelism superfluous under Calvinism.

I made two attempts to explain why evangelism is not superfluous under Calvinism because he didn't understand my explanation the first time.  I was just reading over the conversation, and I thought my second attempt was about as clear as it could possibly be. So I thought I'd share it with you.

Let's suppose God wants X to happen. And lets suppose that divine determinism is true. With that being the case, there is a deterministic causal chain beginning with God and ending with X. Now, let's suppose that one of the links in that causal chain is Y. In that case, Y has everything to do with why X happened since it was part of the causal chain.

To be supfluous is to have no hand in bringing about a result. But if God uses means to accomplish his ends, then those means have everything to do with those ends happening.

Now when you raise hypotheticals like, "What if Y didn't happen," then however I answer that is going to depend on what we stipulate in the scenario. If we stipulate that Y is one of the means God intended to bring about X, then if you remove Y, then X won't happen.

But if we stipulate that X will definitely happen, and if you remove Y from the causal chain leading to X, then X will happen by some other means, it will not have been the case that Y was the means through which God intended X to happen.

So it really just depends on your stipulations. In my view, God successfully saves everybody he intends to save, and he uses the means of evangelism to do it. So evangelism has everything to do with why some people come to Christ. That means it's not superfluous. It would only be superfluous if it were not part of the causal chain leading to salvation.

You can read the whole conversation here:  I'm a crazy Calvinist, AMA

If you're interested, I did one other "Ask me Anything" thread on Calvinism here: Ask a Calvinist

I also addressed this same subject on my blog once here: Does Calvinism render apologetics superfluous?

Wednesday, July 05, 2017

By hook or crook

I've noticed something when reading conversations on discussion forums between Christians and critics of Christianity. There are two arguments critics make that seems to be at odds with each other.

When talking, for example, about the historical Jesus, some critics will say that unless we have contemporary eye-witness accounts about Jesus, we can't know about him. Everything else is second hand or "hear say," which is unreliable. And since neither Paul nor the authors of the gospels were contemporary eye-witnesses of Jesus, we have no reliable way of knowing anything about the historical Jesus if he even existed.

But then I've seen other conversations where the Christian will try to make the case that the gospels contain information that comes from eye-witnesses to Jesus. The critics will then go on to explain that eye witness testimony is "notoriously unreliable." They'll cite court cases where eye-witnesses contradict each other, where they remember things incorrectly and get details wrong, etc.

I don't know if I've ever seen the same critic use both of these approaches, so I can't accusing any individual of inconsistency, but from the point of view of somebody defending historical information about Jesus, it does seem like they face inconsistent criticism.

One could avoid the inconsistency by throwing up their hands and saying history is unknowable. Since eye witness testimony is unreliable, and hear say or circumstantial evidence is also unreliable, then history just can't be known. I haven't met many people who are generally skeptical about history, though. I've run into lots of people who set the bar pretty high when it comes to evidence about Jesus, but not as high when it comes to other questions of historicity.

Sunday, June 25, 2017

The Supernatural Exists

Here's a debate on whether anything supernatural exists where I argued the Pro case.  I attempted to defend the argument from reason and a version of Plantinga's evolutionary argument against naturalism.  Fun times.

Here's my opening statement:

Good evening, and thank you for coming to tonight's debate.

My opponent stipulates that I may defend any version of the supernatural I wish, so let me define the version of supernatural I intend to defend in this debate.

The supernatural refers to one of two things: (1) to anything that exists that is not describable by the laws of physics and chemistry, and (2) any event in the natural world whose cause is not also part of the natural world. By "the natural world," I mean the world of matter and energy, or that aspect of reality that is describable by the laws of physics and chemistry.

What I will argue is that rationality and justified true beliefs are not possible if all that exists is the natural. Naturalism (the view that only the natural exists) is self-refuting because it undermines the necessary preconditions for rational thought and justified belief, including whatever line of reasoning lead to belief in naturalism. If we are in fact rational and justified in at least some of our beliefs, then some version of supernaturalism must be true.

If naturalism is true, then all of our beliefs are determined by non-rational cause and effect. After all, the brain is just a physical object that obeys the laws of nature. For whatever belief one has, it doesn't matter whether there are good reasons for it. So long as the brain fizzes in the right way, that belief will emerge. A belief can only be rational or justified if it is the result of good grounds. But arriving at a belief through physical causes is quite different than arriving at a belief through a line of reasoning and "seeing" the logical relations between propositions. In fact, we frequently dismiss the validity of a belief by pointing to its causes. For example, people frequently say things like, "You only believe that because you were born in a western culture." A belief that is caused by an accident of birth is said to be unjustified on that basis. If the fact that a belief is caused is any reason to dismiss it as being justified or rational, then given naturalism, none of our beliefs are justified or rational, including the belief in naturalism because they are all caused by our brain chemistry. The perception we all have of thinking through a line of reasoning is just an illusion since each step in the process is directly caused by the underlying chemical activity in our brains which happens deterministically according to the laws of nature.

One might respond by saying the brain acquired the ability to produce mostly true belief through evolution since true beliefs are more advantageous than false beliefs. So even though our beliefs are caused by blind mechanistic events in the brain, as long as the brain is "programmed" through evolution to result in mostly true beliefs, the fact that our beliefs are caused by brain chemistry doesn't undermine the reliability of our belief-producing cognitive faculties. Our beliefs may not be "rational" in the sense of being arrived at through a process of sound reasoning, but they can nevertheless be reliable.

However, natural selection can only act on behavior. What determines whether you survive and reproduce in any situation is the movement of your body parts, not whatever belief or desire that might be going on in your head. The only way belief and desire could contribute to survival value is if belief and desire determined your behavior. Under naturalism, it isn't possible for your beliefs and desires to affect your behavior. Your behavior is determined by your brain chemistry. The brain fizzes in a certain way, and that fizzing produces electrical signals that are sent to your muscles via your nervous system. Since there is no soul under naturalism, all of your mental events are caused by the brain. The mental events themselves don't cause anything. Each brain state, from moment to moment, is caused by the previous brain state according to the laws of nature. There is no room from anything like a desire or a belief to have any causal influence over the brain. The desire and belief are, themselves, caused by the brain. They are passive and just ride on top of brain activity. The feeling we have of intending to act, then acting on that intention, is just an illusion created by the brain. One and the same brain state might simultaneously cause the sensation of desire and the movement of the arm, but the desire does not cause the arm to move. Since natural selection selects for adaptive behavior wholly apart from whatever belief/desire might be associated with that same brain state, natural selection cannot select for true beliefs or reliable belief-producing cognitive faculties. So if naturalism is true, we should not expect to have developed the capacity for arriving at true beliefs. That makes naturalism self-refuting.

But let's suppose that somehow or other beliefs and desires actually DO affect our behavior. Under naturalism, they can only do so by virtue of their underlying physical brain state. That is, it would not be the semantic content of our desires and beliefs that result in behavior; rather, it would be the syntatic content of the underlying brain state. So we'd be in exactly the same situation. If syntax determines our behavior, then it doesn't matter what the semantic content is. If a false belief has just the right syntax to get our bodies moving in such a way as to ensure our survival and reproduction, then false beliefs would be just as adaptive as true beliefs. If it happened that true beliefs resulted in adaptive behavior, that would just be dumb luck. It would be a remarkable coincidence if it happened that mostly true beliefs were associated with syntax that lead to adaptive behavior.

But let's suppose that somehow or other, even under naturalism, that even the semantic content of our desires and belief affect our behavior. It's hard to imagine how that could even be possible under naturalism, but let's suspend belief for a moment and pretend that it's not only possible, but actual. In this case, one might argue that since true beliefs are generally more advantageous that false beliefs, that evolution would tend to result in reliable belief-producing cognitive faculties. The problem, though, is that for any true belief one might think is adaptive, it's trivially easy to think of a false belief that would do the same thing. For example, one might think that if one has a true belief that snakes are poisonous and ought to be avoided, that will result in a person living longer than somebody who thought snakes were safe and frequently stuck their hands down in rattle snake nests. But it is just as easy to imagine a person who wrongly thinks rattle snake are safe and fun to play with and that the best way to play with them is to run away from them. Running away, rather than sticking their hand in the nest, would ensure the person's survival. Or, you can imagine a person has an innate desire to die by poisoning, and he wrongly and stubbornly believes that fresh fruit and vegetables are the best poinsons by which to commit suicide. That would result in a person eating healthy and living longer. Since it's just as easy for a false belief to result in adaptive behavior as a true belief, there is no reason to think that evolution would produce reliable belief-producing cognitive faculties given naturalism.

So naturalism is self-refuting. If naturalism were true, we should not expect that any of our beliefs would be true or that we'd have reliable belief-producing cognitive faculties. And with that being the case, belief in naturalism is irrational. However, if we are quite convinced that we are rational beings and that we do generally have true beliefs rather than false beliefs, then to be consistent, we must reject naturalism. Rejecting naturalism--that the natural world is all their is--entails embracing supernaturalism--that some things exist beyond the natural.

Therefore, supernaturlism is true.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

All Morality is Relative

Here's a debate I had on over moral relativism vs. moral realism.

I, of course, being a Christian apologist, defended moral realism. Here is my opening statement in the debate:


Thanks to Pro for initiating the debate, and thanks to the reader for carefully considering our arguements.


Pro did not stipulate the burden of proof in the first round, but I'm going to assume a shared burden of proof which means we each have to defend a point of view, and not merely refute each other's argument. Pro has to show that morals are relative, and I have to show that morals are objective.

Since we each have a point of view to argue for, and since Pro used this round to argue for his point of view, I'm going to use this round to defend my point of view. Then I'll use the next round to give a rebuttal to what Pro said in this round, and he can use the last round to rebut what I say in this round. That way we each have an equal amount of space to defend our views and offer rebuttals.

A note on epistemology

There are two kinds of knowledge: a priori and a posteriori. A posteriori knowledge is knowledge we infer from prior items of knowledge. A priori knowledge is knowledge that is not inferred from prior items of knowledge. Since for whatever items of knowledge we might have, it was either inferred from prior knowledge or it was not (by the law of excluded middle), these two types of knowledge exhaust the possibilities.

It is not possible for all of our knowledge to be a posteriori because if every item of knowledge is based on a prior item of knowledge, that leads to an infinite regress. It would be impossible to arrive at any item of knowledge since there would be no starting place.

So if knowledge is possible at all, then there must be a priori knowledge. Since there is knowledge that is not based on anything prior, the knowledge must be obtained immediately upon reflection. That is, rather than derive the knowledge by reasoning from prior items of knowledge, we have the knowledge immediately just by reflecting on it.

A priori knowledge

There are some items of knowledge we have that could not be based on anything prior since they are unprovable. Those items of knowledge must be a priori. Our a priori knowledge can be subdivided into three categories according to what they have in common and how they differ.

1. First person knowledge

These are items of knowledge about our own first person awareness. Some examples include the fact that we're thinking, perceiving, remembering, and feeling, and what we're thinking, perceiving, remembering, and feeling). This is where Descartes' famous cogito belongs. Merely by thinking, we can know that we exist.

2. Rationally grasped knowledge

These are things we can know about the world outside of our own minds, but they are still known immediately upon reflecting on them. Examples include the law of non-contradiction, that 2 + 2 = 4, and that when two straight lines intersect, the opposite angles are equal. Some of the items in this category require a little more careful reflection to see than other items; consequently, not everybody is able to see them as clearly. For example, one can carefully reflect on a triangle and discover that it's interior angels must equal 180º without having to measure them. But not everybody has the brain power to see that, and they have to either take the textbook's word for it, or measure the angles.

3. Synthetic a priori knowledge.

These are items of knowledge that are built into every healthy and normally functioning mind. Examples include the fact that our senses are giving us true information about the world (which is how we know the external world exists), that our memories are giving us true information about the past (which is how we know there's a past, and how it's possible to have a conversation), and that the observed can be extrapolated to the unobserved (which his how we're able to learn from experience, make predictions about the future, arrive at probabilities, and engage in the scientific enterprise).

What all of these categories have in common is that none of the items in them need to be proved before we can know them. in fact, in most cases, it's impossible to prove them. But without them, it would be impossible to prove anything else. The items in the first category are incorrigible because of our immediate access to our own mental states. The items in the second category can be known with certainty because they express necessary truths, and the necessity of them can be rationally grasped. Once the items in the first and second category are seen clearly with the mind, it is impossible to be mistaken about them.

The items in the third category differ from the first two in the fact that it's possible to be mistaken about them. They do not express necessary truths. It's at least possible that the external world is an illusion. It's possible that there was no past. It's possible that while past experiments have always indicated the world works in a certain way, it may work differently tomorrow. In fact, we sometimes make mistakes regarding the third category. We mistake hallucination with external reality. We remember things incorrectly. We make hasty generalizations. But the fact that we sometimes make mistakes regarding the third category doesn't shake our belief in the general principles.

The third category of knowledge has these things in common:

1. None of them can be proved.

2. It's possible to be mistaken about each of them.

3. We sometimes make mistakes when applying each of them.

4. All mentally healthy people apprehend them.

5. It seems prima face unreasonable to deny them.

6. Even people who do deny them continue to perceive them as if they were real; they merely deny their reality.

7. We all use them in our daily lives.

I would like to be able to give a longer list of items of knowledge for the third category and show how each of them fit all seven of those features, but space is limited.

Moral realism

My argument for morality is that morality fits in the third category because all seven of those traits apply to our moral awareness. We can get rid of morality by denying this particular way of knowing, but in doing so, we will undermined the justification we have for believing in every other item of knowledge in the third category since they are all known in the same way. Since morality has all these things in common with every other item in the third category, morality is on equal epistemological footing. That means it's just as rational to believe in morality as it is to believe in the past, the external world, the uniformity of nature, etc.

Now, let me show how morality fits all seven of the above features.

1. Pro probably already agrees with me that morality cannot be proved.

2. Pro probably also agrees with me that we can be mistaken about morality. In fact, he thinks we are.

3. We sometimes make mistakes in our moral reasoning. This is evident in the fact that people sometimes come to different moral conclusions even when reasoning from the same moral premises.

4. All mentally healthy people perceive a difference between right and wrong. This is evident in the fact that we consider sociopathy to be a mental illness. With the exception of sociopaths, the fact that we all perceive a difference between right and wrong is evident in the fact that (i) we all judge others, which entails applying standards of behavior we think actually apply to other people and not just ourselves, (ii) when accused of wrong-doing, our first instinct is not to deny the standard, but to make excuses for why we didn't violate the standard, (iii) moral decision-making is difficult because we think there are actually correct and incorrect answers to moral questions, (iv) moral relativists are rarely consistent, and (v) we all find moral relativism to be counter-intuitive when we think about specific instances of egregious moral wrongs.

5. It seems prima facie unreasonable to deny morality. The denial of morality leads to many counter-intuitive results. It would follow that no culture is better or worse than another. There's no such thing as moral improvement. There are no unjust laws. There is no objective basis upon which to criticize other people. Nobody deserves praise or blame. Debates on moral issues are just as meaningless as debates on whether salmon tastes good since morality would reduce to preference.

6. Even people who deny morality continue to perceive a difference between right and wrong. They just deny that the perception corresponds to anything outside of their heads. Instead of saying, "Rape is really and objectively wrong," they say, "Rape is wrong for me," or, "I personally oppose rape." But rape continues to be abhorrent to them, and they find it difficult to deny that it really is wrong since it appears wrong to them.

7. Every one of us thinks morally in our day to day interactions with people. Most of the time, we don't notice because the right thing to do is obvious and we do it without much thought. We know we shouldn't steal somebody's wallet, not just because we might get caught, but because it's wrong. We're polite to people, not just because we want them to be polite to us, but because we think that's the right thing to do. Whenever we face moral dilemmas, and it isn't obvious what we should do, then we're forced to think more carefully about morals. We do it continuously throughout the day, but especially when interacting with people.


Since morality fits the seven traits of the third category of a priori knowledge, it follows that morality is just as epistemologically warranted as the other items in that category. If we are justified in believing in the past, the external world, and the uniformity of nature, then we are equally justified in believing in morality. We can deny morality, but that would be just as unreasonable as denying the external world, the past, and the uniformity of nature. So the conclusion that any rational person ought to come to is that there really is a difference between right and wrong that is not merely just in our heads.