Thursday, December 31, 2020

Out of nothing, nothing comes, once again

Here's another topic I've talked about a few times now. I'm bringing it up again because I had a conversation about it with somebody recently, and it got me to thinking. The conversation was about the intuition that something can't come out of nothing without a cause. The person I talked to had told me once before that he did not have this intuition. In the conversation I had with him recently, he said one resaon he lacked this intuition is because he cannot conceive of "nothingness."

That has had me thinking about what it means to conceive of nothingness. When I try to conceive of things, I usually try to form some kind of picture in my head about them. Or, if it's an abstract thing, I imagine charts, graphs, and illustrations. In the case of "nothingness," it is hard for me to conceive of it in this way. If I think of a totally empty box, for example, I'm still imaginging the box. And if the box has any dimensions, then the "nothingness" I'm trying to imagine inside the box isn't really nothing. It has spacial dimensions and a size. So I'm not really conceiving of nothingness.

But suppose I try to imagine a possible world in which nothing at all exists, including any boxes. Well, in that case, I'm still thinking about a world. Even if it's totally black because there isn't anything there, it's hard for me to really picture it. If I try to picture it as an endless void, I'm still picturing it as three dimensional space. But if I try to elminate the space by picturing it as a dimensionless point, well, that is hard to imagine without also imagining the point existing in a space. After all, if I picture a point, I can picture that point growing into something three dimensional. Just calling it "a world" seems to suggest existence of some sort. Maybe that means there is no possible world in which nothing exists. If that were the case, it would be hard to deny the existence of some sort of necessary being.

Suppose we live in a closed universe and that the universe has a finite size. If it has a finite size, there must be an edge somewhere. But what would happen if you were at the edge and looked out? There would literally be nothing outside to look at. That is hard to conceive. From what I understand, though, if we lived in a closed universe, there wouldn't actually be an edge that one could travel to. It's just that if you went in a straight line in any direction, you'd eventually end up at the same spot or close to it. This, too, is hard for me to conceive, yet supposedly it's how a closed finite universe would be. So whether there is an outter edge to space or not, I'd have a conceptual difficulty either way. Even if space is infinite, that is hard for me to conceive.

I can sympathize with not being able to conceive of nothingness in the sense of picturing it. But this doesn't hinder my intution that it's impossible for something to come into being out of nothing. This intuition doesn't depend on my ability to form a picture of nothingness in my head. It just depends on me having an understanding of the meaning of nothingness and what it would mean for something to come into being out of nothing. In my recent conversation, I asked my friend to imagine a bird popping into existence right now without being made of previously existing material. In this scenario, you don't have to picture a "void" or a "nothing" preceding the existence of the bird. The whole universe exists already. But the bird has no material cause, so the bird came out of nothing. Or, to put it another way, the bird came into being, but it didn't come into being out of anything that already existed. To say it came out of nothing doesn't mean there was a void that preceded the bird. It just means the bird isn't composed of pre-existing material. When the bird came into being, all the material the bird is made out of came into being with it. This sense of something coming into being from nothing isn't hard for me to picture in my head, but I don't think it's possible for it to actually happen.

This impossibility is even more acute if I imagine the bird having a beginning to its existence without a whole universe in which it emerges. This is why I do not think it's impossible for something to be caused to come into being out of nothing. If I imagine the bird coming into being out of nothing within a universe that already exists, I can at least imagine there's something in the physical universe that explains it. While there's nothing in the universe from which the bird was made, the universe may nevertheless have somehow provided the necessary and sufficient conditions to bring about the existence of the bird. (Some people don't think it's even possible for something to be caused to come into being out of nothing.) If there were a God, but nothing else, then God could be the explanation of how the universe came into being out of nothing. But if there was nothing at all, neither a God nor a universe, then it would be utterly impossible for anything at all to come into being. I am certain of that. (This was a hard paragraph for me to write, and I'm not sure if I'm explaining myself clearly.)

My intuition is based more on what "out of nothing" means than it is on a mental picture of "nothing." And it isn't hard for me to conceive of nothingness in this sense. What do rocks dream about? Nothing. They don't dream at all. "Nothing" just means "not anything," so to say something came out of nothing means that it came into being, but it didn't come into being from something. It came out of nowhere. It didn't involve a rearrangement of previously existing material. It just popped into being from nothing or not from anything. It seems intuitively obvious to me that it's impossible for something to just spontaneously come into being without coming into being from something else.

As I've explained in several other posts (like this one), there are different kinds of things we know by intuition.

  • Knowledge of our own subjective experience (e.g. what we are thinking, feeling, perceiving, etc.).
  • Knowledge of necessary truths (e.g. math, logic, geometry, etc.).
  • Knowledge of synthetic a priori truths (e.g. the external world, the past, induction, other minds, an enduring self, morality, etc.).

It is hard for me to decide whether my intuition about ex nihilo, nihil fit goes in the second category or the third category. On the one hand, I have a rational intuition about what appears to be an impossibility. That would suggest that it's a necessary truth and therfore belongs in the second category. But on the other hand, it isn't quite as obvious that it's a logical impossibility. I can form a coherent picture in my head of a bird popping into being without being made of previously existing material, but I can't form a coherent picture of a square circle or a scenario in which Jim is taller than Dan, Dan is taller than Bob, and Bob is taller than Jim. This suggests that ex nihilo, nihil fit belongs in the third category.

To belong to the second or third category, that doesn't tell you how certain one is of it. Of course we can be certain of some necessary truths, but there are other necessary truths we might be in doubt about. The reason is because we can rationally grasp the necessity of some truths more clearly than we can others. Concerning the second category, for example, it's more clear to me that 2+2=4 than it is that 128+603=731 even though both are equally necessary. And concerning the third category, it's more clear to me that there's an external world than it is that there are other minds (though admittedly the difference is miniscule, and I may change my mind tomorrow). If ex nihilo, nihil fit belongs in the third category, then it belongs at the very top because it is the most certain item of knowledge I would have in the third category. Since no other item of knowledge in the third category is certain, this makes me doubt it belongs in the third category at all. With every other item in the third category, it's at least possible that each of them is false, but it does not seem to me that it's possible for something to come into being out of nothing without a cause.

Since ex nihilo, nihil fit strikes me as being necessary, but not logically necessary, I tend to say it is metaphysically necessary. Maybe I just need to come up with a fourth category for metaphysically necessary truths (or impossibilities). To be honest, though, I'm not sure I can give you a good definition of what it means to be metaphysically necessary (or impossible). I only say that because while ex nihilo, nihil fit appears necessary, it doesn't appear logically necessary, so it must be necessary in some other sense. It isn't physically necessary either since that would mean it was a mere property of physical things, and since physical things are contingent, so are the laws that describe them. Metaphysical necessity would apply whether there was a physical world or not. Maybe that is how I should define metaphysical necessity. It's a necessity that applies, not just to how physical things happen to be but to how they must be. It's a necessity that holds even in the absense of anything physical.

What I wish I had asked during my conversation is if his inability to conceive of nothingness meant that he had no opinion one way or the other about whether it was possible for something to come into being out of nothing. At the time, I took him to just be saying that since he had no intuition telling him it was not possible, that meant he must have thought it was possible. But to allow for the possibility for something to come into existence out of nothing, wouldn't he have to conceive of nothingness just as much as he would if he thought it was impossible? It would seem that if his lack of intuition was due to his inability to conceive of nothingness that he would have to be completely agnostic about whether it was possible for something to come out of nothing or not. Maybe if he reads this he can say something about it in the comment section. I didn't want to bring his name up since it was a private conversation, but he's free to chime in if he wants to.

Two other questions I might ask: Can you conceive of a universe of finite size in which it had an edge that one could reach? Or, can you conceive of a universe that has a finite duration with a beginning and/or and end? If so, does this help you conceive of "nothing," since there would be nothing beyond the universe, either in space or in time? If it's just as difficult to conceive, can you at least see that it's nevetheless the case that there can't be anything beyond the universe in space or time if the universe is finite in size or duration? If I asked you what was before the beginning of the universe or what was beyond the edge of the universe, wouldn't you say, "Nothing"? And wouldn't it be clear to you what you meant by that?

For more reading on this topic, check out this post: Battle of intuitions: ex nihilo nihil fit

Wednesday, December 30, 2020

Knowledge by Intuition Again

I know I've talked about this a lot. The thing is, whenever I explain something, there's always this nagging feeling in the back of my head that I'm not being perfect clear. So when I explain something that I've explained before, I always try to do it a little differently. My hope is that the more ways I explains something, the more likely it is that I'll be understood. So I tend to say the same things over and over again in different ways. This is just one iteration of my defense of knowledge by intuition. I think it's an important topic in epistemology when it comes to debates about religion because arguments for God and for morality often rely on first principles that can't be proved but can only be known by intuition, which a lot of people don't trust. So, here ye go.

I originally wrote this in response to somebody who said he shared my intuition that it was impossible for something to spontaneously come into existence uncaused out of nothing, but he did not trust the intuition since he doubted intuition as a reliable source of justified belief.

If I can persuade you that intuitive obviousness is a good reason to believe something, will you concede that it's impossible for something to come into existence uncaused out of nothing?

First question would be, if something seems intuitively obvious to you, does that always mean that it is true in reality?

Not necessary. There are three different kinds of things we know by intuition. But first let me explain what is meant by "intuition" because there is a colloquial use of the word, and there is a philosophical use of the word. The colloquial use of the word indicates a hunch, feeling, suspicion, etc. that something is true. That is not what I mean by intuition. In the philosophical sense, intuition is immediate knowledge upon reflection. That means there are some things you can know immediately just by thinking about them. By "immediate," I mean the knowledge isn't arrived at through induction, deduction, or any kind of inference.

Intuitive knowledge sits at the foundation of everything we know. For anything you know, one can ask, "How do you know that?" For most of the things you know, you should be able to give a reason. You believe A because of B. But then somebody can ask, "How do you know B?" And for any reason you give, somebody can ask, "How do you know that?"

One of two things will happen if you continue this conversation. Either you will get yourself into an infinite regress, or else you will arrive at some foundational item of knowledge that is not based on some prior reason or inference. So how do you know those things at the foundation if you don't know them on the basis of inference? The answer is that you know them by intuition. Without intuition, it would be impossible to know anything at all.

As an example, how might one know that they had just dropped a brick on their foot? There are a couple of things that come to mind. One is that they saw the event happen. Another is that they remember having seen the event happen. Another is that they can feel the pain from the brick hitting their foot. But these raise other questions. How do they know they saw it, remember seeing it, and felt it? Well, they don't know this on the basis of anything else. You have direct and immediate access to the content of your own mental states. All you have to do is attend to your subjective awareness. You know you feel pain simply because you feel it. There's no deeper reason. This is knowledge by intuition.

As I said, there are three categories of things we know by intuition. The first category is what I just explained--knowledge of our first person subjective awareness. Right now, I'm looking at what I take to be a computer screen. I believe that computer screen is there because I can see it, and I have no reason to think it's not there. But I could be mistaken. It's possible I'm dreaming, hallucinating, or that I'm plugged into the matrix, or I'm a brain in a vat. But what I cannot be mistaken about is that I perceive what I take to be a computer. So our knowledge of our own mental states is incorrigible. You can know what you are thinking with certainty.

The second category is knowledge of necessary truths. This includes the basic laws of logic, the axioms of geometry, and basic math. If you knew that Jim was taller than Bob, and Bob was taller than Dan, you'd be able to figure out that Jim is taller than Dan. And you'd be able to figure this out just by thinking about it. You can see the logical necessity of the rule of inference that comes into play. And you can tell, just by thinking about it that if two straight lines intersect, their opposite angles will be equal. You don't have to measure the angles to figure this out. You can know that this is a universal necessary truth that's true in all possible worlds. This is how you know that 2 + 2 = 4. You don't have to test that by going out in the world, seeing if it works with apples, then seeing if it works with planets, then seeing if it works with bottles of beer on the wall. You can tell, just by thinking about it and "seeing" with your rational mind that it is a necessary truth that will hold anywhere in the universe.

The third category is knowledge of synthetic a priori truths. These includes your knowledge that your senses are giving you true information about a real external world, your knowledge that your memories are giving you true information about a past that actually happened, your knowledge that the future will resemble the past (i.e. the uniformity of nature), which is how you are able to learn anything from experience, engage in science, and extrapolate from the observed to the unobserved. This third category also includes your knowledge of morality, causation, Ockahm's razor, other minds, that "ought" implies "can," that time is real, that you are an enduring self, that your cognitive faculties are reliable, and object permanence.

What all three categories have in common is that they all sit at the foundation of our knowledge, that they can be known a priori, and they do not require proof or demonstration. The first category differs from the second and third in the fact that it is knowledge of the internal world (your subjective mind), and the others are knowledge of reality outside the mind. The second differs from the first and third in the fact that these items of knowledge express necessary truths, but the items in the first and third categories are contingent truths. The third category differs from the first and the second in the fact that one can have absolute certainty about the first and second, but not the third. Each item in the third category is possibly false, and we do sometimes make mistakes concerning them.

For example, it is possible that there is no external world, and sometimes our senses do deceive us. It's possible that we were created five minutes ago complete with memories of a past that never actually happened, and sometimes our memories do deceive us. It's possible that the future will not resemble the past, and the laws of nature will be different tomorrow, and we do sometimes make hasty generalizations.

But just because something is possible doesn't mean it's reasonable to believe. We are perfectly rational in believing in the past, the external world, and the uniformity of nature in spite of the fact that we make these mistakes, and in spite of the possibility that we are mistaken. The general rule of thumb that everybody uses, whether they realize it or not, is that it's always more reasonable to affirm the obvious than to deny the obvious, and we should believe that things are just as they appear to be unless we have good reason to think they're not. That is what justifies our belief in the past, the external world, and the uniformity of nature.

Intuitive knowledge is knowledge that's just built into us. Nobody has to be taught that their senses are giving them true information about the world. Nobody has to be taught that if somebody contradicts themselves, they're lying. Nobody has to be taught that their feeling of pain actually indicates that they are in pain. We can, of course, hone these items of knowledge. We can be mindful of math, logic, and geometry so that we see them more clearly and able to use them. But the basic knowledge is just built in. So intuition is immediate knowledge upon reflection. It's what everything we know is based on.

So to answer your question, if something is intuitively obvious, then whether that indicates that it's always true in reality or not depends on which of the three categories you're talking about. If you're talking about the first two categories, then yes, they will always necessarily be true. If you're talking about the third category, then it's at least possible that they are not true.

Monday, December 28, 2020

"Sky daddy," "magic sky fairy," and other pejoratives

If you are not a Christian, but you want to engage Christians in serious discussion or debate, don't refer to the Christian God as a "sky daddy." That is clearly meant to be an insult, and it's childish to behave that way. What you are communicating to me when you talk that way is that you have no interest in engaging with me in a serious discussion. You're just trolling, and you're being immature. If you want to be seen as an ill-mannered troll and not taken seriously, though, then have at it.

If you are a Christian, and somebody you are in conversation with behaves this way, I suggest ending the conversation. You are wasting your time. Continuing a conversation with somebody who behaves that way is precisely what Jesus meant about thowing your pearls before swine. Don't do it. Your time is better spent talking to somebody willing and able to have a civil adult conversation.

Saturday, December 26, 2020

Harry Potter and the gospels

There's this argument I've seen come up whenever anybody attempts to use the gospels as a source of historical information about Jesus. The argument is that if we applied the same methods to Harry Potter as we do to the gospels to extract historical information, we could prove that people really do use magic wands and fly on magic brooms, which is absurd.

This argument is fallacious for at least a couple of reasons. Let me mention the minor reason first before going on to the major reason. The minor reason is because an historian doesn't naively cite the gospels as proof of what Jesus said or did. Instead, they apply "criteria of authenticity" or "historical methods" to extract accurate information. One of those criteria is multiple independent attestation where the same piece of information is reported by more than one author writing independently of each other. That obviously couldn't apply to Harry Potter since Harry Potter only has one author.

I vaguely remember being in a conversation in which somebody mockingly applied one of these historical criteria to Harry Potter in order to prove something absurd. I wish I could remember the specifics or find that conversation so I could use it as an illustration here, but I've been digging around for a while now, and I can't find it. But let's grant, for the sake of argument, that there is some criteria that, if applied to Harry Potter, would lead us to believe some absurdity about what happened in the real world.

The major problem with that and with any other argument from analogy with Harry Potter is that there is a confusion of genres. Harry Potter is a known work of fiction. That was J.K. Rowling's intention when writing the story.1 The book is marketed as fiction, and if you found it in a book store or library, it would be in the fiction section. To compare Harry Potter to the gospels is to beg the question against the historicity of the gospels and merely presume that it belongs to the genre of fiction, which doesn't help in an argument about whether the gospels record history or not.

It is a mistake to make this comparison because the gospels definitely do not belong to the genre of fiction. That was not the intention of the authors. There has been some debate among scholars about what the genre of the gospels is, though. Some have said the gospels are a unique genre of their own. Some have said they are "faith documents" or "religious propoganda." Some have said they are midrash or pesher.2 Marcus Borg once said the gospels are "history mythologized" or something like that. But since the publication of Richard Burridge's book, What Are the Gospels? in 1992, most scholars have come around to the belief that the gospels are "ancient biography" or "Greco-Roman biography." In the comment section of one of his blog posts Bart Ehrman said,

Yes, these are certainly fiction [Aesop’s Fables or Plato’s Allegory of the Cave]. I’m not saying that there was no fiction in the ancient world! The Greek novels are among my favorite pieces of ancient literature. And of course the plays of Euripides, Sophocles, and Aeschylus, and — well lots and lots. But these are *genres* that are meant to be fiction: writers wrote them that way and readers (always) read them that way. And so the question is entirely one of genre. There is wide agreement today that the Gospels are, in terms of genre, ancient biographies. Biographies were not fictional pieces but are meant to be historical accounts. For full discussion of the Gospels as biographies, the best treatment is still Richard Burridge, What Are The Gospels: Comparison with Greco-Roman Biography.

I was recently digging around trying to find out what various scholars thought about the genre of the gospels, and a number of them cited Burridge's book as having been instrumental in bringing about wide agreement among scholars that the gospels are ancient biographies. I don't remember everybody who said that, but I do remember N.T. Wright being one of them, though I can't remember where I read it. Mike Licona recently wrote a book called Why Are There Differences In the Gospels? in which he argued that the gospels are ancient biographies by comparing them to the biographies written by Plutarch. There's been a big debate between Licona and Lydia McGrew about that, but Licona's view is representative of the majority of scholars from what I've been able to ascertain.

To me, there are some impressive similarities between the gospels and other ancient biographies. I haven't read Burridge's book yet, but I have read some other stuff, including Licona's book. But besides those comparisons, there is some internal evident suggesting that the genre of the gospels, whatever they may be, are certainly not fiction. For example, Luke writes in his prologue:

“Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile an account of the things accomplished among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word, it seemed fitting for me as well, having investigated everything carefully from the beginning, to write it out for you in consecutive order, most excellent Theophilus; so that you may know the exact truth about the things you have been taught” (Luke 1:1-4).

Luke’s intention is clearly to report what actually happened. He claimed to be writing about “things accomplished among us,” saying they were passed down from eyewitnesses to those events.

The author of Acts is the same person as the author of Luke. In Acts, we get a history of the church from just after the resurrection to the early 60’s when Paul is under house arrest in Rome. Much of the material in Acts overlaps with what Paul wrote in his letters about his own travels and events in his life, so we know that at least some of it is historical. Since there is a seamless transition from the ministry of Jesus in Luke to the events in the life of Paul and the early church in Acts, it follows that Luke’s intention in writing his gospel was to record history.

Since Mark and Matthew fall under the same genre as Luke and contain much of the same material, it stands to reason that they intended to record history as well. However, they did not appear to give anything more than a very rough chronological account. The ministry comes before the crucifixion, and the crucifixion comes before the resurrection, but as far as events within the ministry, the order of the events differs from gospel to gospel.

In the case of John, we get a glimpse of the author’s purpose near the end. After narrating some of the appearances of Jesus after his resurrection, he says, “Many other signs therefore Jesus also performed in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these have been written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing you may have life in his name” (John 20:30-31). At the end of the gospel, Jesus predicted the death of Peter, and Peter asked about the fate of another disciple who the author calls “the disciple whom Jesus loved.” Then it says, “This is the disciple who bears witness of these things, and wrote these things; and we know that his witness is true. And there are also many other things which Jesus did, which if they were written in detail, I suppose that even the world itself would not contain the books which were written” (John 21:24-25). So the material in John is attributed to a close disciple of Jesus’ who the author of John took to reliably convey truths about Jesus.

Whether the gospels authors actually succeeded in writing accurate history is a different discussion. I only meant to say that their intention was to record history. The standards of historical precision are different in ancient biographies than they are in modern biographies, so as historians, one still must use historical methods to sift the gospels for information that is accurate by modern standards. But however accurate or inaccurate the gospels are, they are certainly not works of fiction like Harry Potter, so people should stop using Harry Potter as an analogy to undermine historical claims derived from the gospels. It's a bad argument because it's question-begging and it confuses genres.


1. Actually, I used to day dream that what was really going on was that Harry Potter was a true story except that some of the names were changed. J.K. Rowling was actually the same person as Hermione Granger. After all, she admitted in an interview one time that she based Hermione's character on herself. Rowling (aka Granger) didn't like this huge division between muggle society and wizard society and all the secrecy that was involved. She couldn't come right out and expose it all, so she wrote a "fictional" story about it in hopes of maybe easing people into it. Or maybe it was just to get it off her chest. I brought this theory up to somebody on a discussion forum somewhere, and they said they had a similar theory except that J.K. Rowling was the same person as Rita Skeeter.

2. Actually, I don't know if there are a whole lot of scholars who have said the gospels are midrash or pesher. Barbara Thiering thought the gospels were pesher and John Shelby Spong thought the gospels were midrash, but neither of them are New Testament scholars.

Thursday, December 24, 2020

The Latter Day Saint view of grace

A long long time ago, I wrote a series on The Book of Mormon. In Part 17 I address a few things the Book of Mormon had to say on the subject of grace. In the comment section I got into a conversation with a person named Carl who was a Mormon. I tried to get Carl to explain how Mormons defined grace since my criticism of the BOM was based on my own understanding of grace. Eventually, he directed me to the Bible dictionary on the LDS web page where there was an entry on grace. I read it, and then wrote a comment on it. I thought the comment would make a good stand alone blog post, so here's what I said.

Thank you for the link to the Mormon definition of “grace.” I had already gone to yahoo answers before you posted and asked the Mormons there how they defined “grace,” and several of them referred me to that same entry. I’ve read the entry several times now and thought about it to make sure I understand what it’s saying. In some ways, it is similar to my view of grace, but there is some difference. I’ll quote it and then make my own comments.

The main idea of the word is divine means of help or strength, given through the bounteous mercy and love of Jesus Christ.

I do agree that it is because of the love and mercy of Jesus Christ that he bestows his grace on us. But there is an ambiguity in the first part. I could agree that grace helps us and gives us strength, but is there something we have to do before God will help us and strengthen us, or is grace something God gives us freely through no merit of our own? According to Paul, grace is, by definition, something that cannot be earned or merited in any way. He said, “But if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works, otherwise grace is no longer grace.” Grace is a gift, and a gift is, by definition, something that cannot be earned.

It is through the grace of the Lord Jesus, made possible by his atoning sacrifice, that mankind will be raised in immortality, every person receiving his body from the grave in a condition of everlasting life.

I do agree that it is through the grace of Jesus, made possible by the atonement, that people will be raised to eternal life. But not all who are raised are raised to “eternal life.” As Daniel 12:2 says, “And many of those who sleep in the dust of the ground will awake, these to everlasting life, but the others to disgrace and everlasting contempt.” “Eternal life,” in this context, does not appear to mean simply living forever since those who will be raised to everlasting contempt will also live forever. It seems, rather, to signify a certain quality of life. And that also seems to be the sense in which the new testament uses the phrase, “eternal life” (cf. Matthew 25:46, John 3:36, Acts 13:48). Being raised to shame and everlasting contempt hardly seems an act of grace in the sense of divine help or mercy.

It is likewise through the grace of the Lord that individuals, through faith in the atonement of Jesus Christ and repentance of their sins, receive strength and assistance to do good works that they otherwise would not be able to maintain if left to their own means.

I do agree that it is through grace that we receive strength and assistance to do good works that we wouldn’t otherwise be able to do. I do not agree that repentance is a requirement to get such grace. On the contrary, I think the strength and assistance necessary for us to repent also requires grace. It is through grace that we are enabled to repent. Repentance is something that God grants to people (Acts 5:31, Acts 11:18, 2 Timothy 2:25). According to Jesus, we would not even be able to come to him for salvation without the Father enabling us (John 6:44, 65). According to Paul, we were dead in our sins (Ephesians 2:1), but “God, being rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in our transgressions, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved)” (Ephesians 2:4-5). Since repentance requires the grace of God, it cannot be a condition that must be met before God bestows that grace. If it were, we’d all be doomed.

This grace is an enabling power that allows men and women to lay hold on eternal life and exaltation after they have expended their own best efforts.

I agree that it is because of grace that we are able to lay hold on eternal life. But I’m not sure what it means by “enabling power.” If it means we are enabled to live a life that is righteous enough to merit eternal life, of course I couldn’t agree with that. Paul explicitly says that works cannot merit eternal life. You can’t undo a wrong by doing a right. James said, “Whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles in one point, he has become guilty of all” (James 2:10). A law breaker is a law breaker no matter how good they otherwise are, and they deserve to be punished for that violation. So there’s no way that anybody can merit eternal life by doing good works. I’m sure even a Mormon would agree that nobody lives completely without sin even when God enables us to do good works.

I’m not sure what is meant by “after they have expended their own best efforts.” If that means the same thing as “because they have expended their own best efforts,” then again, this would contradict Paul’s understanding of grace in Romans 11:6. According to Paul, none of our efforts can avail us of the grace of God. It is a gift, and a gift, by definition, cannot be earned.

Divine grace is needed by every soul in consequence of the fall of Adam and also because of man’s weaknesses and shortcomings.

I totally agree.

However, grace cannot suffice without total effort on the part of the recipient. Hence the explanation, “It is by grace that we are saved, after all we can do” (2 Ne. 25: 23).

Nobody does all they can do. Nobody exerts “total effort.” If this point of view is true, then grace is insufficient to save anybody. Carl, I want you to be honest with yourself about this. Do you exert total effort to do good at all times? Can you honestly say that you have done all that you can do? If you haven’t, then the Mormon gospel cannot save you.

But I would like to recommend to you the wonderful and liberating gospel of Jesus Christ that Paul taught. It begins with the unfortunate observation that “there is none righteous, not even one; there is none who understands, there is none who seeks for God; all have turned aside, together they have become useless; there is none who does good, there is not even one” (Romans 3:10-12). We are all dead in sins. But, by the grace of God that he bestows on those he loves, we are rescued from our deadness in sin. We are freed from our slavery to sin. We are enabled to come to Christ for salvation. God saves us completely. In doing so, he glorifies himself. The true gospel leaves no room for boasting on our part.

The Mormon gospel leaves plenty of room for boasting. A Mormon can boast that he has, by his own strength, repented of his sins in order to obtain God’s grace. A Mormon that actually has obtained God’s grace (if it’s even possible to do so under the Mormon system), can boast that he exerted all his effort and tried his hardest.

It is truly the grace of Jesus Christ that makes salvation possible.

Again, I totally agree.

This principle is expressed in Jesus’ parable of the vine and the branches (John 15: 1-11). See also John 1: 12-17; Eph. 2: 8-9; Philip. 4: 13; D&C 93: 11-14.

John 15:1-11 says that apart from Jesus, we can do nothing. I would submit that includes repenting, which Mormonism says is necessary to obtain God’s grace.

Ephesians 2:8-9 says that salvation by grace through faith is not a result of works, which explicitly negates the Mormon view that we obtain grace through our best efforts.

I’m not sure how Philippians 4:13 applies. This passage is about how God appoints offices in the church for the equipping of the saints (see the previous verse).

Tuesday, December 22, 2020

Objective morality and burden of proof

Aristotle once said that "not to know of what things one should demand demonstration, and of what one should not, argues want of education." Objective morality strikes me as being one of those things. We shouldn't need to demonstrate that there are objective morals before we're justified in believing them.

I mean think about it. It can't be the case that everything we believe has to be demonstrated because that would lead to an infinite regress. If I say I know P because of Q, then I'd have to say I know Q because of R, and R because of S, ad infinitum.

The only way to know anything at all is if there are some things we know without having to demonstrate them.

And there are plenty of things we seem to know, though it's impossible to demonstrate them. You can't demonstrate that you and the rest of the world didn't just pop into existence five seconds ago complete with memories of a past that never actually happened. You can't demonstrate that the future will resemble the past or that any of the laws and regularities of nature will continue to hold tomorrow. You can't demonstrate that there's a real tangible world that exists independently of your perceptions. You can't demonstrate that there are conscious minds besides your own.

But your inability to demonstrate these things is no reason to doubt them. And I mean seriously doubt them. Sure, you can rationally entertain the possiblity that there's no external world, no other minds, no regularities of nature that will continue tomorrow, and no past. But the mere possibility of something doesn't make it reasonable to believe.

Surely it's more reasonable to affirm whatever presents itself to the mind in a compelling way than it is to deny them. The burden of proof shouldn't be on those who affirm the existence of the external world, but on those who deny it.

I think the same thing is true of morality. We can no more prove morality than we can prove the past, the uniformity of nature, the external world, or other minds. But at the same time, morality presents itself to the mind in a very clear and compelling way.

This is evident when you just think about certain egregious examples of moral evil, like rape, torture, murder, etc. Pick your hot button issue, and be honest with yourself about whether you think those who disagree with you are just different or mistaken. It is wildly counter-intuitive to suppose that it makes no moral difference whether you help somebody or harm them.

To believe in objective morality, one doesn't need proof or demonstration. One only needs to affirm the obvious. It is those who deny the obvious who need to have a demonstration.

Sunday, December 20, 2020

Physicalism, epiphenomenalism, and rationality

Physicalism is the view that as humans, all we are is physical stuff. Everything about us can be reduced to some physical state or process. That includes our mental life.

Epiphenomenalism is the view that the physical can give rise to the mental, but the direction of causation cannot go in the other direction. Mental states or processes cannot bring about or give rise to physical states.

Physicalism entail epiphenomenalism. If you can account for every event in your brain by appeal to the physical properties of your brain without any reference to mental properties, then there is nothing for mental properties to do.

Physical properties are entirely objective and third person. Mental properties are entirely subjective and first person. A third person property cannot be the same thing as a first person property. According to the indiscernibility of identicals, if A and B are the same thing, then whatever property A has, B also has, and vice versa. So if there is anything true about A that is not true about B, or vice versa, then A and B cannot be the same thing. So third person properties cannot be first person properties.

Since the physical activity in our brains can be exhaustively explained in terms of their third person properties, that means there is nothing for the first person properties to do. The third person properties can give rise to first person properties, but those first person properties cannot turn around and have causal influence over the third person properties.

Third person properties can be observed or measured by outsiders. But it is impossible to observe a first person property unless you are the person experiencing it. So, for example, you can apprehend your thoughts directly through introspection, but the best a brain scientist can do is look at your neurons. So if your first person properties actually do have causal influence over your brain, then there would have to be causes happening in your brain that were invisible to the neuroscientist. No amount of looking in your brain can reveal a first person property since only third person properties can be observed by third persons. But if physicalism is true, then all of the causes for any event in your brain would have to be third person causes. The neuroscientist could, in principle, observe all the physical states in your brain and apply the laws of physics to figure out what's going to happen next, and he should be able to do this without any reference to first person properties. That means that if physicalism is true, then epiphenomenalism is true.

There is a serious problem with affirming epiphenomenalism. If you deny that your conscious states affect your behavior, then you cannot appeal to evolution to explain how your cognitive faculties became reliable at producing true beliefs. You might be tempted to say that natural selection favored true beliefs over false beliefs, but if our beliefs don't affect our behavior, then our beliefs are irrelevant to natural selection. So natural selection would have no way to select for reliable belief-producing faculties.

With that being the case, the chances that our belief-producing faculties would be reliable is very small. It would be an unimaginable stroke of luck if they happened to be reliable.

If our belief-producing cognitive faculties are unreliable, then you cannot trust them to tell you that epiphenomenalism is true. So affirming epiphenomenalism undermines its own rational basis. So it's a self-defeating belief. And that means it's an irrational position to hold.

If physicalism entails epiphenomenalism, and if epiphenomenalism is an irrational belief, then to be rational, we must reject physicalism.

But let me take this a step further. Let's say that your beliefs somehow could affect your behavior, even if physicalism is true. If that were the case, then there would still be a problem. The problem is that your mental states could only give rise to your behavior by virtue of their underlying physical causes. If you want to equate the physical states of your brain somehow with your mental states, that would be fine under this scenario, but it wouldn't solve the problem. The reason is because although your mental states would, in that case, have causal influence over your brain states, they wouldn't do so by virtue of their semantic content, but by virtue of their underlying physical properties.

Let's say, for example, that there's some physical state of your brain let's call XYZ. As long as XYZ happens in your brain, then you will have a corresponding desire to drink a Dr. Pepper. So XYZ entails a thought that has intentionality. It's about Dr. Pepper and your desire to have it. But as far as your behavior is concerned, it doesn't matter what your thought is about. All that matters is that it has the necessary physical structure to cause you to drink Dr. Pepper.

Consider a philosophical zombie. A philosophical zombie is a human being that has all the exact same physical manifestations of an ordinary human except that there's nobody behind the wheel. If physicalism were true, then philosophical zombies would be conceivable. That means a philosophical zombie would have brain state XYZ, which would result in drinking Dr. Pepper, but there would be no desire, belief, or conscious state behind it whatsoever.

If XYZ fully explains the behavior of a person by virtue of its physical properties, then that behavior would be exactly the same whether XYZ gave rise to mental states or not. You might say that consciousness is the inevitable consequence of XYZ, and that may be true, but it doesn't matter. The thought experiment doesn't depend on whether mental states are the necessary consequence of physical states. It's only meant to illustrate why, under physicalism, the semantic content of mental states are superfluous.

So even if you deny epiphenomenalism by saying mental state can cause physical states in the brain, and therefore behavior, you would still be stuck with semantic epiphenomenalism--the view that mental states cannot have causal influence by virtue of their semantic content, i.e. what those mental states are about, but only by virtue of their underlying physical properties.

And that leaves you with the same problem. If it doesn't matter what your beliefs are about, as far as behavior is concerned, then it doesn't matter whether your beliefs are true, as far as behavior is concerned. And if it doesn't matter whether your beliefs are true, as far as behavior is concerned, then there is no way for natural selection to select for reliable belief-producing cognitive faculties.

So any way you look at it, physicalism is an irrational point of view. It undermines the necessary preconditions to make any of your beliefs rational. So to be rational, you must reject physicalism, and if you reject physicalism, you should be open to the supernatural.

Friday, December 18, 2020

Is religion irrational?

A person on the internet said that religion is irrational. This was my response:

When I say irrational, I usually have something very specific in mind. An irrational person is a person who openly embraces contradictions. By "openly," I meaning knowingly and willingly. Since none of us are infallible, it must be the case that all of us make mistakes in thinking sometimes. We draw the wrong conclusions about things which results in us holding false beliefs. But the mere holding of a false belief or making a mistake in thinking is not sufficient to say that somebody is irrational. If it were, then all of us would be irrational since none of us are infallible.

There are irrational people, though, and there are irrational worldviews. People who deny the law of excluded middle, for example, are irrational.

There's another class of people who are unreasonable. These are people who stubbornly refuse to follow an argument where it leads. They stick their head in the sand, so to speak. But that's being unreasonable, not irrational.

I get the impression you're using "irrational" in a much more loose way than I am, but I can't tell exactly what you mean by it. Maybe you mean "unreasonable." Or maybe you mean "silly" or "absurd."

But let me point out a few things we disagree about and try to change your view.

First, you appear to define a miracle as a violation of the laws of nature. That's why you find it irrational to believe in miracles. I think there are two mistakes in this argument (besides a misuse of the word, "irrational"). First, I don't think that's what a miracle is. A miracle is an event in the natural world whose cause is not natural. Let me unpack this a little.

According to Newton's law of gravity, there's a force of attraction between any two masses that's directly proportional to the product of their masses and inversely proportional to the square of the distance between them. So if there were a basketball ten feet in the air, there would be a force of attraction between the earth and the basket ball. In other words, the basketball would be pulled toward the earth.

Now, if something were holding it up, like the hand of a basketball player, you wouldn't think that Newton's law had been violated just because the basketball player was preventing the basketball from being pulled to the earth.

Well, a miracle is an effect in the natural world whose cause is not part of the natural world. So instead of a physical basketball player holding the basketball, you might have a God or an angel exerting causal influence on the basketball, preventing it from falling to the earth. Newton's law would not be violated in this case because there is still a force of attraction between the basketball and the earth. It's just that in this case, there's a supernatural being exerting a force in the opposite direction so that the basketball is suspended in the air.

And that's how it is with all miracles. Once a supernatural being initiates a causal chain within the natural world, the natural world accommodates that action according to the laws of nature. The laws of nature are never violated.

Now, if you didn't believe there was a supernatural realm, or that a supernatural being could have causal influence in the world, then it would stand to reason that miracles couldn't happen. So it would be understandable for you to think belief in miracles was unreasonable. But if you use naturalism as a premise in your argument against miracles in order to show that religion is irrational, then you're begging the question against religions. All three Abrahamic religions think there are supernatural beings who can have causal influence in the world. To just assume that these beings don't exist or can't have causal influence in the world in order to "prove" that miracles don't happen in order to prove that Abrahamic religions are irrational, is to beg the question against Abrahamic religions.

One does not have to be religious in order to believe or be justified in believing that there is something beyond the natural realm that has causal influence over the natural realm. Thomas Nagel is famous for being an atheist who thinks naturalism is false. He even has a book out about it. It's called Mind & Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False. Thomas Nagel isn't being irrational. He has good arguments for his view. Alvin Plantinga and C.S. Lewis are both Christians who have made similar arguments against naturalism/materialism.

Now, let me say something about "extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence." This claim is much too ambiguous to be useful. Whether a claim is extraordinary or not depends on what you already believe. The claim that water can become a solid would be an extraordinary claim to somebody who had never seen or heard of ice, for example, but it's not extraordinary to you because ice coheres with what you have already experienced. For somebody who already believes in God, the claim that a miracle happened would be less extraordinary than it would be for somebody who does not believe in God. There is no such thing as an "extraordinary claim" that's extraordinary independently of some background information.

And what does "extraordinary evidence" even mean? Is video evidence extraordinary? For example, suppose I told you that I saw a deer on my way to work today, and to prove it, I showed you a vide o. There's nothing extraordinary about seeing a deer in my part of the world, and I doubt you'd think a cell phone video was all that extraordinary either. But suppose, instead of seeing a deer, I told you that I ran into Kate Beckinsale, and she was so happy to see me that she kissed me. Now, you don't know who I am, so imagine it's a friend of yours. You'd probably think his claim was more extraordinary than merely claiming to have seen a deer. But suppose he showed you a video on his cell phone. Notice that this evidence is exactly the same evidence as the evidence for the deer. If it's not extraordinary in the case of the deer, then it's not extraordinary in the case of Kate Beckinsale, either. So what exactly does "extraordinary evidence" even mean?

A better maxim is that any claim you make requires adequate evidence. You may require more evidence of your friend kissing Kate Beckinsale than you would for your friend to have seen a deer, but that's because the incident with Kate Beckinsale seems, prima facie, less likely given your background information. So whatever evidence is adequate in each case would be different. Your friend's word, alone, would probably be sufficient evidence that he saw a deer, but you might not take his word for having kissed Kate Beckinsale.

In the same way, I can grant that a miracle claim would require more evidence than a mundane claim, such as seeing a deer. But it wouldn't require extraordinary evidence. It would only require adequate evidence. The amount and kind of evidence would depend on how prima facie unlikely you thought the miracle was, and that would depend on your background beliefs.

I have a lot more to say, but this has gotten too long already, so I'll stop here.

Wednesday, December 16, 2020

Almost all of our scientific knowledge is based on appeals to authority

Some people think that any appeal to authority is fallacious and/or unscientific. But that attitude itself is unscientific. The scientific method isn't just about forming hypotheses and testing them. It's also about comparing notes and advancing the state of knowledge through collaboration and communication. That means when people begin a career in science, they don't have to rediscover every scientific finding in their field up to that point. Rather, they build on what went before them.

Nobody can possibly read through all the scientific literature and evaluate all the evidence for themselves. This is especially true if you have regular job that isn't in the sciences. If we had to read all this literature and evaluate all the evidence before we could be justified in having a point of view on a scientific subject, then most of us wouldn't even be justified in believing in evolution, the Big Bang theory, or the standard model of quantum mechanics. We couldn't even be justified in believing that light travels at a constant velocity in all frames of reference, or that it's an electro-magnetic wave. A lot of us would have no justification for believing the earth orbits the sun or that there are other planets orbiting the sun.

Most of us believe these things because we learned them in school. We read them in a book, or a teacher told us. So we believe them on authority.

Even if we did have the time to delve into the peer reviewed scientific literature to discover what the evidence is and how scientists drew their conclusions from the evidence, we would still be basing our beliefs on authority. Since it was not we ourselves who looked through the telescopes/microscopes or performed the experiments or did the calculations, we are relying on the authority of the authors of those papers for that information.

There have been times when scientists have falsified information. So when we look at studies and scientific papers, we don't have direct access to the evidence. What we have is the scientists word on the evidence. So we have to trust in the reliability, honesty, and authority of the scientist even if we base our beliefs on what they say the evidence indicates.

Unless we ourselves make the measurements and observations and perform the experiments, etc., we are basing our scientific beliefs on authorities. This is even true of scientists themselves. Scientists share information, and they rely on that information. So they appeal to each other as authoritative sources on scientific information.

Scientists can be wrong, but when there's a strong consensus on a subject among experts in their field, then that is good reason for a laymen without the same scientific training who doesn't have access to the scientific equipment and samples to affirm those things, too. In fact, most of what most of us know about science is based on authority.

Monday, December 14, 2020

Don't poo poo apologetics

A Christian on the internet poo pooed apologetics on the basis that Jesus didn't engage in debates and arguments. He said 1 Peter 3:15 says that we should give a reason for our beliefs, but we shouldn't try to prove our reasons. This was my response:

Proving something entails giving reasons for why it's true, so I don't understand the dichotomy you're making between "proving" and "giving reasons."

That is unless you think "giving reasons" just entails giving autobiography or reporting your subjective experiences. I would agree that's a case of giving reasons without proving.

But what if the reason I have for believing in God or in the resurrection of Jesus is a combination of evidence and argument? How could I give reasons in that case without, in some sense, proving that existence of God and the resurrection of Jesus?

While you may be right that Jesus never attempted to prove the existence of God, he certainly did engage in debate, and he used arguing to demonstrate the truth of some things he taught. I'll give you an example.

In Matthew 22, some Sadduccees engaged Jesus in debate over whether or not there would be a general resurrection of the dead at the end of the age. Pharisees (as well as Jesus) believed in a general resurrection, but Sadduccees didn't.

The argument the Sadduccees gave Jesus took the form of a reductio ad absurdum. Their argument was that if there is a general resurrection, it creates a conundrum. If a woman were married to one man who died, then another man who died, etc., whose wife would she be at the resurrection? It is absurd to think she could be the wife of multiple men, but general resurrection results in this absurdity.

Jesus defended the general resurrection against this argument in two ways. The first thing he did was dispute one of the premises in the Sadduccees argument--the premise that marriage would even exist after the general resurrection. Jesus said nobody would be married in the general resurrection, which eliminates a premise in the Sadduccees' argument.

The second thing he did was give an argument for why there is a general resurrection. The argument Jesus gave was very interesting. There are passages in the Old Testament that explicitly mention a resurrection, like Daniel 12:2. But Jesus didn't bring those up. The text doesn't tell us why Jesus didn't just appeal to these explicit references to general resurrection, but from what we know about Sadducees by reading Josephus, we can figure out why. It's because the Sadduccees only accepted the five books of law as scripture. They did not accept what the rest of the Jews referred to as "the writings and the prophets" as scripture. So instead of appealing to any of those scriptures, Jesus referred to something the Sadduccees would accept. He said the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob was the God of the living, not the God of the dead, and he argued that this implied a future resurrection of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

So yeah, Jesus did engage in debate, and he used scripture, logic, and reason to make his arguments. So should we.

Saturday, December 12, 2020

The problem of solipsism

From what I understand, there are different kinds of solipsism. One kind says you can't know whether there are other minds besides your own. Another says there aren't other minds besides your own. And another says you can't know whether there's anything at all in existence outside of your own mind.

I don't think solipsism of any variety should be a problem. Hardly any of us actually are solipsists. Some people pretend to be solipsists in an effort to save face when they're losing an argument. It's an act of desperation to resort to solipsism. But some people may be just a little cray cray, and maybe they actually are solipsists. If such people exist, they are few and far between.

But I do think solipsism in its different varieties is worth thinking about because it allows us to test and refine our own epitemologies. If you have an epistemology that logically entails some form of solipsism, you shouldn't for that reason embrace solipsism. Instead, you should reject your epistemology. If the epistemology you subscribe to cannot solve the problem of solipsism or if it gives rise to the problem of solipsism, then that shows a deficiency in your epistemology.

So, why reject an epistemology that generates solipsism rather than just embracing solipsism? The reason is because you canot do so honestly. Unless you are one of those rare nutcases out there, you don't honestly think that you are the only mind that exists. And you don't honestly doubt that there are other minds. And you are not agnostic about whether there are other minds. You believe there are other minds. If you are perfectly honest with yourself about that, there probably isn't an argument in the world that can make you think otherwise. So don't play games. Just comes to grips with what you honestly believe, and try to make sense of it.

What you need to do if you find upon honest reflection that you are fairly confident in the existence of other minds (which I am sure you are), but the epistemology you subscribe to doesn't allow you to have any justification for your belief in other minds, is to rethink your epistemology. Spend some time thinking about what it is that justifies your belief in other minds. It is possible to know something without knowing how you know it, so it is fruitful to think about such things.

And if you want a short cut to help you along the way, check out my post, "Working out an epistemology."

And as a somewhat related correlary, you might also check out, "My moral epistemology."

Thursday, December 10, 2020

Clarification on the subjective/objective dichotomy when talking about morality

There are two different meanings to the objective/subjective dichotomy that sometimes get confused.

One meaning has to do with whether you are being influenced by bias or not. To be objective, in this context, is to come to your conclusions free from prejudice or bias. To be subjective is to allow your feelings, prejudices, and biases to influence your conclusion.

But when it comes to morality, that's not what people mean by the subjective/objective dichotomy. What they mean, rather, is what kind of statements moral claims are. In this context, an objective claim is a claim about an object, and a subjective claim is a claim about the subject. There reason for the confusion is that most often subjective claims are stated as if they were objective claims. Take these two claims for example:

  • The earth is a cube.
  • Mint chocolate chip ice cream tastes great.

The first claim is about the earth. It's an objective claim. I used this example to illustrate the fact that "objective" doesn't mean "true." A claim can be objective and false. What makes it objective is that it's about the object, and not the subject making the claim.

The second claim appears to be objective because it appears to be about mint chocolate chip ice cream. But in reality, it's a subjective claim because it's actually a statement about the tastes and preferences of the subject making the claim. To say that ice cream tastes good is just to say that you like the way ice cream tastes.

One way to tell whether a statement is objective or subjective in this second sense is to ask whether the statement could be false or whether it makes sense to argue with somebody about it. Regardless of what anybody believe, the earth has a particular shape. If you say it's a cube, but it's a sphere, then you're wrong.

But whether ice cream tastes good depends entirely on whether you like it or not. If you say ice cream tastes good because you like it, then you can't be wrong, and it doesn't make any sense for anybody to argue with you about it. Ice cream could taste good to one person but not to another. However, if the earth is a sphere, then it would be a sphere regardless of what anybody thought.

That's why the first statement is an objective claim, and the second is a subjective claim.

So now consider this statement:

  • It is wrong to commit adultery.

The debate between moral objectivism and subjectivism is over the meaning of statements like this. What does this statement refer to? If it refers to the act of adultery itself, then it's an objective statement. If it refers to your preferences, values, etc. (i.e. how you feel about rape), then it's subjective.

If one could be mistaken in their moral point of view, then there is an objective truth about morality. But if morality is merely subjective, then any moral point of view could be true for one person and not for another.

The debate isn't merely about what we mean by our moral statements. It's also over realism vs. non-realism. Realism is the view that some objective moral statements are in fact true. Under subjectivism, no objective moral statements are true, so subjectivism is a kind of moral non-realism.

There is a difference between reality on the one hand and beliefs about reality on the other hand. How you came to your beliefs may entail that your beliefs are subjective under the first meaning I explained above, but there could still be an objective truth to what it is you believe. For example, you may believe your son is innocent of being a bully because of your bias towards your son, in which case your belief is subjective in the first sense. But whether your son is or isn't a bully is part of objective reality. He either is or he isn't.

There are some truths that we know purely by introspection. You can just think about it and come to the realization that the interior angles of any triangle will add up to 180º. That's an objective truth you arrived at by turning your gaze inward.

Morality differs from geometry, though. The reason we're able to know geometrical truths with certainty is because we grasp their necessity. Just by reflecting on it, we can figure out that it's impossible for things to be otherwise. But morality isn't like that. Moral truths aren't necessary truths like math, geometry, and logic.

However, there are several truths we can only know through introspection that aren't necessary truths. Since these aren't necessary truths, it's possible that we could be wrong about them. However, that mere possibility isn't sufficient grounds for doubting them. In fact, it's unreasonable to doubt them, and people who do doubt them find it impossible to live consistently with those doubts.

One example of this knowledge is our knowledge of the past. Strictly speaking, it's possible that we popped into existence five minutes ago, complete with false memories. It's impossible to disprove that. Yet it's far more reasonable to affirm the reality of the past than to deny it.

Another example is the external world. It's possible we're plugged into the matrix, or we're just minds, or just brains being stimulated in such a way as to produce false sensory perceptions. Since all perception happens in the mind, and we can't step outside of our minds, it's possible that perception is only in the mind. But that doesn't make it reasonable to doubt the existence of the world external to our minds.

And there are several other examples I could give you. Well, morality is similar to these kinds of items of knowledge. Morality has several things in common with them.

  • None of these things can be proved.
  • Every mentally healthy person apprehends these things as if they were true and real.
  • It's prima facie unreasonable to deny these things.
  • It's possible that each of these things is false.

Almost any argument you can give against objective morality could just as well apply to any of these other things. For example, people sometimes disagree about morality, which shows that maybe we're not perceiving anything real after all. But people also remember things differently, but that's no reason to deny the existence of the past. The fact that you can be mistaken about morality is no more reason to doubt the existence of morality than the fact that people dream and have hallucinations is a reason to doubt the existence of the external world.

Tuesday, December 08, 2020

Does evolution undermine moral realism?

Evolution, at best, explains how moral beliefs could have arisen without there being an objective reality to morality. But it doesn't follow that there is no objective moral reality just because moral beliefs arose through a process of evolution.

There are two problems with dismissing the reality of morality on the basis that moral beliefs arose through evolution. Actually, there are three, but I'm just going to mention two.

The first problem is that it undermines all of the other things we know in the same way. There are some beliefs that are just naturally occurring. Everybody assumes, from as early as they can think and perceive, that what they are experiencing with their sensory organs corresponds to a real external world. This belief is built into us, and it's so automatic that people don't even think about it unless they take an interest in philosophy. This is a naturally occurring belief that is hardwired into our brains, and since our brains became the way they are through evolution, it follows that this belief came by way of evolution. So if evolution undermines morality, then it undermines the existence of the external world for the same reason. And it undermines several other basic things we know.

Everything else we know is built on the foundation of the beliefs and assumptions that are hard wired into our brains. Most of what we know can be traced back to sensory perceptions, memory, and inductive reasoning from experience. If you conclude that this knowledge is unreliable, then it undermines pretty much everything you claim to know. In fact, it undermines your argument against morality since that argument is based on observations you made with your sensory perceptions, your memory of having made those observations, and your knowledge of logical inferrence. So the argument is self-refuting.

The second problem is that it commits the genetic fallacy. The genetic fallacy is when you say that some proposition is false because belief in that proposition arose in an unreliable way. For example, suppose I came to believe the earth was round because I had a dream that the earth was a big baseball, and since baseballs are round, the earth must be round. That is an unreliable way of arriving at the truth of the shape of the earth, but that doesn't mean the belief is false. In the same way, even if evolution is responsible for how we came to have moral beliefs, it wouldn't follow that those beliefs are false.

Sunday, December 06, 2020

Is God to blame for the fall?

Somebody on the internet compared God planting the tree of knowledge of good and evil in the garden with Adam and Eve to a parent leaving a loaded gun on a table and telling their 4 year old not to touch it. But then the four year old picked it up and shot his brother. Surely, we'd blame the parent, not the four year old since the four year old didn't know better. In the same way, God is to blame for the fall, not Adam and Eve. God should not hold mankind accountable when it was all God's fault.

In my response, I didn't go into the genre of Genesis and whether the story is literal, historical, or whatever. I just took the story at face value and made my argument from there. Here's what I said.

I do think God is responsible for the fall. What is it you are claiming that Adam and Eve didn't know when they ate the fruit? They knew the fruit existed, and they knew God had forbidden them to eat it. In fact, that's the first thing they pointed out when the snake suggested they eat it. So they knew they were doing something God had forbidden. Ignorance was not an excuse.

In the case of the four year old, yes, you would carry some blame for leaving the gun with the 4 year old. But suppose you gave a gun to a 21 year old, and the 21 year old shot his brother. In that case, the 21 year old would be to blame. Who carries what blame depends on several factors.

If you know that the 21 year old wants to kill his brother, and you give him the gun, then you are responsible. But the fact that you are responsible doesn't mean the 21 year old is not responsible. He is responsible. You both are.

If you give a gun to a 4 year old, and he shoots his brother, you are definitely responsible. But is the 4 year old responsible, too? He may be. A person who is four years does have a rudimentary understanding that they should obey their parents. If the four year old is told to put the candy down, but he doesn't do it, then the parents has the right to punish the four year old. So if the parent tells the four year old not to touch the gun, and the four year old does it anyway, then the four year old is responsible. You might could say the four year old does not carry the same degree of guilt as the 21 year old would in the same circumstance, but at best that's only diminished capacity.

Adam and Eve did not have diminished capacity in that sense. They were fully aware that God had forbidden them to eat the fruit, and up until they met the snake, that's the reason they hadn't eaten it. And having met the snake, that's why they were initially reluctant to eat the fruit. So they knew good and well not to eat the fruit. Diminished capacity was not an excuse. They were blamable.

Now when it comes to whether God is responsible or not, there are two senses in which God is responsible in the case of Adam and Eve. The first is that God knew good and well what was going to happen, but he set things up in such a way that they could. He didn't hide the tree. He didn't put a hedge around it. He didn't keep the snake out of the garden, etc. He knew that if he made things just the way he made them that Adam and Eve would eat the fruit. So he is responsible in that sense.

But I would say he's responsible in a stronger sense. God actually intended Adam and Eve to eat the fruit. He meant for it to happen. He had a purpose in it.

That raises the question of whether God was guilty in the same sense that Adam and Eve were. In that case I would say no. While God is responsible in the sense that the event happened because of God's decree, he is not responsible in the sense of being guilty for a wrong. Adam and Eve were guilty because they did what God told them not to do. But nobody told God not to put them in that situation. Moreover, whether God is guilty or innocent depends on whether or not God had some morally justifiable reason for arranging the fall.

The ultimate reason for why God does anything is for his name's sake or for his own glory. God's glory consists of everything that is true about him. A thing's glory is what makes it shine. For example I recently saw this moon lamp that was really cool. It looked like the actual moon with detailed craters and everything. But imagine if somebody owned that lamp and never plugged it in. The glory of the lamp is in its ability to resemble the moon. But if nobody ever plugged it in, it would not shine. It's glory would not be manifested or expressed. So the whole reason God created everything was for the sake of his glory. Creation is an expression of everything that's true about God--all his attributes. That's what makes God shine.

God's attributes include aspects of his character that could only be expressed or realized if there is such a thing as sin and evil. For example, if there's no sin, then there would be no justice or mercy. God is glorified in the redemption of sinful people, and he is also glorified in the punishment of sinful people. Both require the existence of sinful people. So God had a purpose in there being sinful people.

Now, that raises the question of whether God is morally justified in making his own glory his final end in everything he does. I would answer that yes, he is, and the reason is because God is the greatest, most beautiful, magnificient, sublime, wonderful being possible. Everything about him contributes to his excellence, and there isn't anything in him that lacks excellence. With that being the case, there is no greater good than the full expression of the glory of God. If God himself is perfectly good, then that entails that God would have a desire to see himself glorified. If God were to diminish the expression of his own glory, then that would undermine his perfect goodness. That is also why God requires worship. It isn't because he's an egomaniac. Rather, it's because the love of what is good is itself good, and since God himself is the greatest possible good, then the love and worship of God is morally required.

If God, in pursuit of his own glorification, punished innocent people, then that would be a good reason to question his morality. But God doesn't do that. Everybody God punishes is guilty of sin. They actually deserve to be punished. So God is doing them no wrong.

You might say, though, that people are not responsible for their sins as long as God decreed their sins. If God arranged the world in such a way as to ensure that people would commit sins, then they are not responsible. So God is unjust in punishing people who he intended to be sinners.

But I don't think that's true, but this post has probably gone on a lot longer than it should have, so I'll stop here.

Friday, December 04, 2020

The main problem with the Kalam Cosmological Argument

Most of the objections people raise to the Kalam Cosmological Argument (KCA) are bad objections, but there are two good ones. One is that the KCA only works on an A theory of time, but the B theory of time is true. I addressed that in another post. That is the weaker of the two good arguments because (1) the B theory may not be true, and (2) the KCA might work even on a B theory. The best argument against the KCA is that since the beginning of the universe is the beginning of time, there couldn't have been a state of affairs prior to the beginning of the universe in which God existed but the universe did not, and if there was no such state, then it can't be the case that God brought the universe into existence.

I've raised this objection with a lot of Christian apologists and haven't received any satisfactory answers. Most of them don't even seem to understand the problem. Some of them think the problem is solved by appeal to "simultaneous causation." It's not, though. Simultaneous caustion does explain how the universe can have a cause that does not have to precede the beginning of the universe in time, but it doesn't explain how the universe could have come into existence from a state of non-existence. It doesn't explain how there could've been a state of affairs in the real world in which God exists but the universe doesn't.

Other people think the problem can be solved by postulating a metaphysical time that exists independnetly of (and prior to) physical time. This doesn't solve the problem either. It just post-pones it. The arguments for a beginning of physical time apply just as well to metaphysical time, so metaphysical time would also have to have a beginning, and the same problem would arise. Besides that, metaphysical time is ad hoc. It's cooked up to salvage the KCA, but it's not a consequence or conclusion one can draw from the KCA.

This is such a formiddable objection that there have been times when I've almost concluded that the KCA is unsound. The alternative is pretty weird, though. We'd have this inexplicable earliest moment of time without any explanation. So I have thought long and hard on this problem. Although I'm not 100% satisfied that I've solved it, I am mostly satisfied. I had planned to wrestle with this some more until I really had it nailed down before sharing it. I was going to include it in my book. But I haven't got it completely resolved yet, and maybe I never will. But I wanted to share my thoughts anyway.

Since it's been a real struggle in past conversations I've had on this topic to explain myself in a way that avoids misunderstandings, I must ask the reader to give extra care in reading what I have to say so as to understand what I'm saying. I apologize if I'm not being perfectly clear, but I am trying, and I ask that you try as well to understand me.

The A and B theories of time

In an earlier post, I explained how the KCA, as Craig defends it, assumes an A theory of time, but how it might work on a B theory of time. Well, the objection I'm raising in this post only applies to an A theory of time. On a B theory of time, the problem doesn't come up since the universe doesn't come into existence in the usual sense and because God doesn't fall on the time line at all. I explained in an earlier post that I was undecided on the A and B theories of time, but for the sake of the present post, I'm just going to be assuming an A theory of time since that's the only context in which this objection makes sense.

Also, I'm not going to argue that the universe has a finite past in this post. I'm going to take that as a given. In a lot of the apologetic material I've read on the KCA, apologists argue for a finite past and think that's enough to establish that the universe came into being. It's not, though. In Craig's argument, both God and the universe have a finite past, but the universe began to exist and God didn't, so having a finite past is not sufficient to say that something came into existence. Craig recognizes this, too. He said, "Strictly speaking none of those arguments [the arguments for a finite past] reached the conclusion, 'Therefore, time began to exist'" (Time and Eternity, p. 233).

William Lane Craig

The only place I've ever seen WLC address this objection is in his book, Time and Eternity. He writes on p. 233,

"But now we are confronted with an extremely bizarre situation. God exists in time. Time had a beginning. God did not have a beginning. How can these three statements be reconciled? If time began to exist--say, for simplicity's sake, at the Big Bang-- then in some difficult-to-articulate sense God must exist beyond the Big Bang, alone without the universe. He must be changeless in such a state; otherwise time would exist. And yet this state, strictly speaking, cannot exist before the Big Bang in a temporal sense, since time had a beginning. God must be causally, but not temporally, prior to the Big Bang. With the creation of the universe, time began, and God entered into time at the moment of creation by virtue of His real relations with the created order. It follows that God must therefore be timeless without the universe and temporal with the universe.

Now this conclusion is startling and not a little odd. For on such a view, there seem to be two phases of God's life, a timeless phase and a temporal phase, and the timeless phase seems to have existed earlier than the temporal phase. But this is logically incoherent, since to stand in a relation of earlier than is by all accounts to be temporal.

One way Craig attempts to deal with this problem is by suggesting, "But why could there not be two phases of God's life, one timeless and one temporal, which are not related to each other as earlier and later?" I find that hard to wrap my head around. If God exists timelessly without the universe in one phase, and temporally with the universe in another phase, then the timeless phase had to exist when the temporal phase did not. They can't both exist simultaneously. Maybe this is just a shortcoming of my brain that I can't make sense of Craig's suggestion.

He goes on a couple of paragraphs later to give a thought experiment in which God exists timelessly, then initiates time. But this thought experiment seems to place God at least at the beginning of time if not prior to the beginning of time. Anyway, the "conceivability thought experiment" below was inspired by Craig's thought experiment, and while it does make the scenario conceivable, it leaves some things unexplained.

Black hole analogy

According to general relativity, time slows down in the presence of gravity. The stronger the gravity, the slower the time. And supposedly time stops when you reach the event horizon (or is it the singularity?) of a black hole. So a black hole contains a state of timelessness. And supposedly, a black hole can dissolve by emitting Hawking radiation. If that's the case, then you'd have a timeless state giving rise to or coming before a temporal state. And if that's possible, then it's just as possible for God to have brought the universe into existience from a state of timelessness.

The only problem with this analogy is that time only comes to a stand still from the point of view of outside observers, and it may be that it approaches a stand still but never actually reaches it. If you were to fall into a black hole and not die, time wouldn't slow down from your point of view. You would never reach a state of timelessness. You'd just fall through the event horizon like nothing had happened. So I don't think the black hole analogy really solves the problem.


Imagine a world in which God exists but never brings anything into existence, including time. In a world like that, God would exist in a state of timelessness. He would have no beginning or end. He wouldn't come into existence or go out of existence. There would be no state affairs in a world like that in which God doesn't exist.

If that is conceivable, then it shouldn't be hard to conceive of a world that's just like that except that God initiates time. The clock starts. I have no trouble conceiving of that.

But does this mean that God existed before time? This thought experiment doesn't really solve that problem, but since it is conceivable to me, it does help to alleviate the difficulty I have with the big objection.


A number line is a one dimensional object that contains points, which have no dimension. Now, consider the point, x=0. What is the first point after that? Well, you can't represent that with a decimal or a fraction. No matter what decimal or fraction you think of, there will be a point between 0 and that number. Since x=0 is a point, and since points have no extension along the number line, the very next point is infinitesimally close to x=0. If you think about it, there's barely a distinction between the two. How can there be? If x=0 has no extension along the number line, then the very next point will practically be at x=0.

There is a way to represent this, though. In calculus, we used to talk about intervals on a number line. There were open intervals and closed intervals. In either case, the interval would be bounded on two sides but a number. If it's a closed interval, then it includes the number. If it's an open interval, then it includes everything between the numbers, but not the numbers themselves. In either case, the numbers serve as boundaries to the interval. It's possible to have an interval that is open on one end and closed on the other. It would be written like this:

(-1, 5]
-1 < x =< 5

This notation indicates an interval between -1 and 5 that includes 5 but excludes -1. If God was a timeless being who started time, then you could distinguish the existence of God and the existence of the universe on a timeline by using interval notation. It would look like this:

the universe:
(0, infinity) or 0 < x < infinity

[0, infinity) or 0 =< x < infinity

So God would be the closed interval from zero to infinite, and the universe would be the open interval from zero to infinity. T=0 would be the past boundary of time. God would exist at t>=0, and the universe would exist at every t>0.


Imagine an object sitting on a line at x=0. It's at rest, so it's velocity is zero. Now, imagine it begins to move in the positive direction. If you think carefully about this situation, you'll be able to see that it could not have been in motion at x=0. It's motion could only be at every x>0. The reason is because as long as it is at x=0, it hasn't moved. If it moves at all, it will no longer be at x=0. So it's entire location is the closed interval from zero on, and its motion is the open interval from zero on. X=0 is a boundary.

Just as the object did not have to be in motion at x=0 in order to have left x=0, so also the universe does not have to be temporal at t=0 in order to have left t=0. But that also means it's possible for God to have existed timelessly at t=0, then brought the univrse into being. In that case, the universe would exist at every t>0. You can think of the beginning of time as a timeless boundary from which time begins. Time doesn't flow at the boundary, but it flows from the boundary.

You might imagine a scenario in which the universe exists timelessly at t=0, then becomes temporal. In that case, the universe didn't come into being even though it has a finite past. But if the universe did not exist in a timeless state, and if the earliest moment of its existence was temporal, then it would appear to have come into being. If there was no material that existed in a timeless state from which the universe was made, then the universe came into being out of nothing. God could have existed in the timeless state and been the cause of the universe coming into being.

So whether the universe came into being or not depends on whether its earliest extreme was temporal or not. If it became temporal from an a-temporal state, then it did not come into being. But if it's always been temporal, then it did come into being.

Well, it's not possible for matter and energy to exist in a state of timelessness. That means the earliest extreme of the universe was temporal, and that means the universe came into being. I'll say more about this in a minute.


You can think of the past and the future as containing duration. They are intervals of time. But the present is not an interval, and it has no duration. It is the boundary between the past and the future. If you represented it on a time line, the present would be a point, while the past would be everything before that point, and the future would be everything after that point. But the present is the only place we live. If you can imagine an illustration representing the past, present, and future, just remove the past, and the present represents the atemporal cause of the whole duration that happens next.


Imagine a situation in which time has an end. I’m not talking about the heat death of the universe or anything like that. I’m asking you to imagine that time comes to an end tomorrow. What would it be like once we reached that farthest boundary of future time? There’s one of two ways we could think about it.

On the one hand, we could imagine people walking about and all of a sudden freezing permanently. In that case, we would still exist, but we would be in a state of timelessness. That’s how it would be at the future boundary of time.

On the other hand, we could imagine that when we reach time’s end that we cease to exist. Rather than freezing in our tracks, we poof out of existence. In that case, the future boundary of time would be nothingness.

As far as I can tell, there doesn’t seem to be a third option. Either we freeze and exist timelessly because time has stopped, or we poof out of existence altogether and nothing temporal exists.

Well, if you change the direction of time in this thought experiment you get what we have in reality—a beginning of time. And again, there are two possibilities—either physical things once existed in a state of timelessness, then became temporal, or else physical things came into existence from nothing at the beginning of time. If there’s no third option on the supposition that time has an end, then there’s no third option on the supposition that time had a beginning either.

After learning how subatomic particles and quantum fields work, I realized it’s not possible for matter and energy to exist in a state of timelessness. An electron can’t simply freeze. Quantum fields cannot stop having some vibrational energy. Subatomic particles and fields exist as waves, and waves are in motion. They cannot be timeless because that would entail their non-existence.

I don’t want to get too technical, but there are two other reasons for why physical stuff can’t be timeless. One is because of the Heisenberg uncertainty principle. The other is because of the third law of thermodynamics.


Consider a situation in which time stops then starts again. What would happen to us? It’s tempting to think that we’d just freeze, then unfreeze. There have been movies and TV shows based on this theme. Usually, there’s somebody else who is not affected. While everybody else freezes, that one person continues to move in their own time. But if you think about it, if you were one of the people who froze when time stopped, then unfroze when time started again, you wouldn’t know that anything had happened.

But is that possible? I would say no. An atom couldn’t exist in a state of timelessness since the structure of an atom depends on the electrons or electron clouds being in motion. Without a wave function, the electron could be no more than a point particle, but that would destroy the structure of the atom. Since atoms couldn’t exist in a state of timelessness, neither could we. As soon as time stopped, we’d cease to exist.

Let’s say that time stops at exactly noon. Then it starts again. And let’s suppose, hypothetically, that once time starts again, all the physical things that existed earlier come back into existence. Now we’ve got a situation in which physical things exist at every moment before and after noon, but they don’t exist in the instantaneous moment of noon. But does that mean there’s a gap between the “before” and the “after”? Think about that. Time reaches a certain point and stops. Then it starts again. The moment at which it stops is an instantaneous moment. It contains no duration at all. If there is no duration between the “before” and the “after,” then is there a sense in which the “before” and “after” touch? Is the moment at which time stops the same moment as the moment in which is starts again? For there to be any kind of continuity, that would have to be the case. Now remove, conceptually, the “before,” and you are left with what I claim we have at the beginning of the universe. You have an instantaneous moment of timelessness at the beginning of time. It isn’t before time. Rather, it’s the earliest extreme of time. It’s the boundary of time in the past direction.

Some final thoughts

Of all these thought experiments, the one that resonates with me the most is the thought experiment concerning the end of time.

I'm sure there are other thought experiments I could come up with. Some of them start sounding the same after a while. But this is as far as I've come. Some of these thought experiments make sense of God existing in an atemporal state, then bringing the universe into existence, but they only make it seem possible. Other thought experiments go further. They shows that if the earliest extreme of the universe is temporal, then the universe came into being. And since it's impossible for physical things to exist in a state of timelessness, then the universe did come into being. So God brought the universe into being out of nothing. Whether we should think of God's timless state without the universe as being "before time," or "a boundary of time" or whatever, I'm not 100% sure, but however we characterize it, it seems not only possible but likely.

You might wonder why I've thought so much about this. Why expend so much mental energy trying to salvage the KCA? Well, it isn't just because I'd like the argument to be sound, though I would. It's because the alternative strikes me as being even more problematic than God existing timelessly without the universe "before" bringing the unvierse into being. If God did not bring the universe into being from a state of timelessness, then we'd have a really weird situation in which there's this beginning of time with no explanation. If the universe was timeless, then became temporal (through the big bang or whatever), it wouldn't seem as weird (though there is a good argument against that possibiilty). But if the earliest extreme of the universe is a situation in which the clock is already running, that seems to require a cause, and that cause must be timeless. So there must be some way to make sense of it. I am mostly satisfied that the KCA is sound, but I'm just not as certain as I once was.