Tuesday, March 31, 2020

What is an atheistic worldview?

I've heard a lot of atheists say that atheism is not a worldview because atheism doesn't make any claims about the world. Atheism is only a lack of belief in God, which is not a positive claim.

While I'm perfectly happy to accept the definition of atheism as "lack of belief in God," I still think it's meaningful to speak of an "atheistic worldview." It seems to me that any worldview that lacks a God is an atheistic worldview. I would agree with atheists that there's no such thing as the atheistic worldview since an atheist might be a naturalist, an idealist, a pan-psychist, and even a substance dualist. There's not a whole lot you can tell about a person's worldview just because it doesn't include a god. Still, if a person has a worldview, and that worldview does not contain a god, then I would call that an atheistic worldview.

Since many atheist say that they aren't making positive claims about the world by virtue of being atheists, there can't be an atheistic worldview in the sense of being a worldview predicated on the non-existence of God. I'm not sure I agree with that. Here's an analogy. If you remove sunlight, things will get dark and cold. So a world with sunlight is different than a world without sunlight. Lack of sunlight doesn't positively cause anything since there's nothing to do the causing. But there is still a sense in which lack of sunlight makes a difference to how things are. In the same way, it seems to me there are consequences to there not being a God, and those consequences can inform a person's worldview.

I don't think, for example, that there could be objective moral obligations if there were no God. A lot of atheists agree with me about that. They don't believe there are any objective moral obligations. Whether there are objective moral obligations are not is certainly something relevant to a worldview. So it seems to me that any consequence of there not being a God would amount to something an atheist ought to affirm even if they don't affirm anything about the existence or non-existence of God. If God is lacking in their worldview, then their worldview doesn't contain a God, and if their worldview doesn't contain a God, then they should affirm whatever the consequences of how reality would be if there were no God.

There's still room for disagreement about what those consequences would be, of course. Some atheists don't think there are any consequences regarding morality either because they don't think objective morality requires God, or they don't think God would be sufficient for objective morality even if there were a God. Nevertheless, it seems like almost anybody could agree that there are some consequences to there not being a God. With that being the case, maybe we could say that an atheistic worldview is something a little more robust than simply a worldview that lacks a God. We could possibly make some positive claims about that worldview.

One way an atheist might work out such a worldview is to think about what difference it would make to reality whether there were a God or not. I suppose if the atheist couldn't think of anything, then he wouldn't be able to make any positive claims about reality just by virtue there not being a God in their worldview.

Christian apologists, on the other hand, can attempt to argue that there are entailments to there not being a God in a similar way that they might argue that there are entailments to there not being a sun. If an atheist says they lack a God in their worldview, but then they either affirm or deny the logical consequences of there being a world without God, then Christians can accuse them of being inconsistent. Maybe atheists don't realize they are being inconsistent, or maybe they just disagree with the Christian about what the logical consequences are to a world without God. But that would be where the debate would lie.

That seems to be the strategy of the presuppositionalists. They believe things like logic, math, minds, morality, laws of nature, etc. would not exist if God didn't exist, and since atheists affirm most of those things while not believing in God, they are being inconsistent. The strategy then becomes trying to get atheists to realize it so they'll either affirm the existence of God or face being irrational. Atheists, on the other hand, can respond by either denying that God is necessary for these things, or by biting the bullet and admitting that logic, morality, etc. aren't real.

I really think this dispute about whether or not atheism is a worldview or whether there's such a thing as an atheistic worldview boils down to semantics. Usually when I'm arguing with somebody, and I realize we're just arguing over the meaning of a word or phrase, I try to avoid using the word altogether. I try to get the other person to talk about the substance rather than the word.

Not long ago, I had a conversation with an atheist, and I was trying to find out what he believed about God. I was just trying to find out whether he had any opinion at all on whether or not God existed. Instead of answering my question, he just kept reminding me of what the definition of atheism was. I finally told him I didn't care about the definition of atheism. I just wanted to know what he thought. Was he 50/50 on the existence of God, or did he think there was no God? Telling me he's an atheist and that atheism is a "lack of belief in God" doesn't answer that question. It was the substance of what he thought that I was interested in, not the meaning of the label he placed on himself. Arguments over the meaning of words are just distractions.

Thursday, March 19, 2020

Does Paul affirm libertarian free will?

Compatibilists like myself claim that all of our intentional actions are determined by antecedent desires, motives, preferences, inclinations, etc. It is a form of determinism, but it differs from hard determinism. In hard determinism, our actions are determined by blind mechanical cause and effect. It's just initial conditions combined with the laws of nature. But in soft determinism, our mental states are the immediate basis or reason for our actions. We do things on purpose because we have reasons or motives or a desire or preference.

According to this view, your actions are determined by the prevailing desire or motive you had at the moment of choice. This means that you could have lots of desires pulling you in every direction, but the net effect is some prevailing desire in some direction. So, for example, if you're a conflicted diabetic faced with chocolate cake, you might have a desire to eat the cake on the one hand because you know it will taste good, but you might have a desire to reject the cake on the other hand because you know it will make you sick. What determines your choice is which desire is greater.

Some people think Paul refuted this view in Romans 7:14-20.

We know that the law is spiritual; but I am unspiritual, sold as a slave to sin. I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do. And if I do what I do not want to do, I agree that the law is good. As it is, it is no longer I myself who do it, but it is sin living in me. For I know that good itself does not dwell in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do--this I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it.

The argument is that Paul has a desire to do good, but instead he finds himself doing what's not good, and this supposedly shows that one can act contrary to their desires.

But Paul isn't undermining compatibilism here, and he's not affirming libertarian free will. It isn't because Paul has libertarian free will that he fails to do the good he wants to do. It's because he has overriding sinful desires from his sinful nature. It is these sinful desires that are sometimes stronger than his desire to do good, and that's what results in sin. This is all consistent with compatibilism.

Paul attempts to make a distinction between himself and the sin that lives in him by saying, "it is no longer I myself who do it, but it is sin living in me." But this is just a manner of speaking. He isn't speaking literally here. The sinful desires you have in you are your sinful desires. They are there because of your sinful nature. So if we are going to speak literally, when we sin, it is us who is doing the sin. Paul isn't claiming to be a puppet on a string with involuntary sinful behavior. Sin is always voluntary.

James explained sin this way: "But each one is tempted when he is carried away and enticed by his own lust. Then when lust has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and when sin is accomplished, it brings forth death" (James 1:14-15). So it is our own sinful desires that give birth to our sinful behavior. If Paul were speaking literally when distinguishing himself from his sin, he'd be contradicting James.

If Paul were teaching libertarian free will, he wouldn't have pointed to "sin living in me" or his "sinful nature" to explain acting contrary to his desires. Under libertarian freedom, the reason one can act contrary to their desires is because their desires are not sufficient to determine their behavior. That means he could have spontaneously acted contrary to his desires without anything else pulling him in a different direction. He could've acted contrary to his desires for no reason at all. But instead, notice what he says, "For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out." It isn't the case that Paul freely chooses not to carry out his desires. He says he cannot carry out his desires. That means he isn't acting freely in the libertarian sense at all. If he were acting freely in the libertarian sense, then he could choose to sin or not sin.

Being a compatibilist doesn't mean you never act contrary to your desires. It means you never act contrary to your prevailing desires. You can have lots of conflicting desires, but it's the net effect that determines your behavior. So Paul is not affirming libertarian free will in Romans 7:14-20, and he is not negating compatibilism.

Tuesday, March 10, 2020

Battle of intuitions: ex nihilo nihil fit

Not everything we know or believe can be known or believed on the basis of other things we know or believe. The reason is because that would lead to an infinite regress, which is impossible for any mortal to complete. So there must be some items of knowledge or beliefs that sit at the foundation of our epistemology--things we just kind of see are true. They can be things like, "I'm thinking of the number three," which are incorrigible since one has direct and immediate access to the content of their own mental states, or it can be things like, "It's impossible for something to create itself since that would require it to exist before it existed," which we just have a rational intuition about. We can just see that it's true by thinking about it.

But not everything is obvious to everybody. While it might be obvious to everybody that 2 + 2 = 4, it may not be obvious to everybody that the interior angles of any triangle in flat Euclidean space add up to 180 degrees. Some people can see it more clearly than other people, maybe because they're just smarter, or their brains are more optimal or something. After all, it requires slightly more thought to see that 5 + 7 = 12 than it does to see that 2 + 2 = 4 even though they are equally necessary.

Since these kinds of truths can only be known by rational intuition, if two people have a disagreement about them, it's nearly impossible for them to argue with each other about it. The only way is to use illustrations and analogies to try to get the other person to "see" it. But that often fails.

I was thinking about that this morning in the context of the principle that "out of nothing, nothing comes." This principle, or something very much like it, pops up in various places throughout the history of philosophy and outside of philosophy, too. A few years ago, I read On the Nature of Things by Lucretius. Lucretius believed that it was impossible for anything to come into being out of nothing under any circumstances. Christians, like Jonathan Edwards and William Lane Craig, don't go that far. Instead, they think it's impossible for anything to spontaneously come into being out of nothing without a cause or reason. Lucretius didn't think it was even possible for something to to be caused to come into being out of nothing.

This morning, a guy on reddit said he thought it was logically impossible for something to come into being out of nothing, and since the impossibility is logical, and omnipotence doesn't include the ability to do the logically impossible, it follows that not even God could have brought the universe into being out of nothing. Kathleen King and Lynn Atwater made the same kind of argument in their video, "God is impossible: a final proof". Lucretius would probably have agreed with them.

When a person rationally "sees" something with absolute clarity, it may not be possible to persuade them otherwise. There are some things I see with absolute clarity. I can see with absolute clarity that if two claims contradict each other, they can't both be true at the same time and in the same sense. I had a philosophy teacher in college who disagreed with me, and there are lot of people who are smarter than me who think I'm wrong. But that doesn't shake my belief in the slightest. I just think they're nuts or blind or something. The fact that they can't see it doesn't undermine my belief in the law of non-contradiction any more than a blind person's lack of sight undermines my belief in color. There is probably nothing that could ever cause me to change my mind about the law of non-contradiction since I see the necessity of it with absolute clarity by the use of my rational intuition.

While it is clear to me that the impossibility of contradictory statements being true is a logical impossibility, it isn't clear to me that "something from nothing" is a logical impossibility. It strikes me as being more of a metaphysical impossibility. The reason is because while I can see no logical contradiction involved in the supposition that something comes into being out of nothing (whether caused or not), it still strikes me as being impossible for it to happen spontaneously without a cause or reason. It does not strike me as being impossible for an all-powerful God to bring something into being out of nothing, though. I don't see that it would involve God doing something that's logically impossible. It does strike me as being an unusual power, but not an impossible power. There was a time when I suspected we all create energy out of nothing with our minds, which was how I resolved the interaction problem in substance dualism. I'm not quite as persuaded by that as I used to be, though.

Jonathan Edwards and Bill Craig both use thought experiments to try to get their readers to see that it's impossible for something to spontaneously pop into being out of nothing. These thought experiments have limited value, though. Either they fail to awaken a person's rational intuitions, causing them to "see," or else they are less obvious than what they are meant to demonstrate, in which case they are useless. That's not to say they never work, though.

Once a person has exhausted whatever thought experiments can be made to cause another person's intuitions to rise to the surface, where can they go? There are three views on the question of creation ex-nihilo: (1) those who think it's absolutely impossible under any circumstances, (2) those who think it's possible with a cause, but impossible without a cause, and (3) those who think it's possible to happen spontaneously without a cause. It may be that these three groups are at an impasse since there is nothing they can really point to except their own rational intuitions which nobody has access to except the individuals themselves. So there may be nothing we can do but shrug our shoulders.

The fact that some arguments for God rest on premises that are known by intuition is both a strength and a weakness. It's a strength because the things we know by intuition are some of the most certain things it's possible to know. The law of non-contradiction is one of the most certain things we can know. We can know with absolute certainty that when we run up against a genuine contradiction that we have uncovered an error of some sort. The intuition that it's impossible for something to spontaneously pop into being uncaused out of nothing makes the Kalam cosmological argument nearly1 irrefutable for people who have this intuition. But for people who lack this intuition, the Kalam cosmological argument is easy to dismiss. And they can simply place the burden of proof on anybody who asserts it. Since nobody can meet that burden of proof, the denier is perfectly within their epistemic rights in rejecting the argument. That's the weakness in having an argument that rests on rational intuition.


1. It can be refuted by attacking the second premise--that the universe came into being out of nothing.

Monday, March 09, 2020

Debate: Greg Koukl vs. John Baker, "Do moral truths exist?"

If you haven't seen this debate, you should check it out on YouTube.

There's an earlier one Greg Koukl did on the same topic with Sabina Magliocco that's also worth checking out, but you have to buy it.

Greg is one of the most clear communicators in Christian apologetics, and I love listening to him.