Sunday, August 24, 2008

Atheism And The Problem Of Evil (An Illustration)

The Problem of Evil is not only a problem the theist must tackle, it also has implications for the atheist. In fact, it is one implication in particular, which instantly makes the atheist position suspect, and which, to a theist, disqualifies it as a ground from which one can even raise the question. The atheist holds a position that is, unfortunately, sub-human in regards to the problem. He says, basically, the problem exists so I will simply say good and evil don't really exist, thus it is no problem. He'll go on to say, of course, that there are moral atheists, that they personally think this action is right and that action wrong; but by saying they "personally think" it right or wrong they've relegated the rightness or wrongness of the action to mere preference, not to something that is really right and wrong for everyone. The logic of it looks like this: "I feel killing children is wrong, but it is not really wrong."

The logical conclusion is absurd in itself, at least if one lives according to what is most valuable in life. Here's an illustration:

Little Bobby atheist: "Mommy, we read in school today about the holocaust. I felt sick to my stomach."

Mommy atheist: "Yes Bobby, sometimes what humans do to other humans makes us feel that way."

LBA: "Well, why do I feel that way?"

MA: "Because you don't want that done to you."

LBA: "Not because it's wrong?"

MA: "Right and wrong are dead concepts, the thought you have is nothing but the rotten stench of a dead God which is finally wafting from our culture."

LBA: "But I feel it's wrong."

MA: "You may feel it's wrong, that's ok, but it is not wrong."

LBA: "Do you feel it's wrong, mommy?"

MA: "Yes, but I know it's not."

LBA: "Then it's really not, even though I feel it is?"

MA: "Well, yes."

LBA: "Are these feelings good to have?"

MA: "Yes, they help us get along in society."

LBA: "But you said good was a feeling."

MA: "Indeed, I should have said it's not good, but I feel it is."

LBA: "So should I do whatever I feel?"

MA: "Well, yes, I suppose so."

LBA: "Didn't the Nazi's do whatever they felt like doing?"

MA: "Well… yes… I suppose so."

LBA: "So my feelings are an illusion then, mommy."

MA: "Why do you say that son?"

LBA: "Because I feel killing Jews is wrong but the Nazi's felt it was right."

MA: "Go on."

LBA: "But there's no way to judge which I should feel."

MA: "Our philosophers taught us long ago: "ought" and "should" have no place in our vocabulary."

LBA: "What if I feel God exists?"

MA: "You should not… well… I mean… you may feel that way but it's not true."

LBA: "Do you feel that way?"

MA: "Certainly not!"

LBA: "Then you feel God does not exist?"

MA: "Absolutely."

LBA: "And you believe that's really true?"

MA: "Yes, my feelings correspond to reality."

LBA: "So you can feel something that is really true, and feel something that is really not?"

MA: "Yes, but only about matters of fact, not about matters of a prescriptive nature, matters that have to do with "ought."

LBA: "Mommy?"

MA: "Yes?"

LBA: "If God is not real then I don't want to feel that He is."

MA: "I feel that's noble, son."

LBA: "So I'm going to practice doing what I feel is wrong."

MA: "Hmm… why?"

LBA: "So I can control my feelings better, make them go away."

MA: "What do you have in mind?"

LBA: "I feel that hurting Jewish people is wrong. My friend Irwin is a Jew. Tomorrow I am going to punch his teeth out."

MA: "You mustn't do that son!"

LBA: "Why mom? You said prescriptive statements like "must not" have no place in our vocabulary."

MA: "Bobby, if you do not want to be punished by the authorities then do not punch Irwin tomorrow."

LBA: "But you say you feel it's bad to do things because of the threat of punishment. That's why you don't believe in hell - it's just a form of manipulation."

MA: "I don't believe hell is real, that is why I feel it's bad to use as a tool for controlling people."

LBA: "So it's only because the threat of authority is real that I should not punch Irwin?"

MA: "Partly. I also feel it's wrong."

LBA: "But your feeling doesn't correspond to reality."

MA: "True."

LBA: "And I want my feelings to more closely correspond to reality, so I do not want to feel what you feel because your feelings about punching Irwin do not correspond to reality."

MA: "I will punish you Bobby."

LBA: "You will act based on an illusion, mommy. If I don't act because you threatened me, then I am practicing acting on feelings which don't correspond to reality."

MA: "Ok, I can play that game Bobby. So you're going to act on what you feel about your feelings corresponding to reality?"

LBA: "Yes."

MA: "Why should you?"

LBA: "Should is an illusion, like God. So mommy, why shouldn't I?"


Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Science, Realist Philosophy And God

The argument for God's existence takes many forms, but I'd like to focus on the 'stuff exists' evidence. I realize the triviality intended when people use that phrase to talk about proofs for God’s existence, but I'm simply ignoring it for the simple reason that all of science itself could be similarly caricaturized: 'stuff changes so there must be a cause.' Yes, so why should that be a negative thing, it's the very motive of science. Likewise, the nature of the universe, more accurately characterized as "things undergoing change," is hardly something not worth looking at simply because someone may phrase it as a caricature. So, let me narrow the meaning of philosophy to virtually parallel that of science, and see what comes of it...

Science is respectable, it gets results, and coherently "saves the appearances," attempting to give a "logical explanation of observable phenomena." It's essentially a realist endeavor, that is, it starts with the senses and the outside world of the senses, then concludes in intellectual constructs which represent the reality behind those appearances. In short, it follows experience. Science is therefore respectable in the minds of most people, at least most westernized people.

Philosophy, however, means phantasy and triviality to most modern minds. Any discussion of philosophy quickly degenerates into talk of how one knows he exists, or a world exists, or whether 2+2 can equal 5. Since Descartes, philosophy has descended to this low point, precisely because philosophy up to that point was engaged in attempts to "save the appearances, to "follow experience," all the while assuming what needed to be assumed in order to know anything at all. But then philosophy became turned in upon itself, became engaged in questioning the very basis of questioning, which meant arbitrarily picking one's starting point in order to philosophize -- as did Descartes -- rather than beginning with reality as it is, as we are caught up in the flow of experience, as we ride upon the stream of self-evidence: unquestionable givens from which all knowledge proceeds. Let us therefore continue in the line of the perennial philosophy, which is identical to science in it's method, in it's starting point -- a method which no other philosophy can really claim to share. And let us call this philosophy realism, as opposed to the various types of empiricism and idealism -- empiricism says science deals with your own sensations, not with a reality outside of your senses; idealism says your dealing with your own ideas, not with objects outside your mind -- on a large psychological scale, these bring death to the motive behind doing science, they "numb the will," kill the wonder found in dealing with a mysterious world outside of our own minds.

Let us therefore understand the philosophical method as interchangeable with the scientific method, providing structure, common sense, and realism to the term philosophy -- stripping it of it's irrelevant, wildly speculative, phantastical connotations -- though focusing on a different aspect of reality to which certain minds find the logic of the universe demanding an answer.

And what are some of these questions the universe asks us to explore? some of the inherent problems it poses?

If the history of philosophy is any indication, it can be best put this way: things change. That is, there's relative permanence, as well as change. For instance, I was once a child and am now an adult. Part of me, part of my “I”, has not itself changed throughout the process of time which has seen part of me change. The same can be said of any natural object, “from the atom up to the most highly organized of living bodies and the most exalted of finite minds.” The undeniable fact of permanence through change should guide any sane philosophical hypothesis.

From this facts a number of arguments can be made. I'll briefly introduce two.

1. The contingency of the universe depends upon a non-contingent factor. That is, the "cosmos is only one of a number of possible universes," which means that since it "can be otherwise (it) is capable of not being at all." If it is capable of not being at all, then it needs to find it's existence in something already and always existing, which is not capable of not being at all. This argument does not require a creator at the beginning of time, we can presume time stretches back to forever, but one who creates every single moment. This means, of course, that if He stopped creating then the universe would vanish into nothingness.

2. The steady existence or pattern of things. This is sometimes considered the argument from design, but that argument is usually superficial, the one I have in mind is not so, if one can really comprehend it's impact. Let me give an argument against the argument from design by William James in order to illustrate it's deeper aspect -- an aspect which will then refute Jame's argument against a superficial argument from design.

It must not be forgotten that any form of disorder in the world might, by the design argument, suggest a God for just that kind of disorder. The truth is that any state of things whatever that can be named is logically susceptible of teleological interpretation. The ruins of the earthquake at Lisbon, for example: the whole of past history had to be planned exactly as it was to bring about in the fullness of time just that particular arrangement of debris of masonry, furniture, and once living bodies. No other train of causes would have been sufficient. And so of any other arrangement, bad or good, which might as a matter of fact be found resulting anywhere from previous conditions. To avoid such pessimistic consequences and save it's beneficent designer, the design argument accordingly invokes two other principles, restrictive in their operation. The first is physical: Nature's forces tend of their own accord only to disorder and destruction, to heaps of ruins, not to architecture. This principle, though plausible at first sight, seems, in light of recent biology, to be more and more improbable. The second principle is one of anthropomorphic interpretation. No arrangement that for us is 'disorderly' can possibly have been an object of design at all. This principle is of course a mere assumption in the interests of anthropomorphic Theism.

When one views the world with no definite theological bias one way or the other, one sees that order and disorder, as we now recognize them, are purely human inventions....the overflowing with disorderly arrangements from our point of view, but order is the only thing we care for and look at, and by choosing one can always find some sort of orderly arrangement in the midst of any chaos. If I should throw down a thousand beans at random upon a table, I could doubtless, by eliminating a sufficient number of them, leave the rest in any geometrical pattern you might propose to me, and you might say that that pattern was the thing prefigured beforehand, and that the other beans were mere irrelevance...Our dealings with nature is just like this...The facts of order...are thus easily susceptible of interpretation as arbitrary human products...the argument...will be convincing only to those who on other grounds believe in him already."

What I suggest in order to rebut this line of reasoning we may coin The Kaleidoscope Argument©. First let's examine where James is correct, then the two main fallacies he falls into from there. He is correct in noting, to a point, that order can be read into the universe, that no matter what events take place we can view them as orderly. The earthquake example is very well put. But then he makes two huge blunders, both stemming from the assertion that "(o)ur dealings with nature are just like this." The first error is the idealist implication that the substantial unities that meet us in nature are imposed on nature -- that is, that a tree, a dog, a man are patterns our minds impose upon the "beans" of reality, just like we impose geometrical shapes upon his spilled beans. It's all a subjective reading according to this conclusion. The second is failing to note that the deeper design, or intelligibility found in the substances of reality -- the trees, rocks, dogs and men -- is the basis of understanding anything at all, and these things which form the events which we artificially impose order upon (for example the history of events leading up to the earthquake) exist in time based on an orderly, consistent pattern. Otherwise reality could not be understandable, it would be a Kaleidoscope of substances in constant flux -- rocks appearing, turning into water, then metal, then air -- our rationality could never then be stirred to action -- our (momentary) bodies, of course, would be subject as well to this unintelligible flux, so even if we had a mind unable to be stirred to rationality, it's body could not exist long enough anyway. Thus design is the order, or pattern by which things exist -- in other words, the universe is understandable because a Mind imposes order upon it by which our minds are then stirred to rationality.

The two arguments I’ve presented can only be skirted by falling into implications that lead us directly to the philosophical realms of empiricism and idealism, and therefore have every practical right to be rejected as untenable. Ordinarily speaking, no sane person rejects science – at least not the obvious and established facts of science -- so that keeping our philosophical reasoning aligned with the scientific method (thus preventing us from the whimsical craziness so often associated with philosophy) logically raises the aforementioned philosophical proofs for God’s existence (if the reasoning is sound) to the same level of certainty as our scientific and practical convictions.