Thursday, 14 July 2016

Ethical challenges to Islam/theism: A more effective way to frame our discussions on natural theology

So I've recently realized that the ethical challenges to Islam can be categorized in a certain way, each category having a common core of similarities. Here are the four categories of ethical challenges to Islam:

1. The Problem of suffering in its many varieties
2. The argument from Divine Hiddenness
3. Ethical complaints against specifically Islamic theological (e.g. the problem of hell) and ethico-legal (e.g. slavery and concubinage) positions
4. The challenge of developing a satisfactory Divine Command Theory of ethics.

All of these questions and discussions focus on the same theme: Is it justified to believe that God is the supremely ethical (perfectly good) being? Let's look at their interconnectedness in a bit more depth.

(4) focuses on a number of things, the two most important being the so-called moral argument for the existence of a supremely ethical being, and trying to answer the modality or the howness of God's command or nature imparting values and excellence and rightness on created things or actions. The latter involves independent theorizing (e.g. positing a form of theistic platonism, like Robert Adams did, in explicating the notion of the world's excellences being derived from God's supreme goodness- who, in Platonic language, is just the personal form of Good), as well as responding to contentions like the Euthyphro's dilemma. The project of (4), therefore, is to lend credence to the idea that God is supremely good and the source of all good.

1, 2, and 3 all seek to challenge this idea in various ways. 3 appeals to specific revelation- if we believe our moral sense mirrors God's in some significant yet incomplete way, then how do we square ethical scruples with what scripture says? 2 is very similar, except it appeals to 'general revelation'- the book of the world- to try to argue for the same case. We see concubinage being legalized in scripture, but the supremely ethical being wouldn't make these commands. We see seemingly gratuitous suffering, but the supremely ethical being wouldn't allow it.

2 has its own motivations as an argument, but its strength is brought out particularly in context of the problem of evil, especially the problem of particularly horrifying instances of evil. If there's a God who loves us, and if He has reasons beyond our ken to allow these sufferings, wouldn't we expect Him to communicate those reasons to us?

Based on this analysis, I suggest these ethical aspects of natural theology should be studied on its own. Let's leave aside 3 for a while, since we're talking about theism in general or natural theology. Most often, 1 and 2 are discussed as a part of atheology, while 4 as a part of natural theology. But I don't find that association to be very convincing. For one, most arguments from natural theology don't actually prove the ethical nature of God. They only establish the existence of a generalized, even deistic, creator-designer who is at best intimately involved with human existence. This may lend plausibility to the thesis of Him being ethical, but no explicit proof is offered.

Many people may say the moral argument proves that a supremely ethical being exists, but I never found that approach convincing. It just strikes me as too far-fetched to import the existence of an entire supernatural being into our ontology just to account for the objectivity of our morality. Rather, a much more nuanced approach suggested by Robert Adams is the following. The moral argument should be produced only when we have settled the case for deism, when we have proved that a personal creator-designer interested in our existence exists. The moral argument should not contribute to, or form a part of the cumulative impact of, the case for deism in any way. Rather, it should only serve to shed light on the character of the deity whose existence we've already established. This approach is much more plausible, since the conclusion isn't ontologically that significant to the extent it seems to outstrip the evidence offered. We already established that a deity exists, we know it's personal, but we're on the fence on its moral leanings. The moral argument can settle the debate nicely.

Even more importantly, neither the POE or Divine Hiddenness detracts from the case of deism in any way. This point has been made by proponents of Intelligent Design for a long time- malevolent design is still design.

So in conclusion, the natural theology discussion should be divided into two separate parts-

1. Arguments for and against deism
2. Arguments for and against the moral character of the deity.

EDIT: Something should be amiss if I didn't mention some references for all this.

1. Divine Command Theory of Ethics:

- Finite and Infinite Goods: A Framework of Ethics by Robert Merrihew Adams
- A Theory of Virtue: Excellence in Being for the Good by Robert Merrihew Adams
- Kierkegaard and the Ethics of Love by C. Stephen Evans
- (Paper) Divine Will/Divine Command Theories and the Problem of Arbitrariness by Thomas L. Carson

2. Problem of Evil:

- The Problem of Evil by Peter van Inwagen
- Problem of Evil: A Reader (essay collection) by Mark Larrimore
- The Evidential Argument from Evil by various authors, edited by Daniel Howard-Snyder
- The Blackwell Companion to the Problem of Evil by various authors, edited by Justin McBrayer
- Nature Red in Tooth and Claw: Theism and the Problem of Animal Suffering by Michael Murray
- (Paper) Must God Create the Best? by Robert Merrihew Adams
- (Paper) Is theism compatible with gratuitous evil? by Daniel Howard-Snyder
- Various other papers by Peter van Inwagen and Daniel Howard-Snyder

3. Problem of Hiddenness:

- Divine Hiddenness: New Essays edited by Daniel Howard-Snyder and Paul K. Moser
- Various essays and papers by Daniel Howard-Snyder

Saturday, 9 July 2016

The most important contemporary analytic philosophers of religion: An opinionated list


This is by no means an exhaustive list, but these philosophers and their works represent some of the best material available on philosophy of religion. Some of the philosophers listed here have worked outside of the mentioned specializations, e.g. Alex Pruss worked on sexual ethics, Robin Collins on argument from consciousness, Robert Adams on problem of evil, Stephen Evans on Divine command ethics, William Lane Craig on many other issues, and so on.

Also, as mentioned in the title, this is an opinionated list, depending on the scope of my readings as well as the degree to which I was convinced by various treatments. Readers may note I have not included any treatment on the ontological argument, since I find that argument uninteresting in apologetics. In addition, I haven't mentioned WLC's resources for the Kalam Cosmological Argument, because I think his work in that area leaves something to be desired. Nor have I included Al Plantinga under Religious Epistemology (or anywhere else, for that matter). I haven't included any material on the more epistemological arguments for theism e.g. argument from reason, evolutionary argument against naturalism, mathematical applicability and scientific discoverability of the universe, and so forth because of my scant readings in that field. I hear Vic Reppert and Robin Collins are good bets though.

There are also some areas where I just don't think a philosopher of a high enough caliber has risen to fame yet. Obvious example is biological design arguments- I respect these arguments immensely, and I'm an avid reader of folks like Stephen Meyer and Fazale Rana, but I just don't think their work has rigor of the sort found in these other philosophers. Another example of this sort is Mark Baker's work in Philosophy of Language. John Foster is an incredibly innovative philosopher and he has produced an argument for God's existence based on the existence of laws (basically a revamped version of Aquinas' fifth way)- but I didn't find that as convincing as I find, say, Alex Pruss or Robin Collins' arguments. This list is only about the best treatments available. In that way, it's a very restricted reading and again, should not be thought exhaustive.

With those out of the way-

1. Alexander Pruss (Cosmological arguments)- notable for Principle of Sufficient Reason: A Reassessment, Necessary Existence (forthcoming, co-authored with Joshua Rasmussen), Infinity, Causation and Paradox (forthcoming), The Leibnizian Cosmological Argument (essay, published in Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology);

2. Robin Collins (Fine-tuning argument)- notable for The Teleological Argument: An Exploration of the Fine-Tuning of the Universe (essay, published in the aforementioned Blackwell), The Fine-tuning for Life, Technology, and Discovery: The Scientific Evidence (forthcoming);

3. J. P. Moreland (Argument from consciousness)- notable for Consciousness and the Existence of God: A Theistic Argument;

4. Stephen Braude (Argument from religious experience)- notable for ESP and Psychokinesis: A Philosophical Examination, Immortal Remains;

5. Peter van Inwagen (Problem of Evil)- notable for The Problem of Evil (book), The Problem of Evil, the Problem of Air, and the Problem of Silence (essay, published in The Evidential Argument from Evil, sequel to the essay with responses to contentions published in the same volume),

6. Michael Murray (Problem of animal suffering, Divine Hiddenness, Evolutionary explanations for religious belief)- notable for Nature Red in Tooth and Claw: Theism and the Problem of Animal Suffering, Deus Absconditus (essay, published in Divine Hiddenness: New Essays), Scientific explanations of religion and the justifications for religious belief (essay, published in The Believing Primate: Scientific, Philosophical, and Theological Reflections on the Origin of Religion), Evolutionary accounts of religion: Explaining and explaining away (essay, published in The Believing Primate);

7. Robert Merrihew Adams (Divine Command Theory of ethics)- notable for Finite and Infinite Goods: A Framework for Ethics, A Theory of Virtue: Excellence in being for the Good;

8. C. Stephen Evans (Religious epistemology)- notable for Natural Signs and the Knowledge of God;

9. William Lane Craig (coherence of theism)- notable for Divine Foreknowledge and Human Freedom: The Coherence of Theism, God, Time, and Eternity: The Coherence of Theism.

Thursday, 7 July 2016

A modal-counterfactual argument for the principle "every contingent event has a cause"

The following argument was adapted from Alexander Pruss' Principle of Sufficient Reason, and to my knowledge there hasn't been any rebuttals to it.

The argument follows the basic strategy of ontological arguments- start with a very weak claim (e.g. it's possible that God exists) and then demonstrate that this weak claim leads to some stronger claim (e.g. since it's possibly necessary that God exists, then it's necessary that God exists by axiom S5 of modal logic). The premises of the argument are very basic intuitions about the causal structure of the world and should be uncontroversial.


(1) If an event E is in fact caused by C in the actual world, then E would not have occurred were no cause of E to exist
(2) Every contingent event possibly has a cause
(3) If, in the actual world, proposition q holds if proposition p holds (i.e. if p then q), then in a world where p does not hold, if p were to hold then q might hold
(4) If the propositions "if p then q" and "if p then not q" both are true, then it is not possible that p.

Discussion of each individual premise

If p's holding causes q to hold and not hold, that means p's holding itself is problematic, i.e. p would be impossible. 4 is obviously true.

2 is the weak version of a causal principle. Clearly, it's very difficult to see how to argue against it. All it's saying is that it's possible that all contingent events have causes. Humean intuitions, if true, may lead us to believe that it is possible that some events are uncaused. But the fact that we can conceive of some events being uncaused only proves we can conceive of the events being caused as well. So premise 2 also seems obviously true.

1 too is a rather inoccuous observation. It says that if in the actual world an event is caused, then in the actual world it could not have happened without a (not the) cause. This is not Kripkean origin essentialism which claims if C causes E, then C is a necessary condition for E. The claim here is not a modal one, and in fact is a lot weaker- if something is in fact caused in a possible world, then it wouldn't have existed in that world without a cause.

That leaves premise 3. It may seem complex, but this too is based on very basic modal and counterfactual intuitions. Let's begin the discussion of this premise by noting that it is similar to an axiom in modal logic, the so-called Brouwer Axiom. This states if a proposition is actually true, the necessarily that proposition is possible. In modal logic semantics, "p is possible" means p is true in at least one possible world, and "p is actual" means p is true in the actual world. Since the actual world is a possible world, p's holding in the actual world by logical necessity entails that it holds in at least one possible world, and hence is possible. Premise 3 encapsulates the similar observation that, in a possible world other than the actual world, the events of the actual worlds would remain as possibilities. In other words, in a non-actual possible world w, events that happen in some other world (in this case the actual world) are, in fact, possible.

So let's assume in the actual world, both p and q hold, and if p then q. Let's further assume that in a possible but not actual world w, p does not hold. Based on the discussion in the previous paragraph, the events of the actual world are possible in this world. So in this world, it might be that were p to hold, q would hold. Here's an analogy. Let's say Jones' setting fire to the barn (p) led to his getting arrested (q). All premise 3 claims is that in a world where both Jones didn't set fire to the barn, were he to have done that, he might have gotten arrested. So while this premise seems complex and circuitous, it is in fact as obvious as they come.

So with all of these obvious premises substantiated- as if they needed to be substantiated- let's enter the deduction.


The strategy here is reductio ad absurdum. We begin by assuming that some contingent event has no cause. We then demonstrate that this assumption, together with premises 1 through 5, lead to a logical contradiction. Hence, we conclude, the starting assumption was wrong and there can be no contingent event without a cause.

So suppose

q is the true proposition that event E occurs, and
p is the true proposition that there is nothing that causes E (so in the actual world, if p then q)

Since premise 2 says every event can possibly have a cause, so the actually causeless E has a cause in a possible world. Meaning, p is false (doesn't hold) in some possible world w.

According to premise 3-

(5) In w where p does not hold, if p were to hold, then q might hold.

5 would become relevant near the end of the deduction again.

Since p does not hold in w, that means E has a cause in w. Call this cause C.

According to premise 1, in w, were no cause of E to have existed, then E would not occur. So in w, if p were to hold, q would not hold. In other words-

(6) In w, if p were to not hold, then that entails if p were to hold, q would not hold.

Written differently,

(7) In w where p does not hold, it is not the case that if p were to hold, then q might hold.

The move from 6 to 7 may seem abrupt, but saying "if p holds then q doesn't hold" is logically equivalent to saying "it is not the case that if p holds, q might hold".

But (5) and (7) are contradictory in just the way relevant to premise 4. Both 5 and 7 begins with "if p does not hold", but then

5 says- if p holds then q might hold.
7 says- it is not the case that if p holds then q might hold.

If you replace "if p holds then q might hold" with another proposition r, then 5 and 7 seem to be saying

(5) (If p were to not hold then) if p holds then r holds
(7) (If p were to not hold then) if p holds then r does not hold.

By premise 4, it is not possible that p holds. But p was assumed to be true, and true propositions are possible so our initial assumption says it is possible that p holds. This is a logical contradiction, so our initial assumption was false.

This completes the reductio, and since our initial assumption was false- it is not the case that a contingent event E can be causeless. In other words, every contingent event has a cause.

Here's an intuitive analogy to make the argument's force more tangible:

Let's say an airplane crashes due to metal fatigue in the ailerons. Now consider this counterfactual:

Were the plane hit by a surface-to-air missile, it would have crashed, and in that world were it not to have been hit, it would (or at least might) still have crashed (due to metal fatigue).

Now let's replace the "metal fatigue" explanation with "no cause" explanation. Let's say the airplane crashes due to no reason at all. So the equivalent counterfactual would be:

Were the plane hit by a surface-to-air missile, it would have crashed, and in that world were it not to have been hit, it would (or at least might) still have crashed (since it would have crashed for no reason at all).

But clearly this results in an absurdity. In the counterfactual world where the plane is hit by a surface-to-air missile, i.e. where the cause of the crash is the missile, it would still have crashed (for no reason). This contradicts the fact that in that world, the plane crash is caused by the missile. That means the original assumption- that the plane would crash for no reason whatsoever- is problematic, since it contradicts the proposition that in the world where the plane crashes the crash is caused by the missile.

It's a difficult analogy to get your head around, which is why the precise argument is required.

[By the way, I know the deduction is really clunky, I know, but that's probably because I chose not to use any notations. Here's the whole thing using notations.

Operators: (I'm making up some to adapt to blogspot's crappy formatting options)

=>- entails
->- if...then
(mgt)- if...then might
(evr)- for every x
(any)- for any x
(imp)- implies, close to entails
M- it is possible that


1. (C causes E)=>(~(evr)D (D causes E)->E did not occur)
2. (evr)E (E occurs (imp) M (any) C (C causes E))
3. (q&p& M~p) (imp) (~p->(p (mgt) q))
4. (p=>q)=>(p->q)
5. ((p->q) & (p->~q))=>~Mp


Let q be the true proposition that event E occurs
Let p be the true proposition that nothing causes E, that is ~(any)D (D causes E)

What is true is possible, hence

6. Mp

By 2-

7. M~p.

From 3 and 7-

8. ~p->(p (mgt) q)

Let ~p be true in w. In w, E has cause C. By 1, at w-

9. p->~q

This is true in every world ~p holds. It follows from 9

10. ~p=>(p->~q)

p->~p is equivalent to ~(p (mgt) q). Thus by 4 and 10-

11. ~p->~(p (mgt) q)

By 3, 8, and 11-

11. ~Mp

6 and 11 are contradictory. Hence, the assumption that nothing causes E is false. This completes the reductio.]