Exploring Ontology

It's all about the deep questions.

Category Archives: Philosophy of religion

Prayers and Causes

So, I just came back from a religious retreat. It was definitely an unforgettable, deeply emotional experience, even if I disagree with a lot that was said. During the retreat, one thing began to especially bother me, prayer. Not surprisingly, many, many prayers were said during the retreat. While they were all going on, I was thinking basically along the lines of: If God existed, he would already know what is the morally best thing to occur in each particular situation. For example, if someone was praying for a successful medical surgery for a relative, it’s not as if God would change his mind about what he would do with respect to the surgery. After all, what he would have done if no prayer would be said would infallibly the most moral thing to do, since God is morally perfect!

So here’s an attempt at a formalization of the argument:

1) In deciding whether to make an event happen or not, God chooses the morally best option.

2) Praying for an event to occur does not affect the moral status of the event occurring or not occurring.

3) Therefore, praying for an event to occur has no affect on whether the event will actually occur or not.

Premise 1: This premise is the less debatable one in my opinion. Most theists would agree (I think) that when deciding what to do, God chooses the most moral option.

Premise 2: In the vast majority of cases, I think this premise is sound. Intuitively, if someone prays for farmers in Africa to have a good harvest to feed themselves (for example), he/she praying for that to occur would in no way affect the moral status of that event to occur. If one gets creative, however, there may exist potential counterexamples. For example, praying for a sign from God to rebuild one’s faith would probably increase the likelihood that a person is more open to that sign. So in that case, praying might affect whether one gets a sign. I still stand behind this premise, however, in the vast majority of cases. At least for the prayers I have heard people saying, they almost always follow this premise.

So the moral of the story for theists: If theism is true, prayers may help one grow closer to God, but they (almost always) do not cause things to occur.

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God and Perfect Worlds

The most well-known argument against the existence of God is the problem of evil, which basically asks why there is so much pointless suffering and evil when the world is really governed by an all loving, all powerful, all knowing being. Most people think this is a problem since God wouldn’t make a world with pointless suffering. However, I think one can go further. Not only does a perfect God have to make a world without pointless suffering, he would also have to make a perfect world. But is a perfect world even possible? Here, I would like to defend two propositions:

1) If God exists, then no possible world would be better than the actual world.

2) There is a possible world that is better than the actual world.

From 1 and 2, it would follow that God doesn’t exist.

Note: Here I am using “better” in a moral sense. For example, a world with a total of 100 people who all were loving Christians would be “better” than a world with a total of 100 people who were all arrogant, sinful atheists where all other factors were constant between the two worlds.

Premise 1

God is supposed to be a perfect being of which no greater can be conceived. But, if God created a world that was worse than some other possible world that he could have created, isn’t it pretty easy to conceive of a greater being? Namely, one who would have actually created that better world! As far as I see it, this premise is hard to deny. God wouldn’t just draw a world from the “all possible worlds” hat and make it the actual world; he would carefully choose which world to create. Furhtermore, if he were asked why he picked that world as opposed to any other world, he would be able to give reasons why he considered the actual world “better” than any other one. And, since he is all-knowing, he would be right in choosing the world that he did. I would think that the vast majority of theists would agree with these observations.

Premise 2

Again, I think this is a fairly uncontroversial premise. In facing the problem of evil, theists usually deny the existence of pointless suffering by countering with various theodicies, or explanations why evil occurs (For example, God permitted the holocaust to let Hitler exercise his free will). To deny this premise, the theist would have to take a much stronger stance, however. Denying this premise is stronger since asserting that this world is perfect among all possible worlds implies that there is no pointless suffering, but asserting that there is no pointless suffering does not entail that this world is perfect among all possible worlds. So, first of all, in support of this premise I would like to drag all of the observations that atheists have made over the centuries in support of the existence of pointless suffering since they would add support to this premise as well. Additionally, however I would like to argue for the impossibility of a perfect world.

In arguing that that there is no such thing as a morally perfect world, it will be useful to introduce a sort of rough-and-ready “scale” of moral goodness. “0” would be a sort of morally neutral world (for example a world that just consists of empty space with no living things and no moral goods or moral evils). The more positive it gets, the better the world, and the more negative it gets, the worse the world. One reasonalbe observation about moral goodness is that it is additive. For example, if a universe X had a rating of 3 and another universe Y had a rating of 3, then if God were to create a multiverse containing universe X and universe Y, the rating of the multiverse would be strictly greater than 3. This assumption that moral goodness is additive is backed by strong intuitions. Which one is better: sponsoring 1 child in Africa or sponsoring 10 children in Africa? From here, the problem is straightforward. No matter what our rating on the scale is, God could always have decided to make our universe a multiverse with one additional universe with a positive rating. The resulting multiverse would be a possible world that is better than the actual world.

*Technical Observation Involving Math

One possible objection would be to claim that the actual world really is a multiverse consisting of infinitely many pocket universes each with a positive rating. This would result in a rating of infinite, and hence no multiverse could have a higher rating. This objection doesn’t succeed however. First of all, only theists who are perfectly comfortable with the actual infinite can make this objection (I’m looking at you Kalam Cosmological Argument supporters). Second of all, there are infinitely many different sizes of infinity, and there is no such thing as an infinity that is larger than all other infinities according to set theory. Therefore, say that the multiverse God created had a number of universes equal to an infinite cardinality X. According to set theory, the powerset of a set with a cardinality of X has a cardinality that is strictly larger. So, this objection fails.

My Philosophical Beliefs

As a bit of a background to my other posts, it often helps to know where I’m coming from. So, I’ve decided to chronicle my personal beliefs in all manners philosophical. Philosophical jargon is usually linked to a corresponding article (usually wikipedia when applicable) to give a brief overview of the term for convenience. For those who want to look into it further, I highly recommend the corresponding entry in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. This post will probably be updated every now and then since my beliefs change pretty often, relatively speaking. Here it goes!

Formal Epistemology: Bayesian. Although I recognize that it needs to have some of the details scrutinized (for example the problem of old evidence presupposes logical omniscience), I largely believe it is on the right track. An excellent “updater” for your beliefs given the evidence.

Traditional Epistemology: Some work in traditional epistemology I find useful (combatting skeptical arguments and arguing over various epistemological theories), and some work I find not so useful (conceptual analysis on the word “knowledge” and debates over the viability of meaningful a priori knowledge). Overall, I think I find a modest foundationalism most attractive, even though it can result in a weak form of skepticism.

Ethics: For me, there are deep unsolved questions in meta-ethics that must be tackled first before we are willing to accept any view in normative ethics. Mackie’s classic “Inventing Right and Wrong” has been very influential on me however, so I identify as a tentative error theorist. Even though I do hold this view, morality definitely is a useful fiction that we should all abide by (See here). So, I do think that moral issues are important in this regard. I became a vegetarian for example through arguments from the animal rights movement.

Free Will: Source incompatibilist (first couple of paragraphs define it). Its unfortunate that this problem has to drag out for millennia in philosophy. It almost seems to me that philosophers agree on the facts of the matter; they just disagree on whether the facts are sufficient for a robust form of free will. People who believe in free will acknowledge that if determinism is true than our actions are sufficiently caused by events thousands of years ago (by definition). Most also agree that we have no ultimate control over the way we are. Still further most agree that a large bulk of our actions seem to have their source in unconscious processes. Similarly, those who reject free will recognize that we do behave in an orderly way according to our desires and beliefs, and we have the power to deliberate over “potential” (or perceived) outcomes and choose among them. They also believe that, intuitively, it is obvious that we have free will (they just reject those intuitions).

Philosophy of Math: Structuralist with an anti-realist bent.

Metametaphysics: In metaphysics there seem to be 2 types of questions, those that are substantial and based on non-linguistic truths such as “Does God exist?”, and those that are not (mereological composition anyone?) Unfortunately, in my personal readings it seems as though there are more of the latter. I am skeptical of most things metaphysical.

Consciousness: Surprisingly, I find myself increasingly persuaded by the property dualist view (this is very tentative). Hence, I am driven to reject physicalism (tentatively).

Philosophy of Religion: Strong atheist, weak adeist (if I can coin that word). I certainly do not find any argument for the existence of God persuasive. I do think that there are strong arguments against the traditional conception of God as actively performing miracles, as having a peculiar fascination with one species in the universe (homo sapiens, lucky us), and who is all loving, all good, etc. As for a deistic conception of God, it is sufficiently vague that I think it cannot have a strong refutation. Hence, weak a-deist.

Philosophy of Time: B-theory

Random Thoughts 1

I’m starting a pseudo-series detailing random thoughts I have relating to philosophy. Sometimes random thoughts eventually turn into something useful and sometimes not so much. These are not intended to be formal and are usually not as well thought-out as they could be, but hey I’m not responsible for that according to Van Inwagen’s Consequence Argument so don’t blame me.

PSR = every contingent fact has an explanation. Is PSR itself contingent or necessary? It sure seems to be contingent, after all its not logically, or metaphysically impossible that things can happen with no explanation. I would consider a world where things just randomly popped into existence as disturbing but not incoherent (I know this relies on a dubious conceivability entails possibility argument but I guess it will have to do). So, if its not necessary, then it is contingent. Therefore, without risk of self-defeat it must have an explanation why it exists rather than why it doesn’t exist. At least this has to be the case in worlds where it does exist, because in worlds where it does not exist there needn’t be an explanation for its non-existence. One worry of trans-world talk creeps up here. Say everything in world X has an explanation, but that is not the case in world Y. Suppose someone asks, in world X, “Why is it the case that PSR does not hold in world Y?” Now, since PSR holds in world X there has to be an explanation for every question. If there were no explanation, then there is some contingent fact “In world Y PSR does not hold” which exists in all possible worlds including world X, that has no explanation. This would then falsify PSR in world X contrary to the assumption that it held. So there does have to be an explanation for why the PSR does not hold in world Y. Furthermore, in every single world in which PSR did not hold there would have to be an explanation for why that is so. This is not logically impossible, seeing that if PSR does not hold in some world Y it does not entail that nothing has an explanation, only that some things have no explanation. This would seem to be a huge coincidence, however, which striked me as interesting. Continuing on, what could be the sort of reason for the existence of PSR? Just a certain causal ordering and structure that exists in a world? This doesn’t seem like it would be acausal explanation of PSR, at least not a satisfactory one. It immediately begs the question why is there a causal/explanatory structure? Haha, that’s funny. What’s the cause/explanation for the causal/explanatory structure.

Another thought:  The motivation to apply the PSR to contingent facts is because things could have been otherwise. There are different possibilities for contingent facts. However, there are also two possibilities for necessary ones. Either a necessary being exist in all possible worlds or it does not exist in any possible world. So, the same motivation seems to apply to necessary beings, at least on the face of it, as it does to contingent ones. There has to be some reason why a particular necessary being exists in all possible worlds rather than in no possible worlds (or vice versa). With these considerations in mind, there appears to be two threats here; one threat involves an infinite regress and another threat involves circularity. If there has to be a reason why a particular necessary being exists in all possible worlds rather than in no possible worlds (as surely there seems to be for such a huge distinction), this reason must itself be necessary since it must exist in all possible worlds. This necessary reason would then have to have a reason for its existing everywhere rather than existing nowhere, ad infinitum. The circularity problem is for theists. If there must be a reason why God exists in every possible world rather than in no possible world, then that reason would be apart from God (an example could be “according to the laws of logic God cannot not exist”). But if the grounding for everything is in God and if God is grounded in this necessary fact, which is part of “everything”, then the grounding is circular.