bookmark_borderHow Many Ways to Analyze the Word ‘God’? – Part 3

II. Only Three Attributes are Relevant

In this second case there will be far fewer possible definitions of ‘divine person’ because the assumption that one of the four attributes is irrelevant means that we only have three attributes to use in constructing sets of conditions that will in turn be used to generate definitions. Fewer elements means fewer combinations of elements can be formed.

The following table illustrates the various possibilities in which only three of the four attributes are relevant (R = relevant; I = irrelevant):

Since there are only three conditions in each set of conditions, each column in the above table represents 10 x 10 x 10 = 100 x 10 = 1,000 different sets of three conditions. Thus, the four columns of this table represent a total of 4,000 different sets of three conditions.
A. All Three Conditions are Criterial and None are Necessary Conditions
If all three conditions are taken as criterial, then each of the 4,000 sets of conditions is ambiguous. This is because two different strengths of requirement can be imposed on a set of three criterial conditions:
At least two conditions must be satisfied
At least one condition must be satisfied
Therefore, each of the 4,000 sets of three conditions can be used to make two criterial definitions. This means that there are 4,000 sets of conditions x 2 strengths of requirement = 8,000 definitions consisting of three criterial conditions.
B. All Three Conditions are Necessary Conditions and None are Criterial
Since there is just one strength of requirement for definitions that are composed of only necessary conditions (i.e. every condition must be satsified, without exception), the 4,000 sets of three conditions can be used to generate 4,000 definitions that are composed of three necessary conditions.
C. Two Conditions are Criterial and One is a Necessary Condition
When you mix criterial conditions and necessary conditions, they can occur in different orders. With sets of three conditions, there are three different possible permutations consisting of two criteria and one necessary condition (C = criterial condition; N = necessary condition):
This means that we can take the 4,000 different sets of three conditions, and generate a total of 12,000 sets of conditions that consist of two criteria and one necessary condition (4,000 sets of conditions x 3 different permutations = 12,000 sets consisting of two criteria and one necessary condition).
There is only one strength requirement that can be used for definitions involving just two criteria:
At least one of the (criterial) conditions must be satisfied

So, we can generate only one defintion from each set of conditions, and thus this subset generates 12,000 definitions that consist of two criteria and one necessary condition.

D. One Condition is Criterial and Two are Necessary Conditions

This subset of definitions is easy to enumerate. There are none, because any correct definition that includes a criterial condition must include at least two criteria.

E. Adding Up the Definitions from each Subset (A-D)

8,000 definitions (consisting of three criterial conditions)
4,000 definitions (consisting of three necessary conditions)
12,000 definitions (consisting of two criteria and one necessary condition)
0 definitions (consisting of one criterial condition and two necessary conditions)

The total number of different definitions of ‘divine person’ that can be generated in the case that only three of the four attributes are relevant is:

24,000 definitions

bookmark_borderHow Many Ways to Analyze the Word ‘God’? – Part 2

I will now try to determine how many different definitions of ‘divine person’ can be generated from the four previously specified attributes, in the case that all four attributes are relevant to a definition of the phrase ‘divine person’.

I. All Four Attributes are Relevant

A. Four Conditions are Criterial and None are Necessary Conditions
If all four attributes are relevant, one sub-category of definitions would be purely criterial definitions, where all four conditions were criteria, rather than necessary conditions.
As we saw in my previous post, a definition of ‘divine person’ (based on four attributes) will include four conditions, each of which specifies one range of degrees (out of ten possible ranges) for each of the four attributes.
There are 10,000 different such sets of four conditions. Right now we are considering definitions that can be formed when all four conditions in such sets of conditions are treated as criteria.
Three different strengths of requirements can be applied to a set of four criterial conditions:
At least three conditions must be satisfied
At least two conditions must be satisfied
At least one condition must be satisfied
Therefore, the number of purely criterial definitions of ‘divine person’ that can be generated when all four attributes are relevant and all four conditions are criteria is: 10,000 sets of four conditions x 3 strengths of requirements = 30,000 definitions.

B. Four Conditions are Necessary Conditions and None are Criterial
Since there is only one standard in the case of a set of necessary conditions (i.e. all conditions must be satisfied), the 10,000 different sets of four conditions yeild 10,000 different definitions of ‘divine person’ that consist of four necessary conditions.

C. Three Conditions are Criterial and One is a Necessary ConditionMixing criterial conditions and necessary conditions creates more interesting combinations and permutations (N = Necessary Condition; C = Criterial Condition):
Each column in the above table represents 10,000 sets of four conditions, so the four columns in this table represent at least 40,000 different definitions of the phrase ‘divine person’ that include three criterial conditions and one necessary condition.
However, in the case of defintions that include three criteria, there are two different possible strengths of requirments:
At least two of the (criterial) conditions must be satisfied
At least one of the (criterial) conditions must be satisfied
Thus, each of the 40,000 sets of conditions represented by the above table is ambigous and each of them can be used to generate two definitions. So, the number of definitions of ‘divine person’ that can be generated involving three criterial conditions and one necessary condition is: 40,000 sets of conditions x 2 strengths of requirements = 80,000 definitions.
D. Two Conditions are Criterial and Two are Necessary Conditions
This subset of definitions also involves mixing of criterial and necessary conditions, which increases the number of possible permutations:
Once again, each column in this table represents 10,000 different sets of four conditions. So, the six columns of this table represent 60,000 different sets of four conditions that involve two criterial conditions and two necessary conditions.
When you have two criteria in a definition, there is only one strength of requirement that can be used:
At least one of the (criterial) conditions must be satisfied
So, there is no ambiguity here as there was in the case involving three criterial conditions. Thus, there are 60,000 different definitions of ‘divine person’ that involve two criterial conditions and two necessary conditions.
E. One Condition is Criterial and Three are Necessary Conditions
This particular subset is easy to enumerate. There are no definitions in this case, because you need to have at least two criteria in order to use criteria at all in a correct definition.
F. Adding up Definitions from the Five Subsets (A through E)
So, we can now determine the number of definitions of ‘divine person’ that can be derived from the four attributes, the four degrees of those attributes (and the resulting ten ranges of degrees of an attribute), and the two types of conditions (criterial vs. necessary), and the different strengths of requirements for criterial definitions, in the case that all four attributes are relevant for the definition:
30,000 definitions (where all four conditions are criterial).
10,000 definitions (where all four conditions are necessary conditions).
80,000 definitions (where three conditions are criterial and one is a necessary condition).

60,000 definitions (where two conditions are criterial and two are necessary conditions).
0 definitions (where one condition is criterial and three are necessary conditions).
The total number of definitions, when all four attributes are relevant is:
180,000 definitions.
In the next installment, I will determine how many defintions can be formed in the case that only three of the four attributes are relevant for a definition of ‘divine person’.

bookmark_borderHow Many Ways to Analyze the Word ‘God’?

My estimate that there are more than three millon ways to analyze the word ‘God’ (using just four attributes in the analysis) was inflated by some incorrect assumptions. I will now make a second attempt to determine an accurate count of the various combinations and permutations of conditions that form different definitions, taking into consideration some things I learned from the first attempt.

The word ‘God’ is a proper name, and I agree with Swinburne that the meaning of this proper name should be specified by means of a definite description, and the definite description should, in turn, be derived from the definition of a category of beings to which God belongs: ‘divine person’. So, technically, the alternative definitions that I’m considering are not definitions of the word ‘God’, but are definitions of the phrase ‘divine person’ (which is then used to identify the referent of the word ‘God’).

My first assumption is that at least one of the following four attributes is relevant to a correct definition of the phrase ‘divine person’:

Power
Knowledge
Freedom
Goodness

My second assumption is that there are no other attributes besides these four that are relevant to a correct definition of ‘divine person’.

The first assumption seems obviously true. But my second assumption seems obviously false, or at least highly questionable. There are a number of other attributes that might well be relevant to defining ‘divine person’, such as: the creator of the universe, omnipresent, bodiless, and a source of moral obligations.

But the second assumption is justifiable as a simplifying assumption. I’m trying to show that a large number of different definitions for ‘divine person’ can be generated from a small number of attributes. If there are in fact eight or more attributes that are relevant for defining ‘divine person’ then clearly there will be a huge number of definitions that can be based on various combinations and permutations of conditions related to those attributes.

My point is that with just a few attributes, four in this case, one can still generate a very large number of different definitions. So, although my second assumption is probably false, it is justifiable as a way of reducing the scope of possible definitions, of simplifying the circumstances, of making the math and reasoning a bit easier, in order to make a point.

As with my previous calculations, each of the above attributes can occur in four degrees:

Human
Superhuman
PerfectEternally Perfect
If we allow for conditions that specify a range of degrees of the attributes, and if we assume that the acceptable degrees of an attribute must be a continuous range, and not include any gaps (e.g. set aside as implausible definitions that include the requirment that a divine person have either a human or a perfect degree of power –but not a superhuman degree), then there will be ten different degrees or ranges of degree for each attribute:

1. human
2. superhuman
3. perfect
4. eternally perfect
5. human or superhuman
6. superhuman or perfect
7. perfect or eternally perfect
8. human or superhuman or perfect
9. superhuman or perfect or eternally perfect
10. human or superhuman or perfect or eternally perfect

If a definition of ‘divine person’ consisted of a set of four conditions, specifying one of the ten possible ranges of degrees for each of the four attributes, then there would be 10 x 10 x 10 x 10 = 100 x 100 = 10,000 different definitions possible for the phrase ‘divine person’.

One of those 10,000 sets of four conditions would be, for example:
condition 1: has perfect power
condition 2: has perfect knowledge
condition 3: has perfect freedom
condition 4: has perfect goodness

However, the 10,000 different sets of four conditions do not constitue unambigious definitions, because there are two different kinds of conditions: criteria and necessary conditions.

Criteria are weaker than necessary conditions. With a criterial definition, you have a list of conditions, none of which is, by itself, absolutely required. The requirement in a criterial definition is simply that some portion of the conditions be satsified, not that all of the conditions be satisfied. This means that any correct definition that includes a criterion must include at least two criteria, so that no single condition (among the criteria) is required.

Furthermore, criterial definitions can have requirements of different strengths. Consider the above example of a set of four conditions, and assume that those are four criteria (as opposed to being necessary conditions). This set of conditions would be ambigous because there are three different strengths of requirements that could be layed down in this case:

At least three of the four conditions must be satisfied
At least two of the four conditions must be satisfied
At least one of the four conditions must be satisfied.

So the one set of conditions for the four attributes actually is the basis for three different criterial definitions.

If we took the set of four conditions above as necessary conditions, since there is only one standard for necessary conditions (i.e. every necessary condition must be satisfied, without exception), that set of four conditions would be the basis for just one definition.

Given my assumtion that at least one of the four attributes (above) is relevant to defining ‘divine person’, and my assumption that there are no other attributes that are relevant, there are four cases to consider when trying to determine the total number of different possible definitions:

All Four Attributes are Relevant
Only Three Attributes are Relevant
Only Two Attributes are Relevant
Only One Attribute is Relevant

To be continued…

bookmark_borderThree Million Ways to Analyze the Word ‘God’

Assume there are only four possible divine attributes:

power
knowledge
freedom
goodness

Each of the above attributes can occur in four degrees:

human
superhuman
perfect
eternally perfect

There can be 14 different combinations of acceptable degrees for each attribute:

Four combinations with just one acceptable degree (e.g. only ‘perfect’ knowledge is acceptable).
Six combinations with just two acceptable degrees (e.g. either ‘superhuman’ or ‘perfect’ knowledge is acceptable)
Three combinations with three acceptable degrees (e.g. either ‘superhuman’ or ‘perfect’ or eternally perfect’ is acceptable).
One combination with all four degrees being acceptable.

For each of the 14 different combinations of acceptable degrees of a given divine attribute, there are three different strengths of logical connection between that specification and the word ‘God’:

criteria
necessary condition but not an essential property
necessary condition and also an essential property

14 x 3 = 42 different possible specifications per divine attribute. Plus, there is also the possibility that an alleged divine attribute is irrelevant to the word ‘God’, so there are a total of 43 different possibilities per attribute in relation to an analysis or definition of the word ‘God’.

Given that there are at least four different divine attributes that can be specified in 43 different ways each, the total number of possible analyses of the word ‘God’ is over three million:

43 x 43 x 43 x 43 = 1,849 x 1,849 = 3,418,801.

Wow. This does not take into account other possible divine attributes, such as being ‘the creator of the universe’, ‘omnipresent’, ‘a source of moral obligation’, and ‘a bodiless person’.

bookmark_borderWhat God Cannot Do – Part 6

I did not especially want to get into a discussion about Jesus, the incarnation, the trinity, etc. However, my claim that God cannot suffer or be harmed leads naturally to objections like this one from Lincoln:

God can be hurt. In fact Christianity is based off the fact that God can not only be hurt, but he can die. Jesus, who is God, sacrificed himself for us. This is an act of heroism.

His reasoning goes like this:

1. Jesus suffered.
2. Jesus was harmed.
Therefore:
3. Jesus could suffer and be harmed.
4. Jesus is God.
Therefore:
5. God could suffer and be harmed.

Premise (4) is questionable based on the meaning of the word ‘God’. Something can be God only if it is a person who is (a) always omnipotent, (b) always omniscient, and (c) always perfectly free, thus (4) is true only if Jesus possessed those three properties. But it appears to be false that Jesus possessed all three of these properties, so it follows that Jesus is NOT God:

6. Jesus is a person who was not always omnipotent, or not always omniscient, or not always perfectly free.
7. Something is God only if it is a person who is always omnipotent, and always omniscient, and always perfectly free.
Therefore:
8. Jesus is not God.

So, the dilemma for Lincoln and for other Christian thinkers is this: Was Jesus a divine person (meaning he was always omnipotent, always omniscient, and always perfectly free) or not? If you do claim that Jesus was a divine person, does that claim make sense? Is that claim plausible? If Jesus was not a divine person, then how can Jesus be God, if he was lacking some (or all) of the characteristics used to identify the referent of the proper name ‘God’?

bookmark_borderDemographic implosion

There is a common worry particularly among right-wingers, both religious and secular—that secular postindustrial populations are aging and reproducing below the replacement level. This, apparently, is going to lead to all sorts of disasters (doomed social insurance systems etc.), or, alternatively, is symptomatic of cultural disaster (a society in demographic decline has lost the will to exist etc.). And that’s even before the Europe-is-going-to-be-all-Muslim paranoia kicks in.

Well, secularists have typically worried about the opposite: overpopulation. Indeed, I don’t see how any sane strategy for avoiding environmental and civilizational collapse (assuming we’re not already too late) can do without population decline. Western Europe, in its secular aversion to reproduction, is behaving in a way I can only applaud.

Still, it’s interesting to ask how much substance there is in worries about demographic decline. Secular economists apparently think so, though there are exceptions. Mind you, I do not trust mainstream economists—I suspect they’re largely propagandists for wealthy interests, and I am tempted to think that though secular, together with other plutocratic conservatives, they’re worse menaces than theocratic right-wingers. Unfortunately, I only have a high level of distrust, and not much of a counternarrative that I feel entitled to put confidence in. There’s a risk of going along with even worse loonies just because they also distrust a similar set of bastards.

I can say similar things when looking at the more religious and culturally flavored versions of worry about a demographic implosion. I don’t know, maybe it is true that secular women not popping out the requisite number of children is a symptom of a decaying culture. How the bloody hell am I supposed to tell? Such cultural arguments tend to float on selectively-assembled structures of plausibility with only a tenuous tether to reliable evidence. Again, I can probably come up with an alternative set of cultural experts with views more congenial to me. But all that would mean is that there are people out there whose prejudices align with mine.

All this is very annoying. I’m not a chemist, I don’t even like chemistry, but when I have to depend on chemists, I know damn well that the community of chemists is pretty reliable when it comes to chemistry. In contrast, too many times, when I encounter religion as a social and political phenomenon, I find myself in territory where I don’t know how to extend trust. It’s frustrating.

bookmark_borderWhat God Cannot Do – Part 5

Could God be a hero? I don’t think so. Based on recent discussion of this question, I can formulate an argument for the claim that God is not capable of being a hero:

1. Only a being who can suffer or be harmed can be a hero.
2. A person who is eternally omnipotent, eternally omniscient, and eternally perfectly free is not capable of suffering or of being harmed.
3. Something is God if and only if it is a person who is eternally omnipotent, eternally omniscient, and eternally perfectly free.
Therefore,
4. God is not capable of being a hero.

A person must at least be at risk to perform an act of heroism. A person who is not capable of suffering or of being harmed cannot be at risk to perform an act, so such a person cannot perform an act of heroism or be a hero.

A person who is eternally perfectly free, as Richard Swinburne understands this concept, must always make choices that are uninfluenced by emotions and desires. A being can suffer only if a being can be influenced by emotions or desires. So, if Swinburne is correct, a person who is eternally perfectly free is not capable of suffering.

A person who is eternally omnipotent, eternally omniscient, and eternally perfectly free cannot in fact lose its omnipotence, omniscience, or perfect freedom; otherwise it would possess those properties only temporarily, not eternally. A being who possesses the properties of omnipotence, omniscience, and perfect freedom, and who cannot in fact lose any of those properties, cannot be harmed.

Premise (3) states Swinburne’s analysis of the word ‘God’, at least the three core divine attributes. Swinburne argues that the other divine attributes are logically implied by those three attributes. The only thing I have left out is the property of being a ‘necessary being’. This condition introduces ambiguity and complexity into the analysis of the word ‘God’, which is why Swinburne leaves that condition out of consideration in section II of his book The Coherence of Theism. I don’t think that added condition has relevance for the question at issue here.

Since God cannot suffer or be harmed, God cannot put himself at risk, and thus God is not capable of being a hero.

bookmark_borderWhat God Cannot Do – Part 4

Swinburne takes the word ‘God’ to be loosely tied to a list of criteria or descriptions, similar to how he takes the words ‘person’ and ‘bodiless’ to be criterially defined concepts. Among the criteria or descriptions used to denote or identify an individual as ‘God’, if there is such an individual, is the criterion that this being is eternally omnipotent. Such an understanding of the word ‘God’ and the sentence ‘God exists’ may well correctly represent the meaning of the word ‘God’ in the ordinary use of this word.

However, Swinburne goes on to propose a narrower understanding of the word ‘God’ such that the criteria or desciptions become, in effect, necessary conditions for the correct application of the word ‘God’ and for the truth of the sentence ‘God exists’. Thus, on this proposed definition or understanding, ‘God exists’ would be true if and only if there was one and only one being that satisfied ALL of the criteria or descriptions considered by Swinburne.

The descriptions considered by Swinburne are:
(a) is eternally a bodiless person,
(b) is eternally omnipresent,
(c) is eternally the creator of the universe (i.e. has always had, and always will have the power to make any contingent thing cease to exist),
(d) is eternally omniscient,
(e) is eternally omnipotent,
(f) is eternally perfectly good,
(g) is a source of (some) moral obligations.

In short, something is a ‘divine being’ if and only if it possesses ALL of the above properties, and ‘God exists’ is true if and only if there is one and only one being that is a divine being.

There is a polarity going on behind the scenes here, between the natural and the artificial. The natural, in this case, is what we are aiming at by the question “What is the meaning of the word ‘God’ in ordinary use of this word?”. The artificial is more what is aimed at by the question, “How should philosophers and theologians understand/define the meaning of the word ‘God’ for purposes of intellectual inquiry, especially into the question of the existence of God?”

Swinburne first characterizes what he thinks the word ‘God’ means in ordinary use, and then proposes a tightening or narrowing of the meaning of the word, for purposes of philosophical investigation of the question, ‘Does God exist?’. The shift recommended by Swinburne is from criterial definition, which supposedly reflects ordinary use of the word ‘God’ to a definition in terms of a set of necessary conditions that taken together provide a sufficient condition for the application of the word ‘God’ and the truth of the sentence ‘God exists’.

Before I get any more enmeshed in the interesting discussion about the meaning of the word ‘God’ and the meaning of the sentence ‘God exists’, let me briefly state my originally intended point about omnipotence.

Let’s set aside, for the moment, the question of whether Swinburne’s proposed definition/analysis is a good one. Suppose that we make ‘is eternally omnipotent’ and ‘is eternally omniscient’ necessary conditions for the correct application of the word ‘God’. In that case, if God exists, then the being who is God is eternally omnipotent and eternally omniscient.

Now for my moral reflection on this idea. If God is eternally omnipotent and eternally omniscient, then nothing is difficult for God. Nothing is a struggle for God. God does not have to investigate a phenomenon or to study something in order to arrive at a true and complete understanding of it. God does not have to learn or practice new skills to be able to do something well. God does not have to work or struggle at something for years in order to make or create something. If God wants to design something then -BAM!- he has the perfect design for that thing instantly. If God wants to make the thing he has designed then -BAM!- it instantly comes into existence with exactly the properties and characteristics of his design. God can never complain about the ‘blood, sweat, and tears’ that went into some effort or project. If God is omniscient and omnipotent, then everything is easy for God.

God is thus incapable of being a hero or a savior. Sure, a being who is omniscient and omnipotent could help us out. But the deeds of Superman would be nothing for such a being. He could bring about the existence of a billion Supermen at the drop of a hat, and this would require no real effort or struggle or pain on his part. Because of this, such a being is not worthy of admiration, and certainly not worthy of worship. We would be grateful that such a being is good rather than evil, but even the finest of gifts and benefits from God would mean little, morally speaking, because they have no cost for God. They would require something less than a sneeze or blink of the eye for God to provide.

Therefore, if Swinburne’s analysis of ‘God’is correct, then it seems to me that God, if there is such a being, is not worthy of praise or worship, even if God is, in some sense, perfectly good.

bookmark_borderSecularism and positive rights

I was flipping through Stephen Holmes and Cass Sunstein’s The Cost of Rights, which points out that the distinction between positive and negative rights is dubious, or at least not very sharp. This is because assertion of a negative right—a right not to be interfered with by others or the state—is empty without the demand that this right be enforced. This demand involves significant burdens on the public treasury, so in that sense it is a demand for a positive right—that the state or others do something.

This might have an application to a certain kind of argument in favor of secularism. That is, a demand for a secular state is sometimes phrased as an assertion of a negative right: I don’t want other people’s faith-based ways of life interfering with me, either directly or though the state favoring their religion. So if we are to recognize such a right to non-interference, we should do our public business through a secular state.

But then, this is not as pure a demand for non-interference as it might first look. For if I ask for an enforcement of non-interference, I am then demanding that violations of secularity should be policed. I assert a right to enjoy my back yard as I please—within limits agreed to through non-faith-based public reasons, such as not turning it into a toxic waste dump. But that right does not have much content unless I can call up the police and bring a case in the court system against would-be squatters and trespassers. The police and the legal system is expensive, and it is supported as a public good out of the public treasury. The taxation that supports it interferes with all our lives.

Similarly, the separation of religion and state has to be policed and litigated. In the US, this happens constantly and at no insignificant expense.

An opponent of a secular state, however, could well object to the enforcement aspects of the separation of religion and state. After all, this amounts to a positive right that must be recognized and funded by all, including conservative religious people. They partly bear the burden of supporting a political arrangement that is an imposition upon them. Consider how pissed off conservative Christians can get when yet another nativity scene is banned from a public area, or when prayer is disallowed in a school graduation. They don’t perceive this as merely being prevented from imposing their beliefs on others. They see it as an imposition on them as religious people. They may be partly correct.

I’m not sure if all this adds up to a lot. It’s hardly news that there is no knock-down argument for secularism in terms of neutrality or noninterference or what-have-you. It might, however, help emphasize that secular liberals need to present a more robust, positive case for the virtue of a secular public life.

bookmark_borderI’m (In)famous!

My “retirement” notice posted on SO last Sept. 1 got MUCH more attention than I expected–or wanted. Religion Dispatches has an article about the announcement and the subsequent brouhaha:

Several letters were written and a couple of questions were raised that I would like to address:
1) Q: If I no longer respect the “case for theism” sufficiently to devote professional activity (teaching, writing) to it, why do I continue to discuss these issues on SO?
A: As I indicated in the original post, much of my reluctance to write anything more about theistic arguments is that a number of outstanding philosophers, like Graham Oppy, Richard Gale, and the late, great Jordan Howard Sobel have addressed these arguments with great subtlety, penetration, and sophistication, and I just do not feel that I have that much to add to their accomplishments. In my view, the “case for theism” has been thoroughly debunked by such scholars and there just is not much reason for philosophers to devote more professional energy to the task–any more than professional scientists should devote space in their journals to debunking creationism. Professional writings should do more than keep beating dead horses.
However, there is an important distinction between one’s role as a professional academic and the role of a “public intellectual.” Debunking creationism may not be an appropriate topic to submit to Evolution or Paleobiology, but creationism is believed by millions and supported by well-funded institutions that promote it avidly. Therefore, I think, in addition to their responsibilities to their professions, scientists also have a responsibility to enter into the public discussion on these topics. Otherwise, the field is just abandoned to the creationists. The same goes with topics like global warming and the weirdly resurgent phobia about vaccinations. These issues affect the public well-being and those with the expertise need to participate in the discussion. Similarly, participating in discussions on SO is my, very modest, way of playing the role of “public intellectual.”
2) Q: The article in Religion Dispatches concludes with a quote from me that in debates on topics in the philosophy of religion we reach basic intuitions beyond which there is nowhere to go, so the discussion ends. But, should not debate question intuitions? Should not these be subject to philosophical scrutiny as much as anything else?
A: My view is that conflicting intuitions are a great place to begin a philosophical discussion, but a lousy place to end one. Of course intuitions should be examined critically; that is how a good philosophical debate can start. However, if, after a long chain of argument, patiently examining premises and deploying examples and counterexamples, we find ourselves led right back to the same bedrock intuitions, then I think there is, eventually, reason to despair. That is precisely how some of my discussions and debates with people like Craig have gone. Craig argues that everything that begins to exist must have a cause. He somewhere illustrates the bedrock intuition underlying this claim by asking whether we could believe that a live Bengal tiger would just now materialize from thin air right here right now. Well (fortunately), of course not. But a tiger materializing IN space/time here and now, with conservation laws in place, is not at all the same kind thing as the beginning OF space/time and, concomitantly, the laws of physics. Therefore, I feel perfectly justified in not having the same intuitions about tigers as about universes. Really, in fact, I have NO intuitions about the beginning of the universe, and if I did have them, I would not trust them. The upshot is that after going round and round, Craig and the atheist seem to wind up pretty much where they started, and it is not clear where you go from there.