bookmark_borderIs Necessary Existence Necessary?

Consider the following argument for the existence of God.
1. Something exists.
2. Anything that exists must either exist contingently or necessarily.
3. It is impossible that everything that exists is contingent.
4. Therefore, there must exist at least one necessary being.
5. Only God could be a necessary being.
6. Therefore, God exists.
I think any argument in support of 5 is going to be very weak, but I propose to set it aside for this post and focus on 2 (only peripherally on 3).
In order for 2 to be defensible, it first has to be the case that necessity and contingency are coherently applicable to the existence of things. Prima facie, it certainly seems so:
(C) x exists contingently if and only if x exists and it is possible that x might not have existed.
(N) x exists necessarily if and only if x exists and x does not exist contingently (x exists and it is not possible that x might not have existed).
It is hard to deny that there are all sorts of things that exist that didn’t have to exist, so it follows from (C) that  they exist contingently. But if contingent existence is coherent, then (since necessary existence is defined in terms of it) necessary existence also seems to be coherent.
I find myself highly sympathetic to Quine’s claim that “Necessity resides in the way we talk about things, not in the things we talk about.” (Ways of Paradox and Other Essays (1976), p. 174.) If a view along these lines is correct, then perhaps the whole idea of a necessary being or a thing that exists necessarily is a conceptual muddle. It might be like saying that the order of things on my dining room table is grammatically correct, or that I had nouns for breakfast, or that my furnace is true. A defense of the necessity of God’s existence would have to consist not in talking about necessity as an attribute or descriptor of God, himself, but rather in talking about the necessity of the statement “God exists,” — on how “God” is conceived or defined. But this “analytic necessity,” when applied to God, leads to a  notoriously disappointing end. Whether anything exists or not isn’t a function of its concept or definition (so said Kant, and I tend to agree). We can define or conceive God as existing, but for God to actually have the property of existing, God would, of course, first have to exist. Saying that something exists won’t make it exist. Nor will saying that something necessarily exists. In order for something to have any property at all, it first has to exist. If it does exist, that makes it pointless to then go on and ask whether or not it also turns out to have the property of existing. It is true of anything at all that, necessarily, if it exists then it exists; given any existing thing, look closely and you will discover that it has the property of existing and couldn’t exist without it.
There are cases where a Quinean view seems just wrong. If I say that it is necessary that the sides of a square meet at right angles, this seems to a statement about the square; not the way I talk about the square. The sides will meet at a right angle whether anyone talks about the square or not. That is, having sides that meet in a right angle seems to be something that is a necessary property of the square, itself, and not merely a property of the way we talk about squares. But this sort of  “constitutional necessity” (as we might call it) also requires that the thing in question first exists. To say that God exists as a matter of constitutional necessity also turns out to require that God first exists. It also turns out to be true of anything else — necessarily, if something exists, it will be part of its constitution that it exists.
All this seems to imply something interesting: that existence is always contingent. Since existence can’t be legitimately built into the definition or concept of anything, whatever exists can be conceived without contradiction not to exist, and therefore (C) applies to every existing thing, and (N) doesn’t apply to anything.
To put this in possible world talk, consider the following conversation snippet:
Theist: “I think God exists in every possible world.”
Nontheist: “No, because I can imagine a possible world in which nothing exists but this pineapple.”
It looks like if you can’t define something into existence in one world, you certainly can’t define it into existence in all worlds. The theist, then, is simply wrong to think that God can be usefully defined or conceived as existing in all possible worlds (saying God exists in all possible worlds doesn’t and can’t make it true).
Consider how this applies to a modal argument for God’s existence such as this one defended by Joe Hinman (http://metacrock.blogspot.com/2017/06/special-discussion-for-hunter.html):

1a. God is either necessary or impossible.
2a. God can be conceived without contradiction.
3a. Whatever can be conceived without contradiction is not impossible.
4a. God is not impossible.
5a. God’s existence is a necessity
6a. If God is necessary, then God exists.
7a. Belief in God’s existence is warranted

(I’ve added the letter ‘a’ after each premise number to contrast with the argument below). Note that (7a) is logically superfluous, but let’s let that pass. Instead, compare that argument with this one:
1b. God is either necessary or impossible.
2b. God’s nonexistence can be conceived without contradiction.
3b. Whatever can be conceived without contradiction is not impossible.
4b. God’s nonexistence is not impossible. (From 2b and 3b)
5b. God’s existence is not necessary.
6b. God is impossible. (From 1b and 5b)
7b. Whatever is impossible does not exist.
8b. God does not exist. (From 6b and 7b)
The only way to salvage Joe’s modal argument is to revert to the position that existence can be built into the concept of something so that (2b) is ruled out. But if, as I have been suggesting, anything can be conceived as not existing — if analytically necessary existence is a muddle — then this argument is in trouble. And I think it is. The argument fails at 1a/1b.
There is another kind of necessity worth considering. This would be the idea of being “necessary for”. This is what is involved in causal arguments (God is necessary for everything to have a cause), in arguments from explanatory regress, or in arguments that God is necessary for reality to have ontological grounding (it is roughly this sort of necessity that Hinman appeals to in arguing that God is “Being-itself”). The idea here is that you can’t have B unless you have A. But the problem arises when you ask whether there is anything, in turn, that you need to have in order to have A. There are only three possibilities:
(1) The chain of dependence is infinitely regressive; for everything that exists, there is something else that is necessary for it.
(2) The chain of dependence terminates in something that is a brute fact (nothing explains it, nothing caused it, and it doesn’t depend on anything else — it just is).
(3) The chain of dependence terminates in something that exists necessarily — not in the sense of being “necessary for,” but in being necessary in itself.
But it looks very much like we have ruled (3) out, and (1) doesn’t seem a promising way to get to God. This leaves (2). I have said before that I think theists should be more open to the idea that God is not a necessary being. If the whole notion of necessary existence is a confusion, then theism should either be rejected or rehabilitated to reject the view that God is either necessary or nothin’. Theism just needs a logically weaker concept of God. If theists give up as lost the game of trying to prove that God has to exist as a matter of logic or conceptual necessity, it seems to me they can still try to argue that God at least happens to exist. The obvious disadvantage to this is that theists will have to give up pretensions to being on clearly superior grounds in holding God to be the foundational brute fact rather than something impersonal.

bookmark_borderThe Homeopathic Christ Problem

(A mostly silly puzzle about Holy Communion)

 
The Christian sacrament of Communion can be viewed according to two main competing theoretical perspectives. The first can be called the “symbolic presence” account, according to which the bread and wine are nothing more than symbolic representations of the body and blood of Jesus. On this view, to participate in Communion is to participate in a purely symbolic ritual. Christ is not in any sense literally present in the bread and wine; his presence is merely symbolized by them.
Communion wine
The second account, of which there are multiple distinct variants, can be called the “metaphysical presence” account. On the metaphysical presence account, there is some sense in which Christ is somehow actually “in” the bread and wine (whether by transubstantiation or some other process). Taking communion does not merely symbolically relate one to Christ, but actually does so – whatever that means. I have tried in vain to comprehend the details of any metaphysical presence accounts that does not ultimately reduce to the bare assertion that “Christ, himself, is present in the Host.” Also, I have to say I just don’t understand the point of communion on any metaphysical presence view – what, exactly, does taking the presence of Christ into your body actually do, anyway? But let’s leave such nitpicky details aside for the present.

  1. Suppose we accept some metaphysical presence theory. For present purposes, let’s just focus on the wine.
  2. If two different people, A and B both consume the wine so that A drinks 1 ounce and B drinks 2 ounces, A and B still receive Christ in exactly the same amount. (What matters is only THAT one receives the wine, not how much).
  3. Therefore, for any quantity of sanctified wine, Christ is fully present in it.
  4. It follows from this that if one were to begin with only 1 ounce of communion wine, but needed to serve 20 people with it, one could dilute the 1 ounce with 19 ounces of water, and all 20 people would still receive the full presence of Christ (one would thereby perform one’s own private loaves-and-fishes miracle).
  5. Many denominations of Christianity also believe that once the wine has been sanctified, it remains sanctified, and therefore must not be disposed of haphazardly. To pour sanctified wine down the drain is to pour the presence of Christ down the drain, because Christ is present in it.
  6. But no matter how the wine is disposed of, it will always find its way into the water table.
  7. Moreover, when someone consumes communion wine, there will always be some (usually small) amount that remains in the glasses or chalice. This, too, will be mixed with water in the process of washing the containers and will end up in the water table.
  8. Since no amount of dilution can diminish the degree to which Christ is present in sanctified wine, and given the number of times the communion sacrament has been performed and the amount of time that has passed since the ceremony first came to be performed, Christ is already and always fully present in almost any amount of any liquid anywhere in the world.
  9. (I say “almost” here because it seems possible to resist the conclusion the Christ is present in excreted liquids on the grounds that once imbibed, the presence of Christ is fully absorbed by the person who takes it in. Eventually, however, the unsanctified excreted liquid will mix with environmentally-pervasive sanctified liquid and thereby again become fully sanctified.)
  10. It is therefore entirely unnecessary to perform the Communion sacrament ever again.

 
The theory presented here can be called the “Homeopathic Christ” theory, because of its resemblance to the manner in which homeopathic medicines are (allegedly) made.
I say that the puzzle raised here is “mostly silly” because I find it hard to take any metaphysical presence view seriously enough in the first place to spend too much mental effort on its implications. The puzzle itself only arose within the context of a light-hearted conversation with a friend. Also, the puzzle seems easy enough for Christians to resolve: Just give up all metaphysical presence theories in favor of a symbolic presence view.
A second option would be to reject claim #2. This would be a natural option for proponents of transubstantiation. The same reasons that count against homeopathy, in general, would apply against the homeopathic Christ theory. If the wine is actually blood, it could be diluted to the point where no blood is left. The problem here is that transubstantiationists seem (as far as I can understand it) to hold that the wine is the actual blood of Christ in respect of substance, where “substance” is a sheer metaphysical add-on: “yes, it looks, tastes, and has all the chemical properties of wine, but it is really blood in respect of substance” (to which I can only respond, “huh?”). [*I note that this isn’t the view that is presented when trying to defend some miracles where alleged chemical analysis is said to have tested positive for actual blood. See, for instance: http://www.therealpresence.org/eucharst/mir/lanciano.html] This also seems to raise the question of why and how the non-physical substance of Christ would or even could be diluted if it isn’t made up of molecules. Here consubstantiationism seems preferable to transubstantiation (maybe), but only marginally so — there is still the question of how the substance of Christ can be matched up with quantities that reduce to molecules when such quantities seem to be completely irrelevant within the context of the ritual: It seems that Ferd has missed the point if he says, “I feel extra sinful this week: better give me two glasses of wine instead of one.”
Alternatively, it would be easy to avoid the homeopathic Christ theory by invoking a second miracle; if Christ can miraculously become present in the bread and wine at the beginning of the ceremony, he can surely leave when it is concluded. This would also eliminate the need to lose any sleep over disposing of extra wine, since upon concluding the ceremony it would miraculously revert to ordinary wine again. The same would hold of accidental spills of wine. Christ can intend to be present in the wine if and only if it is consumed by a person in the context of a Communion ceremony. So no one should worry about a spill. Christ ceases to be present in the wine as soon as it is spilled. In fact, given the simplicity of such a solution, it is rather amazing to me that it hasn’t become a standard aspect of the metaphysical presence view.
Denominations that wish to resist such concessions owe an account of where the homeopathic Christ theory goes wrong.

bookmark_borderChristianity without Belief in the Resurrection?

BBC News has a story describing an interesting survey. Several particular results stand out: Half of the respondents reported that they do not believe that the Resurrection happened. But of these, many also identified as Christians. About one-fourth of respondents who identified as Christians reported that they do not believe that the Resurrection occurred. So much for 1 Corinthians 15:14.
5612642734_0204b25b1e_o
 
According to the BBC story, it is also true that 9% of people identifying as non-religious reported believing that the Resurrection did occur.
I have become increasingly interested in research from social psychology that challenges the traditional view that religious affiliation and identity is a simple function of what believe do or do not believe, and even more so what people claim they believe or do not believe (there are many conditions where people will profess strong belief and act accordingly because they want to fit in). The truth is more complicated and tangled than we might prefer. I think there are even compelling reasons to say that in many cases people don’t know what they believe; more accurately, what people in fact believe is not fixed, but varies (at least somewhat) according to psycho-social context, or is otherwise significantly affected by a wide range of situational factors.

bookmark_borderIs Pure Consciousness Possible?

Some practitioners of meditative disciplines or people who have had mystical experiences claim to attain a state of “pure consciousness” (PC). PC is supposed to be a state where one is conscious, but is not conscious of anything. That is, it is completely objectless, or if it has any object at all, the object is nothing but consciousness itself.
I see two problems with the idea of PC. The first is that I have doubts that such a thing is possible, and the second is that if it were possible, it would be useless.
picture in picture in picture
Is PC possible?
(1) Degrees of consciousness. Affirmation of PC appears to treat consciousness as all or nothing. But we have very good reasons to reject this characterization. Consciousness appears to be something that can fade in and out. It is possible to occupy the boundary of consciousness, as one emerges from or drifts into sleep, or as anesthetic takes effect or wears off.
Suppose a meditator enters a state of PC and is then given an anesthetic. What would happen? Would one gradually become less and less purely conscious until one would reach a point where one would not be conscious at all? What would degrees of PC be like? What would be the fact that would distinguish a state of PC from a state without any consciousness at all?
(2) Some descriptions of PC locate it on a continuum with states of consciousness containing objects. The objects within consciousness fade away leaving only the PC. But why should there be such a fading away? Why isn’t there simply an instantaneous transition to and from PC? After all, if PC is possible, then there must come some point during the fading in and out process where objects don’t continue to fade in or out, but appear or disappear altogether. There must be some binary point of transition. Why and how would a gradual attenuation of object-consciousness culminate in an object-less consciousness rather than in an absence of consciousness?
(3) One of the main theories of consciousness in the philosophy of mind is the Higher-Order Thought (HOT) theory. According to the HOT theory, consciousness by its very nature involves a relation between a lower-order and a higher-order thought. But it seems that such a thing is not possible in pure-consciousness, unless it is somehow possible for the higher-order and lower-order thought to be identical (that is, PC would consist in a conscious thought C where the lower-order thought that C is about is C, itself). In fact, it seems to me this would have to be what PC would be if it were possible. The alternative would be that one would be conscious without even being conscious of being conscious, which seems to me to be incoherent.  Certainly one could not know that one was or had been conscious unless one could say what that was like, and this would be impossible if consciousness was completely objectless. A problem here is that if C is the sole object of C, then if one were to stop thinking about C, it seems one would thereby either necessarily either have to be conscious of some thought other than C, or lose consciousness altogether. Yet it seems that those who defend the possibility of PC never claim that the latter happens. Loss of focus in PC does not result in unconsciousness, but rather in falling back into object-consciousness.
It is premature to claim that the HOT theory is certainly correct, of course. But it does appear to have some favoring empirical evidence: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21737339
(4) There seems to be no way to verify any claim to have experienced PC. Suppose I claim to have experienced PC. Couldn’t I be mistaken? We have all had the experience of driving somewhere and then being struck by having no memory of the trip. But this is clearly not a basis for claiming an absence of all conscious experiences en route. So if I can arrive at the end of a highway exit ramp without any memory of having been conscious at the beginning of the exit ramp, it seems I could also find myself at the end of a meditation session without any memory of having been conscious during the meditation session.
What good is PC?
Suppose that PC is possible. The bigger problem with PC, as I see it, it that even if it turns out to be possible, no useful conclusions about consciousness can be drawn apart from the fact that it is possible to be objectlessly-conscious, or conscious of consciousness alone as an object.
(5) No conclusions can be drawn about whether consciousness has a material or immaterial basis, whether or not it is possible or impossible to be conscious without a brain, whether God exists or doesn’t exist, or whether aardvarks are smarter than armadillos. Since there is no object in PC, nothing can be learned about anything by means of it.
(6) It is beyond controversy that much of human thought is unconscious. So even if someone is in a state of PC, it is entirely possible – in fact, certain – that there is still unconscious thinking going on. If there were no unconscious thought or perception occurring during PC, it would be impossible to rouse anyone from it by poking or talking to them. It may be that any thought that can be held consciously can also be held unconsciously. I initially thought that PC would have to be an exception, but on further reflection, it now seems to be that if it is possible to think consciously of nothing but consciousness, then it is also possible to think unconsciously of nothing but consciousness.
I conclude that pure consciousness is either impossible, or useless.

bookmark_borderIntelligent Design: Get ready for another round

President Trump’s choice for Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, is very likely a supporter of teaching Intelligent Design (ID) in public schools. Her husband, Dick DeVos, ran for Governor of Michigan in 2006 and explicitly stated his support for ID ( http://scienceblogs.com/dispatches/2006/09/21/devos-and-intelligent-design/ ). It is not unlikely, then, that ID proponents will be emboldened to make a fresh push to include it in school science curricula.
A key strategic claim for ID proponents is that ID is not merely a repackaging of creationism.
“The theory of intelligent design is simply an effort to empirically detect whether the “apparent design” in nature acknowledged by virtually all biologists is genuine design (the product of an intelligent cause) or is simply the product of an undirected process such as natural selection acting on random variations. “ (http://www.intelligentdesign.org/whatisid.php)
The unstated details of ID tell another story, however. Here is why:
Consider one of the favorite examples of ID proponents – the bacterial flagellum. Some bacteria have a little whip-like tail that allows them to propel themselves forward like a little motor. Distilled to its essential core, the ID claim is that it is massively improbable that such a structure could have come about by purely natural means. But it is at least less improbable that it should have come about by supernatural means (intelligent agency). The claim is usually made using the term “design.” But this avoids the question of how, exactly, the design is implemented. That is, if the bacterial flagellum begins as a design in the mind of an intelligent designer, how does the designer get the flagella into the world?
Since ID rejects the claim that there is any natural pathway from flagella-less to flagella-ed bacteria, there are only a few apparent options. The designer could simply create flagella-ed bacteria were before there were only flagella-less bacteria. Or, the designer could start with a population of flagella-less bacteria and then create, by supernatural intervention, flagella for them (“let these bacteria become flagella-ed!”) and simultaneously modify their DNA so that their descendants would also be flagella-ed. Or, the designer could start with a population of flagella-less bacteria and only modify their DNA so that their descendants would be flagella-ed. Each these options postulates a miraculous intervention. (I suppose that the second and third options might not fit a narrow enough definition of creationism, but positing miraculous intervention is close enough.)
We could design experimental protocols that would test for each of these options. For the first, we could set up some sterile pertinent dishes devoid of any bacteria and periodically check to see whether any flagella-ed bacteria had appeared in them. Preferably, we would hope for a previously unknown strain. This should not be too unreasonable an expectation on the ID view, since according to ID, history contains many many instances – perhaps millions – of complex structures appearing in the world as a result of intelligent intervention. Why think the designer has permanently rested and no longer implements intelligently designed organisms? True, there is the religious doctrine that God is the designer and rested after the 6th day, where perhaps “resting” could be interpreted as being permanently finished, but this would be scientifically ad hoc, and ID is supposed to be a scientific (not religious) hypothesis that doesn’t invoke religious doctrines.
Or, we could stock some petri dishes with flagella-less bacteria and watch them carefully to see whether they become spontaneously modified to have flagella or suddenly produce offspring with flagella. Oddly enough, this is actually how many people commonly understand (or rather misunderstand) the naturalistic story to go, when in fact the naturalistic story involves much more gradual changes over very long spans of time. But if such a thing were observed, we would have to choose which of several competing hypotheses was the most reasonable: (1) An extremely unlikely natural event happened, or (2) spontaneous mutations resulting in complex structures are far more likely than we had previously thought, or (3) intelligent agency (design) is responsible.
We are also supposed to impose probability estimates in isolation from what would surely be relevant teleological questions in the case of intelligent agency. So, for example, we are supposed to consider the relative probabilities that an intelligent designer is responsible for the complexity of bacterium B without also considering the probability that an intelligent designer (who may or may not be God) would be responsible for the fact that B causes extremely unpleasant death for many of those who end up being infected by it. So if one were to take the view that intelligence and morality are correlated (a position I am not arguing for but which does have a rich historical pedigree), then instances of moral neutral or morally negative complexity would seem to count more strongly in favor of a naturalist explanation than an ID explanation. To those who say, “I don’t know who or what the designer is, but whatever it is must be intelligent” it seems fair to reply “I don’t know who or what the designer is, but whatever it is must be morally disinterested in what this complex bacterium actually does when let loose in the world.”
Of course, the strongest pushback of all against the ID strategy is to provide empirical evidence showing that (and how) the highlighted instances of complexity very plausibly can be built up stepwise by naturalistic evolutionary processes. The more often scientists can respond to the examples trotted out by ID proponents and say, “Sure this could come about naturally. Here’s how…” the weaker the ID case becomes.

bookmark_borderRetributivism, Punishment, and Moral Value

In the comments on another post https://secularfrontier.infidels.org/2017/01/05/memoriam-derek-parfit-1942-2017/ , the contrast between retributivist and consequentialist models of punishment came up. Here is a thought-experiment I present to my classes on this contrast.
Suppose that in lieu of life-imprisonment for major crimes, the technology exists to plug offenders into a Matrix-like situation: they are to be imprisoned for the rest of their lives in a completely virtual reality. Suppose that you are in charge of determining the character of the virtual reality environment for offenders. To make things simple, suppose you have two basic choices:

(A) A virtual paradise – simulated natural beauty, sensations of pleasure and physical comfort, diverse and varied opportunities for exploration, access to a wide variety of intellectual resources (books, movies, etc.)

(B) A virtual wasteland – a simulated world that is bleak, barren, boring, sparse, colorless, and physically uncomfortable (sensations of extreme cold or heat, hunger, etc.).

Which virtual reality do you think is morally appropriate for the worst criminal offenders?
Of course, if offenders knew they would end up in the virtual paradise, this would defeat the deterrent purpose of punishment, so we can stipulate that everyone but you believes offenders will be subjected only to the virtual wasteland. In fact, if the prohibition of cruel punishment were to be abolished, you could even make the virtual wasteland into a virtual hell, where offenders will suffer nothing but torment until death (after which, according to many theists, things will only get worse).
It is also necessary, for this thought experiment, to stipulate that offenders cannot be disconnected once they are wired in – attempts to do so would kill the person.
It is also necessary to stipulate that each offender will be the sole “inhabitant” of the virtual world – offenders will not share their virtual prison with any other real individuals, though perhaps the world might be stocked with artificial inhabitants (what, in computer gaming parlance would be classified as NPCs).
So, if no positive consequentialist purpose would be served by subjecting offenders to the virtual wasteland rather than the virtual paradise, then are there any remaining moral considerations that would suggest the right thing to do is to choose the wasteland over the paradise?
Speaking for myself, I used to lean toward the retributivist model. The thought of, essentially, rewarding people for egregiously immoral behavior by wiring them up to the paradise situation just seemed wrong. I imagined an offender thinking something like “Hah! I killed all those orphans and they said they were going to send me to a wasteland, and look – this place is awesome! I wish I had killed even more of those kids!” It is hard not to feel revulsion at the character of such a person, even if it never leads to the performance of any further objectionable actions. I would like to say that having such a character is somehow intrinsically bad. But the more I have thought about how to justify such a stance, the less I feel able to do so. States of character just don’t seem to have intrinsic value or disvalue. Instead, they seem to have only instrumental value insofar as they will affect the ways people interact with or respond to others. But since there are no others in the virtual reality, no states of character have any moral value at all anymore. The states of character would be objectionable if they were to exist in someone who is still embedded in the real world, but for someone who will never interact with the real world ever again, whatever states of character they may have are morally irrelevant.
Is there anything in the virtual environment that WOULD have intrinsic and not merely instrumental value? I incline toward the view that only positive or negative experiential states (pleasure, pain, happiness, unhappiness). In a world with only one sentient individual, there is no right or wrong (unless the concept of self-wrong makes sense) – only good and bad. The choice to put someone in a permanent virtual reality in which they are and forever will be the only inhabitant, therefore, is nothing more or less than the choice of whether they will be in a morally better or a morally worse world.
What becomes, then, of the concept of desert? Doesn’t the offender deserve the worse world? I have come to think, though, that the concept of desert is not plausibly isolable from contexts of future interactions with others. When someone is given what we think they deserve, this signals affirmation of certain strategies of interaction that we value or disvalue.

bookmark_borderBlack Holes and the Problem of Evil

Data produced by the Hubble Space Telescope show that the brightest supernova ever recorded was actually a star being torn apart by a black hole in what is being called the ASASSN-15lh event.

This has a high “coolness factor” for astronomy enthusiasts. But I couldn’t help but wonder a little whether there were any planets in that ill-fated solar system with life on them. Suppose such a catastrophe were to befall Earth – what would be the theological implications? This would be a purely hypothetical or speculative instance of the Problem of Evil, but certainly one of massive scale. What would be the theistic response to the possibility of such an event?
Here are several possibilities:

(A) It couldn’t happen.

God loves the Earth too much. The destruction of Earth by a black hole is scientifically possible, but theologically impossible. Similarly, if God has seen fit to have intelligent life exist elsewhere in the universe, he would also prevent the total destruction of alien life just as he would prevent the total destruction of life on Earth.
Needless to say, I am unimpressed by such an a priori argument strategy. To say that we can know with confidence that the ASASSN-15lh event did not destroy any intelligent civilizations from the comfort of our Earthly armchairs seems too callously cavalier for my tastes.

(B) It would be deserved

Just as God (in the story of the Noahic flood) destroyed all Earthly civilizations out of righteous wrath over their wickedness, the destruction of an alien planet by black hole would only be divinely permitted if that civilization were massively sinful. Although God promised never to destroy the Earth by flood, destruction of the Earth by black hole is still on the table as a possibility.
This second response is just as unsatisfactory as the first. Is it really plausible that we can know, from millions of light-years distance, the extent of an alien civilization’s wickedness entirely by what God allows to happen to it? When we read about disaster befalling some location on Earth, only contemptible zealous reprobates think “well, that’s what happens when you allow gays to get married.” This is not relevantly different.
The theist can always, of course, by pointing out that one imaginative hypothesis deserves another: If I am going to float the suggestion that there may have been intelligent life in that distant solar system, the theist can float the suggestion that perhaps they were cruel and aggressive with plans to dominate the rest of the universe, Earth included. God, then, permitted their destruction for the morally justifiable reason of preserving other intelligent worlds. This reminds me too much of theists who respond to the question of why God permits children to die of cancer by suggesting that maybe they were going to grow up to be as evil as Hitler (which only raises the further question of why God allowed Hitler to grow up, then).

(C) Skeptical theism

Our knowledge of good and evil is so puny in comparison with God’s that we’re in no position to say that destruction of an inhabited world by black hole would be a morally bad thing for God to permit.
I have little enough patience with skeptical theism as it is, but at this point I think the appropriate reaction is to despair of the skeptical theist being able to use the terms “good” and “bad” in a truly meaningful way. To respond to the destruction of an entire planet (whether or not it is Earth) by saying, “for all we know it’s all for the best” is to abandon meaningful ethical discourse.

(D) If

It is reputed that Philip II of Macedon sent a message to Sparta saying, “Surrender immediately, for if my armies capture your lands, they will destroy your farms, kill your people, and raze your city.” The response from Sparta was the single word, “If.” The whole scenario here is purely hypothetical. There is no reason to think either that any intelligent alien civilizations have been destroyed by a black hole or that this is to be the fate of Earth.
This response concedes that the destruction of an inhabited planet by black hole would, in fact, count as reason to think that God does not exist. The conditional, “if an inhabited planet were to be destroyed by black hole, then God probably does not exist” is true, but has an unsatisfied antecedent, on this view. This is interesting because it concedes the possibility of empirical disconfirmation of God’s existence.
There are some atheists who think we don’t need to look beyond the surface of the Earth to find abundant disconfirmation of God’s existence. For them, there is already enough “bad stuff” to be found that they think the antecedent of a conditional like “if enough bad stuff were to happen in the world, then God probably does not exist” is satisfied. There are theists, too, who think this conditional is true, but are unpersuaded that the antecedent is satisfied. But at least there is common ground here. Perhaps, then, it may turn out to be true, after all, that science is capable of addressing the question of God’s existence? Just keep studying black holes.

bookmark_borderConsciousness and souls

Substance dualists insist that no matter what goes on in the squishy 3 pound lump of brain inside the human skull, none of it constitutes what is really essential to human cognition. Something else, an immaterial soul, has to be added to the brain in order for it to … well, to do something – just what is not entirely clear. Free will, consciousness, and personal identity are some of the most common candidates.
There are a lot of problems with substance dualism, but for me one of the most compelling is also one that has received less attention than it deserves. It is an objection that confronted the poster-boy for substance dualism, the French philosopher Rene Descartes. It can be summed up in a question: If dualism is true, then how is unconsciousness possible?
Descartes insisted that the essence of the soul is thinking. He also believed that all thought was conscious thought. So then what happens when you sleep? Descartes’ weird answer is that all through the night, you retain consciousness, but because the soul withdraws from the senses during sleep, you don’t remember being conscious when you wake up. Here is a synopsis in argument form:

1. Thought is essential to the soul.

2. All thought is conscious thought.

3. So, consciousness is essential to the soul.

4. If x is essential to y, then y cannot exist without x.

5. So, the soul cannot exist without consciousness.

The alternative to the always-conscious view, Descartes thought, would be that the soul could be rendered temporarily nonexistent by napping, being bonked on the head, or drinking too much. Not only would such a view be bizarre, but it would suggest that the existence of the soul was dependent on what happened in the body, which would threaten his arguments that the soul was a metaphysically distinct substance from the body.
body-soul
Most people will probably pounce eagerly on premise 2 as the flaw in Descartes’ reasoning. Why shouldn’t the soul be capable of contentedly churning away in unconscious thought while you are asleep? ‘Unconscious thought’ no longer has the oxymoronic status it had for Descartes. But there is still something odd about about the soul carrying out unconscious processes, especially where these processes are p
resumably at least largely independent of what is going on in the brain. And it is still the supposed independence of the soul from the brain that creates problems for the dualist, since it looks very much like the properties that the soul is being invoked to explain are determined by the state of the brain.
Consider this example: You are given a general anesthetic. You decide to exercise your soul’s power of free will to preserve your soul’s property of being conscious. But no matter how much will power you attempt to summon, you find that you cannot remain conscious. Whether or not you remain conscious is simply not up to you. The state of your soul ends up being entirely determined by what is going on with your brain chemistry. But this means that the soul’s properties take a back seat to the brain’s properties. The best the dualist can offer in reply, it seems, is a vague “maybe”: maybe, for all anyone has been able to prove, some of the brain’s properties are determined by the soul’s properties, so the knife cuts both ways. On the dualist’s view, my soul chooses to imagine a wombat, and hey-presto – my neurons cooperate and a wombat-image becomes encoded in my brain. It can even be detected and decoded by a computer ( http://www.livescience.com/53535-computer-reads-thoughts-instantaneously.html ). But the point of origin in an immaterial soul is a blind posit here with no confirming evidence. It is a thin epistemic possibility that the dualist then tries to leverage into a stronger possibility.
Opponents of physicalist models of cognition sometimes gleefully invoke consciousness as part of this woeful non sequitur: No physicalist model has yet explained consciousness, therefore some non-physicalist model of cognition is true. Dualists seem convinced that dualism does successfully explain consciousness, but the problem of unconsciousness suggests this case is badly incomplete, at best. The dualist explanation, so far as I understand it, amounts to bare assertion: The soul explains consciousness because it is the kind of thing that by its very nature can be conscious. But then the dualist needs to do a lot more to explain why, if consciousness belongs to the soul as an inherent, or essential, or constitutive property, it is a property that the soul doesn’t always have, and whose manifestation appears to be dependent on the brain.

bookmark_borderPseudo random thoughts on AA and free will

There are some atheists who would like to see references to God or a higher power dropped from Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) materials.  I think it is clearly desirable for people to have recovery resources available to them that don’t mandate adherence to religious doctrines. But that’s not what I want to focus on. Instead, I just want to throw out some questions for consideration.
Suppose you are an alcoholic. You join AA and in reading the literature you are informed that you need to accept and rely on God in order to succeed in your quest for sobriety. What, exactly, is God’s role here? Is God being asked to miraculously remove your desire for alcohol? Is he being asked to restore your free will regarding alcohol? If you never lost it, then what are you doing admitting that you are powerless to resist alcohol?
If you ask God to give you the strength to do x, does that mean you are asking for God to give you less free will to do x? If not, and x is something that would be good to do, then why didn’t God give you the strength to do x to begin with?
The majority of people who enter AA fail to achieve sobriety. In fact, the success rate is only between 5% and 10%. If God is omnipotent, and is the one who ensures success in achieving sobriety, why is the success rate so low? There is something odd about trying to apply the standard free will, here. It doesn’t seem the low success rate can be blamed on the alcoholics for not choosing sobriety of their own free will. After all, the core idea is exactly that they are powerless, and need to turn things over to God. Frequently, alcoholism is referred to as a disease, and one reason for this is to avoid shaming the person and treating their alcoholism as resulting from bad character. Absolving God of responsibility for the low success rate of AA seems to shift the burden right back on the alcoholic. But then why not just blame the person from the start? And if alcoholics already have all the strength they need to stop drinking, then what is the point of asking God for strength? Shouldn’t the first step of AA be “Believe in yourself – that you have the strength you need to stop drinking.” But that would make the whole approach of AA quite different, wouldn’t it?
If an atheist joins AA, perhaps the atheist can say, “I am powerless to accept the existence of God, because the case for his existence is evidentially insufficient. Therefore, if God exists, I humbly ask that he will make me believe in him, so that I will be able to be sincere enough to ask that he help me stop drinking.” (Atheists Anonymous?)