bookmark_borderAtheistic Moral Realism – Part 2

I am going to engage in a bit of logic chopping now.  But for those who do not have an appreciation for logic chopping, do not despair;  my close examination of the bark on one tree will lead me to make some broader points that have significance for philosophy of religion, ethics, and serious thinking about God.  The broader points might even have some relevance to evaluation of William Craig’s argument from the Existence of Objective Moral Values (Let’s rearrange those words a bit: “Moral Objective Values Exist”; hence I will refer to this as Craig’s MOVE argument).
In Part 1 of this series,  I pointed out a couple of alternative ways of stating Craig’s MOVE argument.  One of the alternatives was a modus tollens argument:
1A. If God does not exist, then objective moral values do not exist.
2A. It is NOT the case that objective moral values do not exist.
3A.  It is NOT the case that God does not exist.
It seems to me, that (3A) is ambiguous, at least when considered by itself, apart from this argument.  It could mean either of the following:
3A’. The sentence ‘God does not exist’ asserts a false statement.
3A”. The sentence ‘God does not exist’ does NOT assert a true statement.
Notice, however, that while (3A’) is incompatible with atheism, (3A”) is perfectly compatible with atheism.  A number of atheist philosophers in the 20th century argued that sentences like ‘God exists’ and ‘God does not exist’ only appear to assert statements that are true or false, but in fact do not assert statements at all, and so these sentences are neither true nor false.
The conclusion (3A”) is compatible with atheism of the sort I just described, because such atheists would gladly agree that the sentence ‘God does not exist’ does NOT assert a true statement, because it does NOT assert any statement at all, which is why, they would argue, we should all be atheists, why we should all reject the belief that ‘God exists’, as well as rejecting the belief that ‘God does not exist’.  Both beliefs should be rejected, not because they are false, but because they only appear to assert something about the world, they only appear to describe how things are, but in fact do not assert anything nor do they describe even a possible state of affairs.
So, if (3A) can reasonably be interpreted as asserting (3A”), then the conclusion of Craig’s argument does not rule out atheism, at least not atheism of the sort that was popular among philosophers in the 20th century.
I don’t know if this objection would hold up under close scrutiny, so I’m not going to insist on it.  Even if the objection works, Craig could discard this particular way of stating his MOVE argument and use one of the other ways of stating it.  That might be enough to avoid this objection.
There are at least three sorts of objections to the assumption that the sentence ‘God exists’ makes a coherent statement:

  • The sentence ‘God exists’ makes an incoherent statement, a statement that involves an internal logical contradiction, a self contradiction.
  • The divine attribute of ‘perfect goodness’ fails to describe an objective characteristic, thus making it logically impossible for anyone to be correctly and objectively identified as being ‘God’.
  • No evidence is relevant to confirming or disconfirming the truth of the sentence ‘God exists’, so this sentence does not actually assert a statement or description of how things are or might be.

In The Coherence of Theism, Richard Swinburne argues briefly against the Logical Positivist objection in the third bullet.  He spends much more time dealing with the problem of apparent logical  self-contradictions in the concept of ‘God’,  the objection in the first bullet.  In Chapter 11 he briefly makes a case for moral realism (or what he calls ‘moral objectivism’), a case which does not depend on either theism or atheism, and that case would take care of the second bullet.
Concerning the problem of apparent logical contradictions within the concept of ‘God’, Swinburne acknowledges that skeptics are correct about some of the contradictions that have been pointed out in the concept of ‘God’.  Swinburne gets around these correct objections by making modifications to some of the traditional divine attributes.
For example, Swinburne acknowledges that there is a contradiction between divine foreknowledge and human freedom.  But he points out a more important contradiction along the same lines between divine foreknowledge and divine freedom.  God, according to Swinburne’s analysis is perfectly free.  But if God knows everything that is going to happen in the future, then God knows everything that God will decide to do in the future, but then God would not be free to do anything else other than what he already knows he is going to do. Thus, God’s perfect freedom contradicts God’s unlimited knowledge or omniscience.
Swinburne gets around this problem by limiting the extent of God’s knowledge of the future.  God can know every little detail about the past and the present, but God does NOT have perfect and unlimited knowledge of the future, because God does not know with certainty today what God will himself decide to do tomorrow. In other words, God’s knowledge of the future is limited and constrained by God’s perfect freedom.
I think Swinburne was on the right track in trying to salvage the concept of ‘God’ from various apparent internal logical contradictions.  However, he did not go far enough, and thus left open various other potential logical contradictions.  It is very difficult if not impossible for a finite and imperfect human mind to anticipate all of the various complex logical relationships and interconnections between a set of several abstract concepts.  Swinburne is assuming that his careful examination of various historical objections to the concept of God would be sufficient to enable him to grasp all of the various possible logical implications and interactions between the several abstract concepts that constitute his definition or analysis of the concept of ‘God’.
The problem is, I believe, that when you add adjectives like “perfect” or “infinite” or “unlimited” to abstract characteristics like ‘knowledge’ or ‘power’ or ‘goodness’, the logical scope of those concepts is magnified tremendously.  In other words,  in pumping up these characteristics, one is bound to create logical contradictions between them.
Just as theists argue that there can only be ONE God, ONE supreme being, similarly there can only be ONE divine attribute that trumps all the other attributes.  If, for example, perfect freedom comes into conflict with perfect knowledge, then one of those attributes must be sacrificed for the other.  That is to say, one of the two conflicting attributes must be qualified or limited in relation to the other conflicting attribute.
Another similar philosophical problem occurs in the field of ethics. Mill’s Utilitarianism proposed a criterion for moral evaluation of actions.  An action was good or right if, in comparison with alternative actions, it would result in the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people.   But this criterion is problematic, because it really contains two different criteria or values:  (1) the greatest happiness and (2) the greatest number.
But sometimes these two values or goals come into conflict with each other, and a hard choice must be made. Suppose you have to choose between one action A that would bring about a moderate amount of happiness for a large number of people and another action B that would bring about a large amount of happiness for a moderate number of people.  The principle of Utilitarianism does not help decide which of these two actions is best.  It fails to provide an answer because the two criteria in that principle point in opposite directions in this case.
In ethics, when you have multiple basic values or goals or criteria to use in evaluating the goodness or rightness of an action, the most reasonable strategy seems to be to give differnt weights or priorities to different values or goals.  In other words, when one needs to employ multiple values or criteria to make an evaluation, one should set up some sort of hierarchy of values/goals.  What is the most important value or objective?  What is the second most important value or goal?
Take for example, the following classic moral dilemma:  “If  you lived in Germany when Hitler was in power, and some Jews were hiding in your house, if a Nazi official came to your front door and asked you if you had seen any Jews in the neighborhood recently, should you lie to protect the lives of the Jews hiding in your house, or tell the truth which would almost certainly result in the Jews being taken to a concentration camp and murdered?”  Although some people think that it is always wrong to lie, most sane people recognize that in this situation the moral duty to tell the truth is outweighed by the duty to protect human lives.
Truth telling is not as important as life saving.  The above scenario is only a dilemma for stupid people who fail to recognize the obvious truth that moral principles and values can sometimes come into conflict, and thus that moral principles and values need to be arranged into a hierarchy so that we are not stuck without any guidance when two rules or two values do come into conflict.
It seems to me that if one is to have any realistic hope of constructing a concept of God that will not run into various internal logical contradictions,one must set up a hierarchy of divine attributes.  For Swinburne,  perfect freedom was more important, more basic to his concept of God than the divine attribute of omniscience. So, Swinburne allows the attribute of perfect freedom to limit the attribute of omniscience.  Setting up an overarching hierarchy of divine attributes seems to be the only possible way of making sure that one avoids internal logical contradictions or incohernce in the concept of ‘God’ and in the claim that ‘God exists’.
Only ONE divine attribute can be supreme. Only one divine attribute can be utterly and completely unlimited, and all the other attributes must be subject to limitation by that supreme attribute. Only ONE attribute can be second in importance, and all other attributes, besides the supreme attribute and the secondary attribute, would be subject to limitation in relation to those top two divine attributes, and so on.

bookmark_borderThe Atheist named Richard Swinburne

I was reading the Martyrdom of Polycarp recently, which is “the oldest written account of a Christian martyrdom outside the New Testament.” (The Apostolic Fathers, updated edition, edited and revised by Michael Holmes, p.222; hereafter: TAF). Polycarp was killed between 155 and 160 C.E:
The Martyrdom of Polycarp sets out quite clearly both the issue at stake–Lord Christ versus Lord Caesar—and the state’s (as well as the general population’s) view of Christians as disloyal atheists who threatened the well-being of the empire. (TAF, p.222)
Long ago, long before Joseph McCarthy became a senator, long before the John Birch society existed, long before the Boy Scouts were formed, long before the words “one nation under God” were added to the pledge of allegiance, Christians were looked upon as ‘disloyal atheists’.
Polycarp was an elderly bishop of the church of Smyrna, a major seaport in the Roman province of Asia (located on the west coast of Turkey).  He went into hiding, was hunted down, arrested, tried, and was then executed.  His confrontation with the Roman authorities makes reference to the idea that Christians were considered to be atheists:
But as Polycarp entered the stadium, there came a voice from heaven: “Be strong, Polycarp, and act like a man.”  An no one saw the speaker, but those of our people who were present heard the voice.  And then, as he was brought forward, there was a great tumult when they heard that Polycarp had been arrested. Therefore, when he was brought before him, the proconsul asked if he were Polycarp.  And when he confessed that he was, the proconsul tried to persuade him to recant, saying, “Have respect for your age,” and other such things as they are accustomed to say: “Swear by the Genius of Caesar; repent; say, ‘Away with the atheists!’”   So Polycarp solemnly looked at the whole crowd of lawless heathen who were in the stadium, motioned toward them with his hand, and then (groaning as he looked up to heaven) said, “Away with the atheists!”
(TAF, p.233 & 235)
Ever since Polycarp, Christians have been trying to throw the word ‘atheist’ at us “lawless heathen” as an insult, deflecting the application of the word away from themselves.
Now, of course Christians do believe in a god, specifically, they believe in ‘God’, the God of western theism.  The philosopher Richard Swinburne is a Christian, and a fairly traditional one at that, so he too believes in God.  Nevertheless, Christians are atheists, in that they deny the existence of many gods.  Swinburne not only denies the existence of Zeus, Athena, Apollo, Ares, etc., but he also denies the existence of God as conceived of by Thomas Aquinas and other great Christian philosophers.
In The Coherence of Theism, Swinburne attempts to show that the sentence “God exists” makes a logically coherent statement.  In his effort to do this, he sets aside various beliefs about God, and conceptions of God, that he quite rightly rejects as being logically incoherent.
For example, Swinburne rejects that idea of a God who is omnipotent in the sense that ‘God can do anything’.  God cannot make a married bachelor nor can God make a four-sided triangle, according to Swinburne.  So, belief in an ‘omnipotent’ God, where the believer understands this to mean that God can literally do anything, is an incoherent belief which ought to be rejected in Swinburne’s view.  Thus, Swinburne is an atheist, in that he rejects the existence of God, conceived of in terms of that very strong sense of ‘omnipotence’.
Swinburne also rejects the existence of God, where God is conceived of as being omnipotent in the sense that ‘God can do anything that it is logically possible for a person to do’.  It is logically possible for me to divorce my wife, but it is NOT logically possible for God to divorce my wife, at least not until AFTER he marries her (and it is also not clear that that would be possible).  So, no such God exists, according to Swinburne, for the idea of such a being is logically incoherent.  There are things that it is logically possible for some persons to do, that it is not logically possible for God to do (COT, p.154).
More importantly, Swinburne rejects the existence of God, where God is conceived of as being omniscient in the sense that ‘God knows everything that has ever happened and that ever will happen’.  Many people, including many Christian believers, believe in such a God.  But Swinburne asserts that these many devout Christian believers are mistaken, and that there is no such being.
God is a perfectly free person, according to Swinburne, and a perfectly free person cannot know with certainty what actions he/she will choose to do in the future (COT, p. 177).   Perfect knowledge of the future is logically incompatible with perfect freedom; therefore, it is logically impossible for God to both be perfectly free and for God to also have perfect knowledge of the future.
God must either be perfectly free and have imperfect knowledge of the future, or else God has perfect knowledge of the future and does NOT have perfect freedom.  Thus, Christians who believe in a God who is both perfectly free and who has perfect knowledge of the future believe in a God who not only does not exist, but they believe in a God who cannot possibly exist, because they believe in the existence of a being with attributes that are logically contradictory.
Swinburne also denies the existence of God conceived of as a person who exists outside of time, contrary to the view of many Christian theologians:
Most of the great Christian theologians from Augustine to Aquinas taught that God is timeless. (The Coherence of Theism, revised edition, p.223)
Not only is this conception of God impossible to reconcile with the common Christian belief that God interacts with human beings, responding to prayers and requests for forgiveness, but the idea of a person who exists outside of time is logically incoherent (COT, p.228-229).  This idea requires that God observe my actions today simultaneously with observing my actions tomorrow, but that means that today is simultaneous with tomorrow, which is incoherent (COT, p.228). There can be no such being.  Yet many Christians, including many great Christian philosophers and theologians have believed in such a God.
Swinburne believes that God is a source of moral obligations for human beings, but he denies that morality is in general grounded in the commands or will of God (COT, p.210, see also p.203-207).  Yet, many Christian believe that God is the ultimate ground and basis for morality.  Swinburne believes that basic moral principles are necessary truths, truths that would hold whether or not God existed.  Basic moral principles are like basic truths of logic and mathematics.  Such necessary truths exist and are true independently of the existence of God.
Thus, the idea of a God who is the ground of morality is logically incoherent in Swinburne’s view.  Many Christian believers hold the belief that such a deity exists, and Swinburne strongly disagrees.  Not only are these many Christians mistaken in believing that such a God exists, but the God they believe in cannot possibly exist, because the very concept of this God is logically incoherent.
Swinburne rejects the belief that God is immutable, in the strong sense that God never changes in any way.  According to Swinburne “Being perfectly free is incompatible with being immutable in the strong sense.” (COT, p.222).  But Aquinas and other Christian thinkers believe in a God who is, by definition, immutable in this strong sense.  Thus Swinburne rejects belief in the existence of God as conceived of by Thomas Aquinas.  Such a being does not exist, and cannot possibly exist, because the concept of an absolutely unchanging person who is perfectly free contains a logical contradiction.
Finally, although Swinburne believes that there is a sense in which God may be considered to be a ‘necessary being’, he rejects the belief that God is a logically necessary being.  In other words, he rejects the view of some Christian thinkers that the existence of God is a necessary truth. Swinburne argues that God’s existence is a logically contingent fact, not a necessary truth.The idea of a God who has logically necessary existence is incoherent.  The existence of such a God is impossible, logically impossible, according to Swinburne.
So, the next time a Christian tries to throw the word ‘atheist’ at you or other “lawless heathen”, as a term of insult, please remind him or her that one of the leading Christian philosophers of our time is also an ‘atheist’ in that he has strongly rejected belief in God, at least in God as conceived of by many Christian believers.
I agree with Richard Swinburne’s atheism.  I agree with him that many Christians believe in the existence of a god who not only does not exist but who cannot possibly exist, because they believe in a God who has logically contradictory attributes.  There is, however,  at least one point on which I part company with Mr. Swinburne.  I believe that his God, the God that he believes in, does not exist, and I believe that his God is also logically incoherent, that his concept of God contains logical contradictions and thus cannot possibly exist.

bookmark_borderRyan Stringer on Nonbelief and Hope

Here is the abstract for Stringer’s new paper published on The Secular Web:

Many people hold on to supernatural beliefs because they feel that certain psychological needs could not be met without them–in particular, they feel that they would not be able to have any hope without such beliefs. However, nonbelief need not be the “recipe for despair” that it is often assumed to be; in fact, not only can it leave ample room for hope, but it can help people hope in a realistic, psychologically healthy way when it comes to important things in life. Because nonbelievers can hope for most of the things that people generally hope for, dispelling the myth that nonbelief is a recipe for despair can go a long way toward making nonbelief psychologically acceptable to those who might otherwise resist it.


bookmark_borderPodcast: Objective morality and atheism; the evil god challenge; risks posed by religion

I did a podcast for Malcontent’s Gambit here. It’s about 45 mins long. Alan and I got into some interesting topics, including: whether atheists can allow for absolute moral values, my evil god challenge, and the potential dangers posed by religion.