bookmark_borderThe Essentially Good-vs.-Morally Responsible Argument for Atheism

In the spirit of Ted Drange’s 1998 article, “Incompatible-Properties Arguments: A Survey,” I wish to sketch the following argument for consideration.
Suppose we define “God” as a being who has, among other things, the following attributes:
(m) essentially good; and
(n) morally responsible for His actions.
Using these definitions, we can construct the following argument.

  1. If God exists, then He is essentially good.
  2. If God exists, then He is morally responsible for His actions.
  3. An essentially good being lacks moral freedom, i.e., an essentially good being cannot choose between good and evil.
  4. A morally responsible being has moral freedom.
  5. Therefore, it is impossible for an essentially good being to be morally responsible for its actions. [from 3 and 4]
  6. Therefore, God does not exist. [from 1, 2, and 5]

In order to avoid any misunderstandings, I claim the argument is valid, but I do not know if the argument is sound.
Cf. Wes Morriston, “What Is So Good about Moral Freedom?” The Philosophical Quarterly, 50 (July 2000): 344-58.

bookmark_borderProf. Pruss on Hell and Free Choice

Prof. Alexander Pruss considers the traditional doctrine of hell and its alternatives:
The three salient proposals, then, are these (2 and 3 are quotes from Prof. Pruss’s post):
(1) The traditional doctrine: At death there can be no further changes in one’s eternal destiny.
(2) Imposition: God imposes moral transformation on those who do not freely opt to love him.
(3) Endless Second Chances: God ensures that those who refuse him nonetheless always have another chance.
According to the traditional doctrine, those who die in a state of grace go to heaven at death, with perhaps, according to RC doctrine, an initial stay in purgatory. Those who die unrepentant and unforgiven go directly to hell, where they remain for eternity. The second possibility is that God, wielding his omnipotence, simply forces a moral transformation upon sinners, psychologically altering them so that they duly repent and accept forgiving grace. The third scenario is that the unregenerate would have a postmortem, presumably non-punitive existence (perhaps something like the first circle of Dante’s hell), but would be endlessly invited to accept Christian salvation.
Pruss argues that the second option is unacceptable because it would involve a gross abrogation of personal freedom. He says: “It’s pretty plausible (pace compatibilists) that in Imposition, God takes away the agent’s freedom to refuse him.” The third option really reduces to the second, he says. Although you may be free on any given occasion to reject God’s offer of grace, you would not have the stamina to resist endless importunities over eternity. Endless nagging would eventually wear you down. Sub specie aeternitatis, option three gives you no more freedom than option two. By implication, then, neither seems to be an acceptable alternative to the traditional doctrine.
As a compatibilist on the free will issue, allow me to comment on why one kind of imposition need not be seen as an abridgement of freedom. For compatibilists like me, the paradigm case of a free choice would be to be allowed to choose solely on the basis of my beliefs, my values, and my desires. For instance, in an election, my vote is free if nothing interferes with my ability to vote for the candidate whom I sincerely believe to best represent my values and whose desires for the good of the country or community are most consistent with my own. However, I do not (or at least do not entirely) choose my beliefs, values, and desires. Ideally, my beliefs are determined by what seems true to me; my values are determined by what seems right to me; my desires are determined by what seems desirable to me. Seeming true to me, seeming right to me, and seeming desirable to me, are not, or at least not entirely, under my control.
Beliefs, then, do not appear to be totally under our control. Indeed, I would say that there are instances of what we might call “epistemic compulsion.” Perhaps the best instance of epistemic compulsion would be a genuine instance of an experimentum crucis. In July 1945, Los Alamos scientists had produced two designs for an atomic bomb, the simple, gun-design uranium bomb, and the more complex implosion-design plutonium bomb. They were confident that the uranium design would work and did not plan a test, but the plutonium bomb had to be tested, and hence the Trinity Test in the New Mexico desert on July 16, 1945. Many of the assembled Manhattan Project scientists were deeply dubious that “The Gadget” would work. J. Robert Oppenheimer, the scientific director of the project, bet that it would have a yield of only 300 tons of TNT—a fizzle. At 5:29 A.M. The Gadget went off with a yield of 20,000 tons of TNT. When the light “brighter than a thousand suns” filled the desert and the shock wave hit like an earthquake, there could be no doubt that The Gadget worked. Here we have a case of epistemic compulsion if ever there were one. All doubts were banished in that moment.
Epistemic compulsion, making the truth so plain that it cannot be doubted, is not a restriction of freedom in any pejorative sense. My freedom to believe is not unfairly or illicitly abridged by having the truth plainly demonstrated. Indeed, insofar as I am rational, I very much want my beliefs compelled in the right way, i.e. by a clear and accurate perception of the truth. The very measure of the strength and value of evidence is the extent to which it constrains our interpretive freedom. Many incompatible interpretations are possible when evidence is scanty or vague, but eventually we hope that the evidence will become so clear and compelling that wiggle room is reduced to nil.
Interestingly, Scripture in places also seems to endorse proofs that make doubt impossible, at least temporarily. I Kings, chapter 18 tells the story of Elijah and the priests of Baal. Elijah challenges the worshippers of Baal to a contest. Elijah will build an altar to The Lord and the priests of Baal will build one to their deity. The side that calls down fire from heaven to consume the sacrifice will be proven to represent the true God. The priests of Baal try all day to no avail, as Elijah mocks and taunts them. Elijah then calls upon The Lord and a vast torrent of fire falls upon Elijah’s altar instantly consuming the sacrifice and even the altar itself. The assembled multitudes are given an overwhelming display of the power of The Lord, and they celebrate with a salutary massacre of the priests of Baal. This is about as good an instance of an experimentum crucis as one could want.
Suppose then, that after death I were greeted by angelic beings who then reveal to me in no uncertain terms the resplendent majesty, power, and goodness of God. I would then have no choice but to admit that the naturalistic/atheistic convictions that I had maintained in life were 100% wrong. It would also be clear to me that I needed to “get with the program.” I might wonder, as Bertrand Russell said he would under such circumstances, why I had not been given such evidence before. However, I would certainly not think that my freedom to disbelieve had been abridged in any harmful way. Indeed, I would be deeply grateful that the truth had (finally) been shown to me. The upshot is that, for the compatibilist, imposition, in the sense of epistemic compulsion would be not only permissible, but wonderful.
It is not even clear that epistemic compulsion would rule out freedom in the libertarian sense that, I imagine, Pruss favors. One could, like those who refused to look through Galileo’s telescope, simply refuse to consider any evidence, experiment, proof, or demonstration. Further, as I understand it, libertarian freedom encompasses the freedom to be irrational, to know the truth and to reject it anyway. Sadly, there are many instances of human beings who, even when confronted with hard, undeniable evidence, blithely and willfully persist in folly. Even when shown the indubitable truth, one might still choose, like Mr. Burns in The Simpsons, to wallow in one’s own crapulence. After all, do not Satan and the fallen angels persist in evil even though they have known God face-to-face?
A viable alternative to the ones Pruss considers therefore seems to be for God to demonstrate, or at least offer to demonstrate, The Truth in a manner that makes it indubitable. This will not constitute an illicit violation of freedom either on the compatibilist or the libertarian sense. For many of us unbelievers, our rejection of the “truth about Christ” is not due, as I think Prof. Jerry L. Walls puts it, to “concupiscence and hardness of heart.” Rather, we do not believe because we cannot. The Christian message seems to us no more believable to me than the stories of The Prose Edda, and those latter ones are a lot more entertaining. Many of us have read the arguments of Plantinga, Swinburne, Moreland, Craig, Alston and others as well as the works of Christian apologists, yet, guided by our best lights, we are thoroughly unconvinced. If we are wrong, we would consider it a great boon to be shown that we are, in this life or the next.

bookmark_borderGuest Post by Angra Mainyu: Determinism and Compatibilism: A Reply to Jerry Coyne

Note: The following post is a guest post by SO commenter Angra Mainyu.
In this post, Jerry Coyne made a some ethical and metaethical claims, as well as some claims about compatibilists. In this post, I would like to address some of his claims about compatibilists.

I think the failure of many compatibilists to give explicit definitions of the term is that so doing would would expose the intellectual vacuity of their arguments. You’ll look in vain in Dennett’s piece for his definition of free will.

First, Coyne has provided no good reason to think that the arguments of compatibilist philosophers are generally intellectually vacuous, let alone that they know that.
Second, compatibilists who don’t provide a definition of “free will” may simply not have one that approaches the common meaning of the term “free will” enough for the purposes of philosophical discussion, or alternatively don’t find it necessary in the context in which they’re making their points. Why would that be a problem?
For example, a philosopher may reflect on the expression “free will” – as it’s usually used -, and reckon that free will does not require indeterminism, without ever defining “free will”, just as – say -, a philosopher may reflect on the expression “morally good” (or “kind”, for example), and reckon that moral goodness (or kindness) does not require the existence of God, without ever defining “morally good” (or “kind”), etc.
Why would that be a problem in the case of free will?
Coyne does not say. But let us turn to Coyne’s comparison between compatibilism and sophisticated theology, and the charges he raises against compatibilists therein:

Both redefine old notions (Biblical literalism or contracausal free will) and claim nobody believes in them any more. Like scripture is for Sophisticated Theologians™, so is free will for compatibilists: both have become metaphors for more recent notions.

First, it is not the case that compatibilists generally claim that nobody believes in contracausal free will anymore.
I don’t know if some compatibilists have that belief, but it certainly isn’t a common one. In fact, Coyne has not provided any evidence that a single compatibilist philosopher – let alone most, not to mention all – claims that there has been a significant shift in commonly held beliefs about free will among the public, from having belief in contracausal free will to not having such belief.
Second, Coyne provides no good reason to believe that compatibilist philosophers redefine a notion of free will.
One of the most common disagreements between compatibilists and incompatibilists is about the meaning of the expression “free will”, in its usual sense. Compatibilists generally hold that the expression “free will”, in its usual sense, does not mean contra-causal free will and does not entail indeterminism, and so – for example -, a statement such as “Coyne wrote the post of his own free will” does not attribute contra-causal free will to Coyne.

The definitions of free will, like that of Sophisticated Gods, are concocted post facto, after compatibilists have decided in advance that their task is not to find the truth, but to buttress a conclusion they want to reach (i.e., we have free will)

First, Coyne provides once again no good reason to even suspect that his claim about compatibilists might be true.
Second, compatibilist philosophers usually have already worked on the task of finding the truth about whether the expression “free will” is such that attributing free will to an agent involves making a claim about some contra-causal entities (or properties, things, etc.), indeterminism, etc., and have concluded that it does not involve any of that that.
Granted, incompatibilist philosophers disagree, and the debate goes on. But that does not remotely suggest that the charge might be true.

Both set humans aside as special—different from other animals (soul or free will)

It’s not clear to me why Coyne believes compatibilism is committed to setting humans aside, but he is mistaken.
In fact, while different compatibilist philosophers may hold different views, a compatibilist may well hold that change between species was gradual, and also that different animals (humans or not) have different degrees of freedom.
Incidentally, while Coyne rejects moral responsibility, immorality, and so on, he holds that there is bad behavior.
What if someone were to charge him with setting aside humans – or humans and all other animals he believes are capable of bad behavior – as “special-different from other animals”?
Granted, he might give an answer along the lines of ‘organisms that can engage in bad behavior gradually evolved from organisms that can’t’ (what else might he reply?), but that is similar to a compatibilist replying that organisms that have free will gradually evolved from organisms that do not have free will.

In both cases academic doyens (theologians or philosophers) feel that it’s dangerous for the public to know the truth (about God or about determinism).

Actually, Dennett and some other compatibilist philosophers believe it would be negative if the public at large were to hold the false belief that there is no free will. But Coyne’s expression seems to suggest that compatibilists believe something like ‘It would be dangerous for the public to know the truth about determinism’, which is false of course.
Still, perhaps Coyne didn’t mean that, but rather, he meant something along the lines of:
a. Theologians believe that it’s dangerous for the public to believe that God does not exist, but it is true that God does not exist (regardless of whether those theologians believe that God exists)
b. Compatibilist philosophers believe it’s dangerous for the public to believe that there is no free will, no moral responsibility, no immoral behavior, etc., even though it is true that there is n free will, no moral responsibility, no immoral behavior, etc. (regardless of what those compatibilist philosophers believe that there is free will, moral responsibility, immoral behavior, etc.)
However, if he meant that, there are at least two difficulties:
The first one is that he made a misleading statement, and is likely to be misinterpreted by many readers.
The second and bigger one is that he failed to show that there is no free will, no moral responsibility, and/or no immoral behavior. Furthermore, he’s not provided any good arguments in support of those views.

To get there, both camps simply redefine terms, so that both “God” and “free will” become notions that don’t correspond at all to how they’ve been understood through history. Compatibilists will say this is okay, but to me it’s like saying, “Jerry Coyne loves dogs—if you redefine dogs as ‘members of the Felidae’.”

Coyne appears to be implying that compatibilists are deliberately redefining terms.
Anyone mildly familiar with the debates between compatibilist and incompatibilist philosophers ought to realize that the implication is false.

Both dismiss science as either irrelevant or inferior to philosophy for solving the Big Question at hand (free will or the existence of God).

Some compatibilist philosophers correctly point out that experiments intended to shed light on how the brain works, and in particular, how it makes choices, are not relevant to answering questions such as whether the usual expression “free will” is such that attributing free will to an agent entails the claim that her actions or choices are not determined by previous events, states, etc.
Those are matters of conceptual analysis.
This is not to say that experiments may not shed light on such matters. But those would have to be experiments designed to assess how people use the words.
In fact, some experimental philsophers are working on that, including compatibilists – like Eddie Nahmias -, and incompatibilists – like Joshua Knobe.
At this point, the results of the experiments vary widely depending on how the questions are worded, but it may well be that in the future, such research will provide clear evidence in support of one of the sides – and, in my assessment, the answer will favor compatibilism.
Regardless, given context, it is clear that Coyne is implying that compatibilist philosophers are dismissing science – at least partially – in an improper fashion. But there is no indication of that.