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Unbelievable Arguments • The Real Hard Problem • Random Freedom • Ave Epicurus • Automatic Writing • The Problem Itself • Persistant Thinking • Immoral Relativism
Dear Editor: Last issue, William Lane Craig published an article purporting to prove God’s existence. Dr Craig first asks us to consider why anything exists at all, and he uses the classic example of an obviously man-made object found on a footpath. In this case it’s a ball. In 1802, as presented by Christian apologist William Paley, it was a watch. The argument, in brief, supposes that if one were to find a watch, or a ball, in nature, it would be evident to us that someone had made it and that it had not appeared there naturally. Dr Craig, like Paley before him, extends this analogy to the universe. Dr Craig identifies the universe as a ‘contingent entity’ and claims that all such entities must have a necessarily existing cause. That the universe is a contingent entity is itself suspect, but in his summary of his argument it is Premise #2 that must be addressed. This premise states “If the universe has an explanation of its existence, that explanation is a transcendent, personal being.” Why must it be a transcendent personal being? Because, as Dr Craig says himself, this is the “only way I can think of to get a contingent entity like the universe from a necessarily existing cause.” The reader must ask why they must accept the cause as a transcendent personal being simply because it is the only one Dr Craig can think of. He offers no alternatives, such as a ‘transcendent non-personal process’. We can discard the argument as flawed, and the conclusion that it proves the existence of God as requiring more work.
Next up is the existence of the universe. By citing popular physicists, Dr Craig moves us toward accepting why the universe had a beginning, and from there why the cause of that beginning is God. But the debate is still out on whether or not the universe had a beginning: our universe may be an endless cycle of Big Bangs and Crunches. Dr Craig also employs the apparent fine-tuning of the universe as evidence for God. This argument says that if any of the universe’s physical laws were off even slightly from their present parameters, then life would not exist. This, in the reasoning of Dr Craig and others, points to an intelligent designer.
To address this argument I will steal an analogy from the late Douglas Adams. Imagine that a puddle were to open its eyes one day and wonder aloud to itself at its own existence. In amazement it would conclude that the hole it found itself in fit it so perfectly as to suggest that it must have been designed specifically for it. I would hate to be the one to explain to that puddle that it had gradually formed, drop by drop, to fill the hole that shelters it. I rather enjoy the puddle that I am. Don’t you?
R.D. Coste, Host, Philosophy Walk podcast
Dear Editor: I was somewhat disappointed by William Lane Craig’s evidence for the existence of God. I had hoped for a subtle analysis which would challenge the paradoxes of non-belief; but I found that even I, a non-philosopher, could see the holes in his arguments.
His first two reasons amount to, if something exists, it has to have been caused to exist. Leaving aside the scientific evidence that matter and space seem able to continuously create themselves at the quantum level, this argument can only give us a primary cause of existence: it says nothing about the continued relevance or even continued existence of that cause. In fact, entropy teaches us that increased coherence in one area is always accompanied by decoherence somewhere else, so this argument can only tell us that if God created the Universe, He may well have vanished in the process!
WLC’s next three arguments can be summed up as: the Universe has structure, and this structure must originate from and be maintained by something. This, however, is surely an explanation after the fact. The fact that there are physical laws could be a by-product of the fact that the Universe is a structure; or it could be an illusion created by the fact that our limited sensing of the universe has itself got structure. These explanations are as ineffable as WLC’s, so surely have to be given equal brain room. His appeal to mathematics is particularly illustrative: mathematics is an explanation we impose on the Universe, but it is an explanation we cannot ourselves fully explain, as even now there are no ‘foundations of mathematics’.
I won’t address the fine-tuning of the universe for life, other than to raise the obvious question: where could conscious life evolve other than in a universe fine-tuned for conscious life? The fact that we exist in a Universe that we can exist in doesn’t really tell us anything.
WLC’s argument about objective moral values is essentially anthropocentric – bacteria are in no way constrained by them. Even chimpanzees, though much closer to us in cladistic terms, are not bound by our moral values. So when WLC uses the term ‘objective’ in front of moral values, he is assuming that the human approach is somehow superior to that of other animals – but even if true, superiority cannot externalise a moral system and make it objective.
WLC’s final point about experiencing God is irrefutable, which, of course, is it’s weakness. While he can personally experience and know God (he tells me he can, and I have no reason to doubt him), it does not mean that I have (or can have) any such experience; and I hope that he will accept that me telling him I cannot, accompanied by the fact that he has no reason to doubt me, is sufficient to make my point as reasonable as his.
Martin Edwardes, London
Dear Editor: Prof. Craig has made a number of fundamental errors in logic, philosophy and science. I shall confine myself to a critique of his first ‘proof’ of the existence of God. In his summary of his first proof he says; “Every contingent thing has an explanation [i.e. cause] of its existence.” This argument is flawed, as outside time, cause and effect do not exist, since there is no before and after. Since his God is outside the universe, and hence time, cause and effect cannot be applied to Him. Further, and even more damning, since the only thing we know about the supposed cause of the universe is that it is itself uncaused, then by Occam’s Razor it is sufficient to make the universe the uncaused cause of itself. Lastly, for Prof Craig to jump from an uncaused cause being a necessary cause of the universe to embellishing it with the characteristics of God, with all His human ornamentation, is of course completely unjustified. Prof Craig has tried to smuggle a faith-based argument into PN, by dressing it up as philosophy.
Harry Fuchs, Warwickshire
Dear Editor: There is a fundamental problem with William Lane Craig’s arguments, in that he talks about God as an objective entity, when it is people’s experience of God that determines their belief or non-belief (as Craig sees in his last argument); but this makes God totally subjective. This is why people’s ideas of God are so diverse. For some, God is judgemental, homophobic, discriminating toward various cultures and intolerant of non-belief, whereas for others, God is forgiving and the ultimate source of love. And for some people, God can represent both of these contradictory perspectives. Otherwise, I think Craig’s weakest argument is that “God is the best explanation of moral values and duties.” Hugh Mackay, in Right & Wrong: How To Decide For Yourself, makes the point that grounding one’s morality in God can have fatal consequences, as people can then justify any action. A prominent example would be the 9/11 attacks.
Paul Keeling, Melbourne
Dear Editor: Just as there is a plethora of religious beliefs, there is also a plethora of moral beliefs. And if Prof. Van Harvey (Issue 98) wants to maintain that there being so many religious beliefs means that no religious belief is correct, then in order for his logic to be consistent, he must accept that no moral belief is true, either. Kantians see morality one way, utilitarians another; still others feel that moral relativism is the right way to go. Who is right? Who is wrong? If we accept Van Harvey’s logic, none of them can be correct. If he really wants to accept religious nihilism on the basis of diversity, then he must accept moral nihilism too. Therefore, he cannot possibly maintain that the moral position of his theological agnostic is the correct one. At least, not if he wishes to remain consistent.
Tracey Csmereka, by email
The Real Hard Problem
Dear Editor: I enjoyed Massimo Pigliucci’s piece in Issue 99, ‘What Hard Problem?’. Pigliucci acknowledges that consciousness is not an illusion and seeks to frame ‘the hard problem of consciousness’ (i.e. the brain’s creation of personal experience) as a category mistake. To worry about the colour of a triangle is not to stumble across a thorny explanatory issue, but simply to fail to appreciate what characterises triangles, he analogises. Similarly, he suggests, once we have provided an account of consciousness in evolutionary and neurophysiological terms, there is nothing left to explain. “An explanation isn’t the same as an experience, but that’s because the two are completely independent categories,” so the ‘hard problem’ disappears, he says. But despite Issue 99 being the Christmas edition, Pigliucci cannot crack this hard nut quite so easily. Here’s why.
Of course ‘experience’ is not the same category as ‘explanation’: experience is here the subject of a quest for explanation! This quest concerns how reality contains the capacity for consciousness at all, not simply how consciousness evolved, or how it is supported by neural systems. So please Massimo, try just one more thought experiment. Take yourself back sixty-five or so million years. Dinosaurs roam the Earth, but their days are numbered. What wiped them out was just around the corner. The fittest dinosaurs in that environment would have been those adapted for time travel. The point however is that for natural selection to operate with a given capability, that capability must be in nature’s toolkit in the first place. And how consciousness is in nature’s toolkit is just what is at issue.
Jon Cape, Stirling
Dear Editor: In Issue 98 in his review of The Things We Do and Why We Do Them by Constantine Sandis, Les Reid writes that when libertarians evoke quantum physics to defend free will, determinists invariably miss the point of their argument. This is fair enough as far as it goes, but we are still missing an explanation from the libertarians concerning the crux of the debate – how randomly-caused events outside the boundary of Newtonian physics can contribute to the sort of free decisions we would all like to think we make. I suspect that there is no explanation of the type desired.
It seems to me, however, that the random and the Newtonian can be combined to produce something unexpectedly useful. We apply our reason in order to foresee the most likely outcomes of what our emotions and instincts are proposing as a course of action. The result, in turn, feeds back into the decision-making process itself. Curiously, though, this means that we can let randomness in as well.
So let us suppose that our thoughts are, at least sometimes, the consequence of quantum randomness inherent in the atoms or molecules of our neurons. One may think that this would lead to madness, but, in fact, what may be random, truly unpredictable thoughts, could, in moderation at least, have a beneficial effect. How? Because our thoughts, however they arise, are ultimately subject to our rational checking processes. So then, to have some randomly-generated thoughts need be no more dangerous to our sanity than a suggestion randomly read in a book or heard in a discussion with a friend, and could be just as productive of rational change. If we conjecture that such randomness is inherent in our brains, then, perhaps this is a significant way of making us look at things differently. It may be a source of our creativity. Let’s just hope that our intellectual verification system has built-in ways of avoiding random changes to its software. Maybe there’s a factory reset button?
Paul Buckingham, Annecy, France
Dear Editor: Brian Dougall’s article ‘Epicureanism: The Hobo Test’ in Issue 98 is more caricature than accurately characterizing Epicurus and his philosophy. Dougall concludes that anyone trying to live a pain-free, pleasurable existence would end up a hobo, the implication being such an ambition is not realistic or even possible in today’s world.
However, Epicurus was really the self-help guru for the ancient world. Through his philosophy he tried to help relieve peoples’ anxieties about pain, death, and religion. Like many of his philosophical contemporaries, he sought what was called ataraxia: a state of ease, peace, and tranquility. He thought that by ridding ourselves of pain we naturally bring on a state of pleasure. He was no wild-eyed hedonist, though, and thought that friendship was the greatest pleasure. Despite what the term ‘epicurean’ has come to mean today, fancy food and wild sex were not on his menu. He thought that simple pleasures were best, and the easiest to obtain. He wrote that morality was mostly dependent on time, place, and circumstance, and that it was largely an agreement among people in society not to harm each other. But pleasure was basically good and what characterized having a pleasant life. Moreover, he believed that atoms were the basis of the material world, but that personal freedom was a possibility insofar as we could understand our nature and be in accord with it.
Epicurus was one of the most popular philosophers of the classical world, perhaps the most popular philosopher for both Greeks and Romans. Many of his works were discovered in the ruins of the library of the Roman city of Herculaneum, which was destroyed, along with Pompei, by the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 AD. The Romans enjoyed their pleasures, and greatly esteemed the Greek philosopher who told them it was perfectly alright to do so.
Allan Saltzman, Hamden, Connecticut
Dear Editor: Alistair MacFarlane in his essay on ‘Information, Knowledge, and Intelligence’ in Issue 98 wonders if one might, in a few decades, have trouble knowing whether or not is one talking to a computer or a person.
Some forty-plus years ago, while working one summer at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, I heard about some research, code-named Eliza, in which subjects interacted with a computer via typewriters. The computer’s responses were dictated by only seven rules. For example, if the subject typed in “I think I’ll go to the outdoor concert of the Boston Pops tomorrow if it doesn’t rain,” the computer would respond to the ‘if’ with “Do you think it will rain?” None of the subjects suspected that there wasn’t a real person responding to them, although they did assign him some quirky attributes. If they had been given the task of determining whether the respondent was a real person or not, I’m sure they could have done so, but that’s another story. An example of this may be seen in George Lucas’s film THX 1138.
MacFarlane defines intelligence as the ability to cope with unpredictable circumstances. I would go further, to include imagination as an aspect of intelligence. Didn’t Einstein imagine the unimaginable – that the duration of time is relative to gravity and speed – to get to his ideas of relativity? I can’t imagine a computer being able to make that sort of leap. But, then again, maybe I’m not sufficiently intelligent, or imaginative.
Tony Moore, Tampa, Florida
The Problem Itself
Dear Editor: In Issue 97 of Philosophy Now, the article ‘One Law to Rule Them All’ considers the confusing and self-contradictory statement known as the ‘Liar Paradox’: ‘This statement is false.’ It seems to me the problem with the Liar Paradox is that it refers to itself. Earlier in the same issue, the article ‘Is The Buddhist ‘No-Self’ Doctrine Compatible With Pursuing Nirvana?’ mentions the ‘Principle of Irreflexivity’, which states that a thing cannot operate upon itself: a knife cannot cut itself, a finger cannot point to itself, etc. Can we therefore assert that a statement cannot operate upon itself? If so, then the Liar Paradox, because it declares its own truth value, is nonsensical and meaningless.
Joshua Roberts, Unity, Maine
Dear Editor: I can find little puzzlement in holes or haircuts (Raymond Tallis, ‘Naming Airy Nothings’, PN 98), or even in that prickly relationship between holes and haircuts when comfortable yet aged Levis mean one cannot provide the barber with a couple of pound coins. A declared ambition for Tallis in this article (as also for Daniel Dennett) is to find a way of mediating between the manifest and scientific images of the world, which includes capturing the ‘ontology of everyday life’ (i.e. what exists). This is much more puzzling. First, exactly what kind of mediating do they have in mind, and what kind of knowledge is required for it? Second, regarding the study of kinds of things which persist, haven’t major advances already been made, eg on the behaviour of land snails, or classifying of pedigree cats? Third, where do social groups appear in the scheme: are schools, call centres, Fiat showrooms, or divorce courts too airy fairy for philosophers?
Neil Richardson, Kirkheaton, Yorkshire
Dear Editor: I have some doubts about the arguments raised by Simon Langley in Letters 98 in response to Julien Beillard’s article, ‘Moral Relativism is Unintelligible’ from Issue 97. Mr Langley seems to use contextual conditions too liberally, to alter the definitions of laws in ways that change their fundamental significance. But on the contrary, killing another human is never moral, even when they’re subject to the beliefs of another culture. As Mary Midgley observed in her well-known essay ‘Trying Out One’s New Sword’, if we can extol the practices of a culture, we can certainly condemn them. Human sacrifice by the Aztecs is no more moral than Midgley’s example of ancient Samurais testing the sharpness of their new swords by slicing innocent travellers from shoulder to hip. Introducing ‘contextual conditions’ simply nullifies laws and reverts to relativism.
Greg Hickey, Chicago
Next Question of the Month
Sorry there’s no ‘Question of the Month’ this issue: we didn’t have space for it. It will return in its resplendence next issue. The entry period for that question is now closed, but you might want to try to answer the next question, How Should I Live? The prize is a random book from our philosophy book mountain. Let us have your wisdom in less than 400 words, and include your full address, please. Subject lines should be marked ‘Question of the Month’.