My Logical Argument from Evil Published on the Secular Web

It took much longer than I thought, first to get it reviewed, and then to work through the reviewing process, but it’s finally up:  A Logical Argument from Evil and Perfection.

Meanwhile, I was delighted to see that John Schellenberg is due to publish A New Logical Problem of Evil. He offers a different way of prosecuting the logical problem, but one which shares with my paper the general approach of using God’s purity and maximal goodness to forestall attempts at theodicy. Well worth reading.

I had no idea..

.. but this is just horrific. Feel free to share it if you have the same sense of disgust and distress in realizing that some fellow humans condone this barbarity.

David Lewis on Philosophical Method

“The reader in search of knock-down arguments in favor of my theories will go away disappointed. Whether or not it would be nice to knock disagreeing philosophers down by sheer force of argument, it cannot be done. Philosophical theories are never refuted conclusively. (Or hardly ever. Gödel and Gettier may have done it.) The theory survives its refutation—at a price. Argle has said what we accomplish in philosophical argument: we measure the price. Perhaps that is something we can settle more or less conclusively. But when all is said and done, and all the tricky arguments and distinctions and counterexamples have been discovered, presumably we will still face the question which prices are worth paying, which theories are on balance credible, which are the unacceptably counterintuitive consequences and which are the acceptably counterintuitive ones. On this question we may still differ. And if all is indeed said and done, there will be no hope of discovering still further arguments to settle our differences.

It might be otherwise if, as some philosophers seem to think, we had a sharp line between “linguistic intuition,” which must be taken as unchallengeable evidence, and philosophical theory, which must at all costs fit this evidence. If that were so, conclusive refutations would be dismayingly abundant. But, whatever may be said for foundationalism in other subjects, this foundationalist theory of philosophical knowledge seems ill-founded in the extreme. Our “intuitions” are simply opinions; our philosophical theories are the same. Some are commonsensical, some are sophisticated; some are particular, some general; some are more firmly held, some less. But they are all opinions, and a reasonable goal for a philosopher is to bring them into equilibrium. Our common task is to find out what equilibria there are that can withstand examination, but it remains for each of us to come to rest at one or another of them. If we lose our moorings in everyday common sense, our fault is not that we ignore part of our evidence. Rather, the trouble is that we settle for a very inadequate equilibrium. If our official theories disagree with what we cannot help thinking outside the philosophy room, then no real equilibrium has been reached. Unless we are doubleplusgood doublethinkers, it will not last. And it should not last, for it is safe to say that in such a case we will believe a great deal that is false.

Once the menu of well-worked-out theories is before us, philosophy is a matter of opinion. Is that to say that there is no truth to be had? Or that the truth is of our own making, and different ones of us can make it differently? Not at all! If you say flatly that there is no god, and I say that there are countless gods but none of them are our worldmates, then it may be that neither of us is making any mistake of method. We may each be bringing our opinions to equilibrium in the most careful possible way, taking account of all the arguments, distinctions, and counterexamples. But one of us, at least, is making a mistake of fact. Which one is wrong depends on what there is.”

~ David Lewis, Philosophical Papers Vol. 1

The Failure of the Argument from Contingency

An Argument from Contingency is an argument for the existence of God which employs a broad explanatory principle asserting, for every contingent fact,  the existence of an explanation, reason or cause of some sort. It proceeds from the existence of contingency via the principle to an explanation of the contingency, whereupon it is inferred that this explanation must be necessary, and that this necessary being must be God. Here’s a basic version of the argument, which I intend to show unsound:

(1) Every contingent fact has an explanation. (The Principle of Sufficient Reason, or PSR)
(2) There is a contingent fact that includes all other contingent facts.
(3) Therefore, there is an explanation of this fact.
(4) This explanation must involve a necessary being.
(5) This necessary being is God.

Before I get to my criticism of this kind of argument, I must mention that ‘explanation’ here is always explanation of a certain sort. Put vaguely, an explanation of some fact serves to make that fact comprehensible, to make it less mysterious and surprising. But two ways to accomplish this. The first way is via descriptive explanation, which tells us in detail what the explanandum1 is, and in doing so makes comprehensible the truth of what is explained – to believe that some fact is true requires a clear conception of the nature of that fact, and descriptive explanations facilitate this semantic prerequisite of belief. The second way is via causal explanation, which tells us why the explanandum is. Unlike descriptive explanations, causal explanations involve the postulation of entities, those to which the explanans and explanandum refer. And unlike descriptive explanations, in which the explanans is identical to the explanandum, a causal explanans is always external to the explanandum. It cites a cause, or set of causes, which make the truth of the explanandum comprehensible by showing us how it is the necessary or likely product of some state of affairs which does not include it2. Continue reading

A Logical Problem of Evil

What follows is a reworking of my previous posts on evil, which I wanted to combine into one document. Much of the material is the same, though I’ve clarified it some, and added another objection. Since I seem to have gone about as far as I can for the moment, it’s posted.

EDIT: Best version and last version here.


Groundwork for the Argument

I begin by picking up a thread of inquiry which Alvin Plantinga follows in God, Freedom, and Evil1. There we find Plantinga examining the logical problem of evil, as given by J.L. Mackie in his 1955 paper, Evil and Omnipotence. According to Plantinga, Mackie takes the following propositions to form an inconsistent set..

(1) God is omnipotent
(2) God is wholly good
(3) Evil exists.
(19) A good thing always eliminates evil as far as it can
(20) There are no limits to what an omnipotent being can do.

.. all of which seem plausible on theism. Yet if the set is inconsistent at least one proposition must be rejected on pain of contradiction. Since (3) is obvious, while (19) and (20) appear to be sound definitions, it appears that either (1) or (2) must go, or both, if the presupposition of God’s existence is false. But Plantinga contests (19) on several grounds, guiding a cascade of revisions, the most important amongst these being that if some evils are logically required for the existence of a greater good, then we would expect that a good being would not eliminate the evil, as this would also eliminate the good. Eventually, he settles on an inconsistent set of propositions from which a valid argument from evil may be constructed:

(1) God is omnipotent.
(2) God is wholly good.
(2′) God is omniscient.
(3) Evil exists.
(19c) An omnipotent and omniscient good being eliminates every evil that it can properly eliminate.
(20) There are no nonlogical limits to what an omnipotent being can do.
(21) If God is omniscient and omnipotent, then he can properly eliminate every evil state of affairs.

So, having constructed this set, why does Plantinga doubt that a logical argument succeeds? Continue reading

The Logical Problem of Evil: On What Perfection Means

Previously on this blog, I offered a logical argument from evil against the existence of God, split over two posts. Some helpful comments on that argument confirmed for me that the weakest link in the argumentive chain was a certain premise..

(C) If God exists, then he instantiates all good-making properties, and no evil-making properties.

.. which I had taken to be an unproblematic consequence of perfect-being theology. Here I’d like to provide some motivation for the connection. For ease of exposition, I assume that God exists, and as in the previous posts, ‘good-making property’ refers to types rather than tokens.  Continue reading

The Myth of Morality: Practical Rationality

This post is the third in a series covering Richard Joyce’s The Myth of Morality, a book arguing both for error theory and fictionalism about morality.

In the last post, Joyce’s conception of moral inescapability was introduced, and moral imperatives were identified as strongly categorical. In this post, Joyce uses the insights gained to sketch an argument for a moral error theory. A theory of practical rationality is given, and used to refine the argument.

The Argument for Moral-Error Theory: First Pass

This brings us to our first sketch of Joyce’s argument:

1. If x morally ought to φ, then x ought to φ regardless of whether he cares to, regardless of whether φing satisfies any of his desires or furthers his interests.
2. If x morally ought to φ, then x has a reason for φing.
3. Therefore, if x morally ought to φ, then x has a reason for φing regardless of whether φing serves his desires or furthers his interests.
4. But there is no sense to be made of such reasons.
5. Therefore, x is never under a moral obligation.1 Continue reading

The Myth of Morality: Moral Inescapability

This post is the second in a series covering Richard Joyce’s The Myth of Morality, a book arguing both for error theory and fictionalism about morality.

In the last post, we left off with a method of determining  whether an error-theoretical stance should be taken toward moral discourse: first, find one or more non-negotiable propositions implied by the discourse; second, attempt to ascertain whether these non-negotiable propositions are true. In this post, Joyce begins to build his case for an error theory.

Moral Inescapability & Prudential Oughts

Joyce’s argument for error theory centers on what he calls ‘moral inescapability’.  He views moral discourse in the tradition of J.L. Mackie, as being objectively prescriptive: is the idea that there are actions which we “have to do, regardless” that underlies the claims of objective prescriptivity. The problem of ordinary moral discourse is not a matter of what motivations accompany our moral judgments – it is, rather, that we think that people are “bound” even if they make no moral judgments at all. Even the person who has rejected that whole realm we still think of as being under the jurisdiction of morality.” ~ Joyce, p. 31. Continue reading

Theism/Agnosticism/Atheism: Three Taxonomies

As a former member of the forums1, I can testify to an everlasting threads contesting the meanings of ‘theist’, ‘agnostic’ and ‘atheist’. Members would register their various opinions over what the terms really meant, and argue vociferously for those definitions. Viewed one way, the discussion was silly – if the point of it was to identify the meanings of words, then disagreement ought to have led discussants quickly to the conclusion that these words had different senses, not into entrenched debate. But viewed another way, the discussion was reasonable – if instead the point was to say what the definitions of these terms should be, then the obvious fact that these terms are understood in various ways doesn’t settle the issue, and discussants can quite rightly hold to their positions in the face of it. Indeed, one might think that the diversity of definition is precisely why the debate is worth having – if a single set of definitions can be negotiated, then we can avoid the confusion which diversity causes.

Anyhow, Emil of ‘Clear Language, Clear Mind‘ thinks settling the question is worthwhile, and to that end explores two commonly adopted nomenclature. The first of these he calls the ‘Old Nomenclature’:

  • Atheism means “the denial of the existence of God or gods.“
  • Theism means belief/faith in the existence of God or gods.
  • Agnosticism means either “the belief that there can be no proof either that God exists or that God does not exist” or is the lack of belief “either way”.

In contrast, the ‘New Nomenclature’:

  • Atheism” means the lack of belief in God or gods.
  • Weak/negative atheism” means the lack of belief ‘either way’.
  • Strong/positive atheism” means the denial of the existence of God or all gods.
  • Theism” means belief in the existence of God or gods.
  • Agnosticism” means either the belief that there is no knowledge about God or gods, or the belief that knowledge of God or gods is impossible.

But how do we decide between them? Continue reading