Lawrence Krauss on Creationism

Very insightful talk by theoretical physicist Lawrence Krauss on the problems with creationism and intelligent design.  It looks like it's part of a longer talk on education in the U.S.  Here are the two parts I could find on youtube:

Part 1

Part 2

Alvin Plantinga: Science and Religion

I've just watched this video of Alvin Plantinga giving a talk on the conflict between science and religion:

Science and Religion: Where the Real Conflict Lies from The Veritas Forum on Vimeo.

In it he argues that science, particularly evolution, isn't in conflict with theistic belief, but in fact the opposite is true: naturalism and evolution are incompatible. His argument deals with three propositions:

N: Naturalism (there's no such thing as God or anything like a god)
E: Evolution (human beings have come to be by virtue of the processes described in current evolutionary theory)
R: Our cognitive faculties are reliable (i.e. they produce beliefs that are for the most part true)

The argument goes as follows:

  1. The probability of R given N and E is low
    Evolution selects for behaviour, not beliefs; it doesn't make a difference to evolution whether your beliefs are true or not

  2. If you accept N and E, and also premise 1, then you have a defeater for R
    This defeater can't be defeated

  3. If you have a defeater for R, then you have a defeater for any belief produced by your cognitive faculties

  4. One of the beliefs produced by your cognitive faculties is N and E

Now obviously the crux of this argument is premise 1; if this is demonstrated to be true, then the rest of the argument follows logically. Interestingly, this premise takes the form of an argument from ignorance: Plantinga can't see a way for evolution to select for true beliefs, so it must be impossible for evolution to select for true beliefs.

To be fair, I don't think it is a true argument from ignorance, as I think the burden of proof is on the evolutionist to demonstrate that evolution does select for true beliefs. However, it is in the same vein, in the sense that it is dependent on the current state of scientific research - if at some point in the future science can demonstrate how evolution can select for true beliefs, then the argument fizzles away into nothingness. In order to make the argument watertight, Plantinga must demonstrate that it is impossible for evolution to select for true beliefs, but he can only get as far as "I don't see how it is possible".

One of the questions in the Q&A session was: "Isn't it true that false beliefs can lead to maladaptive behaviour?" This I think touches on something important. Maybe we can't see how evolution can necessarily select for true beliefs, but it seems to me plausible that holding false beliefs in general would be maladaptive. For example, if a creature evolved a neurostructure that as a side effect generated the belief "Crocodiles are nice friendly creatures", this neurostructure (and consequently the dependent belief) would be selected out of existence.

I think some of the error (as I would see it) comes into Plantinga's argument by his distinguishing between behaviour and belief, when he claims that evolution only selects for behaviour and not beliefs. He seems to think that in the evolutionary model, beliefs are a mere side-effect of selecting for a neurostructure that produces certain behaviours. Now with the simplest organisms, it is certainly true that evolution selects for certain behaviours (moving towards light, moving away from sudden shadows etc), but it doesn't make sense to talk about these organisms having any sort of beliefs.

Now there are some very complex behaviours out there that appear to be purely reflex actions, for example I remember watching a David Attenborough documentary about a burrowing wasp that goes through a complex series of actions to check its burrow is clear. The actions are completely hard-wired; if the wasp is interrupted in the middle of the process, it will start again from the beginning and will keep doing so as long as it is interrupted, until it dies.

However, at some point there is a limit to the complexity of hard-wired actions that evolution can select for. In order to react in real-time to a complex and rapidly changing environment, an organism must have a rudimentary model of the environment, at a level of complexity appropriate to the organism. To a greater or lesser extent, this model will be built up by the organism through interaction with the environment itself, and through trial and error. Hypotheses will be created and tested for, and either retained or discarded. The actions and beliefs of the organism are thus interdependent, beliefs informing actions, and actions modifying beliefs.

With such a model, it seems to me more likely then that the opposite of premise 1 is true: given N and E, for a complex organism in a complex and rapidly changing environment, the probability of R is quite high.

Now I think there's another problem with the argument, and it's quite subtle. If N and E are true, then according to Plantinga's argument, the cognitive faculties of any creature that have arisen by virtue of N and E are inherently untrustworthy. However, even if you and I belong to that set of creatures, and our cognitive faculties cannot be trusted, that doesn't affect the truth of N and E in any way, it simply affects our ability to know it.

Plantinga uses the following analogy to support premise 2:

Suppose there is a substance XX which is such that you believe that if you take that substance, the probability is very high that your cognitive faculties will be unreliable. Now suppose you also believe that you have taken it. Well, then you've got a defeater for the belief that your cognitive faculties are reliable. Even though you recognise it's possible that they could be, you've got a very good reason not to think that they are.

This is all very well, but it seems to me the reasoning is faulty somewhere. If you believe you have taken substance XX, then you have a defeater for the belief that your cognitive faculties are realiable. But then you also have a defeater for the belief that you have taken substance XX! In fact, as soon as you even believe that substance XX exists, instantly you have a defeater for the belief that your cognitive faculties are reliable, as you may have already taken it but believe not to have done!

I think the problem here may be to do with failing to distinguish from belief about a proposition and the proposition itself, especially since the proposition itself is about what beliefs are possible. I think there's a category error here somewhere, and I think it's possibly in step 3; what do you think?

Intelligent Design

One argument for the existence of God is that there are things in nature that are so complicated that they cannot have arisen by purely natural processes and so must have been designed by an intelligent agent (i.e. God). I used to be a Creationist, and this argument resonated with me. I won't talk about the creation/evolution debate right now, that's a subject for a later post.

An counter-argument to the above could be to say that if the things which are designed are complicated, then the being who designed them must be more complicated still, so who designed the designer? This counter-argument never used to persuade me at all - you can't ask "who designed God?" - God just is and that's all there is to it.

However, recently I've come to understand the significance of it a bit more. We are trying to resolve the issue of complexity in nature. There is complexity, there is apparent design, we can see it all around us. Where did it come from? How can we explain it?

There are two competing hypotheses here - a) it all arose through natural, mindless processes, or b) they are the result of intelligent agency. We have to decide which of these hypotheses has the greater explanatory power. The first hypothesis attempts to explain complexity by attributing it to the results of simpler, less complex forces (such as natural selection in biology - an observed and proven process, and gravity in cosmology). The second attempts to explain complexity by attributing it to an intelligent agent, who must necessarily be more complex than the objects he/she/it is designing.

Let's put it another way. How can we explain the existence of intelligent beings? Intelligence is presumably so complex a thing that it can only have been designed by an intelligent agent. Does anyone spot the circular argument here? We haven't explained the existence of intelligent beings at all, because our explanation involves invoking an intelligent being - an even more intelligent being, presumably. We are back where we started.

This however is not a problem for someone who believes in God, as they already have as their starting point an intelligent being, God, who they believe exists for reasons other than the design argument. It's the easiest thing in the world to explain complexity in the world if you already believe there exists a being complex and powerful enough to create it.

Can you see though that to someone who doesn't already believe in God this doesn't explain anything at all, and that someone who's really seeking an explanation for why things are the way they are will not value the design argument very highly?

Justice and Mercy

Two of the attributes I've heard attributed to God are Justice and Mercy. These are often held in conjunction with the claim that God is perfect, so all of the attributes he possesses, he holds in perfection: so God is perfectly just, and perfectly merciful.

Now am I incorrect in thinking that there's a contradiction here? How can God be perfectly just and perfectly merciful? Here are what seem to me to be obvious definitions of justice and mercy:

Justice: getting what one deserves (whether positive or negative, i.e. punishment or reward)

Mercy: not getting what one deserves (usually purely in a negative sense, i.e. being spared the punishment one deserves)

Note that I've left open what it means to "deserve" a punishment or reward, and who decides this and what criteria they should use to judge. There are many different ideas and arguments here, but they don't affect the point I'm making, as justice and mercy come into effect after this decision has been made, however it is decided.

Now following on from these definitions, what does it mean to be perfectly just or merciful? Well these qualities only have meaning when they're applied to one person concerning their treatment of another. So for God to be perfectly just in regard to humanity, it must follow that everyone will get what they deserve. Likewise, for God to be perfectly merciful, it follows that no-one will get what they deserve, in terms of punishment. It seems to me obvious that should one single person not receive the punishment they deserve, perfect justice has not been observed. Likewise with perfect mercy, should one single person receive the punishment they deserve.

And there we have the contradiction: God cannot be perfectly just and perfectly merciful. For if he were to be perfectly just, according to evangelical theology, everyone would go to Hell. Conversely, if he were perfectly merciful, no-one would go to Hell. Now this contradiction cannot be brushed aside in a claim that in some mysterious way both are true, because we are talking about the fate of real human beings. A single person cannot both be in Hell and not in Hell (and no arguments here for quantum superposition please!).

How can we resolve this dilemma? Well there are two avenues open to us. One is to drop the idea that God is perfectly just and merciful; the other is to discard the doctrine that human beings deserve eternal punishment. The second avenue is the one I would recommend, but I think it is one evangelicals would be reluctant to go down, for obvious reasons. That leaves us with the first option, and I really don't see what would be hard about dropping this. After all, it's a core belief of evangelicalism that most people will receive some sort of punishment after death, but some will be forgiven. So why not just say that God is more just than he is merciful, in proportion to the number of people who are not forgiven as opposed to being forgiven? And leave it at that?

As an aside, evangelicals will resort to another doctrine to attempt to resolve this contradiction: substitutionary atonement. God must be perfectly just and perfectly merciful, but this puts him in a dilemma, which he solves by punishing himself (i.e. Jesus, who is the Son of God, who is actually God) for the sins of humanity. Now this is an ingenious idea, but is simply a sleight of hand, as it distracts one from the central contradiction. Aside from the question of whether it is just to punish someone else, or even oneself, for the crimes of another, the issue is simply not resolved. For justice and mercy are qualities which are shown to a particular person. So if we take the example of a repentant sinner, who has accepted Christ's sacrifice for his sins (whatever that may mean), has justice or mercy been shown to this person? Obviously, he has been spared his punishment, so mercy has been shown to him. Justice has not been shown to him, as he has not recieved what he deserved. So God has not been both perfectly just and perfectly merciful in his case, and so in the case of every person punished or forgiven by God. So this doctrine resolves nothing.

Debate: Historical Evidence for the Resurrection of Jesus

I came across this debate today: Is There Historical Evidence for the Resurrection of Jesus? It's between Dr. William Lane Craig, Research Professor of Philosophy at Talbot School of Theology, and Dr. Bart D. Ehrman, James A. Gray Distinguished
Professor and Chair of the Department of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina.

I find it fascinating. It's quite long (38 pages), but well worth the read if you're interested in the arguments for and against the resurrection. I don't think it does the topic justice, I'd like to see more arguments from each, with more cross-questioning, I don't think either of them answer all the questions they're posed by the other.

Personally, I find myself coming down on the side of Ehrman (surprise surprise!) ; he does make some very good points. Firstly, that the gospels are not eyewitness accounts, but records of existing oral tradition, the reliability of which is dubious. Secondly, that resurrection is a theological explanation, not a historical one. There are many possible theological explanations for the resurrection, if it occurred - one could think of any number on the spot, and Dr. Ehrman suggests one in the debate. How can we know that none of these explanations are true, but the Christian explanation is? The point is that theologians are free to debate the spiritual significance of an event, but this is not something that history can make any sort of judgement about.

Following on from that, Dr. Ehrman also asks Craig about other accounts of miracles from the time, such as Appolonius of Tyana - what historical basis is there for saying that these miracles happened? Craig as much as admits that there are none - in fact he brushes them aside as "myths and legends that have no historical value whatsoever". I'm surprised that he doesn't see that his statement can be easily turned around and applied to his own Christian miracle stories. He seems to me to have shot himself in the foot here. He, and many Christians like him, presuppose the truth of his own miracle traditions, while dismissing out of hand the miracle traditions of other religions. The resurrection of Jesus by God only becomes a valid possibility once one pressuposes God's existence (and more specifically: the existence of the God of the Judeo-Christian tradition). History has nothing to say on this topic, that's for theologians and philosophers.

Anyway, read it for yourself, see what you think.

The Argument from Morality

One of the arguments for the existence of God is that morality is explained better by the existence of a God who formulates a moral code which is planted within us, than by any purely naturalistic explanation. If God does not exist, then where does our morality come from?

Philosophers have been puzzling for many years (centuries?) over this question, and there have been many attempts to come up with naturalistic theories of morality. Some of these theories are relativist theories, which say that there is no absolute right or wrong but that these are defined by the culture, personal or historical setting in which we are found. Others are utilitarian theories which define right actions as the actions which attempt to maximise (or minimise) a certain function over the population, for example, those actions which lead to the greatest happiness of the greatest number, or to the minimisation of harm. Still others are variations of the Golden Rule (do unto others as you would have them do unto you), such as Kant's formulation that goes along the lines that you should only do those actions which you would be happy about being made a universal law. I'm sure there are many other theories out there, feel free to enlighten me if you know of any more.

The problem with all these theories, according to the theist, is that whereas they may or may not give an accurate formulation of right or wrong, they still do not explain why we should do what is right, however defined. For example, if it is wrong to kill a person to steal their money because the harm caused to society by the murder would outweigh the inconvenience to me of being less well off, why should I care about society as opposed to my own welfare?

There are responses to this, for instance to say that I can never be sure that I won't get found out, which would in the long run be a greater inconvenience to me than having less money, whether it be by a prison sentence, or by being ostracised by society. Or alternatively, that psychologically I would be comparatively worse off, because of the person I had become, or the guilt I would suffer. But I don't think these are adequate, because we can always hypothesize a perfect crime, which would never be found out, or someone with no feeling of guilt.

So is this an insurmountable problem for Naturalism then? That naturalistic theories of morality cannot adequately explain why we should do what's right instead of what's wrong? Maybe, maybe not - I don't know. Maybe someone will come up with such a theory; maybe someone already has and I don't know about it. Maybe there never can be such a theory. However, I don't think that matters too much, because I don't think Theism can account for it either!

Let's ask the theist: "Why should we do what's right instead of what's wrong?". The theist will probably respond along the lines that God has created a moral code for us, either written down in the Bible, or in our hearts, or probably both, and given us a conscience so that we know when we've done right or wrong. But then we can ask the question "but why should we obey this moral code?" The thing is that whatever the theist responds, we can keep asking the question "but why should we do that?", until we eventually get to a selfish motive, or a mere assertion that "we just should!" The point being here, that neither of these is any more satisfactory than the naturalist position, the former being no different to the selfish motivation in naturalist theories, and the latter not answering the question at all!

Here's an example dialogue:

Naturalist: Why should we obey the moral code?
Theist: Because God commands us to obey it.
Naturalist: But why should we obey God?

The theist now has the option here of saying "we just should", or giving a selfish motive.

Theist: Because if you disobey God, he will punish you, and if you obey him, he will reward you.


Theist: Because God knows what is best for you and this is the only way for you to be happy.

And so on... whatever response the theist gives, it can be reduced to either a selfish motive, question-begging, or an opportunity for another "why should we do that?" question.

In conclusion, that naturalistic moral theories cannot explain the 'should' of morality should not be a huge problem for Naturalism, as Theism cannot account for it either.

Who is more moral?

Quick question, your thoughts please:

All other things being equal, who is the more moral person?

a) Someone who has a strong desire to do evil, but resists it and does good instead,


b) Someone who has no desire whatsoever to do evil, and does good simply because he/she knows nothing else.

The Tale of the Twelve Officers

The problem of evil (see this post) can be briefly summed up as being the problem of why, if God is all-good and all-powerful, should evil exist. Theologians have come up with many ingenious ways to get around this problem (e.g. free will, needing evil to appreciate good, etc), which tend mostly to abstract evil as being a general concept, which can then be regarded dispassionately as a means to a greater end.

However, regardless of the plausibility or implausibility of these arguments, for me the problem comes in applying them to any specific instance of evil. If any of us had God's knowledge of an event, and his power to intervene, would we stand by and do nothing? An example could be the September 11th attack - if you personally knew such an event was going to happen, would you not do all that was in your power to prevent it? And if you did not do all you could, would you not be judged as guilty by your inaction? How much more so then God, whose knowledge is perfect and power is infinite?

I came across this article the other day: The Tale of the Twelve Officers, which takes all the arguments I have heard to try and justify God's apparent inaction in the face of evil, and places them in the setting of a particular evil act. I challenge anyone to accept any of the arguments given by the officers in the story as being remotely justifiable excuses for inaction in the face of a specific evil act.

Objective Morality

Just a quick one for now: Is morality objective?

If morality is objective, then something is right or wrong regardless of whatever intelligent beings decide. God is an intelligent being. Therefore if morality is objective, something is right or wrong regardless of whether or not God decides it to be so. Thus God does not decide what is right or wrong, he merely communicates what he knows to us.

Now I'm guessing that most Christians will find that conclusion difficult to accept: of course God has a say in what is right or wrong, he's the Creator isn't he? OK, so let's make morality contingent. Well, bang goes the argument for the existence of God on the basis of objective morality!!

So if we're trying to understand morality, if morality is contingent, it could just as easily have been created by humans as by God. By Occam's principle, it is foolish to invoke a more complex explanation when a simple one will do. We must first look for a purely naturalistic explanation of morality, and only turn to a supernatural explanation when a naturalistic explanation is proven not to exist.

Conversely, if morality is objective, then God cannot be invoked as an explanation, as this gets us nowhere.

Human Sacrifice in the Bible

Then the Spirit of the LORD came upon Jephthah. He crossed Gilead and Manasseh, passed through Mizpah of Gilead, and from there he advanced against the Ammonites. And Jephthah made a vow to the LORD : "If you give the Ammonites into my hands, whatever comes out of the door of my house to meet me when I return in triumph from the Ammonites will be the LORD's, and I will sacrifice it as a burnt offering."

Then Jephthah went over to fight the Ammonites, and the LORD gave them into his hands. He devastated twenty towns from Aroer to the vicinity of Minnith, as far as Abel Keramim. Thus Israel subdued Ammon.

When Jephthah returned to his home in Mizpah, who should come out to meet him but his daughter, dancing to the sound of tambourines! She was an only child. Except for her he had neither son nor daughter. When he saw her, he tore his clothes and cried, "Oh! My daughter! You have made me miserable and wretched, because I have made a vow to the LORD that I cannot break."

"My father," she replied, "you have given your word to the LORD. Do to me just as you promised, now that the LORD has avenged you of your enemies, the Ammonites. But grant me this one request," she said. "Give me two months to roam the hills and weep with my friends, because I will never marry."

"You may go," he said. And he let her go for two months. She and the girls went into the hills and wept because she would never marry. After the two months, she returned to her father and he did to her as he had vowed. And she was a virgin.

Judges 11:29-39 (NIV)
Was Jephthah right to sacrifice his daughter to fulfill a vow? Discuss.

Free Will 2: Sinlessness and Perfection

Let's have another look at the free-will argument. This attempts to resolve the problem of evil (see previous post) by saying that for humans to make moral choices, they must be morally free. This requires the possibility of choosing good and the possibility of choosing evil. The point I made in the previous post was that just because it is possible for a moral agent to choose evil, this does not mean that this possibility need ever be realised. After all, all things being equal, there would be no reason for a perfect being to do evil, as the good choice would always be the best choice.

I want to follow up this argument by illustrating two examples from within Christianity that show it is possible for there to be free moral agents that never commit evil, and hopefully demonstrate that the mere possibility of evil is not sufficient to explain its actual existence in the world.

Example #1: Jesus
According to Christianity, Jesus was completely sinless. However, traditional Christianity also claims that Jesus, while being fully human, was also fully God, and that he was not affected with original sin. Now these other claims about Jesus might at first glance appear to invalidate a comparison between Jesus and moral agents such as you and I, but I think we can cut through these apparent difficulties by asking this question: Did Jesus have free will? If the answer to this is no, then Jesus was not a free moral agent, and we can disregard this example. However, I do not know any Christians who would say that Jesus did not have free will! So I think we can safely claim that Jesus was a free moral agent, and in that respect, the comparison holds.

I remember when I was a Christian having an intense discussion with someone from my church about whether or not Jesus could have sinned. The Bible says that Jesus was tempted to sin on many occasions, and even says he was "tempted in every way, just as we are—yet was without sin" (Hebrews 4:15). I was trying to argue that Jesus could have sinned but didn't, because if he couldn't have sinned then he couldn't have been tempted by sin, and the claim that Jesus was actually tempted is vital to many Christian doctrines, including that of him being an example to us of how to resist temptation. The person I was arguing with claimed that Jesus couldn't have sinned, because he was God and God cannot sin, therefore when the Bible says he was tempted, it doesn't mean that he was actually tempted, just that he was tested to see what his response would be!

The question is, did Jesus have the ability to sin? Was it possible that he could have done evil? If not, then Jesus was not a free moral agent, and had no free will with regard to moral choices. If so, and yet he never actually did any evil, what is the difference between Jesus, the free moral agent, and Adam, the free moral agent. Both were in a position of perfection, having no "original sin" to bias their choices towards evil. What did Jesus have that Adam didn't have? If Jesus was free in all ways that Adam was free, how did Adam go wrong? If Jesus had something that Adam didn't have, that enabled him to resist temptation more effectively, how can Jesus be said to be an example of how to resist temptation, if he had an unfair advantage? And why did God not give this advantage to Adam?

Example #2: Heaven
In Heaven there is no sin; this is part of the definition of Heaven. So what of its inhabitants (i.e. dead Christians)? Are they free moral agents? If so, I repeat the questions of the previous paragraph: What is the difference between free moral agents in Heaven and free moral agents on Earth? If the occupants of Heaven are free moral agents, it is possible for them to sin, and yet they do not. In fact, since Heaven is eternal, if its occupants make moral choices, they must make an infinite number of moral choices and always choose the good.

If Heaven's inhabitants are not morally free, this raises some interesting questions about the value of free will. If, as is to be supposed, the state of man in Heaven is God's desired state for the human race, then free will is surely only a means to an end, which end is purity without free will. The whole free-will answer to the problem of evil collapses if this is the case, as it now seems that free will is not as important to God as is claimed, since man's ultimate, eternal state is one of a morally pure, non-morally-free being.

I have heard it argued that those in Heaven are those who have, out of their own free will, chosen to have their free will revoked, the important point being that they used their free will to get there. This smells very fishy to me. Firstly, why would a being with free will choose to give it up? I can see no reason other than that of having no other choice (i.e. a choice between eternal punishment with free will or eternal bliss without free will). This seems very wrong to me: what kind of God would create beings with free will, and then give them the choice of revoking their free will or being eternally punished? Secondly, it severely diminishes the value of free will, as it implies that for a being to exist in a state of perfection, it must have no free will.

If it be argued that there is no sin in Heaven because there are no actual moral choices to make, perhaps because there is no temptation to sin, then that raises the question of why there was temptation in the Garden of Eden. If man's state in Heaven is God's desired state for all of us, Adam and Eve included, then why not bypass the whole temptation -> sin -> judgement -> salvation process and just create it like that in the first place? Anyway, if there were no temptation to sin in Heaven, there would be no possibility of making an evil choice, which would mean that those in Heaven would not be morally free agents, which conclusion again lends itself to the objections raised earlier.

Given these two examples in Christianity of sinless, morally free agents (given that I have sufficiently demonstrated that they are in fact morally free), I conclude that there is no reason to suppose that the possibility of evil for a morally free agent in any way determines that evil will actually occur, and so the free-will objection to the problem of evil does not hold.

Free Will 1: The Problem of Evil

The problem of evil is this:

1. God is all-good.
2. An all-good being would do everything in his/her power to eliminate evil.
3. God is all-powerful.
4. Therefore, evil should not exist.
5. We know that evil does exist.
6. Therefore, if God exists, he is either not all-good, or not all-powerful.

For the atheist, this is case closed: there is no God. Or if there is, he is either not all-good or not all-powerful, and what sort of God is that! Certainly not the God of Christianity, at any rate. On the other hand, for the theist, this is a challenge to come up with a theodicy - an explanation of why, if God were all-good and all-powerful, he would choose to let evil remain. In order to be an adequate response, this explanation must be consistent with itself and with the belief system of which it is a part, and also with the world as we know it.

The most obvious route for the theist is to qualify statement 2 above thus:

2. An all-good being would do everything in his/her power to eliminate any particular evil, unless doing so would result in a greater evil, or the loss of a good greater than the mere absence of the first evil.

This qualification would then therefore imply that the evil that we see in the world is in fact unavoidable, in order to achieve a greater good or to prevent a greater evil. The rejoinder to this is to ask: what is this greater good that evil must be tolerated in order to achieve; or what evil could be worse than that which we see around us every day?

One widely accepted argument in theistic circles is that there is a greater good: that of free will. In this view, God values one thing above all others, and that is man's ability to freely choose between good and evil. To put it starkly: a Hitler's ability to choose his own actions is of more value to God than the prevention of the suffering of concentration-camp-fuls of innocent people.

How the free-will argument explains the existence of evil is to say that for an agent to be morally free requires there to be the possibility of doing good, and the possibility of doing evil. We can put it this way: if an agent A is presented with a choice C between a good action a1 and an evil action a2, then if it is impossible for A to choose a1 or a2, then A is not morally free with regard to C. Thus for humans to be morally free agents, there must be the possibility of doing evil actions. Therefore there must be evil in the world.

The argument makes perfect sense right until that last sentence. For humans to be morally free requires the possiblity of committing evil; agreed. But that doesn't mean that the possibility need ever be realised. If the morally good choice is always the best choice, for the agent or for the population, then surely a fully-informed, totally free, intelligent, conscious agent will always choose the moral good; to do otherwise would make no sense whatsoever.

The trouble is, that's not the human race that you and I know. So what went wrong?

"Aha," says the theodicist, warming to the argument, "this is where the Fall comes in. You see, God created Adam and Eve perfect and morally free. They had a moral choice between a evil action (eating the fruit) and a good action (not eating it), but they chose the evil. So that's when sin entered the world. And now we're all sinners because we have a bias towards choosing evil."

Ah, it all makes sense ... hang on, I thought they were perfect and morally free. And I just argued that for someone in that position to do anything other than the moral good would be nonsense. So why did they choose the evil?

Answer #1: They were tempted
So? Before the Fall, humans had no bias towards evil. So there would be no irresistable urge to choose the wrong action. So temptation would have no power, because however attractive an option might seem in the short term, the perfect, morally free human would always choose the good, no matter what the temptation, simply because it's the better choice.

Answer #2: The Devil deceived them
Hmm. OK, we can't see any way perfect beings could choose evil, so let's postulate an essentially evil entity which temporarily assumes power over them and convinces them to do something which they would never choose to do otherwise... Leaving aside the question of where this guy came from, and how he became evil, where was God at this time? What was God doing letting this smooth talking, evil being wander about in his paradise? This being with the power to completely deceive innocent humans into doing something completely irrational and with such disastrous consequences? Because it stands to reason, given that perfect, morally free agents would always choose the best course of action, the Devil must have interfered with their reasoning processes. Which means that it was not their fault. Which means it was the Devil's. Which means, ultimately, it was God's, for letting him in in the first place.

Logic Example: The Rock Paradox

This was originally part of the previous post, but I thought it was a bit too long, so I split it into two.

We can demonstrate the power of logic by resolving a so-called problem of God's omnipotence. Most people have encountered the question 'Can God create a rock he cannot lift?' The paradox is obvious: if God is omnipotent, he can create anything. So then God can create a rock he can't lift. But then he can't lift it, so there's something he can't do, so he's not omnipotent after all. But then if God can't create an object he cannot lift, then that's something God can't do, so he's not omnipotent. Conclusion: God is not omnipotent; but if God was not omnipotent, he couldn't be God; so God as we define him doesn't exist.

Let's see if we can help God get out of this mess, using logic. First, we can define omnipotence in terms of lifting and creating things. If God is omnipotent, he can create anything. We can formulate this as follows:

1. GodIsOmnipotent ⇒ ∀x : GodCanCreate(x)

This simply means: The statement 'God is omnipotent' implies that for all (∀ means 'for all') objects x, God can create x.

Next: if God is omnipotent, he can lift anything.

2. GodIsOmnipotent ⇒ ∀x : GodCanLift(x)

One of the rules of logic is this: (A ⇒ B ∧ A ⇒ C) ⇒ (A ⇒ B ∧ C). This means, if A implies B, and A implies C, then A implies both B and C. We can use this rule to combine the two statements above:

3. GodIsOmnipotent ⇒ ∀x : GodCanCreate(x) ∧ ∀x : GodCanLift(x)

We can use another rule of logic to combine two 'for all' statements: (∀x : P(x) ∧ ∀x : Q(x)) ⇒ (∀x : P(x) ∧ Q(x)), giving us:

4. GodIsOmnipotent ⇒ ∀x : GodCanCreate(x) ∧ GodCanLift(x)

Now we can make our first statement:

5. GodIsOmnipotent

We can use our rules of logic on this (if A is true, and A implies B, then B is true) to get:

6. ∀x : GodCanCreate(x) ∧ GodCanLift(x)

Now we can make our next statement: God can create a rock that he cannot lift. We can express it in this way:

7. ∃c : GodCanCreate(c) ∧ ¬GodCanLift(c)

This means: There exists (∃ means 'there exists') a particular object c (our rock), such that it is the case that God can create c, but it is not the case that God can lift c. This is our contentious statement. Using another rule of logic, we can move from the general to the particular (∀x : P(x) ⇒ ∃c : P(c)). Using this on statement 6, we get:

8. ∃c : GodCanCreate(c) ∧ GodCanLift(c)

But now we have a contradiction! Statement 7 contradicts statement 8. But we know that if we come to a contradiction, we have made a meaningless set of statements. So the statement 'God is omnipotent and can create a rock that he cannot lift' is, in fact, gibberish.

How about the statement 'God is omnipotent and cannot create a rock that he cannot lift'? This can be expressed as:

9. GodIsOmnipotent
10. ∃c : ¬GodCanCreate(c) ∧ ¬GodCanLift(c)

Which obviously leads to another contradiction. So this statement is meaningless too. The correct conclusion is not that God is not omnipotent, but that it does not make sense to talk of a rock that God can create but cannot lift. There is no such rock. This is not saying that God cannot create it, but saying that such a rock cannot exist, as much as a 'square circle' cannot exist.

Logic and Christianity

Hello everybody. I've finally got round to posting again - only two months since the last one. What can I say, I'm a busy man.

Just a few thoughts here about logic. Somebody asked me the other day why Christianity needed to be logically consistent - why do I think that we can use human logic to talk about spiritual things? What if God's logic is different to our logic? Can't God do the impossible?

There are probably many people who hold the belief that God's logic is higher than our logic, so we shouldn't use logic when talking about God. However, this simply demonstrates that they don't understand what logic is.

Now, off the top of my head, these are my ideas on what logic is; please let me know if they hold together. Logic is a way of using language to talk about the way things are. Logicians put forward definitions of terms, make statements about them, and then use rules to manipulate these statements. The key is that these statements are made in a rigorous language which eliminates ambiguity. The rules are themselves definitions which are self-evident. For instance, the rule of 'And' goes something like this: For a statement of the form 'X is true AND Y is true' to be true, both X and Y have to be true. The 'And' rule is an axiom of logic. God's 'And' cannot be different to our 'And', because then it would not be 'And', it would be something else.

So within the realm of things that can be expressed in the language of logic, logic reigns supreme. The grey area is in formulating our definitions. Once we hit on definitions in the language of logic of terms that everyone agrees on, we can proceed to use the rules to manipulate statements using these definitions. The beautiful thing about logic, and the key to it's power, is that the rules are so simple and so self-evident; so much so, that if I can manipulate a (minimal) set of statements using the rules, and come to two contradictory conclusions, then the original (minimal) set of statements is not only wrong, but meaningless. For an example, see the next post.

In conclusion, the question about whether logic can be used to talk about spiritual things can be reduced to the question:

Can we formulate definitions that everyone agrees on?

This is the hard part, and where all the fun lies; theologians have been quibbling about definitions for thousands of years. Once we have done this, logic can be used to powerfully weed out any contradictions.

One last point about logic: The only way logic can decide the truth of a statement is if it is logically inconsistent. Upon statements which are not inconsistent, logic has no opinion. For example, logic can say things like 'If Pegasus exists, then it can fly'. The truth or falsity of the statement 'Pegasus exists' has to come from outside logic. Only if it is logically inconsistent for Pegasus to fly can logic prove Pegasus not to exist. And this is where this blog comes in. Christianity (or a subset of it's tenets) may or may not be true. But if it's logically inconsistent, then it can't be true.

Eternity & Consciousness

Thanks to everyone for their comments so far. Keep them coming. There's some interesting and challenging stuff there, which I will reply to as soon as I've had time to think deeply enough about it.

Meanwhile, Adair in his comment to the last post highlighted the difficulty of conceptualising existence outside of time. This is something I have thought about before, and I'd like to present my thoughts on the matter for general dissection.

The first point I should make is that our ability to imagine or conceptualise something to any degree of success is independent of its actually being true. For instance, in physics, String Theory requires space to have 9 dimensions (I think the latest development, M theory, requires 10 space dimensions). Now, I find it incredibly difficult to imagine there being more than three dimensions of space. However, it is obvious that if String Theory is proven to be true, this will be independent of, and in spite of, my ability to visualise it.

Now it is important to draw the distinction between something that is hard to visualise and something that is just nonsense. I also find it extremely difficult to visualise a four-sided triangle, but more detailed analysis of that concept will reveal its self-contradictory nature. The point I'm making is that there are many things that are hard to conceptualise in theology, but we must work hard to elucidate which of these things can be consistently held, if not visualised, and which are self-contradictory. Most importantly, when we discover an idea that is self-contradictory, we must discard it, no matter what theological edifices are resting on its foundations.

Now, although I find it hard to understand, I find nothing inherently inconsistent with the idea of something existing outside of time. What I do have a problem with is conscious beings existing outside of time. That is to say, for the purposes of this argument I will admit to the possibility of a person existing outside of time in either Heaven or Hell (although whether these places are outside of space is another matter). What I take issue with is the idea that they can know anything about it one way or the other. I aim to show in this post that this is inconsistent.

You see, consciousness is a process. Whatever the ancients thought about the soul or mind being separate from the body, the more we study consciousness, the more inseparably linked it appears to be with a physical brain, and thus a physical process.

Consciousness involves at least three things: perception, memory of the perception, and the connection of the memory of the perception with ourselves in some conceptual way. Perception need not necessarily be of an external stimulus, it could also be of a mental state or process. Memory is the key here - without memory (whether long- or short-term) it is impossible to be aware of anything. Without memory, everything is static, stationary, time-instances; there is no ability to connect any arbitrary instant of time with any other - this can only be done with memory to string them together and make sense of them. And finally, it is only once we have the memory of the perception that we are in any way able to relate it to ourselves, in other words, exhibit consciousness. (Note that although here the three stages, perception, memory and relation, are each separated by a time gap, this gap is so small that we are unaware of the stages themselves. In fact, since these three stages define awareness, we can never actually be aware of them taking place)

So after having established memory as being essential to consciousness, we can now go on to see how time is essential to memory. Memory is storing information. The act of storing information is the arrangement of something into a meaningful state. But this is a process. It happens. It is an event. Events happen in time. It is meaningless to talk of an event outside of time: this is the definition of an event. At time t0 something is arranged in less meaningful state s0. At time t1 something is arranged in more meaningful state s1.

In sum, consciousness requires memory, memory is storing information, storing information is an event in time; therefore consciousness requires time. Therefore, to speak of consciousness outside of time is meaningless.

This applies not only to humans, but to any supposedly conscious being, including God. Without time, consciousness does not exist, because consciousness happens, and things only happen in time. Therefore, God is either not conscious, or needs time as much as you or I do. Also, any idea of eternity which involves us consciously experiencing it must take the form of an infinite length of time.

Man, it's 4:03. I'm going to bed.


Why not start with a biggie!

The more I think about the idea of Hell, the more silly it sounds. Most definitions of Hell involve the idea of eternal punishment for sins, or a place of eternal suffering. In fact, I'd go as far as to say that if a definition of Hell doesn't include the idea of eternal suffering, then it's not a definition of Hell, but of something else. Whether this suffering is direct or indirect, physical, psychological or spiritual is not the issue here. Suffering is suffering, whatever form it takes.

Humans are finite creatures, who live for a finite period of time. Within this period of time, they can carry out a finite number of actions, each of which with finite consequences. Consequently, a single person can commit only a finite amount of sin.

If justice entails meting an amount of sin with an appropriate amount of punishment (notice the "if" - we can quibble about this idea of justice later), and if God is perfectly just, then punishment in Hell has to equate to punishment for an infinite amount of sin.

If no man can commit an infinite amount of sin, and some humans end up in Hell, then we have a contradiction. One of our premises above is wrong. Either a) God is not perfectly just; or b) Hell does not involve eternal suffering; or c) a single, finite, human being can in fact commit an infinite amount of sin; or d) no human will ever end up in Hell.

Which is it to be?