Posts Tagged ‘Philosophy’

Notes on the Problem of Evil

Sun Jan 10, 2016 2:49 pm by Laurens

For the purposes of this post I shall define God as an omnipotent, omniscient creator being with a vested interest in mankind and the individual welfare of human beings. This definition includes, but is not limited to the Judeo-Christian God.

Why is it important that I begin by pointing out these characteristics of God? Because a God with these characteristics necessitates the problem of evil. An omnipotent being can do anything to stop evil, an omniscient being knows the details of all the evil that is happening at all times, and how to stop it, and a being with a vested interest in mankind and the individual welfare of human beings should be stopping evil. The attribute of creator is also important because God created conditions in which evil can exist in the first place.

These divine characteristics are not uncommonly attributed to God. In fact I’d posit that the God of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam necessarily has these characteristics. The problem of evil asks; given these attributes why isn’t God doing anything to stop evil?

The standard theistic response to this is called the free-will defence. This states that moral evils are caused by the actions of free agents—a trait that God gave to us thus meaning we are responsible for our action rather than him. If we grant this, I shall argue that it does not do much to get around the problem of evil. So for the time being I shall grant that the evils committed by moral agents are not in God’s control because he gave us the free will to decide whether to be good or bad.

Lets look first at what makes someone a moral agent. I put forth that it requires at least two things; understanding of the potential harm or benefit of one’s action or inaction, and then acting (or not acting) deliberately, having considered these things. What we consider morally good actions are those in which the actor has considered the harm and benefit of their actions and deliberately acted in a way that is beneficial. Morally evil actions would be the same but with the actor deliberately deciding to act in a harmful way.

Where we arrive at a separate facet of the problem of evil is when we apply this criteria of moral agency to God. The act of creation by an omniscient being is a moral action because he already knew all of the potential harm caused by his creating the universe. Being omnipotent allows us to contend that God could have created a universe with no suffering, but chose not to, so we cannot posit that God had no choice but to create a world with suffering. Everything that happens in this universe could either have been prevented from the start, or stopped from occurring (excluding for the sake of this argument the free actions of human beings). This means that God decided to create a universe in which earthquakes, drought, disease, viruses, parasites, cancer, and so on can occur, and then failed to prevent them from occurring. This is the heart of the problem of evil. It’s not necessarily about human evil, it’s about a God who allows his creation to harm and inflict suffering on innocent people, and doesn’t do anything to stop it—in fact he created the universe in such a way that it happens regularly. The atheist has a difficult time making this fit with the idea of a loving God that has an interest in the individual welfare of human beings. It seems to be yet another problem that occurs from the application of inherently contradictory attributes to a being.

These kind of issues are often dealt with by positing that these horrible sufferings occur with some greater purpose in mind. The problem still stands though. God can do anything. Therefore he can arrive at any outcome without suffering. So he still has no morally acceptable reason to allow these things to happen. It is also worth pointing out that God having a plan with a predetermined outcome is in contradiction with the idea of us having free will. Free will entails that all our actions are entirely our own, that they are not presided over by someone tweaking things and manipulating history towards a particular end. If we have free will then God’s plan could fail. But why would God put the universe in such weird jeopardy? At this point it is worth stepping back and realising what we are positing here. A being who created us and gave us free will is engaged in trying to steer history towards his desired outcome in spite of the fact that he could have just had his desired outcome from the start, and he certainly could achieve it without any suffering. It turns our universe into a strange battleground between our free will and God’s ultimate plan. A battle in which suffering and pain—though preventable—are inevitable. Why would God create this scenario? Even if we don’t have free will and everything happens according to his plan, why is God playing weird vanity games with sentient life? It’s all rather unnecessary and it creates a sinister picture of God—which is a problem when you claim that he is unconditionally loving of all beings.

This is the problem of evil. If God exists—no matter how you look at it—the existence of pain and suffering in the world is preventable. The only reason it can persist is if God is not loving, or if God is impotent. This conclusion is true regardless of whether or not we include human free will. In my opinion this is the strongest argument against the Judeo-Christian God. If anybody thinks that I have made any mistakes in my case, has any criticism, or wishes to rebut anything I’ve said feel free to post in the comment thread.


Why Atheism Should Be Taught In Religious Studies

Wed Dec 02, 2015 7:44 am by Laurens

This week we had news that secular views being left out of GSCE Religious Studies was a mistake. Of course this has got some conservative commentators backs up. Why should we teach non-religion in classes about religion? To answer that first we should ask why we are teaching children about religions in the first place. Clearly, or at least hopefully we don’t teach Religious Studies in order that children can decide which is the right one, or be told what to believe. We do it to encourage harmony and understanding. So we don’t remain ignorant and all become massive Islamophobes (although I’m not sure that is working out so well).

In light of this, it is very important to educate people about those who have no religion at all. To complete our set of understanding. No one is advocating that Religious Studies classes teach kids that God is imaginary, just that people are made aware of what atheists are all about and why. To neglect this is to leave people open to all sorts of nonsense that gets said about atheists by the religious. That atheists have no morals for example, or that atheists believe in nothing. The only way to counter such misinformation is to educate people. If Religious Studies has a purpose at all, it is to nurture understanding between faiths and beyond to the irreligious. Otherwise there is really no use in teaching it.

I also think that it should not be called Religious Studies, but rather Philosophy and Ethics or some more inclusive title. Again not to marginalize religion, but to encourage an understanding of world views that extend beyond religion and the broader context in which religions and philosophies interplay and relate to each other. Just teaching kids what each different religion believes is not truly insightful. It would serve us all well to learn about the cultural context in which these beliefs evolved. It doesn’t undermine belief in Christianity to learn about Jewish Messianism and the Roman occupation of Judea (and subsequent corruption or perceived corruption of the Jewish temple authorities), but it surely teaches us something about humanity, our history and how we cope with change. We would all do better if we were educated on all different kinds of Philosophies and their cultural and historical heritage, a vital part of that is those who have rejected religious belief in favour of a rational and empirical world view.

This is not a case of sneering liberals wanting to turn your children into God-hating communists. Its about giving the next generation the best possible understanding of what it is to be human, our struggles, and cultural heritage in the hope that it will iron out any prejudice and tribalism. Really, including atheism in Religious Studies should be the first in a step towards teaching a broader humanities subject. Not because we want to remove religion from your children’s lives, but because religion doesn’t have the monopoly on things humans believe and should therefore only comprise a part of their education on the subject.

UPDATE 04/12/2015 – It has been pointed out to me that I was perhaps unclear about my usage of the term atheism. To be clear I do refer to the wider definition that is probably better defined as Secular Humanism that simply atheism—which could apply to religions such as Buddhism. So whenever I use the term atheism in the context of it being taught as part of a Religious Studies syllabus, I mean Secular Humanist views, not just lack of belief in God.

Philosophy for life

Fri Jan 10, 2014 11:56 am by Aught3

In his book modernising the ancient Greek philosophy of Stoicism (A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy), William Irvine proposes two criteria for a coherent philosophy of life. The first is to have an ultimate goal in living. Of the things that can be pursued in life, the ultimate goal is the one you find most valuable. It is a grand goal that sits at the top of a hierarchy and is something you would be unwilling to sacrifice in the pursuit of other ends. Without an ultimate goal, a philosophy of life is incoherent.

According to Irvine, the second component in a coherent philosophy of life is a strategy for achieving your ultimate goal. The strategy tells you how to go about your daily routine in a way that enhances your ability to achieve the thing in life that you define as the most valuable. Without an effective strategy you will likely fail to achieve your grand goal and so a coherent philosophy of life needs both an ultimate goal and the means to achieve it.

Everybody has a philosophy of life, it’s just that most people don’t think about it. For such an important topic, philosophy of life isn’t discussed at school, universities don’t offer courses, and treatment of these topics in popular culture is next to zero. Without proper consideration of this issue, the life philosophy foisted upon most people is enlightened hedonism. The ultimate goal in hedonism is pleasure and the ‘enlightened’ part refers to the strategy. An enlightened hedonist takes time to consider which pleasures they will pursue, at what time they would like to enjoy those pleasures, and the best method for obtaining them. Another thoughtless source of a semi-coherent life philosophy is an inherited religion. In a typical religion the goal is to obtain a good second life and the rules and precepts lay down the way to achieve that goal. Since everybody has a life philosophy the only difference between people is whether they have thought about their ultimate life goal or have just accepted it.

The biggest danger with having the wrong life philosophy is the chance that you will mislive. Despite all the things you did at the end of your life you will look back only to realise you did not live it the way you wanted to. Either you chased the wrong goal or, if you had the correct goal identified, you were unable to live up to it. As Irvine puts it “Instead of spending your life pursuing something genuinely valuable, you squandered it because you allowed yourself to be distracted by the various baubles life has to offer.” An enlightened hedonist may realise the pursued pleasures did not really bring what was most desired and the religionist may come to the understanding that their strategy will not bring eternal life after all. Without a suitable philosophy of life you will waste the one and only life you know you are going to get.

Some alternative answers to the philosophy of life question are: virtue, tranquility, happiness, connection, service, exploration, and usefulness. My suggestion to you is to find your own answer to the question “what do I want out of life?” Ultimately, your grand goal in living is the most important thing for you to discover. Understanding it will change your life – for the better.

Critique Of Alvin Plantinga’s Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism

Sun Nov 27, 2011 10:45 am by Dean

On the Internet, I have encountered a prominent Philosopher of Religion called Alvin Plantinga who was once described by Time Magazine as a America’s leading orthodoxist Protestant Philosopher of God. He has made many anti-naturalistic arguments and theistic arguments in the past, has engaged in Public Discourse with atheists, rather like William Lane Craig. And also, William Lane Craig seems to be a fan of Plantinga’s misguided “Reformed Epistemology”. But that’s another story altogether. In our particular case, I intend to refute the various fallacious absurdities of Alvin Plantinga’s “Evolutionary Argument Against [Metaphysical] Naturalism”. Or rather more specifically, I will be critiquing all six parts together of a six-part series of lectures on YouTube. It is a talk by Plantinga entitled “An Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism”. —see here. I may not be able to address every point as meticulously as I would like to, but I will give it a fair shot. Of course, it is doubtful that he has not simply ignored these criticisms if they have already been made in the past. Oh well… also, for expediency, here is an overview of Plantinga from Wikipedia. You will notice that like William Lane Craig, he is a Christian apologist, and has authored such books as God and Other Minds, and has even written a book entirely dedicated to the argument he presents in this 60 minute lecture. :)


A justification for abortion

Sat Sep 24, 2011 3:45 am by Aught3

The most common justification for abortion that I hear is to explain the differences between a foetus and a normal person. If a foetus lacks the important and distinguishing features that make killing a person wrong, the moral issue surrounding abortion is rendered null. While I so think personhood arguments provide valuable support for the legalisation of abortion, I also struggle when it comes to setting the actual legal limit for acceptable abortion implied by this argument. The limit could be wet at eight weeks when the foetus become recognisably human, or around 20 weeks when most of the personhood criteria are met, or some time after birth when full personhood is obtained. The first option is hardly different from a total abortion ban, the second leaves a period of pregnancy when abortion is outlawed, and the third justifies some types of infanticide. Because of these difficulties I prefer the dependence justification for abortion.

Basically, I would argue that while the foetus is absolutely dependent on the mother for nutrients, oxygen, and a safe environment she should be allowed to withdraw that support. The resulting death of the foetus, while predictable, is not murder because it results from the withdrawal of sustenance. I also add an extra requirement of exploring reasonable options that could avoid the need for an abortion but since current technology does not allow aborted embryos to survive and develop independently from the mother, abortion should remain legal.

However, over on M and M (New Zealand’s most popular Christian blog) I found a few counter-examples to my favoured arguments which gave me pause. While some are easy to answer others are a little trickier.

Example 1: “A hiker who breaks her leg a week’s walk from a road will die if her companions do not bring help.’

In New Zealand and other common law jurisdictions there is no duty to rescue. While we might look down on people who leave people to die rather than rescue them, it is not prosecuted as a criminal homicide or any other felony. See this example of mountain climbers being left to die on Everest. I would prefer the general principle that people attempt to rescue others if they are able to do so safely but I also don’t want to force someone into a potentially dangerous action if they are unwilling. This is consistent with my position on abortion. I would prefer if the potential mother to explore all options but if she is unwilling to go through the pregnancy, I would not force it upon her.

Example 2: “An elderly woman may be totally dependant on her children looking after her.’

This is similar to the problem above, there is no legal duty placed upon children to take of their parents in old age. It may be the respectful thing to do, but I do not want the law changed to force children to be responsible for their elderly parents.

Example 3: “A newborn is totally dependent on its mother if it happens to be born in an isolated area where there are no other lactating women and there are no means of bottle-feeding.’

This example I find harder to answer. One point to make is while the above two scenarios are realistic this one is fantastical and unlikely to occur in everyday life. There are always plenty of people around who could look after a new baby if required. Never-the-less, I think this scenario requires an answer: would it be acceptable for a mother to refuse life-sustaining support for her own child? There is a duty to rescue in a parent-child relationship and to refuse aid would be negligence at the least. The expectant mother and the foetus do share an approximation of the parent-child relationship so perhaps the pregnant women does have some duty to provide a life-sustaining environment for her offspring.

I throw it open to you. Is there a relevant difference between the two cases that doesn’t rely on a personhood argument?

Pope in-fallacy

Fri Sep 17, 2010 7:17 am by Aught3

A recent speech by the current Pope, in Britain, where he links atheism and Nazism has caused some controversy in the blogosphere and in our own forums. The Pope spoke of “a Nazi tyranny that wished to eradicate God from society’ and went on to express concerns over “aggressive forms of secularism’. This is such a common trope in debates that I wanted to take an entire blog post to explain what I see as the gaping flaw in this form of argument. What I want to discuss is the way atheism and theism should be properly related to religion and ideology and why it is incorrect to set up atheism as the counter-position to religion.

Atheism, at its most inclusive, describes anyone who has no belief in gods. From even this basic understanding, it is remarkably difficult to see how atheism could be expected to produce any action from an individual atheist. There is no causal line from the absence of a single belief to any other belief or action, be it good or bad. Even explicit atheism (the denial of gods) does not imply any further belief or action. If we say this for atheism, in order to be consistent, we must also say this for theism. Theism (the belief in gods), as a single belief, does not entail any other beliefs or actions by the individual theist. A theist may believe in the philosopher’s god, a non-interventionist god, Allah, the trinity, or a whole pantheon of pagan gods. But even these basic beliefs about the nature of gods are additional to the initial claim of theism, not derived from it. Taking the example of the Thirty Years war, the Pope would have us blame theism for the conflict. However, given both sides of the conflict were theists this conclusion makes little sense. The true dividing factor was the different religions, Catholicism and Protestantism, which each side maintained. My contention is that while atheism and theism are blameless in the great atrocities of history, ideology and religion should be held to account.


Science vs. religion: are they incompatible?

Sat May 22, 2010 10:03 am by Aught3

One question that frequently confronts the New Atheists (especially those with a science background) is whether a religion and science are incompatible. The stock answer is that many religious leaders accept science as a good way to understand the natural world and conversely, many scientists have a religious faith (Ken Miller and Francis Collins come to mind). In a previous blog post I talked about how sociological research had revealed that about half of American scientists are able to both perform cutting-edge science and maintain a religious identity. An even larger proportion is still interested in matters of spirituality despite daily engaging in rational, empirical inquiry.

These facts show there is, at least, a kind of ‘brute compatibility’ between science and religion; a single person can hold both ideas simultaneously. However, the obvious counter to ‘brute compatibility’ is to point out that in certain cases the findings of science conflict with specific religious claims about the nature of the world. For example, if you claim that the world is 6,000 years old, science says you are wrong. According to empirical data, the world is more like 4.5 billion years old and anyone who says the scientific evidence shows otherwise is simply mistaken. Because science can only conflict with specifically defined religious claims, I call this ‘specific incompatibility’. Although this type of incompatibility is important, and probably accounts for a large proportion of science’s moderating impact on religion, it does not completely contradict all types of religious claims. Again, this answer is too superficial; the original question is asking something more fundamental – are religion and science incompatible at the deeper, philosophical level?



Fri Aug 28, 2009 10:15 pm by TheYoungAndRestless

Most scholars who write about the ancient world feel obliged to warn their readers that our knowledge can be at best partial and that certainty is seldom attained. A book about a first-century Jew who lived in a rather unimportant part of the Roman empire must be prefaced by such a warning. We know about Jesus from books written a few decades after his death, probably by people who were not among his followers during his lifetime. They quote him in Greek, which was not his primary language, and in any case the differences among our sources show that his words and deeds were not perfectly preserved. We have very little information about him apart from the works written to glorify him. Today, we do not have good documentation for such out-of-the-way places as Palestine; nor did the authors of our sources. They had no archives and no official records of any kind. They did not even have access to good maps. These limitations, which were common in the ancient world, result in a good deal of uncertainty.

“Preface,’ The Historical Figure of Jesus. E. P. Sanders.

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