Monday, December 31, 2012

2012 Highlights

2012 has been a wonderful year for the Maverick Christian Blog (if for no other reason than this is the year I created it!). In this entry I’ve surveyed what I think to be some of the best of what I’ve written here. To make it more organized I’ve split it up into several categories: atheism versus theism, logic, philosophy of science, Christianity, and one more topic that you’ll have to read on to find out (haha). First up is atheism versus theism.

Atheism versus Theism

Definitely among the highlights of the year is the four-part series on the moral argument.
  1. The Moral Argument for God Part 1: Going from Morality’s Existence to God’s Existence
  2. The Moral Argument for God Part 2: Does Objective Morality Exist If God Does Not Exist?
  3. The Moral Argument for God Part 3: Does Objective Morality Exist?
  4. The Euthyphro Dilemma
  5. Epilogue: Awakening the Sensus Divinitatis
One version of the moral argument I discuss in the series is this:
  1. If God does not exist, then objective morality does not exist.
  2. Objective morality does exist.
  3. Therefore, God exists.
In Does Objective Morality Exist If God Does Not Exist? I argue for the first premise and in Does Objective Morality Exist? I argue for the second premise. While not part of the series, Bad Objections to the Moral Argument was another notable entry of the year that explored some bad but unfortunately popular objections to this sort of moral argument. In that article I explain why objections like “objective morality can exist without God” are a lot worse than what one might think.

Other 2012 highlights on atheism versus theism:
  • The Leibnizian Cosmological Argument for God
    Why is there something rather than nothing? This five-page series addresses that question and describes the Leibnizian cosmological argument.
  • Omnipotence, Creating an Immovable Stone, and YouTube
    Can an omnipotent being create an immovable stone? One popular variation: can God create a stone so heavy that he can’t lift it? I discuss this so-called paradox that was inspired by a YouTube video with the help of some nifty symbolic logic (don’t worry; I explain what the symbols mean and they’re easy to understand).
  • Why Atheists Might Wish God to be a Dictator
    While atheists do not believe that God exists, they believe that God (if only as a fictional character) is a dictator. But if God exists, atheists would if anything be upset if he isn’t more of a dictator, and in this article I explain why.

Logic

If you want to be a good thinker, learn logic! I wrote a small series on logic, and I hope to write more on the topic next year.
  1. Introductory Logic, Part 1—Introducing both logic in general (such as the difference between a deductive and inductive argument) and propositional logic in particular
  2. Introductory Logic, Part 2—More propositional logic
  3. A defense of the material conditional—The material conditional of propositional logic has some strange and counter-intuitive properties (e.g. “If 2 + 2 = 5, then grass is air” is a true material conditional) and here I prove that for certain rules of logic to be accepted, any “If P, then Q” sort of statement has to be a material condtional.

Philosophy of Science

This was an unexpected dash of productivity since I hadn’t originally planned on writing on this topic all that much, but there were some fascinating topics to write about. Ever hear of the axiom that all else held constant, the simplest explanation is the best one? How do we know that this axiom is actually true? Thus began my three-part series on simplicity as evidence of truth with some interesting discoveries made along the way.
  1. Simplicity as Evidence of Truth: Justifying Ockham’s Razor
  2. Simplicity as Evidence of Truth: Theories Tying Into Background Knowledge
  3. Simplicity as Evidence of Truth: How Do We Know It?
One other highlight:
  • Spooky Action at a Distance
    Evidence from quantum mechanics suggests that making a measurement on one particle can simultaneously (as in taking literally zero seconds) affect another particle light-years away. Stranger yet, we can’t exploit this to send an information signal faster than light. How does this work and what is the evidence for this craziness? Read this article and find out.

Christianity

Perhaps the most insightful entry in this category is We Are the Depraved, an article that illustrates why we are sinners in need of redemption. I’ve also written on a couple philosophical challenges to the truth of the Christian faith:
  • Why Relativism Sucks
    The “true for me but not for you” thing sucks, and this article explains why.
  • Why Falsificationism Sucks
    What inspired this one is the objection that theism is not falsifiable, but this article also falls under the “philosophy of science” category.

Abortion

One interesting article that doesn’t fit neatly into the above categories is my rebuttal to Judith Jarvis Thomson’s famous violinist thought experiment. In her famous violinist thought experiment, philosopher Judith Jarvis Thomson boldly claims that even if abortion entails killing innocent human life, abortion remains morally permissible. This is a well-known argument in philosophy and I enjoyed taking a crack at it, arguing that Thomson’s argument isn’t nearly as good as it first appears.

Monday, December 24, 2012

Star of Bethlehem

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Much has been said about what the Star of Bethlehem might be, but perhaps the most interesting stuff about it has been put forth by the folks at www.bethlehemstar.net. If you’ve got time to kill, read the articles of this site. Among other things, they say that whatever occurred in the sky had to fit these criteria:
  1. The star indicated birth (confer Matthew 2:2)
  2. The star indicated kingship (confer Matthew 2:2)
  3. It had a Jewish connection (confer Matthew 2:2)
  4. The star rose in the east (confer Matthew 2:2, where the Greek suggests the star rising in the east as opposed to the Magi seeing it while they were in the east)
  5. It appeared at an exact time (confer Matthew 2:7)
  6. Herod didn’t know when it appeared (confer Matthew 2:7), he had to ask.
  7. The star endured over a considerable period of time (confer Matthew 2:8-9)
  8. It went ahead of them as they traveled from Jerusalem to Bethlehem (confer Matthew 2:8-9)
  9. The star stopped (confer Matthew 2:8-9)
From these clues and some knowledge about history, first-century culture, and astronomy, we get some ideas about how the Magi—people who among other things studied the stars—might think they had seen a celestial sign that the King of the Jews was to be born. What follows later in the Star of Bethlehem website (e.g. how the celestial events signified a king) might strike some Christians as being too close to astrology, which is popularly condemned in modern Christian circles. Jupiter was known as the King Planet, which when viewed from the night sky touched the Regulus star (a star that signified royalty) three times within an unusually short span of time, and so forth.

Again, this might strike some Christians as being too close to astrology, but a few points should be kept in mind. Frist, celestial signs are apparent in the Bible. Remember some terminology about the moon turning red (Joel 2:31, Revelation 6:12)? That refers to a total lunar eclipse, where the moon really does appear red (checkout this NASA video; see also this page on the lunar eclipse’s interesting connection to Christ’s crucifixion). Similarly, some believe that the talk about the sun turning to darkness (Joel 2:31, Revelation 6:12) refers to a solar eclipse, or perhaps something a bit more mundate (see this article on this part of Joel 2:31’s possible relevance to Christ’s crucifixion). So there do appear to be at least some cases where celestial signs are legitimate. Second, remember that these Magi folk study the stars and clearly did see a star as a sign that the King of the Jews had come. So celestial phenomena signifying the King of the Jews is unavoidable if we’re to take Scripture seriously here, and at worst it’ll be a matter of degree regarding what is appropriate celestial interpretation by these apparently God-fearing Magi.

Anyway, I watched the video some time ago, and fellow Christians might want to consider watching the Star of Bethlehem DVD themselves. The coinciding of celestial events the DVD goes over seems so remarkable I think it might even be useful for apologetics.


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Thursday, December 20, 2012

Bad Santa Analogy

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A number of bad analogies between Santa Claus and God could and have been used. Some of them are so bad they are enjoyed only by atheists bad at philosophy and by bad Santas.

One of those analogies is the following. Disproving God’s existence is something like disproving the existence of Santa. What kind of evidence could be produced? Yet we are still rational to disbelieve Santa just as we are to disbelieve God without having any burden of proof to disprove their existence.

One reason this is a bad analogy is that we can indeed provide evidence against Santa’s existence. Indeed, one of my pet peeves about Christmas movies where Santa Claus is real is that the parents don’t realize it. Consider the following conversation:
Dad: I’m sorry son, but Santa isn’t real.

Son: Then who got me that bike for Christmas?

Dad: We did, your mother and I.

Son: Which one of you actually put it under the three?

Dad: Your mother.

Mom: I didn’t put it under the tree, I thought you did.

Son: And who got me that toy train track for Christmas last year?

Dad: I didn’t.

Mom: Neither did I.

Dad and Mom: HOLY FECES!
The fact that this sort of thing doesn’t happen is pretty good evidence against Santa’s existence.

A better but less interesting analogy is that just as we have no evidence for Santa, we also have no evidence for God. At that point one can just put forth evidence for God, like morality (via the moral argument; see also Bayes’ theorem and the moral argument for a simple mathematical look at the evidence) and the existence of the universe (via the Leibnizian cosmological argument; see also my entry on Bayes’ theorem and the LCA). At any rate, analogies are no substitute for real evidence and substantive arguments for atheism.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Bad Objections to the Moral Argument (p. 3)

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Bad Objections to the Moral Argument
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Bad Objection #5: The Euthyphro dilemma shows that God doesn’t ground morality

Objection:

The Euthyphro dilemma goes something like this: for any X that is good, “Does God will it because X is good, or is X good because God wills it?” On the first horn of the dilemma (God wills X because it is good), what goodness is becomes external to God, and therefore isn’t grounded in God. God simply recognizes what is good and then wills it. On the second horn of the dilemma (X is good because God wills it) God arbitrarily creates what goodness is in the sense that it could have been anything; God could have created goodness in such a way that it is good to torture infants just for fun, for example. So no matter which horn of the dilemma the theist picks, things look dire for the claim that God is the foundation of morality. The Euthyphro dilemma therefore gives us excellent grounds for thinking that God does not ground morality. Thus the moral argument should not be accepted as sound.

Rebuttal:

There are a number of problems with this objection (see my article on the Euthyphro dilemma), but in this case the problem is that even if the Euthyphro objection is right about God not grounding morality, that is irrelevant to the deductive moral argument. No part of the moral argument says that God is the foundation of morality. Premise (1) simply states that objective morality doesn’t exist if atheism is true, and this doesn’t imply that God grounds morality. One could even be an atheist and accept premise (1). Premise (2) also doesn’t imply that God is the foundation of morality, since all premise (2) says is that objective morality exists.

Do the two premises together entail that God grounds morality? No. Both premises being true entails that God exists along with objective morality, but that doesn’t imply that God grounds objective morality. Neither the premises individually nor their combination entails that God grounds morality, and the argument’s conclusion (which is simply “God exists”) doesn’t say that God grounds morality either. The upshot is that the Euthyphro dilemma just isn’t relevant at all. The fact, if it were so, that God isn’t the foundation of morality doesn’t attack any premise of the argument, and if the premises are true the conclusion follows whether one likes it or not.

Does God not being able to ground morality undermine the justification for any premise? It doesn’t do so for premise (2), but does it do so for premise (1)? No. One can justify premise (1) by arguing that objective morality is unlikely on atheism, and this doesn’t at all rely on God grounding objective morality. To illustrate, consider the atheist who accepts the justification that objective morality probably doesn’t exist if atheism is true. The objection “God doesn’t ground morality” won’t do anything to convince her that the justification for the first premise fails.

This objection’s use of the Euthyphro dilemma against the soundness of the moral argument commits the red herring fallacy; the objection does nothing to show that there is a false or unjustified premise, and indeed it doesn’t even address that issue. And if there is no false or unjustified premise, the premises are justifiably true and one should accept the deductively valid moral argument as sound.


Conclusion

The moral argument being discussed was this:

    (1) If God does not exist, then objective morality does not exist.
    (2) Objective morality does exist.
    (3) Therefore, God exists.


The problem with the bad objections mentioned here fall into two groups: If premises (1) and (2) are justifiably true, then the conclusion follows whether one likes it or not, and it’s just doesn’t matter whether morality can exist without God, whether the Euthyphro dilemma shows that God doesn’t ground morality, or whether God can’t be used to explain something. None of those things would show that a premise is false.

When facing an objection to some deductively valid argument, ask yourself these questions: “Does this objection show that a premise is false? Does the objection attack the justification for a premise?” If the objection attacks neither a premise nor the justification for a premise, you might have a red herring.

Not all objections to the moral argument make the mistakes I mentioned (straw men etc.). For example, one objection is that evolution undercuts our justification for believing in objective morality (I discuss the evolution objection here). I don’t think that objection works, but at least it has the decency of not erecting straw men or throwing red herrings, and it doesn’t rely on an uncharitable interpretation of the moral argument.

Advice for Theists

It’s also worth mentioning that one needn’t believe the premises to be true with absolute certainty. If each premise is more plausible than its denial, that’s enough for the moral argument to have at least some evidential merit for theism (notice how odd it would be to concede that each premise is more plausible than its denial yet reject the conclusion). If you dialogue with an atheist about this argument (or any other deductively valid argument for theism), I recommend asking something like, “Do you agree that the premises are more plausible than their denials? If not, which premise do you think isn’t and why?” It might not hurt to remind the atheist that a false premise is the only way for the conclusion to be false.

Advice for Atheists

Please remember that a false premise is the only way for the conclusion to be false. If you think the deductive moral argument is unsound, attack a premise. Show that a premise is false or show that the justification given for a premise fails (if the theist hasn’t offered any justification, you have my permission to point this out). Throwing red herrings and attacking straw men just wastes everybody’s time, and we all know atheists can be better than that.

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Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Bad Objections to the Moral Argument (p. 2)

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Bad Objections to the Moral Argument
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Bad Objection #3: Objective morality can exist without God

Objection:

The first premise of the moral argument says, “If God does not exist, then objective morality does not exist.” Yet objective morality can exist without God. It’s very conceivable that without God, objective morality just exists as a brute fact. Thus the first premise is false or at least unjustified.

Rebuttal:

This objection is irrelevant because nowhere does the deductive moral argument claim that morality can’t exist without God. One might think that the first premise claims that, but it doesn’t. Looking at the first premise again:

    (1) If God does not exist, then objective morality does not exist.


Notice that the first premise isn’t saying that objective morality can’t exist if atheism is true, it’s saying objective morality doesn’t exist if atheism is true. That’s important because it means the first premise isn’t making an impossibility claim like, “It’s impossible for objective morality to exist without God” but rather, “It isn’t the case that objective morality exists without God.” A theist could grant it’s possible for objective morality to exist without God while also believing it probably isn’t the case that objective morality exists without God. Consider the following argument that makes the “It isn’t the case that objective morality exists without God” meaning of the first premise more explicit:

    (1*) It isn’t the case that objective morality exists without God
(It’s false that moral objectivism and atheism are both true)
    (2) Objective morality exists
(Moral objectivism is true)
    (3) Therefore, God exists
(Therefore, atheism is false)


Notice that (1*) and (2) together entail (3). So the theist doesn’t need to show that it’s impossible for objective morality to exist without God. It’s enough for the theist to show that if we were to grant atheism as true, it is unlikely that objective morality exists. So given that objective morality probably doesn’t exist if atheism is true, we would then have good grounds for accepting (1) and (1*). Indeed, arguing that objective morality probably doesn’t exist if atheism is true was the approach I took to justify premise (1) in Does Objective Morality Exist If God Does Not Exist?

It bears repeating: to justify premise (1), the theist need not show that objective morality can’t exist without God; it’s enough to show that objective morality probably doesn’t exist if atheism is true. The claim that God isn’t needed for objective morality isn’t relevant to the issue at hand; the objection doesn’t do anything to show that the first premise is false or unjustified. The objection thus commits the red herring fallacy.


Bad Objection #4: The moral argument uses “God-of-the-gaps” reasoning

Objection:

In the God-of-the-gaps fallacy, one appeals to God as an explanation to plug some gap in our knowledge. With the moral argument, the claim is “I don’t know how objective morality could exist, therefore God is the explanation for objective morality.” This is an argument from ignorance and is thus fallacious.

Rebuttal:

Lots of objections could be raised against the so-called “God-of-the-gaps fallacy,” at least those which categorically reject appealing to God as an explanation (descriptions of the fallacy come in various forms). If there aren’t any non-divine gaps in our explanatory knowledge (i.e. if God isn’t a correct explanation for anything), appealing to God as an explanation will get us off track. But if there are such gaps, enforcing a principle to categorically restrict such explanations will also get us off track. It may be true that theists rely on us not knowing of a better explanation than theism when theists appeal to God as an explanation, but that sort of thing is hardly a unique practice (e.g. if we could think of a better explanation than the big bang theory, we wouldn’t accept the big bang theory).

But let’s ignore that and assume it’s true that appealing to God as an explanation for something is inherently fallacious. There’s a wee bit of a problem: the deductive moral argument never appeals to God to explain anything. Premise (1) for example simply states that objective morality doesn’t exist if atheism is true. While one could appeal to God as an explanation in an attempt to support premise (1), it’s not at all necessary. One can justify this premise by arguing it’s unlikely that objective morality exists if atheism is true. Even if God can’t be legitimately used as an explanation for whatever reason, this does nothing to show that any premise of the argument is false. Nor does it address the justification for believing in a premise.

So even if appealing to God as an explanation is illegitimate for some reason, that is irrelevant to the deductive moral argument, which doesn’t use God to explain anything. By claiming that the moral argument uses “God-of-the-gaps” reasoning when it doesn’t, the objection commits the straw man fallacy.

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Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Bad Objections to the Moral Argument

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Bad Objections to the Moral Argument
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The Moral Argument

There have been some bad objections against the moral argument, but before I get to that I’ll describe what sort of moral argument I’ll be talking about:

    (1) If God does not exist, then objective morality does not exist.
    (2) Objective morality does exist.
    (3) Therefore, God exists.


I’ll call the above argument the deductive moral argument, because the above argument is deductively valid, i.e. the premises entail the conclusion such that it’s impossible for the argument to have true premises and a false conclusion. The only way for the argument’s conclusion to be false is for a premise to be false.

Premise (1) has its variants, e.g. “If God does not exist, then objective moral values and duties do not exist.” By morality being “objective” I mean that it exists independently of human belief and perception of it, e.g. torturing infants just for fun is morally wrong independently of human opinion. I’ll also call this idea moral objectivism.

The Premises

The moral argument is deductively valid, but is it sound (deductively valid + true premises)? That’s where justifying the premises comes in. In Does Objective Morality Exist If God Does Not Exist? I justified the first premise, arguing that objective morality probably doesn’t exist if atheism is true. In Does Objective Morality Exist? I justified the second premise, appealing to examples of things that are objective morally wrong and considering alternatives to moral objectivism.

Once the theist has offered justification for both premises of the deductive moral argument, an objection against the argument should aim for showing that there’s a premise that is false or at least unjustified, since if both premises are justifiably true that will be troubling for those who wish to deny the argument’s soundness. Yet the bad objections I’ll talk about here not only fail to show that there’s a false or unjustified premise, they also commit outright fallacies.


Bad Objection #1: The moral argument’s definition of “objective” is wrong

Objection:

The correct definition of “objective” is “independent of the mind.” However, the moral argument as explained here uses the term “objective” to mean something like “independent of human opinion,” and that’s an incorrect definition of “objective.” Therefore, not only is the moral argument unsound, but objective morality is independent of God by definition.

Rebuttal:

Like many words in the English language, the word “objective” means different things in different contexts. In the context of the moral argument, “objective” often does mean something like “independent of human opinion.” Writing in the context of the moral argument, philosopher of religion William Lane Craig wrote that to “say that there are objective moral values is to say that something is good or evil independently of whether any human being believes it to be so.”[1] Also writing in the context of the moral argument is Robert Adams, a philosopher who taught at Yale, who speaks of a fact being “objective in the sense that whether it obtains or not does not depend on whether any human being thinks it does.”[2] Last but not least is the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy’s entry on the moral argument which speaks of moral properties being “objective in the sense that they hold or not regardless of human opinion.”

Let’s suppose though that these professionals don’t know what the word “objective” means within the context of their own profession. The principle of charity would then suggest we interpret their definitions of “objective” as stipulative definitions, in which case there’s still no problem.

Another reason this objection is a bad one is that all it does is complain about the words used to express the premises (using the word “objective” to express the concept of “existing independently of human belief and perception of it”). It really doesn’t do anything to attack the truth of the premises. If one uses the objection to try to show that the moral argument shouldn’t be accepted as sound, the objection commits the red herring fallacy (supposing a claim is refuted by arguing for an irrelevant conclusion), since even if the wrong word was used to express the meaning of the premises, that isn’t at all relevant to whether the premises are justifiably true.


Bad Objection #2: Evolution explains our moral behavior; God isn’t needed

Objection:

We don’t need theism to explain why we don’t eat babies and rape our neighbors. Evolutionary pressures force humans to behave in certain ways to help our species survive. If morality is defined as certain patterns of behavior that include e.g. refraining from raping and stealing, we see that God isn’t needed for such morals and we have no reason to believe premise (1).

Rebuttal:

The problem with this objection is that it misconstrues what type of morality the argument is talking about. Consider for example objective moral duties, which have to do with right and wrong behavior. An action is morally wrong for someone only if they ought not to do it, and an action is morally obligatory for someone only if they ought to do it. So if moral duties exist there is an oughtness property associated with them, and on moral objectivism that oughtness exists objectively. But the existence of this sort of thing (properties of objectively existing oughtness) is well outside the scope of evolution.

At best, evolution explains why we believe in objective moral duties (such beliefs helping to bring about survival conducive behavior); it doesn’t explain the existence of objective moral duties. The same sort of thing goes for objective moral values. Evolution might help explain why we believe in objective moral values (e.g. believing that helping others is objectively good helps encourage such actions), but it doesn’t explain the existence of objective moral values.

In sum, the “evolution explains our nicenesss” objection uses the term “morality” as referring to certain patterns of behavior, which is just not how the moral argument is using the term, and so by misconstruing the first premise this objection commits the straw man fallacy (distorting an opponent’s position before attacking it). If atheism is true, we might indeed act in the same way we do in fact behave thanks to evolution etc., but premise (1) claims that this behavior does not have any objective moral dimension (wrongness, etc.) if atheism is true.

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[1] Craig, William Lane. Reasonable Faith, Third Edition (Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway Books, 2008), p. 173.

[2] Adams, Robert M. The Virtue of Faith (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987), p. 105.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Abortion and the Famous Violinist

Home  >  Philosophy  >  Ethics And Morality  >  Abortion

Intro

The abortion controversy often centers around where personhood begins as a good indication of whether to outlaw abortion. The philosopher Judith Jarvis Thomson boldly claims that even if abortion entails killing innocent human life, abortion remains morally permissible. She does this with her famous violinist thought experiment.

Extremes

Abortion is a controversial topic, and I confess I find it intellectually interesting, albeit a bit puzzling. That is, I’m not sure what the best solution is as to where to legalize and outlaw abortions. I find the extreme pro-choice position (making it legal for all pregnancies at all stages of pregnancy) unpalatable, but I’m also skeptical of the extreme pro-life position (outlaw it at conception).

Consider the extreme position that human personhood begins at conception, when the human being starts off in a single-celled stage of development called a zygote. A single-celled zygote is no more plausibly sentient than an amoeba, and there are understandable difficulties with thinking that any single-celled organism or any human body is a bona fide person when there is no kind of brain (to illustrate, if an adult human’s brain were annihilated, we would think that human person qua person ceased to live).

The other extreme—personhood begins at birth—doesn’t seem much better. Consider a woman eight months pregnant with her fetus and gives birth, thereby making what was a fetus into a person, but then kills it after it is born. Even on this extreme view, she has killed a person. Now suppose instead of giving birth, she kills the fetus inside her when it is as the same stage of development. On the “personhood begins at birth” view, she has not killed a person. But this hardly makes sense; does the location of the human being at eight months really decide whether it is a person?

It seems implausible to me that the location of a human being determines its personhood. If the mad scientist Professor Evil shrunk me and put me inside his body, would I cease to be a person? Could Professor Evil then kill me without having committed murder? It seems not.

The Famous Violinist Thought Experiment

Maverick atheism brought this up in his Joe Biden and Abortion article. Judith Jarvis Thomson tries to short circuit the issue in her famous article A Defense of Abortion. An excerpt from it:
You wake up in the morning and find yourself back to back in bed with an unconscious violinist. A famous unconscious violinist. He has been found to have a fatal kidney ailment, and the Society of Music Lovers has canvassed all the available medical records and found that you alone have the right blood type to help. They have therefore kidnapped you, and last night the violinist's circulatory system was plugged into yours, so that your kidneys can be used to extract poisons from his blood as well as your own. The director of the hospital now tells you, “Look, we're sorry the Society of Music Lovers did this to you--we would never have permitted it if we had known. But still, they did it, and the violinist is now plugged into you. To unplug you would be to kill him. But never mind, it's only for nine months. By then he will have recovered from his ailment, and can safely be unplugged from you.” Is it morally incumbent on you to accede to this situation? No doubt it would be very nice of you if you did, a great kindness. But do you have to accede to it? What if it were not nine months, but nine years? Or longer still? What if the director of the hospital says. “Tough luck. I agree. but now you've got to stay in bed, with the violinist plugged into you, for the rest of your life. Because remember this. All persons have a right to life, and violinists are persons. Granted you have a right to decide what happens in and to your body, but a person's right to life outweighs your right to decide what happens in and to your body. So you cannot ever be unplugged from him.”
I’m not quite convinced that it would be morally permissible for me to kill the famous violinist, but let’s set that aside. Two things that are missing here in the case of pregnancy are (a) that the victim is the son or daughter (there do appear to be at least some parental duties to children); and (b) a bodily inconvenience more akin to pregnancy. To illustrate why this might matter, consider the following scenario. A mad scientist infects a mother with something that causes bodily inconveniences identical to pregnancy for nine months (including the small medical risks associated with pregnancy), after which she will return to normal. The mother knows that the mad scientist has a serum capable of curing her immediately, but the scientist won’t give it to her unless she kills her newborn son. Is it morally permissible for the mother to kill her son to get the cure? I think most people, pro-lifers and pro-choicers alike, would answer in the negative.

So what relevant difference would there be between this analogy and abortion? Perhaps because her newborn son is someone she’s already committed to supporting, whereas she wouldn’t have any commitment to supporting the fetus she wants to abort (the same could be said for the famous violinist). I do not think this is a relevant difference, but we can modify the scenario accordingly. Suppose while being pregnant with her first son she decides to abort it, but on her way to the abortion clinic she gets in a car accident and the doctors, not knowing she wants to abort the preborn child, deliver the child prematurely to save his life. While regaining consciousness she abdicates all legal responsibility for the child, giving it up for adoption while the newborn is in intensive care. The next day the mother begins working at the same hospital her newborn son is in, and she is in a position to kill her newborn son to get the cure. It still does not seem morally permissible for the mother to kill her newborn son.

One might object saying that in the case of pregnancy and the famous violinist, physiological support is being given to the victim, and this makes it morally permissible to end the life of the victim for bodily convenience. I do not think such a factor is relevant, but let’s add that to our scenario anyway. Suppose the mad scientist implants a small micro-wormhole device that teleports some nourishment from the mother’s body to her infant, and that the providing of nourishment to the newborn harms the mother no more and no less than when she was pregnant. Is it in this case morally permissible for the mother to kill her son for the cure? The answer still appears to be no.

But if it’s not morally permissible for the pseudo-pregnant mother to kill her son even when her body is providing the person nourishment etc., about the only relevant difference there might be to justify a Thomsonian abortion defense is the location of the person. But when all other relevant factors (e.g. bodily inconvenience) are held constant, it would seem rather arbitrary to think that it’s the location of a person that determines whether it’s morally permissible to kill them, just as it seems arbitrary that the location of a human being determines its personhood.

Conclusion

Thomson’s argument from her famous violinist thought experiment is unsuccessful. Two factors missing in Thomson’s scenario play a part in the failure: (a) that the victim is the son or daughter (there do appear to be at least some parental duties to children); and (b) a bodily inconvenience more akin to pregnancy. When a better analogy is given (asking whether it is morally permissible for a mother to kill her newborn son to immediately cease her pregnancy-like inconveniences), the failure of her argument becomes apparent. By my lights, we’re left with the difficult and thorny issue of where human personhood begins regarding the ethical and legal controversy of abortion.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

If You Think Abortions Kill...

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This might be a little late to comment on a remark made by Joe Biden in the 2012 U.S. Vice Presidential debate, but here goes. Joe Biden said this:
With regard to -- with regard to abortion, I accept my church's position on abortion as a -- what we call a (inaudible) doctrine. Life begins at conception in the church's judgment. I accept it in my personal life.

But I refuse to impose it on equally devout Christians and Muslims and Jews, and I just refuse to impose that on others, unlike my friend here, the -- the congressman. I -- I do not believe that we have a right to tell other people that -- women they can't control their body. It's a decision between them and their doctor.
When you think about it, this is a very interesting position. It would seem that Biden agrees with the pro-life view that human personhood begins at conception, yet disagrees that abortion should be outlawed. But as philosophy professor Francis J. Beckwith points out in an article I recently read,
if the unborn [child] is a full-fledged member of the human community, and if a community’s end is justice for all persons under its authority, then a community that were to permit the unjustified killing of such beings would not be doing justice. But not just any injustice, but a deeply serious one, an injustice that says that members of one segment of its population may kill members of another segment without any public justification whatsoever.[1]
By my lights, Biden has some explaining to do regarding the ethical coherency of his position. If one thinks abortions really do kill innocent people, why condone its legality?




[1] Beckwith, Francis J. “Zygotes, Embryos, and Subsistence” Philosophia Christi 14.1 (Summer 2012) p. 210

Sunday, September 30, 2012

Bayes Theorem and the LCA (p. 4)

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Bayes’ Theorem and the LCA
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Hypothesis H has some inferential virtues (things that make an inference good) that go beyond merely entailing E, and thus there are inferential virtues go beyond what is reflected Pr(E|H), and are instead reflected (albeit indirectly) in Pr(H).

   (1)  It provides an explanation. The big bang theory explains why this cosmic microwave background radiation exists but another hypothesis is that the background radiation exists inexplicably. Both hypotheses entail the existence of cosmic microwave background radiation, but that the big bang theory explains the radiation’s existence is an advantage the other hypothesis doesn’t have. Ceteris paribus, we prefer a hypothesis that explains the existence of a thing over one that merely entails the thing’s existence.
   (2)  Precision. Not only does H imply the existence of an explanation, we can actually think of a specific explanation for the contingent universe: an eternal, transcendent, metaphysically necessary personal entity that is the external cause of the universe. Granted, this level of precision is limited, but it’s a big improvement over “there is an explanation and but I can’t think of what it might be at all.” To give an illustration, suppose theory T implies the data but does not explain it. I say we should reject theory T because there might be some unknown hypothesis that explains the data, rather than merely implying it like theory T does. My case for rejecting theory T would be much stronger if I could think of a real example of such an explanation rather than merely asserting that some explanation exists (which would constitute some additional precision for my hypothesis of there being an explanation). Similarly, the fact that we can think of an explanation makes H more likely than it would be otherwise.


My claim here is modest: that items (1) and (2) make H more likely than it would have been without them. Some inferential virtues are also explanatory virtues (things that make an explanation a good one). Some inferential virtues are also explanatory virtues (things that make an explanation a good one). For the specific explanation for H (eternal, transcendent, metaphysically necessary, personal entity as the external cause of the universe), these explanatory virtues include:

   (3)  Plausibility. One factor going into plausibility is if it implies fewer falsehoods. I mentioned that an additional factor H has in its favor is that we can actually think of some explanation for the universe. But if the proposed hypothesis is the only known viable explanation and we have no evidence against it (as I claim), the fact that we have such a hypothesis known to us also makes H more likely than it would be otherwise. Think back to the situation of theory T. My case for rejecting theory T would be better if there were no evidence against my explanatory hypothesis.
   (4)  Tying in with background knowledge. Fulfilled to an albeit limited extent; we are intimately familiar with personal causes, and we experience personal causes being a reason for why things exist all the time.
   (5)  Simplicity. Fulfilled to an albeit limited extent. In my series on the Leibnizian cosmological argument, I posited only those attributes that were needed to explain the existence of the contingent universe: an eternal, transcendent, metaphysically necessary, personal entity that is the external cause of the universe. That these attributes derive so simply from there being an explanation for the existence of the universe makes the explanation more likely than it would be otherwise.
   (6) 
Explanatory scope. Fulfilled in multiple ways.
   (a)  Explaining the cosmos. The existence of a necessary personal being that exists by the necessity of its own nature is sufficient to explain why there is something rather than nothing; the explanation for the necessary being’s existence is the necessity of its own nature, and that necessary being entails the existence of something rather than nothing. In my series on the Leibnizian cosmological argument I noted that the eternal, transcendent, metaphysically necessary, personal entity as the external cause of the universe explains why there is something rather than nothing, why the contingent universe exists, and why the physical universe exists.
   (b)  Explaining morality. An eternal, transcendent, necessary personal being (with a few more attributes) also explains objective morality. For more on this, see my argument from ontological simplicity (which is part 1 in my argument from morality series).


These facets of the explanation make the explanation more likely than it would have been without them.[1] My claim is modest: the fact that we can think of an explanation for why there is something rather than nothing that meets criteria (3) through (5) to the extent that they do (e.g. the explanation implies no falsehoods) makes H more likely than it would be otherwise. Just as my case for rejecting theory T would be much improved if I could think of an explanation that met criteria (3) and (4), so my case for rejecting ¬H is improved via (3) and (4). By my lights, the entity explaining not only why there is something rather than nothing but also the existence of objective morality (6b) is a particularly significant item in favor of H, in part because of how simply the existence of an eternal, transcendent, metaphysically necessary entity is extrapolated from the existence of objective morality, but whether I’m right about that heavily depends upon that moral argument for God working.

Shoe On the Other Foot

In addition to assigning a lower prior probability for H to avoid believing it, one disputable point is how much additional evidential weight items (1) through (6) give to “there is an explanation for why there is something rather than nothing;” an atheist could say the evidential improvement is very small. Would such an atheist be right?

Here’s another way to look at it. Suppose the shoe were on the other foot and there being an explanation for why there is something rather than nothing were devastating to theism rather than atheism. Criteria (1) though (6) are met to the same level as the theist’s personal cause hypothesis (the atheist’s explanation is simply and straightforwardly derived from the data; the anti-theistic explanation is the only known viable explanation, etc.). The devastating-to-theism explanation implies no falsehoods and explains why there is something rather than nothing, why the contingent universe exists, and why the physical universe exists. Wouldn’t atheists be reluctant to assign a low prior probability to H in those circumstances? Wouldn’t they be right to do so? I also have a hard time believing atheists wouldn’t use this as fairly significant evidence against theism, particularly in light of the Bayes’ theorem equation that yields a 67% probability of there being an explanation for someone like Al.

Summary and Conclusion

The symbols were these:
  • H says there is an explanation for why the universe exists; a sufficient reason for its existence.
  • ¬H says is not the case that H is true; there is no reason for why the universe would exist.
  • E is the evidence of the universe existing.
The equation was this:

Pr(H|E) = 
Pr(H) × Pr(E|H)
Pr(H) × Pr(E|H) + Pr(¬H) × Pr(E|¬H)


One advantage H has over “there is no reason for why the universe would exist” is that on H it is more likely that the universe would exist, and for the agnostic (one who considered “there is an explanation for why the universe exists” to be equally as likely as “there is no explanation for why the universe would exist”), that’s enough for the universe’s existence to be fairly significant evidence for H, even if that evidence isn’t overwhelming. Using the above form of Bayes’ theorem to help show that (where Pr(H) = Pr(¬H) = 0.5, Pr(E|H) = 1, and Pr(E|¬H) = 0.5):

Pr(H|E) = 
0.5 × 1
0.5 × 1 + 0.5 × 0.5
 = 
0.5
0.75
 = 23 ≈ 0.67


With the mathematics being airtight, a person who disagrees with the probability result will have to dispute at least one of three things:
  1. Pr(E|H) = 1
  2. Pr(E|¬H) = 0.5
  3. Pr(H) = Pr(¬H) = 0.5
Pr(E|H) is unassailable; there existing an explanation for why the universe exists entails that the universe exists. Pr(E|¬H) is more vulnerable, but considering how special the number zero is to prior probabilities (as credibly illustrated in the case of “zero gods exist”), then abandoning all the background information we would otherwise have about things existing and focusing on just ¬H, it does seem that Pr(E|¬H) = 0.5 or something close to it.

Attacking Pr(H) = Pr(¬H) wouldn’t actually address this key point: a person who is truly agnostic but hadn’t yet considered the evidential force the universe’s existence has for H should re-assign a probability of about 67% for H upon considering such evidence.

In addition to Pr(E|H) = 1, there are various other factors that make H more likely than it would otherwise, and thus there are factors that increase the probability of H that aren’t reflected in Pr(E|H). For example, we can think of a specific explanation for why there is something rather than nothing that (a) implies no falsehoods; (b) is fairly simple (an entity with certain specified attributes that are derived simply and straightforwardly from the data); and (c) has an interesting connection to explaining the existence of objective morality. I’d venture to say that factors (1) though (6) I mentioned push the probability of “there is an explanation for why the universe exists” at least beyond the 70% range.

The degree to which all this counts as evidence for “there is an explanation for the existence of the universe” can be considered by imagining if the tables were turned in atheism’s favor. If in addition to H’s superior explanatory power for the existence of the universe, the devastating-to-theism explanation explained why there is something rather than nothing, why the contingent universe exists, why the physical universe exists, the explanation implied no falsehoods etc. it seems this would constitute fairly significant evidence in favor of atheism. But if that is true, rationality dictates we be consistent and recognize that these factors are equally as favorable to the pro-theism hypothesis of an eternal, transcendent, necessary personal being as the external cause of the universe.

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[1] I’m oversimplifying this, and some of this can be a bit tricky. Where B is our background knowledge, Pr(H) is really Pr(H|B) (the likelihood of H given some set of background information). For example, for (2), strictly speaking our own existence isn’t part of B. We could include in B something like, “If something were to exist in such a way that we would exist, then there would be personal entities like us who have a reason for why some things exist.” That said, we’re basically considering how one should adjust their probability of H when they hadn’t taken into account E’s evidential force for H.

Saturday, September 29, 2012

Bayes’ Theorem and the LCA (p. 3)

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Bayes’ Theorem and the LCA
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Pr(E|¬H)

One could make this objection: there are infinitely many ways for there to be something, and only one way for there to be nothing. Pr(E|¬H) should therefore be extremely high, somewhere near 1.

I don’t think this objection is quite as good as it first appears. In some respects simplicity is evidence of truth, and we tend to have a special place in our intellectual hearts for the number zero. To illustrate, consider the case of “How many gods are there?”

Suppose one has no background information regarding the existence of “How many gods are there?” and little to no background information about what sorts of gods, if any exist, are like (e.g. whether they are friendly or hostile, whether they are beautiful or ugly, and whether any have six arms). Given the lack of such background information, what should one’s default view be about whether there are any gods? The default view, it seems to me, is to be truly agnostic, i.e. award “there are no gods” the probability of 50%. Some atheists would award “there are no gods” a default probability greater than 50%, so to broaden the agreement let’s say that the default probability of “there are no gods” is greater than or equal to 50%. But provided we would also award nonzero (even if low) probabilities for “there is exactly one god” and “there are exactly two gods,” we would be giving especially high probability status to there being zero gods, as in “the probability of there being zero gods is greater than or equal to 50%,” thereby awarding the “zero” value to be more probable than any other number of gods and it being no less probable than any other proposition that entails the existence of gods (e.g. “there is a god with six arms”). Notice how significant this is: we are awarding “there are zero gods” a probability value that is no less than all other possibilities combined even when there are infinitely many ways for gods to exist. This strongly suggests, I think, the value of ontological simplicity when coming up with prior probabilities especially as they relate to “there exist things of type X” when there is no background information.

The same principle holds, I believe, for “Why is there something rather than nothing?” Nothing is the ultimate zero, and abandoning all the background information we would otherwise have about things existing and focusing on just ¬H, it seems to me that Pr(E|¬H) is 0.5 or something close to it. The question, “Why is there something rather than nothing?” is interesting precisely because in the absence of a sufficient reason, there being nothing at all to exist seems like a very real possibility.

Prior Probabilities: Pr(H) and Pr(¬H)

Disputing the prior probabilities doesn’t actually affect my main point: a person who is truly agnostic (thinks “there is an explanation for the universe’s existence” is equally likely as “there is no reason for why the universe would exist”) but hadn’t yet considered the evidential force the universe’s existence has for H should re-assign a probability of about 67% for H in the absence of further arguments. That said, one could say that a person who didn’t consider the evidence for E has for H should have Pr(H) be less than Pr(¬H).

One could say that, but in that case the objector would have to argue that in this situation “there is an explanation for the universe’s existence” is less probable than “there is no reason for why the universe would exist.” In abandoning the agnostic’s “neutral probability” default position, the objector would need to give some argument for why the background information would favor ¬H over H. Furthermore, one could argue that if anything the opposite should be done. Hypothesis H has some inferential virtues (things that make an inference good) that go beyond merely entailing E, and thus there are inferential virtues that aren’t captured in Pr(E|H).

One reason to rank H higher than we would otherwise rank it is that it’s part of the nature of rational inquiry to look for explanations for why things exist. To quote what I said in a previous entry:
Here I’ll borrow a bit from philosopher Richard Taylor’s illustration of finding a translucent ball in the woods. “How did it get there?” you ask. I reply, “There is no explanation for it being in the woods; the ball just exists inexplicably.” My response seems less plausible than the idea that there is some explanation for the ball’s existence. What if we enlarged the ball to the size of a car? Same problem: some explanation seems to be needed. How about a city? Same problem. A planet? Same problem. A galaxy? Same problem; increasing the size does nothing to remove the need for an explanation. How about if the ball were as big as the universe? Same problem. All things considered, it seems intuitively plausible that if a contingent thing exists, there is some reason why it exists, since it could have failed to exist.
The universe is contingent, and our default rational preference should be to accept that there is an explanation for its existence. Regarding the translucent ball illustration, Maverick Atheism says:
True enough, increasing the size of the translucent ball does nothing to remove the need for an explanation (let us also assume arguendo that all translucent balls are contingent). Size doesn’t matter, but what does matter is whether the translucent ball existed eternally. It is quite conceivable that there are possible worlds where a translucent orb has existed for all eternity without an external cause. If we had no evidence that the translucent ball began to exist, it would seem at least premature to simply assume it had an external cause
This may be a situation where reasonable people can disagree, but I’m not quite convinced that knowing the translucent ball to be eternal is sufficient to remove the need for an explanation (recall that it wasn’t sufficient in the case of the eternal monument scenario). In any case, suppose also in our eternal translucent ball scenario we had an explanation for its existence that was readily available, fairly straightforward, is the only known viable explanation, and we have no reason to believe the explanation is false. In that case I think the prior probability of there being a sufficient reason for the translucent ball’s existence was fairly good, at least more than 50%.

Similarly, perhaps it is logically possible for the contingent universe to exist eternally and uncaused, and for there to be no explanation for there being something rather than nothing. But it seems more intellectually satisfying to accept that there is an explanation for why there is something rather than nothing, especially if we have an explanation readily available, is the only known viable explanation, and no reason to think the explanation is false. The atheist could argue that we do have reason to think that the theist’s explanation (a transcendent personal cause) is false, but again that would require some kind of argument. In the absence of such an argument, the background information (the nature of rational inquiry, a readily available explanation etc.) if anything favors H over ¬H.

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