Friday, July 5, 2013

Debate Round 1: Opening Statements

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Preface



Below is the opening statement for a debate between me and fellow blogger Potnia Theron over the existence of God. The debate thus far:




Introduction



In my opening statement I’ll argue for the existence of God, who is understood to be eternal, transcendent, metaphysically necessary, morally perfect, omnipotent, and omniscient.

The Moral Argument



What is Morality?

The type of morality I have in mind is this: (1) it involves the unconditional ought, as in an action being morally wrong only if one ought not to do it; and (2) it is supremely authoritative, overriding any other “ought” (e.g. legal rules). Moral properties (e.g. moral wrongness) are objective in the sense that they hold independently of human belief and perception of them. For example, torturing infants just for fun would be morally wrong even if the torturer thought it was morally permissible.

While not strictly part of my definition of morality, it does seem that morality is metaphysically necessary. If we let a possible world be a complete description of the way the world is or could have been like, something like “kindness is a virtue” is metaphysically necessary in the sense that it holds in all possible worlds. Similarly, there is no possible world where “torturing infants just for fun” isn’t morally bad.

Grounding Morality

If objective moral properties exist and are attached to certain actions in the physical world (as when someone steals a television), moral properties exist either solely part of the physical realm, or to at least some degree as part of the nonphysical realm. One of these must be true, because if morality exists neither as part of the physical realm nor as part of the non-physical realm, then it follows that morality does not exist as part of reality at all.

Moral properties appear to exist as part of the nonphysical realm to at least some degree, thanks largely to the unconditional oughtness moral obligations have. Barring the supernatural, the presence or absence of objectively existing unconditional oughtness would not affect the physical world at all. So when looking for a moral ontology, our morality-grounding theory would have to involve the nonphysical in some way.

The Argument from Ontological Simplicity

Given that all else held constant, the simplest explanation (positing fewer explanatory entities etc.) is the best and most probable one, and given that morality exists as part of the nonphysical realm to at least some degree, it is interesting to note what would happen if we posited just one nonphysical entity to ground morality and tried to find the simplest explanation for it grounding morality. (Note: by authority below, I mean being the source of some obligation.)

What must this nonphysical entity be like if we were to obtain the simplest explanation for it grounding objective moral values and duties? As a nonphysical entity, it must transcend the physical world. This is not surprising, but the entity in question is also the foundation of objective moral duties, and as the source of moral obligation is must also have authority in the sense that it imposes moral duties and grounds the oughtness of those duties. Moreover, for morality to be objective and universally binding, the entity must impose moral duties with supreme and universally binding authority, because moral duties supersede any other duties that any (other?) person or culture might create for themselves, and moral duties are binding upon us all. Next, the entity must exist in every possible world (and therefore have necessary existence) to ground morality in every possible world, because morality is metaphysically necessary. While multiple entities spread about in different possible worlds grounding morality is logically possible, if we’re looking for the simplest explanation it is preferable to posit just one grounding entity to explain morality’s metaphysical necessity. And finally, the entity must also be eternal, since at no time and in no circumstances can metaphysically necessary entities fail to exist.

Thus if we posit just one nonphysical entity and search for the simplest explanation for that entity grounding objective morality, we end up with an eternal, transcendent, metaphysically necessary entity that imposes moral duties upon us with supreme and universally binding authority. This observation (and the claim that it rationally supports theism to at least some degree) is what I’ll call the argument from ontological simplicity.

Although the argument from ontological simplicity doesn’t say that the morality-grounding entity has to be a personal being, the entity being personal does, I think, most intelligibly account for the entity imposing duties upon us and having authority over people. If the entity is a personal being, we end up with an eternal, transcendent, metaphysically necessary being who imposes moral duties upon us with supreme and universally binding authority.

Other Approaches

Another way of looking at moral ontology is this: objective moral properties are objective and non-natural (non-natural in the sense that “cannot be stated entirely in the language of physics, chemistry, biology, and human or animal psychology”[1]). To quote from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy regarding non-natural and objective moral facts:
Such facts could be accounted for from within non-theistic world views, such as Platonism. However, theism provides a much more intelligible explanation via the notion that rightness is one and the same property as the property of being commanded by God (wrongness consists in being forbidden by God). So the argument in essence states that we must have a metaphysics that accounts for the existence of objective, normative facts and that a theistic metaphysics fits the bill better than any alternative.
The Platonist could hold to the view that the Good is merely an abstract object, but the Good being a personal supreme being whose perfectly holy nature supplies the standard of moral goodness seems more intelligible. In the absence of any people, how does the Platonic ideal “justice” exist? Indeed, without people, “justice” is not itself just, making the existence of Platonic “justice” without people incoherent if not self-contradictory. Platonism also fails to adequately deal with objective moral duties. Who or what imposes the obligation to align ourselves with one set of abstract objects over another? In contrast, God being the Good is more intelligible; unlike a Platonic object, God is himself just, and God as the supreme authority also makes sense of objective moral obligations.

Bolstering the moral argument further, there is the fact that it is unlikely on atheism that objective morality exists. Certain moral properties like moral wrongness have an “oughtness” component, e.g. an action is morally wrong only if one ought not to do it. Such objectively existing oughtness properties like objective moral wrongness are rather strange on atheism; they’re invisible, nonphysical, causally inert, yet exist somehow independently of our perception of them. Barring the supernatural, the presence or absence of objectively existing oughtness would not affect the physical world at all, and so it cannot be empirically detected. So why on atheism think that such strange nonphysical things exist? Why shouldn’t the atheist reject the existence of these invisible nonphysical things that cannot be empirically detected, if the atheist is also to reject the existence of invisible nonphysical deities that have not been empirically detected? Isn’t it likely on atheism that our evolved intuition of these invisible nonphysical properties is delusory, akin to humanity’s sociobiologically evolved belief in invisible nonphysical deities? I think the answer is yes. Given atheism, it is unlikely that objective morality exists and it is more likely that people’s belief in objective morality is a delusion brought about by evolution to get us to behave in certain ways and help our species survive.

In contrast, it makes perfect sense on a theistic worldview that there would be some component of reality transcending our opinion that says people shouldn’t do certain things. God makes sense of objective moral values and duties in the world. There is thus this moral argument:
  1. If God does not exist, then objective morality does not exist.
  2. Objective morality does exist.
  3. Therefore, God exists.
Conclusion on the Moral Argument

The moral argument gives us an eternal, transcendent, metaphysically necessary being who imposes moral duties with supreme and universally binding authority. It also gives us a being who is the Good, and thus a being who is perfectly good. God being the Good also prevents God’s divine commands from being arbitrary. On atheism, it is unlikely that objective morality exists, whereas on theism it makes perfect sense that there would be some transcendent part of reality that says we shouldn’t do certain things.

The Leibnizian Cosmological Argument



The Leibnizian cosmological argument (LCA) has many varieties, but here’s one of them. Suppose we define contingent universe as (roughly) the totality of all contingent things. By asking “Why does the contingent universe exist?” I’m asking the question, “Why do contingent things exist at all?”
  1. If the contingent universe has an explanation of its existence, that explanation is an eternal, transcendent, metaphysically necessary, personal cause.
  2. The contingent universe has an explanation of its existence.
  3. Therefore, the explanation of the contingent universe’s existence is an eternal, transcendent, metaphysically necessary, personal cause.
Justification for 1

By “cause” I mean (a) something that brings about something else; or (b) something that sustains it in being (as if it is eternal), and this way the term “cause” covers both ways something can explain the existence of a contingent thing. If we’re to explain the contingent universe, the cause will be metaphysically necessary since any contingent cause would be a part of the very contingent universe we are trying to explain. What is metaphysically necessary is also eternal, so the explanatory entity is also eternal. The entity must also be transcendent (nonphysical) because all physical objects are themselves contingent. It also seems that the explanatory entity is personal. Why? There are only two live options for nonphysical entities in the metaphysical literature: unembodied minds (as God) or abstract objects (like numbers). But abstract objects can’t cause anything, which leaves us with the unembodied mind as the only live option. So if the contingent universe does have an explanation of its existence, that explanation is an eternal, transcendent, metaphysically necessary, personal cause.

Justification for 2

The contingent universe is, well, contingent. No contingent object had to exist. Consider then the following argument from subtraction: upon reflection it seems there is a possible world where only a thousand contingent things exist, and it seems there is a possible world where only fifty contingent things exist etc. all the way down to zero contingent things existing.

It is the nature of rational inquiry to look for explanations for contingent things because they could have failed to exist. We seek explanations for the existence of humans, of planets, of stars, and of galaxies. Avoiding all that and saying, “It all just exists inexplicably” would cripple science. And if we are rational to accept that there are explanations for the existence of planets, stars, and galaxies, why not also accept that there is an explanation for the existence of the contingent universe? The rational thing to do is to accept that there are explanations for the existence of things if we don’t have good reason to believe otherwise, especially if we have an explanation readily available and no evidence for the explanation being false (e.g. believing that the cosmic microwave background radiation just exists inexplicably is less rational than accepting that the big bang theory correctly explains it).

To illustrate further, 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.

Other Benefits

The existence of a personal cause of the contingent universe also has the added benefit of explaining why the physical universe exists. And since the personal cause in question is metaphysically necessary, the entity also explains why there is something rather than nothing (the entity is metaphysically necessary, so in all possible worlds there is something rather than nothing).

Most of the attributes of the entity that explains the contingent universe (eternal, transcendent, metaphysically necessary, personal) are also shared by the foundation of morality. Since Ockham’s razor tells us not to multiply our explanatory entities beyond necessity, the rational thing to do seems to posit the same entity for both the foundation of objective morality and the personal cause of the universe. God makes sense of objective morality and the existence of the universe. God also explains why the physical universe exists and why there is something rather than nothing.

Conclusion of the LCA

The situation with the LCA has the following characteristics:
  1. The universe is contingent; it could have failed to exist.
  2. There is an explanation for the universe’s existence.
  3. There is only one explanation that is a live option (since abstract objects are out of the question, the only remaining candidate is an eternal, transcendent, metaphysically necessary, personal cause).
  4. The explanation has significant explanatory scope; it explains the contingent universe, the physical universe, why there is something rather than nothing, and a certain sort of eternal, transcendent, metaphysically necessary, personal being also explains the existence of objective morality.
Given the nature of rational inquiry, Richard Taylor’s translucent ball illustration, and facts (1)-(4) on the list above, the most rational thing to do is to accept the explanation for the universe’s existence, at least in the absence of any evidence against the explanation. I think this is even more perspicuous once we envisage the shoe on the other foot. If the atheist had an explanation for the universe’s existence that was devastating to theism and it met criteria (1)-(4) above—in addition to there being no evidence against the explanation—I have a hard time believing atheists wouldn’t use this devastating-to-theism explanation as evidence against theism. Moreover, by my lights such atheists would be right in thinking that what they had constituted evidence against theism.

Omnipotence and Omniscience



Let S (for simple) and C (for complex) be placeholders for mathematical entities/relations. S is simpler than C if S can be understood without understanding C but C cannot be understood without understanding S. Quoting Richard Swinburne:
One does not need to know what a trillion is in order to understand what is the infinitely long or lasting or fast. It is because infinity is simple in this way that scientists postulate infinite degrees of quantities rather than very large degrees of quantities, when both are equally consistent with the data. The medieval postulated an infinite velocity of light, and Newton postulated an infinite velocity for the gravitational force, when in each case large finite velocities would have been equally compatible with the data then available measured to the degree of accuracy then obtainable.[2]
So why prefer an infinitely powerful God rather over a merely enormously powerful one as the personal cause of the contingent and physical universe? One reason is simplicity; an infinite quantity of power is simpler than a merely very large quantity of power. So all else held constant, it’s simpler to posit an infinitely powerful transcendent personal cause. To quote Richard Swinburne from his book The Existence of God:
A finite limitation cries out for an explanation for why there is just that particular limit, in a way that limitlessness does not…scientists have always preferred hypotheses of infinite velocity to hypotheses of very large finite velocity, when both were equally compatible with the data. And they have always preferred hypotheses that some particle had zero mass to hypotheses that it had some very small mass, when both were equally compatible with the data. There is a neatness about zero and infinity that a particular finite numbers lack. Yet a person with zero powers would not be a person at all. So in postulating a person with infinite power the theist is postulating a person with the simplest kind of power imaginable. [3]
A person with literally no power would not even have the ability to think, much less create a universe. The simplicity of zero and infinity can also be granted to “nothing” and “everything.” To illustrate, scientists tend to believe that the physical laws that apply to all observed electrons (a tiny fraction of all electrons in the universe) also apply to every electron in the universe, even though a more localized influence of physical laws would be equally compatible with the data. God knowing everything (and thus having infinite knowledge) is not only simpler than knowing a merely large finite quantity of stuff, but knowing all that can be known also seems to be the magnitude of knowledge most consonant with omnipotence.

Conclusion



The moral argument leads us to an eternal, transcendent, metaphysically necessary being that imposes moral duties upon us with supreme and universally binding authority. The entity being the Good also leads us to a perfectly good being. The LCA leads us to an eternal, transcendent, metaphysically necessary, personal cause of the universe. The law of parsimony suggests it’s simpler to posit the same entity responsible for all of these things, and the law of parsimony also steers us toward an omnipotent and omniscient deity. Thus, we have some fairly significant evidence for the existence of God.

[1] Adams, Robert M. The Virtue of Faith (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987), p. 145.

[2] Swinburne, Richard. Simplicity as Evidence of Truth (Milwaukee, Wisconsin: Marquette University Press, 1996), pp. 33-34.

[3] Swinburne, Richard. The Existence of God, 2nd edition. (New York, New York: Oxford University Press, 1996), p.97

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