Wednesday, July 1, 2020

Why the Past Cannot be Infinite

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Relevance to Theism



A finite past bears relevance to the kalam cosmological argument (KCA) which goes like this:
  1. Anything that begins to exist has a cause.
  2. The universe begins to exist.
  3. Therefore, the universe has a cause.
Further arguments are given to show that the cause of the universe is (among other things) a transcendent personal cause. If we have adequate grounds for thinking the universe has a transcendent personal cause, this gives at least some evidence for the truth of theism. I’ve justified premise (1) in my anything that begins to exist has a cause article. In this article I’ll argue for premise (2) by arguing for a finite past.

Would a finite past mean that not even God is sempiternal (i.e. having existed for a beginningless, infinite duration)? Yes it would. One idea is that God is timeless sans creation. Note that if spacetime itself began to exist and our spacetime universe had a cause, that cause would have to transcend space and time. Whether you want to call this spacetime-transcending cause supernatural or not, such a cause would have to be something beyond the physical laws as we know them today. The fact that there is some sort of (at least) de facto supernatural cause beyond space and time creating the universe would seem to make atheism less plausible.

An Infinite Traversal



Some philosophy lingo: a potential infinite is a collection that grows towards infinity without limit but never actually gets there. For example, if you started counting “one, two, three…” at a rate of one number per second and continued indefinitely, the number you’re at would grow larger and larger without limit but you’d never actually arrive at “infinity.” An actual infinite is a collection that really is infinite, such as the set of all positive whole numbers.

Traversing an actual infinite region at a finite rate seems impossible. Suppose for example there were a road that starts at a particular location and is infinitely long. Someone named Jill Walker starts at the beginning of the road and walks at a rate of one meter per second. Will she ever traverse an infinite region? She will not; the distance (and time!) she traverses is a potential infinite only. What if she were given infinite time? The problem is that traversing an actual infinite amount of time can never happen. Even if she is given unlimited time she will never traverse an actual infinite amount of time or an actual infinite distance; both will be a potential infinite only.

A similar problem occurs with a beginningless past: for a beginningless, infinite past to exist an actual infinite amount of time would need to be traversed, which is impossible, and thus we never would have arrived at the present moment. Another way to look at it: imagine if we viewed a universe with an infinite past and rewound it, traversing it at the same rate as time normally goes but backwards. Could we traverse the entirety of the infinite past? The infinite past would be impossible to completely traverse even given unlimited time. Similarly, going the other direction would be impossible because it requires an infinite traversal and we never would have arrived at the present moment (or at any moment, since any moment in the infinite past has an infinite amount of time before it).

The Eternal Society Paradox



There are also various paradoxes one can make with an infinite past, an example of which is the Eternal Society paradox. Roughly (in the paper the Eternal Society paradox was published), an Eternal Society is a society that has existed for a beginningless, infinite duration of time and has the abilities of ordinary human beings in each year of its existence; e.g. in each year people in the society can flip coins, write books, sing songs, and pass on information possessed in the current year to the next year. Because of the society’s extremely modest abilities, it seems like an Eternal Society would be possible if an infinite past were possible (note that by “possible” in this article I’ll be referring to metaphysical possibility, as opposed to e.g. physical possibility).

Now imagine the Eternal Society has the following Annual Coin Flipping Tradition: each year they flip a coin and if it comes up heads, they all get together to do a particular chant but only if they have never done the chant before. If the coin does not come up heads they do not do the chant for that year.

The coin flips are probabilistically independent events, so any particular permutation of coin flips is equally unlikely. Consider scenario S1 in which the coin came up heads for the first time last year. The Eternal Society gets together to do the chant for the first time. This seems like it would be possible if an infinite past were possible (an eternal society with the ability of ordinary humans, by which I mean the society has the ability of ordinary humans in each year of its existence, could surely do something like this), but this scenario is provably not possible.

Again, the coin flips are probabilistically independent events, so if scenario S1 were possible, then another scenario, that we can call scenario S2, would be possible: the coin came up heads each year of the infinite past. If the coin came up heads each year, did the Eternal Society ever do the chant? They would have had to have done the chant some year, because they would have done the chant last year if they hadn’t done it yet (since the coin came up heads last year). And yet any year you point to, there is a prior year in which they would have done the chant if they had not done the chant before. So they had to have done the chant (since the coin came up heads last year), yet they could not have done the chant (there is no year they could have done it), and so this scenario creates a logical contradiction.

Although scenario S1 is not directly self-contradictory, scenario S1 is impossible because it implies the possibility of a logical contradiction. The Eternal Society argument against an infinite past goes like this:
  1. If an infinite past were possible, an Eternal Society would be possible.
  2. If an Eternal Society were possible, then scenario S1 would be possible.
  3. If S1 would be possible, then S2 would be possible.
  4. S2 is not possible.
  5. Therefore, an infinite past is not possible.
One could deny premise (4) particularly since that seems to be the most vulnerable premise, but as the Eternal Society paradox paper says, “Surely there is something metaphysically suspicious about an infinite past if an eternal society with the abilities of ordinary humans can actualize a logical contradiction.” The idea that an infinite past is possible but an Eternal Society is not possible strikes me as overly ad hoc due to the Eternal Society’s extremely modest abilities (the abilities of ordinary humans in each year of its existence).

Conclusion



While there is also scientific evidence favoring a finite past, philosophical arguments seem to provide a strong case for temporal finitism (the view that the past is finite). For a beginningless, infinite past to exist an actual infinite amount of time would need to be traversed, which is impossible, and thus we never would have arrived at the present moment. Moreover, the Eternal Society paradox shows that an eternal society with the abilities of ordinary humans would have been able to create a logical contradiction, which strongly suggests that an infinite past is metaphysically impossible.

Tuesday, June 16, 2020

The Pseudohumility of Christianity?

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Stephen Woodford has a YouTube channel called Rationality Rules and he posted a video titled The Pseudohumility of Christianity attacking the humility of Christianity.

Arguments Against Christian Humility



Christianity encourages its adherents to practice humility, e.g. Matthew 23:12 and Philippians 2:3. So what’s the issue? At around 4:53 Woodford says, “The issue is that these verses are predicated upon sheer arrogance, and here is where my rant starts.”

He says that Christians believe there is one perfect God and that we’re created in his image (true so far), “which is a not-so-subtle way of saying we are, or close to, perfect.” What? Why think that? Exactly what it means to be created “in the image of God” is unclear and is debated among theologians (we are like God in some ways, having mind, will, and emotions—perhaps it means this). Woodford provides no evidence or argument for his particular exegesis nor does he cite any theologian who adheres to it; he gives only his word for this uncharitable interpretation. What should be needless to say is that Christianity teaches we are far from perfect, so far in fact that it is while we were enemies of God that Christ died for us (Romans 5:10), which is quite far from perfect indeed.

At around 5:15 to 5:34 Woodford recognizes an alternate interpretation for being made in the image of God: us being created above animals and Woodford says this “stinks of hubris.” But does it? My parents chose that I exist because they wanted a child to love and care for, and presumably they valued me over any animal. Does this belief “stink of hubris”? After all, it’s not as if I did anything to deserve it. In a way it could be said that God “chose” us insofar as he created humans and we have greater value than animals, and Woodford seems to think this justifies his claim that it “stinks of hubris,” but this doesn’t seem to follow.

At around 5:41 Woodford says that “most Christians believe that the universe was created for us in mind.” So? It doesn’t follow that most Christians believe that the universe was created only for us in mind; after all there’s an awful lot more to the universe than just us! (To say nothing of the untold legions of angels that also exist in reality!) At around 5:45 he also adds that most Christians believe that “we are a vital part in a grand divine plan.” Well, we are a part and we are “vital” in the sense that God loves us very much, but so what? It’s not as if we’re the only part of God’s plan; we could well be one of innumerable vital parts. At around 5:48 to 5:54 he notes the Christian belief that we have personal consciousnesses that outlast our bodies. Again, so? It’s not as if we’re the only beings who will outlast our bodies, e.g. angels. At around 5:55 to 6:08 he says many Christians believe they have a personal relationship with God (so?) and that God answers prayers (so?).

I could go on, but you get the gist. It’s true that in many ways God is nice to us. Woodford’s arguments fail largely because of a failure to ask why God answers prayers, gives humans an afterlife, makes us part of his divine plan, etc. Does God do so because we’re so awesome when we’re not? If so, then this is arrogance. But if instead it’s merely due to God being generous, then this doesn’t imply arrogance. So which is it? Well, consider again Romans 5:10: Christ died for us when we were still God’s enemies. The reason God is so nice to us is not because we’re so awesome and deserving. Indeed, part of the Christian faith is that we’re not deserving! It’s because God is so generous in his sacrificial love. We don’t deserve eternal life; rather it’s a gift from God, so teaches Christianity. Thus, a litany of nice things that Christians believe God does for us (which Woodford apparently believes are “extraordinarily arrogant tenants,” around 6:45 to 6:51) fails to constitute a good argument for arrogance; the conclusion just doesn’t follow.

Conclusion



I’ve seen multiple nontheists charge Christianity with arrogance, a claim often that they often supply with little to no evidence. After all, the Bible nowhere teaches that the universe was created just for us. Christianity teaches humility and explains why we have good reason to be humble; we are sinners in need of a savior, and it is while we were enemies of God that God sent his Son out of sacrificial love. It wasn’t because we deserved it. At around 7:01 to 7:06 Woodford says that “There is nothing humble about asserting the universe revolves around you.” He’s right, but he’s also wrong in thinking Christianity teaches anything of the sort; it doesn’t, and Woodford fails to provide sufficient evidence justifying this assertion (after all, for all we know there could be intelligent life in many other parts of reality whom God loves as well). Christianity suggests that, metaphorically speaking, the universe revolves around God, not us. We’re just fortunate to be in orbit.

Sunday, June 14, 2020

Argument from Evil as an Internal Critique

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Introduction



Even if certain atheists reject moral objectivism, can such atheists still use the argument from evil as an internal critique of theism?

A Problem for Atheists Who Reject Moral Objectivism



As I wrote about in my article Rosenberg’s Argument from Evil Folly, there’s a big problem for the atheist in using the argument from evil if the atheist in question believes objective morality does not exist. People can have different ideas of what sorts of things are morally good. Suppose for example a theist has a standard of goodness such that it’s good that God permits the evil we see for certain reasons that are morally sufficient on this standard of goodness. Some atheists might say that if God adopted their standard of goodness, God would not permit the evil we see. But without an objective moral standard, there’s no objective fact of the matter about which standard of goodness God would adopt if he existed, and thus there’d be no objective fact of the matter whether God would permit evil if he existed, in which case the argument from evil would collapse under its own weight.

A Solution?



Another idea is to use the argument from evil as an internal critique. For example, couldn’t the atheist at least criticize the theist for having an inconsistency in the theist’s conception of goodness with respect to a perfectly good God allowing evil? That depends on the theist, but it’s relatively trivial to construct a view of goodness that is consistent with a perfectly good God allowing evil in the world. Suppose for example a hypothetical theist says that it is morally good for us humans to try to fight against evil (refraining from doing morally wrong actions, advancing medical technology, learning to share our food with the hungry, etc.) with the limited abilities that we have, with the obstacles we face etc. and that this is better than God making the evils any less bad, such that if God adopted this standard of goodness God would allow the evil we see (on this view, it’s good that God permits evil in the way that he does, but it’s not necessarily good that we humans permit evil; in a sense God and humans would have different responsibilities). Maybe this view of the hypothetical theist is wrong, but it’s not self-contradictory, and so there would be no inconsistency in this hypothetical theist’s conception of goodness with respect to a perfectly good God allowing evil.

There is another way an atheist who isn’t a moral objectivist could supply an internal critique. God is not only perfectly morally good, he is also all-loving. In the June 2020 debate on Capturing Christianity between Cosmic Skeptic and Inspiring Philosophy, Cosmic Skeptic said this at around 1:48:23:
Let’s not talk about good and evil because if they’re not objective maybe it’s unhelpful. But if you think that God is all-loving as a separate point then the question just reformulates itself. It’s not just a question about what’s loving and what’s not. It’s like we know facts about the universe. We know that children get cancer and we have to be committed to the view that that is loving; that it is loving to allow a child to get cancer. It’s the same problem as saying you have to accept that it is good or at least not evil for a child to get cancer. It would just be framed differently. Whatever the person believes, as you say Cameron that’s probably the best way to answer it, with any argument I ever make on any debate that I do, on any video I make, it’s always an argument of consistency—pretty much, most of the time. And that’s what I’m looking for here; is just consistency.[1]
Does it follow that if a loving God permits cancer, that it is loving to allow a child to get cancer? No. For starters, let’s ask this question: why assume that a loving God would not permit suffering? Presumably it’s because that if you love someone you value their well-being. It’s reasonable that loving someone implies valuing that person’s well-being, but the problem is that a morally good God might value other things as well, things that “interfere” with valuing one’s well-being.

To give an example of how valuing someone’s well-being can conflict with another value, suppose a loving and just judge is tasked with sentencing a man who has committed a heinous crime. The judge loves everyone including the man she is sentencing, so she values the man’s well-being, but on the other hand she also values punishing those who commit heinous crimes. So, the judge gives the man a long prison sentence to pay for his crime, even though she loves the man (by virtue of loving everyone) and values his well-being, and even though a lengthy prison sentence would decrease the man’s well-being.

Obviously the child Cosmic Skeptic has in mind hasn’t done anything wrong to deserve cancer, so the loving and just judge doesn’t work as analogy, but it does work to illustrate this point: values can conflict, including valuing someone’s well-being. If God is not just all-loving but also morally good, God could conceivably have other values that supersede the immediate well-being of humans. Imagine a hypothetical theist who believes God is all-loving but also believes that God is morally good, and that God adopts a standard of goodness such that it is good that God permits the observed suffering we see even though he loves us all, and that (at least in part) because God is all-loving our suffering in the mortal realm is finite and a pleasant everlasting life is available to every human who freely chooses God. This hypothetical theist grants it is not loving to permit suffering, but believes it is good that God permits the finite suffering we observe; God has values that supersede the immediate well-being of certain individuals. Again, maybe this view of the hypothetical theist is wrong, but it’s not self-contradictory, and so there would be no inconsistency in this hypothetical theist’s conception of goodness with respect to a perfectly good and all-loving God allowing evil.

Conclusion



The problem of evil fails as an internal critique not just against a morally good God but an all-loving and morally good God, at least tout court. It’s reasonable that an all-loving God would value our well-being. However, a theist could believe that while God values our well-being because he is perfectly loving, this is only one of the things that God values, and that other values could outweigh our immediate well-being such that an all-loving God who is also perfectly morally good would permit the evil we see.

I said that the problem of evil fails as an internal critique against an all-loving and morally good God tout court, but the problem of evil could succeed as an internal critique if the theist really did adopt a standard of moral goodness in which it is not good that God permits the evil we see. So in a way whether the argument from evil works as an internal critique depends on the theist. My objection is that the internal critique is not inherently successful; the theist could easily adopt a standard of moral goodness that evades the problem. Alternatively, the theist could say that while she knows some moral values (“moral values” in this case being “stuff that’s morally good”), she doesn’t necessarily know all the values, much less all values in conjunction with the appropriate weights for each value, such that for all she knows God has morally sufficient reasons for allowing the evil we see even if those reasons are beyond her ken (there are even more complications for whether to permit evil beyond knowing all the values and their appropriate weights, but for purposes of this blog article I’m mostly focusing on this).



[1] I’ve lightly edited the quote to remove some filler words such as “um” and “right” for better flow.