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.


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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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 1:46:23:
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.


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.

Friday, June 5, 2020

Great Cost of the Kalam?

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Stephen Woodford has a YouTube channel called Rationality Rules and he posted a video titled Great Cost of the Kalam claiming that the kalam cosmological argument is incompatible with libertarian free will (I’ll explain what both are shortly). A popular version of the kalam cosmological argument, popularized by American philosopher William Lane Craig, goes like this:
  1. Anything that begins to exist has a cause.
  2. The universe began to exist.
  3. Therefore, the universe has a cause.
There are other ways to word the first premise (e.g. “Whatever begins to exist has a cause of its beginning” and “Everything that begins to exist has a cause”). Libertarian freedom is the ability to choose without being determined by prior causes; e.g. when choosing between chocolate and vanilla ice cream. Determinism is roughly the view that all events are determined by prior conditions, such that given the initial conditions only one outcome is possible. For example, determinism would say that when Sally selected chocolate over vanilla ice cream, given the initial conditions there was only one selection she could make, even if the initial conditions were that both were available at the grocery store and she had sufficient currency for both.

What is a cause?

At around 2:30 to 2:38 Woodford says this.
A cause is a person or thing that gives rise to a phenomenon, action, or condition. It is a synonym of determinism.
No, it’s not. Something bringing about the existence of something else is not synonymous with deterministically causing its existence. To give a hypothetical example, suppose a ray gun has a 30% probability of creating chocolate ice cream, with the outcome being truly indeterministic (i.e. identical initial conditions can produce different outcomes). Now suppose I turn on the ray gun and chocolate ice cream appears courtesy of the ray gun. Since the ray gun did indeed bring about the existence of the ice cream (albeit indeterministically) the ray gun caused the ice cream to exist. But if it is correct to say that in this scenario the ray gun caused the ice cream to exist, then it is not the case that causality is synonymous with determinism.

To be fair though, there is one sense in which determinism and causality are related, and that has to do with the cause of an event (as in outcome 1 coming about versus outcome 2) as opposed to a cause of the existence of a thing. The difference is subtle but important. To illustrate, consider the case of two physically identical uranium-238 atoms A and B, where atom A emits an alpha particle and atom B does not. It may indeed be true that identical physical conditions can produce different outcomes, and while this would rule out the uranium atom deterministically bringing about the alpha particle, it doesn’t rule out indeterministic causation (viz. the uranium atom bringing about the alpha particle, after all it’s the uranium atom that emits it!). So let’s consider the theory that the uranium atom indeterministically causes the existence of the alpha particle. This theory would entail that the existence of the alpha particle (the existence of the thing) has a causal explanation, but this theory would also imply that there is no causal explanation for why uranium atom A emitted an alpha particle and physically identical uranium atom B did not, i.e. there wouldn’t be a causal explanation for the different outcomes between the two physically identical atoms (though there would be a “random chance” explanation for the difference), even though the existence of the alpha particle would have a causal explanation (viz. the uranium atom).[1] The “anything that begins to exist has a cause” claim says that every thing that begins to exist has a cause, but allows for the possibility of uncaused events (e.g. outcome 1 coming about versus outcome 2) in the sense described earlier.

As William Lane Craig (the American philosopher who popularized the kalam cosmological argument in the 20th century) said:
But in any case the reader needs to recall that the premise of the argument is very carefully formulated. It is: everything that begins to exist has a cause. That is deliberately formulated so as to allow for quantum indeterminacy with regard to events. This is quite consistent with admitting that there are events that occur without a cause. And so events that are, say, movements of a libertarian free will or decay of an atomic isotope or emission of a photon, we can happily admit, at least for the sake of argument, that those are uncaused events, and it wouldn't affect the truth of the premise, which concerns whether or not things can actually begin to exist without any causes.
To reiterate, kalam’s causal premise prohibits things (alpha particles, mountains, people, root beer, etc.) beginning to exist without a caused, but does not prohibit uncaused events in the sense described earlier.

Libertarian Freedom

At around 5:11 to 5:32 Woodford says:
According to libertarianism, that is according to the vast majority of theists, the will of a free agent is at least partially non-determined. Thus, by freely stating that whatever begins to exist has a cause, you have demonstrated the contrary. You have proven its falsehood. You are contradicting your statement though the very means in which you express it.
Woodford mistakenly believes that libertarian freedom implies that free acts are uncaused, but this doesn’t follow. While some variants of libertarianism require that our acts be uncaused to be free, this isn’t true for all versions of libertarianism. One libertarian view called agency theory posits agent-causation whereby an agent (person, self) causes events without being determined by prior causes. So, a free act is not uncaused; it is indeterministically caused by an agent. The existence of the agent and its ability to have free will in turn could have been caused by something else.


Woodford’s objection to the kalam cosmological argument for the libertarian proponent is that causality is synonymous with determinism, and the libertarian must hold to their free actions being uncaused, which would thus require the libertarian to not believe the kalam’s causal premise. Three main problems are: (1) causality is not synonymous with determinism; (2) indeterministic causation is still an option (e.g. a uranium atom indeterministically bringing about the existence of an alpha particle); (3) not all versions of libertarianism require an act be uncaused to be free (e.g. agency theory). It would seem therefore that this objection fails.

[1] At the same time, there is a sense in which there is a cause of the event for why A emitted the particle and B did not: the cause is time and chance acting on inherent properties of matter indeterministically bringing about the two different events (the inherent properties of uranium-238 determine the probability, which is why it has a measurable half-life, as opposed to there being no consistent probability among atoms of the same kind). To some degree it boils down to semantics of what a “cause” is.