Crutches and culture

I was thinking about silly claims like “religion is a crutch” or “people are religious because of their culture.” It seems to me that these claims are either uninteresting or false.

If taken as a claim that many religious people are religious because of perceived psychological benefits or cultural bias, it is uninteresting, at least from for the person interested in the veracity of religious claims. In many areas of life the vast majority of people hold the positions they do for non-intellectual reasons. The real question is whether there are good reasons for a position (religious or not), not the psychological factors that lead some people to hold that position. There’s also irony in that such caricatures apply equally to irreligion. We might as well say that irreligion is often due to rebellion or cultural bias. Again, who cares?

If, on the other hand, we take these as claims that there is no evidence for religious positions, and that therefore the only reason to be religious is deluded comfort or social acceptance, then the claim is blatantly false. Philosophical arguments for classical theism and historical evidence for Christianity have been around for ages. With regards to the former, see the Natural Theology section here.

Atheism is self-defeating

I was thinking about the short argument I gave here and was wondering if it could be turned into a positive argument for theism. I came up with this:

  1. If God doesn’t exist, then our cognitive faculties arose from non-purposive processes.
  2. No purposive system can arise from non-purposive processes.
  3. Therefore, if God doesn’t exist, then our cognitive faculties are non-purposive.
  4. Rationality is purposive.
  5. Therefore, if God doesn’t exist we aren’t rational.
  6. Therefore, atheism is self-defeating.

It seems promising. Although, I suspect I should read JP Moreland, Alvin Plantinga and Victor Reppert to get a better idea of the contemporary debate around this stuff. I think (4) is pretty solid (see the previous post for why), and I’m uncertain any atheist will disagree with (1), lest they open themselves up to Aquinas’ fifth way. So, presumably, (2) is the key premise. But this certainly does seem plausible.

A Gödelian ontological argument

I’ve never really had a nice relationship with the ontological argument from Anselm. When I first heard of it, it seemed strange that existence would be greater than non-existence, so I pushed it aside. About 2 years later, I realised that existence could maybe be bootstrapped from other properties, like power. But by then I had come to realise the distinction between epistemology and ontology, and struggled to believe that this argument wasn’t confusing the two at some point. That’s where I’m at at the moment: existence-in-mind just doesn’t seem comparable to existence-in-reality in the way that’s needed for the argument to work. Maybe I’m wrong, but that’s where I’m at[1].

Many people talk about Anselm’s ontological argument as the ontological argument. But, like many theistic arguments (and arguments in general, I suppose), to call it the ontological argument is a bit misleading. There are a number of ontological arguments out there, and Anselm’s one is but one of them. Descartes had another ontological argument which Leibniz worked on a bit, and in the 20th century we’ve had modal ontological arguments coming from Norman Malcolm, Charles Hartshorne, and Alvin Plantinga. Another “class” of ontological arguments are the so-called “Gödelian” ontological arguments. Kurt Gödel, the famous mathematician of Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorems, developed his argument using the primitive idea of a “positive property”. The arguments that follow this approach, like Gödel’s before them, are developed as formal axiomatic system with a theorem at the end that says that there is a God-like being who exists. Jordan Sobel showed, in 1987, that Gödel’s axioms also imply that every true proposition is necessarily true. This argument from Sobel is called the “modal collapse argument”, and it shows that Gödel’s argument is unsound. However, since then, there have been a number of Gödelian ontological arguments which have been formulated so as not to fall prey to the modal collapse argument. These have come from Curtis Anderson, Allen Hazen, Robert Koons, and Petr Hajek, to name four. And, then there’s the recent “Modal Perfection Argument” from Robert Maydole.

Of prime importance to this blog post is yet another Gödelian ontological argument formulated by Alexander Pruss[2]. While I’m not convinced by Anselm’s, Descartes, and many of the other ontological arguments, this one does certainly seem plausible to me. I’ll sketch it briefly in this post.

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Which Came First: Right or Law?

I was thinking about the law today, as people do, and I was wondering which of the following two categories serves to ground the other:

  1. Inherent human rights, value or dignity (we’ll just call this “value”)
  2. Human duties or law (we’ll just call this “law”)

By “duties” I mean [legal, moral and/or parental] obligations (what we “ought” do) and prohibitions (what we “ought not” do).

For example, consider the following questions and their plausible answers if value grounds law:

  • “Why shouldn’t we murder?” “Because human life is inherently valuable”
  • “Why should we have freedom of speech?” “Because humans have dignity and therefore deserve to have their opinions heard”
Alternatively, if you thought that duty grounds value then the questions and answers look something like this:
  • “Why is human life valuable?” “Because we have laws that preserve it”
  • “Why do humans have dignity?” “Because their opinions are protected by law”