A Conversation with Tom Jump

Tom Jump is an atheist who posts conversations with philosophers and theologians on his YouTube channel. I accepted his invitation to discuss whether there’s reason to believe in God, and here’s how it went:

The question “Is there reason to believe in God?” could be answered in many different ways, but I thought it would be interesting for us to discuss the argument for God from logic since I’ve published on that topic and have some expertise in it. I began by giving an overview of the argument as it appears in the 2011 paper I co-authored with Greg Welty:

  1. The laws of logic are truths (i.e., true propositions).
  2. The laws of logic are truths about truths.
  3. The laws of logic are necessary truths.
  4. The laws of logic really exist.
  5. The laws of logic necessarily exist.
  6. The laws of logic are nonphysical.
  7. The laws of logic are thoughts.
  8. The laws of logic are divine thoughts.

The plan was to go through these claims one by one and find out where Tom thinks the argument goes awry. Tom immediately took issue with 4, so we fell into a discussion about whether the laws of logic, and propositions in general, are real entities. Unfortunately, we ended up spending over an hour going around and around on that particular issue, and we never reached the later (arguably more interesting) parts of the argument! So we didn’t make much progress toward resolving the opening question.

In hindsight, it might have been more productive to discuss another argument. Still, the conversation was very cordial and worth having. The reason we didn’t get very far, I suggest, is because Tom seemed unable to articulate a consistent position on (1) whether propositions exist and (2) whether propositions are concrete or abstract in nature. Living up to his last name, Tom proved impossible to pin down on which of the following he wanted to endorse:

  1. Propositions don’t exist at all.
  2. Propositions exist as concrete (physical) entities.
  3. Propositions exist as abstract (non-physical) entities.

Watch the exchange and make your own assessment. What exactly is Tom’s position on the ontological status of propositions? I pointed out the problems with the first two positions. But the third is inconsistent with Tom’s professed physicalism. It’s too bad that we couldn’t move beyond the explanatory failures of physicalism and explore the explanatory virtues of theism. Perhaps another time?

Craig’s Modal Critique of Harris’s Moral Landscape

In 2011, the University of Notre Dame hosted a debate between Sam Harris and William Lane Craig on whether morality depends on God. I think it’s fair to say Craig won the debate inasmuch as he gave respectable arguments for his position and against Harris’s, and his opponent failed to engage seriously with those arguments. Harris seemed unable to stick to the topic of the debate, and was reduced to railing against the moral beliefs of religious people (as if that were relevant to the metaethical claims under debate).

Anyway, I thought it would be worth highlighting one of the arguments Craig leveled against the position Harris stakes out in his book The Moral Landscape. By way of background, the twofold aim of Harris’s book is to show (1) that morality doesn’t depend on God or anything else supernatural, and (2) that science can provide us with answers to moral questions, at least in principle. The central plank of Harris’s position is that moral goodness — i.e., whatever it is we should be aiming for when we seek to act morally — should be defined in terms of “the well-being of conscious creatures.”1 This claim serves as Harris’s response to G. E. Moore’s “open question argument” against moral naturalism. Moore famously argued that whenever someone tries to define goodness in terms of some natural phenomenon X (e.g., pleasure) it always remains an open question whether X really is good (or, alternatively, whether an act that brings about X really is a good act). If it makes sense to pose such a question, then X can’t be identical to goodness. There must be a logical gap between X and goodness.

Harris writes:

If we define “good” as that which supports well-being, as I will argue we must, the regress initiated by Moore’s “open question argument” really does stop. While I agree with Moore that it is reasonable to ask whether maximizing pleasure in any given instance is “good,” it makes no sense at all to ask whether maximizing well-being is “good.” It seems clear that what we are really asking when we wonder whether a certain state of pleasure is “good,” is whether it is conducive to, or obstructive of, some deeper form of well-being.2

Harris thus wants to identify moral goodness with either the well-being of conscious creatures or whatever “supports” such well-being. (Note that when Harris uses the term “good” in the quote above, he’s speaking about moral goodness. That’s the subject of his book, after all.)

  1. Sam Harris, The Moral Landscape, Free Press, 2010, pp. 1, 11.
  2. Ibid., p. 12.

What Is Normal? What Is Natural?

Is homosexuality normal?

Is polyamory normal?

Is transgenderism normal?

Is left-handedness normal?

Is belief in God normal?

Is death normal?

Picture of a NormHow one answers such questions will hang on how one understands the term normal. The word ‘normal’ is etymologically related to ‘norm’ and ‘normative’. A norm is a standard or rule by which something is evaluated, by which it is judged to be good or bad, right or wrong. Thus the primary meaning of normal has to do with conformance to some norm. The claim that X is normal presupposes that there are norms for X (or for whatever kind of thing X is) and X conforms to those norms. The antonym of normal is abnormal, which implies some fault or failure to meet a standard: a deviation from the norm.

Accordingly the term normal, used in this primary sense, has a normative aspect to it; it involves some kind of evaluation or value judgment. A simple example of this usage would be if someone were to say, “It’s not normal to have three ears.” Evidently the speaker is taking for granted that there’s a proper form for human anatomy and having three ears is a deviation from that norm. Put simply, human beings shouldn’t have three ears.

There is a secondary sense of the term, however, which needs to be distinguished from the first. Normal can also be used to mean usual or typical. Understood that way, it merely reflects a statistical generalization and therefore doesn’t imply any value judgment. For example, if I were to say, “A high of 70 degrees is normal for Charlotte in April,” I’m only making a claim about the average temperature (or something along those lines). There’s no right or wrong about that temperature. It’s just a statistical fact for that geographical location. My statement was merely descriptive rather than normative or evaluative.

Warfield Lectures: Anthropology & Transgenderism

Last October I had the great privilege of delivering the Fifth Annual B. B. Warfield Lectures at the invitation of Erskine Seminary and First Presbyterian Church, Columbia, SC. Edited versions of those two lectures have now been published in RTS’s online journal, Reformed Faith & Practice:

  1. What Are We? Three Views on Human Nature
  2. Transgenderism: A Christian Perspective

The first lecture is to some degree setup for the second, but each one is self-standing.

On Fairies and Gardeners

I’ve been revisiting Richard Dawkins’ best-seller The God Delusion in preparation for an apologetics class I’ll be teaching next week. On opening it up, I fell upon the dedication “In Memoriam” to Douglas Adams, accompanied by the following quotation (presumably from Adams):

Isn’t it enough to see that a garden is beautiful without having to believe that there are fairies at the bottom of it too?

I suppose Dawkins considered this a pithy critique of theistic beliefs and in keeping with the thrust of his book. It does at least give us some insight into how Dawkins and his ilk think about theism, i.e., that it’s epistemically on a par with belief in fairies at the bottom of the garden. But it also reflects just how shallow that thinking is.

Flower Garden

Of course it’s enough to see that a garden is beautiful without having to believe that there are fairies at the bottom of it, because the former doesn’t depend on the latter in any plausible way. Fairies have no explanatory role to play in one’s appreciation of a beautiful garden. But theists have long contended that God has a significant explanatory role to play in our understanding of the world and our place in it; indeed, a necessary explanatory role.

So a more fitting question would be:

Isn’t it enough to see that a garden is beautiful without having to believe that there is a gardener who made it beautiful?

To which the answer isn’t obviously a self-congratulatory “Yes!” but rather (at a minimum) “Well, it depends on exactly what we see in the garden.” If the garden we see is an orderly, cultivated one then the answer is clearly, “No, it’s not enough; a rational person ought to believe both.”

In fact, an even more probing question would be:

Isn’t it enough to see that a garden is beautiful without considering not only whether there is a gardener who made it beautiful, but also how it is that we came to possess reliable cognitive faculties which allow us to see gardens, to conceive of them as gardens, and to make meaningful objective aesthetic judgments about them?

But that doesn’t sound nearly so witty, which I guess goes to show that cleverness and profundity don’t always coincide.

Some Thoughts on the Lowder-Turek Debate

I recently watched (or rather listened to) the debate last December between Jeffrey Jay Lowder and Frank Turek on whether naturalism or theism “better explains reality”:

Overall it was one of the better theist-atheist debates I’ve encountered, and I would recommend watching it. The two opponents were intelligent, well-spoken, respectful, experienced, and focused on the issues. I’m not going to evaluate all the arguments in the debate or make a judgment about who ‘won’ the debate (it depends which criteria you apply). I’m just going to make some very general comments about the strengths and weaknesses of the presentations.

Atheism, Amoralism, and Arationalism

Atheism and Amoralism

On April 1, 2010, ethicist Joel Marks sat at his computer and wrote a confession to the readers of his column “Moral Moments” which had been a regular feature in the magazine Philosophy Now for a decade. His confession was not that he had done something immoral. No, his confession was that he could not have done anything immoral, at any time, because it turns out that there really is no such thing as morality. Or so he had come to conclude. The author of “Moral Moments” had come out of the closet as an ‘amoralist’. As he puts it in the first part of his “Amoral Manifesto”:

[T]his philosopher has long been laboring under an unexamined assumption, namely, that there is such a thing as right and wrong. I now believe there isn’t.

Marks immediately proceeds to explain the reasoning behind his “shocking epiphany” (bold added):

The long and the short of it is that I became convinced that atheism implies amorality; and since I am an atheist, I must therefore embrace amorality. I call the premise of this argument ‘hard atheism’ because it is analogous to a thesis in philosophy known as ‘hard determinism.’ The latter holds that if metaphysical determinism is true, then there is no such thing as free will. Thus, a ‘soft determinist’ believes that, even if your reading of this column right now has followed by causal necessity from the Big Bang fourteen billion years ago, you can still meaningfully be said to have freely chosen to read it. Analogously, a ‘soft atheist’ would hold that one could be an atheist and still believe in morality. And indeed, the whole crop of ‘New Atheists’ … are softies of this kind. So was I, until I experienced my shocking epiphany that the religious fundamentalists are correct: without God, there is no morality. But they are incorrect, I still believe, about there being a God. Hence, I believe, there is no morality.

You get the point: the New Atheists, such as Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Daniel Dennett, and Sam Harris, are “soft atheists” because they deny God yet still want to affirm moral realism. The problem is that their position isn’t a coherent, stable one, because it seeks to affirm some phenomenon — in this case, objective moral norms — while denying the one metaphysical framework that could plausibly account for that phenomenon. Marks summarizes how he reasoned his way from “soft atheism” to “hard atheism”:

Why do I now accept hard atheism? I was struck by salient parallels between religion and morality, especially that both avail themselves of imperatives or commands, which are intended to apply universally. In the case of religion, and most obviously theism, these commands emanate from a Commander; “and this all people call God,” as Aquinas might have put it. The problem with theism is of course the shaky grounds for believing in God. But the problem with morality, I now maintain, is that it is in even worse shape than religion in this regard; for if there were a God, His issuing commands would make some kind of sense. But if there is no God, as of course atheists assert, then what sense could be made of there being commands of this sort? In sum, while theists take the obvious existence of moral commands to be a kind of proof of the existence of a Commander, i.e., God, I now take the non-existence of a Commander as a kind of proof that there are no Commands, i.e., morality.

In some respects, Marks’ confession shouldn’t be so surprising. After all, theists have been making the same kind of argument — no God, no morality — for aeons. Moreover, a number of influential atheists have already “made the good confession”: Friedrich Nietzsche, Jean-Paul Sartre, J. L. Mackie, and (more recently) Alex Rosenberg.

So I’m not going to dwell here on what I think should be reasonably evident to those who reflect on the metaphysical foundations of morality. Instead, I want to focus on some comments Marks makes in the second part of his “Amoral Manifesto” which, while tangential to his concerns, I find to be quite revealing and hugely significant. For what Marks hints at in these later remarks is that a consistent atheist ought to be not only an amoralist who denies objective moral norms but also an arationalist who denies objective rational norms.

Plantinga Drains Russell’s Teapot

Alvin Plantinga on Russell’s teapot, from a 2014 interview by Gary Gutting:

G.G.: You say atheism requires evidence to support it. Many atheists deny this, saying that all they need to do is point out the lack of any good evidence for theism. You compare atheism to the denial that there are an even number of stars, which obviously would need evidence. But atheists say (using an example from Bertrand Russell) that you should rather compare atheism to the denial that there’s a teapot in orbit around the sun. Why prefer your comparison to Russell’s?

A.P.: Russell’s idea, I take it, is we don’t really have any evidence against teapotism, but we don’t need any; the absence of evidence is evidence of absence, and is enough to support a-teapotism. We don’t need any positive evidence against it to be justified in a-teapotism; and perhaps the same is true of theism.

I disagree: Clearly we have a great deal of evidence against teapotism. For example, as far as we know, the only way a teapot could have gotten into orbit around the sun would be if some country with sufficiently developed space-shot capabilities had shot this pot into orbit. No country with such capabilities is sufficiently frivolous to waste its resources by trying to send a teapot into orbit. Furthermore, if some country had done so, it would have been all over the news; we would certainly have heard about it. But we haven’t. And so on. There is plenty of evidence against teapotism. So if, à la Russell, theism is like teapotism, the atheist, to be justified, would (like the a-teapotist) have to have powerful evidence against theism.

Plantinga goes on to discuss whether there is such evidence, whether there are any good arguments for or against atheism, and whether theistic beliefs need to be justified by philosophical arguments. He concludes with a nice summary of his Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism.

A Reductio of Naturalism

Keep Calm and Study PhysicsLet’s define Naturalism as the view that everything is either physical or causally dependent on the physical. On this definition, Naturalism encompasses both “hard naturalism” (strict reductive physicalism) and “soft naturalism” (which allows for some non-physical things such as minds, provided those non-physical things are causally dependent on physical things).

For completeness, let’s also define physical as a catch-all term for those entities and properties recognized by modern physics (subatomic particles, forces, etc.) or any reasonable refinement thereof (i.e., any refinement that doesn’t introduce radically different ontological categories). On this view, whatever is physical must be spatiotemporal.

I now offer a reductio ad absurdum of Naturalism, as defined above, which deduces the non-truth of Naturalism from its truth.

  1.  Naturalism is true. [assumption for reductio]
  2. If Naturalism is true, then Naturalism is possibly true.
  3. If Naturalism is possibly true, then, necessarily, Naturalism is possibly true.
  4. Necessarily, Naturalism is possibly true. [from 1, 2, 3]
  5. There is at least one necessary truth. [from 4]
  6. There is at least one necessarily true proposition. [from 5]
  7. Necessarily, if some proposition P is true, then P exists.
  8. If some proposition P is necessarily true, then P necessarily exists. [from 7]
  9. There is at least one necessarily existent proposition. [from 6, 8]
  10. There is something that does not exist contingently. [from 9]
  11. If Naturalism is true, then everything that exists, exists contingently.
  12. Not everything that exists, exists contingently. [from 10]
  13. Naturalism is not true. [from 11, 12]