Secular Women Work Conference

I’m pleased to have been asked to help boost the visibility of a new conference to take place August 21-23 in Minneapolis, MN entitled “Secular Women Work”. The conference is organized by Chelsea Du Fresne, Monette Richards, and Stephanie Zvan and they have a kickstarter located here. Here’s how they describe their event:

We are proud to introduce the Secular Women Work conference, a conference by and for activists. Do you want to build strong non-religious communities? Do you want to change our laws and our culture to be more accepting and accommodating of non-believers? Join us in Minneapolis in August 2015.

We live in a society in which unpaid work disproportionately falls to women. Unfortunately, this means that volunteer work, including activist work, is too often undervalued. We’re here to change that.

The Secular Women Work conference is a celebration of the work of female activists who create and run projects and communities in the secular movement. And there is no better way to honor their work than by using their expertise to help us all become better activists.

At Secular Women Work, you will find workshops: both hands-on exercises to develop your skills and facilitated group discussions where you can share challenges and solutions with other activists. You will find panels on specialist topics, with panelists who can help you broaden the horizons of your activism. And when you’re ready for a rest, you’ll find speakers who will entertain and inspire you with stories and lessons from their own work. In between it all, you’ll find a conference full of other activists who want to make a difference in the world.

All workshop leaders, all panelists, and all speakers will be experienced female or genderqueer activists with demonstrated accomplishments and skills to share. We are excited to announce that Lauren Lane, co-founder of Skepticon; Mandisa Thomas, president and founder of Black Nonbelievers, Inc., and Desiree Schell, labor activist and host of Science for the People will be appearing at Secular Women Work. We are working now to add more speakers, so keep your eye on this space for announcements.

The conference will be held in the historic Humphrey Conference Center on the University of Minnesota’s West Bank. The center is ADA compliant and situated on light rail.

So, come join us this August 21st through the 23rd for the Secular Women Work conference, and help support the women who work to make these communities happen! Make your pledge now to secure your ticket to the conference, or pledge to build a better movement by helping us make more, and more effective, activists.

See you there!

The Secular Women Work conference is a joint project of Minnesota Atheists; Campus Atheists, Skeptics, and Humanists; and Secular Woman.

If you’re looking for more information, here are a variety of places to check out:


Did Derren Brown Demonstrate How To Convert an Atheist?

The following video provides a fascinating discussion of contemporary psychology of religion. I’m not an expert in psychology of religion, but based on the reading that I have done, the presentation seems to be fairly accurate.

Unlike other presentations of this subject, Brown claims to demonstrate how to use psychological manipulation to cause an atheist to have a religious experience. Religious apologists take note.

However, Brown is a magician who is known to mix half truths with various tricks. Did he actually cause an atheist to have a religious experience? Let me know what you think in the comments below.


Is there a difference between democrats and republicans?

I recently witnessed someone make the mistake to tell Ed Brayton that there is no difference between democrats and republicans. Here was his response (which I think is spot on):

[…] frankly, that claim is total bullshit. When it comes to issues where a moneyed interest has a lot at stake, they’re pretty similar. Big business is going to get 100% of what it wants from Republicans and 90% of what it wants from Democrats (because they’re able to buy off both parties with unlimited campaign and lobbying spending). But where there isn’t a lot of money at stake, on issues involving equality and social justice, there’s a HUGE difference. If Democrats had been in charge of the House and state legislatures since 2010 instead of Republicans, we wouldn’t have mandatory ultrasound laws and abortion clinics shutting down all over the country. We wouldn’t have laws banning same-sex marriage and bills to pass the Federal Marriage Amendment to ban it at the federal level. With fewer Republican appointees to the Supreme Court, we wouldn’t have decisions like Hobby Lobby or Citizens United. We wouldn’t have people in charge of science committees who say things like, ‘Global warming is a hoax because God said he wouldn’t destroy the earth again after the flood.’ So no, the two parties are not the same and they’re not equally bad.

While others pointed out — legitimately — on the same thread that American foreign policy, under both Democrats and Republicans, has been fairly appalling, it was also pointed out — correctly, I think — that it is exceedingly rare to see a person from a disenfranchised group (LGBTQA individuals, people of color, etc) claim an equivalence between democrats and republicans. One of the two groups hurts folks at both home and abroad; the other tends to only hurt people abroad.

Is this an accurate way of seeing the differences between the two parties? Let me know your opinion in the comments section below.


The Kinsey Scale, “Religious” Discourse, and Christmas

This past Fall, in the ethics course that I teach, I covered social inequality. We discussed Peggy McIntosh’s famous unpacking the backpack essay in which McIntosh, a white woman studies scholar, lists 26 ways in which society has provided her an advantage over those who are not white. She briefly mentions that “it is hard to disentangle aspects of unearned advantage which rest more on social class, economic class, race, religion, sex and ethnic identity than on other factors”.

It should not surprise those who work on the academic study of religion to hear that these factors are difficult, if not impossible, to disentangle or that all of these involve axes of oppression. However, for my students, many of whom were attending their first college course and grew up in conservative, religious environments, this was an entirely new topic. When I brought the discussion to religious privilege, the idea that Christmas celebrations represent a kind of cultural hegemony was difficult for most to accept. Yet they would quickly acknowledge that they knew almost nothing about the holidays of other religions (none knew what Diwali was, for example) and that stores spend far too much time putting out Christmas decorations.

Organized atheists in the United States have recently participated in a discussion of whether they should celebrate Christmas and in what ways. As a movement comprised of a minority group, atheist identity is a matter of near-constant discussion. Atheist identity is hard won and the recognition of organized atheists as a contingency is deeply embattled. Anything which is seen to threaten that identity — or the right of individuals to freely identify themselves as atheists without facing e.g. microaggressions or other coercive measures — is quickly challenged. Should atheists leave Christmas behind or should they remake the holiday, perhaps legitimating their activity by appealing to a narrative in which the Christian celebration had been previously stolen from third century pagans?

Both of these developments — my classroom discussions of social inequality and the public debate over atheist celebrations of Christmas — involve assumptions about what it means for an activity or an individual to be religious, the political ends of various parties, and the American discourse over secularization. I think that this discussion is fundamentally mistaken in a variety of ways that are often lost on those engaged in the discourse. In order to explain in what ways this discourse is mistaken, I will first provide an analogy with human sexuality. Afterwards, I will provide a way to begin thinking about secularism which does not depend on the discursive assumptions I will identify as problematic.

It is now recognized that human sexuality is complicated. Sexual attraction is not limited to the simple binary of heterosexuality and homosexuality; not only can humans be heterosexual or homosexual, they can be bisexual, pansexual, asexual, etc. Alfred Kinsey’s work on sexual orientation provided a scale on which humans can identify their degree of attraction to either their own gender or the opposite gender. It is now recognized that human sexuality is more complicated still; we have distinctions between gender identity, gender expression, and biological sex. Gender is more complicated than a simple male/female binary; biologically, there are at least five different sexes and it is generally recognized by sociologists and psychologists that gender roles are socially constructed and contingent.

It is possible for a society to be repressive when it denies some aspect of this complication. For example, a society which acknowledges only heterosexuality erases the existence of other sexual orientations and normalizes only one kind of interaction. Notice: the framing of human sexual relationships as legitimate or not can depend upon what categories society provides. A society that recognizes only heterosexual relationships is one which has framed relationships too narrowly.

Those who fight for the recognition of gay rights endeavour to frame their discussions carefully. If a discourse recognizes only heterosexual and homosexual relationships, then bisexuality, pansexuality, and asexuality are erased. Similarly, intersectional feminists are careful to frame their discourse so that trans individuals are not excluded. Either sort of exclusion results if the terms of a discourse are defined too narrowly.

Just as Kinsey set off an avalanche of research indicating the complexity of human sexuality, research on the phenomenon of religion has recognized the complexity of religious phenomena. While our political and legal discourse continues to assume that there is a simple binary between religion and nonreligion, transcultural and transhistorical research demonstrates that no such binary can be identified which does not narrowly describe religion, leaving out important phenomena that most would want to identify as religious. Worse: the construction of religion as a category for political discussion can be traced to specific developments in European history over the last several hundred years. Many academics have simply given up the task of trying to identify what is essentially religious and instead understand the term ‘religion’ as a piece of vocabulary used by those who they study (i.e. a term in actor’s categories). Many would argue that the secular/religious binary is ultimately oppressive, for reasons similar to why non-intersexual feminism and bisexual-erasing gay rights activism is oppressive.

Christmas celebrations bring the resulting tensions to the fore. The discussion is often framed as follows. On the one hand, there are individuals who identify themselves as ‘secular’ and ‘atheistic’ who have fought hard battles to disentangle themselves from what they view as ‘religion’, yet wish to claim their Christmas celebrations as legitimate activity. On the other are Christian conservatives, who perceive that their moralistic hold on society is slipping and a need to re-assert that Christmas is about Christ (“the reason for the season”).

Notice that there are a variety of individuals missing from this conversation: for example, those individuals who are culturally (but not religiously) Jewish and do not celebrate Christmas, either as a “secular” or “religious” holiday. In order to fully capture the complexity of this phenomenon, we need to look beyond the categories that our society hands us. To do otherwise is to throw many secular Jews, apostates from Islam, atheistic Buddhists, and others, under the bus.

What of our political and legal discourse? If the secular/religious binary has imploded, how can we talk about church/state separation? I don’t have an easy answer to this question, but I think that I have the beginning of an answer. First, it is important to recognize that there are several ends which church/state discourse aims to accomplish. Second, having identified those ends, it may be recognized that the accomplishment of those ends does not have to rely upon an illegitimate secular/religious binary.

What ends does church/state separation hope to accomplish? I will discuss two. First, there are particular beliefs, traditions, practices that individuals may strongly and deeply hold, which it is unreasonable for the state to force individuals to change by coercion, and which do not circumvent the safety or rights of others. Furthermore, these privately held beliefs should be translated to a public language if they are to be participants in political discourse. As I have described this end, those beliefs, traditions, and practices which have been traditionally considered religious — such as Christianity, Judaism, and Islam — do not exhaust the category of things that this end should protect; my description did not assume a secular/religious binary. Also included are familial practices — e.g. the consumption of lobster every Tuesday (which an individual might be as strongly committed to as some Catholics are to fish on Fridays) — or participation in sports fandoms or political organizations. Atheists wish for their identities as atheists to have legal protection and, as framed, this end would protect their identities. These beliefs, traditions, and practices can be (and should be) protected from state influence without demanding that they be identified as “religious” or not. The state can be neutral on the topic of consumption of lobster on Tuesdays without declaring that such consumption is either categorically religious or secular.

The second political end of church/state separation involves the protection of a minority against the coercive pressures of a majority. For example, in the Ahlquist v Cranston decision, the judge cited the fanatical abuse Jessica Ahlquist received from classmates, teachers, and other Cranston residents as important in his decision. It has also been recognized that there are considerations in church/state decisions concerning school environments that do not apply to e.g. court houses because of the extra weight coercive pressures place on children as compared to adults. But the autonomy and intellectual freedom of children can be protected without assuming a secular/religious binary.

Atheists are free to celebrate Christmas; I am a Christmas-celebrating atheist. But let’s be honest about what we are discussing: I celebrate Christmas because it is my family’s tradition to do so. The reason my family has that tradition is because my mother is a Catholic from upstate New York and my father hails from New England Protestantism. I don’t expect that my Jewish friends will desire to celebrate Christmas (although it is not illegitimate if they do) despite the fact that many of them are atheists. I don’t believe in anything I would identify as God, but that does not render my interaction with religion and the secular any less complicated.


Karen Armstrong, Daniel Dennett, and Existential Quantification

In her introduction to her Case for God, Karen Armstrong writes that P: “God is not a being at all” [1]. At least some other theologians would agree: to say that God is a being among other beings is to put God into the same category as creatures, a straightforward contradiction given that God transcends all creaturely categories: the ontotheological error [2]. In this post, I will explicate Daniel Dennett’s response to Armstrong concerning P, describe why one might have thought that his response was inadequate, and finally conclude by showing that while Dennett’s response is short, it is not off-target.

Dennett, and other New Atheist authors, responded to Armstrong’s claim that God is not a being with consternation. What in the world could it mean to say that God is “not a being at all”? Isn’t God supposed to be the Greatest Conceivable Being (ala Anselm) or a necessarily existent being (ala Leibnitz)? Armstrong foresaw their consternation; Armstrong writes that people give her a perplexed look when she tells them that it is inaccurate to describe God as the “Supreme Being” [3]. This has led to several of the New Atheist authors providing responses to Armstrong which have misunderstood her project [4]. It has not helped that her writing is often less than clear.

Dennett has discussed Armstrong’s view in a variety of places. In a 2010 paper in Evolutionary Psychology, he wrote:

Karen Armstrong (2009), for instance, dismisses both the anthropomorphic visions (“idolatry”) and the various brands of atheism, while claiming, as she recently put it while speaking with Terry Gross on Fresh Air, that “God is not a being at all.” Assuming that she meant what she said, she claims, by simple logical transposition, that no being at all is God. That would seem to be about as clear a statement of atheism as one could ask for, but not in her eyes.[5]

Elsewhere, Dennett has stated that his interpretation of Armstrong follows from the fact that P has the same translation as S: “no being at all is God” in the predicate calculus [6]. As I understand his view, Dennett is translating P into predicate calculus as

(1) image00

where G is a constant denoting God. Since both P and S are equivalent to (1) — and (1) is equivalent to “there is no God” — Dennett interprets Armstrong’s statements, as literally construed, to be equivalent to atheism.

The problem is that while Armstrong would agree that P and S are equivalent (and true), she would (probably) not agree that either P or S are equivalent to (1). Dennett has understood the term ‘being’ to denote the same thing as ‘exists’, but it seems plausible that Armstrong understands ‘being’ to denote some other property. Consider the following possible translation of P:

(2) image01

Here, being(*) is a predicate function denoting whatever it is that Armstrong is denying of God when she states that God is not “a being”. (2) is equivalent to:

(3) image02

i.e. for all x’s, either that x is not God or that x is not a being. It follows that no being is God and that God is not a being. One might be satisfied with this alternative translation, provided that Armstrong spells out for us what property the ‘being’ predicate refers to. Unfortunately, this alternative translation contradicts other statements Armstrong makes. She writes that “[w]e could not even say that God ‘existed,’ because our concept of existence was too limited” [7]. In other words, Arsmstrong asserts Q: God surpasses all of our notions of existence. Armstrong is not alone in that view; Thomas Aquinas, for example, thought that God’s existence was numerically identical to God’s essence. But God’s essence can only be known in the afterlife; so the manner of God’s existence is incomprehensible to the created intellect in the present life. Thus, Aquinas would have agreed to both P and S, but would have denied atheism.

One notion of existence that we possess is that of existential quantification. Thus, Q implies that God cannot be in the domain of the existential quantifier. In her assertion that God is not in the domain of any existential quantifier, Armstrong is not alone; Denys Turner has written explicitly that the existential quantification should not be used when discussing God [8]. But if God is not in the domain of any existential quantifier, then (2) and (3) are false.

One possibility is that there are two existential quantifiers. One existential quantifier is one which we understand and the other is one which is beyond our comprehension. Note for this interpretation to be coherent, the existential quantifier beyond our comprehension would have to be at least partially comprehensible, in sense that we understand it to quantify over God and that it allows us to say that God exists (albeit in no sense that we understand). Still, vast details about the quantifier may be beyond our ability to understand; just as a 12 year old can understand that solid matter is composed of atoms, yet have no comprehension of the quantum mechanics of solids, so too might the manner of God’s existence surpass the understanding of any human.

However, the introduction of an existential quantifier beyond our comprehension introduces further problems for Q. Define E as the existential quantifier that lies beyond our comprehension. Then we can define a third quantifier — call it D — such that the domain of D is the union of the domains of E and image03. In other words, the following sentence would be true:

(4) image04

D has several advantages. We know what D means when it refers to creatures (the usual existential quantification) and there is a strong sense in which D is incomprehensible when applied to God. Furthermore, following the interpretation of Aquinas recently offered by Kris McDaniels [9], wherein analogous terms are defined via disjunction, we can say that ‘being’ is only analogically predicated of God and creatures (so that, using D, we can make sense of Aquinas’s analogia entis, or analogy of being).

However, contra Armstrong, (4) renders Q false because now we can say that God exists, where, by ‘exists’, we would mean that image05. Worse: it’s not clear that we could avoid the ontotheological error if we use D; the domain of D is a category that would include both God and creatures. So long as Armstrong wishes to maintain Q, she should reject an interpretation of her statements in terms of D. And so long as she rejects interpretations of her statements in terms of D, she should reject interpretations of her statements in terms of E. In other words: it does not help to posit an existential quantifier beyond our comprehension.

Another possibility is that there is no set which includes God as a member. Some theologians — such as Philip Cary [10] — have suggested that to make sense of the trinity, we need to use a logic in which one cannot count over the Persons of the trinity because there cannot be a sense in which the trinity is constituted by three members (otherwise, that would be polytheism or some form of heretical modalism). Each member is One, but only in a mystical sense not comprehensible to creatures, and together they form a mystical Unity. As far as I can tell, the only way to make sense of this idea is to declare that there is no set of which the Persons of the trinity were members. If there were such a set, we could take the cardinality of that set and note that it was equal to three. So perhaps Armstrong would say that God cannot be the member of any set and this would avoid introducing an existential quantifier.

If God is not the member of any set, it really is hard to say what the difference is between her view and atheism. In non-theological contexts, there are three precedents for things which are not members of sets (Armstrong may object that God is not a thing, but let that pass). First, there are multiplicities — such as the collection of all sets — which do not compose a set (there is no set of all sets). But God is not a multiplicity. Second, there are impossibilia — such as square circles — which, on some interpretations, are not members of any set. But Armstrong would claim that God is not impossible. Third, the referents of gibberish utterances — such as “urgblock” — are not members of any set. This is because there are no referents of gibberish utterances. Armstrong may claim that when she is speaking about God she is not speaking gibberish, but, given the difficulties I have presented for making sense of her statements, I remain skeptical whether she can show that her statements are not gibberish while maintaining P, Q, and S.



[1] Armstrong, K. 2009. The Case for God. New York: Random House, p ix.

[2] Adams, M. 2014. “What’s Wrong With the Ontotheological Error?” in The Journal of Analytic Philosophy, Vol 2.

[3] Armstrong, 2009, p ix.

[4] For example, Richard Dawkins describes Armstrong as a relativist; it is not obvious that this is the best interpretation of her work, given that she thinks God is an Ultimate Reality to which humans have some limited access through religious practice. See “Man vs. God” in The Wall Street Journal.

[5] Dennett, D, & LaScola, L. 2010. “Preachers Who Are Not Believers” in Evolutionary Psychology, 8(1): p 124.

[6] Dennett, D. 2009. “The Evolution of Confusion” (talk) at AAI.

[7] Armstrong, 2009, p x.

[8] According to Turner, the “One” of monotheism is a mystical Unity and not the cardinality of a domain over which some existential quantifier ranges. See Turner, D. 2007. “How to be an Atheist” in New Blackfriars, Vol 83 (977-978): pp 317-335; 2004. “Faith, Reason and the Existence of God”, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

[9] McDaniels, K. 2010. “A Return to the Analogy of Being” in Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, 81(3): pp 688-717.

[10] Cary, P. 1995. “The Logic of Trinitarian Doctrine” in Religious and Theological Studies Fellowship Bulletin, Sept/Oct.


On the intelligibility of human action, moral evil, & God’s omniscience

The Problem of Evil holds that some facts about human suffering are evidence contrary to (or in contradiction with) classical theism. Philosophers distinguish between two kinds of evil (or suffering): moral evil — the sort caused by human actions (rapes, genocides, etc) — and natural evil — the sort that are not caused by human actions (the destruction caused by storms, earthquakes, etc). It is a matter of common philosophical consensus that the latter is more difficult for the theist to explain away than the former. In the case of the former, theists typically cite the fact that God has granted humans libertarian free-will and that it is the free choices humans make — which God can neither predict nor interfere with — that explains the existence of moral evil. In the case of the latter, it is difficult to see how theists can use the free-will defense (as this argument has come to be called) without appealing to either victim blaming (van Inwagen) or demons (Plantinga).

Nonetheless, in this post, I will consider an argument for the position that the existence of moral evil cannot be explained away using the free-will defense. The choices humans make are typically intelligible to each other; but, as I will argue, this can only be so if those choices are in some sense predictable. I will then leave the theist with a dilemma: either human actions are more intelligible to other humans than they are to God, in which case God’s omniscience is in trouble, or human actions are less intelligible to other humans than they are to God, in which case the free-will defense will be in trouble.

In section VIII of the Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, David Hume considers several arguments opposing libertarian free-will. One of Hume’s arguments concerns the intelligibility of our social lives. We place expectations on each other and feel justified in holding each other to those expectations. If someone visits a far away country and returns with stories about humans behaving in ways that are too good to be true, we have reason to be skeptical. We have a mutual understanding of each other’s motivations and we find it reasonable that a good friend will not stab us unprovoked. Furthermore, Hume argues, history is only possible because humans in one place behave similarly to humans in other places. Ancient humans were not a different species from present day humans. Hume’s argument can be extended further: the only reason that the social sciences are possible is because human behavior is describable using something that at least approaches scientific laws (even if, as many philosophers of science argue, there are no precise laws in the special sciences).

None of this would be possible if humans were not predictable. The only reason that an expectation is formed within me concerning what my friends will do (or will not do) is because my experience with those friends will be repeated (in at least some sense). The reason we doubt stories concerning the too-good-to-be true individuals who supposedly occupy faraway lands is because our former experience with other humans allows us to form particular expectations about what humans will and will not do. We find our social lives to be intelligible because, most of the time, humans are not erratic. And when humans do behave erratically, it is not as though it is without cause; large differences in behavior often require large differences in causes. Sociology, economics, psychology, and the other social sciences are only possible because, at least statistically, humans are predictable. Otherwise, no experimental method could make sense of human behavior.

The free-will defense begins by pointing out that if libertarian free-will exists then there is no fact of the matter about what humans will do in the future. If there is no fact of the matter about what humans will do in the future, it is no violation of God’s omniscience for God not to know what humans will do. In comparison, no one would think that God knows triangles have six sides. No one can know that triangles have six sides because it is false that triangles have six sides and it is logically impossible to know false things to be true. Likewise, given libertarian free-will, God cannot know what any particular human will do because there is no fact of the matter about what any given human will do (just as there is no fact that triangles have six sides). There is no such fact to know.

The free-will defense continues by noting that God created humans not so that they could do evil, but so that they could freely choose to do good. A world where humans can only choose to do good, but not choose to do evil, is one in which libertarian free-will does not appear. Furthermore, a world in which libertarian free-will is absent is not as good as a world where libertarian free-will is present. Thus, as a perfectly good being, it would be contrary to God’s nature to create anything other than a world in which libertarian free-will existed. In what follows, I will grant the theist this entire picture: the only thing consistent with theism is the creation of a world in which there is libertarian free-will.

Immediately, this creates an obvious problem: we do not appear to live in a world where there is libertarian free-will. Thus, if we accept the free-will defense, then to the degree that we have scientific evidence contrary to the existence of libertarian free-will, we have evidence contrary to God’s existence. But put this to the side; perhaps the theist has some way of explaining away the existence of such evidence.

It is not at all clear to me what sort of explanation theists could provide to explain away the intelligibility of human actions, but whatever explanation they provide should be one which does not deny our experiences of our social lives or the data of the social sciences. It seems plausible that such an explanation is possible: notice that the predictability of human actions does not entail that every particular action is perfectly predictable. It remains a possibility that some actions are more likely and more reasonable than others without entailing that there is a fact about what any particular human will do in the future. Furthermore, notice that the sorts of things a particular human is likely to do most often relate to antecedent causes. For example, a trusted friend is not likely to stab me unless there is some reason that renders their action intelligible. Thus, that some humans will have a greater tendency to do good deeds (and others a greater tendency to do bad deeds) is not a violation of their free-will.

Now ask the following question: are human actions more or less intelligible to God than they are to other humans? If human actions are more intelligible to God, then God can predict with a greater degree of certainty what any particular human will do in any particular circumstance. Yet if God knows what any particular human is likely to do in any particular circumstance, God already possessed that knowledge when God created that human and, through Her providence, brought about whatever general state of affairs that human confronts. Therefore, God could have chosen to create humans who were less prone to violence, and other misdeeds, but chose not to. The Problem of Evil reasserts itself.

The only other possibility is that human actions are even more mysterious to God than they are to other humans. Yet, as an omniscient being, God’s knowledge is, by definition, superior to ours. To the degree that human actions are more intelligible to me than they are to God, I am more knowledgeable than God. This is a contradiction; thus, if the theist chooses this side of the fork, they must either abandon theism or libertarian free-will.

So I leave theists with a dilemma: either human actions are more intelligible to other humans than they are to God, in which case God’s omniscience is in trouble, or human actions are less intelligible to other humans than they are to God, in which case theists again face the Problem of Evil. I’m not sure this argument is completely convincing; leave me your thoughts in the comments below.


For Objective Morality

Lydia Allan has recently posted her argument opposed moral objectivism and in favor of something that sounds like ethical noncognitivism.

I’ve written a response, available here, arguing against her view.


On The Cosmological Argument and Libertarian Free-Will

Consider the following argument:

  1. All things which come to exist have causes.
  2. The universe came to exist.
  3. Therefore, the universe had a cause.

This is one version of the Cosmological Argument (CA). Concluding that the universe had a cause, proponents of CA draw the further inference that God was the only possible cause that the universe could have had. Those who reject CA have replied that atheists can concede that the universe had a cause without conceding the existence of God. Why, for example, should we think that the universe’s cause had a mind? If one cannot conclude that the universe’s cause had a mind, CA proponents will need an additional argument to reach theism.

In order to argue that the universe’s cause has a mind, theists may appeal to the notion that minds have unique causal powers. Human minds, for example, seem to be capable of generating ideas ex nihilo. Generally: minds possess unique causal powers because minds are uniquely creative. Perhaps only a vastly powerful mind could generate the universe ex nihilo. (This may seem fairly implausible; it does to me. But put that aside.) What the theist would need to argue is that there is something qualitatively distinct about those states of affairs in which something is willed into existence from those states of affairs where events have non-mental causes, so that the universe’s generation ex nihilo can only be explained by some mechanism which possesses a will. Because only minds can have wills, a universe willed into existence must have been caused by a mind:

  1. Nothing can be generated ex nihilo except by a mind.
  2. The universe was generated ex nihilo.
  3. Therefore, the universe was generated by a mind.

For the purposes of what follows, assume that a libertarian free-will is one which is capable of making choices without any antecedent causes. As such, LFW is incompatible with determinism — the view that all events have antecedent causes — and with what I will call  “acausalism” — the view (perhaps held by Hume) that no events have antecedent causes. Furthermore, notice that if libertarian free-will (LFW) exists — and a large number of theists believe that it does — there is a good reason to think that minds have unique causal powers in virtue of their possession of a will. (For example, in a Newtonian universe, a mind that possesses a libertarian free-will would, by definition, not be bound by the laws of physics.)

I think that any argument employing a strategy of this sort is doomed to failure. The problem is that, as far as I can tell, LFW is incoherent. And if LFW is incoherent, we are left with either compatibilist free-will or with no free-will at all (hard determinism or acausalism). Under either compatibilism or hard determinism/acausalism, (4) is implausible and we are left with no way to distinguish between a universe maker with a mind and one without. In what follows, I will present an argument, inspired by Hume’s Treatise, for the conclusion that LFW is incoherent. Having argued that LFW is incoherent, I will conclude that the strategy outlined in (4)-(6) is implausible and that the atheist can concede (1)-(3) without accepting that the universe was caused by a mind.

It may seem obvious that LFW is not compatible with agents choosing to act on the basis of causes external to themselves. After all, by definition, LFW can only obtain if (at least some of) the choices that agents make do not have antecedent causes. Perhaps the motivation to perform a free action can only be generated by reasons internal to an agent.

However, consider the possibility that there were reasons that went into the decisions made by agents. In this case, the decisions agents make have antecedent causes; namely, the reasons they employed. This is worse for the case of a necessary being. Such reasons could only originate in either the essence or the mind of a necessary being. Surely, different reasons would not be available to a necessary being at other possible worlds nor would the essence of such a being be different at different worlds. Thus, a necessary being, in so far as it employed reasons, would perform the same actions at every possible world. LFW would not obtain for a necessary being acting on the basis of internal reasons.

The only other possibility is that (at least some of) the actions agents perform are not produced on the basis of reasons at all. The problem now is that it is difficult to see why such actions should be termed “choices” or even “willed”. Such actions would be random and arbitrary and, because they would not be generated by reason, would not be planned. Certainly, such actions would not be distinguishable as those of an intelligent entity.

Thus, it seems difficult to make sense of LFW. If LFW does not exist, the only other possibilities are that either (a) compatibilist free-will exists or that (b) free-will does not exist at all (hard determinism or acausalism). But both (a) and (b) imply that minds have the same causal powers as any other object. Thus, (a) and (b) imply that we should reject the notion that minds can uniquely generate ideas (or anything else) ex nihilo. (4)-(6) are left without support.


How should one respond to the Argument from Contingency?

Consider the Argument from Contingency:

1. All contingent facts, including the existence of our universe (i.e. the continuous space-time region that we inhabit), have an explanation.
2. The conjunct of all of the contingent facts is itself a contingent fact.

3. Therefore, there is an explanation of the conjunct of all of the contingent facts.

4. The explanation of the conjunct of all of the contingent facts cannot itself be contingent.

5. Therefore, the explanation of the conjunct of all of the contingent facts must be a necessary fact.

6. Therefore, there exists a necessary entity that explains all of the contingent facts, including the existence of our universe.

We are supposed to conclude from this that God exists. This is presumably because God, as a necessarily existent being, is the only possible necessarily existent entity that could explain the existence of our universe. As I will explain in this post, I reject arguments of the form 1-6. (I should also note that the Argument from Contingency — or Leibniz’s Cosmological Argument, as it is sometimes called — is often expressed differently.)
My friend Z recently approached me on Facebook to ask about the Argument from Contingency. Richard Howe, from Southern Evangelical Seminary, is visiting Z’s campus and Z wanted to have a better understanding of some objections to ask Howe for his opinion on. I should note that I have not read Howe’s work (nor do I know if 1-6 is precisely what he has in mind) so I am not aware of whether or not he has considered the objections I offer in this post. Nonetheless, I thought that this would be a good time to reflect on a few of my responses to popular versions of the Argument from Contingency.

One of the first things to notice about the Argument from Contingency is that it does not support the existence of God. It supports the existence of a Necessarily Existent Something or Other that created the universe. The atheist is free to simply concede this argument entirely.

But let’s suppose that this was sufficient to show that the God of classical theism (a god with the four omni properties) existed. There are significant problems for a theology that involves a necessarily existent being. Here are a few of them.

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Thus Spake Matt Sheedy: Analytic Philosophy, Critical Theory, and the Atheism/Theism Discourse

The arguments presented in the film God’s Not Dead – and the sort of Christian apologetics with which it is associated (especially actor Kevin Sorbo’s public comments on Trunews) – are intellectually impotent. It is not difficult to find negative reviews from Christian apologists, who see their own cause undermined by such dreck (Randall Rauser, for example, states that he was “outraged” and that the film is “reprehensible”). I can think of only one reason for engaging with the film or Kevin Sorbo from an intellectual perspective: both Kevin Sorbo and the film express ideas popular among a particular demographic of evangelical Christians.

That set of ideas – that atheists secretly know God exists, that secular moral realism is an impossibility, that life without God is meaningless, and that atheists are angry, irrational dogmatists – boasts a lengthy history (longer than the history of professed atheism) and serves an important role in understanding the intellectual and cultural history of our society (even though such ideas are almost certainly – and trivially – false). For that reason, far more interesting questions can be posed concerning the God’s Not Dead milieu from a cultural studies perspective than by analyzing the associated arguments disjoint from their cultural context. The only reason I can see for doing the latter would be as a pedagogical exercise in which one instructs the public how not to make bad arguments concerning religion.

Matt Sheedy recently wrote an article for Religion Bulletin. In that article, Sheedy addresses Kevin Sorbo’s recent statement that atheists are absurd because they are angry with a god they claim not to believe in. Sorbo had gone on to claim that atheists secretly believe in God. Salon.com columnist  Sarah Gray had dismissed Sorbo’s comments as absurd and Sheedy was taking Gray to task for ignoring the relevant social context of Sorbo’s assertion:

The pithy length of Gray’s reply, clocking in at 240 words, highlights the ease with which she feels that she can dismiss Sorbo’s arguments, relying mostly on his own words to point out the absurdity of this position. While she no doubt has a point that his statement is “logically” absurd, her method, commonly associated with the analytic tradition in “Anglo-American” philosophy, is to respond from the elevated plain of rational thought, where every problem, every contradiction, can be resolved by simply pointing out where logic has gone off the rails.

Sheedy’s comments have themselves already “gone off the rails” here if he thinks that all analytic (or Anglo-American) philosophy is capable of is recognizing failures to be logically consistent. More charitably, Gray’s comments should be taken as bringing into question whether or not Sorbo has any evidence for his assertion that atheists secretly believe in God (he has no such evidence). Nonetheless, we can be charitable to Sheedy and reinterpret his comments as the claim that there is more than the arguments themselves at play. The arguments might legitimize particular cultural stances and signal particular allegiances (and systematically delegitimize the stances of those atheists who criticize or question Christian hegemony). Sorbo can use “bad” arguments precisely because the content of the arguments is largely irrelevant. What is far more relevant than the logic or justifications in Sorbo’s arguments are the social processes that the arguments play a role in.

Sheedy seems to go on to say that he largely agrees with me: what is intellectually stimulating about the God’s Not Dead milieu is best understood in cultural and not logical terms.

I have to confess that I have a hard time identifying what the ultimate point of Sheedy’s article is supposed to be, but, in so far as the article aims to be an argument in opposition to analytic (or Anglo-American) philosophy, much of the article seems to be straightforwardly self-undermining. Sheedy claims that we should go beyond the approach to dialectic encouraged by analytic  philosophy because such an approach is overly reductionistic (it ignores social context). Yet Sheedy’s article itself presents an overly reductionistic view of analytic philosophy for a different reason.

In any given discourse, there will be opposing sides arguing for contrary views. In the first-order debate between atheists and theists, there are two sides which each present arguments for or against the existence of God. Kevin Sorbo is certainly not an academically respectable representative of that first-order debate, but it is not difficult to find those who are (Plantinga, Swinburne, van Inwagen, Kierkegaard, Aquinas, etc, for the theists and Rowe, Draper, Russell, Hume, etc, for the atheists).

Sheedy takes issue with the first-order discourse and sees himself as above it or outside it (atheists are “data” for religion studies scholars, the theist/atheist dichotomy is not necessary to maintain, etc). The implication of this is that Sheedy is engaged in a second-order discourse: a discourse about the first-order atheist/theist debate. In that second-order discourse, the assumptions of the first-order discourse can be brought into question (what sort of distinction should be maintained between atheism and theism?), the social context of the actors in the first-order discourse can be examined (what social pressures is Kevin Sorbo and his ilk responding to?), and the first-order discourse can be contextualized into a historical framework (Sheedy’s appeal to Hume and Preus, for example).

Analytic philosophy is perfectly capable of identifying these two kinds of discourse and presenting arguments in the two categories. It is also capable of recognizing that the first-order discourse can be undermined by the second-order discourse: an argument for the conclusion that the e.g. social context of the actors in the first-order debate undermines arguments made in the first-order debate is what analytic philosophers call an “evolutionary debunking” argument. Nonetheless, analytic philosophers routinely do something which might be anathema to critical theorists: engage in first-order debates with the assumption that evolutionary debunking arguments are not crippling.