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The Cosmological Euthyphro Dilemma (CED) Defended: A Response to Maximus Confesses

The Cosmological Euthyphro Dilemma (herein: CED) asks whether God’s reasons for Her creation of the universe originate within God, independently of God, or if God possesses no reasons for Her creation. As I have previously argued, each possible response is problematic both for theism and for arguments commonly used in support of theism; I launched the argument first as a response to the Argument from Contingency; second, defended it from criticism; and, third, argued that CED can be used to construct a new atheistic ontological argument. Maximus Confesses posted a number of significant challenges to my argument in the comments section to one of my previous posts on this topic, so I thought I would post my response to his argument.

Maximus explains that he denies the possibility of libertarian free-will, but does not deny that God possesses compatibilist free-will. Thus, as I understand him, he defends the possibility that God possesses some sort of compatibilist free-will. I would have said that this cannot work, because God would still behave the same way in all possible worlds and that most compatibilists would at least expect there to be true counterfactuals concerning God’s actions, but, as we will see, Maximus anticipates this move and provides an apt response.

For Maximus, free actions are those which are “rationally informed”. Maximus conceptualizes God as time-independent:

Consider God, being an agent acting without any tense or spacial predication, actualizes all points of time from time T1 onward. There is no deliberation going on since God does not need to deliberate in order to garner more information for a more informed decision, what God is doing is necessarily actualizing space-time in a perfectly informed fashion.”

All of this seems perfectly comprehensible. God might possesses reason R1 for creating our universe and R2 for not creating our universe. Supposing that |R1|>|R2|, God would know that |R1|>|R2| and would not need to deliberate between R1 or R2. Instead, God’s timeless recognition that |R1|>|R2| would explain why God creates the universe (or, for any other action, why God would do that action). Maximus goes on to provide a helpful quote from Anselm concerning the sort of free-will that God might possess (from Anselm’s On Free Will):

There is a free will that is from itself, which is neither made nor received from another, which is of God alone; there is another made and received from God, which is found in angels and in men [sic]. That which is made or received is different in one having the rectitude which he preserves than in one lacking it. Those having it are on the one hand those who hold it separably and those who hold it inseparably. The former was the case with all the angels before the good were confirmed and the evil fell, and with all men prior to death who have this rectitude.

Here, Anselm appears to have chosen a particular horn in the dilemma: God’s reasons for Her actions necessarily originate within God (they are “neither made nor received from another”). In this sense, God’s reasons are distinct from creaturely reasons (i.e. the reasons of humans or of angels do not originate from our essences nor is our free-will originate from us intrinsically, but was provided to us by God). But given what Maximus has said about Anselm, we may wonder how it is that God acts differently in other possible worlds.

Here, Maximus suggests that we examine Buridan’s Ass. Imagine a hungry donkey, placed equidistant between two equally valuable sources of food. The donkey has just as much reason to pursue one food source as to pursue the other, so, if the donkey only acts on the basis of reasons, the donkey will starve. But our intuition is that the donkey will not starve because the donkey will choose one of the food sources without reason. Thus, it seems that free-will must involve a component of randomness. It is strange that Maximus points us to this possibility, given that Maximus has previously stated that he rejects libertarian free-will and that the actions produced by free-will are those which are “rationally informed”. Traditionally, compatibalists have been pressed to respond to Buridan’s Ass by responding that the donkey will starve; it is only the libertarian who is willing to say that free actions may be reasonless. So it appears that Maximus has jumped to the other fork in the dilemma.

Be that as it may, his response does not suitably defang CED. Maximus continues by positing that while God would not possess random reasons within Herself, She is capable of creating a “random actualizer” that would do the work for Her:

If there are two possible universes with a negligible difference, are we to suppose God irrational to choose one over the other? I should say not, it is possible for God to necessarily create a random actualizer to do the work for him. It would pick at random a possible world that he finds worthy of creation. This would make this world contingent through a necessary random chooser. Any effect it would have would be explicable by the random chooser.

Maximus’s example can be developed further. Suppose that there are multiple worlds, all of which God would find equally valuable, and that God must choose among these worlds. God has timeless recognition of God’s inability to act without reasons, so God creates a random actualizer to do the work that She cannot do Herself.

There are a number of worries that come about as a result.

First, while I don’t have a problem with the notion that God cannot do that which would be logically impossible for God to do (such as actions that contravene Her nature), we ordinarily do not suppose that God lacks some sort of power that is possessed by some creature. Yet that’s exactly what this solution would demand: God cannot act randomly, but God can create a random actualizer that does act randomly. At the very least, that poses problems for God’s sovereinty, ultimacy, and aseity.

Second, given that God could have created some other possible world (that is, which possible world God creates is contingent upon the results of the random actualizer), any evils which appear in the possible world God creates were not necessary for bringing about some greater good; whatever greater good they accomplish could have been brought about in some other way in any of the possible worlds that are equally good. Thus, any actual evil would be gratuitous; as most theistic and atheistic philosophers agree that gratuitous evil is inconsistent with God’s existence, this possibility grants us a reductio of theism.

But it gets worse. Consider the collection of all possible and impossible worlds; call this C. The random actualizer chooses among some subset (or subcollection) of this collection, with the condition that all members of the subset are equally valuable from God’s perspective; call this subset S. We may imagine that the worlds in C can be ranked in order of their value from God’s perspective. At any given ranking, there may be multiple worlds at that rank; this would explain why there are multiple worlds in S. Nonetheless, it seems plausible that there are worlds better than the world we live in (Leibniz’s statement that we inhabit “the best of all possible worlds” seems false). If so, then our world is not a member of S. But then we again have a reductio, since, if our world is not in S, our world would not be possible and would consequently not be actual. Yet our world is actual.

Furthermore, the random actualizer was meant to save the notion of metaphysical possibility. This falls into trouble, for it seems plausible that there are worlds of less value than our own which are metaphysically possible. Consider, for example, a world filled with nothing but endless pain and torment. Surely, such a hellish world is not a member of S. Yet no world which is not a member of S would be metaphysically possible. So the random actualizer does not save metaphysical possibility, at least as it is normally discussed, after all.

Maximus provides another possible way to save metaphysical possibility other than the random actualizer. Perhaps God creates all possible worlds that are of equal value, leaving us with a kind of modal realism. In that case, some notion of possibility and necessity would be preserved, at least as well as those notions are preserved in other forms of modal realism (i.e. such as David Lewis’s). However, as with the random actualizer, does not preserve the same notion of metaphysical possibility. Again, only the worlds in S would be metaphysically possible and not the full set of worlds that we would normally take to be metaphysically possible. Furthermore, this possibility does not preserve the notion that there are counterfactual truths concerning alternative ways in which God could have acted; so this possibility does not preserve God’s free-will (in either libertarian or compatibilist senses).

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Theistic Metaethical Realism and An Epistemic Worry for Non-Natural Moral Realism

Readers of my blog know that I have been debating whether the is/ought dichotomy is compatible with theistic metaethical realism [1]. I’ve taken the stance the odds the is/ought dichotomy is true are at least as probable as the odds the is/ought dichotomy is false. Since the is/ought dichotomy is incompatible with theistic metaethical realism, and there are more ways to be a moral realist who denies the is/ought dichotomy than theistic metaethical realism, the odds theistic metaethical realism is true are less than 50%; thus, theistic metaethical realism is not obviously true. The preceding argument can be extended further: since theistic metaethical realism is less than 50% likely to be true, we should not be theistic metaethical realists. In place of theistic metaethical realism, I have suggested metaethical non-natural realism: the view that there are non-reducible objective moral truths that constitute their own fully autonomous domain of facts. Richard Bushey has argued the is/ought dichotomy and theistic metaethical realism are compatible [2], but, thus far, I have found his substantive challenges unconvincing. Here, I respond to another possible argument that the theist may provide against meta-ethical non-natural realism.

The theist may argue that, if the meta-ethical non-natural realist is correct, then it is difficult to explain how we know what moral truths there are. Moral truths would not have any spatial or temporal location, so we cannot observe them in the world; they would have no causal efficacy, so they could not cause various events that we observe; and our brain’s access to non-physical moral truths is mysterious. But, the theist may argue, theistic metaethics does not suffer from these problems. For theistic metaethics, God produces all moral truths, which He communicates to us through divine revelation [3]. The argument can be put formally as follows:

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An Improved Ontological Argument for Atheism

Alvin Plantinga (in)famously proved the existence of God using the axiom S5 in modal logic. Axiom S5 states that if it is possibly necessarily the case that p, then it is necessarily the case that p. In other words, if there is any possible world in which it is a necessary truth that p, then p is a necessary truth in all worlds. (In case the reader has some phobia to talk of possible worlds, we can state the axiom another way: if it can be shown that there is a possible maximally consistent set of sentences in which ‘necessarily, p’ occurs, then that statement must appear in all maximally consistent sets of sentences.) Plantinga defines God in such a way that if God did exist, then God would be necessarily existent. Using axiom S5, the modal ontological argument follows. A simplified version of the modal ontological argument – which skips over much of the detail and explication Plantinga is careful to provide – might proceed as follows:

  1. If it is possibly necessarily the case that God exists then it is necessarily the case that God exists.
  2. It is possibly necessarily the case that God exists.
  3. Therefore, it is necessarily the case that God exists.
  4. Therefore, it is actually the case that God exists.

There have been those who were skeptical of modal logic generally or of those modal logics which use S5 in particular (e.g. Quine). Put modal skeptics aside; most philosophers agree that modal logic captures something important about our talk of possibility and necessity. The trouble for the theist, as Plantinga is careful to point out, is that a parallel argument can be constructed for the atheist:

  1. If it is possibly necessarily the case that God does not exist then it is necessarily the case that God does not exist.
  2. It is possibly necessarily the case that God does not exist.
  3. Therefore, it is necessarily the case that God does not exist.
  4. Therefore, it is actually the case that God does not exist.

The two arguments can be further simplified to two statements:

T. Possibly, God exists → God exists.

A. Possibly, God does not exist → God does not exist.

The difficulty rests in stating which of the antecedent in T or A are more plausible. The question remains: is it possible that God exists? Or is it possible that God does not exist?

On the one hand, if the atheist claims that God does not exist, they have to show that there is no possible world at which God exists (or, for the metaphysically phobic, that there is no maximally consistent set of sentences in which ‘God exists’ appears). That’s a rather tall order and the theist would be right to respond with incredulity: it’s not even possible that God exists?

Furthermore, the theist’s work seems to be cut out for them: all they have to do is to point out how reasonable it is to say that God is at least metaphysically possible. Certainly, the concept of God does not appear (at least prima facie) to contain any contradictions. So the theist might declare victory (and Plantinga does call his ontological argument victorious).

On the other hand, the atheist should caution the theist that they declared victory too soon. It seems fairly plausible that there is at least one possible world at which God does not exist (or that there is at least one consistent set of sentences in which ‘God exists’ does not appear). For the theist to declare that there is no such world is a rather tall order; the atheist would be right to respond with incredulity: it’s not even possible that there is no God? And, again, the atheist’s work seems to be cut out for them: all they have to do is to say that God’s non-existence is at least metaphysically possible. Certainly, atheism does not appear (at least prima facie) to contain any contradictions. So the atheist, as the theist, might declare victory (and we might call the resulting atheistic ontological argument victorious).

So the stalemate rests. However, I’ve noticed that my Cosmological Euthyphro Dilemma (CED) may contain a possible solution in favor of the atheist. In what follows, I will briefly summarize my CED argument and then show why I think it has the potential to resolve the impasse between T and A. I note that one of the resident theists on this blog network, MaximusConfesses, has provided me with a possible Anselmian response to CED. I will assume, for this article, that the Anselmian reply does not work, but I will postpone my response to the Anselmian reply to a future blog post.

What is CED? Traditionally, theists have posited that both that God created the universe and that God is absolutely ultimate (e.g. aseity). CED poses a dilemma to the theist: did God’s reasons for creating the universe originate in God (perhaps in Her nature or essence) or did they originate independently of God? If God’s reasons originated in God, there are two problems for the theist. First, because God’s nature or essence are both necessarily existent, God’s reasons would be necessarily existent. But if God’s reasons are necessarily existent, then God could not have chosen to do other than what God did; thus, God does not have free-will (in either the libertarian or compatibalist senses, which both require true counterfactuals about one’s actions). This is incompatible with God’s existence because God is defined as an agent; but if God does not have free-will, then God is not an agent. So God does not exist. Second, given that God would create the same universe in all possible worlds, the universe that we are in would be the universe that necessarily exists. Ditto for anything else that exists, for, on a traditional conception of God’s ultimacy, everything that exists is either God or created by God. So, metaphysical possibility is destroyed; everything is necessarily existent. But this also leads to God’s non-existence because most philosophers are not willing to give up the notion of metaphysical possibility or contingency. Thus, if we posit that some other states of affairs are possible, then God does not exist.

The other possibility is that God’s reasons for creating originate (somehow) independently of God. But if so, there is at least one thing – namely, the source of God’s reasons – that is either more ultimate than God or just as ultimate as God. Neither of these possibilities square with the conception of God as most ultimate. Thus, if God possesses reasons and these reasons must originate independently of God, then we are led into contradiction; so God does not exist.

There is a third possibility. Many of the traditional defenses of libertarian free-will rely on the notion that some sort of mysterious action without reason may be possible. For example, consider Buridan’s Ass. We imagine a hungry donkey equidistant between two equally valuable sources of food. If the donkey does not choose one food source over the other, then the donkey will starve. But if the donkey does choose one food source over the other, this cannot be with any sort of reason, for the donkey has just as much reason to choose one food source as the other. Intuitively, the donkey will choose one food source over the other; so, if our intuitions are correct, we must be capable of acting without reason (somehow). Perhaps this will save the theist from the CED argument.

Unfortunately, this third possibility cannot save theism from the CED argument either. If God acts without reason, this is no better than God acting randomly. It is difficult to see why this possibility would be desirable to the theist, though, historically, some theists did choose this option. (See Lovejoy’s The Great Chain of Being.) At the very least, if God acts randomly, God acts capriciously. It is difficult to see how this possibility would be consistent with the notion that God is perfectly good or all loving.

CED destroys a number of traditional arguments for God’s existence. For example, the design argument posits that our universe, or various structures in our universe, appear to have been designed for various purposes and that they were not merely created at random. But if the only way to save theism, given the CED, is for God to have created randomly, then design is not what we would expect to see in our universe. God could have no purpose for Her creation, for she evidently created without reasons.

Or consider the argument from contingency. The argument from contingency maintains that our universe is metaphysically contingent (i.e. our universe is not metaphysically necessary) and requires the existence of a metaphysically necessary being to explain its existence. The argument from contingency is not consistent with the notion that God’s reasons originate within God, for, in that possibility, our universe would not be contingent. One might think the argument from contingency is consistent with the possibility that God’s reasons originate independently of God, provided that wherever God’s reasons originate is contingent. But this cannot be so, for if the source of God’s reasons is contingent then either that source was created by God or contingent things do not require necessary creators after all. If the source was created by God, then we arrive back at CED: where did God’s reasons for creating that source originate? Lastly, perhaps one could think that the argument from contingency was consistent with God creating the universe without reason. But then it becomes difficult to explain why a theistic explanation would be better than positing that the universe originated at random without God, for both explanations posit that the universe was created without reason.

As promised, I now proceed by explicating how the CED argument might break the stalemate between T and A. One way of stating the stalemate is that we need some reason for thinking that it is more plausible for there to be at least one possible world without God than at least one possible world with God (or vice versa). The CED argument can provide that reason.

Recall that, on the possibility that God’s reasons originate within God, if God exists, there can be no other metaphysically possible worlds. It’s possible to show, using familiar arguments in modal logic, that there being no other way that the could be is entailed by possibly, God exists. So T and A become:

T’. Possibly, God exists → There is no other way that the world could be.

A. Possibly, God does not exist → God does not exist.

Using T, together with the statement that there is some other way that the world can be, we arrive at the antecedent to A via modus tollens. And it’s far more plausible that there is some other way that the world could be than that there is no other way that the world could be. So the stalemate is settled in terms of A. Thus: God does not exist and God’s existence is, probably, metaphysically impossible.

But what about the other possibilities, that either God’s reasons for creating originate independently of God or that God creates without reason? First, consider the possibility in which there is some God independent source for God’s reasons. In that case, there are two possibilities: either the source is necessarily existent or the source is contingent. Suppose that the source is necessarily existent. In that case, God possesses the same reasons in all possible worlds, so we return to T’ and A is again more plausible. Suppose that the source is contingent. In that case, God may possess different reasons in different possible worlds, but which reasons God might have for any of God’s actions would depend upon some contingent object. Strangely, this turns God into a slave of some God-independent object; this contradicts the ontological argument’s supposition that God is the greatest of all possible beings (this also contradicts the notion of God’s impassability). The only possibility that remains is that God has no reason for God’s actions. But, in that case, God’s actions are arbitrary and capricious. At best, God would act randomly. Again, it’s difficult to understand how a capricious God that acts arbitrarily is the best of all possible beings. And, again, this possibility is inconsistent with the theistic ontological argument. So the atheistic ontological argument remains.

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The Moral Argument Revisited: A Second Reply to Richard Bushey

This is the latest entry in a series of posts on Libere and Therefore God Exists in which Richard Bushey and I debate whether the is-ought dichotomy is incompatible with theistic metaethics. Previous entries included:

Libere: Do atheists steal morality from the Christian worldview?

Bushey: Is the moral argument guilty of the is-ought fallacy? 

Libere: In Defense of the Incompatibility of Hume’s Is/Ought Dichotomy and Theistic Metaethical Realism: A Response to Richard Bushey 

Bushey: In Defense of the Moral Argument: A Response to Dan Linford


I’ve recently defended the view that the is/ought dichotomy and theistic metaethical realism are incompatible. My argument was originally posed as a response to presuppositional apologists, like Greg Bahnsen, who argue that moral facts both exist and are so obviously grounded in God that anyone who claims not to believe in God must have deceived themselves. I call this the obviousness thesis. In response, I argued that the is/ought dichotomy is incompatible with theistic metaethical realism and that because it is less than clear whether the is/ought dichotomy is true, the obviousness thesis is false. Theists who maintain moral facts are grounded in God, but, contra Bahnsen, that this is not obviously so, are free to agree with me and to deny the is/ought dichotomy. Others may maintain that moral facts are not grounded in God; moral facts may be reducible to natural facts (as for moral naturalists who deny the is/ought dichotomy) or non-reducible (as for robust moral realists who maintain the is/ought dichotomy).

Richard Bushey charges that there is no incompatibility between the is/ought dichotomy and theistic metaethical realism. I do not know where he stands on the obviousness thesis, because, as far as I know, he has not written on that topic. Nonetheless, if nothing else, the debate between the two of us indicates these issues are not trivial to settle; if so, the obviousness thesis is false. Richard raised three objections to my argument. In my first response, I answered, at length, to all three. In his new rebuttal, he responds that none of my responses were adequate. In what follows, I will demonstrate that none of Richard’s responses succeed; nonetheless, Richard’s responses raise important and substantive issues in metaethics that are worth discussing.

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God’s Ultimacy and the Trinity: Why Traditional Christianity is False

Of orthodox Christianity’s many doctrines, God’s Ultimacy – that God both causally and explanatorily precedes all else – and God’s triunity – that God is three in Person but one in substance (or essence) – are considered central. For most Christian theologians, to deny either God’s Ultimacy or God’s triunity is to proceed into heresy or to abandon Christianity altogether. Both appear in the Nicene Creed and God’s Ultimacy historically preceded Christianity altogether, having its roots in Jewish monotheism. Yet, as I will show in this article, straightforward understandings of these two doctrines produce contradictions when they are placed in conjunction.

It has often been claimed that Trinitarianism produces contradictions. As Augustine describes the trinity in his On Christian Doctrine [1], the trinity may be described with the following seven propositions [2]:

      1. The Father is God.
      2. The Son is God.
      3. The Holy Spirit is God.
      4. The Father is not the Son.
      5. The Son is not the Holy Spirit.
      6. The Father is not the Holy Spirit.
      7. There is only one God.

From these seven, we can derive:

      1. The Father is not the Father (from 1, 4 by replacement).

Orthodox Christians would be correct to point out that 8 does not actually follow from 1 and 4, either in traditional Christian doctrine or through Augustine’s conception of trinitarianism because the word ‘is’ is equivocal between 1 and 4. In 1, the Father’s substance or essence is identified as that of God. Within both Aristotlean and Platonic frameworks, two things share in essence if they are of the same kind. For example, Plato would have said that two cows share the same essence by participating in the Form of cowness. Contemporary readers, who may be mystified by the appeal to substances and essences, will not be misled (at least for the purposes of this article) if they understand the ‘is’ appearing 1-3 as the ‘is’ of predication.

However, the ‘is’ appearing in 4-6 is the ‘is’ of identity. The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit share a common essence, but they are not the same Person and are thus not identical. While the interpretation of the trinity remains controversial, this seems to be enough to render the doctrine free of contradiction. At the very least, I will assume that, by itself, triunity is coherent for the remainder of this article [3].

I turn next to God’s Ultimacy. Traditionally, Christians have understood God as absolutely ultimate, by which I mean that God both explains and was/is causally responsible for all else. As Brian Leftow (among others) has pointed out, this runs us into an interesting implication: God is identical to all of God’s properties, a doctrine known as ‘Divine Simplicity’ [4]. In what follows, I sketch Leftow’s argument for that conclusion, but interested readers should refer to his article for the full details. I will note that Leftow is not the first to argue for Divine Simplicity; the doctrine is first ancient and second popular among orthodox Christian theologians. The doctrine appears in the Catholic Catechism [5] and a Catholic theologian I consulted assures me that Divine Simplicity is part of the Church’s official teaching. Briefly, I note that Simplicity has not been without criticism and that both David Hume and Erik Wielenberg, among others, have produced previous atheistic arguments based on Simplicity [6]. I shelve those arguments and proceed forward.

Why does Ultimacy entail Simplicity? Leftow’s argument proceeds as follows. First, notice that God’s properties cannot precede God, either in cause or explanation, because this would entail that God’s properties are more ultimate than God. Second, notice that God’s properties cannot be posterior to God, either in cause or explanation, because this would render God incoherent. The only solution is to identify God with God’s properties. Again, if the reader remains unconvinced, I invite them to read over Leftow’s paper, in which this argument is produced with full rigor.

Having described both trinity and ultimacy, I proceed by showing that the conjunct of these two doctrines produces a contradiction. Consider the following argument:

  1. Divine Simplicity: The godhead is identical to all of the godhead’s properties.
  2. The Trinity: The Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are God in substance, but the Father is not the Son, the Son is not the HS, and the Father is not the HS.
  3. The godhead is identical to all of the properties of the Persons of the Trinity (from 9 & 10).
  4. Therefore, the properties of the Persons of the Trinity are all identical to each other (from 11).
  5. The Persons of the Trinity are Simple (i.e. each are identical all of their properties).
  6. Therefore, the Persons of the Trinity are all identical to each other (from 12 & 13).
  7. Contradiction! (from 10 & 14)
  8. Therefore, either the godhead is not triune or Divine Simplicity is false.
  9. If the godhead is not triune then Christianity is false.
  10. If Divine Simplicity is false then divine aseity is false (i.e. God is not Ultimate in the right sense); but if so, Christianity is false.
  11. Therefore, Christianity is false.

Thus, we arrive at the advertised conclusion: given that an orthodox understanding of Christiany involves both trinity and Ultimacy, and that the conjunct of these entails a contradiction, orthodox Christianity is false. It remains possible for the Christian to deny Ultimacy or to deny trinitarianism. Certainly, some Christians already do deny one or both of these doctrines; for example, Dale Tuggy has advocated that Christians abandon the Trinity [7]. Nonetheless, the foregoing appears to be sufficient deny orthodox Christianity.


 

ENDNOTES

[1] Augustine, On Christian Doctrine, 1:5.

[2] Philip Cary summarizes trinitarian doctrine this way in his “Logic of Trinitarian Doctrine”, Religious and Theological Studies Fellowship Bulletin, Sept/Oct 1995, p 2.

[3] For a summary of the various theological models of the trinity, see Rhea, M. “The Trinity”. In The Oxford Handbook of Philosophical Theology ed. Thomas P. Flint & Michael Rea (Oxford University Press, 2009).

[4] Leftow, B. “Is God an Abstract Object?”. Nous, 24 (1990): 581-598.

[5]Catechism of the Catholic Church: Revised in Accordance with the Official Latin Text Promulgated by Pope John Paul II. 2nd ed. (Vatican City): Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 1997: 43; 202.

[6] See Wielenberg, E. “Dawkins’s Gambit, Hume’s Aroma, and God’s Simplicity,” Philosophia Christi 11 (1), (Summer 2009): 111-125; Hume, D. Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, 1779: 159-160.

[7] See, for example, several of Dale Tuggy’s papers available on his website.

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In Defense of the Incompatibility of Hume’s Is/Ought Dichotomy and Theistic Metaethical Realism: A Response to Richard Bushey

Hume’s is/ought dichotomy is, roughly, the thesis that no statement about what one ought to do can be entailed by a statement about what is the case. In other words, no moral facts can be entailed by non-moral facts. Hume used his dichotomy to argue for ethical non-cognitivism, but contemporary metaethicists often employ the dichotomy to argue that ethical facts constitute a domain of facts independent from any other collection of facts (e.g. robust metaethical non-naturalists argue that there are objective moral truths which are independent of any of the natural facts [1]). While the is/ought dichotomy is controversial, there remain a number of significant philosophers who view the dichotomy as eminently plausible.

In a recent blog post, I responded to the argument that morality so obviously comes from the Christian God that, insofar as atheists believe in objective moral facts, they must be stealing from Christianity (the obviousness thesis). I argued that Hume’s is/ought dichotomy is incompatible with theistic metaethical realism, so that, if the is/ought dichotomy holds, then morality cannot originate with God. This is because, on the is/ought dichotomy, no moral fact could be reduced to any non-moral fact about God. Because the is/ought dichotomy is controversial, the obviousness thesis must be false. Note that this does not entail that theistic metaethical realism is false; perhaps the is/ought dichotomy is false and morality does originate with God, but that morality originates with God is not so obvious that atheists must be stealing from Christians. Or perhaps the is/ought dichotomy is true and whatever moral facts there are are independent of God (though God might still play some important role; for example, perhaps God, though not ultimately responsible for the existence of ethical facts, is responsible for creating creatures who can appreciate ethical facts).

In response, Richard Bushey has argued that theistic metaethical realism is not incompatible with the is/ought dichotomy. (Although Richard does not state in his article that he was responding to me, he communicated to me that he had my post in mind when he wrote his.) Here, I will respond by showing that the arguments Richard presents are unsound, though they raise a number of interesting (and challenging) philosophical issues.

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Do atheists steal morality from the Christian worldview?

Some conservative Christian apologists argue that whenever atheists engage in moral reasoning, they are stealing from the Christian worldview. As I understand their argument, the point is supposed to be that only Christianity can metaphysically ground objective morals and values and that this would be obvious if only we were not so blinded by sin (herein: the obviousness thesis). In their unrighteousness, atheists deny Christianity while simultaneously presupposing Christianity in their moral discourse, or so it is claimed. Call this the Presuppositionalist Moral Argument (PMA). In what follows, I show that PMA is implausible because, due to the controversy over Hume’s Is/Ought dichotomy, the obviousness thesis is probably false.

Hume’s is/ought dichotomy is the view that no statement about what ought to be can be derived from a statement about what is the case. While Hume used his dichotomy to argue that moral statements should be understood non-cognitively, many contemporary metaethicists utilize the dichotomy to argue that moral facts constitute an independent domain of facts which cannot be reduced to non-moral facts. Other metaethicists argue that moral facts can be reduced to non-moral facts. At present, there does not seem to be a consensus between the two views and it is difficult to determine which side is correct. Given the debate, I think it reasonable to assign a 50/50 chance as to whether the is/ought dichotomy is true:

P(Hume’s dichotomy is true|debate) ~ P(Hume’s dichotomy is false|debate) ~ 0.5

But now the kicker: Hume’s dichotomy is incompatible with theistic metaethics (as I will show), which entails that morality can be explained by Christianity only if Hume’s dichotomy is false. There are multiple metaethical theories compatible with the conclusion that Hume’s dichotomy is false; thus, the probability of Christian metaethics is less than 0.5:

P(Christian metaethics|debate) < 0.5

Far from being obviously true, Christian metaethics is less likely to be true than the alternative.

Why should we think that theistic metaethics is incompatible with the Hume’s dichotomy? Here I quote from one of my working papers:

Although many classical theists find arguments for moral realism convincing and, from this, conclude that God exists, we argue in the following that the conjunct of moral realism and the is/ought dichotomy entail that theism is false. […]

Let’s suppose that both moral realism and the is/ought dichotomy were true. There are two candidates for a theistic metaethics: first, that morality is reducible to God’s commands or, second, that morality is reducible to God’s nature (for example, perhaps the Good is identical to God’s essence).

There are well-known reasons why it is implausible for moral truths to be reducible to God’s commands. First, this would render moral truths arbitrary due to the fact that God could not possess moral reasons for Her commands (Euthyphro’s Dilemma). Furthermore, given the is/ought dichotomy, it is difficult to see how God could possess non-moral reasons for Her commands, for this would entail that moral facts could be reduced to various non-moral facts (perhaps concerning God’s nature or desires). But it seems equally strange to suppose that God possesses no reasons at all for her commands. Second, reducing moral truth to God’s commands involves reducing moral facts to facts about commands, which violates the is/ought dichotomy.

The second option, that morality is reducible to God’s nature, seems to be the best candidate for a theistic metaethics. However, the second option entails that moral facts are reducible to non-moral facts about God (Greg Bahnsen suggests, for example, that ethical facts are reducible to facts about God’s character); thus, the second option is not a viable candidate for theistic metaethics. Moral facts might be reducible to facts about God’s essence or nature, but unless we identify facts about God’s essence or nature as moral facts, this reduction violates the is/ought dichotomy.

Perhaps the theist will argue that facts about God’s essence or nature are identical to moral facts. For example, some theists have argued that, given Divine Simplicity, God is identical to the property of Goodness, itself, in virtue of which all other moral facts can be explained. However, we find this to be mysterious, if not plainly contradictory. How is it that a specific person can be identified with an abstract property or with a universal?

The remaining option is that the ethical facts, somehow, constitute an independent domain of facts not created by God. Yet, given God’s aseity, everything else that exists is somehow caused or explained by God. […] Given moral realism and the is/ought dichotomy, the moral facts are not caused or explained by God. This is a contradiction. Thus, if moral realism and the is/ought dichotomy are true, theism is not, or so it seems. Perhaps the theist has a way of resolving this difficulty, but whatever that way might be is not obvious.

There is a third difficulty with the notion that ethical absolutes entail theism: theistic metaethics appears to render the order of explanation of moral truths incorrectly. Bahnsen has argued that God’s commands are both good and non-arbitrary because they issue forth from God’s good character, which is the ultimate measure against which all else must be compared. Put aside the difficulties with the is/ought dichotomy. Most theists conceive of God as good because She is virtuous, fair, loving, and so on; Bahnsen’s view entails that virtuousness, fairness, and lovingness are good because God possesses these traits. That’s a reversal of what seems to be the correct order of explanation.

Wes Morrison puts the point this way: “Is God good because he is loving, generous, just, faithful, kind, and so forth? Or are these attributes good-making because God has them?” The first possibility is more plausible than the second. Theists say that God is good in virtue of Her properties. If Bahnsen chooses the second, it is difficult to make sense of the notion that God is good (in virtue of what would God be good?).

Thus, Christians should not say that atheists steal from their worldview; the obviousness thesis fails.

I do not think that this is surprising. Ordinarily, when we engage in philosophical debate, we do not accuse our interlocutors of theft when we think that they made unwarranted assumptions. Instead, we say that our interlocutors have not presented a convincing case (or something similar) for their conclusions. The accusation of theft sounds, to my ears, like little more than bullying for ideological purposes.

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Revisiting the Cosmological Euthyphro Dilemma

In a previous post, I launched what I called the Cosmological Euthyphro Dilemma (CED) as a response to the Argument from Contingency:

From whence did God’s reasons for creating the universe come?

There are two possibilities, both disastrous for the theist:

  1. If God’s reasons for creating the universe came from within Herself, then God did not create the universe of Her free-will. After all, God’s essence is necessarily the way that it is and is unalterable. Thus, any sort of reasons from within God are necessarily the case. God could not have chosen to do otherwise. Worse, not only would God not have free-will, but the universe would not be contingent after all (God exists in every possible world and, since God possesses the same reasons at every possible world, would create the same universe at every possible world — therefore, the universe is not contingent; this contradicts a premise in the argument from contingency).
  2. But now suppose that there were no reasons originating from within God for creating the universe. In this case, there is no where for such reasons to come from. God may have free-will to create the universe, but would be acting arbitrarily and capriciously.

I call this the Cosmological Euthyphro Dilemma, in analogy with the Euthyphro dilemma concerning theistic ethics (or piety, as in the original Socratic formulation). It’s my personal brainchild, but similar arguments appear throughout the history of philosophy and theology (and are discussed at length in, for example, Arthur Lovejoy’s Chain of Being).

There have been multiple theists who wanted to resist the CED. This is not surprising. Given (1), the Argument from Contingency is devastated because the universe is not contingent after all. Worse, both (1) and (2) lead classical theism into a contradiction.

Consider the following plausible principle:

The Existence of Counterfactuals (TEC): there are ways that our universe could have been other than how our universe is.

TEC is a sufficiently common assumption among philosophers that it does not require me to provide any additional justification here than what exists in the literature. TEC is what allows for a coherent notions of metaphysical possibility and contingency.

Yet, given (1), TEC is false. Thus, if we assume that TEC is true — which is a fairly non-controversial move among philosophers — but also choose the first fork in CED, we are led to conclude that TEC is both true and false. Unless the theist abandons either TEC or God’s necessary existence, (1) entails that God does not exist.

Yet theism fares no better on (2). Consider another plausible principle:

No Arbitrary Actions (NAA): a perfect God would always have reasons for their actions.

There is a contradiction between NAA and (2). Thus, unless the theist abandons NAA, (2) also leads to the conclusion that theism is false.

There seem to be no other options for the classical theist than (1) or (2). Thus, CED entails that God does not exist.

Let’s review some of the responses I have received to CED thus far.


 

Greg Lehr writes:

In the first possibility you are arguing that God does not have libertarian free will. With that I agree, God cannot act against his own character and nature. There does seem to be an unspoken assumption in this premise however. That being that God must always act upon every aspect of his intrinsic nature. (“what ever God is He must do”) I think for your premise to be sound you need to present arguments supporting that assumption.
In the second possibility you seem to be arguing that, if there is nothing in Gods intrinsic nature that demands the creation of the universe then it must be a capricious and arbitrary act. I would question the premise that an arbitrary act of God must, by necessity, also be capricious. So again I would like to see what your supporting arguments are.
I believe a third possibility is what is known as “contrary choice” This is the premise that while God cannot act against His intrinsic nature He can choose not to act upon it. If this is the case, then even if creating universes is part of His intrinsic nature the act of creation would be His voluntary choice. Meaning then that the universe is not contingent.

I responded:

In regards to your response to my first possibility: I never said that God must always act upon every aspect of Her intrinsic nature in every action that She performs. That would be absurd; surely, there are aspects of Her nature that are not relevant for many actions that She might perform. This does not mean that there is no aspect of Her nature that is relevant.

In regards to your response to my second possibility: you argue that just because there is nothing in God’s “intrinsic nature” that causes Her to create the universe, this does not mean that God’s creative act would be arbitrary. Note that, by “arbitrary”, I mean without reason. Apparently, you think that God might have some other reasons to act; I wonder what these might be, given that prior to Creation, nothing exists but God. Does God create God’s reasons? If so, then these must come of necessity from God’s nature or else they are arbitrary. The only other possibility is to say that God’s reasons arise independently of God, but this amounts to denying God’s aseity.

You bring up a third possibility that you call “contrary choice”, in which, while not acting against Her nature, God can choose not to act upon Her nature. I’m not sure what that means, but I wonder where God’s reasons for not acting upon Her nature come from. Apparently, they cannot come from Her nature. Does She create such reasons (in which case they are necessary), do they arise independently (denying God’s aseity), or does She arbitrarily abstain from acting on Her nature?


Robert AndAlicia-Lawrence BanahdeCristo worries that I have neglected Libertarian Free-Will (LFW):

since we do not know the source of what makes a being one that actually is a truly “freewill” being, or a being one that has free will, it is absurd to argue that if it is not “necessary” then it MUST BE arbitrary or capricious. The only way this follows is if one assumes a false dichotomy of pure determinism or pure carpricious. When one posits a world in which true LFW exists then it is completely consistent to argue that God has LFW and thus his choices are neither NECESSARY or CAPRICIOUS. Thus your argument, at best is as circular as you accuse Theism to be.

I responded:

A few things.

First, I never accused theism of being “circular”.

Second, part of the challenge is for the theist to explain how God could have libertarian free will. You state — rightly — that IF God has libertarian free will then Her actions are neither capricious nor necessary; but given what else is said about God’s actions and nature, it is difficult to make sense of this claim.

Either God has reasons for Her actions or not. If God does have reasons for Her actions, where else could these reasons originate than God’s essence? If they do originate somewhere other than God’s essence, then there is something other than God which was, apparently, not created by God (namely, the origins of God’s reasons). On the other hand, if God does not have reasons for Her actions, then God’s actions really are capricious. It seems that, on the theist’s view, the only possible origin for God’s reasons for action is God’s essence. But because God’s essence is necessary, God’s actions would also be necessary. Because God’s actions would be necessary, God would not have free-will. Moreover, God’s creation would not be contingent after all.

I’ve responded, at length, to theistic LFW elsewhere.

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Tell Kansas Medical Marijuana is Not a Crime; Raise $ For Shona Banda

Shona Banda, a mother living in Kansas, recently had her life turned upside down when her child discussed his mother’s medical marijuana use in school and, consequently, police officers raided their home. Like most of us, Banda is not able to afford legal counsel on her own for the struggle she is now undergoing. A gofundme.com page has been set up in order to accept donations; I encourage folks to either contribute or share the page. The page reads:

On March 24, cannabis oil activist Shona Banda‘s life was flipped upside-down after her son was taken from her by the State of Kansas. The ordeal started when police and counselors at her 11-year-old son’s school conducted a drug education class. Her son, who had previously lived in Colorado for a period of time, disagreed with some of the anti-pot points that were being made by school officials. “My son says different things like my ‘Mom calls it cannabis and not marijuana.’ He let them know how educated he was on the facts,” said Banda in an exclusive interview with BenSwann.com. Banda successfully treated her own Crohn’s disease with cannabis oil.

After her son spoke out about medical marijuana, police detained him and launched a raid on Shona Banda’s home. “Well, they had that drug education class at school that was just conducted by the counselors… They pulled my son out of school at about 1:40 in the afternoon and interrogated him. Police showed up at my house at 3… I let them know that they weren’t allowed in my home without a warrant… I didn’t believe you could get a warrant off of something a child says in school.” Banda continued, “We waited from 3 o’clock until 6 o’clock. They got a warrant at 6 o’clock at night and executed a warrant into my home. My husband and I are separated, and neither parent was contacted by authorities before [our son] was taken and questioned.”

“They subsequently conducted a raid and then called me when the raid was over letting me know that there was a list of items they took on my kitchen table, I was allowed to go home, and [an officer] gave me his word I would not be arrested in person or at work and that charges would be given to me in a postcard in the mail. I have not been charged with anything at this point, but I have a hard time believing that it’s OK for them to interrogate my child without parental consent for hours,” said Banda. A report by The Human Solution International notes that officers found 2 ounces of cannabis and an ounce of cannabis oil during the raid.

Banda then described the actions that the State of Kansas began to take in an effort to take her son from her, “On the 24th, he was taken into custody. That was on a Tuesday. He was taken out of town Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday. Friday we had a temporary hearing… and temporary custody was granted to my ex. Now the only reason why temporary custody was granted to my ex is because the judge said something to the effect that the amount of cannabis found in my home was going to possibly be felony charges and it was pointless letting the child return home to his mother.” She believes that the state is trying to take her son away and said, “The state is trying to deem it to where [Shona’s ex-husband] is not fit and I’m not fit and they’re trying to take custody of our child.”

“For him to have spoken up in class I can’t be upset about because he hears me daily on the phone talking with people, encouraging people to speak up and speak out. We did have the talk about how it’s not OK to bring this up in Kansas, because it’s a different state [than Colorado]. It’s very confusing for a child,” said Banda, noting how difficult it can be for children to understand how something could be considered legal medicine in one state and contraband in another.

Authorities have yet to charge Banda with a crime, and her next custody hearing is set to take place on April 20.

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Ancient Egyptians and Goofy Numbers

My friend Star asked me to explain an outmoded numerological interpretation of the Eye of Horus. This led into a discussion of some elementary number theory. Enjoy.

I’m not an Egyptologist, but I do know some aspects of the history of mathematics (at least as they were communicated to me throughout my undergraduate degree in physics). Let’s see what we can do. We can call this “Star Learns Elementary Number Theory”.
 
I know that a lot of ancient peoples thought there were only whole, positive numbers (1, 2, 3, 4, …); these are what 21st century mathematicians called ‘positive integers’. Instead of thinking of fractions as numbers between the integers (so that 0.5 is between 0 and 1), they thought of them as ratios of two integers (1:2). This avoids ever talking about a number existing between two numbers. At least this is how the Greeks thought of things.
 
It looks like the Egyptians thought something similar, but took this idea a step further. You can imagine writing all of the positive integers as the sum of two other numbers. For example, we can represent 2 as 1+1 and we can represent 3 as 1+2. You can do the same with fractions; 3/4 can be represented as 1/2+1/4. This is useful if your written language does not allow you to directly represent 3/4; apparently, ancient Egyptian was limited in that way.
 
The Eye of Horus stuff concerns an outmoded theory about how fractions were represented by the Egyptians. Apparently, Egyptologists used to think that each part of the eye represented a different base fraction and by adding together different parts of the eye you could get different numbers. It looks like Egyptologists have since abandoned that theory.
 
Unfortunately for the Egyptians, no matter how many base fractions one has, one can never represent all fractions. For one thing, there will always be fractions smaller than the base. The other problem is that there will be numbers one cannot represent using any fraction at all, let alone using the sum of two fractions. Let’s see why; this will take some algebra to work out, but bare with me. This is one of the most important discoveries of the ancient world.
 
Suppose that Harry, the Egyptian, is building a pyramid. He knows that the pyramid is going to be 1 foot tall and 2 feet wide. He wants to know the distance from the base of the pyramid to the top.
 
Imagine chopping the pyramid in half, so that we get a triangle 1 foot wide and 1 foot tall that looks like this.
 
So the question Harry wants to answer is what distance c is in the diagram. Luckily, Harry knows a Greek named Pythagoras who gives him a formula: multiply the width by itself, the height by itself, and then add the two numbers together; the result will equal the distance c multiplied by itself (c is the distance Harry wants).
 
Okay, so:
 
1*1=1
1*1=1
Add them together, we get 2.
 
What two numbers, when multiplied together, will equal 2?
 
Apparently, not 1, since 1 multiplied by itself is equal to 1. 2 won’t work either, since 2 multiplied by itself is equal to 4. Blowing Harry’s mind, you suggest that the number which, when multiplied by itself, gives 2 is somehow between 1 and 2. But which number between 1 and 2?
 
You decide to be clever (good things happen when you are clever) and you decide to represent the problem you are facing as an equation. You know that you want a fraction which, when multiplied by itself, produces 2. A fraction is one number divided by another; so let’s call those two numbers a and b. Furthermore, you know that this fraction, when multiplied by itself, produces 2:
 
2 = (a/b)*(a/b)
 
Lets stipulate that a/b has already been fully reduced. In other words, a and b are already as small as possible to represent that fraction.
 
You realize that you can re-write this as:
 
2 = (a*a)/(b*b)
 
Or, in other words:
 
2 = a^2 / b^2
 
But you want to know what a and b are. So let’s move the b^2 over to the left hand side:
 
2 * b^2 = a^2
 
This tells us that a^2 is divisible by 2 (do you see why?). But if a^2 is divisible by 2, then a^2 is even. But the only way for a^2 to be even is for a to be even; this is because your friend Gus has already proven that all integers are either even or odd and you know that the only way that a number, when multiplied by itself, can produce an even is if the original number was even. So a is even.
 
But if a is even, we can write a as 2k, where k is some new mystery number. So let’s do that:
 
2 * b^2 = (2k)^2
2 * b^2 = 4 * k^2
 
We can cancel out 2 on either side:
 
b^2 = 2 * k^2
 
But now we know that b^2 is divisible by 2. This implies, as before, that b is even.
 
So both a and b are even. Well, that can’t be right — we started off with a fraction consisting of two numbers that had no denominators in common. Yet we ended up with a fraction consisting of two numbers which were both multiples of 2, since they were both even. Did we mess up somewhere?
 
“WHAT THE HELL, STAR??” Both Harry and Pythagoras — our two new friends — are getting quite peeved with us. For one thing, we just threw doubt on the new religion Pythagoras has been developing, which declared as holy doctrine that all numbers were integers or ratios of two integers.
 
The problem is with the assumption we started with. There is no fraction consisting of two integers that will be equal to the square root of 2. Harry’s language is incapable of ever expressing the length he wants to calculate because it can only express fractions; but there is no fraction for that length. No matter how well he approximates it, using all sorts of tinier and tinier fractions, there will always be a little bit left over (or he will always go a little bit over). There is something his language leaves out, something which needs to be added in.
 
What’s missing is the set of irrational numbers, so-called because, when Pythagoras’s groupies discovered them, they were horrified. According to legend, Pythagoras drowned the individual (a fellow named Hippasus) who originally worked this out (though this story is likely apocryphal).