Thursday, July 02, 2015

Breaking: God Distances Himself from Christian Right

The Onion reports.

H/T: Justin Schieber

CfP: Explaining Religion: Cognitive Science of Religion and Naturalism

Submission deadline: September 15, 2015

Conference date(s):
December 4, 2015 - December 5, 2015

Conference Venue:

Department of Philosophy, Free University Amsterdam 
Amsterdam, Netherlands

Topic areas

Workshop ‘Explaining Religion. Cognitive Science of Religion and Naturalism’

When: December 4th-5th 2015

Where: VU University Amsterdam, The Netherlands

Organizers: Hans van Eyghen, Rik Peels, and Gijsbert van den Brink

Although Cognitive Science of Religion (CSR) is still a rather young discipline, its main theories have been the subject of considerable debate. One main point of discussion is whether cognitive theories explain religion. The title of Pascal Boyer’s book Religion Explained (2002) signals that at least one goal of CSR is to explain religion. Many authors have interpreted ‘explaining’ as explaining away and have argued that CSR-theories have not explained religion away because the truth of religion is compatible with the main theories in CSR.

This workshop will focus on a different question, viz. whether CSR-theories allow for a natural explanation of religion, where a natural explanation is a scientific one that does not involve anything supernatural or spooky. When it relies on the principle of parsimony (Occam’s Razor), a natural explanation of religion makes the existence of anything supernatural superfluous . Daniel Dennett already suggested something along these lines in his 2006 book Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon. Since then, few scholars have discussed this particular issue in CSR. The topic raises questions about explanation, naturalism and the evidential weight of religious cognition.

Confirmed speakers:

- Dr. Helen de Cruz (Oxford University), author of the upcoming bookA Natural History of Natural Theology (2014)

- Prof. Dr. Robert McCauley (Emory University), co-author ofRethinking Religion: Connecting Cognition and Culture (1993), Why Religion is Natural and Science is Not (2011)

- Prof. Dr. Aku Visala (University of Helsinki), author of Naturalism, Theism and the Cognitive Study of Religion (2011)

We invite contributions from philosophers, theologians and scientists. Please send a 1000 word abstract to by September 15th 2015. The abstract should be suitable for blind review. Questions can be sent to the same email address. Possible topics include but are not limited to:

· What do the main theories of CSR explain?

· Do the main theories in CSR amount to a naturalistic explanation of religion?

· Does a natural model of religious belief explain away religion?

· Does CSR speak in favor of naturalism?

· Is there a standard CSR explanation of religion?

· Is a naturalistic interpretation of CSR preferable to a theistic interpretation?

· Does a natural explanation of religious cognition make a difference to the epistemic status of religious belief?


Wednesday, July 01, 2015

Contrarian Philosophy of Religion Assertion Wednesday

The creation of a universe ex nihilo is metaphysically impossible, and so the posterior probability of cosmic fine-tuning on the hypothesis of classical theism is zero.

Contrarian Philosophy of Religion Assertion Wednesday

Saying that ex nihilo creation of concrete objects is possible with enough power is like saying that barfing up a missed lunch is possible with a sufficiently strenuous dry heave.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

On Views About Creation and Their Implications

Although admittedly limited, my experience with friends and students suggests that the average theist doesn't really understand the doctrine of creation ex nihilo. Rather, they accept the view that God created the universe from something like a reservoir of energy within him. As the chart above illustrates, this has serious implications. For if you're like them, then you are not a classical Anselmian theist. Rather, you're either a pantheist, a panentheist, or a demiurgist

Now you might be fine with accepting that, but notice that you've also given up a lot in doing so. For example, you've given up most of natural theology. For now you accept that the stuff of the universe is eternal and uncreated.[1] But perhaps the deepest problems lie ahead. For now you have a choice: you can say that (a) the materials are at least part of God, or you can say that (b) they are distinct from God. If you accept (a), then it's now hard to distinguish you from other pantheists and panentheists that are very far from classical theism. But if you accept (b), then you accept that matter is either a brute fact or a necessary being, in which case, again, kiss the cosmological argument goodbye. You can also say goodbye to the radical dependence of creation upon Creator, as well as a substantial amount of awe toward the transcendence, greatness, and otherness God. 

On the other hand, you might want to sit tight with classical theism and hold on to the doctrine of creation ex nihilo. Your problem now is that the plausibility of the doctrine of creation ex nihilo is on an epistemic par with the hypothesis that the universe popped into existence out of nothing without any cause whatsoever

So what's a classical theist to do? Probably the most sensible thing to do, if you are inclined to accept a religious conception of the world, is to reject classical theism and accept pantheism, panentheism, or (internalist or externalist) demiurgic theism. But then, again, it'll cost you a big cut in epistemic motivation and religious significance. Tough choices all around.
[1] If you accept the view of creation under discussion but you don't think the posited reservoir of energy within God is uncreated and eternal, then you think it either arose uncaused out of nothing, or you think God created the reservoir of energy within himself ex nihilo. The former view is incompatible with classical Anselmian theism; the latter reduces to the classical Anselmian theism, which is already accounted for on the chart. Read on for a critical problem with the latter's view of creation.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Creation Ex Nihilo and Uncaused Worlds: A Dilemma

**Revised in light of Jason Thibodeau's excellent comments.***

I've argued for both unqualified and defeasible versions of the principle of material causality (PMC), according to which concrete objects that have an originating or sustaining efficient cause have an originating or sustaining material cause, respectively. I've also argued for the claim that PMC, when combined with classical theism's doctrine of God as the creator of the world out of nothing, entails that classical theism is false. However, while I think PMC is clearly correct, the conclusion can be reached whether one accepts PMC or not.

The long version of the argument is for another day, but here's the short version. Consider the following principle, which I'll call the Impossibility of Uncaused Concrete Objects (IUC):
(IUC) It's metaphysically impossible for a concrete object to come into existence if it has neither an efficient nor a material cause.
IUC is just an instance of the more general principle, ex nihilo nihil fit. And as far as widely accepted metaphysical principles go, the latter is about as good as it gets. And rightly so. Not only does it seem self-evident, but all of nature appears to conform to it without exception. 

However, some philosophers are still skeptical. Philosophers in this camp tend to sympathize with Hume that anything that can be imagined or conceived without contradiction is prima facie metaphysically possible. And since one can imagine, say, a quark -- or even the whole universe -- popping into existence uncaused out of nothing, and can do so without a contradiction in one's conception, that's enough to call the principle into question. On the basis of this line of reasoning, philosophers of this stripe take it to be a live possibility that ex nihilo nihil fit is false, and thus that it's a live possibility that the universe popped into existence uncaused, out of nothing.

Now consider the following version of PMC: 
(PMC) It's metaphysically impossible for a concrete object to come into existence by an efficient cause if it lacks a material cause. 
PMC looks to be on an epistemic par with IUC. Both seem self-evident, and both enjoy the support of universal experience. However, neither principle is analytic, and so one can deploy the Humean gambit above to resist them if one is so inclined.

Given that IUC and PMC are in the same epistemological boat, therefore, it seems unprincipled and arbitrarily selective to accept one while rejecting the other. Therefore, it looks as though one should treat them similarly: either accept both, or use the Humean gambit to reject both.

Here's the rub. Either option entails the falsity of classical Anselmian theism. For consider the first option: accept both principles. If you do that, then you accept PMC, in which case you accept something that entails that God can't create concrete objects ex nihilo, in which case you accept something that entails that classical Anselmian theism is false. On the other hand, suppose you reject both principles. Then you reject IUC, in which case you accept that there is a possible world at which concrete objects pop into existence out of nothing without a cause. But since classical Anselmian theism entails that God is the creator or sustainer of all concrete objects outside himself in all possible worlds in which he exists, you accept something that entails the falsity of classical Anselmian theism. Therefore, either way, you accept something that entails the falsity of classical Anselmian theism.

In short, the conclusion goes through whether you accept PMC or not.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Modal Epistemology and Creation Ex Nihilo

(Rough Draft)
Consider the following thesis, which I’ll call Possible Ex Nihilo Creation (PEC):
(PEC) It’s metaphysically possible for concrete objects to be created out of nothing.
It’s often taken as axiomatic among theists that PEC is true, on the grounds that it seems to be a part of scripture and tradition that God created the universe out of nothing, without the use of prior materials. However, suppose you are not a theist, and you don’t take PEC as axiomatic. It already comes to the table with heavy strikes against it: Ordinary experience speaks strongly against it. And given the long and distinguished pedigree of the principle, ex nihilo nihil fit, reason seems to speak against it, too. What, then, could the theist offer to the atheist or agnostic in support of the principle? 

Perhaps the theist will here appeal to putative sources of modal evidence to support PEC, viz., rational intuition, imaginability, or conceivability. Thus, one might argue that one can conceive of (or intuit, or imagine), say, God creating the universe out of nothing, and since conceivability is prima facie evidence of possibility, one is prima facie justified in accepting PEC. Is this a promising line?

No, it isn’t. There are a lot of points that could be brought up here, but I want to limit myself to one point based on recent work in modal epistemology, i.e., the study of how our beliefs about what is impossible, possible, and necessary are known and/or justified.

There are many objections, both classical and contemporary, that have been raised against inferences from conceivability to possibility. For example, in the past, people were able to conceive of the Morning Star existing without the Evening Star, or water existing without H20. So if everything conceivable were possible, it should follow that it’s possible for the Morning Star to exist without the Evening Star, or water without H20. But we now know that these things are impossible, since the Morning Star is the Evening Star, and water isH20. 

Another example: Goldbach's Conjecture is the mathematical hypothesis that every even number greater than 2 is the sum of two primes. To date, no mathematician has proven that Goldbach's Conjecture is true (nor have they proven that it's false). Now I can conceive, in some sense, that Goldbach's Conjecture is false. I can also imagine that it's true. So if all inferences from conceivability to possibility are valid, then it follows that it's both possible for Goldbach's Conjecture to be true, and possible for Goldbach's Conjecture to be false -- in other words it would follow that Goldbach's Conjecture is only contingentlytrue if true at all. But that can't be right, for mathematical statements are necessarily true or necessarily false if true or false at all.

Thus, it looks as though we need some criterion of legitimate conceivings to screen out illegitimate conceivings, thereby preserving the utility of inferences from conceivability to possibility. A lot of progress has been made over the past several decades in the sub-field of modal epistemology, but for our purposes, it’s enough to mention one key distinction that’s been developed that’s helpful. Stephen Yablo[1] and James Van Cleve[2] have each pointed out that there’s a distinction between not conceiving that P is impossible, on the one hand, and conceiving that P is possible, on the other. Van Cleve calls the former, ‘weak conceivability’, and the latter, ‘strong conceivability’. 

Now it turns out that pretty much all of the counterexamples to the conceivability-possibility inference are cases in which something is weakly conceivable. For example, when one says that they can conceive of Goldbach’s Conjecture being true, and that they can conceive of it also being false, they really mean that they can’t see that either conception is impossible – i.e., they only weakly conceive of such things. The same goes for conceiving of water existing without H20, and conceiving of the Morning Star existing without the Evening Star. By contrast, I can strongly conceiving of my car as being red, and of myself as a person who doesn't like to surf (albeit just barely!); thus such conceivings provide prima facie evidence that it's possible for my car to be red, and that I really couldhave been a person who doesn't enjoy surfing.

In light of this distinction, then, we can handle the counterexamples by limiting conceivability-possibility inferences to those that involve what is strongly conceivable – i.e., to those in which one intuits that p is possible, and not to those in which one merely fails to intuit that p is impossible.

The weak/strong conceivability gives rise to a dilemma for the case at hand. For either the relevant type of conceivability or imaginability or rational intuition is weak conceivability or it is strong conceivability. Suppose the relevant sort of conceivability is strong conceivability. Is it strongly conceivable that a being can create a concrete object without prior materials -- i.e., do we "just see" that it is possible? It doesn’t seem so. For the relevant conceived state of affairs doesn't seem to enjoy the strong epistemic and doxastic force enjoyed by, say, conceiving of a ball getting stuck on the roof (I see it there in my mind's eye, wedged behind the chimney). Rather it merely seems weakly conceivable – i.e. I merely fail to intuit that it's impossible.  It therefore looks as though the truth of PEC is prima facie justified via strong conceivability.

Suppose we're right, then, that it's merely weakly conceivable Then for the reasons sketched above, it’s not at all clear that weakly conceiving of concrete objects being created out of nothing supports PEC. Perhaps the mainstream view on weak conceivability is wrong, though, and weak conceivability is good evidence of possibility. Would that help the theist's cause? 

No. For then weak conceivability would end up supporting other things as well that would defeat theism. So, for example, and most saliently for our purposes, the weak conceivability of a world that pops into existence without any cause whatsoever would, likewise, be prima facie evidence of its possibility. But if so, then we're prima facie justified in thinking there is a metaphysically possible world at which there is a universe that God did not create. But since classical theism entails that God is the efficient cause of the universe in all worlds in which both he exists and a universe exists, we have an argument against the falsity of classical theism, contrary to the original aim of trying to support PEC on behalf of theism. And of course it goes without saying that the possibility of the universe popping into existence without any cause whatsoever would pose worries for the standard arguments for God's existence.

Therefore, either way, it’s not at all clear that modal evidence supports PEC. 

[1] “Is Conceivability a Guide to Possibility?”, Philosophy and Phenomenological Research53 (1993), 1-42.
[2] “Conceivability and the Cartesian Argument for Dualism”, Pacific Philosophical Quarterly 64, (1983), 35-45.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Reminder: New Insights in Religious Epistemology Conference

New Insights in Religious Epistemology International Conference
23–25 June 2015
St Anne’s College Oxford, OX2 6HS

Richard Cross, Notre Dame: “Testimony and Rational Belief in Medieval Theology”
Keith DeRose, Yale: “How to Appear to Know that God Exists”
Hans Halvorson, Princeton: “Foundations of the Fine-Tuning Argument”
John Hawthorne, Oxford/USC: “Fine-Tuning Fine-Tuning”
Peter van Inwagen, Notre Dame: “The Rev’d Mr Bayes and the Life Everlasting”
Jennifer Lackey, Northwestern: “Norms of Testimonial Uptake”
Paulina Sliwa, Cambridge: “Show and Tell”
Richard Swinburne, Oxford: “Phenomenal Conservatism”
Roger White, MIT: “Reasoning with Plenitude”

To register, please email:

Further information about the New Insights in Religious Epistemology project, including podcasts of talks, can be found here.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

A Quick Rejoinder to Craig

It has been called to my attention that William Lane Craig has replied to a post of mine on his podcast. Rather curiously, Craig neglects to mention the blog and the post in his reply, leaving his listeners unable to track down, verify, and evaluate the criticism for themselves.

His main reply is that a belief need not enjoy the doxastic and epistemic force and vivacity of a Moorean fact if it is to qualify as properly basic at all. Well, that's of course obviously correct, which is why I'd never assert such a thing. Could Craig really believe I thought otherwise?

I think the answer can be surmised by simply looking at the original passage, and noting that Craig omits a crucial portion of the last sentence: 
I think there is a simple yet decisive criticism of Craig's Holy Spirit epistemology: at least for the majority of Christians, the Holy Spirit (if such there be) fails to present the truth of Christianity in such a way that it's anywhere near being on a par with ordinary Moorean facts. In this regard, Craig's Holy Spirit epistemology suffers from a key problem shared by Plantinga's account of warranted-basic Christian belief. Therefore, as with Plantinga's account, Craig's account fails to show how Christian belief can be warrant-basic -- at least in the sense that Christian belief enjoys sufficient warrant to function as an intrinsic defeater-defeater for strong objections to Christian theism (emphasis added).
The crucial part is the qualification at the end, which indicates the heart of the criticism: The Holy Spirit (if such there be) fails to present the truth of Christianity in such a way as to provide enough doxastic and epistemic force to function as an intrinsic defeater-defeater against objections to Christian theism. Of course, those who know the relevant literature know that it's a point not original to me, but one that, ironically, originates from Christian philosophers, going back to at least Phillip Quinn

It's worth pausing to reflect on how little it takes for the criticism to go through. The criticism doesn't implausibly require that all Christians have a constant experience of the Holy Spirit so intense in epistemic and doxastic force and vivacity as to be capable of functioning as an intrinsic defeater-defeater every moment of their waking lives. Rather, the criticism only requires that at least one Christian fails to experience the internal witness of the Holy Spirit with sufficient force and vivacity so as to function as an intrinsic defeater-defeater during a time when their warrant for belief has been defeated for them.[1] I think this is true of probably most Christians, but it's enough if it's true of at least one of them, which is prima facie true. But if that's right, the criticism goes through. I therefore conclude that Craig has failed to dislodge the criticism I raised against his view.[2]

[1] "Remember the example I gave of the person where he would be rationally obliged to commit apostasy unless God were to so intensify the Holy Spirit’s witness that he would be able to resist the force of those defeaters rationally." (Ibid.)
[2] Perhaps some will also find it worth pausing to reflect on the fact (now made evident) that Craig managed to exemplify several textbook examples of craigging in his reply.

Saturday, June 06, 2015

Bogardus' New Paper on Evolutionary Debunking Arguments

The paper aims to make trouble for naturalists, arguing that, given the facts of evolution, they should abandon moral realism, accept a rationalism in tension with naturalism, or give up naturalism. In this way, it brings out an apparent epistemological tension between atheism and moral realism.

Friday, June 05, 2015

Buckareff & Nagawa's Alternative Conceptions of God... now out, and looks to be an excellent volume on a sorely neglected topic. The book is in keeping with the important new trend of doing philosophy of religion in a way that's unmoored from Christianity. I look forward to giving it a careful read.