The Cosmological Argument

It is said that all philosophy begins in wonder; and Leibniz was surely right in insisting that the most fundamental thing to wonder at is why anything exists at all. “Why,” he asked, “is there something rather than nothing? This is the first question which should rightly be asked.” Even if it turns out to be unanswerable, the question is certainly reasonable. Everything that exists (from protozoa and poets to planets and parrots) has an explanation of its existence. It would be very strange indeed if, meanwhile, there were no ultimate explanation for the totality of things that comprise the universe.

However, in seeking ultimate explanations a philosophical riddle emerges—even if we constrain our focus to the ultimate explanation for the existence of a single thing. For we observe that all things owe their existence to some prior thing and we know that the series of causally interrelated things is either infinite or finite. But if the series is infinite, then there is no beginning to or explanation for it; and if the series is finite, then it must come to a stop at some first self-existent thing which, strangely, will not owe its existence to any prior thing. A number of different philosophers and thinkers in a number of different times and places have pondered this riddle and concluded to the necessity of an originating cause of everything in God. [1]

On superficial inspection, one might be tempted to object to the above line of reasoning as follows: If everything that exists needs an explanation, then God needs an explanation; and if God doesn’t need an explanation, then why does the universe need an explanation? The Cosmological Argument seems to come to grief on the child’s question, “Who created God?” 

Leibniz attends to this issue by pointing out that all existent things can be classified into two broad types: contingent things and necessary things. 

A “contingent thing” is the most familiar of the two: a thing whose existence is explained by, or contingent on, something external to itself and which could, in principle, have failed to exist. All manmade objects are like this. They owe their existence to whoever created them and it is conceivable that whoever created them could have failed to do so or chosen not to do so. We can easily conceive of a world in which Rembrandt did not paint The Night Watch or a world in which a particular teacup in your kitchen cupboard was not manufactured.  You and I, likewise, are contingent: Our parents might never have met or might have chosen not to have children. And things in the natural world, too, such as starlings, sapphires and stars, seem to fall into the same category: It is plausible to think that the universe, having developed differently, could get along without them.

A “necessary thing,” by contrast, is a thing which exists by a necessity of its own nature in every possible world. Many philosophers think abstract objects (such as numbers, sets and propositions) exist in this way. The number 5, for example, is not brought into existence at a discrete moment in time by something external to itself: an integer between 4 and 6 just exists by logical necessity. Likewise “2 + 2” make “4” in every possible world. Unlike poets and paintings and planets, there is no possible world in which the truths of mathematics and logic do not obtain and so each contains within itself the reason for its own existence: It exists because its nonexistence is logically incoherent.

Leibniz formalised all this into his famous Principle of Sufficient Reason: Everything that exists has a sufficient reason for its existence, either in an external cause, or in the necessity of its own nature. This principle is widely recognized as powerful and intuitive. And is, moreover, the way every rational person already thinks—even in the most extraordinary of cases. Suppose that you saw an adult horse materialise out of thin air. You would first seek a physical cause (“It is the work of an illusionist”) or, failing that, a psychological cause, (“I am hallucinating”) or, failing that, a supernatural cause (“It is an act of God”). As a last resort, you might simply give up and admit that you don’t know the cause, whatever it is, but what you would never do is conclude that, “There is no cause.”

Unless it can be demonstrated that the Principle of Sufficient Reason is less plausible than its negation (unless it can be demonstrated that it is more plausible to believe that things can exist without a sufficient reason for their existence) we are rationally obligated to postulate a sufficient reason for the existence of the universe. The question arises whether, like an abstract object, the universe exists by a necessity of its own nature or whether, like a blackbird or a black hole, the reason for its existence is to be found in an external cause. 

But very obviously the nonexistence of the universe is not logically impossible. One can coherently imagine our universe being reduced to the size of a full stop and there is no known metaphysical precept or rule of inference preventing us from subtracting from reality that remaining atom of space, matter and energy. The universe is contingent.

Here a skeptic, conceding the point, might be tempted to appeal to the eternality of the universe. For if the chain of causation recedes into the infinite past, then one might argue with Hume that for each and every state of the universe q there is a prior state p which caused it, and so on, ad infinitum, with no state being left without explanation. However, multiplying the number of contingent things, even to infinity, fails to solve the problem.

Leibniz himself anticipates this objection and, in response to it, asks us to imagine a book on geometry that was copied from an earlier book, which was copied from a still earlier book, and so on, to eternity past. “It is obvious,” he says, “that although we can explain a present copy of the book from the previous book from which it was copied, this will never lead us to a complete explanation, no matter how many books back we go.”  Even given an infinite series of copies, we will always be left wondering why the contents of the geometry book duplicated in each copy exist to be copied; that is, we will still be left without a sufficient reason for the existence of the book. 

Or imagine a man who has never seen a train before and arrives at a crossing as a long freight train is filing slowly past. Intrigued, he asks what is causing the train to move and is told that the boxcar before him is being pulled by the boxcar in front of it, which is being pulled by the boxcar in front of it, and so on, down the length of the train. It is obvious that we have not given the man a sufficient reason for the movement of the train and that his question will remain unanswered even if we tell him that the boxcars are connected together in a circle. Or that the whole universe is cluttered with slow-moving boxcars all intricately interconnected. Or even that there are infinitely many boxcars. 

This analogy frames the problem in terms of a causal series but it can also be framed in terms of a simultaneity of causes. The rotation of meshing cogwheels in a watch cannot be explained without reference to a spring, even if there are infinitely many rotating cogwheels. 

In The Coherence of Theism, Oxford professor of philosophy Richard Swinburne finds and precisely articulates the problem under discussion: A series of causes and effects sufficiently explains itself if and only if none of the causes is itself a member of the collection of effects.  So: If the cause of a lamp lighting up is its being connected to a battery, and the cause of a second lamp lighting up is its being connected to a second battery, then the cause of the two lamps lighting up is accounted for—a principle that would hold even given infinite lamps and batteries.  But this principle cannot account for cases where each event is both the effect of a preceding cause and the cause of a succeeding effect. For if A causes B which causes C which causes D, then, strictly speaking, the cause of D is not C but A. In short: An infinite series of causally concatenated events is like infinite number of glowing lamps all wired together in a vast network in which a battery is nowhere to be found.  Appealing to an infinite regress of explanations and causes is finally no better than suggesting that, when it comes to the universe, there is no cause or explanation. Both responses violate the Principle of Sufficient Reason. 

Schopenhauer aptly dubbed such reasoning a commission of, “the taxicab fallacy.” The Principle of Sufficient Reason is a lynchpin of rational thought for atheist and theist alike and all a proponent of the Cosmological Argument is doing is inviting us to follow it out to its ultimate logical consequence. An atheist, seeing where the Cosmological Argument is leading, cannot simply dismiss the Principle of Sufficient Reason like a hired hack because it has already taken him as far as he is willing to go.

We have seen that denying that there is an ultimate cause and explanation of the universe (either simpliciter, or by appealing to an infinite regress of causes and explanations) violates the Principle of Sufficient Reason. It follows that we are obligated, on pain of irrationality, to postulate a terminus to the series of causes and explanations.  But why think that the terminus implicated is God or something like God? 

Just as it is possible to make inferences about a writer or painter from his or her artistic output, so it is possible to make inferences about a cause from its effect. And what can we infer about the cause of the universe from its effect? We begin to answer this question by asking another: What is the universe?  The universe is all existing space, time, matter and energy. And it follows by inferential necessity that the cause of the universe is an immaterial entity that lies beyond space and time. [2] Only two things fit this description: An abstract object and God. And abstract objects (the number 14, the set of all right triangles, etc.) are causally inert and so cannot possibly be capable of creating all of physical reality.  The entity implicated by the Cosmological Argument is therefore God, or something like God: a Necessary Being that transcends physical reality and is of unimaginable intelligence and creative power. 

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[1] Ancient Greek philosophers developed the cosmological argument into clear form. Christian, Jewish, and Islamic traditions all know it. And it can be found in African, Buddhist and Hindu thought as well. It is, moreover, studied and defended by contemporary philosophers and remains influential—in some cases, surprisingly so. Alasdair MacIntyre, for example, is recognized as one of the most important Anglophone philosophers of the 20th century. He claims that he converted to Catholicism, “as a result of being convinced of Thomism while attempting to disabuse his students of its authenticity.” (Thomism being the philosophy of Thomas Aquinas of which three versions of the cosmological argument are an integral feature). And the philosopher Edward Feser tells a similar story.

[2]  The Cosmological Argument is reducible to the proposition, If a contingent being exists, then a Necessary Being exists. Copleston argued that this is a logically necessary proposition but not, strictly speaking, an analytic proposition. And this is because it is logically necessary only given that there exists a contingent being, which has to be discovered by experience, and the proposition, A contingent being exists is not analytic. “Though once you know that there is a contingent being,” he emphasised, “it follows of necessity that there is a Necessary Being.”

[*] This is a shortened version of a longer discussion of the argument given here.

The Modal Logic Version of the Ontological Argument

Most arguments for the existence of God begin with an observation and proceed to a conclusion. The Teleological argument, for example, begins with the observation that the initial conditions and physical constants of the universe are fine tuned for the development of intelligent life. It then argues that, since it is prohibitively improbable that this happened by chance, fine tuning implicates the activity of an intelligent agent. The Ontological Argument is different. It makes no appeal to observation at all. Instead, it attempts to establish the existence of God from first principles.

The Classical Version. The first ontological argument was put forward by Saint Anselm in the twelfth century. Anslem said that the statement, “It is possible to conceive of a being than which none greater can be conceived,” is incoherent if that being does not exist for in that case a still-greater being can be conceived: one that does exist. To his way of thinking, imputing nonexistence to the “greatest conceivable being” was like imputing finitude to “the greatest possible number” and so implying that that number is both finite and infinite. And since postulating the nonexistence of God seems to entail an analogously illogical state of affairs, and since illogical states of affairs cannot obtain in the real world, God must exist. Rene Descartes and Gottfried Leibniz both independently formulated similar arguments. 

Kant, though himself a theist, famously objected to all this by insisting that existence is not a property. To say that something exists or does not exist is just to say that its properties are or are not exemplified in the world. When one says that an apple is redsweet and round, for instance, one is describing its properties. But if they add that the apple “exists” they are not describing a further property possessed by the apple but merely telling you that the apple and its properties are exemplified. Anslem, Kant concluded, was inferring the existence of God out of an illicit conception of existence and nonexistence as properties that can be imputed to God. This objection remained influential until the twentieth century when the American analytic philosopher Alvin Plantinga reformulated the argument in a way which escapes it.

The Modal Logic Version. Plantinga’s version of the argument is much less confusing than Anselm’s but understanding it requires a familiarity with a few simple concepts of modal logic. I will briefly explain these now.

Modal Logic. Modal logic is concerned with the ways in which propositions are either possibly or necessarily true or false. [1] In analysing propositions in this way modal theorists make use of the concept of possible worlds. Bachelors are unmarried is necessarily true if there is no possible world in which it is false; Bachelors are married is necessarily false if there is no possible world in which it is true; and John is a bachelor is possibly true if there are some possible worlds in which it is true and some possible worlds in which it is false. But what exactly is meant by “possible world”?

Possible Worlds. It is important to understand that a possible world is not another planet or a parallel universe. For the purposes of modal logic it is a comprehensive description of a possible reality where “possible reality” is analogous to “hypothetical state of affairs” with the added condition that it entails no logical contradictions. For example: A world precisely like this one except that Sandro Botticelli was a sonneteer is a possible world. It entails no logical contradiction and so “exists” in modal logic just as the set of all prime numbers “exists” in set theory. On the other hand, a world precisely like this one except that Botticelli was a “married bachelor” is not a possible world. It contains a logical contradiction and so does not exist. Just there are infinitely many sets in set theory, so there are infinitely many possible worlds in modal logic. And critically: our world, the actual world, is also a possible world in modal theory because it contains no logical contradictions (married bachelors, square circles, integers which are both odd and even, etc.) and, of course, because it exists and could not exist if it were not possible. 

The Argument. Using the concept of possible worlds just described, Plantinga first asks us to consider the proposition, It is possible that a Maximally Excellent Being exists where “a Maximally Excellent Being” is one that possesses every excellence to the maximal degree; i.e., is unlimited in power, intelligence, virtue, knowledge, freedom, and so on. So defined, does the concept of a Maximally Excellent Being contain a logical contradiction? Unless it can be shown that this proposition contains a logical contradiction (and it is not obvious that it can) then, together with Botticelli the Sonneteer, a maximally excellent being exists in some possible world. Plantinga then asks us to consider the proposition, It is possible that a Maximally Great Being exists where “a Maximally Great Being” is one that possesses maximal excellence in every possible world. Unless it can be shown that this proposition contains a logical contradiction (and it is not obvious that it can) we must conclude that God exists,

P1. It is possible that a Maximally Great Being exists. (It contains no logical contradiction of the sort, “married bachelor,” or “square circle.”)

P2. If it is possible that a Maximally Great Being exists, then a Maximally Great Being exists in some possible world. (This follows trivially from P1 in modal logic.)

P3. If a Maximally Great Being exists in some possible world, then it exists in every possible world. (This is entailed by the definition of maximal greatness.)

P4. If a Maximally Great Being exists in every possible world, then it exists in the actual world. (Because the actual world is also a possible world.)

P5. If a Maximally Great Being exists in the actual world, then a maximally great being exists.

C. Therefore, a Maximally Great Being exists.

We can see that Plantinga’s argument is Kant-proof because it does not presuppose the existence of the Maximally Great Being; i.e., Plantinga does not take existence to be a property that is or is not imputed to God. Recall: When we say that Botticelli the Sonneteer “exists” in some possible world we are not committing ourselves to saying that he existed in the actual world. We merely acknowledge that it is logically possible that the man Botticelli might have chosen to write sonnets instead of paint; therefore, Botticelli the Sonneteer is a logical possibility. Plantinga, likewise, does not commit himself to saying that a Maximally Great Being exists in the actual world when he suggests that it exists in some possible world. The intrusion of the Maximally Great Being into the actual world is not an entailment of his modal conjecture in the first premise but an entailment of the subsequent fact that one of the sum of all possible worlds which the maximally great being exhaustively occupies happens to be exemplified. 

Parodies of the Argument. Bertrand Russell, who was at one point convinced by Anslem’s version of the argument, opined that, “It is easier to feel convinced that the argument must be fallacious than it is to find out precisely where the fallacy lies.” [2] In response to this difficulty skeptics have tended to construct a parody whose conclusion is absurd. Thus Gaunilo, a contemporary of Anselm, invited his readers to conceive of an island more excellent than any other and suggested that, by Anselm’s reasoning, it must exist. Others have suggested that the argument can be used to prove the existence of virtually anything: a maximally great but evil being, a Flying Spaghetti Monster, an Invisible Unicorn, and so on. And quite recently the Australian philosopher Douglas Gasking developed an argument which attempts to prove God’s nonexistence,

The merit of an achievement is the product of its quality and the creator’s disability: the greater the disability of the creator, the more impressive the achievement. Nonexistence would be the greatest handicap. Therefore, if the universe is the product of an existent creator, we could conceive of a greater being—one which does not exist. A nonexistent creator is greater than one which exists, so God does not exist.

In order to understand why all such parodies fail, we need to set out the concept of “maximal excellence” more carefully.

A Perfect Island. In reflecting on this parody we realise that the excellence of the Maximally Excellent Being is “maximisable” in a way that the excellence of an island is not. The knowledge of the Being is maximal if there are no limits to what it knows; its power is maximal if there are no limits on what it can do; its intelligence is maximal if there are no limits on what it can think. But the maximisation of excellence with respect to islands cannot be objectively formulated in this way. One can always add more palm trees, for example; more beaches; more coves. Moreover, the features which are conducive to the perfection of islands are relative to the tastes of the individual contemplator. A maximally excellent island is therefore an incoherent notion.

A Maximally Great But Evil Being. Leibniz has given an argument to show that omniscience and moral perfection are mutually inclusive: all freely willed action strives towards some goal; all goals are the pursuit of some good entertained by the agent; the scope and quality of entertainable goods is dependent on knowledge; the maximisation of knowledge perfects an agent’s judgment of the good. An evil being therefore lacks perfect knowledge; and lacking perfect knowledge, is not omniscient; and lacking omniscience, cannot be omnipotent since there will be some actions it lacks the knowledge to perform. The proposition, It is possible that a maximally great but evil being exists is therefore broadly incoherent. A being cannot be both evil and maximally great.

A Flying Spaghetti Monster. All parodies of this sort fail for the same reason. To be maximally great, an entity must be perfectly free and a being that is permanently confined to a particular material body or even to a particular immaterial form is not perfectly free. In response to this the skeptic may wish to amend his claim by adding that his Flying Spaghetti Monster can change bodies and forms at will but this is no solution: It requires him to postulate an immaterial being who is free to assume whatever form it chooses and in so doing returns him to the Maximally Great Being of the original argument. Ultimately, such parodies simply give Plantinga’s Maximally Great Being an arbitrarily ridiculous name without avoiding the conclusion of his argument.

A Nonexistent Creator. The definition of merit on which this argument depends is highly questionable. But there is a far more obvious problem. We have seen that the contents of a possible world are by definition conditional on logical coherence. Gasking’s nonexistent creator is paradigmatically incoherent: A creator, very obviously, must exist in the real world in order to have causal agency in the real world. It is possible that a nonexistent creator exists is strictly incoherent in the way that Square circle and Married bachelor are.

Other Parodies. What has been demonstrated here for perfect islands, maximally great but evil beings and nonexistent creators can be demonstrated for every possible parody: However far and wide one casts about for candidate entities, proper attention to the logic of the argument produces a list of one. And this is because whatever entity is fed into the argument and adjusted to met the conditions of maximal excellence and logical coherence becomes indistinguishable from the God of classical theism.

Conclusion. An argument is valid if its conclusion follows logically from its premises and sound if it is valid and its premises are all true. There is broad agreement that Plantinga’s modal logic version of the ontological argument is valid. [3] But is it sound? Schopenhauer, himself a resolved atheist, was content to dismiss the argument as a, “charming joke.” But Anselm, Descartes and Leibniz were not its only proponents. In recent times, Kurt Gödel, Charles Hartshorne and Norman Malcolm have all formulated and presented ontological arguments while Plantinga’s modal logic version enjoys the continued support of many contemporary philosophers. [4] The eminent metaphysician Peter van Inwagen probably summarises the current state of the debate fairly when he writes that, “anyone who wants to claim either that this argument is sound or that it is unsound is faced with grave difficulties.” However, it is surely an interesting and significant thing that there may be one indefeasible a priori argument for the existence of God.

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[1] It may be helpful to what follows for me to briefly explicate the three modal categories: If a proposition is metaphysically necessary its negation contains or entails a contradiction. For example: “2+2=4” and “There is a number between 4 and 6.” If a proposition is metaphysically impossible, on the other hand, its affirmation contains or entails a contradiction. For example: “2+2=3” or “The Prime Minister of England is a prime number.” And finally, if a proposition is metaphysically possible neither its affirmation nor its negation contains or entails a contradiction. For example: “There is a cat in Buckingham Palace,” or “One day there will be cities on the moon.” It is also important not to confuse metaphysical possibility with epistemic possibility: The latter simply refers to our knowledge or lack of knowledge regarding the truth of some proposition with no bearing on its modal status. For example: “John is absent; it is possible he is unwell,” or “It is possible that 9/11 was an inside job—who knows?” With these distinctions in place, it is possible to reduce Plantinga’s argument to a single proposition: If it is metaphysically possible that it is metaphysically necessary that God exists, God exists.

[2] In his autobiography, Russell relates that he was returning from the tobacconist when the realisation struck and inspired a rather dusty oath. “Great God in Boots,” he reports himself as exclaiming, “the ontological argument is sound!” 

[3] A computerised theorem prover has also shown this to be the case. See the Australasian Journal of Philosophy, Volume 89, 2011.

[4] The Ontological Argument shows that if it is possible that God exists, it is necessary that God exists. William Lane Craig rightly points out that this increases the atheist’s burden of proof considerably. To discharge this argument it will not suffice for him to argue that God does not exists de facto; he needs to show that God cannot exist de jure. 

 

 

Foetus in the womb

Abortion: Objections to the Pro-Life Position (Pt 3)

Welcome back for Part 3 of this series, in which I’m looking at common objections to the pro-life perspective on abortion. If you aren’t familiar with the pro-life view, I’d recommend you take a look at some of my previous posts, links to which can be found in the endnotes [i].


In 2005, socialistworker.org posted an article titled “An Era of Tragedy for Women: When Abortion was Illegal”[ii]. The article opens with a bold statement: “the threat of… [abortion being made illegal] has never been more real”. Presumably, other pro-choice advocates agree that outlawing abortion is a threat, and would be a tragedy, as it would unjustly restrict the choice of pregnant women. Several arguments have been offered in defence of this perspective, and the author of the article goes on to provide one such argument that is frequently cited. Briefly: when abortion was illegal, many women sought illegal abortions, and consequently died or suffered serious injury[iii]. The best way to avoid this tragedy is to keep abortion legal. Clearly, this conclusion is one that pro-life advocates seek to avoid, and therefore the argument warrants careful consideration. Does the fact that women may seek dangerous illegal abortions provide good reason to think that abortion should be legal? 

The Argument

In more detail, the argument runs as follows. If abortion is made illegal, then pregnant women who don’t want children will be forced to seek illegal abortions. Illegal abortions are dangerous and can result in mental and physical harm for the mother; in some cases, they may result in death. Since the government shouldn’t force women into acting in such a way that puts them in severe danger, and making abortion illegal would do just that, abortion should remain legal.

As with many pro-choice objections, this argument is, on the surface, compelling. After all, no reasonable person wants women to die or suffer as a consequence of having an abortion. However, there are two significant flaws in this reasoning, both of which provide grounds for rejecting the argument.  

  1. Women Aren’t Forced – They Choose

A crucial premise in this argument is that if abortion is made illegal, then women will be forced to seek dangerous illegal abortions. What reason do we have for thinking this true? Granted, if abortion was illegal, it could be the case (and historically has been the case) that some pregnant women would seek illegal abortions. But this is not the same as saying that they would be (or were) forced to have illegal abortions. The proposition “if abortion is made illegal, then pregnant women who don’t want children will be forced to seek dangerous illegal abortions” implies that pregnant women who have no legal access to abortion have no other option but to seek illegal abortions.

This, however, is patently false, for at least two other options are available. Firstly, the mother could carry the pregnancy to term and care for the child. This option is undesirable in light of the fact that she doesn’t want the child, but it’s an option nonetheless. Alternatively, she could carry the pregnancy to term and put the child up for adoption. Nothing in the envisioned scenario precludes these options, and as such they constitute clear counter-examples to the premise under examination.

To put it succinctly, a woman who is pregnant in a society in which abortion is illegal has at least three options—having an illegal abortion, caring for the child, or putting the child up for adoption. Therefore, to say that making abortion illegal leaves women with only one course of action is false. As Greg Koukl writes, “a woman is no more forced into… [having an illegal abortion] when abortion is outlawed than a young man is forced to rob banks because the state won’t put him on welfare”[iv]. Both have other options; both make a choice, and both are responsible for that choice.

  1. Begging the Question

Although the first flaw provides sufficient grounds for rejecting the argument, pro-lifers can point to another error that lies hidden beneath its surface; namely, in order for the argument to succeed, its proponents must assume that the unborn are not human beings who possess a right to life. However, this is exactly what the pro-choice advocate needs to demonstrate in order to justify the claim that abortion is morally permissible. As such, this argument begs the question. If you’ve been following my posts so far, you may recall that “begging the question” is a logical fallacy that occurs when someone assumes what they’re obliged to prove. This fallacy renders the argument doubly defective.

In order to highlight how this argument begs the question, let’s first read the argument in such a way that it doesn’t beg the question. On this reading, we’ll assume that the unborn is a human being with a right to life. What follows is that to say “abortion should be legal because women may die or harm themselves seeking illegal abortions” is tantamount to saying “it should be legal for people to kill valuable human beings (in this case, the unborn) because other human beings (in this case, pregnant mothers) will harm themselves while attempting to do it illegally”. In other words, “because people die or are harmed while killing other people… the state should make it safe for them to do so” [v]. When we apply this principle to murder, its absurdity comes to the fore. Uniformity would require us to say that, since people will murder regardless of the legality of homicide, and since said people are at risk of injury or death in doing so, murder should be legal. Clearly, this is not what the advocate of the argument is trying to show.  

In order to avoid such extreme implications, therefore, the defender of this argument must assume that the unborn does not possess a right to life. And, as stated earlier, this is what he needs to prove in order to sustain the notion that abortion is morally permissible. Evidently, for the argument to work without leading to absurd conclusions, we must beg the question, and thus it fails to support the notion that abortion is morally permissible. 


Every death that results from illegal abortion is a tragedy. Nonetheless, the fact that women may perish while seeking illegal abortions does not support the claim that abortion is morally permissible. And, if it’s not morally permissible, it shouldn’t be legal. If what I’ve written in this post is true, then the argument from dangerous illegal abortions fails. In virtue of this, those who stand in defence of unborn human life can have further confidence that their position is sound, and their cause just. In contrast, if pro-choice advocates wish to affirm that a state in which abortion is illegal is a looming, tragic threat, then they must find other reasons to buttress their case.  


 

Endnotes:

[i] Making the Case: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3. Addressing Objections: Part 1, Part 2.

[ii] Socialistworker.org. (2005). An era of tragedy for women: when abortion was illegal. Retrieved from http://socialistworker.org/2005-2/562/562_06_Abortion.shtml

[iii] This argument is often referred to as the “coat-hanger” or “back-alley butcher argument” due to the fact that women purportedly self-administered abortions with a coat-hanger, or sought out unscrupulous physicians i.e. back-alley butchers.

[iv] Koukl, G. (2013). I’m pro-choice. Retrieved from https://www.str.org/articles/i-m-pro-choice#.WjMii0rXaiM

[v] Beckwith, F. J. (2007). Defending life: A moral and legal case against abortion choice. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, p. 95

 

Theism and Human Free Will

Friends and foes of the intuitive and commonsense view that humans have libertarian freedom of the will all agree that it is, on the face of it, incompatible with materialism. If the mind just is the brain and the brain just is a material object subject to the laws of physics, our thoughts and intentions would seem to be the result of causal forces which predate us and over which we have no control. Free will, on this view, is an illusion.

There are three points to note.

The first: John Searle has written that the experience of free will is so compelling that people cannot act as though it is an illusion even if it is one. Hoffman and Rosenkrantz, in another connection, have said something significant to the dispute. They take the view that if something belongs to a universal and commonsense ontology, “then there is a prima facie presumption in favour of its reality. Those who deny its existence assume the burden of proof.” Swinburne has formalised these ideas into a basic principle of epistemology which he calls The Principle of Credulity: We should, in the absence of compelling evidence to the contrary, believe that things are the way they seem to be.

The second: There is no such compelling evidence against the view that humans have libertarian freedom of the will. The laws of Quantum Theory, notes Swinburne, are probabilistic. And while, in general, indeterministic behaviour on the small scale averages out to produce deterministic behaviour on the large scale, “it is possible to have devices that multiply small-scale indeterminacies so that a small variation in the behaviour of one atom can have a large scale effect.” Consider, for instance, an atomic bomb designed to detonate if and only if a certain carbon 14 atom decays within an hour. This would qualify as a “multiplying system,” since it relays indeterminacy on the small scale into the large scale, while a block of radioactive carbon would be an “averaging system,” since it averages out indeterminacy on the small scale to produce determinacy on the large scale. The brain, notably, is the most complex physical system known to science. And because it, “causes conscious events and its states are caused by conscious events,” so, clearly, “laws of a very different kind govern the brain from those that govern all other physical states.” It is possible that the brain is a multiplying system rather than an averaging system. And for this reason, “it is widely believed that Quantum Theory rules out physical determinism.” [1]

The third and final point is of great relevance to the first. There is in principle no possible evidence that could produce a justified belief in determinism because free will is a prerequisite to the formation of justified belief of every kind—including justified belief in determinism itself. To understand this last point consider the plight of a neuroscientist who seeks to establish that determinism is true. To complete his task he must make observations, discern a pattern, formulate a generalisation and infer a theory. All this relies on rational adjudication, memory and intention. But if determinism is true, these mental operations and their results have no rational content. His belief in determinism is, ex hypothesi, not caused by the apprehension of reasons but produced by a brain state that is itself determined by extramental forces. Justified belief in determinism therefore requires that determinism is false and so suffers from self-referential incoherence.

It follows from the combination of all these points (the compelling experience of free will, the Principle of Credulity, the lack of evidence and the a priori impossibility of justified belief in determinism) that we are rationally obligated to affirm libertarian freedom of the will.

What is the relevance of all this to theism? Since the Bible teaches that God, an immaterial spirit, created man in his image, Abrahamic theists have a priori grounds for expecting certain properties that resist reduction to the material to be instantiated in man if God exists. It is no surprise on theism that our most novel and essential property, our mental life, should resist a materialistic explanation. [2] Free will, in particular, is provocatively suggestive of the imago dei since if man exercises libertarian causation he instantiates in miniature the principle of uncaused causation imputed to God in classical theism. [3]

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[1] Moreover, recent evidence appears to confirm that human beings exercise free will. As the British neuroscientist Chris Frith reported in a recent interview,

There is a slew of experiments around these days asking, “What happens to people if you tell them that they don’t have free will?” which you do by saying, “Francis Crick, who is the cleverest scientist around, wrote this thing saying, ‘All sensible people now know free will doesn’t exist.’” If you tell people they don’t have free will and they believe you then they are more likely to cheat on exams; they become more selfish. And, more compelling to me, is that their behaviour in reaction time tasks changes. Normally in reaction time tasks you slow down after you make an error (which is due to some monitoring of your behaviour in taking account of this) but you get less slowing down after being told that free will doesn’t exist—presumably because they have lost their faith in top-down control. And it even changes the amplitude of readiness potential in the brain, which of course was what Libbit was measuring in his famous anti-free will task. I think this is fascinating because basically, this is an example of top-down control, what people telling you influencing how your brain works, which is what free will is all about. So that telling people that they don’t have free will actually demonstrates that we do.

[2] For a discussion of all five mental properties that resist reduction to the physical, see here.

[3] See the Modal Cosmological Argument and the Kalam Cosmological Argument.

 

Thoughts on Christmas and one tough question

 

I love this time of year. We decorate our homes with tinsel, nativity scenes and snow globes. And of course, the tree!

Christmas is a time when most families come together to share gifts, stories, laughter and love. For others it is a bittersweet time, or even a painfully lonely time. Despite the rampant commercialism, encroaching secularism and yes – the stress – Christmas day still points to and commemorates one of the most important days on the Christian calendar, the birth of our Saviour Jesus Christ.

As Christians it is a time we can unashamedly share the Good News of Jesus and have reason to invite people to Church. Despite the prevalence of gifts and delicious food and all those jolly men in red suits, the foundation of the Christmas celebration in western culture is still Jesus’s birth and because of this our conversations can more easily turn to God and the true meaning of Christmas. The conversations can be light and friendly or, because our current culture questions everything, we can find ourselves faced with some tough questions about our faith. One of the most asked questions and possibly the hardest to answer is:

“But if God is so loving, how could He send people to hell?”

I’ll be honest, the first time someone asked me this question, I fell silent. It was a question I personally struggled to find an answer for. The biblical concepts of an all-loving God and the terrifying descriptions of Hell were too incongruent. With a primary focus on our Loving God in current sermons and writings, I began to wonder if Hell did actually exist and if God really would send people there.

Yet, although Hell has largely disappeared from current Christian conversations, it has not disappeared from the Bible. There are many verses in the Scriptures that forewarn of it. Jesus warned of Hell more than He discussed heaven.1 Despite its awfulness, biblical authority won and I could not deny Hell’s exists.

To find some clarity on this tough doctrine we can look at three attributes of God. First, God is Holy – perfectly pure in a way we can barely imagine from our earthly perspective so marred by sin. Sin can be described as a corruption of good that affects both the natural realm and our internal selves – damaging our character and spirit by turning our focus inward, rather than outward in worship to God. It is as impossible for sin to exist in God’s Holy presence, as it is impossible that a tissue can survive a burning flame. God hates sin and all it does to humanity.2 Rebecca Manly Pippert put it well in her book Hope has its reasons,

Think how we feel when we see someone we love ravaged by unwise actions or relationships. Do we respond with benign tolerance as we might toward strangers? Far from it…Anger isn’t the opposite of love. Hate is, and the final form of hate is indifference. God’s wrath is not a cranky explosion, but his settled opposition to the cancer…which is eating out the insides of the human race he loves with his whole being.’3

Second, God is Just. There will be a time when He will set things right and complete justice will prevail. He is also just, in that He will never force us into a relationship with Him. If we spend our lives denying God, refuting Him and refusing Him, it would not be just for Him to force us to then live eternally in constant fellowship with Him.4

Third, God is Love. His love for humanity is all encompassing, and incredibly patient. Although we sometimes wish He’d quickly rid the world of evil, His love for us means He is waiting for as many people as possible to turn to Him.5 I’m personally grateful He waited for me! The evil in the world is a result of our having free will. We have the choice to love God and follow His ways and we have the choice to deny Him and follow our own ways. It follows then, that when we die, our choice to be in relationship with Him, or not, would also be honored. It would not be a loving or just act for God to force us to be with Him for all eternity. There has to be a hell, a place of complete separation from God, for those who don’t choose Heaven.6

In his allegory, The Great Divorce, C. S. Lewis wrote:

There are only two kinds of people – those who say, “Thy will be done” to God or those to whom God in the end says, “Thy will be done.” All that are in Hell choose it. Without that self-choice it wouldn’t be Hell. No soul that seriously and constantly desires joy will ever miss it.’

God does not send us to Hell, we choose to go there and that is the greatest tragedy. God didn’t just reach out for us, He came down as one of us. Down into our messy reality to save us from our sins and give us a way up and out. Love came down in the form of a baby boy who would one day make the ultimate sacrifice to change the world and bring hope and the offer of life beyond all we could imagine. He still offers us the hope that there will one day be no more suffering, sickness, death and destruction and that one-day every tear will be wiped away.7 So in our response to the first question, we could also sincerely ask,

“Why would you not choose Heaven?”

References:


  1. There are many verses where Jesus explains about, warns against and describes Hell, for example, the sobering Matthew 25:31- 46. In Luke 16: 19-31 Jesus tells the parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man. It is interesting to me that the Rich Man does not ask to be let out of Hell, he seems resigned, but he does want his family warned.

  2. R. C. Sproul makes this insightful observation from Isaiah 6: “The Bible says that God is holy, holy, holy. Not that He is merely holy, or even holy, holy. He is holy, holy, holy. The Bible never says that God is love, love, love, or mercy, mercy, mercy, or wrath, wrath, wrath, or justice, justice, justice. It does say that He is holy, holy, holy, the whole earth is full of His glory.”R. C. Sproul, The Holiness of God (Wheaton, Illinois: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., 1985).

  3. Rebecca Manley Pippert, Hope Has It’s Reasons (Harper, 1990)

  4. Jo Vitale – apologist with Ravi Zacharias Ministries, quoted from Just Asking, during a podcast titled: How Can a Good God Send People to Hell?

  5. 2 Peter 3:9

  6. In his book, The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism, (Penguin Random House, 2009), Timothy Keller goes into more depth on this topic in Chapter 5 – How can a loving God send people to Hell?

  7. Revelation 21:3-4 “And behold I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.”

The Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism

Our cognitive faculties include memory, perception and rational intuition. In science, as in every day life, these work together to produce beliefs. It is natural to assume that our cognitive faculties produce beliefs that are mostly true. But Alvin Plantinga has given a forceful argument that, on naturalism, [1] this assumption is unsafe.

Consider: The naturalist believes the mind “just is” the brain and so takes a belief to be something like a long-standing structure in the nervous system. The problem is that neurology can produce behaviours that increase fitness whether or not the beliefs annexed to that neurology are true. Survival, to be sure, does require cognitive devices that track crucial features of the environment and are appropriately connected to intention and muscular reflexes. That is not disputed. What is disputed is the necessary annexation between those cognitive devices and true beliefs. In fact, adaptive behaviour does not require true belief—or belief at all.

Think of an organism fleeing from a predator. Undoubtedly, its cognitive devices are tracking the predator and producing a useful response. But “tracking” itself is not belief and, so long as the neurology of the organism causes it to flee, the belief annexed to its neurology need not even contain a predator and it certainly need not be true. “It could be true,” says Plantinga, “it could be false; it doesn’t matter.”

Darwin himself was troubled by this. “With me the horrid doubt always arises whether the convictions of man’s mind, which has been developed from the mind of the lower animals, are of any value or at all trustworthy,” he wrote in a private correspondence. “Would any one trust in the convictions of a monkey’s mind, if there are any convictions in such a mind?” The problem was also noticed by C. S. Lewis, the chemist J. B. S. Haldane [2] and atheist philosopher John Gray. “Modern humanism,” Gray writes, “is the faith that through science humankind can know the truth. But if Darwin’s theory of natural selection is true, this is impossible. The human mind serves evolutionary success, not truth.”

Plantinga’s argument applies to all beliefs but with a force that increases as beliefs become irrelevant to survival. Perception, for example, is especially relevant to feeding, fleeing, fighting and reproduction and so beliefs directly informed by perception may be taken to be more reliable. Beliefs about physics, aesthetics and philosophy, on the other hand, are irrelevant to survival. These must be regarded as far less reliable. Metaphysical beliefs, including both naturalism and theism, fall into this second category.

What then is the likelihood, on naturalism, that some belief p instantiated in an organism is true? Plantinga suggests that, since the alternatives seem about equiprobable, we should give it a probability of about a half. And what, in that case, is the probability that its cognitive faculties are generally reliable? Plantinga suggests we consider his cognitive faculties reliable if they generate true beliefs 45 percent of the time. He writes,

If I have one thousand independent beliefs, for example, the probability that three quarters or more of these beliefs are true will be less than 10–58. And even if I am running a modest epistemic establishment of only one hundred beliefs, the probability that three-quarters of them are true is very low—something like .000001

The rest of the argument follows by tautology: If I cannot trust my cognitive faculties, I cannot trust any belief they produce and especially not any metaphysical belief; but naturalism itself is a metaphysical belief produced by my cognitive faculties; therefore, I cannot trust naturalism. Plantinga concludes by saying that naturalism is self-referentially incoherent and cannot be rationally affirmed.

I think it is worth dwelling for a moment on the inescapable circularity of every possible objection to this argument: Any theory p which purports to prove the reliability of your cognitive faculties is itself a product of the cognitive faculties whose reliability it seeks to prove. Thomas Reid memorably analogised this problem by observing that, “If a man’s honesty were called into question, it would be ridiculous to refer to that man’s own word whether he be honest or not.” In a like case, Reid said, it is absurd to try and, “prove by reasoning that reason is not fallacious.”

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[1] Naturalism is a philosophical viewpoint entailed by atheism according to which everything arises from natural properties and causes and supernatural or spiritual explanations are excluded or discounted.

[2] Haldane complained that if the thoughts in his mind were just the motions of atoms in his brain (a physical object that has arisen by motiveless and unguided mechanisms) why should he believe anything his brain tells him—including the idea that his brain is made of atoms? Lewis, for his part, wrote,

If all that exists is Nature, the great mindless interlocking event, if our own deepest convictions are merely the by-products of an irrational process, then clearly there is not the slightest ground for supposing that our sense of fitness and our consequent faith in uniformity tell us anything about a reality external to ourselves. Our convictions are simply a fact about us—like the colour of our hair. 

 

The Problem of Religious Pluralism


Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, Judaism and Christianity each make different claims about God. Which, if any of them, is true? On superficial inspection two extremes may suggest themselves. One is to conclude that all religions are equally false and the other is to wonder if all religions are equally true. But both extremes are unsatisfactory.

The idea that all religions may be equally true seems to take a hint from Symmachus who wrote that, “Infinite religions befit an infinite God.” The different world religions, the proponent of this view might reason, are disparate in aspect and identical in essence: Buddha, Moses, Muhammad, Brahma and Christ are like different emissaries God has chosen or different masks which he has worn—perhaps each one appropriate to the cultural and historical context in which he met us.

But religious relativism, or “syncretism” as it is sometimes called, is logically incoherent. The great world religions make conflicting claims about God. God, meanwhile, is morally perfect and this means that he does not, indeed cannot, lie. And if he cannot lie he cannot reveal two mutually exclusive doctrines about himself—one of which, by the law of noncontradiction, must be false. Consider the doctrine of the Incarnation. Christianity claims God become incarnate in Jesus. Islam denies this. And since it is not possible that God did and did not become incarnate in Jesus, Christianity and Islam cannot both be true. And so on for any number of conflicting religious doctrines.

Is, then, the first idea correct? Given a set of claims which cannot all be true it does not necessarily follow that all are false. Indeed, as William Lane Craig has observed, if it did then atheism would also be false since atheism, too, belongs to a set of claims about God that cannot all be true. Consider the following set of claims,

Mr Ito is in Osaka.

Mr Ito is in Tokyo.

Mr Ito is in Nagasaki. 

Clearly, it is impossible that all three are true—Mr Ito cannot be in three different cities at the same time. Just as clearly, it is possible that all three are false—Mr Ito may be in Kyoto. But it is also possible that one of them is true since Mr Ito may in fact be in Tokyo.

Religious pluralism, then, does not entail that all religions are false but it does present a challenge to the coherence of each one, including Christianity. And the challenge is to explain why, if there is a God who revealed himself to us, he would allow potential confusion about that revelation. I suggest that the way to meet this challenge is to first understand religious pluralism as a subtype of the problem of divine hiddenness. [1] I will therefore find it helpful to briefly consider the problem divine hiddenness before drawing out its relevance to religious pluralism.

Proponents of the objection from divine hiddenness argue that if God really existed his existence would be overwhelming or, at the very least, not open to dispute. They further note that some people seek and do not find God and claim that this is inconsistent with the idea that God is all loving and wishes to have a relationship with us. In general, they claim that the fact that it is possible to doubt the existence of God is evidence against the existence of God.

In reply, the theist suggests that the attainment of virtue involves facing a choice between good and evil and choosing to do good. A morally perfect God therefore has reason to create agents capable of such freedom. However, a problem arises if the naked countenance of God is overwhelming. For in that case, finite agents given the beatific vision of God ab ovo would never experience the temptation to do evil. One solution would be for God to create an antecedent world from which his countenance is hidden and then populate it with agents who begin life in a state of moral and spiritual ignorance. But a further problem will arise if certain knowledge of God (if, say, theistic poofs exist, or knowledge of God is as salient and constant as sensory perception or self-awareness) is also a threat to moral liberty. Theists claim that this is so. Imagine, by way of illustration, a young child who senses his mother’s watchful presence at the nursery door. The desire to please his mother and the lack of a feasible prospect of misbehaving with impunity will in that moment completely extinguish all temptation and so leave him without significant choice. God has therefore temporarily situated himself at an “epistemic distance” in order to vouchsafe his creatures the opportunity to attain various moral goods that would otherwise be unattainable.

With this in mind consider the following three premises,

P1. It is not possible that God would specially reveal himself in two or more mutually exclusive religions. (Because a morally perfect being cannot lie).

P2. It is not plausible that there should be unresolvable uncertainty about a special revelation of God. (Because if God chooses to specially reveal himself he has both the reason and the means to miraculously authenticate his special revelation).

P3. It is plausible that God would permit resolvable uncertainty about his special revelation. (Because religious pluralism is a subtype of divine hiddenness and divine hiddenness vouchsafes human moral freedom).

It follows from P3 that prima facie confusion due to religious pluralism does not prove that God has not revealed himself. It follows from P1 that if he has revealed himself specially it will be in only one of a group of mutually exclusive religions. And it follows from all three premises that whatever religion has, on balance, the strongest a priori plausibility, and the strongest historical evidence, is far more probably than not, and far more probably than any other, a true revelation of God. [2]

In short, my suggestion is that God may have good reason for allowing humanity to form false conceptions of him while, at the same time, providing a revelation by means of which it can form a correct one. But in that case it must be possible for a determined and conscientious inquirer to distinguish the true conception from the false. And so the solution to the problem of religious pluralism is, finally, the intuitive and obvious one: Providing arguments and evidence to show that Christianity is more plausibly true than any other religion.

And while I believe that such arguments are available, that is a subject for another post. 

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[1] For a detailed discussion of divine hiddenness and the high-order goods solution that has been proposed to address it, see here.

[2] In this connection see Swinburne’s a priori argument for the Trinity; his a priori argument for the Incarnation; and the historical evidence for the Resurrection.

There Is A God by Antony Flew

Five centuries ago the English philosopher Francis Bacon cautioned that human perception is not a window into reality but a distorted reflection of it akin to that captured in a warped mirror. And he went on to list the many “idola,” or misconceptions, to which we are prone, including this one: The idola theatri—a misconception resulting from the simplification of reality by scientific models.

I think it is worth remembering this idea when assessing the views of scientific specialists on subjects which extend far beyond their particular area of expertise. Richard Dawkins’ competence and knowledge in evolutionary biology, for example, does not confer any conclusive advantage in evaluating theism—a vast metaphysical hypothesis of which biology is only a small part. In fact, it may even impose an idola theatri: a blind spot in the gaze of the specialist to phenomena that cannot be comprehensively understood within the purview his speciality.

Who, then, is ideally placed to evaluate the probability of the existence of God?

In this book British philosopher Antony Flew makes the case that the question should be placed under the jurisdiction of philosophers; for to study the interaction of subatomic particles, he notes, is to engage in physics; but to ask why those particles exist or behave in certain ways is to engage in philosophy. [1] And while scientists are free to dispute the conclusions of philosophers, their arguments will have to obtain philosophically, as, in a like case, “if they present their views on the economics of science, such as making claims about the number of jobs created by science and technology, they will have to make their case in the court of economic analysis.”

The reader who concedes this point owes Flew their full attention: He is arguably one of the most important philosophical voices to have spoken on this subject in our century—not simply an atheist and a philosopher but a philosopher of atheism. “Prior to Flew,” writes Varghese, “the major apologias for atheism were those of Enlightenment thinkers like David Hume, Arthur Schopenhauer and Nietzsche.” And it is this fact which makes There Is A God—Flew’s account of his conversion from atheism to some form of deism on the pattern of Einstein—so very unique and striking.

Having dismissed the New Atheism as a regression to the discredited logical positivism of the 1950s, Flew sets out the rational grounds for his dramatic renunciation of atheism. This can be expressed in a single sentence: On the basis of recent developments in physical cosmology and molecular biology, Flew now believes there is a sound argument for the existence of God from “the integrated complexity of the physical world.” Or, to put it slightly differently, Flew now believes that theism is an inference to the best explanation given that our fine tuned universe originated ex nihilo and that intelligent life arose from inanimate matter. [2]

Flew then invites his readers to dwell on this curious circumstance: That all the key forces and principles governing our world (the inverse square law of gravity; the mass-energy equivalence; the semantic language of gene replication; the laws of thermodynamics and electromagnetism) are not cultural creations or human analogues for naturalistic phenomena. We did not invent them and we did not impose them. “These laws,” writes Flew, quoting the British physicist Paul Davies, “really exist.” Rationality, in other words, is the very stuff from which our world is made—an attribute of the universe as substantive and concrete as its carbon or its hydrogen. As Einstein was moved to remark, the universe is, “reason incarnate.”  

A further fact to be wondered at, suggests Flew, is the intelligibility of these regularities. After all, why should the universe be describable by elegant mathematical equations apprehensible to the human brain? The mathematician David Berlinski makes the point rather colourfully when he asks, “Why should a limited and finite organ such as the human brain have the power to see into the heart of the matter of mathematics? These are subjects that have nothing to do with the Darwinian business of scrabbling up the greasy pole of life. It is as if the liver, in addition to producing bile, were to demonstrate an unexpected ability to play the violin.”

For theists all this squares tidily with their metaphysic—the phenomena are precisely those consequences to be expected if theism is true. The world is intelligible because it was created by an Intelligence; and it is intelligible to us because that Intelligience wishes for us to come to a knowledge of Him. Medieval theologians referred to this as the adequatio intellectus ad rem: “The adequation of the intellect to reality.” Atheism stands mute before it.

In discussing these final matters, Flew concedes that the theist and the atheist alike arrive at the endpoint of inquiry; the point where explanations come up against a final, brute fact. The atheist follows his arguments through to their ultimate logical consequence at arrives at a supermassive foaming multiverse that fluctuates uncaused out of nothingness and in one tiny pore of which intelligent life spontaneously arises for no particular reason and to no particular purpose. That this is a supposition, and even an article of naturalistic faith, atheists on occasion admit. [3] In this fascinating book Antony Flew offers us an alternative and far more persuasive thesis: That, “intelligence, rather than emerging as a late outgrowth of the evolution of life, has always existed as the matrix and substrate of physical reality.” We are rationally warranted, he concludes, in believing that the fundamental element of our universe is not the atom or dark energy but Mind.

And whether you or not you accept Flew’s conclusion, it is beyond dispute that his conversion and book present a significant conceptual challenge to the glib scientism of the New Atheists.

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[1] It is interesting to note in this connection that in the Philosophy of Religion (the only field to take God as its direct object of inquiry) 72.3 percent of philosophers hold to or learn towards theism.

[2] The Kalam Cosmological Argument, the Argument from Cosmic Teleology, the Argument from Biological Teleology and the Argument from Adequation.

[3] Dawkins, for instance, has confessed that his atheistic view of the universe is something in which he, “has faith.” Dennett, a physicalist, introduces the emergence of human consciousness by writing, “and then miracles happen.” 

The “Intrinsic Probability” of Theism

Before coming to the evidence for the existence of God, a preliminary question needs to be asked: How plausible is it, a priori, that God exists?

Consider the case of John and Jane. John assumes that the existence of God is profoundly unlikely and therefore views theistic proofs with deep suspicion and finds them unpersuasive. Jane, on the other hand, assumes that the existence and nonexistence of God are about equiprobable and therefore views those same proofs with an open mind and finds them persuasive.

The point is that our presuppositions about the “intrinsic probability” of theism (where the “intrinsic probability” of a hypothesis is a measure of its simplicity prior to the evidence) are crucial to the outcome of any discussion of evidence for the existence of God and so need to be taken into account. [1]

It is at first tempting to think that John is correct. The existence of God seems about as improbable as anything can be. God, if he exists, is unlimited: infinite in power, knowledge and love. The principle of parsimony, which recommends the simpler of any two competing explanations, would seem to recommend an atheistic explanation in every possible case: Whenever there are two possible explanations for the evidence, one which appeals to the existence of God and one which does not, the explanation which does not appeal to the existence of God is simpler and therefore has greater intrinsic probability. Prejudice against theistic claims is, it seems, justified.

However, in The Existence of God, Oxford professor of philosophy Richard Swinburne presents a strong counterargument to this view. He first notes that to postulate a limited force is to postulate two things: The force and whatever constrains it; while to postulate an unlimited force is to postulate one thing: The force, which, being unlimited, is not constrained by anything. “For this reason,” he continues, “scientists have always favoured a hypothesis ascribing zero or infinite value to some entity over a hypothesis ascribing a finite value when both hypotheses are compatible with the data.” Thus, “the hypothesis that some particle has zero or infinite mass is simpler than the hypothesis that it has a mass of 0.3412 or a velocity of 301,000 kilometres per second.”

Theism is the proposition that the ultimate explanation of the universe is a single immaterial person that is of the simplest kind imaginable because it is unlimited: Since a person is, “a conscious entity that has rational thoughts, moral awareness, intentions, continuity of identity and who is able to perform basic actions,” a person having zero powers would not be a person at all. [2] And so it follows that in postulating a person with infinite powers the theist is postulating the simplest person logically possible.

The intrinsic probability of theism is therefore high and prejudice against theistic claim unwarranted.

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[1] Some philosophers do not recognise the concept of “intrinsic probability.” Plantinga, for example, thinks it is doubtful that there is such thing as intrinsic logical probability but concedes that, “we certainly do favour simplicity and we are inclined to think that simple explanations and hypotheses are more likely to be true than complicated epicyclic ones.” The reader who shares this view can simply equate “intrinsic probability” with the notion that, all things being equal, simpler hypotheses commend themselves over complex ones.

[2] As Dallas Willard notes in The Divine Conspiracy, “Any being that has say over nothing at all is no person. We only have to imagine what that would be like to see that this is so. Such ‘persons’ would not even be able to command their own thoughts. They would be reduced to completely passive observers who count for nothing, who make no difference.”

 

Thoughts on urgency and apologetics

The view from my house looks out over Auckland – West, North to East. It is a stunning view and one I doubt I will ever get used to. It is spectacular at dusk as the whole city is a mass of sparkling lights beneath a massive deepening blue sky. Magnificent.

I am often moved to prayer when I look at that view, for that mass of sparkling lights represents over a million people and many of them aren’t aware there is a God who truly loves them. When I look at that huge expanse of sky, I can’t help think how small we truly are compared to God and how just one drop of His glory could flood a city. Yet despite this, Jesus called us to spread His glory, to share His good news in the darkening world we live in (Matthew 28:18-20). The Bible exhorts us to be ready in season and out with the reason for our faith (1 Peter 3:15). Much of God’s glory is found in what we do and what we say. God gave us the honour of being part of His story by both living it and sharing it. His works in our lives create rich narratives of incredible love and redemption and are always, always meant to be shared.

Maybe you struggle with the battle between building and enjoying your life in this world; yet sense a deep restlessness that leaves you feeling perhaps there is something more you could be doing for the world to come. The stirrings of Christ-led urgency.

I recently came across a ‘judgement day’ video online that I found disturbing and as a fellow Christian – embarrassing! The producers meant well I am sure. I can best describe the short movie as having been made up of a script invoking ‘80s or ‘90s hellfire preaching with added graphic visuals to add to the effect. Yes, it did contain some truth about hell, but it was cringe worthy. I can’t imagine a postmodern being converted by it – although God sometimes uses the most unlikely things to capture our attention! I envisage many would label the short as scaremongering and manipulative – exploiting fear – despite the shades of postmodern surrealism within the movie itself. Watching the short did, however, cause me to think about urgency and perhaps this was its purpose. I couldn’t help but be stirred by those words and images because I believe in hell and I love people. It reminded me about the importance of not only sharing our faith, but also sharing it as often as possible. It gave me a sense of urgency. It also, indirectly reminded me of the importance of discipleship where the full story of our origin, meaning, morality and destiny (1) could begin to be fully explored, discussed and lived out biblically.

In our crazy busy lives, it is easy to let time slip by without stopping to think who we are as Christians and what we are called to do. Yet there is a world of people around us desperate for answers even as they put up their hands in denial of truth. Behind many hard questions are hearts and minds that genuinely want to believe there is a God that can help them make sense of the world. Yet, even if the questioner is hardened to the truth of God, there is usually a silent listener or reader nearby who is desperate for that truth.

Those sparkling lights.

Maybe we need to change our perspective and see that sense of urgency not as a manipulative tool, but rather an energising one. I challenge you to pray for that sense of urgency if you lack it. This may or may not be the end times, but these are your end times and mine. This is the only life we have in which to make a difference eternally.

With all the apologetic and evangelism resources, ministries and schools available to us, we are so blessed! I have found apologetic study invigorating! Finding answers for those tricky questions; thinking deeply on the things that are happening in the world around us; looking at issues through the lens of a well thought out Christian worldview; and using both our intellect and our spirituality – always guided by the Holy Spirit – is a powerful way to get closer to our God and make a difference in this world! I encourage you to start with your own questions. Find the answers in books and websites such as this, and begin to share.

But in your hearts set Christ apart [as holy—acknowledging Him, giving Him first place in your lives] as Lord. Always be ready to give a [logical] defense to anyone who asks you to account for the hope and confident assurance [elicited by faith] that is within you, yet [do it] with gentleness and respect. 1 Peter 3:15 (AMP)

(1) The contexts of our origin, meaning, morality and destiny, form part of the core apologetics module at RZIM Academy. 

Allan Sandage

It is often assumed that religious belief diminishes in ratio to scientific knowledge. “You’d expect,” begins one Newsweek article on the subject of God and science, “that the more deeply scientists see into the secrets of the universe, the more God would fade away from their hearts and minds.” There are many striking counterexamples to this assumption—but few more striking than that of Allan Rex Sandage.

Allan Sandage was one of the most important astronomers of the twenthieth century. He began his career in cosmology in the 1940s as a protégé of Edwin Hubble (the astronomer who discovered the expansion of the universe) and, after Hubble died of a heart attack in 1953, Sandage continued Hubble’s ambitious research project of measuring the size and age of the universe.

By some accounts Sandage was a difficult man—it was said that you were no one in astronomy if Sandage had not stopped talking to you. But an uncooperative attitude did not prevent him from making numerous groundbreaking contributions to cosmology. It was Sandage, for instance, who worked out the first reasonably accurate values for the elusive Hubble constant and the age of the universe (!) and Sandage again who discovered the first quasar.

For over forty years until his retirement in 1997, Sandage was regarded as the world’s foremost observational cosmologist and chalked up numerous further contributions to his field: publishing influential papers and improving all aspects of the cosmological distance scale—both within our own Milky Way and beyond to distant galaxies. The accolades and awards accordingly followed, including the prestigious Crafoord Prize—the Nobel of the astronomy world. In 1991, the New York Times noted that Sandage was now popularly referred to as, “the Grand Old Man of Cosmology.”

It was known, meanwhile, that Sandage was a “practicing atheist” as a youth and in a culture of glib scientism the assumption that an astronomer of his expertise and stature would have no truck with the supernatural may have been a fairly natural one. However, in 1985, at a Dallas conference on the theme of science and religion, Sandage surprised his academic peers by taking a seat among the panel of theists. In the context of a discussion about the theological implications of the Big Bang, he then revealed that he had converted to Christianity at the age of fifty. [1] “The world is too complicated in all parts and interconnections to be due to chance alone,” Sandage would explain in numerous subsequent articles on the subject of science and religion. “We can’t understand the universe in any clear way without the supernatural.” [2]

The conversion of Allan Sandage is a testament to the strength of the evidence for theism from modern cosmology and a dramatic counterexample to the belief that increases in scientific knowledge invariably reduce belief in God.

 

________________________

 [1] Interestingly, a young Stephen Meyers was in the audience of this conference. Meyers relates that it was this shocking volte-face by Sandage that inspired his research into the evidence for design in the structure of the cell.

[2] See the Argument from Cosmic Teleology, which I summarise here, and the Argument from Adequation, which I summarise here.

Foetus in the womb

Abortion: Objections to the Pro-Life Position (Pt 2)

Welcome back for the second part of this series, in which we’re looking at common objections to the pro-life perspective on abortion. If you aren’t familiar with the pro-life view, I’d recommend you take a look at some of my previous posts, links to which can be found in the endnotes[i]. In this post, I’m going to address a topic that nearly always crops up in conversations on abortion; namely, rape.

Abortion and rape are very emotionally heated and tense subjects, and to be writing about both of them necessitates extreme reflection, caution, and care. Though I’m about to argue that rape does not provide justification for abortion, I want to take a moment to emphasise that women who are raped are victims of a dreadful and morally reprehensible crime. As such, they deserve our compassion and care regardless of our stance on the moral permissibility of abortion, and regardless of whether or not they do, in fact, opt for abortion. On this point, I’m sure all can agree.

Before moving on, allow me to provide a summary of what follows. First of all, the argument from rape is stated. Then, four responses to the argument, which indicate that it fails, are offered. Finally, a description of the good that can result from a woman choosing to protect her unborn child is presented. In this way, I hope to persuade you that rape does not justify abortion.


The Argument from Rape

Those who appeal to rape as justification for abortion typically argue that abortion should be legal in order to protect the mental wellbeing of women who have been raped. The argument goes like this: Abortion safe-guards the mental health of women who are pregnant by rape. Since the mental wellbeing of the mother is of greater value than the unborn, and since carrying the unborn to term would cause her immense mental anguish, a woman who has conceived due to rape is under no obligation to carry the unborn to term. Additionally, she did not choose to be pregnant, and the unborn is an aggressor against her integrity. Therefore, she is not obligated to allow the unborn to make use of her body, and is justified in terminating her pregnancy.

 Due to the immense emotional impact we justifiably feel when we hear of women who have been raped, this argument has significant rhetorical impact. However, when examined in depth, four problems arise which indicate that, in fact, rape does not justify abortion.

  1. Rape and Abortion on Demand

Let’s take a look at the first problem; namely, this argument fails to support abortion on demand. “Abortion on demand” is the idea that abortion should be allowed for virtually any reason during all 9 months of pregnancy at the request of the mother. It’s this view that pro-choice advocates typically contend for. Does the argument from rape support this view? Let’s grant, for the sake of discussion, that it’s a sound argument. What follows? Simply that abortion is justified in the case of rape. Clearly this conclusion offers no support for allowing abortion whenever and for any reason, and, therefore, it’s irrelevant to the case for abortion on demand.

Additionally, statistics indicate that pregnancy from rape accounts for around 1% of all abortions[ii]. If abortion is justified only in the case of rape, then it follows that 99% of abortions are morally impermissible. Since the argument from rape would justify abortion only in those specific circumstances, if one wishes to secure a right to abortion for all women in all circumstances, one must provide additional reasons besides said argument. Thus, even if we were to grant that abortion is morally permissible in cases of rape, in the absence of additional reasons justifying abortion in other cases, we should still advocate to restrict abortion rights to those relatively few (though still significant) cases.

  1. Begging the Question

Secondly, the argument from rape begs the question by assuming that the unborn is not an intrinsically valuable human being. In philosophy, to “beg the question” means to assume what one is meant to be proving[iii]. As I’ve argued elsewhere, the assertion that the unborn is not a valuable human being is incredibly difficult to establish and maintain. If the unborn, contrary to this assumption, is an intrinsically valuable human being, then it has the same right to life that the mother does, and as such is entitled to the same legal protection that she is.

To make this point clearer, imagine that you were conceived as the result of rape. Furthermore, imagine that every time your mother sees you or thinks of you, she experiences immense emotional anguish as memories of her experience resurface. Is the fact that she experiences such anguish sufficient justification to kill you? Clearly not. Why not? Because you have the same right to life that she does. However, if the unborn also possesses that right to life, then wouldn’t it also be wrong to kill him or her? Therefore, the determining question is not whether the unborn was conceived as the result of rape, but whether the unborn is an intrinsically valuable human being. This can only be determined by considering the nature of the unborn and what makes humans intrinsically valuable.

  1. An Ethical Intuition

Another issue with the argument from rape is this: if the unborn is a valuable human being, then to kill him or her for the benefit of the mother is to violate a clear ethical intuition; namely, that we cannot kill one innocent person in order to benefit another. For example, suppose that I require a replacement of some vital organ in order to continue living. Obviously, it would be wrong to kill you, or any other person, in order to harvest said organ and preserve my life. This doesn’t entail a lack of compassion for me or my imaginary situation. Rather, it’s an acknowledgement of your right to life, and, as Francis Beckwith notes, it’s a refusal to commit murder, even for a good cause[iv]. Similarly, to kill an unborn human being in order to benefit the mother is wrong. “Simply because some people believe that an unborn child’s death may result in the happiness of another does not mean that the child has a duty to die”[v].

  1. The Unborn as Aggressor

Finally, it’s vital to note that there are three parties in this equation. The rapist is the aggressor—the one who commits the crime—and the mother is a victim of the crime. However, the mother is not the only victim—we must remember the unborn. Since, in most circumstances, the unborn doesn’t put the mother at risk, it’s hardly accurate to describe him as an aggressor. Rather, he is a consequence, and therefore a victim of, the crime perpetrated by the rapist. Thus, abortion cannot be justified on the grounds that the unborn is an aggressor.


For the reasons outlined above, it seems that rape isn’t sufficient justification for abortion. Evidently, this is a hard truth. Rape is a terrible crime, and most of us can’t begin to imagine the immense turmoil and distress that women experience when they discover they are pregnant by rape. Women in these situations should be met with compassion and generosity. However, the four responses I’ve offered indicate that abortion simply is not an appropriate response. Rather, if a woman chooses to selflessly bear a child conceived by rape, she performs a beautiful, morally praiseworthy act. If, after giving birth, the mother isn’t in a position to care for a child, or doesn’t want the responsibility of motherhood, she has the option of putting the child up for adoption. Doing so acknowledges her desire not to take on the responsibilities of child-rearing, but also heeds the value of the child before birth, and preserves their right to life.

In closing, allow me to dwell for a moment on the virtue of women who are victims of rape, and yet choose to carry the unborn to term. It’s worth repeating that a woman who willingly bears a child conceived by rape performs a beautiful, morally praiseworthy act. Christopher Kazcor poignantly describes this act as:

…in complete contradiction of what takes place in a rape. In rape, a man assaults an innocent human being; in nurturing life, a woman protects an innocent human being. In rape, a man undermines the freedom of another; in nurturing life, a woman grants freedom to another. In rape, a man imposes himself to the great detriment of another; in nurturing life, a woman makes a gift of herself to the great benefit of another… women who face pregnancies due to rape deserve unconditional love and compassion whether they choose abortion or not. But true love and compassion includes honesty about difficult moral truths, and, sometimes, even a call to heroic generosity.[vi]

Sometimes the truth is difficult to bear. But if we join together to support women in these circumstances, perhaps we can turn something ugly and unthinkable into something virtuous and just.


 

Endnotes:

[i] Making the Case: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3. Addressing Objections: Part 1.

[ii] Kaczor, C. (2015). The ethics of abortion: women’s rights, human life, and the question of justice (2nd ed.). New York, NY: Routledge, p. 189.

[iii] For example, suppose a well-meaning Christian were to argue for the reliability of scripture by saying “scripture is trustworthy because the Bible says so”. This statement begs the question, as it’s only by assuming that scripture is trustworthy that we can trust what the Bible says, which is the point our Christian friend is attempting to prove.

[iv] Beckwith, F. J. (2007). Defending life: A moral and legal case against abortion choice. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, p. 106

[v] ibid.

[vi] Kaczor, C. (2015). The ethics of abortion: women’s rights, human life, and the question of justice (2nd ed.). New York, NY: Routledge, p. 196.