The Argument from Consciousness: Qualia


Introduction
That we have a mental life of thoughts and perceptions is the most fundamental fact of human experience and the starting point for every other kind of inquiry. Colours and objects in our field of vision; intentions and beliefs; pains, memories, thoughts—the most radical forms of philosophical skepticism must take all these as properly basic even when denying everything else. [1]
There are, meanwhile, five properties of consciousness which are much-discussed in the Philosophy of Mind because it seems they cannot in principle be explained on a naturalistic ontology. [2] In other words, presupposing with the Naturalist that mindless particles organised in various ways by mindless forces is all that exists seems to leave us without the explanatory resources to account for our mental life.
The Argument from Consciousness begins here—with an a priori proof that these fundamental properties of consciousness are in fact insusceptible of reduction to the physical. It then draws out the logical entailments: For if the mind cannot possibly be reduced to the brain then mind and brain are not identical. Naturalism is falsified and some form of substance dualism is implicated. And given the existence of nonphysical mental substances established by the argument, theism is an inference to the best explanation for them.
In this five-part series of posts I will present each of these properties in turn and then argue that it is credibly probable that agents with these mental properties will exist if there is a God but incredibly improbable that they would exist if there is not. The existence of conscious agents with these five mental properties therefore provides evidence that there is a God who created them.
Qualia
The hiss of car tyres on a wet road; the smell of jasmine or the taste of avocado; a flash of sunlight on a stormy lake. All these things have a raw qualitative “feel” that is as immediate and undeniable as it is indescribable. Philosophers call these subjective tinctures of sense perception qualia; and in his influential paper What Is It Like to Be a Bat? [3] the eminent philosopher of mind Thomas Nagel argues that they present an insurmountable conceptual challenge to naturalism.
Nagel begins by noting that if an organism is conscious at all then, “there is something it is like to be that organism.” To complete a naturalistic account of mind, this subjective savour of selfhood must be reducible to an objective brain state. The problem is that the reductive step by which a physical theory is arrived at translates what is private and subjective into what is public and objective—a point to which we shall return. Qualia, meanwhile, just are the private and subjective experiences of sense perception. And since quaila are also facts about the world it follows that there are facts about the world that naturalism cannot possibly explain.
To help us understand this point and its implications Nagel invites us to consider what it is like to be a bat. “Sonar,” he notes, “though a form of perception, is wholly unlike any sense that we possess and there is no reason to suppose that the subjective experience of a bat is like anything we can experience.” It will not do here, says Nagel, to imagine that you have webbed arms that enable you to fly around at dusk catching insects in your mouth; or that you perceive the world by means of high frequency sound signals; or that you spend the day hanging upside down by your feet in an attic—all this only tells you what it would be like for you to behave as a bat behaves and that is not the question. “I want to know,” Nagel writes, “what it is like for a bat to be a bat.”

How, then, can this be known? The answer is that it cannot because the task is impossible by tautology: Bat qualia can no more be instantiated in nonbat consciousness than triangularity can be instantiated in a circle. Limited to the resources of the human mind, the extrapolation to bat experience is incompleteable. And critically, the problem is not confined to such exotic cases. In contemplating bats, says Nagel, we are in the same position of an intelligent bat contemplating us. The structure of their minds make it impossible for them to succeed; and nor could they plausibly deny that there are qualia of human experience. We know what it is like to be us; know, that is, the ineffable but highly specific subjective savour of personhood from moment to moment. Nagel concludes that qualia are trapped within a particular point of view and can never survive transference to a physical theory open to multiple points of view.
This is the first property of consciousness that is insusceptible of reduction to the physical.

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[1] Philosophical idealism takes a skeptical view of the external world and holds that reality is fundamentally mental; solipsism holds that only one’s own mind can really be said to exist. Descartes famously held that we can coherently doubt everything except the fact that we doubt—cogito ergo sum.
A belief is properly basic if it cannot be derived from other beliefs but must be accepted if beliefs of any kind are going to be possible. Other examples include the reality of the external world, the deliverances of rational intuition, and the existence of other minds.
[2] The five properties in the order they will be discussed in this series are: Qualia, Intentionality, Privileged Access, Nonphysicality and Free Will.
[3] Nagel’s fascinating essay is only 16 pages. You can read it here. See also his book Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False.

How can Jesus be both God and man?

The Incarnation is one of the essential doctrines of Christianity. It is the belief that God became incarnate in the historical Jesus who was both truly God and truly Man. Any mixing or blurring of the two natures within Christ has traditionally resulted in heresy for going against the explicit teachings of scripture. This explains why such a vital Christian Doctrine has been under attack since the beginning. Christians are accused of believing in a logical contradiction. [1]

Some have argued that God possesses attributes like omnipotence, omniscience, omnipresence and is described as timeless, spaceless and immaterial. God has these attributes necessarily and if He were to lose any of them, He would cease to be God. However, these properties are not typically observed in human beings. Thus the question is raised “How can Jesus be both truly God but truly Man at the same time”?[2]

Philosopher Thomas V. Morris, from the University of Notre Dame, summarizes the problem as follows:

“It is logically impossible for any being to exemplify at one and the same time both a property and its logical complement. Thus, recent critics have concluded, it is logically impossible for any one person to be both human and divine, to have all the attributes proper to deity and all those ingredients in human nature as well. The doctrine of the Incarnation on this view is an incoherent theological development of the early church which must be discarded by us in favour of some other way of conceptualizing the importance of Jesus for Christian faith. He could not possibly have been God Incarnate, a literally divine person in human nature.” [3]

This does look like a serious difficulty but Morris has produced one of the best responses to this sort of challenge in his book “The Logic of God incarnate”. Following his lead, Philosopher Ronald H. Nash has revisited the argument and laid it out for us in his book “Worldviews in Conflict”. Like Morris, Ronald presents three major distinctions that needs to be understood in order to work our way out of this apparent contradiction. They are as follows:

  1. The distinction between essential and nonessential properties
  2. The distinction between essential and common properties
  3. The distinction between being fully human and merely human. [4]

Essential and nonessential properties

The word ‘property’ simply refers to a feature or characteristic of something. Properties are of two types, essential and nonessential, which we can understand by looking at the example of a red ball. The colour of a ball is a nonessential property because even if we change the colour to yellow or blue, the object would still be a ball. But the property of ‘roundness’ is an essential property, because if we were to change that then the object would cease to be a ball. One cannot have a ball that isn’t round. Similarly there are certain properties which are essential to God such as necessary existence, omnipotence, omniscience, and so on. If there is a being that might lack any of these essential properties, then that being could not be God. When Christians affirm that Jesus is God, they also affirm that Jesus possesses all these essential properties of God. This is pretty obvious as well as easy to grasp, but the real problem arises when we try to identify the essential properties of human beings. Critics of incarnation go wrong when they believe that in order to be a human one has to be lacking in omnipotence, omniscience, omnipresence, etc. In other words, it is incorrect to conclude that the lack of these properties is essential to being human. This could be explained further, but we first need to understand the distinction between essential and common properties. [5]

Essential and common properties

A common property is any property that human beings possess but it is not necessarily an essential property. In order to explain this common property, Ronald refers to Morris’ example of ten fingers. He explains that since all human beings have ten fingers, this is common property. But it is obvious that having ten fingers is not an essential property to being a human because a man can lose one or all of the fingers and still be a human being. [6] Let’s take a look at how Morris explains the importance and relevance of these points with regards to the doctrine of Incarnation:

“It is certainly quite common for human beings to lack omnipotence, omniscience, necessary existence, and so on. I think any orthodox Christian will agree that, apart from Jesus, these are even universal features of human existence. Further, in the case of any of us who do exemplify the logical complements of these distinctively divine attributes, it may well be most reasonable to hold that they are in our case essential attributes. I, for example, could not possibly become omnipotent. As a creature, I am essentially limited in power. But why think this is true on account of human nature? Why think that any attributes incompatible with deity are elements of human nature, properties without which one could not be truly or fully human?”[7]

In other words, even though you and I lack those essential properties of a divine being, where is the argument that proves these limitations are essential for being human? Morris argues that these properties are simply common human properties and not essential ones. [8]

Being Fully Human and Being Merely Human

An individual is ‘fully human’ if he has all the essential human properties, while an individual is merely human if he has all the properties of a human being but has some additional limitations like for example lacking omnipotence, lacking omniscience and so on. That being said, what Christians believe is that “Jesus was fully human without being merely human.” What it means is that, Jesus possessed all the properties essential to being a deity as well as all the properties to being a human being. Morris argues that critics are confused when they try to conclude that the lack of divine properties is essential to human nature.

Conclusion

The three major distinctions play a vital role in defeating the alleged contradiction that exists within the Doctrine of Incarnation and thus helps us in concluding that the orthodox Christology is not self-contradictory. 

 

References

[1] Nash, Ronald H. 1992. WORLDVIEWS IN CONFLICT – CHOOSING CHRISTIANITY IN A WORLD OF IDEAS. Michigan, MI: ZondervanPublishingHouse., pp. 99-100

[2] Ibid., p.100

[3] Morris, Thomas V. 1988. “Understanding God incarnate.” Accessed March 17, 2018. http://place.asburyseminary.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1431&context=asburyjournal

[4] Nash, Ronald H. 1992. WORLDVIEWS IN CONFLICT – CHOOSING CHRISTIANITY IN A WORLD OF IDEAS. Michigan, MI: ZondervanPublishingHouse., p. 101

[5] Ibid., pp. 102-103

[6] Ibid., pp. 103-104

[7] Morris, Thomas V. 1988. “Understanding God incarnate.” Accessed March 18, 2018. http://place.asburyseminary.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1431&context=asburyjournal

[8] Nash, Ronald H. 1992. WORLDVIEWS IN CONFLICT – CHOOSING CHRISTIANITY IN A WORLD OF IDEAS. Michigan, MI: ZondervanPublishingHouse., p. 104

Foetus in the womb

Abortion: Objections to the Pro-Life Position (Pt 5)

Welcome back for Part 5 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].


“Men don’t get pregnant, and therefore abortion is a woman’s issue” is a phrase sometimes used to silence men when speaking on abortion. To be candid, I’m surprised but pleased that this statement has yet to be directed at me. As with many popular arguments for abortion, it has some initial appeal. Nonetheless, when examined carefully, it proves to be significantly flawed in a number of ways. Before outlining two flaws lurking beneath the surface of this phrase, allow me to state the argument more clearly.


The Argument

Taken at face value, the statement “men don’t get pregnant, therefore abortion is a woman’s issue” is a poor argument, since the conclusion (abortion is a woman’s issue), doesn’t follow from the premise (men don’t get pregnant). In order to reach the desired conclusion, we must uncover and insert a couple of hidden premises. With some re-wording, we can state the argument as follows:

1: Men do not get pregnant.

2: Pregnancy is a necessary condition for having an abortion.

3: Individuals should not have opinions on things they cannot experience.

Therefore,

Conclusion: Men should not have opinions on abortion.

This, I believe, is the reasoning most people express when they argue that men shouldn’t have an opinion on abortion. A number of objections could be raised, but I’ll focus on two that are sufficient to defeat the argument.

  1. Gender is Irrelevant to Validity

Firstly, arguments don’t have genders—people do. When someone offers an argument for or against abortion, anyone who wishes to contest it needs to address the argument itself, not the person making it. This is because an argument’s validity does not depend on the presenter’s gender, nor any other attribute they may or may not possess. For example, imagine my wife were writing this article rather than me. Why should we think that the reasoning before you is sound when presented by her, but not when presented by me? Remember, in this hypothetical situation the content of the article and the arguments therein are identical. The answer: if the content of this article is sound, it’s sound regardless of whether my wife or I wrote it. In truth, a good argument is a good argument whether it’s presented by a man, a woman, a child, a Vulcan, or a talking lion (think Aslan). 

In philosophy, this type of move, when someone attacks the person presenting an argument rather than the argument itself, is known as the ad hominem fallacy. For example, if a smoker argued “smoking kills, so don’t smoke”, someone might reply “you’re just a hypocrite!” and disregard the argument. However, the fact that the smoker is a hypocrite has nothing to do with his reasoning—it’s true that smoking is bad for your health and often leads to death, and therefore if you wish to live a healthy life, you shouldn’t smoke. While it’s true that he’s a hypocrite, his reasoning is nonetheless sound. In the same way, when someone objects to a pro-life argument by saying “you’re a man!”, they are simply attacking the proponent of the argument rather than addressing the argument itself. It’s true that I’m a man, but that fact has no bearing on whether my arguments are sound. 

  1. A Problematic Premise

Although the first point is sufficient to defeat the argument in question, a pro-lifer might further buttress their case by making another point; namely, that premise 3 commits us to absurd notions, and therefore must be false. Premise 3 states that “Individuals should not have opinions on things they cannot experience”. This, however, is clearly false. If it were true, then we’d have to conclude that women can’t have opinions on circumcision, or that no human being can have an opinion on the mistreatment of animals. In fact, if we were to be consistent in applying this premise, then, since no man can experience pregnancy, the conclusion would actually state:

Conclusion: Men should not have opinions on pregnancy or abortion.

Clearly this conclusion is false, and, as such, we should reject premise 3. But, if we reject premise 3, then the argument collapses since the conclusion doesn’t follow from premises 1 and 2 alone.


With these two points in mind, it seems evident that men are entitled to have an opinion on abortion—whether that be for or against. In fact, when you think about it, abortion isn’t solely a woman’s issue. Every unborn child has a father, and it’s often men who contribute to child-rearing when a woman chooses not to abort. We might say, then, that abortion is ultimately a human issue. This is not to belittle the undeniably profound role that women play in bearing children through pregnancy and in raising them, but it is to say that we shouldn’t forget or marginalise the part that men should and do play. I may be preaching to the choir, but I encourage you, the reader, to carefully reflect upon the ethics of abortion and form an educated opinion— regardless of your gender.


 

Endnotes:

[i] Making the Case: Part 1Part 2Part 3. Addressing Objections: Part 1Part 2, Part 3, Part 4

The Conceivability Argument for Dualism


In the philosophy of mind there are a number of powerful arguments that demonstrate consciousness cannot in principle be explained on a physicalistic ontology. In other words, presupposing that mindless particles organised in various ways by mindless forces is all that exists leaves us without the explanatory resources to account for our mental life. Most of these arguments examine some basic property of consciousness (qualia, intentionality, etc.) and give an a priori proof that each is insusceptible of psychophysical reduction. And if the mind cannot possibly be reduced to the brain then mind and brain are not identical. Some form of substance dualism is implicated. [1]

The Conceivability Argument for Substance Dualism is different: It demonstrates through natural reason that the mind and brain are nonidentical without reference to any particular property of consciousness. In what follows I will be summarising the discussion provided by Edward Feser in Philosophy of Mind: A Beginner’s Guide. The argument begins with a few preliminary precepts.

Physical Impossibility vs. Metaphysical Impossibility

Feser first introduces a distinction between two kinds of impossibility: physical impossibility and metaphysical impossibility. It is helpful here to think of this as a distinction between strong and weak forms of impossibility. A state of affairs is merely physically impossible if, though impossible in the actual world, we can give a description of it obtaining in some possible world without contradiction. [2] In this connection consider the proposition,

A man survived a headlong fall from the top of the Empire State Building.

This proposition is merely physically impossible because we can describe a possible world (say, one with very weak gravity) in which such a thing is possible. By contrast, a state of affairs is metaphysically impossible if it is impossible in the actual world and we cannot give a description of it obtaining in any possible world without contradiction. In this connection consider the proposition,

A married bachelor drafted a square circle.

This proposition is metaphysically impossible because we cannot coherently describe any possible world in which such a thing obtains.

From this distinction we can derive a terse precept,

Conceivability entails metaphysical possibility.

A Related Principle of Identity

Let us now use this distinction to articulate a principle of identity: A is identical to B if and only if it is metaphysically impossible for A to exist apart from B; that is, only if we cannot conceive of any possible world in which A exists apart from B. Consider the claim that water is identical to H2O. If you can conceive of a possible world in which you have water without H2O, or H2O without water, then, sensu stricto, water and H2O are not identical but different substances.

Applying this Principle of Identity to the Mind and Body

Let us finally apply this principle of identity to the mind and body. If one can conceive of a possible world in which you have a mind without a body then mind and body are not identical. And indeed one can conceive of such a possible world. W. D. Hart, for instance, invites us to imagine a man who wakes up one day and shuffles sleepily into the bathroom to wash his face. Looking in the mirror, he sees two empty sockets where his eyes should be. With a hacksaw, he then removes the top of his head and discovers that he has no brain. In a panic he removes his head, his neck, his torso. At last his body is completely disposed of and he sees nothing in the mirror but the wall behind him. Of course, all of this is physically impossible but it also conceivable and therefore metaphysically possible.

W. D. Hart’s example is appealingly ghoulish but there are many other ways to conceive of mind and body existing apart from one another. Solipsism is another example. Out of body experiences a third. All of them are eminently conceivable. And from each of them it follows, ex hypothesi, that mind and body are not identical.

An Objection from Opponents of Substance Dualism

Against this, some opponents of substance dualism have argued that it is possible to conceive of two identical substances existing separately. For example: Water is identical to H2O. But now let there be a substance having the properties of liquidity, quenching thirst, freezing at low temperatures, etc. whose chemical composition is XYZ. If this is conceivable, then it is metaphysically possible; and if it is metaphysically possible, then A and B can be identical and conceived to exist separately and so the operating precept is violated.

Kripke’s Objection to the Objection

However, Kripke, the American logician, fussily dispatches this objection. Let water be that substance which in every possible world has those properties which water has in the actual world; i.e., liquidity, quenching thirst, freezing at low temperatures, etc. Let H2O, meanwhile, be that substance which in every possible world has that chemical composition which H2O has in the actual world. Trivially, the substance in the actual world having the properties of water is the same substance in the actual world having the chemical composition H2O. But since “water” in any given possible world is the same substance having the properties of water in the actual world, and the substance having the properties of water in the actual world is H2O, so the substance having those properties in every possible world is H2O. And so water and H20 are identical in every possible world.

In other words, to conceive of a substance similar to water that is not H2O is not to conceive of water existing apart from H2O but simply to conceive of a substance similar to water that is not water. The case of water and H2O does not therefore offer a counterexample to the test for metaphysical identicality. And so, we may conclude, the Conceivability Argument for Substance Dualism obtains.

A Final Point

As a final point it is worth noting that nonconceivability does not necessarily entail metaphysical impossibility. In other words, it does not follow from the fact that we cannot conceive of A existing apart from B that A and B are metaphysically identical. Maybe we just aren’t creative enough or intelligent enough to conceive of how it is possible. But conceivability of separateness does entail metaphysical nonidenticality—which simple precept does all the work of the argument. And unless the physicalist can demonstrate that that precept is wrong, substance dualism intrudes upon and falsifies his physicalistic ontology and the shadow of theism begins to darken his door.

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[1] See my discussion of the Argument from Consciousness here.

[2] It is important to understand that in this discussion “a possible world” is not another planet or a parallel universe. In modal logic a possible world is just a comprehensive description of a possible reality where “possible reality” is analogous to “hypothetical state of affairs” with the added condition that its description entails no logical contradictions. And just as there are infinitely many sets in set theory, so there are infinitely many possible worlds in modal logic.

Thoughts on the possible timeframes of hell…

When writing my previous blog post on the question, “How can a loving God send someone to Hell?” I was aware that there would be more I would have to write on this topic in the future. It’s an incredibly tough subject and one I am not at all comfortable with and more a theological question than an apologetic one.

The associated question: “Why doesn’t God annihilate unbelievers at death?” is one I have often pondered. It is a question that requires in-depth biblical exegesis. However, I believe we can look at Scripture as a starting point of reference to at least begin to formulate an answer.

In this post I offer a some guidelines we can use when searching for the answers to this important question and others like it. In the footnotes, I will also give some follow up links for further study of the topic. 

 

Whichever doctrinal line we decide to ascribe to we need to remember that the authority of the Holy Scriptures are both our starting point and reference for any study on the topic and we should not interpret them according to what we want to find. It is too easy to find a verse or two that could be interpreted in the way that makes us more comfortable, rather than objectively looking at what the verse actually says in both it’s historical, grammatical and contextual state of being.

We also need to acknowledge that until we personally step into eternity ourselves we can only interpret what may be the answer where there are not definitive supporting scriptures.

To begin let us look at the two predominant thoughts about hell. Whether it is an eternal punishment or if it has an end point culminating in the complete annihilation of an unbeliever’s soul. 

There are many Scriptures that point to the ‘eternal torment’ of unbelievers, but there are also some Scriptures that seem to allude to a possible post-punishment termination point. 

The following is a small list of Scriptures often used to support a post-death annihilation of unbelievers (I have underlined the words pointing to these thoughts):

“Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter it are many.” Matthew 7:13

“They will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and the Glory of His might,” 2 Thessalonians 1:9 (This verse is also used in support of an eternal torment).

“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” John 3:16

“While I was with them, I kept them in your name, which you have given me. I have guarded them, and not one of them has been lost except the son of destruction, that the Scripture might be fulfilled.” John 17:12

“What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, in order to make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory –“ Romans 9:22-23

“and not frightened in anything by your opponents. This is a clear sign to them of their destruction, but of your salvation, and that from God” Philippians 1:28

“And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.” Matthew 10:28

“But we are not of those who shrink back and are destroyed, but of those who have faith and preserve their souls.” Hebrews 10:39

Although Matthew 10:28 appears convincing, I find these Scriptures unhelpful, as they don’t specifically say ‘cease to exist eternally’; it again comes down to context and interpretation that warrant further study.

The following are verses that speak of an eternal punishment:

“And the smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever, and they have no rest day or night, these worshippers of the beast and its image, and whoever receives the mark of its name.” Revelation 14:11

“And if your hand or your foot causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life crippled or lame than with two hands or two feet to be thrown into the eternal fire. “ Matthew 18:8

“The he will answer them, saying, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me. And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” Matthew 25: 45-46

“….where their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched.” Mark 9:44-48

“..and will come forth; those who did the good deeds to a resurrection of life, those who committed the evil deeds to a resurrection of judgment.” John 5:29

“These will pay the penalty of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of His power,” 2 Thessalonians 1:9

“Many of those who sleep in the dust of the ground will awake, these to everlasting life, but the others to disgrace and everlasting contempt.” Daniel 12:2

Neither of these lists are exhaustive[1], yet as much as I would prefer annihilation to be the answer for those who choose Hell, I personally cannot find indisputable evidence in Scripture that this will be the case.

If we are going to discard the doctrine of eternal punishment because it feels profoundly unpleasant to us, then it seems fair to ask what other biblical teachings we will also reject, because they too don’t square with what we feel. And if we do this, are we not replacing the authority of Scripture with the authority of our feelings, or our limited understanding? Randy Alcorn[2]

We can and should continue to study this topic and there is a wealth of opinion, both scholarly and otherwise, out there to read and meditate through.[3] In the meantime, the reality of there being a hell – eternal or finite – should move us to do all we can to ensure that we get the saving knowledge of Jesus Christ to as many people as possible. We need to be careful that our study does not distract from the Great Commission. As I stated earlier we may only find clear answers to some of these difficult questions when we step into eternity ourselves.

“For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part: then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known.” 1 Corinthians 13.12 ESV

Let us focus on the call God has placed upon all of us through Jesus and be inspired to action by Spurgeon, who said:

“If sinners will be damned, at least let them leap to hell over our bodies; and if they will perish, let them perish with our arms about their knees, imploring them to stay…If hell must be filled, at least let it be filled in the teeth of our exertions, and let not one go there unwarned or unprayed for.”[4]

We cannot allow our ‘feelings’ about the horror of hell and our very human desire for it to be a false doctrine paralyse, us into doing nothing. Let us err on the side of Hope and work hard to do all we can to stop the flow into hell whilst we continue the search for answers.

[1] For more Scriptures that support eternal punishment read: https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/justin-taylor/ten-foundational-verses-for-eternal-punishment-in-hell/

[2] https://www.epm.org/resources/2014/Jun/18/will-unbelievers-be-annihilated/ This is an excerpt from Randy Alcon’s book  If God Is Good, Chapter 29: Hell: Eternal Sovereign Justice Exacted upon Evildoers.

[3] I suggest reading through some of the following Q & A’s by Dr William Lane Craig: https://www.reasonablefaith.org/writings/question-answer/bradley-on-hell – particularly Point 3. https://www.reasonablefaith.org/writings/question-answer/do-the-damned-in-hell-accrue-further-punishment

[4] Charles Haddon Spurgeon, “The Wailing of Risca” (sermon 349, New Park Street Pulpit, December 9, 1860), www.spurgeon.org/sermons/0349.htm, as quoted in Randy Alcorns book If God is Good, Chapter 29: Hell: Eternal Sovereign Justice Exacted upon Evildoers.

 

 

The Problem of Evil

Introduction. One of the most famous objections to the existence of God is that the joint claims that God is morally perfect and omnipotent are incompatible with the existence of evil and suffering. For if God were all good, the argument goes, he would want to prevent evil and suffering; and if he were all powerful, he would be able to do so. Therefore evil and suffering prove one of three things: That God does not exist, or that he is not all good, or that he is not all powerful. In short: The existence of an all-loving and all-powerful God is improbable given the obvious general fact of human suffering. 

Definition of Terms. Before responding, I need to briefly define a few terms that will be of use in what follows. “Free will” is the power of an agent to perform actions that are influenced but never fully determined by forces external to himself but of itself free will does not necessarily entail the capacity to do evil. God could, for instance, give us free will but constrain its exercise to the choice between different but equally good actions. I will therefore use the term “moral liberty” for the power of an agent to exercise his free will in making choices between good and bad actions; and “moral evil” for the use of moral liberty to perform bad actions. Finally, I will use the term “natural evil” for suffering having causes unrelated to moral evil—the suffering caused by natural disasters, accidents, diseases, and so on.

1. Moral Evil. To see why the problem of evil fails to disprove theism we first need to understand omnipotence in a more careful way. Theologians have always understood omnipotence to mean the power to perform any logically possible action. To note that God could not create a square circle imposes no limit on his powers because creating a square circle is not an action whose difficulty lies in the brute force required to perform it. In fact, it is not an action at all; rather, the imperative Create a square circle is a logically incoherent combination of English words which have no referent in the set of all logically possible actions that belong to omnipotence.

The relevance of this point to moral evil should be immediately obvious. It is logically impossible for God to create agents with moral liberty and ensure that they do not sin. The potential for moral evil is therefore an unavoidable consequence of moral liberty.[1] The question that needs to be asked is whether moral liberty confers any significant benefits upon mankind; and if it does, whether those benefits outweigh the suffering that it entails. In the following paragraphs I will be arguing that it confers upon mankind very significant benefits indeed; namely, that it makes possible the attainment of virtue, the formation of moral character and the capacity for genuine love. 

1.1 The Attainment of Virtue. To understand the importance of moral liberty to virtue, imagine a world from which moral liberty has been removed; in other words, a world in which the only possible exercise of free will is in the choice between different kinds of equally good actions. The result would be a toy universe or pleasure park in which we exist like animals or small children—experiencing comfort and sensory pleasure but without the opportunity to show empathy, courage, patience, self-sacrifice, forgiveness or heroism.  Such thought experiments help to bring out an important moral distinction between innocence and virtue. Innocence is a mere ignorance of evil; virtue requires that one face a significant choice between good and evil and freely choose the good. And since it is logically impossible for God to force us to freely choose the good, any world in which virtue is attainable is a world in which moral evil is a distinct possibility. 

1.2 The Formation of Moral Character. Because we have moral liberty we are continuously faced with the choice between performing good and bad actions. And, as Swinburne notes, humans are so made that when we choose to do good, it becomes slightly easier to choose to do good again at the next opportunity; and when we choose to do evil, it becomes slightly easier to choose to do evil again at the next opportunity. In this way, over time, we are able to change the desires that influence us and form either a very good or a very bad character. Without moral liberty our characters would have and unwaveringly maintain whatever measure of good or evil God elected at our creation and would therefore be completely devoid of moral significance.

1.3 The Capacity for Genuine Love. Love that is induced through the use of potions, hypnotism or spells is not considered genuine. For love between humans to be genuine, it must be freely given. It follows from this simple truth that any world in which genuine human love is a possibility is a world in which moral evil is a possibility. And this is because if you are truly free to give love you must be truly free to withhold it—even in situations where withholding it would be wrong. For a mother’s love for her young children to be genuine, for example, it cannot be forced upon her from above by God; it must be freely given and in that case it must be logically possible for her to withhold it—and so, perhaps, to neglect and abuse her children. All this holds equally for our love of God. To be genuine a love of God cannot be built into us by God. It must be freely given and this entails the freedom to withhold it.[2]  

Moral liberty therefore confers the profoundest imaginable benefits upon mankind. It provides us with the opportunity to attain virtue, form a moral character, and experience genuine love for each other and for God. It is not at all incoherent to suppose that a perfectly good person would choose to create a world in which these supreme goods were possible—even at the cost of moral evil.

2. Natural Evil. In discussing natural evil it is important to recognise that the suffering it entails is often bound up with moral evil. Cheaply built and poorly planned towns, for instance, can significantly raise the death toll during earthquakes and floods; the misuse of certain chemicals can significantly increase the incidence of cancer; the failure of wealthy countries to provide aid to poor countries can result in preventable famines—and so forth. Nevertheless, there is a great deal of suffering on Earth for which no human agent is responsible. And in what follows I will be arguing that such natural evil fulfils three additional and important purposes which moral evil alone could not fulfil: It ensures that opportunities to obtain virtue are universal; it broadens the scope and significance of our moral choices; and, most importantly, it conduces to the religious life.

2.1 It Makes Opportunities to Obtain Virtue Universal. In the section discussing moral liberty, we saw that empathy, courage, patience, self-sacrifice, forgiveness and heroism are all states contributive to virtue. But it needs to be noted that it is not moral liberty alone, but moral liberty and moral evil together, that provide an opportunity to manifest these virtues. In other words, only if someone eventually exercises their moral liberty to assault or abuse you can I exercise mine to show you empathy; only if you are robbed can I make personal sacrifices to provide for you. The question arises whether moral evil alone would afford adequate opportunities for everyone to form a virtuous moral character. In this connection Swinburne writes,

You can show courage when threatened by a gunman as well as when threatened by cancer; and show sympathy to those likely to be killed by gunmen as well as to those likely to die of cancer. But just imagine all the suffering of mind and body caused by disease, earthquake, and accident unpreventable by humans removed at a stroke from our society—no sickness, no senility, no bereavement in consequence of the untimely death of the young. Many of us would then have such an easy life that we simply would not have much opportunity to show courage or, indeed, manifest much in the way of great goodness at all. 

Consider a world without disaster, disease and decrepitude; a world in which the only cause of injury and death is, respectively, assault and murder. It is a mathematical certainty that such a world would provide far, far fewer opportunities for virtue and highly probable that some people would have no such opportunities at all.

2.2 It Broadens The Scope of Moral Liberty. Moreover, with careful reflection it is apparent that the removal of natural evil would also considerably constrain the scope and significance of moral liberty. For instance: The knowledge that poison causes death is unobtainable unless someone is first observed to have accidentally died by poisoning. And knowledge of poisonous toadstools and berries thereafter affords us an opportunity to exercise significant moral liberty: We can use that knowledge to kill off a neighbouring village by poisoning its well or to warn the neighbouring village not to eat toadstools. Earthquake belts, to give another example, give us a choice between building upon them cities that may be destroyed long after we are dead or avoiding doing so. Pathogens give us a choice between making biological weapons that kill thousands or developing antibiotics that save thousands. These examples show that natural evil broadens the scope and significance of our choices so that they are able to benefit or harm others far from us in both time and space. This confers on us a solemn moral responsibility and significance and so plausibly conduces to the aims of a morally perfect creator for his creatures. 

2.3 It Conduces to the Religious Life. If God exists he is the consummation and source of all power, knowledge, wisdom, beauty, rationality and love lying at the very heart of reality. A genuine and eternal love relationship with God is therefore the greatest conceivable good available to us. The question arises: Does a world that contains moral and natural evil conduce to the greatest number of creatures freely seeking the greatest conceivable good available to them? Reason and experience suggest that the answer may be yes. Pleasure and comfort are good and our world, of course, provides both. But a life that offered nothing else would make us complacent, hedonistic, idle and shallow. Suffering and death, on the other hand, force us all to confront questions about the ultimate meaning of life and so, for very many, plays a causal role in developing a relationship with God and living a religious life. 

Conclusion. The objection from evil seems ultimately to rest on the naive assumption that God created the universe to serve as a comfortable habitat for his human pets. However, we have seen that moral and natural evil are an unpreventable feature of any world in which the supreme goods of virtue, moral self-determination, genuine love and knowledge of God are significantly and universally attainable. It is probable that the creation of a pleasure park inhabited by creatures who know endless pleasure and comfort but are devoid of moral and spiritual significance would be a morally good act. But it is not at all incoherent to suppose that, viewed under the aspect of his infinite intelligence and moral perfection, God would know that the creation of a world precisely like ours is a morally better act. This is the so-called “Higher-Order Goods” solution to the problem of evil. Pleasure, innocence and comfort are good; but virtue, moral significance and love are goods of a higher order. And God, being perfectly good, wants to give us the very best things He has to give.

———————-

[1] To create agents with moral liberty and constrain them from moral evil is simply to deny them moral liberty. It is logically possible, though hugely improbable, that a planet of agents with moral liberty will by chance alone contain no evil. But, needless to say, this state of affairs does not obtain on our planet

[2] The question arises whether God can freely withhold his love and if not then how, given my argument, it can be genuine. However, the difficulty only arises in the case of finite persons created by God for the purpose of knowing and loving him and each other. For if God created us with an immutable and irresistible love for himself and each other, that love would have its origin in something external to ourselves—namely, God—and would not therefore be freely given and genuine. But since God’s love is past eternal and has no cause external to himself, it is genuine even though by a necessity of his divine nature he is incapable of withholding it.

 

 

Foetus in the womb

Abortion: Objections to the Pro-Life Position (Pt 4)

Welcome back for Part 4 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].


“Every child a wanted child”. This catchphrase has been in circulation for decades now, written on signs during protests, boldly printed on Planned Parenthood flyers. Short and pithy, it seems to express a noble sentiment—one which has found a new pop-culture platform via the Netflix hit Orange is the New Black. Orange is the New Black tells the story of a number of women convicted of serious crimes and placed in prison. In one episode, an inmate mourns for several children whom she aborted earlier in life. However, she’s soon approached by another inmate, who captures the essence of “every child a wanted child” when she argues:

The abortions that occurred after [abortion was made legal]… these were children that weren’t wanted. Children who, if their mothers had been forced to have them, would have grown up poor, and neglected and abused. The three most important ingredients when one is making a felon[ii].

The implication is that since these children were unwanted, were going to live traumatic lives, and would wind up in prison, aborting them was the right decision. Therefore, the mourning inmate need not feel any more regret, as her children were spared suffering and life as a felon.

As with many popular arguments for abortion, this type of argument has great initial appeal, but once you begin to assess its logic and draw out its implications, it becomes less and less persuasive. In the following paragraphs, I’ll outline the argument more clearly, and then highlight three flaws that render it unsound.


The Argument

Though there are various ways to develop an argument from unwanted children, most reflect the following sentiments. A number of social problems, such as child abuse, unnecessary financial burden, and poverty are (at least partially) the result of families having to manage unwanted children. Legal abortion reduces the number of unwanted children, and, as such, minimises these problems. Therefore, abortion should be legal. Additionally, unwanted children are likely to live unhappy lives. Since they may suffer physical, mental, and emotional abuse, it is better for the mother to opt for abortion.

  1. Begging the Question

Perhaps the most significant problem with popular arguments for abortion is that they beg the question. As I’ve argued in previous posts, question-begging plagues arguments from rape and the dangers of illegal abortions, and the argument here is no exception. For those of you unfamiliar with what “begging the question” is, it’s a form of circular reasoning in which someone assumes what they’re supposed to be proving[iii]. In this case, the proponent of the argument assumes that the unborn are not valuable human beings, which is what they need to prove in order to justify abortion.

To demonstrate how it begs the question, we can run a parallel argument that replaces every instance of “unwanted children” with “toddler”. Doing so results in the following:

A number of social problems are the result of families having to manage unwanted toddlers. Legal toddler-killing reduces the number of unwanted toddlers, and, as such, minimises these problems. Therefore, toddler-killing should be legal. Additionally, unwanted toddlers are likely to live unhappy lives. Since they may suffer physical, mental, and emotional abuse, it is better for the mother to opt to kill her toddler.

Obviously, it’s wrong to kill unwanted toddlers. Why? Because they are valuable human beings. Similarly, if unborn human beings possess that same value, then it’s wrong to kill them simply because they are unwanted. The real question, then, is not whether children are wanted, but whether they are valuable. And, since the argument from unwanted children must assume they are not valuable in order to succeed, it begs the question.

One might object to this charge by contending that value is attributed to humans precisely because they are wanted. Whether or not one is wanted determines whether one has value, and thus to say that the unborn is unwanted entails that they have no value. On this reading, the argument doesn’t beg the question.

However, it is relatively easy to think of a counter-example to this notion. Imagine that everyone you know suddenly decided that they no longer like you, and no longer want you. Your family abandon you, your partner separates from you, your employer fires you, and your friends snub you. Does it follow from this that you have no value? I suspect that your intuitions tell you that, even in such circumstances, you still have value, and as such it would still be wrong for someone to kill you. But if this is the case, then your value resides in you, not in whether other people want you, which is simply to say that whether you are wanted or not is irrelevant to whether you have value.     

  1. Finding Solutions vs Eliminating Problems

Another problem with the argument from unwanted children is that it confuses the notion of finding a solution with that of eliminating a problem. For example, it’s possible to cure a headache by chopping off one’s head, or to drive out termites by burning down the house. These courses of action do, in a sense, eliminate problems. However, given that they violate certain unspoken criteria within which one seeks a solution (e.g. to cure a headache but to remain alive, or to drive out termites but retain a home, or to eliminate unwanted-ness without killing human beings), they aren’t really solutions. As Francis Beckwith writes of a similar example:

One can eliminate the problem of poverty by executing all poor people, but this would not really solve the problem, as it would directly conflict with our basic moral intuition that human persons should not be gratuitously exterminated for the sake of easing economic tension. This “solution” would undermine the very moral principles that ground our compassion for poor people – namely, that they are humans of great worth and should be treated with dignity regardless of their predicament.[iv]

Granted, aborting unwanted children does eliminate a problem, namely, that of children being unwanted. But is this really a solution? My contention is that, given that the unborn are valuable human beings (which I’ve argued here), solving the problem of unwanted children by killing them in the womb is comparable to eliminating poverty by killing impoverished people. In both cases society rids itself of a problem by ridding itself of the humans who have the problem. Unwanted-ness does not justify this “solution”.

  1. Killing vs Potential Suffering

Katharine Whitehorn, columnist for The Guardian, exemplifies the argument in question when she writes “there’s a lot to be said for preventing babies from being born who are going to be unwelcome and therefore have a rotten childhood”[v]. Take note of the reasoning here—since the child will be unwelcome she will have a rotten childhood, and since she will have a rotten childhood, it’s better to prevent her from being born (which is a euphemism for killing her). There are at least two problems with this line of reasoning.

Firstly, Whitehorn’s argument hinges on the assumption that certain death is better for a child than potential suffering. But is this really true? Although unwanted children may suffer more than wanted children, there’s no guarantee that they will. Therefore, her claim must be that the probability that the child will suffer gratuitously is high enough that they’re better off dead. But how can we determine this probability? Given the countless variables in any individual’s life, it’s impossible. Furthermore, what level of suffering is sufficient to outweigh the drawbacks of death? An answer to this question depends on subjective considerations—how much suffering an individual can endure—and objective considerations which are hotly debated—e.g., what happens after death. It seems, then, that it’s simply too difficult to determine whether this assumption is true, and therefore it doesn’t provide a firm foundation for making life or death decisions.

Secondly, the idea that death is better than suffering is contrary to many of our intuitions about comparable situations. Take, for example, the following case. Someone at a warehouse climbs onto a shelf several metres above ground in order to remove a heavy, awkward item. In so doing, they fall from the shelf, landing on a hard concrete floor. They’re knocked unconscious, but a nearby First Aider rushes to the scene and determines that they’re breathing, despite having broken their spine and having suffered a deep gash to the head. To keep them alive, the First Aider rolls them onto their side to prevent their airways becoming blocked. By doing this, the First Aider has acted upon the assumption that it’s better for the injured person to remain alive and endure potentially lifelong suffering (i.e. paralysis, brain damage), rather than for them to die. Few people would approve of a First Aider who decided to let the patient suffocate because of the possibility of future suffering. This assumption, however, is contrary to the assumption underlying the argument from unwanted children. Although this example isn’t a knock-down argument in favour of keeping people alive despite suffering, at the very least it should prompt further reflection on the role that the potential suffering of a child might play in deciding whether or not to terminate a pregnancy. Is certain death the solution to potential suffering?


Recall that pithy catchphrase from earlier: “every child a wanted child”. It’s true that children fare better when they are loved and wanted.  It’s also true that abortion does provide a sort of “solution” to a profound problem. But is it the right solution? Does it take into account the value of human beings, and does it exemplify love and care for the unwanted? Allow me to make a bold suggestion: perhaps the problem is not that some children are unwanted. Perhaps the true problem is that we as individuals and as a society are not willing to love, care, and nurture those whom we don’t want. Perhaps we’d find that if we were willing to acknowledge the value of all human beings—even the unwanted ones—we’d eventually come to see that value ourselves, and our attitudes might be changed. The implications of this extend far beyond the abortion debate. My hope is that you’ll weigh and consider what is written in this post, and, if the reasoning is sound and the cause just, consider the implications for you, and for those around you. Perhaps, in time, every child can be a wanted child. 


 

Endnotes:

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

[ii] https://www.newsbusters.org/blogs/katie-yoder/2015/06/13/oitnb-justifies-abortion-blessing-ending-miserable-fcking-lives

[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, pp. 97-98.

[v] https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2016/jun/13/no-baby-should-be-punished-for-their-mothers-unsuitable-behaviour

The Criteria of Historical Authenticity

The so-called “minimal facts” are four facts about Jesus and the early Church that are accepted by the vast majority of critical scholars with terminal degrees in a relevant field. As such they form the “explanandum” or “thing to be explained,” in any informed and responsible discussion of what occurred on the first Easter Sunday. The minimal facts are,

Crucifixion and Burial. That after his crucifixion and death under the governorship of Pontius Pilate, Jesus was buried in a tomb by one Joseph of Arimathea.

The Empty Tomb. That days later the tomb was found to be empty by a group of Jesus’ female followers.

The Post Mortem Appearances. That thereafter various individuals and groups, at various times and places, had experiences that completely convinced them that they had seen, touched, spoken to and eaten with the risen Jesus.

A Sincere Belief in the Resurrection. That these experiences completely transformed the disciples, inspired a belief among them that God had raised Jesus from the dead and led to the formation of the Church.

Before weighing up the different hypotheses that have been put forward to account for these four facts, it is important to understand how they have come to enjoy such widespread assent among critical scholars.

Criteria of Historical Authenticity

Anyone can claim anything in writing—a point which applies to modern authors and, a fortiori, ancient authors since in the case of ancient authors we cannot appeal to contemporary eyewitnesses. On what basis, then, can we affirm that one historical claim is more likely to be true (or more likely to be false) than another? It is here that critical scholars apply what are called “critieria of historical authenticity.”

Before listing these it is important to first note that they state sufficient but not necessary conditions of historicity; in other words, that one or n number of criteria apply to p is further reason to regard p as historically authentic but that only one or none of the criteria apply to q is not a reason to regard q as historically inauthentic. It should also be borne in mind that they are not infallible guides to authenticity; rather, we should regard them as “Indicators of Authenticity.” We could summarise all this by just saying that the probability that some saying or event in the New Testament is historical is greater for its satisfying the criteria than it would be if it did not.

Early Multiple Attestation

According to this criterion the historicity of p is more probable if p appears in early, multiple and independent sources near in time and space to the alleged occurrence of p. It applies at many points to the New Testament of which I will give just one example here. The Resurrection appearances are multiply attested in Pauline and Gospel sources and were quickly proclaimed by the first Christians in the very city where Jesus had been crucified and buried. In his first letter to the Corinthians Paul says that the risen Jesus was seen by as many as five hundred witnesses at one time—and adds that many of those witnesses are still alive to be questioned. If Paul made up this claim and then announced it in the place where, within living memory of his audience, it was alleged to have occurred, he would have been exposed as a fraud. This gives us further reason for thinking that it is historically reliable.

Attestation has particular force when it originates in a hostile witness and we see this throughout the New Testament also. To again give just one example: The Sanhedrin, the Jewish court which engineered the crucifixion of Jesus, responded to the Christian claim that he had risen from the dead by accusing the disciples of stealing the body. This is an incidental admission from hostile witnesses of a fact that actually corroborates the Resurrection Hypothesis; namely, since the Sanhedrin would certainly have produced the corpse of Jesus if they could, the accusation strongly suggests that the tomb of Jesus was empty which is precisely what the Christians claimed a group of women had discovered on Easter morning. As Paul Maier notes, “if a source admits a fact that is decidedly not in its favour, the fact is to be presumed genuine.” 

Dissimiliarity

This criterion states that the historicity of p is more probable if p is dissimilar to the prior beliefs of those claiming its occurrence. The death and Resurrection of Jesus satisfy this criterion very clearly: Since first century Jews expected a Messiah who overthrows the Roman occupiers and a general resurrection at the end of history, a Messiah who dies and is individually resurrected in the middle of history represents a very strange and dramatic mutation within the Jewish worldview. N. T. Wright makes this point central to his massive study The Resurrection of the Son of God in which he argues that only the Resurrection itself can satisfactorily account for the emergence of a sincere Jewish belief in a dying and rising Messiah. The historicity of the New Testament claim that Jesus rose from the dead is thus highly probable on the criterion of dissimilarity.

Embarrassment

The criterion of embarrassment states that the historicity of p is more probable if p is problematic for the one who claims the occurrence of p—on the logic that an author fabricating a claim does not fabricate a detail that undermines the credibility of his own claim. It applies to many New Testament claims but to none more obviously than the crucifixion of Jesus. Prior to the Resurrection the Apostles had believed that Jesus was the Messiah prophesied to defeat the foreign occupying power and restore the throne of David in Jerusalem. His ignominious execution by the very foreign power his followers expected him to overthrow was therefore a profound embarrassment: It dashed their hopes of his triumph and appeared to confirm the Sanhedrin claim that Jesus was a false prophet accused by God. On the criterion of embarrassment the historicity of the crucifixion is highly probable.

The Criterion of Embarrassment applies again to the burial of Jesus. To appreciate this it is enough to know that Joseph of Arimathea, the man who both supplied the tomb and buried Jesus in it, was a member of the Sanhedrin; and the Sanhedrin was the Jewish court which had engineered the crucifixion of Jesus. If the Gospel authors wished to fabricate a story about the death and burial of Jesus they would not have given the Sanhedrin the dual role of murdering Jesus and then humanely laying him to rest. According to John A. T. Robinson of Cambridge, the entombment of Jesus by Joseph of Arimathea is, “one of the earliest and best attested facts about Jesus.”

It also applies to the discovery of the empty tomb by specifically female followers. And this is because, in first century Jewish culture, the eyewitness testimony of women was held in such low esteem that it was not permitted in a court of law. It is for this reason highly improbable that the Gospel authors would have hung a pivotal event in their story on the testimony of those witnesses least likely to be believed. The criterion of embarrassment suggests that both these inconvenient details—the burial of Jesus by a member of the Sanhedrin and the discovery of the empty tomb by a group of female followers—are truths reluctantly but dutifully recorded.

Historical Congruence

This criterion states that the historicity of p is more probable if p coheres with known historical facts about the context in which p is said to have occurred. This criterion applies at many points of the New Testament of which I will mention just one: The New Testament claims that Joseph of Arimathea requested the body of Jesus from Pilate so that he could bury it before the Sabbath; that Joseph and Nicodemus together bound the body in linen and placed it in a hewn tomb; and, finally, that when the Sabbath was over a group of female followers of Jesus arrived at the tomb with spices to anoint the body. Because all of these details are congruent with our knowledge of Jewish burial customs in the first century the criterion of historical congruence gives us further grounds for affirming their historicity. 

Semitisms

This criterion states that the historicity of a New Testament sentence p is more probable if it contains traces of an Aramaic or Hebraic origin. Since the New Testament was written in Greek and Jesus spoke Aramaic, traces of Aramaic in the Greek of the New Testament argue in favour of a primitive tradition that originates in Jesus. We see this, for example, in Paul’s quotation of a creedal tradition in Corinthians. “I delivered to you,” he reminds the Corinthians, “what I also received,” suggesting the transmission of an oral tradition. Paul then recites a list of eyewitnesses to the risen Jesus which, as Habermas and Licona point out, contains numerous hints of an Aramaic origin that would seem to vouch for its authenticity—including the fourfold use of the Greek term for “that,” hoti, common in Aramaic narration, and the use of the name Cephas (“He appeared to Cephas”) which is the Aramaic for Peter.

 Whatever hypotheses one defends will have to account for the four minimal facts mentioned above. And while I think it can be demonstrated almost beyond dispute that the Resurrection Hypothesis is an inference to the best explanation here, that is a topic for another post.

 

An Inside Look at the Work of the Thinking Matters New Zealand Foundation

AN AUCKLAND EVENT

This event is for Auckland friends who are passionate about how the Gospel of Jesus has the power to transform lives, communities and culture itself.  Also for those who support the work of Thinking Matters through prayer, financial support or by attending our events – and who want to know more about us:

Transforming Culture With Clear Thinking Christianity

An Inside Look at the Work of the Thinking Matters New Zealand Foundation

 

The evening includes the following two presentations:

To Reform the World: The Story of the Clapham Sect

Dr Roshan Allpress – National Principal & CEO of Laidlaw College

What does it look like when small groups of Christians set out to orchestrate social and cultural change? Between the 1750s and 1830s, networks of Evangelicals across Britain engaged in wide-ranging efforts to reform society and reorient Britain’s national and imperial culture. Through a series of vignettes, this presentation will consider how the Clapham Sect fostered intergenerational faithfulness, pursued rigorous intellectual engagement with the issues of the day, and developed innovative modes of organisation and activism.

Roshan is the Principal of Laidlaw College, New Zealand’s largest theological college. A historian by training, with degrees from Canterbury and Oxford, Roshan has research interests in the origins of philanthropic and humanitarian networks, and the social and intellectual dynamics of groups who have orchestrated sociocultural reform (such as the Clapham Sect). Prior to Laidlaw College, Roshan worked for the Venn Foundation (formerly the Compass Foundation) and for Maxim Institute – cultivating networks of young Christian leaders, and developing resources for these growing networks. He lives in Auckland and is married with two children.

Inside Thinking Matters: Impacting New Zealand with Apologetics

Rodney Lake – National Director of Thinking Matters NZ Foundation

2018 marks the tenth year that Thinking Matters has been growing the local apologetics community and equipping Kiwi Christians to make a gracious and clear defence of their Christian worldview. In this talk Rodney shares our passion for equipping the New Zealand Church – with highlights from the last decade and our plans for the next. This talk will give our friends, partners and supporters a deeper look into what we do – and why we do it.

Rodney is the National Director of Thinking Matters NZ Foundation. He speaks at churches, youth groups, Christian schools and non-believers at outreach events around the country on the reasons why Christianity is true. He is an adjunct apologetics lecturer at Faith Bible College, teaches regular ‘Introduction to Christianity’ courses at Bethlehem College and serves on the board of Bethlehem College Limited.

 

WHAT: Two presentations followed by a time of discussion and audience Q&A with both Roshan and Rodney.
WHEN: Friday 9th February
TIME: 7:30pm-9:30pm.

WHERE: The Cafe at Greenlane Christian Centre. Click here for a map.
RSVP: None – just turn up.
COST: Free – so invite a friend!

Please share this with anyone who has an interest in the work we do!

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