This category contains most of the information pages for Thinking Matters, such as contributor profiles, the about page, and so on.

What Is Wrong With Watching Pornography?

Has pornography really become morally and socially acceptable? If a fluff piece reposted on the Herald website is any indication, the answer is: Yes, it has, and for your information, it is now opposition to pornography that is morally and socially abnormal.

The article in question informs us that an American woman by the name of Claire Dolton was recently pilloried online after jilting her fiancé for the stupidest of reasons. “And the reason?” asks lifestyle reporter Vanessa Brown and then answers her own question: “Well, the guy liked to watch porn—gasp!”

Consider that sarcastic, editorialising gasp. It leaves the reader in no doubt of Venessa’s opinion. Claire Dolton is a pearl-clutching prude and her decision to break up with her fiancé over pornography is absurd. If pornography is to be approached with any moral reservation at all (and it is not clear from Vanessa’s article that it should) then, presumably, it is on a level with double-parking and the late return of library books: A naughty foible unworthy of serious concern.

If it is absurd to be solemnly opposed to masturbation and pornography then the Christian Church has been absurd for twenty centuries. The Catechism of the Catholic Church declares that, “pornography does grave injury to the dignity of participants,” and lists masturbation as a mortal sin—where “mortal” means serious enough to destroy one’s relationship with God. Luther and Calvin believed likewise as is clear from their voluminous writings. And there is no possible reading of Matthew 5:27-28 (in which men are forbidden to, “gaze at a woman to lust after her,”) that does not proscribe pornography for any man who wishes to obey the teachings of Jesus. [1]

In the digital age, meanwhile, pornography has never been more abundant, more accessible and more accepted. [2] Clearly, then, there is a chasm between what the Church teaches and what society practices. In what follows it will be my concern to show that Christian teaching on this issue is morally coherent. My argument will be that the Church upholds and promotes an ideal of human sexuality that is most conducive to the production of virtue and happiness while forms of human sexuality that deviate from this ideal, and in this instance pornography and masturbation, are productive of vice and therefore morally wrong.

It Is Disordered

Let me begin with a modest claim about masturbation and pornography: It is highly doubtful that a good counterargument can be mounted against the view that it is disordered—where “disordered” is understood to mean, “contrary to the normal and healthy functioning or purpose of something”—in this case, human sexuality.

Clearly enough, a boy who discovers that he enjoys rubbing his genitals has not discovered the unitive and procreative ends towards which the motivating urge is directed. Who can deny that he still has an important further fact to learn about sex? Or, if the masturbator is an adult man, who can deny that what is missing from the room when he masturbates is as critical to the completion and fulfilment of human sexuality as is an opponent to a solitary man on a tennis court who wishes to play a game of tennis?

The theologian Peter Damian has even suggested that masturbation is a form of low-grade homosexuality—a point which entails masturbation is disordered ipso facto for heterosexual men whose sexual desires are directed at the female sex. [3] I will admit that I initially laughed at Damian’s suggestion—but it is nevertheless reasonable on reflection. For consider what is happening when a man masturbates: In a room in which a woman is nowhere to be found, a male hand is bringing a penis to orgasm—so be it that the hand and penis belong to the same man. In The Porn Trap, Wendy and Larry Maltz make the further point that, for this very reason, heterosexual boys have always tried to use pornography to “heterosexualize” masturbation,

Rather than focus on the fact that they are stimulating male genitals, they can focus on the reassuring presence of a female.

The obvious qualification that no female is actually present gives the lie to the attempted deception: For in the final analysis masturbating to heterosexual pornography is no more a form of “heterosexual sex” than a shoe is “food” if while eating it I look at pictures of bread.

Here an objector may simply allow that pornography and masturbation are disordered and ask: Is what is disordered necessarily wrong? Thomists think the answer to this question is Yes and their position, called Natural Law Morality, is not as easy to refute as you might think. But showing that masturbating to pornography is wrong does not depend on a defence of Natural Law Morality. There are far less scholastic and more obvious objections at hand.

It Is Paradigmatically Selfish

That the act of sexually pleasuring yourself is paradigmatically selfish is, I hope, fairly obvious. John Paul II, in his Theology of the Body, argues that, “pornography and masturbation represent the destruction of the symbolic and nuptial meaning of the human body.” For, as he says, “God gives all men and women erotic energy,” that, “forms part of that attraction between men and women.” That, of itself, is a profound good. But it follows that,

Sexual energy needs to find its outlet in love, not lust: In masturbation that erotic energy is turned in on oneself. Masturbation, therefore, is a symbol not of love but of loneliness.

Here an atheist reader will object that I have smuggled God into my argument. But the point is scarcely affected by the substitution of “Nature” for God as the origin human erotic energy. It is an obvious general truth that when the pleasure of sex is shared it opens one up to erotic and romantic affection and, ultimately, family love. Thomas Nagel, himself an atheist, sees this reciprocity as being what is essential to human sexuality.

Nagel proposes that sexual interactions in which each person responds with sexual arousal to noticing the sexual arousal of the other person exhibit the psychology that is natural to human sexuality. In such an encounter, each person becomes aware of himself or herself and the other person as both the subject and the object of their joint sexual experiences. Perverted sexual encounters or events would be those in which this mutual recognition of arousal is absent. [4]

On Nagel’s criterion viewing and masturbating to pornography would qualify as, “perverted sexual events” since there is not and cannot be a mutual recognition of arousal between two conscious selves.

It Therefore Impedes Virtue

Consider, by contrast, a man in a loving and monogamous marriage who refrains from pornography and masturbation. Such a man constrains his sexual activity to one woman with whom he is in love. He thereby enjoys the imposition of what is probably one of the few constraints upon the male libido that is stronger than the male libido—love itself. In other words, a loving husband who enjoys sexual release with the woman he loves and in no other way quickly discovers that in the interests of cherishing and respecting her he will frequently need to overcome and set aside his carnal urges—to give up on the idea of fulfilling some erotic fantasy that his wife finds embarrassing, for example; or to give up on the idea of having sex altogether in order to nurse his wife because she feels unwell. In this way, over time, and by force of habit, his love and respect for the other must operate against and surpass his strongest instinct for pleasure. And as Plato said, “A man becomes brave by acting bravely.” He means that we shape our moral character over time by our moral choices. The implications of this should be obvious

You might object here that a loving husband who does not so constrain himself does all these things too only he also masturbates to pornography in private from time to time—perhaps the better to control his carnal urges. But this objection entirely misses the point. For the man who has an orgasm whenever he wants and with whatever fantasy or pornographic aid he wants does not enjoy any inter-personal constraint upon his sexual release. C. S. Lewis understood this well when he wrote,

The real evil of masturbation would be that it takes an appetite which, in lawful use, leads the individual out of himself to complete and correct his own personality in that of another and turns it back; sends the man back into the prison of himself, there to keep a harem of imaginary brides … For the harem is always accessible, always subservient, calls for no sacrifices or adjustments. Among those shadowy brides he is always adored, always the perfect lover; no demand is made on his unselfishness, no mortification ever imposed on his vanity.

And It Promotes Vice

Much of what I have said so far could be applied to masturbation alone. But masturbation is almost always coupled with pornography abuse—and this is much graver. Lewis himself wrote well before the spread of online pornography. But his warning has only become more relevant and more urgent.

It is logical: You cannot love, respect and will the good of another human being and simultaneously find pleasure in watching them do something harmful or have something harmful done to them. The question arises: Is choosing to become a pornographic actress a good thing for a woman to do?

The question can be brought home by imagining that your mother, sister, daughter or wife is the woman in question. Sexual intercourse has the potential to be the most wonderful experience of human life—from its romantic and unitive force in a loving relationship to its production of children and so of family love. Contrast this with the life of a pornographic actress for whom sex and love are alienated so that her body can be objectified for profit.

If you cannot with perfect equanimity entertain the prospect of one of your female loved ones becoming a pornographic actress then you are morally compromising yourself every time you watch and masturbate to pornography. For to enjoy pornography and masturbation one has to follow the opposite moral path of the man who constrains his sexual activity to one woman with whom he is in love; namely, he has to allow his sexual desires to eclipse his love and respect for the other; he has to view woman and girls with limited financial and emotional agency as objects worthy to be used and misused for the sake of his own sexual enjoyment. And to do so—and to make a habit of doing so—is, Plato reminds us, simply to become a perverse, selfish, callous and unloving person.

This argument holds with respect to any form of pornography whatever; but it holds a fortiori with respect to the sort of pornography that has become almost normative online in recent times. There are various studies that can now be found on the prevalence and frequency of verbal and physical aggression towards woman in pornographic videos today. A fairly typical example reviews 304 popular videos and reports that,

88% of scenes contained physical aggressive behavior, such as choking or hitting, and 49% contained verbal aggression, mostly name calling. Almost all (94%) of aggressive behavior was directed towards women and elicited a positive or neutral response.

The Herald itself should know better. A month before it posted the above article, it ran a story on an online discussion among pornographic actresses in which it was revealed that, “rape, abuse and exploitation are shockingly common.” And when it is remembered that viewing pornography online produces ad revenue for those that promulgate it, it is not an exaggeration to say that men who view pornography are helping to fund the rape, abuse and exploitation of vulnerable women and girls. In this light, Claire’s mortification at her fiancé’s enjoyment of pornography does not seem quite so absurd.

The coherence of Christian teaching on this subject is, I believe, a small item of further evidence for the truth of the Christian Faith.

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[1] In this article I address myself to the problem of heterosexual men viewing heterosexual porn with a focus on the exploitation of women. This is because it is primarily men that view porn and it is primarily woman who are exploited. However, the same arguments could with very little need of emendation account for viewers and actors of any gender and orientation.

[2] For the coherence of Christian teaching on homosexuality see Revelation: From Metaphor to Analogy by Richard Swinburne, p.303-306.

[3] The Broadcasting Standards Authority would likely agree with Venessa Brown—having decided that a show in which headless human beings are selected worthy or unworthy of romance by an examination of their genitals was fit for prime time New Zealand television. You can read about their decision here.

[4] Quoted from this article on the Philosophy of Sexuality.

End of Life Choice Bill: A Response

Euthanasia is a weighty subject—a subject that cannot be broached without reflecting upon human suffering, harm, and death. Since the proposal of the End of Life Choice Bill (ELCB), euthanasia has been the subject of extensive public and private debate here in Aotearoa. For those unfamiliar with the bill, it proposes the legalisation of voluntary euthanasia for any person over the age of 18 who has a “grievous and irremediable medical condition”, who “experiences unbearable suffering that cannot be relieved in a manner that he or she considers tolerable”, and who can “understand the nature and consequences of assisted dying”[i]. In December 2017 the bill passed its first reading, and the second reading will be held once the Justice Committee have finished receiving public submissions. In this post, I will argue that the ELCB is flawed in such a way that renders it unacceptable as public policy. Briefly, my argument is that the safeguards in the bill are unable to sufficiently minimise the risk of patient manipulation, and, since the government should not accept legislation for euthanasia that fails in this regard, the bill should not be accepted.


Safeguards

Section 8(h) states that attending physicians must do their best to ensure that patients’ requests for euthanasia are free from external pressure, and three primary safeguards are outlined[ii]. The physician must:

  • Talk to “other health practitioners who are in regular contact with the person”
  • Talk with “members of the person’s family approved by the person”
  • Fill out a form detailing the actions he or she took to ensure that these obligations were fulfilled.

My contention is that although these safeguards offer some protection against manipulation, they do not sufficiently minimise the risk. As an example, consider this situation:

A family stands to benefit from the death of a terminally-ill relative. As such, they manipulate their ill relative into requesting euthanasia, even though it is not a choice she wants to make. Nonetheless, she informs her health practitioner of the “decision”, and requests euthanasia. The physician talks to the patient, as per the safeguards, who falsely affirms that the request was autonomous. The physician then converses with the family, who do not admit to having manipulated the patient. Consequently, the physician sends the necessary forms to the Registrar, which approves the request, and the patient is euthanised.

This example indicates that, even when the safeguards are followed, patients can nonetheless be manipulated into requesting euthanasia against their wishes.

Objections

There are two obvious rejoinders that would nullify this argument. Firstly, someone might contend that it is all very well and good to theorise about these kinds of abusive situations, but, in reality, no one would ever do such a thing. To this objection, I would quote ethicist J. D. Velleman: “no one would ever do such a thing as abuse his own children or parents—except that many people do”[iii]. In light of the atrocities that have occurred and do regularly occur in our society, the aforementioned scenario hardly seems unlikely. But, if it is not unlikely, then it deserves to be seriously considered, and should be a significant factor in our assessment of the worthiness of this bill.

Secondly, many people argue that there is no evidence of significant abuse or error occurring in countries and states where assisted-dying is currently legal. As one study indicates, “rates of assisted dying in Oregon and in the Netherlands showed no evidence of heightened risk for [vulnerable groups]”[iv]. When considering an increase in euthanasia among elderly persons, other researchers state “we deem it less plausible [than other explanations] that the trends indicate more vulnerable groups feeling increasingly forced to choose euthanasia”[v].

Two responses come to mind. Firstly, interpretation of these findings is mixed. Though some researchers conclude that there is no indication of abuse, others question both their methodologies and conclusions[vi]. In some cases, the data is consistent with error and abuse. For example, a study of euthanasia in Belgium found that life-ending measures were frequently enacted without an explicit request, and that in these situations “family burden and the consideration that life was not to be needlessly prolonged were more often reasons for using life-ending drugs”[vii].

However, a more fundamental consideration is this: if manipulation were occuring, it is not clear that we should expect to find evidence. After all, the abused person is deceased, and therefore cannot testify, while those who committed the abuse are unlikely to admit their wrongdoing. Since these are probably the only parties privy to the abuse, a lack of evidence is what we should expect both if manipulation is occuring, and if it is not. Therefore, absence of evidence does not equal absence of abuse.


In sum, I do not believe that the ELCB provides adequate safeguards against manipulation, and therefore it should not be accepted. If euthanasia is to be legalised, we as a society have a duty to make sure it does not adversely affect vulnerable people. As such, any proposed legislation must be subjected to rigourous scrutiny to determine whether it achieves this end. In this regard, I believe the End of Life Choice Bill fails.

 

Endnotes:


[i]ELCB Section 4: http://www.legislation.govt.nz/bill/member/2017/0269/latest/DLM7285950.html

[ii] ELCB Section 8: http://www.legislation.govt.nz/bill/member/2017/0269/latest/DLM7285956.html

[iii] Velleman, J.D. (1992). Against the right to die. Journal of medicine and philosophy, 17(6), p. 675.

[iv] Battin, M. P., van der Heide, A., Ganzini, L., van der Wal, G., & Onwuteaka-Philipsen, B. D. (2007). Legal physician-assisted dying in Oregon and the Netherlands: evidence concerning the impact on patients in “vulnerable” groups. Journal of Medical Ethics 33, p. 591.

[v] Dierickx, S., Deliens, L., Cohen, J., & Chambaere, K. (2016). Euthanasia in Belgium: trends in reported cases between 2003 and 2013. Canadian Medical Association Journal 188(16), p. 412.

[vi] E.g. Finlay, I. G., & George, R. (2011). Legal physician-assisted suicide in Oregon and The Netherlands: evidence concerning the impact on. Journal of Medical Ethics 37, pp. 171-174.

[vii] Chambaere, K., Bilsen, J., Cohen, J., Onwuteaka-Philipsen, B. D., & Mortier F, D. L. (2010). Physcian-assisted deaths under the euthanasia law in Belgium: a population-based survey. Canadian Medical Association Journal 182(9), pp. 896-897.

 

Engaging with people on the problem of evil

Guest article written by Michael Otto. Originally posted at www.nzcatholic.org.nz/2018/07/11/engaging-with-people-on-the-problem-of-evil/. Republished with permission from NZ Catholic.


It is not often that St Augustine and his wisdom are subjects of everyday conversation, but his thinking might be given more of an airing after US Christian apologist Mary Jo Sharp visited New Zealand. Mrs Sharp, a Professor of Apologetics at Houston Baptist University, spoke in Christchurch, Auckland and Tauranga recently, courtesy of Thinking Matters, a ministry that “encourages New Zealand Christians to think more deeply about what they believe, and why they believe it, so they can present the Christian faith as both rational and true”.

In Auckland, Mrs Sharp spoke at the Greenlane Christian Centre on May 25, with her main address titled “Encountering the Problem of Evil in Everyday Conversation”, at the start of a two-day conference on “Confident Christianity”.

She outlined a three-step approach for engaging people on this topic in a way that is aimed not at putting them on the defensive, but rather freeing them to think. The steps are essentially “refine the objections [to belief in God based on evil]”, “define the terms” and “outline your view”.

St Augustine’s treatment of the topic of good and evil was summarised under the second heading.

But Mrs Sharp, a former atheist, introduced the subject on a more personal note, sharing what happened on one occasion after she had given a talk at a women’s ministry event on life having meaning and purpose in God.

“At the end of my talk, a group of women came down to ask me some questions afterwards. There was one lady that just kept hanging towards the back of the group. She kept catching my attention because I noticed that her eyes were completely red. She had been holding back tears.

“As soon as everyone was gone, she made her way up to me and she said, I want to make sure that everyone else had a chance to talk to you because I’m having some real problems about my belief in God. My son died of leukaemia when he was three years old. And I can’t reconcile that with the Church’s teaching on God being good. So I just need to have some conversation with you on this matter.”

Mrs Sharp said this woman’s “questioning lament, her deep grief over the problem of pain and suffering in her own life, is something that is common amongst us as humans”.

“So while a person could say that the argument from evil seems purely academic . . . our experiences in this life continue to thrust it into the conversation, by means of our own suffering. We do not have the luxury of purely pontificating on the matter. We all experience evil and will have to handle it one way or another.”

“One of the first things we need to do,” Mrs Sharp said, “when we encounter this problem in conversation is help the person clarify their objection.”

“So what we are working towards is developing an environment in which both parties can add to the conversation in meaningful ways. So to help create the environment, we want to discover, how does the objector understand their objection? What do they think they mean. To do so we can ask questions, we should ask questions.”

Caveat

At this point, Mrs Sharp made a caveat, one of several that punctuated her talk.

“Because when the lady came to me and said, how can I believe God is good when my son died of leukaemia at three years old, I’m not going to launch into a series of questions to see if she knows what she is saying or what did she mean by that?

“The first thing I am going to do is figure out if this is a person who is grieving and they need me to console, or listen, or if this is a person who wants the answers. . . .

“So with the lady who came up to me, I said, what do you need? Do you need answers or do you need a hug, because I am good for both. She said I think I need a little of both. That’s my intro, that’s where I’m OK to keep going.

“You are going to hear me caveat this all the way through, because the problem of evil has been handled at such a philosophical level so removed from the experience of suffering, we feel that we can lay that philosophical bomb on people without considering where they are at.”

Having made sure her audience was absolutely clear on this point, Mrs Sharp continued: “One of the first questions I always ask is: What do you mean by that?”

“Do you mean to say that this particular instance of evil wouldn’t have happened if God was good?

“Do you mean to say that no evil ever happens if God is good?

“I will just keep asking clarifying questions until they find something that they can say, yes, that’s what I mean, and something I can understand too.” Having refined the objection in this way, the next step is to define terms, Mrs Sharp said, especially what is meant by “evil”.

“When someone makes an objection to God using the existence of some evil as the basis of that objection, they are making an assumption — they are assuming that evil is real.

“They have to believe that evil has some sort of real existence in order to make the objection.”

Mrs Sharp said she asks people making this objection to give their definition of evil and then she can respond with her own thinking.

“I suggest that in order for us to understand what is evil, we need to know what is good. The two concepts are inextricably tied together. For evil has a parasitic relationship to good.

“As St Augustine said, there can be no evil, where there is no good.

“Evil is not a thing in itself, evil is a corruption of some good thing, evil is a privation of good. That’s what we mean when we say ‘evil’ .

“There are various corruptions of good – physical, moral. . . .”

“So for objective or real evil to exist, some kind of objective good must exist as well,” Mrs Sharp said. “In order to make the objection to God on the basis of evil, we need to know what is good and where we get that from.

“What I hear most frequently are arguments that assume there is some kind of objective good and there is some kind of standard, without ever giving a basis for how we know something is good at all.

“What we need is a standard of goodness.”

Standard

Mrs Sharp explained what would be necessary for such a standard.

“Whatever they bring to you [as a source for a standard for goodness], what you are checking for in that source, is — does that source effectively establish a standard of goodness for all people, at all times, at all places, something that is unchanging and consistent, because that is what we mean when we say ‘standard’.

“Why? — so that everyone would have the potential to discover good, so that we can have can have intelligible and consistent discovery.

But some people might respond that there is no such objective standard, Mrs Sharp said.

“I might say something [to them]. . . along the lines of this seems to me to be a tremendously important issue to investigate. You seem to be a person who believes in good and evil, you seem to live like they are real, you also don’t seem to be the kind of person who wants to be deceived, or hold on to delusions, so it appears we might have to do some homework in this area between us. And I might suggest a book or a website article we both can read and then come back and discuss.”

But if people adamantly insist “there is no standard at all? Then there is no objection from evil [to the existence of God]”.

At this point in other, more fruitful conversations, it would be helpful to ask the person if the Christian view can be shared, Mrs Sharp said.

“I might say can I tell you why I believe Christianity offers an objective standard of goodness and why it further explains the presence of evil as well as offering answers to the problem?” she said.

Starting with Jesus’ statement that “no-one is good but God alone” (Mark 10:18), Mrs Sharp spoke on the goodness of God and how “objective moral values have their source in the eternal character, nature and substance of a loving, just and self-sufficient God” (quoting evangelical Christian philosopher Douglas Groothuis).

She then gave an outline of salvation history from an evangelical Protestant Christian perspective, finishing by stating: “God defeats the consequence of our evil, he defeats death. The way God does this is he steps into the experience himself.”

“Though the problem of evil is the greatest objection to the existence of God, as [philosopher] William Lane Craig says, paradoxically, at the end of the day, God is the only solution to the problem of evil. If God does not exist, then we are lost without hope in a life filled with gratuitous and unredeemed suffering.

“He said God is the final answer to the problem of evil, for he redeems us from evil, and takes us into the everlasting joy of an immeasurable good, fellowship with himself.” Mrs Sharp finished her talk by revisiting her conversation with “that lady I was talking to about the problem of her son”.

“I walked through this with her, and though I gave her a lot of answers, she has still got a long way to go.

“What I want to remind you of is it is not going to be that easy for people. The problem of evil is a very hard question. And though we can find the answers and say that makes sense, when you experience the problem of evil, when you experience pain and suffering in your own life, sometimes it is going to feel like it doesn’t make sense. So we need to remind ourselves of what God is doing on that cross for us.

“It is the most powerful event in human history.”

The Simulation Hypothesis

The Hypothesis

The concept of a computer simulation is familiar enough to the modern reader. It is a model world built by a computer scientist to test his or her theories of meteorology, the spread of diseases, economics and so forth. The proponent of the Simulation Hypothesis begins by supposing that there are no limits to the development of this technology: It may be that our scientifically advanced descendants will be able to build and run simulations that replicate life on Earth with exhaustive accuracy—digitally reconstructing not only the atomic composition of every object on Earth but also the neurological structure of every human brain. And this, they suggest, has the unsettling entailment that the postulated simulation might include a simulated but conscious version of you and me.1

Present day simulations single out a particular natural phenomenon for analysis. What possible purpose could such unconstrained simulations serve? Westerhoff offers a suggestion.2 We often wonder how history might have turned out if some small but crucial detail of the past had been different. What if, say, Mao Zedong had died of a heart attack during his famous swim across the Yangze River? To us such questions are unanswerable. But perhaps not to our descendants. They could (so the theory goes) run a simulation of Earth between 1875 and 2018, a simulation that matched to history at every point with one exception: Mao Zedong dies on July 16, 1966.

And here, claims Westerhoff, arises a still more unsettling possibility: The possibility that we are living in one of these simulations; the possibility that, say, Mao Zedong did die in 1966 and the architects of the simulation are interested to see how human history would have turned out had he lived. Nor should our ignorance of our unreality come as a surprise: Since the historical persons on which we are modelled did not believe they lived in a simulation, nor do we.

It is a wild hypothesis. But if we are willing to indulge for a moment its key presuppositions, it also has a certain probabilistic force. And this is because there is in principle no obvious limit to the number of simulations our descendants might choose to run. It is not unreasonable to suppose that they would run tens of thousands or even millions of simulations. And in that case the 100 billion actual humans who have ever existed on Earth might comprise a tiny fraction of the sum total of conscious beings—simulated and actual—who have ever existed. And in that case the probability that you are a simulated human being is on balance greater than the probability that you are an actual human being.3

On the face of it the Simulation Hypothesis (like Last Thursdayism, like Berkeleyan Idealism) would appear to be undisprovable: Faced with any datum advanced against the hypothesis, the proponent could claim that that datum is also part of the simulation. If that were how things stood the hypothesis would still be rationally unaffirmable.However, I am now going to argue that the Simulation Hypothesis is demonstrably false.

A First Pass: Westerhoff

Westerhoff himself considers an argument against the scenario.

Since the computer supervening over the simulation could not be infinite in its computational resources, there is, he says, a regress problem for any simulated world that can run its own simulations, which simulations, ex hypothesi, could run their own simulations in turn, and so on, infinitely. And so any world in which simulations are possible or even an accessible concept is probably not itself a simulation: The architects of the simulation, if they exist, would need to calibrate the program to avoid this scenario.

A Second Pass: Natural Theology

Westerhoff’s counterargument is of limited force. A proponent of the Simulation Hypothesis could just postulate that there is some undiscovered constraint in the simulated physics of our universe which prevents an infinite regress of simulations.5 But this need not trouble an opponent of the hypothesis which faces far more serious difficulties.

The first arises from Natural Theology. Since in its usual formulation, and also by definition, the Simulation Hypothesis imagines that our observable universe is a simulation of an actual universe, even allowing that we are in a simulation fails to discharge all the traditional arguments of Natural Theology. We can therefore argue of the actual universe (which we observe in the mirror image of the simulation) what philosophical theologians have always argued; namely, that Theism is an inference to the best explanation for the ex nihilio origination of material reality, the fine tuning of the laws and constants of physics, the origin of life and human mental and moral experience.

What possible relevance does Natural Theology have to the Simulation Hypothesis? It might be argued that the Simulation Hypothesist could simply set the question of the existence of God to one side. Its relevance is this: If these arguments obtain and God exists there are good a priori grounds for believing that a perfect moral agent would not allow fallible moral patients to themselves become moral agents over other moral patients in an unlimited and unconditional way—in the manner of Roko’s Basilisk. So the proponent of the simulation theory has an insupportable burden of proof to shoulder. To make his argument plausible he must prove that God does not exit.

Here, as a last resort, a Simulation Hypothesist might deny that our simulated universe bears any meaningful resemblance to the actual universe. The philosophical cost of this reply is high (since it would greatly attenuate the grounds for postulating the hypothesis in the first place) and profits him not at all. For the most forceful and indefeasible argument for the existence of God is the Cosmological Argument which obtains so long as a single finite and contingent particular is observed.6 And since the simulated universe, if it exists, is itself a contingent and finite particular, the Cosmological Argument obtains even if we allow that we can know nothing at all of the actual universe. As before, to make his argument plausible, the Simulation Hypothesist must first discharge the most forceful argument of Natural Theology in order to prove that God does not exit.

The Death Blow: The Hard Problem

The foregoing difficulties are considerable. But they are trivial compared to the central problem with the Simulation Hypothesis.

In postulating conscious minds that exist in a computer, the hypothesis presupposes that consciousness can be instantiated in a physical substrate and thereby presupposes in turn and without argument a solution to the so-called Hard Problem of consciousness. In fact, it can be shown that mental states are irreducible to the physical in principle. A key feature of the hypothesis is therefore falsifiable. To warrant serious attention, the proponent of the Simulation Hypothesis must first complete an insurmountable task. He must solve the Hard Problem by demonstrating how mental states (intentionality, qualia, first person ontology) are susceptible of reduction to the physical.7

The Simulation Hypothesis has a certain grip on the popular imagination— perhaps in particular among a generation who have grown up playing computer games. It does not, however, stand up to careful scrutiny.

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[1] It is worth noting a problem that arises with the Simulation Hypothesis right out of the gate: Recovering enough information about persons long-dead to simulate them is fundamentally impossible since most of the information would have been dissipated as heat and radiated away from Earth at light speed. No finite computing power, however powerful, could complete the task.

[2] Jan Westerhoff, Reality: A Very Short Introduction.

[3] Others, while entertaining the outlandish hypothesis, are more conservative in their probabilities. David Chalmers has estimated the probability that he is living in a simulation at 20 percent.

[4] Hoffman and Rosenkrantz take the view that if something belongs to a universal and commonsense ontology, “then there is a prima facie presumption in favour of its reality. Those who deny its existence assume the burden of proof.” Swinburne has formalised this idea into a basic principle of epistemology which he calls the Principle of Credulity: We should, in the absence of evidence to the contrary, believe that things are the way they seem to be. An unprovable and undisprovable hypothesis that conflicts with our universal and commonsense ontology is therefore to be dismissed on pain of irrationality.

[5] On this view the discovery of such a constraint would provide inductive evidence that we are in a simulation.

[6] See The Cosmological Argument.

[7] See the Argument from Consciousness summarised here in five parts: Qualia, Intentionality, Privileged Access, Nonphysicality and the Conclusion.

Why Does Anything At All Exist? Pt. 2

This is the second in a series of posts examining the argument for God’s existence from contingent beings. Click here to read the first post.

In my previous post, I presented the cosmological argument from contingent beings[i], and defended the second premise. As a reminder, here’s how the argument runs:

  1. Everything that exists has an explanation of its existence.
  2. The universe exists.
  3. Therefore, the universe has an explanation of its existence
  4. If the universe has an explanation of its existence, that explanation is God.
  5. Therefore, the explanation of the universe’s existence is God[ii].

In this post I’ll argue that (1) is plausibly true—that everything that exists has an explanation of its existence, and that nothing exists inexplicably.  


Observation Supports (1)

As far as observation and evidence go, (1) is very well supported. We regularly observe that things have explanations. For example, we observe that a particular animal exists because its parents reproduced and gave birth to it, or that a house exists because a builder was contracted to construct it. Furthermore, history shows that in instances when humankind once lacked good explanations for some phenomena, an explanation has since been discovered. This gives us good reason to think that someday we’ll be able to explain things that we currently cannot.

Additionally, if (1) were false, then we would expect to observe things that don’t have explanations. But this is not what we observe. As noted above, when we search for explanations, we generally find them, and have good grounds to think we’ll discover one if we don’t. Edward Feser writes “[if (1) were false then] events without any evident explanation would surely be occurring constantly, and the world would simply not have the intelligibility that makes science and everyday common sense as successful as they are. That the world is as orderly and intelligible as it is would be a miracle”[iii].

The Self-Evidence of (1)

As well as being supported by everyday observation, (1) is also somewhat self-evident; consider this example. Imagine you’re tramping through Aotearoa’s native bush with a friend. Together you marvel at the beauty of tui and fantails, and your friend offers intriguing explanations of their behaviours. As you walk and talk, you also ponder the comparative rarity of kauri trees and explanations for their scarcity. Moments later, you spot a smooth, translucent sphere resting among the bushes. “What’s that?” you wonder aloud. Glancing momentarily, your friend responds, “Oh that? It just exists inexplicably” and continues along the track.

What conclusion would you draw? Unless your friend has a propensity for extreme literalism, you would surely assume that she’s joking, and just wants to keep walking. Since we know that things have explanations, no one would take seriously the claim that the sphere literally exists without an explanation.  

Imagine further that the sphere was larger—large enough to encompass New Zealand. Would this negate the need for an explanation? What if it were the size of the earth, or as large as the universe? In both cases, it still calls for explanation. As William Lane Craig writes, “merely increasing the size of the ball does nothing to affect the need of an explanation[iv]”. Similarly, just as the sphere requires an explanation regardless of its size, so the universe seems to require an explanation, despite its immensity.


The idea that everything has an explanation of its existence, then, is supported both by our observation of the world around us, and by our intuitions regarding explanations. Several other arguments can be offered for this notion, and, if you’re interested in further reading, I recommend Edward Feser’s book “Five Proofs of the Existence of God” (particularly chapter 5). An obvious question raised by (1) is, “if everything has an explanation, then what is God’s explanation?”. It is to this question that I’ll turn in my next post.

 

Endnotes:


[i] Contingent beings are beings whose explanation lies in something outside of themselves. They are contingent upon another being for their existence. More on this, and why the argument is referred to this way, in the next post.

[ii] Craig, W. L. (2010). On guard: defending your faith with reason and precision. US: David C Cook, p. 54.

[iii] Feser, E. (2017). Five proofs of the existence of God. US: Ignatius Press, p. 149

[iv] Craig, W. L. (2010). On guard: defending your faith with reason and precision. US: David C Cook, p. 57.

The Argument from Consciousness: Conclusion

This is my fifth and last post in a series on the Argument from Consciousness—the basic form of which should by now be familiar. The argument begins by presenting properties of consciousness which cannot in principle be reduced to the physical. It then argues that the existence of conscious agents with these mental properties implicates the existence of a Nonphysical Conscious Agent as their originating cause.

My previous four posts have presented four of these properties (qualia, intentionality, privileged access and nonphysicality) and demonstrated that they are in fact insusceptible of reduction to the physical. And since the last property—libertarian free will—is one that I have already addressed on this blog in a previous post, the reader familiar with that post is ready to consider how irreducible metal properties constitute evidence for the existence of God.

Irreducible Mental Properties and Theism

Suppose that a safe is robbed and our working hypothesis is John stole the money from the safe. During the investigation we may discover two kinds of evidence. First, we may find John’s fingerprints at the crime scene and a sum of money on him matching the sum that was stolen. This will be a posteriori grounds for the truth of the hypothesis; that is, consequences to be expected if the hypothesis is true. Second, we may learn that John has a history of robbing safes and is also in debt. These will be a priori grounds for the truth of the hypothesis; that is, factors that belong outside the scope of the hypothesis but nevertheless increase its probable truth.

In what follows I am going to argue that the existence of agents with irreducible mental properties provide a posteriori grounds for the truth of the hypothesis of theism and that the hypothesis of theism gives us a priori grounds to expect agents with irreducible mental properties.

A Posteriori Grounds

Naturalism holds that mindless particles organised in various ways by mindless forces is all that exists. Theism holds that, “Mind, rather than emerging as a late outgrowth of the evolution of life, has always existed as the matrix and substrate of physical reality.” [1] It follows that irreducible mental properties are entirely to be expected if theism is true and not at all to be expected if theism is false. And this is because mind, while an intractable problem for the naturalist, is basic to a theistic ontology. God, the Basic Being, is a nonphysical conscious self with mental properties—such as intentionality, privileged access, teleology, rationality and free will. Irreducible mental properties therefore stand in the same relation to the hypothesis of theism as John’s fingerprints on the safe to the hypothesis that John robbed the safe. They are the consequences to be expected if the hypothesis is true and not at all to be expected if it is false.

A Priori Grounds

The Bible, moreover, teaches that God created man in his image. For this reason Abrahamic theists have a priori grounds for expecting irreducible mental properties to be instantiated if God exists. [2] It is no surprise on theism that our most novel and essential feature, our mental life, should be irreducible to the physical. And this is because it is imparted to us by our nonphysical creator. Free will, too, is provocatively suggestive of the imago dei since if man exercises libertarian causation he instantiates in miniature the principle of uncaused causation imputed to God in classical theism.

In Is There a God? Oxford professor of philosophy Swinburne finds further a priori grounds for expecting the existence of conscious agents on theism: If God is unlimited in power and intelligence, it is certain that he could create a universe that contained conscious agents; and if He is perfectly good, it is reasonably probable that He would. Writes Swinburne,

We have some understanding of what a good person will do. Good people will try to make other people happy, happy in doing and enjoying worthwhile things (but not happy in causing pain to others). Good people try to help other people for whom they are responsible (for example, their own children) to be good people themselves. Good people seek to share what they have with others and to cooperate with others in all these activities.

God, in other words, might reasonably be expected to create a universe in order to share with us the good things He has—a mental life, knowledge, freedom, love. All of these things require consciousness. And if all humans are to have access to the greatest good of all, knowledge of God himself, they will need to be able to develop sophisticated metaphysical and theological concepts which will require rational intuition and to undergo religious experiences which require conscious perception. It is therefore credibly probable that agents with these abilities will exist if there is a God but incredibly improbable that they would exist if there is not. [3] The benevolence and omnipotence of God therefore stand in the same relation to the hypothesis that God created conscious agents as John’s debt and criminal past to the hypothesis that John robbed the safe: They are factors that belong outside the scope of the hypothesis but increase its probable truth.

I conclude that the existence of conscious agents with irreducible mental properties provides evidence of two kinds that there is a God who created them.

—————————————————–

[1] I am quoting Anthony Flew writing in There Is A God.

[2] We need evidence of John’s criminal past before it can give us reason to expect him to have robbed the safe. Likewise, without independent reasons for thinking that a supreme being of the sort described by classical theism exists, this part of the argument would have no force. However, such independent reasons are available to the proponent of the argument—such as the nine lines of evidence for bare theism presented in Part II of this apologia. Thus the prior probability of the existence of God on evidence X (where God, if he exists, may reasonably be expected to create conscious agents whose existence is otherwise without available explanation) means that X makes the existence of conscious agents more probable. And since the existence of conscious agents with irreducible mental properties also makes the existence of God more probable a posteriori, the coincidence of the two kinds of evidence makes it very probable on the total evidence that God exists and created conscious agents with irreducible mental properties.

[3] Incredibly improbable since, as we have seen in the previous four posts, postulating that mindless particles organised by mindless forces is all that exists leaves us without the explanatory resources to account for our mental life. And of course this is no small matter: 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.

 

Why Does Anything at all Exist?

“Philosophy starts in wonder, and wonder impels us to find reasons for things”[i]

When I was a child, on the odd occasion I would find myself lying in bed at night, wondering what it would be like to not-exist. After confounding myself with such reflection, I was naturally led to wonder what it would be like if nothing at all existed. Is it possible that nothing could have existed? Why does anything at all exist? It seems possible that, instead of the cosmos existing, there could have been nothing at all. So why does it exist? It took mere minutes before my frazzled and awestruck mind gave up on these questions and slipped into slumber. Little did I know that such questions have been topics of reflection among intellectuals since the great Greek philosophers. In particular, the question of why anything at all exists is the foundation for a debated argument for God’s existence—the cosmological argument from contingent beings.


The Argument

Why does anything at all exist? Many would agree that things that exist must have an explanation; a reason why they are. Consider the universe—by which I mean everything that has existed, does exist, and will exist. If it’s true that things that exist have an explanation, then, provided the universe exists, there must be an explanation for its existence. Furthermore, various thinkers have suggested that if the universe has an explanation, that explanation is God. Their conclusion, then, is that God is the explanation of the universe’s existence. To summarise:

  1. Everything that exists has an explanation of its existence.
  2. The universe exists.
  3. Therefore, the universe has an explanation of its existence
  4. If the universe has an explanation of its existence, that explanation is God.
  5. Therefore, the explanation of the universe’s existence is God[ii].

This argument is logically sound—meaning that if someone wants to deny the conclusion (5), then they must deny one or more of the premises (1-4). At first blush, premise 4 may look as though the theist is assuming what she’s meant to be proving. Never fear—I’ll explain and defend that premise in a future post. For now, I’ll examine premise 3 and argue that it is plausibly true.

Is the universe a “thing”?

That the universe exists is patently obvious to virtually all people. You might wonder, then, why bother defending this premise? Well, although hardly any person would deny that the universe exists, some might deny that it is a “thing” that requires an explanation. After all, the universe is a collection of everything that exists, and not all collections of things are actually things themselves.

For example, consider the difference between your body and a collection of random items. Your body is a collection of body parts—hands, feet, legs etc.— and, I think, it is fair to say that it’s a “thing”. We can coherently ask questions like “why is my body weary?”, or “why doesn’t my body feel hungry?”. Or, if we’re feeling philosophical, we might wonder “why does my body exist?”.

In contrast, imagine you have a collection of items sitting on your desk. Included in this collection are a pen, your phone, and a water bottle. These three items are not a “thing” so to speak, but rather a collection. Though it makes sense to ask why any one of these individual items exists (i.e. “why does my phone exist?”), it doesn’t seem to make sense to ask “why does this collection of items exist?”. This is because the individual items are not unified in any way, and once each item has been explained there is no “thing” left to explain[iii].

The objection, then, is that the universe is more like the random collection than it is like your body. Once we explain every individual component of the universe, then there is no “thing” left to explain. And, if the universe is not a “thing”, then it may not need an explanation.

Defending Premise 3

How might a theist respond? Philosopher Stephen Davis argues that the universe is a thing since it possesses two essential properties of things. Firstly, it has an identity apart from other things. “The universe” is not the same as planet earth or your pet cat—it has a distinct identity. In other words, it’s something other than the earth or your cat, or any other thing that exists.

Secondly, it has properties. Davis writes, “[the universe] has certain unique properties like a certain pressure, density, temperature, space-time curvature, and so on. In its very early history everything was so smashed together that there wasn’t even atomic structure, so that the only thing there was the universe itself”[iv].

Davis also contends that, although the universe is a collection of things, it has a unifying principle, and therefore is more like your body than the collection of random items. All of the things that make up the universe are causally connected. For example, I exist because of my parents, who exist because of theirs. The leaf travels down the street because the wind blows it. The tide rises and falls because of the gravitational pulls of the earth, sun, and moon. We might describe the unifying principle of the universe as “the origin of all its members in some prior existing thing or things”[v]. For these reasons, Davis concludes that the universe is an existing thing.


I’m not certain that my boyhood-self would have understood this argument or its implications, but today, thankfully, I can, and I consider it a sound argument for God’s existence. If what Davis argues is true, then our common-sense intuition that the universe is something that exists is correct. Premise 3, then, is true. What remains is to determine whether the other premises are true, and that’s a task I’ll undertake in future posts.

 


Endnotes:

[i] Pruss, A. R. (2006). The principle of sufficient reason: a reassessment. NY: Cambridge University Press, p. 4.

[ii] Craig, W. L. (2010). On guard: defending your faith with reason and precision. US: David C Cook, p. 54.

[iii] Davis, S. T. (2006). Christian philosophical theology. NY: Oxford University Press, p. 4

[iv] ibid

[v] ibid

The Gospel According to Dawkins

The ‘new atheists’ have frequently ignored their best qualified critics, particularly in recent years. As Richard Dawkins tours NZ this month, will he continue with this trend? If his many confident claims about the core historical aspects of the Christian faith (an area well outside his field of expertise) were subjected to rational scrutiny and public debate, would they survive? Dr Graeme Finlay’s recent book ‘The Gospel According to Dawkins’ suggests not. It moves rapidly through a wealth of detail including a lot of quite recent work in the field, but in a very accessible way. The conclusion is clear – Dawkins and friends are well out of their depth in this area. 

Professor Dawkins needs little introduction, as a populariser of evolutionary theory who in the early 21st century used that platform to help develop the movement that came to be known as the ‘new atheism’, a movement widely believed to now be in decline, subject to as many attacks from fellow atheists as from believers.

Dr Graeme Finlay is a senior lecturer in the medical school at the University of Auckland, and an experienced participant in science-faith discussions, author of many helpful books (e.g. on evolutionary genetics), booklets and articles in the field, also having training in theology. For more background, here’s a transcript of an interview with him on this book. Dr Finlay is also a project director of the recently established NZ Christians in Science

The book starts with discussing the relation between faith and evidence, and the ways in which our culture, in particular our scientific worldview, is so inextricably embedded within the Christian tradition – many of the conclusions of which, ironically, many atheists take on faith. Not all faith must be blind in this way, however – “Dawkins asserts that faith ‘requires no justification’. But I gladly acknowledge Christian faith precisely because it is rooted in the empirical world of human history.” Indeed, Christianity is perhaps uniquely among the religions focused on historical claims rather than ecstatic experiences, rituals, or prosperity.

As background, in the first two chapters, Finlay briefly traces the history of science, and the pre-Christian foundation for science to the New Testament. He also shows the relevance of theology, particularly the biblical descriptions of God’s nature (e.g. good, acts freely, has supreme authority), in understanding Christian views of the world (respectively: matter is not evil; nature is contingent – must be observed; and nature is secure and not at risk of being overwhelmed by chaos).

Next, it is asked – did Jesus exist? Leading new atheists and many of their followers have flirted with the claim that he didn’t – keeping it as a live option, while (for most of them) never quite fully committing to it. The historicity of some parts of the Hebrew scriptures are briefly touched on to follow up on a comparison Dawkins made with king David. Then Finlay gives the various early non-Christian references to Jesus substantive treatment. These references are widely discussed in introductory writings on the topic, but ‘the Gospel according to Dawkins’ provides a lot of helpful context which I wasn’t aware of – particularly fascinating is the discussion around Tacitus’ treatment. Then, we have the writings of Paul, and early Christians from the end of the first century, with many fascinating insights along the way.

The rest of the book explores the authorship of the gospels (we can know more than often thought), the history of gospel scholarship, the transmission of the gospel texts (reliable), other writings that got called gospels (late and uninformative), the historical value of the gospels (high), the problem of sin, the crucifixion, the resurrection, and much more. A recurring theme is that the new atheists engage in something similar to science denialism when they disregard the findings of New Testament studies. This book is written by a scientist and touches on science-related issues in a few places, so is particularly suitable for those who have or think they have a scientific mindset. It also works well though as a general introduction to reasons to take basic Christian ideas seriously. 

One of these central ideas is the idea of sin, which Dr Finlay helpfully explores towards the end of the book. Dawkins castigates Christians for obsessing over this topic, but the chapter on sin helps to show why it is as crucial for our modern lives as to people in any other era. In particular, it is illustrated with careful discussion of the environmental crisis our society faces and which all of us living in the modern world contribute to. This is no unthinking fundamentalist tract, but instead the product of decades of scientifically informed Christian thought. 

I highly recommend this book, it is much more interesting than I can adequately communicate in this short review. There is material here for old Christians, new atheists, and everyone in between, including many helpful references to the wider literature. I hope that Professor Dawkins and many members of the movement he has given birth to will also read it – they may find here a path to the intellectually fruitful and personally fulfilling enlightenment which they seek.

Why not pick it up on kindle now?  And if you have comments after reading, feel free to get in touch with me to discuss them. 

Richard Dawkins is Coming to New Zealand, and That’s Good News!

(From Canterbury Evangelism Network and Thinking Matters)

Who is Richard Dawkins?

Richard Dawkins is an evolutionary biologist and science populariser. He is the former University of Oxford’s Professor for Public Understanding of Science. He has written many books including The Selfish Gene, The Blind Watchmaker, Climbing Mount Improbable and The God Delusion. He is a passionate rationalist who vigorously promotes science-based education, values and understanding. He is a staunch defender of atheism and a controversial critic of religious belief. He is well regarded by media and many academics as a top scientific thinker and a compelling public speaker.

Why is Richard Dawkins coming to New Zealand?

Dawkins is promoting his new book Science in the Soul in Auckland on May 10, 2018, and Christchurch on May 11, 2018. The book is a collection of 42 of his essays spanning three decades that proclaim the power and glory of science, the wonder of discovery, and the necessity of scientific thinking in diverse areas of society. He defends Darwinian evolution and natural selection, and the role of scientist as prophet. He responds to questions about whether science is itself a religion, the probability of alien life and the beauty and cruelty of life on Earth.

Why should the church be interested?

Dawkins has been identified as one of the New Atheists, a group that speaks critically against religion in the wake of the 11 September 2001 attacks on the World Trade Centre and Pentagon. He is well known for his criticism of creationism and intelligent design and non-rational approaches to social policy. In The God Delusion, he argues that there is almost certainly no God and that religion is a delusion. He equates religious indoctrination of children with child abuse and offers the following description of God:

“The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.”

How is this “Good News”?

Dawkins has brought the discussion of religious belief back into the public arena and we can be grateful for that. No longer simply a “private faith”, Christians are being asked to think carefully about what they believe and why they believe it in light of his strong attacks on Christianity. St. Peter encourages Christians to “in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect,” (1 Peter 3:15 NIV). The faith and witness of followers of Jesus Christ will grow and the Church will be strengthened when we seek answers and present them with humility and respect.

How should I think about the conflict of science vs. faith?

Is it always science or faith? Is it possible to be both? We enjoy many benefits that science has brought to our lives; modern medicine, electricity, automobiles and smartphones. We can find areas where we agree with Dawkins if we’re willing to listen carefully. We can learn to discern claims of verifiable facts from claims about the implications of those facts. Scientists, like all people, are just as susceptible to affirm or ignore evidence based on our view of the world. Remember that there are faithful, obedient Christians who believe in a young earth, an old earth and theistic evolution. Be gracious.

How can I engage my non-Christian friends and colleagues?

Pray to God with thankfulness. Dawkins’ visit is a gift that can open up conversations about Jesus. Listen carefully and genuinely seek to understand what others believe and why. Affirm areas of agreement with the Christian worldview. Resist a combative response, even if you feel defensive. If you don’t have solid answers to their questions, say so with humility. Offer to journey together to discover what is really true and whether it matters to our lives. Consider Paul at the Areopagus in Acts 17. He quoted pagan philosophers and poets to build bridges that moved people towards Jesus. He ignored those who sneered at his faith and instead went with those who were genuinely interested in learning more. Get out there and do likewise. In addition, explore some of the articles on this website, you might find something that speaks to the subjects that either you or those you know struggle with.

How can I pray?

We urge you to pray for Richard Dawkins. This is an important opportunity. Instead of being prideful, defensive or argumentative, we can choose to bless him as one created in the image of God and to pray for his salvation and a destiny that he has yet to embrace. We would love to welcome him into God’s Kingdom here in New Zealand. We choose to pray for revelation of the living God. We choose to pray for dreams and visions of Christ to flow into his life. It has been prophesied that this city is a place where people will come and meet God and then take the good news back to the nations. It is in this spirit that we believe good things for Richard and want him to have the blessing of knowing Christ.

What a privilege to pray for a man God loves and wants to rescue and restore. God used Saul to become one of Christianity’s greatest evangelists. He can use Richard Dawkins the same way.

If you would like to share this information with your church, download the Richard Dawkins Brief in PDF, print copies to A4 and then cut them into A5 sized handouts.

Is Karma consistent with reality?

Karma

We often hear people talking about Karma and many of them loosely use it to refer to someone getting payback for what they did in this lifetime. This puts us in an awkward spot if we want to talk about sin and how Jesus paid for our sins on the cross. To share the gospel, we would have to argue how the teaching of Karma is inconsistent with the real world that we live in.

But what is the actual meaning of Karma? The word literally means ‘action’ and the original teaching of Karma, or the proper meaning of Karma, is the idea that whatever you are in this life is just the consequence of your previous life choices.

The principle of Karma is that your good deeds loosen the grip of the sense-world and your bad deeds tighten its grip, throwing your soul deeper into corruption. Karma tries its best to explain the differences that we see in human beings, it implies that humans are what they are because of what they did in their past lives, as the majority of Hindus believe today. If some are blessed more than others, it would mean that God is partial, but this teaching lets him off the hook as God would not be responsible for any of the events happening today. It is simply the outworking of the Karma.

Eternal World?

As we go deeper into understanding Karma, the eternal nature of this doctrine becomes apparent. In the book The Crown of Hinduism, J.N. Farquhar explains,

“As every occurrence in the world is the effect of foregoing action, and as every action is followed by its retributive expression, it is clear that the process can have had no beginning and will have no end.” [1]

This leads to the conclusion that, if Karma is eternal and an absolute feature of the world, the world must be eternal as well. However, we have philosophical and scientific reasons to believe that the universe is not eternal. The following argument demonstrates how one cannot affirm both: that the doctrine of Karma is true; and that the universe had a beginning.

  • If Karma is true, then every action is the result of the foregoing action.
  • If so, then the world has no beginning and no end, in other words the universe is infinitely old.
  • We have scientific and philosophical reasons to believe that the universe had a beginning, that it is not infinitely old.
  • Therefore, one is not justified in holding both that (1) Karma is true and (2) that the Universe had a beginning.

If it is the case that one finds them self in agreement with the best of current philosophy and of current science, it follows necessarily that one cannot hold the teaching of Karma to be true.

Philosophical argument

Let’s try to wrap our minds around the concept of the ‘universe having a beginning’. The best philosophical argument presented to refute the claim of an infinitely old universe is the impossibility of an infinite regression of causal events. If there were an actual infinite number of past events, then “today” would’ve never come to be. J.P. Moreland in his book LOVE YOUR GOD WITH ALL YOUR MIND explains,

“It is impossible to cross an actual infinite. For example, if a person started counting 1, 2, 3… then he or she could count forever and never reach a time when an actual infinite amount of numbers had been counted. This is due to the nature of infinity – it is infinitely larger than any finite number. The series of numbers counted could increase forever without limit but it would always be finite. Trying to count to infinity is like attempting to jump out of a pit with infinitely tall walls – walls that literally go forever without top edges to them. No matter how far one counted, no meaningful progress would be made because there would always be an infinite number of items left to count.” [2]

He further adds,

“If the universe had no beginning, then the number of events crossed to reach the present moment would be actually infinite. But since one cannot cross an actual infinite, then the present moment could never have arrived if the universe had no beginning. This means that since the present is real, it was only preceded by a finite past and there was a beginning or first event!” [3]

This establishes the fact that actual infinites do not exist in reality. Thus if this is applied to the teaching of Karma, its absurdity is exposed from a philosophical point of view.

Scientific Support

We just learned a good philosophical argument for the fact that the universe had a beginning. However, what about the scientific evidence of a finite past? The big bang theory, as well as the second law of thermodynamics, points us towards the fact that the physical universe had a beginning. The Big bang theory is currently the only established theory that is consistent with the observed physical universe in all scientific literature.[4] We also know that the universe is expanding and if we were to go backwards in finite time intervals, we would reach a point where time, space and matter cease to exist.

Then we have the second law of thermodynamics. It states that the universe is running out of useful energy. The second law is also known as the law of entropy. Frank Turek in his book I DON’T HAVE ENOUGH FAITH TO BE AN ATHEIST explains this,

The second law is also known as the Law of Entropy, which is a fancy way of saying that nature tends to bring things to disorder. That is, with time, things naturally fall apart. Your car falls apart; your house falls apart; your body falls apart. But if the universe is becoming less ordered, then where did the original order come from? Astronomer Robert Jastrow likens the universe to a wound-up clock. If a wind-up clock is running down, then someone must have wound it up. This aspect of the Second law also tells us that the universe had a beginning.”[5]

At this point, some might consider a cyclical or oscillating model of universe, where it is argued that the universe is expanding and contracting from eternity past. However, these models have been routinely rejected in the scientific literature for suffering from the physical law of thermodynamics, causing each cycle to reduce the amount of useful energy. Entropy makes every cycle longer than the previous one, meaning if we were to go back in time, the cycles would become smaller and smaller until we come to an absolute beginning. This principle has even been proven in the Borde-Guth-Vilenkin theorem, where any universe which expands on average into the future, cannot be infinitely old, but must have an absolute beginning. [6]

From the aforementioned evidences, it is clear that we have good scientific reasons to support the claim that the universe had a beginning.

Conclusion

We have reasonable evidence that the universe had a beginning and thus the truth of Karma faces a strong defeater, both philosophically and scientifically. This leads us to the conclusion that if one follows the evidence available to them, they must abandon the teaching of Karma to believe what is evident, rather than what is akin to a made up fairy-tale.

References:

[1] Farquhar, J. N. 1913. The Crown of Hinduism. Miami, FL: HardPress., p. 139

[2] Moreland, J. P. 1997. LOVE YOUR GOD WITH ALL YOUR MIND. Colorado springs, CO: NAVPRESS., p. 162

[3] Ibid., p. 163

[4] Vilenkin, Alexander. 2012. “Did the Universe have a Beginning?” Accessed April 29, 2018. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NXCQelhKJ7A

[5] Geisler, Norman L. & Turek, Frank. 2004. I Don’t Have Enough FAITH to be an ATHEIST. Wheaton, IL: CROSSWAY.,p.77

[6] Vilenkin, Alexander. 2012. “Did the Universe have a Beginning?” Accessed April 29, 2018. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NXCQelhKJ7A

The Argument from Consciousness: Nonphysicality

Introduction
This is my fourth post in a series on the Argument from Consciousness. The argument begins by presenting properties of consciousness which cannot in principle be explained on a naturalistic ontology. It then argues that the existence of conscious agents with mental properties that cannot in principle be reduced to the physical implicates the existence of a Nonphysical Conscious Agent as their originating cause. [1] My previous posts in this series discussed qualia, intentionality and privileged access. In this post I will be discussing the intractable nonphysicality of mental states; that is, I will be showing that, unlike our physical properties, our mental properties are in principle irreducible, unquantifiable and insusceptible of evolutionary explanation.

Nonphysicality
A crucial problem for naturalism is that mental states differ greatly in every important respect to physical objects. This is something that is obvious on even superficial analysis. A desire for roast beef has no length; nostalgia lacks spatial extension; the mental picture of a tiger is without weight. Beliefs, moreover, are true or false and right or wrong—properties that have no meaningful application to physical objects. The flux of brain signals associated with the impulse to commit murder is not immoral; the axons and dendrites associated with the false belief that Shelley wrote The Rime of the Ancient Mariner are not themselves “false.” Nor can the physical structure of the brain (its electrochemical impulses, say, or its neurones) be lucid or confused or naive or cynical in the way that thoughts and beliefs undeniably can be. “How,” asks John Searle, “can we square the self-conception of ourselves as mindful, meaning-creating, free, rational agents with a universe that consists entirely of mindless, meaningless, unfree, nonrational, brute physical particles?” The answer, Moreland suggests, is, “Not very well.” [2] In the following paragraphs, I will detail three reasons for thinking that consciousness is impervious to a naturalistic explanation in principle.

Mental States Are Irreducible In Principle
Reduction in the physical sciences is achieved by distinguishing mental phenomena from more fundamental physical phenomena and giving primacy to the physical phenomena. Warmth, for instance, is reduced to molecular energy in thermodynamics. Thereafter, molecular energy is understood to be what warmth, “really is.” Sensory perception is subjective and can show variation between individuals and species. We therefore move toward a more objective knowledge of the world when we understand it in this way; when we understand warmth as the way in which molecular energy is perceived in consciousness; or understand colour as the way in which electromagnetic wavelengths are perceived in consciousness—and so on. “What the evidence of the history of science shows,” notes Swinburne, “is that the way to achieve integration of sciences is to ignore the mental.” But, as Nagel has shown, an intractable circularity problem arises when we come to the mental itself: We do not move towards a more objective understanding of consciousness along analogous lines when we attempt to understand consciousness as the way in which brain activity is perceived in consciousness: It is incoherent to reduce consciousness to some more fundamental physical phenomenon and ignore the former because the former, consciousness, is the very thing we are attempting to explain.

Mental States Are Unquantifiable in Principle
Physical objects differ from each other in measurable ways. As a result, we can have general laws that relate quantities in all bodies by a mathematical formula. Rather than an exhaustive index of laws (an object of mass n and velocity p colliding with one of mass q and velocity r results in t—and so on for innumerable different cases) it is possible to formulate a single law that, “For every pair of objects in collision the mass of the first multiplied by its velocity plus the mass of the second multiplied by its velocity is always conserved.” The problem for any psychophysical theory of mind is that thoughts do not differ from each other in measurable ways. One thought does not have exactly twice as much meaning as another one; nor could one put a figure on the strength of a remembered odour or weigh the poignancy of a memory. An infinitely long list of psychophysical laws matching every possible brain state to a mental state is impossible in practice and useless in theory. An elegant and simple general law describing the correlation of brain states and mental states, on the other hand, is unachievable in principle. “Above all,” adds Swinburne, “there could not be a formula that had the consequence that this brain would give rise to my mind and that one to yours rather than vice versa. We could discover at most that there were these connections, not why there were these connections.”

Mental States Defy Evolutionary Explanation In Principle
Natural selection is a theory of elimination. It explains why variants thrown up by evolution are eliminated. But it does not explain why they were thrown up in the first place. In the case of physical variants (the countershading of a moth, say) there can be an adequate explanation in terms of a mutation that causes the variant to appear in accordance with the basic laws of chemistry. But our problem is to explain why a particular physical state produces a particular mental state. Natural selection can perhaps explain how, having appeared in evolutionary history, conscious animals survived; and it may explain how they developed a preponderance of true beliefs. [3] But it cannot explain the origination of the most novel feature of human beings: Their conscious life. Moreover, so long as an organism generates the correct behavioural outputs in response to stimuli, it will survive: Functions that organisms can and do execute unconsciously. For this reason conscious states are, strictly speaking, superfluous to evolution and so lie beyond its explanatory limits. [4]

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[1] Further argumentation will need to be given to justify the claim that the nonphysicality of the mind makes theism more probable than naturalism. This will be the objective of the last post in this series.
[2] For Moreland’s argument see his Consciousness and the Existence of God: A Theistic Argument.
[3] Note, however, that Plantinga denies this. See his Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism, which I discuss here.
[4] The foregoing is a paraphrase of the detailed discussion of these points in The Existence of God by Richard Swinburne (Chapter 9: Arguments from Consciousness and Morality) as well as Mind and Cosmos: Why The Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False by Thomas Nagel and Moreland’s book cited in [2].

Religious Pluralism: Is There Really Only One Way to God?

Introduction

One of the essential tenants of Christianity is that Jesus is the only way to God. As it says in John 14:6 (NIV) – “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” However, the idea of religious pluralism has become so pervasive in our culture that many now believe that there are ‘many roads to God.’ All religions – Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism – lead to the same God. They just take different roads to get there. This view is anchored in several misconceptions about logic, culture, and truth claims.

The Conundrum of Contradiction

Firstly, when it comes to pluralism, simple logic shows that this view is philosophically incoherent. Justification for this comes from the law of non-contradiction, which insists that contradictory truth claims cannot simultaneously be true. For instance, the religion of Islam teaches that God is a Unitarian being, while Christianity teaches that God is Trinitarian. Furthermore, Hinduism and Buddhism say we are reincarnated after death, while Islam and Christianity teach that heaven or hell is our final destination. Consequently, to state that all of these views are true at the same time is as inconsistent as saying that three plus three equals six and seven. The answers are mutually exclusive. It’s possible that they are both false, but it’s not possible that both are true.

The Barrier of Cultural Bias

A second line of reasoning some people like to assume is that the truth claims of all religions are equally false. Their objection goes like this: ‘All moral and spiritual claims are the product of our particular historical and cultural moment, and therefore no one should claim they can know the Truth, since no one can change whether one assertion about spiritual and moral reality is more true than another.’(1) This idea, centred in the theory of social constructionism, would have us believe that our understandings of God are merely social constructs influenced by history, geography, and the culture around us. For example, some may argue that ‘one is only a Christian because they have grown up in a context where Christianity is the prevailing worldview. However, if they were born in the Middle East they would have likely grown up believing the teachings of Islam.’ Sociologist Peter L. Berger notes that many have concluded from this fact that, because we are all locked into our historical and cultural locations, it is impossible to judge the rightness or wrongness of competing beliefs.(2) Yet, Berger goes on to say that if you infer that the social conditioning of a belief means ‘no belief can be universally true for everyone,’ that belief is itself a comprehensive claim about everyone and is also the product of social conditions meaning it also cannot be true, on its own terms. ‘Relativism relativises itself’(3) says Berger. Therefore, this argument is self-refuting.

The Paradox of Pluralism

The third logical failure, is the presumption within pluralism that undermines its own claims. The belief in one way to God – also known as exclusivism – affirms the possibility that one religion is objectively true and therefore, contradictory religious claims are false. “Pluralism says we must reject exclusivist truth claims about religion and instead embrace all religious views as equally true.”(4) The irony is, pluralism turns out to be exclusivist too – by excluding exclusivism. On that account, pluralism attempts to get others to abide by rules that it itself is not willing to submit to.

Conclusion

By examining the framework of pluralism under the lens of logic, considerations of culture, and the analysis of truth claims, it becomes clear that this way of thinking cannot stand up under scrutiny. First, the fact that all truth that is objective, is by its very essence exclusive, shows that Pluralism is simply incoherent. Second, if religion is defined to be a social construct and thus can be dismissed as false, then Pluralism must also be so classified and rejected as false. Finally, Pluralism excludes all those who have beliefs that are exclusivist, and as such fails its own test. This third point is in direct contrast to the message of the New Testament that claims the offer of salvation is available to all. Instead of being exclusive Christianity is actually very inclusive. Everyone is welcome to come to Jesus. It does not matter who they are, or what they have done. The Bible tells us, “…whoever believes in Him shall have eternal life” (John 3:16).” (5)

(1) Keller, Timothy. The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism, Pg 9-12. Penguin, 2009.

(2) Ibid.

(3) Berger, Peter L. A Rumour of Angels: Modern Society and the Rediscovery of the Supernatural. Harmondsworth: Pg. 40. Penguin, 1969.

(4) Stonestreet, John, and Brett Kunkle. A Practical Guide to Culture: Helping the Next Generation Navigate Today’s World, Pg. 323. David C Cook, 2017.

(5) Morrrison, Jon. Clear Minds & Dirty Feet: A Reason To Hope, A Message To Share. CreateSpace Independent Publishing, 2013.