Wednesday, March 30, 2011

The Problem of Worship - Aikin

I must say, I’m looking forward to Scott Aikin and Robert Talisse’s new book Reasonable Atheism. From what I gather, the book will deal with the status of belief in God in a liberal democratic state. This is a topic I’m interested in and have covered on the blog before.

I’m currently preparing an article on this topic (as a spinoff from my own PhD research), and I’m interested to see whether Aikin and Talisse’s book has usurped me by making the argument I want to make. Since the book has only just been released, and will probably take several weeks to reach me here in Ireland, I’ve decided to go through the following article by one of the book’s co-authors:

The article makes the argument that God cannot exist because there can be no being who is a proper object of worship (which is what God is supposed to be). Along the way to reaching that conclusion, Aikin makes some interesting comments about the nature of moral agency and the nature of worship.

In this post, I try to summarise and reconstruct the parts of Aikin’s article that focus on worship and the obligations of moral agency. I do not really focus on the claim that God does not exist. This is for an important reason: Much and all as I enjoyed Aikin’s article, I had some serious problems when I tried to reconstruct the argument that he offered. I doubt readers will be interested in these problems, but if they are, they might like to read this exegetical note. Anyway, as a result of my problems, I have deemed it appropriate to reconstruct large parts of what he had to say.

1. God and Worship
We begin with some propositions about the nature of God and worship. The first proposition is:

  • (1) If God exists, then he is a proper object of worship.

This statement seems relatively uncontroversial. As far as I am aware, most theists think that God is worthy of worship. Indeed, many structure their lives around the worship of God. Later, I will suggest that there are two types of worship and that ultimately God is only an object of one of them.

For now, we move on to the question: what does it mean for something to be a “proper object of worship”? Aikin suggests the following answer:

(2) For any object X, if X is the proper object of worship, then all rational moral agents are either:
  • Obliged to worship X;
  • If they worship, they are obliged to worship only X.

Aikin reckons that 2(a) is more typical of the religious attitude toward God, but 2(b) allows a chink of light for those with a more liberal attitude to worship. 2(a) seems more typical because it is often claimed (by some Christians, at any rate) that those who do not worship are somehow guilty of a moral crime.

2. Rational Moral Agency and Worship
We turn now to consider what the act of worship actually entails and whether it is compatible with the demands of rational moral agency. This is where my first major deviation from Aikin’s presentation occurs. To make sense of his argument, I find it necessary to distinguish between two types of worship: (i) conditional-worship or c-worship; and (ii) unconditional-worship or u-worship.

The act of c-worship can be said to look something like this:

(3) For any rational moral agent (A), if A c-worships X, A’s c-worship consists of three elements: 
  • (a) Conditional obedience to X and the demands that X’s existence and properties place on A. 
  • (b) Belief that X is worthy of worship; 
  • (c) Performance of communicative and ritual acts expressing (a) and (b).

The act of u-worship differs from this in one respect only: the obedience is unconditional (we’ll give the proposition stating u-worship the number 4). As will be seen, part of the argument here is that the worship of God could only come in an unconditional form. This is bad because it violates the demands of rational moral agency.

To be a rational moral agent is, by definition, to exercise autonomy over one’s moral life, i.e. to not be ultimately under anyone else’s authority. It is, however, rational to be conditionally obedient or deferent to another being. For example, I am conditionally obedient to the officers of the law in my home state. But I reserve the right to retract this obedience.

I could not be unconditionally obedient to another being. This would be tantamount to a denial of my rational moral agency. It it would involve relinquishing my moral autonomy. So:

  • (5) Unconditional submission, obedience or deference to another being contravenes the requirements of rational moral agency.

Now we are ready to make some arguments.

3. Argument: It is not reasonable to believe that God is a proper object of c-worship
The first argument claims that God cannot reasonably be believed to be a proper object of c-worship. We begin by stating the conditions under which c-worship would be reasonable:

  • (6) If A is to reasonably believe that X is a proper object of c-worship, then A must reasonably believe that X has some property (W) that makes X worthy of c-worship.

This principle is an internalist and evidentialist one. It states that it is never reasonable to accept a conclusion about X’s worthiness of worship without having some evidence or internal knowledge of a W-property to support that conclusion. Non-evidentialists or externalists might be inclined to dispute this principle, but it seems unimpeachable to me. U-worship would not depend on this evidentialist/internalist premise.

We follow this principle with a claim:

  • (7) God has no properties that would make him worthy of c-worship.

And this leads to the obvious conclusion:

  • (8) A cannot reasonably believe that God is a proper object of c-worship.

The argument is sound, but in need of considerable support. Premise (7) is the key. What might encourage us to think that God has no properties that make him worthy of c-worship? Well, if we consider all the properties that are traditionally ascribed to God (separately and jointly) and it turns out that none of them would warrant conditional obedience to him, then the claim might be justified.

So let’s go through all of these properties.

We can take the properties of necessity, immateriality and personality as a group. It is pretty clear that none of these properties would warrant even conditional worship. For example, I am not obedient to other human beings simply because they are persons, they have to earn obedience in other ways. Similarly, immateriality and necessity seem insufficient by themselves to warrant worship or conditional obedience.

Maybe God deserves c-worship for creating us and the world in which we live? The analogy often given here is that of giving thanks to someone who gives you a gift. Two things need to be said about this. First, giving thanks is not equivalent to worship (of either variety). Second, creation seems to be a pretty mixed-bag: some parts of it are good, but others a genuinely horrid. It would be difficult to say that a being deserved worship for providing us with such a mixed-blessing.

How about omnipotence? As has been noted by others, submission to an all-powerful being simply in virtue of the fact that it is all powerful seems to be akin to accepting a fascistic, or totalitarian authority over your life. This would not be compatible with the strictures of moral agency.

Maybe omniscience is a better candidate? Deference to somebody who knows everything seems rational, right? Not so, says Aikin. He makes an interesting argument here. He suggests that any being who deserves our conditional worship would have to respect our right to privacy. After all, the right to think one’s own thoughts is a core component of moral agency. But a being who knows everything would not respect your right to privacy and so would not deserve c-worship.

Then there’s omnipresence. This is even worse than omniscience. A being who was always with you, who never let you alone, would be a harasser. It would not respect your right to be let alone. As such, it could never deserve c-worship.

Perhaps the best candidate property is omnibenevolence. After all, obedience to a being that is perfectly good would seem compatible with our moral agency. Well, perhaps, but then we get into a problem about worshipping a specific being or worshipping an ideal of moral goodness. Worshipping the ideal would not bring with it obedience or the ritual acts of worship. And if we are worshipping a specific being then there is the problem of knowing whether the being truly is truly omnibenevolent. Evidence from scripture and from the problem of evil should give us pause for thought on this front. These problems are often resolved by appeals to faith or to the limitations of human knowledge, but if we were to accept these solutions we would be heading into u-worship territory, i.e. worship without an evidential basis.

According to the Bible, God commands us to worship him and him alone. It’s right there in the first commandment. Should we therefore worship him because he commands us to do so? Obviously not. You would not worship me if I commanded you to do so, and you would be right not to do so.

This raises another possibility though. Perhaps a combination of omnibenevolence and commandment would suffice for c-worship? If God is all-good, then God is a reliable source of moral instruction. And if one of his instructions is to worship him, why not follow it? The response is that a being who commands us to worship him would seem, by that very act, to lose its claim to moral perfection. To command us to worship would be a petulant, self-aggrandising action, not one we would expect of a morally perfect being.

Finally, maybe God deserves worship because he is the redeemer, saver and the keeper of the keys to eternal life? This won’t do either, these properties might make it prudent to worship God, but they do nothing to say that God is worthy of worship.

In conclusion, none of the properties traditionally ascribed to God make him worthy of c-worship. This allows us to construct the following argument in support of (7), above:

  • (9) God is traditionally said to have the following set of properties: (i) necessity; (ii) immateriality; (iii) personality; (iv) creator; (v) omnipotence; (vi) omniscience; (vii) omnipresence; (viii) omnibenevolence; (ix) commander; (x) redeemer.
  • (10) None of the properties (i) - (x) make (or should make one think) God a proper object of c-worship.
  • (7) Therefore, God has no (or should not be thought to have) properties that make him worthy of c-worship.

This conclusion might seem a little strong. It could, after all, be the case that God has other properties, unknown to us, that make him worthy of worship. But to worship him on the basis of unknown properties would amount to u-worship, not c-worship. If the believer wants to appeal to such properties in support of c-worship, then they need to produce the goods and tell us what they are.

4. Argument: We are obliged not to worship God
The next argument follows on from the previous one. It could proceed in one of two ways. I’m going to outline a shorter version of it. This is quite different from the version presented by Aikin.

The argument comes in two stages. The first looks like this:

  • (11) If it is not reasonable to believe X worthy of c-worship, then it would only be possible to u-worship X.

It is not reasonable to believe God worthy of c-worship.

  • (12) It is not reasonable to believe God worthy of c-worship.
  • (13) Therefore, it would only be possible to u-worship God.

We then add to this argument a premise drawn from our earlier claims about what is and is not compatible with the demands of moral agency:

  • (14) Rational agents are obliged not to u-worship any being (from 5).

The idea here is, obviously, that unconditionally surrendering to another being would be contrary to one’s obligations as a moral agent. This is a strong claim and it has interesting implications:

  • (15) All rational moral agents are obliged not to u-worship God (from 13 and 14).

And since we have already (2) said that worship involves communicative and ritual acts, it would follow that:

  • (16) All rational moral agents are obliged not to engage in communicative or ritual acts of u-worship.

This is a conclusion that could have some interesting political and legal consequences, to say the least.

5. Argument: God (probably) does not exist
The final conclusion of Aikin’s article is that God does not exist. It is difficult for me to reach a similar conclusion given my reformulation of what Aikin had to say. Particularly, my effort to draw a distinction between two varieties of worship would weaken the argument significantly to one about the inadequacy of current conceptions of God.

Rather than give my own argument, I will offer a simplified version of the one Aikin offers:

  • (1) If God exists then he is a proper object of worship.
  • (2) If X is a proper object of worship, then A would be obliged to worship X.
  • (3) There is no being whom A is obliged to worship (from preceding argumentation).
  • (4) Therefore, there is no being who is a proper object of worship.
  • (5) Therefore, there is no God.

I’ll look at James Rachels version of this same argument in another post. That’s it for now.

Exegetical Note: Aikin's "The Problem of Worship"

I like arguments. I particularly like arguments with a formal structure made up of a numbered propositions and inferential relations. As is apparent from other posts on this blog, I also like constructing maps that represent the inferential relationships between the numbered propositions.

Given all these likes, one would think that Scott Aikin’s article “The Problem of Worship” would be right up my alley. After all, it consists of 15 numbered propositions, linked together by a series of inferential relationships. Alas, the article is not entirely satisfactory because the formal argument that Aikin presents suffers from a number of deficiencies.

I think there are three main reasons for these deficiencies (i) typographical errors result in conclusions being drawn from the wrong premises; (ii) inconsistent use of terminology leads to conclusions that are unrelated to the premises; and (iii) two major conclusions are reached which, although related, are distinct.

I’ll give examples of each of these problems below. On the whole, I don’t think any of these deficiencies substantially detract from the persuasiveness of Aikin’s article. I wouldn’t discuss it if I thought it without merit. But they do, I think, justify my attempt to reconstruct his argument rather than directly summarise it.

Problem One: Typographical Errors
It is common in philosophical argumentation to state from which premises one is drawing a particular conclusion. Aikin does this at several points in his article (conclusions 9, 10, 11, 13, 14 and 15). The problem is that, on two of these occasions, the premises from which the conclusions are drawn are misidentified. The first example is (10) which states the following (p. 110):

  • (10) Therefore, A is not obliged to hold any object to be worthy of worship (from 6 and 9).

The problem is that premises (6) and (9) state the following, respectively:

  • (6) If A has no reason to see any property W of X as making X worthy of worship then A is obliged not to worship X.

  • (9) Therefore, there are no W-properties any A may reasonably see as making any x worthy of worship.

The difficulty this poses should be apparent. Although (9) is fine, (6) is a principle stating that A is under a positive obligation (duty) not to worship X in certain circumstances. But the conclusion reached is that A is not obliged to hold any object to be worthy of worship (i.e. not worshipping is morally permissible). This is not a conclusion about A’s positive obligations so could not be drawn from premise (6).

The problem is easily corrected. (10) can be drawn from a combination of (5) and (9) because (5) says the following:

  • (5) If A is obliged to view X as worthy of worship, then A must have reason to see some property W of X as making X worthy of worship.

Given the facile nature of this correction, I presume the problem is the result of typographical error.

The same basic problem occurs again in relation to (11), which states:

  • (11) Therefore, A is obliged not to hold any object to be worthy of worship (from 7 and 9).

This can’t be right because (7) is principle stating when it is reasonable to believe that an entity is worthy of worship, not a principle stating what our positive obligations are with respect to worship. Once again this problem is easily corrected. Premise (6) does state a principle relating to positive obligations, so (11) can be drawn from a combination of (6) and (9).

There is another typographical error in the conclusion when Aikin refers to premises (8) and (9) in relation to evidentialism. I presume he meant to refer to premises (5) and (6).

Problem Two: Inconsistent Use of Terminology
The correction of (11) does highlight another problem with Aikin’s article. As can be seen above, (11) is a conclusion about A’s obligations to hold an entity worthy of worship, whereas (6) is a premise about obligations to worship in general. So even with my correction, (11) cannot properly be drawn from (6). A more general conclusion can reached, viz. “A is obliged not to worship any x”.

There is a way to solve this problem. It requires that we go back to premise (3) which defines what is involved in the act of worship:

(3) For any rational moral agent A, if A worships x, A’s worship is the joint performance of three acts:  
  • (a) A is unconditionally obedient to X and to the demands that X’s existence and properties place on A;  
  • (b) A views x as absolutely worthy of worship;   
  • (c) A performs rituals or communicative acts expressing 3(a) and 3(b)

As can be seen, believing x to be worthy of worship is part and parcel of the act of worshipping, so it would be implied by reaching the more general form of (11). Of course, we could repair this in another way by going back to (6) and changing the principle so that it is restricted to “obliged not to hold x worthy of worship”. The problem is that this approach seems unnecessary.

Allowing for the more general form of (11) does create some downstream problems. In particular it means that the additional argumentation that Aikin offers for (13) is redundant since (13) just states that rational moral agents are obliged not to worship any entities - a conclusion that will have already been reached by (11). I think Aikin is aware of this himself since just after stating (11) in the narrow form, he states (p. 110) “given that we shouldn’t worship God (on 11)”. This is clearly a general claim about worship not a claim about worthiness of worship.

There is another problem arising from terminology. This one relates to the use of the word “unconditional” in premise (3), given above. The inclusion of the word suggests that Aikin thinks the act of worship necessarily involves unconditional obedience. Aikin follows this up by stating (well, to be fair, he does offer an argument) that:
  • (4) Unconditional submission to any authority contravenes the requirements of moral agency.
If we accept this premise (and I think we probably should), then it automatically follows that we should not worship any being. Why? Because Aikin has already defined worship as including unconditional obedience (I am assuming obedience and submission are interchangeable).

This is weird because Aikin goes on to stress that conditional obedience is allowable. He then considers whether God possesses any properties that would make him worthy of conditional obedience (he actually refers to worship, not obedience, further muddying the waters). This argumentation seems unnecessary if he thinks worship involves unconditional obedience. Only if he thinks some kind of conditional-obedience-based worship were permissible would it be necessary to consider those arguments.

Thus I would be inclined to correct premise (3) by removing the term unconditional from the definition of worship. This would leave premise (4) intact.

Problem 3: What is the Argument?
A final problem I have with Aikin’s argument is that it seems to mix-up related but distinct arguments and avoid making necessary arguments.

One of these arguments, probably the main one, leads to the conclusion that God does not exist. This conclusion is backed up by (roughly) the following chain of reasoning: there is no being that we are obliged to worship; God is supposed to be worthy of obligatory worship; so there must not be a God.

[Note: This chain of argumentation is problematic given the repairs undertaken above. In particular, if we drop the “unconditional obedience” clause from our definition of worship, then it is possible that there might be some entities who are worthy of worship. Thus we will have to offer an argument more like the following: God is supposed to be worthy of obligatory worship; None of God’s properties make him worthy of obligatory worship; so there must not be a God (at least going by present descriptions of his properties).]

There is also another significant argument about the practical or social implications of the fact that no rational moral agent is allowed to unconditionally surrender to another being. The argument is that since surrender to God would be unconditional, and would involve communicative and ritual acts of worship, it must be the case that communicative and ritual acts of worship are impermissible. Aikin makes this point in premise (12).

I think this is really interesting, but I think it is distinct from the main argument that Aikin is making and so is worth separating out from that argument. Maybe this desire to keep these points separate is just a personal quirk of my own. I am, after all, primarily interested in the socio-political aspects of what Aikin has to say.

A final problem arises from my confusion over whether Aikin is making an argument that is specifically about God or about all possible beings X. The conclusions that he reaches are certainly phrased in terms of “all possible beings X” (see his 9, 10, 11, 13 and 14), but the argumentation he offers focuses on God, not all possible beings.

This problem comes to the fore when Aikin infers (9) from (7) and (8). (9) was stated above and is clearly about the properties possessed by all possible beings. But (7) and (8), and the preceding paragraphs, are clearly about God’s properties. It seems then like an additional argument is needed which would run along the following lines:

  • (a) If any being is worthy of (unconditional) worship, then it is God.
  • (b) None of God’s properties make him worthy of (unconditional) worship.
  • (c) Therefore, it is unlikely that any being is worthy of (unconditional) worship.

This conclusion (c) would then effectively be equivalent to Aikin’s (8).

This exegetical note has been long and, perhaps, uninteresting. I want to be very clear that despite my problems, I enjoyed Aikin’s article and found much of value in it. I’m also aware that I have limited experience and credentials in the great game of philosophy. It may be that Aikin’s argument is coherent and that the problems I have identified are products of my own misunderstanding.

If that is the case, I am willing to be corrected.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

The Possibility of Historical Evidence for Miracles (Part 3)

This post is part of my series on miracles. For an index, see here.

I am currently working my way through the following article:

In this article, Morgan Luck assesses Richard Swinburne’s argument claiming that there can be strong historical evidence for miracles. Luck notes that Swinburne’s argument relies on three key assertions. We have evaluated the first two of these assertions already. Now we turn our attention to the third:

  • Assertion 3: There are conditions under which it is reasonable to assume a violation of a law of nature was caused by God

For the purposes of this evaluation, we are going to assume that we actually do have strong evidence for the occurrence of some kind of miracle. The question we now face is whether we can rightly infer that God is the cause of that miracle.

Swinburne concedes that we would never see God directly causing some miraculous effect. So we would have to make some kind of plausible inference from the effect to the existence of God. He thinks there are two methods for doing this.

1. Argument from Analogy
The first method is to make some kind of analogy between human intentional action and divine intentional action. In other words, we could say that a given miraculous effect seems to be the kind of thing that an agent would bring about (because it is similar to other things that agents like to bring about), but since it involves a violation of a law of nature it cannot be attributed to a human agent; therefore, it must be attributable to a supernatural agent.

To give an example, Swinburne asks us to imagine that 50-foot high fiery lettering appears in the sky reading “I caused these words to appear and I am a rational agent.” He then argues that we would be warranted in inferring that a rational agent caused the lettering to be.

That may be true, but does it warrant us in inferring that God caused it to be? Luck thinks not. He argues that the occurrence of such a violation of a law of nature, that is nonetheless typical of rational agency, is consistent with two other hypotheses: (i) a natural rational agent causing the event by natural means and (ii) a natural rational agent causing the event by means of an intermediary non-natural event.

The first of these hypotheses may elicit a raised eyebrow or two from the reader, but it is perfectly consistent given the definition of a law of nature with which Swinburne is working. As you no doubt recall from part one, for Swinburne a law of nature is a generalised axiom that achieves the best combination of simplicity and strength when applied to the available data.

Under that definition, it is perfectly possible for a natural rational agent to cause a violation of a law of nature by natural means. Presumably, this would just involve the rational agent making use of some as-yet-unknown natural process. Arthur C. Clarke’s famous comment that future technology would be indistinguishable from magic seems apposite here.

So it’s back to the drawing board for Swinburne. On his return, he may stipulate that when making inference to the existence of God, he is assuming that we have evidence that the miraculous event was caused by non-natural means.

One wonders what this evidence would look like, but let’s grant Swinburne the possibility. Even then, Luck argues, he would not be warranted in inferring God. It is, once again, perfectly possible for a natural rational agent to cause the event through a non-natural intermediary process. The possibility being invoked here is logical, not physical or metaphysical, but it is still enough to defeat Swinburne’s argument.

2. The Argument from Prior Belief
Swinburne can bounce back from this defeat. He can argue that we have prior evidence for the existence of God, and that this prior evidence gives us some indication of the kinds of things God would like to bring about. Combining this evidence with the prima facie occurrence of a miracle, might allow us to infer the existence of God.

This is certainly true, but it weakens the apologetic importance of the argument from miracles. No longer are we using the occurrence of a miracle to support the existence of God. Instead, we are using the existence of God to shape our interpretation of a prima facie miracle.

Even if we are willing to tolerate this approach to miracles, problems remain for Swinburne. Two are of particular importance.

First, it is still possible for the event to be attributable to a natural rational agent. Why so? Well, it all comes from the problem of deception. A natural agent, knowing the character of God, could try to mimic him by causing some apparently miraculous effect. (I covered this kind of objection previously in relation to a non-natural event).

Second, go back to part two and look at the discussion of the principle of causal closure (PCC). As noted there, even if we have good prima facie evidence for the occurrence of a miracle, the violation of the PCC makes it virtually impossible to know which particular miracle occurred. This makes it very difficult to know what kind of character is being revealed by a miraculous event.

3. Conclusion
That completes Luck’s evaluation of Swinburne’s case for historical evidence of miracles. We can summarise as follows:

  • Assertion One - "A violation of a law of nature is possible": Luck agrees with this assertion. Adopting Lewis’s Systematic theory, a law of nature is a generalised axiom, from which conclusions about natural events can be deduced, with the best combination of simplicity and strength. It is possible for there to be non-repeatable counter-instances to such laws.
  • Assertion Two - "The existence of particular present events could be indicative of the prior occurrence of particular violations of the laws of nature": Luck objected to this on the grounds that once we allow for the violation of the PCC, evidence can be consistent with any number of miracles.
  • Assertion Three - "There are conditions under which it is reasonable to assume that a violation of a law of nature was caused by God": Luck objects to this on the grounds that it is possible for miracles to be caused by natural rational agents.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

The Possibility of Historical Evidence for Miracles (Part 2)

This post is part of my series on miracles. For an index, see here.

I’m currently looking at the following article from Morgan Luck:

In this article, Luck assesses Richard Swinburne’s argument for the viability of strong historical evidence for miracles. As noted last time, Swinburne’s argument is based on three key assertions. We have already considered the first of these assertions, in this entry we’ll consider the second:

  • Assertion 2: The existence of particular present events could be indicative of the prior occurrence of particular violations of the laws of nature (thanks to event causality).

With this assertion, Swinburne is distinguishing himself from those who think that the chief or sole evidence for a miracle is the testimony of eyewitnesses. He is claiming that we could have hard, physical evidence for the prior occurrence of miracle.

1. Jones goes down to the river
The general principle upon which Swinburne’s argument rests is the following:

  • If event E consists in a state of X being followed by a state Y, and we have a trace of state X and an observed later state Y, then we have some evidence that E occurred.

To illustrate the principle, Swinburne asks us to imagine the following story of a man named Jones and his remarkable river-crossing adventure. The story begins with us observing Jones’s footprints in soft mud on one side of the river and Jones himself on the other side. We know for a fact that footprints in this soft mud could not have been left more than a minute ago. We also observe that Jones’s clothes and body are dry and that there are no bridges, boats, aeroplanes or ropes nearby which he could have used to get across.

Under these circumstances, Swinburne argues that we are justified in inferring that a miracle of some kind has occurred. Specifically, that Jones has walked on water. The argument rests on a simple inference that makes use of the principle outlined above:

  • Jones's walking on water would be followed by a dry Jones being on one side of the river and his footprints being on the other side, provided no other means of transportation was available.
  • We have evidence of a dry Jones on one side of river, & his footprints on the other side, with no other means of transportation apparently available.
  • Therefore, Jones must have walked on water.

2. The Principle of Causal Closure
Luck thinks there are serious logical problems with Swinburne’s argument. This is because the possibility of a violation-miracle undermines the indicative strength of historical evidence.

To see why this is the case, we must first appeal to something known as the principle of causal closure (PCC). The PCC is a commonplace is debates over free will and determinism. It maintains that every event is causally determined by a combination of physical laws and the prior physical states of the universe.

The great advantage, from an explanatory point of view, of the PCC is that it means one need only cite natural causes to explain natural effects. The problem for Swinburne is that miracles would violate the PCC because they involve a supernatural agent disrupting the ordinary course of events. This creates problems for the kinds of inferences we can make from present day evidence to events in the past.

3. Using the Principle of Causal Closure
These problems become readily apparent when we consider how we make use of the PCC in our everyday lives. You are making use of the principle right now. As you read this, you are assuming that there is computer screen in front of you upon which some text is displayed. You assume this because you know that, in the ordinary course of events, light is being reflected from the computer screen, is travelling into your eye and on into your brain where the perception of the screen is created.

All of these assumptions rely on the PCC because they assume that one physical event determines another physical event. If the PCC is violated, then these assumptions go out the window. We have to accept other possible explanations of our experiences. For example, you would have accept that there is a possibility that there is no computer screen in front of you and that your experience is an illusion created by God.

Applying this to the case of Jones and the river we note that, without causal closure, it is:
“...quite possible that Jones could have swum across the river and god afterwards caused him to be dry, or god may have spontaneous[ly] created fresh footprints on one side of the river and Jones may never have crossed, alternatively God could have directly created the sensation that we are observing a dry Jones and he is in fact soaking wet after having swum across the river.” (Luck 2005, 16)
Other scenarios are possible as well.

The violation of the PCC thus creates a problem for the proponent of historical evidence for miracles. Luck is at pains to point out that the problem is a relatively modest one. He is not claiming that there can never be evidence for the occurrence of miracles. He is simply claiming that the evidence could be consistent with any number of potential miracles.

Despite its modesty, I think Luck’s point is important. Miracles are often deemed to be theologically significant because of the particular form they take. For example, the resurrection is thought to have particular theological significance for God’s plan of salvation. If it turns out that the evidence for the resurrection is consistent with a large number of potential miracles, then these theological interpretations of the resurrection fall by the wayside.

That’s it for this post. Next time out, we’ll consider Luck’s evaluation of Swinburne’s third and final assertion.

Monday, March 21, 2011

The Possibility of Historical Evidence for Miracles (Part 1)

This post is part of my series on miracles. For an index, see here.

Over the next few entries I will be going through the following article:

Luck, M. “Against the Possibility of Historical Evidence for Miracles” (2005) 44 Sophia 7

In this article, Luck assesses Richard Swinburne’s argument for the viability of strong historical evidence for miracles. At the outset, Luck notes that Swinburne’s argument is based on the following three assertions:

  • Assertion 1: It is logically possible for a violation of a law of nature to occur.
  • Assertion 2: The existence of particular present events could be indicative of the prior occurrence of particular violations of the laws of nature (thanks to event causality).
  • Assertion 3: There are conditions under which it is reasonable to assume that a violation of a law of nature was caused by God.

Luck sets out to evaluate the plausibility of each of these assertions. Although he ultimately agrees with assertion 1, he finds reason to doubt each of the other two assertions (particularly the second).

In this part, I will run through Luck’s evaluation of the first assertion. The analysis is hugely significant in the general context of the miracle debate where the appropriate definition of a law of nature, as well as the possibility of its violation, are key concerns.

We begin by considering two arguments to the effect that violations of laws of nature are impossible. These arguments already featured in my posts on Everitt’s discussion of miracles. They are given slightly more precise formalisations here.

1. The Argument from Necessity
The first argument comes from those who have a necessitarian conception of a law of nature. According to this conception, it is impossible to violate a law of nature because such a law prescribes a necessary set of relations between states of affairs. For a necessitarian theorist, a claim like “water boils at 100c at normal pressure” prescribes a relation that cannot be broken.

This gives rise to the following argument:

  • (1) A law of nature is a necessary relation.
  • (2) A violation of a law of nature is a violation of a necessary relation.
  • (3) A necessary relation cannot be violated.
  • (4) Therefore, a violation of a law of nature cannot occur.

This argument relies on the view that laws of nature are logically necessary. Some people might have a slightly more relaxed view on the type of necessity involved. Specifically, they might think laws of nature prescribe physically or naturally necessary relations. Under such a conception, would it not be possible for there to be non-physical or supernatural violations of laws of nature?

The answer is “no”. Because under that conception a supernaturally caused event would not actually be a violation, but rather a positive instance of a physically necessary law. As follows:

  • (5) A law of nature is a necessary relation between natural events, iff those events have natural causes.
  • (6) A violation of a law of nature is a violation of a necessary relation between natural events, iff the natural events have natural causes.
  • (7) Miracles involve natural events with non-natural causes.
  • (8) A violation of a law of nature cannot be caused by a miracle.

So it seems that, on either necessitarian view, there cannot be a violation of a law of nature.

2. The Argument from Regularity
The necessitarian conception is not the only game in town. In fact, the more popular conception of a law of nature, at least since the time of Hume, is the regularity one. According to this view, a law of nature is simply a highly generalised description of the regular pattern of events.

And, so the argument goes, there cannot be a violation of a highly generalised description of the regular pattern of events. Why not? Because any putative violation would simply be a new piece of data to be accommodated by the highly generalised description. In other words, it would simply be evidence that the existing description is faulty and needs to be revised.

These sentiments can be given the following formal expression [note: this is a slight revision of the version found in Luck’s article]:

  • (9) Laws of nature are generalised descriptions of the actual course of events.
  • (10) Every event that occurs can be accounted for by these generalisations.
  • (11) A violation of a law of nature would be an event that could not be accounted for by these generalisations.
  • (12) Therefore, a violation of a law of nature cannot occur.

If this argument, and the necessitarian one, are sound, then it seems like Swinburne faces an uphill battle to defend his first assertion. How does he do it? Unsurprisingly, for those who are familiar with Swinburne’s work, his argument relies on the explanatory virtue of simplicity.

3. Swinburne on the Possibility of a Violation-Miracle
Swinburne begins by seeming to accept a broadly regularitarian conception of a law of nature. In other words, he takes it that a law of nature (L) is simply a highly successful description of events with some predictive power. He then defines a miracle as a “non-repeatable counter instance to a law of nature”.

Let’s assume that L stands for “no human being can levitate”. Now suppose that an event occurs (E) in which a human being levitates into the air. Swinburne points out that the occurrence of such an event could prompt us to formulate a new law of nature (L1) that accounts for the levitation in this particular instance. L1 would effectively add an exception-clause to L.

Swinburne then argues that while we could accept L1 as being the true law of nature, doing so might come at a cost. If L1 only accounted for the exception E, it would be more ad hoc and less simple than L. And Swinburne maintains that if reformulating L to account for E comes at the expense of simplicity, we would be justified in calling E a miracle (i.e. a non-repeatable counter-instance to L).

Luck thinks Swinburne’s argument in this respect is sound. He is persuaded by the fact that one of the most successful modern Humean approaches to the laws of nature -- Lewis’s Systematic theory -- allows for violations of this form.

According to Lewis’s theory, a law of nature is a generalisation that occurs as a theorem (or axiom) in an explanatory deductive system that achieves the best combination of simplicity and strength. As such, Lewis’s view can tolerate some violations of the laws of nature, provided the system as a whole maintains its simplicity and strength. As follows:

  • (13) Laws of nature are axioms with the best combination of simplicity and strength.
  • (14) It is possible that these laws may be substantially simpler and insubstantially weaker by not accounting for the occurrence of certain events.
  • (15) It is possible these unaccounted for events could be in violation of the axioms with the best combination of simplicity and strength.
  • (16) Therefore, it is possible for a violation of a law of nature to occur.

That concludes Luck’s evaluation of Swinburne’s first assertion. In the next post, we’ll take at look at his evaluation of the second assertion.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

The Problem of the Evil/Miracle Ratio (Part 2)

This post is part of my series on miracles. For an index, see here.

I’m currently working my way through the following article by Morgan Luck:

In part one, we saw how it was Luck’s goal to provide an argument that worked from premises concerning the nature of evil to a conclusion relating to the identification of miracles.

The first step towards this goal was taken by outlining Aquinas’s definition of miracles. According to Aquinas, a miracle can be defined as a super-creational effect, caused by God. If that definition is completely opaque to you, then you should really read part one before proceeding any further.

In this part, we’ll see how this definition feeds into Luck’s overall argument.

1. The Suitability of Aquinas’s Definition
Aquinas’s definition of miracles does not appeal to the traditional distinction between natural and supernatural events. For Aquinas, a miracle is simply an effect that is not within the power of a creational entity to cause. Thus, Aquinas allows for possibility of monistic miracles, i.e. miracles involving wholly supernatural or natural events. For example, the creation of an angel would count as a miracle for Aquinas, but would not involve any natural events.

The importance of this approach to defining miracles lies in the fact that it rules out, as not being proper instances of miracles, any events that are caused by supernatural creational entities such as angels or demons. This is an attractive approach for religious apologists because it necessarily restricts miracles to acts of God.

The question we need to ask is whether this definition is acceptable. Luck argues that one way in which to establish the suitability of a definition is to employ the paradigm case approach. This initially involves the identification of a paradigm instance of the term we wish to define, followed by a consideration of whether the definition captures this paradigm instance.

One paradigm instance of a miracle, according to Luck, can be found in Exodus 7. This is the case in which God turns Aaron’s staff into a snake. This is a paradigm case because (a) there is a strong religious tradition supporting the idea that this is a miracle and (b) there is a strong intuition to the effect that the instantaneous transmogrification of wood into a snake is miraculous.

But on this paradigm case, Aquinas’s definition seems to fail. Why? Because this is not a supercreational effect. According to the same book of the Bible (Exodus 7:11), it is within the power of a creational entity (an Egyptian sorcerer) to bring about the same effect.

Traditions and intuitions can be wrong, so are there other reasons to be wary of Aquinas’s definition? Luck thinks so.

2. Demons and Natural Evil
To see the problem we must first revisit Plantinga’s (in)famous response to the (logical) problem of natural evil.

Plantinga proposed a sophisticated version of the free will defence to the logical problem of evil. The typical response to this defence is to point out that not all instances of evil are attributable to the freely willed acts of human beings. There are also natural evils. Indeed, as I write this, one of the wealthiest and best-prepared countries in the world is struggling to deal with the fallout from natural evil (I refer, of course, to Japan and the recent tsunami).

Plantinga argued that these cases of natural evil could (possibly) be the result of the freely-willed acts of non-human agents, i.e. demons or fallen angels. This, in effect, reduced natural evil to supernatural moral evil. This type of response can also, with scriptural support (Exodus 7:11, Matthew 24:24 and Revelation 13:14), be used to account for the miracles associated with other religious traditions. Luck calls this the “Luciferous Defence”.

The problem with the Luciferous Defence is that by increasing the causal powers of supernatural creational entities, it narrows the logical space available for true miracles. This can be called the problem of the evil/miracle ratio:

The more power we grant to fallen angels in order to account for natural evil, then the fewer kinds of events we are entitled to call miraculous.

To overcome this problem, we will need to know what is a creational power and what is not. This is not easy to do. And since the problem arises directly from Aquinas’s attempt to tie the definition of a miracle to an act of God, Luck argues that it will need to be addressed by all apologists who adopt an account of miracles that restricts their cause to God.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

The Problem of the Evil/Miracle Ratio (Part 1)

This post is part of my series on miracles. For an index, see here.

I’m continuing to work my way through some of the neglected aspects of the philosophy of miracles, before eventually looking into the debate surroudning Hume’s argument. In service of this end, I’m going to summarise the following article by Morgan Luck:

In this article, Luck examines the relationship between one’s belief in miracles and one’s response to the problem of evil.

He begins by analysing an ongoing debate in the philosophical literature which suggests that the possibility of miracles may exacerbate the problem of evil. He notes that all the arguments in this debate work from premises concerning the nature of miracles to conclusions relating to the problem of evil. He then proposes an alternative form of argument that works from premises concerning the nature of evil to conclusions relating to the identification of miracles. This argument focuses on the definition of miracles put forward by everybody’s favourite Dominican: Thomas Aquinas.

In this part, we will focus on the first set of arguments and Aquinas’s definition of miracles.

1. Couldn’t God stop evil by performing a miracle?
Several authors have argued that any believer who accepts the possibility of miracles runs into increased difficulties when responding to the problem of evil. Luck mentions four authors in particular who have made this argument: Hebbelthwaite, Wiles, Keller and Overall. The following is a brief summary of their views.

First, we need to recall that the problem of evil claims that the existence of God is incompatible with the existence of evil (the “logical problem”); or, alternatively, that the existence of evil is evidence against the existence of God (the “evidential problem”).

A popular response to the logical version of this argument is the Free Will Defence (FWD). According to this response, free will is a great good that could not be realised by God without allowing for some possibility of evil. Hence, the existence of God, contra the sceptic, is compatible with the existence of some evil.

Hebbelthwaite offers an interesting rejoinder to the FWD. He argues that miracles (particularly those presented in the Bible) often involve God stopping evil from occurring. He cites as an example the story of Daniel being saved from the lions. The fact that God was willing to intervene in this case prompts the following question: why wouldn’t God intervene to prevent all the evil arising from free decisions? Presumably, he could do this without preventing people from having the great good of free will.

The response to Hebbelthwaite’s objection requires some slight backtracking on the FWD. It says that it is responsibility for actions, not free will per se, that is the truly great good. Free will just happens, on some accounts, to be a precondition for this kind of responsibility. If God were to intervene to prevent the evil consequences of our free decisions, then we would not have true responsibility for our actions. Or, to adopt Swinburne’s argument, we would lack responsibility for the moral value of our world.

It is at this stage that Wiles enters the debate. He draws our attention to catastrophic instances of evil such as those perpetrated at Auschwitz or Hiroshima. He then points out that the miracles in the Bible seem trivial in their purpose, e.g. the coin-from-a-fish’s-mouth miracle in the Gospel of Matthew. Wiles then asks, if the FWD is compatible with at least some miracles (something the believer in miracles must accept) then surely those miracles would be reserved for ameliorating catastrophes rather than trivialities?

The response to this is interesting. Peter Vardy argues, contra Wiles, that in order for human beings to meaningfully exercise free will in a way that is conducive to moral responsibility, then there must be predictably bad results to bad actions. If God had a track record of intervening to prevent every catastrophe, then we couldn’t exercise moral responsibility over our world. Miracles need to be hidden and unexpected so as not to interfere with our moral responsibility. Trivial miracles fit this bill.

One may question this since catastrophes are often unexpected and not the result of intentional wrongdoing, but alas we must move on....

2. Are miracles themselves immoral acts?
Keller argues that the possibility of miracles exacerbates the problem of evil because many of the miracles attributed to God are immoral. He points, in particular, to the way in which God seems to treat the Israelites favourably at the expense of others, when these others are equally in need of moral and spiritual guidance. As an example, he cites the parting of the Red Sea which benefits the children of the Israelites at the expense of the children of the Egyptians (who lose their parents).

Responding to this, it can be argued that the beneficial effect of God’s miracles may be both direct and indirect. Thus, although there was no direct benefit to the Egyptian children, perhaps they benefitted indirectly because, say, if their parents had succeeded in recapturing the Israelites, an even worse fate may have befallen them.

Christine Overall makes a rather more interesting claim. She argues that miracles are inconsistent with the character of an all-good being. Why so? Well, she suggests that an all-good being would not wish to mislead humanity in their pursuit of knowledge. But miracles are misleading because they confuse rather than solidify our knowledge of the world. This is apparent from the difficulty we have in correctly identifying a miracle.

Luck thinks there is a problem lurking behind Overall and Keller’s arguments. Both seem to be committed to the following propositions:

  • (1) Causing a miracle to occur (or not causing another miracle to occur) is (sometimes/all the time) an immoral act.
  • (2) God cannot perform an immoral act.
  • (3) Therefore, God cannot allow a miracle to occur.
  • (4) But (immoral) miracles do occur.

The question is: what further conclusion is to be drawn from this set of propositions? If a miracle is, in some sense, defined as an act of God or another supernatural being, then the best this argument can do is to either suggest an inconsistency in a religious person’s beliefs or support the existence of a supernatural being who is not God.

I’m not sure that I entirely agree with Luck in this observation. I haven’t read Overall’s work, but on the face of it she doesn’t seem committed to proposition (4).

3. Defining Miracles the Thomistic Way
All the arguments surveyed above work from premises concerning the nature of miracles to conclusions about the nature of evil. Luck’s goal in the remainder of his article is to present an argument that works in the opposite direction. He begins this task by outlining Aquinas’s definition of a miracle.

Luck asks us to note the basic structure behind most definitions of miracles. According to this basic structure, a miracle can be said to be a natural (spatiotemporal) effect with a non-natural cause. Luck outlines how this basic structure is reflected in the definitions proffered by Hume, Swinburne, Basinger and Larmer.

This stands in stark contrast to Aquinas’s definition. Aquinas does not rely on the distinction between a natural and supernatural event. Instead, he relies on the distinction between creational and supercreational events.

The distinction is based on his ontology. Aquinas defines a creational entity as one whose causal powers are created and sustained by God. All natural creatures are creational entities. For example, human beings only have the powers that they do have thanks to the creation and sustenance provided by God. However, some supernatural creatures are also creational entities. For instance, an angel would be a creational entity.

This leads to Aquinas’s definition of a super-creational event:

  • “Super-creational event” = “An event that cannot be caused by a creational entity”

In other words, an event that is not the result of the exercise of a causal power by a creational entity. This allows for the following definition of a miracle:

  • “Miracle” = “A super-creational effect caused by God.”

One important point to bear in mind about this definition of miracle is how narrow it actually is. A miracle, for Aquinas, is an event that is defined primarily by the absence the causal powers of a creational entity. Applying this definition, it follows that the acts of creational entities such as angels cannot be properly called miracles. This is significant because traditional definitions would have included such acts.

In the next entry, we’ll see how Aquinas’s definition can be used as the basis of an argument against miracles.