Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Lazarus, come forth!

James Lazarus has posted the following remarks at his blog:


Some More Plausible Atheistic Arguments.

I was asked by one anonymous reviewer of this blog and by a friend of mine to discuss some atheistic arguments that I regard as persuasive. The three that I've been thinking about most often lately are discussed below.

(1) A Problem of Causal Efficacy

The first problem that I have arises from the nature of God and his relation to the world. God is a spiritual being - i.e he does not have physical properties, but properties of a wholly different sort, in a different ontological category than the space-time universe. At the same time, God, as our Creator, is responsible for our existence. The question then, is how a spiritual being, who is of a wholly different nature from the physical, can possibly interact with the physical and have causal efficacy for physical states of affairs. It is hard to imagine how this could work. In fact, I believe that there is a similar objection against substance dualism in the philosophy of mind. I am not aware of any responses to this objection. I would like to find some.

(2) God, Time, and Creation

Likewise, there is the familiar objection that causation is a notion that presupposes time. Without time, there is no causation. Time, however, begins with the Big Bang. How, then, could a creative act have occurred prior to the Big Bang, causing it to happen? If this is a troubling question, then it suggests to us that the notion of divine creation is impossible.

There are two possible objections to this. The first is that time does not begin with the Big Bang. Instead, we can imagine some sort of multiverse where causation can still occur. However, many believers do not wish to accept multiverse models. They believe that these models make theistic hypotheses superfluous. I'm not so sure that this is true. Robin Collins, for instance, has done some work on how theism could be compatible with the notion of a multiverse.

Secondly, William Lane Craig suggests the idea of simultaneous causation. To illustrate this, think of when you go to sleep at night, and your head hits the pillow, and the pillow sinks in to accomodate the shape of your head. The action of your head hitting the pillow causes the pillow to sink in, and yet the sinking of the pillow occurs simultaneously with its cause. It's an attempted demonstration of how effects do not necessarily occur after their causes. They can occur at the same time as the causes.

What Craig wants to suggest is that this can work with divine creation, also. God created time at the exact moment that time began. If this suggestion makes sense, then there wouldn't be much of a problem with the notion of divine creation.

Now, while Craig's simultaneous causation idea works perfectly fine within time, it is much less clear that this could work with the notion of time itself. With the pillow example, time remains a precondition for the cause to happen simultaneously with the effect. However, when it comes to the creation of our universe, there is no such precondition. God's creative act of time requires time, so certainly it seems we have to adopt some sort of model like the one that Craig is suggesting. Yet, if time begins simultaneously with the creative act, then it is hard to say how there is a causal connection between the act and the beginning of time, since creative acts do seem to depend upon time as a precondition.




I’ve bundled the first two objections because they admit a common solution.

His first objection posits a temporal precondition, while his second objection posits a spatial precondition.

But whether either or both objections are cogent depends on your theory of causality. As one writer explains, “until quite recently, it was almost universally held that causation must be deterministic, in that any cause is sufficient to bring about its effect,” P. Humphreys, “Causation,” A Companion to The Philosophy of Science, W. H. Newton-Smith, ed (Blackwell 2001), 33.

He goes on to explain that this model of causality has fallen into disfavor on account of two subsequent considerations:

i) Quantum indeterminism and:

ii) Overdetermination.

One modern alternative consists in sine qua non theories of causation, based on necessity rather than sufficiency. He then cites the version of David Lewis:

“Event A caused event B if and only if (1) A occurred; (2) B occurred; (3) the counterfactual ‘If A had not occurred, then B would not have occurred’ is true (or can be asserted,” ibid. 35.

Cf. D. Lewis, Philosophical Papers (Oxford 1983), 2:159-213.

Actually, it isn’t necessary to use the word “occur” to formulate a sine qua non theory. We could just as well say that A causes B just in case A and B both exist and B would not exist unless A did not existed.

Notice that this minimal definition of causality does not assume either temporal priority or spatial contiguity.

I think this model successfully captures the essential, preanalytic intuition involved in cause/effect relations without positing any additional (spatiotemporal) conditions beyond what is strictly necesary to spell out the relation.

Assuming that this is an adequate definition, it disposes of both objections at one stroke.

Moving to the final objection:


(3) The Problem of Suffering

I won't spend much time talking about the problem of suffering, because there's already a ridiculous amount of literature on the subject. Suffice to say that I have not heard any plausible solutions or counter-arguments to evidential problems of suffering. So, to me, it remains a strong objection to theism that believers have not yet overcome.


We could say quite a lot by way of answer, but let’s outline an answer:

1) What would count as a “plausible” solution or counterargument?

i) Suppose there is a true answer to the problem of evil, but it’s not the answer we were expecting, or an answer we especially like.

In reading the secular literature on the problem of evil, these two issues are not distinguished.

Normally, the atheist or agnostic will simply assume that any true answer must be to his liking.

But it should be obvious that a true answer and a likable answer are two very different things.

Indeed, evil is, itself, a truth of life which we don’t like very much.

ii) Apropos i), there’s a certain paradox in an unbeliever asking for a “plausible” solution.

For, in the nature of the case, any theodicy will invoke a theological value-system. By definition, a theodicy is a theological exercise. As such, it presupposes a theological frame of reference.

So, at one level, no theodicy will be plausible to an unbeliever as long as secularism supplies his standard of comparison. But, of course, that would beg the question.

So, at the very least, the atheist or agnostic, if he’s sincerely posing a question to the Christian regarding the problem of evil, must exercise a degree of sympathetic detachment.

2) Apropos (1), a theological value-system will take God as the most valuable object, as well as the source and standard of mundane values.

God will be the most valuable object in two respects:

i) At a metaphysical or absolute level: of what he is, in and of himself.

His intrinsic value.

ii) At an epistemic or relative level: of what he is to another or others.

His extrinsic value.

How he’s valued by others. Or how he ought to be valued by others.

According to (ii), knowing God is the highest good because, according to (i), God is the highest good.

3) Apropos (2), we need to distinguish between first-order goods and second-order goods. Second-order goods supervene on first-order goods.

As such, first-order goods are a necessary condition of second-order goods.

They are not at absolute necessity. It is not necessary that there be second-order goods. For that matter, it is not necessary that there be first-order goods.

But assuming the existence or value of second-order goods, then their corresponding first-order goods are a necessary precondition of the latter.

4) Apropos (3), we also need to distinguish between incompossible and/or incommensurable goods. Between a greater good for a lesser number, and a lesser good for a greater number.

5) Apropos (4), if knowing God is the highest good, and if a fuller knowledge of God is unobtainable apart from the internal relation between first-order goods and second-order goods, then second-order goods are justified by a higher end (the value of second-order goods), of which first-order goods are the prerequisite.

6) Apropos (5), a fuller knowledge of God includes a knowledge of his justice and mercy, as well as his wisdom in the way whereby his justice and mercy are revealed.

7) Apropos (6), although an abstract knowledge of divine justice and mercy is obtainable apart from concrete expressions of divine justice and mercy, yet an existential knowledge of his justice and mercy is not obtainable apart from concrete expressions of justice and mercy.

8) But an existential knowledge of the good is superior to an abstract knowledge of the good. Superior because such a personalized knowledge is of more value to the individual recipient or beneficiary.

9) Apropos (1-9), God foreordained the Fall as a means of manifesting his justice and mercy to the elect.

10) Such a solution to the problem of evil is the implicit theodicy of Scripture in such passages as Jn 9-12 and Rom 9-11.


  1. I should note that I just recently changed the url to my blog. Here's the correct url, for anyone who wants to view the post that I made:


    Direct link:


    Thanks for this response, Steve. I'm going to print it out, and read it over tonight.

  2. Steve,

    A couple of questions and a couple of observations, if you could clarify:

    Did God exist prior to time? As near as I can tell (and I could always be missing something) your definition of necessity within causation does not address the problem. Even if Time could not exist without God (and therefore God is the “cause” of Time) we are left with the problem that at one moment there was God and no Time, and the next, there was God and Time. Yet without Time, it is impossible to get from one moment to the next!

    Can you explain the relationship between the spiritual plane (for lack of a better term) and the physical plane? Can one cross-over from one to the next? What is on the physical plane that is not on the spiritual plane and vice versa? And without empirical evidence, is there any way, really to make any claims as to what is on the spiritual plane?

    Perhaps two examples, to clarify my question. On the physical plane, we require light to use our optic nerves to observe. If we “observe” other items on the spiritual plane, will that require a source of light? And a participant with optic nerves? As James Lazarus points out, God is indicated to be a spirit—an entity without an eyeball. Does God “see” differently than humans? If so, and we cannot observe how God sees, is any claim as to what God is doing, when God is watching something pure speculation?

    Another example. On our physical plane, we understand “justice” as being in conformance with a standard. A standard that is external to our point of view. Saying “I will do whatever my character allows me to do” is not justice. If “God is Just” is to have any meaning on our plane, it would mean that God is following a standard that is external to His point of view. But that would make something greater (and more necessary) than God. If God is simply following his character, he is not being “just” as we understand it on this physical plane. If there is some other definition of “just” on the spiritual plane, how can we confirm what it is?

    Can there be more than one plane? What limits us to supernatural and natural? Can there also be supranatural? And quasi-natural? How do we correctly determine the number of planes? What if there is another plane behind God’s plane? I do not ask this for some sort of eternal regression, but rather to demonstrate that—as humans—the ONLY plane we can observe is the physical one. To introduce another brings up the question as to why stop at one.

    In your response to “Problem of Suffering” it appears you convolute the definition of “like” and “plausible.” I am unaware of atheists/agonistics that demand an answer they “like” as compared to what is “plausible.”

    When I played sports, my jersey number was always “4.” I attached an affinity to the number. I simply “like” the number 4 better than 5. But if asked “What is 2+3?” my “liking” number 4 does not make me insist it to be a plausible answer. None of us (hopefully) “like” suffering. The question is whether the God concept provided by the theist can provide a plausible response to the suffering we see. Not whether we are fond of it.

    Further, I am uncertain as to how you “value” God. You first indicate that in our review of the theist’s position, we must consider God as the most valuable. But then you state God is the highest “good.” The word “good” (as I understand it) is a value determination made, in comparison to other objects. How we get the terms “good,” “better” and “best.” It is unclear if you are talking about morality when you use the word “good.” Are there different values of morality? Some “good” some “better” and some “best”?

    And if God is the highest value of “good” (can I say “best”?) then you seem to be saying that suffering (as a “second order) is still a value of “good,” Are you saying suffering is good? Just not as “good” as God, who is the “best”?

    Are you saying that we need suffering to understand the value of God?


  3. Steve,

    I wrote up a partial response to you on the blog. I'm going to look further into what you wrote about the first two arguments. I respond in this post with my thoughts about your answer to the problem of suffering.


    Thanks for taking the time out to respond to my post.