Saturday, August 12, 2006

Blinded by the light

Unbelievers often complain about a lack of evidence. But the quality or quantity of evidence is not the real issue.

Evidence is a necessary condition of a well-founded faith, but it’s not a sufficient condition.

Faith apart from evidence is blind, but evidence apart from faith is blinding.

For example, there’s a militant atheist out there whose motto is: “If Jesus returns, kill him again.”

No amount of evidence can overcome that pathological hatred, because the impediment to faith is not the absence of evidence, but the object of evidence.

If the evidence we have is evidence of an unwelcome truth, then the state of the evidence, however probative or apodictic, will not render an unwelcome truth any more appealing.

Indeed, the unbeliever will resent the evidence of an unwelcome truth. He would rather live in denial. The more evidence you throw his way, the more resentful he becomes.

There are unbelievers who major in moral objections to the Christian faith. They have their litany of complaints against the morality of Scripture.

They make a big deal about this to make themselves feel justified or even virtuous in their infidelity.

But assuming that we take their protestations seriously, then no amount of evidence, however compelling, for the existence of the Biblical God, would ever be sufficient to reconcile them to the Biblical God.

In their loathing of all things divine, there is no bridge which they have left untorched. They whine about hell, but they’d rather be miserable than pious.

They have convinced themselves, or so they say, that the God of Scripture is a hateful God. So even if they believed in him, they would despise him. If they had a private audience with Jesus, they’d kill him again.

If you live in the Sunbelt, it doesn’t take long for you to learn that cockroaches are largely nocturnal critters. They prefer to move in the dark.

Sinners are a lot like cockroaches. They dislike an abundance of light. Not so much because they’re afraid to see, but because they’re afraid to be seen.

Too much evidence is like too much light. You don’t like what you see, especially when it exposes your own position. It’s hard to hide in the light.

As the Apostle John put it long ago: “This is the judgment—that light has entered the world and men have preferred darkness to light because their deeds were evil. Everybody who does wrong hates the light and keeps away from it, for fear his deeds may be exposed” (Jn 3:19-20).

Friday, August 11, 2006

Best sellers

I’ve been tagged. Sigh.

Well, as long as they don’t ask me about my secret mistress or my double-life as a serial axe-killer, I guess it’s safe to bare my soul.

1. One book that changed your life:

The Bible.

2. One book that you’ve read more than once:

See #1.

3. One book you’d want on a desert island:

See #2.

4. One book that made you laugh:

*Why I Rejected Christianity: A Former Apologist Explains, by John W. Loftus.

Loftus is never funnier than when he wants to be taken seriously.

5. One book that made you cry:

See #4.

It’s always sad when a book like this comes to an end. Now I’ll have to look elsewhere for cheap laughs.

6. One book that you wish had been written:

Hard to choose. The Left Behind series or The Purpose Driven Church?

Yeah, yeah, I know. The theology sucks.

But as every great writer has learned, you need to churn out a few potboilers to finance the serious stuff.

The strategy is to write a really bad bestseller, which justifies a corrective sequel. Then you just keep alternating between the two.

7. One book that you wish had never been written:

The Koran

8. One book you’re currently reading:

Alvin Plantinga and Peter van Inwagen, eds. A Paradigm Theory of Dogpatch: Essays in the Phenomeno-Onto-Logic of Li’l Abner and Daisy Mae Scragg (Blackwell 2006).

Okay, I admit I made that up.

But the whole point of questions like #8 and #9 (see below) is to give you a pretext to cite some pretentious sounding title in order to show everyone what a towering intellectual you are.

9. One book you’ve been meaning to read:

See #8.

*Well, if you must know, I never read Loftus’ latest book. (Or his earlier book, for that matter.) But I’ve read enough of his freebie stuff that it’s unintended comedic potential is a pretty safe bet.

What is the Koran?


What Is The Koran?

Researchers with a variety of academic and theological interests are proposing controversial theories about the Koran and Islamic history, and are striving to reinterpret Islam for the modern world. This is, as one scholar puts it, a "sensitive business"

by Toby Lester

In 1972, during the restoration of the Great Mosque of Sana'a, in Yemen, laborers working in a loft between the structure's inner and outer roofs stumbled across a remarkable gravesite, although they did not realize it at the time. Their ignorance was excusable: mosques do not normally house graves, and this site contained no tombstones, no human remains, no funereal jewelry. It contained nothing more, in fact, than an unappealing mash of old parchment and paper documents -- damaged books and individual pages of Arabic text, fused together by centuries of rain and dampness, gnawed into over the years by rats and insects. Intent on completing the task at hand, the laborers gathered up the manuscripts, pressed them into some twenty potato sacks, and set them aside on the staircase of one of the mosque's minarets, where they were locked away -- and where they would probably have been forgotten once again, were it not for Qadhi Isma'il al-Akwa', then the president of the Yemeni Antiquities Authority, who realized the potential importance of the find.

Al-Akwa' sought international assistance in examining and preserving the fragments, and in 1979 managed to interest a visiting German scholar, who in turn persuaded the German government to organize and fund a restoration project. Soon after the project began, it became clear that the hoard was a fabulous example of what is sometimes referred to as a "paper grave" -- in this case the resting place for, among other things, tens of thousands of fragments from close to a thousand different parchment codices of the Koran, the Muslim holy scripture. In some pious Muslim circles it is held that worn-out or damaged copies of the Koran must be removed from circulation; hence the idea of a grave, which both preserves the sanctity of the texts being laid to rest and ensures that only complete and unblemished editions of the scripture will be read.

Some of the parchment pages in the Yemeni hoard seemed to date back to the seventh and eighth centuries A.D., or Islam's first two centuries -- they were fragments, in other words, of perhaps the oldest Korans in existence. What's more, some of these fragments revealed small but intriguing aberrations from the standard Koranic text. Such aberrations, though not surprising to textual historians, are troublingly at odds with the orthodox Muslim belief that the Koran as it has reached us today is quite simply the perfect, timeless, and unchanging Word of God.

The mainly secular effort to reinterpret the Koran -- in part based on textual evidence such as that provided by the Yemeni fragments -- is disturbing and offensive to many Muslims, just as attempts to reinterpret the Bible and the life of Jesus are disturbing and offensive to many conservative Christians.

Looking at the Fragments

The first person to spend a significant amount of time examining the Yemeni fragments, in 1981, was Gerd-R. Puin, a specialist in Arabic calligraphy and Koranic paleography based at Saarland University, in Saarbrücken, Germany. Puin, who had been sent by the German government to organize and oversee the restoration project, recognized the antiquity of some of the parchment fragments, and his preliminary inspection also revealed unconventional verse orderings, minor textual variations, and rare styles of orthography and artistic embellishment. Enticing, too, were the sheets of the scripture written in the rare and early Hijazi Arabic script: pieces of the earliest Korans known to exist, they were also palimpsests -- versions very clearly written over even earlier, washed-off versions. What the Yemeni Korans seemed to suggest, Puin began to feel, was an evolving text rather than simply the Word of God as revealed in its entirety to the Prophet Muhammad in the seventh century A.D.

Since the early 1980s more than 15,000 sheets of the Yemeni Korans have painstakingly been flattened, cleaned, treated, sorted, and assembled; they now sit ("preserved for another thousand years," Puin says) in Yemen's House of Manuscripts, awaiting detailed examination. That is something the Yemeni authorities have seemed reluctant to allow, however. "They want to keep this thing low-profile, as we do too, although for different reasons," Puin explains. "They don't want attention drawn to the fact that there are Germans and others working on the Korans. They don't want it made public that there is work being done at all, since the Muslim position is that everything that needs to be said about the Koran's history was said a thousand years ago."

To date just two scholars have been granted extensive access to the Yemeni fragments: Puin and his colleague H.-C. Graf von Bothmer, an Islamic-art historian also based at Saarland University. Puin and Von Bothmer have published only a few tantalizingly brief articles in scholarly publications on what they have discovered in the Yemeni fragments. They have been reluctant to publish partly because until recently they were more concerned with sorting and classifying the fragments than with systematically examining them, and partly because they felt that the Yemeni authorities, if they realized the possible implications of the discovery, might refuse them further access. Von Bothmer, however, in 1997 finished taking more than 35,000 microfilm pictures of the fragments, and has recently brought the pictures back to Germany. This means that soon Von Bothmer, Puin, and other scholars will finally have a chance to scrutinize the texts and to publish their findings freely -- a prospect that thrills Puin. "So many Muslims have this belief that everything between the two covers of the Koran is just God's unaltered word," he says. "They like to quote the textual work that shows that the Bible has a history and did not fall straight out of the sky, but until now the Koran has been out of this discussion. The only way to break through this wall is to prove that the Koran has a history too. The Sana'a fragments will help us to do this."

Puin is not alone in his enthusiasm. "The impact of the Yemeni manuscripts is still to be felt," says Andrew Rippin, a professor of religious studies at the University of Calgary, who is at the forefront of Koranic studies today. "Their variant readings and verse orders are all very significant. Everybody agrees on that. These manuscripts say that the early history of the Koranic text is much more of an open question than many have suspected: the text was less stable, and therefore had less authority, than has always been claimed."

Copyediting God

Y the standards of contemporary biblical scholarship, most of the questions being posed by scholars like Puin and Rippin are rather modest; outside an Islamic context, proposing that the Koran has a history and suggesting that it can be interpreted metaphorically are not radical steps. But the Islamic context -- and Muslim sensibilities -- cannot be ignored. "To historicize the Koran would in effect delegitimize the whole historical experience of the Muslim community," says R. Stephen Humphreys, a professor of Islamic studies at the University of California at Santa Barbara. "The Koran is the charter for the community, the document that called it into existence. And ideally -- though obviously not always in reality -- Islamic history has been the effort to pursue and work out the commandments of the Koran in human life. If the Koran is a historical document, then the whole Islamic struggle of fourteen centuries is effectively meaningless."

The prospect of a Muslim backlash has not deterred the critical-historical study of the Koran, as the existence of the essays in The Origins of the Koran (1998) demonstrate. Even in the aftermath of the Rushdie affair the work continues: In 1996 the Koranic scholar Günter Lüling wrote in The Journal of Higher Criticism about "the wide extent to which both the text of the Koran and the learned Islamic account of Islamic origins have been distorted, a deformation unsuspectingly accepted by Western Islamicists until now." In 1994 the journal Jerusalem Studies in Arabic and Islam published a posthumous study by Yehuda D. Nevo, of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, detailing seventh- and eighth-century religious inscriptions on stones in the Negev Desert which, Nevo suggested, pose "considerable problems for the traditional Muslim account of the history of Islam." That same year, and in the same journal, Patricia Crone, a historian of early Islam currently based at the Institute for Advanced Study, in Princeton, New Jersey, published an article in which she argued that elucidating problematic passages in the Koranic text is likely to be made possible only by "abandoning the conventional account of how the Qur'an was born." And since 1991 James Bellamy, of the University of Michigan, has proposed in the Journal of the American Oriental Society a series of "emendations to the text of the Koran" -- changes that from the orthodox Muslim perspective amount to copyediting God.

Crone is one of the most iconoclastic of these scholars. During the 1970s and 1980s she wrote and collaborated on several books -- most notoriously, with Michael Cook, Hagarism: The Making of the Islamic World (1977) -- that made radical arguments about the origins of Islam and the writing of Islamic history. Among Hagarism's controversial claims were suggestions that the text of the Koran came into being later than is now believed ("There is no hard evidence for the existence of the Koran in any form before the last decade of the seventh century"); that Mecca was not the initial Islamic sanctuary ("[the evidence] points unambiguously to a sanctuary in north-west Arabia ... Mecca was secondary"); that the Arab conquests preceded the institutionalization of Islam ("the Jewish messianic fantasy was enacted in the form of an Arab conquest of the Holy Land"); that the idea of the hijra, or the migration of Muhammad and his followers from Mecca to Medina in 622, may have evolved long after Muhammad died ("No seventh-century source identifies the Arab era as that of the hijra"); and that the term "Muslim" was not commonly used in early Islam ("There is no good reason to suppose that the bearers of this primitive identity called themselves 'Muslims' [but] sources do ... reveal an earlier designation of the community [which] appears in Greek as 'Magaritai' in a papyrus of 642, and in Syriac as 'Mahgre' or 'Mahgraye' from as early as the 640s").

Hagarism came under immediate attack, from Muslim and non-Muslim scholars alike, for its heavy reliance on hostile sources. ("This is a book," the authors wrote, "based on what from any Muslim perspective must appear an inordinate regard for the testimony of infidel sources.") Crone and Cook have since backed away from some of its most radical propositions -- such as, for example, that the Prophet Muhammad lived two years longer than the Muslim tradition claims he did, and that the historicity of his migration to Medina is questionable. But Crone has continued to challenge both Muslim and Western orthodox views of Islamic history. In Meccan Trade and the Rise of Islam (1987) she made a detailed argument challenging the prevailing view among Western (and some Muslim) scholars that Islam arose in response to the Arabian spice trade.

Gerd-R. Puin's current thinking about the Koran's history partakes of this contemporary revisionism. "My idea is that the Koran is a kind of cocktail of texts that were not all understood even at the time of Muhammad," he says. "Many of them may even be a hundred years older than Islam itself. Even within the Islamic traditions there is a huge body of contradictory information, including a significant Christian substrate; one can derive a whole Islamic anti-history from them if one wants."

The only real source of historical information about pre-Islamic Mecca and the circumstances of the Koran's revelation is the classical Islamic story about the religion's founding, a distillation of which follows.

The Islamic tradition has it that when Muhammad died, in 632, the Koranic revelations had not been gathered into a single book; they were recorded only "on palm leaves and flat stones and in the hearts of men." (This is not surprising: the oral tradition was strong and well established, and the Arabic script, which was written without the vowel markings and consonantal dots used today, served mainly as an aid to memorization.) Nor was the establishment of such a text of primary concern: the Medinan Arabs -- an unlikely coalition of ex-merchants, desert nomads, and agriculturalists united in a potent new faith and inspired by the life and sayings of Prophet Muhammad -- were at the time pursuing a fantastically successful series of international conquests in the name of Islam. By the 640s the Arabs possessed most of Syria, Iraq, Persia, and Egypt, and thirty years later they were busy taking over parts of Europe, North Africa, and Central Asia.

In the early decades of the Arab conquests many members of Muhammad's coterie were killed, and with them died valuable knowledge of the Koranic revelations. Muslims at the edges of the empire began arguing over what was Koranic scripture and what was not. An army general returning from Azerbaijan expressed his fears about sectarian controversy to the Caliph 'Uthman (644-656) -- the third Islamic ruler to succeed Muhammad -- and is said to have entreated him to "overtake this people before they differ over the Koran the way the Jews and Christians differ over their Scripture." 'Uthman convened an editorial committee of sorts that carefully gathered the various pieces of scripture that had been memorized or written down by Muhammad's companions. The result was a standard written version of the Koran. 'Uthman ordered all incomplete and "imperfect" collections of the Koranic scripture destroyed, and the new version was quickly distributed to the major centers of the rapidly burgeoning empire.

During the next few centuries, while Islam solidified as a religious and political entity, a vast body of exegetical and historical literature evolved to explain the Koran and the rise of Islam, the most important elements of which are hadith, or the collected sayings and deeds of the Prophet Muhammad; sunna, or the body of Islamic social and legal custom; sira, or biographies of the Prophet; and tafsir, or Koranic commentary and explication. It is from these traditional sources -- compiled in written form mostly from the mid eighth to the mid tenth century -- that all accounts of the revelation of the Koran and the early years of Islam are ultimately derived.

Despite its repeated assertions to the contrary, however, the Koran is often extremely difficult for contemporary readers -- even highly educated speakers of Arabic -- to understand. It sometimes makes dramatic shifts in style, voice, and subject matter from verse to verse, and it assumes a familiarity with language, stories, and events that seem to have been lost even to the earliest of Muslim exegetes (typical of a text that initially evolved in an oral tradition). Its apparent inconsistencies are easy to find: God may be referred to in the first and third person in the same sentence; divergent versions of the same story are repeated at different points in the text; divine rulings occasionally contradict one another. In this last case the Koran anticipates criticism and defends itself by asserting the right to abrogate its own message ("God doth blot out / Or confirm what He pleaseth").

Criticism did come. As Muslims increasingly came into contact with Christians during the eighth century, the wars of conquest were accompanied by theological polemics, in which Christians and others latched on to the confusing literary state of the Koran as proof of its human origins. Muslim scholars themselves were fastidiously cataloguing the problematic aspects of the Koran -- unfamiliar vocabulary, seeming omissions of text, grammatical incongruities, deviant readings, and so on. A major theological debate in fact arose within Islam in the late eighth century, pitting those who believed in the Koran as the "uncreated" and eternal Word of God against those who believed in it as created in time, like anything that isn't God himself. Under the Caliph al-Ma'mun (813-833) this latter view briefly became orthodox doctrine. It was supported by several schools of thought, including an influential one known as Mu'tazilism, that developed a complex theology based partly on a metaphorical rather than simply literal understanding of the Koran.

By the end of the tenth century the influence of the Mu'tazili school had waned, for complicated political reasons, and the official doctrine had become that of i'jaz, or the "inimitability" of the Koran. (As a result, the Koran has traditionally not been translated by Muslims for non-Arabic-speaking Muslims. Instead it is read and recited in the original by Muslims worldwide, the majority of whom do not speak Arabic. The translations that do exist are considered to be nothing more than scriptural aids and paraphrases.) The adoption of the doctrine of inimitability was a major turning point in Islamic history, and from the tenth century to this day the mainstream Muslim understanding of the Koran as the literal and uncreated Word of God has remained constant.

Gerd-r Puin speaks with disdain about the traditional willingness, on the part of Muslim and Western scholars, to accept the conventional understanding of the Koran. "The Koran claims for itself that it is 'mubeen,' or 'clear,'" he says. "But if you look at it, you will notice that every fifth sentence or so simply doesn't make sense. Many Muslims -- and Orientalists -- will tell you otherwise, of course, but the fact is that a fifth of the Koranic text is just incomprehensible. This is what has caused the traditional anxiety regarding translation. If the Koran is not comprehensible -- if it can't even be understood in Arabic -- then it's not translatable. People fear that. And since the Koran claims repeatedly to be clear but obviously is not -- as even speakers of Arabic will tell you -- there is a contradiction. Something else must be going on."

Trying to figure out that "something else" really began only in this century. "Until quite recently," Patricia Crone, the historian of early Islam, says, "everyone took it for granted that everything the Muslims claim to remember about the origin and meaning of the Koran is correct. If you drop that assumption, you have to start afresh." This is no mean feat, of course; the Koran has come down to us tightly swathed in a historical tradition that is extremely resistant to criticism and analysis. As Crone put it in Slaves on Horses.

Not surprisingly, given the explosive expansion of early Islam and the passage of time between the religion's birth and the first systematic documenting of its history, Muhammad's world and the worlds of the historians who subsequently wrote about him were dramatically different. During Islam's first century alone a provincial band of pagan desert tribesmen became the guardians of a vast international empire of institutional monotheism that teemed with unprecedented literary and scientific activity. Many contemporary historians argue that one cannot expect Islam's stories about its own origins -- particularly given the oral tradition of the early centuries -- to have survived this tremendous social transformation intact. Nor can one expect a Muslim historian writing in ninth- or tenth-century Iraq to have discarded his social and intellectual background (and theological convictions) in order accurately to describe a deeply unfamiliar seventh-century Arabian context. R. Stephen Humphreys, writing in Islamic History: A Framework for Inquiry (1988), concisely summed up the issue that historians confront in studying early Islam.

If our goal is to comprehend the way in which Muslims of the late 2nd/8th and 3rd/9th centuries [Islamic calendar / Christian calendar] understood the origins of their society, then we are very well off indeed. But if our aim is to find out "what really happened," in terms of reliably documented answers to modern questions about the earliest decades of Islamic society, then we are in trouble.

The person who more than anyone else has shaken up Koranic studies in the past few decades is John Wansbrough, formerly of the University of London's School of Oriental and African Studies. Puin is "re-reading him now" as he prepares to analyze the Yemeni fragments. Patricia Crone says that she and Michael Cook "did not say much about the Koran in Hagarism that was not based on Wansbrough." Other scholars are less admiring, referring to Wansbrough's work as "drastically wrongheaded," "ferociously opaque," and a "colossal self-deception." But like it or not, anybody engaged in the critical study of the Koran today must contend with Wansbrough's two main works -- Quranic Studies: Sources and Methods of Scriptural Interpretation (1977) and The Sectarian Milieu: Content and Composition of Islamic Salvation History (1978).

Wansbrough applied an entire arsenal of what he called the "instruments and techniques" of biblical criticism -- form criticism, source criticism, redaction criticism, and much more -- to the Koranic text. He concluded that the Koran evolved only gradually in the seventh and eighth centuries, during a long period of oral transmission when Jewish and Christian sects were arguing volubly with one another well to the north of Mecca and Medina, in what are now parts of Syria, Jordan, Israel, and Iraq. The reason that no Islamic source material from the first century or so of Islam has survived, Wansbrough concluded, is that it never existed.


Sense & Insensibilia

DM: How would you be aware of language itself, and thus of reason, without the senses? You wouldn't.


1.I regard reason as prior to language. Apart from reason, there would be no faculty for learning language in the first place.

2.You could learn language in the Matrix. You could learn to associate a word with a simulated object. So even if sensation were illusory, the illusion would be sufficient to learn how to manipulate linguistic tokens, just as a pilot can learn to maneuver a plane in a computer simulation.

3.Again, though, the actual question at issue is not whether the senses are reliable, but for what are they reliable?

I rely on the senses to tell me that a concrete object exists. But I don’t rely on the senses to tell me what, exactly, that object is really like, apart from the senses.

DM: Again, how would you know the concepts "grass" "blue" and "green" without sense experience?

SH: You’re confusing two different things. The relation between word and object is an arbitrary social convention.

I can learn what a word means if a word is generally associated with a particular sight or sound or scent or taste or texture.

But that issue is distinct from whether the word successfully picks out the insensible properties of the sensible object.

If the object is really red, but consistently appears to be blue, then I can learn the meaning of the words, as well as using the words to pick out the corresponding objects—without, however, assuming that the object is actually red rather than apparently red.

The primary qualities of the object may be quite different from the secondary qualities of the object, while the secondary qualities of the object may, in fact, be purely subjective (e.g. qualia).

But as long as there’s a regular correlation between the token and the object it betokens, you can learn what words mean and how to use them to navigate and manipulate your environment even if your precept is a dummy at several removes from what the object generating the stimulus is really like.

What we need is not an alethic relationship between A and B, but simply a regular correlation between A and B.

DM: What is the mind, or mental registration, without the senses? I'm not talking here about illusory sense experience, I'm talking about absolute skepticism towards your perceptions. If you had no sense input, let's imagine you were born in a sensory deprivation chamber, floating in some viscous liquid, and you had no input from the senses of any sort...

The point I'm making is that you trust your senses to develop your mental processes, like language, which reasoning is completely dependent upon. And all of the concepts you use in making propositions are pretty meaningless if your perception of those concepts is distorted.


1.You seem to be a radical empiricist, treating the human mind as a blank slate.

I don’t share your tabula rasa empiricism. I regard the senses as a source of knowledge, but not the only source of knowledge.

Unless, for example, the mind had an innate capacity to classify sensory input, it would never learn anything from raw sensory input. The mind must bring a set of general categories to bear in order to sort the concrete particulars.

Everything cannot be abstracted from the particular, for an empty mind merely receives and reproduces external impressions. It doesn’t interpret or rearrange the impressions according to a logical taxonomy.

2.And as I just explained, it would be possible to acquire true concepts and workable definitions even if we systematically misperceived our surroundings.

3.However, that doesn’t follow from my position. It goes back to the question of what the senses are for. Reliable for what?

I rely on my senses to tell what there is (with reference to concrete objects or effects), but not to tell me what these (concrete) objects are ultimately like.

So, according to my expectation, the senses do no misperceive or distort reality. It’s not the perception that’s mistaken, but a mistaken construal of what perception can yield.

DM: I agree that some of your responses are sufficient to my objection, but I don't see how you can get past trusting in your own perceptions, and applying a sort of double standard to scientific observation.

SH: I do trust my senses. But with a couple of qualifications:

1.My trust is indexed to my expectation. What are they for? What’s their purpose?

2.I also trust my senses because I believe that they were designed to perform a certain function.

If, however, I believed in naturalistic evolution, then that would induce in me a radically sceptical outlook on the reliability of the senses as well as the reliability of the mind.

3.You continue to miss the point that I am not applying a double standard to science.

To the contrary, in critiquing scientific realism I am applying a scientific standard to metascientific issues.

According to a scientific analysis of sensation, apparently colored objects are really colorless. Color (as well as other secondary qualities) is subjective, not objective.

So science is imputing the optical illusion to secondary qualities.

According to a scientific analysis of sensation, what we perceive is not the object as it is, but encoded information about the object. Electromagnetic encoding. Electrochemical encoding.

So science is responsible for setting a blackbox between the input and the output, plaintext and ciphertext.

DM: I haven't presented the brain in a vat as some primary argument, but as a reminder that if you doubt your perceptions, you start down a slippery slope towards such uber-skeptical positions.

Except that science is pushing you down the slippery slope.

At least, the way you define and delimit science.

DM: Such as doubting the reliability of perception?

SH: Regarding my distinction between rational and irrational doubt:

1.I have reason to believe that naive realism is false.

I can’t prove that. It could be that objects are really smaller at a distance, that oars really bend in water.

But it’s simpler to account for that sort of phenomenon as an observer-dependent optical illusion.

We could, of course, spend a lot of time on simplicity as a criterion, and the tradeoff between one type of simplicity and another, but since you’re not a naive realist yourself, I’m spared that Herculean effort.

2.But once we admit a gap between appearance and reality, it is very difficult to measure the gap.

How many layers intervene? Does the percept bear any direct or indirect resemblance to the sensible?

3.And, for reasons I’ve already given, this is more of a problem for you than it is for me.

The irony is that I’m both to the right and to the left of you and Babinski.

In some ways I’m far more sceptical than the two of you are, but—as a Christian—I also have a back-up system which you do not.

4.On the other hand, I don’t have reason to believe that I’m a captive of the Matrix or a brain-in-a-vat.

Also, these sceptical scenarios fudge in various ways. To propose them in the first places assumes a degree of detachment which the hypothetical denies.

5.It’s possible to dream up some indetectible illusion, viz. the Cartesian demon. Since the hypothetical is framed to be unfalsifiable, it succeeds at that hypothetical level.

But why believe the hypothetical in the first place? In the nature of the case, there can never be any evidence for such a proposition,since what renders it unfalsifiable is also what renders is unverifiable.

6.And even if I were inclined to take that hypothetical the least bit seriously, I also believe that certain theistic arguments undercut the Cartesian demon, viz. the moral argument, certain versions of the ontological argument, the principle of sufficient reason, a psychological version of the teleological argument, &c.

7. To doubt scientific realism due to Cartesian demons, or modern versions thereof (The Matrix, the brain-in-a-vat) would be a case of irrational doubt.

But there are many intellectually respectable reasons to doubt scientific realism or direct realism.

To take the example that you yourself cited by Exbrainer, even if there’s a workable correlation between my X-percept and the underlying Y-reality, the details of the X-percept do not carry over to the Y-reality—just as the details of the ATM keyboard bear no resemblance to the greenbacks.

Absence the transference of X-perceptual properties to Y-properties, scientific realism is up against a wall.

That follows from your own assumptions. And that’s a case of rational doubt.

8. It can also lead to global scepticism, although the Christian has a safety net which you do not.

9.Speaking of which—there are, in addition, many intellectual respectable reasons to believe in the existence of God as well as the inspiration of the Bible.

10.And revelation supplies an intersubjectival check on our subjective impressions.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

Discrimination Against Atheists: The Factoids

Yesterday, the Christian CADRE posted a little piece that’s getting some buzz in the blogosphere:

Triablogue has a link to the CADRE because it’s one of the best epologetic resources around.

The CADRE post took its info from the following article:

Discrimination Against Atheists: The Facts

Now, if we track back to the original article, this is some of what we find:


In 1995, the United Nations Non-Governmental Organization Committee on Freedom of Religion or Belief invited me to submit information on discrimination against atheists by the Boy Scouts of America (BSA). The committee’s mission was to record and monitor incidents of intolerance around the world. I was told that my findings would be published in the committee’s final report only if the cases I documented were grievous by its standards. The committee quickly recognized that Scouting’s discrimination against atheists was no less severe than its far more widely reported discrimination against gays. A synopsis of my findings was included in the committee’s published report.


So what we’re really talking about is not discrimination against unbelievers. To the contrary, what we’re really talking about is the iron-fisted attempt of the UN to pass international laws which discriminate against the Boy Scout's Constitutional right to exercise its freedom of assembly.

And leading the charge is the homosexual lobby as well as militant atheists of the ACLU variety.

For the other side of the story, which the Council for Secular Humanism didn’t give, and which, unfortunately, the CADRE post failed to counterbalance as well, here’s some background info from the SCOTUS case of 2000 as well as articles by Hans Zeiger:

Continuing with the original article:


Shortly afterward, the same UN committee asked me to assess other incidents of discrimination—in particular, what forms of discrimination were of greatest concern within the U.S. atheist community. During the following year, I conducted numerous interviews and discovered multiple instances of discrimination. In 1998, I delivered a personal report to the committee, noting that bigotry against atheists was relatively common, much of it based in popular misunderstandings of the U.S. Constitution’s secular character and its intent to protect minorities against majority rule. I reported that, with respect to the atheist community, the United States was not in compliance with the 1981 United Nations “Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief.”


In other words, all forms of intolerance and discrimination against sodomites or infidels should be eliminated, to be replaced with legalized discrimination against organizations like the BSA.

And, of course, from the morally enlightened viewpoint of the UN, the United States is always the villain of choice.



During 1998, Dr. Abdelfattah Amor, Special Rapporteur on Religious Intolerance to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, toured the United States and visited some of the families mentioned in my report.


As if the above-stated duplicity were insufficient, the specter of a Tunisian Muslim monitoring the state of religious intolerance in America taps into an especially rich vein of hypocrisy.

In the interests of restoring perspective, here’s a recent report from the State Dept. on the state of religious tolerance in Dr. Amor’s home country:


The Constitution provides for the free exercise of religions that do not disturb the public order, and the Government generally respects this right; however, there were some restrictions on religious freedom. The Constitution declares that Islam is the official state religion, and the President must be Muslim. The Government does not permit the establishment of political parties on the basis of religion and prohibits proselytizing. It restricts the wearing of Islamic headscarves (hijab) in government offices and it discourages women from wearing the hijab on public streets and at certain public gatherings.

Notwithstanding the reopening of the church in Djerba mentioned above, the Government generally did not permit Christian groups to establish new churches, and proselytizing is viewed as an illegal act against public order. Foreign missionary organizations and groups were active; however, they are not permitted to proselytize. Theoretically, authorities deport foreigners suspected of proselytizing and do not permit them to return, but there were reports that the Government preferred to deny suspected missionaries visa renewal not or to pressure their employers not to extend their contracts.

Religious groups are subjected to the same restrictions on freedom of speech and the press as secular groups. Primary among these restrictions is "dépôt légal," which requires that printers and publishers provide copies of all publications except printed news media to Ministry of Interior censors prior to publication. For publications printed abroad, distributors must deposit copies with the Chief Prosecutor and other ministries prior to their public release. Although Christian groups reported that they were able to distribute previously approved religious publications in European languages without difficulty, they said the Government generally did not grant permission to publish and distribute Arabic-language Christian texts. Moreover, the Government allowed only established churches to distribute religious publications to parishioners. It considered other groups' distribution of religious documents to be an illegal "threat to public order."

Customary law based on Shari'a forbids Muslim women from marrying outside their religion. Marriages of Muslim women to non-Muslim men abroad are considered common law unions and thus void when the couple returns to the country. The Government does not permit the marriage of Muslim women to non-Muslim men inside the country; however, if a man converts to Islam, he may marry a Muslim woman. Muslim men and non-Muslim women who are married may not inherit from each other, and children from those marriages (all of whom the Government considers to be Muslim) cannot inherit from their mothers.


Continuing with the original article:


In 1999, I developed the Discrimination Narrative Collection Form (DNCF), an easy-to-complete incident description form which I released to every national humanist, freethought, and atheist organization. The Council for Secular Humanism was first to publish the DNCF, in its newsletter Secular Humanist Bulletin.5 In 2000, I mass-mailed the form to atheist, humanist, and freethought groups nationwide. In addition, I circulated it at every movement conference I have attended since 2000. At those events, I heard many personal accounts of discrimination. But persuading victims to put their experience on paper was sometimes difficult.


This is about as impartial as polling the KKK on Condi Rice’s job performance.



These obstacles notwithstanding, I eventually compiled hundreds of incident reports (selected reports are summarized in the sidebars to this article). The actual case reports reside in an ADSN master file that is not available to the general public.


Did you catch that sneaky little disclaimer? The actual “incident” reports are not available to the general public.


Still, even without access to the material in my files, discrimination against atheists is easily documented. National atheist and freethought publications frequently report on atheists losing their jobs, facing abusive family situations, being subjected to organized shunning campaigns in their communities, receiving death threats, and the like.


1. Easy to document what? “Reports.” No investigations. Just “reports.”

2. And while we’re on the subject of reported incidents of discriminating, why not balance the scales by spending a little time over at the, in which you’ll find abundant documentation of discrimination against Christians by unbelievers.



Had Grothe and Dacey contacted me before writing their article, I could have opened my files and shared accounts of physical and mental abuse, job loss, cruel media stereotyping, and other instances of discrimination.


1. Media stereotyping? You mean, homophobic TV programs like Will & Grace or the Ellen DeGeneres Show?

2. And while we’re on the subject of mental and physical abuse, what about rates of suicide and domestic violence in San Francisco?

And for all the build up, what does the article cite? Five “reported” cases, of which only two are dated:

Gray, Tennessee
Caro, Michigan
Ada, Oklahoma
Minneapolis, Minnesota
Pocopson, Pennsylvania
Calgary, Alberta

The US has a population of something like 300 million? And all the article is prepared to cite are four cases over an unspecified span of time?

Is this supposed to represent a pattern?

Let’s take one of his “reported” cases:


Calgary, Alberta: An eleven-year-old boy (name withheld) experienced daily physical attacks and threats against his life by schoolmates—notably the sons of three local pastors—after protesting intercom readings of the Lord’s Prayer in a public school. He was repeatedly body-checked into hallway walls and attacked in the rest rooms. One pastor’s son stalked him with a butcher knife in an empty portable classroom. Despite the seriousness of this incident, no action was taken. The boy’s parents transferred him to another school for his own safety.


I’d just note three little problems:

1. Why should we give any more credence to the report of an atheist than an atheist is prepared to give to the report of Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John?

2. Was this simply reported, or was it actually investigated? Were the witnesses to the alleged abuse?

Was the boy the only one interviewed? What about the sons of the three local pastors? Were they interviewed? Were they allowed to give their side of the story?

3. Canada officially discriminates against Christian expression:

The brainy natural theologian in the vat

DM: We cannot escape this same problem within the field of theology or anywhere else -- what if we're just brains in a vat?

SH: Even a brain-in-a-vat can be a natural theologian. Theistic proofs like the ontological, cosmological, and teleological arguments, as well as new-fangled entries such as we find in Plantinga’s “Two Dozen or So Arguments” can all be retooled to address a brain-in-vat scenario.

As an a priori argument, the ontological argument, if sound, is just as applicable to a brain-in-vat scenario.

And one merely makes the suitable adjustments to the a posteriori arguments. The cosmological argument reapplied to an alien laboratory. The teleological argument replied to the design of the brain in the vat.

DM: This is a long-standing issue, as is the problem of other minds, and many other questions of philosophy. And your own position is not one in which these questions are given some solid solution -- proving other minds, or proving that our senses are reliable and that we aren't in the Matrix.

SH: You can also be a natural theologian in the Matrix.

DM: Instead, you retreat to the skeptical vantage when it comes to science, but the same "naivete" when it comes to theology -- that your experiences and sense knowledge of the Bible/revelation/etc are reliable knowledge, whereas scientific knowledge is not. You have a double standard.

SH: Several things wrong with this rejoinder.

1.Let’s play along with Danny’s Matrix scenario. Of course, Danny and I don’t believe that we are captives in the Matrix, but this is a useful limiting-case on what we can know.

Suppose the Bible I’m reading is really a virtual Bible. My eyes are not processing squiggles of ink on a sheet of paper. Rather, this is a computer simulation.

On the one hand, this means that, at one level, at least, we have a radical gap between appearance and reality.

I’m seem to see a Bible with my eyes, but I’m not using my eyes, and there’s no Bible to be seen.

But on the other hand, and at another level, the medium makes no difference to the Biblical propositions that I’m processing.

Even if the Biblical propositions were fed directly into my mind (or brain, if you prefer) by some neural interface, there is no discrepancy at that level, between the input and the output.

The Bible could be simulated, but the Biblical propositions could not be simulated.

2.Danny fails to distinguish between concrete and abstract objects, or concepts and percepts.

Is grass green? Maybe grass is really blue. I misperceive it as green. At that level, there’s a discrepancy between appearance and reality.

It’s a perceptual discrepancy with respect to a concrete object. What I see and what it is are two different things. It isn’t actually like the way I perceive it.

But what about the proposition that grass is green, or the proposition that grass is really blue?

Can I misperceive the proposition? No.

The proposition is an abstract object. An object of conception rather than perception.

3.Now, perception may be the means by which I acquire a knowledge of the proposition.

You can’t have a discrepancy between the proposition which the Matrix is feeding into my mind, and the proposition which I mentally register.

For if there were a discrepancy, I would be aware of the discrepancy. If the input were garbled in transmission, then the output would be gibberish.

Or even if it weren’t complete gibberish, there would be some obvious errors in transmission.

So, if it makes sense, then the process of transmission was successful.

4.Put another way, I could misperceive the medium of transmission. But what I cannot misperceive is the end-result.

A light wave or a sound wave can function as a carrier wave for abstract information. The information is encoded in the medium.

Suppose I misperceive the light wave. Perhaps the Bible looks like a red-letter edition when it’s really a gold-letter edition.

But that doesn’t affect the sense. Sense and sensation are two different things.

The sense may piggyback on sensation, but the sense is separable from the sensory medium.

If the sense is garbled in transmission, what you end up with is nonsense.

It’s not like misperceiving a color. And it’s not like a virtual illusion.

Even if the Bible were illusory, the Biblical propositions would not be illusory.

5.Not only so, but the propositions tell me something about the world. For example, they can confirm or disconfirm the fact that I’m a captive of the Matrix. They can describe what the world is really like, in one respect or another.

6.To drop your metaphor before it outlives its purpose, the Bible is not merely a sensory object. The Bible also has a lot to say about the sensible world.

And if the Bible is divine revelation (for which various arguments are available), then this supplies an external check on our subjectivity.

7.I do not regard the senses as unreliable. To the contrary, I regard our senses as reliable. But this raises a twofold question:

i) In what respect may we rely on our senses? What were they designed for?

I’d answer as follows:

a) They are a reliable means of our navigating and manipulating our physical environment.

b) They are also a reliable means of acquiring information about the sensible and spiritual world, but in a qualified sense.

I don’t think that our senses are equipped to tell us what the physical world is like, apart from the senses.

I don’t think our senses were ever designed to give us autonomous knowledge of the world.

In divine revelation you have word-media as well as sign-media. The sign-media were never meant to be independent of the word-media. Rather, the function of the sign is to illustrate the word, while the function of the word is to interpret the sign.

And I’d extend that revelatory model to sensation. The senses were never meant to operate without benefit of revelation. Rather, the senses are a conduit of revelation. And revelation, in turn, interprets the content of sensation.

DM: Not really, just taking an end-around approach. My position is and always has been that scientific knowledge is definitionally tentative and subject to falsification. Thus, what we "know" in science may be falsified tomorrow. The very nature of such "knowledge" evades absolutism. My point is that in using this knowledge and in continually testing and refining it, we have drawn the best conclusions that we possibly can, the most reliable conclusions that we can, and the best results for humanity...much better than merely armchair philosophy.


1.This is viciously circular. You can’t falsify something unless you already know something. Knowledge must furnish the point of reference for falsification.

2.As to “armchair philosophy,” this ignores the fact that the percipient has to begin with himself. With his mind.

You keep acting as if we can cut the observer out of the process and jump straight to the observational data.

The armchair is where we all begin. And, in a way, we never leave the armchair. For we never step outside of our own minds.

DM: And that is why, when you accused me of a parareligious view of science, I don't really mind the "stigma" -- I come back with a functionalist definition to religion: that whatever we see as the most important and useful thing we have can be considered our religion. The modern view of the functionalist definition is of course that a true religion must have some element of the supernatural involved. However, I'm allowing the functionalist definition to work here, and I'm using the pragmatic approach to return your scorn to your own lap -- that if I "worship" science, at least what I have devoted my life to studying and knowing has and will continue to do tangiable good for human beings. Is there a more noble quasi-religion to have?


1.Indeed, there is something more noble. And that is having a worldview which can ground the good as well as doing good for human beings beyond the reach of the grave.

You have no basis for moral absolutes. You have no basis for treating your fellow men as anything more than competitors.

And what one mortal can do for another mortal is pretty limited. Death row ethics.

2.What is more, you don’t have a monopoly on modern science. Christian theology is not opposed to medical science or modern technology.

We believe in doing good for our fellow man as well. We also have a firmer and broader basis for doing good than you ever will.

DM: This same question applies to your study of the Scripture, and your experiences of "revelation". All of those things go through the same senses and perceptive layers. What gives them more veracity? What makes your position coherent to reject sense knowledge that is filtered through methodological naturalism and continual refinement and selection...but accept sense knowledge gleaned from a bunch of dusty scrolls of unknown origins, and the way you feel (still sense perception) upon reading them and praying and such?


1.To some extent I just answered that question. Yes, all those things are filtered through the same sensory organs and perceptual layers. But if what comes out at the other end of the process is intelligible, then, at that level, there is, indeed, a direct correspondence between the input and the readout.

2.In addition, as James Anderson and I have pointed out, evolutionary epistemology is a recipe for scepticism. It has a way of cutting its own throat.

That’s entirely different from a framework in which the senses were designed by a superior mind to be truth-conducive.

3.To say the Bible is of unknown origin is a tendentious claim which disregards all the argumentation to the contrary.

DM: Your view is that man is corrupt (the observer) and thus his sense perceptions unreliable; but, for whatever reason, you hold the double standard explicated above. You say we could be brains in a vat on the one hand, but objects in God's universe on the other.

1.I already addressed that objection a month ago.

2.Beyond that, the doctrine of total depravity has nothing to do with sensory perception. You’re grasping at straws.

DM: Scientific progress and knowledge is predicated upon sense reliability. You know this. It is a presupposition. It doesn't mean that we access the "raw" form of reality, but that there is a correlative relationship between "raw" and "perceived". Thus the "veil of perception" is taken to be non-distorted. Consider it one medium upon which is written a language of our brains (perception), which, when decoded, reveals "raw" reality. Do I really have to explain this to you? You know this is the position of those who hold to any form of scientific realism -- that our perceptions are reliable correlations to reality, even if encoded in a different medium.

A couple of basic problems:

1.What kind of correlation are we talking about? A causal correlation? Cause and effect?

Even though it can’t be proven, I’ll grant you that.

But this falls well short of an alethic correlation.

How do I withdraw money from an ATM? Do I have direct access to the greenbacks? No.

Rather, I push buttons which send a series of encoded signals to a computer program, and out pops the money.

There you have a causal correlation.

But I never see the money in the machine. All I see is the keyboard. And the keyboard bears no resemblance to the greenbacks.

So a causal correlation does not entail an alethic correlation.

It may afford you a practical knowledge of how to manipulate your environment, but it doesn’t afford you a knowledge of what your environment is really like. The pragmatic power of science is not an argument for the truth-value of scientific theorizing. You continually stumble over this elementary distinction.

2.A reliable ciphertext doesn’t tell you what the plaintext is like. It isn’t descriptive of the real world. So it doesn’t give you a true depiction of the world.

That is why your very own brand of scientific realism collapses into antirealism. The more you explain your position, the more it sounds like instrumentalism rather than realism.

DM: Exbeliever went over that a bit here as he talked about how both quantum theory and general relativity are true within their spheres of description, but not universally or absolutely true, but give us knowledge nonetheless:

SH: No, in context, we were talking about scientific progress. I had in mind the way in which a later theory like, say, Relativity, displaces an earlier theory like Newtonian physics. Both were successful. Yet they can’t both be right, now can they? So success and veracity are separable. And that remains a problem for scientific realism.

DM [quoting Exbeliever]: If it were the case, then, that human minds did not accurately reflect the structure of the world, it is still possible that human minds would be able to gain "knowledge" (i.e. the power of prediction) about the world even though they were unaware of how the world really operated. Just like a scientific theory does not have to be "true" to give us knowledge about the world, the human mind does not have to reflect the structure of the world in order for humans to gain knowledge about it.

In other words, it could be the case that human minds understand the world through Perception X. The world actually operates, however, through Perception Y. Even though Perception Y is the case, Perception X is such that it provides humans with a consistent ability to make predictions (i.e. gain knowledge) about the world. We know things through Perception X that are true not because Perception X is the case, but because Perception Y can also be understood in terms of Perception X.

Similarly, I see no reason to believe that a coherent, rational structure of the world and a mind that reflects this is necessary for communication.


1.Up to a point I agree with this. However, it plays straight into the hands of the teleological argument in order to coordinate appearance and reality.

And the need of such coordination is considerable heightened given the gap between appearance and reality, ciphertext and plaintext.

How is it possible for the perceptual-X to be a successful token of the Y-reality unless the code was already in place?

Unless the mind and the world were designed in a state of mutual preadaptation, you will not be able to bootstrap this coordination after the fact.

2.Likewise, this model is concordant with antirealism rather than realism. Since on this model, you can’t map X onto Y, you cannot say that evolution is true, or that modern cosmology is true, or that functionalism is true.

DM: It is thus something, versus the nothing offered by theology, as a tool whereby we can relieve pain and help human beings.

SH: You continually set up a false antithesis, as if science were a substitute for theology, and vice versa.

It may be a substitute for you because that’s all you’re left with. But a Christian doesn’t have to choose between technology and theology.

DM: Their veracity, or truth-value, increases as they evolve. They are not necessarily going to approach universal Truth, but they will describe the phenomena of reality more accurately and precisely with time, thus they are more true than previous theories...and it continues on from there.

SH: That’s very Popperian. And it disregards the criticisms of verisimilitude.

How do you know that something is truer unless you already have the truth to compare it to? You continue to pull rabbits out of the hat.

DM: This seems odd as a solution to the problem of perception. You posit another fundamental substance of which we are composed...fine, whatever, but how is it that this substance has perceptive powers which are not as internally circular and as externally unverifiable as "just" matter?

SH: It is not a solution to the problem of perception. Rather, it’s relevant to the fact that human knowledge is not limited to perception.

Therefore, we do have something besides sense knowledge to supply a source and standard of knowledge.

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

The ontological argument redux

Since this thread disappeared into the archive before it ran its course, some readers may have missed it.

What we see here is an all-too-typical exchange between a believer and an unbeliever. The unbeliever raises an intellectual objection to some aspect of Christian theism or Christian apologetics.

The Christian rises to the challenge and patiently answers the objection.

At this point our militant atheist suddenly plays the anti-intellectual card, expressing his boredom at the technicality of the reply.


Monday, August 07, 2006

Ontological arguments

According to Exbrainer, “Ontological arguments suck…Theists assert that a god does exist in the actual world. It is their responsibility, then, to demonstrate this.”

To which a friend sent me the following:

Here's the version from Alvin Plantinga’s God, Freedom, and Evil:

i) Key assumption: "There is a possible world in which maximal
greatness is instantiated"

(1) That is, possibly, maximal greatness is exemplified.
(2) Maximal excellence: depends on the properties it has in a given
world. Entails omniscience, omnipotence, and moral perfection.
(3) Maximal greatness: depends on what the being is like in other worlds.
(4) Maximal greatness entails maximum excellence in every world.
(5) Thus, "a being has the maximal degree of greatness in a given
world W only if it has maximal excellence in every possible world".

ii) The argument:

(1) Possibly, maximal greatness is exemplified (say, in W').
(2) Thus, "had W' been actual, there would have been a being with
maximal greatness."
(3) Thus, "if W' had been actual, there would have existed a being who was omniscient and omnipotent and morally perfect and who would have had these properties in every possible world."
(4) Thus, "if W' had been actual, it would have been impossible that there be no omnipotent, omniscient, and morally perfect being."
(5) "But… while contingent truths vary from world to world, what is logically impossible does not."
(6) "Therefore, in every possible world W it is impossible that there be no such being."
(7) Therefore, "it is impossible in the actual world (which is one of
the possible worlds) that there be no omniscient, omnipotent, and
morally perfect being."
(8) Thus, "there really does exist a being who is omniscient,
omnipotent, and morally perfect and who exists and has these
properties in every possible world."

posted by steve at 10:07 AM

14 comment(s):
Daniel Morgan said:

Daniel Morgan's variation of Plantinga --

i) Key assumption: "There is a possible world in which purple winged unicorns are instantiated"

(1) That is, possibly, purple winged unicorns are exemplified.
(2) Purple winged unicorn: depends on the properties it has in a given
world. Entail: is horse-like, is the color purple, has wings, and a horn in the center of its forehead.
(3) Purple winged unicorns: depends on what the being is like in other worlds.
(4) Purple winged unicorns entail the qualities: horse-like, is the color purple, has wings, and a horn in the center of its forehead in every world.
(5) Thus, "a being has the qualities: horse-like, is the color purple, has wings, and a horn in the center of its forehead in a given
world W only if it has purple winged unicorns in every possible world".

ii) The argument:

(1) Possibly, purple winged unicorns are exemplified (say, in W').
(2) Thus, "had W' been actual, there would have been a being who is a purple winged unicorn" (190).
(3) Thus, "if W' had been actual, there would have existed a being who is horse-like, is the color purple, has wings, and a horn in the center of its forehead and who would have had these properties in every possible world."
(4) Thus, "if W' had been actual, it would have been impossible that there be no beings which are horse-like, the color purple, have wings, and a horn in the center of the forehead."
(5) "But… while contingent truths vary from world to world, what is logically impossible does not."
(6) "Therefore, in every possible world W it is impossible that there be no such being."
(7) Therefore, "it is impossible in the actual world (which is one of the possible worlds) that there be no being who is horse-like, is the color purple, has wings, and a horn in the center of its forehead."
(8) Thus, "there really does exist a being who is horse-like, is the color purple, has wings, and a horn in the center of its forehead, and who exists and has these properties in every possible world."

Do you believe...? I do!
8/07/2006 10:46 AM
aquascum said:

Hi Daniel,

A couple of problems with your reply here.

First, you failed to notice the distinction between maximal excellence and maximal greatness, in the original presentation. In Plantinga's version of the argument, the first gets defined in i.(2) and the second gets defined in i.(3)-(4). Unfortunately, in your subsequent parody, you use the same term ("purple-winged unicorns") to define what were two different concepts in Plantinga's presentation.

But no matter. There's a way to patch up your parody so that this infelicity of terminology gets removed.

Second, and more importantly, you're failing to register the difference between Plantinga's definition of "maximal excellence," and your definition of "purple-winged unicorn". Your ii.(3) speaks of a purple-winged unicorn that exists "in every possible world." But that seems incoherent. As Craig and Moreland put it, in discussing the "necessarily existent lion" objection which is formally similar to yours: "For as a *necessary being* such a beast would have to exist in every possible world we can conceive. But any animal that could exist in a possible world in which the universe is comprised wholly of a singularity of infinite density just is not a lion [or a unicorn]. In contrast, a maximally excellent being could transcend such physical limitations and so be conceived as necessarily existent" (p. 497 of J. P. Moreland and William Lane Craig, _Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview_ (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2003)).

So, how about it? Could your purple-winged unicorn exist in a world without oxygen? Without matter? I think that the more you Chisholm your original concept of a purple-winged unicorn, in order to deal with the Craig/Moreland response, the more your beast will come to resemble what Plantinga calls a maximally great being. And so, in the end, your objection just provides us more roundabout way to confirm Plantinga's conclusion.
8/07/2006 11:22 AM
aquascum said:

Err, that should have been, "provides us *a* more roundabout way..."
8/07/2006 11:24 AM
John W. Loftus said:

Did you know that John Hick is known as the most influential philosopher of religion of the last half of the last century, and did you know that he did what Daniel Morgan just did to refute Plantinga's ontological argument too? Hick used equivalent terms that Plantinga used and concluded that "therefore there is an omniscient, omnipotent, and absolutely depraved being." But since two such opposite beings cannot exist, and since both arguments lead to contradictory conclusions, that therefore Plantinga's argument is wrong.

See Hick's An Interpretation of Religion, p. 78
8/07/2006 11:43 AM
steve said:

In other words, Daniel Morgan is reproducing the same flawed argument as John Hick. Thanks for pointing that out to us, John.

So Aquascum just killed two Dodo birds with one stone.
8/07/2006 12:45 PM
John W. Loftus said:

Steve, are you serious here? Duh. Do you even understand what's being said? Duh.
8/07/2006 1:48 PM
aquascum said:

Hi John,

One very general objection to all ontological arguments is that the concept of God employed -- "maximal greatness," "greatest conceivable being," etc. -- is incoherent. That would be the quickest way to block the central assumption that maximal greatness is possibly exemplified. Any defender of an ontological argument must recognize that the argument rises and falls on this coherence question.

But, of course, the same stricture would apply to any parodies of the ontological argument, such as the one Hick gives. On Hick's view, "maximal malignness" involves having "omniscience, omnipotence and absolute moral depravity" (78). And being "maximally evil" involves having "maximal malignness in every world" (78)

The problem here is that it's quite implausible to say that maximal malignness is possibly exemplified. Upon examination the idea looks incoherent, though for a reason which is different from why a necessarily-existing purple-winged unicorn looks incoherent. Could there really be a being who is omniscient, omnipotent, and absolutely morally depraved? If we're objectivists about morality, then morally good actions just are those actions we have the most reason to do. And if a being is omniscient, then he knows which actions he has the most reason to do. And if he's omnipotent, then -- being perfectly free, and subject to no non-rational causal factors influencing his choices -- he will always do those actions he has overriding reason to do. (In particular, he'll do a morally best action [if there is one] and no morally bad action.) And so, as Swinburne argues at length in ch. 11 of _The Coherence of Theism_, "it is logically necessary that an omniscient and perfectly free being be perfectly good" (188, rev. ed.). The first two attributes imply the third. So, contra Hick, maximal malignness is not possibly instantiated, although maximal greatness is.

I grant that this response assumes moral objectivism. It also assumes that omniscience and omnipotence entail perfect goodness. Disputing those assumptions might prove interesting. But the arguments for both are given in the chapter just referenced. If you think the arguments there fail, that would be the next logical step, but the arguments are there to be engaged.
8/07/2006 2:22 PM
Daniel Morgan said:

I thought no omnipotent being could be viewed by a standard of parallel or equivalent morality, since any standard would be contingent upon something the being has created [a lower standard]? The Being can either be evil or good from the perspective of a lesser being, but as the presups like to say, that's "just an opinion" (or something).

I thought this was why God escapes [supposedly] the Euthyphro Dilemma? I thought the standard defense is, from the Being's perspective: How is there a "good" or "bad" action for an omniscient, omnipotent creature? It just acts. Its creations could view its actions as "bad" for them and towards them (which is obvious, since I think the problem of evil is a valid argument). In that sense, the malignancy of Hick's creature must be relative to its actions as they affect its creations. How can a god-figure hurt itself, or act as to lessen itself? It cannot.

I'd never heard of John Hick, nor his counterargument. I had, however, heard of the ontological argument, and as soon as I heard it, the same sort of response came to my head as Hick says in p.77 of An Interpretation of Religion: Human Responses to the Transcendent, Second Edition -- that it is an attempt to prove God by definitional fiat:

"As in the case of other formulations of the ontological argument, the reasoning looks suspiciously like an attempt to prove divine existence by definitional fiat...This is perhaps fortunate; for Plantinga's argument for a maximally excellent being, if valid, would also work for a maximally evil being."

He goes on to basically replace "excellent" with "evil" in all of Plantinga's argument, as I did "purple unicorns". Will someone please explain why what Hick did was invalid? [given that the above attempt at nullifying the counterargument fails, since omnipotent beings may do what is good or bad for their creations?] According to Hick, Plantinga admits that this is indeed a valid refutation of this form of the argument (Plantinga, 1977, 110). I'm supposing the reference is to: "Actualism and Possible Worlds," Theoria (1977).

Perhaps more interesting than this specific case of the argument is Hick's assessment of the general issue of divining (no pun intended) the ontological necessity from necessary existence. Perhaps someone will fill me in more on how the following doesn't invalidate any attempt to "create" something by showing that it follows from definitional properties (that if it exists, it exists in X way)?

On p.76 he says,
"In assessing this argument [the ontological argument for God's existence] a distinction has to be drawn between logical and factual or ontological necessity. Logical necessity is the property that some propositions have of being true in virtue of the meanings of the terms composing them. But existential propositions, declaring that x exists, cannot have the kind of necessary or analytic truth because, as we noted above, existence does not name a defining property but is a term used to assert that a certain concept is instantiated. Thus whilst it may be necessarily true, not only that 'triangles have three sides,' but also that 'God is good', it cannot be necessarily true that there exist any objects with the properties of a triangle or any entity with the characteristics that would constitute it God. For logical necessity has no purchase on matters of fact and existence. There cannot be a logically necessary existent being. Nor indeed has classical theism generally supposed that there should." (emphasis mine)

How do we go from there to "proof" of existence?
8/07/2006 3:54 PM
John W. Loftus said:

aquascum, I think I could reason with you. I like how you argue, and yes, you allow for me to deny certain assumptions. I look forward to more of your comments.
8/08/2006 6:31 AM
John W. Loftus said:

Daniel can do research "on the spot." I like it!
8/08/2006 6:32 AM
Anonymous said:

i) Key assumption: "There is a possible world in which maximal greatness is NOT instantiated."

ii) The argument:

(1) Possibly, maximal greatness is NOT exemplified (say, in Y').
(2) Thus, had Y' been actual, there would NOT have been a being with maximal greatness.
(3) Thus, if Y' had been actual, there would NOT have existed a being who was omniscient and omnipotent and morally perfect and who would have had these properties in every possible world (e.g. this being would not exist in possible world Y').
(4) Thus, if Y'had been actual, it would have been POSSIBLE that there be no omnipotent, omniscient, and morally perfect being.
(5) Therefore, in ANY possible world Y it is POSSIBLE that there be no such being.
(6) Therefore, "it is POSSIBLE in the actual world (which is one of the possible worlds) that there be no omniscient, omnipotent, and
morally perfect being."
(7) Thus, IT IS POSSIBLE THAT a being who is omniscient, omnipotent, and morally perfect DOES NOT EXIST and DOES NOT HAVE these properties in every possible World (e.g. in World Y').

Let's continue:

(i) Key assumption: "a being has the maximal degree of greatness in a given world W only if it has maximal excellence in every possible world".

(1) A godless world (say, Y') is a world without a being with the maximal degree of greatness.
(2) If a godless world is possible, then a being who has a maximal degree of greatness does not exist (i.e. because a being with a maximal degree of greatness has a maximal degree of excellence in EVERY possible world).
(3) A godless world is possible.
(4) Therefore a being who has a maximal degree of greatness does not exist.
8/08/2006 9:33 AM
aquascum said:

Hi Daniel,

Re: your comment above, I don't quite follow the reasoning in your first two paragraphs. You seem to be relying on some assumptions about God and morality that I don't endorse. But it could be that I've misunderstood your point. Could you rephrase? For instance, I don't know what is meant by "a standard of parallel or equivalent morality". As far as I can tell, what you're saying is that objective morality can't apply to an omnipotent being. But that's just to dispute moral objectivism, a possible move I already noted in my final paragraph. Notice, though, that if you say that objective morality can't apply to an omnipotent being, then we've been given even *more* reason to think that Hick's parody-premise is implausible, for it claims that an omnipotent and absolutely morally depraved being is possible. This clearly involves the claim that it's coherent to apply moral categories to an omnipotent being. So I don't think you can defend Hick's parody-argument by disputing its premise :-)

The Euthyphro Dilemma is not solved by making morality relative, but by making God's nature the truthmaker for objective moral truths. That solution is quite compatible, I think, with the defense of the ontological argument I offered above.

You refer to Plantinga's "Actualism and Possible Worlds," but (i) that was published in 1976, not 1977, and (ii) it contains no mention of the ontological argument, apart from a brief mention in section II.2 that "If the ontological argument is correct, the property of knowing that God does not exist is necessarily coextensive with that of being a square circle; but surely these are not the same property, even if that argument is correct." No concession to Hick there! So, what is Hick referring to? Is he citing a Plantinga paper which he doesn't bother to name?

Indeed, as of 1998, Plantinga continues to endorse his modal ontological argument. Cf. his entry in the _Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy_, under "God, arguments for the existence of". In section 4 he outlines the argument and defends its central premise. Here's his closing paragraph, FWIW:

"So stated, the ontological argument breaches no laws of logic, commits no confusions and is entirely immune to Kant's criticism. The only remaining question of interest is whether its premise, that maximal greatness is possibly exemplified, is indeed true. That certainly seems to be a rational claim; but it is not one that cannot rationally be denied. A remaining problem with the argument, perhaps, is that it might be thought that the epistemic distance between premise and conclusion is insufficiently great. Once you see how the argument works, you may think that asserting or believing the premise is tantamount to asserting or believing the conclusion; the canny atheist will say that he does not believe it is possible that there be a maximally great being. But would not a similar criticism hold of any valid argument? Take any valid argument: once you see how it works, you may think that asserting or believing the premise is tantamount to asserting or believing the conclusion. The ontological argument remains as intriguing as ever."

Finally, it's quite true that -- in the material you cite, and elsewhere -- Hick distinguishes between logical and factual necessity. His writing on this point is widely anthologized. But his argument that no existential proposition can have logical necessity is flawed.

First, as with most analytic philosophers writing in a pre-Kripkean context, Hick conflates logical necessity with analyticity. Notice how he uses the terms "necessary" and "analytic" interchangeably. He says that "Logical necessity is the property that some propositions have of being true in virtue of the meanings of the terms composing them." But defining (as he does here) logical necessity in terms of analyticity isn't what *Plantinga* means by the term (existing in all possible worlds). Indeed, Plantinga *critiques* that notion of necessity-as-analyticity in ch. 1 of _The Nature of Necessity_. Surely it's clear that, in the version of the modal ontological argument posted above from _God, Freedom and Evil_, when Plantinga says that the being with "maximal greatness" necessarily exists, he means that it "exists in all possible worlds". That has nothing to do with analyticity.

In the post-Kripkean era of analytic philosophy, philosophers regularly distinguish the semantic notion of analyticity from the metaphysical notion of logical necessity, and distinguish both from the epistemological notion of a prioricity. In his writings on this subject, Hick regularly conflates the first two categories.

Now, it may be that all analytic statements are logically necessary. That is, being analytic is *sufficient* for logical necessity. But it doesn't follow that *only* analytic statements are logically necessary (that is, that being analytic is *necessary* for logical necessity). The necessary is a larger category than the analytic, such that there are other ways to be a logically necessary statement besides "being true in virtue of the meanings of the terms".

For instance, "There is a prime number between fifty and fifty-five" is not analytic (to give an example from Plantinga), because being "between fifty and fifty-five" is not part of the *meaning* of "prime number". But its necessarily true all the same. Ditto for "Everything that has a shape has a size," "Everything green has some spatial property," and (I say) "It is wrong to torture babies for fun." None of these statements are analytic, but they are all necessarily true if true at all. So Hick is wrong to identify the logically necessary with the analytic.

Second, even if we accepted Hick's conflation here, it doesn't follow that that's a reason to reject the ontological argument. For perhaps "God exists" *is* analytic, and therefore (ex hypothesi) logically necessary. According to Brian Leftow (who has written a book defending divine simplicity), if divine simplicity is essential to deity (perhaps by way of perfect being theology), then God is identical with his own existence. But that means that God = God's existence, and so the subject and predicate of "God exists" have the same reference. So it's analytic, and therefore (even on Hick's assumption about logical necessity as analyticity) would be logically necessary.

Third, Hick is mistaken to think that no "existential proposition" can be logically necessary. As Norman Malcolm puts it, "Is the Euclidean theorem in number theory, 'There exists an infinite number of prime numbers,' an 'existential proposition'? Do we not want to say that in some sense it asserts the existence of something?" Likewise, it's an analytic truth that "No bachelors are married." But that also tells me something about existence in the actual world. I can deduce from it that there are no married bachelors. Given this, it would be fairly arbitrary to say that logically necessary statements can only have existential implications for nonexistence, but not for *existence*.

So when Hick says that "logical necessity has no purchase on matters of fact and existence. There cannot be a logically necessary existent being," there's little reason to think this. If by "logical necessity" he just means "analyticity," then Plantinga could justly charge him with rebutting a definition of necessity which he isn't endorsing in the first place. But if by "logical necessity" he means "existence in all possible worlds," then *a fortiori* that concept *does* have "purchase on matters of fact and existence." That is its central characteristic: existence in worlds.

In short, Hick's objection looks like a non-starter to me.

Appendix on Anonymous's comment above. He's on the right track here, in a distant sort of way. But he needs to look at the Plantinga argument originally posted, and then compare it with his parallel. He's not in fact reducing Plantinga's argument to absurdity, because he's not in fact reproducing Plantinga's reasoning. In particular, his inference from (3) to (4) doesn't match Plantinga's reasoning, and so he doesn't get Plantinga's consequences. What Plantinga gets in his premise (4) is an "impossibility" which, in virtue of the fact that impossibilities do not change from world to world, gets you an impossibility in the actual world. (Cf. the top of this post.) And that gets you the existence of God. But in Anonymous's parallel, what he gets in his premise (4) is a "possibility". All that gets him is a possibility in the actual world, that is, it's possible that a being with maximal greatness doesn't exist. But not only is that his original assumption (and so the argument goes nowhere), it doesn't establish the nonexistence of God in the actual world. At best, all you get with "possibly, maximal greatness is not exemplified" is that God doesn't have necessary existence. But you certainly don't get the nonexistence of God.

So I think he needs to Chisholm this a bit to make it work.
8/08/2006 11:34 AM
Daniel Morgan said:


The problem here is that it's quite implausible to say that maximal malignness is possibly exemplified. Upon examination the idea looks incoherent, though for a reason which is different from why a necessarily-existing purple-winged unicorn looks incoherent. Could there really be a being who is omniscient, omnipotent, and absolutely morally depraved? If we're objectivists about morality, then morally good actions just are those actions we have the most reason to do.

To which I replied,
I thought no omnipotent being could be viewed by a standard of parallel or equivalent morality, since any standard would be contingent upon something the being has created [a lower standard]? The Being can either be evil or good from the perspective of a lesser being, but as the presups like to say, that's "just an opinion" (or something).

Now, I was specifically focused upon, If we're objectivists about morality, then morally good actions just are those actions we have the most reason to do.

I phrased myself carelessly. What I mean to ask, and honestly ask (rather than argue) is: How can we establish what "the most reason to do" is if we do not establish some context (make it relative)? Don't we have to say, "the most reason to do, if the Being wants to make its creations happier and healthier," or "the most reason to do, if the Being wants to bring its own nature about in its creations," or something similar?

In this sense, I quoted the Euthyphro dilemma only because I thought the typical attribution of morality to God as an objective construct failed in this regard. You further reinforce this notion in your reply that,
The Euthyphro Dilemma is not solved by making morality relative, but by making God's nature the truthmaker for objective moral truths. That solution is quite compatible, I think, with the defense of the ontological argument I offered above.

But if we simply use definitional fiat to make God's nature "good" or "malignant", why is one valid but not the other?

As to Hick's reference, I don't know which paper he cites, but it is in the Bibliography under Plantinga, 1977, 110.

At best, all you get with "possibly, maximal greatness is not exemplified" is that God doesn't have necessary existence. But you certainly don't get the nonexistence of God.
And I suppose this was all I was pointing to by quoting p.76 of Hick at length. Whether anonymous or Hick said it properly, it still appears invalid to "create" something by definitional fiat, rather than provide for its possibility.

I was too busy picking my nose and having my eyes glaze over to follow much of the obscurantism in analytic philosophy. Sorry. I'm not saying you're wrong (or right), it just doesn't terribly interest me (or bother me).

Thanks for the fruitful dialogue, though. Interesting thoughts.
8/09/2006 6:26 AM
aquascum said:

Hi Daniel,

Four main points here.

Re: morally good actions being "those actions we have the most reason to do," all I can do at this point is again refer you to ch. 11 of Swinburne's _The Coherence of Theism_, where he defends this conception at length. The argument is also given in Part I of his _Responsibility and Atonement_ (pp. 9-18). In particular, he rebuts the notion that objective moral principles are context-relative (good relative to humans, or relative to purposes, etc.).

You ask: "How can we establish what 'the most reason to do' is if we do not establish some context (make it relative)?" Well, defending moral objectivism is to defend a meta-ethical theory about morality. It does not involve, in addition, identifying *which* particular putative actions are moral and which are immoral. That would be doing moral epistemology, not meta-ethics. Even if we couldn't settle the issue of moral epistemology, much less judgment of specific cases as right or wrong, that wouldn't have any bearing on the general defense of an objectivist meta-ethic. An analogy: someone could defend a theory of justification as internalist, without having to pass judgment as to whether a person P in situation S was in fact justified in believing p on that occasion. Or someone could hold that natural science is always the best route to truth, without knowing whether or not -- in some particular case -- good science or bad science was being performed. There could be agreement about the former, but disagreement about particular cases re: the latter.

More importantly, defining morality as what you have the *most* reason to do (because it is of overriding importance that you should do it) will settle the kinds of contextual questions you've raised. Sure, we can ask: given that person P wants to make others "happier and healthier," what does he have most reason to do? And wouldn't that be different from what he would have reason to do if he had *another* purpose in mind? Sure. But we can also ask: what reason do we have to make others happier and healthier in the first place? In the end, you will reach a bedrock principle that is context-independent. It's morally right to make others happier and healthier, and there's an end on it. The judgments about what we have most reason to do will involve, in any context, the invoking of principles that are not context-dependent.

(This isn't a full defense of the view, you understand. I'm just sketching out what the theory is in fact claiming about morality, and why these contextual questions don't undermine the theory, but rather provide opportunity for illustrating it.)

I had proposed that "The Euthyphro Dilemma is not solved by making morality relative, but by making God's nature the truthmaker for objective moral truths." You reply: "But if we simply use definitional fiat to make God's nature 'good' or 'malignant', why is one valid but not the other?" Again, I think you're continuing to confuse (perhaps?) meta-ethical and epistemological issues. *If in fact* God's nature is (the truth-maker for) the standard for the good, then the Euthyphro Dilemma has been avoided, for on this view morality is neither arbitrary nor more ultimate than God. Now, *why* is it the case that God's nature has the content that it has? That's an interesting question. *How do we know* that God's nature is in fact good, rather than evil? Another good question. But neither of these are the Euthyphro Dilemma.

In the end, the whole reason for making the divine nature the truth-maker for objective moral truths is to *clearly eschew* the view that morality is a matter of "definitional fiat". On the theory in question, morality *isn't* defined by way of definitional fiat. It's not defined by any act of choosing whatsoever, much less by an act of choosing how we are to use certain words. Rather, morality is *constituted* by some aspect of God's nature ('definitions' be damned). So either you've radically misunderstood the Euthyphro-response I've proposed, or I've radically misunderstood your question. From my vantage point, my answer is about as far from "definitional fiat" as can be imagined.

The Euthyphro Dilemma has consequences more far-reaching than may at first appear. I agree with Paul Helm: "In the opinion of many philosophers, when in the Euthyphro Plato asked the question 'whether the pious or holy is beloved by the gods' he was in effect raising one crucial difficulty for any Divine Command Theory of ethics. (If he was, he was also raising a difficulty for the relation of morality to any authority whatsoever.)" ("Introduction" to Paul Helm (ed.), _Divine Commands and Morality_ (New York: Oxford University Press, 1981), p. 2). In other words, if the Dilemma works, it works at underming moral objectivism *simpliciter* (theistic or not). Even an atheistic advocate of objective ethics faces the Euthyphro-style question: "Given the objective standard for morality you propose, are actions moral because the standard says they are moral, or does the standard say they're moral because they're moral (independent of the standard)?" If the former, then morality looks arbitrary; if the latter, then the 'standard' looks superfluous and irrelevant. That's why I made clear, in my initial reply to John above, that the real issue here is moral objectivism, not theistic moral objectivism in particular.

You say that "it still appears invalid to 'create' something by definitional fiat, rather than provide for its possibility." But this isn't what's going on in the ontological argument (whether Anselm's original version or Plantinga's modal version). If either author were 'creating' God by definitional fiat, the presentation would most likely go something like this: "I define 'God' as an existing being. Therefore, God exists." Clearly, this *isn't* what's going on in the ontological argument. For starters, although the argument employs definitions, it doesn't employ them like *that*! Rather, an *argument* is being given. One starts with a definition of "maximal greatness" (which definition does *not* involve the claim that God actually exists), and then one *argues*, by way of the relevant modal principles of S5 logic, that if we grant that maximal greatness is possibily exemplified, we get the actual exemplification of maximal greatness; i.e., the existence of God. This isn't "creating something by definitional fiat." It's arguing to a conclusion on the basis of premises. One can dispute the premises, or dispute the inferences, but one can't deny that the premises and inferences are there to be disputed. That's because what we have here is an actual argument, and not a "definitional fiat".

Again, you say that "it still appears invalid to 'create' something by definitional fiat, rather than provide for its possibility." I don't understand the force of the "rather than". "Providing for the possibility" of God's existence is precisely what's going on in the argument, nothing more. If you think Anselm or Plantinga start with something more than this, I'd like to see the evidence.

In the end, what you're proposing here looks like what Stephen T. Davis calls the "Boy Scout objection" to the ontological argument. (Cf. p. 26 of his _God, Reason, and Theistic Proofs_.) Even as an initiate to the Boy Scouts, on his first campout, might express disbelief that you can rub two sticks together and get something like fire (isn't fire radically different from wood?), so the objector to Anselm's/Plantinga's argument might express disbelief that you can rub concepts together and get something like the actual existence of God (isn't God radically different from mere concepts)?

If that's the objection, then the reply is twofold. First, the claim is straightforwardly false. As Davis puts it, surely "we *can* use purely a priori procedures to show some things about reality, for example, that certain things do not exist in it" (26). This is how we know there are no married bachelors or square circles; not by looking around us! We simply reflect upon the associated concepts, and we see that they couldn't be instantiated in reality. So we come to conclusions about reality on the basis of concepts alone. And, as I stated last time, it's arbitrary to say we can go one way with a priori procedures (show nonexistence) but not the other way (show existence).

Second, the claim looks to be question-begging. You can't just say, at the outset, that no one *can* prove anything this way. (A paraphrase of Hick: "It's invalid to start with mere concepts and reason your way to substantive claims about existence!") Rather, you'll have to examine the offered proof and see if it works! Maybe this is the first time such a proof *does* succeed. Who knows? Rather than rule out the cogency of such a proof at the outset, on the basis of an *a priori* philosophical prejudice that such proofs can't work in general, what's needed is a response to the proof itself.

Finally, you seem to imply that my interaction with the Hick citation you provided was just so much "obscurantism in analytic philosophy," and that "it just doesn't terribly interest" you. Well, OK, but I posted the material above for a reason. If you recall, you were the one who said that "Hick's assessment of the general issue" was "more interesting," and who said that "Perhaps someone will fill me in more on how the following [paragraph from Hick] doesn't invalidate any attempt to 'create' something by showing that it follows from definitional properties (that if it exists, it exists in X way)?"

That clearly looked like a request to interact with Hick's criticism. As far as I can tell, that's what I did. I'm sorry if your eyes glazed over :-) but I can't just respond to Hick by dismissing him. Thoughtful challenges require thoughtful replies. The stuff about necessity and analyticity was, well, necessary, because that's how *Hick* chose to frame the issue. He's the one who offered a rebuttal by using "analytic" and "necessary" interchangeably. And as I argued, that's the Achilles' Heel of his response (along with several other observations I made).
8/09/2006 3:18 PM