Monday, June 27, 2016



Philosophers discuss perennial questions whose answers may not be settled through scientific inquiry alone. Does God exist? Is there an afterlife? Why is there something rather than nothing? With respect to the existence of God, there are roughly three positions one may hold.

I take Atheism to be the view which states that God does not exist. Theism is the view which states that God exists. Agnosticism is the view which states the existence of God is unknowable or an open question. The agnostic does not find the arguments and evidence provided by either the Atheist or the Theist to be compelling. Thus, unlike the theist or atheist, the agnostic does not take a stand on the question.

Before moving forwards, it’s important to clarify two things: what I mean by God and how to interpret the claims made by both the theist and atheist.

I take God to be a disembodied mind that created the universe. God is all-knowing, all-powerful, perfectly good, transcendent (exists outside of space and time), and eternal. This description of God holds true for the Abrahamic religions (Christianity, Judaism, and Islam), but may not accord well with conceptions of God from eastern religions, for which I know little about. I shall then focus my discussion on the Western conception of God.

What exactly does it mean to be an atheist? Some atheists have understood the claim as relative to some particular God. On this interpretation, one can be an atheist with respect to the Christian God, but a theist with respect to the God of Islam. Despite this being a popular interpretation on the web—and amongst “New Atheism” circles”—I will use the term how it has been traditionally used. Most philosophers—especially within the sub-discipline of philosophy of religion—understand the claim to be universal. Atheism is typically taken to be a rejection of all Gods. All it takes to be a Theist is to believe that a God exists, whether it is the God of the Bible or the God of the Quran.

Lastly, to be a theist or atheist, one does not need to be certain, nor does one even have to have any justification. One can be a theist or atheist based on faith. But to rationally defend either position, one would have to provide some justification.

Why do people believe in God? To be clear, I am interested in the justification for belief in Theism rather than some causal story (e.g. ‘because they were taught at a young age’). Here are three different kinds of justification:

1)      Evidence: Religious experiences, the apparent fine-tuning of the physical constants, miraculous events.
2)      Rational argument: The Kalam cosmological argument, the argument from Design
3)      Pragmatic reasons: Pascal’s wager (i.e. given the possibility of hell, it’s best to believe)

      Believing that God exists on the basis of some evidence or arguments can be perfectly reasonable thing to do. Whether or not such a belief is true is another matter.

       Of all of the rational arguments for the existence of God, I find the Kalam cosmological argument to be the most powerful, though ultimately not compelling (see Craig and Sinclair 2009 for an extensive overview). The argument goes like this:

The Kalam cosmological argument

P1) Everything that begins to exist has a cause
P2) The universe began to exist
C) The universe had a cause

If C, then the universe was caused by something other than itself. It is argued that the cause of the universe must be immaterial and timeless (outside of space and time), and have the power to create universes. Theists argue that the best candidate for the cause of the universe is God. I will now assess each of the premises in turn.

Why should we accept the first premise? One reason would be that it seems as if everything we observe in the universe is brought into existence by something else. For example, the birth of a newborn was—in part—caused by its mother. Barring possible exceptions within the quantum world (e.g. nuclear decay of atoms), I will grant the theist this much. However, the first premise can be challenged on the following grounds. It may be true that everything within the universe has a cause, but that the universe as a whole does not. Just because a lego castle is made up of tiny bricks does not mean that the castle has to be tiny. Therefore, the first premise sneaks in what has been called the fallacy of composition.

 However, theistic philosophers, such as William Lane Craig, argue that one can provide support for premise 1 without appealing to such a fallacious argument. He argues that premise 1 is common sense and that it is just absurd to accept the alternative. To think that something, especially an entire universe, could just pop into existence out of nothing, seems preposterous.

What about the second premise? Support for premise 2 is often marshalled from the science of cosmology. At the moment, most cosmological evidence points towards the observable universe having a beginning, though it does not demonstrate that the cosmos as a whole had a beginning. Our universe could be one of many universes within an eternal multiverse. Given that cosmology as a science is still highly speculative and premature, we shouldn't give much weight to claims about the cosmos as a whole, but one might argue that the evidence we do have supports premise 2, at least for what is observable to us. 

Logic 101 dictates that if an argument is logically valid and the premises are true, then the conclusion also has to be true. The argument is clearly valid. Therefore, if one is to reject the argument’s conclusion—the universe had a cause—one must reject one of its two premises.

Here are three escape routes an atheist might want to consider. First, the atheist could argue that the universe could have popped into existence out of nothing (Note that this isn’t what certain physicists, such as Lawrence Krauss (2012), have in mind when they say the universe could have came from nothing. Krauss and others cheat by substituting nothing with a quantum vacuum state containing energy. That isn’t nothing!). Second, they could say that current cosmological theories and models are flawed or incomplete. Lastly, the atheist could argue that the cause of the Universe need not be God. All three escape routes require supporting arguments and justification which I will not take up here. I will now turn to some of the arguments and reasons for adopting Atheism and explain why I take some of them to be compelling.

To rationally accept atheism, it is not enough to say that the arguments and evidence for God’s existence aren’t convincing; one must provide positive arguments for atheism. Lacking positive reasons for adopting atheism, agnosticism seems to be the more reasonable position to maintain. Many self-proclaimed atheists reject such a requirement on the following grounds. First, they argue that you cannot prove a negative, and therefore, atheism isn’t a position that can be defended. Rather, it is a position that reflects one’s lack of belief in God. Furthermore, to be an atheist, all that one needs to show is that there is no evidence and/or arguments that support God’s existence. I disagree on multiple counts. Not only can you prove a negative, you can provide a rational defense of Atheism. I’d like to add that defending a philosophical position does not require proving that the other side is wrong. One just needs to show that the arguments in support of their side are more persuasive that the supporting arguments for the opposing view. So, why do people accept atheism?

Evidence that makes God’s existence unlikely: The countless instances of pointless suffering the world, the success of naturalistic theories at explaining how the world works and where it came from (God is superfluous), religious diversity.

Arguments for atheism: The argument/problem of evil, the argument from divine hiddenness, the causal argument, the concept of God involves contradictions.

Perhaps the most famous example of an argument for atheism would be the argument from evil (also known as the problem of evil). The argument comes in many forms, but I will soon put forward what I take to be one its strongest forms (see Tooley 2015 for a review). First, I must clarify something about the nature of evil. There are older arguments that suggest that the existence of evil or pain and suffering is itself incompatible with God’s existence. These arguments fail because some suffering is thought be necessary for personal growth, appreciation of the good, and the greater good of mankind. Pain and suffering is also thought to be a way for God to test his creatures’ faith. The following argument concedes that some pain and suffering is necessary for God’s plan to work, but that copious amounts of pain and suffering that seemingly serve no purpose, provide reason to think that God probably doesn’t exist.

Evidential argument from evil

P1) If God is all good and all powerful, then there wouldn’t be any pointless pain and suffering
P2) There exists copious amounts of pointless pain and suffering in the world (e.g. natural disasters, mass extinction events, animal suffering from predation, disease, genetic abnormalities, starvation etc.).
C) A God with such attributes (omnipotence + omnibenevolence) is very unlikely to exist

 Both premises require more explication and justification. At first glance, the first premise seems pretty uncontroversial. If there were instances of pointless pain and suffering (i.e. pain and suffering that does not lead to personal growth or to some greater good), then God would and should have the power to prevent them. At this point the theist might pull the mystery card. As mere mortals, we cannot know why God does certain things, or what the right courses of action should even be. Such a line of argument could be used to challenge the second premise as well. There may seem to be copious amounts of needless pain and suffering in the world, but it doesn’t follow from that that there in fact is. To test the plausibility of such a claim, let’s look at a specific proposal.

Mass extinction events: Assuming that most non-human animals can experience pain and suffering, events where 90% of the animal population were wiped out (e.g. asteroid impacts) would involve a great deal of pain and suffering (see Kolbert 2014 for a review of five such catastrophes). Billions of creatures starving to death, burning alive, and being poisoned or smothered by toxic gases. What was the point? How did the suffering of billions of creatures contribute to some greater good? Couldn’t God have brought about the human race without such a long history of pain and suffering?

Theists have given several responses to such claims. Some have alleged that most (if not all) non-human animals lack the capacity to experience pain or suffering. If true, mass extinction events would not be a strike against God. To be fair, I think it is an open question whether certain creatures experience pain and suffering. For example, there is some reason to think that creatures ranging from insects to bony fish lack the capacity to experience pain and suffering (Key 2016). Bony fish lack certain brain regions (e.g. neocortical areas) seemingly responsible for the sensation of pain in other vertebrates, such as mammals. But even if I give the theist this much, there is good reason to think that most mammals and birds experience pain and suffering, and that still constitutes a very large number of creatures.

Another response shifts the blame to rebellious spirits, ghosts, or fallen angels (Plantinga 1977). The philosopher Alvin Plantinga argues that it is logically possible for all pointless evil to be attributed to the actions of humans or other kinds of moral agents (e.g. fallen angels). While atheists may ridicule an appeal to evil spirits, such entities are a part of a theistic worldview. How might such an explanation go? Did the fallen angels somehow redirect the asteroid towards Earth? Are all of these beings just running around messing with nature in order to cause pain and suffering for the fun of it? Whatever the case may be, a story involving rebellious spirits sounds quite fantastical.

A third explanation for the long history (~600 million years) of animal suffering would be that such suffering was necessary for the evolution of human beings. But this would effectively be putting constraints on God's power. Why couldn't God have created the world in six days, skipping the whole evolutionary process altogether? Certain theologians and theistic philosophers concede that there are some constraints on God's power, namely, that God is bound by the laws of logic. It is said that God cannot make 2+2=5, bring about square circles, or create married bachelors, all of which involve some kind of contradiction (a violation of logical law). But what is contradictory about creating human beings without evolution? If there is no contradiction involved, then either 1) God has even less power than previously believed (by being bound by some physical or metaphysical constraints), 2) God is not all-good, or 3) no such being exists. 

There is much more to say about the other examples of pointless suffering I have mentioned. Collectively, I consider the evidence for pointless pain and suffering to be overwhelming. Consequently, I believe that the problem of evil provides good reason to think that God doesn’t exist. While a full defense of atheism would require much more space, I hope to have shown the steps involved in issuing such a defense. If you have not been sold by any of the arguments presented within this blog post, then you might have some other reasons or arguments in mind for defending atheism or theism, or you might be an agnostic.

Next week’s post: Free will and moral responsibility. I will offer a defense of compatibilism against free will skepticism and libertarianism. I will also say why the debate matters, and why the issue is much more complex than many scientists and laypeople make it out to be.

Works cited:
Craig, W. L., & Sinclair, J. D. (2009). The kalam cosmological argument. The Blackwell companion to natural theology, 101-201.
Key, B. (2016). Why fish do not feel pain. Animal Sentience: An Interdisciplinary Journal on Animal Feeling, 1(3), 1.
Kolbert, E. (2014). The sixth extinction: An unnatural history. A&C Black.
Krauss, L. M. (2012). A universe from nothing. Simon and Schuster.
Plantinga, A. (1974). God, freedom, and evil. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing.

Tooley, Michael, "The Problem of Evil", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2015 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <>.

Saturday, June 18, 2016

Academia or Blogging?

I have just finished a terminal MA program in philosophy from a top-ranked program (GSU). Over the next few months, I will have to seriously consider what I should do next. In order to teach philosophy full-time—which is what I think I’d like to do for a living—I would have to first get into a good PhD program. My first two attempts at applying to PhD programs were unsuccessful, and as Steve Stich once told me, “That is the easy part”. To complete the PhD program, I would then have to spend at least five years taking courses, teaching, and writing a 100-page dissertation. Upon completion, I would have to apply to dozens (if not hundreds) of jobs across the country with a fair chance of not being hired. Best case scenario (which is pretty unlikely): I get into a top 30 PhD program, complete it in five years and then get a full-time teaching job. Even then, in order to advance in the field, I would have to publish quite regularly. Publishing in peer reviewed journals is like applying to graduate school all over again, except you are competing with hundreds of other people with PhDs (most philosophy journals reject at least 90% of the submissions). Making it as an academic philosopher is no easy task. 

For the past four years, I have been able to hand pick courses that most interested me, studying a wide range of topics; from the foundations of quantum mechanics to the evolution of the brain. Studying philosophy has led me to become a better writer, sharper thinker, and more aware of who I am. It has supplied me with the intellectual tools to deconstruct complex arguments, to spot the relevant passages in a lengthy text, and to research complicated issues effectively. If I decide to retreat from the pathway into academia, I would not lose anything. 

Outside of academia, I believe there is much philosophical work to be done. For one, when it comes to the field of philosophy, effective communication with the general public and with professional scientists has been lacking. Most people know perfectly well what science is, but are deeply confused about the nature of philosophy. Science popularizers, such as, Bill Nye, Lawrence Krauss, and Neil deGrasse Tyson, have all inadvertently contributed to such confusions. All while assuming that philosophy is just a waste of time or a thing of a past, such scientists tacitly defend philosophical views with little to no argument. For example, Lawrence Krauss seems to endorse utilitarianism (the ethical theory which prescribes the greatest good for the greatest many), but rolls his eyes when philosophers try and point out to him that it's a philosophical position (1). There is a reason why philosophers come up with names for philosophical views. Not only does it make philosophical discussion easier; it allows certain logical problems or puzzles for such views to become apparent. One job of the philosopher is to develop and defend more nuanced views that aim to address such problems. (If only there were philosophical views in accord with common sense that had no problems with them!)

Everyone—including scientists—holds philosophical views, whether they like it or not. We all have views about God, morality, free will, the extent of our knowledge, and the nature of reality. Doing philosophy allows one to realize the menu of theoretical possibilities regarding such issues. It also allows one to figure out which option is most compatible with one's own intuitions and beliefs. A further relevant question is then, ‘What reason do we have to accept the philosophical views that we hold?’ Philosophical views need to be argued for, even if they seem to be common sense or obviously correct.

While I have studied a wide range of views across a large number of topics, I do not have many firm beliefs. The existence of this blog is in part a remedy to my fence-sitting. In the blog posts that follow, I will closely examine philosophical issues and try to lay some of my cards down on the table (2). In trying to defend some position, I believe that I will become more aware of what I really think about the topic. At the same time, I hope to clear up some common confusions regarding philosophy and aim to show why it’s extremely useful discipline. Perhaps after blogging for a while, I will get a good sense as to whether academic philosophy is the right move to make.

Works cited
[ctrl F: "utilitarianism" for the relevant excerpts]

* I will often refer back to the views featured within this survey. Eventually, I plan to fill out the survey in its entirety, hopefully having an informed opinion about each of the issues.