Thursday, March 24, 2011

The Morality Test for God

Let’s frame the question of God’s goodness another way.  There are countless ordinary cases where we judge a human to have acted rightly or wrongly.  Very roughly, when someone is in a convenient position to do something about some serious instance of pointless suffering, and she knows about it, and she is a morally decent or good person, we expect her to do something.  Or we do not expect her to act (or fail to act) in a way that brings about serious pointless suffering in others when she knows that the action will bring it about and a choice is available to her to pursue some other course of action that would not cause it.  Furthermore, if serious, pointless suffering occurs, and she could act to prevent it at some risk or harm to herself, we very often label that action as heroic or supererogatory.  And we hold those sorts of acts, such as running into a burning building to save someone, in high moral esteem.  You’re a good person if you strive to avoid causing unnecessary harm to others, and you’re an even better person if you work to alleviate or prevent harm to others at great cost or risk to yourself. 

This is all making very short work of a huge number of issues in moral theory, but I just need to get a basic idea across.  We have a set of expectations about what morally good people do, what morally wicked people do, and what morally heroic people do.  And we form out judgments about a person’s moral merits on the basis of their fulfilling or failing to fulfill those expectations.    

Suppose a human stood by and watched someone drown, did nothing while someone was swept away and crushed by a tsunami when it was easy to save him, or she did not act to stop an instance of child sexual abuse, or she set up an apparatus that would kill or maim some innocent passerby, and so on, would we consider that human to be good?  If a person labors endlessly to help the unfortunate, educate children, house the homeless, or give medical care to the sick, would we consider that person to be morally good?    

God is, by most accounts, good.  So here’s the problem.  There are countless instances where, if a human acted with regard to some instance of suffering or tragedy the way God apparently acts, then we would readily and without doubt condemn that person as morally wicked.  That is, if a person acts like God acts, there would be no doubt in our minds that that person was morally evil.  We can ask this question about cases of apparently pointless suffering: 

If a human did what God is allegedly doing right now, would we consider that a morally good action? 

Some examples may help.  If a person unleashed a virus on the planet that killed or maimed millions of people, we would think that person was evil.  If a person could have prevented the suffering of those millions of people and didn’t, we would think that he is evil.  The same goes for cases of famine, drought, war, genocide, and so on.

If working tirelessly to aid refugees, feed the starving, house the homeless, prevent disease, spread literacy, cure cancer, and end war are morally good, then why doesn’t God do any of them?  If ignoring human suffering, tolerating child abuse, being indifferent to injustice, and allowing the propagation of ignorance and hatred are morally bad things, then why does a good God do them? 

If the answer to the morality test question is no, then God fails it.  If God fails the morality test, then we have (another) serious challenge to the claim that God is good.  In general, if we gather enough serious challenges to the claim that X is good, then I think we are justified in rejecting the claim that X is good.  At the very least, as the gap grows between what God does and doesn’t do and our normal associations with the label “good,” the more it seems like something has got to give. 

The problem of evil is complicated, and I won’t pretend to capture all of the issues here.  All I want to do is bring out a different way of thinking about it.  There is a profound cognitive dissonance in the way that we talk about God’s goodness and our ordinary moral judgments.  On a regular basis we ascribe moral goodness or moral wickedness to innumerable human cases, but we often fail to notice that God is doing none of the things that we praise, and he is doing what we’d normally consider to be evil.  Yet we insist that he is good.  The believer should take this question to heart: 

If God is good, then why doesn’t he do the things that we consider to be good? 

It’s on this question that I really want to focus.  Experience has taught me that raising these issues provoke people to raise all sorts of tangential matters.  Some reactions are predictable:  how can we know what is really good or evil?  Lots of those instances of suffering are caused by humans and not God.  We must not hold God to the same moral standards that we apply to humans.  God does act in morally good ways everyday through the acts of those that love him, And so on.  Some of these are off topic, and none of them really answer the question. 

God’s defenders will be quick to point out that the same standards of moral behavior should not be applied to God here that we apply in ordinary situations.  But we must be particularly careful not to succumb to the temptation of ad hoc defenses, special pleading, confirmation bias, or bogus redefinition.  We can acknowledge that God, if he were real, would be special.  But the theist who would pursue this line is in danger of redefining his terms into incoherence.  Imagine the ardent defender of Kim Jong Ill or Muammar Gaddafi: 

Yes, I know that Kim Jong Ill has systematically starved, abused, tortured, killed, and neglected the North Koreans, but he really is good.”   

“It seems like Gaddafi has brutally oppressed dissidents, sponsored terrorism, assassinated his political opposition, and engaged is terrible nepotism, but in fact, he’s exceedingly virtuous and moral, and those actions are actually the extraordinary manifestations of goodness as it applies to him in his vast moral superiority to us.”

These sorts of redefinitions don’t work in any other cases.  And what’s often driving the defender is confirmation bias, dedication, over zealousness, spin, emotional investment, or malevolence.  We can only sustain the claim X is good in a case like this by utterly undermining the meaning of the term.  If we must redefine the term entirely in order to sustain attributing it to X, then we should rather conclude that X is not good.  If what you actually mean when you say “God is good,” is that God is indifferent, callous, or evil, that’s fine.  Let’s just be clear by what our terms mean.  I can argue that God is cheese too.  Those behaviors aren’t what “good” means.  And if that’s what you mean, then you really aren’t entitled to call God good, which is my point here. 

What can we say about the overall result of applying the morality test to God?  The results are grim.  In general, God does none of the things that good people are supposed to do, and he either actively commits or by omission allows to happen countless events that only the most callous, murderous, insensitive, morally bankrupt human would commit or allow to happen.  That is, by our ordinary moral standards that we apply to countless actions on a daily basis, God is a moral monster. 

What are the possible responses to this dilemma for the believer?  First, and obviously, the believer will insist that it is not fitting to apply the same moral standard to God.  Owing to his infinite power, his knowledge, or his moral perfection, the ways that God’s goodness manifest themselves are not comparable or measurable by the human standard.  Some of this is to be expected and to an extent, it is right.  Were there such a being, we would expect the manifestation of his goodness to be different—it would transcendent our ordinary standards. 

This approach is reflected in John Hick’s soul building defense, or Van Inwagen’s view in“The Problem of Evil, the Problem of Air, and the Problem of Silence,” in Philosophical Perspectives, 5:  135-165.   

Very generally, these arguments suggest that once we unpack the details of what it would be for an infinitely powerful, knowledgeable, and good being to create a world, we might well come to expect the world to be, more or less, just as we find it in terms of the amount and distribution of seemingly pointless suffering.  That is, theodicists like Hick and van Inwagen think that the gap between the world we find ourselves in and the sort of world that God would create isn’t nearly so wide once we consider the requirements of creating a regular universe that fulfills the variety of God’s diverse goals, and once we appreciate how different a being of God’s capacities relationship to the world would be.    

I don’t think that Hick or van Inwagen argue that the state of suffering  in the world serves as favorable evidence for the existence of a good God, but I haven’t looked at them closely for just that question.  I think their views are that if we have sufficiently strong independent evidence for a good God’s existence, then we can see that the suffering in the world is consistent with his goodness. 

They might be right, but the problem with their account is that the world that they would have a good God create is indistinguishable from a world with no God at all.  Or at least the differences between the world God would create and a Godless world are too small to make it possible for those of us living in one of them to be able to tell which one we’re in.  When we put the question to them:  If God is good, then why doesn’t he do any of the things that good people do?  their answer seems to be:  when you’re THAT good and powerful, your actions cease to resemble ordinary good or evil actions altogether.  But now we are losing our handle on the claim because of the redefinition problem above.  On what grounds can we still confidently assert that God is good?  What does it mean to say that he is good now? 

This is not yet a devastating argument against God’s existence or goodness.  There is much we do not know, and God, if there were one, would no doubt be mysterious to us in many ways.  But it is a very substantial prima facie strike against views that God is real and good.   Unless the morality problem can be dealt with in some specific ways that I will detail below, God’s failure on the morality test should lead us to conclude that there is no God (where being morally perfect or infinitely good is an essential property of being God.)   

Here’s the problem from another angle.  If we had some other, independent grounds for thinking that God is real and that God is morally perfect, then our conclusion that God is real and morally perfect could withstand some of the challenge.  In general, the conviction or confidence that we attach to the conclusion that God is real and good, like anything else, should be proportional to the quality and quantity of evidence we have.  A rational person proportions the strength of their belief to the evidence they have.  If that evidence is only weakly in favor of the conclusion, then we should only provisionally accept it.  If that evidence becomes weak enough, or if the evidence mounts in favor of rejecting the conclusion, we should do so. 

In the big picture, the evidence in favor of God’s existence is weak, and the evidence for God’s moral perfection is even worse.  Neither the cosmological nor the teleological arguments give any indication of the moral status of the first cause or the designer.  Quite the contrary, if one were to look at the state of the universe and try to draw some inductive conclusion about the moral character of the responsible party, only utter moral indifference would seem plausible.  When confronted with the problem of evil, theists have spent centuries just trying to argue that God’s goodness is possibly compatible with the amount and distribution of suffering we find.  That is, the strongest response that many theodicies have been able to muster to the problem is that there might be a good God out there.  Even worse, skeptical theists have retreated to the meager position that we just can’t know what the function of suffering is in God’s plan.  For our current purposes, those answers amount to a tacit concession that God’s goodness cannot be generalized or inductively inferred from the state of the universe. 

The ontological argument has some more potential, if it were successful, to prove the moral perfection of God.  It’s a deductive argument that proceeds from an analysis of the superiority intrinsic to the concept of a great, perfect, or ultimate being.  So it could potentially prove, if successful, that God must necessarily be morally perfect.  The problem is that by widespread concession, the ontological argument doesn’t work.  See Graham Oppy’s The Ontological Argument for the best thorough and recent analysis.  And even if there was some version of the argument that we found compelling, the problem of God’s failure to act in all of the morally salient circumstances under consideration would raise a serious question about that argument.  If the ontological argument proves that God is morally perfect, then why is it that God doesn’t do any of the things we associate with moral virtue?  This conflict could be taken as an indicator that there is something seriously amiss with the allegedly successful ontological argument. 

Recently some theists have alluded to a moral argument for God’s existence that alleges to show that God, a morally perfect being, exists from the presence of a moral sense in us, or from the existence of moral facts.  These arguments have yet to be defended in any plausible form in the open forum of philosophical peer review as far as I know.  Until they are, I’m not sure that we need to take them very seriously.  There is a reason that this alleged indispensible connection between moral facts and God escaped all of the greatest moral theorist in history (Kant, Hume, Mill, Aristotle, Plato, Hobbes, Rousseau, Rawls, Epicurus, and so on), namely, it’s implausible.   Furthermore, God’s failure on the morality test that I am outlining here will be a substantial blow against the premises that might be put forward in such an argument.  We can state the question a new way:  If the existence of moral facts, or a moral sense in us, proves the existence of God, then why doesn’t God seem to appreciate or adhere to any of those facts? 

The failure of God on the morality test gives us strong prima facie evidence against God’s existence that weighs heavily against these alleged independent grounds.   

So we do not have the independent, substantial arguments we need to establish the goodness (or reality) of God that might withstand or overcome God’s abysmal failure on the morality test.  God’s failure on the test should sustain the conclusion that there is no God until some answer is forthcoming. 

Once again, the central question is clear and straightforward, and it ought to have a clear, non-evasive answer:  If God is good, then why doesn’t he do any of the things that good people do?  There is a great deal more that a good human could do, if she had the power and the knowledge.  God is alleged to be a great deal more powerful and knowledgeable than we are.  So if there were such a God, a great deal more of those good acts or ends would be achieved. 

Many of the traditional answers to the problem of evil come roughly in the form of saying, “There could be some good, absolving reason for why a good God does not do what someone with moral virtue would do.  So possibly God is good.”  But notice that just restates the problem rather than answer it.  It is also possible that there is no good, absolving reason for why a divine being hasn’t done what a virtuous person would do, in which case there is no God.  The mere possibility that there is a good reason isn’t enough to solve the problem.  It is possible that there is an infinitely evil and powerful being, but there are absolving reasons that prevent him from making things vastly worse than they are right now.    

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

The Unreliability of Introspection, Anti-Intuitionism, and God

A particular philosophical methodology and set of assumptions run through many of the arguments for God in the literature.

Cognitive Transparency:  If it is in my mind, then it will be evident to me that it is.  

Cognitive incorrigibility:  I can’t be mistaken about what I take to be the contents of my own thoughts.  If on introspection, I take X to be a content of my own mind, then it is true that X is one of my mental contents.   

Belief access: If I believe it, then I am or I can become aware that I do, and the same for my disbeliefs.     

Justification Access—I have privileged access to the reasons, evidence, or considerations that led to my believing what I do.  My reasons for believing p will be incorrigible and transparent to me.

Propositional/Belief Modularity--beliefs are modular.  You either have one or you do not.  You change your mind and cease to have it, and so on.  Beliefs, and the cognitive structures in mind that contain or map them, have syntactic or logical structure and relationships, and they have semantic content.  

Intuitionism:  my immediately introspected hunches/feelings/reactions to philosophical thought experiments or questions about natural, metaphysical, or logical possibility can be treated either as highly reliable or perfectly reliable (!) indicators of natural, metaphysical, or logical possibility in the right sorts of circumstances.  My intuitions are data that should be incorporated into philosophical theories or arguments. 

The influence of these approaches and presumptions is beginning to wane in the discipline, but many of them, or versions of them play central roles in theistic arguments and positions.  Some people allege to have immediate, direct awareness of God's presence in the universe.  The Holy Spirit "witnesses" to others, providing allegedly incontrovertible knowledge of the divine.  Some claim awareness of a special set of non-physical, objective moral facts in their minds that prove the existence of a transcendent moral agent.

Here are some fascinating research and articles that could pull the rug out from under introspectionism and intuitionism:

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

How Biophilic is the Cosmos

On some (particularly poor) versions of the design argument, the fact that life in the universe, much less human life, appears to be exceedingly rare is taken as significant.  Recent research that arises from improved telescope imagery technology has been putting the number of Earth-like planets in our galaxy very high:

New Estimate for Alien Earths:  2 Billion in Our Galaxy Alone

Monday, March 7, 2011

The Probability of Design

I’ve been going through Richard Swinburne’s and Robin Collins’ versions of the teleological argument for my Philosophy of Religion students recently.  A striking point has leapt out at me.  Both arguments insist that some empirically discoverable features of the universe make it more likely than not that God was responsible for it.  In Collins’ case it is the fine tuned constants and values in physics that make the world hospitable to life.  For Swinburne, it is the fact that there is something rather than nothing, the matter in the world is uniform and subject to uniformities of succession (lawful behavior), and that the laws of nature are relatively simple and elegant. 

In both cases, it is fair to attribute to these authors the view that were it not for the efforts of God, the universe would have a radically different state than we find it in.  That is, the occurrence of physics in a world left to itself is exceedingly unlikely.  Another way to put it is that the non-God augmented or default state of the world is to be nothingness, or chaos.  Call this N)  The default state of reality (without God) is nothingness or chaos. 

It’s this last statement that I find to be extraordinary.  I have always been incredulous about design arguments.  But the more I ponder this idea, the more stultified I become.  What I cannot fathom is how anyone might claim to argue with confidence that N is true.  On what possible basis, aside from a prior (question begging) assumption that orderly worlds must come from God, could one claim to possess reasons that justify N.  I certainly can understand that many people have very strong intutions in favor of N, and that it is a very appealing notion.  But the majority of people have the strong intuition that they can control the physical world with their minds if they just believe hard enough. 

N) is an intriguing claim, certainly.  But I, for one, just don’t have the sort of confidence necessary in my intuitions to proclaim that they are reliable guides to what must be real or not real at the broadest, most cosmic level.  I can’t fathom what sorts of arguments or reasons one might have for thinking that N) is true.  And I certainly can’t fathom being  sure enough about those grounds to rest the weight of a belief in an almighty, supernatural creator on it.  Would you be willing to flip a coin to decide if you have cancer?  And then would you be willing to claim certainty about the result if the flip goes in favor of cancer.  In general, rational people proportion the strength of their conviction that some conclusion is true to the strength and reliability of their evidence.  To believe (or disbelieve) while disregarding the quality and quantity of the evidence one has is the paradigm example of irrational. 

I’m no expert of matters of probability, but here are a few more thoughts that occur to me here.  On objectivist accounts of probability, the way one would gather the relevant evidence to evaluate the probability of X happening giving conditions C is to look at lots and lots of cases where C occurs and then determine the rates at which X is the outcome.  If X happens 90% of the time when C obtains, then predicting or postulating X in some instance of C is a really good bet.  But we can’t do anything like that in the teleological argument cases above. We aren’t able to look at lots and lots of universes that either have a divine designer and don’t, and then compare the rates at which the designed universe are orderly and lawlike.  If we had the data sets, we might be able to argue—in general, we have found that when a divine designer is responsible for creating a universe, that universe is orderly in 92% of cases.  Furthermore, we find that in universes with no divine designer, the odds are less than 3% of order occurring.  We find ourselves in an orderly universe.  So, all other things being equal, we conclude that our orderly universe was most likely the handiwork of a divine designer.  Or something like that.  That’s all absurd, of course, because we do not have, nor we will ever be able to acquire, that sort of data about universes, order, and Gods. 

On subjectivist Bayesian accounts of probability, like Swinburne and Collins are invoking, it is the information that one has and the prior beliefs that one brings to the table that leads one to make estimations of the likelihood of some hypothesis being true given some observations.  Those prior beliefs and expectations, whether they are accurate or based on anything in reality, will generate some subjective expectations.  Given your priors, you will find some outcomes to be quite surprising and some other outcomes to be quite predictable.  On this account, a medieval doctor, if you can call them that, would be quite shocked and incredulous to find out that the plague is caused by a bacterial infection of yersenia pestis (instead of, say, an evil demon possession).  Nevermind that he’d be dead wrong in this, on Bayes’ theorem, if I’m understanding this right, he’d find that hypothesis to be outlandishly improbable. 

So on these estimations of probability, anything, no matter how improbable, irrational, or false it is, can turn out to be excedingly improbable.  Probability here is a function of the information and expectations you have, not necessarily the facts. 

Now back to N).  We certainly can’t agree that N) is exceedingly probable on the basis of the previous account of probability.  We don’t have the information we’d need for that.  Can we even see the way clear to agree with Swinburne and Collins that N) is improbable on the subjectivist Bayesian account?  I can’t really imagine non-question begging considerations that would lead me to agree here either.