In the history of theism, cosmological arguments have been some of the strongest and most widely used justifications for theistic belief. They are very old arguments, some form of the argument was even put forward by Aristotle. In this article I will not put forward any particular cosmological argument, but I will go through the general pattern of cosmological arguments.
Cosmological arguments derive their name from the Greek word “cosmos” which means “world”. The general idea is that we look at some feature of the world, combine it with a logical principle that we call the Principle of Sufficient Reason (or some similar principle), and deduce the existence of God. While some forms of the argument make claims about the entire universe (such as WLC’s famous defence of the Kalam argument), not every cosmological argument considers the universe as a whole. For example, Leibniz’ argument only considers a single contingent object, and Descartes’ argument deduces God from the existence of thoughts about God. So when presenting or criticising these arguments, don’t fall into the trap of always thinking about the universe, just because WLC made that particular argument famous.
So what is it about the world that we can observe? Here are the features that some of the arguments consider (the list is far from exhaustive):
- Aquinas: Change
- Descartes: Thoughts about God
- Leibniz: Contingency
- Kalam: Things beginning to exist
And here are the various principles or forms of the PSR that the arguments use:
- Aquinas: Things are changed by things external to them
- Descartes: Thoughts are invented, told to us by someone else, or about something real
- Leibniz: All contingent things have explanations
- Kalam: Everything that begins to exist has a cause
And each of these attempts to infer from their observation and their principle that God exists. Aquinas, therefore, argues that there is an unmoved mover, Leibniz argues that there is a non-contingent thing that explains contingent things, Kalam argues that there is something outside the universe that caused the universe. Descartes’ case is a bit more complex, where he first rules out inventing the idea of God and shows that using the “someone else told us” explanation only pushes the problem back a stage.
And then the argument goes on to attempt to prove that the thing they deduce, perhaps pre-emptively called “God”, has all the attributes that we normally assign to God. Aquinas shows that God is unchanging because He must be pure actuality and no potentiality, Descartes shows that God is perfect because the idea of perfection can’t have come from anywhere else, Kalam shows that God exists outside the universe to cause it, Leibniz shows that God is all knowing and all powerful because He saw all possibilities and could have created any. They all provide long and detailed explanations of each of the divine properties.
Whether or not these arguments succeed is a matter for further blog posts, Leibniz’ argument is my favourite and I will probably provide an in-depth defence of it at some point. But this gives you a general idea of how cosmological arguments work, with a particular observation, a particular principle relating to that observation, deducing God, and then deducing the properties of God.
In thinking about the post yesterday I remembered a particularly bad response to the problem of evil that I often see Christians deploy. The atheist claims that if evil exists, then the God of Christianity cannot. And the Christian responds by saying something like “As an atheist, you can’t even know what evil is, since you need God in order for moral facts to be true. So without God, there’s no evil. And since you do not believe in God, you cannot believe in evil, so you cannot formulate a problem of evil.”
I think that this is a very poor response, because I think it misunderstands what the problem of evil accomplishes. It is a reductio ad absurdum argument.
If this is a new term for you, then I will give you another example of such an argument. Here we will prove that there is no largest integer. We will do this by first assuming that there is such an integer.
- Suppose N is the largest integer
- For all integers K, K+1 is larger than K
- Therefore N+1 is larger than N
- Therefore N is not the largest integer
- Therefore there is no largest integer
Now, do I have to believe that there is a largest integer in order to make this argument? Premise 1 says that there is a largest integer, so surely I believe that. But obviously I do not. Similarly, the atheist makes an argument like this:
- Suppose God exists
- Since God exists, suppose that evil exists
- Therefore God does not exist.
Does the atheist have to believe premises 1 and 2 for the argument to work? No, of course not. The argument is essentially the atheist deliberately taking on the Christian assumptions, like God and evil (and they might even take our definition of evil) in order to show that these assumptions are false, just like premise 1 “N is the largest integer” is false.
So even if the atheist doesn’t know what evil is, even if the atheist is a moral antirealist who claims that there is no good and evil, they can still validly use this argument. Now obviously I think the argument fails, for reasons I gave yesterday, but the objection in question here is not a good one.
Some Christians think that this objection is the one given by God in Job. The Christian reads God’s monologue at the end of Job and hears God saying “Who are you to question me, I am the Lord, I know good and evil, I have the right to do whatever I want. You do not sit in judgment over me, I sit in judgement over you.”
And that’s right, that is what God is saying. But the right interpretation is not that we have no conception of evil by which we can argue. The right interpretation is that we are too small to understand God’s reasons for doing what He does. And certainly far too small to claim that God has no such reasons. I think the response given to us by God in Job is not the argument “You can’t talk about evil if you don’t know what God is”, I think it is “You don’t know all the reasons I have for what I do”. So in other words, I think God’s response is best charactarized by the use of higher order goods, which might be mysterious to us, in order to explain lower order evils. God does have reasons.
But there is another problem here I think. I agree that the atheist does not have a full grounding for evil, since as I’ve said before, moral facts (and all other kinds of facts) are grounded in God. And I do agree that the naturalist, materialist, physicalist worldview is less well equipped to ground moral facts than a theistic worldview. But put aside for the moment the fact that the atheist doesn’t need to believe in evil to use the problem of evil. But I think in general, atheists do indeed know what is good and what is evil.
Consider Romans 2: Paul claims that the gentiles, those who do not believe in God, know what is good and evil because their conscience testisifes to them. And Paul uses this as an argument that the gentiles are guilty of sin: their conscience told them what is right and what is wrong, and they knowingly did what is wrong. Atheists are not without a God-given conscience, so we are not unjustified in saying that atheists in general do know what is good and what is evil. Not as well as the believer perhaps, and they might not know why certain things are good or evil. But most of them not only believe that evil exists, they are usually right about what evil is. They don’t have God to ground it, but it’s not clear why grounding is necessary for them to deploy a problem of evil argument.
So while I do think the problem of evil argument fails, I think “The atheist doesn’t know what evil is because they don’t believe in God” is quite a bad objection to it.
John Mackie has presented one of the most popular formulations of the problem of evil, it can be accessed here. I will not reproduce all of his arguments, but he attempts to argue that the existence of a totally good, all-powerful God is incompatible with the existence of evil.
Of course, many believers have put forward objections to these arguments over the centuries, and so Mackie attempts to show why those objections fail. I think one of these attempts is no good, and I will briefly explain why.
One of the primary tools of the theist here is the appeal to the higher order good. God may allow the evil of fear to exist so that the higher order good courage might exist, for example. Clearly, courage would not exist without fear, and courage is good. Perhaps in God’s mind, the goodness of courage makes the evil of fear worth it. I don’t intend to imply that we can somehow measure the goodness of the situations and compare them numerically, I certainly don’t want to endorse utilitarianism. I only need to say that there is something about the higher order good case that justifies the lower order evil.
Mackie responds that sure, we can say that. But then we also have 2nd order evils, perhaps cowardice. And now we need to justify the second order evil. And of course, the tempting route for the theist is to justify it using perhaps a third order good. But Mackie says (denoting a second order evil by “evil (2)”):
But even if evil (2) could be explained in this way, it is fairly clear that there would be third order evils contrasting with this third order good: and we should be well on the way to an infinite regress, where the solution of a problem of evil, stated in terms of evil (n), indicated the existence of an evil (n + 1), and a farther problem to be solved.
I think this response is not very good. I think Mackie has assumed without justification that there exist n’th order evils that need to be explained. But it’s not clear to me that that is the case. I couldn’t tell you how high in order evils go, but I don’t think it’s reasonable to say that good could go a level higher. It’s not surprising that there would be an asymmetry between good and evil, where good is in some sense “more real” than evil. Many classical theologians have formulated notions of good that are convertible with being, so goodness is being and being is goodness. And under an idea like this, we would be shocked to see levels of evil for each corresponding level of good. Eventually, we’d expect to get to a point where good was simply higher than evil, and no equivalent high order of evil existed. There is a sense in which good is “bigger” than evil.
Mackie then moves on to discuss a particular case of the higher order good: free will. Being a Calvinist I am not particularly interested in making a free will defence when it comes to the problem of evil, nor defending a libertarian free will from Mackie’s objections in the paper. But I think this flaw with higher order goods is sufficient for the Christian to remain justified in their beliefs.
“A Theological Sickness Unto Death – Philip Rieff’s Prophetic Analysis of our Secular Age” is the title of a paper published in TGC’s Themelios journal. I have read Rieff’s My Life Among the Deathworks and am working my way through the related A Secular Age by Charles Taylor. For evangelists and apologists wondering what is going on in our culture, and wanting to survey the cultural landscape in order to better strategise our evangelism and apologetics, this article may be helpful.
In Rieff’s view, therapeutic ideology, rather than Communism, was the real revolution of the twentieth century. Compared to Freud, the neo-Marxists were cultural conservatives who still believed in the notion of authority and the idea of a cultural code. The proponents of Freudian therapeutics, on the other hand, would not countenance authoritative frameworks and normative moral codes. In a therapeutic culture, authority disappears. In place of theology and ethics, we are left with aesthetics and the social sciences. Thus, therapeutic culture was born. This tradeoff would turn out to be so destructive that Rieff would describe the United States and Western Europe (rather than the Soviet Union) as the epicenter of Western cultural deformation.
In contrast to the first and second world cultures whose social order is undergirded by a world beyond the visible and a moral authority beyond the self, third world cultures (contemporary Western cultures) sever the connection between sacred order and social order, limiting the “real” world to the visible and locating moral authority in the self. Similarly, whereas each of the first two worlds sought to construct identity vertically from above, our third world rejects the vertical in favor of constructing identity horizontally from below. Rieff knew the result of this rejection would be nihilism: “Where there is nothing sacred, there is nothing.
The construction of a fourth world will involve a recovery of sacred order and, by extension, recoveries of revelation and authority, and of transcendent meaning and morality. Recoveries such as this do not enact themselves; they await a people who will speak and act responsibly. This fourth world “people,” Rieff argues, must articulate and embody seemingly defunct notions of truth and virtue, a formidable task in our radically disenchanted and morally permissive third world culture. Nonetheless, in spite of the formidable challenges posed by third world order, there are already cracks in the foundations; although it once seemed liberating to fire God from his post and live without limits, the third world will soon realize that a world without boundaries is a frightening—not a freeing—place. Thus, a responsible people must arise to manifest the beauty of the “thou shalt” and “thou shalt not.”
The argument is often made that God is immoral because He holds people accountable for their beliefs. But, as the atheist claims, they don’t choose their belief. They are forced to believe or not believe by evidence. We do not “choose our brain”, instead we just apply whatever standards of evidence we use in order to determine what is correct, and involuntarily believe whatever is best supported by the evidence. I think this is in error.
Suppose someone accused me of “refusing to see evidence”, as occasionally happens. Does this seem like something someone could possibly do? It does to me. There’s nothing strange about thinking that someone might actively decide to not change their mind when confronted with evidence. Their belief here is a conscious choice. That seems natural.
There’s also an element of ethics here too, there are beliefs that we ought to hold and beliefs we ought not hold. If I met someone who, for example, believed that all black people were inferior and should be subject to eugenics or something equally horrifying, I’d certainly hold them accountable for that belief. Believing that thing is in itself an evil action, regardless of what other evil actions it might motivate. So in some circumstances, we should blame people for their beliefs.
The effort to remove our own conscious choices when it comes to belief is an effort to remove moral responsibility. It’s an effort to justify intellectual laziness: “Well, since my belief hasn’t changed, there’s nothing I can do to change it”, even when you should do something to change it.
So yes, we do normally think about beliefs being somewhat voluntary, and we normally think of ourselves as being somewhat culpable for our beliefs. Making them totally involuntary and totally amoral is wrong.
I’d contend that we do choose our metric for belief as well. It’s not unreasonable for me to say to someone “your standards of evidence are too weak” when they read some article online that states something strange, and immediately believe it. They might agree, and then in the future choose to adjust those standards. Suggesting that these are involuntary is again just an excuse for laziness or an attempt to remove moral culpability. The fact is that we are responsible for everything we believe, and everything that goes on in our mind.
I also contend that we do in a sense “choose our brain”, as you say. We are capable of introspection, we are capable of modifying our thought patterns. That’s just how we learn. People go to great effort to be rational, to properly think about things and come to right conclusions. And they should be applauded for doing so. People who do not make that effort should be considered responsible for not doing so. This seems very natural.
So no, belief is often thought of as deliberate and often thought of as something that could be blameworthy.
When I debate with Muslims, they often claim that Islam is superior to Christianity because the Quran that they read is identical to the Quran that Muhammad received, while the bible is corrupted and changed and we are uncertain of the original. This discussion often comes down to a discussion of textual variants: differences between biblical manuscripts. And certainly there are textual variants in the Bible, we make no secret of that. And my Muslim friends will claim that since there are textual variants, the bible cannot be trusted.
However my Muslim friends often overlook the fact that there are textual variants in the history of the Quran as well. And if we apply the same standards to the Quran that we do to the Bible, then we must conclude that the Quran is also unreliable. I don’t make any claims here about whether textual variants make a text unreliable, I only want to point out the double standards.
I won’t examine many textual variants today, perhaps I will in future posts. But for now, here is an interesting example: the Sana’a manuscript. This is a Quranic manuscript, but really it is two Quranic manuscripts. It is an 80 folio collection of Quran manuscripts from 578 CE to 669 CE (radiocarbon dating), which was then erased and rewritten in the late 7th or early 8th century. The lower text has been partially recovered, and while it is a Quranic text it contains significant textual variants. A list of some of these can be found here. Not only does it add or remove or change words in some cases, there is at least one case in which an entire verse is missing. There are textual variants here, no-one would deny that.
So if the Muslim tries to undermine Christianity through use of textual variants in scripture, they undermine themselves. Now it is true that the Bible has more variants than the Quran does. But that is the result of two differences in the transmission of the texts. First, the bible was never controlled by a central authority who enforced a particular textual tradition, as the Quran was. Uthman, as is well known, attempted to destroy any copies of the Quran that differed from his own. And after him, an Islamic authority was always policing these other traditions. That doesn’t mean the tradition that they used as a standard was the accurate one, as we’ve seen there existed other traditions pre-Uthman. But they did attempt to standardize it.
Furthermore, there were simply fewer copies made of the Quran. There exist orders of magnitude more New Testament manuscripts than Quranic manuscripts, and so we would expect there to be orders of magnitude more textual variants within the New Testament textual tradition.
But as James White regularly points out, these facts actually make the Biblical text more reliable, not less. Because no central authority controlled the transmission of the Biblical text, there was no opportunity for anyone to deliberately change it. And because there were many copies made, we can compare a greater number of manuscripts in order to reconstruct the originals. The factors that lead to the Bible having more textual variants actually make the Bible more reliable in general.
Many people object that philosophical arguments for theism such as the cosmological argument do not arrive at the God of any particular religion, but instead prove the existence of a deistic God: who created the world or who upholds existence but who does not interact at all with humanity. I think we can make a good argument against this by looking at Christianity and arguing that this does appear to be the God of philosophical arguments.
But I think also we can extend the philosophical arguments to rule out deism. We can extend the cosmological arguments to show that God actually would interact with humanity, based on what we’ve already concluded about God. And not only that, but I think we can extend them in a way that rules out several of the other contenders for claims about God.
From the philosophical arguments, we conclude that God is good, and indeed perhaps Goodness Itself. At the very least, God is the highest good. We also conclude that God is all knowing and all powerful. So we take these conclusions as premises now.
Supposing that God is all good, He must want good for the entire universe. He wants the galaxies to be good galaxies, He wants the atoms to be good atoms, and He wants the people to be good people. And it seems that for people to be good people, the goodest people they can be, He has to direct their affections towards the good. That is, God must direct their affections towards God. Perhaps not each individual person (He may have other purposes in mind for individuals, see Romans 9), but people in general. It seems that God, being good, must draw the world to Himself. And so He must reveal Himself to them, so that they can pursue Him.
By being good and rational, God must be incapable of lying and self-consistent. So that means that all of God’s revelations must be consistent with each other, and they must be truthful. I believe this rules out Islam, which is inconsistent with the previous revelation from God. Muslims will claim that the previous revelations have been corrupted, but not only is there no evidence of this, there is significant evidence that they have remained in their original form. The Old Testament and New Testament were written over centuries by ~40 different authors, while the Quran was written by one man over a few decades. The New Testament is a perfect fulfilment of all prophecy in the Old Testament, is perfectly consistent with the Old Testament, and presents itself as the final revelation. This is of course only a summary of a fuller argument against Islam that I may one day make, but it gives us plenty of reason to prefer Christianity over Islam.
Returning to deism, I claim that deism does not have a sufficient response to the problem of evil. Remember that if there is a deist God, then that God is still good. So we’d expect some pretty convincing reasons as to why the deist God knowingly (because the deist God is still omniscient and omnipotent) created a universe that contains evil and suffering. Theists appeal to God’s purpose for the universe in explaining why evil exists: in order to bring about some higher order good. Some appeal to free will as a specific higher order good, but I don’t think we need to do that here.
But under many conceptions, the deist God is a God who doesn’t have any specific purpose for the universe, or at least for the rational beings within the universe. But if there is no purpose for the rational beings in the universe, then there cannot be a sufficient reason to ordain that evil would exist.
So it seems that on the whole deism is significantly less plausible than theism, and that Christianity provides the most plausible theism.
Jordan Peterson has recently become an influential figure in modern culture, especially among young men, especially those young men who have previously found themselves at odds with feminism, progressive culture, etc. I think much of this admiration is misplaced, and that there are good criticisms to make of Peterson. However I think it’s also important to understand what it is that’s drawing people to him.
I find myself in two communities here. First I am part of the community of conservative young men. Men who have strong criticism of modern culture, who feel that the direction of progress is wrong, who feel like people have become soft, weak, shallow and thoughtless. A group of people who have grown up in a world lacking direction, purpose, or meaning. A world which is hostile to the nature of young men.
Second, on the outskirts of the academic philosophy community, engaging with it as an amateur and autodidact. Here, Peterson is widely considered to be a moron, who thinks he has engaged with important issues but has thoroughly missed the point.
I think these second people are right. Peterson is a psychologist, who was unknown until he started a controversy about the use of transgender pronouns. This was picked up by the alt-right, who used Peterson as a figurehead for their own opposition to transgenderism. He also fuels their rage against “post-modernism”, which I think both they and Peterson misunderstand, and “cultural Marxism”, which isn’t a real thing at all. In fact, Marx would be thoroughly modernist, not post-modern. But I don’t want to get into those things here, instead, I’ll just encourage anyone reading this to research modernism, post-modernism, and Marxism yourself. I am indeed thoroughly opposed to post-modern thought and to Marxism, but I doubt most of Peterson’s fans understand these topics. I do not think Peterson does either. This is why academics do not like Peterson in general.
But most of the people who like Peterson do so for reasons unrelated to his philosophical positions. Young men have grown up in a world of coddling, victim-mentality, and weakness. As a young man, I’ve felt this too. We are encouraged to have a weak will, to blame others when we fail, we’ve been told: “believe in yourself and you can do anything, because you’re unique like a snowflake”. We live in a culture that glorifies narcissism, fragility, and an external locus of control. A culture that raises what C.S. Lewis calls “Men without chests”.
Peterson has been adopted as the intellectual of the right-wing movement because he speaks against this. He tells young men to grow up and take responsibility. To grow a backbone, to do hard things because you know they’re right, to act with honour and integrity. To not worry about your rights being violated (since rights exist to protect weak and vulnerable) and instead worry about your own competence (since the competent never need to refer to their rights). Some people are weak and vulnerable and should be protected, but you should do whatever you can to take yourself out of that category. Virtue requires a strong will.
Peterson is right about these things. Young men especially should grow a backbone, accept responsibility, and forge themselves into strong, honourable, skilled men. This is what appeals to young men. They fundamentally know this is right.
But this isn’t a good reason to revere Peterson. Many have said this before, many have said it better, and many have said it without bringing in misunderstandings of philosophical and literary narratives, or without Peterson’s rather strange metaphysical background.