Honeymoon Reading

I have just returned from my honeymoon, and so of course the first question anyone has for me is: what did you read while you were away?

So here is a list:

 

I am sure my wife had a great time.

Saturday Links 11/8/18

A Bad Response to the Problem of Evil

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.

  1. Suppose N is the largest integer
  2. For all integers K, K+1 is larger than K
  3. Therefore N+1 is larger than N
  4. Therefore N is not the largest integer
  5. 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:

  1. Suppose God exists
  2. Since God exists, suppose that evil exists
    ….
  3. 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.

Mackie’s Problem of Evil

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.

Can we be Morally Responsible for Belief?

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.

My Thoughts on Jordan Peterson

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.

Further reading:

Does monotheism entail normative skepticism?

The somewhat intimidating title of this post was taken from a Reddit post of the same title, which presented the argument made in a paper by Sharon Street. I won’t reproduce those arguments here, the Reddit post does a good job of explaining them. I’ve been unable to find a publically accessible mirror of the paper, but I am happy to update this if I do find one. The main idea here is this: If everything happens for a reason, then we have no idea what reasons are.

I think pretty clearly that we must take the agent-relative horn. There are some things that God does that are only right for God to do, and not for us to do. Many of God’s reasons for actions are agent-relative, they are not the kinds of reasons we should have.

In that case, we must answer how we know what is moral and what is not. Seems to me that the Christian can give several avenues of knowledge here. We have moral facts revealed in scripture, we have moral facts as testified to us by our conscience, we even perhaps have moral facts that we have deduced via a secular moral system such as Kantianism. That last statement may be controversial to some Christians, but I think it is reasonable to say that we can use our God-given reasoning abilities to determine what is right and wrong. It’s not like those moral facts are not still grounded in God, as He grounds reasoning itself and indeed all facts.

So with regards to “secular” moral reasoning, the argument is that one of the main “selling points” of religion is that it gives us some advantage in moral reasoning, and if we are forced to appeal to “secular” moral reasoning then religion becomes weaker. But I am not sure this is a very significant problem for the Christian since we are already told in scripture that the “secular” use of the conscience is appropriate, because God gives that to us. Presumably, God gives us reason as well, and so using reason to arrive at moral conclusions is valid. Hence the scare quotes around “secular”: for the Christian, nothing is ever really secular. It is all grounded in God.

But let’s suppose that we do not take this route, and instead, we rely on what we might call a “sacred” moral reasoning. Perhaps this can be written revelation, or a God-given conscience, some kind of innate moral intuition. And now the sceptic launches into another argument: this revelation given by God should be clear and unmistakable. And since the sceptic doesn’t think it is clear and unmistakable, we cannot believe that any such revelation has been given.

I do not agree with the premise that any revelation from God should be clear and unmistakable. I instead would believe this premise: revelation would be clear and unmistakable to a reasonable person. But I also believe (as Romans 1 teaches) that the heart of every foolish man has been darkened so that they suppress knowledge of God, and so the revelation that ought to be clear and unmistakable is now no longer.

I might be willing to accept that God ought to give moral revelation (again, including a conscience and scripture) that should be clear and unmistakable to a reasonable person. But I don’t see any reason to think He ought to give one that would be so to an unreasonable person. Certainly, He could, just like He reaches in and regenerates someone before they repent of their sin and before they know Him, so that they can do those things. But I don’t think He has any obligation to.

But I might even go a step further and say that the conscience that God has given us is pretty clear and unmistakable. I think the vast majority of people have a pretty accurate innate sense of right and wrong. It can get a bit messy in weird edge cases (like trolley problems) but that’s not a big deal. I think the vast majority of us if we are honest, will say that in the vast majority of the time we know what is right and what is wrong. We might still do wrong, but we know it’s wrong. And for the rare person with a defective conscience (which normally happens because a person has essentially starved it by ignoring it) the fact that everyone else has one is good enough evidence of right and wrong.

This all together seems like a sufficient response to the argument that monotheism entails normative scepticism.

The Convincing Moral Character of Jesus

This argument will assume that you’re familiar with Jesus, and that you think He does have a supremely good moral character. If you do not believe this, then I suggest you carefully read the Gospels, study and think about them, and come to your own conclusion. This is more intended as an explanation of why I believe, rather than an argument to convince someone else, based on what I see in Jesus.

And what I see is, as I say, a supremely good moral character. In defiance of all custom and authority of the day, He did what was right. And not only did He do what was right, He explained and taught others, He had insights into the moral good that have never since been replicated. The greatest moral figures throughout history, those with the highest levels of moral reasoning, those who we have all looked up to, have looked up to Jesus. Even they recognise it.

Decades ago, Lawrence Kohlberg made some very interesting discoveries about the moral development of children and adults. To summarize (here’s some more detail), what we find is that people develop their moral reasoning ability in distinct, qualitatively different stages. It’s reasonably easy to recognise one stage from another, people always go through them one after the other and never skip, and rarely regress. People at higher stages can understand the reasoning of the stages below them (though they are distasteful of that reasoning), they feel drawn to and recognise higher stages, but importantly cannot imitate those higher stages. If you have a stage 4 person pretending to be stage 5, and a stage 5 person, and you question them and challenge them enough, the stage 5 person will remain consistent while the stage 4 person will eventually break down and admit (or demonstrate, if they’re stubborn) a lack of understanding.

So while none of us are at a stage of moral reasoning high enough to properly fully understand Jesus, we can recognise the supremacy of His moral character. The person of Jesus has a true moral character that cannot be faked, He really is that good. He is questioned and challenged enough in the Gospels to verify it to me, He really is supremely virtuous.

And so if He is that virtuous, I trust Him. Jesus alludes to this kind of reasoning in John 14:11, where He tells the disciples to trust what He says because He’s the one saying it. And then He says “or at least believe on the evidence of the works themselves.”. Jesus believes that His character should actually be more convincing than His miracles. Miracles can be faked, but moral character cannot.

The fact that this moral character cannot be faked also means that Jesus cannot be an invention. An author cannot convincingly write a character wiser than they are, they’d have to be that wise themselves. They might be able to provide one or two deepities, but if the character is challenged enough in their story, their “wisdom” will be exposed. Similarly, no author (let alone 4 authors in the case of the Gospels) could write a character at a higher moral stage than they themselves are at.

Now it’s relatively easy to write a character who behaves more morally than we do. I might write a character who gave money to the homeless person that I callously walked past, that’s not hard. We all recognise our own moral failures, and could create someone without them. What can’t be faked is the actual moral reasoning, the explanations and arguments for why we ought to do what we ought to do. Read more of Kohlberg to understand properly what I mean here.

And so if Jesus was an invention of an author, then it must be the case that the author was at the same level of moral reasoning that Jesus was at. And so we should trust them when they tell us that Jesus was a real person who did all of these things.

There are some objections here. Someone might say that Jesus was a real, virtuous person, but that later authors added the claims of divinity to the story. However if you look at Jesus’ moral system, you can see that these claims are central and integrative to the entire system, which would be incoherent without them. They can’t have been added without the system itself being added.

And now we are at the conclusion: Jesus has a supremely virtuous character that compels us to trust Him, and so when He tells us that He is the incarnate Son of God who died for our sins, and that we must repent of our sins, trust in His name, and obey God, we are compelled to believe Him. Because as the officer says in John 7:46: No-one ever spoke like this man.