bookmark_borderThe Essentially Good-vs.-Morally Responsible Argument for Atheism

In the spirit of Ted Drange’s 1998 article, “Incompatible-Properties Arguments: A Survey,” I wish to sketch the following argument for consideration.
Suppose we define “God” as a being who has, among other things, the following attributes:
(m) essentially good; and
(n) morally responsible for His actions.
Using these definitions, we can construct the following argument.

  1. If God exists, then He is essentially good.
  2. If God exists, then He is morally responsible for His actions.
  3. An essentially good being lacks moral freedom, i.e., an essentially good being cannot choose between good and evil.
  4. A morally responsible being has moral freedom.
  5. Therefore, it is impossible for an essentially good being to be morally responsible for its actions. [from 3 and 4]
  6. Therefore, God does not exist. [from 1, 2, and 5]

In order to avoid any misunderstandings, I claim the argument is valid, but I do not know if the argument is sound.
Cf. Wes Morriston, “What Is So Good about Moral Freedom?” The Philosophical Quarterly, 50 (July 2000): 344-58.

bookmark_borderDecisive Refutation of the Kalam Argument

(redating post originally published on 4 February 2006)
Faith and Philosophy somewhat recently (2002) published a critique of the kalam cosmological argument that I think is decisive. The paper is written by Christian philosopher Wes Morriston and is entitled, “Must the Beginning of the Universe Have a Personal Cause?“, by Wes Morriston.
Morriston grants that the universe had a beginning in time. However, he scrutinizes in detail the claim that the First Cause is timeless and that it timelessly creates time. Along the way, he clearly, methodically, and forcefully develops two main objections to the kalam argument: (1) there is no reason to believe that the universe had a cause, and (2) even if the universe did have a cause, there is no reason to believe that cause is a person. I especially liked Morriston’s paper because he deflated Craig’s slogans (e.g., “out of nothing, nothing comes”) and he showed that nontheists who reject a caused universe are not violating any widely shared metaphysical intuition.
Overall, I would have to say that Morriston’s refutation of the kalam argument is one of the best, if not the best, I have ever read. Craig wrote a reply, which was then followed by Morriston’s counter-reply. From now on, whenever someone advances the kalam argument, I intend to simply refer them to Morriston’s excellent paper. (An added plus of Morriston’s paper is that I think it could be accessible to almost anyone, even laymen, with a little effort.) Anyone who is interested in the kalam argument but who has not read Morriston’s paper should do so quickly!

bookmark_borderG&T Rebuttal, Part 2: Chapter 3

Chapter 3. In the Beginning There Was a Great SURGE

 
G&T tell us that the “Cosmological Argument is the argument from the beginning of the universe” (74). That is sloppy; G&T have conflated the family of arguments known as ‘the’ cosmological argument with one specific version of that argument (the kalām cosmological argument). But let that pass. G&T formulate the argument as follows.
1. Everything that had a beginning has a cause.
2. The universe had a beginning.
3. Therefore the universe had a cause. (75)
This argument is clearly deductively valid—i.e., its conclusion follows from its premises. If one accepts its conclusion, there are three pertinent questions to answer.
First, what bearing does the argument have on metaphysical naturalism? If sound, the argument would also refute metaphysical naturalism. (Since nothing can cause itself, the universe would require a cause outside of itself, something that is incompatible with naturalism.)[1]
Second, what sort of cause did the universe have? G&T argue that the cause of physical reality, if it exists, must be self-existent, timeless, nonspatial, immaterial, very powerful, highly intelligent, and personal.
Third, what was the universe created from? There are three options.

Creation ex nihilo: physical reality was created out of nothing by the will of a timeless and immaterial person a long time ago.

Creation ex materia: creation out of some pre-existent, eternal matter

Creation ex deo: creation out of the being of God.

G&T argue that the scientific evidence supports creation ex nihilo.
I shall provide a very brief summary of G&T’s support for both premises, before providing some critical comments about G&T’s assessment of atheistic and Christian interpretations of the evidence.
(i) G&T’s support for premises (1) and (2):
(a) The Law of Causality: On behalf of premise (1), which G&T call “The Law of Causality,” G&T argue that the Law of Causality is “the fundamental principle of science;” and observation shows that things don’t happen in the universe without a cause. For reasons that will soon be clear, I shall refer to the “Law of Causality” as the “Law of Causal Beginnings.”
As stated, however, premise (1) is false. The kernel of truth in (1) is what I shall call the “Law of Temporal Causal Beginnings,” namely, that everything that had a beginning in time has a cause.
This is why our observation shows that things which begin in the universe (and so in time) have a cause. Quantum mechanics events aside, I agree with G&T that it would be absurd to believe that cars, mountains, or whales could just pop into existence without a cause. But what about things that have a beginning which happens at the beginning of time itself (i.e., with time)? We know of only one such thing and that is the universe itself.  And there is good reason to doubt that time (and so the universe) have a cause. It’s logically impossible for time itself to have a cause since causes always precede their effects in time. So to say that time itself had a cause is to say, “Before time existed, something happened and then at a later time, time began to exist,” which is self-contradictory.
In order to avoid this problem, some theists have argued that God’s creation of the universe is simultaneous with its beginning. Even if simultaneous causation is possible, which is debatable, that simply solves one problem and creates a bigger one. If God’s causing the universe is simultaneous with the universe’s beginning, then it’s entirely arbitrary to pretend that God is the ‘cause’ while the universe is the ‘effect.’ If “God’s causing the universe” and “the universe’s beginning” are simultaneous, one could just as easily say, “God had a beginning,” and, “The universe caused God.” Both of those statements are incompatible with theism.
But in fact simultaneous causation seems inapplicable to God’s (alleged) causation of the universe. First, even simultaneity expresses a temporal relationship between causes and effects. It seems to be a contradiction in terms to say that the beginning of the universe is simultaneous with an atemporal (timeless) cause.[2] For that implies there was a time when there both was time and was not time, which is a self-contradictory statement. Second, simultaneous causation seems to involve “states of other things that pre-exist the effects in question.”[3] But that entails that the total cause includes something that existed prior to the partial cause which is simultaneous with its effect. In short, the concept of simultaneous causation provides no reason at all to think that premise (1) applies to things (like the universe) which begin with time.
There is an even deeper problem with G&T’s defense of premise (1), however. If we abbreviate “thing that had a beginning” as B and “had a cause” as C, then it is clear that premise (1) expresses a categorical generalization, i.e., it has the form “All Bs are Cs.” If there is even just one counter-example (i.e., at least one B is not also a C), then (1) is false. Is it?
It appears that, In support of (1), G&T appeal to observation, namely, “All observed Bs are Cs,” and infer the categorical generalization, “All Bs are Cs.” In other words, G&T seem to be implicitly relying upon an inductive argument form known as simple enumeration to a generalization. The implied argument is this.
(1) All observed things in the universe with a beginning have a cause.
(2) Therefore, all things with a beginning have a cause.
where B is called the “reference class” and C is called the “attribute class.” The problem is called the “reference class problem,” i.e., the problem of deciding which class to use when stating a generalization. In the case of our universe’s origin, it is far from clear which reference class should be used because our universe belongs to many different reference classes. Wes Morriston, a philosopher at the University of Colorado at Boulder, explains.

Here are some other well-attested empirical generalizations, each of which is incompatible with that hypothesis [supernatural creation ex nihilo] about the origin of the universe.
(A)   Material things come from material things.
(B)   Nothing is ever created out of nothing.
(C)   Nothing is ever caused by anything that is not itself in time.
(D)   The mental lives of all persons have temporal duration.
(E)    All persons are embodied.[4]

Consider, for example, the generalization in Morriston’s (A), which we’ll call the “Law of Material Causality.” That generalization supports an argument I’ll call the “Anti-Creation Ex Nihilo Argument”:
1. Everything that had a beginning comes from pre-existing material.
2. The universe had a beginning.
3. Therefore, the universe came from pre-existing material.
If the universe came from pre-existing material, then it follows that the universe was not created “out of nothing” (ex nihilo). Rather it was created out of pre-existing material (ex materia). But that entails that supernatural creation ex nihilo is false.
(b) The Universe’s Beginning: On behalf of premise (2), G&T offer five lines of scientific evidence, which they summarize in the mnemonic acronynm “SURGE,” which represents (a) the Second law of thermodynamics, (b) the Universe is expanding; (c) Radiation from the big bang; (d) Great galaxy seeds; and (e) Einstein’s theory of general relativity. In addition, G&T offer one a priori argument—which they mistakenly call the kalām argument—to show that the universe cannot be infinitely old. G&T conclude, accordingly, that the universe had a beginning.
I agree with G&T that it is now beyond reasonable doubt that our universe, as it is now, has existed for a finite time. Whether our universe, in any form, has existed for a finite time may be open to reasonable doubt, however. But let’s put that issue to the side and assume,  but only for the sake of argument, that G&T are correct and our universe had a beginning. As G&T admit, the evidence for Big Bang cosmology shows more than just the fact that our universe has a finite age.

In fact, chronologically, there was no “before” the Big Bang because there are no “befores” without time, and there was no time until the Big Bang. Time, space, and matter came into existence with the Big Bang. (79, italics mine)

In other words, the evidence for Big Bang cosmology also shows that time itself began with the Big Bang (i.e., our universe began with time). Here’s the problem for the proponent of the kalām argument. Although our universe is not eternal (i.e., infinitely old), it’s still the case that it has always existed (i.e., for all of time). But, for the reason just given, it follows that time itself (and hence our universe) cannot have a cause. Thus, once the evidence about our universe’s beginning is fully stated, that evidence does not support theism over naturalism.
(ii) Atheistic Interpretations of Big Bang Cosmology: This is where G&T’s partisanship really comes unleashed. As I read them, G&T discuss and reject three atheistic explanations of Big Bang cosmology:  (1) a view they call the ‘Cosmic Rebound Theory;’ (2) Stephen Hawking’s ‘Imaginary Time’ hypothesis; and (3) the hypothesis defended by chemists Peter Atkins and Isaac Asimov.
When I first read this chapter, three things stood out. First, for each of the views they discussed, G&T neither quote proponents of these views nor fairly explain their values. Regarding (1), why do defenders of the ‘Cosmic Rebound Theory’ think that view is correct? G&T never say. In fact, G&T never even name anyone who promoted such a view. Turning to (2), whereas it is called the “Hartle-Hawking model” or the “no boundary model” in the literature, G&T even rename it to the ‘Imaginary Time’ hypothesis to suit their rhetoric. Many people believe that Stephen Hawking is one of the greatest scientists, if not the greatest scientist, alive today.  But if someone knew nothing about Hawking other than what they read in G&T’s book, they’d get the mistaken impression that Hawking is a quack whose theories are not taken seriously, even by Hawking himself! As for (3), G&T don’t even bother to tell the readers what Atkins’s view is; they just proceed to quote William Lane Craig’s refutation.
Second, G&T don’t respond to the best critics of the kalām cosmological argument.[5] In fact, their book may even mislead their readers by making it appear as if only nontheists reject the argument. But that’s false. Thomas Aquinas, who has been called “more or less the official philosopher of the Roman Catholic Church and esteemed as the greatest Christian philosopher even by many Protestants,” rejected it.[6] In the present day, philosopher Wes Morriston  (quoted earlier) has written some of the best critiques of the argument, while he was still a Christian. It is unfortunate that G&T chose to ignore the critiques of both Aquinas and Morriston in their book.
Third, like many theistic apologists who use the kalām cosmological argument, G&T use the following “money quote” from nontheist philosopher Anthony Kenny.

According to the Big Bang Theory, the whole matter of the universe began to exist at a particular time in the remote past. A proponent of such a theory, at least if he is an atheist, must believe that the matter of the universe came from nothing and by nothing.[7]

At first glance, what Kenny describes does sound absurd. But Kenny is no dummy; philosophical charity demands that we try to understand why someone as brilliant as Kenny would write such a thing. What would it mean to believe that “the matter of the universe came from nothing and by nothing?”
One interpretation, which I shall call the scientific interpretation since it seems to be held primarily by scientists, treats “nothing” as if it were a something, such as a giant empty box into which the universe suddenly began.[8] The problem with this interpretation is that it reifies “nothing.” As philosopher Bede Rundle explains,

… accounts of physical reality as ‘coming out of nothing’ risk not taking ‘nothing’ seriously, perhaps replacing it by ‘nothingness’ to make, as it were, something out of nothing.[9]

But there is another option. According to this second interpretation, which I call the philosophical interpretation, there is no “giant empty box,” i.e., there is no “nothing” for the universe to “come from.” Instead, according to this interpretation, there was no time at which the universe did not exist; and there is no place the universe came from.  This is the interpretation favored by philosophically sophisticated nontheists, such as Sean Carroll, Graham Oppy, Keith Parsons, Bede Rundle, and Quentin Smith.[10]
Let us now return to the Kenny “money quote.” G&T do not distinguish these two interpretations, perhaps (?) because Kenny himself does not, so it’s unclear which interpretation Kenny favors.  On the scientific interpretation, Kenny’s statement does make the combination of atheism and Big Bang cosmology sound absurd. But, as we’ve just seen, many competent authorities disagree with that interpretation, so any appeal to Kenny as an authority is fallacious (assuming he even holds this view). On the scientific interpretation, however, the combination is not only not absurd, but plausible.
(iii) Big Bang Cosmology and the Genesis Accounts: G&T quote astronomers Robert Jastrow and Robert Wilson, who both apparently claim, without qualification, that Big Bang cosmology confirms the Genesis accounts of creation. This curious assessment, however, understates the evidence. On the one hand, Big Bang cosmology is strong evidence for one logical implication of Genesis, namely, that everything in our universe is only finitely old. But, again, that fact hardly exhausts what modern cosmology has to say about the Genesis accounts. NASA explains the first moments after the “Big Bang” as follows.

According to the theories of physics, if we were to look at the Universe one second after the Big Bang, what we would see is a 10-billion degree sea of neutrons, protons, electrons, anti-electrons (positrons), photons, and neutrinos. Then, as time went on, we would see the Universe cool, the neutrons either decaying into protons and electrons or combining with protons to make deuterium (an isotope of hydrogen). As it continued to cool, it would eventually reach the temperature where electrons combined with nuclei to form neutral atoms. Before this “recombination” occurred, the Universe would have been opaque because the free electrons would have caused light (photons) to scatter the way sunlight scatters from the water droplets in clouds. But when the free electrons were absorbed to form neutral atoms, the Universe suddenly became transparent. Those same photons–the afterglow of the Big Bang known as cosmic background radiation–can be observed today.[11]

Furthermore, according to modern astronomy, the entire solar system, including the earth, didn’t even form until approximately 8.7 billion years after the Big Bang.
In contrast, Genesis 1 tells a very different cosmological story. According to Genesis 1, God created the earth on the first day and the sun on the fourth. Thus, Big Bang cosmology is strong evidence against the literal chronology of Genesis accounts. But this entails that, when the available evidence from cosmology is fully stated, that evidence makes it probable that a literal interpretation of the Genesis accounts are false.

Rebuttal to Geisler’s and Turek’s “I Don’t Have Enough Faith to be an Atheist”

Notes
[1] In the interest of simplicity, I am treating the expression “the universe” as it appears in G&T’s argument as synonymous with “physical reality.”
[2] Wes Morriston, “Must the Beginning of the Universe Have a Personal Cause? A Critical Examination of the Kalam Cosmological Argument” Faith and Philosophy 17 (2000): 151.
[3] Wes Morriston, “Causes and Beginnings in the Kalam Argument: Reply to CraigFaith and Philosophy 19 (2002): 233-44 at 240.
[4] Wes Morriston, “Doubts about the Kalam Cosmological Argument,” in Debating Christian Theism (ed. Meister, Moreland, and Sweis, New York: Oxford University Press, 2013), 29.
[5] Paul Draper, Adolf Grünbaum, Wes Morriston, Graham Oppy, Bede Rundle, and Quentin Smith.
[6] Edward Feser, The Last Superstition: A Refutation of the New Atheism (South Bend, Indiana: St. Augustine’s Press, 2008), Kindle location 1538.
[7] Anthony Kenny, The Five Ways: St. Thomas Aquinas’ Proofs of God’s Existence (New York: Schocken, 1969), 66, quoted in G&T 2004, 81.
[8] See, e.g., Isaac Asimov, Beginning and End (New York: Doubleday, 1977), 148, quoted in G&T 2004, 414, n. 11; Peter Atkins, Creation Revisited: The Origin of Space, Time, and the Universe (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1994), 139; Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow, The Grand Design (New York: Bantam, 2010); Lawrence Krauss, A Universe from Nothing: Why There is Something Rather than Nothing (New York: Free Press, 2012); and Victor Stenger, God: The Failed Hypothesis: How Science Shows that God Does Not Exist (Buffalo: Prometheus, 2007), 115-17.
[9] Bede Rundle, Where There Is Something Rather Than Nothing (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004), 117-18.
[10] See Sean Carroll, “Why (Almost All) Cosmologists Are Atheists,” Faith and Philosophy 22 (2005): 622-640; Graham Oppy, “Review of J.P. Moreland (ed.), The Creation Hypothesis” The Secular Web (1998), http://infidels.org/library/modern/graham_oppy/review-m.html; Keith Parsons; and Rundle 2004.
[11] NASA, “The Big Bang” National Aeronautics and Space Administration (March 8, 2013), http://science.nasa.gov/astrophysics/focus-areas/what-powered-the-big-bang/.

bookmark_borderCan Atheism Support Ethical Absolutes? A Reply to Roger Olson

Roger Olson, a fellow Patheos blogger who can be found in the Evangelical channel on Patheos, has recently written a post entitled, “Can Atheism Support Ethical Absolutes? Is Ethics without Absolutes Enough?” In that post, he appeals to what has been called “Karamazov’s Thesis,” which is the claim (attributed to Dostoyevsky), that “If God does not exist, then everything is permitted.”
For readers who are interested in academic refutations of Karamazov’s thesis, see refutations by Christian philosopher Wes Morriston (here and here)and atheist philosopher Erik Wielenberg (here and here). But for everyone else, this post is for you.
Olson writes:

My point has always been, and I will keep saying it, that only belief in God provides good reason to criticize the bad actions of those who claim to believe in God or who claim to be Christians. The reason I can criticize their practices is precisely because we both believe in a higher power, God, whom we both believe stands above us all as the standard of moral behavior.

In other words, Olson seems to implicitly this.

(1) The only way an objective “standard of moral behavior” can exist is if God exists.

Why should anyone believe that? Olson writes this.

Of course atheists can choose or claim absolutes, but their assertions of the absoluteness of their ethical norms are empty because everything except God changes.

So another premise seems to be:

(2) Everything except God changes.

But it’s crucial to notice that (2) begs the question. If, for example, moral truths are logically necessary truths, which is the case if some form of nontheistic non-natural moral realism is true, then it is false that “everything except God changes.” If it’s a necessary truth that “It’s wrong to torture babies,” that is just an unchanging truth. So Olson can claim “everything except God changes” only by assuming that “an objective standard of moral behavior cannot exist unless God exists.” But “everything except God changes” is supposed to provide the argument for “The only way an objective ‘standard of moral behavior’ can exist is if God exists.” Thus, Olson’s argument is question-begging.
To put this into perspective, consider this. If you’ve read or listened to many theists on so-called “logical” arguments from evil against God’s existence, you’ve probably heard them say that “God” and “evil” are logically compatible. In other words, there is no contradiction between “God exists” and “evil exists.” It’s too bad that many of these same theists, like Olson, often fail to apply the same skepticism to so-called “logical” arguments from morality to God’s existence. In other words, there is no logical contradiction between “There is no God” and “An objective standard of moral behavior exists.”