CPBD 035: Timothy O’Connor – Theism and Ultimate Explanation

by Luke Muehlhauser on April 14, 2010 in Podcast

cpbd035

(Listen to other episodes of Conversations from the Pale Blue Dot here.)

Today I interview philosopher Timothy O’Connor. Among other things, we discuss:

  • How to talk about a God who is ‘totally other’.
  • How could God be simple?
  • Why is there something rather than nothing?
  • Tim’s improvement to Leibniz’s cosmological argument
  • Philosophy vs. apologetics

Download CPBD episode 035 with Timothy O’Connor. Total time is 58:03.

tim oconnorTimothy O’Connor links:

Links for things we discussed:

Philosophia Christi will publish a book symposium on Theism and Ultimate Explanation later this year, including reactions to the book from several authors, for example Graham Oppy, Samuel Newlands, Peter Forrest, R.C. Koons, and T.J. Mawson.

Note: in addition to the regular blog feed, there is also a podcast-only feed. You can also subscribe on iTunes.

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{ 22 comments… read them below or add one }

Robert Gressis April 14, 2010 at 8:27 am

Wow! Great get!

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Jason April 14, 2010 at 9:04 am

Great podcast as usual. O’Connor just furnished me with more reasons to reject God-belief. As if I needed them.

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Martin April 14, 2010 at 9:49 am

Luke, I want to thank you for having an atheist blog with a level head on its shoulders. When I head over to Dawkins’ forum it’s starting to look more and more akin to a fundie Christian board than anything else. The arrogance is so thick over there you could cut it with a knife…

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Justfinethanks April 14, 2010 at 10:37 am

The arrogance is so thick over there you could cut it with a knife…

When people ask me “What does atheism offer?” I like to respond:

“License to be unrepentantly smug.”

It’s half a stab a Dawkins-types, and half serious. Because I gotta tell ya, it’s a real bonus.

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Ken Pulliam April 14, 2010 at 11:18 am

Luke,

I want to second what Martin said. I like the way you approach these interviews. Atheists sometimes are too arrogant and smug (although I can understand why we get frustrated). I found the discussion about Leibnitz fascinating. I am not sure I ever really pondered this issue but it does seem to be a big problem for theism. How could a perfect being create or do anything for that matter that was not also perfect? I think Leibnitz argument that it was necessary is problematic but I also think that O’Connor’s answer (if I understood it properly) is also problematic, namely that anything finite is capable of improvement. That seem to still beg the question of how a perfect and infinite being could create a finite and imperfect world. I look forward to reading the book he recommended by Bill Rowe.

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lukeprog April 14, 2010 at 11:31 am

Did anyone else listening to this get the sense that Tim O’Connor is among the most reasonable theists I’ve spoken with yet?

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Ken Pulliam April 14, 2010 at 11:45 am

Luke,

Yes I did. Do you believe that the problem of a perfect being creating an imperfect world is an argument against theism? It sounded like Tim was offering two defenses: 1) God’s intentions or purposes in creating the world were perfect; 2) by the very definition of finite, no world could be perfect. Did I miss something?

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lukeprog April 14, 2010 at 11:53 am

Ken,

Alas, that’s not a subject I’ve explored much, and I have not read Tim’s book.

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Thomas Reid April 14, 2010 at 12:05 pm

Looking forward to this. Thanks in advance Luke.

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Ken Pulliam April 14, 2010 at 12:37 pm

Luke,

I would like to see you interview some neuroscientists. For example, Richard Burton who wrote: On Being Certain: Knowing You are Right Even When You Are Not.

I think his insights can help us understand why people, even philosophers, will think they are right about an argument even though another equally competent philosopher disagrees.

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Martin April 14, 2010 at 1:23 pm

another equally competent philosopher disagrees.

This is what I love about philosophy; nothing is ever totally nailed down. I’ve seen it described as halfway between science and art. And I love how hardcore scientists (such as Dawkins) sneer at it, totally oblivious to the fact that in doing so they are in fact making a philosophical statement. :)

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raichel April 18, 2010 at 10:12 am

LOVED this podcast! More please!
and yes I did find him the most reasonable theist you’ve spoken with. I’m gonna be replaying this one a few times.

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lukeprog April 18, 2010 at 10:58 am

Glad to hear it, raichel!

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matt April 19, 2010 at 7:44 am

just listened to this. thought it was pretty good, too, though i also thought o’connor’s intellectual defense of the (patently) incoherent idea of a perfect, omniscient, timeless (admittedly he did hedge on this one) etc etc thinker was sort of throat clearing and not much more. he basically “argued” that lots of ideas in science that seem simple on the surface turn out to be mind-boggling on closer examination. but he then argued for the intuitive intelligeability of a dualistic concept of (disembodied) mind (the part about watching movies with ghosts etc), which seems slightly contradictory (or am i missing something here?). it seems that theists want common sense to prevail (or at least have some kind of juridical force) when it supports theistic principles, but they’re happy to talk about quarks and quantum mechanics when theism starts looking like lewis caroll–which it certainly does in lots of ways.

that said, i thought he was right that your “spaceless sky scraper” wasn’t the best analogy to a timeless or immaterial mind. i tried to think of a better one, and all i came up with was “immaterial gravity”, which seems to contain a similar set of contradictions. caroll’s arguemtn was, if i understood it right, that mind and matter are only connected inductively, not conceptually (i.e., not a priori), which i think is probably a half-truth of sorts, and the spaceless sky scraper does seem like a different sort of self-contradiction than a bodiless, or timeless, mind.

you didn`t really pursue the point, but i’d be interested in what you thought of his objection.

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John D April 19, 2010 at 10:52 am

I haven’t listened to all of this, but I think that the idea of mentality divorced from physicality is not as conceptually straightforward as O’Connor claims.

The way I see it, beliefs and desires represent objects, events and states of affairs. So the simplest types of beliefs are all direct representations of objects in the world. Likewise, the simplest desires all represent the world as you would like it to be. They seem to be intrinsically physicalistic concepts.

Now maybe more complex mental states such as beliefs about numbers and suchlike aren’t direct representations of a physical world. Maybe. But the ability to develop these abstract concepts (without using direct physical analogues) seems to require an ability to separate different concepts (which is itself a spatial concept) and combine them (which is also spatial).

I’m also not persuaded by the fact that children and adults can think about ghosts and spirits and other immaterial entities. First, the coherence of these concepts usually falls apart on closer inspection (how can a ghost talk – i.e. generate soundwaves – if it is not physical?). Second, to say that we can think about them seems to beg the question: are the concepts actually coherent? can you really legitimately think about them?

Anyway….

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Chuck April 22, 2010 at 5:57 am

His argument from analogy to quantum mechanics as a counter intuitive illustration to god fails to include the consistent predictive modeling quantum science musters despite our lack of intuition. His analogy fails because he resorts to special pleading for god by not demanding a predictive measure for theism. Can you provide partial illustration to an anaolgy and claim analogy? Seems specious to me.

I disagree with you Luke. This guy is a garden variety religionist misrepresnting fields outside of his expertise to make the claim his particular superstition is real. He seems polite but is as culturally biased as any other theist.

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lukeprog April 22, 2010 at 6:48 am

Chuck,

I don’t know; I haven’t his work.

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chuck April 22, 2010 at 9:10 am

Seems like the same old apologetic – take the most counter-intutitive scientific concept and equate it with faith to intimate an air of reasonable status to theism (without of course holding to the same experimental standard science demands).

I think I’ll pass on this guy’s book.

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Alexander Zambrano April 27, 2010 at 9:09 pm

I did a study for a research paper on Bill Rowe’s book, “Can God be Free”. I think Bill Hasker successfully rebutted Rowe’s argument which is printed in the book. Rowe’s response to Hasker is not very convincing. I’l be honest, of all the theistic responses to Rowe, Hasker is the only one who offers a plausible solution. Here’s a link to the Hasker article that addresses Rowe’s argument:
http://journals.cambridge.org/action/displayFulltext?type=1&fid=348250&jid=RES&volumeId=41&issueId=04&aid=348249

Luke,I want to second what Martin said. I like the way you approach these interviews. Atheists sometimes are too arrogant and smug (although I can understand why we get frustrated). I found the discussion about Leibnitz fascinating. I am not sure I ever really pondered this issue but it does seem to be a big problem for theism. How could a perfect being create or do anything for that matter that was not also perfect? I think Leibnitz argument that it was necessary is problematic but I also think that O’Connor’s answer (if I understood it properly) is also problematic, namely that anything finite is capable of improvement. That seem to still beg the question of how a perfect and infinite being could create a finite and imperfect world. I look forward to reading the book he recommended by Bill Rowe.  

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Zeb April 30, 2010 at 10:07 pm

I just listened to it, and it was probably my favorite episode so far, along side Trakakis. He wasn’t just one of the most reasonable theists, I thought he was one of the most reasonable guests, up with Loeb and Shook on the atheist side. I wish you had asked him about his “faith journey,” I’m really curious where he stands in terms of denomination and school of theology. Have you stopped asking the faith journey question?

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lukeprog May 1, 2010 at 6:42 am

Zeb,

Sometimes I do, sometimes I don’t.

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Gatogreensleeves November 9, 2011 at 1:46 pm

Best conversation with a theist yet (following the best conversation with a nontheist yet- Bob Price). That said, engaging general concepts in philosophy of religion, as opposed to the actual claims of specific theology, has consequences that can appear to give more plausibility to common apologetics than is due.

For example, compare O’Conner’s statement, “The timeless God theologian would say, ‘my God doesn’t engage in thinking, He doesn’t engage in planning, He doesn’t remember, He doesn’t anticipate, but He is aware- He grasps all truths, He’s timelessly engaged in a creation of the world, at which we experience as an unfolding reality, but God stands in a timeless relationship to all of it and He does so with a timeless intention of some purpose/goal to be achieved. So you would say that God would be to some degree like us and to some degree not”
with
Gen. 6:5-6/ 7:23/ 8:21, “And God saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that *every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually*. And *it repented* the LORD that He had made man on the earth, and it grieved Him at His heart” / “And every living substance was destroyed which was upon the face of the ground, both man, and cattle, and the creeping things, and the fowl of the heaven; and they were destroyed from the earth/ “And the LORD smelled a sweet savour; and the LORD said in his heart, I will not again curse the ground any more for man’s sake; for the *imagination of man’s heart is evil from his youth*; neither will I again smite any more every thing living, as I have done.”

God decides to kill everyone on earth, including woman, children, babies born and in the womb, and animals (except Noah’s “righteous” family) *because man’s nature is evil*… then… WHOOPS! Later, upon smelling some delicious meat smoke, *He repents and realizes* (by the *same reasoning*!) that *man’s nature is evil* and that killing most of them still doesn’t change anything. It’s very difficult to harmonize this temporal sequence with the notion of a timeless god, even with (in my view, inadequate) arguments for anthropomorphic language as a rhetorical tool (that would both disingenuously misrepresent the nature of god and mischaracterize supposedly historical events).

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