The Existence of God Means Nothing for Theists

by Luke Muehlhauser on July 28, 2010 in General Atheism

Apologetics 315 recently mentioned this Mortimer Adler quote:

More consequences for thought and action follow the affirmation or denial of God than from answering any other basic question.

I used to think this was true. Though I still agree with Steve Maitzen that the philosophical debate over the existence of God is “too important to leave to theists,” I don’t think the existence of the God argued for by the usual theistic arguments has much significance for our lives.

If there is a powerful, moral being who created the universe, what follows from that?

Does it follow that Zoroaster or Mohammed were his prophets?

Does it follow that the New Testament or the Koran contain the wisdom of God?

Does it follow that Krishna or Jesus were incarnations of God?

Does it follow that certain kinds of faithful beliefs are great goods, or that homosexual acts are great evils?

Does it follow that this god has a purpose for our lives?

Does it follow that God intervenes in history?

The answer to each question is an obvious ‘No.’

If God exists, this tells us nothing of importance for our lives. The debate over the existence of God can show little of significance for the theist, but it can act as a ‘silver bullet’ against theistic claims for the atheist.

If the theist can show that God exists, he has proved nothing of importance. But if the atheist can show that God does not exist, then he has shown that all theistic claims about knowledge, morality, and politics are false.

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{ 81 comments… read them below or add one }

crowhill July 28, 2010 at 5:00 am

>If God exists, this tells us nothing of importance for our lives.

That’s rubbish. If God exists, that means we have to admit the possibility of many different obligations, and would have to deal with them accordingly.

If, OTOH, we knew that God did not exist, we wouldn’t have to concern ourselves with such obligations.

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Jacopo July 28, 2010 at 5:04 am

It shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise, really. Given as this God is the conclusion of a philosophical argument, it’s generally standard for those conclusions to have few real-world implications. Ethics and to a lesser extent epistemology are probably the more notable exceptions.

A man who goes to bed a theist, a Platonist about mathematics, a modal realist, an idealist, and a Kuhnian, and wakes up an agnostic, a nominalist, a fictionalist, a representative realist and a falsificationist, lives in exactly the same way as he did the day before. Except in the life of his mind.

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Hermes July 28, 2010 at 5:22 am

Luke, one nit on part of your conclusion. Theists could be wrong on the issue of deities existing, but be correct on some conclusion by happenstance or unrelated knowledge or insight. Like someone from a few thousand years ago saying that the Earth is spherical because spheres are the result of The Great Great Green Arkleseizure creating the universe. These correct answers are of the same type as a broken analog clock being aided by the occasional manual finger movement; depending on how insightful or informed the owner of the finger is some answers are better than others.

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Matthew D. Johnston July 28, 2010 at 5:32 am

Aren’t you being a little hasty? It may not follow that, say, God exists and there is an afterlife or therefore we have moral obligations and duties, but given that these things are more likely on theism than atheism, doesn’t that give some weight to the claim of theistic importance?

I’m sort of reminded of a debate that was held here (University of Waterloo) a year or two back over the question of “Does God Matter?” between Craig and DiCarlo. Bad as the debate was for DiCarlo, I couldn’t help but feel some pity for him over the question he was debating. Of course God matters. Many things, if true, would matter to us. Does voodoo matter? Sure it would, if it were true. The world is significantly different in a voodoo vs. non-voodoo world. Isn’t that the thrust of what the quote is getting at, even if many details don’t necessary follow directly from it?

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Hermes July 28, 2010 at 5:58 am

It may not follow that, say, God exists and there is an afterlife or therefore we have moral obligations and duties, but given that these things are more likely on theism than atheism, doesn’t that give some weight to the claim of theistic importance?

Two comments;

1. If I describe something, that doesn’t change the fact that it exists or not. In the same way, an actual afterlife isn’t dependent on claims about a theistic afterlife made by different religious people and groups.

2. On the therefore we have moral obligations and duties, that’s proscribing a specific course to gain a goal. There’s no indication that following the dots of a specific religion can get to a potential afterlife.

[ Also, there's no such thing as an eternal afterlife that we can get to, so the claims by different religious people or groups are for naught. ]

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Hermes July 28, 2010 at 5:59 am

[ Error: I forgot to attribute the first paragraph of my last post to Matthew D. Johnston. ]

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lukeprog July 28, 2010 at 6:13 am

Hermes,

I’ve tried several ‘edit comments’ plugins and apparently they don’t work. :(

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Hermes July 28, 2010 at 6:19 am

Thanks Luke. I figured that after the attack plugins were at the bottom of your list, if not banned outright.

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TDC July 28, 2010 at 6:34 am

I’m not sure where to stand on this.

Speaking as one who is switching sides by the hour (Atheist in the morning, Christian in the afternoon, etc.), it seems that the existence of God is pretty darn significant.

I admit, there is a certain lack of imagination on the Christian side here. We have a huge amount of trouble imagining a transcendent, powerful, immaterial creator who DOESN’T do anything with the world (or maybe it’s just me..). Why create and then just leave it like that?

You’re right that proving the existence of God does not prove one religion or another right. Wouldn’t it make us look all the closer, however, at the various claims of revelation and miracles?

Maybe the problem is that we have so few defending deism as a live option, so people don’t realize that it is an option.

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RedKing July 28, 2010 at 6:55 am

“It may not follow that, say, God exists and there is an afterlife or therefore we have moral obligations and duties, but given that these things are more likely on theism than atheism, doesn’t that give some weight to the claim of theistic importance?”

I don’t think theism even makes moral obligations or an afterlife more likely. Sure, that’s the theism that most theists believe in, but the point of Luke’s post is that you can’t get there without further argumentation.

For example, what if we found a sound, valid argument that a God exists who would find it immoral to give people an afterlife? Or a God that would not give moral obligations to humans, only to himself or to some other beings? That argument for God’s existence would decrease the likelihood of an afterlife and moral obligations.

Without some kind of additional account of God’s character, merely proving its existence would not be enough.

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Lorkas July 28, 2010 at 7:04 am

@TDC

The existence of God isn’t logically tied to the existence of miracles very strongly. Proving that there’s a God doesn’t mean that miracles are possible (maybe God can’t or won’t do miracles in this universe for some reason) and proving that there isn’t a God doesn’t mean that miracles can’t happen (maybe The Force exists, or magic).

Nor is the existence of God tied to any particular set of moral propositions. Whether or not God exists, we have to figure out what is moral and what is not by having the conversation ourselves.

Because people tend to tie their particular idea of God with ideas about miracles and morality, it’s hard for some to see these as separate issues from a logical standpoint, but they are.

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Justfinethanks July 28, 2010 at 7:13 am

Aren’t you being a little hasty? It may not follow that, say, God exists and there is an afterlife or therefore we have moral obligations and duties, but given that these things are more likely on theism than atheism, doesn’t that give some weight to the claim of theistic importance?

Not really. It’s certainly true that if God exists, it allows for the mere possibility that one of the “revealed religions” is true and that there is an eternal afterlife, which certainly can have pragmatic implications.

But mere “possibility” is awfully weak. It’s like saying “Asking whether or Mars was once habitable to life is massively important. Because if there was once life on mars, it gives credence to my theory there are a race of evil Martians who have long since left the solar system but will return soon to annihilate Earth.”

While it’s certainly true that discovering that there was once life on Mars opens up the possibility of intelligent, evil, and soon to return Martians, that doesn’t change the fact that it’s a stupid theory that has no evidence in its favor and that no one should believe.

Similarly, it’s certainly true that the existence of God opens up the possibility that Christianity, Islam, Zoroastrianism, etc. are true, that doesn’t change the fact that all of these religions entail doctrines that either have no evidence in their favor or significant evidence against them.

Like Luke, if tomorrow I concluded that we have excellent reasons to believe there is an ontologically necessary creator and designer of the universe who grounds objective moral values, nothing would really change profoundly in my life. I mean, I would take on a different position when I argued on forums and blogs like this, but that’s about it.

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Hermes July 28, 2010 at 7:24 am

TDC, the dirty little secret is that there are cultural Christians just like there are cultural Muslims or cultural Jews. The Christians are often in denial about it, but when I look at the behavior of the more liberal through to the more fundamentalist and orthodox Christians I’d bet that a fair amount of any of those groups are technically atheists; they don’t believe that a god or gods exist, but they do want to hold on to something for social or philosophical reasons or even cultural linguistic reasons (like members of a fan club: many fundamentalists strike me as fan club members).

For about 10 years after I was effectively an atheist, if you asked me if I were religious I would say I was Catholic. Well, I was. It was only after I looked closely at the RCC did I decide that I could not remain associated with the church.

So, theism (or non-theism) isn’t necessarily bound to religion.

I would bet that many people are in the exact same situation as I was but may not be given sufficient reasons to make them decide if they should discard the religious aspects as well. Many, I would bet, will not give up on religion even though they are not theists.

Since then, actually most of the serious philosophical defences I see from Christians are deistic, and as a separate step the Christian deity is swapped in after the heavy deist support is established. They just don’t call it deism because of that last step.

For what it’s worth, I don’t see any conflicts with generic deist deities or pantheist deities. Either are consistent with what we know of reality. They are possible, if not probable. Personally, I’m not a pantheist or a deist because I’d like some positive support for one or the other, though I admit that by definition it may be that neither can provide clear positive support.

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Márcio July 28, 2010 at 7:48 am

“Even if God exists, He doesn’t matter.”

That is the argument atheists are trying to present now? So disappointing.

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Justfinethanks July 28, 2010 at 7:54 am

That is the argument atheists are trying to present now?

It’s not exactly a new position.

“It is very important not to mistake hemlock for parsley; but not at all so to believe or not in God.”

-Denis Diderot (1713-1784)

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Hermes July 28, 2010 at 7:56 am

Márcio, consider it an expression of boredom.

Theists (Christian or otherwise) seem to lack any credible arguments backed by positive evidence. Plenty of complaints about the available negative evidence, though.

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Thomas Lantern July 28, 2010 at 8:06 am

“If the theist can show that God exists, he has proved nothing of importance.” (Original Post)

I can’t really say I agree, Luke. If God can be shown to exist by a theist’s argument, then that gives us a serious reason to seek out God, and discover what we can about God’s purpose for our existence.

The accepting of the argument that God exists doesn’t necessarily entail any specifics about God’s character or which purported holy books are actually correct, if any, but surely if you were convinced that God exists you wouldn’t just drop the subject altogether without even trying to seek a deeper understanding?

Besides, I can’t think of anything more important than knowing whether or not our existence was intentionally created, or if we were just some universal accident of some sort (or a roll of the dice, if you prefer).

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Justfinethanks July 28, 2010 at 8:15 am

Besides, I can’t think of anything more important than knowing whether or not our existence was intentionally created, or if we were just some universal accident of some sort

I disagree. “What should I have for breakfast?” is a more important than that.

Would it really matter to you whether not your parents planned on having you or if your parents were using three different methods of birth control when you were conceived? It certainly wouldn’t have much affect on my life.

On the other hand, if I eat poorly, I feel and act like crap for the rest of the day.

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Steve Maitzen July 28, 2010 at 8:43 am

Luke,

Thanks for the citation in your original post. As I argued in my interview, if God is a being perfect in knowledge, power, and goodness, then the existence of God makes an immediate and crucial difference to morality: it dissolves the most serious moral obligations that we take ourselves to have. Or, at the very least, it makes us more obligated to prevent mild suffering by adults than to prevent severe suffering by children. I think a God of that tri-omni kind is implied by the ontological argument: an unsurpassably great being would have to possess at least those three perfections. So our most serious moral obligations depend on the fact that the ontological argument is unsound.

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Matthew D. Johnston July 28, 2010 at 9:21 am

I agree with almost everything that has been said in response to my comment. From a foundational, building-up-based-on-what-we-know-for-sure viewpoint, these things (existence of God, an afterlife, objective moral truths, miracles, ultimate meaning in life, etc.) don’t follow deductively from the basic theistic hypothesis. They are basically apples and oranges (and peaches, and so on, as the things in question add up). I also agree that when forming beliefs, they should be formed based on how well they are grounded, not their emotional, social, or traditional appeal.

But I still have a hard time dismissing the quote entirely. If theism is not true, for instance, then there almost certainly is no afterlife. (Okay, okay, various non-theistic religions affirm an afterlife as well, so let’s say we’re denying supernaturalism then.) That does seem weighty. It does seem like something that would influence how you would choose to behave, especially if you have to that point acted according to this belief. Maybe it is only weighty when viewed from the inside (i.e. more follows from the denial of the proposition then the affirmation of it), but then again that is the target audience. And I do think most skeptics (e.g. Camus) view the question of the afterlife as weighty in terms of how you live your life in a way that is different from other speculative examples (e.g. martians who are out to get us).

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Rob July 28, 2010 at 9:35 am

Matthew D. Johnston,

Are we to conclude that if you suddenly stopped believing in an afterlife that you would suddenly start raping and pillaging? If that is the case, please keep believing in an afterlife.

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Blair T July 28, 2010 at 9:36 am

I think an analogous situation exists with Extraterrestrial Life. You can make good arguments about why there is likely intelligent extraterrestrial life, but that doesn’t mean that reports of aliens visiting the earth are true.

Similarly, the best arguments for god(s) are deistic and don’t provide any information about whether such being(s) have any interaction with(or knowledge of)us.

Crop circles and religious texts are both human creations regardless of whether there are unknown intelligences ‘out there’ somewhere.

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Thomas July 28, 2010 at 10:12 am

If God (a nonphysical consciousness with free mental powers) exists, that increases the probability that we human beings are nonphysical substances with mental powers that we are free to exercise, also. A theistic view of human persons (conscious, rational, free, teleological agent with intrinsic value) is very much different than a non-theistic, naturalistic view of human persons (determined, non-teleological, mechanistic). Therefore the existence of God has significant consequences on the metaphysics of human persons. Our ordinary and natural view of human persons is pretty much captured in the doctrine of the Image of God. If God is gone – we as Images of God are gone, too. You can’t have your naturalistic cake and eat your conception of human agents (consciousness, free will, teleology), too.

Eating the naturalistic cake, by the way, is a remarkable thing to do. For example, naturalism implies that the motions in our bodies are ultimately explained totally non-teleologically and mechanistically. In other words, no reference to teleology (reasons and purposes) is made to explain choices and actions of human beings. That is, indeed, a remarkable thing to believe.

Theism and its conception of human persons, fortunately, offers an alternative to the naturalistic cake. And how we see ourselves and our choices makes a huge difference. This is one reason why the existence of God matters.

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Matthew D. Johnston July 28, 2010 at 10:13 am

Are we to conclude that if you suddenly stopped believing in an afterlife that you would suddenly start raping and pillaging? If that is the case, please keep believing in an afterlife.

Well, I don’t believe in an afterlife or that the denial of one entails moral nihilism, so no.

All I am saying is it is a weighty question to most people – theists and non-theists alike. A lot does follow from denying an afterlife, and people deal with it in all kinds of ways. Some people are drive to despair; others are driven to live for every second; for others, apparently, it is merely an academic concern, like debates over movies and sports.

But almost every conversion (or anti-conversion rather) story I have ever heard has delved into the question of how the person has found meaning given the finality of death. It’s just something you can’t avoid; hell, it’s probably the most significant hurdle in people accepting atheism, even among those who otherwise think the arguments for theism are weak. We can criticize Bill Craig all we want for the non-sequitor that is his claim that life without God is “absurd”, but that doesn’t give us an excuse to deny that there are consequences for the non-theistic worldview. It’s just unfortunate for Bill that those consequences (whether you view them as good or bad) have no bearing on the actual truth of the claim.

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Hermes July 28, 2010 at 10:23 am

If theism is not true, for instance, then there almost certainly is no afterlife.

Well, there’s no afterlife, though theism isn’t the only way to it either in most fictional accounts.

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Matthew D. Johnston July 28, 2010 at 10:23 am

A theistic view of human persons (conscious, rational, free, teleological agent with intrinsic value) is very much different than a non-theistic, naturalistic view of human persons (determined, non-teleological, mechanistic)… You can’t have your naturalistic cake and eat your conception of human agents (consciousness, free will, teleology), too.

I’ve never understood this argument (although I know many skeptics accept it as well, although for different reasons). What allows one to say that God just happens to possess these nice properties (consciousness, free will, etc.) and passes them on to us (by a mechanism that remains unexplained), and not to say just as easily that we just happen to have them? What is it that prevents God from asking of Himself why He possesses consciousness and free will and concluding it must be something imparted from some external being, if that is such an obvious conclusion you think we should make?

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Justfinethanks July 28, 2010 at 10:27 am

Thomas: If God (a nonphysical consciousness with free mental powers) exists, that increases the probability that we human beings are nonphysical substances with mental powers that we are free to exercise

Again, saying “if God exists, then it is possible that free will and substance dualism are true” is remarkably weak. Following your argument, it would only follow that the existence of God mattered if the absence of God was the only obstacle in believing in something like free will. “God doesn’t exist” is hardly the only problem that free will faces.

In reality, I don’t reject libertarian free will just because I’m a naturalist who doesn’t believe in God. I reject it because there is massive amounts of evidence against the hypothesis that humans are unmoved movers and none-to-little in favor of it. So even if I concluded God existed, my belief in determinism would be unchanged, and I don’t understand why I should conclude otherwise.

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Alonzo Fyfe July 28, 2010 at 10:39 am

Luke is correct.

The existence of God does not imply the existence of an afterlife. It is possible that a God exists without an afterlife, or that God created a universe in which death was the final end with no chance of resurrection.

Nor does the existence of God imply any obligations. A God could create a universe without obligations.

If I were to discover that there was a God, I would hold that God to the same standard that I would give to any other person. If he wants to vote in any elections, he can register to vote (assuming he qualifies for citizenship), and he will get ONE VOTE, just like everybody else.

If he had desires that tended to fulfill other desires, I would call him good. If he had desires that tended to thwart other desires, I would call him evil. No moral obligations at all come from his mere existence – nor does any value.

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Jeff H July 28, 2010 at 10:46 am

I’m sort of reminded of a debate that was held here (University of Waterloo) a year or two back over the question of “Does God Matter?” between Craig and DiCarlo.

Hey, small world – I go to UW too! (I was also there at that debate, lol). I know that this term is wrapping up, but if you’re around next term, you should come out to the Atheists, Agnostics, and Freethinkers club. It’s usually a pretty good time, we have some interesting discussions.

Anyway, sorry for being off-topic :P

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Justfinethanks July 28, 2010 at 10:54 am

. If he wants to vote in any elections, he can register to vote (assuming he qualifies for citizenship)

That a toughie. By virtue of not being born, God couldn’t claim to be a “natural born” citizen of any country. However, if God is omnipresent, perhaps he could claim citizenship in countries that allowed people to claim citizenship if they were residents within the country at the time of the ratification of the constitution (like the US).

But that would bring up the possibility that God could claim citizenship to all countries that had such a policy, which would bring up some complicated multiple citizenship issues. Some countries (such as Denmark and Japan) don’t even allow for multiple citizenship.

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al friedlander July 28, 2010 at 11:08 am

“Like Luke, if tomorrow I concluded that we have excellent reasons to believe there is an ontologically necessary creator and designer of the universe who grounds objective moral values, nothing would really change profoundly in my life. ”

I completely agree with this. Although there would be a minor spark of hope that my life meant more than it seemed to, logically, I would have to downplay my emotional reaction for the sake of reason. This is why I’ve always been confused by the theistic method of attack, which is: here are my arguments for why a creator exists.

The most it does is add a teeny-weeny step for theism, that pretty much amounts to nothing except “it’s possible, you never know”, which is what they were originally claiming to begin with. In my opinion, arguments for the existence of a creator does close to -nothing- for theism; instead, it pushes for DEISM, which in my opinion, -is- entirely possible. But it doesn’t change anything. For example: God created the world, He decided to leave, we’re on our own. Taking the leap of faith required to assume God exists, we still only get this far!

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Rob July 28, 2010 at 11:13 am

Matthew D. Johnston,

Thanks for the clarification.

In your original comment, you state an afterlife is more likely on theism than atheism. How did you calculate this? It reminds me of the claim that if Jesus rose from the dead, then it’s more likely that a god exists.

I am puzzled by these claims of likelihood or probability. I have no clue how these probability claims are calculated. Care to walk me through it?

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Chris K July 28, 2010 at 11:31 am

There seems to be a subtle inference here from “the existence of God as argued for by the traditional theistic arguments means nothing for theists” to “the existence of God means nothing for theists.” If we’re talking the existence of God simpliciter, a sort of bare or “austere” theism, then yeah, that might be right.

The problem is that most theists don’t believe in a God divorced from some kind of self-revelation. Most theists are attached to a specific religion which claims that God has revealed himself to humanity in very specific ways. The existence of the self-revealing God is very much of ultimate importance to theists. The self-revealing God tells us who He is, who we are, and what He expects from us. The self-revealing God covenants with us.

Interestingly, the theologian Karl Barth rejected natural theology along with its theistic arguments because he saw it as trying to illegitimately gain access to God without accepting God’s self-revelation in the form of Jesus Christ. On this view, the arguments for the existence of God can help bolster the faith that we already have, but should never replace the locus of the human decision, Jesus.

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Thomas July 28, 2010 at 11:35 am

Matthew D. Johnston:
What allows one to say that God just happens to possess these nice properties (consciousness, free will, etc.) and passes them on to us (by a mechanism that remains unexplained), and not to say just as easily that we just happen to have them? What is it that prevents God from asking of Himself why He possesses consciousness and free will and concluding it must be something imparted from some external being, if that is such an obvious conclusion you think we should make?

In contemporary particle physics, objects without mass are posited with primitive charges or spins, which are the basic foundations for explaining more complex events. Now, this is just positing a basic power. If science can allow that subatomic particles have basic powers, it is hard to see how we can rule out that intentional agents have basic powers. God doesn´t just “happen to possess these nice properties”. God (if He exists) is an intentional agents (like human beings) who has certain basic powers. God is esseantially a person, therefore He is conscious – actually God is incorporeal – therefore He is pure consciousness or spirit without a body. As an intentional agent, God has as a basic power the power to exercise His mental powers, that is, make free choices (just like humans). This is just what the definitin of God is! And if the basic powers of subatomic particles have explanatory power, surely the basic powers of an intentional agent have explanaory power, too.

The “mechanism” in which God creates other conscious and free agents isn´t a mechanism or a scientific explanation. An intentional agent chooses to do something because he has reasons or purposes to do so. This is a personal or a teleological explanation – not mechanistic or causal. God chose to create other conscious, free beings because He wanted them to experience good and happiness and to be in loving relationship with Him.

Why we don´t just happen to have consciousness and free will? To say that these are brute facts is (i) very improbable, (ii) ad hoc and (iii) question begging against theism. This is because consciousness, teleology, mentality, etc. are very unnatural given naturalism. Where did mental events came from if naturalism is true? If you start with physical stuff and rearrange it, what you get is more complex physical stuff. You can’t get non-physical consciousness or teleology from purely physical and non-teleological processess. That is, you can’t get something from nothing. This is why naturalism cannot account for consciousness, free will, etc: they are unnatural given naturalistic ontology, they don´t fit in, and you can´t get them out of nothing.

Therefore consciousness etc. has to be fundamental to the world. Theism provodes a plausible and coherent personal explanation for this. According to theism, God is a necessary being – an ultimate brute fact. That is why there isn´t some “external being” explaining God. The fundamental feature of the cosmos (according to theism) is a personal, conscious and free being. This being is the ultimate brute fact which explains everything else. Theists argue that given our experience of human persons, this view is superior in terms of explanatory power, simplicity, plausibility, etc.

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Thomas Lantern July 28, 2010 at 11:56 am
Besides, I can’t think of anything more important than knowing whether or not our existence was intentionally created, or if we were just some universal accident of some sort

I disagree. “What should I have for breakfast?” is a more important than that.

Would it really matter to you whether not your parents planned on having you or if your parents were using three different methods of birth control when you were conceived? It certainly wouldn’t have much affect on my life.

On the other hand, if I eat poorly, I feel and act like crap for the rest of the day.

It wouldn’t matter that much to me now whether or not I was an accident in regards to human conception, but it definitely matters to me whether or not God exists. I agree with the majority of posters here who think that God’s existence does not directly prove purpose, or God’s interactivity with the universe after creating it, etc… via an inductive argument.

I don’t agree that, knowing God exists (or having been convinced in our hypothetical scenario as per the original post), you should go on living your life as if nothing has changed. I would think that it would be reasonable to at least *try* to discover why you were created, what is your purpose, etc. Am I the only one who thinks this?

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Chris K July 28, 2010 at 12:18 pm

Another important thing here is that belief in God isn’t meant to be purely intellectual – it’s also volitional. It’s not just “belief that”, but also “belief in.” It’s a surrendering of one’s own self-centered values and desires to the values and desires of God.

Let’s take the example of Antony Flew, who “supposedly” admitted that he thought that there is a God. If that happened, his was a belief that, but not a belief in. It wasn’t something that was going to impact his life. But that’s the thing with the theistic arguments; they can only take us so far. I believe that they can be useful to remove some of the intellectual obstacles to belief in God, but they don’t in and of themselves cause us to have “belief in.” The next step for a person like Flew would be to say, “Okay, God exists. Do I have reason to think that any of the theistic religious traditions are true?” At that point the person comes face to face with divine self-revelation which fills out the import of God for humanity. It is only at this point that a person can truly believe in God, not just that God exists.

When one is faced with belief-in, the importance of the existence of God comes to full light.

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Roman July 28, 2010 at 12:26 pm

Hi Chris K,

I like your comments, you seem to be educated in these matters. Are you a philosophy student or graduate?

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Justfinethanks July 28, 2010 at 12:29 pm

I would think that it would be reasonable to at least *try* to discover why you were created, what is your purpose, etc. Am I the only one who thinks this?

Here’s the problem for me. If the universe is an intentional creation by a powerful supernatural agent, it doesn’t follow that life was intentionally created. It could be that the big bang is part of a cosmic fireworks show and life (including human life) was an unforeseen side effect. And even if a powerful being made life and humanity on purpose, it doesn’t follow that this being intended for me personally to exist and has a specific plan and reason for my existence. I suppose if I had excellent reasons to believe that “God has created me personally with a specific reason in mind,” then that indeed would have some profound affects on my life, especially if I could have access to those reasons.

However, the problem is that gap between “All the classical arguments for God’s existence are sound” and “God created you with a specific reason in mind” is unbridgeably wide in my opinion.

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Chris K July 28, 2010 at 12:53 pm

Thanks, Roman [ego swelling] :)

Guilty. I have an MA in philosophy of religion. I’m just biding my time while I look into PhD programs.

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Thomas Lantern July 28, 2010 at 1:43 pm

Justfinethanks said:

Here’s the problem for me. If the universe is an intentional creation by a powerful supernatural agent, it doesn’t follow that life was intentionally created. It could be that the big bang is part of a cosmic fireworks show and life (including human life) was an unforeseen side effect. And even if a powerful being made life and humanity on purpose, it doesn’t follow that this being intended for me personally to exist and has a specific plan and reason for my existence. I suppose if I had excellent reasons to believe that “God has created me personally with a specific reason in mind,” then that indeed would have some profound affects on my life, especially if I could have access to those reasons.

However, the problem is that gap between “All the classical arguments for God’s existence are sound” and “God created you with a specific reason in mind” is unbridgeably wide in my opinion.

Thanks for the clarification. Again I must agree that the possibilities are indeed that, possible. I don’t feel the same way (about how wide that gap is) but I don’t really have a cogent argument to persuade you at this point. You’ve given me something to think about, at any rate. Cheers.

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Ronnie July 28, 2010 at 2:16 pm

Chris K,
“Another important thing here is that belief in God isn’t meant to be purely intellectual – it’s also volitional. It’s not just “belief that”, but also “belief
in.” It’s a surrendering of one’s own self-centered values and desires to the values and desires of God.

Let’s take the example of Antony Flew, who “supposedly” admitted that he thought that there is a God. If that happened, his was a belief that, but not a
belief in. It wasn’t something that was going to impact his life. But that’s the thing with the theistic arguments; they can only take us so far. I believe
that they can be useful to remove some of the intellectual obstacles to belief in God, but they don’t in and of themselves cause us to have “belief in.”
The next step for a person like Flew would be to say, “Okay, God exists. Do I have reason to think that any of the theistic religious traditions are true?”
At that point the person comes face to face with divine self-revelation which fills out the import of God for humanity. It is only at this point that a
person can truly believe in God, not just that God exists.

When one is faced with belief-in, the importance of the existence of God comes to full light.”
None of this impresses me. The values of “God” have not been made plain to anyone. We cannot reliably determine the desires of “God” at this point, no matter how much we “believe in” him. Which god(s)’ self-revelation would we acknowledge if we believed? Which “holy” book contains the true word of our “creator”? What if polytheists undeniably prove that many “god(s)” exist?

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lukeprog July 28, 2010 at 2:20 pm

Chris K,

Where’s your MA? Did you do Tufts or something like that?

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Matthew D. Johnston July 28, 2010 at 2:32 pm

@Jeff H – I actually didn’t attend the debate as I had a lecture to prepare for the next morning. Caught it later on YouTube.

In your original comment, you state an afterlife is more likely on theism than atheism. How did you calculate this?

More precisely, I think an afterlife is more probable on supernaturalism than naturalism (to encompass the non-theistic religions/philosophies that believe in an afterlife). I don’t mean to assign exactly numbers here (I don’t know how you would) but it would seem P(afterlife|naturalism)=0 and P(afterlife|supernaturalism)>0.

@Thomas – My problem is that you seem to apply one standard (intentional agents have basic powers; this is just what the definition of God is; etc.) when talking about God’s conscious and free will and another (to say that these are brute facts is (i) very improbable, (ii) ad hoc and (iii) question begging against theism; you can’t get non-physical consciousness or teleology from purely physical and non-teleological processes) when talking about humans with the same properties. In other words, you seem to think you can define God’s consciousness and free will into existence without explanation but call anything short of that question-begging against your hypothesis.

So basically, I’m also still confused as to how anybody thinks this solves the problem of what consciousness/free will actually is and how they come to be. Appealing to electron spins explains some set of data that isn’t identical to the electron spins themselves (particles motions and interactions, or whatever). You seem very happy, however, to appeal to God (a being whose consciousness and free will is “basic”, i.e. lacking explanation) to explain, well, the existence of consciousness and free will. (Unless I’m mistaken, your argument is, if consciousness and free will exist, then God, a being whose consciousness and free will are basic, exists.) Why should anybody except some instances of a property as “basic” and not others?

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Márcio July 28, 2010 at 3:06 pm

If God exists, a criminal will know that all his actions will be judged even if the police doesn’t arrest him.

A criminal can escape from the police and jail, but can’t escape from God’s judgment.

I think this is a great improvement for humanity.

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Márcio July 28, 2010 at 3:08 pm

I say this because a lot of criminals think that is OK to commit a crime if he doesn’t get caught by the police.

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Steve Maitzen July 28, 2010 at 3:20 pm

If God exists [and a criminal knows it], a criminal will know that all his actions will be judged even if the police doesn’t arrest him.

A criminal can escape from the police and jail, but can’t escape from God’s judgment.

I think this is a great improvement for humanity.

@ Márcio: Yet there’s an inverse correlation between how religious a nation is and the nation’s level of violent crime. Even within the U.S.A. (the most religious and most violent of the G7 populations), the more religious “red” states have higher rates of crime, especially violent crime, than the less religious “blue” states. The writer George Eliot responded to your point 150 years ago:

“[I]f you feel no motive to common morality but your fear of a criminal bar in heaven, you are decidedly a man for the police on earth to keep their eye upon, since it is matter of world-old experience that fear of distant consequences is a very insufficient barrier against the rush of immediate desire.” (1857)

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Steve Maitzen July 28, 2010 at 3:28 pm

Sorry: I should have said “direct correlation between how religious a nation is and the nation’s level of violent crime.” It’s well-documented: the more religious the population, the more criminally violent it tends to be.

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Mastema July 28, 2010 at 3:36 pm

Márcio,

Depending on the theology of a particular religion/sect, the criminal can ask forgiveness from God and perform whatever penance their religion requires, which does not always address the needs of those they have actually harmed. In some cases, faith is the only thing required for salvation, not works. I fail to see how those are better for humanity (especially the latter).

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Hermes July 28, 2010 at 3:48 pm

Matthew D. Johnston: I think an afterlife is more probable on supernaturalism than naturalism (to encompass the non-theistic religions/philosophies that believe in an afterlife).

Atheism and theism don’t break down to naturalism or supernaturalism.

Additionally, when you say an afterlife, do you mean an incorporeal and immaterial existence or a material one that happens not to be in the same body/shell/…?

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Hermes July 28, 2010 at 3:49 pm

Márcio: A criminal can escape from the police and jail, but can’t escape from God’s judgment.

I think this is a great improvement for humanity.

And yet, children get raped by priests.

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Matthew D. Johnston July 28, 2010 at 4:07 pm

Atheism and theism don’t break down to naturalism or supernaturalism.

I realize that, but I guess I’m not in the mood to quibble. Which part of the breakdown of atheism and theism into naturalist and supernaturalist components do you think would shift the probabilities of an afterlife?

Additionally, when you say an afterlife, do you mean an incorporeal and immaterial existence or a material one that happens not to be in the same body/shell/…?

Any sort of conscious self-aware existence would do.

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Hermes July 28, 2010 at 4:50 pm

Matthew D. Johnston:

Which part of the breakdown of atheism and theism into naturalist and supernaturalist components do you think would shift the probabilities of an afterlife?

Mu; there are no probabilities to calculate as there is nothing to calculate from. (There are other problems, but let’s stay with that for the moment.)

If I am mistaken on the first hurdle, and you are aware of something to base your calculations on, present it; show your work.

Matthew D. Johnston: Any sort of conscious self-aware existence would do.

I’m done. I’ve already chased quite a few of these types of geese and see no need to mount yet another expedition.

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Chris K July 28, 2010 at 5:59 pm

Luke,

My MA is from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. Yep. Studied under Keith Yandell, Harold Netland, and Kevin Vanhoozer.

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Chris K July 28, 2010 at 6:08 pm

Ronnie,

The idea is to look for the tradition of divine self-revelation that has the most going for it. If that happens to be polytheism, so be it. You then look to see what values that tradition/revelation espouses.

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lukeprog July 28, 2010 at 6:50 pm

Chris K,

Gotcha.

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Roman July 28, 2010 at 8:07 pm

Hi Chris K,

Cool about your MA! I’m guessing Notre Dame and Oxford look good for a PhD in Philosophy of Religion right?

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Matthew D. Johnston July 28, 2010 at 8:51 pm

Mu; there are no probabilities to calculate as there is nothing to calculate from. (There are other problems, but let’s stay with that for the moment.)

I’m not sure what you’re getting at – whether you’ve got a serious objection or are just being obtuse. I’m not claiming to know the probability of an afterlife. I’m not claiming the existence of a God or gods entails an afterlife. All I am claiming is that there is more room within the theistic hypothesis for one than within the atheistic one. That’s it.

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Chris K July 29, 2010 at 1:10 am

Roman,

Yeah, though I’m not setting my sights quite that high.

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Hermes July 29, 2010 at 2:30 am

Matthew D. Johnston: I’m not sure what you’re getting at – whether you’ve got a serious objection or are just being obtuse.

Yes, it’s a serious objection. Yes, I was serious using the word mu. No, I’m not pouring deep thought into it in a serious manner since we haven’t gotten to the point where there’s something that requires that deep consideration. After all, you don’t even know anything about the nature of the essence that is supposed to travel to some otherworldly realm (also un-described), and yet you feel confident to make statements like the following;

Matthew D. Johnston: I’m not claiming the existence of a God or gods entails an afterlife. All I am claiming is that there is more room within the theistic hypothesis for one than within the atheistic one. That’s it.

My note on probabilities was based on your use of the phrase “shift the probabilities”, as it is not necessary I retract my comments on it.

With that in mind…

* * *

OK. I don’t see how you support that claim. To me, I don’t see adding an item to the list as adding room. It’s like adding a door to a house but not increasing the floor space; at best, it divides the house up a bit, but may just get in the way.

The issue is this: Can someone get to an afterlife (traditionally, an other worldly realm where some essence (incoherently defined) goes)?

Because we have no disembodied essence, the answer is no. Worse, even if we were shown to have such an essence, we don’t know anything about that other worldly realm expect for unsupported and contradictory assertions, so personally we should have no interest in such a place beyond curious cultural fictions.

* * *

So, I’m not being obtuse. What is there to be engaged with? Are you bringing up the normal incoherent assertions about afterlives from cultures that were ignorant about many other things, or do you have something new and more available to investigation? That’s what I’m getting at. We can make no calculations, unless you know something you have not shared yet?

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Thomas July 29, 2010 at 5:12 am

Matthew D. Johnston:
You seem very happy, however, to appeal to God (a being whose consciousness and free will is “basic”, i.e. lacking explanation) to explain, well, the existence of consciousness and free will. (Unless I’m mistaken, your argument is, if consciousness and free will exist, then God, a being whose consciousness and free will are basic, exists.) Why should anybody except some instances of a property as “basic” and not others?

Ok, here´s my answer. You have to start from somewhere. When doing metaphysics, something has to be basic in one´s ontology. The basic component of existence for naturalism is physical stuff and non-teleological physical processess. On the other hand, for theism the basic thing that exists is a personal, conscious and free being. Now, let´s assume that human beings have irreducible mental properties and free will (call this ‘C’). Which ontological view, naturalism or theism, explains C better? According to the former, C somehow popped up into existence out of determined, non-teleological, non-conscious physical processess. According to the latter, C came from mentality and freedom. So, if naturalism is true, mind came from matter. If theism is true mind came from mind. To me the theist´s alternative is much more plausible. Therefore consciousness and free will gives evidence for theism and counts against naturalism.

So this is basically the argument. Consciousness etc. is basic for God, because this is just what theism means; consciousness is fundamental in existence. Theism starts from mind. This is not a good explanation only if you first assume that a good explanation explains everything mechanistically starting from physical stuff. So the reason why you don´t find this theistic explanation plausible may be that you are just assuming naturalism. But according to theism, consciousness is basic in the cosmos.

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Thomas July 29, 2010 at 5:33 am

One more clarification about basicality and naturalness. I’ll quote J.P. Moreland:

Naturalness is relevant to assessing rivals by providing a criterion for identifying question begging arguments or ad hoc adjustments by advocates of a rival theory. Naturalness can also be related to basicality by providing a means of deciding the relative merits of accepting theory R which depicts phenomenon e as basic, vs. embracing S which takes e to be explainable in more basic terms. If e is natural in S but not in R, it will be difficult for advocates of R to justify the bald assertion that e is basic in R and that all proponents of R need to do is describe e and correlate it with other phenomena in R as opposed to explaining e. Such a claim by advocates of R will be even more problematic if S provides an explanation fore. ( http://afterall.net/papers/491114 )

Consciousness, freedom and teleology are natural in theism (they “fit in”), but they are definetily unnatural in naturalism. So, borrowing the formulation of the quote above: if c (consciousness etc.)is natural in T (theism) but not in N (naturalism) it will be difficult for advocates of N to justify the bald assertion that c is basic in N and that all proponents of N need to do is describe c and correlate it with other phenomena in N as opposed to explaining c. Such a claim by advocates of N will be even more problematic if T provides an explanation fore.

So this is why labeling consciousness etc. as basic in naturalism is question begging and ad hoc, but not in theism. For theism, ‘c’ is natural, and the explanation of the instantation of ‘c’ in human beings is a personal explanation.
I hope this clarified things.

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Zeb July 29, 2010 at 7:10 am

Chris K and Thomas hit the nail on the head. When I lost faith, I argued myself to a basic God using the argument from contingency. Then I came to the conclusion that philosophizing can only tell us about concepts, and empiricism can only tell us about what works, but neither could tell us what’s real or true. So I gave up trying to figure out what’s true, and put it to this God to let me know what he would have me do and believe, if anything. Eventually I got answers.

My point is, proving an all knowing and all powerful God exists does open up another avenue of epistemology, especially if you can find reason to believe God is also all good. You can be confident that if you ask him something, he can ‘hear’ you and can answer you, and that if he does his answers will be good.

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Bill Snedden July 29, 2010 at 10:41 am

@Thomas: “Consciousness, freedom and teleology are natural in theism (they “fit in”), but they are definetily unnatural in naturalism.”

The truth of this statement necessarily depends upon the definitions of “consciousness”, “freedom”, and “teleology”. IOW, in order to render the statement true, one must accept definitions of those terms that are incompatible with Naturalism. This is not uncontroversial and I see no compelling reason to believe it to be the case.

I’ve never been impressed by these “naturalism cannot explain X” arguments because I invariably find them to be ultimately based on equivocations or stolen concepts.

To address each of these -

Freedom: there must be causal closure at SOME level. God’s will is obviously caused/constrained by his nature. How is this any different from the realization that our own wills are similarly caused/constrained?

Teleology: I believe that it’s possible (although I’m aware some would disagree) to mount a successful argument in favor of evolution as a teleological process. Not that there’s an intentional goal, but that the process is goal driven, in a very broad sense (the goal being survival/propagation). The point being, “teleology” doesn’t require consciousness.

Consciousness: “Mind came from mind” is circular. Essentially you are declaring “consciousness exists” by fiat and then further declaring your opponents claim to essentially the same argument (brute fact) as deficient. Bad form.

But not only that, consciousness simply CANNOT be fundamental to existence because nothing can be conscious unless it first exists. God’s nature cannot be a product of his consciousness; his nature is logically and metaphysically prior to his consciousness. You even intuit this in your own response: “You have to start from somewhere. When doing metaphysics, something has to be basic in one´s ontology.” Indeed. A mind cannot “think” itself into existence; it must exist first. In order to exist, it must be SOMETHING and not something else. In order for a thing to be something and not something else, it must have a nature. That nature “determines” the form of its existence, and the nature of the “ultimate thing” obviously cannot be created or shaped by mind (’cause that would lead to an infinite regress).

All causal chains end in non-mind, even theistic ones and that’s why these types of arguments always fail.

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Hermes July 29, 2010 at 2:00 pm

Bill, that was excellent. May you get a response that at a minimum aspires to the same level of elegance.

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Matthew D. Johnston July 29, 2010 at 2:44 pm

@Hermes – I don’t particularly disagree with anything you have said. You seem to be objecting to my statement mostly because I have granted that the concepts of God and an afterlife could be formulated coherently enough to be discussed as in play – i.e. we can make assessments on what things would be like if the hypothesis were true.

@Thomas – We’re probably not going to have much common ground to stand on from here in. From my point of view, what you have basically done is defined consciousness out of the natural world in order to achieve your end goal (a fundamentally conscious being, whose own consciousness is unexplained). You have put this into a philosophical framework by appealing to ontology (you have to start from somewhere) which, to you, but not to me, eliminates the objection that you have not actually explained the existence of consciousness or free will – which is what I thought we were trying to do in the first place.

Per the Moreland quote, could you explain to me how the existence of consciousness and free will is explainable in more basic terms by theism than naturalism, since theism assumes, as a starting point, the unexplained existence of consciousness and free will?

Now, let´s assume that human beings have irreducible mental properties and free will (call this ‘C’)… According to the former, C somehow popped up into existence out of determined, non-teleological, non-conscious physical processes.

I don’t know if I would claim that human beings (or any animal) have irreducible mental properties. Our mental properties seem to be significantly impaired by impaired brain function.

Also, I think the naturalistic hypothesis could use clarification here. I don’t think anyone arguing for naturalism would claim that consciousness itself is basic to the universe, but rather than the capacity for it is. Consciousness doesn’t just “pop” into existence from unrelated stuff, anymore than planets just “pop” into existence from unrelated stuff. It is a precursor (gravity, in the case of planets) which brings about the end result.

I guess, to get some clarification on your views, I will ask you this. You seem to believe that consciousness and free will (if it exists) are independent of brain function (correlated, surely, but you have to believe that a brain can exist without consciousness since consciousness is not natural and therefore must be imparted by God). So here it is: Do all people have consciousness/free will? Do animals (and if so, which ones)? Did our ancestors and evolutionary relatives (homo erectus, neaderthals, etc.)? How does God choose which biological beings (with brains) to impart this tremendous gift to? Is there some scientific test we could perform to determine which brains have consciousness and which don’t? And lastly, of course, is it not more natural to assume that the capacity for consciousness is fundamental to the universe than that there is some deity, whose own consciousness and free will is unexplained, randomly imparting or restricting access to consciousness in ways which are empirically indistinguishable from the aforementioned hypothesis?

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Hermes July 29, 2010 at 3:11 pm

That works, though I think we can actually draw conclusions based on the available evidence not just speculation. For example, I take it as a given that there is no essence that is separate from a body. I base that on the available evidence. As such, the available options change to adjust to that. There are, of course, other issues as well.

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Hermes July 29, 2010 at 3:19 pm

Matthew D. Johnston, good comments to Thomas. A joy to read.

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Thomas July 29, 2010 at 10:00 pm

Bill and Matthew – thanks for those very interesting responses. I’ll answer as soon as I´m able to.

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Thomas July 30, 2010 at 6:19 am

@Bill Snedden:

The truth of this statement necessarily depends upon the definitions of “consciousness”, “freedom”, and “teleology”. IOW, in order to render the statement true, one must accept definitions of those terms that are incompatible with Naturalism. This is not uncontroversial and I see no compelling reason to believe it to be the case.

Yes, but the argument I gave assumes that there are irreducible mental properties and libertarian free will. It is a “if – then” -argument. If property dualism is true, then this gives evidence for theism.

Freedom: there must be causal closure at SOME level. God’s will is obviously caused/constrained by his nature. How is this any different from the realization that our own wills are similarly caused/constrained?

By causal closure I understand the principle which says that for every physical event there must be a physical cause. But if the physical event which causes my fingers to move now when I´m typing this text is itself caused my a non-physical mental event (my choice to write this text – a choice is a mental action), then that violates the causal closure -principle. If we make free, uncaused choices (I´m a noncausal libertarian), then this seems to be in odds with naturalism, because there are physical events happening all the time which have non-physical mental causes. (Again, if we turn this into an argument against naturalism, that would be an “if-then” -argument.)

Teleology: I believe that it’s possible (although I’m aware some would disagree) to mount a successful argument in favor of evolution as a teleological process. Not that there’s an intentional goal, but that the process is goal driven, in a very broad sense (the goal being survival/propagation). The point being, “teleology” doesn’t require consciousness.

Ok, what I mean by teleology in this context is that free choices are explained teleologically. Consider the movements of my fingers as I´m typing this response to you. The explanation of the movements of my fingers is teleological. My choice to type this text is explained in terms of purposes and reasons, and that is a teleological explanation. If you deny that we make uncaused choices which are explained teleologically in terms of purposes and reasons, you must believe that the explanation of my fingers moving right now has no final reference to my purposes and reasons. And that is a remarkable thing to believe. So, I think that our choices have teleological explanation. This is different and incompatible with causal explanations. But only causal explanations are allowed by naturalism. Therefore the fact that we make free choices which have teleological explanations counts against naturalism.

But not only that, consciousness simply CANNOT be fundamental to existence because nothing can be conscious unless it first exists. God’s nature cannot be a product of his consciousness; his nature is logically and metaphysically prior to his consciousness . . . A mind cannot “think” itself into existence; it must exist first. In order to exist, it must be SOMETHING and not something else. In order for a thing to be something and not something else, it must have a nature. That nature “determines” the form of its existence, and the nature of the “ultimate thing” obviously cannot be created or shaped by mind (’cause that would lead to an infinite regress). All causal chains end in non-mind, even theistic ones and that’s why these types of arguments always fail.

Why on earth anyone should believe in that? Isn´t it essential to God´s nature that he is a person? And isn´t is essential to being a person that one has mental states such as beliefs, thoughts and desires, i.e., one is conscious! So it´s an essential property of God that he is a conscious person.

“All causal chains end in non-mind…” Why is that? To me you are just assuming naturalism. If theism is true, all causal chains end in mind! This is because, as I explained, God is the ultimate brute fact, the unmoved mover, and it´s essential to God that he is a conscious person. So the picture is precisely opposite of what you´re saying. Given naturalism, all intentional and mental events must be explained in terms of unintentional, physical causes. But, the picture turns upside down in theism. Given theism, all unintentional and physical events must ultimately be explained in terms of intentional and mental causes! So I´m not following you there.

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MichaelPJ July 30, 2010 at 9:44 am

@Thomas

Maybe this is just my naturalistic prejudices taking over, but I’m also finding your argument pretty hard to make sense of.

For example:
“It is a necessary condition of consciousness that it belongs to a person/subject. There cannot be thoughts, pains, sensations, beliefs, desires, volitions floating around without a 1st person subject which they belong to. So if consciousness is fundamental, it must belong to a person.”

I believe the claim was that the capacity for consciousness must be fundamental.
Even if consciousness must belong to a person, that does not require us to postulate some fundamental person just because consciousness is fundamental. We can have some perfectly naturalistic account of a person, and then note that the things which have this fundamental property of consciousness (say) are a subset of the things which are persons. The claim is not that actual consciousness is present right the way through the universe, merely that the capacity for it is. If that sounds like panpsychism to you, then maybe panpsychism isn’t so crazy.

You also say:
“Let´s assume that irreducible consciousness exists and naturalism is true. And let´s ask the question “where did this consciousness come from?” or “how could consciousness emerge in the middle of a physical and natural world?”. If it just popped up into existence out of physical processess, it would be getting something from nothing.”

Surely we can ask exactly the same question of God? You seem to be suggesting that this sort of brute answer is fine in the case of theism because consciousness is “natural” in theism. Why can’t consciousness be “natural” in naturalism? “Where does consciousness come from?” I don’t know. Where does electric charge come from?
Even if consciousness is “unnatural” in naturalism, it is deeply unclear to me why adding God would make it “natural”. All you’ve done is push the explanation back a step.

All of the above is conditional on accepting your dualist, libertarian positions. For me personally, I think all of those have been refuted in many other places, so I don’t even accept your premisses.

Regarding freedom, you say:
“If you deny that we make uncaused choices which are explained teleologically in terms of purposes and reasons, you must believe that the explanation of my fingers moving right now has no final reference to my purposes and reasons. And that is a remarkable thing to believe.”

I believe most philosophers are compatibilists about free will. So look up any philosophy department and you will see many people who find it quite easy to believe that remarkable thing.
Furthermore, you misrepresent it. The fact that a tree falling on you can be explained entirely in the language of physics does not make the explanation “it fell because it was rotten and the winds were high” any less valid. “Final reference” is overrated.

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MichaelPJ July 30, 2010 at 9:45 am

I’m really not sure how my reply to Thomas’ post managed to get above him in the thread…

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Bill Snedden July 30, 2010 at 1:53 pm

@Thomas:

Yes, but the argument I gave assumes that there are irreducible mental properties and libertarian free will. It is a “if – then” -argument. If property dualism is true, then this gives evidence for theism.

Well, no I don’t think it does. I believe Chalmers position is probably most closely aligned with property dualism and he certainly doesn’t find it evidence for theism. It could be the case that consciousness is an emergent property of particular arrangements of matter. Even substance dualism wouldn’t be de facto evidence for theism. It could simply be the case that “mental properties” are fundamental parts of existence. Panpsychism that may be, but it’s not theism.

“By causal closure I understand the principle which says that for every physical event there must be a physical cause. But if the physical event which causes my fingers to move now when I´m typing this text is itself caused my a non-physical mental event (my choice to write this text – a choice is a mental action), then that violates the causal closure -principle.

Okay. What caused the non-physical event? What caused your choice? This is my point. There’s going to be a closure at SOME level. And if we drill down far enough, we’re going to find that the closure will (MUST) occur in the non-mental.

If we make free, uncaused choices (I´m a noncausal libertarian), then this seems to be in odds with naturalism, because there are physical events happening all the time which have non-physical mental causes.

Non-physical mental causes that don’t themselves have causes? This position would also seem to be at odds with reason, logic, and reality. The notion of an “uncaused choice” is simply incoherent.

My choice to type this text is explained in terms of purposes and reasons, and that is a teleological explanation. If you deny that we make uncaused choices which are explained teleologically in terms of purposes and reasons, you must believe that the explanation of my fingers moving right now has no final reference to my purposes and reasons. And that is a remarkable thing to believe.

Yes, but what caused your “purposes and reasons”, or are they simply random expressions of consciousness? That seems to me an equally remarkable thing to believe.

A “choice” is the result of mental evaluation between two or more differing options. The ability to choose requires a pre-existing framework of values against which options are evaluated. That pre-existing framework is not itself a choice, but is constructed from the results of all previous choices and experiences of the agent as well as the nature of the agent in question. “Reasons and purposes” are therefore the result of a lifetime of accumulation of experience and the biological/metaphysical nature of the agent.

It seems to me that you’re not delving as deeply into the causal chain as is necessary. Causal chains don’t stop at “reasons and purposes”. Those things must have have causes themselves or they could not properly be tied to the subject expressing them. If you continue to ask “why?” in determining cause, eventually you’re going to get down to the nature of the agent (because the nature of the agent necessarily constrains the types of experiences and choices possible); and that’s non-mental.

So, I think that our choices have teleological explanation. This is different and incompatible with causal explanations. But only causal explanations are allowed by naturalism. Therefore the fact that we make free choices which have teleological explanations counts against naturalism.

Well, no it doesn’t. “Reasons and purposes” do not necessarily have ultimate non-mental causes.

Why on earth anyone should believe in that?

Because it’s true? ;)

Isn´t it essential to God´s nature that he is a person? And isn´t is essential to being a person that one has mental states such as beliefs, thoughts and desires, i.e., one is conscious! So it´s an essential property of God that he is a conscious person.

True, but irrelevant. His consciousness did not and could not cause itself. His choices are not random expressions.

“All causal chains end in non-mind…” Why is that? To me you are just assuming naturalism. If theism is true, all causal chains end in mind! This is because, as I explained, God is the ultimate brute fact, the unmoved mover, and it´s essential to God that he is a conscious person. So the picture is precisely opposite of what you´re saying. Given naturalism, all intentional and mental events must be explained in terms of unintentional, physical causes. But, the picture turns upside down in theism. Given theism, all unintentional and physical events must ultimately be explained in terms of intentional and mental causes! So I´m not following you there.

Perhaps this will help. God obviously cannot have created himself for that would be a contradiction in terms. God’s essential characteristics therefore, exist necessarily. He has no control over them, cannot change them, cannot will them to be different, etc. God’s nature (the characteristics or elements of his person that make “god” god), therefore, is NOT under the creative power or control of his will (’cause if it was, he could “ungod” himself and that would be a contradiction). God’s nature does not therefore have a mental cause. All of God’s intentions, choices, etc. have their ultimate cause in his nature and as his nature is non-mental, the ultimate cause of existence, therefore, must necessarily be non-mental. QED. :D

I’m not saying that God is not a person, or that consciousness is not one of his essential characteristics, I’m saying that his nature cannot itself be a product of his mind as that would require that he pre-exist himself. God’s nature exists (as does existence, for naturalists) as a brute fact and brute facts cannot be the products of consciousness (or else they wouldn’t be, you know, brute facts).

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Thomas July 30, 2010 at 2:38 pm

@Matthew D. Johnston:

You have put this into a philosophical framework by appealing to ontology (you have to start from somewhere) which, to you, but not to me, eliminates the objection that you have not actually explained the existence of consciousness or free will – which is what I thought we were trying to do in the first place.

Yeah, maybe we just have to disagree here. Like I said, you may not find my explanation plausible because you´re assuming that a good explanation must be a natural scientific explanation in terms of initial causal conditions and relevant laws of nature.

The ultimate explanation for consciousness is, given theism, that consciousness is indeed fundamental and basic in existence. And this is where I think that the explanatory power of theism is greater than the one of naturalism. Given this, what explains the instantiation of consciousness in human beings (and animals)? This is not a natural scientific explanation, but a personal explanation. God chose freely to create other conscious beings in order to have a loving relationship with them and give them the pleasure of experiencing joy and happiness. I´m aware that this is not the explanation you´re looking, but that is just because you´re assuming a natural scientific explanation.

Per the Moreland quote, could you explain to me how the existence of consciousness and free will is explainable in more basic terms by theism than naturalism, since theism assumes, as a starting point, the unexplained existence of consciousness and free will?

Yes, you are right, theism doesn´t explain them in more basic terms, because they are basic in theism. But this is ok given theism since they are natural in theism. But we are talking about the instantiation of human and animal consciousness here. Theism explains that via a divine personal explanation.

Also, I think the naturalistic hypothesis could use clarification here. I don’t think anyone arguing for naturalism would claim that consciousness itself is basic to the universe, but rather than the capacity for it is. Consciousness doesn’t just “pop” into existence from unrelated stuff, anymore than planets just “pop” into existence from unrelated stuff.

Now this is interesting. Let´s assume that irreducible consciousness exists and naturalism is true. And let´s ask the question “where did this consciousness come from?” or “how could consciousness emerge in the middle of a physical and natural world?”. If it just popped up into existence out of physical processess, it would be getting something from nothing. And you agree with this! In order for consciousness to emerge from matter, there must be the potentiality of consciousness in the matter. So what you´re saying basically is that there is somekind of potentiality of consciousness in matter which actualized when the brain developed enough. But this is somekind of panpsychism! If there is the potentiality of mental in the matter, then we aren´t talking about naturalism anymore, we are talking about panpsychism. Thomas Nagel agrees with me:

“One unsettling consequence of such a theory [of mental/physical duality] is that it appears to lead to a form of panpsychism-since the mental properties of the complex organism must result from some properties of its basic components, suitably combined; and these cannot be merely physical properties or else in combination they will yield nothing but other physical properties. If any two hundred pound chunk of the universe contains the material needed to construct a person, and if we deny both psychophysical reductionism and a radical form of emergence, then everything, reduced to it´s elements, must have proto-mental properties.” (Thomas Nagel, The View From Nowhere, 49)

You seem to believe that consciousness and free will (if it exists) are independent of brain function (correlated, surely, but you have to believe that a brain can exist without consciousness since consciousness is not natural and therefore must be imparted by God). So here it is: Do all people have consciousness/free will? Do animals (and if so, which ones)? Did our ancestors and evolutionary relatives (homo erectus, neaderthals, etc.)? How does God choose which biological beings (with brains) to impart this tremendous gift to? Is there some scientific test we could perform to determine which brains have consciousness and which don’t?

I´m a non-Cartesian substance dualist. Surely animals (“higher” mammals, at least) have consciousness, free will maybe not. But I haven´t thought this very much. How does God choose who gets consciousness? I don´t know! I think this is getting of the track. The argument from consciousness assumes only property dualism, not substance dualism. So Kim, Chalmers, Searle, etc. would have to accept the starting point of the argument. My answer to most of your questions above, then, is I don´t know!

And lastly, of course, is it not more natural to assume that the capacity for consciousness is fundamental to the universe than that there is some deity, whose own consciousness and free will is unexplained, randomly imparting or restricting access to consciousness in ways which are empirically indistinguishable from the aforementioned hypothesis?

No, and here´s why. It is a necessary condition of consciousness that it belongs to a person/subject. There cannot be thoughts, pains, sensations, beliefs, desires, volitions floating around without a 1st person subject which they belong to. So if consciousness is fundamental, it must belong to a person. Moreland explains this and the kind of argument I´m talking about in this short CloserToTruth interview: http://www.closertotruth.com/video-profile/Arguing-God-from-Consciousness-J-P-Moreland-/1168

Take care.

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Zeb July 31, 2010 at 5:03 am

Thomas, you are rocking this thread. I’m saving this for future reference in other conversations.

Bill is making a good argument that needs to be addressed head on. Commonly people do seem to have a sort of compatibilist conception of the will: free will means you do whatever you want – which means your choices are caused by your desires. And desires, whether acquired or inherent, are an unchosen part of one’s nature. We libertarians need to bite the bullet and say up front that there is not (and cannot be) a reason why any free choice is made. Sure, one may have chosen X in pursuit of purpose Y, but then why did one choose purpose Y? I can only see two possibilities – as Bill suggests, given a certain range of available purposes, it is one’s nature to choose purpose Y; or THERE IS NO REASON (except in the case that purpose Y is a means toward pursuing purpose Z, but of course that doesn’t change the problem). And so I think we libertarians must argue that a person not only chooses his purposes freely, but at least to a limited degree creates his own nature. Which is not so outlandish, in my opinion. In almost every narrative (including the ones we tell about ourselves and other real people), a character has to make at least one crucial choice that determines what kind of person he is. It is our experience, for example, that we choose whether to be good or evil. So I find reason to believe that persons do to an extent create their own nature through their free choices. And so I disagree, Bill, that God cannot create his own nature, and that his nature cannot have a mental cause.

More and more I think that there are some really basic assumption binaries that separate thoughtful atheists from thoughtful theists, and I don’t know if there are really good reasons why one ought to choose one or the other in these pairs. This discussion for example – either is person is what he does, or a person does what he is. Of course we see both situations, but ultimately which is it? Another binary is mechanical versus narrative views of reality – either the narrative reality we experience is situated in and created by an ultimately mechanistic world, or the mechanistic world is situated in the narrative reality we experience. If the former is true, naturalistic explanations will be the ultimate answers; if the latter is true personal and teleological explanations will be the ultimate answers. I’m not sure why anyone, including myself, makes the choices they do on the binaries (I haven’t seen convincing arguments for either), but once we do choose it seems we end up talking past each other. At least in this thread you guys have come down to the root of the difference, and I can understand why we disagree given the root assumptions. Or can we go deeper, and find mutually convincing reason to choose one view or the other?

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Thomas August 1, 2010 at 7:45 am

Thank you once again, Bill, for your thoughtful answer. I´d have (not surprisingly) a lot to say to you, but unfortunately I don´t have the time needed at the moment. I may come back with an answer still, though.

But there is one thing I must clarify now, and that is about uncaused choices. You said:

Non-physical mental causes that don’t themselves have causes? This position would also seem to be at odds with reason, logic, and reality. The notion of an “uncaused choice” is simply incoherent.

Ok, I´m well aware that this is a minority position, but it certainly isn´t “at odds with reason, logic and reality”. Most libertarians believe in agent-causation, but the kind of libertarianism I´m defending here is called noncausal libertarianism. The idea is this: When an agent is being a mental agent (in contrast to a mental patient), he has certain mental powers which he can exercise. This exercising of a mental power is essentially intrinsically active, and therefore it is essentially uncaused or lacking an efficient cause (this is a conceptual truth). On the contrary, when an agent is being a mental patient, he has certain mental capacities which can be actualized. This actualization of a mental capacity, then, is intrinsically passive, and therefore it´s essentially caused or produced.

Now, a desire or a belief is an actualization of a mental capacity in an agent. Therefore a desire is a caused event. But choices are different. A choice is a mental action (not a mental passion) specified in terms of agent´s possession of the power to choose and his exercising of that power. And this exercising of a mental power is intrinsically active and therefore by nature lacks an efficient cause. Stewart Goetz says,

“On a noncausal view of libertarian freedom . . . the power to choose is ontologically a fundamental and irreducible mental property of an agent, where the exercising of that power by the agent is a primitive or simple event in the sense that is has no event parts (it lacks an internal causal structure) and is intrinsically active and, thereby, essentially uncaused.” (Stewart Goetz, 2008, 8-9)

So on noncausal libertarianism, choices themselves are uncaused (intrinsically active and simple exercisings of mental powers by an agent). Now this does not mean that uncaused choices are therefore somehow chaotic or random. This is because although the choices do not have causes, they do have explanations. They are explained in terms of reasons and purposes for choosing to act, and thereby uncaused choices have teleological explanations. So, free choices are uncaused and the same time explained teleologically by purposes and reasons.

I cannot defend this position here; I merely wanted to show that noncausal libertarianism is not “at odds” with reason or “simply incoherent”. We are actually directly aware of making uncaused free choices all the time. A book lenght defence of this position is Goetz´s Freedom, Teleology, and Evil (Continuum, 2008). I highly recommend that book. Shorter (and cheaper) defence of noncausal agency by Goetz is here: http://www.independent.org/newsroom/article.asp?id=1756 .

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Bill Snedden August 2, 2010 at 12:11 pm

@Zeb:

And so I think we libertarians must argue that a person not only chooses his purposes freely, but at least to a limited degree creates his own nature. Which is not so outlandish, in my opinion. In almost every narrative (including the ones we tell about ourselves and other real people), a character has to make at least one crucial choice that determines what kind of person he is. It is our experience, for example, that we choose whether to be good or evil. So I find reason to believe that persons do to an extent create their own nature through their free choices. And so I disagree, Bill, that God cannot create his own nature, and that his nature cannot have a mental cause.

There are three objections (at least) that I can raise in response to the above.

The first is to note that in classical (orthodox) Christian doctrine, the nature of God is eternal and immutable. Therefore it is doctrinally part of the definition of “God” that he does not change or create his nature. The only “escape” from this of which I’m aware is so-called “open” theism which, while heterodox, would seem to offer at least the possibility that God’s lack of future knowledge might allow his choices to form part of his future character or nature. However, I’ve never heard any open theist argue for this (not surprising; I believe I’ve corresponded with a grand total of three or four in my online sojourns).

Secondly, I think it’s important here to distinguish between the nature of an existent and its character (which is something really only applicable to a subject). Our choices do determine, in some fashion, the person we become. But this is not necessarily a change in nature but rather a change in character.

As I am using these terms, nature belongs to the realm of metaphysics, while character belongs to the realm of psychology.

The nature of an existent is that set of characteristics that set that existent apart from other existents. As I noted earlier, to be is to be something. For example, it is the nature of human beings to be moral agents. We cannot change this without ceasing to be human beings. With respect to this fundamental element of our nature, we are unable, no matter what decisions or experiences we may have in the future, to alter it without becoming something other than what we are. So God could not alter those fundamental aspects of his existence (his nature) without becoming other than God.

The character of a person is essentially the sum total of all of his/her experiences so our choices and the results of those choices do play a part in determining our character which does in turn factor into our future choices. But I would note that your statement, “…a character has to make at least one crucial choice that determines what kind of person he is.” is not wholly correct. This “crucial choice” does not determine what kind of person he is“, but rather “what kind of person he will be. The crucial choice is a result of the kind of person he already is and its result will play into the kind of person he becomes.

Which brings me to my third objection. As the nature of any existent is that set of characteristics without which it cannot be instantiated, it is simply impossible for any existent to create its own nature. Even if it were the case that an existent could change its nature, it would have to be the case that such an existent would be changing from its current nature to a new nature and thus while open theists might argue that God can change his nature, they could never argue that God can create his own nature.

And if it is the case that God cannot create his own nature it is the case that no existent can create its own nature. And if no existent can create its own nature, then it must be the case that the nature of existence cannot have a mental cause.

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Bill Snedden August 2, 2010 at 12:37 pm

@Thomas:

I merely wanted to show that noncausal libertarianism is not “at odds” with reason or “simply incoherent”.

I’ve read your post and I’ve read the links you gave to the “short form” of Goetz’ argument as well as some other stuff I was able to uncover on my own, and, most charitably, I remain unconvinced. I saw nothing in Goetz writing that changed my opinion on the utter incoherence of “non-causal libertarianism”. Goetz writing seems, at best, self-contradictory. I’m not surprised that it’s a minority position among philosophers.

To raise just one points out of many possible ones, while Goetz claims that his argument shows free choices to be non-casual, He explicitly notes that decisions are driven by “reasons and purposes”. He appears to be labeling his “irreducible mental power as “non-causal” simply because it appears, to him, to lack an “efficient cause” while ignoring the fact that, as
Aristotle noted almost two millenia ago, a telos is still a cause. Not only that, he never addresses how or why these “reasons and purposes” develop nor how they can be connected to choices without causes. It’s kind of difficult for me to take an argument seriously that doesn’t even appear to support its own conclusion…

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Bill Snedden August 3, 2010 at 5:20 am

@Thomas: I’ve re-read what I wrote, above, and realized that it sounds rather brusque. That was not my intention. I wrote it in between some encounters with uncooperative SQL queries and some of my frustration may have worked its way into the post. My opinions haven’t changed, I just don’t want to come across as quite that much of a jerk. ;)

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Zeb August 3, 2010 at 6:01 am

Bill, what you have said is very interesting and a lot to think about, and I’m afraid I might not be able to make time to give a fair and complete response for a while. I do have some challenges in mind, and a couple questions, so if you keep an eye on this thread I will get back to you.

I’ll tell you the direction I want to head is to say that freely chosen actualization from unlimited potential is a way to choose one’s nature without changing it, at least when that choice (or “will”) is eternal and unchanging. More explanation of that to come.

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Hermes August 3, 2010 at 6:09 am

Zeb, sounds like Sybil or an actor putting on a one-person show.

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Bill Snedden August 5, 2010 at 10:10 am

@Zeb: I look forward to your response, however I’m skeptical that you’ll find a way to overcome the self-referential contradiction inherent in your argument: that one can choose/change one’s nature before one exists (as “having a nature” is an essential requirement for instantiation in reality).

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