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Can We Actually Know Anything About God?

TheAlmighty

Can we actually know anything about God?

This is one of the most fundamental questions, and many people, particularly agnostics, will say “no.” The argument tends to go something like this: God, if there is a God, is so far removed from human experience and knowledge that there’s nothing that we can say about Him (or Her or It). Another variation: the only way to verify our knowledge about God would be to die and find out if Heaven and Hell exist; for those of us still alive, we can’t be sure.

So what can we believers, and particularly we Christians, say to these objections?

I. The Objections to God’s Knowability are Self-Refuting

In an earlier post, I pointed out that one of the ways that we can establish the existence of absolute, knowable truth is by showing that statements like “Absolute truth does not exist,” “We can’t know anything for certain,” “I don’t know if we can know anything for certain,” and “All truth is empirically or scientifically testable” are self-refuting. If you haven’t read it, or want a refresher, I encourage you to check it out, because this post builds upon that line of argumentation.

But what do I mean to say that these objections are self-refuting? I mean that to claim that God is unknowable is (a) to claim that we cannot know His attributes, and (b) to assign Him an attribute, unknowability.

Obviously, (a) and (b) can’t both be true. If you tell me, “I can’t tell you anything about my neighbor, because he’s so introverted that we hardly speak,” you’ve just told me something about your neighbor. Here, the agnostic is basically calling God a cosmic introvert who keeps to Himself so radically that we can’t know anything about Him. If that were true, we couldn’t know Him to be an introvert.

II. Something about God can be Known from Creation

Causality tells us quite a bit more than we tend to acknowledge. To show this, I want to point out a few basic aspects of causation.

If you open your umbrella, and it suddenly explodes, the first thing that we can establish is that the cause was something capable of causing an umbrella to explode. That point seems so basic as to be unworthy of mention. But it actually tells us quite a bit, and it’s a universal truth that we can describe this way: if X caused Y, X must be the sort of thing capable of causing Y. 

The second thing that we should notice is that an effect can’t be greater than its cause (or the sum of its causes, in the case of things with multiple causes). Or conversely, every cause must be equal or greater to its effects. If you’ve got 8 ounces of juice, you didn’t get that just from squeezing two 3 ounce oranges. The equal or greater part here is important. Whoever left $50 on your table must have had at least $50, but could have started with much more.

Finally, everything present in the effect must be present (at least in potency) in the cause. This is really just the logical implication of our first rule, stated more explicitly. If you start with just a few strips of uncooked bacon, you can’t end up with a peanut butter sandwich. It’s not a question of whether bacon or peanut butter is superior. It’s just a recognition that bacon isn’t the type of thing that has the potential to become a peanut butter sandwich.

Here again, I’m pointing out things so basic that they ought to be uncontroversial. But these insights turn out to be of great importance when you look at the entire universe. And here, I really do mean the entire universe: the natural phenomena like subatomic particles and chimpanzees and supernovas and beautiful sunsets, but also the manmade bits like iPhones and symphonies. Even these human artifacts are the product of human ingenuity, and humans are creatures (created beings). If you say that iPhones were created by Steve Jobs, you have to explain what created the creature Steve Jobs.

Anyone who knows Aquinas’ Five Ways should recognize this line of argumentation, and the way that it points to an Uncaused Cause. Instead of tracing those familiar lines, let me just point out a few of the implications that you might not have considered. First, we’re looking for the sort of Cause capable of creating an entire universe (not just “sparking” a cosmic chain of events, mind you, but keeping all of reality in existence at every moment). Second, we can see that the universe was caused by something equal to or greater than the entire universe, combined. And finally, everything in the universe must be present in some way in the Cause. This doesn’t just point to God, but a specific sort of God.

We’re looking here at an intelligent and personal Creator: since He created personality and intelligence, He must possess at least this much. And He must be good, because He’s the cause of goodness; the same for love and the rest. Now here, I anticipate an objection from certain shrewd non-believers: namely, if we can say that God is good because He is the cause of goodness, why can’t we equally well say that He is evil, if He is the cause of evil?

There are a lot of answers to this: a simple explanation would be that a great artist can make a bad work of art, but a bad artist can’t make a great work of art.  The same Picasso who achieved a masterpiece in Science and Charity while a young teenager went on to make junk like Bather Opening a Cabin. The second piece could have been made by a great or terrible artist; but the first betrays Picasso’s oft-hidden genius. A great God could create a universe with things inferior to Himself. A lousy god couldn’t create a universe with things greater than himself (since that would violate our second rule).

If we want to go deeper into metaphysics, evil is a privation, a sort of metaphysical parasite on good, without any ontological existence of its own. Also (and this is clearer if you’re willing to look at revelation), God isn’t the cause of evil, which is why Christians and Jews ascribe the existence of moral evil to man’s turning away from the all-good God, not to any fault within God. So the objection is faulty in how it understands both evil and its relationship to the Creator.

III. The Best Way to Get to Know God

Thus far, we’ve looked at the way that human reason can arrive at sure knowledge of God’s existence, and come to know some things about Him. But there’s a limitation in all of this: we’re working from creation towards the Creator. If you’ll permit the analogy, we’re acting a bit like detectives at a crime scene. In the same way that a Sherlock Holmes or CSI type might conclude from the evidence left at the scene that the killer must have been left-handed, just under 6 feet tall, and a cat owner, we’ve found that the Creator of the universe is a personal and loving God greater than the whole universe. But at this point, we still don’t know God, just as the detective still doesn’t actually know the killer: we just know about God. And those aren’t the same thing.

To know God, something more than our effort is required. What’s required is for God to reveal Himself. Reason tells us that the God we’re describing is the type to reveal Himself, since He (a) loves us, (b) created us with a desire to know and love Him, and (c) is powerful enough to bring it about. But reason alone can’t tell us whether or not He actually did. Fortunately, history can answer that question.

Thank God, Jesus Christ — God Himself — entered into history. In the first century, He went around publicly (a) claiming Divinity for Himself while (b) proclaiming moral truths that even a great many non-believers (like Jefferson and Gandhi) recognize as a source of invaluable wisdom. Eventually, His enemies had enough of Him and (c) He was publicly tried, executed, and buried. Shortly thereafter, (d) He rose from the dead, a fact confirmed both by the Empty Tomb in which He was buried, and the testimony of several eyewitnesses who saw His risen [These eyewitnesses were cruelly tortured and executed, and yet not one of them recanted].

This evidence, taken together, points to a single conclusion: Jesus of Nazareth really was (and is) who He claims to be. That’s not a blind act of faith, but a reasonable assessment of the historical evidence: the full historical evidence, including writings written by both supporters and opponents of Christ’s. But all of this also brings us to a sort of “jumping off” point, because what’s needed here is an act of faith. We saw in Part I that it’s irrational to claim that God is completely unknowable, and in Part II that we can come to know certain (admittedly limited) things about God. But to get beyond this, to get to really know Him, you need to do what you would do with anyone else you want to get to know: have a conversation.

At a certain point, your answer won’t come in a book (or a blog post) about Him, but in dialogue with Him on your knees. Share with Him your doubts and struggles, express your love for Him, admit your faults and shortcomings, and embrace Him as your Lord. That’s not the end of the spiritual life, of course, but it’s a great way to start.
 
 
(Image credit: Jan van Eyck, The Almighty (central panel of the Ghent altarpiece), 1432)

Joe Heschmeyer

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Until May 2012, Joe Heschmeyer was an attorney in Washington, D.C., specializing in litigation. These days, he is a seminarian for the Archdiocese of Kansas City, Kansas, and can use all the prayers he can get. Follow Joe through his blog, Shameless Popery or contact him at joseph.heschmeyer@gmail.com.

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  • David Hardy

    In response to part I of this post, I will follow the author's lead and refer back to his prior post, since I elaborated on why I believe his conclusions there are not true, being based on premises that are also not true. I will only add that the claim that it is impossible to know if God exists does not assign God the attribute of being unknowable. That would be the claim that God does exist, and is unknowable. The claim that it is impossible to know is a judgment of whether it appears possible, based on the apparent limits of evidence, to ever form a strong conclusion on the existence of God. It is therefore not self-refuting in the way the author suggests.

    On the second part, I will briefly restate a position I offered in the comments of the article "Can Something Actually Cause Itself To Exist?". As I understand it, as we explore more basic levels of existence, from molecular to atomic to subatomic, what we see is that matter is not so much different things that come into being and then are destroyed, but rather the same particles changing in their arrangement. Therefore, it is conceivable that the most basic universal parts are neither created nor destroyed, and so assuming causation and sustaining is necessary for them may not be accurate.

    However, I will add in regards to this particular article that I differ strongly in some areas relative to the author. I would not expect the fundamental source or foundation of the universe to have intelligence or morality. The only place I observe intelligence and morality are in creatures with complex nervous systems, which developed long after many other parts of the universe. Likewise, investigations into the basic matter of the universe are moving to increasing levels of simplicity, with particles that make up more complex particles. Therefore, in both time and space, intelligence and morality do not appear to be source or foundational formations. While I might agree that everything that does exist must have the potential to exist, to me this indicates only that the basic substance of the universe must have the potential to organize into everything that exists, not that it possesses the characteristics of that which exists.

    On the last part, Jesus is by no means unique in his claim to be divine, nor the only one to have others attest to their miraculous actions or even survival beyond death, even in the fact of persecution. Consider Tibetan Buddhism, a tradition filled with claims of enlightened masters demonstrating miraculous powers, communicating in spirit form after death, and reincarnating into new forms. This tradition also holds many ethical teachings similar to those of Christianity, and many Tibetan Buddhists have experienced torture and death for upholding these beliefs. Should we infer, therefore, that the current teachers in this tradition truly are transcendent beings who have reincarnated multiple times in the world, because they are moral and have followers who attest to their miraculous powers even under torture and death? If so, this does not seem to match Christianity's claims about what happens after death. If not, then what, specifically, makes the claims of Tibetan Buddhists less credible?

    • Aquinasbot

      Forgive me if I am not responding with enough context from your previous posts, but you said:

      "While I might agree that everything that does exist must have the potential to exist, to me this indicates only that the basic substance of the universe must have the potential to organize into everything that exists, not that it possesses the characteristics of that which exists."

      You concede that it must have the potential but rather than say the substance of the universe moves from potential to actual you instead say "organize into everything that exists." I don't see how that really solves the problem, for to organize is itself is simply to say that it move from potential to actual and if we're looking at this from the Aristotelian-Thomism perspective, the substance that has the potential to organize into whatever must because actualized by something that already possesses that which it actualizes. This is unavoidable as it is an undeniably true fact about our world, namely that a thing exists actually or potentially, regardless of how primordial the thing you're referring to is.

      • David Hardy

        Could you please clarify what you mean by "must be actualized by something that already possesses that which it actualizes?" I would appreciate a specific, concrete example that demonstrates this principle. I will be happy to respond more fully to the argument once I am sure I grasp it.

        To try and respond, I believe that things organize according to their nature, in a way far more akin to mechanical processes that what I see when a mind re-organizes things for its own purposes. Things organizing according to their nature does not appear to me to require the intervention of intelligence, while it seems that intelligence is the result of a natural possible organization of matter.

        • Aquinasbot

          Sure and sorry for not responding sooner. In order for somethings potential to be actualized it must be actualized by something that already possesses the thing that it actualizes in the thing that had the potential.

          An example of this would be room temperature water having the potential to be boiling water.

          In order for this potential to be actualized something must already posses the heat. Fire already possesses this and thus can actualize the room temp waters potential to be hot. The hot water exists potentially, but it does not have the power within itself to actualize that potential, it must occur from something external to it in order to be be actualized and that thing that is external to it must already posses it actually.

          So just to be clear, the thing that actualizes must obviously be actualized with regard to the thing were speaking about (heat in this case).

          • David Hardy

            Thank you for the clarification. If I understand correctly, you are taking the position that intelligence is a quality, like heat, that must be transferred into something that already possesses it in order to actualize it. Actually, I can, in one sense, agree, since conversation and interaction does promote mental processes. However, I do not think this principle can be considered universal. As one example, coal can be compressed into diamonds. The force compressing it does not need to possess any of the traits of a diamond to transform the coal into a diamond. Intelligence, likewise, seems to arise out of the organization of the neural system, rather than be something that operates like heat, being transferred between things and not tied fundamentally to the organization of the object itself.

          • Aquinasbot

            Thank you for your reply.

            You said, " I do not think this principle can be considered universal. As one example, coal can be compressed into diamonds. The force compressing it does not need to possess any of the traits of a diamond to transform the coal into a diamond. "

            Actually diamonds are formed from carbon carrying minerals that crystallize under high pressure and heat. And you're right that the accidental features of "being a diamond" are not present in either the heat and/or the pressure. However this sort of misses the point but I can see why. The water example was simple enough, but diamonds are a bit more complex. The carbon-carrying minerals that end up being diamonds have a potential to become diamonds, that is they "point to" being a diamond. What is required for this to happen is that the potential to be a diamond be actualized and what is a diamond after all? It's crystallized minerals that are formed from high pressure and high heat, so in order to be a diamond the pressure and heat are required and the rest of its features exist within itself already, what is missing is simply the pressure and heat. So this potential is actuated by the heat and pressure precisely because that is what is needed for it to become a diamond, it did not have the power within itself to actualize this potential, it had to be actualized by something that possessed that which COULD actualize its potential.

            To say that intelligence is simply the organization of our neural system doesn't say whether or not one has the potential to have intelligence that can be actualized. I have the potency (to use the classical term) to know French, however this potential can only be actuated by some form of teaching whereby intelligence is transferred, say in the case of a tutor who already possesses the knowledge to speak French.

          • David Hardy

            Now that I better understand, I would stand by my point. There is no reason to think that intelligence in living things required a prior intelligence to actualize. In the past few years, scientists have managed to create the basic components of DNA out of conditions that did not involve prior life. This proves the concept that life can originate (be actualized, as you would say), through the right environmental conditions. In the same way as the diamond, the basic material must be there, but neither than material nor the conditions that transform it inherently possess a mind. The development of intelligence is then shown through progressively complex neural systems in life over time, actualized by a range of environmental conditions.

            To move back to the original point on basic particles, suppose a part of their nature is to respond to each other, or that several different types exist, each uncaused in terms of their existence? They would then actualize each other, organizing in a way that depends on the number and type of other particles, as well as possibly by the conditions being established by previous organization within the system.

          • Aquinasbot

            You said: " suppose a part of their nature is to respond to each other, or that
            several different types exist, each uncaused in terms of their
            existence? They would then actualize each other, organizing in a way
            that depends on the number and type of other particles, as well as
            possibly by the conditions being established by previous organization
            within the system."

            This just pushes the issue back a step. That any of them went from one state to another shows that they had to have the potential to move from one state to another, so yes it IS perfectly possible that 5 different "things" require each other actualize, but this establishes my point.

            Creating synthetic DNA is no exception to this. The synthetic DNA still requires the organization + knowledge of the chemical material that makes them up, which building blocks that we know exist have the potential to be created into synthetic DNA and actualized in several ways.

          • David Hardy

            It does not push the issue back a step. That would be the base point. Basic building blocks that are neither created nor destroyed, indicating time is in fact infinite, and matter does not, at its basic level, require a cause, and that the organization arises in the universe because it is inherent in the nature of the universe to organize.

            Perhaps it would help if I expand on my point with this example. My point is not that this is necessarily how the universe operates, but rather that this is a feasible way for the universe to operate. If I were to connect it to the idea of God, one could say that God is neither created nor destroyed, and exists outside of time and space, which bring a sense of limitless infinity, and the universe arose as it did because it is in God's nature to organize the universe this way. Our explanations are almost the same. The difference is that I see no way in which the addition of other qualities attributed to God (sentience, for example) is supported by what I observe about the universe (sentience is the result of complex nervous systems, while the universe appears to be built from simplicity). In addition, the idea of God does not resolve any issues about the nature of the universe.

            By synthetic DNA, I assume you mean DNA being synthesized by humans. This is an example of how intelligent beings can reorganize matter through knowledge of its properties. It says nothing of how matter forms and organizes without human interference.

          • Aquinasbot

            Ah, I see where you're coming from and I think there is some confusion about my position.

            My arguments thus far have no dependence on the concept of a Universe is finite. In fact, what I would ultimately argue is that we could assume the Universe is infinite and still see how "causes" are still necessary.

            What the argument is saying is a prior acceptance of the axiom "Change occurs" and acknowledging that requires us to see that a thing can only change if it has the potential to change and that it can only change if it is caused to change (actualized).

            Whether or not the Universe is eternal is of no consequence because the universe itself can only exist in a derivative sense. In other words, it must be actualized here and now by something that is already actual. This cannot go on into infinity otherwise you never have anything purely actual and thus nothing would exist, but that is obviously absurd.

          • David Hardy

            What the argument is saying is a prior acceptance of the axiom "Change occurs" and acknowledging that requires us to see that a thing can only change if it has the potential to change and that it can only change if it is caused to change (actualized).

            What if change is a process that is, itself, infinite? Perhaps to bring in a different view, in Buddhism one of the basic held truths is that all things are impermanent, and that it is the lack of change that is the illusion created by our mind grasping onto similarities. Perhaps the idea that change is not a constant is simply not true. Even with apparently static objects, their are fluctuations at the atomic level helping to maintain it.

            Whether or not the Universe is eternal is of no consequence because the universe itself can only exist in a derivative sense.

            I see no evidence that this is certain in any way. What, specifically, proves the universe to be derivative? The first cause argument assumes that causation must be linear and finite, and tries to insert God as beginning this finite process. While these qualities hold true at the micro-level of personal experience, this is because our experience of causation occurs within the context of our lives, which are linear and finite. It is possible this biases our view.

          • Aquinasbot

            What if change is a process that is, itself, infinite?

            Change involves moving from potential to actual. There cannot be an infinite regress in change because nothing would have ever been actual to begin with, which would make change impossible since change implies a thing already exists in some actuality. So to say change is infinite is to say that nothing can really exist, which is obviously absurd.

            I see no evidence that this is certain in any way. What, specifically,
            proves the universe to be derivative? The first cause argument assumes
            that causation must be linear and finite, and tries to insert God as
            beginning this finite process.

            The Universe is derivative because it exists and existence of some sort relies on deriving its existence from something with more priority, something that possesses that existence already. This is why we ultimately arrive at something that does just have existence but is existence itself, namely God.

            And the first cause argument does not assume causation to be linear. In fact, what I am speaking of does not depend on linear causation at all.

          • David Hardy

            Change involves moving from potential to actual.

            Change involves transformation. There is no need to assume that the new form existed in some potential form prior to the transformation, only that the transformation itself was possible.

            So to say change is infinite is to say that nothing can really exist, which is obviously absurd.

            Or that the universe appears to be in constant transformation, and always has been, and always will be.

            The Universe is derivative because it exists and existence of some sort
            relies on deriving its existence from something with more priority,
            something that possesses that existence already. This is why we
            ultimately arrive at something that does just have existence but is
            existence itself, namely God.

            I do not know what this means, since is seems to imply the existence of the universe is not an example of existence itself. How does one look at existence, and then claim it is not true existence, but must derive from some unseen, more fundamental existence?

  • OverlappingMagisteria

    I think we have to be careful not to play word games with the terms "great" and "greater."

    When Mr. Heschmeyer first speaks of greatness, he says that a cause must be "equal or greater to its effects." By this it seems that he means that a cause must have at least the ability to produce the effect, and possibly more. For example, a 3 ounce orange has the ability to produce 2 oz of juice, and possibly more. The orange is greater only in the sense that it can cause more than just 2 oz of juice.

    The example of bacon demonstrates that the term "great" can easily become muddled. Raw bacon and heat can cause crispy delicious bacon. Therefore, we could say that raw bacon and heat, individually are "greater" than cooked bacon. But this seems strange, since the word "greater" usually means better, bigger, or more powerful, and in terms of food, tastier. The word "greater" is used in a very specific and unusual way.

    So when Mr. Heschmeyer later says that God is greater than the universe, this does not necessarily mean that God is more powerful than the universe, but only that God has the ability to create a universe, and possibly (but not necessarily) other abilities. This is a bit of a tautology if we are defining God as "that which created the universe." Saying that God is "greater than universe" when using this terminology of "greater" is only saying "that which created the universe has, at the very least, the ability to create the universe."

    It also seems strange to say that cause contains the attributes of the effects - for example God created the universe which contains goodness, therefore God contains goodness. Again, let's consider bacon. Cooked bacon is created from raw bacon and heat. Cooked bacon contains crispiness and delicious flavor. Therefore raw bacon and/or heat contain crispiness and delicious flavor? Can we then continue to say that raw bacon and/or heat are both delicious and flavorful?

    No. Raw bacon and/or heat only contain that ability to create cooked bacon that has crispiness and flavor, but do not contain these themselves. Similarly we should only conclude that God has the ability to create a universe that contains goodness, but not that God himself is necessarily good.

  • Sqrat

    If we want to go deeper into metaphysics, evil is a privation, a
    sort of metaphysical parasite on good, without any ontological
    existence of its own. Also (and this is clearer if you’re willing to
    look at revelation), God isn’t the cause of evil, which is
    why Christians and Jews ascribe the existence of moral evil to man’s
    turning away from the all-good God, not to any fault within God. So the
    objection is faulty in how it understands both evil and its relationship
    to the Creator.

    Perhaps if we went even deeper into metaphysics, we might discover that it is good that is the privation, the metaphysical parasite on evil, without any ontological existence on its own. Or perhaps we might discover something entirely different, for example that neither good and evil, in the moral sense, are "things" that have an ontological existence, but are characterizations of behaviors or of persons with a disposition to exhibit certain kinds of behaviors.

    As to the claim that God is not the cause of evil, that seems very much at odds with the understanding that most Christians have of him, which is that he is (a) the creator of all things and (b) possesses omniscience (so that, for example, he knows all of the consequences, immediate and long-term, of his own actions). Thus, if man has turned away from the all-good God, that is something that the all-good God surely knew would happen before he ever created man. Yet he created man anyway (as he always knew he would), knowing with absolute certainty that this turning would be a consequence of his act of creation. So it's all good, including the turning away of man from God the All-Good.

    • Ye Olde Statistician

      we might discover that it is good that is the privation, the metaphysical parasite on evil, without any ontological existence on its own.

      Unlikely, since the good is what all pursue. An archer wants to hit the target. A strategist wants to win the battle. A doctor wants to cure the patient. All these pursue the good insofar as the good is known to them: A good archer is one who hits what he aims at. A bad archer misses what he aims at. We also recognize a hierarchy of goods: one may sacrifice a lesser good in order to achieve a higher one.

      Likewise, life is a good. All organisms, as Darwin pointed out, strive to survive. A privation of life is death. One can easily conceive of life without death; but it is impossible to conceive of death without life. I don't mean you can't mouth the words in a dormitory session, but that you cannot make it coherent. If there is no life, there is no death. But if there is no death, there could very easily be life.

      The ontological priority of the good over its privation can be extended from purely physical goods to moral goods. William of Ockham wrote of life, liberty, and property as three natural goods whose pursuit was recognized by all as good; but there are also circumstances where one may be sacrificed for another. For example, imprisonment is a privation of liberty, an evil. Liberty is not a privation of imprisonment for, other things being equal, no one pursues his own imprisonment. However, a judge may sentence a thief to imprisonment in order to safeguard the properties of the rest of the community. This does not make imprisonment not an evil, but it may make it the "lesser of two evils." But notice that there cannot be theft without property, though there could be property without theft.

      Does this clarify the matter?

      • Sqrat

        An archer wants to hit the target. A strategist wants to win the battle.A doctor wants to cure the patient. All these pursue the good insofar as the good is known to them:

        And (to paraphrase Willie Sutton), a bank robber wants to rob banks, because that's where the money is.

      • OverlappingMagisteria

        One can easily conceive of life without death; but it is impossible to conceive of death without life.

        But this is because the word "death" is a bit of a loaded term. Death is not just a privation of life, as you said, but the cessation of life. So yes, you can't have the cessation of life if there is no life.

        But if we use a non-loaded term then things are much different. Instead of "death" let's use "non-life." (For example, a rock has non-life while a centipede has life.) To examine your examples, it is difficult to think of death without there being life, but easy to consider non-life without life. The opposite of life without death would be non-life without birth - again, easy to imagine. It's true that if there is no life, there is no death, but there is plenty of non-life.

        • Ye Olde Statistician

          the word "death" is a bit of a loaded term. Death is
          not just a privation of life, as you said, but the cessation of life.

          The cessation of life just is a privation of life; viz., a complete privation. Instead of "loaded" we might use a term like, oh, I don't know... "accurate"? But let's change the subject instead...

          Instead of "death" let's use "non-life."

          But of course that is not the same sort of thing. It's like answering a claim that Formula-1 cars are fast by pointing out that snails are slow. Non-life is not a privation of life. There is nothing bad about being a rock.

          For example, a rock has
          non-life while a centipede has life.

          Wait. A rock is inanimate while a centipede is animate? Let me write that insight down in my notebook. By Gum! That may well be why a rock cannot be a bad rock. (I might go further and wonder if a rock is a "thing" at all, but I am agnostic on this score.)

          The rock does possess something that is analogous to life, however. Recall that "life" is a tendency on the part of the animate being to preserve what is proper to itself. It eats, grows and develops, reproduces. If it is an animal, it senses, perceives, feels emotions, and moves as well. All this in aid of the good -- i.e., its survival and reproduction. Evolution acts on these good by culling those organisms with privations in those goods: for example, a gray squirrel who is less adept at evading hawks is a bad gray squirrel and natural selection will cull him sooner or later.

          The analog among inanimate bodies is called "inertia." This is the tendency of the inanimate to preserve what is proper to itself, which is usually some sort of impressed motion, incl. relative rest states. To change the motion we require an external force, a mover.

          it is
          difficult to think of death without there being life, but easy to
          consider non-life without life

          To consider non-what without what? You can't even say non-X without considering X.

          • OverlappingMagisteria

            You have entirely missed my point. I will attempt to clarify, then I'll address some of your statements.
            -----

            What Sqrat was originally pointing out is that it makes just as much sense to think of evil as the existing thing with "good" being the lack of it, as it does to think of good as the existing thing with "evil" being the lack of it. The two are opposite and symmetrical.

            You attempted to refute this by showing that life and death are not symmetrical so the scales tip toward life (good) being the existing thing. The problem is that death is not the opposite of life, so the comparison does not hold. You are right that life and death are not symmetrical concepts, but its kind of rigged that way.

            Death is not truly the opposite of life because life is a state of a thing while death is a transition between states. They are in two different categories. The opposite of life, then, is non-life. Death is the transition from life to non-life. The opposite of death would be the transition from non-life to life: resurrection or abiogenesis (or birth, depending how you look at it).

            So yes. You cannot make sense of death without life, but only because the term "death" smuggles in the concept of life within its definition. This is what I mean by it being a loaded term.

            -----------------------

            The cessation of life just is a privation of life; viz., a complete
            privation. Instead of "loaded" we might use a term like, oh, I don't
            know... "accurate"?

            I completely agree that the cessation of life (death) is a complete privation. But death is more than just that, it is a transition between states, not a state of being. It's a change while life is a state. Non-life, however, is a just privation of life. When something dies, it then has non-life, the privation of life. So they are both accurately privations, but the term "death" is "loaded" because it is not just a state but a transition between states.

            Non-life is not a privation of life. There is nothing bad about being a rock.

            But there is something bad about being a corpse. If you or I were to suddenly have non-life, I'm sure we would consider that bad. So yes, non-life is a privation - it is a lack of something essential to human life, namely, "life."

            it is difficult to think of death without there being life, but easy to consider non-life without life

            To consider non-what without what? You can't even say non-X without considering X.

            You poked fun at me for explaining the obvious (rock = non-life, centipede = life) but it seems that you entirely forgot this concept when you wrote the above statement. Perhaps you should have written it down in your notebook...

            Let's consider non-life without life. Imagine a universe with nothing but rocks (in other words, non-life). Done! You've considered non-life without life! Check your notebook if you're having trouble following along.

            What you're alluding to when saying "non-X without considering X" is only that there is a deficiency in vocabulary and that it is difficult to conceptualize non-life without referencing life. But this does not mean that non-life cannot exist unless there is life, the first 11 billion years of our universe did that.

          • William Davis

            Sadly Flynn is very bad for both poking fun and missing points (usually at the same time)...it can be frustrating :(

          • Ye Olde Statistician

            It can also be great fun.

          • William Davis

            Well, you do seem like you're having fun at least.

          • Mike

            really? you're better than that william.

          • William Davis

            Better than what? Have you ever tried to discuss anything with Michael? If it's a point of view he's familiar with it's no problem, but if it isn't he very often does not seem to understand.

          • Ye Olde Statistician

            I'm not into mystical woo-woo about changes of "state" (unless I am talking physics). The point is that
            a) The good is what all pursue. So a good archer is one who hits what he aims at. Hitting the mark is what he "pursues."
            b) An evil is necessarily to fall short of this. A bad archer is one who misses what he aims at and/or hits the wrong thing.

            This is what we mean when we say too much chocolate or too little exercise is bad for you.

            The so-called good-evil "symmetry" is merely syntactical and subtly assumes the conclusion, since it depends on good and evil actually being separate yet equal in their own right. The notion of the good being a defect in an evil makes no sense (and is an insult to those who have suffered evil). If we take it seriously, we pull the ontological rug right out from underneath evolution by natural selection.

            Some basics can be found here:
            http://classics.mit.edu/Aristotle/nicomachaen.html

            +++
            As for not-life being a defect in life, it makes as much sense as a strawberry tart being a defect in a musical composition. Recall that we started with life as a good, since all bodies that possess it will seek to preserve it (unless a greater good supervenes). Death was simply presented as a defect in that good. There can be other defects. But that death cannot be conceived of without life was exactly the point. A rock cannot die. A rock is not a defect of a petunia.

            The opposition of not-life to life is merely an antinomy; that is, a juxtaposition of two contradictory things.

            The applicability of thinginess to the inanimate is tricky. Very likely most rocks are not things but mereological sums of things. But if we focus on those inanimate bodies that have self-identity -- a water molecule, a sodium atom -- we can think of what those things do as indications of their natural goods, and evils as defects or impurities that impair those natural goods. (For example, changing the number of neutrons in a sodium atom will result in an isotope that will rapidly decay into something else, like magnesium. It will cease-to-be as sodium. Just as a carcass is a heap that ceased-to-be a horse. (Although outside the Zombie Apocalypse, it does not become something else.)

          • OverlappingMagisteria

            Thanks for the reply but I'm afraid that this discussion won't go very far... If you consider a person going from life to non-life (ie. dying) "mystical woo-woo" then... I don't even know where to begin.

          • Ye Olde Statistician

            If you consider a person going from life to non-life (ie. dying) "mystical woo-woo"

            Nah, it's thinking of it as a transition to "another state." Example: here is a horse. It possesses the act of life. Now suppose it dies. The carcass produced by death is not a horse, but a heap of chemicals. So what thing exactly is it that is in the "state" of death?

          • OverlappingMagisteria

            A living horse is a heap of chemicals that interact in a way that we call "life". So what you have described is a heap of chemicals that have life (which we call a horse) that changed into a heap of chemicals that have non-life (which we call a horse-carcass, though many would still call it a horse.)

            In either case, you agree that the horse has life, and the carcass has non-life. So the changing from one to another is called death.

          • Ye Olde Statistician

            A living horse is a heap of chemicals that interact in a way that we call "life".

            Exactly. It is not only a heap of chemicals. In fact, it is a thing, not a heap. at all. Of course, if you are a technician, interested only in the mechanics, you can study the horse from a chemical perspective. But this does not capture the horsieness of the thing. The carcass produced by the death of the horse is not in motion, for one thing. The heart is not beating, the brain synapses are not firing, the lungs are not pumping, and so on. Yet, all the same chemicals are present (at least for a while). Hence, there must be something more.

            But you keep finding novel ways to say that death is a privation of life, which was the original point. Carcasses do not suddenly come to life, though horses can suddenly drop dead.

          • OverlappingMagisteria

            I never denied that death is a privation of life. But so is non-life, and non-life is the opposite of life, not death. That was the original point (which we have drifted quite far from.)

          • Ye Olde Statistician

            There is an important distinction. Non-life is not a privation of life unless the object was alive in the first place. A stone is not deprived of life.

            I think there is a confusion here between a privation and a contrary. We're not talking about "opposites" or even set theory, but about deficiencies in a good.

          • OverlappingMagisteria

            We are using different definitions of privation. Every one I look upp says something like:

            "lack of the usual comforts or necessaries of life"

            Non-life is a lack of life.

          • Ye Olde Statistician

            Non-life is a lack of life.

            privation (n.) mid-14c., "action of depriving," from Old French privacion and directly from Latin privationem (nominative privatio) "a taking away," noun of action from past participle stem of privare "deprive" (see private (adj.)). Meaning "want of life's comforts or of some necessity" is attested from 1790.

            "Non-life" is not a depriving of life. A stone suffers no deprivation of life. Since life does not naturally belong to it, it cannot be taken away. A carcass is non-life; but a carcass is also non-horse and cannot be a deprivation of the horse of any of its natural attributes. In a similar fashion, a horse may be deprived of its legs, which is a privation of the goods of horsiness, but a worm cannot be. There is an important difference between losing a leg and not being naturally possessed of legs.

          • OverlappingMagisteria

            Yes, you and I may have used the word "privation" differently. My original argument, however, only depended on "non-life" being a lack of life, not necessarily a deprivation. I am not particularly interested in arguing dictionary definitions.

          • Ye Olde Statistician

            I confess I don't understand why you think it is important to disagree with something the authors never said. You say non-life is a lack of life, but as Aristotle said, "is" has many meanings, which Greek, Latin, and English do not clearly distinguish. A carcass that was once a horse lacks life in a very different mode than a rock lacks life. In the first case, life is something that properly belongs to a horse, while it does not properly belong to a rock. Confounding these two senses muddies the waters. After all, natural selection works.

    • TomD123

      "As to the claim that God is not the cause of evil, that seems very much at odds with the understanding that most Christians have of him"

      I want to respond briefly to this part of your critique. First, the privation theory of evil would negate your point (a). Obviously, if evil is not a thing, then it has no cause, and God is not its creator. That said, you can deny the privation view of evil. But, the claim that "God is not the cause of evil" does make sense if you accept the privation view, which is what the author of the original article defended, so I think this criticism doesn't work.

      Second, I think you are not entirely correct in saying "Thus, if man has turned away from the all-good God, that is something that the all-good God surely knew would happen before he ever created man."

      It depends on what you mean by "before." Christians understand God to be outside of time, so to God, there is no "before." For instance, yesterday God knew I would comment on this blog post today. However, yesterday and today are not terms that apply to God. Since God is eternal, what I am calling "today" always exists in God's view albeit it exists as July 29 2015 and NOT as "today" because to God, all days are "today."

      If on the other hand, by "before" you mean logically prior to then I think that is incorrect. God's knowledge of what a human chooses in any given situation is dependent on the actual choice of that agent. For instance, in order for God to know that Adam would eat the fruit, God has to observe Adam in Eden eating the fruit. God's knowledge is logically posterior to the actual choice. So in order to know what would happen if He had created man, God has to actually create man.

      • Sqrat

        First, the privation theory of evil would negate your point (a). Obviously, if evil is not a thing, then it has no cause, and God is not its creator.

        No, because you completely missed both my points.

        First, one could oppose the "privation theory of evil" with a corresponding "privation theory of good." If God was not the cause of evil, under the privation theory of evil, then he could not be the cause of good, under the privation theory of good. The question is, on what logical grounds could it be asserted the privation of theory of evil must be correct, but the privation theory of good must be incorrect? If there are any, they are not obvious to me.

        Second, I argued that, if evil is not a "thing", then neither is good a "thing." This can be demonstrated by performing the following thought experiment: Can you imagine God creating the "thing" called "good", and nothing else? Can you imagine a universe made up entirely of "good", but not one thing in it that "is good"? What would it even mean if God had said, "Let there be good. And behold, there was good"?

        Christians understand God to be outside of time, so to God, there is no "before."

        I don't think that's the understanding that all Christians have, but certainly such an understanding would entail the truth of the following four propositions:

        1. God does not exist now, at this point in time.

        2. God has not existed at any time in the past.

        3. God will not exist at any time in the future.

        4. Jesus was not God, since Jesus is said to have existed at a particular time in the past.

        Since God is eternal, what I am calling "today" always exists in God's view albeit it exists as July 29 2015 and NOT as "today" because to God, all days are "today."

        Wouldn't it be the case, rather, that if God exists outside of time, then to him no days are "today"? What, then, are we to make of the phrase "eternal life"? It cannot mean "life having an infinite duration in time". It would have to mean instead "life outside of time," life in which there is no present, and no future. How would such an "eternal life" even distinguishable from an eternal non-life?

        God's knowledge of what a human chooses in any given situation is dependent on the actual choice of that agent. For instance, in order for God to know that Adam would eat the fruit, God has to observe Adam in Eden eating the fruit.

        OK, but then you have to say that God is not omniscient, because there are things that he did not and does not know, such as all of the consequences of his creation of Adam and Eve. Does he know what you will do tomorrow, or are you saying that he is blind to the choices you will make tomorrow and lacks such foreknowledge? Might we be obliged to say that he is even blind to the choices my dogwill make tomorrow?

        If God was unable to observe Adam and Eve eating the fruit at a future time, was that because he exists outside of time, or is it because he actually exists in the present, but not the future, like the rest of us? Does this line of reasoning imply that God can make mistakes, because things don't always turn out as he had planned?

        God's knowledge is logically posterior to the actual choice. So in order to know what would happen if He had created man, God has to actually create man.

        I think that pretty much shoots down Molinism, wouldn't you say?

        • TomD123

          I didn't miss your first point. I understand that you object to the privation theory of evil, I am not arguing for that view. All I am saying is that one can consistently claim God is the creator of all and claim that God is not the creator of evil if evil doesn't have ontological status. All I'm saying is that the two claims (God is cause of all, God is not cause of evil) are not necessarily logically inconsistent. That said, I am not arguing for the privation theory of evil.

          As to the second point, re God's knowledge and human choices you ask a lot of questions, some of which seem rhetorical. So I will number my points in response to make it easier to continue discussion.

          (1) You argue that if God is outside of time it entails the truth of four listed propositions. I accept your points 1-3. I am not going to address point 4 because that is off the topic of divine eternity per se. So yes, I agree that God did not exist in the past, does not exist in the present and will not exist in the future. I don't think God exists in China or in the USA or on the Moon either. That is because I don't think He exists in space or in time.

          (2) Yeah, it is true that to God, no days are "today" but that's because the term "today" is like the term "here." They are indexical terms (like "me") which refer to different things depending on who utters them. So God can't really say "today" because that implies He exists in time. He can't say "here" either. No place is "here" to God. Likewise, no time is "now" for God.

          (3) How to understand eternal life is a separate question than how to understand God's knowledge of free choices. So I will leave that issue aside.

          (4) You say: "Does he know what you will do tomorrow, or are you saying that he is blind to the choices you will make tomorrow and lacks such foreknowledge?" I can respond: Yes, God does know what I will do on July 31 2015 (tomorrow from my standpoint). But God's knowledge of what will happen on July 31, 2015 depends on what actually happens on that date. In other words, God's knowledge is a consequence of whatever choices I make tomorrow. You may object that tomorrow isn't here yet, but this assumes a view of time, namely presentism, that I think is very likely false. It also assumes God is in time rather than outside of time. This is why I invoked divine eternity to help solve the problem of freedom and foreknowledge. In other words, God doesn't really have foreknowledge, He has knowledge of all that happens in all times which exist. Some times which exist are future from our perspective but some points on the Globe are north from our perspective. Its all relative to the observer.

          (5) "is it because he actually exists in the present, but not the future, like the rest of us?" God doesn't exist in the present or the future. God exists outside of time. We don't just exist in the present, we exist in the present, past and future (or depending on your view, perhaps only a temporal part of us exists at these times, but that doesn't alter the substance of what I am saying).

          (6) God can't make mistakes since He is omniscience. However, things can turn out other than He plans because of free-will.

          (7) Yes, my response assumes Molinism is false. I think in fact it is demonstrably false although I have not given such arguments here.

          • David Hardy

            I am curious if you would willing to share a little more of your view on the existence of evil. From what I gather, you appear to be arguing for the explanation of evil from free will. That is, it serves a greater good that people have free will, and evil is permitted in order to preserve free will and thus this greater good. You also seem to be saying that you believe evil does exist separate from good, and is not just a privation of good, but arises out of evil choices made due to free will. Is this correct, or have I misunderstood?

          • TomD123

            "That is, it serves a greater good that people have free will, and evil is permitted in order to preserve free will and thus this greater good."

            I do agree with this statement but still, its not exactly what I have been arguing. Suppose one were to object to this statement by saying "but God knows what would happen were He to create a person and that this person would choose horrible evil. Why doesn't God just not create that person?" In other words, if God knows what people would choose in hypothetical situations, then why does He create people in the situations in which He knows they will choose evil.

            My point is to criticize the above line of reasoning by saying that God only knows what someone freely chooses in virtue of the free choice actually happening. This means that in order to know that the devil for example would rebel against God, He must actually create the devil with free-will and 'see' what happens. But I have noted this doesn't entail that God is ignorant of the future because the future exists just as the present does (eternalism about time) and God who is outside of time can see this.

            "Is this correct, or have I misunderstood?"
            Well, I haven't argued either way about whether or not evil is a privation or a thing in its own right because I think my argument about God's knowledge of our free choices stands either way.

          • David Hardy

            Thank you for clarifying. Perhaps some of my curiosity is that you are applying your argument of God's eternal nature to the problem of evil, specifically, and I am curious if, 1) you accept the idea of God being Omniscient, Omnipotent and Omni-benevolent, and 2) how you reconcile these facts to the existence of evil. Regardless of the nature of evil as a separate thing or not, it still appears counter to God's nature as presented in Christianity. Although your idea of God in eternity seems to present a possible way evil could occur without God's foreknowledge, it does not resolve the absence of a clear, strong divine response to correct that evil, having been observed. This was why I asked about the argument from free will. I am attempting to understand what position you are coming from in terms of the nature of evil and how it relates to God, rather than just the position you are arguing against.

          • TomD123

            Okay, I see what you are saying. The problem of evil comes in many different forms and it is impossible to address all at once. The reason being there are different problems with different reasonable replies (e.g. evidential vs logical problem, problem of moral vs physical evil, problem of animal suffering, etc.) It seems to me that there is no one response to these individual problems, much less the problem of evil as a whole.

            So in these comments, I have focused on a narrow aspect of the problem. I have attempted to answer the question "why would God create a person knowing that this person would choose evil" (and similar variations on this question). I have attempted to answer that question by (1) arguing that God does not know what the person would do if He created them because God's knowledge is logically posterior to actual free choices and (2) this position doesn't entail God has no foreknowledge because (i) God is outside of time and (ii) all time is real i.e. "eternalism" as it has come to be called, is correct.

            One can object to my position in a number of ways, as I see it, he can (1) say libertarianism about free-will is incorrect. This will make God responsible for free actions and therefore His knowledge logically prior to the choices. (2) Argue in favor of Molinism (3) Accept my argument by deny eternalism or divine eternity and opt for open theism. If any of these positions came up, I'd be happy to discuss them.

            Now, admittedly, this leaves a number of questions open. For instance, once an evil choice has been made, why doesn't God prevent the negative results of that choice? Why does God allow for SO MUCH moral evil? Why does God value free-will, it seems to cost a lot? Why does God not do a better job of preventing the moral evil in such a way that does not violate free-will? I could go on. Perhaps these questions are unanswerable in which case, the problem of evil will (at least seemingly) succeed. On the other hand, maybe they have good answers. Either way, I don't have much to say about these issues right now, maybe other commenters do.

          • David Hardy

            I see. Thank you for your openness in sharing both your views and areas where you are still uncertain.

  • Taking the example of the umbrella, there is a hidden premise here, that "umbrella explosions cannot be uncaused". This statement is not self-refuting. So though it seems obvious based on our background knowledge about explosions and umbrellas, we may be confident of out belief that the explosion had a cause, we cannot be certain of it like we could about self-attesting truths.

  • With respect to the greatness of the cause and effect, his depends immensely on what kind of causation you are referring to. There are proximate and indirect causes, material and efficient causes. Taking the example of the juice, this is discussing the material cause, and I would agree you cannot create extra juice, by squeezing oranges. This suggests all material effects must have equal material causes. I would agree with this with confidence if we are speaking of the Newtonian cosmos. I'm not so sure on the quantum level, I have no idea when it comes to the very early universe, or some realm where time and space are non-existent. Back to the oranges. If we look at the efficient cause, this could be the intention of the squeezer, this just can't be compare to the juice. So I don't know if we can say is premise is true.

    If we consider the assassination of arch duke Ferdinand, or any other number of causes of the First World War, these seem smaller than their effects to be sure!

  • Okay, let's look for the kind of thing that could create a universe. First we need to know something about the ways matter can come to exist from non-existence. We need to have some criteria to asses whether our hypotheses about various entities are likely or have the possibility to create matter out of nothing.

    What do we know about that? Nothing. This should end our inquiry.

    • Sqrat

      Well, maybe not: http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=6545246

      In some future universe, the Creator might turn out to be a bunch of people at CERN.

      • Indeed! You should listen to The NPR show Radiolab, in which they discuss multiverse theory with Brian Greene. Think it is called the multiverse. This is speculative, but if indeed universes could be created by this means then we would have evidence of what kinds of beings could create universes. Material beings with no divine or supernatural abilities, which would argue against theistic creation.

        However, this is not what we are talking about, we should say creator of all material cosmos. But I use the terminology of the author.

        • Kevin Aldrich

          It would not. You still have to have laws of nature and some kind of matter/energy to make universes bubble into being.

      • William Davis

        Lol. "Creator why did you create evil?" Answer: "Uh, it was a miscalculation..." At least it's an answer I can believe ;)

        • Sqrat

          Working title for Genesis, chapters 1-3: "God Screws Up."

  • "Second, we can see that the universe was caused by something equal to or greater than the entire universe, combined"

    Can we? How can we know if the universe is caused or uncaused?

  • "And finally, everything in the universe must be present in some way in the Cause"

    This seems to argue against theistic creation. This suggests to me that the universe must already exist before it is created.

  • "We’re looking here at an intelligent and personal Creator: since He created personality and intelligence, He must possess at least this much."

    This does not follow. I can see how personality and intelligence can arise from non-intelligent, non-personal causes. You either need to rule this out or present evidence of why it is unlikely to have arisen absent a personality and intelligence.

  • Your "historical" evidence that Jesus was god is utterly lacking. The only thing you cite is that he survived his own death. This is a theological conclusion that is not shared by historians as historical fact, though many historians may accept it as a theological truth.

    Saying he is divine, being killed, the empty tomb, in no way suggest divinity or that he was a god.

    There is no evidence that any eyewitnesses were tortured because they would not say Jesus did not ressurect.

    Even if all of the above were true, none of it entails that Jesus was, or was resurrected by a creator of the universe.

    Needless to say all of these inferences are nowhere near the standard of self-attestation that would establish certainty or absolute truth. They are of the standard that would require accepting aliens to exist, Bigfoot, and similar specious claims.

  • Darren

    every cause must be equal or greater to its effects...

    thus said the nail to the horseshoe...

    • William Davis

      Yeah, this is just obviously false. Apparently the author is unaware of the butterfly effect and chaos theory.

      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Butterfly_effect

      Even in a nuclear weapon, a relatively small charge compresses plutonium or U-238 resulting in a chain reaction that is much greater than the original cause (especially if surrounded with tritium and thus leading also to fusion). The counter examples to this are endless.

      • Chad Eberhart

        "Apparently the author is unaware of...." All too common.

      • Darren

        William Davis wrote,

        Even in a nuclear weapon, a relatively small charge compresses plutonium or U-238 resulting in a chain reaction that is much greater than the original cause (especially if surrounded with tritium and thus leading also to fusion).

        Nice example. I really like it. While I imagine the Aristotelians or Thomists or whatever perspective it is from which Joe Heschmeyer is arguing _might_ conceivably make the case that, though a match is smaller than a forest fire, both have the same "nature" and so the later is entailed "in potential" in the former (this does not match my physicalist-reductionist conception, but I don't think it is an obviously wrong conception for them within their own paradigm).

        For the fission bomb, though, we have a long chain of cause/effect and each of those causes is rather distinct from the effects produced: Chemical energy to thermal energy to kinetic energy (chemical explosion) to different kinetic energy (moving Plutonium) to potential energy (compression of Plutonium) to enhanced neutron capture to fission chain reaction to thermal energy plus kinetic energy yet again. We can make the Cause-effect chain more involved by boosting, or even more involved by positing a Teller-Ullam Fusion process what with its radiation pressures and such, then make it even more elaborate with a U-238 tamper.

        Nice.

        To say nothing of tracing the causality back wards to the ultimate cause, the pushing of a shiny red button. So, going back to the button factory, which of the buttons coming out of the button machine have atomic annihilation entailed within them "in potential" and which just have dispensing a package of Cheetos? God only knows.

  • Ladolcevipera

    evil is a privation, a sort of metaphysical parasite on good, without any ontological existence of its own

    This is an insult to all the victims of evil. Evil exists, not as a privatio boni but as something real. Evil exists as a property. It denotes profound immorality. The privation theory is a means to save the goodness of God. But then the question arises: If f.i. torture is only the absence of something good, why does God allow privatio evils to exist? The predictable answer will be that moral evil is caused by human beings who misuse their free will. But then one has to explain why a will that was created good, chooses to do something wrong. Ultimately - whatever Aquinas' high-tech theology may say - God is responsible for evil.

    To know God, something more than our effort is required. What’s required is for God to reveal Himself

    If God wants people to know him, why can't he reveal himself in a less complicated way? If he created us with a desire to know and love him, why play hide-and- seek? I think it is a cruel thing to do. And please do not tell me that I have to look better for signs of God in my life because there aren't any.

    • Ye Olde Statistician

      Evil exists, not as a privatio boni but as something real

      Give an example of an evil that is not parasitical on some good. We regard something as evil precisely because it frustrates or diminishes a good. To say otherwise is an insult to the victims of evil, because it is essentially a statement that there was no good that they were up to that was thwarted. For example, death depends on the existence of life, sickness or injury on the existence of health, and so on. Torture is an offense against dignity (there can be mental torture) as well as often against the good of one's bodily health.

      The privation theory is a means to save the goodness of God.

      I'm not sure that's what Aristotle had in mind. Greek paganism did not postulate their gods as "good."

      If God wants people to know him, why can't he reveal himself in a less complicated way?

      If the teacher wants the children to know the subject, why can't he simply tell them the answers to the test?

      • David Nickol

        If the teacher wants the children to know the subject, why can't he simply tell them the answers to the test?

        But in Christianity, the thing of paramount importance is the know and acknowledge Jesus Christ. Take, on the one hand, Peter, James, and John, who were permitted to witness the Transfiguration. Take, on the other hand, any Native American who lived prior to 1492 and had no chance of knowing of the existence of Jesus. Would you argue that the "Teacher" taught all of the pupils equally well?

      • David Nickol

        Give an example of an evil that is not parasitical on some good.

        I don't see how the theory of evil being the absence of good get's God off the hook for creating evil. Surely if there is a creator, he is responsible for everything in his creation. If darkness is merely the absence of light, would we suggest that God is not responsible for the darkness in caverns or at the bottoms of oceans?

        • Kevin Aldrich

          Do you mean to say that God is required to give a power to creatures which only he, be definition, could have by nature?

          • Doug Shaver

            I can't require anything of God if I don't think he is real. But, for those who tell me I should think he real, I do have some requests.

          • Kevin Aldrich

            Sure, but it is a question of what things should be like if God exists, or rather what God can or must do.

          • Doug Shaver

            Believers say that God is P, Q, and R. I see X, Y, and Z in the world, and I think it reasonable to believe that they would not exist if anything that was P, Q, and R really existed. Therefore, I think the believers are mistaken.

          • David Nickol

            I don't understand the question. What power are you speaking of? According you you, God is all-good and incapable of doing evil. And yet his creatures are all capable of doing evil. According to the Bible (Genesis 6:5-7) , God even regretted his creation:

            When the LORD saw how great the wickedness of human beings was on earth, and how every desire that their heart conceived was always nothing but evil, the LORD regretted making human beings on the earth, and his heart was grieved. So the LORD said: I will wipe out from the earth the human beings I have created, and not only the human beings, but also the animals and the crawling things and the birds of the air, for I regret that I made them.

            Of course, for a number of reasons, the God of Philosophers could not experience regret, but for some reason this is what the divinely inspired text says.

          • Kevin Aldrich

            Catholics think the God of Catholics also cannot experience regret.

            Jacques Maritain explains Aquinas' view of the absolute origin of evil in free persons as the ontological fact that while a moral being should act according to the rule of reason and divine law he or she does not.

            The reason we can act without consideration is that we do not have the rule of reason in ourselves by nature. Only God does. Aquinas uses the homely example of a carpenter. He says, if the carpenter had the rule of straightness in his hand he would always saw straight. His fault, if he cuts crooked, lies not in the fact that he does not have the rule of straightness in his hand (how could he?) but that he does not use a straightedge. In the same way, our problem is not that we don't have the rule of reason and divine law in our intellects naturally but that we don't use it when we act.

          • David Nickol

            Catholics think the God of Catholics also cannot experience regret.

            Why, then, does it explicitly and clearly say in divinely inspired scripture that "the LORD regretted making human beings on the earth, and his heart was grieved"? If God cannot experience regret, what else can he not experience? Forgiveness? Doesn't forgiveness, like regret, involve a change of heart?

          • Kevin Aldrich

            As you know, this is a human way of speaking about God.

            You did not address the origin of evil material.

      • Rudy R

        If the teacher wants the children to know the subject, why can't he simply tell them the answers to the test?

        If the teacher wants the children to know the subject, the teacher will a explain the subject matter through practice and instruction over a period of time. Testing is not necessary, unless to establish the quality, performance, or reliability of the pupils knowledge on the subject.

        • Kevin Aldrich

          The teacher is the Church. This is why Catholics call the Church our Mother and Teacher. If you wish to be instructed in religion, listen to her.

          • Doug Shaver

            I've been listening for years. I know what she's saying, and I understand it. I just can't believe it.

          • Kevin Aldrich

            I'm glad you have something of an intellectual understanding of the doctrines of Catholicism.

      • Ladolcevipera

        Give me an example of an evil that is not parasitical on some good

        Torture, bombing villages as revenge, genocide: they have nothing to do with withholding some good. They are acts that are deliberatedly evil. Their purpose is to hurt, to cause as much pain as possible. Pain is an end in itself.

        Greek paganism did not postulate their gods as "good."

        I had the Christian God in mind.

        why can't he simply tell them the answers to the test?

        If what matters is the test, God is a poor teacher. A good teacher is a mentor: "The teacher who walks in the shadow of the temple, among his followers, gives not of his wisdom but rather of his faith and his lovingness. If he is indeed wise he does not bid you enter the house of his wisdom, but rather leads you to the threshold of your own mind." (K. Gibran).

        • Kevin Aldrich

          The moral evil of murder "exists" in the person of the murderer. The physical evil of murder is the deprivation of life in the murdered (and everyone else harmed by that privation).

          • Ladolcevipera

            I really don't appreciate the privation theory. It spirits away the existence of evil on the metaphysical level and in doing so it does not take evil seriously. How can you equate the evil of murder (and indeed the loss of a life) with the privation of pleasure, or of something good? Pain, torture, suffering are not simply "not good", they are positively bad. The moral evil exists indeed in the person of the murderer, but as negative qualities he has, not as positive qualities he lacks.

          • David Hardy

            I find the idea of evil as a privation versus evil as a distinct force interesting, because I believe views hold some truth. Moral thinking, rooted in the social instinct, is an advanced mental process. For some people engaging in unethical behavior, one might make the argument that part of this behavior results from a lack of development in moral thinking, or the absence of good. For example, a criminal who never developed a real sense of connection or duty to others and acts out of pure self-interest, but is not directly aiming to hurt others.

            On the other hand, some forms of evil seem rooted in separate instincts. For example, the instinct to dominate can become taking pleasure in hurting others, since this is a strong dominance tactic. Likewise, the desire to diminish or destroy perceived competitors may also become ruthless cruelty to rivals, outsiders or people of other cultures or worldviews. In these cases, the instincts giving rise to the behavior are separate from those related to moral behaviors, and may override or be overridden by the moral instincts. Ideally, moral thinking should moderate these instincts, to prevent their extreme, destructive forms.

          • David Hardy

            First, I wanted to acknowledge the obvious amount of time and thought you put into your response, and thank you for the ideas you presented.

            I also apologize, since I should have presented the stronger form of Kant's principle, as you have pointed to a legitimate flaw in the weaker form. On the strong form, if everyone killed their children, society would collapse at the end of that generation, and this is how the act weakens society.

            In your response to my example, you are presenting a clear and cogent position for how to establish a moral war.
            However, I am curious, because there is still an implied standard. What legal or political system determines if the cause for war is just, or a self-defense claim is viable? If differing legal and political systems disagree, who can justly arbitrate, and by what authority? While some people refer to religious viewpoints as a higher arbitrator, religious views and cultural views are often closely tied together. In the western world, the religion is often Christianity, while in other areas this would likely be Islam, Judaism, Hinduism or Buddhism.

            It seems to me that there is a certain arbitrary nature in any person holding up a particular cultural or religious definition of good and simply declaring it to be the "right" definition of good. From what I have seen in my own life, however, taking the universal form of a behavior and looking at how it affects a society seems to most effective way to capture good and evil. This is not to say that evil is only evil if it harms society, nor good only good if it helps society, but rather that good and evil are tied to the social nature of human beings. Morality seems to exist in order to help form and maintain the boundaries necessary to society. The universalizing principle simply helps to capture and conceptualize this, since it shows the direction of the behavior.

            I say this in part because you are speaking as though an absolute, agreed upon standard of good and evil exists across cultures. However, cultures and religions do differ on the details of ethics, as do social subgroups within cultures and religions. Can you demonstrate a particular cultural or religious view of good and evil to be superior to all others, in a way not based upon the values of that culture or religion?

          • Ladolcevipera

            I am still thinking about your statement: "moral thinking rooted in the social instinct". It's giving me a headache.

          • David Hardy

            Please let me know if I can offer any clarification on my thoughts to help in your considerations.

          • Kevin Aldrich

            You might enjoy reading about Robert Spitzer's four levels of happiness. It accounts for many of the negative behaviors you allude to.

          • David Hardy

            Thank you for the suggestion. A brief look at the levels seem to have some similarities to Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs. I will try to look into it more to see if this holds true with a deeper exploration.

          • Kevin Aldrich

            The view that says evil is privation of good does take evil extremely seriously. It just explains what evil is in itself.

            What is interesting to me is that you *do* think that some things are positively bad so you must believe in intrinsic evil, which many people want to deny today.

          • Ladolcevipera

            It just explains what evil is in itself.

            Aren't you saying then that evil exists, not as a privation of good, but in its own right? As something very real and not only as a parasite on goodness?
            I do believe in intrinsic evil although this view is not very popular today. I think murder, genocide, sexual abuse of children are examples of intrinsic evil.

          • Kevin Aldrich

            Malaria is not evil in itself--it is just doing its thing extremely effectively. But when it gets into an animal it wreaks havoc, depriving it of health and very often of life.

            If someone chops off my hand, where is the evil *in itself*? In the sword? In the dead hand? In my stump? In the void between what was my wrist and hand? The physical evil is in the taking away of a good that ought to exist (my hand connected to my wrist and working properly). The moral evil (if there is one) would be in the person who chopped.

          • Ladolcevipera

            In the case of malaria you refer to evil in the broad sense. It is the fate of finite beings to become ill and die (preferably at a very old age and of natural causes).
            Chopping off hands is evil in the narrow sense, i.e. moral evil. The evil lies not only in the deed, but also in the intention of the person who commits it. A torturer's intention is to cause as much pain as het can, and enjoy it. The result is something positively bad (not the absence of some good). A surgeon who amputates a hand does so to heal, i.e. to prevent greater harm. He will avoid as much pain as het possibly can. The result will be something good.

        • Ye Olde Statistician

          Give me an example of an evil that is not parasitical on some good
          Torture, bombing villages as revenge, genocide: they have nothing to do with withholding some good. ... Their purpose is to hurt, to cause as much pain as possible.

          Richard Rorty wrote:
          "For liberal ironists, there is no answer to the question 'Why not be cruel?' - no noncircular theoretical backup for the belief that cruelty is horrible. ... Anyone who thinks that there are well grounded theoretical answers to this sort of question - algorithms for resolving moral dilemmas of this sort - is still, in his heart, a theologian or metaphysician.

          So, on what basis do you say causing deliberate pain is an evil? (Do you exempt surgeons?) If you peel back your emotional reaction, you find that your listed deeds are evil insofar as they destroy or diminish some such good as life, bodily integrity, human dignity, etc. If there were no life, there could be no killing; if bodily integrity were not a good, dismembership and maiming would not be an evil. IOW, you are tacitly assuming that which you claim to deride.

          Greek paganism did not postulate their gods as "good."
          I had the Christian God in mind.

          I'm sure you did. That seems to be the only one that concerns folks. But you were objecting to Aristotle's definition of an evil as a defect in a good, and Aristotle was a Greek pagan. The motive behind his ethical philosophy could not have been "to save the goodness of [the Christian] God."

          If what matters is the test, God is a poor teacher.

          Either that or you weren't paying attention in class. As RudyR said above: "the teacher will explain the subject matter through practice and instruction over a period of time."

          • David Hardy

            I cannot speak for anyone else, but I believe the morality is based in the social instinct, and is therefore based in how an act affects social bonds and community. I would refer to Immanuel Kant, who proposed a behavior can be judged by how it would affect society if everyone engaged in it. For inflicting pain unnecessarily would create distrust and hostility, weakening social bonds and creating conflict within society. The surgeon, on the other hand, acts within an accepted societal role, to the benefit of patients. I would also say that this can be applied even if a person conceals the act and there is no immediate social harm, since it still creates the potential for such harm.

          • Ye Olde Statistician

            Well, Kant tended toward idealism rather than realism, and is responsible for a lot of squid ink. But...

            inflicting pain unnecessarily would create distrust and hostility, weakening social bonds and creating conflict within society.

            And thus would be a defect not only to bodily integrity and human dignity, but also a defect in the good of trust and peace, of social bonding, etc.

            The surgeon, on the other hand, acts within an accepted societal role, to the benefit of patients.

            Or as Aquinas put it, he has chosen the lesser of two evils: cutting the patient with a knife vs. allowing the illness to continue.

            What happens when the "accepted societal roles" include witch smellers, slave catchers, and the abandonment of unwanted babies on the polis midden heap? Do these things cease to be wrong?

          • David Hardy

            To the first two points, we seem to agree on the moral conclusions, but differ on how we arrived at them. I will therefore move to the final point. I would argue that these can still be judged by the method I suggested. Leaving babies exposed does harm society if taken to a universal, widespread level, as does hunted supposed witches in response to disaster or by reacting to others by trying to enslave them. The fact that a role exists within a society does not make it beneficial to that society.

            I would offer a counter-example. Suppose someone is a soldier in a war, and during the war he must kill or be killed. Suppose further that the opposing soldiers are in the same position. To kill in such a case could be presented as an offense against the life and dignity of the other person, but equally a fulfilling of a duty to one's own society. Is the war inherently unethical? If so, what is the moral response to tyranny? If not, how does one determine what action is not the defect to the good?

          • Ye Olde Statistician

            Leaving babies exposed does harm society if taken to a universal, widespread level

            Yet, it was the universal, widespread practice of the Glory That Was Greece and the Grandeur That Was Rome, and of every ancient society save one. The Phoenicians, in times of stress, sacrificed their children in the fire. In fact, Tacitus held it as a criticism of the Jews that they did not kill their children for any reason. The Roman Empire lasted longer than any in the history of mankind. How was society harmed?

            Suppose someone is a soldier in a war, and during the war he must kill or be killed. ... To kill in such a case could be presented as an offense against the life and dignity of the other person, but equally a fulfilling of a duty to one's own society. Is the war inherently unethical?

            That is the reason that medieval knights returning from the wars had to do penance. It is always wrong to kill another human being. There are times when it may be a lesser wrong. For example, when a policeman shoots a gunman who is committing a serious crime. This is recognized in law: self-defense is a defense against a charge of murder. It is not a permission to engage in killing.

            The soldier is in the same situation, whichever side he fights on. He may believe his behavior is a necessary defense against the Encirclement or a defense of the Revolution against wreckers and running dogs.

            In Plato's Republic, Thrasymachus says that "justice is the interest of the stronger." So a just war is whatever the stronger power says is just. "The strong take what they can," the Athenians told the Melians just before their unprovoked attack on that neutral polis, "and the weak suffer what they must."

            Against this, Augustine, Aquinas, and others developed a doctrine of "just war," now used even by secularists. There are two broad considerations:
            A. Jus ad bellum (the right to go to war)
            B. Jus in bello (the right conduct of war)

            A. To have a moral right to wage war, a state must provide a casus bello, a case for war having four main criteria:
            1. Just Authority - is the decision to go to war based on a legitimate political and legal process?
            2. Just Cause - has a wrong been committed to which war is the appropriate response?
            3. Right Intention - is the response proportional to the cause? i.e. is the war action limited to righting the wrong, and no further. (See "mission creep.")
            4. Last Resort - has every other means of righting the wrong been attempted sincerely so that no other option but war remains?

            IIRC, Aquinas added a reasonable prospect of success.

            B. Even when a state is justified in waging war on another, there are limits on what it may do in prosecuting the war. 1. Proportionality - The degree of allowable force used in the war must be measured against the force required to
            correct the Just cause and limited by Just Intention.
            2. Discrimination - The combatants discriminate between combatants and noncombatants. Innocent, nonmilitary people should never be made the target of attacks. (This was a novelty. The ancients had not recognized the concept of "civilians.")
            3. Responsibility - A country is not responsible for unexpected side effects of its military activity as long as the following three conditions are met:
            (a) The action must carry the intention to produce good consequences.
            (b) The bad effects were not intended.
            (c) The good of the war must outweigh the damage done by it.

            If so, what is the moral response to tyranny?

            "If to provide itself with a king belongs to the right of a given multitude, it is not unjust that the king be deposed or have his power reduced by that same multitude if, becoming a tyrant, he abuses his royal power."
            -- Thomas Aquinas, On Kingship, I:6

            Not even Jefferson could say it better. The same rules apply to rebellion as to any other war.

            how does one determine what action is not the defect to the good?

            That's like asking when is a hole not a hole? (The hole is the defect in the good.) There are often competing goods and sometimes one must choose the lesser of two evils. The evil is still an evil, but sometimes it is necessary in order to achieve a greater good, as in the case of the judge sentencing the thief to imprisonment, the surgeon cutting a man open, or the soldier defending his homeland.

          • David Hardy

            First, I wanted to acknowledge the obvious amount of time and thought you put into your response, and thank you for the ideas you presented.

            I also apologize, since I should have presented the stronger form of Kant's principle, as you have pointed to a legitimate flaw in the weaker form. On the strong form, if everyone killed their children, society would collapse at the end of that generation, and this is how the act weakens society.

            In your response to my example, you are presenting a clear and cogent position for how to establish a moral war.
            However, I am curious, because there is still an implied standard. What legal or political system determines if the cause for war is just, or a self-defense claim is viable? If differing legal and political systems disagree, who can justly arbitrate, and by what authority? While some people refer to religious viewpoints as a higher arbitrator, religious views and cultural views are often closely tied together. In the western world, the religion is often Christianity, while in other areas this would likely be Islam, Judaism, Hinduism or Buddhism.

            It seems to me that there is a certain arbitrary nature in any person holding up a particular cultural or religious definition of good and simply declaring it to be the "right" definition of good. From what I have seen in my own life, however, taking the universal form of a behavior and looking at how it affects a society seems to most effective way to capture good and evil. This is not to say that evil is only evil if it harms society, nor good only good if it helps society, but rather that good and evil are tied to the social nature of human beings. Morality seems to exist in order to help form and maintain the boundaries necessary to society. The universalizing principle simply helps to capture and conceptualize this, since it shows the direction of the behavior.

            I say this in part because you are speaking as though an absolute, agreed upon standard of good and evil exists across cultures. However, cultures and religions do differ on the details of ethics, as do social subgroups within cultures and religions. Can you demonstrate a particular cultural or religious view of good and evil to be superior to all others, in a way not based upon the values of that culture or religion?

          • Ye Olde Statistician

            What legal or political system determines if the cause for war is just, or a self-defense claim is viable?

            Justice is the "steady and lasting willingness to give to others what they are entitled to (their right: ius suum]." (alt. iustitia est habitus secundum quem aliquis constanti et perpetua voluntate ius suum unicuique tribuit.) This was the Roman Law definition.
            Justice is divided into
            (a) distributive justice: Good judgment about how to divide up and parcel out beneficial or burdensome wholes or sets in a way that is fair because guided by appropriate criteria; and
            (b) commutative justice: Good judgment concerned with all other kinds of dealings between persons.

            The concept of right (jus) as something that belongs to another is the root of the concept of human rights. This is implicit in the thesis that "there are precepts of justice each imposing, on me and my communities, a duty to everyone without discrimination" (indifferenter omnibus debitum).

            This definition of justice immediately entails that correlative to such duties of justice there must be rights that belong to everyone indifferenter. Many duties of justice are positive,e.g., affirmative duties to give, do, etc. Aquinas cites the duty to relieve poverty both under justice as well as under love (of neighbor, for God's sake).

            Hence, private property rights are justified because they are needed for prosperity and development, but they are subject to a duty to distribute, directly or indirectly, one's superflua – i.e., everything beyond what you need to sustain yourself and your family in the state of life appropriate to your vocations. The natural resources of the world are “by nature” common -- i.e., "reason's principles do not identify anyone as having a prior claim to them other than under some customary or other socially posited scheme for division and appropriation," and such schemes could not be morally justified unless they acknowledged some such duty to distribute one's superflua.

            Technically, justice is a habit, but we know of it through acts. It is inextricably tied to the idea of "(natural) rights." This in turn is tied in with the notion of the good, previously mentioned. Living things naturally seek to preserve their lives, which in turn means that they are justified in defending their lives. Hence, Ockham's statement that "life, liberty, and property," are natural rights; i.e., a consequence of human nature.

            Aquinas' treatment of the subject is here: http://dhspriory.org/thomas/summa/SS/SS058.html#SSQ58OUTP1

            While some people refer to religious viewpoints as a higher arbitrator, religious views and cultural views are often closely tied together.

            Where in the above were "religious viewpoints" raised? Methinks Late Moderns are so accustomed to takling orders from the State that they don't realize that rights and justice are natural.

            there is a certain arbitrary nature in any person holding up a particular cultural or religious definition of good and simply declaring it to be the "right" definition of good.

            That's why Aristotle grounded his definition in the nature of mankind rather than in a particular cultural or religious definition.

            taking the universal form of a behavior and looking at how it affects a society seems to most effective way to capture good and evil.

            Except that the effects on "society" are often remote and unpredictable, or even theoretical, and a human being must act now. For example, raising the minimum wage sounds just, but it also prices young, unskilled men out of the labor force, creating systemic unemployment. So, is it good or not, right or not, just or not?

            good and evil are tied to the social nature of human beings.

            Close. It is tied to the nature of human beings simpliciter, whether their social aspect or not.

            I say this in part because you are speaking as though an absolute, agreed upon standard of good and evil exists across cultures. However, cultures and religions do differ on the details of ethics

            Agreed. The old Hindu culture thought it was a good to burn the widow on the husband's funeral pyre. The subculture of the Aryan racialists thought it was a good to burn Jews in ovens after looting their wealth. An insistence on some cultural basis of good deprives us of the ability to judge these things as unjust, as privations ofg the good of life and the good of love. Likewise, the old Athenian definition of justice as "Might makes Right." What we find on closer inspection is actually a broad agreement on what is right and just, but some disagreement at the margins or (as you pointed out) the details. This is harder to get across to folks accustomed to "command" theory, or the notion that justice consists of obedience to a painstaking detailed list of laws, as in medieval China.

            Can you demonstrate a particular cultural or religious view of good and evil to be superior to all others, in a way not based upon the values of that culture or religion?

            Alas, Aristotle's definition is grounded in logic and the philosophy of nature, and those were peculiar to the Greeks. Hence, the medieval Chinese, lacking a science of logic, had a definition of justice as "filial obedience to authority." Justice was whatever the boss said it was, provided he had the Mandate of Heaven. The Western approach to justice mandated duties on the rulers as well as the subjects, indifferenter, which gave us the notion of an unjust command even by legally constituted authority that it would be sinful to obey.

          • David Hardy

            It appears we have a number of points of agreement. It seems to me we both would agree that a sound foundation for moral reasoning comes out of an analysis of human nature. Where we differ appears to be on two points. First, whether evil is a privation of good and second, whether good can be defined as the nature of human beings simpliciter, as you put it, or if good is the result of instincts tied to social behavior, as I propose.
            So, in the spirit of drawing from human nature, studies in Psychology have found that aggression is a natural instinctive behavior in humans. Testosterone, for example, has the effect of increasing aggression and reducing empathy. Out-group thinking is also a natural aspect of human psychology, which includes hostility to perceived threats, whether those threats be competing rivals for something desired, members of a different community using the same territory and resources, or active enemies.

            In other words, people do sometimes naturally come to try and harm others. To take your example, of living creatures naturally desiring to preserve their lives, and this making it right to defend their lives, living creatures also naturally desire to harm and destroy threats. By the same logic, it seems that this would make it right to do so. I would propose that ethical thinking, arising out of in-group thinking of how to maintain social boundaries, including the respect of the life, property rights, and the desires of others, helps to keep these instincts in check. The desire to harm others does not seem to me to be an absence of good, but rather the expression of other instincts unchecked by in-group (moral) thinking.

            As an added question, could you give me a specific ethical or unethical behavior that does not relate to social behavior, and thus demonstrate it is not tied fundamentally to social instincts?

            I appreciate the link to a translation to the Summa Theologica. I will read it in more detail as I have free time to give it the attention it deserves.

          • Ye Olde Statistician

            Where we differ appears to be on two points. First, whether evil is a privation of good and second, whether good can be defined as the nature of human beings simpliciter, as you put it, or if good is the result of instincts tied to social behavior, as I propose.

            I'm not sure that these are in contradiction to each other.

            studies in Psychology have found that aggression is a natural instinctive behavior in humans.

            You say that like aggression is a bad thing. LOL. But seriously, would human society improve if everyone were wallflowers and yes-men? A certain amount of aggression is needed to, say, get light bulbs into widespread use.

            Also, you are confusing "human nature" with "stuff that happens naturally." This is a consequence of linguistic drift, and I'm not really sure how best to handle it. Basically, what perfects my nature does not impose any evil on you. Human nature may be encapsulated as "to be a rational animal." The pursuit of that constitutes the good. But note that the good applies to individuals, not groups. It is a practical impossibility to use some remote and possibly unpredictable social consequence as a metric for my choice of actions right now.

            people do sometimes naturally come to try and harm others.

            Usually, they have specific reasons. People who uncontrolably try to harm others are disordered, and we have ways of dealing with them. (Here is an example of the change in "natural": a man might be a sociopath because of some damage (genetic or otherwise) to his brain. The Modern would say that this is "natural," meaning there was some physical, material cause of it. The Medieval would say it is "unnatural" because his faculties are impaired and he is acting contrary to human nature: i.e., to be a rational animal.

            living creatures also naturally desire to harm and destroy threats. By the same logic, it seems that this would make it right to do so.

            Certainly, anyone defending himself from a threat is perceived as justified in that defense. Even if he is later shown to be mistaken, it is taken into consideration at law.

            The desire to harm others does not seem to me to be an absence of good, but rather the expression of other instincts unchecked by in-group (moral) thinking.

            What is wrong with the desire to harm others? When you peel it back, you find that it deprives the others of some good -- e.g., life (murder), liberty (kidnapping, imprisonment), property (theft).

            As an added question, could you give me a specific ethical or unethical behavior that does not relate to social behavior, and thus demonstrate it is not tied fundamentally to social instincts?

            I think it would always be possible to "relate" anything to social behavior. Part of human nature is to be a social animal, so anything off-target there would also be bad. But also because, as social animals, personal behavior always has some social effect.

            But take an example like overindulgence of the appetites. Neurobiology tells us that repeated actions "vulcanize" their neural pathways in the brain. (We used to call that "forming a habit".) Now, neural patterns originating in the more primitive parts of the brain -- those dealing with the appetities -- interfere with the neural patterns originating in the neocortex. Hence, habituating the digestive operation or the reproductive operation (vegetative functions) or the pleasuring of the senses (animal functions) tend to disrupt rational thought (human functions) sometimes to the point where the person takes absurd and irrational risks in order to eat the ice cream or hump the neighbor.

            Now, these may have social consequences -- esp. the neighbor-humping, but even the ice creaming will affect sales at Baskin Robbins -- but the harm is essentially to oneself in that one is prevented from being fully human (rational) through habituation or addiction. This is a privation in the good of reason.

          • David Hardy

            I think I should clarify my position, as I have perhaps not presented it clearly.

            I do not think aggression is evil or bad. I do not think it is good. It is separate from morality, but can come into conflict with moral thinking or be directed by it. That is my point. When it leads to evil, it is not simply because of the absence of good, although that is often one factor. I am not disagreeing with your position that evil includes the absence of good, only with your position that this fully explains evil. Therefore, I will likely agree each time you point to the privation of good that occurs in evil, but will disagree when you present this as though it is the only aspect to the nature of evil, or what defines the act as evil. Taking pleasure in the pain of others is not merely a privation, but an expression of a human instinct, albeit an expression that the moral aspect of our thinking would deem unhealthy..

            Also, I do not equate human nature to what happens naturally. I equate it to what happens naturally in humans. To do otherwise is to ignore the evidence of what human nature is. You declare that human nature is to be rational. Brain studies show reason to be a development in the forebrain, while a wide range of other mental processes exist. To my mind, you have over-identified human nature with one aspect of human nature. You also seem to simply declare human nature is only that aspect of nature that does not create evil. My point is that studies in Psychology show morally evil actions arise out of human instincts, and are not necessarily an aberration of those instincts, unless you begin from the assumption that any anti-social behavior is an aberration, which simply disqualifies any evidence that challenges your position. You may may declare other instincts to be "vegetative functions" or "animal functions", but they are "human functions" because they occur in humans. Further, in relation to equating human nature with good and rationality, I witness people engaging in ethical behavior without any clear reason for why, beyond that it "feels right". Morality is not based in nor equivalent to reason, although a reasoned assessment can refine it.

            To expand on my point of morality being related to the social instinct, choosing what you eat is not a moral choice, unless that choice leaves others hungry or takes food owned by another without permission. It is the social aspect that makes the choice moral, and the social consequences, real or predicted, that are central to moral reasoning. You do not need to predict widespread social effects, only the effects on those involved. The universalizing principle is not meant as a moral guide, but rather as a guide to the fundamentally social function of morality. While we may have much common ground in the idea that moral consideration includes the idea of how others may be deprived of good, unethical behavior arises because we have instincts aside from the pro-social ones, and some of these do not inherently include a pro-social consideration or may even incline someone to anti-social actions, and this, too, is a part of human nature.

          • Ye Olde Statistician

            When it leads to evil, it is not simply because of the absence of good

            Evil as defectus boni is not supposed to be a complete explanation. It is only a definition.

            You declare that human nature is to be rational. Brain studies show reason to be a development in the forebrain, while a wide range of other mental processes exist.

            Certainly, but the others are held in common with plants and animals. The use of reason -- the ability to abstract concepts from percepts -- is unique (so far as we can tell) to humans. Hence, the definition of man as "a rational animal," as the very name "man" implies. (It is the root for "men"tal, as well.)

            unless you begin from the assumption that any anti-social behavior is an aberration, which simply disqualifies any evidence that challenges your position.

            Not exactly. The common course of nature is to seek the ends inherent to that nature. A heavy body will move toward the point of lowest gravitational potential. A gray squirrell will dart-and-freeze as it moves so as to avoid predators. A lion will chase gazelles so as to secure food. A squirrell that sashays along with insouisance is an aberration among gray squirrells. A lion that sends out for Chinese would be an aberration among lions. A chunk of aluminum ore that flew off into the aire would be regarded as somewhat remarkable by most physicists. (Aluminum can fly: Airplanes are made of it. But the flight is achieved by art, not nature.)

            You may may declare other instincts to be "vegetative functions" or "animal functions", but they are "human functions" because they occur in humans.

            We can make a useful distinction between a human act and the act of a human.
            Of course the human anima includes vegetative and animal powers. It also includes inanimate powers like gravity, electromagnetism, radioactivity, etc. But just as the vegetative form supervenes over the inanimate powers directing them to the good of the whole, and the animal form supervenes over the vegetative, so too in the human does the rational anima supervene over the other powers. Plants consume nutrients. So do animals, but animals can actively seek them out. But while an animal will eat when it's hungry when presented with suitable food, a human may decide to fast for religious reasons, diet for health reasons, postpose because he is caught up in some other activity, etc. IOW, the reason rules the appetities.

            There are analogies between overindulging in fast food and falling to cowardice in a struggle. In particular, using them, we can better see the continuum of the human synolon with its material, vegetative, and animal substructure.

            in relation to equating human nature with good and rationality, I witness people engaging in ethical behavior without any clear reason for why, beyond that it "feels right".

            Which is what you would expect if it were inherent to our nature. Don't forget, humans are by nature bipedal, but that doesn't mean they can't break their legs, hop about on one, crawl on the ground, etc. There's no requirement that every act be thought out ahead of time. Our motives may not always be clear; but that doesn't mean we don't have them. Besides -- again as per Aristotle, the Stoics, the Christians -- one of the things we do in order to perfect our natures is to form a "second nature." This is a set of habits developed precisely in order to take ethical behavior "off-line" by making it automatic.

            Morality is not based in nor equivalent to reason

            No, it is based in consciously and habitually aiming for the good appropriate to human nature. Reason is required in order to know the good.

            choosing what you eat is not a moral choice

            Save to the extent that, pace the Enlightenment, humans are not minds trapped in bodies, but minds unified with bodies. The "I" that perceives the marks on the screen is the same "I" that understands their meaning. Therefore, the perfection of our nature includes an obligation to take care of our bodies. Mens sana in corpore sano and all that.

            The three strengths of the intellect are understanding, knowledge, and wisdom. (Knowledge means knowing that a tomato is a fruit. Wisdom means you don't put tomatoes in fruit salad. LOL) But no one is held morally culpable for being a poor scientist or a poor artisan. It is the imperfections of the will that matter, because culpability is linked to choice.

            studies in Psychology

            I prefer science instead. Ho ho. Seriously, psyche logos means the science of the soul, and that means that psychology is the only modern science that declares that it has no subject matter!

            There is a systematic discussion of this in Brennan's Thomistic Psychology, (contents here: http://psychology1.net/?p=95785), and a briefer discussion written by a physicist in Wallace's The Modeling of Nature. (http://www.amazon.com/The-Modeling-Nature-Philosophy-Synthesis/dp/0813208602)

          • David Hardy

            I am assuming, given the link and your tone, you are not serious in your dismissal of Psychology, though I am not sure. However, I will state that modern Psychology has the specific subject matter of behavior. Behavior may be defined in the field as self-reported thoughts or feelings, or observable actions, and has a very clear subject matter, even if the word itself is admittedly misleading. While the results of Psychology lack the level of concreteness that hard sciences can offer, they do have value, being supported by clearly defined behaviors, repeated observations, and statistical analysis to rule out chance occurrence.

            Briefly, I would say that if evil as a privation fails as an explanation, then it also fails as a definition. Not because it is wrong in either case, as far as it goes, but because it is incomplete.

            Also, anti-social behavior in humans is common. Not to the extreme that it dominates human behavior, but to the extent that many people engage, at times, in hostile and harmful behavior, especially under stress. Look at violence that, at times, breaks out at sporting events, or expressions of road rage, or social hostility out of jealousy, or how crime is an issue in every human community. These are not rare events that indicate an aberration from the norm has occurred. These arise so often because they are the result of instincts that are natural to humans, and thus, out of a part of human nature.

            It seems, at this point, we agree on a number of points about morality, and at least some of the disagreement arises out of differences in how with think in regards to morality. One difference is that I believe, from my own experiences, that it is possible for a person to know the good without reason, but the use of reason will enhance moral behavior. If I may offer a comparison, reason is not necessary to eat, but will enhance the diet through an understanding of nutrition. I see reason as a highly advanced, and therefore less central, quality of human mentality. It is not necessary to the majority of human functions, including morality, but enhances them, and this is its value. I agree that it is unique in the degree of its development in humans, though other animals do show some reasoning behaviors, most notably other primates. For that matter, moral behavior is also observed in some other creatures who form social bonds and groups, who do not have an advanced ability of reasoning to "know the good."

            As a final thought, back to the eating example, the majority of people I know do not respond to someone eating in unhealthy ways by viewing them as engaging in immoral behavior. Perhaps you have had a different experience. However, almost everyone I have met would say taking the meal of another without that person's consent is immoral, regardless of whether the meal is healthy. This indicates to me that it is the social consequence that makes this an ethical matter or not. I am not speaking at some abstract, philosophical level of perfecting nature, but at the level of how people actually seem to determine whether something is ethical, and if ethics even apply.

          • Ye Olde Statistician

            the majority of people I know do not respond to someone eating in
            unhealthy ways by viewing them as engaging in immoral behavior.

            Well, except for health food nuts....

            However, it is an analogy, not an equivalence, like the way electrical engineers using hydraulic models of circuits without ever trying to plug their toasters into the faucet. Or the analogy of inertia to life. Or the analogy of f(t)=0.5gt² to the motion of a falling body in a gravitational field.

            Psychology

            The behaviorists would agree with you. Maybe not the content psychologists or structural psychologists, the psychodiagnosticians, factor psychologists, personalists, et al. If the materialists are correct, there is no psychology, only biology (or even physics). If the formalists are correct, there can be no psychological science, since the methods of science cannot apply.

          • David Hardy

            You may be surprised on the number of Psychology related professionals who would agree with me. Regardless of the focus, Psychology as the study of human behavior is the commonly accepted definition in the field. Behaviorists specialize in the study of how behavior is learned and changed. Behaviorism as a whole, however, reshaped the entire field, by demonstrating how human nature could be better evaluated by studying observable actions, rather than through theory-based reflection on case studies, and this trend has been dominant ever since. If the materialists are right, then Psychology is a field that may one day be overtaken by other fields, such as Neurology and Biology, but until then, it remains a useful perspective. As to formalism, I would concede the point, although a Psychologist could reply that formalism is an example of overly concrete thinking, which the formalist would likely take as a compliment. So the wheel turns.

            Aside from this, you did not seem to disagree with my point on applied moral thinking so much as indicate your own was a more philosophic one. I would point to this as a good example of one way reason can refine moral instincts. At this point, it appears to me we have come to a logical end to this particular line of thinking. Thank you again for providing so many thoughtful points for me to consider, and strong challenges that forced me to consider whether my position was valid. I look forward to future chances to discuss additional topics with you. If you do want to continue on this topic, feel free to offer additional thoughts, and I will respond with my own.

          • Ye Olde Statistician

            A more inclusive psychology would take account of both the behaviorist and formalist approaches. Excessive behavioralism leads ultimately to the denial that the "self" even exists at all.

            How about "a study of the acts, powers, habits, and nature of man." From the scientific view, basing analyses on special experience and striving to express the operational relationships among the acts, powers, and habits of human beings; but also from the philosophical view, grounding those analyses on public experience and determining the entitative relationships of those acts, powers, and habits to the substance (being or nature).
            ++++
            There is a statistical principle that comes into play: you can only project the results of a sample to the population that was sampled. A telephone poll only draws conclusions about people with telephones, for example. People who only use telescopes cannot discover microbes. And the conclusions of behaviorists apply only to the behaviors.

          • David Hardy

            The limits of any particular study are considered in Psychology, included at the end of any credible research paper. I find it interesting that you seem dismissive of the study of behavior as inclusive, especially when behavior as used in Psychology includes thoughts, emotions, morality, personality, and sense of self, to name a few, in addition to the lay definition of behavior as physical actions. Behaviorism is no longer the dominant model in Psychology. Since the 70s, Cognitive-Behavioral Theory has become dominant. This was, in part, due to the fact that those in the field recognized that the view in hard Behaviorism, which did seek to deny any internal processes, was untenable. Today, the fact that people have a self, shaped by both innate disposition and personal experience, is almost universally accepted.

            I would wonder how, specifically, you would propose to know human nature in a way that does not involve some reference to what is observable about humans. To me, what is observable must be the foundation, since it tests all concepts against what it known to be reality. To refer again to Psychological findings, we know now that a sufficiently abstract concept is very easy to fit into any set of observable facts, through processes such as the confirmation bias and cognitive dissonance. Due to this, antithetical abstract concepts can often be equally fit into the same set of observable facts. It seems to me that to begin anywhere but the observable invites bias to fit the facts to itself.

          • Ye Olde Statistician

            behavior as used in Psychology includes thoughts, emotions, morality, personality, and sense of self, to name a few,

            Most of those things are not observable, even in principle, taking them out of the domain of science.

            I would wonder how, specifically, you would propose to know human nature in a way that does not involve some reference to what is observable about humans.

            As Aristotle said, "Nothing is in the intellect that is not first in the senses." Of course, you have to start with the sensibles. But for the empiricists, it often ends with the sensibles as well.

            we know now that a sufficiently abstract concept is very easy to fit into any set of observable facts, through
            processes such as the confirmation bias and cognitive dissonance.

            Well, usually for the other guy's theory, seldom for one's own. For example: seeing patterns of evolution without the ugly necessity of having hard facts showing that the imagined course actually happened. Kuhn called that "normal science."

            In fact, it's worse than you suppose. Duhem and Quine showed that through any finite set of facts you can always draw multiple theories. That wasn't psychology; that was logic and mathematics. The selfsame facts of quantum mechanics support the mutually contradictory theories of Copenhagen, many-worlds, standing wave, and transactional.

          • David Hardy

            We agree you can always draw multiple theories. Psychology seeks to maintain credibility by then proposing what potential evidence that would disprove those theories, and testing to seek if such evidence actually exists. The current theories are by no means the only ideas ever proposed, only those that Psychologists have been unable to disprove so far, despite doing their best to do so.

            Also, dog breeding has for many years been clear evidence of micro-evolution through artificial manipulation, although it has also been observed among many other species in natural settings. Macro-evolution is the logical cumulative effects of micro-evolution. Evidence for it is observable in the fossil record, with the fossils of new forms of life being followed by more diverse related forms of life in layers we know to be later. Given the length of time it takes for micro-evolution, relative to how long we have been trying to notice changes in species, it is unsurprising we are not finding it in complex creatures. At the level of simple organisms (bacteria) it has been observed, demonstrating that it does occur.

            Finally, while concepts such as personality are abstract, they can be defined into specific behaviors. That is how we know to apply these concepts to certain people, and do not assign them at random. Part of Psychology is identifying what behaviors, specifically, are used to infer these unobservable traits.

          • Ye Olde Statistician

            dog breeding has for many years been clear evidence of micro-evolution through artificial manipulation

            Sorry. I was unclear. One can know through reason alone that evolution occurs. Obviously, new species either:
            a) do not occur at all,
            b) poof into existence, or
            c) arise in seminal fashion from pre-existing species, as Augustine and Aquinas proposed.
            Eliminating a) and b) leads to c).

            What I was pointing out is that, once the evolution of new species from old is the accepted paradigm, it has been applied without empirical evidence in particular cases. So we say, Z must have arisen from X because trait i) is advantageous. But it may just as well have happened in some other fashion entirely, or arose from some other ancestral species for some other reason. For example, polar bears are said to be white because in the Arctic this enables them to sneak up on prey. But polar bears do not sneak up on prey. They hang out around seal breathing holes and play whack-a-mole when a seal sticks its head out. The polar bear can be white, black, or purple polka dotted and it's all the same to the seal. Their second method of hunting is to detect seal dens below the ice and pound them open from on top. This rather announces the bear's presence better than its fur color ever could. So perhaps polar bears have white fur for reasons having nothing to do with selective advantage and the "camoflage" explanation is only a just-so story.

            fossils of new forms of life being followed by more diverse related forms of life in layers we know to be later.

            The only problem is that the new forms usually appear full-blown in the strata. But this is because modern genetics have shown that genetic change can be massive, sudden, and directed, contrary to the slow accumulation of random changes of the classic theory. Epigenetics and other environmental factors seem to matter a great deal more than previously believed.

            Finally, while concepts such as personality are abstract, they can be defined into specific behaviors.

            But then we have the ptoblem you mentioned earlier regarding selection bias, cognitive dissonance, and the propensity to see patterns that aren't there. Also the risk of confusing the map (personality) with the territory (behavior).

            Part of Psychology is identifying what behaviors, specifically, are used to infer these unobservable traits.

            The great irony is that this is specifically the course of reasoning undertaken by Aquinas, returning us to the Actual Topic of the OP! Namely, because God is unknowable in himself, we can only know him through his effects, from which we infer his existence and powers.

          • David Hardy

            Actually, as I recall for polar bears, the fur color is primarily due to the structure of the hair itself (it's clear, but scatters light, creating the appearance of being white). Also, I have seen a polar bear stalk a seal, not using the "whack a mole" technique. They caught it on a polar bear documentary. Not proof for the species as a whole, to be sure, but it does happen. Aside from any value in camouflage, fur also provides insulation. Many adaptations provide multiple potential benefits. Incidentally, evolution also assumes some mutations may have no advantage, but if they provide no disadvantage, they may still persist. Qualities may also be linked genetically, making apparently useless traits still increase, due to a genetic link to a valuable adaptation.

            Evolution at present accepts that massive change can occur, and infers this is the process for all life because no other process has been observed. If features were observed to suddenly materialize, this would be accepted. Therefore, evolutionary scientists are applying observed evidence. On your idea of proving evolution through logic, logic depends upon credible premises, and the credibility of premises depends on whether they conform to what we observe. Logic alone proves nothing, because it is a method of drawing conclusions given certain premises. The premises must always be established first through observation, or perfectly sound logic will lead to wrong conclusions.

            As to personality, the admitted danger of selection bias is reduced by having different scientists, with different biases, testing the same concepts with different populations. Personality related behavior is not so obscure as to be impossible to quantify. Patterns have been observed repeatedly, by different people, making the risk of bias much smaller. You seem to be suggesting that determining abstract qualities through observation is a poor methodology. I would wonder how else you would do so.

            Finally, on God, I have not observed any effects in the universe that are clearly divine in their origin. Please clarify what divine effects you might be referencing, and how they are, beyond all reasonable doubt, divine.

          • Ye Olde Statistician

            It was the whiteness of the fur, not the fur itself that was put forth with the just-so story. I saw the hunting strategies on documentaries, more than one, as my wife has an interest in all things Alaskan. It was also mentioned by the atheist philosopher Jerry Fodor in an article why natural selection is too teleological. He suggested that all traits are "spandrels" (in Gould's inaccurate terminology).

            The genetic basis for massive change is relatively recent and has been savagely resisted by the orthodox school. Gradualism was the dogma largely because the early proponents were dead set against "catastrophism" as being too religious.

            "different scientists, with different biases" Good luck finding those. When you say "Patterns have been observed repeatedly, by different people, making the risk of bias much smaller," you overlook the power of groupthink. I have seen people making measurements in mechanical technology who have recorded quite earnestly the measurement they expected to see rather than the one on the dial indicator. It was entirely unconscious, too.

            I'm not saying this to claim that this always happens, only to point out how often selection bias and the like are cited only to explain away conclusions the speaker finds disagreeable and overlooked entirely when the conclusions are agreeable. And never with an obligation to show that selection bias has actually taken place and was not just potentially possible.

            Of course, you abstract universals from concrete particulars, and of course you can reason from effects to cause. But one must be aware of doing so -- and wary of doing so too easily. Ptolemy's epicycles endured for two millennia because they fit the observations.

            I have not observed any effects in the universe that are clearly divine in their origin.

            Of course not. There is an emotional commitment, I suspect. But one such evidence is the existence of regular laws of nature, such as evolution by natural selection, the lawfulness of gravitational and electromagnetic motion, etc. etc. A priori, what right do we have to expect any sort of order in the universe? As to "beyond doubt", if you want to treat God as a scientific hypothesis, you must accept that scientific hypotheses are not demonstrated "beyond doubt." It's like establishing existence of an objective universe: you cannot do it scientifically because every time you present "empirical evidence" you are already assuming that such a universe exists, making the demonstration circular. No science can demonstrate its own postulates, and physical science must assume things like existence, motion, causation, etc.

          • David Hardy

            You have just continued to point out reasons why a scientific finding might not be accurate, and that the fields of science continue to grow and change as some ideas are proven wrong. Yes, some people in the field resist that change, but the field changes despite them, because the majority of scientists are willing to let go of ideas that have been discredited. Based on my knowledge of modern Psychology, your claim that scientists in the field all have similar biases is not true, aside from accepting scientific empiricism as a method, nor is your claim that limitations are primarily used to discredit others. Normally, limitations are used as the foundation for further research, to test if any positive findings hold true in other areas.

            In Psychology, there is always an awareness of when an abstract is being tested by the concrete, with specific reasons for why this seems plausible, for others to review and challenge if they like. You seem committed to rejecting the idea that Psychology has many researchers within it who are no more prone to thinking errors that thinkers of any other field, and have the advantage of safeguards such as environmental controls, clearly defined observations, double-blind testing, repeat tests, multiple evaluators, and statistical analysis. Please name me one other field of inquiry into human nature, past or present, which has utilized as many safeguards against error in both their observations and reasoning from those observations, and indicate what those safeguards were.

            You missed my point about doubt being reasonable. I do not require proof that an effect is divine beyond all doubt. I would settle for it being a clearly more likely explanation than any other. None of the things you refer to are effects that appear divine. We have no right to think the universe would be ordered, but also no right to think it would not be so. We should base all assumptions of the nature of the universe on the universe we observe, and not assume that disorder is the default. You even admit there is an emotional commitment to observing the divine in effects. If one has to commit emotionally before something becomes apparent, that seems to me evidence of the confirmation bias. I have come to believe it emotionally, and the evidence is suddenly clear to me.

          • Ye Olde Statistician

            I would settle for it being a clearly more likely

            explanation than any other.

            Probabilities can only be estimated based on an a priori model. That is, P(X) is always P(X|M). So whether a proposition is "more likely" or not will always depend on the unexamined assumptions one brings to it.

            There are some thoughts here:
            https://thomism.wordpress.com/2015/01/17/the-which-all-call-deus-clause-in-the-five-ways/

            What exactly is the physical cause of the law of gravity?

            We have no right to think the universe would be ordered, but also no right to think it would not be so.

            Take it up with Einstein.
            “You find it surprising that I think of the comprehensibility of the world... as a miracle or an eternal mystery. But surely, a priori, one should expect the world to be chaotic, not to be grasped by thought in any way. One might (indeed one should) expect that the world evidenced itself as lawful only so far as we grasp it in an orderly fashion. This would be a sort of order like the alphabetical order of words. On the other hand, the kind of order created, for example, by Newton’s gravitational theory is of a very different character. Even if the axioms of the theory are posited by man, the success of such a procedure supposes in the objective world a high degree of order, which we are in no way entitled to expect a priori. Therein lies the miracle which becomes more and more evident as our knowledge develops.”
            -- Albert Einstein, Letter to M. Solovine

            On what grounds would you suppose that the universe should be ordered a priori? Because the notion that order arises "spontaneously" is just a little bit hinky. Randomness is not a cause of anything.

            We should base all assumptions of the
            nature of the universe on the universe we observe, and not assume that disorder is the default.

            Of course, that's an assumption in itself. If the philosophers who abandoned the old Aristotelianism were right, then the order we think we observe exists only in our own thoughts about the world. Shouldn't we break free of circular reasoning?

            You even admit there is an emotional commitment to observing the divine in effects.

            This is a good example of what I meant earlier when I said that we apply skeptical tools only against those we disagree with a priori. I was thinking of the emotional commitment of those who refuse to see such things, such as Dawkins' declaration that at age 9 he "just knew" there was no God, or Darwin's emotional rejection of never seeing his beloved grandfather in heaven.

            statistical analysis

            Which is why so many peer-reviewed papers fail of replication. I have yet to see examples of statistical analysis in this area that cuts the mustard. Most of them deal with small sample sizes of select individuals, "instruments" that are not actually instruments, self-reported subjective "measurements," overinterpretation, etc. Even in reasonably hard sciences, the pressure to publish or perish results in half-baked preliminary studies that fail replication, as BayerAG and others have discovered.

          • David Hardy

            Thank you for ideas. However, we appear to have reached a point where our fundamental assumptions run in different directions. Your positions do not reflect my experiences about reality, and clearly you could say that same about my positions. You are right that I hold certain assumptions, but you do as well, as must all people, and the question then becomes upon what one should base these assumptions.

            I believe probability can be calculated, at least to some extent, because I can successfully predict many things. I believe order is a fundamental part of the universe, because the universe seems to operate with a great deal of consistency. I believe it is possible to come to a position without an emotional commitment first, because I myself have done so. I came to an atheistic position even though it ran contrary to what I emotionally wanted to believe at the time, because I found that it better fit the reality I observe. I accept the validity of psychology, because I have applied many concepts from it and found them to be as effective as predicted by statistical analysis. These are assumptions, but ones that my experiences have yet to overturn. If suddenly I could not accurately predict things, physical laws and causation no longer operated consistently, I found that emotion provided clearer insight that skeptical inquiry, or had the concepts from psychology suddenly no longer apply effectively, I would no longer hold these assumptions. Until then, however, I see no evidence that they are not true.

          • Ye Olde Statistician

            I believe probability can be calculated

            Would that be a probability based on a normal distribution or one based on a Weibull distribution?

            I believe order is a fundamental part of the universe, because the universe seems to operate with a great deal of consistency.

            Also, it's a belief you have inherited from your culture. In some places, that material universe is taken to be a veil, hiding the true reality behind the mask of impressions. But it has not yet occurred to you that this consistency does not explain itself and there are other reasons behind it.

            I believe it is possible to come to a position without an emotional commitment first, because I myself have
            done so.

            Or you believe you have done so. Don't forget the psychology of it: selection bias, groupthink, pattern recognition, and all the rest. We don't suddenly become immune to these just because we are committing to a different metaphysic.

            I came to an atheistic position even though it ran contrary to what I emotionally wanted to believe at the time, because I found that it better fit the reality I observe.

            This assumes as a prior commitment that a/theism has something to do with explaining observable phenomena. This is the proper object of natural philosophy, however.

            I accept the validity of psychology, because I have applied many concepts from it and found them to be as effective as predicted by statistical analysis.

            OTOH, I come from a background in mathematics, statistics, and physics, and find psychology a gossamer web of subjective interpretations read into inadequate sample sizes and bogus metrics, burnt on the altar of p<0.05.

            One simple example: many of these studies involve respondents rating items "on a scale of 1 to 5" or some such thing. And then the researchers -- wait for it -- calculate averages, standard deviations, t-statistics, and so on, as if it were legitimate to do so! But the 1-to-5 scale is not a ratio scale, and averaging such numbers is illegitimate.

            An example of scientificialistic psychologizing, in which the authors' prior commitments are stunningly obvious:
            http://2012election.procon.org/sourcefiles/low-effort-thought-promotes-political-conservatism-2012.pdf

          • David Hardy

            I am sure you are well educated, as this is clear from your comments. However, many of your recent criticisms cut equally against your own positions. If there is no such thing as "more likely", your own positions are not any better off for it. The same for the criticism that knowledge is not the same as the reality being known, that all positions rest on assumptions, and that any position draws from the culture it comes from. Likewise, your position is affected as much as mine by selection bias and all the rest as it effects you. I am rejecting your criticisms not because they lack any truth, but because they are equally true of all positions. However, as you seem unable to speak to me at this point without implying that I am uneducated, lacking insight, and unable to grasp even basic principles, I am afraid this will be my last post to you. I appreciate the ideas you have presented, if not the manner in which you chose to present them.

          • Ye Olde Statistician

            you seem unable to speak to me at this point
            without implying that I am uneducated, lacking insight, and unable to
            grasp even basic principles,

            Do not think that, my friend. You are one of those who post here who always has something interesting to say, and worth reading. Otherwise, why bother engaging? If you have gotten a different impression, my apologies.

            If there is no such thing as "more likely", your own positions are not
            any better off for it.

            Except, of course for those positions that are not based on "likelihood." For example, that the square on the hypotenuse of a right triangle equals the sum of the squares on the other two sides. Or that if All men are mortal and Socrates is a man, then Socrates is mortal.

            The same for the criticism that knowledge is not
            the same as the reality being known, that all positions rest on
            assumptions, and that any position draws from the culture it comes from.

            But likewise, I have never claimed that they did not; only that radical skepticism is typically deployed in one direction.

            I am rejecting your criticisms not
            because they lack any truth, but because they are equally true of all
            positions.

            This was exactly my point. They are reasons why you ought to seriously consider them. The problem with these blanket critiques which one so often hears from certain quarters is that they are generic. For example, we hear that eyewitness testimony is unreliable, full stop. But the truth is that it is sometimes unreliable, and it is incumbent to show that it is unreliable in this or that specific situation. Under what conditions is such testimony reliable, and when not?

            The same is true of selection bias, etc. It is not always an affliction of the Other Guy, but something we must all be wary of. It does not mean there is always selection bias, only that we must be wary of it.

            I am more acquainted with selection bias as it applies to sampling: for example, a bank spent a great deal of money reviewing all accounting entries for the month of July, then multiplied by 12 to get an annual figure. It is quite obvious why this is foolish, no matter how much money the bank spent on it. Or an electronic assembler who sampled from incoming shipments by taking components from the top trays in the shipping cartons. (A different picture emerged when they sampled from the bottom of the cartons!) The most difficult thing in the world to obtain is a random sample; yet folks apply statistics based on random sampling without giving the matter much thought.

          • David Hardy

            I appreciate the apology. If no offense was intended, then none shall be taken.

            I also appreciate the clarification on your choice to take an extreme skeptical position. Perhaps it will help if I clarify my own base assumptions. To me, knowing and understanding human nature is the most central of all tasks. It speaks to what we are, what we should be within the world, and what we can be. However, there is no area of knowledge more likely to be distorted by the bias of the person examining it. I do not look at Psychology, or any other approach to understanding human nature, as immune to this effect. Therefore, my primary concern when discussing any method of understanding of human nature is to ask how many efforts are made to protect against that bias when making the inquiry.

            I have found no approach as careful as Psychology, though that does not prove there is not a better approach. Some of its methods are certainly open to criticism, but that does not leave them without merit. None of its methods guarantee that the conclusions will be accurate, but it seems to be the best among those choices available to understanding human nature. I find no other approach to include as many safeguards against this bias, even if none of these provide certain protection. I rely on observation to understand human nature because sensation, based in something that at least appears to maintain itself independently of my mind, seems the part of my inner experience least subject to distortion from bias, but of course even then there are assumptions that are inferred in the process of perception. Inner thoughts, emotions, and visualizations can all be generated by false beliefs, and so none can be taken as proof of a belief being true. For that matter, sensation can be hallucinations, so sensations experienced and confirmed by multiple observers, especially repeated across time, if also more certain that those that are only experienced by one person.

          • Ye Olde Statistician

            OTOH, as I said, I've never seen a statistical study in psychology that did not badly misuse statistical methods. Here is an example:
            http://wmbriggs.com/post/12883/

          • David Hardy

            Misused is open to question in some cases. Self-selection, for example, is necessary in many studies. You can't impose a study on people for ethical reasons. That does not mean that self-selection biases the results beyond all reason in every case. Likewise, the limits on statistical analysis in Psychology indicate that every positive result should be replicated, preferably more than once, before being accepted. The most common studies, involving correlations, must also be recognized as not having any causal implications, and even when showing positive results may only indicate a distant connection.

            The study you refer to looks like a correlation study, so there would be no reason to infer a causal link in the outcome. The basis of the criticism, that the study used a very biasing sample for its base and then further restricted it, and that the questions used were leading, is, I would guess, included in the article. As with any credible study, this allows for people to reject the findings due to the clear bias. In this case, the study could only be used to draw conclusions on those who volunteer for the study and then meet the additional criteria, and even then only insofar as the criteria can be correlated to a self-report instrument that does not seem to have any prior reliability and validity testing. I guess at some of this, since I do not have access to the original study.

            Of course, we both clearly have some background training to judge it as a study with severe limitations. I would agree that lay people are often unprepared to recognize the limits of a study, and generally only read news pieces on them, and so read more into study results than they should. One of the problems with safeguards to reduce bias is that they, almost always, also limit the scope of any conclusions, sometimes drastically.

            However, the sort of study you referenced represents the worst Psychology has to offer. Many self-report questionnaires are tested prior to being used in any other study as a valid and reliable measure, to see if they produce consistent results, correlate to other tested instruments and the evaluations of others regarding the subject. These can then be further cross tested with people from different backgrounds, to see if there is a difference in average responses, indicating a demographic bias in the questionnaire.

            Even then, self-report is just one aspect of many studies. Some studies focus on observable performance, self report and reactions in response to stimuli in controlled conditions, or explore long term reported outcomes. The statistics involved do not stand on their own, but rather alongside, ideally, a representative sample, controlled conditions, repeated evaluations and observable criteria. When they do stand alone, as in the article you cited, they do not provide a convincing argument for the results, or only indicate a result so limiting as to be of little use.

          • Ye Olde Statistician

            I agree with most everything you've said, though that doesn't stop the flood of awful statistics, or the over-interpretation. I blame two things: the nature of the subject matter and the mechanical manner in which "Stats for Psychs" is taught. (The same holds true for most "Stats for X" courses, which are often taught by Xers and not statisticians.

            One driver is Publish or Perish. People like Newton or Darwin, who took years to fully bake their ideas, would never survive in today's pressure cooker. Instead, half-baked ideas appear piecemeal with results premature, unsubstantiated, or just plain wrong. (See e.g.: Ioannidis, John P. A. "Why Most Published Research Findings Are False" (PLOS, 30 Aug, 2005)). This is exacerbated by the bias of journals toward publishing new and positive results. There is little tenure to be gained by replication studies or reporting negative findings. This leads to extreme efforts to find weeny p-values by data mining and framing the hypothesis after the data has been collected. When Amgen attempted to replicate fifty-three papers in cancer research and blood biology, only six held up. Similarly, Bayer HealthCare could validate only 25% of papers on which it had based R&D projects. (Zimmer, Carl. “A Sharp Rise in Retractions Prompts Calls for Reform,” (New York Times (4/16/2012) and Hiltzik, Michael. "Science has lost its way, at a big cost to humanity" (Los Angeles Times, 27 Oct 2013)). When Social Psychology dedicated an issue to replication of twenty-seven “important findings,” the reaction was outrage – against the “replication bullies”! (Meyer, Michelle N. and Christopher Chabris. "Why Psychologists’ Food Fight Matters" (Slate, 31 July 2014)).

            This of course disconnects the primary systemic feedback for science's "self-correction" loop. Physics and chemistry are still holding out, because ultimately inanimate matter is unforgiving; but in the soft sciences, political agendas are often at stake and the very hypotheses are themselves matters of interpretation. When a study contradicts something already known, it does not instigate the sort of thing that followed the supposedly faster-than-light particle at CERN.

            The other two problems are 1) that the scientific tools, developed to study the physics of motion, and which worked well in the rest of physics and in chemistry, began to weaken as the Revolution entered biology and have pretty much collapsed in the "soft" "sciences." Basically, the scientific methods work less well to the extent that the objects of study can talk back. (You mentioned running designed experiments on human beings, and self-reporting as a "measurement.") And 2) the nature of the problems confronting the scientist have moved from a) simplicity to b) disorganized complexity to c) organized complexity and the premier tool has declined from a) mathematics to b) statistics to c) computer modeling.

            Everyone "knows" that correlation isn't causation, but as often as not, they do not act that way and the evening news gravely reports that X "has been linked to" Y.

            Pfui. But anyway, magically returning to the topic of the OP, I ran across this item:
            https://thomism.wordpress.com/2015/06/13/different-senses-of-god-cannot-be-known-by-human-beings/

          • David Hardy

            Since we appear to agree on the pitfalls and limitations that cause many poor findings in research, I will not linger on it, except to say that, when I say self report is a measurement, I mean it measures what people report, with full recognition of the dangers of a person lying, exaggerating, misunderstanding what is being asked or being mistaken in their perceptions.

            To return to the topic of the OP, and the article you reference, I will focus on the idea of whether the existence God is knowable, rather than whether specific features of God are knowable, since establishing the existence of something must come prior to establishing its qualities. I do believe the existence of a divine being or beings to be unknowable with absolute certainty, but I also believe that one can find things to indicate whether a God or gods exist. I find reasons to not believe in many forms of God and gods presented throughout history, but will restrict myself at the moment to reasons I do not accept any concept of God or gods as likely. I will also go one at a time, to avoid my posts being incredibly lengthy. Please let me know if you had a different direction in mind for the conversation.

            The first reason has to do with the way in which the concepts themselves seem restricted culturally. Every religious concept of the divine can be traced to a culture of origin. If I were to accept the idea of a divine underlying force, I would expect to see at least one example of convergence in the concept of the divine. Instead, every religion appears in new areas only when the ideas are brought by people from a culture that already accepts that concept, and the concepts themselves are often mutually exclusive. The pervasive presence of believing in God or gods, coupled with the lack of any common agreement on the nature of the divine, indicates to me that people have a predisposition to infer what can be loosely termed divine qualities, rather than there being an objective source from which people are drawing their sense of the divine. To me, this predisposition appears to be a very generalized form of anthropomorphizing, which is an observable quality in humans, inferring human mental qualities at a broad scale.

          • Ye Olde Statistician

            That different cultures (and individuals) have had different perspectives no more means there is no thing they have perspectives on than do the different notions of an elephant by the nine blind men mean that there is no elephant that they have touched.

            Among those who deified nature (and hence came up with pantheons) their many disparate gods were really all the same. Thunder-deified is thunder-deified, whether he is called Zeus, Jupiter, or Thor. Though even here, it was often believed there was some deeper existence that accounted for the gods.

            Among those who have reasoned their way to God, what they came up with is likewise pretty much the same. Aristotle, Plotinus, ibn Rushd, Maimonides, Jayanta Bhatta, et al. differ only in details. You can tell Jayanta Bhatta is a Hindu and Aristotle is a Greek, but it was their premises that differed, and their science. The Nyāya argument and Aristotle's both wound up with an uncaused First Cause. (Neither "first" in time.) They wound up within shouting distance of the same place. In particular, the Jews, Christians, and muslims have a specifically non-anthropomorphic notion of the Godhead.

            The similarity of their conclusions is more an argument that they were on to something, "seeing through a glass, darkly." (The Christians, the pagan Plotinus, and the Hindus even reasoned their
            way separately to a triune God. At the Mahabalipuram complex near
            Chennai there is a temple featuring the three aspects of God: Brahma,
            Vishnu, and Shiva. They are different, yet all one.) The one real difference is between the deified nature folks and the transcendent ground of being folks, and both of them run crosswise across many cultures.

          • David Hardy

            Thank you for the thoughtful reply. While I recognize the example of the elephant, it still remains that, eventually, the blind men would examine other parts of the elephant, and come to ever closer conclusions. On the other hand, I see the myriad religious views of the world no closer to a consensus on the nature of the divine, and I judge that each religion has a significant number of genuine believers trying to know the divine truly. The fact that many cultures have a god of thunder and lightning, for example, indicates to me that each culture experienced lightning and inferred qualities in it. However, even in those cases, the inferences differ. Is it the qualities of a king, like Zeus, or a mighty warrior, like Thor? While Zeus did battle in the myths, it was not a principle image of him, and Thor was never seen as a ruler. I agree that there is an "elephant", but it again seems something rooted in the subjective more than the objective.

            I would also agree that the Christian God is less anthropomorphic than others in some ways, yet I attribute this to it being more abstract. There is still the inference of knowledge, morality, love, patience, mercy, and a number of other human traits. Of course, then one asks if it is humans inferring these traits, or God instilling them in humans. My principle reason to lean to the former is that I know that humans exist, and that humans infer human traits in things, and I do not see all or even most humans instilled with a similar sense of the divine.

            While the trinity of Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva represent the most central deities of Hinduism, there are of course many other deities within the pantheon. The concept of the divine being immanent within the creation in Hinduism is also distinct from the Christian view that the creator and creation are separate, and ideally should exist in communion, not identification. From the view of Hinduism, the worshiper is also different yet one with the divine, as is all creation, which makes it quite different from the Trinity.

            On a similar note, even the nature of the divine as it relates to humans is open to significant differences. Many polytheistic religions look at the divine as something that needs to be appeased, sort of a higher order of the hierarchy of existence that look at humans like nobles upon peasants. Christianity presents the divine as providing saving grace for humanity in need of it. Buddhism does not always have gods, and when they are there they are, at best, helpers on the way to Nirvana. Hinduism tends to present the divine as permeating everything, and so realizing this union is a central goal.

            For a time, I considered Pantheism, and the idea that all ideas of the divine were the result of limits in the minds of humans trying to grasp it. My major reservation with taking this sort of view is that it glosses over the difference in religion that those of the religion would consider central. As an example, faith in Jesus Christ and repentance of sin is central to Christianity, in a way not found in any other belief system. Many other systems may require appeasing the gods after angering them, and plying them with worship to keep them happy, but this arises from a very different view of the relationship to the divine. To me, if the divine was something objective to which humans have a relationship, I would expect more convergence, because I would expect people genuinely trying to connect with the divine would in some way also become aware when their approach to the divine was out of step to its true nature.

            While not a point for atheism, this problem also raises the question of how to discriminate the right view of the divine, if it exists, from the large number of religious approaches in the world.

          • Ye Olde Statistician

            the world no closer to a consensus on the nature of the divine

            Actually, there has been a considerable convergence on the transcendent God since the so-called Axial Age. At one time, nearly all devotions were to deified nature or even to worship of one's own power and might. The Athenians in the classical age can be thought of as worhiping Athena, the Spartans, Poseidon, and so on. Each city had its tutelary deity, with the cultural unity of Hellas symbolized by the pantheon. Today, Christians account for 31.5% (two-thirds of whom are Catholic or Orthodox) and muslims (about three-quarters Sunni) are another 22.3%. This comprises 53.8% of the world's population. Add in the Jews, Buddhists, Zoroastrians, Baha'i, et al. and this is a remarkable degree of convergence on a transcendent deity versus to two thousand years ago.

            There is still the inference of knowledge, morality, love, patience, mercy, and a number of other human traits [to God].

            Well, as St. Thomas explained, these terms must be used analogously when speaking of God. There is something in God that is "like" knowledge,etc.

            While the trinity of Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva represent the most central deities of Hinduism, there are of course many other deities within the pantheon.

            Christianity and Islam also recognize angels and demons, and for that matter, patron saints. You are correct regarding village Hinduism, but the educated class is more sophisticated.

            Many polytheistic religions look at the divine as something that needs to be appeased

            Correct. It is hard for us Moderns to understand the dread of "principalities and powers" under which the classical world labored. Brian Stock wrote, “[the Roman’s] daily experience led him to believe that nature’s forces could be imitated, even placated; he was less sure they could be understood.” This is why science as we know it never arose in a polytheistic culture. Just mathematics and rules of thumb.

          • David Hardy

            Actually, there has been a considerable convergence on the transcendent God since the so-called Axial Age.

            In Christian, Islamic and Judaic faiths, it is a transcendent God, but then these religions are linked in their traditions. In Hinduism, it is an generally an immanent divine force. In Buddhism, the gods are within the the wheel of suffering and illusion as much as any other being, unless they are enlightened themselves, which places them at the same goal sought by the practitioner, not existing at a level higher than that which a human can attain. Nirvana itself is generally a state of awakened awareness, not related to union or communion with God.

            However, more to the point, it is unlikely a devout practitioner of any of these faiths would see a practitioner from another faith as having a "correct" view of the divine. The distinctions made between faiths are often viewed as still significant. If they were not, then it would not matter if one was Christian, Muslim, Hindu, or Jewish. This suggests to me that, despite some convergence in the idea of a single divine force, there has not been a convergence in proposed defining qualities. Without commonly accepted qualities, it then raises the question of whether people of these differing traditions truly mean the same thing when they refer to the divine.

            I would also add that one reason these religions have become dominant is because they are linked to cultures and empires that subjugated other cultures and spread the religions across the world. How many cultures would have given up their own religious views if not for this fact? It is impossible to know, but it does add a layer of complexity to interpreting the current dominance of these religions.

            Christianity and Islam also recognize angels and demons, and for that matter, patron saints.

            Yet the angels of Christianity and Islam clearly differentiate themselves as not being gods, making them different from the numerous Hindu gods aside from Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva. Likewise, the Father, Son and Holy Spirit as a Trinity are distinguished as being one with each other, but not one with the angels and creation, while Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva are viewed in Hinduism as one through union with Brahman, which also binds together all other things.

          • Garbanzo Bean

            Thanks for that YOS. This just out:
            "What if we told you that approximately 1 in 6 researchers working with human cells are using the wrong cell line? In other words, they believe they are studying the effects of a drug on breast cancer cells, for instance, but what they really have are cells from the bladder."
            http://retractionwatch.com/2015/12/08/hela-is-the-tip-of-the-contamination-iceberg-guest-post-from-cell-culture-scientist/

          • Garbanzo Bean

            Thanks for your writings YOS, always a treat reading you.
            "spandrel (in Gould's inaccurate terminology)" -- can you clarify what you mean by "spandrel" being inaccurate terminology, or refer me to something online that goes into it? Much appreciated.

          • Ye Olde Statistician

            can you clarify what you mean by "spandrel" being inaccurate terminology

            The features Gould called "spandrels" in the San Marco are actually called "pendentives" by architects.

          • Kevin Aldrich

            A tour de force brought to you by YOS.

          • David Hardy

            I would also like to respond to your comment on not paying attention in class. I have had many teachers, ranging from poor to excellent. I would agree that, in some cases, even the best teacher can fail to teach a poor student. However, a poor student, in my estimation, is one who is either unmotivated or so behind, academically, that the concepts are beyond him or her. I have known many people motivated to discover the truths about the universe, who are more than capable of grasping at least the basic truths of Christianity. If God is the teacher, and Christianity is the lesson, I would say there is some validity to saying He is a poor teacher, given how many such people exist who are not Christian.

            I would also add that, even with a good teacher who fails to pass on the knowledge, the teacher still accepts some accountability. A good teacher will accept that he or she may have failed to find a way to engage the student, or meet them where they are at in terms of the information presented. A bad teacher, in my experience, often places all of the blame for failure upon the student.

          • Ladolcevipera

            Another possibility is that the student discovers that what the teacher teaches can't possibly be true...

          • Ladolcevipera

            First of all I would like to say that I do not deride people or philosophical claims. I try to contradict them with arguments. This being said I'll try to answer your post.
            1. Isn't Rorty a highly controversial thinker? I am not really familiar with his ideas but I think he said that "meaning" is a social-linguistic product. So, meaning depends on what a group of people says what it means? Which group would that be? Aren't we very close then to manipulation of other groups? And if it is only consensus that is important, then truth has nothing to do with being rooted in reality? Is it enough that we agree on something? What then is the foundation of science? You agree on something and that makes it true? I do not take Rorty as the standard for sound thinking.
            To answer your question: Causing deliberate pain is intrinsic evil because every human being has an intrinsic value and the aim of torture etc. is to rob a person of his dignity. The comparison to surgeons is incorrect because the intention of a surgeon is to heal, not to hurt. The aim is to do good and, if pain cannot be avoided, to cause only the minimum amount.
            2. I had Aquinas in mind. He leans heavily on Aristotle and uses his definition of evil (as a defect in a good) in a Christian context. Aristotle's theory is used by Thomas to absolve God of his responsibility for evil.
            3. What if the student did pay attention, listened very closely and proved the teacher wrong?

          • Ye Olde Statistician

            First of all I would like to say that I do not deride people or philosophical claims. I try to contradict them with arguments

            I would congratulate you on this accomplishment, save that you have anticipated me.

            I do not take Rorty as the standard for sound thinking.

            Good. His problem (and that of Sartre, Nietzsche, Voltaire, and others) was that he had no grounding for his belief that cruelty was "bad." Possibly for the reasons you cite. When we go elsewhere in space and time, we find cruelty is endemic. (My ex-son-in-law, listening to a radio newscast about the tortures at Abu Ghraib prison, laughed. "You call that torture?" Then, more quietly and looking down, "Americans do not know what torture is." He had been in the Special Forces of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan.

            Stanley Fish comments here: http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/02/22/are-there-secular-reasons/?_r=0

            Causing deliberate pain is intrinsic evil because every human being has an intrinsic value and the aim of torture etc. is to rob a person of his dignity.

            "Rob"="deprive"="privation." IOW, you claim it is a privation of a good (dignity, value, bodily integrity) This is exactly what I have been saying. We need only know now where your "instrinsic value" comes from.

            The comparison to surgeons is incorrect because the intention of a surgeon is to heal, not to hurt. The aim is to do good and, if pain cannot be avoided, to cause only the minimum amount.

            That doesn't make the comparison incorrect, since I pointed that, and it was a specific example used by Thomas to show how sometimes one must perform a lesser evil in order that a greater good might come of it.
            But there is a loophole in your formulation, because the good is up in the air. If inflicting pain is okay provided that you are trying to do good and inflict only a minimal amount, then every tyrant in history gets a green light, since tyrants also pursue what they think is a good. If the torturer is seeking to heal society by eliciting the confession of a heinous murderer and not simply doing so because he likes to torture people, is that okay? How is that different from the surgeon, except that you accept a priori that the surgery is for the good and the torture is not.

            I had Aquinas in mind. He leans heavily on Aristotle and uses his definition of evil (as a defect in a good) in a Christian context.

            What has that to do with Aristotle's definition. Sounds like you have weenie against God for sometimes acting like a surgeon.

            used by Thomas to absolve God of his responsibility for evil.

            Good thing you do not deride people or philosophical claims.

    • Kevin Aldrich

      You could read "St. Thomas and the Problem of Evil" by Jacques Maritain to answer your question of how a will that is good in itself can fall from good.

      • Ladolcevipera

        Thank you for telling me (again). I will read it, but I know Maritain is a neo-thomist and I have a pretty good idea what he will say. I'll give him the benefit of the doubt. But why this fascination with Aquinas? He was a brilliant and innovative scholar but he lived in the 13th century and his theology stays within the framework of that time. I would like to hear something new and convincing. American catholics (in general) are so conservative compared to European theologians...

        • Kevin Aldrich

          Why do you say Aquinas stays within the framework of his time? Aquinas synthesized the philosophy of his time with the new philosophy of (rediscovered) Aristotle.

          Philosophy itself did not necessarily progress after him but a series of very serious mistakes were made after (at least thinkers like Maritain and John Paul II would say so) by guys like Descartes, Hume, and Kant. There are plenty of interesting modern Catholic philosophers--including American ones.

          https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Catholic_philosophers_and_theologians

          Feser is not even on the list. He's too much of a whippersnapper.

          • Ladolcevipera

            I meant that Aquinas' theory, as everyone else's, is limited by the state of science (in the broad sense) in the 13th century. In order to make him relevant for our time one would have to interpret him taking into account the achievements of modern science. The problem with interpretation however is how far one can go without altering the meaning of the original. One could end up with saying exactly the opposite of what the author is saying.
            I do not doubt for a minute that there are a lot of interesting American philosophers. I am familiar with some of them. I object to the term "Catholic philosopher". If you are a philosopher , you do not accept the presuppositions of faith.
            p.s: You taught me a new word: "whippersnapper". I like the sound of it (not the meaning).

          • Kevin Aldrich

            I don't see why you say Aquinas' philosophy is limited by the state of natural science in his day. He does not begin with some observation of the natural world and derive a concept from it. The examples from nature may be wrong but new ones can be supplied, since they are only examples.

            There is nothing wrong with the term Catholic philosopher. It can mean a philosopher who is a Catholic, a Catholic who is a philosopher who is concerned with religious and moral issues, and a Catholic who wants to build bridges between philosophy and Catholic faith.

          • Ladolcevipera

            Aquinas' philosophy reflects the 13th century worldview. The historical context was different from ours. The 13th century had other presuppositions, other intellectual challenges, other questions. Scholastic theologians were not looking so much for answers to religious questions as for arguments to defend answers that were already given. It is of course possible to reinterpret Aquinas but then you are facing a problem that is inherent to hermeneutics. Reinterpreting the meaning of old texts is always a mediated reinterpretation. Our interpretation will always be subjective because we have our own worldview. As I already said: we might end up with something completely different than what the author said.
            My problem with "catholic philosophy" is not that the philosopher is a catholic but that his presuppostion will be the truth of the catholic faith and that he will look for arguments that prove that what he presupposes is right. I do not belief that any catholic will ever conclude that his faith was wrong. In the case of an atheist (who of course also has his presuppositions) I think it is possible (although very unlikely) that he will change his mind.

          • Kevin Aldrich

            Aquinas' philosophy reflects the 13th century worldview. The historical context was different from ours. The 13th century had other presuppositions, other intellectual challenges, other questions.

            Wasn't the exact same thing true in 1950 compared today?

            Scholastic theologians were not looking so much for answers to religious questions as for arguments to defend answers that were already given.

            How do you reconcile this claim with the fact that the most important scholarly work of the middle ages was Peter Lombard's Sentences?

          • Ladolcevipera

            Wasn't the exact same thing true in 1950 compared today?

            True. We live in a totally different world compared to 1950. We have a whole new range of problems to deal with: overpopulation, migration, globalisation, environmental disasters, nuclear deterrence, biomedical experiments etc... We look back at the fifties to understand the history, the origin of the problems we are facing, but the solutions must be OURS. We do not turn to people who lived in 1950 to solve our problems.

            How do you reconcile this claim with the fact that the most important scholarly work of the middle ages was Peter Lombard's Sentences?

            Yet another scholastic philosopher? The scholastic method was without any doubt a brilliant medieval achievement, but the philosophical insights were not pursued as an end in itself, but served to clarify the content of faith. All medieval thinkers accepted a wide range of postulates, such as the existence of God and His creative action, the existence of a supernatural order of being etc. That is why I object to the term "Catholic philosophy". It is only much later that philosophy reclaimed its autonomy as an independent discipline without reference to the truths of faith. Theology and philosophy became two different spheres of the same reality.

            I am still wondering why you are so fascinated by scholastic philosophy. It is a great intellectual system, but taking it as the basis of faith in our time seems to me a very conservative approach of faith. It is of course of paramount important to understand what faith is all about but being a Christian means, I think, to be a Church. It means having Faith in a person in which (as you believe) God reveiled Himself; it means giving His Church hands and feet to make it relevant for our time by dealing with the problems of our time. In this sense I think Pope Francis is much more relevant than John Paul II, who was an excellent scholar but represents the conservative Church. As an agnostic I do not agree with the intellectual justification of faith, but I can live with Pope Francis' approach and idea of a living Church as a moral (and often failing) community. And NO, I am not on the verge of conversion.

          • Kevin Aldrich

            What is wrong with going to people who wrote in the 1950s if they turn out to have the answers? The UN Declaration of Human Rights was adopted in 1948. Are these no longer relevant when applied to problems today?

            Do you feel you know enough about the thinking of the middle ages to pass judgment on it? Peter Lombard's "Sentences" was the most popular and influential book for centuries. He listed every disputed question he could find and then provided every citation he could find for what different thinkers said on those questions. To me, that is an incredibly "open" intellectual approach.

            In my opinion, your juxtaposition of JPII as "conservative" and Francis as "relevant" appears to me to show a lack of knowledge about both. JPII's theology of the body, for example, is revolutionary and relevant since it provides a coherent and complete answer to a major problem of the modern world which is the instrumentalization of the human body. On the other hand, lots of people try to read into isolated off the cuff remarks by Francis some new theology.

          • Ladolcevipera

            I am very disappointed by your answer and although I am not a theologian I am not completely illiterate.

          • Kevin Aldrich

            I wish you were not disappointed. Have you read the fourteen encyclicals of JPII and the two of Francis?

          • LaDolceVipera

            I noted that you have been absent from this forum for some time. I hope everything is alright with you?

          • Kevin Aldrich

            Thanks for asking! I've started a new full-time job and a new degree program so I'm pretty swamped.

          • LaDolceVipera

            All the best! Are you on Facebook (or shouldn't I ask)?

          • Kevin Aldrich

            Yes. Same avatar.

  • GCBill

    "But what do I mean to say that these objections are self-refuting? I mean that to claim that God is unknowable is (a) to claim that we cannot
    know His attributes, and (b) to assign Him an attribute, unknowability."

    Suppose I were to argue against the problem of evil from a skeptical theistic perspective, which goes something like this: "We don't possess the cognitive capacities to discern whether or not God lacks morally sufficient reasons for permitting privations of goodness."

    Regardless of what you think of this position, it's pretty clear that one can't respond to it as follows: "The skeptical theist insists that God's will possesses the attribute of unknowability. But then we must know something about it after all, so skeptical theism is false!" The skeptical theist is not talking about what could be known in principle by a less-limited agent, but what we can know in our current state of knowledge.

    If you're still wondering why my comment is relevant to this article, it's because the (strong) agnostic position is analogous in this regard to skeptical theism. I don't think those folks intend to say that God possesses (or would possess if real) the attribute of unknowability. I think they mean to say that we don't possess the attributes necessary to discern whether a being worthy of the title "God" exists or not. The problem lies not with God (ontology), but us (epistemology).

    There is more that can be said about the rest of Mr. Heschmeyer's piece, but I think it less necessary than pointing out that his argument can't get off the ground without a better response to (strong) agnosticism.

  • Ignatius Reilly

    Part one confuses epistemology with ontology. It is completely coherent to say that God may have properties, but we cannot know what those properties are. God being unknowable to us is not a property of God, but rather a property of our methods of searching for knowledge and the limitations of those methods.

    God being unknowable is the same as saying that for any proposition about God we cannot say whether it is true or false. This is not a property about God this is a property of our knowledge.

    Part II:

    Or conversely, every cause must be equal or greater to its effects.

    Perhaps. When I strike a match, in what way is the frictional force and the chemical reaction greater than the effect of fire?

    From Joe's examples about money and oranges, it seems he is perhaps arguing that the cause must be greater than the effect with respect to whatever property the cause is effecting. In other words, if cause A effects a fire B that cause A must be hotter and more fiery than the effect B. This is definitely not true, although such an idea is necessary for the argument by degree.

    If however, we use a looser interpretation of Joe's argument, I think the premise is still false. I can start a large bonfire with a small flame. Is the cause, a small flame, greater than the effect? If so, in what way?

    We have physical laws like conservation of momentum and energy that actually tell us something about how the world works and what we except. I am not completely sure what it means for a cause to be greater than its effects.

    Finally, everything present in the effect must be present (at least in potency) in the cause.

    Not at all. Endothermic reactions for instance.

    Here again, I’m pointing out things so basic that they ought to be uncontroversial.

    Except they are wrong.

    First, we’re looking for the sort of Cause capable of creating an entire universe (not just “sparking” a cosmic chain of events, mind you, but keeping all of reality in existence at every moment). Second, we can see that the universe was caused by something equal to or greater than the entire universe, combined. And finally, everything in the universe must be present in some way in the Cause. This doesn’t just point to God, but a specific sort of God.

    Since your premises are dubious at best, we have not arrived at any type of god, let alone a specific God.

    • Raymond

      And going back to the orange for a second - the fact that you can get only two ounces of juice out of a three ounce orange doesn't mean that the orange is "greater" than the juice. It just means that the orange has two ounces of juice in it. Semantics does not trump reality.

      • Aquinasbot

        Greater in the sense that it posses that much, but does not posses more so it at least has that much to give.

        In other words, a 3oz orange cannot produce 4oz of juice because it does not have 4oz juice to give. But it does possess 3oz and it may produce 2oz because it has at least that much to give.

        • Raymond

          So...bigger. You mean bigger.

          • Aquinasbot

            I'm not anchoring it in any particular accidental feature like size. It is simply that in order to give 3 oz of juice it must possess at least that much.

            You cannot give someone $20 if you don't have it, whether on hand, in your account, on a credit card, access to the treasury printing press. If you have no way of "having it" then you cannot give it.

            I think everyone is getting too hung up on the term "greater" because they automatically assume it must refer to some accidental feature of that thing.

          • Raymond

            Well that is the only way the argument has any meaning. Otherwise it is equivalent to "water is wet, rocks are hard".

    • Aquinasbot

      When I strike a match, in what way is the frictional force and the chemical reaction greater than the effect of fire?

      Greater in the sense that it possess that which it causes prior to the thing which is caused actually comes into existence. In other words, this particular match that is lit up could not realize its potential to be on fire without first being actualized by something that in some way posses the power to actualize its potential.

      The lit match could not exist without first a thought of a lit match preexisting in your mind. Your concept of a complete match combined with your desire to have one initiated the action (friction) to get the match lit, which according to its properties, had the potential to be lit but required the heat from friction to be actualized.

      if cause A effects a fire B that cause A must be hotter and more fiery than the effect B.

      No. It is rather that if cause A effects fire B then cause A must posses what is causes in B.

      Not at all. Endothermic reactions for instance.

      Endothermic reactions would mean the system that absorbs the energy must first have the potential to absorb it and that it be in the proper environment to pull energy from in order to actualize.

  • Raymond

    Does the author think that this column is an exercise in logic, or philosophy? What it really is is an exercise in semantics. Language is flexible - you can use it to express ideas, descriptions, dialogue, math problems, stories, songs, and lots of other things. Just because you can say "the sky is purple polka dots" doesn't mean that you can make other observations about the sky based on that statement. It is all word play.

    Not only that, but it's a HUGE leap in logic to make the "arguments" in this article and follow them with "therefore Jesus Christ". God's "entry into history" is an article of faith, and no amount of semantics is going to get someone to believe it based on the "logical" "arguments" in this article.

    • Aquinasbot

      You made an argument about everything in the article being word play but gave no specific examples. Please provide examples, at least one, that is simply "word play" and we can examine if your argument holds water.

      • Raymond

        We can start with this one. I showed it to be nonsense in another post in this thread, and many others commented on it as well.

        "every cause must be equal or greater to its effects. If you’ve got 8 ounces of juice, you didn’t get that just from squeezing two 3 ounce oranges. The equal or greater part here is important. Whoever left $50 on your table must have had at least $50, but could have started with much more."

        Totally empty of all thought and reason. If you got two ounces of juice from a three ounce orange, it doesn't mean the orange is "greater" than the juice. All it means is that the orange has two ounces of juice in it. The part about $50 is simply apropos of nothing.

        You can put all the words together that you want, but unless there is thought behind them, they dont make for convincing arguments.

        • Aquinasbot

          It can mean greater in many ways, but in this example of it greater in quantity. If you deny this then you deny reason.

          And how is the part about $50 "apropos of nothing"?

          Is it not that true that if someone left $50 at your table that the person who left it there had to have at least (no less) than $50?

          You cannot give what you don't have. I thing cannot give what it does not posses. Fire cannot give heat unless it has it, a book cannot give knowledge unless it contains it, a light bulb cannot give light it less it has it.

          So far the only "apropos of nothing" I've seen here are your comments.

          • Raymond

            You are certainly entitled to your opinion of my comments. But your explanation of how an orange is greater than orange juice doesn't have anything to do with "knowing anything about God." Nor to your examples for "you cannot give what you don't have". How does "I have at least $50 so I spent $50 tell you anything about God? It doesn't. You can collect all the facile statements you want but nothing in this article points to God.

          • Aquinasbot

            The orange example is not meant to be a standalone argument for knowing anything about God, it is part of a whole that explains things we intuitively understand and believe AND that are true. If you deny what was stated then you are in essence denying reality. That's fine if you're willing to commit to that philosophy but nothing of what you have said has refuted either the specific statements you're criticizing or the argument as a whole.

            All you have done so far is made assertions without qualification and without any counter-argument.

          • Raymond

            Unfortunately, if you are trying to explain logically how you believe something intuitively then I'm not the one who is denying reality.

  • "(d) He rose from the dead, a fact confirmed both by the Empty Tomb inwhich He was buried, and the testimony of several eyewitnesses who saw
    His risen [These eyewitnesses were cruelly tortured and executed, and
    yet not one of them recanted]."

    I know I hit this below, but it deserves its own treatment. These are exaggerations at best and flat out lying at worse. They should be relegated to the dustbin of bad apologetics.

    Credible eyewitness testimony is evidence of a thing, but even then it is tenuous. But in this case it is not clear that we even have any eyewitness testimony, much less that it is credible. We have anonymous Gospels that are attributed to people as eyewitnesses. The mainstream historical opinion is that we don't know who wrote the gospels. (Listen to this interesting discussion with Bart Erhman on Unbelievable, wherein he repeats, this is not a fringe view, it was what he was taught in seminary.)

    To be fair it does seem that historians do accept that people reported seeing Jesus alive and walking after his execution.

    But more troubling is this often repeated claim that "[These eyewitnesses were cruelly tortured and executed, and yet not one of them recanted]" Not true. Not even close. When this claim is investigated it is laughably weak. It is on par with young earth arguments and anti-evolution.

    http://www.premierchristianradio.com/Shows/Saturday/Unbelievable/Episodes/Unbelievable-Bart-Ehrman-vs-Tim-McGrew-Round-1-Can-we-trust-the-Gospels

    http://freethoughtblogs.com/reasonabledoubts/2013/05/03/episode-114-the-myth-of-martyrdom-part-2-who-would-die-for-a-lie/

    Oh heck, a little self promotion won't get me banned will it? https://soundcloud.com/brian-green-adams/a-salmon-of-doubt-ep-4-the-argument-from-scripture

    • Raymond

      Agreed. The fact that someone is tortured and doesn't recant doesn't prove that something is true. The best you can say that they believed it was true.

      • But we don't even have that evidence. No one is reported to have been given the option of surviving if they admitted Jesus did not rise from the dead. We have reports of disciples being killed.

        • Doug Shaver

          We have reports of disciples being killed.

          They're not contemporary reports, either. The reports were written at least a few generations afterward, and the authors don't identify their sources.

    • Doug Shaver

      To be fair it does seem that historians do accept that people reported seeing Jesus alive and walking after his execution.

      A few historians accept it. Many do not.

      • Can you name some? I'd be very interested in a good authority on this. I usually consider Bart Erhman to be pretty mainstream on this, and reputable. If there is real dispute on this question, I think it pretty much kills the argument from scripture.

        • Doug Shaver

          On closer reading, though, I see that I misunderstood what you wrote, which was that historians accept that people reported seeing Jesus alive and walking. I thought you were claiming historians accept that people actually saw him alive and walking. That was very careless on my part.

          With that noted, I still don't think the consensus among credentialed historians is as strong as you imply. However, the only name I can give you of a dissenter is Richard Carrier. I have not searched for others and don't have time for a search right now.

          • Richard Carrier is a mythicist, people like him and Robert Price don't even believe in the historical Jesus. So obviously they will not accept the resurrection. But I think even they will acknowledge this is a minority position. I'm open to it, but I don't have the expertise to scrutinize it.

            Erhman says he accepts that people saw "something", likely a hallucination. I expect the stories are a mixture of myth, error, hallucination (or perhaps dreams) and so on.

          • Doug Shaver

            But I think even they will acknowledge this is a minority position.

            Yes, they are quite aware of the overwhelming consensus against them.

            I'm open to it, but I don't have the expertise to scrutinize it.

            That looks like a reasonable position to me.

  • David Nickol

    But what do I mean to say that these objections are self-refuting? I mean that to claim that God is unknowable is (a) to claim that we cannot know His attributes, and (b) to assign Him an attribute, unknowability.

    There seem to me to be numerous problems with the above. For example, it does not seem to me that "unknowability" is a clearly defined attribute, or even an attribute at all.

    If to say that God is unknowable is "to claim that we cannot know His attributes," who is the "we" and why is it a standard of "knowability"? If "we" means humankind, then isn't it a rather bold statement to claim that human limitations define an attribute of God himself? To say that God is unknowable, it seems to me, is not a statement about God, but rather a statement about what humans may know about God.

    Also, the logic, such as it is, clearly applies to the claim that Quetzalcoatl is unknowable. For to say that Quetzalcoatl is unknowable is (a) to claim that we cannot know his attributes, and (b) to assign him an attribute, unknowability. But certainly Christians would say that Quetzalcoatl never existed. (By the way, is nonexistence an attribute?) So although one can make an argument that saying "X is unknowable" is self-contradictory, it doesn't in any way prove that X actually exists, nor does it tell us anything about X.

    It does seem to me that the God of the philosophers is basically incomprehensible. If God does not exist in time, his "experience" is utterly alien to our own. What can it possibly even mean to say that a person exists for whom there is no past, present, or future?

  • TomD123

    "[E]verything present in the effect must be present (at least in potency) in the cause"

    I have a problem with this. I am not sure that it is incorrect, but my worry is this: The claim either seems trivially true or incredibly difficult to justify. For instance, wood can 'cause' fire. But in what sense is fire "in" the wood? The only meaningful answer seem to be that wood has a causal power or disposition to bring about fires. But this isn't terribly interesting and when applied to the cause of the universe, it just means that this cause has the disposition to bring about our universe...well...obviously.

    Any interpretation of the initial claim which is more controversial and more interesting seems very difficult to justify. Merely claiming that the effect must in some sense exist in the cause or that the cause must be greater than the effect doesn't make that the case.

  • Peter

    From a purely naturalistic standpoint - and materialists have admitted this - in us (and presumably others around the cosmos) the universe has evolved to the point of consciousness and self awareness where it is questioning its own existence.

    The question, which becomes more urgent as the likelihood of other conscious species becomes greater, is why would the universe do that? Why is it configured from the outset to develop widespread consciousness? Such consciousness is not a random by-product but the culmination of material evolution over billions of years, where the human brain (and presumably that of others around the cosmos) represents the pinnacle of material complexity.

    By asking the above question, a materialist would argue that it is the universe asking the question about itself. But that's the point. Why would the universe ask a question about its origin and purpose, unless it was preconfigured to ask that question by the agency that designed and created it? Could it be that the universe was so designed and created to eventually seek out the one who designed and created it?

    Even a materialist perspective cannot avoid the likelihood of an agency.

    • Ladolcevipera

      Why would the universe ask a question about its origin and purpose, unless it was preconfigured to ask that question by the agency that designed and created it?

      We ask the question about our origin and ultimate destiny because we are lost in the universe and we are afraid. We are looking for some comfort but there isn't any. We are alone and have to face our fate.

      • Peter

        Are we alone? I'm not sure. Better detection methods are revealing planets increasingly like earth. I appears only to be a question of time.

        • Ladolcevipera

          That is true. But by "being alone" I was not referring to aliens but to the absence of a creator who cares about his creatures.

          • Ladolcevipera

            Oops. I'm not sure about the connotation of "creature" when used in connection with "created human beings". If it is demeaning, it was not meant to be. It is a question of translation.

    • Phil Rimmer

      " why would the universe do that? Why is it configured from the outset to develop widespread consciousness?"

      Anthropocentric question, maybe missing the real question. Consciousness is a manifestation of the most complex entities known in the universe, brains. Complexity arises as a product of those qualities of energy and matter that underlie the Second Law of Thermodynamics. Complexity, more efficiently speeds us to the heat-death of the Universe. Conscious brains seem set to engineer self generating complexity, stepping things up further. No initial agency here.

      • joey_in_NC

        No initial agency here.

        Given how you materialistically describe human consciousness, does "agency" even exist, other than an abstraction of complex material interactions?

        So your concluding sentence could have simply been, "No agency."

        • Phil Rimmer

          I don't think so. Agency has a perfectly good meaning in accounting for the behaviours of things, the ability to act. And in philosophy, consciousness, even, isn't a necessary aspect.

          The case for an absolutely deterministic world can be made but is trivial and ignores the major fact (to adapt a book title of Dennett's) Agency Evolves. The varieties of actions and the reach of their acting, available to an agent, are ever increased by the fact of agency itself at its "evolvable" genetic and cultural attributes. The richness of potential actions stands in stark contrast to an object capable only of reaction.

          • joey_in_NC

            Agency has a perfectly good meaning in accounting for the behaviours of things, the ability to act.

            An amoeba has the ability to act. It has the ability to eat and swim. Does that mean an amoeba has agency?

            The growing richness of potential actions stands in stark contrast to an object capable only of reaction.

            So does complexity entail agency. A modern computer also has a richness of potential actions depending on what inputs one gives it. Does that mean a computer has agency?

          • Phil Rimmer

            Agency evolves. Amoeba, whenever they may be said to have more than one possible action in a circumstance, enabling them to escape a predator, say, have started on the evolutionary path of an agent.

            Watch the TED talk by Daniel Wolpert on brains and their original function of movement, animating animals.

            Computers, as agents, are exactly the intention of AI. Currently they are proxies for for human agency, but its getting close.

        • William Davis

          Of course agency exists, materialism just gives a testable account. Even slime mold, with no obvious nervous system, has a degree of agency (though obviously much simpler than higher mammals).

          http://www.pbs.org/newshour/rundown/the-sublime-slime-mold/

          Google's self driving car also exhibits agency, though getting ethics right in this type of AI will be a serious challenge

          http://www.technologyreview.com/news/539731/how-to-help-self-driving-cars-make-ethical-decisions/

          • joey_in_NC

            Even slime mold, with no obvious nervous system, has a degree of agency...

            Well that's my point. From a purely materialist perspective, agency doesn't actually exist accept as an abstraction of complex material interactions. In this sense, anything could be regarded as having "agency". Even slime mold.

          • William Davis

            Do you deny agency in slime mold? I don't see how the background philosophy matters here, which is what I'm trying to get at. Aquinas would be content with mold souls, which obviously aren't rational, but souls nonetheless.

          • joey_in_NC

            Do you deny agency in slime mold?

            Like I said, anything could be regarded as having agency given the arbitrariness of the materialist definition. Even a stopwatch.

          • Phil Rimmer

            Stopwatches are the exemplar of predictable mechanisms. They don't often wrong-foot you.

          • joey_in_NC

            You didn't answer the question. Does a stopwatch have agency? How does 'predictability' matter?

            And if predictability does plays a role, then at what point does a complex and practically unpredictable system acquire agency?

          • Phil Rimmer

            No. Agency is all about unpredictability through having multiple self acting choices in as many situations as possible. In the arms race this causes for evolution agency detection is all about mitigating personal risks. Mistaking snakes for sticks rather than vice versa will soon have you bred out of existence. Agency has the element of surprise (potentially nasty) not characteristic of mere sticks.

          • William Davis

            In sociology and philosophy, agency is the capacity of an agent (a person or other entity, human or any living being in general, or soul-consciousness in religion) to act in any given environment.

            https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Agency_(philosophy)

            Human agency is a subclass of the larger class of agency...this is standard in philosophy (all philosophies that I'm aware of). Where are you getting your definition of agency? How does a stopwatch act in a given environment? It doesn't meet the criteria, while slime mold and AI do. Both AI and slime mold make decisions based on environmental information. Obviously the agency of slime mold is extremely simplistic, while the agency of AI is growing more and more human-like. Here's an AI teaching itself to play atari games (it isn't programmed to do it). It actually learned to play the game far beyond any human (advanced strategic learning).

            https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EfGD2qveGdQ

          • George

            How does asserting the immaterial make it better? How does and a spirit account for minds and agency?

          • joey_in_NC

            An immaterial spirit/soul is irreducible. It's a fundamental unit that allows the concept of agency (at least philosophical agency) to make any sense since agency can get assigned to an irreducible unit.

            In the material realm, at what point do you stop reducing agency? It becomes entirely arbitrary.

          • William Davis

            Split brain patients can be useful for explanation. Your whole brain is required for you to be you. Split it, and you have two halves that are somewhat like you but not the same. Each half has it's own agency and decision making, even making different life choices in some cases. There is a great deal to be learned about human agency from brain damage. To me, this is right next to proof that your "spirit" theory is wrong, though some would claim it has not explanatory power and is not even wrong.

            https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-superhuman-mind/201211/split-brains

            Some patients even have alien hand syndrome (the two sides literally fight over what to do), though not all cases are this severe, and alien hand can have other causes I think.

            https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dIBBDuQrd-I

            Add to it the critical nature of the hippocampus. Without this brain structure, one cannot form any new memories, thus you would be fixed as the same agent for the rest of you life, unable to remember anything past 15 minutes (short term memory operates by a different mechanism). These are physical processes that are beginning to be well understood by science and engineer.

            https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/trouble-in-mind/201201/hm-the-man-no-memory

            It's no accident that epilepsy was confused for demon possession. I can show you were Jesus mistook it for demon possession in Mark 9 (14-29). The spirit model of mind is just wrong, though minds clearly exist and are being explained via complex mechanisms and causation. The artificial agent I showed you the other day was created via better understanding of the human hippocampus. The fact that we can build a powerful learning agent capable of strategic thinking on it's own, is powerful evidence of this understanding that grows each year. It's no surprise that everyone at the upper end of science and technology even considers the soul hypothesis. Here is a good article by a bright clinical neurologist at Yale on the subject.

            http://theness.com/neurologicablog/index.php/the-mind-brain-problem-a-creationist-rebuttal/

          • George

            You do know you are just making up that stuff about the supposed soul, right?

      • Peter

        I disagree. A low entropy beginning puts the universe on a course towards high entropy. Local complexity is necessary to contribute overall entropy to the universe. The universe is driven to create ever increasing complexity in order to increase its net entropy.

        The universe has no choice but to create complexity right up to the point where it achieves consciousness. Consciousness is an inevitable and necessary consequence of the universe's drive towards high entropy.

        It is perfectly rational for an agent who designs the universe with the intention of creating widespread consciousness to employ a process of low to high entropy. No one can imagine a more efficient and effective natural mechanism for the creation of consciousness.

        • Phil Rimmer

          " Consciousness is an inevitable and necessary consequence of the universe's drive towards high entropy."

          Not necessarily. We have no idea how complexity may have evolved in other ways, perhaps spectacularly better than what we see.

          As pointed out a few times here now the huge increase in the available choices within the various solution spaces, both cosmological and evolutionary less than ever specify a specific anthropic-type outcome from any button push. This is still Deism indistinguishable from physics.

          • Peter

            "Complexity arises as a product of those qualities of energy and matter that underlie the Second Law of Thermodynamics. Complexity, more efficiently speeds us to the heat-death of the Universe."

            You seem to be contradicting yourself. You say that complexity is an product of entropy which efficiently speeds it along, and then you deny that complexity in the form of consciousness is necessarily such.

          • Phil Rimmer

            No I'm not saying consciousness is a necessary outcome, only complex things are. I didn't describe consciousness as complex only brains. I suggested given the other solutions possible, quite other forms of complexity may have arisen. We simply cannot know.

          • Peter

            The materialist position is that consciousness is an emergent property of complexity. Are you denying that?

          • Phil Rimmer

            Clearly not of all complexities. The infant brain by 24-30 months has far greater complexity than it will ever have again. Few if any biographical memories are stored, only subconscious, semantic memories. The capacity for agency, too, is tiny compared with the less complex brained adult (half the synapse count of the toddler).

            There is no necessity of outcome here for complexity. More complex need not correlate with more conscious.

            I do, however, believe that consciousness needs a complex substrate from which to emerge.

    • Doug Shaver

      Could it be that the universe was so designed and created to eventually seek out the one who designed and created it?

      Yes, it could be. That doesn't imply that it is.

  • Doug Shaver

    Finally, everything present in the effect must be present (at least in potency) in the cause.

    Sounds like you're channeling Aristotle. Why should I take his word for anything?

  • Michael Murray

    Can we actually know anything about God?

    Can we actually know anything about a concept that is not defined ? No.

    • Peter

      Well, the universe has the appearance being designed. In the absence of evidence that the universe is anything other than what it appears to be, the most parsimonious conclusion would be that the universe is what it appears to be, which is designed.

      Nothing can be designed without a designer, and therefore the appearance that the universe is designed points to the presence of a designer. It gives us knowledge that such a designer exists, or at least could exist. If we equate a designer with God, we can in this way have knowledge of God.

      • Phil Rimmer

        A shallow pan of water on a hob at one point creates a very pleasing pattern of interlocking, hexagonal convection cells like a honeycomb. Designed or driven by thermodynamics and a principle of least action? Ockham, Laplace and I have no need of the former hypothesis.

        All such appearance of design is understood and traced back to the few most primitive set of physics constants. (Dumb auto catalysis lies at the root of me and evolution (alive on this very laptop generating designoids to its heart's content) is its more familiar manifestation. Cosmoses are self formed in models on super computers. All this leaves a Designer a simple button to push. The solution spaces for entities like us are growing all the time (from Cosmology through to Evolution) as we research them. Pressing a go button is pressing the button on a very un-prescribed future.

        • Peter

          You keep banging on about solution spaces without actually defining what they are.

          • Phil Rimmer

            Solution spaces are the conceptual range of values or forms a cosmological constant, say, or protein might satisfactorily adopt and still be viable for the functions examined.

            Andreas Wagner and his team in Switzerland have explored evolutionary solution spaces for many evolutionary forms. We use a photosensitive protein opsin in our retinal rods and cones. Given 10^28 (from memory!) possible protein configurations, the solution space, the number of photosensitive proteins is more than just the unlikely number of one, opsin. Proteins function in a way best imagined as topological rather than chemical. It is the nature of the folded sheets and coils, sprung hinges and cavities just so, that count. It turns out a million possible photosensitive protein solutions exist (again from memory!).

            But here's the thing. Genes are often multifunction. Organism attributes may depend on the co-functioning of several genes exploiting other attributes of the same proteins coded for. Evolution is in the game of co-opting whatever is already to hand, and different protein solutions for one attribute will drive entirely different paths in these second order co-optings. Evolutionary solutions are much more abundant than we thought but so too the opportunity for difference.

            Andreas Wagner, "The Arrival of the Fittest." (I suspect you will get a lot out of this book.)

            Wiki fine tuned universe and you will find a paragraph on the solution space for three cosmological constants that would permit star formation. The solution space is given the rather coarse tuned value of 25% of all possible values of the constants.

            Edit. Wrongly placed this. Deleted and reposted here

          • Peter

            Can you reproduce this last paragraph?

          • Phil Rimmer

            I mis-remembered the precise words. Solution space is the functional subset of the parameter space. The two go together.

            "Fred Adams has investigated the existence of stars in universes with different values of the gravitational constant G, the fine-structure constant α, and a nuclear reaction rate parameter C. The study found that stars can exist in approximately 25% of the parameter space. His criteria of star existence is based on achieving sustained nuclear reaction and he suggests considering other factors, i.e. cosmic expansion, etc. in future work. The study addressed the question of whether stars can exist, not if life can exist—asking the question about the life would introduce additional requirements that will place additional constraints.[27]"

            I

      • Doug Shaver

        In the absence of evidence that the universe is anything other than what it appears to be, the most parsimonious conclusion would be that the universe is what it appears to be, which is designed.

        Suppose we have evidence that the appearance of design can exist without actual design?

  • Doug Shaver

    He rose from the dead, a fact confirmed both by the Empty Tomb in which He was buried, and the testimony of several eyewitnesses who saw His risen

    That is not a fact. It is an apologetic dogma.

    [These eyewitnesses were cruelly tortured and executed, and yet not one of them recanted].

    More dogma. Aside from Christian legends, there is no evidence that anybody personally acquainted with Jesus suffered anything because of any testimony they gave about him.

  • to claim that God is unknowable is (a) to claim that we cannot know His attributes, and (b) to assign Him an attribute, unknowability.

    Obviously, (a) and (b) can’t both be true.

    That last line is illogical. Others have pointed out that "to claim that God is unknowable" doesn't imply either A or B, but it's also important to point out that A and B can both be true. This is because we can (and millions of religious people do) assign an attribute to God and simply believe it without claiming to know it.

    Something has gone very wrong with your editing process when you're publishing claims that something is "obvious" despite that it's a non sequitur fallacy!

  • Doug Shaver

    But what do I mean to say that these objections are self-refuting? I mean that to claim that God is unknowable is (a) to claim that we cannot know His attributes, and (b) to assign Him an attribute, unknowability.

    OK. Let's try this. Let the proposition be: We cannot know about about God except that he is unknowable. Is that self-refuting?

    • eddie too

      if you can know something about God, then He is not unknowable. however, our knowledge of God may be limited by our own finite and imperfect intellects and is certainly limited by our unwillingness to seek Him and love Him..
      now, a little tongue in cheek, my second sentence above is pretty much proven by the many posts in this thread.

      • Doug Shaver

        If we say that we know that we cannot know anything about God, then we contradict ourselves. That suffices to make it a self-refuting statement. If we say that we cannot know anything about God except that he is unknowable, then there is no contradiction.

        If some people say they know something about God, I am not being unreasonable if I ask for better evidence than their say-so. The closest I've seen anyone come to providing such evidence is Alvin Plantinga in his book Warranted Christian Belief.

  • eddie too

    non-life is about as meaningless a word as I can imagine.

  • eddie too

    a few things we can know about God is that He is necessarily unlimited, infinite in other words. we can know He is eternal, without beginning or end in other words. we can know there is only one Being that is both infinite and eternal.
    we know God is infinite because if a being can be limited then there is something greater than that being. I suppose you could posit and infinite series of beings with ever increasing limitations, but that series would still have to be unlimited.
    we know God is eternal because otherwise, just like with infinity, there would have had to have been something before God. if you posit that there was something before God, then whatever there was before would be God, not the finite, created being you have mistaken for God.