Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Out of Our Heads

So first of all, I realize that I haven't posted in forever. I am very sorry about that. My only excuse is the ungodly amount of classwork I have. But I promise, as soon as it is all done for the semester (which will only be a couple more weeks) I will be back, posting like a fiend. In the meantime, I thought some of you might find a paper I just wrote for class rather interesting. It is a review of a book by a philosopher/neuroscientist titled Out of Our Heads: Why You Are Not Your Brain, and Other Lessons from the Biology of Consciousness. Obviously, it is about philosophy of consciousness/perception. I highly recommend it. If you're interested, read on; if not, no hard feelings. If you have any questions about anything in the paper, feel free to comment like usual. I'll be back with my regular posts (and the completion of the series I started long ago) soon. Stay tuned.

            Philosopher, cognitive scientist, and neuroscientist Alva Noë’s recent book Out of Our Heads: Why You Are Not Your Brain, and Other Lessons from the Biology of Consciousness purports itself to be something of a game-changer in the world of neuroscience and the philosophy of perception. Says Noë in the preface: “I am writing the book to change the world. Or at least to shake up the cognitive science establishment. I am aware that that’s a tall order and that in some ways it may seem presumptuous even to try” (Noë xiv). Presumptuous indeed. I will suspend judgment on whether or not he succeeded for now. But there is no doubt that what he proposes here would certainly require a rethinking of what philosophers and scientists in the related fields have taken for granted for some time: namely that consciousness, whatever else it may be, resides in our heads. This Noë denies repeatedly and with conviction, arguing instead for what he calls variously an “ecological,” “embodied,” “enactive” approach. Here I will examine the main ideas and arguments of the book and provide some brief critical comments. As it turns out, Noë is an entertaining writer and illustrates his points well, and so I will be quoting from him extensively.
            In chapter one, “An Astonishing Hypothesis,” Noë sets forth the establishment view as epitomized by Nobel laureate Francis Crick:
you, your joys and your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behavior of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules…This hypothesis is so alien to the ideas of most people alive today that it can truly be called astonishing (5).
Noë disagrees. Not only is this view not “astonishing,” it is what has been assumed unquestioningly since Descartes himself, if not longer. “It isn’t surprising to be told that there is a thing inside each of us that thinks and feels and wants and decides,” says Noë (5). The only difference between this view and Descartes’ is that the “thinking thing” is now supposed to be physical rather than immaterial. But far from solving the problem of consciousness, Noë says, this distinction merely restates it in new terms. Instead, he proposes what he thinks is “a really astonishing hypothesis”:
…to understand consciousness—the fact that we think and feel and that a world shows up for us—we need to look at a larger system of which the brain is only one element. Consciousness is not something the brain achieves on its own. Consciousness requires the joint operation of brain, body, and world. Indeed, consciousness is an achievement of the whole animal in its environmental context. I deny, in short, that you are your brain…To have a mind…requires more than a brain. Brains don’t have minds; people (and other animals) do.
In essence, consciousness is not something we have somewhere inside us; it is something we do (24).
            To illustrate his point, he critiques the classic “brain in a vat” line of thought experiment, pointing out that such a thing could never amount to what we would call real consciousness without many adjustments. For one, brains don’t have faces, or any of the other markers by which humans are used to identifying consciousness. Also, in order to achieve an even remotely analogous situation to real-life brain processing, what might the vat have to look like? Says Noë, “If you actually try to think through the details of this thought experiment…it’s clear that the vat would have to be, in effect, something like a living body” (13).
            Just in case we might think the current discussion one for the academy, Noë brings it a little closer to home by highlighting direct clinical application in cases of patients diagnosed with persistent vegetative state (PVS) and locked-in syndrome. In the former, the patient is thought to be “brain-dead,” often permanently, even though the body will still often respond to external stimuli. In the latter, the patient is by all appearances vegetative, but she remains fully conscious, though unable to communicate. Patients with locked-in syndrome can sometimes learn to communicate by elaborate systems of blinking, and some have even written memoirs describing the experience. Noë asks us to imagine having a family member with such a diagnosis. Would we be content with the brain scan which tells us that our loved one has PVS rather than locked-in syndrome? Is neuronal activity as measured by positron emission tomography (PET) or functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) a reliable indicator of consciousness? Reliable enough to make a life-ending decision? Of course Noë is not denying the usefulness of such imaging technology, but he is careful to remind us that it does not actually provide us with a direct picture of consciousness in action, as is so easily assumed:
Brain scans thus represent the mind at three steps of removal: they represent physical magnitudes correlated to blood flow; the blood flow in turn is correlated to neural activity; the neural activity in turn is supposed to correlate to mental activity (24).
In chapter two, “Conscious Life,” Noë offers something of a solution to the age-old philosophical problem of how we arrive at and justify the widespread belief that there are minds other than our own. Rather than attempting to solve it logically as so many before him, Noë denies the need to raise it to begin with. This is because “our commitment to other minds is…not really a theoretical commitment at all,” but rather “a presupposition of the kind of life we lead together” (32-3). The knowledge that there are minded beings other than ourselves just comes with living in the world we find ourselves in. It is not an abstract knowledge to be arrived at by inference, but rather a necessary feature of our experience, a natural element of our relationships with other persons. As Noë puts it, “I cannot both trust and love you and also wonder whether, in fact, you are alive with thought and feeling, just as I cannot dance well if I am counting steps and trying to remember what comes next” (33). Noë sees the consciousness-contained-in-the-skull establishment view as promoting a “detached, mechanistic attitude to human beings,” which essentially denies the relational nature of consciousness and encourages an unnecessary problem. Instead, he suggests that the proper perspective from which to study consciousness is the biological one, viewing the organism as a unit that is bound up with its environment. For Noë, “the problem of consciousness…is…the problem of life” (41). He apparently means this quite literally; to live is to be conscious, and vice versa. And of course to be conscious is to be intentionally and actively engaged in one’s environment. Noë grants that there are of course internal neural correlates of consciousness, but points out that “there are external correlates of consciousness too,” namely the activities in which we find ourselves engaged on a daily basis (42). This is further supported by the observation that sudden, significant changes in one’s environment, such as a move or the death of a loved one, are often devastating. This is not surprising when one considers the intimate relationship between consciousness and one’s daily routine. Such a change is quite literally to lose a part of oneself, a theme to which Noë returns frequently later in the book.
Chapter three, “The Dynamics of Consciousness,” provides additional argument for Noë’s novel approach in the form of some very interesting experiments involving ferrets, phantom limbs, and video cameras, respectively. MIT researcher Mriganka Sur “re-wired,” as it were, newborn ferrets, routing the connections between their eyes and brain so that the cells in the eye that normally made neural connections with the “visual” centers of the brain now made those connections in areas of the brain normally thought of as auditory. The result was both surprising and instructive: rather than hearing with their eyes, the ferrets developed vision, even though an entirely different area of the brain was involved. Clearly, the touted neural correlates of consciousness do not tell the whole story. What this experiment shows is that far from being sufficient for conscious experience as the establishment view would have it, “there is no necessary connection between the character of experience and the behavior of certain cells” (54).
Similarly, the phenomenon of so-called “phantom limbs” further illustrates the point. Sometimes after the amputation of a limb, the patient will report the persistence of sensations in that limb. It is not that the patient is having convincing hallucinations of feeling in the missing limb; when touched on the face, the patient actually feels a touch on the hand that is no longer there. This is presumably because the “face region” of the cortex somehow becomes entangled with the “hand region” (apparently they are next to one another), so that a touch on the face activates the hand region of the cortex (albeit by way of the face) and so produces the sensation of being touched on the missing limb. When contrasted with the ferret case, this shows that changes in the stimulation of brain areas do not always result in changes in the character of the resulting experiences.
In case we are still not convinced, Paul Bach-y-Rita’s tactile-visual sensory substitution system (TVSS) ought to do the trick. The late Bach-y-Rita was actually able to devise a system which allowed blind patients to attain some level of what can only be called vision. Basically, TVSS involves mounting a video camera on the patient’s body and wiring to it a system of vibrators that are in turn attached to the subject’s thigh or abdomen. The vibrations correspond with the visual information presented to the camera, and, remarkably, when given a little while to adjust to the system (a matter of hours or even minutes), patients are able to correctly judge the size, shape, and number of objects across the room from them, pick up objects, and even successfully swat a ball with a paddle. It is important to note that the subject is not experiencing the feeling of being touched on the abdomen and then somehow correlating this with the location of spatial objects; she reports an actual visual experience, and apparently an accurate one. As in the ferret case, the areas of the brain usually devoted to touch are changing their function in order to allow for vision. But with TVSS, the brain is not exhibiting the same sort of plasticity we see in the ferret case; it is using fully matured neuronal connections in novel ways to achieve new ends. But how can vibrations on the abdomen allow one to see? Noë is very glad you asked:
We see with Bach-y-Rita’s system because the relationship that system sets up and maintains between the perceiver and the object is, in ways that can be made precise, the sort of relation that we bear to things when we see them. What causes the effects for consciousness of neural activity in the touch-dedicated parts of the brain to change? Answer: the world and our relation to it (59).
“But,” one may object, “can we really call what TVSS accomplishes vision? After all, doesn’t seeing require the use of eyes?” In response to this, Noë points out that normal vision and what TVSS does “share a style.” That is to say, sensory stimulation in each depends on movement in much the same way: things get bigger when they move closer; they disappear when you turn away from them, etc. More to the point still, this movement is what fixes the visual character of TVSS, not the neural activity in the somatosensory cortex. In short, conscious experience is not confined to the limits of the nervous system; it is actively engaged with the world around us. Noë likens the relation between brain and consciousness to the relation between a musician and her instrument, concluding that “the idea that consciousness is a phenomenon of the brain…is as fantastic as the idea of a self-playing orchestra” (64).
            In the chapter entitled “Wide Minds,” Noë elaborates on the influence of the external world on our conscious experience. We are, he says, “tangled up…with the places we find ourselves. We are of them” (69). He illustrates this with the “rubber hand phenomenon,” in which a rubber, lifelike hand is placed on a table in front of a subject who is seated at the table, her own hands out of view under it. A second person taps the rubber hand repeatedly, while one of the subject’s hands is simultaneously tapped in synchrony, under the table. Oddly enough, the subject experiences the feeling of being tapped on the rubber hand on the table. Alternately, we may consider how our visual experience affects our auditory perception. For example, we experience dialogue in a movie as coming from the actors’ mouths, even though it is actually coming from speakers elsewhere. Similarly, the ventriloquist utilizes this phenomenon to make it seem as though her own voice is coming from the puppet. Clearly, the environment impinges heavily on conscious experience. In fact, the rubber hand case seems to suggest that “attachment or connectedness is not necessary for something to be a part of me,” or at least to be experienced as a part of me (75). But just how far Noë intends for us to take this connectedness is not entirely clear. He says later, “there is no principled reason not to think of the wristwatch, the landmarks, the pen and paper, the linguistic community, as belonging to my mind” (82). Of course he is not advocating some weak solipsism here; he is merely stressing our involvement in the world and its involvement in our conscious experience. Nonetheless, it raises the question of exactly how far our selves extend. More on this later.
            Chapter five, “Habits” expands on this theme with a thorough discussion of the role of habit—and how that habit is shaped by our environment—in our conscious experience. Noë utilizes the distinction between expert and novice, pointing out the interesting fact that for the novice, there is a positive correlation between the amount of deliberate focus on a skill and the success with which it is performed, but for the expert, the opposite is true: the correlation is negative. If an expert attempts to focus on the mechanics of a mastered skill, the performance suffers. If, however, the expert concentrates on something else, say the next pitch from the mound or the next movement in the piece of music being played, the performance improves. Noë draws the analogy between this and our being expert perceivers. Just as the expert musician is automatic and flexible in her performance, so we are with our perception. We are creatures of habit. And those habits are formed by our landscape.
            Why then do researchers persist in the establishment view that our brains are somehow sufficient for our conscious experience? In the next three chapters, “The Grand Illusion,” “Voyages of Discovery,” and “A Nothing Reserved for Everything,” Noë deals with this question. “The Grand Illusion” attacks those scientists who want to say that our perception of the external world is merely illusory, i.e. that our brain essentially creates for us a representation (and a crude one at that) of whatever may actually be out there. Noë calls this both “bad philosophy” and “bad science,” pointing out that science in principle couldn’t tell us such a thing if it wanted to, since our interaction with the world around us is presupposed by the scientific enterprise itself (146).
“Voyages of Discovery” treats the work of David Hubel and Torsten Wiesel, who in 1981 won the Nobel Prize for their research on the neurophysiology of vision. Suffice it to say that Noë is far less impressed with their work than the Nobel committee must have been, since its usefulness and relevance to visual perception essentially depends on their assumption that the mind is a product of events in the brain. Part of this assumption is the still-popular “information-processing” view of the brain, advanced by Marr and others, in which the brain and nervous system are likened to a computer. Detailed analogies are drawn between how a computer processes information and how the brain might do it. Noë does not deny that there are interesting parallels here; he merely highlights what ought to be obvious: that none of this locates seeing in the brain. In fact, it doesn’t even make sense to say that the brain is entirely responsible for seeing. “Computers can’t think on their own any more than hammers can pound in nails on their own…In any case, brains don’t think: they don’t have minds; animals do” (169).
“A Nothing Reserved for Everything” examines the final holdout of the establishment scientist: what Noë calls the “Foundation Argument.” The Foundation Argument is roughly that since we can generate experience by direct stimulation of the brain, the brain itself—and the brain alone—must be the basic ground of experience (173). For Noë, this amounts to one big non sequitur. First, being able to produce some perceptual experience in no way amounts to being able to produce anything like our full, regular experience. Second, even if we could do this, it still wouldn’t follow that the brain alone is sufficient for all of our consciousness, or even for those hallucinations (a manipulating scientist at least is required). And third, producing these experiences by direct stimulation actually involves altering already existing conscious states, not creating them out of nothing (174). Noë concludes, persuasively,
There is no empirical or philosophical justification for the idea that the brain alone is enough for consciousness…there is something perverse about the very idea that we are our brains, that the world we experience is within us. We don’t need to have the world within us: we have access to the world around us; we are open to it (181).
            In the end, Noë makes a very compelling case for an enactive approach to neuroscience and biology of consciousness. While some knowledge of the orthodox view he criticizes is assumed and helpful, his representations of it are fair and balanced. And his criticisms of it are, in my view, devastating. There just is no convincing reason that I can see to continue with the assumption (or to posit it to begin with) that the whole of our conscious experience lies within the confines of our skull. However, with the admittedly liberating insight that we are actively involved and co-determinate with our environment, the concern arises that it will now be a bit more difficult to define what exactly the limits of consciousness are, and what are the boundaries of “self.” Of course, this is no reason to abandon the paradigm shift Noë is proposing; we should not run from difficulty, after all. But if the obvious boundary of my skin is not in fact the edge of “me,” then where to draw the line after that point is not at all clear and may in fact be arbitrary. Unfortunately, Noë does not address this criticism in the book. But this is not an argument against anything he says; it is merely a concern regarding the application of his model—a model we can hope is developed and employed more widely very soon.

Noë, Alva. Out of Our Heads: Why You Are Not Your Brain, and Other Lessons from the Biology of Consciousness. New York: Hill and Wang, 2009.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

TOMS Shoes

Before I move on to Part 2 of the argument from special revelation, I want to take this opportunity to make you guys aware (if you aren't already) of the TOMS shoe company. For every pair of shoes you purchase, TOMS will give a pair to a child somewhere without shoes, thereby helping children in about 25 countries now avoid disease and attend school. All because of shoes.

This week, TOMS will give away their one millionth pair. Tonight, I had the privilege of hearing TOMS founder Blake Mycoskie speak at my university. He told the story of how he started the company and its rapid growth in the last four years. He credits the success--rightly, I think--to the power of giving. Sure, the shoes are comfortable. Yes, they look cool. I own three pair. But it's no secret the company never would have taken off like it has without the emphasis on charity. There is something within us that sees children without shoes and a guy with a clever idea, and says, "Yes. I want to give to that."

So what's my point? Well first, that you should seriously consider making your next shoe purchase a pair of TOMS. But there are a couple other things I'd like to point out as well.

TOMS is successful because of generosity. I don't know what your feelings on tithing/giving are, but whether you are a Christian or not, you simply cannot go wrong when you give a portion of your income away. Period. If you don't do this, I challenge you to start.

Second, capitalism is not evil. It is morally neutral. And TOMS is one great example of how it can work very successfully for the betterment of humanity. Mycoskie himself pointed out that his idea worked much better--and impacted many more people--as a business model than it ever would have as a non-profit, charity organization.

And thirdly, and most importantly, charity is supposed to be one of the defining characteristics of the Christian, both individually and corporately. This is why I thought this a worthy topic to interrupt my series on Jesus: this is something He would champion. That's right, I think Jesus would wear TOMS. And in connection with this, TOMS has unwittingly opened the door for God to speak to countless people. Charity and generosity are from God. This means that every time someone (Christian or not) decides to act in a charitable way, they are acting in accordance with the will of God Himself, thereby creating a connection (however slight) between themselves and Him. Maybe they'll feel good about it and ask themselves why. Maybe they'll be moved by poverty and wonder at this. However it happens, the point is this: when charity is there, Christ is present. And Christ changes people.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Apologetics Journal

Just a brief post to plug a new journal titled Hope's Reason: A Journal of Apologetics.

Spearheaded by Stephen Bedard, the journal is a peer-reviewed, scholarly publication and promises to be a great resource for those of you interested in keeping abreast of current Christian scholarship. I'd recommend it as a good introduction to this level of writing.

You can find more info about it here.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

The Argument from Special Revelation: Jesus Christ (Part 1)

If you've been following this blog for a while, you might remember my brief discussion of the Christian idea of revelation. I'll not rehash what I said there, but I will add briefly the distinction between "general" and "special" revelation.

The difference is fairly obvious. General revelation deals with the aspects of God's nature that can be inferred from the world, or from other sources common to humanity, apart from any direct information (revelation) from God. Up to now, all of the posts in this 'Arguments for God' series have dealt with general revelation.

Special revelation is the more specific type of revelation I was talking about in the earlier post linked above. It goes beyond general revelation in both scope and detail, although it should not contradict it.

As mentioned in that other post, Christianity is one of several 'revealed' religions, meaning we understand our specific knowledge of and beliefs about God to have been given to us by Him directly. The following will be a very brief sketch of why we believe this.

It all revolves around this guy named Jesus who lived roughly two thousand years ago. He began His ministry, which lasted only about three years, somewhere around AD 30.*  Jewish by birth, He accepted the authority of the Hebrew scriptures and yet interpreted them in radically new ways. This combined with His highly unusual statements about Himself and His unique relationship to the Jewish God eventually made enough people angry enough to get Him killed. While He was alive, however, He caused quite a ruckus everywhere He went. The blind saw. The lame walked. The hungry were fed, the poor helped, the dead raised, the empty filled.

More important even than all this, this man predicted His own death on several occasions and said that afterward, He would live again. Naturally, His followers had a difficult time with this...until it happened. In the New Testament, we have assembled numerous, independent eyewitness and second-hand accounts of people who knew Jesus while He was alive, saw Him die, and then saw/spoke with/touched Him after He was resurrected. Naturally, a genuine, predicted resurrection tends to validate one's teaching about such things as God and death. Such was the birth of Christianity.

Now before you say it, yes I realize that this is a bit of a fantastic story. Yes, I realize that saying a guy died and then got up seems crazy. I really do. And yet I believe it happened. And in affirming this, I stand on a long tradition of sincere, reasonable, honest people, many of them among the most brilliant minds in history. The least the skeptic could do is give us the benefit of the doubt and listen to our reasons for believing such a tale. We do have reasons.

Next time, we'll dive into them.

* Or 'CE' if you're into the somewhat politically correct time delineations being used these days. However, the dates themselves are still based on the life of Christ, and since it is after all Him we are talking about, I say we go old-school and use 'AD.'

Thursday, September 2, 2010

The Teleological Argument (Part 2)

The argument again:

(1) The fine-tuning of the universe is either due to physical necessity, chance, or design.
(2) It is not due to physical necessity or chance.
(3) The fine-tuning of the universe is due to design.

Last time we discussed briefly what fine-tuning is. We will not even deal with those who deny its existence (I know of no one who actually does this, but I'm sure they're out there somewhere). It is a fact that if any of the cosmological constants were changed even the smallest bit, life as we know it would be impossible. In fact, the universe likely would not have formed at all. This is fine-tuning. That said, let's deal with the premises.

Premise (1) should be relatively uncontroversial. At least, I can't think of any other options. Can you?

Premise (2), then, is where the crux of the argument lies. In order to avoid the conclusion of design, many have asserted alternative explanations of the universe's evident fine-tuning. They fall rather nicely into the categories of physical necessity and chance. We'll tackle them one by one.

The first option, if you can call it that, says that the universe is the way it is necessarily. Consequently, the uncanny precision of the cosmological constants need not be a concern, because they could not have been otherwise.

I don't know about you, but to me this smacks of nonsense. Indeed, it reminds me a little of the 'explanation' atheists sometimes give for the existence of objective moral values. The theist asks, "Why should the cosmological constants be so absurdly fine-tuned?" The atheist responds, "By necessity." How is this any different from just saying, "Because..."?

Besides, isn't this just obviously false anyway? Think about what's really being suggested here. When we say that the universe exists the way it does necessarily, we are saying that it could not have been otherwise. That is, if we could wind the clock back to any point in the past and start it again, things would turn out exactly the same way the second time. Every snowflake. Every weather change. Every decision. Everything. But it sure seems like I could have decided not to eat way too much pizza for lunch today. Doesn't it?

Similarly, there is no obvious reason to assume that the constants themselves could not have been different. Especially considering the chaotic randomness that would have been the beginning of the universe on such a view.

The second option offered is simply chance. Yes, the odds are astronomically (pun intended) against it. But it's like the lottery...somebody's gotta win. We just happen to be that lucky universe. Right?

This response is often given in a slightly more sophisticated form and called the 'Anthropic Principle.' Basically, the principle states that we can only observe things that are compatible with our existence. In other words, we should not be surprised to find that the cosmological constants are fine-tuned for human life, since if they weren't we wouldn't be around to know about it. Clever, huh?

But does it work? John Leslie provides us with a nice analogy: suppose you were sentenced to die by firing squad. Suppose further that your executioner is a bit overzealous and provides a squad of one hundred trained marksmen. You are, in good execution style, blindfolded, but naturally you are listening intently. Suddenly, you hear the loud, nearly simultaneous clap of all one hundred rifles. And're still there...listening to the silence. Now, put in this scenario, one could reason as follows: "Well certainly I should not be surprised at the fact of my continued existence. After all, the only worlds in which I could observe that I exist are those where I do in fact exist. Nothing peculiar here."

But of course no one would reason this way. Of course you should be surprised. One hundred marksmen missed! All of them! You ought to wonder about this!

Similarly, the fact that we must live in a universe tuned for our existence in order to observe that it is tuned for our existence does nothing to eliminate our surprise when we find just how unlikely this is. As astronomer Fred Hoyle put it, it sure seems like someone has "monkeyed with physics."

Recognizing this, skeptical physicists have begun to conjoin the Anthropic Principle with various multiverse theories. Put simply, these assume that our universe is only one of a potentially infinite number of actual universes. If this were true, it would explain the unbelievable odds against our universe being finely tuned for life, since if there are an infinite number of universes, then there are going to be some with life (actually, there will be an infinite number of them, but that's outside the scope of this post).

A full discussion of multiverse theories and so-called Many Worlds Hypotheses is far too detailed to cover here (you can bring it up in the comments if you want). I'll just say that there's no evidence for these kinds of claims whatsoever. None. It's not even clear whether there could be, in principle. The fact that physicists have resorted to seriously entertaining such things is a clear indication, I think, of the power of the teleological argument.

Next time, we'll dive into what is in my opinion the strongest argument for Christian theism: the life and work of Jesus Christ.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

The Teleological Argument (Part 1)

The teleological argument for God is based on the idea that the natural order of things in the universe points to a Designer that stands outside of it (the Greek telos means roughly 'end' or 'purpose'). Of the many arguments for God's existence, this one has gotten a bit of a bad rap lately.

Usually associated with guys like William Paley--you may recall his (in)famous 'watchmaker' analogy--the general conception among educated folk these days is that since Darwin, there is no need for such outdated ideas about design.

I beg to differ.

In fact, it seems that the more we learn about our universe--particularly its beginning--the more obviously and readily the inference to design presents itself.

Without further ado, the argument:

(1) The fine-tuning of the universe is either due to physical necessity, chance, or design.
(2) It is not due to physical necessity or chance.
(3) The fine-tuning of the universe is due to design.

And of course if design, then a designer.

In the next post, we'll examine the two premises in more detail, but here I want to get clear on what is meant by 'fine-tuning.' *

If you express the laws of nature mathematically, they contain what are called 'constants.' Basically, these are values that are not themselves determined by the laws; they just are the values they are. For example, in Einstein's famous E = mc2, the constant 'c' is the speed of light.

Well it turns out that in order for the universe to permit life at all (much less life at the advanced scale we see), the values of the various cosmological constants must fall within an extraordinarily small range of possible values. Further, there are quite a few of these constants, and they all have to obtain independently, or else no life. This means that in order to calculate the probability of our universe developing complex life, we have to take the already ridiculously unlikely odds of each constant and then multiply them.

These odds are really impossible to illustrate accurately, so I won't even try. Just picture as many blue marbles as there are atoms in the universe and one red one. Now imagine the odds of you picking out the one red marble while blindfolded. If you can picture this, then you still aren't really even close to the kind of odds we're talking about with the constants. Not close at all.

And yet, there they are. And here we are to talk about it. Next time, we'll consider the options that have been offered to explain this other than design. 

* For a more detailed explanation of this, see the Featured Video on the lower right side of the page. If you're viewing this in your email inbox, click here to see the video. Also, you may view it full-screen by clicking the icon in the lower right corner of the video. :)

Friday, July 30, 2010

The Moral Argument (Part 3) - Euthyphro's Dilemma

One issue commonly raised in discussions of the moral argument is what is known in philosophy as Euthyphro's Dilemma (see comments on Part 1).

The name (and the argument) originated, as so many do, with Plato. In his Euthyphro dialogue, the characters Socrates and Euthyphro have the following exchange:

Euthyphro: Yes, I should say that what all the gods love is pious and holy, and the opposite which they all hate, impious. 

Socrates: Ought we to enquire into the truth of this, Euthyphro, or simply to accept the mere statement on our own authority and that of others? What do you say?

Euthyphro: We should enquire; and I believe that the statement will stand the test of enquiry. 

Socrates: We shall know better, my good friend, in a little while. The point which I should first wish to understand is whether the pious or holy is beloved by the gods because it is holy, or holy because it is beloved of the gods.

This problem has been leveled against proponents of theistic moral theories ever since.

"Are actions moral because God commands them," they ask, "or does God command them because they are moral?"

This is a dilemma because if the theist takes the first option (known roughly as 'Divine Command Theory'), then it seems like what we consider 'moral' is rather arbitrary. God could have, on this view, just as easily chosen to make lying good and truth-telling bad. And then that would be the moral standard. But surely that can't be right.

But if we take the second option, then it seems like what is 'good' and 'moral' is somehow external to God, so that to say that God is good is simply to say that He conforms to some higher standard of goodness, not much different from the way humanity does.

The problem here is obvious. Neither option accords well with traditional Christian belief. If we go with the first horn, morality is arbitrary; if the second, it's supreme and God is subject.*

Either way, God is no longer the standard of moral perfection as Christians have taught. And yet, this is a dilemma, which means these are the only two options. Aren't they?

In short, no.

There is a third, and it is in fact the one that best fits what Christianity has traditionally believed. Morality is neither arbitrary nor external to God, but rather it is grounded in God's nature. That is, moral perfection is not something He chooses (arbitrarily or not); it is essential to His very being.

When God issues commands, they are necessarily in agreement with His nature and therefore good. And when we say that something is either morally praiseworthy or objectionable, what we mean (whether we realize it or not) is just that it either corresponds with God's nature or it doesn't, respectively.

So it turns out that for the Christian, Socrates' dilemma is a false one. It doesn't affect the traditional view of God or morality, and so the Christian need not be bothered by it.

Next time, teleology!

* Options in dilemmas are often called 'horns.'

Friday, July 23, 2010

The Moral Argument (Part 2)

So what can the atheist do with premise (1): "If God does not exist, then objective moral values do not exist"?

Last time I mentioned that in order to refute (1), the atheist must either deny that objective moral values exist (which we discussed), or else admit their existence but attempt to explain them apart from God. This is in fact the line taken by most non-theistic philosophers at this point (which is testimony itself of the inadequacy of relativism).

So how can objective moral values exist if God doesn't? I said that we'd examine the best of their attempts to answer this question. Well here it is. Are you ready?

They just do.


I'm not kidding.

Once they've admitted that moral values are objective (i.e. independent of human perception)--which most will readily do at this point--if you push them to explain the existence of these values, the best atheist philosophers in the world will literally just assert them with no justification.

Now, to be fair, they'll likely spice it up a bit. They'll use fancy words like 'necessary supervenience of moral properties on natural states' or some such language. But at the end of the day, it boils down to positing objective moral truths as brute fact, without explanation.

One attempt even asserts that maybe objective moral values literally exist as necessary metaphysical entities. If you know Plato, this should sound familiar because it's basically a handy modern version of his Theory of Forms. The problem is, nobody buys that. What does it even mean? How would the value 'Compassion' just exist? And even if it did, how could we relate to it? Further still, how could we get moral obligation from such a concept?

Is it just me or is it painfully obvious what's going on here? Some of the best ethicists in the world are willing to suspend otherwise sound judgment and assent to the explanation "That's just the way it is." And this from some of the same people who would criticize Christians for responding to problems this way.

Why do this? Could it be to avoid a conclusion with consequences?

I'll let you decide.

Monday, July 19, 2010

The Moral Argument (Part 1)

Terribly sorry for the time since the last post. I took a hiatus of sorts. Without further ado...

The next argument in our series is the moral argument. It reasons from the universal, objective nature of morality (the law) to the existence of God (the lawgiver).

A simple version can be sketched like so:

(1) If God does not exist, then objective moral values do not exist.
(2) Objective moral values do exist.
(3) God exists.

By 'objective moral values,' we mean moral truths that exist independently of humanity. That is, even if there were no one around to know them, they would still be true. 

The form of this argument is what philosophers call modus tollens or 'denying the consequent.' That's because it works by positing a conditional (if-then statement) and then denying its consequent (the 'then' portion of the statement). The result is the denial of the antecedent (the 'if' portion) of the conditional, and it is always valid.

So now that we're clear on the logic, what about the premises? Unfortunately, neither is without controversy. A denial of (1) leaves the atheist with two options: he can either deny that objective moral values exist, OR he must provide a better explanation for their existence than God. And this is notoriously difficult to do. But some attempts have been made, and I will turn to the best of them in the next post.

Denying (2) leaves us with some form of ethical relativism. Most of you have probably heard of the evils of relativism (it seems to be something of a favorite among apologists to pick on), so I won't spend much time on it here. I believe (hope) it is declining in popularity, but there are still enough folks out there who think it's a valid option (mostly first or second year undergrads in the softer disciplines) to make it worth mentioning.

Ethical relativism is basically the view that moral values may differ from person to person or maybe culture to culture. On this view, since they depend on human perspective for their truth, these values are not objective. This idea is often expressed in such popular catch phrases as "Well that may be true for you, but not for me..." There are many problems with this position, not least among them the fact that it is logically unaffirmable. This means that in order for the relativist to assert her position, she has to simultaneously contradict it (e.g. "It is true [objectively] that truth is not objective." or "It is immoral [objectively] to push your moral values onto others.") Not to mention the logical consequences of such a view (all those fun Hitler analogies come to mind).

Fortunately most academics, especially those in the most relevant disciplines--ethics and philosophy--realize that this view is nonsense. Consequently, and contrary to popular opinion, there are very few serious relativists in academia. In fact, it has become something of a derogatory label, along the lines of 'nihilist' or '4-dimensionalist.' * Besides, we all actually believe that objective moral values really do exist, or at least we live as though they do. If you don't believe me, try stealing something from someone (anyone you like) and then explaining to them that your set of moral values is different from theirs. Let me know how it goes.

One more thing should be made clear here. What this argument is NOT saying is that people who don't believe in God cannot be moral. That's nonsense. Of course they can. What the argument IS saying is that without God, morality is neither objective nor motivating (more on that later). Objectively moral behavior doesn't require belief in God--it requires God.

* Occupational humor. Sorry.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

The Ontological Argument (Part 2)

So last time I laid out St. Anselm's argument for God and gave a little history of it. I harbor no delusions that any of you printed it off and agonized over it for hours, but I do hope that at least some of you took a little time to try and understand the basic idea. This post will assume that you have, so if you haven't, perhaps another look wouldn't hurt.

Here I just want to deal with what I take to be the two most important objections that have been offered against the argument and then sketch briefly what use the argument itself may have for the thinking Christian (or the thinking non-believer for that matter).

The first and maybe most popular objection came very early on from a guy named Gaunilo, a contemporary of Anselm. Without going into too much detail, Gaunilo offered a now-famous 'perfect island' analogy. Applying Anselm's own logic, he said, we could quite easily construct 'proofs' for things like perfect islands, perfect beaches, perfect sunsets, etc. This is because, according to Anselm, the very idea of 'perfection' will always entail actual existence. But of course none of these things really exists. So, by counter-example, neither must Anselm's God.

The problem with this objection is fairly obvious upon reflection. It is a simple misunderstanding of Anselm's first premise, which defines God as 'that than which nothing greater can be conceived.' This is not limited to islands or beaches or sunsets, but rather includes all conceivable beings. Without this clarification, the argument does indeed fail.

But Anselm was very clear from the beginning what we are talking about here: not everyday, contingent beings but the Christian God--the necessary ground of all being itself. Indeed, this is what makes the argument work. So Anselm's response here could be something like, "Well of course a perfect island doesn't actually exist! Who would ever think of such a thing? Now back to my argument..."

The second objection comes from Immanuel Kant and is largely regarded as the most important to date. Unfortunately, exactly what Kant had in mind with his objection is not entirely clear, but it has classically been summed up in the phrase "existence is not a predicate."

A 'predicate' in this sense is basically 'what is being said about the subject,' in this case, God. Presumably, by this Kant meant something like 'the idea of something actually existing does not really say anything about that thing.' Think of it this way: picture a chair in your mind and then imagine that someone were able to make an exhaustive list of all of the features--all the predicates--of that chair. Every possible description of it would be on the list. Kant's claim seems to be that adding to the list the fact that the chair actually exists would not be saying anything of substance. It wouldn't add anything to the description we already have.

Again, without going into too much detail, I just think Kant was wrong. I think existence (at the very least necessary existence--the kind we're talking about with God) is a predicate. And fairly obviously so. To paraphrase one of my professors, would you rather have the candy bar in your head or the one in your hand? And if the latter, then existence must add something to the description of the candy bar, mustn't it?

So much for the two best objections. On to the usefulness of the argument.

Obviously, this is not something one should throw out in most conversations, especially those of an evangelistic nature. You'd probably just end up sounding arrogant and confusing your conversation partner. This is because arguments like this one, even if they're sound (which I believe this one is), are hardly ever persuasive. Many people who recognize its power still feel tricked somehow by the end of it.

However, I do believe the argument serves an important purpose. At the very least I think it shows that belief in God is not irrational. In fact, going on this argument alone, it is at least as rational as unbelief. And when we supplement it with the other arguments for God we are discussing, we can make a persuasive case indeed.

So while I would probably not use the ontological argument in normal conversation, I do consider it to be sort-of an a priori (known apart from experience) playing field-leveler when it comes to the question of God's existence.

Next time, the moral argument. Stay tuned.

* Be sure to check out Professor John Lennox discussing the self-defeating nature of naturalism and the evidential basis of Christianity in the new Featured Video down on the right. It's only about 7 1/2 minutes long, and well worth it.

Friday, May 21, 2010

The Ontological Argument (Part 1)

The ontological argument is the earliest and likely most famous (infamous?) argument for God's existence. It was originally formulated in the 11th century by Anselm of Canterbury (later Archbishop and still later Saint).

Like Leibniz, who we discussed before, Anselm was wicked smart. But he was much less concerned with developing a complete philosophy of the world. Rather, he was mainly interested in developing his love for God (and helping his students to do the same) through the exercise of his reason and intellect. He called this "faith seeking understanding."

In fact, maybe the coolest aspect of the ontological argument is that it appears in the middle of the Proslogion, which Anselm wrote as a prayer.

The term 'ontological' was of course not used by Anselm himself, but was applied to it much later. In philosophical discourse, 'ontology' means basically the study of being as such (the root onto- means 'being').  To explain this, I'll borrow an illustration from one of my professors: A biologist's studies might at some point take him to a volcanic area to study some form of life that thrives in that environment. But the biologist does not study the volcano itself. This, rather, is the field of the volcanologist. The biologist studies the volcano for the organisms that live on it. The volcanologist studies the volcano insofar as it is a volcano.

Similarly, ontology is the study of 'being qua being,' or being insofar as it is being. This name has been applied to various arguments for God's existence, beginning with Anselm's, because these arguments all establish God's (necessary) existence from His very being, or the very concept of God itself. In essence (and far too simply), because we have a concept of God, He must actually exist.

Think I've pulled one over on you? Read on.

The argument: 

(1) God is that than which nothing greater can be conceived. (Definition)
(2) God exists in the understanding but not in reality. (reductio assumption)
(3) Existence in reality is greater than existence in the understanding alone. (Premise)
(4) God's existence in reality is conceivable. (Premise)
(5) If God did exist in reality, then He would be greater than He is. [from (2) and (3)]
(6) It is conceivable that there is a being greater than God is. [from (4) and (5)]
(7) It is conceivable that there be a being greater than the being than which nothing greater can be conceived. [from (1) and (6)]
(8) It is false that God exists in the understanding but not in reality. [from (2) through (7)]
(9) God exists in reality. *

Fun, huh?

So this argument works by way of what logicians call a reductio ad absurdum, which means that we assume a controversial premise (in this case, premise 2), and then we draw a contradiction from that premise. Since contradictions cannot be true, we then know that the premise in question must be false.

Anselm's controversial premise is that it is possible for God to exist only in our minds but not in reality. But if we understand God to be the greatest conceivable being (which we all intuitively do), then this is impossible, because it would be greater for him to also exist in reality. So, on pain of contradiction, God must exist in reality.

And all this because we have a (relatively) clear idea of God. Like I said, I love this argument.

Confused? That's alright; it isn't easy. I'll let it simmer with you for a while, and next time we'll deal with some of the major objections that have been given and I'll share what I think is the usefulness of the argument.

* This is roughly Alvin Plantinga's formulation.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Silly Things to Say..."Who made God?" *

So before I start this post, I'd just like to extend a sincere thanks to the blog Apologetics 315 for adding blogGNOSIS to their notable Christian Apologetics Blog Directory. That can be found here.

So if any of you have read Richard Dawkins' God Delusion or even heard him speak, you are likely to have heard something along the lines of "But cosmological and teleological arguments for the existence of God just don't work because eventually you still have to answer the question 'Who made God?'"

This question has been forcefully thrown at the theist since long before Dawkins conceived of it, and unfortunately for him, it has been answered for just as long.

Given that we are in the middle of discussing the various arguments for God's existence, I figured it might be useful to take a break and discuss this frequent objection to many of them.

The problem is that the question doesn't make any sense.

Now before you object, "It makes perfect sense to me..." let me explain.

The Christian position is that God is self-sufficient in every way. What arguments for God seek to show, in fact, is that He is a necessary being. For example, the Kalam argument that we covered concludes that there must be a personal cause of the universe. Not that there might be one.

And further, part of the way it shows this is by showing that what philosophers call an 'infinite regress' is impossible. The chain, whether it be of causes or explanations, has got to stop somewhere. What the theist does is simply say, "Wherever it stops, that is God."

So when someone asks "Yes, but who made God?" what they're really saying is something like "Who caused the uncaused Cause?" or maybe "What explains the unexplainable?" When phrased this way, the error becomes clear.

The question also takes a couple other forms. For example, you may have heard someone say something like "But what was there before God made the universe?" or "What did God do for the eternity before creation?"

These, too, are simple misunderstandings of the Christian claim, and of modern science. Scripture teaches that God is an eternal Spirit and that He exists as a Trinity. While this concept is a post for another time, it is worth noting here that it serves to solve the problem of what God 'did' 'before' creation. He existed in communion with Himself--totally self-sufficiently.

Also, we know from modern cosmology that time and space itself began at the Big Bang along with everything else. So to ask what God did 'before' creation makes no sense. There was no 'before' in a temporal sense.

Also, Dawkins' own form of the question involves complexity more than causation or explanation. His argument is basically that regardless of how complex the early universe must have been, whatever caused it must have been at least as complex, and therefore demanding its own explanation.

This sounds clever until one thinks about it a little more closely. There is nothing in Scripture to suggest that God must be complex in His nature, and in fact the church fathers (anticipating such an objection) nearly always maintained that He wasn't. Also, it is not at all clear why a cause must be of equal or greater complexity than its effect. And besides, we have already shown that the only type of explanation that makes sense for the universe is some sort of supremely intelligent mind. And this mind, if identified with God, needs no explanation.

God is unique in this respect. He is the only thing that is completely self-contained. He is Himself the ground of all goodness, morality, reason, life, and being. And He is necessarily so. To ask why He is is simply to misunderstand the point. It is literally a nonsensical question.

This will hopefully become more clear when we consider the next argument in our series: the ontological argument. It is my personal favorite and I love to talk about it, so bring your thinking caps. Stay tuned...

* If you were expecting Part 2 of the Leibnizian Cosmological argument for God, I apologize. It occurred to me after the first one that any real discussion of PSR is just too much for this blog. However, if you're really interested (and it would make me feel very good if you were), feel free to leave a comment to that effect on Part 1. Also, the picture I used is of course the standard Facebook 'no image' indicator. I hope I haven't broken any copyright laws. Sorry Facebook.

** Be sure to check out the new video in the 'Featured Video' section, where several very smart scientists discuss the fine-tuning of the universe.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

The Leibnizian Cosmological Argument (Part 1)

Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz was a 17th century German philosopher and mathematician, and he is responsible for the next argument for God's existence that we will deal with.

Leibniz was crazy. Crazy smart. But also just crazy. (That's him sportin' the awesome wig to the right...)

Many do not realize that he independently discovered infinitesimal calculus around the same time as Isaac Newton. Yep. He just figured it out. In fact, he and Newton had a notoriously rocky relationship, each accusing the other of plagiarism. Unfortunately for Leibniz, Newton apparently had a few more influential friends, and so aside from a few mathematical notations, Leibniz is remembered these days mostly for his philosophical work.

Fortunately for us, Leibniz' argument for the existence of God can stand independently from the rest of his philosophy. This is good because it isn't clear whether anyone in the world really fully understands his philosophy. Like I said, crazy.

So without further ado, the argument:

(1) Anything that exists has an explanation of its existence, either in its own nature or in an external cause.
(2) If the universe has an explanation of its existence, then that explanation is God.
(3) The universe exists.
(4) The universe has an explanation of its existence. (From 1 & 3)
(5) The explanation of the existence of the universe is God. (From 2 & 4)

This argument differs from the Kalam is a couple significant ways. First, it does not rely on causal relations, but rather explanatory ones. And second, it does not need the impossibility of an infinite series of events to make its case. In other words, it would work just as well even if the universe were eternal. This makes sense, since in Leibniz' day we didn't have the compelling cosmological evidence for the beginning of the universe that we discussed in the last post.

For the fans of logic out there, it is clear that the argument is valid (for the others, that just means there's no mistake in how it is formulated). The question then is whether the premises are true. Hopefully, no one reading this doubts premise (3). The first two are a bit more controversial though.

I have already dealt with (2) in a previous post. As I showed there, once we consider what it really means to be the cause of the universe, it is not much of a jump to the theistic God. The same holds for an explanation of the existence of the universe (see especially the second argument I offered for a personal cause in that post).

I do want to point out one more interesting thing about (2): it is logically equivalent to a common atheistic response to the Leibnizian argument. When two statements are logically equivalent, it means that if one is true, so is the other, and vice versa. A popular response is that if atheism is true, then the universe doesn't have an explanation for its existence; it just exists. But in affirming this, the objector is also affirming the opposite of this claim, which is just premise (2). Thus, it seems that even the atheist tends to think that (2) is intuitively obvious. I wonder how many of them realize this...

What about premise (1)? This one, too, seems obvious to most honest people, regardless of their beliefs about God. It's rather difficult to imagine something existing totally inexplicably and our being okay with it. William Lane Craig offers a good illustration of this: Imagine that you and a friend are hiking in the forest when you come across a large translucent ball lying on the ground. You ask why it is there, and your friend simply replies, "What do you mean why is it there? There is no explanation. It's just there." Would you be satisfied with this answer? Of course not. And to make the analogy more interesting, the size of the ball has no affect whatsoever on the inadequacy of the response. We can imagine it being any size--even as large as the universe itself--and its existence still requires an explanation.

Premise (1) is a form of what has come to be called, since Leibniz, the Principle of Sufficient Reason (PSR). There have been whole books devoted to this principle (I know; I read one about a year ago). The discussions involved are very dense and technical, so I won't go into too much detail here. I will say that in the end though, I think that everyone's initial intuition about PSR is probably right.

I'll give some reasons for this and discuss a few of the major objections to the principle in the next post.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

The Kalam Cosmological Argument (Part 2)

For convenience, the argument again:

(1) Whatever begins to exist has a cause.
(2) The universe began to exist.
(3) The universe has a cause.

Today I want to discuss the premises of the argument. Of course, I cannot cover in great detail all the issues involved, but I do want to mention the most important points.

The first premise should be pretty much self-evident to most. Intuition and accumulated life experience tell us that things don't just pop into existence totally uncaused. Believe it or not though, there have been several objections to this premise.

Because of their generally complex and abstract nature, however, I will not cover these objections here. If you are curious, feel free to leave a comment about it and I'll be glad to discuss it there.

The second premise, on the other hand, requires some support. Especially since until very recently (the last sixty years or so) the prevailing view, even among physicists, was that the universe was eternal.

There are a couple of ways to approach this premise: philosophically and scientifically.

Philosophy: There is a very simple philosophical argument that shows, fairly convincingly I think, that the universe is not eternal. Think about it: if it were eternal, then it would contain an infinite series of past events. But it is impossible to traverse an infinite series, so it seems that we could never have arrived at the present moment. Therefore, the universe cannot have an infinite past.

Here's another. An actual infinite is impossible. If the universe were eternal, then it would be an example of an actual infinite. Therefore, it can't be eternal.

But how do we know an actual infinite is impossible? In short, David Hilbert.

Hilbert was a German mathematician responsible for a very interesting (and mind bending) thought experiment. He asks us to imagine a hotel with an infinite number of rooms. Once we have this in our heads, imagine that an infinite number of guests arrive to check in, so that the hotel is now full. But then infinitely more guests arrive, also wanting a room, and so the proprietor of the hotel simply moves every guest in room n to room 2n, thereby freeing up an infinite number of rooms. This could obviously continue indefinitely.

The thought experiment actually gets much more complex than this, but to avoid confusion, let's just say that such a hotel results in clear absurdities (even contradiction) and so is obviously impossible in the real world. It is merely an abstraction meant to help us understand infinite sets. Even Hilbert himself said, "...the infinite is nowhere to be found in reality." 1

But what about the scientific evidence? What has modern cosmology shown us about the beginning of the universe?

A whole lot. In fact, far more than I can even mention here. Suffice it to say that nearly every serious scientist that studies these things today is convinced that the universe had a beginning a finite time ago. I'll give two brief examples.

In 1964, physicists Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson accidentally found the straw that broke the proverbial back of the eternal universe idea. After building a new antenna, they noticed a radio noise that was not accounted for, a noise that would later come to be known as 'cosmic microwave background radiation.' It's basically radiation left over from the initial explosion of the universe, and we find it no matter where in the universe we look. Penzias and Wilson were later awarded the Nobel prize for this finding.

Secondly, physicists predicted that this background radiation, though seemingly constant across the universe, ought to contain slight fluctuations since in order for galaxies to form, the density of the very early universe (what we're looking at with this background radiation) would need to vary in places. And sure enough, upon closer examination, scientists found very small fluctuations in this radiation corresponding to galaxy formation. They also won a Nobel prize.

And I haven't even mentioned such important and persuasive topics as the expansion of the universe, redshift, the 2nd law of thermodynamics, or Einstein's General Theory of Relativity. No other theory even comes close to the Big Bang in explaining all these things.

The universe had a beginning. The logical and inescapable conclusion, then, is that it also had a Cause.

1 From "On the Infinite" in Philosophy of Mathematics, ed. by Benacerraf and Putnam.

Friday, April 16, 2010

The Kalam Cosmological Argument (Part 1)

So far, most of the posts of this blog have been devoted to responding to objections and/or clarifying often misunderstood points regarding Christian theism. It recently occurred to me that I have not really offered any positive argument for why I believe Christianity is in fact true.

In the next several posts, I want to remedy that.

Before I get started, I should make a couple important points. First, there are far more arguments for the reasonableness of Christianity than I am interested in covering here. I will be targeting only a few that I consider the strongest or most useful.

Second, there are various formulations of all of the arguments I will be presenting, and some are better than others. I will do my best to present each one fairly and in its (so far as I can tell) strongest form.

Third, each of these arguments, without exception, involves extremely complex discussions of often very dense material, and all of the premises are not always uncontroversial. Again, I will do my best to make the material both accessible and fair.

And lastly, each of these arguments is intended to show something a little different. None of them are intended to provide absolutely irrefutable proof of the truth of Christian theism. But taken together, I do believe that they make a cogent case that Christian theism is on the whole more reasonable than its alternatives.

Alright, enough clarifying. Let's get started!

The first argument I want to cover is the Kalam Cosmological Argument. If you read my other post where I discussed arguments for God, then you know that a cosmological argument is one that argues from some contingency in the world back to God. Well in this particular version, the contingency involved is the beginning of the universe itself.

The argument can be formulated very simply as follows:

(1) Whatever begins to exist has a cause.
(2) The universe began to exist.
(3) The universe has a cause. 1

Now before you scream it at your screen, I know that a mere cause of the universe is not necessarily the same as the Christian God. But really, it doesn't take much to get there.

Let's consider it for a moment. Any cause of the universe must obviously stand outside spacetime. But what is there that is immaterial that could conceivably act as a causal agent? Well, in the philosophical history of such things, there are really only two contenders: mind and abstract objects. But we know that abstract objects (things like numbers, geometrical figures, etc.) do not possess causal power. That leaves some sort of unembodied mind as the only reasonable candidate.

Or look at it this way: we generally explain phenomena in one of two ways. There are scientific explanations and personal explanations. Scientific explanations utilize initial conditions and sets of laws to explain phenomena, whereas personal explanations utilize the will of a person. 

For example, if you walk into a room where I am and inquire "Why is it so hot in here?" I can offer you a couple different explanations. I could give you a long and detailed account having to do with the speed at which the particles in the room are vibrating and how the neurons in your body are receiving this information and then delivering it in highly complex ways to your brain which then interprets this information as the feeling of heat. OR I could just say that it's hot because I turned up the thermostat and that you shouldn't be so warm-natured.

In the first instance, I am giving you a scientific explanation which evaluates the initial conditions (the state of the particles in the room) and the laws of nature (which govern the rest of the process) to help you understand why you are hot. In the second case, I am offering a personal explanation which deals not with physical processes at all but with my own volition.

What is the relevance of this example, you ask? Simply this: There were no initial conditions at the beginning of the universe. The Big Bang proceeded out of what physicists call a singularity. There was nothing. At all. Even what we now call 'laws' had not even been established yet. So clearly, a scientific explanation of the origin of the universe is not possible. This leaves us with only a personal explanation. There was a will involved.

There is yet a third way to tell that this cause of the universe was personal. But I'll warn you, this one is a bit more difficult to grasp. If the cause was impersonal, then we would basically be left with some sort of immaterial conditions that would facilitate the effect (i.e. the universe). In philosopher's lingo, these conditions would have to be both necessary and sufficient and would exist timelessly. Here's the problem with that: if necessary and sufficient causes exist timelessly, then so do their effects. This would entail that the universe is eternal, and we know it isn't (more on this in the next post). So, the only way for a cause to exist and its effect not exist is if the cause has free will. That is, it must be a person.

So just with this simple three-step argument, we already have an immaterial, eternal, personal cause who possesses free will. Clearly this is easily interpreted by any honest person as what we have always known as God. And we have not even considered other arguments which make more of this being's attributes clear. But we will.

Next time, we'll flesh out the premises of the kalam argument. This should be fun.

1 This formulation (and much of the following discussion) is due to William Lane Craig. The line in the argument denotes "therefore."