Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Monday, April 21, 2008

The Philosophers' Stone

An old, and rather silly paradox: Can almighty God create a stone so heavy that He cannot lift it? If He did create such a stone (the paradox goes) then there would be something that He could not do (i.e. lifting it), but that cannot be because (since He is almighty) there is nothing that He cannot do. Hence He did not (and will not) create such a stone—but therefore there is something that He cannot do (i.e. creating such a stone). Consequently (the paradox concludes) no such omnipotent being (a being for which nothing is impossible) could exist; but several replies are possible, most obviously that "omnipotence" should be defined in such a way that impossible things do not have to be done by omnipotent beings. The paradoxical reasoning can then be taken to be showing that such a stone is impossible—since an omnipotent being could move any possible weight of stone, so no such stone is a possible object. It is certainly hard to get any sense of what such a stone would be like (e.g. were it filling all of an infinite space, it could not then be lifted, but then it would not be too heavy, so much as too big to lift).
......God might even be contradictory (so powerful His powers transcend our mundane powers of linguistic description) of course, although I personally think of God as almighty in the sense of His being able to do (at least) whatever He wants with His Creation (which is at least this Cosmos) and presumably much more besides (although presumably God could not do what He did not want to do with His Creation, and the idea of God possibly wanting something that He does not actually want is rather obscure, whence the modalities are also obscure); but what strikes me about this paradox is how odd it is, to think of Him lifting stones at all (like He was like Hercules, only bigger)—far more impressive is His creation ex nihilo of a pebble. Now, traditionally God not only creates, but also at each moment keeps all created things in existence, which raises the question: Why bother with all of that (in the case of purely material objects, like stones) just to generate the phenomena sensed by sentient creatures; why not generate the latter directly? One theistic argument for Idealism (the topic of this fortnight's Philosophers' Carnival) is that material objects do seem a bit pointless (e.g. they might be less deceptive than mere appearances, but only if modern physics has got them very wrong).
......Creation itself seems a bit gratuitous though; so, one might ask: Could almighty God create an object that He did not have to keep in existence, from moment to moment, which was instead self-sustaining, to some extent? Maybe (since that does not seem to be contradictory), but God is also traditionally eternal in the sense of existing atemporally (a bit like numbers do), so it is hard to see what difference that would amount to. Still, for all we know God (and all Creation) exists more in the manner of a person—fully (if mutably) in the immense present—whence we might ask: Could almighty God create an object so self-sustaining that even He could not destroy it? He can create souls (as well as stones) it seems, and with such free will that even Satan is a possible object; and the giving of such freedoms, to His creatures, involves the voluntary limiting of (what we naturally regard as) His powers, within Creation (on this view of eternity), so maybe He could—such an object does not seem to be contradictory. Maybe, like the aforementioned stone, it is no more than a Philosopher's plaything, but such a perfectly indestructible object could conceivably be something that God would want to create (maybe our lovely Creator knows better than to be certain that Beings with powers akin to His, but of which He is, as yet, unaware, do not exist).

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Atheism and Explanation

New to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy this week, was a thought-provoking article on Mathematical Explanation; and this week also saw the start of this year's Gifford Lectures (previously, e.g., the excellent Truth: A Guide for the Perplexed) here in Glasgow, on Religion and Its Recent Critics. And so, since next week's Carnival (for philosophy bloggers) favours Idealism, I thought I'd compare a popular atheistic claim—that not believing in God is negative (so that the onus is on those who believe)—with the negativity of not believing in material objects, or in natural laws. Is the lack of evidence for material objects (evidence sufficient to justify introducing things of such an ineffably strange kind into our ontology) sufficient to justify Idealism; and is the lack of evidence for natural laws (over and above the observed regularities) sufficient to justify Humean Supervenience? Idealists and Humeans can argue that it should be, if they want to; but do we actually find many atheists either (i) making the effort to be Idealists or Humeans, or (ii) being in possession of evidence sufficient to justify the corresponding positive beliefs? Regarding the latter, it would hardly be good enough to claim that such beliefs are universal (Berkeley and David Lewis being the obvious counter-examples) or self-evident (similarly); but the former option is just silly—Idealism is ideally suited to theistic explanations, while the evolution of minds in a world of Humean Supervenience would be too odd, no?

Thursday, April 03, 2008

The Human Paradox

If we saw a lot of black crows (and no other kind) we might well believe that all crows are black, if we wanted to; but we could quite rationally (although we would naturally find it quite absurd to) believe in Humean Supervenience, and hence that there was no evidence for such a belief (and either way the albino crow would come as no great surprise). Facts, in other words, are what we want to believe—we want to believe the facts, because we value truth; and truth is useful, but what about when it isn't? On a Naturalistic view of humans, we value truth because to do so is so useful, in general, that primitive hominids that didn't do so died out; whence we value it even when it would be more convenient for us not to. Facts force themselves upon us as true. Snow is white, it seems, whence we believe that it is.
......That tree is pink with blossom—is its pinkness (as it seems to be) something that is out there, in the world, or is it in our heads? Naturalists believe that only the photons are out there (or rather, somewhere that corresponds to the "out there" that is similarly in our heads). And does the objective reality (for Naturalists) of particles in spacetime contain some thing that is that tree? Logically that seems unlikely; but still, does it really matter? Such is how reality is represented in our brains (evolution has probably led to the world as we perceive it being a good enough map of reality for our natural purposes). Winter seems to be closed in on itself; loved ones seem to shine—such a useful map, and presumably evolution has similarly led to moral axioms being included in our mental maps.
......Having in it some moral axioms (such as the Golden Rule) would have similarly aided our survival, as would a tendency to accept the more local rules; we value loyalty, as well as objectivity (and hominids too lacking in either would have died out). So maybe a propensity to form such beliefs as that God is watching us arose naturally. Does such a God exist, the Naturalist wonders; but still, why worry about that? Such a belief should help the worst of us to behave better (and to be more readily identified, and possibly corrected) and anyway, the best of us regard the evidence for its falsity as inconclusive. But (the Naturalist persists) surely it matters whether or not that belief is true? Well, if it's part of our natural representation then surely (for Naturalists) it's at least as true as that that tree is pink.
......The human paradox is that, even were Naturalism true, the value of our natural beliefs in something like God (assuming that we humans have such beliefs) would hardly be outweighed by the value of such objectivity as we could ever attain. We do of course value truth, but many atheists do value loyalty more (in the confusion out there), while many believers regard the Naturalistic versions of objective truth (e.g. scientific modelling) as mere shadows of objective reality—if the truth is that God is watching us, then there really could be an objective truth, one worthy of our valuing it absolutely (and there could more easily be some logical object that is that tree, only approximately analysable into particles).