Thursday, August 28, 2008

Augustine: theater causes excessive emotions

Augustine, in his Confessions describes a period in which he fell in love with the theater and would visit it frequently (beginning of Book III). What seems inaccurate to me is his discussion of how the theater encouraged his already strong emotions. Augustine's style suggests that he was always a person of strong emotions (especially in the Confessions), add to that him being a youngster in the prime of his life, chasing women and partying with the boys, and that seems to me a good reason why he was so emotional. But Augustine seems bent on condemning the theater for causing these emotions and thinks it cause. Nonetheless, he is troubled by the question, which he can't answer, of why it is we enjoy seeing sad things and enjoy tragedies. This seems to me a big problem. If theater encourages emotions, then tragedies should make us more prone to sadness. If this were the case, why would anyone go see tragedies?

Unfortunately, Augustine wasn't too familiar with Aristotle, since Aristotle had a better explanation of this issue. For Aristotle, in the Poetics, the appeal of Tragedy was cathartic: by experiencing sadness we relieve ourselves of suffering. I must say I don't agree with Aristotle that this is the appeal of tragedy (I think experiencing sadness, and weeping in particular is pleasurable, it's just that the loss that usually attends the sadness that is unpleasant; in other words, if someone close to me dies, that will be painful and I will use expressions of grief to bring relief; but in the context of a film or play, all I experience is the relief, without the pain of loss. Interesting theory? Foolish theory? what do you think?). But the important thing is that Aristotle thinks that tragedies actually reduces emotional expression by relieving us of emotions.

What's even more interesting is how these two conflicting ideas keep coming up. For example it comes out in debate about violent movies and video games. There are those who take the Augustinian side and think they increase violence. But then there are those who respond with the idea that they actually serve as a surrogate for real violence and thus have a cathartic effect (I always wonder why they never try to make the argument that since many video games frequently involve the death of the main character, why this doesn't increase suicide; it seems to be about equally sound). The Mises Institute just published an article discussing the connection between pornography and rape. Art Carden, the author supports the Aristotelian side on this debate and backs it up with two recent studies which both show an inverse correlation between availability of porn and incidence of rape. But, of course, there are those that take Augustine's side on this and assume that porn increases the incidence of rape. Alas, how little the debates change.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Proofs God Doesn't Exist pt 2

Continuing the thread of the last post on the non-existence of God, but with less seriousness, there's a joke I heard. A professor once decided to prove before his class that God doesn't exist. He stood up and challenged God to strike him down! The Professor waiting, repeating his challenge and after a few minutes a marine got up and knocked the Professor out. The jock then said, "God was busy so he sent me!" I also remember there's a Simpsons episode where Homer gets a crayon removed from his brain, which ups his intelligence. And while trying to look into a flat tax proposal, he stumbles on a proof that God doesn't exist. We the viewers don't see the proof, but we might wonder what were its contents

Perhaps the argument he made, went something like Douglas Gasking's parody of the Ontological Proof. He basically says the creation of the universe is the greatest achievement one can imagine. But the less able, the creator was, the greater and more impressive the achievement. For example, for Tiger Woods to sink a hole-in-one is impressive, but it would be even more impressive if terrible golfer with a 28 handicap made a hole-in-one. Thus, the less great God was (the greater his handicapped) the more impressive would be the feat of creating the world. The greatest possible handicap would be for God to not exist. So, if creating the world is the greatest possible accomplishment imaginable then God must not exist. I find this proof funny, at least. The argument makes the paradoxical argument that the less great God is, the more impressive is the accomplishment of creating the universe, and thus the greater God is. Additionally, the Creator would be even more impressive if He didn't exist. The two problems with this argument are first, the assumption that creating the universe is the greatest feat imaginable. It may be the greatest feat that's ever been accomplished, but someone could still imagine something greater. The second problem with this argument is the confusion of the greatness of the feat of creation with the greatness of the Creator. For God to be the greatest thing that is, doesn't require God to do the greatest possible thing one could imagine; God doesn't have to impress anyone. Just because creating the universe is easy for God, doesn't diminish God's greatness, just the greatness of the feat itself. Though it does put the speech God makes to Job in a new light (Job 38-42). Maybe Job should have said to God, "Yes, you can pull Leviathan out with a hook and do all those things and know all that stuff, but so what? You're God. Those things aren't that impressive for you."

Then there's Douglas Adams argument which appears in the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. Douglas Adams was an atheist, but I don't think he meant this argument as a apologetic to convert people to atheism. The argument is predicated on an animal called a Babel Fish, which is a fish that you can use as a universal translator by sticking it into your ear. The argument is that God says "I refuse to prove I exist, for Proof denies faith and without faith I am nothing." Then man responds to God, "but the Babel fish so improbable that it couldn't have been created by accident, thus it proves you must exist. Therefore, since without faith you would be nothing, then you don't exist." Then God says "I hadn't thought of that," and vanishes in a puff of logic. This is another amusing one, since it also makes another paradoxical argument: the babel fish proves that God exists, therefore God doesn't exist. If, you really wanted to both finding the holes in this argument, I guess you could say the problems with this argument are that, even as improbable as the Babel fish is, it could have emerged by accident and thus is not clinching proof of God's existence and second that faith without proof isn't all that mandatory. But I don't think you need a degree in philosophy to recognize any argument that ends with the logical step "it exists, therefore it doesn't exist" might have a few holes in it.

These arguments are good parodies of the ontological argument, and as we've seen earlier, there are a number of arguments for the existence of God, not much better than these two, but considerable better at hider their flaws, and thus a bit more convincing in the end.


Here's a comic strip written by Matt Boyd presenting Anselem's argument and a variation of Guanilo's response, which I first discussed way back when.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Proofs God Doesn't Exist pt 1

Since I've been talking about proofs that God does exist in the vein of Anselem's Ontological Argument (Descartes, Kant & Russel, Hume, Plantinga), I think I'll now talk about proofs that God doesn't exist. First I'll look at some serious attempts to show God doesn't exist. And I'll follow it with some not so serious proofs that God doesn't exist, from the likes of Douglas Gasking and Douglas Adams respectively.

There are some strong arguments for God's non-existence - such as how could God let such tragedies and devastations happen or how come God doesn't unambiguously reveal themselves - which I won't address, because they have been around at least as long as the Book of Job and have actually shaped religion, and Judaism and its descendants have been built around addressing them. The arguments I'll look at are more strictly logical in character. I brought up much earlier Hume's proof that we can't prove the existence of anything a priori. We might say similarly that we can't prove that we can't prove that something doesn't exist too, but that's not quite true. First of all, we can prove a thing does exist empirically, by experiencing it, but we can't prove a thing doesn't exist empirically, because there's always the possibility that it has escaped our experience. But we can prove something doesn't exist a priori. Hume said the only way we could prove a thing exists a priori is if its opposite is logically incoherent. Similarly here, the only way we could prove that a thing doesn't exist is if it itself is logically incoherent. Thus, a proof that God doesn't exist would have to show that God is logically incoherent. There are arguments that attempt to do this.

Most monotheists believe their God to be all-powerful, by which they simply mean that such a God could do anything. There's a paradox that tries to make omnipotence logically incoherent which is well known and you may have heard it already. It goes: "can God create a rock so heavy He can't lift it?" The idea is that God either can't create a thing or can't lift such a thing, either of which would constitute a limit on God's power, making God not quite omnipotent. First of all, omnipotence is not a necessary characteristic of a God, so one could say that God is super-duper-powerful, just not literally all-powerful. But actually I think the argument itself has problems. The problem is that a rock so heavy God couldn't lift it itself is incoherent. God could lift any sized rock; thus a rock that God couldn't lift couldn't exist. God can lift any sized rock; thus a rock God couldn't lift would have to be a size bigger than all sizes of rock, but this is impossible. God's inability to create such a rock doesn't constitute a limitation on God's power since such a rock is paradoxical. Comparably God can't create a square circle, or a married bachelor or a non-human human, because such things are logically incoherent, not because God has some limit on His power.

Another argument is the incompatibility of free will with omniscience. Simply, if God is omniscient, then God knows what will happen. Thus, God knows what choices we will make. How can there be choice if God knows what choices we will make? By choice I simply mean the ability to do otherwise. If I come to a fork in the road and I can either travel the left path or the right path, I have the ability to do otherwise. Some philosophers don't think we need choice to have free will. For example, Descartes defines free-will as autonomy. If I do something myself, then I have autonomy. To Descartes, even if it is only possible for one to choose the left path, one has autonomy as long as one chooses that path oneself. Another response goes simply: when you watch a video of people doing stuff, they can't do otherwise, but you don't assume they don't have free will. Every time you read about something that happened in the past, it's going to happen the same way - for example, Julius Caesar will always decide to cross the Rubicon - but that doesn't mean there was no choice. Similarly, just because I can successfully predict what my friend will do, doesn't mean she didn't choose to do it freely. If I correctly predict that my friend will divorce her husband, that doesn't mean she didn't freely choose to divorce him.

I'll admit that these counter-arguments may not be entirely rock solid and I can't say whether free will and omniscience + omnipotence are reconcilable, but I'll leave it at that. Besides, even if it is the case they are irreconcilable, it doesn't prove God doesn't exist, because these again aren't necessary characteristics of God. But I assume most monotheists would rather have their cake and eat it too: a God that's all powerful and all knowing and freedom both at once.

Maybe we'd be better off with some not so serious proofs next post.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Modal logical proofs of God

We will continue with Anselem's argument which we began with Anselem and Descartes and follow it as it continues into the 20th century. Despite that Russel killed Anselem's argument for good and Hume proved that you can't prove the existence of anything a priori, with new logical tools developing in the 20th century, someone is bound to attempt to try to update Anselem's proof. The man to do that is Alvin Plantinga and the technique he uses is modal logic.

Modal logic is simply just logic dealing with possibility, and Plantinga uses it to prove that since God possibly necessarily exist then God necessarily exist. Philosophers nowadays use necessarily existent as meaning existent in all possible worlds and possibly existent as existent in some possible worlds. Thus possibly necessary should lead to the confusing proposition that in some possible worlds something exists in all possible worlds, which some philosophers have proposed means it exists in all possible worlds. In other words, they propose that possibly necessary = necessary.

What Plantinga does it he basically defines God as maximally excellent and great, which to him means God is omniscient, omnipotent and wholly good and must exist in all possible worlds (in other words, God necessarily exists). He proposes that a God by this definition is possible. Thus, if this God is defined as necessarily existing, then saying this God is possible, means God possibly necessarily exists, which, as we explained above means God necessarily exists. In other words, God exists in all possible worlds, which of course includes this world.

Looking at this argument one should grow a bit skeptical. We made a very quick leap from saying God could exist to saying God must exist. Our first approach is to try and refute it through counter-example. For example, I propose that it is possible that I necessarily have six toes, which means I necessarily have six toes, which means I should look down and count six toes on my foot. I look and I count only five--argument refuted.

But hold on a minute. If I necessarily have six toes then I should have six toes in this world. The fact that I don't proves that I can't necessarily have six toes. Thus we can't define something as possibly necessary unless we can empirically observe it in this world. But then all we have to do is to take as a counter-example something we haven't empirically observed. For example, it's possible that in all possible worlds there is life on more than one planet. With this proposition, I've proved there's life on other planets. But of course, we should notice that to accept that it is possible that life must necessarily exist on more than one planet is immediately to accept there is life on other planets. We can see the same problem in Plantinga's argument. To propose that a God as he defines it could exist is to immediately propose that such a God exists, which is of course exactly what he is trying to prove. In short, Plantinga has merely found a new technique for secretly importing his conclusion into the argument as a premise. The question still unanswered is whether God as he defines it is possible.

This turns out to be the real crux of the argument: if a God that is necessarily existent can possibly exist then that God must exist. Plantinga's definition has put us in the position of saying that God as he defines it is impossible or necessarily exists. There are arguments that argue that God as he defines it (omniscient, omnipotent and wholly good) is irreconcilable with a world which has evil. Hume in his Dialogues on Natural Religion, which I discussed last post, mentions a trilemma which he ascribes to Epicurus, which basically says God is either unable to prevent there from being evil (in which God couldn't be omnipotent and omniscient) or is unwilling to prevent evil (in which case God couldn't be wholly good) or there is no evil in the world (which seems to disagree with experience). Plantinga, to his credit, does try to show that God, as he defines God, is reconcilable with a world which contains evil. Nonetheless the whole argument still rests on this question of whether such a God is possible, which we might be skeptical of. We should of course remember that even if we can show that a God as Plantinga defines it is impossible, it doesn't mean God doesn't exist, merely that God as Plantinga defines God doesn't exist.

On the other hand, we might also attack the whole argument by doubting the proposition that possibly necessary = necessary. Remember, possible necessary means that in some possible world something exists in all possible worlds, which I think most normal people would perceive as complete nonsense, but philosophers have a higher tolerance for nonsense and in fact many philosophers do accept this.

Next Post, proofs God doesn't exist.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Hume & why you can't prove a thing exists except by experience

To continue discussion of the ontological argument that I have been making through my last three posts, first with Anselem’s original argument, Descartes’ variation and Kant’s and Russel’s critiques. Now, we can talk about David Hume. Hume wrote a dialogue late in his life called thd "Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion" which he didn't publish in his lifetime because he was worried about the repercussions of what in his day would have been a very incendiary and controversial work. The dialogue is between three characters on the answerability of religious questions, most importantly the existence of the Christian God. His conclusion is basically that we can't prove God's existence, but we should believe it anyways. A number of philosophical arguments on the nature and existence of God are presented and are refuted with cogent reasoning. This includes the ontological argument.

The most important argument for us here, is a general argument presented by Cleanthes in Part IX that we can't prove anything exists a priori. That is, we can't prove that something exists without experience, direct or indirect, of the thing itself. He makes the argument briefly, "Nothing is demonstrable, unless the contrary implies a contradiction. Nothing, that is distinctly conceivable, implies a contradiction. Whatever we conceive as existent, we can also conceive as non-existent," therefore, "There is no Being, whose existence is demonstrable." To put it in other words. The only way that we can know that a thing must exist is if it's opposite is impossible because of internal contradictions. An example of something with internal contradictions would be like a round square or a married bachelor. We will leave aside the issue of how to define opposition precisely that I brought up earlier. There is nothing that we could possibly conceive for which we could not conceive it's opposite. We can't really conceive of a married bachelor. And what would it's opposite be? an unmarried husband? Would the opposite of a round square be a square circle? If we can conceive of a thing we can conceive an opposite that is not internally contradictory. Thus, ultimately we can't prove the existence of anything a priori.

There is nothing internally contradictory about an atheistic universe. Hume himself believed in a theistic universe, but could admit that there was nothing internally contradictory about a atheistic universe. To return to Descartes, one of the things that Descartes tried to ultimately do through his Meditations was to sure that one couldn't actually conceive of God as not existing. He failed in this attempt, but I think he too recognized what Hume did. We should also recognize that Descartes' arguments did not try to be entirely a priori. One of Descartes' arguments begins with the observation that he has an idea of an all-perfect God and the other uses the observation that he can't imagine God as not existing. Even Descartes' famous cogito ergo sum, whereby he proves that he exists by observing that he thinks, relies on the important empirical observation that he is thinking. Descartes was a clever little fellow, even though he clearly has some rather untoward assumptions.

Returning to Hume though, we might be a little skeptical about his initial premise that the only way to prove the existence of something outside of experience is by proving that it's opposite entails a contradiction, but I find this to be a fair assumption and am more than willing to accept that the only way to prove that something exists is through experience.

We would think this would end the proofs of God, but it certainly is not the end of it.

Friday, August 8, 2008

Kant & Russel's Objections to Ontological Argument

I am going to continue discussion of the Ontological Argument that I spoke of in my last two posts, both with Anselem’s Original Argument and Descartes' variation on it. Aquinas did make an objection to Anselem's argument and offered in its stead a different set of arguments to prove God's existence, but I will instead focus on Kant's objection since it is more to be noted.

Kant, in the Critique of Pure Reason makes the argument that to speak of existence as a perfection of something is absurd, because existence can't really be a characteristic of something. If a thing exists then it necessarily has the quality of existence. If a thing doesn't exist then it cannot have any characteristics. Thus, to be speak of a thing as perhaps having or not having the quality of existence doesn't make sense. Personally, I don't find this argument, since I think you might be able to object to it. But it does suggest something which Kant himself wasn't aware of, an important characteristic of the type of logic that Anselem is using, naming Aristotelian logic. Aristotelian logic has the limitation that it can' speak of things that don't exist. In other words, if you try to use as a step in Aristotelian logic "all griffin's have golden wings" then the argument can lead to untrue conclusions because the statement implicitly assumes griffins exist. Kant himself asserted that Aristotelian logic was complete and that nothing needed to be added to it. He was proven wrong as a number of advances in logic beginning in the nineteenth century expanded logic's possibility. In particular, one could begin to speak of things that don't exist or that may or may not exist using if/then statements. For example, "if griffins exist, then all griffins have golden wings," can be used because it doesn't assume that griffins exist.

This is the reason why I find Russel's refutation of the Ontological argument definitive, because he shows that the existence of God is implicitly assumed as an initial premise of the argument. In other words, the argument is trying to prove that God exists, but already secretly assumes that God exists. Russel's argument appears in his famous 1905 essay "On Denoting." Russel rephrases the Ontological argument in a more logically straightforward way that is consistent with the original: "The most perfect Being has all perfections; existence is a perfection; therefore the most perfect Being exists." Russel shows that the the first step in the argument, "the most perfect Being has all perfections," must be rephrased in order to be meaningful. And that the only way to make it meaningful and to have a meaningful argument is to begin with, "There is one and only one entity x which is most perfect; that one has all perfections." But this is exactly what we are trying to prove and which the argument doesn't prove. Thus, the argument does nothing.

Similarly, we might also rephrase the Ontological argument so that it explicitly doesn't assume that God exists, by using the if/then form. Namely, "If the most perfect Being exists then that Being has all perfections; existence is a perfection; therefore..." From here the only conclusion that we can draw, since we started with an if/then statement and the second step only qualifies the "then" part of that statement, is "...therefore, if the most perfect Being exists, then the most perfect Being exists."

I find Russel's refutation more definitive, because he shows that the argument doesn't actually prove anything at all. It's just logical sleight of hand used to secretly import as an assumption what is ostensibly being proved, namely that God exists.

Hume has an interest response, about whether we can prove the existence of anything prior to experience, which I will discuss next post.

Monday, August 4, 2008

Descartes & the Ontological Argument

I am going to continue discussion of the ontological argument for god’s existence and Anselem’s proof that I started with my last post. The argument is picked up by Descartes who uses it in his Meditations on First Philosophy. Desartes needs to prove God’s existence in order to demonstrate that an external world exists (and thereby opening up the possibility for doing science) and to undermine skepticism in general. Just as Kant will later do with his “Refutation of Idealism” as I mentioned in a previous post, Descartes is trying to prove that there is and external world that we know and there is no way of doubting it. This requires him to undermine the skeptical rejoinder that we could be deceived about the external world by an all-powerful deceiver. The precise logic of this can be a bit murky and Descartes isn’t usually very explicit with his reasoning, but the important idea is that reason leads me to think that external bodies exist and a benevolent God ensures that reason, when used correctly, will lead to truth.

Descartes uses more than one argument to prove God’s existence. The other significant argument, which appears in the Third Meditation, is basically: 1) I have an idea of an infinite all-perfect God; 2) I, as a finite imperfect thing, could not create this idea, it could have only be created by a perfect being like God; 3) therefore it must come from God. This idea of God is “the mark of the craftsmen stamped on his work”: in other words, God created me, and he has signed his work by placing in me the idea of God. Obviously, the second step is the one that is probably the least convincing. Descartes tries to strengthen it by distinguishing “actually infinite” (God) from “potentially infinite” (like the number infinity, or an infinitely divisible line) ideas. Thus, he is able to dodge the refutation that our mind can create infinite ideas, by saying our mind can only create potentially infinite ideas and not actually infinite ideas. My objection at this is: if the mind can contain an actually infinite idea, shouldn’t it be able to create it? and if the mind can’t entirely contain it, how can the mind know it’s actually infinite? But the whole argument has such dubious and speculative assumptions that ultimately one should just dismiss it as resting on baseless assertions.

Descartes also uses a version of Anselem’s argument to prove God’s existence. Why two arguments? I think they complement and strengthen each other. The first is an epistemological argument (epistemology=the study of how we know) the second is an ontological argument (ontology=the study of existence). This argument rests on the inseparability of the idea of God from existence. In other words, I cannot but think of God clearly and distinctly without thinking of God’s existence. Descartes had earlier proved that the quality of an idea being clear and distinct makes that idea true. Thus, if God and existence are inseparable then God must exist. Introducing this idea of “clear and distinct” avoids the objection that I raised in my last post to Anselem’s argument, that our mind can essentially will a perfect thing into existence by just having an idea of it, since Descartes is instead saying that we can’t perceive anything untrue clearly and distinctly. Descartes also introduces another notion, of the inseparability of perfection to dodge Guanilo’s perfect island counter-example. In other words, Descartes says that no thing can have only one perfect quality; it must be perfect in every way or perfect in no way at al. An island, by being a material thing is necessarily imperfect; therefore a perfect island is nonsensical.

Ultimately, Descartes arguments are an improvement on Anselem's, but the assumptions they rest upon are of such a dubious nature that it’s hard to find them convincing. The second proof of God’s existence dependence on the notion that clear and distinct perceptions indicate truth. Descartes earlier demonstrates this, but his proof rests on his assumption that God exists, which thus means it depends on his first proof of God’s existence, which itself dependence on the shaky empirical observation that we all have an inherent idea of an actually infinite and all-perfect God and that we couldn’t possibly create such an idea on our own. It’s a good example of a vertical argument, with arguments depending on previous arguments and assumptions, such that the whole thing easily collapses once we bring doubt to earlier premises.

Nonetheless, it’s not the last we’ll see of Anselem and the Ontological proof, as I want to explore critical responses to it from the likes of Kant, Russel and Hume.