I get taken to task by Jeffery Jay Lowder over the Cosmological Argument

Jeffery Jay Lowder, founder of Internet Infidels, has objected to a post of mine, William Lane Craig’s eight Special-Pleading arguments for God’s existence, that was in turn a reply to an article by theologian William Lane Craig in Philosophy Now. Craig’s article presented a number of arguments for the existence of God, including the “cosmological argument”.

Lowder’s charge is that I didn’t take a serious enough approach to Craig’s article, and didn’t respond carefully to how Craig had laid out his argument. I accept that my article was dismissive in tone, and, rather than giving a thorough examination of each of Craig’s points, I attempted to highlight a “special pleading” element running through all of them. But, I still regard my post as being fair; essentially, I regard the whole cosmological argument as being one big whopper of special pleading.

The argument for a “first cause” notices that if something had a cause, and that cause then needed something to cause it, et cetera, then you either get infinite regress or you need a starting point: a cause that wasn’t caused.

But how to explain the un-caused cause? The theologians’ usual tactic (which Craig employs) is to declare it to be “metaphysically necessary”, something that must exist because it could not not exist.

Craig’s argument asserts that everything requires a cause (he calls all such things “contingent”). He then makes one exception. That exception he declares to be “metaphysically necessary”, and that exception is, of course, the god he believes in.

In my original post I paraphrased this argument as:

1. Everything needs an explanation of its existence.
2. Except God, of course, which doesn’t.
3. Therefore God created everything else.

I described this as “special pleading”, which Rational Wiki defines as:

… a logical fallacy asking for an exception to a rule to be applied to a specific case, without proper justification of why that case deserves an exemption.

Am I being fair? Well, what is Craig’s actual argument for God being “metaphysically necessary”? Is this concept of metaphysical necessity something that is accepted and verified in some other area of science or philosophy? Well, no it isn’t, it’s a concept invented solely for the cosmological argument. Is the existence of entities that are metaphysically necessary verified by empirical data? Well, no, not at all. Is the existence of things that are metaphysically necessary mandated by logic? Well, no, they aren’t.

Thus, the assertion that God is metaphysically necessary is adopted purely to make the cosmological argument work. Without it the argument falls apart. Indeed Craig gives the whole game away, telling us that he declares his god to be metaphysically necessary since “otherwise its existence would also need explaining”.

The claim that one and only one entity is metaphysically necessary (whereas everything else is contingent), and claiming so purely to make the argument work, is the very essence of special pleading. Indeed, slapping on the label “metaphysically necessary” is just a by-fiat declaration that: “I don’t need to provide further explanation”, and to slap that label on Craig’s god, as opposed to on anything else, is entirely arbitrary.

You could just as arbitrarily declare that the occurrence of the Big Bang was metaphysically necessary. Surely everyone could see that if I merely asserted that the Big Bang was “metaphysically necessary”, without further justification, then I’d be making an empty assertion that begged the whole question?

Thus, unless someone produces actual evidence or argument for the validity of the concept of metaphysical necessity, I’ll regard it as pure special pleading adopted by theologians who cannot think up any actually good arguments for their god.

So, to Lowder’s post, where he suggests that:

This argument is the Leibnizian cosmological argument, based upon the distinction between necessary and contingent existence. Hellier, however, is apparently not familiar with either this distinction or the argument.

No, I am familiar with it, and it is exactly this distinction that I am addressing. (And I’m not sure why Lowder suggests that I am “not familiar” with the distinction, given that he quotes my two points above which are essentially paraphrases of the concepts “contingent” and “necessary”.)

More important, Hellier doesn’t clearly identify which premise(s) of Craig’s argument he rejects or why he rejects it (them).

I reject the whole distinction between “necessary” and “contingent” beings, given that it is a distinction invented solely to make the argument work. If this distinction had been established and justified in some other way, and was now being imported into the cosmological argument, then that would be valid reasoning. But inventing it precisely to make the cosmological argument work is the very essence of special pleading.

If I were to say to Craig, please now present your evidence that this distinction exists and that the concept of being metaphysically necessary is valid, he could only reply that if it didn’t exist then the cosmological argument wouldn’t work. Thus the necessary/contingent distinction is predicated on the cosmological argument and the cosmological argument is predicated on the necessary/contingent distinction.

Lowder suggests that Craig would only be committing the fallacy of special pleading if he were to assert both of:

1. Every contingent thing has an explanation of its existence.
2′. God is a contingent thing that does not require an explanation of His existence.

But the word “contingent” here means “occurring or existing only if (certain circumstances) are the case; dependent on”, and so is synonymous with the event having an explanation of its existence. The two assertions would thus be better put as:

1. Everything has and requires an explanation of its existence, except:
2′. God does not have or require an explanation of His existence.

That, right there, is the special pleading at the heart of the cosmological argument. Unless those two assertions can be evidenced or established independently of the cosmological argument, their use is nothing but special pleading. Indeed the whole business of the distinction between “metaphysically necessary” and contingent is merely dressing up the special pleading in philosophical language.

We need to be careful about theologians getting away with making un-evidenced assertions as though they were actual arguments. Another such assertion is that an entity that can listen to the prayers of a billion people simultaneously can be “simple”. We should not allow theologians to set the framing of theological questions, and then play by their rules, and I reject the whole framing of the cosmological argument in terms of the non-concept “metaphysical necessity”.

On understanding, intuition, and Searle’s Chinese Room

You’ve just bought the latest in personal-assistant robots. You say to it: “Please put the dirty dishes in the dishwasher, then hoover the lounge, and then take the dog for a walk”. The robot is equipped with a microphone, speech-recognition software, and extensive programming on how to do tasks. It responds to your speech by doing exactly as requested, and ends up taking hold of the dog’s leash and setting off out of the house. All of this is well within current technological capability.

Did the robot understand the instructions?

Roughly half of people asked would answer, “yes of course it did, you’ve just said it did”, and be somewhat baffled by the question. The other half would reply along the lines of, “no, of course the robot did not understand, it was merely following a course determined by its programming and its sensory inputs; its microprocessor was simply shuffling symbols around, but it did not understand”.

Such people — let’s call them Searlites — have an intuition that “understanding” requires more than the “mere” mechanical processing of information, and thus they declare that a mere computer can’t actually “understand”.

The rest of us can’t see the problem. We — let’s call ourselves Dennettites — ask what is missing from the above robot such that it falls short of “understanding”. We point out that our own brains are doing the same sort of information processing in a material network, just to a vastly greater degree. We might suspect the Searlites of hankering after a “soul” or some other form of dualism.

The Searlites reject the charge, and maintain that they fully accept the principles of physical materialism, but then state that it is blatantly obvious that when the brain “understands” something it is doing more than “merely” shuffling symbols around in a computational device. Though they cannot say what. They thus regard the issue as a huge philosophical puzzle that needs to be resolved, and which may even point to the incompleteness of the materialist world-view. Continue reading

Nigel Biggar is wrong on Charlie Hebdo and free speech

The conflict between Free Speech and Islam is surely going to be a defining battle of the 21st Century. Worryingly, many in the West consider that the best way to defuse the battle is to make concessions to Islam. For example, take the article just published in The Times by Nigel Biggar, the Regius Professor of Moral and Pastoral Theology at the University of Oxford (non-paywall article version).

Biggar writes:

By its nature, satire is unfair and uncharitable. It exaggerates faults, blowing them out of all proportion into caricature. It doesn’t criticise; it ridicules. It doesn’t invite a vigorous exchange of views; it humiliates without moderation or mercy. It’s not designed to communicate; it’s designed to alienate.

He continues that:

[Satire] should be used sparingly as a weapon of last and rare resort. And that raises moral doubts about newspapers for which satire is a way of life, a Moloch that needs weekly feeding.

Nigel Biggar

He then accuses Charlie Hebdo of “holding up to ridicule what every Muslim holds most sacred”, which “amounts to culpable negligence in avoiding pointless offence”, and concludes:

Charlie’s journalists certainly didn’t deserve to die for that but they still shouldn’t have done it. They knew and flaunted their legal right to offend; they neglected their moral duty not to.

Now, “newspapers for which satire is a way of life” include the one Biggar was writing in, and indeed most mainstream newspapers. All of them regularly publish satirical cartoons about politicians and others in the news. Is Biggar raising “moral doubts” about this, or are the moral doubts only if the subject of the satire is Islam?

Surprisingly, Biggar doesn’t address this issue, nor explain whether or why satirical cartoons about political leaders are acceptable but those about a religion are not. This cannot be due to the degree that they are “unfair and uncharitable” and “exaggerate faults”, since political cartoons are routinely far more cutting and scathing than the — by any objective standard — relatively innocuous Danish Cartoons and Charlie Hebdo covers. Indeed, the Islamic complaint is not so much that Mohammed has been portrayed in a particularly vicious way, but rather that he has been portrayed at all.

Since Biggar hasn’t explained why he failed to condemn the routine satirical cartoons in the very paper in which he was writing, I’m going to have to guess as to his likely reply. He might point to the politicians being powerful and influential, and might present satirical cartoons as a necessary balance and check to prevent governments becoming over-powerful. He might also suggest that politicians, by getting involved in politics, have consented to the game.

Charlie Hebdo anniversary cover

One year on: “The assassin [God/religion] is still out there”.

I would agree entirely with such replies. The right to dissent from and openly criticise the government and other powerful institutions is the very basis of a free, healthy and democratic society. What I don’t see is why we would then exempt Islam from the same treatment.

Worldwide, Islam is a hugely powerful force, controlling many whole countries and upwards of a billion people. For a large swathe of the world’s population, Islam is the idea system dominating their lives. Any justification for any satirical political cartoons must surely apply a fortiori to Islam.

While it could be argued that, in the West, the Muslim citizens are relatively powerless, it would be wrong to see such populations as homogenous. From the point of view of, say, an adolescent in an Islamic community, Islam is still a hugely powerful force in their lives. Whereas a teenager growing up in a rich stockbroker-belt community could espouse full-blown socialism without anyone much caring, a teenager growing up in Islamic communities has no such freedom to reject Islam. Doing so would often be met with opprobrium and ostracisation, or even worse.

The reason Islam prohibits the depiction of Mohammed is precisely to place Islam beyond human questioning and off-limits to criticism. It is part and parcel of their apostasy laws, their blasphemy laws, and their stifling orthodoxy that says you must only question within the strictly defined limits allowed by Islamic authorities. Islam means “submission”, the antithesis of the West’s primary instruction to “question”.

Islam wants political power, but it also wants to outlaw criticism of itself, and does so with legal force in nations where it can. It would also like to do so worldwide, and repeatedly asks the UN to implement blasphemy laws which would outlaw the sort of criticisms of religion that are routine in the West.

Biggar wants to allow Islam this veto. He phrases this as avoiding unnecessary offence. But the offence is, at root, that someone has rejected Islamic rules rather than submit to them. Yes, depicting Mohammed is offensive to Muslims, but so is apostasy, and so is criticising Islam (which they call blasphemy).

We can only avoid offence to Islam by adopting for ourselves such Islamic rules. And, you can be sure that if some demands are acceded to, then more demands will follow. That is plain from the restrictions in place in nations where Islam is powerful enough to impose itself.

Isn’t it obvious that we cannot allow this? If criticising Islam, including the drawing of satirical cartoons, gives offence then the offence is entirely necessary. We can no more exempt Islam from criticism than we can exempt capitalism or communism or free trade or “American imperialism” or anything else from criticism.

If a Prime Minister’s mother stated that she was highly offended that her son featured in satirical cartoons we would just shrug and suggest that she not read newspapers if she felt that way. We would not allow the taking of offence to act as a veto; no free society can accept that principle.

Islam wants to impose that principle because it does not want a free society, it wants an Islamic one. Islam teaches its adherents to take offence at depictions of Mohammed precisely as a means of enforcing such a veto.

Biggar is missing the big picture if he thinks he can resolve this tension by simply “avoiding pointless offence”. I would invite him to cut out the political cartoons routinely published by newspapers and place them side by side with the Danish Cartoons and Charlie Hebdo covers, and ask himself whether the latter are — by any normal and sensible standard — actually beyond the pale, or whether he is merely submitting to the Islamic request for a veto on free speech.

Of course many Muslims take a more liberal attitude and do not agree with the totalitarian nature of mainstream Islam.

I would like to salute Muhammad al-Hussaini, a senior research fellow in Islamic studies at the Westminster Institute, who defended the right of Christian preacher James McConnell to describe Islam as “Satanic”, saying:

It is therefore a matter of utmost concern that, in this country, we discharge our common duty steadfastly to defend the freedom of citizens to discuss, debate and critique religious ideas and beliefs — restricting only speech which incites to physical violence against others.

Many Muslims want to reform Islam and would welcome a more open and pluralistic religion that accepted criticism. Surely any beneficial idea-system can only be improved by criticism, and only harmful idea-systems would want to stifle it?

The Islamic reformers want open discussion of Islam and an over-turning of the stifling censorship typical of mainstream Islam. That is perhaps the biggest flaw in Biggar’s proposal. It sides with the reactionary and most regressive elements in the Islamic world by meekly implying that their demands are fair and reasonable, and by doing that it undercuts the reformers.

How are reformers in Islamic communities supposed to openly challenge Islamic strictures if the reactionaries can reply: “Look, even the infidel West realises that such a line that should not be crossed”, and back this up by quoting the authority of no less a person than the Regius Professor of Moral and Pastoral Theology at Britain’s leading university?

How many Big Bangs? A philosophical argument for a multiverse

Prompted by reading about the recent Munich conference on the philosophy of science, I am reminded that many people regard the idea of a multiverse as so wild and wacky that talking about it brings science into disrepute. My argument here is the reverse: that the idea of multiple Big Bangs, and thus of a multiverse, is actually more mundane and prosaic than the suggestion that there has only ever been one Big Bang. I’m calling this a “philosophical” argument since I’m going to argue on very general grounds rather than get into the details of particular cosmological models.

First, let me clarify that several different ideas can be called a “multiverse”, and here I am concerned with only one. That “cosmological multiverse” is the idea that our Big Bang was not unique, but rather is one of many, and that the different “universes” created by each Big Bang are simply separated by vast amounts of space.

Should we regard our Big Bang as a normal, physical event, being the result of physical processes, or was it a one-off event unlike anything else, perhaps the origin of all things? It is tempting to regard it as the latter, but there is no evidence for that idea. The Big Bang might be the furthest back thing we have evidence of, but there will always be a furthest-back thing we have evidence of. That doesn’t mean its occurrence was anything other than a normal physical process.

If you want to regard it as a one-off special event, unlike any other physical event, then ok. But that seems to me a rather outlandish idea. When physics encounters a phenomenon, the normal reaction is to try to understand it in terms of physical processes. Continue reading

Britain is no more a Christian nation than a White nation

Sometimes I pine for the days when British politicians did not “do God”. They realised that, in a nation where only half of us now believe in God, such talk is unnecessarily divisive. But David Cameron is reckoned to have undergone a religious renaissance after the death of his young son, Ivan, and nowadays regularly “does God” and pronounces the UK to be a “Christian nation”.

In one sense this doesn’t matter, since he’s entitled to his opinion and his words can be ignored by those who don’t share his beliefs. But, on the other hand, as Prime Minister he often speaks for the nation as a whole.

By calling Britain a “Christian nation” he presumably refers to the fact that around half the nation identifies as Christian, though often only as a vague cultural affinity. Only about one-in-five are Christian in the sense of regarding it as important in their lives, or in the sense of being church-goers. The rest share some of the cultural heritage, and might attend church weddings and funerals, and perhaps the occasional carol service, but otherwise don’t “do God” in their daily lives. Continue reading

Yes of course “survival of the fittest” is tautological!

If one phrase could be said to have percolated into popular consciousness as summing up Darwin’s theory of natural selection, that phrase would be “survival of the fittest”. Which is rather a pity since that phrase is not how scientists state the principles of Darwinism. That’s because the phrase is tautological.

In Darwinian terms “fitness” is the ability to survive and reproduce. As stated by H. Allen Orr: “In the crudest terms, fitness involves the ability of organism … to survive and reproduce in the environment in which they find themselves”.1

Given that “fitness” is the tendency to survive and reproduce then, obviously, it is the fittest who tend to survive and reproduce. The maxim “survival of the fittest” is thus a tautology.

And boy has that caused problems!    Not, I might add, problems for biologists, but problems for some who comment on biology, from creationists to philosophers of science. I had been under the impression that all this had been clarified decades ago, but on reading the article on biological fitness in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, written in 2015 by Alex Rosenberg and Frederic Bouchard, I was surprised to find that this is still a live issue among philosophers.

The worry is that, if the phrase “survival of the fittest” is tautological, then perhaps the whole concept of Darwinian “fitness” is tautological and thus empty of any actual content, and then maybe the whole of Darwinism becomes “metaphysics” rather than science. This accusation has been made by creationists, and even by luminaries such as Sir Karl Popper.

The reply is actually quite simple: Yes, the phrase “survival of the fittest” is tautological; but no, the concept of “fitness” is not tautological, and nor is Darwinian natural selection. That’s it; that’s the resolution of the “problem”. Continue reading

Why are we allowing student unions to veto speech?

The principle of free expression is increasingly under threat across the Western world. Speech that might upset or annoy someone is being categorised as “hate speech” and thus placed beyond the pale in acceptable society. According to a recent Pew poll, 38% of British people now agree that the government should be able to prevent people saying things that are offensive to minority groups. Worryingly, even fewer support free speech in the rest of Europe.

Pew Poll on Free Speech

And of course it would be entirely up to those minority groups to tell us what they deem offensive, which would allow them a veto over all public discourse. Nor are such concerns merely theoretical. Currently we have a preacher being prosecuted for describing Islam as “Satanic”. Whatever happened to the very bedrock of Western liberties, Voltaire’s: “I disagree with everything you say, but will defend to the death your right to say it”? Continue reading