Brown on Philosophy of Religion

I have been thinking about the philosophy of religion lately and I noticed that I don’t really have my posts on this organized. So here are some of the things I have written on this topic. I am pretty much a layman in this area and have not published any of this stuff except as blog posts. I might put things differently here and there but overall I think these still hold up!

The Problem of Evil

  • Freedom and Evil
    • Back in 2006 a student in a class where discussed the problem of evil asked me if I would participate in a debate they organized with John Rankin on the question “If God exists, then why is there evil?’ the linked post was my opening remarks and re-reading it I can see I was blissful unaware of Plantinga’s work…I was also still a graduate student. I have never seen what the flaw in this argument is supposed to be.
  • Transworld Depravity and the New Logical Problem of Evil
    • final thoughts on Plantinga’s Free Will defense
  • A Short Argument that there is no God
    • my attempt to side-step the Plantinga-style free will defense against the logical problem of evil
  • Transworld Saints
    • Plantinga’s defense seems to assume that God doesn’t have power to create creaturely essences that always freely choose the good (but why couldn’t He choose to actualize the essences whose ‘counter-factuals of freedom’ had no moral evil: transworld saints)


  • God Vs. The Delayed Choice Quantum Computer
    • I argue that if God is omniscient then there must be an aspect of physical reality that He doesn’t know. This post has generated a lot of controversy and accusations that I don’t understand quantum mechanics but the more I do understand it the more this argument seems to hold up!
  • What God Doesn’t Know
    • I try to generate a Liar’s Paradox type sentence about God’s knowledge (right before I found out someone else did this already)
  • The Logical Problem of Omniscience
    • Can God know what He will do and still be free?


  • The Immorality of God
    • God cannot have morally significant free will without failing to be the source of morality
  • Reason and the Nature of Obligation
    • an exploration of the question about obligation and motivating reasons in Modern Philosophy. This is where I discovered the distinction between justifying reasons and motivating reasons that helped shape the ideas in my dissertation (on metaethics)
  • Why Must We Worship God?
    • Is it rational for a perfect being to care whether I worship Them or not? I argue that it is not
  • Invoking God doesn’t save Descartes from Skepticism
    • Using Job as a comparison I argue that Descartes doesn’t have a good reason to think that Gos isn’t a deceiver

  • Self-Selecting for Rationality
    • Can we have been self-selecting for rationality this whole time?
  • The Immorality of God

    I have been talking about my views on religion and God lately because I was recently invited to be a guest on a couple of podcasts but I have written about these things extensively over the last 10 years or so here and I have been thinking about these issues for my entire life.

    One thing that has come up a few times is the immorality of God as traditionally portrayed. I have argued that we have a lot of reason to believe that God as traditionally described acts immorally and that is usually met with puzzlement. How could God act immorally?

    Let us take a concrete example. Let us think about the Fall. A very traditional story has it that the evils of this world, from pain and suffering right down to the just plain old day to day grind, from toruture and murder to natural disasters, all of it we are told, traces back to punishment for Original Sin. It was for this ‘crime’ that humans were expelled from the Garden of Eden. Was it moral for God to punish us for that? Only if He had some morally compelling reason to do so. In fact given that we are considering an omniscient being He would have known what Adam and Eve would do, right? So the very creation of life comes with it, the story goes, the risk of evil entering the world (through free will). So let us look at the problem of evil a bit.

    When I think about the problem of evil I think about why it is that a perfect being would allow suffering -of any kind. I pretty much think that the fact that when I stub my toe there is so much pain is already enough by itself to bring up this question but of course there is a lot more suffering in the universe than my clumsy throbbing toe. Theists typically say that evil is the result of free will, original sin if you trace it all the way back to the Garden of Eden. But why couldn’t God have made a world where Adam and Eve always freely chose to do what is right? (by the way I am not convinced it was wrong for them to eat the apple but let’s leave that aside) “Well, if that were the case they wouldn’t really be free” is what I usually hear back.

    But to be free requires only that I have options and can freely choose between them. Why would God allow lying, murder, theft ect. to be possible at all? Why isn’t the world set up so that murder is like jumping to the moon. We just can’t do it and we don’t think it matter much that we can’t do it. We can still be free even if we can’t jump to the moon so why couldn’t we be free and not able to murder? More to the point, why couldn’t humans have been made so that Original Sin was like jumping to the moon? The typical answer is that if we are to have really morally valuable free will -morally significant free will as some call it- then we must be able to choose to do evil. If I have three options, the line of thought goes, and two of them are moral and the their immoral, and if I can’t choose the immoral action then I am not free to choose that action and I am not to be praised for doing what is right. The moral value, so they say, of my choosing to do good depends on my being able to freely choose to evil.

    I find that whole idea rather strange but either way you feel about that today I started to wonder how serious are we supposed to take this link between free will and choosing wrongly? Does God have free will? It certainly seems part of the traditional theistic account that God is perfectly free and -freely- chose to create us. Ok, but does God have The Real Valuable Kind of Free Will? If not then why couldn’t we have been made to be like Him in that respect? If God has a kind of free will that allows him to be free but unable to be morally bad then, He should have made us that way. If He does have morally valuable free will, then He should be able to act immorally. Thus if God is truly free then He has to be able to act immorally.

    But if one is a Theist then one must accept (or should be inclined to accept) that morality is a function of God’s nature and so to be able to act immorally God would have to act contrary to His nature, which seems like a contradiction.

    Some might see this result as fine. God is supremely rational (one might think) and so cannot create contradictions or make a highest natural number, etc. That is not a limit on His power, so the line goes, but rather a result of His nature. So if God’s nature is moral perfection then how could He act contrary to it? He can be free but unable to act immorally for the same reason He can be all-powerful (and supremely rational) and not be able to create contradictions: He cannot act contrary to His nature.

    But then God doesn’t have the same kind of free will that we have. And His isn’t morally significant.

    In fact if you follow this all the way out our ability to act immorally is a very puzzling feature on their world view. God has given us free will and made us in such a way that we can choose to act immorally without acting contrary to our nature. We are told that this is more valuable than being made in such a way that we always freely choose the good.

    But if this is the case isn’t this a way in which we are morally superior to God? I can be confronted with something immoral (on their world view) and have as live possibilities choosing to do it or not to do it. But God when presented with such an opportunity does not have that option. Compare Adam and Eve in the Garden. If God made it so that Original Sin was contrary to their nature then they would not be free with respect to the choice they make not to do it. God, if His nature is the source of morality, when freely choosing to punish Adam and Eve is not free to withhold punishment (assuming that it was morally correct to punish Adam and Eve, something which has not been established).

    So we can do something that God cannot so, we can freely choose to do the moral thing because it is the moral thing. That is, we can choose to do the moral thing because we recognize that it is moral and that is what guides our action (on their world view where I have this kind of free will). God cannot do this on their world view. God cannot, on the basis of understanding the morality of the option, freely choose to do it. He must do it because He cannot act contrary to His nature. And this is not something that such a being is worthy of praise for doing.

    The conclusion of all of this is that if God exists and is the ultimate standard of morality then God can never live up to that standard -God cannot be a moral agent. It is impossible for God to truly act morally. This is not like the case of rationality where I can do something God can’t (be irrational). This is a case where what I can do is better than what God can do. According to them humans are capable of freely choosing to act in such a way as to be in accordance with God’s nature and that is something that their God cannot do (although an interesting vie would be one where God does will to be in accordance with His nature (which he could choose not to do) and thus wills consistency, etc…does anyone hold this view?).

    I can sum all of this up in the following argument:

    1. If God’s nature is the ultimate standard of morality then He will not have morally significant free will
    2. If God does not have morally significant free will then He cannot act morally
    3. If God’s nature is the ultimate standard of morality He cannot act morally (from 1 and 2)

    Suppose God can act immorally but chooses not to. That is morally superior to a God who can only act in accordance with His nature but this requires that either God act contrary to his nature (a contradiction) or that God is not the source of morality.

    Has anyone addressed these issues anywhere? I am familiar with the traditional debate about God’s freedom from Leibniz but don’t know of any discussions about God’s freedom being morally significant.

    Self-Selecting for Rationality

    I just read this interview with Plantinga conducted by Gary Gutting for the Stone and I had a couple of thoughts I wanted to jot down.

    First, while it was nice to see Plantinga pushing the argument for agnosticism against the atheist, it is disappointing that he doesn’t seem to see that the very same reasoning should push the theist towards agnosticism as well.

    Second, it was interesting to see Plantinga’s informal take on his argument that evolution plus physicalism is self-undermining. I caught myself wondering if we can accept Plantinga’s conclusion in a way that would not be so disturbing to the atheist physicalist. His claim, roughly, is that there is no evolutionary reason to expect that we would end up with rational creatures like ours with beliefs that are produced by reliable mechanisms and which are mostly true. False beliefs get you around the world just fine. Suppose that we agree that *natural selection* wouldn’t do the trick. Is that all there is?

    Plantinga assumes the only alternative is *artificial selection* done by a Deity (why not via a simulated world?). But that doesn’t seem to me to be the only option. Another possibility is that we have been exerting selective pressures on ourselves, most likely via culture and civilization. In fact it turns out there may be some evidence for this claim.

    I for one find it very plausible that evolution would produce a creature like Plantinga describes and that this creature might in turn then selectively cultivate certain traits resulting in the semi-rational creature that we know and love today. In fact I would go so far as to say that we are still in the process of self-selecting. Viewed this way the abstract idea or concept of God can be seen as a sort of ideal limit or goal towards which the self-section might aim. Of course one need not invoke God for this; an ‘ideal reasoner’ in general will suffice.

    I am not saying this is the only way to answer Plantinga, and I am not entirely convinced that natural selection couldn’t do the trick, but even so I think this is an interesting idea. I wonder if anyone has explored this issue before?

    The Argument from Photosynthesis

    Though I very much enjoy the taste of food I have always thought that the actual act of eating is very primitive and mildly repulsive. Described abstractly eating involves the mastication of organic substances which are then broken down in digestive acids to produce sugars that are then used to fuel metabolic activity. The mastication process involves mechanically breaking down the organic substances and mixing them with saliva and in the process the organic substance is rubbed over the taste buds in our tongues and released gasses interact with the olfactory receptors via the nasal passages.

    Now compare this process with the process of photosynthesis. In photosynthesis light energy is converted to sugar with oxygen as a waste product. This process is more elegant and much cleaner than eating (eating/digestion has excrement as its waste product versus oxygen for photosynthesis). However, the naturally evolved photosynthesis we find here on Earth is not very efficient (it captures somewhere in the area of 3-6% of the energy available in sunlight) and as a result we do not find vertebrates that use photosynthesis, though there is recent evidence that salamanders have photosynthetic cells and we might have an invertebrate or two that uses it.

    So is it possible that humans might be able to someday use photosynthesis? Some have recently argued that we have a moral obligation to get rid of meat eating animals and replace them with herbivores. But herbivores are carnivores as well in the strict sense. While I don’t think that eating plants is as morally problematic as eating animals I still think it would be nice to free ourselves from eating all together. At least I would like to be able to do so for myself. So might I ever be able to? As it stands it looks like it would be difficult to do because extant photosynthetic processes are relatively inefficient and so even if we did successfully integrate photosynthetic cells over the entire area of our skin we would need to be exposed to dangerous amounts of radiation to meet our energy demands. Still it is certainly possible to improve photosynthesis and in fact scientists are working on it now and so while it doesn’t seem likely to happen anytime soon it certainly seems possible that there could be photosynthetic humans at some point in the future. We might not be able to quit eating all together, we might still do it for pleasurable experiences of taste etc or we might have to eat some limited amount to supplement the energy from photosynthetic process, but still it is not physically impossible that this could happen and it does seem morally and aesthetically preferable to what we have now.

    Aside from this bioethical issue I think this raises issues for those who think that there is evidence for design in the human body and it also puts new light on the problem of evil. Certainly if it is conceivable that we could produce a photosynthetic animal, human or not, then it must be possible for God to have created such a creature. But if so then why aren’t we photosynthetic? I mean God could have made it so that we run on solar energy, and even had the pleasurable taste and ‘mouthfeel’ experiences that makes eating enjoyable (perhaps different wavelengths and/or frequencies of light would produce different gustatory experiences). Doing this 1.) seems like a much better design. It is simpler and more elegant than eating is and 2.) seems much more humane. The sheer amount of suffering produced by eating meat over the course of evolution is nearly unimaginable. It seems to me that this argument from photosynthesis is as decisive as one can get in this area and I wonder why it has not received more attention…or maybe it has and I just haven’t found it yet?

    Zombies vs Shombies

    Richard Marshall, a writer for 3am Magazine, has been interviewing philosophers. After interviewing a long list of distinguished philosophers, including Peter Carruthers, Josh Knobe, Brian Leiter, Alex Rosenberg, Eric Schwitzgebel, Jason Stanley, Alfred Mele, Graham Priest, Kit Fine, Patricia Churchland, Eric Olson, Michael Lynch, Pete Mandik, Eddy Nahmais, J.C. Beal, Sarah Sawyer, Gila Sher, Cecile Fabre, Christine Korsgaard, among others, they seem to be scraping the bottom of the barrel, since they just published my interview. I had a great time engaging in some Existential Psychoanalysis of myself!

    Outline of the Case for Agnosticism

    Via Leiter’s blog I found out about this Slate article on Agnosticism. I guess I agree with Leiter and a lot of the commenters that the piece is overly polemical and doesn’t address the arguments of either side. Being a card carrying agnostic myself I thought I might chime in.

    I found myself in general agreement with the rhetorical position of the piece. People often associate agnosticism with either intellectual laziness (we haven’t thought about the issue long enough to have a view) or a certain kind of intellectual cowardice (we don’t have the guts to say what we really believe; i.e. we are secretly atheists/theists and are just too cowardly to admit it). Both of the charges are misguided. Agnosticism is simply the honest recognition that we do not have decisive reasons for thinking that there is, or isn’t, an all-knowing, all-powerful, morally perfect being. I don’t, however, think the case for agnosticism consists in simple demanding that someone explain why there is something as opposed to nothing, though that is part of the case.

    In short the situation seems to me to be this: There is equally compelling evidence on both sides of the issue. Given that we like evidentialsim in some form and that we agree that it is an illegitimate move to count belief in God as properly basic (if we do we must count any belief as properly basic in some noetic structure) it really seems to me that a rational disinterested person should conclude that there is an equal chance that there is a God and that there isn’t.  Since there are pretty compelling cases to be made on both sides people tend to find their antecedent beliefs easy to justify and so we get fervent believers on both sides when really we should all just admit that this is an unresolved question. You may have placed your bet on one side or the other but that is all there is to it; a bet.

    The A Priori Case

    • The Ontological Argument: This much maligned and misunderstood argument has been the subject of countless attacks, defenses and reformulations. I am convinced that the “existence isn’t a predicate” attack doesn’t work. The basic reason that all versions of this argument are inconclusive is just that our intuitions about the totality of the space of possible worlds is extremely unreliable. We may be able to coherently talk about particular possible worlds –though this is hard in itself– but when we try to conceive of the entire space of possible worlds, as we must if we are to conceive of a necessary being existing in some possible world, we loose our grip on what is going on. This is, of course, the very same problem that the parody ontological arguments face. Just as we cannot trust our intuitions about what objects necessarily exist so too we cannot trust our intuitions about which don’t.
    • The Logical Problem of Evil: I sometimes hear people say that Plantinga’s response to the logical problem of evil involving trans-world depravity has successfully answered the logical problem. But the obvious problem with this argument is that it assumes that God has no control over whether the creaturely essences he instantiates have the contingent property of trans-world depravity. This just seems wildly implausible to me. The possible world where all creaturely essences have morally significant free will and always freely choose to do what is right is conceivable and we can further conceive that these creaturely essences have trans-world sainthood which is the contingent property of always freely choosing to do the right thing.
    • The Logical Problem of Omniscience: Perhaps less discussed is the logical problem of omniscience. The problem here is that God’s foreknowledge is logically incompatible with His own free will. This is distinct from the traditional problem of free will and omniscience in that the claim is that there is a formal contradiction entailed by the set of claims that God is all-powerful, all-knowing, and morally perfect. Here again we see the same problem as we did with the other a priori arguments: the opposition has different a priori intuitions and we do not have any way to adjudicate between them.

    The a priori cases are therefore inconclusive.

      The A Posteriori Cases

      • The Cosmological Argument: The family of arguments here all suffer from well known problems. I won’t here rehearse them but it is clear to me that there is a stalemate here resulting from a clash of intuitions about infinite chains, what counts as an explanation, and the epistemological status of the principle of sufficient reason.
      • The Teleological Argument: Again there is well known and entrenched positions on both side of this issue. For myself I find the fine-tuning argument the most compelling and specifically in its evidential form. That is, fine-tuning gives us some evidence for God but it is defeasible. Of course it is possible, though highly unlikely, that this all happened by accident so the fine-tuning argument cannot prove that God exists but it does provide (defeasible) evidence for the existence of God as long as one accepts the claim that some fact F counts as evidence for a claim C just when F is more likely to have occurred given C. People who like the fine-tuning argument thus spend a lot of time justifying this principle. I find it fairly persuasive as an independent principle and so find fine-tuning to be persuasive empirical evidence for the existence of a God, though it is defeasible.
      • The Evidential Problem of Evil: Unlike the logical problem of evil this is the problem of whether or not the existence of the actual amount of evil in the world is evidence for the non-existence of an all-powerful, all-knowing, morally perfect being. Using the same kind of reasoning that we did in the fine-tuning case we seem to be led to thinking that the existence of evil is string evidence for the non-existence of God. Even if one accepts that God must allow some evil in the world the shear quantity of evil in the actual world (whereby evil is just the suffering in the world considered over the history of sentient creation) is much more likely to exist in a world where there is no God. All of the standard reasons that God may have for allowing evil do not license the amount of evil we actually find.
      • The Argument from Religious Experience: It seems to me that we should count experience as a justifier solely to the extent that the experience is repeatable and public to the extent that it can be had by different people at different times. If one accepts this then it would only be legitimate to appeal to religious experience if it were a wide-spread and acknowledge phenomenon. For instance, if we all saw God descend from the sky and smite the devil then it would be ok to say we believe in God because of a religious experience. This *may* have been the case in the past if we take the various holy texts at face value. My hunch is that it was not the case then either but we can leave that aside. More problematic is the moral argument against private religious experience. What compelling moral reason can we give which would justify God’s hiddenness from us? If we take religion at face value God used to be present but now He is missing. Why? if one denies that God was ever present in the way various religious texts say then we still have to wonder why that is the case. Why would a morally perfect being leave us alone?

      Thus we again end up with a tie. We have two hopelessly stalemated arguments and two compelling lines of evidence pointing in opposite directions.

        The Logical Problem of Omniscience

        The problem of omniscience is usually formulated about whether human being’s having free will is compatible with God’s foreknowledge of our actions. The basic problem is that God know what we will do before we do it which means that it must be true that we perform this action before we actually perform it (knowledge is factive). But if it is already true then how could I do otherwise? If I do in fact have freedom and do otherwise then it seems that I have the power to cause one of God’s beliefs to be false; but that is impossible. God is essentially omniscient and so only has true beliefs. Plantinga famously responded that we can solve this problem by thinking about possible world semantics. Let us suppose that in the actual world I freely choose to drink a Lemon iced tea instead of a peach iced tea on Friday December 11th 2009 at 1145 a.m. Let’s call this T2. Given God’s omniscience then we must suppose that He knew that would perform this action even before my birth. Let’s just pick a date, say October 31st 2008, and call this T1. Then God knows at T1 that I will choose lemon tea at T2. Now the reason Plantinga sees no problem here is because there is a possible world where I freely chose to have the peach tea (call it W2)  and in that possible world God knows that I will choose peach tea at T2. So the basic idea is that had I chosen differently God would have a different belief and so we could say that the true belief that God does hold in the actual world would be false in W2 but that doesn’t mean that God has a false belief in the actual world. So, I am free (i.e. there is a possible world where I do otherwise and so it is not necessary that I have lemon tea) and God is still omniscient. Pike’s response to this argument is basically to complain about Plantinga’s analysis of freedom. The question is not whether or not there is some possible world or other where I do otherwise and God knows that I do otherwise. The question is whether or not given the actual world as it is, is there a possible world with exactly the same history as the actual world in which I do otherwise? If there is then God has a false belief in that world because in that world God believes at T1 that I will have lemon tea at T2 but we have just said that in this world I have peach tea at T2. On the other hand if there is no such possible world then it was not really in my power to do otherwise after all. To appreciate the point that Pike is making here we can point out that even the determinist can admit that there is a possible world where I “chose” to have peach tea at T2. It is, of course, not in the subset of possible worlds that have the same history as our world (or our universe for that matter) but surely we can conceive of different subsets with different histories (e.g. possible worlds where the initial force of the big bang is different or in which there is an extra molecule, ungrounded in Kripke’s sense, that effects the outcome of the universe’s history) and so there merely being some other possible world where I have peach tea instead of lemon tea at T2 cannot be what we mean when we say that I am free. We must mean that there is a possible world that is near enough in the space of possible worlds to the actual world such that I could bring it about. And as we have seen it is not obvious that this is possible since in all the possible worlds that are near enough God knows that I will have lemon tea. I find this response very convincing (and I now think that my earlier attempts at this were groping in this direction)

        So much then for the traditional problem of omniscience. However, it occurred to me recently that there is, besides this traditional problem, a further problem which we might call ‘the logical problem of omniscience’ on analogy with the logical problem of evil. The logical problem of omniscience suggests that there is a contradiction in the claim that God is all-knowing, all-powerful, morally perfect and has free will. This is a more pressing problem because it threatens to show that belief in an omniscient God with free will is itself an irrational belief. The contradiction arises because included in God’s foreknowledge is knowledge of what His own choices and actions will be. So if God chooses to destroy  Sodom at noon on Wednesday 1400 B.C (*Note: This is a made up arbitrary date!*) then it must have been the case the He knew that He would so choose and so knew that He would destroy Sodom at that time on that date. But if God knew this at T0 (say before he created Adam) then how could He have chosen differently in 1400 B.C.? But then either God is not omniscient or he does not have free will neither of which is acceptable.

        Transworld Saints

        I have been thinking about Plantinga’s free will defense lately for my philosophy of religion course. As is well known central to Plantinga’s argument is teh concept of transworld depravity. A creaturly essence (a person) suffers from transworld depravity just in case there is no possible world in which this creature exists, has morally significant free will and fails to go wrong with respect to at least on morally significant action. Plantinga then suggests that it is possible that we are all transworld depraved. In that case there is no possible world in which there is no evil since any world that God creates will be one where we all go wrong with respect to at least one morally significant action.

        But is it really possible for there to be a world where every creature is tranbsworld depraved? Plantinga doean’t really argue for this, he just says that it is possible. But isn’t it just as possible for there to be transworld saints? A transworld saint is a creaturly essence that never goes wrong with respect to a morally significant action in any possible world. For any possible world w the transworld saint always freely chooses to do what is right for all morally significant choices. It is possible that we are all transworld saints. This, I believe, is a nice way to capture Mackie’s claim that God could have made us so that we are free and yet never choose to do evil. There is a possible world where every creature is a transworld saint.

        Clearly both worlds can’t really be possible since that would mean that in every world at least one person goes wrong with respect to a morally significant action and no creatures go wrong with respect to any morally significant actions. Is there any reason to think that the Mackie world (one where all creatures are transworld saints) is any less conceivable than the Plantinga world (where all are transworld depraved)?

        You’ve Been Served

        Some of you may remember last year I found out about this gem where a Nebraska legislator named Ernie Chambers jokingly tried to file an injunction against God…well apparently the court has thrown out the lawsuit because God lacks an address at which He can be served. I think that Chamber’s response it entirely correct;

        “The court itself acknowledges the existence of God,” Chambers said Wednesday. “A consequence of that acknowledgment is a recognition of God’s omniscience.” Therefore, Chambers said, “Since God knows everything, God has notice of this lawsuit.”

        Oh, I hope he appeals!!