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.

    The Argument for Simulation via Traditional A Posterori Arguments for God’s Existence

    I had a fun and interesting discussion with Canadian Catholic on his Global Skeptics podcast the other day. In the course of our discussion something clicked that has been loosely kicking around in the back of my mind. I have previously suggested that the argument from design is an argument for simulation and that the problem of evil is made much worse when thinking about why humans aren’t photosynthetic. I now think there is a general argument here.

    1. The traditional A Posteriori arguments (Cosmological, Teleological, etc) point, if one accepts their conclusions, to a creator but *not* to what kind of creator
    2. The traditional theistic God (all-powerful, all-knowing, and morally perfect) is one candidate for being the Creator
    3. The Simulators are another candidate
    4. The traditional arguments do not distinguish between (2) and (3)
    5. The problem of evil (evidential) suggests that 2 is not the creator [especially the version emphasizing photosynthesis]
    6. Therefore, the traditional arguments for God’s existence provide better support for the simulation hypothesis than they do for the traditional God of Theism

    What do you think? I could formalize it up a bit but I think I kind of like it!

    Season Four of Consciousness Live! Continues

    It has been a very busy spring and I have been having a great time discussing all things consciousness, having already done 13 discussions! Because of various reasons I will only be able to do two discussions a month over the summer. Below is the schedule through September.

    I also have people who have agreed to be guests but haven’t scheduled a date. Check back here for updates! Or follow me on twitter!

    I also have ideas for season five but let’s leave that for another day!

    The Death of Mr. Porter

    Every once in a while I get an idea for a short story. Usually they pop in and out rather quickly and I just let them go but I recently decided to jot them down when they come (first one here).

    Sentenced to death

    The words washed over him and he felt a bit numb. The judge had continued to speak and the jury and courtroom continued to look on soberly. He continued to stand at attention for all intents and purposes seemingly listening to what the judge was saying. But all he heard was a kind of ringing in his ears that was low pitched and high pitched at the same time.

    ‘Sentenced to death?’ He had known that it would probably come to this and that his final appeal would be denied but now it was starting to feel real.

    He had been sentenced to death.

    Not much time passed -or maybe an eternity passed?- before it was time. He was escorted to a room where he would undergo a medical exam before the execution. He passed his exam with flying colors. Perfectly fit for execution. ‘Great!’ he thought sardonically to himself.

    He was then taken to the execution chamber and strapped onto the table. The table was raised up and a window opened. Outside were those gathered to watch the execution. The judge began to speak.

    “Mr. Jordan Porter you have been sentenced to die for your crimes,” here the judge paused to look around the room before continuing, “and we are here to witness the administration of Justice.”

    Strapped to the table, Mr. Porter looked around the room at the grim faces staring back at him. ‘These people were gathered here to watch him die’ he thought.

    The judge continued, “in accordance with State law you will be administered a lethal dose of medication. After you have been declared dead your bodily remains will be subject to uploading”

    This had become standard procedure in the last few years. Just as mind uploading had become technologically possible the Church and the Supreme Court both declared that consciousness was a brain process and that persons were biological. It was widely believed that these considerations were backed up by recent scientific findings and so wide-spread belief that the uploaded, as they were now being called, were devoid of experience took root. The uploaded were digital ghosts stuck between worlds, and the prisons had seen a way to capitalize on this. These non-persons-who-legally-lacked-experience could be useful and they could extend the prison time of the worst offenders.

    The judge had finished speaking now and had asked Mr. Porter if he had any last words. Mr. Porter responded that he did and began to speak.

    “What you do here today is wrong,” he said looking everyone in the eye in turn. “I may deserve this but the uploaded do not…”

    The people in the room looked on in silence. In the early days when the technology was just coming online there was widespread discussion of the implications of mind uploading. Were the uploaded the same person as before? There were reasons to think not, after all the original biological body is destroyed in the process, but there are also reasons to think so. The uploaded themselves certainly seemed to think they were the original person and they also seemed to think that they had gotten away with their crimes. In the end this was too much for the public.

    Sure, the uploaded were officially dead which meant that they cannot interact with the non-simulated world in any way, they cannot send or receive messages or news to or from the non-simulated world, and they lose all legal standing in the non-simulated world. But they acted as though they had beat the system and spoke as though they had won. As a result the laws were changed.

    Once it was declared that the uploaded were not persons and did not have conscious experience it was thought we could treat them in any way we wanted without ethical implication. The worst offenders were put into simulated prisons with slowed down temporal passage so they could serve multiple century long sentences. Others were tortured in ways that resembled traditional stories from Hell. Of course no one thought these ghosts felt pain, but the uploaded seemed to think that they did and that convinced people that it was ok and also that it not cruel and unusual punishment.

    By now Mr. Porter had stopped speaking and was laying on the table dead.

    Mr. Porter awoke back in his cell. He looked around and checked his arm. No needle injection site. What had happened? Did they call off the execution? Just then a light flashed in his cell and a loud buzzer began to go off.

    “Prisoner XN-42-010000222aW you have been executed in accordance with State law,” a voice stated.

    Mr. Porter looked around to see who was speaking and did not see anyone.

    ‘But wait, what had the voice said? I have been executed already?’ he thought. He looked at his hand and thought ‘Every thing seems exactly the same to me!’

    “Of course it does XN-42-010000222aW!”

    Mr. Porter jumped and turned around to see a nondescript person dressed in a nondescript fashion standing in his cell.

    “Where the hell did you come from?” Mr. Porter snapped stepping back.

    “Never mind that XN-42-010000222aW! I am Jim, an autonomous Artificial Corrections Officer, whose job it is to guard this digital wing.”

    “Ok, Jim,” said Mr. Porter eyeing the nondescript person before him. Why couldn’t he make out any particular features? He focused his gaze on Jim’s face but all he could make out was that it was a nondescript generic face. Two eyes, a nose, a mouth, ears, hair, etc. But that was it.

    “My name is Jordan Porter,” he continued, “and I want to know what that the fuck is happening here, now!”

    Suddenly Mr. Porter felt an intense bolt of pure pain. It was the purest most intense form of pain that he had ever felt and it seemed to last for an eternity. It pulsed and stabbed at the core of his being.

    “XN-42-0000222aW you have shown willful disrespect. Please desist or you will be taken to the Void”

    Mr. Porter blinked and tried again to focus on the nondescript person in front of him. Was he really having a visual experience right now? Did he really just feel pain? Sure he had believed it and if asked he would say confidently that he did not have any doubt that he had just experienced pain, but isn’t that just what a digital duplicate of his brain would think? It would be simulating all of the neural patterns and all of the activity of his brain but without any conscious experience at all.

    “XN-42-0000222aW you have been sentenced to an enhanced prison term of 100,000 years after which time you will be eligible for parole,” Jim was saying -was he hearing these words or only seeming to?- “the kind of digital world that one is paroled to will depend on an evaluation of your overall compliance. Your complimentary adjustment period begins now. I will be back once it has ended and it is time to begin the sentence proper.”

    With that Jim popped out of existence leaving Mr. Porter alone.

    Mr. Porter focused on the cot in his cell. It had a shape, a color, a texture, a smell. Was he experiencing these or did he merely seem to be experiencing them? How could he tell?

    He looked closer at the cot. It seemed just as before. If anyone asked him he would say that it was roughly rectangular, had a blueish grey blanket with a white pillow. But did he really see these colors or merely seem to see them? Shouldn’t he be able to tell the difference?

    ‘But then there would have to be some difference in your digital brain’ he thought to himself, or at least seemed to.

    ‘Ok, so I am not having experience right now,’ he thought to himself. ‘I only think that I am having experience right now,’ he chuckled to himself now freed from worry about his fate. He didn’t feel any of this. It only seemed that he did and none of this mattered.

    His chuckle gradually rose to a cackling howl with a slightly maniacal tinge to it. “I am not conscious,” he yelled through the howling laughter. “None of this is real, it’s all an illusion!” he yelled out the cell door, his voice echoing off the endless corridor.

    “But a damn good one…” he muttered to himself as he slumped against the wall and slid to the floor.

    Sensory Qualities, the Meta-Problem of Consciousness, and the Relocation Story

    I have been so swamped lately with teaching, research and Consciousness Live! that I haven’t been able to do much else, but I have had a couple of blog posts kicking around in my head that I wanted to get to. I’ll try to jot them down when I get the chance.

    Chalmers’ Meta-Problem of Consciousness is at this point well known. The central issue there is: why do we think there is a Hard Problem of Consciousness? Chalmers’ takes the main physicalist response to be some kind of Illusionism. The source of the ‘problem judgements’ (i.e. about Mary and zombies, and inverts, etc) is some kind introspective illusion. Consciousness seems introspectively to have certain properties that it does not in fact have. When I first read Dave’s paper I suggested an alternative account in terms of our (tacitly) having a bad theory of what phenomenal consciousness is. An account like this can be seen in the work of David Rosenthal (which is why I was surprised his commentary on Chalmers’ paper did not bring up these issues directly).

    The account basically proceeds as follows. We begin with the common sense fact that experience seems to present objects in the environment as having properties like color. These properties seem to peskily resist mathematization and so in the modern period they are moved into the head. However, they are moved into the head as we consciously experience them. Thus we arrive at the idea that we have this simple phenomenal property because that is how the physical object seemed to be when we consciously experienced seeing it. But now when we come to theorize about this simple property we find that there is not much to say. It seems simple, or primitive, because we are thinking of it as we first encountered it in experience. We thus arrive at a view where consciousness is itself ‘built into’ the mental qualities and that the only way to know about these mental qualities is via introspecting our first-personal experience.

    This re-location-story-based explanation of the problem judgements (as involving a bad theoretical conception of what consciousness is) seems to me different from the one involving introspective error. If we don’t see phenomenal consciousness as some primitive property built into every mental quality, then we can try to construct independent theories of each. On the one hand we construct a theory of the mental qualities (independently of whether they are conscious) and on the other hand we can construct a theory of phenomenal consciousness.

    Since we have separated phenomenal consciousness from mental quality we can see that phenomenal consciousness just is an awareness of mental qualities. That in turn suggests that we look for an account of that kind of awareness. Perhaps it is a cognitive kind of higher-order awareness, or some kind of deflationary first-order awareness, or maybe even some kind of first-order acquaintance.

    When I floated this idea to Dave his response was that we would encounter the very same problem once we tried to explain our awareness of mental qualities and so this isn’t really a solution to the meta-problem. After all, the whole thing started because of phenomenal consciousness! There is a sense in which I agree with this but also a sense in which I don’t. I don’t agree with it because the problem seems different now. If we really can separate mental qualities from phenomenal consciousness and give independent accounts of each then we can construct theories and evaluate them. Are inverts possible according to the theory? What about zombies? Suppose it turns out that we could construct a plausible theory on which they weren’t?

    True, some would find these theories implausible but now we can ask: is the reason they find it implausible because of an implicit acceptance of an alternative theory of what phenomenal consciousness is? So, instead of a theory of consciousness having to explain why people find consciousness puzzling, I see the right strategy as one where we explain why people find consciousness puzzling by attributing to them a (possibly implicitly-held) bad theory of consciousness.

    We solve the meta-problem the same way we solve the ‘regular’ Hard Problem on this view, which is by getting people to think of consciousness differently (not in the sense of thinking of it as an illusion but in the sense of coming to hold a different theory about what it is).

    I am not sure I 100% agree with this response to the Meta-Problem but it is one that I haven’t seen explicitly explored and I think it deserves one attention!