Friday, July 27, 2007

Stephen Colbert interviews Dinesh D'Souza on why Liberals are to blame for 9/11

Stephen Colbert, interviewing Dinesh D'Souza, a neo-conservative (Colbert will be familiar to U.S. audiences, but not U.K., hence my post).

Go here and scroll down the play list to Dinesh (near bottom of list). Explains why liberals are to blame for 9/11. I found it very amusing, anyway...

I also recommend Colbert's interview with Elaine Pagels on the Judas gospel (again, scroll down)...

Incidentally, Colbert's concept of "truthiness" is particularly philosophically intriguing.

Brits may also be unaware of Colbert's famous speech to the White House Correspondent's dinner. Starts a bit lame, but builds....

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Condoms, Catholics, and HIV

I have had a chat going on about Catholics, condoms and HIV with onthesideoftheangels, here (scroll down)

He defends the Catholic Church's position not to recommend condom use (except in v special medical circumstances), not even in Africa, where, I suspect, they might save millions of lives by blocking the transmission of HIV.

Thought it now worth dragging into the main postings. Here's my latest comment:

So now let's suppose condoms are 90% effective in preventing infection. That seems an underestimate, in fact. Here's one quote I found:

"In a study of discordant couples in Europe, among 123 couples who reported consistent condom use, none of the uninfected partners became infected."

Seems condoms are pretty effective in preventing infection when used properly, doesn't it?

In which case, were those having sex outside of marriage in Africa to use them, millions of cases of infection could be prevented.

That is current medical opinion, isn't it (at least among non-Catholic experts)?

Let's suppose that this is the case, and let's also suppose what seems very likely, that very many Africans are going to continue to have sex outside of marriage, whatever you or the Pope happen to say.

Then why not say, "We'd prefer you not to have sex, but if you are going to, please use a condom"?

Can I suggest that saying anything else puts you onthesideofthedevil?

Monday, July 23, 2007

Events in Australia in August

I am in Hong Kong and Australia in August. I am appearing at the Sydney Ideas festival and Melbourne Writers' Festival. If you're in the area, do please come and say "Hi".

Details are available here:

Melbourne - all events.

Melbourne Writers' Festival - schools event.

Melbourne Writers' Festival - atheism talk with Phillip Adams and Robyn Williams. - should be fun.

Melbourne Writers' Festival - interviewed on War For Children's Minds by Anne Manne.
They don't seem very clear what I'll be talking about, but maybe that'll be good....

Sydney Ideas Festival - War For Children's Minds.
I'll be talking about faith schools.

Because I'll be away, I won't be posting much in August...

A big thank you to Routledge, my publisher, and to both Festivals for inviting me.

PS. I will be on Phillip Adams' Late Night Live (ABC) on Monday 20th August (10-11pm).

Dawkins' improbability argument

I said I would explain some of my doubts about Dawkins' improbability argument (in The God Delusion, and in the video we are discussing [at 13 mins 45 secs to 14 mins 40secs]). Here goes...

Dawkins presents an improbability argument against the existence of God.

The idea, I take it, is that the fact that God is supposed to be a conscious, knowing, intelligent designing subject means he is himself very far from being “simple”. He must be terrifically sophisticated and complex, in fact.


(i) invoking God to explain complex things like eyes, fine-tuning, etc merely replaces one improbable thing by another (overall, improbability is not reduced), so undercutting the justification for invoking him, and

(ii) God's being highly improbable, it’s highly unreasonable to believe in him, given the absence of evidence for God.

While I, like Dawkins, am not persuaded by intelligent design arguments (and let me stress I am generally in agreement with Dawkins, and in fact am a great admirer of his), I am not sure Dawkins' improbability argument is correct.

Prof Hugh Mellor (philosophy, emeritus, Darwin College, Camb.) distinguishes objective (or, as he puts it, physical) probability and epistemic probability.

The physical probability of an event etc. is the chance of it happening, given certain facts/laws. So, the physical probability of this unloaded dice rolling a six is one-in-six, of it raining today, given the general conditions (high pressure, etc), is very low, and of my dying before I reach 150 is very high.

The epistemic probability of a claim etc. is the probability of its being true, given the evidence. So given the patter against the window, the wet feet of the shoppers, etc. the probability of its currently raining is high. The evidence is good.

Things can be objectively improbable but epistemically highly probable. That this coin landed exactly on its edge is epistemically very probable (I just saw it happen with my own eyes) yet objectively improbable (the chance of it happening, given certain laws/initial conditions, is v. low)

It seems the reason we find things shocking, surprising and standing in need of explanation is that their objective probability seems very low. If someone lives to 300, or if it snows midday in the Sahara, or if my left foot spontaneously combusts, or if a coin lands exactly on its edge, we’ll be amazed, and look for an explanation. An explanation that lowers the improbability of the event (or even shows that it had to happen).

Notice that its objective probability we are talking about here. You can’t explain an event by raising its epistemic probability. I can confirm beyond any reasonable doubt that my left foot has indeed spontaneously combusted. That doesn’t remotely explain why it spontaneously combusted. Here's Mellor making the same point:

Take the probabilistic link between smoking and cancer. My smoking will only explain my getting cancer, if I do, by making it more probable, if that probability is a real physical probability (or chance for short). It is not enough for my smoking merely to raise my cancer’s so-called epistemic probability, the kind of probability that measures how far evidence supports a hypothesis. After all, that probability is also raised by the symptoms which tell my doctor that I have cancer. But these symptoms do nothing to explain my getting cancer, because they are not what raised the chance of my getting cancer in the first place.

Now design arguments for God work by pointing out that something is allegedly objectively/physically improbable, and then explain it by invoking God to reduce that improbability.

Mellor, however, suggests that, when it comes to, say, the character of the universe, it has no objective probability, high or low. Because that would be a physical improbability. And a physical probability is always relative to whatever the physical laws and initial conditions are. So…

the initial state, if any, of a universe, or of a multiverse, which by definition lacks precursors, has no physical explanation, since there is nothing earlier to give it any physical probability, high or low.

Similarly, God would have no objective/physical probability, high or low, on Mellor’s view. It's only things within a given universe that have such physical probabilities.

I suspect Mellor may be correct. That the universe has these laws etc. is neither probable nor improbable, objectively speaking. Nor is there anything remotely surprising - or standing in need of explanation - about it's having just these laws.

Certainly, there's a question here for Dawkins - is God objectively improbable? Or is he neither probable nor improbable, as Mellor would, I think, maintain?

Notice, by the way, Paley's example of the inference about the watch is not threatened by all this. A watch found on a beach is hardly something that purely natural mechanisms are likely to have produced all by themselves. Its spontaneous appearance really is physically improbable, given the laws of nature, etc. So we are justified in invoking an intelligent designer.

But the logic doesn't carry over to fine-tuning. From Dawkins' perspective, the problem with invoking God to explain "fine-tuning" (the universe's laws and initial conditions being "just right" for life) is that we are invoking an improbable thing to explain an improbable thing. From Mellor's perspective, the problem is that the "fine-tuning" is neither probable nor improbable, and so doesn't require an explanation (by means of God, a multiverse, or anything else).

Mellor's paper supplied on request.

Rev Sam on evil

I think Rev Sam's post gives an interesting glimpse into his thinking, and the thinking of many theists. I know his thing was not meant to be academically rigorous, but even so I would remind Sam:

(i) that the problem of evil he says he "prefers" is the logical problem, not the evidential problem. I am not suprised he prefers that version, as it is much, much easier to deal with. See my entry on Augustine, Sam , for more on this. It's not so hard to explain why God had to put some suffering in the world. The hard thing to do (impossible, I'd say) as show that there is not, and has never been, even one ounce of unecessary suffering. Ever. Sam, we atheists generally use the evidential problem as an argument against belief in God (certainly it's the one I use), so make sure that's the one you discuss, not the much easier logical problem (which I am sure you'd prefer to discuss).

(ii) "As I see it the problem of evil is much more about how to live in the face of suffering." We all face the problem of how to deal with suffering. Call that a "problem of evil" if you like. But it's not the problem we are discussing - the one which, I think, is actually fatal to your belief system because it is overwhelming evidence against it. Again, I am not surprised you prefer to discuss an entirely different problem.

Whether or not belief in God helps us cope is irrelevant to the question of whether or not it is true. The evidential problem of evil establishes, pretty conclusively, that it is not true. By talking about the problem of coping you are, as has already been pointed out, simply changing the subject.

(iii) In a comment, though, you make a different move: suggesting "good" is used differently re God (presumably, a way in which giving babies cancer, burying thousands of children alive, causing unimaginable horror and suffering on a regular basis counts as "good").

Well, we can do the God of Eth switcherooo on that too. Imagine someone defending belief in an evil God (see The God of Eth, left) against the problem of good by saying, 'Well as applied to evil God, "evil" means something different (indeed, his making love and laughter and rainbows all comes out as "evil").

You'd laugh, right?

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Rev Sam on problem of evil

Rev Sam has kindly allowed me to post a blog post of his for discussion, on the proviso I make clear it's not intended to be academically rigorous. Here it is:

As I see it the problem of evil is much more about how to live in the face of suffering, rather than being an intellectual nut to crack. This is the formulation I prefer:

P1: God is omniscient
P2: God is omnipotent
P3: God does not desire suffering
P4: There is suffering
It is incoherent to assert all of P1 - P4.

There are lots of ways in which religious people have responded to the problem, most of which take the form of denying one or more of P1-P4. I have some sympathies with all of those, in other words, I think that all of P1-P4 are complex truths which need to be broken down, and that much of the immediate force of the problem is lessened when they are broken down. But I don't think that this answers the real force behind the question, which I think is much more direct and relevant than most philosophical questions.

Some time back I took the funeral of a 33 year old man who had died in tragic and unclear circumstances. There was a suggestion that drugs were involved, but there were no clear answers. In talking to the parents, the father talked about how he had built a swimming pool in the garden for his son to play in, but that now his son was dead, "was it worth it?" In other words, the real problem of evil is one about the meaning of the suffering that we experience. In my ministry so far, I've discovered that those who can place some sort of interpretation on what they experience are far better able to cope with tragedy than those without some sort of guiding framework; in particular, those who lack any sort of religious faith can be totally overwhelmed by an experience such as this.

I think when any of us are faced with an overwhelming experience of suffering, there is a profound existential choice that is made - and all of the religious and philosophical arguments only come in to play after that choice has been made. The choice is about whether life is meaningful or not, and it is that choice which generates the various resources needed in order to live. In other words, when the problem of evil becomes one that is of vital importance to resolve - because life has just whacked you over the head with something awful - then you are forced into determining your own attitude.

If you resolve that life is meaningful, then you carry on building your life around whatever it is that you value, and you say that those things which you value are sustainable in the face of evidence to the contrary (the suffering, the logical problems etc). And I would say that as soon as you start to talk about those things which you value in this context, you are inescapably resorting to religious language. ‘To believe in God is to see that life has meaning’ (Wittgenstein) [The most coherent case against this is Camus' in La Peste, even though I don't think it holds up in the end.]

If, on the other hand, you resolve that life isn't meaningful then - I would argue - something essential for a good life is taken away, and you are left with suicide in various different forms, some of which don't immediately lead to a physical death. And religious language is meaningless.

For me, when I am faced with the logical arguments about the problem of evil (much the strongest arguments against the existence of a loving creator) I am content for there to be an irreducible element of mystery about it, and to say that although I can't answer the problem now to my own intellectual satisfaction, I believe that there is an answer. This is because I see the alternative as unliveable - I could not raise a family, and enjoy that raising, if I didn't experience it as 'worth it', whatever the future might hold for me or for them.

In other words, my answer to the problem is a choice about how I live, not a belief that I hold in my mind.

Dawkins, problem of evil, "God of Eth"

In The God Delusion, in the bit I've just read, Dawkins suggests that the problem of evil is not a particularly strong objection to religious belief because (i) it works only against the all-powerful, all-good conception of God, and (ii) the theists have developed lots and lots of answers (free-will, character building, plus all the other theodicies) to defend their belief.

Dawkins prefers his own argument based on the improbability of God (which he explains in the video we're discussing at 13mins 45 secs to 14 min 40sec)

I think Dawkins may have underestimated the power of the problem of evil. Given that the problem of good (see "The God of Eth" link, left) does indeed more or less conclusively establish that there's no all-powerful, all-evil God, why doesn't the problem of evil more or less conclusively establish there's no all-powerful, all-good God?

I'd suggest my "God of Eth" challenge sharpens the problem by exposing the rather laughable character of the explanations theists come up with to account for the sheer quantity of suffering that exists. Sharpened in this way, the problem of evil is, I think, pretty much insuperable for the theist. Indeed, I think it reveals that belief in the God of traditional theism is pretty obviously false.

Certainly, if we're focusing on what will actually change minds and win converts, I suspect the "God of Eth" challenge is rather more likely to give the faithful a jolt (so they may get a glimpse, if only for a second, of just how silly their belief system really is - I have already seen it induce a moment of wide-eyed panic in one or two: a real "Oh shit!" moment).

I think there may be potentially serious problems for Dawkins' appeal to God's improbability, which I'll come to next.

Friday, July 20, 2007

Dawkins vs. McGrath - probability

Here's what I think is wrong with McGrath's move (see previous post) in the video at 9mins 15-55secs.

He says that whilst God may be highly improbable, the question is: Does God exist?

After all, you and I are highly improbable (probability that our parents should meet, that exactly that sperm should fetilize that egg, etc.). Yet we can be rightly confident that we exist, can’t we?

The implication is that, whether or not Dawkins is right about God’s probability, we might still be rightly confident of God’s existence.

Seems to me McGrath here trades on an ambiguity, that between epistemic and objective improbability.

Objective vs epistemic probability

Philosophers often distinguish objective and epistemic probability.

Objective probability is the probability of X occurring given Y. E.g what’s the probability of a lightening strike hitting just this spot (given the laws of nature plus these initial conditions), or this dice coming up six if we roll it?

Epistemic probability is the probability of a claim's being true, given the available evidence/grounds.

Something may be objectively improbable but epistemically highly probable. E.g. my existence is objectively improbable, given certain facts (what are the chances of just that egg and sperm meeting?). But the epistemic probability that I exist is very high indeed (for me at least - cogito ergo sum!).

McGrath’s sleight of hand

In the context in which McGrath makes his move, the relevant notion is epistemic probability. Dawkins is suggesting the epistemic probability of God existing is low. It’s unlikely God exists, given the evidence. Belief in God is not well-founded.

It’s this claim McGrath should be dealing with.

McGrath’s counter is to say, in effect, “But something can be very improbable, yet we can still be justified, or have fairly good grounds, for supposing it to be true!” His illustration of this point is: the existence of he and Dawkins is very improbable, yet that they exist is a well-founded claim.

It’s clear, isn’t it, that McGrath is muddling probabilities?

McGrath pretends Dawkins is talking about objective probabilities, when Dawkins is actually (here) talking about epistemic probabilities.

Showing that something can be objectively improbable yet well-founded does nothing to deal with Dawkins' contention that belief in God is epistemically improbable, i.e. not well-founded.

McGrath’s attempt to disarm Dawkins only looks plausible if we fail to notice this unacknowledged slide from one notion of probability to the other.

Dawkins on the objective improbability of God

Actually, Dawkins does also argue that God is objectively improbable. He argues that the objective improbability of eyes, fine tuning, etc. is not reduced by invoking God, for then we have merely replaced one objectively improbable thing with another.

I’ll discuss that another day.

McGrath on God's improbability

At one point in the interview posted below (at 9mins 15secs - 9mins 55secs) McGrath (see, I can spell it correctly) says something like: the issue of God's improbability is not really the issue. The question is, does he exist. After all, our existence is also extremely improbable (what are the odds on my parents meeting, exactly that sperm fertilizing that egg, etc.), yet we know (can be quite sure) we exist.

What is going on here? Seems to me there's some sleight of hand going on with the notion of probability. In fact he's muddling objective and epistemic improbability. But what has gone wrong exactly? Comments?

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Dawkins interviews McGrath

1 hour ten minute video. Very interesting. Go here.

Galileo, Bruno, and the Inquisition - more!

Just put this in a comment to my previous post (read the preceding post before reading this). But it's worth posting properly, I think.

Rev Sam points out that Galileo acknowledged there was a lack of proof for the heliocentric model. I reply...

Sam - you raise an interesting point, but what is its relevance to the issue here? Are you drawing a conclusion?

The issue I am discussing, remember, is: was Galileo indeed hauled before the inquisition for his scientific views (though no doubt his comments on the interpretation of scripture etc. would have provoked ire too)?

And was he shown the instruments of torture and imprisoned for life for , among other things, daring to claim the heliocentric model was literally true?

The answer is "yes" twice, isn't it?

True, G was wrong about some things, and some of his arguments were faulty. And yes he could be less than tactful, and indeed may have lampooned the Pope. Possibly he had bad breath too. Conservative Catholics love to point these things out. But this is all smoke-screen.

It seems to me that, whether or not G's scientific position was fully justified, and indeed whether or not he was a cantankerous old git, the Catholic Church did ban him from expressing it, and then did threaten him with torture and imprison him for life for continuing to express it. It was wrong to do so.

Those are the facts that some Catholics (like McAvearey and simply deny, while others attempt to excuse or obscure by banging on about G's lack of proof, his disagreeable personality traits, trickiness, etc.

I should add, of course, that very many Catholics will rightly be embarrassed by McAvearey's revisionist history. Don't wish to tar all Catholics with this brush.


Letter was published - go here.

Monday, July 16, 2007

Galileo, Bruno, and the Inquisition

In The Guardian today, someone wrote a letter suggesting that neither Galileo nor Bruno were dragged before the Inquisition for their scientific views (the author was responding to this). I wrote a letter responding. See below.

Wikipedia is interesting on Bruno (though I don't know how reliable it is generally). Scroll down to "conflicts over his execution", for example. This document, from the Vatican itself, is unequivocal about Bruno being interrogated about his scientific views. See especially the big penultimate paragraph.

There are many Catholic writings seeking to downplay the Galileo affair. Some insist that the Church wanted to censor not Galileo's scientific views, but merely his theological ones. See this example from Notice, among other things, the very subtle way in which the scientific dispute is recast as a theological one (and also the way in which key details, such as the Church's earlier command to Galileo not to claim the heliocentric theory is literally true, are airbrushed out):

"What, then, caused the row with the Church? The first thing to remember is that Galileo's heliocentric theory... wasn't the real source of his ecclesiastical difficulties. Rather, the cause of his persecution stemmed from a presumption to teach the sense in which certain Bible passages should be interpreted (using science as the ultimate criterion)."

Also note the comment: "Was the Church wrong to ban Galileo's writings? A good case can be made that it was not."

Anyway, here's my letter,


Gerald McAreavey’s claim that Galileo’s arrest and house imprisonment was “not for his scientific views, but for his refusal to refrain from theological interpretations of scripture” is simply wrong.

Anyone who has read Koestler’s The Sleepwalkers, which McAreavey cites in his support, will know that Galileo was brought before the Inquisition because he was alleged to have claimed that the Copernican system was not merely a useful hypothesis, but literally true - an opinion the Holy Office had already commanded him to relinquish back in 1616.

Galileo was shown the instruments of torture and condemned to life imprisonment (later commuted to house arrest) for daring to voice a scientific opinion. Galileo’s colleague Bruno was murdered by the Inquisition for, among other things, committing the same crime.

This was a shameful episode in the Catholic Church’s history and it does revisionists like McAreavey no credit to pretend otherwise. Especially when they get their facts wrong.

However, having submitted that, I had a rethink. The Bruno claim is, I suppose, at least contentious in the minds of many (see the wikipedia link), and thus a hostage to fortune. Also, it's probably an exaggeration to say McAreavey pretends the Galileo episode is not shameful to the Church. Rather, like, I guess he thinks it less shameful than is commonly supposed (certainly, he's denying its shameful in relation to the religion vs. science issue - so far as he's concerned, it simply doesn't bear on that). So I sent a revised version like so:


Gerald McAreavey’s claim that Galileo’s arrest and house imprisonment was “not for his scientific views, but for his refusal to refrain from theological interpretations of scripture” is simply wrong.

Anyone who has read Koestler’s The Sleepwalkers, which McAreavey cites in his support, will know that Galileo was brought before the Inquisition because he was alleged to have claimed that the Copernican system was not merely a useful hypothesis, but literally true - an opinion the Holy Office had already commanded him to relinquish back in 1616.

Galileo was shown the instruments of torture and condemned to life imprisonment (later commuted to house arrest) for daring to voice a scientific opinion.

This was a shameful episode in the Catholic Church’s history and it does revisionists like McAreavey no credit to downplay it. Especially when they get their facts wrong.

Revised version probably too late, however...

Saturday, July 14, 2007

The improbable universe?

Thought this worth including as main post (previously in the comments on my review of Why There Is Something Rather Than Nothing below).

Some argue like this:

Surely we can know that something exists, yet also know that its existence is highly improbable, improbable enough to demand some sort of explanation?

Isn't precisely this true of the existence of the universe?

The playing cards

Here's a Swinburne-type illustration of the general point. Suppose I am asked to guess each one of 52 cards, one by one. If I ever get one wrong, my brains will be blown out.

I start guessing, and amazingly, I get all 52 cards correct. Now you may say, "What's so improbably about that? After all, the probability of you getting them all right is 1, as you wouldn't be here otherwise would you?"

But of course, there's a sense in which something deeply improbable has happened. So improbable, in fact, that it would be reasonable for me to suspect this result wasn't just a matter of chance.

Some of those who favour fine-tuning arguments for the existence of God argue that, similarly, the fact the fact the we do exist does not show that there isn't something extraordinarily improbable about the universe, by chance, being just right for life. So improbable, in fact, that we can reasonably suppose that its "fine-tuned" character is not an accident, but the result of deliberate design.

The firing squad

Here's another classic example of the general point. As a condemned spy, you are put before a firing squad of twenty expert marksmen, who load aim, and fire at your heart from close range.

Amazingly, they all miss. You feign death, and survive.

Pure luck that they all missed? Possibly. But highly unlikely.

Far more likely that the miss was deliberately arranged.

 It won't do to now say, "But their all missing is not amazing at all. It's wholly unremarkable. After all, had they not all missed, I would not be here to ponder my luck!"

In the same way, its argued, we can ponder the improbability of the universe (of its being "fine-tuned" for life, etc.), despite its epistemic probability now being 1. We can't dismiss this alleged improbability by saying "But it's not improbable at all - after all, if the universe had not been just right for life, we would not be here!"

One of the commentators on Why There is Something Rather Than Nothing below, does make this move. It's not uncommon. But I don't buy it.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Kierkegaard on the Knight of Faith

Here's something I wrote on Kierkegaard from a forthcoming book of mine called "Greatest Philosophers" (Quercus 2008)


An authentic Christian faith

Kierkegaard’s book Fear and Trembling is a fascinating, and to my mind rather disturbing, account of what Kierkegaard considers to be authentic Christian faith, as opposed to the watered down “Sunday Christianity” that he thought most of his contemporaries had.

Kierkegaard points out that most people who describe themselves as Christians are born into their faith, and that their involvement doesn’t extent much beyond attending church on a Sunday. Danish Christians, thought Kierkegaard, were churned out by the Danish State Church “with the greatest possible uniformity of a factory product”. This, according to Kierkegaard, is not true faith.

Nor is the true Christian one who rationally recognizes the truth of religious claims, in the way that many Christian philosophers, including, for example, Aquinas, have thought possible. Faith is certainly not a sort of second-rate form of belief for those not sufficiently clever and well-educated to recognise the proofs of God’s existence (as Aquinas (chpt XX) supposed). True faith is not inferior to, but higher than, reason.

An authentic Christian faith, thinks Kierkegaard, involves making a deeply passionate and personal commitment to accept divine authority above all else. It involves making a fearful, life-transforming leap beyond what is reasonable and rational to accept what is profoundly paradoxical. It is a leap that must be made, not once, but repeatedly.

Abraham and Isaac

In Fear and Trembling, Kierkegaard writes under the pseudonym Johannes de Silentio (John of Silence) about God’s commandment to Abraham to sacrifice his own son. God says, “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering upon one of the mountains of which I shall tell you.” Abraham obeys. An angel appears only at the very last moment – when the knife is in Abraham’s hand – to revoke God’s instruction.

Kant thought Abraham wrong to follow the instruction of a voice in his head that commanded him to do something profoundly immoral – to kill an innocent child. Kierkegaard, on the other hand, considers Abraham’s faith a rare example of authentic Christian faith. The true Christian is one who realizes that our duty is ultimately not to the moral law, but to obey a higher authority still – God himself, who is, after all, the source of the moral law.

Kierkegaard contrasts Abraham, whom he considers a true “knight of faith” with the tragic hero or “knight of infinite resignation”: someone who recognizes that a sacrifice must be made on principle. A general who, standing on principle, knowingly sends an entire regiment to its death, knowing his own son is among the soldiers, makes such a sacrifice.

Abraham’s sacrifice is different. He has faith in something higher than the moral law. And, unlike our tragic hero who simply expects his son to die, Abraham has faith that his son will be restored to him by God.

Being a true Christian, involves placing your trust in something higher than the moral principles that govern society. There is a sense, then, in which it makes you an outsider – someone who stand apart from conventional, rule-based morality, who looks to something higher.

Criticism of Kierkegaard

Assuming Kierkegaard is sincere (remember, he writes as Johannes de Silentio, and some have questioned whether de Silentio’s views are really Kierkegaard’s), a critic might suggest that Kierkegaard is, in effect, giving people licence to slaughter the innocent in the name of whatever they believe their God wants. Kierkegaard anticipates this criticism, pointing out that Abraham acts out of love for his son. He is not motivated by hatred. That is a crucial difference between Abraham and, say, a hate-filled religious crusader or suicide bomber.

But of course, it seems Kierkegaard must, then, still admire the faith of the religious crank that lovingly smothers his own children because he trusts the “voice of God” in his head. The only difference between the admirable Abraham and this murderous crank is that, in the story, God does indeed save Abraham’s child while the crank’s children die. But of course, precisely because Abraham’s faith is supposedly beyond reason, Abraham was no more justified in trusting in such a happy outcome than was the religious crank.

It seems, then, that either Kierkegaard must also admire the faith of our murderous religious crank, or else he must say that the reason Abraham’s faith is admirable while the crank’s is not is that Abraham happened to get lucky.

But that, surely, hardly makes Abraham worthy of our admiration.

Friday, July 6, 2007

Review of Bede Rundle's "Why there is Something rather than Nothing"

Here's a review I was invited to do for the journal Philosophical Review.

Bede Rundle, Why there is Something rather than Nothing.

Why the universe exists - why, indeed, there is anything at all - is the kind of question that often first piques our philosophical interest. It is a question almost all of us have been struck by at some point or other. Even children ask it. And the answers we supply can have profound, life-changing consequences.

And yet, despite being paradigmatically philosophical, the question attracts comparatively little attention from academic philosophers, certainly not from the less theistically-inclined. Rundle brings the question back centre-stage.

As Rundle points out, the lay person seeking an answer will typically look either to physics or theology. Yet both disciplines quickly run into trouble. Scientific theories “have something to say only once their subject matter, the physical universe, is supposed in being”(p. 95) while theological answers introduce a being, God, “who is even more problematic than the universe which he is called upon to explain”(p. 95).

Can philosophy fare any better? Quite how purely philosophical reflection might succeed in accounting for a substantive matter of existence is not immediately obvious. Yet Rundle believes that by engaging in a conceptual investigation – an investigation focussing on and unpacking such concepts as nothing, causation, and coming into existence - the question is indeed answerable.

The book has three distinct parts. In the first, Rundle explains why theistic answers won’t do. The discussion is detailed, and includes a demolition of cosmological arguments to a first cause - faulted, among other things, for supposing we can make sense of a cause outside time. Rundle argues that our concept of causation is rooted in the temporal and physical, and that its extension to a transcendent reality stands in need of justification, a justification Rundle does not find forthcoming: “I can get no grip on the idea of an agent doing something where the doing, the bringing about, is not an episode in time, something involving a changing agent” (p. 77).

Nor does the universe require God as a sustaining cause. Such a cause is needed when there is a disintegrating factor to be countered or inhibited. In the absence of such factors, a persisting state requires no explanation. “If something is still around after many years, this may well be remarkable, but that will be because it has somehow, against the odds, survived threats to its integrity. If there are no such threats, there is nothing to explain.“(p. 91)

Rundle then moves on to the theistic suggestion that the existence of the universe points to the existence of a being that is, of itself, necessary. His treatment of this sort of argument (a version of which constitutes Aquinas’ Third Way) culminates in the observation that while the existence of a being that is, of itself, necessary would indeed suffice to answer the question of why there is something rather than nothing, the question can be answered by a much weaker thesis – that there had to be something or other. To suppose that there had to be something is not yet to suppose that there is a particular being that had to be.

In the second part of the book, Rundle develops and supports his own answer. Some philosophers – Van Inwagen (1996) for example (who, oddly, does not get a mention) – have attempted to explain why there is something rather than nothing by showing that the existence of something is far more probable. After all, there are many ways there could have been something, but only one in which there is nothing, so (even if we acknowledge that nothing is more probable than any particular something) something is more probable. Indeed, given there is an infinite number of ways there could have been something but only one in which there is nothing, nothing, while not strictly impossible, is maximally improbable.

Rundle’s approach differs in that he tries to show, not that the existence of something is more probable than nothing, but that it is inevitable. There simply is no alternative to something.

The argument begins with an attack on the suggestion that we can imagine or conceive of absolute nothing (which is not, of course, the same thing as not conceiving of anything). Thinking away literally everything is not like imagining an empty box or a vacant tract of space. The nothing we are to envisage involves the absence of both time and space. Rundle suspects that in attempting to conceive of total non-existence we are always left “with something, if only a setting from which we envisage everything having departed, a void which we confront and find empty…” (p. 110). The suggestion that there might be “literally nothing, rather than a domain we might speak of as becoming progressively re- or de-populated, seems not to make sense” (p. 112).

Some have defended the conceivability of absolute nothing using the “subtraction argument”. Is it not possible to imagine the step-by-step removal everything that there is, until we are left with literally nothing at all? Rundle responds by arguing that the ceasing to be of the universe is not to be compared to the ceasing to be of any of the things in it. While we can countenance the gradual depopulation of the universe, we cannot envisage the removal of the universe itself.

But don’t scientists now tell us the universe came into being about thirteen and a half billion years ago? In which case, did the universe not come into being from nothing at all? Rundle rejects such talk of the universe “coming into being”, accepting only that we can say it is so many years old. He also criticises those who speak of “the mystery on the far side of the big bang”. On Rundle’s view, there is no far side. We are therefore spared from having to fathom any such mystery.

In the third and final part of the book, Rundle embarks on a more ambitious project. He believes he can show, not just that there has to be something, but that there has to be a certain sort of something – a material universe. It is within the dense discussion supporting this claim that one possible weakness of Rundle’s approach becomes more apparent.

The author’s investigative style is, in places, reminiscent of the sort of “grammatical” investigation engaged in by Wittgenstein in his Philosophical Investigations (indeed, Rundle uses the term “grammar” in the same idiosyncratic way).

Take Rundle’s rejection of the kind of materialism that identifies thoughts, feelings and so on with states of the body. That brand of materialism is quickly dispensed with on the grounds that “vastly different things can be said of the mental and physical: one’s thoughts may be muddled, innovative, inspired… but none of this can be said of anything that is literally taking place in one’s head” (p. 129).

Rundle may be right about that. But not every reader will be so quickly persuaded. The fact is, what Rundle says cannot be said is said by at least one or two neuro-scientists. Perhaps confusedly so. But if there is a confusion here, it surely requires more work to nail. Certainly, pointing out that we don not actually apply certain terms in certain ways does not show that they cannot meaningfully or properly be so applied. To suppose otherwise is to tie meaning rather too closely to use (though I certainly don’t want to accuse Rundle of supposing otherwise).

The book’s Wittgensteinian approach also prompted me to ask whether, if Rundle has succeeded in showing that absolute nothing does not make sense, he has not so much answered the question “Why is there something rather than nothing?” as revealed that it too does not make sense.

Why There Is Something Rather Than Nothing is a detailed discussion that repays close reading.


Van Inwagen, Peter (1996) "Why Is There Anything at All?", Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, 70: 95-110

Via Ferrata

Back from Italy....

If you are interested, we went to Arabba and did these VFs:

Trincee 4C (with me, pictured, aping the image below)
Cesare Piazzeta 5C
Tomaselli 5C
Colac 4C
Tridentina 3C

Plus two or three shorter ones. Eterna Brigata 5C is currently shut for maintenance, BTW.