Monday, March 27, 2006

Questions for Christians, Part III

In the past, I have quite consciously resolved in The Philosophical Midwife not to take up issues that are narrowly political. I have no plan to change that, but before I pass over to the topic of this post, I think it helpful to make reference to recent events in Iraq. Iraqi Shias, in retaliation for Sunni crimes committed against them, have begun to hunt, capture, torture and kill Sunnis in Baghdad and elsewhere. Details of such events can be found here. Here's a bit from the start:

Mohannad al-Azawi had just finished sprinkling food in his bird cages at his pet shop in south Baghdad, when three carloads of gunmen pulled up. Mohannad al-Azawi, 27, a Sunni, was dragged from his pet shop on March 12. His mutilated body was found the next day. In front of a crowd, he was grabbed by his shirt and driven off. Mr. Azawi was among the few Sunni Arabs on the block, and, according to witnesses, when a Shiite friend tried to intervene, a gunman stuck a pistol to his head and said, "You want us to blow your brains out, too?" Mr. Azawi's body was found the next morning at a sewage treatment plant. A slight man who raised nightingales, he had been hogtied, drilled with power tools and shot.

Imagine what this young man must have suffered in his last days. The holes were surely drilled into him before he was killed, for the intent was to make him suffer. But of course he would not have sat still for such a thing. He must have been strapped down. He must have seen the drill near his head. He must have felt it begin to bite into his skull. His screams would have filled the room. His tears would have streamed down his face, and mixed with the blood that coursed down. He likely had no idea, as most of us have no idea, that life could become so terrible.

Other Sunnis have had their fingers and toes sawed off before their execution. I do not say amputated. I say sawed off. Each hand and foot must have been strapped hard to the edge of a table. Each man must in terror have seen the saw brought near. Each must have felt the first bite of the blade. A finger or toe would fall off and yet the terror would continue. They would scream until they could scream no more.

Each man forced to endure such a thing no doubt called out to God as he was tortured. But God did not come. God forsake them all. When I read of such events, I find it impossible to believe that God exists. Surely a perfectly good, all-powerful God would have intervened and saved Mr. Azawi from his travail!

I do not mean to insinuate that all Sunnis are innocent. Some have perpetrated crimes equal to the worst done by the Shias. Moreover, instances of such things are found throughout human history. Doubtless millions have undergone deaths as bad as Mr. Azawi's.

(Before I consider how the Christian might respond, let me take a moment to dismiss a certain common Christian view of the afterlife. It is that all those who do not accept Christ as Messiah will, after death, spend an eternity in torment. If this is true, Mr. Azawi passed from a few days of torment at the hands of men to an eternity of torment at the hands of God. If this is true, he passed from merely human torturers to the Divine Torturer. (How much more perfect and thus how much more painful would be torture meted out by God!) If this is true, he passed from the hands of human beings whose thirst for blood can perhaps be quenched with time to the One whose blood-thirst burns eternally. This of course is absurd. Good men do not torture others. How then can a God who surpasses all in goodness Himself torture His creatures? Was Mr. Azawi an evil man? Likely not, at least no more evil than many who pass for good. Did he deserve torture at the hands of men? Of course not. How much less, then, does he deserve torture at the hands of God! The belief that Mr. Azawi now suffers in hell is moral perversion. Moreover, it is blasphemy. One should never attribute such wickedness to God. What of those who say that Scripture tells us that all who die outside Christ suffer eternally and that as a consequence we must believe that this is so? I say this to them: Either Scripture, properly interpreted, says no such thing, or, if it does, it is in this regard surely false. Shame on you if you accept as true a text which asserts such absurdities!)

How might the Christian respond to my charge that a omnipotent and omnibenevolent God, if He existed, would not have forsaken Mr. Azawi? I know of three types of response.

The Value of Free Will

Most Christians (indeed I would suspect very nearly all) hold that the exercise of free will (i) exceeds in value the evil that men do and that (ii) no world of great value is devoid of free beings. (To simply asssert i is not enough for the Christian. The Christian God, since all-good, does not merely create a world that is on balance good. Rather He creates a world that is exceeded by no other in value.) On this response, though what was suffered by Mr. Azawi was a great evil, it and all other evils are more than balanced by a certain good, viz. free will, whose existence entails the very real possibility of such evils.

Let us grant that free will is a very great good, indeed a good so great that it far exceeds the evil that men do. Moreover let us grant that the best of all worlds must contain free beings. But now let us ask this: might God have intervened in Mr. Azawi's torture and still left his torturers, and the rest of us, free? The answer is an obvious Yes. God might have had Mr. Azawi come down with a mild cold that would have kept him from work for a few days and thus saved his life. If God had done this, would anyone be any less free? I would not. You would not. Mr. Azawi would not. (No one is any less free simply because they stay home with a cold.) Mr. Azawi's torturers would not. They would simply have had one less target, and that does not render them one iota less free.

I conclude that nothing about the importance of free will could have justified God's decision to forsake Mr. Azawi.

The Christian might respond that if God were to intervene in Mr. Azawi's travail, He would have to likewise intervene in the lives of all who suffer greatly. God, since perfect, is nothing if not consistent in His actions. But this, the Christian might say, would entail that the exercise of free will is a kind of sham. We would be shielded from its misuse and thus, in a sense, it would not be we who by our free acts make our world as it is. Rather it would be God who by his continual oversight and continual correction insures that the world goes as He wishes.

My response is two-part. (i) The Christian holds that God does intervene in the world at times. He does at times help those who need help. The Bible tells of many such events. But He does not always do so. Thus He seems inconsistent in His actions. Might it be that he intervenes when those in danger deserve help? This is indefensible. Some who are in danger of death, some who near a time of great pain, are but children. Do they not deserve help? What could they have possibly done to justify God's decision to forsake them? (ii) I simply do not see why God's intervention in times of the most terrible pain would render the exercise of free will a sham. Such times are relatively rare and thus even if God were to intervene in them, the exercise of our freedom would be mostly untouched by Him. Moreover, might He not intervene in a way undetectable by us? Might His touch not be very light, so light that it would seem that He had not touched the world at all?

Greater Future Goods

Might God's failure to end Mr. Azawi's travail be justified by some greater good that would (i) thus be brought about, and (ii) could not have been brought about in any other way? (It is not sufficient to merely describe some good or goods that Mr. Azawi's torture brought about, for if these goods could have been brought about in a way that involved any less evil, God's decision to forsake Mr. Azawi could not possibly be justified. God, since omnibenevolent, brings about the goods that He does in a way that involves the least evil.) If this were so, i.e. if there we some great good thereby brought about that could not have been brought about in any other way, we must ask for whom this good would be achieved. There are two possible responses. ('God' is not one of them. There is no good that God lacks, no good that God needs to reach complete goodness. God's goodness is sufficient unto itself.) (i) The goods would accrue to Mr. Azawi. Mr. Azawi died soon after his torture, and thus if some good accrued to him, it must have done so after his death. But what can this good be? What might Mr. Azawi's torture have gained him in the next life that he could not possibly have otherwise had? (a) Moral virtue? I simply do not believe that moral virtue can be achieved only after a time of great pain. Neither, I think, do you. We wish to instill moral virtue in our children. Must we then torture them to achieve this? Of course not. (b) Strength of character? (This seems related to a. Moral virtue requires strength of character. But they are not identical. One can be strong in vice.) If this were so, strength of character could be achieved in no way but through a travail of the sort Mr. Azawi underwent. But many who have not undergone such a thing are yet strong in character. My mother is an example, as was my grandmother. (c) Sympathy for the pain of others? I do not see why Mr. Azawi must suffer to gain that; and even if I am wrong, I do not see why he must have suffered so much to gain this capacity for sympathy. Might he not have suffered less and yet achieved the same sympathy? Surely. (d) Communion with God? Could God not have granted such a thing to Mr. Azawi even if He had never been tortured? God can let those that He wishes into His presence. To claim that one must be tortured to be given this grace seems at once both bizarre and repugnant.

But if his torture could not have gained Mr. Azawi moral virtue, strength of character, sympathy with others or communion with God, I am at a loss to say how it might have been good for him.

If the Christian demurs here, we might make a change of example. Some young children, indeed some neonates, have been tortured to death. Did this make possible some advance in moral virtue for them? No, it did not. Neonates, no matter what happens to them, are not ready to begin to develop virtue. Did they thereby grow in strength of character? Of course not. Ones so young as yet cannot begin to develop strength of character. Did they gain a power of sympathy? Of course not. Such a thing lies beyond the ability of one so young. Was their torture the only way to make possible communion with God? What a wicked God that would be! "Child, depart from my presence, and do not return until by the hands of men your body is ruined!" Can we suppose that God would say such a thing?

(ii) The good would accrue not to Mr. Azawi but to others. So, then, we can be used in just any way at all so as to achieve some good for others. We can be mere things, things to be used in the most terrible of ways so that others might benefit.

This is moral absurdity. For if we are mere things to be used however our Creator likes, so too are all others. But if all others are mere things too, why would God choose to harm us so as to benefit them? It makes no sense.

But if you yet think it possible that God would so use Mr. Azawi, do you think that He might so use an innocent child? Many children have undergone deaths as terrible as his. Did God use their death to benefit others? Would you let your child die in horrible pain so that some other might benefit? What a horrible parent you would be if you did!

Mr. Azawi Deserved It

This should come as no surprise to those with any knowledge of the Christian world-view. For the Christian, we are all and one sinners and thus we all and one fall short of the perfection of God. Some Christians hold that, as a consequence, we are all justly condemned to death and to torment. Only God's mercy, they say, a mercy by us completely unmerited, are we saved from such a fate.

I do not know how to respond other than to say that such a view as this is morally repugnant. Every human being has a certain dignity that cannot be abrogated by either god or man. (For me, part of the allure of the Church of Rome is its staunch defense of this view.) Torture abrogates this dignity.

So then, my charge that a truly omnipotent and omnibenevolent God would not have forsaken Mr. Azawi stands. But forsaken Mr. Azawi surely was. Thus there is no omnipotent and omnibenevolent God.

Of course the issues (issues collected under the head of 'The Problem of Evil') that I've raised are large. Much has been written about them and I've not done justice that body of work. One could plunge into it and spend one's whole life there. I do plan to return to these issues. But I have said why the case of Mr. Azawi presents what seems to me an impenetrable barrier to my conversion to Christianity.

Thursday, March 16, 2006

Things I Know But Cannot Prove

I will argue in what follows that much of what we know we cannot prove to ourselves.

The argument of this post is of great significance to the issue of the rationality of religious belief. When the argument is complete, I will turn to that issue.

I will begin with a set of definitions. The last will be a definition of 'proof'. (No doubt these definitions are a bit rough, but they will do.)

1. An argument is an ordered set of propositions. One is the conclusion. The rest are the premises. The premises are offered in support of the conclusion. (They need not actually give it any support. We do no wish to define 'argument' in such a way that all arguments are good arguments. Some arguments are evidently quite bad and do not lend any support to their conclusions.)

2. Arguments must have at least these two virtues if they are any good at all. (a) They must have all true premises. (b) The premises must be such that, if true, they do lend support to the conclusion.

These two properties of good arguments are independent of one another. An argument can have all true premises and yet not support its conclusion at all. Here's an example:

3 is odd.
My son is 3.
Thus my son is odd.

Both premises are true, but the conclusion (no matter how we understand the word 'odd' within it) quite obviously does not follow from them.

Moreover, an argument some (or all) of whose premises are false can be such that, had the premises been true, they would have lent support to the conclusion. Example:

5 is even and greater than 2.
No prime greater than two is even.
Thus 5 is not prime.

Clearly if the premises had been true, that truth would have been 'transmitted' to the conclusion. But of course one of the premises is false and thus the argument is no good.

Call an argument valid just if it is such that had its premises been true, they would shown the conclusion true, or at least likely true.

Call an argument sound just if it is valid and has all true premises.

3. Not all sound arguments prove that their conclusions are true. By definition the conclusions of sound arguments do follow from true premises, but this does not imply that they have been proven. Example:

2 is prime.
Thus 2 is prime.

The one premise is true, and the relation of conclusion to premise is such that the premise cannot be true and yet the conclusion false. Thus the argument is both valid and sound. But it does not prove that its conclusion is true. Rather it assumes the truth of its conclusion within the premises and thus cannot possible prove its conclusion. No proposition can be both assumed true and yet, at the same time, proven true. Merely assumed and proven are inconsistent.

We might attempt a definition of 'proof' based upon this insight. Call an argument 'circular' just if its conclusion is assumed true within the premises. What then do we say of this attempt at a definition of 'proof'?

A proof is a sound, non-circular argument.

Unfortunately this definition will not do. Some sound, non-circular arguments do not prove their conclusions. Example:

The only prime that lies between 7902 and 7908 is 7907.
Either it is not the case that the only prime that lies between 7902 and 7908 is 7907 or 2 is prime.
Thus 2 is prime.

A quick google of 'prime list' will verify the first premise. The first of the parts of the second premise ('it is not the case that the only prime that lies between 7902 and 7908 is 7907') is false. But the second part ('2 is prime') is true. 2 is the first prime. Thus the whole of the second premise is true, for any propisiton of the form:

Either p or q.

is true if one of its constituent propositions is true.

Moreover, the conclusion of the argument does follow from the premises. The form of the argument is this:

Either not-p or q.
Thus q.

If the premises of an argument of this form are true, the conclusion must be true as well.

So then our argument is valid and has all true premises. This of course means that it is sound. Moreover, it is not circular. The conclusion is assumed nowhere in the premises. (It is part of the 'Either-or' we find in the second premise, but that it is does not imply that it is assumed. Rather what is assumed is the whole of the 'Either or ', and that could be true even if the second of its parts was false.) But is our argument a proof of its conclusion? It cannot be. Before we considered this argument, we were more certain of the truth of its conclusion than we were of the truth of either of its premises.

4. This will lead us to the proper definition of 'proof'. A proof begins with what is more certain and leads us to that which is less certain. Of course if the argument is successful, we will thereby become more certain of the conclusion than we were before. (How much more? That will depend upon the strength of the argument. We cannot become more certain of the conclusion that we were of the least certain premise. Moreover, not all arguments give the same degree of support to their conclusions. The degree of certitude of the conclusion will depend both upon the degree of certitude of the premises and upon the degree to which the premises lend support to the conclusion.) But before we examine the argument, its conclusion must be less certain to us than its premises if it is to constitute a proof of its conclusion.

So, then, let us say this:

A proof is a sound argument the conclusion of which was less certain to us than any of its premises before we began our examination of it.

Let me make a few comments about this definition. (i) It entails that proofs are not circular, for in a circular argument the conclusion is just as certain as the premises, for in a circular argument the conclusion is assumed within the premises. So then we do not need to add to our definition the condition that proofs must be non-circular. (ii) The definition quite explicitly relativizes the notion of proof to the degree of certitude that a certain person has of its premises and its conclusion. Thus what constitutes a proof for me will not in all cases constitute a proof for you. This on reflection should be obvious. An innocent man needs no proof of his innocence. But if his wife and children were brutally murdered and the police have as yet no reason to rule the husband out as a supsect, the police do need proof of his innocence. If the police find that proof, it will be a proof for them but not for the husband. He knew all along that he did not kill his family and cannot in any sense have it proven to him that he did not. In what follows, I will not simply speak of proofs but of proofs for this or that person. (iii) The definition just as explicity relativizes the notion of proof to a certain time, viz. the time at which the argument is considered. This leaves open the possibility that what was for a me a proof at one time will not be a proof at a later time. (iv) Might we need to add some other condition to the argument? Perhaps we do. But even if so, we have identified a property that must be had by all proofs. This property is all that I need for the argument to follow.

5. I know that I love my wife and children. I know that I now sit in my study and write about the nature of knowledge. I know that I like red wines much better than whites.

But I cannot prove any of these things to myself. I can, of course, produce sound non-circular arguments for each of these. But any such argument will contain at least one premise that is antecedently no more certain for me than the conclusion, for I am as sure of these things as I am sure of anything.

Perhaps I ought to attempt a proof of the first to drive home my point. So, then, how might I prove to myself that I am a father of three children? Here's one way:

I recall the birth of each of my three children.
None have died.
Thus I am a father of three.

The argument is sound and non-circular. But it doesn't really prove anything to me, for I was just as certain of its conclusion as I was of its premises before I constructed the argument. The argument did not proceed from the more certain and upon that as basis proceed to the less certain. Rather, the three propositions within the argument were equally certain to me before I constructed the argument. The argument fails as a proof.

Moreover, no amount of ingenuity will produce an argument that for me constitutes a proof of the proposition that I am a father of three. For I am as certain that I am a father of three as I am of anything. Thus no set of propositions could possible prove to me that I am a father of three (though of course many sets of true propositions non-circularly entail that I am a father of three).

6. Quite obviously, then, much of what we know we cannot possibly prove to ourselves - my three examples could be added to quite easily. The reason for this is simple: many of us believe a large set of propositions that for us are at least as certain as anything else we believe.

Might someoneone object here that if I cannot prove, for example, that I have three children, I do not really know it? No doubt some will. My response is two-part. (i) Surely reflection on the nature of knowledge and of proof should never lead us to doubt those simple truths that we believed before reflection began. I do know that I have three children, and no amount of philosophizing can ever cast even an iota of doubt on it. But can I prove that I have three children? I can produce nothing like a proof of this belief. (I can produce sound, non-circular arguments ad infinitum for this belief. But none are proofs; none begin in the more certain and proceed to the less certain.) (ii) The objector seems to assent to the proposition that if a thing cannot be proven, it cannot be known. Let us then ask for the proof of this proposition. (The proposition is meant to apply universally and thus must apply to itself.) I for one know of no argument with any prima facie plausability that looks anything like a proof of this proposition. Indeed I think it likely that no such argument exists. Thus the proposition that knoweldge requires proof is, if true, false. But no proposition can be both true and false, and thus it is false. There can be knowledge without the possibility of proof.

7. What relevance has this to the issue of the extent of religious knowledge? Often the believer is asked by the skeptic to produce proofs of her beliefs, and if she is unable to do so the skeptic often assumes that the believer does not really know what she claims to know. Lack of proof is often assumed by the skeptic to undermine the rationality of belief. But as should be clear, mere lack of proof by itself does nothing to undermine the rationality of what we believe, for much of what we know we cannot prove.

For the skeptic to make her case, she must prove that religious belief is among the class of beliefs that do require proof if they are to be known. (Surely this class is not empty. Much of what we know we know only because we can prove it, or at least by argument show it quite likely. Much of science proceeds in this way.)

Let me here say that I for one know of no way to prove that no religious belief can be known if it is not proven. Indeed I suspect that some religious beliefs have a prima facie right to claim of themselves that they are in the class of known but unprovable propositions. If the skeptic believes otherwise, it is incumbent upon her to show otherwise. The ball is in the skeptic's court.

8. Of course there's much that remains to be said on the subject. (It seems to me that what remains is much more difficult than what has been said.) If we were to continue to philosophize, the first question that we must answer would of course be this: how do we distinguish a belief that requires proof from one that does not? Others would follow soon thereafter. It seems that those that do not need proof are know directly, or immediately. But what does this mean? Moreover, what are those cognitive faculties that directly, or immediately give rise to knowledge? I have little insight into how to answer these. But that in no way undermines the conclusion of this post: much of what we know we cannot prove.