Recent Responses

When something disastrous happens, like Katrina, "logic" says: so much the worse for a loving God. But for the believer, what comes out, instead, are things like "God never gives us more than we can handle" and "We have to praise the Lord, and thank him, that <i>we</i> are OK." Why? (Or is this just a psychological or sociological question? Or did I watch too much Fox news?)

Plantinga writes, in the quoted passage, "what God sees as better is, of course, better. " Oh? Of course? Having solved to his own satisfaction the problem of evil, can Alvin also solve the Euthyphro-style dilemma that arises here? (1) A world is better because God sees it as better vs. (2) God sees a world as better because it is better.

In a recent discussion with friends about the existence or nonexistence of God, it soon became apparent that there are very different definitions of "existence" being used, and that this seeming hair-splitting is unavoidable if one wants to make any meaningful statement about God's existence. For instance, the Eiffel Tower exists because it is made up of atoms, but no one claims God is made of atoms, so God clearly doesn't exist in the same way the Eiffel Tower does. France, on the other hand, exists as a collective understanding; that doesn't mean that France is a figment of people's imaginations, but it does mean that without people there would be no "France" in any meaningful sense. Many atheists would concede that God "exists" in this sense. But then in what sense does "information" exist? It seems to be a combination of material (which holds the information), and an intelligence (which interprets the information), but I'm not clear on this. I can't say with certainty in what sense concepts like "information", "order", or "truth" exist, or in what sense God is thought to "exist" by various theists. Can you shed any light on this, or can you point me to philosophers who have expounded on this theme?

I wish I had something helpful to say about this, but I don't know if I do. We should, however, try to get a little clearer on what is at issue.

Let's consider something a little simpler, like plays. I think A Comedy of Errors exists. That is, I think there is such a thing as A Comedy of Errors. But that play isn't a physical thing. You can't tear it up, burn it, or spill your coffee on it, though you can tear up, burn, and soak printings of it. If one wants to say that A Comedy of Errors therefore doesn't exist in the same way that its printings do, I suppose that's all right. But that's not because there is some special sense of "exists" at work here. It's because a play is a very different sort of thing from a printing of one. I take it that the same is true of God. God (if God exists) isn't a physical object, so one wouldn't expect God to be made of atoms.

What is it that even atheists will concede about God? Let's look at what you say about France. If you are thinking of France as a country, with a political system and the like, then there is a very obvious sense in which there couldn't be such a thing unless there were some people (or other intelligent beings) around. You need people to have a political system. But that's very different from saying that France exists "as a collective understanding", if that is supposed to mean that France only exists because people think about it. We need to distinguish between our concept of France, which perhaps exists because and only because we think about France, and France itself, which could exist as a political entity even if people didn't have any concept of political entities. Consider a different case: Families and other social groups can exist only if there are organisms around to constitute them. But there were social groups, perhaps composed of gazelles, before anyone had any concept of a social group.

Once we make that distinction, we can see what atheists are and aren't conceding. They aren't conceding that God exists in any sense at all, even as a "collective understanding". What they are conceding is that we have a concept of God. And what's at issue is whether there is anything in reality that answers to that concept.

Hi, My roommate claims that it is impossible for an omnipotent being to exist. His logic is that if a being can create a rock so big it cannot lift it, then that being is not omnipotent because its lifting power is not infinite. But also, if it cannot create the rock so big it cannot lift, then it's creation power is not infinite. And because of this paradox, an omnipotent being cannot possibly exist. My boss was a philosophy major in school. He claims that this explanation is completely wrong. However, I do not understand his explanation as he said it very quickly and with many names of old philosophers and theorems and such that I cannot remember. So who is right? Regardless of whether or not an omnipotent being does exist or not, can one exist? Thanks.

I'd like to add one further point to the two made so far. Many contemporary philosophers infer from the so-called Paradox of the Stone that omnipotence is not a matter of being able to do anything, but only a matter of *being able to do anything it is possible to do*. That observation suggests another possible insight. Consider the Problem of Evil. If God exists, then it might seem puzzling that God should permit the extent and kinds of evil that we can find. Now there are many things to say about this, but one pertinent to God's omnipotence is this: Certain moral virtues seem to require some evil, and in such a way that even God can't have one without the other. Even God, it might be remarked, can't make a world in which there is, for instance, forgiveness in the absence of any wrongdoing. (I can't forgive you unless you've wronged me in some way.) This is not to say that all virtues require evil, but just that some seem to, even if you're God. As it happens, contemporary philosophical theologians like Alvin Plantinga have made much of how God's powers might be surprisingly limited, while remaining omnipotent!

Do you believe that freedom is just being able to do what one wants without constraint? If so, why and how?

Sean Greenberg rightly says that the absence of physical constraint does not guarantee freedom. Moreover, as Harry Frankfurt has plausibly claimed, absence of physical constraint isn't even necessary for free will, though it is necessary for freedom. If I start out with free will, you don't take it away from me just by putting me in prison, though you do take away my freedom.

Could there ever be any logical basis for the thought: "I am untrustworthy"?

I assume your worry is not about whether you are untrustworthy in some areas, or in some sorts of enterprises. As Peter Lipton says, if you are dishonest as a general rule, then plainly you can know that about yourself. And all of us have excellent reason to think that we are not good at many things.

But if your question is whether you could have any good grounds for thinking that you are untrustworthy in some very general way (for example, epistemically--in the way you generate beliefs about the world), then I think the answer is also yes. Most skeptical arguments seem to me to give at least some reason for thinking that we are epistemically untrustworthy. Most philosophers these days are not won over by skeptical concerns, but that is not to say that they regard such concerns as logically impossible or incoherent. I think, moreover, that the field of moral psychology gives us some reasons for thinking that we may be somewhat untrustworthy in other areas, as well.

I am a physician taking care of a woman with bad asthma who requires admission to the hospital. She happens to be six months pregnant, which is clinically relevant because low oxygen levels in the blood will affect the fetus. I inform her that if she refuses treatment, her unborn child will suffer oxygen deprivation, and will likely be mentally retarded. She says that "God will take care of us, I'm going home."

The situation that you describes raises all sorts of interestingphilosophical questions,y, I’m not surewhich to address. I'll assume for the sake of this discussion that you’re not wondering whether yourpatient could possibly be right about God’s intentions. So, let’sassume that she’s wrong: God won’t take care of her and her fetus, andshe’s placing her future child at significant risk of harm that would permanently and seriously restrict his (let’s give him a gender for thesake of this discussion) future life opportunities. There are then twoquestions that you might have in mind. One: “Is she doing somethingthat is morally wrong?” Two: “What are my own moral obligations in thissituation?” The answer to neither question is straightforward.

First question: The answer to the first question is complicated by two facts– (a) theindividual who would be harmed by your patient’s lack of treatment iscurrently a fetus, and (b) your patient is apparently ignorant of thefact that she really is putting her future child at risk of harm.

While the rights of children are fairly uncontroversial, the rights offetuses are highly contested. However, we can avoid this controversy bytalking simply about your patient’s future child. If this future childwere to be mentally handicapped because she now refuses to taketreatment, then she would have made him much worse off than heotherwise would have been. As a result of her action, he would have asignificantly more restricted range of reasonable life plans available tohim than he would otherwise have had. Her action, then, puts her futurechild at significant risk of significant harm. From a moral point ofview, it seems to me, it is irrelevant whether one’s actions causesomeone immediate harm or harm someone some time in the distant future.On these grounds alone, I would conclude that your patient’s refusal oftreatment is morally wrong.

However, some might argue that wecannot say that her action is morally wrong, since she is doing whatshe thinks is best for her future child– she just happens to be mistaken aboutwhat is best for her future child. Only if her ignorance is itself culpable,can we charge her with immorality.

Though many philosopherswould disagree with me, I would like to distinguish the conditionsunder which one counts as performing an action that is wrong and theconditions under which one counts as being a bad person or as doingsomething that is morally blameworthy. An action can be wrong, perhapsbecause it has terrible consequences. But the person who does the wrongaction might nonetheless be a good person because through no fault ofher own, she did not anticipate these bad consequences. To use afamiliar example, a Good Samaritan might go to some trouble to save thelife of a person who turns out to be a serial murderer. Was her actionmorally correct? I would want to say “no.” Had she not so acted, manyvaluable lives would not been shortened. No action with such bad (evenif indirect) consequences could be morally right. Other philosopherswould insist that what the Good Samaritan did was morally correct,since the direct result of her own action was the extending of the lifeof a fellow human being (who just happened to be a serial killer) andsince the shortening of the lives of his victims wasn't the directresult of her own action but instead was the direct result of theserial killer's actions. Despite this disagreement about the moralityof her action, all of us can agree that the Good Samaritan was a goodperson and that she could not be morally blamed for doing what she did.

Returningnow to your patient. I would say that her action is morally wrong.Others would say that her action is morally wrong only if she isculpably ignorant of the likely harmful consequences of her action.It’s an interesting question, which I can’t answer here, whethersomeone who lives in the 21st century who believes that God will takecare of her and her fetus is culpably ignorant and thus morallyblameworthy for the consequences of actions that are based on thisbelief.

Second question: What are your moral obligations? Onthe assumption that your patient’s behavior is morally wrong, whatfollows? Unfortunately, not much. The fact that one person’s potentialactions are immoral does not by itself imply that another person ismorally permitted to prevent her from acting immorally. Physicians playan important beneficial role within our society and their ability toplay that beneficial role could be jeopardized if they were to take itupon themselves (especially as a matter of professional obligation) toprevent their patients from acting immorally. Patients might refuse toget further treatment from those whom they regard as meddling doctors,and the health consequences for both patients and fetuses (and thefuture children they become) could be devastating.

Why does the Universe need to have a beginning (or an end)? I am trying to understand why so many scientists believe in the Big Bang theory and why more people don't believe that the Universe has just always existed.

I think most scientists would reject an assumption in your question — that they believe the Universe needs to be one way or the other. Theories in science do not say how matters must be, they describe how they are.As to why scientists think the Universe does have a beginning, well,presumably it's because that hypothesis best fits the availableastronomical data. If you want the details, talk to yourlocal physicist.

I recently heard about mathematical paradoxes and I have a perhaps strange question: It seems to me that the goal is to figure out what the fundamental problem is, i.e. what gives rise to the paradox, so we can perhaps rewrite the axioms so that the problems disappear. But why not just say: "Well, paradoxes arise when you talk about sets that contain every set, so let's avoid talk about sets that contain empty sets." (Kind of like saying that bad things happen when you divide something with zero, so don't do it!)

Let me add one other thing. I thought the first thing you said was aboslutely right: "the goal is to figure out what the fundamental problem is, i.e. what gives rise to the paradox". The reason is that it is supposed that our being led to paradox in the case of, say, sets or truth or vagueness shows us that there is something about sets or truth or and vagueness that we don't really understand. If we understood things properly, we would understand how the paradox could be avoided, and not simply because we put our heads in the sand. So paradoxes are manifestations of our lack of understanding, and it is the lack of understanding that we really want to remedy.

Is it true today what I will do tomorrow?

If on Tuesday you play chess, then if you had said on Monday "Tomorrow I will play chess" you would have said something true. It's easy to think that the truth of that future tense statement as uttered on Monday constrains what you can do on Tuesday; that is, it's easy to think that the claim's truth on Monday restricts your freedom. It seemed as if you had a choice about whether to play chess on Tuesday — but really you didn't, since it was already true the day before that you will play chess! Most philosophers reject this threat to our freedom. To many, it seems like a piece of verbal trickery. Yet there are disagreements amongst them about what precisely the trick is.

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