Should Christians Partake in Formal Debates About God?

Martin Lloyd-Jones was against formal debates with unbelievers. Why? His first reason is that no one comes to faith through a debate. Thus, debates are not useful. However, though the debate opponent rarely comes to faith, Dr. William Lane Craig (who debates non-believers regularly) claims people in his audiences do so. Debates are not merely showdowns between two people with opposing views, but showcases of opposing views allowing audiences to to hear both sides.

Loyd-Jones then says that the topic of God is too serious a matter for public debate. I'm not clear what he means at this point. Isn't a 'formal' debate as serious as one can get? What would count as a serious venue for talking about God? Only church on Sunday morning? Only when preaching?

Finally, he suggests that unbelievers are so blinded by sin that they cannot talk about God (or cannot talk about him properly). But surely believers and unbelievers share enough common ground to begin a discussion about the existence of God, the resurrection of Christ, or the veracity of the Bible. An unbeliever does not share our inclination to worship God, but he or she can surely talk about Him.

Lloyd-Jones seems to think that formal debate trivializes the Christian faith. After all, debate is a form of entertainment. However, the fact that people are entertained by debates does not entail that a Christian apologist is always debating in order to entertain anyone. It may be the case that someone is entertained by a sermon, but that does not entail that the preacher has belittled his subject. 

Thus, unless there is some Biblical command prohibiting formal public debate, I'm inclined to think that there is nothing sinful about participating in one.

Feinberg on Natural Revelation

"Natural revelation unveils to all humans, regardless of time and place in history, the truth that a supreme being, God, exists, and it demonstrates something of his divine attributes such as power, wisdom, and goodness. These truths are known through the use of reason applied to the created and preserved (in existence) universe. In addition, apart from any form of special revelation, each human has a basic moral sense of right and wrong, an understanding of some basic rules of moral conduct, and a conscience that accuses those who disobey the rules and exonerates those who obey. Each person, by the light of human reason reflecting on these moral rules and in conjunction with the workings of conscience, knows that she or he has broken the rules and deserves to be punished for doing so. However, natural relaxation does not tell how to remove the guilt and punishment for wrongdoing so as to satisfy the demands of a God who demands moral perfection" (John Feinberg, Light in a Dark Place, 75). 

For the latter kind of revelation--the kind that tells us how to remove our guilt and punishment--one must look to special revelation, what God has made known in the Bible. In that revelation, we discover that because of God's great love, Christ has paid the price for our sin and we can be forgiven for our sin.

Alston on Truth

"...the statement that gold is malleable is true if and only if gold is malleable. The 'content' of a statement--what it states to be the case--gives us everything we need to specify what it takes for the statement to be true. In practice this means the 'that' clause--the content specifying clause--that tells us what statement we are referring too can also be used to make explicit what it takes for the statement to be true. Nothing more is required for the truth of the statement, and nothing less will suffice. In particular, and looking forward to the main alternative to this account of truth, there are no epistemic requirements for the truth of my statement. It is not required that any person or any social group, however defined, know that gold is malleable or be justified or rational in believing it. It is not required that science be destined, in that far-off divine events towards which inquiry moves, to arrive at the conclusion that gold is malleable. It is not required that it be accepted by a clear majority of the American Philosophical Association. It is not required that it have been rendered probable by some body of empirical evidence. So long as gold is malleable, then what I said is true, whatever the epistemic status of that proposition for any individual or community" (William Alston, A Realist Conception of Truth, 5-6).

Notes: George Bealer's "The Incoherence of Empiricism"

According to George Bealer, empiricism is committed to three principles. First, an empiricist is committed to “the principle of empiricism” namely that “a person’s experiences and/or observations comprise the person’s prima facie evidence.” Second, “the principle of holism” according to which “a theory is justified…for a person if and only if it is, or belongs to, the simplest comprehensive theory that explains all, or most, of the person’s prima facie evidence” Finally, according to Bealer, the empiricist is committed to “the principle of naturalism” according to which, “the natural sciences…constitute the simplest comprehensive theory that explains all, or most, of a person’s experiences and/or observations.”

Bealer argues that such a view is incoherent. First, Bealer poses a dilemma to the empiricist relying on the concept of a starting point for empirical knowledge acquisition. A starting point is a set of basic classes comprising theories, experiences, observations, explanations, laws of nature, etc., and a set of criteria determining what belongs in what class. Since only intuitions provide the criteria for what belongs in what class, starting points rely on non-empirical evidence. The idea behind the argument is that starting points are taken to be reliable. If they are not, then any theory built upon them is unreliable. If they are, then empiricism is false:

Either a person’s intuitions regarding starting points are reliable or they are not…If starting-points are not reliable, then empiricists are in big trouble. For their starting points judgments…are in fact determined by their intuitions…Therefore, if these intuitions regarding starting points are prone to error, the error will be reflected in the comprehensive theory that results from them, making that theory highly unreliable…On the other hand, suppose that intuitions about starting points are reliable…Then, certainly whatever it is that makes such intuitions reliable would also make our intuitions about what does and does not count as prima facie evidence (or as reasons) reliable. However, we have a wealth of concrete-case intuitions to the effect that intuitions are prima facie evidence (reasons). Because these intuitions about the evidential status of intuitions would be reliable, it would follow that intuitions are in fact prima facie evidence and, hence, that empiricism is false (168-169).

Bealer’s second argument suggests that empiricism arbitrarily proscribes the deliverances of intuition from prima facie evidence. Empiricists must demonstrate that the deliverances of intuition are in some way defective and they must do so using only a critical standard justificatory procedure. And this, Bealer argues, they cannot do. It turns out that there is no good reason to conclude that intuition is a defective source of prima facie evidence. 

Empiricists might suggest that intuitions fail to satisfy the conditions of consistency, corroboration, and confirmation, but, as Bealer shows, they do not fail in any of these ways and, if they do, they do so only as much as any evidence drawn from observation might fail. In other words, if the empiricists set the standard high enough to exclude intuition, it is high enough to exclude observation. 

Empiricists might try to exclude intuition on the grounds that evidence drawn from intuitions conflicts with a given scientific theory. However, Bealer argues that the same is true for observations and other sources of prima facie evidence: “experience, memory, and testimony come into conflict with certain theories. None of these conflicts suffice to overturn observation, experience, memory, or testimony as a source of prima facie evidence. The same holds for intuition" (175). Bealer concludes that there is no good, non-arbitrary reason for excluding the products of our intuitions in our prima facie evidence. Thus, empiricism is false.

Bealer’s final argument contends that the three principles enumerated above are self-refuting. Bealer treats the evidence for his conclusion as reason to reject the principle of empiricism, the view that “a person’s experiences and/or observations comprise the person’s prima facie evidence" (163). Bealer argues that the terms outlined in the three principles of empiricism “do not belong to the primitive vocabulary of the simplest regimented formulation of the natural sciences" (180). Concepts such as justification, explanation, and even prima facie evidence do not belong to the class of concepts permitted by the simplest formulation of the natural sciences. Any attempt to replace the terms with terms permitted by the simplest formulation of the natural sciences fails either to show the relevance of the new term to the previous term’s definition or cannot be defined at all according to the limits of the simplest formulation of the natural sciences. Thus, the three principles of empiricism ought to be rejected.

In order to render the view coherent, Bealer contends that the principle that ought to be rejected is the first according to which only experience and observation count as prima facie evidence. Instead, Bealer proposes a ‘moderate rationalism’ according to which the deliverances of one’s intuitions are part of one’s prima facie evidence.

George Bealer “The Incoherence of Empiricism” in Naturalism: A critical Appraisal, eds. Steven Wagner and Richard Warner (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1993), 163–196.

Feser on Scientism

Feser on scientism

Scientism is simply not a coherent position. You cannot avoid having distinctively philosophical and extra-scientific theoretical commitments, because the very attempt to do so entails having distinctively philosophical and extra-scientific theoretical commitments. And if you think that these commitments are rationally justifiable ones – and of course, anyone beholden to scientism thinks his view is paradigmatically rational – then you are implicitly admitting that there can be such a thing as a rationally justifiablethesis which is not a scientific thesis. Which is, of course, what scientism denies. Thus scientism is unavoidably self-defeating.

If Equality, then God.

Louis Pojman makes a convincing case for the conclusion that if there is any case for the equal dignity of human beings, then God exists:

“The doctrine that all people are of equal worth, and this endowed with inalienable rights, is rooted in our religious heritage…The originators of rights language presupposed a theistic world view, and secular advocates of equal rights are, to cite Tolstoy, like children who see beautiful flowers, grab them, break them at their stems, and try to transplant them without their roots. The egalitarian assertions of the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights are similar to those of our Declaration of Independence, with one important difference—God is left out of the former; but that makes all the difference. That posit…is not just an ugly appendage or a pious afterthought but a root necessary for the bloom of rights.” (295). 

His argument begins with two contrasting assumptions, the empirical counter-evidence to egalitarianism (CE) and the equality conviction (EC). CE is grounded in the empirical evidence showing that human beings are not equal in any way: We have differing levels of ability, character, sense of humor, strength, good looks. In fact, there is precious little observable evidence that we are equal in any detectable way! On the other hand, EC is highly plausible: "each person is of equal intrinsic value, of 'dignity' and thus ought to be treated with equal respect and be given equal rights."

So, we have no observable evidence to ground EC, but we are pretty sure about it nonetheless. If God exists and creates human beings in his image, then (a) human beings really do have equal (and very high) value entailing certain inalienable rights and (b) we would expect such a belief to be fairly widespread in cultures influenced by the Judeo-Christian worldview. Pojman argues that if God does not exist, then (a) cannot be justified and (b) explains our continued commitment to EC despite CE. 

If a Martian visited earth and asked us why we believe EC, what reason would we give? Suppose we could not appeal to any form of divinity or any metaphysical thesis, that we are left with purely secular arguments in favor of EC. Pojman claims that any putative claim is either too weakly supported or begs the question.

Presumption Argument: We ought to presume that everyone should be treated with equally unless there is good reason to do otherwise.

There are two problems with this view. First, there is no way to tell what is meant by 'good reason'. Good for whom? Someone might suggest the following reason: not everyone is of equal value and grounded it in CE. And how would one respond to him? There is no immediately obvious answer. After all, the empirical evidence is on his side.  Second, the presumption is not necessarily true and so one needs a reason to accept it over its contradiction - everyone should be treated unequally unless there is good reason to do otherwise.

Existential Argument: The EC is not rationally justifiable but it is strongly desired. Therefore, we should commit ourselves to it.

One problem with this view is that there are rational reasons for accepting EC! To say that there are no rational justifications for EC is to deny the Christian view without argument. Second, there have been many who oppose EC (Aristotle, Plato et al.). Surely they are not wrong to commit themselves to the alternative if there is no reason not to do so.

The Libertarian Argument: EC is reducible to a negative right, the right not to be interfered with. However, this is not an argument for equality, but for a harm principle - an obligation not to harm another person without good reason.

Gradable vs non-gradable argument: Some qualities come in degrees. If you have it, you can have it to more or less of a degree (skills, looks, character etc.) Some qualities are non-gradable. Either you have it or you do not have it (being human). We can observe the non-gradable quality of being human. Thus, we have empirical evidence for EC.

This argument yields the conclusion that we all have the property of being human but it tells us nothing about why being human grants an equal worth or dignity to those who have it. The Martian might meet Smith who is a lazy drunken good-for-nothing and be bewildered that he is of equal worth to Jones who works hard and is generally a descent human being. The Martian could conclude that that Smith and Jones are equally human but not of equal worth.

Pragmatic Argument: A world in which EC is put into practice (in law) is a more just world with fewer incidences of evil than a world in which EC is either believed to be false or is not put into practice.

First, it is far from clear that it is true that a world in which EC is put into practice would contain less evil than one without it. Is a hierarchical structure based on intrinsic inequality and without any significant incidences of evil impossible? Surely not. Second, pragmatically justified arguments don’t answer the question. They say why one might prefer option A to option B, but don’t say why A is morally justified.

Rational Agency Argument: Each rational agent is committed to the following belief: “If a rational agent is to exercise his rational agency, then he must posses a certain degree of freedom and well-being.” Since it is an undeniable good for a rational agent to exercise his rational agency, he has a prima facie right to a certain degree of freedom and well-being. Given that every human being is a rational agent, every human being has a prima facie right to a certain degree of freedom and well-being.

First, prima facie rights can be overturned by a good reason – such as “not every human being is equally rational” (this is Aristotle’s position). Second, it does not follow from requiring a certain degree of freedom and well-being in order to exercise rational agency that one has a right to those things. It may be good, but just because something is good, we don’t have a right to it.

Pojman concludes that the equal value of human beings can only be derived from the ultimate value of their creator: “God is the ultimate value and…humans derive their value by being created in his image and likeness” (295). If we derive our value from God, then our intrinsic value is not in virtue of a natural property. A natural property is one we can detect through observation. However, our knowledge of the property is not grounded in any observable phenomenon found in human beings but in the truth of the Christian worldview. Since we have good reason to accept the Judeo-Christian worldview, we should also accept that God created all humans with a non-natural value bearing property. By rejecting that worldview, we lose the rational grounds for the equal dignity of human beings.

Louis Pojman “On Equal Worth: A Critique of Contemporary Egalitarianism” in Equality: Selected Readings eds. Louis Pojman and Robert Westmoreland (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997), 282–298.

A Gauntlet Thrown

The Maverick explains:

It is often said that a human fetus is a potential human life. Not so! A human fetus is an actual human life. Consider a third-trimester human fetus, alive and well, developing in the normal way in the mother. It is potentially many things: a neonate, a two-year-old, a speaker of some language, an adolescent, an adult, a corpse. And let's be clear that a potential X is not an X. A potential oak tree is not an oak tree. A potential neonate is not a neonate. A potential speaker of Turkish is not a Turkish speaker. But an acorn, though only potentially an oak tree, is an actual acorn, not a potential acorn. And its potentialities are actually possessed by it, not potentially possessed by it. The typical human fetus is an actual, living, human biological individual that actually possesses various potentialities. So if you accept that there is a general, albeit not exceptionless, prohibition against the taking of innocent human life, then you need to explain why you think a third-trimester fetus does not fall under this prohibition. You need to find a morally relevant difference -- not just any old difference, but a difference that makes a moral difference -- between the fetus and any born human individual.

If Rights, Then God.

Victor Reppert's reconstruction of the Roe v. Wade argument is illuminating:

1. There is a constitutionally guaranteed right of privacy, of which we can be certain.
2. In the case of abortion, the right of privacy must prevail unless there is a countervailing right of which we can be certain, such as the fetus's right to life. This protects a woman's right to consult with her doctor and decide whether or not to get an abortion. Just as it is a violation of privacy rights to make birth control illegal, it violates privacy right to prohibit abortion, unless a countervailing right can be established.
3. But the fetus's right to life cannot be established. Reasonable persons can disagree as to whether fetuses have a right to life or not. One may, based on one's religion perhaps, believe that they have this right, but this right cannot be demonstrated in the same way that the right of privacy can be demonstrated.
4. Therefore there is a Constitutional right to abortion.

Reppert comments that most legal attempts to overturn the decision rest on (1), whether the right to privacy is absolute. One might wonder why more attention isn't given to (3). After all, the issue of the moral status of a fetus is what pro-lifers talk about in the public square. Reppert says that this is due to our inability to come up with some non-religious grounds for the fetus having a right to life.

The truth is that coming up with an adequate non-religious grounds for the right to life is pretty tricky not just for fetuses but for any human life. This is why the declaration begins with an explicitly religious claim: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness." Accordingly, rights are both evident to us and grounded in their theistic origin.

Locke's view, upon which much of the constitutional concept of rights is based, is decidedly religious. He argues that our obligations to preserve life are grounded in the fact that we are created by and belong to God (Second Treatise, s. 6). He goes on to suggest that rights are known in the pure light of reason, but they cannot be grounded in clarity. One could be mistaken about some proposition even if one can't imagine it being false. Just because something appears clear, it doesn't mean it is true. No, what one needs is some reason to think it is true, and that reason, according to Locke, is that God endues those rights to his human creatures.

Natural rights are God-given and (ought to be) government protected. There is a natural right to life if and only if that life has been created and is governed by God. Our rejection of the right to life of the one who cannot demand to live is also a rejection of the same right of the one who can. Rights don't just spring from nowhere nor do they only apply to those with the ability to claim them.

The justification of natural rights is only possible in worldview that is fundamentally theistic. Just try to come up with a naturalistic explanation for the right to life. It can't be done any more than we could come up with a naturalistic ground for the equal dignity/worth of human persons. What exactly is so equal about us? Not much that we can tell. It is solely due to the fundamental idea that we are creatures created in the image of God that we are granted equal value. It is the same with rights. In virtue of what do we have the right to life? Because we say so? Because we want it to be so? Because we agree it ought to be so? Because not having them would lead to harm? None of these options have enough bite to warrant the commitment entitled by them. And none of them are closed to pretty obvious counter examples. Take the harm principle, a principle not violated if a person desires to be killed by murder.

Rights, just like the moral law they imply, are only possible if God exists and has bestowed them on his creatures. Any other justification falls short.

Reply To Alexander Pruss

Alexander Pruss argues for the following: "given soft determinism, it is in principle possible to avoid culpability while still getting the exact same results whenever you don’t know prior to deliberation how you will choose. This seems absurd, and the absurdity gives us a reason to reject the compatibility of determinism and responsibility."

Pruss asks us to suppose, for reductio, that determinism is true and that we are morally responsible for our actions. Then he tells the following tale:

...imagine a device that can be activated at a time when an agent is about to make a decision. The device reads the agent’s mind, figures out which action the agent is determined to choose, and then modifies the agent’s mind so the agent doesn’t make any decision but is instead compelled to perform the very action that they would otherwise have chosen. Call the device the Forcer. 
Suppose you are about to make a difficult choice between posting a slanderous anonymous accusation about an enemy of yours that will go viral and ruin his life and not posting it. It is known that once the message is posted, there will be no way to undo the bad effects. Neither you nor I know how you will choose. I now activate the Forcer on you, and it makes you post the slander. Your enemy’s life is ruined. But you are not responsible for ruining it, because you didn’t choose to ruin it. You didn’t choose anything. The Forcer made you do it. Granted, you would have done it anyway. So it seems you have just had a rather marvelous piece of luck: you avoided culpability for a grave wrong and your enemy’s life is irreparably ruined.


(1) If the Forcer is activated on an agent, then (i) the agent does not make a decision to perform the action and (ii) the action is compelled. 
(2) If the Forcer is not activated, then the agent (i) makes a decision to perform the action and (ii) the action is uncompelled (i.e. the action is performed willingly).
(3) Therefore, it is possible for an agent to perform an action for which she is not morally responsible even though had she been given the chance to decide she would have performed it any way. 
(4) (3) is absurd. Therefore, compatibilism is false. 

Here is a problem: the argument does not entail the falsity of compatibalism. The compatibilist is committed to the view that what makes a person responsible for her actions is that the action is performed willingly (uncompelled). If a person is compelled against her will to perform an action, then she is not morally responsible. So, it is true that if that is the case, then the agent is not morally responsible. But it does not follow that determinism is false. What follows is that it is possible for agents to perform actions for which they are not morally responsible. (1) - (3) do not entail (4). Leaving off from (4), this is what follows: 

(4)* If an agent does not make a decision to perform the action and the action is compelled, then the agent is not morally responsible for the action. 
(5)* The Forcer is activated. 
(6)* Therefore, the agent is not morally responsible for the action. 

But that is perfectly compatible with determinism. 

Furthermore, it makes no difference whether the action would have been committed willingly if the agent had been able to decide for herself. People cannot be responsible for actions they would have committed if they had been given the chance to decide. I'm sure there are all sorts of things we would choose to do if we had thought about them. But we are not morally responsible for any of those things. So, why would any agent who doesn't decide to do something and is compelled to do it be held morally responsible? 

It is also not clear that it is possible to make no decision and at the same time be compelled to perform some action. Surely being compelled to do something is to be forced to do it against the will of the agent. If so, then the agent has already decided not to do the action.  


"...pragmatism is perhaps the worst idea that philosophy ever had" says recently deceased philosopher, Jerry Fodor. Not only is it bad, but according to Fodor it is false, and necessarily so.

Pragmatism suggests that rationalists have got it all the wrong way round. Instead of having thoughts about the world, we make plans in it. We can believe in the existence of material objects because belief in material objects is indispensable for science and science is what we want to do in the world. The problem is that it is impossible to put the cart before the horse. Whichever way one sets it up, being committed to the truth value of a proposition is always prior to everything else. Fodor puts it this way:

"...the ability to think the kind of thoughts that have truth-values is, in the nature of the case, prior to the ability to plan a course of action. The reason is perfectly transparent: Acting on plans...requires being able to think about the world. You can't think a plan of action unless you can think how the world would be if the actor were to succeed; and thinking the world will be such and such if all goes well is thinking the kind of thing that can be true or false..." (Fodor, LOT 2, 13)

Scientific methodology inescapably begins with propositions about what the world would be like if so and so were the case. Testing presupposes the acceptance of the truth value of a conditional statement. "If it is an acid, then the (blue) litmus paper will turn red" is a truth-value-carrying proposition the thinking about which is the necessary condition for the plan to test it. The crucial thing to notice, says Fodor, is that thinking about the truth-value of the conditional statement comes before consideration of its use. Thus, pragmatism is false.


"A man’s pride will bring him low, but a humble spirit will obtain honor" (Proverbs 29:23).

Pride is a pre-occupation with oneself. It is evident in both the arrogant and the self-pitying. Its only cure is a replacement of the object of one's attention. This is both simple and difficult. "What can be more important than me?" the proud person asks. To this, there is only one answer that is certain to convince the puffed up - God.

Humility--the opposite of pride--is a preoccupation with God and with other people. It is cultivated by a proper perspective of oneself. But a proper perspective of one thing requires that it be seen in comparison with another thing. In this case, the only way to see oneself correctly is when one sees oneself in comparison with God. Since God is perfect, one cannot come away with any impression of oneself that is lofty.

If one's thoughts rise to God only momentarily, the right perspective of oneself will only be momentary. In order to maintain one's preoccupation on God, one must love God for it is impossible for enemies to gaze at one another for very long. Instead, the enmity between a prideful human being and its maker must be removed. This is the essence of the gospel. God provides for the removal of the hostility between God and his human creature by providing a his Son upon whom his wrath, rightly aimed at us sinners, may be diverted. Such love has he for us that he laid down his only Son that we might be God's worshipers (God-occupied people) and not his enemies. Such love also causes us to love him, to delight in the knowledge of him, and to worship him. Worship of God, then, is the cure for worship of self.

Normativity and Motivation

According to Christine Korsgaard, there is a distinction between explanatory and normative adequacy for a moral theory. In a really interesting passage, Korsgaard asks us to think from two points of view - a third person point of view and a first-person point of view. She then takes a standard evolutionary explanation of moral obligation and asks us to consider its truth from both points of view:

Suppose someone proposes a moral theory which gives morality a genetic basis. Let's call this 'the evolutionary theory'. According to the evolutionary theory, right actions are those which promote the preservation of the species, and wrong actions are those which are detrimental to that goal. Furthermore, the evolutionary theorist can prove, with empirical evidence, that because this is so, human beings have evolved deep and powerful instincts in favour of doing what is right and avoiding what is wrong. Now this theory, if it could be proved, would give an account of our moral motives which was adequate from the point of view of explanation. Our moral instincts would have the same basis and so the same kind of power as the sexual drive and the urge to care for and defend our children. And we know from experience that those instincts can induce people to do pretty much anything, even things which are profoundly detrimental to their own private interests or happiness.

But now ask yourself whether, if you believed this theory, it would be adequate from your own point of view. Suppose morality demands that you yourself make a serious sacrifice like giving up your life, or hurting someone that you love. Is it really enough for you to think that this action promotes the preservation of the species? You might find yourself thinking thoughts like these: why after all should the preservation of the species count so much more than the happiness of the individuals in it? Why should it matter so much more than my happiness and the happiness of those I care most about? Maybe it's not worth it. Or suppose the case is like this: there are Jews in your house and Nazis at the door. You know you will get into serious trouble, even risk death yourself, if you conceal the Jews. Yet you feel morally obligated to risk death rather than disclose the presence of the Jews. But now you know that this motive has its basis in an instinct designed to preserve the species. Then you might think: why should I risk death in order to help preserve the species that produced the Nazis? (Sources of Normativity, 14-15)

The upshot of Korsgaard's reflection is that while evolutionary theory might explain an action, it "would not justify it from your own point of view." (15). Thus, though a theory might offer an explanation for our motivations, it may not be normatively adequate. This is because:

The normative question is a first-person question that arises for the moral agent who must actually do what morality says. When you want to know what a philosopher's theory of normativity is, you must place yourself in the position of an agent on whom morality is making a difficult claim. You then ask the philosopher: must I really do this? Why must I do it? And his answer is his answer to the normative question.
To achieve normative adequacy for a moral theory one must explain both how we might come to have moral instincts and what makes those instincts sufficiently motivating for an agent to perform an action. This is because, obligatory actions are strongly motivated actions. We are strongly motivated to praise good actions and condemn bad actions. We aspire to emulate the life of the virtuous and eschew the life of the wicked. We are incensed by cases in which an evil-doer faces no punishment or a hero is forgotten. On occasion, our motivations lead us to perform actions for which there is significant personal cost. The point is: we sometimes perform those actions solely for a moral reason.

So, what exactly is it that motivates us?

Robert Adams argues that obligations are necessarily social in nature: If there is an obligation, then there is a social context. He argues that when we fail to perform an obligatory action, we experience guilt. The experience of guilt implies that we have (i) harmed another person and (ii) alienated ourselves from other people.

The problem with such an explanation is that it seems the obligations are only in place as long as there is a social group in which those obligations are binding. If obligations are identical to actual demands made by social groups, then there are only non-objective social obligations. This is so for two reasons. First, social groups might not exist. And if they didn't obligations wouldn't either. But could we really believe that murder, rape and a host of evil actions would be morally justified? It may be the case that no one could carry out any of these actions, but it is implausible to suggest that their status changes depending on the existence of social groups. Second, social groups might demand different obligations. One social group might decide against imposing an obligation to tell the truth on its members.

What would be lost in both cases is the objective nature of obligations. As Korsgaard suggests, it is the objective nature of obligations that seems to propel people to act to meet them even at great personal cost. It is far more plausible that there are objective social obligations. And, if so, then obligations are not identical to actual demands made by social groups.

Consequently, Adams goes on to argue that if obligations are social in nature, then God exists: If obligations are placed upon us by God, then those obligations are both social and objective. They are permanently in place and thus sufficiently motivating. This seems eminently plausible. God's existence would explain the force of obligations in a way not open to the naturalist.

Notes: "Divine Necessity" by Robert Adams

Adams writes "to refute two...objections to the doctrine of divine necessity" (742). In doing so, he provides a refutation for evolutionary naturalism and an argument for the existence of God.

Obj #1: The proposition, 'God exists', cannot be a necessary truth because only analytic truths can be necessary truths but existential propositions cannot be analytic truths. 'God exists' is an existential proposition. Therefore, 'God exists' cannot be a necessary truth.

Why think analytic propositions cannot be existential propositions? An analytic proposition is a conditional the consequent of which is a correct analysis of the antecedent. For example, the proposition 'if he is a bachelor, then he is unmarried' (or 'all bachelors are unmarried') is an analytic proposition. Due to their conditional nature, analytic propositions do not imply existence. 'If he is a bachelor, then he is unmarried' is true even if there are no bachelors to be found.

Resp: Adams argues that not all necessary truths are analytic. Necessary truths are propositions the denial of which entail a contradiction. However, we cannot explain what necessity is without circularity. Saying that necessity is explained by the contradiction fails to explain anything more than the contradiction itself. This is also true of analyticity:

No doubt all the theorems of a good or valid or semantically satisfactory system of formal logic are indeed necessary truths. But it would be circular to appeal to this fact to explain what we mean by 'necessary' here; for what makes a system of formal logic good or valid or semantically satisfactory is at least in part the necessary truth of all its theorems.

Adams asks us to consider three propositions:

(A) All husbands are married
(B) God is the creator of the universe
(C) Everything green has some spatial property

(A) is clearly an analytic truth. 'Married' provides a partial analysis of 'husband' ('married man' provides a complete analysis of 'husband'). One might think that analyticity is to be explained semantically. What we mean by 'husband' is 'married man'. But even though what we mean by God is 'the creator of the universe' this does not provide an analysis of 'God'. It might have been the case that God refrained from creating the universe. We presuppose the additional notion of the necessity of (A) while not doing so when we consider (B).

Adams further claims that we consider (C) a necessary truth, but it is not an analytic truth. While there cannot be any such thing as a green thing without it having a spatial property, it is far from clear that 'has some spatial property' provides a partial or complete analysis of 'green thing'.

Thus, Adams concludes, we cannot rule out existential propositions as necessary since we have not established a sufficiently precise analysis of necessity itself.

Obj #2: Necessary truths are conceptual in nature and do not have any bearing on the real world. The proposition, 'necessarily, God exists' has significant bearing on the real world. Indeed, it determines something about everything in the world. Thus, it cannot be a necessary truth.

Adams cites A.J. Ayer who confesses that if there are necessary truths that determine anything about the real world, then those truths cannot be gained by experience:

we shall be obliged to admit that there are some truths about the world which we can know independently of experience; that there are some properties which we can ascribe to all objects, even though we cannot conceivably observe that all objects have them. And we shall have to accept it as a mysterious inexplicable fact that our thought has this power to reveal to us authoritatively the nature of objects which we have never observed (Language, Truth and Logic, 73)

Resp: Adams takes Ayer to be suggesting that accepting that necessary truths that determine something in the real world entails accepting that objects not yet experienced come under those necessary truths. For Ayer, this entails an epistemological leap. However, Adams suggests that the same is true of abstract objects. We believe not only that modus ponens relates the propositions we grasp today, but those we will grasp tomorrow and those we will never grasp. What explains this feature of thought is the concept of necessity we are pursuing.

The upshot of Adams' discussion is that Human beings have the ability to recognize necessary truths non-empirically. But what explains this ability?

Adams imagines an evolutionary account: Having true beliefs is conducive to human survival. As a species, we have acquired this ability from our ancestors and will pass it on to our progeny ensuring the survival of our species. Having access to mathematical truths has aided our survival in the past, and our continual growth in the field helps ensure our future survival.

Adams suggests, however, that the evolutionary account offers a less satisfying explanation for human knowledge of modality. There appears to be no evolutionary advantage to a belief that is necessarily true over a belief that it is plainly true.

Adams asks us to consider the following explanation:

Suppose that necessary truths do determine and explain facts about the real world. If God of His very nature knows the necessary truths, and if He has created us, He could have constructed us in such a way that we would at least commonly recognize necessary truths as necessary. In this way there would be a causal connection between what is necessarily true about real objects and our believing it to be necessarily true about them. It would not be an incredible accident or an inexplicable mystery that our beliefs agreed with the objects in this. (751)

Adams argues that such an explanation is the best explanation for human knowledge of necessary truths and an argument for the existence of God. Adams recognizes the Augustinian nature of the view. On this view, God necessarily exists and thinks all necessary and possible truths. This provides the best explanation for two plausible truths about necessities and possibilities: they are discovered and not created by human beings and they are thought by some mind. If God is the one who thinks those thoughts and God necessarily exists, then we are able to think them 'after' him. 

Robert Adams, "Divine Necessity," The Journal of Philosophy 80.11 (1983): 741–752.

Combatting AI Hype

In "The Seven Deadly Sins of AI Predictions" Rodney Brooks argues that we ought to push back against mistaken predictions about artificial intelligence. Optimism about A.I. has simultaneously led to utopian visions of a workless future and fears of an AI that might destroy us. His main point is that we ought to stop falling for AI hype.

First, if we don't know what something will be able to do, we will have a hard time knowing what it won't be able to do:

If something is magic, it is hard to know its limitations...This is a problem we all have with imagined future technology. If it is far enough away from the technology we have and understand today, then we do not know its limitations. And if it becomes indistinguishable from magic, anything one says about it is no longer falsifiable... [But] nothing in the universe is without limit. Watch out for arguments about future technology that is magical. Such an argument can never be refuted. It is a faith-based argument, not a scientific argument.

Second, Brooks distinguishes between performance and competence. When a person performs an action, we naturally assume that person has a set of accompanying competences. When it comes to assessing a computer, this assumption is false:

...suppose a person tells us that a particular photo shows people playing Frisbee in the park. We naturally assume that this person can answer questions like What is the shape of a Frisbee? Roughly how far can a person throw a Frisbee? Can a person eat a Frisbee? Roughly how many people play Frisbee at once? Can a three-month-old person play Frisbee? Is today’s weather suitable for playing Frisbee? ...Computers that can label images like “people playing Frisbee in a park” have no chance of answering those questions. Besides the fact that they can only label more images and cannot answer questions at all, they have no idea what a person is, that parks are usually outside, that people have ages, that weather is anything more than how it makes a photo look, etc.

Third, Brooks points out that terms used to describe human domains of learning cannot be used in the same way to describe advances in AI:

When people hear that a computer can beat the world chess champion (in 1997) or one of the world’s best Go players (in 2016), they tend to think that it is “playing” the game just as a human would. Of course, in reality those programs had no idea what a game actually was, or even that they were playing. They were also much less adaptable. When humans play a game, a small change in rules does not throw them off. Not so for AlphaGo or Deep Blue.

Fourth, the assumption that computers get better exponentially over time is false. If we calculated the power of an iPod exponentially,

we would expect a $400 iPod to have 160,000 gigabytes of memory. But the top iPhone of today (which costs much more than $400) has only 256 gigabytes of memory, less than double the capacity of the 2007 iPod. This particular exponential collapsed very suddenly once the amount of memory got to the point where it was big enough to hold any reasonable person’s music library and apps, photos, and videos. Exponentials can collapse when a physical limit is hit, or when there is no more economic rationale to continue them.
Similarly, we have seen a sudden increase in performance of AI systems thanks to the success of deep learning. Many people seem to think that means we will continue to see AI performance increase by equal multiples on a regular basis. But the deep-learning success was 30 years in the making, and it was an isolated event.

Fifth, Hollywood has perpetuated the myth of the unexpected change, one that will turn a powerful AI against the human species. However, Brooks points out that technological change is seldom that rapid.

Long before there are evil super-intelligences that want to get rid of us, there will be somewhat less intelligent, less belligerent machines. Before that, there will be really grumpy machines. Before that, quite annoying machines. And before them, arrogant, unpleasant machines. We will change our world along the way, adjusting both the environment for new technologies and the new technologies themselves. I am not saying there may not be challenges. I am saying that they will not be sudden and unexpected, as many people think.

Finally, the rate at which it is possible to deploy new hardware in the world is much slower than we think. Brooks proves several examples of industries that are still dependent on decades-old hardware. For example, he points out that the US air force still relies on planes built in 1961 that are expected to remain in service until at least 2040.

A lot of AI researchers and pundits imagine that the world is already digital, and that simply introducing new AI systems will immediately trickle down to operational changes in the field, in the supply chain, on the factory floor, in the design of products. Nothing could be further from the truth. Almost all innovations in robotics and AI take far, far, longer to be really widely deployed than people in the field and outside the field imagine.