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The reason that Pascal's Wager doesn't seem convincing to me is that to me it

The reason that Pascal's Wager doesn't seem convincing to me is that to me it seems that you can't assign a probability to something that doesn't have any empirical evidence. So all gods seems equally improbable. And so I would be equally likely to suffer eternal torture if I chose Islam, Mormonism or nothing. Although on further thought, I don't feel so sure any more, largely because of the same reasoning that lead me to the question I'm about to ask. But, after I read the thought experiment "Roko's Basilisk," it seems to me that you could also make a Pascal's Wager-style proposition without metaphysical claims, one that would involve probabilities. Something along the lines of this: Biologists know a lot about the human body. Those that know a lot about the human body are more likely to have the capabilities to torture me for eternity. Those that are more likely to have the capabilities to torture me for eternity are more likely to torture me for eternity. If I go spend time near biologists it is...

I am much more familiar ... with human (or human-like) beings who lust after young peasant women than I am with ones for whom the very experience of lust is unimaginable ...

To say nothing of the doctrine, central to one of the major monotheistic religions, that God became a flesh-and-blood human being while somehow remaining an omnipresent and perfect spirit who continued to rule the universe. It's hard to see how the Zeus story is "significantly less plausible" than that!

I guess I am a bit more skeptical about getting anything of value from arguments like Pascal's wager. What makes the wager go, at least as the argument is under discussion here, is the threat of eternal torment if you don't pick correctly. One problem with the wager may be seen if we imagine two dieties who are in complete and implacable conflict over what they want from us. One of these dieties mandates honoring mothers and fathers; one mandates dishonoring mothers and fathers...and so on. Each one is associated with the threat of eternal torment if we fail to live in accordance with their mandates (or, if we fail to believe in them). It may seem that choosing either one "is superior to atheism/agnosticism" if these are our only choices, since if we don't choose either, we're damned either way, but if we choose one, we have what appears to be a 50/50 chance. But to see why this is wrong, bring in a third diety, who mandates that you believe in no dieties, and who would comdemn you to eternal...

Many people bring forth the argument that the chances of life, especially

Many people bring forth the argument that the chances of life, especially intelligent human life, occurring are so ridiculously improbable that the only way to explain it is to bring a creator into the picture. I've heard various figures thrown around and grains of sand in the universe brought in to explain how unlikely it is. But is the actual science behind the probability sound? And do you think that this is a good reason to believe in a creator? And what about a rational, logical argument explaining how this is not a very good reason? Thanks.

First of all, it is nonsense to try to assess the probability of intelligent human life occurring unless we first stipulate what the prior conditions are.

According to evolutionary theory, human beings and other living things are the result of genetic mutations that occur within prior life forms, which are then selected as a result of added fitness within a certain environment. Given the nature of this process, it is all but senseless to assess the (prior) probability that some specific life form would emerge from a (random) mutation in the prior life form, given all of the variables that are pertinent to fitness within a given environment. So if someone thinks they can calculate this as a real probability, I expect they are simply making up the values on which their calculations are based. This is no way to do things!

Now, there may be calculations we can apply to very specific conditions at very specific places and times, with respect the the likelihood that some very specific string of molecules might come together in that environment. People have debated about this with respect the the very origin of life in what has been called the "primordial soup." But a lot of this is also pure speculation, because we don't really know all of the exact conditions in all places and times within that "soup." So I don't find this very useful, either.

Finally, there is something in the logicl of the argument that strikes me as simply fallacious. The argument sseems to go like this:

(1) The likelihood that life (or life form X) would come about in these conditions is absurdly low.
(2) That likelihood goes way up if we assume that the emergence of life (or life form X) was the product of divine intervention.
(3) Hence, it is reasonable to suppose that divine intervention is the real cause of the emergence of life (or life form X) in those circumstances.

There is a lot wrong with this, even if we accept premise 1:

(A) What are the (prior) probabilities of the existence or emergence of a divinity, whose will would be precisely what it needed to be to want life (or life form X) to come about? And if these are incalculable (as I suspect), then why should we accept premise 2? It seems to me that one might suspect that the addition of the potential improbability of the appearance of a divinity (if that notion is even cogent, which some doubt, but which--if not--deduces that probability to zero!) would actually make all of the pertinent probabilities go even lower, rather than higher.

(B) Equally importantly, wwe should reject the inference. Notice what this way of reasoning would do to lottery winners. I am told the Powerball lottery has probabilities of 1 in 80,000,000 that anyone will win it. That's pretty unlikely, right? But if we now add something like premise 2 and make the inference to some version of 3, we will learn that all "lotteries" are actually cheats, because it is more plausible to suppose that some God prefers to pick the winners of the "lotteries" instead of allowing chance to generate the outcome.

I expect that many lottery winners feel that God has blessed them with the win. But that sentiment does not mean that we should accept such reasoning! Improbable stuff happens all the time. Even given the existence of intelligent life and all the rest, what would you say are the prior probabilities that you would ask this question and I would give this exact answer? Who knows, but on the wway of calculating that this sort of argument proposes, my guess is that someone would conclude that it is only the result of God's will that I gave this answer at this time to your question!

(I don't think so...)

First of all, it is nonsense to try to assess the probability of intelligent human life occurring unless we first stipulate what the prior conditions are. According to evolutionary theory, human beings and other living things are the result of genetic mutations that occur within prior life forms, which are then selected as a result of added fitness within a certain environment. Given the nature of this process, it is all but senseless to assess the (prior) probability that some specific life form would emerge from a (random) mutation in the prior life form, given all of the variables that are pertinent to fitness within a given environment. So if someone thinks they can calculate this as a real probability, I expect they are simply making up the values on which their calculations are based. This is no way to do things! Now, there may be calculations we can apply to very specific conditions at very specific places and times, with respect the the likelihood that some very specific string of...

Suppose I agree with theists that "God exists" is a necessary proposition, and

Suppose I agree with theists that "God exists" is a necessary proposition, and so is either a tautology or contradiction. That seems to indicate that the probability of "God exists" is either 1 or 0. Suppose also that I don't know which it is, but I find the evidential argument from evil convincing, and so rate the probability of "God exists" at, say, 0.2. But if the probability of "God exists" is either 1 or 0, then it can't be 0.2 - that would be like saying that "God exists" is a contingent proposition, which I've accepted it isn't. How then can I apply probabilistic reasoning to "God exists" at all? If I can, then how should I explain the apparent conflict?

Interesting points. I take it that the most reasonable reply for a defender of the ontological argument to make is to claim that Prefoessor Smith's world is not in fact possible. If one can make a case for abstracta (properties or propositions necessarily existing) then there cannot be a world where only a single pencil exists. For a good case for such a Platonic position, see Roderick Chisholm's Person and Object. R.M. Adams also has a good discussion of the difficulty of imagining / conceiving of God's non-existence. I take this up in a modest book: Philosophy of Religion: A Beginner's Guide (Oneworld Press, Oxford) or in more detail in a discussion of Hume and necessity in Evidence and Faith: Philosophy and religion since the seventeenth century (Cambridge University Press).

I confess I don't understand the notion of "metaphysical necessity," if it does not entail that that there is no possible world in which the "metaphysically necessary" being does not exist. But only a pencil exists in world W. So I really don't see what is gained (or why the very question of God's existence is not simply begged) by the claim that God is a (metaphysically) necessary being.

If "God exists" is necessary, then the probability that God exists is 1. Full stop. It is not either 1 or 0, it is simply 1. It is also not 0.2 or any other number. Nothing like begging the question big-time, eh? On the other hand, I can't see why anyone serious about the question of God's existence (even theists, who would like the answer to be affirmative, but presumably not on foolish grounds) would accept the claim that "God exists" is necessary. If that were true than the could be no possible world (=a world that can be described without contradiction) in which God did not exist. But it seems obvious that there can be such a world. Consider this description: World W = a world in which only a single pencil exists. It's hard to spot the contradiction in that simple world! It would be a pretty boring place to be...but wait! If anyone were to be there, it would be a different world! Whew!

However hard I try, I cannot shrug off the impression that philosophy asks all

However hard I try, I cannot shrug off the impression that philosophy asks all the truly important questions, but has always been somewhat vague when it comes to giving staightforward answers to those very questions. Do people have to turn to religion to get final answers? Because one thing is for sure: they are looking for those final answers.

I might add a modest point that could be helpful: It may not be helpful to see philosophy on the one side and religion on the other side of a great divide in terms of "final answers" and the offering of clear answers. Many philosophers today and in the past have adopted religious convictions, and many religious traditions (east and west) have either shaped or been shaped by philosohical inquiry. Within each of the great world religions there are multiple philosophically significant traditions that are experimental and speculative (non-dogmatic). So, for example, in Christianity there are materialists (Christian materialism is a new movement with philosophers like Peter van Inwagen and Lynne Baker) and dualists, nominalists and realists, utilitarians and virtue theorists, those who accept the static or dynamic theory of time (the so-called A series and B series), those who are libertarians versus compatabilists, and so on. And there is a similar diversity of views among philosophers in Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, and Buddhist traditions. My point is that even if one decides upon "the final answer" of a given religion, this does not at all bring the philosophical enterprise to an end. There is, rather, a vibrant great philosophical conversation over the centuries that you would be joining in which there is profound (and fruitful) diversity.

Beware a certain inference that you seem very close to making (and which I do think people make all the time): Because I want such-and-such to be true (e.g. I want there to be a "final answer" to some question, Q), it must be true (e.g. there must be a "final answer" to Q) You are right, people want "final answers," and some people want them so badly that they are willing to accept as "final answers" all kinds of nonsense. I rather suspect that it is part of the human condition that the actual "final answers" we discover that are actually comprehensive and fully correct will be few to none. Success, for a human inquirer, is, rather, to continue to make progress--even if the "final answers" continue to recede before our inquiries.

I have been thinking a bit about the so-called Intelligent Design argument for

I have been thinking a bit about the so-called Intelligent Design argument for the existence of god and have wondered if the question I raise here is a viable criticism of the argument. I find the argument problematic, in particular, because of the idea or notion of “design” itself. It seems to me that “design” is a construct that human beings employ to explain what we perceive, or maybe infer from what we perceive, in observing the universe. We look at things and perceive order, or some kind of harmony and consistency to them; this is the way our minds happen to work. It is possible, however, that beings elsewhere in the universe observe it and have no conception of “design”, or see no such order or harmony. If design truly is an inference relative to human minds it seems like it would hardly point to the existence of a designer; from the premise that design is a human construct perhaps the most we can infer is that design is not a “feature” that is intrinsic, or built into the structure of the universe...

I don't think you have a valid criticism of intelligent design here. I actually find the very idea of beings who did not see order in the universe as rather more difficult to imagine than you seem to think--after all, it seems to me that they would have to see some degree of such order just to survive. (Imagine not seeing enough order in the universe to support decisions about whether or not certain things you perceive are edible or drinkable).

But more than this, I don't see why the relativity of perspecive in your case proves anything. Why do you think it follows that if A (one group of organisms) sees something one way (e.g. as orderly) and B (a different group of organisms) sees it otherwise (not orderly) that this proves the relevant judgment is (only) a subjective one? Some animals (e.g. dogs) are color-blind, but we don't take this to show that colors are purely subjective. Maybe your aliens are "order-blind"! Their loss!

I don't think you have a valid criticism of intelligent design here. I actually find the very idea of beings who did not see order in the universe as rather more difficult to imagine than you seem to think--after all, it seems to me that they would have to see some degree of such order just to survive. (Imagine not seeing enough order in the universe to support decisions about whether or not certain things you perceive are edible or drinkable). But more than this, I don't see why the relativity of perspecive in your case proves anything. Why do you think it follows that if A (one group of organisms) sees something one way (e.g. as orderly) and B (a different group of organisms) sees it otherwise (not orderly) that this proves the relevant judgment is (only) a subjective one? Some animals (e.g. dogs) are color-blind, but we don't take this to show that colors are purely subjective. Maybe your aliens are "order-blind"! Their loss!

In connection with http://www.askphilosophers.org/question/2740, is there a

In connection with http://www.askphilosophers.org/question/2740, is there a similar objection (that it is not coherent) to the question "Can an all powerful God create a rock so heavy that he cannot lift it?"? Or does this paradox suggest that it is not reasonable to posit such a thing as an all powerful God? Thanks in anticipation.

Philosophers have debated this sort of question, but I think the consensus is that the question is not coherent. Being "all-powerful" obviously does not mean being able to do what is logically impossible. Think, instead, of the concept as making God into a being who can do anything that can (in principle) be done. Since lifting a rock of any size can in principle be done, God can always lift the rock. But making a rock so big that it can't in principle be lifted makes no sense at all, hence God's not being able to do that is no indication of not being all powerful, it is just to recognize that the description" a rock so heavy that God can't lift it" is nonsense.

Philosophers have debated this sort of question, but I think the consensus is that the question is not coherent. Being "all-powerful" obviously does not mean being able to do what is logically impossible. Think, instead, of the concept as making God into a being who can do anything that can (in principle) be done. Since lifting a rock of any size can in principle be done, God can always lift the rock. But making a rock so big that it can't in principle be lifted makes no sense at all, hence God's not being able to do that is no indication of not being all powerful, it is just to recognize that the description" a rock so heavy that God can't lift it" is nonsense.

Scientists often say (rather diplomatically, I think) that science cannot rule

Scientists often say (rather diplomatically, I think) that science cannot rule on the question of whether God exists. But is this really true? I suppose that some people might hold God's existence to be evident a priori; but I don't think that most religious people actually think this way.

Discussions of the status of theological claims can suffer from a restricted diet of examples. It is worth remembering that lots of theological claims are in fact uncontroversially true or uncontroversially false, and their epistemic status (and their relation to science) is pretty clear.

Take, for example, the claim that Zeus exists. I take it that no one now reading this site believes that that theological claim is literally true! But why? Not, I'm sure, on the basis of fancy philosophical arguments. Yet rejecting the existence of Zeus surely isn't irrational prejudice either. For the existence claim is bound up with a range of stories about how the world works; and we now know the world just doesn't work that way. Mount Olympus is not populated with gods; bolts of lightning are naturally caused discharges of electricity; clouds and rain are not gathered by supernatural agency; burnt sacrifices to Zeus do not increase the chances of better crops or victory in battle; and so it goes. Science -- in the broadest sense of our empirically disciplined enquiries into how things work -- has shown we have no need of the Olympian gods to explain anything. To put it in a dramatic idiom, science has disenchanted the world. Of course, that doesn't mean that the Greek myths aren't full of insights into the secrets of the human heart! But in so far as they essentially embody creation stories and stories about the origin of natural phenomena like storms and tempests, science -- in the broad sense -- uncontroversially shows that they are literally false.

So if scientists were to say that science cannot in general impact on the questions about the existence of various gods they'd be wrong. Which raises a nice question: why should the question of the existence of the Judeo-Christian God be different in this respect from the question of the existence of Zeus?

Well, as Nicholas Smith reminds us, the questions won't have a different status if we take the God-story also to be essentially bound up with e.g. certain biblical creation stories. Science, as he says, has more than adequately shown that those stories aren't literally true. And again, petitionary prayer to God is no more effective in bringing about worldly goods than sacrifice to Zeus (it does no better in helping you recover from illness, say, than can be explained as a placebo effect). In so far as claims about the existence of God are bound up with specific such claims about how the world works, science can impact. And indeed, does impact strongly negatively.

But of course, sophisticated, scientifically knowledgeable, believers can and do react to that point in (at least) two different ways. One way is to disentangle God-talk from the creation myths, and other stories about how the world works: though you might well begin to wonder, as God becomes more abstract, more remote from the quotidian world, why we should care. Another way (characteristic I think of one strand of English Anglicanism1) is to agree that in so far as talk of God is bound up with stories about how the world works, it would be literally false. However, that doesn't mean that the Christian myth, say, isn't a very good myth to live ones life by, or that shared Christian ritual practice isn't a sustaining prop to living a good life in a community.

1. Thus Rowan Williams, the current Archbishop of Canterbury, has recently written "The difference between the self-aware believer ... and the conscious and deliberate atheists is not a disagreement over whether or not to add one item [God] to the sum total of really existing things. It is a conflict about the policies and possibilities for a human life."

I agree with the scientists. Very crudely, science provides explanations of how the world works, and bases its theories on matters that are open to regular observation by anyone (using the appropriate equipment, of course). Unless and until God decided to provide us with regular and inter-subjectively available observations of him/her/it, God's existence will not be a matter for scientific discovery. Moreover, if God does not exist, science can certainly not establish that. It is not possible to prove non-existence on the basis of empirical evidence, because all empirical evidence can supply is that there are no scientifically reliable observations of God (yet). Science can establish things that are contrary to religious teachings in other ways, of course. Despite the nonsense that has been recently stirred up on the topic of "intelligent design," science has more than adequately shown that the creation myth in Genesis cannot be literally true. But as for the existence of God, I don't...

Can an omnipotent being truly want?Larry 16, New Jersey.

Can an omnipotent being truly want? Larry 16, New Jersey.

It's an interesting question. I'd just add this bit to what Nicholas had to say. Let's take the God of classical theism as our example. Assuming God exists, there are some things God might want, and yet can't simply bring about. God might want there to be creatures who freely love him (pardon the gendered pronoun) as much as he loves them. Now an omnipotent God can certainly make creatures who love him, but that's not the same as making creatures who freely love him. Put another way, God might want there to be creatures who love him, but weren't guaranteed to do so. In fact, many believers think that something like this is so. They would say that God has the power to make free creatures, but that if he wants them to love him freely, he can't guarantee, even in his omnipotence, that his desire will be satisfied.

I think so. Just because one has unlimited ability to serve one's desires does not mean that one has no desires to serve. Moreover, omnipotence alone would not make one able to discern how best to go about what pursuing what one wants. Here's another way to think about it: Surely an omnipotent being can do whatever is logically possible, and that obviously includes at least what you or I can do. You and I can experience wanting, desire. Hence, an omnipotent being can also do this--and a great deal more in addition!

Could you list the major philosophers who believed or believe in the afterlife?

Could you list the major philosophers who believed or believe in the afterlife?

The list would be a very long one, I'm afraid! Nearly all of the ancient Greek and Roman philosophers did; all of the early and medieval Christian philosophers, most of the early modern European philosophers, until perhaps the 20th Century. In the 20th and 21st centuries, probably most of the best-known philosophers have not believed in an afterlife.

It is much easier to identify the best-known philosophers who have not believed in an afterlife. These would include: most or all of the Epicureans (among the Greek and Roman philosophers), and among the early moderns, Hobbes and Hume. I'm sure there are others, as well, some of which might also count as "major philosophers."

The list would be a very long one, I'm afraid! Nearly all of the ancient Greek and Roman philosophers did; all of the early and medieval Christian philosophers, most of the early modern European philosophers, until perhaps the 20th Century. In the 20th and 21st centuries, probably most of the best-known philosophers have not believed in an afterlife. It is much easier to identify the best-known philosophers who have not believed in an afterlife. These would include: most or all of the Epicureans (among the Greek and Roman philosophers), and among the early moderns, Hobbes and Hume. I'm sure there are others, as well, some of which might also count as "major philosophers."

Some would consider mathematical patterns found in nature, such as the Fibonacci

Some would consider mathematical patterns found in nature, such as the Fibonacci Sequence and the Golden Ratio, as indications of a higher deity, God if you will. Is this a sound belief?

I guess I would like to know from someone who thought such things were indications of the workings of a deity what sorts of patterns would count to them as not being indications of a deity. I'm inclined to think that some sort of order is a simple requirement of there being a universe at all, and so it seems that some indications of such order--whether highly complex or simple--would inevitably be evident in that universe. As a result, it is difficult for me to see why some particular patterns would indicate anything religiously significant--after all, it is not as if the patterns themselves are divine signatures or fingerprints or the divine equivalent of DNA evidence. That one can have a religious response to such things, as Richard Heck proposes, I don't doubt; but that such a response is somehow rationally supportable, I do doubt.

I guess I would like to know from someone who thought such things were indications of the workings of a deity what sorts of patterns would count to them as not being indications of a deity. I'm inclined to think that some sort of order is a simple requirement of there being a universe at all, and so it seems that some indications of such order--whether highly complex or simple--would inevitably be evident in that universe. As a result, it is difficult for me to see why some particular patterns would indicate anything religiously significant--after all, it is not as if the patterns themselves are divine signatures or fingerprints or the divine equivalent of DNA evidence. That one can have a religious response to such things, as Richard Heck proposes, I don't doubt; but that such a response is somehow rationally supportable, I do doubt.

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