The epistemology of modality and some metaphysical consequences

I want to consider how we know what worlds are metaphysically possible. First, let’s state what a possible world is. I like to think of possible worlds in the way Kripke states it: “‘Possible worlds’ are total ‘ways the world might have been’, or states or histories of the entire world (18).” So here’s the question: How do we know the ways the world might have been, or might be? Here I’m ignoring any abstract reality and restricting the question to causal reality.

One popular view on the epistemology of modality uses a principle that says conceivability is a guide to possibility—let’s call it CGP. We can see this principle in Hume’s Treatise:

‘Tis an established maxim in metaphysics, That whatever the mind clearly conceives includes the idea of possible existence, or in other words, that nothing we imagine is absolutely impossible. We can form the idea of a golden mountain, and from thence conclude that such a mountain may actually exist. We can form no idea of a mountain without a valley, and therefore regard it as impossible. (T 1.2.2)

The idea is that if we can conceive of something in some robust way, then that tells us that the world could have turned out that way. One counterexample to CGP is Goldbach’s conjecture: we can conceive of it being true or false, but it is necessarily one or the other. I think Chalmers’ more robust version of conceivability can bypass this objection. Another counterexample is Kripke’s a posteriori necessities involving natural kinds: e.g. we can conceive of water not being H₂O but their identity is necessary. For the purposes of this post, I’ll ignore Kripke since I think there are bigger problems with CGP. I’m concerned with the idea that by conceiving of a different coherent set of laws, we can know that the actual laws of nature could have been different.

The main problem with CGP is that there is no reason to think that a priori conceivability has anything to do with ways the world might have been. Granted things have to be logically possible for things to be metaphysically possible, but defenders of CGP are making a bolder claim. Suppose that we can coherently conceive of some laws of physics where things travel faster than the speed of light. How does that show us that the actual world could have turned out that way? Where’s the link? I suspect that defenders of the view take it as a brute intuition. A priori reasoning, while being indispensable in some areas, can only take us so far. Hegel went too far when he argued a priori that there cannot be more than six planets. Similarly, the CGP goes too far in my estimation.

Since I’ve ruled out a priori conceivability, and I’m not a skeptic about modal epistemology, the other option is that we can know what’s possible a posteriori. So how to we figure out our modal landscape? First, we know trivially that the actual world is possible, and we know what the actual world contains from experience. Second, if the laws of nature are indeterministic, that brings about additional possible ways that the world might have been. Of course, we find out about the laws of nature empirically. So the trick to figuring out “ways the world might have been” is to look at the actual world and figure out the laws of nature. If determinism is true, then there is only one possible world; if indeterminism is true, we have many possible worlds.

There’s an interesting result once you ground possibilities in the laws of nature in the actual world. It turns out that the fundamental laws of nature are necessary; they couldn’t have been different. Why? Because if possibilities come from the fundamental laws of nature (more specifically, the causal powers of actually existing things), and for the fundamental laws of nature to possibly be different, there would have to be even more fundamental laws to allow for that possibility, which, by definition, is impossible.

Graham Oppy makes an interesting observation about a view like this:

My favourite theory of modality has the evident advantage of theoretical frugality. On the one hand, if there are objective chances, then any theory of modality is surely committed to the possibility of the outcomes that lie in the relevant objective chance distributions. On the other hand, it is not clear that we have good reason to commit ourselves to any possibilities beyond those that are required by whatever objective chances there might be; at the very least, any expansion of the range of possibilities clearly requires some kind of justification. (47)

This theory has the advantage of theoretical frugality. Those who think that chances (or possibilities) can come somewhere besides the laws of nature owe us some kind of justification. If they think there are chances that do not come from any actually existing things, they are positing a sui generis chance—a chance from nowhere. Parsimony dictates that we not accept mysterious things without reason.

This theory also has the advantage of not falling to the “relevance problem.” If possibility is grounded in Plantingean propositions or Lewisian concrete worlds, what relevance do they have to how the actual world could have been? As William Lycan puts it:

…why should we suppose that real possibility and other modalities in this world have anything to do with specially configured sets of items, whether sentences or propositions or matter-elements? It seems unlikely that what fundamentally makes it true that there could have been talking donkeys is that there exists a fabulously complex set of some sort. (Lycan 1998, 92)

By contrast, if we ground possibility in the actual laws of nature, it has the advantage of being eminently relevant to how the actual world could have been.

Chalmers, David. “Does conceivability entail possibility?.” Conceivability and possibility (2002): 145-200.
Goldschmidt, Tyron, ed. The Puzzle of Existence: Why is There Something Rather Than Nothing?. Routledge, 2014.
Hume, David. A treatise of human nature. Courier Corporation, 2003.
Kripke, Saul A. “Naming and necessity.” Semantics of natural language. Springer, Dordrecht, 1972.
Lycan, William. 1998. “Possible Worlds and Possibilia:’ In Contemporary Readings in the Foundations of Metaphysics, Stephen Laurence and Cynthia Macdonald (eds). Oxford: Blackwell.

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A reductio for the EAAN

There are a lot of rebuttals to the EAAN. I mean a lot. Surprisingly, I think the most obvious one hasn’t been mentioned. My idea is that if the some of the reasoning behind the EAAN is right then God has a defeater for the reliability of his cognitive faculties. If this is right, the theist should take this as a reductio of the EAAN.

The idea that Plantinga’s view is incompatible with God’s having knowledge is familiar when it comes to his proper function epistemology. This objection fall under a family of objections labeled the ‘swampman’ objection. On Plantinga’s proper function epistemology, you can’t have warrant—the thing that connects true belief to knowledge—unless the belief “is produced by properly functioning faculties in an appropriate environment according to a design plan successfully aimed at truth.” So on Plantinga’s own criteria God can’t have warrant. Of course, Plantinga is aware of this reply to which he replies in a footnote:

Of course, God’s knowledge is significantly different from human knowledge: God has not been designed and does not have a design plan (in the sense of that term in which it applies to human beings). When applied to both God and human beings, such terms as ‘design plan’, ‘proper function’, and ‘knowledge’, as Aquinas pointed out, apply analogously rather than univocally. (1993, 236)

I think one could reply, “Ok, I may not have knowledge without God but I can have knowledge analogously just like God.”

So I think Plantinga’s criteria for warrant in his proper function epistemology entails that God can’t have knowledge, but this is not the focus of this post. I bring it up because I think something similar happens in his EAAN: If we follow the reasoning behind the EAAN, God has a defeater for the reliability of his cognitive faculties. First let’s briefly state the EAAN:

(1) P(R|N&E) is low.
(2) Anyone who accepts (believes) N&E and sees that P(R|N&E) is low has a defeater for R.
(3) Anyone who has a defeater for R has a defeater for any other belief she thinks she has, including N&E itself.
(4) If one who accepts N&E thereby acquires a defeater for N&E, N&E is self-defeating and can’t rationally be accepted. Conclusion: N&E can’t rationally be accepted.

“R” is the proposition that our cognitive faculties are reliable, “N” is naturalism, and “E” is the proposition that we and our cognitive faculties have come to be in the way proposed by the contemporary scientific theory of evolution.

Plantinga says that “Naturalism is the idea that there is no such person as God or anything like him.” There is something that I think is in the vicinity of N—call it N*.

  • N*: There is no such person who designs my cognitive faculties to properly function in an appropriate environment and aimed at truth.

N* may even be the primary motivator for why Plantinga thinks P(R|N&E) is low, since N and N* often go hand in hand. I think it’s plausible to say that P(R|N) ≈ P(R|N*). It’s hard to see how P(R|N*) could be higher than P(R|N). Does Plantinga think that P(R|N) is low? Plantinga says:

The first premise … is … that our cognitive faculties would not be reliable if both naturalism and evolution (or perhaps just naturalism) were true. (2011, 314)

Plantinga says “perhaps” just P(R|N) without the E is low. I’m not sure if by “perhaps” he means he’s agnostic or if he’s hinting at a second argument that only relies only on P(R|N). I think if we use Plantinga’s reasoning elsewhere we should conclude that P(R|N) is low. Consider what Plantinga says in regards to materialism:

So shouldn’t we suppose that the proposition in question has a probability of roughly .5? Shouldn’t we estimate its probability, on the condition in question, as in the neighborhood of .5? That would be the sensible course. Neither seems more probable than the other; hence we should estimate the probability of its being true as .5. … am I not relying upon the notorious Principle of Indifference? And hasn’t that principle been discredited? Not really. … the fact is we project properties all the time, and do so perfectly sensibly. And the fact is we also regularly employ a principle of indifference in ordinary reasoning, and do so quite properly. … Given that the probability, for any belief on the part of these creatures, is about .5, what is the probability that their cognitive faculties are reliable? Well, what proportion of my beliefs must be true, if my faculties are reliable? The answer will have to be vague; perhaps a modest requirement would be that a reliable cognitive faculty must deliver at least 3 times as many true beliefs as false: the proportion of true beliefs in its output is at least three-quarters. If so, then the probability that their faculties produce the preponderance of true beliefs over false required by reliability is very small indeed. (2011,331)

According to the principle of indifference, unless we have reason to suspect otherwise, we apply an equal probability among the possibilities; e.g., we’d assign .5 probability to the truth of any particular belief (given N). So let us follow Plantinga and apply a principle of indifference here, what follows is that P(R|N) is low. We could argue that P(R|N*) is also low by saying P(R|N) ≈ P(R|N*), or we could apply a principle of indifference instead. So we get the result that gives God a defeater for R, since God believes N* and P(R|N*) is low.

Is there a way out for God? Can he conditionalize on some X such that P(R|N*&X) is high? What are we allowed to use for X? This is what Plantinga calls the conditionalization problem. Can God conditionalize on his omniscience? I think not, since Plantinga bars the naturalist from conditionalizing on R itself, and the same criticism can be applied to omniscience:

Is there a belief X the naturalist might have such that P(R/N&E&X) is not low? Well, it certainly looks as if there are: what about R itself? That’s presumably something the naturalist believes. P(R/N&E&R) is certainly not low; it’s 1. But of course R itself isn’t a proper candidate for being a defeater-deflector here. If a belief A could itself be a defeater-deflector for a putative defeater of A, no belief could ever be defeated. (2011,347)

In any case, Richard Otte points out that it would beg the question to conditionalize on R (and similarly omniscience). Can God conditionalize on the proposition that he created some amazing things like the universe? If so he could stave off defeat, since it seems anyone able to create a complex universe would have a high R. But now the naturalist can similarly conditionalize on a proposition concerning his achievements and stave off defeat. I don’t think Plantinga would think that either of these propositions are acceptable candidates for conditionalization. Consider what he says concerning drug XX:

I take a good dose of XX, which induces … global cognitive unreliability. I believe that 95 percent of those in this condition are no longer reliable; I also believe that 5 percent of the population has the blocking gene; but I have no belief as to whether I myself have that gene. I then have a defeater, so I say, for R. Now suppose I come to believe that my physician has telephoned me and told me that I am among the lucky 5 percent whose reliability is unimpaired by ingesting XX. Do I now have a defeater-defeater? Or do I still have a defeater for R? … there is a high probability that my believing my doctor has told me the good news is itself a product of unreliable cognitive functioning. … there is only a slim chance that my beliefs are for the most part true. (2002,227-228)

Since the reliability of the physicians phone call is called into question by his prior taking of XX, that phone call can’t serve as a defeater-defeater. Similarly, propositions concerning God’s or our achievements are called into question by N*. One might worry that N* is not a legitimate proposition to conditionalize upon. Consider what Plantinga says can serve as defeaters for R:

If a principle is wanted, I’d suggest starting with something pretty limited, something about beliefs specifying the origin and provenance of cognitive faculties. (2002,240)

N* seems to qualify, since it’s saying something about the origin, even if it’s in the negative sense. Or maybe God can conditionalize on that proposition that he has no source. It seems whatever God can conditionalize upon can’t be drastically different than N*. A way out is to say that God can’t conditionalize upon anything, but that seems implausible and would require argumentation. So it seems, if we follow Plantinga’s reasoning, P(R|N*) is low and God has a defeater for R and there is no X that he can use to get out of defeat. Think about the phone call from the drug XX example. That rules out a lot of things you can use for X; in fact, I don’t think we can conditionalize on anything but the origin (or lack thereof) of the cognitive faculties without violating Plantinga’s strictures.  Theists should take this as a reductio of the EAAN. This concludes the meat of the post, but I want to end with two dangling thoughts.

First, I also wonder if the naturalist who accepts naturalism independently of evolution (e.g. Hume) can even conditionalize on E, for E would be subject to defeat by N just like the phone call was subject to defeat by drug XX. This means that that naturalist can only consider P(R|N).

Second, here’s a potential reductio concerning the XX drug example. The point of that example was to show you that once your R is defeated there is no way to recover because any reasoning you use will also be subject to that same defeat. The kind of defeat that drug XX gives is global defeat, and not simply defeat of a single perceptual faculty. The problem is that we have global defeat or R all the time when we dream, and yet we think we can recover once we’re awake. When we dream our perceptual, memorial, and logical/mathematical abilities are very unreliable. Dreaming is very similar taking drug XX. One difference is it’s not clear whether drug XX is stipulated to be last permanently or to only last a few hours, and we know dreaming is not permanent. I can envision the same argument being run even if the XX example was stipulated to last only a few hours, for how do we know the hours are up if that is also subject to defeat? One might suggest that non-propositional experience can be used to recover from defeat. When we’re awake, our experience is much clearer than the foggy dream state. Still, I wonder, why that non-propositional experience wouldn’t also be subject to defeat.

Beilby, James K., ed. Naturalism Defeated?: Essays on Plantinga’s Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism. Cornell University Press, 2002.
Plantinga, Alvin. Warrant and proper function. Oxford University Press, 1993.
Plantinga, Alvin. Where the conflict really lies: Science, religion, and naturalism. OUP USA, 2011.

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The Good and the Great, random thoughts

The moral argument for God is familiar: the basic motivation is that moral goodness needs a foundation and only God could serve that role. Wielenberg (2009) points out a problem with the the idea that goodness is grounded in God:

… since the Good just is God, the existence of God can hardly explain or ground the existence of the Good. In the context of Adams’s view, the claim that God serves as the foundation of the Good is no more sensible than the claim that H2O serves as the foundation of water.

In other words, if A is identical to B, then A can’t serve as a foundation to B. A and B are two different terms that are used to refer to one and the same thing. How can anything serve as the foundation for itself? I’ll leave Wielenberg’s point aside as my target is elsewhere.

On a Divine Command theory, goodness is not a mere property of God; rather, God himself just is the Good (Baggett and Walls, 2011) or God’s nature just is the Good (Craig). Whether the Good is equated with God or God’s nature will not be relevant for this post. What is relevant is that the Good is a value. It has always puzzled me why there isn’t also a ‘greatness’ argument for God, since greatness is a value just like the good. In other words, without God, things like power, knowledge, and goodness would not be objectively great. Anselmians often say that omnipotence, omniscience and moral perfection are great-making properties. This almost seems like a concession that you don’t need God to ground the great, even if he is by definition the greatest conceivable being. After all, what makes something great are these great-making properties: those properties serve as the foundation for greatness.

If Divine Command theorists said there were intrinsically good-making properties (e.g. virtues like lovingness, generosity etc.) this would likewise entail that these good-making properties are the foundation and not God. A Divine Command theorist should say that these properties are good-making only because God makes them good-making. This is what Craig, following Alston, says:

What he will ask now is: are these properties like loving-kindness, impartiality, generosity good because God possesses them or does God possess them because they are good? … These properties are good because God possesses them. They are descriptions of the way God is and therefore these are goods. It would just be a subterfuge of the theory to say that God has these properties because they are good.

Let’s suppose that the Anselmian sees the point made by Craig and Alston. He will deny that omnipotence, omniscience and moral perfection can be great-making on their own; rather, God qua the Great is needed to make them great. Indeed, just as in the moral case, God just is the Great. On my understanding, this is actually what Adams (2002) does:

We have no word that in common usage signifies precisely and uniquely this kind of goodness; l shall refer to it often (though not always happily) as “excellence” and sometimes (where l see on the horizon no confusion with other sorts of goodness) simply as “goodness” or the “good.” Moral virtues are excellences in this sense, but Platonic excellence is not exclusively moral; beauty is a prime example of it …. (14)

So Adams is using the term good or excellence as more than just moral good; it also includes beauty etc. Since I think excellence is a synonym for greatness, I think Adams identifies God with the Great and not the moral good. This leads to a problem for Divine Command theorists. If God is the Great and God is the Good, then by transitivity of identity the Great is the Good, which is obviously false since the Great has wider scope than the Good. The same problem occurs if you say God is love or truth. (I’ll take divine simplicity to be a non-starter.)

One way out for the Divine Command theorist is to deny that God is the Great. A question naturally follows: If greatness qua a value does not need a foundation, then why does goodness? Another way out is to say that God is the Great and that the Good is a part of God. The logical problem now evaporates. They could still insist that the Good as a part of God serves as the exemplar for goodness in the way the meter stick is an exemplar for the meter. After all, there’s nothing about exemplars that suggest that it can’t be part of a greater whole.

An exemplar can be contrasted with a platonic form. We have no exemplar for ’roundness,’ since nothing in the physical world is perfectly round, so roundness must be platonic (in some broad sense). Exemplars supposedly play another function for Divine Command theorists: it makes ‘God is the Great’ coherent, since if ‘great’ is understood to be an abstract platonic property or a universal, it is incoherent to say that God is the Great.

A question remains: Why are exemplars needed to be a foundation for goodness when they’re not needed to be a foundation for roundness? Why would goodness float free unanchored when roundness doesn’t float free unanchored?

Adams, Robert Merrihew. Finite and infinite goods: A framework for ethics. Framework for Ethics, 2002.
Baggett, David, and Jerry L. Walls. Good God: The theistic foundations of morality. OUP USA, 2011.
Wielenberg, Erik J. “In Defense of Non-Natural, Non-Theistic Moral Realism.” Faith and Philosophy 26.1 (2009): 23-41.

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Edward Feser’s Aristotelian Proof for God

In Five Proofs of the Existence of God, Feser runs an Aristotelian inspired argument for God. While there’s a lot that can be questioned about the argument, I’ll narrow this post to what I think is one of the weaker parts of the proof: his proof that the first cause (i.e. pure act) must be intelligent. To motivate the idea that there must be an intelligent first cause, Feser appeals to the principle of proportionate causality (PPC).

PPC: Whatever is in the effect must in some way or other be in the cause.

Feser explains the PPC:

Suppose, for example, that I give you $20. The effect in this case is your having the $20, and I am the cause of this effect. … [There are] different ways in which the cause may have what is in the effect. When I myself have a $20 bill ready to hand and I cause you to have it, what is in the effect was in the cause formally, to use some traditional jargon. That is to say, I myself was an instance of the form or pattern of having a $20 bill, and I caused you to become another instance of that form or pattern. When I don’t have the $20 bill ready to hand but I do have at least $20 credit in my bank account, you might say that what was in the effect was in that case in the cause virtually. For though I didn’t actually have the $20 on hand, I did have the power to get hold of it. And when I get Congress to grant me the power to manufacture $20 bills, you might say (once again to use some traditional jargon) that I had the $20 eminently. Because in that case, I not only have the power to acquire already existing $20 bills, but the more “eminent” power of causing them to exist in the first place. When it is said, then, that what is in an effect must in some way be in its cause, what is meant is that it must be in the cause at least “virtually” or “eminently” even if not “formally”. (2017, 33)

John Cottingham has criticized a variation of the PPC as implying an implausible heirloom view of causation where properties as passed down from cause to effect:

a sponge cake… has many properties – e.g. its characteristic sponginess – which were simply not present in any of the material ingredients (the eggs, flour, butter). … But this fact simply does not support the conclusion that the sponginess was somehow present in some form in the materials from which it arose. (Cottingham, 1986, 51)

Feser thinks this is a mistaken objection: the PPC doesn’t entail that sponginess in the cake requires there to be sponginess in the ingredients, because that would be to presuppose that the effect must be in the cause formally, i.e. that the cause must have the form of sponginess. What the PPC says is that the effect has to be in the cause formally or virtually or eminently.

Cottingham considers a weaker reading of the PPC:

(One may be tempted to say that the sponginess must have been ‘potentially’ present in the materials, but this seems to defend the [PPC] at the cost of making it trivially true. (Cottingham, 1986, 51)

Feser replies that Cottingham must have in mind Moliere’s “dormitive virtue” objection. According to that objection, to explain opium’s power to cause sleep by saying it has a dormitive power is a tautology or trivially true, since a dormitive power is defined as a power that causes sleep. That is, you would be saying nothing more than, “Opium causes sleep because it has the power to cause sleep.” Feser replies that while this statement is “minimally informative” it’s not a tautology, because the existence of powers can be denied. For example, Humeans about causation deny causal powers.

So, since I do think there are causal powers, I do think the PPC is true because to say that the effect is in the cause “eminently” is just to say that the cause has the power to produce the effect. I also think it’s minimally informative, which will be play into my objection to Feser’s proof that the first cause (pure act) must be intelligent.

From the PPC and since the first cause (pure act) is the cause of every possible form or pattern, Feser says:

38. Whatever is in an effect is in its cause in some way, whether formally, virtually, or eminently (the principle of proportionate causality).
39. The purely actual actualizer is the cause of all things. [I think it’s safe to assume Feser means all things besides itself.]
40. So, the forms or patterns manifest in all the things it causes must in some way be in the purely actual actualizer.
41. These forms or patterns can exist either in the concrete way in which they exist in individual particular things, or in the abstract way in which they exist in the thoughts of an intellect.
42. They cannot exist in the purely actual actualizer in the same way they exist in individual particular things.
43. So, they must exist in the purely actual actualizer in the abstract way in which they exist in the thoughts of an intellect.
44. So, the purely actual actualizer has intellect or intelligence. (p 37)

Earlier Feser argued that the first cause (pure act) must be immaterial. I’ll grant that for the sake of argument. I’ve already accepted 38, the PPC. I’ll accept 39 for the sake of argument. I accept 40 because it follows from 38 and 39. Here’s an example to show how modest accepting these steps are. Say I cause someone to have a black eye. The form of black is in me in the eminent sense that I had the power to produce the black eye; I needn’t have a black eye myself to give another person a black eye, which is to say that the effect needn’t be in me formally. I think if you accept causal powers (and pure act just for the sake of argument), then you should accept 40. So Feser is using two points to motivate the idea that the first cause must be intelligent: (1) the PPC, and (2) the first cause is the cause of all things. Steps 41-44 is where things move too quick for me. He motivates these steps earlier:

… what follows is that the forms or patterns of things must exist in the purely actual cause of things; and they must exist in it in a completely universal or abstract way, because this cause is the cause of every possible thing fitting a certain form or pattern. But to have forms or patterns in this universal or abstract way is just to have that capacity which is fundamental to intelligence. (33-34)

Feser is saying that since the forms or patterns of things must exist in the first cause (based on the PPC), it must exist in the cause as a universal because it is the cause of every possible particular thing that could have that form. Think of all the possible particular round things: a particular basketball, a particular orange etc. Since the first cause is the cause of all possible round things, Feser is saying that the universal roundness must be in the first cause, and that just is what is fundamental to intelligence. Here, concepts will play the role of universals. (By “universal”, we’re talking about properties that particular things have in common, like roundness.)

I think this move is too quick. All the “minimally informative” PPC requires of me is that the cause have the power to produce the effect, i.e. that the effect is in the cause eminently. And the fact that the first cause is the cause of all things doesn’t suggest to me that universals must be in the cause.

[edited 1/10/18] I think Feser’s reasoning is that the first cause can’t be another instance of fitting a certain form since it is the cause of “every possible thing fitting a certain form.” But why think that? It seems the first cause must also have some form and that that form can’t itself be caused. This is similar to the Third Man objection to Platonism. So it seems it can’t be the cause of every possible thing fitting a certain form. If some forms don’t need causes by way of universals then why do any? At this point Feser may appeal to analogies or simplicity in the first cause, but I find both of those aspects make the first cause unintelligible.

One may object that Feser uses an Augustinian argument for divine conceptualism in chapter 3 to argue that the first cause must be intelligent, and that that can be supplemented here. But I think that that is besides the point. The point of this post is to object to how he derives intelligence from the (1) PPC and (2) being the first cause of all things in chapter 1’s Aristotelian argument. For my review and criticisms of divine conceptualism see this.

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Robin Collins, the FTA and the problem of evil

In this post I will be commenting on issues in the fine-tuning argument (FTA) from the problem of evil (PoE) as Robin Collins presents it in his chapter in the Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology.

I find the evidential PoE to be a persuasive argument against God, but I find it philosophically boring. By contrast, I think the fine-tuning argument (FTA) is philosophically interesting. Robin Collins is probably the premiere defender of the FTA, and for Collins the PoE is very relevant to the FTA; so we’ll have to interact with the PoE.

Why is the PoE relevant to the FTA? Ultimately, Collins argues that the probability of life-permitting constants (Lpcs) is more probable under theism (T) than the naturalism (N), thus supporting theism. The reason is that God qua good being wants to create embodied moral agents (EMAs); it’s his goodness along with his other omni-attributes that incline us to think that he’d create EMAs and thus the Lpcs. This is where the PoE comes in, because if the creation of EMAs don’t lead to an overall good, then it would be unlikely that God create Lpcs for the EMAs.Collins says:

Thus, in order for God to have a reason to adjust [the constants] so that [the universe] contains our type of embodied moral agents, there must be certain compensatory goods that could not be realized, or at least optimally realized, without our type of embodiment. This brings us directly to the problem of evil.

If we have an adequate theodicy, then we could plausibly argue that [we] would have positive grounds for thinking that God had more reason to create the universe so that EMA is true, since it would have good reason to think that the existence of such beings would add to the overall value of reality. … On the other hand, if we have no adequate theodicy, but only a good defense – that is, a good argument showing that we lack sufficient reasons to think that a world such as ours would result in more evil than good – then [the probability of Lpc would be indeterminate]. (p 255)

Collins thinks that with an adequate theodicy the Lpcs would be very favorable to T over N. And, surprisingly, even if we lack a theodicy and only have a good defense, the Lpcs would still favor T over N. By “good defense”, I suspect Collins means either the free will defense or skeptical theism. (I’m not sure it matters to the FTA which one it is.) Let’s look at the case where we only have a “good defense.” In that case we have:

  • P(Lpc|T) = indeterminate
  • P(Lpc|N) << 1 (close to zero).

Normally, according to the likelihood principle, if P(Lpc|T) > P(Lpc|N) then the observation Lpc supports T over N. In the above case where P(Lpc|T) is indeterminate, Collins still thinks it would support T over N. This doesn’t seem right to me. It seems to me that when you’re using the likelihood principle, as Collins does, you compare a probability with a probability and not a probability with something indeterminate.

Collins explains his motivation for this in footnote 40.

One might challenge this conclusion by claiming that … a positive, known probability exist .… This seems incorrect, as can be seen by considering cases of disconfirmation in science. For example, suppose some hypothesis h conjoined with suitable auxiliary hypotheses, A, predict e, but e is found not to obtain. Let ~E be the claim that the experimental results were ~e. Now, P(~E|h & A & k) << 1, yet P(~E|h & A & k) ≠ 0 because of the small likelihood of experimental error. Further, often P(~E|~(h & A) & k) will be unknown or indeterminate, since we do not know all the alternatives to h nor what they predict about e. Yet, typically we would take ~E to disconfirm h & A in this case because P(~E|h & A & k) << 1 and ~P(~E|~(h & A) & k) << 1.

To paraphrase, Collins says that in science we often disconfirm some hypothesis when it is highly unlikely that we don’t see e given that hypothesis and it turns out that we don’t see e. I think Collins is reasoning that if P(~E|h & A & k) << 1, then ~(h & A) is confirmed even when it leads to the observation being indeterminate. Presumably, ~(h & A) is an infinite disjunction of mutually exclusive hypotheses, or what’s called a catch-all hypothesis. Even if this is right (which I doubt), there is a disanalogy because h and ~h are dichotomies, while, oddly, N and T are not. That’s because, as Collins runs the argument, T is a good God; so T doesn’t include an evil God, or a non-omnipotent God, among other things. If anything it seems Collins should say ~N is confirmed; and that doesn’t necessarily mean that T is confirmed, since T is a small subset of ~N.

I don’t think Collins’s reasoning here is consistent with the likelihood principle (keep in mind he runs the core FTA based on the likelihood principle), as the principle seems to rule out comparing something with indefinite probabilities. Collins’s reasoning would make more sense if indeterminate meant .50, but it doesn’t. Suppose there are marbles in a vase where each marble has a number from 1 to 10 written on it. What is the probability that we pick a marble with a number greater than 1 if it is indeterminate how the numbers are assigned to each marble. The mistake would be to think indeterminate means that we can apply a principle of indifference so that each number has a 1 in 10 chance. If that were so, we’d have a high probability that the marble picked would be greater than 1. But that’s not what indeterminate means; indeterminate means that we’re not in a position to know if it’s randomly generated or otherwise. We’re simply “in the dark” to borrow the skeptical theist’s phrase. So I can’t see how you can compare a “positive, known probablity” with something indeterminate, just as you can’t say if the marble picked will probably be greater than 1. If you think that it will be greater than 1, then it’s not indeterminate after all.

I’m not sure science should be rationally reconstructed as Collins does in footnote 40. It seems Collins is saying that we can compare and confirm hypotheses that have indeterminate observations. I don’t think we test hypotheses against their catch-alls, as is implied by the footnote. If Elliott Sober is right, we test hypotheses against non-catch-all hypotheses, like the general theory of relativity over Newton’s theories; neither theory being tested are catch-alls.

It seems one can’t be a skeptical theist and support the FTA; you do need to say something about what God would do with some probability.

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