On Gods and Stoicism

The deep spiritual practice of Stoicism depends on trust in a providential cosmos. While the concept of providence is not difficult to grasp, many moderns attempting to practice Stoicism will find it difficult to assent to…because they simply do not realize how essential providence is to Stoic ethical theory and practice.

‘Providence or Atoms? Providence!’ by Chris Fisher

I have never understood the insistence of some on the necessity of providence, god(s), or any other rational agency for the practice of Stoicism. The ethical teachings of Stoicism seem equally accommodating of a providential agent or irrational causal determinacy (or probabilistic determinacy given quantum indeterminacy). The important thing to grasp is that there is a way that the world is, a certain factness that does not heed our opinions, objections or desires. The question that Stoicism seeks to answer is what best to do about these circumstances.

This strange insistence on a providential agent seems largely grounded in the circumstances and beliefs of historical Stoicism. It is argued that since Stoicism developed in a theistic milieu and incorporated these beliefs into the rationalizations for their ethical prescriptions, that they are somehow inseparable from Stoicism. And yet, ancient Stoic philosophers also believed in omens and other forms of divination, they believed in a materialistic physics that described the universe as a sphere composed of four elements (fire, air, earth, and water) drifting through the void. Must I adopt this four element conception of the universe in order to be a Stoic? Should I look to bird entrails to discern what the future holds for me?

The ancient Stoics cared about reason and physics and saw them as being an integral part of their philosophy, important elements that fed into and informed their ethics. I agree with this premise wish to follow their example of looking to reason and science to inform my ethics. But science and reason are not frozen. These are fields that have advanced through thousands of years of human effort and ingenuity, and to then throw this progress away and cling to outdated Hellenistic notions of the world is misguided, foolish, and contrary to the spirit of the enterprise known as Stoicism.

Likewise, I do not need to believe in the providence of Zeus in order to be a Stoic. Stoicism functions perfectly fine with any number of substitutions one might wish to make. Instead of Zeus, you can believe in the God of Christianity or perhaps Allah from Islam. Or you can do away with the concept altogether and believe that trusting in a providential agent that conducts itself in such a fashion as to be indiscernible from a web of interconnected causal events is the same as trusting in nothing, since the belief does nothing other than ascribe the efforts of our brain to find patterns in circumstantial events to the activities of an unseen actor.

All of these appear to me to be perfectly valid beliefs within the framework of Stoic ethics. Determinacy is certainly an important element in Stoicism. But the particular brand of determinacy you bring to the table does not make that big of a difference. To insist otherwise strikes me as dogmatic and in general opposed to reason and the virtues that Stoicism espouses.

Is God Love?

I don’t know why, but it never occurred to me to consider an analysis of the claim that God is love (1 John 4:8,16) with the definition of love given by Paul (1 Corinthians 13:4-7) and the various behaviors attributed to God. This is surprising since once the connection was suggested to me (see blog post God vs Love) it was an obvious avenue of investigation into the Biblical claims regarding God.

So, let’s start by first considering what the attributes ascribed to love:

  • Patience
  • Kind
  • No envy
  • No boasting
  • Not arrogant
  • Not rude
  • Not insisting on its own way
  • Not irritable
  • Not resentful
  • Not rejoicing at wrongdoing
  • Rejoicing with the truth
  • Bearing all things
  • Believes all things
  • Hopes all things
  • Endures all things

On the first count, patience, there does not seem to be much grounds for complaint. God does seem to operate on a long time scale, although some events do seem to confound are ability to claim patience for God, such as Uzzah and the ark, but the Christian can simply claim that God had been patient with the errors of Israel and Uzzah was just their representative, or else attribute some unknown wrongdoing to him. The non-Christian might respond that if it was punishment against Israel that it was rather too specific in its exactment, and that the second argument is worse than an argument from silence, it is an assumption of guilt without proof.

The next measure of love is kindness. I do have a lot of difficulties with this one. God does display kindness, but it is a rather selective kindness, in that God is kind to those he favors, but this often entails a great deal of unkindness, even brutality, towards those not favored by God. The Old Testament is replete with examples of both, but I suppose the epitome of this behavior is the concepts of heaven and hell, where God grants every good thing to those he favors, while cursing the rest with unimaginable horrors. What does this mean though? From my perspective, the sort of theoretical lifting needed to redeem God’s Old Testament actions and hell so that they too are acts of love is just too heavy a task. I think a simpler answer is that God simply does not love those people. So on this count, God is love, but only if you are under his favor. It is a conditional, and thus limited, sort of love.

The third attribute of love is not envying. God is probably safe from this one if for no other reason that envy is the illicit desire for what someone else has, whereas jealousy is resentment against another for having what you think belongs to you. Thus you might envy your co-worker his beautiful wife, but if he was promoted over you, you would feel jealous if you thought you deserved it more. Given the difference between envy and jealousy, I can’t imagine a situation in which God would be envious, since there would be no circumstance that God wanted something and did not consider himself to be the most worthy being for receiving it. This is probably the greatest fault with the earlier blog post, in that it conflated jealousy with envy. It is another question altogether how loving jealousy is, but that is not within the scope of consideration for investigating the description of love in 1 Corinthians 13.

Regarding the prohibition against boasting, I find God to be at fault here as well. One only need read the second half of Job to get a sense that God has no qualms with declaring his own greatness at length and in great detail. A Christian might object that this isn’t boasting, but simply speaking the truth about himself. However, this fails to address the accusation of boasting since one can boast about what is true, for instance a good score on a test, or how much money one has.

Not arrogant is the fifth characteristic of love. This one, like envy, is difficult to attribute to God if one accepts the assertion that God is in fact superior to his creation. Likewise with not being rude. I do not know how one would assess whether God is being polite, or even what good manners would be prescribed for deity-mortal interaction. I suppose the difficulty here is in trying to conceive of rules that would somehow bind what is and is not appropriate for God to do or say to mortals.

The next attribute of love is that it does not insist on its own way. I cannot imagine how this could be applied to God. The entire Bible is essentially God insisting on his own way, with promises of dire consequences for those who refuse. There are simply too many instances of God telling people what to do, and then killing them (or those around them) when they fail to follow through with it.

The eighth characteristic is that love is not irritable. I struggle with evaluating this one. One the one hand, God claims to be slow to anger, and claims to patience would seem to reinforce this. But on the other hand, one can’t help but feel that a good portion of the Old Testament records God being angry. Regarding resentment, this too seems to often mark God’s actions and words. The jealousy God displays, the anger at slights to his prestige, and any unmindfulness of the honor due God is consistently met with wrath and indignation on the part of God. God is a jealous God, and you can’t be jealous without resenting what has wronged you.

The next two, rejoicing at what is true and not with wrongdoing, this is a matter of definition. If, as with the Christian, it is axiomatic that God is true and that all he speaks is truth then it is inconceivable that God would not take pleasure with himself and his precepts. Wrongdoing is a little more complicated, since it is possible to find God violating his laws, and so one would think that God does approve of wrongdoing, but it is difficult to assess whether God’s laws are applicable to God himself, or if it is only for the guidance of mortals. Given the above difficulties with arrogance, I think a good argument could be made that at least God does not consider himself so constrained.

I do not know how one would assess believing and hoping all things with respect to God. As for bearing and enduring all things, these two seem very similar and seem qualified to be answered together. God does not bear all things. God does not endure all things. This seems indisputable and the fact that there is a hell for people who have displeased God ought to make such an assertion uncontroversial. Did God endure the offense. He did not endure it with Uzzah, and he does not do it with any who reject Jesus as their lord and savior. Perhaps it can be argued that God’s patient endurance is a temporary thing, that it is finite in its duration. How this can be squared with the universal qualification of “all things” is not readily apparent to me, but I suppose if one excludes “persistence” from the list, then one might be able to fit God’s actions into this aspect of love. The only other answer is, as mentioned previously with kindness, that God simply doesn’t love these people.

In conclusion, it seems to me that God unquestioningly passes Paul’s description of love on the counts of envy, arrogance, rejoicing with the truth, and not being rude. God seems to qualify for being patient, kind, and not rejoicing at wrongdoing, but there are qualifications and some difficult instances to square with the account. I do not know where to place not irritable, since this seems as though it could go either way. Believing all things and hoping all things are likewise difficult to assign since these qualities seem odd when attributed to God. As for bearing and enduring all things, these two are likewise conditional, but seem to fall more against God than for God. And finally, it appears that God does seem to run afoul with the attributes of boasting, and not insisting on his own way, and resentment in ways that cannot be easily argued away.

The difficulty here is that from appearances, none of these qualities are optional for love. Each of them is individually necessary in order to make the claim to be loving. Which leads me to believe that the claim that God is love fails on the grounds of God’s own description of love (if one believes Paul to be inspired) and his own record of his behavior. Christians of course can and do make various arguments in order to rescue God from this dilemma, but this is motivated more by their theological commitments to Biblical holistic consistency than by the plausibility of the arguments that can be made on God’s behalf.

To be or not to be, that is the question.

  1. I conceive of a being than which no greater can be conceived.
  2. If a being than which no greater can be conceived does not exist, then I can conceive of a being greater than a being than which no greater can be conceived—namely, a being than which no greater can be conceived that exists.
  3. I cannot conceive of a being greater than a being than which no greater can be conceived.
  4. Hence, a being than which no greater can be conceived exists.

I’ve always felt a particular dislike for the ontological argument. For some reason, it has always struck me as the worst sort of reasoning possible, akin to insisting that if reality doesn’t conform to our conception of it, then so much the worse for reality. But it is one thing to simply dislike an argument and another to say that it is wrong. Nevertheless, I think that we can say that the ontological argument is wrong.

The problem with the above argument is the transition from definitional/mental to empirical. For when I imagine a being than which no greater can be conceived, and then compare it to an imagined being than which no greater can be conceived but which does not exist within this imaginary world, I may very well think that the first imaginary being is greater, but it does not then make sense to assume that the first imaginary being has somehow become something more than imaginary simply by comparing positively to the second imaginary being. But the advocate of the ontological argument might see an opportunity to advance his cause by positing a more modern modalist version of the argument:

  1. It is possible that that God exists.
  2. God is not a contingent being, i.e., either it is not possible that God exists, or it is necessary that God exists.
  3. Hence, it is necessary that God exists.
  4. Hence, God exists.

So, here it would seem that merely admitting that such a being was possible would commit us to the belief that God exists. And since we did not seem to have trouble at least entertaining the idea of God (aka, a being than which no greater can be conceived) in the previous example, this ought to at least conclusively silence the atheists objections if not outright convince them of God’s existence. But this example is no more safe from dispute than the previous, for all one has to do is reverse it to obtain a contradictory conclusion:

  1. It is possible that God does not exist.
  2. God is not a contingent being, i.e., either it is not possible that God exists, or it is necessary that God exists.
  3. Hence, it is not possible that God exists.
  4. Hence, God does not exist.

But what do we make of this conundrum, for most people would be equally capable of imagining a world in which God exists and another world in which God does not exist. The problem is much the same as the previous example, it assumes that our definition of God somehow has an impact on the world itself. For while it is true that God’s existence, if there be a God, is not contingent on any fact in the world, and necessarily so since an eternal and autonomous being could not have any contingency, it is not true that God is not contingent upon facts of the world, namely whether this world does in fact have a God or not.

The truth of the matter is that it has to be this way, for how else could we even ask the question of God’s existence? This is the reason we are able to come up with contradictory conclusions within the framework of the same argument with the single modification of which initial premise to examine. The necessity (or impossibility) of God within a world does not extend to inter-world considerations. And this is fairly easy to prove once you consider the question if it is at all coherent for God to exist in a world in which he does not exist. If this strikes you as nonsensical, then you are in essence conceding that God is in fact contingent upon at least one fact of the world, namely whether the world has God in it.

What we are left with is the original criticism of the ontological argument that we started with. We cannot derive facts about the world solely from our concepts and their logical implications. At some point, we must go out into the world in order to know it. I will conclude with a quote from Hume to the same effect:

…there is an evident absurdity in pretending to demonstrate a matter of fact, or to prove it by any arguments a priori. Nothing is demonstrable, unless the contrary implies a contradiction. Nothing, that is distinctly conceivable, implies a contradiction. Whatever we conceive as existent, we can also conceive as non-existent. There is no being, therefore, whose non-existence implies a contradiction. Consequently there is no being, whose existence is demonstrable.

To Infinity and Beyond

This is an old post from an Islamic discussion forum I participated on. I have been interested in making a post regarding the ontological argument for God and I recalled that I had previously discussed a version of the cosmological argument and thought I should post that first. The quoted elements are from my interlocutor:

This is completely rational and to argue against it is to go against the laws of logic i.e. it is illogical to contend otherwise.

I thought this was an interesting challenge, and since I am not above making a clown of my self (cue the rimshot), I’ll risk illogic and attempt to contend otherwise.

Josh contends that to posit an infinite regression of causal events is an absurdity and cannot logically exist in space and time. Rather, it is only a mathematical function that has no point of contact with reality. In fact, the truth of this is demonstrated by the very definition of infinity and space/time (and thus is known a priori). To defend this position, Josh offers a scenario to demonstrate its impossibility:

You are in a queue at a shop counter. There are 3 people in front of you. It takes 1 minute for each person to be served. After each person is served, it causes the next person to step forward and be served. Therefore, you will wait 3 minutes before you are served. If there were 10 people in front of you, you will wait 10 minutes. If there were 100 people in front of you, you would wait 100 minutes, and so forth. However, if there were an infinite number of people in front of you i.e. there was no beginning to the queue, you would be waiting an infinite time to get to the front. In fact, you (a cause) would never happen because you exist at the end of infinity. This can be said for every cause in this absurd example. No causes could happen in infinity.

At first glance, this does seem like a very good argument, in fact, an impossible conundrum for anyone wishing to propose an infinite regression as the source of our present universe. But, I began to wonder why it didn’t satisfy me, and it dawned on me that there was something missing, and that was that while he deals with the time it would take for any point in the continuum to arrive, he doesn’t deal with nature how much time is allotted to each point to reach its destination. Allow me to illustrate:

You are in a queue at a shop counter. There are 3 people in front of you. One person is served each minute. After each person is served, it causes the next person to step forward and be served. Therefore, three people will be served when three minutes has passed. If you wait 10 minutes, ten people will be served. If you waited 100 minutes, there would be 100 people served, and so forth. However, if you waited an infinite number of minutes i.e. there was no beginning to when you started waiting, there would be an infinite number of people served. In fact, you would have already been served since you have been among the infinite already served. This can be said for every person in this absurd example. Every event that takes a finite amount of time could happen in infinity.

As you can see, all I have done is reversed the focus of consideration from how how much time an infinite series of finite events takes, to how many finite events can occur in an infinite amount of time. This one small redirection of our attention completely transforms the outcome, despite me retaining the basic structure of his example.

Essentially, Josh’s example is a modification of a more famous example of an infinite regression paradox, Zeno’s paradox (and the Kalam cosmological argument), although in Josh’s case, each task has a fixed amount of time (both, however, have as the center of their paradox the question of how to deal with an infinite number of events, or causes). The solution to paradox is to recognize that if you posit an infinite number of tasks, your scenario includes not only the number of tasks, but the amount of time we have for these tasks to occur, and so clearly it is possible to be at one point of a continuum and actually be, for though there are an infinite number of events that had to proceed you, an infinite amount of time has passed in order for them to have occurred and so arrive at you. In other words, by proposing an infinite number of temporally finite tasks that precede you, you have implicitly proposed an infinite number of finite time spans which preceded you, and so it is no problem to have reached the point where you are, since there has been an infinite amount of time to get there.

There were a couple of other interesting things that were brought up. The first was that the universe is governed by a principle (or law) called causality, and that this law has been demonstrated by science. Clearly this is not the case, and the impossibility of science, an empirical discipline, to prove it was fairly conclusively demonstrated by David Hume. Rather than prove it, science is built upon the presupposition that there is causality, and depends on this presumption for all of its conclusions. (You can read more about this, and Kant’s fascinating “solution” here: Kant and Hume on Causality).

The second interesting idea was the assumption that the universe was deterministic, when in fact it seems that our best scientific opinion is that it is not deterministic except at the statistical level. And even beyond this, should there have been an infinite regression of universes that preceded this one, there is nothing that requires us to posit that they were deterministic (there is actually no way to posit any knowledge of them at all except that they preceded us). Thus, we have no grounds for assuming anything on the basis of our current conditions because we have no justification for extending them outside of our present point, let alone outside the period of the existence of our universe (a consequence of the problem of causality that Hume also observed).

A Good God and the March towards Atheism

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I have been considering writing a post on why I was an atheist, but after writing several paragraphs, I realized that there was no way to concisely and logically summarize the reasons since it was a rather messy and complicated affair. However, while the thought process that went into my apostasy was not clearly structured, I believe I can at least offer a syllogistic argument that provides a rough feel for what happened intellectually.

  1. God is good
  2. If God is good, then he would want to intelligibly reveal himself
  3. I am not aware of God intelligibly revealing himself

From this, I had a number of options. God might not be good. God might not be omnipotent, and therefore be unable to effect his will in this matter. Or God may simply not exist, and therefore the God I thought was good and wished to reveal himself to me was in fact fictional and so incapable of acting. There is another conclusion one could reach, and that would be that either premise 2 or 3 are wrong. I can see how someone might try to argue against two, but honestly I don’t believe this to be the case. Paul in Romans seems to be convinced that awareness of God is not only available, but universally known and impossible for an honest person to deny.

Which leaves premise three to be the main point of contention. I simply have no doubt that premise three is true. And since I am unaware of anyone else who has access to the inner workings of my mind, the only way to know if premise three is true or not is to assess my testimony regarding it in the light of past behavior. Have I been prone to lying? Have I exhibited a pattern of deception or dishonesty. Have I recently taken up any behaviors proscribed by Christianity and so have motivation to deny the truth of God’s existence? I do not believe the answer is yes to any of these questions. And if that is the case, then there is no reason to believe I am lying and the veracity of premise three ought to be upheld.

But that convoluted examination is only necessary for those who are not me, who do not have direct access to what I know and do not know. For myself, it is a relatively easy matter. I simply ask myself, am I aware of God revealing himself to me? And the answer is no. I am aware of claims made to that effect, but since I do not know the truth of these claims, I am in no better epistemic position than I would be without them.

And even if we were to purport that I subconsciously know of God (despite the rather explicit nature of Paul’s Roman account), I would simply revert to analyzing the situation the same as anyone who was not me. I would examine patterns of truthfulness and deception in my life. I would evaluate potential motivators for suppression of the truth. And I would come to the same conclusion. There is no pattern of falsehood to point to, no anti-Christian behavior or desires to motivate me to lie. I quite simply had no reason to lie about God. I was content being a Christian, and certainly a much happier person than I was during the process of losing my faith.

Which leaves me with only a few, rather unpalatable choices. Either God is not really God (either because he is not good or because he is not omnipotent), or else God does not exist. I chose the least offensive of these and decided that God did not exist, and this in effect is why I am now an atheist. The actual outworking of this process was much more complicated than this reasoned explanation portrays, but it captures a critical piece of reasoning that was present during the tumult. My hope is that by presenting the matter in such a condensed fashion it might shed some light on the messy real life process that was my loss of faith.

As seen on Facebook

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Nothing can be done to make God stop loving His people. He’s persistently unconditional.

Unless you’re Esau:

Malachi 1:3 ESV

but Esau I have hated. I have laid waste his hill country and left his heritage to jackals of the desert.”

Or arrogant:

Proverbs 16:5 ESV

Everyone who is arrogant in heart is an abomination to the Lord; be assured, he will not go unpunished.

Or just be related to people God is angry with:

Numbers 16:27, 32 ESV

So they got away from the dwelling of Korah, Dathan, and Abiram. And Dathan and Abiram came out and stood at the door of their tents, together with their wives, their sons, and their little ones. And the earth opened its mouth and swallowed them up, with their households and all the people who belonged to Korah and all their goods.

Actually, it seems pretty easy to get on God’s bad side, with the old testament being a laundry list of ways to do it and the new testament being a promise of more of the same for all eternity:

Revelation 21:8 ESV

But as for the…faithless…their portion will be in the lake that burns with fire and sulfur, which is the second death.”

Oops, looks like I’m in trouble too. I wonder where that unconditionally loving God went? I guess I shouldn’t have been too surprised, after all:

Hebrews 11:6 ESV

And without faith it is impossible to please him, for whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him.

the hope of the godless shall perish

http://bible.us/Job8.11.ESV

“Can papyrus grow where there is no marsh? Can reeds flourish where there is no water?

While yet in flower and not cut down, they wither before any other plant.

Such are the paths of all who forget God; the hope of the godless shall perish.

His confidence is severed, and his trust is a spider’s web.

He leans against his house, but it does not stand; he lays hold of it, but it does not endure.

He is a lush plant before the sun, and his shoots spread over his garden.

His roots entwine the stone heap; he looks upon a house of stones.

If he is destroyed from his place, then it will deny him, saying, ‘I have never seen you.’

Behold, this is the joy of his way, and out of the soil others will spring.