Monthly Archives: June 2012

Why Doesn’t God Heal Amputees?

I’m reluctant to address this topic because it tends to bring out the trolls, so I’ll state in advance that I won’t approve comments I deem trollish. But this question has become so prevalent in the atheist blogosphere, I may as well address it too. I should also state up front that I’m an agnostic with atheistic leanings so I’m obviously skeptical about miracle claims. Having said that, however, I’m not a fan of using this tactic in dialogue with theists. If it’s asked as a genuine attempt to elucidate some aspect of the problem of evil or the problem of hiddenness (more on this below) all well and good. However, it frequently comes across as a mean-spirited, cheap debater’s trick. Often, there doesn’t seem to be any genuine interest in an answer on the atheist’s part; it’s just a ‘gotcha’ move. We can do better. So in the spirit of addressing the question seriously, let’s continue.

First, it’s not altogether clear to me what some of the atheists who pose this question are asking. Are they asking why we don’t have miracle reports of amputee healing? If so, they simply haven’t looked for them (see below). Of course, they could say that none of these reports are verified, but that objection applies to miracle reports generally; it’s not specific to the amputee case. Are they asking why such reports aren’t more common? Again, one could ask this of miracle reports generally. The implication seems to be that if there were a God, we would expect to find amputees being healed fairly frequently. But one doesn’t have to be a theist to think that this is a rather dubious assumption. More on this later.

Second, it might help to get a taxonomy of miracles on the table. Since all of the miracle reports I cite below are from the Catholic tradition, it seems apropos to begin with Aquinas. He talks about three types of miracle (my paraphrase): 1) God doing something that nature could never do (e.g. creatio ex nihilo); 2) God doing something that nature could do, but not in order (e.g. nature can give life but not after physical death); 3) God doing something that nature could do in order, but God does it without the usual mediating event(s) or time (e.g. a broken bone healing overnight). I suspect that a hypothetical limb regeneration miracle would be a miracle of the second type. Nature can grow limbs, but not after amputation, at least in the case of mammals. So we can say that limbs growing back spontaneously after amputation, if it occurred, would be a category 2 miracle. Impressive, but still no big deal for omnipotence.

Now let’s come back to the question of reports of such miracles. A cursory Google search will get you quite a few of these. I’ve included some reports that don’t involve limbs, but are along the same lines as category 2 miracles above. Remember that I’m not claiming that any of these miracles occurred, I just want to get these reports on the table. As mentioned, all are from the Catholic tradition. Here they are in reverse chronological order:

1. The alleged healing of Giovanni Savino by Padre Pio in 1949. Savino’s right eye was completely destroyed following a construction accident. Eyewitnesses, including a physician, testified that the eye was completely gone, the eye socket empty. After a mystical visitation by Padre Pio, the eye was allegedly found to be restored. An ophthalmologist, who was also an atheist, is reported as testifying to this.

2. The Miracle of Calanda, an event that allegedly took place in Spain in 1640. This report involves an amputated leg being miraculously restored following a mystical visitation of the Virgin Mary. What makes this report noteworthy is extant signed and notarized documentation that testifies to the authenticity of the event.

3. St. Anthony of Padua (1195 — 1231), the patron saint of amputees no less, is said to have restored an amputated foot.

4. In 726, John Damascene is said to have miraculously restored an amputated hand.

5. Biblical accounts are not explicit, but many of my Christian friends would cite Jesus’ healing of lepers (who we can plausibly assume were missing digits), his healing of the man with the ‘withered hand’, and the healing of the high priest’s servant’s severed ear.

My purpose here is not to debunk all of these reports. Some have the flavor of legendary formation, others seem to be reported in a more judicious way.  I suspect the order in which I’ve listed them is strongest to weakest. Again, I’m as skeptical as the next non-theist about the veracity of these accounts. But the point is, we have some reports on the table and we have to start with these reports. The methodology of many atheists who ask “why doesn’t God heal amputees?” has the same problem as Hume’s methodology: they assume something never happens and use that as a basis for their argument. Again, one can question the evidential basis of these reports, but one cannot proceed a priori. (Incidentally, I think a revised, Bayesian version of Hume’s argument against miracles would be admissible, but I can’t get into that in detail here.)

I want to return to the assumption that if there is a God, he would restore the limbs of amputees, perhaps frequently. One might have two reasons for assuming that God would do this:

1. To remove some of the evil and suffering in the world

2. To provide more evidence of his existence

The first reason is one with which I’m sympathetic. There’s a lot of evil in the world and the fact that some people lose body parts and suffer as a consequence is certainly an evil. However, I’m not sure it’s uniquely evil. In fact, there are other evils I would probably eliminate before I’d eliminate this one, if I had the power to do so. So I don’t see how amputation presents theists with a novel problem with respect to the general problem of evil. Perhaps existing theodices could simply be tailored to address this more specific question. I leave it to theists to elaborate this possibility.

The second reason is related to the problem of divine hiddenness. It’s a sub-species of the general question, ‘if there is a God, why doesn’t he give us more evidence of his existence?’ I do think that this is a genuine problem for theists, but I don’t necessarily think that restoring lost limbs would be the most expedient way for God to reveal his existence. There are other, imaginative ways for an omnipotent being to do this. For example, God could announce his existence simultaneously to everybody on the planet in every known language. If God wanted to be less obtrusive, and allow room for human freedom, he could simply give everyone an unmistakable, but non-coercive, religious experience. Insisting that God regenerate a few arms or legs seems kind of silly in this context. But some might object that restoring an amputated limb would be of greater evidential value than the miracle reports we often hear from Christians (e.g. spontaneous remissions) because there wouldn’t be the ambiguity in the former case that there is in the latter. This may be true. A category 2 miracle is more impressive than a category 3 miracle. But evidential value is relative and dependent on context. And even a well-documented case of amputee restoration wouldn’t have as much evidential value as the other hypothetical scenarios I described. So, again I don’t see how this question presents the theist with a novel problem.

So I beseech my free-thinking brethren to think a little more carefully about this question before you throw it out there. I hope we can have a substantive discussion about the issue on this blog without resorting to childish tactics. As always, keep the comments civil.


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More Problems with Prayer

My last post took a very narrow example of petitionary prayer as presenting a possible problem for an understanding of providence and foreknowledge called Molinism. I’m still trying to wrap my cranium around Molinism, but as I understand it, one of the alleged advantages of this view is that it makes more sense of the rationale behind petitionary prayer than, say, Calvinism. Moreover, it does so while maintaining a strong view of divine providence unlike, say, Open Theism. For my part, I don’t see how any of these views really helps.

One of the first aspects of Christian practice I lost my grip on back when I was an earnest, young Christian was petitionary prayer. First, there was the seeming ineffectiveness of it. I don’t want to go into this in detail here. Suffice it to say that no empirical study so far has shown any advantage to prayer in medical contexts. Some have argued that one can’t really study prayer with a double blind test, because we can’t assume that those in the control group aren’t being prayed for. Also, such studies assume that God will participate in the study. Let’s assume that someone in the control group is being prayed for, unbeknownst to the study’s designers. Are we supposed to assume that God will say, “Sorry, can’t help. I have to protect the integrity of this study!” Perhaps there is something to this point.

However, most of my evidence as a young man came from experience rather than scientific studies. I would notice that prayer was often ineffectual, i.e. the event prayed for did not occur. This also seemed to be more or less acknowledged by the faithful at my church, at least to the point that they felt the need to offer rationalizations for this fact. Most of these rationalizations appealed to the will of God. Perhaps the prayer requests were not in line with the will of God, perhaps we had not correctly perceived the will of God, etc. But this seemed to sap most of the rationale out of the very concept of prayer. If God is going to do what God wills anyways, why bother to pray? Some of the faithful would say things like “prayer is a matter of disciplining your own will so that it aligns with the will of God.” The idea seemed to be that while prayer didn’t effect outcomes, it was beneficial to the person doing the praying. It enabled us to be ‘co-laborers’ with God in accomplishing his purposes. However, from a practical standpoint, isn’t part of the purpose of prayer to effect outcomes? What does it look like in practice to pray for someone who is sick if one ascribes to this divine blueprint theology? One presumably prays for the person to recover, assuming that it’s God’s will. Perhaps one might believe that even though the sickness is part of the divine plan, God’s ultimate plan is to heal the person and thus bring greater glory to God. But in such cases, one is still essentially praying for an outcome that is, in effect, foreordained. God has either willed that the person recover or not. If God has willed it, it may appear that he has acted in ‘response’ to prayer, but this appearance is largely illusory.

This problem is perhaps especially acute in Calvinist theology. In Calvinism, God creates and providentially orders the world in a completely unconstrained way. Everything that happens does so for God’s glory. This includes the Fall, sin, and the Atonement. Calvinism implies compatibilism with respect to finite human wills. Although we are culpable for sin because we freely (in a compatibilist sense) desire it, ultimately, it was God’s will to have sin enter the world. The Fall is a fortunate event — felix culpa — insofar as the glory of God is magnified through the act of Redemption. I’ve tried to describe this view as sympathetically as possible. I hope the reader can see that there are serious problems for theodicy upon a Calvinist interpretation. Nevertheless, I don’t want to stray too far from the main point, which is that on Calvinism, God’s will is completely unconstrained by finite wills. Prayer in this context, doesn’t make much sense to me because there is no chance of any finite human will changing God’s will or beseeching him to act any differently than he has planned. The best we can do is bring our will into submission to the will of God. Any outcome that seems to result as a ‘response’ to prayer is just the synchronicity of our willing the same outcome as God. It is not the case that we have positively effected God’s will or the outcome that has been predestined. As such, it seems that so-called ‘answers’ to prayer are illusory.

It’s sometimes suggested that Molinism can solve this problem. In Molinism, God also exercises a great deal of providential control over the world, but his providential control is constrained by the free actions of finite persons and even the counter-factuals of those free choices. In other words, God selects among the possible worlds the best one to actualize, but he is constrained — he cannot create just any world he wants — by the free actions of creatures. God even knows — through ‘middle knowledge’ — what free creatures would do in other possible worlds, or counter-factual situations. This is supposed to give the Molinist an advantage with respect to the problem of evil: God could not guarantee that free creatures would not sin, and therefore that kind of world was not available for God to create. For all we know, every possible world containing free creatures also contains evil. This contrasts with the Calvinist view, which seems to suggest that had God wanted to, God could have created a world without evil. However, he chose to create a world containing both sin and redemption in order to maximize his glory. Again, we’ll have to set aside this issue and return to the subject of prayer. The alleged advantage of Molinism in this context is that it allows God to providentially order the world in such a way that he genuinely acts some of the time in response to prayer. God knows, for example, whether a prayer will be offered or not, and can in some cases providentially arrange to act as a result of the prayer being offered. On this view, God’s will can be moved by finite human wills. However, it still seems as though saying that a human will moved God to respond to prayer gets the explanation backwards. After all, God has providentially ordered the world such that the prayer will be offered and that he will answer it. God, in choosing to actualize this particular world, has already in effect decided what the outcome will be. For all of its fancy theological footwork, I’m not convinced that Molinism solves the practical problem of petitionary prayer any better than Calvinism.

The last option is Open Theism. On this view, God doesn’t know the future with certainty because the future is not available to be known, even to an omniscient being. There are a lot of metaphysical assumption lurking here, but I will have to let those pass. According to Open Theism, God takes a genuine risk in creating the world. Open Theism is, again, thought to make better sense of the problem of evil because one can straightforwardly appeal to the free will defense without having to worry about the consequences of God’s foreknowledge or predestination. It also allegedly makes better sense of the practice of prayer because God can genuinely act to effect outcomes in response to the pleas of finite creatures. However, Open Theism, in reacting to Calvinism and (to a lesser extent) Molinism, may go too far in the other direction. For Open Theists, God does not have total control over the future. God, we are told, will prevail in the end, but his will is, at least sometimes, overly constrained by the will of finite creatures. Such a God may be less able to effect a positive outcome than a God who exercises more providential control over the world. For practical purposes, then, one needs some assurance of God’s control over the future before one can place trust in God or have confidence in the efficacy of prayer. So, I’m not sure Open Theism succeeds either.

P.S. One may wonder why a non-theist like me is interested in this subject. As I say in the post, I was once a Christian and I still think about many of the philosophical and theological problems that occupied me as a Christian. Part of the purpose of this blog is to process the reasons I no longer believe. Because prayer is such a central practice for Christians (and other theists), it’s one of the first issues I began to think about seriously. Ironically, my study of the theology of prayer undermined my rationale for the practice of prayer. Pretty soon, I wasn’t putting any stock in the efficacy of prayer to effect the outcome of events. I no longer believed in prayer. In other words, I became a practical atheist. This was arguably a first step in my journey toward a more fully articulated philosophical atheism. Perhaps I’ll post more by way of memoir in the future. I’m still trying to find the ‘tone’ of this blog. Early on, I tried some posts in a more editorial style, but I don’t think that’s my strong suit. I’ll probably continue to mainly write essay-style posts in future, but some variety might be nice. I welcome thoughts from readers — all three of you 😉 — on what you’d like to see in future.


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Does Molinism Solve Compatibilist Problems?

I’ve lost my grasp on the alleged advantage of Molinism over compatibilism.* It seems to me that both have similar problems. Take this example (which I got from Alexander Pruss): prays that will avoid some sin (where may or may not = y). I think the theist would concede that this prayer is not always answered; people do not always avoid sin even when they pray or are prayed for. Libertarians can say that God can’t always answer this prayer because that would entail either taking away the temptation or taking away y’s freedom. As Pruss notes, a compatibilist will have a problem with this kind of answer. It seems that on compatibilism, God could answer the prayer every time. If God wills to answer the prayer, the prayer will be answered. If the prayer isn’t answered, one would have to say that God willed that y sin. Now, it seems to me that the Molinist has the very same problem in this case. It seems that God, knowing every counter-factual of human freedom, would be able to place y in circumstances in which freely resists temptation each time prays to do so. It gets a bit more complicated if one considers that there are counter-factuals in which such prayer is not offered, but that needn’t concern us here. The Molinist, like the compatibilist, seems (to me) to have no good reasons why God doesn’t answer this prayer every time. Of course, the Molinist, like the compatibilist, could say that God has reasons that we don’t know about, or they could say that y’s sin somehow glorifies God (i.e. God’s just punishment of y’s sin constitutes a good for y) but I don’t find these answers very plausible.

I don’t know if this narrow case can be extended to other theological problems Molinism is called upon to solve. I understand that its supposed advantage is preserving human freedom while allowing God a high degree of providential control over the world. But this often seems to me, in practice, to be a refined form of compatibilism. If God, according to his purposes, places persons in situations in which he knows they will freely act in one way and not another, then ‘freely’ is constrained by various external factors including God’s will and the circumstances in which a person finds herself. This sounds very similar to compatibilist (theological or otherwise) definitions of freedom. For the compatibilist, as long as the agent doesn’t act contrary to her own inclinations and desires, then that agent is free, even though we can tell a causal story about those factors (over which God exercises providential control on both Molinism and compatibilism) external to the agent which decisively incline her will in one direction or another. This seems to be what’s going on in Molinism. In the prayer case above, it seems that God, given that he has providentially ordered the world such that y pray in the first place, can further providentially order the world such that y’s prayer is efficacious every time it’s offered by placing y in circumstances in which y ‘freely’ resists temptation. In other words, I don’t see how Molinism is relevantly different from compatibilism in this case. Am I missing something here?

This is more than just an in-house theological debate. It has evidential implications. If one is a Christian theist one should, I think, expect that prayer, like that described above, will be efficacious and, as a consequence, that Christians will be morally superior to non-Christians, i.e. they will have a distinct advantage with respect to the moral life — the power to resist temptation to wrongdoing — that non-Christians lack. If one is not a Christian, one will expect to observe no appreciable moral difference between Christians and non-Christians. It seems to me that Christians do not significantly outstrip non-Christians (which would include adherents of other religions as well as secularists) in moral virtue. This fact doesn’t mean that Christianity is false. It may, however, put the onus on Christians of a Molinist persuasion to explain why such prayers aren’t efficacious more often.

*Note that I’m not assuming that compatibilism is identical with Calvinism. As I understand it, some Calvinists are compatibilists while others are effectively theological determinists.

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Five Events I Probably Won’t Live to See

I recently celebrated a birthday which made me think about my own mortality and all of the wondrous things I probably won’t be around to witness. I’m still relatively young, so I hope to be around for a while; this isn’t intended as an exercise in morbidity. However, there are a few leaps that I’m reasonably confident humanity will make in the near future — perhaps a century or so from now — that I’ll unfortunately miss. In the sincere hope that I’m wrong, I present the following list in no particular order.

1. Humanity’s Conquest of Mortality. Obviously if I’m wrong about this one, I’m wrong about the rest of the list too. Indeed, the very premise of this post goes out the window. I do think that medical science will eventually increase our lifespans to the point of immortality for all intents and purposes. Stem cell research holds great promise with respect to increasing human lifespans. The continued unlocking of our genome suggests that genetic modification might also drastically increase our longevity. Also, the more we learn about our cellular makeup, the more it seems possible to reprogram cells to delay apoptosis indefinitely. We’re still a long way from this reality (which is why it will probably come too late to benefit me), but there are promising precursors to these predictions. Not to mention the application of the nanotech revolution to medical science, which brings us to the next point.

2. The Singularity. Ray Kurzweil, who coined the term, has predicted the advent of the Singularity in 2045. Hopefully I’ll still be alive in 2045, but I suspect that Kurzweil’s timeline may be overly optimistic. I do, however, take seriously the possibility that the Singularity will be realized by 2100. The Singularity, for those who don’t know, is a theoretical explosion of intelligence that will happen when humans create artificial intelligence. This artificial intelligence will in turn create more intelligence, and so on at an exponential rate. This change will be so radical, that it will be comparable to the beginning of the universe itself — hence, the Singularity. This event will propel humanity into a state of transhumanism, a radical evolutionary leap forward. We will be able to transcend the limits of our biology, integrate technology into our bodies, and even upload our minds into computer simulations or android bodies. Of course, this is the most optimistic scenario. I suspect that these science fictional elements, though not as far-fetched as they might sound, are still a long way off. I’d be happy to see the creation of some form of AI in my lifetime, although I’m only cautiously optimistic about that.

3. The Colonization of Space. I’m very pessimistic I’ll ever live to see this. The space program has languished in recent years. NASA’s best days seem to be behind it, and there doesn’t seem to be any other institution, state or private, that can take on the challenges of manned space travel, much less colonizing another planet. There has been talk of a manned mission to Mars for years, but nothing has come of it. This would seem to be a necessary first step, since Mars is the logical candidate in our solar system for terraforming and eventual colonization. Although it’s difficult, especially in tough economic times, to justify expending vast sums of money on such other-worldly endeavors, I’d warn against waiting until this issue becomes one of necessity.

4. The Discovery of Extraterrestrial Life. I’m not talking about first contact or a flying saucer landing on the White House lawn. I’m not even necessarily talking about a breakthrough by SETI, although that would be interesting to say the least. I’m speaking more modestly about the discovery of unicellular life of extraterrestrial origin. Since I’m not an astronomer, I don’t know how one might go about discovering such life. Life, or its remains, on the moon or Mars or elsewhere in our solar system is likely to be terrestrial contamination rather than extraterrestrial in origin. To the extent that there are earth-like planets elsewhere in the universe, given the distances involved, it would be almost impossible to say whether or not such planets were home to simple life forms.  Experts differ on whether or not the odds favor life elsewhere in the cosmos. I don’t know whether to be optimistic or pessimistic about the prospects of discovering extraterrestrial life at all, but I’m confident that if we do, I won’t be around to see it.

5. A Secular Utopia. This one is probably most germane to the type of post I usually write on this blog. For years, secularists have been predicting the demise of religion. It hasn’t happened yet. If anything, religion seems to have experienced a resurgence globally. I’m not really in a position to say exactly why the ‘secularization thesis’, as it’s often called, has not come to fruition. The factors are probably too numerous and complex for me to address in this context. However, it seems as though religion hasn’t simply retreated in the face of science, as many at the turn of the century predicted it would. Perhaps part of the reason for this is that religion was never primarily an explanatory enterprise. To be sure, religion was humanity’s first attempt at explaining the world, and as such, served as a place-holder in many ways for modern science. But now that science has co-opted the task of offering explanations for the way the world is — and this is true even for many religious people under the influence of modernity — religion continues to offer comfort, meaning, a moral framework, etc. Perhaps religion is destined to wither away as modern societies become more secular. Perhaps secularists and humanists will be able to articulate a competing vision to that of religion that will ease the transition from a culture based on theistic religion to one based on atheism and humanism. Perhaps the advance of science and technology will aid secularization by finally solving problems, like sickness and death, so that no recourse to the comforts of religion will be necessary. Perhaps. However, if this long-promised secular utopia ever comes, I probably won’t be there to enjoy it. C’est la vie.


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Bayes’ Theorem and Extraordinary Claims

I came across the following articles which I believe make for an interesting juxtaposition:

1) Evidence, Miracles and the Existence of Jesus


2) The Argument from Miracles

The first is by Stephen Law and suggests that there’s good reason to at least remain skeptical about the existence of Jesus. I’m less interested in this thesis than in a thought experiment that Law introduces in the course of his argument. If you skip down to the subheading “The Ted and Sarah Case”, Law relates a hypothetical scenario in which Ted and Sarah, two close friends who are generally reliable, not given to practical jokes, etc. tell you that a man named Bert “flew around their sitting room by flapping his arms, died, came back to life again, and finished by temporarily transforming their sofa into a donkey.” Law concludes that he is not justified in believing that his friends have witnessed a miracle. Although his friends’ testimony provides some evidence, it is by no means sufficient. Law then makes explicit the analogy between the Ted and Sarah case and the gospels:

“Of course, we should acknowledge there are differences between the historical evidence for the miracles of Jesus and the evidence provided by Ted and Sarah that miracles were performed in their sitting room. For example, we have only two individuals testifying to Bert’s miracles, whereas we have all four Gospels, plus Paul, testifying to the miracles of Jesus. However, even if we learn that Ted and Sarah were joined by three other witnesses whose testimony is then added to their own, surely that would still not raise the credibility of their collective testimony by very much.”

Law also adds “the fact that it remains blankly mysterious why such reports would be made if they were not true does not provide us with very much additional reason to suppose that they are true.” He then derives a variation of the principle “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” I am on record as having expressed dissatisfaction with the way this principle is formulated. Law, for the purposes of this essay at least, is content to leave it vague.

That brings us to the second essay. This one is by Daniel Bonevac and is an argument for the rationality of belief in miracles. Following in the tradition of others, such as Swinburne, Bonevac takes a Bayesian approach to miracles. He argues that miracle claims are credible in Bayesian terms if certain conditions are met. Specifically, the number of witnesses matters. Take the following set-up. Let’s assume that the probability of a resurrection is 1 in 10 billion. Let’s further assume that the probability that someone would report a miracle if it occurred is .99. Finally, let’s suppose that the probability that someone would report a miracle claim if it did not occur is .1. If we only have one witness, on Bayes’ theorem, the odds that a resurrection occurred are one in a billion. The skeptic appears to be justified. But Bonevac contends that it doesn’t take many more witnesses to drastically increase the odds. Given the numbers, it only takes 10 witnesses to bring the probability up to .5 and twelve to make it highly likely (.9888). Using slightly less conservative probability estimates (.999 and .01 in place of .99 and .1) he argues that it only takes 5 witnesses (the gospels and Paul, we might say) to bring the probability of the resurrection up to .5 and six witnesses to make it a near certainty. The application to Law’s hypothetical scenario are clear. It’s also much less clear that ‘extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.’ According to Bayes’ theorem, Bonevac argues that ordinary evidence will suffice.

Now there are some issues one could raise against Bonevac’s methodology. For example, one might quibble with the priors he assigns. As Law says, the fact that we don’t know why people report a miracle when none has occurred doesn’t necessarily raise our credence in the claim as Bonevac seems to assume. Also, one might raise the problem of dwindling probabilities. Later in the essay, Bonevac suggests that a series of miracles might be more credible than one miracle in isolation. Of course, a series of miracles raising our credence in subsequent miracles only works if we already know earlier miracles occurred. In other words, if we already know that Jesus did in fact turn water into wine, feed the five thousand, and raise Lazarus from the dead, then his own resurrection becomes more probable. But it would be question begging to assume all of that. In the absence of iron-clad evidence for these earlier miracles, the series of miracles reported may serve to decrease our credence in these reports. For example, if the probability of miracle #1 is .5, the probability of miracle #1 and #2 is .25. Furthermore, the probability of miracles 1,2 and 3 is (roughly) .13. This is the problem of dwindling probabilities. I think this is partly what Law is trying to articulate when he says that the admixture of ‘extraordinary claims’ into the gospel narratives decreases our overall credence in those accounts. Finally, one might also question the extent to which the gospels are independent and to what extent, if any, the gospels are eyewitness accounts. Nonetheless, Bonevac’s calculations are enough to warrant caution in accepting the intuition behind Law’s thought experiment and the principle he derives from it. Again, we need a clearer understanding of the maxim ‘extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.’


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Pain Don’t Hurt

Remember the movie Roadhouse? Patrick Swayze’s character (who identifies as a philosophy major no less!) utters the laughable line ‘Pain don’t hurt’ while being stitched up after a bar room brawl. Well, it turns out there is some justification for the distinction between pain that ‘hurts’ and pain that warns of danger. I came across this article by Adam Shriver who has done some work on the neurology of pain in animals. Basically, there’s neurological evidence that there is a distinction between sensory pain (which tends to discourage certain behavior injurious to the animal) and affective pain (pain that ‘hurts’). Shriver also argues that we’re very close to genetically engineering affective pain out of livestock thereby greatly reducing the amount of suffering they experience.

This is relevant to the problem of pain and various theodicies. The problem of animal pain has become a major element of the evidential argument from evil since Rowe’s famous fawn thought experiment. Animal suffering also features prominently in Paul Draper’s formulation of the evidential argument from harm. He argues that the fact that pain and pleasure are tied to reproductive success rather than serving any higher moral purpose (at least in the case of non-human animals) is more explicable on atheism than on theism. Indeed, animal suffering is difficult to account for by making the standard theodical moves (free will, soul-making, etc.). The problem could be put this way: If God could have avoided non-moral suffering in his creation, he should have surely done so. Why then do we find such suffering in the animal world?

Theists have traditionally made one of two moves here: 1) How do we know that God doesn’t shield animals from pain by some miraculous means? 2) How do we know that such pain is unnecessary for the self-preservation of the organism in question? The first move belongs, I think, to skeptical theism. It lacks prima facie plausibility, although of course it is logically possible. It may have worrisome practical implications for the treatment of animals. If we think that there’s some warrant for thinking that they don’t experience pain — or at least don’t experience it in the way that we humans do — we might be less inclined to extend moral consideration to them. But leaving that issue aside, the neurological evidence that Shriver provides seems to indicate that at least some animals experience pain that ‘hurts’ in much the same way that we do. Moreover, the research seems to indicate that God had the option to create these animals without affective pain, but chose not to do so. If genetic engineering is close to removing affective pain, it would be trivial for an omnipotent God to do so, and without the need for miraculous intervention every time an animal might suffer.

The second move is perhaps more plausible, but is still problematic. The suggestion is that perhaps pain is necessary. In other words, given the kind of world God chose to create, creatures need pain in order to avoid injurious behavior. A non-theist might suggest that something other than pain might serve this function. Perhaps, when an organism is about to engage in risky behavior, it experiences the equivalent of a warning light or noise. This kind of qualia would be preferable to pain. However, such an experience might not do the job that pain does. Dr. Paul Brand, a Christian missionary doctor and author of The Gift of Pain, has some experience with leprosy sufferers. Leprosy causes its victims to lose the ability to perceive pain, and thus renders them incapable of avoiding self-injurious behavior. Moreover, equipping leprosy sufferers with a device that makes noise when, say, a person draws too near a hot stove, did not have a significant deterrent effect. So pain serves a biologically useful purpose.

However, Shriver’s research suggest a way around this response. Of course, pain is useful as a barrier to further injury, but neurological research has shown that sensory pain is adequate for this task. Sensory pain, or the awareness of pain, is sufficient to motivate action, but differs from affective pain insofar as the subject does not experience the pain as acutely. To quote Shriver:

“Several authors have argued that the affective dimension of pain is the relevant dimension for what we would call suffering. To see why one might think so, consider that patients given morphine experience similar effects as those with anterior cingulate lesions, reporting that they still feel pain but no longer mind it as much. This is consistent with the fact that the affective pain pathway contains more opiate receptors than the sensory pathway. We give patients morphine in order to prevent suffering, even though they still experience the sensory dimensions of pain.”

So the unpleasantness, or suffering, associated with pain can be reduced by blocking the affective pain pathways in the brain. Moreover, as Shriver notes, experiments with rats indicate that the same is true of animals. And while there was some modification of their behavior when they experienced only sensory pain as opposed to both sensory and effective pain, the experiment indicated that sensory pain alone was sufficient to enable them to withdraw their paws from noxious stimuli. In other words, the reflex action that prevents injury remains intact even if the affective dimensions of pain, i.e. the hurtfulness, is blocked. I think the implications for the problem of pain and theodicy are clear. The two theistic moves I canvassed above no longer seem plausible as answers to the problem of animal pain. Rather, it seems as though God could have accomplished his goals by sparing animals affective pain. The fact that animals do experience affective pain is further evidence for premises in the evidential argument from evil.

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Immortality for the Irreligious

Immortality is usually considered the exclusive domain of the religious. Belief in God seems to be a prerequisite for belief in an afterlife. There are exceptions to this rule in the Western tradition and it’s not even a rule in Eastern traditions. But in the contemporary West, the religious have a monopoly on immortality. There’s a certain logic to this arrangement. First, belief in immortality is tied to belief in the soul. Since most atheists are materialists, they don’t believe in a soul or an afterlife. Second, belief in immortality seems to require belief in an omnipotent, or nearly omnipotent, being. After all, overcoming death is a hard job. There is no power in the universe that we know of that’s up to that task. However, an omnipotent God could conceivably do the job by, say, resurrecting the dead. Granted, that’s a tall order even for omnipotence. Not only does God have to reassemble all of the ‘stuff’ out of which bodies are made, he has to figure out which bits belong to which bodies (a process that gets complicated because material gets recycled), and then has to insure that the person who is recreated is identical with the person who died (as opposed to being a very clever duplicate). These are challenges even for omnipotence and you can find debates about how God would accomplish this in both ancient rabbinic sources and the early church fathers. However, all are agreed that without God the task does seem impossible.

I want to challenge the monopoly that religion has on the afterlife. It’s not that I believe in an afterlife; I just think it’s theoretically possible. It would be practically very difficult and expensive to achieve, but we might not need omnipotence to do it. For the first time in history, it’s plausible to think that we might not need God to raise the dead. We might be capable of doing it ourselves. The notion that death is a tractable problem for science to solve is growing along with our medical mastery. As we become more proficient in manipulating our genome, we may well be able to reprogram our cells to reproduce many cycles beyond their current capacity. This will yield a significant increase in human life spans. In addition, as nanotechnology advances, we may be able to integrate micro-robotics into our bodies which could repair and replace cells that were damaged or dying. This would also greatly extend human life spans. Granted, we are still a long way from this technology, but the precursors exist. Some, such as philosopher Nick Bostrom, have argued that fast-tracking this research is a moral imperative. But doubling human life spans is still short of immortality. Nevertheless, even this lofty goal may not be beyond humanity’s reach.

To get a running start, let’s return the religious paradigm. Actually, there’s a lot we can learn from religion here. After all, theologians and philosophers of religion, until recently, were the only ones thinking about the logistics of the afterlife. There are a few insights the materialist might glean. I’m not talking about the traditional pictures of heaven and hell; those are very much beside the point. Rather, I’m talking about the metaphysics of immortality. What has to be present to make talk of surviving death coherent? Well, what about the soul? This has been a popular solution since Plato (who probably got it from Pythagoras). Interestingly, the soul does not figure prominently in the foundational texts of Judaism and Christianity. The resurrection of the dead (which one finds in Maccabees and the NT) is a very earthy, material affair. God has the very humble task of putting Humpty Dumpty together again. This view has some problematic features, however, which perhaps partially explains why Christians incorporated the Platonic notion of the soul into their theology. First, there is the problem of personal identity over time. When someone dies and decays (or in the case of early Christians, is fed to lions or incinerated), one’s material stuff is scattered. Of course, God, being omnipotent, can reassemble that stuff. But that doesn’t necessarily solve the problem because now one’s existence has a temporal gap in it. There’s no continuity of consciousness between death and the resurrection. How, then, can I be sure that the resurrected ‘me’ really is me and not just an indistinguishable duplicate, a new person with my memories, personality, etc.? This is a tough metaphysical question. However, the soul, being immaterial and surviving the death of the body, can bridge that gap. There is continuity between death and resurrection. God’s job is made a little easier.

Of course, the materialist cannot help himself to the concept of a soul. If one is a materialist, one is unlikely to be a dualist. Perhaps it’s just as well. Dualism has fallen on hard times lately. The problem began with Descartes’ famous ‘substance interaction problem’ but has intensified as our understanding of the brain has evolved. The research indicates that we are not ‘ghosts in a machine’, or souls that can operate independently of the brain. Rather, consciousness is tied to brain activity. Consciousness often does not survive partial destruction of the brain. Given this fact, it seems very unlikely that it could survive the total destruction of the brain at death. Thus, the preponderance of the evidence is against the existence of a soul. The last refuge for the dualist is the phenomenon of ‘near death experiences’ or NDE’s. This is an intriguing phenomenon that warrants further study. Its evidential value in proving the existence of a soul, however, is often overstated by NDE proponents. Even if taken at face value, these reports are at best evidence of some sort of extra sensory perception. I’m skeptical about ESP too, but it’s theoretically possible without necessarily invoking the soul (maybe it’s some kind of weird quantum mechanical phenomenon as some have proposed). If we follow Ockham’s Razor and don’t multiply entities beyond necessity, we ought to be cautious about invoking the soul to explain NDE’s.

However, it seems that the materialist needs some kind of soul analogue to make immortality work. The answer might lie in a theory of consciousness called functionalism. To vastly oversimplify, the main idea is that matter, at a certain level of complexity, becomes conscious. The most complex arrangement of matter in the known universe is the human brain and properly functioning human brains are conscious. However, there is nothing magical about the human brain. There’s no law that states that consciousness can only be instantiated in human brains. Perhaps any sufficiently complex arrangement of matter will do. Thus, functionalists tend to be optimistic that consciousness will be achieved by computers, or artificial intelligences. One needs a substratum for consciousness, to be sure, but that need not be the human brain, at least theoretically. At this point, the implications for immortality become clear. If we could create sophisticated enough ‘hardware’ on which to run the ‘software’ of consciousness, we could attain immortality for all practical purposes. Some theists have even suggested this as a possible way of understanding the mechanics of immortality. To paraphrase John Polkinghorn, when we die, God will run our software on his hardware until he gives us new hardware to run it on. I grant there are several assumptions implicit in what I’ve said that I haven’t defended for the sake of brevity. I also admit that there are problems to be overcome before this vision is reality. However, these problems seem to be of a practical rather than metaphysical nature. In this respect, it is not unlike certain religious visions of the afterlife which essentially views death as a technical problem to be solved, albeit by God, because all the king’s horses and all the king’s men seem doomed to fail. For the majority of human history, we’ve needed God because the challenge of beating death seemed too far beyond our power to accomplish. For the first time, however, we’re able to plausibly envision achieving something approaching immortality. To modify a quotation from Ray Kurzweil, “Do I believe in an afterlife? Not yet.”

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