de Causis

There's another new book out about how God doesn't exist, this time by a mathematician (where are the philosophers?). It got panned in a quotation-rich review in the New York Times.  If the quotations are representative, then no wonder:

In his opening chapters Mr. Paulos uses simple logic to point up the gaping holes in the so-called first-cause argument. “Either everything has a cause, or there’s something that doesn’t,” he writes. “The first-cause argument collapses into this hole whichever tack we take. If everything has a cause, then God does, too, and there is no first cause. And if something doesn’t have a cause, it may as well be the physical world.”

What’s more, he notes, “the uncaused first cause needn’t have any traditional God-like qualities. It’s simply first, and as we know from other realms, being first doesn’t mean being best. No one brags about still using the first personal computers to come on the market. Even if the first cause existed, it might simply be a brute fact — or even worse, an actual brute.”

Doesn't seem the author has much familiarity with first-cause arguments.  They typically make the distinction between the idea of a first cause and the idea of an uncaused cause.  A first cause comes first in a series; an uncaused cause may not be a member of a series.  As any student of intro to philosophy of religion knows, these represent entirely different arguments and one can't just lump them together. I might wonder about the author of the book, but I'm rather more perplexed by the review.

If I might whine a little bit here.  The reviewer doesn't seem aware that there's an entire specialty that concerns itself with this kind of business.  It's been at it for maybe 2500 years.  While it's astounding that a non-specialist could simply thrust himself into this discussion completely unaware of its manifold iterations, it's depressing that the reviewer of the book doesn't bother to point out that simple fact.  


26 thoughts on “de Causis”

  1. When are we going to start teaching basic philosophy and logic in primary and secondary school? Philosophy used to be a part of core curriculum, though for some reason it has been entirely ignored in the past 50 years (or more). Critical thinking and informal logic, at the very least, should be taught alongside math, English, and science. I was lucky enough as a child to receive some sort of education in syllogisms and basic deduction, but the vast majority of American students have had next to zero exposure to this type of education. The funny thing is, its not really that difficult! It only becomes difficult when people are introduced to it very late in their education, as learning Chinese for a seven-year-old is less difficult than learning it as an 18-year-old. We teach 16-year-olds calculus, but not deductive logic. We don’t even teach kids ethics (though reading Kant might deter anyone from studying philosophy in college)!

    I know, this comment is not really on topic, but I think it relates somewhat to the dearth of popular knowledge in very crucial areas of the history of ideas. Philosophy used to be the only subject taught in school, and encompassed both math and science (not to mention rhetoric). I’m not advocating a return to the past, and I think a division of the labor is useful. But the history of philosophy and basic informal logic would serve to both orient and anchor the average American’s knowledge and ability to analyze important topics, without us having to go through the repeating and reintroducing of arguments that have not had any merit since the uncaused dawn of time.

  2. Thanks for the comment. I think you’re right about the appalling lack of basic philosophical literacy (not to mention literacy of many other varieties). What bothers me, and what is the reason for this website, is ignorance of the basic notions of logical argument. These are as foundational as math–we can’t have any justified beliefs without them–but they’re much easier (in my estimation) to attain.

  3. Or one could critique this kind of book simply on the question of originality. The quotation above, for example, is exactly the same one that Philo makes in Hume’s Dialogues on Natural Religion, a widely read classic published (posthumously) in 1779. Theology and the Philosophy of religion has developed in the 2+ centuries since. So even if the reasoning were valid, the very lack of originality would be reason enough to deny publication and save some trees.

  4. That’s right Hugh. And I’d add that these arguments have been made much longer before that.

  5. Jem,

    Amen, my brother. I currently volunteer to teach a critical thinking class weekly to middle schoolers at my kids’ school and they eat it up. I think the reason it is there, frankly, is that the last thing teachers want to be doing is arming their students to challenge their claims. Much of education at the secondary and high school level is as much about keeping order as it is about creating interesting minds.

  6. Like the author whose book is being reviewed evidently does, I also lack deep familiarity with the 2500 year old philosophical specialty of “first cause” type arguments for the existence of God, so please forgive some naiveté. First, what specifically is it about the distinction between “first causes” and “uncaused causes”, and whether one or the other is an in a series, that is relevant in evaluating whether either offers a sturdy foundation for an argument that God exists? Also, is it necessarily true that an uncaused cause may not be an element in a series? Of what series? What about that particular series which is the ordered sequence of members of a set, which set constitutes those things that participate in causal relationships, and where the sequence’s order is established by how a thing participates–as a cause or as an effect–in such a relationship? In that case, is not an uncaused cause an element in the series which includes the thing it causes?

    Also, to Hugh Nicholson’s critique which is rooted in the book’s alleged lack of originality I ask this question. Do we adopt the principle that any book ever published must be completely original in the arguments it contains and the reasoning it employs? I argue that we do not, for otherwise we would object to most of the new introductory math textbooks that are routinely published, and yet we don’t.


  7. David,

    I believe this link will answer most of your questions about the cosmological argument (except the important one: whether or not it works)…
    I don’t believe that jcasey was necessarily arguing that the points he raises show that the cosmological argument works. I think he was trying to say that most people, who actually work on the cosmological argument, make these distinctions as a starting point, then proceed to argue in favor or disfavor of the individual points. When Paulos misses these points it makes him seem a little silly. It would be like me deciding to write a book on a fundamental problem of quantum physics (say, the source of mass) and not take the time to look up whether anybody else has done work on this subject prior to me.

    Also, while I have some sympathy to your view that originality may not be the ultimate test for the value of a book. I don’t think your point against Hugh Nicholson works since Paulos’ book wasn’t meant as a textbook or an introductory text. Most would split books into two big camps: academic and popular, while academic could be split up further into textbook and scholarship. All academic scholarship books are expected to make some original contribution to the field it represents. However, I have no idea what would count as a standard for popular books. I believe that Paulos’ book falls into the popular camp. Though he is an academic, he is writing outside his area of expertise. So is Paulos’ book good as a popular book? I don’t know. I can only judge it on the quality of its arguments. Just from the quotes in the review, I’m not impressed (even as an atheist).

  8. Hi David–

    Great questions and as always thanks.

    You make a good point (the second one) about the divide between the specialist in the philosophy of religion and the popular author on religion. Many even very well read people are unfamiliar with the literature on the cosmological argument (broadly speaking the “first cause” argument). That in itself is not a surprise. When someone, however, inserts himself into the discussion of the cosmological argument with no awareness of what has been said about it beyond the most obvious objections, then really he or she ought to know better. Hugh suggests, and I think rightly, that the objection made by Paulos sounds an awful lot like the very popular one made by Hume. He or at least the reviewer ought to know that.

    On the other matter about causal arguments. “Cause” like any philosophical notion, can be understood in various senses. One sense–the sense the author of the text seems to have in mind–is the efficient or productive cause. One event brings about another (as in, say, a series). But even this sense is hardly clear as it stands. And it’s not the only sense of cause. Another sense of cause is “explanation.” Other variations on Cosmological argument examined cause in this sense. They depart in fact from the premise that the world of created things–the world in other words–is eternal and so has no first cause. Then they seek an explanation for the existence of something rather than nothing. They admit, in other words, an infinite series of efficient causes. But they deny that this eliminates the need for a creator or sustainer or whatever. But this is only the vaguest outline of the two broadest versions of cosmological argument.

    One more point about Paulos’s argument. No philosophers that I know understood the cosmological argument established the particular truths of the Christian, Muslim, or Jewish faith. The argument at best establishes a creator. It says nothing else. Other arguments had to be marshaled for those purposes. And they were.

    I hope I have at least addressed your questions.

  9. First, to Matt K:

    Hi Matt. Thanks for the reply. I should say, the reason I asked about the distinctions between first and uncaused causes, was not (necessarily) to debate JCasey over whether the “cosmological” argument for the existence of God is sound, but rather to get a better sense of why Paulos is being criticized for not attending to this distinction. If Paulos truly did omit this distinction, I argue that based on the snippet from the review given we don’t conclusively know why he omitted it, though it may be possible to make some conjectures. For instance, Paulos may’ve omitted it, not because he’s unaware of it, but because in writing a popular book (is he?) he’s abstracting away some minor technical details in order to convey a larger point, much in the way Brian Greene abstracts away much of the details of physics in his popular books. I think that’d at least be a plausible conjecture, IF the “first/uncaused cause” distinction is a minor, technical, ignorable detail. If, however, it isn’t a minor detail but is truly essential in making any headway with the cosmological argument, then it’s unlikely an author who is not silly (whereby “silly” means authoring books on subjects in which you are not learned) would omit something so essential. This would then SUPPORT the criticism of Paulos. If all of this reasoning is sound, then whether or not to criticize Paulos (on this point) hinges on where the “first/uncaused cause” distinction sits in the cosmological argument. So, I was trying to ascertain where it sits.

    As to whether Paulos’s book should be criticized for its alleged lack of originality, my argument did not rest on whether the book is or isn’t a textbook. I was merely illustrating my argument using an example (a math book) that incidentally happened to be about a textbook. Rather, my argument rested on whether a book which presents and discusses reasoned arguments should contain at least one original piece of reasoning. A math textbook is one kind of book that presents and discusses reasoned arguments. An academic work in philosophy is another. I argue that books–like new intro math textbooks, and possibly like Paulos’s book–which treat old and technical arguments in a way that makes them more palatable to the novice need not contain original arguments, unlike an academic work which probably would face this requirement.

    To JCasey:

    Hi JCasey. Thanks for writing, and yes it was informative, though I still have a few questions. First, if at any point you tire of this and wish to refer me to the vast body of work on the cosmological argument, by all means do so. On the other hand, sometimes it’s fun just to discuss these arguments, even if in actuality they may be deader than disco. Anyway. What exactly is the difference between a cause which “brings about” its effect, and a cause which “explains” its effect? Also, by what line of reasoning does one reach the conclusion that the world requires a cause in either (or any) sense, which requirement evidently is not obviated by positing an infinite series of causes?

    Thanks, guys,

  10. Hey David–

    You ask:

    What exactly is the difference between a cause which “brings about” its effect, and a cause which “explains” its effect? Also, by what line of reasoning does one reach the conclusion that the world requires a cause in either (or any) sense, which requirement evidently is not obviated by positing an infinite series of causes?

    Some cosmological arguments rely essentially on the notion of an efficient causal series–the first cause in type variety–often called the “kalam” argument (for the Islamic theological tradition in which it was popular). Others broaden the notion of cause to include something like “explanation” (among much else)–everything needs an explanation for the fact that it is and for the way it is. Still another type of argument will claim that non-necessary things must be accounted for. All of these are different types of cosmological argument. Objections to the first don’t constitute objections to the second and third, and so on.

    My problem with the Paulos text (as well as others of its kind) is that they run over this material in a shallow way, ignoring the very obvious contributions to the discussion through the years. While I’d agree that introductory texts or popularizing texts must simplify matters rather much, Paulos’s text is polemical, and he takes himself to providing knock-down arguments. That seems like a rather bold proposition, one that I doubt he could follow through on.

    Matt K mentioned this above, but here is a very lucid discussion of the cosmological argument. Also on that site, you’ll find a discussion of the notion of cause. I point you to these not because I’m tired of the matter, but rather because they are better than me at explaining it.

    Thanks again for the comment.

  11. Hi JCasey,

    Reading through the summary of the cosmological arguments whose link you provided (Matt K did also), I make several judgments. First, I see no difference between the “sustaining cause” and “kalam” arguments. Second–and God (no pun intended) I mean no disrespect by this–the reasoning on behalf of these arguments seems very poor. Question: are these arguments merely curio pieces, or are the cosmological arguments considered still to be a profitable way to reason about the world?


  12. Hi David,

    Thanks for your reply. I’m sorry that I apparently misinterpreted some of your points. I hope that I am also not about to do so again, but I’m afraid I don’t understand what you mean when you say you see no difference between the “First Sustaining Cause” Argument and the “Kalam” Argument.

    A philosophical argument is composed of premises and a conclusion and both arguments have not only different premises, but also (seemingly) different conclusions. One can go about criticizing either argument in one of two ways. First, one can claim the whole argument is invalid. Second, one can claim the argument appears valid but at least one of the premises is false; so the argument is unsound. Many, though not all, believe that both arguments are valid. Meaning if their premises are true, then the conclusion must be true. However, there are plenty of philosophers who argue that at least one of the premises of each argument is false. The article clearly summarizes the major criticisms against each argument and shows how the defenders respond. It also does a nice job of showing what remains troubling about the individual replies to the criticisms. Overall, as jcasey has already pointed out, the vast majority of philosophers believe that Cosmological Argument (either version) AT BEST shows that a necessary being created the universe (meaning the argument is both valid and sound). However, there are plenty of philosophers who don’t believe it shows even that because one (or more) of the premises is false.

    I’m also not quite sure what you mean when you say, “the reasoning on behalf of these arguments seems very poor.” Do you mean that you believe that some of the premises are false? If so, then you would certainly not be alone. Or, do you believe that one (or both) of the arguments is invalid (meaning that the premises don’t work together in the right way to lead to the conclusion)? Or, do you mean something like, “the reasons given to support the truth of the individual premises isn’t very good?” If the last point is the case, then this may be a result of the nature of the article. It is only a summary of the arguments given for and against the Cosmological Argument. The listed bibliography provides a good direction for further study.

    Once again, I may be misunderstanding what you are asking, but it seems to me that you are struggling with the rather neutral stance taken by jcasey, the author of the article in the Stanford Enc. of Phil., and myself. We do this not because we have no opinion on the matter, but because we have a respect for the power of argumentation. If the Cosmological Argument (CA) is valid and sound, then it proves its conclusion. That would be something valuable to know about the world. Once an argument is formulated, we need provide good reasons to think that it is either invalid or unsound. I’m not an expert in the philosophy of religion, or on the CA, but if you are seeking something definite, then here is my position: I believe that the CA is deductively invalid because if it were valid it would seem to make speaking about a physical universe and the absence of a creator (God) incoherent. But, people do this all the time and it doesn’t seem incoherent. Therefore, it must be invalid. This is exactly what Richard Swinburne is claimed to have argued at the end of the article, but he goes on to give an abductive argument. I don’t find his reasoning for the abductive argument very convincing, but that would take a whole paper to articulate. Even if I am wrong about the validity issue, I still believe that the CA has a serious problem. It relies on the Principle of Sufficient Reason, which I am rather skeptical of. A philosopher named Peter van Inwagen has a paper on this topic, which isn’t listed in the bibliography of the article. You will notice, however, that my reasons for believing that the CA does not work are quite different from what appears to be Paulos’ reasons. My view engages the best and most plausible versions of the CA and argues against them.

    Last point, I understood what you meant about the possibility that Paulos may just be attempting to write an introductory book on the arguments against the existence of God (aren’t there a bunch of these already?) so he may be just abstracting away some technical details. I hope it has become clearer that the distinctions originally pointed out by jcasey are not minor technical points, but the means by which philosophers formulate different versions of the CA. Brian Greene is a great physicist (I just finished reading his impressive “The Fabric of the Cosmos” last week) writing for the layperson about the heart of fundamental theories in physics. Paulos is a mathematician writing about fundamental issues in the philosophy of religion (I’m not sure of his intended audience). I seem to have a prima facie good reason to trust Brian Greene on physics. I don’t believe I have a prima facie good reason to trust John Allen Paulos on the philosophy of religion, especially given what I see quoted from him in the review. Of course, I am also of the opinion that if you want to argue against the existence of God, then you should do that, since arguing that arguments for God’s existence fail really doesn’t get you anything (ie. God could still exist even though ever argument for his/her/it existence fails).

    Again, sorry if I have misunderstood you.

  13. Hi Matt,

    Thanks for the very detailed and well-written post. I should say, don’t get me wrong, I think the Stanford article also is well-written, I very much ADMIRE the neutral tone, and any criticisms I have of the reasoning historically employed in service of the cosmological argument are not directed at the Stanford article’s authors.

    I do confess that upon a closer reading of the two arguments, “First Sustaining Cause” and “Kalam” seem slightly more different than they did before, but not so much so that all criticisms of one are wholly inapplicable to the other. “Kalam” adopts the premise that things which begin to exist (the things “First Sustaining Cause” calls “contingent beings”) must have a cause, in order to conclude that the Universe must have a cause, but it doesn’t say that the Universe’s cause must be uncaused. In that sense it is more modest than “First Sustaining Cause”, which adopts the premise that contingent beings (Kalam’s “things that begin to exist”) need an uncaused cause, in order to conclude that the Universe must have an uncaused cause. So both “Kalam” and “First Sustaining Cause” conclude that the Universe requires a cause, it’s just that “First Sustaining Cause” goes further and specifies the the Universe’s cause must be an uncaused cause. Also, they share some premises. Specifically, the “Kalam” Premise 2 “The universe began to exist” furnishes a specific instance of the “First Sustaining Cause” Premise 1 “A contingent being exists.” So they don’t have completely different premises, and they arrive at very similar conclusions. I guess that’s why I wrote that I don’t see (now “much of”) a distinction.

    When I say that the reasoning in support of these arguments is poor, I mean several things. First, I mean that the arguments rely on a small set of spoken assumptions (the premises) which themselves are highly debatable because they are unsupported by empirical evidence, in the way that scientific inferences (the best of them, anyway) are not debated because they are supported by abundant evidence. That makes the arguments unsound. Second and more important, I mean that the arguments rely on a vast array of unspoken assumptions about the meanings of words. For instance, in the “First Sustaining Cause” what exactly is meant by “being”, “existence”, “non-existence”, and “the Universe”, and are any of these meanings independent of how a mind perceives them? That makes the arguments ambiguous.

    Now, because of the similarities between the premises and more important the conclusions of the “Kalam” and “First Sustaining Cause” arguments I again fail to understand why the distinctions Paulos elided are essential, but I’d be happy to drop that line of debate. On the other hand, I would reject as invalid the argument that a mathematician’s writings about inductive/deductive arguments for the existence of God should be–prima facie–doubted more than a physicist’s writings about physics. Like a good physicist, a good mathematician is trained in logic, inductive and deductive reasoning, in self-examination and the search for fallacy, in the rejection of ambiguity, and in the dexterous manipulation of abstract ideas and the symbols that refer to them, all of which puts either a physicist or mathematician (or anyone else with similar skills) in good stead for reasoning about the Universe, which in my opinion is what the philosophy of religion boils down to.

    As to your last point, I’m of the opinion that arguing (and even better, demonstrating) that arguments for God’s existence fail actually DOES get you something. If a person wishes to guide his or her actions by reasoning about the way the world most likely is and wishes to avoid actions wasted on ways the world cannot be demonstrated to be, that person is helped if truly bad arguments for the existence of God are actually shown to be bad.

    Anyway, thanks again.

  14. David,

    Just a minor point about having a prima facie reason to trust a mathematician in matters of philosophy of religion:

    Though I agree that the skills of a mathematician are well-suited to excel in certain areas of philosophy, namely in formal logic and perhaps the philosophy of science, more contemporary philosophy of religion tends to deal with notions of rationality and epistemology, rather than of classical metaphysics. As such, the skills that a mathematician might have as a logician are supplementary to the requisite skills necessary to provide “good” arguments for, say, properly basic beliefs, a la Alvin Plantinga (who is a very deft logician in his own right). Making logically valid and sound arguments is a prerequisite for any sphere argumentation, but is not the sole characteristic for proficiency (i. e., necessary, but not sufficient). At the very least, a historical understanding of the broad range of arguments put forward in any given sphere is required in order to advance the discourse, while at the same time, doing justice to those that came before. This is done to both cover one’s ass, so that a critic like jcasey would not be able to make criticisms such as the one in this article, and to demonstrate the writer’s commitment and familiarity with the area of discourse the writer is contributing to.

    That said, I have a great respect for academic mathematicians, or academics of any field who have taken the time and energy to master their subject matter. But being good at math (or biology) doesn’t necessarily (or probably) make one good at philosophy. Being good at philosophy, which requires far more than logical proficiency or empirical knowledge, makes one good at philosophy.

    I’ve actually just written a paper on this sort of topic in an epistemology seminar (not on philosophy of religion, but on expertise), so I have much more to say on the topic, but I’ll leave it here.

  15. Hi Jem,

    Is not the strength of an argument–its validity and it soundness–independent of the properties of the person who makes it? If it is (I think it is) then an argument is not made better or worse if a writer does or does not demonstrate his or her commitment and familiarity with the area of discourse.

    Also, if we are to judge whether being good at math does or doesn’t make one good at philosophy I think we’d need to determine what we mean by “philosophy” and what measure we use in order to know if someone is doing it well. In the current context when I write “philosophy” what I mean by it is “developing a model of, and reasoning about, the source of the sense experiences that we have (i.e., the ‘world’)” and by “doing it well” I mean “able to develop an economical model, relying on a small number of principles derived from inferences about experiences that we, at least in principle, could have ourselves, making valid and sound arguments using this model, and which arguments lead to reliable predictions about experiences we might have in the future.” According to these definitions, I see no reason why more than, say, logical proficiency and empirical knowledge is required to be good at philosophy.

    All the best,

  16. David,

    I’m afraid I have little time to properly reply to your posts, as I have several pressing deadlines.

    What empirical knowledge does a mathematician use? All their reasoning is a priori. It is remarkable how your definition of a philosopher looks just like a general definition of a scientist. May be we should just call up all the universities and have all the philosophers fired. Surely, the scientists and mathematicians are the only faculty needed to teach the philosophy classes. Why is your definition of philosophy the correct one? You don’t provide us any reason. You talk about clarity and not making assumptions that are unsupported by empirical evidence, but you have done just that!

    There are plenty of topics in philosophy that do not deal with sense experience or empirical evidence. The Ontological Argument for the existence of God is completely a priori. It does not require the use of senses or empirical evidence to make its claim or to be proven false.

    Also, what does it mean to be logically proficient? Philosophical logic is not equivalent to mathematical logic (see the work of Godel). I have a graduate degree in philosophy and have taken and passed a comprehensive exam on advanced logic (would that automatically make me a good mathematician?). Scientific reasoning is not identical to mathematical reasoning, which in turn is not identical to philosophical reasoning. Each of these have there separate domains (not to mention separate content) and require much work and effort to master. I doubt many mathematicians has spent much of their time trying to learn modal logic (if they even have heard of it), yet it is incredibly important in philosophy.

    Very few philosophers, if any, would agree with your definition of philosophy. You seem like a smart guy, so I am a bit dumbfounded by your seemingly complete lack of respect for philosophy as an independent academic discipline, and for the people who have spent a good deal of their lives trying to learn the content of their specialty. I’m starting to think you are pushing some sort of “philosophy is useless” agenda here. I suggest that you take the time to investigate the subject matter you are so boldly deciding to define for us (you know, the ones who practice it), before you start pontificating whether it is “good” or “bad.” That is what any good scholar would do from any field. It is what jcasey originally offered as a potential criticism to Paulos, and it is now what I am criticizing you for. Sloppy scholarship can lead to major errors, which would make the whole project rather worthless. If you don’t want to put the time and effort into doing proper research, then I cannot help you further.

    Sorry to be so harsh, but I don’t take kindly to someone from outside my field telling me how I should define it and what would make my practicing of it “good” or “bad” without bothering to even give a reason.

  17. David,

    As I was writing my response to you above, I also found my reductive discussion of “philosophy” to be inadequate. What is philosophy anyway? I agree that it is in many ways an ambiguous umbrella for a wide variety of areas of discourse. I also agree that what ties these areas together is a similarity of approach toward understanding the world. This approach, though, is not as homogeneous as we would like. I can perhaps attribute this heterogeneity (in certain respects) to the tendency of philosophers to undermine or rectify the basic programs of those that have come before them. So, when we read the moderns from Descartes to Kant, I would say almost invariably, each of these people has attempted to define what philosophy is even as he (or, rarely, she) was doing philosophy.

    We find an even more varied approach to philosophical problems in the last 200 years with the rise of continental (and British) idealism, American pragmatism, existentialism and phenomenology, neo-Marxist post-modernism (among other kinds), logical positivism, etc. These historical philosophical movements sometimes addressed similar issues, but more often than not, developed their own subject matter and defined their own set of relevant questions. Some even attacked the relevance of rationality and logic, or redefined what those terms mean. To say that these critics required logical proficiency and empirical knowledge to even make these claims begs the question. Kierkegaard explicitly embraced the absurd against rational judgment, as did Camus (somewhat), among others.

    My point is, then, that philosophy is a very broad field, with various movements within it in opposition to others. I personally find well-crafted and transparent arguments to be highly valuable, especially in matters of political, social, and ethical discourse, but only with respect to their instrumentality in achieving a certain ‘greater good’. I personally don’t find deductive arguments for or against the existence of God compelling, because I have extreme doubts about the relevance of bringing logic to bear on ‘Ultimate Reality’. Of course, there are many philosophers who would disagree with me on this. I do not want to make this into a polemic supporting radical subjectivism or skepticism, but neither do I want to preclude these positions as viable possibilities.

    So, circling back to your claim:

    Is not the strength of an argument–its validity and it soundness–independent of the properties of the person who makes it? If it is (I think it is) then an argument is not made better or worse if a writer does or does not demonstrate his or her commitment and familiarity with the area of discourse.

    I agree, though this must be qualified. Most of what we know comes from other people and not strictly from our own rational faculty. We rely on expert knowledge on a great many things, from global warming to the discoveries of physics and other sciences. Even scientists must rely on each other for information that they themselves could not have ascertained. We come to know things about the world in this way not because we have an all-things-considered grasp of the arguments made by these people, but because we make non-fallacious appeals to authority all the time. Granted, this happens far less often in philosophy than in other fields, but it still remains an important part of the discourse.

    Thus, when a mathematician makes arguments concerning the philosophy of religion, we are correct in our skepticism, even if the arguments are valid, because we can’t be confident that the correct questions were even asked or looked into in the first place. The mathematician lacks the prima facie authority to answer these questions. From what I have gathered from the article and jcasey’s criticism is that the author has given no reason for us to find his arguments compelling, though they might be valid in form, because he has given us no reason to value him as an authority in the matter. His personal qualities matter in this case.

    Sorry about the length of this ramblingcomment, but this is an area in which I am very interested in. I would appreciate any comments or criticisms, since I haven’t completely (or succintly) worked out my thoughts on this subject.

  18. Hi Jem,

    Thanks for the reply. I think I should very much like to read some of the other things you’ve written on these subjects. On what I think is your first point (or among your points) in your first three paragraphs, which I think is that you value philosophical arguments when they’re useful but that you have doubts about the relevance of logical arguments about “Ultimate Reality” (and perhaps, God), I would add qualified agreement. I look for the value of arguments in their utility. On the other hand, while I don’t know about “Ultimate Reality”, about the reality which impinges upon our senses (i.e., the physical Universe) I observe that I and other humans find immense utility in strong, logical arguments. This is why arguments for the existence of God interest me. I’m not religious, but if I encountered a truly sound argument that He exists (and that He has expectations of me) I’d be required to change my life. My suspicion is that this coercive power of strong rational arguments makes them attractive to evangelists, who then try to construct rational (or failing that, seemingly-rational) arguments for the existence of God.

    On what I think is your second point in your last few paragraphs, which is that it’s not necessarily fallacious to argue from authority, again I add qualified agreement. I rely on the authority of my physician and my auto mechanic because I lack the necessary expertise to reason about their very complicated fields. But authority only is needed when we can’t follow the argument. If we CAN follow the argument enough to judge that it’s valid (and perhaps sound) we no longer need the authority. So if a mathematician makes a valid philosophical argument that we can follow, we are not justified in being skeptical. I don’t know what you mean by not knowing if the correct question was asked or looked into. I would only say that we always have to be alert to the “correctness” (by which I mean, the utility) of the question, whoever is making the argument. The problem I had with JCasey’s criticism of Paolos is that, as someone who can follow metaphysical arguments (I think), I don’t require authors to give me a reason to find their argument compelling. I only require that the argument itself be compelling.


  19. David,

    One last remark. I personally didn’t find your comments about philosophy to be as patronizing to the field as MattK did. Rather, and as I hope to have conveyed in my last response, your comments illuminated what many well-educated, yet not as engaged (meaning lacking in knowledge of the most of the positions and concepts within a particular philosophical discipline) people seem to think about the purpose or role that philosophy plays in ‘getting at the world’. Not to belabor the issue, I just wanted to further explain what I meant by ‘asking the right questions’.

    In my experience, the hardest part about doing philosophy is trying to figure out what the question is that we should be trying to answer. There are good questions and not so good ones. In formulating the question, one must either engage a text, taken in a very broad sense (e.g., what does so-and-so mean by x?), or formulate a question independent of a text (e.g., does x exist?), and then search for textual support. Almost no philosophy is done today that fails to engage a text in one form or another. The issue, then, is an issue of relevance that conforms to the strict norms that philosophers are guided by. Philosophers rely on each other to determine the relevance of certain questions via the process of peer review and criticism, and attack certain views for their lack of subtlety and appreciation for the complexities inherent in any contentious issue. Flippant dismissals and a lack of appreciation and/or knowledge of the various views that have entered into the discourse of a particular subject matter, like Paolos’ project, will not be compelling to the philosopher, because such a project would fail to meet the relevant standards. The subtleties involved in approaching a topic like God’s existence require more than superficial arguments completely removed from their historical context. They are uncharitable and uninteresting.

    Again, I have to say that these are my own opinions about the nature of philosophy, and I offer little evidence to support these claims other than my own personal experience with the subject. But I hope that you perhaps see that simple argumentation is seldom sufficient, at least in the eye’s of philosophers, to settle an issue (unless of course its their own argument).


  20. Thanks for the interesting comments everyone. It seems at this point the conversation seems to focus on whether Philosophy, or more particularly Philosophy of Religion, involves a special skill (a) acquired by training and study and (b) founded on specific disciplinary knowledge. I think so. I think Jem makes some crucial distinctions here in the last post about the text-specific nature of arguments. As I had very elliptically suggested at the beginning of this post, there are specialists in philosophy who spend their lives on issues like the cosmological argument. The rest of us might study that argument–even in some detail–but we’ll always have kind of a “encyclopedia” understanding of the issue. That is to say, we know the basic points, but we’d be wrong if we substituted that for mastery of the subject matter. There’s a lot more, for instance, in the CA about cause, infinity, and so on. There are also more variations on that argument than the ones discussed in the article.

    Having said that, David I think points out that we don’t have the luxury of expertise on every subject matter. Even though I’m a professional philosopher (I never thought I would write that sentence), I’m not an expert on the cosmological argument. But I can make some informed and well grounded judgments about it. The same goes for David I think. David is not a professional philosopher, but he can make informed and well grounded judgments about matters such as God’s existence, and so forth. These well grounded judgments of ours, I think, ought to be measured against their background. In other words, not all well grounded judgments are well grounded in the same way and in the same degree. I’d always defer to expertise on this, however.

    One more thing. We might also look at this matter from another angle. Back last spring I stumbled on the following entry on Matthew Yglesias’s well-trafficked blog:

    I majored in philosophy, damnit (so did Spencer Ackerman and Julian Sanchez), and it’s a perfectly good thing for journalists to study. In some ways, I think it’s actually the best thing to study. The job, by its nature, involves trying to quickly learn and write a lot about a wide range of subjects. Under the circumstances, spending your student years trying to master a skill-set that’s completely divorced from knowledge of particular facts is pretty useful. If you’re good at spotting flaws in the arguments constructed by others irrespective of what the topic is, you’ll never lack for things to write about.

    This strikes me as the kind of arrogant a-priorism one finds among some philosophy types. I’m all for studying philosophy, especially for its ability to inculcate the habits of a critical mind, but it’s hardly a substitute for the specific kinds of knowledge one ought to have when it comes to journalism, which is, you know, about stuff that’s supposed to be true.

    Here’s the original post:

  21. Hi all,

    As always, good posts. I especially like what JCasey wrote about “arrogant a-priorism”. It’s common in my field as well, and I’d like to think that I try to avoid it myself.

    I should confess, I’m trained not as a philosopher (I know…no kidding!) but as an astrophysicist, which grants me some characteristics in common with philosophers, though of course still there are differences. I’m expected to use logic and empirical evidence to reason about the properties of the physical Universe (again, the one that impinges on our senses) and its origins, which is not altogether different from things like the cosmological argument. I also work in a field at far remove from the vicissitudes of peoples’ daily lives and in which the relevance of the questions we answer is largely determined by other members of my community rather than by lay society, again not unlike the work of some professional philosophers. That’s not a criticism, I’m just acknowledging the way things are. Of course, having our community itself always be the judge of the relevance of our work has a defect, which derives from the fact that, at the end of the day, lay society pays for the work we do, which is one of the ways our work touches lay society, and for that reason every once in awhile leaders in our community have to justify our continued existence to our congressional paymasters. I assume something similar obtains in the professional philosophy field, as it does in others.

    Having said that, there’s a sense in which non-experts really are kept out of the detailed discussion of the main questions in astrophysics–just as non-experts are kept out of the detailed discussion of some philosophical questions. The details of Dark Energy, for instance, just don’t affect peoples’ day-to-day lives, so maybe there’s little harm in keeping it the domain of experts. However, non-experts should not be kept out of the discussion of, say, the cosmological argument, I argue, because it does affect our day-to-day lives. Religions (well, some anyway) furnish an alternative model of reality (alternate to the rational materialist model that science offers) that many non-experts very commonly use to guide their daily lives. For good or ill, religions (some anyway) sometimes have very enthusiastic adherents who try to enroll as many other people as they can–experts, non-experts, astrophysicists, philosophers, you name it–into their program, and sometimes employ rational (or seemingly-rational) arguments to do this. Sometimes, the cosmological argument is part of a chain of reasoning that starts by arguing that the Universe requires a Creator and ends by arguing that all people should adhere to some particular moral code. Essentially, the cosmological argument, which otherwise perhaps should be debated only by experts, gets dragged into the public square (and possibly heavily distorted in the process). You might think non-experts have no business debating the cosmological argument, but we don’t have a choice if it’s thrust upon us. So, what are we to do? One option is to continue to discount the reasoning of non-experts (including our own reasoning) and rely on the authorities–the philosophers–the way we rely on physicians to advise treatment. Another is to try to grapple with the questions anyway, non-experts though we may be, as best we can…and maybe record our reasoning in a book, as Paulos has done.

    So some questions are these. When a non-expert confronts the cosmological argument, should he or she rely on the authority of philosophers to render a judgment, or should that person try their own hand at reasoning about it? And if the latter, what can professional philosophers do to help us?

    All the best,

  22. Dear David–

    I share your concerns about the nefarious effects of reasoning when it comes to religion. I think, however, there is a very long walk from the cosmological argument to the doctrines of any particular faith. There is, as any fair interpreter of the cosmological argument will tell you, quite a distance between its conclusion and just about any affirmation about the Divine, other than those specific things the proof supports. So I would go the other way, then, and read the argument as it ought to be read–i.e., as an argument that is meant to demonstrate something very particular. It’s unfortunate, I think, that people fail to grasp the argument for what it is. That activity, as I see it, is what philosophers of religion engage in. If someone makes a cosmological argument (or whatever) and claims it as justification for their particular religious doctrine, they have simply skipped over a lot of necessary intermediate steps. This is where I think philosophers can help us.

  23. Dear JCasey,

    I agree that there’s a long chain of reasoning required to get from the cosmological argument to operators standing by, waiting to take your donation, and in my experience rarely does anyone who seeks to evangelize even bother to consider the links beyond the cosmological argument. The m.o. often enough seems to be, sketch an argument (such as the cosmological argument) for why the Universe requires a creator, pull a few rabbits out of a hat, and voila! God loves you! Of course that means that, irrespective of the strength of the first link, one should reject the final conclusion just for the shear weakness of all the subsequent links (if they even exist). But are you saying that, if someone makes a cosmological argument to an audience of non-experts and skips a lot of subsequent steps in order to claim it as justification for their particular religious doctrine, that the audience members should not evaluate the strength of the initial step without a doctor (of philosophy) present?


  24. Hi David–

    you ask:

    But are you saying that, if someone makes a cosmological argument to an audience of non-experts and skips a lot of subsequent steps in order to claim it as justification for their particular religious doctrine, that the audience members should not evaluate the strength of the initial step without a doctor (of philosophy) present?

    I wouldn’t say that. I think, as with any matter, one ought to proceed with an acute awareness of one’s own ignorance. In the circumstance you describe, perhaps they ought also to proceed with a healthy skepticism about the speaker.

  25. Hi JCasey,

    Yeah, at the end of the day perhaps that’s the best policy. Well said. Anyway, thanks for the thoughtful conversation.

    All the best,

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