Sunday, October 28, 2018

God Wouldn’t Perform Miracles

You are capable of doing less good than you have the capacity to do. You sometimes lie when you could have told the truth, you are less charitable, compassionate, loving, and forgiving than you are capable of.

You are also able to exert less power than you are fully capable of. You lift a single grocery bag when you could have carried three. You run slower than your limit. You don’t perform actions that are within your capacity. In some cases, there are external forces, events, or obstacles that thwart the exertion of your power. And in some cases, the restriction on your exertion of your power is your choice; you have failures of knowledge, character, virtue, or wisdom.

You also have less knowledge than you are capable of having. There are logical theorems that you could prove on the basis of things you already believe, but you haven’t put the intermediate steps together and made it explicit knowledge. There are things you just don’t know because of your limits; you don’t know the cure for cancer or how to build a spaceship for interstellar travel. And no amount of effort would produce that knowledge for you.

God, I submit, would not act in any sub-maximal ways with regard to knowledge, power, and goodness. God, by the conventions of traditional theism, possesses all knowledge. God knows all and only truths. There is no fact that is knowable not known by God. Furthermore, God is the almighty, all-powerful creator of the universe. But not only did he create the totality of this universe, his power includes the capacity to do all things that are doable. He could have made any number of other universes, including those requiring more power. He can do any action that is logically possible. And finally, God is an infinitely good, morally perfect being. God has endless love, limitless virtue, and is a being that cannot be morally exceeded in any way. God is omnibenevolent.

God would not act in ways that are inconsistent with infinite power, knowledge, and goodness. You can and often do act in ways that are sub-maximal, given your knowledge, power, and goodness. Sometimes through some fault, imperfection, or error, you choose the wrong action; if you had more knowledge, or if you even had more of the knowledge that you are capable of possessing, you would have chosen better. But God will never act in some sub-maximal way because of this sort of failing. God lacks no knowledge. Sometimes, you exert less power than you are capable of because of laziness, a lack of goodness, a character fault, or a lack of knowledge. God won’t act sub-maximally in any of those regards because of his infinite knowledge and moral perfection. Sometimes, even exerting all of your power you fail to achieve your ends, you are thwarted, or you fail because there are other external forces that exceed your power; you are overpowered. God, being infinitely powerful, cannot be overpowered by external forces. Sometimes you do less goodness with your actions than you are capable of or than you should have done. You lack goodness, virtue, or character. Maybe you could have done better, but you didn’t. Or maybe the act in question is simply beyond the limits even of your acting to your full potential goodness. God, being infinitely good, morally perfect, infinitely loving, won’t act sub-maximally in any of these ways.

Miracles are violations of the laws of nature. To walk on water, raise the dead, or feed thousands with a few fishes and loaves of bread would all violate physical laws such as the conservation of matter, the conservation of energy, the density of matter, entropy, and so on.

Miracles are also limited with regard to knowledge, power, and goodness. That is, an agent performing a miracle need only have enough power to perform that miracle, to raise that corpse from the dead, or sustain that instance of walking on water. Miracles only require sub-maximal power, knowledge, and goodness. We might think that infinite power, knowledge, and goodness are sufficient for performing miracles too. But, as we have seen, infinite power would express itself perfectly and fully, reflective of all knowledge and goodness, in God’s case. To cure a leper is to leave thousands or millions more uncured. To raise one corpse from the dead is to leave millions or billions of others in the grave. To feed one hungry crowd is to leave millions or billions of others starving. An action of such limited scope is consistent with the actions of a being that has limited knowledge, power, and goodness. But it would be inconsistent, contrary to the expressions of a being with infinite properties.

It’s not merely that by doing a miracle God would be acting at levels that are within but below his limits; such a limited action is precluded by God’s infinite nature. Limited actions are as much outside the capacities of God as performing miracles are outside of yours. Can or would God sin? No. Can or would God be less than perfectly moral? No. Can or would God exert less power in the world than he is capable of? No. Can or would God act in ways that defy or neglect his infinite knowledge? No. Miracles, however, achieve limited goals. Miracles would not be within the tool set, or expressed actions of a being that has no limits or imperfections. However, miracles insofar as they imply limited power, knowledge, and goodness are quite plausible as the actions of finite, imperfect beings who lack power. That is suggestive about why they strike us as so important and interesting, but miracles simply do not make sense as expressions of the goals or actions of a being so vastly beyond us in power, knowledge, and goodness.

I have argued:

1. God wouldn’t act in any ways that are below capacity.
2. Performing a miracle would be acting below capacity for God.
3. Therefore, God wouldn’t perform miracles.

Matt McCormick
Philosophy Department
Sacramento State

Friday, October 19, 2018

Animals and Authority: with Authority Comes Responsibility

Where should we draw the insuperable line? What morally significant difference separates moral agents from other living things? Many historical and present-day injustices occur not because the groups involved didn’t know that certain acts were wrong (many normative theories converge on what constitutes right action in easy cases), but because one group failed to include some other group within the scope of its moral community (e.g., Jews during WWII or Blacks in America before the mid-19th Century). Many injustices involve a problem of scope.

This question in animal ethics has been debated thoroughly, maybe to the point where it too could be relegated to the pile of unresolved issues that ultimately depend on one’s metaphysical commitments. Maybe reason has done all that it can?

The animal rights defender Tom Regan (1983) argued that any attempts to limit the scope of rights to humans based on some capacity is rationally defective for two reasons: (1) some humans lack the identified capacity and (2) some animals have it. Regan’s argument seems right that any identified criterion will face these difficulties (along with difficulties in specifying exactly the nature of the capacity (e.g., autonomy) and determining whether it is animals who lack it or humans who have failed to design experiments to measure it). The unapologetic speciesist Carl Cohen (1986) responds that it is not about patterns of measurable external behavior, but about having the requisite internal mental state. He ultimately claims it was never a matter of exhibiting a capacity, but about being a certain kind of being.

Instead of identifying a criterion for moral status, maybe one promising way forward is to focus on what humans have and its ramifications. Humans often have authority over animals. I think we can set aside what capacities humans have that enable them to have authority or whether they should have authority. We can simply begin with the fact that humans often have authority over certain animals and then think about what this entails.

Authority, according to Joseph Raz, is a species of normative power, which he defines as a power to effect a normative change or change a person’s reasons for action (1979; 1990). Raz’s conception of authority consists of two, among others, distinct moral theses, the dependence and normal justification theses, which together provide moral justification for authority (1986; 2009).

Dependence Thesis (DT): “all authoritative directives should be based on reasons which already independently apply to the subjects of the directives and are relevant to their action in the circumstances covered by the directive” (1986, p. 47).

Normal Justification Thesis (NJT): Authority is justified when, “…the alleged subject is likely better to comply with reasons which apply to him…if he accepts the directives of the alleged authority as authoritatively binding and tries to follow them, rather than by trying to follow the reasons which apply to him directly” (1986, p. 53).

Raz’s account is called a service conception because, as reflected in the dependence thesis, the primary role of authority is to serve one’s subjects and address the reasons that apply to them. While I don’t agree entirely with Raz’s conception, I do think that justified authority includes something like DT and NJT.

If this is what we mean by having justified authority over another, what does this entail?

Basically, this: with authority comes responsibility. The word “authority” may bring to mind the state or law enforcement, but another paradigmatic example is a parent’s power over a child. A five-year-old child has good reasons to eat her vegetables, but would better achieve those reasons (e.g., health) by complying with her mother’s directive “Eat your vegetables!” than if the child was left to her own devices. I’m using the parent-child example because a child may not have developed reasoning skills to come up with her own reasons or even the capacity to act for those reasons. From an objective or third-personal perspective, we can observe that a child has these reasons that apply to her and that she would be better off if she listened to her mother.

If it is true that humans have authority over nonhuman animals, and if we want our exercise of power to be morally justified—an instance of de jure authority as opposed to de facto authority, then it should be consistent with DT and NJT. Humans have power over animals in various ways. Animals are kept in captivity and used for various purposes, including companionship, agriculture, experiments, and entertainment. Human caretakers have control over things that animals need, such as food, water, shelter, sufficient space or territory, exercise, and social interaction. Human caretakers can impose rules and practices that provide animals with their species-specific needs and promote their species-specific behaviors or they can impose rules that deprive animals of these things. Consistent with DT, human rules regarding captive animals should be based on reasons that already apply to them. Consistent with NJT, human rules over captive animals should help them to achieve the reasons that apply to them than if they were left to their own devices. Human rules regarding animals should serve to help animals achieve their species-specific needs and behaviors.

Justified authority is demanding in its application to both humans and animals; some may call it ideal. Nevertheless, many of us may agree that it is how we ought to live. When we exercise power over other humans, we ought to use our power in ways that would help those we serve, especially those who are vulnerable and dependent on us. When we exercise power over animals, we similarly ought to use our power in ways that recognize that with great authority comes great responsibility (see Palmer 2011). Our current use of animals are the result of historical practices and modern institutional standards, but it need not always be this way. We ought to be humbled by our responsibility and seek to change our practices and standards to be more consistent with these necessary conditions of de jure authority.

Chong Choe-Smith
Philosophy Department
Sacramento State

Sunday, October 7, 2018

The Past is Never Really Gone and Done With: A Case for The Pragmatist Philosophy of History

A few of us in the department were chatting about nuclear energy the other day. I found myself pondering the following quandary: if we were to guess how often our conversations turn to the past, in some form, what would the percentage be, on average? Certainly, talking about nuclear energy requires considering, for instance, how it has functioned up until today, or comparing case studies of Chernobyl versus Fukushima—it requires, at least in part, historical study.

“History is philosophy teaching by example”—this has been repeated by many. As Collingwood described it so succinctly: “all history is the history of thought” and “philosophy is thought about thought.” It is important to also make a distinction with historiography, or the methods and results of historical study. “History” is a very complicated term, because history itself and historical writing are indeed two different concepts. But broadly, we could say that history is the events of the past; it is past time. “Historiography” is about the interpretations we then create of those events of the past; of the time that has passed—this is the written result of historical record.

The “past” is full of historical facts, the next step is for historians to both describe them and to try make sense of them—but how can the historian be certain that first the descriptions truly match the past events selected for recording? How close in time should the historian be, in regard to epistemic questions of accuracy, to the event being recorded? Hume argued that the further away in time, the less accurate; however, sometimes temporal distance can increase the possibility of some objectivity. Nonetheless, few would disagree that the general notion of complete objectivity seems impossible in historical record.

Certainly, a history book written today about Ancient Greece would be quite different than one written in the Middle Ages, for many reasons. For one, a historian is always writing with his or her “present day lens”—we must try to consider the text in and of itself while trying to see through those same lenses. Indeed, sometimes a historical text says quite a bit about the time it is being written in along withthe contents in and of themselves.

What can we really make of the historical evidence in the past? Not everything from the past survives for analysis. What is available and then selected may be value-laden. We can only know some of what happened in the past, and we cannot be absolutely certain about why or how much of it we have really gathered for record. We must ask whether historical record represents only particular instances of events, or if universals can be discovered. There are indeed fallacies committed by historians and in historical record to overcome. The language we use in historical writing can instantly categorize and conceptualize—much could be said about the term “revolution.” It helps clarify some epistemic dilemmas by placing historians into schools, such as “Cultural Historians.” This is not to mention, however, that language itself is in part historical (i.e., “I’ll Google it”). These are only a few key philosophical quandaries about history and historiography.

One area of the philosophy of history gaining prominence represents an effective approach to many of these challenges: a Pragmatist Philosophy of History and Historiography. For a historical text to be meaningful, and for it to circulate and continue to circulate, it must have utilityamong the writer and wider audience. Lack of utility results in the book collecting dust on the shelf. Certain historical events are simply unnecessary to record; what is recorded is what the historian believes is practically usefulto record, what the historian assumes the public who reads his or her book will consider useful to record, and what the public indeed does believe isuseful. Few may read Aristotle’s history of elephants (interestingly, he wrote this yet considered historical study of little importance). If we are to peruse the list of top-selling history books, we should alsoconsider what it is abouttodaythat makes those books interesting for the historian to research and write, and to the larger public. Part of the reason for this may simply be the writing style of the historian him or herself, but it can also tell us about our own time; in thisperhaps we can epistemically capture something of a metaphysical historical essence to record for the future. There is a hierarchy of utility at any moment in time of historical texts. From a pragmatist perspective, the past is never reallygone and done with; it is ongoing and helps us understand the present and the future. There is no end of inquiry to history and historiography, as what is yielded are “warranted assertions,” to use Dewey’s term, of possible historical “truths.”

Goethe wrote: “Anyone who cannot give an account to oneself of the past three thousand years remains in darkness, without experience, living from day to day.” We are truly nothing without our histories; we are historical beings. Everything is, at least in part, a historical process, all connected in a continuum of time. The Young Hegelians could not have existed without Hegel. We cannot fullyunderstand anything outside of its historical context, and an effective way to philosophize about this is with a pragmatist lens. We cannot stop time; the present becomes the past almost as quickly as we say it. We are beings always embedded in a historical moment; or, Kuhn’s notion might be useful here, in a paradigm of historical knowledge and existence. We must ask: what has practical utility to be selected for evidence, record, interpretation, and readership?

Returning to my initial quandary: what might that percentage be? It is probably higher than one might expect, because despite also being forward-looking beings, it is often in retrospect as to what is useful that we can learn about the past to apply to the future.

Marnie Binder
Philosophy Department
Sacramento State