The Quantum Thomist

Musings about quantum physics, classical philosophy, and the connection between the two.
The existence of God, Part 5: The moral arguments


The existence of God, Part 6: The argument from justice
Last modified on Sun Dec 3 16:38:58 2017


This is the latest post in a series about Bertrand Russell's essay Why I am not a Christian, in which I run through his various arguments and show that for the most part (there are a few exceptions) they either don't apply to classical theism, or are just completely invalid in the first place. Having discussed the cosmological, physical law and design arguments, Russell concludes this section by discussing two moral arguments, firstly the direct moral argument, and secondly an argument from remedying injustice. The second of these arguments is the argument from remedying injustice, and I discuss Russell's presentation of this argument in this post.

In the part of the universe that we know there is great injustice, and often the good suffer, and often the wicked prosper, and one hardly knows which of these is the more annoying; but if you are going to have justice in the universe as a whole you have to suppose a future life to redress the balance of life here on earth. So they say that there must be a God, and there must be heaven and hell in order that in the long run there may be justice.

Usually in this series of posts, I have presented what I believe to be a strong form of the argument before discussing Russell's response. The reason for this is that Russell often badly misrepresents the argument; so rather than seeing how his objections fare against his straw man, it is better to see how they fare against a form of the argument that might actually be used by a Christian apologist.

In this case, I can't do that, because I have never encountered this argument in any of my readings of Christian writers, or if I have encountered it I don't remember it. Of course, my reading is limited: I am not a professional theologian, and thus my time to read theology is limited. I prefer to focus, as well as contemporary writers, on the best writers (and most relevant today) of the early, medieval and reformation periods. Thus it is possible that theologians of Russell's period were advocating arguments of this form, and I just haven't encountered those writers. If so, it is not an omission I regret if this line of thought is typical of their work.

The argument, of course, has many obvious flaws: there is no objective reason why the universe should be just (certainly notif we don't assume God's existence) -- there is no law of the conservation of justice written into any physics I know of; it is not clear to me that if there was such a law that it would necessarily imply an afterlife in order to remedy it; and I can't see how the heaven, hell and so on that come from this argument connect to the concepts as defined in classical theism (which is what we would be seeking to prove). Thus, like Russell, I don't see much merit in this argument. But that's not so relevant, because I don't know of anyone who has used it to justify their belief in a theistic religion such as Christianity.

Before I get to Russell's next point, though, I need to discuss in more detail what justice is. Justice is to give to people as they deserve. It means giving good things to good people, and bad things to bad people. It ultimately arises from agape love, the desire for goodness in itself. So before we have a notion of justice, we need to have a notion of what is good, both in terms of what is meant as a good person, and what is meant as a good thing to give to a good person.

A good person is one who is virtuous, that is somebody whose character does not hinder themselves or others from fulfilling their natural tendencies. But what is a good thing? We can easily ask what a good apple is, or a good ladder, but it is less easy to say what sort of reward is fitting for a good person. After all, the virtuous person's prime goal is to be of a good character, to to live peaceably with and aid wider society. Certainly he has some basic needs, food, water, clothing, shelter, whatever tools are required for his occupation and to support his family and home; but even these he desires to only to the degree necessary, and not to excess. Virtue itself, both in himself and others, is the reward that a good man seeks.

So we all know of cases where a fraudulent cheat who swindled his way to a fortune drives a modern Ferrari, while his honest schoolmate is left with a rusty bicycle. What of it? Our worth is not judged by the possessions we earn, or the size of our car; to a certain extent the more someone flaunts his possessions, the worse I regard him. The honest man is content with his bicycle: after all, it does what he needs it to do, keeps him active, and has much lower insurance costs. The cheat, on the the other hand, is content only briefly; he'll always be envious that he hasn't got a McLaren. Indeed, the Ferrari offers a distraction: it keeps his mind away from what is truly important: personal virtue. So is this sort of circumstance truly unjust?

OK, so what about the circumstances when good people aren't content. There is a certain amount we all need, and some people lack that. Some of those people are good. Is that fair? Or there are those who are imprisoned, tortured, humiliated, killed, precisely because they hold to a Christian faith, or are good people and refuse to do what tyranny demands. Is that suffering fair? Perhaps it is best to quote someone who went through that sort of thing:

More than that, we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.

So once again, the good person, even in lack, is more concerned about character than his situation. That doesn't mean that the good person should seek suffering, but he is ready to face it when it comes. [Note that I am not saying that I myself am good to this degree. I would rather have the Ferrari than be in the torture chamber.]

But then, what about the natural disasters? Famines, earthquakes, floods, hurricanes? Then we have diseases, from the mild to the excruciating. Surely they strike good and evil alike. Is there justice there?

If there is justice, then it makes painful reading. Maybe we all, even the best of us, deserve bone cancer, or to be flattened in an earthquake, or have our blood mixed with sacrifices in a temple. After all, none of us are truly good. We have all lied, cheated, thought impurely about that pretty lady (or handsome man) we have encountered, coveted that super-car we don't need; rejected and rebelled against God. Maybe we all deserve earthquakes, famines, bone cancer. Maybe the only injustice is that most of us don't suffer that; in which case we should be glad that the world isn't fair. And, of course, if Christianity or one of such certain other religions are true, then those of a good nature will be rewarded with the peaceful society and virtuous character that they crave, while those of an evil nature will be rewarded with the chaos, torment and anarchy that is the logical consequence of their own cravings being satisfied.

So it is not wholly clear that the universe is fundamentally unjust. But that's not the question. The question is is the justice (or lack of it) we observe consistent with the various expressions of theism? Certainly, there are some naive forms of theism that are ruled out by it, that do differ from what we observe. But the problem is that they are not religions that anyone actually believes in. The religions that are practised observe apparent injustice in the world, and are (not surprisingly) tuned to be perfectly consistent with it. For example, the Psalmist observes,


Truly God is good to Israel, to those who are pure in heart.

But as for me, my feet had almost stumbled, my steps had nearly slipped.

For I was envious of the arrogant when I saw the prosperity of the wicked.

For they have no pangs until death; their bodies are fat and sleek.

They are not in trouble as others are; they are not stricken like the rest of mankind.

Therefore pride is their necklace; violence covers them as a garment.

Their eyes swell out through fatness; their hearts overflow with follies.

They scoff and speak with malice; loftily they threaten oppression.

They set their mouths against the heavens, and their tongue struts through the earth.

Therefore his people turn back to them, and find no fault in them.

And they say, "How can God know? Is there knowledge in the Most High?"

A religion with such questions (and which provides its answer later in the Psalm) is not going to be over-awed by questions of injustice.

So Russell's attempt, later in this section of his essay, to turn the argument from justice for God into an argument from injustice against God is doomed to failure. He has to ask whether the apparent injustice we see is inconsistent with every form of theism. The answer is clearly and obviously not. Real world religions are built to handle the real world. Either they fit it because they are true and the world resembles their expectations on account of that truth; or because they are false, and were carefully crafted to explain such questions. A religion which could not handle obvious objections such as this would not have survived to our day.

But the way Russell presents his argument from injustice is also worth commenting on.

If you looked at the matter from a scientific point of view, you would say: "After all, I only know this world. I do not know about the rest of the universe, but so far as one can argue at all on probabilities, one would say that probably this world is a fair sample, and if there is injustice here the odds are that there is injustice elsewhere also." … [A scientific person] would say: "Here we find in this world a great deal of injustice and so far as that goes that is a reason for supposing that justice does not rule in the world; and so far as it goes it affords a moral argument against deity and not in favour of one."

On the contrary, any scientist worth their salt would precisely not say this. Every scientist knows about the dangers of extrapolation, particularly from one region (such as this world) to another entirely unlike it (such as a future heaven/hell). The nice linear relationship we see in our experimental data need not continue beyond them. Indeed, it almost certainly won't. Invariably there is some quadratic, logarithmic or inverse power term which takes over at different scales. There are an infinite number of possible functions consistent with the data, each with very different predictions once we move beyond the range. A blind regression and extrapolation should never be trusted.

Better is to use an extrapolation based on a model which we have independent grounds for believing. These grounds might be theoretical, philosophical, mathematical or grounded in some other aspect of science. Every extrapolation assumes some model. The question is how confident are we that those assumptions are valid; and what uncertainty do those assumptions lead to in our final result. Sometimes we can have confidence in the model; a lot of the time we can't. So the results of an extrapolation even in science owe as much to our preconceived biases as to the data; it is even more so in philosophy. Extrapolations of this nature are dangerous and should be avoided. For example, one would hardly be justified in opening a crate of oranges and noting that all the oranges at the top are bad, and concluding from that data that every orange on the planet is bad, which is essentially what Russell is asking us to do in his argument from injustice. He is arguing that since the world is apparently unjust here, it is very likely to also be unjust in the same way in the very place designed to remedy the present injustice. Russell assumes a model that what we have here is a fair sample of what heaven and hell will be like; while the point of heaven and hell (as presented in the argument from injustice) is that our present world does not resemble eternity. The only model we have shows that Russell's extrapolation is particularly reckless.

Thus we come to the end of Russell's treatment of the arguments for the existence of God. He presented various arguments (usually badly) that are put forward for the existence of God, and follows up with bad responses to these arguments. So the question remains why is it that many people do believe in God? Russell devotes a couple of paragraphs to this question.

Of course I know that the sot of intellectual arguments I have been talking to you about are not really what moves people. What really moves people to believe in God is not any intellectual argument at all. Most people believe in God because they have been taught from early infancy to do it, and that is the main reason.

Then I think that the next most powerful reason is the wish for safety, a sort of feeling that there is a big brother who will look after you. That plays a very profound part in influencing people's desire for a belief in God.

I have recently seen a Christian apologist who argued that the reason that atheists don't believe in God despite the clear and abundant evidence for His existence is that atheists don't want to face that if there is a God then they will be held morally accountable for their actions; they will be judged for the fornication and pride that they cannot bear to part with. Atheists, I am sure, will scoff at this. This line of thought might, of course, motivate some atheists at least partially, but to generalise it to all atheists is foolhardy in the extreme. There are many atheists who don't believe in God they were brought up that way; some who believe there is a lack of evidence for God; some who believe that theism is pre-scientific nonsense, and is inconsistent with the findings of Newton, Darwin, the archaeologists and anthropologists; some have read the arguments of atheist apologists such as Mackie, Nielsen and Martin and found them convincing (as a classical rather than Kantian theist, I find their arguments for the most part irrelevant, and the rest easily answered); and there are probably as many reasons as there are atheists. It is wholly wrong to generalise about what motivates atheists and agnostics.

So why is it any better to generalise about the motivations of Christians? Yes, some Christians were no doubt raised in the faith and stuck with it without really thinking about it; in Russell's day (when the culture was Christian, even if academia had drifted away from religion) that was probably more true than it is today. Maybe some like the security of a God watching over them. But, certainly today, I would say that such people are in a clear minority. The only generalisation I would dare to make is to say that the vast majority of active Christians today are so because they firmly believe that the evidence shows Christianity to be true.

That doesn't mean, of course, that every Christian marvelled at the cosmological argument and immediately bowed to their knees. It is true for some people , but certainly a minority of the people in church today. That doesn't mean that arguments such as these are useless. Philosophical argumentation played an important role in the initial conversion of classical Europe to Christianity; were today's European society to revert back to Christianity, then sound philosophy needs to come first to root out the numerous misunderstandings, ignorance and poor argumentation built on poor premises that have dominated Western thought since the enlightenment. However, even for those who come to believe in Christianity for other reasons, the philosophical arguments provide a useful consistency check.

Why, then, do Christians find these arguments convincing, while atheists do not? In part, I would say that this is because many atheists badly misrepresent the arguments and don't really understand them. I showed that this was true for Russell here and for earlier philosophers such as Hume and Kant here. I hardly need to show that the new atheists such as Richard Dawkins do an even worse job of presenting their case than Bertrand Russell. Judging from the misunderstandings shown in their writings, I have to conclude that they don't know any better and are woefully ignorant of that which they are trying to criticise. Instead of doing the hard work of trying to understand what the medieval philosophers meant, I have seen atheists, even those of the vast philosophical ability and awareness of Russell, just repeat Hume's presentation of the argument as though Hume got it even vaguely right; then, when they come to the actual arguments those I have read say, "This seems to be slightly similar to what Hume presented, so I'll assume that it is just a rephrasing of that argument that I know how to beat," rather than taking the trouble to see if Hume's objections stand up against the real thing. The tactics used to out-box a sea slug won't be so effective against Frank Bruno (in his prime).

An atheist would no doubt say that the Christians who accept these arguments are ignorant of the underlying scientific principles; for those Christians who delight in naive forms of the arguments this might well be correct, but it is hardly true for all Christians. Equally, there are many atheists who have only a superficial knowledge of modern science; one does not discount atheism because of the scientific ignorance of some atheists, so why should one discount Christianity because some Christians are also ignorant? Some forms of the cosmological argument might well be undermined by modern physics, but, as a physicist myself, I would say that the best of them are supported by physics rather than refuted by it.

However, the main reason, I would say, for the different ways in which atheists and Christians evaluate these arguments is that atheists and Christians operate from entirely different world views and entirely different premises. Raw experimental data is model independent; but every interpretation of that data we provide depends on our prior assumptions. Atheists have one set of assumptions; Christians another. The standard arguments for God start from some data, and then how they proceed depend on the other assumptions made.

Is Christianity to be rejected, then, because the assumptions needed to believe the arguments for God's existence are pre-scientific? But there are several different meanings which the phrase pre-scientific can possess, and they are not all bad. Many people, on hearing the phrase, would think against science; others uninfluenced by science. Whether this is true for classical theistic philosophy, including Christianity, is the very matter of the present debate; we should not assume it. Others would think of the temporal relationship, that classical theism came before modern science in time; this is true, but irrelevant as to whether Christianity is true. But then there are other senses of the phrase. After all, modern science emerged from the Medieval Catholic universities. The assumptions that science depends on were first taken from Christian theology. To be pre-scientific in the sense of being the historical origin of modern science is not a drawback for Christianity. Then, we can think of Christian theology is pre-scientific in terms of the order of knowledge; the premises of contemporary physics are rightly drawn from the conclusions of Christian theism. If this is true, then to be pre-scientific would be an advantage for Christianity. And, of course, we have to ask if atheism and deism are as scientific as their proponents claim them to be. The assumptions behind modern atheism are drawn from enlightenment philosophy, which was developed before and contrary to the most recent developments in fundamental physics.

So what other types of evidence do Christians use to justify their beliefs? What did Russell leave out from his essay? I cannot, of generalise and speak for all Christians; all I can do is list a few arguments which are important to those Christians I know. There are, of course, arguments from personal experience of miracles; arguments from history, particularly the historical case for Christ's resurrection or past miracles of the Church; belief based on a personal encounter with God through the Holy Spirit; arguments from the fulfilment of prophecy; arguments based on authority (not necessarily bad; one can accept one's own limitations and thus bow to the authority of an expert you judge to be of sound character and well versed in the facts; just as I accept what I know of molecular biology based on the authority of the molecular biologists); those who come to believe based on what they see in the character of others, particularly those who change after conversion; belief based on how well Christian theology explains and fits in with what we observe about human nature, and sound ethical principles; and many others. These (alongside the intellectual arguments such as the moral argument, cosmological, teleological, moral and design arguments) are the reasons that most Christians I know today accept Christianity. Like all things, some of these reasons why people accept Christianity are good, and others less good. But the point is that there are always reasons which seem plausible to the person in question.

Atheists will, of course, dismiss these arguments. I'm sure that the reason that Russell dismissed the argument from miracles is that he believed that the possibility of miracles was dismissed by the likes of Hume and Spinoza, and in his day, in the first wave of theological liberal domination of the academy, even the theologians he encountered would have accepted these arguments. I'll discuss this topic in my next post.

I don't doubt that many adult Christians were raised as Christians as children, and that certainly is an influence, if nothing else because Sunday School and parents are the the only places where a young child will encounter genuine Christianity rather than the misconceptions of the popular atheists, and thus be aware of the best evidence for the religion. This, however, doesn't explain the many converts to Christianity or those who came back to the religion. Nor is it an argument against the truth of Christianity, any more than to say that because many of those raised in atheist or agnostic households turn out atheist is an argument against a lack of belief. The Christian might not encounter the strongest forms of the arguments for atheism as they grow up, and so remain Christian. The atheist might not encounter the standard refutations of the popular atheist argumentation while growing up, and therefore will not consider anything else. However, I am convinced that in today's Western world to reach adulthood as a Christian having been swamped by anti-Christian propaganda from schools and the media, someone must come to their own decision based on the evidence for Christianity. I am not aware of anyone who is a Christian because it provides emotional support to think of a man in the sky looking out for them (there might be some people who think in that way, although with that misconception of God they can hardly be Christians).

So if you are about to write an essay or give a talk in which you express the reason why you think people are motivated to believe in Christianity, don't generalise and assume on no evidence but your own imagination (or your own experiences in moving from an immature Christian faith). Every Christian will have a different story to tell. Ask them.



The existence of God, Part 7: What Russell missed (part 1).


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In what year was the battle of Hastings?