At the Edge

Commentary on the Big Issues

Category: Philosophy

My Politics

In this post, I’m going to explain what my general political philosophy is, so that you guys (readers) can better understand what filters I’m applying when I articulate my opinions. So, here’s what I believe in terms of political philosophy:

I. Rule Utilitarianism

In broad terms, I ascribe to rule utilitarianism. Let me start by explaining what “utilitarianism” is, and then explain what the specific kind of utilitarianism I ascribe to implies.

Utilitarianism is a moral philosophy — that means it tries to explain what actions people, in general, should do, and what we shouldn’t do. In application to the government, what it does is evaluate, very broadly, the purpose of the government. In essence, utilitarianism states that the best action is one that maximizes “utility.” It defines utility as:

… the sum of all pleasure that results from an action, minus the suffering of anyone involved in the action.

It all began with a philosophy in Ancient Greece called hedonism, which held that all action has the objective of achieving happiness or pleasure. Aristotle articulated this as eudaimonia, which means “human flourishing” or welfare. In his works, Aristotle claimed that eudaimonia is the highest good. Much later, the Christian philosopher Saint Augustine wrote in his Summa Theologica:

All men agree in desiring the last end, which is happiness.

In essence, hedonism argues that all of us act in order to maximize our own positive mental states (i.e. we perform actions to fulfill our “desires,” and a positive mental state is the mental state when a desire is fulfilled) and minimize the negative mental states of ours (such as suffering).

This was first translated into a political philosophy by certain Confucian thinkers in China, and by Italian political philosopher Nicollo Machiavelli. In essence, they argued that the purpose of the state was to work for the people, and fulfill the objectives of the people. They created a political philosophy where the ends justify the means: the ultimate end being the *aggregate* good of the people (i.e. the aggregate desire of the people). As such, every action taken by the state had to weigh costs and benefits, and make decisions based on the net positive mental states produced as a result.

Utilitarianism was first developed as a moral philosophy by Jeremy Bentham, who defined morality as that which maximized utility. Bentham explained, defining the fundamental axiom of utilitarianism,

It is the greatest happiness of the greatest number that is the measure of right and wrong.

One radically different idea that Bentham brought out was the idea that pleasure and pain were the only considerations for moral action, and, as a direct result of that, all individuals that could feel or perceive any interest subjectively were considered actors to whom morality applied: not in terms that all those individuals have moral obligations, but rather, that all of them have moral rights. In other words, many animals and humans were, as per his philosophy, morally equal. But, at the same time, Bentham acknowledged that animals did not act based on their choice or considerations, and therefore, claimed that they were free from moral obligation. But, at the same time, humans had a moral obligation toward them.

The idea of utilitarianism was further expanded upon, and spread, by the works of influential 19th century philosopher John Stuart Mill. Mill noted that the “maximization of utility” was not based solely on the number of people who faced a positive or negative mental state. It was also based on the magnitude of that mental state. If a single individual was being tortured, the pain would outweigh, for example, the pain felt if ten people underwent needle pricks.

Now, to better understand utilitarianism, let us consider a situation known to philosophers as “the trolley problem.” The situation is articulated by Wikipedia as follows:

“There is a runaway trolley barreling down the railway tracks. Ahead, on the tracks, there are five people tied up and unable to move. The trolley is headed straight for them. You are standing some distance off in the train yard, next to a lever. If you pull this lever, the trolley will switch to a different set of tracks. However, you notice that there is one person on the side track. You have two options: (1) Do nothing, and the trolley kills the five people on the main track. (2) Pull the lever, diverting the trolley onto the side track where it will kill one person. Which is the most ethical choice?”

According to utilitarianism, the right choice is to pull the lever, because the interests of five people outweigh the interests of one person. Of course, we don’t have a lot of information (e.g. the sadness faced by a family, etc.), but assuming each person would generate an equal amount of suffering with their death, that would be the right thing to do.

Now, utilitarianism is divided into two forms: act utilitarianism, and rule utilitarianism.

Act utilitarianism looks to maximize pleasure and minimize pain in the short term, at a much smaller level. Under act utilitarianism, all moral rules are negotiable. By contrast, rule utilitarianism tries to establish certain clear moral rules that — in the long term — will act as a net benefit to humanity. Let me give you an example to illustrate the difference.

Say there are four people suffering from kidney failure, liver failure, respiratory failure, and cardiac failure respectively. The question: Would it be justified to kill one person in order to harvest their organs and save the lives of the four people? Under act utilitarianism, the answer is “yes.” However, rule utilitarianism takes a more nuanced approach. Rule utilitarianism holds that the answer is “no,” and the reason for that is that by allowing, morally, random individuals to die for more people to survive, you are creating a substantial sense of fear in society, since *anyone* could be picked. In addition, you are causing social instability by directly going against the aggregate *desires* of society, since — if any of us is asked that question — none of us is going to want to kill that one random individual. As such, rule utilitarianism establishes a moral *rule* to not kill random people to save others in society because it would lead to massive social unrest/instability. But, under rule utilitarianism, every rule has exceptions.

If you want to understand utilitarianism better, watch Crash Course Philosophy #36: Utilitarianism.

Why do I support utilitarianism in terms of the role of government?

The answer is simple. The purpose of government is to act according to what the people want, because the people *are* the government. The government was instituted in the first place to be a body that acted according to the wishes of the people. And utilitarianism weighs the aggregate interests of the people against each other by balancing the fundamental interests (i.e. rights) of every individual.

This leads me to two implications of utilitarianism, which become the second and third portions of my political beliefs.

II. Harm Principle

The first implication is that, under utilitarianism, the government should have its limits. Unless a clear limit is placed on the government, the state basically gets the moral power to do whatever it wants. At the small level, it could infringe on bodily autonomy by banning abortion… or it could go all the way to committing genocide. John Stuart Mill thought he had a way to prevent that. He articulated a limit on the government known as the “harm principle,” which, he explained:

“The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.”

In other words, it states that the government should *only* prevent “harm” to people who don’t consent to that harm. If someone wants “harm” to happen to them, then that’s their prerogative. For example, if someone makes a choice to have cosmetic surgery, or eat unhealthy food, then that’s their choice entirely and we can’t stop them from doing it. Harm, here, is defined as inducing a substantial negative mental state (e.g. suffering) weighed against the harms of preventing that mental state from occurring (e.g. excessive government control). For example, hate speech, in some contexts, would still be permitted. This is fundamentally utilitarian in nature because utilitarianism is about allowing the people to do what they desire, consistent with what other people desire, and the harm principle does exactly that. But there are also a few conditions that make the “choice” in question legitimate. For one, the person making the choice must understand the consequences of the choice (i.e. it must be an informed choice). In addition, the person making the choice must be mentally able to truly understand those consequences. That’s why we set age limits on choices such as consumption of alcohol, as well as why we try to get information regarding, for example, the effects of unhealthy food to the public.

A logical extension of this principle is simple: the best utilitarian end is liberty. Liberty is defined as the freedom to perform an action, or the absence of restraint. If people desire something, they act to achieve that desire. Thus, they should be free to achieve those desires insofar as they do not restrict the desires of other individuals. Therefore, by extension, the role of the government is to preserve the liberty of individuals, consistent with liberty of other individuals. But this liberty is not truly enjoyable unless the government has secured society from internal threats (e.g. poverty, lack of healthcare) and external threats (i.e. international relations). I think people should be guaranteed certain basic and fundamental rights (e.g. the right to life, the right to food security) so that they can enjoy said liberty. However, it is ultimately their choice as to whether they wish to *exercise* those rights (e.g. I would want to provide universal health insurance but would allow them to decline treatment if mentally able to make that decision).

Thus, the balancing of rights comes into play, and the role of the government turns to one, more specifically, of “justice,” i.e. giving each their due. A balancing of rights decides what policy decisions are to be taken.

III. Democracy

The second implication of utilitarianism is the need to ensure social instability. This is because, in a society or civilization, we are always at the risk of failing, due to multiple threats, both internal and external. And securing ourselves from these threats is of utmost importance regarding the purpose of government.

To prevent social unrest, therefore, democracy is the best means of government, and we must seek to employ as much public participation in the political process as possible. There are two reasons. First, without democracy, we fail to adequately reflect the values of society as a whole; lacking which, there is the risk of social and political instability. The long-term social stability of a nation, and to sustain a political system without backlash, is very important. Second, only a democracy allows the government to act based on what individuals desire. The democratic process is about individuals voting on referendums or elections based on their own self interest, and the *aggregate* of this self-interest is translated into the overall good of society. Third, democracy allows for the decentralization of political power.

The third point is the one that needs expansion. To maintain adequate liberty, the core principle under the maximization of said liberty has to be the decentralization and equal distribution of political power, as well as of property. The reason for this is that if power is concentrated among a few individuals, then there will inevitably be restraint on freedom exercised by those individuals. Monopolies of corporations, for example, restrain the freedom of individuals to buy products from separate dealers. Furthermore, to reflect the values of the people, only decentralized zones can sufficiently ensure said social stability. This is because the values of people and interests of them will differ based on region, and political power needs to be placed separately in the hands of separate communities. Finally, decentralization of power gives people control over economic planning that affects themselves, allowing, directly, for the maximization of liberty.

What is my political ideology?

My political ideology is framed based on the above three considerations. Ultimately, I believe in the absence of restraint, the decentralization of political power, and the preservation of social stability as a whole. As such, I identify with the ideology known as social liberalism, which believes in maximizing liberty of individuals consistent with liberty of other individuals, given the fulfillment of certain basic and fundamental rights by the government (e.g. healthcare, education, employment, and food security). I also believe in recognizing certain basic rights of nonhuman animals, including a right against needless suffering (see my post on animal rights for more expansion). That’s my ideology insofar as the practical needs of society are concerned.

However, the logical endpoint of the three above observations is a different, albeit unachievable, outcome known as anarcho-syndicalism or libertarian socialism. It is a society based on the principle of liberty, divided into various decentralized localities, where all individuals work and where there is no true monetary system. The workers control the planning of the economy and provide to all other workers healthcare, education, and employment. Private property either does not exist (i.e. socialism), or is distributed evenly (i.e. distributism). Unfortunately, this society is unattainable, so we need to work with what we have, the best means of ensuring which is social liberalism. I deviate from conventional social liberals today in many ways, but, broadly, I believe in maximizing social and economic liberty and justice. An unjust law is no law at all.

The Kalam Cosmological Argument

The debate of God’s existence has been raging on for centuries. In today’s world, there is one icon of the theistic side of the debate, a person who defeated the likes of Christopher Hitchens and Lawrence Krauss in debates on God’s existence formally. His name is William Lane Craig, the founder of the Reasonable Faith apologetics group. His main philosophical contribution is an argument called the kalam cosmological argument (KCA). In this post, I’m going to critique that argument.

What, essentially, is the kalam cosmological argument? It is an argument for God’s existence that rests on the following premises:

1: Everything that begins to exist has a cause

2: The universe began to exist

3: Therefore, the universe has a cause

4: If the universe has a cause, there is a personal cause of the universe

5: Ergo, there is a personal cause of the universe

Is the KCA logically valid?

The above syllogism is logically valid, in that if the premises are true, the conclusion follows. Let me first show how the syllogism is valid. Within this syllogism, there are – in reality – two syllogisms. Which are those two?

Syllogism 1

1: Everything that begins to exist has a cause

2: The universe began to exist

3: Therefore, the universe has a cause

This syllogism (henceforth S1) has two premises (1 and 2), and one conclusion (3). It is called a Barbara syllogism, because it follows the below format:

1: All S are M

2: All P are S

3: Therefore, all P are M

Barbara syllogisms are logically valid, because they represent a mode of logical validity called modus Barbara. An example of such a syllogism:

1: Anything that has a chip is ruined

2: The cup has a chip

3: Therefore, the cup is ruined

Syllogism 2

The second syllogism is tricky to find, because any normal syllogism has at least two premises, and one conclusion. But after those three propositions, we only find two more propositions:

1: If the universe has a cause, there is a personal cause of the universe

2: Ergo, there is a personal cause of the universe

It seems like it’s logically invalid. But, as any logician knows, it is valid, because there is, in fact, a third premise, that applies to the complete KCA syllogism. We’ve forgotten another premise which was the conclusion of Syllogism 1: “the universe has a cause.”

So, we re-formulate the second syllogism:

1: If the universe has a cause, there is a personal cause of the universe

2: The universe has a cause (S1, conclusion)

3: Ergo, there is a personal cause of the universe

At this point, S2 makes a lot more sense. That’s because it is logically valid. It is a form of syllogism called “affirming the antecedent,” or modus ponens. An example of this:

1: If the cup has a chip, it is ruined

2: The cup has a chip

3: Ergo, it is ruined

Therefore, S1 and S2 are both logically valid, and S1 + S2 makes the kalam cosmological argument.

Is the KCA logically sound?

The only means by which to show that the KCA is false is to prove that it is not logically sound. What is the difference between the logical validity of a syllogism, and the logical soundness of a syllogism? The difference is simple. Take the following syllogism:

1: Anyone who drinks water is immortal

2: John drinks water

3: Ergo, John is immortal

The syllogism is logically valid, as a Barbara syllogism. Nonetheless, it’s ridiculous: the first premise is false, because almost every human who has died drank water once. So logical validity doesn’t guarantee the conclusion. The syllogism is valid, but is logically unsound.

A sound syllogism is one that fulfills two criteria: (1) all its premises are true, and (2) it is logically valid. If a syllogism is sound, it is valid, but not necessarily vice versa. This post intends to prove that the KCA is logically unsound. I find almost all premises problematic.

William Lane Craig — the founder of the KCA — defends it as logically sound. I’m going to present Craig’s own defense of the KCA first, in my own words.

Defense of the KCA

In this subdivision, I’m going to outline how Craig defends the KCA.

The Wikipedia article on the kalam cosmological argument says,

“Craig has defended the first premise as rationally intuitive knowledge, based upon the properly basic metaphysical intuition that “something cannot come into being from nothing”, or “Ex nihilo nihil fit”, which originates from Parmenidean ontology. . . . Craig has defended the second premise using both appeals to scientific evidence and philosophical arguments: Firstly, with evidence from cosmology, and secondly using an a posteriori argument for the metaphysical impossibility of actual infinities. For the former, he appeals to the Borde-Guth-Vilenkin Theorem, a cosmological theorem which deduces that any universe that has, on average, been expanding throughout its history cannot be infinite in the past but must have a past space-time boundary. On actual infinities, Craig asserts the metaphysical impossibility of an actually infinite series of past events by citing David Hilbert’s famous Hilbert’s Hotel thought experiment and Laurence Sterne’s story of Tristam Shandy.”

Craig also defends that the cause has to be God via the following means:

(1) A first state of the material world cannot have a material explanation and must originate ex nihilo in being without material cause, because no natural explanation can be causally prior to the very existence of the natural world (space-time and its contents). It follows necessarily that the cause is outside of space and time (timeless, spaceless), immaterial, and enormously powerful, in bringing the entirety of material reality into existence.

(2) Even if positing a plurality of causes prior to the origin of the universe, the causal chain must terminate in a cause which is absolutely first and uncaused, otherwise an infinite regress of causes would arise.

(3) Occam’s Razor maintains that unicity of the First Cause should be assumed unless there are specific reasons to believe that there is more than one causeless cause.

(4) Agent causation, volitional action, is the only ontological condition in which an effect can arise in the absence of prior determining conditions. Therefore, only personal, free agency can account for the origin of a first temporal effect from a changeless cause.

(5) Abstract objects, the only other ontological category known to have the properties of being uncaused, spaceless, timeless and immaterial, do not sit in causal relationships, nor can they exercise volitional causal power.

I argue that these justifications fail to prove logical soundness.

Critique of the KCA

Below are my criticisms of the KCA:

Proposition 1: Everything that begins to exist has a cause

Craig’s justification for the idea that everything that begins to exist has a cause is from the axiom “ex nihilo nihil fit,” i.e. out of nothing, nothing comes. The justification is rationally intuitive, and commits a fallacy called the “appeal to intuition” fallacy. Merely relying on intuition does not work. There’s no reason to buy that human intuition–limited by the constraints of space and time–would work outside the universe. Furthermore, the idea of causation presupposes time. You can’t generalize from “who threw the cat in the well” to “what caused the universe.” Stephen Hawking–despite being a physicist, not a philosopher–made a very valid philosophical point: it’s incoherent to speak of causation when humans lack cognition of such a level of causation. Sans the universe, there is (probably) no time, and all our ideas of cause-effect relationships assume the flow of time. Without the flow of time, we can’t even conceive of a cause producing an effect. It’s beyond our cognition, since for human cognition there has to be a “when” for any cause-effect relationship.

Craig makes the argument that simultaneous causality is possible, so this isn’t a problem. I agree that simultaneous causality (the idea that the universe was caused in one instantaneous moment in time) is possible, but under such a framework, there’s no external cause of the universe — the universe could have caused itself without adding an additional assumption.

Proposition 2: The universe began to exist

What does “begins to exist” mean? Craig defines it as follows:

“e comes into being at t if and only if (i) e exists at t, (ii) t is the first time at which e exists, (iii) there is no state of affairs in the actual world in which e exists timelessly, and (iv) e’s existing at t is a tensed fact.”

Per the previous definition, e is an object, and t is a certain moment in time. By the second premise of this argument, e is the universe, and t is the moment when the universe came into existence. Craig’s evidence is threefold: (a) actual infinities are impossible, and (b) the Borde-Guth-Vilenkin theorem entails a beginning.

Image taken from the following link: http://bicepkeck.org/visuals.html, from the “official website for results from the BICEP and Keck Array series of CMB polarization experiments,” the BICEP2 program, funded by the National Science Foundation. CC BY-SA 3.0.

I argue that the lack of an absolute beginning doesn’t entail an actual infinite. Why? I’m going to introduce a viewpoint known as “eternalism.” What is eternalism? First, we must understand the conventional view of time. All of us feel time. We count seconds, minutes. Time passes with every action. Every series of events is temporal. Humans perceive time as linear. What does that mean? It means we make a distinction between the past, present, and future. We assume the past happened once and is no longer happening. It was real, but isn’t real anymore. The same way, we think the future hasn’t happened yet–it isn’t real now, but it will be real. But our perception of time is false, according to recent research.

Eternalism is the idea that the past, present, and future are all real, regardless of whether we experience them. Our experience of time is merely an illusion. The universe is tenseless. It also holds that time is akin to a spatial dimension, and acts as a fourth dimension. Under such a viewpoint, the all four “begins to exist” criteria are false. The universe doesn’t exist at a single moment in time, it doesn’t have any “first moment”–it is a tenseless block which simultaneously is in all moments, it does exist timelessly, and tensed facts don’t exist. Such a viewpoint would holds that the universe is static at all moments in time, but since we perceive linear time, the universe expands from our point of view. From an observer’s point of view, it is just a static, tenseless four-dimensional block that never began. It isn’t infinite in time, because it’s tenseless–there’s no such thing as an “infinite series of events,” since every moment in time exists on an identical plane.

Furthermore, the Borde-Guth-Vilenkin theorem wouldn’t halt this. That’s because the Borde-Guth-Vilenkin theorem entails a beginning only on grounds of the universe’s expansion – but under eternalism, time is illusory, so expansion is only apparent, not necessarily “real.”

Why believe in eternalism? There’s a compelling reason. Under our view of time, the future doesn’t “already exist,” which makes travel through time or cross-temporal entanglement–referred to as time dilation–impossible. Only a view where the past, present, and future are equally real would allow such time dilation. Time dilation has been observed. Photons have been entangled through time in experiments. Both of these would be impossible unless eternalism were true.

 

Even Craig concedes that eternalism would refute this premise.

Proposition 3: The universe has a cause

Based on my refutation of (1) and (2), this is not necessarily true.

Proposition 4: If the universe has a cause, there is a personal cause of the universe

I’ll address each of Craig’s justifications for this:

(1) Craig presumes that the cause of the universe is an “external cause,” which is why he concludes such a cause must be supernatural. Since he concedes that simultaneous causation is possible, the universe might have caused itself. Furthermore, a “supernatural cause” is not necessarily personal. I argue that even if the universe was caused, the cause could have been supernatural and, yet, not personal. This is because a personal cause would have to be a disembodied mind, but minds, in requiring processes, require time and the universe to exist themselves.

(2) Craig’s arguments against actual infinities fail. He says that an infinite regress has some odd properties, since ‘infinity minus infinity,’ and similar mathematical problems, are impossible to solve. He says a hotel with infinite rooms, if full, can still hold another infinite people. Michael Martin critiques this:

“Craig’s a priori arguments are unsound or show at most that actual infinities have odd properties. This latter fact is well known, however, and shows nothing about whether it is logically impossible to have actual infinities in the real world. … Craig fails to show that there is anything logically inconsistent about an actual infinity existing in reality.”

An infinite regression is not impossible. Further, simultaneous causality would allow the universe to cause itself, so it doesn’t run into this problem.

(3) Occam’s razor is the “principle of simplicity,” and holds that, among a set of competing hypotheses, the one with least assumptions is the most likely one. Under this, the universe causing itself would remove the assumption of God, so Craig’s argument is turned against himself.

(4) The idea that only agent action can cause something sans determining conditions is false for multiple reasons. Firstly, such a principle applies only within the universe. Craig doesn’t give a reason for it to apply outside the universe. Secondly, objects that are personal also cannot act on things independently. Only if dualism or idealism were true would that be possible. I shall now frame a case for physicalism based on eternalism. Since eternalism is true, justified by quantum mechanics and special relativity, it would imply that there has to be another explanation for our perception of time. Prosser argues:

“…any physicalist or supervenience theory of the mind the nature of experience is determined entirely by the physical state of the world—experience could not be different without the physical state of the world being different. Now our understanding of the role of time in physical science suggests that the putative flow of time has no role in determining the physical state of the world. It follows from this that the flow of time could have no role in determining the nature of experience. The intuitive impression that time flows thus arises quite independently of the putative real flow of time. Consequently the nature of temporal experience provides no reason to posit a real flow of time.”

(5) Craig presumes that the cause is an external one, failing to account for self-causation. Further, under physicalism (demonstrated by Prosser), minds are not timeless and spaceless. Minds, in requiring processes, require time and the universe to exist themselves.

Proposition 5: A personal cause exists

Since all previous propositions are false, this does not entail.

Conclusion

The cosmological argument fails to demonstrate its conclusion, as it is logically unsound, despite Craig’s multiple defenses of it. All its premises are false, and its conclusion doesn’t entail as a result of its unsoundness. Thus, the KCA has been refuted.

 

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