Rousseau on the Problem of Evil in the “Letter to Franquières”

This post is the third in a three-part series on Rousseau’s “Letter to Franquières.” This letter reveals Rousseau’s theodicy and apologetic for belief in God. The first part of the series reviewed Rousseau’s philosophic method. The second part examined his treatment of the problem of the “hiddenness of God.” This part discusses his treatment of the so-called “problem of evil.” Again, page number references are to the eighth volume of The Collected Writings of Rousseau (Dartmouth University Press, 2000).

After a digression on his philosophic methodology, which was discussed in a previous post, Rousseau abruptly changes tone and begins to talk about the “problem of evil.” As he puts it: “But if all is the work of an intelligent, powerful, and beneficent being, from where does the evil on earth derive?” (265). He writes that this “terrible” problem “has never struck me very much, either because I have not conceived it well, or because in fact it does not have all the solidity it appears to have” (265). Still, he agrees to address it because Franquières had raised it in his letter.

His first attempt to deal with the problem of evil is to invoke the system and order of the universe. Things live and die by a regulated, orderly rules, and things are “renewed” and come into being by the same process (265). “I do not see any evil in all that,” Rousseau concludes (265). This order though, will hardly be enough to deter a questioner outraged by the death and pain in the world. Why do the regular and orderly laws of nature produce such horrible consequences? What about death and pain? Aren’t they evils?

Rousseau anticipates this potential objection. He argues that death must be accepted as part and parcel of the life cycle. One comes with the other, and eternal life is not “owed” to us by God. “There was only one means for not dying; it was to have never been born” (265). We can no more complain of this, he might say, than complain of urination even though we enjoy drinking.  Rousseau admits that pain is an evil, but defends its existence in the world on the grounds that it is necessary and valuable in certain respects. To be more specific, “pain and pleasure were the only means for attaching a sensitive and perishable being to its own conservation, and these means are managed with a goodness worthy of the Supreme Being. … Pain is only an importunate but necessary warning, that this good which is so dear to us is in peril” (265). If we didn’t fear heights, might we not jump off of cliffs to get to the bottom? If we didn’t feel pain, might we not touch a burning stove? Pain is a warning sign to alert us to danger. Given that it serves a good and necessary purpose, Rousseau concludes, God has morally sufficient reasons for allowing it.

At this point, a serious objection could be raised. God could have made us so that nothing could ever hurt us, in which case pain would be unnecessary as a danger warning. That is what Jews and Christians imagine the Garden of Eden to have been: a place free of pain and death. Adam and Eve needed no “warnings” to preserve their “perishable” bodies because they were immortal and nothing could harm them. But Rousseau at first takes our physicality and susceptibility to harm as givens. He does not question why we were made “sensitive and perishable” beings in the first place. By way of comparison, Jewish and Christian theology, as expressed in the first chapters of Genesis, finds it necessary to explain the origin of death and pain. For Jews and Christians, pain is clearly said to be the result of punishment for sin, something that Rousseau’s quasi-Deist theology does not permit. He might conceivably respond that God wanted to make a world that would run like a clock according to regular rules, whereas a “garden of Eden” world would require constant supervision. (C.S. Lewis makes a similar argument in The Problem of Pain: free human action requires that there be a stable, orderly world in which humans can make meaningful choices, but such a world cannot come about without many obstacles to our movement.)

In any case, Rousseau does provide a metaphysics that purports to explain the origin of most pain and death while getting God off the hook. He holds to the “opinion” of “the eternal coexistence of two principles: the one active, which is God, the other passive, which is matter” (266). God did not create matter and cannot destroy it; he can only shape or fashion it. The indestructability of the physical is why God made humans perishable and susceptible to pain and death: he had no choice. Matter is matter, and even God cannot do anything about that. It is no surprise that Rousseau writes that he “found in [this opinion] the advantage of explaining without difficulty and clearly to my liking so many questions in which [the philosophers] get entangled” (266). This doctrine of the eternal existence of matter conflicts with the biblical teaching of creation out of nothing, but attempts to perform the same function in Rousseau’s theodicy as the doctrine of the fall does in Christianity.

However, Rousseau invokes another strategy to minimize the problem of evil. Humans have added to the evils resulting from nature, making them far more severe than they ought to be. The presence of pain is more acceptable if it hurts us only mildly and occasionally. Rousseau argues that “the sentiment of death and that of pain is almost nil in the order of nature. It is men who have sharpened it” (265-66). In other words, humans have, through their corrupt wills, magnified something that originally was negligible. One way we do this is through what he calls our “senseless refinements,” by which he means our accumulation of things that are not necessary, the absence of which causes us pain. As described in the Second Discourse, he believes that humans originally were self-sufficient and hardy, sleeping outside, barely noticing the weather, rarely getting sick, and so on. But, modern people have become soft, sickly, needy, and dependent on things outside ourselves. This was our own doing. We whine when the water is too cold in our shower not because God is not generous but because we have become used to hot water and can no longer bear a cold shower. We are pampered, spoiled brats.

Another source of “added evil,” so to speak, is moral evil, or intentional acts of harm done by one person toward another. Unlike his praise of primitivism in the previous paragraph, modern apologists also talk about this type of evil. Moral evil, Rousseau stresses, is done by our own free will (265). “Will it then be necessary to blame God for the crimes of men and for the evils that they draws to them? On seeing a field of battle, will it be necessary to reproach him for having created so many broken arms and legs?” (266).

But why, Rousseau asks, did God make us free? He suggests that free will is inherently valuable for several reasons. For one thing, having freedom makes humans “in this respect similar to himself” (266), what Christians call “made in God’s image.” Moreover, he continues, the virtue of virtuous people is better and more desirable than the evil of evil men is bad. In other words, it is worth having many bad men in order to get a few good men. “[I]f ever there existed a mortal who did not abuse [free will], this mortal alone honors humanity more than all the scoundrels who cover the earth degrade it” (266). Next to Fenelon, Cato, or Socrates, he asks, “What will the rest of mankind matter to me? I shall not blush for having been a man” (266).

For Rousseau, it was the overcoming in virtue that made it so beautiful and glorious. Thus, it would be no good if virtue was easy and universal. It is precisely its rarity and difficulty that magnifies it. “This word virtue signifies ‘strength.’ There is no virtue at all without struggle” (267). If one is just without any pain, it is not as admirable as when someone is just despite losing a great deal. To illustrate this principle, he gives two historical examples. One is of Brutus, the legendary Roman who executed his own sons after they committed treason: “Brutus having his children die might have been only just. But Brutus was a tender father; in order to do his duty he lacerates his insides, and Brutus was virtuous” (267). So a world in which the highest peak of virtue exists must be a world in which a lot of pain exists alongside it, because not everyone will conquer their feelings to achieve the virtues. Yet the magnificence of virtue makes up for the pain and justifies God’s decision to create.

Finally, Rousseau argues that God will ultimately punish evil and reward good. In other words, eventually the experiences of men will match their moral worth. In the afterlife, beyond death, the good will find satisfaction and the wicked will suffer pain. Rousseau objects to the doctrine that “everything end[s] for us with death,” stating that it “cannot be if God is just, and consequently if he exists” (268). The existence of a morally perfect God implies the existence of an afterlife in which people will get what they deserve, a view which anticipates Kant’s writings on religion. This position extricates God from the charge that pain and death are meaningless and undeserved by arguing that underneath the seemingly random exterior is a quasi-providential order.


Rousseau on the Hiddenness of God in the “Letter to Franquières”

This post is the second in a three-part series on Rousseau’s “Letter to Franquières.” This letter reveals Rousseau’s theodicy and apologetic for belief in God. The first part of the series reviewed Rousseau’s philosophic method. This part examines his treatment of the problem of the “hiddenness of God.” The third part, which is coming soon, will discuss his treatment of the so-called “problem of evil.” Again, page number references are to the eighth volume of The Collected Writings of Rousseau (Dartmouth University Press, 2000).

After explaining his method, and telling a hypothetical story (261-62) which is unrelated to our purposes, Rousseau begins to address the “difficulties” raised by Franquières regarding the existence of God. The first difficulty to which he responds has been called the “hiddenness of God.” Rousseau describes the difficulty in this way: “You object, Sir,   that if God had wanted to oblige men to know him, he would have placed his existence in evidence before all eyes” (262). In other words, the fact that many people doubt the existence of God is itself evidence that he doesn’t exist, because it is assumed that God would make his existence plain to everyone (by some means or other) if he wanted all to believe.

Rousseau responds forcefully to this view. For one thing, he argues that, given his theological presupposition that belief in God is not necessary for salvation, it is not as necessary for his theological system that everyone believe in God as it is for more restrictive theological systems. “It is for those who make faith in God a dogma necessary for salvation to answer this objection, and they answer it by revelation. As for me, who believes in God without believing this faith to be necessary, I do not see why God would put himself under the obligation to give it to us” (262). Declaring “that everyone will be judged not concerning what he has believed, but concerning what he has done,” Rousseau denies that “a doctrinal system is necessary for works, because the conscience takes this doctrine’s place” (262). God does require something of us—good works—but he gives all of us a conscience to guide us to moral truth. Moral knowledge can be obtained without reference to God, and even atheists can be moral people (and thus make it into heaven).

By contrast, if someone believes, for instance, that people will go to hell for not believing in God, it would seem that God would want to do everything possible to proclaim his existence. If instead he has made his existence obscure, Rousseau would probably think that people have a legitimate grievance against God. How can they be blamed for not believing in something for which there was no evidence? Rousseau provides a snippet of an answer by saying that such people appeal to “revelation” to obviate this objection, although he does not explain what he means here. Presumably, he is referring to the idea, popular among many Christian theologians, that God makes his existence available to everyone through non-rational means, such as personal experience. For instance, in the Bible, Romans 1:18-21 states: “The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of people, who suppress the truth by their wickedness, since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse. For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened.” The fact that people suppress God’s existence would not, on the Christian view, negate the fact that everyone who rejects theistic belief is guilty. Atheism is a sin, not an error.

Rousseau himself soon endorses a version of this argument. He notes the tendency of people to believe in systems “favorable to our passions” (262) rather than the truth. “[W]e cannot philosophize with so much disinterestedness that our will does not have a little over our opinions” (262). In other words, we do not want to believe, and so we invent “rational” reasons for why belief is wrong. In such cases, Rousseau concludes, “I think it could well be that someone who has not wanted to believe might be punished for not having believed” (262). Maybe he is not so far from Christianity after all.

Another similarity follows immediately. Rousseau next declares that “I believe that God has sufficiently revealed himself to men both by his works and in their hearts, and if there are any who do not know him, according to me this is because they do not want to know him or because they have no need of it” (262). The latter group, those who do not need to know God, comprises those who are too savage, their mental capacities too unformed, to be able to grasp the existence of God. These people are described in much greater depth in Rousseau’s Discourse on Inequality. Despite their lack of belief in God, he says that they spontaneously follow the good because they have not yet been disfigured by society (262).

Rousseau’s assessment of the former group, that is those who do not want to know God, is much harsher. This group is dominated by the character of “the philosopher who, by dint of wanting to exalt his intelligence, of refining, of splitting hairs over what was thought prior to him at last unsettles all the axioms of simple and primitive reason, and for wanting always to know better than others arrives at knowing nothing at all” (262). In other words, pride and vanity, as seen in the need to impress others by coming up with “original” thoughts and theories, leads one to abandon the correct use of reason. Atheism, Rousseau concludes, is irrational, although the superficially “smart” and “hip” people will embrace it. By contrast, those whose philosophizing is “reasonable and modest” arrive at a partial knowledge of God, and are content to let their reasoning stop there without needing to resolve every mystery (262-63).

Summing up his views, Rousseau declares that the fact that a tiny number of people disbelieve in God, while the vast majority of humans do believe, does not prove that God is “hidden” (263). Rather, it proves that something has gone wrong with the reasoners. Even if the “stream of fashion and the play of intrigue” manage to make atheism popular, he argues, this temporary situation does not negate the argument just given.

Rousseau echoes another argument from modern apologetics. He proposes that increased evidence for god would lead to increased denials rather than to belief (263). “[I]f by straining the nature of things the divinity would increase in evidence for us, I do not doubt that the [modern philosophers] would increase by the same ratio the subtlety for denying it” (263). It is hard not to think of the biblical parable of the rich man and Lazarus, In this parable, Jesus states, in response to a request for miraculous confirmation of the reliability of the Old Testament, that “If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead” (Luke 16:31). For both Jesus and Rousseau, the problem is not with the evidence but with the person viewing the evidence. Sufficient evidence cannot persuade an unwilling heart.

In sum, Rousseau presents a teaching on the hiddenness of God that would be familiar to a modern Christian apologist. He argues that the evidence for God is compelling, but that self-interested people suppress this knowledge for morally corrupt reasons. Moreover, increased evidence for God would do little to convince such people to submit to his moral laws. These similarities should not cloud his many disagreements with Christian doctrine. He believes that in their natural state humans were not capable of knowing God, but did not need to because they were not sinners. He is appalled by the idea that belief of certain theological opinions might damn an otherwise moral person. At any rate, Rousseau’s argument ought to be taken seriously by modern philosophers of religion.

Rousseau on Philosophic Method in the “Letter to Franquières”

The following series of posts is dedicated to explicating Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s theodicy in the “Letter to Franquières.” The version of the Letter I am using comes from the Collected Writings of Rousseau, vol 8. The Reveries of the Solitary Walker, Botanical Writings, and Letter to Franquières (Hanover, NH: Dartmouth College Press, 2000). In the “Letter to Franquières,” Rousseau is defending the existence and goodness of God to a young man who is in a “state of doubt” (p. 260) regarding both of those propositions.

In the first post, I will discuss Rousseau’s philosophical method. At the beginning of the letter, Rousseau makes it clear that his method in argumentation is to propose views that can be chosen or rejected freely and without pressure. He is not engaging in polemical discourse or attempting to “convert” Franquières to his side. As in the “Profession of Faith of the Savoyard Vicar,” Rousseau stands against all authority or domination in matters of religious belief. If one’s inner sentiment does not accept a view, it is not worth having. This is typical Rousseau.

Rousseau makes it clear that he has always believed in God. He writes: “I believed in my childhood by authority, in my youth by sentiment, in my mature age by reason; now I believe because I have always believed” (260). He is, he asserts, too old, and his mental state too degraded, to begin again the investigation of such matters (260). His goal is simply to state what made him believe many years before.

Rousseau traces the fact that he is a believer, while Franquières is an unbeliever, to a difference in their philosophical methods. “Weighing the proofs for the existence of God with the difficulties, you have found none of the sides sufficiently preponderant for you to proceed, and you have remained in doubt. That is not the way I proceeded. I examined all the systems concerning the formation of the universe that I was able to get to know; … I compared them as best I could: and I made up my mind, not for the one which offered me no difficulties at all, for they all offered my some, but for the one which seemed to me to have the fewest” (260). In other words, Rousseau is assuming that people must adopt some view or other, that doubt is not a realistic state for the human mind. Rousseau would very likely say that most, if not all, so-called agnostics are functionally atheists who haven’t admitted it yet. He seems to deny that agnosticism can be a truly independent and stable viewpoint, predicting that someone who experiences genuine doubt  will quickly transition to a believing or unbelieving state. True doubt is too painful and uncertain to embrace. Thus, Rousseau chose to accept belief in God, despite unresolved difficulties, as the best answer to the mysteries of life and the universe. For him, faith is compatible with questioning.

Later in the letter, Rousseau returns again to the difference in philosophic method between him and Franquières. He admits, after several paragraphs, that his argumentation “hardly seems philosophic to, or to me” (263). What tips the scales, he says, is “the weight of interior assent” (263), which confirms his belief in God. Again, recall that Rousseau has stated that indisputable arguments are not available to either side. Yet he experiences less doubt than Franquières because his “internal judgement” provides “a natural safeguard against the sophisms of my reason” (263). But what exactly is this “interior assent,” which he also calls his “interior sentiment,” is not precisely clear. It seems to be something akin to conscience, a set of fundamental principles that are spontaneous, natural, and incapable of being doubted.

However, one cannot trust one’s inner feelings willy nilly. Rousseau draws a distinction between the self-interested “secret penchants of our heart” and the “even more secret, more internal, dictamen which entreats and murmurs against these self-interested decisions, and leads us back in spite of ourselves onto the road of the truth” (263). Rousseau is well aware of the human capacity for self-deceit, wish-fulfillment, and confirmation bias. All too often, humans will choose, consciously or unconsciously, to see the world in the way they wish it were, not the way it is. Usually this is a product of self-interested bias. Consider the controversies over penalties in sporting events. The same image can cause two entirely different reactions in two different people. What distinguishes the “interior sentiment” from inner bias is that the former is a product of nature, while the latter is a mental aberration.

It might be wondered, though, how it is possible to tell the difference in any particular instance. Rousseau writes that the interior sentiment “never speaks more strongly than when our will yields the most obligingly to judgments that this sentiment persists in rejecting” (263). In other words, when our sentiments always accord with our will, it is reasonable to be suspicious. But when we wish we could believe a certain proposition but cannot because our interior sentiment impels us toward another conclusion, then we can be confident that it is guiding us correctly. Of course, presumably the interior sentiment will not always led us to conclusions we find unpalatable, so there will be some hard cases where we want what our inner sentiment is saying. Rousseau fails to provide a more detailed examination of how to resolve these disputes.

To help prove its existence, Rousseau asserts that philosophy must make use of the interior sentiment. It appears to be responsible for producing what some philosophers have called “properly basic beliefs.” Basic beliefs are those one is justified in believing despite not having any evidence for them. Examples include belief that other minds exist, that the universe was not created five minutes ago with the appearance of age, that our senses are reliable, and that our memory beliefs are reliable. Rousseau mentions three examples from the history of philosophy. First, the Greek philosopher Diogenes refuted Zeno’s attempt to deny motion simply by walking. You hardly need a philosophical argument to prove that motion happens: your interior sentiment tells you that motion happens. Second, he mentions the pyrrhonists, who taught that nothing could be known for certain. Again, it is not necessary to refute every possible alternative, so that one is absolutely certain, in order to be justified in believing something. Third, Rousseau mentions Bishop Berkeley, who argued that the physical world is imaginary and that everything is mental or spiritual. It may not be possible to disprove Berkeley’s “immaterialism,” but people are still justified in believing in the existence of physical bodies and objects. To use an example from modern film, we have no reason to believe that we are not in the matrix, but we are nevertheless justified in believing that we are not. Without the “internal sentiment,” Rousseau argues, “there would soon remain no traces of truth on earth” and “we would soon no longer know what to believe nor to think” (264).

Rousseau closes his methodological inquiry with another paragraph responding to the claim that there are objections to theism. “But the objections … No doubt there are insoluble ones for us and many, I know” (264). Yet, he insists once again that both sides have insoluble objections, which therefore cannot be defeaters of theistic belief. Given the limitations on our reason, Rousseau concludes, we must proceed as best we can. He poses a challenge to Franquières’ materialism: how do you explain thought? (This post will not deal with that objection.) It is at this point that Rousseau resumes his discussion of theodicy, to which we will turn in the next post.

Plantinga’s Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism: Evaluating an Naturalistic Response

This post explores a challenge to philosopher Alvin Plantinga’s Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism (EAAN). Plantinga’s argument, which is advanced in his book Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion, and Naturalism (Oxford, 2011), is an important piece of Christian apologetics. It has received positive treatment from other Christian philosophers such as William Lane Craig; see here. In his book The Mind Doesn’t Work That Way (MIT Press, 2000), Jerry Fodor, doubtless unintentionally, has made an argument that tends to undermine the EAAN. This blog post describes the EAAN, examines Fodor’s criticism of it, and then provides some initial thoughts on the validity of the latter.

The Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism

In short, Plantinga’s EAAN argues that Evolution (the view that humans and our cognitive faculties arose by way of modern evolutionary theory) is incompatible with Naturalism (the view that only the material world exists—and thus god does not exist). According to naturalistic (i.e. godless or unplanned) evolution, mutations and other evolutionary changes will take place randomly. In theistic evolution, by contrast, god is present to guide evolution to the desired end. Plantinga argues that naturalistic evolution will produce cognitive mechanisms (CFs for short) that are not oriented toward finding true beliefs, but rather beliefs that are useful or enhance fitness. Thus, a person who accepts naturalistic evolution ought to have a low level of trust in human cognitive abilities, including domains like science and philosophy that are based on such abilities.

Stephen Law, in a blog post, describes EAAN this way: “Plantinga aims to show that naturalism, in combination with evolutionary theory, is, as he puts it, ‘incoherent or self-defeating’. His argument turns crucially on the claim that, in the absence of any God-like being to guide the process, natural selection is unlikely to favour true belief. This, Plantinga supposes, is because natural selection selects only for adaptive behaviour. It is irrelevant, from the point of view of unguided evolution, whether the beliefs that happen to cause that adaptive behaviour are true.”

For instance, evolutionists often explain the presence in humans of “irrational” behavior or “magical thinking” by arguing that such errors paradoxically enhanced fitness a long time ago, when humans were evolving into their current form. Humans who believed these “irrational” beliefs—and, it must be added, religion is usually top on the list—were more likely to survive and produce viable offspring. So, a natural tendency to believe in irrational things, such as religion, was passed on to the next generation.

But, Plantinga continues, if our CMs (cognitive mechanisms) cannot be relied on to produce true beliefs, then we cannot trust those CMs. Anything based on those CMs is undermined—including naturalism itself. Naturalism claims to be a “rational” worldview based on science, but science is merely an outgrowth, on this argument, of CMs that do not aim at the truth. So there is no reason to believe that the findings of science, including naturalism, are true. Thus, an Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism.

By contrast, the theist may believe that, even if modern evolutionary theory describes the process by which god made the world, he directed the evolution of human cognition to seek after the truth, not utility. Presumably, god wants us to be like him, and he is wise, so he gave us truth-selecting CMs. All creationists believe this (both Young Earth and Old Earth Creationists), and many theistic evolutionists accept it as well.

This has been a utterly inadequate summary of EAAN. For more, see Plantinga’s book, this Wikipedia page, or just do a google search.

Fodor’s Critique of the EAAN

In his book The Mind Doesn’t Work That Way, Jerry Fodor critiques the EAAN. He does so unwittingly, without referencing the debate explicitly, but his comments are applicable nonetheless.

Fodor summarizes the quasi-EAAN argument this way: evolutionists argue that “having true beliefs isn’t, in and of itself, either necessary or sufficient for fitness. Sometimes false beliefs would serve one better; and, on anybody’ s story, there are indefinitely many beliefs which, though true, aren’t worth having. But if having true beliefs is not, in and of itself, adaptive, then surely there can’t be a cognitive mechanism that was selected for the acquisition of true beliefs” (MDWTW, p. 66).

Fodor rejects this way of thinking. Here is his response: “It is not necessary, in order that evolution select a mechanism, that its proper functioning should be per se ‘correlated with fitness.’ All this is required is that fitness is increased when its function is exercised in interaction with the other properties of the organism. It’s fit organisms that get selected, not fit organs” (MDWTW, pp. 66-67). For example, hands are useful, but only in conjunction with other body parts; no one would want to be just hands (67). He proposes that a truth-seeking CM interacts with other mechanisms in “a psychological division of labor: Perhaps a cognitive system that is specialized for the fixation of true beliefs interacts with a conative system that is specialized to figure out how to get what one wants from the world that the beliefs are true of. Presumably, neither of these mechanism would operate to increase fitness lacking the operation of the other” (67, italics in original). In other words, he adds, you need both pure and practical knowledge to be successful. Mere knowing is not enough, and mere doing is not enough. But they make a powerful combination.

Additionally, he adds that the “interaction” between CMs would be “quite sensitive to specifics of local ecology” (67). In other words, if I understand him, he means that the way in which the mind chooses between the findings of different CMs depends on how those findings contribute to survival in a local environment. Different CMs may acquire different levels of importance, or different CMs may interact or cease to interact with various other CMs, as dictated by local needs and events.

Evaluating Fodor’s Critique

I now turn to evaluating Fodor’s criticism of the EAAN. It seems that he still has not proven his case. For one thing, how would the brain choose between the findings of the truth-selecting cognitive faculty and other faculties that don’t seek after truth. When sub-programs conflict, wouldn’t you need a meta-decider to choose which sub-program to use. And wouldn’t that meta-decider have to make that choice base on some criteria? And isn’t the only criteria acceptable to evolutionary explanations the one that favors survival and reproduction over truth? In other words, just because we have a truth-selecting cognitive faculty doesn’t mean we have to listen to it. Over time, a creature would learn to ignore its truth-selecting mechanism whenever it proved unconducive to survival. In this case, we still don’t have reasons to believe that our CMs overall are oriented toward the truth. It’s not like we are conscious of ignoring the truth-selecting mechanism when we choose the survival-enhancing activity instead. At least as I understand it, evolutionists think that people are genuinely deluded into believing whatever is conducive to their survival.

A more devastating critique is that Fodor’s proposed explanation doesn’t explain the prime example of naturalistic evolutionists: irrational behavior, especially regarding religion. If a truth-selecting CM tells us what is true about the world, and then interacts with a CM that tells us how to pragmatically achieve what we want given the results of the truth-selecting CM, then how do you explain irrational behavior? Why do people do rain dances if they know that won’t make it rain? Why do people believe in God if he doesn’t exist? These people don’t seem to be finding the best way to survive given what’s true about the world.

I suppose the counter- argument might say that magical thinking is the unfortunate result of processes that increase fitness overall or that are simply necessary given our cognitive limitations. Examples might include stereotyping, which works most of the time but sometimes misleads. But given that magical thinking results in a great deal of lost time and resources, one would hope that our CMs could be more specific than that, and root out specific irrationalities, without having to accept the good and bad indiscriminately. Take, for example, one naturalistic explanation for the origin of religion. It states that, in humankind’s primitive state, it was advantageous to survival to attribute intentionality to potentially mechanistic events, such as the rustling of the leaves, because sometimes those events were actually caused by an agent. Sometimes the sound you hear is a predator and not just the wind, so it makes sense, the argument goes, to assume every time that some intentional agent is making the sound. That way you avoid predators. Eventually, people who thought this way attributed intentionality to everything that happens, and thus invented supernatural spirits that create and control the universe. But, why couldn’t humans distinguish between leaves rustling because of a predator and leaves rustling randomly? Why would humans rush to attribute intentionality to everything, instead of just becoming more cautious? Why would it make us universally incredulous instead of merely wary? If religion is false, it seems like a huge mistake and waste of resources for seemingly scanty gain. (Also, why didn’t religion wither away once we lived in villages and thus no longer had much to fear from predators?)

More could be said, but I think I will stop here. In conclusion, I think that Fodor fails to adequately critique the Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism. That argument may fail on other grounds, but not on these.

On the Straussian Interpretation of Jean-Jacques Rousseau

On the Straussian Interpretation of Jean-Jacques Rousseau

The followers of American political theory professor Leo Strauss have interpreted the philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau in a unique way. (My source is one prominent Straussian professor in particular, who will remain nameless. While other Straussians may or may not adhere to this argument, I suspect they would.) Traditional accounts of Rousseau—deriving from Rousseau’s own statements—see his work as an attempt to provide a theodicy, i.e. a way to explain the evil in the world without implicating the goodness of the world or its divine maker. Straussians believe just the opposite: that Rousseau was providing an anti-theodicy that blamed god for all the evils in the world, while simultaneously vindicating human nature. In this post, I will provide a description of the Straussian argument, along with a critique of it.

First off, a word about esotericism. The Straussian hermeneutic (i.e. interpretive methodology) relies heavily on a practice known as esotericism. This is the practice of hiding subversive secret meanings beneath the surface of the text, which will go unnoticed by most people. These hidden meanings are accessible only to those who have “cracked the code,” finding the clues left by the skillful author. Such clues may consist in contradictions, bad arguments, veiled citations, failures to address something that “ought” to be addressed, neglecting to provide the conclusion to an argument even though all of the premises are present, and so forth. For a book-length treatment of esotericism, see Arthur Melzer, Philosophy Between the Lines: The Lost History of Esoteric Writing (Chicago University Press, 2014). Applied to Rousseau’s (anti?)theodicy, the Straussian claim is that, while Rousseau certainly gave the surface-level impression of defending the goodness of god’s creation (theodicy), he actually esoterically impugned the goodness of god (anti-theodicy). Now, esotericism certainly exists, as least in some cases, but it remains an open question whether Rousseau’s theodicy is a good example of it.

Rousseau’s Theodicy

Before turning to the specific claim of esotericism, it is necessary to sketch Rousseau’s surface-level theodicy. Rousseau attempts to defend the goodness of the world by claiming that humans were originally asocial, but that they have become corrupted by society. (The key texts here are his Discourse on the Origin of Inequality and Emile.) In the beginning, there was no society, no language, no family, and every person lived alone. In this state, humans were free and happy. Over time, however, due to a variety of causes, humans began to develop homes, then families, then villages, and finally societies. In society, humans have been corrupted by their need to impress others and gain from others without really caring for them. There is an inherent tension between our self-love and the needs of society. The details are not important for this discussion, but the bottom line is that evil is socialized, learned, and not an original part of human nature. There is no original sin, and the world that god made was originally good. As Rousseau writes at the beginning of Book I of Emile: “Everything is good as it leaves the hands of the author of things; everything degenerates in the hands of man.” Like the Bible, Rousseau blames human beings for their misery: our problems are self-caused by our own free will. Thus, god is vindicated.

Despite being asocial, it is important to note that Rousseau thinks that people in the state of nature (prior to corruption) have the faculty of pity, by which they sympathize with harms done to others, and  sometimes even help them in times of extreme danger. Thus pity moderates the potential for tension brought about by humankind’s asocial nature.

The Straussian Argument

With this introduction, we may now review the Straussian argument. It rests entirely on an esoteric reading of one passage: “If man were born big and strong, his size and strength would be useless to him until he had learned to make use of them. They would be detrimental to him in that they would keep others from thinking of aiding him. And, abandoned to himself, he would die of want before knowing his needs. And childhood is taken to be a pitiable state! It is not seen that the human race would have perished if man had not begun as a child” (Emile, 38, Bloom translation). Rousseau gives this justification in a footnote: “Similar to them [i.e. adults] on the outside and deprived of speech as well as of the ideas it expresses, [a big baby] would not be in a condition to make them understand the need he had of their help, and nothing in him would manifest this need to them” (Emile, 38n, Bloom translation). So, Rousseau says, being born small and helpless is actually good, not bad, Rousseau argues.

But, the Straussian argument continues, this quote is in the context of a larger argument in which Rousseau makes it clear that he thinks childhood is disastrous for human beings. Things, especially people, come into the world unformed and imperfect. It is in childhood that we learn the vices that will enslave us as adults. The complicated educational system presented in Emile is oriented around preventing such vices from entering in, which largely means protecting Emile from outside influences when he is young. Thus, Rousseau seems to praise childhood as necessary in the above quote, but actually Rousseau wishes that it did not exist. Moreover, we can hardly be blamed for the vices we learn from society.

So, if Rousseau really dislikes childhood, then why does he make this argument? The Straussian would say that he is giving us a clue: an argument so terrible that it must be insincere. The “big babies argument” is obviously absurd, the argument goes. Of course people help big, strong babies because it would be obvious that they needed it. The difference between adult and baby goes far beyond the outward and physical, so the difference would be clear. Plus, humans would be motivated by pity, which Rousseau acknowledges to exist in the state of nature. So, it is god who must be at fault, because he allowed this corruption to happen by creating childhood. But, since we cannot imagine an evil god, in reality god must not exist. There you have it: the anti-theodicy of Rousseau. An argument for atheism derived from Rousseau’s political theory.

Assessment of the Argument

So, does this argument hold up? I don’t think so. The crucial defect is that the argument does not take seriously the asocial nature of humans in Rousseau’s state of nature. Given humans as we see them now, it is of course absurd to think that people would neglect babies to the point that they die, no matter what they look like. But, in the Discourse on Inequality, Rousseau makes it very clear that people are not eager to see each other and do not seek out human company. Rather, they most often see each other at a distance, not close up, and are shy instead of bold or friendly.  The world is sparsely populated and contact with others is not likely. So the need of a “big baby” would not be obvious, since people would not often get close enough to perceive the age of the child. Finally, Rousseau states that even the mother’s first impulse to help her baby arises from physical necessity: she nurses because her breasts hurt. It has nothing to do, at least at first, with love for the baby. But if babies were born without the need for milk, even the mother would leave without saying goodbye. For all of these reasons, then, there is no reason to believe that people in Rousseau’s state of nature would help big babies often enough to ensure the survival of the species.

Moreover, the faculty of pity, for Rousseau, is passive more than active. Pity impels people to avoid hurting others, as far as they are able. But it does not impel people to actively seek to help others. Rousseau’s “natural man” is harmless, not altruistic. It’s live and let live, but not together. This is one more reason that natural man would not seek to find out whether another human being need help.

But if this is so, then how do we explain Rousseau’s apparent praise of childhood despite all of the problems it causes by allowing vices to enter? Childhood may be necessary but not beneficial, so that even if it has some downsides, it is worth it. If fact, this is exactly Rousseau’s point: he says that “the human race would have perished if man had not begun as a child,” which is far from a ringing endorsement. All Rousseau says is that childhood is better than dying.

So, that is my counterargument. If true, it follows that even god cannot avoid the possibility of corruption because childhood is necessary for human development. Of course, this entire (anti?)theodicy depends on Rousseau’s harsh critique of childhood, which modern philosophers generally do not share. Modern theists are likely to be nonplussed even if the Straussian case wins out.

An Irrefutable Argument Against Gun Control

Many Americans, especially political liberals, support gun control: that is, banning—or at least heavily restricting—firearm ownership. In fact, each new mass shooting produces yet another invocation for gun control from President Obama and other Democrats (see here). Gun control advocates justify their position by arguing that gun control saves lives. This claim is debatable, but, in this post, I will provide a (seemingly) irrefutable argument against gun control—even assuming that it saves lives. Americans who support gun control are inconsistent and incoherent, or at least need to do some deep thinking.

I make my case by comparing gun control with prohibition (or, if you will, alcohol control). Prohibition is the restricting or banning of alcoholic drinks, just as gun control is the restricting or banning of guns. It turns out that every argument for gun control can also be used to support alcohol control, and every argument against alcohol control can be used against gun control. Since alcohol control is currently deeply unpopular in the United States, this comparison should greatly trouble those who support restrictions on firearms.

So, what are the arguments supporting gun control? The only real argument is that gun control saves lives by preventing gun deaths. Let’s assume that this is true. Now, the same argument could be made for prohibition. From 2006-2010, there were, on average, 88,000 alcohol-related deaths each year in the United States (see here), including 10,076 vehicle deaths related to alcohol. In 2013, by contrast, guns accounted for 11,208 homicides and 21,175 suicide deaths. Regarding the latter, some suicides would have been committed anyway even without a gun (although, to be fair, firearm suicides are more lethal than other types). So alcohol appears to be significantly more deadly than firearms. Moreover, in addition to deaths, alcohol is responsible for many other crimes and social problems. Perhaps the least important is lost income leading to financial insecurity (although this was a primary motivation for the original prohibition movement). More importantly, approximately 97,000 alcohol-related rapes occur each year on college campuses alone (here again, and this USA Today article). Many instances of assault and domestic violence can be linked to alcohol as well. Clearly, the harm caused by alcohol is vastly greater than that caused by guns.

In the same way, the arguments against alcohol control can also be deployed just as well to oppose gun control. One might say that alcohol doesn’t kill or rape, only people do. (For instance, this article from Think Progress states: “When you remove rapists from the equation, the risks of getting drunk … don’t include getting raped.”) But the same could be said of guns: guns don’t kill people, people kill people. Perhaps one might say that alcohol doesn’t need to be banned, just regulated. The same could be said of guns. We can regulate where and how people use guns (and alcohol), and penalize misuse of them, without banning them outright.

It might be said that there are more, or more powerful, justifications for drinking alcohol than for owning guns. One might say that the only purpose of guns is to kill, whereas alcohol’s primary purpose is to give pleasure. But this reasoning gets it exactly wrong. There are actually more justifications for permitting weapons than for permitting alcoholic beverages. Both provide pleasure, so there is no advantage to either side there. But there are two additional justifications for firearm ownership that do not apply to alcohol. First, armies will always have guns, so the government will always have guns. Private weapons have always been seen as the check against an oppressive government. Just read any book or article about the motivations behind the Second Amendment: the founders were afraid of governmental tyranny, and sought to protect the viability of the state militias, which were composed of ordinary citizens. (Of course, I understand that this argument is much less viable given the huge size of the U.S. military combined with modern weaponry. But, it still makes some sense.) Second, guns provide protection against private criminals, as gun rights advocates so eagerly point out. Thus, there are more and better reasons to support gun ownership than alcohol ownership.

In sum, banning alcohol prevents more bad things than banning guns does, and permitting guns enables more good things than permitting alcohol does. Guns cause fewer deaths each year and are supported by three reasons: pleasure, protection against public criminals (i.e. tyrants), and protection against private criminals. Alcoholic drinks cause more deaths (and other social problems) and are supported by only one reason: pleasure. To my knowledge, no unique arguments for gun control exist that do not apply to alcohol control.

So, what’s the real reason people support gun control but not prohibition? One popular counter argument holds that prohibition is difficult and won’t work. They inevitably cite the difficulty of enforcing prohibition in the United States from 1920-1933. But this argument is weak. For one think, the mechanisms of enforcement have improved drastically over the last 85 years. We are now much better at enforcing crimes at the national level. We simply have no idea whether prohibition would work in the modern world, since it’s never been tried. Moreover, we still prohibit marijuana, cocaine, and other drugs (and increasingly cigarettes), although enforcement is difficult for those substances. It should be noted that gun control isn’t 100% effective either. Surely you’ve heard of the argument that when guns are outlawed only outlaws will have guns. Even countries with strict gun laws have gun-related deaths. The best argument, however, is the voluntary agreement of your own heart and mind. Consider this hypothetical: if alcohol control was effective, would you support it then? Really? Be honest. By my guess, very few would support it even if it could be effectively enforced. After all, many Americans did not support prohibition even before it had been tried (and therefore before anyone knew whether enforcement was possible or not).

In all likelihood, the real reason that nobody support alcohol control is that they don’t have any use for guns, but they do love to drink, and the collateral damage simply doesn’t bother them as much. Simple as that. Now, whether this realization should lead one to support alcohol control, or to oppose gun control, is another matter entirely—although the title of the blog makes my view pretty clear.