Questions to ask theist philosophers? I will soon be speaking with several

by kokotajlod1 min read26th Apr 201485 comments


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I am about to graduate from one of the only universities in the world that has a high concentration of high-caliber analytic philosophers who are theists. (Specifically, the University of Notre Dame, IN) So as not to miss this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, I have sent out emails asking many of them if they would like to meet and discuss their theism with me. Several of them have responded already in the affirmative; fingers crossed for the rest. I'm really looking forward to this because these people are really smart, and have spent a lot of time thinking about this, so I expect them to have interesting and insightful things to say.

Do you have suggestions for questions I could ask them? My main question will of course be "Why do you believe in God?" and variants thereof, but it would be nice if I could say e.g. "How do you avoid the problem of X which is a major argument against theism?"

Questions I've already thought of:

1-Why do you believe in God?

2-What are the main arguments in favor of theism, in your opinion?

3-What about the problem of evil? What about objective morality: how do you make sense of it, and if you don't, then how do you justify God?

4-What about divine hiddenness? Why doesn't God make himself more easily known to us? For example, he could regularly send angels to deliver philosophical proofs on stone tablets to doubters.

5-How do you explain God's necessary existence? What about the "problem of many Gods," i.e. why can't people say the same thing about a slightly different version of God?

6-In what sense is God the fundamental entity, the uncaused cause, etc.? How do you square this with God's seeming complexity? (he is intelligent, after all) If minds are in fact simple, then how is that supposed to work?

I welcome more articulate reformulations of the above, as well as completely new ideas.


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Mestroyer keeps saying this is a personality flaw of mine, but I'm not actually interested in what theistic philosophers have to say when questioned directly. Asking them tough questions is like a ritual challenge, which they will respond to with canned responses that don't make much sense to you.

Cultural questions would interest me far more.

"How do your religious beliefs now differ from when you were growing up?"

"What parts of other religions do you find particularly appealing?" (maybe come prepared with some common applause lights) "What about your own religious practice do you wish were more like that?"

And maybe indirectly tough questions, to see what they're thinking.

"if you could improve one thing about the world, what would it be?" (This question can be turned into a trap if combined with the problem of evil - but again, there is little to be gained by ritually combatting them, presenting the parts of the trap disassembled and seeing what their thoughts on it are is more interesting.)

"How accurate do you think our picture is of the historical Jesus? Moses? Noah? Adam and Eve?"

Mestroyer keeps saying this is a personality flaw of mine

An imaginary anorexic says: "I don't eat 5 supersize McDonalds meals a day. My doctor keeps saying this is a personality flaw of mine."

I don't pay attention to theistic philosophers (at least not anymore, and I haven't for a while). There's seeking evidence and arguments that could change your mind, and then there's wasting your time on crazy people as some kind of ritual because that's the kind of thing you think rationalists are supposed to do.

7kokotajlod7yWhy do you think they are crazy? They are, after all, probably smarter and more articulate than you. You must think that their position is so indefensible that only a crazy person could defend it. But in philosophical matters there is usually a lot of inherent uncertainty due to confusion. I should like to see your explanation, not of why theism is false, but of why it is so obviously false that anyone who believes it after having seen the arguments must be crazy. If you don't pay attention to theistic philosophers, are there any theists to whom you pay attention? It seems to me that theistic philosophers are probably the cream of the theist crop. Note that I honestly think you might be right here. I am open to you convincing me on this matter. My own thoughts on theism are confused, which is why I give it a say even though I don't believe in it. (I'm confused because the alternative theories still have major problems, problems which theism avoids. In a comparison between flawed theories it is hard to be confident in anything.)
3someonewrongonthenet7yFor the average person, theism/atheism is just a matter of culture. Among the very smart, successful and articulate (generalizing from 3 extremely smart theist friends and 3 family members), theism indicates certain errors of epistemology. All 6 smart theists that I know make the following systematic pattern of errors in areas other than theismv (as in, during discussion of empirical questions): 1) over-reliance on inference ("jumping to conclusions" being a common symptom) 2) failure to use parsimony as a discriminating tool. Additionally, 2 of the 6 do not distinguish rhetoric from argument while thinking, and sometimes accept phlogiston-style explanations, and 1 of the 6 has demonstrated too much trust in authoritative sources such as textbooks and scientific papers (A good scientist always keeps the possibility that the result is wrong and the experiment was flawed in mind) .. although to be fair a lot of equally smart atheist friends have made the same error so that may not be related to theism. Data pending on the others. In addition to people i know personally, I find that writings from known smart theists follow the same do the writings of many atheists. But among people who get it right...well, they' never turn out to be theists. Sounding "intelligent and articulate" is about being able to make connections, spot internal contradictions within systems, and having a large store of knowledge and vocabulary. You can ascertain someone on that dimension within a few hours of conversation. The above skills can only be ascertained by a more in-depth discussion. I'm not sure if the skills I listed are a matter of culture or of general cognitive health, but I know that I, at least, was making the same sort of errors (with stuff unrelated to theism) until around 16-19 years of age - at which point I began gradually undergoing a shift. (My metric for "shift" is "does my past self's written work sound stupid or naive to my present self" and I'm 24
2Mestroyer7yI think theism (not to be confused with deism, simulationism, or anything similar) is a position only a crazy person could defend because: 1. God is an ontologically basic mental entity. Huge Occam penalty. 2. The original texts the theisms these philosophers probably adhere to require extreme garage-dragoning [] to avoid making a demonstrably false claim. What's left after the garage-dragoning is either deism or an agent with an extremely complicated [] utility function, with no plausible explanation for why this utility function is as it is. 3. I've already listened to some of their arguments, and they've been word games that attempt to get information about reality out without putting any information in, or fake explanations that push existing mystery into an equal or greater amount of mystery in God's utility function. (Example: "Why is the universe fine-tuned for life? Because God wanted to create life, so he tuned it up." well, why is God fine-tuned to be the kind of god who would want to create life?) If they had evidence anywhere close to the amount that would be required to convince someone without a rigged prior, I would have heard it. I don't have any respect for deism either. It still has the ontologically basic mental entity problem, but at least it avoids the garage-dragoning. I don't think simulationism is crazy, but I don't assign >0.5 probability to it. I pay attention to theists when they are talking about things besides theism. But I have stopped paying attention to theists about theism. I don't take the argument from expert opinion here seriously because: A. We have a good explanation of why they would be wrong. B. Philosophy is not a discipline that reliably tracks the truth. Or converges to anything, really. See this []. On topic
4Will_Newsome7y []
1Mestroyer7yPerhaps I'm misusing the phrase "ontologically basic," I admit my sole source for what it means is Eliezer Yudkowsky's summary of Richard Carrier's definition of the supernatural, "ontologically basic mental things, mental entities that cannot be reduced to nonmental entities." Minds are complicated, and I think Occam's razor should be applied to the fundamental nature of reality directly. If a mind is part of the fundamental nature of reality, then it can't be a result of simpler things like human minds appear to be, and there is no lessening the complexity penalty.
-2Eugine_Nier7yI don't think "ontologically basic" is a coherent concept. The last time [] I asked someone to describe the concept he ultimately gave up. So could you describe it better than EGI?
1Mestroyer7yA first approximation to what I want to draw a distinction between is parts of a hypothesis that are correlated with the rest of the parts, and parts that aren't, so that and adding them decreases the probability of the hypothesis more. In the extreme case, if a part of a hypothesis is logically deduced from the other parts, then it's perfectly correlated and doesn't decrease the probability at all. When we look at a hypothesis, (to simplify, assume that all the parts can be put into groups such that everything within a group has probability 1 conditioned on the other things in the group, and all groups are independent). Usually, we're going to pick something from each group and say, "These are the fundamentals of my hypothesis, everything else is derived from them". And see what we can predict when you put them together. For example, Maxwell's equations are a nice group of things that aren't really implied by each other, and together, you can make all kinds of interesting predictions by them. You don't want to penalize electromagnetics for complexity because of all the different forms of the equations you could derive from them. Only for the number of equations there are, and how complicated they are. The choice within the groups is arbitrary. But pick a thing from each group, and if this is a hypothesis about all reality, then those things are the fundamental nature of reality if your hypothesis is true. Picking a different thing from each group is just naming the fundamental nature of reality differently. This of course needs tweaking I don't know how to do for the general case. But... If your theory is something like, "There are many universes, most of them not fine-tuned for life. Perhaps most that are fine-tuned for life don't have intelligent life. We have these equations and whatever that predict that. They also predict that some of that intelligent life is going to run simulations, and that the simulated people are going to be much more numerous than th
0TheAncientGeek7yAbrahamic Gods are suppposed to be eternal, have minds and not be made of atoms, or other moving parts. That may be hard thing to sell, but complex gods are a mixture of natural and supernatural assumptions.
0Eugine_Nier7ySo you mean like a mind that's omniscient, omnipotent, and morally perfect? Why? AIXI is very easy to specify. The ideal decision theory is very easy to specify, hard to describe or say anything concrete about, but very easy to specify. If you're willing to allow electro-magnatism which is based on the mathematical theory of partial differential equations, I don't see why you won't allow ideal agents based on decision/game theory. Heck, economists tend to model people as ideal rational agents because ideal rational agents are simpler than actual humans.
2Mestroyer7yOmniscience and omnipotence are nice and simple, but "morally perfect" is a word that hides a lot of complexity. Complexity comparable to that of a human mind. I would allow ideal rational agents, as long as their utility functions were simple (Edit: by "allow" I mean they don't get the very strong prohibition that a human::morally_perfect agent does) , and their relationship to the world was simple (omniscience and omnipotence are a simple relationship to the world). Our world does not appear to be optimized according to a utility function simpler than the equations of physics. And an ideal rational agent with no limitations to its capability is a little bit more complicated than its own utility function. So "just the laws of physics" wins over "agent enforcing the laws of physics." (Edit: in fact, now that I think of it this way, "universe which follows the rules of moral perfection by itself" wins over "universe which follows the rules of moral perfection because there is an ideal rational agent that makes it do so.")
1Will_Newsome7yI think this is eminently arguable. Highly complex structures and heuristics can be generated by simpler principles, especially in complex environments. Humans don't currently know whether human decision processes (including processes describable as 'moral') are reflections of or are generated by elegant decision theories, or whether they "should" be. To my intuitions, morality and agency might be fundamentally simple, with 'moral' decision processes learned and executed according to a hypothetically simple mathematical model, and we can learn the structure and internal workings of such a model via the kind of research program outlined here [] . Of course, this may be a dead end, but I don't see how one could be so confident in its failure as to judge "moral perfection" to be of great complexity with high confidence. By hypothesis, "God" means actus purus, moral perfection; there is no reason to double count. The rules of moral perfection are found implicit in the definition of the ideal agent, the rules don't look like a laundry list of situation-specific decision algorithms. Of course humans need to cache lists of context-dependent rules, and so we get deontology and rule consequentialism; furthermore, it seems quite plausible that for various reasons we will never find a truly universal agent definition, and so will never have anything but a finite fragment of an understanding of an infinite agent. But it may be that there is enough reflection of such an agent in what we can find that "God" becomes a useful concept against which to compare our approximations.
1Mestroyer7yIn response to your first paragraph, Human morality is indeed the complex unfolding of a simple idea [] in a certain environment. It's not the one you're thinking of though. And if we're talking about hypotheses for the fundamental nature of reality, rather than a sliver of it (because a sliver of something can be more complicated than the whole) you have to include the complexity of everything that contributes to how your simple thing will play out. Note also that we can't explain reality with a god with a utility function of "maximize the number of copies of some genes", because the universe isn't just an infinite expanse of copies of some genes. Any omnipotent god you want to use to explain real life has to have a utility function that desires ALL the things we see in reality. Good luck adding the necessary stuff for that into "good" without making "good" much more complicated, and without just saying "good is whatever the laws of physics say will happpen." You can say for any complex thing, "Maybe it's really simple. Look at these other things that are really simple." but there are many (exponentially) more possible complex things than simple things. The prior for a complex thing being generable from a simple thing is very low by necessity. If I think about this like, "well, I can't name N things I am (N-1)/N confident of and be right N-1 times, and I have to watch out for overconfidence etc., so there's no way I can apply 99% confidence to 'morality is complicated'..." then I am implicitly hypothesis privileging. You can't be virtuously modest for every complicated-looking utility function you wonder if could be simple, or your probability distribution will sum to more than 1. I'm not double-counting. I'm counting once the utility function which specifies the exact way things shall be (as it must if we're going with omnipotence for this god hypothesis), and once the utility-maximization stuff, and comparing it
0TheAncientGeek7yThe principle of sufficient reason rides again....or, if not, God can create a small numbers of entities thatbThe really wants to, and roll a die for the window dressing.
2kokotajlod7yThanks for engaging with me. I'm afraid you'll have to say more than that though to convince me. Of course I know about Occam's Razor and how it can be applied to God. So do the theist philosophers. My uncertainty comes from general uncertainty about whether or not that is the right way to approach the question, especially given that Occam's Razor is currently (a) unjustified and (b) arbitrary. Also, I think that it is better to be too open-minded and considerate than to be the opposite. Such explanations are easy to come by. For example, on any politically tinged issue, we have a good explanation for why anyone might be wrong. So would you say we shouldn't take seriously expert opinions if they are on a politically sensitive topic? You would advise me against e.g. asking a bunch of libertarian grad students why they were libertarians? Your conclusion from this is that the philosophers are the problem, and not the questions they are attempting to answer? You think, not that these questions are difficult and intractable, but that philosophers are stupid or irrational? That seems to me to be pretty obviously wrong, though I'd love to be convinced otherwise. (And if the questions are difficult and intractable, then you shouldn't be as confident as you are!)
0TheAncientGeek7yIn philosophy, there is usually a lot of inherent uncertainty due to do circularity.
1kokotajlod8yThose are interesting questions you ask, thanks! I'm more interested in the philosophy stuff, but if I have time I will ask those. I like your "ritual challenge" idea, but I think it is pretty arrogant to be so disparaging about someone who is paid to think rationally about this sort of thing, and who is recognized to be very good at doing so. For that reason I don't expect these people to fall prey to that sort of thinking. But I'll try to keep an eye out for it; it would be very interesting if true. How would I recognize it? Their responses not making sense is a poor signal since there are many other reasons why their responses might not make sense to me.
6Manfred8yIt's not that the typical theist response is going to make no sense in some absolute way. I'm sure they have plenty of good arguments to make. If you want to learn about what makes for a good argument, then their responses will be very helpful. This is merely a case of the bottom line []. Arguments reached by arguing backwards from a desired conclusion are not useful as statements about the world - their use is as a sort of verbal theater. If you want to evaluate their claims fairly, you should try to understand what arguments and circumstances were most influential to them. Epistemically useful arguments, arguments that aren't games or politics, aren't like combat. Instead, they are like inviting your enemy into your own home, to see what you see.
7Vladimir_Nesov8yIf someone doesn't pursue this question about themselves, for themselves, it's useless for someone else to (merely) ask it, as even if somehow you learn the truth, it probably won't have the form of a good argument. Arguments need to be designed, they won't describe the structure of a system as complicated as human mind (with influences of culture), unless there are laws of reasoning firmly in place that ensure that beliefs (by construction) result from arguments. When a person becomes skilled at careful (correct/useful) argument, that point is reached already in motion, with some of their beliefs formed by something other than careful argument. After epistemic habits become moderately healthy at working on new questions, they aren't automatically healthy enough to purge the mind of convictions that were previously put in place by less reliable processes (and studying the details of those processes isn't necessarily a good use of your time; just ask the questions again, not forgetting the question of whether the questions are important enough to work on, to prepare beliefs about). (In particular, God-related issues seem to be primarily a problem of distorted relevance. If you only observe the world and try to understand it, any specific supernatural hypothesis (i.e. with well-designed meaning) won't become important enough to worry about. So a healthy way of discarding God, if you find yourself affected, seems to be about realizing that the meaning of the concept is unclear and there is no particular reason to focus on any clarification of it, rather than about falsity of related arguments.)
-2Will_Newsome7yE.g., you could check whether there's anything of pragmatic relevance in ideas like the convertibility of transcendentals. Just ditching convertibility of transcendentals can easily imply a God that is not similar to the God of e.g. Aquinas, to a lesser extent Aristotle, to a lesser extent Leibniz. This doesn't take much time and quickly rules out large portions of the "God" conceptspace. (Also, people who believe in vague "God"s (e.g. "God isn't a person, God is the Goodness inherent in the structure of the universe") are forced to refine their concepts; of course, most people think of God ideologically and so the questions most immediately relevant to them would be more sociological than metaphysical, for better or worse.) (Presumably I disagree with Vladimir_Nesov about the value of thinking about the problem in such terms in the first place; I can only argue that most folks aren't decision theorists and so must grasp at morality and eternity in other ways, and that I am on the side of epistemic humility.)
5kokotajlod8yWell said. This is why I distinguish "Why do you believe in God" from "What are the best arguments for Theism?" I think I'll try to tailor my questions to be more personal. Some of these people actually were raised atheist, so we have prima facie no more reason to ascribe "working backwards from a desired conclusion" to them than to ourselves.

Theistic philosophers raised as atheists? Hmm, here is a question you could ask:

"Remember your past self, 3 years before you became a theist. And think, not of the reasons for being a theist you know now, but the one that originally convinced you. What was the reason, and if you could travel back in time and describe that reason, would that past self agree that that was a good reason to become a theist?"

0raisin7yDoes rational mean the same in this context than how the word is usually used on LW? Or does 'rational' mean something that is academic, uses certain kind of words, seems rational to outsiders etc..
0kokotajlod7yYep, it means the same thing, or close enough. Of course there are measurement problems, but the intent behind the pay is for it to reward rational thinking in the usual sense.

I think that you are approaching this wrong. If you had a chance to interview Dawkins, would you ask him "Why don't you believe in God?" Probably not, it would be rather disrespectful, since he publicly articulated his position many times and asking it again would imply that you didn't bother reading any of it. You ought to afford a similar courtesy to these guys, as well. Besides, presumably you want to gain some information from what they say, and asking questions with obvious answers wastes this "once-in-a-lifetime opportunity". These people have probably already publicly discussed the standard generic questions like the ones you listed.

Try pretending to be one of them and answer your own questions. Do you find their reply obvious? Then don't ask that. Not sure what they would say? Then you probably want to familiarize yourself with their research and their stance on the relevant issue, etc, then try to answer them again. Pick the questions where your model of their reply is low-confidence. When you formulate your questions, consider a template like "in your you say that <...>, but it is not clear to me how follows from , could you please explai... (read more)

2kokotajlod7yI completely agree, but unfortunately I don't have much time left in which to prepare. Again, I wish I had started this process sooner. Many of those who responded, agreeing to set up meetings with me, directed me to relevant readings. So I'll be somewhat prepared for most of them. I won't ask any questions to which I can guess the answer with high confidence.

These are questions I would work up to or start with depending on who I was talking to. Something for Catholics, Protestants, unconventional theists, and their intersections:

"What do you find to be the strongest argument against metaphysical reasoning, especially of the sort that suggests the concept of God as a compelling foundation for metaphysics?"

"Does your philosophical conception of God intersect with decisions in your day-to-day life, or during critical periods in your life? If so, how so?"

"Most analytics are two-boxers on Newcomb's problem, but William Lane Craig makes a case for one-boxing; what do you think of his arguments? What do you think of his approach to the problem of Divine Foreknowledge, e.g. as compared to Thomists and Molinists?"

"Many mathematicians that thought about infinity and the divine ended up with baffled and baffling impressions; e.g., Cantor, Goedel. Do you see this in philosophy? Do you have any thoughts on what it implies about the concept of God and how you should go about reasoning about God?"

"Do you ever try to find room for theology in your phenomenology? If so what does that look like? Can God be ex... (read more)

It's not perfectly clear to me what your purposes are in asking these questions. For instance, it could be some combination of:

  • helping them to see the error of their ways (if you're right)
  • helping you to see the error of your ways (if they're right)
  • demonstrating your intellectual superiority (if you're right)
  • learning to understand theism and theists better, for the sake of getting along better with other theists
  • learning to understand theism and theists better, for the sake of defeating other theists more effectively
  • having a fun debate
  • watching smart people do something difficult (defending theism), to learn from them or just for fun

and several other things I can think of and probably several more I can't.

If your objectives aren't perfectly clear in your own mind you'll probably get less from this exercise than you could. If they aren't clear to us in this thread you'll probably get less helpful suggestions than you could.

3kokotajlod7yI should have been more clear. My purpose is "helping me to see the error of my ways, if I'm wrong." If I am right, then I don't care too much about converting them, but if I am wrong, I very much want to be converted. I'm basically trying to glean as much insight/wisdom from them as I can. Any suggestions on how I can trade-off the other goals to maximize this one?

"It can be hard to pick a martial arts school, because the teacher at almost any of them can beat you up as a novice, and you're too much of a beginner to figure out which of the teachers can beat up the other teachers. Someone who tries to explore theology seems to have a similar problem. What kinds of questions do you think are the equivalent of "cage matches" between different faith traditions? Do novices have a reasonable chance of reasoning to the correct tradition? If not, does that present problems for your soteriology?"

1beoShaffer7yYour comment has quotation marks around it, but no attribution. It it meant to be a quote?
3gjm7yI think it's meant to be a proposed question.
[-][anonymous]8y 13

"What would constitute convincing evidence that your claim is mistaken?"

One of the best questions I know, suitable for many discussions and for one's self.

1kokotajlod7yYes! Good, thanks.
[-][anonymous]8y 13

I expect that many of these philosophers will already have written about this sort of question. You'll get more out of these discussions if you read up on what they've already said, and tailor your questions based on that.

If you just ask basic nonspecific questions and end up with a philosopher telling you something you could have just read on wikipedia, you're just wasting your and their time.

1kokotajlod8yVery good point. I really wish I had started this process sooner so I could have more time to prepare.

I'm a bit of a "Superman theist" and I'm always curious about "Why infinity?"

Everything I hear theists say about ways God impacts the world seems more compatible with a finite-but-a-lot-cooler-than-you provident entity. It's also not a huge surprise that a people who used the word forty to mean "a whole bunch" might not fully grasp the difference between infinity and a really big number when they were writing things down.

I'm kinda jealous. I run into far more "Because it's in the bible" theologians than thinking theologians.

1Will_Newsome7yAt the cost of wide inferential distances, God as something like actus purus would be a neat singular solution to a bundle of seemingly closely related problems in their partially unknowable limits, so to speak. (Theology as king of the kinds of reason, infinite-God as their ultimate progenitor.) A cosmically monolithic but finite god "solves" such problems to only a finite degree and leaves an infinite-God-shaped hole in metaphysics. So even after exploring the complex internal mechanics of this monolith you still might as well fill the infinite-God-shaped hole with an infinite God concept to signify the hypothesis that a satisfying ultimate solution necessarily "exists" even if we don't know it yet and will only ever discover finitely many bits of it. But I'm talking metametaphysics (more like epistemology of metaphysics) here which is a field I've read very little about.
1Eugine_Nier7yI have to ask. Which infinity []?
3Will_Newsome7yI haven't seen good attempts to answer that, just agitation about the problem, which is sad because it seems important. In my amateur syncretic speculations I try to look at theology from the lens of theoretical computer science (esp. algorithmic information theory) and there you have an infinite hierarchy of oracles, there's no escaping diagonalization. It makes me wonder if human intuitions about omniscience &c. are screwed up because simple self-reference problems show some of our naive conceptions of infinity to be logically impossible. It's possibly possible that a very clever, very fundamental formalization of the self vs. non-self (same vs. not-same) distinction would "solve" the problems but I don't know if any philosophically-inclined mathematical logicians think that's plausible. There are also sideways-bending ideas about the role of "faith" in hypercomputation, and the possibility of logical ("acausal") influence between arbitrarily distant oracle machines in the arithmetical hierarchy. (I'm not comfortable with the math, I can't tell whether a machine's oracle would "screen off" all higher degree oracles; I vaguely suspect the fomal analytical reifications are too brittle to say, but I'm totally not a mathematician.) I sometimes try to analogize the self-reference/infinity problem to the Myerson-Satterthwaite theorem in mechanism design, where a seemingly simple epistemic problem turns out to have no solution. I find it funny to think of what the Myerson-Satterthwaite theorem and things like it would imply about a God that is actually three distinct persons.
-2Eugine_Nier7yI'm slightly more familiar with the theory of infinite cardinals than hypercomputation. Well, inaccessible cardinals [] and large cardinal axioms [] more generally have the property that their consistency can't be proved in ZFC in a very strong sense, i.e., adding any number of Godel statements doesn't help. Conversely, they can prove the consistency of ZFC unconditionally. More generally, there is a hierarchy of large cardinal axioms [] where each one unconditionally implies the consistency of the ones below it but by Godel's second incompleteness theorem, they're consistency can't be proven (in a strong sense) from any ones below it.
0Ixiel7yThat makes a kind of sense to me, infinite minus finite and all, but in practice I've never noticed said hole, and I have done a bit of looking around in metaphysics. Most examples I've heard can fall into a bucket I have; do you have any examples not explained by science or a finite, superior, provident being? PM if you prefer; not exactly relevant to the OP but people may be interested. Your call.

Why do you think that ___ was a false prophet. (Where _ is a prophet from another religion.)

I find most interesting the question of which God/religion to believe in. How do they deal with the fact that the actual, historical reason that they believe in their specific God/religion is because they were born into it (most likely - not true for everyone). Have they ever considered switching religions? What was their reason not to do so?

This usually leads to very interesting discussions on the "proofs" of their religion. And they tend to be interesting indeed.

Also, I might start the debate off by more general questions, e.g. "how do you... (read more)


Are these fellows mostly catholic theists?

4kokotajlod8yHalf catholic, half protestant I believe.
0IlyaShpitser7yI would be interested in how they understand "blasphemy against the Holy Spirit," and the deadly sin of Acedia. But that's not exactly a question of general interest. -------------------------------------------------------------------------------- More generally, I am interested in the relationship between cultural context and religion (how many people remember that riding into Jerusalem on a donkey in those days is sort of like riding into LA on a Lamborghini today), but I am not sure how to phrase that in a form of a question :). I guess : In light of how vastly cultural context changes over time, what hope is there for something timeless in religion?

First for setting a baseline:

-Do you believe in hell and heaven?

If yes, what's their estimate about the percentage of students of their school who will go to heaven and to hell?

What's the estimate about the percentage of faculty of their philosophy department who will go to heaven and to hell?

What's the estimate about the likelihood that they themselves will go to heaven and to hell?

If it's not 100%, what the main reason why it's not and why don't they chance their actions to make it more likely?

0kokotajlod8yI'm pretty sure that when it comes to matters of doctrine they will say "Yeah, it seems stupid and nonsensical, but I believe in God and I believe that this is what God told me, so I have to have faith that it makes sense." But I guess I should ask about that, just to make sure. Thanks! As for your specific question, I'm sure their answer will be pretty straightforward: Humans are irrational, themselves included.
5palladias7yI mean, a bunch of my friends are theology grad students/friars and none of them would answer this way. For most of the religious folks I know who have spent time researching their faith (some of whom are converts), doctrine is likely to have persuaded them of the truth of the religion they follow, a la G. K. Chesterton in the quote below: As for the heaven/hell question, in plenty of Christian traditions, Heaven is desired because it's union with God/a properly ordered will/etc, not just a neat place you can munchkin/sneak into. So, imagine phrasing your question about salvation as "What percentage of the people at this college as kind as they should be?" "What's the chance you are as kind as you could be?" "If it's not 100%, what the main reason why it's not and why don't they chance their actions to make it more likely?" If those questions would make you double take or object to the framing of the question, you may want to change your Heaven/Hell question accordingly.
2gjm7yIn connection with the "truth-telling-thing" claim: it's worth taking a look at Scott Alexander's (= Yvain's) thoughts [] on that. It seems to me that "matters of doctrine" are not monolithic, and that many thoughtful Christians would probably (1) regard some of them as grounds for belief and also (2) regard others as mysteries that they accept only because the Church, or the Bible, tells them they should.
0ChristianKl8yI did talk with a theology student who had the opinion that everyone is going to heaven because Jesus did on the cross for human's sins. Before asking more specific questions about heaven and hell it's useful to to know the stance of the person you are talking to. Afterwards you can force them to be more specific and name hard numbers. Pressing a believer into giving you hard numbers can switch them of reciting established talking points. In that case I would check how they know what God told them. God directly speaking to them? Them reading the bible? Don't different people interpret the bible differently?

The trouble with questions like these, I think, is that the answers of elite theist philosophers, in the first step, are most likely to be the same as the answers of much less capable theist philosophers. The points where their answers are more likely to differ are a few steps down the chain of challenge and justification.

In my experience (and by the description of Luke Muehlhauser, whose experience is probably quite a bit more extensive than mine,) philosophers of religion generally know a series of several standard challenges and answers, which have bee... (read more)

2kokotajlod7yYeah. I should think about how to get around this, and glean useful information from their expertise.

They've probably thought about your position much more than you have thought about theirs, so you can briefly explain your position and ask what they think is important for you to know or think about.

I would probably open with "Why are there so many theologians of false religions? Why do so many smart people get it so wrong, and how do we avoid making those same mistakes?" If the subject of my religion came up, I'd admit that I'm an atheist, but that I worry about falling for the same traps that Muslim or Hindu scholars do. After that it would... (read more)

1kokotajlod7yGood point! Spoiler: None of them think that. I haven't asked them but I am certain of this.

1a) Why are you a Christian, and not a Jew or a Muslim? (Or a Mormon Christian?)

Who is your favorite philosopher?

Do you have a favorite atheist philosopher?

If not the same guy as for question number one, who is your favorite philosopher that 95% of the philosophy academy never reads?

Maybe "God" is well defined in the context of analytic philosophy, but if not you could consider starting by asking what they mean by "God". You could then ask a variation of 1 or 2 (they seem identical?) and how their response would change with other common definitions of "God".

This would hopefully prevent wasting time due to different use of words or misunderstanding their position.

In a similar vein you could ask what would be sufficient evidence for them to believe something. (Maybe this is already specified by the analytic... (read more)

2kokotajlod8yI'll talk to them one-on-one. Yeah, I think asking them what they mean by god is a good idea--thanks!

First, I should note that all the most common/obvious questions have been thoroughly answered (where thorough refers to length). For many of these questions, you could get a better answer from reading what has already been written about it. Edit: you probably don't want to ask these questions as bluntly as I've worded them.

Why is choice of god mainly determined by which country a person was raised in, like eg language but unlike eg science? Does belief in God help one make more accurate predictions (not "better explanations") than using a secular... (read more)

0Mati_Roy7yNice questions. Could you please explain me how "Matthew 26:39" is related to "Jesus' willingness to die for our sins"?
0christopherj7yMatthew 26:39 Going a little farther, he fell with his face to the ground and prayed, “My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will.” The "cup" is Jesus' crucifixion, and this prayer implies that Jesus would rather not get crucified, but rather it was God's will. I suppose it could be read as Jesus wishing there was a different way to forgive sins. Philippians 2:8 (ESV) And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. While this could be a reference to Jesus living a sinless life, read literally it implies that Jesus was told to volunteer for the whole crucifixion thing. Note that disobeying God could result in anything from no effect to being condemned to eternal hellfire and perhaps having the entire universe cursed for good measure. But maybe Jesus cheerfully volunteered.
2fezziwig7yFWIW these questions have standard answers in Christian doctrine: he didn't want to be tortured to death, but he wanted to do God's will more than he not-wanted to be crucified. Part of the point of the story is that you don't have to cheerfully volunteer, you just have to volunteer. It's ok to be sad or afraid.
0christopherj7ySure, but don't forget that in Christian doctrine Jesus=God. This vastly complicates the issue, God-the-Father demands that God-the-Son die on behalf of the sins of humanity, which God-the-Son doesn't want to do but is willing to do because it's what God-the-Father requires to bring Himself to forgive people and He may have been ordered to as well. I don't know what would happen if God disobeys Himself.

It would be nice if you could do an article on their answers.

EDIT: Read my first comment and not this post because I've improved the structure of the text.

Here are some questions:

How confident are you that God exists? (anytime they say 100%, you could ask them if they would bet all human "souls" against one carrot that God exists to be 'sure' that they really mean 100%)

If someone, who is "otherwise" a very good person, is X% confident that God exists, for what minimum X are you at least 75% sure that s/he will go to paradise?

How confi... (read more)

1Mati_Roy8yPRAYERS How confident are you that prayers can work? Even if controlled for the placebo effect? How often do prayers work for you? How much time should one pray versus work? (for example, on an exam)
1Mati_Roy8yI improved the structure of the questions: GOD How confident are you that God exists? Does an evidence for [---] (would be) an evidence against God? (How would evidence for [---] affect your confidence that God exists) How confident are you that [---] is true? 1. the many-worlds interpretation 2. aliens existence 3. evolution of humans from non-living matter 4. bad things happening GOING TO PARADISE How confident are you that you will go to paradise? How scare are you to go to Hell? How confident are you that [---] have souls (and/or would go to paradise or hell)? 1. advanced artificial intelligence of some sort 2. extremely severely mentally handicapped humans 3. a crionised human For what minimum X are you at least 90% sure that someone will go to paradise if... 1. someone, who is "otherwise" a very good person, is X% confident that God exists, 2. someone that is (1-X)% chimp and X% human If it we live in a multiverse, how confident are you that all "souls" from all universes go to (the same) paradise/hell? (if the same, it means you would encounter other versions of yourselves). What set of memories do you think we bring with us in paradise (the ones we have before we die? all the ones we made in our life? etc.) BEING IN PARADISE How intelligent do you think intelligent humans and extremely severely mentally handicapped humans become in paradise? How confident are you that there are fermions and bosons in paradise/hell? (if low: does that mean there is not concept of: temperature, light, sound, pressure? can time be measured?) How confident are you that we cannot feel pain in paradise? After 3^^^3 years in paradise, how much do you think we can remember? How confident are you that one can commit suicide in paradise if one wants to? If you could live for any amount of time in paradise, how would you want to live? ADVANTAGES What are the advantages to believe in God (beside going to paradise)? What are the disadvantages? In the

How do you avoid the problem of X which is a major argument against theism

"How do you feel about the space of concepts such as Parsimony, Occam's razor, Kolmogorov complexity, Minimum message length, and their relationship to epistemology and hypothesis comparisons?

You can probably ask them a variant of the Monday/Tuesday game, but for different religious traditions.

The properties attributed to god make a big difference.

For those who say they believe in god from a philosophical proof, first mover or whatever, I'd ask them 1) Must the god proved by that proof be conscious? Must it care about humans to the point that it communicates with them? Does that proof require a god who is a moral authority over us and if so how? That is, given a god proved by that proof, why should I care what he/she/it thinks I should do?

Ultimately for those who believe in a god from a philosophical proof, my ultimate question, how do I ge... (read more)

"Do you believe in the Devil?" "Do you think God is proud of humanity's progress to date?" "Do you believe that we are meant to take stewardship of planets beyond Earth?"

Wonderful question! I spent some time recently interviewing religious converts on my very un-religious campus, and I think you'll find your discussions fascinating, if not particularly epistemic-rational.

Some topics I'd bring up: Second CronoDas on "why are you not a Jew/Muslim?", as well as "what evidence (especially scientific evidence) could lead you to dramatically change your belief in God, if not stop believing altogether?"

Finally: "If you stopped believing in God, what do you think would be the consequences in your present l... (read more)

What does "believe" mean to you? Are there any decisions you make which would be different if you believed otherwise?

Just ask this guy. He's a philosopher (Ph.D) and theologian, although he isn't religious himself.

1TheAncientGeek7yPlotinus is cool!

Here's a good one for any one who trusts the bible: Is the following true? If Mark 9:40 and Matthew 12:30 are both true, then God would not allow us to see, hear, think or feel anything that wasn't the best possible thing we could see, hear, think or feel at that moment. I know the philosophers at Notre Dame to be an exceedingly rational group, and so I believe they will respond by giving a wonderful explanation to you of the Christian belief that God is indeed with all people at all times, and that they need only open their hearts to love in order to receive all they desire.

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1BloodyShrimp7yBetween people like us, this is somewhere between a failure to allow for the looseness of speech and the kind of interesting contradiction we like because it's evidence-rich, and probably closer to the former. To a religious person, this is just a pretty combative trap. There are a large number of such traps you can run on religious people, and they very rarely accomplish anything, because these almost always aren't the kind of people who take logic and rationality seriously enough to change their beliefs due to contradictions, but they normally are the kind of people who fail to Keep Their Identity Small and hence become personally offended when you try to bring up contradictions. Asking the philosophers he's going to see trap questions like this will just annoy them (they'll probably even see the "looseness of speech" explanation for this one), provoke useless stock answers, and waste the potential of the conversations.
0rthomas27yThank you for your comment: you have shown me that I failed to make my intention plain. I have edited my original comment in the hopes of remedying this; please let me know if I have succeeded by up-voting, or if I have failed by down-voting and, if you are again willing to help me, offering me further critique :) My sincere thanks, again.

What is the supernatural? How can the universe contain phenomena that can be described as "not natural?" In the past, rain, lightning, fire, eclipses, and reproduction were thought to be supernatural events, and they all have been satisfactorily explained. What space is left for the supernatural in our understanding of reality?

Assuming the universe has a supernatural origin, what suggests that said origin is a deity? Alternatively, assuming a deity is detectable, what suggests that said deity is a creator?

Assuming we can detect the deity (or deit... (read more)

0IlyaShpitser7yIf you make everything out of probability wobbles, that creates a perfect alibi if you want to mess around.
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