bookmark_borderCan humans create meaning? Can God?

Sean Carroll is an excellent scientist and philosopher. One of his greatest virtues is that he understands both the important role that philosophy must play in the scientific enterprise and that there are some questions that science is not situated to answer and that are the province of philosophy. It is always worthwhile to listen to him discuss scientific and philosophical issues. In the following clip, he talks with Robert Lawrence Kuhn about whether there can be meaning and purpose in a godless universe.

Some of the things that Carroll says in this video are very insightful. For example, he says that it is wrong to think of meaning as a separate kind of thing that must be added to the universe. However, I think that his larger point about meaning and purpose is, at best, ambiguous and, on the most natural interpretation, completely wrong.
In the video (at the 5:17 mark) Carroll says,

“Any person who has wants or desires brings meaning into existence.”


“The question, ‘Is there meaning in the world?’ is just the question, ‘Are there human beings who care about things?’ and the answer is obviously yes.”

These statements are ambiguous. There are two things that Carroll might be indicating. First, he might be saying that persons are themselves valuable and that, because of this, the existence of persons makes the world meaningful. Second, he might be claiming that persons create value in virtue of wanting and desiring things. While there is this ambiguity, I think it much more likely that Carroll means to indicate the second rather than the first.
If I am right, then Sean Carroll is here offering a subjectivist account of meaning. He is claiming that there is meaning so long as there are humans who care about things and that this is because, by caring about things, humans make them meaningful. A subjectivist view of meaning claims that meaning is dependent on the goals, interests, desires, reactions, or attitudes of subjects. On such a view, it would be correct to say that human subjects create meaning by making things meaningful. We make things meaningful, on Carroll’s view, by caring about them. Thus, their being meaningful depends on our attitudes. Is Carroll right about this?

Emptiness: Leela has lately been preoccupied with the thought that life is probably not worth living. Her friends Philip and Amy are trying to help her through this existential crisis. Leela says that she suspects that life is ultimately empty of all significance, merely an unfortunate and meaningless accident. Philip and Amy remind Leela that there are many things that she cares about: her friends, her career, her charity work helping orphans. Leela says that it is true that she has cared about those things, but now she wonders whether she should concern herself with them at all. “All of these people and all of these things,” Leela says, “are just tiny, insignificant specks in the unfathomable and infinite depths of the indifferent universe. And, like Roy Batty, I am acutely aware that all of them will be lost in time like tears in rain. In such a world, in which a human life is but an infinitesimal fleeting instant compared to the vastness of time and space, can anything really matter?”

When Leela wonders whether she should care about what she used to care about, she is not wondering whether, in fact, she still cares about these things; she is wondering whether there are reasons for her to care about these things. It would be no help to her and no answer to her question to insist that she does care about them. She suspects that life is meaningless not because she doesn’t care about anything (and certainly not because there are no humans who care about things; she knows that there are plenty of people who care about things). She is worried that life is meaningless because, she suspects, there are no reasons to care about anything.
Consider now the statement,

(M) There are things that matter to Leela.

This statement is ambiguous. (M) might mean

(N) There are things that Leela cares about.


(O) There are reasons for Leela to care about some things and Leela recognizes those  reasons and responds to them by caring about these things.

(N) is a psychological claim about Leela. It says that Leela has concern for certain things. But (N) does not tell us whether there are reasons for Leela to have such concern. And Leela’s worry is that there might not be such reasons. According to Carroll, Leela can make her life meaningful just by caring about things. But telling Leela that there are things that she cares about (or at least that she has cared about) will not help her; this will not enable her to see that life is meaningful. This is because the problem facing Leela, the problem of whether her life is meaningful, is precisely the problem of whether she has reasons to care about anything.
We cannot create value, significance, or meaning because we cannot make it the case that there are reason to care about things. We can make things that are worth caring about, but we cannot make it the case that they are worth caring about. As Derek Parfit says,

We cannot, however, make things good by commanding or willing that they be good. Though we can sometimes change people’s evaluative beliefs, that is not a way of creating new values. Nor can we make anything matter. When something matters to us, in the sense that we care about this thing, that is merely a psychological fact. Something matters only when, and in the sense that, we have object-given reasons to care about this thing. (Parfit Vol.2, 601)

Carroll is wrong about meaning. Though we can make our lives meaningful in the sense that we can choose to bring things into our lives that matter, we cannot make things valuable, we cannot make things matter, and we cannot make things meaningful. This is not because we lack the power to do so. It is not because humans are small and weak; even God cannot make things matter. God can make things that matter (but so can humans) but God cannot make the things that he makes matter. In the same way, humans can produce some of the things that matter in life (though not all of them and maybe not even the most important of them), but we cannot make these things matter. Whether the things we make matter, whether anything matters, is something over which we have no control. Humans cannot make things matter because it is impossible to make things matter.
In what sense can God create meaning?
Near the beginning of the clip (roughly the 1:43 mark) Carroll says that our conception of meaning changes when we leave theism behind since we are not given instructions from God and that “it is, at the very least, up to us to create these things.” This is a significant error. The conception of meaning is not altered by whether God, or any other supernatural entity, exists. Whether life is meaningful depends on whether there are, in our lives, things that matter. And whether there are things that matter is a matter of whether there are things that are worth caring about. The question of whether life has meaning is not the question of whether anyone cares about things but whether there are things such that there are reasons to care about them.
The claim that God makes life meaningful is ambiguous. There are two different things that it might mean:

(A) God creates the things in life that are valuable and worthwhile (and that, in virtue of being valuable and worthwhile, give our lives meaning).

(B) God makes it the case that the things in life that are valuable and worthwhile are valuable and worthwhile. Thus, by making these things valuable and worthwhile, God makes it the case that our lives are meaningful.

Those who, like Carroll, think that our conception of meaning and purpose must change when we abandon theism are assuming (B). Any atheist who thinks either that humans can create their own meaning even in the absence of God or that, in the absence of God, life is objectively empty of meaning, are implicitly assuming (B) as well. And I think that many theists also believe that (B) is the case.
If you believe that God is the creator of Heaven and Earth, then you believe that (A) is true. In creating things like human beings, and the planets and stars, and natural landscapes, and plants and animals, and happiness and love, God creates things that have value. God, if he exists, creates the things that are worthy of pursuit, preservation, and appreciation; and, in doing so, he makes it possible for human lives to be meaningful. If God exists, then, because of God and his activity, there exists things such that we have object-given reasons to care about them. However, if (A) is true, God does not make any of these things valuable; he does not make it the case that these things are worthy of pursuit, preservation, and appreciation.
If life is meaningful, if there are object-given reasons to care about things, then, even on theism, the things that are valuable and worthwhile (the things that make life meaningful and worth living) must be valuable and worthwhile even if God does not exist. Now, it is always open for a theist to claim that, on her worldview, nothing can exist in the absence of God. Well, in that case, if God did not exist, life would not be meaningful but for the trivial reason that life would not be. I am not here trying to rule out or defeat the claim that all concrete things (including the things, like people, and nature, and happiness, and joy, that make life meaningful) depend for their existence on God. What I am trying to rule out is the claim that the value of these things depends on God.
(B) is false. And everyone, theist and atheist alike, should be able to agree that it is false. We know that God cannot create value and meaning because we know that there are some things that God cannot make valuable, worthwhile, or meaningful. And if there are some things such that God cannot make them valuable (etc.), then this implies that God does not have the power to bring value into existence where it does not exist. In other words, God cannot take something that, in the absence of God and his activity, would be worthless and make it worthwhile. Let’s expand this argument.
We know that there are things that God cannot make good or worthwhile. God cannot make suffering good. He cannot make wanton murder worthwhile. Each of these cases involves something that is intrinsically bad and so the thought that God could make these things good involves the thought that God could take something that is intrinsically bad and make it good. This thought is absurd. The nature of suffering gives us reasons to avoid it and God cannot change that. If the nature of suffering were different, such that we no longer had reasons to avoid it, then it would no longer be suffering (and thus talk of the nature of suffering being other than that of providing us with reasons to avoid it is absurd). Wanton murder results in significant suffering and involves the cutting short of a worthwhile life. God cannot make such activity good.
Now, since there are some things (e.g., suffering and murder) that God cannot make good and worthwhile, it follows that God lacks the capacity to make bad things good. This shows that God’s power is limited in this domain, that is, the domain of value, significance, and meaning. If we agree that God cannot make awful things good, then why would we think that he can make anything good?
This same reasoning implies that there are things that God can’t make bad. Consider happiness. The nature of happiness gives us reasons to pursue it, promote it, and appreciate it. God cannot change that. What could God do to make happiness be something that we have no reason to pursue? The question answers itself.
The recognition that it is the nature of suffering that gives us reasons to avoid it and it is the nature of happiness that gives us reason to pursue it yields the following generality: It is the nature of things that provide us with reasons to desire, pursue, preserve, appreciate, care about them. (This is what Parfit means to indicate when he speaks of object-given reasons.) God can create things with a nature, but it is in virtue of that nature (rather than the fact that it is created by God) that these things are significant, insignificant, worthwhile, worthless, etc. God cannot take something whose nature gives us reasons to avoid it and make it something that is worthwhile to pursue. Similarly, God cannot take something, like a piece of refuse, whose nature gives us no reason to pursue, preserve, appreciate, or care about it, and make it the case that this piece of refuse, with this nature, is worthy of pursuit, is desirable, (etc.). And God cannot take something, like happiness, whose nature gives us reason to pursue it, and make it the case that this thing (something, e.g., with the nature of happiness) is something that we have no reason to pursue, preserve, appreciate, or care about.
God can make things that are valuable, but he cannot make it the case that they are valuable. So, let’s compare two universes. The first, which we’ll call G-universe, is one in which God exists and in which life is meaning and there are things that matter. The other universe, NG-universe, is one that is just like G-universe but in which there is no God. Since the things in G-universe, such as planets, stars, human beings, animals, etc. would exist in NG-universe and would have their same nature and properties, there would still be things that matter in NG-universe. For example, there are human beings in NG-universe and human beings have the same nature and properties in NG-universe as they have in G-universe. Since it is the nature of things that provide us with reasons to pursue, preserve, appreciate, or care about them, if humans matter in G-universe, they matter in NG-universe. Suffering and the relieving of suffering exist in NG-universe. So, if suffering has negative value in G-universe, it has negative value in NG-universe. If the relieving of suffering is worthwhile in G-universe, then it is worthwhile in NG-universe.
Since God has the unlimited capacity to create concrete objects, if he exists, he can create things that are valuable. He can also provide states of affairs and experience that are of significant value and such that, in the absence of God, would not be possible. For example, God can provide humans with the opportunity to have a meaningful relationship with a perfect being. If God does not exist, then such a relationship may not be possible. So, God can add meaning to our lives by creating or making possible things that matter a great deal, but God cannot create meaning.
In the same way and for the same reasons, we humans cannot create meaning. We can pursue meaningful things, activities, etc., and by pursuing and achieving good and worthwhile things, we can bring meaning into our lives. But we cannot make a thing or activity be meaningful. If something is meaningful, then there are object-given reasons to care about it. We cannot and God cannot make it the case that there are object-given reasons to care about anything.
**Note: In this essay, I have used some concepts and claims (especially about reasons) that require more development and defense than I have been able to provide here. In a follow-up essay, I will endeavor to provide these.

bookmark_borderThe VICTIMs of Christian Apologetics

My latest video, “The VICTIMs of Christian Apologetics: The Things Apologists Falsely Say Depend on God, But, if God Exists, God Depends on Them,” is now available on YouTube. It is a narration of some of the many hundreds of PowerPoint slides I created in preparation for my recent debate with Frank Turek on naturalism vs. theism.
This video presentation is a (roughly) 2 hour 30 minute critique of Frank Turek’s latest book, Stealing from God: Why Atheists Need God to Make Their Case. Turek accuses atheists of stealing from God in order to argue against God. How do atheists steal from God when arguing against God’s existence? According to Turek, this is summed up by the acrostic CRIMES (Causality, Reason, Information and Intentionality, Morality, Evil, and Science). So his argument is that atheists must assume each of those things, but each of those things in turn presuppose God’s existence.
For each letter in CRIMES, atheism can steal these concepts from God if and only if: (a) atheism is logically incompatible with the concept represented by that letter; and (b) positing an all-powerful God explains that concept, not just assumes it. But as I will explain, each letter in CRIMES fails one or both conditions.
Now, since repeatedly accusing an innocent person of a crime harms the accused, I’m going to frame my response as an acrostic of my own: VICTIM (Value, Induction, Causality, Time, Information and Intentionality, and Morality). Instead of talking about crimes, what we instead need to talk about are the VICTIMs of Christian apologetics. The VICTIMs of Christian apologetics are things which Christian apologists falsely claim depend on God, but the truth is that God depends on them.
Since the video is quite long and detailed, the following serves as a handy index:
Counter Apologist went through the effort to list the topics covered and give time-stamps/links for each topic which you can find below:

HT: Counter-Apologist for creating the index

bookmark_borderWhat is Atheism? – Part 2

Levels of Analysis

I’m going to make a second attempt to clarify and define the word “atheism”.  This time, I will emphasize that the analysis and definitions exist at different levels.  Swinburne’s clarification and analysis of “God exists” makes use of different levels of definition or analysis:
Level 0:  “God exists.”
Level 1:  God exists IF AND ONLY IF exactly one divine person exists.
Level 2:  X is a divine person IF AND ONLY IF X is a spirit who is eternally omnipotent, eternally omniscient, eternally perfectly morally good, the creator of the universe, and a source of moral obligations for human beings.
Level 3: X is a spirit IF AND ONLY IF X is a bodiless person.
Level 3:  Person P is a perfectly morally good person IF AND ONLY IF  P is so constituted that P always chooses to do the best action when there is a best action, or one equal best action when there are  two or more equal best actions available, or a good action when there is no best or equal best action, and P never chooses to do a bad action.
Level 3:  X is eternally Y IF AND ONLY IF  X has characteristic Y at every moment in the past, and X has characteristic Y now, and X has characteristic Y at every moment in the future.
In Level 1, Swinburne clarifies or defines the words or phrases in Level 0.  In Level 2, Swinburne clarifies or defines the words used in the definition in Level 1.  In Level 3, Swinburne clarifies or defines the words used in the definitions in Level 2, and so on…
I am not saying that this is a good or correct analysis of “God exists” , just that I think it is a good idea or strategy to analyze complex ideas this way, with levels of definition or analysis.  One advantage is that we might be able to arrive at agreement more easily at the lower levels (such as at Level 1 or Level 2) than at the higher levels (such as Level 3 or higher), and that would still be progress worth making.

Atheism is Opposition to Theism

Etymology does NOT determine the meaning or use of a word.  However, in the case of the word “atheism”, etymology does reflect the basic logic of the word.  Atheism is in opposition to theism.  Roughly speaking, an atheist is someone who REJECTS or DENIES theism.  The concept of atheism is logically dependent on the concpet of theism.  One can know what “atheism” means only if one knows what “theism” means.
Just as theism is an intellectual position, so atheism is an intellectual position.  It is a common mistake to think that “atheism” refers to the lack or absence of theistic belief.  Newborn babies lack theistic belief, but that does not mean that newborn babies are atheists.  Newborn babies are neither thesits nor atheists nor agnostics.  Newborn babies do not have an intellectual position about the existence of “God” or about the existence of “gods”.
Cats and dogs lack theistic belief, but neither cats nor dogs are atheists.  Cats and dogs have no intellectual position on the question “Does God exist?” nor on the question “Do any gods exist?”   Cats and dogs are neither theists, nor atheists, nor agnostics.  Rocks and trees lack theistic belief, but rocks and trees are NOT atheists.  Rocks and trees do not have an intellectual position on the question of the existence of God, or gods.  Rocks and trees are neither theists, nor atheists, nor agnostics.

The Ambiguity of the Word “Theism”

But the word “theism” is somewhat unclear and problematic, which in turn makes the word “atheism” somewhat unclear and problematic.   First of all, “theism” is an ambiguous word:


n. Belief in the existence of a god or gods, esp. belief in a personal God as creator and ruler of the world.
(The American Heritage Dictionary, 2nd College Edition)
Sometimes “theism” is used in a broader sense that refers to belief in any sort of god or gods.   Sometimes the word “theism” is used in a narrow sense that refers to traditional western theism (the dictionary speaks of belief in “a personal God as creator…”).  To be clear about which of these senses one intends, we can use adjectives to qualify the term “theism”.
traditional western theism – the belief that God exists (where this belief is understood in keeping with the  traditional concept of God found in the three major western religions).
general theism – the belief that one or more gods exist.
Because there are two differnent senses of the word “theism”, there are two different senses of the word “atheism” that correspond to those two senses of “theism”:
weak atheism – the rejection of traditional western theism.
strong atheism – the rejection of general theism.
If one rejects general theism, then this implies that one ought to also reject traditional western theism.  If one rejects the claim that “There is at least one god”, then one ought to also reject the claim “God exists”, because “God exists” logically implies that “There is at least one god.”  Therefore, if one accepts strong atheism, then one ought also to accept weak atheism, because strong atheism logically implies weak atheism.
But one can reject traditional western theism without rejecting general theism.  One could, for example, reject the claim “God exists” because one believes that the concept of “God” contains a contradiction (say, between the divine attribute of omniscience and the divine attribute of perfect goodness), but have no similar objection to the concept of a “god”, and thus not reject general theism.  Thus it is possible to accept weak atheism without accepting strong atheism.
Given the disambiguation of “theism” and the corresponding disambiguation of “atheism”, it follows that one can be both a theist and an atheist without self-contradiction.  One could accept weak atheism (and thus reject traditional western theism) while also accepting general theism, by believing in the existence of one or more (finite) gods.  For example, if a person believes that Zeus exists, then that person believes that “There is at least one god” (namely Zeus), but that person might also REJECT traditional western theism, and thus reject the claim that “God exists”.  Such a person would accept weak atheism and also accept general theism.  Therefore, such a person would be both an atheist (in accepting weak atheism) and also a theist (in accepting general theism).
Here are some general advantages to the above proposed terminology:
1. It  encompasses the insight that  atheism is an intellectual position, and avoids the common mistake of viewing atheism as being merely the lack or absence of a particular belief.
2. It recognizes the ambiguity of the word “theism” and avoids confusion and equivocation by the use of adjectives to clarify which of the two senses of the word is intended.
3. It recognizes the logical dependency of the concept of  “atheism” on the concept of “theism” by creating a set of two categories of “atheism” corresponding to the two categories of “theism”.
4. The use of the word “rejection” (as opposed to “denial” or “negation” or “false”) allows the term “atheism” to include skeptics who deny that the claim “God exists” makes a statement that could be true or false.  Some skeptical philosophers assert that the sentence “God exists” does not express a true statement, and also does not express a false statement.  But such a view can be understood as a “rejection” of traditional western theism.  This also allows for atheists who reject the claim “God exists” not because they are convinced that the claim is false, but because they are not convinced that it is true.  Many atheists assert that the evidence for the claim “God exists” is too weak to justify acceptance of this belief.  Such atheists admit that the claim “God exists” might turn out to be true, but that we ought to reject this claim unless and until someone provides solid evidence for the truth of the claim.
5. Distinguishing different forms of “atheism” would be useful for making the point that everyone, or nearly every sane adult, is an atheist, in the sense that nearly every sane adult rejects belief in one or more gods.  Christians, for example, generally reject belief in Zeus and in the other gods of the Greek and Roman pantheons.  These Greek and Roman gods lack the infinite and unlimited characteristics of the God of traditional western theism.  So, we could define a specific category of theism in which a person believes in one or more finite gods, gods who lack one of more of the following attributes:  (a) eternally omnipotent, (b) eternally omniscient, (c) eternally perfectly morally good, (d) the creator of the universe, (e) a source of moral obligations for human beings.  Let’s call this “finite theism”.  Christians reject finite theism, and thus Christians could be categorized as holding the position of “finite atheism” – the rejection of finite theism.

Varieties of Unbelief

I have previously focused in on two varieties of unbelief:
1. Belief that “God exists” makes a false statement.
2. Belief that “God exists” does not make a true statement and does not make a false statement (because it does not make any statement at all).
But there are various sorts of unbelief/atheism.  Some atheists say that the belief that “God exists” should be rejected because…

  • it is certainly false
  • it is can be proven to be false
  • it can be proven that it does not make any sort of statement
  • it is probably false
  • it probably does not make any sort of statement
  • it has not been proven to be true
  • it is not provable
  • it is not a scientifically testable belief
  • it is not subject to empirical confirmation or disconfirmation
  • the evidence for it is too weak to justify belief 
  • the word “God” is too unclear and ambiguous to allow for a rational evaluation of this claim

There are a wide variety of reasons for rejecting the belief that “God exists”, but so long as one is aware of the view or belief that “God exists” and one chooses to not accept that view or belief, then that constitutes REJECTION of the belief and thus is a form of atheism.

Levels of Analysis of Atheism

Level 0:  Person P holds the intellectual position of weak atheism.
Level 0: Person P holds the intellectual position of strong atheism.
Level 1:  Person P holds the intellectual position of weak atheism IF AND ONLY IF person P rejects traditional western theism.
Level 1: Person P holds the intelletual position of strong atheism IF AND ONLY IF person P rejects general theism.
Level 2: Person P rejects view V IF AND ONLY IF person P is aware of veiw V and P has chosen to not accept view V.
Level 2: Person P accepts traditional western theism IF AND ONLY IF person P believes that God exists, where this belief is understood in keeping with the traditional concept of God as found in the three major western religions (i.e. Judaism, Christianity, and Islam).
Level 2: Person P accepts general theism IF AND ONLY IF person P believes that one or more gods exist.
Level 3:  Person P believes that God exists, where this belief is understood in keeping with the traditional concept of God as found in the three major western religions (i.e. Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) IF AND ONLY IF person P believes that there is exactly one divine person.
Level 4:  Person P believes that there is exactly one divine person IF AND ONLY IF person P believes that there is exacly one spirit who is eternally omnipotent, eternally omniscient, eternally perfectly morally good, the creator of the universe, and a source of moral obligations for human beings.
Level 5:  X is a spirit IF AND ONLY IF X is a bodiless person.
Level 5:  X is eternally Y IF AND ONLY IF  X has characteristic Y at every moment in the past, and X has characteristic Y now, and X has characteristic Y at every moment in the future.
We do not have to arrive at agreement at Level 4 or Level 5 in order to make intellectual progress on clarification and analysis of “atheism”.
If we can arrive at agreement at Level 2 or Level 3, that will still be some significant intellectual progress.

Counterexamples to My Previously Proposed Definitions

My previous proposals have run into a couple of powerful counterexamples.  Here are the definitions that I originally proposed:


Person P accepts WEAK ATHEISM if and only if P believes that the sentence “God exists” does NOT express a true statement.


Person P accepts STRONG ATHEISM if and only if P believes that the sentence “One or more gods exist” does NOT express a true statement.

 One counterexample stems from the fact that I am pointing to sentences in the English language.  But there are atheists who do not speak or understand the English language.  Some atheists might only understand French or German or Spanish.  Such a person would presumably have no opinion about whether the sentence “God exists” expresses a true statement, or even whether it expresses any statement at all.
Another counterexample stems from the fact that people can have a mistaken understanding or interpretation of a particular sentence in English, even if that person has a general understanding of the English language.  Suppose that someone who understood English had very limited exposure to western religions and interpreted the sentence “God exists” to mean “there is life after death”.  If this person believed there was no such thing as life after death, then this person would believe that the sentence “God exists” does  NOT express a true statement.  Yet this person might well believe that God exists while denying that there is life after death.  In that case, this person would NOT be correctly categorized as a “weak atheist”.

bookmark_borderWhat is Atheism?

I know this is a well-worn topic, but I think it is worth hashing over this old question one more time.
First, some obvious points that many ignorant, bible-thumping, knuckle-dragging bigots are unable to grasp:
1. ATHEISM is not the same as MATERIALISM (not all atheists are materialists).
2. ATHEISM is not the same as MARXISM (not all atheists are Marxists).
3. ATHEISM is not the same as HUMANISM (not all atheists are Humanists).
4. ATHEISM is not the same as AGNOSTICISM (not all atheists are agnostics).
5. ATHEISM is not the same as SKEPTICISM (not all atheists are skeptics).
6. ATHEISM is not the same as NATURALISM (not all atheists are naturalists).
7. ATHEISM is not the same as EXISTENTIALISM (not all atheists are Existentialists).
If you don’t understand these basic and obvious points, then please stop reading this post now, and go back to your cave or to your church’s para-military compound in Arkansas or Alabama.
Now for something a bit more sophisticated.   Consider the following initial, rough definition of “atheism”:
Person P accepts ATHEISM if and only if P believes that “There is no God.”
There are a couple of problems with this definition.  First of all, (DEF1) is compatible with someone being a polytheist.  One can both believe that “There is no God” and at the same time (without any contradiction) believe that “There are many gods”.  To believe that “There is no God” is to believe that there is no god who is the one-and-only all-powerful, all-knowing, eternal creator of the universe.
But denying that there is a god who has infinite power, infinite knowledge, and infinite duration is NOT the same as denying that there is any god whatsoever.  One could deny the existence of an all-powerful, all-knowing, eternal god and yet believe that there are many gods who have finite power, and finite knowledge, and/or who are of finite duration.  In other words, one can reject traditional western theism (the belief in God found in the western religious traditions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) and yet be a polytheist and believe in the existence of many finite gods.
A second problem with (DEF1) is that it does not make room for atheists who claim that the concept of “God” is incoherent.  A.J. Ayer, Antony Flew, and Kai Nielsen were all atheist philosophers, but they all believe that the sentence “God exists” is incoherent.  They believe that the sentence “God exists” is neither true nor false.  So, they also believe that the negation or denial of this sentence is also incoherent.  Thus, none of these atheist philosophers believed that the sentence “There is no God” makes a true statement.  On the basis of (DEF1) none of these atheist philosophers would be categorized as being an “atheist”.
The best solution to the first problem, is to draw a distinction between strong and weak atheism.  Weak atheism is the denial of traditional western theism.  Strong atheism is the denial of the existence of any and all gods.
Person P accepts WEAK ATHEISM if and only if P believes that “There is no God.”
Person P accepts STRONG ATHEISM if and only if P believes that “There are no gods.”
On these definitions, strong atheism implies weak atheism, but weak atheism does not imply strong atheism.  Someone who believes that “There are no gods” must also believe (to be logically consistent) that “There is no God”.  But some one who believes “There is no God” could believe that “There are some gods” (i.e. gods who are finite in power, knowledge, or duration).
These definitions, however, do not get around the second objection, concening atheists who believe that the sentence “God exists” fails to make a coherent statement.  One way to get around the second objection would be to characterize atheism not as a belief, but as the absence of a belief:
Person P accepts WEAK ATHEISM if and only if P does NOT believe that “God exists.”
Person P accepts STRONG ATHEISM if and only if P does NOT believe that “One or more gods exist.”
But while these definitions might get around both the first and second objections, they are still problematic, because we think of atheism as being an intellectual position or stance.  The lack of a belief, however, is not an intellectual position.  Presumably, ALL BABIES lack the belief that “God exists”, but it is absurd and counterintuitive to say that ALL BABIES are atheists.  Babies simply don’t have any position on the question of the existence of God, and they certainly do not have a position on whether the sentence “God exists” expresses a coherent statement.
I propose an alternative way to deal with the second objection, a way that preserves the view that atheism is an intellectual position or stance, and that avoids the counterintuitive implication that ALL BABIES are atheists:
Person P accepts WEAK ATHEISM if and only if P believes that the sentence “God exists” does NOT express a true statement.
Person P accepts STRONG ATHEISM if and only if P believes that the sentence “One or more gods exist” does NOT express a true statement.
As far as I can see, these defintions get around the two main objections that we have been considering, and they do so while preserving the intuition that atheism is an intellectual position or stance, a belief that we cannot ascribe to ALL BABIES.
Some who accept weak atheism believe the sentence “God exists” expresses a statement that is false, while others who accept weak atheism believe the sentence “God exists” does not express a coherent statement at all.  Both sorts of atheists are encompased by (DEF4A).
Some who accept strong atheism believe the sentence “One or more gods exist” expresses a coherent statement that is false, while others who accept strong atheism believe the sentence “One or more gods exist” does not express a coherent statement at all.
One final point, which is probably the most controversial point I have to make on this topic.  Although atheism is an intellectual position or stance, it is NOT a point of view.  At least, it is NOT a worldview, and it is NOT an ideology, and it is NOT a philosophy, and it is NOT a religion.  In short, atheism is the rejection of a specific religious belief or a religious “assertion”.  Weak atheism is basically the rejection of traditional western theism.  Strong atheism is basically the rejection of any sort of theism, including belief in one or more finite gods.
That is why the first seven statements at the beginning of this article are true.  Atheism is the rejection of a particular religious belief or religious “assertion”.  Atheism is NOT the assertion of a general point of view or philosophy or worldview.  Furthermore, atheists do not necessarily agree on WHY we ought to reject a particular religious belief or assertion.
Some atheists reject the assertion that “God exists” because they think it is FALSE.  Other atheists reject the assertion “God exists” because they think it is INCOHERENT.  The atheists who think “God exists” makes a FALSE statement have different reasons and arguments for thinking this statement is false.  So, atheists do not necessarily agree with each other about WHY we ought to reject the assertion that “God exists” or that “One or more gods exist”.
Update (10/5/15):
Angra Mainyu suggested a counterexample to my proposed definition 4A:
c. What if Alice is silent on whether God exists on your definition, but she believes that “there is an omnipotent, omniscient, morally perfect being” is not true …? 
The classification you propose does not cover a case like that.
I also came up with a similar objection to 4A.  What about a person who does not understand English?  A person who speaks French, German, Italian, Spanish, Chinese, or Japanese but does not understand English will in most cases NOT have an opinion about the truth or the coherence of the sentence “God exists.”  because he/she will not understand the meaning of this sentence.
I can get around my objection and perhaps Angra Mainyu’s objection as well by revising the proposed definition a bit:
5A. Person P accepts WEAK ATHEISM if and only if P believes that a sentence S does NOT express a true statement, and sentence S has the same meaning as the English sentence “God exists.”

There is a difficulty with this defintion, however. It appears to imply that the sentence “God exists” is a meaningful sentence, which begs an important question.

However, it does NOT assume that the sentence “God exists” expresses a coherent statement.  The sentence, “This is a four-sided triangle.” is a meaningful sentence, and it can be translated into other languages, but it is an incoherent sentence in that it contains a logical contradiction.  So, 5A leaves open the question as to whether the sentence “God exists” contains a logical contradiction, but does assume that this sentence has a meaning, at least enough meaning for it to be possible to translate the sentence into another language.

Personally, I don’t mind begging the question as to whether “God exists” is a meaningful sentence.  It seems obvious to me that it is a meaningful sentence, and one reason for thinking this is that it is obvious that this sentence can be translated into other languages.  How could a meaningless sentence be translated correctly into another language?  So, I’m OK with begging this particular question.

bookmark_borderA Moral Argument for God which Begs the Question against Theists

Reposting a comment I left on fellow Patheos blogger Bob Seidensticker’s blog, Cross Examined. Bob was writing about Geisler’s and Turek’s book, I Don’t Have Enough Faith to be an AtheistBob quoted this passage from their book:

 If the atheists are right, then we might as well lie, cheat, and steal to get what we want because this life is all there is, and there are no consequences in eternity. (p. 68)

Bob’s response:

Wow—what planet are these guys from? How many atheists think that it’s fine to lie, cheat, and steal? Are the prisons filled with atheists? Do atheists not care about their reputations with their family and friends? Do atheists not have consciences?

Since you’ll agree, after a moment’s reflection, that atheists are indeed moral, maybe you should drop the “atheists have no morals” claim and wonder where they get their morals from. I predict it’s the same place where you do.

Atheism does indeed mean that “there are no consequence in eternity,” but (dang it!) there are consequences right here and now, so I’d better cancel my Saturday night orgy ’n bacchanalia.

What follows was my comment.


I think this reply misses the mark. Joe Sixpack will read this and say, “Yes, that’s exactly what I think of atheists.” And apologists will surely respond, “Yes, there are atheists who do that, but they’re simply acting inconsistently with or better than their atheism.”

If you’ll indulge me, I think a better reply would be something like this:

Geisler and Turek claim that by ruling out the supernatural, Darwinists can avoid the possibility that anything is morally prohibited. In fact, Geisler and Turek are tearing down a straw man of their own creation by linking ‘everything is permitted’ with the wrong ‘-ism.’ Contrary to what Geisler and Turek claim, neither atheism nor Darwinism says everything is morally permitted. That’s what nihilism says.
In fact, at least in this instance, it is Geisler and Turek, not atheists, who are guilty of ruling out things in advance. Geisler and Turek can assume that atheism leads to nihilism only by assuming that some God-based theory of morality, such as the (Modified) Divine Command Theory is true.
But that assumption is hotly contested, even by other theists. If someone read only Geisler’s and Turek’s book, they’d think the choices were “Theism and God-based morality” and “atheism and no morality whatsoever.” But that’s false. Bare or ‘mere’ theism says nothing about whether morality is based upon God. The belief that morality is somehow based upon God is an extra belief, on top of theism. Thus, Geisler and Turek not only beg the question against atheists, but they beg the question against other theists also.
First, their argument begs the question against moral anti-reductionists (like G.E. Moore) who hold that moral facts and properties are not reducible to non-moral facts and properties. There are both theists and nontheists who hold this position.
Second, their argument begs the question against reductive moral naturalists who hold that moral facts and properties are reducible to natural, non-moral facts and properties. As before, there are both theists and nontheists who hold this position.

bookmark_borderKai Nielsen on Natural Law and Divine Command Theory

Editor’s Note: This is a guest post by Taylor Carr republished on The Secular Outpost with permission. The original post may be found on his blog, The Godless Skeptic.

It’s common to hear theists make the claim that there cannot be a moral law without a moral law-giver. C.S. Lewis, Ravi Zacharias, and several other prominent defenders of the Christian faith have given voice to this position in their writings and lectures. The association of religion with morality goes back a long ways in history, at least as far as Plato, but the most notable articulator of it in Christian thought is perhaps Thomas Aquinas, the 13th century friar and theologian. Aquinas’ view that morality must be grounded in god has been influential in both Catholic and Protestant circles and is reflected in two traditions known as natural law theory and divine command theory.The Canadian philosopher Kai Nielsen critiques both traditions in an essay featured in his book Atheism & Philosophy. On natural law theory – the view that we come to an understanding of the good through reason, in accordance with the “eternal law” of god – Professor Nielsen raises four main objections.
1. Natural law suffers from the same problems of justification as other moral theories. Nielsen writes:
For such a certain knowledge of good and evil, we require moral principles that can be seen to be self-evident to us or natural moral laws of whose truths we can be certain. But since natural moral laws are only self-evident in themselves (assuming we know what that means) and since it is God’s reason and not man’s that is the source of the moral law, we poor mortals can have no rational certitude that the precepts claimed to be natural laws are really natural laws. [p. 201]
2. Natural law begs the question with regard to what human beings are made for, or what they are in their essential nature – that is, creations of a god. Nielsen notes that this is a background assumption for which science has offered no support. Even if some day we discover that there are, in fact, certain characteristics held in common by all human beings, it does not follow that these must be in place for us to be properly called humans.
3. Proponents of natural law theory contend that conflicts and confusions on what things are good stem from a corruption of our natural inclinations due to sin or to ‘dark habits’. As Nielsen points out, though, we can rightly wonder what criteria are used to determine when a habit is dark or sinful. “What actually happens,” he observes, “is that those moral beliefs that are incompatible with Catholic doctrine, and as a result are called corrupt and sinful, are simply arbitrarily labeled as ‘unnatural’ and ‘abnormal.'” This shifts the focus from natural law conceptions to some other criteria allegedly rejected by natural law theorists, such as our own personal assessments of human nature or a statistical judgment of what is humanly ‘natural’, bringing us again to the question of what makes any of our natural inclinations right versus corrupt.
4. Natural law fallaciously attempts to derive an ‘ought’ from an ‘is.’ Again, from Nielsen:

To discover what our natural inclinations are is simply to discover a fact about ourselves; to discover what purposes we have is simply to discover another fact about ourselves, but that we ought to have these inclinations or purposes or that it is desirable that we have them does not follow from statements asserting that people have such and such inclinations or purposes. These statements can very well be true but no moral or normative conclusions follow from them.

Natural law is often invoked in defense of Catholic doctrines, particularly when it comes to the Church’s positions on homosexuality and birth control. But what of the Protestant alternative? Unsurprisingly, Nielsen doesn’t think divine command theory – the view that good is what god commands, as god is himself the highest good – fares any better.

…a radically Reformationist ethic, divorcing itself from natural moral law conceptions, breaks down because something’s being commanded cannot eo ipso make something good. Jews and Christians think it can because they take God to be good and to be a being who always wills what is good. ‘God is good’ no doubt has the status of a tautology in Christian thought, but if so ‘God is good’ still is not a statement of identity and we must first understand what ‘good’ means (including what criteria it has) before we can properly use ‘God is good’ and ‘God is Perfectly Good.’

To treat the statement ‘god is good’ as an expression of identity would be to commit what G.E. Moore labeled the naturalistic fallacy. While this fallacy is often tossed about in criticisms of naturalistic ethics, there seems to be disappointingly little attention paid to the chapter on “Metaphysical Ethics” in the Principia Ethica, where Moore explains how it also applies to ethics founded on metaphysical truths, i.e. the existence of a god. Some theistic thinkers have taken this problem into account and argue that though good and god are not technically synonymous, there is nonetheless some relation between the two.
As Nielsen points out, however, this still leaves us without an understanding of what ‘good’ means. Even in tautological statements like ‘Wives are women’ and ‘Triangles are three-sided’, we know what women are and we know what it means to be three-sided. If ‘god is good’ is not an expression of identity, if it is not guilty of the naturalistic fallacy, then how are we to understand, much less believe, what is being asserted when we don’t understand what ‘good’ means? Nielsen puts it forcefully: “Morality does not presuppose religion; religion presupposes morality.”


bookmark_borderG&T Rebuttal, Part 4: Chapter 5

Chapter 5. The First Life: Natural Law or Divine Awe?

In this chapter, G&T defend a design argument focused on the first life. They also present a variety of objections to scientism and materialism.
I will provide a very brief summary of their points, before providing my critique.
(i) Argument to Design of the First Life: G&T argue that the origin of the first life is evidence favoring theism over naturalism. They emphasize the following points:  (1) all life, including the first life, contains specified complexity; (2) only an intelligent cause could generate the specified complexity required for the first life; (3) objections to naturalistic explanations for the origin of life; and (4) the impossibility of life arising from nonlife by chance alone.
(ii) Some Critical Comments:
(a) Straw Men: This chapter is an instance of a familiar feature of anti-atheism apologetics: caricaturing the actual beliefs and arguments of atheists to make them look as stupid as possible.Consider, for example, G&T’s portrayal of evolution: “This, of course, is the theory of macroevolution: from the infantile, to the reptile, to the Gentile; or from the goo to you via the zoo” (###). This strategy is pretty much beneath contempt.
(b) Naturalistic Explanations of the Origin of Life: Another problem with this chapter is the extremely biased presentation of alternative theories. G&T consider two naturalistic explanations: spontaneous generation and panspermia. But G&T provide no reason to believe that these two explanations are representative of naturalistic explanations in general. Furthermore, one of these explanations, spontaneous generation, is probably rejected by every scientist working on the origin of life.[1]
(c) The Origin of Life and the “Naturalistic Fallacy” Fallacy: Why would anyone believe that the origin of life has a naturalistic explanation? According to G&T, there is only one reason: such a person must rule out even the possibility of an intelligent cause. This is why they make statements like: “their preconceived ideology–naturalism–prevents them from even considering an intelligent cause” (119).
While such statements are red meat for G&T’s partisans in the intelligent design community, G&T commit what philosophers Robert Greg Cavin and Carlos Colombetti have dubbed the “Naturalistic Fallacy” Fallacy: the fallacy of dismissing objections to theistic arguments on the basis of the myth that these objections presuppose a naturalistic ideology, viz., the supernatural does not exist.[2] G&T falsely assume that only naturalists believe that life has a natural origin because G&T rule out even the possibility of an empirical case for a natural origin, a case which might impress both naturalists and theists.  This case is based largely on the fact that naturalistic explanations have a much better track record than supernatural ones. Prior to scientific investigation of the origin of life, this fact makes it very likely that the cause of life is natural, not supernatural.  Furthermore, this is true even on the assumption that God exists. So naturalists are not the only ones who are justified in predicting that the origin of life is natural, not supernatural. Supernaturalists, including theists, are also justified in making this prediction.
Indeed, as Paul Draper explains, theists presumed

… that natural events have natural causes existed long before the rise of modern science. Indeed, even in the Bible, explanations appealing to God, even if they are not the last resort, are often not the first (e.g., 1 Samuel 3).
Because it is unlikely that the authors of the Bible are guilty of some anti-religious metaphysical bias or that they believe that a faithful or generous God would never act directly in the world, what is the source of this pre-scientific presumption in favor of naturalistic explanations? No doubt it is a simple induction from past experiences. In very many cases, a little investigation reveals natural causes for natural events, even unusual ones. Thus, it follows inductively that, prior to investigation, the probability that the immediate cause of any given natural event is itself natural is high. We did not need science to teach us this.[3]

Furthermore, as Draper points out, science has greatly strengthened this presumption of naturalism.

In many cases in which no naturalistic explanation seemed particularly promising, sufficient effort in searching for one turned out to bear fruit. This is presumably why even William Dembski (1994, 132), a leading critic of methodological naturalism, claims that one should appeal to the supernatural only when one has good reason to believe that what he calls one’s “empirical resources” are exhausted. Thus, although Dembski attacks the view that naturalistic explanations are better than non-naturalistic ones, he does not deny that, prior to investigation or even after considerable investigation, they remain more likely to be true. On this point almost everyone will agree. For example, what philosopher or scientist, no matter how deeply religious, believed or even took seriously the sincere claim of some members of the Cuban community in Miami that God miraculously prevented Elian Gonzalez from getting a sunburn while at sea (rather than that his fellow survivors lied when they claimed he had been in the water for three days after his boat sank)? It is beyond dispute that, at a minimum, almost all natural events have other natural events as their immediate causes.[4]

This strong presumption of naturalism does not, however, justify an absolute exclusion of supernatural causes from scientific explanations. As Draper explains, it justifies a modest methodological naturalism.

A strong presumption of naturalism based on everyday experience and the success of naturalistic science justifies a modest methodological naturalism: the reason scientists should not look for supernatural causes is that natural causes are much more likely to be found. A methodological naturalism justified in this way is “modest” because it implies that scientists should look first for naturalistic explanations, and (depending on how strong the presumption of naturalism is) maybe second, third, and fourth, too, but it does not absolutely rule out appeals to the supernatural. … We can state this more modest methodological naturalism as follows: scientific explanations may appeal to the supernatural only as a last resort. Both Meyer (1994, 97) and Dembski (1994, 132), two leading opponents of methodological naturalism understood as an absolute prohibition, seem to agree with this principle, which does not depend on any metaphysical or anti-religious bias.
It should be emphasized, however, that even this modest form of methodological naturalism does not sanction god-of-the-gaps theology. It does not imply that an appeal to the supernatural is justified simply because scientists fail after much effort to find a naturalistic explanation for some phenomena. Very strong reasons to believe there is no hidden naturalistic explanation would be required as well. In other words, the search for natural causes should continue until the best explanation of the failure to find one is that there is none.[5]

The upshot is that the past success of naturalistic explanations justifies the prediction, made by both theists and naturalists alike, that the origin of life has a natural cause.
(d) The Origin of Life and the Poverty of Theistic Explanation: G&T’s entire chapter presupposes that intelligent design (ID) is not just an explanation for the origin of life, but the best explanation. But ID cannot be the best explanation if it is not even an explanation. So why should anyone think that intelligent design explains the origin of life?
Contrary to what some atheists have argued, the problem is not that it is impossible for theism to be an explanation of anything; I believe it is possible for a theistic explanation to be a scientific explanation. (In other words, I’m not offering an “in principle” objection to theistic explanation.) Rather, the problem is that ‘the’ theistic ‘explanation’ for the origin of life isn’t well defined.  I have read a decent amount of the latest ID literature, including Stephen Meyer’s book-length treatment of the origin of life (see here and here),[6] and I still haven’t found a well-defined statement of the (theistic) ID explanation.  Allow me to explain.
A personal explanation explains one or more observations by positing a person with certain goals who uses a mechanism to achieve those goals; a theistic explanation just is a personal explanation where the person is God.[7] In order to have a theistic explanation for the origin of life, it follows that we need to know (1) why God designed life (“God’s goals”); and (2) how He did it (“God’s mechanisms”). If we don’t have both of those things, then we don’t have a theistic explanation.
So what, then, is the theistic explanation offered by G&T for the origin of life? All they provide are vague references to an “intelligent cause.” But in order to explain the origin of life, it’s not enough to posit the existence of an intelligent designer (God).  G&T must also describe God’s goals and mechanisms. Here their argument absolutely breaks down because they say nothing about God’s goals or mechanisms for designing the first life.
It gets worse. The problem is not just that their “explanation”—if we can even call it that—is poorly defined or incomplete. The implied mechanism is mysterious. To paraphrase Gregory Dawes,

A theistic [intelligent design] explanation, in order to be an explanation, presupposes a mechanism—the action of a spiritual being within the material world—that is entirely unlike any other mechanism with which we are familiar. Not only does this mechanism lack analogy; it is also wholly mysterious.[8]

Mystification is the opposite of explanation.
But if G&T’s intelligent design “explanation” is incomplete in this way, it is not (yet) an explanation. And therefore it cannot—yet—be be the best explanation. Indeed, to simplify matters, suppose we were offered only the following two choices:

(1) Biological information in the first life is the result of an unknown, naturalistic (undirected) mechanism.

(2) Biological information in the first life is the result of an unknown, theistic (directed) mechanism used for an unknown purpose.

It’s far from obvious that (2) is a better explanation than (1). Perhaps G&T might reply that (2) is a better explanation of (1) in light of our background knowledge that the creation of messages (i.e., ‘complex specified information’) requires an intelligent being. But that reply understates the evidence, viz., the relevant background knowledge. All non-question-begging examples of conscious activity are dependent upon a physical brain, which is itself dependent upon matter. So a better description of the relevant background knowledge seems to be, “the creation of messages (i.e., ‘complex specified information’) requires matter.” This shows that once the background knowledge about the creation of new information is fully stated, it’s far from obvious that it favors a theistic explanation over a naturalistic explanation.
Furthermore, G&T, like other ID theorists, neglect the track record of theistic explanations. But we need to compare the track record of supernatural explanations to that of purely naturalistic explanations. Here is Dawes:

Not only are they in competition, but a comparison of their track records will count against theism. For the naturalistic research programme of the modern sciences has been stunningly successful since its inception in the seventeenth century. Again and again, it has shown that postulating the existence of a deity is not required in order to explain the phenomena. Sir Isaac Newton (1642—1727) still required God to fine-tune the mechanics of his solar system, but by the time of Pierre Simon de Laplace (1749—1827), the astronomer notoriously had no need of that hypothesis. Until 1859, it seemed that the diversity of living organisms could not be accounted for without reference to God, but Charles Darwin offered us a more successful, natural alternative. … From a Bayesian point of view, you might argue that the past failure of the tradition of theistic explanation lowers the prior probability of any proposed theistic hypothesis.[9]

So, again, even if we grant Meyer the crucial premise that “creation of new information is habitually associated with conscious activity,” it’s not clear that that fact offsets the other facts, listed above, which count against conscious activity as the cause of biological information.
(iii) Objections to Scientism: In a debate with William Lane Craig, Peter Atkins claimed that “science can account for everything.” G&T summarize Craig’s response to Atkins, which is that science cannot prove the following five rational beliefs: (a) mathematics and logic; (b) metaphysical truths; (c) ethical judgments; (d) aesthetic judgments; and (e) science itself. G&T then add, “Atkins’s claim that science can account for everything is not false only because of the five counterexamples Craig noted; it is also false because it is self-defeating” (##). Craig, Geisler, and Turek are correct. Atkins’s scientism is not only false, but also self-defeating.
(iv) Arguments against Materialism: They emphasize the following objections to materialism:  (a) it’s unable to explain specified complexity in life; (b) human thoughts are not comprised only of materials; (c) scientists are unable to create life using all the materials of life; (d) spiritual experiences; and (e) arguments from reason.
Regarding (a) (specified complexity), we’ve already addressed that.
Regarding (b) (human thought), this argument–assertion might be a better word, since it is not much of an argument as it stands–simply begs the question against the materialist.  The refutation of this argument is similar to one of the earlier refutations of their design argument. G&T can conclude that human thought is not comprised only of materials only by assuming that materialism is false. But G&T also claim that the fact that human thoughts are not completely materially based is supposed to lead to the conclusion that materialism is false. So the presupposition that materialism is false is both an assumption and a conclusion of this argument.
Regarding (c) (creation of life in a lab), G&T argue that our inability to create life is evidence against theism. This argument does nothing to refute the previous objections of this chapter. Again, the past success of naturalistic explanations justifies the prediction that the origin of life has a natural cause, consisting solely of pre-existing material ingredients.
Regarding (d) (spiritual experiences), there is a difference between “spiritual experiences” of something and “theistic experiences” (of God). Philosopher Paul Draper has identified four factors which affect how much direct evidence is provided by experiences, and applied these factors to theistic experiences.[10] These factors and their applicability to theistic experiences are summarized in the table below.

Factor Applicability to Theistic Experiences
Specificity Basic claims about theistic experiences are highly specific.
Significance Basic claims about theistic experiences are highly significant.
Nature of (Allegedly) Experienced Object God is an extraordinary object.
Mode of Perception Theistic experiences are nonsensory. Basic claims about theistic experiences are “claims to perceive something by means of an extraordinary mode of perception.”[11]

Table 1

Taken together, these four factors show that, accordingly, claims about theistic experiences “should be treated with initial skepticism rather than initial credulity” or trust.[12] To be more precise, Draper concludes that while theistic experiences “confer some prima facie probability on” claims about such experiences, they are not “strong direct evidence for such claims – that they make such claims prima facie more probable than not.”[13]
While spiritual experiences are some evidence for theism, G&T once again understate the evidence. The fact that people throughout history have had such experiences hardly exhausts what we know about such experiences, however. Draper identifies three additional facts about the distribution of religious experience.
First, we also know that many people never have religious experiences and those who do almost always have a prior belief in God or extensive exposure to a theistic religion. To paraphrase Draper, “it seems rather one-sided to argue that spiritual experiences are evidence for theism and not consider whether the fact that many people never have a theistic experience is evidence against theism.”[14]
Second, we also know that the subjects of spiritual experiences pursue a variety of radically different religious paths, none of which bears abundantly more moral fruit than all of the others.  As Draper notes, this is “much more likely if these experiences are all delusory than if some or all are veridical and so is much more likely on naturalism than on theism.“[15]
Third, we also know that many victims of tragedy do not seem to be comforted by spiritual experiences.[16] Again, paraphrasing Draper, “While this fact is compatible with theism—it’s logically possible that God exists and has some unknown reason for allowing us to suffer alone—it is still much more probable on naturalism than on theism.“[17]
Once the evidence about spiritual experiences is fully stated, it’s far from obvious that it favors theism over materialism.
Regarding (e) (arguments from reason), G&T actually present three related but separate arguments. The first is a version of the so-called “argument from reason.” The second is an argument that reason cannot be justified if materialism is true. The third is an argument against the evolution of consciousness.
Regarding the first argument, I think G&T are being incredibly uncharitable to materialists. Let me quote their argument in its entirety.

Finally, if materialism is true, then reason itself is impossible. If mental processes are nothing but chemical reactions in the brain, then there is no reason to believe that anything is true (including the theory of materialism). Chemicals can’t evaluate whether or not a theory is true. Chemicals don’t reason, they react. (129)

The word “chemicals” conjures up the image of a scientist wearing a white lab coat pouring liquids from one beaker to another. No one, not even eliminative materialists, believes that such simple, inorganic chemicals have the ability to reason. G&T are either attacking a straw man of their own creation (by equating materialism with the belief that minds are nothing but simple, inorganic chemicals) or committing the logical fallacy of composition (by assuming that what is true of the individual chemical elements of the brain must also be true of the brain as a whole). Materialists do not believe that “mindless matter” has the ability to reason; rather, materialists believe that we might call “mindful matter”—i.e., minds that are nothing but matter configured into physical brains—has the ability to reason. Simple slogans about “chemical reactions” do nothing to refute that. They especially don’t establish the ‘impossibility’ of “reason itself.”
The second argument, which I take to be very similar to the transcendental argument for God’s existence, is equally fallacious. They write:

As J. Budziszwewski [sic] points out, “The motto ‘Reason Alone!’ is nonsense anyway. Reason itself presupposes faith. Why? Because a defense of reason by reason is circular, therefore worthless. Our only guarantee that human reason works is God who made it.” (130)

Budziszewski is correct that “a defense of reason by reason is circular,” but it hardly follows from that fact that “our only guarantee that human reason works is God who made it.” If we’re allowed to start outside of what can be justified by reason alone (and instead go with presuppositions), then it’s far from obvious why the belief, “reason is justified,” is any less worthy of being presupposed than, say, the belief “God exists.”[18]
In their explanation of Budziszewski’s argument, G&T present what I interpret as a third, unrelated argument. According to this argument, the fact that we are intelligent is much more probable on theism (and our intelligence arose from preexisting intelligence) than on naturalism (and our intelligence arose arose from mindless matter). They support this claim with two supporting arguments. According to the first supporting argument, the emergence of intelligence is surprising on naturalism because

… it contradicts all scientific observation, which demonstrates that an effect cannot be greater than its cause. You can’t give what you haven’t got, yet materialists believe that dead, unintelligent matter has produced intelligent life. This is like believing that the Library of Congress resulted from an explosion in a printing shop! (130)

It is, of course, beyond reasonable doubt that the Library of Congress cannot result from an explosion in a printing shop. But this example is not of obvious relevance to materialism, which gives us no reason to expect that intelligent life has such a sudden, abrupt origin. In fact, a moment’s reflection reveals that this sort of explosive start for intelligent life is virtually impossible if materialism is true. Given that intelligent life exists, the gradual emergence of intelligent life is antecedently likely on materialism, for two reasons. First, there are no plausible materialist alternatives to evolution, which entails that complex living things are the gradually modified descendants of less complex living things. Second, materialism gives us strong antecedent reason to believe that intelligence plays the same sort of biological role as other organic systems and so has the same evolutionary origin as these other systems, an origin which rules out the abrupt appearance of intelligence.
Another worry I have about this argument is that it cuts both ways. If “you can’t give what you haven’t got,” then that means also means that God cannot give what He hasn’t got, namely, physical matter. God is, by definition, an immaterial being. Theism asks us to believe that an immaterial being can somehow interact with matter to make it intelligent. It’s far from obvious that “the immaterial can interact with the material” is any more plausible than “intelligence can come from nonintelligence.”
According to the second supporting argument, the emergence of intelligence is probable on theism because our minds are “made in the image of the Great Mind—God” (130). But this argument is multiply flawed. First, appealing to the doctrine that humans are made in the image of God is ad hoc. At this point in the book, G&T are arguing for what we might call ‘mere’ theism, not Christian theism. It’s far from obvious that the content of ‘mere’ theism would lead one to expect that God would create human minds in His image. At the very least, this much is clear: G&T give us no reason to think that it does.
Second, this argument also understates the evidence. Let’s assume that the existence of intelligent beings (qua conscious beings) is evidence favoring theism over naturalism. The fact that such intelligent beings exist hardly exhausts everything we know about conscious beings. Given that there are intelligent beings, the fact that there are no known (physical) creatures much more intelligent than humans favors naturalism over theism. Paul Draper explains.

… I am not denying that human beings are impressive in many ways. But examined from the perspective of what is possible for an omnipotent being, we are, in terms of intelligence, a hair’s breadth away from monkeys. Again, one would expect this on … [materialism] because the more intelligent the life, the less likely it is that naturalistic processes would produce it. Of course, if one believes in God and, looking around, finds nothing more impressive than human beings, one will be forced to conclude that God wanted to make beings with very limited intelligence. But surely one would not have predicted this beforehand. There are indefinitely many different kinds of creatures that an omnipotent being would have the power to create and that, other things being equal, would be more valuable to create than humans. Antecedently, a God would be more likely to create these more impressive creatures than to create us.[19]

Moreover, we also know that conscious states are highly dependent upon a (physical) brain. While this fact is logically compatible with the existence of an immaterial “soul,” given that intelligent creatures exist, this fact is more probable on naturalism than on theism. [20] So, again, once the evidence is fully stated, it’s far from obvious that it favors theism over naturalism.

Rebuttal to Geisler’s and Turek’s “I Don’t Have Enough Faith to be an Atheist”

[1] “Spontaneous generation” is the hypothesis that at least some organisms (such as fleas or maggots) originated suddenly and directly from inanimate matter (such as dust). Spontaneous generation was experimentally discredited long ago; I am not aware of any scientist specializing in origin of life studies who is a proponent of spontaneous generation. In contrast, “chemical evolution” is the hypothesis that the first self-replicating genetic molecules originated by a series of chemical processes involving organic compounds.
[2] Robert Greg Cavin and Carlos Colombetti 2013, 15.
[3] Paul Draper, “God, Science, and Naturalism” in The Oxford Handbook of Philosophy of Religion (ed. William J. Wainwright, New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), 296.
[4] Draper 2005, 296.
[5] Draper 2005, 297. I have added the italics to the last sentence.
[6] Stephen L. Meyer, The Signature in the Cell: DNA and the Evidence for Intelligent Design (New York: HarperOne, 2009).
[7] Gregory Dawes, Theism and Explanation (New York: Routledge, 2009), 9, 108.
[8] Dawes 2009, 128.
[9] Dawes 2009, 130-32. Italics are mine.
[10] Paul Draper, “God and Perceptual Evidence,” Philosophy of Religion 32 (1992): 149-65.
[11] Draper 1992, 159.
[12] Draper 1992, 159.
[13] Draper 1992, 160.
[14] Draper 1992, 161.
[15] Draper 2002, 204-205.
[16] Paul Draper, “Cumulative Cases,” in Charles Taliaferro, Paul Draper, Philip L. Quinn, Blackwell Companion to the Philosophy of Religion (John Wiley and Sons: 2010), 414-24 at 421; Paul Draper, “Seeking But Not Believing: Confessions of a Practicing Agnostic,” in Divine Hiddenness: New Essays (ed. Daniel Howard Snyder and Paul K. Moser, Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2002), 204-205.
[17] Draper 2002, 204-205.
[18] D. Gene Witmer, “Atheism, Reason, and Morality: Responding to Some Popular Christian Apologetics,” talk given to the Atheist, Agnostic, and Freethinker Student Association, University of Florida, September 26, 2006.
[19] Paul Draper, “Collins’ Case for Cosmic Design” in God or Blind Nature? Philosophers Debate the Evidence, The Secular Web (2008),
[20] Paul Draper, “Seeking But Not Believing: Confessions Of a Practicing Agnostic,” Divine Hiddenness: New Essays (ed. Daniel Howard-Snyder and Paul Moser, New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001), 197-214 at 202-203.

bookmark_borderG&T Rebuttal, Part 2: Chapter 3

Chapter 3. In the Beginning There Was a Great SURGE

G&T tell us that the “Cosmological Argument is the argument from the beginning of the universe” (74). That is sloppy; G&T have conflated the family of arguments known as ‘the’ cosmological argument with one specific version of that argument (the kalām cosmological argument). But let that pass. G&T formulate the argument as follows.
1. Everything that had a beginning has a cause.
2. The universe had a beginning.
3. Therefore the universe had a cause. (75)
This argument is clearly deductively valid—i.e., its conclusion follows from its premises. If one accepts its conclusion, there are three pertinent questions to answer.
First, what bearing does the argument have on metaphysical naturalism? If sound, the argument would also refute metaphysical naturalism. (Since nothing can cause itself, the universe would require a cause outside of itself, something that is incompatible with naturalism.)[1]
Second, what sort of cause did the universe have? G&T argue that the cause of physical reality, if it exists, must be self-existent, timeless, nonspatial, immaterial, very powerful, highly intelligent, and personal.
Third, what was the universe created from? There are three options.

Creation ex nihilo: physical reality was created out of nothing by the will of a timeless and immaterial person a long time ago.

Creation ex materia: creation out of some pre-existent, eternal matter

Creation ex deo: creation out of the being of God.

G&T argue that the scientific evidence supports creation ex nihilo.
I shall provide a very brief summary of G&T’s support for both premises, before providing some critical comments about G&T’s assessment of atheistic and Christian interpretations of the evidence.
(i) G&T’s support for premises (1) and (2):
(a) The Law of Causality: On behalf of premise (1), which G&T call “The Law of Causality,” G&T argue that the Law of Causality is “the fundamental principle of science;” and observation shows that things don’t happen in the universe without a cause. For reasons that will soon be clear, I shall refer to the “Law of Causality” as the “Law of Causal Beginnings.”
As stated, however, premise (1) is false. The kernel of truth in (1) is what I shall call the “Law of Temporal Causal Beginnings,” namely, that everything that had a beginning in time has a cause.
This is why our observation shows that things which begin in the universe (and so in time) have a cause. Quantum mechanics events aside, I agree with G&T that it would be absurd to believe that cars, mountains, or whales could just pop into existence without a cause. But what about things that have a beginning which happens at the beginning of time itself (i.e., with time)? We know of only one such thing and that is the universe itself.  And there is good reason to doubt that time (and so the universe) have a cause. It’s logically impossible for time itself to have a cause since causes always precede their effects in time. So to say that time itself had a cause is to say, “Before time existed, something happened and then at a later time, time began to exist,” which is self-contradictory.
In order to avoid this problem, some theists have argued that God’s creation of the universe is simultaneous with its beginning. Even if simultaneous causation is possible, which is debatable, that simply solves one problem and creates a bigger one. If God’s causing the universe is simultaneous with the universe’s beginning, then it’s entirely arbitrary to pretend that God is the ‘cause’ while the universe is the ‘effect.’ If “God’s causing the universe” and “the universe’s beginning” are simultaneous, one could just as easily say, “God had a beginning,” and, “The universe caused God.” Both of those statements are incompatible with theism.
But in fact simultaneous causation seems inapplicable to God’s (alleged) causation of the universe. First, even simultaneity expresses a temporal relationship between causes and effects. It seems to be a contradiction in terms to say that the beginning of the universe is simultaneous with an atemporal (timeless) cause.[2] For that implies there was a time when there both was time and was not time, which is a self-contradictory statement. Second, simultaneous causation seems to involve “states of other things that pre-exist the effects in question.”[3] But that entails that the total cause includes something that existed prior to the partial cause which is simultaneous with its effect. In short, the concept of simultaneous causation provides no reason at all to think that premise (1) applies to things (like the universe) which begin with time.
There is an even deeper problem with G&T’s defense of premise (1), however. If we abbreviate “thing that had a beginning” as B and “had a cause” as C, then it is clear that premise (1) expresses a categorical generalization, i.e., it has the form “All Bs are Cs.” If there is even just one counter-example (i.e., at least one B is not also a C), then (1) is false. Is it?
It appears that, In support of (1), G&T appeal to observation, namely, “All observed Bs are Cs,” and infer the categorical generalization, “All Bs are Cs.” In other words, G&T seem to be implicitly relying upon an inductive argument form known as simple enumeration to a generalization. The implied argument is this.
(1) All observed things in the universe with a beginning have a cause.
(2) Therefore, all things with a beginning have a cause.
where B is called the “reference class” and C is called the “attribute class.” The problem is called the “reference class problem,” i.e., the problem of deciding which class to use when stating a generalization. In the case of our universe’s origin, it is far from clear which reference class should be used because our universe belongs to many different reference classes. Wes Morriston, a philosopher at the University of Colorado at Boulder, explains.

Here are some other well-attested empirical generalizations, each of which is incompatible with that hypothesis [supernatural creation ex nihilo] about the origin of the universe.
(A)   Material things come from material things.
(B)   Nothing is ever created out of nothing.
(C)   Nothing is ever caused by anything that is not itself in time.
(D)   The mental lives of all persons have temporal duration.
(E)    All persons are embodied.[4]

Consider, for example, the generalization in Morriston’s (A), which we’ll call the “Law of Material Causality.” That generalization supports an argument I’ll call the “Anti-Creation Ex Nihilo Argument”:
1. Everything that had a beginning comes from pre-existing material.
2. The universe had a beginning.
3. Therefore, the universe came from pre-existing material.
If the universe came from pre-existing material, then it follows that the universe was not created “out of nothing” (ex nihilo). Rather it was created out of pre-existing material (ex materia). But that entails that supernatural creation ex nihilo is false.
(b) The Universe’s Beginning: On behalf of premise (2), G&T offer five lines of scientific evidence, which they summarize in the mnemonic acronynm “SURGE,” which represents (a) the Second law of thermodynamics, (b) the Universe is expanding; (c) Radiation from the big bang; (d) Great galaxy seeds; and (e) Einstein’s theory of general relativity. In addition, G&T offer one a priori argument—which they mistakenly call the kalām argument—to show that the universe cannot be infinitely old. G&T conclude, accordingly, that the universe had a beginning.
I agree with G&T that it is now beyond reasonable doubt that our universe, as it is now, has existed for a finite time. Whether our universe, in any form, has existed for a finite time may be open to reasonable doubt, however. But let’s put that issue to the side and assume,  but only for the sake of argument, that G&T are correct and our universe had a beginning. As G&T admit, the evidence for Big Bang cosmology shows more than just the fact that our universe has a finite age.

In fact, chronologically, there was no “before” the Big Bang because there are no “befores” without time, and there was no time until the Big Bang. Time, space, and matter came into existence with the Big Bang. (79, italics mine)

In other words, the evidence for Big Bang cosmology also shows that time itself began with the Big Bang (i.e., our universe began with time). Here’s the problem for the proponent of the kalām argument. Although our universe is not eternal (i.e., infinitely old), it’s still the case that it has always existed (i.e., for all of time). But, for the reason just given, it follows that time itself (and hence our universe) cannot have a cause. Thus, once the evidence about our universe’s beginning is fully stated, that evidence does not support theism over naturalism.
(ii) Atheistic Interpretations of Big Bang Cosmology: This is where G&T’s partisanship really comes unleashed. As I read them, G&T discuss and reject three atheistic explanations of Big Bang cosmology:  (1) a view they call the ‘Cosmic Rebound Theory;’ (2) Stephen Hawking’s ‘Imaginary Time’ hypothesis; and (3) the hypothesis defended by chemists Peter Atkins and Isaac Asimov.
When I first read this chapter, three things stood out. First, for each of the views they discussed, G&T neither quote proponents of these views nor fairly explain their values. Regarding (1), why do defenders of the ‘Cosmic Rebound Theory’ think that view is correct? G&T never say. In fact, G&T never even name anyone who promoted such a view. Turning to (2), whereas it is called the “Hartle-Hawking model” or the “no boundary model” in the literature, G&T even rename it to the ‘Imaginary Time’ hypothesis to suit their rhetoric. Many people believe that Stephen Hawking is one of the greatest scientists, if not the greatest scientist, alive today.  But if someone knew nothing about Hawking other than what they read in G&T’s book, they’d get the mistaken impression that Hawking is a quack whose theories are not taken seriously, even by Hawking himself! As for (3), G&T don’t even bother to tell the readers what Atkins’s view is; they just proceed to quote William Lane Craig’s refutation.
Second, G&T don’t respond to the best critics of the kalām cosmological argument.[5] In fact, their book may even mislead their readers by making it appear as if only nontheists reject the argument. But that’s false. Thomas Aquinas, who has been called “more or less the official philosopher of the Roman Catholic Church and esteemed as the greatest Christian philosopher even by many Protestants,” rejected it.[6] In the present day, philosopher Wes Morriston  (quoted earlier) has written some of the best critiques of the argument, while he was still a Christian. It is unfortunate that G&T chose to ignore the critiques of both Aquinas and Morriston in their book.
Third, like many theistic apologists who use the kalām cosmological argument, G&T use the following “money quote” from nontheist philosopher Anthony Kenny.

According to the Big Bang Theory, the whole matter of the universe began to exist at a particular time in the remote past. A proponent of such a theory, at least if he is an atheist, must believe that the matter of the universe came from nothing and by nothing.[7]

At first glance, what Kenny describes does sound absurd. But Kenny is no dummy; philosophical charity demands that we try to understand why someone as brilliant as Kenny would write such a thing. What would it mean to believe that “the matter of the universe came from nothing and by nothing?”
One interpretation, which I shall call the scientific interpretation since it seems to be held primarily by scientists, treats “nothing” as if it were a something, such as a giant empty box into which the universe suddenly began.[8] The problem with this interpretation is that it reifies “nothing.” As philosopher Bede Rundle explains,

… accounts of physical reality as ‘coming out of nothing’ risk not taking ‘nothing’ seriously, perhaps replacing it by ‘nothingness’ to make, as it were, something out of nothing.[9]

But there is another option. According to this second interpretation, which I call the philosophical interpretation, there is no “giant empty box,” i.e., there is no “nothing” for the universe to “come from.” Instead, according to this interpretation, there was no time at which the universe did not exist; and there is no place the universe came from.  This is the interpretation favored by philosophically sophisticated nontheists, such as Sean Carroll, Graham Oppy, Keith Parsons, Bede Rundle, and Quentin Smith.[10]
Let us now return to the Kenny “money quote.” G&T do not distinguish these two interpretations, perhaps (?) because Kenny himself does not, so it’s unclear which interpretation Kenny favors.  On the scientific interpretation, Kenny’s statement does make the combination of atheism and Big Bang cosmology sound absurd. But, as we’ve just seen, many competent authorities disagree with that interpretation, so any appeal to Kenny as an authority is fallacious (assuming he even holds this view). On the scientific interpretation, however, the combination is not only not absurd, but plausible.
(iii) Big Bang Cosmology and the Genesis Accounts: G&T quote astronomers Robert Jastrow and Robert Wilson, who both apparently claim, without qualification, that Big Bang cosmology confirms the Genesis accounts of creation. This curious assessment, however, understates the evidence. On the one hand, Big Bang cosmology is strong evidence for one logical implication of Genesis, namely, that everything in our universe is only finitely old. But, again, that fact hardly exhausts what modern cosmology has to say about the Genesis accounts. NASA explains the first moments after the “Big Bang” as follows.

According to the theories of physics, if we were to look at the Universe one second after the Big Bang, what we would see is a 10-billion degree sea of neutrons, protons, electrons, anti-electrons (positrons), photons, and neutrinos. Then, as time went on, we would see the Universe cool, the neutrons either decaying into protons and electrons or combining with protons to make deuterium (an isotope of hydrogen). As it continued to cool, it would eventually reach the temperature where electrons combined with nuclei to form neutral atoms. Before this “recombination” occurred, the Universe would have been opaque because the free electrons would have caused light (photons) to scatter the way sunlight scatters from the water droplets in clouds. But when the free electrons were absorbed to form neutral atoms, the Universe suddenly became transparent. Those same photons–the afterglow of the Big Bang known as cosmic background radiation–can be observed today.[11]

Furthermore, according to modern astronomy, the entire solar system, including the earth, didn’t even form until approximately 8.7 billion years after the Big Bang.
In contrast, Genesis 1 tells a very different cosmological story. According to Genesis 1, God created the earth on the first day and the sun on the fourth. Thus, Big Bang cosmology is strong evidence against the literal chronology of Genesis accounts. But this entails that, when the available evidence from cosmology is fully stated, that evidence makes it probable that a literal interpretation of the Genesis accounts are false.

Rebuttal to Geisler’s and Turek’s “I Don’t Have Enough Faith to be an Atheist”

[1] In the interest of simplicity, I am treating the expression “the universe” as it appears in G&T’s argument as synonymous with “physical reality.”
[2] Wes Morriston, “Must the Beginning of the Universe Have a Personal Cause? A Critical Examination of the Kalam Cosmological Argument” Faith and Philosophy 17 (2000): 151.
[3] Wes Morriston, “Causes and Beginnings in the Kalam Argument: Reply to CraigFaith and Philosophy 19 (2002): 233-44 at 240.
[4] Wes Morriston, “Doubts about the Kalam Cosmological Argument,” in Debating Christian Theism (ed. Meister, Moreland, and Sweis, New York: Oxford University Press, 2013), 29.
[5] Paul Draper, Adolf Grünbaum, Wes Morriston, Graham Oppy, Bede Rundle, and Quentin Smith.
[6] Edward Feser, The Last Superstition: A Refutation of the New Atheism (South Bend, Indiana: St. Augustine’s Press, 2008), Kindle location 1538.
[7] Anthony Kenny, The Five Ways: St. Thomas Aquinas’ Proofs of God’s Existence (New York: Schocken, 1969), 66, quoted in G&T 2004, 81.
[8] See, e.g., Isaac Asimov, Beginning and End (New York: Doubleday, 1977), 148, quoted in G&T 2004, 414, n. 11; Peter Atkins, Creation Revisited: The Origin of Space, Time, and the Universe (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1994), 139; Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow, The Grand Design (New York: Bantam, 2010); Lawrence Krauss, A Universe from Nothing: Why There is Something Rather than Nothing (New York: Free Press, 2012); and Victor Stenger, God: The Failed Hypothesis: How Science Shows that God Does Not Exist (Buffalo: Prometheus, 2007), 115-17.
[9] Bede Rundle, Where There Is Something Rather Than Nothing (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004), 117-18.
[10] See Sean Carroll, “Why (Almost All) Cosmologists Are Atheists,” Faith and Philosophy 22 (2005): 622-640; Graham Oppy, “Review of J.P. Moreland (ed.), The Creation Hypothesis” The Secular Web (1998),; Keith Parsons; and Rundle 2004.
[11] NASA, “The Big Bang” National Aeronautics and Space Administration (March 8, 2013),

bookmark_borderG&T Rebuttal, Part 1: Introduction

The book’s introduction divides into six parts: (i) the crucial role that beliefs about God play in worldviews; (ii) an overview of three major “religious” worldviews; (iii) a discussion of the role of faith and facts in religion; (iv) three categories of problems with Christianity; (v) the faith of an atheist; and (vi) a high-level summary of their 12-point case for Christianity.
(i) The Role of (A)theology in Worldviews: Geisler and Turek (G&T) state that the answers to life’s “five most consequential questions… depend on the existence of God” (20). I take this to be a typo. As I’m sure G&T agree, if God does not exist, it does not follow that those questions have no answers. In fact, G&T themselves summarize what they think the atheistic answers to those questions must be! So I assume that what G&T meant is that such answers “will be informed by one’s beliefs about the existence of God.” And I take it that this claim is clearly right.
(ii) Three Major “Religious” Worldviews: G&T assert that “Most of the world’s major religions fall into one of these three religious world-views: theism, pantheism, and atheism” (22), which they then define as follows:
Theist: someone who believes in a personal God who created the universe but is not part of the universe
Pantheist: someone who believes in an impersonal God that literally is the universe.
Atheist: someone who does not believe in any type of God.
Additionally, they define an “agnostic” as someone who is unsure about the question of God.
For the most part, I think these definitions are fine. The one concern I have is with G&T’s definition of agnosticism. Since theism, pantheism, and atheism are defined in terms of beliefs, I think it would have been better to define agnosticism as “the lack of beliefs about God’s existence.” Not only does this keep the symmetry going, but, more important, it keeps beliefs separate from a person’s degree of belief, i.e., how much certainty or uncertainty they attach to their beliefs.
(iii) Faith and Facts in Religion: G&T argue that religion is not “simply a matter of faith” because “religion is not only about faith.” Rather, religion also makes truth claims and so “facts” play  a central role as well. This invites the obvious question: what do G&T mean by “faith”? The answer is found in a later section, where they write:
We mean that the less evidence you have for your position, the more faith you need to believe it (and vice versa). Faith covers a gap in knowledge. (26)
Elsewhere, they claim that “every religious worldview requires faith” (25).
There are times where two people speak the same language, use the same words, and mean very different things by the same words. In conversations between Christians and atheists, “faith” is one such word. For many atheists, the word “faith” means, by default, belief without evidence or even belief against the evidence. Atheist philosopher Bertrand Russell probably summed up the views of most atheists when he wrote this.

We may define “faith” as the firm belief in something for which there is no evidence. Where there is evidence, no one speaks of “faith.” We do not speak of faith that two and two are four or that the earth is round. We only speak of faith when we wish to substitute emotion for evidence. The substitution of emotion for evidence is apt to lead to strife, since different groups, substitute different emotions.[1]

In contrast, I doubt many Christians would accept that definition. For example, Hebrews 11:1 (NIV) states, “Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see.” In other words, faith is a belief that (a) is about something a person hopes is true; and (b) goes beyond the evidence.
Regarding (a), many atheists hope that God exists and that atheism is false. Indeed, for those of us who are former believers, in many cases their loss of belief in God was depressing. In the Hebrews sense of “faith,” then, such atheists do not have faith in atheism, even if they are uncertain about their atheism.
As for (b), I agree with both Christians and atheists on this point. I agree with those Christians who point out that the Biblical concept of faith doesn’t seem to support belief against the evidence. “Going beyond the evidence,” does not mean “going against the evidence.” I also think that “going beyond the evidence” doesn’t entail “there is no evidence at all.” (For example, the conclusions of logically correct inductive arguments go beyond the content of their premises, but their premises are nevertheless evidence for their conclusions.) But I also agree with Russell that, in everyday language, the word “faith” is often used just as he says it is.
In light of this difference in language, then, it’s always puzzled me why Christian apologists like G&T insist on using a word like “faith” in their exchanges with atheists and agnostics. There are other ways to make the same point; there’s no apparent “upside,” and there is a clear “downside.” Christian philosopher Victor Reppert seems to agree. He writes:

Every time you use the word “faith” in a discussion with an atheist, they are going to declare victory. They will presume that you are believing for no reason, and that you are admitting that the evidence is against you.[2]

I think Reppert is probably right. The word “faith” simply has too much baggage and is too off-putting to nontheists. The expressions “uncertain belief” or “probable belief” are two much less contentious ways to make the same point.
(iv) Three Categories of Problems with Christianity: G&T describe three types of obstacles to Christian belief: (1) intellectual (such as the argument from evil); (2) emotional (such as hypocrisy); and (3) volitional (i.e., the desire to sin).
I take it that this list of categories is clearly right, but incomplete. I would add a fourth category: (4) biological (such as mindblindness associated with severe forms of Autism Spectrum Disorders).[3]
Furthermore, as I’m sure G&T would agree, we can use these same four categories to describe Christian obstacles to becoming atheists. For example: (1) intellectual (such as the kalām cosmological argument); (2) emotional (such as the prospect of no afterlife); (3) volitional (i.e., the desire to fit into a religious community); and (4) biological (i.e., the natural tendency to form beliefs about invisible agents).[4]
But G&T do more than just list the different categories of obstacles to Christian belief. They also summarize their assessment of the evidence against Christianity and against God’s existence.

That is, once one looks at the evidence, we think it takes more faith to be a non-Christian than it does to be a Christian. (24)

In fact, they put the point this way.

Indeed, we think our conclusions are true beyond a reasonable doubt. (This type of certainty, say, 95-plus percent certain, is the best that fallible and finite human beings can attain for most questions, and it is more than sufficient for even the biggest decisions in life.) (25, italics mine)

This remarkable degree of probability is supposed to follow from their 12-point case for Christianity. In fact, as I will show in this review, their biased and incomplete summary of the evidence comes nowhere close to justifying a 95% or greater probability that Christianity is true.
(v) The Faith of an Atheist: Consistent with their definition of faith, G&T argue that since atheists are dealing “in the realm of probability rather than absolute certainty,” they have to “have a certain amount of faith to believe that God does not exist” (26). It seems to me that G&T are clearly right that atheists, like theists, can have beliefs about God that are, at best, highly probable, not absolutely certain.
(vi) High-Level Summary of Case for Christianity: In this section G&T offer a preview of their “twelve points that show Christianity is true.” The most important of these points may be summarized as follows.
(a) Arguments for theism: these include versions of the cosmological, teleological, and moral arguments
(b) Evidence for Christianity: evidence that Jesus is God, such as his fulfillment of prophecy, miracles, and his resurrection from the dead.
Having outlined G&T’s case for Christian theism, I shall now analyze its logical structure. The good news for G&T is that I have only one comment. The bad news is that I think it is fatal to their project.  The comment is this: G&T’s evidence for Christianity, even if accurate, doesn’t make it probable that Christianity is true. Although G&T explicitly recognize that they are dealing with probabilities, the logical structure of their argument is defective because it fails to satisfy the rules of mathematical probability known as the axioms of the probability calculus.
This is best shown with a concrete example. Let’s suppose, but only for the sake of argument, that the following evidence favors theism over atheism, i.e., is more probable on the assumption that theism is true than on the assumption that atheism is true: the beginning of the universe, the design of the universe, the design of life, and the existence of the moral law. Even so, it still doesn’t follow that, all things considered, God’s existence is more likely than not. For example, it may be the case—and I think is the case—that there is other evidence which favors atheism over theism. But, if true, that entails that G&T’s case violates the Total Evidence Requirement and so G&T’s case accordingly fails to show that Christianity is probably true.

Rebuttal to Geisler’s and Turek’s “I Don’t Have Enough Faith to be an Atheist”

[1] Bertrand Russell, Human Society in Ethics and Politics (1954, New York: Routledge, 2013), 215.
[2] Victor Reppert, “Matt McCormick on the Meaning of Faith,” Dangerous Idea (July 29, 2012),
[3] Simon Baron-Cohen, Mindblindness: An Essay on Autism and Theory of Mind (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1995).
[4] Justin Barrett, Why Would Anyone Believe in God? (Lanham: AltaMira Press, 2004).

bookmark_borderIndex: Rebuttal to Geisler’s and Turek’s “I Don’t Have Enough Faith to be an Atheist”

Review of Norman L. Geisler and Frank Turek, I Don’t Have Enough Faith to be an Atheist (Wheaton: Crossway, 2004). 
Like all apologetics books, both Christian and non-Christian, I Don’t Have Enough Faith to be an Atheist book takes a partisan approach to the philosophy of religion. Of course, by itself, the fact that it is a partisan book isn’t a problem. The existence or non-existence of God is an important topic; it’s appropriate for people who’ve reached a conclusion to try to persuade others of their position.
The fundamental problem with this book is the particular way it takes a partisan approach: there are partisan books and then there are obnoxiously partisan books.  Like many (but not all) of those other books in the apologetics genre, the basic approach seems to be the following.

  1. Present and defend the author’s preferred view as favorably as possible.
  2. Represent opposing views as unfavorably as possible.
  3. Reach the remarkable conclusion that–surprise, surprise–the author’s view is true.
  4. Suggest that anyone who disagrees is ignorant, irrational, or has ulterior (non-rational) motives.

The problem with obnoxious apologetics, which seems to afflict as many atheist apologists as theist apologists, is that it’s a fatally flawed way to search for truth. If our goal is the sincere pursuit of truth–and it should be–then the above approach is what not to do. Rather, if our goal is the sincere pursuit of truth, then our basic approach should be to represent opposing views fairly, in the best possible light, and interact with the best arguments both for and against the different viewpoints.
The philosopher George H. Smith once wrote, “We have nothing to fear and everything to gain from the honest pursuit of truth.”[1] Along the same lines, obnoxious apologetics is in no one’s self-interest. First, it clearly is not in the best interest of the community who feels their position has been slandered by the straw men created (and then torn down) by apologists.
Second, it’s not in the self-interest of the obnoxious apologist, since in the long-run it can backfire.  Think of the last time you read or listened to something which you felt misrepresented one of your beliefs (or your arguments for your beliefs). Did you change your mind and drop the belief? Of course not! Did you start thinking of objections and rebuttals as you were reading or listening? Probably!  Indeed, if the misrepresentation was made by someone in the public eye, such as a well-known author, it runs the real risk of inviting corrective reviews (like this one) and damaging the author’s credibility.
Third, it’s not in the self-interest of undecided, sincere seekers who truly want to follow the evidence wherever it leads. Following the evidence wherever it leads requires that all of the available relevant evidence be presented and presented fairly. As we shall see later in this review, Geisler and Turek (hereafter, G&T) fail to do this—over and over again.
This failure not only has a practical cost, but a logical cost as well. As G&T admit, their goal is to show that Christianity is highly probable through the use of inductive arguments based upon empirical evidence. But inductive arguments succeed only when they satisfy the Total Evidence Requirement, viz., that their premises embody all of the available relevant evidence.  As I show below, however, G&T’s inductive arguments fail to do this–both individually and collectively. Accordingly, even if all of G&T’s evidence were accurate, which it isn’t, G&T’s case still wouldn’t succeed in showing that Christianity is probably true.
In order to support this verdict on the book’s approach, I’m going to provide a fairly detailed review of the book’s contents, divided into sections according to the table of contents.
Here is the table of contents for the book:
Foreword by David Limbaugh
Preface: How Much Faith Do You Need to Believe This Book?
Introduction: Finding the Box Top to the Puzzle of Life
1 Can We Handle the Truth?
2 Why Should Anyone Believe Anything At All?
3 In the Beginning There Was a Great SURGE
4 Divine Design
5 The First Life: Natural Law or Divine Awe?
6 New Life Forms: From the Goo to You via the Zoo?
7 Mother Theresa vs. Hitler
8 Miracles: Signs of God or Gullibility
9 Do We Have Early Testimony About Jesus? (Part 1, Part 2)
10 Do We Have Eyewitness Testimony About Jesus?
11 The Top Ten Reasons We Know the New Testament Writers Told the Truth
12 Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead?
13 Who is Jesus: God? Or Just a Great Moral Teacher?
14 What Did Jesus Teach about the Bible?
15 Conclusion: The Judge, The Servant, and the Box Top
Appendix 1: If God, Why Evil?
Appendix 2: Isn’t That Just Your Interpretation?
Appendix 3: Why the Jesus Seminar Doesn’t Speak for Jesus
[1] George H. Smith, “Atheism: The Case Against God,” speech delivered to the Society of Separationists, 1976. Transcript published as “How to Defend Atheism,” The Secular Web (1976),