Wednesday, January 04, 2006

The case for atheism

About ten years ago, Doug Jesseph and William Lane Craig debated the existence of God. In the opinion of the Secular Web, “Jesseph's performance in this debate is arguably one of the strongest recent performances by an atheist in an oral debate.”

Since this represents a high-water mark in the case for atheism, it is worth revisiting Jesseph’s side of the debate.

“As an atheist, I deny exist of all Gods: those of the Mayans, the Hindu, the Ancient Egyptians, and the God of the old and new testaments. If I am right, all of these are fictional constructs invented by clever humans for purposes, a variety of purposes, ranging from psychological comfort to entertainment.”

i) Can Jesseph put a date or address on this momentous event? When or where did clever humans first invent God?

ii) A variety of purposes? This is a very flexible standard of evidence. No matter what the particular motive, even if one motive is inconsistent with another, it is consistent with his theory. When a theory can absorb contradictory lines of evidence, it is clear that the theory has been put ahead of the evidence.

iii) Did Jesseph arrive at his theory by conducting a scientific survey of Christian opinion? How many people sat down one day and said to themselves: “I’m afraid to die. I’m going to invent God!”

iv) Needless to say, his theory could be applied as easily to unbelievers as it could to believers. Unbelievers deny the existence of God because that gives them sexual license. Unbelievers deny the existence of God because they’re afraid of divine judgment.

“A basic reason for denying God's existence is what I call the ‘Principle of Conservatism.’ According to this principle, we should, where possible, avoid accounts of the world which postulate unusual or hitherto unknown things in order to explain what can be explained in terms of more intelligible and well-understood things. The principle is one which, I think, nearly everyone here accepts.”

This seems to be another name for Occam’s razor or the principle of parsimony. It is, indeed, widely accepted.

Everyone can agree that an explanation should be as simple as the phenomenon it seeks to explain. But this doesn’t settle anything since it doesn’t tell us how simple or complex the phenomenon is. If we knew the answer to that question, we wouldn’t need the principle in the first place.

“Alright. What does this principle have to do with God? I claim that God qualifies as something mysterious, unintelligible and unfamiliar in the relevant sense. God is not visible, tangible or otherwise detectable by empirical means.”

How does the fact that something is invisible, intangible, or otherwise indetectible by empirical means render it unintelligible and unfamiliar?

Consider the very thought that God is invisible, intangible, or otherwise indetectible by empirical means. Is this particular thought visible, intangible, or otherwise detectable by empirical means? Can an outside observer see, feel, or otherwise detect by empirical means the mental act of Jesseph thinking his thought about God? Can Jesseph himself see, feel, or otherwise detect by empirical means his thought of God as invisible, intangible, or otherwise indetectible by empirical means? If we were to dissect his brain, or perform a brain scan, could we see or feel this particular thought? Even if we could see brain activity in a particular center of the brain, that is not at all the same thing as seeing the thought content of a particular thought.

And surely nothing is more familiar to human experience than our own thought-process. We know that more intimately and immediately than we do the external world.

“God is supposed to act in space and time, but without having a location in space and time.”

This is not an accurate statement. An eternal, incorporeal God acts upon the world, not by acting in the world, but by enacting the world.

“His essence is, according to the tradition itself, ungraspable and fully beyond the comprehension of finite human minds.”

I don’t know where he comes up with this claim. It is only true to the extreme apophatic tradition. The usual view is that God is a true object of knowledge, although exhaustive knowledge of God is impossible.

In addition, Jesseph himself began his opening statement with a definition of God. He said that God had “eight defining characteristics,” and he proceeded to “spell out” what each of these “meant.”

So Jesseph apparently does believe that he can have an intelligible concept of God for purposes of arguing against the existence of God.

“Everything observable is supposed to be created by God, but God Himself is uncreated.”

Is this supposed to be unfamiliar or unintelligible? Roger Penrose is a mathematical physicist who regards the mathematical patterns exemplified in nature as concrete property-instances of abstract exemplars. Cf. The Road to Reality (Random House 2004), chapter one.

Now, Jesseph may reject Platonic realism. But would he venture to say that this school of mathematics is simply unintelligible? A school of thought not only represented by Penrose, but Cantor, Gödel and Frege, to name a few. Surely this is a serious, respectable option.

The immediate point at issue is not whether this is correct, but whether it is intelligible.

“Furthermore, events in the observable world can generally be accounted for without introducing God as an explanation. Thunderstorms, earthquakes, plagues, eclipses, the variety of natural species, and even the origins of life itself all have detailed atheistic explanations, notwithstanding the fact that they were once thought to be the immediate work of God.”

i) These examples presuppose the existence of the world.

ii) Atheism does not have a “detailed” explanation for the origin of life. It has no recipe for cooking up life from non-life in the laboratory, or replicating macroevolution in the laboratory.

“We are told a great deal about Him, but never enough that claims that His existence can be put to the test. Imagine, for example, a farmer who prays to God for rain to help his drought-stricken crops. Suppose it then rains. Our happy farmer explains this as the act of God in response to a prayer. But suppose it doesn’t rain. The farmer explains this as God's having had other reasons for withholding rain. Either way, the God hypothesis seems to do no real explanatory work. It can be used to account for literally anything in exactly the same way.”

i) If prayer were the only reason or primary reason we were believers, then this appeal would lack explanatory value. But prayer is not an apologetic tool. It sometimes has an apologetic dimension, but that’s a secondary application. The purpose of prayer is not to prove the existence of God. Usually, a Christian has other reasons or additional reasons for believing in God. We pray because we believe in God; we don’t believe in God because we pray.

ii) Moreover, answered and unanswered prayer are not necessarily on an evidentiary par. Some answers to prayer are so miraculous that they demand a supernatural explanation. If I’m in a poker game, and every hand my opponent plays is a royal flush, I infer that the deck is stacked. The fact that in most games the sequence is random in no way cancels out my well-founded suspicion that, in this case, the player is in collusion with the casino. Indeed, it is precisely because a royal flush is so rare that I attribute such an extraordinary run of luck to the illicit dexterity of the dealer. And if God deals me a miraculous hand, that evidence is not diluted by however many cases of unanswered prayer.

“A second, but I think closely related reason for denying the existence of God arises from a demand for consistency on the part of the believer. Anyone who believes in the standard-issue God of western monotheism must also deny the reality of every other culture's God or Gods. Although they may not wish to admit it, believers must hold that all other deities are illusory, and that people who believe in them are in the grip of a massive error.”

I don’t see the force of this objection. If “believers must hold that all other deities are illusory, and that people who believe in them are in the grip of a massive error,” then “unbelievers must hold that all deities are illusory, and that people who believe in them are in the grip of a massive error.”

Moving along:

“I take it that the believer will argue that whatever appears to be explained by these alternative deities can, in fact, be accounted for by natural processes, or perhaps by the actions of his God, whom he takes to be something familiar and not in need of explanation.

Consider, in a slightly different context, the response that Christians typically make to such ‘new age’ doctrines as the healing power of crystals. Typically they will dismiss such claims for the mysterious powers of crystals as nonsense, and they will explain away in the supposed case of healing by crystals in terms familiar to medical science. In all such cases as this, the believer is using a double standard. He uses the Principle of Conservatism to debunk alternative Gods, but violates the principle when it comes to his own deity. But principles are not like taxi cabs. You can't just use them to get where you want to go and dismiss them.”

i) Jesseph appears to be ignorant of the traditional distinction between miracle and providence. This is not a distinction which was trumped up for apologetic purposes. The fact that Christians assign some events to ordinary providence (“natural processes”) and other events to extraordinary providence (miraculous intervention) has nothing to do with polemical theology, per se.

ii) Not all cures are equally miraculous.

iii) Is there any evidence that crystals have healing powers?

iv) There is nothing inconsistent with a Christian attributing the cure to ordinary providence or psychosomatic suggestion or even the dark side.

“The third reason for rejecting theism is the familiar problem of evil. Nobody will contest that there is a great deal of suffering in the world. Some of this is due to the action of humans, some of this is due to the forces of nature. Suffering itself is a bad thing.”

Why would an atheist say that suffering is evil? We’d expect an atheist to say that suffering is natural. By what ideal frame of reference is a secularist inny a position to say that suffering is evil? If the sensible world is all there is, then there can be no standard of comparison.

“The only justifications for intentionally inflicting suffering are either to bring about a greater good, or as just punishment for wrongdoing.”

And we have both justifications in Scripture. We have divine judgment, as well as the foreordination of the Fall and its evil consequences subserving a higher end (e.g. Jn 3:19-21; 9:3,39; Rom 9:17,22-23; 11:32; Gal 3:22; Eph 3:9-10).

“Before moving on to these arguments, I must take note of a very important point, however. Namely that no argument for God's existence can take for granted the truth of any particular body of sacred texts. This is because the very believability of scripture is an issue. Obviously, if you accepted scripture as truthful, you would believe in God, some God or other. But, then we must ask whether you have a rational basis for accepting the scripture.”

i) Which is why Christian apologetics as devoted a lot of time to making a case for the Bible.

ii) There is very little competition on this point. Buddhism is atheistic, so it has no room for inspired Scripture. Hinduism is pantheistic, so there is no personal God to inspire Scripture. Folk Hinduism and Folk Buddhism are polytheistic, but their gods are finite gods, finite in wisdom and power.

As to those persuasions which lay claim to the Bible, that comes down to a case of sound exegesis.

“The first argument that I wish to discuss is the cosmological argument. It asserts that everything which begins to exist must have a cause, that the universe began to exist, and therefore that the universe has a cause. This cause of the universe is then identified as God. There are several problems to mention here. First, even if the premises of the argument are granted, it does nothing to show that such a God has the attributes of benevolence, omnipotence, omniscience personhood, uniqueness, or concern with humans. It is therefore wholly inadequate to prove the existence of the God of western monotheism, at least on its own.”

i) It’s true that no one theistic proof gets you all the way from A to Z. But we have more than one theistic proof. So there’s the question of their cumulative force.

ii) There are, in addition, reasons for believing in the Bible. So arguments for God and Scripture are mutually supportive and supplementary.

“Furthermore, the premises themselves are not immune to challenge. Why, for example, should we think that universe began to exist?”

Both the Leibnizian version of the cosmological argument, from contingency and the principle of sufficient reason, as well as the Kalam cosmological argument, from the distinction between an actual and potential infinite, supply reasons for why we should think that the universe had a cause and/or began to exist.

“Even 'Big Bang' cosmology, which notoriously gives the universe a finite past, says that time itself has a beginning of the Big Bang, or at least can be interpreted this way. On that interpretation, the universe did not begin to exist, because there is no time at which it did not exist.”

That only pushes the question back a step. What accounts for the beginning of time?

“Asking for an event before the Big Bang is like asking for something north of the North Pole.”

A straw man argument since that is not the question.

“Further, the causal principle employed in this argument seems suspect. The only cause/effect relations we observe take place among physical events. But, if God is understood as essentially non-physical, it is very difficult to see how we can be justified in extending the causal principle beyond the bounds of space and time and onto the realm of God.”

This is a circular argument. By definition, the only cause/effect relations we “observe” are observable cause/effect relations. They must be physical to be observable.

But that doesn’t exhaust the only cause/effect relations we know. I will myself to raise my arm. My mental act effects a physical result. Nothing could be more familiar.

“Another traditional argument for God is that from design…This argument had its heyday in the 18th century as part of the process of natural theology. But its hypothesis of a divine designer is difficult to take seriously for several reasons.

First, if we are in a position to recognize the wonderful design of the world, we are also entitled to critique the design work. But, it is obvious that, say, the human body could be much better designed. Replaceable lung filters to prevent lung disease, Teflon lined arteries to avoid arterial blockage, an improvement on our absurdly inefficient digestive system, and so forth.”

If Jesseph thinks that he can design a better lung or digestive system, let him do so. Let him translate his words into a working model.

“Second, Darwinian biology and its theory of Natural Selection can account for all of the supposed evidence of design (at least on Earth) without supposing a designer.”

i) This disregards the many objections to evolution.

ii) It fails to account for the physical preconditions which make life on earth possible in the first place.

“Third, the argument gives absolutely no reason to think there is only one God. Indeed, if we reflect on the fact that nearly everything we know to have been designed is the product of a team effort, the design argument strongly favors the hypothesis of a less than perfect "design team." But this is inconsistent with the monotheistic doctrine the argument was intended to support.”

Now he suddenly abandons Occam’s razor, although this was his basic reason for denying the existence of God. He is now postulating more entities than are necessary to account for the effect.

What is worse, he must then posit some unifying principle which accounts for the degree of coordination between the various team players.

“Finally, the design argument can at best only provide evidence for natural powers or processes of the sort that we see about us in nature. To establish the existence of a literally supernatural God or Gods, much more is needed.”

i) Even if this were true, it once again ignores the cumulative force of all the theistic arguments.

ii) It also disregards the force of the Leibnizian argument. Of all the possible worlds, why was this possibility realized? So there’s more to keep track of than the bare minimum which is needed to explain our world. For the actual world stands in contrast to all of the other unexemplified possibilities.

“A third argument is the so-called moral argument for God's existence. According to it, atheism makes morality impossible, because we must ground our moral theory in a guarantee that virtue will be rewarded and evil punished.”

This is a completely inadequate statement of the moral argument. The point of the moral argument is the source and standard of moral norms.

Jesseph then discusses the argument from experience. I’ll skip over that, not because I think it’s unimportant, but because the argument from experience is, in the nature of the case, inaccessible to unbelievers or outsiders.

So much for his opening statement. In the course of his debate with Craig he does attempt to flesh out some of his initial arguments. In many instances he is simply repeating himself by paraphrasing what he said before and saying the same thing in more than one way. But in a few instances his supporting arguments do move the ball forward a tad.

“Given the current state of Big Bang cosmology, and particularly given the fact that theories rise and fall with the publication of each new issue of physics journals, it would be rash indeed to think that we are currently in possession of the truth about the origins of the universe.”

I’ll cede this point to Jesseph.

“The second point, much more significant, I think, is that present state of the universe is improbable only relative to the many ways that some universe or other might have come into existence. But, because we know that this is a universe where life exists, all we may justly conclude is that our cosmological theory must make it possible for the universe to support life.”

This sidesteps the whole question of why we inhabit a universe which is adapted to life.

“Thirdly, from the fact that initial probability is low, no conclusion at all follows about whether it is the result of a conscious choice. Take 10,000 coins. Toss them into the street. Any particular sequence of heads and tails you get will be absurdly improbable, but none of them arises from design.”

This is a very poor comparison. It takes for granted the many physical constants are already in place. And if we knew all the variables, we could predict the outcome.

“As for the question: why is there something rather than nothing? Well, there is a fairly simple explanation to that. How many ways are there for nothing? One. How many ways are there for there to be something? An infinite number. Even if an actual infinite, what are the odds? A bit of a joke argument, but I think you can see the point... Appealing to God as the explanation of the origin of the universe is, I claim, getting you essentially nowhere.”

i) Accounting for nothing and accounting for something are not equivalent. Existence demands an explanation in a way that nonexistence does not.

ii) In what or in whom do all these unexemplified possibilities inhere? What agent or agency makes them possible?

iii) What is possible presupposes something actual to actualize the possibility.

iv) What agent or agency selects for one possibility over another and instantiates that particular possibility?

“I claim that it is possible to look about in the world and competently judge this is good and that is bad.”

How? Is goodness or badness a visible, tangible, or otherwise empirically detectable property? What does goodness taste like? What does it sound like? What is the color of badness? How much does it weigh? What is its chemical composition? Is goodness round or square? Soft or prickly?

“And, now finally, to the question of whether God can be known. Is it possible, peering into one's own mind to find the still small voice that testifies to the existence of God?”

A straw man argument since that’s not the only way that God can be known.

“Moving on now, the claim is that we have, however, if I understood Dr. Craig, we have some kind of understanding of ourselves as non- physical creatures; our volitions are supposed to be a prime example of a non-physical event causing a physical event. A volition such as my desire to move my right arm, causing the raising of my right arm. I frankly find this incomprehensible. It seems perfectly evident that the raising of my right arm is a physical process. It seems perfectly evident that physical processes can have only physical causes. It seems perfectly evident that if we accept the broadly scientific view of the world, according to which energy is conserved, whatever it is that led to the lifting of my arm must itself be a physical process which is explicable in terms of the laws of chemistry...neurochemistry and physics if you trace it back to the brain which you will discover is, presumably, some neurochemical energy being discharged which then produces, right, the motion of the limb. In order to make it out that we have some clear conception of non-physical minds causing physical actions, what we have to do is overthrow the entire body of understood physical theory. We have to get rid essentially of the principle of conservation of energy and adopt a radically incoherent model in which minds are somehow non-physical things which interact somehow causally with physical things, nevertheless, preserving conservation of energy and all of the other lovely physical laws we know.”

i) What's the justification for presumptive materialism? Why should we begin with matter rather than mind? After all, we only perceive the sensible world by means of the mind. We only perceive the brain by means of the mind. We don’t see the mind because we see by means of the mind, just as we don’t see the window because we see through the window.

On the face of it, mental properties occupy a different domain from material properties. Mental properties are not visible or tangible. Why assume that this categorical difference is illusory?

ii) Has science in fact been able to trace mental events back to brain events? Can we read our thoughts off a brain scan?

iii) Are mental properties reducible to sensible properties? What translation key can Jesseph offer us to accomplish that feat?


  1. is this co-inky-dink?

    I also have a more brief and not as well-thought-out critique of Jesseph on my site:

  2. Has science in fact been able to trace mental events back to brain events?
    Yes - cognitive neuroscientists can now show how mental events equate with brain events. Exposing the brain to electrical currents or chemicals can cause experiences indistinguishable from real life or alter a person's personality. When brain tissue dies a part of the person dies with it - e.g their ability to recognise faces.
    Can we read our thoughts off a brain scan?
    New technology can tell us what sort of thought a person is having - whether they are thinking about a face or place.

  3. aghast at the hilarity4/25/2007 8:58 PM

    sexual license?? afraid of divine judgement?? perhaps you should apply your same critiquing of jesseph to your own hypothesis. If you dont, you sound....frankly...childish.

  4. Unbelievers deny the existence of God because that gives them sexual license. Unbelievers deny the existence of God because they’re afraid of divine judgment.
    All you provide here are assertions with nothing to back them up. Based on my own knowledge of the Bible (which I've read 9 times in 8 different English translations), I can confidently say that the Bible does not even say these things. Regarding the 'fear of divine judgment', why would an atheist of any stripe fear that which they believe does not exist?

    You also say:

    Did Jesseph arrive at his theory by conducting a scientific survey of Christian opinion?
    One might also put the same question to you regarding your assertions.

    One thing I detected in this post is a lack of discernment regarding atheism in all of its forms. It is not quite as simple as theists (Christians, specifically) claim it is. George H. Smith, in his book, ATHEISM: THE CASE AGAINST GOD, provides some very cogent and well-reasoned arguments to demonstrate, rationally, not only the distinctions between implied atheism and explicit atheism, but also why it is irrational and unreasonable to assert that those who do not believe in the Christian God are atheist. The fact that there are those who believe in god(s), but not the Christian God, shows that such an assertion flies in the face of the definition of 'theism'.