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Saturday, May 4, 2013

The Passing of the Age of Reason

Da Man
Recently, on a forum called Quora, TOF was amused to see this topic:  What are the strongest arguments for atheism?

There are actually only two such arguments, both put forth by Thomas Aquinas some 743 years ago.  Each was stated in the form of an actual syllogism, and then answered.  They are:

Objection 1. It seems that God does not exist; because if one of two contraries be infinite, the other would be altogether destroyed. But the word "God" means that He is infinite goodness. If, therefore, God existed, there would be no evil discoverable; but there is evil in the world. Therefore God does not exist.
Videtur quod Deus non sit. Quia si unum contrariorum fuerit infinitum, totaliter destruetur aliud. Sed hoc intelligitur in hoc nomine Deus, scilicet quod sit quoddam bonum infinitum. Si ergo Deus esset, nullum malum inveniretur. Invenitur autem malum in mundo. Ergo Deus non est.
Objection 2. Further, it is superfluous to suppose that what can be accounted for by a few principles has been produced by many. But it seems that everything we see in the world can be accounted for by other principles, supposing God did not exist. For all natural things can be reduced to one principle which is nature; and all voluntary things can be reduced to one principle which is human reason, or will. Therefore there is no need to suppose God's existence.
Praeterea, quod potest compleri per pauciora principia, non fit per plura. Sed videtur quod omnia quae apparent in mundo, possunt compleri per alia principia, supposito quod Deus non sit, quia ea quae sunt naturalia, reducuntur in principium quod est natura; ea vero quae sunt a proposito, reducuntur in principium quod est ratio humana vel voluntas. Nulla igitur necessitas est ponere Deum esse.

These can be summarized as:
  1. Life sucks.  Therefore, no God. 
    (Vita sugit. Igitur nullus Deus.)
  2. Everything seems to work fine.  Therefore, no God. 
    (Omnia videtur ad bene operandum.
    Igitur nullus Deus.)
All other arguments are either padding or irrelevant.  So curiosity compelled a glance at this "Quora" site to see what the ingenuity of the Late Modern mind has come up with.  TOF was bemused. 


"The Answer Wiki" proclaimed that the most up-voted answers on the Quora presented the following arguments for atheism:
  1. A lack of evidence for god.
  2. Poor logic in arguments for god.
  3. The evidence that contradicts claims for god's existence.
  4. A universe in which god exists does not make sense.
TOF's Faithful Reader will immediately discern that none of these are arguments, but rather mere proclamations, rather like "Bible sez it; I believe it!"  They do provide evidence of poor reasoning skills, however, in this, the twilight of the Modern Ages.  Nietzsche was right, it appears, when he said that after the Death of God comes the Death of Reason. 

Now, TOF will grant, secundum argumentum, that there can be no argument for atheism, as such.  Existentially, one cannot prove a negative, and that little prefix "a-" creates something of a pickle, ontology-wise.  Since atheism is merely the stance that there is no God, an argument for atheism must necessarily be an argument against the existence of God.  (Often, these folk will write "god," either because of poor spelling skills or because of category error.)

Some have argued in another comm box that atheism means only that they don't believe in God and therefore they need not deploy any argument whatever.  This is fine, but then they will neither shut up nor go away, so one may question their commitment to quietism.  Besides, it is an argument for indifference (a.k.a. "sloth") and is not really atheism (no-God) so much as it is adoxy (no-belief).  As some folks have noted, Nietzsche could look into the abyss and find the abyss looking back; but the Late Modern looks into the abyss, shrugs "whatever," and goes off to watch American Idol.  But let us take those four winning arguments and consider them. 

Before looking for evidence, be sure
establish what counts as "evidence."
1. A lack of evidence for god.
TOF will puckishly observe that this is true vis a vis god, but the same does not hold for God (cf. "category error," supra).  But in any case, our interest lies in the apparent inability to frame an argument.  A lack of evidence is not an argument for (or against) anything.  Substitute space aliens for "god" and the point becomes more evident. 

Secondly, as becomes clear from some of the individual responses on the site, this evidence is supposed to be physical "scientific" evidence, Science!™ having been substituted for God. As Chastek observes:
"Science in the popular imagination is idealized (science cannot explain everything or solve all our problems now, but just give it time!); and only its successes are seen as integral to it (i.e. vaccinations, space travel, and computers are seen as the direct and proper work of science while Hiroshima, Tuskegee, Mustard gas, scientific eugenics and sterilization programs, Josef Mengele, climate change, industrial pollution, etc. are never seen as the necessary products of “science”). IOW, this is obviously not a scientific view of science but one that makes it into an exalted, inerrant  messiah that will set everything right if we only give it our total devotion."  -- James Chastek
Now physical, emprical evidence does not establish a mathematical theorem, either.  Pi is known to be irrational, not from empirical evidence, but by a rational argument from first principles.  [In fact, all circular physical objects will have a rational ratio of C/d.]  So one of the things missing here is a case for what qualifies as "evidence."  Is a logical argument acceptable as evidence?  If no, the whole field of mathematics is thrown under the bus.  If yes, as they are for math, then they must be acceptable for metaphysical proofs.  This does not mean such arguments are true, or even valid.  TOF once had a theorem in topology regarding domain spaces in function space that was very nice, but it blew up on him and singed his amour propre.  So a rational proof can still be critiques by finding something wrong either with its form or with the major or minor premise. 

2. Poor logic in arguments for god.
Again, the failure of an argument for God does not constitute an argument against God.  Consider the following illustration added in postscript:
1. If the heliocentric model is true, Venus will show phases;
2. Venus shows phases;
3. Therefore, the heliocentric model is true.
which Faithful Reader will recognize as an invalid syllogism: Asserting the Consequent.  This invalidity does not mean the conclusion is false, only that a bad argument has been advanced for it.  Likewise, a bad argument for the existence of God does not mean that God does not exist, only that a flawed argument has been advanced. 

At best it would be an argument for remaining unconvinced, which is not atheism but agnosticism.  Kepler's argument for his second law was invalid, but that did not mean that the Equal Area Law was wrong.  (It fell to Mercator to actually prove it.)  TOF was also amused to note that none of the correspondents on the Quora site actually stated what was wrong with the logic of the arguments for God.  They did not even correctly state the arguments! 

3. The evidence that contradicts claims for god's existence.
This might have been the beginnings of an argument.  (It's really just #1 with a more promising phraseology.)  But it should have read "The evidence that contradicts claims for god's existence IS..." followed by like, you know, evidence.  Of course, evidence is never self-explaining, so any such evidences must be accompanied by an interpretive duenna. The phases of Venus supported the Tychonic system as much as the Copernican.

4. A universe in which god exists does not make sense. This is an expression of sentiment, a cri de coeur, rather than an actual reductio.  None of the commentariat explain why such a universe would not make sense, or even what "make sense" means.  TOF assumes a logical contradiction -- which makes this a more emo version of #3 -- but it might have to do with the senses, or with individual aesthetic sympathies.

Further Commentary

Commenter on Quora forum
TOF was especially impressed by the sobriquets some of the commenters gave themselves.  Three outstanding individuals (whose names have been changed, since I am commenting away from the original site) were:
  • Joe Dixon, Spent a lot of time thinking
  • John Henry Warren, thinker
  • Billy Hemp, Atheist, writer, pilot, sage
Two thinkers and a sage.  Who'da thunk it.  Each lad must have broken an arm from patting himself on the back. 

Joe Dixon, who spent a lot of time thinking, deployed the following "arguments": 
Five worshipers with different conclusions prove
there is no such thing as Elephant
a) Most people don't believe the same thing about the same "god" that they worship.
-- There are at least five different theories explaining quantum mechanics.  So physicists "don't believe the same thing about the same phenomena that they study."  This is not an argument that there is no such thing as quantum mechanics.  That the blind men have disagreed over what they have touched is not argument the elephant does not exist. 
b) The sheer number of religions that preceded the current crop and the likelihood that many others will follow the current incarnations.
-- This is often deployed by people who don't understand probability and statistics.  The sheer number of religions is not an argument that none of them are correct.  In fact, the more such religions, the more likely that at least one of them will hit the mark.  But again, this is a statement (not an argument) about religion, not about God.  Every religion that may ever be might be wrong and still God could exist. 
c) The relative lack of fear that even the most ardent adherents to religion have to flouting even the most stringent prohibitions of their religion.
-- This is called "original sin" by at least one major religion, and is really only a statement about individuals' depth of belief, not the existence of that in which they believe. 
d) The fact that more people are currently living than when the events described in every religious text  occurred and yet NO similar events occur now, when there are more people alive to witness them. 
-- Actually, there are still a great many catastrophic floods, migrations of people, kings and revolutions, unfaithfulness, jealousies, unjust executions, hypocrisy,  and spontaneous acts of charity. 
 e) There are a nearly 100 streaming video outlets available on the Internet, many people have access to computers and digital cameras are almost everywhere, yet no "miraculous" events ever occur when a camera is handy to record them.
-- This is really a complaint, not an argument.  Waaah!  Show me a miracle!  But if miracles were a dime the dozen, they would not be miracles.  In fact, one might look at all sorts of everyday occurrences and see them for the miracles they are.  Einstein, for example, once wrote to M. Solovine that the very fact that the universe has a natural order is a miracle, since chaos is much more to be expected. 
The world is entire explained by the
Big Compass Theory
f) Everything that exists in the natural world can be explained without a supernatural cause or origin.
-- This is actually close to Aquinas' Objection 2.  But that God has endowed natures with the ability to act directly upon one another is hardly an argument against the existence of God.  It is however an argument against immanent nature gods. 
John Henry Warren, thinker

g) Nothing exists purely as a category, but the various religions of the world disagree about many of the most basic characteristics of God and agree only at the conceptual level. If God is defined as that which the major monotheistic religion believe in, then God is only a category, lacking specific attributes. It's stretching the definition of "exists" to say that anything could exist without possessing specific attributes.
-- Mr. Warren has evidently spent a lot more time thinking than Mr. Dixon, because he has actually framed an argument!  It fails only in the sentence "If God is defined as..."  Since God is not defined in that way, the argument is immaterial and irrelevant.  The existence of X is independent of the unanimity of believers in X.  Consider "atoms."   
h) Although descriptions of God vary, they're fairly consistent in ascribing to Him infinity, usually through some combination of eternity, ubiquity, omniscience, omnipotence, or omnibenevolence. If God is infinite, any interaction of His with the world would have infinite effect. If He created the world, He interacted with it. Where, then, did finiteness come from?
-- Again, this is an honest attempt at framing an argument; but it depends on a misapprehension of what classical theology means by "infinite."  (For one thing, it is not "some combination" of the other attributes he cites.)  In the second place, it is not self-evident that an infinite God must have an infinite "interaction" with the world.  Creation is not an inter-action in any case. When the bat hits the ball, the ball hits the bat.  That is an interaction.  But creation is not an interaction, since the thing created has no existence save in the act of creation. 
i) There are various arguments for the existence of God, but most of them don't so much prove the existence of a specific being as define Him into existence, and because each one is different, each one defines something different. Because they're incoherent, they can't be independently confirming the existence of a single coherent entity. They could, however, be arbitrary, and if they're arbitrary, we can agree the argument is a good one, even unrefutable, and still be perfectly justified in forgetting about it soon after.
-- This argument was somewhat inchoate since the thinker did not specify what arguments he referred to.  The traditional Five Ways do not do what he claims, but he evidently thinks that the Prime Mover, the Prime Cause, the Necessary Being, etc. are somehow distinct things.  They are not.  It is Thomas' case that they are the same being.  To make his argument successful Mr Warren would have to show why the Prime Mover does not cohere with the Necessary Being, etc. Otherwise, he would have to explain why proofs that John Smith is a father, a son, and a husband could not possibly refer to the same being. 
-- The traditional proofs do not "define into existence" (unless Mr. Warren is thinking of the ontological proof, which Thomas rejects).  They demonstrate the existence of something; and further proofs then demonstrate that this being has the divine attributes.
-- Mr. Warren does not show how the various proofs are incoherent; he only claims that they are. 
Billy Hemp, Atheist, writer, pilot, sage
j) The best argument for atheism is what we've learned about the effect of randomness on our world and our lives. Along with all other living things, we humans are the result of random evolution, although we have tended to have an inflated sense of our own importance.
-- Randomness is not a thing, but an abstract category and per John Henry Warren, thinker, a category does not exist.  (/Fe)  Randomness is the description of an effect, not a cause. 

-- Evolution is not random, as Darwinians are fond of explaining, but is given direction by natural selection.  Even genetic mutation may not be as random as previously believed, given recent advances in genetics.  Besides, as casinos illustrate, randomness must be carefully arranged and intelligently designed. 
Another poster:
k) I find it hard to believe a divine being would be either so vindictive or incompetent to design the world we live in.
-- Much as the creationist finds it "hard to believe" that natural selection could account for the variety of biological and microbiological processes.  But the commenter's incredulity neither proves or disproves the existence of God. 
-- If the designer of the world were incompetent, we would expect parts of the world not to work, or not to work smoothly together.  It would require miracles as patches.  Yet as far as we can tell, gravity, electromagnetism, oxidation, biological growth, and the rest of the world functions with no problem. 
-- "Vindictive" is the wrong word, but this can be taken as a tendentious version of the Argument from Evil, the First Objection considered by Thomas Aquinas centuries ago. 
Another poster
l) Am I a Believer or Atheist?  I am neither. I am beyond either of those.
-- Surely, this raises the bar for self-congratulation to a whole new level. 

Added in Postscript

Thomas' answers to the two actual arguments presented at the beginning of this post run as follows.
Reply to Objection 1. As Augustine says (Enchiridion xi): "Since God is the highest good, He would not allow any evil to exist in His works, unless His omnipotence and goodness were such as to bring good even out of evil." This is part of the infinite goodness of God, that He should allow evil to exist, and out of it produce good.

Reply to Objection 2. Since nature works for a determinate end under the direction of a higher agent [per 5th Way], whatever is done by nature must needs be traced back to God, as to its primary cause. So also whatever is done voluntarily must also be traced back to some higher cause other than human reason or will, since these can change or fail; for all things that are changeable and capable of defect must be traced back to an immovable and self-necessary first principle, as was shown in the body of the Article. 

some spelling and phrasing corrected, additions as indicated.  

52 comments:

  1. Incredibly interesting. You point out the various reasons why I have not declared myself an atheist, the top two being that you cannot prove a negative and that most atheists are piss poor logicians (and just plain pissy).

    My personal belief is that there may be a God, but, if there is, man has not yet fathomed his existence. When it comes to arguments about God, I bow out, simply because I don't think we know enough one way or another.

    If you don't mind, I'd like to post a link to this to a skeptical group I belong to. I'd like to see their reactions to this.

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    1. Sure, but vulgar language and ill manners are not countenanced.

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    2. Caermon, do you lay awake at night wondering whether you are just living in the "who can say" fallacy ;-)? After all, there is an abundance of material that you can do an awful lot of grappling with, such as religious texts, historical analysis, and scientific literature. I'm just trying to say that I hope you've thoroughly and enthusiastically tested the premises you hold on such an important topic; agnosticism can easily turn into not trying as hard as you can and should. Let me ask you this. Do you believe that while man is trying to reach out to God, God is never reaching out to man, or is at least doing such a poor job of it that it's as if he isn't? It seems that you must believe that; if so, why?

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  2. It's noteworthy that a lot of arguments about religion are founded on a great deal of ignorance about what religions actually profess, and what believers actually believe. Most atheists don't seem to be arguing against the God of St. Thomas Aquinas, but against the "angry old man in a nightgown" of the most ignorant.

    I have to say this suggests that churches -- each and collectively -- are doing a TERRIBLE job of informing people. The Catholic Church in particular has really fallen down on the job. Any storefront preacher can get himself some radio or TV airtime and rant about his own prejudices and odd beliefs, but I don't think I've ever seen a broadcast of a Jesuit explaining Thomist thought, or walking the audience through logical arguments about belief -- even though the Church did and does own dozens of broadcasters, publishers, and the like.

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    1. My friend, have you ever heard of EWTN? It's on cable. It's on the Internet. It may even be on a local radio station.

      You will find Jesuits, Franciscans, Dominicans, Benedictines, and of course Mother Angelica herself, talking Catholic logic and faith. ;)

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    2. Yes, but make that 'logic and the Catholic faith'. Logic isn't Catholic, and, unfortunately today, isn't even close to being catholic.

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    3. I agree with this assessment. However, I would argue that it's more that people are doing a terrible job of learning. After all, it takes a lot of effort, humility, openness, and persistence!

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  3. I've seen a lot of good stuff-- from EWTN getting into the weeds at times to old Bishop Fulton Sheen broadcasts on youtube. It's not on prime time, but it is available. (Catholic.com, for example.)

    The religious education in the US does suck, but that's just the "spirit" of Vatican II taking a while to shake out.

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  4. EWTN podcasts-- some are more advice stuff, but there's theology.

    Any search on Catholic.com can bring up podcast results, such as the one on natural law that I shared with some folks the other day.

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  5. Actually, EWTN's cunning plan is to run a lot of their science, logic, and theology shows in the middle of the night, when a lot of interested folks are watching. And then they have the Ann Arbor Dominicans' catechesis shows for kids, right after school.

    I have to say, it would be nice if they would put together some finding aids for such things, by subject as well as by schedule.

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  6. It's a bit odd that your parody/critique concentrated (guessing from your changed names) on the arguments of the answers with the least votes. So your argument is basically, "some atheists argue poorly therefore all atheist arguments are poor = atheism is wrong". Hardly a monument to Thomistic rational analysis.

    And there are other arguments for atheism than the two you present from Aquinas. For me, the fact that all gods bear the hallmarks of human invention and reflect the people who invented them so closely speaks volumes. You accept that most gods are inventions and are simply stories people tell reflecting their own cultures or early, traditional forms of them. You just make an unwarranted exception for your god. Arcane attempts at philosophical underpinnings for this god are post hoc and aimed simply at justifying what you believe for cultural, emotional and tribal reasons.

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    1. First, TOF says:
      "'The Answer Wiki' proclaimed that the most up-voted answers on the Quora presented the following arguments for atheism" etc., so perhaps you can take issue with that?

      Secondly, your "additional" argument is merely a member of the species of Aquinas' second set (God is irrelevant). Got any that really don't fit the schema?

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    2. Tim,
      I did not argue that all atheist arguments are poor. I cited two very strong ones. There may be others, but I have never seen them.

      The idea that because human expressions bear the hallmark of human expression does not address the reality or lack of reality of the thing being expressed. How else might Chinese or Arab or European describe the indescribable save in the tropes and imagery of their own culture. Consider how much of modern myths are dolled up in the gauds and fripperies of Science!™ Consider the way poor Hypatia has been used to flaunt successively 18th century classicism, 19th century scientism, and 20th century feminism.

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    3. "most gods are inventions and are simply stories people tell reflecting their own cultures"

      But culture starts with a cult, that is, with a god. It is an error to think of some underlying secular culture and then people inventing gods and their stories. In fact, I doubt that even a single god is pure invention.
      There is always a supernatural reality behind the myths, even the pagan ones.

      The scholar of ancient Greece, GKC Guthrie in Greeks and their Gods writes that Zeus simply meant sky and is used so in classical literature.

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    4. It seems that you are making the unwarranted assumption that because 99 of 100 descriptions of god are inadequate, therefore the 100th is also wrong.

      And anyway, are there other cultures whose chief god revealed that his fundamental identity is being itself?

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    5. "Arcane attempts at philosophical underpinnings for this god are post hoc and aimed simply at justifying what you believe for cultural, emotional and tribal reasons."

      You know, all of this can be true and yet our philosophical arguments for the existence of God could still be sound. Whether an argument works does not depend on where it came from or what possessed someone to come up with it.

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    6. Good catch, Alex. The Genetic Fallacy. Fred Hoyle developed the Steady State theory in part because as an atheist he didn't cotton to the Big Bang. But his theory was discarded not because of his motives in presenting it, but because it did not fit the data.

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    7. @Tim: Except that in the case of the Hebrews, their God was so unlike them and their surrounding culture that they had an awful lot of trouble following him and sticking to his values. It's almost as if his values weren't a reflection of theirs! Funny too that I've met people who seem think that the God of the Hebrews is not human enough. Anyway, I find it helps to avoid hasty generalizations; you see, that word "unwarranted" you use is highly contestable. Not all gods bear the marks of human invention.

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  7. So is the skull-headed, spider-bodied god of the Moche culture just an faulty human "expression" of your Yahweh? Or an imaginary being with no more reality than a leprechaun?

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    1. Beats me. Don't know anything about him (or her). Or even the Moche, let alone the tropes of their literary traditions.

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    2. My question is asking whether you believe all other tribe's gods are simply faulty human "expression" for your tribe's ("real") god or whether some are simply imaginary. I chose Ai Apaec aka "the Decapitator" because, given how unlike he is to even the most bloodthirsty Old Testament "expression" of your Yahweh, which makes it seem unlikely he's just another way of "expressing" your god.

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    3. Milne's kinematic theory of relativity is not like Einstein's. Lagrange's theory of mechanics was unlike Laplace's. Nor is a rope much like a wall (see elephant, blind men and). If there's something out there in the mists, some people are likely to get a clearer glimpse than others. Some might not see it at all. In any case, each will interpret his glimpse in the context of what he is mentally prepared to see. As Einstein once remarked to Heisenberg, "Theory determines what can be observed."

      Now, no combination of walls, ropes, trees, fans, etc. will ever really add up to an elephant. But some glimpses may be closer to the mark than others. These can be tested for coherence by logic and reason.

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    4. So that gnomic response is saying that all tribe's gods, even ones as strange as "the Decapitator", are actually just "dimly glimpsed" versions of your tribe's ("real") god?

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    5. You're still making the category error, Tim. The Good is not just one more good thing. Triangularity is not just one more triangle. But because all physically-realized triangles are imperfect attempts at triangularity -- whether drawn in chalk on slate or cut from green felt with a scissors -- you cannot say that Triangularity itself does not exist or is just one more exemplar.

      The point remains that the plurality of tribal deities, mostly apotheoses of aspects of nature, is not an argument that there is no reality for them to apotheosize. Without knowing more about your Decapitator and its anthropology, I can't tell if it is a shadow of a glimpse of Siva or not. From your description, it seems to be an apotheosis of death and death is, so to speak, a fact of life.

      Remember, the point of this post is not whether gods or God exist, but rather the quality of the arguments Late Moderns raise against them. It is not even that such arguments have had flaws in their premises, but that they do not even amount to arguments in the first place. At this, the end of the age of reason, people no longer feel they need give reasons.

      Professors in countless classrooms in many different disciplines report that students have already been well taught that, when they are faced with any moral proposition, the proper response is, "That’s just your opinion." They are resistant, then, to resolving disagreements by reasoned arguments. They aver, "You choose your good, and I’ll choose mine." Reasoned debate is replaced by naked will. I choose. Don’t ask me to give reasons — I just choose!
      - Michael Novak

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    6. Having spent more time than most dealing with the poor arguments of many of my fellow atheists, I'm not arguing with you about that for a moment. But the multiplicity of gods that bear a striking resemblance to their worshippers is one of the main reasons that I, despite originally being of your tribe, don't have a belief in that tribe's god. And I find your "dimply glimpsed" argument to be more post hoc justification of a belief you actually hold for emotional, tribally-instilled reasons.

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    7. .... Do you really see no humor in the way that you are rejecting, on the basis of emotion, an argument for being too emotional?

      Being funny doesn't make something false, however those who use that justification tend to be unlikely to be able to enjoy the humor.

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    8. But the multiplicity of gods that bear a striking resemblance to their worshippers

      Please, God, may this not be the case with the Moche.

      I'm sure you prefer your new tribe to your old one, but what you're saying here - the argument from striking resemblance - just seems bizarre. Especially since one of the most popular criticisms about the God of classical theism is that He's far too alien and distinct from humanity. (Which I suppose, by your standards, would be an argument in favor of His existing.)

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    9. I'm sorry for your argument, Tim, but the Bible makes two things abundantly clear. (There is actually quite a bit of history in it, you know.)
      1) That it is entirely possible, and in fact extremely common, for people's gods to be more a reflection of their own dark minds than of God himself.
      2) That even the people who were supposed to be following God the most directly struggled with this problem.

      So, how are you agreeing with something the Bible portrays and yet coming to the conclusion that what is portrayed is a barrier to considering the Bible reliable? I should think the more aware one is of a pitfall, the less likely they will be to fall into it.

      P.S. Yahwism is heavily contested for its many problems, the most obvious of which being the fact that it avoids Occam at all costs. Personally, I think it's pretty dumb that an argument based on the idea that "Yahweh" is an evolved form of the Hebrews' one-time patron deity doesn't seem to know that there is no "w" in the Hebrew language!

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  8. The skull/spider God sounds more like an incarnation of the Old Nick than of God. Some cultures do make this mistake, more's the pity. How to tell the difference? Well, ask how it/he/she defined virtue. That can be useful.

    But I do have one point for the atheists: the most powerful objection to Christian eschatology that I know of (though not expressed as an argument) is in Wallace Stevens' poem, Sunday Morning: "Is there no change of death in Paradise? Does ripe fruit never fall? Or do the boughs/Hang always heavy in that perfect sky?" Reading that as a teenager believing in the resurrection of the body (and thus in a resurrected Earth) was a shattering experience. You couldn't call it an argument, but it was nevertheless (to me) a vexing, unanswerable question. What would the Resurrection be like, in a new body and new Earth, without any death at all?

    L. Legault



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    1. Is death natural?. People do not behave so, people are grieved by death. We do believe and act as if we are deathless.

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    2. And that, as CS Lewis points out, is a natural desire, and it is reasonable, then, that there be some way that this desire can be realized.

      Which is not an airtight proof for immortality, but then we humans don't generally make life-changing decisions only on the basis of airtight proofs that the decision is the correct one.

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    3. I have to say, it is not clear to me at all that Revelation 21:4 is asserting that there is no death whatsoever in any form (i.e. there is no "plant death"). Certainly, there is no longer any human death, and I think that's about as far as you can take it with inscrutable confidence. Wallace Steven's poem seems more characteristic of his own struggle to grasp the unknown than reflective of any real problem. And I must say, I rather like it for that reason!

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    4. Thank you TalmidOfYeshua, for grasping what I was getting at, and offering a way to make sense of the issue. Of course, we don't have an *answer* for it, but for some reason I'd never thought to consult scripture on the matter, which is an embarrassing confession, but there you are.

      L. Legault

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  9. I am not certain I understand the relationship between these replies and my own, although I don't disagree with them. What I was trying to say was that the end of Christian life is not death but resurrection, that is to say, being reborn in a physical body that is now deathless, and to live thereafter on a reborn and deathless earth. But when you think about a "deathless earth" it boggles the mind. No deaths at all, no flower-petals falling while the seed ripens into fruit, which in its turn falls to the ground? It seems impossible. To a non-believer, of course, it IS impossible. Meanwhile, I've never heard of a believer who tackles it, although I expect someone has, somewhere.

    L. Legault

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    1. Once in Bible study, we were reading about the vision of eternal worship in Revelation. One of the other group members said "That sounds unbelievably boring."

      And it does. The fallen human body cannot do anything, no matter how pleasant, for too long. Physical limitations aside, we get bored.

      We are products of a fallen world, and are fallen ourselves. We cannot comprehend perfection, cannot even conceptualize it. We know there won't be sex. We can assume there won't be eating (if the lion will not eat the lamb, contrary to its carnivorous nature though it is, there's no reason to think we'll be eating anything). The metaphysics of existence will be fundamentally different.

      The purpose of the Christian journey is to start walking toward that perfection, here in this imperfect world. We die to this world and begin to live, to extent we can, as if the next was already here. When the next comes, we can transition smoothly.

      It does boggle the mind. It boggles my mind. It's supposed to.

      -Dave*

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  10. It is relatively easy to conceptualize no eating and no sexual relations. It is even quite easy to imagine "no death" in the sense that people and animals never die, since that is one of our deepest wishes as humans, the wish never to have to say goodbye to anyone we love. But it's much harder to imagine a world with no death in it at all, as Stevens's startling question made me realise.

    L. Legault

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  11. I don't post a lot on the site, but often read your blogs. I really appreciate the Thomas Aquinas reference. I plan to study these more for myself.

    Thanks.

    Banner

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  12. you make it a simple matter to appraise late modern objections, or any at all, when you posit that there are only two arguments for atheism, given that "all other arguments are either padding or irrelevant" apart from those two already dispatched by aquinas.

    i'm curious if this actually seems, to you, an example of clear and careful thinking. that is: do you step back from your own line of thought here and think "yep, gosh i did pretty good there. don't see how anyone could reasonably argue against this!!" or do you admit that, like aquinas, you are merely entitled to strong conclusions because you entitle yourself to strong premises?

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    1. a) I stated that there were only two substantive arguments because a third one has not yet been presented.
      b) My only kvetch in this post was that various "arguments" posted on a particular discussion board - albeit typical of others elsewhere - were not even arguments, but only poses and expostulations.

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    2. thanks for the reply. as to (b), i was aware of the scope of your piece and think it's an observation well-worth making about digital age dialogue. but i took the occasion to make the point myself, given your insistence on (a).

      i think that insistence is so bizarre to me, while apparently so obvious to you, that it is almost certainly unwise to continue. but caution be damned! i've had three beers and i expect you're a good sport.

      without wanting to get into an argument with you about the specifics of the following (and i mean that as sincerely as possible), i simply offer that there is at least one more stripe of argument (whether or not there are [many?] others): the existence of god is improbable.

      as a bare form of possible line of argument, materialism ("everything seems to work fine") is neither sufficient nor necessary evidence regarding the existence of god, one way or the other. however, there are a number of other studies we might tap if we were truly curious about whether or not the god as depicted in the bible, or any other divinity, existed. again, i'm really not interested in debating specifics here with you unless you would like to do so through e-mail, in which case i would be happy to oblige.

      my only intent is to show that it is dangerous and misleading to criticize poor thinking on the internet, while in the same breath reducing the history of the theism / atheism debate, in all its complexity and nuance, down to two classes of objections on the atheist side.

      perhaps you can do that, and perhaps you feel that you did. but most people, when they say something obviously hyperbolic like "by jove there are only two kinds of people in this world..." will readily admit, if pressed, that matters cease to be simple when we get down to the business of really thinking about something.

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    3. The most convincing way to show that there are more than two solid arguments is to present a third one.

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    4. that's coy of you... but i did just that.

      an argument re: the improbability of god doesn't depend on either of the two you've presented (life sucks, everything seems to work).

      as i wrote, the question of probability is broader than materialism. e.g., we might want to refer to anthropology, or study the history of this book called "the bible," or take note of archaeological records that might tell us something about what's at stake in certain narratives (e.g., were the walls of jericho razed? ...were there even walls?), or studying the pericopae to see if we can't tease out source material within a unified work (such as the book of isaiah). i could go on, indefinitely, because as aristotle noted straightforwardly, or hegel much more weirdly... when you want to understand a thing, it is advisable to consider as much as possible. rather than as little as possible.

      a fourth argument, just for the fun of mentioning it, would be kant's as best represented in the 1st critique. this argument is a priori in form, whereas neither of the two you claim to be the only "substantive" arguments are, and neither is the one i just regurgitated. in point of fact, i would offer that kant's argument, while it has been beautifully rejoined by theology, represents the single most powerful a priori argument in favor of atheism.

      friend, i'm just sayin'... i appreciate your take on the level of internet dialogue, but i think it's worth starting from humble premises when dealing with a subject that profound thinkers with way too much free time have spent millennial batting around.

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    5. How does the the "question of probability" being "broader than materialism" [whatever that might mean] have anything to do with the matter? In fact, I cannot discern a major or minor premise in your paragraph. How does the history of the Bible prove or disprove the existence of God? How does anthropology do so? How does the fact that authors have typically worked with source materials? How does "Isaiah was not written by a single man" conclude to "therefore, God does not exist"?

      As for the fourth, all the arguments of mathematics are a priori, that is, derived deductively from a set of axioms, and they are generally regarded as far more certain than other arguments. You do not explain how "this" argument [which?] being as a priori as Pythagoras' theorem means that God does not exist.

      The usual approach is to assume that God exists secundum argumentum and show that this assumption entails a contradiction, modus tollens. Probability cannot prove or disprove the existence of anything, only propose a likelihood given certain a priori models.

      But of course Hegel said that "logic" is for the little people, and brave, manly philosophers should embrace contradiction, holding A and not-A at the same time in the same respect. And Kant held that nothing could be known about the universe, only about our own thoughts. (He got that from Descartes and Hume, who were presumably existent only in his thoughts.) Since I was a math and science type, this all seemed like so much philosophical squid ink. Sure, by rejecting logic one also rejects God; but it's a rejection, not a proof. The snare being that one has rejected "proofs" a priori.

      [Nowadays], we start, with Kant, by asserting that there's no appeal to the real world to answer our questions about reality – it's all a game, we can't really know anything except how our own personal mind works, with the predictable result that our mind becomes the one sacred arbiter of TRVTH. Next, following Hegel, we disavow that logic has anything to do with anything – sure, it's a game mathematicians and computer programmers (and auto mechanics and plumbers) play – but what's that got to do with reality? with ME? *I* see the world as *I* see the world – and there's nothing you can do about it! To even try – like, say, by reasoning with you – is a fundamental violation of the unspoken rules that underlie this world-without-rules. And don't even think about pestering me about consistency – hobgoblins, and all that.

      If you believe that ideas matter, and want to live in a sane world, then Kant and Hegel are the enemy.
      -- Joseph Moore

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    6. my argument goes that materialism, by which we here mean the argument that principles of material investigation are adequate to the task of explaining experienced phenomena, may contribute towards the question of the probability of god's existence, but is neither necessary nor sufficient for determining that probability. in other words, while it's interesting to note that indeed we don't require miracles as a rubric for understanding the world, as materialism holds, a completely separate argument can be made by investigating the world itself. therefore, the investigation of evidence with an eye to determining the probability of god's existence is "broader" than materialism, and in fact, i would offer that such an investigation is a condition for the possibility of materialism making its case. you note that probability neither proves nor disproves, which i agree with, but if three inches of ice on the lake means i have a 50/50 chance of going through, i will hesitate before crossing. i believe that we can profoundly inform our notions of christian identity by exposing ourselves to as much relevant information as possible, rather than burying our heads in our respective dogmas – if, and only if, we’re curious. i happen to be.

      i'm not interested in disproving the existence of god, which is a fool's errand. primarily because faith is an opposite posture to curiosity and there's not much point in trying to change a person's considered opinion. the history of the bible doesn't prove anything, nor does anthropology, nor the composition of the bible -- and all taken together, nothing is proven. but we begin to understand, or stand under, the thing (faith in god) and, in my opinion, breathe life back into theology by being unafraid of asking questions. or anyway, that's a much more positive way of stating what i started with, which is that there is a third argument against the christian god in contrast to your claim that only two should be considered, and this argument is that the existence of a god as depicted in the bible is unlikely.

      e.g., re: anthropology, we might find it intriguing to note the familiar forms of jewish exilic literature, with its heavy emphasis on apocalyticism. this is an international corpus virtually unknown to laity and probably unstudied by the ordained of more conservative pedigrees. there are those stories that, for whatever reason, were jewish but not canonical, and then stories from syrian, persian, babylonian cultures (book of jubilees, baruch apocalypse enuma elish, et al). in this light the prophetic voices we know through the KJV (which itself is a fascinating moment in history, and looking into raises a whole host of questions on its own...) appear in a different light as works that were in relation to each other, and in relation also to other stories of oppression raised into icon and mythos, fueld by pathos. if we find that there are striking similarities between these works that antedate the jewish prophetic voice and clearly influenced it, which is exactly what we find, we might want to reconsider the meaning of revelation. similarly, the christian apotheosis story bears an astounding resemblance to stories preceding it from all over the eastern trading routes. this has been known to us for a very long time; it’s not a contrivance of modern scholarship. for instance, st. jerome responded to the situation by suggesting that the many texts christian narratives seem to be aping were in fact brought to earth by the devil to test the faithful. then there is the matter of church authority and the conciliar history, with its various atrocities and violence, all apparently guided by the holy spirit...

      (continued below)

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    7. principles of material investigation are adequate to the task of explaining experienced phenomena

      Or as St. Albertus Magnus put it in De vegetabilibus et plantis: "In studying nature we have not to inquire how God the Creator may, as He freely wills, use His creatures to work miracles and thereby show forth His power; we have rather to inquire what Nature with its immanent causes can naturally bring to pass." So methodological naturalism was used and endorsed by the medievals. How is this an argument against the existence of God? "I don't need G in order to do X" is not an argument against X, even if it were a true proposition. There are all sorts of things I don't need to know (or even believe) in order to bake a cake.
      + + +
      Faith is not the opposite of curiosity, given how curious faithful people have been. One need only mention Mendel and Lemaitre, whose discoveries underpin so much of modern science, to realize this. There is a video here that is worth viewing:http://brotherguy.livejournal.com/75560.html Br. Guy is the fellow who proposed that Europa might have liquid oceans under its ice.
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      if, and only if, we’re curious. i happen to be. ... i'm not interested in disproving the existence of god

      So on some things you are not curious. Yet you have produced a rather lengthy comment in three parts. Strange.
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      aquinas, about whom i will for the rest of my life be baffled at how catholics fawn over him

      Because he could "breathe life back into theology by being unafraid of asking questions." Several hundred of them, in fact.
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      the history of the bible doesn't prove anything, nor does anthropology, nor the composition of the bible -- and all taken together, nothing is proven.

      Then why bring them up as if they did?

      but we begin to understand...faith in god... or anyway, that's a much more positive way of stating what i started with, which is that there is a third argument against the christian god?

      So what was the third argument again, if it was not the history of the bible, anthropology, nor the composition of the bible? What are the major and minor premises and the form of the syllogism?
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      striking similarities between these works that antedate the jewish prophetic voice and clearly influenced it, which is exactly what we find, we might want to reconsider the meaning of revelation

      I am astonished to realize that ancient writers made use of the literary tropes and resources available to them. But what has the meaning of revelation to do with the proof of God's existence? Not only because a scant moment before you had written that the history of the bible doesn't prove anything, ... nor the composition of the bible but because such books can be regarded as inspired revelation only in light of a prior belief in God. It is only the atheist and sola scriptura Protestant who seem to get this backward.

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    8. Oops. Typo. "I don't need G in order to do X" is not an argument against X.
      should be
      "I don't need G in order to do X" is not an argument against G.

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  13. all of this just for starters, not even a thumbnail sketch of what i would bring to the table if i were interested in presenting here the full spectrum of evidence pertinent to the argument against the orthodox interpretation of the bible. but, as i wrote earlier, i’m not interested in doing that, at least not in this venue.

    so, in my opinion, that’s what the question of the probability of god’s existence has to do with an argument against, say, the majority view of the theological tradition, and i have difficulty seeing why anyone would consider it either padding or irrelevant. i can imagine any number of objections, but in my experience those scholars who are familiar with the particulars of the points i raise, whether religious or not, take these considerations seriously.

    i mean only to point out that you spoke hastily and carelessly in a post about the deteriorating quality of online discussion.

    as for kant representing a fourth unique argument against the existence of god, his position is, as i’m sure you know, a bit too complex to unravel in a paragraph. but to embrace irresponsibility: he’s interested in identifying possibility conditions for knowledge, which he approaches by way of identifying the possibility conditions for experience (he does not, as a matter of unarguable fact, believe we can only know our own thoughts – he is interested in what he calls synthetic judgments a priori, but i don’t think we should spend more of your blog real estate dancing around kant). he arrives at the conclusion that we can’t know anything that is not knowable in space and time (the organon of the aesthetic), which excludes god, therefore god is an unverifiable postulation. this is a special argument, because he doesn’t argue that god doesn’t exist, but strictly that we cannot know – so, in turn, he argues that we should live “as if” god exists. he also claims, in the 3rd critique, that science can’t proceed without the assumption that god exists (although this is poorly argued).

    so... you think it’s all a bunch of squid ink, and that doesn’t offend me because i have a similar opinion, although in my opinion it is a more interesting, higher quality ink than is spilled in main line theology (with some outstanding exceptions). it’s all playing with words, to include aquinas, about whom i will for the rest of my life be baffled at how catholics fawn over him.

    that quote by moore... those are the words of someone who is either selling an opinion easy on the ears, or who is himself uninformed, under-read. it’s juvenile and polemical. if you can’t understand something, making fun of it brings you some cheap resolution.

    but the big names, and the littler names, and even the “book keepers” – the scholars of all ages who read and interpreted the A, B, C, and D list thinkers – in both theology and philosophy have done a damn sight better at expressing themselves and asking questions than we do today.

    i think reducing atheism to two arguments worth consideration falls into the less-than-responsible camp. i have shown why i think that.

    and i’ll close with a quote as well, a line from a wendell berry poem, possibly my favorite of his poems, “better than any argument is to rise at dawn and pick dew-wet red berries in a cup.” no matter what you or i think, no matter how clever or RIGHT we think we are, over any issue, we can easily transcend our differences by spending time together. the considered words of the past will always surpass our cutthroat fast-paced contemporary exchanges, and likewise, if you and i were to have this same conversation over beers or coffee, and could see each other’s demeanor and face, it would be of a much better quality.

    and that is always... always going to be the case.

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    1. then there is the matter of church authority and the conciliar history, with its various atrocities and violence

      But the question is not the impeccability of the Church, not even Church officials. They might be as wicked as the Black Legend of the Protestants painted them, and it would not affect arguments whether or no God exists.
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      the full spectrum of evidence pertinent to the argument against the orthodox interpretation of the bible

      But the issue is arguments for/against the existence of God, not the Eastern Orthodox interpretation of the Bible.
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      i can imagine any number of objections

      You obviously believe you have stated some, but they seem to be objections to the Bible or the Church, not to God. One theorem at a time. In theology no less than in Euclid.
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      it’s all playing with words

      This is in line with Hegel's stance on logic.
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      i don't like ... the argument that "the church has done lots of bad things, and therefore no god"

      Which I guess is why you brought it up. My response would be that it is not an argument against the existence of God. The conclusion does not follow from the premise.
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      some would say that the councils are examples of the spirit manifesting god's revelation and will. others would say that that opinion requires willfully neglecting of the political context in which the councils were conducted.

      And still others would say that there is no contradiction between the two.

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  14. nota bene: i don't like either the argument that "the church has done lots of bad things, and therefore no god" nor the response "sure, the church technically did some bad things, but those people weren't actually the church. those were the mistakes of individuals." i'm getting hives just thinking about that particular back and forth, so i just wanted to re-emphasize the *conciliar* part of my remark about church history.

    some would say that the councils are examples of the spirit manifesting god's revelation and will. others would say that that opinion requires willfully neglecting of the political context in which the councils were conducted.

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  15. i find much disagreeable in what you wrote, and i feel misread, and i would bet you would offer the same if i were to respond point for point.

    the best i can do is offer that neither of us -- or i hope for both of our sake's that neither of us -- is expressing himself as best as possible above, and to acknowledge that this could go on for much longer... except that, again, if we ever happened to be in the same place it would be of a much higher quality, more humane, and fun to share these thoughts over a beer. it's perverse to hack at these matters without being able to laugh with one another.

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  16. I can't resist picking on one of your side comments:

    [In fact, all circular physical objects will have a rational ratio of C/d.]

    This is a category error. Physical measurements do not have precise values in R, so to ask if the ratio C/d is rational is to ask a meaningless question.

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    1. That is exactly why mathematical truths cannot be established by natural science.

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