WHERE DOES THAT WHOLE AFTERLIFE THING COME FROM, ANYWAY?
A long time ago when priests where trying to foist religion on people in order to live on the sweat of other men’s brows, they had to make their scam palatable to the suckers who were throwing money in the kitty. So they said righteous people (which they defined as those folks who followed their rules, including the rule on tithing) would always live to be a ripe old age, while the wicked people (which they defined as those folks who broke their rules, and failed to tithe) would always die early. There was a one-to-one correlation between sin and death. The wages of sin is death, the book says.
But real life intervened. The wicked rich tended to have access to better diets, so they lived longer, while the sinless poor lived nasty, short, brutish lives. Folks noticed this and begin to murmur. The priests had to think of something fast. So they came up with the concept of an immortal soul that survives the death of the body, and was judged and sent to either heaven or hell. After they did that, their narrative went, “Sure, okay, the wicked have all the good things in this life now, but when they die, they’ll be the ones who suffer, for all eternity and the poor obedient folks will have all the good things.” And people bought it! They still buy it.
Two men get drunk, then get in their cars and attempt to drive home. One of them blacks out and runs off the road to the right, where he sleeps it off in the ditch. The other one blacks out and runs off the road to the left, where he kills a pedestrian. Both men performed precisely the same actions, except that chance intervened in the latter case, making him culpable for manslaughter.
The lesson is that the world is a chaotic place where simple black and white moral rules like “Yer either with me or yer with Qaeda!” handed down from on high are not cut out to deal with it. Divine command theory is as ineffective as central planning proved to be in managing a nation’s economy. In reality, even morals and ethics are subject to the principle of the market, also known, in a biological context, as natural selection.
In places like Ireland, where the Catholic Church was the final moral authority for centuries, the people have risen up to strip the Church of power when the sexual abuse of their children by the very arbiters of that moral authority reached a tipping point. From time immemorial, neighbors have risen up to deal with wife abusers or cat burglars when the local constable refused to do anything about them. So instead of the “objective morality” that we are told exists somewhere out there in mindspace like the ratio pi, what we have really always had is nothing more than equilibrium morality.
If a claimant tries to use his desired outcome as a premise, he hasn’t made his case.
The number of people who believe in something has nothing to do with its truth value.
It is not valid to plea, “Einstein was a genius and he believed in God.”
If you ask, “have you stopped beating your wife?” you are really asking two questions (Do I beat my wife? That’s the first question).
General rules cannot always be validly applied to specific cases, and a few specific cases cannot be used to form a general rule.
Events which occur together in time (like taking an aspirin, praying to God, and being relieved of a headache) may not all be causally related.
THE ARGUMENT FOR FINE-TUNING, DETUNED
The argument from fine-tuning starts with the assumption that life as we know it requires a narrow band of conditions to be met (which is true enough), then works backward and shows how incredible it is that those conditions are indeed met.
But suppose the laws of regularity of succession in this universe were “tuned” to other values, such that the basic four elements required by life, CHON, did not form inside Population I stars. Well and good.
But who is to say a form a life could not evolve inside stars themselves, using nuclear chemistry rather than electron-based chemistry? If such life achieved the ability to think in abstract terms, and were of a religious bent, one can imagine some of them putting forth their own version of the fine-tuning argument.
So if the fine-tuning argument is taken to be a valid “proof” of the existence of God, this proof is unfalsifiable. In every case that life exists, the proof is put forth and God “wins”, but in every scenario where life does not exist, the case is moot.
THE CLASSIC CASE AGAINST GOD
LINUXGAL: Planning and “bringing about” things requires that God exists in the present like we do, at a certain point of time. There is a past, a present, and a future to a God who chooses and imagines. A being who experiences time divided in this way, from inside rather than outside, is not eternal.
BELIEVER: God is a spirit. God is not physical. He is not composed of atoms and energy.
LINUXGAL: If God is composed of something which cannot be detected by beings of atoms and energy, then it follows that God cannot influence beings of atoms and energy, nor can God himself detect atoms and energy. There is no interaction possible in either direction. The existence of such a God is indistinguishable from non-existence.
BELIEVER: God is omnipotent, almighty. God can do anything that can be done.
LINUXGAL: God cannot change what he knows he himself is destined to do, nor can he change what he has foreseen that I will do. If he can change it to a different outcome from what he saw, then he didn’t see it.
BELIEVER: God is all knowing, omniscient. God knows everything that can be known.
LINUXGAL: If God knows everything that he will do, then he cannot “plan” or “imagine” or “choose” as you assert above. He cannot be a personal God. He is forced to follow a script that he knows but cannot change one iota.
BELIEVER: God is everywhere at once, omnipresent. God is not localized in space. For all practical purposes, the claim that God can accurately perceive what is going on everywhere and can effectively intervene anywhere, is equivalent to the claim that God is everywhere.
LINUXGAL: If God is omnipresent, why did he have to “go down” to see what the human beings were building at Babel? Why did he ask Adam and Eve where they were hiding? How could Solomon write, “The LORD is far from the wicked but he heareth the prayer of the righteous.” ?
BELIEVER: God is perfectly good. God does not (or cannot) do that which is morally wrong.
LINUXGAL: God was either not powerful enough to stop Germany from killing six million of his Chosen People, or he “didn’t want to get involved”, which is not the choice of a perfectly good being.
BELIEVER: God never changes. God cannot learn from experience because he already knows everything. It is disputed whether God exists outside of time or for all time.
LINUXGAL: If God never changes, then he cannot know what time it is “now”. For in order to accept 5:57 pm as “now” one must have changed from accepting 5:56 pm as “now”. And if God doesn’t know what time it is when I, a contingent being in linear time do, then he is not omniscient.
THE ONTOLOGICAL ARGUMENT
The ontological argument for the existence of God proceeds as follows:
- God is defined as that being than which no greater can be conceived.
- The concept of God exists in the mind.
- A being that exists both in the mind and in reality is greater than a being that exists only in the mind.
- If God only exists in the mind, then we can conceive of a greater being which also exists in reality.
- We cannot imagine something that is greater than God, by definition (1).
- Therefore, God exists.
This argument relies on two instances where a sort of mental sleight-of-hand is performed. The first is in unit 3: A being that exists both in the mind and in reality is greater than a being that exists only in the mind. The scam that is being pulled here is a simple bait-and-switch, the argument has moved from the concept of God in the mind to a god that exists in the mind, and the following units stay with that. Both a philosopher and a child may have the concept of a god in their minds. The philosopher may apply advanced logic to that concept, the child might say, “God is stronger than a million billion trillion elephants!” but at no time is there an actual deity residing in either one of their minds, perfect or imperfect.
That by itself is sufficient to destroy the argument, but the following units are also subject to being discredited. Essentially, they are saying a god that exists in reality is greater than a god that exists in the mind, so he must exist in reality because we have defined god as the greatest being that can be conceived. This relies on the fallacy of accepting existence as an attribute.
The child I cited above might say, “I love my mom and dad because they gave life to me” but this is very sloppy reasoning. Before my conception there was no “me” to be given life or anything else. And even if it were possible for a god to actually reside in the mind rather than just a concept of a god, we cannot give a mental god the secondary attribute of physical reality any more than I can wish myself a chocolate world to live in.
The Unmoved Mover and the Mind-Body Problem
In the first unit of the Quinque viæ Aquinas argues for the existence of God on the basis that everything that moves, like a railroad car, must be put into motion by something else that moves, but we cannot have an infinite moving train of nothing but railroad cars because we need a locomotive at the front of the train to supply movement to the first car. And this locomotive all men call God.
(Okay, Aquinas lived in a time before trains, so he actually said “staff” and “hand” but you get the idea.)
At first the argument sounds convincing, but what it glosses over is that a locomotive is essentially just another railroad car, except that it is self-powered. It’s an unmoved mover. Yet we are told that God is wholly other than his creation. Specifically, we are told that God is a spirit. And further, we are told that spirit is pure intellect. And this leads to the rather obvious question of how that divine locomotive is actually coupled to the first railroad car.
If you think of how movement occurs on a pool table, your arm pushes a cue, the cue strikes a cue ball, the cue ball strikes other balls, the other balls strike the edge of the table, and so on. At every step of the way, something physical pushes against something else that is physical, resulting in a change. And if you see that your cue ball is about to fall into a pocket, resulting in a scratch, no amount of yelling or thinking bad thoughts will make that ball change its course one iota. This is the realm of the mind-body problem. How does a mind get traction on a body, and vice versa?
In a dualist scenario, it cannot. Only if the mind is considered to be the action of a physical brain, unifying the two at the deepest level, can the problem be resolved. Even if a spirit of God or man truly existed (something which is inherently unverifiable), the only thing available to it are its own thoughts. There’s no coupling in either direction between a spirit and the world. Creationists insist that we must teach intelligent design in public schools as science, but they cannot state, using physics or even metaphysics, the specific mechanism by which that intelligence interacts with reality.
So the only thing we have to go by is sacred Scripture, which tells us the LORD planted this garden, the LORD smelled that sweet savor, he has a face, he has back parts, and so on, all of this language suggesting that God has a body, written by folks who didn’t really think it through. You wanna believe it, fine, but keep your rosaries off of my ovaries.
THE TELEOLOGICAL ARGUMENT
A common strategy used by creationists is the teleological argument, or argument from design. In a nutshell, it says if we find something very complicated like a watch, we must infer a watch maker. If you shake a box full of watch parts for as long as you like, it will never assemble itself into a working timepiece. Since the universe is far more complicated than a watch, it must also have a designer, but one who is correspondingly greater.
The overall strategy lately involves a tactic called intelligent design, a Trojan horse crafted as an alternative to the modern synthesis of descent with variation (which creationists with typical imprecision term “Darwinism”) as it is currently taught in biology textbooks in public schools. The 2005 Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School decision sent the ID crowd back to the drawing board, but like Arnold Schwarzenegger you know they’ll be back.
Intelligent Design, in turn, rests on a key concept called irreducible complexity, which argues that key organs such as an eye, or a wing, are too optimal to have come about by random variations taken one step at a time. Returning to the watch analogy, and running it in reverse, imagine taking out a single gear from the mechanism. The watch will no longer function. Only if all the pieces are in place will it work. ID proponents argue that unless all the pieces of a wing are in place and working, the limb is worse than useless, because until it is fully assembled it represents an appendage that does nothing to promote the survival of the organism which possesses the proto-wing, and in fact hinders reproduction. I will show why this is misguided below.
Imagine there is a small river in the mountains marked by boulders and debris from falling trees. Now imagine that at one place a rolling stone finds a stable position on the left bank. That’s one mutation. Later, another rolling stone finds a stable position on the right bank opposite the first one. That’s the second mutation. Still later, a third rolling stone happens to settle in between the two . By a series of three single steps, completely random, we now have a useful “organ” in the form of a kind of primitive bridge. It is possible to cross the stream at that location by hopping along the three stones. Statistically, such an arrangement of three stones in a line, though rare, is bound to happen.
Now imagine that a log floating in the river reaches these three stones and becomes wedged against them. So we have two bridges existing side-by-side, but the log bridge is better than the stone bridge because people don’t have to risk their neck jumping from one stone to another. This is a mutation that results in an improvement to the “organ”. Travelers end up preferring the log to the stones, and their many crossings depress the ends of the log into the river bank, making it very secure.
Now imagine that the river flowing under the log washes the three stones away one after the other, leaving only the log. Many generations later, people come out and admire this Cadillac of a bridge and remark that it must have had a bridge maker. It couldn’t possibly have formed by chance, because even if one end of the log happened to wedge in a riverbank by chance, the other end would be bent by the stream and the whole log would have swept away. The bridge would be offered by proponents of the Intelligent Bridgemaker as an example of irreducible complexity, and yet, as was shown, the real history of the bridge was a series of single steps, made by nature entirely by chance, but reinforced by the improvements made to its fitness as a bridge.
HYDROGEN HYDROXIDE: THE ETERNAL COMPOUND
Nine times out of ten when Christians go after atheists, they use a variation of the Cosmological Argument, the second of the Five Ways put forward by Thomas Aquinas to demonstrate the existence of God, although their version of the “proof” is rarely of the same intellectual rigor. They might say, for example, “If there’s no God, where did all this come from?” A more precise formula might be given like this:
- The existence of every contingent being has an explanation.
- A chain of explanations that extends back to infinity has no originating explanation.
- Therefore, we postulate that a necessary being must exist.
It is not my intention in this post to critique the logic of this argument because that has already been done to death time and again. My focus is on the quality of the argument as an alternative to the current understanding of cosmology, because creationists push an agenda to teach this in our public schools qua science.
The argument is put forth as metaphysical justification for the act of creation ex nihilo, something from nothing, and yet the evidence from scripture demonstrates that only light was created in this way, not water. Genesis 1:1 says “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth” but this is clearly a sort of chapter heading, a summary of what is about to happen over the next few days, because the heaven, the firmament, is not created until the second day.
Genesis 1:2 says, “And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.” It doesn’t say that God created the water, for all we know the water is “co-eternal” with God!
Genesis 1:3 says, And God said, Let there be light: and there was light. Only at this point has God brought something into existence with a mere word. Both water and God have no explanation for their existence given in scripture. And yet Christians, with this bramble bush at the foot of their own divine text, are perfectly willing to attack atheists for holding that the universe itself has no explanation for its existence.
Moral relativism has been co-opted by the absolutists as a sort of strawman, much like the concept of “macroevolution”. There is no such thing as macroevolution, you see, only microevolution applied over millions of years, but its fun to put scientists on the spot by tossing the word macroevolution at them and making them defend it when they don’t even hold that position.
The same goes for “moral relativism” which absolutists critique using nothing but word salad while social Darwinism quietly takes over the mainstream discourse in the same way evolution inexorably displaced creationism. A more accurate name for equilibrium morality is moral naturalism: evolutionary game-theory applied to ethics.
Rather than interpreting morality as the result of negotiations between members of a large group of free moral agents, moral naturalism sees morality as an emergent phenomenon arising as an unintended side-effect of the interaction of those agents in smaller groups.
In other words, morality is not to solve a single problem but a number of recurring problems, in the same manner that natural selection adjusts populations of organisms for changing environmental conditions.
This puts moral facts in a class with natural facts about the world, which contradicts the assertion of divine command theory that morality is defined by the arbitrary revelation of God.
What does it mean for a cause to have no further explanation?
It means the cause is an anchor-point for a chain of subsequent cause and effect. It’s like a hook in the ceiling where you suspend a chain. The hook itself is not a link, but it provides the ability of the chain to bear weight (analogous to existence).
The principle of sufficient reason allows us to end there; but it doesn’t seem clear at all to me that this sort of answer can be applied in the case of free will choices.
The laws of biology are rooted in deeper laws of chemistry, and those laws are rooted in the deeper laws of quantum electrodynamics, which are a broken symmetry of a Grand Unified Theory, which in turn precipitated out of a Theory of Everything that includes quantum gravity, and so on, until you arrive at the most fundamental and basic laws which underpin all of reality and have no further explanation, other than (so the theists claim) they were selected by an intelligent will with sufficient power to impose them uniformly across the entire universe.
So theists postulate that God possesses a property called “free will” which is isolated from prior causes (otherwise it’s not free, by defintion). And in order to absolve God from being culpable for human sin, they in turn postulate that this supernatural property called free will was also given to human beings (and not other animals), but it was coupled with a limited power which goes along with being finite. Thus we are able to initiate certain sequences of cause and effect for which the ultimate responsibility lies solely with us, and cannot be laid at God’s door.
But if you say that the principle of sufficient reason does not apply to free will choices, then I must ask: on what grounds?
On the grounds of the dichotomy between materialism and the supernatural.
Limited to materialism, the principle of sufficient reason leads to an infinite regress of causes (or deeper and deeper explanations as outlined, which is a more subtle rabbit hole to follow). Thus we must postulate a supernatural (or metaphysical some would insist) intervention which rolls out necessarily by taking as an axiom that the will of a moral agent truly is free.
Moreover, does not the notion of choices as unexplained and uncaused causes put them into a position of metaphysical parity with God?
When God was described as having created man “in our image” he could not be speaking of his body, because God is a spirit. He must have been speaking of his mind. And it is said that God is free. So God must have created man’s mind to be free. But God only created man after his likeness, he did not reproduce himself and create little gods.
Our powers as human beings are limited to what we can sense and touch, with the exception, the scriptures tell us, that we can communicate with God in prayer and respond to the movement of his spirit.
Going even further, does this ontological entailment not imply, a fortiori, that the originators of free will choices have at least the same ontological standing with God as well?
Only over the consequences which roll down from our choices. Since God, it is written, was there at the beginning of all things, his choices at the beginning had a universal causal efficacy.
But then, what does it mean for people to be the originators of uncaused events? How can a free will choice be mine if it is, in fact, uncaused?
There are two classes of uncaused events, random events and first cause events. When I was a child (long, long ago), we played a card game called “War” where you split a card deck in half, and each player threw down a card one at a time, and whichever card was bigger won that “trick”. It grew boring because it was purely random, there was no way for the player to claim ownership of their play. So how to make it more interesting? Let the players look at their cards, and look at each other. They use their judgment to decide when to play the high cards or when to sacrifice the low cards.
That’s the secret to claiming ownership of a chain of causes: Intelligent decision-making based on an evaluation of consequences. And that, as the science of mind advances, may have a purely materialist explanation.