Well here we are. We’ve come a long, frustrating way to reach this point. If you were hoping the questions would improve, prepare to be disappointed. The good news is, a few of them started to get a little more interesting. Instead of just simple claims, like ‘You can’t be good without God,’ there were actually some substantive claims about prophecies. I’ve tried to smash those claims to bits while sticking to short, easily digestible answers. So, if anyone wants more info, just let me know in the comments. The series ends just as it began–with a really dumb question. Enjoy! Continue reading…
Whether it’s meant sincerely or is just pandering, it is commonplace for politicians to talk about prayer. For example, Newt Gingrich said the following during a Republican Presidential Primary debate on October 18, 2011:
How can I trust you with power if you don’t pray?
The general idea seems to be that prayer will provide some feedback that will lead you down the right path. This brings about some interesting dilemmas. I’ll just highlight a few. Continue reading…
In this installment of answering an apologist’s supposedly hard-hitting questions, the main focus is on topics related to morality. I’m not setting out to define and defend a comprehensive secular moral theory; rather, I just want to respond broadly to the questions to show they should not be considered worrisome. The real discussion needed for this would be pretty nuanced and the author of the questions hasn’t exactly demonstrated his appreciation for such things. The next installment will finish the series and will focus largely on the Bible and alleged prophecies. Continue reading…
Imagine you are a professor and you are renowned for your fairness. You have always upheld this as a central virtue because you teach a class that is of vital importance to the students. Your grading of the students in this particular class is highly correlated with their acceptance into top-tier graduate schools. As such, you take it very seriously that everyone has a fair chance and a level playing field. Your class eventually becomes so popular that you are given multiple sections of the same class to teach. As part of your effort to be fair, you make every reasonable attempt to provide the same level of instruction across different sections. We wouldn’t expect you to have everything be exactly the same, but we would expect it to be the same within reasonable limits. For example, class discussions might steer you in different directions, but you wouldn’t give one section a comprehensive study guide and not do the same for the other sections.
Reflect on this for a moment and see if you agree that it sounds plausible. What I specifically want to know is whether the professor’s attempt to provide very similar instruction across the board is a necessary condition of his/her being fair with respect to the students. If the professor did not make such an attempt, and consequently there were great discrepancies in instruction, then the professor would not be fair. Do you agree? If so, then there seems to be a compelling problem for many major religions. Continue reading…
Here is the next part in my series of responding to questions from a Christian apologist. This is a pretty short selection of questions, since I gave fairly long answers and linked to some external pieces as part of my answers. The focus in these two sections is basically on epistemic limitations. In fact, that seems to be a common theme in these questions where the author starts with a mistaken assumption about proof versus evidence. The author seems to think that questions not answered with complete certainty from naturalists is somehow a point for his brand of theism. Or perhaps he thinks that mere possibility is a worthwhile goal in these debates. For more on those, see my linked piece on the probability of naturalism.
1. Regarding the information encoded in DNA, if a supernatural transcendent Almighty God did not author it, what did? How do you know?
As I said in the section from Part 2 on Origins, Seven Clues to the Origin of Life by A.G. Cairns-Smith gives some ideas regarding the origin of self-replicating DNA. I don’t know with certainty how it came about, but of course neither do you, so there is no distinct advantage in asking that. I should also point out that several options would be available for “encoding” information into DNA (although we should note that the use of encoded might be question begging). Among these options, anything falling under the category of a natural explanation is a priori more probable than a supernatural explanation, as I have explained here (same link as above). These options include processes that do not involve intervention by a conscious creature and also options that include manipulation by some naturally occurring being.
2. Do you object to the notion of Intelligent Design because of your lack of religious values?
First, I don’t think “values” is the right word here. That doesn’t make any sense. Second, no, I object to intelligent design because of extremely strong evidence in favor of evolution and a lack of strong evidence to counter that position. Given our background knowledge that includes evidence of evolution, the prior probability of intelligent design is quite small and would need a very strong body of evidence to overcome the deficit.
1. Are there subjective or immaterial experiences and entities? How do you know?
If there is anything immaterial, it cannot be within our realm of existence and experience. This is deductively true. Entities that exist in any kind of place, like our realm of existence, must have spatial extension, meaning they must take up some amount of space. If something does not take up space, then it is logically necessary that it cannot be “here” or “there” or “anywhere” or “everywhere.” The same goes for experience. We understand how experiences happen, and they cannot happen without physical stimuli. Even something we might not think of as physical, like a thought, has a physical correspondent in the central nervous system. Unless you have solved the riddle that has existed for hundreds of years of how immaterial things interact with material things, this won’t be a very productive route to take.
Now, do I know that some kind of separate realm does not exist with the immaterial entities and experiences? No, of course not, but it wouldn’t matter to any of us since there can be no interaction between the two. That means neither of us could no or be in a privileged position (i.e., you are having these subjective experiences that give you access to it, but I am not).
2. In an all-material Universe, how do YOU account for the immaterial Laws of Logic, Science, Math, Morality and Uniformity of Nature?
First, I don’t see how introducing immaterial things into the universe resolves any philosophical issues about the nature of so-called laws. Second, you don’t need to reference anything with ontology to make sense of the laws of logic, etc. If I say A=A is necessarily true, that doesn’t mean I am committed to thinking the law of identity is an actual thing floating around out there in metaphysical space or something. The laws of logic and mathematics are based upon assumptions we make regarding what seems a priori necessary (we cannot conceive of it being otherwise), like 2+2=4 or the law of excluded middle. Then, we build upon those most basic assumptions and see what follows. Regarding the laws of science, I would say something similar. They are merely descriptions of regularities that seem to always hold, but are open to revision if new evidence arises. I have no idea what the laws of morality are supposed to be.
3. What or whom is your final reference point required to make facts and laws intelligible?
I’m still debating the merits between foundationalist and coherentist forms of epistemology. If I were to go the foundationalist route, then my body of knowledge would be built upon what seem like the most basic facts, similar to how I described building laws of logic and mathematics. There would be a set of things that Alvin Plantinga called intrinsic defeater-defeaters, like that I exist and that there is an external world that I can observe. That’s one direction to take, and I should make a note on that. Most theists also choose this route and make God their foundation for knowledge. Whether you choose God or something else, this option requires you to reach some point where you just have to beg the question. The foundation cannot be justified externally because it is the most basic thing you can determine is true. Theists will often claim this is a problem for someone like me because how do I KNOW that there is an external world, and so forth. Of course, they turn a blind eye to the fact that they are in the same boat regarding God. They cannot possibly KNOW that a god is not deceiving them any more than I cannot possibly know I am mistaken in my most basic starting assumptions and observations. This should be so obvious that it is ridiculous to argue otherwise, but people still try.
Now that I’ve said all that, I won’t go into explaining coherentism, but here’s a link. Among philosophers, coherentist theories are fairly popular. I don’t have a strong inclination toward one or the other right now, and I think skeptical lines of inquiry like this are often a ruse and a waste of time.
4. Is love material? Beauty? Consciousness? Logic? Reason? How are they empirically measured? How much does the number nine weigh?
I was tempted to just say this question doesn’t make sense and move on, but I do think there is something to say here. Love is a vague concept that we tend to use to describe emotional reactions. These emotional reactions (feelings) can, in principle, be empirically measured. The same goes for beauty. The main thing preventing this is the vague and ever-changing concept of what love and beauty actually are. I talked about logic and reason a bit above; they do not require any specific ontological claim in order to make sense.
I feel like I should also point out that not all atheists are materialists. So, even if we had really good arguments and/or evidence in favor of some sort of actual platonic existence for, say, numbers, it would not necessarily favor theism.
5. Where does thought come from? Is there a non-material mind that transcends the physical brain? How do you empirically know?
Pick any thought you like and it can be traced to something in your physical body. If there were an immaterial mind that is responsible for your thought, it could not interact with you or be present in this realm of existence, as discussed already. This leads to the very strange consequence of your belief that means you must think your mind is controlling your lifeless shell of a body from some other completely separate realm of existence, making your body like a character in a video game, without your knowledge.
6. Can you empirically observe your mind (not your brain)? If not, does it exist?
No, see previous answers. If it does, neither of us would have any way of knowing it.
Let me also point out that when you say things like “How do you know for sure?” or “Can you prove that it does not?” is not a very good strategy. When you hang your hat on things that are merely left over as possible, but do not have specific evidence in favor of their probability, then they will be a priori improbable. There are several ways the world could potentially be, but only one way the world actually is. On a small scale, you have things like what color shirt I might be wearing. There are several possible answers even to that simple question, but only one correct answer. Knowing nothing else at all, the probability that some random statement is a true representation of the world will be 1/n where n is some very large number. Using external means of justification and testing, correcting mistakes, etc. gives us a means of reducing the size of n. But in the case of an appeal to the possible, it does not have such support. It is merely given as a possible alternative. Because of this feature I’ve described, we want to seek out plausible or probable alternatives, rather than just possible ones. Since such cases are only presented as a possible state of the world without support from our background knowledge or evidence, it qualifies as ad hoc.
Today, I continue my series of answering an apologist’s supposedly hard-hitting questions for atheists. This segment will cover largely questions of science, especially evolution. Feel free to add your own thoughts in the comments. You can review Part 1 of this series here. Continue reading…