Apr 28

Free Will and Meaning

There is an apologist I know who continually uses an argument roughly like this:

If we are just pieces of meat responding to stimuli, how can there be any such thing as meaning or morality?

This sort of argument is common in apolgetics–both its content and its attempt to sweep a bunch of stuff under the rug to create a soundbite. Following my new quicker format that allows me to post more often, I’m going to provide some introductory points of how I would begin a response to this assertion.

1. The first thing I notice about this statement and that it takes no care to say what is intended by “meaning” and “morality.” When you dig into Christian definitions of those terms, they turn out to be either philosophically problematic or do not eliminate secular theories as viable options. That’s a pretty in-depth area, but I’m happy to discuss it more in the comments or future posts. A brief look into some thoughts on this discussion can be found here where I discuss my experience at an apologetics event as a panelist.

2. The second thing is that this description is intentionally under-descriptive of how naturalists would view humans. The first analogy that comes to mind is someone saying, “If that cheeseburger is just a bunch of atoms bumping into each other, then how can it be delicious.” This sort of “just” tactic is very common in these circles. But what about all of the other potential descriptions and how we would react to them? What if they rephrased it as, “If we are just parents reacting emotionally to the suffering of our children, how can there be an such thing as meaning or morality?” Well now the intuitive force is significantly diminished, even though this is a perfectly acceptable replacement for what they mean by “pieces of meat” and “stimuli.” They are just trying to gain points by giving an incredibly uncharitable description of the situation.

3. In addition to sweeping quite a lot of ethical philosophy under the rug they also sweep a lot of free will philosophy under the rug. Compatibilism is a very popular theory among philosophers who specialize in these arguments. To pretend any potential naturalist solution to the free will problem can be dismissed so simply is naive at best and disingenuous at worst.

4. Finally, embedded in this sort of argument is an assumption that Christian solutions to free will, meaning, and morality are good solutions to the philosophical problems surrounding these issues. I think if you look into the matter, you’ll find just as many (and maybe more) problems with those theories as the best secular solutions.

Feb 23

Jesus was not a Christian

Saying that Jesus was not a Christian seems so counterintuitive, but it’s a statement that I think is both true and very significant. Tell your average Christian this and they may say, “Well, he was a Jew at the time, but of course he prepared the way for everyone to be saved through Christianity so it represents things he believed.” Not so fast. Let’s consider a few problems.

1. The New Testament is largely devoted to the writings of Paul and a variety of known forgeries (I’m looking at you letters of Peter, and so on). None of these authors met Jesus. And the only author who met someone who met Jesus was Paul, but he tells us almost nothing about the life and teachings of Jesus. Christianity and its theology were created out of these other (largely forged or anonymous) writings to a large extent. We really only have two stories of Jesus—the one told by the three synoptic gospels and the somewhat different story told by John.

2. The information we do have about the teachings of Jesus does not indicate this whole other religion or much of a significant departure from Judaism of the time. Many of the sayings that are considered most likely to have actually originated from Jesus are not terribly different from other 1st century figures, like Hillel the Elder. And these others are still considered Jewish figures. The only way to make this connection to Christianity is to read more modern theology back into the teachings of Jesus. I don’t think a straightforward critical reading, as one would do in literary analysis that is not religiously charged, is very kind to this theological interpretation.

3. Jesus only seems to set himself apart from Judaism in a significant way in the Gospel of John. However, John is a very unreliable gospel and likely contains many fabrications to reflect the mood of the blossoming Christian church toward Jews at the time it was written. This is not just a matter of a different perspective of an eyewitness. The language and stories are completely different.

4. The irony continues when you consider what the religion of the disciples was like after Jesus. It was very different from modern Christianity and would likely consider many modern beliefs to be heresies. Yet, these were the people much closer to the actual teachings and life of Jesus. If you’re a Christian, it should make you very uncomfortable that the actual followers of Jesus did not share many of your religious beliefs.

So, Jesus was not a Christian. He was Jewish and did not provide much reason to think he wanted to start something different. This is backed up by his own actions, as far as we can really tell, and the actions of his direct followers. Modern Christianity is based on later cultural shifts, people who never met Jesus, and unreliable writings and forgeries.

Feb 20

Brief Comments on the Resurrection

It’s been difficult to post lately, so I’ve decided to focus on shorter posts and less on establishing philosophical rigor. That’s not to say the points won’t be valid. Rather, I just won’t be providing as much defense of each point and won’t be considering as many counterpoints.

I’d like to begin this effort by discussing an unusual argument. It’s unusual because apologists seem to love it and most others seem to think it’s absolutely ridiculous. I mean the argument on the historicity of the resurrection of Jesus. Apologists claim that based on several “facts” they can say with confidence that Jesus was actually raised from the dead and not just take it on faith.

Their argument is essentially as follows:
– New Testament scholars generally agree that a core set of things from the resurrection stories are probably true
– These things include the crucifixion of Jesus, the empty tomb, and the belief by the early church in the resurrection, among others.
– If these things are facts, then the best explanation of these facts is that Jesus was resurrected

Now just why do I think this argument is terrible? Let me list a few issues.

1. Their argument is generally structured as an argument to the best explanation. This tactic is often presented as detectives solving cold case crimes or presenting a case to a jury. Of course, detectives, lawyers, and juries aren’t exactly schooled in Bayes Theorem. What these arguments to the best explanations tend to do in Bayesian terms is ignore prior probability and only focus on the relationship between the evidence and the hypothesis. That’s only half of the battle, making their argument incomplete at best.

2. It turns out prior probability is quite important to consider. As I described in my post on Extraordinary Claims Really Do Require Extraordinary Evidence, it turns out that the prior probability tells us just how strong the evidence of one competing explanation needs to be compared to others. In a case like resurrection, it may be the case that the evidence we have needs to be 100,000,000,000 times more likely under the resurrection hypothesis than under all other hypotheses combined. That’s a pretty big problem for apologists. I would add that it’s even more important the further away from the event we get. In a case like this it’s even harder to assess the evidence, which means we may want to rely even more on the prior probability.

3. Calling these items facts is dubious. The overwhelming majority of New Testament scholars are Christians and went into the profession already being Christians. These scholars are also not as well trained as they should be in either methods of history or methods of probability. Mike Licona admitted this in his interview with Luke Muehlhauser. The methods of determining historicity by New Testament scholars includes problematic criteria, as discussed at length in Richard Carrier’s book On the Historicity of Jesus. The methods of determining probability are basically non-existent. So excuse me if I’m not particularly moved by surveys of New Testament scholars.

So, we have dubious facts that, even if true, don’t make it probable that Jesus was resurrected.

Feb 25

Christian and Atheist Round Table Discussion and Q&A: Morality – Part 1

There are generally two types of philosophical discussions concerning morality. There are conversations about normative ethics, which concerns what we should do in various situations. These are the types of conversations about morality most people have. For example, if an angry mob is threatening to destroy a town if you don’t turn over a suspected criminal, but you know the suspect is actually innocent, what should you do—save the town or the one innocent man?

Then, there are conversations about metaethics. This was the topic of most of the panel discussion. Metaethics is an extremely broad, complex subject matter. You might see the following questions in a course on metaethics (from the SEP):

  • Is morality more a matter of taste than truth?
  • Are moral standards culturally relative?
  • Are there moral facts?
  • If there are moral facts, what is their origin?
  • How is it that they set an appropriate standard for our behavior? How might moral facts be related to other facts (about psychology, happiness, human conventions…)?
  • And how do we learn about the moral facts, if there are any?

Due to this difficult range of questions, I tend to avoid these discussions and, true to form, didn’t say much during this part of the Q&A. It’s just too hard to get everyone on the same page in a short amount of time. However, I would like to give some introductory thoughts on metaethics here as they relate to the claims made by apologists. In particular, I am going to attempt to show the advantage claimed by religious ethicists in this area is overstated.

In Part I, I will present the claims made by the Christian panelists and address the first claim—that secular ethics may lead to things like the Holocaust. In Part II, I will develop two ways of thinking about secular metaethics and compare them to Divine Command Theory, a popular Christian metaethical view.

Claims by the Christian Panelists

On the Christian side, I noted two claims. First, there was the claim that secularism (Darwinism) can lead to great tragedies, like the holocaust. Thus, it is less desirable because of its negative entailments. Second, it was claimed that atheists cannot account for a foundation for objective morality without God.

Just as I noted in the discussion of purpose, these are cost-based arguments. They aren’t providing an argument for the truth of the Christian view. Rather, they are hoping you will see something undesirable in the atheist view and be compelled to avoid it. As such, we could ignore them, but I actually find the claims very misleading so I’d like to address them.

Atheism and the Holocaust

I was honestly disappointed to hear this point brought up in the discussion. Hitler is used much too often when criticizing an opponent. I visited Dachau recently. I walked through the entrance to the camp where the wrought iron gate disingenuously proclaims, “ARBEIT MACHT FREI”. I walked into a room and suddenly realized I was standing in a gas chamber designed to look like a shower where many people probably died. And in the next room was a row of ovens. At no time during this depressing journey did I see anything that would be rationally entailed by my ethical views.

I think anyone who takes an honest look at the Holocaust and secular ethical theories will find the same thing. The actions of Hitler and his officers were many and varied and cannot be so easily distilled. Was part of Hitler’s plan to create artificial selection pressures to attempt to impact evolution? Sure. Does this have any implication on a discussion about the foundation of secular ethics? No. Put simply, recognizing a biological state of affairs, like evolution through natural selection, does not entail that we ought to emulate or attempt to emulate that state of affairs in society. On the contrary, ethical theories tend to argue strongly against such a selection pressure. This really should be obvious. It doesn’t require you to argue about who has killed more people and what their religious views may have been because the argument is just obviously invalid and simple to dismiss.

The only view that would rightly be a target of this Holocaust critique would be one that actively encourages trying to create artificial selection pressures to kill off the worst adaptations. I don’t know of any modern secular philosopher who suggests such a thing. So, at whom is this threat of a looming second Holocaust aimed? What view entails this? It isn’t at any secular ethical system with standing. No, I think this is clearly just a tactic to associate evolution with Hitler with no care given to the obvious equivocation between recognizing biological selection and promoting social selection.

Seeking a Secular Foundation for Morality

The second point was the more crucial point of the discussion. That will be my topic in Part II when I try to answer whether a secular approach is inferior to a religious approach at grounding morality. I think this discussion will show that God isn’t as superior of a source for grounding morality as people seem to assume and also that a secular framework can provide something roughly as good, if not better.


Oct 25

Christian and Atheist Round Table Discussion and Q&A: Morality – Part 2

In Part I, I discussed the idea that atheism leads to tragedies, like the Holocaust. I explained why this was absurd, but I wanted to save a discussion of metaethics for a separate post. I had originally intended for this post to be a tour de force of my thoughts on ethics and theism, but I have settled on providing an overview of the topic. Like the rest of this series, there is more to be said than what I provide here, but I think my outline of the problem will better prepare us for a real discussion of the issues than how it was presented by the Christian panelists and how they present it to their apologetics students.

In Part II, I want to establish four points:

1. Many criticisms of secular morality are not as important as they might initially seem.
2. Even if you still want to maintain that these criticisms are important, the same criticisms can be leveled against Christian morality.
3. Since the basic criticisms are not enough, Christians will try to offer ways in which their morality can still be superior. However, these are not successful differentiators.
4. Finally, there might be some ways in which secular morality is actually the superior option.

My aim here will not be to present a case for or against whether moral claims are actually facts. I merely want to show at this point that there is no advantage inherent to theism in the realm of metaethics.

What are some criticisms of secular morality?
You will often hear the idea that secular morality cannot tell you why anything is really wrong. It can at best provide you subjective theories or culturally relative theories. These might explain why, in a given context, something is viewed as wrong, but they will say there is no legitimate foundation upon which you can base that opinion or derive an obligation to anyone but yourself.

Now, I consider that initial criticism to be pretty superficial. It basically assumes that everyone who is an atheist ought to be a moral anti-realist who deny there are any moral facts. However, this is denied by most philosophers, including several prominent Christian ones. Furthermore, many atheists, especially those working in ethical theory, are realists. If atheism cannot account for moral facts, as the theist here would lead you to believe, then why should this be? Apologists would have you believe they should all be nihilists or else they are just deluded.

Anyone who has much knowledge of metaethics can bring up any one of several theories, which do provide an account of moral facts and are not necessarily subjective or culturally relative. For example, contractualist views, like that of T.M. Scanlon, tend to argue that we can derive values and duties from reasons. I personally find this proposal very appealing, and can appreciate revising some of our moral language into discussions of reasons. And there are many other secular views that proceed from some foundation and derive facts, values, duties, and the like from that base set of assumptions or foundation.

Herein lies the popular criticism that I’ve heard in every single conversation I’ve ever had with a theist on this subject that is intended to destroy all such theories. You cannot derive an ought from an is. Just because something is the case, does not mean it ought to be the case. As such, these attempts to proceed from a basic set of assumptions can only describe what is the case. It then requires committing a basic fallacy to make the leap to what ought to be the case. Once you get down to this foundation, you are forced to beg the question in order to get the desired result.

I think this criticism is absolutely true. Knowing that, you might wonder why I don’t think it defeats all hope for moral realism.

Is this criticism really important?
Let me start by discussing an issue in another area of philosophy. There is a longstanding problem in epistemology, called the Skeptical Problem. In short, you might possibly be a brain in a vat imagining your experiences or the victim of an evil genius tricking you or a programmer’s creation in a simulation. In such cases, your imagined perceptions and knowledge would really be false. Since these scenarios are possible, even something as simple as, “I know I have hands,” is really a false statement if we are being strict about what counts as knowledge. You may think you know it, but you don’t really know it. 

This problem cannot be resolved. Popular attempts, such as Keith DeRose’s contextualist response, may offer some salient points that are relevant to epistemology, but they do not actually get rid of the skeptical problem. They merely beg the question against it, so they can insert assumptions that make the problem go away or minimize it. Even though this is the case, no one really makes a stink about it because it’s all we really have. You take the lessons you can from things like the skeptical problem or Hume’s point about induction, and you move on just doing the best you can. This really isn’t a big deal because you realize that, if knowledge were represented on a number scale, just saying that you can’t really have a 0 or a 10 does not make it the case that nothing falls in between. No, you still have differing levels of justified beliefs and some are still better than others. In other words, not being able to have complete certainty doesn’t just rob everything else of value. Almost everyone accepts this.

Now, let’s turn back to secular foundations of morality. I don’t see why we shouldn’t treat it roughly the same way. So what if we have to admit that at some point we reach a foundation and we have to beg the question at that point? If you are willing to accept that you know you have hands, despite the skeptical problem, then you are just committing a double standard by saying we can accept no such thing in metaethics. It turns out to be pretty common to use foundational assumptions as a starting point to get us off the ground, even in areas that are popularly considered beyond reproach, like mathematics.

Christianity must also beg the question.
Here is the real kicker, I think, for all those touting the is-ought distinction. Every single attempt to provide a moral foundation must beg the question and commit this problem, including Christianity. You see, Christianity also reaches a foundation once you get to God’s nature or desires or commands, etc. We can then rightly ask the question, “Why are these good?” And there is no possible answer that does not beg the question in favor of the Christian.

At this point, the Christian is forced to accept that they also beg the question, so the discussion then turns to whether one foundation is better than another. Here are two reasons I have heard given for why God is a better foundation than what is offered by secular morality: Objectivity and a non-human source.

Does Christianity effectively differentiate its foundation from secular options?
Theists, like William Lane Craig, will say that objectivity means an action is still right or wrong regardless of whether anyone (really meaning any human) believes it is right or wrong. This definition of objective is a bit narrow, in my opinion, probably because theistic morality is inherently subjective. It is based on the opinions or attitudes of God. But we can still work within that framework just fine.

Objectivity, as defined by them, could be provided very easily by the contractualist theory I mentioned earlier because it is based on reason. If we all got brainwashed tomorrow into thinking that various logical truths were actually false, that wouldn’t really change what was truly reasonable to believe. The truth value of propositions is independent of what we believe. We just either correctly discover them or we do not. Everyone in the world believing that 2+2=5 doesn’t make it actually true. For the same reasons, I would also say its source is non-human. We are not really deciding what is or is not reasonable.

Or, if you don’t like that option, consider secular non-naturalist theories, such as those defended by Erik Wielenberg or Derek Parfit. These assert that there are brute moral facts and, as such, its defense will be remarkably similar to a theist’s defense of God-based morality. This makes it quite difficult for the theist to attack. For the purpose of this discussion, it should suffice to just say that these theories are unquestionably objective and non-human, as the terms are meant by theist critics.

Does that mean Christian and secular theories are on equal footing?
I think what I’ve said so far shows that secular theories are inherently no worse than Christian theories. But we might even be able to make a stronger statement than that. While I don’t see any clear advantages for Christian moral theories, I do see some very clear disadvantages.

Divine Command Theory, for example, faces at least the following roadblocks:

It depends on the existence of God and all the difficulties entailed by that.
– In the PhilPapers survey, only 14.6% of philosophers said they accept or lean toward theism.

It generally also coincides with a belief in Libertarian Free Will.
– In the same PhilPapers survey, only 13.7% of philosophers said they accept or lean toward this.

Most philosophers, as far as I know, don’t think Divine Command Theory is a viable option because of some very serious criticisms. These go beyond Plato, even though I don’t think Adams or any modern philosophers have actually escaped the underlying criticism of the Euthyphro Dilemma.
– For example, consider the following critiques from Stephen Maitzen and Jeremy Koons.

It faces serious difficulties in the area of moral epistemology. While this doesn’t make it false, it means that even if it were true, we’d have a hell of a time discovering what moral truths were the correct ones. It is difficult to decide what God is really commanding or desiring. Consider the following two problems:
– What can a theist say to someone who sincerely believes that God has told them to harm someone else? You might call this the Abraham problem.
– It is hard to explain why you should intervene if you happen upon tragedies that would not otherwise be stopped. In some sense, you are interfering with what God was either doing or allowing to happen.

It is difficult to reconcile with our deepest moral intuitions.
– Here is another excellent article on this subject from Maitzen.

I think it’s pretty clear the brunt of common Christian criticisms of secular morality relies on atheism entailing moral anti realism. However, this has not been established and most philosophers would disagree with that characterization. Furthermore, secular forms of moral realism (theories that do say there are such things as moral facts) are not subject to any weaknesses that do not also affect theistic forms. Likewise, the strengths Christian theories attribute to themselves are by no means unique. Finally, there still remain some serious difficulties with theistic theories, like Divine Command Theory.

I recognize I moved through each point fairly quickly, but this should give you an idea of why I’m not overly concerned with the points brought up from the apologists on the panel or by commenters associated with that group since then. Their claims are either easily overcome or are just as much a problem for their own theories.

A Way Forward
It should be noted that to ground an ethical claim is merely to provide some standard by which it can be judged true or false. For example, there are foundational rules of mathematics that provide a framework we can use to determine whether “12*12 = 144” is a true or false statement. Those foundational rules ground mathematical claims. Similarly, there are rules of language, definitions of color, etc. that allow us to judge whether statements like, “I am wearing a red shirt today,” are true or false. To evaluate that statement we have to know what the words mean, understand how sentences are composed, etc.

One of the discussions in metaethics is whether there is any such framework by which ethical claims can be judged. If an ethical claim can be grounded, then it can be called a moral fact because it can be judged true or false against some standard. This is important to determine because, if morality is just a matter of opinion, like whether something tastes good, then it cannot be true or false. A matter of taste is grounded in a subjective opinion. Instead, we want to look for an objective grounding.

I have discussed some options for foundations by which we might judge moral statements true or false. The important point to remember for any discussion moving on from here is that these metaethical theories will succeed or fail based on their individual merits, not based on some inherent flaw that will exist in virtue of not mentioning God anywhere.

Oct 14

Christian and Atheist Round Table Discussion and Q&A: Purpose

A few days ago, I discussed the roundtable discussion and Q&A with local Christian and atheist speakers. I recapped some general thoughts and provided some further arguments pertaining to the origins discussion. Today, I want to discuss the next topic—purpose. I don’t recall any substantial arguments offered from the theists that required rebuttal. So, I’ll simply mention a few points that were made and discuss some general observations about purpose in these arguments.


Arguments about atheists and purpose tend to be cost-based arguments. They present some cost you wouldn’t want to lose, if you can help it, and then say atheism will make you lose it. I’m not a fan of cost-based arguments because they don’t concern what is true, but what we want to be true. That’s enough in my mind to not spend too much time covering it. However, I will still touch on a few points.

Given what I’ve just said about cost-based arguments, these are generally used by apologists merely because they are effective at creating an emotional response. People are susceptible to feeling hopeless sometimes or to fearing death. I’ll take my cue from John Danaher and offer this quote from Macbeth as an example of a very human reaction:

“She should have died hereafter. There would have been a time for such a word. Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow, creeps in this petty pace from day to day to the last syllable of recorded time, and all our yesterdays have lighted fools the way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle! Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage and then is heard no more. It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”

Apologists will say that atheism doesn’t have any way to answer such sorrow or hopelessness because it doesn’t give you any ultimate purpose in life, but theism does. The first thing to note is that it’s not clear theism provides any advantage in making people feel better about tragedy or fear of death. Plenty of religious people commit suicide, cry for lost loved ones, or experience great fear and uncertainty at the end of their own lives. You might even say Jesus experienced something like this when he was close to death.

The second thing to note is to be wary of attempts to conflate having no cosmic or everlasting purpose with having no purpose at all. Purpose, I think we can safely say, is derived from reasons for action. Such reasons might be caring for a child that needs your help, feeding yourself to stay alive, putting gas in your car when it is low, reading because you enjoy it, working to pay for things you want, or perhaps a God demanding obedience to some law. Clearly, reasons for action exist for both atheists and theists. Theists ought to admit this because they don’t want to say their only purposeful actions are those derived from God’s commands. Rather, I think it’s fair to say they think we can distinguish between ordinary purpose (OP) and cosmic purpose (CP).

Now, we ought to ask, “What are the crucial differences between OP and CP and is it important?” There seem to be two. First, according to the theist, the commands in CP come from a being capable of issuing ‘ought’ sorts of commands. I will save this for next time when I recap the morality discussion. Second, the commands in CP are everlasting through space and time. Consider this common phrasing of the problem from William Lane Craig:

“If God does not exist, life is ultimately meaningless. If your life is doomed to end in death, then ultimately it does not matter how you live. In the end it makes no ultimate difference whether you existed or not. Sure, your life might have a relative significance in that you influenced others or affected the course of history. But ultimately mankind is doomed to perish in the heat death of the universe. Ultimately it makes no difference who you are or what you do. Your life is inconsequential.”

The claims here tend to make me say either “So what?” or “you’re exaggerating.” Who cares if the universe ends in a heat death? Imagine you wake up tomorrow to some new scientific discovery that says the universe will just continue on forever. Does that make any difference to you? I would suggest it does not make our purposes any more valuable, even if you add in that some being will exist through all time that will remember what I’ve done. I don’t particularly care what will happen 30 billion years from now. My concerns are more immediate than that and don’t have any aspirations to become eternal.

Nothing has ever been done by theists to show that this eternal aspect is necessary for purpose. All they do is make exaggerated statements about inconsequential lives or hopelessness. Again, this is a cost-based argument. Nothing is really being shown here. Craig and others just hope you’ll find this depressing. I don’t find it depressing because I don’t think my life is inconsequential. The sorts of consequences and hopes I care about don’t happen in a magical cosmic realm and they don’t happen tens of billions of years hence. This difference between OP and CP simply does not seem to matter. I suppose the only way the difference between OP and CP would matter to me is if I really did have to live forever in a Heaven or Hell. But this argument from purpose doesn’t even attempt to establish that such a future realm really exists. Nor do I think it can be done.

Oct 11

Christian and Atheist Round Table Discussion and Q&A: Origins

Last night, I took part in an open panel discussion between Christians and atheists. This was an event organized by Faith Ascent Ministries, which teaches apologetics to teens. It was billed as an opportunity for those kids, their parents, and anyone else interested to come and ask questions, hear answers from both atheists and Christians, and actually get to meet some atheists in the flesh. That’s a goal I can wholeheartedly support, so I was happy to be there. When studies show that religious people distrust atheists as much as rapists, something has gone wrong. There clearly is a need for us to come together, help foster understanding, and dispel popular misconceptions. I tried my hardest to be engaging (even though anyone who knows me will recognize I’m really a curmudgeon at heart), and I felt like I was warmly received and that the Christians genuinely appreciated what I had to say. They even laughed at my jokes, so now I can prove to my wife that someone other than my 3-year-old thinks I’m funny!

I was on the atheist side of the panel, of course, along with a fellow graduate student in philosophy and a law student. We were like Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. The three Christians were a Professor of Modern Christianity at St. Louis University, an apologist trained at Biola University, and a member of the Concerned Women for America. The audience appeared to be mostly Christian, but not entirely. The moderator was also Christian, but I don’t think he acted in a way that favored any one side. This was not set up as a debate, even though we engaged in quite a bit of point-counterpoint. Instead, it was arranged as a discussion around four categories, each handled in turn, and after we kicked off our initial thoughts in each category it was open to the audience to ask follow-up questions. The four topics of discussion were origins, purpose, morality, and the best arguments for/against theism. I want to use this forum as an opportunity to merely provide some closing thoughts on each area because we were all trying to allow everyone time to speak and this naturally leaves a lot of points on the table. This time I’ll discuss cosmic origins and I’ll use later posts to recap the other areas.

Origins Overview

My side of the panel had discussed in advance that I would tackle the issue of cosmic origins and the other two would focus on biological origins. I presented the overview of my stance on cosmic origins as follows:

  1. Narrow naturalism is a view that is incredibly well justified. This is basically the view that for any given event—someone getting sick, a car running out of gas, a planet orbiting a star—it is overwhelmingly likely that event has a natural explanation. No one thinks their car ran out of gas because it was siphoned out by a demon.
  2. Barring any special reasons for making an exception, this narrow naturalism will apply to any given event in the natural world.
  3. It is claimed by theists that some events do have special reasons for making an exception. One example would be cosmic origins. Two examples of special reasons they might propose would be the Kalam Cosmological Argument and the Fine Tuning Argument.
  4. I find both arguments problematic.
  5. Therefore, I maintain that even without a precise explanation for our cosmic origins, I am still justified in maintaining that it probably has a naturalistic explanation.

Now, sure enough issues relevant to both Kalam and Fine Tuning were presented by the other side. However, I went first and didn’t have a chance to respond to specifically why I find both arguments problematic. I’ll offer a few of those reasons here.

Fine Tuning Argument

There are variations on the fine tuning argument, including setting the problem up as a Bayesian inference (most popular), an appeal to the best explanation, or an appeal to likelihood (this is like being a Bayesian without accounting for prior probability). Whatever form it takes, the argument seems most persuasive to people when it is portrayed as a situation in which the various constants and parameters of our universe are unlikely to have occurred on their own. They are, in other words, improbable given naturalism.

I’m going to offer what I think is the strongest one of several options that might undercut this argument. Let’s take a specific example to help illustrate the problem here. If the strong nuclear force differed by a significant amount, then atoms would not be able to stay together and instead of ‘things’ being able to form as we know them, the universe would likely be composed of some kind of atomic soup.

When you look at this problem, you might notice that the formal conditions for even speaking of probability are not met. What are the possible ranges these parameters could have taken? We don’t have a sample space defined! If you think about probability in its simplest form, the sample space is the denominator. The chance of rolling a 5 on a fair six-sided die is 1/6. The 6 represents the total number of possible outcomes. This is basically found by adding the one option (from the numerator) that affirms what we want—rolling a 5—to the disconfirming options that would give us a different result—rolling a 1, 2, 3, 4, or 6. We are being told that we need to have rolled a 5 for the universe to exist, but not being told how many sides there are to the die.

Consider the following quote from physicist Paul Davies in The Mind of God:

“The problem is that there is no natural way to quantify the intrinsic probability of the known coincidences. […] If the range is infinite, then any finite range of values might be considered to have zero probability.”

Since we don’t have a sample space adequately defined, we are left with trying to use logical possibility as the way to determine the other possible options. Using logical possibility means we are considering every real number an option, which is infinite.

This is what Evangelical husband and wife Christian philosophers Tim and Lydia McGrew, along with Eric Vestrup, call the Normalizability Problem. As Davies said, standard probability theory gives a probability of zero when in relation to an infinite reference class. This means, as the McGrews and Vestrup pointed out, that a coarsely tuned universe is no more probable than a finely tuned one. That is certainly not what the proponents of fine tuning want to say. Davies continues:

“This is surely a reductio ad absurdum of the whole argument. What is needed is some sort of metatheory […] that supplies a well-defined probability for any given range of parameter values. No such metatheory is available, or has to my knowledge ever been proposed.”

So, we actually cannot say that the parameters as they are today are improbable given naturalism.

Kalam Cosmological Argument

The Kalam, as defended by William Lane Craig and others, was the second potential opportunity to establish special considerations for something like the Big Bang. We didn’t get into this much, but one person on the Christian side did claim on multiple occasions that the past could not be actually infinite (part of the second premise of the Kalam). My response to this would have been too long, so I’ve saved it for the blog.

The support for the claim that the past could not have been actually infinite comes in two flavors—conceptual and scientific. I’ll cover two arguments under each heading.

Conceptual Arguments against Infinity

The first type of conceptual argument is usually an updated version of Galileo’s Paradox.

Imagine two infinite multitudes. One is the set of all numbers and the other is only the set of numbers that are squares.

C : 1, 2, 3 …

C’: 1, 4, 9 …

Of course, not all numbers are squares, so it is tempting to say that there should be more numbers as a whole than numbers that are squares. Yet, these two multitudes have a 1:1 correspondence even though C’ would be a proper submultitude of C.

This is claimed by some to be a reductio of actually infinite multitudes. However, it’s not actually clear that should be our response. The problem as stated so far doesn’t contain any issue worthy of such a claim. It’s only when we bring in two assumed principles about multitudes that the reductio takes shape. These are (from Logic and Theism):

(i) There are not more things in Multitude M than in Multitude M’, if there is a 1:1 correspondence.

(ii) There are more things in M than in M’, if M’ is a proper submultitude of M.

This is important in determining the solution to the paradox because it shows you some options. You can reject one or the other or you can simply say neither of these principles of multitudes should carry over to a discussion of infinite multitudes. This was Galileo’s own solution:

“We cannot speak of infinite quantities as being the greater than or less than or equal to another.”

Galileo’s response to his own paradox was to say that we incorrectly want our assumptions about finite multitudes to carry over to infinite multitudes, but perhaps that is a mistake.

Another route would be that of Georg Cantor. His route was to hold onto (i) while restricting the condition of proper submultiplicity to finite multiples. This allows you to still compare infinite multitudes.

There are other responses, as well, but you get the idea. It is not obvious or straightforward that this is a reductio.

The second type of conceptual argument intends to convey that it is impossible to traverse an actual infinite, meaning we would never reach now from an infinite past. This may be phrased as knocking over an infinite set of dominoes, trying to fill an infinitely large hole with dirt, or trying to successively add numbers to reach infinity. People often find these examples very persuasive, but I maintain these intuition pumps are only working because they are flawed analogies. Quentin Smith pointed out several of the ways in which these are flawed in his paper Infinity and the Past. One point by Smith was the following (aleph-0 is just a way of talking about an infinite set):

“Aleph-0 events could have occurred before the present event such that no one of these events is separated by aleph-0 events.”

And you might be surprised to hear that Aquinas agreed with that assessment in his discussion of the Five Ways:

“Passage is always understood as being from term to term. Whatever bygone day we choose, from it to the present day there is a finite number of days which can be traversed.”

For further reading, you can also read two critiques by Christian philosopher Wes Morriston along similar lines here and here. Again, there isn’t an apparent problem, as far as I can tell.

Scientific Arguments against Infinity

Contrary to what some say, it is not scientifically accepted that the universe must be finite in time. For example, I emailed Caltech physicist Sean Carroll (unrelated to this post) to ask his opinion on certain aspects of the Kalam, since he is one of the leading scientists working on theories of time and is also well versed in the philosophy of time. He had this to say:

“I don’t think a lot of these concepts are very grounded in things we understand about the universe. For one thing, there’s no reason at all to doubt that actual infinities are possible.”

But we are often told the Big Bang is scientific evidence of a beginning to both space and time. Further, we are told this is what physicists believe. In my opinion, that’s problematic for at least a few reasons:

  • There is no accepted theory that actually takes us back to the Big Bang itself. That’s because General Relativity breaks down on certain scales. So, the implication of our expanding universe and standard general relativity is that the observable universe was once confined to a smaller, denser, hotter space. Anything more will require argument and evidence.
  • Many of those theories that actually take us to the “bang” seem to take us through the Big Bang singularity (or whatever it actually is) and onto the other side, according to the mathematics, meaning something existed prior to it (that is my interpretation of M-Theory, for example, but I welcome any correction as this is not my main area).
  • As theoretical physicist Brian Greene shows in The Hidden Reality, we actually reach a “many worlds” conclusion through several independent branches. They aren’t all identical, but many of them are and they all at least point to aspects of existence beyond our perception. In other words, the multiverse is not simply an ad hoc reply to certain philosophical problems. It really is entailed in a number of ways. What matters is whether one of the theories entailing them is correct.

I believe the vast majority of physicists would take no issue with what I’ve said here and, in fact, do not currently maintain strongly that space and time began at the Big Bang. I think Craig also realizes that appeals to the Big Bang have now become problematic. That is why he now refers to the Borde-Guth-Vilenkin Theorem as evidence instead. As I understand it, the BGV Theorem is supposed to show that a first singularity is implied by the theory of inflation. Now, going down that path is going to get very complicated, very quickly. Just look over the linked paper and see if you grasp the equations. The vast majority of us do not have a sufficient background in either cosmology or mathematics to understand and evaluate the argument properly, much less its further implications. This means the apologists presenting these arguments don’t really understand them. They are simply parroting William Lane Craig. Actual physicists, like Sean Carroll, are hesitant with what we should conclude from the BGV Theorem and inflation in general, and that’s enough to know that the evidence is not rock solid proof, as Craig would have you believe. His case hides a lot of assumptions in physics and cosmology that are contentious.

So, Big Bang cosmology and the BGV Theorem do not necessarily lead us to conclude the past must have been finite.

Closing Thoughts

So, I’ve covered two very popular arguments about cosmic origins and given reasons why I doubt their claims. We cannot really make a probabilistic case for fine tuning and we cannot say with any confidence scientifically or philosophically that actual infinites are impossible. If I bring it back to my initial overview, this means I’m rejecting the idea that there is cause for special consideration here (i.e., deviating from narrow naturalism).

Finally, I just wanted to mention that several times I heard the point being made that atheists are stuck with saying something must come from nothing. I want to note that I have made no such claim, which would make this a Straw Man. I lean toward an infinite past as a good option and that completely sidesteps that objection. But this brings up an interesting point. I believe Paul Draper came up with the term Fallacy of Understated Evidence, which is basically when you point out one feature of a situation that is problematic for your opponent, but ignore a feature of that same situation that is bad for you. As much as people love to say this idea about something coming from nothing, there is a problem of similar difficulty for the theist and it is one they cannot sidestep, as I have done. They have to explain why we should believe that the immaterial can affect, create, interact with, etc. the material. This goes back to the Mind-Body problem, but is really a broader problem than that. Any religious cosmology that does not address this seemingly impossible interaction will be severely lacking and I know of no good account.


Oct 02

The Problem of Judas

I was told today that I could not possibly have been a Christian if I later became an atheist. I must have merely been a “professing” Christian, so this person claimed.

Ironically, I would agree with that claim if posed in a certain way. After all, I don’t think anyone is a true Christian under a certain definition of the term, since I don’t think there is any everlasting Christ out there with whom you can form a relationship. But that isn’t how the person meant it. Rather, he meant that you would never actually leave a true relationship with Christ. Once you experience it, I suppose you would undergo a life-changing effect that you couldn’t realistically improve upon or set aside. It would be like Lyle Lovett leaving Julia Roberts (wait a minute…).

The biggest problem with me trying to consider this suggestion is that he and I are approaching the issue from completely different perspectives. He is operating under two very big assumptions—first, that God exists, and second, that his own particular theological commitments are the correct interpretation of this God’s desires. So, this would obviously not be something I would accept without compelling arguments to cover that vast territory. Furthermore, I favor examining the evidence and letting that shape my commitments, to the extent possible, rather than having a pre-existing commitment and then only viewing all potentially contrary evidence through that lens. To do otherwise seems to ignore the convincing evidence that confirmation bias is a factor when potentially contrary evidence is presented.

But those are all typical topics that have been discussed at length here and elsewhere. What I’m interested in right now is whether there is a case against this particular theological commitment that can be made without rejecting an assumption that God exists or that scripture is generally reliable. I had what I think is an interesting idea, so I’ll toss it out there. I’m calling it The Problem of Judas.

1. The relationship that Jesus formed with his disciples was incredibly personal and compelling.
2. Judas was among the disciples of Jesus.
3. Judas rejected his relationship with Jesus in an extreme and harmful way.
4. Thus, a very personal and compelling relationship with Jesus does not guarantee that one will not later choose to end that relationship.

I can’t actually imagine a Christian rejecting any of the three premises. In fact, I think they can be made even stronger. You could include in a discussion of (1) that not only did Jesus have such a relationship with his disciples, but that this relationship was even more personal and more compelling than anything possible today just given our inherent limitations. Consider for a moment what kind of impact actually living with and walking and talking with your savior would have. Now I know people will say they can do that today in some sense, but I think we all really know that this sort of in-person experience would have a much more profound impact on our lives. Second, I think premise (3) brings up a point that can be brought out more. Not only did Judas reject a relationship with Jesus, but he went so far as to place Jesus in harm’s way and deliver him into the hands of the enemy. Do people realize just what an extreme reaction this would be for someone to do this to God in the flesh?

So, we have a relationship in place that was in all likelihood stronger than anything possible today. For someone to suggest otherwise would mean that actually walking next to God and learning at his feet would not be more powerful than what we can achieve today. And we also have a reaction that not only rejects that relationship, but inflicts serious harm on the other person in the relationship. It’s much more than simply walking away for good.

If these are correct, then why should we think people today cannot truly have a relationship with God and later abandon that relationship? This does not require any particular theological commitments; it only requires a pretty straightforward reading of the text and some pretty mundane assumptions about relationships. It also focuses on one interpretation of the claim that we cannot step away from a true relaionship with Jesus. Some might quibble with how I’ve presented that, but I think similar problems might also be raised for altered versions.

Is this convincing? I’m really not sure, but I do think it’s interesting and probably deserves some further consideration.

Aug 26

Langston Hughes Moved Me Today

One of my favorite arguments against the existence of a personal God is the argument from hiddenness. I described J.L. Schellenberg’s original version of the argument here. Essentially, the argument says that a God seeking a relationship with us would do a better job. It doesn’t make sense that there are people sincerely seeking this relationship and not able to find what they seek.

From theists, there tend to be two popular responses. One response is to say that God revealing himself too much would unfairly coerce us into believing. I don’t think that argument is successful and I’ve given two responses here and here. The other response is what I want to focus on this time. It says that we are not sincerely seeking God. We may claim that we are, but really our “hearts are hardened” or we are “seduced by sin” or something like that.

I find this idea a little bit insulting, quite frankly. But rather than try and articulate an analytic argument in response, I’ll let a short poem by Langston Hughes do the work for me. I don’t find many things moving, but this moved me. I can relate to that 13 year old boy, and I bet I’m not alone among my fellow atheists and agnostics.

“Salvation” By Langston Hughes

I was saved from sin when I was going on thirteen. But not really saved. It happened like this. There was a big revival at my Auntie Reed’s church. Every night for weeks there had been much preaching, singing, praying, and shouting, and some very hardened sinners had been brought to Christ, and the membership of the church had grown by leaps and bounds. Then just before the revival ended, they held a special meeting for children, “to bring the young lambs to the fold.” My aunt spoke of it for days ahead. That night I was escorted to the front row and placed on the mourners’ bench with all the other young sinners, who had not yet been brought to Jesus.

My aunt told me that when you were saved you saw a light, and something happened to you inside! And Jesus came into your life! And God was with you from then on! She said you could see and hear and feel Jesus in your soul. I believed her. I had heard a great many old people say the same thing and it seemed to me they ought to know. So I sat there calmly in the hot, crowded church, waiting for Jesus to come to me.

The preacher preached a wonderful rhythmical sermon, all moans and shouts and lonely cries and dire pictures of hell, and then he sang a song about the ninety and nine safe in the fold, but one little lamb was left out in the cold. Then he said: “Won’t you come? Won’t you come to Jesus? Young lambs, won’t you come?” And he held out his arms to all us young sinners there on the mourners’ bench. And the little girls cried. And some of them jumped up and went to Jesus right away. But most of us just sat there.

A great many old people came and knelt around us and prayed, old women with jet-black faces and braided hair, old men with work-gnarled hands. And the church sang a song about the lower lights are burning, some poor sinners to be saved. And the whole building rocked with prayer and song.

Still I kept waiting to see Jesus.

Finally all the young people had gone to the altar and were saved, but one boy and me. He was a rounder’s son named Westley. Westley and I were surrounded by sisters and deacons praying. It was very hot in the church, and getting late now. Finally Westley said to me in a whisper: “God damn! I’m tired o’ sitting here. Let’s get up and be saved.” So he got up and was saved.

Then I was left all alone on the mourners’ bench. My aunt came and knelt at my knees and cried, while prayers and song swirled all around me in the little church. The whole congregation prayed for me alone, in a mighty wail of moans and voices. And I kept waiting serenely for Jesus, waiting, waiting – but he didn’t come. I wanted to see him, but nothing happened to me. Nothing! I wanted something to happen to me, but nothing happened.

I heard the songs and the minister saying: “Why don’t you come? My dear child, why don’t you come to Jesus? Jesus is waiting for you. He wants you. Why don’t you come? Sister Reed, what is this child’s name?”

“Langston,” my aunt sobbed.

“Langston, why don’t you come? Why don’t you come and be saved? Oh, Lamb of God! Why don’t you come?”
Now it was really getting late. I began to be ashamed of myself, holding everything up so long. I began to wonder what God thought about Westley, who certainly hadn’t seen Jesus either, but who was now sitting proudly on the platform, swinging his knickerbockered legs and grinning down at me, surrounded by deacons and old women on their knees praying. God had not struck Westley dead for taking his name in vain or for lying in the temple. So I decided that maybe to save further trouble, I’d better lie, too, and say that Jesus had come, and get up and be saved.

So I got up.

Suddenly the whole room broke into a sea of shouting, as they saw me rise. Waves of rejoicing swept the place. Women leaped in the air. My aunt threw her arms around me. The minister took me by the hand and led me to the platform.

When things quieted down, in a hushed silence, punctuated by a few ecstatic “Amens,” all the new young lambs were blessed in the name of God. Then joyous singing filled the room.

That night, for the first time in my life but one for I was a big boy twelve years old – I cried. I cried, in bed alone, and couldn’t stop. I buried my head under the quilts, but my aunt heard me. She woke up and told my uncle I was crying because the Holy Ghost had come into my life, and because I had seen Jesus. But I was really crying because I couldn’t bear to tell her that I had lied, that I had deceived everybody in the church, that I hadn’t seen Jesus, and that now I didn’t believe there was a Jesus anymore, since he didn’t come to help me.

Jul 01

God and Time: A Dilemma

One of the difficulties facing theologians and philosophers of religion has been to ascertain the relationship between God and time. Assuming God, is it more likely that God exists within time or outside of time? I’m going to suggest that either answer to this problem leads to undesirable results for theists, creating a dilemma.

Two Options for Theists

The two most popular options for explaining God’s relationship to time are to say that God has either always existed within time, stretching back to infinity, or to say that God somehow exists outside of time. I’ll explain each of these positions in greater detail from the perspective of respected Christian philosophers. Following that, I’ll discuss the potentially surprising result of how each option actually seems to decrease the plausibility of traditional theism. The position that God exists infinitely within time undermines some of the most popular arguments for God’s existence. On the other hand, the position that God is timelessly eternal conflicts with traditional assumptions about God’s nature.

God as Infinite

The most popular position is that God has simply always existed within time. The reason may be that theists tend to find this view easier to comprehend or perhaps they find the implications of the eternal view to conflict with other claims about God. As respected philosopher Stephen T. Davis says:

“In my view, this is a far simpler procedure, with far fewer theological dangers.”

According to Davis, the traditional view of Aquinas on the eternality of God (the view that God is timeless) seems to rob God of a number of traditional attributes. And Davis is not alone. This has also been pointed out by other incredibly prominent Christian philosophers, like Richard Swinburne. A lot of statements about God that involve temporal terms would lose their meaning and it’s not at all clear how God would perform acts within time, like acts in the Bible, as traditionally attributed. Consider the following statements:

  • In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.
  • God finished creating the universe before he rested.
  • God created Adam before Eve.
  • God knew you would exist before you were born.
  • God raised Jesus from the dead after he was crucified.
  • Yesterday, God knew what I would have for breakfast.

These are just a few of potentially countless examples. Some are from the Bible and others are just statements we would likely attribute to God. Yet, if God does not exist within time, then temporal terms cannot really apply to God. It’s like saying Mars is North of Jupiter. Cardinal directions only make sense on Earth because they refer to our two poles. They do not make sense outside of their intended frame of reference. For the same reason, all of the above statements would be meaningless when applied to a timeless being. So, a God existing beyond time would make most of our assumptions about God suddenly false.

Due to these and other problems, Davis opts for the infinite view of God as more plausible. He asserts that:

“Time was not created; it exists necessarily (like numbers); it depends for its existence on nothing else. Time, perhaps, is an eternal aspect of God’s nature rather than a reality independent of God. But the point is that God, on this view, is a temporal being.”

Davis concludes that God has simply lived forever. It still allows for it to be an uncreated being with no beginning or end and avoids the difficulties offered by the timelessly eternal view.

God as Eternal

For the eternal position, I will describe the work of William Lane Craig. He recognized the difficulties presented by Davis and Swinburne, but he also does not support the infinite view. Craig has argued that the existence of an actually infinite number of past moments is absurd. Of course, if an infinite past did not occur, that must also mean God could also not have existed for an infinite number of past moments. So, Craig attempted to find a middle ground position.

Craig agrees that God in some respect must have been timeless, since he thinks God could not have always existed. But creation and other acts must have been temporal events. Quite simply, it takes time to do anything. You cannot have a thought, move across a room, create a chemical bond, build a tower, remove a man’s rib, etc. without some amount of time elapsing. Craig’s resolution is to say that God exists eternally in a changeless state except for the duration of the Universe, in relation to which he is temporal.

“With the creation of the universe, time began, and God entered into time at the moment of creation in virtue of His real relations with the created order. It follows that God must therefore be timeless without the universe and temporal with the universe.”

How can this be? It is confusing to assert that God fits into both categories of time. Craig himself sees the difficulty in this argument.

“Now this conclusion is startling and not a little odd. For on such a view, there seem to be two phases of God’s life, a timeless phase and a temporal phase, and the timeless phase seems to have existed earlier than the temporal phase. But this is logically incoherent, since to stand in a relation of earlier than is by all accounts to be temporal. How are we to escape this apparent antinomy?”

Craig goes on to describe his proposed resolution to this problem.

“What must be done is to dissolve the linear geometrical structure of pre-creation time. One must maintain that “prior” to creation there literally are no intervals of time at all. There would be no earlier and later, no enduring through successive intervals and, hence, no waiting, no temporal becoming. This state would pass away, not successively, but as a whole, at the moment of creation, when time begins.

But such a changeless, undifferentiated state looks suspiciously like a state of timelessness! It seems to me, therefore, that it is not only coherent but also plausible that God existing changelessly alone without creation is timeless and that He enters time at the moment of creation in virtue of His real relation to the temporal universe. The image of God existing idly before creation is just that: a figment of the imagination. Given that time began to exist, the most plausible view of God’s relationship to time is that He is timeless without creation and temporal subsequent to creation.”

This line of thinking can be pretty confusing, so let me summarize the flow of Craig’s argument. Actual infinites are not possible, according to Craig, so God cannot exist infinitely in a temporal state. To avoid this problem, God is considered essentially outside of time. Yet, God created the world, so that means God has relation to the world. This relation has to be temporal in order for creation to happen. So, God is temporal in reference to the Universe. Both ideas have to be true – one in reference to the non-existence of the Universe and one in reference to the existence of the Universe. As of this moment, and for all the history of the Universe, God is temporal and can act within time. Without the Universe, God is timeless and changeless. God cannot act in this latter state because that would imply a passing of time for the action to take place.

The Dilemma

As much as I lean toward the infinite view as sounding more coherent, it doesn’t really matter in the end because both views lead to decreasing theism’s plausibility. So, let’s discuss the two horns of this dilemma.

The Infinity Horn

If you think that time has always existed, and God has existed within time, then you actually may be helping the atheist case. Two of the most popular arguments in favor of God’s existence—the Kalam (or other cosmological arguments) and the Fine Tuning Argument—rest upon an assumption that the past is not infinite. In the case of the Kalam, it’s pretty easy to see this because one of the premises states, “The Universe began to exist.” Obviously, if the Universe is infinitely old, this is false. The objection to the Fine Tuning Argument takes a bit more explanation. This is an extension of the point I made in the comment section of this article.

If there is some natural universe creation mechanism, like there is a natural star creation mechanism, then there is some chance for the natural creation of our universe from a previously existing state of affairs. Most, however, will claim the chance that certain constants in our universe would be what they are is very small. We might respond to this in one of two ways.

The first response might say that this is just naturally determined from the previously existing state and this determinism just stretches back indefinitely, so there’s just not anything interesting to discuss. Perhaps that’s the case, but we should also discuss the pervasive chance problem to be thorough.

The second response says there isn’t really a chance problem. Let’s make up a number and say the odds are 1 in 10^50 to make a universe like ours. Now, let’s define the time it would take for the mechanism to create a randomly delivered universe and call it “m” moments (m could be a second, a billion years, whatever it takes). So, for every m that passes, on average, the mechanism creates some universe. Probably many of these do not support life or don’t last very long.

So, if we can say that the mechanism has existed for more than 10^50m, then the small chance problem shouldn’t bother us. In the case of an infinite past, then we can definitely say the mechanism has existed much longer than 10^50m. If only 1m or 1,000m or 1,000,000m had passed, then the chance might be reason for concern. But for the infinite past, it’s no problem.

Consider this analogy. If you roll a die three times in a row, the chance of rolling six all three times is approximately 0.5%. You might be surprised if you sat down once and rolled the die with a goal of three sixes in a row and got it on the first try. However, what if you did a million trials and it happened? Then, it wouldn’t be a big deal. That is essentially my point. It’s not that it’s necessary, but that it is no longer a surprising or unexpected result.

So, the plausibility of an infinite past provides what I consider to be strong counterarguments to both cosmological and fine tuning arguments.

The Eternal Horn

Many theists, however, reject the infinite God view. They may reject it because of the undesirable results given above, because of interpretation of scripture, or perhaps even because they just find the possibility of actually existing infinites to be absurd. Whatever the reason, this alternative view brings its own negative consequence for theists.

If, as Craig suggests, God existed at some point outside of time, then God’s first act must have brought time into existence. This is because there can’t be any action without the passing of time. So, God’s first act and the first moment of time must have been simultaneous. Now, let’s recognize just how broad my usage of “act” is here. There could not be any movement by a physical being or any sort of thought in a non-physical being like God. As Craig admits, God must have been completely changeless (no pondering, planning, daydreaming, etc.). But this has an interesting consequence. This means that, necessarily, God’s first act must have been unintentional. That is a very strange result and I honestly have no idea how a theist would handle it theologically. It certainly has implications for the traditional omni properties of God and perhaps also has implications for God’s praiseworthiness and other aspects. To say that God had an unintentional action in its past might just be irreconcilable with traditional notions of God, giving us an impossibility argument that, to my knowledge, has not been raised in the literature.


So, if theists want to assume that God is infinite, then they have to assign more plausibility to the creation of the universe being a natural event. Or, if theists opt for an eternal view of God, like the one presented here, they face my objection regarding the impossibility of a variety of attributes of God. Of course, my take from this dilemma is that, if neither option of God’s relationship to time makes sense, then perhaps it’s simply a good indicator that the traditional notion of an omni-God is incoherent.

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