The Case for a Creator: Science by Armchair

The Case for a Creator, Chapter 10

Science is hard work. Normally, to make any significant contribution to human knowledge, a scientist really has to get their hands dirty – experiments in the lab, research in the field, long days and longer nights, and the meticulous testing of hypotheses. But J.P. Moreland must be an especially brilliant scientist, because he doesn’t even need any of those trappings. In this chapter, Strobel interviews him not in a lab or an office, but at his own home:

When I pulled up to J.P. Moreland’s house on a cool and foggy morning, he was outside with a cup of coffee in his hand, having just walked home from a chat with some neighbors. His graying hair was close-cropped, his mustache neatly trimmed, and he was looking natty in a red tie, blue shirt, and dark slacks.
    “Good to see you again,” he said as we shook hands. “Come on in.”
    We walked into his living room, where he settled into a floral-patterned chair and I eased onto an adjacent couch. [p.252]

I quote this passage not just to point out how cringingly bad Strobel’s writing is, but to call attention to the setting of this interview. For in this chapter, Moreland claims to prove the existence of the soul – certainly a Nobel-worthy result! – without once doing an experiment, running any sort of test, or even leaving his floral-patterned armchair.

“…if physicalism is true, then consciousness doesn’t really exist, because there would be no such thing as conscious states that must be described from a first-person point of view… if everything were matter, then you could capture the entire universe on a graph – you could locate each star, the moon, every mountain, Lee Strobel’s brain, Lee Strobel’s kidneys, and so forth. That’s because if everything is physical, it could be described entirely from a third-person point of view. And yet we know that we have first-person, subjective points of view – so physicalism can’t be true.” [p.255]

Look, I realize there probably aren’t many philosophical materialists on staff at the Talbot School of Theology, where Moreland teaches. I appreciate that this makes it slightly more difficult to do research for this interview. But really, would it have killed him to at least try to find out what we actually think?

I don’t know where Moreland got the odd fantasy that materialists are committed to denying anything that can’t be found on a map. Materialists believe in many things that have no physical location. I can name a few: justice, music, erosion, mathematics. What we really assert is not that there are no such things as abstract concepts, but that there are no abstract concepts that are not ultimately reducible to patterns of matter and energy. We deny that these concepts exist in their own right, independently of whatever arrangements of matter and energy happen to instantiate them at particular times and places. Just so with consciousness: it exists, but only as the product of brains. (This is the same thing I said in my Statement of Principles.)

“Nothing in my brain is about anything. You can’t open up my head and say, ‘You see this electrical pattern in the left hemisphere of J.P. Moreland’s brain? That’s about the Bears.’ Your brain states aren’t about anything, but some of my mental states are. So they’re different.” [p.259]

This argument, which Moreland apparently makes in all seriousness, betrays such an elementary confusion of terms that I scarcely even know where to begin. The whole point of science is that it’s about reductionism: explaining the properties of a complex phenomenon in terms of simpler components, which come together to create that property but don’t possess it themselves. A cloud of gas has the property of temperature, but the individual atoms that make up that cloud do not. That doesn’t mean that the gas and the atoms aren’t the same.

Or, for an example that hits even closer to home: a book. A book is about something, it contains thoughts, ideas; but the ink and paper that make up a book aren’t about anything. (This is true even if no human being ever reads the book, so it can’t be said that the meaning of the book exists only in the reader’s mind.) Does that mean that books have souls, to contain the ideas that inhabit them?

This simple concept is one that Moreland apparently doesn’t grasp. It should be obvious that, if we materialists are correct, the electrical pattern in your brain is the thought. The two are one and the same, just described at different levels of organization. Moreland is trying to turn a basic confusion of definitions into a sweeping conclusion about the nature of ultimate reality. A philosopher as renowned as Strobel describes him to be has no excuse for not understanding why this is fallacious.

“[If scientists believe that mind emerges from material processes] they are no longer treating matter as atheists and naturalists treat matter – namely, as brute stuff that can be completely described by the laws of chemistry and physics. Now they’re attributing spooky, soulish, or mental potentials to matter… They’re saying that prior to this level of complexity, matter contained the potential for mind to emerge… That is no longer naturalism,” he said. “It’s panpsychism…. the view that matter is not just inert physical stuff, but that it also contains proto-mental states in it. Suddenly, they’ve abandoned a strict scientific view of matter and adopted a view that’s closer to theism than atheism.” [p.264-5]

Again, Moreland has some bizarre notions about what materialists believe (and if I were feeling unkind, I’d say that he’s the only one here for whom “proto-mental states” are in evidence).

Atheists believe that the mind emerges from the functioning of the brain. This isn’t panpsychism – it simply means that matter arranged in certain ways has causal powers that matter arranged in other ways doesn’t have. You can build a car out of metal, but that doesn’t mean that metal had an ethereal notion of “transportation” inherent in it from the beginning. It just means that a set of atoms arranged car-wise produces an object which has certain causal powers that other arrangements of atoms don’t have. Similarly, the mind arises from an arrangement of matter arranged so as to possess a sufficient degree of information-processing power.

“If a finite mind can emerge when matter reaches a certain level of complexity, why couldn’t a far greater mind – God – emerge when millions of brain states reach a greater level of consciousness? You see, they want to stop the process where they want it to stop – at themselves – but you can’t logically draw that line. How can they know that a very large God hasn’t emerged from matter…?” [p.265]

Okay, and what’s the evidence that this has happened?

As with the other sections of this chapter, Moreland mistakes armchair speculation for argument backed by evidence. The mere hypothetical possibility of a god emerging from matter is held to be “a problem for atheists”. (Lest you think this represents a daring flirtation with unorthodoxy, Strobel immediately emphasizes that this “wouldn’t be the God of Christianity”, once again making it clear who his intended audience is.)

In fact, at no point in this chapter does Moreland get out of that armchair. Despite the fact that this is supposed to be a book about science, he acts as if philosophical arguments and thought experiments are all the proof he needs. Given that this is Strobel’s last interview, you’d think he’d want to go out with a bang – but whimpers are all he has to offer.

UPDATE: As Siamang points out in the comments, Strobel declared in an earlier chapter that:

“I wasn’t interested in unsupported conjecture or armchair musings by pipe-puffing theorists. I wanted the hard facts of mathematics, the cold data of cosmology, and only the most reasonable inferences that could be drawn from them.” [p.95]

Yet this entire chapter consists solely of “unsupported conjecture” and “armchair musings”. Did Strobel think no one would notice, or is it just that his “interests” have changed now that he’s reduced to scraping the bottom of the barrel to find Christian fundamentalists with scientific credentials?

Other posts in this series:

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • http://generalnotions.talkislam.info Ergo Ratio

    If a “mind of God” has emerged from matter, then that places God as a finite mind in the physical realm, subject to scientific study. If that’s the definition they want to run with, great! They should be able to come up with testable hypotheses, right?

  • http://www.superhappyjen.blogspot.com SuperHappyJen

    I day dream that people who read Strobel’s book will also read your posts on Strobel’s book, and become rational logical people as a result.

  • Siamang

    Ebon,

    You missed a chance to one-two-punch Strobel.

    Literally, this guy doesn’t leave the floral armchair.

    This would be a great post to bring back Strobel’s own words to haunt him, from page 95:

    “I wasn’t interested in unsupported conjecture or armchair musings by pipe-puffing theorists. I wanted the hard facts of mathematics, the cold data of cosmology, and only the most reasonable inferences that could be drawn from them (p. 95).”

    I trashed Strobel on this exact point when he interacted with the posters on Friendly Atheist. He ignored my repeated questions, despite everyone asking him to answer mine.

    He danced around a lot of other people’s questions, and generally evaded. But he flat out ignored me, because, I suspect, he knew he was cornered.

  • Siamang

    Here’s what I wrote in this thread:

    http://friendlyatheist.com/2009/01/06/lee-strobel-responds-to-your-comments/

    Back in April Hemant put out the call for questions for Lee Strobel. I thought I asked a very direct one.

    I’ll re-ask it.

    I look at the request for a question as a bit of a puzzle.

    The puzzle is this: “Can I formulate a question for Lee Strobel that will garner any response different from what a reader of his books would expect? Any question that will cause him to pause for a moment and consider the thoughts of someone outside his worldview, before launching in to the standard apologetics?”

    Here’s the best I could come up with:

    Lee,

    In your book, The Case for a Creator, why did you choose the people you chose to interview?

    The title of your book is:

    “The Case for a Creator: A Journalist Investigates Scientific Evidence That Points Toward God”

    You have a chapter on Cosmology, for example. Presumably you are covering this subject as a journalist. And presumably you are going to investigate the scientific evidence in Cosmology that points towards the existence of God.

    In fact, this is what you say in this part of your book:

    “I wasn’t interested in unsupported conjecture or armchair musings by pipe-puffing theorists. I wanted the hard facts of mathematics, the cold data of cosmology, and only the most reasonable inferences that could be drawn from them (p. 95).”

    In fact, this chapter is called The Evidence of Cosmology: Beginning with a Bang
    An Interview with Dr. William Lane Craig

    Now, if it were me and I were looking to write about this evidence, I’d interview a cosmologist. Call me an idiot. Maybe I don’t know how this whole “christian apologist” line of business works.

    But here’s what I’d do for a chapter on cosmology: I’d try to get an interview with Stephen Hawking, if I could. Or at least a PhD in astrophysics or relativity, right? But instead, you interview a Philosophy professor at a school of theology, the intelligent design advocate and fellow at the Discovery Institute Dr. William Lane Craig. Is that REALLY getting the hard facts of math, and the cold data? He’s a pipe-puffing philosopher!

    You have a chapter on Physics, but you don’t interview a physicist. Instead you interview an associate professor of philosophy at Messiah College.

    Why is it that you seem to have picked and chosen your interviewees to fall into line with your belief system? You had to go so far to make your point, that you had to resort to professors of philosophy at religious colleges, rather than talk to cosmologists and physicists about cosmology and physics. Why is that?

    Is that good scholarship? Is it good journalism? Is it the sign of an open inquiry? Are those the cold hard facts of math, as found by an unbiased journalist looking at all sides of an issue? Should I, as a reader, come away with that thinking that I heard the best possible case for the existence of God, and seeing that no actual physicists or cosmologists were interviewed, thereby conclude that the case for God is incredibly weak? It looks weak to me if you have to stack the deck with non-cosmologists talking cosmology and non-physicists talking physics.

    Are these really the very very best experts that the Creator of the entire universe can muster as expert witnesses? I’m looking to get F. Lee Bailey to argue the very very best case God’s got. Why did you chicken out and just get some religious apologists and pipe-puffers instead of scientists?

    Because, I may be incredibly dense, but it sounds to me that you either could not find a physicist or a cosmologist who would wax sufficiently religious, or you were purposefully stacking the deck. As I said, I might not get exactly how this apologist gig works. Is your primary audience christians or non-christians? Because I cannot imagine many non-christians would accept a philosophy professor from a bible college to be a better authority on cosmology than an actual cosmologist.

    You seem to fancy yourself an expert on Biblical history. Would it be alright for me to interview a professor of economics or law or sports medicine or some other unrelated field who has leaned back in his armchair and puffed on his pipe to determine whether or not the Dead Sea Scrolls are accurately translated? Or should I actually confer with linguists and historians and archaeologists?

    I’m sorry, but you asking a professor of philosophy about the laws of physics and the stars and the galaxies is kind of like asking a pot-smoking navel-gazing hippy about the aerodynamics of the space shuttle. Between you, me, and the lamppost, I don’t think those philosophy guys can tell the difference between a quasar and a qualium. (But a lot of them sure know what a quaalude is!) As for me, I’ll trust the guys who can actually land a rocket on mars or the moon to tell me about mars and the moon, and the philosophers can lean back in their armchairs and puff on their (usually not tobacco) pipes and blow smoke-rings and convince themselves that they understand the inner workings of the universe without looking through a single telescope.

    I suspect in answer, you will refer me to some actual physicist or cosmologist who espouses the creationist point of view, or at least a deist one. What I’m wondering though is why you didn’t see fit to perform that due diligence in your book itself. You know, as a Journalist and all, looking at the scientific evidence, and the cold, hard facts of math, and not content with the musings of pipe-puffers.

    Anyway, here’s hoping that I came up with a true puzzler of a question. One that might cause you to pause and reflect for an instant before launching into standard apologetic boilerplate.

    And thanks for conversing with us here.

  • Steven Carr

    ‘If a finite mind can emerge when matter reaches a certain level of complexity, why couldn’t a far greater mind – God – emerge when millions of brain states reach a greater level of consciousness?’

    Did Moreland really say that?

    Whoever wrote that clearly has not got the first clue about what Christians imagine their god to be like.

    Moreland also says ‘The human soul is vastly more complicated because it is made in the image of God’

    Don’t Christians lambast Dawkins when Dawkins says God is complex? Don’t they mock him for not realising that God is simple?

    I guess only a complicated soul can create non-material things.

    Mathematicians have come up with abstract objects like imaginary numbers.

    Obviously imaginary numbers are not material. Imaginary numbers are imaginary because they must have been created by an imaginary being.

  • http://stevebowen58.blogspot.com Steve Bowen

    If a finite mind can emerge when matter reaches a certain level of complexity, why couldn’t a far greater mind – God – emerge when millions of brain states reach a greater level of consciousness?

    Question begging, or am I mis-understanding? This would only be true if mind was already something ethereal and non-material allowing for telepathy or similar.

  • TEP

    “If a finite mind can emerge when matter reaches a certain level of complexity, why couldn’t a far greater mind – God – emerge when millions of brain states reach a greater level of consciousness? You see, they want to stop the process where they want it to stop – at themselves – but you can’t logically draw that line. How can they know that a very large God hasn’t emerged from matter…?” [p.265]

    Why only one mind? Billions of brain states reaching higher levels of consciousness would surely be capable of generating more than a single greater mind, just as the arrangement of matter is capable of generating more than one finite mind. It seems theists want to stop the process where they want it to stop – at a single god, but how can they know that there aren’t instead countless millions of gods which have emerged from all the minds existing just on this planet alone?

    Furthermore, it does nothing to demonstrate the existence of a creator, because this argument is one for gods which require that other conscious beings first exist in order for the gods to come into existence later on. In other words, the universe must have existed before these beings did, which precludes them from being the ones which created it.

  • http://stevebowen58.blogspot.com Steve Bowen

    There is a cyclic universe argument which says that eventually a consiousness will evolve that is capable of creating a universe of its own. We could be one such universe and Yahweh/Allah/ any other name you can think of was our creator. Still suffers from the same infinite regress problem though.

  • http://www.daughtersofnarcissisticmothers.com Danu

    This has been an absolutely amazing series, Ebon, and I thank you very much for it.

  • Karen

    Siamang, you rock! :-)

    You definitely nailed him dead to rights. That he dissembled and wavered and never directly answered you is proof positive that your assumption (he stacked the deck in the most transparent way in his “journalistic inquiry”) was correct.

  • Thumpalumpacus

    I’ve got to say, Ebon, having myself gone through The Case for Faith with hip-waders and yellow highlighters, your ability to follow through on these deconstructions is uncanny.

    My English Comp professor would’ve laughed himself silly, before failing the snippet you highlighted above.

  • http://thechapel.wordpress.com the chaplain

    Siamang:
    Awesome takedown of Strobel. I hope at least a few religious believers read it and say, “Damn, those are some good points. I’ll have to think about this stuff some more.”

    When I was deconverting and searching for some books to reinforce my belief, I looked at a few of Strobel’s books in a bookstore and put them back on the shelf. I scanned several chapters in each of them (The Case for a Creator was one) and quickly realized that his “evidence” was the same tired, unpersuasive stuff that I’d already read elsewhere.

  • http://www.daylightatheism.org Ebonmuse

    This would be a great post to bring back Strobel’s own words to haunt him, from page 95:

    “I wasn’t interested in unsupported conjecture or armchair musings by pipe-puffing theorists. I wanted the hard facts of mathematics, the cold data of cosmology, and only the most reasonable inferences that could be drawn from them (p. 95).”

    I trashed Strobel on this exact point when he interacted with the posters on Friendly Atheist. He ignored my repeated questions, despite everyone asking him to answer mine.

    What a fantastic quote, Siamang! I don’t know how I missed that one on my first read-through. It’s too funny that Strobel disparages armchair musings and then tries to slip in a whole chapter filled with exactly that.

  • Joffan

    Books with souls – that would be at the Unseen University, perhaps, or in the Potterverse. Anyway – strictly fantasy, but that should suit Strobel very well indeed.

  • Reginald Selkirk

    Dr. William Lane Craig. Is that REALLY getting the hard facts of math, and the cold data? He’s a pipe-puffing philosopher!

    Does he actually smoke a pipe? I know that he does a lot of smoke-blowing.

  • TEP

    And he’s not just any philosopher – he’s a philosopher who actually thinks that the ontological argument has merit.

  • Siamang

    … Which is evidence he’s probably smoking something

  • John Nernoff

    A quick note: The many minds idea reminds me of the multi-armed Hindu gods and goddesses; the more arms, the more powerful they are and the more things they can do. So the extrapolation to “God” having multiple aspects of human powers and facilities is an old idea.


CLOSE | X

HIDE | X