Ongoing blogalog

Here is John Henry’s opening.

Here is my response.

Here is John Henry’s most recent.

JT,

No need to apologize or explain. There’s nothing wrong with sharing an honest opinion with someone – or even advancing that opinion publicly. (What one might call “proselytizing.”) I agree with Penn Jillette that not disagreeing with someone whose beliefs you see as hurtful is, ultimately, less kind than keeping your mouth shut or sugarcoating your disagreements to the point of meaninglessness. You told me that I can do better than to be a Christian, and I realize that it was kindly meant, and appreciate your saying so. I also recognize the distinction between condemning a person’s beliefs or actions and hating or looking down on that person. (What one might call loving the sinner and hating the sin – a phenomenon every parent is familiar with.) I think we’re off to a pretty good start simply because we see eye-to-eye on those things already. 

I’d also like to address something that you’ve brought up a number of times: burden of proof. Stating that the burden of proof is on me because I believe in God and you don’t is a little hard to swallow. In any honest conversation, the burden of proof is on the person attempting to convince the other, and in a two-way conversation like this, the burden of supporting our assertions is on both of us. If your goal is to convince me to become an atheist, probably the worst argument you can use is “Atheism is true unless you can prove it wrong.” Certainly you will continue to believe it is true unless you can be given a good reason to think otherwise, but that isn’t an argument, and it won’t get you very far if your goal is to convince me (or any other theist.)

I’ve decided to avoid “fisking” your response, and stick with a more traditional letter format because I think it makes our discussion more like an actual conversation, and because I’m trying to avoid getting lost in petty digressions. (Well, okay, in that respect it makes our blogalog very unlike many actual conversations I’ve had.) As strong as your and my feelings about the crusades or Stalin’s purges may be, they’re entire topics in their own right, and we won’t have a fruitful conversation about theism if we keep chasing things like that down their own individual rabbit holes.

When I asked you to define God, it was as a prelude to another question about God. It seemed helpful to me to know where you are coming from so that I could respond to what you really mean, rather than just what I assume you mean. Part of that, in a discussion about God, is knowing what you mean when you use the word “God.” That way we don’t wind up arguing about the existence of a horned mammal when one of us is talking about unicorns and the other about rhinoceroses.

But since you asked that I be the one to define God, I will start by defining God as the first cause of the universe (or multiverse, if you’re one of those string-theory folks.) We can decide whether we disagree as to whether such a thing exists, and perhaps move on from there.

I wrote earlier that existence does not make sense to me without God – without a first cause. In other words, a godless universe (a universe without a cause) is literally inconceivable. Every phenomenon in the universe, as we know it, is contingent – it owes its existence to something else. Logically then, I am faced with two options: infinite regress or a first cause. Either everything owes its existence to something else that owes its existence to some other such thing, or there was a starting point for it all – some noncontingent phenomenon, or first cause.

My suspicion is that you are not a believer in infinite regress; most atheists I know believe that the universe had a starting point. But I could be wrong about you; some atheists describe a hypothetical cosmological undulation that regresses infinitely. As far as I can tell, there are three possible directions for this particular part of the conversation:

1. We can agree that the universe had a first cause, and move on to disagreeing about the characteristics of that first cause (intelligence, benevolence, its personal nature, the incarnation in history, etc.)

2. We can disagree about the source of existence, and debate infinite regress.

3. You can tell me why I am wrong that the only two possibilities are infinite regress and a first cause, and explain a third possibility I had not considered.

I don’t believe in infinite regress. Consequently, as far as I can tell, a godless universe is a universe without a first cause, and thus a nonexistent universe. The phrase “godless universe” is as meaningful to me as the phrase “four-sided triangle.”

However, as I said previously, I was not convinced by logic and evidence, but by personal experience. Reasoning along these lines helped me accept theism intellectually in my teens, but religion (and Christianity in particular) is not very meaningful without a personal experience of God, and that’s what makes the difference between a Christian and a Deist.

Now, when I spoke about sensing God’s presence, I wasn’t referring to a feeling of euphoria; I’ve had euphoric feelings outside the context of communion with God. What I was referring to was a pervasive sense that someone was there with me, every moment of my life. I’m sure you’ve thought you were by yourself in a room and suddenly sensed that someone else was there. Sitting by yourself on a bench feels different from sitting next to someone on a bench. That’s the feeling I’m referring to. Call it intuition, or a subconscious response to clues you weren’t aware of noticing – the feeling of not-being-alone is a very distinct feeling. I have never in my life felt truly alone, and that is probably the biggest reason I am not an atheist, as I was raised to be.

I spent a large part of my early life trying to tell myself that I was imagining this experience, that it was a delusion, that it wasn’t real. This was very uncomfortable, sometimes to the point of anguish. I was certain that most of the people around me would lose respect for me, and subject me to a good deal of mockery, if I were to treat this experience as if it were real. (I’ve confirmed this, and consequently I really do feel for the closeted atheists you wrote about in a previous post – people can be hurtful, sometimes even when they’re trying not to be.) And I tried, constantly, to tell myself what you are, in essence, though in gentler words, telling me now: that I was delusional, and that I should ignore my delusions.

You say that this is a better explanation for my experience than that God really is present. I disagree. It is a better explanation given the assumption that philosophical materialism is true, which is not quite the same thing. I would say, rather, that delusion is the way materialists explain away supernatural phenomena.

These explanations seem inadequate to me in part because I am not, so far as I can tell, prone to any other kinds of delusions. If I am delusional, it is a very specific kind of delusion. But my main objection is that discounting my experiences as delusions requires me to discount my sense impressions of reality, which I’m generally disinclined to do without very good reason. I’m all for skepticism, but it is not (and should not be) the default approach to all experiences. (That would mean virtual paralysis.) As you pointed out, human intuition works most of the time.

Sure, I could ponder the question of whether all other people were merely sophisticated robots, designed for my benefit, and programmed to act as if they were real people with real thoughts and feelings; certainly the world I live in is exactly what I would expect to see, were that the case. But it seems a simpler and more natural explanation that they are real people, more or less like me. By the same token, it makes sense to me to treat my experiences of communion with God as what they seem to be.

Your picture of the shadowed chessboard is a great illustration of what we’re talking about. On one level, the pixels on my computer screen in both areas are displaying light at the exact same frequency. However, the illustration is a representation of a more fundamental and solid reality: that of a chessboard with a figure on it casting a shadow. Despite the fact that the pixels in this illustration glow with the same colors, our minds see past that, and perceive the reality behind the illustration: that the chessboard being illustrated has squares in alternating colors, some of which are shadowed by an object blocking the primary source of light. You say that my mind is fooled into seeing two sets of the same color as being different; I say my mind has correctly assessed the objects being represented, and that the two squares being illustrated are actually of different colors – this illustration’s limitations notwithstanding. Fixating on the pixels in the illustration, rather than on the reality of the objects being represented, would make it impossible for me to understand the actual objects or to play a game of chess online.

Your second objection was to my statement that God wants you to know him. The substance of your objection (and please correct me if I am misrepresenting your argument somehow) is that an all-knowing and all-powerful God could eliminate all confusion about his existence and nature at any time he wished, and would do so if he actually wanted us to get to know him.

This is a variation of the problem-of-evil argument, and my response to either would be more or less the same. First, as you pointed out, God’s intellect is superior to mine. Have you ever changed your mind about the wisdom of a course of action after learning new information? Given that, it certainly makes sense that what might seem a wise course of action to you, given the limited set of information and limited perspective you have, would seem like folly if you were omniscient. It is not just possible, but likely that an omniscient God‘s ideas about how best to establish relationships with us would differ from our own.

Despite my own limited knowledge and understanding, I have some thoughts as to why he communicates with us in the ways he does. First, he wants us to love one another, and to do that, we must interact with one another. That’s why we see God sending Jonah with a message to the Ninevites, rather than just shouting down at them directly. It’s not that he created the Ninevites with broken brains that were unable to hear him – it’s that by sending Jonah to them with a message, he accomplished several good things at once – not just the transformation of the Ninevites, but an opportunity for Jonah to make a transformation as well, to become more humble and loving. By making one man a prophet and the other a heathen, he forces the two to interact with one another. That’s where the rubber meets the road – where meaningful love grows. If God wants us to have real opportunities to grow in love for one another, he needs to make space for that to happen.

Also, one of the best ways to make something meaningful is to make it a mystery. Something you work for (or at least suffer for) has more value than something that is given to you as a matter of course. Mystery stories lose most of their impact if they start with “The butler did it.” Jokes are not funny if the punchline comes at the beginning, rather than at the end. The best marriage is one in which you fall deeper in love and get to know your spouse better with every passing day. It’s why Adam and Eve could take their relationship with God for granted, and threw it away in exchange for a pendejada, while Cyprian of Carthage knew a life without God, and after finding him accepted beheading rather than deny him. It’s why Archimedes ran around naked yelling “Eureka!” and most students in chemistry classes are bored.

The central question of faith is a personal relationship. It’s not about believing that God exists (there’s nothing especially noble about holding an honest opinion one way or the other) any more than saying that you have faith in your friend means you believe your friend exists. Having faith in someone means trusting them. That’s as true about God as it is about your friend, and in both cases it boils down to a personal relationship, founded on equal parts evidence and a choice to trust.

I appreciate the fact that you need to believe someone exists before you will even think of talking to him, let alone trusting him. Of course you couldn’t do otherwise, and no reasonable person would expect you to. The best a Christian can do, for an atheist like you, is offer you an invitation – to say, in essence, that there is some reason to believe that there is an uncaused cause that created the universe. That his own experience, and that of billions of other people, is that this entity can be known personally, and has told us that he loves and wants to know you too. That he invites you to knock at his door – to kneel down in private and talk to him honestly for a bit – and see what happens. That although he’s not yours to command, and he probably won’t be giving you a personal miracle under carefully controlled laboratory conditions on demand, he has promised that if you ask for the Holy Spirit, you will receive it.

Finally, I never said that God is a precondition for free will. God is, I believe, a precondition for existence, and existence is a precondition for free will. But that wasn’t what I was getting at. What I said was that faith and free will could not coexist without the moment of choice I spoke of. A person with no free will can be made to trust in God, but if he is to have free will, there must be room for a choice to be made. A simple, easy, irrefutable, universal proof that God is good and all-powerful would kind of make trusting him irrelevant, wouldn’t it?

I’ve tried to answer your email in full without getting too sidetracked, which means that I may have misunderstood you or completely overlooked something important in the process. If I have, I beg your pardon and your patience in pointing out to me where I’ve gone wrong.

 

Pax,

John Henry

  • Slow Learner

    ” A simple, easy, irrefutable, universal proof that God is good and all-powerful would kind of make trusting him irrelevant, wouldn’t it?”

    I’m not sure; but if I grant it for the sake of argument, God could at least have the grace to prove that he exists in the first place; some suggestion that Christianity is correct rather than any other faith; that sort of thing.
    Say one true prophet who can perform bona fide miracles in every generation, so that you never get the “of course miracles happen” with all the examples being millennia ago.

    • eric

      I tend to think the correct response is “if Satan could know God and exercise free will, I can. Ditto with Adam, Eve, Abraham, and all the other folks who the bible tells me have done this exact thing you’re claiming is impossible.”

  • Brad

    Looking forward to your reply.

    FYI, you are missing the links to the prior portions of the conversation.

  • http://freethoughtblogs.com/almostdiamonds/ Stephanie Zvan

    I am constantly in the presence of people who aren’t there. I can see what they look like in detail. I can have discussions with them or interact in huge variety of ways. It doesn’t make them gods. It makes them characters, parts of my imagination. And it makes me a writer.

  • penn

    John’s definition of God is completely inconsistent. When he’s formally defining it he says God is just the first cause of the universe in the weakest of deistic language. An argument over the existence of such an entity as the first cause of the universe is philosophical masturbation and not worth the effort. Luckily that isn’t the actual God that John believes in.

    Later in John’s post he reveals that his God also creates “the feeling of not-being-alone” in him and that “God’s intellect is superior to mine”, and implies that his God is actually omniscient when he says “It is not just possible, but likely that an omniscient God‘s ideas about how best to establish relationships with us would differ from our own.” Additionally his God “wants us to love one another, and to do that, we must interact with one another.” His god also sent “Jonah with a message to the Ninevites” God also “wants us to have real opportunities to grow in love for one another”. This adds a lot more interesting qualities to God than just a first cause of the universe.

    John does eventually make it clear that he is a Christian and that he is smuggling his standard Christian beliefs regarding God in the Trojan Horse of a deistic “first cause”. That is not a good faith argument. John’s God is clearly a standard monotheistic omnipotent, omniscient, and omni-benevolent interventionalist God who calls prophets, performs miracles and desires a personal relationship with each human being. That’s the definition he should have offered and it’s dishonest to do otherwise.

  • eric

    I will start by defining God as the first cause of the universe (or multiverse, if you’re one of those string-theory folks.)

    Oh come now, you mean a lot more than that. As you (JH) yourself admit, you’re going to add a whole lot of properties – sentience, benevolence, potence (either omni- or close to it), as well as active participation in the universe in the form of Jesus.

    The idea that there was some initial set of necessary or contingent rules within which the universe arose (i) solves the infinite regress problem but (ii) does not meet any sincere believer’s definition of “God.”

    So the minimalist answer is pretty darn insincere.

    These explanations seem inadequate to me in part because I am not, so far as I can tell, prone to any other kinds of delusions. If I am delusional, it is a very specific kind of delusion.

    All humans have cognitive or perceptual biases and delusions. Our visual blind spot is the most cited example. Acknoweldging that our senses and feelings do not give us perfectly accurate data on reality does not mean we are all delusional in the vernacular sense; there is a perfectly mundane middle ground where one can take one’s senses as accurate most of the time but question them when other, independent data disagrees with them. Science (and in fact, disagreeing religions!) yield independant data that your feeling of a presence may be faulty.

    It is not just possible, but likely that an omniscient God‘s ideas about how best to establish relationships with us would differ from our own.

    Argument from inscrutability. Rejected on two counts: one, Christians use it selectively and have no problem saying God’s plan is understandable when it suits their purposes to do so. Two: completely ignores the Bible’s own instances of God revealing himself to humans. There is clearly no ironclad reason whe He can’t reveal himself, since according to your own book, He has revealed himself multiple times to many people.

    Also, one of the best ways to make something meaningful is to make it a mystery.

    This is horrifying. We are not talking about enjoying a Christie novel; we are talking about eternal damnation vs. salvation. Any God that would intentionally add mystery to that decision in order “keep the fun in it” is cruel in a way I have a difficult time even imagining. People are sent to hell because they don’t understand the decision. You don’t think, in this case, fully informed consent might be worth the loss of a little mystery?

    I enjoy unwrapping presents as much as anyone. But if someone wrapped an eternal legal agreement so I couldn’t read it before signing it, I would think them at least unethical and probably evil.

    A person with no free will can be made to trust in God, but if he is to have free will, there must be room for a choice to be made. A simple, easy, irrefutable, universal proof that God is good and all-powerful would kind of make trusting him irrelevant, wouldn’t it?

    You are again (or still) completely ignoring your own religion’s stories of people who DID have direct proof of God, yet still exercised free will.

    Your own Bible says you are wrong, since such proof didn’t remove the free will or force the choices of Abraham, Moses, all the other old testament prophets, all the people who saw Jesus working miracles, Satan, and a third of the heavenly host.

  • kagekiri

    Ugh, reminds me of a recent forum back and forth between me and a Christian. They start from the assumption God is there.

    I tried to make it clear that our reality doesn’t seem to suggest God…maybe I should have said Occam’s Razor just eliminates the hypothesis out right.

    If we’re going from the evidence of evil in the world and no well-investigated heavenly interaction, which is the simpler explanation with less assumptions?

    This:

    “God’s not there, religious people are deluded”,

    Or, this:

    “God is hiding himself in the gaps and scared to show off lest we lose free will because he loves us so much and all those mental experiences of most religious people are accurate representations of reality (except for the other religions or crazy people, where demons are probably giving them the experiences or they’re lying).”

  • Crip Dyke, Right Reverend Feminist FuckToy of Death & Her Handmaiden

    He says he’s never.felt alone…and he knows this b/c being alone feels different than being with other people.

    I call bs

    How does one know two experiences are different if one has had one of them but not the other?

    I’m also happy to concede that while we don’t know the origin of this cosmos in the detail that we would like, ang that time itself breaks down when space does, thus creating the possibility of a beginning. I don’t see how a god prevents infinite regress, but let’s stipulate, arguendo, that there was a cause (as we understand the word cause) of the universe. There is a cause for Tsunami…the cause does not understand tsunami nor is it intelligent in any fashion. A quake can’t calculate a wave function.

    So all ’1st cause’ gets us is that something happened…and we get that from physics.

    How do you get from ‘something happened’ to ‘something happened on purpose’…and it was caused by an intelligent being who’s really worried about Internet porn?

  • Rory

    I feel like John took exactly the wrong point away from the checkerboard image. As I understood it the point is not that our minds are correctly interpreting an image of real objects in seeing a checkerboard with a shadow on it. It is that we interpret the image incorrectly because our brains work in a specific way that is appropriate to the material universe. We are objectively, demonstrably wrong to see the squares as being different colors, but because of how our brains work, we cannot know this unless we employ a more objective way of examining the image (such as using Photoshop to identify the colors for us).

    Translated to the subject at hand, when John feels the presence of god by his side, he is objectively wrong (or at least not demonstrably correct), but because his brain employs heuristics such as cause and effect, and assigning agency, his wrong idea feels very right. It is only by employing more objective analytical methods that we can recognize the mistake.

    I would further point out that arguing that he cannot be mistaken in this belief because he is not delusional is silly. I tend to be very self-conscious and feel like people see me in a negative light even when they don’t. People with body image dysmorphia see themselves inaccurately even though they may not apply the same biases when they look at other people. Clearly we are capable of having strongly held ideas which are at odds with reality without it completely paralyzing us, so there is no reason why the perception of a deity means the deity is real absent any objectively verifiable substantiation.

  • http://www.atheist-faq.com JT (Generic)

    These explanations seem inadequate to me in part because I am not, so far as I can tell, prone to any other kinds of delusions.

    So basically it’s not a psychological phenomenon, because he says so.

    If I am delusional, it is a very specific kind of delusion. But my main objection is that discounting my experiences as delusions requires me to discount my sense impressions of reality, which I’m generally disinclined to do without very good reason.

    Delusion does not necessarily mean hallucination. Delusion can simply mean that you’re mistaken about something.

    The fact is, existence of supernatural things, souls, let alone gods, is unambiguously unprecedented in terms of confirmable reality. Conversely, pyschological phenomenon, whether it’s a combination of biases, memory and perceptual errors, is very common and very well known and investigated.

    There’s two basic possibilities for his “feeling” here:

    1) A psychological error in perception.
    2) An unprecedented unconfirmed unproven no-evidence breaks-every-law-of-physics-we-have entity is responsible.

    #1 is far far far far far far far more likely than #2. It’s not a question of “discounting”. It’s a question of asking John why he decided, for no apparent reason, to gloss over the most likely explanation and dart directly towards the most unlikely and improbable possibility.

    I don’t know why people do that.

  • http://peternothnagle.com Peter N

    I certainly appreciate this guy’s pleasant and even-tempered style, and his efforts to understand what JT has written. However, I don’t think he really has any idea what an atheist is. When he addresses the burden of proof, he seems to think that both faith and atheism are positive truth claims — but they’re not: atheism is a position of neutrality. But that’s not an excuse not to debate with him.

    The god of his religion is hidden away in unknowable first causes, and makes itself known through vague internal feelings. It must have, for reasons that the faithful can only guess at, made a universe indistinguishable from one with no god at all, that came to be and operates solely by natural causes. This is nothing like the god of the early Jews or the first Christians, who didn’t hesitate to show up — arranging stars in the sky, destroying cities, raising the dead, sending down plagues of frogs — that sort of thing (and who commanded, in person, some pretty horrendous actions by his followers). This is some new of religion, that worships some new god.

    Shall we speculate about why some people believe in this new kind of undetectable god?

    • fastlane

      I think he needs to have the null hypothesis explained to him.

      Also, JT, I realize that this guy is a friend of yours, but a lot of this email seems evasive, so either he’s really naive about the claims he’s making, or he’s not really arguing honestly.

      The ‘not fisking’ comes across as ‘I can’t or won’t address your actual points, and I’m just going to say what I want to say.’.

      It’s already starting to be one-sided, since you actually addressed his email to you almost point by point.

  • Makoto

    The thing to me about the first cause arguments is this:
    One “first cause” is the universe came into being. This is a pretty big thing. The other “first cause” is a God came into being, then created the universe with its powers. This is an even bigger thing.

    Why does it make more sense to have a God that can create the universe, and where did that God come from? Why can a God just exist, but a universe can’t, given the God must be powerful enough to create a universe?

    Anyone familiar with the burden of proof knows that the burden lies with the person trying to prove a point. Innocent until proven guilty is a good case in point. We assume that a person is innocent – the prosecution must prove that the person is guilty due to evidence that the defense cannot refute.

    If you claim you have a diamond, you must provide proof. I can’t assume you have a diamond. Pictures, showing me the diamond, even a piece of glass that I hand you and let you scratch with your diamond could be used to infer proof of a diamond in your possession.

    If you claim God exists, it’s on you to provide proof, not feel good “not alone” feelings that you feel. Especially since feel good feelings can be shown in many other ways – other religions result in the same feelings, so how are they less valid than yours, even though they may have more than one God?

  • sqlrob

    Stating that the burden of proof is on me because I believe in God and you don’t is a little hard to swallow. In any honest conversation, the burden of proof is on the person attempting to convince the other

    Wrong. The burden is on the one providing the positive claim. (otherwise known as “put up or shut up”)

    You can tell me why I am wrong that the only two possibilities are infinite regress and a first cause, and explain a third possibility I had not considered.

    “All events have a cause” has been demonstrated as false. There is no need for a first cause and there is no regress with that falsification.

  • Icy Cantu

    This is the key:

    “That he invites you to knock at his door – to kneel down in private and talk to him honestly for a bit – and see what happens. That although he’s not yours to command, and he probably won’t be giving you a personal miracle under carefully controlled laboratory conditions on demand, he has promised that if you ask for the Holy Spirit, you will receive it.”

    Just try it-and some day soon you too will see…

    • http://www.atheist-faq.com JT (Generic)

      My question before taking this action would be “How do I know that it isn’t just a hallucination or delusion?”

      If I were to do as he suggests, and I indeed become convinced through the very experience he posits, I would still have a problem.

      I still don’t know if it is just a hallucination or delusion. For all I know, now I’m hallucinating.

      In order for this to be a useful “test” it must be objectively demonstrable. Otherwise, the truth claim is not demonstrated. It can’t be if its truth state is still indistinguishable from its false state.

      It’s irrelevant what I believe. What’s demonstrably true is relevant.

      • Icy Cantu

        I’m assuming this is the crude summary of what you wrote(?):

        “If you do this, and actually receive the Holy Spirit, thereby coming to know that God is real, you wouldn’t be able to “prove” it all happened, so why even attempt it?”

      • http://www.atheist-faq.com JT (Generic)

        “If you do this, and actually receive the Holy Spirit, thereby coming to know that God is real, you wouldn’t be able to “prove” it all happened, so why even attempt it?”

        Yes, actually. There isn’t enough time in existence to explore all the possible claims are true by epistemologically poor means. I don’t know why this one bizarre concept of a supernatural being is special.

        On top of that, if I were to actually receive the Holy Spirit, I wouldn’t “know” it. Knowledge is objectively confirmable demonstrable belief. By the nature of that “test”, that isn’t possible. All I would know is that I think I experienced it.

        So, through intellectual honesty, I would have to refrain judgement on the experience until it could be objectively demonstrably confirmed.

        Otherwise, for all I know, I’m just hallucinating.

        • Icy Cantu

          We are walking through a large crowd when suddenly you turn to me and say, “Hey! Someone pinched me.”

          “Where?” I say.

          “Right there!” You point to your arm.

          “I don’t see anything. You smokin’ somethin?”

          “No. I was pinched. I know there is no mark, but it hurts like a son-of-a-gun.”

          “You’re losin’ it.”

          “Well, I guess you’re right. All I would know is that I think I experienced it. So, through intellectual honesty, I will have to refrain judgement on this experience until it can be objectively demonstrably confirmed.”

          • Daniel Schealler

            Was that indended to be an ironic ‘look how silly that argument is when applied to a real-world situation’ kind of thing?

            That’s how it reads to me, but I’m not sure about it.

            Anyway: It’s actually true. It’s something that I get from time to time.

            If I start thinking about mosquitoes I start to ‘feel’ pinpricks over my body.

            If I start thinking about pickup up broken glass, I start to ‘feel’ pinpricks over my hands.

            The experience is real in the sense that I really do feel like small objects are piercing my skin.

            But the experience doesn’t match up against anything that is actually happening to me in reality.

            I can’t relate to the example of being pinched specifically – but given the mosquitoes/broken glass thing I have, it doesn’t strike me as utterly far fetched.

            Of course, it’s a slightly bad argument to begin with: Broken glass, mosquitoes, arms, hands, fingers and opposable thumbs (required for pinching) can all be demonstrated to exist. Being bitten by mosquitoes, pierced by broken glass, or pinched are all things that can be shown to happen.

            All of these things are therefore distinctly different from God, the existence of whom, and the actions of whom, cannot be demonstrated to exist beyond people moaning about ‘personal experience’ or looking at frozen warterfalls or other such rubbish.

        • http://www.atheist-faq.com JT (Generic)

          First, being pinched isn’t an extraordinary claim, thus it’s skeptical requirement is low.

          The existence of a supernatural being is literally unprecedented with zero standards-qualifying evidence to back it up. This requires a higher burden (significantly higher).

          Secondly, it’s correct that without corroborating objective evidence, I have no rational basis for accepting the claim as true on a basic level.

          In addition, the claim that someone pinched you is at least hypothetically demonstrable through video or photographic evidence, or finding the person who did pinch you and getting a confession.

          We have none of that capacity with a supposed telepathic link with a ghost.

          Since it’s such a mundane every-day claim, as opposed to an unprecedented unproven undemonstrated vastly extraordinary claim that is indistinguishable from hallucination, I may just take your word for it, even if the claim seems a bit odd. It’s just not an important claim to worry about.

          How would you propose that, something that you yourself are claiming only happens inside one’s head (entirely subjective), can be distinguished from hallucination?

          How would we do that?

          • Icy Cantu

            Internal monologue: “What do I say now? Should I retort with something sarcastic – or really push you, dear brain, to respond with a thoughtful, genuine argument that JT, Jr. would ponder and appreciate. This is a risk. Here I go…No. Scratch that. This conversation is OVER.”

            I don’t know, JT (Generic). I don’t have an opinion that I would like to express. I did have one, although I can’t prove it.

          • http://www.atheist-faq.com JT (Generic)

            You could go ahead and simply answer the question.

            How would we be able to distinguish someone’s claim that they had (what amounts to) telepathic communication with a ghost, from some combination of psychological effects, none of which have anything to do with anything supernatural?

            Pinching at least is something that is objective (slight physical damage to a body). What you’re talking about is something that happens entirely in one’s mind with no external corroborating indicators that can be used to distinguish between the two possibilities.

          • Icy Cantu

            I can explain it to you about as well as this camera can explain
            the experience of space travel to me…

            http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4qWWgvzWHUs&feature=related

            Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world. By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God; and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God; this is the spirit of the antichrist, of which you have heard that it is coming, and now it is already in the world. -1 John 4:1-3

          • http://www.atheist-faq.com JT (Generic)

            How does a space shuttle launch answer my question?

            I don’t think you understand the question.

            It’s not a question of coming up with possible explanations. It’s about finding an accurate method for determining what is actually happening – to distinguish one possibility from another.

            How would we determine which of the possibilities is actually true – that the experience is either a hallucination or actual communication with the holy spirit?

  • Richard

    My response is summarized to “Oy.” Lots of words, plenty of sidesteps and fancying up of arguments. Nothing new, nothing even terribly remarkable. Longwinded, to get to the “A person with no free will can be made to trust in God, but if he is to have free will, there must be room for a choice to be made. A simple, easy, irrefutable, universal proof that God is good and all-powerful would kind of make trusting him irrelevant, wouldn’t it?”
    *headdeskheaddeskheaddesk* Do they even READ what they’re writing?

  • Mark

    It really is staggering how difficult obviously intelligent theists find it to accept that the burden of proof lies with the person making the claim. It’s equally staggering how intelligent theists still do not get that atheism is not a claim but a rejection of a claim(s). That should be your first point in response.

    • http://www.atheist-faq.com Jasper T

      I’m arguing with a theist on another blog, and he gave me an amazing version of shifting of the burden of proof.

      It goes something like this:

      1) I claim that there’s insufficient evidence to establish the existence of a god.

      2) Since I’m making a claim, I must be able to falsify it. Therefore, I’m asked to provide hypothetical means to disprove that there’s insufficient evidence.

      3) If I can’t do that, then my position is unfalsifiable, and therefore irrational.

      Nevermind that they’re asking me how to prove and unprovable definition, and falsify and unfalisiable definition. It’s apparently up to me to prove that my position of “I don’t believe you” isn’t undemonstrable unfalsiabiable and irrational.

      • eric

        I think you’re getting hung up with all the double-negatives and the answer is actually quite easy. ‘Insufficient evidence’ is falsifiable if you can describe what evidence would be sufficient (for you to believe in God).

        Remember, falsifiable does not mean falsified. You don’t have to come up with proof of God to demonstrate your claim is falsifiable, you just have to say what such proof would look like.

      • http://www.atheist-faq.com Jasper T

        That’s part of the problem. Most god definitions aren’t provable (even in terms of a demonstration beyond a reasonable doubt). Most aren’t falsifiable.

        Thus, I can’t meet those requests.

    • http://www.atheist-faq.com Jasper T

      Actually, now that I think about it, it almost seems like a presuppositionalist argument where he’s trying to show that my position is just as irrational as his, therefore he wins.

      • Mark

        I saw that argument JT I’m commenting as Mozza79 over on that blog.

  • Candice

    I am somewhat familiar with the sensation of feeling like someone (or something) is there with you when there is clearly no one there. I read about this malfunction of the brain in a book called The Spiritual Doorway in the Brain (by Kevin Nelson). This is a very interesting book, describing what occurs and how the brain is affected when people experience a “mystical” or “spiritual” experience. For instance, when blood flow to the brain is slowed or when certain areas of the brain do not get enough oxygen, then feelings of elation and the characteristics of a “spiritual” experience occurs (like when you’re tripping on shrooms, which has been shown by an fMRI to decrease blood/oxygen flow to many areas of the brain, or when people are in higher elevations). One of those characteristics of a “spiritual” or “mystical” experience is the perception that someone is there with you when there is, in fact, no one near your person.

    Here is an article describing that sensation: http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v443/n7109/abs/443287a.html

    This sensation happens fairly frequently to people hiking at high elevations, when people are in between consciousness and REM sleep, right before fainting, or when someone is tripping on hallucinogens. It’s very interesting, but in no way an indicator of a supreme being.

  • Parse

    Every phenomenon in the universe, as we know it, is contingent – it owes its existence to something else.

    Nope. What’s the cause of radioactive decay – not the general cause overall, but what makes a specific atom of (say) carbon-14 decay into an atom of nitrogen-14 at a given moment? Spontaneous, uncaused action occurs in nature – unless John would argue that it’s his god behind every single radioactive atom’s eventual decay.
    However, even if we grant (for the sake of argument) that there is a specific, sentient being behind the creation of the universe, there’s still a massive hole in his argument: John needs to show that this entity is the same one he’s talking about when he mentioned his ‘personal experience of God’. After all, how can we tell that it’s John’s Yahweh that created the universe, and not Pikkiwokki?

    A simple, easy, irrefutable, universal proof that God is good and all-powerful would kind of make trusting him irrelevant, wouldn’t it?

    Wrong again. There’s simple, easy, irrefutable proof that President Obama was born in Hawaii, but that doesn’t mean that all Republicans accept this fact.

    Every phenomenon in the universe, as we know it, is contingent – it owes its existence to something else.

    Nope. What’s the cause of radioactive decay – not the general cause overall, but what makes a specific atom of (say) carbon-14 decay into an atom of nitrogen-14 at a given moment? Spontaneous, uncaused action occurs in nature – unless John would argue that it’s his god behind every single radioactive atom’s eventual decay.
    However, even if we grant (for the sake of argument) that there is a specific, sentient being behind the creation of the universe, there’s still a massive hole in his argument: John needs to show that this entity is the same one he’s talking about when he mentioned his ‘personal experience of God’. After all, how can we tell that it’s John’s Yahweh that created the universe, and not Pikkiwokki?

    A simple, easy, irrefutable, universal proof that God is good and all-powerful would kind of make trusting him irrelevant, wouldn’t it?

    Wrong again. There’s simple, easy, irrefutable proof that President Obama was born in Hawaii, but that doesn’t mean that all Republicans accept this fact.

  • Daniel Schealler

    @John Henry

    I’d also like to address something that you’ve brought up a number of times: burden of proof. Stating that the burden of proof is on me because I believe in God and you don’t is a little hard to swallow. In any honest conversation, the burden of proof is on the person attempting to convince the other, and in a two-way conversation like this, the burden of supporting our assertions is on both of us. If your goal is to convince me to become an atheist, probably the worst argument you can use is “Atheism is true unless you can prove it wrong.” Certainly you will continue to believe it is true unless you can be given a good reason to think otherwise, but that isn’t an argument, and it won’t get you very far if your goal is to convince me (or any other theist.)

    I’ve often made the point that the person who is making a positive claim needs to carry the burden of proof – and such people generally look at me like I’m insane. I never quite understood why.

    The quoted paragraph above is a brilliant example of a good-sounding reason for why they might be looking at me funny. No-one has ever explained their objection to burden assignment as clear to me as John has in that paragraph. If you’re reading this John, I appreciate the level of clarity on display here.

    I disagree, of course. But I appreciate it all the same. ^_^

    I want to try and defend the position that you consider to be the worst possible argument an atheist can make: “Atheism is true unless you can prove it wrong.” (I expect JT will do a better job than me, but I could use the practice. ^_^)

    Specifically, I want to argue the case that if a person is being rational (as defined below) in their stance towards God’s existence, then the statement that “Atheism is true unless you can prove it wrong,” should be highly persuasive.

    The implication of this is that, if you do not consider the statement persuasive, then you are not being rational in your stance towards God’s existence. Simple, yes?

    So what does it mean to be rational? The sense in which I define the term for the context of this comment is as follows:

    For one to be rational towards a belief claim is for one to ratio one’s confidence in the truth of the claim in direct proportion to the sum of the currently available evidence about that claim.

    It follows from this that rationality requires that a lack of good evidence must be matched with a lack of belief.

    Which is really just a more technically accurate way of saying: “Atheism is true unless you can prove it wrong.”

    John, it follows from this argument that, if you do not consider “Atheism is true unless you can prove it wrong,” to be a persuasive position, then your stance towards the question of God’s existence is not rational.

    Your belief in God is therefore irrational.

    Why should anyone be expected to take someone else’s irrational belief seriously?

    I’m not sure about the rules in play for the blogalog, and whether or not you are permitted or inclined to get engaged with commenters of the article… But I’d be very interested to hear you consideration of my little argument here against your position regarding the “Atheism is true unless you can prove it wrong,” thing.

    I’d appreciate the time and effort you put into any response. Not because I’m trying to convince you that I’m right and want to have a debate with you (although I’m open to that), but rather because I would like to understand what you think and how you’re reacting to my argument.

    I would value your critique.

    Of course, that takes time, effort and energy, and I expect you’re busy enough just responding to JT. So I don’t mind in the least if you’re not inclined to get back to me on this. No obligation implied.

    If you would like to get back to me on this, then either leave a reply here (if permitted by the blogalog) or feel free to email one through to me.

    My email address is my first name [dot] lastname [at] gmail [dot] com, as they appear at the top of this comment.

    Hope to hear from you.

  • Robert L. Rader

    On another note, did anyone else immediately think “d4″ when he mentioned “four-sided triangle”?

    • Richard

      *Raises hand sheepishly* ><

    • Daniel Schealler

      Shhhh!

  • Stan Brooks

    Don’t know if you read your comments or not, but given that you seem to have given credibility to and responded to John Henry’s “blogalog” as you both seem to call your discussion I’d be willing to bet that you do. All I have to say is that I lost interest after the 4th paragraph.

    I’m not saying that discussions of this nature don’t have an effect on the believer (or perhaps the atheist?), but, as a former believer, it was NEVER discussions of this nature that turned my thoughts to skepticism, agnosticism and, finally, atheism. Discussions of this nature more firmly rooted me in my previously held convictions. There are very few humans who are willing to face public humiliation by, after lengthy argument, admitting that, well, hey, I guess you’ve got a point after all.

    I’m just saying, you’ve got a lot more patience than I would ever have, and perhaps more time than I would be willing to devote to what would be to me very frustrating arguments.

    To John Henry I would only add the question: Why won’t god heal amputees? And by god, I mean any supernatural being.

  • http://markkoop.blogspot.ca Mark

    John Henry,

    Not sure you read these comments, but…

    I love experiments.

    “…he has promised that if you ask for the Holy Spirit, you will receive it.”

    Challenge accepted!

    How long do I wait before declaring the experiment a failure?

    • penn

      The Holy Spirit can’t fail, only you can fail the Holy Spirit. If it doesn’t work, either you weren’t sincere or you need to keep waiting. There are no other options. The believer will see this as obvious as opposed an evidence-free unfalsifiable assertion.

      • Daniel Schealler

        Of course it’s obvious, you big silly!

        If you can’t provide proof that an unfalsifiable claim is wrong, that makes it obviously true.

        Because, like, duh.

      • http://markkoop.blogspot.com/ Mark

        Ah, then there really is no way to “taste and see that the Lord is good.”

  • Morgan

    Crip Dyke @ #7 made the point I most wanted to after reading that: if JH has never not felt that he was in someone’s presence, then he can have no idea whether his sense for that works or not. Something that always returns “yes” regardless of the apparent circumstances is indistinguishable from something that’s simply short-circuiting, an if(True) statement that doesn’t bother to check anything external before producing its answer. If JH usually felt like there was someone around when it turned out there clearly was, and like he was alone when there was no one around (and no one who later turned out to be hidden or the like), but sometimes felt a presence that he couldn’t trace, then that would be something worth explaining (most likely as some quirk of the brain) – but what he describes doesn’t even rise to that level.

    That aside, I found this interesting:

    I would say, rather, that delusion is the way materialists explain away supernatural phenomena.

    Does JH deny that any delusions exist? Does he claim that all apparent delusion is actually a mislabeled manifestation of something supernatural? If not, then he’s missing the point. It’s not that, well, I might be delusional or this might be something supernatural going on, who knows? It’s that we recognize delusions occur and people are prone to all sorts of cognitive biases and perceptual errors, so when your sense seem to be contradicting reality it’s much more likely to fall under that category than to be a remarkably unverifiable instance of some real supernatural phenomenon.

    And if he is claiming that the supernatural is the explanation for all apparent mismatches between our senses and our understanding of reality… well, that’s the point at which I generally write people off as not worth trying to speak with civilly any more.

  • Anri

    Every phenomenon in the universe, as we know it, is contingent – it owes its existence to something else.

    Wrong in one.
    Theists really need to stop saying this, it demonstrates they have not been paying attention for several decades.

    Let completely alone the concept of using the statement that everything must have a cause to prove the existence of something without cause.

    So:

    You can tell me why I am wrong that the only two possibilities are infinite regress and a first cause, and explain a third possibility I had not considered.

    Ok. Some things happen on a strictly probabilistic basis. They are not triggered. As noted above, particle decay is a good example.
    If you have ‘not considered’ this, please don’t be insulted when I say you’re simply too ignorant to be entering into a discussion about the origin of the universe. Ignorance, fortunately, is curable. Go forth and heal thyself.

  • rikitiki

    “loving the sinner and hating the sin” <– this!
    Why do they always say this? My ‘born again’ sister told me
    this is what Jesus said. Truly! But that’s a Ghandi
    quote (admittedly not one of his better days). Just shows
    how much they don’t read their bible.

  • SB

    You can tell me why I am wrong that the only two possibilities are infinite regress and a first cause, and explain a third possibility I had not considered.

    3. Our entire universe is the product of an alien experiment, not unlike the LHC experiment and billions of our years are billionths of a second to them.

    Seems just as plausible, to me, as the God hypothesis.


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