Ongoing blogalog

The blogalog with John Henry continues.

Round 1:  John’s first, my first

Round 2: John’s


Hey John.

There’s a lot here.  Forgive me if I jump right in.

You speak about the burden of proof.  I’m going to quote you specifically throughout this email so you know exactly to what I’m responding.

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.

How am I to prove that god doesn’t exist?  If something doesn’t exist, what more evidence could I possibly have other than the absence of any evidence for that thing?

Let’s try it this way.  Let’s have a two-way conversation over whether or not you’re a murderer.  I think you are.  I’ve provided no evidence other than I think you look like a murderer and I really feel you’re a murderer.  Convince me you’re not.  How would you do it?

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

There’s a lot to say here.  First, is this your only definition of god?  No intelligence?  No all-wise, no all-good?  No male or female?  You said you were a Catholic, and standard Catholic beliefs have a great deal more to say about god than, “It was the first cause.”

Anyway, even if I were to concede that our universe had a first cause (this would say nothing about what preceded our universe), so what?  You cannot just point to something we observe and say that it’s god.  You can’t point to lightning and say that lightning exists and it’s god, therefore god exists.  You can’t point to a tree and say that the tree exists and it’s god, therefore god exists.  Redefining words doesn’t bring any guiding intelligence into them.

Anyway, as far as the infinite regression problem goes.  Even if I were to concede that everything required a cause (which I don’t, and neither do physicists, see probability clouds, decay of a radioactive nucleus, virtual particles, etc.), our two options are, as you said, either something at some point spontaneously began to exist or something existed forever.  Let’s examine both options.

1.  Something existed forever.

Ok, why isn’t it matter and the laws of physics?  Those things create order all by themselves over time.  What’s more; we know they exist.  If you want to call matter and the laws of physics god, fine, but that’s just a different definition for completely natural things.  You don’t get to smuggle a bunch of supernatural qualities in afterward.

You also can’t say that we know of nothing that can exist forever and then immediately postulate something that existed forever.  Things either can exist forever or not.  Pick one.

2.  Something existed without a cause.

Ok, why isn’t it matter and the laws of physics?  We know they exist.

You may respond that we know of nothing that can exist without a cause (which isn’t true), but there was a time when we didn’t know how earthquakes could happen via natural causes.  “What could move the earth but god?” asked the theologians before saying that it must be god.  Of course, our understanding of nature evolved, and once again “god” was replaced by natural causes.  This has been a pattern that has saturated our history.

And that’s just the thing.  We started out understanding nothing about the operation of the universe.  Ever since that time everything we have explained, literally everything, has been found to be the product of mindless forces acting on inanimate objects.  You might call these mindless forces “god”, but that would only make you an atheist with a wonky definition of natural phenomenon.

So let’s be honest; nobody knows what happened before the Big Bang.  I don’t.  You don’t.  Physicists don’t.  But we do know how all kinds of things after it happened, and none of them point to god.  Literally none.  Now, you may say that god is whatever caused the Big Bang, but by doing so you’re saying that god is what you don’t know.  So you’re either developing a reverence for your ignorance, or you’re saying that because you’re ignorant of something that you have knowledge about it.  Neither of these are good ways to formulate beliefs.

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.

And what is your solution?  Something that required no cause?

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

You are wrong about this.  But even if you weren’t, what does this tell you about god?  If you already believe that something can exist without a cause, why not matter and the laws of physics, which we know exist and which we know produce order all by themselves?

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.”

I rebut it thusly: as far as I can tell, a god is something without a first cause, and thus a nonexistent thing. The phrase “uncaused god” is as meaningful to me as the phrase “four-sided triangle.”

They’re your standards.  Either they apply or they don’t.  Pick one.

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.

Yes, I have.  But I only accepted their presence once it was confirmed and not a moment sooner.  I’ve also been in an empty room where I felt there was someone else present, but there wasn’t.  This is the whole point.  Our feelings must be tempered by evidence.

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.

This confirms only the feeling.  It does not confirm that there is actually somebody there.  Also, “clues you weren’t aware of noticing” are not evidence.  They’re not even something you’re aware of, so how can you cite them as evidence?

Consider for a moment you were telling me of other feelings.  What if you felt that there was a talking fish in your house?  Or that aliens were monitoring your every move?  Just like the person in the room you claim to feel now, there is no evidence for these things.  In cases where a person feels one thing but the evidence is lacking (or in opposition to his intuition), a wise man concludes that his intuition is wrong.

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.

What you should do is realize that there is a better explanation for them.  All human beings have impulses and intuitions that prove incorrect.  We must be willing to realize that feelings can be undeserving of merit, which I wager you’ve done with plenty of other feelings.  It does not make you a freak.  It makes you like any other human being.

Consider this: I’ve been very public about my psychological disorders (thanks to the god you say loves me giving me a malfunctioning brain).  I actually do, at times, see things that aren’t there.  This is more than euphoric, fuzzy feelings – I actually see them and can confirm them through one of my physical senses.  This is more personal evidence than you have.  And yet, who could argue that once the evidence was evaluated (including the fact that others cannot see what I see), that I should continue to believe that these things are there?

You may respond that others feel what you feel, but you’re wrong.  If I set up a painting and had twenty people look at it, they would all be able to stare and confirm several specifics.  What are god’s qualities?  How tall is he?  What does he want from humanity?  Virtually every person who feels god disagrees, which means, at minimum, virtually all of them are misguided.  Why not all of them?

About the optical illusion I gave as an example of how our senses can, and do, deceive us, you said…

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.

Why not make that assumption?  We appear to live in a materialistic world.  Even if god does exist, he created you with senses bound to materialistic input (sight, smell, taste, sound, tactile response, etc.).  He created a world with disease, predatory animals that think humans are delicious, tornadoes, limited food, etc., where you must use those senses, not any reliance on the supernatural, in order to navigate all his obstacles.

For instance, people do not send psychic messages to their friends, they dial their phone.  People do not fly by telekinesis, we build airplanes.  And sickness is fought by taking someone to a doctor to receive medicine based entirely in materialistic philosophy, rather than prayer (and when you do pray over sickness without recourse to medicine, people die).  Reliance on the supernatural would have led us the way of the dodo ages ago.  But reliance on materialism allows us to exchange emails.

So the evidence is abundant that we live in a materialistic universe, not a universe where supernatural forces affect anything.  Do you have any evidence to the contrary?  If not, by your own assertion, my explanation for your experiences (being another natural flaw in the brain that causes you to put too much stock in feelings) is the better one.

What’s more, why would a god make unraveling the mysteries of this world, something we must do in order to survive all the avenues to death with which he littered the world, and then hide his existence from those senses?  If he wants to know you, why wouldn’t he appeal to your natural senses?  Is god’s existence not a more relevant fact than the softness of carpet?  If so, why did he makes the softness of carpet plain, and choose to reveal himself to you through a nebulous feeling (the same feelings, I’d wager, that lead people to all kinds of wonky and conflicting conclusions about the nature of god)?  This god that you’re describing appears indifferent to the idea of knowing anybody, which is exactly what a godless universe would look like.

And lastly, is there any belief that can’t be defended by saying “Yes, you would be right as long as you assume the laws of nature and logic are consistent.”?  If you have to argue that one of those standards was relaxed in your favor in order to defend your position, it may be time to re-think a few things.

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

Explain away?  You have so far told me you have feelings.  That’s not a 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.

But you are prone to error.  It’s part of the human condition.  The squares on the checkerboard appeared to be different colors, for instance.

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 have no doubt you are sincere when describing these feelings.  I simply think you poorly concluded what has caused them.  What I am saying is that your feelings look more like the product of your natural brain than a god reaching out to you.

I’m all for skepticism, but it is not (and should not be) the default approach to all experiences. (That would mean virtual paralysis.)

Skepticism is not the same as doubting to the point of never changing your mind.  If you told me you owned a nuclear surfboard, I would be skeptical since such an object isn’t known to exist.  This is not anything close to paralysis, because if you showed me the surfboard, I’d change my mind.  Skepticism means withholding judgment until good evidence is presented.  Feelings are simply not good evidence.  They’re not good evidence for the two squares on the checkerboard being the same and they’re not good evidence for a god reaching out to someone.And not all claims should be met with the same level of skepticism.  Consider the following propositions:

1. I own a car.
2. I own a nuclear bomb.
3. I own an interstellar spacecraft.

Not only are these statements (or beliefs, if you really subscribed to them) progressively unlikely to be true, but in order for any sane person to accept them as true requires increasingly more evidence. If admonished with the first one, it is easy to accept it as true because lots of people own cars. If I claimed the second, you’d need more evidence since, even though they exist, very few people own nuclear bombs.  However, once you get to the last one, you would need an inordinate amount of evidence, more than the nuclear bomb, to confirm that I own an interstellar spacecraft.

In your case, you have flat out said that your case resides on the existence of forces that have never, to my knowledge, been witnesses, tested, or confirmed.  This makes them indistinguishable from imagination.  If you have any evidence for the supernatural, by all means present it.

My claim is that you are wrong about what causes your feelings that, you say, are caused by god.  Intuition is frequently wrong, and is revealed to be wrong by examining where it clashes with the evidence.  Lots of people say they feel things about god that both of us agree simply cannot be the true.  In this, human error is not very different from people owning cars in terms of probability.

On the other hand, you are saying that a god for which no evidence exists outside of your feelings, is trying to reveal himself to you in a fashion indistinguishable from the errors of plenty of others, and through means that evade the senses he gave us.  Are you beginning to see which of us is the car and which is the interstellar spacecraft?

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.

The idea that we’re not robots also has the benefit of having all the evidence supporting it as a conclusion.  What would you say to someone who said they felt like people were robots?  Would you believe the person admonishing you that being around robots is a different feeling from being around people, and that they cannot imagine how they could be deluded when they feel it so strongly?  The answer is simple: you would tell them that their intuition does not, and should not, trump the evidence.

By the same token, it makes sense to me to treat my experiences of communion with God as what they seem to be.

Can you describe these experiences of communion with god?  Are they just feelings of his presence, or does god speak back?  If so, how?  Maybe I could come over sometime when he’s there and I could ask him a few questions?You and I right now?  We’re in communion.  It’s palpable for everybody else to see.  We could rely on others to confirm that our senses were not deceiving us.  Isn’t it just a bit strange how god has placed infinitely more importance on your ability to be reliably in communion with me than with him?  Maybe he wants you to listen to me.  ;)

I confess that I have no idea what you were trying to say with this paragraph.

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.

You seem to be saying something that is demonstrably the case (the two squares are the same color) is not the case.  But surely that can’t be what you’re saying.

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.

I’ll say you’re not entirely right.  Here’s what I said.

You say that, “The best I can do is tell you that he’s amazing, and that he loves you, and he wants you to get to know him.”  You didn’t provide any evidence for this, but it seems clear that this is not the case.

The god you describe as amazing is the same god that has decided the best way to communicate his existence is through a means that creates mass confusion and war, and that looks indistinguishable from a misattribution of causation for euphoric feelings in the brain.  That’s not very amazing.

You also said god loves me, which I would later address.  But my rebuttal to the idea that god wants to get to know me was completely uncoupled from any idea of a loving god.  I simply pointed out that if he wanted to get to know me (or you), that he was going about it in very foolish and ineffective ways.  In fact, the means god has employed for me to know him have, thus far, been indistinguishable from a godless universe.  It’s easy to see where god could have done a better job at getting to know me, but very difficult to see how he could possibly have done worst.

If I want to get to know someone, I walk over and introduce myself.  God has displayed a plan for getting to know me less that betrays an inferior competence to every single person who has ever gotten to know either of us, John.  If I accept your premise that god wants to get to know me, then god is either less competent than humans (in which case, why call him god?), or he doesn’t exist.

This is a variation of the problem-of-evil argument

No it’s not.  Unless you’re referring to my response to your claim that god loves me, in which case that premise is all yours.

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.

First, you should establish that god exists before waxing on about his incredible wisdom.

Secondly, is there any act so outlandishly foolish it that cannot be excused by saying, “Yes, it appears god is really dumb here, but he’s wiser than us so there must be an explanation we don’t know about”?  Ordinarily doing dumb things would impact our impression of someone’s wisdom, but not for god.

He wants to get to know me by masking his existence?  Sounds counterproductive, but god’s got a plan (a good plan, mind you).

He shows love for me by giving me a malfunctioning brain that has created a great deal of pain in my life?  Nah, just wait it out.  The dude’s brilliant and doesn’t want you to suffer…even though he’s made you suffer.

Jews into ovens without god lifting a finger?  Yeah, one would normally conclude that god either is apathetic (not a very lovey quality) or doesn’t exist.  But if you just assume god exists and you assume he loves people and you assume he’s wise, then you’ll see how even though something he’s done seems smash-your-head-into-sharp-objects stupid to us, that god has some super wise justification that I, the person defending his wisdom, am just too dumb to see.

At what point is god’s idea of love so diametrically different from our own that we can conclude he doesn’t seem to love anybody?  We can certainly say that god’s love is identical to human indifference/malice, which is an odd conclusion to reach about a being who is supposed to be better than we.

Well John, human standards for wisdom/idiocy or love/indifference are all we have to work with.  If god exists, he made us that way.  They’re also the standards that you, presumably, have used to establish he loves us.  If those standards point to god being indifferent (or even malicious) then the best conclusion we humans can come up with is that your assertion, that god loves us, is flat out wrong.

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

If he were to give us all the same message, how would that prevent us from interacting with each other?So if god told them, why not tell me?  Why plop his true prophets in with all kinds of people throughout history who were either wrong or lying, counting on his followers to say, “God spoke to me!  He’s not going to speak to you, but he spoke to me and you need to listen to what I have to say.”?

If god gave a real message to the Ninevites, why didn’t he give them some way to distinguish themselves from all the others in terms of credibility?  Why didn’t he give them some good evidence that god existed?

You and I both already agree that tons of people throughout history have claimed to bear a message from god and have been mistaken.  How do I know the Ninevites were not in the same boat?

The god you describe is a god so inept he cannot formulate a better plan than thousands of fringe cults.  An inept god could not construct a universe.  It is not the god you’re describing.

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.

Hold on a minute.  God wants to know me, but now I have to work for it?Making himself a mystery is also a great way to not get to know people.  Yet you’ve told me that god does want to get to know me.  Which is it?

Also, by making himself mysterious, god’s making it look like he doesn’t exist.  Why would god make it look like he didn’t exist unless he either really didn’t exist or he didn’t want you to believe in him?  You’re shooting yourself in the foot with this mystery stuff.

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.

You and I have a personal relationship.  If someone asked you why you believed I exist you would immediately say a lot of different things.  What you would not say is, “because I have faith JT exists.”  You have good reasons and good evidence that I exist.You would not say you feel that I exist.  Ditto for your best friend.  Ditto your siblings.

You would not say “JT has all of these qualities” to answer the question of my existence.  Ditto for your best friend.  Ditto your siblings.

Personal relationships are not a matter of faith.  They’re what it really looks like when you can interact with someone.  This is not what you have with god.  If you doubt this, we can have an evidence-off!  I’ll provide evidence that my girlfriend exists and you can provide evidence god exists and we can compare.

You might say you have faith in your friend as an expression of optimism that they can accomplish something, but you would no more use faith to confirm their existence than you would cite faith as your reason for believing a wall exists.  You can touch a friend, you can speak to them and have them speak back.  You can hug them.

Having faith in someone means trusting them.

But not trusting that they exist to the exclusion of any evidence.  While a friend’s actions may be uncertain, their existence (if you’re not delusional) is a matter of fact easily confirmed by evidence.

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.

Evidence.  Please give me evidence.  It is not sufficient to lecture me merely on what you believe.  The only relevant thing is why you believe it.

 I never said that God is a precondition for free will.

True.

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.

In my opening I argued that we do not have free will in what we believe.

I do not choose my beliefs.  I cannot choose them.  The brain is an engine that generates a map of reality based on what facts are rattling about inside.  It is the reason if I were to walk to the edge of a rooftop that I could not convince myself that gravity stopped working by sheer force of will.  I cannot simply choose to believe the apparently absurd.  My brain won’t let me (not would I want to choose to believe something ludicrous even if I could).  If god exists then this is the brain with which he made me.  It makes no sense then, to say that he expects me to do what he specifically made impossible.

You didn’t respond to this, so it continues to be my answer to your assertion that god’s existence must be nebulous for us to have a choice.  All the same, even if we had evidence that god existed we could still choose whether or not to follow him (or to trust him).  This doesn’t rescue the complete lack of decent evidence for god’s existence.

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

No, it would just make it a smart decision.  But we’d still be able to decide.You’re using free will, in this case, to white wash the abundance of evidence that if god does exist he is weak and indifferent at best (malicious at worst).  Only some of this evidence has been detailed for you and your responses, in all honesty, have been bad.

God is, I believe, a precondition for existence

Why does existence require god?

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.

I actually do appreciate that.  It is not uncommon in these discussions for the religious half to completely ignore what I’ve said and move on to other arguments.  For the most part you’ve not done that, and I’m grateful.To help keep that trend alive, here are some challenges on the table from this email.

1.  In our hypothetical conversation in which I accuse you of being a murderer, who has the burden of proof?  If it’s up to you to convince me you’re not a murderer, how would you do it?

2.  For things we don’t know (like what caused the universe), why do you get to label them as god rather than saying, “I don’t know”?  For instance, all explanations throughout history have shown natural causation.  If the historical trend is 100% in favor of natural explanations, and we can just apply labels to what we don’t know, why not call the first cause “nature?”

3.  If you say nothing can exist without a cause, how do you get around god supposedly having no cause?  If you believe that things can exist without a cause, why is it god, which nobody has ever seen, and not matter and the laws of physics which are everywhere?  (Fair warning: I’ve done this enough to anticipate the “anything that comes into existence has a cause” escape, but didn’t want to put words in your mouth by addressing it yet.  I’m drooling waiting for it though. :P)

4.  The standards to which you’re holding my case do not seem to be the same standards to which you’re holding your case (see the point directly above this one).  Why the inconsistency?

5.  Why would god give you feelings (and give others contradictory feelings) as the only evidence for his existence when he’s made it clear that feelings are often in error and must be corrected by the evidence?

6.  If god wants to know either of us, why has he given us irrefutable proof of the inconsequential and nowhere near that kind of evidence for his existence (which, presumably, is a much more important fact)?

7.  We seem to live in a materialistic world.  I listed off plenty of evidence for this (and the evidence is as simple as looking at what has shaped our world).  Why do you believe otherwise?  Do you have any evidence?

8.  Can you admit that you are at least prone to error?  You must be if the two squares on the checkerboard appear as different colors to you.

9.  Can we agree that skepticism does not equal paralysis?

10.  If you think faith in god is the same as faith in a friend, shall we compare the evidence for my girlfriend’s existence against your proof of god’s existence?

11.  Do you have some standard other than human standards of wise/foolish or loving/malicious by which to evaluate god?  If so, how did you acquire them?  If not, how can you possibly say god is both wise and loving?

12.  Why does god speak to others, giving them proof of his existence (of the same sort you suggested would violate our free will and take the mystery out of things), but not to me?  Why do so many people (far and away the majority) think god has spoken to them and get it wrong?

Best,

JT

About JT Eberhard

When not defending the planet from inevitable apocalypse at the rotting hands of the undead, JT is a writer and public speaker about atheism, gay rights, and more. He spent two and a half years with the Secular Student Alliance as their first high school organizer. During that time he built the SSA’s high school program and oversaw the development of groups nationwide. JT is also the co-founder of the popular Skepticon conference and served as the events lead organizer during its first three years.


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