Catholic Radio Show Seeking Atheist Callers Tonight

Catholic Radio Show Seeking Atheist Callers Tonight September 24, 2012

Just saw this announcement on Facebook, and I thought some of you might want a heads-up.

Tell all your atheists friends they have 2 hours of Catholic Answers Live just for them tonight. Here is a message from host Patrick Coffin:

Are you an atheist? How solid is your atheism? Wanna go on live radio to defend your atheist beliefs? Today on Catholic Answers Live, I’m interviewing Catholic apologist Trent Horn in Hour One, and physicist Robert Spitzer, SJ, president of the Magis Institute for Faith and Reason in Hour Two. It’s a Q&A Open Forum For Atheists, and we’re taking calls only from atheists tonight, folks.

So saddle up, ye unbelieving brethren and give us a call. You’ll be treated with velvet hands in velvet gloves. The toll-free number is 888-318-7884. 6-8 PM EST, 3-5 PM PST Check local listings of listen live here:

Let me know if you make it on air, and feel free to cross post the questions you’d like to ask in the comments thread.  I think the best questions are those where you’re genuinely curious about the answer they’ll give, not ones where you know what answer you think’ll they’ll give and you don’t like it.

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  • Bob Seidensticker

    I called in. Not an especially satisfying conversation, as time-constrained discussions like this usually are.

    The guest talked about the Kalam argument, and I criticized premise 1: everything that begins to exist has a cause. My rough paraphrase below:

    Me: That doesn’t apply to subatomic particles. The electron that is a decay product from a radioactive decay didn’t have a cause.

    Trent Horn: That’s a not a new thing. It’s simply a rearrangement of existing matter.

    Me: Fair enough. But then your first premise has no examples. Before, “everything that began to exist” had lots of examples: oaks (caused by acorns), a dented fender (caused by a car), the sun (caused by collapsing matter), etc. Now, what examples do we have?

    Trent: Well, there are a lot of other views within physics than radioactive decay is causeless.

    Me: I think it’s the consensus.

    Trent: I don’t.

    And then I got cut off. If allowed to continue, I’d have pointed out that, consensus or no, his first premise is under serious attack. It’s either wrong (the consensus view is that, at the subatomic level, things can indeed have no cause) or questionable.

    Conclusion: reject Kalam.

    Probably more than you wanted, but FYI. Thanks for tipping me off about the show.

    • I think I have an answer to your objection but I’m not a physicist so I have a question first. Is the electron that is a decay product from a radioactive decay pre-existing to that decay (i.e. already part of the isotope/element/whatever) or are you saying that it doesn’t exist prior to the decay?

      This is a philosophy major’s take (much like: so feel free to explain to me where I’ve misunderstood the science but if the electron is pre-existing than its cause is unrelated to the decay. If the electron now exists that before didn’t exist then wouldn’t the decay be the cause?

      That seems too simple to me so I must be missing something.

      • ACN

        The problem is actually that the decay event doesn’t have a cause.

        You can talk about the half-life, or expected lifetime of an unstable state/particle, or strictly speaking, the half-life or expected lifetime of an ensemble of identically prepared particles/states.

        The individual decay events of particular particles are not caused by anything.

        • Andrew Summitt

          I’m curious as to what philosophers of science, metaphysics or epistemology hold to the belief that something can come from nothing. As I know it Krauss and “Something from Nothing” physicists have come under heavy fire from philosophers and I’m curious if there are people who vindicate Krauss outside of physics?

          • Ray

            The problem philosophers have with Krauss is that first cause arguments have two versions, physical and metaphysical. Krauss for the most part is answering the physical version of the argument. Philosophers like to pretend that the physical version of the argument never existed, even though most versions of the argument are pretty unambiguously physical arguments — including the crude “look, I have nothing in my hand, and when I open it, there’s no universe”. This almost certainly also includes Al Ghazali’s Kalam argument, since Al Ghazali had pretty much the same opinion of metaphysics as Hume — although he took that realization in the opposite direction.

            The ancient version of “nothing can come from nothing” that probably comes closest to a statement a modern physicist would agree with is the one from Lucretius which is paired with “nothing can be reduced to nothing”. This can be understood as a somewhat imprecise statement of conservation of energy, which is entirely correct under the assumption that something always contains a positive nonzero quantity of energy. However, when you introduce gravitational potential energy, which is generally negative insofar as it is well defined, the assumption fails.In fact there are a great many physically possible systems, including the observable universe as far as we can tell, that have zero energy. Then you get into cosmologies that extend infinitely far into the past, and those that do not, and you can observe that neither violates any known physical law or observation, in part because the physical dynamics of the big bang are pretty much completely unconstrained by experiment, since they involve temperatures far higher than can be probed by particle accelerators on Earth. There are real problems in cosmology still, but none of them can be intelligibly described by the principle “nothing comes from nothing”

            Then you have the metaphysical versions of the argument, that are basically dressed up versions of the Munchhausen Trilemma. Here you observe that you can’t ever explain why one thing is true without taking something else to be true, and the process either terminates in a circle of justification, a brute fact, or just flat out goes on forever. Since an infinitely long explanation isn’t much good to a human, the theists will tend to go the Foundationalist route and call the brute fact God. Problem is, now you’re dealing with an explanation for the universe, rather than the universe itself, and there’s no reason to think there is a uniquely correct set of brute facts to derive all the other facts from. In a classical universe, the brute facts may just as easily be Newton’s laws as Hamilton’s principle. If you can derive the state of the universe from boundary conditions, a future boundary condition is just as good as one in the past, or even the present. Likewise, there are many different axiomatizations of quantum theory out there — so which set of axioms do you call God? and while you’re at it, what does it mean for a set of axioms to have died for one’s sins? But I digress.

            The physical versions of the argument are actually much better arguments, because we have a natural, or at least a commonly agreed upon, notion of first — earliest in time. If you talk about a cause outside of time, there is no natural notion of first, and while it may be true that any chain of explanation you’re willing to spout off will assume a brute fact that you may refer to as a “first cause”, someone else can explain the same set of facts by resting them on a different “first cause” without any disagreement of what logically implies what, or even which facts are true. So, while the metaphysical first cause argument may say something about the map, its unclear it says anything whatsoever about the territory.

            I tend to think that physicists intuitively grasp that metaphysical versions of the first cause arguments are just pointless semantic black holes, and they can’t imagine that anyone would ever use such an awful argument. Physicists also have history on their side, in the sense that the earliest versions of the first cause argument were pretty unambiguously physical arguments, which happened to rest upon incorrect assumptions about how physics worked (some worse than others. e.g. Plato’s and probably Aristotle’s version of the argument assumed, contra Newton, that a body in motion would tend to come to rest, making stasis a more natural initial condition than motion — I only add the probably to Aristotle, because people like Feser have reinterpreted him to death.) But, modern philosophers like the metaphysical versions. The way I see it, both the physicists and philosophers are trying to apply the principle of charity in their own way — the philosophers choose the metaphysical interpretation because it makes the argument, “not necessarily wrong”, while the physicists place such an argument in the hated category of “not even wrong,” and feel they are being far more charitable by at least crediting Plato and Aristotle with coming up with ideas that were well defined enough to be false.

          • There is some simply awful history-of-philosophy work here — al-Ghazali did not have “pretty much the same opinion of metaphysics as Hume”, for instance, despite the fact that some of their arguments on causation happen to be similar (the closest link, which is arguably not all that close, is occasionalism — al-Ghazali is an occasionalist and some of Hume’s arguments on causation are taken over from Malebranche, who was also an occasionalist). Ex nihilo nihil fit is not in Lucretius “a somewhat imprecise statement of conservation of energy”; it (like its counterpart) is a causal principle, not a conservation principle, and it is devoted to arguing that things have specific causal natures; likewise, Lucretius’s atomism is inconsistent with any notion of energy in our sense — it’s not just that it doesn’t have a place for it, it’s outright inconsistent. And Lucretius is a bad choice for you, anyway, because all of this is part of Lucretius’s explicit argument for first causes — namely, first in the order of composition. The Agrippan Trilemma is a purely formal trilemma about criteria or justification, and is utterly irrelevant to the subject at hand beyond the fact that you can talk about them both by equivocating on the term ‘justification’ and stuffing one into a trilemmic form. When you’re converting vague analogies into equations in order to get to your conclusion, your argument is getting extraordinarily weak, however confidently you state it.

          • Ray

            “Ex nihilo nihil fit is not in Lucretius ‘a somewhat imprecise statement of conservation of energy’; it (like its counterpart) is a causal principle, not a conservation principle”

            This is a linguistic distinction, not one of substance. Newton’s three laws are stated as causal principles, but taken together they are entirely equivalent to conservation of momentum. So, just because something is stated as a pair of causal principles doesn’t mean it isn’t a restatement of a conservation law. Generally, causal principles are time asymmetric, since it’s customary to speak of the earlier of two correlated events as the cause and the latter as the effect (and there are good reasons for this in any space-time region where the second law of thermodynamics holds,) but the second part of Lucretius statement makes his principle time symmetric, and therefore much more naturally stated as a conservation law.

            As far as Al Ghazali goes. I’m not all that familiar, so you may be right. I was basing my statement on the following statement from wikipedia: “Al-Ghazali also stated that he did not find other branches of philosophy including physics, logic, astronomy or mathematics problematic.His only dispute was with metaphysics, in which he claimed that the philosophers did not use the same tools, namely logic, which they used for other sciences.” But there are now some citation needed tags there, so I might have gotten bad information. That said, Even Aquinas’s arguments can be more naturally interpreted as incorrect physical principles than people like Feser tend to admit. — If Aquinas wasn’t trying to work empirically (i.e. generalize from examples) it would make no sense to include such examples as “fire being actually hot causes wood to become actually hot.”

        • This is a confusion merely of language.

          When we say that an instance of radioactive decay is without a cause, we mean that there was no preexisting state that determined it, that there is nothing we can point to as a reason why it had to happen.

          But St. Thomas (and co.) believe that it is coherent to speak of the causes of contingent events (e.g. S.Th. Ia q14 a13). Whether or not he’s right about the existence of God, then, it’s clear he’s not using the word “cause” in the same way.

          • Does this just mean you don’t know the cause? Could someone find a cause sometime in the future? Is this just “atheism of the gaps!”

    • The weakness of premise 1 is that it’s based on personal experience. An honest rephrasing of it would be “Many things that begin to exist seem to have a cause.” Once you do that you realize that the argument is built on a foundation of sand. There are also problems with premise 2 and the conclusion.

    • Becky

      I’m a humanities person myself, but I’m married to a physicist. He has a PhD from a top-ten, Ivy-League university. I say this not to brag, but just to establish that he knows his physics (and his particular area of expertise involves quantum mechanics). I asked him why radioactive decay happens, and he gave me a puzzled look and said something like “because electrons are always trying to get to a simpler energy state.” Or something like that — I might have mangled his response, as I often do when I try to describe his research, etc., to others who inquire. I then explained why I had asked this question and framed it with the regards to the argument that physics, and quantum mechanics in particular, somehow invalidates the “first cause” argument for the existence of God. He thinks that’s ridiculous and stated that the tools of science can’t tell you why something exists, just that it does — and that any scientists who believes otherwise is full of it.

      My husband is an agnostic and therefore has no religious axe to grind, fwiw. I’m the religious person in our household.

      • Becky

        Apologies for the typos above. V. poorly edited!

      • Justin

        Hi, I’m a physicist too and although we can say that the electrons are trying to get to the lower energy state, quantum mechanics tells us that we can never predict *when* this state transition will happen. In this way there is no traceable link between cause & effect. The effect is purely random even though we know why it happens. The distinction is quite subtle but important.

        The origins of our Universe (in what appears to be a Type II Multiverse at this stage) appears to have been just such an event. Although we may work out *why* the Universe formed, it has no direct cause.

        • Becky

          I don’t see how it follows that our inability to predict *when* something will happens means it’s totally random and causeless, but I also don’t spend time trying to persuade myself that there’s no possibility there’s a God.

          • Alex

            Well, I’m not entirely convinced by the whole “radioactive decay doesn’t have a cause” argument. but I suppose that it’s not our inability to tell when it happens that makes it uncaused. Rather it is the fact that it impossible to tell in principle.

      • Ted Seeber

        So the 2nd law of thermodynamics is the cause?

      • My favorite kind of blog post is one that spurs a discussion between me and Mr Psmith. For me, they usually involve time travel or the value of statistics, however 🙂

    • Becky

      He also said that quantum decay doesn’t create elect electrons — it’s photons. Photons are energy and not matter and are created and destroyed all the time (he said). He gave me a mischievous grin and said he was creating and destroying photons as we spoke (as are we all, apparently).

      • Ray

        Um. That’s definitely wrong: see

        • Becky

          Husband isn’t around to ask, but the link talks about electrons being emitted. That does not seem to me to be at all the same thing as an electron being created from nothing.

          • Ray

            Well, if you’re talking about Virtual Particles , it’s also wrong:

            To quote the article. “Thus, virtual particles are often popularly described as coming in pairs, a particle and antiparticle, which can be of any kind. These pairs exist for an extremely short time, and mutually annihilate in short order.”

            Now there is the issue of energy conservation (Which, loosely speaking, is what prevents virtual particles from sticking around permanently.) But this applies equally to photons and massive particles, so no help there, either.

          • Becky

            I didn’t ask about virtual particles and therefore wouldn’t have been speaking of them. I’ve already admitted I know nothing about physics! I shall merely say that I trust my husband when he says he’s learned nothing in his studies that he perceives as shedding any light on metaphysica questions. And as I said, he’s an agnostic — I would love it if he were a believer, but he’s not. He just thinks it’s irritating when scientists presume that their expertise in science makes them experts in, well, everything.

    • JohnH

      Perhaps God endowed each particle with some form of free will such that the particle choose to decay at that particular time making the particle independent to act for itself.

      • Alan

        If that were the case it would be quite surprising that those choices could be accurately modeled statistically.

        • JohnH

          More or less surprising that the choices of humans are accurately modeled statistically?

          • Alan

            Depends on how much you believe humans have true free will 🙂 Of course it is also the case that currently our ability to model human behavior statistically is orders of magnitude less accurate than our ability to model the behavior of particles.

        • Ted Seeber

          Why? We can accurately model mob behavior statistically- well enough to base the entire industry of advertising upon it.

          • Alan

            I guess you don’t work in advertising do you – it is certainly an inexact science at best. For someone who believes economics and sociology and are evil anti-science it is odd for you to now suggest that our statistical modelling of human behavior is accurate.

    • Trent: Well, there are a lot of other views within physics than radioactive decay is causeless.

      Me: I think it’s the consensus.

      And right there, you struck out.

      Say it’s the consensus if you like. Let it actually be the consensus. But that’s off into the land of metaphysical speculation, which is more than fine – it’s simply no longer science. The absolute best that science gets to at the moment, and arguably can ever get to in principle, is the claim that some things appear, and we are unable to identify their cause. You can tighten this up if you like and argue “well, we can rule out – according to the current definition of physical – any and all physical causes”. The problem is, neither Kalam particularly nor theistic arguments generally, require all causes to be physical.

      In a way, the physicists are supplying exactly what so many atheists often want theists to supply. “Give us an event that can’t be explained by ‘natural’/’physical’ causes!” — It turns out such things are in absolutely abundant supply. So is the response to infer to a non-physical/immaterial cause?

      Nope. It’s to reject causality altogether. Which exposes a serious flaw in the whole “show us the evidence!” routine – any evidence will be explained away.

    • Gordon

      Seriously? Kalam? That’s almost as embarrasing as Pascal’s Wager!
      “Everything has a cause, oh except god. QED”

      • YachovBenYachov

        No historic version of any Cosmological Argument ever used the formula “Everything has a cause”.

        Straw man much?

        • Gordon

          Build a better Kalam and bring it. People say atheists only ever deal with the low hanging fruit, but it sure looks like that’s the only fruit theism has on offer.

          I’ll be generous and classify Kalam as an Argument from Incredulity. As Bill O’Reilly said “You can’t explain that” – therefore, presumably, god.

    • Alex

      I find it very bizarre to talk about causation with regard to the beginning of time, since from the perspective of thermodynamics, causation is simply correlation within time. Hence it is strange to talk about causation with regard to the “creation” of time. Perhaps the author of the Kalam has a different notion of causation in mind. The idea of things beginning to exist is also very bizarre to me. Particles get rearranged, and we attach different labels to them, but nothing in our everyday experience “begins to exist”.

      If anyone wants a very thorough explanation of why causation is correlation within time, I recommend Drecher’s Good and Real. But just to give an initial statement of the problem; the laws of physics are time symmetric (even QM). If you were to play the universe in reverse, every interaction and collision would still obey Newton’s laws (and every other set of laws). This includes things like broken eggs coming back together. The only exception is thermodynamics. However, that is not enough to solve the problem – why does thermodynamics only hold true in one direction? To say that it’s because the past causes the future is question begging, because that was the problem that thermodynamics was supposed to solve. The answer is much more subtle.

      • ACN

        Actually this isn’t true.

        CPT appears to be a basic symmetry of nature. The laws of physics are invariant under charge conjugation, parity reversal, and time reversal carried out all at the same time, but they are not invariant under time reversal alone.

        • Alex

          Thanks, I wasn’t aware of that. I don’t think it changes much with regard to the arrow of time though.

    • Ted Seeber

      “Me: That doesn’t apply to subatomic particles. The electron that is a decay product from a radioactive decay didn’t have a cause.”

      Uh, how exactly is radioactive decay in that example NOT a cause? Or are you using some strange meaning of the word “cause” that I have previously been unaware of?

  • Eric

    I’m listening to the 7pm show… it’s so painful to listen to. “The universe had a beginning”……… “therefore god exists and he created the universe”. Come on. Why not a unicorn? Why not aliens? How do they confidently go from one point to another? It’s stomach-churning.

    God was outside space and time… can they seriously believe that without a shred of evidence to support the claim? And it always begs the question: Who created god? Who created them? And who created them before that? This isn’t proof, it just adds unwanted confusion.

    • Andrew Summitt

      I think you might have a sky daddy vision of God and that’s not really the view of God Catholics tend to hold. I believe the first guest used the phrase “God of the philosophers” once and that’s more the view that Catholic theology tends to take.

      Would you grant that if the universe came to exist and we grant that nothing can come from nothing then would you say “something transcending the universes must have been the cause of the universe” would be the logical inference? If so we can we logically believe in a “Transcendent Thingy” even if we do not attach the (admittedly loaded) word God to it?

      • Alan

        Uh, sure, a God who has a son on earth who is sacrificed as redemption isn’t a sky daddy version at all.

        • ACN

          Ah, the classical gambit. Assert the philosopher’s god and then when the audience looks away, replace with the abrhamic/jesus god. Rely on the audience’s cultural baggage associated with the word ‘god’ (As in “I’ve proved god”) to complete the sleight of hand.

          • Andrew Summitt

            Ooops, you’re not OP. Sorry.

          • Andrew Summitt

            But seriously just because one thinks the God of Abraham is impossible doesn’t stop the idea of the GoCT from being a consistent idea in itself. Technically speaking it’s possible to have one but not the other.

            If you think that Kalam working to prove transcendent thingy and then object that it isn’t the Christian God then the argument takes place on how you talk about transcendent thingy and how to think about it. Eric’s objection seemed to me to be that Transcendent Thingy wasn’t God and I was interested in if he thought it worked far enough to get you to the TT.

        • Andrew Summitt

          I’m a classical theist who doesn’t really belong to a tradition so :P. That accusation of bait and switch doesn’t work.

          But seriously and non teasingly you do know the God of Classical Theism is an idea that exists. Are you denying that Cosmological Arguments get you to GoCT or are you denying that they get you to the God of Abraham or what is your exact objection to the “Even if it works it’s wrong” thing you seem to have going on. I’m honestly not trying to bait and switch I just want clarification on your position.

          • Alan

            All I’m saying is that the Catholic God, even if occasionally expressed in similar terms to Aristotelian metaphysics is very much a Sky Daddy (in fact literally so having a son and all).

            So long as it includes a physical incarnation of God, the resurrection, the Eucharist etc. it has no claim to being a Philosophical God. If you want to say your meaning of God is different from all that that’s fine but than you are on thin ice calling it the Catholic God.

            And it is true that snark may not equal an argument but when you don’t really have much hope for an argument to tread any new ground at least snark can keep you amused.

        • Andrew Summitt

          Snark≠An Argument

          It does have sky daddy elements but it’s articulation is Aristotlian and Neo-platonistic and a common objection to Scholastic theologians is that they have forgotten the God of the Bible and that they’re stuck in idolatry and such. I mean if you’re making this objection that I’m pulling some bait and switch you must know that Blase Pascal objected to the theologians of his day by saying they weren’t talking about the sky daddy idea of God. Plenty of people who held the former and the latter ideas of God saw a disjunction between them even if Catholic philosophers thought that they could be conjoined.

      • JohnH

        It appears that you are conflating universe being time and space as we experience both with the sum total off all that exists. Existence as a whole can not come from anything as anything that it came from either existed and is therefore part of existence or it did not exist in which case one is postulating about a non-existent being (in which case one is a very confused atheist), either way one has not addressed the question of where existence came from as the question is a confusion.

        Now I suppose one could claim that existence is god in which case one is panentheistic (or pantheistic, depending on what is meant by universe) which it is my understanding is not the same as the Catholic God. Or one could say that God created the space-time continuum in which we live but in which case on has already posited one thing outside of our space-time continuum leaving open the possibility of any number of other things that could be outside of our space-time continuum with no evidence that one thing over another was the cause.

    • However one looks at the universe, it seems that it is improbable that it has always existed in its current state. We know that there is definitive direction and we know about entropy, both of which suggest a starting point. This point necessarily cannot be subject to the laws of causality as we know them. The question then becomes whether or not this point is conscious or not.

      If it is not conscious, then we are forced to reckon with the idea that something can exist out of nothing without cause. We ultimately become beholden to a Hume-like outlook on the world where we cannot truly admit that we believe in the impossibility of *anything*. This includes admission of the possibility that a divine or quasi-divine entity could manifest itself (after all, if a universe can be manifest from nothingness, then why can’t a deity be manifest? How can we justly limit the power of that which established a universe?). This becomes a limitless universe of the worst sort.

      On the other hand, a universe established by a divine choice-maker is a universe which is necessarily limited to the choice the choice-maker made. Further because such a maker cannot be subject to change (change is a part of causality) we know that the universe *must* be exactly as the choice-maker chose. (For that matter, this choice-maker is necessarily “perfect” in the Aristotelean sense of the word). It is then easy to deduce that this choice-maker has a desire that man relate to itself. This must be so because we are as the choice-maker has chosen and we are capable of deducing that there is, in fact, an ultimate choice-maker. If there was no desire to at least have this form of relationship, then the choice maker could very well have chosen to make us unable to make such deductions (we could be “chosen” in such a way that we would get brain hemorrhages any time we think of such things). Since such a condition does not exist, then a relationship is desirable.

      At this point, you need to start asking “what form of relationship would such a choice-maker want?” To be honest, I’ve not really gotten much beyond that with pure reasoning, but it does answer the question, “Why God?”

      • Alan

        Or maybe your choice maker just wanted to mess with you and doesn’t care about you any more than a mischievous kid cares about the ant he is burning with his magnifying glass – that is equally as logical a conclusion as your list of assertions.

        • BUT, that is not a unicorn.

          • Alan

            Ok, your choice maker is a sadistic unicorn who is just messing with you.

          • @Alan

            I think you’d have difficulty arguing that the choice-maker is unicorn-like for any standard definition of unicorn.

            As to the question, “Is God a Sadist?” Well, that is an entirely separate discussion.

          • Alan

            Why would it be any more difficult to argue that God resembles a white horse with a horn than to argue he resembles a European man with shiny light surrounding his head?

          • Ted Seeber

            And in fact, I can make an equal argument that God is a Masochist.

          • But no one is arguing that God resembles a European man with shiny light surrounding his head.

            In fact, one of the major stumbling blocks of Christianity for many ancient people was the Christian doctrine of the Incarnation – which presupposed that God is utterly transcendent, and not anthropomorphic in any way. The God of Judaism and the God of Plato and the God of Aristotle (though different in many ways) all share the trait of transcending matter. These transcendent Gods were never imagined (except metaphorically) as appearing human.

            The pantheon of gods (ranging from Zeus to Isis to Vishnu) in polytheistic religions were not transcendent of the universe, but had their origin within it. They often were believed to have something like physical bodies, and were portrayed as such. There is no problem speculating that any of them could resemble a unicorn. But these are not the same kind of god as the transcendent “God of the Philosophers.”

            Christianity added the paradoxical (arguably contradictory) doctrine that this utterly transcendent God became a human, and began to portray not only Jesus but the also-paradoxical Trinity as three human(-oid) beings. However, in Christianity, it has always been clear that the “bodies” of the Father and the Holy Spirit are metaphorical representations, to show the relationship to Jesus in art. Even the body and face of Jesus was rarely an attempt to show what he historically looked like. And Christians, by and large, have not based their theology on their art.

            In other words, Alan, your attack is exactly missing the mark of the “God of the Philosophers” or “God of Classical Theists” that you are aiming at.

          • Alan

            @Robert – I guess you aren’t a fan of Christian art.

            You take a cute little sidestep there – yes the God of Judaism and the philosophers is purely transcendent. Christianity’s isn’t, as you note, it isn’t., Even if 2/3rds of its beings are you can’t just wipe over the humanization of god in jesus – you want to pretend that somehow that is similar to the god of Judaism or the philosophers but it isn’t. My attack hit its mark perfectly – you just want to imagine that you are standing on it by some sleight of hand.

          • Alan

            eh, ‘are’ should be ‘aren’t’

          • @Alan

            I never said that he resembled a European monarch. If he were to resemble a monarch, it would likely be Middle Eastern anyway (this actually brings up an interesting question as to what a “crown of thorns” might have looked like).

            The problem with “God looks like a unicorn” is that in order to “look like” something (by the common definition of “look like”) there needs to either be light emanating from the object or reflecting off of the object. Since God (as posited above) is basically extra-universal and not subject to time it is impossible for *Him to be the proper subject of this light. You might have some argument as to how God has manifest or projected Himself in reality, but that would be a projection of God and not God Himself.

            As to, “Why can’t God project Himself as a unicorn?” Well, why can’t he? He’s shown himself as a still, small voice, a cloud, and a man (and multiple times: Ezekiel says that his image “is like that of a man” at one point and, of course, I believe in the incarnation). Why not a unicorn? (And, if he comes as a unicorn, will he come as a rhinoceros, which is where “unicorn” comes from historically, or will he be a horse with a spike?)

            I think that perhaps you meant to ask, “Why cannot God be incarnate as a unicorn?” Perhaps there are those who are better than I that might argue that he could not be incarnate as a unicorn, but I will only say that such a possibility does not seem to be the most consistent with my knowledge of theology. Of course, that does not mean that it could not happen, but rather that I doubt that it would have (or that it will).

            (*Him is used because of historical reasons)

          • Alan

            Ignatius – I think we are talking around each other. My point is that the Catholic God did take a physical form as a human being. I suppose that is what you mean by ‘incarnate as’. And I would agree, it isn’t consistent with Catholic theology – I am just saying it is equally plausible as a theology which imagines God incarnate as a human being (and typically in history portrayed as a European where, as you note, given the story of who he was would have most likely looked like a Middle Eastern man).

          • @Alan — I’m inclined to agree. Defending Christianity, let alone the incarnation, is an entirely separate discussion from whether or not a deity exists.

            As to “Equally plausible”, I think I need to disagree. I find it substantially less plausible, but I come to that conclusion through induction and not by the same step-by-step process I use to arrive at “there is a deity”.

      • JohnH

        This: laws of causality as we know them.
        Does not mean this: without cause.
        Making paragraph two and therefore everything after it built on a faulty premise. Different laws of causality is not the same as no causality.

        • I disagree. I used the phrase “as we know it” because causality does exist after a fashion. There is, at a minimum, a causal state. That state (as it is defined as the point of origin) can have no cause (this is a bit of a tautology: that which has no cause (point of origin) cannot have a cause), but, the result of that state *is* subject to the laws of causality. So causality existed in one sense of the word, however it did not exist in the fact that the state was not an effect of a previous state.

          A more likely scenario is that entropy and thermodynamics are faulty. That would allow us to state that the universe is not moving in any direction. That would negate the entire “unmoved mover” argument from the get go. After all, stasis is not moved. I would also speculate that such a state would, in fact, be similarly exempt from the laws of causality (as cause and effect require some form of motion).

          • JohnH

            That is making an assumption in regards to time outside of our reference frame of time. According to our reference frame then sure there is the appearance that causality goes to a point but from another frame of reference that point could be any number of things all of which could be effects of “previous” states.

          • @JohnH If no point of origin exists, then it stands to reason that our understanding of entropy is wrong.

          • Ray

            Ignatius Theophorus

            The modern understanding of entropy is that the second law of thermodynamics is a consequence of the big bang cosmology. There is no particular reason to expect it to continue to hold before the big bang. Indeed there are any number of cosmological proposals that are globally time symmetric, and therefore have local arrows of time pointing in the opposite direction to ours. (Mind you, not in any part of the multiverse accessible to us.) Some of these have a minimum entropy surface that doesn’t even look fine-tuned, basically looking like the distant future of our own universe — vast empty space with occasional quantum fluctuations, which even more occasionally are high enough energy to pinch off and form a new bubble universe.

            Anyway, seeing as this is pretty firmly a physical and not a philosophical argument, this is an area where reading physics is probably your best bet. Probably the best option written at a popular level on these sorts of cosmologies is “From Eternity to Here” by Sean M. Carroll.

            That said, even if you have to put the low entropy boundary condition by hand at the big bang, rather than deriving it from the dynamics of the multiverse, that’s still a more parsimonious theory of everything than one that invokes a triune God, one of whose aspects died for a particular species on one of the trillions of planets in our observable universe, and another of whose aspects had a special relationship with a small iron age kingdom in the middle east etc. (Especially when you consider that the description of the almighty given by religious commitments is so grossly underspecified that essentially none of our physics was discovered by way of making logical deductions from religious texts. — even though physics is supposedly exactly how God would want it, and presumably a complete description of God would include a description of what He wanted.)

          • @Ray

            Multiverse models of reality do not answer the question of causality. Symmetry only gets you to “our notion of entropy is contained merely to our universe bubble,” but you don’t get to right off transcendent narratives on the notion of parallel bubbles. The multiverse has a container of its own, so to speak. The many worlds argument has never, ever made sense to me when the Aristotelian/neo-Platonist proposition of scholastic Christianity is that God is transcendent and in Him is the full realization of all possible, contingent events – as he is not potential, but actual. Alternate universes, or parallel universes, only mean that there was another possibility that could have been or is realized in something transcendent to our experience of time.

            Multiverse models should really be Christian philosophy’s bosom buddies, as it’s something theologians have been saying for hundreds of years.

      • Ray

        “If it is not conscious, then we are forced to reckon with the idea that something can exist out of nothing without cause. ”

        The state you’re positing is uncaused whether it’s conscious or not. I don’t see how consciousness helps you at all, and since under any sane view (i.e. not solipsism or panpsychism), most of the stuff we know exists isn’t conscious, guessing that it’s conscious without any good reason is an awful assumption.

        “We ultimately become beholden to a Hume-like outlook on the world where we cannot truly admit that we believe in the impossibility of *anything*. ”

        Well, ignoring the fact that you’re eliding the distinction between logical and physical possibility, this is pretty much the universe we live in — it may not be the case that quantum mechanics says anything can happen (e.g. you can’t really talk about deities popping into existence in QM, since there’s no standard way to express that scenario within the formalism.), but it certainly says that a lot of things could happen other than what actually does, but this does not lead to utter chaos, since each possibility has a corresponding probability, and some are quite low indeed.

        “It is then easy to deduce that this choice-maker has a desire that man relate to itself.”
        “such a maker cannot be subject to change (change is a part of causality)”

        These two statements contradict. A desire is a cause of action. (i.e. the desire caused the choice maker to choose to act as he did.)

        But, accepting your premise anyway:
        “we know that the universe *must* be exactly as the choice-maker chose. … It is then easy to deduce that this choice-maker has a desire that man relate to itself. This must be so because we are as the choice-maker has chosen and we are capable of deducing that there is, in fact, an ultimate choice-maker. ”

        This also implies that the maker has a desire for cancer, smallpox, AIDS and the holocaust.

        “what form of relationship would such a choice-maker want?”
        By your logic, exactly the relationship he has. Indeed it would be impossible to have any relationship with this choice maker other than the one he wanted. In my case, that relationship is none whatsoever, since I think the logic by which you deduce the existence of a conscious maker is fallacious. Given the other desires your fallacious logic seems to imply this maker has, this is fine by me.

        • “The state you’re positing is uncaused whether it’s conscious or not.”


          “I don’t see how consciousness helps you at all, and since under any sane view (i.e. not solipsism …”

          Your characterization of solipsism as insane is weak.

          “or panpsychism), most of the stuff we know exists isn’t conscious, guessing that it’s conscious without any good reason is an awful assumption.”

          I evaluated both positions based on what I view as inevitable results of the two different philosophical views.

          “These two statements contradict”

          Totally tempted to pull Collier’s defense here. There are reams written on the implications of a Divine Will and how a non-alterable, non-changing, perfect being can have a desire and what it means for that desire to be met. The best way to summarize in a sentence: “desire” is not necessarily antecedent to “choice” but it is a part of “choice”.

          “This also implies that the maker has a desire for cancer, smallpox, AIDS and the holocaust.”

          So? This is not an argument over whether God is *good* (and what do we mean when we say “good?”), at most it is an argument over whether God *is*.

          “I think the logic by which you deduce the existence of a conscious maker is fallacious.”

          Strictly speaking, the argument is that if one posits that the point of origin of the universe is a being who has choice and not some object which does not, then it is simple enough to deduce that this being is God (an all-powerful, unchanging entity who desires that man relate to Him). I am having difficulty seeing that as being fallacious (you may disagree with the premise, but that would be a different argument).

          I also stated that a universe without such a being is a less desirable universe because it is more chaotic (but I have not offered proof as to why that *could not be the case*). I suppose that you might choose to argue that chaos is not undesirable or that the universe would not be more chaotic, but that is a separate argument.

          “Given the other desires your fallacious logic seems to imply this maker has, this is fine by me.”

          I may be mistaken, but this reads as, “I find the idea of a divine entity who wishes to relate to people to be undesirable.” Is that your intended meaning?

  • Lucy O’D

    Hi there,
    I’m a Catholic and I put your blogs in front of an atheist friend of mine who did the St John’s College “Great Books” program and with whom I have an amicable agreement to debate as we feel inclined… here was his response…

    “As for Ms. Libresco, it seems that Catholicism appealed because so much more can be taken for granted axiomatically once one accepts the faith. What I got from hearing her talk was that she’s some kind of math geek/debater and she felt herself at a disadvantage in debates over the foundation of morality when coming at it from a naturalistic perspective. I can certainly see that. But of course convenience is hardly a case for the truth of the necessary presuppositions. I remain fascinated.”

    Would love to hear your response… 🙂

    • leahlibresco

      The convenience factor did occur to me, but it’s not the reason I switched. To be honest, it felt like a coward’s way out, when the really exciting thing to do would be building a philosophy, not finding one. After I changed my mind, I felt a little I didn’t still get to work on the reconcile-atheism-with-virtue-ethics project. And (my besetting sin is obviously pride) I felt a lot more useful and important as a weird atheist than another Catholic. I’m not sure exactly where the balance falls when you weigh convenience and strength in debate against getting to be an explorer. But that sum wasn’t a big factor in whether I thought the axioms were true, it just influenced how I felt about that realization.

      Your atheist friend has me dead to rights on the “math geek/debater” bit, though.

      • “I felt a lot more useful and important as a weird atheist than another Catholic.”

        That one. Yes. You nailed it. I hated that part of converting. I still get a little wistful for the old days, except that now atheism is so mainstream and Catholicism is so out of fashion it seems like not as bad a trade as I thought it was (pride always sneaks back in…)! 🙂

      • heh, this might be a rabbit hole but I think this comment thread is getting to the end anyway.

        Speaking of feeling useful, did you by chance read Marc Barnes piece the other day “Humans are useless” (and i’m a complete idiot when it comes to html so here’s the link:

        Seems to get at that feeling of usefulness.

  • grok87

    I love your phrase “besetting sin.” We all have them I guess. I think pride is probably mine also.
    Here is a quote from Kathleen Norris’s the Cloister Walk

    (she is quoting an Eastern monastic named John Climacus

    “Men can heal the lustful. Angels can heal the malicious. Only God can heal the proud.”


    • Ted Seeber

      The traditional Catholic version is your “favorite sin”- that is, the sin you keep returning to even when you’ve worked hard in the past to escape it.

      I have four, pride, anger, lust, and gluttony. I’m often accused of sloth but that’s just because my autistic priorities are out of step with neurotypical society.

  • Elise

    I listened to a large chunk of the program (it’s usually what I listen to on my way home). Full disclosure: I am not a Catholic but I listen to the program as my significant other’s family is Catholic and I believe in understanding their faith in order to properly communicate with them and build bridges. As I said, I listened to a large chunk of the program, but I didn’t hear my issue addressed (I could have missed it).

    Assuming, for a moment, that we cede the point that Deity exists, how do we get from there to the God of Catholicism (as a Catholic apologetic show would seem to want you to do) as opposed to a Deistic clockworker, Wiccan Dryghten, or the Brahman of Hinduism (just to name a few)?

    During the time I’ve listened to the program, I’ve heard seemingly compelling arguments to convert to Catholicism from some other form of Christian, but not really from other faiths. So while a large jump for converting an Atheist may be getting them to recognize the existance of Deity, I don’t see that as sufficient to then make an additional jump to Catholic. And based on the numbers (from 33% of the world self identifies as Christian, and around 1 billion of those are Catholic. Of the remaining 66% of the world, 50% identify as other faiths (thus 16% are secular or nonreligious).

    I’d love to hear any thoughts on that second jump (from Deity to X faith, likely in this thread Catholic). Every argument I’ve seen so far is to convert an Atheist to a Theist. This feels like saying, “to get to my house, go left” but not where to go left.

    • Erick

      Actually, if you count Judaism and Islam, belief in the God (the Father) of Catholicism as you put it would account for about 54 percent of the world. Regardless, your point is taken.

      I would suggest you look into the Catholic philosophies regarding the holistics of the material universe and spiritual realm in order to understand the necessity for Jesus’ incarnation (the perfect unification of matter and spirit), which I assume is what you mean by belief in the God of Catholicism.

    • The argument (for me at least) actually moves in the other direction. Once someone let’s go of their faith that there isn’t a God and get’s as far as a Deistic God/etc. the next step is to introduce them to Christ, in the historical record, as the Son of God. As far as I know, Christianity is the only religion that claims that God became Man (fully human, not just disguised as human) and lived humanly, suffered, died and was raised from the dead. Other religions seem to have parts of that but not the whole thing. My conversion, once I had let go of my prejudices, had to do with my experience of God/Jesus and my apprehension that Catholicism was the only really true expression of everything.

      • Alan

        And you think the next logical step for someone who is convinced of a metaphysical God that sits outside of space and time as we know it is for that God to have become fully human? That is quite a huge leap for most Atheists and Agnostics I know.

        • Right, they wouldn’t be an atheist if they agreed with the first principle.

          My point is that the philosophical argument can only get you so far before it either crashes into the wall of a priori presuppositions or is abandoned to go have dinner.

          The truth is (Erhman to the contrary) that Jesus of Nazareth was a real historical person who claimed to be God, was crucified by the Romans and resurrected by God, seen by over 500 witnesses post-resurrection, at multiple times and places and whose cult, built on the backs of 12 mostly uneducated men (i.e. the Apostles), overturned the western world. Those men and many of their followers suffered incredibly and had no earthly gain from their proclamation. Many were martyred or tortured. Any of them could have admitted that they made it up and been spared but not one of them did so. That’s the Truth. Everything else is just details.

          • Alan

            Yeah, except that isn’t the truth. Jesus was just another sectarian preacher in a time and place full of them. He probably wasn’t the only who (or whose followers) had the hubris to believe man could be god, just happened to be the ones whose followers were eventually most successful in gaining prominence within the Roman empire.

            You can believe whatever you like but your truth is just as false as a Scientologists.

        • Erick


          Once you believe in a transcendent God, what makes him becoming human an impossibility? So you’re argument is that a transcendent God that created all of existence cannot do something as a lack of power.

          You see, once you make a leap to believe in a God, then the next rational position is to believe nothing is impossible to Him. To actually believe in God and then believe that he could not do certain things as a matter of power is the irrational choice.

          • Alan

            That isn’t necessarily rational if the leap to believe in a god is to fill a gap in what sits outside the physical world to start it. I would argue it is far more rational to imagine this god as one who operates outside of the physical world and can create such but cannot cross into it than it is to imagine as something that cuts across the ‘fourth wall’ as it were.

            It is only when you start with the conceit that this transcendental god would have intents, interests and emotions of a human that you start to drift towards one that would create for the sake of interacting.

      • ACN

        Alan’s already made the point, but I feel like it’s necessary to underline this, because this is in fact William Lane Craig’s standard procedure as well.

        Assuming that I grant you whatever sufficiently vague deist entity we’re willing to agree isn’t logically incoherent or incompatible with observational evidence. You’ve still got ALL of your work ahead of you. There is no way to work “top-down” as it were, from this deist entity to “the same entity which is supposed to have told all of the jews they need to hack the foreskins off their infant males”. You have to work bottom up, and you have to do it by dishonestly representing the histories of your holy books and the apostolic line of the church; simultaneously, making emotional claims about the sacrifices made by god/christ for the believer to try to cover-up the fact that since you can’t work top-down, it isn’t obvious why said sacrifices are necessary or even make any sense at all.

        • If you think of it like a pyramid, you’re missing the point. As Leah has mentioned with her conversion, she started to see Catholicism as a localized optima that had the same explanatory power as atheism (albeit held in tension with her virtue ethicism). It shouldn’t come down from one thing, and it shouldn’t build up from one thing. It’s a bunch of little things taken together that point a certain direction.

          For example, grant the deist god. Now before even talking about sin or Jesus or anything, just talk about the concept of the moral law – and if it exists, how it exists, and what this says of our behavior. Maybe then talk about the Natural Law, if it is real, where it comes from. Now we’ve established that no one’s perfect, but if God is, crap, we have the sin problem at best.

          We’re still nowhere NEAR the God of the Bible. There are other angles, other arguments, to be had in a bunch of different fields – teleology, ethics, metaphysics (and just plain physics), history…these aren’t stacked on top of each other so you can descend or climb a ladder. They are organized around and next to each other so you can build a framework.

    • @Elise:

      I’ll give it a shot. I’ll start with this: I’m Christian because of Jesus Christ…this will exclude for you Judaism and Islam, because they make different claims regarding Christ. I’m Catholic because of history…this will exclude Protestantism and Orthodox. Going from being a Christian to a Catholic-Christian is a matter of historical record for me. What did the early Church Fathers do? What did they believe? What did they practice? Jimmy Akin has a great book called Fathers Know Best that gets into all of that.

    • Iota


      “I’d love to hear any thoughts on that second jump (from Deity to X faith, likely in this thread Catholic). Every argument I’ve seen so far is to convert an Atheist to a Theist. This feels like saying, “to get to my house, go left” but not where to go left.”

      I don’t listen to that show but I suppose actually giving some sort of blueprint for a conversion isn’t really practical in that kind of apologetics format. Ultimately, our world-views are pretty complex tapestries, made out of all our basic assumptions and vales, that might gradually shift over time. I think reactions to Leah’s conversion sometimes touched on that. As one person commented “If I were a weird quasi-Platonist virtue ethicist, converting to Catholicism would probably be my next step too. “ But since they weren’t, it apparently wasn’t.

      In other words, if you have made certain assumptions, embraced certain vales and so on, there is a sort of next possible step that becomes thinkable, that would not be thinkable or compelling three steps earlier.

      An argument that tries to tackle all the steps from A to Z takes much time (if you don’t want it to be excessively simplistic) and is probably disappointing anyway. On top of that, it’s a Catholic thing (AFAIK) to assume that since God is Truth, all people looking for It will eventually find Him (or so we can hope), so every step is in a sense worthwhile in itself.

      That said, here’s my personal summary of all the steps. Be warned that it’s simplistic (compared to what actually happened) and probably disappointing.

      I’m a cradle Catholic, who went all the way back to vague deism – atheism as such has always seemed somewhat “unbelievable” insofar, as it posits that we are the result of, roughly speaking, such a crazy, improbability that if people were asked to wage their life or health on a similar improbability occurring in the future, most “rational” people would probably decline to do so.

      What got me personally past deism is my belief that beliefs and values ought to have some effect, ought to do something in your life, and a “Blind Watchmaker” obviously doesn’t do that. If you posit a transcendental person or force that just jump stared the process and then quit, it’s a belief practically as “useless” as atheism and more messy at that. In blunter words: I find atheism absurd and deism wishy-washy at best. That leaves me only with various kinds of God/gods as interacting entities.

      Based on a pretty extensive reading of mythologies I find polytheism of all sorts even more out of whack than atheism so I was left – roughly – with Hinduism, Judaism, Islam and Christianity as those religions that have some concept of the transcendent that actually makes you do something with your life and one that is sufficiently unlike-human to be believably anything more than an urge to antrophomorhize nature. Out of those, I don’t think Hinduism is appealing and Judaism isn’t even meant for me (Orthodox Jews apparently don’t put much stock on converts, since from what I understand a gentile is better staying a good gentile – obeying the Seven Noahide Laws – rather than an insufficiently good convert). Also, I don’t particularly like the prevalence of purely formalist rules in Orthodox Judaism (although I understand a Jew would make the argument, possibly, that paying attention to the formal details demonstrates one’s devotion to God).

      So I was left with Christianity and Islam. God as depicted by mainstream Islamic theology again doesn’t go down well with me, because, apparently mostly voluntarist (i.e. God is not someone you can understand on any level, what he wills to be good is such because he wills that and were he to suddenly flip the rules upside down,you’d have to start obeying the new set, and he’s completely entitled to doing that). Not to mention that, apparently, Jesus (Isa) has a better track record of being a sinless person than Muhammad does, according to Islamic sources (please verify this, there ARE dissenting opinions).

      That leaves me with Christianity. I find all Christian theologies that are based on “the great apostasy” *(i.e. roughly the belief that true Christianity was lost and had been restored many centuries after the death of apostles, with no visible church in between) quite illogical, if one simultaneously believes in an almighty God who cares about His own revelation, even if you posit (as Catholicism does) that God is “limited” by His own nature, basic logic and human free will (this, incidentally is another point against Islam, since Islam apparently teaches that there are/were other holy books besides the Quran but they were subsequently corrupted, so the logic here seems similar to Christian “great apostasy”). Also, any denomination of Christianity that claims visible continuity (at least significantly supported by historical sources) but is only local, doesn’t agree with me (because it would seriously limit the opportunity for the discovery of salvation). So in the end I was left with Orthodoxy or Catholicism, and out of the two I side with Catholicism, as more global and more unified on core moral issues.

      You will notice that a number of those choices are underpinned by my other assumptions. If you reject those assumptions, you might find my reasoning anything from uncompelling to nonsensical. Anyone who has a different set of assumptions and vales and is a Catholic probably also had a different way of arriving consciously at Catholicism.

      • Iota

        Gah systematic typo above: not Hinduism – Buddhism.

      • Elise

        I just wanted to thank everyone for your replies. I’m in a pretty solid place with my faith, and I think (as Iota pointed out) it is because of my basic assumptions, but I’m not, by any means, going to reject a new Truth if it presents itself.

        I think the nail was really hit on the head by Iota. Of course they can’t lay that out, it’s a radio program, and it is complex. Unfortunately I’ve seen very little to help people make the jump from a faith outside of Christianity to Catholicism, other than the Atheist to Theist, but we are all very unique and it is so complex and it’s a radio program not designed to spend all it’s air time on one issue. It was almost a “duh” moment, where I wanted to smack my head for not realizing that.

        I have greatly enjoyed everyone’s feedback though, and I thank you for further fleshing out my understanding of the world in which I live and the people I share it with.

        • Iota

          “Unfortunately I’ve seen very little to help people make the jump from a faith outside of Christianity to Catholicism”

          My best guess is if you are American is that Christianity (in general) might be perceived as dominant and deserving most airtime. Specifically various forms of Protestantism probably. Resources or ministries that tackle problems of people of other faiths do exist, but people have to more actively look to actually find them (as counter-intuitive as that is).

          From what I gather, in other countries apologetics do take other paths. For example, in countries with a significant Muslim minority I’d expect a proportionately higher amount of attention being paid to answering Muslims (Fr. Zakaria Botros, for example) and in my country, where Protestantism is a small minority, you’d rarely hear an argument about “works versus grace”, because few people ever bring it up.

    • Ted Seeber

      My completely off the wall answer- I believe that the Vatican II Document Nostra Aetate contains the answer to that question. Why don’t you read it yourself (widely available on the web) and see if it contains your answer.