Category Archives: Religious belief

Geisler’s evangelistic questions for atheists.


A shorter version of Geisler’s “evangelism.”

Apparently there is this book called Conversational Evangelism, written to help Christians fool non-Christians into believing in God (which is pretty much all that evangelism is). Norman Geisler, author of the book, explains what evangelism is:

Evangelism is every day and in every way helping your nonbelieving friends to take one step closer to Jesus Christ…

[W]e should do all we can to make our manner of communicating the Gospel as inoffensive as possible even if the message of our Gospel may be offensive to some.

The role of the evangelist is fundamentally one of manipulation. Evangelists will lie openly if they can get away with it, and covertly if they cannot. In all cases, their objective remains to enforce agreement with the inter-subjective beliefs of their particular brand of Christianity.

One particular device that Geisler promotes in his book is to use questions against unbelievers, and he provides lists of questions for different categories such as atheists, agnostics, Islamists, Hindus, Buddhists, and so on.

Questions are a fairly common device in evangelism, because they are a more subtle form of manipulation. Asking someone a question seems open-minded and seems to give the freedom to the answerer. But evangelists, like any other marketing peddler, use leading questions in order to entrap the answerer (“wouldn’t you want the best possible product for your home?”).

In doing so, however, they must assume that the answerer is ignorant. This is why their questions look so imbecilic to atheists who actually understand the premises of the questions. I will examine Geisler’s proposed questions for atheists one by one and expose the manipulation underlying them.

1. Are you absolutely sure there is no God? If not, then is it not possible that there is a God? And if it is possible that God exists, then can you think of any reason that would keep you from wanting to look at the evidence?

Most atheists want to show themselves as being “open-minded” to the possibility of God existing and don’t want to appear dogmatic. Geisler knows this and tries to appeal to this feeling in order to get them on a slippery slope.

Once the atheist admits that it is possible that God exists, he then tries to put Christianity’s foot in the door by exploiting the atheist’s imagination. Of course one can imagine reasons that would keep one from looking at evidence, but that doesn’t mean those reasons are actually true. This is a very insidious technique that will inevitably lower the atheist’s confidence. Once you’ve poisoned the well, so to speak, you can move on to the next questions…

2. Would you agree that intelligently designed things call for an intelligent designer of them? If so, then would you agree that evidence for intelligent design in the universe would be evidence for a designer of the universe?

Again with the hypothetical questions (this one can basically be reduced to “but what if you were wrong? wouldn’t you be wrong then?”). He is preying on people’s imagination. Sure, if there was evidence for intelligent design, then it would be evidence for an intelligent designer. But no such evidence exists. You will note that presenting evidence is not Geisler’s game here: he’s doing evangelism, not apologetics; as such, his concern is in attacking the confidence of the atheist and, ultimately, the efficacy of the human mind (observe the latter especially in questions 4, 5 and 10).

3. Would you agree that nothing cannot produce something? If so, then if the universe did not exist but then came to exist, wouldn’t this be evidence of a cause beyond the universe?

Again with the hypotheticals. I think Geisler is trying to bank on some atheists’ ignorance, hoping that some believe that the universe came to exist or that there is evidence for intelligent design. Apart from that, I think my answer on question 2 pretty much addresses this one too, since it’s the exact same tactic. Nothing is actually being argued or proposed: it’s pure manipulation.

4. Would you agree with me that just because we cannot see something with our eyes—such as our mind, gravity, magnetism, the wind—that does not mean it doesn’t exist?

This is Geisler’s first use of what could be called anti-epistemic tactics, not telling us how to know but telling us that our means of knowing are flawed. How else can we know that something exists unless we can perceive evidence of it in some fashion with our senses? To deny the senses is to “cut one’s own head.”

Geisler is using the time-honored tactic of attacking the senses (your senses are flawed) in order to validate nihilism (you really can’t know anything!) and then have God spring out of his box and “rescue” us from this benighted state (truth comes from God). The trouble is that his basic premise is wrong. We perceive our own minds. We perceive the effects of gravity and magnetism. We can feel the wind. These are all sensory methods.

But with this attack, he is setting up the next question. We can observe now that these questions are not meant to be used in isolation but are actually a progression: first Geisler uses hypothetical questions to sow some doubt, then he launches into an attack on the senses. Later he will use these as a springboard into more specific questions.

5. Would you also agree that just because we cannot see God with our eyes does not necessarily mean He doesn’t exist?

This is merely a rehashing of question 4. Note how again Geisler is manipulating people’s desire to be “reasonable” and “open-minded” by forcing them to agree. No one likes to contradict other people and not go along, not in a normal conversation; remember these questions are to be used in informal settings, which makes it a lot easier to manipulate people because our guards are down and we’re thinking about being polite more than anything else. Geisler aims first and foremost to get the atheist to admit that God could exist through the imagination, and then, starting with the next question, he’s gonna start skirting apologetics to drive the point home.

6. In the light of the big bang evidence for the origin of the universe, is it more reasonable to believe that no one created something out of nothing or someone created something out of nothing?

You see here that Geisler is “inspired” by the Kalam argument. But his reformulation is confusing, probably on purpose. It makes no logical sense to say that “no one created something,” and the strange formulation will lead the naive answerer to pick the second option, thereby making it seem as if the Christian has a point. The aim here is clearly to deceive (what “big bang evidence”? how can “no one” create something?) and to trap the atheist in a false dilemma (how can anything come out of nothing, whether it was made by “someone” or not?).

7. Would you agree that something presently exists? If something presently exists, and something cannot come from nothing, then would you also agree that something must have always existed?

There is nothing wrong per se with this question, but it follows the progression, because it primes the atheist to think about God, and so does the word “somebody” in the previous question. The only criticism I would have of his tactic here is that this question should come earlier: the next question will resume the pseudo-apologetics approach.

8. If it takes an intelligent being to produce an encyclopedia, then would it not also take an intelligent being to produce the equivalent of 1000 sets of an encyclopedia full of information in the first one-celled animal? (Even atheists such as Richard Dawkins acknowledges that “amoebas have as much information in their DNA as 1000 Encyclopaedia Britannicas.” Richard Dawkins, The Blind Watchmaker (New York: WW. Norton and Co., 1996), 116.)

First of all, I don’t believe it should take an intelligent being to produce an encyclopedia; an AI should be able to do the job just as well, given all the information already available on the Internet.

But besides that, the deception is in the second half of the question. Geisler is now “inspired” by Creationists, who claim that evolution says that the cell was the first organism. But this is a straightforward lie. No evolutionist says that cells, which are ridiculously complicated and themselves the result of an integration of numerous organisms over a long period of time, were the first organisms.

I think here that Geisler is counting on the fact that evolution is hardly taught in the United States and expects atheists to be ignorant that he is telling them a lie. This shows you, if you were not convinced yet, that Geisler’s method is fundamentally dishonest.

9. If an effect cannot be greater than its cause (since you can’t give what you do not have to give), then does it not make more sense that mind produced matter than that matter produced mind, as atheists say?

An interesting point to raise on this question is that this strange expression “an effect cannot be greater than its cause” only comes up in apologetics. It sounds scientific, but it’s not. How are we supposed to measure “greater”? “Greater” how? In size? In force? In complexity? How is any of this to be measured?

That being said, I’m not sure why Geisler thinks using this question is a good tactic. Again he is priming the atheist to think about God, but “mind produced matter” is a nonsensical way to get there. A mind can only produce things of the mind, therefore it cannot be “greater” than matter, which produces both things of matter and things of mind.

Perhaps he is trying to invoke the fact that our minds can grasp vast concepts like eternity and infinite space, and that they thus appear to be “greater” than matter, which is limited by the laws of nature. But this “greatness” is just an intellectual illusion. No matter what high concepts we can imagine, our mind is still servant to matter. If the brain is damaged, the mind is damaged. If the brain dies, the mind dies. More complex brains produce more capable minds.

10. Is there anything wrong anywhere? If so, how can we know unless there is a moral law?

11. If every law needs a lawgiver, does it not make sense to say a moral law needs a Moral Lawgiver?

There is no point in treating these two questions separately because they make no sense without each other. All Geisler did here was take the moral argument and make two questions out of it. Pretty lazy.

The crux of the deception here is in the equivocation between a law as legal construct and a law as moral principle. These are two completely different animals, but Geisler treats them as if they both worked the same way (as authoritarian processes imposed on people, therefore needing an authority to create them). Equivocations are the intellectual con man’s version of the shell game.

12. Would you agree that if it took intelligence to make a model universe in a science lab, then it took super-intelligence to make the real universe?

Okay, I really have no idea what Geisler is on about now. Is this one of those weird urban legends that circulate in Christian circles, like how they believe that NASA has mapped out the “missing day” from Joshua 10. Maybe these morons really do believe there is a miniature universe in a laboratory somewhere. I wouldn’t put it past them.

13. Would you agree that it takes a cause to make a small glass ball found in the woods? And would you agree that making the ball larger does not eliminate the need for a cause? If so, then doesn’t the biggest ball of all (the whole universe) need a cause?

There are a few… minor… factual errors in this question. First of all, the universe is not a ball, and neither is it made of glass. Most of the matter in the universe is hydrogen, which can only be naturally made into a solid ball under unimaginable pressure (such as the core of a planet). Secondly, it wouldn’t be outside of the realm of possibilities to find a natural glass ball in the woods, since such things do actually occur (although mostly in the form of obsidian) and are not “made.”

At any rate, it’s obvious that Geisler is continuing his “greatest hits” strategy of pseudo-apologetics and is now using the Watchmaker argument. This will therefore only convince those atheists who have somehow never heard of the Watchmaker argument. Everyone else already knows that it’s a form of circular reasoning.

14. If there is a cause beyond the whole finite (limited) universe, would not this cause have to be beyond the finite, namely, non-finite or infinite?

Another hypothetical meant to prime atheists for thinking about God. Yes, obviously anything that is “beyond the universe” would also have a nature different from things within the universe, but so what? If I was a bat, I could fly, but I am not a bat.

15. In the light of the anthropic principle (that the universe was fine-tuned for the emergence of life from its very inception), wouldn’t it make sense to say there was an intelligent being who preplanned human life?

The anthropic principle (or at least, one version of it) states that the properties of the universe must be compatible with the emergence of life, otherwise we wouldn’t be here in the first place. This is simple logic.

Saying that the universe was fine-tuned implies that someone or something actively modified the universe so it could support life. This has nothing to do with the anthropic principle; rather, we’re back in the realm of the urban legends. When was it ever shown that “the universe was fine-tuned for the emergence of life from its very inception”?

So at this point I assume the atheist (in the ideal scenario where all questions have been answered in the “correct” way) is supposed to collapse and scream “my life is a lie!!!” Without this whole process, the question doesn’t really make any sense. Why should we assume that an intelligent being did it? Why, because only God could create all this information, of course. How do we know the universe was fine-tuned? Why, because it’s exactly like a gigantic bead of glass. All of this makes sense now!

After reviewing all these questions in one swoop, we see that the main instrument of conversion here is not argumentation or outright lying, but a lot of attacks on one’s reasoning abilities, a lot of priming, and loaded wording as well. None of them are really about convincing you of anything directly, but mostly about stimulating your imagination and exploiting any area of ignorance or uncertainty you may have. That is the nature of the manipulation that Christians are taught to use on unbelievers in order to “bring them to Christ.” Sick stuff.

“Historical science” and “observational science.”

In the famous debate between Bill Nye and Ken Ham (see here for my opinion on this debate), Ken Ham used as his most basic argument the difference between what he called “historical science” and “observational science.” This sort of argument is not new. The more fundamentalist Creationists have maintained the party line that what they call “historical science” is inherently unreliable, that we can’t know anything about the past, and so on.

Recognizing that everyone has presuppositions that shape the way they interpret the evidence is an important step in realizing that historical science is not equal to operational science. Because no one was there to witness the past (except God), we must interpret it based on a set of starting assumptions. Creationists and evolutionists have the same evidence; they just interpret it within a different framework. Evolution denies the role of God in the universe, and creation accepts His eyewitness account—the Bible—as the foundation for arriving at a correct understanding of the universe.

You may notice that this is similar to another dichotomous reframing which has been propagated by Creationist organizations: the one between “microevolution” and “macroevolution,” where “microevolution” happens and “macroevolution” cannot happen and is a false “interpretation” of the data.

This “historical science” business is another minor distinction made by scientists that got blown up into a whole system of thought by Creationists. Yes, there is such a thing as “historical science,” but it designates a difference in the type of evidence used, nothing more (incidentally, evolution does not qualify as “historical science” because we do have direct experimental data about it). It does not imply that “historical science” is bogus because “no one was there to witness the past.”

This is expressed even more simply by Ken Ham by telling children to scream to their teachers “were you there?” if they ever bring up evolution. I assume this is supposed to accomplish something, although I have no idea what. Perhaps it is supposed to instill some doubt in the stupider science teachers.

We can also see some connection with presuppositionalist argumentation, in that both try to reduce secular reasoning to the status of assumptions and presuppositions, and then propose God as the ultimate answer.

As in presuppositionalism, the fundamental premise of the false dichotomy is correct: it is true that we interpret the past “based on a set of starting assumptions.” But what they don’t (want to) understand is that everything is interpreted “based on a set of starting assumptions,” not just the past, and Christian fundamentalists have no problem at all reframing the “observational”/ “operational” in terms of their theological assumptions. So the distinction is a dishonest one on the Christians’ part.

On the topic of evolution specifically, Creationists have no problem twisting observational results about evolution to suit their own beliefs (for a specific recent example, see the Lenski experiment; for a more general overview, see the Eye on the ICR blog). During the debate, Ken Ham had no problem arguing against direct observations such as tree rings, fossils, and so on and so forth.

He claimed that his basis for doing so was because we have no evidence that the laws of nature remained the same in past centuries. Bill Nye rightly pointed out that this an extraordinary claim and that it has the burden of proof. But more importantly, it flies in the face of the presuppositionalist boast that the uniformity of natural law can only be explained by the existence of God.

Either science is effective because God ordains the unchanging laws of nature, or science is ineffective at “historical science” because the laws of nature change all the time. Both of these claims cannot be true, and Christians evade the issue by equivocating between “historical science” and “observation science.” They use the success of physics and chemistry to “prove” that God backs the scientific endeavor, and then they use the supposed failures of evolution to “prove” that we should believe God instead of science.

The further issue with the reasoning presented to us by the Creationists talk as if believing in God is some kind of axiom which their opponents simply reject for no good reason.

One problem is that there are plenty of Christians who accept God’s “eyewitness account” (a rather odd term for something that doesn’t have eyes) and yet also believe in evolution. This fact alone destroys the Creationist argument I’ve quoted above.

But the most important problem is that rejection of God’s “eyewitness account” is not an unjustified assumption. The Creationist wants you to first believe that “accepting God’s eyewitness account” and “denying the role of God in the universe” are the same kind of proposition, and then to believe that “accepting God’s eyewitness account” is better than “denying the role of God in the universe.”

But this surely can’t be right: “accepting God’s eyewitness account” is far less parsimonious than the alternative, and therefore requires evidence of God’s existence at the very least. “Denying the role of God in the universe” should be the default assertion, and all others should be rejected. They are therefore not of the same kind at all.

Therefore the statement that “Creationists and evolutionists have the same evidence” is in fact an admission of defeat. To hold a valid belief in Creationist would require additional evidence than holding the default. Absence of such additional evidence means that Creationism cannot in any way be a valid belief.

Were numbers created by God?

At this point, presuppositionalism has basically taken over popular Christian apologetics as we know it. We are confronted at all levels with Christian “thinkers” declaring that one thing or the other can only make sense if we presuppose the Christian god. This process is revolting but not overly surprising: apologetics is such a desperate field that anything that works must be constantly used and reused.

However, some Christians distinguish themselves by the depth of stupidity they marshal and the esoteric topics they exploit. Jason Lisle, of the ICR (Institute for Creationist Research), is a good example of that. He is actually the Director of Research. Don’t ask me what the hell that means for a Creationist to direct “research.”

In this article, Lisle is way out of his field, which is astrophysics (he is most notably responsible for his “research” on the Creationist ad hoc rationalization of the speed of light, called anisotropic synchrony convention). He explores mathematics and its connection with evolution. What could possibly be the connection between mathematics and evolution, you say? Well… first Lisle needs to convince us that numbers are some sort of supernatural entities:

Numbers are concepts. Thus, they are abstract in nature. They exist in the world of thought and are not material or physical. You cannot literally touch a number, or even see one, because they are not made of matter.

Anyone who knows presup tactics knows where this is going: numbers are immaterial, therefore humans can’t create numbers, therefore they must have been created by God. And yes, you’re right:

Some people might think that only physical things can exist—that matter and energy comprise every real thing. But, of course, in the Christian worldview we can have non-material entities that do exist. God is an obvious example. He exists, but is not made up of matter or energy. So the Christian worldview allows for numbers to have real existence, even though they are not material things… Other examples include logic, love, and laws.

Yes, Lisle is so unsophisticated that he thinks using love as an example of an immaterial thing is not completely laughable.

It seems that again and again presups confuse “physical” with “objective.” I do not know if this confusion is deliberate or the result of stupidity. Logic, love and laws come from human minds and are dependent on human minds, but, just like human minds, they are very much physical. If they were not, we would be unable to perceive them, let alone make arguments about them.

To finish on the first quote, we can’t touch or see individual numbers. We also can’t touch or see individual electrons or photons, distant galaxies, or pieces of data on a CD or DVD, yet all these things are clearly physical.

Now, what does it mean for numbers to be non-material? Well, the analogy with God gives us an answer: God is supernatural, and presumably so are numbers. How can a defined concept be made of an undefined substance?

But putting that aside, how could God possibly create numbers? We didn’t have the number zero before the 9th century CE; if God created numbers, then how did we not know about zero from the beginning? What about negative numbers? Irrational numbers? Complex numbers? If God created those, why didn’t we already know about them? Why is it that the pattern of history looks exactly as if humans are creating numbers, not God?

Laws of mathematics are discovered by people and written down by people. But they were not created by people. As discussed above, laws of mathematics do not change with time. Therefore, they existed before people existed. So they obviously cannot be a creation of man. The equation 2+3=5 was true long before any human being thought about it, realized it, or wrote it.

One has to wonder why Lisle would even state such an obvious falsehood. What does it mean for an equation, a man-made statement which uses man-made concepts, to be evaluated as true without the existence of human beings?

And without human beings, who is making this evaluation? Keep in mind that Lisle is not stating that 2+3=5 is true in the present, but that it was true even without human beings. But I assume that Lisle also believes, like YECs in general, that humans were a special creation of God and that humans alone are capable of complex reasoning. Logically, then, before human beings existed there could be no true or false statements because no one existed who could make such an evaluation (God, being omniscient, has no need for mental evaluation).

Lisle also wants to have his cake and eat it too. His argument rests on the proposition that, while the way we express mathematical concepts changes constantly, those concepts themselves form an absolute and unchanging reality that underlies our mathematical equations. So for instance “2+3=5″ uses Arabic numerals (which were invented around 500 CE) and a relatively new mathematical symbol (the + sign was first invented at the end of the 15th century); but, according to Lisle, each of these elements expresses some transcendent “mathematical reality.”

What is this “mathematical reality”? Lisle does not tell us what it is, but from a secular standpoint it seems obvious that what he’s referring to the underlying concepts. The numeral “2″ is the symbolic expression of a concept, just like any other symbol or word. But concepts, while they are generally universal, are not absolute, unchanging or transcendent; they cannot do what Lisle wants them to do, be God’s special creation and herald of absolute truth.

The symbols in the equation “2+3=5″ refers to the concepts of twoness, threeness and addition. We acquired these concepts through observation and then learned the symbols and words to which they correspond. The sum of our observations about twoness, for example, represents the total content that could possibly be contained in our concept of twoness. Of course this includes observations of what other people have explained to us about the concept: we have never observed an imaginary number of anything, but we have observed what other people have discovered about imaginary numbers. We can retrace their steps and observe the coherency of our numerical system.

Again I want to point out that nothing of this is absolute, unchanging or transcendent. This “mathematical reality” exists only in our heads and written down as information in various forms; it does not exist outside of human action, and nothing about it is unchanging. The various ways in which people have grappled with the concept of “god” is a perfect demonstration on how concepts are changing and relative.

A Christian may reply that we do form the same concepts insofar as numbers are concerned. They may want to agree with mathematician Leopold Kronecker when he said:

The natural numbers were created by God; all the others are the invention of humans.

Certainly a better case can be made for that, especially since a great number of animal species are able to count small numbers. God could have “engraved” numbers in the heart of living beings, or some sentimental crap like that. But that would imply Creationism, a fact which of course would not stop Lisle. And it still relies on a “mathematical reality” that is nothing like what Lisle wants it to be. Cormorants can count to seven, but that doesn’t mean they’re somehow extracting numbers from some mystical realm.

Lisle then tries to end his article by debunking “evolutionary mathematics”:

If we applied this concept to mathematics, we would ask, “From what did numbers evolve? What were numbers before they were numbers? When did the physical universe begin obeying mathematical laws?”

Just take one number as a token case. From what simpler number did the number 7 evolve? Was 7 once 3? Did 3 have to transition through 4, 5, and 6 before it became 7? When did the negative numbers evolve? Or how about the irrational numbers? When did these numbers begin obeying mathematical laws? Did laws of mathematics evolve first, and then numbers later? Or was it the reverse?

If these sorts of questions sound silly, it is because they are. The evolution of numbers makes no sense whatsoever. 7 has always been 7, just as 3 has always been 3. Likewise, the expression 2+3=5 was as true at the beginning of time as it is today. Mathematical laws and the numbers they govern are invariant—they do not change with time and, therefore, cannot have evolved from anything!

I quoted this in full because it’s pretty hilarious that Lisle, in trying to make a funny argument from absurdity, actually reflects the ignorance of Creationists themselves. “Was 7 once 3″ is like Creationists demanding how a crocodile could be born from an ant. “Did 3 have to transition trough 4, 5 and 6″ is like Creationists who still think evolution is about a ladder of life that goes from bacteria to humans, and that species go through all these “stages.” “Did laws of mathematics evolve first, and then numbers later” is similar to the arguments Creationists make against the evolution of various organs (such as whether the eye or its neuronal pathways “evolved first,” when in fact they evolved concurrently).

“How numbers evolved” is a stupid question and no one is making such a claim. What evolution does say is that the human brain, like every other physical organ, is the product of a long process of adaptation, starting from the simplest and (usually, but not always) tending towards complexity. It is not numbers but our understanding of mathematics which has evolved. To explain this simplistically, we understand numbers better than cormorants do because our brain is more complex.

The number 7 is not an organism, therefore it did not evolve in the biological sense, but it did evolve in a memetic sense. Lisle probably ignored that fact because it didn’t fit his pet theory.

So we come to Lisle’s final “stumper”:

So how can a conceptual entity like math exist before any mind is around to think it?

The answer is simple: mathematics never existed, and cannot exist, “before any mind.” Not even Christians believe this, since they believe God’s mind always existed. Lisle fails at science and theology.

Two New Atheistic Arguments.

Epistemic Argument for Atheism

Intuitions

(I1) It is unreasonable to believe that an object exists unless we have (some) sufficient evidence for its existence.

(I2) Law of Causality: Every material effect must have an adequate antecedent or simultaneous cause; the nature of the effect depends, amongst other factors, on the nature of the cause.

Premises

(A) Perception, and therefore awareness, of any object is contingent upon the existence of a causal chain between the object and our senses. (corollary of I2)
Explanation: Without some effect of the object, the properties of said object would not impinge on our senses.

(B) If we cannot even in principle be aware of the existence of an object, then the rational conclusion is to conclude that it does not exist. (corollary of I1)
Explanation: For an object to be unavailable to the senses means it creates no effect in the universe. It is therefore indistinguishable from nothing.

(C) Occam’s Razor: the most parsimonious explanation is the only one that fulfills the burden of proof. (corollary of I1)
Explanation: If two hypotheses H1 and H2 explain the same set of phenomena P, but H1 is more parsimonious, then we can say that P provides evidence for at most the entities and processes involved in H1. The extraneous entities or processes involved in H2 have no further evidence on the basis of P, therefore we should not believe in them on the basis of P.

(D) Knowledge is contingent on the uniformity of nature. (corollary of I2)
Explanation: All knowledge presupposes that the causal relationships that gave rise to it will not change and have not changed. Even a trivial statement like “the sky is blue” relies on the uniformity of how our brain represents colors.

Argument

(1) God is partially defined as a non-natural being (i.e. it exists outside the universe and its laws) which may interact with the universe.

(2) Either God (a) does not actually interact with the universe, (b) only interacts with the universe in accordance with natural laws or (c) interacts with the universe and may do so in violation of natural laws.

(3) If (a), then we cannot be aware of God, and we must rationally conclude that God does not exist. (from A and B)

(4) If (b), then we cannot distinguish God’s actions from natural law, natural law is the most parsimonious explanation, and this scenario therefore collapses into 3. (from C)

(5) If (c), then we cannot hold to any knowledge, including the knowledge that God exists, and we must conclude that nothing can ever be satisfactorily demonstrated, including God’s existence. In such a situation, all beliefs are unwarranted, including belief in God. (from D)

(6) Therefore we are justified in disbelieving in God on an epistemic basis. (from 3. 4 and 5)

***

Intuitionist Argument for the Non-Existence of God

Intuitions

(I1) Harming innocents is wrong.

(I2) It is unreasonable to believe that an object exists unless we have (some) sufficient evidence for its existence.

(I3) Contradictions cannot exist.

Premises

(A) Torturing an infant is wrong. (from I1)
(¬A) Torturing an infant is not wrong.

(B) Occam’s Razor: the most parsimonious explanation is the only one that fulfills the burden of proof. (corollary of I2)

(C) If the existence of an object implies a contradiction, then that object cannot exist. (corollary of I3)

Argument

(1) God is partially defined as a being (external to oneself) upon which the validity and force of ethical beliefs are contingent.

(2) Either A is valid and forceful (a) because it is intuitively true or the result of deliberation applied to some intuition, (b) because it was decreed by some external agency which cannot also bring about ¬A, or (c) because it was decreed by some external agency which can also bring about ¬A.

(3) If (a), then the validity and force of A are not contingent on any external agent, therefore God does not exist.

(4) If (b), then we cannot distinguish between A being intuitively true and A being the result of the actions of some external agency, intuition becomes the most parsimonious explanation, and this scenario therefore collapses into 3. (from B)

(5) If (c), then A and ¬A can both be valid and forceful, which is a contradiction, therefore God cannot exist. (from C)

(6) Therefore God does not exist. (from 3, 4 and 5)

Why Atheists Should Be Intuitionists.

See my previous entry for a lengthy and detailed explanation of ethical intuitionism.

From an ethical standpoint, Christianity is an extremely bizarre worldview. Original sin, an innocent person dying for someone else’s sins, ethics being contingent on God, God supporting rape and slavery… it’s just contradiction after contradiction.

One of the major problems that I have with evangelical Christianity is the idea that an innocent person, Jesus of Nazareth, suffered and died in the place of sinners so that they might be forgiven. The notion of punishing an innocent person, I find intuitively to be wrong and unjust. Thus, how could man’s redemption be based on an act that is itself intrinsically unjust?

Because Christianity is so ethically contradictory, ethics inevitably permeates debates about Christianity, especially when Christians project their own ethical incompetence onto atheists and try to argue that atheists have no moral grounds.

Atheists are generally unimpressed by such arguments, for good reasons. From an intuitionist standpoint, it’s easy to understand why; ethical intuitions are so implicit and obvious to everyone that implying that atheists cannot justify ethics just seems silly. Of course atheists know right and wrong as much as Christians do, and stating otherwise can only cause natural outrage.

So, isn’t this a satisfactory state of affairs? Why should atheists be particularly concerned about intuitionism, let alone evolutionary intuitionism?

Well, for one thing, it helps drive the point home that Christian principles cannot possibly be primary, and that we all need to use our intuitions to judge proposed Christian ethical principles. This fact pretty much destroys any pretense Christians may have at influencing public life, and we need to point it out often.

It’s also helpful to be able to point out where ethics actually does come from. After all, the main Christian argument on the Internet these days is that no atheist worldview can account for moral truths. We know it’s impossible for anyone to declare anything about all “atheist worldviews,” and that it’s mainly an argument from ignorance. But most importantly, we are able to explain where moral truths come from and why Christianity is piggy-backing on those truths to assert principles that contradict those truths.

It is not enough to point out that the Christian account is incoherent and ridiculous. We need to provide an alternative position in order to argue from a position of strength, just like we use evolution and the Big Bang to argue against the incoherent, absurd nonsense of creationism from a position of strength.

Furthermore, intuitionism provides a way for atheists to discuss ethics divorced from religious concepts entirely, giving us an opportunity to expunge religious concepts from ethical discourse.

Now, I should address the fact that many people already hold to other views, such as utilitarianism, humanism and relativism. The latter is not actually a competing view, because relativism does not tell us how ethics works; it tells us that there are no ethical truths apart from cultural norms, but it doesn’t explain how cultural norms emerge, nor how cultural norms can be primary. So relativism is an insufficient position in addressing the religious debate. Humanism likewise does not tell us how ethics works, only what kind of values we should adopt.

Utilitarianism may seem like a more likely contender, but it fails to answer the question of why we should choose any given utilitarian standard. Why should we do what brings about the most happiness to the most people, or any other principle? At the end of any such process, we run into the is-ought dichotomy; it is impossible for a utilitarian to rationally justify any such principle. Utilitarianism is illogical and leads to absolutely batshit conclusions.

Intuitionism, on the other hand, does not fall prey to the is-ought dichotomy because it starts from the onset with moral judgments:

With evolutionary intuitionism, we intuitively apprehend the fact, say, that torture is wrong. We do not infer the belief that torture is wrong from other propositions. Since inference is not involved, the impossibility of inferring an “ought” from an “is” is not relevant.
Brian Zamulinski, originator of evolutionary intuitionism

Intuitionism can answer the question of justification where other secular alternatives fail. This should make it very interesting to atheists, who are sometimes called to debate the justification of ethics.

Of course it is not necessary for an atheist to have a position about ethics any more than it is necessary for an atheist to have a position about evolution or cosmology. But I don’t think anyone would argue that evolution and cosmology have not made atheistic worldviews far more intellectually attractive.

Likewise, it’s not necessary for atheists to have a position about intuitionism, but it does make atheistic worldviews more intellectually attractive. Right now, atheists as in the same position as regards to ethics as they were as regards to lifeforms two hundred years ago, having good reason to reject the religious view but without any view of their own. There is no reason to think that the widespread adoption of intuitionism wouldn’t have a similar effect.

My final reason as to why atheists should adopt intuitionism is because it’s true. Pretty obvious, but that’s what matters most to me.

Now, I have argued that reason and faith are misleading labels which really refer to what is fundamentally a social activity; call this reasoning, or thinking, or whatever you want. Jonathan Haidt, co-creator of the Socialist Intuitionist Model of Moral Judgment, has integrated this with the intuitionist model:

Moral reasoning is usually an ex post facto process used to influence the intuitions (and hence judgments) of other people. In the social intuitionist model, one feels a quick flash of revulsion at the thought of incest and one knows intuitively that something is wrong. Then when faced with a social demand for a verbal justification, one becomes a lawyer trying to build a case rather than a judge searching for the truth.

I’ve already analyzed the incest taboo in the previous entry, so this is a good example. When we pay any attention to the rationalizations provided for the taboo, we realize that they fall apart at the merest scrutiny. We don’t usually apply such scrutiny because the intuition is a priori strong. Our defense of the incest taboo (or any other belief) is a rationalization of what our subconscious has already chosen to believe.

The problem with any belief system, including Christianity and capital-democracy, which purports to enforce some ethical principles is that they repress our intuitive judgments. They cannot suppress them because they are part of what it’s like to be human, but they try their damn best.

This is most observable in cult structures such as Scientology or LGATs (Large-Group Awareness Training), which attempt to brainwash (i.e. demolish your sense of self and replace it with a group self) people. But we find that even in those extreme cases, people can and do “wake up.” What this means is that some of their intuitions come back to the fore, generally due to events around them which reawaken their faculty of comparison (as I’ve discussed in the previous entry, scenarios, whether real or hypothetical, are how we compare and adjust the importance of various intuitions).

Rationality and faith don’t really exist.

You may remember an entry where I analyzed the common definitions of faith, found them lacking, and decided to strike out on my own and define faith as the result of our need to belong, with a counter-impulse based on cognitive dissonance. I didn’t define faith as such, but I can roughly define its relationship to evidence as such: faith is acceptance of evidence as long as it concords with group beliefs, unless the evidence against those group beliefs is overpowering.

What about rationality? One day, I read about something called the Argumentative Theory, a position with a large degree of support which purports to explain the role of rationality. In Argumentative Theory, rationality did not evolve in humans to help us find the truth, but rather to help us support our beliefs and to argue effectively, thereby influencing others and helping us maneuver the social hierarchy.

Now expand this a little bit by including group allegiance and hierarchies into it. If rationality helps us support our beliefs and convert others, and many of our beliefs come from the groups we belong to, then it must be the case that rationality serves our need to belong to those groups.

Therefore rationality and faith are basically the same thing and the distinction is really pointless. In retrospect this all seems pretty obvious, but it took me a long time to get to this realization. We seem to be lulled into believing in these stock definitions of rationality and faith that really make no sense. I’ve already done this analysis in the case of faith (again, see this entry).

What about rationality? Well, the usual sort of definition is that rationality means someone relies on the evidence of the senses, instead of relying on their feelings, values or prejudices (be careful in distinguishing this from instrumental rationality, which means taking decisions that best fulfill one’s stated goal). If you look for definitions of reason in the epistemic sense, that’s a general idea of what you’ll find. However, there are a few problems with this definition:

* People who are lacking in higher emotions or lack the mental connection between emotions and decisions, such as sociopaths or people with brain damage to the ventromedial prefontal cortex, are notoriously incapable of taking what we consider “rational” decisions (interestingly, people with vmPC brain damage are also measured as being much more credulous, as well as scoring higher on religious fundamentalism). It is now recognized that emotions are an integral part of reasoning.

* The “evidence of the senses” is not accumulated from all the sensory date we receive. We actively decide what to focus on and what not to focus on. This can be as simple as looking at something or turning away, and as complicated as deciding whether a given news item is important. Our emotions, values and prejudices are part and parcel of gathering evidence because they determine what we pay attention to and how we interpret it.

In general, definitions of rationality implicitly assume that we are equanimous and unbiased in our analysis of the evidence, which is simply delusional. The only “value-neutral,” “unbiased” human is a dead human.

I expect people will raise the obvious counter that some people believe in nonsense and others don’t, and that there must be some epistemic reason for the difference. I agree that there is an epistemic reason, but I think it’s a matter of degree, not of kind.

The way I think about it is, all reasoning is circular. We start from our own values and beliefs, and we come back to them at the end. In between, hopefully, there’s evidence, unless your reasoning is really just repetition of a fixed idea, in which case it’s just a point. So one’s reasoning is of varying quality depending on the scope and breadth of the evidence we consider between point A and point B.

And there are cases when a large enough circle can, with enough repetition, end up at a slightly different point than when you started. That’s what makes the difference between someone who stays stuck in the ideologies they grew up with, and people who keep learning.

If there’s no such thing as rational thought, then how does science work? After all, it’s been extremely successful at explaining reality. The scientists who investigated Argumentative Theory state that it comes from the arguments between factions:

Science works very well as a social process, when we can come together and find flaws in each other’s reasoning. We can’t find the problems in our own reasoning very well. But, that’s what other people are for, is to criticize us. And together, we hope the truth comes out.

We hope so, however this is not likely to happen when strongly-held values and beliefs are involved, including religious values and beliefs. Fortunately, most scientists are secular, which generally bypasses that particular problem, although scientists still have values and biases like everyone else.

On the whole, it seems that reason and faith are ways to label people who agree and disagree with us. And because we don’t “choose” to believe what we believe, all arguments are ultimately ad hominems (“you are not like me or didn’t go through the same experiences I did, therefore you’re wrong”). So… what’s the point of arguing?

I think the success of sciences gives us at least one good reason. It is in a variety of positions, and their conflict, that we can eventually hope to arrive at some truth. The arguments themselves provide more evidence for ourselves and for others.

Keep reaching for that pie in the sky…

A Christian woman, who otherwise considered herself a “freethinker,” once asked our freethinker meetup group: “if you don’t raise your children to believe in Heaven, then how can they have hope?”.

My first thought is that this is a very good example of how parenting reinforces religious belief. Having children creates anxiety in people and pushes them to rely on religion as an easy “out” on how to not turn their children into monsters or deprived beings. They are victims of what I’ve previous discussed as an overactive imagination for disaster. So you get the relapsed atheist, the non-churchgoer who becomes a churchgoer, and in general a degradation of the moral faculties. This we can blame squarely on natalism. It is true that some atheists express a longing for religion, but only having children can make someone who knows the evils of religion still go back to it.

Of course, I am also against parenting and believe that indoctrination of any kind is criminal in nature. I also don’t think we should lie to children, and Heaven is a fairy tale and, if you take it literally instead of the myth it actually is, a lie. But this then brings the issue of whether we should tell children fairy tales, and whether we should tell them lies. A good example is that of Santa Claus. Should we teach children about Santa Claus?

Again here the religious brainwashing of our culture affects the way we think. We think there can only be two alternatives: either children believe in Santa Claus, or they don’t believe in Santa Claus at all. But children make believe all the time. When I was a child, I knew deep down that Santa Claus was my uncle Bob, but I played make believe because it was fun.

Many children play at Santa Claus even though they have been told he doesn’t exist: these children don’t “believe” or “disbelieve” in Santa Claus any more than people who play Monopoly “believe” or “disbelieve” in the existence of Park Place. To divide everything into belief/disbelief, rational/irrational, true/false, means missing the point of all art, all entertainment, all imagination, all concepts of history or planning the future.

But being religious seems to make you think in terms of believe/disbelieve. When I try to explain to Christians that I think Jesus is a myth, that concept alone is far beyond them. They give their standard reply of “well, you don’t believe in it, but that doesn’t mean…” and so on, as if what I said has anything to do with believing or not believing in Jesus.

Imagine the equivalent of this reaction for a different myth. A Star Wars fan tells you that that Darth Vader dies in Star Wars Episode VI and you reply: “You seriously believe Darth Vader exists? Don’t you realize it’s just a movie character? Why do you believe in such things?” That would just be stupid and would completely miss the point of discussing a mythical story, where the existence or non-existence of its elements has nothing to do with its meaning.

Like Santa Claus, Heaven is a myth. And if one accepts the message behind it, then one might choose to teach children about Heaven, as a myth. These children’s myths must be abandoned when the child grows up. Once we become adults, we must switch to adult myths, mustn’t we? After all, does not the Bible say, “When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things” (1 Corinthians 13:11). It is bizarre for an adult American to believe in Santa Claus or Snow White, but it’s perfectly fine for an adult American to believe that the Revolutionary War was fought for freedom, or the whole mythos of the “Wild West.” As a fairy tale, Heaven belongs to the former category.

What’s important about a myth is its underlying system of meaning. What does the myth of Heaven as a source of hope mean? Christians see Heaven as their reward for living a righteous life. Hope comes in because the believer must hold out hope that everything bad in their lives will be rendered moot someday when they get to Heaven. As the song The Preacher and the Slave, a parody of a Salvation Army hymn, tells us:

You will eat, bye and bye,
In that glorious land above the sky;
Work and pray, live on hay,
You’ll get pie in the sky when you die.

The concept of Heaven has always been used to keep the masses appeased and content with their fate here on Earth. The hope it gives us crowds out of our imaginary the possibility of social justice and other forms of material improvement of our living conditions. Ultimate, absolute justice is the domain of God in Heaven; here on Earth, we must suffer and pray.

So the indoctrination of children with the Heaven myth serves the role, whether parents realize it or not, of teaching children that hope comes from the afterlife instead of coming from the here and now. In essence, children, who have a natural desire for equality (as do other primates), are brainwashed into being good little conservatives (of course, I am not saying that the indoctrination of Heaven is what makes people conservatives, but it certainly leads to an unjust outlook).

I am not going to discuss how bad it is for Christians to create people who might one day go to Hell based on an uncertain hope that they might go to Heaven instead (I’ve already written that one anyway). But what exactly is Heaven?

Well, Heaven is supposed to be a place of eternal bliss, where all your needs are met. Humans usually imagine that heaven involves not having to do anything to maintain your heavenly life. You don’t have to exert any effort. You won’t die or get sick if you don’t eat the right foods, obtain shelter and clothing, etc. There are no diseases in heaven.

Many atheists have noted that Heaven cannot be for our selves. since we’re not supposed to grieve for loved ones who are in Hell. In Heaven, we’re supposed to have no “negative” emotions. There are many possible conclusions based on this, but it seems to me that the most natural conclusion is that we are “changed” somehow by being in Heaven. We’re not really “ourselves.”

What’s obvious is that without needs, desires or emotions, humans cannot be motivated, so you can’t really do anything. Christians may argue that it can’t be Heaven if you can’t do anything, but directed action is predicated on suffering (the presence of need, desire and emotion) and leads to more suffering (failure, competition for resources, loss of status, etc). How can it be Heaven if there is suffering?

Some versions of heaven you just praise God all day (including the version given to us in the Bible), but I would think that would get boring pretty fast, and boredom is just another form of suffering. Given enough time, anything you did would get boring eventually anyway.

The only Heaven we have on Earth, I think, is in the womb. In the womb, one (insofar as we can speak of a fetus as a “one” in a metaphorical manner) has no needs, desires or emotions. Everything is provided without effort. There are usually no diseases. One can’t really do anything except some physical motions. No percepts hurt the senses. In fact, one is not even conscious.

True, there is no God involved, and the role of the fetus is not to worship God. But God doesn’t exist anyway, so that’s not really an issue. There are no souls of the dead ones, but there is no such thing as souls either, so again not an issue. There is no supernatural New Jerusalem or otherwise ethereal city of angels, but that’s fantasy too. Once you strip all the bullshit out of the imaginary conceptions of Heaven, the womb fits every criteria.

Which brings us to the delicious irony that the people who believe the hardest in Heaven are the ones trying to get everyone out of it.

Of course, the womb is not an adequate emotional replacement for Christians because Heaven is all about ego-fulfillment, and the fetus has no ego. Vulgar Christians especially relish the idea of going to Heaven because they imagine Heaven as a place where all their (non-obscene) desires can be fulfilled.

From an antinatalist standpoint, one may also note that, while natalists claim that life on Earth is so great that bringing children into the world should be nigh mandatory, they imagine life in Heaven as being so much different than life on Earth. One should ponder why that is.

The Supernatural Non-Explanations.


My parody of a CreationWise cartoon.

We use science, as a body of knowledge and as a tool, to understand the relation between cause and effect, how things work, how they come to be and how they will change. People may use science to explain what they observe, but they usually don’t. Our most popular explanations are supernatural, perhaps not explicitly but at least implicitly. We explain people’s actions with some kind of non-material agency, we explain natural things with various teleological beliefs, and we answer the great questions of existence with confused religious or pseudo-religious mutterings.

These seem like equally valid explanations to most people. One obvious area of disagreement is the origins of the variety of lifeforms on Earth. Some people believe that it originated in the process we call evolution, while others believe that God created all life (yet others, more incoherently, believe both happened at the same time). To the people involved, this is a meaningful debate with two equally substantial options.

Scientists are fast to point out that Creationism is not actually a scientific theory, and cannot have the same credibility as evolution. That’s a fair point. But a much more important point is that Creationism is not actually an explanation. It’s a non-explanation.

Suppose we assume that God created all life. That’s fine, but what does it mean exactly in terms of cause and effect? How did this creation take place? On this, believers can tell us nothing, because there is no explanation to give; what is supernatural cannot be explained in natural terms by definition. All they can do is postpone the explanation.

The Bible states that God molded man out of clay and breathed life into it. But this is merely turning one non-explanation into two non-explanations. How could a supernatural being mold clay? How can you breathe “life”? Life is a biological process of which breathing is only one tiny part, so this does not tell us how it’s actually done.

I’ve written quite a number of entries lately about another non-explanation, free will or “human agency.” Again, it makes perfect sense for people to say that “our decisions are the result of free will.” The naturalistic alternative posits that our decisions are the result of causality, basically that our personality combined with our life experiences dictate what we will do and think in the future.

Naturalism provides us with an actual explanation. But what about free will? How does it explain our decisions? Well for one thing, we can’t even define what free will is. It’s some kind of uncaused… thing… which, by that contra-causality, must therefore exist outside of the natural realm… that somehow, in some unknown way (some people even say, entirely randomly), causes our decisions.

Talking about “human agency” (or as some say, that humans can be the first cause of some things) doesn’t really help this pitiful case much. We define “human agency” as the capacity to act contra-causally, that “we” make choices. Where is this capacity located? How does it work? No idea.

But note that this is not merely an issue of there being no evidence yet. Science is not concerned with the supernatural. Whatever process we identify in the brain must be material and subject to cause and effect (otherwise we couldn’t perceive it, let alone identify it), therefore it cannot be “human agency.” It can only be the result of faith, not of science.

Occam’s Razor concerns itself mainly with eliminating such non-explanations. If two explanations A and B explain the same set of facts but B includes more entities and processes, then those extraneous entities and processes do not explain anything further. A round Earth explains the horizon and the fact that people live on the other side, and so does a flat Earth coupled with space-warping properties. Those space-warping properties explain nothing, therefore they are probably a non-explanation (where are they? how do they work?).

Why are people so attracted to non-explanations? Well, they are always simpler. Understanding divine creation (God is all-powerful and created man out of clay) is much easier and faster than understanding Neo-Darwinism, which is very counter-intuitive. Most people are not taught or schooled to understand neo-Darwinism, and the Bible offers an explanation which is accepted by many believers.

Some of this may also have to do with the fear reflex I discuss in “Fearing the non-conventional,” at least in the case of “free will”/human agency. Non-explanations typically are of the category of concepts that perpetuate the social order, and abandoning them elicits the fear of the consequences of doing so.

Because they perpetuate the social order, and social order is predicated on social roles and group identifications, non-explanations also sometimes trigger group allegiance or protecting one’s social roles. Divine creation, and the attendant allegiance to Christianity, gives us another obvious example. Irrational conspiracy theories are another form of non-explanations which also trigger group allegiances. Gender is a non-explanation and triggers the desire to protect our social role (in this case, being of a certain gender).

It may seem strange to speak of things like gender or race as supernatural, and this may also seem like a contradiction of my claim that non-explanations are supernatural in nature. But remember that “supernatural” only really means “non-natural”; there is no way to define the term “supernatural” apart from pointing out that it is inaccessible through natural means. Anything that does not function through natural means is therefore “supernatural.”

Because of its association with religious constructs, the word “supernatural” also has connotations of “spookiness” or superstition. I think this is very appropriate when we talk about gender or race: we should rightly see these social constructs (and indeed all social constructs) as “spooky” and superstitious, not merely as (pseudo-)scientific concepts.

Natural non-explanations are excluded by simple logic. If an explanation is actually natural, it means that one can identify some causal chain that makes it effective, and if this is so, then it cannot be a non-explanation. It can still be a false explanation, or an irrational explanation, but not a non-explanation.

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