Tag Archives: debate

Can Atheists Avoid a Cause of the Universe?

Post Author: Bill Pratt 

That is exactly what Sean Carroll attempted to do in his recent debate with William Lane Craig. Here is what Carroll said:

Why should we expect that there are causes or explanations or a reason why in the universe in which we live? It’s because the physical world inside of which we’re embedded has two important features.

There are unbreakable patterns, laws of physics — things don’t just happen, they obey the laws — and there is an arrow of time stretching from the past to the future. The entropy was lower in the past and increases towards the future. Therefore, when you find some event or state of affairs B today, we can very often trace it back in time to one or a couple of possible predecessor events that we therefore call the cause of that, which leads to B according to the laws of physics.

But crucially, both of these features of the universe that allow us to speak the language of causes and effects are completely absent when we talk about the universe as a whole.  We don’t think that our universe is part of a bigger ensemble that obeys laws.  Even if it’s part of the multiverse, the multiverse is not part of a bigger ensemble that obeys laws.  Therefore, nothing gives us the right to demand some kind of external cause.

If Carroll’s argument works, then atheists have discovered a clever way to avoid any form of the cosmological argument for God’s existence. But does his argument really work? According to philosopher Ed Feser (in this blog post), it does not, at least not if Carroll is arguing against classical Christian theology.

Feser takes up Carroll’s argument:

Now in fact it is Carroll who has said absolutely nothing to establish his right to dismiss the demand for a cause as confidently as he does. For he has simply begged all the important questions and completely missed the point of the main traditional classical theistic arguments . . . .

One problem here is that, like so many physicists, Carroll has taken what is really just one species of causation (the sort which involves a causal relation between temporally separated events) and identified it with causation as such. But in fact, the Aristotelian argues, event causation is not only not the only kind of causation but is parasitic on substance causation.

Feser continues:

But put that aside, because the deeper problem is that Carroll supposes that causation is to be explained in terms of laws of nature, whereas the Aristotelian view is that this has things precisely backwards. Since a “law of nature” is just a shorthand description of the ways a thing will operate — that is to say, what sorts of effects it will tend to have — given its nature or substantial form, in fact the notion of “laws of nature” metaphysically presupposes causation.

So what does causation look like if it is not essentially about tracing a series of events backwards in time?

On the Aristotelian-Scholastic analysis, questions about causation are raised wherever we have potentialities that need actualization, or a thing’s being metaphysically composite and thus in need of a principle that accounts for the composition of its parts, or there being a distinction in a thing between its essence or nature on the one and its existence on the other, or a thing’s being contingent.

The universe, however physics and scientific cosmology end up describing it — even if it turned out to be a universe without a temporal beginning, even if it is a four-dimensional block universe, even if Hawking’s closed universe model turned out to be correct, even if we should really think in terms of a multiverse rather than a single universe — will, the Aristotelian argues, necessarily exhibit just these features (potentialities needing actualization, composition, contingency, etc.). And thus it will, as a matter of metaphysical necessity, require a cause outside it.

Thus the universe requires a cause outside it. As Feser explains, only that

which is pure actuality devoid of potentiality, only what is utterly simple or non-composite, only something whose essence or nature just is existence itself, only what is therefore in no way contingent but utterly necessary — only that, the classical theist maintains, could in principle be the ultimate terminus of explanation, whatever the specific scientific details turn out to be.

In the end, Carroll has simply not addressed the arguments from classical Christian theology and philosophy. He has not, therefore, successfully avoided the need for the universe to have a cause.

Why Ought I Act Morally? Part 2

Post Author: Bill Pratt

In the previous post, I explained atheist Dan Barker’s argument in a debate he had with Christian Matt Slick.  If you don’t remember what I said, please go back and quickly remind yourself, as this post won’t make sense otherwise.  Below I pick up where I left off.

What I don’t understand is how Barker jumped from telling us that morality consists of natural inclinations produced by a blind, purposeless, process of evolution (that is solely interested in how we reproduce) to a moral duty of doing less harm.  Barker has committed the classic faux pas of moving from an is to an ought.  He tells us what morality is – a natural inclination toward behaviors that promote human survival – and from there tells us that we ought to do whatever causes less harm.  But where does this duty come from?

If I am a person who is naturally inclined to lie about what atheists say in debates, why should I attempt to fight this inclination?  After all, maybe evolution needs some liars in the gene pool.  I am just playing my role in the survival of the species.  If Barker were to say to me, “Lying about what atheists say causes harm, so you shouldn’t do it,” I would say, “What duty do I have to follow Barker’s personal opinion about morality?”  What authority does he have to legislate my behavior?  If he answers that he is summarizing what Nature already is telling me, then I would want to know what duty I have to follow the commands of a mindless, purposeless, blind process?

Please notice that I have not even questioned Barker’s maxim of do less harm.  I am just assuming for this argument that he has correctly summarized our natural inclinations.  His maxim actually represents a utilitarian calculus which presents several major problems that philosophers have called attention to, but his idea of doing less harm can’t even get off the ground until he has provided a rational reason to accept it.  Many atheists seem to completely miss this point.  Atheists are able to rattle off dozens of moral theories which claim to summarize our natural moral inclinations.  But the question is why should anyone follow their theories?  What rational reason is there to let their moral theories dictate moral commands to anyone?

Dan Barker is a self-appointed ambassador for the periodic chart of elements (Nature).  The elements have spoken and Dan is translating for us.  But it’s even more bizarre than that.  Not only do non-intelligent and non-personal atoms have no authority to legislate, but they legislate contradictory things.  After all, the same Nature that produced Mother Theresa produced Hitler.  They both followed their natural inclinations, so how can I ever say which one was right and which was wrong?  Nature may need both of them for the species to survive so that it would actually be immoral to stop Hitler from doing what he was naturally inclined to do.

Barker’s world ultimately has no legitimate source for moral authority.  He could never tell us who is giving moral commands that has the legitimate authority to do so.  Based on his moral philosophy, I do not know why I should rationally be moral.

Why Ought I Act Morally? Part 1

Post Author: Bill Pratt

This week I’ve been listening to a debate between Matt Slick (Christian) and Dan Barker (atheist) on whether humans can be good without God.  Barker’s argument during the debate struck me as illogical, and here’s why.

Barker explained that moral values are merely natural inclinations that are built into human beings due to the long process of evolution.  These inclinations vary from person to person across a statistical distribution.  Some people feel a strong inclination to help the poor and some don’t.  Some people are strongly opposed to rape and some are not.

For every natural, moral inclination there is a statistical bell curve across humanity.  Evolution has bequeathed moral inclinations to humans, but to varying degrees.  At one point, Barker even said that it may be evolutionarily necessary for this bell curve to exist.  To give an example, it may be that if everyone was strongly opposed to murdering the innocent, this may not best advance the survival of the human race.  We can’t have everyone acting like Mother Theresa or else our species might die out.  The converse is also true: a world full of Hitler’s would also kill off the human race.

I agree with Barker that some people have stronger moral inclinations than others and that some of this variation may be genetic.  What I don’t understand is the next move he made in the debate.

He then offered his definition of behaving morally: do less harm.  For Barker, this phrase neatly encapsulates the diverse natural instincts that evolution has given us.  In essence, Barker is saying, “Nature has caused us to have these inclinations and if I had to come up with a phrase to describe what these inclinations are telling us to do, it is ‘do less harm.'”  Barker is acting as Nature’s ambassador and explaining to us in a command what she actually wants from us.  From then on, Barker repeatedly stated that humans ought to do less harm, with the situation determining how that plays out.

In the next post, I will explain why Dan Barker’s approach does not work.  See you then.

A Summary of the Craig vs. Tooley Debate at UNCC – #8 Post of 2010

Post Author: Bill Pratt

On March 24, 2010, Christian philosopher William Lane Craig debated agnostic philosopher Michael Tooley about whether God exists.  I attended the debate and thought I would share a summary with you.

Craig opened with 5 well-known arguments for the existence of God (some of which we’ve presented on TQA in the past – follow the hyperlinks):

  1. cosmological
  2. teleological
  3. moral
  4. resurrection of Jesus
  5. religious experience

Tooley opened with one argument for the improbability of God’s existence: the argument from evil.

Let’s look at this argument more closely.  Tooley defined God as an all-powerful, all-knowing, and morally perfect being.  What he wanted to show is that the existence of this kind of God is improbable because of the existence of evil.

He first catalogued all sorts of evils – the list was quite thorough and even poignant.  Following this shop of horrors, he argued that there are certain kinds of evil where the unknown good properties of that evil (granting that God can bring good out of evil) are outweighed by the bad properties that we know come from evil.  Put another way, he admitted that an all-powerful and all-knowing God could have good reasons for evil, but that we can inductively show that these good reasons cannot outweigh the “bad” from these evils.

His conclusion: since it is improbable that an all-good God could have sufficient good reasons for evil that outweigh the bad associated with evil, then it is is improbable that this all-good God exists.

How did Craig respond?  Craig responded by pointing out that you cannot assign probabilities to the existence of unknown good reasons for evil.  It’s like someone holding a giant bag of marbles and asking you: “What is the probability that, if you reached in, you would pull out a red marble?”  You could not assign a probability because you don’t know if there are any red marbles in there at all!  Tooley, likewise, is somehow claiming to assign probabilities to whether God could have unknown (his word) good reasons for evil.  This is clearly impossible to do with an all-knowing and all-powerful being.

How did Tooley respond to Craig’s arguments for God’s existence?  Well, he didn’t really address the cosmological and teleological arguments, content to let them stand.  He did address the moral argument by claiming that you can have objective moral values without the existence of God – he pointed to several philosophers who have tried to argue this way.

He addressed the argument from the resurrection by saying that all this proves is that the God of the Old Testament exists, and that this God is demonstrably not perfectly moral – he quoted many passages from the OT that seem to indicate an immoral God.

He addressed the argument from religious experience by saying that people from all sorts of religions have religious experiences, so this cannot establish the God of Christianity.

There were, of course, rebuttals given by Craig to Tooley’s critiques, but I won’t go into all of that today.  In the end, here is how they closed.

Tooley claimed that his argument from evil demonstrated that an all-good God is unlikely to exist.

Craig claimed that since Tooley had not addressed the cosmological or teleological arguments, that Tooley was, in effect, admitting that an intelligent, powerful, personal, non-spatial, timeless, creator of the universe exists; he just disputed that this creator was perfectly good.  The fact that Tooley conceded so much in the debate was not lost on the audience.  It was strange that he focused solely on the morality of God.

One final point to mention is the debating style of Michael Tooley.  Tooley is obviously an accomplished and brilliant scholar, but his presentation was extremely difficult to follow.  He presented a host of PowerPoint slides that he read from in rapid-fire fashion.  Since his argument from inductive logic was quite complex (he said as much), I would wager that a very small percentage of the audience could follow it.  That was unfortunate because none of us are served well by failing to understand all sides of a debate.  I have studied these kinds of arguments for many years, and I was barely able to follow his argument; he was just moving way too fast.

In addition, Tooley prepared slides for his rebuttals ahead of the debate and so found himself prepared to refute Craig on points that Craig never introduced.  He relied almost 100% on these prepared slides, again reading from them, line by line.  It was as if he did not want to respond real-time to Craig, and this came across poorly, since Craig did respond real-time to Tooley’s arguments.

Much more could be said about the debate.  If anyone else attended, tell us about what you thought.  We’d love to hear from you.

Do We Each Get Our Own Interpretation of Scripture?

Post Author: Bill Pratt

Darrell and I were talking today about people who claim that one interpretation of Scripture can be no better than another.  Or, put another way, we can’t know what the correct interpretation of Scripture is, so we shouldn’t debate it.  To each his own interpretation.

My sense is that people who say this in the midst of a discussion of a Bible passage feel trapped in an argument they can’t win, and this is their escape hatch.  If they relativize the Scriptures, making the meaning completely subjective, they get to keep their interpretation of Scripture and deflect anyone who disagrees with them.

This is the same tactic some people use when they are in a debate about a particular immoral behavior.  When they feel trapped, they say something like, “There is no objective morality any way.  Everyone decides for themselves what’s right and wrong.”  Again, if they relativize morality, then they no longer have to defend their position and they get out of an argument that they aren’t winning.

The real irony here is that the very people who relativize the interpretation of Scripture actually do believe that their view is objectively correct.  If they didn’t, then they wouldn’t have been debating in the first place.  They would have just agreed with everything their opponent said, because, after all,  everyone can have their own subjective interpretation of Scripture.

It seems to me that the best thing to do when someone plays the “relativism card” is to help them see that they really don’t believe what they are saying.  Remind them of some of the core beliefs that they have derived from Scripture and ask them if those beliefs are objectively true.

If they are honest, they will stand by their beliefs.  If they refuse to claim that their cherished beliefs about the Bible are objectively true, it’s probably time to move on, because they are more interested in saving face than having a conversation of substance.  Come back to them when they aren’t so defensive.

Thoughts on Ehrman/Licona Debate – Part 2

So what about their arguments?  Were they effective?  First let’s examine Mike Licona.

Licona has argued this historical approach for proving the resurrection in a book entitled The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus, co-authored with Gary Habermas.  The approach is fairly straight-forward and effective at making a historical case for the resurrection.  Licona, along with Habermas, has clearly done a significant amount of research on the topic, and his claims about the historical facts about Jesus were not at all disputed by Ehrman.

The problem with his approach, however, is that it will always remain unconvincing to any person who does not believe that the God of the Bible exists.  To the person who is a serious skeptic of the existence of God, any explanation will be better than Jesus rising from the dead.  The skeptic has to at least be open to the existence of God, or Licona’s argument will fall on deaf ears.  This is exactly what happened in the debate.

This is a general weakness of historical apologetics.  Worldview and philosophical presuppositions will often prevent the argument from winning over skeptics, which leads us to Ehrman’s case.

Ehrman disputed Licona’s historical argument on the grounds that historians must always reject an explanation that includes the supernatural.  The problem with Ehrman’s claim is that he rejects the possibility of a miracle ever occurring without ever examining the evidence.  Ehrman will tell you that a historian can never show you that Jesus rose from the dead.  But isn’t this a classic example of begging the question?

A person begs the question when they assume what is trying to be proven.  The question before Ehrman is whether historians can prove that Jesus rose from the dead.  He is to give evidential reasons as to why they cannot.  But his response to the question is, in effect: “Since historians can never prove whether the resurrection occurred (because it is miraculous), well then the resurrection can’t be proven by historians.”  Ehrman fails to consider any evidence, and basically rules out the possibility of proving any miraculous event from the start.

There is another problem with Ehrman’s argumentation.  He spent considerable time denigrating the historical reliability of the gospels, claiming they were written by partisan Christians who were trying to convert people.  He also claimed that the oral and written traditions of the early Christians were purposefully changed many times in order to better reach their audiences.  In other words, the writers of the gospels felt free to deceive people to win them over.

In addition, Ehrman cited numerous alleged examples of discrepancies and contradictions among the gospels.  He documents all of these in his books.

Ehrman, while explaining the alleged late dates of the gospels, also mentioned that he believes Mark was written first and that Matthew and Luke copied material from Mark and from each  other.  This is the standard position that many New Testament scholars hold.

What occurred to me while listening to Ehrman is that these positions he is holding do not make sense, when taken all together.  If the writers of the gospels were writing their material to gain converts, and they were copying each other, then why in the world did they make so many mistakes?  Ehrman claims to have found numerous discrepancies and contradictions that are supposed to undermine the accuracy of the gospels, but why are these discrepancies there?

Were the gospel writers so idiotic that they each changed the previous Jesus narratives, knowing they were contradicting previous oral and written testimonies?  Did they think nobody would notice?  By this theory, the writers of the gospels were not only liars, they also were ridiculously stupid and careless.

But it gets even worse.  The church fathers started compiling the four gospels in the second century and left all of the alleged errors in there!  By Ehrman’s logic, they also knew of these issues, they also were hoping to gain converts, and they also were willing to change history to succeed.  Why not change the gospels and clean them up?  If you are Ehrman, you have to believe that the gospel writers and church fathers were all deceptive and all stone dumb.  They were unable to get their stories straight, and in the end just left a big mess for enlightened scholars like Ehrman to clean up.  This theory strains credulity, does it not?

Isn’t a better explanation that the gospel writers wrote the accounts of Jesus from different perspectives, shared their accounts with each other to ensure accuracy, and strove to retain the historical truth?  Almost all of the alleged discrepancies can be readily explained, after all, by realizing that the gospel writers were recording history with different perspectives and different goals in mind.  And maybe the church fathers refused to change anything because the church community had always accepted these writings as authentic and accurate, and maybe, just maybe, they are.

Thoughts on Ehrman/Licona Debate – Part 1

Last night, Darrell and I attended the debate between Bart Ehrman and Mike Licona at SES in Charlotte.  They debated whether historians can prove Jesus rose from the dead.  Here is my summary of the arguments that each of them presented.

Licona opened the debate with a historical argument that goes like this.  First, he argued, virtually all historians (close to 100%) agree on three key facts about Jesus:

  1. He died by crucifixion.
  2. His disciples believed they saw Jesus appear several times after he died.
  3. The apostle Paul believed he saw Jesus appear after he died.

Then, Licona explained that the historian’s job was to figure out the best explanation of these three facts.  There are four criteria that the professional historian should use to judge possible explanations of the facts:

  1. explanatory scope
  2. explanatory power
  3. plausibility
  4. less ad hoc

According to Licona, the explanation that Jesus actually rose from the dead meets all four criteria whereas all other explanations offered by skeptics fails to meet the above criteria (Licona spent a lot of time evaluating the idea that the disciples plus Paul hallucinated Jesus’ appearances).  Therefore, historians can “prove” that Jesus was raised from the dead.

Ehrman opened his case by making two key arguments.  First, he spent several minutes arguing that the four gospels are of poor historical value.  He showed this by claiming they were written late, they weren’t written by eyewitnesses of Jesus’ life and death, and they are full of contradictions and discrepancies.

Second, he argued that it is impossible for historians to ever prove a miracle occurred.  Why?  Because the job of the historian is to find out what most probably happened in the past.  But, he argued, since a miracle, by definition, is always the least probable explanation of a historical group of facts, then a historian can never conclude that a miracle indeed occurred.  In other words, no matter what the evidence suggests, Ehrman claimed that a historian would always be wrong to accept a miracle as the explanation because miracles are the least possible explanation, and historians only deal with probability.

Interestingly, Ehrman did fully accept Licona’s three facts about Jesus as historically true.  He just didn’t accept the explanation of Jesus rising from the dead to explain those facts.  His favorite explanation seemed to be hallucinations, so the two debaters spent a lot time discussing hallucinations.

Next post, I will share my thoughts on the strengths and weaknesses of each man’s arguments.