A double standard

July 21, 2011

Certain atheists reject the idea that they have to consider the best arguments for theism, thinking such arguments ought to be dismissed basically prima facie.  This type of response towards theism has come to be known as the Courtier’s Reply.  The force of the Courtier’s reply towards theism derives from an analogy with something supposedly just as ridiculous such as The Tooth Fairy or The Flying Spaghetti Monster.  The basic idea is this: the concept of theism is so ridiculous that one need not spend any time studying what others have said about such a concept in order to reject it.

So far, so good.

Concurrently, many of these same atheists will regale us with the triumphs and wonders of science, and the scientific method.  It helps us understand the natural world, helps us categorize, make certain predictions, and the like.  Indeed, it seems to me science is a nice thing, at least for those reasons.   But as the saying goes, too much of a good thing may do us harm.  Regarding the scientific method, when admiration turns into infatuation, sloppy thinking results.

Here’s the problem: the shorthand reason offered for holding the scientific method in such high esteem vis-a-vis theism (a false dichotomy in my book, but never mind) usually boils down to: “science works” (for example, see here, here, and here).  However, the justification for that position consists in actually implementing the scientific method: rigorous research, careful thought, refining and even overturning previous theories.  No self-respecting atheist-as-scientist would offer only the dismissive “science works” response when challenged to defend science against theism (again, notwithstanding the false choice here).  Further, no atheist-as-scientist would take seriously anyone who offered an out-of-hand rejection of a particular scientific theory without even understanding the relevant literature first.

But then, why is one justified in putting forth the Courtier’s Reply towards theism, but not the fruits of science?  What (non-question-begging) reasons could the atheist have for this?


The Unimpressive Bible – A Response

April 15, 2011

In the previous post I presented an argument for the following proposition: either God does not exist, or the Bible is not God’s communication to us.  Having let the post simmer for a while, and having given I think a fair amount of time for anyone willing to comment for it’s support the ability to do so, I’ll now carry on with a response.

Since the argument is logically valid, its success hinges on the truth of these three premises:

(1)  If God exists, He would communicate in the written word with those He has created.

(2)  If God communicates in the written word with those He has created, then that communication will have some combination of properties IQL [improved quality of life] and R [revelation].

(3)  The Bible does not contain any information exhibiting properties IQL and R.

Premise (1)

What can we say of premise (1)?  As far as I can tell, this actually seems uncontroversial between interested parties.  I take it that atheists are willing to grant this premise simply for the sake of argument with the theist to get a conversation going.  For example, I don’t find very often atheists claiming that composing such a document is incompatible with other properties of a [supposed] God.  I take (1) to be true, mainly as an implication of already acknowledging that the Bible is God’s written communication to us.

Premise (2)

Premise (2) is more controversial. Property IQL implies certain motivations of God, the assumption to which a theist need not be committed.  What kind of priority might God place on providing His creatures information that extends their life, eases physical hardship, etc?  For suppose that life on earth is the proverbial “blink of an eye” compared to the afterlife in God’s company?  Or suppose that God desires one of our highest priorities to be to know Him in ever greater intimacy?  Given either of these possibilities, we can see that property IQL may actually be a lower priority for God than initially we might assume.  In other words, the theist will not be compelled to agree that God ought to provide information improving our quality of life here, because that is not His top objective.  Indeed it is quite plausible that information improving the quality of life can ultimately distract us from knowing God more intimately.  It seems to me there is ample evidence to suggest that human beings will oblige happily when afforded the opportunity to idle away our time on trivial pursuits.  So it’s reasonable to think that communication from God will not be filled with information sparing us hardship and turmoil, because it seems we don’t necessarily excel at using “free time” to the greatest purposes.  Therefore, although denying (2) doesn’t seem overtly compelling, I think the theist comfortably could deny (2) on the grounds that such communication would not contain property IQL.

But now, aren’t we begging the question against the defender of the argument here?  It seems we’ve just presupposed the truth of at least part of the Bible when we postulate characteristics of God that count against premise (2), and this entire argument is founded on discrediting the Bible as God’s written communication to us.  So we need to come up with some ideas about God that are independent of the Bible to argue against premise (2), right?

Well actually, we aren’t obliged to assume that the Bible is God’s written communication to us to postulate possible characteristics of God that happen to agree with the biblical description of God.  Reviewing carefully the reasons given to disbelieve premise (2), we are no more presupposing the Bible’s divine revelation in our argument than we are presupposing the divine revelation of the Qu’ran.  A Muslim could make the same objections to premise (2) that we’ve made here.  Indeed I speculate very many reflective non-Christians and non-Muslims could believe that if there is a God, He/She/It probably isn’t interested to see us waste time on unimportant matters, or desires us to know more about (or even know) He/She/It.  So, no, the argument here against (2) does not entail a commitment to the idea that the Bible is God’s written communication to us.

Premise (3)

Regarding (3), I think we can make a couple of objections.  First, consider again what might make information revelatory: (a) it is previously unknown, and (b) in a religious sense, it is specifically about God’s will.  Suppose (a) and (b) are sufficient to declare information a “revelation”.  If this is true, and assuming that the set of surviving documents from antiquity encompass the scope of what was known at the time relevant to our inquiry, then we are in a position to deny (3).  Assuming they are true, the following historical facts are counterexamples to (3):

  • God entered into a covenant with the nation of Israel, declaring them his “chosen people” (Exodus 19, Deuteronomy 7).
  • God wanted the nation of Israel to inhabit the land of Canaan (Genesis 26, Exodus 3).
  • God communicated a relatively specific design to the temple (1 Chronicles 28).

So assuming any of these statements about God’s will are true, they do qualify as revelatory, and therefore we can deny (3).  But suppose the defender of the argument objects that we are begging the question – that we have assumed the Bible to be revelatory to provide counterexamples.  How can we answer this?

Well, if the concept of “revelatory communication” is to have any meaning, then it is impossible to avoid referencing the document we are claiming contains revelation.  Were the information found in another source, then the document in question couldn’t be revelatory according to our definition.  So either “revelatory communication” is meaningless, or we can refer to the Bible for counterexamples to (3).  If the objector elects to choose the former disjunct, this commits him to abandoning property R in the original argument, and weakening the original argument accordingly.

So we’ll assume that “revelatory communication” is coherent, and therefore can deny premise (3).

But what about property IQL?  Does the Bible contain any information that can improve the quality of life?  Let’s be clear on what is not required to defeat (3).  We don’t have to show that there is some information with property IQL that is found only in the Bible, and nowhere else.  We simply have to find counterexamples to the idea that there isn’t any supposed communication from God that contains information improving the quality of life.

Of course, the next difficulty is finding uncontroversial counterexamples, since the phrase “improved quality of life” is a little ambiguous.  Let’s try and keep it simple: let any information that tends to promote survival be information that improves quality of life.  So understood, here are just two counterexamples:

  • Matthew 7:12 – “Therefore all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them: for this is the law and the prophets.”
  • Leviticus 19:18 – “Thou shalt not avenge, nor bear any grudge against the children of thy people, but thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself: I am the LORD.”

So even though the Christian will assert that promoting well-being in this life is not the primary purpose of God’s revelation to us in the Bible, nevertheless there clearly are maxims in the Bible that can help us achieve this goal.


For the reasons given, I think Premise (2) is not necessarily true, and Premise (3) is false.  Therefore, the argument fails.


The Unimpressive Bible

August 17, 2010

I’ve encountered a curious position among atheists with respect to the nature of the Bible that I think now warrants some attention here.  I’ll call it the “Unimpressive Bible Objection”, or UBO.  Proponents of the UBO seem to promote the following general argument:

The Bible contains stories that don’t exhibit the type of information that God supposedly would wish to convey to us.  For example, there’s nothing in there about DNA, the germ theory of disease, or safe and efficient nuclear energy.  So if God wanted us to know that the Bible is really His word to us, then He would have included this type of information to make the fact more obvious.  Therefore, since the Bible doesn’t contain this type of information, it probably is not His communication to us.

I’ve searched briefly to look for some professional form of this argument, but unfortunately wasn’t able to find anything.  But for a popular example of this position, see this video from NonStampCollector.  I’ve also encountered this position on other blogs, in the form of: “what can the Bible tell us that wasn’t already known, or couldn’t have been recorded, by goatherders, ancient near-east nomads, and the like?”.

Now, let’s expand the argument a little more to try and give it a fair treatment.  The first thing to do would be to clarify what type of information the objector seeks and doesn’t find.  What can we say regarding knowledge of DNA, or the germ theory of disease, or safe nuclear energy?

For one thing, I think it’s fair to say knowledge of such things can extend our life, make it more comfortable, or perhaps ultimately more fulfilling if it allows us to spend our time on self-edifying pursuits like the arts or valuable pursuits like charity and service to others.  So this type of knowledge exhibits an improved quality of life property – call this property “IQL”.

Next, this type of knowledge would have been novel to the time period associated with biblical times.  Now if certain information were unique to just the culture that recorded the Bible, then perhaps this decreases the plausibility that this knowledge could have resulted from the incremental, progressive growth in human knowledge with which we are familiar in the present day and which we can rightfully infer occurred thousands of years ago.  In other words, since this knowledge would seem to have “come out of nowhere”, then this rules out the possibility that it would have come from the incremental, progressive growth in human knowledge.  So this type of knowledge exhibits a revealed property – call this property “R”.

The next step would be to formalize the argument.  Here’s my most basic charitable attempt:

(1)  If God exists, He would communicate in the written word with those He has created.

(2)  If God communicates in the written word with those He has created, then that communication will have some combination of properties IQL and R.

(3)  The Bible does not contain any information exhibiting properties IQL and R.

(4)  Therefore, the Bible is not communication from God.  (From 2 and 3)

(5)  Therefore, either God does not exist or some other written word is communication from God.  (From 1 and 4)

That’s the simplest form which I’ve been able to give the argument.  For anyone out there who might defend something like this or hold similar beliefs, are there other properties of the written word that you might expect to see?  Or, do you have a version of this kind of argument that you think is stronger?  Any references would be helpful.  I’ll wait a bit for any responses before moving on to a critique.


What counts as history?

July 17, 2010

Can the resurrection of Jesus Christ be considered a historical fact?  What I mean by this is the following: is there any way to argue that the resurrection actually occurred in the past?  This seems like a fairly straightforward question, but I’ve encountered some interesting positions against the idea that the question even has any meaning.  One argument runs something like this:

By definition, the Resurrection is a supernatural event – an event inexplicable given only the laws of nature.  Modern methods of historical analysis (the practice of which is what I’ll call “History”) explicitly exclude supernatural events for explanations of any phenomena.  Therefore, the Resurrection cannot be considered a historical event.

This argument seems weak, for two reasons.

First, the current, predominant method of historical analysis presumes naturalism as its metaphysic.  So of course miracles (types of supernatural events) will not be seen as historical events – they are defined out of existence by the chosen historical method.  In this way the argument assumes that which it seeks to prove.

Second, the argument relies on an equivocation between “History”, which is a field of inquiry practiced with a particular method (or methods), and “history”, which is the sum total of all events that occurred in the past.  Many historians of the past employed historical methods different than those used today.  For example, neither Plutarch nor Eusebius were naturalists, and Hegel employed the dialectic in his method.  So the defender of this argument should offer some reasons for thinking that “History” is the only available method for determining what actually occurred in the past.



July 7, 2010

Welcome to the new “Merely Mist”.  I appreciate any feedback on the look and functionality of the new site.


Brief Time-Out

May 9, 2010

I’ve been neither posting nor commenting much on the blogosphere recently.  This is due to two things:

1.  My real job has become more demanding, and
2.  We just added another baby to the Reid clan.

Just an FYI.  My usual sloth-like pace of posting will resume eventually.


Against the B-Theory of Time

April 4, 2010

There are two competing theories of time: they are named creatively the “A-Theory” and “B-Theory”.  For an introduction, see this article at Wikipedia.  Very briefly, the A-Theory of time affirms that the past and future are not as real as the present, that is, time passes.  The B-Theory of time affirms that past, present, and future are all equally real.

If the B-Theory of time is true, then this is a good rebuttal to the Kalam Cosmological Argument (KCA).  The KCA takes as one of its premises that the universe began to exist.  But this statement doesn’t make much sense on the B-Theory of time.  That is because on the B-Theory, nothing really “begins to exist”, because “begins” is a meaningless concept.  For how could something come into being if past, present, and future are all equally real?

But surely this is a strange concept, right?  It’s strongly counterintuitive, so much so that I’m persuaded it’s false.  Here’s an argument (not exactly original) to that effect:

The “Suicidal” Son
1. If B-theory is true and special and general relativity are true, then time travel is possible.
2. If time travel is possible, then it is possible for you to kill your father before you were born.
3. It is not possible for you to kill your father before you were born.
4. Therefore, time travel is not possible.
5. Therefore, either B-theory is false or special and general relativity are false (or, of course, they are both false).

1, 2, and 3 are the premises to the argument, 4 and 5 are the conclusions.  5 is a disjunction that asks the reader to give up either the B-Theory of time or scientific theories that are very well-tested.

In premise #1, time travel is supported by general relativity if we live in a universe with closed time-like curves.  Also in premise #1, we can assume certain space-time topologies within the special relativity framework to allow for time travel.  Also of course, in premise #1 we are granting for the sake of argument that the past is equally real as the present.

Luke Muehlhauser is blogging a series summarizing the KCA, wherein he articulates the premises to the KCA and arguments supporting them.  Within the series he is withholding judgment on the argument, although at several points on his blog he has hinted at the fact that he doesn’t think the conclusion of the KCA is true at least partly because he doesn’t think the A-Theory is true.  I imagine many others who aren’t persuaded by the KCA use the B-Theory as a sort of escape hatch too.  So for all you B-Theorists out there, what do you think of this argument?


Desirism: another opinion

March 28, 2010

Over at “the warfare is mental”, cl is the latest to engage with Desirism.  Follow all the exciting adventure starting here.


More on Kalam

March 21, 2010

I am persuaded by the Kalam version of the Cosmological Argument.  Here is some video of its main defender, William Lane Craig, explaining his use of Big Bang cosmology to defend premise 2 of the argument:

The universe began to exist.

These are from his 2004 Templeton Lecture, and are just the Q&A portion. I just stumbled across these, but am glad I did.  The questions in particular are more penetrating than you hear typically in debates.  Enjoy.

Q&A, Part 1

Q&A, Part 2

Q&A, Part 3

Q&A, Part 4


God’s Necessity and the Universe’s Contingency (Part 3)

February 22, 2010

In Part 2 of this series I explored propositions comprising a supposed inconsistent set regarding God’s necessity and the universe’s contingency, brought to my attention by “TaiChi” (see also Part 1 of this series where I introduced TaiChi’s initial argument).  But it turns out I had misunderstood how he was using the term “sufficient reason”, and that also we were operating with different notions of what it means to say that an act is “rational”.  So afterward, TaiChi and I came to agreement on a modified set of propositions that I think better represents the nature of his argument (hopefully he agrees).  In this post I’ll evaluate these propositions and any inferences we can make from them.

Before we get to the argument, we should define what a “reason” is in this context.  In this discussion we’ll take a “reason” to be something internal to an agent, that is an explanation for an agent’s choice and logically prior to an agent’s choice.  Now, here are the propositions:

(P0) The universe is contingent.
(P1) God had sufficient reason to create the universe as we know it.
(P2*) A sufficient reason is an all-things-relevant-to-the-choice reason for choosing to perform one action over any other alternative.
(P4) (No longer used)
(P5*) God would not have a sufficient reason to create the universe as we know it and refrain from creating the universe as we know it.
(P6) God is necessary – he exists in every possible world.

As a side note, witness the distinction between “sufficient reason” defined in (P2*), and the Principle of Sufficient Reason, which states that there must be an explanation for any contingent entity or event.  I highlight this difference only because it formed the basis for my original misunderstanding of how TaiChi was using “sufficient reason”.


Excepting (P0), what inferences can we draw from the propositions provided?  We can deduce the following:

(C3) God had an all-things-relevant-to-the-choice reason for choosing to create the universe as we know it over any other alternative. (from P1 and P2*)
(C7) God would not refrain from creating the universe as we know it. (from P1 and P5*)
(C8) God would not refrain from creating the universe as we know it in any possible world (from P6 and C7)

Given the argument, can we say that the universe is therefore necessary?  First, we need to be clear about what “necessary” means.  Here I take it to mean that it is a metaphysical impossibility for the universe as we know it to not exist.  I think this is uncontroversial between myself and TaiChi.

With that in mind, I don’t think this argument actually proves that the universe as we know it is necessary.  Let’s examine (C8) a little more closely.  The conclusion proffered is not that God could not refrain from creating the universe as we know it, only that He would not.  So this argument does not prove the metaphysical necessity of the universe as we know it.

We can anticipate an objection to this observation, which is that it is a distinction without a difference.  Let’s suppose that SR is God’s sufficient reason to create the universe as we know it over any other alternative.  Now if God has SR, isn’t He bound to create the universe as we know it?  Here I think that we can agree He would be bound by His nature to perform an act for which He has reason to perform over any other alternative.

But why think that SR is necessary?  Put another way, is it entirely up to God which universe gets created?  I think the theist comfortably can maintain that the type of universe that comes into being is not entirely up to God.  For the universe contains free creatures who can act according to their own will, implying that external causal antecedents are not sufficient to determine their course of action.  Now although God has foreknowledge of His creatures’ free acts (and so we are not denying God’s omniscience), He cannot at the same time make them free and determine them to act in accordance with His will (a logical contradiction).

Now we are in a position to see that the features of each possible world depend on the choices of any free creatures in it.  Thus, although God had reason to create the universe as we know it (He actualized a particular possible world), He could have had reasons to create a different universe.  So the universe as we know it is not necessary because God need not have had the sufficient reason(s) for creating the universe as we know it.

Perhaps an illustration would help clarify the distinction.  Suppose there are two possible worlds PW1 and PW2, and Hazel exists in both of them.  Suppose all events prior to the following are identical between PW1 and PW2.  In PW1 at time t, Hazel could run over her neighbor on the way to work, and in PW2 at time t, she could offer her neighbor a ride on her way to work.  Next, suppose that God knows that Hazel would freely run her neighbor over.

We see that it is not feasible for God to create PW2, for He knows that Hazel would not offer her neighbor a ride to work, but instead would run her over.  Now, this small item of knowledge obviously serves as part of a reason for not creating PW2 (it may also serve as a reason for not creating PW1 when compared to other possible worlds).  But, if Hazel were to freely offer her neighbor a ride to work, then all else being equal, God would have reason for creating PW2 over PW1.

So we see that God’s reasons for actualizing a particular possible world are informed by the freedom of His creatures.  Therefore, God’s sufficient reason for creating the universe as we know it is not necessary, but is contingent.  If His free creatures were to act differently given particular circumstances, God might have had a sufficient reason reason for actualizing a different universe.  As a result, the universe as we know it is not necessary.

In closing, notice that premise (P6) presupposes possible world semantics to describe the way the cosmos could have been.  So if (P6) is to be maintained, it seems like we are committed to the idea that it really is a possibility that the cosmos could have been different; but this is simply another way of saying that the universe as we know it is not necessary.


We’ve shown that all premises can be held consistently without concluding that the universe as we know it is necessary.  But I reserve some doubt about whether (P1) is true, as I’ll explain below.

Doubted: (P1) God had sufficient reason to create the universe as we know it.

We grant that God had a reason (or reasons) to create the universe as we know it, but why think God would have this type of reason?  Instead, why can’t we affirm that God simply has reasons for creating the universe as we know it?  Possibly He has reasons for creating the universe as we know it, reasons for creating alternative universes, or reasons for not creating anything at all.  So suppose God had decided to create an alternative universe, not this one.  The objector responds, why would He have done do so?  Well, as was noted, He had reasons for creating that alternate universe, and His reasons, combined with His free will to choose and act on that choice, resulted in the alternate universe.

At this point the objector might say that if God didn’t have a sufficient reason, then that’s somehow not enough to explain how He decided to create the world as we know it.  If it’s true that He has reasons for choosing multiple possible universes, then doesn’t He need to have some criteria for selecting the one possibility that He instantiates?  Now, at this point a possible dilemma emerges.  If we offer a criteria, aren’t we admitting that God did have a sufficient reason, and therefore (C8) eventually follows?  But if we don’t offer a criteria, then aren’t we in some way diminishing our conception of God?  As in, does He perform a mental coin-flip, and then by way of chance out comes the universe as we know it?

I think we could deny that God had separate criteria for choosing among possibilities for which He had reasons to instantiate.  To posit this demand exposes specious grounds of questioning, in that it leads to chasing an infinite regress of reasons, and not just for God but for any free agent.  For as soon as we offer criteria, we might just as well ask ourselves what reasons God would have for choosing that particular set of criteria, and on and on we could go.

How does this not diminish our conception of God?  Well, it doesn’t deny that He is omniscient, omnipotent, omnibenevolent, or personal, and so in fact I don’t think it does diminish it.  Rather it might help illuminate our incomplete understanding of free will.  For notice that the objection centers around how God chose to create the universe as we know it, not why He did.  We’ve already answered the “why” question by positing that He had reasons (just not “sufficient reasons”).  But we might not have a very good grasp on the process of choosing itself.  Yet as interesting a question as that may be, it is not the topic of this debate, as both TaiChi (and he can correct me if I’ve misunderstood him) and I have affirmed it for our purposes here.


This is a very intriguing argument, and I appreciate TaiChi’s development of it and patience with me as I sought to understand it.  I don’t think it proves TaiChi’s postulated conclusion that the universe as we know it is necessary (and thus there is no inconsistency in the set), but it does force the theist to carefully consider topics of necessity, contingency, and free will and how they relate to our understanding of God.  Finally, thanks to TaiChi (and if I flatter myself, a handful of others) for patiently waiting for this third post.