The Great Debate: In Which the Atheist Explains In the End He Didn’t Mean Any Of It

Follow-up 2/2/13: If You Think Atheism Is True, Then Atheism Is False

Just completed, live on the Internet: Apologetics 315: William Lane Craig vs Alex Rosenberg Debate MP3 Audio

Stick around to the end of the debate, and find out why I say “I’m buying Alex Rosenberg’s book so I can find out what it doesn’t mean.”

For those who are familiar with the philosophical questions of “aboutness,” here’s a preview from chapter 8 of The Atheist’s Guide to Reality. The short statement of that problem goes like this: It’s impossible for one physical object to be about another physical object. The “aboutness” relationship just doesn’t make sense between, say, a paper clip and a piece of paper. Now, suppose human thought is entirely and comprehensively a matter of what our physical brains do. In that case, thought is entirely physical; but being entirely physical, it can’t be about anything. Nothing.

Thus he actually writes in chapter 8 of his book, The Atheist’s Guide to Reality,

“You can’t think about anything at all.”

And later…

“Let’s suppose that the Paris neurons [the parts of your brain with which you have thoughts “about Paris’] are about Paris in the same way red octagons are about stopping. This is the first step down a slippery slope, a regress into total confusion.”

Honest. He actually believes that. Earlier in that chapter again, though, he had this to say:

“The Paris neurons aren’t about Paris in the same way, for example, a picture postcard … is about Paris.”

“Why are red octagons about stopping and yellow triangles about yielding?”

“Red octagons are about stopping because someone … decided that thereafter … they would mean ‘Stop!'”

Conclusion: traffic signs and picture postcards can possess aboutness. He says it repeatedly. But neurons cannot. And thoughts cannot.

Oh, I wish I could ascend to the ontological heights of a stop sign, so that even if my thoughts cannot be about anything, at least I could be about something in some other way.

Ultimately the one coherent solution to the aboutness problem lies in humans’ being created in God’s image. I’ll have more to say on all this in the near future.

Tom Gilson

Vice President for Strategic Services, Ratio Christi Lead Blogger at Thinking Christian Editor, True Reason BreakPoint Columnist

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39 Responses

  1. Tom Gilson says:

    Note: in the interests of brevity and to enhance the ironic effect, I distorted his position on the “aboutness” of stop signs and postcards. I’ll own up to that.

    I did not, however, substantially distort what he said about the “aboutness” of thoughts. He does in fact mean (ahem) to say that thoughts and statements are not about anything.

    This was a quick preview, intended as I have said for those who are familiar with the aboutness issue. More to come.

  2. I linked to this from my snarky summary:

    I am glad that I was not the only one who was driven into snarkiness over Rosenberg’s poor performance.

  3. TFBW says:

    Q: What is “The Atheist’s Guide to Reality” about?

    A: Nothing at all.

  4. Mike Godfrey says:

    SO what im getting is that, apart from the origin of life ,the origin of the universe or the problem of subjectivity,atheism also cannot say anything substantial about anything ?

  5. SteveK says:

    Hmmm…for no reason in particular I was thinking about the “aboutness” problem yesterday while driving in the car. Yep, I’m weird.

  6. G. Rodrigues says:

    Feeling like beating a dead horse here, but there is nothing “misteryous” about intentionality if you are committed to the reality of immanent final causes in a broadly Aristotelian vein. For Aristotle, and the Scholastics after him like Aquinas, it was blindingly obvious the objectivity of final causes and thus of intentionality — not in the crude animist way, or even the pantheist’s view, but more like something as humdrum and banal as the fact that even efficient causality presupposes final causality, or the “pointing” to ends or goals beyond the thing itself, because otherwise as Aquinas puts it

    Every agent acts for an end: otherwise one thing would not follow more than another from the action of the agent, unless it were by chance.

    Of course if one grants this metaphysical view, then Aquinas comes along and checkmates the atheist with the Fifth Way.

    But I look forward to your posts on this. Prof. Feser disected Rosenberg’s book in series of posts (something like 8 or 9) and the verdict is devastating: it is not just that the view devolves into complete incoherence, but even more seriously, that it is notoriously very difficult for any variety of naturalist to stave off Rosenberg’s eliminative materialism and the threat of collapsing into incoherence and meaninglessness.

  7. Tom Gilson says:

    Mike Godfrey, it’s at least that bad.

    Craig reeled off a list of other things Rosenberg said in his book, and if they’re all in there it’s a lot worse than what you just said.

    Further, if Ed Feser is right in what G. Rodrigues’s referred to above, then it’s necessarily much worse than what you just said: atheism (at least atheism of Rosenberg’s naturalist/materialist variety) is necessarily eliminative. It takes away everything human from humanity.

    I’ll be reading Rosenberg’s book. I started in chapter eight for purposes of the current topic, and so far it looks like Feser was right.

  8. Doug says:

    Rosenberg ends the debate with:

    Those who have lost their faith in God are generally those who have felt the need for good reasons, for evidence, for argument.

    Not in my experience. Those closest to me who have lost their faith in God were generally those who felt the need to justify themselves… and with one or two notable exceptions weren’t particularly bright.

  9. Tom Gilson says:

    And often were those who didn’t like God. Didn’t like his being their Father, didn’t like being accountable, didn’t want to have someone like God in charge. Speaking of my experience, that is, not yours…

  10. Keith says:

    Agreed, atheism/naturalism is necessarily eliminative.

    I don’t see the relevance of “it takes away everything human from humanity”.

    If it’s true, it’s true.

    “If X is true, it will make me sad, therefore X is false” isn’t to the point.

  11. Tom Gilson says:

    Keith, I meant everything. Not just things that I might affect my emotions, but also things that affect humans’ ability to reason, to think, to communicate. Everything that differentiates humans from animals; and if you want to remind me that some animals can communicate with intelligence, he eliminates that from both them and us. (He specifically draws a strong parallel in his book between sea slugs’, rats’, and humans’ neural and thinking structures.)

  12. Keith says:

    Doug, you’re hanging with the wrong atheists. 🙂

    I’m an atheist. I find Craig’s and similar arguments, well, if not convincing, at least coherent and persuasive. My sense is most atheists are in this category (thus the term “agnostic atheist”).

    Where we end up as “atheists” is because we can’t make the jump Craig and Fesser make from “logically there must be a God” to “therefore talking snakes, virgin births, drinking god’s blood, and eternal torture”.

    In other words, we find God logically plausible, we find religion entirely implausible.

  13. Keith says:

    Tom, I understand and agree with you: if true, it takes away everything, where “everything”, for once, really means “every thing”.

    The point I was attempting to make is that taking away everything is irrelevant to the argument, and doesn’t affect the truth/falsity of the claim.

  14. Tom Gilson says:

    But if it is believed to be true, Keith, it can’t be true. So it actually does take away from the truth of the claim.

  15. BillT says:

    “Where we end up as “atheists” is because we can’t make the jump Craig and Fesser make from “logically there must be a God” to “therefore talking snakes, virgin births, drinking god’s blood, and eternal torture”.

    But, of course, Keith your above quoted list are straw men or at least presented in a way that makes them straw men. If you are seriously presenting “…the jump Craig and Fesser make…” you aren’t seriously presenting the rest.

  16. Victoria says:


    Where we end up as “atheists” is because we can’t make the jump Craig and Fesser make from “logically there must be a God” to “therefore talking snakes, virgin births, drinking god’s blood, and eternal torture”.

    In other words, we find God logically plausible, we find religion entirely implausible.

    Just to be sure, what you are saying is that you don’t find the God of Christianity to be plausible, and by implication, Christianity itself.

    You are starting at the wrong place. In order to understand Christianity, you have to start with the Person of Jesus of Nazareth, and in particular with His death and resurrection. Christianity is rooted in His resurrection – understand the implications of that event and all the rest will start to fall into place and make sense.

    And, as BillT has said, you have problems with caricatures of Christian teachings that fail to understand what those things really are, what they really mean.

  17. Victoria says:

    I’m sure we would love to talk with you more about what you have said, and our responses, but this is not the thread for it.

    Would you consider opening another thread to address Keith’s position 🙂 ?

  18. Keith says:

    Bill: I should not have been flip, but I believe it’s a fair question.

    Feser and Craig (among others) argue there must be a God without making a connection to Christ (or Allah or Zeus). Even if one accepts their arguments, they say precisely nothing about which God we should worship, or if God cares if we worship at all.

  19. Tom Gilson says:

    It depends on which argument from Craig you’re looking at. He develops a strong argument in favor of the historicity of Christ’s resurrection.

  20. Keith says:

    Victoria: I understand and appreciate your point, you and I can probably agree to disagree relatively quickly. 🙂

    However, I am interested when you say I’m disagreeing with a caricature of Christianity.

    All of the beliefs I mentioned are fundamental to Christianity; its most revered leaders believed each literally and acted on those beliefs, not to mention many similar insanities (the last auto da fe was in Mexico, around 1850). How can it be a caricature of Christianity to address them literally?

    More directly to your and Bill’s point, I think it’s relevant to question how one can reasonably get from the Kalam cosmological argument to significant chunks of the Bible.

  21. Tom Gilson says:

    Simple: from the KCA you get to some significant conclusions about God, but the Bible is God’s revelation of what can’t be known through nature.

  22. Victoria says:

    Yes, the points you mention are all part of Christian doctrine in one way or another, but you need to be careful about how they should be understood. I’m not a Catholic Christian, so the ‘drinking God’s blood’ reference is lost on me, since all Protestant Christians understand Jesus’ words here as symbolic and analogical, rather than literally. You’ll have to ask one of my Catholic brothers or sisters here about how they understand it.

    The other ones you mention are all within the realm of the supernatural, and part of God’s revelation.

    The resurrection of Jesus Christ is the cornerstone of Christianity – the implication of this event is that it demonstrates that He is the very Son of God and ultimately God Incarnate. In that case, His supernatural conception by the power of the Holy Spirit makes sense – Mary conceived a child independently of human means. He is both fully God and fully human.
    If Jesus is truly God, then everything He said carries the authority of God.
    Jesus taught about Hell – He came to rescue us from that fate. Jesus talked about the devil, and in Revelation 12:9 we are told about the ‘great dragon, the serpent of old is who is called the devil and Satan, who deceives the whole world’, a phrase that Christians understand as referring to the serpent of Genesis 3. We learn that the serpent was simply a mouthpiece for a supernatural being, Satan, who spoke through the creature. So, thoughtful Christians do not believe in ‘talking snakes’, but that once, long ago, Satan used a serpent (and the Hebrew word used in Genesis comes from a root word that means ‘enchanter, whisperer’) to deceive the first humans and trick them into disobeying their Creator’s one and only ‘you shall not’ command to them.

    @Tom, sorry if I am hijacking the thread a bit here – feel free to move my comments to another one if you think that is a better way to go.

  23. Victoria says:

    There is more to the whole serpent issue than I’ve talked about here, but since that is tangential to the OP, I don’t want to pursue it further on this thread.

  24. Keith says:

    Tom: I disagree with you as to the strength of Craig’s argument on the historicity of Christ’s resurrection. The KCA is a pretty elegant argument in a lot of ways, but the historicity of Christ’s resurrection is not nearly as strong. Craig does a workmanlike job, but I know of no strong arguments to be made the resurrection ever happened.

    To be clear: that’s not to say it didn’t happen, that’s a separate discussion.

    As one simple example of the likely myth that surrounds the fact, Matthew 27 speaks of an earthquake and dead people being resurrected and wandering around Jerusalem, seen by many people. No contemporary historian mentions the earthquake (and there were contemporary accounts of similar events), nor do the other gospels record it.

  25. Tom Gilson says:

    Well, Keith, we could wander everywhere on this thread, but the point I was addressing was this one:

    Feser and Craig (among others) argue there must be a God without making a connection to Christ (or Allah or Zeus). Even if one accepts their arguments, they say precisely nothing about which God we should worship, or if God cares if we worship at all.

    In other words, Craig does make an argument that says something about which God we worship.

    This is not the place to discuss how effective that argument is.

  26. Keith says:

    Tom: it’s not that I don’t understand the separate roles the KCA and the Bible fill.

    What I don’t understand is how to make the intellectual leap from the KCA (there must be a first mover, there cannot be an infinite number of past events), to the Bible (there really are witches and you should stone them to death).

  27. Tom Gilson says:

    RE Matt. 27, there’s controversy as to whether it was intended to be understood historically. Mike Licona is a friend of mine, a firmly committed evangelical apologist, and he has questions about it. I say that because I don’t want to leave a charge like yours hanging, not to open up a continuing discussion on it.

  28. Keith says:

    Tom: fair enough, and let me say “thank you”; I genuinely appreciate you and yours taking the time to answer questions.

  29. Tom Gilson says:


    Do you understand how to move from the black-body problem to special relativity?

    I don’t either. (Or are you a physicist, or otherwise trained to know? I don’t want to assume.)

    I do know this, however: The black-body problem was one contributing piece of information. It was not the only one. It was not a single step that connected it to SR.

    So if you do not understand the leap from the KCA to biblical revelation, let me suggest that it shouldn’t come as a great surprise to you. The KCA is just one (very minor, in the great scheme of things) contributor to our confidence in Scripture, it’s one of many streams, and the leap from there to biblical revelation is not a single step.

  30. Tom Gilson says:

    And thank you, too, Keith.

  31. Victoria says:

    Keep searching – don’t give up on Christianity too easily

  32. Victoria says:

    I don’t mean to be picky, but…
    “Do you know how to move from the black-body problem to quantum mechanics” would be more in keeping with what you mean.

    Or, “do you know how to go from classical electromagnetism to special relativity?” That one is a very short step, but it was the reformulation of classical mechanics to bring it into a form that is Lorentz invariant that was the big conceptual leap 🙂

  33. Tom Gilson says:

    See, I told you I didn’t know!

  34. Victoria says:

    For what it is worth re Matthew 27, there is this article in Biblical Archaeology Review online

    You may have to be a member to see the full article, though.
    Basically, it talks about geological indications in the soil around Jerusalem of earthquake activity in the late 20’s to 30’s AD. Not much to go on, but it’s an intriguing snippet of information that might correlate with what Matthew reports.

    We’ve had this very conversation about Matthew 27 in the blog before 🙂

  35. BillT says:

    “I am interested when you say I’m disagreeing with a caricature of Christianity.”

    If you have a serious question about Christianity, why don’t you just ask it. If you want to copy and past childish caricatures of Christian beliefs you found on Pharyngula well…

  36. The Deuce says:

    The truth or falsehood of our beliefs is determined by whether their propositional contents – what they are about, in other words – matches reality or not. So to say that eliminative materialism (which denies that our thoughts are about anything) is true is nonsensical on its face, because it’s incompatible with the notion of truth and falsehood.

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