An Atheist Seeking Meaning After Disaster

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Like all disasters, the Philippine typhoon raised questions of meaning. This time John Loftus, atheist extraordinaire, brought his own meaning to bear on Christian explanations of meaning. In this month's Worldview and You column at Breakpoint I take a look at John's views. and find them to be ironically and again tragically (though on a different level) meaningless.

 

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66 Responses to “ An Atheist Seeking Meaning After Disaster ”

  1. Good article, Tom. For the life of me I can’t understand why Loftus is as popular as he appears to be in certain circles.

    Anyway, you might enjoy the article by David B. Hart entitled Tsunami and Theodicy. I’d have to re-read it just to see if I agree with his theology (it has been a number of years since my last reading), but overall I’m of the opinion that it is a stunningly good piece of writing.

  2. Billy,

    It is a stunningly good piece of writing and, I believe, a stunningly good piece of theology as well. David Hart is brilliant in many ways and this is a great piece. If you haven’t read his dissection of New Atheism, it not only skewers the current crop of atheists but shows how poorly they compare to the important atheistic thinkers of the recent past. And if you are really up for a serious read Christ and Nothing will give you enough to chew on for quite a while.

  3. Thanks Bill,

    (This could get confusing)

    I had read the first link all of 3 years ago but it would be good to reread it. I wonder if DBH is largely still of the same opinion? I hadn’t come across the second article so I’ll be sure to check that out.

    It seems to me that if New Atheism is indeed on the wane it may have been replaced in some part by a type of therapeutic atheism. (Google the “Sunday Assembly” for more on this or check out the talk on Unbelievable? about it.) In part I think that there isn’t much difference between the Christianity light that is preached from the pulpits in many churches and this type of feel good godless meet-up.

    Now I could be talking crap (I’ve been known to do so) but perhaps this is more of a challenge to Christianity – at least in terms of people considering it’s truth claims – then all the nasty vitriol that is associated with the angry atheist types.

    By way of other resources you might be interested in DBH’s excellent book called Atheist Delusions. The title (chosen by the publisher mind you) is deliberately provocative and somewhat misleading. It not an “argue them into heaven” apologetics book. Rather, the idea is to set the record straight with respects to historical claims often repeated about Christianity. You can get a flavour of it by listening to a discussion DBH had with Terry Sanderson of the UK Secular Society here.

    I’ve also read The Doors Of The Sea which is an extended essay on the article linked to in my first post. Hart doesn’t offer a silver bullet to the problem of evil, but then again he doesn’t pretend to have such an solution. And I’m thankful for this because I’m of the opinion that there is no absolute answer this side of the grave. Instead, what he offers is the hope of the cross. Another Christian who does the same is John Lennox. He gave a talk in the aftermath of the earthquake that destroyed parts of Christchurch and it’s well worth listening to. Click here and look out for “Compass at St Pauls (28 Feb)” (3rd down).

  4. Billy,

    Hart’s essays are always worth a couple of reads. He’s challenging in content and style but I think well worth the effort. The New Atheism article I linked is the teaser for his Atheist Delusions. “Christ and Nothing” is a great thinker at work.

    As far as the Christianity light you refer to you have to remember that the vast majority of mainstream Protestantism has really given up any claim to be preaching the truth of the Gospel. They gave that up last century if not before that. I’ll take a look at the “Sunday Assembly” you mentioned. I’m not familiar with it.

  5. There’s another issue that’s missed when talking about disasters, and that is death itself. The *real* issue isn’t why God causes / lets thousands of people die at once. It’s why God causes / lets anyone die. Like, say, my Grandfather, who died relatively peacefully of old age.

    We take it for granted that “most” people will live to old age and die naturally. When this ceases to be true for a large number of people all at once, we feel shocked. But the shock is fundamentally at having our assumptions rudely negated, not the moral nature of the event.

    For the naturalist, people die. Now vs then might be disappointing, but there’s no moral aspect to it. But the Christian *must* feel the moral imposition of death itself – not the death of many, but of their own impending death. For death is morality and mortality seen at once, and its timing is not nearly as important as its inevitability.

    When we can answer these questions in the small, then answering in the large will take care of itself.

    Note: I’m addressing here the philosophical issues. Major disasters do bring practical issues, but in truth they also are the same practical issues you can discover simply walking around the streets of the average city, just writ larger. If one responds to the large but not small, one is again responding out of surprise and discomfort rather than principle.

  6. So there’s this inescapably obvious phenomenon. Touches everyone, inevitably, and is central to human experience. But the prevailing scheme can’t explain it. There are some hunches and guesses, but ultimately no one has a satisfying account of how it could be so. Indeed, it seems at the moment to be conceptually impossible to reconcile that phenomenon with the paradigm in question. Many people who don’t accept that paradigm believe that adherents are foolish to even believe reconciling that phenomenon with the paradigm is possible.

    An atheist talking about the Christian inability to properly account for evil? Or many on this site talking about the current inability of naturalistic theories to properly account for consciousness and intentionality?

  7. But we don’t believe that it is conceptually impossible, Ray. I think that we will get an answer some day.

    For the naturalist the solution is much simpler. There is no problem and therefore no answer to look for. Shizzle happens, eh?

  8. Billy Squibs –

    But we don’t believe that it is conceptually impossible, Ray. I think that we will get an answer some day.

    I said “seems”, not “is”, quite deliberately. Even though Christians believe that there is some kind of explanation, they admit that “there is no absolute answer this side of the grave”. In practice, the difference between an unknowable answer that humans cannot conceive, and no answer at all, is fairly thin.

    For the naturalist the solution is much simpler. There is no problem and therefore no answer to look for.

    Far from all naturalists take that position. The problem of consciousness is, for example, one of Dennett’s key topics of investigation. Indeed, most naturalists think we’ll figure out how consciousness arises, eventually.

    I’m not proposing this comparison to try to score points or one-up Christians. I’m putting it forth in an attempt to help further understanding, that’s all. Every worldview has unresolved problems, because it’s humans holding them. You think, on balance, despite things you frankly admit you don’t presently understand and that don’t seem to fit within that framework, that a particular framework offers the best account of things. Others do too, but have different schemes in mind.

  9. Ray, when you refer back to an old thread where it seems to me that you got a little beat up I can’t but help think that you are out to claw some points back. But maybe I’m an old cynic and your intentions are as pure as the driven snow.

    That aside, it’s possible that we are actually talking past each other because your penultimate paragraph doesn’t address my comment in any fashion. I’m not talking about the problem of conciousness with respect to naturalism or what Dennett is up to. I’m talking about the problem raised in this thread – finding meaning in disaster. And I take it that is expressly not referring to an invented meaning that we as individuals may believe.

    Now if naturalism has an answer other then “stuff happens” and it also remains internally consistentthen I’m all ears. It is worth pointing out that what I’m asking is different to whatever a self-described naturalist might come to believe.

  10. Billy Squibs – In regard to your first paragraph, I’ll just quote C.S. Lewis: “I decline the motive game and resume the discussion.”

    I’m not talking about the problem of conciousness with respect to naturalism or what Dennett is up to. I’m talking about the problem raised in this thread – finding meaning in disaster.

    My point was tangential to that. I was simply drawing a parallel. Christians expecting to eventually be able to reconcile the tension between what they believe, and the reality of evil. Naturalists expecting to eventually figure out consciousness, despite the present difficulties. Both tend to find the other’s confidence misplaced. Hopefully some contemplation of the parallels might lead to more honest interaction.

    I’m talking about the problem raised in this thread – finding meaning in disaster. And I take it that is expressly not referring to an invented meaning that we as individuals may believe.

    That, of course, is a different issue. To ‘mean’ something – in the sense of significance, certainly – means meaning something to someone. Why is such a meaning ‘invented’? What would ‘non-invented meaning’ look like?

    Do you have another sense of ‘meaning’ in mind? Does a typhoon express a message, perhaps?

  11. Ray,
    What parallel? There isn’t a logical problem of meaning/evil for Christianity, but there is one for naturalism. There is an emotional tension and a tension born from our limited ability to understand and know God’s purposes, but that’s as far as it goes.

    Nature has no purpose and no meaning so there’s nothing to understand as far as that goes. There’s nothing to figure out or discover – except, perhaps, why we sense something that has no grounding in any reality outside our mind.

  12. Tom,
    Was that you I just heard on the Rush Limbaugh show today? I almost never listen but for some reason I happened to be listening today.

  13. I’m not suggesting there’s not an answer to the “problem” of death (and I mean that in both ways it could be taken). What I am suggesting is that – at the philosophical level – our “problem” with mass disaster is led by our presumptions of normality and thus mistakenly focuses the number of deaths rather than deep reflection on death itself.

    And Scripture has plenty to say on the subject of death.

  14. My point was tangential to that.

    Indeed it was. Therefore I’ll not address it again unless it becomes relevant to the post.

    That, of course, is a different issue. To ‘mean’ something – in the sense of significance, certainly – means meaning something to someone. Why is such a meaning ‘invented’? What would ‘non-invented meaning’ look like?

    Indeed. I took it to be the issue raised in the post. The clue that lead me to this belief was found in the title: “An Atheist Seeking Meaning After Disaster “. But perhaps I need to sharpen my terminology and clarify what I mean as there seems to be some confusion.

    Do you have another sense of ‘meaning’ in mind?

    I am thinking about meaning in the sense of this post to be ultimate meaning. Such an event means something irrespective of whether we know it or not. I suppose I could use worlds like purpose or teleology.

    I hope that we can agree to the following: on sites like this we each contribute comments that have an intended meaning. When you mean to say X (communication difficulties aside) I can not correctly interpret that you are saying Y.

    When you ask if a Typhoon “expresses a message” I would have to give three answers.

    Firstly, from a naturalistic world-view the answer is a firm “no”. The typhoon is devoid of a mind and therefore is incapable of expressing anything. There is no message, no intent, no meaning. A typhoon is the result of mindless forces compelling matter to behave in certain ways. To find something meaningful in the heart of a mindless, meaningless and purposeless event is an invention of the human mind. In short, I’m making the claim that in a naturalistic universe there is no teleology. But please correct me if you think I am wrong.

    (Please note that I’m not attempting to denigrate or belittle the meanings that people find in the midst or aftermath of disaster or the tremendous charity and good that can come out of such beliefs.)

    Secondly, from a theistic world-view (and I’m specifically talking about Christianity) the answer the the question “does a typhoon express a message?” can be split in two. “Perhaps” and “Yes”.

    Unlike naturalism Christianity certainly has a telos, a grand meta-narrative involving God and all of creation. To my mind this ultimately revolves around new creation, which Tom Wright refers to as “life after life after death”. I therefore suggest the following:

    Perhaps such events have specific meaning. For example, the unfortunate Pat Robertson may be correct when he says that they are judgements from God. Though I hope this is not the case and I think that Robertson is crass, insensitive and wrong. But I guess that is largely an in-house debate.

    If we can’t determine if something has a specific meaning then I think the Christian is still justified in stating “yes, these events have meaning” given the the grand narrative of Christianity. Why there exists such natural evils is admittedly a rather massive problem for Christianity, but not for naturalism. In the oft quoted words of RD, “The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind pitiless indifference”.

  15. SteveK –

    What parallel? There isn’t a logical problem of meaning/evil for Christianity, but there is one for naturalism. There is an emotional tension and a tension born from our limited ability to understand and know God’s purposes, but that’s as far as it goes.

    I think Christianity (and the other Abrahamic monotheisms) do have a logical problem with evil, actually. But the claim is that there is an explanation for the apparent contradiction, it’s just no one understands it yet.

    [In atheism] Nature has no purpose and no meaning so there’s nothing to understand as far as that goes. There’s nothing to figure out or discover – except, perhaps, why we sense something that has no grounding in any reality outside our mind.

    Atheism, as you note, doesn’t have a logical problem of evil. On the other hand, many atheists do believe that consciousness and intent ultimately has a material explanation, but we don’t have that explanation yet. Once you have intent and consciousness, you have the possibility of meaning and moral evil.

    Many Christians wonder about evil and why it exists, while still accepting that Christianity is true and an explanation exists. Likewise, many atheists wonder about consciousness and how it arises, while feeling confident a naturalistic explanation can be found.

    Again, this isn’t a challenge or a threat. I’d think that this site in particular would welcome an assertion of shared humanity. Neither worldview has all the answers at present – but people have different senses about which ones are more likely on balance.

  16. I hope that we can agree to the following: on sites like this we each contribute comments that have an intended meaning.

    I was drawing a distinction between two senses of the word ‘meaning’. There’s the sense of “expresses a proposition”, and then there’s the sense of “significance” or “importance” or “value”. They are quite different.

    For example, the sentence “The salad fork goes to the outer left of the place setting.” expresses a pretty clear proposition. For many, though, it is of little importance. But someone who just came home from a formal dinner with the Queen might feel a great deal of embarrassment upon reading it, because it would signify to them that they had just made a mistake in manners.

    When people talk about their life having meaning, for example, I don’t generally get the impression they mean their life expresses a proposition. They seem to mean that their life has significance or importance or value.

    There is some sense, certainly, in which a sign “Keep Off The Grass” has meaning (in the propositional sense) irrespective of whether the person looking at it comprehends that message.

    But significance or importance is different. Things have importance to someone, they don’t just have importance in themselves.

    You might want to take a look at this short essay, which I did not write but which I think offers many clarifying points.

    In particular, all “significance” is – must be – in relation to the person to which it has significance. Something is important to someone.

    To find something meaningful in the heart of a mindless, meaningless and purposeless event is an invention of the human mind.

    All meaning – in this sense of importance or significance or value – is an invention of some mind. It literally cannot exist without mind – it’s a relationship of minds to events or objects or conditions, and without mind there can’t be such a relationship.

    So, now we loop back to your first sentences:

    I am thinking about meaning in the sense of this post to be ultimate meaning. Such an event means something irrespective of whether we know it or not.

    Do you mean “ultimate meaning” in terms of “proposition” or do you mean in terms of “significance or importance”? I confess to having problems with either conception, but we should clarify our terms before proceeding.

  17. @ Ray #18
    The first link in your comment doesn’t work. Without reading it though, I can assure you that Christianity does not have a logical problem regarding evil. I don’t really want to get into that here.

    Atheism, as you note, doesn’t have a logical problem of evil.

    Actually, I said it does.

    On the other hand, many atheists do believe that consciousness and intent ultimately has a material explanation, but we don’t have that explanation yet. Once you have intent and consciousness, you have the possibility of meaning and moral evil.

    How? To be clear, I’m not asking for a detailed step-by-step explanation of the process.

    I’m asking how material explanations, as a specific category of real things, results in moral meanings (a very different category of real things)? I don’t know any philosopher who has been able to make that cross-category connection.

    Here’s the bottom line, Ray.

    In order for moral meanings to exist in nature so that a conscious human mind can perceive them, nature itself – according to it’s essence – must be capable of creating moral meanings in the first place. Can the essence of nature, according to naturalism, create moral meanings?

    That’s my question for you and the philosophers who defend naturalism.

  18. Ray @18, the problem widely known as the “logical problem of evil” for theism is pretty much universally regarded as solved.

    Atheism doesn’t have a logical problem of evil either, unless one wants to try to define the term evil, which is impossible on atheism.

    “Once you have intent and consciousness,” you say, “you have the possibility of meaning and moral evil.” Intent and consciousness are also unsolved problems, on atheism, in my view; but even if they were solved, I don’t see how they could explain evil. They could only explain dysfunction or Stop that! I don’t like it! But dysfunction only applies where function has a normative definition, and normativity is meaningless in light of naturalistic evolution. Meanwhile, Stop that! I don’t like it! is just one organism’s preference. Another organism, or nature itself, has no obligation to that organism and its preferences.

    You say,

    Many Christians wonder about evil and why it exists, while still accepting that Christianity is true and an explanation exists. Likewise, many atheists wonder about consciousness and how it arises, while feeling confident a naturalistic explanation can be found.

    No, actually, we have adequate explanations for why evil exists. We wonder about particular evils, but not evil itself. Atheism and Christianity are not at parity here.

  19. All meaning – in this sense of importance or significance or value – is an invention of some mind. It literally cannot exist without mind – it’s a relationship of minds to events or objects or conditions, and without mind there can’t be such a relationship.

    Thanks for writing that succinct sentence, Ray. But I should point out that you are clarifying (or is that “correcting me on”?) something that I think I agree with.

    I’m not talking about propositions, nor am I talking solely in terms of perceived significance or importance. I’m quite sure that somebody who had their family destroyed in a disaster would think this was a horrendously significant and important event. I’m not sure that your definitions hits the mark of what I am trying to say. To clarify, when I talk about meaning in this post I am talking about teleology, hence the admittedly loose reference to “ultimate meaning”.

    Imagine if you happened to be walking along a street one day and a potted plant caught in a gust of wind fell from the second floor window-ledge onto your head. Now you may personally derive meaning from the consequences but that is not what I am talking about when I mention “ultimate meaning”. On the other hand, if you happened to be passing by my house at the moment that I happen to have found out that you had been sleeping with my wife then the potted-plant-on-head event would have a higher meaning.

    I dunno, Ray. Maybe I have to think more about meaning or work on how to better explain my currently help position. I’ve tried as best as I can to do the latter and yet it seems like we aren’t close to being on the same page. Perhaps somebody can jump in and help because as it stands we aren’t making much headway.

  20. Ray @18, the problem widely known as the “logical problem of evil” for theism is pretty much universally regarded as solved.

    Yeah, I borked the link earlier. This one should do it. It explicitly references the ‘free will defense’ that Plantinga mentions, among other things.

    Atheism doesn’t have a logical problem of evil either, unless one wants to try to define the term evil, which is impossible on atheism.

    Well, you already know I disagree, and why.

  21. Ray, if you’re the only “philosopher” around who thinks Plantinga’s answer can be borked that way, then welcome to your lonely world. If I were that alone in an opinion, I’d start to wonder what it was I had misunderstood. In your case, you don’t know how Plantinga showed that the mere possibility of (morally justifiable) free will answers the logical problem of evil. You’ve solved some other problem of evil, not the one he was addressing.

    As to Homer, yes, it’s been a long time. I had forgotten.

    Let me ask you this, though. For some reason everyone knows the Homeric epics were myth. For some reason many, many very learned and bright people think the New Testament accounts are history. Why? What makes the two so different? Where does the analogy between the two break apart? For the effect of the Greek myths and the effect of Jesus Christ on the world are more than immensely different from each other.

  22. …welcome to your lonely world

    Where deceptive philosophy trumps clear thinking about reality.

    Col 2:8 “See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the elemental spiritual forces of this world rather than on Christ.”

  23. “If human nature influences human goals (and I think we can agree it does), and if there are objective facts about the world and how humans interact with it (and I think we can agree there are), then there can be objectively “good” and “bad” moves for humans.”,

    Ray,

    What I think you’re missing is that the “human goals” component of your argument is arbitrary. Why should I care about “human goals”. If there is no God and all of this is ultimately for nothing then what do “human goals” matter. “Human goals” is no more or better motivation for my behavior than anything else.

    Now, maybe you can say that is not “smart” (“Do unto others…” or Karma and all that) or maybe you can say that it’s better to do things that benefit “human goals” because that will benefit me also but that still does not supply an objective criteria for a true moral structure that applies equally to everyone as it does me. It’s merely a self serving motivation. And if I decide that what is the best self serving motivation for me is “torturing children for my personal pleasure” what will you say to me? Why should I not do that?

  24. Tom Gilson –

    Ray, if you’re the only “philosopher” around who thinks Plantinga’s answer can be borked that way, then welcome to your lonely world.

    Not all that lonely.

    And even if I were to accept the basic argument, it doesn’t address a key and very pertinent objection to Christianity: “…if there’s no evil in heaven, and free will isn’t compatible with such a state, then
    it follows that there must be no free will in heaven. Q.E.D.”

    This really is a big sticking point with me. If we go along with Plantinga when he says, ” Now God can create free creatures, but He can’t cause or determine them to do only what is right”, then it follows that there can be no situation where all the creatures are guaranteed to always do right. But that is exactly what the new creation is supposed to be.

    If it’s really logically impossible to have free will with no possibility of evil – which Plantinga avers – then he is implicitly denying the possibility of Revelation 21:4 and Revelation 21:27. Or else he is asserting that those in heaven will not have free will.

    (The Homer stuff would appear to belong in this thread; easy enough to scramble when multiple conversations are going on.)

  25. BillT –

    Why should I care about “human goals”.

    I’m going to go way out on a limb, throw caution to the wind, and recklessly assert that you are human. So whether or not you “should” care about human goals, you do in fact have goals that are necessarily human.

    Rather than quote big chunks here, read this, and we’ll be in a much better position to talk. I believe it actually addresses the objections you’ve put forth here.

  26. Regarding the problem of free will in heaven, Ray, Christian theology understands it as a state or condition where persons finally have the opportunity to live as they have chosen to live. On earth, I desire to do right but fail often. The choices I make in my mind and spirit run into stiff opposition from my flesh, which is roughly equivalent to habits and appetites that stand against godly living. (Romans 7 is very explicit on this.) In heaven, the choices of my renewed mind and regenerated spirit will be free from that opposition and constraint.

  27. Ray

    This really is a big sticking point with me.

    I’d encourage you not to let minor issues keep you from the cross. We all have unanswered questions and presuppositions. Don’t pretend to know what you cannot possibly know. 😉

  28. Ray at #28,

    I’d like to suggest you re-think your linked page, because you commit the common mistake of confusing the existence of God with belief in God. Viz,,

    Some people actually claim that they see no reason to be good without God telling them to do so. I have my doubts. I wonder if they really wake up in the morning and think, “What a beautiful day! I think I’ll go down to the mall and shoot a bunch of people. Oh, wait – God says I shouldn’t do that, darn it all. Guess I’ll just go fishing.”

    Most people behave morally most of the time, or society would utterly collapse. Studies like the one above show that religion has some effect, but not a strong one. What else might cause people to have an inclination to behave morally?

    The first quote references the reality of God (and knowledge thereof, see below), while the second quote references belief in God.

    If you try I’m sure you can find someone who’ll say that belief in God is necessary for morality. They’re wrong. Romans 2 anticipates the error, and explains that those who do not believe still have God’s law written on their hearts. But if you wanted to, you could find it in Genesis 1:26ff, or at least suggested there.

    You ask, “What might cause people to have the inclination to act morally?” You go on to answer in terms of a moral sense, desires and goals (more on that in a moment), game theory, and “we all reason like this anyway.” Those are fine answers to a different question than the one we’re asking. The question is, what does “morally” mean?

    You define it in terms of desires and goals. Read Richard Joyce on this. He’s an atheist and an evolutionist. He shows how this fails to meet the usual and common definition of morality. Morality has more than want-ness to it, it has ought-ness. It has some sense of universality, so that one culture’s customs can be genuinely better or worse, morally, than another’s. It has some sense of enforceability, such that it’s justifiable (morally) to inflict painful consequences on another person for moral failure. It has some sense of enduring meaning. Desires and goals fail to meet those descriptions.

    The chess analogy only works if you stipulate that the goal shall be called a moral goal. That’s begging the question.

    Parenthetically, I don’t know why you atheists think saying something about the Euthyphro problem is worth your time and effort, since it’s a Greek dilemma, not a Judeo-Christian one. It applies to some god or gods who are not essentially and perfectly good, by necessity of their nature. It doesn’t apply to the God of the Bible.

    But above all, your confusion of the existence of God and belief in God, in that article, shows that you don’t understand what you’re objecting to. We don’t claim that belief in God is necessary for a person to act morally. We claim that the existence of God is necessary for morality to mean what virtually everyone understands it to mean.

  29. Tom Gilson –

    In heaven, the choices of my renewed mind and regenerated spirit will be free from that opposition and constraint.

    So, you will be certain to never choose evil. But will you nevertheless have free will?

    Can this be answered with a “yes” or “no”? I’d even be fine with an answer like “Yes, but…” or “No, but…” So long as the word “yes” or “no” actually appeared in the answer.

    It really seems to me that if there’s no way for creatures to both have free will and yet never choose evil – and that is crucial for Plantinga’s defense to work – then a “new creation” with no evil is either (a) not possible, or (b) lacks free will. I just do not see a “third way”.

  30. Yes. I will have already chosen, so I will spend eternity living out the continuing effect of that choice, by God’s grace.

    Plantinga’s answer involves a person having a choice. So does mine. Mine involves freedom to live out a choice once made.

  31. Ray,

    I just do not see a “third way”.

    The third way requires a renewed spirit, a renewed mind a renewed everything. You are trying to find a solution in the world as it exists now and it’s no wonder you are struggling.

    If your sin nature was gone, if your relationship with God was restored, if Satan and his ilk did not have the ability to tempt or deceive you, if your mind was perfectly clear, properly informed and uncorrupted, you would not choose to sin.

  32. SteveK –

    If your sin nature was gone, if your relationship with God was restored, if Satan and his ilk did not have the ability to tempt or deceive you, if your mind was perfectly clear, properly informed and uncorrupted, you would not choose to sin.

    Why not make Adam & Eve that way from the start?

  33. Tom Gilson –

    Plantinga’s answer involves a person having a choice. So does mine. Mine involves freedom to live out a choice once made.

    So, in choosing to enter heaven, you give up your ability to choose certain things? Or just the inclination?

  34. I don’t know. What’s the point of the question? There has been free will in my decision to be what I will be there. So it meets Plantinga’s requirement.

  35. Tom Gilson –

    The chess analogy only works if you stipulate that the goal shall be called a moral goal. That’s begging the question.

    I don’t think you understand the chess analogy. But I’ll go read Richard Joyce. Expect me to return to this eventually – but probably not until after the holidays.

  36. Everyone recognizes there is evil and suffering. It’s painful. I’m going through some considerable pain myself right now—not like those girls, obviously; but I have a close relative who’s been ill every day of her life, an amputee for the last forty-plus years, wheelchair-bound not because of the leg that’s missing but because of a head injury, with multiple other chronic illnesses I won’t enumerate. She loves the Lord. She knows he has her good in mind, she knows that he is just, and she knows that he has an eternity to make his justice flow. She will be rewarded for her patience and faithfulness, but not primarily for that: rather that she has believed that God is who he says he is.

    What I want to say is that where there is pain, there is feeling, and that’s as it should be. But feelings are only a partial guide to truth. They are mired in the moment, and if (as I believe) there is more to life than what meets the eye, feelings are hampered by their lack of access to that great future, except as they are guided by faith in God’s character and promises.

    So yes, the girls you referred us to experienced great suffering. Yes, it offends us, shocks us, grieves us, angers us. But offense, shock, grief, and anger do not tell the whole truth.

    They also experienced great evil. That’s a word that makes no sense at all on atheism, but we all understand what it means anyway. They were treated wrongly. The offense they experienced was an offense against justice.

    Unless there is no justice, no right, no wrong, no evil. Atheism, in its naturalistic evolutionary form, must regard them as human evolutionary constructs served up by natural selection not because they are true in themselves but because they are useful labels to attach to behaviors, to promote or discourage them. And why? No purpose—natural selection never heard of “purpose.” It’s strictly because it has historically helped people make babies that make babies—for that’s all that natural selection knows how to do.

    Is that what you want to tell those girls to comfort them now? For my part, I’d rather tell them that what they think of as evil really is evil. I’d want to validate that. I’d want them to know that there is justice, and if they don’t see it all carried out today, they will in the end.

    You rushed too quickly to judgment, Ray. It’s a knee-jerk emotion that you’re expressing. You almost make it seem as if anyone who disagreed with you must not care about hurts like these. Nothing could be more false. Nothing could be more empirically false, in fact, for Christians have led the way in ministries of compassion and liberation, for centuries.

    I reject your knee-jerk response, in favor of one that takes more information into account than just what meets the immediate eye.

  37. Tom Gilson –

    I don’t know. What’s the point of the question?

    How important could free will be – how much of a justification does it provide for the possibility that girls will be imprisoned for years and raped by their father – if it’s ultimately irrelevant to life in eternity? If you must give it up to commune with God?

  38. @Ray Ingles:

    So, you will be certain to never choose evil. But will you nevertheless have free will?

    God certainly has Free Will and yet it is impossible that He does evil. Insofar as the Saints in Heaven resemble God, they are also Free and they are incapable of choosing evil. Of course, one must be careful about what one means “incapable of choosing evil”. As James Chastek puts it in Lecture on monothelitism and the nature of the human will:

    Evil is thus not so much the act of the free will, but the first act we commit after the will has ceased to be free.

    In this conception (its pedigree and source too obvious to mention), Free Will does not hinge on the PAP (principle of alternative possibilities); but one could still subscribe to PAP, depending on what one exactly is denying the Saints in Heaven.

  39. Tom Gilson –

    Did I say anything even remotely like that?

    You asked why the question (“So, in choosing to enter heaven, you give up your ability to choose certain things? Or just the inclination?”) was important, so I answered. If those in heaven have given up free will, then how important is free will to God, really? That’s why I asked the question – because the answer makes a difference.

    Your answer was “I don’t know”. I’ll ask a further question – do you care?

    G. Rodriguez – From the same link: “All evil is done in a mental oblivion or forgetfullness of the peculiar evil we are committing” – this seems rather too strong an assertion. Certainly there are at least some people who seem to do a pretty good impression of doing evil things simply because they are evil.

  40. Tom Gilson –

    Atheism, in its naturalistic evolutionary form, must regard them as human evolutionary constructs served up by natural selection not because they are true in themselves but because they are useful labels to attach to behaviors, to promote or discourage them.

    Think about “warmth” and “cold”.

    In some senses, there’s no such thing as warmth or cold. There’s only temperatures which can be higher or lower.

    But there’s a sense in which warmth and cold do exist – as ways humans relate to the universe. There’s an objective sense in which Antarctica is cold – the temperature is so low that humans cannot survive there without extensive support and effort.

    True, Antarctica may not be “cold” to penguins and seals. They may find it rather comfortable. But, of course, humans aren’t penguins or seals. As a human, I don’t have to agree with them. I don’t care if you call it 233 degrees Kelvin, or -40 Celsius, or -40 Fahrenheit – it’s flippin’ cold from any human perspective.

    Consider this essay by (theist) Robert Miller. He admits that moral philosophy is possible, even without God. He grants that even in such cases that “We can construct arguments about why murder, adultery, and theft are bad and why honesty, moderation, and courage are good. Indeed, we can do quite a bit of moral philosophy.”

    He then echoes your objection – But, in such a system, the nature of moral obligation—the meaning of should or ought when used in their moral sense—will be rather thin. When a man acts immorally, we can say that he does wrong, that he acts contrary to human nature, and that, to the extent of his wrongdoing, he makes himself a bad man and his life a bad human life. But that is about all we can say, and some people find this inadequate.

    But, just as warmth and cold exist as human perspectives on an objective reality, evil and justice and the rest can also exist as human perspectives on objective realities, too. An atheist can’t call a typhoon “evil” or “unjust” – per atheism, there’s no intelligence involved. But they can certainly call child abuse evil and unjust.

  41. But I didn’t say that people in heaven have given up free wil.

    Robert Miller’s essay depends on the reality of human nature, a conception which makes no sense on evolutionary naturalism. There’s no such enduring a thing as human nature there.

    Miller says that on his view we merely take human nature as a given and work from there, which I think is eminently sensible and a fine way to go about things. He says he brackets the question of where human nature came from, which is useful to a point. Taking that question out of its brackets, what one finds is that human nature (in the form and manner he was using the term) is incoherent or impossible, on a naturalistic evolutionary view of the human species. Note that he says,
    “Now, on the basis of the idea that human nature implies a certain final end, which in turn determines which actions are morally right and which are morally wrong, we can get morality going.” Final ends are incompatible with naturalistic evolution.

    So your article helps you not at all.

    And how your warm/cold analogy relates to good and evil, I cannot begin to fathom. There’s warm and cold, black and white, tall and short, inside and outside–there are opposites everywhere. So what? What is good? You can’t define it in terms of its opposite, because pretty soon you’ll end up chasing your tail around in circles. Warmth and cold are, at any rate, physical realities. Are good and evil physical realities? Where does their reality inhere? Where is their locus?

  42. Ray,

    Tom did a good job answering the content of the article you linked. My thoughts were similar. He does a good job explaining why we should act in a “good” way towards each other and I’d certainly agree with him. However, all of that is still an “is”. He doesn’t show how that comes from or can become an “ought” except that to say the “is” is an “ought”. It’s about moral obligation and I don’t see how he establishes it. Creating a better life for everyone (myself included) is a “good” thing but I just don’t have to care about it if I don’t want to. And the evolutionary morality thing just has no basis in fact if it doesn’t violate the rules of evolution itself by implying evolution can work on populations as a whole rather than the individuals it’s limited to.

    Hope you have a Happy Thanksgiving.

    (I’ll reread it to be sure I haven’t missed something.)

  43. My first thought on reading Ray’s last post was, “Is he saying that good and evil are quantifiable physical properties that exist independently of the human mind?”. I take it this is not the case. If not then what is the use of the analogy?

    I do have sympathy with Ray’s point regarding free will and the afterlife. Christians readily promote the free will defence (and I think it’s a good one) but I’ve been frustrated in the past by my inability to find anyone who discusses the implications what this might have beyond this world. Which, of course, is not to say that it’s a topic that is ignored.

    This said I’m comfortable with the notion that sinful predilections can be removed while free will is maintained. A recovering alcoholic is surely, in some perfectly valid sense, freer in his choices and more fulfilled then he who is a slave to an unquenchable desire for alcohol. How much more fulfilled would be a life lived free of sin and in the presence of the highest conceivable being?

  44. Tom Gilson –

    But I didn’t say that people in heaven have given up free wil.

    I asked you if they had or not (#36), and you said you didn’t know (#37). In the same comment you asked me why it was important, and then I explained why it’s important (#45).

    So, you don’t know if people in heaven have given up their free will or not. I ask again – do you care?

    …a conception which makes no sense on evolutionary naturalism. There’s no such enduring a thing as human nature there.

    The fact that the descendants of humans, in geologic time, might not be human at some future point does not preclude there being such a thing as human nature now.

    Final ends are incompatible with naturalistic evolution.

    As Miller puts it, “That is, given all we know about human beings, whether from biology, psychology, sociology, history, or otherwise, the eudaimonist asks to what end is human nature an effective means, or, equivalently, what is its function… We can proceed in this manner because whether something is an effective means to an end depends on the objective characteristics of the thing itself, not on whether some intelligent agent gave it those characteristics for some purpose or other.”

    There’s warm and cold, black and white, tall and short, inside and outside–there are opposites everywhere. So what? What is good?

    “Warmth” and “cold” don’t exist as external absolutes, though. The same room at the same temperature can be “cold” if you just got out of your warm bed, or “warm” if you just stepped in from a long winter walk. Temperature exists ‘out there’, but “warmth” and “cold” are relationships humans have to temperature.

    That doesn’t mean those relationships don’t exist, though! In a similar way, good and evil can be relationships that human actions have to other humans.

  45. Your question in #36 was,

    So, in choosing to enter heaven, you give up your ability to choose certain things? Or just the inclination?

    That’s not the same as asking whether people in heaven have given up free will. So I guess at this point I don’t know what question you’re really asking.

    I can’t do much with that Miller quote. I don’t know what’s in the ellipsis, or anywhere in the surrounding context. I do know that evolution knows nothing of final ends, teleology, or purpose. I do know that there is but one causal stream leading toward humans as we are today, according to naturalistic evolution, and that it’s a closed system of causation.

    So if the only causal forces in a closed causal system are completely incompetent with respect to final causation, purpose, teleology, etc., then either:

    1. Final ends are absolutely non-existent, or
    2. That “closed” system is actually open after all.

    But if you choose 2, make sure you realize that the opening can’t reside in humanness, because humanness is part of the system, not outside it.

  46. Tom Gilson –

    That’s not the same as asking whether people in heaven have given up free will. So I guess at this point I don’t know what question you’re really asking.

    How is a will that can’t (note, not “doesn’t”, but “can’t”) choose some things ‘free’?

    I can’t do much with that Miller quote. I don’t know what’s in the ellipsis,

    It’s quoted from the same essay I linked to in this very thread. I’m not concealing any context.

    I do know that evolution knows nothing of final ends, teleology, or purpose.

    Yeah, we’ve gone over that before. Evolution doesn’t have to have purposes to give rise to beings with purposes, any more than erosion has to be a nuclear process to set up nuclear reactions.

  47. Evolution doesn’t have to have purposes to give rise to beings with purposes, any more than erosion has to be a nuclear process to set up nuclear reactions.

    Then something other than evolution would, just as something other than erosion gave rise to nuclear reactions.

  48. I didn’t recognize the name Miller there, sorry. Granted that he thinks differently than me, I’m still quite sure that final ends are incompatible with naturalistic evolution, on account of causal closure. They would have to appear by magic out of a process that has no competence to produce them.

    Miller can argue the way he does because clearly there is such a thing as human nature and final ends related to human nature. He can “bracket” the question of where those final ends came from, but only because he’s doing so in a context where that’s not the relevant question. He’s writing about the possibility of building a moral philosophy, based on human nature as a given.

    He does not say, “God does not enter into any account,” but rather, “God does not enter into this account.”

    At least that’s one way to read it. On the other hand, he does say, as you point out, that it does not depend on whether an intelligent agent is responsible. Now, if he really believes that as it appears at face value, then he is just wrong. There can be no ends without something causing them to be ends. Blind nature is incapable of doing that.

    Your erosion analogy is of no relevance. The first and most obvious problem with it is that no one says that causation is closed on erosion. In order to be analogous, you would have to show that erosion could cause nuclear reactions, with erosion being the only force in the entire causal stream leading to nuclear reactions.

    You see, if human purposes came about under naturalistic evolution, then they came about through no other causal processes whatsoever besides those that are included in naturalistic evolution. In order for your analogy to work, you would have to say that erosion plus no other causal processes whatsoever can set up nuclear reactions.

    Show me an analogy that does that and I’ll consider it worth taking to the next step of consideration. Absent that, though, it’s no analogy at all.

  49. Just a quick note on the Miller article. In it he says:

    “But, in such a system, the nature of moral obligation—the meaning of should or ought when used in their moral sense—will be rather thin.

    “Rather thin”? Yeah, I’d say. How about completely transparent. Now, given this is written for the “Public Discourse” website it’s adequate in that context. In the arena of public discourse we can collectively assign a final end, a good life or telos for human beings. But that’s completely different than the purpose that God gives us and the resulting difference in obligation is as different as night and day which Miller essentially concedes.

  50. Tom Gilson –

    I’m still quite sure that final ends are incompatible with naturalistic evolution, on account of causal closure.

    And, as I’ve pointed out before, nobody understands what consciousness is or how it works. Not even theists. Some argue a priori that it can’t possibly be physical. But after Winston Churchill, ‘However beautiful the theory, you should occasionally look at the data.’ So much of what has been deemed exclusively mental has turned out to be physical. You assign me homework on occasion, is it too much to ask for you to read Oliver Sacks’ “The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat”?

    As I’ve also pointed out before, even die-hard “evolutionists” don’t claim that everything about humanity is due solely to evolution. If consciousness can arise by physical processes (e.g. Penrose arguing it’s quantum-mechanical), then evolution might set up such processes, in the same way erosion can set up the preconditions for nuclear reactions.

    One way or another, there’s human consciousness. Once you have agents with intentions – however they arose – you have purposes and teleologies and ends and means. Your key objection seems to be “naturalistic evolution is causally closed” but I can’t find any actual ‘evolutionists’ that claim that.

  51. If die-hard evolutionists don’t claim everything about humanity is solely due to evolution, from where do they import this other magically existing causal stream?

  52. By the way, your rejoinder on consciousness (your first paragraph) is pretty much irrelevant to an argument that says that consciousness is unexplainable in principle on naturalism.

    I haven’t read Sacks, but I’ve read a lot of other writing from that perspective, in that field. I’ve also read this article coming from a perspective I find more amenable to my own way of thinking.

  53. Tom Gilson –

    If die-hard evolutionists don’t claim everything about humanity is solely due to evolution, from where do they import this other magically existing causal stream?

    Did you read the link?

    By the way, your rejoinder on consciousness (your first paragraph) is pretty much irrelevant to an argument that says that consciousness is unexplainable in principle on naturalism.

    If you can’t define and explain what consciousness is and how it works, then pronouncements about what explanations are ruled out become rather more tentative. I’ve pointed out similar in-principle objections to the possibility of molecular biology that turned out to be due more to a lack of imagination than an actual impossibility.

  54. @Ray Ingles:

    If you can’t define and explain what consciousness is and how it works, then pronouncements about what explanations are ruled out become rather more tentative.

    I suspect “what consciousness is and how it works” is a paraphrase for “what consciousness is and how it works in naturalist, mechanistic” terms, for which the retort is “do not be silly”.

    I do not like the term “consciousness” very much as it is prone to equivocation; but in keeping with the flow of the conversation, I’ll just tag along. Anyway, all one needs for the fairly abundant number of arguments to get off the ground, is to latch on *some* properties, powers, features, whatever, of consciousness, to arrive (*deductively*, not “tentatively”, in the case of deductive arguments, which are: all the important ones) at the purported conclusions. The comparison with molecular biology is similarly misguided; it is like someone retorting after being given the proof of the first Gödel theorem to retort “Ah such in-principle proofs are only tentative as there is always the chance that by gaining more knowledge of first order PA, we could in fact find a proof in PA for the Gödelian sentence.” The only thing that such an analogous retort shows is a muddled, confused understanding of the nature of the arguments.

  55. I’ve pointed out similar in-principle objections to the possibility of molecular biology that turned out to be due more to a lack of imagination than an actual impossibility.

    If a flowery imagination can nullify an in-principle objection, then let’s just stop the debate right here.

  56. G. Rodrigues –

    I suspect “what consciousness is and how it works” is a paraphrase for “what consciousness is and how it works in naturalist, mechanistic” terms, for which the retort is “do not be silly”.

    As I said the last time you said that, “I didn’t ask for an explanation in “reductive, physicalist” terms. Just terms that I can comprehend.”

    What’s the best presentation of the “deductive arguments” you’ve run across, particularly in an explicitly deductive form?

  57. @Ray Ingles:

    As I said the last time you said that, “I didn’t ask for an explanation in “reductive, physicalist” terms. Just terms that I can comprehend.”

    What’s the best presentation of the “deductive arguments” you’ve run across, particularly in an explicitly deductive form?

    Two things only need be said:

    (1) It is curious how you insert a link to a comment and then forget the rest of the discussion that went on the thread. Re-reading it, the suspicion still stands.

    (2) Since my point was simply to correct a fundamental misunderstanding about the nature of the debate, I am not going to present any of them; you can check the vast extant literature — and it is indeed vast, an embarassing abundance of riches. Some, I am not convinced they work (e.g. Göedelian-type arguments), some derive their force not intrinsically but more as reductio’s against (typically) naturalist positions (e.g. arguments involving qualia), and others I judge to be about as decisive an argument as we can ever hope to get (e.g. the classical arguments deriving from the universality and determinateness of rational thought).

  58. It is curious how you insert a link to a comment and then forget the rest of the discussion that went on the thread.

    I didn’t forget. I’m perfectly happy with people reading the responses, particularly yours.

    I am not going to present any of them

    Then get used to me repeating my requests for such pointers, I suppose. Particularly for a good presentation of the “about as decisive an argument as we can ever hope to get” type. I mean, sheesh, you accuse me of issuing a “giant promissory note”, and then say, ‘there are great arguments, but I won’t help you find even one, just take my word for it’.

  59. @Ray Ingles:

    I mean, sheesh, you accuse me of issuing a “giant promissory note”, and then say, ‘there are great arguments, but I won’t help you find even one, just take my word for it’.

    FYI, the difference between issuing a “giant promissory note” and “go check the literature” is the difference between “no literature” and “a vast amount of literature”.