Overconfident Atheistic Argument Against What No One Believes: Why?

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Justin Schieber of Reasonable Doubts likes to tweet aphorisms that undermine religious faith. We had a short Twitter conversation about one of them this morning.

Before I get to it, I want to clarify why I’m writing about this today. There’s an argument behind an argument here. We’ll get to that in a moment, but when we get there, I don’t want you to think that’s the reason I’m posting this. My purpose here is to expose a certain kind of incomplete emptiness in this atheist’s thinking. He thinks he has an argument, strong enough to be worth putting out to his Twitter world of 12,000 followers. Some of those followers (including at least one I won’t be including in what follows) seem to think it makes sense.

His argument is in the form of a compressed reductio ad absurdum. Informally defined, a reductio argument is one that takes this form: “They say they believe x, but if so, then logically they must also believe y. But y is obviously absurd; therefore they should reconsider their belief in x.”

A closer look, however, reveals there’s nothing in that argument of Justin’s. Nothing. And so I wonder, as I wondered last night with Bob Seidensticker, why would anyone want to do that? Why speak so confidently about things that are really quite obviously wrong? What’s the motivation?

That’s the question I’m asking myself today. That’s why I’m writing this post: to ask why.

Here’s the Twitter discussion and some commentary. All the tweets are in italics.

God needs to have been created to have a meaningful life?

JS: “If having a meaningful life requires an external agent who created you to give your life meaning, God’s life couldn’t be more meaningless.

ME: “Does using aphorisms out of context help make your life more meaningful?”

JS: “What context, Tom?”

ME: “The context of God.”

JS: “So… Then you deny the antecedent, ok Tom. What do you want me to say?”

ME: “I do deny the antecedent. Plus, u seem seem 2 think u could hypothesize what ‘meaningful life’ means 2 God. Anthropomorphizing.”

ME: “You universalize the antecedent across both humans and God. No theist would do that. It’s an ‘if’ of your own devising.”

JS: “Tom, I have no reason to exclude God from the relevant range of the antecedent. If he is a person, he falls within.”

Of course at this point the question must be asked, “falls within what?” His opening aphorism was apparently a jab at something he thinks Christians believe: that there is no meaning to anyone’s life unless that one was created by an external agent. I’ll come back to that in a moment; first, the rest of the twitter discussion:

What then is the argument?

ME: “Then you do not know the definition of the most important term you’re working with: ‘God.'” …. And you seem to be proposing it as an argument to defeat; but it’s an argument no one makes. It’s irrelevant.”

At this point I had to take off on an errand, so I only added one more thought to the flow there on Twitter. There may be an item missing here, as the discussion branched off on different replies, but this is the gist of it:

JS: “yup, then maybe you should give a reason for doing that rather than special pleading? … actually, the definition does not have an a priori excuse out of that antecedent. … that needs to be shown rather than asserted.

CounterApologist jumped in here: “William Lane Craig explicitly makes the ‘without god [sic] life has no meaning’ argument in ‘On Guard.'”

JS: “exactly and, without qualification, this follows. If you have a problem, talk to WLC”

ME: “you misread WLC. If you want to say his argument applies to God, that’s for you to establish, not it’s to disprove.”

JS: “Wrong, I’m just taking the argument to the unqualified conclusion. He made the argument.”

Overconfident atheistic argument against what no one believes

“He made the argument,” says Schieber. Therefore Craig is committed to the conclusion that God needs to have been created by an external agent for his life to have meaning.

Let’s take a closer look at this. First, note the confidence with which Schieber and CounterApologist press their point. I commented yesterday on Bob Seidensticker’s unseemly rush to a conclusion without full knowledge. I see the same thing here, though thankfully with a lesser degree of contempt attached to it.

The fact is, this is easy to answer; so easy I’m surprised someone as thoughtful as Justin Schieber would put it out on Twitter without embarrassment.

William Lane Craig’s actual argument

Let’s start with the very easiest: If William Lane Craig did indeed say, “Without God, life has no meaning,” then there’s no meaningfulness problem for God: God is not without God.

But that’s not just obvious, it’s trivially obvious, and probably a product of the medium rather than of CounterApologist’s actual intended argument. It’s the kind of mistake Twitter tends to drive people toward through its 140-character limit, so I won’t let it color my view on CounterApologist.

But what is the argument that Justin thinks he’s turning against Christianity? It’s not, “Life has no meaning without God.” That’s not an argument, it’s just a statement. It’s either a premise or a conclusion, not a flow of thought from either to the other. What exactly then was that argument of Craig’s?

On page 30 of On Guard, Craig writes,

If there is no God, then meaning, value, and purpose are ultimately human illusions. They’re just in our heads. If atheism is true, then life is really objectively meaningless, valueless, and purposeless, despite our subjective beliefs to the contrary.

Why is this? Because (p. 31):

If God does not exist, then both man and the universe are ultimately doomed to death. Man, like all biological organisms, must die. With no hope of immortality, man’s life leads only to the grave. His life is but a spark in the infinite blackness, a spark that appears, flickers, and dies forever.

How their response obviously fails

Recall now that Justin had said, “I have no reason to exclude God from the relevant range of the antecedent. If he is a person, he falls within.”

But the argument Craig made was not with respect to persons, but to “biological organisms.” The full context here reveals how really silly it is, in fact, to apply the aphorism to God.

Was Craig’s argument correct? I think so; but let’s not lose track of what we’re doing here. My purpose in this post isn’t to argue that God is necessary for human life to have meaning. I could make that argument, but that’s not what I’m doing here. My purpose is to expose the carelessness of Justin Schieber’s thinking on this topic.

Apparently he really thought that Craig (or someone) said “life has no meaning unless we’re created by an external agent.” Apparently he really thought that Craig (or someone) said it in such a way that it had to apply to God as well as humans. Apparently he thought he could assume that was the case; that there was no burden of proof on him to show that it was so. Apparently he really thought that this counted as an argument for the absurdity of belief in God.

None of that is good thinking. It’s empty, and it’s really kind of disappointingly sad.

How their argument fails even further

And then there is this, to which I could only allude briefly on Twitter: “Plus, u seem seem 2 think u could hypothesize what ‘meaningful life’ means 2 God. Anthropomorphizing.”

The final (or first?) error Justin made was not in imagining that a “meaningful life” for God would depend on the same thing as it does for us. It was in imagining that “meaningful life” could mean the same thing to God as it might mean for a human. Certainly there is some analogy there, for permanence counts, relationships matter, love is paramount, and so on. But God is too wholly other for us to think that he would even have a meaningfulness need, such as humans have.

Why not look at what the great Christian thinkers (and even Aristotle!) have said, that God’s pleasure in himself is adequate in himself? God has no needs such as we think of needs. He does what he does freely, out of desire (perhaps, analogically) but never out of need. This was what I was alluding to when I told Justin he was misunderstanding that most important term, “God.” If he finds it absurd that God would have trouble meeting his own needs for meaningfulness, then he’s thinking of some other god besides the God Christians believe in. He’s thinking of a god I would consider absurd, too. It’s the wrong God fallacy again.

Continuing the dialogue

A final word now. I’ve had some previous short Twitter exchanges with Justin Schieber. I’ve found him to be amenable to thoughtful dialogue. As I was writing this he popped in with another tweet: “perhaps I’m remembering incorrectly. I’ll have to go look at his exact words to be sure.”

Maybe he just jumped the gun. For my part, I’d say he didn’t just misremember Craig’s exact words, he missed the entire point of what Craig was saying, and the argument that led to the short statement that without God there would be no meaning. Still, I appreciate his willingness to go back and double-check.

As I said, I’d like to debate him someday.

In the meantime, I would strongly encourage him not to speak so confidently of what he does not understand. To produce a counter-argument against an argument that was never made, and to insist that “Craig is committed to the conclusion,” is not the kind of good thinking I would expect someone like Justin Schieber to aspire to.

To argue that some belief x entails an absurd belief y is fine in many situations, but when the person you’re argument believes neither x nor y, then what is one arguing against, and why? When Justin does this, it hints that he might not even know what he’s arguing against; or (more accurately) he’s arguing against some imagined belief that no one actually holds. Why?

I would hope for a better debate with him than that.

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102 Responses to “ Overconfident Atheistic Argument Against What No One Believes: Why? ”

  1. Tom,

    I really like your analysis of the Tweeter exchange. I cannot locate the exact quote but one author (possibly Chris Hedges) described this type of argument: The atheist creates a straw man and then puts a torch to him and burns him at the stake. This generates much more heat than light.

  2. Tom,

    I may I add this related observation: It is impossible to create a straw man without grasping at straws.

  3. Your attempt to bake the special pleading into the argument, as if the argument was about how “biological organisms” need to be created in order to have meaning isn’t just transparent, it’s actually false – that’s not the argument Craig makes in On Guard.

    Following your quote on page 30, he goes on to say this (I have the Kindle book, location 359):

    “But it’s important to see that man needs more than just immortality for life to be meaningful. Mere duration of existence doesn’t make that existence meaningful. If man and the universe could exist forever, but if there was no God, their existence would still have no ultimate significance.”

    This has no argument behind it at all. The most that is said here is a brief story about an astronaut being stuck alone on a rock and forced into immortality, followed by this quote, which does nothing more than say we need God for meaning:

    “Now if God does not exist, our lives are just like that. They could go on and on and still be utterly without meaning. We could still ask of life, “So what?” So it’s not just immortality man needs if life is to be ultimately significant; he needs God and immortality.”

    There is no argument there, it’s simply asserted.

    The implication of course is that we can’t give our own lives meaning or purpose, yet somehow God can do that just fine for himself, because special pleading.

    The entire argument is as specious as the moral argument: all you do metaphysically speaking is literally equate the ontology of “value/meaning/purpose” with “God”, full stop.

    You can do that if you want, metaphysics doesn’t have very many rules as to what you can’t do; but don’t pretend as if atheists aren’t allowed to have our own ontology of what constitutes those things.

    This is where your attempt to say that “this isn’t how Christians conceive of God” falls completely flat.

    You say that Justin would find it absurd that “God would have trouble meeting his own needs for meaningfulness”, except that’s not what he’s objecting to (presumably, I don’t mean to speak for him, but that’s not what I have a problem with).

    What we object to is you saying that somehow it is impossible for “humans to likewise meet our own needs for meaningfulness”.

    You say that this is an example of conceiving of God incorrectly, except this is supposed to be an argument that’s meant to convince non-believers. The entire argument wouldn’t work at all unless the non-believer already believed that “meaning/value/purpose” has no ontology outside of some triune necessary being; but that’s what you’re supposed to be convincing us of.

    You’ve nothing to say to the idea that humans can give meaning to each other or even ourselves. Or at least you can’t somehow say that this kind of meaning is in some way deficient for us, but not for god – without engaging in special pleading.

  4. Some questions.

    Does this have anything to do, CounterApologist, with the fact that Justin misread his argument? That’s what my post was about.

    How is my reference to “biological organisms” a misrepresentation of Craig’s argument when it’s a quote?

    You complain that Craig’s statement “has no argument behind it at all.” Did you notice what I said about Justin’s treating a distorted version of it as an argument, when it was simply a statement he made? Is there some reason you’re only jumping on me for making that mistake (if indeed I made it)? Why not give equal time to Justin’s obvious error in that light?

    The implication is that God can give himself meaning and significance because special pleading? No. The reasons are not ad hoc. They are firmly seated in the definition of God as God.

    You say Craig makes no argument for his case. Why did you skip what he said about the threat of non-being, or the ultimate ontological sameness between humans and all other material reality (on atheism)? Why die you overlook the question of ultimate purpose, and its possible relation to proximate purpose?

    Perhaps you think this is poor argumentation, but it’s even worse argumentation to toss a label, “special pleading,” at it, and meanwhile also claiming “it’s simply asserted.” That, my friend, is simply false.

    I have the same question for you as for Bob Seidensticker and Justin Schieber: why do you try so hard to adopt and defend positions that are so obviously not true?

    Again as with Justin, I’m not even going for the goal of showing that Craig’s argument is a good one (though I think it is). I’m going for the objective of finding out why you would be willing to go on public record as saying he simply asserts without making any argument. You’re obviously wrong. Why do you want to be that way? Is there something about fighting theism that makes you want to fight even if it means saying something obviously wrong?

  5. My theory of what motivates the new/internet atheist is that they really haven’t come to terms with their atheism. If they honestly had they would realize that they are just tiny insignificant and accidental specks that momentarily come to exist in a 14.3 billion year old universe that consists mainly of cold empty space and gives no purpose or meaning for human existence. What can such a speck rally know? He’s fooling himself if he thinks he can know anything much about anything. What gives one insignificant speck the idea that he has anything of value to tell another insignificant speck? If the atheist speck really had discovered eternal purpose and meaning for his existence do you think he would have to try to undermine the beliefs of other specks to justify his own? Of course if he had discovered eternal purpose and meaning he wouldn’t be an atheist. If nothing else these people are very confused.

  6. Is there something about fighting theism that makes you want to fight even if it means saying something obviously wrong?

    Now that is a sharp question.

  7. One other thing I would like to clarify. I do not think that atheists live meaningless lives. As human beings we’re “hard wired” to seek meaning and purpose. We cannot live psychologically well-adjusted lives unless we have some kind of meaning in our life. Indeed, I would go on to argue that many things about human life are intrinsically meaningful. For example, people find meaning in family and friends, in work and careers, and seeking the betterment of mankind. However, people also find meaning in trivial, useless even harmful things: meditation, tattoos or LSD trips. Dictators and tyrants find meaning in ruthlessly dominating, suppressing even murdering people they have forcefully submitted to their control. So is all meaning equal? Is the narcissist on an equal plane as the altruist? Does it matter what kind of meaning we choose or create? Says who?

    Besides those questions, there is the fact that human existence is temporal therefore all meaning that a person finds in his life is fleeting and temporal… Only a relationship with God is eternal and therefore eternally meaningful. So finding and choosing your own meaning cannot be the same as what Christians discover in their faith, hope and love in the eternal God.

    I don’t know what W.L. Craig’s view is about this but that’s mine.

  8. The point I’ve made Tom is that Justin has not misread the argument. Your attempt to say that Craig’s argument in context is that it was about biological creatures is demonstrably false: I’ve quoted to you where he says that immortality is not a sufficient criteria for meaning/purpose/value. So the issue explicitly isn’t just about us being “biological”.

    Further, Craig does in fact tie having been created to being necessary for purpose (Location 619, Kindle version of On Guard):

    “…even if life did not end in death, without God life would still be without purpose. For man and the universe would then be simply accidents of chance, thrust into existence for no reason. Without God the universe is the result of a cosmic accident, a chance explosion.
    There is no reason for which it exists. As for man, he’s a freak of nature – a blind product of matter plus time plus chance.

    If God does not exist, then you are just a miscarriage of nature, thrust into a purposeless universe to live a purposeless life.”

    The direct implication is that if we are not created by God, then we have no purpose. This is the same thing alluded to in the passage about meaning where Craig simply states that even if we were immortal, that we have no meaning.

    You claim that Justin is mistreating a statement as an argument; except there are no premises given. Craig makes the statement and then tries to support it by saying that if we were not created then we have no purpose.

    You may say that it’s improper for Justin or myself to infer that Craig’s argument is that “we must be created in order to have purpose”, except that’s all Craig gives us to say why we have no purpose (or meaning, or value, they’re all related). What Craig doesn’t actually do, and what none of you apologists can actually do is explain why we would have value if we were created.

    Ah, but here you think you have an out:

    “The implication is that God can give himself meaning and significance because special pleading? No. The reasons are not ad hoc. They are firmly seated in the definition of God as God. “

    It does not stop being special pleading when all you do is bake it into the question by asserting your definition that “meaning/purpose/value is (ontologically speaking) God”.

    You say Craig goes on about ” the threat of non-being, or the ultimate ontological sameness between humans and all other material reality (on atheism)? Why die you overlook the question of ultimate purpose, and its possible relation to proximate purpose?”

    I can agree that Craig does do those things, but that’s not what I claimed was asserted. Even if all of those things were true (they’re not, demonstrably so), it does nothing at all to show why God has value or why us being created by him gives us value.

    That is what is simply asserted via definition, something that an atheist has no reason to accept.

    So if we reject your self serving definition (or ontology, however you want to slice it), all that’s left in the text is that somehow the act of being created gives us meaning – which is ridiculous.

  9. @Counter Apologist:

    Any human artifact only has meaning and purpose because of the intentions and purposes of its human creators; e.g. a table say, outside of human intentions and purposes, is on naturalism (which is what Craig is targetting) just a meaningless, purposeless aggregate of atoms. It is not clear what exactly is the ontological difference on naturalism between us and a table, in fact on naturalism there is none, so the conclusion seems to follow.

    And Craig is simply taking up a well known argument from atheist existentialists to its logical conclusion. Neither it is obvious that a naturalist can mutter “We create meaning for ourselves” or some other similar consoling bromide; eliminative materialists certainly disagree.

    There are a couple more things one could add, but to finish off, while one can dispute and disagree with the argument Craig is making, it is you who is being silly, ridiculous, self-serving, and I should add ignorant, not Craig.

  10. The “direct implication,” CA, is that a universe of pure chance and contingency does not have what it takes to produce meaning. That’s Craig’s argument.

    If there is no God, and if we were not intentionally created, then we have a problem with meaning, because we are the products of pure chance and contingency. That’s his point.

    God is not, on anyone’s understanding of God, the product of pure chance and contingency. That’s why Craig’s argument doesn’t apply to God, and that’s where you and Justin misunderstood him.

    If that’s “baked in” to the definition of God, as you say, then so what? It’s baked in for good reason: the whole history of revelation and philosophy of God. It’s not ad hoc. Read your Aristotle, Aquinas, and even Genesis 1:1.

    This is in addition to the ontological distinction between humans and God, previously mentioned.

  11. As to why God has meaning or value, or why being created intentionally by God could give us meaning or value, let’s set those questions aside for a while. As I’ve said more than once here, that’s an argument that I could make but it’s not the real point of this post.

    The real point of the post isn’t whether we can or cannot make our argument successfully. The real point is whether Justin (or you) can read the argument for what it is. Once you read it for what it is, we can talk about it for what it is.

  12. Further on whether our definition of God amounts to special pleading:

    I wrote,

    The implication is that God can give himself meaning and significance because special pleading? No. The reasons are not ad hoc. They are firmly seated in the definition of God as God.

    You answered,

    It does not stop being special pleading when all you do is bake it into the question by asserting your definition that “meaning/purpose/value is (ontologically speaking) God”.

    I have two rather different though parallel ways of responding to that.

    First Approach: It isn’t mere assertion. There are valid reasons (for a later discussion) to conclude that if there is a God, then it’s possible the universe is not merely chance and contingency, and therefore it is possible that there is meaning and purpose at the heart of all reality.

    Notice that in saying that, I haven’t defined God in any way except to differentiate a God-created universe, with the possibility of meaning and purpose at the heart of all reality, from a universe of chance of contingency where reality is meaningless and purposeless at its core.

    So there’s nothing baked in there, is there? No mere assertion. These are the starting points of a discussion. Does the universe have the possibility of meaningfulness/purposefulness at its core, or not? If so, then what? If not, then what? The argument proceeds from there. I will not make that argument now, since my reason for writing this is to help you understand that this “baking in” charge misses the mark.

    Second, let’s take it a step further and speak of the God of Christian theism, or even of monotheism generally. That God is defined as necessary being, having purpose, mind, will, holiness of character, power, justice, and so on. If that God exists, then purpose exists in the core of all reality. If that God does not exist, then either naturalism is true, or some other explanation of reality is more accurate.

    Most of the time in contemporary Western debate, we’re considering only those first two options: theism or naturalism. To say that God as defined by theism satisfies the conditions of the theists’ argument is not special pleading. It’s just talking plainly about what we’re plainly talking about. To say that this God (so defined) provides a better basis for belief in the reality of purpose and meaning is, again, just to be saying what we’re saying. This is the God we are talking about when we talk about “God.”

  13. I’m reading the argument for what it says, as you put it:

    “if we were not intentionally created, then we have a problem with meaning, because we are the products of pure chance and contingency. “

    Except it does not follow that being the products of pure chance and contingency entails that we can have no meaning. The response of an atheist, unless you want to argue against a strawman, is that regardless of our origins, we have a (still very physical) mind that can value things, and that this is the criteria of meaning.

    Further it does not strictly follow on atheism or naturalism that we are the product of pure chance and contingency.

    A materialist would have a number of arguments to say that “the fundamental constituents of material reality (and the regularities it operates on) are necessary”, though this is a separate topic.

    However, if you are to insist that we are the product of “pure chance and contingency”, how does being created by God change any of that? We are still very much contingent, unless you want to argue the creation of humans is a necessary truth. And if we were contingent in this way, what exactly are the chances that God decides to create the universe PLUS humans?

    You say you want to bracket what the argument is saying in order to question whether or not myself or Justin can read it; except what we’re objecting to is the very idea that being the product of chance and contingency has anything to do with our having meaning whatsoever. You can’t bracket it off, it’s central to the claim we are making.

    I do love how you claim baking in the special pleading isn’t a problem because it’s inherent to revealed theology and theistic philosophy.

    First, through a reading of the Bible you most certainly aren’t going to come out with any kind of a concept of a necessary being – you have to import that wholesale from extra-biblical sources, not to mention a truckload of metaphysical assumptions. There’s a host of scriptural evidence that the biblical authors, particularly of the first books of the OT believed Yahweh to be one of many gods; not the ground of all being. The latter is an invention of philosophers that’s been imported into Christian theology.

    Second, what does that have anything to do with the matter at hand? Why, in an argument that is meant to convince non-theists, would you appeal to definitions that we don’t accept at the outset? What’s worse, what can you say to our own definitions of meaning and purpose?

  14. You write,

    Except it does not follow that being the products of pure chance and contingency entails that we can have no meaning.

    Yay! You’re getting there! Now you’ve finally realized that what we’re talking about is the difference between a universe of chance/contingency, vs. a universe with some other reality at its foundation!

    Good going. I applaud that.

    Do you realize what you’ve done? You’ve changed your argument now. You’re actually talking about the argument Craig makes, not some other imagined argument where God is subject to the same meaningfulness provisions as other “persons.”

    You have now successfully recognized the main premise of Craig’s argument.

    Now, do you realize that you’ve done that? Do you realize that your point here builds off (and disputes) different premises than the ones you started with?

    I’ll be back in a minute with a comparison.

  15. Earlier versions of the argument:

    Justin: “If having a meaningful life requires an external agent who created you to give your life meaning…”

    CounterApologist: “The implication of course is that we can’t give our own lives meaning or purpose, yet somehow God can do that just fine for himself, because special pleading.”

    CounterApologist: “You may say that it’s improper for Justin or myself to infer that Craig’s argument is that “we must be created in order to have purpose”, except that’s all Craig gives us to say why we have no purpose (or meaning, or value, they’re all related).”

    None of those is Craig’s argument. His argument contrasts a world of chance/contingency with a universe that has meaning and purpose instilled within its core. (See comment 12 for more on why that’s a legitimate contrast to work with.)

    More recently,

    CounterApologist: “Except it does not follow that being the products of pure chance and contingency entails that we can have no meaning.”

    Now you’re talking about the same thing Craig was talking about. Do you realize that you weren’t doing so earlier? You were misreading it; now you’re getting it.

    Justin’s version of Craig’s argument was an absolutely gross distortion. Your versions have been gradually moving from gross distortion towards understanding what the argument is about. I call that progress.

  16. Tom this is very simple, and it highlights the futility of this post.

    Craig makes the claim that “unless we were created by god, we have no meaning/purpose/value”. It’s right there at the front of the chapter!

    He certainly does add additional argumentation, of which atheistic philosophers can respond to quite thoroughly.

    But this does not in any way change Justin’s point: The simple fact of being created by god can not have anything to do with being given meaning – because god wasn’t created by himself.

    This also does not preclude Justin or any other atheist from going on to address any other points. It’s an opening salvo, not the end of the atheists argument on the topic.

  17. It’s a grossly distorted opening salvo, CounterApologist. If Craig’s argument is to the north, this mortar was aiming south-southwest; and yet Justin seems to have claimed he hit it.

    “He certainly does add additional argumentation,” you say? Come on. He goes on to explain what he means! If you want to respond to what he means, rather than what you imagine he means, then you read what he means.

    You’re right: it doesn’t preclude Justin… from going on to address any other points. It does preclude the possibility that those points have anything to do with what Craig was talking about, because Craig explains what he’s talking about, and it’s not what Justin or you said he was talking about.

    This is simple, just as you said.

    By the way, “God” is a proper noun in this context. Read the discussion policies.

  18. I thought I had caught the capitalization, my sincere apologies. I very much do try to abide by your policies on your site despite the fact that I disagree with them. I hope my previous posts attest this to you. If I could edit that post, I would.

    I don’t hold it to be dishonest at all, it’s an opening point to disassociate the idea that “creation” is in any way related to “value/meaning/purpose”. It eventually does tie into the case the naturalist will make regarding where value, meaning, and purpose must ultimately come from.

    The point its responding to is literally a part of the argument Craig makes. When rebutting arguments we can tackle them piece by piece.

    Unless you want to disagree that “being created by god is not what gives things value”, I’m not seeing the point here.

  19. When rebutting arguments you don’t take them apart piece by piece in order to reassemble them in a form the other person obviously did not intend.

    This is simple, CA. I’m really surprised that you would persist in holding a different view. Why? What’s your motivation? I don’t get it.

  20. Special pleading means that an exception to the general rule has been made without proper justification. Generally speaking, the proper justification for concluding that God is unlike his creation is given to us through the understanding of metaphysical reality. More specifically to the Christian faith, the justification is found in scripture.

    Yes, atheist/naturalists don’t agree that these are proper justifications for the conclusion, but disagreement is not a rebuttal.

  21. Tom,

    It’s not reassembling the argument in a way you don’t intend. Justin and myself are putting out a point that in the end, you agree with: Being created is not what gives a person inherent value.

    You would say that “god” just is “value” ontologically speaking. I can and do address that point later on in the argument.

    SteveK,

    Sure disagreement is not a rebuttal, but neither does asserting your definitions make a sound argument. It merely pushes the heart of the argument onto your definitions rather than anything we derive from them, which at this point in the “meaning” argument is trivial.

    It’s why I’m always so shocked to see some brand of apologists try to use this flimsy excuse of an argument.

    What seems to be happening is that we’re moving from defending the argument so much to defending the coherence of the Christian metaphysical view.

    Sure, I grant you that as you define God in terms of being ontologically equivalent with “objective/cosmic/ultimate” meaning/value/purpose, then without god there is no “objective/cosmic/ultimate” meaning/value/purpose.

    But I don’t see exactly why such a view should at all be troubling to a naturalist, and why such an argument gets presented in the first place.

  22. Frankly, that wasn’t even interesting enough to bother responding to.

    This has nothing to do with the ontological argument in any form. It’s not even close enough to it for it to be interesting to explain why.

    You’ve moved further into irrelevancy, and I’m not following you there.

  23. What on earth does it mean to push an argument back to definitions? Like you, I’m not particularly interested in the people who are asserting definitions rather than offering arguments so we can sidestep them.

    There are many people who have assembled reasonable arguments for God as a particular kind of necessary being. If the conclusions are not legitimate I suggest you tell us exactly why rather than repeat the battle cry ‘special pleading’ and/or assert without proper justification that they aren’t actually offering a reasonable argument.

  24. It means that if you define what you mean by the word “God” when you are talking about God, you have automatically tried to prove the existence of God via the ontological argument, with CatLOLZ grammar to boot, because you’re an idiot.

    At least, I think that’s what it means to Counter Apologist.

  25. Tom wrote:

    Boy, does that display your total misunderstanding of everything I said.

    Do you think that counter apologist really misunderstands you? Is he really that stupid? Or, is it that he doesn’t have a logically valid argument with which to reply? I guess if all else fails you can always obfuscate. But why? Maybe this is all a heart issue vs. a head issue. The apostle Paul made this observation 1900+ years ago when he wrote in his epistle to the Romans: [that ungodly men] “by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them…” (see Romans 1:18-20)

  26. Justin and myself are putting out a point that in the end, you agree with: Being created is not what gives a person inherent value.

    Then why did Justin also say that therefore God’s life must be meaningless? Did you notice that this was something I don’t agree with, in the end?

  27. JAD:

    That’s actually the question I was asking in the OP, restated for this persistent commenter, with a plausible explanation offered in response. Thank you.

  28. Saying that an argument is a case of special pleading without properly justifying that assertion with an argument is itself a form of special pleading. This appears to be CA’s approach.

  29. It’s amusing to see it only took 28 replies before someone came along and started “Pretending to know what they don’t know” by claiming that I really do believe in god but am suppressing the truth. 🙂

    SteveK,

    I thought I outlined what “pushing an argument back to the definitions was” in my post. I’ll try to reiterate briefly:

    Given your definitions of “cosmic/ultimate/objective meaning/purpose/value”, I have no problem granting your entire argument.

    The argument itself boils down to a very trivial:

    Definition: X is (ontologically) Y

    P1: Without X, there is no Y.
    P2: On atheism there is no X.
    C: Therefore on atheism there is no Y.

    I can grant this and fail to see absolutely any force behind it, given that I see no need for “cosmic/ultimate/objective meaning/purpose/value”.

    You’ve defined a special subset of the normal terms “meaning/purpose/value” but at the same time have divorced it from any kind of reality that I experience as an atheist. When I find meaning in my being a relatively new father, I don’t experience the kind of meaning you speak of. When I find purpose in trying to be a good father, I don’t experience the kind of purpose you speak of. Etc.

    You may have whatever specially-defined metaphysical entities you want, that does nothing to show that it is in any way connected what we actually do experience.

    It is special pleading when you infer that I can’t give myself meaning, but God somehow can. Now if you mean to say that while I can give myself meaning, but I can not give myself “cosmic meaning” which can only come from God – well. OK?

    You’ve not really done anything to establish that “cosmic meaning” exists at all, and so we are going to have to abandon this argument and move to another one. I can’t for the life of me see how you can establish that God is ontologically equivalent to “cosmic meaning” other than by metaphysical fiat.

  30. Unless you want to disagree that “being created by god is not what gives things value”, I’m not seeing the point here.

    CA,

    We are saying that being created by God (in His image) gives us (intrinsic) value/meaning. We’re created beings so this applies to us. God, on the other hand, isn’t a created being. Thus, this doesn’t apply to him. Does that make our objection to the original premise a bit more understandable. It is his eternal, intrinsic, immutable value that forms the basis for true value/meaning.

    As far as Naturalism’s ability to impart value/meaning I have a hard time figuring how. That you can assign value to things doesn’t make them intrinsically valuable or really valuable at all. It’s just an assigned arbitrary value based on the person doing the assignation. If you say X is valuable then I can say it isn’t. What have you got then. Finite people, on a finite planet, in a finite solar system, in a finite galaxy, in a finite universe, are….finite. Infinitesimally brief lives soon to be completely extinguished. What real value is there in that?

  31. Tom,

    “Then why did Justin also say that therefore God’s life must be meaningless? Did you notice that this was something I don’t agree with, in the end?”

    Justin explicitly said:

    “If having a meaningful life requires an external agent who created you to give your life meaning, God’s life couldn’t be more meaningless.”

    Like Justin, you (and your theology) would deny the first part of that conditional.

    The argument from On Guard is literally:

    P1: If we were not created by God (an external agent) then our lives have no meaning/purpose/value.
    P2: On atheism, we were not created by god.
    C: Therefore, on atheism our lives have no meaning/purpose/value.

    We can take a number of things from that, one of which is the principle Justin objects to. His point there is to force the theist into rejecting the principle he outlined, which you do!

    Certainly Craig attempts to justify his argument by saying that if we weren’t created then we are just accidents, and that this is somehow the reason why we can’t have M/P/V, but that’s another point that the atheist can reply to.

    At the end of the day, Justin’s opening salvo is to force the theist to eventually own up to the fact that by M/P/V they mean “equivalent to God”. Our end game is to expose the fact of what your definitions are for those terms and to then show why this isn’t a problem for atheism.

  32. CA

    It is special pleading when you infer that I can’t give myself meaning, but God somehow can.

    It’s only special pleading if you equivocate regarding the term ‘meaning’. Look, if it’s a fact that your existence has no purpose whatsoever, can you give yourself purpose? Well, yes you can, but the word purpose is being used differently in each instance.

    One is a fact that is true about ALL of reality (it’s true always and everywhere), the other is a fact that is true about your mind (not always and everywhere).

  33. BillT,

    Your argument there starts with the idea that God is somehow intrinsically valuable because….that’s how you define him.

    I think there are problems with that which I go into in my post here: http://counterapologist.blogspot.com/2015/02/hitting-philosophical-bedrock-with.html

    In the post I do offer a standard available to naturalists to say why certain things, of which humans are one, can be considered intrinsically valuable: Specifically we have the ability to value things.

    I think this kind of standard actually does explanatory work in terms of what “value” means compared to the Christian conception.

  34. I’m hoping in here without have read all the comments and I’m guessing that I may have missed some subtly in comment 27. Perhaps you are attempting to use CA’s own methods (that I haven’t seen) against him to illustrate a point, Tom?

  35. Your argument there starts with the idea that God is somehow intrinsically valuable because….that’s how you define him.

    CA,

    No it isn’t. The reality that God is intrinsically valuable is because he is the eternal, omniscient, omnipotent being capable of creating the universe ex nihilo. That isn’t “how we define him” that’s the obvious and undeniable implication of his existence, abilities and actions.

    And your “ability to value things” is just, as I mentioned, an arbitrary assignation no more capable of imparting true value than saying abracadabra.

  36. SteveK,

    It’s only special pleading if you equivocate regarding the term ‘meaning’. Look, if it’s a fact that your existence has no purpose whatsoever, can you give yourself purpose? Well, yes you can, but the word purpose is being used differently in each instance.

    Well, yes! I agree.

    It’s either special pleading, or we can designate a difference between Meaning (what I can give to myself) and (C)Meaning (for Christian Cosmic/Ultimate/Objective meaning).

    Once we designate the difference between the two usages of the word, the argument loses all force. Why exactly should I care about (C)Meaning? How am I inconsistent with being happy and finding a meaningful, purposeful life being a finite human, happy to be a husband, father, and a host of other things I take joy in?

    I don’t particularly care which strategy you adopt (special pleading vs identifying the difference), I’m fine with either.

  37. BillT,

    Your “undeniable implication of his existence, abilities and actions” is no less arbitrary than my supposed “abracadabra”.

    Each of us can play the “but why value that?” game. I can give my explanation, show how it applies equally to all beings with sufficiently complex minds, and that’s it.

    People can accept or reject it.

    For my part in refuting what you give as a justification I can at least present very strong scientific evidence that we have every reason to think the physical universe has “always existed”, giving good reason to doubt your claim of “creation ex nihilo”.

  38. Your “undeniable implication of his existence, abilities and actions” is no less arbitrary than my supposed “abracadabra”.

    CA,

    No, it isn’t. It’s based on God as the best explanation for the universe as we know it. Your explanation is based on your explanation.

  39. WOW!!!!!

    I can at least present very strong scientific evidence that we have every reason to think the physical universe has “always existed”,

    Folks, I can’t wait to see that happen! Could you do it here, please?

    I’ll have the press releases sent out immediately afterward.

  40. Each of us can play the “but why value that?” game. I can give my explanation, show how it applies equally to all beings with sufficiently complex minds, and that’s it.

    People can accept or reject it.

    CA,

    And, of course, that is the problem with it. Any argument assigning value as you want to can be rejected, as you admit, by anyone who wants to. That makes the value you assign no more meaningful than your personal opinion.

    And I too look forward to your evidence for how universe has “always existed”. Nothing like proof of an actual infinite to spice up the day.

  41. CA
    “Why exactly should I care about (C)Meaning?”

    Because it’s a fact that you should – a fact that is true everywhere and always. You now have a contradiction to deal with. This fact and the fact you created are in conflict.

  42. CA,

    Once we designate the difference between the two usages of the word, the argument loses all force.

    How does the argument lose force when nothing has changed about the argument itself? It is still true that you cannot create meaning without God. You can create meaning* – but that is not the same thing.

    The force of the argument is still there because it explains the thing people are referring to when they discuss the meaning of life. If people thought there was only meaning*, the discussions and arguments would be different. Nobody would be talking about the more true, or the more accurate meaning* of life – because they’d know it’s meaning* they are referring to. There’d be no trying to figure it out.

    This eventually spills over into rational life. If life itself only has meaning*, then my rational thoughts can only have meaning* – but that isn’t what teachers in biology class are teaching us or arguing for. In class, students are being taught meaning, not meaning*.

  43. Back to the motives of our interlocutors. Just tonight Brian Williams, an anchor for NBC Nightly News, (the most highly rated news program in the U.S.) received a six month suspension for embellishing the truth—not just once but apparently several times. In this country (I’m from the U.S.) we expect news professionals, like Williams, to accurately and truthfully report news.

    So, why did Williams stretch the truth? My theory it’s because of his narcissism. He was trusted, popular and well liked but that wasn’t enough. He wanted more. Isn’t that best explained narcissism? BTW IMO the U.S. is becoming a very narcissistic culture.

    Is that what is happening here? We’re attracting narcissists who think they are superior and more reasonable than Christians because of who they are—so superior they don’t have read through OP or think through their arguments. It’s just who they are. Any kind of argument will do.

    Well, that’s my theory. What do you think?

  44. @CA

    The argument from On Guard is literally:

    P1: If we were not created by God (an external agent) then our lives have no meaning/purpose/value.
    P2: On atheism, we were not created by God.
    C: Therefore, on atheism our lives have no meaning/purpose/value.

    CA, this argument is about contingent beings. Either we were intentionally created (and consequently have a purpose), or we were not (and thus do not have a purpose). It says nothing about whether God has meaning, purpose or value. God is not a contingent being.

    what we’re objecting to is the very idea that being the product of chance and contingency has anything to do with our having meaning whatsoever. You can’t bracket it off, it’s central to the claim we are making.

    Well, no – the central claim in the OP is about whether the above argument applies to God.

    And I’m surprised that you deny “being the product of chance and contingency has anything to do with our having meaning whatsoever”. How can this not have something to do with meaning?

  45. And the sillyness, the self-serving ridiculousness and ignorance continue.

    @JAD:

    Well, that’s my theory. What do you think?

    I have no particular psychological insight to offer, and I do not like to play that game very much; but one does wonder, given the abysmal quality of “reasoning” on display in this, and countless other threads, on part of the “skeptics”, what darker motives propel them.

  46. Counter Apologist –

    I can at least present very strong scientific evidence that we have every reason to think the physical universe has “always existed”, giving good reason to doubt your claim of “creation ex nihilo”.

    So far as I know, that’s a bit too strong. I wouldn’t say we have “every reason”, but I would say we have good reasons to think the universe may well be eternal.

    At the bare minimum, I would insist that the question is not settled in favor of ‘creation ex nihilo’.

  47. Tom,

    I won’t write it here, but I will link to it. This is a post I’ve wanted to throw out for quite some time, basically a compilation of the evidence we have had for years about material reality likely having always existed:

    http://counterapologist.blogspot.com/2015/02/evidence-that-universe-has-always.html

    Note that this post doesn’t say there is no conceptual space for theists to accommodate literally any view of material reality we get from science, including one where the universe has existed for an infinite amount of “physical time”.

    The point is to say that if we stay neutral and don’t make sweeping metaphysical assumptions about the ultimate nature of reality and look at what science says, it’s pointing in the direction that material reality has always existed. Suffice it to say that doesn’t leave the theist in a very good position with respect to making the cosmological argument.

    EDIT: @Ray, you’re right in that we have very good reasons to think it. My comment is that “every reason” was more to the point of what science tells us.

  48. @SteveK

    You’re continuing to just assert your metaphysical views and pretend it constitutes some kind of binding view:

    “Because it’s a fact that you should – a fact that is true everywhere and always. You now have a contradiction to deal with. This fact and the fact you created are in conflict.”

    This is why I compared your definition to the ontological argument. You just assert that God is a special kind of (C)meaning, that is not at all related to the kind of (A)meaning that we experience here and now in this life. It’s like defining God as a necessary being and then claiming that as such he absolutely must exist.

    I don’t accept that (C)meaning exists. I think calling it any form of “meaning” is misleading, you may as well call it “Glacktaput” for any connection it has to “meaning” as we humans experience it.

    Metaphysical fiat isn’t going to get you very far in terms of convincing non-believers.

  49. @Ray

    I would say we have good reasons to think the universe may well be eternal.

    That’s also too strong. I would say that we have good reasons to think that the universe is not eternal, with the caveat that there are some cosmologists that think otherwise.

    I would agree that the question is not settled (and unlikely to be).

  50. Counter Apologist,

    It’s absolutely impossible for science to “say” something about the eternality of nature without making sweeping metaphysical assumptions.

    You write on that blog page,

    P1: All material things have material causes.
    P2: The universe is a material thing.
    C: Therefore, the universe has a material cause.

    And what is the cause of that material cause? And the cause of that one? Ad infinitum … ?

    Is the law of the conservation of energy a material thing? (That’s where you really need to get into your metaphysics!) If so, what caused it? If not, then what is it? Did it have a cause?

  51. No Tom, the “law” of conservation of energy is just a property of the material that exists. It’s our description of the regularity in how that matter/energy behaves, not another category of thing. Do you even Philosophy of Science bro?

    So if we start small with our assumptions, we can infer that we don’t need to infer something more than “material”, it makes for a fine stopping point.

  52. @CA

    The point is to say that if we stay neutral and don’t make sweeping metaphysical assumptions about the ultimate nature of reality and look at what science says, it’s pointing in the direction that material reality has always existed.

    I think you’ve just demonstrated your utter lack of neutrality by making such a statement.

  53. Yes, I philosophy of science, bro, and no, you haven’t answered my questions. Given that you seem to agree that the law of conservation of energy is not a material thing, nevertheless it is not nothing. What kind of thing is it, did it have a cause, and if so, what was that cause?

  54. If you start small, and infer there is nothing more than “material,” then are properties also material? If so, then the law of conservation of energy is material on your view, since you call it a property; but you also say it isn’t a material thing, so that’s confusing.

    If properties aren’t “material”, what kind of thing are they, on your position that there is nothing more than “material”?

    This is metaphysics. You can either explain or you can assume (sweepingly).

  55. This is going to get even more pointless, or its going to go in so many tangents to get unwieldy.

    I said that the law of conservation is not a material thing, but that doesn’t mean I have to give such “laws” their own special ontology. I said it is our description of how existing material behaves, much like the Schrodinger equation is our best description of how quantum wave functions behave.

    My fundamental ontology can end with material, but that doesn’t mean I can’t meaningfully speak of emergent phenomenon that “exist” like “descriptions” or “money” or “baseball”. This is basic philosophy.

    My point about neutrality is that if we’re going to assume some kind of foundationalism in our epistemology, we all have to start with a pretty decent amount of assumptions that we can hopefully minimize: We exist, our senses are generally reliable, the external world/other minds exist, our reasoning is valid, etc.

    From there we can start investigating things that we agree exist, like the material world. We call our systematic investigation of that material world science, which has a specific set of methods.

    We can then look at what this science tells us about the material world we find ourselves in. Some of us want to use that to inform our metaphysical views about what constitutes the ultimate nature of reality.

    My point was that if we look at what science tells us, it’s telling us material reality has always existed. I didn’t say that everyone must accept this, or that you can’t bring in whatever metaphysical assumptions you want to avoid the conclusions of what science tells us about material reality, but you can’t deny where it points without your assumptions.

  56. P.S. Do you even Plato, bro?

    Sometimes in philosophy people ask questions not because they can’t figure out the answer themselves, but because they’re trying to lead someone else to aporia through elenchus.

    Or in English, they’re trying to help someone else realize that the answer they started with doesn’t work all the way through to a finish.

  57. No.

    No.

    And no.

    Science is not telling us material reality has always existed.

    If you disagree, then please, show me the journal article, the conference proceedings, anything at all, that supports this in a scientific manner.

    Show me that “science” has reached consensus on this. I’m aware there are theorems out there that suggest the possibility that material reality has always existed, but that’s not the same as “science is telling us material reality has always existed.”

    That’s a sweeping metaphysical assumption, not a result of science.

  58. I’m rather fond of the Platonic method, though you’re asking questions to which we both know the answers to are already very well trodden. Contemporary philosophy has a wide variety of positions that we can take on this, each of which is not logically contradictory.

    You can certainly try to infer that my metaphysical conclusion about what “laws” are is mistaken, and that they must have their own ontology.

    That’s not my point. I never said you can’t ask metaphysical questions to which we will give different metaphysical answers.

    My point is that we can do science, and science tells us quite a lot about what material reality is actually like. Looking at it through how science describes physically isolated systems, or how quantum wave functions evolve according to Schrodinger equation – it tells us that those wave functions must always exist for an infinite amount of time as we understand it in physics, or that time as we understand it in physics isn’t fundamental.

    If you want to say that there’s more to “time” than what we describe in science, well there’s nothing I can do to prevent you from assuming that, but don’t pretend you’re inferring that from what science tells us.

  59. Tom,

    You know as well as I that science is provisional. You also presumably know how theorems work. You can either deny its assumptions or accept its conclusions.

    What science is currently telling us is that the equations we use to describe quantum mechanics are very well established and have an incredible empirical track record.

    So you can deny that quantum field theory is our best current description of how matter and energy work, and that quantum wave functions don’t evolve according to the Schrodinger equation, or you can accept what it says about time.

    Or you can insist your metaphysics trumps physics, and that quantum physics isn’t more fundamentally representative of material reality than our colloquial/macro level perception of reality.

    But you can’t tell me that our science doesn’t say what the equations say.

  60. @CA

    My point was that if we look at what science tells us, it’s telling us material reality has always existed.

    No, it doesn’t. I find it hard to believe someone who claims familiarity with philosophy of science actually thinks science is telling us this. As Tom says, this is a metaphysical claim.

  61. Tom,

    You might want to refer Counter Apologist to the panel with John Lennox, William Lane Craig and J.P. Moreland where WLG explained that often scientists enter into the realm of philosophy, for which they are not trained or qualified as experts, and make philosophical assertions that they call “science.” CA has given us a good example of this with his “what science tells us” argument.

    My response to such arguments is this: Science is the systematic method of inquiry into how God’s creation works. This is what “science tells us.”

    You may also want to reference Alvin Plantinga’s book (2011) “Where the conflict really lies.” Plantinga gives an excellent summary of his argument on p. 349-50 of his book. He acknowledges superficial conflicts between “science and theistic beliefs” and then says this: “Turning to naturalism, clearly there is a superficial concord between science and naturalism–if only because so many naturalists trumpet the claim that science is a pillar in the temple of naturalism. …they are mistaken. One can’t rationally accept both naturalism and current evolutionary theory; that combination of beliefs is self-defeating… My conclusion, therefore, is that there is superficial conflict but deep concord between science and theistic belief, but superficial concord and deep conflict between science and naturalism… That’s where the conflict really lies.”

  62. @Counter Apologist:

    And the sillyness, self-serving ridiculousness and ignorance continue.

    So let’s take a peek at your linked article.

    1. Laws of Conservation. They absolutely do not have the implications you seem to read off of them. What conservation laws tell us is that there are certain quantities that are conserved when systems undergo change, e.g. in a typical electron – electron interaction where they exchange one photon, the total energy of this system remains constant. To go from there to the postulation of an eternally existing “stuff” is simply to read off your metaphysical assumptions *into* science, not a conclusion *entailed* from it. Which is ok by me, as long as one recognizes for what it is, and not try to ignorantly pass it off as Science ™.

    2. Quantum eternity theorem. This is another case of reading one’s metaphysical assumptions into science, a trap that Sean carroll, who has a shallow understanding of the philosophical issues involved, falls into. First, one does not have to quote quantum physics to draw from it the (unwarranted) conclusion that the universe is eternal in the future and in the past, classical physics yields the same result. It even yields more. Under some technical hypothesis (essentially, compactness of the phase space), Poincaré’s theorem guarantees that if the system is in a state s, there is a future time where the system will be in a state arbitrarily close to s — oh look, classical physics proves the doctrine of eternal return! This conclusion is no less ridiculous than yours, and not just because there is about as much evidence for one conclusion as there is for the other.

    3. Among the flat out mistakes, no, sorry to disappoint you, but quantum mechanics does *not* tell us that “the universe has either always existed (and will always exist) or that time itself isn’t fundamental in which some quantum material just exists with time perception being a phenomenon of our consciousness”. Ordinary quantum mechanics is not even concerned with such issues and is simply silent about them. What quantum mechanics talks about is the evolution and interaction of existing systems, and does not have one iota to say about their origin, if any. What does exist are speculative models whose correctness is very hard to evaluate, since there is not only a dearth of evidence but for many cases we cannot even have any empirical evidence, there are vast problems with these issues on all fronts (technical, theoretical, empirical and philosophical), etc.

    In summary: to pass this as

    The point of this post is to show that if we are going to take a neutral stance on our sweeping metaphysical assumptions about reality and examine what science tells us, the evidence is certainly pointing in the direction that something material has always existed.

    just shows you have no idea what you are talking about.

  63. Bigbird,

    Shall I just add the qualifier “physical time” to make you happy? I’ve no qualms adding that descriptor.

    Certainly my metaphysical view is that if physical time is either infinite or that matter/energy just exist timelessly is my own stopping point. It’s my own way of saying “science ends here, and there’s no reason I can’t call this my terminus point for what constitutes reality.

    But then I’m not the one claiming that we can somehow look at science and infer that all of material reality was created ex nihlo. Science very much does not at all point in that direction; quite the opposite.

  64. I wrote this post with the purpose of asking why Justin Schieber and Bob Seidensticker would want to commit themselves to positions that were obviously wrong. I’m still wondering about that. Now I’m also wondering the same thing about another atheist, Counter Apologist.

    There have been many points along the way here where CA has made some kind of counter-factual commitment, but the most basic one has just appeared in these past few comments: “Science tells us … material reality has always existed.”

    His attempt to support that (after asking whether I “philosophy of science”) was to adopt several rather sweeping metaphysical assumptions, including for example the (apparent; he didn’t actually address the infinite regress question I asked) causelessness of the original material cause of material reality, the eternality of quantum field theory (an assumption necessary for his comment 64 to hold any water), the successful extrapolation of science’s “incredible empirical track record” into eternity past, and so on.

    He even suggests that my questions about these things amount to my insisting that “[my] metaphysics trumps physics.”

    This is, unfortunately, a case of someone who thinks he understands the meanings of words like metaphysics and even (yes) science, at least insofar as where science’s limits may lie; for he thinks today’s science is telling us about eternity past without reference to any metaphysics.

    It is no great fault for a person not to understand those things. I don’t understand them very much myself. The eternal nature of reality and the actual demarcation lines of science are both questions that are too hard for me.

    What CA has done, however, in his weak understandings of these terms, has been to insist that science is telling us something that science clearly cannot tell us; and and that he is avoiding “sweeping metaphysics” when in fact he’s splashing it all over everything he’s written here today.

    So now I return to the purpose of this original post. Why would people want to take up a position on things of which they know little, and make such confident assertions based on such manifest lack of knowledge? Why not take up more of an open attitude?

    CA, I’m asking you that question now. You really, honestly, don’t understand the philosophical terms you’re using, and the ways in which you misunderstand them are very basic, very obvious. You’re not missing them in the hard or controversial points. You’re missing them right on the very surface.

    Why would you want to commit to that in public?

    Final question: if you cannot be trusted to know what you’re talking about in those basic matters, why would you think your words on deeper issues would carry any more weight?

    There’s a lot I don’t know, but one thing I do know is that you know less than you think you know, and you’re making public commitments to serious errors of fact and interpretation as a result of it. I suspect you are privately committed to those same errors.

    Are you okay with fooling yourself that way?

  65. @Ray Ingles:

    At the bare minimum, I would insist that the question is not settled in favor of ‘creation ex nihilo’.

    Creation ex nihilo, as classically understood, is orthogonal to the question of whether the universe is eternal in the past or not.

  66. G. Rodrigues,

    What I said in my post was that science tells us specific things about material reality. Things like “physical time” if you wish to call it that for clarity.

    I use that to inform my metaphysical conclusions about what constitutes “reality”. I even laid out my starting metaphysical assumption: “That something has always existed”.

    Given what science says about material reality, something I think we both agree exists, it seems to fit the bill of the “something that must have always existed”.

  67. @CA

    I’m not the one claiming that we can somehow look at science and infer that all of material reality was created ex nihlo. Science very much does not at all point in that direction; quite the opposite.

    G. Rodrigues has explained in detail (and much better than I could with respect to the physics – my university quantum mechanics is almost 30 years old), but I read your linked article with considerable bewilderment, wondering how you could think this was evidence of any sort (let alone “scientific”) for an eternal universe.

    I think you are a bit out of your depth here as others have said.

  68. @Counter Apologist:

    No Tom, the “law” of conservation of energy is just a property of the material that exists. It’s our description of the regularity in how that matter/energy behaves, not another category of thing. Do you even Philosophy of Science bro?

    So packed in this single sentence there are the following mutually inconsistent claims:

    1. the “law” of conservation of energy is just a property of the material that exists.

    This says, in the common understanding of words like “property”, etc. that the law of conservation is something real, which does not contradict what Tom says.

    2. “It’s our description of the regularity in how that matter/energy behaves, not another category of thing.”

    But if laws of nature are just “our description of the regularity”, then they are an artifact of *our* descriptions and are in no way real, that is, a mind-independent fact about reality. And if that is so, then it does no good to invoke them to substantiate your metaphysical positions. This is underlined by the use of the term “regularity”. If the term is understood in a Humean fashion, as it usually and commonly is, then this just reinforces what I said previously.

    And then to top it off:

    3. “Do you even Philosophy of Science bro?”

    You are a treasure trove of unintended hilarity. Chiding “bro” Tom for not understanding “Philosophy of Science” when you display a continuous, ridiculously vast ignorance of it is just too ridiculously funny for words.

  69. @Counter Apologist:

    I use that to inform my metaphysical conclusions about what constitutes “reality”. I even laid out my starting metaphysical assumption: “That something has always existed”.

    First off, I have no idea why the qualifier “physical” is being added to “time” or why reality is between (scare?) quotes.

    But ok, so it is an *assumption*, not something that is read off from what science tells us — at least not without substantial metaphysical argument, which is what *will* be doing the work in the arguments, not science.

    Given what science says about material reality, something I think we both agree exists, it seems to fit the bill of the “something that must have always existed”.

    Sorry, you are wrong, and I explained why. And yes, from your comments it is clear that you do not know as much about science as you would like to believe.

  70. Tom,

    I’m not even sure you read what I wrote or at least tried to grasp it. There’s a metaphysical question as to what the “something” that must have always existed is.

    Assuming we agree that “material reality” exists, and that science can investigate what that material reality is like, then it can tell us about matter and energy.

    Given what it tells us about matter and energy, I infer that it seems to fit the bill of the “something that must have always existed” and stop there. The conclusions about what science says about physical time and wave functions are pretty straight forward.

    If you want to say that we can’t take what science says about material reality, and then make any meaningful inferences back to our metaphysics, well fine. In doing so you cut off humanities most successful enterprise for understanding the material world from informing our ontology, but hey, have at it.

    You are asking me a loaded question about whether I’m fooling myself. I’m not fooling myself, I’m looking at the limits of what metaphysics can possibly do and your desperate attempts to prevent people from inferring metaphysical views from what science tells us.

    I hope you have a good day.

  71. CA
    “Metaphysical fiat isn’t going to get you very far in terms of convincing non-believers”

    As stated in #46, they are already convinced. You too. You argue as if a bunch of facts actually mean something rather than having meaning you’ve assigned to them.

  72. G. Rodrigues,

    Are you saying we can’t formulate models of reality, which is what the laws would be, and then infer that such models correspond to what reality actually is? (I didn’t intend for the quotes to be scare quotes, merely trying to emphasize reality as what metaphysics tries to get at).

    We then compare those models against reality by seeing which have the best predictive success, meet criteria for simplicity, and a host of other criteria that philosophy of science is debating to this day.

    So yes, I certainly can own up to the assumption I have that our best predictive scientific models best correspond to reality.

  73. CA says,

    If you want to say that we can’t take what science says about material reality, and then make any meaningful inferences back to our metaphysics, well fine. In doing so you cut off humanities most successful enterprise for understanding the material world from informing our ontology, but hey, have at it.

    Umm, no, I didn’t say that.

    But since you’ve brought up “what science says about material reality,” does science say that reality is material? Where?

    Again, you really don’t seem to know what you don’t seem to know.

  74. If you want to say that we can’t take what science says about material reality, and then make any meaningful inferences back to our metaphysics, well fine.

    Have you not read G. Rodrigues’ post amongst others? Science is not saying what you seem to think it says about material reality!

  75. SteveK,

    I don’t deny that there is a reality that exists apart from my mind, and that it is whatever it is regardless of what I think about it, if that’s what you’re getting at. This doesn’t mean I can’t investigate reality with my senses in a systematic way and build a model which I then believe corresponds to that reality.

    It seems you’re equating (C)meaning as god to reality.

  76. Oh my, you’re trying to drill down to questions of idealism now?

    If you want to get to the fact that science must start with its own set of assumptions (a set of assumptions we all need regardless of being theists or atheists), then I’ve no problems admitting to that.

    If you want to argue that the fundamental nature of material is not the same thing as the fundamental nature of reality, well then fine, have your metaphysics.

    This doesn’t mean I can’t wonder about the fundamental nature of reality and draw my conclusions on where that bottoms out based on my best investigation of the material world, since whatever we are, I presume you’d agree we are at least partially material (if we’re to take the neutral stance).

    If you want to argue for the view that there’s more to reality than the material, you can go for it, but you’re going to have a very hard time appealing to anything objective that we can both investigate to do so.

  77. G. Rodrigues –

    Creation ex nihilo, as classically understood, is orthogonal to the question of whether the universe is eternal in the past or not.

    (Shrug.) I was responding to Counter Apologist, in the context of the Big Bang being understood as a specific divine intervention. A modern rather than classical understanding, true, but a widespread one nonetheless.

  78. CA,

    I don’t deny that there is a reality that exists apart from my mind, and that it is whatever it is regardless of what I think about it, if that’s what you’re getting at

    No, not what I’m getting at.

    This doesn’t mean I can’t investigate reality with my senses in a systematic way and build a model which I then believe corresponds to that reality.

    Of course, yes. What you cannot do – but are doing now, anyway – is think the results of your investigation have meaning /significance/ value, that you discovered meaning in a (supposed) meaningless universe, and that others should think the same as you. This is why I said you are already convinced that my metaphysical reality is true.

  79. @Counter Apologist:

    Are you saying we can’t formulate models of reality, which is what the laws would be, and then infer that such models correspond to what reality actually is?

    I do not want sound condescending — and if I have is because you fired the first salvo by casting aspersions on Craig who is not here to defend himself, while at the same time showing that you have very little understanding of the arguments — but you are way in over your head.

    First, laws are not “models of reality”; or more precisely, that is one possible understanding of them, and a particularly controversial one, loaded with all sorts of problems. More importantly, if that is your understanding of the laws of nature, then quite simply you cannot evoke them to substantiate anything, precisely because they are *models*.

    The only way you can infer some conclusion from a model of reality is if the model in some sense matches reality, which is to say, that laws of nature are in some sense real and not merely an artifact of our descriptions. Historically, the conception of nature as ruled by laws, is a legal one, and a modern one at that, proposed by modern philosophers to displace the Medieval view of nature, a view inherited, and suitably adapted, from the Greek tradition. But because it is a legal concept, where there is a law there must be a lawgiver, which proponents of this metaphysical view (like Newton say) quite naturally identified with God. Obviously, that is not an entailment that you care to make, so you have to give an account of what these mysterious laws of nature are exactly. They are not material, they are not made of “stuff”, they are not localized in space-time, etc. So under naturalism, they stick like a sore thumb in its ontological inventory. If you take a generally Humean stance, and say that they are regularities, then you have explained nothing — for saying that a law of nature is a regularity is not to explain, but simply to relabel the problem. The same problem afflicts counterfactual analyses of laws.

    All this to say: look, you have little clue of what the real issues are, so why not be a little bit more humble, drop the “silly” and “ridiculous” charges against your betters that know way more than you, and start paying attention to the arguments?

  80. I’m not sure if CA is sticking around after such a beating, but here, and in subsequent posts, is a good overview of the case for the universe having a beginning.

    “I think that Modern Cosmology gives a fairly clear answer: probably, but not almost certainly.”

  81. G. Rodrigues –

    But if laws of nature are just “our description of the regularity”, then they are an artifact of *our* descriptions and are in no way real, that is, a mind-independent fact about reality. And if that is so, then it does no good to invoke them to substantiate your metaphysical positions.

    Well, the description could be thought of as an IOU, which is ‘cashed out’ by referring to the actual regularities. Which are ‘mind-independent facts about reality’ – the regularities themselves certainly exist! The “law” terminology is just a shorthand summary of those facts, a way to let us think about them.

    I mean, let’s say you told me my dog dug up your flower garden. And I replied that language was invented by humans, and the word “dog” was just an artifact of *our* descriptions and in no way real, that is, a mind-independent fact about reality, so it does no good to invoke that word to substantiate your claim about how your garden was wrecked.

    How impressed would you be?

  82. @Ray Ingles:

    Which are ‘mind-independent facts about reality’ – the regularities themselves certainly exist!

    I do not know — and more importantly, neither do you, which is why your response amounts to exactly nothing — what it means to say that “the regularities themselves certainly exist”.

  83. Right.

    Define “regularities” in materialist terms, please. Are they material entities? Is there some substratum upon, through, or in which these regularities have their existence? Do they exist in some location? Do they have some kind of agency effect upon material things? If so, how? If not, what is their relationship to material things?

    You might want to say they are just descriptions of what material things do. Then you’ve got a different word to define: “exist.” What does it mean for those regularities to exist, if they’re just descriptions of what something else does?

    Do I know the answer to these hard questions? I think theism offers an avenue toward a partial solution, yes. I do not know how materialism does. Do you?

  84. @Ray

    Well, the description could be thought of as an IOU, which is ‘cashed out’ by referring to the actual regularities. Which are ‘mind-independent facts about reality’ – the regularities themselves certainly exist! The “law” terminology is just a shorthand summary of those facts, a way to let us think about them.

    Do you really think laws are simply descriptions of regularities?

    Do you think there could be regularities that are not laws? If so, what distinguishes law-like and non law-like regularities?

  85. Tom –

    Define “regularities” in materialist terms, please. Are they material entities? Is there some substratum upon, through, or in which these regularities have their existence?

    Sure, they exist by supervening on the properties of material things. (You’re willing to allow grant materialists access to the concept of space-time, right?) F=ma, for example, is a summary of the properties and relationships of mass, space, time, and force. (It needs to be tweaked to account for General Relativity, of course, but I really hope you won’t make me stick a lot of math into an HTML combox.)

    Do they have some kind of agency effect upon material things?

    No, as Bertrand Russell put it, “Human laws are behests commanding you to behave a certain way, in which you may choose to behave, or you may choose not to behave; but natural laws are a description of how things do in fact behave…”

    If we find a rock that falls up, it means the “Law of Gravity” needs to be changed. The law is wrong, not the rock! “Natural laws” have changed in the past and will change in the future. They represent our best current understanding, that’s all.

    BillT –

    Do you think there could be regularities that are not laws?

    Sure. Laws – in the scientific sense – are generally relationships or regularities that have no known exceptions, at least in the area they are intended to describe. Some regularities are common enough to be noticeable, even in some circumstances relied upon, but exceptions are known or even expected in other circumstances.

  86. @Ray

    Laws – in the scientific sense – are generally relationships or regularities that have no known exceptions

    So laws aren’t just descriptions of regularities? You seem to be saying they are descriptions of relationships here. Which begs the question of what the relationships are, because a relationship is more than a regularity.

    Also, most laws have ceteris paribus clauses, even if they are implicit, i.e. most laws are not exceptionless.

  87. Regularities and Laws and the Humean appeal to such:

    Quote:

    “First, I would say that appeals to laws of nature are far more problematic than most naturalists seem to realize. For what is a law of nature, and why does it operate? Like some contemporary philosophers of science and metaphysicians who have no theological or Scholastic axe to grind (e.g. Nancy Cartwright, Brian Ellis, Stephen Mumford) I would say that what we are describing when we talk of “laws of nature” are really just the ways a thing will tend to operate given its nature or essence. In that case, though, the existence of a law of nature presupposes, and thus cannot explain, the existence of the concrete physical things, with their distinctive natures, whose operations the law describes — in which case laws of nature are not available to the naturalist as a terminus of explanation (“brute fact” or otherwise)…..

    Suppose this neo-Aristotelian account of laws is rejected. What alternative views are there? None that help the naturalist who thinks laws provide an ultimate explanation. For example, early modern philosophers and scientists like Descartes and Newton regarded laws simply as divine decrees. (I do not accept this view myself, by the way; indeed, it was intended by the early moderns as an anti-Scholastic approach to understanding nature.) On this view, laws of nature cannot be ultimate explanations because they are merely the expression of something else, viz. God’s commands. That — and, of course, the theological presuppositions of this view — make it unavailable to the naturalist looking to make laws ultimate…..

    How about a Platonic view of laws? On this view laws are abstract objects that concrete physical phenomena “participate” in. But what is it that brings it about that the phenomena participate in the laws? And why is it these laws rather than some others that the phenomena participate in? On this view it is not the laws themselves, but rather whatever it is that answers these questions (a Platonic demiurge?), that will be the ultimate explanation of things. On this view too, then, laws are not available to the naturalist as an ultimate explanation (again, “brute” or otherwise)…..

    How about a regularity view of laws? On this Humean view, to say that it is a law that A’s are followed by B’s is just to assert a regular correlation between A’s and B’s, perhaps together with something else (such as a counterfactual conditional to the effect that had an A been present a B would have been present as well). The trouble here is that laws so understood, whether “ultimate” or otherwise, don’t explain anything at all. If it is the case that A’s are always in fact followed by B’s and that a B would have been present had an A been present, then to call this a “law” merely re-describes this fact, rather than making it intelligible…..

    Nor does it help to say that the “law” in question is a special case of some other law, because that just relocates the problem rather than solving it. If to say “It is a law that A’s are followed by B’s” doesn’t by itself explain anything, then it doesn’t help to say that this is a special case of a law relating C’s and D’s, if the statement “It is a law that C’s are followed by D’s” also by itself doesn’t explain anything. And this is true no matter how far down you go, as long as what you stop with is itself just some further “brute” regularity. The “bruteness” is not confined to the bottom level but exists all the way up and down the series. To suppose otherwise is like supposing that a set of IOU’s counts as real money as long as you stack them high enough. The IOU’s at the top of the stack are no more real money than the ones at the bottom are, and the higher level laws on a regularity theory are no more explanatory than the bottom “brute” level laws are…..

    Hence while the regularity theory might be claimed to provide an account of explanation alternative to those implied by the Aristotelian, Platonic, and theological accounts of laws, in fact it is not an account of explanation at all but, implicitly if not explicitly, the giving up of the possibility of explanation (ultimate or otherwise). And it is hard to see what motivation there could possibly be for a theorist of laws of nature to accept it, other than as an ad hoc way of avoiding commitment to an Aristotelian, Platonic, or theological view of laws. (Ockham’s razor is certainly not a good motivation, for Ockham’s razor is a principle of explanation, and the regularity view makes laws non-explanatory.)”

    End quote.

    That’s just *one* problem for the Naturalist / Humean approach. There are others described in the quoted essay.

  88. Another approach to laws and necessary ends:

    The landscape of temporal-becoming runs into the following nuances as we pursue all lines back to timelessness: “Furthermore, what “allows us to speak the language of causes and effects” has nothing essentially to do with tracing series of events backwards in time. Here again Carroll is just begging the question. On the Aristotelian-Scholastic analysis, questions about causation are raised wherever we have potentialities that need actualization, or a thing’s being metaphysically composite and thus in need of a principle that accounts for the composition of its parts, or there being a distinction in a thing between its essence or nature on the one and its existence on the other, or a thing’s being contingent. The universe, however physics and scientific cosmology end up describing it — even if it turned out to be a universe without a temporal beginning, even if it is a four-dimensional block universe, even if Hawking’s closed universe model turned out to be correct, even if we should really think in terms of a multiverse rather than a single universe — will, the Aristotelian argues, necessarily exhibit just these features (potentialities needing actualization, composition, contingency, etc.). And thus it will, as a matter of metaphysical necessity, require a cause outside it. And only that which is pure actuality devoid of potentiality, only what is utterly simple or non-composite, only something whose essence or nature just is existence itself, only what is therefore in no way contingent but utterly necessary — only that, the classical theist maintains, could in principle be the ultimate terminus of explanation, whatever the specific scientific details turn out to be.”

  89. bigbird –

    So laws aren’t just descriptions of regularities? You seem to be saying they are descriptions of relationships here.

    Surely ‘relationships’ are available to the materialist. “These three objects are not collinear” or “these two objects are in orbit about a common center of gravity”, for example.

    Also, most laws have ceteris paribus clauses, even if they are implicit, i.e. most laws are not exceptionless.

    Hence my inclusion of the phrase “at least in the area they are intended to describe”.

  90. @ Ray

    Surely ‘relationships’ are available to the materialist. “These three objects are not collinear” or “these two objects are in orbit about a common center of gravity”, for example.

    You started off by quoting Russell “natural laws are a description of how things do in fact behave”, and went on to call them regularities.

    The point here (which I think you are agreeing with) is that there is more to laws of nature than just regularities – laws are relationships and dispositions. There are many regularities that we regard as accidental, and are not laws.

    And laws are not merely descriptions of the relationships and dispositions – they are the relationships and dispositions. They are mind-independent facts about reality.

  91. @ bigbird and Ray,

    On matters of mind-dependence, mind-independence, and so on, the depths of which are both interesting and ultimately relevant, there may (perhaps) be points of interest in the essay entitled Philosophical Idealism and Christian Theology written by James Snowden. Both links are (should be) to the same essay and are included on the off chance one of JSTOR’s links does not open. The search box of E. Feser’s blog turns up interesting reading as well.

  92. bigbird –

    You started off by quoting Russell “natural laws are a description of how things do in fact behave”, and went on to call them regularities.

    That may be where you started reading, but I certainly didn’t start talking about this topic by quoting Russell. You might want to look back a bit – perhaps even as far back as this: “the description could be thought of as an IOU, which is ‘cashed out’ by referring to the actual regularities. Which are ‘mind-independent facts about reality’ – the regularities themselves certainly exist! The “law” terminology is just a shorthand summary of those facts, a way to let us think about them.”

    And laws are not merely descriptions of the relationships and dispositions – they are the relationships and dispositions.

    Bull. Once upon a time, it was thought that our universe followed the laws of Euclidean geometry. After Einstein, we discovered that spacetime could be hyperbolic or elliptical as well. Euclid had no special power over reality, compelling lines to be parallel. Rather, our descriptions have been updated to comport with what reality actually does.

    They are mind-independent facts about reality.

    You are confusing the map for the territory. You might find this expository dialogue interesting.

  93. @Ray

    And laws are not merely descriptions of the relationships and dispositions – they are the relationships and dispositions.

    Bull. Once upon a time, it was thought that our universe followed the laws of Euclidean geometry. After Einstein, we discovered that spacetime could be hyperbolic or elliptical as well. Euclid had no special power over reality, compelling lines to be parallel. Rather, our descriptions have been updated to comport with what reality actually does.

    There’s no need to be rude or condescending, Ray. Everyone agrees our descriptions of the laws change as we learn more.

    But descriptions aren’t the laws themselves, and the laws themselves don’t change (as far as we know).

    There’s obviously an equivocation here on “law of nature” – I’m referring to the laws of nature as the mind-independent relationships and dispositions that we attempt to describe with our equations (and always have been on this thread). I’ll use Law to mean this in future on this thread to be clear.

    They are mind-independent facts about reality.

    You are confusing the map for the territory. You might find this expository dialogue interesting.

    See the previous paragraph – I’m not, I’m trying to distinguish the map from the territory.

    Originally (and yes, I did read your previous replies before I wrote any posts here) you seemed to be claiming that the Laws of nature are simply regularities. They clearly are more than just regularities, hence my original post.

  94. bigbird –

    But descriptions aren’t the laws themselves

    I suspect that, to an extent, we are in violent agreement. But let’s hearken back to what Counter Apologist said to fire off this tangent: he called laws like the conservation of energy “a property of the material that exists”.

    It’s not that “conservation of energy” isn’t real, but it’s a reality about material things and their properties, instead of a non-material reality that binds material things.

  95. Reductionism amid energy conservation.

    Forever the non-explanation – forever indebted to the IOU’s insolvency.

    That is why Hawking’s imaginary sphere – while incoherent – offers more hope to the Naturalist than does that sort of accounting.

    While links provided earlier in this thread are hopefully helpful for understanding the epistemology here, we must ask of such an accountant, So You Think You Understand The Cosmological Argument?

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