The best argument for God? Really?

June 27, 2014 • 9:15 am

Either a reader called my attention to the articles discussed below, or I found them on my own; I am aged and forgetful. If someone pointed them out to me, my belated thanks. Both articles deal with what is claimed to be the best argument for God’s existence—one based on the existence of moral agents, i.e., us.

I’m always a sucker for “best arguments” arguments: they are a box that I cannot help but enter. So when I heard about a post on Jefferey Jay Lowder’s Patheos site The Secular Outpost that was written two years ago—a post called “The best argument for God’s Existence: The argument from moral agency”—I could not help but enter. Lowder, who examined a series of arguments for God back then, is the founder of one of the first atheist internet sites, Internet Infidels.

Lowder’s piece is really a summary of a longer (and much more confusing) paper by Philosopher Paul Draper, “Cosmic fine-tuning and terrestrial suffering: Parallel problems for naturalism and theism,” (reference and free download below), published in The American Philosophical Quarterly. I’ve read the longer one, and Lowder’s summary is accurate but much easier to read, so I’ll deal with that. If you want to read the original paper, you’re going to have to wade through stuff like this:

Screen shot 2014-06-27 at 6.45.32 AM

This is philosophy of religion, and I have to agree with Peter Boghossian that the bulk of work in that field (indeed, nearly all of it) is worthless. I am a fan of philosophy as a whole, or at least branches of it (especially the philosophy of science and ethical philosophy), and don’t think it’s worthless by any means, but I have no use for the philosophy of religion. Look at the above: the author is telling us that it’s likely that God, had he created the Universe, would have created a multiverse (that’s what Draper means by “many worlds”)! If you want a real laugh, go see why God would have been likely to create many universes. It’s garbage: pure mental masturbation. But such is the philosophy of religion, for it’s the philosophy of a nonexistent construct. It’s like a field called “the philosophy of fairies.”

But on to the “best argument for God”. Here’s how Draper’s argument goes, as summarized by Lowder:

1. There are moral agents in the world, i.e., us. By “moral agents,” Draper means that humans have a code of morality and can freely make moral choices.

2. A naturalistic theory of our origins is less likely to explain our status as moral agents than is the existence of God, who made us moral agents.

3. Moral agency requires moral responsibility.

4. To be morally responsible, one must have libertarian free will, that is, at any time one must be able to choose between moral actions and immoral or neutral ones.

5. Such libertarian free will is much more likely to exist under theism than under naturalism.

6. Therefore, moral agency is a strong argument for God.

Draper and Lowder drag the “fine tuning” argument into this issue, but it’s not necessary. Draper’s paper was written before physicists had provided a number of possible naturalistic solutions to the fine-tuning argument (see here or here, for instance), and, at any rate, even if you accept fine-tuning as an argument for God, it doesn’t do anything except make the “existence of moral agents” claim (#2 above) even less likely under naturalism. The argument for God based on morality remains the same.

I’m surprised that Lowder considers the argument above so good. This is what he says about it:

I’ve thought about this argument often since I first read Draper’s paper many years ago. I’m inclined to believe this is the strongest argument–by far–for theism I have ever read. It is surprising that so many theists continue to press boilerplate fine-tuning arguments when the argument from moral agency is so vastly superior (or, at least, so it seems to me). It is equally surprising that the argument has not garnered the critical attention of atheist philosophers.

But to me the argument falls down like a deck of cards, for its train of logic is weak. For one thing, it presumes that theism has at least a reasonable probability; that is, that there’s enough independent evidence for God that we can somehow put it into Bayesian probability statements with an appreciable value.  But I don’t see such evidence, and so one must begin without assuming the possibility of God, which is begging the question. The purpose of Draper’s argument is to show that the data ineluctably drive us to the conclusion that God exists, for naturalism simply can’t explain moral agency, free will, and the like. If it can, then I see no need to consider theism, even if we don’t fully understand the evolutionary or psychological origins of morality. God doesn’t become a reasonable alternative hypothesis until there’s at least a soupçon of evidence for God. We’ve had centuries to acquire that evidence, yet none has surfaced. One might as well argue that the existence of creative space aliens accounts for our status as moral agents.

Here’s my refutation of the above, point by point (I use the same numbers as above):

1. Yes, people do have a moral code and consider themselves moral agents.

2. There are perfectly adequate explanations for morality involving both evolution and secular reason. We have some evolutionary evidence, for instance, for rudiments of morality in our relatives like capuchin monkeys, as well as in less related species like dogs. And even rats were recently found to show a form of empathy toward caged fellow rats, releasing them from confinement even when they got no reward for so doing. In most of these cases the behaviors that look “protomoral” must have evolved independently, since they’re not highly correlated with the tree of evolutionary relatedness.

For example, capuchins show a sense of fairness, but chimpanzees do not, so protomorality probably evolved at least twice independently in primates. And it appears in animals that live socially, as one might expect if morality is partly an adaptation to facilitate living in groups. (Orangutans, for instance, which are solitary, show far fewer protosocial behaviors than do chimps or gorillas, who live in groups.)

Indeed, humans are not born with a fully-fledged code of morality. As Paul Bloom has shown, we are born with a sense of empathy only towards those with whom we’re familiar, like parents. We’re selfish towards strangers. Empathy and altruism towards unfamiliar individuals develop later—through learning. This is exactly what you’d expect if empathy was evolved through reciprocal altruism. In that case, you’d help out only those whom you recognize, for those would be members of your group (for millions of years, humans lived in small groups of a few dozen individuals at best). You would have evolved to be wary towards strangers, which is what we see in babies.

Further, there are secular explanations, based on reason, why humans would learn to develop a code of conduct if they live in groups and can recognize individuals. (Interestingly, rats are empathic only toward members of their own breed, and won’t free caged rats from other strains.) There are of course good reasons for people to develop ways of behaving that lead to a harmonious society. Those ways involve reason rather than genetic evolution, and can be passed on by cultural evolution. The immense increase in morality in our world in the last five centuries, documented in Steve Pinker’s Better Angels of our Nature, cannot depend on genetic evolution, simply because those changes have appeared so quicky. Recognition of the moral equality of gays, for instance, has happened largely within my own lifetime. Such changes must depend on cognition and learning. If they reflect God’s will, then God is pretty mercurial and changeable!

3 and 4.  I don’t believe in moral responsibility because, as Draper notes correctly (and contra Dennett and others), I think that true moral responsibility requires libertarian free will. How can we hold someone morally responsible for making the wrong choice if she had no ability to choose otherwise? So while I believe in holding people responsible for  their acts for purely social reasons (deterrence of others, rehabilitation, and removing miscreants from society), I don’t believe in holding them morally responsible.

The above depends on my belief that we don’t have libertarian free will. Nearly all rationalists agree that we lack that faculty, even Dan Dennett, who has confected his own meaning of “free will.” (How Dennett comports determinism with moral responsibility has always baffled me.)

5.  Since we don’t have libertarian free will, there’s no need to argue that it’s best explained by theism. If we had it, it would indeed be a kind of miracle, defying the laws of physics, and therefore would require a metaphysical explanation. (The only exception would be if “free will” is completely indeterminate, as through quantum-mechanical events in the brain. In such cases, given the configuration of molecules in our brain at a given moment, it might be possible that we could have behaved otherwise. But that doesn’t mean that we could have consciously chosen to behave otherwise. For even in those “quantum” cases behaviors can hardly result from “conscious choice,” and could never been seen as making us morally responsible.

6. Since morality has a perfectly reasonable naturalistic explanation (involving both evolution and rationality); and science is increasingly eroding the notion of libertarian free will (few now accept it except for theists); and because we have no independent evidence for a god, then the existence of “moral agents” is not even a remotely compelling argument for God, much less a knockout punch. If it is, then the existence of empathic rats is also a very powerful argument for God. For how do we know that rats aren’t made in God’s image?



Draper, P. 2004. Cosmic fine-tuning and terrestrial suffering: Parallel problems for naturalism and theism, Amer. Philosophical Quarterly 41:311-321

159 thoughts on “The best argument for God? Really?

  1. “For how do we know that rats aren’t mad in God’s image?”

    I’d bet that they’re really, really mad.

  2. If one is to suggest that there exists an agent with the desire for humans to act morally and the power to cause us to do so, one is instantly confronted with the problem of said agent’s perfect failure to ever call 9-1-1. Such failure would, in any human, represent an example of one of the worst possible moral failings…and we’re supposed to think that we somehow derive our own morality from such an entity?



      1. I don’t no. Based on the examples given in the bible of the moral character of this god guy, I wouldn’t expect anyone trying to imitate him to be motivated to call 9-1-1. Except maybe to mislead EMS just at the moment they are sorely needed.

    1. Queue up:

      1. He can’t do that or we wouldn’t have moral freedom.

      2. We’re too limited to understand the bigger picture, which is really good in the end.

      3. And my personal favorite: Good doesn’t mean good when applied to God.

      Yeah, right.

  3. 1. Dan Dennett in one place says that moral responsibility is justified by social contract theory. So it would seem he really does mean that we are mainly !*socially*! responsible, but he has chosen to label this !*moral*! responsibility.

    2. The field of “philosophy of religion” is sometimes defined to include skeptical thinkers like David Hume and Nietzsche. The field however remains bedeviled by the fact that there really isn’t any middle ground on religious claims.

    3. Sean Carroll somewhere decided the anthropic principle was the best or least bad scientific argument for God, but he felt he could be accounted for by the hypothesis of a multiverse via string theory.

    1. I have always found the fine tuning argument ill conceived. Never mind the fact that the universe is almost perfectly hostile to life except in certain almost infinitesimally rare specs of space. Even granting the dubious notion that this universe is a really good one for life, I don’t see how you get anywhere with this. Even if you eliminate the idea of multiverses I still don’t see how fine tuning of our universe buys you anything whatsoever. God, after all, must also be fine tuned to have the desire and ability to create our universe.

      In any case, the idea that you can have any kind of prior on the probability of necessary things is kind of absurd. Whatever is not contingent is what it is. It is meaningless to talk about it’s likelihood. Whether that is a consciousness like some kind of God or a universe with the precise properties of ours doesn’t matter. We can no more ascribe a prior to the existence of a conscious god entity than we can to a universe with the exact physical constants that ours has, so there is no way to compare their relative likelihoods. Either proposition, that some kind of god with the exact properties that god has, including the desire and ability to create a universe exactly like ours, exists and has always existed without being contingent on anything else, OR a universe exactly like ours exists and has always existed without being contingent on anything else. These are equivalently opaque propositions. It is astonishing to me that so many smart people seem impressed by attempts to compare the likelihood of two hypothetical ground states about which we can know nothing.

      1. I agree , but would like to add that I think the fine-tuning argument works fairly well, if you’re working on the Pascalian agnostic assumption that the probability of a god vs the probability of no god is 50/50.

        In other words, if we can’t fully explain it then there’s a legitimate chance that it is the result of “someone’s” or “something’s” deliberate doing.

        That is the basic premise you have to take seriously if the fine-tuning argument is supposed to be convincing.

      2. The fine tuning argument amounts to nothing more than a lottery winner looking back and thinking something miraculous happened because of the odds of winning the lottery before the numbers were drawn.

        The large number of lottery players and the multiverse both answer the questions as to why someone would hit the lottery, but even without these, a rare event wouldn’t be rare if it never happened, it would be impossible. So these apologists can assign whatever a priori odds they wish to the Universe existing as it does, that alone doesn’t tell us anything; and, as you pointed out so well, even assigning these odds in the first place really amounts to just making things up.

        1. You don’t even need the multiverse (even if it is true) or a large number of lottery players to refute the argument.

          Once you move past recognizing that something is no more unlikely than nothing, you can say that, given a universe, it has to take *some* form. The form we observe is the form it takes. No multiverse necessary.

          I think a pretty good analogy would be one person walking on the beach and picking up a grain of sand. You don’t need 100 billion other people picking up grains of sand to make it seem more likely that the first one would also be selected. It simply was selected. Given that the person was going to pick up a grain of sand, *some* grain had to be picked up.

          1. Yup, that’s my point. These arguments for design would have to show the odds to be zero for the Universe to occur naturally. They haven’t come close to doing that, even the most outrageous arguments I’ve seen peg it at something like 1 in 10^130. Still, it’s not nothing and given enough time, an event like that would still occur. Right now, somewhere in the world there are one billion American pennies facing heads up. The odds this particular set of pennies would all be on heads is on the order of 1 in 10^ 30000000. I guess there must be some intelligence behind the placement of those pennies…

          2. But suppose the one grain of sand you happen to pick up turns out, on close examination, to be a perfect dodecahedron. That would a remarkable coincidence, since the number of grains with that degree of symmetry must be a vanishingly small fraction of the available grains.

            In contrast, the overwhelming majority of grains have no particular symmetry or regularity, so it would be unsurprising if you picked up one of those. Indeed, that’s what you’d expect.

            That’s the essence of the fine-tuning argument: not that the universe has the particular properties it does, but that those particular properties place it in a vanishingly small subset of possible universes, namely those that support life. Obviously we must be in one of those, but that doesn’t make it any less remarkable that the one universe that does exist happens to be way out on the tail of the bell curve.

            Unless of course there are astronomically many universes, in which case even the vanishingly unlikely ones must exist. That’s why you need the multiverse to address fine-tuning properly: to bring even that vanishingly small subset into existence, so that we may find ourselves in it.

            1. But we recognize the rarity of a dodecahedron-shaped grain of sand because of our experience with grains of sand.

              Can we really assign probabilities to the forms universes might take, being that we have experience with just the one?

              Also, the point I was trying to make was that any one thing can serve as the “life-supporting” term in the equation. It’s vanishingly unlikely that a universe would have a horsehead nebula. It’s vanishingly unlikely that a universe would have an asteroid belt between the fourth and the fifth planets orbiting a star. The problem here, as I mentioned in my follow-up comment, is teleology. If you get rid of the teleology, then you don’t need an infinite set to show that what we observe was always a possibility and wasn’t quite as much of a long shot as some would argue. It’s just the way it is.

              1. But the whole point is to demonstrate that teleology isn’t needed to explain our existence. You can’t demonstrate that by simply ruling out teleology a priori. You have to show that there’s a plausible alternative explanation for the improbability of the universe we find ourselves in. “It’s just the way it is” isn’t an explanation; it’s what you say when you’ve given up looking for one.

              2. It’s not just hand waiving and saying it is the way it is. The fact that your grain of sand is a dodecahedron is only remarkable because we defined what a dodecahedron is and we didn’t define the rest of the shapes.

                If the grains of sand are all unique or if the shapes are evenly distributed; that is, the dodecahedron has the same a priori chance of selection as any of the other shapes, it isn’t the least bit remarkable that the dodecahedron was selected. At least, it is equally remarkable as it would be for any of the other shapes.

                What the multiverse does is provide a viable explanation for why our Universe is likely to occur in a large set of universes, which brings us closer to having more certainty in explaining why our Universe is the way it is. This does not mean that the multiverse is necessary. Let’s continue with the 10^130 number for the sake of argument (but any number will do). Go get a regular 6 sided die. Write down a series of 170 numbers, each of which is in the range [1,6]. Then roll the die 170 times and see if the numbers you wrote down match. I can guarantee with as high a level of certainty that we can guarantee anything that you will lose this game.

                Now, look at the series of 170 numbers the rolls of the die produced. Is it remarkable? Certainly, no more remarkable than any other series of 170 numbers between 1 and 6 would be. Now, try to determine what caused that sequence. It’s not likely you can, but it is likely that there’s an explanation within the realm of Physics. Choosing one particular cause without evidence is equally futile as writing down the 170 numbers before the die was rolled. Not knowing the cause doesn’t mean we need to have some accounting for the other 6^170 – 1 possibilities. We’re simply not in a good position to explain why it happened and we don’t have a priori knowledge of the preconditions to our Universe to make such judgments in the first place. It would indeed be remarkable if we could step outside of our Universe and predict beforehand what happened, just as it would be remarkable to have a match with the 170 rolls of the die.

              3. I’d say the onus is on the claimant positing teleology. I think it’s perfectly reasonable for “no teleology” to be the null hypothesis.

            2. Let me see if I get this straight.

              To address the improbability of the configuration of our universe from the viewpoint of life( or is it matter in general? ) compared to the probability of life to occur in other universes with different configurations, we have to establish a scenario where all possible configurations are equally valid?

              It’s like saying you logically have to believe the bible unless you present alternate versions where all the stories are different.

              For the life of me I cannot see why this is a requirement unless you accept circular reasoning as proof.

              It’s infinity plus infinity.

            3. You speak of a bell curve of universes, of subsets of possible universes. Are there possible universes? Or is there just an actual universe? Unless you FIRST establish the reality of multiverses, any talk about the distribution of universes is absolutely meaningless. It is make believe at best. If physics demonstrates the reality of multiverses then, and only then, can we maybe talk about their distribution. Well, we can talk about it now, of course, but it’s meaningless and precisely equivalent to talking about the distribution of gods. How likely is it that there would be a god who takes an interest in creating universes? After all, in the space of all possible gods only a vanishingly tiny fraction of gods have any such interests. It’s so unlikely that God is one of the kinds of gods who cares to make universes that, why, there must be some kind of meta-God who designed God to have those properties!

              Same argument.

              I’m not saying the multiverse idea isn’t right or somehow satisfying. I’m just saying that there is no reason to hang your hat on that idea. If the multiverse idea turns out to be false, god believers will be in no better position than before.

              1. If the multiverse idea turns out to be false, god believers will be in no better position than before.

                Same point from a different perspective: How many physicists would consider a god/designer as an equally convincing alternative if the multiverse turns out to be false?

              2. Ha, I like the meta god concept! So, if there’s a universe of meta gods, who instantiates them into actual gods? And is the instantiater more or less powerful than the meta god and actual god? I think we have the beginnings of our own religion here…

              3. …and, of course, we need a super-meta god to instantiate the meta-god, and an hyper-ultra-mega-super-meta god, and….


              4. It’s God’s all the way up.

                I can’t take credit for meta-God. I’m pretty sure I picked that up from Hofstadter’s G.O.D., which is an acronym for “G.O.D. over Djinn”, a recursive acronym which can be expanded infinitely ( Each G.O.D. in the hierarchy can not do anything without asking permission of the G.O.D. above it. This works though, because the time it takes each G.O.D. to ask is half what the G.O.D. below it takes, so from calculus, it ends up taking a finite tidy time.

            4. Not so: if one insists on the Bayesian idiom, then it *must* be the case that the universe shows “fine tuning” assuming naturalism. The subset it must belong to is the subset supporting life, which is already included by us being here.

              (Incidentally, the theist still must show even on their own terms that there can variation in the parameters.)

    2. The one I’ve found most difficult is the basic where did the universe come from? It remains a god-of-the-gaps argument, which are stupid on their face: It’s a punt, it’s “here be dragons” at the edge of the map, window-dressing for our ignorance.

      I am happy to leave this to the experts like Hawking and Carroll; and I certainly do not believe in any gods. I can accept Hawking’s explanation. (And I can accept multiverses or a universe that has always been as well.)

      However, it remains non-obvious to me.

      This is the reason I think that many enlightenment figures remained deists — they couldn’t get around the origin of … everything.

      1. If “universe” is given Sagan’s definition of, “Cosmos” (“All that is, was, or ever will be; all that is real.”), as it only reasonably can be in these types of discussions, then you quickly run into famous problems of set theory that not only make the problem irrelevant but the theistic proposal laughably idiotic.


        1. I agree that the theistic offering is ridiculous (worthy of ridicule); but the scientific side is still non-obvious to me.

          I define “the universe” as the space/time/energy/matter thingie we are a part of. I think that is congruent with Sagan’s definition. (If not, please explain, I want to understand.)

          1. Ah, the non-8intersection may be in the phrase: “was, or ever will be” meaning something on the other side of a singularity that may or may not have started our current iteration or may or may not end it. I’m fine with that too (the big bang / big crunch oscillation idea).

      2. The problem with God as a solution to the “why is there anything?” argument is that it fails to account for the existence of God him/her/itself. A being with the desire and capacity to create the universe is not the kind of thing I would expect to exist uncaused.

        1. Exactly, this is where every theistic cosmological argument fails.

          As I put it:
          1. Everything has a cause (except my god!!!, shh, don’t say it out loud!)
          2. The universe is
          3. God had to have created it

          It falls at the first hurdle: What is the cause of your god?

          1. While I agree with, and use, your refutation of the cosmological argument, I think that is why WL “genocidal bastard” Craig uses the Kalam cosmological argument, whose major premise is “Everything that started to exist has a cause”.

            That avoids the problem in the major premise that you point out (god supposedly being eternal), but fails on other grounds, such as quantum weirdness (such as spontaneous pair production, or radioactive decay), and, more to the point, on the grounds that the premise is more or less arbitrary.

            1. That’s just word-play (from Craig).

              The universe has always existed. Done. (I can assert that with just as much evidence as Craig has for his assertion (more, actually of course).)

              Craig is begging the question int the most blatant way:

              Conclusion: God exists
              Premise: God has always existed

              See what he did there?

              I call this the Revelator Thunderbolt ZXL-666 racing stripe model argument. Much more convincing than a Kalam argument.

            2. Well, we don’t actually know that our universe did have a beginning, just that before a certain time we can’t tell what happened.

              Not the same.

              1. In the sense of either

                (1) The York time parameterization of the hubble volume expansion
                (2) The duration of the aggregation of all hubble volumes

                the universe is eternal. Pick (1) if you want “universe” to mean “local hubble volume”, pick (2) if you want to use the etymologically correct meaning of the word (i.e., “the everything”).

            3. I don’t think that is why Whopping Liar Craig uses the cosmological argument. I think the best answer to the cosmological argument is that it just oozes phoniness. WLC couldn’t care less about the first causes or big bangs – he just spouts this crap because he (often correctly) thinks his fans don’t know the difference between a legitimate scientific argument and sciency crap.

              This is why I like Hitchens’s approach: let me give you your deistic first cause God even though it is without the slightest bit of merit and I think you don’t actually believe a word of it. If you want to convince us of the toxic death-cult aka Christianity, all your work is before you.

              1. Let me finish the sentence for you:

                “…he just spouts this crap because he (often correctly) thinks his fans don’t know the difference between a legitimate scientific argument and sciency crap, and their ignorance is the basis of much of his income and social standing.”

      3. The non-contingent defies our ordinary experience, whatever the non-contingent turns out to be. It’s always going to be weird to contemplate.

        As Sastra often says, the reason “God”, which is to say some original consciousness, strikes many people as easier to imagine as the non-contingent thing than a mindless universe is because of the nature of introspection. When we introspect our mind seems like one simple featureless primary thing, a primal essence without parts or underlying principles. This illusion makes it easier to imagine a primal consciousness which is similarly simple, featureless, and primally essential. The universe is obviously complex with many parts and principles and so it seems harder for some to imagine an original universe than an original consciousness which people (falsely) imagine as something unitary. The real trick to getting people away from this is to get them to see that minds are complex and made up of lots of parts. Once they see that they can see that introducing a very complex god to explain a very complex universe solves nothing. Once you feel, in your gut, that consciousness is a complex product rather than a prior essence the god hypothesis ceases to have much appeal.

  4. Great point by point refutation, Prof. CC. I was just going to say premises one through five are bogus.

    1. Whenever I see this particular point,

      “2. A naturalistic theory of our origins is less likely to explain our status as moral agents than is the existence of God, who made us moral agents”,

      I can’t help but wonder if these folks has EVER looked AT ALL at the quasi-moralistic behavior of social primates and other social animals. Since, at the same time, there is clearly no evidence for god creating moral agents, it seems that the opposite of point 2 is much more probable.

      1. Yes. The whole argument is not that impressive, but it’s real Achilles’ heel is the second point, which is mere hand-waving.

  5. The interesting thing about the “free” will non-debate is that, even if we DID have it, we wouldn’t be able to rely upon it to produce “gains” in our lives, simply because we can never possess enough information to know exactly what the result of any action we take will be.

    A classic example is in Stephen Crane’s book, “The Red Badge of Courage”: the main character, Henry Pym, finds himself trapped in a “moving box” of soldiers headed towards possible death or dismemberment on the firing line of battle. He realizes that all of the supposedly free-willed choices he made in his past, based on what he perceived as “gains” at the time (joining up because of the perceived glamor and “manliness” of war; the imagined rewards from a grateful, admiring public, an expression of noble patriotism, etc.) have led him into something that he now is not sure he wants, at all.

    You would think that, with the “sin-burden” placed on mankind by Eve’s original, “free-willed” defiance of God’s command (which she could not have possibly known was a “bad” thing, as she had no knowledge of good and evil before she ate of the fruit), pastors would be exhorting their flocks to earnestly pray that free will be removed from them entirely! However, it looks a lot better for a religion if you make a decision of your own “free” will to follow the tenets of that particular religion; otherwise, it’s as if you’d simply been programmed to do so (which you were).

    1. Wikipedia says the main character is called Henry Fleming. Henry Pym is a different fictional character, also one having to deal with dubious moral choices.

  6. I’m going to keep this example and use it in my critical thinking classes! It is important to teach argument reconstruction, for that is a skill that is extremely important. I don’t think this reconstruction, in 6 premises, is in any way an adequate recapitulation of the original (very bad) argument, but my point HERE is that the reconstruction itself is terrible! Premises 1 and 2 are all you need for the conclusion, and the rest are reasons to think that 2) is true, as best I can tell. I dismiss this as someone who doesn’t understand enough about critical thinking and argument reconstruction to even merit consideration.

    1. Take 3, 4, and 5 as the argument for 2. 2 surely can use some argument, and you get a better argument with your prima facie dubious premises given some support. An argument gets a better reconstruction with those subarguments reconstructed than without.

  7. If God made us to be moral agents, he did a pretty crummy job. Maybe God is now working as a car designer at GM.

  8. …and science is increasingly eroding the notion of libertarian free will (few now accept it except for theists);…

    I think that depends on how you define libertarian. Personal anecdote is not much to go on, but I have many non-believing acquaintances who have a pseudo-libertarian view of human morality. They are perfectly aware that it isn’t a trait isolated to us as a species, but they still insist that there’s “something undefinable extra” about human morality that is beyond our understanding.

    We have a blind spot and an innate bias when it comes to analyzing our own behaviour and it shows regardless of religion, imo.

      1. I think the second symbol is See No Evil, Hear No Evil, and Speak No Evil, so Diana’s symbol might be the fourth member of the group: Have No Fun.

          1. I bet namaste hands don’t have that gleaming quality of prayer hands though. Check out that sparkle on mine!

  9. Chimps and bonobos do show a sense of fairness, although of course one could argue that their actions are based on kin selection and reciprocal altruism. Here is a book about experiments that suggest this.

  10. The best argument for God seems to get us to the God of Spinoza or Einstein, not an anthropomorphic deity. Most of the other ones fall under the category of X exists iff God exists, which implies two premises, X exists and there’s no other way for it to exist. The former often comes down to unproven assertions, the latter to arguments from ignorance.

    Of course, the main problem even with logically valid concepts of gods is that we can come up with many logically consistent things and even make them contradict each other. Sorting out which of any is true simply isn’t possible without some evidence. The second problem is that I’ve yet to see a religious person argue for a Ground of Being and then not, in separate cases, argue for the numerous effects it has on the world either in the form of intervening directly, or in the form of of allowing for us to decipher how it wants us to behave, which really still falls under the intervening type, with the intervention having taken place at the beginning.

    I don’t think many people care whether someone wants to believe in an unfalsifiable Ground of Being who put in place the laws of nature and thus left understanding the world open to scientific inquiry. It’s when these people start telling us what the Ground of Being wants from us and that only certain people have a direct line to it, or that a cat wafer can have the essence of a dog god and eating the cat wafer is the way to the dog god. God can “call us” but as Ben always points out, God can’t seem to call 9-1-1.

    1. Yes, that’s right. The believer trots out the argument for the existence of a god. They think that’s it, they’re done, they’ve proved their religious dogma.

      As I’ve pointed out to many of them (after refuting their arguments): Even if I granted you your entire argument (I don’t; I’ve refuted it), all that gets you is a creator of some sort. You still have to argue for every detail in your dogma. Those don’t come free.

      1. I think you’re right with 99% of the believers out there than there arguments are refutable because they make a claim which is directly contradicting what science tells us with a high degree of certainty (I hesitate using this phrase too because often “high degree of certainty” makes the believer thinks whatever level of minuscule uncertainty may exist means filling it in with anything). The 1 to 7 scale Dawkins lays out addresses this problem just fine. Saying you’re a 7 on it actually is placing a burden of proof on yourself to prove a negative.

        The way that I view the best arguments for God, though, is that they are not obviously contradictory (which is to say they are possible, nor that the arguments are good in the sense that they give us a way to organize our lives). Like I stated before, they can be refuted by other logically possible things that possibly exist and also have no evidence. In the realm of things that don’t violate logic, but aren’t verifiable, there’s no way to choose which ones to eliminate, but we definitely know some subset of them are false.

        1. I have yet to encounter a definition of a god that an actual believer would actually agree to that is coherent. Ultimately, and generally sooner rather than later, they’re all self-defeating.

          The closest you can get is some alien with some mind-blowing technology, but it’s pretty self-evident that such an entity would no more be divine than would James Randi be if he set himself up as a god to some back-bush tribe.


          1. Absolutely, I said 99% since I’ve had a handful of conversations with Ground of Beingist types who won’t discuss other topics and play the non sequitur card. While bringing up the inconvenient fact that Jesus’ bodily resurrection means that he violated several laws of physics really isn’t related to the topic, it doesn’t mean they don’t believe it. An abstract enough definition of a deity can be logically consistent (yet lack evidence) with reality, but I definitely agree that no religious person I’ve ever met leaves it at that in practice.

  11. The “argument for god based on morality” is insular. It is akin to saying “god is a great and nobel thing and it is the cause of creation.” Let us examine the next step. What knowledge am I given about god beyond this genuinely flaccid proposition?

    By my definition, which is as good as anyone elses, my god would, at the very least, provide for me an understanding of how an electron works at a fundamental level. That is not asking much. An electron is very small thing relative to the universe. And yet, no theist development of god conjoins scientific knowledge with said supernatural being.

    Arguments for god are no longer useful. They validate nothing. Arguments for what has god for me recently are worthwhile. But no one is proposing those. I wonder why?

    1. I think the argument from morality is basically a case of special pleading.

      What the deuce is it about human behaviour that is supposed to be divine? ( rhetorical ) 😉

    2. You nailed it. Arguments for any god are only useful if they lead to something that this god will do for you (or things it won’t do to you). Now, any good theist (and especially Sophisticated Theologians) will immediately jump all over this and say that in the true Christian framework, Christ promotes selflessness and that we should love God before all else and love our fellow human before ourselves. We’ll put aside of of the nastier sects for the sake of argument and work with this most charitable definition of how we should think of God.

      By the above logic, asking what God can do for you is an utterly selfish way to approach the question. Of course, the elephant in the room is that the common thread between every theist I’ve ever met is that there is a way to please God so as to earn eternal life. Not only eternal life, but perfect eternal life!

      Therefore, whatever finite suffering we have here, or whatever outrageous acts or mental contortions we have to live with during this finite life, it is worth it because what awaits is infinitely better. If there’s any goal more selfish than that, I don’t know what it is. We can live by a moral code which is unselfish for the sake of lessening suffering now without any expectation of eternal reward. As usual, if any evidence of actual eternal reward existed, naturally the whole framework would have to be revisited, but it would still consistently fit within say, Sam Harris’s definition of morality, which is maximizing well-being.

      1. I still don’t understand why theists think an argument that presupposes the possibility of a deity is going to be anything but obtuse to an atheist.

        “A naturalistic theory of our origins is less likely to explain our status as moral agents than is the existence of God, who made us moral agents.”

        This not only presupposes the possibility of a diety, which I’d argue is at best improbable based on the evidence available, it assert the existence of such a deity.

        1. This ties in with the other conversation we have going on here about prior probabilities. If you’re going to say that objective morals are more probable via a god than via naturalism, then you have to be able to coherently assign attributes from which to derive these probabilities. Defining God as ineffable and unknowable makes it pretty hard to know anything about the probability of anything he does. So, we need to give attributes to God to fix this issue and now we’re back to the evidence of existence before we even get to the question of morality. An endless loop from which there is no break.

  12. “3. Moral agency requires moral responsibility.

    4. To be morally responsible, one must have libertarian free will, that is, at any time one must be able to choose between moral actions and immoral or neutral ones.”

    This reminds me of the Kalaam cosmological argument — at its core it’s an attempt to define free will into existence. Assuming the existence of entities with libertarian free will skips a lot of steps.

  13. This argument strikes me as… I don’t know… circular? Begging the question?

    If point (4) is correct and moral responsibility necessarily implies libertarian free will, and (5) libertarian free will strongly implies a god, then point (1) just states the conclusion as a fact.

    At least write (1) as “there are agents which appear to follow moral codes”. Then give some sort of argument why these choices are “free” in a libertarian free-will sense. That’s the entire argument and it has been delegated to an asterisk or an assumption.

    How is this not obvious?

  14. Summary: in which I agree with the gist of the post but seize the opportunity to discuss the “free will” issue again.

    I’m never certain that I know what others mean by “free will”, but from the context it appears to me that “libertarian free will” is the ability to choose between morally right and wrong actions in an indeterminate way.

    If so, then this is an ability which, for practical purposes, I seem to have. That is, the cost-benefit analysis of whether, after picking up a quarter (U.S.A. 25-cent coin) which someone has dropped, to run after them and return it or put it into my pocket can be such a close call that I don’t know in advance what I am going to do; and in the past sometimes I have gone one way and sometimes the other.

    As I have explained before (and won’t take up more internet bits with here), I could write (and have written) computer programs to make such choices in an indeterminate way (not just random but indeterminately random), and this has some practical usefulness. So I tend to believe our brains are a form of computer, partially programmed by evolution and partly self-programmed, which probably include the indeterminate random function.

    A couple of thinkers who are more accomplished than I have said something like, “All actions are determined by previous determinate and indeterminate events; ergo there is no free will.” Leaving aside the paradoxical flavor of that statement, I don’t see how it eliminates the possibility of an indeterminate free will, since then the statement becomes in effect, “All actions are determined by previous determinate and indeterminate events, including the indeterminate action of free will.”

    Ah, but we don’t make such choices “consciously”. So? In my view, consciousness is merely the operating system for our brain-computers, and most actual processing is done “in the background” by unmonitored neurons. Another way of looking at it is that it would be inefficient for the CEO of an organization to sort its mail in the mailroom. Still, if the organization does something wrong, the CEO should accept responsibility (in a better world).

  15. The slight of hand in all of these arguments is the presupposition that introducing a god with the desired properties (good, sufficiently powerful, taking an interest in us enough to want to give us morality, etc.) is a cost free assertion, essentially begging the question by assuming an entity even can exist with the properties you ascribe to it. What is the prior on such an entity existing? No one knows, of course. For all we know an entity like god is impossible, even. What is the prior of a universe exactly like ours existing and creating moral agents not even by evolution but by fluke? No one knows, of course. So all of this is an attempt to compare two unknown quantities and declare by fiat that one is larger than the other.

    ??? > ??? therefore Jesus.

    It’s garbage from beginning to end.

      1. Yes, it’s right to the point.

        They’re trying to talk their deity into existence while assuming morality is an eternal and external thing you become imbued with via faith.

        The rat experiment I saw used unrelated rats of the same type. There was also a reward to be freed consisting of a smaller number of food pellets than what individual rats were known to gobble in a single setting.

        The gaoler rat shared them with the
        freed prisoner.

        Maybe they pilgrimage to the Karni Mata Temple

    1. ‘What is the prior on such an entity existing? No one knows, of course. For all we know an entity like god is impossible, even. What is the prior of a universe exactly like ours existing and creating moral agents not even by evolution but by fluke?’ – gluonspring

      Would you please define “prior” as used in the two questions you ask? While you’re at it, I get nowhere when I try to puzzle out what your choice of moniker means, if you don’t mind ‘splainin’.

      1. Moniker first: It doesn’t mean anything. Or, I didn’t intend it to. Just two random words chosen so that I didn’t, once again, get the message “that ID is already taken”. Only much later did I learn that a “gluon spring” is a simile sometimes used when describing quarks, as in “Think of it like this: Quarks are linked by a gluon spring, a spring that grows tauter as it is stretched so that it cannot normally be broken.” ( But I didn’t know that when I chose the name.

        Priors. Sorry for the jargon. In Bayesian statistics we speak of the prior odds of an event, the likelihood of the event, and the posterior odds of the event. You can think of it sort of like this: the prior odds are your belief going in, before you do an experiment. This belief might be pulled out of your hind quarters or it might be based on experience or (quite often) theory or whatever. The likelihood is the information you get from doing an experiment. The posterior odds are your prior belief updated by the evidence in the experiment, that is, a combination of the prior odds and the likelihood. For example, if you are watching a roll of a die your prior odds are that each number is equally likely, so the odds of rolling a 3 are 1/6. You haven’t actually rolled any die yet, that’s just your belief going into the experiment. Then you watch a guy at the craps table roll the die. It’s a 3. And again, it’s another 3. And again, it’s a 1. And again, it’s another 3. So, now what is your belief about whether the die are loaded or not? You can’t say for sure, obviously, since this outcome can occur with fair dice. But you’re probably starting to get a little bit suspicious. How suspicious you should be is a combination of your prior odds and the likelihood given the rolls you’ve seen. Each time the die rolls you get a little more information about it and your confidence the die are fair can fade away or be restored. This is the essence of Bayesian statistics in a nutshell.

        The idea of a prior is very useful. It’s basically saying, “What do you expect to see before you do an experiment?”. It is a way to encapsulate the theories and background you already have with the topic as a distribution on outcomes. Bayesian people get in the habit of calling any distribution that you are given beforehand, that isn’t part of the experiment you are doing, a prior.

        So, in this case we have observed a universe with certain properties. This is sort of like the experiment. But to evaluate how surprising this universe is we need to have some idea of our prior odds, some theory of how universes are generated say. Since we don’t really know how universes come into being (infinite inflation *might* be the answer, but it might not), we can’t really say. As far as we know the prior odds of a universe exactly like ours is 1, which is to say that it couldn’t be otherwise. Or it could be vanishingly unlikely. Or anything in between. But we have one data point and no prior so talking about the posterior odds of the universe is basically nonsense.

        I hope that didn’t introduce more dust than light.

        1. That is a clear and useful explanation for this issue, and it also gives me some direction to begin to get a handle on Bayseian analysis applied elsewhere. I come across references to it all the time (Richard Carrier’s work for example), more and more frequently over the previous couple of years, and I have never taken the time to suss it out on my own.

  16. Draper’s point 2 begs the question, essentially claiming that we inherit our status as moral agents from a prior moral agent. It doesn’t say anything about why moral agency exists in the first place.

    Point 4 (“To be morally responsible, one must have libertarian free will”) is simply false. To be morally responsible, all one needs is moral competence — i.e. the ability to evaluate behaviors as right or wrong, ethical or unethical — feeding into a decision-making apparatus that takes such judgments into account. We are morally responsible to the extent that our good or bad behavior can be traced back to good or bad moral judgments. Freedom from physical causality is not a requirement.

  17. So the other point I bring up with the believer is this really basic one.

    This doesn’t get decided on a logical argument! Even if you provide a reasonable argument, one that can’t be immediately dismissed with logic, you haven’t arrived. All you’ve done (in that case that I’ve never yet seen) is show that your idea can’t be immediately dismissed logically.

    You haven’t provided me a good reason to believe it. That requires evidence.

    This is not something that can be decided by argument*. It is decided by evidence. And you haven’t got any.

    (* If it could, it would have happened already. People wouldn’t still be arguing this crap.)

  18. The best argument for God would be, of course, evidence. The Bible itself acknowledges this in the comic story of Elijah and the prophets of Baal. Everything Elijah says in this story about Baal applies equally well to any other supposed god. “Shout louder! Surely he is a god! Perhaps he is deep in thought, or busy, or traveling. Maybe he is sleeping and must be awakened.” Oh, how often I have wanted to say that when people around me are praying for something. And I might if I thought these pious people around me were Bible literate enough to get the reference.

    It’s worth a read:

    1 Kings 18:22-38

    Then Elijah said to them, “I am the only one of the Lord’s prophets left, but Baal has four hundred and fifty prophets. 23 Get two bulls for us. Let Baal’s prophets choose one for themselves, and let them cut it into pieces and put it on the wood but not set fire to it. I will prepare the other bull and put it on the wood but not set fire to it. 24 Then you call on the name of your god, and I will call on the name of the Lord. The god who answers by fire—he is God.”

    Then all the people said, “What you say is good.”

    25 Elijah said to the prophets of Baal, “Choose one of the bulls and prepare it first, since there are so many of you. Call on the name of your god, but do not light the fire.” 26 So they took the bull given them and prepared it.

    Then they called on the name of Baal from morning till noon. “Baal, answer us!” they shouted. But there was no response; no one answered. And they danced around the altar they had made.

    27 At noon Elijah began to taunt them. “Shout louder!” he said. “Surely he is a god! Perhaps he is deep in thought, or busy, or traveling. Maybe he is sleeping and must be awakened.” 28 So they shouted louder and slashed themselves with swords and spears, as was their custom, until their blood flowed. 29 Midday passed, and they continued their frantic prophesying until the time for the evening sacrifice. But there was no response, no one answered, no one paid attention.

    30 Then Elijah said to all the people, “Come here to me.” They came to him, and he repaired the altar of the Lord, which had been torn down. 31 Elijah took twelve stones, one for each of the tribes descended from Jacob, to whom the word of the Lord had come, saying, “Your name shall be Israel.” 32 With the stones he built an altar in the name of the Lord, and he dug a trench around it large enough to hold two seahs[a] of seed. 33 He arranged the wood, cut the bull into pieces and laid it on the wood. Then he said to them, “Fill four large jars with water and pour it on the offering and on the wood.”

    34 “Do it again,” he said, and they did it again.

    “Do it a third time,” he ordered, and they did it the third time. 35 The water ran down around the altar and even filled the trench.

    36 At the time of sacrifice, the prophet Elijah stepped forward and prayed: “Lord, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Israel, let it be known today that you are God in Israel and that I am your servant and have done all these things at your command. 37 Answer me, Lord, answer me, so these people will know that you, Lord, are God, and that you are turning their hearts back again.”

    38 Then the fire of the Lord fell and burned up the sacrifice, the wood, the stones and the soil, and also licked up the water in the trench.

      1. Yeah, that’s the point. Elijah didn’t quote the story of the parting of the Red Sea to them, did he? No, because they’d say, rightly, that that’s just an old story. No, Elijah offered up evidence in the here and now and, quite reasonably, mocked them for their lack of here and now evidence. I think Elijah shows us the way to react to contemporary claims of god.

        When I was a kid and this story was read it was read as though the story was evidence, as though this proof happened thousands of years ago and that was that. Even as a kid, though, I found the story disturbing because I realized that Elijah’s taunts applied precisely to the god we worshiped too.

        1. This is a really good quote I was not aware from the OT. I will be using it in future! I’ve read the whole bible, more than once; but most of it didn’t stick.

          1. It stuck with me because I heard quite a few vivid sermons on this. Preachers seem to like the rubbing-their-nose-in-it quality of Elijah’s taunts, but seem not to be self-aware enough to realize how well these same taunts apply to them.

              1. They forgot to mention that Elijah had a Bic and lighter fluid up his sleeve. That might have brought a number of Baal’s worshipers over to Elijah’s camp. Baal certainly hadn’t given those out to his faithful.

          2. It’s been a long time since I read the bible, too, and I am not ashamed to admit that I can remember little of it. My mind wanders just as far afield when I read the thing as it tends to do when I hear it preached.

            So I am glad Thomas Reads the Bible is available on youtube and as a podcast. Each segment is ~40 minutes, and Thomas is pretty funny. I’ve just reached the end of the Genesis episodes.


      2. I think this is something that you need to add to your list of arguments for the existence of god (in the previous thread on this topic)–argument from scripture.

        Actually, I think it is the one most often used by christians and muslims, at least by fundamentalists: The bible/koran, aka the Word of God, says god exists!

        Of course, the refutation is easy:

        1) That is horribly circular.
        2) Talking snakes!

        1. I’ve thought about that and didn’t include it at some time in the past. Maybe too obviously silly? But it should be there for completeness.


          New category: Authority

          Part 1: My book says he exists
          Part 2: That guy in the robes says he exists


        2. I actually have a theological question while I’ve got you here, Mark, if you please. 🙂

          Is the bible only considered the “direct” word of god in fundamental circles, or is this very literal belief more widespread on your side of the pond?

          It’s more or less always been my impression that the belief that the bible is the direct word of god is fairly limited within religious communities.

            1. Technically (or as told by various religious leaders), the Bible was inspired by god and told to various writers who were supposedly just taking note or shorthand or what ever was around in those days. These ‘inspired’ writers were then instructed to write it all down to be distributed to the faithful; which was more than a bit arduous until the printing press was invented. Whether that was inspired by god has not as yet been determined

          1. Believers, in my experience, get really hinky about the bible.

            They want to eat their cake and have it too:

            Well, yes, of course the bible is true!

            Well, what about this bit here?

            Seriously? We all know that’s just metaphor!

            How do you know?

            Stop being annoying!

          2. My fundamentalist church calls it “inspired”. So it’s not thought to be direct as in “God wrote it n God’s own words”, but in that God, in some vague way, planted the right words and images and so on into the minds of the humans who did write it. It was still considered infallible but with a tiny bit of wiggle room for the culture other limitations of the writers that might cause it to seem to say something to us that wasn’t the intent at the time (as convenience struck them… e.g. no women leaders, that’s infallible, but no jewelry for women, well, that’s just culture).

            It’s all motivated have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too reasoning from start to finish. Quite shameful as a mental exercise really. It means what they want it to mean, and god knows why they want it to mean that but there is little to no principle to it.

            1. Agreed, vagueness sure seems to be a defining feature of the christian deity. When it is convenient, off course.

            2. It’s not whether or not YHWH wrote the Bible that’s the interesting question. What really matters is whether or not he’s ever read it….


            3. Just to be fair, in the New Testament there were many highly though of and highly placed women in the early church. Until the ascetic
              misogynist Greco-Romans took over.

              1. Sure, women such as Phoebe and others. And even the women who went around with Jesus.

                Is Paul the ascetic misogynist Greco-Roman? Because Paul said, and most Christians regard him as an authority, “Let the women keep silent in the churches; for they are not permitted to speak, but let them subject themselves, just as the Law also says. And if they desire to learn anything, let them ask their own husbands at home; for it is improper for a woman to speak in church.”.

                And also, “But every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head—it is the same as having her head shaved. For if a woman does not cover her head, she might as well have her hair cut off; but if it is a disgrace for a woman to have her hair cut off or her head shaved, then she should cover her head. A man ought not to cover his head,since he is the image and glory of God; but woman is the glory of man. 8For man did not come from woman, but woman from man; 9neither was man created for woman, but woman for man.”

                And many other passages of similar effect. So what should Christians do? Take up the mantle of Phoebe or obey Paul? Be modern or retrograde? The real problem for would-be Christians is that the holy texts themselves are very inconsistent and there is no decision procedure to adjudicate between competing interpretations. There is not even a FAQ. The lack of a FAQ, and the obvious chaos, to say nothing of centuries of bloodshed, that has resulted from this omission is, I think, the most direct and damning proof that the Bible is not from God or, indeed, even a very competent person.

          3. Hi Jesper:

            1) Geez, dude, I’ve been trying my best to forget this stuff for the last 15 years, and now you make me think about it again??

            2) As you know, I am only really familiar with the fundagelical church. Their view of scripture (in theory) can be found in any of their explanations, which usually boil down to “is without error or fault in all its teaching” (see the Wikipedia article on biblical inerrancy, which refers to the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy).

            3) It probably would not be too hard for me to dredge up the standard list of five “explanations” that they give for “hard passages” (hey, if you want to read that as “stuff that is obviously wrong, and so we need to explain it away, who am I to stop you?). I remember that one was that inerrancy applies only to the original manuscripts (convenient, since none of them exist, not to mention that some books, such as the psalms or proverbs would not have had an original manuscript; in any case, textual criticism undermines this bit of sneakiness); another was that it was not an error if “the bible accurately reported the errant statement that someone made”. Et cetera; see the section on “Limitations” in the Wikipedia article mentioned above.

            4) As for the process of inspiration, the explanation of Lisa Parker is accurate; since even the nuttiest fundy can see the literary differences, the profs in the seminary stress that the bible was “not dictated” but that the “holy spirit inspired the writers to express god’s words in their own style” or something similar. (OK, I’m thinking that I wasted 25 years of my life on this, and now I’m *really* pissed).

            5) As for the meaning of “inerrancy” and “inspiration” in practice, the criticisms of jblilie and gluonspring cut to the heart of the matter. Christians who get all bent out of shape about homosexuality, a literal hell, and the historicity of the first 11 chapters of Genesis are much, much, much, much less likely to really get behind the practices of fasting, tithing, or turning the other cheek. I’m sure you’re aware of the Twain (or Mencken) quote about people who think the bible is full of great commands that their neighbors should be obeying. More detail, and hence more fun, is at the beginning of George Eliot’s essay Evangelical Teaching (easily found in Hitchens’ anthology The Portable Atheist, or on-line here: “Let him shun practical extremes and be ultra only in what is purely theoretic; let him be stringent on predestination, but latitudinarian on fasting; unflinching in insisting on the Eternity of punishment, but diffident of curtailing the substantial comforts of Time; ardent and imaginative on the premillennial advent of Christ, but cold and cautious toward every other infringement of the status quo.” She goes on in this vein for quite a while; extremely amusing!

            Whatever any of this has to do with your question depends on what you mean by the word “direct” in your question. I don’t believe that the David Bentley Harts, Karen Armstrongs, and Fr. Aidan Kimels of the world waste any time with this, but they are numerically negligible.

            1. Thanks a bunch, Mark. Greatly appreciated and my sincerest apologies for dragging you back to church for a moment! 🙂

              I was having a discussion with a friend of mine who insisted that the belief that the bible was the direct ( we never really got that defined properly, though ) word of god was a fringe opinion even in the states.

              I wasn’t so sure about that.

              I gather from the Chicago Statement that the current consensus is that the supposed original is the direct word of god/ god’s will, but our present copies are potentially flawed.

              In other words, the bible is only the word of god when it’s convenient. Any doubt and it’s a metaphor.

              Sounds very familiar to the approach most religious people take to the shitty passages in their books, but I think I get it now. God is trolling us, big time.

              Just like the theologians/philosophers when they claim to have come upon the “Greatest Argument for God Ever!”

              Maybe Ceiling Cat should make a FAQ on the ten most common arguments and their respective refutations.

              I’d buy it.

              1. Well, I’ll forgive you; I like to keep my self-chosen, subjective moral standards higher than those of the christians who give me such a hard time for my apostasy.

                As for the FAQ, things like it have already been done. Jblilie’s recent post giving six (later, seven) categories of arguments is quite useful. There is a book you may or may not be interested in, Does God Exist? The Debate Between Theists & Atheists, which comes from a debate between JP Moreland and Kai Nielsen (with two additional contributors on each side); in Peter Kreeft’s introduction, he gives a list of 25 uncategorized arguments for the existence of god (and seven against). I have neither the time nor the inclination to categorize them and see whether or not the overlap with jblilie’s categories is complete.

                Hitchens, as always, said it best: “One must state it plainly. Religion comes from the period of human prehistory where nobody—not even the mighty Democritus who concluded that all matter was made from atoms—had the smallest idea what was going on.” In other words, religion got there first, before science had the chance to provide true explanations for nature. As to why, now that we have science, religion continues to endure, the best explanation is Michael Shermer’s: “Smart people believe weird things because they are better at rationalizing beliefs they arrived at for nonsmart (psychological and emotional) reasons.”

              2. Thanks again, Mark. I’ll check out the Moreland-Nielsen debate.

                Speaking of the Hitch, I don’t know if this has been posted here before, but I fell upon this enjoyable indie-doc about him.

                Better than the Unbelievers, imo.

          1. Be careful with that, there are enough mentally ill people around the fundy churches that someone might take you up on that. (I for one wouldn’t want to be the instigator of something harmful to someone who is brain damaged.)

  19. All one needs to expose this type of faulty reasoning is what Jerry pointed out at the beginning:

    “For one thing, it presumes that theism has at least a reasonable probability; that is, that there’s enough independent evidence for God that we can somehow put it into Bayesian probability statements with an appreciable value.”

    Draper’s points 2 and 5 are just the classic prosecutor’s fallacy, The other points are irrelevant. Since this “best argument” is literally just an argument from probability, I translated it into the actual language of probability, just to see how ridiculous the reasoning actually is.

    MA: moral agency
    MR: moral responsibility
    L: libertarian free will
    T: theism (~T: naturalism)

    Draper’s argument, as summarized by Lowder, is the following:

    1. Pr(MA) > 0
    2. Pr(MA | T) > Pr(MA | ~T)
    3. Pr(MR) > Pr(MA)
    4. Pr(L) > Pr(MR)
    5. Pr(L | T) > Pr(L | ~T)
    6. Therefore, Pr(T | MA) > Pr(~T | MA)

    In fact, points 3 – 5 don’t really have anything to do with the concluding point 6; it’s only 1 and 2 that matter. And concluding 6 from 2 is the prosecutor’s fallacy, as Jerry pointed out. I guess points 3 and 4 are supposed to be “pumping up” the probability Pr(MA | T) by eventually trying to replace it with Pr(L | T). Of course, this makes no sense since none of it affects the prior probability Pr(T), which is what any argument for a god should be interested in.

    This is the type of logical and probabilistic reasoning that is taught in any introductory course in probability at the collegiate level. That a professional “philosopher” could be so unaware of these points is rather disturbing.

    1. What is the prior for the real Harry Potter universe P(RHPU)? I think it might be related to P(T).

  20. All those with Maru’s syndrome when it comes to arguments on the existence of gods, please raise their hand. (Forepaw raised … 🙂 )

    1. Hehe, it’s probably because of the same reason I take notice when something is labelled breaking news.

      Every argument is “The Best Argument Ever!”

      Maybe we should live and learn. 🙂

    2. I definitely have it. In my case I spent so much of my childhood thinking that, while the religious authorities around me were obviously ignorant buffoons, surely, out there beyond the small town I lived in, someone must have a good reason for religion. After all, it’s so big and so popular and even smart accomplished people who know things are often religious. How could something like that just merely be fiction?

      As I’ve related often, that bubble burst for me when I attended an apologetics class taught by university professors from many fields. It was instantly sobering. WTF? They only have the same wrong and/or lying (!!) arguments the ignoramuses back in Tiny Town had? You’ve got to be kidding me. Pop! went the bubble of my religious faith.

      But still, I think there is some part of my brain that, like Deep Thought, is irrevocably committed to the problem of locating the argument that really isn’t just a steaming pile of d*g poo. So every time someone offers up a supposedly new box (Really, this time there is no poo in the box, I promise!), and even though I recognize the smell, I just have to open it to be sure…

  21. In addition to Jerry’s points, the argument comes unraveled because premises 2 and 4 are simply unsupported assertions based on definition: if I defined god as a nose-maker, then I could say that it’s much more likely that noses would appear on our faces if such a god existed than if one didn’t. Thus, anything becomes evidence for the greater likelihood of god rather than not-god. And we all know how much theories or arguments that can account for anything are worth.

  22. sub . . . now to read 87 + comments.

    Yesterday, caught a 3rd Grader brandishing a rather large rubber band, had it pulled back . . . a mischievous gleam in his eye . . . . Guess he just couldn’t help himself? I admonished him, confiscated the “weapon.” Guess I just couldn’t help myself? Other students didn’t do so. Guess they just couldn’t help themselves?

  23. I was looking for that line from Hitchens on YouTube earlier to post here, but couldn’t find it. Something along the lines of, “I’ll give you the Virgin birth, the miracles, the resurrection, none of that demonstrates that what Jesus supposedly said is true.” He’s right, it doesnt.

      1. Yup, that’s the one I was thinking of, naturally said much more eloquently than my paraphrasing, above.

        The Resurrection is a spot on example of a miracle as described there as well.

  24. I could see why the moral argument would be appealing, though given the naturalistic account of morality, it’s hard to see that the argument would be anything other than illusory. Just as for fine-tuning – that we’ve evolved to be sensitive to design (to take the design stance) doesn’t really hold when you try to take design and apply it to the universe itself. With morality, it would be pretty hard to argue that there’s such a thing as universal moral responsibility (or libertarian free will for that matter) as moral responsibility is something that involves “contracts” between moral agents. And moral agents are a product of evolution.

    1. This is why evolution is such a hated idea. It clarifies everything, but people don’t like what they see when the veil is lifted.

      1. I tend to think that the problem isn’t that evolution clarifies it – most people don’t understand evolution, so why should we think they can understand its implications – but that the illusions we have are very hard to shake. If morality as we perceive it is illusory, then what is there to make of something so central to our lives? In that sense, I can understand why theists claim naturalistic morality doesn’t cut it; it’s not a good argument, but I think it’s understandable that the kinds of realism for non-theistic morality may seem a step down.

        I remember Michael Ruse summing it up well in an article. (I’m paraphrasing) “You want more? Too damn bad.”

  25. Jibbering Jebus!

    (Summarized) Draper: 2. A naturalistic theory of our origins is less likely to explain our status as moral agents than is the existence of God, who made us moral agents.

    In other words: a naturalistic explanation, where you have to actually argue from facts and evidence toward plausible mechanisms accounting for the phenomenon in question will be “less likely” than…”magic” as an “explanation.”

    It is simply gratuitous, even bizarre, to pretend there is some equivalence between both those types of “explanations.”

    When appealing to magic, aka “the supernatural,” all you need to do is say “I have a phenomenon that requires explaining; I will now make up an entity that I grant the power to do the thing that needs explaining.” How does wind occur? A “wind god” with the power to make wind, makes it…magically. How about lightning? A God with the power to make lighting…makes it…magically.

    One could just as well say that it is “less likely” that the explanation for unifying quantum mechanics and general relativity will be naturalistic, vs a supernatural explanation. I can explain it supernaturally: a magic entity called “Snufflegrouper” causes the phenomena of described in quantum mechanics and general relativity…and is the entity that unifies them.

    How? You know…it’s an entity that just has the power of causing and unifying such phenomena.

    With such an “explanation” is available that perfectly fits the observations, why do scientists even bother searching for a tiresome, difficult and possibly impossible “naturalistic” explanation?

    How does this God exist, and create moral beings imbued with morality? Well, He’s a being “with the power to do so. It’s supernatural…magic!”

    In every other domain where we ask for explanations we’d recognize how infantile someone would be who offers “magic” as their “explanation.” And yet mention the word “God” and, should no one yet have a natural (i.e. “real”) explanation, we are supposed to accept magic as the default competitor.

    Uh. No.

    (And like Prof. Coyne and many here are saying, that is not to say for a minute that naturalistic explanations for morality aren’t available).


    1. Agh, sorry for typos…

      Anyway, whenever “God” is offered as an “explanation” I say “No, actually a special non-sentient particle called a Blark causes the phenomenon in question.”

      When the believer demands of me how a Blark would be capable of causing the phenomenon, I say “It just CAN. And when tell me the mechanism for how your God’s supernatural power works, I’ll tell you how the Blark’s power works.”

  26. If humans are necessary as moral agents, how to explain the millions of years when no humans existed? Just some time off for “God”?

  27. It is already well acknowledged that I am an ‘odd duck’ (or something more profane, but I like to keep my on-line language at least vaguely polite.) but this whole argument back and forth for or against the existence of a god is absolutely pointless. If you have faith that there is a god, you don’t need proof; by definition, to have faith you believe without proof. If you are looking for evidence, you don’t have faith. If you don’t have faith in the existence of a god, then it’s a moot point. If a religious person tries to change your mind, just ask him/her if he/she has faith; if he/she does and tries to cite any evidence, then he/she doesn’t have faith. So tell whoever to handle his/her own crisis of faith first, then they can talk to you about it (which won’t ever happen.)

    If there is any BIG TRUTH out there to be had (theistically speaking, it is that religion is the best proof of Satan/Evil.

    And Professor Jerry, as a veteran of twelve years of Catholic schools and countless lectures on grammar and the like, I can tell you, don’t knock mental masturbation.

    1. Good grammar is not the madturbatuon part.

      The masturbatory part is using your vocabulary to construct sentences that seem to support your argument, if one squints and tilt’s one’s head, but in fact are designed to hide logical fallacies.

    2. And dismantling those arguments is not pointless. Reading and listening to arguments being dismantled helped me on my way from theism to atheism. I’m sure it’s helped countless others.

      1. I agree and this is why I commend Jerry for wading through all this crap. Obviously, the sophisticated theologians will continue to blather on that he doesn’t understand, but the fact that Jerry does get through some of these books means he’s putting in the work they requested. Now that he still disagrees, it just goes back to the typical goal post shifting.

        While I don’t think we all need to ready volumes of text based on bad arguments to refute them, I do think we need to understand the arguments. If a theist comes out and says that she has a different argument than what has been refuted, it is our duty to remain intellectually honest and refute the argument at hand. As you pointed out, there are people out there who take an interest in this stuff and could benefit from the dialogue.

  28. I think point 1 is getting an easy pass by most people. To me it’s a statement in sore need of support. Do you really need the choice between behaviours to be called moral? (never mind the question whether we have the free will to make such choices). What if you simply do the morally correct thing without thinking? Intuitively? Unconsciously? Because evolution programmed you that way?

    To me it sort of sounds like “you can only be accurate if you can also miss” which just sounds…wrong.

  29. I’m not sure what ‘moral responsibility’ is supposed to mean by philosophers, or even by Jerry, but I can think of something it could mean.
    If somebody caused a state of affairs with forethought or by negligence, they are causally responsible for it.
    By contrast, if somebody had no causal role but either attempted to achieve or subsequently approved the result, we could say they’re morally responsible for it. That seems like a reasonable, normal, non-obfuscatory kind of distinction to make. I’m thinking of cases where someone attempts to justify horrendous immoral acts of (e.g.) mass-murder that happened before they were born: they have no causal responsibility for the crime, but we are surely justified in treating them with contempt and alarm almost as if they did it.

  30. Just another circular god of the gaps argument. I can’t think of how morality could have evolved therefore I’ll pluck my favourite imaginary friend out of thin air, assign cause to it and say “God did it!”

    Do people really earn their living finding ways to make such infantile claims and disguising them as philosophy?

    1. Hi Rosa:

      I haven’t posted much at your blog recently (time pressure), but you’ve been putting up some really good stuff. I loved your last line of the June 22 post on parasites, “Is it worth asking a creationist to try to fit schistosomiasis into their model of creation by an omnibenevolent god who made everything just for his special creation, humans? Probably not, but I will anyway.”

      To answer your question, though, yes, they do; there are a very large number of christians in the States who will pay good money to listen to a preacher or Sunday school teacher say what they want to hear; the preachers, of course, get not only money but a fair measure of prestige and social standing out of it.

  31. It never fails to surprise me (though it probably should) how many of these supposedly excellent arguments for God rest on or contain numerous flawed premises and/or simply end up presupposing he exists at some point.

    I’m certain I’m not alone in thinking that were there a properly compelling argument for God’s existence, we’d have seen it presented not just by one theologian but by all of them in concert; instead, we get this contradictory patchwork of awful logic, wishful thinking and unwarranted declarations, presented with pretensions toward intellectual rigour and all-too-frequently spiced with smugness, superiority and self-importance.

    1. Good point!

      As I’m sure you know, science converges; religion diverges, and the reason is that science tries to brings its ideas into progressively closer alignment to objective reality. Religion makes stuff up.

      There is nothing in religion (not even the existence of god) that commands the degree of assent among the religious that the accuracy of the periodic table commands among chemists.

  32. Arguments suggesting God as the source of morality never made any sense to me.

    Theism argues that morality must be the creation of a conscious intelligence. As a naturalist I can, for the sake of argument, completely agree with that, and then point to the billions of conscious intelligences living on this planet as a completely satisfactory explanation for the existence of morality.

    Then there’s the inevitable comeback: you need God to provide objective morality. The problem is that theism doesn’t solve the problem it thinks it solves. How would that work, exactly? What if I simply disagreed with God about what was right or wrong? How would you objectively say that God was right?

    Either God could just smack me down with his omnipotence, or God could explain It’s reasoning. The first option doesn’t establish that God is objectively moral, just that God is objectively more powerful than I am. The second option suggests that there might be an objective morality and God was able to figure it out (being omniscient and all). But if that’s true, then morality is something that can be rationally discovered, that good is good and evil is evil whether or not God exists.

      1. Beat me to it.

        You can even say to a christian, “OK, you’re right, we need the word of god to have objective morality; that’s why we have to follow the Koran”.

        I can assure you that their response to this never rises above the level of “we’re right; they’re wrong”. More amusingly stated here and especially here.

      2. I should probably read more philosophy formally, if for no other reason than to source arguments. This particular dilemna just seems so bloody obvious, and the existence of God is completely tangential to the problem: is morality ultimately something that is deduced, or invented, or some combination of the two?

        This is probably what annoys me most about theists. They raise questions as if they actually have the answer. Naturalism can’t provide objective morality! Naturalism can’t explain why there is something rather than nothing! Maybe, but I’ve got news for you sunshine …

        1. Ben usually includes this (it seems to me that every argument that exists contains elements of both the Dilemma and the paradox)

          The “Epicurean paradox” is a version of the problem of evil. It is a trilemma argument (God is omnipotent, God is good, but Evil exists); or more commonly seen as this quote:

          Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able?
          Then he is not omnipotent.
          Is he able, but not willing?
          Then he is malevolent.
          Is he both able and willing?
          Then whence cometh evil?
          Is he neither able nor willing?
          Then why call him God?

          This argument was a type favoured by the ancient Greek skeptics, and may have been wrongly attributed to Epicurus by Lactantius, who, from his Christian perspective, regarded Epicurus as an atheist.[23] It has been suggested that it may actually be the work of an early skeptic writer, possibly Carneades[24] According to Reinhold F. Glei, it is settled[how?] that the argument of theodicy is from an academic source which is not only not epicurean, but even anti-epicurean.[25] The earliest extant version of this trilemma appears in the writings of the skeptic Sextus Empiricus 160 – 210 AD.[26]

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