Tuesday, December 26, 2017

The Problem of Omnipotence

Imagine yourself relaxing at home one day when you suddenly hear a knock at the front door. To your amazement, it appears to be none other than John DeLancie himself, standing on your doorstep.

"Hello.” he says. “My name is Q, from the Q continuum. Just stopping by to let you know that I’m an omnipotent god. You should probably start bowing before me or else I might get really upset."

"That's cool," you think. You've never met an omnipotent being before. But hey, he seems like a pretty honest guy, and you're probably not very keen on the idea of getting turned into a frog right now. So naturally, you take him completely at his word and start bowing right that second, am I right?

No, of course not! You’re skeptical. Maybe this person is telling you the truth, or maybe this person is just some weirdo pulling your leg. So you demand some basic empirical evidence to show that this being really is what he says he is. 

“All right,” he says.  “You want proof?  You got it."

The next thing you know, Mr. Q snaps his fingers, and, in a brilliant flash of light, your car is suddenly transformed into a giant pile of squirrels. It’s a very impressive trick to be sure and maybe even enough to warrant sincere placation of this being. However, we’re all hard-nosed philosophers around here, and we want to be as sure as we possibly can. So let’s put this guy to the test and see whether or not he truly deserves the title of omnipotent, rather than, say, really-really awesome and powerful.

You might be forgiven for thinking that this was a perfectly straightforward question to ask, and in any other context it probably would be. But religious philosophy has a really funny habit of tripping all over itself whenever questions like this crop up. Because as simple and intuitive as this problem may seem, most religious philosophers cannot for the life of themselves seem to answer it coherently. It’s an elegant little thought experiment that perfectly captures the bizarre mental gymnastics of Christian apologetics, as well as some of the foundational failings of their entire philosophical world. It’s also a really fun exercise in basic critical thinking skill that takes us over a surprisingly broad spectrum of interesting philosophical subjects. That's why I personally find this question to be so strangely fascinating and why I think you'll enjoy following me down the looming rabbit hole that it represents.

To begin our analysis, let's frame the question in terms of something a little more mundane. Rather than claim to be a full-on omnipotent deity, suppose instead that our stranger merely claims to be a reasonably competent automobile mechanic. It's basically the exact same situation as before, but now framed in a completely nonreligious context. So ask yourself now: How exactly should we go about verifying this claim? After all, it’s not like we just take random people completely at their word for this stuff. There’s real money at stake here, plus the functionality of our cars. Surely there must be some sort of test we can offer before honoring him with such a title, right?

Obviously, the answer is yes, and it works like this. Go get out a piece of paper and write the following words that the top:

Things That a Competent Automobile 
Mechanic Should be Able to Do.

After that, you just enumerate the list with a collection of pertinent challenges. For example:
  1. Change a tire.
  2. Change oil. 
  3. Flush coolant.
  4. ...
… and so on until you’ve completely populated the list. Once finished, you can then issue your challenge in the following fashion:

Dear Mr. Stranger.

Given the proper tools, work space, assistance, etc, I challenge you to complete each of these items on my list within a reasonable amount of time. Or, if the list is infinite in length, then at least complete a reasonable sampling of items until I'm satisfied.

There, done. If our subject is successful, then great. He has officially earned himself the title of competent automobile mechanic. And if not, then oh well. Maybe he's just pretty good with cars or perhaps halfway decent. That’s fine, too. They're just words and labels. 

Now to be fair, this isn’t exactly how we all go about our daily lives, but it does illustrate an important philosophical aspect over the nature of language. Doctors, lawyers, presidents, squirrels, rocks, potatoes---they're all just labels that we define and assign in accordance with a distinct set of empirically verifiable properties. Anything that demonstrates the properties of a given list may officially earn the corresponding title, while things which fail to satisfy those properties are simply not referred to as such. It’s basically a form of philosophical verificationism, and it represents a foundational pillar on which human language operates.

With that in mind, let’s go back to our supposedly omnipotent friend, Mr. Q. Start by getting out a piece of paper and writing the following words that the top:

Things That an Omnipotent Being Should Be Able to Do

What items go on the list now? The answer, it turns out, depends a lot on who you ask. For example, according to one school of thought, the answer is pretty simple: Anything. Literally anything you can think of goes on the list.
  1. Make it rain frogs? Check!
  2. Create a married bachelor? You got it!
  3. Flargle a snuffin? Sure, why not?
  4. ... 
This is a naïve form of omnipotence commonly referred to as absolutism, or absolute omnipotence. Rene Descartes was a famous defender of this position, and even some modern philosophers have periodically defended it as well [1]. It’s actually pretty easy to see where this idea comes from, given that the Bible itself practically screams this interpretation at you. For instance,
  • Matthew 19:26---With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.
  • Mark 10:27---With man it is impossible, but not with God. For all things are possible with God.
  • Luke 1:37---For nothing will be impossible with God.
  • Job 42:2---I know that you [God] can do all things, and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted. 
  • Philippians 4:13---I can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth me
Despite its intuitive basis on Christian scripture, the idea of absolutism is clearly riddled with problems. For example, take the challenge of Flargling a Snuffin. According to absolutism, Mr. Q here should be perfectly capable of doing exactly that without a second thought. Yet, as should be obvious by now, flargle and snuffin are just gibberish words I made up out of nothing---they have no established definition. So pray tell, what exactly could our subject ever do that would satisfy the challenge?

Bear in mind now that this is not a limitation on our subject per se, but a simple problem of language. It’s like mashing my keyboard with random characters and saying “here, do this!” There’s simply nothing to do. I may as well just stand there in silence, or perhaps shrug my shoulders and grunt. Mr. Q cannot ever hope to fulfill a challenge if no coherent challenge was actually given. 

Notice that a similar argument also applies to the challenge of creating a married bachelor. By definition, a bachelor is an unmarried man, which means the creation of a married bachelor is the same thing as creating a married man who is also not married---a logical contradiction. The set of all things that are married is mutually exclusive to the set of all things that are not married. It therefore doesn’t matter what Mr. Q ever presents to me because the rules of logic forbid me from ever recognizing a successful outcome. Again, that’s not a limitation on our subject, but another limitation on language itself. The very words used to formulate the challenge are simply put together wrongly.

This is exactly why absolutism is generally regarded as a pretty terrible form of omnipotence. Nevertheless, it is important to recognize that the death of absolutism does necessarily imply the death of God. All it says is that, whatever things are out there for us to give labels to, none of them will ever be able to demonstrate omnipotence to any rational satisfaction. And since no being can ever possibly earn itself such a title (even in principle), the title itself is essentially meaningless. If, however, we simply redefine omnipotence to mean something slightly different, then all of the problems we just talked about would immediately vanish in a puff of logic.

Remember now that all we’re trying to do here at the end of the day is define a word. If that word is coherent, logical, and verifiable, then great. We can use it to describe various entities in our environment, if and when we ever happen to encounter them. But if the word is incoherent or logically inconsistent, then oh well. It’s not like the universe cares one way or the other. All it means is that we can't use the word to meaningfully describe stuff. Time to go back to the drawing board and see if we can’t think of something better.

Much to the credit of religious philosophers today, that seems to be exactly what happened. Rather than literally be capable of doing anything, a far more common view of omnipotence is the ability to do all that is logically possible [2]. It’s a perfectly straightforward revision that specifically seeks to avoid the incoherence of absolutism while still preserving the totality of power we've come to expect. And that’s a good thing! So let’s all get out a piece of paper and write the following words at the top:

Logically Possible Actions 

What exactly does this mean? How do we determine whether or not some particular task should go on the list? 

Here’s how I interpret it.

Consider a simple challenge like “eat a taco.” If I can imagine some logically possible world wherein that task is being performed by some agent, then good. It goes on the list. For example, I can imagine a logically possible world where it is true that the President of the United States is eating a taco. Therefore, it seems to me, it must be logically possible to eat a taco. It is officially something that can be done, and therefore it must go on the list. Anything that wishes to call itself omnipotent must therefore be able to replicate that feat.

That was easy enough. So let's shake things up a bit by asking a very simple question: Is it, or is it not, logically possible to tell a lie?

Obviously, the answer has to be yes, because people around the world tell lies all the time. Therefore, by modal axiom B [3], it must be logically possible to tell a lie. Therefore, by the definition of omnipotence, all omnipotent beings must be able to tell lies. Strangely enough, however, the Holy Christian Bible says outright that lying is something God cannot do; not just something God doesn’t do or chooses not to do, but literally cannot do.
  • Titus 1:2 “[I]n hope of eternal life which God, who cannot lie, promised before time began.”
  • Hebrews 6:18---“[I]t is impossible for God to lie.”
So right off the bat, the very definition offered by professional Christian philosophers themselves has immediately precluded their very own God from being omnipotent! Isn't that funny? But let's ignore that little problem anyway and see what else can we find wrong with this definition.  

How about this? Go outside and start collecting rocks into a giant pile. Keep piling up rocks until the pile is so heavy that you cannot ever hope to lift them. Congratulations! You have just created a finite pile of rocks that officially satisfies the description of being unliftable by its own maker. Therefore, it must be logically possible to create a pile of rocks, or even a single rock, that satisfies the description of being unliftable by its own maker. Therefore, all omnipotent beings must be able to replicate this task. So let’s pose the challenge.

Dear Mr. Q,

I challenge you to create a finite rock such that its own maker cannot lift it. Go.

So far so good, right? But what happens if Mr. Q actually succeeds in this challenge? After all, last time I checked, it is always logically possible to lift a finite rock.

Notice that this is just a simple variation on the paradox of the stone---Can God create a rock so heavy that even God Himself cannot lift it. It’s a famous philosophical challenge to the idea of omnipotence because it logically prevents any being from ever demonstrating such a property. By definition, all omnipotent beings must, at any given moment, possess the power to both create rocks and to lift rocks subject to specifications. Yet the moment our subject creates a rock he cannot lift, he cannot possibly satisfy the definition of omnipotence any more. That means no being can ever possibly earn the title of omnipotence because the very act of proving it requires them to not have it.

Notice also that we could just as easily frame this exact same problem any number of ways. For example, one of my personal favorites is to stand before a podium and truthfully speak the words “I am not omnipotent.” Again, it’s a perfectly logical task, in that I can imagine a logically possible world where this is taking place. Therefore, at any given moment, an omnipotent being must, by definition, be able to replicate that task---stand before a podium and truthfully speak the words “I am not omnipotent.” Unfortunately, the only way to actually possess such a power is by not being omnipotent!

Bear in mind now that this is not some clever philosophical trick, but a fundamental property of binary propositional logic. Self-referential propositions, when coupled with logical negations, tend to produce really nasty inconsistencies. It's the exact same reason why we have so many other famous paradoxes as well. For example, the Liar’s Paradox, Russel’s Paradox, the Halting Problem, and even Godel’s Incompleteness Theorems are all just similar manifestations of self-referential negation. So it’s not like I’m just making this stuff up, because philosophers, logicians, and mathematicians have been studying this exact same phenomenon for centuries. We therefore must conclude that the capacity to do all that is logically possible is, ironically, not a logical possibility. You can either be complete, or you can be consistent, but you cannot have both simultaneously.

At this point, you would think that most Christians would simply say something like, “why yes, that seems to be a bit of an issue. Perhaps my conception of omnipotence is just a little bit too greedy. Let’s maybe learn from the last 100 years of mathematical logic and see if we can’t find something a little less contradictory.” But of course, the exact opposite is generally true, with hack philosophers around the world dogmatically clinging to their precious definition anyway.

For instance, one complaint that you might hear is how the challenge itself is inherently ambiguous. When I create a rock, the word "maker" refers to myself, the person speaking to you right now. Yet when someone else performs the same task, the meaning of “maker” suddenly changes. On other words, the challenge shares the same type of proposition, but not the same token [4]. Thus, in order for the challenge to be comparable, Mr. Q would not need to create a rock that he cannot lift, but only create a rock that I cannot lift.

This may sound like a somewhat reasonable point at first, but quickly falls apart the moment you actually stop and think about it. For starters, we don’t have to use the word “maker” if we don’t want to. We could have challenged our subject to create a rock so heavy that no being in the universe can lift it. Or better yet, stand before a podium and truthfully state the proposition that “There are no omnipotent beings.” They’re still logically possible actions in some logically possible world, which means they still have to go on the list.

The real problem, however, is that all actions are inherently self-referential. To see why, simply imagine what would happen if I challenged you, right now, to eat a taco. Naturally, if you’re like most people, the obvious interpretation of that task is to immediately grab a taco and start shoving it into your face. If, however, you were to then challenge me to replicate that task, what exactly do you imagine happening next? Do I begin shoving a taco into my own face? Or must I literally shove a second taco into your face and force you to eat it?

Obviously, the former interpretation is the correct viewpoint, because that's how every English-speaking human on the planet understands it. The whole point of issuing the challenge in the first place is to see if you have the power within yourself to replicate a power that I had within myself. Yet, for some strange reason, the moment we try to apply this same line of reason within a religious-philosophical context, then all of a sudden people start acting like a bunch of pedantic morons. By invoking the type/token distinction in this way, it is literally meaningless for me to challenge you to "eat a taco." I have to instead say something horribly obtuse, like "I challenge you to bring about the event of you eating this taco."

Well I'm sorry guys, but events are not the same thing as actions, and I should not have to specify a particular actor in order to coherently define some particular act. When you challenge me to jump five feet in the air, you obviously mean that I have to propel myself with my own legs off the ground beneath me. If, however, I then challenge you to jump five feet in the air, then obviously you must now propel yourself off the ground with your legs. All logically possible actions are, in some way or another, inherently self-referential. Deal with it.

With that taken care of, the next most common objection I tend to hear is that omnipotence doesn’t really mean the ability to do all that is logically possible. Rather, it means something more like the ability to do all that is consistent with one’s nature. That is to say, if the proposition “Y is doing X” is logically self-consistent, then for an omnipotent being, it will always be true that “Y can do X” [5]. 

Okay, fair enough. If you want to just summarily change the definition of omnipotence again, then that’s great. It was a bad definition from the get-go, and we can only grow as philosophers by trying to find something better. But can we please all be grown-up enough to admit that this is nothing more than an indirect admission of defeat? The previous definition was inherently flawed, and so now we’re changing it into something else. Yet whenever I talk to Christian apologists about this, they almost always pretend as if the new definition is really what it was supposed to be all along, and how dare I straw-man such brilliant thinkers by ever suggesting otherwise!

Fine. Whatever. Let’s just roll with it and see what we find this time, shall we? Can an omnipotent being tell a lie or what?

Typically, the answer to this question is that it depends on the being. For example, the God of Christianity cannot tell a lie because doing so would contradict His perfectly honest nature. Thus, to ask God to lie is the logical equivalent to asking a perfectly honest being to not be perfectly honest---apparently, a logical contradiction. But don’t worry, God still gets to be omnipotent anyway because He can still do all the things that are consistent with his divine, unchanging nature. Likewise, God cannot stand before a podium and shout “I am not omnipotent” because that would produce a contradiction as well. Omnipotence is an inherent part of God's nature, so therefore it doesn't have to go on the list of things God can do. Bam. Problem solved!

This is usually the part where I begin to lose all patience with religious philosophers, because responses like this are clearly not well thought out. It really gets under my skin, too, because it represents a profound laziness that makes no effort whatsoever to consider the practical implications of what is actually being said. To illustrate, simply imagine God Himself standing on my doorstep in all His glory, when I issue the following challenge:

Dear God. 

I challenge you, right now, to tell me a lie. Tell me that you’re a potato. Go.

Pray tell, what exactly do Christians imagine happening next? Because as far as I can tell, they seem to imagine something like that scene from Liar Liar where Jim Carry tries to say that the pen is red, but just can’t bring himself to do it [6]---as if some invisible, metaphysical force of honesty is somehow preventing the words from coming out of his mouth! Call me crazy, but I hardly find that to be consistent with the idea of unlimited potentiality. Or maybe Christians just imagine God standing there with a dumb look on His face, as if He didn’t even understand the question? Or what if he just says “I’m sorry, but that would violate my essential nature. No thanks.” What in the hell am I supposed to do with that?

But let’s take it one step further. Suppose you challenge me to lift a 1000-lbs car over my head---except that ooh, I’m sorry, but that would violate my essential nature! You see, I’m a being comprised of physical muscle mass that can only lift 200 lbs. When you ask me to lift 1000 lbs, then you’re asking me to perform a contradiction---A being that cannot lift more than 200 lbs is lifting more than 200 lbs. Not only that, but any challenge you give me can be counteracted in the exact same way. No being can logically be expected to do the things it cannot do.

So congratulations, my dear Christians! You’ve solved the omnipotence paradox. All you had to do was replace it with the omnipotence tautology. Literally anything and everything in the universe is now omnipotent because nothing can ever logically do the things it cannot do!

“Aha!” I hear you saying. “It is only incidental that you cannot lift 1000 lbs. I can still imagine a possible world wherein you are lifting 1000 lbs over your head. Therefore, it may be logically possible, but not physically possible!"

Actually, no. What you're imagining right now isn't me. It may be an entity very similar to me, but that's not really me. Because as we just established, I am not a being who can lift 1000 lbs over my head.

Or better yet, let's play that game in reverse. I can imagine a possible world wherein God is telling a lie. Now what? What’s the difference? Why is lying a violation of God’s essential nature, but lifting 1000 lbs is totally consistent with mine? Because as far as I can tell, this entire line of reasoning appears to be nothing more than blatant special pleading. When God can’t do a thing, then it must be because it violates His essential nature. Yet when I can’t do a thing, then apparently it’s little more than a conditional happenstance of my feeble, limited existence.

So once again, we have another example of responding to an argument without any effort to actually address the argument. But the thing I find absolutely hilarious about this new definition is how (of all people) the famous apologist Alvin Plantinga himself personally debunked it as far back as the 1960s [7]. All you have to do is imagine a man called Mr. McEar, who just so happens to have one essential property---he has only the power to scratch his ear, and nothing else. Thus, by definition, any other task you challenge him to complete is a logical violation of his essential nature. Hardly an “all-powerful” being, wouldn’t you say? Yet, according to our new definition, Mr. McEar is still just as omnipotent as almighty God Himself!

All tangents aside, the real problem with this whole “essential nature” nonsense is just that: essentialism---the idea that there exists some kind of intrinsic “essence” to things that makes them what they are. It’s a perfectly natural bias through which human beings tend to look at the world, but it’s still completely bogus. Ever since the Greek philosopher Plutarch introduced the Theseus paradox back in the first century [8], philosophers have had very good reasons to reject essentialism as a worthless, incoherent concept. A chair does not have some magically objective “essence of chairness” that makes it a chair. It’s just some arrangement of physical material stuff that human beings have arbitrarily decided to sit on and call a “chair.” Likewise, there is no such thing as “essence of Godliness” that would make God “God.” Rather, there is only a distinct collection of empirically verifiable properties which, if demonstrated, would earn some lucky entity the official title of “God."

So not only do we have Christians pushing yet another idea of omnipotence that just doesn’t work, but it’s grounded on philosophical presumptions that have been categorically debunked for almost two thousand years. However, it really needs to be emphasized that all of these crazy problems would vanish in a heartbeat if only the theists would just stop insisting on such bungled definitions. It’s sad, too, because it’s really not that hard to come up with something relatively functional. So let’s do the theists’ job for them and just define omnipotence in a way that isn’t stupid, shall we?

Omnipotence: the capacity to create, destroy, and rearrange matter/energy in accordance with arbitrary whims. 

There. Done! If we ever encounter any being with this kind of power, I will be more than happy to refer to such a being as “omnipotent.” Can he create rocks? Sure. Can he lift rocks? Absolutely. But can he create a rock so heavy that even its own maker cannot lift it? Nope. Not a chance. But guess what? That’s perfectly okay, because it's still logically consistent with the stated definition.

Notice how a definition like this also solves all kinds of goofy philosophical issues. For example, one lesser-known problem with omnipotence is the problem of creating two omnipotent beings at once. So let’s imagine a possible world wherein two beings are both competing for the official title of “omnipotent deity.” All we have to do is make a game out of it. Challenge one guy to turn my car into a pile of squirrels while challenging the other guy to turn it into a sack of potatoes. Whichever outcome occurs will then determine which guy is the loser and which guy earns the title. Done. 

Or better yet, let’s consider another lesser-known problem. I challenge you to truthfully tell me what I ate for dinner last year. You’ll notice that this is not really so much a test of power, but rather a test of knowledge. Yet according to most classical definitions for omnipotence, there is no distinction. The omnipotent being must be able to do it because I formulated the challenge as a logically coherent action. If, however, we adopt the new definition, then it is now possible for a being to be omnipotent, but not necessarily omniscient. All-powerful and all-knowing are now philosophically distinct concepts, as we should reasonably expect.

Notice also that there are still many possible ways to potentially break the definition. For example, could an omnipotent being create another omnipotent being? Or what if I challenge the being to kill itself? Would that violate the definition? Maybe, maybe not. But you’ll notice that I’m not racking my brain with obtuse rationalizations just to protect a stupid definition. If it works, then great. It not, then oh well. We'll just think of something better.

The ultimate irony in this entire discussion is that, when all is said and done here, I’m basically just fixing the theists’ philosophical problems for them. Yet if past experience is any guide, the overwhelming majority of them will never see it that way. Instead, they’ll probably view this entire discussion as a literal attack on God Himself, as if the words used to describe some possible entity might have real power over whether or not it actually exists. That’s what happens when you live your life defending dogma rather than honestly searching for a better understanding of the world. But the thing I find really embarrassing about this entire debate is that by clinging to their philosophically warped definitions, it is the Christians themselves who are logically forcing their God squarely into the realm of nonexistence. Even if there were a God-like thing somewhere out there in the cosmos for us to meet, the rules of language would prevent us from ever rationally calling it such.

Thanks for reading.

  1. Earl Conee, "The possibility of power beyond possibility," Philosophical Perspectives, Vol. 5, pp 447--473 (1991)
  2. See, for example, the Catholic Encyclopedia or the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy "S is omnipotent =df S can perform any action A such that A is possible"
  3. If X is true in the actual world, then X is necessarily possible.
  4. See, for example, this video here
    See also Type-token distinction
  5. (PlaceForTruth.org) "When used of God, it refers to fact that He is all-powerful, that He is unconstrained by any outside force; He can do anything consistent with His character."
    (GraceBibleChurch) "God is infinitely able to do all things that He desires to do, but must at all times be consistent with His perfect attributes or essence."
  6. Plantinga, Alvin. 1967. "God and other minds: a study of the rational justification of belief in God." Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.
  7. Ship of Theseus

Saturday, August 19, 2017

Philosophical Failures of Christian Apologetics, Part 10: Other Religions

So does God exist or not?

Well, hopefully, if you've been paying attention up to this point, the answer is pretty obvious. No. Don't be ridiculous. The very idea of God is already a hopelessly incoherent mess unto itself, meaning the very notion of His entire existence can be utterly disproved through exercise of pure reason alone. But even if someone actually did manage to provide a logically viable conception for a word like "God," then the burden of proof would obviously lie with theists to empirically demonstrate that God's existence and not with atheists to negatively prove the contrary. Until that burden is actually met, the complete lack of evidence alone would again justify the strong assertion that there is no such thing as God.

But hey, let's be generous and just assume outright that the theists are correct anyway. God is a logically coherent thing manifest in objective reality as a powerful, sentient agent. He created the universe, He created all life as we know it, and He personally intends to judge us for our Earthly compliance with the doctrines of His one true religion.

Can someone please now tell me exactly which religion is that supposed to be?
  • Islam?
  • Hinduism?
  • Zoroastrianism?
  • Christianity?
  • Judaism?
  • Shintosim?
  • Sikhism?
  • Jainism?
All of these religions claim absolute certainty about the correct nature of the one true God (or Gods), and many of them even threaten us with eternal damnation for accidentally believing the wrong one. So how exactly are we supposed to tell which one of these is the correct path to salvation as opposed some soul-destroying concoction of fallible, human corruption?
Obviously, we can't. None of these religions have any epistemic advantage over the others, and it's almost entirely a matter of cultural upbringing as to which one people happen to pick. But hey, let's ignore all of that, too, and just assume anyway that the one true faith is indeed Christianity.

Now what? Which denomination of Christianity am I supposed to follow?
  • Catholic?
  • Pentecostal?
  • Baptist?
  • Mennonite?
  • Lutheran?
  • Mormon?
  • Anglican?
  • Adventist?
  • Methodist?
  • Quaker?
  • Presbyterian?
Remember now, our immortal souls are at stake, here! One bad choice could easily mean the difference between eternal, heavenly bliss or endless hellfire and damnation. Yet there are dozens, if not hundreds, of denominations for us to choose from within Christianity alone. So what compelling argument can anyone possibly hope to offer that proves the veracity of any one faith over another? At the very most, only one of these God concepts can rightfully be considered correct, while all other variations necessarily must be the product of human imagination. Yet if everyone else believes in wild, superstitious nonsense for no good reason, then what makes any religious believer so perfectly convinced in the absolute truth of their particular brand of faith?

And so we come to the ultimate philosophical failure of all Christian apologetics: The mere existence of other religions.

Notice how even if we completely grant everything that Christian apologists could ever ask for, we're still faced with an indisputably blunt fact about human nature: the vast, overwhelming majority of all people throughout history have dedicated their lives to the worship of things that are most definitely not real. We're talking about a phenomenon so ubiquitous among cultural groups that it practically qualifies as a defining feature. So it's not just atheists who are claiming that God does not exist, but the theists themselves with respect to each other. You will never find an orthodox Christian who sincerely believes that the Mormon conception of God can lead one to salvation, just like you will never find a single Mormon who accepts the salvation of Islam. If anything, the only practical distinction that separates theists from atheists is the simple fact that atheists add one extra little entry to that massive list of other God concepts that certainly aren't real.

This is not a trivial observation to make, and it speaks volumes about the intellectual integrity of religious apologetics. If religion had anything to do a real, supernatural agent communicating His will onto our species, then you'd think we would see a gradual convergence of theologies over time. False doctrines would inevitably have to be discarded as correct doctrines withstood critically objective scrutiny. But instead, we see the exact opposite, with new religious denominations seemingly popping into existence all the time, then heavily segregating themselves along very distinct cultural and geographic boundaries [1]. It's a dead giveaway that religion has nothing to do with any rational desire to understand reality, but instead is a highly subjective product of human cultural groups. So rather than debate endlessly over the existence of any particular God or Gods, perhaps the real question we should be asking ourselves is where do all these religions keep coming from in the first place?

It cannot be stressed enough that this is still a perfectly valid question to ask even if your own personal concept of God just so happens to be real. Yet most Christian apologists are almost deafeningly silent on this question, as if the mere virtue of acknowledging it out loud would accidentally expose the gratuitous nature of their own beliefs. Even on the rare occasions when they do try to discuss the issue in some sense, the only comment they ever seem to have on the matter is a casual assertion of Christian exclusivism—the blanket insistence that all those other religions are just plain wrong while Christianity is obviously the only correct one out of the bunch [2,3]. 

So if Christians aren’t even going to touch the problem of religious pluralism with a ten foot pole, then perhaps this is a good opportunity to see what science has to say on the matter. After all, it’s not like all these religions just poofed into being out of nothing. Something is obviously causing this phenomenon, and the only way to figure out what is through meticulous investigation. It was therefore only a matter of time before science finally stepped up to the plate by developing a viable, pragmatic theory of religion itself.

Starting with the absolute basics, it’s important to always bear in mind that, from a purely biological perspective, human beings are essentially just another collection of evolved organisms. Everything about us is inescapably driven by a fundamental competition over scarce resources in an unending cycle of survival and reproduction. This is not a matter of any serious scientific dispute, but a brute fact of nature on which any religious theory must be grounded. Contrary to popular intuition, however, not all competition is inherently zero sum. That is to say, not all of my gains necessarily have to be a result of someone else’s loss. Life very frequently presents us with valuable opportunities to maximize fitness through simple acts of cooperation rather than pure, unrelenting antagonism. That's why so many organisms spend so much effort working together in cooperative groups. For example, wolves hunt together in packs, bees live together in colonies, and even the bacteria in your gut work with your own digestive track to break down complex nutrients.

This is a well-known phenomenon called symbiotic mutualism, or simply cooperation, wherein self-interested biological agents tend to work together for the sake of mutually beneficial outcomes. It’s a perfectly natural consequence of basic game theory when applied to common biological scenarios. The only thing that distinguishes human beings in this regard is the sheer scale on which we've exploited its benefits. It's an advanced form of mutualism commonly referred to as social interdependence, wherein none of us can reliably survive and flourish without the rest of us. The more we work together, the better off we collectively tend to be. Cohesive, cooperative societies are therefore stable and prosperous, while fractured antagonistic societies inevitably struggle to meet basic human needs.

None of this is controversial so far, but it does raise significant questions over how exactly our brains are able to manage all of this social navigation in the first place. For instance, consider this pair of objects shown here [imagine a rock and a face]. Obviously, one of these things is representative of a thinking, feeling agent, while the other is little more than a lifeless hulk of unfeeling material stuff. You may have noticed, however, that I didn’t really need to tell you any of that. If you're anything like most people, you already came to that exact conclusion long before I even began explaining it. Not only that, but you probably also have an innate sense of what this person might be feeling, or even where his attention is currently focused.

Clearly, as this simple demonstration shows, human beings appear to possess highly effective faculties for both recognizing and evaluating the presence of other agents. It's all part of an awesome cognitive process known as theory of mind—the ability to perceive other objects in one’s environment as having a distinct mental awareness that is similar to, but independent of, the self. It's an essential tool in human social dynamics that allows us to empathize with fellow group members and even predict how they might respond to various situations. But as impressive as all this may be, it's important to realize that it didn't all just happen by magic. Somewhere, somehow, deep inside of your brain, there exist complex collections of neurons dedicated solely to this process. Some of these collections have even been identified directly, like the well-known system of mirror neurons found in most social primates. Not only do mirror neurons activate when an agent performs a given action, but also when the agent merely observes another agent performing the very same act [4].

That's all well and good so far, but we need to always remember that evolution will never produce a perfectly reliable system. Mistakes are inevitably going to be made, and those mistakes necessarily must produce tangible, biological costs. To illustrate, simply imagine what might happen if you were utterly incapable of either recognizing or empathizing with other agents in your environment. That is to say, rather than perceive your fellow human beings as individuals with unique thoughts and motivations separate from your own, maybe you instead experience some lifeless, unfeeling stimulus, no different from the wind or sunshine. This is known as a Type II error, or simply a false negative—the failure to attribute agency onto an actual agent. So ask yourself, what biological costs might be associated with this kind error? How do you think people would react if you treated them as a mere stimulus rather than a fellow, sympathetic agent? Would that be good for your reproductive fitness, or bad?  

Obviously, the costs of such an error can be quite high, which is why natural selection has overwhelmingly biased our judgment as far away from this threshold as it possibly can. In so doing, however, we now fall under a much greater risk of committing the exact opposite mistake: the accidental attribution of subjective agency onto lifeless, unthinking objects. Such an error is called a Type I error, or a false positive, and again must result in tangible biological consequences.

So no matter which way our actions are biased, it seems we cannot help but periodically make mistakes in our attribution of agency to the environment. Fortunately, however, there is no reason whatsoever for the  costs of such errors to be perfectly symmetric. While a Type II error is essentially catastrophic for a socially dependent organism, the Type I error is merely inconvenient. Maybe you avoid stepping on a few bushes because you’re afraid to hurt them, or maybe you spend a little time asking the moon for advice. Maybe you perform a few rain dances to appease the clouds, or perhaps yell at the ocean for not producing enough fish. These are all perfectly affordable costs for any social creature, given the huge advantages that arise from trustworthy cooperation with other group members.  

This simple thought experiment represents the biological foundation for a very important phenomenon called hyperactive agent detection—the overwhelming tendency for human beings to over-attribute agency onto their environment rather than under-attribute. It's a ubiquitous aspect of all human psychology that can even be measured empirically under laboratory conditions. For example, pareidolia is the tendency to see things like human faces in otherwise random, natural features [5]. Spontaneous social attribution is a potent effect wherein animated geometric shapes are imbued with apparent personalities, relationships, genders, and back stories [6,7]. Promiscuous teleology is the tendency to perceive natural objects or random events as having been specially designed with intention [8]. Personification is a literary device wherein nonhuman objects, or even abstract objects, are endowed with distinctly human features and emotions [9]. Even autism spectrum disorder has been theorized as a kind of breakdown in these agent detection mechanisms, wherein victims characteristically struggle with basic social skills [10].

So by default, without any need for outside priming or stimulation, the immediate human tendency is to perceive practically everything as if it were endowed with a distinct capacity for motivated agency. That's why, with all other factors being held equal, the spiritual beliefs of all primitive hunter-gatherer cultures have universally been animistic in nature. These so-called primal religions are strikingly similar in that mundane, lifeless objects, including rocks, trees, mountains and clouds, are all seen as having a distinctly spiritual essence that moves them and governs their behavior. It’s a perfectly natural manifestation given the constraints of early human cognition, but it’s a still completely wrong. The weather does not respond to human promptings and the ocean isn’t going to produce any more fish no matter how much you yell at it. Any effort spent placating the spirits is therefore inherently wasteful and must exert some tangible cost in terms of biological fitness.

Notice how this puts early humans in a curious evolutionary position. While the benefits of social cooperation are comparatively enormous, the effort spent reacting to fictitious agents is still inherently costly. Natural selection therefore cannot help but operate on primal religious traditions by creating as many productive variations as it can. The immediate implication is thus a kind of cultural descent with modification, wherein religious practices slowly develop in sophistication and diversification over many successive generations. It's as if religion itself literally takes on a life of its own by competing for adherents against other religions in a kind of cultural-psychological ecosystem. Traditions that are more successful at generating converts and preserving their well-being will eventually come to dominate the cultural landscape, while less successful traditions are driven to ever greater obscurity, or even possible extinction.

This is how animism gradually gave rise to a religious practice known as polytheism—the institutional worship of many gods and goddesses who serve as anthropomorphic representations for the various forces of nature. There's really no fundamental difference between the two systems, except for perhaps a relative degree of sophistication within the practicing cultures. For example, consider the famous gods and goddess of classical Greek and Roman mythology. What exactly is Poseidon, if not a glorified spirit of the sea and waves? What is Aphrodite, if not the spirit of love and fertility? Where did Zeus come from, if not the ever-watchful spirit of the sky and thunder? Even the various priests and oracles who worked at the great temples were little more than glorified shamans, taking on the distinct role of spiritual authority within local communities.

Now consider what happens when the complexity of some polytheistic pantheon grows too large. That is to say, do we really have to appease all of the gods to produce favored outcomes? Or just some of the more important ones? Should I build a shrine to Zeus and Artemis? Or just Artemis alone? Do both gods even respond equally well to appeals? Or is one more sympathetic to human needs than the other?

Clearly, ancient polytheists could not possibly be expected to worship all gods with equal fervor. Instead, practical limitations dictate that they eventually had to pick and choose among their favorites. It was a common religious practice known as henotheism, wherein many gods are openly acknowledged as both existing and exerting influence, but only a select few (or even just one) are ever granted any serious worship. For example, you don’t exactly see a whole lot of ancient Greek temples devoted to Atë, the goddess of mischief, but you do see a hell of a lot of time and energy spent on more prominent deities like Artemis, Zeus, and Athena [11]. Often times, this would manifest through a distinct system of local patronage wherein individual city-states tended to adopt a preferred deity for serious devotion. For example, Athens worshiped Athena, Olympia emphasized Zeus, and Corinth chose Poseidon.

In some cases, the devotion towards one particular deity might grow so intense that all other deities would find themselves being excluded outright. It's a practice commonly known as monolatrism (or monolatry) wherein many gods are still openly acknowledged as existing, but only a single one is ever worshiped openly across some cultural region. For example, it's a well-known fact that the early Israelite nation believed in a whole slew of gods and goddesses, including such famous names as El, Ba'al, and Asherah [12]. The main difference, however, is that Yahweh, and only Yahweh, was ever granted any serious devotion. In fact, most Biblical scholars even agree that the Old Testament itself preserves many vestiges of that tradition in numerous passages. Take, for instance, the first of the Ten Commandments given to Moses: “thou shalt have no other gods before me” [13]. Notice that Yahweh doesn’t actually reject the existence of any other gods per se, but simply instructs Moses to never give any of them priority in worship. Many other passages further confirm this perspective, like in Exodus 15 which asks, "Who among the gods is like you, oh Lord?" [14]. What other gods could we possibly be talking about, if not the gods of some greater, established pantheon?

Eventually, the practice of monolatry would grow so extreme for ancient Hebrews that they finally developed into full-on classical monotheism—the outright rejection of any existence whatsoever to all other gods but one. We again see evidence of this transition in later books of the Old Testament, which often go out of their way to remind the reader that there are no other gods but Yahweh [15]. Why would this be so important to emphasize if not to discredit a widely-held belief?

It’s easy to see how the adoption of monotheism might lead to all kinds of distinct cultural advantages. After all, if there's only one God, and only one correct way to worship that God, then it becomes much easier to build a unified sense of cultural identity around that God. Doing so might have huge benefits for group cohesion on a national scale as well as the effectiveness of leadership authority. Maybe it provides greater resistance against hostile neighbors, or maybe better stability in national government. Who knows? But there obviously has to be some tangible benefit to this practice because the overwhelming majority of religious adherents today are most definitely monotheistic [16].

Notice that we've just established a clear line of descent with modification that perfectly accounts for the historical development of all Western religion. Starting with early hunter-gatherer cultures, we know that hyperactive agent detection has full capacity to spontaneously develop into animism. Natural selection then acted that foundation over many generations to produce ever more complex and diverse variations. Some of those variants tended to anthropomorphize the numerous forces of nature, thereby giving rise to the familiar concept of gods and goddess. Practical necessity would then force those groups to prioritize worship among their favorite gods in particular, with some of those even going so far as to grant full devotion to only one, singular deity. At least one of those groups then came to reject the existence of all other spirit-gods entirely, such that one, and only one, god was finally given full authority over everything in the cosmos.

Viola! Animism develops into polytheism, which turns into henotheism, which then grows into monolatrism, until finally culminating into monotheism. It perfectly explains the documented historical development of all known ancient religions. Not only that, but it even predicts the branching tree-of-life pattern one would expect from a long chain of inherited descent with modification [17]. So pray tell, my dear Christians, but what exactly do you think is going on here? Remember that your own faith requires you to be exclusive in terms of who can achieve salvation and who can't. That means every “wrong” branch in this tree, including those within Christianity itself, is necessarily doomed for all eternity.  Yet each and every one of these groups is equally convinced as you in the absolute truth of their faith. What makes you so god-damn confident that your particular little branch any better?

Bear in mind now that, despite this huge wealth of anthropological data, there are still countless open questions that have yet to be resolved. For example, why do religions universally have such strong obsessions over human sexuality and death? Why do they consistently generate so many odd-ball stories about cosmology and human origins? What sort of forces tend to accelerate or stabilize the emergence of new religious traditions over time? What does it take to overcome these traditions and convince people to view the world through an objective, skeptical lens? These are all fantastic questions, and there’s a virtual army of psychologists, neurologists, historians, and anthropologists all collectively investigating them as we speak. Heck, maybe even some of you watching this right now will be instrumental in answering those questions within our lifetimes. Whatever the answers may be, they can only be found through the careful application of science and the scientific method. Only by understanding the cognitive forces that govern religious development can we ever hope to cure  humanity of the superstitions that have plagued our minds since the dawn of civilization.


  1. Leading Church Bodies, 2000
  2. See, for example, Politically Incorrect Salvation, by William Lane Craig
  3. See also Jones, M. S., The Problem of Religious Pluralism
  4. See Mirror Neurons
  5. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pareidolia
  6. Heider and Simmel, "An experimental study of apparent behavior," The American Journal of Psychology, Vol 57, No 2, pp. 243-259 (1944)
  7. Heider and Simmel Video: (link)
  8. ..
  9. ...
  10. Hamilton, A. F., "Reflecting on the mirror neuron system in autism: a systemic review of current theories," Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience, Vol. 3, pp 91-105, 2013
  11. See the List of Ancient Greek Temples for an indication of which gods were more important over others.
  12. Smith, M. S., The Early History of God: Yahweh and the Other Deities of Ancient Israel,
  13. Exodus 20:3
  14. Exodus 15:11
  15. See Isaiah 45:5, Deuteronomy 4:35, Deuteronomy 32:39, 2 Samuel 7:22, 1 Kings 8:60, and many others
  16. See the world religion breakdown. Ignoring the non-religious, we find that almost two-thirds of the remainder are monotheists.
  17. See the World Religions Tree Infographic. Or for a more simplified graphic, see The Evolutionary Tree of Religion

Saturday, July 29, 2017

This is What a Typical Christian Rebuttal Looks Like

It looks like I got a response to my video presentation on the Moral Argument for the Existence of God. It comes from a guy who calls himself Maximus Confesses and represents one of the higher-quality examples of feedback I've received on my videos. Unfortunately, that's not really saying much, since practically everything this guy says is just wrong. However, I'm going to do a public analysis anyway, just to give you all a taste of the bizarre philosophical nonsense I have to put up with from Christians. Let’s take a look!

For convenience, I have placed Maximus' quotes in bold-italics. Whenever he cites my own writings, I also underline them.

My capacity to respond to videos is often halted by my inability to watch and rewatch videos, while typing up a transcript. However, I am fortunate that the YouTube user AntiCitizen X (henceforth ACX) decided to publish a transcript of his video on his blog.  

You’re welcome.

Before I begin, I want to draw a distinction between the moral argument as I’ve often come across it online, as opposed to Moral Argumentation for God’s existence in general. The formulation that people like ACX and I are acquainted with is the formulation provided by William Lane Craig, which is,
  1.     If God does not exist, objective moral values and duties do not exist.
  2.     Objective moral values and duties do exist.
  3.     Therefore, God exists.
However, this is not the only formulation of the argument, I provide my own here. So, even if one does have reason to object to the validity of this formulation, it does not rule out other formulations of the moral argument.

I was actually quite clear in my presentation that there are “dozens of variations floating around” with respect to the moral argument for God’s existence. However, it is important to realize that I actually made very little effort to attack the formal structure of the argument itself. Instead, the overwhelming majority of my criticism was levied at the ideas required to state the argument in the first place. Those fundamental ideas, including divine command theory, moral realism, and moral objectivity, are almost universal across the entirety of Christian moral philosophy. So yes, Maximus, any criticism I offer against Craig’s version of the moral argument does indeed transfer quite happily to all other variations you could possibly hope to offer. Unless you hold to a fundamental conception of morality that wildly differs from the overwhelming majority of mainstream Christianity, then this comment of yours is completely false.

With that point out of the way, I will begin by first addressing the greatest flaw of my interlocutor’s post, namely, that it is composed of a slew of irrelevant observations. Take for example the following,

Religions work very hard to intertwine themselves with the perception of absolute moral authority, such that giving up one’s faith is often seen as the equivalent of giving up all sense of human decency at the same time. Why else would believers consistently view atheists as the least trustworthy minority group in all of America [3]? It’s another deliberate psychological ploy designed to manipulate the believers into remaining believers, and not necessarily to build a viable case for God’s existence.

Maximus doesn’t seem to appreciate the basic, running theme of my videos. It’s not enough to merely refute some random philosophical argument. I like to present some of the relevant psychology that compels people to embrace bad arguments in the first place. I also like to present big picture information as to why such an argument is actually worth responding to, given the huge variety of nonsensical claims that we could be spending out time on. To that effect, I cited a study wherein atheists actually ranked lower than rapists on a perceived measure of distrust. I did this specifically to emphasize the broader social impact of this subject, yet Maximus is summarily dismissing the whole thing outright as “irrelevant observations”---as if such information couldn’t possibly inform the discussion in any capacity whatsoever!

Good grief, it’s called “context,” you moron. It’s what good writers do to invite their audience into the discussion. You don’t just dive head-first into nuanced philosophical essays without first introducing the topic a little. That would be boring. Your comments on this matter are completely pointless, except to take a cheap shot at my character.

First off, let’s disentangle what the word ‘religion’ from the context of the moral argument. 

Dude, it’s called “The Moral Argument for the Existence of God.” In what logical universe are we supposed to disentangle religion from a literal argument for God’s existence? 

The main thrust of moral argumentation for the existence of God is that the truth of objective morality requires the existence of God. One need not be religious to believe in God, so, as far as I’m concerned, this is mere virtue signaling to other atheists that they’re special snowflakes, freed from the psychological ploys of the religious.

So the fact that atheists are considered less trustworthy than literal rapists is an entirely irrelevant point in your mind? Do you really fail to see how this little piece of information might have some relevance to the way people respond to the moral argument? Come on, Maximus. You can’t possibly be that dense.

Here’s is another one,

But even ignoring all of that, the one thing that makes this argument such a truly spectacular failure is the fact that Christians are specifically trying to prove the existence of Yahweh, the God of the Bible — the very same god that has openly and proudly endorsed some of the most unspeakable moral atrocities we can possibly imagine. We’re talking about a God that actively encourages:

1. Slavery (Exodus 21:20–21, Colossians 3:22, Ephesians 6:5)

2. Blood sacrifice (Genesis 8:20)

3. Human sacrifice (Genesis 22:1–18, Exodus 32:27)

4. Misogyny (Genesis 3:16, Exodus 21:7–8, Corinthians 11:8–9)

5. Genital Mutilation (Genesis 17:10–14, 1 Samuel 18:27)

6. Genocide (Genesis 6–9, Numbers 21:3, Numbers 21:33–35, Deuteronomy 2:33–34, Joshua 6:21–27, Joshua 10)

7. Infanticide (1 Samuel 15:3, Exodus 11–12)

8. Thought crimes (Matthew 5:27–28)

9.Rape (Deuteronomy 22:28–29)

10. and death penalties for trivial offences! (Exodus 35:2, Numbers, 15:32–36, 2 Samuel 6:6–7, 1 Kings 13:15–24, 2 kings 2:23)

The very idea that the Biblical God is supposed to serve as the ultimate standard of moral goodness is patently ludicrous. It practically gives a free-license to engage in the most destructive, antisocial behaviors in human history.

Again, irrelevant. Moral argumentation need not be used for the God of Christianity. Even if it were, the Christian need not commit themselves to Biblical inerrancy. Further, even Christians who do accept inerrancy, there is still an apologetic offered (for example, my own defense of Biblical slavery). Sometimes, the apologetic is as simple as pointing out that one’s interlocutor is too stupid to read.

What a wonderful tool of argumentation. Simply dismiss a monumental observation as merely “irrelevant” and don’t even bother addressing the key point at hand.

Look Maximus, this is really simple. If you are Christian, then it stands to reason that you worship the deity known as Yahweh. If you are also a supporter of the Moral Argument for God’s existence, then it necessarily follows that everything you believe about the relationship between God and morality must also apply to that very same Yahweh character described in the Holy Bible. If you actually bothered to read your Bible, you would further find several records of Yahweh happily endorsing all kinds of horrible things like slavery, genocide, and rape. Therefore, if you believe Yahweh is the standard for all moral perfection and goodness, then you are also implicitly arguing for the moral goodness of slavery, genocide, and rape! If you cannot wrap your little brain around the fatal problems this might present for your entire moral philosophy, then you’re quite literally too stupid to be involved in this conversation.

For example, Matthew 5:27–28 reads,

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’28 But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.

However, since a thoughtcrime is an Orwellian neologism used to describe an illegal thought, and nowhere is Jesus proscribing some form of punishment, it does not fit the category. Granted, Jesus does suggest that it’s sinful, but to be sinful is not necessarily to incur some punishment.

Let me get this straight. Jesus states flat-out that lust is a sin of the same magnitude as adultery. However, since Jesus didn’t explicitly prescribe a punishment for that particular act, that somehow makes it all okay? As if I can lust after women all day long and God will not hold a single one of those sins against me in the afterlife? Do you even know what you’re saying? And how does any this comment even come close to addressing the issue at hand?

Jesus also says

“Why then,” they asked, “did Moses command that a man give his wife a certificate of divorce and send her away?” Jesus replied, “Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard. But it was not this way from the beginning. I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery.”

Notice, Jesus says divorce is and was sinful, but permitted (and hence, did not incur punishment) under the law of Moses. It’s quick observations like these that expose such lists as less daunting than they appear. I could go on, but I’d like to go to the meat of the argument.

First off, Jesus never says that divorce is permissible in any objectivist sense of the word. He simply says that “Moses permitted” divorce for various reasons. So your comment doesn’t even jibe with the quoted facts of the Bible as you just barely stated.

Secondly, Jesus also goes on to say that divorce is still sinful except for very specific conditions. It is therefore a complete mystery to me what Maximus is even trying to argue with this point. If the Bible does not explicitly prescribe some direct punishment for a given sin, is that supposed to automatically mean everyone is free to engage in such behavior without any consequences whatsoever? Where is he even going with this? This entire comment from Maximums is just a giant non-sequitur.

The first objection is that,

But what is morality, really? Because for all this talk about morals and values, it’s surprisingly rare for anyone to actually break them down into rigorous, coherent terms. So let’s begin with the simple observation that the core of all morality is implicitly defined by choice. That’s why we only tend to punish people for things they consciously decide to do or not do, and never for things that just happen. But it’s also equally important to realize that choice itself has no practical meaning unless one is trying to actualize some desirable outcome. “Good” and “right” choices are those which can reliably produce a specified result, while “bad” and “wrong” choices ultimately fail in that goal.

I agree that morality first has to be defined, and I think morality necessarily concerns the choices of agents. However, the notion that “choice itself has no practical meaning unless one is trying to actualize some desirable outcome” is contentious.

So you agree that morality is implicitly defined by choice, but you dispute the idea that choice has any logical connection to actions and consequences. Okay, fine. Name me a single example of a choice that is morally good, in and of itself, independent of any goals or consequences. Go.

Some things should be recognized as a good in themselves. Take for example reason itself, it could not be solely valuable because if its practical outcome because knowing any practical outcomes presupposes the value of reason in the first place.

First off, you don't have to "presuppose the value of reason" in order to observe that reason tends to help actualize desirable, pro-social outcomes by properly informing social decisions. That's just a completely false proposition on the part of Maximus.

Secondly, it's important to point out that Maximus hasn’t actually bothered to define morality yet, and already he is making bare assertions that certain things are just good. How does he pretend to know that? What does goodness even mean? What rules does he apply when assigning that label? What is it about reason that makes it a good thing and not a bad thing? Maximus haven’t even bothered to address these questions in the slightest shred of detail, but instead just asserts his position outright (something he is ironically about to accuse me of doing very shortly!).

As far as I can tell, Maximus seems to think that goodness is just some inherent metaphysical quality of reason itself. So even if, by some happenstance, reason were to result in the consistent propagation of pain and suffering on a global scale, that aura of goodness would still surround every act of reason anyway. It's very frustrating to have to respond to this kind of criticism, given that my video already explains these exact problems in painstaking detail. All Maximus is doing is reasserting the very thing I went out of my way to debunk.

It is from this point where ACX sneaks in consequentialism,

How it is sneaky to state openly and proudly that consequentialism is a logically necessary component of all coherent morality? For fuck’s sake, Maximus, I even wrote the word “consequentialism” in giant orange letters on the screen! In what possible context is that being “sneaky?” Morality implies choice, choice implies goals, and goals imply actions and consequences. This is not a subtle train of thought, you jackass.

I apologize in advance for my growing impatience and profanity, but Maximus is being completely disingenuous with his choice of words here. I have no patience for people who have to deliberately lie so brazenly when engaging in basic philosophical discussions.

So which goals are specifically “moral” in nature and which ones are not? This is another one of those sticky philosophical issues that sparks all kinds of academic debate to this day. Yet despite all the contention, most people do tend to agree that any coherent concept of seemingly “moral” behavior must revolve around some kind of ultimate, social interaction. Morally “good” choices tend to manifest through desirable, pro-social consequences while morally “evil” choices are those which tend to do the opposite. But no matter what the specifics may be, it’s important to always bear in mind that the whole notion of morality itself is utterly meaningless and irrelevant without some form of consequentialism at its foundation.

And just like that, with no argument made, another assertion is just thrown out there, and ACX just expects us to swallow it whole.

Maximus doesn’t seem to realize that all I’m doing here is stating a definition. I am simply explaining what the word “morality” seems to entail as a basic concept within the English language. I therefore don’t need any heavy-handed arguments to support my position, because all definitions are little more than “bare assertions” at the end of the day. All I have to do is show how my definition is more coherent and functional than the alternatives, which I spend a great deal of effort on in the following paragraphs. Not only that, but Maximus spends a great deal of his essay responding to those very paragraphs, which means on some fundamental level he has to know that I’m not just throwing shit out there and expecting you to swallow it. This whole comment is therefore yet another example of Maximus’ deliberate dishonesty.

It’s as if virtue ethics or deontology aren’t viable eithical frameworks.

During my video, I went out of my way to compare and contrast consequentialism against the standard Christian perspectives on morality. I elaborated in great detail how consequentialism provides simple, intuitive interpretations for various propositions, while Christian moral realism simply collapses under its own incoherence. Again, Maximus knows this because he spends a huge chunk of his essay engaging with those very arguments. This comment is therefore yet another lie, in that he acts as if I’ve casually disregarded such views without a second thought.

However, let’s agree with ACX, could not a Christian be a consequentialist?

In principle, yes. But the overwhelming majority of Christians adhere to divine command theory (DCT), which is logically incompatible with consequentialism. This isn’t just my opinion, either, but the general consensus of practically every Christian philosopher I’ve ever talked to, listened to, or read about. Christians are the ones who will go out of their way to reject consequentialist viewpoints as “moral relativism” and therefore unfit for Christian moral philosophy. Therefore, no, if you are anything like most Christians, you cannot be both.

 If God’s will determines right and wrong, then what has greater consequence than heaven and hell?

This is a point I actually went out of my way to belabor during later sections of the video, so it’s kind of weird that Maximus decided to bring it up. It’s as if he either didn’t watch the video all the way through, or he honestly doesn’t understand the implications of what he is suggesting.

As I already said in my video, the concepts of heaven and hell only make sense when viewed through the perspective of a self-interested, consequentialist morality. If you desire heaven, and if there are certain actions that will get you there, then it is a "good" decision to engage in those actions. Such behaviors are the “right” things to do and you “ought” to do them. Under DCT, however, heaven and hell are irrelevant. God gives us commands, and we simply ought to follow those commands irrespective of whatever personal gains they may produce. DCT is therefore logically incompatible with consequentialism, and obviously so.

The problem for Christians is that divine punishment for our sins is a core doctrine of all Christian religion. That means the very nature of Christian theology strongly urges you to adopt a consequentialist view on morality. After all, if “evil” decisions were guaranteed to produce admission into paradise, what possible reason could you give me to engage in “good” behaviors? No matter what arguments you have to offer, I can immediately destroy them with a casual statement of “Fuck your morality.” I want to go to paradise. Now what? It’s as if Maximus hasn’t even thought about the catastrophic implications of the very argument he’s just presented.

The final problem with this whole line of reasoning is that the statement "God's will determines right and wrong" is simply question-begging. Remember that the whole point of the Moral Argument is to prove God's existence in the first place. That means you can't claim the existence of objective morals and values without first proving the existence of God. Yet the existence of objective morals and values is already a necessary premise in the argument that proves God's existence!

HELLOOOOO? Earth to Maximus? That's circular logic, you dumb ass!

If this makes God a moral monster, with no virtue, then I have to ask why isn’t ACX a virtue theorist who thinks that it’s manifesting proper character in an agent which makes something ‘right’ or ‘wrong’?

I’m not a virtue theorist because I’m a consequentialist. I was nothing but clear and open about this from the very beginning. Consequentialism is meaningful and functional. Virtue theory is not. I don’t have to be a virtue theorist in order to claim “Person X is evil.” If God’s commands are not conducive to a productive, safe, healthy, flourishing society, then God’s commands are “evil.” This isn’t hard to grasp. Just because words mean different things to me as they do to you, that does not forbid me from using them in sentences.

Strangely enough, however, most Christian philosophers actually reject this principle outright, claiming instead that morality is an objective feature of the universe itself, like the law of gravity or the charge of an electron; that even if the entire human race went extinct today, then certain laws of morality would still be absolutely true and universally binding on all sentient beings across the cosmos.

It’s at this point that ACX slips from normative ethics and into meta-ethics. For those who don’t know, meta-ethics concern the nature of ethics (what does it mean to say X is right or wrong), and normative ethics concern methods of figuring out what is right and wrong.

No, I’m contrasting the consequentialist view of morality against the moral realist view as described by standard Christian philosophy. This comment is also somewhat weird, in that Maximus is basically accusing me of “slipping” into something that I was doing very deliberately. Not only that, but even if we accept his accusation at face value, Maximus seems to be under the bizarre impression that transitioning from a discussion on normative ethics into meta-ethics is somehow a bad thing---as if those two topics have literally nothing to do with each other and don’t ever belong in the same essay. This comment is yet another pointless jab at my character for no good reason.

Consequentialism is a normative theory, and while one can be a moral anti-realist and a consequentialist, it is not necessary. G.E. Moore is one such example of a realist, and a consequentialist.

First off, just because some famous guy held to a particular view, that does not automatically prove the view to be logically consistent or coherent. Maximus is just appealing to authority like a brainless idiot.

Secondly, if Maximus were half as educated on this stuff as he claims to be, he would know that there is no single, unifying school of moral realism in the world of philosophy. All I can say is that, in this context, I am specifically addressing the dominant Christian perspectives on moral realism, and that such perspectives are most definitely incompatible with consequentialism. 

ACX then proceeds to attack moral realism, but is fully unconvincing.

It’s another one of those tempting philosophical views called moral realism, and while it may appeal to certain naive intuitions, it utterly fails before it even begins. Because to say that anything is morally “good” or “evil,” in and of itself, without any reference to goals or consequences, is just incoherent gibberish. For example, just stop ask yourself: what on Earth is an objective moral value supposed to look like? Like if some guy were to say to you that, “human life has objective value,” or that “human life is objectively good,” what does that even mean?

Again, the realist can be a consequentialist, so this does not preclude moral realism from being true, even if ACX’s assertion regarding the necessity of consequentialism was the case. ACX also provides us little reason to think that saying something is good in itself is gibberish. The only argument is that it isn’t susceptible to our senses. But so what? ACX has not given us any argument which commits us to empiricism. Asking what an “objective moral value supposed to look like” makes little more sense than asking what does green taste like, or what does sour look like.

I issued you a challenge, Maximus: explain to me the meaning of the phrase “Human life is objectively good.” This has nothing to do with empiricism and nothing to do with susceptibility to our sense. Those are all red herrings and you know it. Stop beating around the bush and explain to everyone what the fuck that expression means. Every interpretation of that sentence I can possibly think of is gibberish nonsense---all except the interpretation given by a consequentialist perspective.

It’s little more than a category error. Objective values are picked up by our moral intuitions.

Wait, what? Did you just say moral intuitions? Do you mean to tell me that every time you assign labels like “good” and “evil,” you’re doing so entirely by gut-feeling? This guy is actually trying to tell me that the proposition “human life is objectively good” is only true because his moral intuition says so!

Okay, seriously, if this is the road you want to go down, then you might as well just raise the white flag of philosophical surrender right now. You’ve just lost the argument via sheer force of your own idiocy. I should not have to explain to you why this is a terrible foundation for any moral philosophy.

That is human beings have a cognitive predisposition to believe in the rightness or wrongness of some action. Can these intuitions be wrong, or even naive. Sure they can, but so can our senses (for example, most solid objects are made of empty space, a fact which our senses speak to the contrary). However, this doesn’t entail we abandon our senses, and deny the existence of the external world. 

Okay, just stop. When your entire argument starts revolving around “cognitive predispositions” and “moral intuitions,” then it’s safe to say you have no clue what you’re talking about. You’re basically grounding your entire sense of moral philosophy on the subjective intensity of warm fuzzies you get whenever someone behaves nicely or meanly around you. How on Earth that little tingling sensation is supposed to lead us to “therefore, god exists,” is completely beyond me.

The thing that’s really bizarre about this comment is how Maximus went out of his way to bash on empiricism as a viable path for understanding morality. Now here he is, grounding his entire argument in pure sense perception of some mystical moral essence surrounding human actions. That’s an empirical argument, you idiot. What’s worse about this line of thinking is that it forces us back into the same conundrums I mentioned earlier. If human beings possess some kind of innate moral sense that allows to perceive goodness, then what physical mechanisms govern that perception? Light carries information to our eyeballs, pressure waves in air carry sound to our ears, and chemical reception carries information about scent to our noses. If Maximus is right about this, then in principle I ought to be able to artificially replicate that perception in some kind of moral thermometer. Yet Maximus himself has already rejected that possibility outright in his earlier comments!

I’m sorry, Maximus, but this is just asinine. We’re barely halfway through your essay, and you have yet to offer a single point of criticism that contained any merit whatsoever. You contradict yourself constantly, you take embarrassingly clumsy jabs at my character and competence, you make constant non sequitur arguments, and you have yet to even attempt a coherent definition of morality that might compete with consequentialist views. I don’t have the patience to slog through such amateurish nonsense anymore. Come back when you can write a criticism that isn't childish and stupid.

Friday, February 10, 2017

Some Facts About the New Testament

The next time anyone tries to tell you that the New Testament is historically reliable, try to remember the following facts:
  1. The authors of the four canonical gospels are completely anonymous.
  2. All four canonical gospels are translated works.
  3. There does not exist a single first-hand eyewitness account of anything Jesus ever did.
  4. All four canonical gospels were written decades after the fact.
  5. The earliest surviving fragments of the New Testament were all written at least a century after the recorded events.
  6. The four canonical gospels are NOT independent narratives, but actually borrow heavily from each other.
  7. The story of Jesus and the adulteress is almost certainly a forgery.
  8. Miracle stories were commonplace in the ancient world and often garnered large followings of worshipers and devotees.
  9. The further back in time we go, the more divergence there exists between the known manuscripts that have survived for scrutiny to modern times.  
  10. Six out of the fourteen Pauline epistles are widely considered forgeries by modern Biblical scholars.
  11. Early Christianity consisted of many competing denominations with many competing gospels that never made it into the official Biblical cannon.
More to come...

  1. See Yale Courses
  2. The native language of ancient Judea was Aramaic. However, all known manuscripts of the gospels are written in Greek.
  3. The mere fact that they've been translated is already a strong indication of this. However, many of the narratives admit it outright. For example, Luke 1:1-4 and Galatians 1:11-12. We can also point out that Jesus never wrote down a single word of any gospel by himself.
  4. See Dating the Bible.
  5. See Dating the Bible.
  6. This is known as the synoptic problem. Many sections of the gospel are near-verbatim copies of sections from other books. See, for example, Mark 10:38-45. Then compare side-by-side with Matthew 20:22:28. 
  7. See Jesus and the Woman Taken in Adultery.
  8. See Appolonius of Tyana. 
  9. See Misquoting Jesus.
  10. See Authorship of the Pauline Epistles 
  11. See Diversity in Early Christianity. See also Non-canonical Gospels

Sunday, January 1, 2017

Evolutionary Absurdity Against Naturalism

Apparently, there’s a lot of popular Christian apologists who think that if evolution is real, then naturalism is not. Or something. It’s actually kind of hard to tell because the argument itself is kind of weird. But let’s see if our good friend Inspiring Philosophy can explain (link)

[00:05] “When we hear of some new attempt to explain reasoning… naturalistically, we ought to react as if we were told that someone had squared the circle.” - Peter Geach

One of the most aggravating things about apologists like Inspiring Philosophy is how they can’t go more than 10 seconds without saying something incredibly dumb. For example, take this quote here. The only logical way this statement could ever be true is if the idea of naturalism somehow contradicted the idea of reason. That literally, the very proposition “Reason is a natural phenomenon” must entail some kind of logical impossibility like married bachelors or square circles. However, that cannot possibly be the case unless the definition of reason already presupposes an inherently supernatural process. So the argument hasn’t even officially begun yet and this dumb bastard is already begging the question. He is effectively declaring, in advance, that he has categorically rejected the very possibility of a natural explanation for human reason. 

[00:14] “One of the age-old problems in philosophy is the problem of skepticism. How can we be certain what we experience and know is true and not an illusion or just a useful model? How do we know our knowledge is accurate and not a trick that external forces are making us believe?”

This is another one of those little things about religious apologists that always gets under my skin. What he’s saying here about skepticism isn’t exactly wrong per se, but it is being expressed in a lazy, incompetent way. For example, what does it mean for an experience to be true? Because last time I checked, truth was a property of propositions, not experiences. Trying to ask whether or not an experience is true is like trying to ask whether or not my music is colorful. It might loosely mean something to some people in some figurative context, but from a purely technical standpoint, it’s just meaningless gibberish. What he’s actually trying to ask is how we can be certain that our experiences are representative of a real, objective reality, as opposed to, say, some illusion like a matrix simulation. That is the fundamental problem of skepticism, and it’s a perfectly valid thing to be concerned about when studying epistemology. It’s just kind of hard to address such problems when you’re terrible at expressing them in the first place. 

[00:30] “The usual way this is addressed is through the position of epistemic particularism, which is basically the position that our knowledge is innocent until proven guilty. There is no reason to doubt our knowledge, beliefs, and intuition unless we can find an actual reason to cause us to doubt.”

See what I mean? Read that back again. There is no reason to doubt our beliefs, unless we can find an actual reason to doubt our beliefs. Thank you so much for that brilliant insight!

Vapid tautologies aside, where exactly does IP get the idea that this is the “usual” way to address the problem of skepticism? He makes it out as if philosophers everywhere are just casually ignoring the problem altogether. The reality, of course, is that nothing could be further from the truth. Ever since the days of Rene Descartes, philosophers have all had perfectly good reasons to be quite concerned about the objectivity of sense data. That’s why every philosophical reference worth its weight in salt will openly acknowledge skepticism as a very serious problem to be dealt with.

And speaking of “epistemic particularism,” I actually had to look this term up because I never even heard of it until I watched this video. It’s a really obscure term that only gets thrown around in the odd paper or two, but doesn't represent a popular view held by any significant people. Not only that, but the definition doesn't even match what IP just said. According to his very own citation:

“... epistemological particularism is the view that there are some particular items of knowledge (or justifiable belief) that one can know (justifiably believe) without knowing how one knows them.” 
- J.P. Moreland

That is not the same thing as “innocent until proven guilty.” It's as if IP is either deliberately making things up out of thin air, or he really is just that incompetent at reading comprehension. 

[00:45] “What if there was a reason that could cause us to begin to doubt our beliefs? What if our beliefs led to an internal contradiction and a self-defeating circle?” 

We already have a reason to doubt our beliefs. It’s called skepticism. You just mentioned it 30 seconds ago. This is a well-documented problem that demonstrably manifests itself in our daily lives. We dream; we hallucinate; we misremember; we experience illusions; we have limited, fallible, subjective perspective about the external, mind-independent reality. We therefore cannot “know” any of it with absolute, perfect certainty. This is a cornerstone of all modern epistemology and philosophy of science. The train has left the station centuries ago, yet IP is here pretending like it’s still just sitting there on idle. 

[01:00] “If you hold to philosophical naturalism, then that is in fact the case. Philosophical and evolutionary naturalism would be the belief that there are no supernatural entities; the natural world is all of existence, and humans came about by accident through the blind workings of matter.”

Does Inspiring Philosophy think that we’re all idiots or something? He just displayed the encyclopedia definition of naturalism on his own video and then proceeded to read out a completely different definition. That’s the second time he’s done this in less than a minute of speaking! So let’s read IP’s very own citation for him, shall we? 

Naturalism is an approach to philosophical problems that interprets them as tractable through the methods of the empirical sciences, or at least without a distinctively a priori project of theorizing. For much of the history of philosophy it has been widely held that philosophy involved a distinctive method, and could achieve knowledge distinct from that attained by the special sciences. Thus, metaphysics and epistemology have often jointly occupied a position of "first philosophy," laying the necessary grounds for the understanding of reality and the justification of knowledge claims. Naturalism rejects philosophy's claim to that special status. Whether in epistemology, ethics, philosophy of mind, philosophy of language, or other areas, naturalism seeks to show that philosophical problems, as traditionally conceived, are ill-formulated and can be solved or displaced by appropriately naturalistic methods. Naturalism often assigns a key role to the methods and results of the empirical sciences, and sometimes aspires to reductionism and physicalism. However, there are many versions of naturalism and some are explicitly non-scientistic. What they share is a repudiation of the view of philosophy as exclusively a priori theorizing concerned with a distinctively philosophical set of questions.

– Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy

So there you have it. Naturalism is not a particular set of beliefs about the universe, but really more of a methodology for evaluating philosophical problems. More often than not, that methodology is specifically understood to follow the rules of empirical sciences, which is honestly the real target of this whole discussion anyway. Notice, however, that naturalism does not explicitly reject the existence of supernatural entities, nor does it commit you to any particular views about human development. Those are simply consequences of applied naturalism, but not central tenets of it.

It’s important to realize that anything which exists and interacts with other existing things must, by definition, have a nature---a collection of essential identifiable properties and causal relationships with respect to other things. We can formally state these properties through purely analytic methods, but any claim to their existence can only be justified through the use of empirical data. Supernatural entities, in contrast, are philosophically meaningless to even talk about. How do I identify an entity that, by definition, is “above” any need for essential properties? How do I prove that such a thing exists when, by definition, such things fail to behave in accordance with any causally predictive patterns? Naturalists don’t reject the existence of supernatural entities through some rote, a priori conviction; they reject them because the idea itself is incomprehensible! 

[01:14] “We would have evolved by accident from the lower animals by passing on traits and beliefs that help us survive.” 
No, that is NOT an intrinsic view of naturalism. That is a sloppily-worded summary of human evolutionary biology, as understood by the contingent findings of naturalistic methodologies. And even then, you still managed to get key aspects completely wrong. Beliefs are not “passed on” from one generation to the next, because beliefs are not inheritable traits. Only genes can do that.

[01:14] “Everything that makes us who we are would have come together via natural selection to aid us in surviving. However, that would include everything about us, which includes the chemistry of the brain and how it functions. The human-evolved brain would only have come about as a means to aid an organism in surviving."

Nowhere did Dennett ever imply that literally everything which makes you “you” is determined entirely by genetics and natural selection. He is just talking about the natural development of human brains and explaining how your mind is simply a product of that brain in action. However, there is also a lot to be said about the importance of environmental circumstance and personal experience as potent factors towards building a coherent sense of self-identity. It’s not just evolution and nothing else. 

[02:04] “So if naturalism is true, everything the brain does is for survival, which must necessarily include all the beliefs and thoughts it has; which would entail the fact that all the beliefs we think are true of reality were really just formed in the brain to help us survive. But consequently, this would also include the belief in naturalism. So if you believe naturalism is true, then you also have to believe you believe naturalism is true because your brain has decided this belief is beneficial for survival. Not because it is true.”

So yes, IP really believes that, according to naturalism, everything about your mind is the product of pure, natural selection alone. There is no room for personal experience or environmental conditions, and everything must unilaterally facilitate survival, or else.

First off, nothing about philosophical naturalism requires you to hold any position for or against evolution. It is only by applying the naturalistic methods of science that one arrives at the strong indication of an evolutionary history behind human development. Since that development already encompasses everything from basic morphology to fundamental biochemistry, why not also include cognitive capacity as well? We know that physical brains are specifically responsible for our memory, sense processing, behavioral responses, and language, so why not also our faculties for higher reasoning? Nothing about this presumption is inherently troubling, unless one has already decided, in advance, that human reason is literally the product of magic---as if no natural process whatsoever is remotely capable of producing a reliable cognitive faculty.

Secondly, not everything the brain does has to be for survival. Survival alone does not guarantee reproductive success, nor does every waking moment of our life have to be consumed by this goal. All that evolution fundamentally requires is for the brain to at least do something, eventually, which contributes more to overall reproductive fitness than could otherwise be achieved without it. You could spend hours of your day, every day, doing nothing but pick your nose and scratch your ass, and natural selection won’t necessarily care. All that it requires is for you to do something else with the remainder of your time that promotes fitness.

Thirdly, Inspiring Philosophy seems to be hopelessly confused about the distinction between a process and the product. The mind not just some collection of stored memories and beliefs, nor does it randomly poke blindly at arbitrary philosophical perspectives. Rather, the mind a very complex, interrelated set of processes. Individual beliefs are the result of those processes acting on sensory data as perceived naturally through the environment. Natural selection cannot select for individual beliefs in any direct sense, but can only select for processes that are more or less capable of producing “good” beliefs out of the information they’re given.

Remember that if what you believe about the world is true, then in principle, you ought to be able to use that belief to make testable empirical predictions---what consequences tend to follow specific actions under specific conditions? Likewise, by contrapositive, if the predictions of your beliefs fail to produce the expected outcomes, then by definition, such beliefs have to be false. That is the pragmatic, scientific measure for truth itself, which is perfectly consistent with naturalistic philosophy. We may therefore presume, as a matter of rote definition, the existence of a very profound connection between true beliefs and overall reproductive fitness. Natural selection does, in fact, highly favor the development of cognitive faculties that are perfectly capable of producing lots of true beliefs.

Notice that the process doesn’t even have to be perfect, either. All that it needs to do is eventually compile enough true beliefs about the world so as to facilitate good decision-making throughout one’s life. At the same time, it must also reject enough false beliefs so as to avoid any catastrophic blunders. If mistakes are made, however, then oh well. All natural selection can do is maybe come up with something better through the next iteration. Either way, it is still perfectly reasonable to expect a natural process to be generally reliable overall, despite also being fallible.

[02:35] “Thus as Alvin Plantinga identifies...”

Seriously? Alvin Plantinga!? The very same Alvin Plantinga who once argued, “It is entirely right, rational, reasonable, and proper to believe in God without any evidence or argument at all.” Are you sure you want to hang your philosophical hat on this guy's arguments?

[02:36] “Philosophical naturalism falls into a self-defeating circle where your belief, naturalism is true, must entail you are a product of evolutionary naturalism alone, and therefore all your beliefs are programmed into you to help you survive, including your belief, naturalism is true.” 

Let’s just assume for a moment that this train of logic is perfectly valid. However, I’m going to replace naturalism with monistic idealism, because that’s IP’s favorite little worldview: 

Your belief, that monistic idealism is true, must entail you are the product of a mentally forged reality contained within the mind of God, and therefore all your beliefs are programmed into you by God, including the belief that monistic idealism is true. 

Oh my goodness! It’s a circle! Therefore, by IP’s very own logic, we have just debunked his favorite pet theology.

Obviously there’s something terribly wrong here. Starting with the most glaring problem, it seems that IP utterly fails to grasp the difference between circular reasoning and basic, internal consistency. Because yes, if you hold to a belief in naturalism, even as IP defines it, then it stands to reason that purely natural forces are capable of bringing about human cognitive faculties. If those faculties are inherently reliable at producing true beliefs over time, then it would obviously have to follow that human beings might someday come to the true conclusion that naturalism is, itself, true.

That’s not a “self-defeating circle,” you moron. That’s called "self-consistency." It’s a good thing.

But of course, it gets worse than that. Starting with the very first premise, IP gives the proposition “I believe naturalism is true.” Yet as we already discovered using his very own encyclopedic citation, naturalism is not a specific belief about anything, but rather a formal statement of methodology. To say that you are a naturalist simply means that you probably tend to evaluate synthetic propositions through the methods of empirical science, rather than any sort of naïve a priori system of armchair philosophy. It says nothing about the ultimate nature of reality itself, but only commits you to a specific methodology when investigating claims about reality. The very proposition “I believe naturalism is true” has never once been uttered by an actual naturalist because it’s technically not even a coherent thing to say out loud. The correct phrasing would be more like “I choose to evaluate truth claims through the methods of naturalistic science.”

But hey, let’s ignore that problem, too, and just assume IP’s definition anyway. Naturalism is the view that there are no supernatural entities and that evolution is responsible for literally everything about us. Please do tell me, how exactly does IP imagine people came to this conclusion in the first place? Because as far as I can tell, he seems to think all naturalists around the world just assumed their position outright as some kind of rote, axiomatic fiat---as if there were no external justification for that view, whatsoever. Yet rather than point out the obvious case of question-begging that would entail, he instead leads us on some convoluted train of logic that no one has ever argued in the history of science: naturalism is true because “all my beliefs are programmed into me to help me survive,” which is only true because “I am a product of evolutionary naturalism alone,” which in turn is true because “naturalism is true.”

Remember that the reason why naturalists reject supernatural entities is because the very idea is fundamentally meaningless to talk about. How do you prove the existence of an entity that, by definition, has no properties and no empirical manifestations? So obviously the justification for naturalism is not “because nature programmed me to believe in naturalism,” nor is it a position that we just presume outright for no apparent reason. The train of logic is not a closed circle, but in fact contains perfectly reasonable justification wholly independent of the claims being presented here. 

[02:55] “Several experts have identified this consequence. Philosopher Richard Rorty says.”

Oh look. An appeal to authority. How cute.

[03:12] “J. M. Smith never understood why organisms have feelings.”

Oh look. Another appeal to authority. And this one is a bald-faced argument from ignorance. It's like a two-for-one fallacy! Some random guy you’ve never heard of doesn’t understand feelings, so therefore all biology is completely incapable of explaining them. Is that how this works?

[03:34] “Even the great Charles Darwin worried, with me the horrid doubt always arises whether the convictions of man’s mind, which has been developed from the mind of the lower animals, are of any value or at all trustworthy?”

This is the third brainless appeal to authority that IP has made in barely 30 seconds. All it shows it that, apparently, Charles Darwin didn’t have the best handle on philosophy mind or philosophy of pragmatism. And why would he? William James didn’t formally introduce pragmatism to the world until 1898---17 years after this letter was written! So who cares? What is this supposed to prove?

[03:50] “Why would it not be most beneficial for survival to have an accurate and true description of reality? Surely an organism who has trustworthy cognitive faculties and knowing what is true, would be the most optimal way to survive. Therefore evolution would select faculties that are designed to know truth.”

This is the point where it really became painfully obvious to me that Inspiring Philosophy has no functional understanding of basic epistemology. So before anything about this argument can continue, we need to clear up a few misconceptions.

It's important to understand that any time we talk about a thing like truth, we're not talking about some intrinsic metaphysical quality of reality itself.  Technically, what we're really talking about is a property of propositions. That is to say, propositions can either be true or they can be false, but there is no such thing as raw "essence of truth" interwoven into the fabric of space and time. Speaking more formally, a truth value is classically defined as a member of a binary set that contains the elements "True" and "False.” The purpose of this set is to serve as a kind of marker for linguistic propositions in order to help us measure their epistemic "correctness." What exactly that means is open to some interpretation, but we can give it a rigorous definition through a mechanism known as a truth assignment. Speaking formally again, a truth assignment (also called a truth valuation, or an interpretation) is defined as a mapping function between the set of simple linguistic propositions and the set of binary truth values.

Pragmatic empirical rationalism, aka science, aka naturalism, is a perfectly well-defined system of truth assignment functions that suffers no problems whatsoever under the arguments presented in this video. A necessary, though not sufficient, measure of true synthetic propositions is the principle of empirical predictability. If some proposition is true, then we must be able to use that proposition to exercise decisions under the expectation of predictable empirical consequences. We therefore cannot prove any synthetic proposition true with absolute certainty, but we can at least expect certain properties from such propositions if and when we ever find them. Likewise, if some propositional framework fails to manifest itself through reliable empirical predictions, then we can confidently assert that such a framework is “false.”

While you are certainly welcome to nit-pick the details if you like, that is the broad definition of synthetic truth assignment according to most understandings of scientific naturalism. Supernaturalism, on the other hand, has no truth assignment functions to speak of and cannot even qualify as coherent. Never in the history of philosophy or science has our understanding of anything ever been improved by the presumption of supernatural entities.

[04:10] “However, Plantinga anticipates this objection and points out the probability of this would be low, or we should remain agnostic if naturalism were true.”

It’s not a matter of probability, you moron. It’s a matter of definition. A “true” synthetic proposition is philosophically measured by the capacity to logically formulate decisions under the expectation of predictable, empirical consequences. If some empirical prediction fails to produce the expected result, then by definition, that belief is now false. In what logical universe does the ability to predict and shape the fucking future have low correlation with reproductive fitness?

[04:18] “There is no necessarily equivocation between what is what is useful is what is true.”

Nobody has ever argued that usefulness is equivalent to truth; only that empirical predictability should be a necessary property of truth. Not only is this argument a complete strawman, but Inspiring Philosophy knows it is. I know he knows because I have personally explained this very same misconception to him long before the video was even made! (see comment sections here). So not only is IP just plain wrong in his explanation of basic epistemology, but he is also willfully lying about it, too.

The pragmatic, scientific perspective of truth has always been grounded on the idea that empirical predictability is a necessary, though not sufficient, measure of true synthetic propositions. You don’t have to apply every proposition towards something practical or “useful” in order to call it true. However, in order for some belief to eventually produce practical applications, then it probably needs to contain at least some reasonable approximation of the truth, doesn't it? Maybe not perfectly true or inerrant in every detail, but certainly closer to the truth than the alternative.

Tell you what. Let’s do a little thought experiment. Consider a possible world where everything I believe about the universe just so happens to be categorically false. However, every single time I make a decision based off of those beliefs, the consequences are maximally predictable and desirable for me anyway. Likewise, any time I commit a single "true" belief to action, the outcome is never predictable or desirable for me at all. I ask you, given such a world, is it even meaningful to call any of my beliefs "false?” And if so, why would I ever want to believe anything that was true? I could spend my entire life being completely wrong about absolutely everything and actually be better off for it.

So yes, we must conclude that, while not perfectly equivalent, true beliefs are necessarily correlated with usefulness and reproductive fitness, doncha think?

[04:20] “Some things can be useful while not being true. Take Ptolemaic astronomy. For centuries, this model was used to help us in navigation and star charting. It was useful, but not a true description of reality. And of course, later was replaced by a more accurate model.”

Pray tell, Mr “Inspiring” Philosophy, but how exactly would you go about disproving the geocentric model of our solar system? Do you really think that a supernatural, immaterial force is responsible for planetary motion? Did Jesus tell Copernicus in a dream that the sun was the center of the solar system? Or, just maybe, do you think that geocentric models consistently fail to make reliable, empirical predictions? You know, pragmatic, scientific naturalism?

Let’s not forget that the primary reason why people objected to heliocentrism is precisely because it violated the supernatural presuppositions of religious dogma. It wasn’t naturalism that censored Galileo’s findings, but the immaterial, supernatural convictions of the Roman Catholic Church. How stupid do you have to be when your best example of the failures of naturalism is actually one of its greatest triumphs?

[04:36] “However, if naturalism is true, our knowledge could be analogous to Ptolemaic astronomy; simply a useful model to help us get through the world.”

Yes, a model that was only proven false through the methods of naturalistic science and which religious zealous refused to give up because of their a priori supernatural convictions!

Again, what process do you have for measuring the truth of synthetic propositions that works any better? Remember that you’re the one arguing against naturalism, here. So why don’t you show us all exactly how you propose to disprove Ptolemaic astronomy without appealing to naturalism or naturalistic methods?

[04:50] “So just because our knowledge works in practical measures, that doesn’t make it true of what reality is. Take another example: qualia; specifically color. In nature, external objects reflect EM waves, which hit the human eye to create biochemical states, which is transmitted to the brain as neural patterns in the primary visual cortex. If naturalism is true, the brain would somehow create color from this data as a useful model. The original wavelengths have no color. Color is, as John Locke states, secondary qualities, or contents of the mind. The emergent wavelengths are perceived in the eyes and created in the brain, and apart from the brain, color doesn’t exist.  So color is simply useful model created by the brain, but not actually what exists in nature.”

Where is IP even going with this? He seems to claiming that, according to naturalism, color is just a subjective sensory perception. It doesn’t “exist” in any objective sense of the word, but simply manifests as a purely mental construct.

Okay… and? Is this supposed to be controversial or upsetting in some way? That’s just basic color theory. Everyone knows that color doesn’t really exist as some intrinsic property of real objects. So where’s the beef? What’s the alternative? How exactly does the presumption of supernatural entities change any of this? Even if magic were real and God was in charge of everything, then color would still only exist as a subjective human perception.

[05:34] “And if the brain does this with color, it can equally be argued it does it with our knowledge. It is not necessarily true, but a useful model we are programmed to think is true to help us survive.”

At this point, Inspiring Philosophy just goes on to repeat himself a bunch, all while making nonsensical arguments against his made-up conception of naturalism. The whole thing can pretty much be summarized with the phrase “this person has no comprehension of basic epistemology.” He likes to drop the word “truth” everywhere, despite making no real effort to define what truth is or how we’re supposed to recognize truth when we see it. He also complains a lot that naturalism cannot provide us with absolute knowledge about objective reality, despite the fact that skepticism and fallibilism are actually fundamental principles embraced by philosophers and scientists alike. He then offers no alternative methodology that could presumably do any better, all while habitually insisting that true beliefs about objective reality cannot possibly correlate with reproductive fitness.

Just stop and ask yourself right now, why do you even bother believing anything at all? What difference does it make whether or not that information crammed in your head is true? The only meaningful explanation is so that we can eventually use that information as a guide for our actions. Decisions based on true beliefs will manifest themselves in the form of controlled, predictable experiences, while decisions based on false beliefs will eventually fail in that goal. Any beliefs that refuse to drive any actions whatsoever, even in principle, are little more than useless rhetorical gibberish. They don’t do anything, and thus make no difference if we call them true or false.

This is what makes pragmatic scientific naturalism is the ultimate measure of all philosophical truth. It's the only system with any functional relevance! If you cannot present your argument within the bounds of such a methodology, then by definition, you are not being reasonable. The moment IP rejected pragmatism, all he did was sever any philosophical connection between beliefs, actions, and consequences. It therefore makes no difference what alternative he thinks he has because the very idea of trying to think of one is tantamount to vapid sophistry. I could unilaterally concede his entire position outright and literally nothing in my life would have to change as a result. That’s how hopeless his position is. Even if he “wins,” he still loses.

Thanks for reading.