Atheism or A-beliefism?

Question from Sarah:
Atheism or A-beliefism? Suppose we take the whole “Existence of God” question out of the religion and atheism debate. What do we have left? I’m inclined to say that we have a group of people who assert that BELIEF in the absence of empirical evidence is a reasonable and valid way of knowing, and a group of people who claim that it isn’t. My sense is that this fundamental difference in epistemology transcends the entire “God” issue. At the deepest level, an “atheist” isn’t someone who doesn’t embrace a belief in God, but simply someone who doesn’t embrace “belief” as a valid way of knowing. My question is, do you agree or disagree with this assertion and why?

Let’s make it a bit more concrete: Recent insights in astrophysics (eg. the Holographic Principle) and in information science suggest that the foundational components of our universe– rather than being tiny chunks of “solid stuff” (atoms)– might be information (bits). (“It from bit.”) If this is true, then we could actually be living in a Matrix-like universe. This could be a naturally-arising information-based universe, or an artificial one created by an intelligent being or beings. Let’s suppose that we do live in a an artificial “Matrix,” created and maintained by an individual Being. Clearly, that Being would not be an infinite, perfect entity like Jehovah or Allah. However, It would be omniscient, omnipotent, and eternal as far as we are concerned, and it would be supernatural, as far as we are concerned, since It transcends the laws of our universe. I don’t think that most atheists would have a problem with the possibility that this God exists, but they would definitely have a problem with accepting Its existence in the absence of evidence. Why, then, all the debate about God’s existence or non-existence? Why not debate about the REAL issue– which, as I see it, is FAITH as a way of knowing.

Answer by SmartLX:
I agree with you in part. An atheist does not accept the existence of a god or the equivalent, usually due to the lack of evidence or even due to perceived evidence of its absence. To such a person, faith is acceptance of a claim in the absence of evidence and is thus invalid by definition. And yes, I’m fine with the possibility of the existence of a number of different types of gods, including the master programmer version you describe, I just think that each is a very remote possibility and there’s no evidence for any of them.

However, advocates of a god’s existence are not so easily categorised. Perhaps they do generally accept faith as a valid reason to accept it, but when actually arguing the point with non-believers many of them go to the trouble of assembling and presenting what they claim to be evidence that their god exists. A large amount of the past material on this site consists of responses to claims of direct evidence, claims that the entire world IS evidence, claims that certain logical arguments serve as evidence, and attempts to shift the burden of evidence onto non-believers.

I don’t think re-framing the debate into a discussion of “ways of knowing” would be productive, or get anywhere at all. Believers already regularly take our evidence requirement at face value and throw “evidence” at us. Those who do not accept that evidence is necessary often ignore claims that it is, and think to themselves that those who demand evidence are misguided. (Indeed, the Bible explicitly warns against putting God to the test, and that’s good enough for many.) If we were to set our shared position such that some other “way of knowing” were the only valid one, the response from believers would likely be, “Very well, here is how the existence of God is absolutely plain in THAT way of knowing.”

No, the issue of whether God exists is the issue in which people are most often invested, rather than secondary epistemological issues, and I think the debate will stay right there because that’s what everyone wants to talk about.


Question from Robert:
Why don’t atheists believe in God if atheists admit that there is no proof that He doesn’t exist? (see What is an atheist?) That’s like asking why adults don’t believe in the tooth fairy simply because there is no proof that she doesn’t exist. But more to the point, compelling evidence for the existence of God is sorely lacking.


JUST LOOK. >>>>>

Fast Facts

2. The adult body is made up of: 100 trillion cells, 206 bones,
600 muscles, and 22 internal organs.

3. There are many systems in the human body:
Circulatory System (heart, blood, vessels)
Respiratory System (nose, trachea, lungs)
Immune System (many types of protein, cells, organs, tissues)
Skeletal System (bones)
Excretory System (lungs, large intestine, kidneys)
Urinary System (bladder, kidneys)
Muscular System (muscles)
Endocrine System (glands)
Digestive System (mouth, esophagus, stomach, intestines)
Nervous System (brain, spinal cord, nerves)
Reproductive System (male and female reproductive organs)
4. Every square inch of the human body has about 19 million skin cells.
5. Every hour about 1 billion cells in the human body must be replaced.
7. The circulatory system of arteries, veins, and capillaries is about 60,000 miles long.


How could evolution, even over millions of years form into such amazing complexity~! How can you explain billions of cells changing into and then organizing themselves into something so amazingly complex as the human body? How did cells which have no brain, change into heart cells, lung cells, esophagus cells, blood vessel cells, kidney cells, liver cells, ligament cells, tendon cells, pancreatic cells, super complex eyeball cells, optic nerve cells, hair cells, eyelash cells, eyelid cells, nose cells, jawbone cells, teeth cells, gum cells, lip cells, muscle cells, bone cells, red blood cells, white blood cells, and super, super, super, super, super, complex brain cells — ALL ONE HUNDRED BILLION OF THEM ~!~!~!
One person likened it to putting all the parts of a watch together, then shaking all the parts together for a million years, and then voila ….. you have watch ~!
And then here is this. It takes a male and female to be able to create a new life. A male and female COULD NOT EVOLVE AT THE SAME TIME~!~!~!~!

You try to explain this by saying that male and female creatures were once hermaphroditic. THAT IS INSANE~!! Why then are the vast majority of animals today, male and female, and not hermaphroditic? — But even then, how could one animal develop male and female organs —- AT THE SAME TIME ~!~?


Answer by SmartLX (and by the way, the question arrived with #1 and #6 already missing):
I don’t know what things are like in your neck of the woods, but in most places adults don’t believe in the tooth fairy despite the lack of disproof, and no one disputes that this lack of belief is justified.

Explaining the theory of evolution as it applies specifically to each of these parts of the human body would take up far too much space, and you can get much more information simply by Googling “evolution of ” followed by the name of the body part. To address it very briefly, any positive change to a simpler organism was reinforced because more individuals survived and procreated to pass on the gene responsible, and most of the time that meant making the organism more complex. This process went on for an unimaginably long time, and has been extremely productive as we can see.

The watch analogy betrays a core misunderstanding of the theory of evolution, which is the assumption that the process is entirely random. It is anything but random, because the path of evolution is determined by which creatures survive and which don’t. There are random elements, from mutations to natural disasters to plain old bad luck, but those with better genes are far more likely to survive these uncontrolled events. Would you say that because some elements of a tennis match are random, like the wind and small imperfections in the playing surface, it’s entirely up to chance whether Andre Agassi would beat Peter Dinklage in a friendly set? Of course not. Some differences really do make a difference to the result.

Before gender distinction and sexual reproduction developed, individual organisms were not hermaphroditic. They were asexual, and reproduced through either cell division or forms of cloning. They didn’t have two sets of sexual organs, they had none. Gender developed as a reliable way for two individuals to exchange genetic information and thus allow for recombination of DNA, speeding up the process of evolution by creating more variables.

There are lots of fascinating details like the above to study, but ultimately your argument is a textbook argument from ignorance. You dismiss evolution as a valid explanation for the complexity of life, then immediately assert that God had to have been responsible. If evolution is false, there needs to be positive evidence that your alternative explanation is true or else it could just as easily be some unknown third option. God seems like the obvious explanation to you because you’ve already accepted that there is one, but why would a non-believer discard an explanation with a mountain of evidence behind it in favour of a supernatural explanation with no available substantive evidence at all?

TAG: The Power of Pedantry

Question from James:
Hi, I am having a debate with a friend at school, and I stuck on an argument I am having with him. I first responded to him saying the transcendental argument is not valid. He then responded to me, and I’m not sure how exactly to respond. I was wondering if you could help me form my response. thank you

Here is my response:

However, I really do not think that TAG is a sufficient argument. This is what it concludes: “Since the Logical Absolutes are transcendent, absolute, are perfectly consistent, and are independent of the universe, then it seems proper to say that they reflect a transcendent, absolute, perfect, and independent mind. We call this mind God.” This is why this conclusion is self-evidently not true.

Logical absolutes, as defined in TAG, are indeed transcendent and independent of the universe, in that they hold true even if the universe did not exist, or ceased to exist.

Unfortunately for Matt Slick, Logical absolutes, as defined in TAG, are also transcendent and independent of God, in that they hold true even if God did not exist, or ceased to exist.

For example: If God didn’t exist, then it would be true that he didn’t exist and not-true that he exists.

If God used to exist but then disappeared, then it would be true that he disappeared and not-true that he still exists.

Therefore logical absolutes hold true and exist even in the absence of God.

Therefore, of necessity, God is not the author of logical absolutes, but is SUBJECT to them.

Therefore while the fact that logical absolutes are transcendent and independent of everything including God does not disprove the existence of Fairies, Leprechauns, Demigods and other supernatural but non transcendent entities, it necessarily proves that an entity which created the logical absolutes cannot exist, because one cannot create that which it is subject to, and that which of necessity existed before one attempted to create it.

Therefore “God”, as defined in TAG, of necessity does not exist.

Here is how he responded:

“Hey Sean, Sorry for the late response. First off Jason’s argument is that Logic cannot exist apart from the Christian God, so unless you can prove that logic makes sense in another world view, you can’t make the argument that He is subject to logic, because, technically if logic doesn’t fit with your worldview, then your world view doesn’t allow you to make an argument based on logic. “in that they hold TRUE even if the universe did not exist or CEASED TO EXIST.” Similar to the first paragraph of this reply, how does the word ‘true’ fit with your worldview? I don’t even know what position you are arguing from. Evolution? Polytheistic? Relativism? Because if you’re using an evolutionary argument while you believe in something else, this conversation is pointless, similar to how someone using morals to attack the Christian foundation is borrowing from that foundation. That only supports one thing, that the foundation from which it is borrowed is true, in no way would that prove your worldview is true. The fact that your using words like true, imply morals and consistency, which means they exist, according to you, but if they don’t fit with your worldview, then you’re contradicting yourself. Even saying ‘ceased to exist’implies something is holding it together, and in a random chance universe, that also doesn’t fit, why should something be held together consistently when everything is random? What in your worldview allows for consistency. It makes sense in the Christian world view, the Bible says God holds all things together, but if we are a random combination of chemicals based on probabilities, what kind of probability is it to have a probability of 1, all the time. That doesn’t make sense. Your example of logic is exactly that, an example of logic. It may be valid, but that doesn’t mean it’s true. This example only proves that logic currently exists. It doesn’t prove how logic can exist before God. Explain how, if logic was pre-existent, that logic created the Universe, logically. Christians believe God was pre-existent to creation, and other worldviews still had to chose something to be pre-existent, in this case, logic. Logic is a formula, information begets information, what begot logic? Logic is based on order, creation is evidence for intelligent design. If someone finds tools in an abandoned cave, it’s evidence that someone else designed those tools and left them there. No one would think, “oh look at how these tools magically appeared here.” A rock doesn’t tie itself to a piece of wood. Also your second premise to your conclusion isn’t sound. I’m assuming you’re talking about the Christian God. If you say “God used to exist but then disappeared” you cannot be speaking of the Christian God, because the Christian God always was and always will be. In that case, sure logical absolutes do exist apart from god, because you’re not talking about the God who created it.”

Answer by SmartLX:
The Transcendental Argument for the existence of God, or TAG for short, is a pain in the arse. It has demonstrated no power to bring non-believers around to a theistic way of thinking, let alone a Christian way, but it’s unparalleled in its ability to reassure Christians that they’re right and everyone else is talking nonsense. So atheists get hammered with it all the time, fruitlessly, and yet the proselytisers get internal propaganda and an ego boost out of it. Check out what I’ve already written on the subject, my initial piece here and the addendum for the Sye Ten Bruggencate version here.

To address the main argument, your opponent is placing the burden of proof on you to establish that logic can exist without the Christian God. You both agree that logic exists, but that it’s dependent on God is an assertion on his part supported only by the idea that he doesn’t know any other way it can exist. It is, in other words, an argument from ignorance. What makes it obvious is when he challenges you to “explain how” (key words right there) logic created the universe without God; his internal reasoning is that if you don’t know, there’s no way. That would only be necessarily true if you were omniscient yourself. Logic may be as timeless and yet effectual in the physical world as God is supposed to be. Whether it “created the Universe” is only worth considering if we know to begin with that the universe was created, which we don’t.

That brings me to all the other little canards scattered throughout his piece. He’s pulling them from everywhere.
– “Creation is evidence for intelligent design” again assumes an act of creation by the designer whose existence he’s trying to establish in that very argument. He’s “begging the question”, or to put it less ambiguously his premise overlaps with his conclusion.
– The concept of whether something is “true” or not fits with any worldview that accepts the axiom that you can’t have both A and not A. You might not know why that’s the case, but experience has led you to be extremely confident in it. He doesn’t know either; he asserts one all-purpose entity which explains everything (vaguely) but has no explanation itself, and furthermore has no available evidence for its existence, and hopes that’s the key to it all.
– Christianity did not invent morals, and its own morals borrow from countless earlier sources, most obviously Judaism. They can claim God handed down their morals, but they can’t justify using this in argument unless they first establish the existence of God. Christianity can easily be attacked for its moral stances on multiple objective merits – simple things like fairness and the minimisation of harm.
– He characterises quantum mechanics as the idea that we all have a chance of winking out of existence at any time (if our “probability” drops below 1), but for God keeping us here. I don’t know where to begin.
– Artificial, obviously crafted tools in a cave are evidence of toolmakers. Natural, unshaped rocks in a cave which can be used as tools are evidence of no such thing. The existence of logic is closer to the second scenario. You can’t say it’s evidence of a creator unless you know in advance that it was created. Another question-begging exercise.

I hate to say it but you haven’t got much chance of convincing this guy to drop the TAG, or even preventing him from thinking he’s won. Once Christians start thinking of TAG as unbeatable, when a contrary opinion starts to make sense they have the option to dismiss it and think, “They’re reasoning without God, so even if I can’t find the flaw in their logic they MUST be wrong somewhere.” It inoculates believers against the reason of non-believers, and I think that’s why apologists like it so much.

The Importance of Evidence

Question from Charles:
Dear Friends,

Something I’ve tended to notice is the overwhelming urge most atheists need to have objective evidence of God’s existence, prior to any personal commitment on their behalf of acknowledging such a deity as an Almighty God.

1. Can you conclusively prove that God doesn’t exist, anywhere in the universe?
2. If such a deity did exist, would you recognize Him as such? What shape and form would He have to possess?
3. Once you’ve recognized Him as God, would you be willing to totally acknowledge Him as God – to concede your free will to His?

Answer by SmartLX:
Well, wouldn’t you want good reason to think something was real before you based your whole life around it? In what other situation do you completely devote yourself to someone without knowing that it’s the right thing to do? If you’ve done this, what are your reasons?

1. You can’t prove a universal negative without being omniscient, so no. That said, you can in principle establish something as unlikely, and I’ve had a go at doing that with gods here.

2. Perhaps such a deity does exist, but I’d have to sense His, Her or Its presence or actions in some way before I could recognise Him, Her or It. God in many people’s opinion has no physical form so there’s really nothing to go on; I think a god would be more recognisable through its influence on reality than through its appearance.

3. If I knew God existed, and I knew what He actually wanted from me, I’d give it to Him. I’d be stupid not to, because if He’s anything like the Abrahamic religions portray Him then He’s a tyrant who punishes people forever – in other words, far out of proportion to anything they could possibly have done wrong in life. I wouldn’t be happy about it, but I’d toe the line like a good little serf.

The Great Big Arguments #1b: Presuppositional, SyeTenB Style

Sample argument:
The proof that God exists is that without Him you couldn’t prove anything. You must borrow from the Christian worldview, and a God who makes universal, immaterial, unchanging laws possible, in order to prove anything. By what standard can you know anything without God?

Answer by SmartLX:
This is the Transcendental Argument for God in a form made popular by Sye Ten Bruggencate and his fellows. The argument above is paraphrased from his automated, supposedly God-proving website. (Just click through the obviously desired responses to get to the meat.) I’ve already addressed the TAG here, but this version has a different emphasis and it warrants another look.

Presuppositionalist apologists work from two main presuppositions, both of which follow from a basic assumption that the Bible is the inerrant word of God:
– crediting all the universe’s unchanging laws, including logic and truth itself, to God (Jeremiah 33:25 among others), and
– the idea that all non-believers are actually believers in denial (Romans 1:18-20, with added derogation in verses 21 and 22).
The practical approach to witnessing is to deprive subjects of any basis for knowledge or reason except God while pleading for them to repent, in the hope that their supposed secret belief will reassert itself. For examples, look up any video or recording of Bruggencate, who proudly never does anything else.

Engaging this argument invariably boils down to arguing over one’s own ideas about truth and reason. If I say I look for evidence for truth claims, I’ll be asked how I know the evidence isn’t faked or imaginary. If I rattle off tests, I’ll be asked how I know they’re reliable, and so on. If I point out something crazy or immoral in the Bible, I’ll be asked by what standard I can judge it. It often goes nowhere in the end, with the believer thinking he’s “won” and the non-believer not only continuing not to believe but thinking a lot less of the believer.

There are different positions people can take, of course, but my approach to objective morality applies pretty well here too:
– If there are absolute laws of logic, morality, etc. then we probably don’t know what they are. Just because the God character in the Bible says certain things are absolute doesn’t mean those are the ones. (If you’re a presuppositionalist trawling this piece for absolutist statements to pounce on, that last sentence qualifies for one, and yes, I think some absolutes do exist. Just because I don’t know why they exist doesn’t mean a god set them up – see below.)
– Most or all of what we say that we know might be wrong, because we’re fallible people. However many things are testable, repeatable and consistent enough that we can be confident that they’re true, and behave as if we know them. Known absolutes are not necessary. A believer, by contrast, thinks he or she really does know some crucial things for certain, but might be wrong all the same.
– That laws (may) exist which are universal, immaterial and unchanging does not mean a particular book’s idea of a universal, immaterial and unchanging God created them. One simpler explanation is that, like God Himself is meant to be, the laws themselves are eternal and had no beginning.

I should also mention the circular reasoning inherent in the presuppositional approach. God exists, which is revealed to us in the Bible, which God apparently wrote because the Bible says he did. It’s no more complicated than that, and Bruggencate has admitted as much. It doesn’t concern him, firstly because he argues that everyone else does the same thing and secondly because if God is somewhere in the circle then it’s “just” or “virtuous” circular reasoning. I’ll let that speak for itself.

I’ve said before that much emphasis is placed on spreading the Word and very little on making it stick. The presupposition that there are no real atheists goes a long way towards explaining this, so I suspect it’s quite widespread. Further, Bruggencate and others regularly give it as a reason why this argument will Save(tm) professed non-believers. There are no statistics to suggest that any significant number of atheists or others are “renewing” their faith as a result of this argument, but measurable results don’t seem to matter. The apologists make their money from reassured believers regardless, so what’s the difference if they’re dead wrong about us atheists?

The Great Big Arguments #8: Contingency

Question from Zach:
Hi all. I’ve recently come out about my atheism to my Catholic ( and extremely intolerant) family. Their biggest “proof” of god is the argument from contingency. Now I’ve read up on the atheist refutation of this argument but I found it extremely confusing, thus I cannot explain it to my parents. A clear concise explanation of why this argument is false would be appreciated.

Answer by SmartLX:
Thanks for giving me a reason to write about this one, Zach. I might never have got around to it otherwise.

For those who came in late, the argument from contingency attempts to establish the necessity of a god given the idea that the universe is contingent on a god, that is, that the universe couldn’t exist without one. The formal argument comes in many forms, so here for instance is the one William Lane Craig uses in his book Reasonable Faith. He based it on an old cosmological argument by Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz. This is likely to be close to the one your parents know, and people would probably refer me to Craig if I dismissed any other version.

1. Anything that exists has an explanation for its existence, either in the necessity of its own nature or in an external cause.
2. If the universe has an explanation for its existence, that explanation is God.
3. The universe exists.
4. Therefore, the universe has an explanation of its existence (from 1,3).
5. Therefore, the explanation of the existence of the universe is God (from 2,4).

There are several straightforward problems with this.
– It can be seen as a time-independent version of the more popular cosmological argument, one which allows for an eternal universe which is still caused by, or “contingent” on, something or other. Most of the objections to that argument also apply to this one.
– There is no guarantee that the universe needs an external cause or an explanation at all. God apparently doesn’t, and He does just fine. If you can assert that God is uncaused, there’s really no way to rule out the same quality in the universe itself, except by special pleading.
– If the universe (or multiverse) does need an external cause, it’s a huge leap to say that the only possible cause is a god. Even if other ongoing matter-making entities (like the quantum foam) hadn’t been hypothesised, it would be impossible to rule out the infinite as-yet-unimagined possibilities and be certain that the particular hypothetical construct known as a god has to be the reason we exist.
– The explanation given for the existence of the universe is not just a god, but the God. If the argument were otherwise entirely valid and sound, it would still only establish the existence of a deistic creator god. Arguing for a theistic god that continues to exert its influence today, let alone the one and only Yahweh, God of Abraham, takes a lot more than that.

Best of luck with your parents. If their version of the argument from contingency is different enough to this that what I’ve written isn’t much help to you, give us the specific argument in a comment.


“I honestly think that common understanding of words like “existence” stretches far enough that people with different positions on the existence of something important can discuss and debate it in a way which is at least meaningful to them.”

Question from Cody:
When Christians and atheists argue, they seem to assume they mean the same thing when they say words like “existence,” “being,” “is,” and “truth.”

I find that they usually do not. Some speak from the modernist/rationalist mindset, some from the classical metaphysical mindset, and others from the post-modern, phenomenological POV.

What do you, and other atheists you know, assume as definitions for these seminal terms. What is the arbiter of truth? What is being and existence? Or, more realistically, what are your working assumptions about these things?

I’m afraid without clarity about our basic assumptions, any attempt to real dialogue is doomed. Help a devout Catholic understand atheist fundamental philosophy.

Answer by SmartLX:
I don’t think there is any fundamental atheist philosophy, Cody. That’s like asking for the common political views of everyone who isn’t a libertarian. Different people may have come to reject it by different routes.

That’s not to deny that many atheists think about this stuff in similar ways. For many or most atheists, questions of existence are rooted in the material. If something exists as anything more than a manmade abstract concept like love or justice (though of course those can be quite powerful in their own way), then it either has a material presence or some practical effect on something in the world. If something were to exist but have no effect on us, we might be strictly wrong but who cares?

The other assumption I think is near-universal is the idea that existence is universal. If an entity exists, again as anything more than a hypothetical construct, it exists for you as it does for me, and if it doesn’t then it doesn’t exist for anyone. “What’s true for me is true for me” is only meaningful when applied to interpretations of the abstract.

Let’s be explicit here: when atheists and Christians or any other believers clash over words like “existence” and “being”, they’re usually talking about God, or a god. This makes the issue a bit simpler. The Christian God and many others share certain qualities: they watch over us, they are capable of intervening in the natural world and they have complete power over whatever’s left of our personhood (our “souls”) after we die. If a god doesn’t do any of these things, then even if it still “exists” in some sense it might as well not.

I honestly think that common understanding of words like “existence” stretches far enough that people with different positions on the existence of something important can discuss and debate it in a way which is at least meaningful to them.

Atheism an “argument from ignorance”?

“I don’t know for sure that there isn’t a god, and I never said I did. I simply don’t believe that there is one…”

Question from Jay:
How is an atheist’s argument that there is no God any different from a Deist’s argument that there is a God? Both are unfalsifiable stances. How is an atheist’s view any better? You maintain your stance because it is the best answer you can come up with. You cannot rationally explain your stance any better than I can. How do you rationally know there isn’t a God? I know, you’ll say I don’t know 100 percent, well nobody does. But you asked this same question to a Deist, can you answer it?

I don’t know for sure that there isn’t a god, and I never said I did. I simply don’t believe that there is one, and I don’t think it’s likely either for reasons I’ll go into when answering your subsequent question.

Deists have an easier time defending their position than theists because they don’t have to establish any interference by a god since what they see as the act of Creation. Of course they do have to argue for Creation the same as theists, and there’s your overlap. I’ve laid out my basic position on the cosmological argument here in response to both theists and deists.


The Great Big Arguments #7: Morality

“Only humans are aware of having a stake in the moral and ethical parameters within which we live our lives. That’s why we’ve worked so hard to shape them over thousands of years, using various forms of authority from self-contained logic to force to claims of divine backing to support one adjustment over another.”

The argument, as straightforwardly put by the Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy:
1. Moral facts exist.
2. Moral facts have the properties of being objective and non-natural.
3. The best explanation of there being objective and non-natural moral facts is provided by theism.
4. Therefore the existence of moral facts provides good grounds for thinking theism is true.

A common opinion of the religious is that a person can’t be good without God. This argument goes a step further and says that because we know what is good and right and what is wrong, there must be a God.

A more widely used name for a “moral fact” is a “moral absolute” or “absolute moral”. It’s a standing judgement that something is either right or wrong, no matter what. In practical terms, it is what it is regardless of what people think. It’s true anywhere in the world, at any time. It’s the moral equivalent of a logical axiom or a fundamental universal constant.

Since the existence of moral facts is the first premise, and the second premise depends on it, the whole thing hinges on whether they can actually be established. So how do apologists go about doing this? Most of the time, they point out moral judgements which nearly everyone agrees on, such as that murder, rape or an event like the Holocaust is/was bad and wrong.

This won’t do, because moral facts or absolutes as described in these arguments are supposed to be independent of human beings. They’re specific properties of the universe like the laws of physics or logic, written into it by a god. If every human being on Earth disagreed with one (from the religious perspective, if all of humanity turned against God), it would still stand. Therefore the true moral absolutes (if any) could be completely at odds with near-universal human opinions, and so the fact that there are near-universal human moral opinions doesn’t make them absolutes. It just means humans have things in common.

A blogger arguing for moral absolutes challenged me to come up with a reasonable way to see the Holocaust (among other horrible actions) as a good thing. The implication was that if I failed, our near-universal condemnation of the Holocaust had to be based on a moral absolute. That’s wrong, as I’ve just explained, but I took him up on it anyway. All I had to do to contradict him was step outside of the human race and consider the Holocaust from the perspective of ants, or termites. Fewer Jews in Germany meant more abandoned houses in the ghettos, so more food and living space for bugs of all kinds. The Holocaust was so obviously wrong to humans, but if it loses its tragedy when exclusively human concerns are ignored then that’s hardly an absolute.

Only humans are aware of having a stake in the moral and ethical parameters within which we live our lives. That’s why we’ve worked so hard to shape them over thousands of years, supporting one adjustment over another with various forms of authority from self-contained logic to force to claims of divine backing. It appears that we’ve done it all ourselves, completely independent and ignorant of what any true absolute moral facts might be.


The Fine-Tuning Argument, in terms of probability

“The fundamental constants are set in one of potentially infinite combinations which permit life.”

Argument by Robert O’Brien, based on Probability, Statistics and Theology by David J. Bartholomew:
“As far as I know, there is no reason to believe the values of the physical constants are necessary, in which case, we have the following likelihood ratio:

P(physical constants and the universe in which we exist|God)/P(physical constants and the universe in which we exist|no God) =

P(physical constants|God)P(the universe in which we exist|physical constants and God)/
P(physical constants|no God)P(the universe in which we exist|physical constants and no God)

“Now, P(the universe in which we exist|physical constants and God)/P(the universe in which we exist|physical constants and no God) is essentially one since it does not seem likely that our universe depends on whether the physical constants we observe arose by design or not. Therefore, the likelihood ratio takes the form:

P(physical constants|God)/
P(physical constants|no God)

which I argue is large since it is easy to conceive of God wishing to create a particular universe and choosing the appropriate values of the physical constants whereas a random selection would be very unlikely to achieve the correct values.”

The point of the argument doesn’t actually require most of the mathematical notation, so we can skip a lot of the above. We’ll concentrate on the last expression of the ratio of probability:

P(physical constants|God)/
P(physical constants|no God)

For those who haven’t seen this kind of thing before, here’s a crash course. P(something) means the probability of that thing happening. If you toss a fair coin, P(heads) is one half or 0.5 and so is P(tails). The | in the middle, which is called a pipe, means “given” or “given that” or “in the case of” or just “if”. For example, if you take the bus to work, P(getting to work on time|catching the bus) is higher than P(getting to work on time|missing the bus and walking).

So, O’Brien’s final expression is the probability of the universe’s fundamental constants having their present values if there’s a God (note the capital G – he means a god like the Christian one) divided by the probability of the same constants if there’s no God. The reason why the former is much higher than the latter, he argues, is that “it is easy to conceive of God wishing to create a particular universe and choosing the appropriate values of the physical constants whereas a random selection would be very unlikely to achieve the correct values.”

Let’s transfer the argument sideways. Which is higher,

P(last week’s lottery numbers|God) or
P(last week’s lottery numbers|no God)?

One would have to argue the former using O’Brien’s logic, because whether or not it happened, it’s really easy to conceive of God wishing to make a particular person rich and choosing the right numbers whereas a random selection would be very unlikely to match a given person’s numbers. Many winners do thank God, after all.

So why are there winners all the time, then? Because any combination could be a winner, and you don’t necessarily need last week’s specific lottery numbers.

Similarly, while some combinations of the fundamental constants are unworkable, many others are. Most who argue that they aren’t make the mistake of varying just one constant at a time. Even within that limitation, the gravitational constant for example would have to vary by a factor of about 3000 to preclude the formation of stars.

Without the limitation, as Victor Stenger discovered, “changes to one parameter can be easily compensated for by changes to another, leaving the ingredients for life in place.”

The fundamental constants are set in one of potentially infinite combinations which permit life. They don’t even seem terribly conducive to life, given that it has only apparently emerged on the surface of this one rock within hundreds of light years. They’re no better than a Division 3 lottery win.

One may consider it a low or even negligible probability that an unsculpted universe will be life-ready. Assuming there are six major fundamental constants (and you may want to consider others), the entire six-dimensional sample space would have to be analysed, not just slight variations of our set, or there’s no basis for this.

And that’s without even considering a multiverse or the anthropic principle.