Now You’re Thinking With A Bunch of Atoms

Question from Jeff:
I’m sort of in a searching phase of life where I really don’t know what to believe. I recently heard a compelling argument for the existence of god and want to get some input. The argument goes like this:

If there is no god and the world is just an accident, if everything about people, including what they think and feel, is just the chance combination of molecules and is explained in terms of chemistry and physical laws, why be rational? On the basis of atheism, weeds grow because they are weeds (laws of physics) and minds just do whatever they do. People act like they are free to think about different kinds of ideas and then choose the best one. On the basis of atheism, that’s impossible. Our minds are just a bunch of atoms vibrating and will do whatever they have been programmed to do. If there is no god and the physical world is all there is, there is no logical basis for logic. But people, including atheists, do trust reason and logic even though they have no reason to assume that it works.

Any thoughts you have would be greatly appreciated.

Answer by SmartLX:
Minds, or brains to be more specific, indeed do what is dictated by their physical structure combined with the electrical signals travelling through them, so you could say that they do what they’re programmed to do. The thing is, they are programmed to think. They have the necessary complexity to store something as abstract as an idea, among other information, and they apply ideas to the world around them. This leads them to make choices based on the information available to them, and act upon those choices. This can be called a person’s will. Its ultimately deterministic nature in the absence of supernatural influences (like a soul) leads many to stop short of calling it free will, but it’s will all the same.

We have plenty of reason to assume that reason and logic work, because we live in a world where reason and logic regularly help us make predictions about the world that turn out to be correct. It’s not a matter of philosophy, it’s simply a lifetime of observing the practical power of understanding the logical workings of an apparently consistent universe. We don’t know why it’s that way (and many religious people jump on that fact to make an argument from ignorance in favour of gods – back to this in a moment), but we learn that it is so and we use it to our advantage. That’s what learning is, really. If the world weren’t consistent we couldn’t learn anything.

The argument you heard is rather close to the transcendental argument for God (TAG) and ultimately has the same problem: to establish a god as the source of logic in its premise it has to assert that there’s no other possibility, when there’s merely no other KNOWN source. In fact the possibilities are endless, but the simplest one is that logic has no source and has always been in place, much like God is supposed to have been. The other important thing about the TAG, in my experience, is that its persuasive power is not targeted where you think it is. It almost never convinces non-believers, but it very often convinces believers that their belief is justified when they might be in doubt. It is primarily a tool for reassurance, not conversion. The same may be true of all apologetics at this point, but TAG more than most.

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 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?

Logic and Certainty

“I proceed with confidence in consistent logic on the basis of experience and precedent.”

Question from Dan, apparently paraphrased from his own blog (I added the numbers for easy reference):
1. How do you account for the universal, abstract, invariant laws of logic,
2. on what basis do you proceed with the assumption that they will not change, and
3. how is it possible to know anything for certain according to YOUR worldview?

Before I start, atheism is not my worldview. It’s my position on a specific issue, and it has very little to do with how I view anything else.

1. I cannot account for the laws of logic, yet, and neither can you. You as a Christian have been supplied with an answer to this tremendous mystery whereas I have not, but you have no substantive evidence to support or verify your answer. Its power to explain anything satisfactorily is therefore extremely limited. If you think you do have evidence, please present it or link to it.

2. I proceed with confidence in consistent logic on the basis of experience and precedent. I expect the laws of logic not to change because they have apparently never changed. All my life, and as far back as I’ve delved into history, there isn’t a single confirmed instance when the laws of logic changed. (Contrast that with the Christian idea that God temporarily circumvents these laws to cause miracles.)

If the laws do suddenly change at some point in my lifetime I will be mighty surprised (as will those who think a god is keeping them constant) but I do not expect this to happen and I live as if it won’t. Chances are, I’ll be right.

3. Knowing things for certain depends on just how certain you want to be. Since I can’t be absolutely certain this life is not merely a dream, for example, I can’t be any more certain about a single specific aspect of my life as it’s all potentially within that dream.

Once I have enough evidence of something, for example that my fiancee both exists and loves me, I develop a certain confidence that it is true. In the given case I am so confident that I will happily say in everyday life that I am certain.

Sure, there is a possibility that my fiancee is putting on an act, or that she is my schizophrenic delusion, or again that my whole life since meeting her was a dream. I simply think the probability of any of these scenarios is so low that it’s negligible. If I’m wrong and one of them is the case, I will be heartbroken and again very surprised, and that will be that.

I do not pursue absolute certainty in anything, because I don’t think it’s attainable. I don’t need it, because in most matters I can attain a level of confidence where I can happily act as if I am certain. Sometimes I’m wrong. It happens.