The Consequences of Naturalism

by Luke Muehlhauser on January 1, 2010 in Free Will,General Atheism

earthrise

The three major Western religions tell a comforting story. They say that if you believe in Yahweh, Jesus, or Allah, then you are on the side of good in a cosmic war with evil, and you will win because God is on your side. They say you will never die, but live forever in a magic realm of bliss. They say bad people will ultimately be punished, and good people will ultimately be rewarded. They say that humans are the apex of all creation, the point of the whole universe. They say he has given you an eternal “soul” that you use to create your own choices. And they say that the infinite Creator of the universe cares for you and wants a personal relationship with you.

Now that’s a damn good story. If you can swallow all the outrageous myths, contradictory doctrines, and barbaric scriptures – or at least shrug them off as “the mystery of God” – then you get to be a player in this epic, romantic story.

The problem is, it’s a fairy tale. I wish I could say, “And I think we all know it,” but there are billions of people who will read that first paragraph and say, “Yup, that is actually true.”

I used to be one of them. I use to think that story was true. It gave my life eternal purpose and meaning. It was very comforting to know that the unbeatable king of the universe was on my side. What could go wrong, then?

But I’ve been persuaded by a different story, one backed by tons of evidence rather than wishful thinking. Later, I’ll say more about why I’ve been persuaded that naturalism is probably true. Right now, I’d just like to look at some of the consequences of naturalism.

Naturalism is simply the view that only natural things exist. Reality is made of rocks, trees, neurons, gravity, neutrinos, spacetime, black holes, the weak electromagnetic force, etc. Reality does not contain gods, souls, karma, non-natural moral properties, magic realms, or magic powers.

Consequences

Naturalism means we have to accept what our best science reveals about reality. It means we can’t add layers of superstition to make whatever we find more comforting. When we discover that lightning is caused by electric charge and not Zeus, we can’t say “Ah, but it’s Zeus who creates the electric charge that causes the lightning.” And when we discover that consciousness is a product of complex neurological systems, we can’t say “Ah, but it’s Yahweh who creates the particular nueron firings that result in consciousness.”

So what are the consequences of accepting what science has shown us about the universe? Many of our discoveries have been comforting, but many of them have been deeply upsetting to our intuitions and traditional ideas.

One of the early shocks, in the 16th century, was that we are not the center of the universe. This was quite a shock at the time, and was vigorously resisted by those who believed the comforting relgious story, but we came to accept it, and re-interpreted our scriptures to fit the science.

A much bigger shock came in the 19th century when we discovered we are not special creations made apart from all the animals, but that we are just one more animal, and that our evolution was simultaneous with many other higher apes who are now extinct. This is a tough one for many people, and is still resisted in fundamentalist religious camps around the world.

The 20th century was a whirlwind of surprising turns. First, Einstein showed that there is no universal “now.” The universe does not run forward in time on a universal clock. Instead, time is relative to the observer.

Next, scientists discovered that the universe, at a fundamental level, is determined by random events. Even Einstein couldn’t accept this one, saying “God does not play dice with the universe.” But it turns out to be true.

Another surprise was the discovery that the universe is not infinitely old, but actually began to exist. This excited religious people, who told stories of scientists climbing a mountain, getting to the top, and finding that theologians had been there all along, saying the universe had a beginning. But the theologians are not so impressive when you realize their chances of getting it right by pure chance was 50/50, and their timescale was off by 13.7 billion years. Also, almost everything else theologians had said about the early development of the universe was dead wrong.

These days, it’s not so clear whether the Big Bang represents the beginning of everything or merely the beginning of one local universe among many. But our studies of cosmology continue to humble us. Not only are we not the center of  the universe, but we are on a tiny speck of dust in an unimaginably vast and dark universe that is everywhere hostile to life, and our existence as a species marks but a blink in time.

I think there are other consequences of naturalism, too. They have not been “proved” like the Big Bang or relativity, but the science is certainly trending in these directions. I’d like to suggest that all of the following are more likely true than not, given current science:

  1. Gods do not exist.
  2. Intrinsic values do not exist.
  3. Categorical imperatives do not exist.
  4. Intrinsic rights, duties, and virtues do not exist.
  5. Souls do not exist.
  6. Minds are entirely physical.
  7. Our sun will explode, wiping out the solar system, in about 5 billion years. The entire universe will die in a slow heat death after that.
  8. Contra-causal free will does not exist.

The first discovery is earth-shattering for most people, but plenty of people (including most Ph.D.’s) have moved on, and are still living valuable and moral lives.

The first four discoveries destroy all traditional systems of morality. Many will see this as the death of morality, and therefore the death of society. I don’t think so, but I do think that all traditional systems of morality are, in fact, false.

The fifth and sixth discoveries destroy our fantasy of immortality.

The seventh discovery is a bit sad, but it is sufficiently distant to not think about it much.

The eighth discovery might be the most upsetting to some people. We are like a robot who has become so sophisticated that it realizes it is a robot who is 100% a puppet of forces outside its control. What does this mean for our concepts of justice and moral responsibility and progress? Free will seemed to be the last resort of a concept of a special “me,” but it turns out we are just physical, mechanical bodies like grasshoppers and bacteria and lemurs. (And yet, we are lemurs who can do astrophysics and conduct symphonies and fall in love.)

Responses

There are several responses to the consequences of scientific discovery. One is to stick your head in the sand and keep repeating the nice religious fairy tale to yourself. Another is to accept it all but think it is just too much for your to handle, and commit suicide. Another is to accept the hard truth about the universe, accept also all the beautiful and wonderful truths we have discovered, and strive to create a better existence while we still can.

I have chosen the third path.

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{ 70 comments… read them below or add one }

Sharkey January 1, 2010 at 6:44 am

Good post. I think you’ve hit the nail on the head: the Copernican principle applies further than simple planetary motion. Humans do not have any instrinsic “specialness”, and we should be wary of any hypothesis that is premised on that notion.

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Gabriel January 1, 2010 at 7:13 am

Luke-

I’m wondering where you feel that faith comes into this. Obviously, there is faith in religion, but I’m wondering whether or not there is faith in naturalism as well. Isn’t science based on the belief that there is a rational explanation for everything which occurs in our universe? If this is true, wouldn’t science and naturalism be dismissing God simply because he is supernatural, and he does not fit that mold? Is it possible that science and naturalism are based on faith, just like religion? Sorry if the question is confusing, I’m not quite sure how to put it.

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ayer January 1, 2010 at 7:22 am

A few problems with your essay, the main one being that scientific discovery in the 20th century generally began to provide confirming evidence for theism:

1) You underestimate how disturbing it was for atheists to discover that the universe began to exist, e.g. Fred Hoyle and many others clinging to the steady-state theory long after it was nonviable because they found “the idea that the universe had a beginning to be philosophically troubling, as many argued that a beginning implies a cause, and thus a creator.” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fred_Hoyle#Rejection_of_the_Big_Bang

2) The discovery of the fine-tuning of the constants in the initial conditions for the Big Bang created another “problem” for atheism to deal with

3) Quantum physics, particularly the dominant Copenhagen interpretation, “abolishes physical determinism, and it gives a special ontological status to the mind of the human observer.” This is theism-friendly, not atheism-friendly, evidence. http://www.firstthings.com/article/2007/02/faith-and-quantum-theory-17

4) Several of the items you see as “trending toward” scientific disproof are inherently nonfalsifiable by science, e.g., intrinsic value, categorical imperatives, souls, mind-body dualism, contra-causal free will, etc. One’s final conclusion on these matters will always remain in the philosophical arena and can never be experimentally “proved” or “disproved” like the fact that the Earth revolves around the Sun.

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Rob January 1, 2010 at 7:41 am

“Another is to accept the hard truth about the universe, accept also all the beautiful and wonderful truths we have discovered, and strive to create a better existence while we still can.”

I fear that you have not yet pursued far enough the implications of those hard truths (which I, too, accept); that doing so involves grappling with the dark sort of Schopenhaurian conclusions reached by David Benatar in his book “Better Never to Have Been: The Harm of Coming into Existence” (Oxford, 2006); and that unless resistance to those conclusions — undergirded by the very intellectual integrity which motivates acceptance of the aforementioned hard truths — can be established, it is far from clear that atheists’ campaign to disabuse pious folk of their piety is necessarily a good thing ( –except, of course, instrumentally as one means among many of combating political and social conservativism in the culture wars).

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kennethos January 1, 2010 at 8:22 am

Why are there beautiful and wonderful truths, as you put them, in a world of hard, painful reality? Where do these concepts come from? This looks like stoicism at best (the stiff upper lip approach), and wishful thinking of your own. Of course, the final thought, trying to build a better world. The great big “WHY?” keeps coming up. Because you want to? In a world that just doesn’t care? Fine. You’ll be dust in 80 years, and quickly forgotten. Is this a world you want? Just doesn’t fit with the evidence.
C’mon, Luke, you can do better at exploring than this. In addition to a woefully undeveloped and less-than-historical view and understanding of scientific history, you’re only trying to scratch the surface.

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Eric January 1, 2010 at 8:22 am

“There are several responses to the consequences of scientific discovery. One is to stick your head in the sand and keep repeating the nice religious fairy tale to yourself. Another is to accept it all but think it is just too much for your to handle, and commit suicide. Another is to accept the hard truth about the universe, accept also all the beautiful and wonderful truths we have discovered, and strive to create a better existence while we still can.
“I have chosen the third path.”

And so have many, if not most, Christians. This is a drum I find I have continually to beat with atheists (and skeptics generally): *I, as a Christian, get (by which I mean “get to accept as provisionally true,” “get to be just as awed by,” “get to feel the enjoyment of discovery and curiosity about,” etc.) **all** the science you do*. Where we differ is not in our science, but in our philosophy. And to claim, or rather to suggest, that it is science that ultimately divides us — “Do you choose science *or* your religion?” — is to evince a philosophical naivete that is, in my experience, as widespread as it is difficult to dislodge.

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Sharkey January 1, 2010 at 8:24 am

ayer: I’m going to ignore your first two points, because they’ve been covered in prior discussions and you generally ignore the responses.

Re: 3) Excellent article. Quick note: from my studies of quantum mechanics, the article simplifies the Schrodinger equation, in stating the result is a set of probabilities; rather, the Schrodinger equation _is_ deterministic on a wave-function. The wave-function is transformed in time, but the ‘shape’ of the wave-function is completely determined by the equation: there are no uncertainties. Rather, the uncertainties only manifest upon measuring an observable with a classical apparatus, with the probability of a specific observation given by the components of the wave-function vector. Minor quibble, but this asymmetry is the heart of the problem.

Under Copenhagen, the difficulty in implying an observer must be a human is that it ignores two scenarios: a sufficiently noisy environment forcing a collapse, or a human observing another human in an entangled state (Wigner’s Friend rather than Schrodinger’s Cat). Humans are not exempt from an entangled state, and neither are we the only mechanism of wave-function collapse, and therefore we have no privileged place in quantum mechanics.

I’ll end with my usual comment: a full description of reality will have to wait for more data. Hopefully the LHC will shed some light on the various theories that attempt to explain quantum and relativistic effects in our universe.

Tl;dr: Quantum mechanics is weird, but you can’t hide from Copernicus there.

Re: 4) By your standards, we can never ‘prove’ the Earth revolves around the Sun either. There could be vast forces obscuring each and every measurement, tricking us to infer gravity and angular momentum when it’s actually cloaked elves with jetpacks. All science can do is create models that reflect reality. The proof you ask for is forever in the hands of logicians (assuming the logicians aren’t elves in clever disguise).

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lukeprog January 1, 2010 at 8:43 am

Rob,

I haven’t read the book but it’s not implausible to me that the universe would be morally better off had humans never evolved and come to dominate the planet.

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lukeprog January 1, 2010 at 8:47 am

Kennethos,

Uh, yeah, duh, this is just scratching the surface. Look at the length of this post.

Are you asking why I find certain things to be beautiful? You want a summary of the evolution of aesthetic appreciation?

“Is this a world you want? Just doesn’t fit with the evidence.” Something doesn’t fit the evidence about what I want? Huh?

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lukeprog January 1, 2010 at 8:48 am

Eric,

I never said anything like “All Christians deny science” or “Science and religion are mutually exclusive.”

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ayer January 1, 2010 at 9:13 am

Sharkey: Re: 4) By your standards, we can never ‘prove’ the Earth revolves around the Sun either.

Yes, we can “prove” it because it is a matter of simple observation and measurement; we either observe it going around the Sun or we don’t. Even the person asserting “elves are doing it” cannot deny that it is revolving around the Sun.

“Intrinsic value,” however, is in an entirely different category. What possible scientific experiment could falsify the statement “humans have instrinsic value?”

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Rob January 1, 2010 at 9:25 am

lukeprog: Rob,I haven’t read the book but it’s not implausible to me that the universe would be morally better off had humans never evolved and come to dominate the planet.  

The idea is rather that the most honest understanding of ourselves might issue in not only antinatalism but the conclusion that for each of us it would be better had we not been brought into existence. It doesn’t follow from this that we should kill ourselves, but that a certain gloom must hang over those who, for whatever reasons (surely, more a matter of temperament than choice), happen to live in the light of that most honest understanding; and that this should raise serious misgivings about campaigns to disabuse believers of their piety, given that it (their piety) is a prophylactic against that gloom — a response to it which, indeed, is rife with false beliefs, but perhaps more profoundly responsive to the truths inspiring that gloom than most forms of naturalism on the market.

I’m nearly tempted to adduce religious piety, its pervasiveness and durability, as the primary evidence for the gloomy destination to which our most honest understanding of ourselves should, if Schopenhaur and Benatar are correct, take us. On this view of things, the facile bravado of so much atheism seems a shallower response to the human condition than delusion-ridden piety.

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lukeprog January 1, 2010 at 9:27 am

ayer,

It might be a philosophical debate on how to define the term “intrinsic value,” but then several definitions of that term will reference things that are either detected or not detected.

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Steven Stark January 1, 2010 at 10:24 am

“We are like a robot who has become so sophisticated that it realizes it is a robot who is 100% a puppet of forces outside its control.”

If there is no contra-causal freewill, then there is nothing else that has freewill either. The idea of a “lack of freewill” implies that there is another will somewhere controlling us – which determinism does not suggest. The idea of freewill means something separate – disconnected.

I think determinism means that all things are connected – nothing more, nothing less. All things are one process. It means that the sun shining is as much a part of my decision-making as my brain. I think it’s a beautiful thing to believe, and provides evidence not that that we are robots controlled by the universe, but rather that we ARE the universe.

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RDM January 1, 2010 at 10:29 am

Good Day Luke,

I understand that this is just a blog post and therefore it cannot contain great depth of argument, thus meaning that I will be as charitable as possible, but quite simply, this post was weak and at times contradictory. A point-by-point breakdown:

1. “The three major Western religions tell a comforting story….etc.”

A minor point here, but just remember that the reverse is also true: Naturalistic-Atheism is a very comforting myth. There are no intrinsic or absolute rights or morals (as you admit). There is no final judgment for your actions. And there is no hell. (To only mention a few points that could be raised). What an easy and comforting way to live this life, in fact, arguably more comforting than the religious few (and please remember that as a Catholic, I do not profess “Once saved, always saved,” nor do I know if I will be saved.)

2. “Naturalism means we have to accept what our best science reveals about reality. It means we can’t add layers of superstition to make whatever we find more comforting.”

Excellent point. But then, remember that we cannot accept abiogenesis or consciousness or the Big Bang, for we have no truly viable or empirical scientific proofs of how abiogenesis occurred, how consciousness arose or how the Bang came from nothing. It also means that we must seriously review our commitment to science as a true dealing enterprise, for having only tested the scientific laws on an infinitesimally small sample size compared to the universe as a whole, we could argue that our current scientific knowledge is no better than mere superstition.

3. “One of the early shocks, in the 16th century, was that we are not the center of the universe. This was quite a shock at the time, and was vigorously resisted by those who believed the comforting religious story, but we came to accept it, and re-interpreted our scriptures to fit the science.”

Actually, for many this was an excellent thing, for based on the ancient cosmology with the Earth as central to the universe, it also meant that the Earth was the sinkhole/dung-heap of the universe. By placing us amongst the stars, modern cosmology enhanced human status rather than minimizing it.

4. “A much bigger shock came in the 19th century when we discovered we are not special creations made apart from all the animals, but that we are just one more animal…”

Except that we are the only animals that can conduct scientific inquiry, write poetry, debate philosophical topics and so forth, raises the issue that to claim that we are not special, as you do, requires more than mere assertion as all the evidence is for it.

5. “Next, scientists discovered that the universe, at a fundamental level, is determined by random events…But it turns out to be true.”

Note: Science is never true, only probabilistically true, meaning that this could easily change with a few more discoveries. In essence, it is only our current and best guess.

6. “But the theologians are not so impressive when you realize their chances of getting it right by pure chance was 50/50, and their timescale was off by 13.7 billion years.”

Reference the former point, with a wide number of options such as the multiverse, oscillating universe, eternal universe or beginning universe, it seems that the theologians belief (contra all philosophers and scientists, I might add) were much better than mere chance. Reference the latter point, as a Catholic, again this does not apply.

7. “Also, almost everything else theologians had said about the early development of the universe was dead wrong.”

Which theologians and how were they “dead” wrong? Less assertion please.

8. These days, it’s not so clear whether the Big Bang represents the beginning of everything or merely the beginning of one local universe among many.

Evidence please–the same quality and quantity of evidence that atheists ask for God. I did not think so.

9. “…but the science is certainly trending in these directions.”

Interesting, considering that most major and paradigm-shifting scientific discoveries break the trends, this does not bode well for naturalism.

10. “The eighth discovery might be the most upsetting to some people. We are like a robot who has become so sophisticated that it realizes it is a robot who is 100% a puppet of forces outside its control. What does this mean for our concepts of justice and moral responsibility and progress? Free will seemed to be the last resort of a concept of a special “me,” but it turns out we are just physical, mechanical bodies like grasshoppers and bacteria and lemurs. (And yet, we are lemurs who can do astrophysics and conduct symphonies and fall in love.)
Responses
There are several responses to the consequences of scientific discovery. One is to stick your head in the sand and keep repeating the nice religious fairy tale to yourself. Another is to accept it all but think it is just too much for your to handle, and commit suicide. Another is to accept the hard truth about the universe, accept also all the beautiful and wonderful truths we have discovered, and strive to create a better existence while we still can.
I have chosen the third path.”

Please re-read your own paragraphs and think about them. You state that you have “chosen” the third option, while in just a paragraph or two above you have admitted to no free will. On your view, you have chosen nothing, not even your atheism/naturalism, yet cannot stop from using the language of free will. At the very least, please be linguistically consistent with your philosophy and stop trying to have your cake and eat it as well.

Take care,

RDM

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Rob January 1, 2010 at 10:37 am

The idea of a “lack of freewill” implies that there is another will somewhere controlling us – which determinism does not suggest.

That’s not the only sense in which to conceive of our lack of free will. Here’s a sense — incompatibilism — to which the truth or falsity of determinism is irrelevant:

http://www.rep.routledge.com/article/V014SECT3

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lukeprog January 1, 2010 at 11:16 am

Off-topic great quote:

“Corporations have been enthroned, an era of corruption in high places will follow, and the money-power of the country will endeavor to prolong it’s reign by working upon the prejudices of the people until the wealth is aggregated in a few hands and the Republic is destroyed.”

- Abraham Lincoln

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Justfinethanks January 1, 2010 at 12:29 pm

Off-topic great quote:

You don’t see too many people threadjack on their own blog.

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Bryce January 1, 2010 at 1:03 pm

Luke, you are a scientismist. This makes it really easy to discount everything you say, because covering something with the shiny veneer of “SCIENCE” doesn’t really get you anywhere, espeically when the topics that science has supposedly concluded doesn’t exist are things that science can’t study. If we are supposed to conclude that something doesn’t exist because science can’t study it, or that this line of reasoning is mere posturing to place religious beliefs beyond scrutiny, then what do you conlcude about the scientific method? It can’t be studied by science, so we must throw it out if we are to throw out intrinsic values, free will, etc.

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Mark January 1, 2010 at 2:00 pm

RDM you pretty much laid to waste to everything Luke wrote. Well said.

Hilarious point about “comforting.” Oh yeah, it’s real comforting to know hell is right around the corner, and you might just be going there. Walk in the park. Nay, the comforting life is the one of the atheist who hasn’t anyone to answer to whatsoever. Free thought. Free life. Free ride. Here today, gone tomorrow. Live it up. Who cares. Ands of course that’s where the greatest paradox of all lies: in the fact that if we have no purpose here. what is this “truth” thing atheists claim to be seeking?

I love this from cafepress:

“Sigmund Freud, Karl Marx and Charles Darwin are considered the pillars of modern western thought. They differed in many ways but had one thing in common—they were reductionists who claimed that all higher realms of existence could be explained by lower natural causes. They were the pillars of naturalism.

But their ideas were tested during the twentieth century and found wanting. Freud was the first fall. Incidents in his career were cited to call into question both his integrity and his scientific competence, and psychiatry seemed to make more progress through medication than through Freudian analysis. The collapse of the Soviet Union in the late 1980s inflicted a death blow on Marxism, which is now seen as not only failing to deliver its promised utopia but as creating an inhumane tyranny. Darwin is the last man standing, but his theory is rapidly eroding as modern biological science reveals amazing complexity and design that cannot possibly be explained by Darwin’s proposed mechanism of random mutations and natural selection. This led Phillip Johnson to summarize the situation one day with the phrase that appears on this shirt: “Freud is dead, Marx is dead, and Darwin is not feeling very well.”

I’m praying Luke turns back to God in 2010 and clicks the DELETE button on this website. After all, what good is it if we have no purpose here at all? There could only be one.

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Al Moritz January 1, 2010 at 2:03 pm

Excellent posts, Ayer, Eric, Bryce and especially RDM (by the way, I am a Catholic too). Your posts brilliantly expose Luke’s incredible philosophical and theological naivete on this topic. However, given Luke’s Bible fundamentalist background, from which he had to choose sciene OR religion, the naivete is at least understandable. Luke, you need to grow out of it though.

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Rob January 1, 2010 at 2:13 pm

Mark & RDM,

How is any succor for your respective commitments to Judeo-Christian theism supposed to follow from pointing out the shortcomings of naturalism, so conceived? How could it be intellectually responsible for Luke to turn back to the all-good, all-knowing, all-powerul god of Judeo-Christianity, pretending for the moment he were to concede RDM’s critique?

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Lee A. P. January 1, 2010 at 2:24 pm

“Darwin is the last man standing, but his theory is rapidly eroding as modern biological science reveals amazing complexity and design that cannot possibly be explained by Darwin’s proposed mechanism of random mutations and natural selection”

To say that the Theory of Evolution is “rapidly eroding” is idiocy of the highest order. That could not be further from the truth.

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lukeprog January 1, 2010 at 2:41 pm

Bryce,

What you’ve said doesn’t characterize my beliefs at all. Calling something “science” doesn’t get you anywhere. And many things exist that cannot be studied by science.

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lukeprog January 1, 2010 at 2:43 pm

Al,

Don’t know what to say. The Christians here haven’t represented my views accurately at all. Obviously, one need not choose science or religion. It’s not that simple.

The Christians on this post have erected about a dozen straw men about my beliefs.

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Al Moritz January 1, 2010 at 2:54 pm

Luke,

you always reply with “don’t know what to say” when I catch you on something (cf. also the issue of the masthead quote for your blog). Your post clearly implies that one needs to choose science or religion. And If you did not mean to imply that, then the naivete lies in the framing and wording of your post.

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Derrida January 1, 2010 at 2:58 pm

Wow, this post seems to have hit a nerve. The accusations and derogatory terms are flying. It’s so much easier to misstate someone’s position and characterize it as naive than to defend your own.

Science could so easily provide us with evidence of supernatural beings, nonphysical minds, a creator or designer of the universe, the efficacy of religious practices, etc. But instead we see just what we would expect if there were no such forces influencing the natural world from without: a cosmic story of chance and necessity.

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lukeprog January 1, 2010 at 3:21 pm

Al,

If you insist on mis-stating my own positions, then nothing I can say will have much effect on you.

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Justfinethanks January 1, 2010 at 3:28 pm

A minor point here, but just remember that the reverse is also true: Naturalistic-Atheism is a very comforting myth. There are no intrinsic or absolute rights or morals (as you admit). There is no final judgment for your actions.

The idea that naturalism is comforting because there is no judgement for your actions is a bizarre accusation coming from a Christian. It’s almost as if the totally forget the tenets of their faith whenever they attempt to attack atheists.

Because it is Christians, remember, who believe that Christians, and Christians alone, who will never be held accountable for their actions, while everyone else will. We’re all sinners, but Christians won’t actually be held accountable for their sins. Christians get mercy, while non-Christians get judgement. So in truth, both Atheists and Christians don’t believe that they will be held accountable for their actions in any eternal sense, but with Christianity, you get the extra selling point of eternal life. Now, seriously, which world view is actually more soothing to our mortal and moral fears?

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abraxas January 1, 2010 at 3:42 pm

It’s rather amusing to notice how, from one moment to the next, we are informed both that our failure to lapse into the nihilistic despair that must purportedly accompany atheism amounts to little more than “flinching in the face of the abyss,” and that atheism is simultaneously a “comforting myth” and “an easy and comforting way to live this life.”

We poor naturalists can’t seem to catch a break, so it would seem.

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Eric January 1, 2010 at 3:45 pm

“The Christians here haven’t represented my views accurately at all. Obviously, one need not choose science or religion. It’s not that simple.
The Christians on this post have erected about a dozen straw men about my beliefs.”

Hi Luke

I didn’t intentionally set up a straw man, so if I misrepresented your views, I apologize. But when you lay out alternative responses to the “consequences of scientific discovery” that include the likes of, “(1a) stick[ing] your head in the sand and (1b) keep repeating the nice religious fairy tale to yourself” and ” (2) accept[ing] the hard truth about the universe, accept[ing] also all the beautiful and wonderful truths we have discovered, and striv[ing] to create a better existence while we still can,” it can be rather difficult not to infer that you don’t think a reasonable alternative would be the conjunction of (1b) and (2)! However, I’m happy to see that I misread you (apparently due to a broader interpretation of (1b) on my part than you intended).

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Beelzebub January 1, 2010 at 4:01 pm

Great post. I would add to your list of upsets to the traditional order the debunking of the concept of a biological Élan Vital in the 19th century, making organic matter just matter, without any special vital force. This, along with Darwinian evolution, was the twin punch of the 19th century that really turned our regard for the physical world on its head. Without those, naturalism would have remained an unsupportable position.

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Chris January 1, 2010 at 4:20 pm

Nice post, Luke. I know you’re probably familiar with Tom Clark’s excellent site http://naturalism.org/ , but as for the readers who aren’t, I highly recommend it. See especially the articles on free will.

Common Sense Atheism is probably the best atheist blog on the net, for its vast variety of subjects, thourough reasoning, resourses (you list freak!), and clear (that is, clear), writing. As such, it attracts a seemingly higher quality Christian response than say, Unreasonable Faith or Pharyngula (both good blogs, just with different purposes and audiences). The comments on this post are, well, interesting. I agree that they have misrepresented your views on nearly every subject. They accuse you of implying that science explains everything, and in the same breath, insist that your admission that science doesn’t explain everything is somehow fatal to your position. This post is a very brief overview of the consequences of naturalism. When the evidence merits them, confident assertions are made. When is evidence is inconclusive, judgement is humbly suspended. Did I miss something?

The question, I think, is not whether these Christians have built and argued against strawmen, but whether they concsiously know they are doing so and actually believe their arguments are sound. From the bizarre conclusion that the fact that our universe may have had a cause implies a god (a disembodied mind?) who “created” it, to the assertion that using the word “choose” implies a belief in contra-causal free will, these comments show the shoddy reasoning and confusion that permeates so much of “philosophical” theism.

They seem smart enough. But shouldn’t they know better? It worries me, because some of my best friends are Christians. I want to respect them. I’m sure many will find this notion insulting. That’s the problem. What is to be done? I’m sure you spend a lot of time on this blog. If your goal is to change people’s minds, I worry you are wasting your time. After all, your deconversion began with finding the writings of Christians to be inadequate. If people can’t get that far, how will they be able to accept, or, I’m afraid, even understand the arguments of atheists?

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ayer January 1, 2010 at 5:03 pm

lukeprog: ayer,It might be a philosophical debate on how to define the term “intrinsic value,” but then several definitions of that term will reference things that are either detected or not detected.  

Could you clarify this? Can you specify the type of experiment that would falsify the statement “human beings have intrinsic value”?

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Al Moritz January 1, 2010 at 5:12 pm

lukeprog:
Al,
If you insist on mis-stating my own positions, then nothing I can say will have much effect on you.  

No Luke,

if your position is that you do not have to choose between science and religion, I am afraid that it is you who has mis-stated your own position in your post.

Al

PS: Happy New Year everyone!

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RDM January 1, 2010 at 5:38 pm

Good Day to All,

This will be a post to address all previous posts that dealt with my latter one.

1) Rob said:

“How is any succor for your respective commitments to Judeo-Christian theism supposed to follow from pointing out the shortcomings of naturalism, so conceived?”

My point was not to support and push Like back to Christian Theism, but rather to show that if he wishes to be intellectually critical to various worldviews and not believe them without due cause, then he should not be a Naturalist, as it is a position with a number of serious and severe philosophical, rational and scientific problems (as I briefly showed in my previous post).

2) Rob said:

“How could it be intellectually responsible for Luke to turn back to the all-good, all-knowing, all-powerful god of Judeo-Christianity, pretending for the moment he were to concede RDM’s critique?”

Let me just say here that one would have to argue and show that “intellectual responsibility” is the most critical aspect of the decision-making process in such a circumstance. Consider the mother who accepts back her drug-addicted daughter for the hundredth time, intellectually knowing that she will most likely relapse yet again, but her love overrides this intellectual knowledge in this case.

3) Derrida said:

“Science could so easily provide us with evidence of supernatural beings, nonphysical minds, a creator or designer of the universe, the efficacy of religious practices, etc. But instead we see just what we would expect if there were no such forces influencing the natural world from without: a cosmic story of chance and necessity.”

First, making an assertion that it could is not an argument. Second, have you investigated and examined every case of the claimed supernatural in the world. For if not, do not say that there were (or are) “no such forces influencing the natural world.” You can say that, on probabilistic grounds, no such forces exist, but absolute certainty cannot be achieved. A good science student would realize this. And note that it would take but one true “supernatural” occurrence to fully disprove naturalism. Third, it is a simple matter to argue that a Creator or demons or supernatural forces of some power, as they are traditionally described, could fully hide themselves from our inquiry if desired. After all, we cannot even show that we are not just brains in a vat or being controlled by a daemon with any certainty.

4) Justfinethanks said:

“Because it is Christians, remember, who believe that Christians, and Christians alone, who will never be held accountable for their actions, while everyone else will. We’re all sinners, but Christians won’t actually be held accountable for their sins. Christians get mercy, while non-Christians get judgement.”

It is here where you conflate the doctrines of some Christian sects, with the doctrines of all Christian sects. For all I must simply do is explain to you that Catholicism, the largest Christian denomination in the world, teaches that it will not be Christians alone that are saved, but non-Christians (including, potentially, atheists) as well. From the Catechism of the Catholic Church 847: “This affirmation is not aimed at those who, through no fault of their own, do not know Christ and his Church:

Those who, through no fault of their own, do not know the Gospel of Christ or his Church, but who nevertheless seek God with a sincere heart, and, moved by grace, try in their actions to do his will as they know it through the dictates of their conscience – those too may achieve eternal salvation.” Thus, before you begin to criticize Christianity as a whole, it is usually instructive to actually know what the largest and oldest denomination of Christianity actually teaches.

Take care,

RDM

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lukeprog January 1, 2010 at 6:09 pm

Chris,

I’m sure that louder, less careful voices like Dawkins and PZ will end up causing greater loss of faith than my humble self. But I am encouraged by steady reports that Loftus’ work is causing some pastors and other educated Christians to lose faith. My work is more similar to Loftus than Dawkins.

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lukeprog January 1, 2010 at 6:14 pm

ayer,

Sure. For example, one definition of intrinsic value is “that which is valued for its own sake, not for the sake of something else.” If we take that definition and run with it, it turns out to be an empirical matter whether or not sentient beings value anything for its own sake. Common answers are “happiness,” but I think it turns out that happiness is not the only thing desired for its own sake, and in many cases people value something else over happiness.

Another definition of intrinsic value is something that would have value without actually being valued by any beings. There are many accounts of how this might be, but so far I haven’t found any that have evidential merit. Science cannot disprove such a claim, but we can at least say that such a claim is as well-supported as claims concerning a certain flying teapot.

But intrinsic value is a complex topic, one I will eventually cover in my ‘Intro to Ethics’ series.

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RDM January 1, 2010 at 6:19 pm

Good Day Chris,

You said:

1) “They accuse you of implying that science explains everything, and in the same breath, insist that your admission that science doesn’t explain everything is somehow fatal to your position.”

If this is directed at me, then realize that I did not imply that Luke believes science explains everything, but rather that his statement at the beginning of the post: “Naturalism means we have to accept what our best science reveals about reality,” is, in an important manner, self-refuting due to the fact that current science cannot explain so many issues necessary for the truth of Naturalism and thus strongly implies that Luke should stop being a Naturalist and turn into some type of agnostic concerning it.

2) “This post is a very brief overview of the consequences of naturalism. When the evidence merits them, confident assertions are made. When is evidence is inconclusive, judgment is humbly suspended. Did I miss something?”

You did indeed miss something. While it is granted that this is just a blog point and thus is necessarily short and non-comprehensive (as I also mentioned), what was missed and shown in my point was that many of the “confident” assertions not requiring evidence, were actually mistaken and thus requiring of evidence. If Luke wishes to concede this due to the brevity of the post, so be it, but do not tell me these are confident assertion because the evidence supports them so strongly, as it does not.

3) “The question, I think, is not whether these Christians have built and argued against strawmen, but whether they concsiously (sic) know they are doing so and actually believe their arguments are sound.”

Based on the above points, let me re-phrase this: “The question, I think, is not whether Chris has built and argued against “strawmen”, but whether he consciously knows that he is doing so and actually believes his points are sound..”

4) “They seem smart enough. But shouldn’t they know better? It worries me, because some of my best friends are Christians. I want to respect them. I’m sure many will find this notion insulting.”

Just a note, and it is not meant as an argument or personal attack, but it is interesting to think that you are friends with people you do not respect. This is an interesting psychology.

5) “That’s the problem. What is to be done? I’m sure you spend a lot of time on this blog. If your goal is to change people’s minds, I worry you are wasting your time. After all, your deconversion began with finding the writings of Christians to be inadequate. If people can’t get that far, how will they be able to accept, or, I’m afraid, even understand the arguments of atheists?”

Again, as just a personal note, my de-conversion from a weak agnosticism began precisely because of the weakness and fallacious nature of atheistic arguments, so your point is simply reversed. (Truly, it all started with Richard Dawkins’ “The God Delusion,” where I started to wonder…”The arguments for atheism really cannot be this bad, can they?”…and so the de-conversion began.) Furthermore, it should be noted how often one meets atheists who, when shown the fallacious nature of their arguments and points, are unwilling to change or shift views. It is, after all, a problem of human nature, not worldviews.
Take care,

RDM

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Sharkey January 1, 2010 at 6:32 pm

RDM, your claim that Luke is inconsistent is ironic given your own statements. There can be no “scientific proofs” of abiogenesis, consciousness or the Big Bang; only models and hypotheses backed by evidence. Consciousness is modeled by neuronal structure in the brain, abiogenesis is modeled by RNA precursors (possibly with cell-like features from a suitable environment), and the Big Bang is modeled by a number of competing frameworks incorporating quantum and relativistic features (including multiverse frameworks).

Scientific models are probabilistic, but they have been converging over time. Einstein did not displace Newton; Einstein modified Newton’s equations to be invariant under a Lorentz transformation. They are not “our best guess”, they are self-consistent theories based on evidence gathered from a number of sources. Oh, btw: astronomers would argue against the data is only valid in our ‘infinitesimally small sample size’. Gravitation and chemistry seem to work consistently in a lot of areas of our universe.

Quite frankly, you don’t understand the science involved, then you claim to have the answers in spite of science, while requiring that naturalism have scientific answers for open problems, all the while claiming that either (a) science is ‘just a guess’, or (b) we could all be fooled by super-powerful gremlins hiding inside our oscilloscopes.

If you’re the RDM in charge of the now-complete Battlestar Galactica TV reboot, I finally understand why the ending sucked so bad…

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ayer January 1, 2010 at 6:55 pm

lukeprog: Science cannot disprove such a claim, but we can at least say that such a claim is as well-supported as claims concerning a certain flying teapot.

Great, that is the point I was trying to make regarding how such a claim is nonfalsifiable. You may not find it plausible, but that is the stuff of philosophical debate, which is the domain such questions as intrinsic value belong to–not the domain of falsifiable scientific hypothesis.

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lukeprog January 1, 2010 at 7:06 pm

ayer,

Sounds like we once again are agreeing but using words and emphases that make it sound like we are disagreeing. :)

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Chris January 1, 2010 at 7:24 pm

RDM,

“If this is directed at me”

Well, no. Did you think I was critiquing your argument? If so, I would have failed miserably, seeing that I did not give any argument against you. I did give my opinion that the comments here are generally confused and unpersausive.

“do not tell me these are confident assertion because the evidence supports them so strongly, as it does not.”

Well, I think it does. So don’t tell me it doesn’t. Oy.

“Based on the above points, let me re-phrase this: “The question, I think, is not whether Chris has built and argued against “strawmen”, but whether he consciously knows that he is doing so and actually believes his points are sound..””

Cute.

“it is interesting to think that you are friends with people you do not respect. This is an interesting psychology.”

It is interesting. Such is life under the comforting myth of naturalism. Seriously though, do you think I like feeling this way? Jeez.

“Again, as just a personal note, my de-conversion from a weak agnosticism began precisely because of the weakness and fallacious nature of atheistic arguments, so your point is simply reversed. (Truly, it all started with Richard Dawkins’ “The God Delusion,” where I started to wonder…”The arguments for atheism really cannot be this bad, can they?”…and so the de-conversion began.) Furthermore, it should be noted how often one meets atheists who, when shown the fallacious nature of their arguments and points, are unwilling to change or shift views. It is, after all, a problem of human nature, not worldviews.”

You see, this is what I’m talking about. I read something like this and think “wow, can he really not see that beliefs aren’t voluntary?” Yet, you seem like a smart guy.

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Justfinethanks January 1, 2010 at 7:41 pm

It is here where you conflate the doctrines of some Christian sects, with the doctrines of all Christian sects. For all I must simply do is explain to you that Catholicism, the largest Christian denomination in the world, teaches that it will not be Christians alone that are saved, but non-Christians (including, potentially, atheists) as well.

RDM, it’s true that I was raised in America, where protestantism reins and I went to a Lutheran school growing up (where I was taught that the Catholic church is a corrupt organization), so most of my ideas of Christianity are protestant based.

But your point that Catholicism has a different soteriology doesn’t address my main point: that it’s hypocritical to claim that naturalism is more comforting than Christianity because we aren’t ultimately held responsible for our actions, because Christians also believe that they won’t be held responsible for their actions. Instead, Jesus is held responsible for their actions. In fact, under Christianity, it’s a good and noble thing to not be held responsible for their actions, and under the Great Commission, it is every Christian’s duty to make sure as few people as possible are not held accountable for their actions.

So to imply that people are compelled towards atheism because it offers no judgement is nonsense, since Christianity offers the same thing, plus eternal life.

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Justfinethanks January 1, 2010 at 7:58 pm

(Truly, it all started with Richard Dawkins’ “The God Delusion,” where I started to wonder…”The arguments for atheism really cannot be this bad, can they?”…and so the de-conversion began.)

This stuck out at me. You rejected atheism because of a popular level book by a non-philosopher? That’s a bit like rejecting Christianity because of a Chick tract.

If you didn’t like Dawkins’ reasoning (and even many atheists don’t) then the answer is no, the arguments for atheism aren’t that bad. If you want an overview of more sophisticated argument for atheism a good start would be Matt McCormick’s philosophical atheism bibliography. (There a couple works by Dawkins on the list, but don’t let that throw you off. They are just his books on evolution, which as a Catholic I assume you accept.)

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ayer January 1, 2010 at 8:05 pm

Justfinethanks: because Christians also believe that they won’t be held responsible for their actions. Instead, Jesus is held responsible for their actions.

That is somewhat of a distortion. The Christian is considered responsible for his actions, but Jesus atoned for those sins, and so hell is avoided. But the Christian must still be willing to abandon his pride and desire for selfish autonomy (no easy thing) and “take up his cross” and follow Christ, which involves dying to self each day. Only then is eternal joy available.

The only way for the individual to avoid any change and avoid all consequences for sin is if atheism is true.

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Justfinethanks January 1, 2010 at 8:16 pm

That is somewhat of a distortion. The Christian is considered responsible for his actions, but Jesus atoned for those sins, and so hell is avoided.

Yes, hell is avoided, even though hell is deserved. What could be a more clear cut case of “not being held responsible for your actions” than substitutionary atonement and getting the precise OPPOSITE of what you deserve?

It’s fairly simple. The Christian believes that their sins have earned them hell, but they won’t actually get what they deserve for committing those sins by simply doing the salvation song and dance you describe.

The only way for the individual to avoid any change and avoid all consequences for sin is if atheism is true.

When you die and meet your maker, do you believe that you will suffer the consequences for your sin?
If the answer is yes, then you are hellbound and the Christian doctrine of salvation is false.
Is the answer is no, then Christians believe that they aren’t held accountable for their sins.

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blindingimpediments January 1, 2010 at 9:35 pm

how does one live a valuable life if intrinsic value doe not exist and why should one live a moral life (as opposed to an immoral life) if intrinsic rights, duties, and virtues do not exist?

thanks

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ayer January 1, 2010 at 9:57 pm

Justfinethanks: When you die and meet your maker, do you believe that you will suffer the consequences for your sin?

The consequence is experienced in this life, when the Christian must confess his sin, surrender his prideful rebellion against God, and die to self every day. By doing so, the eternal consequence is avoided because that debt was paid by Christ.

The atheist avoids the former consequence by remaining in his rebellion and doing as he pleases, and suffers the eternal consequence later on because he refuses to let Christ pay his debt. As Milton said, “better to rule in hell than to serve in heaven.”

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Justfinethanks January 1, 2010 at 10:28 pm

The consequence is experienced in this life, when the Christian must confess his sin, surrender his prideful rebellion against God, and die to self every day.

Well, geez, atheists can offer “consequences in this life” too. That’s none too impressive. Under naturalism, Hitler suffered “consequences in this life” by seeing the nation he loved destroyed and spending his final days in humiliation and defeat.

I’m talking about ULTIMATE, ETERNAL consequences (a concept theists to bleat about). And you have yet to even address or refute the fact that under Christianity, the Christian does not get what they deserve or ultimately suffer for the sins they committed. And you can’t, because the idea that Christians get a “get out of sins free” card is central to Christian doctrine.

But instead you argue, contrary to your scriptures, that wages of sin is not death, but rather temporary “humility” in this mortal life. The consequences of sin is not hell, but rather “surrender” up until we die. But even under your odd take on the effect of sin in Christianity, the consequences of sin are not eternal.

The atheist avoids the former consequence by remaining in his rebellion and doing as he pleases,

And thus you lapse into the patronizing idea that I don’t simply reject the idea that the Christian God exists, but rather I am in “rebellion” against Him. If I secretly in my heart of hearts believed in the Christian God, and wanted to never face the judgement of God for my sins, I would become a Christian. The idea that atheists are in “rebellion” rather than sincere disbelief is incoherent on its face, and its only kept alive by nonsensical doctrines.

And secondly, can you name me any atheist who does “what he pleases?” Are there no atheists who show moral restraint, who consider themselves before others, who sacrifice and work hard for their families? Why exactly has a nonbeliever like Bill Gates decided to spend his remaining days giving away his vast fortune to charitable causes, from which he gains no sort of hedonistic pleasure? Your charge that atheists are hedonists is demonstrably false.

and suffers the eternal consequence later on because he refuses to let Christ pay his debt.

It’s funny that you use the analogy of a debt. Thomas Paine made a identical one in this quote.

One set of preachers make salvation to consist in believing. They tell their congregations that if they believe in Christ their sins shall be forgiven. This, in the first place, is an encouragement to sin, in a similar manner as when a prodigal young fellow is told his father will pay all his debts, he runs into debt the faster, and becomes the more extravagant. Daddy, says he, pays all, and on he goes: just so in the other case, Christ pays all, and on goes the sinner.

Despite your bungled attempts, you have yet again failed to address my main point: Christians believe they don’t get what they deserve (hell), and aren’t not ULTIMATELY held responsible for their sins. This holds true even if we accept your claim that they are somehow held responsible “in this life.”

This is a simple fact, a cornerstone of Christianity. You can’t object to it without denying your faith.

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Justfinethanks January 1, 2010 at 10:39 pm

Bleh, that should read.

” Christians believe they don’t get what they deserve (hell), and are not ULTIMATELY held responsible for their sins.”

That’s it. I’m going to bed.

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Derrida January 2, 2010 at 2:49 am

Hello, RDM.

First, making an assertion that it could is not an argument.

It is easy to think of ways where empirical evidence for the supernatural could be established. For example, if prayer actually worked: if the prayers of a particular religious group had a statistically significant effect on recovery from illness, or if the stars suddenly spelt out “Jesus is Lord”. I can think of thousands of more ways, but you probably can as well.

Second, have you investigated and examined every case of the claimed supernatural in the world. For if not, do not say that there were (or are) “no such forces influencing the natural world.” You can say that, on probabilistic grounds, no such forces exist, but absolute certainty cannot be achieved. A good science student would realize this.

What a crock! I didn’t say, “there certainly are no such forces”, or anything like that, so when I say there are no such forces I mean that all the evidence points to that conclusion. I couldn’t say with absolute certainty that aliens haven’t visited Earth, but that doesn’t mean that I can’t say “Aliens haven’t visited Earth”, or that I have to qualify that statement by saying probably.

Also, the statement was conditional: If there are no such forces, then this is the universe we would expect to find.

And note that it would take but one true “supernatural” occurrence to fully disprove naturalism.

Exactly, which is why the absence of any such occurrences strongly confirms naturalism.

Third, it is a simple matter to argue that a Creator or demons or supernatural forces of some power, as they are traditionally described, could fully hide themselves from our inquiry if desired. After all, we cannot even show that we are not just brains in a vat or being controlled by a daemon with any certainty.

It is possible that supernatural beings are, for some reason, hiding themselves from us. But it’s also possible that there’s an invisible, undetectable dragon in my garage. Such statements are unfalsifiable, and should be roundly rejected as superfluous.

I think that my senses are reliable, and that I am not a brain in a vat, because that provides the best explanation of why my senses almost always cohere with one another, and why my senses present a coherent picture of the world. Neither theism nor supernaturalism have anywhere near such explanatory power.

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Rick S. January 2, 2010 at 7:22 am

Nice post… I enjoyed the concise synopsis of religion and the analysis that followed.

So many cling to iron-age mythology when the real universe is so much more grand… If they would only read there holy books with open eyes I think there would be far less religiosity in the world.

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Haukur January 2, 2010 at 7:22 am

ayer: By doing so, the eternal consequence is avoided because that debt was paid by Christ.

Or, as Julian has Christ put it:

“He that is a seducer, he that is a murderer,
he that is sacrilegious and infamous,
let him approach without fear!
For with this water will I wash him
and will straightway make him clean.

And though he should be guilty
of those same sins a second time,
let him but smite his breast and beat his head
and I will make him clean again.”

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ayer January 2, 2010 at 9:21 am

Justfinethanks: I’m talking about ULTIMATE, ETERNAL consequences (a concept theists to bleat about). And you have yet to even address or refute the fact that under Christianity, the Christian does not get what they deserve or ultimately suffer for the sins they committed. And you can’t, because the idea that Christians get a “get out of sins free” card is central to Christian doctrine.

No, I don’t deny that; that’s why I said your description was only “somewhat” of a distortion. There is no doubt that our sin debt is paid by Christ, which is a beautiful part of the Christian faith that shows that God is love. Justice and mercy come together at the cross. The debt is paid, but it is paid by Christ, not us. It’s strange that the atheists come off as the cold-hearted moralists who wag their finger and say that no mercy must be allowed.

Justfinethanks: And thus you lapse into the patronizing idea that I don’t simply reject the idea that the Christian God exists, but rather I am in “rebellion” against Him.

Anyone who ceases rebellion against God will be with him forever (or as Dallas Willard says regarding heaven, “God is going to let everyone in who can stand it”). There’s not going to be a theology test that you have to get an “A” on to get in (indeed, some theologians may not make it because they are still in rebellion even though they know all the “right” theological answers).

Justfinethanks: This is a simple fact, a cornerstone of Christianity. You can’t object to it without denying your faith.

I don’t object to the vicarious atonement; it’s just important to note that accepting the need for our debt to be paid and surrendering our self-centeredness is required as part of that acceptance. On Christianity, the sin debt gets paid–paid by Christ, so justice is done. On atheism, the sin debt is just racked up and racked up and never gets paid. Or as Christopher Hitchens admitted in his debate with Douglas Wilson, on atheism “there is no cosmic justice.”

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drj January 2, 2010 at 9:37 am

It’s strange that the atheists come off as the cold-hearted moralists who wag their finger and say that no mercy must be allowed.

Well, no, I don’t think anyone has said “mercy is not allowed”. I, for one, think mercy can be just great.

It just seems like an awesome feat of cognitive dissonance for a Christian to lecture atheists about avoiding responsibility, when the entire soteriology of the Christian faith is based upon just that.

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drj January 2, 2010 at 10:22 am

In fact, its pretty common tactic for witnessing Christians to scare the unbeliever by telling him that unless he repents, he will be held personally responsible for all his actions.

Perfect example: See Ray Comfort and Kirk Cameron in their way of the master strategy.

So, it really seems, that according to Christianity, those who do not accept vicarious redemption are the only ones who do actually take responsibility for themselves.

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Justfinethanks January 2, 2010 at 10:38 am

No, I don’t deny that

Then why are you attempting to argue with me? This has been my point all along. The way I portray salvation in Christianity is totally accurate, you just don’t like the fact that it means that Christians aren’t ultimately responsible for their sins. It’s not the facts you apparently object to, it’s the perspective.

It’s strange that the atheists come off as the cold-hearted moralists who wag their finger and say that no mercy must be allowed.

And now, in defeat, you are making shit up. Please point to where I said that mercy is not allowed, or that mercy is a bad thing. I was simply making the observation that it is hypocritical to say that naturalists aren’t ultimately held responsible for their actions, when under Christianity (by your own admission now) Christians aren’t held responsible for their actions. Instead, they are given ultimate mercy.

Anyone who ceases rebellion against God will be with him forever

A bald assertion I have already dealt with. Again, you beg the question that non-Christians are in Rebellion, rather than disbelief. Rebellion implies they believe in the thing they are “rebelling” against. When in fact if I believed in the Christian God and wanted to escape from the consequences of my sin, I would become a Christian.

As I’ve said before: Romans 1 based psychology is just as false and unscientific as Genesis 1 based cosmology.

Or as Christopher Hitchens admitted in his debate with Douglas Wilson, on atheism “there is no cosmic justice.”

Under Christianity, there also isn’t any cosmic justice… for the Christian. Instead, there is cosmic mercy. (Remember: justice is getting what you deserve, mercy is getting better than what you deserve) The fact that someone else takes the wrap doesn’t invalidate this fact.

And since you have failed to refute the basic point on the role of responsibility for your actions under naturalism vs. Christianity, I think it’s helpful to repeat drj’s great reiteration of it.

It just seems like an awesome feat of cognitive dissonance for a Christian to lecture atheists about avoiding responsibility, when the entire soteriology of the Christian faith is based upon just that.

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Lee A. P. January 2, 2010 at 10:49 am

In the Naturalist view all suffering is transient.

In the Christian view, much suffering is eternal.

The Christian view involves a nearly infinite amount more suffering than does the Naturalist view.

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ayer January 2, 2010 at 10:51 am

Justfinethanks: And now, in defeat…

Give me a break; this is not a game. I am engaged in discussion, not battle. You are coming close to the doctrine of the atonement, minus some distorting. I am just clarifying it to remove the distortions for others who might read this. They can then go research it for themselves and see who is being more accurate.

Justfinethanks: Under Christianity, there also isn’t any cosmic justice… for the Christian. Instead, there is cosmic mercy. (Remember: justice is getting what you deserve, mercy is getting better than what you deserve) The fact that someone else takes the wrap doesn’t invalidate this fact.

Yes, the fact that someone “takes the wrap” (I think you mean “the rap”) is the whole point. Under atheism, no one takes the rap. The debt is never paid. Under Christianity, it is.

Justfinethanks: Please point to where I said that mercy is not allowed, or that mercy is a bad thing.

Your quote of Thomas Paine, where he argues that forgiveness of sins is a bad thing because it “is an encouragement to sin, in a similar manner as when a prodigal young fellow is told his father will pay all his debts, he runs into debt the faster, and becomes the more extravagant.”

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ayer January 2, 2010 at 10:53 am

Lee A. P.: In the Christian view, much suffering is eternal.

You are forgetting the annihilationist interpretation of hell, where hell comes to an end and those in it cease to exist: http://www.gregboyd.org/essays/god-essays/judgement/the-case-for-annihilationism/

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Justfinethanks January 2, 2010 at 11:35 am

You are coming close to the doctrine of the atonement, minus some distorting. I am just clarifying it to remove the distortions for others who might read this. They can then go research it for themselves and see who is being more accurate.

I am distorting nothing. Man sins, his debt is paid, man does not suffer the consequences for his sin. Where exactly is the innacuracy?

I would also encourage anyone reading to investigate the Christian doctrine of salvation for themselves to see whether or not I portray it inaccurately. In fact, to make it easier, here is the perspective from the Christian site gotquestions.org:

Our sin has separated us from God, and the consequence of sin is death (Romans 6:23). Biblical salvation refers to our deliverance from the consequence of sin and therefore involves the removal of sin.

How this ANY different from the way I have described salvation: you deserve one thing, but get another. You are “delivered” form the consequences of sin. It’s pretty straightforward.

Like I said, you have not objected to the facts of how I portray salvation in Christianity, only the perspective.

Yes, the fact that someone “takes the wrap” (I think you mean “the rap”)

My bad.

Under atheism, no one takes the rap. The debt is never paid. Under Christianity, it is.

How is that relevant to whether or not Christians suffer consequences for their actions here on earth? Yet again, you bring up an objection that completely fails to address my main point: under Christianity, Christians are not held responsible for their actions. To point out that someone DOES absolutely fails to deny that fact. Therefore, it is hypocritical to fault naturalism for the fact that people are not ultimately held responsible for their actions, or to accuse people of being attracted to atheism because they don’t want to be held responsible for their actions.

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Eneasz January 2, 2010 at 2:24 pm

ayer:
You are forgetting the annihilationist interpretation of hell, where hell comes to an end and those in it cease to exist: http://www.gregboyd.org/essays/god-essays/judgement/the-case-for-annihilationism/

He probably didn’t consider it because this interpretation of hell is not commonly held by christians, and therefore he assumed it was not held by you. Is this the interpretation of hell you hold?

If so, your argument seems more strained. By your definition absolutely everyone gets away “scott free”. For the non-saved “the sin debt is just racked up and racked up and never gets paid.” (the words you used to describe the consequences of naturalism). And for the saved they never have to pay the sin debt at all because someone else picks up the bill.

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RDM January 2, 2010 at 5:39 pm

Good Day to All,

I am not sure if this thread is dead, but I need to respond to various individuals regardless:

1) Chris said:

“It is interesting. Such is life under the comforting myth of naturalism. Seriously though, do you think I like feeling this way? Jeez.”

Well, although I am not necessarily sorry for you Chris, as it is your choice to befriend various individuals, I am confused. Why would you be friends with someone if you do not respect them? Obviously, a blog post is not the place for an answer to such a personal question, and I am not asking for one, but it should be something to think about.

2) Justfinethanks said:

“But your point that Catholicism has a different soteriology doesn’t address my main point: that it’s hypocritical to claim that naturalism is more comforting than Christianity because we aren’t ultimately held responsible for our actions, because Christians also believe that they won’t be held responsible for their actions. Instead, Jesus is held responsible for their actions. In fact, under Christianity, it’s a good and noble thing to not be held responsible for their actions, and under the Great Commission, it is every Christian’s duty to make sure as few people as possible are not held accountable for their actions. So to imply that people are compelled towards atheism because it offers no judgment is nonsense, since Christianity offers the same thing, plus eternal life.”

Acknowledging your lack of knowledge concerning Catholicism, it is understandable that you would make the same mistake in this post as with the last one. This is not a problem, as it is not a willful fault, but let me explain why your objection does not work against Catholicism. You say that the main point is that “Christians will not be ultimately held responsible for their actions,” but with Catholicism this is a false statement. Catholics believe that while faith in Jesus Christ conjoined with good works will permit one to enter into the presence of God and have ultimate absolution of sins, it does not absolve the Catholic of paying for his own sins through pain and suffering. This pain and suffering can occur in this life (think of the lives of Catholic saints, such as Saint Francis of Assisi) or in the next life, which is why Catholics believe in Purgatory (where one’s sins are “purged” through “fire”). Under Catholicism, it is actually those going to Hell that do not really pay for their sins, for they simply receive what they desire: which is to be away from God and thus maintain their autonomy and freedom. Sadly, this maintenance of freedom and autonomy from God necessarily brings pain. This is Hell, which is, in fact, a desirable place for some. Thus, under Catholicism, your objection fails, as the Catholic is accountable for his sins.

3) Justfinethanks said:

“This stuck out at me. You rejected atheism because of a popular level book by a non-philosopher? That’s a bit like rejecting Christianity because of a Chick tract.”

The God Delusion did not convince me, but it was the catalyst that lead to further study and research.

Take care,

RDM

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ayer January 2, 2010 at 6:13 pm

Eneasz: If so, your argument seems more strained. By your definition absolutely everyone gets away “scott free”. For the non-saved “the sin debt is just racked up and racked up and never gets paid.” (the words you used to describe the consequences of naturalism). And for the saved they never have to pay the sin debt at all because someone else picks up the bill.

No, because under the vicarious atonement Jesus died for the sins of the whole world, whether they accept his payment of their sin debt or not. So, on this view, hell is less a punishment for those who choose to remain in their sin, than a necessary separation of those who remain in rebellion (although being annihilated while others go on to everlasting joy can be seen as a sort of punishment–but I can’t get inside the heads of those who refuse heaven to know if they see it that way; maybe they would rather cease to exist than glorify God forever. Luke has indicated he feels that way).

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RDM January 2, 2010 at 6:33 pm

Good Day Derrida,

Thank you for your response. Here are some rebuttals to your points:

1) “It is easy to think of ways where empirical evidence for the supernatural could be established. For example, if prayer actually worked: if the prayers of a particular religious group had a statistically significant effect on recovery from illness, or if the stars suddenly spelt out “Jesus is Lord”. I can think of thousands of more ways, but you probably can as well.”

I will get to miracles occurrences in a moments, let me just say that, in fact, your points could and would not provide empirical evidence for the supernatural, as the skeptic can always claim naturalistic explanations to hold together his worldview. For example, a study showing the statistical significant effect of prayer…the naturalistic skeptic responds that this is simply an effect of currently unknown mental processes that are purely material and will be understood soon. Stars spelling out “Jesus is Lord”…the naturalistic skeptic responds that this is simply a incredibly random occurrence that just “happened” (just like fine-tuning) or that it is an advanced alien species playing a joke on us. And lest you think I just pulled this out of my behind, please realize that it was Michael Shermer, the noted skeptic, that explained that (paraphrased): Any activity that seems supernatural to us would be indistinguishable from the powers of a greatly advanced alien species. Meaning: the skeptic can make an excuse for everything that points to the supernatural.

2) “Exactly, which is why the absence of any such occurrences strongly confirms naturalism.”

Now, onto miracles. Here are five things that strongly point to supernatural occurrences: 1) Resurrection of Jesus Christ; 2) The miracles at Fatima; 3) Near-Death Experiences that cannot be wholly explained naturalistically; 4) The miracles at Lourdes; 5) Exorcism events that are recorded and not explainable on naturalism. Now, if you have not investigated each of these elements independently and seriously, but rather reject them due to previous philosophical commitments, then let me ask you: Having investigating them myself, why should I consider your view as valid in this matter of miracles, if you have not done so?

3) “I think that my senses are reliable, and that I am not a brain in a vat, because that provides the best explanation of why my senses almost always cohere with one another, and why my senses present a coherent picture of the world. Neither theism nor supernaturalism have anywhere near such explanatory power.”

First off, you believe that your senses are reliable, meaning that an element of your core foundation for evidence is based on faith (as it is for all of us). It is good that you realize this fact—that all of us rest ultimately on faith, not reason. Second, you have no idea that your senses provide a coherent picture of the world because you only perceive the world through your senses. No sense independent confirmation of the world is possible for anyone. Even science is sense dependant. Furthermore, a very strong argument can be made that we can know the reliability of our senses on theism than naturalism, so theism has more explanatory power.

Take care,

RDM

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Justfinethanks January 2, 2010 at 7:14 pm

although being annihilated while others go on to everlasting joy can be seen as a sort of punishment–but I can’t get inside the heads of those who refuse heaven to know if they see it that way; maybe they would rather cease to exist than glorify God forever.

Well, to be fair, have you even read how heaven is described in the Bible?

From Revelation 4:

There in heaven was a throne with someone sitting on it.3 His face gleamed like such precious stones as jasper and carnelian, and all around the throne there was a rainbow the color of an emerald.4 In a circle around the throne were twenty-four other thrones, on which were seated twenty-four elders dressed in white and wearing crowns of gold.5 From the throne came flashes of lightning, rumblings, and peals of thunder. In front of the throne seven lighted torches were burning, which are the seven spirits of God.6 Also in front of the throne there was what looked like a sea of glass, clear as crystal.Surrounding the throne on each of its sides, were four living creatures covered with eyes in front and behind.7 The first one looked like a lion; the second looked like a bull; the third had a face like a human face; and the fourth looked like an eagle in flight.8 Each one of the four living creatures had six wings, and they were covered with eyes, inside and out. Day and night they never stop singing:

Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God Almighty,
who was, who is, and who is to come.

I don’t know what kind of weird way you define “everlasting joy,” but if I were to die and find myself in the same area as four six-winged creatures covered in eyeballs who sing the same two lines over and over again for eternity, then I would quickly surmise that God reserved his greatest mercy for those he “annihilated.”

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Derrida January 3, 2010 at 1:16 pm

Hello again RDM,

let me just say that, in fact, your points could and would not provide empirical evidence for the supernatural, as the skeptic can always claim naturalistic explanations to hold together his worldview. For example, a study showing the statistical significant effect of prayer…the naturalistic skeptic responds that this is simply an effect of currently unknown mental processes that are purely material and will be understood soon. Stars spelling out “Jesus is Lord”…the naturalistic skeptic responds that this is simply a incredibly random occurrence that just “happened” (just like fine-tuning) or that it is an advanced alien species playing a joke on us. And lest you think I just pulled this out of my behind, please realize that it was Michael Shermer, the noted skeptic, that explained that (paraphrased): Any activity that seems supernatural to us would be indistinguishable from the powers of a greatly advanced alien species. Meaning: the skeptic can make an excuse for everything that points to the supernatural.

There are methods of ruling out the plausibility, though not the possibility, of deception in the case of some supposed supernatural events. For example, to those who state that the “Jesus is Lord” phenomenon is the work of advanced aliens, this can be ruled out, since moving stars into those positions in a matter of minutes would have to involve faster than light travel, and our best scientific evidence suggests that traveling faster than light is practically impossible. It would similarly contravene everything we know scientifically to suggest that the stars rearranged themselves like that at random. Once deception and naturalistic explanations are shown beyond a reasonable doubt to be false, only hard nosed skeptics could doubt that this is evidence for the supernatural. You can’t rule out the possibility of a natural explanation, but the retreat to possibility isn’t rational.

Now, onto miracles. Here are five things that strongly point to supernatural occurrences: 1) Resurrection of Jesus Christ; 2) The miracles at Fatima; 3) Near-Death Experiences that cannot be wholly explained naturalistically; 4) The miracles at Lourdes; 5) Exorcism events that are recorded and not explainable on naturalism. Now, if you have not investigated each of these elements independently and seriously, but rather reject them due to previous philosophical commitments, then let me ask you: Having investigating them myself, why should I consider your view as valid in this matter of miracles, if you have not done so?

You probably have investigated those phenomena more than I have, and you shouldn’t just take my word for it when I show skepticism about these events. However, neither am I compelled to just take your word that these phenomena do “strongly” point to the supernatural. All of the events you allude to are based on second hand testimony, and cannot be scientifically tested. Furthermore, all the scientific evidence we have that people don’t resurrect from the dead, that the mind is dependent on the brain, etc, means that we need scientific, public, testable evidence in favour of miracles before they can be accepted. Whenever potential miracles are scientifically tested, however, they turn out to be deceptive, or else have a natural explanation.

First off, you believe that your senses are reliable, meaning that an element of your core foundation for evidence is based on faith (as it is for all of us). It is good that you realize this fact—that all of us rest ultimately on faith, not reason.

Firstly, I’m not sure what you mean by faith. If you are using the Biblical definition, of belief in things not seen, or directly perceived, then it’s trivially true that I have faith, though this kind of faith isn’t necessarily the opposite of reason. If by faith you mean belief without evidence, then I would disagree.

Second, you have no idea that your senses provide a coherent picture of the world because you only perceive the world through your senses.

You seem to have misunderstood me. I’m not saying that my senses provide me with a correct view of the world, therefore my senses are reliable. I’m saying that my senses provide me with a picture of the world that makes sense. If I were a brain in a vat, the scientist could provide me with a sensory world that didn’t make sense, where geese flew through concrete walls, where my environment changes from moment to moment, etc. But the fact that my senses are coherent with each other and provide a coherent story, where the world abides by laws, is a matter of course if my senses are reliable.

Furthermore, a very strong argument can be made that we can know the reliability of our senses on theism than naturalism, so theism has more explanatory power.

Given the inscrutable natural and moral evils of the world, I see no reason to think, if God designed my cognitive faculties, that there aren’t epistemic evils: glitches in my cognitive faculties that God built in for some unknowable reason. On the other hand, if my mind evolved over thousands of years to suit my environment, given that true beliefs never decrease one’s chances of survival whilst false beliefs often do, it’s highly plausible on naturalism that my senses and reasoning can be trusted. Hence, I think the opposite is true: that naturalism better explains the reliability of our senses than theism.

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T.I.M. January 14, 2010 at 8:41 am

1-8 (except 7) actually aren´t consequences of science, but consequences of a worldview called “philosophical naturalism”. So, remarks like…

“One is to stick your head in the sand and keep repeating the nice religious fairy tale to yourself. Another is to accept it all but think it is just too much for your to handle, and commit suicide. Another is to accept the hard truth about the universe…”

are just plain naive. The problem is, that consciousness, moral values and duties, and free will, obviously DO exist. But since these features fit oddly to philosophical naturalism, they provide defeaters for naturalism, and evidence for theism. I´d like you to give me even one example of a scientific discovery which has provided compelling evidence for a materialst theory of consciousness, or determinism, or moral relativism, or the non-existence of God. All these claims are the consequences of a 2500 years old worldview going back to Epicuros, not of any objective scientific discovery. A naturalistic interpretation of a scientific discovery is not identical to “the hard truth of the universe”.

About the argument that consciousness, free will etc. provide defeaters for naturalism, see J.P.Moreland: The Recalcitrant Imago Dei: Human Persons and the Failure of Naturalism, Veritas (2009). A more rigorous case for theism from the fact of consciousness, see Moreland´s Consciousness and the Existence of God: a theistic argument, Routledge (2008).

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Andrej December 29, 2010 at 6:12 pm

There is absolutely no proof that consciousness dies with the body.

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