Letter to Vox Day VI

by Luke Muehlhauser on November 9, 2009 in Letters

Vox Day is a Christian blogger and author of The Irrational Atheist. We have agreed to a friendly dialogue about the reasons for our beliefs, though we’ll try to avoid regurgitating all the usual arguments for and against the existence of God. See our previous letters.

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Vox,

Our past letters were filled with tangents, bickering, and accusations of intellectual misconduct. So I contacted you privately and we agreed to leave all that behind. I look forward to this reboot!

Let’s tackle the new heart of our discussion. My original question to you was:

…for the sake of argument let’s say all the theistic arguments succeed, and all the atheistic arguments fail. Let’s say the modal ontological argument establishes the existence of an omniscient, omnipotent, and all-good being. Cosmological arguments establish this God as the creator of the universe. Design arguments establish that he purposely designed the universe to host intelligent life. Historical analysis shows that Jesus rose from the dead.

Let’s say all that is true. My question is, Why are you a Christian? A Christian asserts a huge number of highly dubious propositions that are not established even if all these arguments are granted. For example, Christians believe that Jesus is God, that God answers prayers, that God is Triune, that God will send believers to heaven and unbelievers to hell, that God commands us not to murder or rape or lie or worship other gods or dishonor our parents or sleep with certain people, etc.

You replied:

Why am I a Christian? Because I believe in evil… to the extent that evil can be said to exist, it proves not only the validity of Christianity but its necessity as well.

So, we decided to argue over which worldview – Christianity or metaphysical naturalism – offers the best explanation of the existence of evil.

But we have very different conceptions of evil. So we switched to a more specific phenomenon about which we could agree. Now we will argue about which worldview offers the best explanation of the fact that:

(S) Humans often take pleasure in the involuntary and undeserved suffering of others.

For brevity’s sake, I have labeled our proposition to be explained – our explanandum – with the letter S, which may stand for “sadism.”

By email, we agreed to the term “undeserved” in a non-moralistic sense, so that we can avoid awakening our differences concerning the definitions of moral terms. We need a term like “undeserved” to differentiate between genuine sadism and a family member of a murder victim being pleased at the execution of the murderer.

So now you are going to argue that Christianity offers the best available explanation of S. And I am going to argue that metaphysical naturalism offers the best available explanation of S. We might also compare the explanatory merits of other supernatural worldviews with regard to S.

But wait a minute, didn’t I say that “for the sake of argument” we would say that theistic arguments succeed and atheistic arguments fail? Doesn’t that mean that for the sake of this argument, metaphysical naturalism is not an available option?

It does, indeed. But I am ill-prepared to defend the explanatory virtues of supernatural worldviews I do not actually defend. So I hope you agree with me about this: You will argue that Christianity offers the best available explanation of S, and I will argue that metaphysical naturalism offers the best available explanation of S.

explanation i demand oneIf that is agreeable to you, then we will also need to agree on a common model of explanation. There are several models on offer, and our arguments will not meet each other if we use different models. One option is Bayesian confirmation theory, which has been deployed by theists like Richard Swinburne and Robin Collins. Another option is what Gregory Dawes calls explanationism,1 which focuses on “explanatory virtues” like testability, consistency with background knowledge, simplicity, informativeness, and so on. Or perhaps you have a superior model of explanation we can use.

A few more clarifications are needed. We could distinguish three kinds of explanation:

  • A proposed explanation is a hypothesis or theory that someone considers to be explanatory of X.
  • A potential explanation is a hypothesis or theory that, if true, would be explanatory of X.
  • A successful explanation is a potential explanation of X that we have sufficient reason to accept (according to the model of explanation we choose).

“Explanation” can be used as a success term, such that we do not call something an explanation unless it succeeds in explaining the explanandum. But I will be using the term more broadly to mean “proposed explanation.” You and I will argue over whether Christianity or metaphysical naturalism can offer a successful explanation of S.

Finally, I need to clarify the term theory, as it is used in a variety of ways. For example, the U.S. National Academy of Sciences defined2 a theory as “a well-substantiated explanation of the natural world that can incorporate facts, laws, inferences, and tested hypotheses,” but this was in response to Creationist literature claiming that evolution is a “just a theory.”

I do not want to use the word “theory” as a success term like the NAS does. I will use the term to refer to any proposed theory, whether or not it succeeds. I consider the terms hypothesis and theory to be on a continuum, with theories being more complex and perhaps containing many distinct hypotheses.

I look forward to the debate.

Luke

  1. See Theism and Explanation, page 26. []
  2. National Academy of Sciences, Science and Creationism 1st edition (1999), page 2. This definition was removed from the second edition. []

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{ 29 comments… read them below or add one }

wrf3 November 9, 2009 at 8:26 am

So now you are going to argue that Christianity offers the best available explanation of S. And I am going to argue that metaphysical naturalism offers the best available explanation of S.

Another rat hole, since “best”, like “good” and “evil” is in the eye of the beholder. As one example, evolution is the “best” explanation for life since it’s the only naturalistic explanation that we have. Well, that’s just declaring “I win” before the game is over.

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Conversational Atheist November 9, 2009 at 9:12 am

“‘Why am I a Christian? Because I believe in evil… to the extent that evil can be said to exist, it proves not only the validity of Christianity but its necessity as well.’

So, we decided to argue over which worldview – Christianity or metaphysical naturalism – offers the best explanation of the existence of evil.”

How is VD’s argument possibly valid?

Why go after his premise — which is definitely the battleground he chose — when even if you grant the premise, the conclusion does not obtain?

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lukeprog November 9, 2009 at 9:18 am

Conversational Atheist,

That’s what we’re going to argue about. Vox is going to argue from evil (actually, sadism) to Christianity. He’s going to argue that Christianity has the best explanation for the existence of sadism. How he will do this, well… I can’t wait to see!

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Conversational Atheist November 9, 2009 at 9:27 am

Is there anything wrong with this argument?

“Lucifer gives the best explanation and narrative of evil, therefore I worship him.”

It sounds like you are saying that you would be arguing that you have a better explanation/conception of evil than “Lucifer”. Which I think you probably do, however… I don’t see any weakness in conceding the premise like this:

‘Ok, Lucifer has a great handle on evil, injustice, and suffering. — I’ll grant you that — Now, why are you a Luciferian? How did you decide that this narrative means you should to worship the narrative-giver, Lucifer?’

Of course, it would be the exact parallel: “Ok, Christianity has a great handle on evil, injustice, and suffering. — I’ll grant you that — Now, why are you a Christian? How did you decide that this narrative means you should worship the narrative-giver, Christianity?”

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Justfinethanks November 9, 2009 at 11:40 am

Another rat hole, since “best”, like “good” and “evil” is in the eye of the beholder.

Not when it comes to explanatory power. I don’t want to put words in Luke’s mouth, but by “best” in this instance I think he means “Most completely accounts for all available data with least number of ad hoc rationalizations.”

As one example, evolution is the “best” explanation for life since it’s the only naturalistic explanation that we have.

Well, by virtue of Occam’s Razor, any viable naturalistic explanation should take precedence over any equally viable supernaturalistic explanation, because naturalistic explanations don’t force you to postulate unseen and undetectable forces. Demon possession “accounts” for the sight of someone who spontaneously convulses uncontrollably on the ground as well as epilepsy, but thankfully for modern medicine scientists assume it’s the former on the basis that it is the only naturalistic, and therefore much more likely, explanation.

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Thomas Reid November 9, 2009 at 12:21 pm

VD could also argue the following:

1. If naturalism is true, evil does not exist.
2. Evil exists.
3. Therefore, naturalism cannot be true.

It would be hard for naturalism to be the best explanation for evil if it is incompatible with their agreed-upon definition of evil.

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lukeprog November 9, 2009 at 1:06 pm

Conversational Atheist,

It depends which model of explanation we use. Have you studied explanation much?

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lukeprog November 9, 2009 at 1:10 pm

Thomas Reid,

Except, we chose not to discuss evil. Instead, we are discussing sadism, without assuming it is morally good or not.

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wrf3 November 9, 2009 at 1:53 pm

lukeprog: Except, we chose not to discuss evil. Instead, we are discussing sadism, without assuming it is morally good or not.

Was this done via private e-mail? Because I was under the impression from reading Vox’s site that S is to be used as an agreed upon example of evil, since a general definition could not be constructed.

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John Quincy Public November 9, 2009 at 1:56 pm

“It depends which model of explanation we use. Have you studied explanation much?”

So instead of pigeon holing yourself by giving him the field you wish to pigeon hole yourself by choosing the field?

Whatever you do don’t allow him to pick the success metric you’d prefer. Or you’ll lose in one when you have to try to provide explanans for how we can alter the course of events in a wholly deterministic universe.

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Thomas Reid November 9, 2009 at 2:37 pm

lukeprog: Thomas Reid,Except, we chose not to discuss evil. Instead, we are discussing sadism, without assuming it is morally good or not.  (Quote)

Ah yes, you are quite right, sorry.

Change my argument to replace “evil” with you “S”, or “sadism”.

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Conversational Atheist November 9, 2009 at 3:12 pm

There must be something obvious that I’m missing. If you or anyone else sees it, please let me know.

Can you not use VD’s argument with the twist that Lucifer gives the same conception of evil that Christianity apparently gives, and conclude that one should worship Lucifer instead of Jesus?

And there is no problem at all even within the Christian paradigm of Lucifer giving a compelling account of suffering, evil, and injustice. In fact, Lucifer could give the Christian account of evil, unadulterated.

If Christianity gives a compelling account of evil, you should worship Jesus.

If Lucifer gives the exact same compelling account of evil, you should worship Lucifer.

Or is there an assumption hidden somewhere that makes that second argument absurd, but leaves the first unscathed?

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John Quincy Public November 9, 2009 at 3:27 pm

“Or is there an assumption hidden somewhere that makes that second argument absurd, but leaves the first unscathed?”

Well… yes. I mean, Lucifer sidles up one hot Tuesday at the local diner while you’re enjoying your malt:

“So that apple thing? That was me, yo. Plaque? You got it. The reason you’re sucking on a malt alone? You knew she cheated after you got the clap; all my handiwork. So tell me, you want to worship some stodgy ol’ dude and his trailer-trash carpenter of a son? Or me? The one that’s given you all these earthly delights.”

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lukeprog November 9, 2009 at 3:31 pm

wrf3,

No, sadism is a particular species of evil.

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lukeprog November 9, 2009 at 3:37 pm

Conversational Atheist,

I’m not sure if we’re talking about the same thing. I think metaphysical naturalism is a better explanation for the existence of sadism than Christian theism, according to the objective criteria for what makes an explanation successful (explanatory scope, explanatory power, blah blah blah).

Vox Day apparently thinks Christian theism offers the superior explanation.

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revrogers November 9, 2009 at 3:58 pm

Luke,
I find your summation of Vox’s reply to your question to be incomplete in representing what he actually said in his second letter.

You summarized above:

You [Vox] replied:
Why am I a Christian? Because I believe in evil… to the extent that evil can be said to exist, it proves not only the validity of Christianity but its necessity as well.

But Vox’s argument said much more. Here is my edited version of his reply and following that my paraphrases of the points he was trying to make.

“Why am I a Christian? Because I believe in evil. I believe in objective, material, tangible evil that insensibly envelops every single one of us sooner or later. I believe in the fallen nature of Man, and I am aware that there is no shortage of evidence, scientific, testimonial, documentary, and archeological, to demonstrate that no individual is perfect or even perfectible by the moral standards described in the Bible. I am a Christian because I believe that Jesus Christ is the only means of freeing Man from the grip of that evil. God may not be falsifiable, but Christianity definitely is, and it has never been falsified. The only philosophical problem of evil that could ever trouble the rational Christian is its absence; to the extent that evil can be said to exist, it proves not only the validity of Christianity but its necessity as well. The fact that we live in a world of pain, suffering, injustice, and cruelty is not evidence of God’s nonexistence or maleficence, it is exactly the worldview that is described in the Bible. In my own experience and observations, I find that worldview to be far more accurate than any other, including the shiny science fiction utopianism of the secular humanists. . . .I know that evil exists. I have seen it, I have experienced it, I have committed it, and I have loved it. I also know the transforming power that Jesus Christ can exercise to free an individual from evils both large and small because I have seen it in the lives of others and I have felt it in my own life. . . . [With regard to other religions] I have yet to encounter one expressing a religious perspective that can be legitimately confused with the Christian one, nor, in my opinion, do any of these alternative perspectives describe the observable material world as I have experienced it as well as the Christian one does. I think it is astonishing that an ancient Middle Eastern text is frequently a better guide to predicting human behavior than the very best models that the social sciences have produced despite having an advantage of two thousand more years of human experience upon which to draw.”

It seems to me that Vox was saying the following:
(1) Evil exists.
(2) I am convinced of this existence of evil in my understanding of history, my observations of what is happening in the world, and examination of my inner self and what I have done.
(3) I have studied other explanations about evil in the world and their proposed solutions for it and found them to be inefficient in explaining the evil which I have observed and ineffective in providing me with a solution for it.
(4) I have studied Christianity and its descriptions of evil and its proposed solution for it in one having a relationship based in faith with Jesus of Nazareth.
(5) I have found Christianity’s descriptions of evil to match with what I have observed about evil and I have found that the solution found in a faith-based relationship with Jesus to be effectively resonant in my own life.
(6) Christianity’s explanation of evil thus provides validity to me for proclaiming it to be the best account for explaining the existence of evil, and the impact of what I have experienced in a faith-based relationship with Jesus also reinforces the validity of Christianity.

This is what I took from Vox’s reply. If I have misrepresented him, I apologize.

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Naumadd November 9, 2009 at 7:24 pm

But there is no “evil”. There is only correct and incorrect thought, correct and incorrect action in accordance with accurate facts as nature provides them and logically-consistent human reasoning. Also, there are two competing goals among human beings and frequently within each of us individually – the primary desire for compassionate civilization AND the primary desire for the savagery of the wild. Both the civilized and the savage must depend on correct thought and correct action to survive in nature and among themselves. The value judgments of what is “good” and what is “evil” is determined moment to moment by your ultimate goal: civilization or the wild. Depending on your primary personal goal – skinning and eating a cat may be “the good” and letting it go or treating it as a companion, “the evil”.

In the eyes of other hungry lions, the lion isn’t “evil” for killing and eating the man. It may, in fact, be considered a successful community hero. It is the man who hunts down and kills the lion for sport who may be seen as evil in lion eyes … and in the eyes of civilized human beings. But in the eyes of other savage human beings, he too may be seen the successful hero.

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Mark H. November 9, 2009 at 9:08 pm

A pedantic point: I think the better term for (S) would be schadenfreude. Sadism would be the taking of pleasure in inflicting pain and suffering on others.

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John Quincy Public November 10, 2009 at 4:26 am

“But there is no “evil”. There is only correct and incorrect thought, correct and incorrect action in accordance with accurate facts as nature provides them and logically-consistent human reasoning.”

Mush-minded garbage. If it is to be in accordance with accurate facts as provided by nature than the entire universe is a single wave function and we are all just gears in that machine. No different than any other collection of anything in the universe and possessed of no drive or goals. Which makes the entire concept of action a nonsense; ignore the silly anthropomorphizing of atomic collections with garbage like “correct” and “incorrect”.

Of course I mention this only because that is how the universe is grinding me out of the wave function. And you’ll have the anthropomorphic quality of disagreement in your collection of atoms; because that’s how the wave function has ground you out to this point also. Yet neither of us is more than two specks of star-stuff hurtling through the fabric of time.

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lukeprog November 10, 2009 at 5:42 am

Mark,

Lol, yes.

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lukeprog November 10, 2009 at 5:49 am

Have people missed that Vox and I are no longer arguing about evil? I wrote:

“But we have very different conceptions of evil. So we switched to a more specific phenomenon about which we could agree. Now we will argue about which worldview offers the best explanation of… sadism.”

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revrogers November 10, 2009 at 9:12 am

I thought you were arguing about a specific species of evil, specifically sadism.

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lukeprog November 10, 2009 at 3:19 pm

revrogers,

That’s exactly what I said in my comment to wrf3, above, and several other times.

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Silas Reinagel November 10, 2009 at 3:56 pm

Conversational Atheist: If Lucifer gives the exact same compelling account of evil, you should worship Lucifer.

Or is there an assumption hidden somewhere that makes that second argument absurd, but leaves the first unscathed?  (Quote)

You neglect that fact that if Lucifer does offer the best explanation for evil, you still must account for Lucifer. Since he is not even purported to be an infinite-personal creator of all, his existence is contigent, rather than necessary. Therefore, if Lucifer exists and is the author of evil, something must exist which brought Lucifer into existence. Therefore, if you believe in Lucifer, based on the Christian account, you must also believe in the infinite-personal God of Christianity.

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revrogers November 10, 2009 at 9:00 pm

So, you are arguing about evil, a specific species of evil, namely sadism.

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Conversational Atheist November 11, 2009 at 4:36 pm

Hey Luke — I had a long discussion with a friend of mine about what he thinks we are missing in our back and forth (I sent him a link). I think I might have a guess about how to phrase it because he seemed similarly confused with what I wrote — and it seemed to come down to how the word ‘best’ was being interpreted.

Here’s a fresh attempt to illustrate what I mean:

A couple of hundred years ago, a person might have said — “I believe in Zeus because I think the Greek mythology is the best explanation for lightning. I have seen lightning — it can have terrible and devastating effects. In fact, one might notice that Zeus’s anger is frequently aimed at the Christian spires that arrogantly adorn the temples as the highest points in the land.”

A couple of hundred years ago — this might be the best explanation available. So what?

What is the possible connection between having a mythological narrative that gives an explanation for something we see in our everyday lives — and the mythological characters of that narrative actually existing?

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lukeprog November 11, 2009 at 5:29 pm

Conversational Atheist,

Hmmm, perhaps I should write a post on what an argument to the best explanation is, since they are used so widely in many areas of philosophy, including philosophy of religion. Let me work on that…

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Beau November 11, 2009 at 8:52 pm

Luke said,

Conversational Atheist,

It depends which model of explanation we use. Have you studied explanation much?

C’mon, do you really mean to suggest a reasonable observer cannot form an informed opinion unless they’ve plumbed the depths of explanation theory? Faugh, Occam’s Razor stands ready to shave off whatever arcane and obscure explanation you’re about to offer to Vox. After all, a simple straight forward explanation is to be preferred over an overly complex, “Have you studied explanation much?” smokescreen. Your line of reasoning appears to be “baffle them with your BS.” Obfuscation doesn’t buttress your case.

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lukeprog November 11, 2009 at 9:06 pm

Beau,

I haven’t attempted any obfuscation. Indeed, I spent a great deal of time in my letter to Vox on clarification, such that the readers on his site said my latest letter was “boring.”

And I do plan to write some posts on explanation – but I’m waiting to see where Vox wants to take this line of argument.

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