Ask the Atheist (round 7)

by Luke Muehlhauser on March 22, 2010 in Ask the Atheist

Because I know everything, obviously.

Because I know everything, obviously.

Earlier, I invited my readers to ask me anything. You may ask more questions here, but please read the instructions first. Or, submit an audio question! Here is my seventh round of responses.

Question 026

Andrew asks:

The cause, reason, or origin behind the universe itself seems a mystery. Many people have asserted that a highly specific type of God is the cause of the universe. Others reject this God as the cause of the universe, but are open to the possibility of a less-specified sort of Ground of All Being. [What do you think] of this latter group?

I have no idea what the “ultimate cause of the universe” is, or whether there is one. If somebody wants to postulate some kind of Ground of All Being that’s fine with me, but until they give me some good arguments in its favor, I have no reason to accept it.

However, such a hypothesis would at least be free of all the usual objections to tri-omni theism, of which there are many.

Question 027

Eric asks:

Many atheists will say, “There’s no evidence whatsoever that any god or gods exist.” Do you agree? If you agree, can you show that you’re using a definition of ‘evidence’ that doesn’t rule out data we uncontroversially judge to count as evidence for such and such in other cases? Or, if you disagree, what do you think some of the best evidence for god’s existence is (ideally with an explanation of some sort concerning what makes it the best evidence)?

There are many theories of what constitutes “evidence,” and I’m not an expert on them. One common definition is to say that x is evidence for y if y is the best explanation of x. So, the microscopic trail left in a water chamber is evidence for the truth of a particular section of the Standard Model of particle physics if that section of the Standard Model of particle physics offers the best explanation for the observed phenomena: a microscopic trailer left in water chamber after some particles were collided at a certain energy, etc.

If we’re using that kind of definition for the term “evidence,” then it is hard for me to see how there is evidence of God. At least, I don’t think any theist has yet given a good account of how it is that a God hypothesis offers the best explanation for some phenomenon. Prima facie, it appears that the God hypotheses usually offered do not possess many of the usual explanatory virtues we look for in a best explanation: testability, predictive novelty, explanatory scope, simplicity, and so on. (It may be the case that those working on Bayesian accounts of God as a best explanation have put forward a decent case, but I don’t consider myself qualified to judge those, yet.)

So, there’s lots of evidence out there. But evidence for what? If it’s evidence for God rather than evidence for something else, I’d like theists to explain to me how it is so.

Question 028

Molly asks:

Do you know of any feminist philosophers of religion who are atheists? Feminist arguments for atheism seem to be either largely ignored or virtually non-existent. The only thing I’ve read thus far is an essay by feminist philosopher Christine Overall.

It just seems that a very strong case could be made from a feminist perspective, for what I hope are obvious reasons.

I’m not sure what a feminist argument for atheism would look like, though I can certainly imagine some feminist arguments against the God of the Bible. Unfortunately, I’m not yet very familiar with feminist philosophy of religion.

Question 029

Joel Duggins asks:

If our inmost selves are composed merely of various connected neurons and other tissue, and our entire existence, (thoughts, beliefs, and all) are the unavoidable result of the sum movement of the cosmos, (cause and effect, etc) how can you know that this is true? That is to say, if naturalism is true, and you are effectively programmed by evolutionary processes, (you are the effect in a chain of cause and effect) how do you know that you aren’t simply forced to believe what you believe, even if it is false?

Those who want to explore this issue more may consider the debates around Plantinga’s evolutionary argument against naturalism and Victor Reppert’s argument from reason.

How it is that we have knowledge has been the primary question of Western philosophy since the time of Plato. In the end, the kind of extreme skepticism you hint at may in a sense be unavoidable. It is always theoretically possible that a God systematically deceives us, or that our experiences are generated by machines as in The Matrix, or that evolution designed us to systematically misrepresent reality. But notice this is just as much a worry for naturalists as for non-naturalists.

The only way we can see if we really know what we think we know is to test our knowledge. So we apply our apparent knowledge of physics and math and chemistry and biology and we send men to the moon and back. So that sure seems like we have astounding knowledge in some cases – in any way that it’s useful to talk about the concept of “knowledge,” anyway.

Of course, the naturalist believes that evolution has programmed us to make many systematic errors in our thinking. That’s why we keep tweaking this set of tools we call ‘science’ to combat our cognitive biases whenever we start to realize that we have them.

Question 030

LukeL asks:

Alright, this is actually an argument AGAINST christianity that I came up with and I’m relatively sure it’s flawed so I’d appreciate some insight. Here’s how it goes.

1. Nothing existed before God
2. God is the source of all things.
3. Since all things come directly from God then all things are a part of God
4. God created hell
5. God Sends people to hell
6. God is sending parts of himself into eternal torment

How can God create something apart from himself? And doesn’t it suggest something about his sanity that he would cause himself suffering? An analogy would be that if I could snap my fingers and make a cup appear the fact would remain that I thought of the cup, I have to power to make it be, and I caused it’s existence from nothing but myself. Therefor the cup and I are made out of the same substance and we are in fact, the same thing.

If this can’t be answered then it also suggests that we should consider the moral implications of how a reflection of God could ever commit an act that was objectively evil and thus deserving of punishment.

LukeL, you bring up so many different arguments and unsupported premises in this numbered list of propositions that I don’t know how to respond. If you meant to present (1)-(6) as an argument, it is certainly invalid, meaning that even if your premises are true, they do not support your conclusion. So I would recommend studying a bit of logic first. See my Intro to Logic series and also A Rulebook for Arguments.

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{ 9 comments… read them below or add one }

lukeprog March 22, 2010 at 4:37 am


As I said above, the nature of evidence is a whole subject area of its own, on which I am not an expert. But let us consider your definition for a moment. The earthquake in Haiti is extremely probable give the hypothesis that ‘An omnipotent flying spaghetti monster willed it to happen at exactly the moment it did.’ In fact, we might say it’s probability give that hypothesis is 100%. Does this mean the Haitian earthquake is evidence for an omnipotent flying spaghetti monster? That’s why we need more criteria than just the one you’re using, usually called ‘explanatory power.’


other eric March 22, 2010 at 5:38 am

Let’s go ahead and grant that the sole reason I believe in naturalism is true is because it was determined by the causal chain. Is this really a reason to doubt that naturalism is true.

is that really the argument from reason? i hope not.
that’s like saying, “you only think you have a brain tumor because that brain tumor is messing with your mind.”

still, i share Joel Duggins’s basic concern over “forced” beliefs. it’s tempting to see a connection between the physical variety brought by DNA and the variety of worldviews brought by our reasoning faculties. a single self-assured worldview would be sort of monoculture, perhaps?


Rob March 22, 2010 at 6:31 am

Concerning the supposed problem of accounting for our ability to reason given naturalism. You are right to point out that this is an ancient problem that has not been solved to most philosopher’s satisfaction, no matter your fundamental world view. So many supernaturalist’s pretend as if supernaturalism solves these problems, but that is just non-sense. Induction is another example.


lukeprog March 22, 2010 at 7:38 am


When I read your comment I assumed you were quoting my post because it sounds exactly like what I would have written, but then I re-read my post and realized I had not made those points in this post. :)


Haecceitas March 22, 2010 at 9:25 am

With regard to what counts as evidence, it seems to me that the definition “x is evidence for y if y is the best explanation of x” is way too demanding. It is actually rather easy to think of criminal court cases where every single piece of evidence is such that when taken in isolation, it isn’t best explained (at least not clearly so) by the hypothesis of the defendant’s committing the crime that he’s being accused of, but when combined with other pieces of evidence, it contributes to an overwhelmingly strong cumulative case.

It would be better to use the definition: x is evidence for y if y is more probable given x than without it.


Justfinethanks March 22, 2010 at 9:43 am

how do you know that you aren’t simply forced to believe what you believe, even if it is false?

The argument from reason always struck me as a pretty obvious genetic fallacy. Let’s go ahead and grant that the sole reason I believe in naturalism is true is because it was determined by the causal chain. Is this really a reason to doubt that naturalism is true. After all, I have also been “forced” (assuming naturalism) in believing that 2+2=4. Should we doubt that as well?

If the origin of a belief has a non-rational basis, that tells us absolutely nothing about whether or not that belief is actually irrational.


Rhys Wilkins March 22, 2010 at 1:40 pm


What is your opinion on existentialist philosophy such as the works of Jean Paul Sartre? If you have read up on existentialism, what aspects of it do you agree and disagree with?

Also what is your opinion on continental philosophy in general? Is it worth reading or is it just the retarded step-child of analytic?


Gregg March 24, 2010 at 7:06 am


There are many theories of what constitutes “evidence,” and I’m not an expert on them. One common definition is to say that x is evidence for y if y is the best explanation of x.

I’ve recently been interested in what constitutes “evidence.” Would you mind revealing your source for this information?


lukeprog March 24, 2010 at 12:12 pm


I’ll develop a bibliography on studied of evidence when I have time.


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