Ask the Atheist (round 9)

by Luke Muehlhauser on May 8, 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 ninth round of responses.

Question 035

matth asks:

If an atheist in extreme pain, fear, or desperation begs God to “Please get me out of this” should this experience be relevant in trying to determine if God actually does exist? Since you stopped believing in God have you ever had any such experience?

I don’t put much faith in subjective, inner, emotional experiences. As cognitive science has shown us, that is one of the worst possible kinds of evidence you can have for something.

But have I had such experiences as an atheist? I’ve done it, but I can’t do it with a straight face. It’s like asking Zeus for help. It’s basically a joke to cheer myself up in a tough spot, and it works pretty well.

Question 036

ildi asks:

What relationship do you see between science and philosophy in advancing human knowledge? In particular, what are the questions that philosophers consider to be unanswerable using the scientific method?

Science moves human knowledge forward at supersonic speed. Philosophy moves human knowledge forward at the pace of a turtle. Well, a hippo, maybe.

Many questions that could once only be contemplated philosophically have been handed over to scientists, now that they have the right tools. This happened first to astronomy, then to physics. Over the last century, philosophy of mind has been gradually handed over to psychologists and neuroscientists. In another 100 years the field will probably be mostly neuroscience and artificial intelligent, and very little philosophy of mind.

But yes, there are many questions that must, unfortunately, always remain the domain of philosophy. For example, philosophy of science. Science itself can’t answer questions about its own assumptions. And of course the study of knowledge (epistemology) in general is a bigger set of questions than science can answer. There are many questions in metaphysics, ethics, and other fields that science can’t answer, either. Science can inform those studies – but science has certain limits by design and so it can’t answer the deepest questions of all.

Question 037

Matt M asks:

Do you think there’s much to learn from debates between liberal and fundamentalist theists?

Certainly. See my interview with Eric Reitan, for example.

Question 038

Rhys asks:

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?

I haven’t read much Sartre.

Here’s my take on continental philosophy vs. analytic philosophy. Some philosophers say there’s no distinction anymore, and I guess that depends on how you use the terms. Analytic philosophy is broader than it was in 1910, and so is continental philosophy.

But most philosophers in the Western world still make use of the distinction, and most of them would call themselves “analytic” philosophers. What they mean by this is that there are three rules for everything they write: (1) clarity, (2) clarity, and (3) clarity.

Analytic philosophy also tends to spend a lot of time discussing arguments, but in general analytic philosophy is all about being clear about what you mean. Most analytic philosophy papers look the same:

  1. First, explain the context of the question you will consider and what it is you will conclude.
  2. Clarify the parameters of the issue and what other people have said about it.
  3. Give your argument, citing and quoting the people to which you are responding, directly.
  4. Clearly explain how you have supported the conclusion of your argument.
  5. Explain a few objections that could be made against your argument, and then explain why you can overcome them.
  6. Restate the scope and meaning of your conclusion.

It’s all about clarify, from start to finish.

Now, contrast that model for analytic philosophy papers with what you read in… well, let’s say it: French philosophers.

Continental philosophers may have important insights, but they are usually buried in a mess of confused ideas and ambiguous language.

Continental philosophers sometimes say that analytic philosophers are wrapped up in obscure technical problems and don’t discuss issues that matter to ordinary people. But that’s just false. Analytic philosophers do expend much ink on obscure problems, but there is no reason one cannot address the concerns of ordinary people with clarity.

Analytic philosophy can address all the same issues as continental philosophy can, and it can do it with clarity. Stephen Law’s journal Think: Philosophy for Everyone contains many examples. Another is Thomas Nagel’s famous paper “The Absurd.”

Question 039

katie asks:

What if you’re wrong?

It has happened before. In fact, it happens all the time.

Perhaps you mean to ask: “What if you’re wrong about the non-existence of God?”

But this question applies equally to all of us. What if you’re wrong about the non-existence of Allah? What if you’re wrong about the non-existence of Shiva? What if you’re wrong about thinking we’re not all just plugged into the Matrix?

Question 040

Jason asks:

I have a very novice vocabulary question. In my attempt to gain a better footing in the discourse of theist and atheist arguments, I have discovered that my definition for the word “rational” may be lacking. This observation was made when I was reading your link to Plantinga’s “Two Dozen (or so) Theistic Arguments”:

“Consider a person who has been brought up to believe some wild and implausible proposition – for example, the earth is on the back of a turtle, which is on the back of another turtle, so that it’s turtles all the way down. A person brought up to believe this could believe it rationally.”

My lay-person definition of the word “rational” (i.e. “based on reason”) does not seem to suffice in this usage. I would think that (using lay-person terminology) this hypothetical person’s belief would be more accurately classified as faith, or at best, superstition. It could be that I’m simply not skilled or imaginative enough to think of the argument which one might use to rationally arrive at this hypothetical belief, but I think it is more likely a failure of my definition of the word. However, I’m not sure how to expand my definition accurately. Can you elaborate on what is meant by the word “rational” in this context?

Defining the term ‘rational’ is an entire field of philosophy. I use the term rather loosely – as most people do – and am gradually giving up on a precise definition of rational. I try to focus more on ‘first-order’ questions: Not “Is it rational to believe that God exists?” but instead “Is it true that God exists?”

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{ 23 comments… read them below or add one }

RA May 8, 2010 at 6:33 am

Matth question (Q35) reminds me of a Burt Reynolds movie “The End” where Burt decides to commit suicide and swims out to sea. After he gets way out there, he changes his mind and prays to God promising that he will give up sex, drinking and all sorts of other things if he will just save him.

The closer Burt gets to shore, the more promises he backs out on. Once he makes it to the beach exhausted and flops on shore, he reneges on all of it and says: “After all, I did it myself.”


Steve Maitzen May 8, 2010 at 6:51 am

Science can inform those studies – even logic, in fact -

I’m curious, Luke: What do you mean by science “informing” logic?


Geeky Atheist May 8, 2010 at 7:05 am

I just experienced Question 035 myself. Today is my second full day out of the hospital after spending 2.5 weeks in the hospital after major abdominal surgery, which was prompted by severe pain of the kind I have never felt before. I’ve only been an atheist for about a year and a half, but never once did I end up crying out to a higher power to save me. It just didn’t cross my mind. The pain was severe enough that the nurses remarked that they were surprised I hadn’t passed out (apparently the signs I was exhibiting indicated that I wasn’t lying about how painful it was — sweating profusely, etc)

I think when you’re of the skeptical atheist mindset, where you’ve really considered the evidence and arguments, you just don’t find yourself reaching out in the same way that you would have if you *hadn’t* considered the arguments. I think crying out to a higher power is admission only of your insecurity in your current belief system, not of any underlying truths.

The only moment I had that was interesting is that around the two week mark, I was having trouble sleeping one night and I realized in some ways I missed praying. It wasn’t praying specifically, but it was the feeling that I could speak a worry to someone else that was in power, releasing me from having to worry about it. As a believer, prayer did help clear my mind, and I don’t necessarily have a good alternative yet since I know I’m in charge of my own destiny.

Luckily I also had the option for some anti-anxiety medicine, which helped me through that night :)


Chris May 8, 2010 at 7:37 am

Clarity, shmarity.


lukeprog May 8, 2010 at 7:38 am


I’m talking about, for example, evening star/morning star equality.


Hermes May 8, 2010 at 7:46 am

Matth: If an atheist in extreme pain, fear, or desperation begs God to “Please get me out of this” should this experience be relevant in trying to determine if God actually does exist? Since you stopped believing in God have you ever had any such experience?

Matth, the scenario you are talking about is someone who is really a theist of some sort who may be in denial.

After talking to quite a few atheists, and almost dying a couple times myself most notably in a car accident where the car spun out of control and it came close to flipping over and down a steep embankment, the answer is a puzzled no.

To be honest, what you are asking is quite bizarre. It’s like asking if we called out for Allah or cursed Hades not to take us at some stressful or life threatening moment in our lives. As the quote at the top of this blog points out, if you reject other deity claims, why should it be reasonable for you to even guess that atheists secretly are taking your deity God seriously?

Now that your curiosity has been addressed, please pass the word along. We’re not kidding.

It is actually a bit creepy to see that people think that it’s a joke of some sort. After all, would you ask the same questions to a Hindu? Do you think they are kidding and really secretly know a variant of the Christian deity named God is the real one? If a Muslim asked that type question of a Christian in regards to Allah, what do you think the Christian would be justified in thinking of the Muslim questioner?


Hermes May 8, 2010 at 9:03 am

Geeky Atheist, if you ever miss prayer again just consider writing in a journal. Even free-form nonsense writing can clear out quite a few cobwebs.

My only recommendation is not to consider editing what you write in a journal. Just write, and move on. Also, if you want to read it later, give it a minimum of two weeks. The idea is to get words on a page, not to keep them. Just keep in mind that if you were doing it right — free form and unobstructed — you will probably see quite a few odd things in there. That’s normal. If it’s too well organized, then you’re probably not doing it right! :-)

Along those lines, here’s something to consider but without the hocus-pocus;


Jeff H May 8, 2010 at 11:22 am


In regards to continental philosophy and existentialism…

I know I’m really not as well-versed as I’d like to be on this matter, but in the course I took on existentialism, one of the major themes seemed to be the role of rationality itself. For example, Kierkegaard defended the role of non-rational justification (which is similar in many ways to Plantinga’s work, as far as I can tell) and the “knight of faith” who knows he is right without having any basis or reasonable defense of why it is the case. Camus and Nietzsche seem to talk about a sort of private reason, where we structure our own lives and our own being according to principles, but not ones that can be generalized. Camus, if I remember correctly, says that reason is applicable in this sense, but ultimately it fails when applies to things outside ourselves, such as meaning and purpose in the universe.

So, in light of that, how would someone writing about the failure of reason and rationality write by “giving their argument”, “clearly explaining how they have supported the conclusion of their argument”, etc.? It seems as though they’re tapping into a different sort of justification – perhaps based on intuition or shared human experience, for example. I just don’t know how possible it is for them to be “clear” in that sense (using some sort of rational discourse), which while it is frustrating, is not necessarily a fault if you consider their intent…


ichthyscredo May 8, 2010 at 11:48 am

I wouldn’t mind your comments on this questions Luke: Does Naturalistic Atheism Entail Nihilism? I discuss that question on my blog here


noen May 8, 2010 at 12:17 pm

“I’m talking about, for example, evening star/morning star equality.”

I don’t see how science “informs” induction. That’s what science is. Questions of ethics are hardly comparable to astronomical facts. I still maintain that one cannot derive values from facts. No matter how many facts you pile up they will never amount to one value. Since science can only provide us with facts it can never function as a base for ethical actions.


lukeprog May 8, 2010 at 12:18 pm

Jeff H,

You’re right there are similarities between these thinkers and Plantinga, and since Plantinga is an analytic philosopher we can use him to draw out the differences. The difference is that Plantinga very carefully explains his reasons and his theory of how rationality works, even though his conclusion is that he is rationally justified to believe in God while he can’t necessarily give somebody else a reason to believe in God.


lukeprog May 8, 2010 at 12:21 pm


For me to answer I would need you to define ‘nihilism’ more precisely. For example, let us say ‘nihilism’ is the view that ‘Human lives are without objective meaning.’ If so, I’d need you to very precisely define the term ‘objective meaning,’ perhaps with necessary and sufficient conditions.


Hermes May 8, 2010 at 12:45 pm

ichthyscredo, after seeing the strange capitalization you used in your question to Luke, I scanned your blog and found that you consistently capitalized “atheism” and “atheist” everywhere. This seems strange. Do you capitalize “thieist” and “theism”?

Additionally, one of your posts might be addressed by something Greta Christina wrote;

If only most people wrote as well and with such unabashed vigor.


MauricXe May 8, 2010 at 1:16 pm

I have a question about one of Dr. Craig’s arguments.

When discussing Jesus, he usually says something of the following:

“Most New Testament Scholars, even those that are skeptical, agree that Jesus did [Insert event here]”

Do New Testament scholars state:

1) That those actions, such as the resurrection, the empty tomb, the resurrection, the appearance of Jesus, the miracles, etc., actually happened historically.


2) That the accounts found in the current editions of the Bible are proper interpretations of the original gospels. This doesn’t imply that they happened historically.

I am inclined to believe its #1, but do historians, even those that are skeptical, assert that he “rose from the dead” or that “he performed miracles” or that “the disciples witnessed his resurrected body?” It would seem to me that this would defeat any doubts about who he was.


Alexandros Marinos May 9, 2010 at 2:53 am

I find interesting that the answer to question 36 is symmetric to the answer often given about the relationship between religion and science. It may well be that this one is correct and that the religion equivalent is wrong, but it still is interesting that substituting ‘philosophy’ with ‘religion’ in this answer would give you the gist of the answer given by religion defenders, kind of a ‘philosophy of the gaps’ structure.

Also, how does Plantinga’s “I believe this rationally but cannot convince you” work with Aumann’s agreement theorem? [1][2] I know Luke is aware of LessWrong and this is a pretty common concept in discussions over there.



MaryLynne May 9, 2010 at 4:45 am

About calling out to God after losing faith –

At some point early in my journey to reason, I found myself saying, “Please God let me make that traffic light!” My next thought was, “Who am I kidding? There is no one up there who cares if I make the light!” I haven’t looked for him/it since and haven’t really missed it in a long time, even in times of distress or pain.

Sometimes out of habit I use theistic phrases or language, but not with any intent or meaning. I still say “Thank God” and haven’t found a good substitute. I really mean “I’m really, really glad about it!” but that’s awkward. “Thank goodness” isn’t as strong and what does that mean anyway?

I haven’t found a good phrase either for “I’m pleased that the combination of hard work, good decisions and random circumstances worked out in the this way,” so I still say “We are lucky that . . ” or “We are blessed” sometimes.

I don’t miss praying, and I REALLY don’t miss feeling guilty for not praying or not wanting to pray or not doing it right.


Hermes May 9, 2010 at 6:24 am

Noen: I still maintain that one cannot derive values from facts. No matter how many facts you pile up they will never amount to one value.

That’s an amazing statement. Where did you get that idea from?


Jeff H May 9, 2010 at 9:27 am


That’s fine, and I certainly agree with you that there’s something to be said for clarity. (I plan on tackling some post-modernism in the next little while and am partially dreading it. :P ) But at the same time, it seems odd that Plantinga tries to use reason to prove some sort of non-rational knowledge. I’m almost loathe to consider it “philosophy”, though it’s in a sense just philosophy of a different sort. But I at least see some merit in what the existentialists are trying to say – even though sometimes they don’t say it very clearly.

That said, Camus seems fairly clear – I’d recommend reading The Myth of Sisyphus if you’re interested.


Bradm May 10, 2010 at 8:16 am

The idea that “clarity” is the defining characteristic of analytic philosophy is odd (and wrong). It suggests that the main difference is one of style. There are plenty of continental philosophers who are exceedingly clear and plenty of analytic philosophers who are. And (I’ve found) that most of the people who claim continental philosophers are unclear haven’t spent all that much time trying to understand these philosophers. “You are unclear” really means “I haven’t taken the time to understand.” If I had to guess (and please correct me if I’m wrong), you’ve dabbled in a little bit of French philosophy (perhaps you tried to start Of Grammatology but didn’t finish or you’ve read summaries of Foucault or an article or two by Baudrillard) but haven’t really studied them to try to understand their arguments. But anyway, I mostly agree with William Blattner when he says that the so-called analytic-continental divide is mostly sociological. It has more to do with the circles one hangs out in and the authors one draws from than any style or substance differences.


Thomas May 31, 2010 at 12:59 pm


I have a question about your argument against the explanatory power of theism which you presented in your recent lecture (I watched it on Youtube).

You said that when a theist claims that the explanation of why there´s something rather than nothing or why the universe began to exist or why is the universe finely-tuned for the existence of intelligent life or why do human beings have knowledge about objective moral values or . . . is God, he is always giving an “explanation” akin to magic. Therefore, you concluded, theistic arguments are always apriori bad – they do not have proper explanatory power (“God did it” is not a genuine explanation).

Now, it seems to me that this is begging the question against the theist. Aren´t you tacitly presupposing here that the only genuine type of explanation is a natural scientific explanation (NSE)? But if theism were true, the ultimate explanation of, say, the existence of a complex and contingent physical cosmos, wouldn´t be NSE, but rather a personal explanation (PE). PE explains a certain phenomenon X by citing some agent´s purposes and volitions. Consider me writing this question (let´s call this Q). What is the explanation of Q? You could give some NSE for Q by citing my brainprocesses or something, but I think the natural explanation of Q is this: Q happened because I wanted to ask this question from you in order that I could get my thoughts right (or something). This is a PE for Q. Now, do you think that this PE has explanatory power? Surely it has. But it then follows that PEs have genuine explanatory power. But then, the theistic personal explanation of why there is a contingent cosmos (a necessary being decided to bring the cosmos into being in order that he could have a loving relationship with some creatures in that cosmos) does have explanatory power, too. For if PEs have explanatory power, then surely divine PEs have that, too.

I think, therefore, that you´re begging the question against the theist by demanding NSE and not taking PE into account. (I take the NSE – PE distinction primarly from Swinburne). Did I misunderstand your position? If not, what´s your response?


lukeprog May 31, 2010 at 3:41 pm


Yes, you misunderstand my position. I have no a priori assumption against the supernatural, or in favor of the particular explanatory criteria I listed. Those are both very much a posteriori. And indeed, the problem I cited with the God hypothesis was not that it was supernatural, but that it failed to exhibit all of the qualities that scientists and philosophers look for in a good explanation – quite apart from whether that explanation is supernatural or not.


Thomas June 3, 2010 at 10:01 am

Ok, Luke, fair enough.

I still think this: When you said in your lecture at some point that theistic explanation is like “poof, magic”, didn’t you there tacitly assume that a good explanation must be NSE? But theistic expalantion is always a PE. And this PE refers to God´s basic powers. So when theistic explanation is the best explanation, it refers to God´s basic powers as an irreducibly personal and teleological explanation. That´s very different from “poof, magic”.

And when you claim that theistic explanation fails “to exhibit all of the qualities that scientists and philosophers look for in a good explanation”, I of course disagree. I think theism has great explanatory power and scope – at least better than philosophical naturalism. And we have to disagree with the simplicity of God, also. But maybe this is an issue where theists and atheists just have to disagree…

By the way, I think you recommended Bart Ehrman´s works somewhere. Have you seen this lecture ( ) from WLC about Ehrman´s works? If you have, what did you think? If not, you should watch it.


lukeprog June 3, 2010 at 11:32 am


Somewhere I have a draft where I started to respond to Craig’s lecture about Ehrman. I’ll finish that eventually.

No, I do not assume a priori that a good explanation must be naturalistic. All I argue is that in the actual universe, a posteriori, successful explanations almost always have certain qualities, none of which obtain with the theistic hypothesis as generally presented by theologians. So this should make us as suspicious of that theistic hypothesis as we are with, say, a fairy hypothesis. If theologians can show that other explanatory virtues have demonstrated success, and that these virtues are possessed by their God hypothesis, then that is the first step toward a plausible case for God as the best explanation. Until then, I say: Call me when you have the beginnings of a coherent, plausible hypothesis.


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