CPBD B01: Luke Answers Your Questions

by Luke Muehlhauser on April 4, 2010 in Alvin Plantinga,Ask the Atheist,Podcast


(Listen to other episodes of Conversations from the Pale Blue Dot here.)

This is a special bonus episode of Conversations from the Pale Blue Dot. Today I do not interview a guest. Rather, I respond directly to the audio questions you submitted to me in response to Ask the Atheist… Audio Edition!

Be sure to send me your questions: call 413-723-0175 and leave me your message.

Because I know everything, obviously.

The questions I discuss today are:

  • Are you an evangelical atheist or a friendly atheist? Why?
  • What do you think the most powerful atheistic argument is?
  • Could you give an overview of Alvin Plantinga’s contributions to philosophy of religion?
  • Could you give an overview of Plantinga’s Warrant trilogy?
  • What are the ‘Ten Commandments’ of desirism?
  • Are you worried  about the dogmatism displayed in the atheist blogosphere?

Download CPBD episode B01. Total time is 55:02.

Note: in addition to the regular blog feed, there is also a podcast-only feed. You can also subscribe on iTunes.

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{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

Steve Maitzen April 4, 2010 at 8:25 am

Luke: I liked the podcast and, as always, your enthusiasm. About friendly atheism: I must admit I don’t care as much as I used to about who deserves the labels “rational,” “irrational,” “reasonable,” or “unreasonable.” These days I prefer to focus on first-order arguments rather than on labeling the attitude of whoever regards them as sound or unsound.

Still, I’d like to question the analogy you drew at 5:20 between religious disagreements and scientific disagreements, because I’m not sure it’s accurate to describe scientists as believing even their best-confirmed scientific theories, let alone their controversial theories. In Causal Necessity (1980), Brian Skyrms talks about “the paradox of the provisional acceptance of scientific laws,” credited to F. P. Ramsay. The paradox stems from scientists’ confident reliance on scientific “laws” that induction from the history of science implies are almost certainly false:

“The belief in a law, in the sense in which we can be said to believe our best scientific theories, cannot be belief in its truth and indeed must be consistent with belief in its falsity” (Skyrms, p. 37).

Scientists, keenly aware of the graveyard of scientific theories, know better than to believe that their theories are true. By contrast, religious adherents at least typically say that they believe, and even know, that their religion is true, and true for all time. (Now, these adherents may only think they hold the beliefs they claim to hold, as Adèle Mercier and Georges Rey argue. But self-deception is a different issue.) It’s an empirical question which attitude scientists actually take, and I haven’t done the research, but if Skyrms is right then there’s a major disanalogy between scientific and religious disagreement.


lukeprog April 4, 2010 at 8:39 am


I, too, am no longer so interested in how to label people as rational or reasonable. My views have even changed since I recorded this podcast over a month ago.

I have an upcoming series in which I may find myself retreating from Rowe’s friendly atheism… or maybe not.

Thanks for the literature quote!


Rabbitpirate April 17, 2010 at 2:38 am

Just started listening to your podcast and already it is one of my favourites.

Very quick question. Towards the end of this episode you talk about a logical fallacy that goes:

1. If X was right it would prove God exists
2. God does not exists
C. X is therefore wrong

Now even though I have listened to this section a couple of times I am just not picking up what this fallacy is called. You say it but my ears are just not understanding it for some reason, possibly due to the poor quality of the headphones I have.

This is not a fallacy I have, knowingly, come across before but I think it is a great one to be aware of as it is one that us skeptics really need to be careful of.

So if you could clarify those few words that my brain just isn’t getting that would be most appreciated.

Keep up the great work.


lukeprog April 17, 2010 at 6:32 am


This is actually a valid argument form called ‘modus tollens.’ In this case, it would work like this:

1. If theistic argument X succeeded then God exists.
2. God does not exist.
3. Therefore, theistic argument X does not succeed.

Or, for believers, it often works like this:

1. If atheistic argument X succeeded then God does not exist.
2. God does exist.
3. Therefore, atheistic argument X does not succeed.

The problem is that rather than evaluating each argument openly and fairly, believers and non-believers alike usually start by assuming their own conclusion about the existence of God, and using that to dismiss arguments that oppose their view too quickly. We each handle arguments for our position with “kid gloves” and are incredibly skeptical about arguments against our position.


Rabbitpirate April 17, 2010 at 2:08 pm

Ah, ok so that makes more sense to me now, thanks.

So basically the argument structure is valid, it is just the starting premise, in this case regarding Gods existence, that may be in question.

I guess I was getting the idea that is was a fallacious argument from the fact that it can be used to dismiss arguments out of hand without really giving them a fair hearing. I think this is a very important thing to keep in mind. I know that I often dismiss arguments for God because I assume that they must be wrong in some way from the beginning. I will have to stop doing that if I want to keep my skeptic merit badge.

Thanks for taking the time to explain it to me.


lukeprog April 17, 2010 at 2:11 pm

It’s a good question. You prompted me to write a post about it today, which should be posted to the blog sometime in the next few months.


Thomas July 15, 2010 at 11:05 am

Here´s a rather lengthy question.


as I listened to your interview with Tom Clarke about naturalism as a positive worldview, a number of questions arose to me. Especially about free will. First, wasn´t your conversation about free will a little bit too sunny? The denial of libertarian FW certainly amounts to a radical view of human persons and agency. But second, I think we obviously have libertarian FW, and the reason for that is that we make free, uncaused choices all the time (and we are directly aware of making these choices – that is why a human being will be libertarian in the absence of any philosophical dogmas). I take this argument from Charles Taliaferro and Stewart Goetz [1] and I´d like to see your response to it.

A choice is a mental action which has no causal explanation, but since a choice is an event, is has an explanation. It´s explanation is a purpose, where a purpose makes reference to a goal or an end. This kind of explanation in terms of a purpose is a teleological explanation, “where teleological and causal explanations are distinct and irreducible kinds of explanation” (3).

Now, a choice is a mental event explained teleologically in terms of purposes and reasons. But scientific naturalists cannot leave anything that is explained teleologically in their ontology. “A scientific explanation of human persons” doesn´t leave room for purposes and reasons.

Consider now, then, the movements of my fingers as I´m writing this comment. These movements produce this text because I wanted to write this comment in order to argue against naturalism about human agents. Therefore the explanation about me writing this comment is a teleological one in terms of purposes and reasons. But as a scientific naturalist, you must deny that the movements of my fingers as I´m typing these words have a teleological explanation. But surely there´s something wrong about that! An explanation of me writing this comment which doesn´t include my reasons and purposes cannot be right – or to put it differently – that these words can appear to this comment section without any reference to my purposes and reasons is certainly a coincidence of the highest magnitude. Taliaferro and Goetz put the point like this:

“In short, it simply stretches one´s credulity to the breaking point to claim that what is presently taking place on our bodies in relationship to the movements of our fingers can be explained without any ultimate or final reference to the teleological explanation of our choice to write this essay.” (5)

My question is, therefore, that since you must deny the teleological explanation of a choice, how can you write all these great articles and papers while your worldview holds that the explanation of you writing something is not an explanation in terms of reasons and purposes? Isn´t that a little bit absurd?

[1] Taliaferro and Goetz have a short essay about the argument here: http://www.infidels.org/library/modern/stewart_goetz/dualism.html. (The quotes of my comment are from this essay). You may also want to check their nice and short book Naturalism (Eerdmans, 2008), which is a terrific and fair critique of naturalism and its conception of human persons.


Thomas July 15, 2010 at 11:52 am

Sorry, I´m not sure why I posted that comment here… My bad.


lukeprog July 15, 2010 at 12:23 pm

Hi Thomas,

The denial of libertarian free will is not a radical position. It has been held by hundreds of millions, perhaps billions. Many Eastern religions deny libertarian free will, as do large branches of Christianity and Islam. More importantly, libertarian free will is denied by most people who study it (philosophers and neuroscientists).

Only about 15% of philosophers believe in liberatarian free will, which is about the same percentage of philosophers who are religious:

I suspect the rates among neuroscientists are even lower, given what neuroscience tells us about free will:

People like yourself, Goetz, and Taliaferro support free will because you take your inner, subjective experience more seriously than science. Trust me, it sure feels to me like I have free will, too. But introspection has been shown to be an awfully unreliable source of knowledge, and science keeps getting things right. I’m going with the science on this one.

You also said ‘A scientific explanation of human persons’ doesn’t leave room for purposes and reasons. This is false:

Your decision to write this post does indeed have a teleological explanation. You were acting in response to your beliefs and desires, and desires are reasons for action. But your decision has a causal explanation, too. You are not an unmoved mover of your thought and action.

That’s where I’m coming from, anyway.




Thomas July 16, 2010 at 12:27 pm

Thanks for a thoughtful answer, Luke. I’m afraid I have to continue the discussion though…

I said in in my initial comment that a human being will be a libertarian (because she is directly aware of making uncaused free choices all the time) in the absence of any philosophical presuppositions. Now, Eastern religions, certain kind of Calvinism, etc. are just the kind of philosophical presuppositions that I´m talking about. You then said that “libertarian free will is denied by most people who study it (philosophers and neuroscientists). Only about 15% of philosophers believe in liberatarian free will, which is about the same percentage of philosophers who are religious.” Now, you have to be a bit more fair here. “Those who study it” are also committed naturalists (or some kind of physicalists), and the survey confirms that. Yes, philosophers who believe in LFW are mostly theists – but equally interesting fact is that those who deny LFW are mostly naturalists. Naturalism is as strong philosophical presupposition as theism. So it´s no suprise that naturalists deny contra causal free will. Why? Stewart Goetz has an interesting argument here: http://www.independent.org/newsroom/article.asp?id=1756. His conclusion is that naturalists deny free will because it implies dualism of some sort. Of course, if materialism about our consciousness is true, we cannot be unmoved movers of our actions. I agree with that. So naturalists, who most likely reject dualism, will reject free will, too, but not as a basis of some powerful arguments, but because free will doesn´t fit in to naturalism. That is why I find it neither surprising nor worrying that most philosophers deny contra causal free will.

What about neuroscientists? The percentage of materialists is even higher among them, so the same thing goes there. I think these scientists don´t deny free will because there is some kind of powerful evidence against it, but because their worldview doesn´t allow us to have free will. Taliaferro and Goetz put the point like this (after a discussion about a neuroscientist Penfield):

All that a neuroscientist such as Penfield must be committed to, as a physical scientist, is that agents that choose for purposes, if they exist, are not causally producing events in the relevant neurons during his experiments. If a neuroscientist like Penfield makes the methodological assumption that microphysical entities can have their capacities causally actualized only by other physical entities, then he does so not as a physical scientist but as a naturalist.

Moving on. This is an interesting comment from you: “People like yourself, Goetz, and Taliaferro support free will because you take your inner, subjective experience more seriously than science. Trust me, it sure feels to me like I have free will, too.”

We take subjective experience seriously because its existence and role in our everyday life is obvious and vital. You seem agree that experience says that we indeed have free will. Such like our inner experience tells us that other minds or the outside world is real. We should trust things that seem to be obviously true in the absence of any counter evidence. Now here we disagree then. You said that we take experience “more seriously than science”. So you think that there is strong counter evidence againts free will from science. But as I explained, that is not true. Science itself doesn´t give powerful evidence against free will. Scientists certainly deny free will, but they don´t do it as scientists but as naturalists. For example, one argument against free will is ´the principle of causal closure’. But that is a philosophical/metaphysical principle, not a scientific one. Science does not give evidence that the physical domain is closed. Metaphysical naturalism says that. Since a theist has no reason to accept this principle, she is not going to be impressed by this kind of an argument. And here she isn´t “ignoring science”, but rejecting a physicalist´s dogma.

The explanation of the movements of my fingers at the moment is either ultimately teleological or causal. These explanations are irreduble and different. So if the explanation is causal, then there is no reference to my reasons and purposes in that explanation. You can´t have it both ways.

We both agree that contra-causal free will is what our experience tells us. I accept that we are unmoved movers of our actions, you don´t. I think that our disagreement on this has nothing to do with one of us being “unscientific”. We both have the same evidence in front of us. The difference is our philosophical presuppositions. If Goetz is right, naturalists deny free will because it implies dualism, not because some awesome empirical evidence.

I apologize for the length of this comment. Take care.


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