Ask the Atheist (round 10)

by Luke Muehlhauser on July 27, 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 latest round of responses.

Question 041

Alec asks:

Roughly when do you think that your book might come out?

Originally, my book was called An Atheist Debunks the New Atheists. But I grew tired of the subject matter, and instead compressed that book into one chapter of a much broader work called A Friendly Letter to Christian Believers. I suspect it will be one or two years before it is finished, because there are certain chapters I want to research more thoroughly before I write them.

I love how the book is coming along so far, though. It’s the best thing I’ve ever done.

Question 042

Erika asks:

What book(s) would you recommend for a general introduction to Biblical authorship controversies? I want something to recommend to a Christian friend who seemed truly shocked that such controversies even exist, so nothing too scholarly. I am looking for, let’s say, 1-3 books of moderate length that summarize the best modern scholarship for all of the books of the Bible.

The perfect book for your Christian friend is Jesus, Interrupted by Bart Ehrman.

Question 043

Taranu asks:

Luke, how do you answer a guy who says that since God is the greatest conceivable being, if it’s logically possible for God to exist than God really exists? Does this have something to do with the de cogito / de re distinction Kant made regarding the Ontological Argument or is it related to one of God’s attributes (aseity maybe)?

I haven’t written about the ontological argument yet because, well, nobody believes in God because of the ontological argument. It strikes even most Christians as some kind of trick of grammar, in my experience. But your question seems more concerned with Anselm’s version, which is not really in play anymore. The action today is with modal versions of the ontological argument, for example those proposed by Alvin Plantinga and Robert Maydole, which involve different conceptual tools than, for example, Kant’s famous claim that existence is not a property.

Question 044

Taranu asks:

What objections do you think could be raised to a Christian whom claims the women at Salem really were witches?

You’re referring to Matt McCormick’s analogy between the Resurrection and the Salem Witch trials. We have much better evidence that magic occurred at Salem than that magic occurred shortly after the death of Jesus. But most people reject the claim that magic happened at Salem, so they shouldn’t accept the claim Jesus magically rose from the dead, at least not based on the evidence.

But this analogy might not work for Christians who think magic really did happen at Salem.

One reason Christians might accept this is because the Salem witch trials occurred within a Christian paradigm: the “witches” were operating with the power of Satan, as conceived by Christian theology. This is why I prefer an analogy between the Resurrection and claims of magic from other religions that Christians are unlikely to accept – for example the Hindu Milk Miracle.

We have much better evidence for the Hindu Milk Miracle than we do for the Resurrection. And yet Christians universally reject the veracity of the Hindu Milk Miracle. Therefore they should reject the veracity of the Resurrection.

Question 045

Taranu asks:

Is the distinction between Yahweh and Brahman a way for the Christian to avoid employing a double standard if presented with the Hindu Miracle?

I don’t see how. The point is not about particular deities but about how we assess evidence for magical events. If the Christian is consistent and rejects the Hindu Milk Miracle, he should reject the Resurrection, for which we have far less evidence than the Hindu Milk Miracle.

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{ 33 comments… read them below or add one }

Meatros July 27, 2010 at 4:28 am

Luke – Are you going to include material that is often over looked in these sorts of books? I’m talking about things like the B theory of time and all that.

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Rob July 27, 2010 at 4:57 am

Taranu asked Luke:

“Luke, how do you answer a guy who says that since God is the greatest conceivable being, if it’s logically possible for God to exist than God really exists?”

If I may. That God exists is smuggled in in the first premise: “since God is . . .”

If you change the first premise to “if God is . . .”, then this silly argument reduces to “If God exists, then God exists.” Yawn. Russel was right. Anselm’s argument is just bad grammar.

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Jscottkill July 27, 2010 at 7:11 am

It seems to me that many Christians would respect the veracity of the Hindu Milk Miracle. Given a fundamentalist Christian account of the spiritual world, one might say that demons caused the miracle in order to deceive Hindus, just as the Egyptian sorcerers performed many of the same miracles Moses did in the courts of Pharaoh. The Hindu Milk Miracle is no rebuttal to the supernaturalist, rather it is a confirmation of the supernatural world.

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Erika July 27, 2010 at 7:12 am

Thanks for answering my question! (And sorry if there’s a double post. The first one wasn’t showing up.)

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lukeprog July 27, 2010 at 7:35 am

Meatros,

Yes, though I haven’t decided on B theory of time in particular. But that’s a perfect example because it’s so well established in physics (this is frickin’ EINSTEIN, people!) and yet so little known among the populace.

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Zeb July 27, 2010 at 7:46 am

Rob, I’ve never really understood the power behind Anselm’s argument since it does just seem like a silly language game, but I don’t see the problem with the first premise. God is the greatest conceivable being in the same way that a unicorn is the conceivable being with a horse’s body and a horn on its forehead. What’s the problem with either statement? Both are conceivable beings, neither of which may exist.

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Ajay July 27, 2010 at 9:13 am

Jeremy – interesting point. But wouldn’t Hindus respond with the reverse: that their miracles are real, and Christian miracles are in fact evil deceptions? How do you get beyond that impasse?

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Jscottkill July 27, 2010 at 9:33 am

@Ajay,
You are absolutely correct. I don’t think this particular example allows one to get past the “impasse.” Both events (the Resurrection and the Milk Miracle)may show evidence of the supernatural world, but neither seems to refute or confirm one particular supernaturalist approach or the other. All I was trying to show is that Luke’s coming dangerously close to attacking a straw man if he assumes that Christians wouldn’t accept the veracity of the Milk Miracle.

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Taranu July 27, 2010 at 9:47 am

Luke,
First of all, thank you for answering my questions. I appreciate it very much.
And secondly, since the nature of time seems like a great topic, I was wondering if you are aware of any up-to-date and easy to read books on theories of time? What books did you read that made you lean towards the B-theory?

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Gabriel July 27, 2010 at 10:44 am

Luke-

I’m really, really sorry if this has been asked before, but I should be working, so I’ll just ask anyway:

What would it take for an argument (not an experience or other thing!) to convince you that naturalism is false?

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Hermes July 27, 2010 at 12:19 pm

Gabriel, let’s say that naturalism is false. What now?

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al friedlander July 27, 2010 at 12:42 pm

“Given a fundamentalist Christian account of the spiritual world, one might say that demons caused the miracle in order to deceive Hindus”

Exactly. There’s all sorts of things they could claim:

1. Satan did it
2. Evil spirits/demons did it
3. God let it happen to ‘test’ our faith
4. God let it happen to ‘weed out’ the undesirables (Calvinism)
5. God didn’t want it to happen, but Satan has power, so it happened (this one is a little tricky, but I’ve hear it all the time)

Just to list off a few examples, all depending on which one would ‘fit’ your specific theological branch (you can’t assume them all true, because then, they’d conflict)

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nate July 27, 2010 at 12:54 pm

The only things that can exist necessarily are those that it would be self-contradictory to hold that they do not exist. God doesn’t fall into this category. Because God cannot exist necessarily, God cannot exist.

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John D July 27, 2010 at 1:06 pm

Maybe I’m wrong but I thought that Taranu’s formulation came pretty close to Plantinga’s formulation, i.e. “possibly necessarily implies necessarily”.

Anyway, this is a pretty good analysis of Plantinga’s argument:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qHkXeT5U-vs

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Martin July 27, 2010 at 1:23 pm

Rob,

If you change the first premise to “if God is . . .”, then this silly argument reduces to “If God exists, then God exists.” Yawn. Russel was right. Anselm’s argument is just bad grammar.

That’s not correct at all. *Necessary* existence is what’s in question here. God is either contingent or necessary. Contingent means you depend on something else for your existence, and so therefore there is something greater than you. Obviously this is not one of God’s qualities. But *necessary* existence would be one of God’s qualities, which means that if he is logically possible, then one of his qualities is necessary existence and hence, he exists.

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John D July 27, 2010 at 1:36 pm

Taranu,

Robin le Poidevin’s book on space and time is pretty good. I read most of it a few years back.

http://www.amazon.com/Travels-Four-Dimensions-Enigmas-Space/dp/0198752555/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1280266410&sr=8-1

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Hermes July 27, 2010 at 1:52 pm

Martin, I don’t see how that contradicts or adds to what others have said.

Specifically;

* Saying that something is necessary doesn’t make it necessary.

* Logical internal consistency doesn’t make something so. An internally logical idea still has to jive with reality to be considered descriptive of reality.

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lukeprog July 27, 2010 at 1:55 pm

Sean Carroll’s ‘From Eternity to Here’ is a good popularizing book for contemporary physics, focusing on time.

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lukeprog July 27, 2010 at 1:56 pm

Gabriel,

In the past I’ve thought I had an answer to that question, but now I think it’s not so easy. I’m not prepared to answer it now.

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Rob July 27, 2010 at 3:09 pm

Martin,

I am talking about the argument as articulated by Taranu. If you wish to formulate it another way, be my guest.

Zeb,

You say:

“in the same way that a unicorn is the conceivable being with a horse’s body and a horn on its forehead”

That to me is just awkward grammar. If you wish to say that a unicorn is an imaginary creature that resembles a horse with a horn, fine.

I agree that I can imagine gods and unicorns. By my imagination ought not be confused with reality. Nor should Anselm’s or Plantinga’s.

An active imagination coupled with awkward grammar is not a solid foundation for an argument.

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Lee A.P. July 27, 2010 at 4:02 pm

“Exactly. There’s all sorts of things they could claim:
1. Satan did it
2. Evil spirits/demons did it
3. God let it happen to ‘test’ our faith
4. God let it happen to ‘weed out’ the undesirables (Calvinism)
5. God didn’t want it to happen, but Satan has power, so it happened (this one is a little tricky, but I’ve hear it all the time)
Just to list off a few examples, all depending on which one would ‘fit’ your specific theological branch (you can’t assume them all true, because then, they’d conflict) ”

This is the basic epistemology of Mike Licona. Lots of supernatural crap exists. The Christian God is the only righteous supernatural crap and all other supernatural crap is Satanic.

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nate July 27, 2010 at 4:31 pm

//But *necessary* existence would be one of God’s qualities, which means that if he is logically possible, then one of his qualities is necessary existence and hence, he exists.//

You’re using two different definitions of “necessary”. God exists necessarily in the sense that he cannot rely anything else for his existence, his existence cannot be contingent on anything; but God does not exist necessarily in the sense that it is logically impossible for God not to exist. Because it is logically possible that God does not exist(If you have an argument for why it’s logically impossible for God not to exist, I’d love to hear it), for God to be realized in this world, his existence must be contingent upon something. Because God’s existence cannot be contingent, God cannot exist in any possible world. Word games are fun.

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Meatros July 28, 2010 at 4:59 am

Good deal Luke!

Um..Do you have a choice in whether it’s available on the kindle or not? Because if you do, then I’d appreciate it being available on that format. :-)

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lukeprog July 28, 2010 at 5:57 am

Meatros,

Thanks for your feedback.

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Brenda July 28, 2010 at 7:09 am

Just wanted to let you know that I read your blog regularly and really appreciate the time and effort you put into it.

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Alex September 14, 2010 at 9:19 pm

You often demand evidence for the existence of objective moral values. What sort of evidence would cause you to accept, say, the claim that life has intrinsic value, as you’ve demanded of Tawa Anderson recently? I’m curious as to what sorts of empirical discoveries could change your mind on this.

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Alex September 14, 2010 at 9:24 pm

You seem to endorse the view (also held by Neil Manson) that the fine-tuning argument assumes that life has intrinsic value. Can you elaborate on how exactly different formulations of the fine-tuning argument (e.g. Bradley Monton’s or Robin Collins’) can be made to fail if you remove this assumption?

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lukeprog September 14, 2010 at 10:07 pm

Alex,

I have no idea, but that’s not my problem. I don’t know what kind of test would empirically lend some credence to various versions of string theory, either, but that’s not my problem. If you want to make a claim, then support it.

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lukeprog September 14, 2010 at 10:08 pm

Alex,

That will come up eventually in my series on the fine-tuning argument. Tell Al Moritz to hurry up and give me a tightly-structured argument that he wishes to defend. :)

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Gabriel September 15, 2010 at 7:47 pm

Hey Luke-

I’m sure you’ve answered this somewhere…

But are you a vegetarian? Why or why not?

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lukeprog September 15, 2010 at 8:56 pm

Gabriel,

I’ll answer quickly:

The answer is no. I like bacon too much. But I want to be vegetarian, or even vegan. This will probably be one of my self-improvement projects in the next few years, but I’m not sure when. Got a lot of other things to take care of first. :)

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Taranu September 30, 2010 at 1:03 am

Luke,
It’s been a while since your last Ask the Atheist post. I hope this series didn’t come to an end because I have some questions I would like you to answer, if that’s ok.

Question 1

You made me curious about Bishop and Trout’s book “Epistemology and the Psychology of Human Judgment” so I started reading it and I just finished chapter 7. Since you read it and liked it so much I thought maybe you could answer a question for me. In chapter 7 section 5, the authors try to show why Strategic Reliabilism is more worthy of belief than any currently available theory of Standard Analytic Epistemology. They attempt to show this by supposing God gave the analytic epistemologist the theory of justification (Theory J) that satisfied all his (the epistemologist’s) desiderata. Than they ask the question whether Theory J and Strategic Reliabilism always agree about which beliefs are justified and proceed by arguing that no matter how the question is answered, Strategic Reliabilism is more worthy of belief than any currently available theory of SAE. They argue this is the case when Strategic Reliabilism is always in agreement with Theory J and when it is only sometimes in agreement with Theory J. But what happens if Strategic Reliabilism is never in agreement with Theory J?

Question 2

Person A’s intuition tells him that life has intrinsic value and apart from this intuition he has no reason to think this is the case. Person B’s single argument against A’s claim is that human intuition has a bad track record, but it doesn’t follow from this that intuitions are always wrong or that A’s particular intuition is wrong. Under these circumstances shouldn’t A take his intuition to be prima facie true?

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Taranu October 21, 2010 at 7:25 am

Question 3

When Christians claim that God raised Jesus from the dead they must also tackle the issue of whether God had the intention of raising Jesus. I would like to know your opinion on the probabilities that can be ascribed to this issue. Are they 50-50 (either God wanted to raise Jesus or God didn’t want to raise Jesus) or are they perhaps inscrutable?

Thank you

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