Monday, August 22, 2016

Sean Carroll, Catholicism, & Unfalsifiable Metaphysics

We interrupt your regularly scheduled quiet time on the Counter Apologist Blog to bring you an actual post!

Lately I've been doing some thinking about apologetic arguments, and that leads me to thinking about metaphysical arguments in general.  Part of this post is to help me document some ideas I’ve had about fundamental issues regarding metaphysical arguments. 

Much of this is triggered by reading posts by Catholic apologists and theologians.  Catholics are unique in that they tend to be Thomists, and so ascribe to a kind of Aristotelian metaphysics that was endorsed by Thomas Aquinas. Aquinas is the official philosopher of the Catholic Church, and much of their theology is based on his work. 

If the name Aquinas rings some bells, it’s because he’s the guy who has the “Five Ways” or rather five arguments that supposedly prove the existence of a god.  One of the most famous of these arguments is one for a “prime mover” or an “unmoved mover”.

The argument itself isn’t really important per-se, it’s actually air tight in terms of premises following to their conclusions.  The issue is the Aristotelian metaphysics it assumes and is based on.  Suffice it to say, if you’re using the kind of neo-Aristotelian metaphysics favored by modern day Thomists, the conclusion readily follows.

What atheists disagree with in terms of the Thomists is the metaphysics they assume.

The problem with metaphysical assumptions, especially ones that try to get to the base of fundamental reality, is that proving or disproving them is either trivially easy or impossible.  The trivial ones are easy to disprove because they assume something we can show not to be the case, and the others are so well crafted so as to be immune to disproof – though that also leaves these principles underdetermined.  We can’t actually prove or disprove these kinds of assumptions.

So it was this tweet by one of my favorite contemporary atheists, Sean Carroll, discussing an objection to his book “The Big Picture: On the Origins of Life, Meaning, and the Universe Itself”.

The objection comes from a writer/apologist named Brandon Vogt who writes at

In the book, it appears (I’ve not yet read the book) that Sean directly goes after the Aristotelian metaphysical assumption that “Everything in motion must be moved by something” and as Brandon helpfully clarifies, by motion he means any change whatsoever. 

Sean points out that the conservation of momentum casts doubt on that assumption, using the example of “objects on frictionless surfaces moving at constant velocity do not need a cause to keep moving”.

Brandon counters that at best this shows we don’t need a sustaining cause to keep an object moving, it wouldn’t show we don’t need an initial cause to start said motion. 

Brandon continues to say that by failing to distinguish between types of causes, Sean misses the point of the argument, and so fails to refute it.

The more I think about it these underlying issues, the more I have to agree that Sean hasn’t, and in fact can’t, disprove Aristotle’s premise.  However at the same time I don’t believe Brandon or anyone else can establish the premise either.  

The assumption of the naturalist is that physical stuff that makes up our universe has always existed. Right now we think the most basic form of physical stuff is what is described by quantum mechanics (QM).  The idea we get from QM is that this “stuff” has and will always operate according to these QM laws.  There is no “cause” of it to have started, and it doesn’t require anything to sustain it either. It just exists and it does its thing.
The theist will disagree with that, but that’s our position. 

A Thomist says that all changes require some kind of cause, which is backed up by our intuitions and our everyday experience.  The problem comes from example that Carroll brings up, and from another famous example, that of radioactive decay.   Eventually radioactive elements will decay. It’s completely random, and as far as we can tell it simply happens. There’s no physical cause of it, not apparently anyway, and the best we can do is predict a range in which the decay will happen (this is the half-life of a radioactive element.

You might think this would disprove the Aristotelean metaphysic, but they will respond that just because our best theory doesn’t show that there is some kind of cause for the decay, it doesn’t mean there isn’t one. Perhaps there’s a better theory out there that will come about once we solve other problems in physics.  

The issue is that while it’s true we can’t definitively say there is “no cause”, it certainly appears as if there isn’t one give our best information and theories.  

So the key metaphysical principle at stake in the argument gets put in this kind of perpetual underdetermined status, never to be resolved. 

Study this stuff long enough and you’ll notice that this is a very common theme for nearly any major topic in metaphysics. Metaphysical principles are relegated to metaphysics, instead of just physics, because the principles themselves are so general and crafted in a way that they can’t in principle be proved or disproven. 

So in the end, atheists will point to things like the conservation of energy or what Sean refers to as the Quantum Eternity Theorem which says either time is infinite or it is not fundamental. Either way, looking at our best description of the physical stuff (ie. quantum mechanics) the physical stuff has “always existed”. 

A theist can counter even that evidence by saying, somewhat like Young Earth Creationists, that god still created the universe a finite time ago and made it look as if it has always existed, but there isn’t evidence of this. 

In the end, the theist holds to their metaphysical principle which is based on our intuitive “every day” experience of how the world works, and the atheist points to findings from science which undermines those intuitions and principles. 

The theist can say that our evidence doesn’t truly undermine their principles, but they can’t exactly prove that we must accept those principles either.  So round and round we go, with neither side able to prove the other wrong, because of the very nature of the question being asked.

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Convincing Theists to Abandon Theism?

This is intended as a conversation piece in response to a rather interesting blog post by philosophical theologian Stephen J. Graham.

Despite being quite very opposed to Stephens views, I really enjoy interacting with him on Twitter.  Most exchanges we have are very respectful and we seem agree on a variety of topics not related to theism.

His blog post really caught my eye since he tries to answer philosopher Anthony Flew's challenge of asking what it would take to abandon theism.

Stephen's answer is quite candid, pointing out he doesn't really know exactly what it is that grounds his theism but never the less he gives two things which could undermine his Christian beliefs:
  1. Showing the concept of god is incoherent.
  2. Conclusive historical evidence of Jesus not existing or the resurrection being a hoax.
Stephen also goes on to describe how a traumatic event in his life could make the problem of gratuitous evil more convincing to him personally, which would undermine his belief in god.  There isn't too much I would say in response to that point, so I'd like to focus on the first two.

Friday, May 13, 2016

Countering the Moral Argument

Note: What follows is the script for my YouTube video on Countering the Moral Argument.  Keep reading below for the transcript!

A much longer Counter to the Moral Argument

Note: This is a much longer version of my "Countering the Moral Argument" video/paper that goes through each objection listed there in far greater detail. 
The moral argument for god’s existence is one of the most common arguments apologists will use in debates with atheists. It also tends to be one of the most misunderstood arguments, which I think contributes to its persistence in sticking around despite having been debunked a long time ago.

This paper will focus on two objectives.

1.       The primary goal is showing the Moral Argument is false.

2.       Showing inherent problems with the theistic moral system that underlies the moral argument.

Note why these are two separate goals, because one can show that the moral argument is false, but still hold to a theistic ethical system.

I’d like to start by presenting the argument as it is commonly defended by popular apologists like William Lane Craig:

1.)    If god does not exist, then objective moral values do not exist.

2.)    Objective moral values exist.

3.)    Therefore god exists.

First off let’s get the easy caveats out of the way. The argument does not say that:

     Atheists can’t act morally

     Atheists can’t tell the difference between right and wrong.

Here’s what the argument does try and say:

1.       Atheists do not have a basis for an objective morality on their worldview.

The argument alleges that atheists are somehow being inconsistent by not believing in a god while still believing that morality can be objective.

Now that we’ve established what the moral argument is trying to do, let’s get started with identifying exactly what apologists mean when they use this argument.

Thursday, February 18, 2016

Apprehensions about attending a Unitarian Universalist church

This is a bit of a personal note, but I figured that I could use an outlet for my angst and that others may find these thoughts useful.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Yes, even a "Redemptive Hell" is the work of a Tyrant

This is another post that is the outcome of a Twitter exchange, so I'm going to have to provide some background if anyone is reading this didn't follow said exchange.

After a Twitter discussion with Randal Rauser the other day, I had exclaimed that I would prefer it if my suffering happened for "no reason" rather than for a "redemptive reason".   My justification for this view is that I'd prefer it if my life were not the plaything of some divine tyrant.

This lead to a further exchange.  My justification for calling the Christian conception of god a divine tyrant is as follows:

1.) This god allows for suffering, and Christians believe he has morally justifiable reasons to allow this suffering.
2.) These Christians also believe that a hell of some sort exists.
3.) Therefore, these Christians believe that the suffering of those in hell has a morally justifiable reason for it being permitted.

Randal, being the progressive Christian that he is, rejects the idea of a purely retributive hell and so thinks that in doing so he avoids my objection that the Christian conception of god is a divine tyrant.

I replied that any kind of a hell, even a temporary or finite one, is going to be relevant for my objection that any conception of a god that includes a hell will be one where that god is a tyrant.  Randal in turn wanted to know what my objections were against a "redemptive hell", and so we get to this post.

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Saying Goodbye to Reasonable Doubts

It was at least a few months ago that I learned that the Reasonable Doubts podcast would no longer be continuing. Then yesterday I learned that the four brilliant members of the cast were recording a proper final episode for the show.

When I first heard the podcast was ending, I immediately went on a donwloading spree through their archives so that I'd always have them.  The podcast is immensely special to me, and I wanted to write up why.

I've wrote up my Deconversion story years ago at this point, but that was just the beginning of my journey in atheism.  If you know my story, you know I tried to go back into the faith after initially becoming an atheist. That project failed pretty horribly, and afterwards I was existentially a mess.

Christian apologetics was my first real exposure to any kind of serious philosophy, at least in a way I was motivated to give the time of day to.  When I first became an atheist I was a bit of an emotional wreck, and I think part of that was giving up the implicit philosophy I had just absorbed via osmosis growing up in a Evangelical Christian culture bubble.

My personal life was also starting to take a downward turn. My wife and I were starting to have the strain of my non-belief and her still holding onto some form of Christianity be a (luckily short-lived) issue for our marriage. Not long after that, we were told by my wifes doctors that we probably weren't going to be able to have children.

To cope with that, we decided to get a dog. Through some friends at work my wife and I ended up with two rather large dogs. Not exactly the plan we had in mind, but we fell in love with the two of them.

We still lived in a rather small townhouse and the dogs were used to a bigger yard. As such they needed long walks for exercise.  It also was barely a week into getting the dogs that my wife found out she was pregnant with our daughter.

This lead to my being the one to walk both dogs to give them their exercise multiple times a day.  It was at this point that I found Reasonable Doubts.

I remember going on podcast-long walks with the dogs, soaking in nuanced atheistic philosophy and answers to apologetics.

It wasn't long before I was downloading their entire backlog to listen to a new episode, and my listening expanded from dog walks to trips to the gym and snippets at work.

The podcast was like an existential life line for me, acting as a sort of ground wire for what I was dealing with.

When your whole worldview is up-ended, you're left with a lot of open questions. Reasonable Doubts either provided me with answers, or at least equipped me with the clues I needed to be able to do my own research to establish viewpoints on things like philosophy of mind, morality, free will, and a host of other topics.

I appreciated each doubtcaster.  Jeremy and Justin were there for what really engaged me, counter apologetics and philosophy of religion.  Luke was able to tie issues in philosophy to explanations via psychology that both made a lot of sense and de-mystified a lot.  And finally there was Dave who not only made me laugh with his poly-atheism segment each episode, but he was also the voice who would ask the right questions when the other guys got a bit too technical.

Eventually my addiction to the podcast necessarily tapered off. I had consumed their backlog and was just listening to new episodes. The group would go through periods where they were having a hard time recording consistently, which is eminently understandable.  I eventually had a newborn daughter to take care of, and the long-walks had tapered off since the dogs didn't mesh well with her (fortunately their previous owner regretted having to give them up and so they went back to a happy home).

To be honest the show kindled a then new found love of philosophy in me that I didn't have before I deconverted.  They were the direct inspiration I had to start this project of a blog and YouTube channel. Eventually I was able to converse with most of the doubtcasters either via email or Twitter, and I'm personally very glad to have listened and spoken with them.

I'm really looking forward to hearing their last episode when it's released.  I'm also happy to know that they each have other projects in the works.  I know Justin has recently launched his own YouTube channel which has been fantastic thus far. I look forward to hearing what Jeremy, Luke, and Dave have planned and will post up about it when I find it out.

I just wanted to end with a heartfelt Thank You to the Doutcasters. You gave a lot of time and effort to make a wonderful program, and it personally meant a lot to me.  I wish nothing but success and happiness for each of you.