bookmark_borderAtheism and intelligence

There’s some research out there concerning correlations between intelligence as psychometricians understand it and atheism. I’ve come across (thanks to Prem Dhanesh) another example: “Average intelligence predicts atheism rates across 137 nations,” by Richard Lynn, John Harvey and Helmuth Nyborg. The abstract:

Evidence is reviewed pointing to a negative relationship between intelligence and religious belief in the United States and Europe. It is shown that intelligence measured as psychometric g is negatively related to religious belief. We also examine whether this negative relationship between intelligence and religious belief is present between nations. We find that in a sample of 137 countries the correlation between national IQ and disbelief in God is 0.60.


One way to think of this sort of research is as confirmation of the prejudice of nonbelievers that being smart works against believing in fairy tales. Still, some caveats apply, aside from the obvious one that this is just one study that I’ve happened upon, and that as a non-psychologist, I am not in any position to tell whether this research is good or not. One important point, for example, is that, as Keith Stanovich points out in his excellent What Intelligence Tests Miss: The Psychology of Rational Thought, intelligence and rationality can be associated with very different skills. Psychometric intelligence is, I am inclined to think, oversold and overrated.

So I think I’ll let research like this increase my SQ (smugness quotient) a bit. But not too much, especially if I remember what a complete idiot I’m also capable of making myself.

bookmark_borderThe Trilemma Argument – A Preliminary Evaluation

I have been mostly defending the Trilemma argument against various objections for the past few weeks, so I have not spent much time thinking about how to refute it. I reject the conclusion, of course, on the basis of various other reasons unrelated to the Trilemma.

God, as understood in Western theism, is an all-knowing, all-powerful, perfectly good person, and Jesus was none of those things:

God is, by definition, a perfectly good person.
Jesus was not a perfectly good person.
Jesus was not God.

God is, by definition, all-knowing.
Jesus was not all-knowing.
Jesus was not God.

God is, by definition, all-powerful.
Jesus was not all-powerful.
Jesus was not God.

I’m not going to argue here for the factual premises, but I feel confident that those premises are true and that I could make a good case for each of those premises.

For these and other reasons, I do not accept the conclusion of the Trilemma. But the fact that there are strong counterarguments to the conclusion of the Trilemma does not demonstrate that the Trilemma is a bad argument, and it certainly does not show how or why the Trilemma argument goes wrong.

Here is my preliminary evaluation of the Trilemma:

The Trilemma is a valid deductive argument; the logic, as I have interpreted the argument, is good. But there are problems with at least some of the premises:

Premise (1) is probably false.
Premise (2) is true (or true for the most part).
Premise (3) is true (or true for the most part).
Premise (4) is probably true.
Premise (5) is probably true.

Given this assessment of the premises, the argument fails, because premise (1) is probably false (I am building a case against this premise on my own blog). However, whenever possible, I like to present believers with an objection in the form of a dilemma, in order to broaden the scope of the attack on an apologetic argument, and to make it more difficult for the believer to dismiss my objection. This sort of move can be made with the Trilemma.

Premise (1) is probably false, and I would argue strenuously for this objection. If my analysis of the evidence is correct, then the Trilemma is a bad argument. But what if, despite my best effort to accurately assess (1), I am mistaken, and McDowell is correct concerning this issue? Suppose that Jesus did claim to literally be the God of Western theism. If was persuaded that this was the case, then I would change my view on the probability of the truth of premises (4) and (5).

Probability assessments are made on the basis of background information. If my assumption about what Jesus did or did not claim about himself changes, then that would be a legitimate basis for changing my assessment of the probability of (4) and (5). If Jesus really did claim to be God, in the sense of literally being the God of Western theism, then it seems probable that either (4) or (5) would be false.

I don’t know of any solid reason to believe that Jesus was mentally ill or a liar, and furthermore, as a matter of fairness, I would presume him to be innocent until proved guilty (either of being mentally ill or of being a liar), but if we reason hypothetically and suppose that Jesus claimed to literally be the God of Western theism, then the game has changed and we would then have a good reason to believe that we were dealing with either a liar or a mentally ill person.

Most people are sane and most people are generally honest, but people who go around claiming to literally be the God of Western theism are not most people. Once premise (1) is granted, all bets are off on Jesus’ sanity and honesty. The presumption of innocence is overturned by this supposition, and the burden of proof shifts to McDowell (and to anyone who would defend the Trilemma) to show that, contrary to appearances, Jesus was actually sane and honest.

Now there is evidence in the New Testament to support the sanity and honesty of Jesus. So, there would be no decisive refutation of the Trilemma on this second horn of the dilemma. However, the information that we have about Jesus is sketchy and questionable, so no claim about the mental health or honesty of Jesus can be shown to be more than probable at best.

One of the most solid claims that can be made about the historical Jesus is that he often taught or preached using parables about the Kingdom of God, but even that is not known for certain. That claim might reach a probability of .9 (9 chances in 10), but most specific claims about the historical Jesus cannot be shown to be that probable. So the claim that Jesus was not mentally ill might be shown to be probable in the range of .8 to .9 (8 or 9 chances out of 10), setting aside the supposition that he claimed to literally be the God of Western theism. The claim that Jesus was not a liar might be shown to be probable to a similar degree, again setting aside the supposition that Jesus claimed to literally be the God of Western theism.

When we add into the mix the supposition that Jesus claimed to literally be the God of Western theism, then the probabilities of (4) and (5) drop significantly. I would say the probability that Jesus was not mentally ill could not be any higher than about .7 to .8 at best, given this additional information. Similarly the probability that Jesus was not a liar would be significantly reduced.

All it takes is for one of these premises to be false and the argument fails. Both (4) and (5) must be true for the argument to succeed. So, the best that the Trilemma can do, even granting the highly dubious assumption that Jesus claimed to be God (in the sense of literally being the God of Western theism), is to give the conclusion a probability of approximately .5 to .6 (.7 x .7 = .49 and .8 x .8 = .64).

So, if my evaluation of premise (1) is correct, then the argument is clearly no good and must be rejected, on the other hand, if my evaluation of premise (1) is wrong, the most that could be derived from the Trilemma (best case) is to make the conclusion somewhat more likely than not.

Furthermore, this best-case probability would not take into account the powerful counterarguments mentioned in the opening of this post, so the all-things-considered probability would end up somewhere significantly south of .5, unless additional reasons equally as weighty as the skeptical arguments above could be produced to counteract them.

bookmark_borderQuantum Gods

Vic Stenger’s latest book, Quantum Gods: Creation, Chaos, and the Search for Cosmic Consciousness is about to come out. Here is the blurb I wrote for it:

Physics has developed a reputation of providing support for all sorts of supernatural beliefs, from old-fashioned religions to New Age ideas. Quantum physics, especially, seems to mean “magic” for too many people. Most of us in physics treat all this as an annoyance and go on with our teaching and research. This is all the more reason to grateful for the work of Victor Stenger, who is one of the best for diligently separating real physics from popular misconceptions. In Quantum Gods, Stenger combines a lucid, nonmathematical explanation of fundamental ideas of physics with a uncompromising argument showing how pressing physics into the service of either New Age or theistic religious beliefs invariably distorts our understanding of the universe. Everyone interested in debates over physics and the supernatural should read this book.

New Scientist already has a review out.

bookmark_borderEndorsing the compatibility of science and religion

One of the science and religion related debates online that caught my eye lately is aired by people such as the biologist Jerry Coyne and philosopher Russell Blackford, on their blogs.

They argue that in their zeal to defend evolution education, many American scientific organizations, from the National Academy of Sciences to the National Center for Science Education, have endorsed what amounts to a liberal theological doctrine concerning the compatibility of science and supernatural religion. Indeed, they do so with an explicit concern to reassure the public that science is not associated with dirty ideas such as atheism. Given that natural science is notoriously an area where nonbelievers are overrepresented, this is odd. Indeed, some of those nonbelieving scientists who expect to be represented by scientific organizations naturally feel put up upon by all this.

This isn’t anything new. I think Coyne and Blackford are correct, and obviously so. I’ve written about this in one of my books, Science and Nonbelief. But I also think Coyne and Blackford downplay the political rationale behind endorsements of compatibility. The arguments endorsed by NAS, AAAS, NCSE and so forth are bullshit. But the protective coloration provided by the bullshit (especially if sincerely believed, as it almost always is) may well be vital in order to defend the institutional interests of science in highly religious environments.

Now, whether compatibilist bullshit is good strategy is certainly debatable. Some point out that American scientific organizations have endorsed compatibilism for many decades now. But creationism, New Age physics-abuse, and other spiritually-flavored antiscientific convictions are as strong as ever. So saying that science does not threaten religion in a louder and louder voice does not seem to be a winning strategy. Maybe. But it is hard to judge the effectiveness of a strategy this way. Perhaps without scientific organizations trying to accommodate religion, public attitudes toward science would be even worse. Perhaps holding the line against the fundamentalists by supporting liberal religion is the best that one can expect. Perhaps what scientific organizations do is largely irrelevant. My view is that science has very little influence on religiosity, but religion can affect politics and therefore funding levels, so protective coloration is probably prudent.

So, personally, I support NCSE all the way, including what strikes me in more intellectual contexts as bullshit. As far as I’m concerned, they’re the ones in the trenches, the ones with the expertise. Their political judgment about the best way to defend the interests of science and science education is worth a hell of a lot more than my judgment.

I think I can find some support for the political virtues of compatibilism from my experience with debates on science and religion in Islam. For example, Last month BBC radio 4 ran a series of programs on Islam and Science. They included brief snippets from an interview with me, among lots of others. Indeed, I know many of the others interviewed, or know their work. Some of these scientists are (what a surprise) nonbelievers. Some are devout Muslims. But there was a curious asymmetry in the views we voiced. The skeptics, myself included, were careful not to offend religious sensibilities. We expressed hope that in times of religious change, more liberal forms of religiosity may come to prevail. Indeed, we were careful not to give too many clues about our lack of faith. The devout scientists, on the other hand, waxed eloquent about how Islam and science were inseparable, and how the Quran demanded and inspired scientific investigation. One warned about the dangers of science being associated with atheism, and said that emphasizing how science and religion were compatible and indeed mutually supportive was important for improving popular Muslim attitudes toward science.

All of this happy-talk about the compatibility of traditional Islam and modern science is bullshit. I’ve spent too much time with too many varieties of Islamic apologetics concerning science and religion, and I think I can safely say it’s unimpressive unless you already have faith. And yet, politically speaking, I see few other options. Among many Muslims today, religion is such a force that any institution perceived as holding itself aloof from religion, never mind in opposition, is bound to suffer. If you want to legitimate any political view, even a degree of secularism, you have to present it as being Islamic. Otherwise your cause is hopeless. This is also true for the cause of science. If you want to build support for the institutions of science and science education, you have to present this as not just compatible with faith but a demand of Islam.

As someone who is both severely unimpressed with almost all varieties of Islam and who identifies with the institutional interests of science, I see little option other than to do what I’m doing. I’ll be as skeptical as I please in my books, articles, and blog posts. Very few actually read them, and even less care about what I say, so the damage I can do by being honest is very limited. But if my political hopes for science are to be realized, the only feasible way I can see is for more liberal forms of religiosity to provide a buffer zone. I want superficial, bullshit varieties of compatibilism to become the conventional wisdom.

bookmark_borderAgainst sharia

I am politically in agreement with such anti-sharia activism. But I am also troubled by the way that we, when defending liberal secular Western individualist policies, we so rarely acknowledge the burdens such a regime places on devoutly religious people.

We may defend our views in the name of minimizing harm, but we inescapably also do harm, and we cause pain. I just wish we could oppose sharia without the liberal fantasy of a world free of coercion and conflicts of interests. Interests rooted in religion are real interests for all their superstitious qualities.

bookmark_borderOn Civility

I note that one topic that often pops up in various postings and comments here and elsewhere is the issue of civility. A writer will fequently charge another with incivility, and there will be a riposte charging hypocrisy, since, after all, the first writer has occasionally vented…and so on. Of course, discussions of religion and irreligion tap into deep passions, and philosophical debate always risks bruised egos. So, small wonder that our missives occasionally get heated. Also, of course, there is the nature of the medium. People tend to be much ruder online than they would ever be face to face. On the other hand, I don’t think that blog postings and comments need to be as staid and prim as, for instance, articles in refereed journals. Remarks with a bit of a bite are fun to write and fun to read, and unquestionably one reason we blog is for the entertainment value. Still, too much heat does obscure the light, and gratuitous rudeness is not excusable in any medium. So, what sorts of rules of civility should we respect in our postings and comments? I suggest the following:

1) Start by being nice. Realize that someone who disagrees with you is another mere mortal, trying to make it through this vale of tears as well as he /she can, and that, given the severe limitations imposed on human cognitive capacities, might well have reached, rationally and in good faith, a conclusion opposite yours. So, try, at least initially, to express your disgreements firmly but politely.

2) Ignore most rudeness. Darwin observed that a big dog will scornfully ignore the snarling of a little dog. Be a big dog. Let the little dogs snarl and yap. You have better things to do than to get into a contest of bandying insults with boors.

3) If someone is persistently and gratuitiously rude and nasty, and you’re fed up, and you are not afraid to get into the proverbial pissing contest with the skunk, then go ahead. Let him have it if you feel like it. One of the best ways to let them have it is to point out their gratuitous rudeness, and this will sometimes shame them into silence. On the other hand, the really hard cases–like some of the various online “apologists” who have made a career out of scurrility–are incapable of shame. With these guys, no one can rightly charge you with incivility if you pay them back in kind since, after all, that is the coinage they themselves have chosen to exchange.

bookmark_borderDallas Willard on the “Absurdity” of a Self-Sufficient Physical Universe

This is a longish post, but I would appreciate comments from those who have the patience to work through it. BTW, job responsibilities prevent me from getting into an endless loop of replies and counter-replies with respondents, so, if I fail to respond to all your messages, please do not feel that I am ignoring you or not appreciative of the feedback. The quotes from Willard are from Contemporary Perspectives on Religious Epistemology, edited by R. Douglas Geivett and Brendan Sweetman, OUP, 1992. The quote from Le Poidevin is from his Arguing for Atheism, Routledge, 1996.

Christian philosopher Dallas Willard ridicules atheists for their purported attachment to what he calls “big bang mysticism,” that puts the big bang in the position of God as the creator ex nihilo (Willard, 1992, p. 215). He then claims to offer a demonstration of the existence of something that is self-existent and nonphysical and is required by the existence of any physical event (213).

Consider any particular event in the physical cosmos, say the Voyager II spacecraft’s journey beyond Neptune’s moon Triton. The chain of causes leading to this event will stretch back into the distant past, but cannot go on ad infinitum and must ultimately end with an uncaused cause, something which does not derive its existence from something else:

“If this were not so, Voyager’s passing Triton, or any other physical event or state, could not be realized, since that would require the actual completion of an infinite, an incompleteable series of events. In simplest terms its series of causes would never ‘get to’ it. (As in a line of dominoes, if there is an infinite number of dominoes that must fall before domino x is struck, it will never be struck. The line of fallings will never get to it). Since Voyager II is past Triton, there is a state of being upon which that state depends but which itself depends on nothing prior to it. Thus, concrete physical reality implicates a being radically different from itself: being which, unlike any physical state, is self-existent…It is demonstrably absurd that there should be a self-sufficient physical universe (213-214).”

Willard therefore believes that he has proven that the postulation of a self-sufficient physical universe is wrong, indeed, absurd, and that there must exist a nonphysical, self-existent being.

But if we define “self-existent” as Willard does, as something that does not derive its existence from something else, then why cannot the physical universe itself, or at least its primordial state, be the self-existent entity? Where is the purported absurdity? The specific nature of physical things, Willard tells us, is to be dependent (and, therefore, not self-existent) (215). What justifies this assertion? Here is what Willard says:

“There are, after all, general laws about how every type of physical state comes about. If we keep clearly before our minds that any “something” which comes into existence (including a however big ‘bang’) will always be a completely specific type of thing, then we will see that for that ‘something’ to originate from nothing would be to violate the system of laws which governs the origination of things of its type. To suppose that an apple, for example, could come into existence without any prior states upon which it depends for its existence, is to simply reject all the laws we know to hold true of apple production. They are no longer laws. And it is not a matter of finding further conditions under which apple-laws apply, for the hypothesis is one of no conditions whatsoever (216).”

But Willard here is not merely comparing apples to oranges, but apples to universes. If someone says that an apple exists uncaused, this would be absurd. Why? Because we are familiar with apples and the causes and regularities that account for their production. We have a good understanding of the botanical facts underlying apple generation as well and the chemical laws and processes that underlie those facts. We never experience apples materializing out of empty space, or, indeed, coming about in any other way than by growing on apple trees. Our common-sense expectations about things (like apples) coming into or going out of existence are based entirely upon our experience within the space/time universe with all its conservation and causal laws in force. What about the origin of the space/time universe itself? We know what to expect given the laws of nature, but what about the origin of those laws themselves? Willard complains (215) that current discussions of the big bang treat it as different from any other bang we know about. Well it was. An ordinary explosion involves a rapid expansion of material into the surrounding space, space that is already there. The big bang was not an expansion into anything, but the primordial eruption of space itself. There is a time before and after an ordinary explosion. There is a time after the big bang, but none before; it was the beginning of time. If the physics of the 20th Century has taught us anything, it is that our common-sense intuitions need not—indeed, will not—apply in many of the extreme situations (like the origin of the universe) that can, nevertheless, be coherently conceptualized by physical theory. Personally, I have no intuitions at all about the origin of space-time, and if I did I would not trust them.

Still, says Willard, even if we set aside our intuitions, we have no experience at all of a physical state or event coming into existence uncaused and “from nothing,” therefore, the probability that this will occur, relative to our data, is zero (216). He sarcastically dismisses the idea that a physical event or state can exist uncaused and “from nothing”:

“And if anyone has observed such a thing, I am sure that our leading scientific journals and societies would like very much to hear about it. In fact, the idea is an entirely ad hoc hypothesis whose only ‘merit’ is the avoidance is avoidance of admission of a self-existent being—which it achieves precisely by claiming an entity of a type which in every other case is admitted to be dependent; to be, ‘just this once,’ itself self-subsistent (216).”

Three things should be said in reply:

First, if, in fact, the probability relative to the data that something physical could exist uncaused and “from nothing” is zero, precisely the same has to be said about our evidence on data about a nonphysical, self-existent being bringing physical events or states into existence. I doubt that our leading scientific journals and societies would very much like to hear about the creative activities of alleged nonphysical entities. Thanks to the puerile fantasies of creationists and paranormalists, we have all heard such tales too many times before. Where are the data about nonphysical entities (self-existent or not)—ghosts, spirits, demons, angels, cherubim, seraphim, jinn, Manitou, gods, etc.—causing physical events or occurrences? Willard sententiously advises us to keep an open mind about the possibility of such events, but possibility is not reality, and the burden of proof is on him. By the way, when it comes to direct observational evidence about the origin of universes, atheists weren’t there, but neither were theists, so when it comes to such evidence we all have the same amount: zero.

Second, Willard tells us that the postulation of a physical uncaused cause of the universe would violate “…the system of laws which governs the origination of things of its type (216).” But what type of thing was the big bang and what antecedent “system of laws” governed its origination? Again, Willard fails to appreciate the distinct kinds of problems faced by a putative account of the origin of everything, including the laws of nature themselves. As Robin Le Poidevin notes, where we have no laws, we can have no causes:

< blockquote class="tr_bq">“A world in which there can be causal explanation is not a chaotic world; it is a world tightly constrained by the laws of nature. Causal generalizations are simply reflections of these laws; that is, they are true because of the existence of fundamental laws. Causal, explanation, then, takes place against a background of laws. But when we come to the explanation of the universe as a whole, part of what we are required to explain is the existence of the laws themselves. We cannot therefore help ourselves to any laws in order to explain the existence of the universe. Consequently, the explanation of the universe cannot take place against a background of laws. But, since causal explanation requires such a background, there can be no causal explanation of the universe (Le Poidevin, 37).”

Of course, some cosmologists do propose explanations of the big bang in terms of more fundamental entities and processes: fluctuations in a quantum vacuum, superstrings, the collision of “branes,” or whatever, but these explanations invoke other physical entities and other natural laws, which are in turn left unexplained.

Perhaps Willard would object that Le Poidevin begs the question. Of course physical causation needs laws, but the theist postulates supernatural causation: God just says “FIAT LUX!” and there is light! God’s creative act is a supernatural “basic action” that admits of no further explication; the only “law” operative here is that if God wills it, it happens. But in shedding dependence on physical law, such purported supernatural causation also sheds intelligibility. Willard’s causal “account” now appears to be that the universe came into existence when a timeless, nonphysical being wielding miraculous, occult powers in an inscrutable and incomprehensible manner—and for reasons we can only dimly grasp—willed (timelessly) the universe into being. Precisely how is such a causal “account” rationally superior to seeing the primordial state of the universe as uncaused?

Third, and finally, much of the apparent power of Willard’s case is merely rhetorical, arising from the seeming absurdity of saying that something could come from nothing. He adverts again and again to alleged assertions by atheists that the universe came “from nothing.” If this is what atheists are saying, then they look silly because we all supposedly know that ex nihilo nihil fit. Willard quotes the editors of the Time-Life book The Cosmos who say that the universe “popped out of the void (216).” Isn’t it simply absurd to think that a whole universe could just spontaneously “pop” out of nothingness? But if by “nothing” we mean literally nothing at all—not even empty space or the vacuum state that physicists talk about, but literally nothing at all—then the statement “out of nothing comes nothing” derives its apparent force from bad grammar. To say that the universe came into existence “from nothing,” seems to be saying that there once was a something—which we call by the name of “nothing”—that existed prior to the universe and from which the universe was somehow generated. But “nothing,” in the sense of nothing at all, does not name or refer to anything, not even emptiness. If we mean “nothing” in this sense, then there was no “nothing” for the universe to “pop” out of. If there is no “nothing,” then there is no question of how something could have come out of that “nothing.” Only those who illicitly reify nothing, turning it into a mysterious something, will be troubled by the pseudo-mystery of how that “nothing” could have generated the universe. If atheists carefully refuse to reify “nothing,” and insist that all that they are saying is that there wasn’t anything at all prior to or preceding the universe, then they can simply defy Willard to show any absurdity in their statement.

The upshot is that big bang cosmology makes atheism more plausible by showing how the origin of the universe can be explained in purely scientific, naturalistic terms, and the efforts of theists such as Willard to show that these accounts must be inadequate appear to be wasted.

bookmark_borderInterpretation of McDowell’s Trilemma

I summarize the premises of the Trilmma argument in Evidence that Demands a Verdict as follows:

1. Jesus claimed to be God.
2. If Jesus claimed to be God, and Jesus was not God, and Jesus knew that he was not God, then Jesus was a liar.
3. If Jesus claimed to be God, and Jesus was not God, and Jesus did not know that he was not God, then Jesus was mentally ill.
4. It is not the case that Jesus was a liar.
5. It is not the case that Jesus was mentally ill.

The conclusion of McDowell’s Trilemma argument is deceptively simple:

6. Jesus was God.

I use the past tense here instead of present tense for a couple of reasons. First, the basic factual premise upon which this conclusion is based is stated in the past tense: “Jesus claimed to be God.” Second, if the conclusion were stated as “Jesus is God” that would imply that Jesus is still alive or in existence, but the argument does not specifically deal with Jesus’ alleged resurrection. So, this seems to be a stronger claim than what the argument is intended to prove.

I suppose if one could prove that Jesus was God at some point in time about 2,000 years ago, one could go on to argue that Jesus must still exist, since God is, by definition, eternal and immortal. But McDowell does not present any such reasoning, so I think it best to limit the conclusion to the narrower claim about the historical Jesus.

What did McDowell mean by this conclusion? What does the word “God” mean in (6) and in premise (1)? Does McDowell mean that Jesus was “a god”? Does he mean that Jesus had developed a close spiritual relationship with the personal God of Western theism? Does he mean that Jesus had achieved mystical union with the Absolute, with the divine as understood by Eastern mysticism? I don’t think McDowell had any of these ideas in mind when asserting the conclusion of the Trilemma. I think he intended something like this:

(6a) The historical Jesus was literally the personal God of Western theism.

If this interpretation of (6) is correct, then premise (1) should be interpreted similarly, in order for the argument to be logically valid (to avoid the logical error of equivocation):

(1a) The historical Jesus claimed to be God (meaning that he was literally the personal God of Western theism).

That this is what McDowell had in mind can be seen most clearly in his short book, More than a Carpenter (hereafter:MTC). The Trilemma argument is presented in Chapter 2 of MTC. In Chapter 1, McDowell argues that Jesus claimed to be God, premise (1) of the Trilemma. So, we can see what McDowell had in mind by (1) and (6) based on comments he makes in Chapter 1 of MTC. Here are some key points from that Chapter:

· Jesus ‘ claim to be God distinguishes him from all other major religious leaders, including Buddha. (p.10)
· Jesus claims about himself described him as being “more than just a prophet or teacher.” (p.10)
· The word “God” in this context means the “inifinite and perfect spirit in whom all things have their source, support, and end”. (p.10)
· In Western theism, “God is personal and…the universe was planned and created by him”. (p.10-11)

Since Buddha claimed to have achieved a connection or oneness with the Absolute, as understood in Eastern religion and mysticism, and since McDowell asserts that Jesus’ claim to be God distinguishes Jesus from Buddha, we can reasonably set aside the interpretation that Jesus was claiming to have achieved a connection or oneness with the Absolute, as understood in Eastern religion and mysticism; this is not the claim that McDowell is making in the conclusion of the Trilemma.

Furthermore, we can set aside the interpretation that Jesus was merely claiming to have achieved a close relationship with the God of Western theism, because according to McDowell, Jesus’ claim identifies him as being “more than just a prophet or teacher”. A prophet claims to have a very close relationship with God, one in which God communicates advice and wisdom clearly and directly to the prophet, unlike how God relates to ordinary believers. Jesus, according to McDowell, is making a stronger claim than that.

Because McDowell clarifies the meaning of the word “God” in the context of clarifying the meaning the claim that Jesus was God, it is clear that the meaning he spells out is intended to clarify what the word “God” means in the conclusion of the Trilemma argument and also in premise (1).

By “God” McDowell means the “infinite spirit in whom all things have their source, support, and end” and who “planned and created” the universe. Thus, the conclusion of the Trilemma should be understood as implying that Jesus is the infinite spirit in whom all things have their source, support, and end, and the personal being who planned and created the universe. This meaning is captured by my paraphrase of the conclusion:

(6a) The historical Jesus was literally the personal God of Western theism.

Western theism, as McDowell correctly points out, posits the existence of a personal being who planned and created the universe.

One final bit of evidence provides additional support for this interpretation of the Trilemma. In Chapter 1 of MTC, McDowell comments that the scriptures attribute characteristics to Jesus that belong only to God, and in listing some of the attributes, McDowell also clarifies what he means by the word “God” in the context of the Trilemma:

The Scriptures attribute characteristics to him [Jesus] that can be true only of God. Jesus is presented as self-existent…omnipresent…omniscient… [and] omnipotent… (p.11)

These characteristics constitute standard conditions that philosophers often use to define the word “God” in terms of Western theism. McDowell could hardly be any clearer than this, implying that the concepts commonly used to define the word “God” apply to Jesus. Any person who is self-existent, omnipresent, omniscient, and omnipotent can honestly and correctly claim to literally be the personal God of Western theism.

Based on McDowell’s comments in Chapter 1 of MTC, a Chapter that focuses on establishing the key premise of the Trilemma (i.e. “Jesus claimed to be God.”), a Chapter that immediately precedes a Chapter that lays out the Trilemma argument, it is clear what the word “God” means in the Trilemma argument, and it is clear that my proposed interpretation of the conclusion is in keeping with the intended meaning and purpose of the argument.

Because the conclusion makes this strong claim about Jesus, the first premise should be interpreted similarly, otherwise the argument would commit the fallacy of equivocation, and the argument would be dead on arrival.

The basic idea of the Trilemma is that Jesus claimed something about himself, and that we are forced to conclude that this claim is true. The conclusion of the Trilemma is that Jesus was literally the God of Western theism, so the claim made by Jesus about himself has to be the same or an equivalent claim:

(1a) The historical Jesus claimed to be God (meaning that he was literally the personal God of Western theism).

If (6a) correctly interprets the meaning of the conclusion of the Trilemma, then (1a) is the best interpretation of the first premise.


Secularisms, edited by Janet Jakobsen and Ann Pellegrini, is a half-good book. The good parts contain a lot of valuable information about varieties of secularism worldwide and their problems. The bad parts, including the introduction by the editors, are overcooked postmodern drivel. It’s a wonder I didn’t give up on the book after a few pages of posturing about “the Other,” or “alterity,” or, well, you know.

Short summary: Many forms are secularism are in trouble now. According to some cutting-edge social thought, it damn well ought to be in trouble, since secularism is not properly neutral but often an imposition that restricts the full citizenship of religious people. There’s more than a grain of truth here, postmodern nonsense aside.

bookmark_borderAtheists have no ultimate explanation

“Atheists have no ultimate explanation for how the universe is. They have to leave it as a random occurrence.”

There’s another common charge laid against the godless. And for naturalists, the accusation rings true. This need not, however, be a weakness.

The ultimate explanations of traditional theism do not work. They all come down to “God did it.” There is nothing intrinsically wrong with such a claim; if we had some independent idea of divine intentions or if we found a pattern of observations best explained by intelligent design, it could even help us make sense of the kind of universe we inhabit. But this is not how things stand. There are conservative ways of saying “God did it,” but they invariably make false claims. For example, assertions that God acted in history, or that living things show evidence for intelligent design rather than evolution. Sometimes “God did it” is a complete non-explanation, as with claims that the universe is fine-tuned for life and that this indicates intelligent design. It adds nothing new to our knowledge, saying only that a certain puzzle is solved by invoking The Solver Of All Puzzles. Then there are more liberal approaches, which usually translate as “God may well have done it, so we’ll take it as God did it.” These are annoyances, not arguments.

Still, naturalists also end our explanations somewhere, even if we dislike stopping at the Explainer Of All Things. Sometimes explanations stop when we say we have no idea, and don’t think anyone else has either. Sometimes we can speculate, or issue promissory notes about naturalistic solutions to a puzzle. Since the history of science has plenty of failed research programs as well as successes, some of these promissory notes will turn out to be less than what we first advertised. (Behaviorism comes to mind.) But then, all we can do is remind ourselves that we are fallible, and move on to the current best prospect for making cognitive progress, if there is any.

Sometimes we admit that things are confusing. The nature of dark energy, for example, is a head-scratcher. Knowing more about the universe—that there is such a thing as dark energy—has in some respects made cosmologists feel that they know less about the universe rather than more. If we include dark matter, we do not even know what over 95% of our universe is.

Sometimes we bite the bullet and say yes, it looks like certain things are indeed random. Modern physics is full of examples. And in such cases, we have good reasons (though never infallible reasons) to invoke randomness. I like to argue that today, a science-minded nonbeliever has to take randomness very seriously, making it a centerpiece of how they describe the world. Intelligent design proponents regularly accuse scientists of relying on a “chance of the gaps.” But there is a difference. Randomness is where pattern-finding comes to an end. A God of the gaps, in contrast, is an illegitimate extension of anthropomorphism. It brings in divine purposes without an adequate demonstration of a particular pattern that might be a signature of an intelligent agent.

There are lots of mysteries. Given our limitations, and especially how we will almost certainly always will be in a position of extrapolating from a finite amount of information, naturalists especially are aware of how we have to live with uncertainty. We are skeptical, however, of attempts to convert mystery into Mystery with a supernatural valence. Talk of capitalized Mystery, it seems, short-circuits what could be a sober acknowledgment of limitations. It claims knowledge, or perhaps a hint or a feeling of knowledge, where ignorance is a more accurate understanding of our situation.

But all this, as always, will be to the point only if we are concerned about achieving the most reliable broadly-scientific description of the world that we can. For most of us, an accurate understanding of nature is not a commanding interest—it is something that is of interest only so far as it serves our pursuit of other interests, often linked to biological and cultural reproduction.

In that case, perhaps the temptation to look for ultimate explanations and to be prematurely satisfied with “God did it” is not a mistake. After all, if religion for most people is about pragmatically coping with life, maybe short-circuiting certain kinds of inquiry is a good idea. After all, “God did it” is often associated with a kind of cosmic optimism, or at least a conviction of a humanly-meaningful purpose behind the seemingly mindless workings of the universe. If satisfaction with “God did it” prevents us from wasting time on questions with no immediate pragmatic significance in terms of the interests of everyday life, that makes it useful. If it is also associated with a kind of cosmic optimism, even better.

So, yes, the naturalistic variety of atheists do not have much in the way of ultimate explanations, at least not beyond those areas where we think we run up against fundamental physical randomness. And that, in a cognitive context, is a good thing.

But then perhaps the theistic accusation incorporates a legitimate worry. Perhaps someone stating that they are satisfied with “God did it” signals that they care about pragmatic questions rather than philosophical or scientific puzzles. They signal loyalty to a particular moral order. So maybe theists questioning nonbelievers about ultimate explanations, like so many other questions, translates into asking whether atheists can be trusted.