bookmark_borderWas The Buddha Enlightened? (Part 1)

Asking whether the Buddha was enlightened may seem like asking whether the Pope is Catholic. The answer would seem to be an obvious “yes.” At the core of Buddhism is the figure of the Buddha. The word “buddha” means “one who is awake” or “enlightened.” If the Buddha had not been enlightened, he wouldn’t have been the Buddha, would he? But things are not so simple. The concept of enlightenment in Buddhism is complex. If Buddhist enlightenment should turn out to be something that is implausible to attribute to anyone, then it might make perfect sense, after all, to suggest that the Buddha was not, in fact, enlightened.
The goal of Buddhist practice is not to engage in worship of the person of the Buddha, but to emulate his efforts and become enlightened, oneself. But if there are insufficient reasons to think that the Buddha was really enlightened, it seems there are correspondingly insufficient reasons to embrace Buddhism.

Did the Buddha even exist?

One way for the Buddha to have failed to be enlightened would, of course, be for him to turn out never to have existed at all. This isn’t a position I plan to devote much attention to, however. I don’t think there is enough evidence available to make a compelling case that the Buddha did not exist at all, though I do think it is reasonable to believe that many things attributed to him are myths, or at the very least worthy of skepticism. If enough of the details of the Buddha’s life should turn out to be false, it won’t really matter whether they are piggybacked onto an historical person or a fictional one (this is the same view I have of the debate over whether or not Jesus existed).

What is enlightenment?

The concept of enlightenment in Buddhism has an interesting flavor of historical paradox. By the time of the Buddha, there were already many individuals in Indian society who would take up the task of gaining higher knowledge through ascetic and meditative practices. Before gaining enlightenment, the Buddha apparently already believed that it could be gained through meditation. But if no one else had gained enlightenment through meditation before the Buddha, then why would he have thought that meditation was the right way to gain it? Of course, non-Buddhist traditions would not have accepted the claim that no one else had ever achieved enlightenment before the Buddha. In the Jain tradition, from which Buddhism appears to borrow much, the claim was that many people, most recently Mahavira, had successfully gained enlightenment. Buddhism must claim that all others who made claims to enlightenment had the right method, at least in outline, but that their enlightenment was not genuine.
Enlightenment has two sides to it: one epistemological, the other metaphysical. Both sides constitute a solution to a problem, and that problem is found in the Indian belief that when you die, you will be ceaselessly reborn in accordance with the character of your previous lives. This is the doctrine of karmic rebirth. The dominant theme of the majority of Indian philosophical/religious traditions at the time of Buddhism’s origin was that karmic rebirth is a condition to be escaped, and the consensus was that genuine knowledge (enlightenment) is constitutive of liberation. To be enlightened is both to gain knowledge of the true character of reality, and thereby to be liberated from the cycle of karmic rebirth. Buddhism fully accepts this unity of epistemological and metaphysical transformation.

Is knowledge constitutive of liberation?

The Buddhist account of enlightenment as both epistemic and metaphysical is problematic in itself. The basic structure of the Buddhist solution is that karmic rebirth is a function of ignorance, and so the elimination of ignorance by epistemic enlightenment thereby brings karmic rebirth to an end. Similar viewpoints can be found in the other Indian philosophical traditions such as Yoga and Jainism. But why should this be the case? How could knowing anything bring an end to karmic rebirth? The Buddhist answer lies in the nature of the ignorance. The cognitive core of the Buddha’s enlightenment, what he became enlightened to, is summed up in the principle of dependent origination. Nothing exists inherently or in its own right, but rather exists in thoroughgoing dependence on conditions. In particular, what we ordinarily think of as the self is a dependently originated phenomenon. The primary condition upon which what we think of as the self depends is selfish attachment. Roughly, the self is kept going both within and across lifetimes by the false belief that there is a self to keep going both within and across lifetimes. Once the (false) self stops believing in a (real) self, it stops selfishly perpetuating itself, and karmic rebirth ends.
The situation is analogous to that of Wile E. Coyote in the old Roadrunner cartoons, where Wile runs off a cliff and keeps going only so long as he maintains the false belief that he is supported. But as soon as he becomes enlightened to the fact that he is unsupported, he falls.
Strictly speaking, though, it can’t just be the knowledge that the self is false that ends karmic rebirth. Rather, it is the consequent relinquishing of selfish attachment. Realizing that the self is false is supposed to remove all incentive for selfish attachments. After all, what is the point of selfish attachments if there is no one to enjoy the fruits of such attachments? Why try to accumulate wealth for myself, for example, if there isn’t really anyone to enjoy it?
But there are many cases where merely knowing that something is the case fails to produce the logically corresponding changes in behavior. Many people smoke, for instance, in spite of the fact that they know perfectly well that smoking is causally implicated in heart disease, cancer, and other undesirable conditions.
Enlightenment must therefore be more than the acquisition of certainty regarding the belief that there is no self. It must also involve a radical change in attitude, behavior, and motivation. But why is that important? Because the Buddhist view of karma is that the wrong kinds of attitudes, motives, and behaviors generate karma, and karma is what propels the false self from one lifetime to another.

No rebirth, no enlightenment

Since enlightenment is constitutive of liberation from karmic rebirth, it is possible to make the following argument:
1. If the Buddha was enlightened, then he was liberated from karmic rebirth.
2. If anyone is liberated from karmic rebirth, then karmic rebirth is real.
3. Karmic rebirth is not real.
4. Therefore, the Buddha was not enlightened.
The crucial premise here, of course, is #3. It is too big a task for present purposes to review all the evidence for karmic rebirth. The best bet to date for a positive case probably rests with Ian Stevenson. Stevenson claimed to have found evidence that some children have verifiable memories of previous lives. Although it is always possible that further research may end up vindicating Stevenson’s work, there are some potentially serious methodological worries that call its value into question.
But apart from worries over the quality of the evidence for rebirth, there is a very significant hurdle that confronts Buddhism, in particular, with respect to the problem of karmic rebirth. There is abundant evidence that memories are encoded in the brain. If memories carry over from one lifetime to another, then how does this happen? Buddhists cannot appeal to an immaterial soul or spirit, or non-physical self that carries the memories to a new rebirth, because Buddhism specifically denies that there is any such thing. To be sure, Buddhists do attempt to reconcile the denial of self with the affirmation of karmic rebirth, but they are short on details as to how, exactly, this happens. There is no clear account of the causal details involved. If person A dies and is reborn as person B, it doesn’t really matter whether or not what is conferred from A to B is permanent or ultimately real. What really matters is how anything gets from A to B in the first place, especially given that A and B may be separated from one another in space or in time. Of course, if it turns out that there is good reason to think that karmic rebirth really does happen, the question of how it happens becomes secondary (and this is largely what Buddhists insist on – it is more important to escape karmic rebirth than it is to figure out how it works). In the context within which Buddhism developed, acceptance of karmic rebirth was so widespread that there was no real need for Buddhists to defend extensively a belief in its reality. Their starting point was, effectively, “Given that we all know karmic rebirth is real, and that escaping it is the supreme goal of religious practice, here’s the solution the Buddha has found…” Early Buddhism simply takes the reality of karmic rebirth as not standing in need of positive evidence. But in the absence of both compelling evidence for its reality and in the absence of an account of the means by which it is alleged to occur, we have good reason to accept premise 3 of the above argument.
In a future post I will look more closely at the Buddhist account of the nature of karma.

bookmark_borderOne Christianity or Many Christianities?

I know this is a controversial topic for the people who frequently comment on blog posts here at The Secular Outpost, and my view seems to be the minority view.  Perhaps I am the only person in this crowd who thinks that there is some hope of being able to define “Christianity” in a way that is both reasonable and that is specific enough to allow for an answer to the question “Is Christianity true?”
Most of you, I believe, think that there is not just ONE Christianity, but that there are MANY Christianities, and so it is not possible to answer the question “Is Christianity true?”   Before we can form such an evaluation–you would say–we must specify which specific version of Christianity is under discussion.  Once a specific version of Christianity has been specified, then maybe there will be some hope of being able to evaluate the truth of that specific version of Christianity.
It is obvious that there are indeed MANY versions of Christianity:  Catholicism, Greek Orthodox,  Russian Orthodox, Anglican, Lutheran, Calvinist, Baptist, Methodist, Presbyterian, Church of Christ, Pentecostal, etc.
One of my sisters is a member of a Presbyterian church in California, and because of disagreement between Presbyterians about how to view and respond to homosexuality and homosexual couples, her church left one branch of Presbyterianism and joined a different branch of Presbyterianism.  Some members of her church were very unhappy with that change and ended their membership in that local church.
Christians disagree with each other over ethical, political, and theological issues, and sometimes the disagreements are so strong and heated, that churches and church organizations split up into factions, into new and separate churches and church organizations or denominations.  So, in this sense, there are clearly MANY different versions of Christianity.
However, despite the obvious variety of versions of Christianity, it is not clear to me that we cannot reasonably talk about and think about and evaluate the truth of Christianity.  I’m inclined to believe that there is a set of beliefs that can be identified as standard or traditional Christian beliefs, and that such a set of beliefs (a) has been held by most educated Christians for many centuries, and (b) these beliefs are central or core beliefs of the Christian faith, and (c) these beliefs when taken together are sufficient to constitute a point of view or worldview.
I believe that it is BOTH the case that there are many different versions of Christianity AND that there is, nevertheless, some set of beliefs that can reasonably be identified as constituting the Christian worldview, thus allowing for the possibility of asking and of answering the question “Is Christianity true?”
One bit of evidence for my point of view is that there are ancient creeds of the Christian faith that are used and accepted by a broad range of Christian churches and denominations:

The Apostles’ Creed … sometimes entitled Symbol of the Apostles, is an early statement of Christian belief—a creed or “symbol”. It is widely used by a number of Christian denominations for both liturgical and catechetical purposes, most visibly by liturgical Churches of Western tradition, including the Roman Catholic Church, Lutheranism and Anglicanism. It is also used by Presbyterians, Methodists and Congregationalists.
The Apostles’ Creed was based on Christian theological understanding of the Canonical gospels, the letters of the New Testament and to a lesser extent the Old Testament. Its basis appears to be the old Roman Creed known also as the Old Roman Symbol. Because of the early origin of its original form, it does not address some Christological issues defined in the Nicene and other Christian Creeds. It thus says nothing explicitly about the divinity of either Jesus or of the Holy Spirit. This makes it acceptable to many Arians and Unitarians. Nor does it address many other theological questions which became objects of dispute centuries later. [ref]

Another widely used and accepted creed of the Christian faith is the Nicene Creed:

The Nicene Creed … is a profession of faith widely used in Christian liturgy.
It is called Nicene…because it was originally adopted in the city of Nicaea (present day Iznik, Turkey) by the First Council of Nicaea in 325.  In 381, it was amended at the First Council of Constantinople, and the amended form is referred to as the Nicene or the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed.
The churches of Oriental Orthodoxy and the Assyrian churches use this profession of faith with the verbs in the original plural (“we believe”) form. The Eastern Orthodox Church and the Roman Catholic Church use it with the verbs of believing changed to the singular (“I believe”) form. The Anglican Communion and many Protestant denominations also use it, sometimes with the verbs of believing in the plural form but generally in the singular. [ref]

These two ancient Christian creeds are used and accepted by the Roman Catholic Church, by  Anglicans, and by many Protestant denominations.  This is significant evidence that there is a set of core beliefs that have been shared by a large portion of believers in a wide range of Christian churches and denominations over a period of many centuries.
There are a couple of points of qualification, that, I think, also help the case for my point of view.

  1. In any political or ideological group or organization of significant size there will almost always be a few people who do not accept the “party line” or the “official dogma”.  But this is often the exception that proves the rule.  If we insist that every last person in a group fully buy into every last doctrine or belief or policy embraced by that group in order to identify a set of doctrines or beliefs that “belong” to that ideological group, then it will be virtually impossible to ever talk about the doctrines or beliefs of an ideological group.  To be realistic, we must be willing to identify beliefs associated with an ideological group on the basis that most or nearly all of the members of that group accept those beliefs, even though there are a few people in the group who do not accept those beliefs.
  2. Many people, I’m sad to say, are ignorant about the doctrines and beliefs of their own specific religious tradition.  As a result, the actual beliefs of many people sitting in the pews may be widely divergent from the official doctrines of their church or religious tradition.   Once again, to be realistic, we cannot expect every Tom, Dick, and Harry who wanders into a church a few times a year to have any clear understanding of the content of their own religious tradition.  So, what is most relevant is the beliefs of the educated and well-informed (and somewhat dedicated) members of churches and denominations.  If we survey the beliefs of everybody who happens to wander into a church from time to time, then we will see a great diversity of beliefs (including atheism and pantheism) even if we only go to churches of one specific denomination.  But if we survey educated, well-informed, and dedicated members of churches, we would, I strongly suspect, see more uniformity of belief and greater orthodoxy of belief.  An educated and well-informed believer will generally remain a member of a church or denomination only if his or her beliefs generally correspond with the official doctrines of that church or denomination.
  3. Some theological differences between Christians are very important in terms of their implications for a person’s eternal destiny, but may not be important in the sense of being a belief that is required as support for other basic beliefs in the faith.  For example, one major theological disagreement between protestants and catholics is over the protestant claim that “salvation is by faith alone”.  This belief is very important in that it has implications for the question “Who is saved from eternal damnation?” and thus for the question “Am I saved from eternal damnation?”  This is obviously a question of great existential and psychological significance.  However, the protestant belief that “salvation is by faith alone” does not, it seems to me, play an important role in supporting other basic Christian beliefs.  One can believe that God exists, even if one doubts that “salvation is by faith alone”.  One can believe that Jesus died on the cross, even if one doubts that “salvation is by faith alone”.  One can believe that Jesus rose from the dead, even if one doubts that “salvation is by faith alone”.  So, although this protestant belief is very important in terms of answering the existentially weighty question “Am I saved from eternal damnation?”, it does not appear to play a significant role in the logical structure of the Christian worldview.  Therefore, some seemingly important theological disagreements between Christians, can be reasonably set aside as not being essential to the Christian worldview because the beliefs in question don’t have a significant role in the logical stucture of the Christian worldview.


bookmark_borderMy Twelve-Year Plan

In October of 2013, I came up with the idea of a Ten-Year plan to write a four-volume critique of Christianity:

Plan for a Multi-Volume Critique of Christianity

Some of my posts here at the Secular Outpost have been closely related to the Ten-Year plan and the topics it will cover.
In January of this year, I did a short post outlining the high-level logic of my critique of Christianity:
Ten-Year Plan: Revised Scope
I thought this plan was a bit ambitious, but I am now considering an even more ambitious project: a Twelve-Year Plan that includes a critique of various major world religions and secular worldviews.
I agree, to some extent, with complaints about philosophy of religion being too focused on Christian concepts and beliefs, and I agree with Ninian Smart and James Sire that secular worldviews should be studied along with world religions, as a basic part of a well-rounded college education.
My primary interest is in the philosophical study of religion, which asks evaluative questions, especially questions about the TRUTH of religious beliefs and points of view.  I am planning to incorporate discussion of various key concepts, principles, strategies, character traits, and skills of critical thinking into any book that I write on the critique of a religion or worldview.
I had intended to spend ten years on the question “Is Christianity true?”  But now I’m considering expanding the project to include the same question about various other religions and worldviews:

  1. Is Christianity true?
  2. Is Buddhism true?
  3. Is Secular Humanism true?
  4. Is Islam true?
  5. Is Hinduism true?
  6. Is Marxism true?
  7. Is Judaism true?
  8. Is Taoism true?
  9. Is Existentialism true?

My own leaning is towards Secular Humanism and Marxism, although I am open to objections and qualifications about both of these secular worldviews.
I still plan to do an in-depth evaluation of Christianity, which will involve composing four books just on Christianity.  But if I am to have a reasonable chance of completing this more ambitious project in just twelve years, then I will need to limit my time on Christianity to about four years (roughly one year per volume), and then I will need to formulate a critique of each of the remaining religions/worldviews at a pace of about one per year, writing one book on each.
My Twelve-Year Plan
2017: Book 1 on Christianity: Does God Exist?
2018: Book 2 on Christianity: Did Jesus Exist?
2019: Book 3 on Christianity: Did Jesus Rise from the Dead?
2020: Book 4 on Christianity: Was Jesus God?
2021: Book on a major eastern religion: Is Buddhism True?
2022: Book on a major secular worldview: Is Secular Humanism True?
2023: Book on a major western religion: Is Islam True?
2024: Book on a major eastern religion: Is Hinduism True?
2025: Book on a major secular worldview: Is Marxism True?
2026: Book on a major western religion: Is Judaism True?
2027: Book on a major eastern religion: Is Taoism True?
2028: Book on a major secular worldview: Is Existentialism True?

bookmark_borderMy Debate with Dr. Frank Turek

Last night I had the privilege of debating the question, “What Best Explains Reality? Naturalism or Theism?”, at Washburn University in Topeka, Kansas before an estimated crowd of approximately 900 people. Although the breakdown of Christians and atheists was probably 898:2, I truly felt like the audience was respectful. In fact, after the debate, several Christians came up to me and said some version of, “I think you were very brave to defend atheism in Topeka.” I explained that I didn’t feel brave because everyone in Kansas had shown me such great hospitality.
Neither Dr. Turek nor I cared who spoke first, so, by the flip of a coin, it was determined that I would go first. The format was as follows:

  • Lowder’s Opening Statement (20 minutes)
  • Turek’s Opening Statement (20 minutes)
  • Lowder’s Rebuttal (10 minutes)
  • Turek’s Rebuttal (10 minutes)
  • Lowder’s Cross-Examination of Turek (10 minutes)
  • Turek’s Cross-Examination of Lowder (10 minutes)
  • Audience Q&A (15? minutes)
  • Lowder’s Closing Statement (5 minutes)
  • Turek’s Closing Statement (5 minutes)

I’m guessing a video of the debate will be available on YouTube in a couple of weeks; I’ll make an announcement once it is available. In the meantime, since I do not have the benefit of the video recording as I write this, going from memory here’s how I think I did.
(Note: This paragraph was added a few hours after the original publication of my post.) I hold all debaters to a high standard. I have been very critical of other debaters in the past. I hold myself to the same or an even higher standard. I may change my assessment below after I’ve had the opportunity to watch a video of the debate.
Opening Statement
Content and Slides: A
I defended three contentions:

  1. The best explanation is the explanation with the overall greatest balance of intrinsic probability and accuracy;
  2. Naturalism is an intrinsically more probable explanation than theism; and
  3. Naturalism is a more accurate explanation than theism.

In support of my third contention, I argued that naturalism better predicts 7 lines of evidence than theism:
3.1. Physical “Stuff”
3.2. Success of science (without appealing to supernatural agency)
3.3. Biological evolution
3.4. Pain and Pleasure
3.5. Mind-Brain Dependence
3.6. Empathy and Apathy (including the neurological basis for some moral handicaps)
3.7. Nonresistant Nonbelief
Delivery: C (or possibly even worse)
I had rehearsed my opening statement several times; it was supposed to take me 19 minutes and 53 seconds to finish it. Instead, to my horror, I finished the opening statement in just under 17 minutes. Apparently my adrenaline had gotten the better of me and I spoke too fast.
Content: A
In his opening statement, Dr. Turek’s basically summarized the major points of his latest book, Stealing from God: Why Atheists Need God to Make their Case. The major points are summed up in the acrostic CRIMES (Causality, Reason, Information and Intentionality, Morality, Evil, and Science).
I was expecting this, so I answered with an acrostic of my own VICTIM (Value, Induction, Causality, Time, Information and Intentionality, and Morality). I introduced the acrostic this way:

Now, since repeatedly accusing an innocent person of a crime harms the accused, I’m going to frame my response as an acrostic of my own: VICTIMs (Value, Induction, Causality, Time, Morality, Science). Instead of talking about crimes, what we instead need to talk about are the VICTIMs of Christian apologetics. The VICTIMs of Christian apologetics are things which Christian apologists falsely claim depend on God, but the truth is that God depends on them.

Delivery: C+ or B-
Having spoken too fast in my opening statement, I think I may have overcompensated during my rebuttal and spoken too slow. I didn’t get to my response to the “S” in CRIMES (for science) in my speech before I ran out of time. In other words, I “dropped” an argument. I know better than this.
My Cross-Examination of Dr. Turek
Content: B?
I had a strategy, a pre-written list of questions, and even corresponding visual aids (more PowerPoint slides).
The first half of my questions was designed to get Dr. Turek to agree with the inductive Rule of Total Evidence, which says that the premises of inductive argument need to embody the total relevant evidence. Imagine I have a jar with three slots (one slot for red, blue, and yellow jellybeans) and the total number of jellybeans in all three slots is 100. If I reach in and pull out one, two, or even three blue jellyeans out of the blue slot, but you can’t see how many jellybeans total are in each slot, you don’t yet have enough information to say that the jar has mostly blue jellybeans.
The second half of my questions was designed to expose the fact that his book, I Don’t Have Enough Faith to be an Atheist, is fatally flawed because it violates the Rule of Total Evidence. I showed Frank Turek screenshot after screenshot of my bibliography of arguments for atheism as defended by actual atheists. Each time, I asked him if he had anywhere addressed any of the arguments for atheism (or naturalism). Each time he said no.
Delivery: ?
I’m not sure how I would rate my delivery here. When I did cross-examination debate and mock trial in high school, I was trained to avoid trying to ask “gotcha” questions, and so I did. But I think I overcompensated by being too subtle. Three different people who attended the debate asked me the purpose of my questioning. I should have begun my opening statement with the “results” of my cross-examination: Dr. Turek admits that three blue jellybeans isn’t enough data to say the jar has mostly blue jellybeans, but his book makes precisely that mistake. He can argue (in his book) that that God’s existence is established beyond a reasonable doubt only by ignoring the facts which naturalists argue are evidence against theism. In effect, in his book, Dr. Turek pulled three blue jellybeans out of the blue slot (for theism) without ever pulling jellybeans out of the red slot (for naturalism). So his book doesn’t come close to establishing that our universe is best explained by theism, much less than the conclusion that it establishes theism “beyond reasonable doubt.” I think this should create some cognitive dissonance with Dr. Turek’s fans, who probably had no clue about the wealth of atheistic scholarship.
Dr. Turek’s Cross-Examination of Me
Content and Delivery: C?
From memory:
One of his questions was essentially a version of the argument from reason. He wanted to argue that, if naturalism is true, there is no reason to trust our reasoning ability, so one has to borrow from from God to argue for naturalism (and against God). Part of his supporting argument was that, if naturalism is true, we’re just “moist robots” who are the result of blind, impersonal process. In my response, I pointed out that he is confusing the origin of a cognitive mechanism with its accuracy. Just as (on naturalism) our eyes are the result of unguided evolution and yet almost all humans have sight which is generally reliable, so too (on naturalism) our brains are the result of evolution and there is clear survival value in having generally reliable cognitive mechanisms. If I remember correctly, he also tried to link reason to the determinism vs. free will debate. I responded by arguing that debate is completely irrelevant: whether I am a “moist robot” whose beliefs are pre-determined or I am a being with free will has precisely nothing to do with whether or not my beliefs are accurate. Indeed, if we are “moist robots” that would seem to be an argument for the strength, not weakness, of reasoning abilities on naturalism, since robots, computers, and calculators, generally do things correctly.
His other major line of questioning had to do with morality. He presented me with the horrific story of a woman who had been repeatedly molested as a child. He asked some version of, “If there is no God, why is that wrong?” I first clarified whether he was asking from the perspective of metaethics (i.e., moral ontology) or normative ethics (e.g., utilitarianism, deontological ethics, etc.). He said he was interested in moral ontology. I said I could give two answers, since I am torn between the moral anti-reductionism of Erik Wielenberg and the naturalistic moral reductionism of Larry Arnhart. On Arnhart’s view, the good is the desirable and so what constitutes goodness or badness is determined by how well it satisfies universal human desires.
At this point, I think the cross-examination broke down, at least in content if not also in decorum. As even some of the Christians told me after the debate, they thought Dr. Turek started to mock Arnhart’s Aristotelian ethical naturalism.  I think he asked me something along the lines of, “Why human flourishing and not cockroach flourishing?” With all due respect to Dr. Turek, I didn’t get the impression he was very familiar–if familiar at all–with Arnhart’s book. I will have to write a separate blog post about that once I have a copy of the debate video. With all due respect to myself, I don’t think I had a good “soundbite” answer. I think I may have rambled in my explanation and I think that is why he kept repeatedly interrupting me. Because I was in Topeka, Kansas and because I am very much aware of the ‘angry atheist’ stereotype, I did not interrupt him. But I should have been much more concise and I should have made this point: “Arnhart’s view is partially an updated version of Aristotle’s view. Aristotle’s view is not an anti-God approach to ethics; in fact, it forms the basis of natural law theory, which (I think) is pretty much the ethical theory of the Catholic church. So it’s not just atheists like myself who say that moral value doesn’t depend on God; Aquinas and (I think) the Catholic church say pretty much the same thing.”
And I never got to mention during the CX period the other major option, what I call “moral anti-reductionism,” as defended today by Erik Wielenberg and as goes all the way back to Plato.
Morality is such a complex topic that it really cries out for a dedicated debate of its own.
Audience Q&A
I don’t have much to say here, other than there were no “gotcha” questions and I think I did well.
Closing Statement
Content and Slides: A
I began by reviewing my three contentions. I pointed out that Dr. Turek never disputed my first or second contentions and instead focused on my third contention. Even there, he did not address all of my arguments.  He never said anything about my arguments from physicality or empathy and apathy (including the neurological basis of moral handicaps). I next refuted the “S” in his acrostic CRIMES, which represents the claim that science depends on God.
Delivery: C?
I prepared hard for this debate. In fact, I may have over-prepared. I had so much material that I was struggling to jump around from PowerPoint slide to PowerPoint slide in my closing statement, so that I would address only the points raised by Dr. Turek, but do so within the allotted time limits. (I mention this not as an excuse, but as an explanation.) I need to come up with a better system for my next debate. Even if that had not been a factor, however, I still would not have had enough time and I still would have dropped arguments.
On a positive note, all of the basic points from my earlier speeches were intact (e.g., positing God assumes, not explains, most of the things in the CRIMES and VICTIM acrostics; by itself theism doesn’t predict a lot of the data he says it does; all six of my objections to his ‘fine-tuning’ argument; etc.).

bookmark_borderOff Topic: Trump is an IDIOT – Part 1

I realize that many atheists and skeptics are not liberals, so there is no liberal agenda shared by atheist and skeptics.
However, I am a left-wing atheist and skeptic, and so I have been blogging (elsewhere) about my preference of Hillary Clinton over the twit Donald Trump. Today, just in time for the upcoming big debate, I have published another blog post about Mr. Trump:

Donald Trump is an IDIOT – Part 1: Trump’s Stupidity on Science

I hope that you liberal atheists and skeptics enjoy this post, and that you conservative atheists and skeptics give some consideration to my objections against electing Donald Trump as president of the United States of America.

bookmark_borderSkepticism and Conjunctions

Belief in God and belief in the Christian faith are both vulnerable to skepticism in view of the fact that both beliefs consist in conjuctions.
Some of the key divine attributes are:

  • eternally bodiless
  • eternally omnipotent
  • eternally omniscient
  • eternally perfectly morally good
  • the creator of the universe

In order for God to exist, there must be one and only one person who has all five of these divine attributes.
If there is an omnipotent person who is evil or morally flawed, but no omnipotent person who is perfectly morally good, then there is no God.  If there is an omniscient person who is not omnipotent, but no omniscient person who is omnipotent, then there is no God.  If there is a perfectly morally good person who has a body, but there is no perfectly morally good person who is bodiless, then there is no God.  Each of the above attributes is a necessary condition for something to be God, so if there is no being who has all five of these attributes, then theism (classical western theism) is false.
The probability that there is an eternally bodiless person is LESS THAN the probability that there is an eternally bodiless person who is also eternally omnipotent.  I don’t see any logical or causal connection between being an eternally bodiless person and being an eternally omnipotent person, so it appears that the multiplication rule of probability would apply here.  If there is a one in a million chance that there is an eternally bodiless person, and a one in a million chance that there is an eternally omnipotent person, then the probability that both claims are true is  one millionth times one millionth:
1/1,000,000  x  1/1,000,000 =   1/1,000,000,000,000
Furthermore, not only do we need to have a person who is eternally bodiless and a person who is eternally omnipotent, but we need to have one person who has both of these attributes, which is even less probable because that represents only one particular scenario out of the various possibilities in which there is at least one eternally bodiless person and at least one eternally omnipotent person.
To the extent that the divine attributes are independent of each other, we can multiply the small probabilities and derive even smaller probabilities.
An eternally omnipotent person could eventually decide to cause itself to become bodiless or to become omniscient, but if an omnipotent person caused itself to BECOME bodiless or to BECOME omniscient, then it clearly would not be an eternally bodiless person, nor an eternally omniscient person.  So, the power of an omnipotent person to give itself new attributes is irrelevant to the question of the existence of God.
Similarly, an eternally omniscient person might eventually use it’s knowledge to become an omnipotent person or a bodiless person, but if it caused itself to BECOME omnipotent or to BECOME bodiless, then it would not be eternally omnipotent or eternally bodiless.  So, the ability of an eternally omniscient person to use its knowledge to obtain other divine attributes is irrelevant to the question of the existence of God.
Theism must fight a steep uphill battle against the multiplication of probabilities, because theism implies the assertion that there is a person who possesses MANY (at least five) different divine attributes, each one of which is such that it is improbable that there is any person who has the attribute.
Christianity is also vulnerable to skepticism in view of the fact the Christian faith consists in a CONJUNCTION of SEVERAL beliefs:

  • God exists.
  • Jesus existed.
  • Jesus was crucified in Jerusalem in about 30 C.E.
  • Jesus died on the cross on the same day he was crucified.
  • Jesus was alive and walking around in Jerusalem less than 48 hours afer he was crucified.
  • Jesus rose from the dead.
  • God caused Jesus to rise from the dead.
  • All human beings have sinned (except for Jesus).
  • All human beings have souls.
  • Any human being who has sinned deserves eternal punishment.
  • Jesus’ death on the cross provided atonement for the sins of all human beings.
  • Any human being can obtain an eternal life of happiness by repenting of his/her sins and believing that Jesus is the divine Son of God and savior of humankind who died for our sins and who was raised from the dead by God.

This is only a partial list of some basic Christian beliefs.  If just one of these beliefs is false, then Christianity is false, at least traditional or orthodox Christianity is false.
Some modern Christians reject the physical resurrection of Jesus, so they don’t accept the belief that “Jesus was alive and walking around in Jerusalem less than 48 hours after he was crucified”.  But such Christians still believe in some sort of “resurrection”, and that alternative view is a part of their modern version of Christianity.
Some Christians reject the idea of eternal punishment, but they still believe in some sort of divine judgment, so they have some alternative to eternal hellfire, such as annihilation of a person.  This, again, is an alternative belief that substitutes for the traditional belief that “Any human being who has sinned deserves eternal punishment”.
So, although there are modern and non-traditional versions of Christianity available, those alternative versions usually substitute some alternative belief for a traditional Christian belief that has been rejected. Non-traditional versions of Christianity, like the traditional version of Christianity, consist of several basic beliefs, some of which are modified or revised versions of traditional Christian beliefs.
If somone claims to be a Christian yet rejects most of the above traditional Christian beliefs and does NOT substitute some alternative beliefs in place of the rejected beliefs, then this non-traditional “Christian” might well be nothing more than a theist (or even a pantheist) who is pretending to be a Christian believer, but whose worldview has very little connection to the Christian religion.  Belief in the existence of God is NOT sufficient to make a person a Christian.  There is clearly some flexibility in the concepts of “Christian” and “Christianity”, but there is a limit to that flexibility.  Concepts can be stretched only so far before they break.
Many of the dozen basic traditional Christian beliefs listed above are improbable.  Some of these beliefs are independent of each other.  The existence of God, for example, has little or no impact on the probability of the existence of Jesus.  The non-existence of God has no significant implications as to whether there was an historical Jesus.  The existence of God also has no significant implications as to whether there was an historical Jesus.  We can investigate these two questions independently.
The existence of God does have some relevance to the question of whether Jesus rose from the dead and whether God raised Jesus from the dead.  Obviously, if there is no God, then it is NOT the case that God raised Jesus from the dead.  But Jesus might have risen from the dead even if there were no God.  Perhaps Jesus was simply an extraordinary human being with extraordinary powers.  Or perhaps there were highly advanced space aliens who used advanced medical knowledge and technology to bring Jesus back to life.  So, the resurrection of Jesus is not entirely dependent on the existence of God.
Clearly, it is also possible that God exists but that Jesus did not rise from the dead.  Perhaps the deists are correct that God does not intervene in human affairs, and God refused to intervene in the death of Jesus, just like God refused to intervene in the deaths of millions of innocent people over the past few thousand years.  So, even if the Christian wins the debate on the existence of God, that still leaves the questions about Jesus open to skepticism and doubt.
Because there is a significant number of independent beliefs and a significant degree of independence even with those Christian beliefs that have some logical or causal relationship,  probabilities must generally be multiplied here.  Although Christians often assert these beliefs dogmatically and with great confidence, it seems clear to me that an objective evaluation of these beliefs can at most arrive at the conclusion that the belief is probable or in a few cases, very probable.  But with a dozen beliefs at issue, it is highly probable that at least one of the dozen or so of these beliefs is false.
Let’s suppose that the beliefs were all independent of each other, just to see the skeptical power of multiplying probabilities.  Even if each of the twelve beliefs was evaluated to have a probability of .8,  the probability of the conjunction of all twelve beliefs is low:
.8 x .8 x .8 x .8 x .8 x .8 x .8 x .8 x .8 x .8 x .8 x .8 =  .068719476736
= approximately  .07  (less than one chance in ten)
Since an objective evaluation of these beliefs will generally result in a judgment that the probability of a claim is less than .5  (most of these beliefs are improbable), even if we are generous and allow that some of the beliefs could be evaluated as very probable (say .8), the average probability is going to be no more than about .6 (somewhat probable).  This generous evaluation of the probabilities of these dozen beliefs would then result in an even lower probability than the previous calclulation:
.6 x .6 x .6 x .6 x .6 x .6 x .6 x .6 x .6 x .6 x .6 x .6 =  .002176782336
= approximately  .002  (two chances in 1,000)
Because the Christian faith involves accepting a conjunction of SEVERAL beliefs (most of which are improbable), even if we skeptics are generous in granting that each of the basic Christian beliefs is somewhat probable (e.g allowing for an average probablility of .6) it is highly probable that at least one of these beliefs is false.  If objectivity and probability play a significant role in a person’s reasoning, then skepticism will win the war, even if skepticism doesn’t win each and every battle.
UPDATE on 9/25/16
I failed to mention one of my favorite examples of skepticism and conjunctions:
(GRJ) God raised Jesus from the dead.
This is an important and basic Christian belief.  Although this is a brief sentence, it packs a lot into just a few words.
The meaning of this sentence, in the context of the Christian faith, can be analyzed in terms of a number of claims that must all be true in order for (GRJ) to be true:

  • God exists.
  • Jesus existed.
  • Jesus was crucified in Jerusalem in about 30 CE.
  • Jesus died on the cross on the same day that he was crucified.
  • Jesus was alive and walking around in Jerusalem less than 48 hours after being crucified.
  • If Jesus came back to life after he died on the cross, that was because God caused Jesus to come back to life.

Strictly speaking, Jesus could have been burned alive at the stake, or strangled to death, or beheaded, or stoned to death, or drowned, and then came back to life.  But these alternative possibilities would imply that the Gospel accounts of the death of Jesus were purely fictional, and so these alternatives would seriously undermine the credibility of the Gospels and of the Christian faith.  Thus, in the context of the Christian faith (GRJ) is NOT compatible with just any kind of cause of the death of Jesus.  The context eliminates many logical possibilities that a simple and context-free interpretation of (GRJ) would peremit.
None of these claims is certain.  There are very good reasons to doubt the existence of God, even if one is impressed by one or more of the arguments offered in support of the existence of God.  Swinburne, for example, argues that the probability of the existence of God is above .5, but he does not argue that the probability of the existence of God is above .6 (at least, not in his book The Existence of God).
Although I think it is probable that Jesus existed, I have argued that the case for the existence of Jesus is less than compelling, and that an objective evaluation of the probability would be somewhere between .6 and .8.
Christian apologists and many biblical scholars claim that the crucifixion of Jesus is almost certain, but I have argued that even if we ASSUME that Jesus did exist, there are still good reasons to doubt the claim that Jesus was crucified, and that the probability (on the assumption that Jesus did exist) is significantly less than 1.0  (perhaps .8 or .9).
That Jesus died on the cross on the same day that he was crucified is a priori improbable, because it usually took a number of days for a victim of crucifixion to die, and there are many legitimate grounds for doubting the accuracy of the details of the Gospel accounts of Jesus crucifixion and death, so this claim is subject to significant doubt.
If we ASSUME that Jesus really existed, that he really was crucified, and that he really did die on the cross on the same day he was crucified, then the claim that Jesus was alive and walking around in Jerusalem a couple of days later is a priori extremely improbable, and since the Gospel accounts are filled with contradictions and inconsistencies on this issue, and since we have no eyewitness accounts of the post-crucifixion appearances of Jesus in Jerusalem, this claim is subject to very serious doubt.
I have also argued that it is clear that Jesus was a FALSE PROPHET, and so it is highly improbable that God, if God exists, would raise Jesus from the dead, because that would constitute a great deception, but God is, by definition, an eternally perfectly morally good person, and so God would be very ulikely to be involved in such a great deception.
In order for (GRJ) to be true, all of the above six claims must be true.  The issue of the existence of God is, largely, independent from the issue of the existence of Jesus.  These issues can reasonably (for the most part) be evaluated independently of each other.  The existence of Jesus can also (for the most part) be evaluated independently of the question of whether Jesus was crucified, and although the death of Jesus by crucifixion on the same day he was crucified requires that Jesus first be crucified, this further claim has problems or doubts that still hold even on the assumption that Jesus was in fact crucified.
There is an obvious dependency between the claim that Jesus died on the cross on the day he was crucified and the claim that Jesus was alive and walking around in Jerusalem less than 48 hours after being crucified, but the dependence between these claims goes AGAINST the Christian belief that BOTH of these claims are true.  In other words, the truth of one of the claims would make the probability of the other claim very low.
The probability of God being the cause of Jesus coming back to life (assuming that God exists and that Jesus came back to life) is based primarily on considerations about the character and motivations of God, and thus this probability is (for the most part) independent of the probabilities of the various alleged historical events in the life of Jesus.
Because the various claims that constitute (GRJ) have probabilities that are (for the most part) independent of each other, calculating the probabilty of (GRJ) would involve multiplication of the probabilities of the six claims above (with some minor adjustments here and there).  Thus, the skeptical problem of conjunctions arises with this important and central Christian belief.

bookmark_borderEthical Subjectivism and the Argument from Outrage

In arguing for the superiority of theistic ethics over secular ethics, apologists sometimes present some version of an argument like this:
1. If theism is not true, then ethics is subjective.
2. Ethics is not subjective.
3. Therefore, theism is true.
I think this is a bad argument because I think premise 1 is false. But I will not be arguing that point here. Instead, I want to point out what I think is a massive irony in the way premise 2 is usually defended. I call the  argumentative strategy at issue the “argument from outrage”. Here is an example of the argument from outrage at work.

…if there are no objective ethics, then who is to say that Hitler was objectively morally wrong? Humans have an intuitive sense of right and wrong. The moral argument requires only that at least some actions are objectively right or wrong (e.g. torturing children for pleasure is objectively morally wrong). (

Note the examples that are given: Hitler’s genocidal policies, or torturing children for pleasure. In choosing these examples, the apologist is counting on the audience to feel powerful negative emotions in response to the examples. The suggestion that, say, stomping on kittens isn’t objectively wrong is just outrageous!
The irony, though, is that according to subjectivism, moral judgments are motivated not by reason, but by feeling. And the irony is that the apologetical strategy here only seems to be effective when the chosen examples can be expected to provoke strong negative feelings. Contrast the following two example arguments:
A1. If subjectivism is true, then stomping on kittens is not objectively wrong.
A2. But stomping on kittens is objectively wrong.
A3. Therefore, subjectivism is not true.
B1. If subjectivism is true, then gathering sticks on Sunday is not objectively wrong.
B2. But gathering sticks on Sunday is objectively wrong.
B3. Therefore, subjectivism is not true.
Why doesn’t the second argument have as much persuasive force as the first (except for cat haters)? The subjectivist will say that it is because the judgment expressed in A2 is really not a cognitive judgment, but an emotional judgment (or not a judgment at all). Those for whom B2 seems true are those who are emotionally invested in disapproving of whatever they think God has forbidden, and those who are not emotionally invested along these lines have no strong negative feelings about gathering sticks on Sunday, and therefore will not be likely to agree that B2 is true.
Or how about:
C1. If subjectivism is true, then buying slaves from foreigners is not objectively wrong.
C2. But buying slaves from foreigners is objectively wrong.
C3. Therefore, subjectivism is not true.
These days, it is hard to find theists (even among Biblical literalists) who will disagree with C2, even though a straightforward reading of the Bible suggests that they should (Leviticus 25:44-46). Why? Isn’t it because they are motivated more strongly by their negative feelings about slavery than they are by speculation about some theistic basis for opposing slavery? Doesn’t subjectivism provide a better explanation for why opposition to slavery is much more common among contemporary theists than it was in America in the mid-1800’s?
One would be hard-pressed even to find someone offering a controversial example as part of the argument from outrage. Consider this argument:
D1. If subjectivism is true, then human cloning is not objectively wrong.
D2. But human cloning is objectively wrong.
D3. Therefore, subjectivism is not true.
Because the ethical status of human cloning is a matter of considerable controversy, it makes a very poor choice of example in arguing against subjectivism (note, incidentally, that for those who advocate a divine command ethic as the only route to an objective foundation for ethical judgments, it is not at all clear how to motivate either a “yea” or “nay” position on such issues as this). The subjectivist can make the point that controversial ethical claims derive their controversial status precisely from differing feelings about them (or from different feelings about projected consequences). What is needed in rebuttal is a compelling argument that human cloning (for instance) is either objectively right or objectively wrong despite how anyone feels about it. In motivating such a claim, the opponent of subjectivism would be advised not to rely only on examples about which there are strong feelings, since otherwise it is open to the subjectivist to respond that agreement with the examples is motivated exclusively by those feelings (thus ironically confirming, rather than refuting, subjectivism).

bookmark_borderOmnipotence and the Actual Infinite

According to William Craig’s defense of the kalam cosmological argument, an actual infinite cannot exist. This claim is important not only for Craig’s main claim that the universe had a beginning, but also for a followup response to the suggestion that the universe cannot be part of a wider, infinitely regressive history wherein our universe is only one of infinitely many that have existed. Instead of actual infinites, Craig proposes that only potential infinites can exist. A potential infinite is a collection of things that is finite in size at any given time, but is growing without limit.
So suppose that God has created Zeke and set him to run across an infinite number of flagstones. What God cannot do, according to Craig’s view, is to create Zeke at time t and place him on a path that (at t) already has an infinite number of flagstones on it, since such a path would be actually infinite, and this is what is claimed cannot exist. Instead, what God must do is place Zeke on a path that has some number n of flagstones at t, but then as Zeke runs, more flagstones get added to the path, so that (for example) at time t+1, the path has n+1 flagstones on it, at time t+2 the path has n+2 flagstones on it, and so on.
But what limits God at t, from creating all the flagstones that Zeke is going to run across? Since God can only create a finite number of flagstones at t, suppose Zeke is initially placed at the very end of the path. In order for Zeke to continue his run, God is obliged to create another flagstone at t+1 as Zeke takes his next step. But what prevents an omnipotent God from having already created that flagstone back at t?
If we are to say that God is omnipotent, it seems we should accept the following principle regarding omnipotence and creative power:

If God is omnipotent, then if it is logically possible for God to create x at t, then God can create x at t.

So when God creates Zeke at t and places him at the end of a path consisting of n flagstones, it is logically possible for God to have created, instead, a path consisting of n+1 flagstones at t, or n+2 flagstones at t, or n+3 flagstones at t, and so on.
To put it another way, to hold that God can only create potential infinites, but not actual infinites, is to hold that at any time t, God must create a finite number of things, and that if he wants more things, he can only add them later through successive addition. Although each successive addition to the collection is logically possible for God to add, he cannot add them all at t, but must wait and keep adding them later. But for any one of these additions, if God must wait until after t to create it, then he cannot have created it at t, in which case, by the foregoing principle, God is not omnipotent.

bookmark_borderDebate: External Evidence for Jesus – Wrapping up the Debate

Josh McDowell and various life events have distracted me from the debate with Joe Hinman about the external evidence for the existence of Jesus. (Sorry for the delay, Joe.)
I wrote an introductory post about the debate:
Introduction to the Debate
Hinman presented five arguments for the existence of Jesus based on external (non-biblical) evidence:
Arguments 1 Through 4 (Talmud, Papias, Polycarp, Josephus)
Argument 5 (Web of Historicity)
I criticized the five arguments, typically writing one (lengthy) post on each of the five arguments:
Critique of the Talmud Argument
Critique of the Papias Argument
Critique of the Polycarp Argument
Critique of the Josephus Argument
Critique of the Web Of Historicity Argument
I also produced two posts on some principles and points by Hinman about historical investigation:
Critique of Five Principles of Historical Investigation
Critique of Various Points on Historical Investigation
Hinman has written posts with replies to my various objections to his five arguments:
In Defense of the Talmud Argument
In Defense of the Papias Argument
In Defense of the Polycarp Argument
In Defense of the Josephus Argument
In Defense of the Web of Historicity Argument
Hinman also responded to my critique of his principles of historical investigation:
In Defense of Some Principles of Historical Investigation
I do not plan on making any sort of detailed responses to Joe’s detailed replies, because that would (a) require more time and effort than what I’m willing to invest in the debate, and (b) would probably kill off any remaining interest among those who read the initial arguments by Hinman and my posts raising objections to his arguments.
I was planning to wrap up the debate with a single post, but I now think that a series of shorter posts would be a better approach. I plan to do a brief post on each of the five arguments, presenting my view of the strengths and weaknesses of each arguments in view of the detailed replies that Hinman has made to my objections, but without going into all of the specific points in his replies.  I will try to be brief, and I will try to be objective and less focused on “winning” the debate in these closing posts.