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GOD’S

GRAVEDIGGERS: WHY NO DEITY EXISTS

RAYMOND D. BRADLEY
Copyright © 2015 Ockham Publishing

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in or introduced into a retrieval
system or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or
otherwise without prior written permission from the publisher.

Published by Ockham Publishing in the United Kingdom

ISBN 978-1-910780-08-4

Cover design by Armend Meha

www.ockham-publishing.com
In memory of the love of my life
JULIET ANDREA FISHER
(25 October 1941 to 27 August 2015)
An exquisite woman, outstanding in performing and teaching contemporary dance who shared my passion
for truth, beauty and justice.
PREFACE

1
FROM FUNDAMENTALIST TO FREETHINKER
IT ALL BEGAN WITH SANTA
Fundamentalist Roots
Philosophical Predisposition
The Demand for Evidence as a Basis for Faith
My Pilgrim's Progress
Childhood: a Period of Questioning
Many Santas, Many Religions and Gods
Religious Experiences: Genuine or Spurious?
Formative Reading and Unintended Consequences
The Problem of Evil
Historical Questions Unanswered
Heaven and the Afterlife
God's Foreknowledge and Predestination
Christology
Inerrancy
Predestination and Free Will
Heresy
The Historicity of Jesus
Evil, Free Will, and Responsibility
The Evolution Debate
Flirting with Buddhism, then Deism, then Agnosticism
The Dark Side of Fundamentalism
Book-burning and Beatings
The Delights of being a Freethinker
Maturing as a Freethinking Atheist
A Memorable Debate
Time Out from Interest in Religion
Unabashed Atheism Renewed

2
THE LOGICAL RIVALRY OF THE GODS
CHOICES OF A SPIRITUAL PILGRIM
The Choices of a Spiritual Pilgrim
Betting on the Gods: Pascal's Wager
A Little Logic
The Logical Contrariety of Rival Religions
Hume's Argument from the Contrariety of Religions
The Contrariety of Religions Disputed
The Contrariety Premise Demonstrated
Back to Pascal's Betting Arena
Hume's Thesis: A Proof or a Probability
A Little More Logic
Examples of Hume's Proof or Probability Thesis
The Snarling Logicality is Unavoidable
Guidelines for Prudent Betting
The Improbability of All Religions
The Near-Zero Probability of Any God
Assessing Probabilities Empirically
Assessing Purely A Priori Probabilities
Empirical Estimates of God's Probability
Purely A Priori Estimates of God's Probability

3
WHY GOD DESERVES TO DIE
INTELLECTUAL AND MORAL INDICTMENTS
The Death of the Gods
The gods of Monotheism
The General Concept of God
The Concept of Atheism
Proving a Negative
Naturalism
Supernaturalism
The God of Biblical Revelation
Inerrancy
Figurativism
Van Inwagen's Simplistic Reasoning
Does the Biblical God tell the Truth?
Is the Biblical God Moral?
Diseases and Disasters
War Crimes and Crimes against Humanity
Tortures of Hell
The Old Testament's Moral Primitivism
Moral Primitivism still Prevails among many Believers

4
TRYING TO RESUSCITATE THE GOD CONCEPT
PHILOSOPHICAL ARGUMENTS
Proofs or Rationalizations?
The Ontological Argument
Ontology and Magical Thinking
Anselm's Ontological Argument
Religious Shortcomings
Logical Shortcomings
Conjuring up a Perfect Island
Conjuring up the Devil
Conjuring up the Greatest Prime Number
The Fallacy Exposed
Existence is not a Predicate [Property]
How to Talk about Existence
No Contradiction in Denying that God exists
The Cosmological Argument
A Simple Version of the Cosmological Argument
The Kalam Cosmological Argument
Arguments from Current Scientific Cosmology
Argument for the Impossibility of an Actual Infinite
Interim Conclusion: "Therefore the universe has a cause."
Final conclusion: "The cause of the universe is God."
Arguments from Design
Scientific Credentials of the Theory of Evolution
Behe on Irreducible Complexity
The Improbability of Abiogenesis
The A Priorist's Fallacy
The Argument from Fine-Tuning
Seven Objections to the Fine-Tuning Argument
A Devastating Dilemma for Design Devotees
Creating and Designing an Evil World
Satan's Moral Outrage over his Boss's Creation
The Great Computer Designer versus the Great Hacker.
The Cosmological and Design Arguments for Atheism

5
THE MORAL ARGUMENT FOR ATHEISM
A LOGICAL QUANDARY FOR THEISTS
Dostoyevsky's Claim
The Reference of "God"
The Meaning of "Absolute Morality"
The Plausibility of Moral Realism
Prima Facie Examples of Objective Moral Truths
Reminder on the History of Objectivist Ethics
God's Violations of "Objective" Moral Principles
Wanton Slaughter
Sex Slavery
Enforced Cannibalism
Human Sacrifice
Endless Torture
A Logical Quandary for Bible-Believing Theists
An Inconsistent Quadruple
Trying to Escape from the Logical Straightjacket
What the Bible Actually Says
Re Slaughter of Innocents
Re Giving Captive Virgins to the Troops
Re Causing People to Cannibalize their Relatives
Re Condoning Child Sacrifice
Re the Eternal Torture of Nonbelievers
Comparing God with Satan
Trying to Absolve God of Guilt
Consequences for Theism
The Falsity of Theistic Ethics
A Personal Challenge to Biblical Theists

6
THE LOGIC OF HELL AND DAMNATION
ANOTHER LOGICAL QUANDARY
The Fourth Face of God’s Evil
Treating the Problem Seriously
The Nature of Omni-God
God's Omnipotence
God's Omniscience
God's Omni-Benevolence (Moral Perfection)
The Nature of Hell
What's Hell Like?
Who Suffers in the Fires of Hell?
Is the Notion of God Sending People to Hell Logically Coherent?
The Idea of Super-Satan
God's Responsibility for All Evil, including that of Hell
Apologetics: Making Excuses for God
Trying to Absolve God: Plantinga's Free Will Defence
Plantinga's Preliminary Sketch of his Defence
The Parable of Dog Almighty and All-Knowing
Plantinga's Attempt at a Formal Proof
The Failure of Plantinga's Formal Proof Illustrated
A Problem with the Entailment Condition
A Problem with the Consistency Condition
Back to Hell: Craig's Version of Plantinga's Defence
The Failure of Craig's Formal Proof
The Entailment Condition Again
The Consistency Condition Again
The Inconsistency Charges Reiterated
Implications of Perfect Goodness
Implications of the Doctrine of Hell and Damnation
The Inconsistency of these Two Sets of Implications
A Heavenly Refutation of the Free Will Defence
Which Possible Worlds Could God have Created?
The Agreed Meaning of "Possible World"
The Agreed Meaning of "Omnipotent"
Possibility and Feasibility
A Counter-Example: the Feasibility of Heaven
Craig's Counter-Argument Refuted
Free Will, Foreknowledge, and Predestination
Compatibilist versus Incompatibilist Meanings of "Free Will"
Free Will, Predestination, and Being Sent to Hell
Consequences of Being Predestined to Hell
A Logical Quandary for Believers
Caveat re the "Christian" Cross of Contradiction
Conservative Christians
"Liberal" Christians

7
THE IMPOSSIBILITY OF AN AFTERLIFE
THE CHESHIRE CAT FALLACY
Two Main Arguments for Substance Dualism
An Appeal to the Logic of Identity and Difference
An Appeal to the Noncogitative Nature of Matter
A Host of Problems for Substance Dualism
The Inexplicability of Mind-Brain Dependence
The Inexplicability of Mental Causation
The Violation of Scientific Laws
Minds aren't Miracle-Workers
Our Embryological and Developmental Histories
Problems about our Evolutionary Histories
Which Stage of the Soul or Mind Survives?
Presupposing a Category Misallocation
The Fallacy of Reification
Resisting the Reifying Lure of Language
Dualistic Consequences of Reifying Mentalistic Terms
Allocation to Ontological Categories
Locke's Partial Solution to Category Misallocation
Category Mistakes and "the Ghost in the Machine"
To Have a Mind is to have a Set of Mental Properties
Interim Summary
The Emergence of Minds from Incogitative Matter
Refutation by Counter-Examples
The Concept of Emergence Defined
Wrong-Headed Concepts of Emergence
The Ubiquitousness of Emergent Properties
The Metaphysics of Emergent Materialism
Contra Substance Monism
Why Property Dualism is Misconceived
Emergent Properties of Different Kinds
The Hierarchy of Sciences
The Case of Sensory Powers
The Case of Consciousness
The Metaphysical Impossibility of Survival
Mind-Brain Dependence
The Issue of Mental Causation
The Bogeyman of Epiphenomenalism
The Violation of Scientific Laws
Minds as Miracle-Workers
Our Embryological and Developmental Histories
Our Evolutionary Histories

8
GOBBLEDYGOOK GODS
PLAYING HUMPTY DUMPTY WITH WORDS
Paul Tillich
Bishop John Robinson
Bishop John Shelby Spong
Don Cupitt
Three Main Causes of Philosophical Disease
Reification
Lewis Carroll on "Nobody"
Conflating "is"s
Theologian's Muddles about "is"
Playing Humpty Dumpty with Words
Humpty Dumpty and Tillich, et. al.
Advice from both your Mother and Me
Don't Tell Stories Unless they are True
EPILOGUE
MY REVIEW OF LLOYD GEERING'S IN PRAISE OF THE SECULAR
GOD’S GRAVEDIGGERS
WHY NO DEITY EXISTS
PREFACE
Upon reading the title of this book, GOD'S GRAVEDIGGERS: WHY NO DEITY EXISTS, you might
find yourself asking, "Which God is he referring to?" If so, then you've already embarked on the sort of
questioning that led me when young, from the constraints of fundamentalist Christianity to the joys of being
a Freethinker. My own questioning began with puzzles about Santa. How many Santas were there? Were
any of them real? If so, which? These questions had parallels in the sphere of religious belief: questions
about rival religions and questions about the different gods they worshipped. It was in pursuit of these
questions that--motivated by a desire to understand the foundations of my faith--I launched into a study of
theology, tangled on the way with a couple of leading Christian intellectuals, and emerged by the age of
eighteen as a self-confessed atheist.
Chapter 1, "From Fundamentalist to Freethinker: It All Began with Santa" tells my personal story. It
sketches my early encounters with virtually all the issues addressed in the other seven chapters. It
sketches the sorts of reasons that eventually led me to conclude that core Christian doctrine was both
morally obnoxious and intellectually dangerous, and that supernatural religions more generally deserved
to “die” in Nietzsche’s sense.
In Chapter 2, "The Logical Rivalry of the Gods: Choices of a Spiritual Pilgrim", I deal more fully with
the issue of why different religions compete with one another, not just on the battlefields, but for the
"hearts and minds" of believers over matters of doctrine. I argue that Scottish philosopher, David Hume,
was right when he claimed that the distinctive doctrines of different religions also compete with each
other logically: that they are, in a strictly logical sense of the word, "contrary" to one another. Taking this
occasion to lay the foundations for a better comprehension of the logical issues that are at stake throughout
the book, I engage in a couple of "Logical Interludes" that explain some very basic concepts of logic,
including modal logic. An understanding of these really helps if you want to wrap your mind around
contemporary discussions in Philosophy of Religion. (Don't worry, though. I think you'll find these
interludes both comprehensible and helpful.) I show how Hume's analysis supports the conclusion that it
is highly probable that no religion, or any evidential claim adduced in its support, is true. And I go on to
argue with respect to gods, that there’s a near zero probability that any of them actually exist.
That brings us to Chapters 3 and 4, which lie at the very heart of my book, expanding as they do on my
reasons for giving it the title GOD'S GRAVEDIGGERS. If you haven't time to read much else, read these
chapters. An overview of the perspective that I eventually came to adopt, these chapters explain why I am
an atheist, not a mere agnostic, about the gods: all gods. Thus Chapter 3, "Why God Deserves to Die:
Intellectual and Moral Indictments”, concentrates on charges against the biblical god: the god God belief
in whom is supposedly common to all three monotheistic religions, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.
And Chapter 4, “Trying to Resuscitate the God Concept: Philosophical Arguments”, discusses the
sanitized God that many philosophers try to erect in place of the ugly gods of traditional theism. I deal
with some of the standard arguments such as the ontological, the design, and the cosmological arguments
(including the now fashionable fine tuning argument) and show that none of them succeeds in rescuing
God from the grave. But issues regarding morality, not just reason, logic, and science, loom particularly
large.
They loom larger still in Chapter 5, "The Moral Argument for Atheism: a Logical Quandary for
Theists." My moral argument for atheism is an argument for the nonexistence of any sort of revealed god,
such as the Christian God in particular.
Chapter 6, "The Logic of Hell and Damnation: Another Logical Quandary", narrows the focus of moral
indictment. It demonstrates that the concept of the Christian God, as characterized by orthodox Christians
including leading theologians and philosophers of that faith, is self-contradictory. It leads to the
conclusion that the existence of such a god is not just wildly improbable but logically impossible.
That brings us to Chapter 7, "The Impossibility of an Afterlife: The Cheshire Cat Fallacy." I don't deny
that it is logically possible that we humans should survive our bodily deaths and go on to an afterlife in a
supernatural world. God might not be there, but we might. "Might", in the logical sense, that is. But is
there any good reason to suppose that the real world is such a world? I concentrate on rebutting standard
philosophical arguments in favour of the idea of survival, and then go on to argue for an ontology--my
own version of Emergent Materialism--according to which survival is metaphysically impossible. The
existence of a soul or mind after one's body has died, I argue, is as fanciful as Lewis Carroll's idea of the
Cheshire Cat's grin existing after its body has gone.
All this stuff about a supernatural world inhabited by God, gods, devils, and the souls of the departed,
is anathema to some Christians: not to the conservative majority but to some of a more "liberal"
persuasion. The "God" they like to talk about is the god of theologians who belong to the tradition of Paul
Tillich: those for whom God is something like "the infinite and inexhaustible depth and ground of all
being." If you're tempted by this sort of stuff then bear with me while I treat you to another little story from
Lewis Carroll: that of Alice and her exchanges with Humpty Dumpty. Hence the title of the final chapter,
Chapter 8: "Gobbledygook Gods: Playing Humpty Dumpty with Words." As I see it, the pseudo-theistic
"God" of liberals isn't worthy of the name.
This book presents a sustained argument for its conclusion: that belief in God--any god--deserves to
die. Its chapters are best read in sequence as many of them presuppose an understanding of what's gone
before. Nevertheless, I've tried to make provision for those who will read them out of sequence by
incorporating in each just enough repetition to make each chapter comprehensible in isolation from its
fellows.
Most chapters evolved from simpler origins. With one exception (Chapter 7) they had their beginnings
in oral presentations to live audiences: to undergraduate students; to seminars with colleagues; to public
audiences; to conference attendees; to members of the New Zealand Association of Rationalists and
Humanists; and the like. And despite the fact that they've all undergone substantial revision and expansion
since then--sometimes incorporating material from other papers I've written over the years--I've sought
throughout to preserve the cadences of ordinary speech rather than adopting the usual scholarly tone
characteristic of academic writing. Thus I've aspired to make my arguments stand on their own feet and be
accessible to the general reader by virtue of their clarity, conciseness, and cogency. And readability.
In this respect I've been much helped by my late partner, Juliet Fisher, who has a good ear for such
matters and who has read, or listened to me read, everything in the book at least a couple of times. So,
too, with my son Brett and my brother Murray, both of whom share her critical acumen and have
commented on whole chapters of the book in manuscript. Next up in the list of persons I want to thank are
three friends at the University of Auckland, philosophers Robert Nola and Fred Kroon and physicist Ron
Keam, each of whom has vetted (but is in no way responsible for) what I've written about probability,
science, and mathematics. And then there are all those other people who have helped in one way or
another: persons who have read parts of what I have written; persons whose positive comments have
encouraged me--despite setbacks occasioned by strokes over the past three years--to resume my project
and carry it through to completion. Chief among these are Australian philosopher of religion, Graham
Oppy, who first prompted me to put together a collection of my writing on religion and then stuck by me
during the vicissitudes of finding a publisher; also the American neurophysiologist, Yonatan Fishman,
who prompted me to elaborate on some unclear points in Chapter 7. Other names are too numerous to
mention, or for me to remember. You will know who you are and I say thanks to you all.
1
FROM FUNDAMENTALIST TO FREETHINKER
IT ALL BEGAN WITH SANTA
When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child; but when I became
a man, I put away childish things. (St. Paul, I Corinthians 13:11).

In some ways I'm glad that I was brought up as a Christian fundamentalist. Not because fundamentalism
gave me moral values that I cherish. On the contrary, many of the values I hold most dear were developed
in contradistinction to those found in the Bible. My burning sense of justice, for example, arose out of
abhorrence at the behavior of the Old Testament God, and revulsion at the doctrine of hellfire preached by
Jesus in the New Testament. And my strong sense of compassion grew from thinking about those who
have suffered in this life and who, if Christian doctrine were true, would suffer even more in the next life
for the simple sin of non-belief.
Why then my gladness? Because the fundamentalist beliefs of my early years gave me something tough
to chew on, something to cut my teeth on intellectually. The gummy mouthings of liberal preachers,
dishonestly clothing the wolf of fundamentalism in the softer semantics of liberal theology, was not for
me. Their evasive, obfuscating language could never satisfy my passion for truth. At least the
fundamentalist sect in which I grew up knew what it stood for: that the Bible was the word of God, that
mankind needed to be saved, that God had provided salvation through belief in the "Lord Jesus Christ”,
that we'd go to Hell if we didn't believe, and so on.
What I discovered, as my critical powers matured, was that the fundamentalist beliefs of my family and
forebears were almost totally without warrant in reason or experience. As I put it when I was about thirty
one years old, in my first public debate, I came to the conclusion that many of their beliefs, the beliefs
central to traditional Christianity, were both "morally obnoxious" and "intellectually pernicious."
Strong words, those. So I'll say more to justify them in a while. For the present, it is enough to say that I
doubt whether I would have come so readily to these conclusions had my starting point been that of an
unchallenged, and unchallenging, churchgoer in a more liberal tradition.
FUNDAMENTALIST ROOTS
My starting point, I have said, was that of a Christian fundamentalist. To be more specific, it was that of
an earnest young Baptist. Born in Auckland, New Zealand, in December 1930, I was the firstborn in a
family of ardent Baptists, with a maternal grandfather--Guy D. Thornton--who was a much-revered
Baptist minister and evangelist, with a set of forebears on his side of the family that stretched back to such
Christian notables as Robert and Mary Moffat, parents-in-law of the renowned David Livingstone.
One of my earliest memories is of an event that helped shape my childhood. It was Wednesday, 13 June,
1934. I was just over three-and-a-half years old. My parents had been summoned to the deathbed of my
grandfather, and I went with them.
For twenty years he had suffered grievously from a tropical disease, chronic bacillary dysentery.
Contracted soon after he became the first chaplain of the Anzacs in Cairo in 1914, it was caused by one of
those creations--the Shigella bacillus--that God, according to the book of Genesis, thought to be "very
good." Now it was taking its final toll. My grandmother, however, explained it differently in her
biography of her late husband:
A loving Father was not willing that His child should suffer more, nor was He "willing that he should
1
be so far from Him any longer." [Her italics]
Before he departed, the good reverend found time to pronounce a benediction over both his
grandchildren--my younger cousin Sibyl and me--expressing the hope that we might, if it were the will of
God,
“Tread the dark places of the earth to carry to those who sit in darkness the light that was lighting his
2
own feet through the valley of the shadow.”
He concluded, in my case, by saying that he was "casting [his] mantle over me."
So it was that I felt destined to follow in my grandfather's footsteps. And follow I did. In keeping with
the Baptist belief in full immersion, I took the plunge in my early teens, engaging wholeheartedly in
scriptural and theological studies and church activities. My mind was filled with reflections on the
foundations of my faith. My teenage years were filled with church activities: Baptist Harriers (cross-
country running) on Saturday afternoons and the Young People's Social on Saturday night; then, next day,
Sunday School or Christian Endeavour before the morning service at 11:00 am; back for Bible Class at
2:00 pm; evening service at 7:00 pm; and the hours in between discussing theological problems on street
corners with a handful of friends who also took their faith seriously.
Nor did my holidays afford a break. There were Bible Class camps at various "retreats" around
Auckland at which I competed in, and won, several sermonette contests. I'm told that I even "won" several
souls for Christ. There were annual Christian Crusader camps out on Ponui Island, during which Dr. Sam
Martin preached about the sin of masturbation, which he called "self-abuse," a sin which (by innuendo) he
identified with the sin against the Holy Ghost: the sin that will not be forgiven "neither in this world, nor
in that which is to come" (Matthew, 12:52). And there were the monthly meetings at the Bible Training
Institute of the Young People's Missionary Fellowship, which I had helped found. Even my days at Mt.
Albert Grammar School were infused by religion, especially when, at age fifteen, I became Secretary of
the Christian Crusaders, the junior version of the Evangelical Union.
My exposure to religious indoctrination was about as total as that of a Muslim child in a madrassa or a
Jewish one in a yeshiva. Not much rote-learning, perhaps, but the same suppression of critical
examination; the same substitution of faith-based reasoning for evidence-based reasoning and the same
elevation of unquestioning faith to a place of paramount virtue.
Yet being exposed to the disease of religion isn’t the same as being infected. And, even from my early
childhood, I seemed fairly immune to it. Not that I was untouched. It took years for the scars to fade. My
continuing aversion to all forms of faith-based reasoning, those in politics and economics as well as in
religion, has its roots in personal experience of the harm I’ve seen it do to others as well as to myself.
Some children seem gifted from birth with artistic, musical, or mathematical abilities. I was not one of
those. But I was fortunate enough to have had the sort of mind that couldn’t curb the impulse to question,
and the ability, from childhood, to detect ambiguities in words and fallacies in arguments. In short, I was
an unpopular possessor of what is popularly called “a critical mind.” That soon marked me out from my
peers in the Baptist community, making me a heretic, someone needing religious "re-education" at the
hands of pastors and theologians. Parents looked askance and steered their offspring away from close
association with me. Only two of my teenage friends stuck with me during that time. But neither of them--
so they subsequently said--had the moral courage to follow me into unabashed atheism. Not until decades
later. Societal pressures as much as intellectual timidity kept them in the closet of Christian conformity.
For years, both preferred to think of themselves as agnostics. As for the rest of the friends of my youth,
most of them became deacons, ministers, or missionaries, as did their own offspring in turn.
Does my own resistance to religious indoctrination prove it to be less dangerous than any other
disease? Of course not. As with other plagues that have wrought havoc on humans, killing, crippling, or
curtailing the development of most who are exposed, there have always been some whose immune
systems sooner or later “kick in” and offer them some form of protection. That doesn’t make any plague
the less to be feared; so too, with the plague of religion. I escaped the worst of its ravages. But most
don’t. A world-wide campaign to eradicate it--along with smallpox, polio, and other scourges--is as
desirable as it is unlikely.
PHILOSOPHICAL PREDISPOSITION
So how did I manage to break free from the Baptist belief system and emerge as a freethinker? Basically
by asking questions and not being satisfied with evasive answers or spurious reasoning. That's a simple
way of explaining it. But I can fairly say that from very early on I displayed many of the dispositions that
later characterized my career as an academic philosopher. Among other things, I had a desire for
conceptual clarity and a nose for the implications of beliefs and for any inconsistencies between them.
My atheism was, so to speak, home grown, not a function of having been seduced away by other
skeptics. Because I’d become preoccupied with secular philosophy rather than religion after taking up a
career as an academic philosopher in my twenties, I knew little of the writings of agnostics or atheists
until my fifties; and that was some thirty-odd years after I'd staked out my own independent rejection of
Christianity and all other forms of religion. I was seemingly born with an inability to accept beliefs on
faith, an ineluctable determination--of the kind that David Hume extolled--to proportion the strength of my
beliefs to the strength of the evidence for them.
THE DEMAND FOR EVIDENCE AS A BASIS FOR FAITH
For me when young, there was no escape from the demand for evidence. "Have faith," I was told. "But
faith in what?" I wanted to know. "Why have faith in this rather than that unless there's stronger evidence
for this rather than that?" "Why should I be a Baptist rather than a Catholic, a Christian rather than a Jew
or a Muslim?" These were questions that came to me in early childhood when I first became aware of the
diversity of religious faiths and the diversity of sects within each. They couldn't be answered by recourse
to faith alone. They required an examination of the credentials of each of the rival faiths and of the beliefs
of those who embraced no faith at all.
"But," some would object, "if you turn from theism to atheism, haven't you abandoned one 'ism' for
another, one faith for another?"
No. My belief that there is no God, like my belief that there are no fairies, is based on a combination of
good reasons: the absence of good evidence for the existence of such entities, together with an abundance
of compelling evidence for their nonexistence. I am, as it were, an atheist--not a mere agnostic--about
both. Indeed, I'm an atheist about both for many of the same reasons that Christians are atheists--not
agnostics--about the whole panoply of heathen gods: Baal, Zeus, Isis, Osiris, and the hundreds of other
gods you'll find listed in a good book on comparative religion.
My belief that no such supernatural entities exist, however, isn't an intransigent belief. If the heavens
were to open tomorrow and remain open with God revealing Himself to us daily by speaking to all
humans and exercising his much vaunted powers and goodness by putting an immediate end to disease,
warfare, injustice, and the whole realm of human and animal suffering, I might consider revising my
beliefs.
Woody Allen, I’ve heard, would be content if God would reveal himself by making a large deposit in
Woody's bank account. That would make me happy of course. But I'd want a lot more evidence than that: a
clear and unambiguous display of the supernatural powers that the theist's God is supposed to have,
something like the instant transformation of Earth into the Heaven that he could have created in the first
place. Maybe then I'd embrace theism once more.
But not before I'd asked him some pretty tough questions. Which theists' God was he? The Judaic God,
Yahweh, for whom Moses was chief prophet and Jesus an impostor? The Christian God who supposedly
revealed himself two thousand odd years ago to a handful of people in a minor province of the Roman
Empire? The Allah of Islam for whom Mohammed was chief prophet?
And if he declared himself the God of the Christians, I'd want to know his doctrinal affiliations. Was I
right in supposing him to be the God of the Baptists? If so, why hadn't he made it unequivocally clear to
rival Christian sects that we were indeed the true believers? Or was he, in fact, the God of one of these
other sects?
I'd want to ask him: "Why did you wait so long to make your existence indisputable, to display your
awesome powers, and to deal definitively with the problems of disease, disaster, and suffering, to the
solution of which compassionate mortals have dedicated their lives throughout the centuries?" More
importantly, I'd want to ask him: "Why did you create such a mess in the first place when you obviously
could have placed us immediately in a heavenly world?" And most important of all, I'd want to ask him:
"What are you going to do about all those people who never heard the name of your son, Jesus, or who--
having heard--found no good reason to believe him to be your son? What are you going to do with
apostates like me who, according to your son, are doomed to spend eternity suffering the tortures of the
damned?"
I couldn’t then and I can't now, conceive of any satisfactory answers. God might, perhaps, urge me to
have faith in his wisdom, justice, and mercy. But these three qualities, together with the epistemological
presupposition of faith itself, are precisely what I am calling into question. "Have faith" is the last resort
of those who have abandoned reason for an easy way out.
To be sure, religionists often speak of faith as some sort of third way of knowing recourse to which can
lead one to truths beyond the reach of human experience and reason. But faith, I came to think, is nothing
more than firm or confident belief. And religious faith is usually intransigent belief: closed-minded belief,
resolutely impervious to evidence of any kind. That sort of faith compromises intellectual and moral
integrity. I wanted nothing to do with it.
MY PILGRIM'S PROGRESS
In order to tell the story of how I became an atheist, I will depict my early years as ones in which I
undertook a journey along a difficult and sometimes daunting path. And I will now revisit certain of its
more salient vantage points, commenting on the incidents and episodes that occurred along the way, and
pausing to reflect on the vistas that opened up as I journeyed onward. You may, if you wish, think of my
journey as a kind of "Pilgrim's Progress," though one that took a different direction John Bunyan's hero.
CHILDHOOD: A PERIOD OF QUESTIONING
It all began with Santa. In hindsight, I see that it was questions about Santa that primed the pump of
critical inquiry for me. Up until the age of six or seven, I believed in Santa just as fervently as I believed
in Jesus and the nativity stories. I believed in Heaven as a place from which my grandfather, in the
company of God, watched my every move; and I believed in Hell as a place where the bad people go.
If anything, my belief in Santa was even more vivid, and more compelling, than these other beliefs.
After all, I'd actually seen and talked to Santa every Christmas when we went to the Farmers Trading
Company on Hobson Street. And sometimes I'd seen him, half an hour later, in Milne and Choyce on
Queen Street. Santa was out and about in so many shops in Auckland.
But soon I started asking questions. How many Santas were there? If, as my parents explained, the
Hobson Street Santa and the Queen Street Santa were only "pretend" Santas, where was the real Santa?
Was there, in fact, a real Santa as well as the pretend ones? If so, where did he live? How did he manage
to visit all of the children in the world on the very same night? How did he get down our chimney without
getting covered with soot, or visit my bedroom without leaving visible footprints? It seemed to me that his
ability to do all these extraordinary things made him something of a miracle-worker, a bit like Moses and
Jesus.
More worrying were some ethical questions. Why did Santa discriminate so blatantly by giving rich
kids things like bicycles when my stocking contained nothing other than trinkets like lead soldiers, a bag
of sweets, and a few pieces of fruit? Why did he reward some of the nasty kids that I knew more than he
rewarded good little boys like me?
I was troubled even more when I discovered that some of the kids at school didn't believe in Santa
anymore. They said it was my parents who'd filled my stocking.
When finally confronted with the whole package of my perplexities, my parents confessed that Santa
stories were just pleasant make-believe. But that, too, troubled me. They had misled me, I insisted. So
how could I trust the other stories that they told me? And how could I trust my own beliefs if in this
instance they had proved to be false? How much of what I believed was myth? How much was based in
reality? I resolved never again to believe just on the basis of someone else's say-so. Many of my
questions about Santa later found clear parallels in questions about religious matters.
MANY SANTAS, MANY RELIGIONS AND GODS
My questions about how many "Santas" there were, and which if any, was the real one, found an echo in
problems about the diversity of religious sects and the question of which, if any, was the true one.
This first thrust itself upon me when I was eight and wanted to play with the Kelly kids who lived just
opposite. My mother objected vehemently. They were Roman Catholics, she explained, followers of "the
whore of Rome." But, I asked, didn't they believe in Jesus? Weren't they Christians, too? Yes, she replied:
they believed in Jesus, and they were Christians alright, but they weren't true Christians.
But if there were true religions and false religions, I reflected, how could I be sure that my one was the
true one? If I'd been brought up as one of the Kelly kids, wouldn't I have been a Catholic too? Did I share
the beliefs of my parents and grandparents only because I'd been brought up as a Baptist? Might not all the
religions I'd heard of be fakes like the different "Santas" I'd seen in the shops? Was there in fact a true
religion at all? Or a true God? Might not the Bible stories be just pleasant make-believe, like stories
about Santa?
RELIGIOUS EXPERIENCES: GENUINE OR SPURIOUS?
My childhood reflections on the rivalry between religions had other implications. We born-again Baptists
believed we had a special relationship with God. We spoke to him in prayer, and he spoke to us in return,
sometimes providing vivid experiences of his presence in our lives. We believed that we were doing
God's will. Yet sincere believers of contrary faiths also believed that they were doing God's will. They
had religious experiences different from, and sometimes contrary to, ours. I was almost envious, for a
time, of the Kelly kids' claim to see visions of the Virgin Mary. Why didn't God reveal himself to
Protestants that way? Why were the miracles of Lourdes reserved for Catholics? Were they deluding
themselves? Might I not have been deluding myself when, aged fourteen, our minister plunged me under
the baptismal waters and I felt the "indwelling of the Holy Spirit"? What with the church choir singing,
"Where he leads me I will follow" in tones of deepest solemnity, it was all very moving.
Then I learned how, throughout history, competing armies--often fired up by religious conviction--
would both claim to be fighting "in the name of God." And I heard, during World War II, that many
German Christians believed God was fighting on their side, not ours. It seemed to me that only the most
churlish believers could claim that their own religious experiences alone were genuine. Could it be that
none were?
I came to question the status of religious experiences for other reasons as well. Evangelical crusades
sometimes took place in the Auckland Town Hall, and I would be there in the midst of the massed choir
arrayed behind the evangelist, sounds from the massive pipe organ reverberating through our bodies. Each
night I watched the newly converted--often in paroxysms of guilt and grief--as they "gave themselves to
Jesus" and were shepherded off into the wings for counseling. I could hardly doubt their sincerity. Or
could I? What was I to think when some reappeared the next night, to be converted again, and sometimes
still a third time? How much store could be placed in the intensity of such religious enthusiasm? I was
embarrassed; then uneasy; then skeptical of the evidential worth of subjective experiences like these,
including my own.
FORMATIVE READING AND UNINTENDED CONSEQUENCES
One of the consequences of my parents' religious exclusivism was that I spent most of my early years up
to the age of twelve as a relatively solitary child. There weren't enough "suitable" children for me to play
with. So I spent much of my spare time reading. And most of the books I read were religious ones.
One of the earliest was Bible Stories for Children. It retold, in simple terms, stories from both the Old
and New Testaments. Adam and Eve, Noah and the great flood, Moses and the wicked Pharaoh, David
and Goliath, Jonah in the belly of the "great fish", Mary and Joseph going down to Egypt, the three Wise
Men, the Nativity, scenes from the adult life and miracles of Jesus, St. Paul's shipwreck. They all featured
in the text, and many in the colorful pictures. It sparked my desire to know more.
That's one reason why I turned to the Holy Bible itself: the unvarnished and unexpurgated King James
Version. Another reason was that my parents had enrolled me in both the Auckland Sunday School Union
and the Scripture Union, both organizations whose examinations on selected biblical passages I sat
successfully at frequent intervals, thereby accumulating quite a nice little library of novels by approved
Christian authors.
One of my book prizes, Twelve Brave Boys, left a special mark on me. It was filled with adventure.
But, some of the stories conspired with the sense of mission spawned by my grandfather's deathbed
consecration to make me feel that I was indeed one of God's chosen, like some of the brave boys who had
dedicated their lives to His service.
Another book that left its mark, one from my parents' library rather than chosen from the Scripture
Union Bookshop, was John Bunyan's The Pilgrim's Progress. I struggled with the difficult prose, and
found its archaic worldview difficult to understand. But it encouraged me to think that, no matter what
difficulties I might be encountering in understanding my faith, I--with help from on high--would win
through in the end. I certainly did not envisage that my own intellectual pilgrimage would lead me away
from "the faith of my fathers" rather than towards its reaffirmation.
My acquaintance with nonreligious literature was limited. But I took special pleasure from Arthur
Mee's Children's Encyclopedia, spending countless hours poring over its contents.
I turned, also, to my own grandfather's writings and my grandmother's posthumous biography of his life.
Guy Thornton wrote several books: The Wowser (a semiautobiographical novel drawing upon his
experiences among the loggers in the center of the North Island), Out to Win (a book on soul-winning),
and the autobiographical With the Anzacs in Cairo: The Tale of a Great Fight. All three were effusions
of the evangelical certitude that had characterized most of his adult life. It wasn't until I read my
grandmother's biography of her late husband that I made a salutary discovery: at one point he had
struggled with the notion that God could send people to Hell, and had even gone so far as to avow
atheism, albeit only briefly.
Much of my reading had consequences that my parents surely did not intend. From Bible Stories for
Children I garnered the impression that these stories were akin to the stories of Hans Christian Anderson
and various other fairy tales. The illustrations looked similar. There was an air of fantasy about them; and
they differed, it seemed to me, only insofar as I was told that the Bible stories were supposedly true,
while the others were not.
My studies of the Holy Bible itself sowed the seeds of a different disquiet. I didn't confine myself to the
sanitized selections that had been prescribed for examination. I would read on, and on, often until late at
night. And what I found was often deeply disturbing.
If God were a god of love, why did he punish Adam and Eve and all their descendants so severely?
Why did he drown everyone except Noah and his family in apparent violation of his own commandment
not to kill? Why did he "harden" the Pharaoh's heart every time that the Pharaoh relented and wanted to let
the children of Israel go? I had hundreds of questions. I wanted answers but received none other than
words to the effect that "God knows best."
THE PROBLEM OF EVIL
The so-called "problem of evil" began to rear its head, in various guises. Why did a perfectly good, all-
powerful, and all-knowing God create a world full of so many natural disasters and suffering? Why did he
knowingly create humans like Adam and Eve--or the Devil, for that matter--knowing that they would sin?
And--worse still--why was the Bible full of stories of his own evil deeds, ranging from repeated
genocide to sending unbelievers to suffer eternally in hellfire? The problem of God's own evil deeds
troubled me even more than the problems of natural and moral evil.
Bunyan's The Pilgrim's Progress posed another sort of problem. I found his personification of various
abstract concepts in such figures as those of Mr. Obstinate, Mr. Pliable, and Mr. Legality, troubling, even
though I eventually came to understand their role as a literary device in his allegory. I started to become
suspicious of what philosophers call reification: treating the name of an abstraction as if it were the name
of some real entity. This suspicion subsequently rendered much of Plato's philosophy foreign to my own
way of thinking and came to fruition when, in my later years as an academic philosopher, I eventually got
around to thinking carefully about abstract nouns such as "the mind," "intelligence," "consciousness," and
the like, and came to the conclusion that they aren't names of substantial entities that we possess in
addition to our physical bodies. Rather, they refer to properties of living organisms. As I explain in
Chapter 6, I eventually came to think that my mind, intelligence, or consciousness can no more be
detached from, or survive, the death of my body than can the smile of the Lewis Carroll's Cheshire Cat
once its body has disappeared. To think otherwise is to indulge in the fallacy of reification and live in the
fantasy land of Alice. So much for the soul and the prospects of its immortality.
Arthur Mee's Children's Encyclopedia opened my eyes to a vast domain of information. Starting with
religious subjects, I eventually branched out into other areas. It was then, I think, that my passion for
knowledge commenced. I was fascinated by the grand sweep of human history, by accounts of ancient
civilizations, and by the discoveries that then-modern science was making about the structure of the
universe. Much of what I learned fell outside, and was clearly incompatible with, the worldview
encompassed by the Bible and the time it envisaged as having passed since the Creation in about 4004
B.C.E.
HISTORICAL QUESTIONS UNANSWERED
I wanted to put the Bible stories into historical perspective. When exactly did Moses live? I knew
something of the history of Egypt and the scores of pharaohs who'd ruled that ancient land. They were
usually referred to by name. But the books of Genesis and Exodus usually talked only about "Pharaoh."
Which one, I asked. No one of my acquaintance seemed to know.
Again, I wanted to know more about the life and times of Jesus. When exactly did he live? And what
else was going on at the time? No answers were forthcoming. Precise dates were given for countless
other historical figures such as Julius Caesar. Though strangely, not for the Son of God.
It began to dawn on me that most biblical events were recounted in a curiously ahistorical way. Why?
The question stuck with me and was reawakened years later, in my early teens, when I came across
George Bernard Shaw's preface to his Androcles and the Lion and then Albert Schweitzer's The Quest of
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the Historical Jesus. Only then did I realize that there was a serious issue here: one of which I'd had still
earlier inklings when I'd thought of the tales in Bible Stories for Children as somehow akin to fairy
stories, or (at the very least) to the ahistorical tales of King Arthur, for whom also I could find no dates.
Until then, I had shared the standard assumption that Jesus had been born at the beginning of 1 C.E. For
wasn't that the year that was supposed (by us in the West, anyway) to be the turning point of human
history: the year in which God came down to Earth? It took me years to discover just how questionable
this presupposition is.
HEAVEN AND THE AFTERLIFE
At about the same time, when I was ten or eleven, I was starting to discern other deep difficulties lurking
within my Christian faith. One night, after being tucked into bed and saying my prayers, I asked my mother
what Heaven was really like. I simply wanted a concrete understanding of all the Heaven-talk to which I
was accustomed. Where was Heaven located? Since Jesus had ascended to it, in which direction did he
go? How fast? What would its streets look like when we got there? What would we eat, and do all day?
She didn't know, of course, or even pretend to. We would just have to wait until we got there.
Stymied on that one, I ventured to ask what God himself was like. I got the standard answer about the
divine attributes. God could do anything, she began. God also knew everything. And . . .
GOD'S FOREKNOWLEDGE AND PREDESTINATION
We didn't proceed further, to God's perfect goodness, because the concept of omniscience seized my
attention. What exactly did his knowledge include? Did he know where my father had been all day? Did
he know what I had been doing all day? "Yes, dear: God knows all that," she answered. At that point my
mind kicked into gear. If God knew all that, did he also know what I would do tomorrow? "Yes dear, he
knows all that." My head spun. If he knew what I was going to do tomorrow, and the day after, and the day
after that... then surely I couldn't do anything tomorrow or at any other time, other than what he already
knew I would do.
I had tried to flesh out, in concrete detail, exactly what it means to say that God knows everything. And
the implications, when I thought about them, were profoundly disturbing. I checked on the Bible and found
again passages such as Romans 8:29: "For whom he did foreknow, he also did predestinate..." I had hit
upon the theological problem of free will, God's foreknowledge, predestination; a problem that, in its
more philosophical guise of free will and determinism, I was eventually to address in my Ph.D. thesis
Free Will and Logic.
At the time, however, the impact of this "discovery" about God's nature was visceral as well as
intellectual. For weeks afterwards I wandered about like a zombie, feeling as if I were a mere puppet, or
at least God's plaything. A case of post-traumatic automatism, perhaps?
It was the problem of predestination that first prompted me, when eleven or twelve years old, to start
reading the three-volume work that grandfather Thornton had bequeathed to me: A. H. Strong's Systematic
4
Theology (published in 1907) . One of the foundational works of fundamentalist Christianity, I consulted it
frequently over the ensuing years. Yet it opened my mind to still more problems.
CHRISTOLOGY
I discovered, for instance, that the prevailing Christology (theory about Christ's nature) among the early
Christians, commencing in about 70 C.E. and continuing in pockets around Europe for a thousand years or
so, was that of the Docetists, a form of Gnosticism. They claimed that Christ was a mere apparition, not a
person of flesh and blood. It was Docetism, I subsequently learned, that prevailed prior to both the
composition and circulation of the incarnation stories of the Gospels, and prior by nearly three centuries
to the orthodox doctrine eventually promulgated at Chalcedon in 451 C.E. I wondered how the Docetists
could have thought Jesus to be a ghostly apparition if he had indeed walked and talked among them. And I
wondered why it took so long for the supposedly "correct" doctrine to prevail. Why couldn't God have
made the "true" doctrine so indisputably clear at the outset that none of the heresies that tore the Church
apart for several centuries could have arisen?
INERRANCY
I discovered, too, that there were several rival accounts of what it meant to say that the Bible was the
"word of God," and read with increasing skepticism Strong's defense of the doctrine that in all matters to
do with science, history, and morality, the Bible is inerrant. It didn't require much logical acumen on my
part to discern the circularity of Strong's argument that the scriptures must be without error since they
report that Jesus himself had accepted them (those of the Jewish scripture that is) as true.
As for Strong's attempts to explain away any apparent errors by providing face-saving interpretations, I
wondered why God would leave so much room for contrary construals of his words. Didn't God mean
what he had so clearly said? Or didn't he know how to say what he really did mean? I could not help but
wonder at the presumptuousness of those who put their own words into God's mouth, as if he couldn't
speak for himself. For it seemed to me, that here was the source of most of the doctrinal rivalry that had
bedeviled the history of Christianity.
PREDESTINATION AND FREE WILL
As for the doctrine of predestination, I pored over Strong's unsuccessful attempt to reconcile it with the
concept of free will, underlining over a hundred passages and writing twenty-odd comments in the margin
of Volume I, Chapter 3, on "The Decrees of God." Twice, I was so outraged by his arguments that I simply
wrote the expletive "Bosh!" in the margin.
Worse still, when I turned to the Bible itself, I found not a trace of the idea that human beings--as
opposed to God himself--possessed genuine free will. Rather, it was God himself who took responsibility
for assigning each of us to one or other of two camps: that of the elect who would, by virtue of his grace
(and “not of anything in ourselves”), join him in Heaven; and on the other hand, that of the reprobates who
were foreordained to damnation in Hell. And the Westminster Confession, which Strong himself
(strangely) endorsed, put it clearly enough: "God did from all eternity, by the most just and holy counsel
of his own will, freely and unchangeably ordain whatever comes to pass." No obfuscatory mincing of
words there.
Until near the end of my twelfth year most of my doubts churned within the confines of my own mind.
Only occasionally had I ventured to voice them to anyone else: my mother. Hers was a fairly simple and
unsophisticated faith, certainly not versed in the theological doctrines that I was wrestling with. Sadly, in
the close confines of our kitchen, and because of pressure from my persistence, our exchanges grew
increasingly disputatious, confrontational, and even violent.
But then we moved house twice more, first to one part of Mt. Albert then to another, and I found a
wider arena for discussion. A few friends attending Bible Class with me at the Mt. Albert Baptist Church
were also interested in my quest for understanding. Like me, they thought that St. Augustine's motto "Faith
in search of understanding" put the cart before the horse. For us, understanding was a prerequisite of faith.
We wanted to understand, for instance, what sort of experience counted as being "born again." If one had
been born again, could one subsequently fall from grace and be damned? What of the comforting doctrine
"Once saved, always saved"? What was the point of being a minister or missionary if everyone to whom
you preach is already predestined to either salvation or damnation?
Our deliberations took place in Bible Class, on street corners, and in my closest friend's basement.
They were delicious days in which we experienced the exhilaration of thinking for ourselves outside of
the boundaries of orthodox dogma.
But the path of free inquiry seldom runs smooth. News of the difficult questions that I and my closest
friends were raising in Bible Class had consequences. My parents wanted higher authorities to deal with
my friends and me lest our heretical tendencies spread to others.
HERESY
When I was about fifteen, the church set up a monthly "Brains Trust." We'd submit questions, and they'd
reply without granting an opportunity for subsequent debate. A couple of us soon learned to preempt their
puerile answers by couching our questions in more complex form. One that I remember submitting--in
writing--went something like this:
My question is Q. You might want to answer A, or B, or perhaps even C. But if you answer A, then
you've got to deal with problems 1, 2, and 3. And if you answer B, then you're faced with problems 4 and
5. While if you answer C, then...
And so on. They rejected the last question I had sent to them. It was over three-and-a-half pages long.
Our Brains Trust sessions soon came to an end.
Next I was referred to a couple of "experts" for counseling. My parents had long insisted that there
were Christian believers aplenty who were much cleverer than I. And I could not but agree.
First, I spent an evening with the President of the Baptist Theological College, but he gave up on me
before 9 pm. Then came a day in the Titirangi home of the redoubtable Dr. E. M. Blaiklock, Professor and
Head of Classics at the University of Auckland, a friend of my father, "Uncle Ted" to me from childhood,
and an occasional lay preacher at the church. As a youth of fifteen, I held him in awe, so prepared
thoughtfully for the occasion.
THE HISTORICITY OF JESUS
Our daylong discussions ranged over a host of topics. One had to do with the historicity of Jesus. He had
recently delivered a sermon in which he had brought the full weight of his classical scholarship to bear on
an attempt to prove that Jesus had in fact lived about 2,000 years ago. Most of the congregation was
incensed. Why belabor the obvious, the unquestionable presupposition of our faith? But I had been
fascinated. And so I took up the question again.
By that time my own little quest for the historical Jesus had yielded a seeming inconsistency in the
Gospels' accounts of the date of his birth. Matthew 2:1 said that he was born "in the days of Herod the
king." And since Herod had died in 4 B.C.E. that meant that my old assumption of a birth at the beginning
of 1 C.E. had to be wrong.
Worse was to come. For Luke 2:1-2 said that he was born "when Cyrenius [otherwise known as
Quirinius] was governor of Syria." But that, so far as I could discover, was in 6 C.E. Blaiklock's
proposed solution was to claim that Cyrenius had been governor once before, during the period 6-4
B.C.E. That seemed good enough at the time, so we moved on to other matters.
Only decades later did I discover the truth.
First, I discovered that Blaiklock's proposed reconciliation of the two Gospel accounts was spurious.
Both he and I had failed to take account of Luke 2:1. For there we find that the governorship of Cyrenius
during which Jesus was supposed to be born, was concurrent with the period during which Augustus
Caesar issued a decree "that all the world should be taxed." But that was during Cyrenius's second term,
i.e., during or after 6 C.E. The inconsistency with Matthew 2:1 is every bit as real as I had first thought it
to be. So the Gospel accounts certainly can't be relied upon.
Second, I learned that independent historical evidence of Jesus' very existence, let alone his alleged
5
date of birth, simply does not exist. In his book Jesus Christ: Man or Myth published many years
afterward, Blaiklock confessed: "Jesus is authenticated in no other way, outside the gospels, save by [first
century] Josephus and a sentence in a Roman historian [first century, Tacitus]"
But he didn't do justice to the fact that most New Testament scholars regard the passages in Josephus as
interpolations originating in the fourth century. Some scholars think that they came from the hand of fourth
century Bishop Eusebius, who is also suspected of forging a purported letter from Jesus to someone
named Abgarus. In any case, the passages were unknown to much earlier Christian apologists, such as the
third century Origen. Origen had gone so far as to chide Josephus for not even mentioning Jesus.
As for the Roman historian, Tacitus, it should be noted that the "one sentence" Blaiklock refers to was
written around 116 C.E. and that, in the view of many scholars, it amounts only to a report of what was
being said by Christian missionaries at that time.
Little wonder that when, in Appendix 2 of Jesus Christ: Man or Myth, the good professor gave a list
of important dates of the period, he was able to be specific about many other figures, but not about Jesus.
The year 5 B.C.E, he said, was the year in which Seneca was born. But it was only the "presumed" date
of the nativity. And, further betraying his uncertainty, he described 29 C.E. as the "presumed" date of the
crucifixion. He could confidently give dates of publication for many of the most important writings of the
first century, but none for the Gospels.
So when, if at all, did the incarnation occur? The Gospels, full of inconsistencies, absurdities, factual
error, and evangelizing propaganda, are historically unreliable. And secular history of the time knows
nothing of such a supposedly momentous event, or of others reported in the Gospels. The fact is that
Blaiklock didn't know, and neither does anyone else know for certain, when--or even if--God (or the Holy
Ghost or Jesus the Christ) visited this insignificant planet of ours (all in order, supposedly, to save a few
of the "elect" from his own unseemly vengeance).
EVIL, FREE WILL, AND RESPONSIBILITY
We spent most of the day, however, on the issues that troubled me most: the problems of moral and natural
evil; the problem of hellfire and damnation; the problem of particularity (why God would announce his
plan for universal salvation to only a handful of people, at only one time and place); questions about the
doctrine of salvation and why God would demand the blood-sacrifice of his son in order to atone for the
sins of his creatures; questions about how creatures created without flaw--Satan, Adam and Eve--could
fall from grace; why, according to the doctrine of original sin, God would impute sin to all of Adam and
Eve's descendants; and so on.
Questions about free will and responsibility predominated. Not only in connection with the doctrine of
predestination, but in other contexts as well. It had become clear to me by then that, although there was
some sense in which I did in fact sometimes act "of my own free will" and was responsible for the actions
I then performed, there was also some "deeper" sense in which I was neither free nor responsible. I
couldn't see why the buck should stop with me. After all, I didn't choose who I was going to be: who my
parents were, for example, or what kind of soul I had (if I had one). How then could I be ultimately
responsible for what I was, and therefore did? It was these deeper senses of "free" and "responsible" that
were threatened by the doctrine of predestination, for--according to that doctrine--it was God who was
ultimately responsible for my free acts and for my final fate.
My own ultimate responsibility for my free acts was also threatened, I thought, by other considerations
having little to do with theological doctrine. World War II had been raging, and it was all Hitler's fault. Or
so we all believed. A curious question haunted me: "What if I had been Hitler?" Then, I thought, I would
have done what Hitler had done; and it would all have been my fault. I wasn't asking merely, "What if I'd
been born in the same circumstances as Hitler?" Rather it was a question about identity, personal identity
in particular: "What if I were identical with Hitler?" He didn't choose his identity, who he was, any more
than did I. So was he really at fault for the acts that had flowed from the person he was?
I'm not too sure to this day how to answer the question, or even whether it makes logical sense. It is
even more puzzling, perhaps, than the question posed decades later by the philosopher, Thomas Nagel,
who asked: "What is it like to be a bat?" But it did set me thinking about how lucky I was that I was in fact
Ray Bradley, not Adolph Hitler. Was it just the luck of the draw, as it were? Translating my perplexity,
and sense of good fortune, back into the theological context, I felt the force of the saying, "There, but for
the grace of God, go I." Was Hitler ultimately responsible? Was anyone other than God ultimately
responsible? Blaiklock said that it was all a mystery for which God would one day reveal the answer.
Hitler's name came up again in connection with the problem of moral evil. I wanted to know: why
would God permit his creatures, like Hitler, to commit so many morally evil deeds? Blaiklock's answer,
in keeping with that of other Christian apologists, then and now, was that God has given us the gift of free
will and couldn't take it away without transforming us into zombies.
But surely, I objected, there was a third alternative. God could allow Hitler, for example, to freely
choose his policies but then, by means of timely miracles, ensure that Hitler's intentions were frustrated.
Why couldn't he strike him down with a heart attack or ensure that there was a mechanical failure in the
aircraft in which he was flying? For that matter, why couldn't he intervene in some such way every time
anyone formed an evil intent? That wouldn't take away our free will. On the contrary, we'd soon learn not
even to try to translate evil thought into evil action. And we would no more be zombies than are the
millions of people around the world who are "struck down" by disease or mishap every year.
Blaiklock invoked the biblically spurious belief in free will, again, in order to answer my questions
about natural evil: Why did God create a world rife with disease and disaster, fire, flood, famine, and the
rest? "Blame it on the Devil" was Blaiklock's answer. God's original creation, he claimed, was perfect,
and God had very correctly surveyed it and said that it was "very good." It was the Devil, Satan, who'd
messed it up. God, I was supposed to believe, had too given Satan the poisoned chalice of free will, a gift
that he had abused by spoiling God's good work. At our cost.
But that wouldn't do, I objected. Since God was supposed to be all-powerful, he could easily at any
time--and preferably sooner rather than later--deprive Satan of his awesome powers, rendering impotent
his evil intent. According to the Book of Revelation, God would eventually bind Satan in chains forever.
So why didn't God do it now? Why hadn't he done it in the first place, the moment Satan began his evil
career? Again, all was mystery.
Blaiklock did his best. But it wasn't good enough. Calling it all a deep mystery simply heightened my
desire to penetrate mystery's inner workings by exposing the contradictions and rejecting indefensible
doctrines. Only reason could do that. Faith merely locked the door on mystery and tried to hide the key.
At the end of a day that tested my intellectual stamina beyond anything I'd experienced before, he had a
simple confession: "Ray, I can't answer your questions. All I can do is ask you to go to the Bible Training
Institute Bookroom and buy the following books.... Read and pray." He wrote out a substantial check. I
purchased the books, two of them being C. S. Lewis's The Problem of Pain (1940) and Screwtape Letters
(1942) both of which he had recently published. I read. I prayed. But the heavens were closed.
THE EVOLUTION DEBATE
The year before my Titirangi talks with Blaiklock, our Fourth Form English and History teacher, Maurice
Hutchings, decided that we should learn the art of debating. The topic chosen was "Creation versus
Evolution." I volunteered, along with a Seventh-Day Adventist class-mate, to take up the cudgels on
behalf of creationism. I began researching all the antievolutionist literature that was heaped on me once
my mission was known.
The debate occurred about three weeks later. That night I had to report on its outcome to my parents.
They detected my reluctance to elaborate on the simple statement that we had won by a vote or two. Only
under pressure did I confess that, in spite of winning, I could no longer believe that for which I had
argued.
In my view, the antievolutionist literature that I'd read was full of spurious arguments against crude
caricatures of what evolutionists had actually said. And I'd thought that the opposition's arguments for
evolutionary theory were pretty convincing. Besides, I pointed out, there was a difference between
believing in creation (that the universe owed its existence to a creator-god) and believing in creationism
(that the world was created in the way depicted in Genesis, complete with species that reproduced only
"according to their kind").
My parents were outraged. My mother called me, a son of the Devil. I said she was a bigot. "Do
something, Reg!", she screamed. And my father, a peaceable man by nature except when goaded on by my
mother, reacted by attacking me physically. I ran from home to spend most of a moonlit and frosty night
shivering in a concrete shelter among the sheep in the crater of nearby Mt. Albert. Memories of the
sheep's forlorn bleating are with me to this day. I was fourteen years old.
Then a year later, in 1946, the very same teacher who'd set up the debate spotted me wearing my
Christian Crusader badge. He asked me if I knew much of the history of the Crusades and suggested that I
might want to find out more. I read about them, and threw away my badge.
FLIRTING WITH BUDDHISM, THEN DEISM, THEN AGNOSTICISM
The following year, when I was in the Sixth Form, I won an essay competition and selected The Life of
the Buddha as my prize. The ethics of Siddhartha Gautama Buddha, I discovered, had anticipated most of
the much-vaunted Sermon on the Mount, by about six centuries. And Siddhartha himself came across as
rather more wise and virtuous than Jesus. I couldn't buy into the doctrine of samara, the wheel of
reincarnation, but the idea of karma, the fruits of one's actions (in this world at least), made sense. And
his notion of nirvana, a state of nothingness where there are neither sensations nor ideas, and in which all
personal identity is lost, seemed both more plausible and more pleasant than the Christian prospect of an
eternity in Heaven, for a few, or in Hell, for most.
I did flirt with Madame Blatavsky's Theosophy (one of Buddhism's nineteenth century spin-offs) for a
month or so, but rapidly came to the conclusion that it was mainly mumbo-jumbo.
By the time I was seventeen, attending Auckland Teachers College by day while commencing a part-
time degree at the university by night, I'd pretty much given up on Christianity and all other forms of
revealed religion.
Yet I thought for a while that some form of deism might be defensible, deism being the belief in some
sort of Supreme Being who created the world and then left it to its own devices. I tried out the standard
philosophical arguments--the cosmological argument, the teleological (design) argument, and the
ontological argument--in the senior sermonette contest at a Bible Class camp in Orewa. I tied for first
place with one of the students from the Baptist Theological College but was criticized for being "less
evangelical" than my rival. Actually, I was surprised at having been ranked so high, for the arguments I'd
propounded had seemed to me unsound despite my best attempts to give them a positive spin. That was
the last time I really thought I might find a rational basis for belief in any sort of religion: theism, or even
deism.
Nevertheless, I did preserve, for a while, the liberal Christian idea that the Jesus myth was worth
preserving for the moral values it enshrined. But then the doctrine of hellfire got to me again, and I came
to the same conclusion as Mark Twain. As he had put it, "the palm for malignity must be granted to Jesus,
the inventor of hell . . ."
As for agnosticism, that seemed to me a refuge for the timid and spineless, for those who couldn't see,
or wouldn't face up to, the implications of the fact that they were atheists, not agnostics, about Santa
Claus. So, by the age of eighteen, I was an atheist about all gods and other creatures of imagination, myth,
and superstition. First, a self-avowed (but still closeted) atheist; then a bit later, an unabashed one. No
longer in fear of the Devil, I saw no need to cower before that unfashionable word, "atheist."
THE DARK SIDE OF FUNDAMENTALISM
Given what I've told you of my story so far, you could be forgiven for supposing that my struggles to free
myself from the bondage of Baptist beliefs occurred in an atmosphere of sweetness and light. How about
the darker side that we normally associate with the term "fundamentalism"? Condemnation of films,
dancing, immodest clothing, lipstick, alcohol, and the like? Prohibitions against work--using trams or
even doing one's homework--on the Lord's Day? Blasphemy charges? Book-burnings? Beating those who
dared to differ? Sad to say, I experienced all these at the hands of those who most sincerely sought to save
my soul from perdition: my parents.
BOOK-BURNING AND BEATINGS
The book-burning occurred when my biology teacher, Peter Ohms, lent me a textbook outlining
evolutionary theory and a novel depicting St. Paul as a misogynist who occasionally sought relief in the
warm flesh of a woman of the night. Both books disappeared mysteriously from my shelves. It was only
when questioned that my parents revealed the fate of both. They'd thrown both books into a backyard
bonfire along with "other garbage." My teacher was magnanimous about the loss of his books. But that
didn't erase my shame and outrage.
The beatings, in particular, left their mark on me; not least in a broken nose that had to be repaired
surgically. It had been inflicted on me after the evolution debate, before I'd fled to the local mountaintop.
The beatings had begun when I was ten or eleven with the kitchen confrontations with my mother over
issues to do with God's foreknowledge. They continued with increasing severity as my questioning
became more persistent and their fears for my soul grew more intense. And they ended only when our new
neighbor Balfour Joseph intervened and threatened to call the police were they to occur again. That was
more than a decade after they'd begun. It's hard to defend yourself (even at the age of twenty two) when
two people are attacking you, and one of them is a powerful man outweighing you by more than twenty kg
(over forty lb.)
The intervention of a neighbor set me free from the violence being done to my body. And my embrace
of atheism set my mind free from the bondage of religious belief.
But I was not yet fully free. So long as the economic conditions in the first decade or so after WW2,
and of our working-class family in particular, made it necessary for me to continue living at home, I had to
keep my atheism under wraps as best I could. Or so it seemed to me at the time. Besides I still loved my
parents, understanding as I did just why their faith made them act as they did. And that lasted for the full
seven years during which I pursued my career as a primary school teacher by day and studies--first for a
BA, then for an MA--at the university by night. Only when I left New Zealand for Australia at the end of
1954 on a scholarship to pursue doctoral studies, did I feel fully able to enjoy the delights of being a
freethinker.
Being a freethinker does not mean being free from the constraints of rationality, of logic and well-
attested evidence. But it does mean that one is free to examine, to subject to critical scrutiny, and even to
reject, any doctrine and any belief no matter how wide-held or orthodox. No dogma is sacrosanct.
THE DELIGHTS OF BEING A FREETHINKER
The delights of thinking freely came in part from my exploration of philosophy. I'd first been exposed to it
during my early teens while reading theology. Quotes from great philosophers abounded. Those little
tidbits were enough to stimulate my desire to study the subject when first I enrolled at Auckland
University College in 1948. My parents objected. "You might lose your faith," they said, little knowing I'd
already lost it. So it wasn't until the following year, 1949, that I got my closest friend Barry Holdaway (a
law student and member of the church) to persuade them that no harm would be done by my studying
ethics and logic. Otherwise, philosophy was forbidden. And I didn’t start my philosophical studies until
my second year.
That year I learned to appreciate the power of logic to subject all reasoning, in no matter what subject,
to its scrutiny and authority. I subsequently came to disparage the use of logic to argue for a predetermined
conclusion. That's mere rationalization. And I increasingly came to understand the role of logic as the
judge not the slave of reasoning. It is the ultimate arbiter, not of the truth or falsity of the factual claims
made by different disciplines, but of the reasoning that occurs in those disciplines. It isn't multi-
disciplinary but supra-disciplinary. All this eventually bore fruit in my PhD thesis titled "Free Will and
Logic" (1960), a sustained logical analysis of a notion--that of free will--that featured prominently in
discussions of both metaphysics and religion.
MATURING AS A FREETHINKING ATHEIST
By the mid-fifties, then, I'd put religious matters behind me. Been there, done that. But then came 1963. By
then I’d taught at the University of New South Wales for three years, at Oxford university for a couple of
terms, and had been appointed Senior Lecturer at the Australian National University, Canberra. By then
too my atheism was fairly well-known. So it wasn't surprising to find myself invited to engage in public
debate with a Catholic priest. I used it as an occasion to proclaim the conclusion I'd reached as a teen-
ager: Christianity is both intellectually pernicious and morally abhorrent.
That was enough to give me a reputation as a fairly aggressive atheist, a reputation that followed me
back across the Tasman when, at age thirty two, I was appointed Professor and Head of Philosophy back
at my old university in Auckland.
Discussion of religion had long been taboo in academia and the Anglican chaplain sought to bring it to
the fore. Hence he made arrangements for me to hold a series of ten lunch hour debates with distinguished
Christian, Professor Val Chapman (Botany) in the Winter Term. He had just completed the manuscript of a
book on Theology. The debates were held. The largest hall on campus was full. And I was told the
president of the Student Christian Movement subsequently lost his faith and Christian authorities had to
work on him for all of three weeks before he got it back again.
A MEMORABLE DEBATE
The following year, 1965, I was challenged to debate a much more formidable opponent, Professor E. M.
Blaiklock (Classics), with whom I'd held that day-long discussion during my mid-teens some twenty years
before. This time I was on a much more equal footing. Each of our ten debates had to have audio piped
into a second theatre. And the last debate, still remembered by many who attended all those year ago,
drew an audience of more than nine hundred. His eloquence was unmatchable. He was, after all,
University Orator with a prodigious memory for classical literature. Faced with an unanswerable
argument, he took recourse to quoting poetry from the ancient Greeks and Romans, or from Shakespeare
and Milton. In many ways we simply talked passed one another. His supporters thought he’d won: mine
thought the contrary. What’s new?
TIME OUT FROM INTEREST IN RELIGION
That was it for religion for another thirty-five years. By that time I had moved from the University of
Auckland in New Zealand to Simon Fraser University in Vancouver B.C. (at the end of 1969) and
concentrated once more on publishing articles or books in the fields of metaphysics, logic, philosophy of
logic, philosophy of mathematics, ethics, environmental ethics, epistemology, philosophy of science, and
the early philosophy of Ludwig Wittgenstein. Nothing on religion during that time except some
introductory classes in philosophy of religion.
UNABASHED ATHEISM RENEWED
But then in 1990 I was asked to take up the cudgels against Dr. Michael Horner, a touring champion of the
Campus Crusade for Christ. The topic chosen: "The Resurrection". That began a series of five debates
with representatives of the same well-funded conservative Christian organization.
In 1993 I characteristically took the offensive against another of their representatives, Professor Paul
Chamberlain, by arguing, contrary to my opponent, that if objective (non-relative) morality is to exist,
God cannot. He was unprepared for that, and struggled to reply. But the event aroused other passions. A
senior Professor of Linguistics who happened to be a member of the audience was so incensed by the
conclusion of my arguments that he put me on a “hit list.” So at least I was subsequently told. Fortunately,
his mission was aborted when Canadian police arrested him trying to smuggle guns back across the
border with the USA. The dark side of fundamentalism had become manifest once more.
Then, in 1994, came my memorable debate with William Lane Craig on the topic "Can a Loving God
send people to Hell?". Campus advertising for the debate included posters depicting me where sponsors
thought I belonged: immersed in the flames of Hell. Craig's reputation as a debater was, and still is,
formidable. "Perhaps the best debater in the world, on any topic", one commentator has written. Unlike
most of his atheist debating opponents (Christopher Hitchens in 2009, for example), I knew his line of
argument in advance and had the requisite philosophical and theological knowledge, as well as
knowledge of modal logic, to deal with fairly sophisticated, but sophistical, arguments. The Campus
Crusade for Christ turned down my offer to debate Craig again when he returned the following year. So
far as I know, he’s never debated the topic with anyone again.
And then in 1996, I retired. In the years since then--especially after I returned from Canada to the
country of my birth (New Zealand) in 2001--I've continued my campaign against religion in other ways:
by turning mainly to public audiences, and by publishing in journals such as The Open Society (Journal of
the NZ Rationalists and Humanists), and websites such as the Secular Web and Butterflies and Wheels,
and my own Simon Fraser University web-page, for the expression of my free thinking about religion. In
all of them, as in this book, I continue to maintain my general thesis--first formulated in my mind over
sixty years ago--that for both intellectual and moral reasons, the very idea of God deserves to die and be
buried. Logic, science, and morality will see to that.
2
THE LOGICAL RIVALRY OF THE GODS
CHOICES OF A SPIRITUAL PILGRIM
Were the barbarities and bloodlust, the madness and murder, the terror and torture associated with
religious conflict to be fully documented, whole libraries would be needed. The God-inspired war crimes
and crimes against humanity committed by God's chosen people according to the Old Testament may be
6
myth. But these form the blueprint for the countless holy horrors that have occurred in reality over the
past few millennia. And doubtless will continue to occur as long as religion continues.
Nor are the conflicts restricted to the battlefield. They manifest themselves in persecution and hatred of
heretics, suppression and exploitation of religious minorities, and the all-too-familiar sectarian violence
that tears apart whole nations and communities. Wars can be fought and cruelties committed for other
reasons, but seldom with the ardor of religious warriors. As Blaise Pascal, Christian philosopher and
mathematician wrote: "Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from religious
conviction."
What motivates these conflicts? What drives these rivalries? Imperialistic, nationalistic, ethnic, and
tribal factors may play their parts. So, too, can social, political, and economic factors.
But underlying all religious conflicts is a very different and deeper sort of rivalry. It is doctrinal
conflict: the logical rivalry that exists between the doctrines that define each of these religions and their
respective gods of belief.
THE CHOICES OF A SPIRITUAL PILGRIM
This logical rivalry poses huge problems for any would-be spiritual pilgrim searching for religious truth.
One might acknowledge the horrendous history associated with religious rivalry yet persist in the notion
that there must be one true religion, one true god, or one true path to spiritual enlightenment. But right at
the outset one is faced with an immense number of possible candidates for belief.
To which religion should one pin one's faith? To which should one commit one's life here and now, and
perhaps in a possible hereafter? Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, Confucianism, or
Taoism, perhaps?
The list of options does not stop there of course. No religion is without its schisms and its sects. Settle
on a major religion--Christianity for instance--and the question still remains: Which version? Roman
Catholic, Greek Orthodox, Russian Orthodox, or Protestant? Suppose you settle on Protestantism. Then
the question arises: Do you accept the gospel according to the Anglicans, the Unitarians, the Methodists,
the Presbyterians, the Baptists, or the Pentecostals? Shall you embrace the "truth" as purveyed by faith
healers such as Peter Popoff, whose "messages from the angels" were exposed as clandestine radio
broadcasts from a trailer into the tiny hearing aid in his left ear? Or the "truth" once purveyed by White
House evangelists such as Franklin Graham, son of Billy Graham? Franklin Graham made the doctrinal
source of the neoconservative war in Iraq explicit when he claimed: "We're not attacking Islam but Islam
has attacked us. The God of Islam is not the same God. He's not the Son of God of the Christian or Judeo-
Christian faith. It's a different God, and I believe it is a very evil and wicked religion." Likewise, Lt.
General William "Jerry" Boykin boasted about his victory over a Somali warlord, "I knew my God was
bigger than his. I knew that my God was a real god and his was an idol."
Nor should one ignore less well-established religion such as Baha'i, Theosophy, Jehovah's Witness,
Christian Science, or the Church of Latter-day Saints. Or newer first generation religions such as the
Unification Church, Krishna Consciousness, the Church of Scientology, the Divine Light Mission, and the
Urantia Foundation. Well over 500 major cults are presently active in North America alone. Why should
not the truth lie with one or other of them?
Or does it lie with one of the older, now-forgotten religions? As we'll see in the following chapter, H.
7
L. Mencken once listed 190 gods, all of whom were "of the highest standing and dignity...worshipped and
believed in by millions." All, he pointed out, "were theoretically omnipotent, omniscient, and immortal.
And all are dead." Yet all these gods, and all the religions established in their names, were once potent
forces in the lives of their devotees, satisfying what Bertrand Russell called "the cruel thirst for
8
worship." They were gods able to command devotion and sacrifice; gods in whose names temples were
built, heretics were persecuted, and wars were fought. How can we be sure that one of these gods will not
come again to reveal himself as the one and only true god?
Can anyone, with justified confidence, suppose that the fortuitous circumstances of his or her own birth,
upbringing, or subsequent inquiries, are uniquely privileged so as to yield the correct view as to which of
these gods, if any, really exists? Should one not explore them all?
For those who are tradition-bound or otherwise blinkered in their beliefs, the question is easily
answered: Don't get caught up in what the nineteenth century American philosopher William James called
"the snarling logicality" of trying to decide between rival options. Consider only that religion which is a
"live option" for you--the religion of your fathers, or that of your peers--and bet your life on the
possibility that it should turn out to be true. Otherwise, James argues, one might forfeit one's sole chance
9
in life of "getting on the winning side."
But which is the winning side going to be? How can one prudently place one's bets before one has
looked carefully at the credentials of the rival candidates; not just the favorite ones but the dark horses as
well? How, for that matter, can one be sure that all of the candidates, and the competition itself, are not
phony?
James’s snarling logicality cannot so easily be dismissed.
BETTING ON THE GODS: PASCAL'S WAGER
Although the idea of placing one's bets in matters of religious belief originated with Islamic thinkers, it
was presented most persuasively by the founder of probability theory, the seventeenth-century French
philosopher-mathematician Blaise Pascal. In an argument that has come to be known as "Pascal's Wager,"
Pascal argues thus: If we bet our lives on the hypothesis that God exists and this turns out to be true, then
we win and will be rewarded with eternal bliss; while if it turns out to be false, we lose the bet but
nothing else. If, on the other hand, we bet our lives on the hypothesis that there is no such God, then we
stand to gain little if we are right, but will suffer eternal torment if we are wrong. In his words:
“Let us weigh the gain and the loss in wagering that God is. Let us estimate these two chances. If you
10
gain, you gain all; if you lose, you lose nothing. Wager, then, without hesitation, that He is.”
The "He" that Pascal referred to was, not surprisingly, the God of Roman Catholics, not of Protestants.
The main problem with Pascal's argument lies in its unquestioned presupposition: it assumes that only
one religion is worth considering. He would have us bet on only "two" chances, two contradictory
beliefs, beliefs that are mutually exclusive of one another and exhaust all of the possibilities: believing in
the God of Roman Catholicism or not believing in that God.
But his reasoning and that of James similarly, is seriously at fault. There aren't just two possibilities,
two alternatives each of which is the contradictory of the other. There are countless many alternative
religions each of which is a contrary of each of the others. Exactly the same sort of argument could be
advanced on behalf of each of these religions: not just the 240 or so that one is likely to find listed in a
good book on comparative religion, but each of the other religions that undoubtedly will be dreamt up in
the future.
A LITTLE LOGIC
Since, in these deliberations, we shall want to hold ourselves to the highest standards of intellectual rigor,
we shall need to know a little logic. Logic, after all, has aptly been described as the science of valid
reasoning. It can help determine what follows from what and what doesn't. It applies no matter what the
subject matter, be it physics or metaphysics, politics or religion, or more mundane matters of everyday
life. Logic is both more general and more important in its applications than mathematics.
For those who are unfamiliar with the notion of logical validity, it’s worth noting that testing an
argument for validity has nothing to do with the truth or falsity of the premises but only with whether the
conclusion follows from the premises given. In this respect, logic is like arithmetic. Just as the
correctness of an arithmetical calculation has nothing to do with the truth or falsity of the figures supplied
as initial data (the premises) but only with whether the final figure (the conclusion) can correctly be
derived by following the rules of arithmetic, so in logic the correctness (validity) of an argument has
nothing to do with the truth or falsity of the premises but only with whether its conclusion can be derived
from these premises by following the rules of logic. (The notion of logical soundness should not be
confused with that of validity. An argument is sound if and only if the argument is both valid and has true
premises.)
Now just as you wouldn't want to trust someone to do your tax returns if they couldn't add, subtract,
multiply, and divide correctly, so you wouldn't want to be guided through the maze of inferences that
surround matters of religion by someone who was ignorant of the elements of logic and who constantly
made blunders in their reasoning.
What is remarkable about both the science of logic and that of pure mathematics (as contrasted with
applied mathematics) is that you can do them in your head. Both fields of knowledge can be explored a
priori, that is without the need for observational experience, even though they both have application to the
field of experience. Their methodology marks them off from the empirical sciences--physics, chemistry,
biology, sociology, and the rest--all of which find it essential sooner or later to conduct observation-
based experiments.
And there is another difference too. As the early Greeks noted, the sciences of logic and pure
mathematics explored a world of pure reason unadulterated by the vagaries and uncertainties of the world
of ordinarily experience. The Greek mathematician Euclid (circa 300 B.C.E.), for example, proved by a
wholly a priori reductio ad absurdum argument--a demonstration that the denial involves the absurdity of
a self-contradiction--that there couldn't possibly be a greatest prime number and hence that, of necessity,
the series of prime numbers goes on to infinity. He didn't do so by embarking on the endless tedium of
actually enumerating the prime numbers so as to determine whether there was always another prime
number beyond all those he'd discovered already. Such a task would have been impossible. It sufficed for
him to prove that the very supposition that there might be a greatest prime number involved a
contradiction. He thereby proved that the proposition that there is no greatest prime number is necessarily
true. That is characteristic of the truths discovered within logic and pure mathematics. Their truths are
necessary truths, such that their denials involve contradiction.
Some might think that I've overstated the case. They might point to the fact that Euclid's proof that the
sum of the interior angles of a triangle equals two right angles doesn't hold in either the elliptical
geometries developed by Riemann or the hyperbolic geometries developed by Lobachevsky. In elliptical
geometries the interior angle sum equals more than two right angles while in hyperbolic geometries they
equal less than two right angles. On the face of it, these non-Euclidean geometries deny the truth of
Euclid's theorem, and do so without involving any contradiction. But, as was pointed out in the early
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nineteen sixties, appearances can be misleading. On closer scrutiny it is obvious that these alternative
geometries are talking about different things. Putting it simply, the word "triangle", in Euclid's geometry
refers to a triangle on a plane surface, whereas in non-Euclidean geometries, it does not. This fact had
always been known. But its significance had not. It means that non-Euclidean geometries do not as a
matter of logic deny the truth of Euclid's theorem. They are not genuinely contrary to Euclid, but
complementary. And the truths of these non-Euclidean geometries are also necessary truths that cannot be
denied without contradiction.
Not so for the truths of the empirical sciences. None of them, no matter how well grounded, carries
with it the same sort of certainty that a truth of logic or pure mathematics possesses. The truths established
by the empirical sciences can coherently be supposed false. The theories of physics when true are not
logically necessary but contingent (it is logically possible that they be true and logically possible that
they be false). They may be formulated in mathematical terms; but they are truths of physics, not of pure
mathematics. For instance, the Law of Universal Gravitation discovered by Newton turned out to obey the
inverse square law. But it could easily have turned out otherwise. Our universe could just as conceivably
have turned out to obey some other law: the inverse of the distance, or the inverse of the cube, and so on.
Apparently Newton did in fact explore these possibilities, and had to go to great pains to eliminate them
by providing much empirical evidence to eliminate them in order to establish the inverse square law as
that of our universe. Each of them could without internal contradiction be imagined as being true. So the
inverse square law could without contradiction be imagined false. Likewise, the most famous equation of
all time, Einstein's E=mc2, happens to be expressed in mathematical terms, but it is a truth of applied
mathematics, viz., physics, not a truth of pure mathematics. It could conceivably turn out to be false.
Possessing both the logical possibility of being true and the logical possibility of being false is what we
mean by logically contingent. In this context the term "contingent" does not mean what it does in so many
other contexts. Usually we use it, as in phrases such as "contingent upon", to mean "dependent upon". Not
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so in logical contexts.
Now since the time when Greek polymath Aristotle (384-322 B.C.E.) founded the science of logic most
logicians have recognized that statements, usually called propositions, can be related to one another by a
variety of importantly different logical relationships.
Consider the proposition:
(1) The sun has exactly 9 planets.
The empirical science of astronomy now tells us that, given current definitions, proposition (1), though
once accepted as true, happens to be false. We now accept one of its contraries,
(2) The sun has exactly 8 planets,
as true. Of course it need not have turned out to be that number. Proposition (1), remember, is a logically
contingent proposition that has countless contraries. A priori the number of planets could have turned out
to be any number between zero and infinity. We had to rely on a telescope to tell us the actual facts about
how many there are.
In saying that (1) and (2) are contraries, we are saying that they can't both be true but they can both be
false. They can't both be true because if either is true the other is false. One doesn't need a telescope to
see that. One's mind's eye, as it were, does the trick. And (1) and (2) can both be false because as we've
already noted there are countless other possibilities as to the number of the sun’s planets.
Logicians say that (1) and (2), and all the other contraries of each, stand the relation of contrariety. It
is that relation that will feature most prominently in our discussion of the relationships between different
religions.
Now (1) and (2), quite obviously, are logically inconsistent with one another. Any two propositions
stand in the relation of inconsistency if they can't both be true together. One can figuratively "see" that two
or more propositions stand in that relationship without knowing which if any of them happens to be true.
There are, however, two kinds of inconsistency. Contrariety is one. The other is simple contradiction.
Whereas a proposition can have, and always will have countless contraries, it can have only one
contradictory. Two propositions are contradictories if and only if they can't both be true and can't both be
false. Thus the contradictory of the proposition
(1) The sun has exactly 9 planets,
is
(3) The sun does not have exactly 9 planets.
Propositions that are contradictories of one another are exclusive since the truth of one excludes the
truth of the other, and they are also exhaustive of all the possibilities since not having exactly 9 planets
covers all the possibilities from having no planets at all to having an infinity of planets. By way of
contrast, contrary propositions, though exclusive, are not exhaustive.
Now it is easy to see that if two propositions are contraries of one another then they imply or entail
each other's contradictories. Thus each of the countless contraries of (1) implies (3). For example, if the
sun has exactly 8 planets, then it follows that it doesn't have exactly 9. Ditto if it has exactly 0, or exactly
1, or exactly 2, or exactly 3, and so on.
But what precisely does it mean to say the one proposition implies (or entails) another? It becomes
easier to understand the answer if we formulate the answer in general terms rather than by reference to
particular examples. To do this, we'll use variables that play the same sort of role as do the variables "x",
"y", and "z", in algebra. But whereas algebraic variables stand in for numbers, the variables we'll use
stand in for propositions. Accordingly, the variables we'll use--P, Q, R, etc., sometimes with numerical
indices as in P1, P2, P3, and so on--are called propositional variables.
So back to the question: What, in general terms, does it mean to say that one proposition, P, logically
implies another proposition, Q? Logicians say that one proposition, P, logically implies or entails
another, Q, if P can't be true without Q being true. To say that two propositions stand in the relation of
implication, it should be noted, is not to say anything about whether either happens as a matter of fact to
be true, or happens as a matter of fact to be false. The presence, or absence, of the relation of implication
can be determined a priori, without reference to the empirically ascertained facts of the matter. Thus we
can easily "see" that, as shown above, propositions that are contraries imply each other's contradictories.
All these logical facts, and many others, were worked out by Aristotle and his followers well over two
thousand years ago. He and his followers also recognized other logical relations that could hold between
contingent propositions. Thus they defined the relation between the contradictories of contraries as that of
subcontrariety. Two propositions, such as
(3) The sun does not have exactly 9 planets
and
(4) The sun does not have exactly 8 planets
(the contradictories of (1) and (2), respectively) are subcontraries since they can both be true but can't
both be false. (Work that one out for yourself.) Classical logicians came to recognize seven logical
relations in all, as holding between various pairs (or multiples) of contingent propositions: the others
being sub implication, the converse of implication; equivalence between propositions that imply each
other; and independence, when none of the other six relations holds. Provably these seven are the only
logical relations that can hold between contingent propositions, propositions, that is, such that it is
logically possible that they be true (since they aren't necessarily false) and logically possible that they be
false (since they themselves aren't necessarily true).
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Knowledge of these seven classical relations, as defined above , can be invaluable in guiding our
reasoning as we grapple with issues about religions and the gods. Knowledge of the so-called 3 "R"s is
important. But knowledge of the 4th "R", Reasoning is more important by far. The logical principles
governing valid reasoning can be applied to any subject whatever. One violates those principles at one's
peril.
We are now in a better position to apply some of them to our present discussion.
THE LOGICAL CONTRARIETY OF RIVAL RELIGIONS
Now each religion makes its own distinctive truth-claims, claims that logically rival those of all other
religions. In the sense defined above, they are contraries of one another. Yet if this is so, at most only one
religion can be wholly true, and all of the others must contain beliefs that are false. Indeed, the question
arises as to whether it is possible that all are false.
It is not just possible, but probable. For, when we consider their respective credentials, it appears that
every religion has alleged evidence to cite in support of its truth-claims: evidence in the form of
miraculous events on the public stage, of great changes wrought in the lives of believers, of answered
prayers, of divine revelations, and the like. In addition, if each religion is contrary to all of the others, any
evidence that might be cited in support of the truth-claims of one must thereby be taken to undermine the
truth-claims of every other. But since the adherents of any given religion are outnumbered by those of all
the others, the experiential evidence that undermines any given religion must then be greater than the
evidence that supports it. If one "estimates the chances," as Pascal recommended, one will have to
conclude--on the basis of experiential evidence--that the chance of any single religion being the one true
religion is vastly outweighed by the chance of it being false. Hence, the odds of having "wagered"
correctly and being "on the winning side" are poor. And the very idea of there being any winner at all
begins to look farfetched.
Moreover, if each religion is contrary to all of the others, any evidence in support of one must cast
doubt on the authenticity or worth of alleged evidence for any of the others; and the others, reciprocally,
must cast doubt on the authenticity or worth of alleged evidence for the one. Hence, one might come to
wonder whether any of the alleged evidence for any religion is sound.
HUME'S ARGUMENT FROM THE CONTRARIETY OF RELIGIONS
That this, or something like it, is the logic of the situation was first pointed out by the eighteenth-century
Scottish philosopher David Hume. In his essay titled "Of Miracles," he wrote:
“In matters of religion, whatever is different is contrary; and ... it is impossible [that] the religions of
ancient Rome, of Turkey, of Siam, and of China should all of them, be established on any solid foundation.
Every miracle, therefore, pretended to have been wrought in any of these religions (and all of them
abound in miracles), as its direct scope is to establish the particular system to which it is attributed; so
has it the same force, though more indirectly, to overthrow every other system. In destroying a rival
system, it likewise destroys the credit of those miracles, on which that system was established; so that all
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the prodigies of different religions are to be regarded as contrary [alleged] facts , and the evidences of
15
these prodigies, whether weak or strong, as opposite to each other.”
In order to appreciate the scope and power of Hume's argument, we need first to understand what he
means by "miracle." He is not using it in the loose sense in which someone might say, "It was a miracle
that I survived the crash." A miracle, for him, is not just something unusual or remarkably fortunate. In a
definition that features in many dictionaries, and is widely accepted by theologians and philosophers,
Hume says that a miracle is any event that is supposed to involve the violation of the laws of nature at the
instigation of some divinity or other supernatural agent. He writes:
"A miracle may be accurately defined, a transgression of a law of nature by a particular volition of
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the Deity, or by the interposition of some invisible [supernatural] agent." [Hume's emphasis.]
In effect, an event is to count as a genuine miracle if and only if its occurrence is not attributable to
wholly natural causes. As Hume put it:
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"Nothing is esteemed a miracle, if it ever happen in the common course of nature."
Now consider the range of happenings that this definition covers. It covers all acts whereby a god
might reveal him or herself: all supposed communications with humankind in divine scriptures or
prophecies; all public displays of divine power; and all private revelations to the devout. To emphasize
this point: the term "miracle" applies not only to publicly performed miracles, but also to privately
experienced ones. Among the former we might list such instances as parting the Red Sea, being born of a
virgin, turning water into wine, raising someone from the dead, faith healings, and events such as those
reported to occur almost daily at Lourdes. Each of these events could in principle be tested by ordinary
public examination.
Yet some purported miracles are more private in nature. Examples would include such supposed events
as: visions of Jesus, the Virgin Mary, or Krishna; hearing the voice of a god or angel telling you what he
wants you to do; vivid awareness of God in nature; mystical awareness of the ineffable; inner assurances
of God's love and forgiveness; communing with God in prayer; experiencing what some describe as "the
indwelling of the Holy Spirit"; feelings of being "in tune with the infinite"; conversion-type experiences of
being "born again"; and the like.
These latter examples don't lend themselves so readily to public scrutiny. The experiences themselves
are subjective. But because they are attributed to the intervention in one's private life of some
supernatural or divine being, or at least to interaction with some such agent, these subjective experiences
are supposed to provide a window through which one can become acquainted with a "higher" objective
reality, one that lies outside or beyond the natural world. As with events of the public kind, so too with
events of the private kind: if a purported miracle were to admit of a naturalistic explanation, it just
wouldn't count as a "real" miracle. True, Hume's own examples of miracles all belong to the public
domain. Yet he does make the distinction between reports of private and public history, and the increasing
difficulty of detecting falsehood in these reports the more distant they are in space or time. And he
implicitly recognizes the category of private miracles when, in the last sentence of his essay "Of
Miracles," he says that anyone who is moved by faith to accept the Christian religion must be "conscious
of a continued miracle in his own person." His talk of miracles in this latter case is not just tongue in
cheek. It is licensed by his definition of "miracle."
Hume's definition of miracles, then, covers every conceivable sort of experiential evidence that might
be cited in support of belief in the existence of some sort of supernatural agency, or in support of the truth-
claims of some particular supernatural religion.
How good is Hume's argument? Let's start with the premise that different religions are contraries of one
another: that they can't all be true but could all be false. Is this premise correct?
THE CONTRARIETY OF RELIGIONS DISPUTED
The crucial premise, as Hume stated it, is the claim that "in matters of religion, whatever is different is
contrary." Unless this is true, the rest of the argument falls apart. But is it true?
With appropriate qualifications on what Hume meant by "whatever is different," I think the answer is
yes. For, from the context, it is clear that he is talking only about those differences that are distinctive of
each religion, those that mark it out from other religions. It is these distinctive differences that he claims
to be contraries of one another. The truth of Hume's contrariety premise is taken for granted by theologians
of the so-called "exclusivist" tradition. According to Swiss theologian Karl Barth, for instance, "we need
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have no hesitation in saying that the Christian religion is the true religion." Likewise, another theologian,
Karl Rahner, writes: "Christianity understands itself as the absolute religion, intended for all men, which
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cannot recognize any other religion beside itself as of equal right." The vast majority of theologians and
ordinary believers in every other religion would make similar exclusivist claims for their own cherished
doctrines.
Yet the contrariety premise has recently come under attack both from inside, and from outside, the
citadels of faith.
One of the most influential philosophers of religion, John Hick, is well aware of the apparent conflicts
between the truth-claims of different religions. But he encourages us to think of them as complementary,
rather than contrary, accounts of a single divine reality. He tries to charm us into accepting this view by
telling the well-known story of the blind men and the elephant:
“An elephant was brought to a group of blind men who had never encountered such an animal before.
One felt a leg and reported that an elephant is a great living pillar. Another felt the trunk and reported that
an elephant is a great snake. Another felt a tusk and reported that an elephant is like a great plowshare.
And so on. And then they all quarreled together, each claiming that his own account was the truth and
therefore all the others false. In fact of course they were all true, but each referring to one aspect of the
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total reality and all expressed in very imperfect analogies.”
Hick would have us conclude that the apparent contrariety between different religions is just that:
apparent, but not real.
As an implicit plea for religious tolerance, Hick's parable is as commendable as it is needed. But as a
rebuttal of the contrariety premise, it fails. He says that the rival accounts of the blind men were "all true,"
hence compatible. Yet, on careful thought, it becomes obvious, first, that their accounts, as given, were in
fact incompatible, as charged, and second, that they were all false. The claim that an elephant is a living
pillar is inconsistent with the claim that an elephant is a great snake, and both are inconsistent with the
claim that an elephant is like a plowshare. Moreover, since an elephant (as distinct from certain parts of
an elephant) neither is, nor is like, any of these three things, all three claims are false. Had each blind man
claimed only to discern a partial aspect of the elephant, no disagreement and no quarrel would have
ensued. Likewise with religious differences. The fact of the matter is that the blind men of religion do not
regard their own doctrines as "imperfect analogies," partial visions of a single transcendent reality.
Rather, like Barth and Rahner, each claims that his vision alone offers the complete and absolute truth.
The truth of the contrariety-premise has been questioned not only by a handful of religious apologists
such as Hick, but also by some religious skeptics. In an uncharacteristically soft-minded passage, the
atheistic Australian philosopher John L. Mackie has commented on its role in Hume's argument as
follows:
“This argument ... has less force now than it had when Hume was writing. Faced with influential bodies
of atheist or skeptical opinion, the adherents of different religions have toned down their hostility to one
another. The advocate of one religion will now often allow that a number of others have at least some
elements of truth and even, perhaps, some measure of divine authorization. It is no longer 'The heathen in
his blindness,' but rather 'We worship the same god, but under different names and in different ways.'
Carried far enough, this modern tendency would allow Christian miracles to support, not undermine,
belief in the supernatural achievements of stone-age witch doctors and medicine men, and vice versa. It is
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as if someone had coined the slogan, 'Miracle-workers of the world, unite!'”
But Mackie has got it wrong here. For a start, the question at issue is whether the doctrinal beliefs
distinctive of one religion are logically hostile to, i.e., inconsistent with, the doctrinal beliefs distinctive
of the others. Yet somehow Mackie allows himself to substitute for this question the irrelevant one as to
whether the believers in one religion are overtly hostile to the believers in other religions. He ventures
the dubious claim that a new ecumenical spirit is abroad and that it offers promise of reconciling
believers. But even if this was so--and current events around the world belie that hope--it would do
nothing to show that there can be a logical reconciliation of the central doctrinal beliefs to which they
adhere. (Mackie's failure to distinguish between that sense of "belief" in which belief is a psychological
attitude towards a proposition, and that sense in which we use the word to refer to the doctrine or
proposition believed, is as surprising as it is unfortunate. But perhaps it is understandable. For it seems
that most philosophers become prone to it when they write on issues in the philosophy of religion.)
Second, the question at issue has nothing to do with whether the advocates of one belief system will
allow "some elements of truth" in another belief system. The fact, if it is a fact, that they do not disagree
about everything, does nothing to show that they do not disagree about anything. Mackie seems to have
forgotten that partial consistency between different belief systems is a far cry from full consistency. Our
courts of law recognize this logical fact. Two witnesses will be judged as having given inconsistent
stories if any claim by one is contrary to a claim by the other. What is at issue, it must be remembered, is
only whether there is any claim made by the one belief system whose truth demands the falsity of, because
it is logically inconsistent with, any claim made by the other. If there is, then the belief systems are indeed
contraries after all, if not contradictories.
Third, we need to take a more careful look at Mackie's use of the description "same god ... under
different names." This seems to lend support to Hick's inclusivist claim that any seeming contrariety
between the belief systems of different religions is only verbal, not real. But is either of them right?
THE CONTRARIETY PREMISE DEMONSTRATED
Consider the three religions that seem best to fit the description of "worshipping the same god ... under
different names." These are Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. All three religions can agree that there is a
supreme being who is creator and sustainer of us all; that this supreme being is the god of Abraham; that
the god of Abraham, known by the different names (or descriptions) "Yahweh," "God the Father," or
"Allah," is a personal god; that chief among His attributes are His omnipotence, omniscience, and perfect
goodness; that He has revealed himself to mankind through such prophets as Moses, Elijah, Amos, Hosea,
Isaiah, and Jeremiah; that the Old Testament scriptures are holy writ; and so on.
But, as we have already seen, this does not mean that Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are not contraries
of one another. That question can only be answered by determining whether there are any truth-claims,
essential to the distinctive belief system of any one, which cannot without logical inconsistency be
accepted within the distinctive belief systems of the others.
Such truth-claims are not hard to find: truth-claims about the nature and status of Jesus of Nazareth, for
instance. Jesus, the Christ, is the central figure of Christianity, claimed by Christians to be not just another
prophet of God, but God-Himself-made-incarnate. Do Jews, or Muslims, accept the claim that Jesus is
one and the same with God? They neither do, nor logically can. For to accept this claim would be to
abandon their own religions and become Christians. To say that this claim is "contrary" to the basic tenets
of their own faiths is an understatement. According to both, it is not just false, but blasphemous. The fact
that these religions make contrary claims regarding Jesus shows how shallow the view is that they all
worship the same god under different names. It may well be true that all three religions claim to believe
in the same god: the so-called "God of Abraham." But they are mistaken. What they believe in is three
different “gods of Abraham." For Christianity, the god of Abraham is identified with a mystical unity of
beings: the Holy Trinity, God-the-Father = God-the-Son = God-the-Holy-Ghost. For Judaism and Islam,
he is not. For Islam, the god of Abraham is identified with the god who revealed Himself most fully to
Muhammad. For Christianity and Judaism, he is not. For Judaism, the god of Abraham is identified with
the god who has yet--to this day--to send His promised Messiah. For Christianity and Islam, he is not. But
the god of Abraham cannot be identical to each of these three different gods; and he cannot be
simultaneously identical to and different from any one of them. To put the point another way: one and the
same god cannot both possess and lack an attribute that at least one of these religions ascribes to him and
which another denies he possesses. He cannot be most fully represented solely by Moses, solely by Jesus,
and solely by Muhammad. Hence there is no single "god of Abraham" who is worshipped by the
adherents of all three religions. Just as we can have a number of different names or descriptions for a
single object, so we can use a single name or description--"god of Abraham," for instance--for quite
different objects. Talk of worshipping the same god under different names conceals a logical muddle
about the different identities of the gods worshipped in these three religions. It does nothing to soften the
bite of the contrariety premise.
The truth of the contrariety premise is evident again when we leave the domain of the theistic religions
and compare them with the nontheistic ones: Advaita Vedanta Hinduism and Theravada Buddhism, for
instance. Neither of the latter accepts the proposition, common to all of the theistic religions that "ultimate
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reality" is a personal being. And each has its own different, and contrary, accounts of what ultimate
reality is. Both assert ultimate reality to be non-personal.
Of course, one might claim--as John Hick does--that, whether theistic or otherwise, these religions, and
23
all others as well, "represent diverse awarenesses of the same limitless transcendent reality." But
although Hick's terminological ascent into high generalities may look promising, it serves only to obscure
the logical situation. We need to remember that this claim is not itself part of the belief system of any of
these religions themselves. Just as his claim that each of the blind men is "referring only to one aspect of
the total reality" is itself different from, and contrary to, the claims of each blind man to know what the
elephant is, so his own universalist, inclusivist, religious worldview is different from, and contrary to, the
worldviews of these other religions. Hick's inclusivist religion promises to reconcile rival religions but
finishes by offering us a new one to rival all of the others.
The reasoning in this argument for the truth of the contrariety premise rests on the logical principle
known to logicians as the Law of Nonidentity of Discernibles. Simply expressed, it says:
If a thing X is discernible from a thing Y by virtue of having at least one property that Y lacks, then
X is not numerically identical to Y.
Note that this is a theorem about what logicians call numerical identity, not qualitative identity. The
example of so-called identical twins isn't a counterexample. They are only identical in respect of some
not all of their properties. They certainly aren't identical in respect of occupying the same space and time.
The law of the numerical nonidentity of things that have even one property, such as being in a different
place, to distinguish one from the other, underlies our practical reasoning as well as out theoretical
reasoning in logic. Consider the case where you say you have an uncle named "John Smith" and I say "I
think I know him; In fact I think I met him the other day." Are you and I referring to one and the same
person? If, on questioning, it turns out that your Uncle John is currently in England while the John Smith I
met the other day is currently in New Zealand, or that one of these "John Smiths" has a large family and is
only 150 cm tall while the other has no family and is 170 cm tall, then we have logically conclusive
reasons for saying that we are not referring to one and the same person, but to two. They may be
qualitatively identical by virtue of having the same name, but sameness of name doesn't imply sameness of
the thing named.
BACK TO PASCAL'S BETTING ARENA
One of the implications of the contrariety between religions, as Hume points out, is that
“Every miracle, therefore, pretended to have been wrought in any of these religions (and all of them
abound in miracles), as its direct scope is to establish the particular system to which it is attributed; so it
has the same force, though more indirectly, to overthrow every other system.”
The logic of Hume's argument becomes clear when we translate it into terms that Pascal and James
would endorse in the betting arena. Suppose, first, that you believe that there is evidence that a horse race
has been rigged such that it is 100% certain that your horse, C, will win. Then, on the basis of this
evidence, you are logically obliged to conclude that all of the other horses--H, I, J, etc.--will lose. This
inference rests on the logical theorem:
If a proposition P implies a proposition Q, and Q is inconsistent with a proposition R, then P implies
the falsity of R.
Of course, most of the time you don't have what you believe to be conclusive evidence that your
favorite will win. What Hume calls the "scope" of your evidence may be less than conclusive. If so, you
are restricted to making a probability estimate. Now if the evidence that you do have is strong enough to
persuade you that C has a better than 50:50 chance of winning--that is, you think that it is more probable
than not that C will win--then it will be rational of you to place your bet accordingly. Suppose, for
example, that you believe that the evidence of C's form going into the race is strong enough to warrant a 4-
to-1 bet on his winning. Then, on the basis of this evidence, you can validly infer that there is an 80%
likelihood of all the other horses, H, I, J, etc., losing. Here the argument rests on the truth of probability
logic:
If a proposition P probabilizes a proposition Q, and Q is inconsistent with R, then P probabilizes the
falsity of R.
Translating this illustration back into the religious arena, let C be Christianity, H be Hinduism, I be
Islam, and J be Judaism. Then, in the first case, if we believe that the stories of Christ's resurrection
imply, and provide us with complete certitude of, the truth of Christianity, we will be warranted in
concluding that all of the other religions are losers, i.e., that the sum of their beliefs are false. If, on the
other hand, you believe that stories of Christ's resurrection fall short of proof, but nevertheless
probabilize the truth of the Christian religion, then by the same token you are committed to saying that the
evidence for Christ's resurrection probabilizes the falsity of Hinduism, Islam, Judaism, and all the other
religions in the religious stakes. All depends on your estimate of the scope, or power, of the evidence on
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which you rely: on whether you take it to provide what Hume elsewhere calls "a proof or a probability."
The examples we've just given illustrate Hume's claim that the evidence for each religion undermines
every other contrary religion. He is claiming, more precisely, that no matter where you rate the strength of
the evidence on the scale from "makes R absolutely certain" or "proves R," to "makes religion R more
probably true than not", you thereby rate all other contrary religions as being shown to be either certainly
or probably false.
HUME'S THESIS: A PROOF OR A PROBABILITY
Hume also extends his proof or probability claim to include the evidences on which each religion rests.
This further claim can be formulated thus:
If evidence E1 were to logically imply or probabilize the truth of religion R1, then if E1 were true
one could validly infer the certain falsity or improbability of any contrary religion R2 together with
the certain falsity or improbability of any evidence E2 cited in support of R2.
Note the conditional nature of this claim. Hume, it is evident, is not presupposing that any evidence
actually does imply or probabilize any given religion. Indeed the main thrust of his whole essay "Of
Miracles", is to argue that none of the evidence usually cited in support of various religions does in fact
do so in either of these ways. This is why he talks about miracles that are "pretended" to support various
religions. He is merely tracing out the consequences of the supposition that an alleged miracle implies or
probabilizes the religion "to which it is attributed." Hence the "if" of my reformulation. He is talking
about what would follow were any supposed miracle claimed to support the corresponding religion in
either of these ways.
Before we embark on a demonstration of the soundness of this further claim, it would help if we were
to understand a little more logic.
A LITTLE MORE LOGIC
I've just made a claim about the provability of Hume's proof or probability thesis. We don't need to need
to know a lot about the technicalities of either formal logic or probability theory to see that it is true. But
it would help immeasurably to understand the basic concepts of what is called "Possible Worlds
Semantics", especially since its vocabulary is commonly employed both by logicians working in the field
of modal logic (that branch of logic which deals with relations between the so-called modal notions of
necessity, possibility, impossibility, etc.) and by modern-day philosophers of religion.
Let's go back to Aristotle and his followers. They defined the seven classical logical relations between
contingent propositions in terms of whether pairs or multiples of those propositions "can" or "cannot" be
true together; that is to say in terms of whether or not it is "possible" for them to be true, or false,
together. Fast forward to the seventeenth century when German philosopher and mathematician
Gottfried Leibniz (1646-1716) said that God--meaning the Christian God of course--could have created
any one of infinitely many possible worlds, i.e., whole worlds in the conception of which no
contradiction is involved. The actual world, he claimed, is one of these. God chose to create it rather than
any of the others because, he said (and was lampooned by Voltaire for saying it), "This is the best of all
possible worlds."
Elsewhere Leibniz effectively defined necessary truths--such as those of the a priori sciences of logic
and mathematics--as ones that are true in all possible worlds while their denials are false in all possible
worlds because they involve a contradiction. By way of contrast, contingent propositions--such as those
featured in the empirical sciences of physics, chemistry, biology, and the like--will be true in some
possible worlds and false in others.
Fast forward again to the mid twentieth century, when Leibniz's concept of possible worlds was taken
up and elaborated on by such philosophers and logicians as Kripke and Hintikka, to found the field of
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logic nowadays known as Possible Worlds Semantics. Adopting the terminology of possible worlds
semantics, we can then give a translation of Aristotle's original definitions of the seven classical logical
relations between contingent propositions. Here are what I shall call our "possible-worlds definitions."
P implies or entails Q = def There is no possible world in which P is true and Q false.
P is implied by Q = def There is no possible world in which Q is true and P is false.
P is equivalent to Q = def There is no possible world in which P is true and Q false and no possible
world in which P is false and Q true.
P is contradictory to Q = def There is no possible world in which both P and Q are true and no possible
world in which both P and Q are false.
P is a contrary of Q = def There is no possible world in which both P and Q are true but there is a
possible world in which both P and Q are false.
P is a subcontrary of Q = def There is no possible world in which both P and Q are false but there is a
possible world in which both P and Q are true.
P is independent of Q = def There is a possible world in which both are true, a possible world in
which both are false, a possible world in which P is true and Q is false, and a possible world in which
P is false and Q is true.
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Fast forward still again to 1979 when Bradley and Swartz --following in the footsteps of such
mathematicians as Leonhard Euler and John Venn, with their diagrams for categorical propositions and the
categorical syllogism, respectively--presented a number of Possible Worlds Diagrams. Using their
diagrammatic method it became possible to prove certain important theorems of modal logic (and for that
matter of ordinary non-modal propositional calculus), and by extension, of probability theory.
More pertinently, the use of possible-worlds diagrams makes it possible to construct a relatively
simple proof of Hume's proof or probability thesis, here restated by two subsidiary clauses, one about
proof and the other about probability:
(a) If evidence E1 were to logically imply the truth of religion R1, then if E1 were true one could
validly infer the certain falsity of any contrary religion R2 together with the certain falsity of any
evidence E2 cited in support of R2.
(b) If evidence E1 were to probabilize (make more probable than not) the truth of religion R1, then
if E1 were true one could infer the probable falsity of any contrary religion R2 together with the
probable falsity of any evidence E2 cited in support of R2.
EXAMPLES OF HUME'S PROOF OR PROBABILITY THESIS
As we saw before embarking on our logical excursus, Hume doesn't merely claim that if any evidence
were to count for one religion then it would count against all other religions. He also claims that any
evidence counting for one religion must count against any evidence for these other religions. To quote him
again:
“In destroying a rival system, [a miracle] likewise destroys the credit of those miracles, on which that
system was established; so that all the prodigies of different religions are to be regarded as contrary
[alleged] facts, and the evidences of these prodigies, whether weak or strong, as opposite to each other.”
Once more, we can illustrate what Hume is getting at by turning to the betting arena. If you claim that
the evidence that C will win the race is, say, 80%, then your claim is contrary to someone else's claim to
have evidence that it is more probable than not that some other horse will win. Not only, that is, would the
evidence on which you rely undermine the claim that some other horse, say J or I, will win; it would also
undermine the claim that there is better than a 50:50 probability that J or I will win. You may believe that
horse C is going to win based on hearing that the race has been rigged in its favor. Yet what you have been
told may itself be false: the evidence may turn out to be unreliable. Again, even if the evidence is in fact
reliable, it may yet be questionable that the race being rigged provides sufficient grounds to conclude that
there is no chance of horse C not winning. After all, someone may point out, it is quite possible that C
will stumble or break a leg, and that your certitude about C's winning will turn out to be misplaced.
Let's translate this back into the religious arena and the sorts of evidence that might be cited as
establishing the truth of one religion as opposed to another. Suppose a Christian claims both that the
miracle of the Resurrection occurred and that its occurrence proves or probabilizes the truth of
Christianity. Suppose, further, that a Jew claims both that Old Testament stories about miracles performed
by Moses before the court of Pharaoh are true, and that they establish the truth of Judaism. Suppose, still
again, that a Muslim claims that the miracle of the archangel Gabriel dictating the Qur'an to Muhammad
establishes the truth of Islam. Now Hume’s argument, as I understand it, is that each of these "establishing
claims" counts against the truth of the others. For example, consider just one of these establishing claims,
say the Christian claim that (a) the resurrection of Jesus did in fact occur, and that (b) its occurrence
proves or probabilizes the existence of the Christian God, (i.e., the God who is the father of, or is
identical with, Jesus the Christ). Now if this establishing claim were sound, i.e., if elements (a) and (b)
were both true, then we could validly conclude that the Christian God does indeed exist. But given
Hume’s already established contrariety thesis, it would then follow that neither the Jewish God nor the
Muslim God exists, and hence that the corresponding establishing claims for each of these other religions
must be unsound. Either their purported miracles did not occur or they lack the significance claimed for
them, or both. Generalizing, the establishing claims of any one of these three religions, if sound, would in
Hume’s words “destroy the credit” of the establishing claims of each of the others. The establishing
claims of all three cannot be sound. In this sense the rival establishing claims are “contrary” to one
another.
Let’s dig into this a little deeper. On reflection we can see that any establishing claim concerning a
miracle takes the form "Because miracle M occurred, the truth of religion R is probable or proved." As
such, an establishing claim has two clauses. It rests on the assertion (or presupposition) (a) that M did in
fact occur. And it asserts, further, (b) that the occurrence of M probabilizes or proves the truth of R.
It follows that there are two grounds on which we might dispute the worth of such establishing claims.
First, we may question whether M did in fact occur and whether the evidence cited for its occurrence is
itself veridical or illusory. Second, we may question whether, even if it is veridical, it helps to establish
the truth of R with probability or certainty.
Apply this, now, to the case of Christianity. Take the case of the supposed resurrection of Jesus, the
Christ. The belief that he rose from the grave is held by many Christians to be absolutely central to
Christianity. "If Christ be not risen," said St. Paul, "then our faith is in vain." The miracle of the
Resurrection is taken by many Christians to constitute a proof that Jesus was divine. But are there good
grounds for believing that the Resurrection did in fact occur? And would it, if it did occur, establish his
divinity?
Did the Resurrection occur? Of course, the question itself rests on the presupposition that Jesus actually
lived: he can't have been resurrected unless he'd been alive beforehand. And some might question that.
But suppose one grants this contentious presupposition. Then someone intent on exploring the credentials
of this belief may be dismayed to find that the four Gospels provide different, and inconsistent, stories of
the Resurrection; that those stories were unmentioned by, and apparently unknown to, early Church
Fathers until well into the second century A.D.; that there are no independent and well-authenticated
records of Jesus ever having lived, let alone having died and having risen from the grave; or, again, that
many of the earliest Christians of whom we do have an authentic historical record, the so-called
Docetists, whose views held sway from 70 C.E. to 170 C.E., regarded Jesus as having always been
nothing but an apparition, a spirit without any physical body that could die or therefore be resurrected.
But suppose a Christian hasn't come across these objections or chooses to brush them aside. Suppose,
that is, that he or she still maintains that the Resurrection did in fact occur in something like the fashion
reported in the Gospels. Even so, the evidential worth of this (supposed) miraculous event can be
questioned on other grounds as well. For why, it may be asked, do Christians think that rising from the
dead establishes the divinity of the person who died and came back to life? Surely they wouldn't draw
this conclusion about Lazarus, for instance. Nor would they draw it about those others for whom St.
Matthew (27:52-53) tells us that, at the time of Jesus' death, "the graves were opened; and many bodies of
the saints which slept arose, and came out of the graves after his resurrection, and went into the holy city,
and appeared unto many." But if not, why not?
We can ask similar questions about evidences cited in support of other religions as well. In the case of
Judaism, we might ask first: Are the Old Testament stories about the miracles of Moses really true? Why
does Egyptian history--remarkably detailed for the period concerned--contain no hint of the presence of
the Children of Israel in their midst for 430 years, especially given that the enslaved Israelites supposedly
numbered 600,000 adult males (for an estimated total of a million or two including the women and
children) at the time of their deliverance? Why have archeologists and historians not found a trace of
evidence of Moses' existence, or of the presence of so many Children of Israel in the Sinai desert for 40
years?
Second: Even if these stories happen to be true, despite the lack of evidence, would they have the
import that is claimed for them? After all, if Exodus chapter 8 were true, then the sorcerers in Pharaoh's
court were also able to duplicate most of Moses' and Aaron’s miracles; miracles such as turning a rod
into a serpent, turning all of the waters in Egypt into blood, and bringing about a plague of frogs, failing
only when it came to producing lice. Would a religious Jew want to say that the miracles of these
Egyptian magicians, attested to as equally veridical by the Old Testament, established the truth of the
Egyptians' religion? Or would they say that the existence of the Hebrew God rested on the superior
powers of his magician Aaron in being able to produce lice? Does the divinity of Yahweh derive from
this?
Similar questions arise for Islam. Muslims believe that the angel Gabriel dictated the Qur'an to
Muhammad. Did this holy text really come into existence in this way? And what significance should we
attach to the claim that it did? What truth, or significance, for that matter, should we attach to Mormon
claims about the angel Moroni's visitations to Joseph Smith, or to claims about the divine origin of the
Book of Mormon? We could, in principle, go on to ask similar questions about the truth and significance
of all the miraculous revelations that are regarded as foundational for every religion across the wide
spectrum of belief.
Hume, once more, has got it right. If we were to accept any one of these evidential claims as being both
well founded and as having the relevance and significance claimed for it, we would be logically obliged
to reject all of the other competing evidential claims--all the competing establishing claims, as I have
called them--as either certainly false or probably so. We would be logically obliged, that is, to say of
each rival religion that either its alleged evidence is spurious, or it lacks the significance claimed for it.
Any such evidential claims "destroy the credit," as Hume puts it, of evidences for all other religions.
THE SNARLING LOGICALITY IS UNAVOIDABLE
William James, you may remember, counseled his hearers to ignore what he called the "snarling
logicality" of trying to decide on which religion to stake one's life in the here and now. His advice? Bet
on the religion that is a live option for you. That is to say, bet on the truth of the religion that you have
been brought up with.
But his strategy is misbegotten. He was addressing the Protestant believers in New England and could
be confident, therefore, that they would respond by endorsing the belief system that they already had. But
suppose that he, or someone else, were to urge the same sort of reasoning from believers in some other
religion, such as Islam. If they were to accept this reasoning, it would again have the effect of reinforcing
their already-entrenched faith. And so on, for all of the other rival religions: Judaism, Hinduism,
Mormonism, Seventh-day Adventism, and the rest. His counsel, in short, does nothing whatever to avoid
the snarling logicality that faces us if, in the pursuit of truth, we try to decide which of the innumerable
contrary religions, if any, is true. If his reasoning counted in favor of one religion, then it would count
equally in favor of every other as well. But this means that his reasoning doesn't count in favor of any of
them. The "snarling logicality" doesn't go away.
Indeed, the logic of Hume's argument gives it a double bite. For not only are the different religions
logical rivals of one another; the evidences cited in support of one religion count against each of the other
religions, and the evidences for each of these other religions count against the evidences for the one in so
far as they make these other evidence-claims less likely to be true. Once more, then, they are on a par. So
we are left with the predicament of having to decide which of them, if any, is founded on evidence strong
enough to warrant belief. The emphasized expression, "if any," is particularly troubling. For given that the
purported evidences undermine each other, by either implying or probabilizing the others, there is a
distinct possibility that none of them is true. It is possible, that is, that all of them are mere figments of
man's imagination, generated by feelings of inadequacy, perhaps, or the need to worship, or a simple
desire not to alienate oneself from the religious community in which one has been brought up.
GUIDELINES FOR PRUDENT BETTING
How, then, should we proceed? Well, consider how a prudent person would proceed if faced with a
somewhat analogous situation; albeit one involving events that no one would think of as miraculous.
Suppose, for example, that you are not the only bettor who is relying on evidence that the race has been
rigged in favor of his horse. You discover that the bettors on all the rival horses are also relying on the
belief that the race has been rigged in favor of their horses. Since each of them claims to be in possession
of evidence that you are wrong, the preponderance of the evidence is that you probably are wrong.
Now since the race cannot have been rigged so that all of the horses win, you realize that something is
seriously amiss and that it is possible that all of you, yourself included, have been led astray. In such a
situation, you--as a rational bettor--would turn a critical eye on the evidence for your own belief that your
horse will win. Perhaps you were relying on someone else's report about the rigging of the race. In this
case, you would want to examine that person's credibility more carefully and grill him about what grounds
he had for his assertions. Or perhaps you weren't relying on second-hand reports. Perhaps you had first-
hand evidence: you yourself were there when the trainers and/or jockeys were apparently conspiring to
have your horse win. In that case, you would want to question your own gullibility. Could it all have been
a grand hoax on their part? Or might your desire to "win big" have been so strong that you had
misinterpreted what you had heard and so fell into the trap of self-deception? And, by parity of reasoning,
might it not be the case that all of you, not just you but the other bettors as well, have likewise been
deceived or deceived yourselves? On reflection, you would be warranted in concluding that this is not
just possible, but probable.
Now translate this reasoning into the religious realm and consider the situation facing the proponent of
one particular candidate--say Christianity--in the religious stakes. Just as the bettor will need to
investigate whether the apparent rigging of the race was "for real" or just a "put up job," so a rational
Christian will need to investigate whether an event that is supposed to be a miracle supporting his
Christian beliefs really is miraculous, or whether it can be explained in natural terms.
In order to carry out such an inquiry, the believer will need to investigate the grounds for his belief that
the supposed miracle did in fact occur. Was he relying on second-hand reports (a belief passed down by
his forebears, perhaps) or beliefs taken for granted by members of the religious community to which he
now belongs? If so, he will need to check on the credentials of those beliefs, always mindful of the
propensity of most people to believe in the extraordinary and the marvelous, of the propensity to accept
the dictates of authority, and of the social and personal opprobrium risked by anyone who questions what
is taken to be sacred.
A diligent inquiry along these lines may well reveal that what he accepted as true is far from certain
and may even be evidently false. Even the most ardent orthodox believer may find that in all good
conscience he is then compelled to concur with the demythologized beliefs of so-called modernist
theologians like Rudolph Bultmann. He might go so far as to question, with Albert Schweitzer and others,
whether there is good historical evidence for the existence of a Christ Jesus, and end up embracing merely
the so-called "ethics" associated with the Jesus myth. He might even come think that there’s good reason
to subscribe to the so-called “Mythicist” tradition of those who confidently assert that belief in Jesus has
no more warrant than does belief in Santa or Sherlock Holmes.
When it comes to investigating the credentials of his own first-hand experiences of the divine, the task
is going to be more daunting. Our own immediate experiences always carry with them a conviction of
their own veridicality, i.e., their non-illusory nature. Can he really doubt that he saw a vision of Mother
Mary, for instance, or that God told him to launch a crusade in defense of the "true" faith? Difficult. But
not impossible. Doubt may start to erode his certainty when he, as a Roman Catholic, say, discovers that
the Virgin rarely appears in visions to Protestants, and never to Jews, Muslims, or Hindus. Again, he may
begin to doubt whether God really was giving him instructions when he learns that the staunch defenders
of other religions claim, with equally passionate sincerity, that God told them to launch a crusade against
his sect or religion. The strongest subjective certitude, he may reflect, can drive believers of all faiths and
sects to take the lives of others in a religious war, and even drive them to give their own lives "in God's
name."
But such subjective conviction, he may conclude, can never afford a guarantee of the truth of the
doctrines that each side is trying to defend. He may come to remark on the fact that although God, as it
seems to him, frequently tells him to take the actions that he is already disposed to do, God never seems to
issue counter instructions telling him that he has got God's message wrong and should stop the mayhem on
which he has embarked. Is it likely, he may ask himself, that the visions or voices in his head, or in the
heads of his religious opponents, are always authentic? On reflection, our seeker after religious truth may
come to realize that not even a single one of his personal encounters with the divine stands up to serious
critical scrutiny. He may even come to think that none of his experiences can be relied upon to tell him
anything about reality outside of the workings of his own mind.
And what goes for our believer in Christianity goes equally for believers in other faiths as well. Each,
after serious inquiry, may feel compelled to conclude not only that it is probable that believers in other
religions are in error, but that he is too. After all, if you have good reason to think that others have been
led to false beliefs by relying on evidence of a certain kind, and you have been relying on evidence of the
very same kind, then you will have good reason to think that it has probably led you also to false beliefs.
So far I have endorsed and elaborated on Hume's argument for the logical contrariety between rival
religions and the consequent logical contrariety between their evidences. From this contrariety it
immediately follows that the rival religions can't all be true, that at most just one can be true, and that it is
possible that all are false. Ditto with respect to the evidences on which they are supposedly based. And I
have gone further, arguing that it is not just possible that all are false. It is highly probable.
THE IMPROBABILITY OF ALL RELIGIONS
Hume has an independent argument for this stronger conclusion. It is a much more general argument,
having to do with the miraculous, i.e., supernatural, nature of the events cited in support of religious
beliefs, rather than their contrariety. It is, he claims, a "decisive" argument, one that will "with the wise
and learned, be an everlasting check to all kinds of superstitious delusion, and consequently be useful as
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long as the world endures."
Stated succinctly, it goes like this. In order for a statement to be deemed a law of nature, the best
evidence that human experience and careful scientific investigation can provide must attest its truth. In
short, the truth of a law of nature must have the highest degree of probability that it is possible for any
statement to have (other than a tautology, a definitional truth, a truth of logic, or a truth of pure
mathematics). Now, by definition, an event is to be considered a miracle if and only if its occurrence is
contrary to the laws of nature. If it weren't contrary to those laws, there would be nothing remarkable
about it and it would have no evidential value as a support for belief in something supernatural, lying
beyond the natural world. If, for instance, the Virgin Birth is explained as a case of parthenogenesis--a
kind of event frequently found in nature--it would be deprived of its status as a miracle, and thereby lose
its credibility as an argument for the existence of the supernatural entity, God in the form of the Holy
Ghost, who is supposed to have performed that miracle. By virtue of being contrary to--because involving
a violation of--the laws of nature, a miracle such as that of the Virgin Birth must therefore be as
improbable as any event can be. Yet every bit of experiential evidence that is cited in support of any
particular religion must involve some sort of miracle: either of the public kind, or of the private kind. To
put it another way, every religious experience, whether public or private, must in some way or another be
attributed to something supernatural. Hence every bit of experiential evidence cited in support of any
supernatural religion, must be as improbable as any evidence can be. And the truth of any religion in
whose support it is cited must likewise be empirically highly improbable.
The realization that this general conclusion about supernatural religions is true might have two valuable
practical consequences.
First, what James called the "snarling logicality" facing the spiritual pilgrim who feels logically
obliged to choose between rival religions, would disappear. Given the high degree of improbability of
any of them being true, one might conclude that one is wasting one's time trying to find the "one true
religion" of one's dreams. And Pascal's wager would be seen to be a logical fraud.
Second, and more importantly, the doctrinal source of religious conflict would also evaporate. Sunnis
would no longer wage war with Shiites, Hindus wouldn't war with Muslims, Muslims wouldn't mount
jihads against Christians, Protestants would no longer persecute Catholics, and so on. Had the soundness
of Hume's general argument against supernaturalism and religion been acknowledged thousands of years
ago (before he propounded it), humankind might have been spared the obscene history--the holy horrors--
of the religious wars it has in fact endured. And were it to be recognized in the future, then John Lennon's
dream of a world without religion and its consequences, as expressed in his song "Imagine", might one
day come to be.
THE NEAR-ZERO PROBABILITY OF ANY GOD
Hume's "decisive" argument for the improbability of any religion's being true lends itself to a parallel
argument for the improbability of any god's existence.
In order to lay the general conceptual foundations of what follows, we need to draw a distinction
between two different ways of establishing probabilities. It's a distinction that, so far as I know, does not
feature as formulated here in any standard texts on probability theory, but should be recognized as
extremely important for general epistemology (theory of knowledge). It is a distinction between:
(a) Probability assessments that require some sort of appeal to experience,
and
(b) Probability assessments that do not require any appeal to experience.
The former I shall call empirical probabilities. Following the German philosopher, Kant (who first
brought the empirical/a priori distinction into prominence) I shall call the latter pure a priori
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probabilities since, as he implicitly defined them, they involve "no admixture of anything empirical". My
definition also is in accord with Kant's original, and careful, definition of both "empirical" and "a priori"
which ran as follows:
“We shall understand by a priori knowledge, not knowledge independent of this or that experience, but
knowledge absolutely independent of all experience. Opposed to it is empirical knowledge, which is
29
possible only a posteriori, that is, through experience.” [My italics inserted for emphasis.]
My Kantian distinction is not the same as that standardly textbook distinction made between prior
probabilities and a posteriori probabilities, where prior probability is assessed before new empirical
data is obtained and a posteriori probability is assessed after that new data has been obtained. My
distinction, in short, has nothing to do with the temporal sequence actually involved in gathering and
assessing new data. It has to do, as does Kant's, with the possible ways of assessing probabilities; with
whether making such assessments is possible in the absence of any empirical data, or not. In my
terminology, if it is possible then it is an assessment that is possible purely a priori. If it is not possible,
then it is an empirical probability. The conflation between these two distinctions is made plausible by the
similarity of the terms "prior" and "a priori", on the one hand, and the terms "a posteriori" (knowable by
experience) and "empirical" (knowable only by experience), on the other hand.
Yet, as defined here, the two distinctions are very different from one another. And importantly so, as
was demonstrated by Leonhard Euler's famous example of the famous case of the seven bridges of
Konigsberg (now Kaliningrad): bridges that were so configured that it was logically, not just physically,
impossible for people to cross all seven without crossing at least one of them twice.
Schematic of the seven bridges of Konigsberg

The impossibility of doing so can be demonstrated both a posteriori, by appeal to the experience of
trying to do so on foot, and--as subsequently demonstrated Euler--by purely a priori topological
30
reasoning. In short, the distinction between knowable a posteriori and knowable a priori is neither
exclusive nor exhaustive, though often treated as though it is. By way of contrast, the distinction between
knowable empirically and knowable purely a priori, is both exclusive and exhaustive within the class of
knowable propositions.
ASSESSING PROBABILITIES EMPIRICALLY
Estimates of probability, in general, are estimates of the chances of one particular outcome over all the
others from a range of possibilities. Ordinarily, the possibilities under consideration are physical
possibilities where the chances are ascertainable empirically, i.e., only by reference, at some point, to
experience. Given the empirically derived information that a die has six sides, that when tossed it will
always fall on one of these six sides, and that it is not biased so as to fall on one side more often than it
does on any of the others, we can infer a priori--that is, without further experiential input--that the
probability of its landing on any one of these six sides is 1 in 6. Here our estimate is one of physical
possibility, where "physical" is understood in a broad sense as covering everything that exists in the
physical world. It's logically possible, of course, that such a die will disappear into thin air on being
tossed, or that it will continue dropping until it reaches the centre of the earth. We can, without
contradiction, conceive of these possibilities, and countless others. But we leave them out of
consideration because our concern is only with physical possibility, i.e., states of affairs that are
consistent with the laws of nature.
Ordinarily, too, we make these estimates of probability with respect to the chances of some particular
event occurring. But we can also make them regarding the likelihood of a particular kind of object
existing. Consider, for instance, the probability of a single molecule of a supposedly curative substance
remaining in a homeopathic remedy that has undergone 30 succussions (the recommended number of
sequential dilutions). Then, on the basis of this empirical evidence, and by appealing only to the
empirically based law of chemistry known as Avogadro's law, we can calculate a priori that the chances
of a single molecule of the original substance remaining in the remedy are almost infinitesimally small.
They are so small, in fact, that (according to one estimate) we would need to drink a volume of the
"remedy" many times that of the all the earth’s oceans in order to be reasonably assured that we'd
consumed a single molecule of the "curative" substance. Hence the improbability of Homeopathy as a
whole.
The two examples of probability estimates I've considered so far, for events occurring and for objects
existing, respectively, both involve the realm of physical possibilities. Within that realm we can reason a
priori, in our heads, from premises at least one of which is empirical.
ASSESSING PURELY A PRIORI PROBABILITIES
Yet we can also make probability estimates regarding both events and objects within the realm of what
are only logical possibilities. And here we can make our calculations by pure a priori reasoning. It is this
sort of reasoning to which some cosmologists take recourse when they make estimates about the
probability of a universe coming into existence that has the precise physical laws that happen to hold in
the actual universe. Some have said, for example, that the a priori probability of such a precisely tuned
universe coming into existence, when you consider all the other possible universes that could have come
into existence instead, is infinitesimally small.
But what do they mean here by "possible"? On what do they base these estimates? Clearly they can't be
making their estimates of the chances within the realm of scientific possibility. To say that something is
physically or scientifically possible, is to say that it is logically consistent with the laws of nature that do
in fact prevail. So when they talk about other possible laws of nature prevailing, and other possible
universes existing, they must be talking about logically possible laws and universes. In short, they must be
estimating the chances of this particular universe with these particular laws occurring, when we consider
all the logical possibilities. Their reasoning, it follows, must be conducted purely a priori.

EMPIRICAL ESTIMATES OF GOD'S PROBABILITY


Evidence of the existence of a supernatural being, such as a god, requires that such a being should make
some change to the universe, some change that is not attributable to the laws of nature. Otherwise, an
event like the Virgin Birth, if attributable to a natural process such as parthenogenesis--commonly
observed in nature among fish and frogs--would lose whatever credibility it might have had. It couldn’t
then be cited as evidence of the Holy Ghost's procreative ability, or therefore of God's existence.
Changes in the state of the universe that are attributable to the laws of nature are said to "obey", or be
in conformity with, the laws of nature. These do not require explanation by reference to anything
supernatural outside the natural world.
But what do we mean by "laws of nature"? First, they are descriptive, not prescriptive laws. They state
how things actually behave, not how they should behave. In this respect they are quite unlike the
prescriptions of human laws or the social conventions of behaviour. Although it's appropriate to ask of
prescriptive laws, "Who made them?”, "Who enforces them?", and "How frequently are they broken?",
these questions simply do not arise for descriptive laws like the laws of nature. There is therefore no
warrant in either reason or experience for supposing that someone--such as a god--makes them or
enforces them. Nor is there warrant in either reason or experience for supposing that the descriptive laws
of nature have ever been broken. It is fallacious, therefore, to suppose that because the law of gravity is a
law there must have been a lawgiver to legislate it or enforce it. Such an inference involves a simple-
minded equivocation over the word "law".
Laws of nature can be stated in ordinary language by means of completely universal statements or
expressed as mathematical equations. They are exceptionless: nothing is deemed to be a law of nature if
there are things or events whose occurrence is logically inconsistent with them. They hold for the whole
universe, not just on Earth or our galaxy, but also for other planets and galaxies as well. They hold for
every entity in the universe, from the smallest subatomic particle, to the largest galactic structures. And
they are changeless, having governed the universe since the first few thousandths of a second after the big
bang. So they are invariant, not just in space but also in time. Examples are: the quantum laws, chemical
laws, thermodynamic laws, electromagnetic laws, Newton's laws (expressed with greater precision by
Einstein's laws), and the conservation laws for mass, energy, momentum.
These are just a few of the major scientific laws in terms of which scientific explanations of
phenomena can, in principle, be explained. And then there are minor ones pertaining to the particular
states of affairs found to obtain on Earth: laws pertaining to the causes of earthquakes, volcanoes, and
tsunamis. The laws relating to plate tectonics, for example. The particular circumstances obtaining on
planet Earth, the constitution of its iron core, its mantle, its crust, the rate of its "spinning" on its axis, and
other factors relevant to the generation of the phenomenon known as plate tectonics, may not exist
elsewhere in the universe. But we can confidently say that if they were duplicated elsewhere, then
phenomena like earthquakes and volcanoes, and (in the presence of oceans) tsunamis, would also occur.
Ditto regarding celestial events such as comets, meteorites, solar and lunar eclipses, asteroid collisions,
etc. The laws of nature are therefore said to "support" counterfactual conditionals (more accurately called
subjunctive conditionals), i.e., conditional statements of the form "If such-and-such were to obtain, then
so-and-so would occur" where the such-and-such clause specifies a particular set of laws and initial
conditions (particular circumstances) and the so-and-so clause specifies the outcome.
All these kinds of events, and countless others such as plagues, were once attributed to the agency of
the gods, or depending on one's predilection for a particular god, to a single entity known just as "God."
Such attributions are still made by the superstitious and the ardent defenders of faith. But we now know
better. Even if science hasn't yet found the precise set of conditions sufficient to bring about the
occurrence of a particular phenomenon, we can be confident that such a set of circumstances does exist.
The existence of such laws, however, is not the same as their discovery. One can but express the hope that
they all will be discovered if the human species exists long enough and the antiscientific sentiment that
religion has spawned in the past, and threatens to spawn again, does not prevail. Where science moves in,
the gods move out. Let's hope they stay out.
But, you may ask, "How about magicians and the magic acts they perform? Don't they violate the laws
of nature when they make something (e.g., the proverbial rabbit) appear out of thin air, or conversely
make it disappear from sight (as does David Copperfield with the Statue of Liberty)?" Well, let me ask
you in turn, "Do you believe in magic? Real magic, that is; not pretend?" So-called magicians don't. They
call themselves illusionists. Rather than violating the laws of nature, they use these laws for their own
ends to make it appear that they (these “magicians”), like the mythical Merlin, have supernatural powers.
Which they don't.
All the alleged miracles performed in the name of religion, of this god or that, have a similar
foundation in illusion or self-delusion. As Hume puts it, "in proportion as we advance nearer the
enlightened ages, we soon learn that there is nothing mysterious or supernatural in the case, but that all
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proceeds from the usual propensity of mankind towards the marvellous." And again, "all of them [seem]
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to have an unconquerable appetite for falsehood and fable." Herein lie the breeding grounds of belief
also in magicians, shamans, and witchdoctors.
This is where Hume's general, and decisive, argument for the improbability of miracles gets its
traction. For any circumstance found in the bowels of the earth, on the face of the earth, or in the skies
above, there's an almost irrebuttable presumption that there do exist laws of nature such that, if they and
the particular circumstances of their application were known, a natural explanation--as opposed to a
supernatural one--would in principle, if not in practice, be forthcoming. There's an almost irrebuttable
presumption, that is, that God didn't do it.
The empirical evidence against the existence of a supernatural god is as strong as any empirical
evidence could be. On empirical grounds, therefore, we can conclude that there's a near-zero probability
of any such god--including any member of the class of theistic gods--actually existing.
Hume got it right again when he observed, "A wise man, therefore, proportions his belief to the
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evidence."
PURELY A PRIORI ESTIMATES OF GOD'S PROBABILITY
Nothing said so far implies that the existence of a god who manifests itself in some miraculous way is
logically impossible. It must be conceded, nay insisted, that some god-concepts can be entertained by a
rational person without logical inconsistency. This is not to say that all god-concepts are logically
coherent. Some, as I'll argue later (in Chapter 6), are not. So it should be understood that, in the present
context, I am limiting consideration to those gods only in the conception of which no logical contradiction
is involved.
As I pointed out in Chapter 1, we can without self-contradiction conceive of the heavens opening and
remaining open with God revealing himself to us daily by speaking to all humans and exercising his much
vaunted powers and goodness by putting an immediate end to disease, warfare, injustice, and the whole
realm of human and animal suffering. We can conceive of the Rapture occurring whereby countless of the
faithful will be caught up into the heavens to meet Jesus, leaving cars driverless, children without parents,
husbands without wives and vice versa. We can conceive of the 2004 Asian tsunami occurring and the
Christian God answering people's prayers by restoring the nearly 230,000 dead to their loved ones in a
manner like unto the reported resurrection of the faithful from their graves in Jerusalem at the time when
Jesus "gave up the ghost" on the cross. We can without self-contradiction conceive of a god who, after the
Haitian earthquake, resurrected the dead and had all the rubble spring miraculously back into the shape of
intact buildings well stocked with food and water, perhaps even displaying his largesse by making the
buildings earthquake-proof in the process.
All these events are logically possible. Yet none of them or the like has ever occurred or, we may be
certain, will ever occur. Why? Because all of them are "impossible" in another sense of the word. They
are not logically impossible; but they are physically impossible, i.e., not inconsistent with the laws of
logic but inconsistent with the laws of nature. It was in this latter sense of the word, I believe, that Hume
spoke of the "absolute impossibility" of miracles. They have the highest degree of improbability because
they are physically impossible and there's near-zero empirical probability that the laws of nature will
ever be broken. Religious apologists, who dismiss the whole of Hume's argument against miracles on the
supposition that by "absolute impossibility" he means "logical impossibility", have fallen into a simple-
minded semantic trap here. His whole discussion makes it clear that he is saying only that on the
empirical evidence as to the universality of the laws of nature, miracles are physically impossible.
Okay then, let's leave the realm of empirical probabilities and improbabilities behind us and
concentrate on the realm of that which is logically possible. In broadening our intellectual horizon to the
realm of the logically possible, we are setting our imaginations free from all constraints other than those
imposed by the laws of logic. A logically possible world is any world in the conception of which no
contradiction is involved. Likewise, a logically possible creator of that world is any creator thereof in the
conception of which we aren't involved in logical contradiction.
If, in the actual world, you want to assess your chances of winning a lottery, you'll want to know how
many other possible lottery tickets there are in the draw. Likewise, in the realm of the logically possible
you'll want to know how many possible worlds and possible creator gods there are in the draw for
actuality. Only then can you estimate the chances of a particular world or a particular god actually
existing.
So how many possible worlds and possible creator gods are there? The answer to both questions is
infinitely many.
This is easily demonstrated. Let's imagine that the actual world has precisely N subatomic particles.
Then it is equally possible to conceive of a world and a god who created it, that has N+1 subatomic
particles. Ditto for a world containing precisely N+2 particles and a god who created just that world. But
now we are embarked on an imaginative exercise in which, for any number in the infinite series of natural
numbers, there is a possible world containing precisely that number of subatomic particles, and a
possible god who created just that world and no other.
We can run the same argument through again if we shift our attention from the smallest entities in the
universe to the largest, to the number of times the universe as a whole has undergone what cosmologists
call an oscillation. According to one model of the actual universe, the universe began with a big bang
followed by an expansionary phase that may (logically) eventually be followed by a big crunch (though
doubts are arising about the crunch phase). But other logically possible models have been explored.
Among them is the oscillatory model according to which the big bang was preceded by a series of
oscillations between big bangs and big crunches. How many? Within the realm of the logically possible,
there could be anywhere from zero such oscillations to an infinite number. Let's assign a creator god to
each. Once more we imaginatively generate an infinite number of possible creator gods.
Suppose, then, that our infinite number of gods decide to conduct a couple of lotteries. In the first
lottery they gamble on who will get to create a world with precisely N subatomic particles, while in the
second they gamble on who will get to create a world that's undergone precisely M oscillatory phases,
where M ranges from zero to infinity. The chance of any one god winning either lottery, let alone both in
succession, is infinitesimally small. And since we are conducting our thought experiment entirely by an
exercise of our imaginations, we can even imagine that both lotteries were called off at the last moment so
that none of our imaginary gods got a chance to win the sweepstakes for actually creating anything. Or
even the sweepstakes for actually existing.
If all this stuff about an imaginary supernatural world inhabited by supernatural gods sounds far-
fetched, even stuff-and-nonsense, that's because it is. But remember how we got here. We began with an
assessment of the empirical probability of any god whatever winning out against the laws of nature. We
concluded, on the evidence, that there's a near zero empirical probability of any god existing let alone
manifesting him or herself by interfering with the laws of nature. We concluded, that is, that the god-
hypothesis and the supernaturalist hypothesis in general, is probably simply false.
This brought us to the implicit objection that supernaturalism is nevertheless logically conceivable and
hence worth exploring as a possibility that "could" in principle be actualized. So we allowed ourselves to
imagine it being actualized by some particular god or other, and then asked ourselves how we could--in
the absence of empirical evidence--assess the probabilities. And now, by employing nothing other than
pure a priori reasoning, we've come to the same conclusion.
It might, however, be objected that our argument fails to show that all gods-- despite being very, very,
very improbable--are equally improbable. Might not some gods be more probable than others when their
probability is assessed on some metric or other? The answer is that so far as logically possible gods are
concerned, no such metric has yet been suggested and it is hard to conceive how any could be given. In
short, such a metric for distinguishing degrees of probability of merely logically possible gods, if there is
one, is inscrutable.
The conclusion is evident: no matter how we assess the probabilities, whether empirically or purely a
priori, the chances of any supernatural god at all existing are near zero. Belief in the existence of a god,
who--like a Great Magician from Nowhere--conjures the world out of nothing, has no foundation in
experience or reason.
3
WHY GOD DESERVES TO DIE
INTELLECTUAL AND MORAL INDICTMENTS

In 1922 the American essayist H. L. Mencken wrote a little essay titled, “Memorial Service”. Here is
how it began:
“Where is the graveyard of dead gods? What lingering mourner waters their mounds? There was a day
when Jupiter was the king of the gods, and any man who doubted his puissance was ipso facto a barbarian
and an ignoramus. But where in all the world is there a man who worships Jupiter to-day? And what of
Huitzilopochtli? In one year--and it is no more than five hundred years ago--fifty thousand youths and
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maidens were slain in sacrifice to him.”
Mencken went on to name a total of 190 gods. He told how millions worshipped these gods; how
people laboured for generations to build them vast temples; how priests, evangelists, bishops, and
archbishops served them; how to doubt them was to die, usually at the stake; how armies took to the fields
to defend them against infidels; and how villages were burned, women and children slaughtered, and
cattle driven off. All these, he pointed out in conclusion:
“Were gods of the highest standing and dignity--gods of civilized peoples--worshiped and believed in
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by millions. All were theoretically omnipotent, omniscient and immortal. And all are dead.”
THE DEATH OF THE GODS
What does Mencken mean by the "death" of these gods? Not that they once existed in reality and now do
not. Rather, that a god dies when no one believes in him, her, or it; dies when that god disappears from the
pantheon of the corresponding religion or when the religion itself disappears; dies when that god is
recognised as existing only in fable, not in fact.
Mencken's figure of speech is common enough not to invite misunderstanding. Nietzsche famously used
it to apply to the idea of the Christian God. Mathematician John C. Lennox used it in his recent book
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God's Undertaker: Has Science Buried God? And Terry Pratchett used it in his deliciously satirical
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novel Small Gods.
All Mencken's pagan gods were once thought of as supernatural agents, akin in their attributes to us,
beings whose actions were posited as direct causes of natural phenomena: earthquakes, tsunamis,
lightning, thunder, floods, famines, diseases, eclipses, and the like.
Yet today, as Mencken claimed, all are dead. The track record of belief in supernatural causes of
natural phenomena is abysmal. Supernaturalism, in general, is largely dead. Outside the realm of religious
belief, it persists only among those credulous enough to believe in ghosts, poltergeists, and the like.
Supernaturalism has given way to naturalism, superstition to science. What philosophers call
methodological naturalism now plays the role in science that methodological supernaturalism, so to
speak, played in pagan religions. The presumption that some god or other caused whatever occurs, has
been replaced by the presumption that the laws of nature are responsible.
The gods mentioned by Mencken have lost whatever evidential base and explanatory power they were
once thought to have. The same holds for their moral credentials. We now view the demands these gods
imposed on their followers with repugnance. Human sacrifice, temple prostitution, and slavery, for
example. So, too, the barbarities their followers inflicted on the devotees of rival gods: indiscriminate
slaughter, torture, and persecution. The cruel commands of these gods no longer impose obligations upon
us. The Huitzilopochtli’s of religion are dead and buried and the world is better for it.
We have no reason today to believe in the existence, let alone the causal efficacy or moral imperatives,
of any of the gods that made it on to Mencken's list.
THE GODS OF MONOTHEISM
But how about the revealed gods of monotheism? The God of Judaism? The God of Christianity? And the
God of Islam? Currently over half the world’s population believes wholeheartedly in one or other of these
gods. And how about the God of Deism, the vaguely conceived "Supreme Intelligence" that so many non-
churchgoers believe in? Are their claims to credibility any better than those of their pagan rivals?
Atheists, of whom I am one, think not. Indeed I shall argue that these gods are no more intellectually
credible than are the pagan gods, and that the moral credentials of the theistic gods are worse by far.
THE GENERAL CONCEPT OF GOD
First, I want to clear up a potential confusion about the term "God." Pick up any newspaper, journal, or
book of theology, philosophy of religion, or comparative religion, and you’ll find the term "God" used as
a proper name as if there is one and only one object that it designates.
But that is clearly wrong. If someone tells you that he or she believes in God, it makes perfect sense to
ask, “Which god?” Is it the Hebraic god Yahweh as revealed in the Tanakh (roughly, the Old Testament)?
Is it God the father, God incarnate in Jesus, as revealed in the New Testament? Is it Allah as revealed in
the Qur’an? Or is it a deist god? Each believer will use the noun "God" as a proper name for his or her
own object of worship or respect and is likely to insist that their object of reference is different from the
god referred to by followers of other religions, denominations, or sects. And they would be right to do so.
Each god differs from all the others in the properties he or she is supposed to possess. Hence they cannot
be identical.
The fact is that the lower case term "god" is a common noun used to refer to a hypothetical entity
supposed to have a certain status, whereas the upper case term "God" functions like the proper name
"Mary" in so far as it admits many different persons as bearers of the name. Another point that many
people forget: just because "God" functions as a proper name it doesn’t follow that there really is an
entity of which it is the name. "Santa" is a proper name. But it doesn’t follow that Santa exists.
So how am I going to use the term "God" when, as an atheist, I say that I don’t believe God exists? I
propose to use it as a sort of variable proper name for whichever object people think exists when they
use the term. One caveat, though. I am going to take it, as most philosophers and theologians do, that when
people talk about God they are talking about, or taking themselves to be talking about, some sort of
supernatural entity or spiritual being. In my own use of the term I'll follow suit. For the moment, I
certainly won't be talking about any pantheistically conceived entity such as Spinoza's God-as-identical-
with-Nature itself, or Paul Tillich's and Bishop Spong's gobbledygook God-as-the-ground-and-depth-of-
all-being. I'll deal with some of them later. Right now, I'll restrict my use of the term to supernatural gods.
THE CONCEPT OF ATHEISM
Second, the term "atheist." As commonly used, it applies to anyone who does not believe in the existence
of God: any god.
Atheists aren't alone in their disbelief. In a broad sense of the term, all religious believers are atheistic
too: atheistic about all gods other than their own. Theists, for example, no more believe in the existence of
any of the pagan gods such as Mars, Venus, or Pluto, than they do in Santa Claus or the tooth fairy.
Atheists just add the gods of theism and deism to their lengthy list of fictitious gods.
PROVING A NEGATIVE
People sometimes say that atheism cannot be proved. They trot out the old claim, “You can’t prove a
negative”, as if to prove the point. But this is fatuous. “No negatives can be proved” is itself a negative!
And it’s false. Some negatives are easy to prove. The statement, “There is no greatest prime number”, is
one of them. It can be proved, as Euclid showed, by means of a reductio ad absurdum. When the concept
of something--a certain sort of prime number, for instance, or the concept of a morally perfect God
torturing nonbelievers in the fires of hell--involves contradiction, self-inconsistency, it is often easy to
prove the negative.
Or consider the more humdrum negative, “There’s no butter in the fridge." This negative can be proved
empirically by removing the fridge contents and looking carefully. In this case, the idea of there being
butter in the fridge--unlike the idea of a greatest prime number--is self-consistent (consistent with itself)
but inconsistent with the evidence. In like manner, I would argue that certain concepts of God, though not
self-contradictory, are inconsistent with indubitable evidence about the nature of the world, such as the
fact that it contains evil.
And another point that is often neglected. In many instances the demand for so-called proof of the
negative is asking too much. I would not dream of asking you to prove, in either of the foregoing senses,
that Santa doesn’t exist. Nevertheless, I bet you don’t believe in Santa. And I bet you think your non-belief
justified. The existence of Santa, you might say, is not impossible, but it is wildly improbable. Why?
You might point to the track record, as it were, of similar childhood beliefs. Maybe you once believed
in the tooth fairy, for example, or fairies at the bottom of your garden, or evil witches and wizards, but no
longer do. And since belief in Santa smacks of the same sort of superstitious nonsense, the point came in
your childhood when you dismissed it too as no longer credible.
You might have discovered that modern belief in Santa is grounded, not in evidence of his existence but
in acknowledged myths such as that of the pre-Christian pagan god Odin, or that it is merely an
embellishment of historical stories about the 4th century Christian Bishop Saint Nicholas of Myra.
And there are even more powerful reasons that might lead to your current disbelief in Santa's existence.
It's not just that you have not yet come across good evidence of his existence, for after all you would have
to concede an element of truth to the slogan: “Absence of evidence isn’t the same as evidence of
absence.” Rather it’s that there is a cumulative case to be made for Santa’s non-existence. You reason that
if he did exist then it would be rational for you to expect a lot of evidence to turn up that in fact never has
turned up.
The hypothesis that Santa exists generates a whole lot of reasonable expectations all of which are
unfulfilled. If Santa existed, it would be reasonable to expect, for instance, that he would leave sooty
footprints as he made his way from the chimney to your bedside. It would be reasonable to expect that
someone would have actually seen him careering across the sky behind his reindeer fast enough to visit,
and spend a little time with, every child in the world in the space of a single evening. You would expect
someone to be able to give you a plausible account of how he could break the laws of physics in this way.
And so on.
These kinds of evidential considerations, I want to insist, are much more powerful than any to do with
simple lack of evidence. The existence of Santa is implausible, improbable even, insofar as there are
cumulative rational expectations about his existence none of which are fulfilled. I have coined a name for
this sort of implausibility argument. I’ve christened it the argument from Cumulative Unfulfilled Rational
Expectations or CURE, for short.
In what follows I will sometimes appeal to the power of CURE arguments as a cure for those who, in
my view, suffer from implausible beliefs in the existence of God, or--for that matter--a historical Moses,
King David, or Jesus.
Taken together with natural explanations of the causes of such beliefs, and the track record of similar
beliefs, CURE arguments provide about as strong a case as can possibly be made for atheistic non-belief
in any god whose concept is self-consistent and consistent with indubitable facts. So you may expect me,
in what follows, to press the parallels between belief in Santa and belief in God; parallels, too, between
Santa and many of the principal personages that feature in the Bible, Moses, King David, and Jesus the
Christ, in particular.
NATURALISM
Naturalism is a metaphysical worldview whose ontology (list of existing things) comprises all and only
the set of natural (physical, or material) objects, together with their simple and emergent properties and
relations. More fully, metaphysical naturalism (otherwise known as materialism) is a philosophical--more
specifically an ontological--theory about the nature of reality. It asserts that the ultimate constituents of
reality are the sorts of things with which physics deals (subatomic particles and their basic properties),
together with complexes of these and their emergent properties (properties possessed by complexes that
are not possessed by their simpler constituents). An example of an emergent property is wetness. It is a
property that is possessed by water and many other fluids but not by the individual molecules, let alone
the individual atoms or subatomic particles that collectively make it up. Naturalism embraces emergent
properties as well as the complex objects that have them.
Naturalism has no room therefore, for the idea that we are ghosts in bodily machines or that we might
survive our physical deaths. To suppose the contrary, in my view, would be to commit what I call the
"Cheshire Cat Fallacy", as illustrated by Lewis Carroll's story of the cat that faded away until only its grin
remained. As if a grin could have substantial existence independent of the physical face of which it was
the property! Our minds and so-called spirits aren't independently existing entities that continue to exist
after our physical bodies are put in the grave or their constituent atoms scattered to the wind. They are
emergent properties of the complex organisms that constitute our bodies. They can't outlive our bodies any
more than can the Cheshire cat's grin outlast the cat that grinned. So, in essence, I'll argue in Chapter 7.
SUPERNATURALISM
Supernaturalism stands in opposition to naturalism. Supernaturalism has a dualistic ontology. It recognises
the existence of the natural world, of course. But it insists that there is more to reality than is conceived of
in the naturalist’s philosophy, and more than is accessible to scientific investigation. In addition to the
natural world there is a supernatural one: a world inhabited by beings such as disembodied souls, God
and his angels, or Satan and his hordes, let alone gods like Mars, Jupiter or Huitzilopochtli.
Some people say that metaphysical theories like naturalism and supernaturalism cannot in principle be
empirically falsified. But this is a shibboleth, a product of shallow thinking. It depends on what sort of
negative statement is at issue. Spatio-temporally restricted existential statements such as “There is butter
in the fridge” clearly can be verified and the corresponding negative existential “There is no butter in the
fridge” falsified. But spatio-temporally unrestricted existential statements such as “There is a God
somewhere or other who does this or that”—the very essence of supernaturalistic hypotheses—don’t lend
themselves to this sort of falsification by experience. It is true more generally that supernaturalism cannot
be empirically falsified. There is no way, for example, of conclusively falsifying the claim that the natural
causes of a phenomenon are simply the instruments by means of which God brings about the fulfilment of
his plan.
But by way of contrast, it is easy to conceive of a possible situation in which naturalism would be
shown false. Just imagine the apocalyptic vision of evangelical Christians coming to pass in a way that
defeated every attempt at a natural explanation, an explanation in terms of mass deception, for instance.
Everyone in the world hears the deafening sound of trumpets. Everyone sees Jesus descend from the
heavens in a cloud of glory. And, in the great Rapture of whose imminence true believers still have no
doubt, the faithful around the whole globe are visibly swept up to join Jesus in the sky, leaving cars
driverless, husbands without wives, parents without children, and the earth’s population permanently
depleted. If this confirmation of the Second Coming were to occur, I myself would be gob-smacked-- even
God-smacked, so to speak--and might hastily mend my atheistic ways. I might even think it prudent to pray
there’d be a Third Coming for belated believers like me.
The problem for supernaturalism is that nothing remotely like this has ever occurred. Its track record is
so abysmal that on a frequency interpretation of probability theory you would want to assign it a
probability approaching zero. Think of the situation like this. Of the trillions of events, large and small,
that are going on around us every second of every day, how many do you think still demand a
supernaturalistic explanation? When some new event comes up for examination--the occurrence of a new
phenomenon in the cosmos, perhaps, or the sudden appearance of a new virus--where would you put your
money? Which would you think more probable? That a natural explanation can in principle be given? Or
that some supernatural agent caused it? What would you think of someone who reasoned abstractly that for
any given event there are just two possible kinds of explanation, a natural one and a supernatural one, and
so concluded that there's a 50:50 chance of supernaturalism being true? Or, ignoring the multiplicity of
rival gods, that it's a 50:50 toss up as to whether their own particular god, who they call 'God', exists?
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The latter fallacy underlies Stephen Unwin's argument in The Probability of God. He confuses
possibility with probability. From the fact that "God exists" is true or false, it does not follow that both
truth-values have equal probability of being true. It depends on how many exclusive gods one takes into
consideration. If his argument were sound, every one of the countless gods that has ever been postulated
would have a 50:50 chance probability of existing. Yet, as we saw in Chapter 2, they are all logically
exclusive of one another. In short, Unwin has fallen into the same sort of trap as William James and Blaise
Pascal: he has falsely assumed that there is only one God worth considering. He has failed to ask himself
“Which God?”
Supernaturalists frequently object to the fact that science restricts itself to the search for natural causes
only. Why, they ask, do scientists close their minds to the possibility of supernatural ones? Well, scientists
have the capacity to learn from experience and, in light of the abysmal track record of supernaturalism,
they find it best to begin with the presumption that some sort of naturalistic explanation will win again.
In any case, there are too many supernatural beings whose agency can in principle be invoked, not just
those so far conjured up in human imagination, but countless more besides. Just think of the range of
possible deities embraced within the class of religions known as theism alone. Judaism, Christianity and
Islam are just the start of it. Each has its own sects and offshoots, each with its own unique god-concept.
Christianity alone has more than 38,000 denominational variants (as estimated by the Gordon-Conwell
Theological Seminary, 2006). And more are in the making every day. Supernaturalists, if conducting their
thinking in the abstract, would have to allow the possibility that any one of these rival deities could be
invoked as the explanatory cause, that a priori they're equi-probable. But which one, if any, is the "true"
god?
Mind you, there are unaccountably many possible natural explanations that can also be imagined. So the
difference doesn't lie in mere numbers. It lies, rather, in the fact that natural explanations are answerable
to the tribunal of experience and that this tribunal eliminates any that don't pass its tests.
Supernaturalistic hypotheses, by way of contrast, simply don't admit any empirical evidence to count
against them. Hence there's no way of separating out those that are false. And a hypothesis that's
compatible with anything and everything that might occur, can't explain why in fact this occurs rather than
that. This is the logical point that lies behind the methodological point that, in order to be a candidate for
scientific status, an empirical hypothesis must be falsifiable, i.e., able to be shown false. Only then can
the screening practices of science get rid of those hypotheses that evidence shows to be false, and thus
bring us closer to the truth. There aren't any such practices for the evaluation of supernaturalistic beliefs.

Supernaturalistic explanations of natural phenomena have fallen by the way. Gone are the deities of the
ancient Egyptians, the Vikings, the Aztecs, and the like, all of whom once played a role in filling the gaps
in human understanding of how nature works. Relatively few of those gaps are left. And, I’m going to
argue, filling them with any surviving gods--any gods in whom people still believe--will not help.
THE GOD OF BIBLICAL REVELATION
For nearly two millennia, Western civilisation has been held in thrall by God’s word, the Bible. And even
today God, as portrayed in the Bible, is worshipped by well over half the world’s population. The
biblical god is believed in by Jews to the extent that their holy scripture, the Tanakh, makes up over three
quarters of the Bible. He is believed in by Christians in its entirety since the last quarter of the Bible
comprises the New Testament revelation of God through his son Jesus. And he is believed in by Muslims
despite the fact that they think the Bible needs supplementation by their own holy scripture, the Qur’an.
God, the biblical god, is supposed to be all-knowing, all-powerful and morally perfect; and the Bible
is supposed to be his autobiography. Now if that’s the case, then it is rational to expect that the Bible will
always say only what is true, never what is false or even misleading. Such is the reasoning behind the
doctrine of inerrancy: that the Bible contains no errors, either as to matters of fact or as to matters of
morals.
INERRANCY
A persuasive case can be made for this position. As Prof. Gleason Archer puts it:
“If the written revelation contains mistakes, then it can hardly fulfill its intended purpose, that is, to
convey to man in a reliable way the will of God for his salvation. Why is this so? Because a demonstrated
mistake in one part gives way to the possibility that there may be mistakes in other parts of the Bible. If
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the Bible turns out to be a mixture of truth and error then it becomes a book like any other book.”
He is appealing to the dangers of the slippery slope. If you admit that certain parts are false, how can
you judge which parts are true? The peril is that if the Bible is held not to be inerrant, then it is we, not
God, who become the arbiters of scriptural truth. And we, of course, are fallible.
You may think the doctrine of inerrancy the product of simplistic black-and-white fundamentalist
thinking. You may think that those who propound it know little about, or ignore the way the Bible was
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composed or the vagaries of history that eventually led to its canonization in 382 AD. You may think that
I am setting up a straw man the easier to demolish the God of the Bible. But I am not. Some of the finest
Christian philosophers of our day endorse the doctrine explicitly.
Among them we find such senior statesmen of philosophical theism as William Alston, Peter van
Inwagen, and Alvin Plantinga. All, as Plantinga puts it, are “people of the Word [who] take Scripture to
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be a special revelation from God himself.” In Plantinga's view, “Scripture is inerrant: the Lord makes no
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mistakes; what he proposes for our belief is what we ought to believe." Van Inwagen says, “I fully accept
the teachings of my denomination that ‘the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments are the
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revealed Word of God.’" And Alston takes the view that “a large proportion of the scriptures consists of
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records of divine-human communications.”
Are these guys serious? What would be their line when confronted by 2 Chronicles 4:2, which gives a
false value for the mathematical constant pi (the ratio of the circumference of a circle to its diameter)?
What would they say about countless inconsistencies the Bible contains? For example, between 2 Samuel
24:1, which says the Lord commanded King David to “number the people of Israel”, and 1 Chronicles
21:1, which says it was Satan, not the Lord, who issued the command. What account would they give of
scientific absurdities such as that of a six-day creation, the fixity of species, and the world-wide flood, an
event that some biblical genealogists calculate as occurring on the 27 February 2267 BCE, an event that,
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as Australian geologist Ian Plimer points out, was "spitefully" ignored by the Egyptians of the time? I
simply don't know what answers these notable theistic philosophers would give. They proclaim inerrancy
as a general doctrine without considering its specific applications. They preach it from their pulpits yet
ignore it in their philosophical writings. Yet where inconsistencies abound, so does falsity; for at least
one of each inconsistent pair must be false.
Nevertheless, there are several ploys to which they could resort. They could admit that the Bible "as
we now have it" does indeed contain some errors of mathematics, logic, cosmology, geology and history
but insist that they arise from corruptions of some lost "original manuscripts" that God first communicated
inerrantly to the scribes. They could avail themselves, as Alston seems to, of a distinction between those
parts of scripture that are inerrant and those that aren't, without saying where the line should be drawn, of
course! But the questions would still remain: Which parts of the Bible, if any, are true and which are not?
And who, if not some error-prone human, is supposed to decide?
FIGURATIVISM
Their most promising ploy would be to take recourse to figurativism. That is what St. Augustine (354-
430) did when dealing with literalists who spurned the science of his day. He wrote:
“Often a non-Christian knows something about the earth, the heavens, and other parts of the world,
about the motions of the stars and even their sizes and distances,…and this knowledge he holds with
certainty from reason and experience. It is thus offensive and disgraceful for an unbeliever to hear a
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Christian talk nonsense about such things, claiming that what he is saying is based in Scripture.”
Augustine might well have been speaking about the defenders of today’s so-called Scientific
Creationism. In his view they would deserve to be laughed to scorn for what he calls their “utterly foolish
and obviously untrue statements." Augustine would turn in his grave were he to have heard nineteenth-
century Philip Gosse claim that God put the fossils in place so as to test our faith. He would turn again if
he heard the recent Creationist claim that God created the universe just a few thousand years ago with
light already on its way from the distant stars. And were Augustine still around, he might even join me in
pointing out that this sort of ploy makes God a great deceiver, not just a great designer.
But figurativism poses grave problems. If passages that are literally false should really be interpreted
figuratively, why didn’t God put them in innocuous allegorical form in the first place?
VAN INWAGEN'S SIMPLISTIC REASONING
This poses a difficulty for Peter van Inwagen, for example. Peter's excuse for God's saying falsely that
he'd created the universe in the time and manner recounted in Genesis Ch. 1 is that God only had two
choices. Either he could give this sort of simplified account, one that would be intelligible to the
prescientific people with whom he was communicating, or he could give a detailed scientific account, one
that would have left everyone baffled until late in the twentieth century. This sort of reasoning is heralded
as sound and persuasive by those in Christian faith communities. It shouldn't be. I acknowledge that Peter
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is a very bright guy. But I don't quite know who to credit with a paucity of imagination: him or God.
For myself, I have no difficulty coming up with a version of the creation story that would be both
intelligible to prescientific minds and amenable to interpretation in the light of current scientific
understanding. Here it is:
In the beginning, God created a great ball of fire. From the fire, in time, came the heavens and a
multitude of stars. Among the stars was our sun, circled about by many planets, including our own Earth.
And from the waters and the clay in the earth there grew the seeds of all life. In time these seeds sprouted
into many different forms. Some grew into plants. Some grew into animals. And others remained so small
that the eye of man could not see them. As the acorn becomes the oak, so many of the earliest plants and
animals begat new forms of plants and animals, and as the oak tree reaches out its branches, so these new
forms of life reached out their branches in many directions. In time, many of these branches died, leaving
their skeletons in the rocks. Yet many continued to branch out unto this day. From the earliest seeds of life
there arose, at the tips of the branches, the fruit of today: the grasses and crops of the fields, the beasts that
feed thereon, and man who feeds on both. And as the blink of an eye is to the life-span of many
generations of men, so is the life-span of many generations of men to the time that hath passed since the
seeds of life arose on the face of the earth. And God was content with all that had grown from the great
ball of fire he had created. For all had gone as he had planned and it needed not his further help or
guidance.
My creation story, unlike God’s, would not have led to the condemnation of Giordano Bruno (1548-
1600), burned at the stake in 1600 for suggesting our solar system is not the only one. It would not have
led to the condemnation of Galileo (1564-1642), held under house arrest for supporting Copernicus's
heliocentric cosmology. It would not have led to the condemnation of Charles Darwin (1809-82), whose
name is still anathema to inerrantist know-nothings. It would not have led to the anti-intellectual, anti-
scientific dogmas of fundamentalist Jews, Christians, and Muslims.
Didn’t God know that most of his readers would construe his words literally? If so, he is not
omniscient. Or didn’t he care about their misunderstandings? If so, he is not perfectly good. Or didn’t he
have the linguistic competence to say what he meant? If so, he is not omnicompetent.
DOES THE BIBLICAL GOD TELL THE TRUTH?
These days most liberal Jews, Christians, and Muslims don't believe anything like God's story of creation.
Their reasoning isn't just that there's no evidence for the truth of his story. It's that if God's story were true,
then there should be heaps of evidence for its truth. That such evidence hasn't turned up and there's
overwhelming scientific evidence for its falsity. Additionally, many now realise that the Bible's creation
stories were modelled on earlier creation myths, man-made myths not divine revelations of the truth.
How about the biblical stories of Moses and the exodus? Or stories about King David? Or stories of
the supernatural birth, death and resurrection of Jesus? Are these any more deserving of our credence? Do
any of their names deserve to feature in history (except, perhaps, a history of myths)?
Consider, first, the case of Moses and the exodus of the children of Israel from Egypt. The biblical
book of Exodus tells us that the children of Israel dwelt in the land of Egypt for 430 years before escaping
through the sea and wandering around in the Sinai desert for 40 years. Yet the sort of evidence that a
rational person might reasonably expect to find were this story true, is entirely absent. The story is told in
an ahistorical way: no dates for instance and no identification of which pharaoh was supposed to let them
go. Egyptian historians, remarkable for the details they recorded of important personages and events, have
nothing to say about any of these events or about the disasters the Bible says then befell them.
Archaeologists can find no trace of more than a million people living in Egypt or the Sinai way back
then, whenever "then" was. What’s more, contemporary Israeli archaeologists like Israel Finkelstein have
concluded that the whole scenario is a mischievous fable. If Finkelstein is right, the Hebrews did not
come into the land of Canaan from the land of Egypt. Rather, they were high-country Canaanite tribes who
gradually took over the rest of Canaan, tribes whose main contacts with Egyptians were limited to the
period when Egypt occupied their land rather than they theirs. As for the person of Moses, grand hero of
the Torah, historical research shows his story to be modelled on much older myths about figures such as
Bacchus, Prometheus, and Sargon.
“Was there ever such a person as Moses?” asked Voltaire, a deist of prodigious scholarship and critical
intellect. His conclusion? That the biblical god’s story of Moses and the exodus is both “absurd and
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barbarous.” I concur. It is pure myth. But it isn’t a harmless one. Fundamentalist Jewish Israelis cite it as
warrant for their cruel and barbarous occupation of Palestine, the Greater Israel the Bible says God gave
them. And Palestinians suffer for it unspeakably as I write.
How about King David to whom the authors of the gospels are so eager to trace the lineage of Jesus?
Once more there seems to be a host of discrepancies between the Bible stories, independent historical
records, and contemporary archaeological evidence. If David and his Jerusalem based empire are dated
in accord with biblical chronology, they would have flourished in the 10th century B.C.E. Yet
archaeological evidence shows Jerusalem to have been sparsely populated at that time: little more than a
small village, not the capital of powerful kingdom. Archaeological evidence mandates that if David
existed at all, he did so a century or so later. The much vaunted conquests of David and his son Solomon
fail to be mentioned in the histories of contemporary nations who might have been expected to record
them. Indeed, the stories of both father and son are told only in the biblical books of Samuel, 1 Kings, and
the largely repetitious 1 Chronicles. Nowhere else. Nor does archaeology attest unambiguously to their
existence. True, a broken piece of the so-called Tel Dan stele found embedded in the walls of an
excavated village/town shows an inscription that can be interpreted as referring to a “house of David”.
But because of the absence of vowels in ancient Hebrew scripts, it admits of rival interpretations. And
close inspection of the fragment itself has led some archaeologists to suggest the inscription itself to be a
later forgery. Problems like these cast doubt on the historicity of both King David and the fabled King
Solomon. Some archaeologists, like Israel Finkelstein, have even suggested that the Bible stories,
purporting to be historical records of the founding of the kingdom of Israel, are nothing more than later
Israelite propaganda.
How about the so-called historical Jesus? Once more the Gospel stories--for there are four different
and inconsistent ones--are curiously bereft of a solid historical setting. We do not know the dates for
Jesus’ birth or death or any of the events that supposedly took place during his life. Was he born when
Herod was king, in 7 B.C.E. perhaps? Or was he born 14 years later at the time when Augustus Caesar
commanded Cyrenius to carry out a census for tax purposes? Matthew’s gospel says the former; Luke’s
gospel the latter. Why didn’t Josephus or any other contemporary historian record the massacre of the
infants that Herod purportedly carried out after learning of Jesus’ birth? Why didn’t Seneca or the elder
Pliny record the worldwide darkness that supposedly attended Jesus’ death? Why did none of the more
than sixty secular historians and chroniclers who lived between 10 and 100 C.E. record any of the deeds
of this God-man? Why wasn’t it until some sixty to ninety years after his birth that sketchy tales of his
career were told by the pseudonymous authors of the four gospels? Why didn’t Jesus write his own
autobiography telling his story straight from the horse’s mouth as it were? If he was God incarnate and
had a care for the future of humanity in this world, not just in some kingdom yet to come, why didn’t he
make permanent contributions to science and medicine, for example, rather than attributing phenomena
like mental illness to demon possession? If he really existed in flesh and blood, why did so many early
Christians--the Docetists, for example--believe he was nothing more than a ghost or apparition? If he
really was God incarnate, why did it take a majority vote of the Council of Nicea in 325 C.E. to settle his
status? Why is the Jesus myth modelled on countless other myths of dying-and-rising-again deities such as
Osiris, Adonis, Tammuz, Odin, and Mithras? I’ve been asking most of these questions since my teens, and
haven’t received satisfactory answers.
Ask yourself enough of these questions about what it would be reasonable to expect to be the case, yet
isn’t, and you will see for yourself the force of my CURE arguments for Jesus' historical non-existence:
my Cumulative case from Unfulfilled Rational Expectations.
“Was there an historical Jesus?” Albert Schweitzer asked the question in his Quest of the Historical
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Jesus (1922). But an answer will elude us unless and until we are given clear criteria as to what would
even count as a positive answer. If you ask me whether there once was some ordinary man--a travelling
magician, perhaps, or the character depicted in C. K. Stead’s delightful novel My Name was Judas--who
lived around that time and about whom the myths gradually grew, I am agnostic. But if you ask me whether
a miracle-worker existed who fills the bill of the Bible story, I am confident the answer is ‘no’. About the
historical existence of that Jesus, I am confidently atheistic. Reportedly, the Talmud records the life and
death of a man whose description resembles that of the biblical Jesus. But that Jesus--Jesus Ben Pandira--
was hung from a tree on the eve of Passover during the reign of Alexander Jannaeus about 100 BC. Does
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he count as the historical Jesus? Or was he the Jesus of the “other gospel” that was repudiated by St.
Paul?
In raising these questions about the historicity of Christ Jesus (as Christians like to call him), I’m not
being an eccentric. Rather, I’m echoing the sorts of sceptical questions that have been asked for over two
thousand years since the times of the first century Docetists, and the second century Greek philosopher
Celsus who ridiculed the early Christians for their reliance on blind faith rather than reason. Their
scepticism on the issue was pursued in depth by major thinkers of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries
like Volner, Strauss, and Bauer. It recurred in the writings of Remsberg in the twentieth century. And it has
continued to this day in books by Wells, Robertson, Price, and the likes of the prolific D.M. Armstrong
(aka Acharya). All these belong to the so-called Mythicist tradition.
I'm not saying anything very new, of course. Deists such as Voltaire, Thomas Jefferson, and Thomas
Paine said it before. The human mind, Paine wrote, has been "degraded" by believing in such a god.
The intellectual credentials of the pagan gods, I said earlier, turned out to be abysmal. The same holds
for the intellectual credentials of the revealed god of the Bible. We have the best of grounds, drawn from
reason and experience, to dismiss God’s main claims as scientifically and historically fraudulent. Were
the God of revelation to submit the Holy Scriptures as part of his CV to any appointments committee who
did their homework, he would be dismissed as a charlatan. Sad, then, that over half the world’s
population has appointed him CEO in the citadel of their belief system.
IS THE BIBLICAL GOD MORAL?
How about the moral credentials of the biblical god? They are worse by far than those of the
Huitzilopochtlis of paganism. Worse even than those of Satan, the biblical personification of evil.
Why this harsh judgement? Answer: God provided the answer in his CV. For those who have never
read it or who, having read it, have forgotten or turned a blind eye to its contents, I offer a few reminders.
DISEASES AND DISASTERS
First, this god not only appropriates to himself the pagan gods’ discredited role as direct cause of natural
phenomena such as earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, floods, lightning, plagues, and famines. This god also
boasts of repeatedly using them to injure, maim, starve, drown, and in other ways kill off millions upon
millions of people in the Great Flood (“every living thing on the face of the earth”, according to Genesis).
Disease and disaster are God’s weapons of mass destruction. Or so, in effect, he tells us (see the book of
Isaiah 45:7).
WAR CRIMES AND CRIMES AGAINST HUMANITY
Second, this god, in his role as Commander-in-Chief of his chosen people and role model for his
followers, orders the slaughter, without compassion, of hundreds of thousands of women, children, and
suckling babes; condones slavery and human sacrifice by fire; threatens to make people cannibalise their
parents, husbands or wives, and their children; threatens, too, to have unborn children ripped out of their
mothers’ wombs; and seems to relish the prospect. If you have difficulty believing me, just read the Old
Testament for yourself.
TORTURES OF HELL
Third, this god, in the person of his son, Jesus, envisions the vilest of all possible fates for the majority of
the human race: torture of infinite duration in the fires of hell. There are at least thirteen passages in
Matthew alone in which Jesus talks about the fate of those who will go to hell: a fate that he describes as
“eternal”, as “fiery”, as a place of “unquenchable fire”, as a place where there will be “weeping and
gnashing of teeth.” The apostle Paul, in 2 Thessalonians 1:8-9, looks forward to the time when, in his
words, “the Lord Jesus Christ shall be revealed from heaven with his mighty angels, in flaming fire taking
vengeance on them that know not God.” And John of Patmos, author of Revelation, paints a picture of hell
in all its voyeuristic obscenity when he tells us that all whose names were not written in the book of life
—all, that is, whom Jesus knew “from the beginning” (John 3:18) would not believe in him—would be
“cast into the lake of fire” (Revelation 20:15), a place where all non-believers will, in his words, “be
tormented with burning sulphur in the presence of the holy angels and of the Lamb, and the smoke of their
torment ascendeth for ever and ever” (Revelation 14:10-11). The expression "the Lamb", scholars and
theologians agree, refers to Jesus. Nice to know ''gentle Jesus meek and mild" will be present as voyeur
watching the tortures of the damned.
Is it any wonder that Christians who take God at his word have tortured themselves with fear about
their own eternal prospects, have burned heretics at the stake so as to save their (the heretics’, that is)
souls from eternal perdition, or have dashed infants' brains out on the stones so that they wouldn't have a
chance of becoming non-believers? The Spanish Inquisition's auto-de-fe, for instance, practised the
former; the Conquistadors, the latter. Is it any wonder that televangelists are able to use the fear of hellfire
to bring money into their coffers?
How do God's depictions of his own character square with the belief that he's perfectly good? Or that
he's the source of what some call "The Moral Law"? They don't.
THE OLD TESTAMENT'S MORAL PRIMITIVISM
God’s moral law, as detailed in the Old Testament, is a licence for mayhem. Consider the long list of
offences—at least 34—for which the Old Testament prescribes the death penalty. These include being a
stubborn and rebellious son (Deuteronomy 21:18-21), hitting or cursing one’s father and mother (Exodus
21:17, Leviticus 20:8), desecrating the Sabbath (Exodus 31:14), being a woman who cannot prove she
was a virgin prior to marriage (Deuteronomy 22:20-21), being a woman who did not protest loudly
enough when she was being raped (Deuteronomy 22:23-24), being a blasphemer (Leviticus 24:16), being
an adulterer (Leviticus 20:10-12), worshipping some other gods (Deuteronomy 13:6-9), and being a
homosexual (Leviticus 20:13). God’s recommended penalty? Stoning, usually.
MORAL PRIMITIVISM STILL PREVAILS AMONG MANY BELIEVERS
Who today, you may ask, would take this sort of moral primitivism seriously? Well, many Muslim
fundamentalists certainly do: the Taliban, for instance.
And so do many Christian fundamentalists: the Reconstructionists, for instance. Comprising a sizable
and increasingly influential proportion of the Southern Baptist Convention--itself the most potent force for
evangelical Christianity--the Reconstructionists, like their Muslim brethren, demand their country, the
U.S., become a theocracy and unflinchingly acknowledge that implementing God’s commands would
inevitably result in the death of tens of millions of their fellow citizens.
It's not just the ultra-fundamentalists of theistic religions that take God's precepts seriously. Even the
relatively liberal branch of the Christian church--as represented by the Church of England and its
Episcopalian offshoot--are troubled enough by God's word to agonise over some of them. What he has to
say about homosexuals in particular: that they are an "abomination" who should be killed in this world
and spend the next in hell. Hence the prospect of another great schism in Christianity and the pathetic
excuse by the gay bishop, Bishop Gene Robinson, that the church is "still trying to figure out God's will"
on the subject. Robinson and one-time Archbishop Rowan Williams (who's on the other side of the
debate), should read the Bible. It reported God's will long ago.
Has God changed his mind about any of his moral dictates? If so, he has kept it to himself. Yet William
Alston claims God still communicates with sincere Christians. Could it be that all those sincere Jews,
Christians, and Muslims who--for about two thousand years--have gone on crusades with God's word on
their lips, are listening to themselves, not God? Why don't any of them ever report having heard God say
clearly "Stop! You've got me wrong"?
The biblical god is not what Saint Anselm thought he was: that than which no greater, no more morally
perfect, can be conceived. Out of his own mouth God condemns himself as that than which no viler, no
more evil can be conceived.
"God is love" is a sick joke. The pleasantry, "Do unto others as you would have others do unto you", is
little more than propaganda to cover up God's true nature. The Golden Rule we can applaud. But it's a bit
rich, don't you think, coming from the mouth of someone--Jesus--who would send most of us to hell?
The god of the Bible is a dangerous deity and deserves to die. That is to say, belief in the biblical god
is dangerous to one's mental and moral health and deserves to fade from memory.
4
TRYING TO RESUSCITATE THE GOD CONCEPT
PHILOSOPHICAL ARGUMENTS
Theologians and philosophers of religion often distance themselves from the biblical god by talking more
abstractly about what they call "The Philosopher's God." This is the God--or set of gods--studied by
theologians under the heading of Natural Theology, as opposed to Revealed Theology. Putting aside
arguments from revelation, they offer alleged "proofs" of the existence of such a generalized God.
PROOFS OR RATIONALIZATIONS?
How good are these arguments? They are pretty shoddy, their defects ranging from mere fallacy to self-
contradiction.
How convincing are they? That's a different question of course. And the answer is: Not very, even for
those who already believe in God.
One of the most highly esteemed Christian philosophers of our day, Peter van Inwagen, has confessed
that his belief in God doesn't really have anything to do with arguments like the cosmological (First
Cause) argument or the design argument. "I require God's help", he writes, "to find them convincing--
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indeed, even to find them faintly plausible." That's pretty convincing, isn't it? Allow yourself to be
convinced by God in order to be convinced that he exists. Peter isn't just speaking for himself, however.
He seems to think that the faith-based foundations for his own belief in God are akin to those of most other
believers. Thus, he goes on to quote and agree with Hume's claim:
“Mere reason is insufficient to convince us of its [the Christian religion's] veracity: and whoever is
moved by faith to assent to it is conscious of a continued miracle in his own person, which subverts all
the principles of his understanding, and gives him a determination to believe what is most contrary to
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custom and experience.”
Peter's mindset becomes clear, too, in his attitude towards the problem of evil. He goes on to write:
“I have never had the least tendency to react to the evils of the world by saying, "How could there be a
loving God who allows these things?" My immediate reaction has rather been: "There must be a God who
will wipe out every tear; there must be a God who will repay."”
We can conclude from this that Peter consciously and willingly has allowed the principles of his own
understanding to be subverted by the miracle of his own personal faith.
As for van Inwagen, so for most Christian philosophers of my acquaintance. They take recourse to these
arguments only when they feel the need to rationalize their antecedent faith.
So much for a preamble. Now down to business.
I will briefly examine a trio of the most important arguments and show how shoddy they are. Not only
do they fail as deductive proofs of any god's existence: they also fail to show that the existence of any god
is probable, let alone plausible. But let’s make the case as even-handedly as intellectual honesty demands.
THE ONTOLOGICAL ARGUMENT
The ontological argument aspires to provide a purely a priori proof of God's existence: one that makes no
appeal at any point to empirical facts about the world of our experience. In this respect it is totally
different from the other pillars of Natural Theology: the cosmological argument, the design argument, and
the fine-tuning argument.
In Chapter 2, we conducted a thought experiment. We considered the realm of logical possibility, one
that allowed us, without contradiction, to conceive of infinitely many gods none of whom might--as I put
it--win the lottery of the gods and actually exist, let alone create the actual world. Equally well, our
thought experiment allows us to imagine just one of these gods actually existing.
Does it follow from the fact that we can conceive of such a god actually existing, that that god does
actually exist? Can we in this sort of way, by purely a priori reasoning, expand our catalogue of things we
believe to comprise reality--our ontological catalogue, metaphysicians call it--just by thinking?
When it comes to most kinds of entity, no one believes we can increase our ontology just by an exercise
of our imaginations. We can imagine a supernatural Santa, for instance, and even imagine him actually
existing. But does this mean he does actually exist? We can imagine Hobbit-land, and even imagine it to
exist somewhere in New Zealand where the Lord of the Rings film was shot, but does this mean my maps
of New Zealand are seriously deficient in not depicting it as located in the North Island where the model
Hobbit-land was in fact located? The answer is obvious. We can't conjure entities belonging to the natural
world into existence, just by coherently imagining them to exist.
Proponents of the so-called ontological argument would concede the point for every kind of entity other
than one. The single exception, they argue, is the kind of supernatural god concocted in the imaginations of
certain theologians and religious philosophers. Some call him the Philosopher's God. Others call him the
Theist's God, because his description slots in well with the central theses of all three theistic religions
once they are suitably sanitized and stripped of all extraneous beliefs.
I'm not exactly sure why the ontological argument for the existence of God is so-called (except that
Kant called it that). True, it tries to expand our ontology--our catalogue of entities that we think exist in
reality--by offering a conclusive argument for doing so. But in that respect, it's no different from the other
main arguments that have been offered for the same conclusion:

the argument from revelation;
the argument from miracles;
the argument from religious experience;
the argument from morality;
the argument from a first cause;
the argument from evidence of design;
the argument from fine-tuning.

All these too, offer reasons why someone who doesn't already believe in God's existence on faith,
should include him in their ontologies.
There's a difference, however, between these arguments and the ontological argument. All these other
arguments are arguments from something other than God, something that's different from God himself:
revelation, miracles, religious experience, morality, etc. All of these are arguments that ultimately rest on
some sort of empirical evidence. So they're all arguments from some experience or other. By way of
contrast with them, the ontological argument is purely a priori, with no trace of an appeal to experience.
There are scores, if not hundreds, of different formulations of the kind of argument that have
collectively come to be known as "the" ontological argument. Some of these arguments are very
sophisticated, requiring a grasp of the technicalities of modal logic. Examples are the modal arguments
offered by the great mathematical logician Kurt Godel, and influential metaphysician Alvin Plantinga. But
for relative ease of comprehension, one can't do better than take a look at the version offered by St.
Anselm, Archbishop of Canterbury (1033-1109).
ONTOLOGY AND MAGICAL THINKING
From early childhood, and later in my youth, magical thinking fascinated me: in particular the idea that
one could use words to conjure into existence actual entities. It is epitomized in Genesis Chapter 1, verse
3: "And God said 'Let there be light', and there was light." And I came across it later in annals of the
Psychical Research Society, with their accounts of how mediums like Eusapia Palladino pronounced
certain words and appropriate incantations to conjure into existence the souls of the departed. I didn't
believe it, and could not but wonder at the gullibility of some of the most notable intelligentsia of the day-
-the likes of philosophers Henry Sidgwick and William James, biologist Alfred Russell Wallace, and
writer Arthur Conan Doyle--who were taken in by this sort of stuff. Those proclaiming themselves as
impressed included several Nobel-laureate scientists like Pierre and Marie Curie.
That the biblical God could say a few words and conjure the cosmos into existence has its believers
too. But who would have thought that a philosopher could, by means of a simple verbal definition, conjure
Almighty God into existence ex nihilo? That's outdoing God himself. Yet that's what St Anselm (1033-
1109), Archbishop of Canterbury, tried to do.
ANSELM'S ONTOLOGICAL ARGUMENT
St Anselm performed the trick by the simple device of defining God as the greatest (alternatively, the most
perfect) being conceivable. As he presents it in his Proslogian, here's how it goes:
“[Even a] fool, when he hears of … a being than which nothing greater can be conceived …
understands what he hears, and what he understands is in his understanding.… And assuredly that, than
which nothing greater can be conceived, cannot exist in the understanding alone. For suppose it exists in
the understanding alone: then it can be conceived to exist in reality; which is greater.… Therefore, if that,
than which nothing greater can be conceived, exists in the understanding alone, the very being, than which
nothing greater can be conceived, is one, than which a greater can be conceived. But obviously this is
impossible. Hence, there is no doubt that there exists a being, than which nothing greater can be
conceived, and it exists both in the understanding and in reality.”
Stripping away unnecessary verbiage, Anselm's argument can be condensed thus:
1. Anyone can conceive of a being than which nothing greater can be conceived.
2. Hence a being than which nothing greater can be conceived exists in the understanding.
3. To exist in reality is greater than to exist as a concept in the understanding alone.
4. It would be self-contradictory to suppose that the greatest possible being existed only as a concept
in the understanding but did not also exist in reality.
5. Therefore a being than which no greater can be conceived exists in reality.
Now, it is pretty well universally acknowledged by logicians that the ontological argument can be, and
has been, formulated so as to be valid. All take the form of reductio ad absurdum arguments. In Chapter 2,
I cited Euclid's use of a reductio ad absurdum argument when he demonstrated that there is an infinity of
prime numbers, and hence no greatest prime number, by showing that the denial or negation of this claim
leads to the absurdity of a logical contradiction. Similarly, Anselm's argument involves demonstrating that
God, defined as the greatest conceivable being, must exist in reality as well as the understanding since the
denial or negation of this claim leads to the logical absurdity of supposing that there's a being who is
greater than the greatest. His argument, and others like it, would--if sound--establish that it is a logically
necessary truth that God exists.
Nevertheless, Anselm's argument has a number of defects, some of them religious in character, the
others more philosophical. Let's take the primarily religious ones first.
RELIGIOUS SHORTCOMINGS
Suppose, for argument's sake, that the argument is sound. That is, suppose that in addition to being valid, it
has true premises and hence a true conclusion. Even then, it falls far short of demonstrating the truth of its
desired conclusion, which is that a theistic or deistic god exists. For two main reasons.
Perhaps the first thing one notices about Anselm's formulation is that although it purports to be a proof
of God's existence, it doesn't even mention him by name. Anselm simply presumes that no entity other than
the God in whom he believed--one of the cluster of gods usually referred to as the Christian God--has the
property of being the one and only god than whom no greater can be conceived. He presumes that the
reference is to the God in whom virtually all Christians of his time believed, viz., God as conceived by
the Roman Catholic Church in the 11th century.
Again, he takes it for granted that the god he's talking about is one than whom there exists "no greater",
in a sense taken to mean greater by virtue of possessing the three properties of omnipotence, omniscience,
and moral perfection. Many other exponents of the argument have preferred to substitute the term "more
perfect" or "maximal excellence" with respect to these same three properties. And still others, like
Plantinga, have constructed a modal version that combines both the concepts of maximal excellence and
of maximal greatness, where the latter is defined in terms of being maximally excellent in every possible
world.
But there is still another condition that is commonly required of any theistic god, whether a Judaic god,
a Christian god, or an Islamic god. All members of the class of theistic gods are believed to have
revealed themselves to human beings, whether in the Torah, the Christian Bible, or the Koran (Qur’an);
and all are believed to have revealed themselves in the persons of such divinely inspired persons as
Moses, Jesus, and Mohammed.
Yet the ontological argument, even if sound, falls far short of establishing the existence of any revealed
god. Ipso facto, even if sound, it falls short of establishing the existence of any of the gods in whom the
believers in theism believe.
And there's another problem. When Jews, Christians, or Muslims hear talk of a being than whom no
greater or more perfect can be conceived, they presuppose that this description carries with it uniqueness
of reference, namely to their own God not someone else's.
Yet even this presupposition can be questioned. Being a god than whom no greater can be conceived
doesn't rule out there being a whole gang of gods who are on a par in this respect. Neither does being a
god possessing maximal greatness or maximal excellence. For all that the argument purports to show,
there could be countless gods having precisely the same properties. It matters not whether one substitutes
a superlative such as "most perfect" or "greatest" for the comparative "no more perfect" or "no greater."
For the same problem arises. Two or more beings could well share this elevated status and share the
podium, as it were, by virtue of being "the greatest." World champions who tie for best place qualify for
that description.
One is reminded here, of the Third Commandment, "Thou shalt have no other god before me." Even the
biblical god doesn't claim to be the only god. Neither does the philosopher's god as defined in Anselm's
argument. In this respect, it's like all other versions with which I'm familiar, Plantinga's included. They all
fall short of the uniqueness requirement of all monotheistic, as opposed to polytheistic, religions.
Deists believe in the existence of some sort of supernatural being who created the universe and set it in
motion. But in their view, this being has declined thereafter to intervene in its affairs or to reveal
himself/herself to us. They believe in a Supreme Being, but decline to identify this god with the God of
Judaism, or of Christianity, or of Islam. Some might credit their god with being omnipotent, omniscient,
and morally perfect. But most well-known deists seem to have been agnostic about that. For them, the
primary requirement for god is that he should be the one and only supremely intelligent being who, since
he brought the universe into existence, must have existed independently of, and prior to, the universe.
Yet the ontological argument, even if sound, would fall far short of establishing the existence of a
creator god. Even if the ontological argument is formulated in such a way as to credit god with
omnipotence, omniscience, and perfect goodness--as it is, for example, by Plantinga--it does not entail the
existence of a creator. To have the property of omnipotence, as it is ordinarily understood, is only to
possess the ability to do anything that it is logically possible to do. And having that ability is not the same
as, nor does it imply, actually exercising that ability. So far as the ontological argument is concerned,
there is no reason why a supremely intelligent and all-powerful being should not--as Zoroastrians
believed--delegate to some other god, a Demiurge, the task of actually creating the universe. For that
matter, so far as the ontological argument is concerned, there is no reason why we should not suppose that
the universe has always existed and had no need to be brought into existence ex nihilo by any supreme
being whatever. This is why deists put their all their faith in the success of the cosmological argument,
and place no credence in the ontological argument. For it would not, even if sound, establish the existence
of a creator.
Some deists I know have responded that, although the concept of being a creator god is not explicitly
mentioned in any version of the ontological argument, it is nevertheless implied by the concept of a
maximally great god. They have argued that a god who didn't create the universe would ipso facto be a
lesser god than one who, in addition to having the power to create, actually exercised that power. So, they
conclude, the greatest possible god cannot without contradiction be supposed not to have created the
universe.
But there is a problem here. There is no contradiction involved in supposing that the universe might
always have existed; and no contradiction in supposing the opposite. That is, both suppositions are
contingent propositions. Whatever science may say about the matter, it is logically possible both that the
universe had a beginning and that it did not.
But here's the rub. For all versions of the ontological argument use the method of reductio ad absurdum
to establish the existence of a god. They demonstrate, if sound, that the very idea that the Philosophers
God does not exist involves a contradiction. Yet if his non-existence were logically incoherent, as the
argument supposedly proves, then it would follow that his existence is logically necessary. That is to say,
the proposition "God exists" would be a necessary truth.
But we can prove that from a necessary truth one cannot validly infer any contingent propositions
whatever. That is a basic theorem of modal logic and can easily be demonstrated just by reflecting on
what it is for one proposition Q to be logically implied by another P. As we saw in Chapter 2, it is for Q
to be true in all the possible circumstances in which P is true. But by hypothesis the proposition "God
exists" is necessarily true, hence true in all possible circumstances. Hence any proposition implied by
"God exists" must also be true in all possible circumstances. Yet the proposition "God created the
universe"--like its denial--is a contingent proposition, true in only some possible circumstances, not all. It
follows that the proposition "God exists" does not, as some have supposed, logically imply that he is a
creator of the universe.
The chastening significance of these religious shortcomings seems not to have been much (if at all)
noted in the voluminous literature about the ontological argument. Together our criticisms show that the
achievement of the argument, even if we provisionally suppose it to be sound, is a modest one. Plantinga's
triumphalism, when he describes his modal version as "victorious", is unwarranted. He himself, like
Anselm and nearly all other proponents of the argument, simply presumes that the god who, on his
account, has the joint properties of maximal greatness and maximal excellence, is the very same god
whose existence he has spent a life time defending, viz., the Christian God. But he isn't. Presumption is no
substitute for proof. Even if his version were, as he claims, "sound", all he would have proved would be
the existence of some god or other among countless other possible gods. He can't claim victory even for
Deism, let alone Theism, let alone the Christian God in whom he believes.
And, as we'll see when we examine both the cosmological and the design arguments, the same holds for
them too.
LOGICAL SHORTCOMINGS
Religious shortcomings are the least of the problems facing the ontological argument. It also faces more
logical problems: problems as to whether it is valid (such that its premises imply the conclusion), and as
to whether it is sound (such that, in addition to being valid, its premises are true). A failure on either
score would constitute a fallacy.
Now it is sometimes easier to see that an argument is fallacious than to see exactly what's wrong with
it. So let's first show that the ontological argument has got to be a logical fraud, and then say what that
fraud is. And one way of doing this is to construct an analogous argument having the same structure or
form but which yields a patently false conclusion. In short, one constructs a refutation by logical analogy.
In what follows, I'll offer three such analogies so you can understand what I mean.
Historically, one of Anselm's contemporaries, an 11th century monk named Gaunilo, was quick off the
mark in showing Anselm's argument to be somehow defective.
CONJURING UP A PERFECT ISLAND
Put into parallel condensed form so as to mirror the essence of Anselm's argument, Gaunilo's analogy
goes thus:
1'. Anyone can conceive of an island than which no more perfect can be conceived.
2'. Hence an island than which no more perfect can be conceived exists in the understanding.
3'. To exist in reality is greater than to exist only as a concept in the understanding.
4'. It would be self-contradictory to suppose that an island than which no island more perfect can
be conceived existed only as a concept in the under-standing but did not also exist in reality.
5'. Therefore an island than which no more perfect can be conceived exists in reality.
Do you believe the conclusion? If so, take me there: to this perfect island, that is.
The point is that all Gaunilo needed to do was to substitute the term "island" for the term "being" and he
could conjure into existence an island paradise. Quite an achievement if you think it works! What's more,
the same trick of verbal substitution would enable anyone to conjure up their perfect whatnot: perfect
man, perfect woman, perfect car, perfect anything. The problem is that we all know this sort of magical
thinking doesn't work.
CONJURING UP THE DEVIL
Anselm's form of reasoning lends itself to other theological purposes as well. Want to add the Devil to
your ontology (perhaps so you can do a Jimmy Swaggart and blame your sins on the evil one)? Easy. Just
substitute "evil" for "perfect" in Anselm's formulation and you've done it. You get:
1''. Anyone can conceive of a being than which no more evil can be conceived.
2''. Hence a being than which no more evil can be conceived exists in the understanding.
3''. To exist in reality is greater than to exist only as a concept in the understanding.
4''. It would be self-contradictory to suppose that the greatest possible evil being existed only in as a
concept the understanding but did not also exist in reality.
5''. Therefore the greatest possible evil being exists in reality.
So now you've conjured up the Devil Incarnate. Or is it the biblical god?
CONJURING UP THE GREATEST PRIME NUMBER
While we're at it, why not make a reputation for ourselves in the history of pure mathematics? Euclid
famously constructed a proof that there's no greatest prime number. But we can easily "prove" him wrong.
Just substitute "prime number" for "being" in Anselm's argument and you obtain the following "proof":
1'''. Anyone can conceive of a prime number than which nothing greater can be conceived.
2'''. Hence a prime number than which nothing greater can be conceived exists in the understanding.
3'''. To exist in mathematical reality is greater than to exist only as a concept in the understanding.
4'''. It would be self-contradictory to suppose that the greatest possible prime number existed only as
a concept in the understanding but did not also exist in reality.
5'''. Therefore the greatest possible prime number exists in reality.
But now we're in a real predicament. Euclid's reductio proved it to be necessarily true that there is not
a greatest prime number. Our Anselm-based reductio "proves" it to be necessarily true that there is one
after all. But two necessary truths can't contradict each other. One must be necessarily false, self-
contradictory. Which? And which proof is the fraud?
Enough said. I'll take it that the answer is obvious. Someone doesn't know their logic or mathematics;
and it isn't Euclid. So let's proceed to examine where all these Anselm-type analogies--and the countless
others his formula allow us to generate--go wrong.
THE FALLACY EXPOSED
A purported proof can go wrong in one, or both, of two ways. It can be invalid, such that the premises,
whether or not they are true, do not logically imply the conclusion. Or it can be unsound, such that one or
more of the premises is false.
Now I acknowledged earlier that Anselm's argument can be presented in such a form that it is
structurally valid. In fact all our Anselm-type analogies, as presented above, are logically valid. To be
unsound, they must therefore contain at least one premise that is false or unintelligible.
Let's concentrate our attention on Anselm's original formulation of the ontological argument in its
condensed form.
Go back to the third premise of Anselm’s argument. There you'll see that Anselm invites us to compare
the property of existing in the understanding with the property of existing in reality, and claims that
there is a clear sense in which existing in reality is the "greater" or "more perfect" of the two.
But what does it mean to say, as he does in his second premise, that that than which no greater can be
conceived "exists" in the understanding? Taken literally it is absurd; not true but literally false. For the
expression "that than which no greater can be conceived" is intended to be a description of the object that
is God. But surely that object doesn't exist in our understanding, as he might perhaps in heaven or some
other location. It makes no sense, therefore, to compare God's two purported modes of existence--his
existence in our minds, and his existence in reality--and then ask which of them is greater or more perfect.
One might try to give a more charitable, and intelligible, account of his talk about God existing in our
minds by taking this talk to be just a loose way of talking about the concept of God existing in our minds.
But this, though more intelligible, doesn't help the argument at all. For then, instead of comparing two
different modes of existence--existing in one's mind and existing in reality--one is left with comparing a
concept with the object of which it is the concept. But how does one compare a concept with an object
with respect to greatness or perfection? Neither makes any sense. Concepts and objects are
incommensurable in these respects. In popular parlance, it's a case of comparing apples with oranges.
Conclusion? Anselm's argument, by virtue of containing at least one premise that is false, if not absurd,
is unsound.
Logical flaws are not the only ones. There are semantic ones also.
EXISTENCE IS NOT A PREDICATE [PROPERTY]
Historically, this is perhaps the most famous criticism of all. It was put forward by Immanuel Kant (1724-
1804), one of the greatest figures of the 18th Century Enlightenment, in his Critique of Pure Reason of
1781. Although Kant believed there was a Christian God, he roundly criticises any attempt to establish the
existence of God by deductive reasoning, especially purely a priori reasoning. All the arguments for God,
he claimed, try to prove that God has the property of existence--and in the case of the ontological
argument, of necessary existence--and fail to note that existence isn't a property at all. As he puts it,
existence isn't a real or determining "predicate." (Unfortunately Kant didn't always express himself
clearly, and the passages in which he voices his criticisms of the ontological argument are among the most
obscure. This is partly because he was still mired in the very limited analytical resources of the
traditional subject-predicate logic that had originated with Aristotle some two thousand years before and
so was unable to make use of the resources of modern predicate logic as developed by Gottlob Frege
about two centuries after his time. So in what follows, I'll try to make use of these later developments
while avoiding technicalities and preserving Kant's way of speaking wherever possible.)
In order to see what he's getting at, compare the following three sentences:
(1) God exists.
(2) God is angry.
(3) God is omnipotent.
In all three, Kant would say, "God" features as the grammatical subject, and in all three the remaining
words constitute the respective grammatical predicates. Yet, he points out; using the same grammatical
role as predicates conceals a crucial difference in semantic or logical role.
In all three sentences, in the very act of referring to the subject, God, we presuppose that there is a God
to whom we are referring. In Kant's words, "we posit the existence of the thing [God] as existing." But in
sentence (1), Kant claims, we then redundantly say that the very object whose existence we have already
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posited has the property of existing. As he puts it, "the assertion of the existence of the thing adds nothing
54
to the thought of the thing." So if, in (1), "exists" functioned semantically in the same way as the other
predicates, all we would have done is to repeat ourselves by saying something like "There exists a God
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who exists" which is, as Kant puts it, "nothing but a miserable tautology." Now whether or not one agrees
with Kant's claim here, one can see his point. He is saying that, by way of contrast with the predicate
"exists" as it occurs in (1), the grammatical predicates "is angry" and "is omnipotent", as they occur in
sentences (2) and (3) respectively, attribute genuine properties to the subject whose existence has been
presupposed: either, as in (2), by saying that the property of being angry is to be attributed to God or, as in
the case of (3), by making explicit one of the definitional properties of God. Both predicates are what he
calls "real" or "determining,” predicates, not just grammatical ones.
To repeat, Kant is saying that the existence of something that is God is a precondition of that
something's having any properties at all. Hence, in order to avoid confusion, we would do best to avoid
asserting the existence of God in sentences that use the grammatical predicate "exists" as if it played the
same sort of logical role as the real predicates "is angry" and "is omnipotent". And we can best do this by
not using it in the position of a grammatical predicate at all.
HOW TO TALK ABOUT EXISTENCE
How then would he recommend that we assert the existence of God, or of anything else for that matter? If
he had the resources of modern logic at his disposal, he would probably recommend that we simply use
sentences of the form "There is a such and such." For example, in the case under discussion, as a
corrected substitute for (1), we should simply say
(1)* "There is a God."
Or, as modern logicians (reflecting the insights of Kant) would put it, assertions of existence of God are
to be made by means of sentences of the form "There is something, x, that is God." There is then no
temptation to suppose that existence is a real property.
What's the relevance of all this to the ontological argument? Well, the ontological argument claims that
the conclusion, "God exists", is necessarily true on the grounds that to deny the property of existence to
God involves a contradiction. Proponents say that the properties of existence (as asserted by (1)) and of
omnipotence (as asserted by (3)) are necessary conditions of being God in the same way that the property
of having three angles is a necessary condition of being a triangle. And they would say that this conclusion
can be reached by purely a priori reasoning, just by reflecting on the concept of God. Once we do this,
they say, we can see that the properties of existence and omnipotence are intrinsic parts of the analysis of
the concept of God, and hence that (1) and (3) express analytic truths, hence necessary truths.
To all this abstract, purely a priori, reasoning Kant would respond by saying "You've succumbed to an
illusion and muddled logic. Existence, unlike omnipotence, isn't a property at all. Hence it can't be a
necessary property."
NO CONTRADICTION IN DENYING THAT GOD EXISTS
As for his recommended substitute for (1), viz.,
(1)* "There is a God"
Kant would point out that it, like all other existential statements about non-abstract entities, (1)* is
contingent, i.e., both possibly true and possibly false. Hence there is no contradiction involved in its
denial, viz.,
(4) "There is no God."
He allows that
(3) "God is omnipotent",
is what he calls "a necessary judgement" on the grounds that "omnipotence cannot be rejected if we
posit a Deity." But then he points out that if we say,
(4) "There is no God",
we deny that there is any God who could have the property of omnipotence or any other property for
that matter. So (4) is also a contingent statement (he calls it a synthetic one) in which there is "not the least
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contradiction."
Hence Kant's widely accepted conclusion that, contrary to the proponents of the ontological argument,
all existential statements, including the statement that God exists, are contingent, not necessary.
Strangely, Plantinga doesn't agree. He writes:
“Kant never specified a sense of 'is a predicate' such that, in that sense, it is clear both that existence is
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not a predicate and that St. Anselm's argument requires it to have one.”
Yet both of Plantinga's claims are false. First, Kant did specify that existence is not what he calls a
"real" predicate that functions as other predicates do by expressing a property of something that can be
attributed non-redundantly to an object. Second, Kant showed that Anselm's argument requires that it
should do exactly that in order to express a necessary truth.
It is sometimes objected that Kant's criticism applies only to one version of Anselm's argument, that in
which he explicitly concluded
(1) God exists,
while not applying to his second version, that in which he explicitly concluded (in our condensed
formulation)
(2) God necessarily exists.
58 59
It has further been suggested, e.g., by Charles Hartshorne and Norman Malcolm , that necessary
existence, unlike mere existence, really is a property after all. Hence, it is suggested, the second version
escapes Kant's strictures against treating existence as a property.
But this is a shoddy bit of reasoning. Talking about God's necessary existence no more escapes Kant's
criticism than does talk about his bare existence. For if necessary truth is to be construed--as we have
been construing it, and as Hartshorne and Malcolm construe it--as meaning true in all possible worlds,
then Kant's criticism still applies. For if it is meaningless to treat existence as property in any world, then
it is just as meaningless to treat it as a property that God has in all possible worlds.
That's it, so far as I'm concerned, for the ontological argument. No more vain attempts at resuscitation.
Dead and in need of rapid burial, like all forms of magical thinking.
THE COSMOLOGICAL ARGUMENT
Cosmological arguments (collectively referred to as the cosmological argument) try to establish the
existence of an uncreated creator of the cosmos. They are arguments for the conclusion expressed in the
first verse of the Bible, "In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth", though the term "God"
need not be construed as referring to any of the gods of theism (Judaism, Christianity, or Islam). The God
of Deism would suffice.
Although most cogently formulated by philosophers such as St Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274), al
Ghazali (1058-1111), and Gottfried Leibniz (1646-1716), it has a powerful appeal also to those non-
philosophers who feel that there must be an "ultimate" explanation for the existence of the universe and
think that it is to be found in the existence of still another existent, some sort of Supreme Being.
Such arguments belong to religion, not science; to metaphysics, not physics. Along with various
versions of the ontological argument and the teleological argument (argument from design), they constitute
one of the standard "proofs" of the existence of God.
Like the other two stock arguments of traditional theology-- the ontological and design arguments--the
cosmological argument is often portrayed by its supporters as proving God's existence. But not just any
old argument counts as a proof of its conclusion.
Recall again that in order to constitute a proof; an argument must satisfy two conditions. First, it must
be valid. That is to say its conclusion must follow of logical necessity from its stated premises without
any unstated premises being merely taken for granted (and thereby avoiding scrutiny). Second, its
premises must be true, for only then can their truth afford a guarantee of the truth of the desired
conclusion. If, and only if, an argument satisfies both conditions can it be said to be sound. Only then can
it constitute a proof.
Do any of the purported proofs of God's existence satisfy these two conditions? If any did, it would be
logically obligatory on all rational persons to believe in God's existence. Yet a broad consensus of
philosophers, including those who agree with the conclusion, are also in agreement that none of these
arguments, however persuasive they may seem, really establishes the desired conclusion. Kant, as we've
seen, thought that about the ontological argument. He also thought that about the other two traditional
"proofs": the cosmological argument and the design argument.
A SIMPLE VERSION OF THE COSMOLOGICAL ARGUMENT
Perhaps the simplest of all versions starts with the premise:
Everything has a cause,
draws the appropriate inference
Hence, the universe has a cause
and concludes
This cause is God.
It has a certain appeal, even to those who know no philosophy or theology, and who've never heard of
something called the "cosmological argument."
Relatively naive though this version may be, it is worth mentioning because it exposes itself to an
obvious objection: "Who caused God?" Even a child can see the problem. I certainly did. When my
mother answered "No one", I concluded, correctly, that it couldn't be true after all that everything had a
cause, since God was an exception. There's a blatant contradiction here. And the only alternative to
contradiction--as I came to see years later--was an infinite regress: a never-ending series of causes of
causes.
THE KALAM COSMOLOGICAL ARGUMENT
Of the countless versions of the cosmological argument that have been devised by metaphysicians and
theologians in the Greek, Roman, Judaic, Christian, and Islamic traditions, that devised by Arab scholars
during the Islamic Golden Age (750-1258) is particularly noteworthy for its intuitive appeal. As
reconstructed by the contemporary Christian philosopher-apologist, William L. Craig, it is designated "the
kalam cosmological argument." Many of the lessons learned from its examination can be applied to the
evaluation of other versions.
Craig presents the first stage of his version as a simple syllogism:
Premise 1: Whatever begins to exist has a cause
Premise 2: The universe began to exist
Conclusion: Therefore the universe has a cause.
This first stage of the argument is perfectly valid. But are its premises true? And a second question:
How does God get into the act, as it were? How, that is, does one get from the conclusion that there is a
first cause to the further conclusion that this is God?
Aquinas thought it sufficed to say of the supposed cause of the cosmos: "this all men call God." Craig,
however, supplies a second stage of argument, claiming that the most plausible account of the first cause
is that it is a personal God who, while creating space and time, is (or was) himself outside both.
Premise 1: "Whatever begins to exist has a cause"
As with all other versions of the cosmological argument, the kalam has at least one empirical claim
among its premises--a claim, that is, for whose truth we have to rely our experience of the world around
us. So the question arises whether, in our experience, everything that has a beginning does in fact have a
cause.
To most people Premise 1 seems so obviously true as not to need defending. Objects come into being
and pass away. They have beginnings as well as endings. Objects don't just "pop into existence."
Likewise with events (changes in things or states of affairs). They begin and end in a temporal series of
causes and effects. Things, we say, don't "just happen." Rather, every event is caused by--its occurrence
"determined" by--some event or set of events that precede it in time. Or so we commonly believe.
Yet this common sense belief is not beyond dispute.
First, the standard interpretation of quantum theory maintains that the common sense belief in universal
causality must be abandoned. The occurrence of events at the microphysical level is unpredictable,
uncaused, and indeterministic in character. Or so many claimed. A few physicists dispute this
interpretation. They include some of the founders of quantum physics: Albert Einstein, Louis de Broglie,
and Erwin Schrodinger, for example. But if the orthodox Copenhagen interpretation of quantum
phenomena--initiated by Nils Bohr, Max Born, and Werner Heisenberg--is sound, then Premise 1 is just
plain false, notwithstanding its endorsement by common sense and some physicists.
Second, the truth of Premise 1 is inconsistent with the account of free will that is embraced by many
theists. As we'll see in Chapter 6, Craig is one of them. The problem is that, if Premise 1 were true, and
the chain of causes does indeed go back to God as the ultimate cause and creator of the universe, then God
is thereby made the ultimate cause of all the evils that universe contains. One way of avoiding this
unpalatable conclusion is to say that genuine free will involves a break in the causal chain, that our free
acts are uncaused by anything other than ourselves, and hence that it is we (and perhaps other free agents
like Satan and his cohorts) who bring about all the evils in God's universe. But on this so-called "contra-
causal" account of free will Premise 1 is false. It makes us uncaused causes of our free acts. Hence the
theists' dilemma: Either accept Premise 1 and make God causally responsible for evil, or reject Premise 1
and abandon the cosmological argument for God's existence. Premise 2: "The universe began to
exist."
Craig has two subsidiary arguments for the truth of the second premise. One involves an appeal to
empirical evidence for the big bang theory of current scientific cosmology. The other involves a purely a
priori argument (an argument that requires no appeal whatever to experience) from the supposed
impossibility of an actually infinite number of things or events.
ARGUMENTS FROM CURRENT SCIENTIFIC COSMOLOGY
Three main cosmologies have engaged the attention of physicists over the past half-century or so: the
Steady State model; the Oscillating model; and the big bang model. The first two of these hold that the
universe never had a beginning but always existed, either in the same steady state or in successive states
of recurrent expansion and contraction. Only the third postulates a temporal beginning of the universe.
Which of these models is correct? An overwhelming scientific consensus currently supports the big
bang model and its claim that both the physical universe itself and time itself began about 13.73 billion
years ago. Yet if empirical evidence tells us anything it is that, in the fullness of time, this model may give
way to one of the others or to some other model yet to be conceived or empirically confirmed. Craig
claims that models allowing for a beginningless universe are "physically impossible." But this is too
strong. Some would say that the most that can be claimed on behalf of the big bang model is that rival
models cannot be accommodated within the explanatory theories of current physics, not that these models
are logically inconsistent with those theories. If the big bang theory were undeniably true, then any further
tests of its truth would be fruitless. Yet such tests proceed, and the big bang model has already been
challenged.
But suppose that the big bang model is in fact true (not just currently accepted as true). Since it asserts
that both the universe and time itself began with the expansion of a so-called singularity, its truth would
indeed lend support to Premise 2. But at the same time, its truth undermines Premise 1. For within the
terms of the model itself this beginning is conceived as having no cause whatever. If time did indeed
begin with the big bang, then no temporally preceding event can have caused it to begin. In short, current
big bang cosmology can be invoked to support Premise 2 only at the expense of having it controvert
Premise 1.
So far as science is concerned, either the universe and time itself had a beginning or it didn't. If the
universe and time did begin--as the big bang model postulates--then, so far as science can tell us, Premise
2 is true but Premise 1 is false. On the other hand, if they didn't have a beginning--the scenario painted by
both the steady state and oscillating models--then, so far as science can tell us, Premise 1 is true and
Premise 2 false. The appeal to scientific authority renders the kalam argument unsound in either case.
ARGUMENT FOR THE IMPOSSIBILITY OF AN ACTUAL INFINITE
A common feature of all versions of the cosmological argument is the claim that the regress of causes
postulated in Premise 1 "cannot go on forever." What distinguishes the kalam version from these others is
that it offers an a priori argument for the logical impossibility of the regress of causes being infinite.
Craig presents this subsidiary argument thus:
(a) An actually infinite number of things cannot exist.
(b) A beginningless series of events in time entails an actually infinite number of things.
(c) Therefore, a beginningless series of events in time cannot exist.
Clearly this argument is valid. Equally clearly, the conclusion, if true, would rule out the kind of
endless chain of events envisaged in both the Steady State and Oscillating models of the physical
universe. It would provide a purely a priori endorsement for the sort of beginning of space-time that is
postulated in the big bang theory.
But what, we need to know, is meant by an "actual infinite"? And what is impossible about the notion
that an actually infinite number of things should exist?
A collection of things (objects, events, or moments of time) is said to comprise an actual infinite if it
satisfies the conditions for being an infinite set as defined by the mathematician Georg Cantor, namely,
that the members of that set can be put into a one-one correspondence with the members of one of its
proper subsets. Consider the claim, "For every natural number there exists a successor that is itself a
natural number." Clearly this claim entails the existence of an infinite set of natural numbers. The set of
natural numbers satisfies Cantor's conditions for being an infinite set since the proper subset comprising
all the odd numbers can be thought of as standing in one-one correspondence with all the natural numbers,
even as well as odd.
The idea of a set all of whose members are equinumerous with one of its proper subsets is certainly
counter-intuitive. But this, it has been argued, arises from the fact that most of our thinking about sets
focuses on the properties of finite sets not infinite ones. So we have no good reason to suppose the latter
to have the same properties as the former. In any case, despite its "paradoxical" consequences, Cantor's
theory of transfinite numbers cannot be shown to be logically impossible; it is logically self-consistent.
Now just as the statement "For every natural number there is a successor that is a natural number"
generates an infinite set of natural numbers, so the statement "For every event that begins to exist there is a
preceding event that is its cause" generates an infinite series of events. Likewise with the claim "For
every moment of time that begins to exist there is a moment of time that precedes it." Yet both these latter
claims are entailed by Premise 1 of Craig's kalam argument. Hence if there is nothing logically
impossible about the existence of an infinite set of natural numbers, there would seem to be nothing
logically impossible about the existence of an infinite series of events or an infinite series of moments of
time.
Craig is prepared to allow the logical possibility of infinite sets in mathematics, despite their
paradoxical consequences. So on one interpretation of "things", viz., that in which the things concerned
are abstract entities like numbers, he is prepared to allow--contrary to the first premise of his subsidiary
argument--that an actual infinity of things can exist after all. What he cannot accept is that interpretation of
"things" in which the things concerned are constituents of the spatio-temporal universe, physical objects,
events, or moments of time. But infinite sets of the latter sorts of entity are no more paradoxical than are
infinite sets of abstract entities.
The upshot of his second subsidiary argument then is this. If the paradoxical nature of infinite sets did
indeed demonstrate that an actually infinite number of events in time cannot exist, then Premise 1 is false
since for any event that begins it postulates a preceding one that caused it, and hence entail the existence
of just such an actually infinite set. But if, on the other hand, the paradoxical nature of infinite sets does
not demonstrate the impossibility of an actually infinite number of events in time, then it provides no
grounds for holding Premise 2 to be true.
INTERIM CONCLUSION: "THEREFORE THE UNIVERSE HAS A CAUSE."
Set aside the previously noted objections to Premise 1: that its truth is threatened by both quantum theory
and the contra-causal account of free will, and that the infinite series of beginnings Premise 1 entails is
inconsistent with Craig's argument against actual infinites. There are still more problems.
Consider, once more, the experiential warrant that is claimed on behalf of Premise 1. It is that within
our ordinary experience of things that happen within the spatio-temporal universe, the beginnings of all
events are brought about by, caused by, preceding events which themselves had beginnings. That is the
scope and limit of our empirical grounds for holding the first premise true. There is, therefore, no
experiential warrant whatever for our extending its scope to the case of the beginning of the universe
itself. It is not as if we have experienced cases of many universes beginning and have found from our
experience of these universe-beginnings that all of them are caused. If we were to be more guarded in our
generalization of how things happen, at least at the macrophysical level, in the spatio-temporal universe
we experience, we would formulate Premise 1 so as to read "Whatever begins to exist within the spatio-
temporal universe has a cause." It would then become clear that we have no warrant whatever for
extending the limited universality of this more defensible premise to the beginning of the spatio-temporal
universe itself. As Bertrand Russell pointed out, to suppose that we do have such a warrant would be to
suppose that from the statement that every human has a mother, we can infer that humanity has a mother.
FINAL CONCLUSION: "THE CAUSE OF THE UNIVERSE IS GOD."
Set aside all previously noted objections and, for the sake of argument, allow that the spatio-temporal
universe did have a cause. What then entitles us to conclude that this cause is anything like the personal
God of theism?
There's a serious logical problem here. Craig presents the kalam argument in the form of a deduction:
an argument in which the conclusion can be derived logically from the premises. But it is a necessary
condition of the soundness of a deductive argument that no concept should appear in the conclusion that
has not already been presented in at least one of the premises. Yet none of the premises of Craig's
argument contains any mention of God, even implicitly (let alone explicitly). It isn't until we come to the
conclusion that the term "God" suddenly appears out of the blue, as it were. For this reason--as well as
the reasons previously given--Craig's argument is deductively a complete failure.
Is his argument, then, to be construed as inductive in nature, rather than deductive? Is he claiming that it
is highly probable--statistically probable, perhaps--that the cause of the universe is the personal God of
theism? If so, what's the evidence? What statistical evidence could he produce in support of the
hypothesis that when a universe comes into being its cause is always, usually, or sometimes, the creative
act of a god? The fact is that neither he, nor anyone else, has ever experienced a god or gods creating
universes. Craig's conclusion, "The cause of the universe is God", is baseless.
There's a host of questions calling for answers. Why should not the cause of our universe be, or have
been, some entity in another physical universe: a being or group of beings, perhaps, endowed with quasi-
magical powers to conjure other universes out of nothing? What grounds are there--other than a
disposition to believe in the magical and supernatural--to suppose that the cause is a supernatural being of
any sort? Why suppose there is just one such being? Why suppose that such a being, if there were one, is a
person with personal attributes akin to our own? And wouldn't the existence of any such being itself call
for explanation in terms of what caused it to exist?
Craig does not address any of these questions other than the last. The creator, he argues, cannot
"himself" be in time for then there would be an infinite series of events in his life; and that--according to
his argument against actual infinities--is impossible. Hence, he concludes, God must be conceived as a
changeless being in whom, prior to creation, no events whatever, even sequences of thoughts, occurred.
As to what caused this ultra-catatonic being to suddenly spring into action by creating a temporal universe
and thereby launch himself into his temporal career, no answer is forthcoming. Or possible. Just a plunge
into the incomprehensible.

ARGUMENTS FROM DESIGN


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William Paley (1743-1805) most famously expounded the Argument from Design. In his version it
appeals to the analogy of a watch, the components of which are so complex and well-structured for the
purpose of telling time that the very idea of its having arisen by sheer chance defies reason and
experience. The design of the watch requires an intelligent designer. Likewise, the design of the universe
and of such structures as the eye requires the existence of a supremely intelligent designer, otherwise
known as God. God is, so to speak, the Great Watchmaker.
Now it cannot be denied that much in the universe exhibits design in the sense of functional efficiency.
And Paley is right to cite the eye as a case in point. But does the presence of design entail a designer, an
intelligent being who made it that way? Or can it be explained by the workings of nature itself, in
particular the workings of natural selection?
The theory of evolution says that in the biological domain the latter is all that is needed. Hence the
threat evolutionary theory poses to the argument from design to intelligent designer. Neither the laws of
nature nor chance have any prevision of their own outcome. They do not serve some consciously intended
purpose. According to evolution, nature itself is the Great Watchmaker. But it is a blind one. Hence
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Richard Dawkins' talk of evolution as the Blind Watchmaker in a wonderful book of that name.
Who is right?
SCIENTIFIC CREDENTIALS OF THE THEORY OF EVOLUTION
The core thesis of the theory of evolution, as proposed by Darwin and refined by his neo-Darwinian
successors, is that natural species are produced not by divine decree but by natural processes of
variation, procreation, geographical isolation, and consequent survival of certain populations as opposed
to others; in brief, by natural selection.
This claim--one asserted to hold of all natural species--cannot be "proved" by appeal to empirical
evidence. No completely universal claim can. But this doesn't mean that it doesn't have compelling
empirical support. Plant and animal breeders utilize the same processes. And both laboratory and field
experiments have shown repeatedly how rapidly new species will evolve within a few generations given
genetic variation, isolation of the breeding populations, and factors such as competition for food.
But experiments and other forms of direct observational evidence are no more needed to substantiate
the truth of evolutionary theory than are observations of ships slipping over the horizon, or photographs
from space, to demonstrate the claim that our earth is roughly round in shape. Were the round earth theory
not true, we couldn't make sense of terrestrial geometry, cartography, chronometry, aeronautics or
navigation. In like manner, were the theory of evolution not true, we couldn't make sense of a host of other
empirically grounded sciences.
Contrary to many of its critics, the theory of evolution isn't just a "hypothesis." Rather, it is a "theory" in
that honorific sense in which the term is bestowed on a whole system of observationally confirmed laws,
principles, and hypotheses: ones that enable us to give causal explanations of a wide range of phenomena.
It is in this sense that the theory of evolution is a major scientific theory. It encompasses a unified and
well-attested set of laws and principles drawn not just from natural history, but from a host of other
empirical sciences as well: cosmology, astronomy, physics, biochemistry, geology, plate tectonics,
palaeontology, population genetics, ecology, anthropology, and comparative anatomy, among them. And its
explanatory power extends beyond the evolution of living organisms. If recent theorists are right, it can
even tell us much about the realms of human psychology and social behaviour.
The theory of evolution, then, is no more "just" a hypothesis than are the theories of Copernicus,
Newton, or Einstein. And like these other hugely successful theories, the theory of evolution satisfies one
of the most important criteria for scientific, as opposed to pseudo-scientific, status. It is falsifiable. That
is to say, it yields consequences such that were any of these found to be false, we would have to conclude
that the theory itself is false. For instance, were Earth found to be only six thousand years old as claimed
by Creationists, or some tens of millions of years old as claimed by Lord Kelvin in Darwin's day, rather
than the currently estimated 4.54 billion, there would not have been enough time for evolution to have
done its work and we would have to conclude that the theory is false. Again, if facts about the
transmission of hereditary information--facts discovered by immunology, biochemistry and molecular
biology--had turned out otherwise, evolution might well have been abandoned.
Evolution, however, is anathema to those who cling to the argument from design, especially in its
pretentious guise as so-called "Intelligent Design Theory."
BEHE ON IRREDUCIBLE COMPLEXITY
The so-called "theory" of intelligent design makes use of molecular biologist Michael Behe's concept of
irreducible complexity. This he defines as:
“A single system composed of several well-matched, interacting parts that contribute to the basic
function, wherein the removal of any one of its parts causes the system to effectively cease functioning. An
irreducibly complex system cannot be produced gradually by slight, successive modifications of a
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precursor system, since any precursor to an irreducibly complex system is by definition non-functional.”
His example of a mousetrap is relatively uncontentious. And--surprise, surprise--the mousetrap is
something we already know to have been brought about by intelligent design: that of a human.
The question at issue, however, is whether supposed irreducible complexity can be brought about by
non-intelligent design: in particular by the non-intelligent processes of natural selection. It simply won't
do to beg the question, as Behe does, by saying that any precursor to a supposedly irreducibly complex
system is "by definition" non-functional. As has been pointed out often in the past hundred and fifty years,
an organ can be just as useful in the early stages of its development as in its final phase, but functional in a
different way or to a lesser degree. The first feathers, for example, may have been used for insulation
rather than for flight. Some degree of light-sensitivity is better than none. And some degree of
functionality of an organic molecule (the sort of thing that Behe likes to go on about) is also better than
none.
Unfortunately, neither Behe nor philosopher William Dembski, his co-promoter of intelligent design
theory, provides us with many examples of what they regard as clear-cut cases of interventions by an
intelligent designer, let alone of the timing of such interventions. More surprisingly, they don't even try to
show how concepts of irreducible complexity need to be invoked for explanations of how well-evidenced
major evolutionary transitions took place: e.g., those from primitive bony fish to amphibians, from
amphibians to reptiles, or from reptiles to both birds and mammals. For the most part they invoke God's
design of the irreducibly complex on an ad hoc basis. Behe, especially, is most happy when talking about
mousetraps and molecules.
Now to be fair, if irreducible complexity of the kind that could only be explained by intelligent design
were demonstrable at the level of molecular biology, then it could be invoked as the crucial point for the
theory to get its grip. Behe could then say that God intervened at some unspecified time by providing the
most elementary forms of life with irreducibly complex molecules and then say that all these grand
transitions from one genus to another are just the workings out through natural selection of this initial
complexity. I don't say that they would say this; only that they could.
But how good is the case for intelligence-requiring design at the molecular level? I have neither the
time nor the expertise to offer my own independent assessment. So, for present purposes, it will suffice
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for me to quote a few points made by another molecular biologist, David Ussery.
In 1996 Behe claimed that no Darwinian explanation could be found in the literature for the production
of the nucleotide AMP or for the origins of the immune system. Yet, as Ussery points out, just two years
later, by 1998, thousands of just such explanations for both of these had already been published.
Ussery sums up the objection to Behe's examples from molecular biology like this:
“These two examples are merely a small sample of the literally THOUSANDS of articles that have
been published about the details of molecular evolution in the past two years. It is important to bring up
these examples, because this shows a real weakness in the logic that says, "We don't know how this
happened, so God must have done it!" What happens when someone calls your bluff and actually DOES
provide a step-by-step mechanism for the gradual evolution of the immune system?”
Philosophers have a name for the fallacy to which Ussery is calling attention. It is the so-called
Argument from Ignorance.
This fallacy also infects the few other examples Behe gives of allegedly irreducible complexity: the
cilia of certain bacterial flagellum and the mechanism for blood-clotting. There's no real argument here.
Just a gesture at our current ignorance: an ignorance that we have already begun to remedy.
Francis Collins--current leader of the Human Genome Project and a theist who also believes in
evolution--sums it up by saying that intelligent design theory is merely "a new version of Paley's
'argument from personal incredulity', now expressed in the language of biochemistry, genetics, and
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mathematics."
THE IMPROBABILITY OF ABIOGENESIS
The intelligent design hypothesis brings God in to explain how complex life forms can arise from simpler
ones. But how did those simple life forms arise in the first place?
This is where a second argument for God is wheeled out: an argument from the improbability of
abiogenesis (the genesis of living things from non-living).
Proponents begin from the assumption that, on a naturalistic view, life can only have begun as a result
of "purely chance" or "random" chemical reactions. They then claim that the probability of all necessary
elements coming together at random in the right sequence to form something like a simple protein--let
alone the first self-replicating organism--is mind-bogglingly small. They say that this probability is
smaller by far than the probability (as calculated by astronomer Sir Fred Hoyle) of a blind man solving
Rubik’s cube while making one random move every second; and smaller than the probability of a tornado
passing through a junkyard containing the bits and pieces of an airplane and leaving a Boeing 747 in its
wake, fully assembled and ready to fly. The age of the universe isn't great enough to allow for such chance
events to occur. Finally, they flourish the conclusion that the occurrence of such a chance event since life
first arose would be nothing short of miraculous, and that abiogenesis could be brought about only by the
intervention of God.
But let’s not be dazzled by these mathematical fireworks. By way of logical analogy, consider the
beginnings of life for any given human individual. Start with the assumption that each of us begins life as a
result of random chemical interactions between the 3 billion or so base pairs that make up our 20,000 or
so genes. Keep in mind that a typical adult individual’s body is made up of about 100 trillion cells, and
that one’s brain alone contains approximately 100 billion neurons, each of which has about 7,000 synaptic
connections with other neurons. Now let’s ask a good mathematician to calculate the a priori probability
of all the foregoing ingredients being randomly arranged as to produce a healthy newborn child. My guess
is that any mathematician crazy enough to go along with the assumption that all these factors are
independent, would find the probability to be so “mind-boggling small” that a nine-month gestation period
would fall astronomically short of the time allegedly required to get all the arrangements right. The
probability of any given individual’s make-up being what it is would be nothing short of a miracle.
Finally, we could conclude--by parity of reasoning--that all of us owe our origins to the intervention of a
supernatural agent. We might even go so far as to conclude that the Holy Ghost didn't stop with
impregnating Mother Mary but is performing his procreative miracles all the time.
I doubt whether even the most credulous creationist would accept the reasoning of this parallel
argument. The fact is that no one who knows the slightest bit of embryological and developmental theory
would ever accept the original supposition that human life results from merely random chemical
reactions. Likewise, no one who knows the slightest bit of evolutionary theory would ever accept the
supposition that abiogenesis is to be attributed solely to mere chance. Darwin and his successors have
never said, nor are they committed to, anything remotely like this. Chance may well have played a role.
But so did the laws of physics and chemistry.
The probabilistic argument against naturalistic explanations of abiogenesis is a fraud. We have good
scientific reasons to suppose that the origins and make-up of a human foetus or embryo do not result
merely from random throws of our prenatal DNA dice. Equally, we have good scientific reasons to
suppose that the origins and make-up of the first living organism did not result merely from random
throws of the prebiotic molecular dice.
Arguably, if "chance" is involved in either case, it is only in that sense of the word in which the
"chance" outcome of a particular game of roulette is a function, not of a breakdown of the laws of
Newtonian physics, but of our usual ignorance of the precise circumstances--the initial conditions--to
which they apply. I say "usual ignorance" because, as Thomas A. Bass's book The Eudaemonic Pie
(known in the U.K. as The Newtonian Casino) demonstrates, players who make inroads on their
ignorance by feeding the appropriate data into a roulette simulation on a computer can substantially
increase the probability of their winning. Probability estimates are, or should be, sensitive to information
about the initial conditions of the relevant system at any given time. Yet this sort of informational input is
lacking in purely a priori estimates of the probability of abiogenesis.
THE A PRIORIST'S FALLACY
There is an important, and oft-neglected, lesson to be learned here about reliance on purely a priori
probability to the neglect of empirical data.
Pure mathematics and logic are the very paradigms of purely a priori sciences. But by themselves, they
cannot give us any information whatever about how the actual world happens to operate. Only applied
mathematics and applied logic can do that. And those disciplines require us to feed in some empirical
premises (whether known to be true, known to be false, or merely hypothetical).
As with computers so, too, with arguments in applied mathematics and logic: the output depends on the
input. Hence the saying "garbage in; garbage out." Put in a false premise, such as the a priori supposition
that the simplest forms of life arose from random chemical reactions, and you are likely to get a false, if
not absurd, conclusion. And if you get a false or absurd conclusion, then--by the logical rule known as
modus tollens--you should infer that at least one of your premises was also false or absurd.
So, apply modus tollens to the false conclusion that the earth hasn't existed long enough to produce life.
Then you are logically entitled--indeed logically obliged--to reject the supposition that abiogenesis was
the consequence of purely random events. What you are not entitled to conclude, however, is that life
couldn't have been the consequence of any natural process whatever. You aren't entitled to conclude, that
is, that it must have been brought about by some supernatural agent.
More generally, all such probabilistic arguments are methodologically unsound since they purport to
generate factual (empirical) findings about the way the world works by employing purely a priori
reasoning.
The argument from the improbability of abiogenesis is merely an argument from current ignorance—
another appeal to a god of the gaps.
THE ARGUMENT FROM FINE-TUNING
But how—it may be asked—did the initial conditions and laws of the physical universe happen to be such
as to produce a planet like ours that is life-friendly?
One answer goes like this. A priori, we would have to judge that the probability of them being what
they happen to be is infinitesimally low: so low that the best explanation for them being that way, is to
suppose that God set them up that way so as to execute his plan for the universe. This is the essence of the
third probabilistic argument for the existence of a supernatural being, an argument that is usually referred
to as the argument from fine-tuning.
This argument can be dressed up in terms of an awesome array of evidence from contemporary physics
and cosmology. The details needn’t concern us. It suffices to summarise thus: Had there been complete
symmetry between matter and antimatter in the early moments after the big bang, they would have
annihilated each other and the universe would have consisted of nothing but pure radiation, so that
galaxies, stars, planets, and people would never have existed. Had the total mass and energy in the
universe, or the strength of the gravitational constant varied by the minutest fraction, its rate of expansion
would not have allowed galaxies, stars and planets to exist today: if any faster they would not have been
able to form; if any slower the whole universe would already have collapsed.
We can envisage a whole array of universes each differing from all others in the precise values of their
physical constants. So the probability that any particular one of them is our universe is extremely low. The
best explanation for our specific universe being actualised, is that it was selected from that vast ensemble
by some being not in the universe but somehow "outside" it, a supernatural being such as God. It was
God, that is, who selected a universe whose parameters were so finely tuned that it would eventually
produce life and the likes of us. So the argument goes.
Anyone who takes the fine-tuning argument seriously has some serious objections to solve.
SEVEN OBJECTIONS TO THE FINE-TUNING ARGUMENT
(1) Once more, a logical analogy exposes the flaws in this argument. Imagine a worldwide lottery in
which a billion people are players, each of whom puts in a dollar. Every person is assigned a ball with
their own individual number inscribed on it; the balls are placed in a giant lotto machine; and after
numerous revolutions, just one ball drops out. Clearly the number of different physical parameters for
each of the balls—its precise position and momentum, for instance—at the start of the process is
enormously large and the probability of my ball being the winning one is incredibly low. Yet someone is
going to win. Suppose it’s me. I win a billion dollars. Does the improbability of my winning make it
correspondingly probable that the whole thing was fixed? In particular, does it make it correspondingly
probable that the whole thing was fixed or fine-tuned by God?
(2) Second, whatever plausibility one might attach to the idea that God fine-tuned the initial set-up of
the universe so as to eventually produce us begins to dissipate when one realizes just how many more
contingencies had to occur for the earth to have existed in its present state. For instance, planet Earth had
to occupy what cosmologists call the Goldilocks Zone (just far enough from the sun to be not too hot and
not too cold); the earth had to undergo enough asteroid impacts for the accumulated kinetic energy to
generate a temperature above 1500 degrees Celsius so as to produce the so-called Iron Catastrophe
wherein most of the iron would sink to form the earth's core; the slow spinning of the earth's iron core had
to function as a giant magnet whose field of force--the magnetosphere--would protect earth from the solar
wind thereby enabling the earth to retain its atmosphere; a cosmic collision had to occur so as to produce
a moon circling the earth with just the right mass and at just the right distance to stabilize the earth's axis
and produce plate tectonics; a giant asteroid had to wipe out the dinosaurs in order to clear the way for
our mammalian ancestors; and so on. The earth appears to have been a lucky planet in so far as almost
every event in the billions of years of its formation seems to have been necessary for its present life-
bearing state. Do we suppose God's fine-tuning to have been necessary for each of these countless
individual events? If so, he must have been working at it nearly all the time. And the evidence-based
naturalistic explanations given by scientists for each of these events would have to be redundant or false.

(3) Third, if you think that God fine-tuned the universe so as to bring us into existence, why did he not
create us right at the outset in something like the way that the Bible envisages? Why did he let time grind
on for something like 13.7 billion years to achieve his end? If you believe in a god of unlimited ability
who intends to create us and bring us to a belief in his existence so that he can communicate with us,
which scenario would you think more likely: that of the Bible, or that of scientific cosmology? On the face
of it, the Bible story is more plausible by far. Yet that scenario is demonstrably false. Once more our
rational expectations of what such a god would do are not fulfilled.
(4) Fourth, if you accept the fine-tuning argument for God’s existence, then you are logically obliged
to reject both the other probabilistic arguments: the ID argument from irreducible complexity, and the
argument from the improbability of abiogenesis. Both these other arguments presuppose that God did not
fine-tune the universe well enough at the outset to ensure the desired outcome. The fine-tuning argument
says that he did.
(5) Fifth, that means that if you accept the fine-tuning argument as usually presented, then you've got to
allow that the track record of naturalism since the beginning of the universe is unblemished. God wasn't
needed in order to create complex organisms from simple ones. Or the first living things from non-living.
So why, at this point in the explanatory quest, would you want to invoke a kind of explanation that you've
never thought necessary before? Do you really think your understanding is enhanced by thus hazarding a
giant leap beyond the known into the unknown, beyond the natural into the supernatural, beyond the
scrutable into the inscrutable, beyond the comprehensible into the incomprehensible?
(6) Sixth. Would attributing the fine-tuning of the physical constants to the will of God really constitute
any kind of explanation at all? If, by way of answering the question why I won the lottery, I were to reply
"Because it was God's will", would you count that reply as providing a genuine explanation? I doubt it.
This is a pseudo-explanation: it could be provided no matter who won. Similarly, if someone, by way of
answering the question as to why our universe alone out of all the vast array of logically possible ones
with different physical constants is the one that exists, were to reply "Because God wanted it that way",
we'd realize that it, too, is a pseudo-explanation since it could be provided no matter which universe he'd
chosen. And if we were to press the search for explanations still further by asking "Why did God want it
that way?" we'd get no response other than something about God's inscrutable will. In short, the regress of
explanations would come to a dead end. So why embark on such a search beyond the natural in the first
place? Try venturing any further, and you've got no explanation at all, just the incantation of an empty form
of words.
(7) Seventh, and finally, although the fine-tuning argument is usually espoused by proponents who
have a particular god in mind, viz., the theistic one, the role of fine-tuner could in principle be performed
by any one of an infinity of logically possible divine beings. But, as I argued in Chapter 2, the probability
of the existence of any particular one of the infinity of gods is near zero. Consider, then, the implications
for those who think some god or other is needed in order to explain why the physical constants are as they
are, when the probabilities of them being that way are almost infinitesimally small. They are trying to
explain the improbability of the physical constants being that way by invoking the existence of something
—some particular god or other--whose existence is vastly more improbable.
A DEVASTATING DILEMMA FOR DESIGN DEVOTEES
Every type of design argument for the existence of a creator/designer God confronts a devastating
dilemma:
Either it is possible that something should function well without its being probable that it was designed
by an intelligent designer, or it is impossible that anything can function well without its having been thus
designed. If it is possible, then--given the scientific evidence--it is highly probable that it is nature itself
that does the designing. But if it is impossible, then since any intelligent designer would have to function
well enough to design a universe that functions well, it follows that that intelligent designer was designed
by a second intelligent designer, the second by a third, and so on ad infinitum.
For any advocate of intelligent design, both alternatives are unacceptable. Unless they say that there is
an infinity of intelligent designers (an absurd consequence, and one that contradicts their idea that there is
just one intelligent designer), they will have to concede that the presence of design in the universe does
not make it more probable than not that it was designed by an intelligent designer.
In any case, the hypothesis of an intelligent designer can't really explain what it is supposed to explain.
Recall that the whole argument gets its appeal from seeming to offer a plausible explanation of apparent
design. The problem is that as an explanation it offers to explain too much. An "explanation" that purports
to be the explanation of everything that occurs isn't a genuine explanation of why anything occurs. A
genuine explanation of why something occurs must be an explanation of why that occurred and not
something else. By way of explaining why the universe contains order, structural complexity, and
functionality, the intelligent design hypothesis offers us nothing better than "Because God designed it that
way." Since this hypothesis could still be invoked even for the case where the universe was utterly
chaotic, the intelligent design hypothesis doesn't explain why the universe is ordered rather than chaotic. It
is about as helpful as saying "Because that's the way it is." We are offered words but no explanation.
CREATING AND DESIGNING AN EVIL WORLD
The intellectual case for believing in God, any god, as the creator and designer of the universe is
bankrupt.
And it raises moral questions, too, about the nature of any such God. Any fine-tuning argument, for
example, must take into account not only the bare fact that our universe is life-conducive. The Principle of
Total Evidence demands that it also take into account the fact that, as Hobbes pointed out, the life of
God’s creatures is “poor, nasty, brutish, and short”; must take into account, that is, what philosophers of
religion call the Problem of Natural Evil. Why would God fine-tune the universe so as to subject us to all
the viruses, bacteria, and parasites that threaten us, causing illness, suffering, and in many cases death?
Why would he beset us with diseases like cancer and Alzheimer's? Why did his fine-tuning of our planet
yield all those natural disasters--all those "acts of God" as they’re standardly called--that take their toll
on our lives: earthquakes, tsunamis, cyclones, floods, and the rest?
SATAN'S MORAL OUTRAGE OVER HIS BOSS'S CREATION
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Mark Twain, in his posthumously published Letters from the Earth , puts all designer-creator gods into
moral perspective. He imagines Satan, before he fell from grace for being foolhardy and honest enough to
criticize God, making a visit to Earth to inspect God's handiwork. Satan is writing back to fellow
archangels Gabriel and Michael, the other members of the heavenly Grand Council. He is expressing
moral outrage at the way their boss has set things up in the universe he had designed and created. He--that
is Satan--writes:
The human being . . . is composed of thousands of complex and delicate mechanisms which perform
their functions harmoniously and perfectly, in accordance with the laws devised for their governance, and
over which the man himself has no authority, no mastership, no control. For each of these thousands of
mechanisms the creator has planned an enemy, whose office it is to harass it, pester it, persecute it,
damage it, afflict it with pains, and miseries, and ultimate destruction. Not one has been overlooked.
From cradle to grave these enemies are always at work; they know no rest, night or day. They are an
army: an organized army; a besieging army; an assaulting army; an army that is alert, watchful, eager,
merciless; . . . It is the Creators' Grand Army, and he is the Commander-in-Chief. Along its battlefront its
grisly banners wave their legends in the face of the sun: Disaster, Disease, and the rest.
Disease! That is the main force, the diligent force, the devastating force! It attacks the infant the moment
it is born . . . It chases the child into youth . . . It chases the youth into maturity, maturity into age, and age
into the grave.
With these facts before you will you now try to guess man's chiefest pet name for this ferocious
Commander-in-Chief? I will save you the trouble, but you must not laugh. It is Our Father in Heaven!
What do you think of the human mind? I mean, in case you think there is a human mind.
Now it is clear that Satan's indictment of a creator-designer God gets its grip no matter how that
intelligent designer is conceived: whether as the God of deism, or that of various versions of theism.
It is also clear that Mark Twain, with Satan as his mouthpiece, could have gone on at length to give
examples of the sorts of diseases with which God assails us. He does select a couple so as to describe
their pernicious effects: hookworm; and sleeping sickness. But he could have gone on to list other
exquisitely designed diseases that afflict only humans: SARS, measles, pneumococcal pneumonia, typhus,
typhoid fever, smallpox, leprosy, poliomyelitis, five types of syphilis and gonorrhoea, AIDS, hepatitis,
shingles, four types of malarial parasites, two types of tapeworm, an intestinal worm, three agents of
filariasis, two species of schistosoma, pinworm, three types of lice, various types of fever, various
genetic diseases such as Huntington's, and kuru (only transmitted by cannibalism), just to mention a few.
He could have extended the list to diseases that we share with other species--cancer, for example--and
have gone into gruesome detail about their effects. Or even to diseases peculiar to species other than us.
And he could have gone on to list the recruits to God's other devastating regiments, those that fall under
the banner of Disaster: tsunamis. hurricanes, earthquakes, floods, droughts, volcanic eruptions, and huge
asteroid impacts of the kind which (puzzlingly for a theist) have caused the extinction of most of the
species that God allegedly designed and/or created and thought "very good."
The problem with parading this list of natural evils before us, however, is that we tend to let them pass
before our minds without thinking of their real significance. I invite you, therefore, to look them up by
consulting a medical dictionary, or talking to someone who has intimate experience of the consequences
of these diseases and disasters in concrete detail. Or use your search-engine to check on the internet for
"Ebola haemorrhagic fever" for instance. Then ask yourself how you would describe an intelligent
designer of such God-awful design.
Nature, we often say, is cruel. But so, by the same token, is God if he deliberately designed it to work
that way. Nature, however, isn't malevolent. It isn't intelligent. But God, the great designer, is supposed to
be supremely intelligent.
Does God, then, have flaws in his intelligence? Is God, not to mince words, just plain incompetent?
Should we, perhaps, conceive of him as the Great Computer Salesman in the sky, someone akin to Bill
Gates, someone who provides us with software aptly named Windows, which once had such huge security
gaps in its code that hackers can easily disrupt its operation?
THE GREAT COMPUTER DESIGNER VERSUS THE GREAT HACKER.
Some, I know, would respond by saying that all these troubles are of Satan's making, not of God's.
Plantinga, (as we'll see in Chapter 6), invokes this as a possibility to explain the occurrence of natural
evils such as those I've listed. But set aside the fact that Satan, as depicted as by the Bible as well as
Mark Twain, is a relatively harmless hacker, more intent on asking probing questions than on causing
actual harm. For Christian myth holds that he really is a serious rival to God and that God currently is
doing little, if anything, to prevent Satan's destructive interference in God's creation. The problem with
thus conceiving Satan, as the Great Hacker in the Sky is that if we also think of him as an eternal hacker,
one whose maliciousness will never cease, then we are committed to Manicheism rather than either deism
or theism. God, in that case, is not the Supreme Being after all, just one of two such beings. Yet if we think
of Satan's interferences as only temporary, ones that God will get under control in the long run, the same
old problems arise. Why didn't God get his software right in the first place? Was it lack of foresight and
bad planning? Why doesn't the Great Computer Maker fix the software here and now so as to put a stop to
Satan's hacking? After all, theists believe he is a miracle-worker who can do anything he wants when he
wants. Is he willing but unable? In that case, he is definitely guilty of gross incompetence with respect to
the universe for which he undertook responsibility. Or is he able but not willing? In that case, he is guilty
of horrendous crimes against his creation.
THE COSMOLOGICAL AND DESIGN ARGUMENTS FOR ATHEISM
Referring to disaster and disease as the main battalions of “the Creator’s Grand Army” marching against
us with God, their Commander-in-Chief, leading them, Twain writes:
"The Christian begins with this straight proposition, this definite proposition, this inflexible and
uncompromising proposition: God is all-knowing and all-powerful.
“This being the case, nothing can happen without his knowing beforehand that it is going to happen;
nothing happens without his permission; nothing can happen that he chooses to prevent.
“That is definite enough, isn’t it? It makes the Creator distinctly responsible for everything that
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happens, doesn’t it?”
Twain levels his charge against the Christian God, the self-incriminating god of the Bible. But he could
well have levelled it against any designer-creator god that humans have imagined. If any such god were to
exist he’d deserve to be tried and condemned for crimes against humanity.
So I have a couple of final questions for you. Do you look forward, as I do, to a day when all the gods
have gone to their grave, a day when a second Memorial Service can be held and all belief in them
expunged forever? If not, why not?
For my own part, I no longer live in the God-besotted, demon-haunted, world-view that was foisted on
me in my childhood. I find no reason whatever to believe in any supernatural supremely intelligent
designer-creator, let alone a malicious one like the God of revelation. On the contrary, for the reasons
given in Chapter 2, I believe the non-existence of such beings infinitely more probable than not. Indeed I'd
go so far as to say that, on the evidence, their non-existence--especially that of the theist's God--is not just
desirable but as certain as it can be.
5
THE MORAL ARGUMENT FOR ATHEISM
A LOGICAL QUANDARY FOR THEISTS
The first god deserving to be assigned to the grave, along with all the splinter gods he has spawned in the
names of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, is the biblical god. Deserving burial, too, is the ugly illusion
that any of them is the ultimate source of our moral values.
"The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and
proud of it: a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, blood thirsty ethnic cleanser; a
misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal,
sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.”
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So wrote Richard Dawkins, in The God Delusion. And knowing the Bible as I do, I could easily cite
chapter and verse demonstrating the truth of every one of his descriptions. My fundamentalist training
comes in handy sometimes. Just one thing, though. In this particular passage, Dawkins is talking only
about the fictional God of the Old Testament. He has no need to mention the even more abhorrent God
depicted in the New Testament, a deity who promises mass torture in the afterlife for all those who don't
believe in him. I'll include him as well in my moral indictment of the biblical god. As I said at the outset
of my debate with Matt Flanagan on the topic "Is God the Source of Morality?" at the University of
Auckland in July 2010:
I come not to praise God but to bury him, along with the dead gods of now forgotten religions. Not to
praise him as the source of all that's good in the world, and hence the ultimate guide to human morals, but
to indict him as the self-confessed source of all that's wrong with it. When the Christian God says in his
Holy Scriptures, that he is the creator of evil, I'm prepared to take him at his word.
DOSTOYEVSKY'S CLAIM
"If there is no God, all things are permitted." So one of Dostoyevsky's characters in The Brother
Karamazov, reputedly said. He was claiming that if God does not exist, then moral values would be a
purely subjective matter to be determined by the whims of individuals or by counting heads in the social
groups to which they belong; or perhaps even that moral values would be totally illusory and moral
nihilism would prevail. In short--the argument goes--if there are absolute, not subjective, non-relative,
moral truths, then God must exist. Hence the more general view that God is the bedrock of the moral
order.
By way of contrast, I argue that if there are absolute, non-relative, moral truths, then the biblical god
does not exist. I present a moral argument for biblical atheism.
On four points, I agree with my theist opponents.
THE REFERENCE OF "GOD"
First: I agree with them as to what we mean by the term "God" when they assert, and I deny, that God
exists. We are not talking about just any old god. We are not talking, for instance, about Baal (god of the
Canaanites), or Aton (god of the Egyptians), or Zeus (god of the Greeks), or Huitzilopochtli (god of the
Aztecs). All of these were supreme deities. Each was worshipped and obeyed by millions. Yet, as we've
already seen all are dead, in the sense that none now exists as an object of anyone's belief.
Although the term "theism" is sometimes used so broadly as to encompass belief in any sort of
supernatural god or gods who reveal themselves to humans, I shall use it--as most philosophers and
theologians now do--in a somewhat narrower sense. The theism I will be talking about isn't just the belief
in some god or other. It is belief in the god of the orthodox Judaic, Christian, and Islamic traditions. It is
belief in a god who is distinguished from these others in two main respects. First, he is holy (and
therefore morally perfect). Second, he reveals himself to us in Holy Scriptures. It is by virtue of his
holiness that he is deemed worthy of worship and obedience. And it is by virtue of his having revealed
himself to us in Scriptures that we know about his nature and what he would have us do or forbear from
doing.
The God of theism, so understood, is a robust supernatural being. He ought not to be identified,
therefore, with the metaphysically eviscerated God of liberal theologians like Paul Tillich and Bishop
Robinson, for whom God is something like "our deepest concern" and the Bible is only a man-made fable.
Their God is what I shall later (in Chapter 8) call a "gobbledygook God". Nor should the God of theists
be identified with the unknowable being of deists like Voltaire and Thomas Paine, for whom God was a
hypothetical entity invoked merely to explain the origins and nature of the universe and the Bible a moral
and intellectual fraud foisted upon the credulous by prophets, popes, priests, and preachers. In the strict
sense of the word, each of the four thinkers just named is an atheist. And, in the same sense, so am I. But I
see no need for a god of any kind. I see only semantic obfuscation in the liberals' clothing of humanist
sentiments (which I applaud) with pietistic God-talk (which I deplore). And I find only fallacious
inference in the deist, as well as theist, supposition that we can explain why anything at all exists by
hypothesizing that something else exists in addition, for that supposition starts one on the path of infinite
regress.
THE MEANING OF "ABSOLUTE MORALITY"
Second: I think that theists would agree with me as to what we mean when we talk of absolute morality.
"Absolute" in this context, as in most others, is contrasted with both "relative" and "subjective". There are
differences in meaning between these three terms: but they are of little consequence here. We mean a set
of moral truths that would remain true no matter what any individual or social group thought or desired.
The notion of absolute morality is antithetical to all forms of moral subjectivism. It holds, first, that we
have moral beliefs that are either true or false; that they are not mere expressions of emotion, akin to sighs
of pleasure or pain. It holds, secondly, that the truth or falsity of our moral judgments is a function of
whether or not the objects of moral appraisal, agents and their actions, have the moral properties that we
ascribe to them; that their truth or falsity is not merely a function of the thoughts, feelings, or attitudes of
individuals or the conventions of society. And it holds, thirdly, that there may well be moral truths still
awaiting our discovery, through revelation, on the theist's account, or through reason and experience--
together with facts about our changing biology--on my account.
THE PLAUSIBILITY OF MORAL REALISM
Third: I am going to agree with my theistic opponents in holding that, on the face of it, at least some moral
principles are universally true. A moral realist would allow that disagreements about moral matters--
about the permissibility of abortion or capital punishment, for example--often generate strong emotions.
But this doesn't mean that such disagreements are nothing more than emotional outbursts. For a moral
realist takes it to be a fact of moral psychology that we have beliefs as well as emotions about such
issues. And since nothing counts as a belief unless it is either true or false, a moral realist concludes that
our moral beliefs--like beliefs about the shape of the earth and the age of the universe--are either true or
false. Nor, from the phenomenon of moral disagreement, does it follow that the truth or falsity of moral
judgments is to be determined by each individual or by counting heads. It may be argued that the relativist
view of truth about moral matters is no more defensible than is the relativist view of truth about factual
matters.
PRIMA FACIE EXAMPLES OF OBJECTIVE MORAL TRUTHS
Fourth: Whether or not moral realism be true, I would expect theists to agree with me when I give some
concrete examples of moral principles that they should take to be objectively true, if any are. If they don't,
then it is up to them to cite some examples of what they mean by "objectively true". Otherwise the notion
is rendered vacuous.
The requirement of objectivity is a strict one. It entails that objective moral principles should be
exceptionless: that they should hold for all persons, places, and times. Thus, we should be able to agree,
the principle that it is morally forbidden to kill other persons is not universally true since--as almost
everyone would agree--it admits of exceptions such as killing a would-be murderer in defense of oneself
or one's family. As it stands it is false. We may have a prima facie obligation not to kill another person.
But sophisticated moral thinkers would allow that there are situations in which this principle should be
set aside by virtue of countervailing moral considerations. If we are to provide moral principles that
stand in need of no qualification, we need to formulate them in such a way as to make due allowance for
these other considerations.
For myself, I am inclined to think that there are indeed some moral statements that are objectively true
in the sense just explained. But this is not the place to engage in a sustained defense of that position. It
suffices, for present purposes, that my characterization of moral realism be agreed upon by my theistic
opponents.
Here, now, are a few examples of moral principles that I take to be paradigms of absolute, objective,
moral truths:
P1: It is morally wrong to deliberately and mercilessly slaughter men, women, and children who
are innocent of any serious wrongdoing.
A particularly gross violation of this principle is to be found in the genocidal policies of the Nazi SS
who, following the orders of Hitler, slaughtered 6 million Jews, together with countless Gypsies,
homosexuals, and other so-called "undesirables." It is no excuse, as I see it, that they believed themselves
to be cutting out a cancer from society, or that they were, as Hitler explained in 1933, merely doing to the
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Jews what Christians had been preaching for two thousand years. Another, more recent, violation of this
principle is to be found in the alleged genocidal practices of Milosevic and his henchman for whom it is
no excuse to say that they are merely redressing past injustices or, by ethnic cleansing, laying the
foundations for a more stable society.
P2: It is morally wrong to provide one's troops with young women captives with the prospect of their
being used as sex-slaves.
This principle, or something like it, lies behind our moral revulsion at the policies of the German and
Japanese High Commands who selected sexually attractive young women, especially virgins, to give so-
called "comfort" to their soldiers. It is irrelevant, I want to say, that most societies, historically, have
regarded such comforts as among the accepted spoils of war.
P3: It is morally wrong to make people cannibalize their friends and family.
Perhaps we can imagine situations--such as the plane crash in the Andes--in which cannibalistic acts
might be exonerated. But making people eat their own family members--as many Polynesian tribes are
reputed to have done--in order to punish them, or to horrify and strike fear into the hearts of their enemies,
is unconscionable.
P4: It is morally wrong to practice human sacrifice, by burning or otherwise.
To be sure, human sacrifice was widely accepted by the tribes against whom the children of Israel
fought and, on the other side of the Atlantic, by the Aztecs and Incas. But this, I think you'll agree, doesn't
make the practice acceptable, even if it was done to appease the gods in whom they believed.
P5: It is morally wrong to torture people endlessly for their beliefs.
Perhaps we can think of situations in which it would be permissible to torture someone who is himself
a torturer so as to obtain information as to the whereabouts of prisoners who will otherwise die from the
injuries he has inflicted on them. But cases like that of Pope Pius V who watched the Roman Inquisition
burn a nonconforming religious scholar in about 1570, fall beyond the moral pale; he can't be exonerated
on the grounds that he thought he was thereby saving the dissident's soul from the eternal fires of Hell.
On all of these examples, I would like to think, theists and other morally enlightened persons would
agree with me. And I would like to think, further, that theists would agree with me in holding that anyone
who committed, caused, commanded, or condoned, acts in violation of any of these principles--the five
that I will refer to hereafter as "our" principles--is not only evil but should be regarded with abhorrence.
Otherwise, what does "evil" mean? Or "good" when attributed to a person?
REMINDER ON THE HISTORY OF OBJECTIVIST ETHICS
The history of ethics is the history of attempts to formulated general moral theories that would encompass
moral principles such as these and give rational grounds for their adoption. Aristotle's virtue ethics,
Kant's deontological ethics, Mill's utilitarian ethics, as well as those parts of Christian ethics that are
founded on the golden rule, are all cases in point. All of them try to provide objective, non-subjective,
principles to guide human conduct, standards that aren't a reflection of, or subject to, the whims of
individuals. From this perspective, it is they that can claim objective foundations; and it is theistic ethics
that are founded on nothing more than the arbitrary whims of a hypothetical being in the sky.
My opponents--those who claim that objective morality isn't possible unless God exists--betray their
ignorance of the history of ethics. In any case, as I shall now show, belief in the sort of god portrayed in
the Bible or, for that matter, the Qur’an, is antithetical to genuine morality.
GOD'S VIOLATIONS OF "OBJECTIVE" MORAL PRINCIPLES
Now comes the lynch-pin of my moral argument against theism. For, as I shall now show, the theist God--
as he supposedly reveals himself in the Jewish and Christian Bibles (and, for that matter, the Qur’an)--
either himself commits, commands others to commit, or condones, acts which violate every one of our
five principles.
WANTON SLAUGHTER
In violation of P1, for instance, God himself drowned the whole human race except Noah and his family
(Gen. 7:23); he punished King David for carrying out a census that he himself had ordered and then
complied with David's request that others be punished instead of him by sending a plague to kill 70,000
people (II Sam. 24:1-15); and he commanded Joshua to kill old and young, little children, maidens, and
women (the inhabitants of some 31 kingdoms) while pursuing his genocidal practices of ethnic cleansing
in the lands that orthodox Jews still regard as part of Greater Israel (see Josh., chapter 10 in particular).
These are just three out of hundreds of examples of God's violations of P1.
SEX SLAVERY
In violation of P2, after commanding soldiers to slaughter all the Midianite men, women, and young boys
without mercy, God permitted the soldiers to use the 32,000 surviving virgins for themselves. (Num.
31:17-18).
ENFORCED CANNIBALISM
In violation of P3, God repeatedly says he has caused, or will cause, people to cannibalize their own
children, husbands, wives, parents, and friends because they haven't obeyed him. (Lev. 26:29, Deut.
28:53-58, Jer. 19:9, Ezek. 5:10).
HUMAN SACRIFICE
In violation of P4, God condoned Jephthah's act in sacrificing his only child as a burnt offering to God
(Judg. 11:30-39).
ENDLESS TORTURE
Finally, in violation of P5, God's own sacrificial "Lamb," Jesus, will watch as he tortures most members
of the human race for ever and ever, mainly because they haven't believed in him. The book of Revelation
tells us that "everyone whose name has not been written from the foundation of the world in the book of
life of the Lamb who has been slain" (Rev. 13:8) will go to Hell where they "will be tormented with fire
and brimstone in the presence of the holy angels and in the presence of the Lamb; and the smoke of their
torment goes up forever and ever: and they have no rest day or night" (Rev. 14:10-11).
A LOGICAL QUANDARY FOR BIBLE-BELIEVING THEISTS
These--and countless other--passages from the Bible mean that theists are confronted with a logical
quandary which strikes at the very heart of their belief that the God of Scripture is holy. They cannot,
without contradiction, believe all four of the statements:
(1) Any act that God commits, causes, commands, or condones is morally permissible.
(2) The Bible reveals to us many of the acts that God commits, causes, commands, and condones.
(3) It is morally impermissible for anyone to commit, cause, command, or condone, acts that violate
our moral principles.
(4) The Bible tells us that God does in fact commit, cause, command, or condone, acts that violate
our moral principles.
AN INCONSISTENT QUADRUPLE
The trouble is that these statements form an inconsistent quadruple such that from any three one can
validly infer the falsity of the remaining one. Thus, one can coherently assert (1), (2), and (3) only at the
cost of giving up (4); assert (2), (3), and (4) only at the cost of giving up (1); and so on.
Anyone who knows the elements of logic will acknowledge the quandary that this inconsistent
quadruple puts in the way of the belief that God is the ground of morals. (Inconsistent quadruples are an
extension of the more well-known theory of antilogisms or inconsistent triads developed in the nineteenth
century by the remarkable American mathematician-logician, Christine Ladd-Franklin.)
The quandary for a theist is to decide which of these four statements to give up in order to preserve the
minimal requirement of truth and rationality, viz., logical consistency. After all, if a person has
contradictory beliefs then their beliefs can't all be true. And rational discussion with persons who
contradict themselves is impossible; if contradictions are allowed then anything goes.
TRYING TO ESCAPE FROM THE LOGICAL STRAIGHTJACKET
But which of the four statements will our theist deny?
To deny (1) would be to admit that God sometimes commits, causes, commands, or condones, acts that
are morally impermissible. But that would mean that God himself is immoral, or even, depending on the
enormity of his misdeeds, that he is evil. It would entail denying that he is holy and worthy of worship;
and denying, further, that his holiness is the ground of morality.
To deny (2), for the theist, would be to be to abandon the chief foundation of religious and moral
epistemology (ways of obtaining religious and moral knowledge). For if (2) were false, then the question
arises as to how we are supposed to know of God's existence let alone look to him for moral guidance.
After all, it is a distinguishing feature of theism, as opposed to deism, to hold that God reveals himself to
us and, from time to time, intervenes in human history. And the Bible, according to theists, is the principal
record of his revelatory interventions. If the Bible, with its stories of Moses and Jesus, is not his revealed
and presumptively true word, then how are we to know of him? If God doesn't reveal himself through the
Old Testament Moses and the New Testament Jesus, then through whom does he reveal himself? To be
sure, a theist could well claim that God also reveals himself through other channels in addition to the
Bible: reason, tradition, and religious experience all being cases in point. But to deny that the Bible is his
main mode of communication would be to deny that the principal figures in Judaism and Christianity can
really be known at all. Apart from the scriptural records, we would know little, if anything, of Moses or
Jesus, it being doubtful that secular history has anthing reliable to say about either. Apart from the
scriptural records we would know nothing of the so-called Ten Commandments that God supposedly
delivered to Moses, or of the ethical principles that Jesus supposedly delivered in his sermons and
parables.
To deny (3) would be to assert that it is morally permissible to violate our five moral principles. It
would be to ally oneself with moral monsters like Ghenghis Khan, Hitler, Stalin, and Pol Pot. It would be
to abandon all pretense to a belief in objective moral values. Indeed, if it were permissible to violate the
above principles, then it isn't easy to see what sorts of acts would not be permissible. The denial of (3),
then, would be tantamount to an embrace of moral nihilism. And no theist who believes in the Ten
Commandments or the Sermon on the Mount could assent to that.
That leaves only (4). But to deny (4) would be to fly in the face of facts ascertainable by anyone who
takes the care to read: objective facts about what the Bible actually says.
In what follows I will argue that both (3) and (4) are true, thereby confronting theists with the necessity
of abandoning either (1) or (2): the two principal foundations of theistic belief. My arguments will show
that if God were to exist then either he isn't holy and deserving of respect let alone worship, or the
Scriptures aren't his revealed word.
I shall, however, have to deal with the counter-arguments of those who defend God and the Scriptures
against criticisms like mine. Theistic apologists have two main strategies. One is to try to show, contrary
to (4), that the Bible either doesn't really say what I claim it says or that it doesn't mean what it says. This
tactic involves putting some sort of "spin" on the passages at issue so as to render them morally
innocuous. The other is to try to show, contrary to (3), that our moral principles are either inapplicable to
the situations described in (4) or that they admit of exceptions which would absolve God of violating
them.
I will deal with these two apologetic strategies as they arise in connection with my defense of the truth
of (4) and (3), in that order.
WHAT THE BIBLE ACTUALLY SAYS
RE SLAUGHTER OF INNOCENTS
First: consider the story, in Genesis chapters 6 and 7, of the Great Flood and Noah's Ark. It is sufficiently
well known not to need retelling in detail. Suffice it to say that because of the wickedness that God saw
on Earth, he resolved--in his own words--to "blot out man whom I have created from the face of the land,
from man to animals to creeping things and to birds of the sky" (Gen. 6:7). The sole human exceptions
were Noah and his family.
Second: consider the strange story of God commanding King David to take a census of his people. It is
strange for three reasons. As the story is narrated in Second Samuel, chapter 24, we are told that God
issued David with the command "Go, number Israel and Judah"; that after carrying out this command,
David comes to the strange conclusion that he had thereby "sinned greatly"; that God then offered David a
choice of three punishments: seven years of famine, three days plague, or three months of being pursued
by his enemies; that our noble king chose famine or plague for others rather than peril for himself; and that
God complied: "the Lord sent a pestilence upon Israel . . .; and seventy thousand men of the people from
Dan to Beersheba died." It is puzzling that a just God would want to punish David for obeying God's own
commands. It is more puzzling that a holy God would vent his wrath on persons other than the compliant
king by killing seventy thousand men (and unspecified numbers of women and children, who seem not to
count in most biblical narratives). It is even more puzzling that when the story is retold in First
Chronicles, chapter 21, we find that it was Satan, not the Lord, who incited David to take the census. The
inconsistency is bad enough since at least one of these stories must be false. It is worse that, on both
accounts, it is the Lord--not Satan--who kills those who had nothing to do with David's apparent sin.
Third, consider the case in which God commands Joshua to slaughter virtually every inhabitant of the
land of Canaan. The story commences in chapter 6 of the book of Joshua, telling how the hero and his
army conquer the ancient city of Jericho where they "utterly destroyed everything in the city, both man and
woman, young and old." Then, in chapters 7 through 12, it treats us to a chilling chronicle of the thirty one
kingdoms, and all the cities therein, that fell victim to God's, and Joshua's, genocidal policies. Time and
again we read the phrases "he utterly destroyed every person who was in it," "he left no survivor," and
"there was no one left who breathed." And by way of explanation of why only one of the indigenous
peoples made peace with the invaders, we are told "For it was of the Lord to harden their hearts, to meet
Israel in battle that he might utterly destroy them, that they might receive no mercy . . ." (Joshua 11:20).
The occasion for killing was contrived by God himself.
What is morally troubling about each of these three cases is that God is reported as having no
compunction about commanding the slaughter of persons who, in any ordinary sense of the words, are
"innocent of serious wrong-doing." After all, it is a matter of straightforward empirical fact that newly
born children, let alone those as yet unborn, don't have the capacity to do the kinds of things that warrant
punishments such as drowning, being put to the sword, ripped from their mothers' wombs (Hosea 13:16),
or of dying from a God-sent plague. Yet the Bible unabashedly reports that they, too, were among the
countless victims of God's acts or commands.
RE GIVING CAPTIVE VIRGINS TO THE TROOPS
The book of Numbers, chapter 31, commences with the Lord telling Moses, "take full vengeance for the
sons of Israel on the Midianites," then tells how--in obedience to God's order--twelve thousand warriors
first "killed every male" (verse 7), and "captured all the women of Midian and their little ones." (verse
9). But, we read,
“Moses was angry with the officers of the army . . . and said unto them, Have you spared all the
women? . . . Now therefore, kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman that hath known
man intimately. But all the girls who have not known man intimately, spare for yourselves.” (verses 15-
18).
Now it must be admitted that nowhere in this story of mayhem and slave-taking are we told explicitly
that the troops in the Lord's armies used the captured virgins for their own sexual pleasure. So it is not
surprising that some apologists seize upon this omission in order to argue that P2 wasn't violated after all.
One such apologist confidently claimed in God's defense that the soldiers took them only as "wives or
servants." After all, he reassured me, "the law of God was that anyone who had sexual relations outside
of heterosexual marriage was put to death" and that "any man who committed fornication . . . was forced
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to marry the woman and never divorce her."
But this won't wash. The Bible recounts numerous instances of so-called "men of God" who bedded the
unwedded (and sometimes the already wedded) with impunity from man and God alike. Examples include
Abraham's sexual encounters with his Egyptian slave-girl, Hagar; King David's adulterous liaison with
Bathsheba; and King Solomon, product of that liaison, and his 300 concubines.
Apologists are extraordinarily naive if they suppose that, of the twelve thousand soldiers, there weren't
any who took sexual advantage of the thirty two thousand virgins--more than two each--God gave them to
use "for themselves."
RE CAUSING PEOPLE TO CANNIBALIZE THEIR RELATIVES
There are at least five passages in which God tells his people that if they don't obey him they will be
punished by being reduced to such straights that they will cannibalize each other: sons, daughters,
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husbands, wives, fathers, mothers, and brothers, to say nothing of mere friends. The book of Jeremiah is
especially telling. There, in chapter 19, verse 9, the Lord himself claims direct responsibility for these
horrors when he says: "And I will make them eat the flesh of their sons and the flesh of their daughters . .
."
For these passages apologists have two main rationalizations to offer. One is that God is merely
threatening his chosen people with the fate that will befall them if they don't obey his commandments. A
second is that he is merely predicting the fates that will befall them in forthcoming sieges by their
enemies.
The problem with the threat-hypothesis is that, in each instance, the Children of Israel did not in fact
obey his commandments despite the threats. So, if God did not do what he threatened to do, his threats
were empty and he repeatedly failed to keep his word. And the problem with the prediction-hypothesis, is
that if things hadn't turned out as he predicted, then what he said would have been false. But in any case
neither explanation would help with the Jeremiah passage, in which God isn't merely predicting what the
Israelite's enemies will cause them to do, but is saying what he himself will cause them to do. There is no
gainsaying the fact that if God's word is true, then he caused others to violate P3.
RE CONDONING CHILD SACRIFICE
In the book of Judges, chapter 11, we are treated to a cautionary tale about a rash vow and its
consequences. Jephthah, we are told, was a mighty man who was used by God to carry on in Joshua's
tradition by cleansing the land of another ethnically different people, the sons of Ammon. We read that
Jephthah,
“made a vow to the Lord, and said, If thou wilt indeed give the sons of Ammon into my hand, then it
shall be that whatever comes out of the doors of my house to meet me when I return in peace from the sons
of Ammon, it shall be the Lord's, and I will offer it up as a burnt offering.”
The Lord, it seems, found this perfectly acceptable. He kept his part of the bargain by delivering the
Ammonites and their twenty cities "with a very great slaughter" into Jephthah's hands. Then came
Jephthah's turn to keep his part of the bargain. But sadly it was his daughter who came out of the house to
greet him. Jephthah realized that he nevertheless had to keep faith with God. Thus we read: "And it came
to pass at the end of two months that she returned unto her father, who did to her according to the vow
which he had made . . ." In other words, Jephthah kept his vow by offering up his beloved daughter as a
burnt sacrifice to his cruel and unrelenting Lord. Thus did Jephthah earn himself an honorable mention in
the Epistle to the Hebrews where he is listed along with fifteen or so other men of "great faith" such as
Noah, Abraham, Moses, Samson, David, and Samuel.
The best spin that can be put on this horrifying story is that it is a sort of Aesop's fable, a man-made tale
told with a view of teaching us a lesson about the need for forethought before undertaking commitments to
others, especially to a deity. Such a gloss, however, can hardly be acceptable to a Bible-believing theist.
And in any case, we shouldn't really be surprised at the Lord's acceptance of Jephthah's sacrifice. After
all, God himself--Christians believe--offered his own son Jesus as a blood-sacrifice for the mistakes of
mankind.
RE THE ETERNAL TORTURE OF NONBELIEVERS
The fate of Jephthah's daughter pales into insignificance when compared with that which the Christian
God has in store for sincere atheists like me; and not only for atheists, but for all those who fail to accept
Jesus Christ as their savior. Jesus, who has the dubious distinction of having invented the doctrine of hell-
fire and damnation, describes their fate vividly. In the Gospel of Matthew alone he characterizes it in
terms which evangelists adore: "unquenchable fire," "fiery hell" (twice), "torment," "burned with fire,"
"furnace of fire" (twice), "weeping and gnashing of teeth" (five times), "eternal fire," and "eternal fire
which has been prepared for the devil and his angels."
Assuming that Jesus knew how to say what he meant, the fate of unbelievers is clear. It isn't a clean
dispatch into oblivion. It isn't merely--as some apologists claim--the anguish of a soul who is separated
from God. It is the torment and agony of a resurrected body, torture differing from that experienced by
victims of the Inquisition only in the fact that it lasts not just for minutes but for all eternity. Unlike
Auschwitz, Hell offers no finality to those of us who are to fill its ovens. No one will escape its horrors,
and its tortures--to be performed before divine spectators--will continue without end. (Revelation 14:10-
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11)
Were this fiery fate to be reserved for unrepentant mass murderers and the other perpetrators of evil
who have blighted human history, such a violation of P5 would be bad enough. But Revelation 13:8
predicts this fate will befall "everyone whose name has not been written from the foundation of the world
in the book of life of the Lamb . . .." And Revelation 20:15 confirms the prediction when it tells us that "if
anyone's name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire."
Who are they who have thus been preordained to eternal damnation? They are all those who--as
evangelicals like to put it--aren't "born again" Christians. According to Luke, the reputed author of The
Acts, "there is salvation in no one else; for there is no other name under heaven that has been given among
men, by which we must be saved." (Acts 4:12). And St. Paul makes it clearer still when he tells us
“The Lord Jesus Christ shall be revealed from heaven with his mighty angels in flaming fire, dealing
out retribution to those who do not know God (my emphasis) and to those who do not obey the Gospel of
our Lord Jesus Christ. And these will pay the penalty of eternal destruction” (II Thess. 1:7-9).
At this point, it may occur to some of us that since it is a necessary condition of believing in the name
of Jesus that you've both heard the name and understood its significance, no one can be saved from hell if
they haven't heard the gospel. Therein, of course, lies the motivation of missionaries. But what of those
who have lived in times or places in which the name of Jesus is unknown? Are all those who lived prior
to the time of Christ already condemned? How about those who have lived, or still live, in ignorance of
the Christian story? Are they--the majority of the human race--condemned for a lack of belief which, for
historical or geographical reasons, they are debarred from having?
This harsh conclusion is what the Bible implies. Certainly, Jesus himself seems to have accepted it
with equanimity: "The gate (to salvation)," he said, "is narrow and the way is hard . . . and those who find
it are few." (Matt. 7:13-14). The exclusion of most human beings--no matter how saintly their lives--for
the sole reason that they don't believe in Jesus as Savior, is a consequence of the fact that most of the
people who have populated the earth down to the present haven't even heard of him. If we are to take
Jesus himself seriously, little comfort can be found in a suggestion by St. Paul that some might find
salvation as a result of so-called general revelation. As one of the ablest Christian apologists, William L.
Craig, acknowledges, such exceptions to the rule of "salvation through no other name" can at best be rare.
This is why Craig makes no pretense of the fact that on his view, and that of Jesus, even the sincerest
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believers of other world religions are "lost and dying without Christ."
However, all this talk of the numbers of persons who will be tortured in hell is beside the point. So is
the question whether hell's torments are finite or infinite in duration. If there is even one person who
suffers the tortures of the damned, then the moral principle we have enshrined as P5 is thereby violated by
God himself.
And by virtue of God's violating it--along with our other moral principles--his supposed holiness is
clearly compromised. Just as it would be incoherent to say that Hitler was morally perfect, despite the
fact that he sent people to the gas chambers for the "sin" of lacking the right parentage, so it would be
incoherent to suppose that God is morally perfect, despite the fact that he will send people to roast in hell
for the "sin" of lacking the right beliefs. On the contrary, anyone who is guilty of such atrocities is, not to
mince words, simply evil. Little wonder, then, that God says of himself not only "I make peace" but also
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"I create evil" (Is. 45:7).
COMPARING GOD WITH SATAN
It is worth noting that, compared with God, Satan is depicted throughout the Bible as a relative paragon of
virtue. Satan is guilty of just three main misdemeanors.
First, according to a passage that sets the moral tone of the Bible, Satan--in the guise of a serpent--
tempts Eve with the forbidden fruit of moral enlightenment, fruit from what is described as "the tree of
knowledge of good and evil" (Genesis 2:9). One might have thought it a good thing for Satan thus to start
her on the path to moral education. But God didn't want her eyes to be "opened," as Genesis 3:5 puts it; he
wanted blind obedience. And so God responds in typical fashion. Not only does he punish Eve, for an act
that she didn't know was wrong until after she'd performed it. He also punishes Adam, and all their
descendants, including you and me. He imposes on us all the burden of what theologians call Original Sin:
he sees to it that none of us can start life with a clean slate.
Satan appears next in First Chronicles where he plays the very same role that was assigned to God in
Second Samuel. So wherein lies his wrong this time? If it is good enough for God to order David's
census-taking, can it be evil for Satan to do so?
Satan's third appearance is in the book of Job where he makes life difficult for God's protégé, Job. But
that, it should be noted, is only because God had issued him a challenge to do so. Thereafter, Satan does
almost nothing of a dubious nature except for tempting God himself in the person of Jesus during his forty
days in the desert, an exercise doomed to futility.
What is remarkable, in light of the bad press Satan has subsequently suffered, is that Satan, unlike God,
doesn't violate a single one of the important moral principles P1 through P5.
TRYING TO ABSOLVE GOD OF GUILT
The second apologetic strategy is to argue that our principles admit of exceptions which, when they are
taken into account, absolve God of guilt.
Chief among the apologetic ploys in this category is what I shall call the Sovereignty Exception. In the
words of one apologist, it holds that "God is sovereign over life" and he can therefore do with us as he
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likes "according to his will." But this argument contains a fatal equivocation on the word "can." It is
trivially true that if God is--as theists believe--sovereignly omnipotent, then he "can" do whatever he
wants in the sense of having the power or might to do so. But might, we reflect, doesn't confer right. It
certainly doesn't follow that God "can" violate moral principles in the sense of its being morally
permissible or right for him to do so. If it did, the moral monsters of human history who reigned as
sovereigns over their empires would equally be innocent of wrongdoing.
A second tactic is to argue that God is exempt from the prohibitions of our principles. It might be said
that although these are binding on humans, they are not binding on God. This is the tack taken by William
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L. Craig, most recently in a debate with Bill Cooke. God, he said, imposes moral obligations on us but is
not Himself subject to them. The problem with that defense is obvious: it makes a mockery of the claim
that moral principles are absolute. It involves a double standard and so compromises the universality of
moral principles. It relativizes morality to individuals or times and deprives them of the absolute and
objective validity that theists are committed to. Worse still, for the theist's case, it calls God's holiness
into question. For holy is as holy does. That is to say, if anyone at all is properly to be described as
morally perfect, then their acts of commission, of command, and of permission, must also be morally
perfect. To say that God is holy despite the evil nature of what he does would be to play with words: it
would be to deprive the word "holy" of its ordinary meaning and make it a synonym for "evil." It would
be to play Humpty Dumpty with words.
A third ploy is to argue that in all the cases we have considered, God is acting in accordance with what
some hold to be the overriding moral principle that sin must be punished. For from this, together with the
theological doctrine of Original Sin--the doctrine that every human being, even the newly conceived fetus
in its mother's womb, inherits sin or at least the disposition to sin from Eve--it follows that God has the
right, not just the might, to punish us as he sees fit. As one apologist put it: "Since the wages of sin is
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death, God has the right to give and take life." Leave aside the questionable presuppositions of this
doctrine: that sin is inherited through our bodily genes or via the makeup of our supposed souls, and that
we can justly be held responsible for inherited or unactualized dispositions to sin.
There is a more important objection to this whole apologetic claim. For suppose we grant the
implausible claim that it is by virtue of a universal lack of human innocence that God is to be excused for
his genocidal practices. Then we shall have to say that there are no circumstances whatever, not even
innocence of the victims, in which it is morally wrong to slaughter men, women, and children. We would
have to abandon P1 as a universal moral truth since it would be totally vacuous, lacking any application
whatever. And that would give us, like God, a license to mercilessly slaughter anyone we liked. All we
need to do is to invoke the Punishment for Original Sin Exception. After all, unless we are to adopt the
relativism of a double standard, if it is good enough for God it must be good enough for us.
If even one of the above exceptions to our principles were sound, those principles would not be moral
truths but moral falsehoods. At best, they would merely state prima facie moral prohibitions, prohibitions
which would--in order to make them objectively binding--have to be qualified in ways that would give a
license to some of the most morally abhorrent behavior of which any person could be guilty. In short, if
reformulated to accommodate God, they would accommodate the Devil and other personifications of evil
as well.
CONSEQUENCES FOR THEISM
At this point let us return to the inconsistent quadruple which I said posed such problems for theistic
belief. I have demonstrated, first, that (4) is true, i.e., that the Bible does indeed tell us that God violates
our moral principles; and second, that (3) is true, i.e., that it is morally impermissible for anyone-
including God--to violate these principles. But if I am right, then theists have no way out of their logical
quandary that doesn't destroy the very core of theistic belief.
They have a choice. They must, on pain of contradiction, abandon at least one, if not both, of (1), the
belief that all of God's acts are morally permissible, or (2), the belief that the Bible reveals to us what
many of these acts are. Yet, as we have seen, if they abandon (1), they therewith abandon the belief in
God's holiness; while if they abandon (2), they therewith abandon the belief in the Bible as his revelation.
Here I rest my case against biblical theism: my moral argument for biblical atheism.
THE FALSITY OF THEISTIC ETHICS
Before concluding, however, I want to draw attention to a corollary of my argument. Consider, once more,
the inconsistent quadruple by which the whole edifice of theism is brought to ruin. But this time replace
statements (1), (2), (3), and (4) of the original inconsistent quadruple with their respective corollaries:
(1)* Any act that God commands us to perform is morally permissible.
(2)* The Bible reveals to us many of the acts that God commands us to perform.
(3)* It is morally impermissible for anyone to commit acts that violate principle P1.
(4)* The Bible tells us that God commands us to perform acts that violate moral principle P1.
Then a parallel logical quandary arises for the theist's belief that God, as revealed in the Bible,
is the source of objective morality or, at the very least, is a reliable guide to what we should and should
not do. But rather than run the argument through again, I will present this additional indictment of theistic
belief by first quoting the Bible and then addressing a series of questions to those who, like philosopher
Alvin Plantinga, claim that "what (the Lord) proposes for our belief is what we ought to believe." For it
should be evident that, if Plantinga and other biblical theists are right then since the beliefs that the Lord
proposes include ones about what we ought to do, if the Lord proposes that we should do so and so then
so and so is what we ought to do.
A PERSONAL CHALLENGE TO BIBLICAL THEISTS
Consider First Samuel 15:3 in which the Lord commands his people:
Now go and strike Amalek and utterly destroy all that he has, and do not spare him: but put to death
both man and woman, child and infant.
Now ask yourself three questions:
(i) Was "put to death both man and woman, child and Infant" the very word of the Lord whom you
believe and worship?
(ii) Is it conceivable that your Lord could again issue the same command in our time?
(iii) If you did believe you were so commanded by your Lord, could you and would you obey?
If you answer "No" to question (i), you deny the authority of God's so-called word, the Bible. If you
answer "No" to question (ii) (perhaps because you think your Lord might have mended his ways), then
you deny that God's commands have the kind of universal applicability which is a necessary condition of
their being in accord with, let alone the source of, moral truths. If you answer "No" to question (iii), you
must think that it is sometimes right, or even obligatory, to disobey God. You thereby admit that moral
truths are independent of, and may even conflict with, God's dictates. You admit that, as most
philosophers since Socrates have long insisted, ethics is autonomous; and that we must, therefore, do our
moral thinking for ourselves.
But if you answer "Yes" to each question, then I submit that your belief in the God of biblical theism is
not just mistaken but morally abhorrent. For, in the words of my friend, John Patrick, who resigned from
the Presbyterian ministry in New Zealand after he discovered how many of his parishioners also
answered "Yes" to all three questions:
“A doctrine of the Scriptures as containing the Word of God, the supreme ruler of faith and duty, has the
power to turn otherwise gentle, thoughtful, and basically loving people into a group prepared to sanction
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genocide in the name of the Lord they worship.”
A so-called morality that is based on obedience to the commands of a deity is a slave morality, a sham
morality. Genuine morality, I believe, must incorporate the twins sentiments--ones that most humans share
with their closest primate cousins as well as many other animal species--of empathy and compassion. The
command-morality of theistic ethics incorporates neither.
6
THE LOGIC OF HELL AND DAMNATION
ANOTHER LOGICAL QUANDARY
Suppose that you, the reader of these words, could, at the time of your death, leave your mortal coil
behind. Where do you think you—your essential self, soul, or spirit—would go? Try to imagine it in
concrete detail. How fast would you travel and by what means of propulsion? In which direction would
you go and how far? How do you think of your ultimate destination? As some vaguely conceived “Other
Side” from which you could make guest appearances at the behest of earthly mediums? Would you fancy
hanging around in dark alleys or haunted houses? Or taking up habitation in another human body: an
embryo perhaps? Or would residence in some other animal content you, a monkey or a cow or an
earthworm? Would it leave Earth altogether and drift off into outer space to take up residence, perhaps, on
a distant planet in the Pleiades? Would it go off to a totally different kind of realm, a non-physical,
immaterial, spiritual one? Do you conceive of yourself—your true Self, that is—as being destined for an
eternity in Heaven or Hell?
If you think these questions sound like stuff and nonsense, I'm not surprised.
Yet billions upon billions--those who think an afterlife awaits them somewhere or other--take these
questions seriously. And none take them more seriously than believers in Christianity and Islam. They take
them, especially the last one about Heaven and Hell, very VERY seriously.
In what follows I'm going to ignore what Muslims believe about Hell. I'm going to concentrate wholly
on what Christians believe; or should believe if they subscribe to the core doctrines of their faith. And I'm
not just talking about what contemporary Christians believe about their potential fates in an afterlife. I'm
talking about what Christians have believed for the best part of two millennia: the huge slice of history
during which the Roman church, and more recently various Protestant sects, dominated the mind-sets of
people in Western Europe. The sense of dread associated with questions about where they would spend
all eternity dominated the thinking of both the learned and those (the majority) who were illiterate. They
were indeed the Dark Ages.
THE FOURTH FACE OF GOD’S EVIL
Much has been written about the problems of Natural Evil, Moral Evil, and Biblical Evil (the evils the
biblical God describes himself as having performed). Is the existence of these evils logically compatible
with the existence of a perfectly good, all-powerful, and all-knowing God (a so-called Omni-God)? I
think not, and have sketched my reasons in Chapters 1 and 3, and (more expansively) in 5. But the
problems posed by the evils of Hell and damnation are much graver than these three. They strike at the
very heart of Christian belief. For, as the doyen of Christian philosophers, Alvin Plantinga, explains it, the
Christian belief system is characterized by two absolutely essential doctrines: (a) that an Omni-God
exists, and (b) that we can be saved from a fate worse than death, viz. an eternity in Hell, only by
accepting the saving grace of God's son Jesus. Belief in the existence of Hell, in short, is a corollary of
the all-important doctrine of Salvation. Give up the latter doctrine and you might as well be a Jew, a
Muslim, or for that matter, a Deist. Yet these two essential Christian doctrines--I shall now argue--are
inconsistent with one another. This means that belief in the Christian God (one who is perfectly good yet
tortures unbelievers in Hell) is internally inconsistent, i.e., self-contradictory. And that means, in turn, that
the Christian God is not just one of those infinitely many creator gods whose existence, though logically
possible, is maximally improbable. Rather, his existence can be ruled out as conceptually incoherent, i.e.,
not just improbable but logically impossible. That, in brief, is what I shall now argue.
TREATING THE PROBLEM SERIOUSLY
The question "Can God send one to Hell?" rests on a number of metaphysical presuppositions. It
presupposes that there is in fact a spiritual realm containing such entities as God, the souls of the departed
and unearthly places like Heaven and Hell.
Perhaps, like me, you regard these presuppositions as highly dubious, even demonstrably false.

You may, for instance, have concluded that there's no empirical or rational evidence for the existence
of any sort of creator god, even a deist one, let alone God of the kind that is believed in by Jews,
Christians, and Muslims. You may even subscribe to the view that belief in any god whatever is
totally unwarranted.
You may have come to the conclusion that belief in an afterlife is the product of wishful thinking. Or
you may even agree with me that--as I'll argue in Chapter 7--the very idea of one's soul, spirit, mind,
or consciousness continuing to exist independently of the body of the person who once had it, makes
no more sense than does Lewis Carroll's fanciful notion of the Cheshire Cat's grin continuing to exist
after its bearer had totally faded away. In short, you may believe that the very idea of an afterlife is
conceptually confused.
And you may regard the very ideas of Heaven and Hell as the stuff of fanciful dreams and fearful
nightmares, respectively. Nothing more.

Nevertheless you don't have to accept any of these metaphysical presuppositions in order to engage in
some serious thinking about the question itself. For the question, as I shall treat it, is a logical one. It is a
question about whether there is or is not a logical inconsistency involved in the notion of God sending the
souls of people to Hell. And that can be discussed whether or not there are such things as gods, or souls,
or places like Hell.
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Alvin Plantinga has summarised the central articles of Christian faith in two sentences:
(1) The world was created by God, an almighty, all-knowing, and perfectly good personal being (one
that holds beliefs; has aims, plans, and intentions; and can act to accomplish those aims).
(2) Human beings require salvation, and God has provided a unique way of salvation through
the incarnation, life, sacrificial death, and resurrection of his divine son.
Statement (1) states his commitment to the notion of the Theist's Omni-God, while statement (2) states
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his commitment to the distinctively Christian doctrine of Salvation.
On the face of it, these two are consistent. In fact, one might even think that statement (2) just shows
how wonderfully good God is. But (2) has a corollary. It presupposes that there is something that human
beings require salvation from, viz., Hell, as that is conceived in the New Testament. It presupposes,
(3) Human beings who are not "saved" in the only possible way offered by God, viz., belief in
the "saving grace" of his divine son, will spend eternity, not in Heaven but in Hell.
The question before us, then, is about the relation between (1) and (3). Are they logically compatible?
It is sufficient that you treat the question as presenting an intellectual puzzle, one that challenges
believers and non-believers alike to solve within the constraints set by standard Theist doctrines. If you
can provide a satisfactory solution, then you will have shown that these essentials of the Christian belief-
system are at least coherent. Even if you yourself don't subscribe to them, you can conclude that others--
however mistaken you may think them on other grounds--are at least not being irrational in doing so. But if
you can't find a way out of the puzzle, then you're entitled to conclude that the Christian belief-system is
logically incoherent and hardly worth another thought. Indeed--as I will argue in the final section--you're
logically obliged to give up either belief in Omni-God, or belief in Hell, if not both.
One final point of preliminary clarification. I've said I intend to construe the question as one about
logical consistency. The "can" is a logical "can", not a psychological "can". That is to say, the question is
to mean, "Is it possible, without contradiction, to believe in God's being perfect at the same time as one
believes God will send the majority of the human race people to suffer eternal torment in Hell?" It does
not mean, "Is it psychologically possible to subscribe to both of these beliefs?" No doubt there are many
intelligent thinkers who do in fact believe in both. I shall take up the cudgels against one of them, William
Lane Craig, a little later on, in a resumption of the dispute we had on this very issue back in 1994. I shall
try to show that in holding to both beliefs he is committing himself to contradiction. From the fact that a
person happens to hold two or more beliefs concurrently it does not follow that those beliefs are logically
consistent.
First, however, let's get clear about the reference of the terms "God" and "Hell" as they feature in our
question.
THE NATURE OF OMNI-GOD
The God we're talking about isn't just any old god to be picked at random from the 500 or so named ones
that billions of humans have worshipped, and usually feared. He isn't some sort of deistic god who's
supposed by some to have created the universe and then left it to its own devices. He's the Omni-God
whom theist theologians and philosophers define as being omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent
(morally perfect).
In ascribing these three essential properties to this God we are saying that he is a divine person who
has human-like, but supernatural, attributes: he has the power to do all things, the ability to know all
things, and is the perfection of moral goodness.
GOD'S OMNIPOTENCE
According to the standard definition of omnipotence, as formulated by the German polymath Gottfried
Leibniz (1646-1716), to say that God is omnipotent is to say he can do anything he wants to do, his power
being limited only by the laws of logic. As the above-mentioned contemporary philosopher of religion,
Alvin Plantinga, says:
"The theist says that God is omnipotent--which means, roughly, that there are no non-logical limits to
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his power."
On this account, the fact that God can't lift something that is too heavy for him to lift doesn't
compromise his omnipotence in any way, for that task is logically impossible. But any state of affairs in
the conception of which no contradiction is involved, is--by definition--one that he can bring about.
By virtue of his omnipotence he has the ability, for instance, to create something out of nothing: to
create a world ex nihilo. This is something he is supposed to have done at the moment of creation. Hence
his postulated role as creator of the whole cosmos, the whole of the actual world in which we find
ourselves. Not only that. His power to create is not limited to creation of the physical cosmos. For the
actual world, as Theists conceive it, includes the supernatural worlds of both Heaven and Hell, together
with the inhabitants of both.
By virtue of his omnipotence he also creates the laws of nature while retaining the power to interfere
with them any time he chooses, by performing so-called miracles. He can if he so chooses prevent
diseases and natural disasters from occurring. He can prevent human-caused evils from occurring by
striking would-be evil-doers dead or ensuring that there's always a slip between evil intent and evil
execution. Hence the question: Why doesn't he?
He can also intervene when he wants to by revealing himself to us through prophets like Moses and his
son, Jesus; by inspiring men of God to write the Holy Scriptures as a record of his transactions with us;
and in such little acts as answering the prayers of the faithful. Some would even add that he still
communicates with believers through the Holy Ghost. In all these ways, he is supposed to exercise his
omnipotence by giving us glimpses of a domain beyond the natural: the supernatural domain that awaits us
after death.
God's ability to create worlds is not limited to creating the actual world. There are countless other
logically possible worlds that he could have created: countless other worlds that it was logically possible
for him to bring into existence or actualize instead of our one.
Among these other logically possible worlds are ones that operate according to very different laws of
nature and different initial set-ups from those that govern our own: different physical laws, different
chemical laws, different biological laws, for instance; or even no such laws at all. And among these other
logically possible worlds there are ones that we conceive of as being much better than our own.
On the face of it, God needn’t have created a world characterized by what philosophers call moral and
natural evils: the moral evils of persecution, war, and torture, for instance, brought about by humans; or
the natural evils of disease and disaster brought about by nature. He could have created a better one by
far: the kind of world that many pray for, hope for, and wish for; the kind of world that some men and
women devote their lives to trying to bring about. He could have created the perfect world that is
supposed to constitute Heaven. God, being omnipotent, could have done that right at the outset when
reviewing all the logical possibilities available to him.
So why didn't this omnipotent God create one of these other, better, worlds? It makes no sense to say, as
did Leibniz, that this world, our world, is the "best of all possible worlds." For clearly it isn't. If it were
then our efforts to make the actual world better than it is, at any particular time, would have to be as
logically absurd as the efforts by some mathematicians, prior to Euclid, to find the greatest prime number.
But our efforts clearly can and do often succeed, whereas the effort to find a greatest prime number never
will. Hence Voltaire's lampooning of Leibniz's idea in his satirical novella, Candide.
This brings us back to the question: Why didn't God create a better world: some kind of heavenly
world, for instance, such as Heaven itself is supposed to be? More particularly, why didn't he plan such a
world for all his creatures, instead of creating the actual world, one that--as theists conceive it--includes
the very worst possible fate for many of us, viz., Hell?
GOD'S OMNISCIENCE
It makes no sense to suppose that at the moment when he chose our world, the actual world, to create he
didn’t know what he was getting into and didn’t know the consequences of his creative act. For the
theist’s God, remember, is omniscient. He knows all that it is possible to know. This means that he knows
all truths, not just about the past and the present, but about the future, too. His being omniscient entails
(logically implies) that he knows what every individual's future will be: how each person will interpret
his Holy Scriptures and other revelations, for instance, and whether any given individual's name has--as
he puts it--been written from the beginning in the Book of Life so as to ensure a hereafter in Heaven, or if
that individual's name is excluded from the Book of Life, damned to spend eternity in Hell.
God even knows all those truths that some philosophers call “counterfactuals” (more accurately,
subjunctive conditionals): truths about what would be the case were something to occur, even if it doesn't
in fact occur. So he must have known that the world he was creating would be the one we find it to be: a
world of disease, disaster, death, pain, and suffering; a world whose evils are in no way offset by the
good things of life. And if the doctrine of Hell-fire were true, he would know which individuals are
destined to endure post-mortem suffering in Hell, not just for a while, but--as we shall see--"eternally."
GOD'S OMNI-BENEVOLENCE (MORAL PERFECTION)
God's being morally perfect entails he is the sort of being who exemplifies all moral virtues par
excellence: that he would do nothing deserving moral censure but does only what merits our thanks,
praise, and worship. As Plantinga insists, God is a "personal being" with "aims, plans and intentions, and
can act to accomplish those aims." His being morally perfect entails that he is morally responsible for his
acts. It entails, too, that he would not commit any of the crimes we call Crimes against Humanity, or War
Crimes in the same sort of way as the moral monsters of human history have done and continue to do. For
were he to do so, he just wouldn't be morally perfect. In short, the theist's God does nothing that is
morally wrong. By virtue of his moral perfection, he stands in stark contrast to the evil men of history; in
stark contrast, too, to the evil gods that are supposed to populate the supernatural worlds of the heathen:
gods who demanded human sacrifice, for instance.
Omnipotence, omniscience and moral perfection are intrinsic properties of the theist God: properties
that God is said to possess independently of any of his creatures. But he also is said to have certain
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relational properties: dispositional properties that he has by virtue of his relationships to us, his
creatures. These relational properties, stemming from God's moral perfection, include his justice,
righteousness, mercy, love and compassion.
Consider now the statement that God is morally perfect, putting emphasis on the notion of perfection,
and on the fact that a being whose moral qualities could conceivably be improved on, just wouldn't be a
"perfect" being. Then if a being were to be unjust, he wouldn't be perfectly good. Ditto for the other
relational properties of righteousness (always doing what is right), mercy (forgiveness), love, and
compassion. A God who didn't always do what was right, who wasn't prepared to forgive, or who didn't
show love and compassion, just wouldn't meet the standard of moral perfection. For a being who
conceivably did have all these virtues would be better.
THE NATURE OF HELL
"The palm for malignity must be granted to Jesus, the inventor of Hell." So wrote Mark Twain in his
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posthumously published Letters from the Earth.
Twain was exaggerating. But only a bit. The Christian Hell isn't just any old Hell. It isn't the Hell of the
Greeks, the Hindus, or other nonbiblical religions. It isn't identical with the Hell (Sheol or Gehanna) of
the Old Testament Israelites. All their Hells were tame in comparison with the Hell that God himself
revealed to us after he'd taken on flesh in the person of Jesus, or--more accurately--in the stories the New
Testament tells about his son, Jesus the Christ.
WHAT'S HELL LIKE?
As to the concept of Hell, I shall take the authority of the New Testament figure of Jesus as to what it's
like. After all, if Jesus--as the incarnation of an omniscient God--didn't know, then no-one did or does.
So let's take God, in the person of Jesus, at his word. His descriptions of Hell and its inhabitants
include, often repeatedly, phrases like:
"cast into the fire" (Matt. 7:19), "burned with fire" (Matt. 13:40), "everlasting fire" (Matt. 18:8), "the
eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels" (Matt. 25:41), "unquenchable fire" (Matt. 3:12), "fire
unquenchable" (Luke 3:17), "eternal damnation" (Mark 3:29), "Hell fire" (Matt. 5:22), "furnace of fire"
(Matt. 13:42), "the fire that never shall be quenched" (Mark 9:43), "the fire is not quenched" (Mark 9:44),
"wailing and gnashing of teeth" (Matt. 13:42), "torments" (Luke 16:23), "tormented in this flame" (Luke
16:24), "place of torment" (Luke 16:28), "everlasting punishment" (Matt. 25:48).
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According to one purported authority , there are over 162 references to Hell in the New Testament and
over 70 of these are attributed to Jesus.
Each of these descriptions, and many more, seems calculated to scare the b'Jesus out of the kids. And to
generate fear and trembling in all those billions of believers over the past 2,000 or so years who have
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taken him at his word. Belief in the truth of these passages--liberally distributed across all three of the
synoptic gospels--have led countless Christians to torture themselves and others in their lives here on
Earth lest they should suffer, in the afterlife, from the fate Jesus prescribes for those to whom he doesn't
grant the gift of salvation.
In one of his best-known parables, Jesus foretells the role he himself will play in what evangelicals
call "the end times":
“Just as the tares are gathered up and burned with fire, so it shall be at the end of the age. The Son of
Man [Jesus himself] will send forth his angels, and they will gather out of his kingdom all stumbling
blocks, and those who commit lawlessness, and will cast them into the furnace of fire; in that place there
will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” (Matt. 13:40)
Jesus had more to say about the horrors of Hell-fire than about any other topic, even Heaven. Indeed he
seems to have had a fixation about it. For, as the gospel of Mark reports, Jesus warned his hearers:

And if thy hand offend thee, cut it off: it is better for thee to enter into life maimed, than having two
hands to go to Hell, into the fire that shall never be quenched (9:43)
And if thy foot offend thee, cut it off: it is better for thee to enter halt into life, than having two feet to
be cast into Hell, into the fire that shall never be quenched ((9:45)
And if thine eye offend thee, pluck it out: it is better for thee to enter into the kingdom of Heaven with
one eye, than having two eyes to be cast into Hell fire (9:47).

What should Christians say about such passages? They are faced with a devastating trilemma.
To renounce them as untrue because they're so manifestly malevolent would be to suppose that Jesus was
either mistaken or misreported. But if Jesus was mistaken, he can't be divine. And if Jesus was
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misreported, the Bible can't be the true word of God. A non-believer, of course, has the option of
dismissing the Bible, and all this Hell stuff, as mere fiction and fable. But a believer has no option but to
accept the doctrine of Hellfire in all its gruesome moral obscenity.
WHO SUFFERS IN THE FIRES OF HELL?
The answer is simple: all those who aren't saved.
But what determines whether you are saved or not? Once more the answer is simple: you'll be saved if,
and only if, you believe in Jesus Christ as your personal saviour. Doing so, as Plantinga points out, is the
"unique" path to being saved: i.e., saved from an eternity in Hell.
Plantinga is right about this. He is simply echoing the author of Acts of the Apostles (4:12), who insists
that we can be saved from Hell "through no other name" than that of Jesus. Again, this view of the
exclusivity of salvation is endorsed by the author of 2 Thessalonians (1:8) who writes about Jesus himself
"In flaming fire taking vengeance on them that know not God [my italics], and that obey not the gospel of
our Lord Jesus Christ."
Even more disturbingly, the New Testament is clear that the majority of the human race is predestined
to an eternity in Hell, not Heaven. This is not just a logical consequence of the fact that, as a matter of
fact, most people through history have not even heard of, let alone believed in, the saving grace of Jesus;
or of the fact that many, like me, who have heard but simply cannot bring themselves to believe. It is a
consequence of Jesus's own pronouncements. As he warned, "Small is the gate and narrow the road that
leads to [salvation] and few find it." (Matthew 7:14). And again, "For many are called, but few are
chosen." (Matthew 22:14).
The doctrine of Hell is the flip side of the doctrine of Salvation: those who believe in Jesus and his
saving grace will be saved from Hell to spend eternity in Heaven, whereas those who don't believe will
be damned to spend eternity in Hell. Without the existence of Hell, the doctrine of Salvation would be a
fraud.
This divinely sanctioned concept of Hell is epitomized in the last chapter of the Bible, the Book of
Revelation. There it is described as a fiery place where all those whose names haven't been "written in
the Book of Life...from the beginning of the world" (Rev. 13:8) will be "tormented with burning sulphur in
the presence of the holy angels and of the Lamb. And the smoke of their torment rises for ever and ever.
There is no rest day or night . . . " (Rev. 14:10-11). In these two passages, the fate of those who have been
predestined to damnation is depicted in all its gruesomeness with Jesus himself (the so-called "Lamb") as
divine observer.
IS THE NOTION OF GOD SENDING PEOPLE TO HELL LOGICALLY COHERENT?
Even those who are logically untutored usually sense that the answer is NO. Especially when they think
through its obvious consequences. Like one of my brothers, a Baptist who can't bring himself to believe
that the God in whom he believes would commit people--especially his beloved older brother--to suffer
eternally while he, as a true believer, spends eternity in Heaven. And like various Christian apologists,
such as William L. Craig, who feel compelled to describe Hell in terms of mere "exclusion from God's
glory" or something like that, not in terms of a "fiery place of torment." It is, I suspect, to this intuition of
inconsistency that we can trace various deviant doctrines such as that of Universalism (the belief that
ultimately everyone will be saved) and Annihilationism (the belief that God will annihilate people rather
than send them to a Hell of eternal suffering). Universalists and Annihilationists simply refuse to believe
that Jesus meant what he said about the nature of Hell.
But precisely where lies the conflict?
Not with the idea of God's omnipotence alone. Nor with the idea of God's omniscience alone. Not even
from the conjunction of these two. It would be perfectly coherent to conceive of a god who was both
omnipotent and omniscient, and who was thoroughly evil. We can imagine many possible gods being just
like that. The creation of Hell is precisely the sort of thing we would expect of such a being.
Obviously, it's the idea of God's moral perfection that's compromised. And it's easy to see why. For as
we've already seen, the concept of omnibenevolence or perfect goodness entails, among other things,
being perfectly righteous and just, completely merciful, incomparably loving, and totally compassionate.
And a being who deliberately brought into existence creatures whom he designated to be tortured by fire,
let alone eternally, can't rationally be said to possess any of these attributes.
THE IDEA OF SUPER-SATAN
Just to ram the point home, let's imagine a supernatural being who is the very embodiment of evil. In the
Bible, he's called Satan. Now Satan is bad enough. He is supposed to be the source of all evil. But the
biblical Satan isn't omnipotent or omniscient. So let's imagine a sort of upgraded Satan, one who in
addition to being the source of all evil, is also omnipotent and omniscient. Call him Super-Satan. And
let's ascribe the creation and sustenance of Hell to Super-Satan. Then our problem comes into sharp
focus. For in his acts Omni-God differs, in no significant way, from our postulated Super-Satan. He is as
evil as evil can be.
We don't need to compare God with Super-Satan to make the point. Comparison with earthly evil-doers
suffices. Hitler and Himmler, for example, sent people to the gas chambers and furnaces of Auschwitz and
Belsen for the "sin" of being Jews, Gypsies, leftists, or homosexuals. But the sufferings of these victims
were pale in comparison with those of those who are judged guilty of the sin of nonbelief. At least
Auschwitz, Belsen, and the like, were death camps, and the torments of those who were sent there were
finite in duration both for those who died and those who survived. But Hell offers no such finality for
those who will fill its chambers: none will emerge from its torment, and its tortures will continue for ever
and ever. If you feel moral revulsion at the acts of the Nazis, you should feel it at the acts of God, only
greatly magnified. If Hitler's acts were evil, so are Omni-God's to the nth degree.
GOD'S RESPONSIBILITY FOR ALL EVIL, INCLUDING THAT OF HELL
Clearly, what is at issue is God's moral responsibility for his actions in creating the evils of Hell. Put
informally, the reasoning goes thus:
(1) In attributing the property of moral perfection to him we are presupposing that God is a moral
agent who is morally responsible for his acts.
(2) Those acts, we may further presume, are free acts, in the sense that, by virtue of his
omnipotence, God is not subject to any constraints other than logical ones.
(3) There were no logical constraints making it impossible for God to create a world in which there is
no evil whatever, let alone the evils of Hell.
(4) Moreover, by virtue of his omniscience, God knew exactly how evil Hell would be were he to
create a world containing it.
(5) Yet God did freely choose to create a world--the actual world--in which the evils of Hell do exist,
when he could well have done otherwise.
(6) Therefore, God is morally responsible for the existence of Hell's evils, and hence not perfectly
good after all.
APOLOGETICS: MAKING EXCUSES FOR GOD
For Christian philosophers, theologians and assorted other apologists, the problem of Hell fire presents a
host of grave problems. Graver than that of moral evil, which Plantinga and fellow apologist Craig both
think can be attributed solely to our own abuse of free will. Graver, too, than that of natural evil which
Plantinga thinks can be attributed to the evil one, Satan, and his abuse of his God-given free will. And
graver, even, than the problem of pre-mortem divine evil as portrayed in the Old Testament (which I
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shan't discuss here except in an endnote).
The problems of moral and natural evil, I am saying, are outdone by the problem of post-mortem divine
evil, the problem associated with the doctrine of Hellfire, as taught in the New Testament.
So what do evangelical Christian philosophers of our day say when trying to deal with this next-
worldly aspect of evil? As so-called “apologists” for God, intent on removing impediments to their faith,
Plantinga and Craig are probably the best in the business: Plantinga for having constructed a purported
proof that God’s perfect goodness is consistent with the occurrence of natural and moral evils in the
world of here and now, Craig for having adapted Plantinga’s strategy in an attempt to reconcile God’s
perfection with his promise of Hell fire, for the damned, in the world to come.
The so-called Free Will Defence, then, purports to solve three out of the four problems of evil: those of
moral evil, natural evil, plus that of post-mortem divine evil (the problem of Hell fire), while leaving the
problem of pre-mortem divine evil unaddressed and unsolved.
I'll first sketch Plantinga's general argument even though it makes no mention of post-mortem evil. Only
then will I examine Craig's version as it applies to the case of Hell.
TRYING TO ABSOLVE GOD: PLANTINGA'S FREE WILL DEFENCE
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Plantinga's Free Will Defence is most persuasively presented in The Nature of Necessity. It attempts to
absolve God of responsibility for bringing about a world in which there is evil. It may not be God,
Plantinga argues, who brings these about. It may be we--and certain non-human persons like Satan--who,
of our own free will, bring about these evils. We do so, he believes, because of what he calls our
transworld depravity--roughly, our inherently evil natures. If all of us suffer from such a propensity to
depravity, he argues, then "it was beyond the power of God himself to create a world containing moral
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good but no moral evil." Thus he sketches a scenario according to which God did his best to create a
world without evil but had his plans thwarted by the freedom-abusing creatures he had created. "Given
these conditions," he argues, God could not have created a world free of evil. This "despite" his
omnipotence. To be sure, evil exists. But that's up to us, and Satan, respectively. It isn't "up to God." Or so
Plantinga argues.
All this takes up some 14-15,000 words of extremely dense and convoluted argument woven around
some arcane metaphysical notions and technical definitions that few but his devotees are likely to have
scrutinized with care. But fortunately, Plantinga caters to our need for easier comprehension by supplying
what he calls "a preliminary sketch of his Free Will Defence", followed by a formal presentation that he
claims to be "triumphant". Let's examine them in turn.
PLANTINGA'S PRELIMINARY SKETCH OF HIS DEFENCE
Here is his informal argument in his own words:
“A world containing creatures who are sometimes significantly free (and freely perform more good
than evil actions) is more valuable, all else being equal, than a world containing no free creatures at all.
Now God can create free creatures, but he cannot cause or determine them to do only what is right. For if
he does so, then they would not be significantly free after all; they do not do what is right freely. To create
creatures capable of moral good, he had to create ones capable of moral evil; and he cannot leave these
creatures free to perform evil and at the same time prevent them from doing so. God did in fact create
significantly free creatures; but some of them went wrong in the exercise of their freedom; this is the
source of all the evil. The fact that these free creatures sometimes go wrong, however, counts neither
against God's omnipotence nor against his goodness; for he could have forestalled the occurrence of these
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evils only by excising the possibility of moral good. . . . Under these conditions God could have created
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a world containing no moral evil only by creating one without significantly free persons. . . . Of course it
is up to God whether to create free creatures at all; but if he aims to produce moral good, then he must
create significantly free creatures upon whose co-operation he must depend. Thus is the power of an
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omnipotent God limited by the freedom he confers upon his creatures.”
In short, although God's omnipotence makes it possible for him to create a world containing no moral
evil whatsoever, he chooses not to avail himself of it but to delegate some of his powers to his creatures,
despite knowing that they would abuse it. But does this absolve him of responsibility for the outcome?
In order to guide our moral intuitions, I'm going to tell a parable about another fictional character:
God's earthly analogue, Dog. My story is no more fanciful than Plantinga's. Arguably, it's less so, being
about an imaginary natural scenario not an imaginary supernatural one.
THE PARABLE OF DOG ALMIGHTY AND ALL-KNOWING
"Beware of the Dog," said his neighbors. They were referring to Dog Almighty and All-Knowing.
Dog Almighty, you see, was a dog breeder who reigned supreme on an island of his own making.
Despite his description, he wasn't really almighty. Not in the sense in which God was almighty, anyway.
His powers were limited not only by the laws of logic, but also by those of nature. Within those bounds,
however, he had the ability to do anything physically possible. And he wasn't all-knowing, either. But he
did know enough of the laws of nature and their application to be able to predict, without fail, what the
future would be.
One day Dog had a bright idea. He'd create a breed of dogs "in his own image" and give them the
precious gift of freedom. For, as his defense counsel said, when Dog went on trial for gross cruelty to
animals, Dog had judged it better, "all else being equal," to have his island inhabited by free dogs rather
than by no free dogs at all.
Now Dog had a choice. The only way he could create his chosen breed of dogs was to animate some of
the frozen embryos (the earthly correlate of Plantinga's potential humans that he calls "essences") that
were stored in his cryonic freezer. Some of these, he knew, were embryos of a gentle breed that, if
animated, would never behave badly. On the other hand, some were of a breed of savage dogs whose
actualization, he knew in advance, would lead to the most horrific outcomes he could envisage. Super pit
bulls, they were. And among them a giant of a super pit bull, Satan, a dog that would kill and maim many
lesser dogs and infect many of them with his own evil disposition.
Which breed would he choose? For some unexplained reason, Dog chose to animate the savage breed
and leave them significantly free, unleashed, unmuzzled, and undisciplined. The outcome was predictable.
Indeed he knew what would happen. Satan and his cohorts made the life of less powerful dogs, and other
creatures on the island, a living hell. And in these conditions, these weaker dogs did unto others as others
had done unto them. Starvation and suffering, murder and mayhem, prevailed throughout Dog Almighty's
world. The precious gift of freedom turned out to be a poisoned chalice. Yet Dog Almighty did nothing to
intervene. Like the God of the Old Testament, Dog Almighty "saw everything he had made, and behold it
was very good." (Genesis 1:13).
Mind you, Dog's counsel in Court did put up a defense. Mimicking Plantinga's preliminary statement of
the Free Will Defence quoted above, he argued:
“A world containing pit bulls that are significantly free is more valuable, all else being equal, than a
world containing no free pit bulls at all. Now Dog could create free pit bulls, but he could not cause or
determine them to do only what is right. For if he did so, then they would not be significantly free after
all; they would not do what is right freely. To create pit bulls capable of good, he had to create ones
capable of evil; and he couldn't leave these pit bulls free to perform evil and at the same time prevent
them from doing so. Dog did in fact create significantly free pit bulls; but some of them went wrong in the
exercise of their freedom; this is the source of all the evil. The fact that these free pit bulls sometimes
went wrong, however, counts neither against Dog's omnipotence nor against his goodness; for he could
have forestalled the occurrence of these evils only by excising the possibility of good.”
Counsel rested the case for the defense by saying that "under these conditions," and "despite" his near-
omnipotence, Dog Almighty "couldn't" have actualized an island in which no pit bulls ever misbehaved.
Snickers were heard in Court. The flaws in Dog Almighty's defense were evident. The prosecutor argued
that Dog, knowing what he did from the start, was guilty of psychopathic criminal intent when he chose to
animate the pit bull embryos; guilty of recklessness when he set the pit bulls free; guilty of negligence
when he failed to intervene; and guilty of moral turpitude when he failed to attend immediately to those
animals who had suffered as a consequence. Dog was free to do otherwise at any point. True, Dog
Almighty didn't do any of the biting, mauling, or killing himself. He wasn't the direct cause of these evils.
But he was responsible for them nonetheless. Judge and jury agreed. Dog was found guilty, sentenced, and
put away.
As for Dog, so too for God. And so much, too, for Plantinga's defence of God.

PLANTINGA'S ATTEMPT AT A FORMAL PROOF


How about Plantiga's formal proof as presented under the heading "The Free Will Defence Triumphant"?
(p. 189). It has been widely acclaimed by theists, and quite a few atheists as well, as having settled once
and for all what is known as "the logical problem of evil", i.e., the question whether the theist's concept of
Omni-God is logically compatible with existence of evil in the world he supposedly created. No series of
rebuttals of contrary arguments could ever aspire to having this supposedly invulnerable status. But a
quite general and rigorous proof of consistency could well persuade atheists to give up attempts to indict
God on logical grounds. And this is what Plantinga aspires to produce. Now this tactic would, if
successful, allow Plantinga to dismiss all arguments to the contrary, from that produced by Epicurus (341-
270 BCE), to those of David Hume (1711-1776), John Mackie (1917-1981), and countless others. It
would enable him to ignore arguments, like the Responsibility Argument I've produced above, on the
grounds that, no matter how cogent they may seem, they all must be unsound.
But, as I have argued in detail elsewhere, Plantinga's Free Will Defence is not at all successful. It is
full of both formal and informal fallacies. Much of it is far from rigorous, involving little more than mere
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hand-waving.
NOTE FOR READERS WITH AN AVERSION TO CLOSELY REASONED ARGUMENT
Note that Plantinga's proof, though formal, is not expressed (as some formal proofs are) in the
language of symbolic logic. Rather, it is expressed in ordinary English. But understanding it does
require the ability and patience to follow a closely reasoned argument.
Anyone who has neither the aptitude nor an appetite for that sort of reasoning might wish to skip
over the next few sections entirely and go straight to the section titled “The Inconsistency Charges
Reiterated”.
THE FAILURE OF PLANTINGA'S FORMAL PROOF ILLUSTRATED
Plantinga tries to provide a quite general and rigorous formal proof showing that--despite appearances
and arguments to the contrary--the concept of Omni-God is logically compatible with the concept of evil
in general. He tries to prove that the statement,
(1) God is omnipotent, omniscient, and wholly good,
is logically consistent with the statement
(2) There is evil in the world.
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He therefore draws on a logical theorem to the effect that one statement P is consistent with a second
statement Q if there is a third statement R that is consistent with P and which, together with P, entails Q.
The role of that third statement, he asserts, is filled by the statement
(3) Every essence suffers from transworld depravity
(where (3) is to be understood roughly as meaning that every potential person is inherently sinful in
nature). Those who know their Christian doctrines will recognize this as an analogue of the orthodox
doctrine of Original Sin.
The problem is that Plantinga's argument fails to satisfy either the entailment condition or the
consistency condition, both of which are required by the logical theorem he is invoking.
A PROBLEM WITH THE ENTAILMENT CONDITION
First, the statements (3) and (1) when taken in conjunction do not entail statement (2). After all, it is a
logical rule of thumb that you can't get more in your conclusion than you've put into your premises. True,
he adds a fourth premise
(4) God actualises a world containing moral good.
But the point remains. You can't validly infer the conclusion that evil exists from premises that don't
even mention evil. And neither (1), (3), nor (4) does that. His "proof" requires still more premises than he
provides.
A PROBLEM WITH THE CONSISTENCY CONDITION
Second, his argument for the consistency of (3) with (1) is also fallacious. He claims that (3) is consistent
with God's omnipotence. As a matter of logic that's correct. However, he goes on to claim, "But then it is
clearly consistent with (1)."
This is preposterous. As even a first-year student of logic should know, from the fact that (3) is
consistent with God's omnipotence it does not follow that (3) is also consistent with God's omniscience
and perfect goodness, let alone with the conjunction of all three properties together.
Moreover, if his so-called proof were augmented by further premises whose conjunction did, as a
matter of logic, entail (2)--the existence of evil in the actual world--then it would be far from clear that
the conjunction of those further premises would be consistent with God's perfect goodness as asserted in
(1). For then we'd be back to the question why a perfectly good God would create a world in which evil
exists when, by virtue of his omnipotence and omniscience, he easily could have done otherwise.
The simple fact is that in order to prove the consistency of the statement:
(1) God is omnipotent, omniscient, and wholly good,
with the statement:
(2) There is evil in the world,
Plantinga needed to be able to demonstrate that the statement:
(3) Every essence suffers from transworld depravity
together with statement
(4) God actualises a world containing moral good
is consistent with (1). But how to show that? Mere "hand waving", as I've called it, will not do. What
he needs, therefore, is a secondary consistency proof of that claim. But that, of course, is a proof that he
does not provide.
To all those who give credence to the common claim that Plantinga has refuted the so-called "logical
problem" of evil, I have a simple caution to give: BEWARE OF PLANTINGA'S PLOY!
BACK TO HELL: CRAIG'S VERSION OF PLANTINGA'S DEFENCE
So far as I know, William L. Craig was the first philosopher of religion to adapt Planting's Free Will
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Defence to the special case of Hell. First, in his 1989 article titled "No Other Name", dealing with the
exclusivity of the Christian doctrine of salvation and the problem of Hell; second, in his 1994 debate with
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me on the specific topic "Can a Loving God Send People to Hell?" Given the manifest fallaciousness of
Plantinga's purported proof, it's not surprising that Craig's version mirrors those very same flaws.
THE FAILURE OF CRAIG'S FORMAL PROOF
Like Plantinga, Craig tries to avail himself of the logical theorem that one statement is provably consistent
with a second if there is a third statement that is both consistent with the first and together with it entails
the third. Once more, the strategy is sound. But its execution, like Plantinga's, is woefully fallacious.
Craig wants to show that
(1)* God is omniscient, omnipotent, and omnibenevolent,
is consistent with,
(2)* Some persons do not receive Christ and are damned [to Hell],
by arguing that
(3)* God has actualized a world containing an optimal balance between saved and unsaved, and
those who are unsaved suffer from transworld damnation is both consistent with (1)* and, in conjunction
with (1)*, entails (2)*.
Once more, however, neither of these two conditions is satisfied.
THE ENTAILMENT CONDITION AGAIN
Strictly speaking, (3)* does not, in conjunction with (1)*, entail (2)*. After all, what Craig calls the
"optimal balance" could be satisfied by everyone being saved and no one unsaved. (3)* would be
satisfied by the possible situation in which the class of unsaved persons is empty, everyone is saved, and
no one is damned or goes to Hell. It is consistent with each of these possibilities.
That, after all, is the optimal situation envisaged by so-called Christian Universalists who find the
notion of Hell so repugnant that they can't bring themselves to believe that anyone goes to Hell. Again,
(3)* would be satisfied by the possible situation in which only some are saved, while the class of
unsaved and damned is empty because God simply annihilates all those who haven't received Christ. That
is the optimal situation envisaged by so-called Christian Annihilationists.
In order strictly to comply with the entailment condition, what Craig needs is an explicit clause
implying that the class of unsaved is not empty. Such an amended premise might be formulated thus:
(3)** God has actualized a world containing an optimal balance between saved and unsaved in which
some are unsaved, and those who are unsaved suffer from transworld damnation [where I've inserted
the augmenting clause in italics].
THE CONSISTENCY CONDITION AGAIN
The problem with this amended premise (3)** is that it is far from evident that it is consistent with God's
omnibenevolence as asserted in (1). After all, there's a prima facie inconsistency between the notions that
God is perfectly good and the idea of him actualizing any world in which many persons are damned to
hell fire. That's why Universalism and Annihilationism appeal to many as a way out of this logical
predicament. One can hardly prove the consistency of (1)* with (2)* by invoking a premise, viz., (3)**,
whose consistency with (1)* is itself in need of proof. If Craig wants to play at doing strict logic, he
needs to go back to the drawing board.
A second caution is called for: BEWARE OF CRAIG'S CON.
THE INCONSISTENCY CHARGES REITERATED
Now that I've demonstrated the fraudulence of the Free Will Defence as propounded by both Plantinga and
Craig, we can get back to the original question whether it's logically coherent to think of a perfectly good
God sending people to Hell.
Craig seems to think that the joint doctrines of Salvation and Damnation as expressed in the statement
(3)** God has actualized a world containing an optimal balance between saved and unsaved, in
which some are unsaved, and those who are unsaved suffer from transworld damnation,
provide absolution for God. For doesn't God demonstrate his perfect goodness by saving all those who
believe in his son, Jesus? He sends all the good guys (those who have the right beliefs) to Heaven. What
more could one ask? But the doctrine of Heaven, let's not forget, has a concomitant: the doctrine of Hell
for all those who aren't saved. So the joint doctrines of Salvation and Damnation, as expressed in (3)**,
are themselves part of the problem, not--as Craig seems to think--part of the solution.
The logical inconsistency of the notion that a perfectly good God could send people to Hell becomes
manifest when we reflect on the implications of the notion of perfect goodness, on the one hand, and of
damnation in Hell, on the other hand.
IMPLICATIONS OF PERFECT GOODNESS
God, as conceived by Christians, doesn't just sit on his throne contemplating his own perfect goodness,
(like Buddha is believed to have contemplated his own navel). He is conceived as having revealed his
goodness to us, his creatures, in his dealings with us. Hence theologians and philosophers of religion
conceive him to be just, righteous, merciful, loving, and compassionate. These properties aren't mere
artefacts of theological doctrine, or to be inferred from some Holy Scripture or other. They follow
logically from the doctrine of moral perfection. As I argued earlier, a God who was otherwise good but
who fell short of perfection in respect to justice, righteousness, mercy, love, or compassion wouldn't be
perfectly good.
IMPLICATIONS OF THE DOCTRINE OF HELL AND DAMNATION
Let's remind ourselves of the nature of Hell as described above. It can be summed up by six main theses:

It is a fiery place;


its inhabitants will be tormented eternally;
its inhabitants are sent there not because they have committed crimes or behaved badly while alive,
but only because they haven't believed in "the name of Jesus" (often as a consequence of time and
place of birth);
in sending people to Hell God takes "vengeance" on nonbelievers;
the names of those who are destined to suffer in Hell, were omitted from the Book of Life "from the
beginning";
Jesus himself will play the role as voyeur in witnessing the sufferings of all those who didn't believe
in him.

THE INCONSISTENCY OF THESE TWO SETS OF IMPLICATIONS


Now, belief in God's perfect goodness will be consistent with belief in his sending people to Hell if and
only if all the implications of the one are consistent with all the implications of the other. Yet clearly they
are not.
For the following are definitional moral truisms (necessary truths that follow from analysis of the
meanings of words) relating to the implications of Hell:

A perfectly good being wouldn't inflict the kind of "cruel and unusual punishment" of burning by fire
on anyone, even offenders;
A perfectly righteous and just being would not punish someone eternally for the sins committed
during a brief lifetime but would proportion the punishment to the offence;
A perfectly righteous and just being would not punish someone for mere absence of correct belief
(the inability to believe in and accept the saving grace of Jesus);
A perfectly merciful and loving being would not inflict "vengeance" on those who happen not to
know of, or believe in, him;
A perfectly just being would not predetermine the fates of each of us by writing some names in the
Book of Life "from the beginning" while consigning other to Hell;
A perfectly merciful and compassionate being would not be unforgiving forever;
A perfectly loving being would not do anything to hurt the best interests and happiness of those it
loves;
A perfectly good being would not play the role of a sadistic observer.

These necessary truths cash themselves out in practical terms in the ordinary moral judgements we
make about the evil men of human history. Consider the case of Hitler, for example and compare his
policy towards Jews and Gypsies with God's policy towards unbelievers. If it would be inconsistent to
claim that Hitler was acting lovingly, mercifully, justly, and compassionately while sending the majority
of German Jews and Gypsies to the gas-chambers for lacking the right parentage, wouldn't it be equally as
inconsistent to claim that God is acting lovingly, mercifully, justly, and compassionately while sending the
majority of the human race to roast in hell for lacking the right beliefs?
God isn't the perfectly good being he's supposed to be. He isn't Omni-God. Rather he's a supernatural
moral monster akin to Super-Satan.
A HEAVENLY REFUTATION OF THE FREE WILL DEFENCE
My strategy, up to this point, has been to demonstrate the fallacies involved in both versions so far
ventured of the much vaunted Free Will Defence: those provided by Plantinga and Craig. Demonstrating
their faultiness, however, doesn't guarantee that no other version can succeed where they've failed. Is that
too much to aspire to? I think not. Hence, I here offer a restatement of the Heavenly Refutation that I first
ventured in my debate with Craig back in 1994. It consists in providing a simple counter-example to the
general thesis that God couldn't have created a better world than this one, the actual one: one in which no
form of evil whatever occurred.
Before producing my trump card I want to be fair to the opposition by giving a brief review of the
intellectual puzzle we're deliberating.
WHICH POSSIBLE WORLDS COULD GOD HAVE CREATED?
Plantinga and Craig say there are certain possible worlds that God could not have created. Critics like me
say that's not true. Now some such disputes turn out to hinge on an equivocation over the meaning of a
word. But whether or not that ultimately turns out to be the case in this dispute, at least we can be
confident that there's no difference of opinion between the parties as to the meaning of "possible world."
THE AGREED MEANING OF "POSSIBLE WORLD"
A possible world, we all agree, is a total state of affairs in the conception of which no contradiction is
involved. Our own world--the real world, the actual one--is just one of many possible worlds. Indeed, it
is just one of infinitely many, since for any possible world containing say n atoms, there is another
possible world containing n+1 atoms, and so on ad infinitum. All other possible worlds are nonactual.
Now possible worlds, on this account, can be object-enhanced (having more objects than the actual
world) or object-depleted (having fewer objects than the actual world). Possible worlds can also be
object-diverse with respect to the actual world (having only some or no objects in common with the
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actual world). So when we speak about a possible world being a "total" or "maximal" state of affairs, it
does not follow that the totality involved has anything in common with the set of individuals in this world.
As philosophers would say, it is a purely contingent matter as to how many and which individuals
comprise the set of individuals in any given world. No contradiction, no violation of the laws of logic, is
involved in the conception of such object-diverse worlds.
The implications of object-diversity are obvious. There are logically possible worlds that have no
individuals at all in common with our world, the actual world. It follows that there are possible worlds
that don't contain any of us. It follows, too, that among those worlds are ones inhabited solely by
significantly free creatures who never perform any evil whatever: the sorts of persons that we would call
"saintly." There are worlds that have no Heaven and no Hell. There are possible worlds in which God
doesn't exist, worlds in which Jesus doesn't exist, and worlds in which there's neither salvation nor
damnation. All these are conceivable without contradiction, hence logically possible. There can be no
debate about this.
THE AGREED MEANING OF "OMNIPOTENT"
Within the context of our present dispute, the term "omnipotent" is defined as meaning "having the power
to do anything in the conception of which no logical contradiction is involved." Thus, when Plantinga and
other theists, ascribe omnipotence to God, they mean that his powers are limited only by logic: that he can
do or bring about anything other than that which is logically impossible.
Implications of God's Omnipotence for his Powers to Create
Now it isn't hard to see that the range of possible worlds coincides with the range of things that God
has power to bring about. It follows that, for any possible world we can without contradiction conceive,
it is possible for God to bring it about.
Consider, now, the concept of a world in which there is no evil whatever: no moral evil; no natural
evil; none of the evils of Hell. And let's suppose, moreover, that it is a world in which everyone is
morally good: everyone is kind, loving, trustworthy, dependable, etc. Let's call it Heaven. Clearly, the
concept of such a "heavenly" world involves no logical contradiction. So, by definition of "possible
world", Heaven is a possible world. But equally, by Leibniz's definition of "omnipotent", Heaven is a
world that God could have created. So, by inference from a couple of definitions, we can validly infer
that a world, such as Heaven, containing moral good but no moral evil, is a world that God could have
created. That is, we can validly infer statement
(5) God could have created a universe containing moral good without creating one containing moral
evil.
Moreover, since the truth of (5) follows by definition, we can infer that (5) is a necessary truth, one that
cannot be denied without contradiction.
Yet Plantinga asserts the seeming contradictory of (5), viz.,
(6) God could not have created a universe containing moral good . . . without creating one containing
moral evil. (p. 167)
And Craig echoes him when he, like Plantinga, claims that there's only a subset of possible worlds that
God can create and that a perfectly good universe is not one of them.
Have these guys lost their logical marbles? What's going on?

POSSIBILITY AND FEASIBILITY


The most charitable explanation is that they are trading on an ambiguity in the meaning of the terms
"could" and "could not" and then--by counting on their reader's inattentiveness, or their willingness to be
deceived--diverting attention away from one meaning to the other.
Among the many meanings of "possible" is the one more aptly expressed by the term "feasible", where
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the latter means something like "possible within the limits set by one's plans, aims, or intentions." God's
plan for creation, they argue, is that his creatures should be free to use, and abuse, their free will as they
will. It simply isn't possible--in the sense of feasible--for God to guarantee an evil-free world.
By resorting explicitly to notion of what's feasible and what's unfeasible, Craig is able to divert
attention away from what's logically possible for God, to what's possible within the boundaries set by the
non-logical conditions chosen by God himself. Craig's version of Plantinga's (6) is
(6)* It was unfeasible for God to have created a universe containing moral good . . . without creating
one containing moral evil.
Both apologists try to switch attention from what's logically possible for God if he chooses to exercise
his omnipotence, to what's feasible for God as a consequence of not exercising that omnipotence. Stage
magicians call this sort of tactic "indirection."
A COUNTER-EXAMPLE: THE FEASIBILITY OF HEAVEN
Set aside the semantic sophistry we've just exposed, and consider, at this point, the concept of Heaven as
it features in Christian doctrine. Theologians, following Jesus himself, have notoriously had little to say
about what Heaven (as opposed to Hell) is supposed to be like. But at the very least, the state of being in
Heaven or Paradise is conceived of as an eternally blissful one unmarred by any evils or fear of evils; a
joyous one in the presence of God and his angels.
Now, as I've already argued, this concept of Heaven--no matter how plausible or implausible it might
be--involves nothing self-contradictory. Such a world is therefore a logically possible one. After all, if it
were not, then it couldn't be God's place of abode, or that of Jesus, or that of the angels and the souls of
the saved. But equally, it is conceived of as a temporal stage of the actual world. It is conceived of as the
place where God existed prior to creating any world, now exists, and will exist in future. Yet clearly, if
Heaven is part of the actual world, then the state of being in Heaven is also feasible for God to create.
Contrary to Craig and company, it was not beyond the capacity of God to create such a world at the
outset. So such a world was both logically possible and feasible for God to create.
My argument here can be expressed more formally thus:
(i) If a possible world alpha is actual then alpha is feasible for God to actualize.
(ii) If alpha is feasible for God to actualize then every temporal stage of alpha is also feasible for
God to actualize.
(iii) By hypothesis, Heaven is a temporal stage of the actual world alpha.
(iv) No temporal stage of the actual world alpha entails the existence of any other temporal stage.
(v) Since it is a contingent matter whether any possible world, or any temporal stage of a possible
world, is object-depleted with respect to any other possible world or any temporal stage of a possible
world, it is possible that Heaven is object-depleted with respect to earlier temporal stages of alpha.
(vi) Hence it was feasible for God to actualize a heavenly world containing only persons
characterized by moral goods like being kind, trustworthy, just, dependable, without actualizing a world
in which moral evils (or any other kinds of evil) exist.
(vii) Hence Heaven need not exist.
Both Plantinga's statement (6) and Craig's (6)* are demonstrably false. It was both logically possible,
and feasible, for God to create a Heavenly world for us to inhabit. He didn't have to create the world we
find ourselves in, let alone Hell. God is responsible for bringing about all evils. He could have done
otherwise.
CRAIG'S COUNTER-ARGUMENT REFUTED
Craig, however, argues that Heaven is not "by itself" a possible world. Heaven, he has repeatedly insisted
(not only in our original debate, but also in subsequent private correspondence) "entails" the existence of
an "antecedent" stage of existence, one in which evil abounds.
But here Craig is obviously making still another logical mistake. As Peter van Inwagen (also an
evangelical Christian philosopher) has correctly pointed out "given that the world is in a certain state at a
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certain instant, nothing follows about its state at any other instant." Just as there is nothing self-
contradictory involved in the creationist hypothesis that the universe was created only few thousand years
ago, so there is nothing self-contradictory involved in the supposition that Heaven might have existed--
and would have existed, had God planned it that way--without being preceded by the "vale of tears" in
which we currently find ourselves. The concept of Heaven does not entail a preceding stage in which
moral evil exists. A fortiori, the concept of Heaven does not entail the concept of Hell. One could exist
without the other, and each could exist without the natural and moral evils that we endure here and now.
So God could have chosen to create a heavenly world without a hellish one.
FREE WILL, FOREKNOWLEDGE, AND PREDESTINATION
The notion of significant freedom was supposed to play a pivotal role in shifting responsibility for evil,
including the evil of Hell fire, from God to us. But, as we've seen, it fails to do the trick. I'll now argue
that it is flawed on many other grounds as well: both philosophical and theological.
COMPATIBILIST VERSUS INCOMPATIBILIST MEANINGS OF "FREE WILL"
Ordinarily, when we say that someone--ourselves or someone else--has acted "of his own free will", we
are not playing at being physicists or metaphysicians: we are not making pronouncements on the issue
between Determinists who say that events in the cosmos are completely under the sway of the laws of
nature, and Indeterminists who say that events at the quantum level are not. In particular, we are not taking
a stance on the issue as to whether the persons performing the free act are what they are because of causal
factors in their heredity and environment. Rather we are agnostic about such deep physical, biological,
and metaphysical issues. In order to judge whether or not the act was performed freely, we don't need to
indulge in a detailed investigations of what causal factors, if any, were at play. It suffices, for practical
purposes, to ascertain whether the person was being forced or prevented from acting. In assessing
whether an act is performed freely or not, we are therefore subscribing--wittingly or unwittingly--to what
philosophers call the Compatibilist position.
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Defenders of the Free Will Defence, by way of contrast, are Incompatibilists. They believe that we'd
be wrong to ascribe "real" or "significant" freedom of action to persons if it could be shown that they or
their actions could be given a causal explanation. In particular, they subscribe to a contra-causal account
of free will. Plantinga, as usual, gives a fairly definitive account of the contra-causal position when he
writes:
"… if I am free with respect to an action A, then antecedent laws and antecedent conditions determine
neither that I take A nor that I refrain.
More broadly, if I am free with respect to an action A, then God does not bring it about or cause it to be
the case either that I take or that I refrain from this action; he neither causes this to be so through the laws
he establishes, nor by direct intervention, nor in any other way. For if he brings it about or causes it to be
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the case that I take A, then I am not free to refrain from A, in which case I am not free with respect to A."
In brief, the contra-causal account of free will can be summarized thus:
Premise 1: If I am caused by God (or anything else) to do A, then I am not free to refrain from A.
Premise 2: If I am caused by God (or anything else) to refrain from A, then I am not free to do A.
Conclusion: Therefore, if God (or anything else) causes me to do A or not to do A, I am not free with
respect to A.
There are many problems with this. I'll cite just a few.
First, the contra-causal account requires us to make judgements about those deep metaphysical and
scientific issues: judgements that are beyond the competence of even the most thoughtful philosophers,
diligent judges, or expert witnesses to settle decisively. When we seek to ascertain someone's
responsibility or otherwise for what they've done, it is simply out of the question to enter into these sorts
of inquiries. So likewise, for the ordinary person who makes judgements about freedom every day. Our
ordinary judgements on the issue are practical ones. Incompatibilist ones are highly theoretical.
Second, it follows from this that no inference can legitimately be made from the fact that we ordinarily
believe in our own, and others, free will, to the truth of the contra-causal account. Any such inference
clearly begs the question as what we mean when we say things like "You are free to go". The question
remains open as to whether "free" is to be understood in the compatibilist sense or the incompatibilist
sense. One can grant that most of us believe that we have free will, but resist the metaphysician's or
theologian's construal of what we mean. This should give pause to those who, like Dr. Samuel Johnson,
say something like "I intuit that the will is free, and there's an end on it."
Third, in order to settle the issue of what we mean by "free", we need to be provided with a much more
adequate account of the concept of free will. As it stands, the contra-causal account provides us only with
necessary conditions of the exercise of free will, not with sufficient ones. It doesn't tell us what free will
is, only what free will is not.
Fourth, herein lay the seeds of the so-called "Causation or Chance dilemma." Are we to say that our
actions are free if, as well as only if, they are uncaused, i.e., causally undetermined? The problem is that
if a state of affairs--be it our own natures or our own actions--is strictly undetermined, then that state of
affairs can be said to occur by pure chance. And if what I am or what I do occurs by pure chance, I can't
properly be held responsible for either.
This dilemma remains whether or not one is a materialist regarding the nature of what I am and what I
do, or a dualist who holds that the essential person is constituted by a soul as well as a body. For
suppose--as most Libertarians do--that one has a supernatural soul that can intervene in the natural world
so as to bring about one's free choices. Then the question can again be asked: How did I come to have the
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soul that I have? Was it given to me (determined) by God? Or did I come to have it by pure chance?
Once again, whether what I am and what I do are determined by causes or by chance, I can hardly be held
responsible for either. The appeal to contra-causality seems to threaten our freedom and moral
responsibility just as much as does causality.
Moreover, if we were to say that being uncaused is a sufficient, as well as necessary condition of being
free, then we may be led--as have some quantum physicists and quite a few philosophers--to the absurd
conclusion that some if not all sub-atomic particles also are endowed with responsibility-conferring free
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will.
Hence, a final question for those who talk glibly about free will. Do they conceive of the exercise of
free will as a natural phenomenon or as a supernatural one? If the former, then they are logically
compelled to embrace some form of the compatibilist account. If the latter, then they are logically
compelled to conceive of themselves--as agents exercising free will--as members of a supernatural world
along with God and the Devil.
FREE WILL, PREDESTINATION, AND BEING SENT TO HELL
The contra-causal account, and hence also the whole Free Will Defence, is highly suspect not only for
philosophical reasons, but for theological and scriptural reasons as well. There's not a single passage in
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the Bible that features an incompatibilist (contra-causal) account of free will. The simple fact of the
matter is that the Holy Scriptures don't mention the notion of free will at all.
On the contrary, the scriptures repeatedly endorse the doctrine of Predestination: the view that our
ultimate fates--Heaven or Hell--are determined "from the beginning" by God, not us. Time and again the
scriptures speak of us being "ordained", "predestinated", "called", "chosen", "called . . . [by] Jesus Christ
before the world began", "chosen before the foundation of the world", "ordained to this condemnation",
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and the like. Ephesians 2:8-9 makes God's position on the issue extremely clear:
"For by grace are ye saved through faith. And that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God. Not of works,
lest any man should boast."
The very idea of us freely choosing our own fates, and therefore being responsible for where we spend
eternity, is antithetical to God's explicit word.
Not surprisingly, the six great founders of Christianity--the fabled figures of Jesus and St. Paul; and the
great theologians St. Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Martin Luther, and John Calvin--all preached the
doctrine of Predestination, not of contra-causal free will.
Now the doctrine of Predestination has obvious corollaries. It entails that I am not free with respect to
my acceptance or rejection of what Plantinga describes as God's "unique way of salvation through the
incarnation, life, sacrificial death, and resurrection of his divine son." It entails, in particular, that my
acceptance or rejection of "the name of Jesus"--whether or not I will be "born again"--was already
determined before I was born, hence not a function of my free choice, hence entirely out of my hands.
The Free Will Defence, therefore, is a scriptural fraud as well as a philosophical fiction.
CONSEQUENCES OF BEING PREDESTINED TO HELL
Lest we forget, the consequence of being predestined to Hell because we weren't predestined to believe
in Jesus as our Lord and Saviour are morally obscene. All those who haven't been chosen to spend
eternity in Heaven,
"will be tormented with burning sulphur in the presence of the holy angels and of the Lamb [Jesus]. And
the smoke of [our] torment rises for ever and ever."
So says the "word of God" in Revelation 14:10-11.
If God is to be believed, the "Lord and Saviour" for the chosen few, will play the role of sadistic
voyeur for the many. And Christians call this God and his Son "perfectly good"? The contradiction is
obvious to all whose minds are not blinded by faith, stunted by incomprehension, or hobbled by
ignorance.
This contradiction, however, lies at the very heart of a wider set of beliefs.
A LOGICAL QUANDARY FOR BELIEVERS
Christians are faced with a more general predicament when trying to answer our original question
whether a perfectly good God can send people to Hell. For their wriggle room is severely limited. They
are constrained by a simple logical and moral straightjacket, mimicking that of Chapter 5. This time the
four beliefs are:
Belief 1: Anyone who tortures others is morally imperfect.
Belief 2: What God reveals in his Holy Scripture is true and should be believed.
Belief 3: God has revealed in Holy Scripture that anyone who hasn't been predestined to believe Jesus
and accept his saving grace will go to Hell, where they will be tormented in fire for all
eternity.
Belief 4: God is perfectly good.
As we saw before, the trouble is that these statements form an inconsistent quadruple such that from any
three one can validly infer the falsity of the remaining one. Thus, one can coherently assert (1), (2), and
(3) only at the cost of giving up (4); assert (2), (3), and (4) only at the cost of giving up (1); and so on.
To repeat, the problem for someone who believes in the essential planks of Christianity, viz., an Omni-
God and the doctrine of Salvation, is to decide which of these four statements to give up in order to
preserve the minimal requirement of truth and rationality, viz., logical consistency. After all, if someone
has contradictory beliefs then their beliefs can't all be true. And rational discussion with persons who
contradict themselves is impossible; if contradictions are allowed then anything goes. But which of the
four statements will our believer deny?
To deny (1) is to excuse evil-doers like Genghis Khan, Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, for the barbaric tortures
they perpetrated on their victims. It is to ally oneself with present-day practitioners of extraordinary
rendition and their moral perversions. It is to suppose that if someone were to subject you or your loved
ones to extreme torture, they'd be doing nothing at all wrong. Nothing.
To deny (2) is to suppose that God's revelation to mankind might not be true after all and hence needn't
be believed. It would be to contradict Plantinga's belief (shared by millions of true believers) that
"Scripture is inerrant: the Lord makes no mistakes; what he proposes for our belief is what we ought to
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believe." You can disbelieve if you like. But to do so would be to abandon the principal pillar of
Christian epistemology. And if one still supposes that some sort of credence might nevertheless be given
to Holy Scripture, then you're faced with a dilemma. You'll have to say either that God doesn't know how
to say what he really means (which would imply that he is linguistically incompetent), or that he doesn't
mean what he says (in which case we can only conclude that he is guilty of misleading us). Alternatively,
of course, you might conclude that the Bible has little claim to our credence, being infected with man-
made fable and fiction either in part or in whole.
To deny (3) is to fly in the face of facts ascertainable by anyone who takes care to read what the Bible-
-as quoted above--actually says about salvation, damnation, predestination, and Hell. It is to deny what
Jesus, St Paul, and many of the world's greatest theologians are reported as having preached about these
issues.
That leaves the possibility of denying (4): the claim that God is perfectly good. But (4) is
essential, not only to Christian belief, but also to other theistic religions. It is a corollary of belief in
Omni-God. It is one of the reasons why God is an object of worship, not just awe or fear. To deny (4),
therefore, is to concede the point I've been arguing throughout this chapter. It is to concede that there is a
logical inconsistency between the concept of Omni-God and the concept of Hell.
If you're a would-be believer, just think it through for yourself. If you're both moral and logical, then--
given the undeniability of (1) and (3)--you're obliged to conclude either that the Bible can't be trusted or
that a perfectly good God can't exist, or both.
CAVEAT RE THE "CHRISTIAN" CROSS OF CONTRADICTION
I'm not trying to nail to the cross of contradiction all those who call themselves "Christian." Just those
who believe in both a perfectly good God and the doctrine of Salvation; those who take the Bible and all
this Hell stuff really seriously.
CONSERVATIVE CHRISTIANS
Conservative Christians range, in the US, from ultra-conservative ones, the loonies of Rushdoonie's
Reconstructionists, through the orthodox believers in Roman Catholicism, the huge array of Evangelicals,
Pentacostalists, Charismatics, Jehovah's Witnesses, Mormons, and miscellaneous other splinter groups, to
the conservative theological seminaries and associated organizations like Campus Crusade for Christ, and
the countless millions who don't affiliate themselves with any particular church but nevertheless believe
in a good God and just hope like hell he won't send them to Hell when they die--the Moral Majority, for
instance. They include virtually all those who counted themselves as Christians through nearly two
thousand years. The all-embracing term "Fundamentalist beliefs" does a pretty good job of describing the
contradictory beliefs of the majority in the Christian tradition. I should know. I was once proud to count
myself as belonging to that tradition: the faith of my forebears.
Other countries, too, have a strong tradition of conservative Christianity. The country of my birth, New
Zealand, for example, can boast its own indigenous Destiny Church (with its own bishop, Bishop Brian
Tamaki) on the extreme social, political, and religious right. New Zealand also has its own duplicates of
the other kinds of fundamentalism found in the U.S. Much the same holds for most South American
countries, as well as European and, increasingly, Asian ones.
The majority of orthodox Christians, I am saying, are burdened with the cross of contradiction. As for
trying to clamber down from it--as do Plantinga and Craig--many don't even try. They are happy enough to
bear that cross, or be nailed to a literal one in the Philippine Islands, in the faith-based belief that faith-
based beliefs trump logic and reason.

"LIBERAL" CHRISTIANS
But there are Christians and there are "Christians." There are those who know and embrace that which
their faith prescribes. And there are those who don't take any of this doctrinal stuff seriously. And some of
the latter include ordained clergymen and clergywomen of the liberal religious left.
Liberal Christianity even boasts its own Bishops. The UK had its own Anglican Bishop, John Robinson
(1919-1983), and the US still has its Episcopalian Bishop John Spong (1931-). Neither believes in the
existence of a supernatural God, in the existence of either Heaven or Hell, or the existence of an afterlife.
And then there are others in the spectrum of liberal "Christian" belief. Like the reverend Don Cupitt of
the UK, founder of the Sea of Faith Network, and New Zealand's own noted one-time Professor of
Theology, Lloyd Geering. Do they believe in God?
That's a question I take up in the final chapter, "Gobbledygook Gods." But first, let’s examine the
presupposition that there’s a supernatural world to which we--along with God, the Devil, angels, and
assorted other ghostly entities--will one day belong.
7
THE IMPOSSIBILITY OF AN AFTERLIFE
THE CHESHIRE CAT FALLACY
Many of Lewis Carroll's stories for children are pregnant with philosophical lessons for those of us who
like to think about the nature of reality and of our status within it. His story of the Cheshire Cat, who keeps
performing disappearing tricks to the bewilderment of Alice, is a case in point. Alice says:
"I wish you wouldn't keep appearing and vanishing so suddenly: you make one quite giddy."
"All right," said the Cat; and this time it vanished quite slowly, beginning with the end of the tail, and
ending with the grin, which remained sometime after the rest of it had gone.
"Well! I've often seen a cat without a grin," thought Alice; "but a grin without a cat! It's the most curious
thing I ever saw in my life!"
I'm going to argue that the idea of a human mind existing without a body is just as absurd as the idea of
a grin existing without a cat's face that has that grin. And for roughly the same reasons:

Human bodies and cats, have a totally different mode of existence from facial expressions like grins
or scowls, and those collections of mental properties (intelligence, will-power, consciousness, etc.)
that we call minds;
Human bodies and cats belong to the category of physical substances or entities, whereas things like
facial expressions and mental properties belong to the category of properties or attributes, and so
can exist only so long as their physical bearers exist;
Just as a facial expression emerges when the facial parts of the cat are configured in a certain sort of
way, so mental properties emerge when the constituent parts of a biological organism--especially its
brain--are configured in certain sorts of ways.

There's a strong analogy between the idea of a grin existing without a cat, and a mind existing without a
body. The absurdity of the one idea parallels the absurdity of the other. Both commit what I call The
Cheshire Cat Fallacy--a fallacy that is an amalgam of two others: the fallacy of Reification, and a fallacy
of Category Misallocation. (More on those later.)
In what follows, I first clear the conceptual way for, and then sketch, an Emergence theory of Mind
(i.e., of mental properties). It is a wholly materialistic theory, one that rejects any form of mind/body
dualism. Emergent Materialism asserts that reality is made up of only one kind of substance. Substance
Dualism asserts, to the contrary, that reality is made up of two: bodies and minds. Substance Dualism
allows for the possibility that minds should survive one's bodily death. Emergent Materialism doesn't.
So what are the arguments for survival and its dualistic presuppositions?

TWO MAIN ARGUMENTS FOR SUBSTANCE DUALISM


The most powerful case that can ever be made for the truth of a claim is to show it to be an instance of a
logical truth, or the consequence of applying a logical principle to true premises.
A case in point is the use made by a number of dualists of the logical truth dubbed by American
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logician Willard van Quine (1908-2000), "Leibniz's Law of Indiscernibility of Identicals". It states:
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If object x = object y, then x has all the properties that y has and vice versa.
Now the Indiscernibility of Identicals is logically equivalent to what may be called The Non-Identity of
Discernibles, viz.,
If object x lacks a property that object y possesses then x and y are not identical but different.
It is to the latter form of Leibniz's Law that French philosopher, mathematician, and physicist Rene
Descartes (1596-1650) implicitly appeals in his classic arguments for dualism. (An implicit appeal to the
same logical principle is also found in Socrates and Plato; but it is Descartes' formulation that has
become classic).
AN APPEAL TO THE LOGIC OF IDENTITY AND DIFFERENCE
We don't need to go into the details of Cartesian exegesis in order to understand how his arguments go.
The 17th century was the heyday of modern science. Sir William Harvey (1578-1657) had discovered the
mechanisms of the body's circulation, and medical science was being advanced by undertaking
dissections and autopsies of the human body under the critical gaze of the intellectual elite of the time.
Now imagine Descartes or one of his followers attending just such an occasion. And imagine, further,
that our Cartesian had prepared in advance a box containing little cards on pins with labels like "heart",
"liver", "spleen", "gall bladder", and so on, with a view to learning what's what by labelling each organ
as it is revealed. All goes well and measurements are made of the size, weight, and location of each organ
as it is exposed to view. Yet one label remains in the box. It reads "mind". Where is it to be put?
A puzzle arises. Everyone present agrees that we do indeed have minds. Otherwise, we couldn't think
about things like the location of minds. And the person whose body is being dissected--an outstanding
academic who had bequeathed his body to science--certainly had a distinguished mind before his death.
Yet after his death no spaces were found in his cadaver for his mind to have occupied. So it couldn't have
occupied space. And his body weighed exactly the same after his death as it did before death. So it
couldn't have had any weight. The conclusion seemed obvious. The mind--it was agreed--is just as real as
each of the material objects that comprise the mechanism of the body, yet it is an entity quite unlike each
of those others in so far as it lacks size, weight, and precise spatial location. It must, therefore, be an
immaterial object, a ghostly sort of entity that inhabits the material body but is not part of that body.
Generalizing, our Cartesian concludes--by implicit appeal to the Non-Identity of Discernibles--that
since it is true that minds lack the properties that are essential to material things, minds must be entirely
different sorts of things from material bodies, and must in principle be logically capable of independent
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existence, in the sense that there is no contradiction in supposing one to exist but the other not.
We can, of course, come at the same argument from the point of view of properties that minds posses--
such as consciousness, thinking, sensation, intelligence, creativity, subjective awareness, will-power,
emotion, and so on--but simple material particles do not. Once again, the conclusion seems obvious:
minds and material objects are totally different sorts of substances.
On the face of it, the argument from Leibniz's Principle prepares the way for dualists to make a case for
personal survival. Descartes acknowledged the finality of our earthly bodies at death. He wouldn't have
demurred from the saying: "Earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust." Nor would he have objected to the
current view that the long-term fate of our bodies is the scattering of our composite atoms, the re-
absorption of some of these into other organisms--even other humans--and an ultimate sharing in whatever
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cosmological fate the universe has in store for itself. But he would have objected to the view that that's
all there is to us as persons. While we are alive, he would insist, we are composite entities--both bodies
and minds--and the non-survival of the former doesn't entail non-survival of the latter. Using the term
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"soul" as a virtual synonym for "mind", Descartes therefore maintains:
This "I"--that is, the soul, by which I am what I am--is entirely distinct from the body, and would not
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fail to be what it is even if the body did not exist.
Whether or not the incorporeal mind is identical with the incorporeal soul may be left to those who
claim to know about such matters. But it is of little practical import for the issue of personal survival. For
the soul, if it is to survive one's bodily death, must at least be accompanied by one's mind. A mindless,
and therefore unthinking, uncomprehending, soul would have no more significance for one's afterlife than
the survival of one's cadaver in a cryonic freezer.
In what follows I shall, initially at least, follow tradition in using the terms "mind" and "soul" more or
less interchangeably.
AN APPEAL TO THE NONCOGITATIVE NATURE OF MATTER
Across the Channel from France, Descartes' younger contemporary, the English philosopher and medical
researcher, John Locke (1632-1704), accepted the dualist point of view and gave it added impetus by
arguing for the metaphysical impossibility of unthinking matter producing things that think.
In his Essay Concerning Human Understanding, under the heading "A system of incogitative matter
cannot be cogitative" he argues:
"For unthinking particles of matter, however put together, can have nothing added to them but a new
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relation of position, which it is impossible should give thought and knowledge to them."
Locke's argument is not based on a review of the science of his day. It is not an empirical argument but
the conclusion of a wholly a priori one. It begins a few pages earlier when he likens what he calls the
"manifest contradiction" involved in supposing that matter might be produced out of nothing, to the
absurdity involved in supposing that thinking intelligent beings might be produced out of incogitative
matter. Just as it is impossible, he claims, for matter to come out of nothing, so it is equally impossible for
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mind to come out of matter.
Locke's argument, taken together with the application of Leibniz's Law, constitutes a powerful case for
substance dualism, one that continues to daunt many would-be materialists of our day. We will need to get
to grips with both if we're to defend a materialist view of the universe and of our status within it.
A HOST OF PROBLEMS FOR SUBSTANCE DUALISM
In order for the mind or soul to survive one's bodily death, the mind or soul must be independent of the
body or any of its organs, such as the brain. Why, then, does the state of one's mind, before death, depend
so manifestly on the state of one's body, and on the state of one's brain in particular?
THE INEXPLICABILITY OF MIND-BRAIN DEPENDENCE
That the mind does depend on the body can be shown by countless examples, of which just a handful will
suffice to make the point:

A blow to the head can deprive one of consciousness
Consumption of alcohol or drugs can change one's perceptions
Changes to the relevant sensory organs, or to certain areas of the brain, can deprive one of the
associated sensory experiences
Certain changes to the brain cause Alzheimer's disease and deprive one of normal mental abilities
Mutation of one or more genes can cause mental disorders.
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The primary problem for a substance dualist is to explain why, if minds are ontologically independent
of bodies and their states, these causal relationships and dependencies should occur; and to explain the
"mechanisms" by which they occur. Any explanation solely in terms of physical or biochemical laws is
ruled out from the outset, since nothing counts as a physical law unless it relates purely physical
phenomena; and ditto for biochemical laws. And any generalization we make correlating the physical
phenomena with their mental outcomes is merely a recognition of the dependencies we have been
illustrating. It can't count as a causal explanation.
The manifest dependency of changes in one's mental states on changes in bodily states, while we are
alive, leaves the dualist facing another puzzle. Namely, what would or could bring about changes in one's
mental states when one is dead? Try to imagine for a moment that you are a disembodied soul existing
somewhere or other in the hereafter. What could bring about changes in what you see, hear, feel, or smell,
once you are deprived of the corresponding bodily organs and brain centres? Would you fail to have such
experiences, and fail to be conscious of changes in your other-worldly environment? Would your mental
life be inert?
THE INEXPLICABILITY OF MENTAL CAUSATION
Nothing seems more obvious than mental events bringing about physical ones. Examples abound, from the
most mundane:

My arm moves when I decide to move it to the most momentous:
Einstein's thought experiments over a century ago led him to formulate, then put down on paper, his e
= mc2 equation, which--when recycled again and again through the minds of countless
mathematicians, physicists, and engineers--led to one of the most earth-shaking events in human
history, the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, and subsequent developments such as the
international nuclear industry, and the disasters at Five Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima.

These causal transactions from mind to matter are as inexplicable, for the dualist, as are those the other
way around. For, by hypothesis, the two-way causal transactions that are supposed to bridge the gap do
not belong to either side of the ontological gap; they are neither mental nor physical.
Faced with this predicament, traditional dualists "got into fairyland", as David Hume (1711-1776) put
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it . They invoked God to do the trick. Some like Malebranche (1638-1715), said God got into the act all
the time. Whenever a physical event seemed to cause a mental one, or vice versa, God would choose that
occasion to bring about the appropriate seeming effect. Leibniz (1646-1716) seemed to think that such
Occasionalism, as it came to be known, gave God too much to do. How much wiser and more efficient it
would be for God to simply synchronize the two sets from the outset of creation. Hence Leibniz's doctrine
of Pre-Established Harmony between the two worlds: the material and the mental.
THE VIOLATION OF SCIENTIFIC LAWS
It didn't take long for Descartes and his successors to recognize the problem of fitting the dualist
hypothesis into the science of physics. Descartes envisaged the mind as being located within the pineal
gland where it comes into "contact" with the so-called "vital spirits", and brings about changes in the
physical world. Yet it had long been suspected by physicists that the total amount of energy in the
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physical universe is constant . How, then, can the mind or soul affect it?
The Cartesian's early answer was to acknowledge that the soul couldn't in fact change the total quantity
of energy, but to insist that it could nevertheless alter the direction of motion of the vital spirits, and
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thereby effect changes in other parts of the body. But, as Bertrand Russell (1872-1970) has observed,
later Cartesians such as Geulinex (1624-1669), Malebranche, and Spinoza (1632-1677) had to abandon
this part of Descartes' theory, too. Discovery of the physical law known as the Conservation of
Momentum dictated also that the direction of motion in any given direction is constant.
These days, at least six Conservation Laws are recognized as fundamental to physics. The science of
physics, in short, leaves no room for non-physical entities to bring about changes in the physical universe.
This is sometimes referred to as the Causal Closure of the physical world.
So here's a dilemma for dualists: Either minds or souls make a difference to the physical world or they
don't. If they do make a difference, then the science of physics must be fundamentally flawed, despite no
such flaw yet being detected. If they don't make a difference, what's the practical significance of having a
mind or soul? Moreover, if they don't make a difference, why are we under what I'll call "the Obama
illusion" that we can change the world?
MINDS AREN'T MIRACLE-WORKERS
Those dualists who found it hard to swallow God's intervention as postulated by the doctrines of
Occasionalism and Pre-Established Harmony, came up with a third supernaturalist hypothesis. Minds
themselves--whatever their genesis--are non-natural, supernatural, entities capable of intervening in the
natural world. The problem then, however, is that we ourselves are made into miracle-workers. For any
change our mind brings about in the physical world would satisfy the commonly accepted definition of a
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miracle. It would be "a violation of a law of nature by a supernatural agent."
But do dualists really want to conclude that every time we do something as a result of a mental act, we
are performing a miracle? That would make the notion of miracles utterly banal and commonplace, put us
into competition with God himself, and deprive reputed earthly miracle-workers of the past--Moses,
Jesus, and miscellaneous saints--of their unique status.
OUR EMBRYOLOGICAL AND DEVELOPMENTAL HISTORIES
If, as dualists suppose, the mind or soul of a living individual is an entity that comes to inhabit that
individual's body, then there must be some determinate time when it takes up its habitation. But that
hypothesis spawns many imponderable questions: questions for which no non-arbitrary answer can be
given; questions that cannot in principle be weighed or assessed in the light of any conceivable empirical
evidence.
Does someone's soul pre-exist in the supposed supernatural domain before it takes up habitation in a
particular human body? If so, does it have any say in the matter of where it is to go? Or is its earthly
habitation assigned by God? Does it, perhaps, come into existence at the moment when a particular sperm
and ovum unite to form a zygote? Or does it wait until the zygote divides to form a blastomere? Most
conservative Christians believe God implants the soul in the zygote at the moment of conception. But
many religious progressives believe this occurs some time during the 26th week of pregnancy. Who's
right? And what sort of evidence would lead us to decide one way or the other?
And there are other imponderable questions to be asked. For we do know that the sort of person one is
to become is determined to a great extent by the genes of both parents. So, if the soul also is to play any
part in determining what one is going to become, it becomes plausible to suppose that an individual's soul
is also inherited from both parents. Do I, then, inherit half my soul from each parent? If so, what are the
mechanisms of soul-inheritance? Does a soul-analogue of the biological process of gamete-producing
meiosis occur?
These questions sound uncomfortably like the question, "How many angels can dance on the head of a
pin?"
PROBLEMS ABOUT OUR EVOLUTIONARY HISTORIES
The intellectual stress-tests on substance dualism become even more severe when we seek plausible,
well-reasoned answers to questions about the evolutionary origins of minds and souls.
As with the developmental history of each individual, so also with the evolutionary history of the
human species or its ancestors, questions arise with regard to the temporal beginnings of soul-
embodiment (sometimes called ensoulment).
According to substance dualism, there must have been a time before which souls or minds appeared in
the cosmos, and a time after souls took up their habitat in human bodies, or the bodies of their
evolutionary ancestors. It's unfair to ask for a specific time, of course. But it is reasonable to raise
questions as to whether souls are supposed to have arrived, or arisen, before or after homo sapiens split
off from our evolutionary cousins, say the Neanderthals. If before, then Neanderthals too may be
presumed to have had souls that religious believers can look forward to meeting in the afterlife. If not
until after, then no one will have that pleasure, either in Heaven or Hell. Pope John Paul II contented
himself, in his 1996 message to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, with giving his imprimatur to the
Theory of Evolution on one proviso: that there be some time or other when God began inserting
immaterial souls into the hitherto purely material universe. But the Pope forbore speculation about the
time even to within a few million years. He also neglected to say whether implanting souls into our distant
forebears was a one-time event such that some unspecified process of soul-inheritance (and, perhaps,
soul-mutation?) took over thereafter, or whether God has had to do it for each individual descendant
thereafter. If so, does he sometimes fail to perform the task of ensoulment, thereby leaving some
individuals soulless? Perhaps some successor Pope, priest, or theologian will reveal the answers to these
questions in the years to come.
But this is the least of our soul-embodiment problems. Minds, on the substance-dualist's account, are
believed to be the bearers of mental properties such as intelligence, inventiveness, consciousness,
emotion, etc. But this belief puts stress on the assumption that minds and souls are identical or that they
always accompany one another. For it must surely be acknowledged that humans are not the only sentient
creatures to exhibit some degree of intelligence, inventiveness, consciousness, emotion, and the like. Are
we to conclude, then, that some nonhuman creatures too have minds, at least in rudimentary form? And if
so, are we to conclude also that such creatures have souls, or rudimentary ones? Or are minds and souls
really quite different from each other after all? And is this why the expression "body, mind, and soul"
trips so readily from our tongues?
The quandary for dualists can be presented more formally as an inconsistent quadruple, i.e., a set of
four propositions any three of which entail the denial of the fourth. Consider the following:
1. Mental properties belong to minds, not to bodies or bodily organs.
2. Minds and souls are identical or always accompany one another.
3. Some non-human creatures exhibit mental properties.
4. No non-human creatures have souls.
To deny (1) would mean that mental properties might belong to bodily objects, not to ethereal minds.
To deny (2) would mean that we are really on to something ontologically significant when we speak of
bodies, minds, and souls as if we humans possess all three of them. To deny (3) would be to deny a host
of empirically well ascertained facts, such as: that many animals only distantly related to us on the
evolutionary tree are conscious of changes in their environment; that many non-human animals such as
dolphins display consciousness, inventiveness, emotion, memory, and intelligence; that some of our closer
evolutionary cousins such as bonobos and chimpanzees can perform some intelligence-demanding tests
better than most humans; and that some of these species have developed social and political structures. To
deny (4) would be to occasion awkward questions for religion. If bonobos and chimpanzees, for example,
have souls as well as minds, will they join human souls in an afterlife?
Which of the four alternatives will our substance dualist deny in order to preserve the minimal
requirement of rationality, viz., non-contradiction? Or will some see these questions as shaking the
presuppositional foundations of their whole dualist ontology? The flood of imponderables increases.

WHICH STAGE OF THE SOUL OR MIND SURVIVES?


Our minds change and mature during our lives. And our mental states vary from moment to moment every
day we're alive. So which stage of your mind or soul will survive? Will it be the mind or soul that you
happen to have at the moment of death? What if a foetus dies while in the womb? Or if a child dies
uneducated? Or if you die in your dotage? Will persons suffering from Downs Syndrome, Alzheimer’s, or
paranoia, carry on in that condition in the afterlife?
Saint Paul--for seemingly good theological reasons--emphasized the doctrine of bodily resurrection:
that we survive with new, reconstituted bodies. Yet clearly there's equally great need for those surviving
in a spiritual world to have their minds too reconstituted. And so far as I know, no spiritual authority--no
Pope, priest, or theologian--has yet ventured any view as to how that might be effected. Besides, the idea
of an individual entering the great hereafter with some sort of newly perfected mind raises immediate
problems for the issue of personal identity: how could one's mind, before being reconstituted, be
numerically identical with one's mind after processing. In what sense is a newly re-treaded tire the same
as the old, worn-out one?
PRESUPPOSING A CATEGORY MISALLOCATION
When a hypothesis generates a host of imponderable questions like these, we would do well to examine
its presuppositions lest any of them are mistaken. What, then, are the presuppositions of mind/body
dualism?
Chief among them is the presupposition that both minds and bodies belong to the category of individual
objects, or substances. It is this presupposition that enables dualists to appeal, explicitly or implicitly, to
Leibniz's Law and conclude that it is because they are such different kinds of individuals, objects, or
substances, that minds or souls can survive even when bodies don't.
Our normal ways of speaking lend support to this way of thinking about minds and bodies. For the
terms "mind" and "body" are both nouns, and nouns--some of us were taught from childhood--are names
of things. The conclusion comes readily. Both "mind" and "body" seem to be appropriate substitutions for
the individual variables "x" and "y" in Leibniz's Law of Non-Identity of Discernibles, viz.:
If individual x has any property that individual y lacks then x and y are different individuals.
So it seems entirely logical to reason that since bodies have the property of being spatially extended
while minds lack that property, they must be entirely different kinds of objects.
Now the lure of language that leads us to think in this way about the primary mentalistic term "mind"
can lead us to conclude, by analogous reasoning, that secondary mentalistic terms such as "intelligence",
"memory", "emotion", "volition", "understanding", "creativity", "contemplation", and "reason", also stand
for different individual things and that each of them is distinct from the body.
Not only "can" language lead to this conclusion, but historically it has. As John Locke pointed out, each
of these secondary terms was used by Scholastic philosophers before and during his day to refer to what
they called "faculties." And such talk continues to our own day in some quarters. As Locke pointed out:
"This way of speaking of faculties has led many into a confused notion of so many distinct agents within
us, which had their several provinces and authorities, and did command, obey, and perform several
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actions, as so many distinct beings."
THE FALLACY OF REIFICATION
Locke is drawing our attention to linguistically generated instances of what's called the "Fallacy of
Reification." One is guilty of that fallacy when one treats an abstract noun as the name of a real thing that
is capable of independent existence. It is a fallacy that is memorably illustrated in another of Lewis
Carroll's works, Through the Looking Glass, ch. VII. Talking to Alice, the King says:
"[The Messengers have] both gone to the town. Just look along the road, and tell me if you can see
either of them."
"I see nobody on the road," said Alice.
"I only wish I had such eyes," the King remarked in a fretful tone. "To be able to see Nobody! And at
that distance too! Why, it's as much as I can do to see real people, by this light."
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As contemporary philosopher Peter Heath, in The Philosopher's Alice, comments:
"Because nobody functions grammatically very like somebody, there is a temptation to believe that it is
the name of a peculiar, diaphanous sort of somebody, who is then unnecessarily added to the world's
inhabitants. In such a way does the language of abstraction darken counsel, corrupt communications, and
beget bad philosophy, a theme much insisted on by Bacon, Hobbes, Locke, Berkeley, Hume, Kant, and
their many modern successors."
Thus Locke, in the passage quoted above, is pointing out that the Scholastic's error was to reify such
abstract nouns as "consciousness", "intelligence", "memory", "emotion", "volition", "understanding",
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"creativity", "contemplation", and "reason", thus treating them as "distinct agents within us."
RESISTING THE REIFYING LURE OF LANGUAGE
I have a general piece of advice to offer here: In thinking about such questions as "What is the mind?",
"What is intelligence?", or "What is consciousness?"--any question involving the name of some non-
physical abstraction--we do well to avoid the noun and concentrate instead on the corresponding verb,
adverb, or adjective.
For instance, the question "What is consciousness?", about which so many neuro-scientists and
philosophers currently seem so deeply puzzled, is better replaced by questions like "What is it to be
conscious?" (the verb), "What is it to do something consciously?" (the adverb), or "What is it for someone
to be in a conscious state?" (the adjective). It then becomes clear that the abstract noun "consciousness"
isn't the name of some elusive thing; it isn't the name of a thing at all. To be conscious is to be aware; to
do something consciously is to do it while being aware of what one is doing; to be in a conscious state is
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to be in a general state of awareness of one's self or surroundings. Likewise for other mentalistic nouns.
DUALISTIC CONSEQUENCES OF REIFYING MENTALISTIC TERMS
Dualists, however, succumbed to the reifying temptation. Their consequent problems are two-fold.
In the first place, each of these secondary mentalistic terms, when thought of as standing for a distinct
agent within us, generates its own set of imponderable questions, a set that mirrors those noted earlier for
the primary term "mind". Take the notion of consciousness, for instance. If we reify the abstract noun
"consciousness", it will seem appropriate for us to ask questions about the interdependence of bodily
states and consciousness; questions about consciousness and its causal efficacy in a world governed by
conservation laws; questions about the beginnings of consciousness in the embryological and evolutionary
stories of individuals and species; and questions about which stage of our consciousness is supposed to
survive one's bodily death.
Second, if we think of intelligence, volition, consciousness, etc., as distinct entities--"distinct agents
within us"--then dualism is threatened from still another quarter. It will no longer suffice to think of
ourselves solely in dualistic terms. We would need to conceive of ourselves as composed of bodies,
minds, plus all these other entities as well. And then the hypothesis of survival of our bodily deaths
becomes even more implausible than before. Since Leibniz's Law dictates that minds are different things
from consciousness, intelligence, and from emotion, and from volition, and from . . . (you complete the
list), it follows that all these other entities will have to survive as well as your mind or soul. After all,
consciousness, intelligence, memory, creativity, etc., are not even coextensive across the animal kingdom,
let alone within individual humans. The question then arises as to what would hold all these "distinct
agents" together to survive as you in the next world?
All these additional imponderable problems, we have seen, are generated by the presupposition that
abstract mentalistic terms, when reified, can legitimately be substituted for the individual variables, "x"
and "y", in Leibniz's Law.
But what if this presupposition is mistaken? What if we don't allow ourselves to reify mentalistic terms
or take them to be subject to the strictures of Leibniz's Law? What if minds don't belong to the general
category of objects, or substances--as clearly bodies do--but to some other general category?
ALLOCATION TO ONTOLOGICAL CATEGORIES
In asking this question, I am using "category" as a philosophical term of art that traces its roots back to
Aristotle (384-322 BC), who arguably used the term to refer to the highest genera of entities that we need
to recognize if we are to give an account of the constituents and fabric of reality. True, in his Categoriae
Aristotle spends a lot of time concentrating on which combinations of words make sense and which do
not. But his intent seems to be that of ensuring that we use them in ways that conform to correct
ontological beliefs. Commenting on Aristotle's treatment of categories, Porphyry (234-305CE) wrote,
"As things [my italics] are, so are the expressions which primarily indicate them."
In what follows I shall emulate what I take to be Aristotle's primary ontological intent, but will offer a
somewhat shorter list of ontological categories, to aid our thinking about the issues before us. My select
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list of Ontological Categories includes:

1. INDIVIDUAL OBJECTS, OR SUBSTANCES (capable of independent existence in the sense defined
in footnote 9)
2. PROPERTIES, ATTRIBUTES, OR QUALITIES (inhering in, or belonging to, and incapable
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of existing independently of, individual objects or substances)
3. RELATIONS (holding between individual objects, substances, states of affairs, and events)
4. STATES OF AFFAIRS (individuals being proper tied or being related to one another)
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5. EVENTS (temporal changes in states of affairs )
6. CLASSES OR SETS (of instances of each of the foregoing categories).
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The categories in my list are neither exclusive of one another , nor do they exhaust the list of the
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constituents of reality . And within each category, there are--of course--many possible subcategories,
classes, and subclasses.
In light of this list of ontological categories, we can return to my question. In effect, I am asking what
happens if we conceive of mentalistic terms as referring, not to items in Category 1 but to items in
Category 2? The answer is simple: Leibniz's Law turns out to have been misapplied, and once we realize
that, all our imponderables go away.
In thinking of minds and other mentalistic items as being individual objects or substances, dualists are
guilty not just of the Fallacy of Reification but also of the (consequent) Fallacy of Category Misallocation.
LOCKE'S PARTIAL SOLUTION TO CATEGORY MISALLOCATION
In the paragraph from which the "distinct agent" passage quoted above is extracted, Locke refers
explicitly to the mentalistic terms "understanding" and "will" and criticizes the Scholastics'
presupposition that they are names of ''real beings", i.e., of items in Category 1. He analyses them instead
as being the names of what he calls "powers", (abilities, capacities, dispositions), i.e., as names of
properties, i.e., as names of items in Category 2.
What's more, his recommended reallocation of understanding and will to the category of properties, not
things, enables him to avoid the sorts of questions that we have called "imponderable" and that he calls
"improper." The question whether we have free will is a case in point. Given that volition, on his
analysis, is a property and that being free is also a property, he argues:
“Liberty belongs not to the will.----If this be so (as I imagine it is), I leave it to be considered,
whether it may not help to put an end to that long agitated, and I think unreasonable, because
unintelligible, question, viz., Whether man's will be free or no? For if I mistake not, it follows from what
I have said, that the question is altogether improper: and it is as insignificant to ask whether a man's will
be free, as to ask whether his sleep be swift, or his virtue square. Liberty, which is but a power [property]
belongs only to agents, and cannot be an attribute [property] or modification of the will, which is also but
a power [property].”
Resuming the argument a few paragraphs later, he concludes:
“But to the agent or man.----To return then to the inquiry about liberty, I think the question is not
proper, whether the will be free, but whether the man be free.”
The essence of Locke's argument is this. To talk about the will is to talk about a property of a person; to
talk about being free is to talk about another property of a person; properties always belong to individual
objects or substances such as agents or men. To ask whether the property of being free belonged to
another property, viz., the ability to act, is therefore as absurd as it would be to ask whether the property
of sleeping had another property, viz., that of being swift or slow, or to ask whether the property of being
virtuous had the property of being square or circular.
Locke's allocation of understanding and will to the category of properties, can be generalized to
embrace the other secondary mentalistic notions of consciousness, intelligence, creativity, etc. And if we
then follow him in drawing the conclusion that all these mentalistic terms refer to properties of men as
agents, we rid ourselves of all the imponderable, "improper" questions to which the rival category
misallocations lead.
However, despite Locke's insight in thinking of most mentalistic terms as referring to items in the
category of properties rather than substances, he was unable to see his way clear to do so for all
mentalistic terms. For him the exception was the primary abstract term "mind." When it comes to
specifying the bearer of mentalistic properties like understanding and will, he speaks indifferently of this
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bearer as "the agent or man", or as "the mind" or "the soul". On his view, it is the body's inhabitant, the
mind or soul, which has mental powers. In short, he is still operating within the conceptual framework of
Cartesian dualism.
It was left to Oxford philosopher, Gilbert Ryle (1900-1976), two and a half centuries later, to show
how talk of the mind could also be construed in terms of Lockean "powers"--more particularly, sets of
properties--and thereby get rid of substance-dualism altogether.
CATEGORY MISTAKES AND "THE GHOST IN THE MACHINE"
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In his influential book The Concept of Mind Ryle argues that the Cartesian theory that humans are ghosts
in bodily machines presupposes what he calls a "Category Mistake."
His book has been widely, and I think justly, criticized on two main scores.
First, he tends to set aside all ontological considerations and concentrate solely on linguistic ones. He
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was, after all, one of the leading figures of what was described as "the linguistic turn" in philosophy.
Ryle's criterion for distinguishing one category from another is to see whether, if we replace one linguistic
expression with another in a given sentence, we turn a meaningful sentence into what he calls an
"absurdity." For example, if we replace the term "Socrates" in the sentence "Socrates is in bed" with the
term "Saturday" we turn a meaningful sentence into a literal absurdity. Hence, he concludes, both the term
"Socrates" and its referent, the person Socrates, belong to a different category from the term "Saturday"
and its referent, the day of the week after Friday. And anyone who thought that Saturday was the sort of
thing that could be in bed would therefore, on Ryle's account, be committing a "category mistake."
The problem with this account is that it trivializes the notion of a difference in categories, making it
indistinguishable from that of a difference in classes. As J. J. C. [Jack] Smart pointed out, in "A Note on
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Categories", if we replace "chair" with "table" in the sentence "The seat of my chair is hard", we get an
absurd statement. Yet if any two objects belong to the same category, surely tables and chairs do. Ryle's
absurdity-test is too profligate in its generation of so-called category mistakes. By way of contrast, my
neo-Aristotelian account of categories gives the notion of a category mistake--what I prefer to call a
category misallocation--an ontological bite. The category misallocation of which substance dualists are
guilty involves a serious misdescription of the nature of reality itself. To borrow from Peter Heath's The
Philosophers Alice, they treat the term "mind" as "the name of a peculiar, diaphanous sort of entity,
[which] is then unnecessarily added to the world's inhabitants."
Second, Ryle conceived of mentalistic expressions like "knowledge", "will", "emotion", "imagination",
and "intellect", as denoting properties which are best analysed, he thinks, in behaviouristic terms. True, he
sought to distinguish his position from the cruder one of B. F. Skinner et. al. by calling it "logical
behaviourism." But behaviourism in general, whether, logical or otherwise, has long been out of favour,
and few philosophers (if any) would now come to its defence. I, for one, certainly would not.
TO HAVE A MIND IS TO HAVE A SET OF MENTAL PROPERTIES
Neither of these criticisms, however, should distract us from recognizing what I see as Ryle's most
important contribution to the theory of mind: his account of what it is to have a mind as distinct from the
secondary mental properties that we normally ascribe to the mind. He puts it this way:
"To talk of a person's mind . . . is to talk of the person's abilities, liabilities [dispositions] and
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inclinations to do and undergo certain sorts of things . . .”
(Where abilities, liabilities, and inclinations--like Locke's "powers"--are thought of as belonging in the
category of properties).
He claimed the expression "mind" is what he elsewhere called an "umbrella term", i.e., a compendious
word that designates a superset of concepts that all fall under a singly common category. To have a mind,
is not to have a certain sort of mental property. Rather it is to have a certain set of such properties. On this
view, the concept mind is an abstract entity, a set belonging to ontological category 6, a set whose
members are mental properties belonging to ontological category 2.
I first advanced this reconstrual of Ryle's main theses in The Concept of Mind in several discussions
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with him when I was teaching in Oxford in 1961. He then agreed that it afforded a sound ontological
basis for his views without inviting the sorts of criticisms that had been voiced by Smart back in 1953.
With or without his imprimatur, however, it is this Ryle-inspired view of the matter that I now--some fifty
years later--still think correct and will advance in what follows.
INTERIM SUMMARY
I began this chapter with an analogy. I said that belief in the possibility of one's surviving one's physical
death is analogous to belief in the Cheshire Cat's grin surviving the Cat's total disappearance. And I
announced my intent to show:

That a human mind, like the Cheshire Cat's grin, has a different mode of existence from its bearer,
viz., a human body and a cat's body respectively;
That a mind, like a grin, is a property (or set of properties) of its bearer, and hence cannot continue
to exist after its bearers does not;
That the property of having a mind, like the property of having a grin, is one that emerges when the
purely physical constituents of their respective bearers are appropriately configured.

I take myself to have accomplished the first two goals. It remains for me to argue for the emergence
theory of mind and mental properties.
THE EMERGENCE OF MINDS FROM INCOGITATIVE MATTER
A besetting sin of many philosophers is to second-guess the outcome of experience. Such was the case
with Locke's argument. Remember how it goes:
“A system of incogitative matter cannot be cogitative. For unthinking particles of matter, however put
together, can have nothing added to them but a new relation of position, which it is impossible should give
thought and knowledge to them [considered collectively].”
Two things are clear about this passage.
First, Locke is making an ontological claim, a claim about the nature of reality, not an epistemological
claim about what we can know about reality.
Second, his argument is a quite general one to the effect that, for any system made up of particles of
matter, if the individual particles lack a property F, then it is impossible for the system itself to have the
property F.
Another instance of this argument is that employed by proponents of so-called intelligent design against
their evolutionist foes. It is inconceivable, they argue, that material particles lacking the property of life,
should form a biological system that has that property. Life, they conclude, must be breathed into
nonliving forms by God, just as--for most substance dualists like Locke--souls and minds can only be
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breathed into living man by God.
REFUTATION BY COUNTER-EXAMPLES
The best way to refute an argument purporting to show that such and such a state of affairs, S, is
impossible, is to show that S is possible, because it actually occurs. In short, the best refutation is by
counter-example.
Now there are literally innumerable examples of systems of individual things such as material particles
that possess a property F when none of individual constituents of that system have F.
I'll cite just three from physical chemistry. (i) Let's start with atoms. The commonest, and simplest,
atom in the cosmos, is known as atomic hydrogen-1. Although individual atoms of hydrogen lack the
properties of temperature, pressure, and flammability, an assembly of those atoms to form a volume of
hydrogen gas does indeed have those properties. (ii) Turning now to molecules, although individual
molecules of H2O lack the property of liquidity, an assembly of such molecules to form a quantity of
water is indeed liquid at normal pressure and temperature and has the dispositional property to freeze
solid or vapourize as steam under different conditions of temperature and pressure. (iii) When we turn to
hydrocarbons, the simplest organic compounds, we find that it is their structure, not just their multiple
assembly, that determines the properties of the whole compound substance. The constituents are only
carbon and hydrogen but these constituents can be arranged in straight chains, branched chains, or cyclic
ones. And with each new concatenation there is a consequential difference in properties many of which
are lacking in the simpler constituents. Thus we get hydrocarbons with the properties of gasses, like
methane; liquid solvents like naptha; and more solid substances like tar.
It makes sense to say that all these properties are causal outcomes that emerge from their respective
bases, i.e., their simpler constituents (none of which has such properties), when they are in concatenation
with each other.
Such emergent properties, then, are counter-examples to the general form of Locke's argument. And
since he provides no special case for saying that cogitative properties like thinking and knowing are not
among the class of emergent properties, we can conclude that Locke's argument is an aprioristic fraud.
Locke should have known better. For his argument from incredulity would, if sound, undermine his own
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distinction between primary qualities and secondary qualities.
THE CONCEPT OF EMERGENCE DEFINED
For the sake of what follows I offer the following stipulative-cum-clarificatory definitions of "emergent
property" and of what it is for a property to "emerge":
An emergent property is a kind of property that is possessed by a complex object but not by the
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simpler objects that are its constituents.
A property F emerges (temporally) from a state of affairs S1 just when the individuals that are
constituents of S1 lack F and come to be arranged in a new and more complex state of affairs S2
that does have F.
These definitions are clearly satisfied by the foregoing examples of temperature, pressure,
flammability, and ability to solidify, vaporize, liquefy, and so on.
By way of contrast with these, it is easy to cite examples of properties that are not emergent with
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respect to the properties of their simpler constituents. A notable example is the property of mass.
Consider, again, the example with which we began, viz., a volume of hydrogen gas. Both the gas, and each
of its constituent atoms, has the property of mass. Indeed the mass of the gas is the sum of the masses of
the constituent hydrogen atoms. Mass is a non-emergent property of both. And mass, whenever it occurs
as a property of an object, microphysical or macrophysical, anywhere in the universe retains its character
as a non-emergent property. Other prima facie examples of non-emergent properties are electrical charge,
spin, spatiality, and weight (a relational property).
WRONG-HEADED CONCEPTS OF EMERGENCE
Unfortunately, over the past two decades, the term "emergent property" has become a buzz-word in
science (especially in biology and neuroscience) and in philosophy (especially philosophy of mind). Not
surprisingly, therefore, it has become associated in people's minds with a number of distinct but related
concepts: issues regarding predictability versus unpredictability, for example, and issues about
reductionism. In fact some philosophers have talked of emergence as if it were best understood in terms
of these other muddy concepts.
But the concepts of predictability and reductionism are not only in need of disambiguation. They are
primarily epistemological concepts (involving our knowledge of the world), whereas, as I see it, the
concept of emergence is a purely ontological one having to do with the nature of the world itself.
Worse still, attempts to define emergence in these sorts of ways have led some philosophers to question
whether there are in fact any clear-cut cases of emergent properties. My definition, by way of contrast, is
grounded in clear-cut examples of properties that are emergent, and others that are not emergent. And it
lends itself to simple empirical tests of whether a property is emergent or non-emergent.
THE UBIQUITOUSNESS OF EMERGENT PROPERTIES
There is nothing mysterious, let alone miraculous, about the notion of an emergent property as so defined.
Arguably, the phenomenon of a complex object coming to have a property that its simpler constituents lack
is ubiquitous throughout the cosmos. Thus it may be argued, plausibly, that when we pass from the
consideration of the properties of substances and individual objects studied in physics and chemistry to
those of the "higher-order" sciences of bio-chemistry, biology, physiology, neurophysiology, psychology,
sociology, and economics, we are invariably confronted with examples of properties that can best be
understood as emergent with respect to, and causally explicable (at least in principle) in terms of, the
sorts of properties dealt with at the "lower" level.
The concept of emergent properties must feature, too, in any account of the causal nexus that has
governed the universe since its origins in the big bang some 13.73 billion years ago. It was then that the
process of nuclear fusion led first to the emergence, from hydrogen, of helium, then lithium, and so right
up to the heavier atoms such as iron that have been forged in supernovae. Each of the elements featuring in
this causal story has its own emergent properties, properties not possessed by the simpler constituents of
which they were the fused products.
The concept of emergence must feature, again, in the account to be given of abiogenesis: the emergence
of living organisms from nonliving inorganic compounds (molecules). Whether this occurred by means of
autocatalysis or by some other mechanism, remains to be determined. But clearly, the only alternative to
explaining the origins and hence the emergence of living organisms is to invoke some sort of miraculous
intervention by a supernatural agent.
The same stark alternatives face us when we try to give an account of the emergence of various
"mental" properties within the context of the evolutionary history of species. Whether or not we count
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possession of sensory powers such as the ability to "see", "hear", "touch", "smell", and "taste", as
mental powers matters not. For possession of at least some of these seems to be a precursor of possession
of the more stereotypically mental powers such as consciousness, and the ability to think and reason. And
each is arguably the causal product of increasingly complex organization of the creature that possesses
them. In short, sensory powers, along with more stereotypical mental powers, can be seen as emerging in
more complex biological organisms as they evolve from their (usually) simpler ancestors. The emergence
of various mental properties--ranging from simple awareness to ability to reason--seems to go hand in
hand, for the most part, with the evolution of species from simpler ancestors. At no point do we need to
invoke the miraculous intervention of a supernatural agent--some God or "intelligent designer"--to
"explain" the emergence of such properties. There is a warranted presumption that naturalistic
explanations ultimately going back to the beginnings of the material universe will suffice, no matter how
elusive at this relatively early stage in our scientific knowledge.
Viewed from this perspective, the idea of emergence is far more ubiquitous even than is that of
evolution. It encompasses the whole history of the universe since its earliest beginnings, from the origins
of the elements, to the origins of organic molecules, to the origins of living organisms, to the beginnings of
sentient animals, to the powers of individual human beings, and the powers of those beings when
assembled in the complex organizations that form human societies.
The relatively recent emergence in the last few million years of various sophisticated mental properties
in humans and their Neanderthal cousins, both with highly developed nervous systems, is nothing special.
It forms only a tiny episode in the continuum of developments that began some 13.73 billion years ago.
In 1998, the great biologist Edward O. Wilson latched on to the important idea of consilience as a
concept needed in order to give us an overview of the unity of knowledge. By "consilience" he means "the
'jumping together' of knowledge by the linking of facts and fact-based theory across disciplines to create a
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common groundwork of explanation." Consilience, as so defined, has to do with the logical coherence
or consistency of branches of knowledge. It is a logical-cum-epistemological concept.
The concept of emergence, as I have defined it, is equally all-embracing. It affords us with an
ontological concomitant of consilience. It forms part of a metaphysical theory--that of emergent
materialism--in terms of which to think about the way reality is structured so as to make consilience
achievable. It is a concept, I submit, that needs to feature, along with that of consilience, in any account of
how the unity of science might be achieved.
My general thesis may be expressed in quasi-biblical language, thus:
In the beginning was emergence. And episodes of emergence were part of the causal nexus that
cemented the universe together. And Science saw that it was good. For emergence formed part of the
ontological underpinning that made the unity of knowledge possible.
THE METAPHYSICS OF EMERGENT MATERIALISM
The concept of emergence is the distinguishing feature of the general metaphysical theory of Emergent
Materialism. Some of the salient theses of Emergent Materialism, as I conceive it, are these:
CONTRA SUBSTANCE MONISM
Emergent Materialism maintains that every object or substance that exists, whether relatively simple or
complex, is a material one. Emergent materialism is a form of substance monism as opposed to substance
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dualism. It denies the existence, therefore, of any objects or substances that are not material in nature,
where the term "material" is best understood in term of its extension, i.e., the set of properties designated
by the term. These are properties such as mass, velocity, electrical charge, spin, spatial dimensions, and
weight. In short, if minds or souls, are conceived as immaterial objects or substance, then the materialist
says there are no such things. The supposition that they do exist as objects arises from the temptation to
reify abstract nouns like "mind" by treating them as names of real things capable of independent existence.
So I have argued. On the other hand, I have also argued that if the term "mind" is construed as an umbrella
term for a set, bundle, or collection of so-called mental properties (ranging from sensations to full-blown
consciousness), then it is undoubtedly true that most people, if not in a vegetative state, do have minds.
WHY PROPERTY DUALISM IS MISCONCEIVED
Emergent Materialism is sometimes classified as a form of so-called "Property Dualism", a metaphysical
theory which, while espousing substance materialism, claims that the properties of material objects and
substances are of two basic kinds: material, and mental. But the idea of there being only a duality of kinds
of properties is conceptually myopic. Why not another duality dividing properties into living and non-
living? Or a combination of the two, yielding a trinitarian division of non-living, living but non-
mentalistic, and both living and mentalistic? Property dualism is a misleading conceptual framework
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within which to view the principal theses of Emergent Materialism. It is insufficiently synoptic.
EMERGENT PROPERTIES OF DIFFERENT KINDS
It does not follow from the assertion that all objects are material in nature that they do not also possess
other kinds of properties. For material objects, when concatenated in complex objects, may produce
properties in these complexes that are not possessed by their simpler material constituents. These are the
properties that we have called emergent. In addition to having material properties, then, complex objects
may come to have emergent properties that are not normally listed as material properties. In short,
complex material objects may also come to have other properties as well, such as chemical, bio-
chemical, biological, neurophysiological, mental, etc.
THE HIERARCHY OF SCIENCES
In so classifying these other, emergent, properties of material objects we employ epistemic criteria. That
is, we employ criteria drawn from the relevant field of scientific knowledge that deals with objects and
substances having those different kinds of properties. Thus, Physics is the field primarily devoted to the
study of material properties of simple and complex objects; Chemistry is the field primarily devoted to
the study of the chemical properties of complex material objects, viz., molecules; Bio-Chemistry is the
field primarily devoted to the study of bio-chemical properties of complex objects; and so on. In this way
we get the concept of a "hierarchy" of the sciences with Physics at the "lowest" level and the Mental
sciences much "higher" up, with the concepts employed at the lower level being employed in causal
explanations of the phenomena involved at the higher levels. This way of categorizing both the properties
of things and the sciences that study them, reflects the disposition of the human mind and language to carve
up reality into discontinuous segments when reality itself, the natural world, in its temporal development,
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is continuous and relatively gradualistic. Our classificatory schemes are a function of linguistic
legislation and social conventions the adequacy of which is continually being tested by our discoveries of
how the world reveals itself in experience.
Just two examples--drawn from opposite ends of the spectrum of mental powers--will suffice to make
the point.
THE CASE OF SENSORY POWERS
Having the power of seeing is standardly classified as a sensory property, and hence as a mental property.
Yet at least one unicellular organism, euglena, possesses rudimentary "eye spots", clusters of pigments
with photoreceptive properties that are thought to have evolved from molecularly similar chemoreceptors.
If sensations are to be counted as mental properties, and light-sensitivity is to be counted as an elementary
form of sensation, then it would seem that we are obliged to say that euglena possesses elementary mental
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powers. Where are we to draw the line, or lines, in the evolutionary spectrum? Or the line between
corresponding fields of scientific study? The lines between Molecular Chemistry (studying
chemoreceptors), Molecular Biology (studying photoreceptors), and Neurophysiology, for example, elude
us. And nature itself doesn't determine them. The lines we draw are partly up to us.
THE CASE OF CONSCIOUSNESS
We can come at the point from the other direction, that of human consciousness, the principal
preoccupation of those philosophers and neurophysiologists who contribute to the academic publication,
Journal of Consciousness Studies. Many contributors come at the concept of consciousness from the
standpoint of subjectivity/phenomenology, of what it is "like" for humans to experience being conscious.
Others are concerned with the neurophysiologic bases of consciousness in both humans and other animals.
Mammals are the sole possessors of highly structured six-layered neocortex, the latest structure to evolve
in some animal brains. The neocortex is thought to be involved in the higher functions of mammalian
brains: sensory perception, conscious thought, and language, for example. But here our classificatory
schemes come under pressure again. For cognitive processes also occur in avians, reptiles, and some
amphibia, even though they lack brains having the distinctive six-layered neocortical structure of
mammals. Are they to be counted as having elementary consciousness? Or do we need some new term to
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mark the difference between mammalian and non-mammalian consciousness? In my view, it matters little
how we decide to describe these rudimentary cognitive processes so long as we recognize the various
degrees of consciousness and other "mental powers" that are present, and have long been present, across
the animal kingdom. We need not aspire to cleave nature at its conceptual joints. For it has none.
THE METAPHYSICAL IMPOSSIBILITY OF SURVIVAL
Those who adopt the metaphysical hypothesis of substance dualism get their thinking tied up in knots
when we ask the simplest, and most obvious, questions about how their ideas are to be cashed out. Hence
the vast list of "imponderable" questions raised earlier. By way of contrast, the metaphysics of emergent
materialism offers straightforward and scientifically well-grounded answers.
MIND-BRAIN DEPENDENCE
The evident dependence of mental states on brain states generates problems for substance dualism only
because of the ontological gulf dualists postulate between the mental and the material. But for emergent
materialism there is no such gulf. Understand the umbrella term "mind" to span a broad spectrum of
emergent mental properties, and the difficulty of conceiving of them as causal products of wholly
material, but highly structured, complexes like the central nervous system, is solved. Our mental abilities
depend on the states of our central nervous system, just as the latter depend in turn on our biochemical
makeup, our genes and the environmental factors that influence our development. These causal
transactions do not have to bridge a mythical gulf between two worlds. They occur within one world: the
material one.
THE ISSUE OF MENTAL CAUSATION
It is apparent that changes in one state of affairs in the material world can be brought about by other
changes in that world. Thus few--other than substance dualists--have difficulty conceiving of changes in
our mental states being brought about by (i.e., caused by) changes in our neurological or pharmacological
states. But equally, few--other than substance dualists--have difficulty conceiving how the converse
causal relations can occur, i.e., how changes in our mental states can bring about changes at "higher"
levels such as one's social and political beliefs; changes in one's social behaviour; and even changes at
"lower" levels such as one's neurological states. Neither sort of causation requires God or any other
supernatural agent to intervene. Both can and do occur within a wholly material world.
THE BOGEYMAN OF EPIPHENOMENALISM
However, there are some materialists who do find it hard to swallow the idea of mental causality. Some
feel impelled to embrace Epiphenomenalism, the metaphysical theory that regards the mind as a mere by-
product of material processes, and hence as causally inefficacious. Their primary reason seems to be a
reluctance to talk about mental events having causal powers unless they feature in the formulation of
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"strict" causal laws relating these mental events to the events they are ordinarily supposed to cause.
But the requirement of strictness is a figment of myopic thinking. Such thinkers take the paradigm of
causal laws to be those expressible by the strict equations found in physics and chemistry, and ignore the
sorts of natural laws operating in other natural sciences such as evolutionary biology, where the essence
of causality is found in the broader, looser, notions of "what brings such and such about" and "what
happens when." The theory of evolution, for example, doesn't founder on its absence of many strict causal
laws. It encompasses (involves the consilience of) a unified and well-attested set of laws and principles
drawn not just from natural history, but from a host of other empirical sciences such as cosmology,
astronomy, physics, biochemistry, geology, plate tectonics, paleontology, population genetics, ecology,
ethology, anthropology, and comparative anatomy. Rarely, in these sciences, do we find mathematically
expressible causal laws.
For that matter, we have no difficulty believing that the excessive temperature (an emergent property)
of an engine "caused" the constituent oil molecules in the engine's crankcase to break down (a case of
downward causation), caused the engine to seize up, or that the seizing up of an engine "caused" much
mental stress to its owners. Yet there are no "strict" causal laws relating all the events in that series to one
another. The requirement of strict causality, when so construed, is absurd. The presumption that for every
change in a state of affairs (at least at the macrophysical level) there are other changes that bring them
about withstands the demand for formulation of strict causal laws. So does the presumption that for every
change in one state of affairs there are others that it in turn will bring about.
There is no conceptual barrier, I am claiming, to acknowledging that changes in our mental properties
can, and do, bring about other changes in the world around us. There is no good reason, that is, to suppose
that mental events are at the tail ends of the causal chains that produce them. Nor is there any reason to
suppose that the occurrence of a mental event may not produce changes at the so-called "lower" level.
There may even be causal loops.
A little personal anecdote suffices to make the point. Following my doctor's instructions, I recently
doubled my dose of a certain medication in order to optimize my cholesterol readings. Ingestion of the
pills caused changes in my biochemical state; they caused well-known though rare side effects including
myalgia, the beginnings of rhabdomyolysis (breakdown of muscle tissue causing kidney failure), mental
anxiety, lethargy, and mild depression; consciousness of those symptoms caused me to investigate their
likely causes; my discoveries led me to make the conscious decision to stop taking the drug immediately; I
did so, thus causing a change in my biochemistry; this brought about a cessation of my symptoms; and
made it possible for me to resume writing this paragraph in a more positive frame of mind. The causal
efficacy of changes in my mental properties is indisputable. Had I not decided as I did, I would have
continued taking the drug, with life-threatening consequences. Philosophers still caught in the grip of a
commitment to a strict conception of causality should try telling my story without reference to my changes
of mind.
THE VIOLATION OF SCIENTIFIC LAWS
Substance dualism conceives of minds as entities standing outside the causal nexus that operates in the
material world, and hence as impotent to effect any non-miraculous changes in that world.
Emergent materialism, by way of contrast, conceives of all entities in the natural world as material
objects or substances whose operations are described by the various levels of science: physics,
chemistry, biochemistry, biology, and so on. By virtue of our having causally efficacious physical
properties, there is no room for us to violate the laws of conservation, and the causal closure of the
physical can therefore be maintained. By virtue of our having chemical properties, we are subject to the
laws of chemistry. By virtue of our having biochemical properties, we are subject to the laws of
biochemistry. And so on. Most of these properties are emergent and changes in their possession are
causally efficacious. No violations of scientific laws are called for.
MINDS AS MIRACLE-WORKERS
Substance dualism requires that minds, if they have effects in the natural world, should intervene in its
operations, as miracle-workers like the gods are supposed to do. But that puts us in competition with
these supernatural agents. According to substance dualists we perform miracles all the time. According to
science, and the metaphysics of emergent materialism, we don't.
OUR EMBRYOLOGICAL AND DEVELOPMENTAL HISTORIES
Accept the false presuppositions of substance dualism and you'll feel impelled to answer hosts of
imponderable questions about just when the mind or soul is implanted in the developing human being. Is it
already built into the sperm and ovum from which you were spawned, as some theologians used to think?
Or is the soul implanted at conception, as religious conservatives believe? Or at a later stage in the
development of the embryo, as some more liberal religionists believe? The questions proliferate. To take
any of them seriously is to get yourself lost in Hume's "fairyland" of non-science. These questions, I've
argued, are spurious, or--as Locke would put it--"altogether improper." They make no sense to ask, or try
to answer, once we reject the whole concept of mind or soul as an entity akin to a bodily organ, only a
non-solid ghostly one.
That is where science comes in. The sciences of embryology and our developmental history do not
allow for anything like ensoulment to occur--some particular time when a non-sentient embryo, or its
foetal successor, comes to have an additional object called a mind or soul. Rather, these sciences allow
us to trace out the gradual growth of an increasingly complex set of organs, including the brain and central
nervous system, with commensurately sophisticated mental properties emerging as the "hardware"
develops.
OUR EVOLUTIONARY HISTORIES
The story of Evolution--pertaining not just to homo sapiens but to other sentient species as well--has an
even more salutary lesson to teach. It takes away the lure of anthropocentrism. Despite the late Pope John
Paul’s views on the matter, the science of Evolution reminds us that we are not alone in the animal world
in having minds, i.e., in having sensory awareness, intelligence, emotions, creativity, and consciousness.
Individual humans can possess some of these emergent properties and not others, or possess them to
greater or lesser degrees.
And so can other animals including our closest contemporary relatives: chimpanzees, bonobos, and
other great apes. What happens to their mental properties when they die? The answer is unequivocal.
Their properties die too. No supernatural after world awaits their disembodied minds or souls any more
than it awaits the disembodied grin of the Cheshire Cat. As for them, so for us.
We are part of the natural universe. Both as individuals and as a species, we have evolved, will live,
die, and eventually become extinct, within it.
8
GOBBLEDYGOOK GODS
PLAYING HUMPTY DUMPTY WITH WORDS
"Some having swerved, have turned aside unto vain jangling . . . understanding neither what they say, nor
whereof they affirm." (First Epistle of Paul the Apostle to Timothy, 1:7)
________________________________________________
In Jesus for the Non-Religious: Recovering the Divine at the Heart of the Human, (2007), Bishop John
Shelby Spong described the beliefs of orthodox, conservative, Christians as "not only literal nonsense but
little more than theological gobbledygook." In his view, Nietzsche was right. God--conceived as a
supernatural being--is dead and deserves the oblivion of the grave. Likewise the very concept of the
supernatural itself. He was speaking for himself. But he might as well have been speaking for a majority
of liberal theologians--the likes of Paul Tillich, Bishop John Robinson, Don Cupitt, and Lloyd Geering--
indeed all those who belong to the tradition they made popular in the mid 1900s and that continues on
today in movements like The Sea of Faith Network.
I'm referring, of course, to all those nominal "Christians" who can't bring themselves to believe in a
supernatural world of gods, ghosts, angels, or devils but still want to indulge in God-talk while
advocating what they see as the better moral aspects of the Jesus myth. For them, the Christian tradition as
enshrined in conservative Christian theology, has merit only when it is construed as metaphor, not as
literal truth. They see it mainly as "gobbledygook", i.e., as unintelligible jargon.
The trouble is that their writings can best be described in exactly those terms. Indeed, when I read their
writings or listen to them talk, I am reminded of the words of the inimitable Sir Peter Medawar who, in
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the first paragraph of his review of Pere Teilhard de Chardin's much-lauded book The Phenomenon of
Man (1959), wrote that the greater part of what Teilhard asserted was "nonsense, tricked out with a
variety of metaphysical conceits" and went on to add that "its author can be excused of dishonesty only on
the grounds that before deceiving others he has taken great pains to deceive himself."
As for Teilhard, so too for Tillich, Robinson, Spong, and Cupitt. And that's being charitable. There's
hardly a page in the writings of these four authors that isn't littered with sentences I find so opaque in
meaning as to be virtually unintelligible. But I can't examine them all. Just one or two examples from each
of them will have to do, each example being representative of one of the main themes the author wants to
promote.
I'll start with the philosophical theologian who, in doctrinal matters, seems father to the other three:
PAUL TILLICH
In his The Shaking of the Foundations (1948), Tillich provides a new definition of the word "God":
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“The name of this infinite and inexhaustible depth and ground of all being is God”.
In order fully to understand what's going on here, one would need to know a lot about the history of
western philosophy from Parmenides down through Hegel, Kierkegaard, and Heidegger to contemporary
exponents of Existentialism and Postmodernism. And I'm not going to treat you to an exposition of all that.
Suffice it to say a few brief words about Tillich's own metaphysical views.
Tillich, like Heidegger, contraposed the ideas of Being and Nothingness. Picking up on a Freudian
theme, Tillich argues that Nothingness confronts us when we comprehend our own finitude, fear our own
deaths and, in an introspective mood, wonder what causes us to be in the first place. We exist. But our
existence, like that of all finite beings, cannot ultimately be caused or sustained by other finite beings. Our
finite being must be caused or sustained by Being itself, an infinite being, otherwise described as "the
ground of all being." And the name "God", properly understood, refers to this infinite and inexhaustible
ground of all being.
With me so far? You'd better be, because that's what Tillich and company claim that the name "God"
actually means. If you can't buy into all this abstruse verbiage and abstract reasoning then you can't buy
into being a liberal Christian. Not one of their sort anyway.
At one point in his exposition of Tillich, Bishop Robinson substitutes the word "goal" for "depth", as in
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the phrase "the ground, source and goal of our being"? Does this mean something different? Am I
missing something here? Or is the good bishop just playing with words?
Returning to Tillich himself, I have other problems, too. What exactly does Tillich mean when he says
that the ground of all being is "infinite and inexhaustible"? Those who are familiar with traditional theism
will know that the theistic God, conceived as the Old Man in the sky, is supposed to be infinite and
inexhaustible in his power, in his knowledge, and in his goodness. That's what it means to talk of God's
omnipotence, omniscience, and perfect goodness, respectively. But Tillich doesn't think of God like that,
as a personal being endowed with human-like qualities to the highest degree imaginable. So in respect of
what properties is Being itself supposed to be infinite and inexhaustible? I know what the term "infinite"
means when it is used in Cantor's set theory. What does it mean here? And why "inexhaustible?"
Then there's another problem. When, in his theologising, Tillich argues that the existence of finite
beings cannot "ultimately" be explained in terms of the agency of other finite beings, are we to understand
this to be a rehash of one of Saint Thomas Aquinas's versions of the cosmological argument, the argument
from the contingency of all finite beings to the necessary existence of an infinite one? Or should we
understand him as producing something like a First-Cause version? I know of no good philosopher since
Kant's time who thinks either argument convincing. Does Tillich think he can answer Kant's devastating
criticisms of both versions?
Now let's turn to a bishop who, so far as I know, did more than anyone before him to bring the new
gospel to people in the pews. I refer to
BISHOP JOHN ROBINSON
In his well-known book Honest to God (1963), Bishop Robinson claims that, in speaking about God,
Tillich is speaking about "our ultimate concern", i.e., about "what we take seriously without reservation."
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Is this supposed to be a factual claim about what people mean when they talk about God? If so, the
claim is just plain false. Many people who talk about God don't take God at all seriously. And hardly
anyone I know takes talk of "Being itself" seriously. I for one do not. So what exactly is Robinson
claiming?
An American theologian, one of Tillich's students, once told me back in the late 60s that Tillich is
saying only that whatever it is that an individual regards as their ultimate concern, whatever it is that they
take most seriously, is what counts as God for that person. If you aspire to be the best golf-player in the
world, or the richest man, or a member of Al Quaeda, then that passion or object of desire just is your
God. So he and some others have said. But this is absurd. In pigeon-Latin it might be described as
reductio ad banalum. It reduces belief in God to belief in the utterly banal. Maybe there's a way of
speaking that does permit us to talk this way. But it is metaphorical talk, not sound metaphysical talk. It is
certainly not about anything as abstract as the philosophically spawned notion of Being-itself.
Next we have this little gem from Robinson: "God is, by definition, ultimate reality, and one cannot
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argue whether ultimate reality exists."
On the face of it, Robinson treats the noun "reality" as synonymous with "Being." So what is the
meaning of the adjective "ultimate" as it occurs in the expression "ultimate reality"? Does "ultimate
reality" stand to "reality" in the same sort of way as "ground and depth of all being" stands to just plain
"being"? Is the term "God" to be identified with the first of each of these pairs as opposed to the second? I
can't work it out. Yet until I can work it out, I don't know whether he's right when he says that one can't
disagree with him about the existence of "ultimate" reality.
Here's my predicament. If the two expressions mean the same, and "reality" plain and simple means
what I and most other people mean by it, then Robinson is right. I certainly won't argue with him over
whether reality exists. In order to dispute that, I would have to, as they say, "lose touch with reality." For,
as I use the word, reality just is the totality of all states of affairs that have ever existed, now exist, or will
exist. In brief, reality is the sum-total of all that exists (where "all" encompasses states of affairs as well
as things, and "exists" is used in a so-called timeless or tenseless sense). But if "ultimate reality" is
supposed to mean something different from just plain-Jane "reality", then I don't know whether or not to
argue about whether ultimate reality exists. I just don't know what is supposed to make some realities
ultimate and others not. I'm certainly not going to agree if Robinson is then going to cap off our little
exchange with something like, "So there, you see, you agree with me after all that God really exists." In
short, I'm not going to agree that ultimate reality exists if he's going to use that agreement as evidence that I
agree that God exists. I simply refuse to fall for that sort of sophistry.
On reflection it seems to me that Robinson is offering us a cheat (and I do mean "cheat" not "cheap")
version of the old ontological argument. Saint Anselm thought he could prove God's existence (the
existence of the theist's God, that is) by simply defining the term "God" as "that than which no greater can
be conceived" and then effectively challenging anyone who thought that God, so defined, might not exist to
explain how a God that did not exist could be as great, or perfect, as one who did exist. After all, he
argued, if God existed only as a concept in our minds, he wouldn't be as great as a God who also existed
in reality. Ipso facto, God exists in reality. Anselm tried to define God into existence, to conjure his God's
Being out of his immaculate conception.
Robinson takes a much quicker route. God exists because he, Bishop Robinson, has so defined him!
Fall for that one and you'll fall for an ontological proof of the existence of anything you like: a woman
than whom no more beautiful can be conceived; a man than whom no more handsome can be conceived;
and so on.
Robinson also claims that fundamental reality, that is to say Being itself, ultimately has what he calls
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"the character of love." Is he serious? Is he saying that the real world is all lovey-dovey, cosy and
comfortable, and that hate and cruelty, disease and disaster are all illusions? If he's saying that, then what
he's saying is false. And if, when he says it, he means something else, why doesn't he say clearly what he
does mean? I realize, of course, that in saying this he is trying to provide a non-theistic translation for the
verse "God is love." But so much the worse either for his translation or for the verse of which it purports
to be the translation. For myself, I can find no way of construing his claim that does not make it literal
nonsense, indeed outrageously false. And the situation is made only worse if we take account also of Don
Cupitt's claim, "To say that God is love is in effect to say simply that love is God." Add love to the list of
identities already asserted and we start to move from identifying God with reality and Being itself to
identifying God with a human feeling, desire, affection, or emotion.
Let me move on, now, to a couple of things that Bishop Spong has to say about God.
BISHOP JOHN SHELBY SPONG
Here's a quote from Bishop Spong's Why Christianity Must Change or Die (1999):
"There is no God external to life. God, rather, is the inescapable depth and centre of all that is. God is
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not a being superior to all other beings. God is the ground of Being itself. "
The last three sentences are just a restatement of Tillich. But consider the first sentence, "There is no
God external to life." If I am to take him literally, I am compelled by logic to say that he thinks that nothing
at all, no being or Being, no reality (ultimate or otherwise), exists external to life, i.e., that nothing exists
that is not alive. I can understand why he might want to say that of the personal "living" God of traditional
theology. But why would he want to say that of the non-personal God that is identical with Being itself,
with reality, the God whose name is allegedly synonymous with all that exists? Or does he not think that
inanimate things exist? Does he think that the universe itself didn't exist until sentient beings had evolved
within it? Does he think that everything that exists in the physical universe--from subatomic particles to
galaxies--is in some "deep" or "ultimate" sense alive? Is he, perhaps, embracing some form of
metaphysical idealism either of the subjective kind espoused by Bishop Berkeley, or the objective kind
espoused by the likes of Hegel? I am simply at a loss to understand what Spong means or why he thinks
he's saying something true.
My sense of puzzlement deepens when I turn to a passage from his most recent book Jesus for the Non-
Religious: Recovering the Divine at the Heart of the Human (2007). There he writes:
"One of my shaping theological teachers, Paul Tillich, referred to this God as "Being itself" which
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meant to me that my search for God would be identical with my search for my own identity. "
Once more my mind reels. Note the expression "identical with." If someone says that his search for X is
identical with his search for Y, then he is committed to saying that X and Y are identical. Logic compels
us to conclude, then, that in Spong's view Spong's identity (by which he surely means Spong himself) is
identical with God. I'm fairly sure that Spong didn't mean to say that he is identical with God himself. But
if he didn't mean that, why did he say something that implies it?
Spong's move to a subjectivist account of God and reality is mirrored in his subjectivist account of
language when he tells us:
"Human words do not describe reality outside human experience. The word "God" does not exist
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outside the human use of that word. "
I have little difficulty with the second sentence. It expresses a near tautology. But consider the first
sentence again, "Human words do not describe reality outside human experience." Presumably this is just
another way of saying that human words can only refer to, or describe, things within human experience,
i.e., things of which we have some experience or other.
Well, pause for a moment and ask yourself exactly what that is supposed to mean. Does it mean, for
instance, that the word "singularity", when used in the formulation of Stephen Hawking's version of big
bang cosmology, refers to something that some human or other has experienced? If so, his claim is false.
Has Spong, perhaps, fallen into the philosophical trap of Phenomenalism? Is he saying that words,
whether taken singly or in combination with others, can only refer to our subjective experiences of things,
never to things themselves? In that case he may to be refuted by pointing out that when he sits on his chair
he is in fact sitting on his chair, not his experience of his chair. Or has he fallen into the trap of the
Ideational Theory of Meaning according to which words can only refer to our ideas of things not to things
themselves. If that is his meaning, then he may be refuted by pointing out the absurdity of saying that he is
sitting on his idea of his chair, not the chair itself.
Now for another doyen of the new theology, the philosophical anti-realist.
DON CUPITT
Spong's strange views about how language functions are mirrored in some of the things said of it by Don
Cupitt. I will discuss just two examples out of many. Recently Cupitt claimed:
"Being cannot be made a subject of objective enquiry; it is revealed to the individual by reflection on
his own concrete existence in time and space."
This can come only from someone who, like Cupitt, turned his back on scientific method, the paradigm
of objective enquiry, before he really knew anything about it and became preoccupied, first with the
gobbledygook of theology, and then with that of the worst kind of continental philosophy. Is he saying that
science can't tell us anything about reality and that we can only learn about how the world works by
introspecting or, perhaps, by reading Carl G. Jung and following it up by lying on a couch for a session of
deep psychotherapy? Does he really think we should close down research labs, put an end to science
education, and spend public funds on the pseudo-science known as psychoanalysis? Only in that way, he
seems to be saying, is an individual going to learn about what Spong called his own "self-identity" and
what Cupitt calls his own "concrete existence in space and time." But surely that's not all there is to the
investigation of what exists in reality.
Now for another of the countless absurdities that adorn nearly every page of his book After God
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(1997). In that book he advances what he calls "a new linguistic theory of religious practice and
religious objects", one of whose four main theses is this:
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The invisible world is the world of words and other symbols.
Construe the word "is", as it occurs in this sentence, as the "is" of identity, and his claim is manifestly
false, to the point of absurdity. The world of the invisible is patently not identical with the world of
words and symbols. Atoms, for example, aren't visible. Neither are gravitational fields. Yet none of those
are words, even though we have words for them. Construe him, then, as saying only that words and
symbols are among the things that make up the invisible world, i.e., that all words and symbols are
invisible. That, too, is manifestly false. If it were true, I could not be reading the words I am composing
on my computer as I write this, and you would never be able to read the words of the book in which he
expressed this crazy claim. Why say such preposterous things?
One explanation might be that, consciously or unconsciously, he is trying to cash in on what I call the
presumption of profundity, the presumption that when an established author says something obscure,
absurd, or preposterously false, there must be something deep and meaningful that he is getting at,
something that can best be divined by purchasing and pondering over his whole book. But explanations of
this sort are for psychologists and psychoanalysts, not philosophers to give. So I'll give a more charitable
one.
I suspect that Cupitt has fallen victim to what Ludwig Wittgenstein once called "a main cause of
philosophical disease--a one-sided diet: one nourishes one's thinking with only one kind of example."
This diagnosis, I suggest, is more to the point. One of the main themes of Cupitt's book is that the ancient
spirits of religion "are" (in some elusive sense) nothing but words, and that for a writer like himself
words are typically "at the forefront of one's mind, on the tip of one's tongue, somewhere on the interface
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of subjectivity and the public world."
Now we can agree that we do, on occasion, use the word "word" in this way and that when we so use it
we are not referring to anything visible. The word that is in the forefront of my mind as I read his stuff
(substitute "stuff and nonsense") is not visible to anyone. And just as well, too. But to suppose that this is
the only permissible reference of the word "word" and to conclude that all words are invisible, is to be a
victim of the philosophical disease that Wittgenstein was talking about. Cupitt is in need of philosophical,
not psychological, therapy. And maybe a little linguistic therapy while he's at it.
I could go on ad nauseam with this piecemeal detection and dissection of examples of philosophical-
cum-theological gobbledygook. But instead I want to offer three more general diagnoses of the
philosophical diseases from which, in my view, the writings of Tillich, Robinson, Spong, and Cupitt all
suffer.
THREE MAIN CAUSES OF PHILOSOPHICAL DISEASE
REIFICATION
By reification I mean the fallacy of treating all nouns, even abstract nouns, as names of things. The
disposition to reify or hypostasise (to use another term for it) has been present among philosophers from
the time of Parmenides, if not before. The verb "to be" was one of the earliest to lend itself to this
process, leading to its nominalization "being." There is, you see, a use of the verb "to be" in which it
attributes existence or being to some object of reference. "There be dragons" is a way (albeit an archaic
way) of saying that dragons exist. And if one were to say, "There be not dragons", one would be saying
that dragons do not exist.
From the nominalizations of these two expressions one obtains the abstract nouns "being" and "non-
being." It then becomes plausible to ask, as did so many early philosophers, about the character of Being
itself and how it differs from its opposite Non-being. It becomes plausible, even urgent, to ask how if at
all Being can come out of Non-being; that is, to ask how change can occur. Parmenides argued that change
cannot occur, that Being is one and changeless. And his follower Melissus of Samos argued further that
Being has no beginning or end. It can't have a beginning, he said, because it cannot have begun from Non-
being. It can't have an end because it is impossible for Being to change into its opposite, Non-being. Like
Tillich and company he conceives Being as being "infinite and inexhaustible."
Countless philosophers since then have allowed themselves to get caught up in this sort of whirling
ballet of bloodless abstract nouns. And with dire consequences, as I see it, for the way they conduct their
thinking.
Nowhere are these consequences more evident than in the continental tradition to which Heidegger and
Tillich belong. Heidegger suffered from a particularly virulent strain of the disease, even going so far as
to pronounce such inanities as "The Nothing nothings." Sadly, he seems to have transmitted the disease, by
close contact, to his associate Paul Tillich who, as I've already pointed out, couches much of his own
early thinking in terms of the abstract nouns "Being" and "Nothingness", treating both as if they were
names of things and then throwing "God" (the word, that is) into the conceptual stew for good measure.
And so the virus has spread, through Robinson, Spong, and Cupitt, to all those who read this sort of
nonsense and think they are learning something profound and perhaps edifying.
LEWIS CARROLL ON "NOBODY"
In the previous chapter I quoted a passage from Lewis Carroll's Through the Looking Glass that provides
an effective counter to this sort of thinking. It's so good that it's worth quoting again. The King, referring to
two messengers, says:
"They've both gone to the town. Just look along the road, and tell me if you can see either of them."
"I see nobody on the road," said Alice.
"I only wish I had such eyes," the King remarked in a fretful tone. "To be able to see Nobody! And at
that distance too! Why, it's as much as I can do to see real people, by this light!"
Worth repeating too is this description by English philosopher Peter Heath, in his The Philosopher's
Alice, (1974). He draws the moral of this little story thus:
"This passage, and its reprise a page or two later, are a perennial standby for philosophers who wish to
horrify their readers with the dangers of hypostasising [that is reifying] the null class, and so fabricating
nonentities. Because nobody functions grammatically very like somebody, there is a temptation to believe
that it is the name of a peculiar, diaphanous sort of somebody, who is then unnecessarily added to the
world's inhabitants. In such a way does the language of abstraction darken counsel, corrupt
communications, and beget bad philosophy, a theme much insisted on by Bacon, Hobbes, Locke, Berkeley,
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Hume, Kant, and their many modern successors."
If only Tillich and company had learned a little from these conceptually astute philosophers. Or from
Lewis Carroll, who himself was a capable logician.
CONFLATING "IS"S
The little word "is" can give rise to still other philosophical diseases.
You may remember Bill Clinton's contribution to semantics when, in answer to a question about the
Monica Lewinski affair, he said, "It all depends on what the meaning of 'is' is." It was a response worthy
of a good philosopher not just a quick-witted politician. It might have struck many of his listeners as
absurd. But it reminded me of Dr. C. E. M. Joad's standard response to questions when he was a member
of BBC Radio's Brain's Trust during the 1940s. Astute enough to recognise that many of the questions he
was invited to answer were ambiguous in ways that the questioner usually hadn't realised, he would
almost always begin with his catchphrase "Well, it all depends on what you mean by so-and-so." Maybe
Slick Willy had picked up on this technique for disambiguation when he was a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford.
Or maybe he'd read his Aristotle.
Aristotle, you see, was the first philosopher I know of to take extraordinary pains to disambiguate
words and the sentences in which they occur. One of his aims was to get rid of the conceptual confusions
that had been engendered by the rhetoric of the Sophists who'd preceded him. "It is the business of
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language," he said, "to distinguish." And so he undertook, in his treatises on the conceptual foundations
of diverse subjects such as logic, ethics, politics, government, biology, and zoology, to detect differences
in meaning that others tended to ignore or conflate. The best philosophers since then have followed in his
footsteps and have contributed to both understanding and wisdom by doing so. The worst, in my view,
have been careless with words and conflated concepts, and have contributed to neither. Now one of the
first words to receive the benefit of Aristotle's careful analysis was that little word "is". Aristotle himself
wasn't averse to using the verb "to be" in its nominalised form. Indeed, much of his own thinking was
couched in terms of an enquiry into the nature and categories of Being itself. But he was careful to
distinguish that use of "is" from various others. In particular he took care to distinguish it from those uses
in which "is" functions as the copula in predicative sentences, and those in which it functions within
assertions of identity.
Consider the three sentences: "Cicero is", "Cicero is eloquent", and "Cicero is Tully". The word "is" in
"Cicero is" is the "is" of existence or being. The word "is" in "Cicero is eloquent" is the "is" of
predication; its function is not that of asserting Cicero's existence but of linking him with a certain
property, that of being eloquent. The word "is" in "Cicero is Tully" functions in still another way: to
assert the identity of the man called Cicero with the man called Tully.
A simple set of distinctions when one comes to think of it. Yet, as Aristotle pointed out, many
philosophers seem not to have thought of it and have got themselves in what he called a "pother" because
of their failure to bear them in mind. Parmenides and Melissus, in his view, were among those whose
metaphysics was corrupted by conflating these different senses. And I'm sure he'd have diagnosed the
same cause of philosophical disease had he been aware of the way in which Heidegger, Tillich,
Robinson, Spong, and Cupitt run these senses together.
The import of the distinction between the "is" of predication and the "is" of identity should be obvious.
In the case of the "is" of identity, one can reverse the order of the referential terms "Cicero" and "Tully".
Indeed, as a matter of logic, if Cicero is identical with Tully, then it follows that Tully is identical with
Cicero. Compare this with the "is" of predication. From the predicative statement that Cicero is eloquent
one cannot validly infer that the abstract property of eloquence is identical with the concrete man Cicero.
THEOLOGIAN'S MUDDLES ABOUT "IS"
Consider, now, the thinking of those who suppose that from the statement that God is our ultimate concern
it follows that whatever is one's ultimate concern is God (or perhaps is God for that person). The mistake
here is that of treating the word "is" as the "is" of identity. One consequence of this mistake is that one
finishes up with the absurd claim that most people, theists included, think the word "God" refers to
whatever happens to be most on their mind, most of concern to them, at the moment. Another consequence
is that one is then led to claim that there are as many different Gods as there are objects of one's ultimate
concern.
Or consider Robinson's claim that God is love. As used in 1 John 4:6, the sentence "God is love"
asserts that God has the property of loving us. The "is" here is the "is" of predication. Yet Cupitt writes,
"To say that God is love is in effect to say simply that love is God." His inference would be sound if the
property of love were identical with the God who supposedly has that property. But nobody in his right
mind, not even a traditional theologian given to gobbledygook, would say that.
The absurd consequences of conflating predication with identity become even more painfully obvious
when these authors' assertions are exposed to the logic of identity statements. It is a law of identity that if
two things are identical with a third, then they are identical with each other. I've already exposed the
absurd consequences of Spong's claim that his search for God is "identical" with his search for his own
identity, namely that he, Spong, is identical with God.
Now presumably Spong wouldn't claim that his search for his own identity is unique in this regard.
Presumably he would be charitable enough to allow some other God-besotted bishop, like Robinson, to
make the same claim. That is to say, presumably he'd allow Robinson to claim that his search for his
identity is identical with his search for God. So far, so good. But now comes the crunch. For according to
the logic of identity, if Spong's identity, that is Spong, is identical with God, and Robinson's identity, that
is Robinson, is also identical with God, then it follows that Spong is identical with Robinson.
But worse is to come. For, as we have seen, both Spong and Robinson identify God with Being itself,
i.e., with all that exists. But if Spong and Robinson are identical with God and God is identical with
Being itself, then--by a further application of the law of the transitivity of identity--it follows that both
bishops are identical with all that exists.
Now I don't suppose for a moment that Bishop Spong suffers from such delusions of grandeur. Nor do I
suppose for a moment that he would condemn to the "outer darkness" of Non-Being all those of us who do
not identify so closely with God. But I would like to suppose that by reflecting on these implications of
the things he says he might be made to cease and desist from saying them.
The problem for Spong and for my understanding of him gets further complicated when we try to put his
talk of Jesus into the picture. In the Prologue to his most recent book he says that Jesus is "The Ground of
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Being, a doorway into the mystery of holiness." He goes on to talk about seeing in Jesus "the fullness of
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both God and humanity." He says that Jesus "is what God is", that Jesus "becomes the revelation of
God and even the bearer of all that God means", and continues by asserting "That is the Jesus I want to
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serve, the Jesus I call Lord, the Jesus who both entices me and compels me." Construe each of these
claims in terms of the old theistic conceptions of Jesus as God-incarnate, etc., and they make some sense.
So I guess they'd go down well with orthodox Christians, and even with most liberal Christians. But try to
construe them in terms of the new theology to which Spong subscribes, and you've got real problems.
What, we need to know, is the precise relation between Jesus and the God who is identical with the
Ground of all Being, identical also with reality, and with love, and with one's ultimate concern and, at a
stretch, with Spong's self-identity? Try to substitute definiens (the defining expression) for definiendum
(the expression to be defined) in any of the above sentences and you get literal nonsense,
incomprehensible gobbledygook.
And just to make things even more complicated, it turns out that the Jesus that Spong is talking about
most of the time is some barely detectable residuum of the gospel stories, the little if anything that is left
after Spong has done a thorough, and much needed, job of stripping away the miracles and myths, and has
dehistoricized most of the personages, events, and sayings that the gospels report interpreting them as
liturgical retellings of older Jewish myths. True, Spong still thinks that there was a historical Jesus
despite the fact that none of the more than forty secular historians writing about the period even mentions
him; and despite the obvious fact that the Jesus story, too, is arguably nothing but a retelling of older
pagan myths about dying gods who rise again. Why Spong wants to breathe new life into the bearer of the
name "Jesus", I simply do not understand. For all we know, such an elusive figure, if he existed, may not
even have been called "Jesus"! Yet that figure is the one Spong identifies with God, and thereby identifies
with the ground of all being, and ultimate reality. It is that figure to which Spong addresses effusive
devotional poems at the beginning and end of his book. It is that figure that Spong wants to serve and call
"Lord." In short he worships and wants to serve the totality of all that exists. Make sense of that if you
can.
PLAYING HUMPTY DUMPTY WITH WORDS
Maybe it is time to turn from this heavy logico-semantic stuff to something a little lighter. So let's go back
to the topsy-turvy land of Through the Looking Glass.
At one point, Alice is frustrated in her attempts to converse seriously with Humpty Dumpty. We take up
the story just after Humpty Dumpty has made the comment, "There's glory for you."
'I don't know what you mean by "glory",' Alice said.
Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously. "Of course you don't--till I tell you. I meant 'there's a nice
knock-down argument for you!"'
"But 'glory' doesn't mean 'a nice knock-down argument,'" Alice objected.
"When I use a word," Humpty Dumpty said, in a rather scornful tone, "it means just what I choose it to
mean, neither more nor less."
"The question is," said Alice, "whether you can make words mean so many different things."
"The question is," said Humpty Dumpty, "which is to be master - that's all."
Alice was too much puzzled to say anything; so after a minute Humpty Dumpty began again. "They've a
temper, some of them - particularly verbs: they're the proudest - adjectives you can do anything with, but
not verbs - however, I can manage the whole lot of them! Impenetrability! That's what I say!"
"Would you tell me, please," said Alice, "what that means?"
"Now you talk like a reasonable child," said Humpty Dumpty, looking very much pleased. "I meant by
'impenetrability' that we've had enough of that subject, . . ."
Now let me ask three simple questions. First: Which of the two parties, Alice or Humpty Dumpty, fails
to use words so as to communicate easily and clearly? Second: Which of the two parties doesn't really
understand what "glory" means? Third: Which of the two is playing trivial word games? I'm going to
presume that you'd name Humpty Dumpty every time.
Okay. Now let's replay the first part of that little dialogue with one change of character and two
changes of vocabulary.
"That's God for you," said Tillich.
"I don't know what you mean by 'God'," Alice said.
Tillich smiled contemptuously, "Of course you don't--till I tell you. I meant 'There's infinite and
inexhaustible depth and ground of all being for you!"
"But 'God' doesn't mean 'infinite and inexhaustible depth and ground of all being'," Alice objected.
"When I use a word," Tillich said, in a rather scornful tone, "it means just what I choose it to mean,
neither more nor less."
"The question is," said Alice, "whether you can make words mean so many different things."
"The question is," said Tillich, "which is to be master - that's all."
Now let me ask those three questions again, this time reflecting the change of character and of subject
matter. Here they are. First: Which of the two parties, Alice or Tillich, fails to use words so as to
communicate easily and clearly with others? Second: Which of the two doesn't understand what "God"
normally means? Third: Which of the two is playing trivial word games?
I'd like to presume that you'd name Tillich every time. If not, I clearly have a lot of work still to do and,
I confess, not a lot of patience for doing it.
Be that as it may, I'm going to offer a brief comment on what's going on here.
HUMPTY DUMPTY AND TILLICH, ET. AL.
Humpty Dumpty, who seems to me the personification of Tillich and company, has got it wrong. Having
mastery over words does not mean having the power to make them mean what you want them to mean.
Words, as they are used, have the power to resist those who try to usurp their authority. It is we the people
who, by consensus, confer that authority--the authority to mean what they ordinarily mean--upon them,
granting to each its own assigned role and responsibility in communication. Such is the power of
convention and common usage. Those who try to set up their own little fiefdoms of linguistic meaning are
likely to be met by blank stares of incomprehension. They have to say something along the lines of
Humpty Dumpty's "Of course, you don't know what I mean--until I tell you." And they then have to provide
a translation manual revealing the new meanings they've assigned to the old words of ordinary language.
Having mastery over words means precisely not having to explain what you mean by them.
Consider the word "God" (capital "G"). You all understand me when I say that by the age of eighteen I
no longer believed in God. You understand me to be saying that I didn't believe in the existence of a
supernatural deity responsible for creating the world and loving his creatures. You didn't for a moment
think that I was saying that I no longer believed in the existence of the infinite and inexhaustible depth and
ground of all being.
Now I'm not so naive as to suppose that the word "God", in English, is properly used to refer to the god
of theism only. In fact I am fully aware that even the phrase "the God of theism" covers a multitude of sins.
And I'm well aware that the name "God" has been used by deists, pantheists, and miscellaneous
reification-prone philosophers, to talk about entities very different from any of the theistic gods. I'm so
aware, in fact, that when someone tells me they believe in God, my first reaction is usually "Which God?"
I haven't yet come across anyone who has answered that they are referring to Hegel's God, or Tillich's, or
Robinson's, or Spong's, or even Cupitt's. So I balk when I'm told by the latter lot that "God" is the name of
the infinite and inexhaustible, etc. I balk, again, when I discover that this very same infinite and
inexhaustible entity is one that they go on to describe in terms that are associated with the God of theism:
that it has the character of love, for example, or that it is the ultimate cause and sustainer of all that is
finite. And I balk, even more, when I reflect on the fact that all this sophistry is being performed in the
name of rescuing Christianity (of all things!) from the death and oblivion that some of us would love to
see.
ADVICE FROM BOTH YOUR MOTHER AND ME
To all those who want to retell the theistic stories about God and Jesus in the language of the new liberal
theology, I offer a simple piece of advice. Don't.
If you say that "God" means "the infinite and inexhaustible depth and ground of all being", you are
making three mistakes.
First, people won't understand you. Philosophical hocus-pocus won't do the trick. You will deceive no
one but yourselves. Maybe you think you know what the new definition means. But that's only because
you graft on to it all the associations that belonged to the words they are supposed to redefine. Under
pressure, you'll probably have to confess that, as Saint Paul would put it, you have "swerved aside unto
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vain jangling", that you understand neither what you say, nor whereof you affirm.
Second, you are saying something false. The word "God" doesn't mean that. You know that to be a fact,
and so do others. Once more, you will deceive no one but yourselves. You will simply betray your
ignorance of how language functions.
Third, it simply won't work. Ardent believers in the supra-God of theism and the divinity of Jesus
aren't going to be conned out of their supernaturalistic beliefs by the sophistries of Humpty Dumpty word
games. Nor are atheists like me going to be conned into belief in God by the device of persuasive
redefinition.
DON'T TELL STORIES UNLESS THEY ARE TRUE
So here's your predicament. You don't want to tell the old theistic story because it won't go down with
educated people in the twenty-first century and, if told honestly, would scare the b'Jesus out of the kids.
And, for the reasons I've just given, if you retell it in the gobbledygook language of the new theology I'll
charge you with philosophical fraud.
What to do? Heed your mother's advice and don't tell stories at all unless they are true. And if you want
to have faith in something, place it in the power of evidence-based reason to relegate the Christian God to
the graveyard of forgetfulness, and his son Jesus to the same status as all those other God-men that graced
the myths of pagan religions.
EPILOGUE
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MY REVIEW OF LLOYD GEERING'S IN PRAISE OF THE SECULAR
At the September 2007 Annual Conference of the Sea of Faith I delivered a paper entitled "The Semantics
of Story-telling: a Secular Sermon for those 'all at sea' in The Sea of Faith" [an early version of the
above]. I argued that the chief gurus of the Sea of Faith--Paul Tillich, Bishop Robinson, Bishop Spong,
and Don Cupitt--are guilty of semantic misdemeanour in so far as they play Humpty Dumpty with words.
Bishop Robinson, of Honest to God (1963) fame, is a case in point. He tries to make theists of us all
when he writes, "God is, by definition, ultimate reality, and one cannot argue whether ultimate reality
exists." (p. 29) By a simple act of linguistic legislation he would try to convert me, along with Richard
Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, Victor Stenger, and other "New Atheists" into God-
believers. Yet everyone knows what my fellow atheists and I mean when we say of ourselves, and others
say of us, that we don't believe in God. We certainly don't mean that we don't believe in reality.
If you fall for that sort of word play, then you'll also be taken in by Lloyd Geering's latest book In
Praise of the Secular. Geering, too, tries to cut the ground from under the feet of atheists by defining
"God" as "ultimate reality--the oneness of the universe." (p. 54). But he also has a broader aim: that of
reconciling or "mediating" the conflict between religion and secularism, where "secularism" (as he
acknowledges) "is commonly taken to mean 'anti-religious'", i.e., rejection of religion and religious
considerations.
How does one pull off a trick like that? How does one make inconsistent sets of beliefs seem
consistent?
Easy. Simply give words a different meaning and count on your audience's inability to detect the
change.
Geering uses the illusionist's technique of misdirection. He diverts attention away from what words
standardly mean in the present and directs it instead towards what they used to mean in the past. Directs
attention, in short, towards their etymological history.
There was a time, he tells us, when "secular" meant being concerned with the natural world. On this
account, he points out, even the supernaturalistic doctrine of the Incarnation--the human embodiment of a
transcendent God within the physical world--counts as "a step in secularisation" (p. 21). Belief in the
Incarnation is to count as a secular belief because it involves reference to the natural world and the human
condition! Got it?
Likewise, there was a time when "religion" (originally from the Latin religio, to bind) meant something
like "conscientious concern for what really matters" (p. 10). So since Richard Dawkins thinks truth really
matters, Dawkins, he argues, "is to be judged more religious than those nominal Christians who have at
best a half-hearted commitment to the God they claim to believe in." (p. 10). I guess that, for the same
reason, Geering would say that I too am religious, despite my insistence--and that of anyone who knows
me--that I'm non-religious, indeed anti-religious in so far as I resist being bound by any religious beliefs
or practices.
Geering's conclusion? Religion and secularism are consistent by virtue of their both thinking that the
natural world really matters.
Anyone who is logically literate will recognize this as a fallacy: two world-views aren't consistent just
because they have something in common. More generally, anyone who tries to do philosophy by
etymology is guilty of conceptual fraud, whether it is conscious or unconscious. The Canadian
philosopher of religion, William Cantwell Smith, whose 1962 book The Meaning and End of Religion
Geering cites favourably, is a well-known perpetrator.
To those who are taken in by this sort of etymology-based sophistry, I can only say I weep over your
victimisation. And that goes for Geering himself in so far as he, too, seems to have been a victim of the
word-games of his theological tradition.
But I also feel another sentiment. Just a little resentment at Geering's insinuation that New Atheists like
me are misusing language when we say that we are atheists and secularists: the former because we don't
believe in any sort of God, and the latter because we wish to be free from any form of religious bondage.
Our failure to adopt his Tillich-inspired theological newspeak--his redefinitions of "God", "religion", and
the rest--doesn't make us linguistic incompetents.
My irritation turns to ire, however, when I read Geering's unjust accusation:
"By their blanket rejection of everything in the religions of the past, militant atheists throw out the baby
with the bathwater in their disregard for the beneficial, spiritual and moral values also nurtured by these
traditions." (p.7).
Is he accusing militant atheists like me of disregarding moral values: saying that we are immoral? Is he
saying that we reject what he lists as spiritual values: "love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness,
faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control" (p.46)? Is he suggesting that we atheists should look to religious
traditions of the past, or to those who now follow those traditions most earnestly (the militant
fundamentalists of Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism), in order to see these virtues "nurtured"?
Surely not. Yet the Sea of Faith's Noel Cheer echoed the same baby-with-the-bathwater charge when he
interviewed me on his TV program "Conversations with Noel Cheer" in July this year [2008].
How easily, and mindlessly, our critics--most of whom seem never to have actually read what militant
atheists say--slip into these clichés!
But, I ask myself, what else should one expect from those whose sloppy use of words reflects sloppy
thinking?
* * *
So far I've voiced only a few central criticisms of Geering's book. I could list others: of his
postmodernist conflation of knowledge with mere claims of knowledge, of his misuse of the term
"theory", of his sloppy use of the term "faith", of his unquestioning faith in the historicity of Jesus, and so
on.
But, in the space left to me, let me also voice genuine praise, both of the good professor himself and of
the message he's trying to convey (albeit in misleading language).
Ever since the 1960s, when we both held university chairs here in New Zealand (he in Religious
Studies, I in Philosophy), I have admired Geering's intellectual integrity, moral courage, and values. All
went on public display during his infamous 1967 heresy trial when he was pitted against my own bete
noire of the time, fundamentalist Professor of Classics, Dr. E. M. Blaiklock.
So I wasn't surprised when, immediately after listening to my Sea of Faith address last September,
Lloyd introduced himself to me (sadly we'd never met before), thanked me for having delivered what he
called "a much-needed cold shower", and said he'd have to rethink his own position in light of it. For a
man then nearing ninety, who had built his reputation on defending neo-liberal theology, that took a lot of
guts. I hereby pay tribute to his open-mindedness.
Obviously, however, he'd written In Praise of the Secular some time before the September 2007
Annual Conference. He hadn't yet heard my admonitions against playing Humpty Dumpty with words. I'd
dearly like to know, therefore, how he'd respond to the kinds of criticisms I made then, and am making
now, without reverting to the cultic language he and his fellow liberals are accustomed to using.
The fact is that it would be very easy for him to restate his main message in words that everyone would
understand. Easy, that is, to step out of the backwater of anachronistic verbiage into which Tillich led him,
and back into the mainstream of common usage where most people belong. First, he can say in simple
English that--along with me, Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris, et al--he really is an atheist in so far as he no
more believes in a supernatural God or a supernatural world than we do. Second, he can go on to
emphasize that we should therefore be turning our attention to the condition of our lives in the only world
there is: the natural world.
As something of an etymologist, Geering will know that, from early Greek times, "atheist" meant
disbelief in any supernatural god. As a native speaker of English he will know, too, that "atheist" still
means exactly that. As a professor of Religious Studies he will know, further, that this is precisely why
bishops Robinson and Spong are so often, and correctly, described as atheists: neither believes in any
supernatural entities. Both have been honest enough to voice their disbelief: Spong in books too numerous
to list, and Robinson still earlier in Honest to God.
Now Professor Geering is an honest man. He should therefore welcome an opportunity (perhaps in a
forthcoming issue of this Newsletter) to declare his atheism. That would clear the ground for him to
emphasize that, like the above-mentioned bishops before him, what matters most for him--the object of his
quasi-religious "ultimate concern"--is the wellbeing of all that exists in the world in which we find
ourselves.
After all, the main aim of In Praise of the Secular, as stated on its last page, is the admirable one of
encouraging what he calls "the great coming together of all peoples on a global scale", a coming together
that will promote "unity and harmony among individuals, unity and harmony among the nations, unity and
harmony with all forms of life, unity and harmony with the planet." (p. 54).
There, you see, Lloyd: you've said it all yourself. In plain language. In one paragraph. So for God's
sake, Geering, cut out all the "God" crap. And the religious cant. Praise the secular. But stop genuflecting
towards religion. Otherwise you'll continue to alienate many of us New Atheists who--when it comes
down to it--are largely in agreement with your world-view and values.
Notes

[←1]
Elinor Thornton, Guy D. Thornton: Athlete, Author, Pastor, Padre (Auckland, N.Z.), 1937, p. 213.
[←2]
Ibid., p. 214.
[←3]
Albert Schweitzer, The Quest of the Historical Jesus, (New York: MacMillan), 1968.
[←4]
Augustus Hopkins Strong, Systematic Theology, in Three Volumes (Philadelphia: American Baptist
Publication Society), 1907.
[←5]
E. M. Blaiklock, Jesus Christ: Man or Myth (California: Thomas Nelson), 1984.
[←6]
I borrow the description from the book of that name. See James Haught's Holy Horrors: an
Illustrated History of Religious Murder and Madness (Buffalo, NY: Prometheus Books, 1990).
[←7]
H. L. Mencken, "Memorial Service," copyright 1922 by Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., and renewed 1950 by
H. L. Mencken.
[←8]
Bertrand Russell, "A Free Man's Worship" in Mysticism and Logic (New York: Doubleday Anchor
Books, 1957), p. 44.
[←9]
William James, "The Will to Believe" in The Will to Believe and Other Essays, 1897.
[←10]
Pascal, Pensées, No. 233.
[←11]
Independently, by Adolph Grunbaum, Philosophical Problems of Space and Time (New York:
Alfred Knopf Inc., 1963) and Raymond D. Bradley, "Geometry and Necessary Truth", in The
Philosophical Review, 1964.
[←12]
Certain formulations of the classical Ontological and Cosmological arguments for God's existence
trade on the conflation of these two very distinct meanings.
[←13]
Unfortunately, many logicians these days suppose that the seven logical relations defined above, hold
only between Aristotelian categorical (subject-predicate) propositions. But the examples I have
provided show them to be just plain wrong.
[←14]
Hume’s use of the term “contrary facts” may cause some raised eyebrows, particularly among
contemporary philosophers for whom facts are understood to be asserted by true propositions and
hence cannot be contrary to one another. We need to understand then that for several centuries the
term “fact” has been used in a less precise way to mean “alleged fact.” The looser sense of the word
persists in such phrases as “He has got his facts wrong.” When understood in this way there is
nothing incongruous about Hume’s talking of “contrary facts.”
[←15]
David Hume, An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, ed. L. A. Selby-Bigge (Oxford:
Oxford University Press, 2nd edition, 1902), pp. 121 ff. His essay titled "Of Miracles" occurs as
Chapter 10.
[←16]
Ibid., p. 115, footnote 1.
[←17]
Ibid., p. 115.
[←18]
Karl Barth, "The Revelation of God as the Abolition of Religion," in Christianity and Other
Religions, eds. John Hick and Brian Hebblethwaite (Glasgow: Collins, 1980), p. 44.
[←19]
Karl Rahner, "Christianity and Non-Christian Religions" in Christianity and Other Religions,
(London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 1966), p. 56.
[←20]
John Hick, God and the Universe of Faiths (London: Macmillan, 1977), p. 140.
[←21]
John Mackie, The Miracle of Theism (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1982), p. 15.
[←22]
John Hick, Philosophy of Religion (Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 3rd edition,
1983), p. 116.
[←23]
Ibid., p.119.
[←24]
Hume sometimes uses the term "proof" to refer to an empirical demonstration that leaves no room for
doubt. But clearly it also covers that other sort of proof that leaves no room for doubt, viz., logical
demonstrations.
[←25]
Developed by logicians such as Saul Kripke and Jaako Hintikka, possible worlds semantics enabled
us to give an interpretation to some of the formal systems of so-called modal logic that had been
developed earlier in the twentieth century by C. I. Lewis building on some original insights of (guess
who): Aristotle.
[←26]
Raymond D. Bradley and Norman Swartz, Possible Worlds: an Introduction to Logic and its
Philosophy (published jointly by Basil Blackwell and Hackett Publishing Company, 1979). The
fifteen possible-worlds diagrams for the logical relations between any two propositions whatever--
necessarily true and necessarily false as well as contingent--are presented on page 51. These
diagrams are used not only in Chapter 1 (Possible Worlds) but also throughout Chapter 5 (Truth-
Functional Propositional Logic), and Chapter 6 (Modal Propositional Logic). The whole book is
freely downloadable from http://www.sfu.ca/~swartz/pw/index.htm
[←27]
Hume, p. 110.
[←28]
Immanuel Kant, Critique of Pure Reason (London, MacMillan and Co. Ltd., 1950), p. 43.
[←29]
Kant, p.43.
[←30]
For a discussion of the general import of this example, see Raymond D. Bradley and Norman
Swartz, Possible Worlds: an Introduction to Logic and its Philosophy (published jointly by Basil
Blackwell and Hackett Publishing Company, 1979), pp. 151-155.
[←31]
David Hume, An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, ed. L. A. Selby-Bigge (Oxford:
Oxford University Press, 2nd edition, 1902), p.129.
[←32]
Hume, p.110.
[←33]
Kant, p. 125.
[←34]
H. L. Mencken, "Memorial Service," copyright 1922 by Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., and renewed 1950 by
H. L. Mencken. Also in in S.T. Joshi (ed.), H. L. Mencken on Religion (Amherst, NY: Prometheus
Books), 293-97.
[←35]
Op. cit.
[←36]
John C. Lennox, God's Undertaker: Has Science Buried God?, (Oxford: Lion Hudson, 2007).
[←37]
Terry Pratchett, Small Gods, (Victor Gollanz, 1992).
[←38]
Stephen Unwin, The Probability of God, (Three Rivers Press, CA, 2004).
[←39]
Gleason Archer, A Survey of the Old Testament, (Chicago: Moody, 1974) p. 22.
[←40]
The Hebrew Bible, for instance, was written by four or five authors between 1000 and 400 B.C.E.
and was based on much older traditions; while the New Testament was composed by a variety of
authors, many unknown, between about 50 and 110 C.E.
[←41]
Alvin Plantinga, “When Faith and Reason Clash: Evolution and the Bible,” Christian Scholar’s
Review, 1991, vol. 21: p. 8.
[←42]
Ibid., p.12.
[←43]
Peter Van Inwagen, “Genesis and Evolution,” in E. Stump (ed.), Reasoned Faith: Essays in
Philosophical Theology In Honor of Norman Kretzmann (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1993),
p. 97.
[←44]
William Alston, “Divine-Human Dialogue and the Nature of God,” Faith and Philosophy Jan.,
1985, p.6.
[←45]
Ian Plimer, Telling Lies for God and Mammon, (Sydney: Random House Australia, 1994), p. 95.
[←46]
Augustine, “The Literal Meaning of Genesis” Bk. I, Ch. 19, 1982, p. 67, trans. John Hammond
Taylor, S. J. Ancient Christian Writers, Newman Press.
[←47]
I tangled with him once over Plantinga's treatment of modal matters. But that was 30 or 40 years ago.
[←48]
Voltaire, The Important Examination of the Holy Scriptures Ch. 2 (extract reprinted in An
Anthology of Atheism and Rationalism, 1982, ed. Gordon Stein, (Buffalo, NY: Prometheus Books,
1982), p.156.
[←49]
Albert Schweitzer, The Quest of the Historical Jesus: A Critical Study of Its Progress from
Remarks to Wrede trans. W. Montgomery. (New York: Macmillan,1968), (originally published in
German in 1906).
[←50]
Galatians 1:6-9.
[←51]
Peter van Inwagen, "Quam Dilecta" in God and the Philosophers, Thomas Morris, ed., (Oxford:
Oxford University Press, 1994).
[←52]
David Hume, An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, ed. L. A. Selby-Bigge (Oxford:
Oxford University Press, 2nd edition, 1902), pp. 131.
[←53]
p. 502.
[←54]
p. 504.
[←55]
p. 504.
[←56]
p. 502.
[←57]
Alvin Plantinga, The Nature of Necessity, (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1974), p. 197.
[←58]
Charles Hartshorne, The Logic of Perfection, (La Salle, Illinois: Open Court, 1962).
[←59]
Norman Malcolm, "Anselm's Ontological Argument", Philosophical Review, vol. 69, no. 1, (1960),
pp. 41-62.
[←60]
William Paley, Natural Theology, Vol. 6 in Works, London 1805, Chapter 1.
[←61]
Richard Dawkins, The Blind Watchmaker, (Harlow: Longman, 1986).
[←62]
Michael Behe, Darwin’s Black Box: The Biochemical Challenge to Evolution, (New York: Free
Press, 1996).
[←63]
Ussery's article, "A Biochemist's Response to 'The Biochemical Challenge to Evolution" can be
found on the following website: www.cbs.dtu.dk/staff/dave/Behe.html
[←64]
Francis Collins, The Language of God, (New York: Free Press, 2006), p.186.
[←65]
Mark Twain [Samuel Clemens], Letters From the Earth, edited by Edmund de Voto, originally
published in 1937, reprinted 1968, New York: Fawcett Crest, 1968. Because of its atheistic
implications, the book had to be published posthumously (seventeen years after the author's death)
and only after his daughter Clara Clemens finally withdrew her objections to its publication.
[←66]
Ibid., p. 33.
[←67]
Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion, (New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2006), p. 28.
[←68]
Rod Evans and Irwin Berent, Fundamentalism: Hazards and Heartbreaks, Open Court, La Salle,
Illinois, 1988, pp. 120-1. Also James A. Haught, Holy Horrors: an Illustrated History of Religious
Murder and Madness, (Buffalo, NY: Prometheus Books), 1990, p.163.
[←69]
Brad Warner, "God, Evil, and Professor Bradley" (manuscript circulated privately in response to my
debate with Campus Crusade for Christ representative, Dr. Paul Chamberlain, on the topic "Can
there be an objective morality without God?").
[←70]
In Leviticus, chapter 26, verse 29, we read: "You shall eat the flesh of your sons, and the flesh of
your daughters you shall eat." In Deuteronomy, chapter 28, after the Lord lists the dozens of evils that
will befall his people if they don't observe all his commandments and statutes, he says (in verses 53-
58): "Then you shall eat the offspring of own body, the flesh of your sons and your daughters . . . The
man who is refined and very delicate among you shall be hostile toward his brother and toward the
wife he cherishes, and toward the rest of his children who remain, so that he will not give even one
of them any of the flesh of his children which he shall eat." And refined and delicate women, we are
further told, will do the same. In Jeremiah, chapter 19, verse 9, the horror-show continues when the
Lord says: "And I will make them eat the flesh of their sons and the flesh of their daughters . . ."
Finally, in Ezekiel, chapter 5, verse 10, the divine diet is extended to fathers when God says:
"Therefore, fathers will eat their sons among you, and sons will eat their fathers."
[←71]
To be sure, the verse continues by identifying those who suffer this fate with "those who worship the
beast and his image, and whoever receives the mark of his name." But they have already been
identified, in the preceding chapter 13, verses 8-18, as those who weren't preordained for salvation.
[←72]
William L. Craig, "No Other Name: A Middle Knowledge Perspective on the Exclusivity of
Salvation through Christ," Faith and Philosophy, April 1989, p. 187. In his view, God is justified in
sending both witting and unwitting nonbelievers to Hell because he knew--before he created them--
that they wouldn't have believed in Jesus as Savior even if they had heard about him.
[←73]
The Hebrew word that is here translated as "evil" is "rah." The New American Standard translators,
however, prefer to render it as "calamity" in the passage from Isaiah and as "ill" in the passage from
Lamentations. But such sanitization of the original doesn't really help. It affords the believer little
comfort to be told that God is the source of calamity. And "ill"--we learn from Webster's New
Collegiate Dictionary--is just a synonym for "evil."
[←74]
Brad Warner, ibid., p.15.
[←75]
This debate took place at the University of Auckland in 2008.
[←76]
Brad Warner, p. 14.
[←77]
John Patrick, "By What Authority?" published September, 1984 in a newsletter to fellow clergymen
in the New Zealand Presbyterian Church explaining why he was resigning. My three questions are
derived from those he had put to his parishioners.
[←78]
Alvin Plantinga, Warranted Christian Belief, (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2000), p. 438.
[←79]
The first statement is by no means distinctive of Christianity. Other forms of theism, such as orthodox
Judaism and Islam, share the belief that (1) is true. Where Christianity differs from these others is in
its embrace of (2) which affirms the divinity of Jesus and his unique role as saviour of sinful
mankind. Statement (1) differs in another way as well: it is said to be a truth of Natural Theology, the
product of sheer reasoning of the sort that we find in the ontological, the cosmological, and the
teleological arguments. Statement (2), however, is the sort of truth that is said to be known solely by
relying on God's supposed Revelation to humankind in the Bible.
[←80]
Alvin Plantinga, The Nature of Necessity, (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1974), p. 167.
[←81]
Relational properties (sometimes called transitive ones) are properties that something has by virtue
of having a certain relationship to something else.
[←82]
Mark Twain, Letters from the Earth, (Greenwich, Con: Fawcett Publications Inc., 1968), p.46.
[←83]
Terry Watkins, Dial-the-Truth Ministries (available on the internet).
[←84]
It certainly is a matter of serious concern for the 48% of Americans--presumably conservative
Christians who--according to the New York Times July 28, 2007--believe that we go to Heaven or
Hell depending on confession of sins and accepting Jesus as Lord and Saviour.
[←85]
My maternal grandfather, Baptist minister, padre, and evangelist, reasoned in this way prior to his
conversion. As reported by my grandmother in her biography, Guy D. Thornton: Athlete, Author,
Pastor, Padre (Auckland: Scott and Scott, 1937), he reasoned--prior to his conversion--that it is
impossible to conceive of a God of love punishing eternally the sins committed in a short lifetime. . .
. Eternal punishment is unthinkable. Christ must have been misreported by the authors of the Gospels.
He could not have said what they report of Him. . . [If] Christ has been misreported, what reason is
there for anyone to deny that he has been altogether misreported, and that the whole of the New
Testament is nothing but a collection of fables? pp. 28-9.
Apparently, he was able to set these concerns aside after receiving a life-threatening blow to the
head, meeting a beautiful Christian woman, and becoming "born again."
[←86]
The evils perpetrated by God-the-Father make for grim reading. They include: repeated acts of mass
murder; multiple acts of genocide involving slaying every man, woman, and suckling child in
kingdom after kingdom; and mass speciescide involving drowning every living thing on the face of
the earth except for a few chosen ones that made it to Noah’s ark. No human monster can compete.
No heathen god comes close to him in sheer malevolence and wholesale mayhem. God-the-Father's
crimes in this world were bad enough. But God-the-Son just had to outdo his "Old Man". Making
humans suffer for their sins in this world isn't enough for him. He is going to torture the damned in
the next world for all eternity. And why? As we've seen, it's not because of any heinous acts they’ve
performed, for you can get away with mass murder and still be saved. No. You'll be damned if, for
whatever reason, you fail to believe in the name of Jesus, damned even if you’ve lived a life of
unblemished virtue.
[←87]
Alvin Plantinga, The Nature of Necessity (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1974).
[←88]
Ibid., p. 189.
[←89]
Ibid., p. 166.
[←90]
Ibid., p. 189.
[←91]
Ibid., p. 190.
[←92]
Raymond D. Bradley, "The Free Will Defence Refuted and God's Existence Disproved" (an internet
article published on the Secular Web).
[←93]
It is a theorem of modal logic, i.e., that branch of logic that deals with valid arguments that hinge
crucially on the modal notions of necessity, possibility, impossibility, etc. The system of modal logic
known as S5 features prominently throughout Plantinga's book, The Nature of Necessity.
[←94]
William L. Craig, "No Other Name" Faith and Philosophy, April 1989.
[←95]
The full transcript is available on Dr. Craig's website; see
http://www.leaderu.com/offices/billcraig/docs/craig-bradley0.html
[←96]
The three-fold distinction between object-enhanced, object-depleted, and object-diverse worlds was
first introduced in my book The Nature of All Being: a Study of Wittgenstein's Modal Atomism
(Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992).
[←97]
The term "feasible" was introduced for clarificatory purposes by Plantinga's defender Tom Flint in
"The Problem of Divine Freedom", American Philosophical Quarterly 20 (1983) p.257.
[←98]
Peter van Inwagen, An Essay on Free Will (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1983), p. 59.
[←99]
An incompatibilist may, of course, believe that causal determinism is true and conclude that belief in
contra-causal free will is therefore false. Such incompatibilists are known as Hard Determinists.
[←100]
Alvin Plantinga, The Nature of Necessity (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1974), p. 171.
[←101]
As theologian Wayne Grudem has pointed out, when criticising the Free Will Defence:
if both the person and the circumstances have been created by God, then ultimately the outcome has
been determined by God.
See Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology: an Introduction to Biblical Doctrine (Grand Rapids,
Michigan: Zondervan Publishing House; and Leicester, England: Inter-Varsity Press, 1995) p. 331.
[←102]
Some of the early proponents of the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum physics embraced this
conclusion. So did philosopher Kenneth Rankin in his book Choice and Chance: a Libertarian
Analysis (Oxford: Blackwell, 1961).
[←103]
This simple fact of the matter is emphasized by theologian Wayne Grudem when he writes:
Scripture nowhere says that we are "free" in the sense of being outside of God's control or of being
able to make decisions that are not caused by anything. (This is the sense in which many people
[Plantinga, Craig, and Warner, for example] seem to assume we must be free . . .) Nor does it say we
are "free" in the sense of being able to do right on our own apart from God's power. But we are
nonetheless free in the greatest sense that any creature of God could be free - we make willing
choices, choices that have real effects. (Ibid., p.331).
[←104]
See, for example, the following passages: "And as many as were ordained to eternal life believed."
(Acts 13:48); "For whom he did foreknow, he also did predestinate.... Moreover whom he did
predestinate, them he also called: and whom he called, them he also justified: and whom he justified,
them he also glorified." (Romans 8:29-30); "Who hath saved us, and called us with an holy calling,
not according to our works, but according to his own purpose and grace, which was given us in
Christ Jesus before the world began." (2 Timothy 1:9); "He hath chosen us in him before the
foundation of the world, that we should be holy and without blame before him in love: Having
predestinated us unto the adoption of children by Jesus Christ to himself, according to the good
pleasure of his will." (Ephesians 1:4-5); "God hath from the beginning chosen you to salvation." (2
Thessalonians 2:13); "God shall send them strong delusion, that they should believe a lie: That they
all might be damned." (2 Thessalonians 2:11-12); "For there are certain men crept in unawares, who
were before of old ordained to this condemnation." (Jude 4); "All people living on the earth will
worship the beast [the Devil], except those whose names were written before the creation of the
world in the book of the living which belongs to the Lamb [Jesus]. (Revelations 13:8).
[←105]
Alvin Plantinga, "When Faith and Reason Clash: Evolution and the Bible," Christian Scholar's
Review, Vol.XXI, No. 1 (September 1991), p.8.
[←106]
The Indiscernibility of Identicals is not to be confused with its converse, the Identity of
Indiscernibles (a principle that is sometimes disputed by those who treat relational properties as
being excluded). Gottfried Leibniz (1646-1716) was born just four years before Descartes died.
Nevertheless, the logical law of Non-Identity of Discernibles was, and still is, used as a criterion for
determining whether or not we are referring to just one and the same thing, or to two different things.
[←107]
The identity symbol "=" here is to be understood as meaning numerical identity (being one and the
same), not qualitative identity (being two objects that are exactly the same in respect of their
properties).
[←108]
This argument provides a definitive refutation of those modern-day materialists who accept the
presupposition that a person's mind is a single thing, and then identify that single thing with the
person's brain. For, once again, it may be argued that brains have a certain size and weight; and they
are divisible into smaller parts that are also have these properties. But it is indisputable that minds
have no size or weight; nor are they divisible into smaller parts. Hence, despite the initial appeal of
the simple brain-mind identity theory, it must be false.
[←109]
Survival of our physical constituents--of whatever "ultimate" particles, or their energy equivalents,
our bodies are comprised--hardly counts as survival of us as persons. Only a play on words could
lead to that absurd conclusion. From the undoubted fact that the atoms of our ancient ancestors still
survive, it doesn't follow that they themselves survive as persons. So let's get rid of that shibboleth
right at the outset. It makes the notion of survival totally vacuous.
[←110]
In reply to an objection by his contemporary Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679), Descartes writes:
When I used the terms like 'mind', 'soul', 'understanding' and 'reason', I meant things endowed with
the capacity of thinking.
In using the terms "mind" and "soul" as virtual synonyms, Descartes is following in the steps of a
philosophical tradition that goes back at least as far as Plato' Phaedo.
[←111]
Holdane E.S. and Ross G.R.T., eds. The Philosophical Works of Descartes. (New York: Cambridge
University Press, 1970).
[←112]
John Locke, Essay Concerning Human Understanding, ed., Pringle-Pattison, (Oxford: Clarendon
Press, 1947), p. 318. Note that, in order to sustain his general thesis that a "system" of incogitative
particles can't be cogitative, we need to interpret the final "them" in a collective sense, i.e., as
referring to those particles as they occur within a system. Note, too, that the passage I have quoted
needs to be understood within the context of the three preceding pages.
[←113]
Locke, Essay, page 315:
And I appeal to everyone's own thoughts, whether he cannot as easily conceive matter produced by
nothing, as thought to be produced by pure matter, when before there was no such thing as thought or
an intelligent being existing.
[←114]
Two objects or substances are said to be ontologically independent of one another if it is logically
possible for one to exist without the other. Two objects may be ontologically independent even if the
existence of one is causally dependent on the existence of the other.
[←115]
David Hume, Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, Section VII, Part I, 57 (1748).
[←116]
Greek philosopher/physicists like Empedocles (ca. 490-430 BCE) and Epicurus (340-270 BCE) had
argued for it on non-empirical grounds. As Empedocles put it:
It is impossible for anything to come to be from what is not, and it cannot be brought about or heard
of that what is should be utterly destroyed.
It was left to more modern experimental physicists like Galileo (1564-1643) to provide empirical
evidence.
[←117]
Bertrand Russell, A History of Western Philosophy, (London: Unwin, 1946), p. 583.
[←118]
This is roughly in accord with the formulation by David Hume (1711-1776) and Voltaire (1694-
1778). It is similar to that given more recently by John L. Mackie (1917-1981):
A miracle occurs when the world is not left to itself, when something distinct from the natural order
as a whole intrudes into it.
[←119]
John Locke, Essay Concerning Human Understanding, p. 139.
[←120]
Peter Heath, The Philosopher's Alice, (London: Academy Editions, 1974), p. 201].
[←121]
I'm here expanding on Locke's list of mentalistic terms reified by Scholastics.
[←122]
And likewise for abstract nouns in general. For instance, instead of asking the abstract question,
"What is truth?", we do well to ask questions like "What is it for a statement (belief, hypothesis) to
be true?" or "What is it to tell the truth?"
[←123]
Some philosophers have used the term "category" in a rather different sense. Kant, for instance, was
concerned with categories of thought not of ontology. And more recently, Gilbert Ryle (1900-1976)
tended to treat it as a classification of linguistic items.
[←124]
It was Aristotle, I believe, who first made the point that individual objects or substances do not
admit of degrees whereas properties do. To cite his example,
"One man cannot be more man than another, as that which is white may be more or less white than
some other white object, or as that which is beautiful may be more or less beautiful than some other
beautiful object." Categories, 3b35.
[←125]
The notion of change can itself be defined in terms of objects and properties plus the notion of time:
An object O changes with respect to a property P if and only if O has P at time T1 and does not have
P at T2.
[←126]
For certain purposes, it is useful to recognize the cross-category of relational properties. Being the
father of two sons, for instance, is a property that I possess by virtue of standing in the relation of
father to them.
[←127]
Some would argue for the need to include other abstract entities besides classes or sets. A plausible
candidate for inclusion is propositions.
[←128]
Locke, Essay, Book II, Ch.21, section 6.
[←129]
Gilbert Ryle, The Concept of Mind, originally published by Hutchinson in 1949, reprinted by
Penguin Books 1963.
[←130]
So describing it, however, is extremely misleading as it suggests some sort of revolution in
philosophical method. Anyone disposed to this view of the matter would do well to read earlier
philosophers such as Aristotle to see for themselves how much emphasis they placed on ways of
speaking as a means of ridding ourselves of misbegotten ways of thinking. Aristotle's Categories is a
notable case in point.
[←131]
J. J. C. [Jack] Smart, "A Note on Categories", British Journal for Philosophy of Science 4, 1953.
[←132]
Ibid., p. 190.
[←133]
These discussions focused largely on views I had expounded in my PhD thesis for which he had been
senior examiner the year before.
[←134]
Locke expresses this by saying that knowing beings "have no other ways of knowledge or extent of
power than what he [eternal Mind] gives them." Essay, p. 316.
[←135]
Like Democritus, Galileo, and Newton, Locke took the view that material particles lack the sorts of
properties that we normally ascribe to the objects of perception: they have no taste, smell, colour, or
sound. These are but secondary qualities; the effect that macro-sized objects have on our sensory
organs. The simple particles that produce these sensations have only what Locke called primary
qualities: solidity, extension, motion or rest, number, and shape. They are totally lacking mental
properties such as thought.
[←136]
Note that, in using the comparative term "simpler", I allow for the possibility that the simpler
constituents may themselves be emergent with respect to their own even simpler constituents. Thus
the relation of emerging from simpler constituents is transitive in the sense that if x emerges from y
and y emerges from z, then we may say that x emerges from z. Note, too, that it is natural to speak of
the simpler constituents from whose collocations an emergent property emerges as being at a
"lower" level than the complex of which they are the constituents while the emerging properties are
at a "higher" level.
[←137]
It was Aristotle, I believe, who first emphasized that the function of an adjective--such as
"emergent"--is to distinguish between cases that have and cases that do not have the characteristic
referred to. A definition that did not distinguish would be utterly vacuous.
[←138]
Among the sensory powers that can be attributed to some animals there are some that humans do not
possess. Examples are the heat sensing abilities (infrared vision) of some snakes, the echo-locating
ability of bats, and the electrical field location abilities of some sharks, and the magnetic sense of
numerous species, ranging from migratory birds, and fish.
[←139]
Edward O. Wilson, Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge, (London: Little, Brown and Company,
1998), p. 6. His sketch, in Chapter 2, of the great branches of learning and prospects for their
consilience is one with which I concur.
[←140]
Material properties, so understood, are virtually co-extensive with those properties that Galileo,
Descartes, Newton, and Locke called the "primary qualities".
[←141]
John Searle makes this point nicely when he writes:
There are not two (or five or seven) fundamental ontological categories,
rather the act of categorization itself is always interest relative. For that reason the attempt to answer
such questions as, ‘How many fundamental metaphysical categories are there?’, as it stands, is
meaningless. We live in exactly one world and there are as many different ways of dividing it as you
like.
See "Why I Am Not a Property Dualist", Journal of Consciousness Studies, 9, 2002, p. 58.
[←142]
Richard Dawkins argues the point persuasively with respect to the theory of evolution and the
concept of species in A Devils Chaplain: Selected Essays, (London: A Phoenix Paperback, 2003),
pp. 24-25.
[←143]
In referring to the continuity of the evolutionary spectrum I am not to be taken as suggesting that it
occurs without breaks or dead ends. Evidence suggests that throughout evolutionary history light
receptive organs have evolved some 50 or 60 odd times and that most of these are no longer to be
found.
[←144]
An international consortium of neuroscientists has recently pointed out in Nature Reviews
Neuroscience 6, February 2005:
We believe that names have a powerful influence on the experiments we do and the way in which we
think. . . . Our current understanding of the avian brain . . . requires a new terminology that better
reflects these functions and the homologies between avian and mammalian brains.
[←145]
This sort of argument came to the fore with Donald Davidson's theory of "anomalous monism" as
expounded in 1980, and Jaegwon Kim's responses thereto.
[←146]
Peter Medawar, "The Phenomenon of Man", Mind 70, 1961. Republished in Pluto's Republic
(Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1984), p. 242.
[←147]
Paul Tillich, The Shaking of the Foundations, (New York: Scribner, 1948), p. 63.
[←148]
John A. T. Robinson, Honest to God, (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1963), p. 59.
[←149]
Ibid., p. 46.
[←150]
Ibid., p. 29.
[←151]
Ibid., p. 53.
[←152]
John Shelby Spong, Why Christianity Must Change or Die: a Bishop Speaks to Believers in Exile,
(San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1998), p. 70.
[←153]
John Shelby Spong, Jesus for the Non-Religious: Recovering the Divine at the Heart of the
Human, (Sydney, NSW: HarperCollins Publishers, 2007), p. 11.
[←154]
Ibid., p. 213.
[←155]
Don Cupitt, After God, (London: HarperCollins Publishers, 1997).
[←156]
Ibid., p. xv.
I1
[←157]
Ibid., p. 17f.
[←158]
Peter Heath, The Philosopher's Alice, (London: Academy Editions, 1974), p. 201.
[←159]
Aristotle, Topics, Bk. V, sect. 2.
[←160]
John Shelby Spong, Jesus for the Non-Religious: Recovering the Divine at the Heart of the
Human, (Sydney, NSW: HarperCollins Publishers, 2007), p. 3.
[←161]
Ibid., p. 67.
[←162]
Ibid., p. 263.
[←163]
Ibid., p. 264.
[←164]
1 Timothy, 1:7. Although I attribute these words to St Paul, I'm inclined to agree with most liberal
New Testament scholars that Paul probably didn't write them.
[←165]
Lloyd Geering, In Praise of the Secular, Wellington, St Andrew's Trust for the Study of Religion and
Society, 2007. My review, appearing here as the Epilogue, was published a year or so later in the
SOF's Newsletter.
Table of Contents
PREFACE
1
FROM FUNDAMENTALIST TO FREETHINKER
IT ALL BEGAN WITH SANTA
Fundamentalist Roots
Philosophical Predisposition
The Demand for Evidence as a Basis for Faith
My Pilgrim's Progress
Childhood: a Period of Questioning
Many Santas, Many Religions and Gods
Religious Experiences: Genuine or Spurious?
Formative Reading and Unintended Consequences
The Problem of Evil
Historical Questions Unanswered
Heaven and the Afterlife
God's Foreknowledge and Predestination
Christology
Inerrancy
Predestination and Free Will
Heresy
The Historicity of Jesus
Evil, Free Will, and Responsibility
The Evolution Debate
Flirting with Buddhism, then Deism, then Agnosticism
The Dark Side of Fundamentalism
Book-burning and Beatings
The Delights of being a Freethinker
Maturing as a Freethinking Atheist
A Memorable Debate
Time Out from Interest in Religion
Unabashed Atheism Renewed
2
THE LOGICAL RIVALRY OF THE GODS
CHOICES OF A SPIRITUAL PILGRIM
The Choices of a Spiritual Pilgrim
Betting on the Gods: Pascal's Wager
A Little Logic
The Logical Contrariety of Rival Religions
Hume's Argument from the Contrariety of Religions
The Contrariety of Religions Disputed
The Contrariety Premise Demonstrated
Back to Pascal's Betting Arena
Hume's Thesis: A Proof or a Probability
A Little More Logic
Examples of Hume's Proof or Probability Thesis
The Snarling Logicality is Unavoidable
Guidelines for Prudent Betting
The Improbability of All Religions
The Near-Zero Probability of Any God
Assessing Probabilities Empirically
Empirical Estimates of God's Probability
Purely A Priori Estimates of God's Probability
3
WHY GOD DESERVES TO DIE
INTELLECTUAL AND MORAL INDICTMENTS
The Death of the Gods
The gods of Monotheism
The General Concept of God
The Concept of Atheism
Proving a Negative
Naturalism
Supernaturalism
The God of Biblical Revelation
Inerrancy
Figurativism
Van Inwagen's Simplistic Reasoning
Does the Biblical God tell the Truth?
Is the Biblical God Moral?
Diseases and Disasters
War Crimes and Crimes against Humanity
Tortures of Hell
The Old Testament's Moral Primitivism
Moral Primitivism still Prevails among many Believers
4
TRYING TO RESUSCITATE THE GOD CONCEPT
PHILOSOPHICAL ARGUMENTS
Proofs or Rationalizations?
The Ontological Argument
Ontology and Magical Thinking
Anselm's Ontological Argument
Religious Shortcomings
Logical Shortcomings
Conjuring up a Perfect Island
Conjuring up the Devil
Conjuring up the Greatest Prime Number
The Fallacy Exposed
Existence is not a Predicate [Property]
How to Talk about Existence
No Contradiction in Denying that God exists
The Cosmological Argument
A Simple Version of the Cosmological Argument
The Kalam Cosmological Argument
Arguments from Current Scientific Cosmology
Argument for the Impossibility of an Actual Infinite
Interim Conclusion: "Therefore the universe has a cause."
Final conclusion: "The cause of the universe is God."
Arguments from Design
Scientific Credentials of the Theory of Evolution
Behe on Irreducible Complexity
The Improbability of Abiogenesis
The A Priorist's Fallacy
The Argument from Fine-Tuning
Seven Objections to the Fine-Tuning Argument
A Devastating Dilemma for Design Devotees
Creating and Designing an Evil World
Satan's Moral Outrage over his Boss's Creation
The Great Computer Designer versus the Great Hacker.
The Cosmological and Design Arguments for Atheism
5
THE MORAL ARGUMENT FOR ATHEISM
A LOGICAL QUANDARY FOR THEISTS
Dostoyevsky's Claim
The Reference of "God"
The Meaning of "Absolute Morality"
The Plausibility of Moral Realism
Prima Facie Examples of Objective Moral Truths
Reminder on the History of Objectivist Ethics
God's Violations of "Objective" Moral Principles
Wanton Slaughter
Sex Slavery
Enforced Cannibalism
Human Sacrifice
Endless Torture
A Logical Quandary for Bible-Believing Theists
An Inconsistent Quadruple
Trying to Escape from the Logical Straightjacket
What the Bible Actually Says
Re Slaughter of Innocents
Re Giving Captive Virgins to the Troops
Re Causing People to Cannibalize their Relatives
Re Condoning Child Sacrifice
Re the Eternal Torture of Nonbelievers
Comparing God with Satan
Trying to Absolve God of Guilt
Consequences for Theism
The Falsity of Theistic Ethics
A Personal Challenge to Biblical Theists
6
THE LOGIC OF HELL AND DAMNATION
ANOTHER LOGICAL QUANDARY
The Fourth Face of God’s Evil
Treating the Problem Seriously
The Nature of Omni-God
God's Omnipotence
God's Omniscience
God's Omni-Benevolence (Moral Perfection)
The Nature of Hell
What's Hell Like?
Who Suffers in the Fires of Hell?
Is the Notion of God Sending People to Hell Logically Coherent?
The Idea of Super-Satan
God's Responsibility for All Evil, including that of Hell
Apologetics: Making Excuses for God
Trying to Absolve God: Plantinga's Free Will Defence
Plantinga's Preliminary Sketch of his Defence
The Parable of Dog Almighty and All-Knowing
Plantinga's Attempt at a Formal Proof
The Failure of Plantinga's Formal Proof Illustrated
A Problem with the Entailment Condition
A Problem with the Consistency Condition
Back to Hell: Craig's Version of Plantinga's Defence
The Failure of Craig's Formal Proof
The Entailment Condition Again
The Consistency Condition Again
The Inconsistency Charges Reiterated
Implications of Perfect Goodness
Implications of the Doctrine of Hell and Damnation
The Inconsistency of these Two Sets of Implications
A Heavenly Refutation of the Free Will Defence
Which Possible Worlds Could God have Created?
The Agreed Meaning of "Possible World"
The Agreed Meaning of "Omnipotent"
Possibility and Feasibility
A Counter-Example: the Feasibility of Heaven
Craig's Counter-Argument Refuted
Free Will, Foreknowledge, and Predestination
Compatibilist versus Incompatibilist Meanings of "Free Will"
Free Will, Predestination, and Being Sent to Hell
Consequences of Being Predestined to Hell
A Logical Quandary for Believers
Caveat re the "Christian" Cross of Contradiction
Conservative Christians
"Liberal" Christians
7
THE IMPOSSIBILITY OF AN AFTERLIFE
THE CHESHIRE CAT FALLACY
Two Main Arguments for Substance Dualism
An Appeal to the Logic of Identity and Difference
An Appeal to the Noncogitative Nature of Matter
A Host of Problems for Substance Dualism
The Inexplicability of Mind-Brain Dependence
The Inexplicability of Mental Causation
The Violation of Scientific Laws
Minds aren't Miracle-Workers
Our Embryological and Developmental Histories
Problems about our Evolutionary Histories
Which Stage of the Soul or Mind Survives?
Presupposing a Category Misallocation
The Fallacy of Reification
Resisting the Reifying Lure of Language
Dualistic Consequences of Reifying Mentalistic Terms
Allocation to Ontological Categories
Locke's Partial Solution to Category Misallocation
Category Mistakes and "the Ghost in the Machine"
To Have a Mind is to have a Set of Mental Properties
Interim Summary
The Emergence of Minds from Incogitative Matter
Refutation by Counter-Examples
The Concept of Emergence Defined
Wrong-Headed Concepts of Emergence
The Ubiquitousness of Emergent Properties
The Metaphysics of Emergent Materialism
Contra Substance Monism
Why Property Dualism is Misconceived
Emergent Properties of Different Kinds
The Hierarchy of Sciences
The Case of Sensory Powers
The Case of Consciousness
The Metaphysical Impossibility of Survival
Mind-Brain Dependence
The Issue of Mental Causation
The Bogeyman of Epiphenomenalism
The Violation of Scientific Laws
Minds as Miracle-Workers
Our Embryological and Developmental Histories
Our Evolutionary Histories
8
GOBBLEDYGOOK GODS
PLAYING HUMPTY DUMPTY WITH WORDS
Paul Tillich
Bishop John Robinson
Don Cupitt
Three Main Causes of Philosophical Disease
Reification
Lewis Carroll on "Nobody"
Conflating "is"s
Theologian's Muddles about "is"
Playing Humpty Dumpty with Words
Humpty Dumpty and Tillich, et. al.
Advice from both your Mother and Me
Don't Tell Stories Unless they are True
EPILOGUE
MY REVIEW OF LLOYD GEERING'S IN PRAISE OF THE SECULAR