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Friday, December 19, 2008

Proof That Presuppositional Apologetics Cannot Produce Valid Arguments

Presuppositional apologists make the following two claims:

1. All valid arguments do not beg the question.

2. All knowledge presupposes the existence of God.

Atheism may here be defined as any explicit or implicit denial of the existence of God.

Thus, if one presupposes the existence of God in an argument, one begs the question against atheism.

Now consider that all valid arguments presuppose knowledge.

Combining this with the second claim above, we find that all valid arguments presuppose the existence of God.

Therefore, all valid arguments beg the question against atheism.

Therefore, all valid arguments beg the question.

This contradicts the first claim. Therefore, at least one of the two claims is invalid.

To avoid contradiction, presuppositional apologists must abandon one of their two claims. They must either claim that valid arguments can beg the question, or they must claim that there is knowledge which does not presuppose the existence of God.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Notes From Triablogue

I’ve been involved in a discussion at Triablogue, a Christian blog whose “default mode” is Calvinism. A couple weeks ago, I hadn’t even heard of Triablogue. Then they picked up on my harsh treatment of Rhology and decided to make a point of criticizing my arguments and views.

I’ve been trying to respond to all of the posts aimed at me, but there are many I haven’t gotten to at all, and others which I haven’t been able to respond to in full. The discussion might be dying down, but I can’t be sure. At the moment there are a total of three Triablogue discussion threads devoted to me (links: one, two, three). I don't know if I should be honored or dismayed.

I can’t say I’m impressed with the argumentative tactics being employed over there. There are a few contributors who might be genuine, thoughtful and sincere, and who I could probably have a simple, intelligent discussion with. Those few are unfortunately overshadowed by a handful of arrogant, manipulative, and seemingly dishonest fellows--these are official "Triabloggers." I’m talking specifically about Steve Hays, Paul Manata, Peter Pike, and Gene Bridges. (It’s not entirely fair to lump them all together like that. The truth is, Steve Hays and Paul Manata are by far the worst of the bunch. But Peter Pike isn’t all that far behind. Gene Bridges hasn’t been so bad, but he’s shown that he’s not afraid of playing their game.)

What impresses me the most isn’t the degree of confusion or misrepresentation they have exhibited, though those are both severe. And it isn’t the lengths some of them have gone to in order to defend their reputations: none have been willing to admit it when they’ve made simple logical mistakes, presented incoherent or confusing arguments, or misrepresented my own arguments, even when this all has been demonstrated to them in excruciatingly simple terms. It isn’t the copious amounts of presumption, or the heaping servings of verbal abuse (to be fair, I’ve laid out some verbal abuse on some of them, as well; it’s just too hard to resist sometimes, and their Website makes it clear that they openly welcome it). No, as impressive as all of the above is, what really gets me is how they’ve developed an entire argumentative strategy that revolves around their irrational view of authority.

It’s not surprising that their arguments center around the Bible and divine revelation as ultimate authorities. However, it is a little disconcerting that they cannot see a rational reason why the Bible doesn’t seem like a very good authority on moral or historical questions, or why a rational person would question the legitimacy of appeals to "divine revelation."

It might be that the religious mind, or the mind of a particular sort of religious person, has a fundamentally irrational approach to authority in general. A rational person recognizes those practical limits and conditions which make appeals to authority a very sensitive matter. Some religious people, however, don’t get it. They see authority as the one and only source of truth, beauty, and justice. Authority comes only in absolutes: either absolutely right (God), or absolutely wrong (everything else). Thus, they not only base their arguments on the dubious authority of the Bible; their entire offensive is centered arround attacking their opponents’ lack of authority. They do this by appealing to other authorities (God, Bible, theological tradition), and asking their opponents to appeal to other authorities.

For example, I’ve been asked how I “justify” nature, as though nature could only exist if there were some authority which made it “just.” I’ve been accused of not having the authority to make arguments about the philosophical issues at hand. I’ve been asked more than once to list all of the books I’ve read about the topic under discussion.
They’ve even criticized me for linking to Websites that they don’t like (in my post, "Ten Reasons Why A Rational Person Should Not Think The Bible Is The Final Word On All Moral Questions," I linked to,, and a Wikipedia entry that referenced the Skeptics Annotated Bible), but without ever responding to the content of those links. As though the content on those links should just be assumed to be invalid, because the Websites are supported by people who don’t agree with the people at Triablogue. As though the formal argument for theological noncognitivism I linked to just has to be invalid, because it’s on

To summarize what often passes for a chain of Triablogue reasoning: “How could an atheist or skeptics Website have a valid argument? Of course it can’t. Therefore, Jason is an idiot. QED.”

These criticisms have been offered in lieu of a full and detailed response to my actual arguments. Of course, when they do substantively respond to my actual arguments, they usually get them wrong and fail to fully address my questions.

Yes, from a certain angle, the Triablogue line does look like a whole lot of nonsense.

But it kind of makes sense, if you understand their warped view of authority. For them, the validity of any argument rests on the authority of the person making it. If your authority comes from the Bible and its theological tradition, then they will embrace you. If your authority comes from anywhere else—or if you claim that you don’t actually need any authority to make your arguments, because your arguments can be evaluated on their own merits—then they will not respect what you have to say.

So why have I stuck around, when so much mud has been slung in an effort to discredit me?

First of all, I have to admit, I like seeing people getting so worked up over my ideas. Especially people who are so used to thinking they are right. It would be nice if there were some signs that my views have been correctly understood, instead of having them repeatedly mangled beyond recognition
. However, I’ve learned that such confusion should be treated as an opportunity to develop my own communication skills. And, frankly, you’re bound to get into tangles when you disagree over the very meaning of basic terms like “morality” and “truth.” So this is kind of like exercise.

Triablogue is giving me a platform to develop my arguments, to present my ideas as strongly as I can to people who disagree with me with all of their heart and mind. While several of them probably won’t ever question their assumptions enough to understand me, I know there are at least some people reading with a somewhat open mind.

Of course, a time will come when the party will have to end. Perhaps I’ll tire of being misunderstood. Perhaps they’ll tire of running through the same material over and over again. Or maybe I’ll just find a better way to spend those few extra hours a week.

In any case, I appreciate those who have been following the discussions and who have responded here with encouragement. It’s nice to know that some people out there are paying attention and finding some value in what I’ve been trying to do.

As I recently told them over at Triablogue, I’m not sure when I’ll be able to continue my end of the discussion. I want to go through all of the posts directed towards me again, just to make sure I haven’t left anything out, and then respond with an argument as thorough and clear as I can muster. It should cover all of the bases, including consciousness and the nature of subjectivity, the foundations of morality, mathematics, and logic, as well as the incoherence of theology and the illegitimacy of the Bible as a moral authority.

I will post that argument here, but I’m not sure when I’ll have time to write it. Maybe not until January.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Excerpts from a discussion of logic, morality, and evolution

A guy named Steve is currently trying to mangle my views into submission.

Here's my response to his latest post.

Steve: “by your own definition of morality, fascism is a social convention. A social contract.”

That doesn’t follow from my understanding of morality. By my definition of morality, fascism is the negation of contracts, because it denies the ability of individuals to negotiate contracts.

You said Nazi Germany satisfied my conditions for morality. Yet, Nazi Germany was not based upon the most rational arguments available. It does not meet my criteria.

You say that “a process of negotiation assumes at the outset that we have a right to enter into contractual negotiations.”

No, it need not make that assumption.

You say, “We can observe an event, but the rightness or wrongness of an event is unobservable. Moral properties are not empirical properties. We can observe a bank robbery, but the bank robbery doesn’t look or sound or smell or taste or feel right or wrong.”

This is funny, because you and others here make continual reference to conscience as a guiding factor in your moralizing. What is conscience, if not the “feel” of right and wrong?

So, which is it? Do you deny that we can have feelings about what is right or wrong, or do you simply deny that such feelings can be manifest in a physical way?

I imagine you wish to claim that feelings cannot be physical. Such a claim is absurd for two reasons: first, because neuroscientists are making measurable progress in understanding just how feelings are produced by brains; second, because you have yet to define what a non-physical existence would be or how it could be recognized as distinct from physical existence.

“How do you empirically measure the immorality of murder—assuming you think that murder is wrong?”

I measure the right or wrongness of an action by whether or not I want to live in a society where such actions are considered right or wrong.

You say, “you first need to derive and justify the concept of “best” before you can apply it to a concrete situation.”
Justify the concept? Okay, here’s a justification of the concept: Given that we can only consider a finite set of options, and we can evaluate the relative desirability of different options, we can determine which option (or set of options) seems the best.

Would you like me to explain any other rudimentary concepts here?

You ask, “Why assume that what is good for humanity is good? Is what is good for Stalin good?”

I’m not making any such assumptions.

”Why, on your grounds, should humanity exist, survive, and prosper?”

I think humanity should exist and prosper, because I want myself and everyone I love to exist and proper. If you don’t think humanity should survive or prosper, then we have a fundamental disagreement of values.

You say I “appealed” to theological noncognotivism. Actually, no, I didn’t appeal to it. I argued for it. If you wish to address my arguments about that, feel free. It seems you do not want to address those arguments, however, because you chose instead to dismiss them as “just a warmed over version of the long discredited school of logical positivism.”

Either address my arguments, or don’t. But this kind of dismissal is clearly unwarranted.

Now, you wish to accuse me of ignorance, when in fact all you are doing is misreading my words. (You do that a lot, you know.)

In response to my assertions about negative theology, you said, “At best, your claim would only apply to the apophatic tradition.”

Yes, that’s right. I was talking about the apophatic tradition.

Then you point out that “many theologians are not apophatic theologians.”

Good for you, Steve. But, Steve, you see, I never said that ALL theologians were apophatic.

Your conclusion that my “historical claim is demonstrably ignorant and demonstrably false” is demonstrably based on your demonstrable tendency to put words in my mouth.

That’s not a respectable habit you have there, Steve.

Next you ask me to explain why it is unintelligible or incoherent to think that God can instantiate any possible state of affairs. To answer that question, I’d first have to know what the term “God” refers to. As I explained to Rhology, the term is defined in self-contradictory ways. E.g., God is defined to exist outside of space and time. This implies that God does not exist at all, because to exist is to persist over time. This is a contradiction.

Ready for a shock? You put more words in my mouth here: “You were dismissing Biblical ethics on the mere grounds that it’s contained in a book. An old book.”

Nowhere did I dismiss the Bible’s ethics solely on the grounds that it is an old book. You say that was my “original objection.” Steve, you are a liar. It’s shameful.

You ask, “do blindly programmed robots have rights?”

I don’t see why any rational agent should be denied rights, no matter their cellular composition and no matter how they came to be. So, blindly programmed robot or not, it makes no difference to me.

”To “justify” altruism by appealing to natural selection commits the naturalistic fallacy. Morality is not about what is, but what ought to be. Even if our sense of altruism is a product of natural selection, that’s a descriptive statement, not a normative statement.”

Let’s break this down and look at what you’re actually saying.

First, you are correctly pointing out that morality is about what “ought to be.” Of course, morality must take into account what is; if it didn’t, it would be irrelevant.

Thus, your moralizing, for example, takes into account what you think is the most important conditions for guiding your moral principles: namely, “God”, the Bible, etc. So, you make reference to what is when you discuss what ought to be.

Clearly, moralizing requires an understanding of what is as well as notions about what ought to be. And, of course, we should not forget the difference between the two.

But now, look at what you say next. You say, “even if our sense of altruism is a product of natural selection, that’s a descriptive statement, not a normative statement.”

And? You think this has some negative implications for my argument, Steve?

Steve, please . . . just try to think here.

The claim that altruism is a product of natural selection is not an “ought.” It is an “is,” just like the many “is” statements you take into account when you approach your own convoluted undertanding of morality. And I am not confusing it for an “ought” statement.

I am not saying that morality ought to be a product of natural selection. If I was making such a bizarre statement, then you might have a point. But since I’m not, your flailing about here is truly absurd.

Next, you say, “once we become aware of our evolutionary conditioning, we’re in a position to resist our evolutionary conditioning. It only works if we’re unaware of it. Like someone who’s been brainwashed.”

Ah, so if I try hard enough, I can condition myself to survive indefinitely without food or water? Wow. I didn’t know that.

Your insight is astounding, Steve. Really . . . this is impressive stuff.

You say, “So you have yet to explain why we should be altruistic. Selfish genes won’t do the trick.”

People are altruistic, at times, under certain conditions, because it is advantageous for the replication of their genes. This, of course, says nothing about whether or not being altruistic is good for you or anybody else you know. It only describes what has tended to be good for our genes.

So, why should people be altruistic? Game theorists have shown that a “tit for tat” approach to cooperation tends to be very successful in certain populations. It is most likely the case that human beings have evolved so that we work best together when we demonstrate a certain amount of trust and mutual interest with other members of our communities.

In short, altruism makes sense, given the right conditions.

You ask, “Do you even know what an abstract object is?”

First of all, it isn’t at all clear that you do. So far, you’ve only defined the “mental realm” in negative terms, as something that cannot be quantified. Your definition would make abstract objects unquantifiable, and thus unknowable. I presume you don’t think mathematical objects, like numbers, are unquantifiable, do you?

So your understanding of abstract objects is incoherent.

My understanding is as follows: abstract objects are algorithms, like computer programs.

Your view is that abstraction requires representation, and that physical systems cannot represent on their own. And yet, neuroscientists have already made some headway into understanding just how the brain produces representations. You can deny this evidence, just like you deny the evidence in favor of evolutionary theory, of course.

You ask, “where do possible worlds come from? Not from the real world, since a possible world is a way the real world might have been, but isn’t.”

The phrase “possible world” is an abstraction, an algorithm. You are confusing thoughts with reality. You do that a lot.

And you ask, “Or what about infinite sets, like the Mandelbrot set. In what does that inhere? Not in the human mind, since the human mind is finite.”

Sets are algorithms. You assume that every definable set corresponds to something beyond itself, something beyond the algoritm. That's a nonsensical view.

To see this, consider the following issue. You wish to assert that there is some abstract realm in which all of the infinite and transfinite numbers actually exist. And yet, Godel proved that mathematics cannot be both complete and consistent. This means that, if there were some weird realm in which mathematics was complete, then that realm would contain internal contradictions.

How do you explain this?

Of course, it would help if you coherently defined your terms in the first place.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Ten Reasons Why A Rational Person Should Not Think The Bible Is The Final Word On All Moral Questions

In no particular order . . .

  1. The Bible contains significant historical inaccuracies;

  1. The Bible is full of commandments that do not have any apparent or coherent justification;

  1. Our understanding of life and cosmos has expanded and developed enormously since the time the Bible was written;

  1. The Bible is based around incoherent notions, such as “God” and other supernatural entities;

  1. The Bible was written at a time when most of the moral dilemmas we confront were not even imaginable, because civilization has changed dramatically;

  1. The Bible is not self-consistent;

  1. The Bible does not present a coherent account of morality;

  1. The Bible advocates actions that conflict with the values of the majority of the world’s inhabitants;

  1. There is no evidence or reason supporting the assertion that the Bible is the final word on all moral questions;

  1. In order to rationally conclude that the final word on all moral questions has been achieved, one would have to account for every possible moral question. The Bible does not do this.
Update: I added a few links here to guide people to further reading. If anybody would like to challenge any of these points, I welcome the debate.

The Nature and History of Logic

This post won't do its title justice. I'm not going to delve too deeply into the nature or history of logic. But I want to paint a general picture of how I understand the topic, because it came up in a discussion I've been involved with on another blog.

The question was raised, If there are no minds to recognize the laws of logic, do the laws of logic still exist?

If there are no systems which instantiate the rules of inference, then the rules of inference do not exist.

When something exists that does instantiate the rules of logic, then the rules of logic exist.

I wouldn't assume that human brains are the only systems capable of instantiating the rules of logic, of course.

Now, consider how mundane my point here actually is. What I am saying about logic can be said about anything at all. Like apples, for example.

If there are no entities which structurally correspond to what we call "apples," then there are no apples. It is conceivable that we could live in a universe in which all apples have ceased to be. Yet, apples could grow again.

Thus it is with logic, and even tomatoes.

But why do brains instantiate the rules of inference? How do they do it? And, how did we figure out the rules in the first place?

As for the first question--why we use logic--I think the answer is evolutionary in nature. I don't have an ultimate understanding of how it happened that brains evolved to instantiate logic, but I see no reason to think that the answer to this question will forever remain outside of scientists' grasp.

As for the second question--how it works--again, I don't have an ultimate understanding, but I see no reason to think that neuroscientsts and cognitive scientists won't figure out all the details one day.

As for the third question, I wouldn't say we've figured out all of the rules of logic. The fact is, there may be an infinite number of possible logical systems. We've developed a good many logics, but we haven't discovered all of them. (This is not to say that the others actually exist in some non-physical realm. Rather, it is to say that they exist only as possibilities.)

But how did all of this happen?

First, we evolved the ability to use language. Then we were able to develop metalanguages--languages that allowed us to observe the defining characteristics of language itself.

Language is, of course, a tool. With the development of language came the development of abstract reasoning. And with the development of abstract reasoning came the ability to reason about reasoning. Thus it was that the first attempts at logic were made.

More advanced logics have explored many of the possibilities abstract reasoning affords, and I wouldn't assume that the full potential of reason will ever be exhausted.

Some claim that we cannot account for logic by reference to the physical world alone. They say some spiritual or non-physical realm must be conjured to explain it. If anybody can do a better job of explaining these things by postulating some non-physical realm, go for it. However, so far I haven't seen anyone describe a non-physical realm in a way that made sense. So far, talk about non-physical (or "supernatural") realms is incoherent, because there are no means provided which would allow us to tell the difference between one realm and the next, and there is no explanation for how these two supposedly different realms interact or relate to each other.

I don't have all the answers about how logic came about on planet earth, but my view makes sense and it is line with the evidence. I don't see any plausible or coherent alternatives on the table. So I'm sticking with the evolutionary model until something better comes along.

Warning To Those Who Follow Rhology

In my last post, I used the word "scum" repeatedly to emphasize my lack of respect for Rhology's moral system. I do not apologize for this, and I do not take any of it back. However, I realize that by so aggressively criticizing Rhology's moral sensibility in this manner, I may have made it hard for some people to understand the point I was making. So here I will try to make the point again in less aggressive language.

For whatever reason, Rhology thinks my "moral system" is very similar to the Judeo-Christian one. And, he says, this can be explained by the fact that I have been "created in God's image."

This suggests that a person who adheres to a different moral system--Muslim, perhaps--was not created in God's image. This would mean that, as far as human rights go, Muslims are no more deserving than chimpanzees.

Rhology says that "*If Christianity is true,*" then he has an absolute moral authority. And yet, the only reason he gives us for believing that Christianity is true is his inability to understand morality without Christianity.

Rhology thinks that morality amounts to doing whatever God has instructed in the Bible. "Morality" is thus just another word for playing by God's rules. It has nothing to do with what is good for humanity, or what is good according to reason and common sense. No, it only has to do with what the Bible says is good, and no arguments or questions can be raised to challenge that.

This kind of thinking is fascist. It is a negation of morality, because morality is not simply playing by some set of rules written in some book. No, morality is a process whereby people justify their actions to one another. It is a social phenomenon, and it is based in physiology.

I have explained this, but Rhology will continue to deny it. He will continue to assert that I have no grounds for understanding morality, that my worldview cannot support morality, and that I have no legitimate reasons for rejecting his "God."

The fact is, I have explained morality in very simple and rational terms, and I have provided a strong argument for why I reject religious belief. Conversely, Rhology has defined his moral authority (TGOTB) in contradictory terms. Though I have pointed this out, Rhology has not defended himself or his definition of "God."

Rhology suggests that I think morality is "whatever is good for humanity and civilization." No, that is not how I define the word "morality." Lots of things are good for humanity and civilization, but aren't morality. Water, for example, is not morality.

Morality is a process of deciding what is best for humanity and civilization. One can approach morality rationally, by adhering to the requirements of reason and evidence; or, one can approach it irrationally, by denying the possibility of rational argument.

Rhology's approach to morality is irrational, and it goes against the very foundations of moral judgment. Though he wishes to take the moral high ground, Rhology is rejecting the very need to justify his views. He thinks he's above morality.

Rhology would like to live in a dictatorship, where all possible judgments about life are constricted to those written down ages ago, and where anyone who disagrees with those ancient dictates is condemned. He spites the potential morality has to make all of our lives better.

For these reasons, I have concluded that Rhology's misunderstanding of atheism and morality presents a danger to the world.

I hope this is clear.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Losing Patience With Scum

Here's another post addressed to the Christian apologist, Rhology. I'm afraid I probably won't be able to endure many more rounds of his nonsense. We'll see.


You are so confused, it’s kind of scary. I’m not going to address all of your idiotic comments and questions, because it would take too much time, and it wouldn’t help anybody. I’ll just try to cover the basics here.

You say that my system of morality looks suspiciously like a Judeo-Christian one. What makes you say this? Indeed, the only specific moral arguments I’ve made here are about abortion, and my views on that are quite different from the one you say is supported by the Bible. So, on what grounds do you judge my “system of morality” to be Judeo-Christian?

As it happens, there are a few things written in the Bible that I don’t find morally offensive. A few. However, much of what I’ve read from the Bible runs contrary to my moral sensibility. For example, look at all the grounds for capital punishment in the Old Testament. I wouldn’t dream of arguing that somebody should be executed for adultery, or for following any non-Judeo-Christian religion. And yet, in the Old Testament, these are listed as grounds for execution.

Really, I don’t see much similarity between my values and those described by the Bible.

Since we’ve touched on capital punishment here, let me remind you of something you said. You said that “God” decides what is a capital crime. If we follow the Bible, this means that adultery, homosexuality, following different religions, and lots of other things are capital crimes. As you said, this means they take away a person’s right to life. Do you agree with the Bible on all of these points?

I must assume you do, because you say TGOTB is the final word—nay, the only word—on such questions. I think many people would agree that this would make you scum. Are you scum?

It seems you have two choices here: First, distance yourself from some of the teachings of the Bible, and thereby give up your assertion that the Bible is the only word on moral questions. Second, admit that you are scum.

So which is it?

If you in fact are not scum, then there is no point in continuing this discussion. Because if you are not scum, then you wouldn’t stand by all of the assertions you have been making here. So I will continue writing with the view that you are, in fact, scum.


Now, you think people who cheat on their spouses should be executed. You think Buddhists, Muslims, and Hindus should be killed for their abandonment of the Judeo-Christian God. You are, in other words, the scum of the earth. With me so far?

The problem here isn’t just that you are scum, of course. Your scumminess is compounded by the fact that you think your position is the only moral option. You actually think that you have the moral higher ground. You think that anybody who disagrees with your Bible is scummier than you are.

If you were the only scummy person out there who thought this way, I wouldn’t be so concerned. But the fact is, I think a lot of people think like you do. That is a serious problem. Especially when such scummy people hold positions of power in society.

The problem is, your scumminess prevents you from understanding what a moral position actually looks like. I’ve been trying to explain this to you, but your mind has been so infiltrated by scum that you can’t see beyond the scum. You are trapped in a mental web of scum. It’s sad, because I think there is an intelligent and well-meaning person underneath all those layers of scum. But maybe I’m wrong, and you’re just scum to the bone.

In any case, let’s go over the basics again. Maybe this time you’ll get it.

You say that either the Bible is true, or atheism is true. If the Bible is true, you say, then your moral authority is absolute. If atheism is true, you say, then there can be no morality at all.

Is that a fair description of your view?

Now, this view is so patently stupid and absurd, it’s hard to decide where to begin. Let’s begin by comparing your scumminess to that of the Nazis. You see, as I mentioned, they had a book, too. And they thought it told the truth. They killed millions of people because of the ideas written in that book. Now, on what grounds do you embrace your Bible, and not Mein Kampf? Why should anyone take one book as a guide to moral absolutes, and not another book?

The fact is, scum, your allegiance to the Bible is wholly arbitrary. It’s no better than the Nazis’ allegiance to Mein Kampf.

You blindly assert that, if atheism is true, then morality is impossible. Now, I’ve explained to you how morality works. I’ve explained what it is. And yet you deny that I have done so. You deny that I could even possibly explain morality without believing in your “God.” And yet, I have. It’s quite simple. I’ll do it again, since you apparently didn’t read carefully enough before. (I know, it’s hard to comprehend a lot of this stuff when you’ve got so much scum in your eyes.)

You see, morality is a process whereby justifications are established. It is an ongoing process, and it requires discourse. It is based on the very need for people to establish common notions of “right” and “wrong.” Rational arguments are available to all, and can be judged objectively, on their merits. Morality is thus based in human need, and it is the product of biology and civilization.

You seem to think that, without a book to tell us exactly what is right and wrong, we would all be lost. We wouldn’t be able to do anything. We would, in short, be ignorant and confused savages. And yet, we have reason. We can work together to establish social systems based on our ability to reason and negotiate values together. That is what morality is. It is a process of negotiation.

You wish to end all negotiations and condemn those who do not adopt the views written in your very old book. That is one way to approach the process whereby moral questions are negotiated—it is a dictatorial, fascist way to approach the process, because it denies the very possibility of negotiation. You are therefore unreasonable and potentially dangerous to the very possibility of morality.

By claiming that morality cannot be negotiated, and that it can only be embraced as the word of “God,” you are denying the very process whereby morality is established. You are against morality. You are, as I said, scum.

Why should anyone think that the writings in your very old book are of any more value than the ramblings of any idiot on the street?

I embrace morality, because I embrace that process whereby people work together to try to justify their decisions. It is not a perfect process, but its success is not predicated upon any supposed infallibility. It leaves room for error, but it works.

Now, please, give us all a single reason why we should abandon morality and embrace your Bible. Why should we value that book any more than we value Mein Kampf or other such insults to humanity and reason?

Friday, November 21, 2008

An Atheist's Perspective on Abortion, Human Rights, and Morality

This post is a response to a blogger named Rhology whose empassioned misunderstanding of atheism and morality is somewhat disturbing. Rhology most likely isn't stupid, just misguided and stubbornly devoted to misconceptions about the nature of philosophy. As annoying as it is to be misunderstood and misrepresented, I do appreciate these kinds of discussions at times, because they often lead me to find clearer, stronger statements of my views. For the history of this discussion, see these two blog posts and their comments on Rhology's own blog: To Whom Rights Belong and Just What Are Rights?


You have wholly misrepresented my statements and my views.

I said I have found it impossible to take religious belief seriously. You say that is me "admitting my bias." Nonsense. As you very well know, I have explained why I reject religious belief. It's not bias. It's just common sense and reason.

You make a blanket assertion that atheists have no basis for talking about rights, values, beauty, justice, and so on. Do you have any idea how stupid that makes you sound?

You think an atheist worldview cannot "support" human rights. You clearly have no idea what you're talking about.

Justice, beauty, truth, rights . . . these are human values. We all have them because we have working human brains and because we are actively involved in the world around us. You don't need Christianity to appreciate beauty, truth, justice, or nobility. You don't need to be Christian to have honor. In fact, as you have so clearly demonstrated, too much Christianity can compromise your ability to understand these concepts.

You think you understand atheism pretty well. And yet, I don't think you could find one atheist who would tell you that you've accurately represented their views here.

It seems pretty clear that you have a poor understanding of morality, as well.

You say, “Of course, for an atheist, there is not only not any infallible authority for moral questions, there is not even an objective one outside the individual or group of individuals, so we always have to salt our thoughts with that reminder.”

If you have an infallible authority for moral questions, where's the evidence? The Bible? By what standard does any book count as evidence of an infallible moral authority?

Claiming that “God is infallible because He revealed Himself to be infallible” is nonsense. Claiming that "the Bible is infallible because God revealed it to be infallible" is similarly nonsense.

Nonsensical assertions are a waste of everybody’s time. Please produce a coherent argument for your infallible moral authority, and how it allows you to make moral judgments without any room for doubt. (I assume you know that when you apply the Bible to your daily life, you have to actually interpret it a little bit. Does God's alleged infallibility manage to survive the process of interpretation? How would you know?)

As for your “salt,” it totally misses the sense of what morality is.

You say that, for atheists, “there is not even an objective” authority for moral questions outside of whatever group is seeking answers. Let’s try to parse this, shall we?

An objective authority on moral questions . . . How would one recognize an objective moral authority, exactly? I mean, what is an objective moral authority?

You say it’s God. But that doesn’t answer the question. First, I don’t know what the word “God” refers to. Second, even if I did, I wouldn’t know what it means for “God” to be an objective moral authority. You understand the problem here?

Now, listen. I will explain what an objective moral authority is. In so doing, it should be clear why your argument is bankrupt on two fronts: first, because you wrongly accuse atheists of lacking objective moral authority; second, because you wrongly claim to have an objective moral authority of your own. See, I’m about to turn your argument upside down. Ready?

The term “objective” refers to that which can be observed and measured by anybody (in theory, of course), and not what is only available for a single person. Of course, people react differently to objective events, and no matter how similar people’s experiences tend to be, there is often some small difference in what they observe and measure. Yet, in so far as something is theoretically available to be observed and measured, we call it “objective,” even if our observations and measurements are not always exactly the same. Often we have to negotiate an understanding of objective events, because our experiences aren’t always exactly the same. In this way, objectivity can be established through discourse.

Objectivity is denied when something is defined out of conceivability or when something is defined out of observability and measurability.

Now, as you probably recall, I have explained why I steadfastly maintain the position that your use of the term “God” defines God out of conceivability. This means that, despite your claims to the contrary, you cannot use the term “God” to refer to an objective moral authority.

But let’s dig deeper. An objective moral authority is one that provides authoritative answers to moral questions in a way that can be observed and measured by any properly situated person. The question is, how do we know we’ve found an authoritative answer to a moral question? In other words, what are the defining characteristics of a moral authority?

That’s easy. Authority is granted by convention, of course. The most rationally conceived authority is one most adapted to the needs of the community and most adaptive to the demands of reason. Morality is all a matter of justification, after all. So, a moral authority is a person or body of persons whose decisions on moral questions are respected within a community.

Atheists have such a moral authority: it is the decision-making processes within the community itself! You see, atheists respect the processes whereby moral questions are rationally argued. And whatever rational argument prevails is respected as authoritative. That is how moral questions are answered, and it is perfectly objective.

Now, of course, you were talking about some objective moral authority existing outside of any group or community. And yet, by framing the argument in such terms, you are talking nonsense. For, if some moral authority is going to be available to people, then what sense does it make to demand that said authority remain outside of their grasp?

It’s absurd.

If you want objective moral authority, it has to be at least theoretically available to everyone in the community. You can’t define it out of comprehension, and you can’t define it out of the community. You wish to do both, which is why your argument fails.

Your position is not one of moral superiority, Rhology. It is one of moral bankruptcy.

Now, let’s talk about prejudice, shall we?

You said, “To say that b/c Person X is quite young (arbitrary distinction) and living in a specific location (again, arbitrary distinction), it's OK to kill that person is illicit. It's morally bankrupt, and it's precisely of the same quality as 3rd Reich reasoning wrt Jews.”

Indeed, I would never recommend legislation that made it legal to kill people under, say, eleven years old who lived in Chicago. That wouldn’t quite be equivalent to Nazism, because I wouldn’t be legislating the extermination of an entire race. But it would be really bad stuff.

Fortunately, my position here is nothing like what you describe. It shouldn’t be too hard to see the difference. I’ll try to explain it slowly, to make sure I’m not misunderstood.

We need to start with the very basics. See, again, I’m going to have to turn your argument upside down. Ready?

You say that your position is not arbitrary and that mine is. You even laughed when I asked why you don’t attribute the same rights to all mammals as you attribute to humans. Why did you laugh?
Because you can’t see how arbitrary your position actually is, apparently.

Look. What is the biological difference between a human being and a chimpanzee? Not all that much, if you go by DNA. About two percent, I think. And what is the biological difference between a person with Jewish parentage and a person without Jewish parentage? Less than two percent, for sure. But there is still a biological difference. Now, you claim that the biological difference between these two should be insignificant when it comes to granting the right to life. Both human, after all, so they should be afforded the same rights. Well, why not extend those same rights to chimpanzees? They aren’t so biologically different from humans, after all.

So, why give some rights to humans, but not to chimps?
You say it’s because humans have human DNA. Well so what?
Chimps have 98 percent of the same DNA. Why claim that only humans get these rights?

You want to resort to the same nonsense about God’s revelation. That’s not an argument. It’s avoidance.

So, you ask, how do I justify ascribing rights to anyone at all? Again, look back at the moral authority I mentioned earlier. I justify ascribing rights to certain organisms because the prevailing rational arguments justify it. I do not look for authority beyond rational discourse, because there is no conceivable authority beyond rational discourse.

Note that this does not make my position on rights arbitrary or subjective. Not at all. My position is based on the needs of civilization and the demands of reason. The arguments for my position are available for consideration by anyone capable of understanding them. I do not postulate any secret knowledge, any wholly subjective information, or any other-worldly, ultimately unknowable realm, to justifies my position here.

In short, my hand is open, and it remains firmly rooted in rational thought. If you wish to challenge my moral judgments, if you wish to challenge my position on abortion, you can. I won’t hide behind incomrehensible words like "God."

So far, your challenge to atheism is nonsense. You claim to have a moral authority when you clearly do not. You also wish to deny the validity of atheists' objective moral authority for no apparent reason, though I suppose it has something to do with your inability to tell the difference between genocide and abortion.

Let me put it another way. My views on abortion are based on rational argument. Your views are based on an irrational devotion to an old book. The Nazis tried to justify genocide by irrationally clinging to a book. It was called Mein Kampf. Whose position looks more like the Nazis now?

Moving on . . .

I referred to a woman having an abortion as the "termination of a pregnancy." You say, “Let's call [abortion] what it is - to murder her baby. No euphemisms allowed.”

The word “murder” implies illegality. Since it is not illegal, it is not murder. The word “terminate” is not a euphemism. It accurately describes what happens.

And you say, “Um, so baby humans are not "remotely similar to human beings"?”

Babies are human beings. Fetuses are not. In any case, you missed my point. I said I don’t support the “wanton killing” of anything remotely similar to human beings. That includes embryos and fetuses. So you don’t need to throw a fit.

I said, “I do not support genocide.”

You replied, “Unless we're talking about really young people. Then it's OK.”

Ha. That’s funny. Because obviously allowing a woman to terminate her pregnancy is an act of genocide. Yeah, that makes sense. Either you don’t know what the word “genocide” means, or you just weren’t thinking when you typed that.

I said, “You claim that the Nazi’s attitude towards Jews was rational.”

You replied, “??? Where did I say that?”

You don’t remember? I'll refresh your memory. Earlier I wrote: “They were not legislating policy according to rational standards of human ability and development.”

You said, “Sure they were. Jews weren't human. Simple.”

Rember now? By your account, the Nazis had a rational standard of human ability. Their attitude towards the Jews was thus based on a rational standard. Are you taking that comment back now, or what?

You wrote, “The Nazis were CONSISTENT with their arbitrary "this one is human, this one is not human" distinctions, just like you are.”

As I've demonstrated, you are the one consistently (and irrationally) sticking to arbitrary distinctions.

You asked, “on what rational basis do you conclude that babies aren't human?”

We’re not talking about babies. We’re talking about embryos and fetuses in early stages of development. They’re not human beings because they are not capable of acting independently in the world according to their own interests.

Many fetuses in the third trimester can act like human beings, and so they should be treated like human beings.

Lesser developed fetuses and embryos cannot. This is why they are dependent on their mothers, and this is why their fate should be left in their mothers’ hands (or in the hands of whoever is watching over the mother, in case she isn’t able to act according to her own best interests.)

See, at certain stages of development, a fetus is not an independent, self-sustaining organism. It is still a part of the mother’s body. That’s why it makes sense to give the mother the decision over its fate.

This is the prevailing rational argument, and it makes sense to me. Your grounds for disagreement, on the other hand, do not make sense to me at all.

Now, back to your non-argument . . . on what basis do you ascribe rights to anyone? On what basis do you justify your moral judgments about anything?

I see no reason to accept quotes from the Bible as a rational argument. If you want to use quotes from the Bible, fine. But the Bible itself is not an argument. It's just a collection of really old stories.

You’re not even willing to admit that you lied when you said you wanted to grant full rights to all human organisms at the moment of conception.

You tried to hide behind an undefined distinction between "rights" and "privileges."

Why is the right to enter into contracts not a right?

Why is the right to vote not a right?

Why is the right to own property not a right?

Why don’t you grant these rights (or privileges, if you want to call them that) to newborn babies? Or children at the age of 8?

Now you want to avoid the issue of rights by talking instead about God's commandments. This leads to your claim that people who have committed capital crimes do not have the right to life. Who decides what is a capital crime? By what authority, in your opinion, can certain actions warrant the removal of a person's right to life?

Your only answer is the Bible. Until you understand why that is not a valid answer, I'm afraid we're not going to make much progress here. Hopefully after reading this post a couple times you will have a better understanding of atheism and morality, and this might help you more rationally approach your favorite book.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Karl Rove's Cookies

I don't like posting this so long after the events, but I submitted it to the New York Times op-ed page. I never got a response, though, so here it is . . .

On November 5th, the day after Barack Obama won the Presidential election, Chris Wallace appeared on the Daily Show. He was armed with a cookie.

The infamous Karl Rove had visited Fox News that day, according to Wallace, and he had been giving out cookies in the shape of HD televisions and sporting the Fox News logo. Wallace said that this cookie was especially selected by Karl Rove for Daily Show host Jon Stewart.

It was a funny moment, and everybody wondered if left-leaning Stewart would dare to eat the Republican cookie. Stewart took a huge bite and chewed it for a moment before spitting it out, saying Karl Rove buys crappy cookies.

That same day, Fox News went loose on Governor Palin.

Fox News' Chief Political Correspondent, Carl Cameron, was on the air explaining that anonymous sources from within the McCain campaign had finally been allowed to speak freely about how difficult Palin had been during the campaign, how she didn't respond well to management, how she threw temper tantrums, how she didn't know Africa was a continent, and so on. Cameron was soon on Fox's "The O'Reilly Factor" selling the same story.

The Fox story has now been picked up by all the major media outlets. The sources remain anonymous.

Did Karl Rove just happen to bring a load of crappy cookies to Fox News on the same day they aired reports from anonymous sources that Governor Palin had been creating problems within the McCain campaign?

We have been told that these sources, and Fox News, are finally coming clean, finally telling the public what they were forbidden to share before the election was over.

We could believe that.

Or, we could think this is all a political game meant to bury Palin and divert attention away from the Republican party's failure to win the Presidency

There's no way Fox News is going to promote conflict within the Republican party unless they have a good reason--a reason sanctioned by those high up in the party itself. And who is more likely to give the green light than Karl Rove?

The Fox News story is most likely a careful mixture of fact and fiction, a finely spun tale just believable enough to wash, and just dirty enough to get the job done.

It's sad to see all the major media outlets picking up this story, playing into Rove's hand. Sure, it's easy to criticize Palin, and she may deserve a lot of it. But we shouldn't get so caught up in the offensive that we forget how this game is played.

Those are some crappy cookies, indeed, Mr. Rove.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Weak vs. Strong Atheism

This post is meant to present a clearer explanation of my sense of atheism. I discussed the distinction between weak and strong atheism earlier, (see "Why I Am Not A Teapot Agnostic") but I will go over it in more detail here.

Weak atheists are ultimately concerned with evidence. Some simply claim that there is no evidence of God's existence, and so no reason to believe in God. Others say that the evidence is so strongly against God's existence that they cannot take the God hypothesis seriously. Generally speaking, weak atheists view the God hypothesis the way most people view the Thor hypothesis. It is theoretically possible that Thor exists, but the odds are overwhelmingly against it. Weak atheism is thus a form of agnosticism, because it does not deny the possibility that God might exist. While weak atheists accept that there is a very small chance that God exists, they see no reason to put any stock in the idea.

Strong atheism is different, and it comes in two basic varieties. The first kind of strong atheism claims that God certainly does not exist. It is a flat denial, based on the evidence. The second kind--my kind--is also known as "theological noncognitivism," and it argues that belief in God is not something we can rationally consider, because the term "God" is incoherent.

The distinction here is subtle but significant.

The first kind of strong atheism is, like weak atheism, focused exclusively on the question of evidence. It claims that the evidence is strong enough to determine absolutely and without a doubt that God does not exist. This kind of atheism has been ridiculed by atheists and theists alike, because the empirical sciences are not a perfect or complete body of knowledge. They leave at least a small crack open for doubt on all existential questions.

My kind of atheism is more philosophically grounded. Atheists like me point out that "God exists" is not a valid proposition, and so it cannot be regarded as either true or false. This is because of the way the term "God" is defined. It is, in fact, defined right out of conceivability.

Theologians for ages have known that the term “God” is defined in a way that is impossible to understand. By recognizing the lack of coherence here, I am only pointing out what religious believers through the ages have willingly acknowledged. They have claimed that the inability to understand the meaning of the term “God” is one of the main reasons why God must be embraced as a matter of faith.

My perspective shows more respect for language. If you want to talk about some X, and you want people to acknowledge the possibility that X exists, then you must provide a definition people can understand. If you can’t do that, then I will conclude you are confused and don’t understand what you are talking about.

“God doesn’t exist” and “God exists” are both meaningless statements. God, as generally defined, cannot be regarded as a real, or even a possible, object of belief. According to theological noncognitivism, one cannot believe that God exists, or that God doesn't exist, or even that there might be a small chance that God exists. One cannot believe anything at all about God, because the word "God" doesn't mean anything. When people think they are thinking about God, they're simply wrong. They just don't know what they're thinking about.

One might ask, since the word "God" doesn't have any meaning for me, why would I bother to call myself an atheist in the first place? Aren't I adopting an attitude towards God by calling myself an atheist, and isn't that against my principles as a theological noncognitivist?

I am not being hypocritical and I am not adopting an attitude towards anything other than the integrity of language itself. While I do have a lot to say about how the term "God" is used, I cannot be said to have any beliefs about God. I cannot be said to regard the God hypothesis as a theoretical possibility, because that would entail having some beliefs about God. Thus, I am a strong atheist by all counts, even though I am not saying anything about whatever people think they are talking about when they use the word "God." In truth, I don't think believers know what they are talking about, either. If they knew, they could explain it in coherent terms.

In my view, weak atheism is just as absurd as theism. Both suppose that the term "God" has some coherent meaning, when in fact it does not.

It is important to note that I am not taking on the burden of proof here. The burden is not on me to provide a coherent definition of a term that other people demand I adopt. Rather, the burden is on people who use the term “God” to define it coherently. If they cannot do that, then they are at fault, not me.

My argument for atheism is logically equivalent to my argument for naturalism. It is one and the same argument. The point is, the terms "God" and "the supernatural" are both defined out of comprehension. My argument for atheism thus provides a clear and decisive argument for rejecting supernaturalism as a philosophical position. Other atheists (weak and strong) reject supernaturalism as a scientific perspective, because they say it is not supported by evidence. Atheists like me, however, reject supernaturalism as a philosophical position because it is incoherent. My atheism (and my naturalism) is a matter of philosophical integrity, not scientific probability.

In my view, the assertion of a belief in God can only be interpreted as the manifestation of a desire to conform to some ritualized performance. This performance no doubt serves any number of purposes in people's lives, but it has nothing at all to do with whatever God people think they are talking about. In sum, I don't think anybody believes in God. What people call "belief in God" is a peculiar psychological and sociological phenomenon, and not a rational position one could ever consider.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Palin on Negative Campaigning and the First Amendment

Governor Palin is really stupid.

As reported by ABC News on Halloween, she thinks that the First Amendment should protect her from the media's accusation that she has been negative campaigning. As she says, "If [the media] convince enough voters that that is negative campaigning, for me to call Barack Obama out on his associations, then I don't know what the future of our country would be in terms of First Amendment rights and our ability to ask questions without fear of attacks by the mainstream media."

This is nonsense, and plenty of people (e.g., have called her out on it already, correctly observing that the First Amendment protects the press' right to speak critically of politicians. It does not protect politicians from being criticized.

That is not the end of the stupidity of Palin's remarks. There's more, though I'm not sure if anybody else has bothered to point it out yet. The thing is, Palin doesn't understand what the phrase "negative campaigning" means.

There are two ways of campaigning. Either argue for what you promise to do as a politician, or argue against what the competition will do if you lose. The latter strategy is called "negative campaigning," and it doesn't matter if your arguments are valid or invalid, or if they are sincere or insincere. It doesn't matter if the questions you are raising are important or not.

Palin doesn't understand this. Instead, she thinks the charge of "negative campaigning" means that she was not justified in raising the questions or making the comments she has raised.

I don't think her behavior is justifiable, but that is beside the point. The point is, she doesn't know what she's talking about. The First Amendment and negative campaigning . . . these are basic concepts any self-respecting politician should understand.

Thankfully this will all be over soon.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

On Junk Philosophy and Naturalism: A Criticism of Robert A. Delfino

I recently read a paper by Robert A. Delfino, “Replacing Methodological Naturalism,” and the only logical conclusion I've come to is that the author (an Assistant Professor of Philosophy at St. John’s University) is a junk philosopher.

It is telling that Delfino’s paper was not published in an academic philosophy journal, but rather in “The Global Spiral,” a publication of the Metanexus Institute, which calls itself “a global interdisciplinary group.” What that apparently means is that they analyze a variety of disciplines from religious perspectives, and promote the injection of religious views into all disciplines as much as possible. I am not sure if they are in any way associated with the infamous Discovery Institute, but they are funded by the Templeton Foundation. Based on what I've seen, their standards of intellectual integrity are highly questionable. My goal here is not to criticize the Metanexus Institute, however, but to criticize Robert A. Delfino and to defend naturalism.


In philosophical discussions, it is crucial that we be clear about how we are using controversial terms. A serious philosopher will not make a formal argument, or even allow himself to get too deep into a discussion of a topic, without being sure that all of the key terms are clearly defined. The definitions at hand may be working definitions and therefore subject to revision; but at least there is some definition on offer which should help us overcome any conceptual confusion about the topic.

Delfino fails to define his key terms. He assumes that every reader will know what he means when he talks about “the supernatural.” As a professional philosopher, Delfino should have known that this term is controversial. In fact, many proponents of naturalism have argued that the notion of the supernatural is incoherent.

While Delfino does make an effort to define “naturalism,” he does so only in opposition to “supernaturalism.” He writes, "Naturalism is a metaphysical view that denies the existence of supernatural entities. Usually this view amounts to a kind of materialism and therefore it denies the existence of non-material beings such as God." Since he does not explain what he means by “supernatural entities” or "non-material beings," his definition of “naturalism” is vacuous.

This failure is not minor. In fact, it undermines his entire argument.

Delfino’s argument is that naturalism is bad for science. He focuses on what is called "methodological naturalism." His claim is that methodological naturalism is dogmatic and that it is inconsistent with science as we know it.

Delfino's primary concern is that scientists unjustifiably exclude the supernatural from scientific discourse; however, he never says what the supernatural is. Apparently, we are supposed to assume that there is such a thing as a “the supernatural,” and that it is somehow different from the methodologies and principles we associate with naturalism. And yet, the dichotomy between natural and supernatural remains undefined.

The fact of the matter is, scientists and philosophers use the term “nature” to refer to whatever science may discover, without declaring ahead of time what sorts of entities or frameworks might be involved. Naturalism does not exclude any possible discoveries, nor does it exclude any possible frameworks for establishing new discoveries. Delfino is wrong to claim that naturalism (or methodological naturalism) uses dogma to limit the potential of scientific discovery.

Furthermore, since the term "natural" has a perfectly clear and legitimate usage in science and philosophy, and the term "supernatural" does not, it is safe to conclude that naturalism is the only tenable philosophical position here.

Like so many Christian apologists, Delfino is using the notion of the supernatural to create confusion, suggesting that there is (or at least could be) a legitimate scientific framework called “supernaturalism,” but failing to define what it is, or how it can be distinguished from naturalism. He thus claims that naturalists unfairly discriminate against supernaturalism, even though no evidence of any unfair discrimination has been offered.

Delfino’s Further Confusion Of The Term “Supernatural”

The term “supernatural” is traditionally defined to refer to entities which act on nature, but which are not defined as part of nature. How something can act on nature without being a part of nature is a mystery, since "nature" is used to refer to whatever acts in nature.

Nature is not defined to be anything in particular ahead of time, before scientific discoveries are made. And once they are made, they are called "nature." Thus, there is no sense in claiming that something could be discovered to act on nature without actually being a part of nature. Such a claim makes a mockery of the language.

The inability to conceive of what "outside of nature" might mean is often heralded as a point in favor of religious faith, when in fact it is damning evidence that supernaturalism is a bankrupt philosophy.

This is an uncomfortable state of semantic affairs for Christian apologists like Delfino. It is therefore unsurprising that he tries to avoid the problem by explicitly rejecting the traditional definition of "the supernatural." He does this by suggesting that we should be able to observe supernatural causes in nature, but through indirect means.

Remember that we still don't know what "supernatural causes" is supposed to mean. Also note that scientists do not make a strong distinction between direct and indirect observation. Much of what scientists talk about is observed indirectly.

To support his argument, Delfino quotes a man named Del Ratzsch, who says that, “although a supernatural being could obviously have untraceable effects on nature, surely it cannot be claimed that a supernatural being simply could not have traceable effects upon empirical matters.”

The problem here is, if something has traceable effects upon empirical matters, then why try to distinguish it from nature?

When we find traceable effects of something, we call it "natural." That's how the language works.

Delfino suggests that some of the things we observe indirectly may be supernatural, and not natural. However, he doesn't offer any way of understanding this distinction. If we adopted his reasoning, we would have to think that any indirect observation might be of a supernatural entity.

Perhaps quarks are really supernatural beings, and we’ve just mistaken them for natural entities. Perhaps gravity and electromagnetism are supernatural phenomena, and we've been wrongly classifying them as "natural" all this time. Since there's no clear line between direct and indirect observation, we have to wonder, what parts of nature aren't supernatural, according to Delfino?

Delfino doesn’t simply fail to define the term “supernatural.” Rather, he confounds the traditional definition of "supernatural" by suggesting it is indistinguishable from what scientists call "nature."

Junk Philosophy

Delfino seems to favor irrational deflection over rational argument, and misunderstanding over understanding. Philosophers should strive for clarity. Junk philosophers favor confusion.

I have a strong impression that Delfino does not understand science or reason as much as he should, considering his desire to publish articles about science and philosophy.

For the moment, let's leave aside his failure to define his key terms and let's ignore the fact that he has made a mockery of the language scientists use to talk about nature.

Consider his argument about testability. He says that naturalists have unfairly excluded God from the realm of scientific discovery, because they wrongly claim that science requires testability, which implies controllability. He writes: But, as Ratzsch remarks, by this logic we should also exclude things like supernovas and the Big Bang from science, since we cannot produce and control them in a lab.”

This reveals a profound ignorance about the nature of scientific discovery. Experiments which produce evidence of supernovas and the Big Bang are as controllable and repeatable as any other.

Next, consider Delfino’s statements about Intelligent Design. This is where his true colors shine. First, he says, “the creation of life in a lab would make the appeal to supernatural causation to explain life superfluous.” He continues to say that “intelligent design could be refuted in this way . . .”

As it happens, scientists are on the verge of creating life in a laboratory as I write this. But such experiments are not necessary to dismiss the incoherent notion of “supernatural causation.”

Delfino for some reason thinks that, until we have created a new life form from non-living matter, we must assume some "supernatural" cause was responsible for life on earth. The reason or evidence for this position? Who knows?

Delfino's misunderstanding of science does not end there. He also fails to understand the relationship between theory and opinion. He says that, “Darwinian evolution is irrefutable. This is because even if all of the currently known Darwinian mechanisms fail to account for the complexity of life Darwinists will merely respond that there must be some undiscovered mechanism that will eventually explain it. But why assume that?”

Delfino’s reasoning is thus: Even if Darwinian evolution is refuted, Darwinists won’t admit it. Therefore, it is not refutable.

Do I need to explain Delfino's equivocation here? His reasoning is not simply invalid; it is insulting to scientists.

Delfino piles on more absurdities by claiming that the supernatural is required to produce human freedom. He says, Free agents would have to be forces existing (at least partially) outside of the natural laws if they are to produce things that natural causes alone could not (such as a Boeing 747 jet aircraft).”

For Delfino, airplanes count as evidence of the supernatural.

It’s hard not to laugh.

Apparently, Delfino thinks that intelligence cannot be a natural phenomenon and that human intelligence thus cannot be the product of our brains. Do we need to document the evidence supporting the view that brains produce intelligent behavior? Do we need to point out that the idea of a soul which informs our behavior, but which is not a part of the natural world, is incoherent?

Delfino goes on say that naturalists have no basis for understanding human freedom or dignity, which may be the greatest testament to his ignorance. I suppose it is possible that he has grappled with the centuries of literature supporting a naturalistic view of freedom and feelings such as dignity, and that he has come to the rational conclusion that naturalism is fatally flawed. But I strongly suspect that he has not, and that he merely assumes freedom and dignity are supernatural phenomena.


Delfino ends his argument by promoting “interdisciplinary synthesis,” saying that if we just got rid of naturalism/materialism, then “members of diverse fields would be freer to engage in dialogue with science about various metaphysical possibilities.”

That's funny, because all the while it sounded like he was talking about scientific possibilities, not metaphysical ones. Maybe Delfino doesn't distinguish between science and metaphysics. Maybe all his talk about methodological naturalism was really all about metaphysical/philosophical naturalism.

In any case, he fails to make a coherent point here. Are members of any field currently unable to engage in dialogue with science? Of course not. As the publication of Delfino’s paper makes quite clear, even people who are not qualified to talk about science or logic are capable of finding an outlet for their nonsense.

Delfino probably made this comment because he wants to propagate the false idea that legitimate science is being done in the name of Intelligent Design, but that scientific journals are not publishing it because they are unjustly prejudiced against notions of the supernatural. He clearly hasn't a shred of evidence or logic to support this view. It's just posturing, and it's offensive to reason.

I have not enumerated every single problem I've found with Delfino’s paper. I don't see the need to nitpick over every detail. I think I've made a strong enough case that it is an intellectually dishonest attempt to tarnish the reputation of scientists and a dangerous attempt to further confusion and ignorance. If that doesn’t qualify Delfino as a junk philosopher, then what would?

Update: Edited on November 17, 2008, to remove an improperly cited quotation. I had included a quotation that elucidates the idea of methodological naturalism and I wrongly attributed the quote to Robert A. Delfino. I have now removed the quotation, but the substance of my argument has not been changed. Thanks are due to Andrew D. for pointing out my error.

Understanding Science, Mathematics, and Philosophy

I propose the following definition of "science":

Science is the formalization of discovery.

All knowledge is ability, be it mathematical, empirical, kinesthetic, or what have you. Discovery is the attainment of new abilities. Discovering that something is the case is not essentially different from discovering how to do something.

Science, as the formalization of discovery, is the formalization of methods and principles which produce new abilities. Any method may be considered science, so long as it produces new abilities in a formally definable way. And any abilities may be considered scientific, in so far as they are defined with respect to some formal method of discovery. (We can have grey areas here. We don't have to decide ahead of time how formal is formal enough.)

Math, the empirical sciences (physics, chemistry, etc.), and philosophy (which includes logic) are focused on different sets of tools, all of which are required for the formalization of new knowledge. They are thus all a part of science. We don't need to worry about borderline cases between them ("Is applied math an empirical science?" "Can the philosophy of mind be an empirical science?") to accept this undertanding.

The different tools of science have different standards of measurement. The empirical sciences, for example, are ultimately concerned with discovering nature's laws and/or regularities. They therefore require that theories make testable predictions. Empirical sciences can be speculative, such as the case with string theory, if they promise more explanatory power than our established knowledge, but cannot yet be tested.

Mathematics is concerned with discovering the formal principles of abstract patterns and their relationships. It is our ability to systematically represent abstract patterns. Mathematical discoveries are thus discoveries about how to represent patterns consistently and coherently within a given mathematical language. As such, mathematical theorems cannot be falsified by appealing to some other standard of measurement. It is for this reason that we say mathematical theorems are not falsifiable, but absolutely true.

Logic, as a branch of philosophy, is similar to mathematics, in that it is a purely formal science. It formalizes our ability to analyze the relationships between propositions in terms of their truth values. It also formalizes our ability to represent valid principles of deduction and induction.

Philosophy, which may be called "thinking about thinking," is more generally concerned with our understanding of understanding itself. Philosophy is thus concerned with developing and applying metaconcepts which allow us to clarify and correct our conceptual frameworks. The value of such philosophical ideas is determined by their ability to eliminate confusion without postulating new entities.

Philosophy has most recently developed a strong focus on understanding the functional properties of systems which exhibit understanding. Thus, the philosophy of mind and artificial intelligence have emerged as two of the most forward-thinking subdisciplines in philosophy. Both are helping to shape various empirical sciences, including neuroscience and cognitive science.

One cannot develop the empirical sciences without mathematics or philosophy. We may thus regard philosophy, math, and the empirical sciences as more or less distinct enterprises which are all part of the same process of formalizing discovery. They work together to create science as we know it.

This view of science, math, and philosophy does not run contrary to dominant trends in any of these disciplines. It is, I think, a very simple, common-sensical way of understanding science. Most importantly, it clarifies why science itself is not an optional view, as if one could find some other path towards truth.

It is possible to learn in an informal way. We often learn by instincts alone, following our intuition, and not with formal procedures. This is learning by accident, and as often as it happens, it is not a distinct path to knowledge. It is rather the most basic form of learning, the abilities we harness and build upon to produce science.

Many people criticize science, or "scientism," claiming that science is just one path to truth. They regard this as a philosophical issue, as though philosophy were neutral on the question of science. As my understanding indicates, however, this is not the case. Far from being neutral on the issue of science, philosophy is part of science. If one's philosophy leads them away from science, then one's philosophy is not producing clarity or wisdom. There is no sense in the claim that one could use philosophy to undermine scientism and develop some alternative path to knowledge. Any legitimate path to knowledge is, by definition, science.

This isn't dogma. It's just what the words mean.