Monday, February 13, 2006

Does the God of the Bible Exist? - A Debate Report

I attended the February 11 debate sponsored by the Kitchener-Waterloo-Cambridge-Guelph Humanists. It was entitled "Does the God of the Bible Exist?" and featured Chris diCarlo of the University of Ontario Institute of Technology versus Scott Wilkinson, pastor of the New Creation Reformed Presbyterian Church.

The debate was held as a "Darwin Day" feature which, to my mind, was an unfortunate choice because of the implication that evolutionary biology is for atheists only. Here is my report on the debate, with my own rebuttals in italics and red.

Pastor Wilkinson started the debate by disputing the definition of "faith" as "belief in the absence of evidence". He said that the bible says that faith is knowledge based on reason, on evidence. Next, he disputed the view that scientific evidence is the only legitimate evidence. Many things, he said, are known and proven, but not based on science. Four of them are the existence of numbers, the laws of logic, morality, and personal self-consciousness. He stated that the belief in naturalism is not based on evidence and claimed that scientific knowledge is actually based on men. Is science based on evidence you personally have seen and tested? he asked. He quoted Guth to the effect that scientific phenomena are not directly observed.

He then claimed that the Christian god is an objective reality which is empirically provable, and unbelief is inexcusable. The Christian world view is true because its negation is impossible. He presented an argument which he called the "transcendental argument": the laws of logic are necessary for all rational argument. Therefore, you must maintain that the laws of logic are real and invariant. But in a materialist world there cannot be laws of logic because logic would be contingent and not universal.

Next, he claimed that materialists have a problem with induction. They observe phenomena and deduce rules, but this assumes the uniformity of nature (future will be like the past), and there is no logical justification for induction.

Finally, he said that in a materialist worldview, there is no objective view of right and wrong.

I thought many of these points were very weak. While it is true that some Platonic philosophers maintain that numbers have an independent existence, this is not agreed to by all philosophers, and it's certainly not "known and proven" as Wilkinson asserted.

It's true that we often use "laws of logic" when we argue. For example, when one reasons about mathematical objects, one uses rules such as "either the proposition A holds, or its negation holds". But, in fact, we don't have any guarantee that this kind of reasoning will never lead to absurdities such as 1 = 0. For Gödel proved that any sufficiently powerful mathematical system is either inconsistent or incomplete, and furthermore we can't carry out a proof of consistency within that system. (We might be able to in some more powerful system.) I think most mathematicians believe that mathematics is consistent but incomplete, but we don't actually know for sure. It could well be that the "laws of logic" lead us to unresolvable contradictions.

Wilkinson referred repeatedly to the "laws of logic" as if these have some independent existence. But it seems likely to me that the mathematical rules we think of as "laws of logic" are just models of physical existence, and those models may not accurately reflect the complexities of the world. For example, consider the propostion "electron e is at position p at time t". Can this really be said to have a single truth value, true or false? Or how about the proposition "Mary is a good person"? Maybe Mary pays her taxes, but once beat her husband. Can she really be said to be either "good" or "not good"? Furthermore, mathematicians have explored other kinds of logics, such as multi-valued logic, and fuzzy logic, and so I don't think there is one set of "laws of logic" agreed on by all people. After all, the continuum hypothesis is independent of set theory, so we can, according to our preference, choose it to be either true or false.

My view of the "laws of logic" are that they are a useful abstraction that has often proved reliable in the past in many situations. But they don't need to be elevated to "universal" or "immutable" in order to be useful, and we need to recognize their limitations.

I also don't see any problem with the fact that induction can't be justified through logic alone. Why should this trouble us? Most of our knowledge is empirical, not derived through logic. In the absence of other evidence, rough uniformity of the future against the past seems like an entirely reasonable assumption.

Wilkinson seems unaware that morality can be investigated through the scientific method. As for "personal self-consciousness", Wilkinson seems unaware of the work of Gordon Gallup, who devised a scientific test for animal self-consciousness.

Finally, I strongly dispute the characterization of science as "based on men". Yes, it is true that I have not personally performed experiments in subatomic physics that verify the existence (say) of positrons. But anyone with a university or even high-school science education will, in fact, have performed many experiments verifying many aspects of science. The thing that makes science different from religion is that its conclusions are, in principle, verifiable by everyone with enough interest and time. And furthermore, science is self-correcting in a way that religion is not. Really fundamental results are verified over and over by different teams, each with a strong incentive to prove the other guys wrong. The history of science shows this self-correcting aspect clearly (consider the case of N-rays).

Chris diCarlo spoke next. He said his presentation would be divided into four parts:

  1. What can be known about God?
  2. Such beliefs fall short of what we call "knowledge".
  3. It is epistemically irresponsible to believe in a universe specially created by the Christian god.
  4. Gods are no more real than the Easter Bunny or Santa Claus.

1. He said he was an "agtheist", that is, someone who is atheistic towards all known religions, but agnostic on the question of whether the universe itself came into being through an intentional act. As for what can be known about god, he pointed to the paradox that the more you say about god's attributes (omniscience, omnibenevolence, etc.) the more inconsistencies develop. His view is that god was fashioned by people to provide (a) an explanation of causality in nature (b) a guide for moral behavior and (c) the illusion of immortality.

2. He argued that we evaluate whether something constitutes "knowledge" based on criteria such as consistency, coherence, simplicity and reliability.

At this point Prof. diCarlo's time was up, so he saved points 3 and 4 for later, and the cross examination began.

Prof. diCarlo asked Pastor Wilkinson, "How old do you think the universe is?" Wilkinson replied that he agreed with everything in the bible, and based on the biblical account, the universe is 6000-10000 years old. Wilkinson argued that the scientific view of the age of the earth is based on naturalism and the uniformity of nature (radioactive decay rates are unchanged). But the very existence of logic and the scientific method assumes god exists and endowed nature with uniform laws, so this argument is self-defeating for the materialist. He quoted Patricia Churchill (I think he meant "Churchland") as saying that reason has developed only because it has survival benefit. Thus, in the evolutionary view, logic is geared towards survival and not truth claims. Atheists support abortion, homosexuality, and euthanasia.

The scientific method certainly does not assume that god exists; it is completely silent on the question. We date the earth as 4.6 billion years old not because we assume that decay constants are really constant, but because we have good reason to think so: experiments were done early in the history of radioactivity to try to influence decay rates through explosions, changes of temperature and pressure, inducing strong magnetic fields, etc., but only very small changes were observed. See Dalrymple's book, The Age of the Earth. So I think it is dishonest of Wilkinson to maintain that decay rates are unchanged is merely an assumption.

In any event, it is Wilkinson who is maintaining that the uniformity of nature is only explicable to the theist, so as a theist, he should be more convinced by uniformitarian arguments than the atheist. Thus, his argument is self-defeating.

The second part of his claim is a reworked version of Plantinga's argument against evolution: evolution only endows us with reason enough to reproduce efficiently. But then we have no reason to trust our mental faculties that came up with the theory of evolution. I find this argument silly, because it assumes a certain black-and-white view of our mental faculties: either they are entirely reliable, or they are not to be trusted at all. No one who has read history can believe that man is never capable of folly; the whole history of the world is the history of folly. And yet an evolutionary development that gave us an entirely bogus picture of the world would not likely ensure survival. So I think we can provisionally trust in our reason, but always be alert to the ways it may deceive us.

Prof. diCarlo spoke again. He said it was epistemically irresponsible to believe in the Christian god, since the evidence we have is not sufficient for the claim. He went on to his point 4:

4. The inherent tension in belief of the god of the bible: (a) the tension between an all-powerful, all-knowing god, and human free will (b) specifying one particular god among an indefinite choice is divisive and leads to conflicts (c) the tension between human biology and the doctrines of Christianity, e.g., masturbation and (d) the problem of evil. (He put up a slide with a picture of the tablet that would normally have the 10 commandments on it, but instead had "Thou shalt not masturbate". This was pretty funny, especially because when it was Pastor Wilkinson's turn to speak, the slide stayed up behind him.)

Pastor Wilkinson spoke again. In the materialist world view, he claimed, there was no objective standard of morality, or right and wrong. No god implies no morality. Hitler based his world view on Darwin's view of natural selection. If the materialist world view is correct, there is nothing wrong with Hitler's murders. Evolutionary biologists agree that the theory of evolution arose because people want to get away from traditional sexual morality (he quoted Huxley).

Next, there was some final cross-examination. Prof. diCarlo got Wilkinson to admit that God hates all believers in other religions except Wilkinson's brand of Christianity. In particular, Wilkinson explicitly stated that God hates Muslims! Now that was a rather explosive claim, but entirely missing from the Record's account of the debate by religion reporter Mirko Petricevic. I have observed that Petricevic constantly slants his coverage to favor the religious point of view, and this is just another data point.

Prof. diCarlo also made some effective points about the incompatibility of the Christian god with human free will. The Christian god's view of us is the same way: since his is omniscient and created the universe, he already knew 14 billion years ago whether we would be saved or not. We can do nothing to defeat his knowledge and so don't have free will. He made an analogy with the movie "Jaws": you can watch it as many times as you like, but the shark always dies at the end. God watching history unfold is the same. Pastor Wilkinson had no good response to this argument.

In his closing remarks, Pastor Wilkinson made the point that only Christianity, among all religions, must be true because in no other religion is there justice. In particular, Islam does not provide justice for evil deeds during life. But I felt he contradicted himself, since he made two claims: Christianity provides justice, but one can also be saved if one repents on one's deathbed. In other words, Hitler could be in heaven if he repented and asked god's forgiveness at the last moment. So how is that justice?

At this point the debate ended, and I will now give some comments without resorting to red and italics.

First, both speakers had polished presentations. Pastor Wilkinson's closing remarks, in particular, were an earnest sermon about man's need for Christianity, and they were well-received by many of the believers in the crowd. Prof. diCarlo's brand of sardonic humor succeeded in making many points, particularly about Wilkinson's condemning Jews, homosexuals, and Muslims to hell.

On the other hand, both speakers could have addressed the other's arguments in more detail. It was almost as if we had two parallel presentations which, despite the opportunity for cross-examination, didn't interact all that much. Prof. diCarlo, for example, never really addressed Pastor Wilkinson's point about the "laws of logic", which was really his main argument. Also, while I admired his wit and intellect, I felt Prof. diCarlo sometimes came across as a little too flippant and arrogant. It sometimes seemed like he treated the audience as a philosophy class where he was the instructor.

After the debate, I asked Pastor Wilkinson the following question: "You say the earth is 10,000 years old. Yet there are ice cores in Antarctica that give an unbroken record of 190,000 years. How do you explain this?" He had no good answer, mumbling about "uniformity" and "assumptions". But the ice core record we have agrees with data in the recent past, and there is no reason to believe it does not actually represent a record of history. When pressed, he suggested a comet might have exploded in the atmosphere and just happened to put down a series of layers that exactly correspond to our historical record. But, of course, this is just pure fantasy. Where is the evidence for this comet? How did it happen to put down a series of layers that exactly matches our historical records? I made the point to him that no thinking person is going to subscribe to Wilkinson's version of Christianity if it causes him to deny the evidence of his own senses.

For me it was an entertaining evening, but probably not one that changed many minds.


Matt B. said...

Very interesting. Thanks.

When you mentioned that it was like two separate presentations instead of a debate, I wondered if it would have been more integrated if they had worked together to prepare the debate.

Francois Tremblay said...

"The scientific method certainly does not assume that god exists; it is completely silent on the question."

How can you say such an incredibly lame-brained thing ? Do you not understand that naturalism is a prerequisite for the scientific method ?

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the interesting report from the debate. While I don't find notions of gods particularly plausible, I think Wilkinson at one point missed an opportunity to refute a common argument:

"Prof. diCarlo also made some effective points about the incompatibility of the Christian god with human free will. [...] Pastor Wilkinson had no good response to this argument."

Most people likely have incoherent notions of what it means to have "free will", but this incoherence is independent of any beliefs about gods. The idea that God's omniscience is incompatible with "free will" rests on the modal fallacy (see ). That God knows what you will do tomorrow simply means that you can, but won't, do something else. It does not mean that you cannot do something else. In a similar fashion, I know that president G. W. Bush can, but won't, publically declare his homosexual love towards Saddam Hussein tomorrow.

Jeffrey Shallit said...

Dear Francois:

I assume you are being sarcastic, but if not, I would say that science uses methodological naturalism, but makes no commitment to either naturalism or theism.

Jeffrey Shallit said...

Dear Erik T:

I don't agree. You do NOT "know" with certainty that President Bush won't do what you said. You believe it, you suspect it, and you may even have extremely good evidence for it, but you don't "know" it in exactly the same sense that Christians believe their god knows. For Christians, what their god knows simply cannot be gainsaid. You do not have the same degree of certainty.

I continue to find the incompatibility of god's omniscience and human free will compelling.

Anonymous said...

The problem is not related to degrees of certainty, but to the way natural languages like English mislead us by hiding the distinction between

(I) if (God knows that P), then (it is necessary that P),


(II) it is necessary that (if God knows that P, then P).

Jeffrey Shallit said...

Dear Erik T:

If the question is not related to degrees of certainty, why did you bring up the misleading example of George Bush? It is not analogous.

In your view, what is the difference between "it is necessary that P" and "P?

Anonymous said...

My knowledge of what Bush wouldn't do was brought up as another example of the relation between knowing that P and P. The fact that I knew one thing Bush's wouldn't do does not mean that Bush couldn't do it. Similarly, it is a non sequitur to deduce from the assumption that God knows what you will do tomorrow that you cannot do something else.

As with all analogies, this one contains many irrelevant differences, one of which is the difference in the certainty of my and God's knowledge. That God's knowledge is supposedly more certain than mine does not change the situation, since the problem lies in the fact that P (or knowing that P) does not imply "it is necessary that P" rather than in any uncertainty about P.

I intend "it is necessary that P", "Bush can (not) do X", etc. to be understood as they are understood in modal logic.

Jeffrey Shallit said...

I don't agree with the claim "it is a non sequitur to deduce from the assumption that God knows what you will do tomorrow that you cannot do something else."

If I did do something other than what God thought I would do, then his belief about what I would do does not constitute "knowledge" in the sense of justified true belief.

Anonymous said...

You wrote: "If I did do something other than what God thought I would do, then his belief about what I would do does not constitute 'knowledge' in the sense of justified true belief."

Certainly. That you did do something else is inconsistent with the assumptions, but that you could have done something else is not.

How do you think the deduction from "God knows that P" to "P cannot be false" avoids a modal fallacy of the same kind as the following fallacy?

It is true that president G. W. Bush has fathered at least two daughters. Because it is true it cannot be false. Something that cannot be false is a necessary truth. Therefore it was necessary that G. W. Bush fathered at least two daughters.

Jeffrey Shallit said...

Because in your example, I can conceive of other circumstances in which George Bush had two sons instead.

But if God knows everything in advance, I cannot conceive of making choices that contradict his knowledge.

If modal logic is intended to model reasoning about possible worlds, then it seems completely inappropriate to use it to model something where all choices are preordained.

Anonymous said...

"Because in your example, I can conceive of other circumstances in which George Bush had two sons instead."

But which step in the argument do you reject? And how do you formulate this incompatibility argument without making use of something with the same logical structure as the rejected step?

"But if God knows everything in advance, I cannot conceive of making choices that contradict his knowledge."

But the issue isn't whether or not you will do something that contradicts God's supposed knowledge. The issue is whether or not you can to do something that contradicts God's knowledge. There are many things that you don't do, despite being able to do them. That you won't do something that contradicts God's supposed knowledge, despite being able to, should be no particular mystery.

"If modal logic is intended to model reasoning about possible worlds, then it seems completely inappropriate to use it to model something where all choices are preordained."

Why do you think it is completely inappropriate? And what alternative way of understanding the supposed incompatibility of free will and God knowing what you will do? As it stands, you have only noted that you disagree with my points, but left your positive reasons for thinking that there is an incompatibility unspecified.

Jeffrey Shallit said...

Erik T:
Huh? I've already addressed your points.

I dispute the entire basis of your claimed fallacy. What you call the "modal fallacy" may be a valid objection to some arguments, but it does not seem to be a valid objection to a system where there are no other possible worlds.

If the issue is, as you say, whether I can do something that contradicts God's knowledge, it seems obvious to me that I cannot. (A lot of this argument seems based on assigning fixed logical meanings to English words and phrases such as "must", "can", "it is necessary", that might not be amenable to this analysis.) My potential to act contrary to what God thinks will happen is purely illusory.

I already said why I think modal logic is inappropriate here. Do I need to repeat it? Modal logic deals with possible worlds. If God is omniscient, there are no other possible worlds, and so the argument becomes vacuous. It's like analyzing a randomized Turing machine and saying,
"See, the output is not determined completely by the input" without noticing that in the particular machine under consideration, the output is always the same.

You say, what other way of understanding the incompatibility is there? Simple. Let's assume God has perfect knowledge and people have free will. Now let me choose to act contrary to God's knowledge. Oops, I cannot. Like the Turing machine, my view of my choice is illusory. Therefore (assuming the existence of God), either God doesn't have complete knowledge of the world, or people don't have free will. I don't think this conclusion is particularly surprising.

Anonymous said...

It seems that your argument from God's omniscience to the conclusion that humans have have no free will goes through the intermediate proposition that the world is deterministic. (That is what I take your statement "there are no other possible worlds" to mean, a statement you take to be implied by God's omniscience).

If this is the case, you should be aware that you are arguing not just against some goofy theist, but also against one of the sharpest and more fervent atheist and naturalistic writers on the planet, namely Daniel Dennett, who has devoted two entire books to arguing that human freedom is perfectly compatible with determinism.

Personally, I suspect that Dennett makes a major blunder at the very beginning of this enterprise, but that's another issue

Jeffrey Shallit said...


To the best of my knowledge, Erik T is not a "goofy theist", and I've never called him one, so I don't know what your comment is about. I don't think theists are goofy in general.

I don't believe in a deterministic universe, no. Our current view of quantum mechanics suggests there is an inherently stochastic mechanism in the universe. But that's my belief, not the one I am arguing against.

If theists believe their god has created the world and is omnipotent and omniscient, then it seems to me they have to believe that there are no possible worlds other than the one god laid out in creation. It is this view I am assuming to get my contradiction with free will. Surely the concept of tentatively adopting someone else's conclusion in order to refute it is familiar to you?

For this brand of theist, any apparent stochastic nature of the universe must be just that: apparent. So the appearance of possible worlds is, as in my example of the randomized Turing machine, purely illusory.

CalvinOstrum said...

Indeed, I was not referring to Eric, since he pretty strongly suggested that he is not a theist. The theist I was referring to is just the generic theist that you seem always to be arguing against, the one with all the horribly awful, weak, arguments.

I never asked you if you believed in a deterministic universe or suggested that you did. That is totally beside any point here. The first point (again) is that your argument that God's omniscience implies that humans do not have free will seems to depend (inter alia) upon the assumption that free will and determinism are incompatible. This leads to the second point, which is that there are plenty of very fervent atheists (such as Daniel Dennett) who strongly disagree with this assumption: they are, in fact, determinists who believe in free will as well.

So if you want to maintain the theists here are wrong because they are forced to accept that free will and determinism are compatible, you will have to take on a lot of (very hard core) atheists as well who not only accept this position, but relish it.

Jeffrey Shallit said...

Thanks, Calvin, you always have interesting things to say.

I'm putting Elbow Room and Freedom Evolves on my reading list. What is the "major blunder" you think Dennett made?

By the way, I have a different take on the free will issue that I've never seen anyone else discuss, based loosely on computational complexity, and if I can find some free time, I will blog it.

Anonymous said...

Calvin Ostrum said: "So if you want to maintain the theists here are wrong because they are forced to accept that free will and determinism are compatible, you will have to take on a lot of (very hard core) atheists as well who not only accept this position, but relish it."

Free will and determinism is a slightly different issue from free will and foreknowledge (in supposing that God is omniscient we do not commit ourselves to any particular assumption about how God is in a position to know what he does; we merely suppose that there is a perfect correlation between God's knowledge and what is indeed the case), but I at least find persuasive Norman Schwartz argument (see link above) that the notion of an incompatibility between free will and our actions being determined by laws of nature is a relic from a theistic conception of laws of nature.

CalvinOstrum said...

Eric: I agree that God's omniscence may not entail either determinism or the lack of free will, although I don't think it is at all obvious, and I doubt that adverting to the "modal fallacy" establishes this (it just undercuts one argument that relies on the equivocation you pointed out). However, I was just addressing Jeffrey's argument which does indeed seem to rely on entailments from God's omniscience to determinism to a lack of free will. It is interesting that if you are correct with your final point, then Jeffrey, a committed atheist and a member of the intellectually elite, still harbours a theist relic in his thinking.

Jeffrey: I did not say that Dennett definitely made a blunder; rather I said that I suspect he did. It is hard to put in very short compass, but, roughly, Dennett claims that the reason people are concerned about the advance of the natural sciences is that it appears to remove their free will. I am skeptical that this is the real reason people are concerned about the possibility of reconciling natural science with the so-called "manifest image". I probably would agree with Dennett that any sense we can make of the notion of free-will has it being compatible with determinism (and perhaps even requiring it). The real problem from my point of view is that if we are nothing but swarms of particles of mediumn density (as Quine put it), then not only are we not sui generis causal originators of actions (as some mysterian free will would have it) but we also do not cause anything, or do anything, at all. Rather, it is the particles making us up which have all the causal power. The patterns that we happen to be are nothing but pure epiphenomena.

Jaegwon Kim puts it well in his latest book "Physicalism, or something near enough" when he "a science that invokes mental phenomena in its explanations is presumptively committed to their causal efficacy; if a phenomenon is to have an explanatory role, its presence or absence must make a difference -- a causal difference. Determinism threatens human agency and skepticism puts human knowledge in peril. The stakes are higher with mental causation, for this problem threatens to take away both agency and cognition".

Jeffrey Shallit said...

I wouldn't say I am a "committed atheist". I'd say I'm a provisional non-theist.

What the heck's wrong with being an epiphenomenon? I've known some really great epiphenomena in my time, and I would be pleased to be in the same class.

Anonymous said...

I wrote a longer final reply on God's foreknowledge, but it looks like I messed up when (trying to) submitting it. I was mainly repeating myself anyway. Just one final new comment: The online Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy has an entry on free will and divine foreknowledge where the following interesting diagnosis is made:

"The root of the problem, then, is that it is impossible for there to be a type of modality that has the following features:

(a) The past and future are asymmetrical in that the past is necessary with respect to this type of modality, whereas the future is contingent with respect to this type of modality.
(b) There are propositions about the past that entail propositions about the future.
(c) TNP obtains.

The problem of the alleged incompatibility of infallible foreknowledge and free will is therefore a special case of a more general problem that has nothing to do with either foreknowledge or free will.

Anonymous said...

'Pastor Wilkinson made the point that only Christianity, among all religions, must be true because in no other religion is there justice.'

Islam has justice. And one could also add here is an eternal 'hell' really justice? I think not.

As to the running debate above. This is a case where it is really best kept simple. Free will is at best an illusion with an omniscient God. If if you think you can change your mind he always knows whether you will or not.

There really is no way around it.

Anonymous said...

about the free will thing...
think about how god is outside of time. this means he could just look into the future and see what action you will choose to make. in this way, no matter what you choose, his forknowledge would become that. so, in effect, its as if you are writing a book, and god is just flipping forward a few pages.

this means that you cant do the opposite, because whatever you will do becomes what he has already known. does that make any sense?

Jeffrey Shallit said...

No, I don't think it makes any sense, because it postulates an entity that we don't have any reason to believe exists, and it makes vague claims ("god exists outside of time") that seem hard to make precise.