Debate: Joe Carter’s Opening Argument (Updated with my reply)

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Barrett Brown

I am the founder of the distributed think-tank Project PM and a regular inactive to Vanity Fair and Skeptical Inquirer. My work has also appeared in The Onion, National Lampoon, New York Press, D Magazine, Skeptic, McSweeney's, American Atheist, and a couple of newspapers in the U.S. and Mexico as well as a few policy journals. I'm the author of two books and serve as a consultant to various political entities and private clients.

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174 Responses

  1. Avatar Pat Cahalan
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    says:

    I’m uncertain as to the etiquette of cross-posting of comments in such an affair. Since by default you’re cross-posting posts, I’m going to cross-post comments, although that may make it difficult for anyone to participate in the commentary thread. From my comment over at FT:

    “For the purposes of this debate, we’ve limited the range of competing philosophies to two: Atheism and Christianity.”

    “Let us begin by examining to features that are commonly (though mistakenly) believed to be essential to religious beliefs:”

    You’ve made a rather important error at step 1.

    If you are limiting your comparison of competing philosophies to Christianity and atheism, the consideration of no other philosophies ought to be included in your ontology for the discussion.

    The existence of a supreme being is in fact an essential property of Christianity. Indeed, certain characteristics of that supreme being are *also* essential properties of Christianity.

    “The relation of both atheism and Christianity is dependent on a fundamental religious belief.”

    This is a second error. You’ve avoided defining “religious” belief with rigor. This may lead to an unintentional (or intentional) strawman.

    I will pro-offer a definition, which you may find disagreeable but I suspect your opponent will not: “A religious belief is one that requires acceptance without empirical evidence in support.”

    There are actually several fundamental religious beliefs in the theology of Christianity.

    There is only one fundamental belief in atheism, which is in fact not religious.

    The first class (the Christian beliefs) are literally religious beliefs, as they require faith without evidence. Using the offered definition of “religious” above, however, you can see that this framing of atheistic belief is areligious, as there is no need for empirical evidence to disprove the nonexistence of anything.

    The Christian believes in the existence of a particular God in the absence of empirical evidence to support this belief.

    The atheist does *not* believe in the existence of God due to a lack of empirical evidence to support this belief.

    (one can, of course, debate the empirical evidence portion of this argument)

    Truth-table wise, P implies Q is not the same thing as Not P implies Not Q. There is a logical difference between the two.Report

    • Avatar Michael Drew in reply to Pat Cahalan
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      says:

      @Pat Cahalan, Just out of curiosity, is P implies Q a different thing than Not-Q implies Not-P, even though in fact if P implies Q, then indeed if Not-Q then Not-P?Report

    • Avatar Joe Carter in reply to Pat Cahalan
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      says:

      @Pat Cahalan, If you are limiting your comparison of competing philosophies to Christianity and atheism, the consideration of no other philosophies ought to be included in your ontology for the discussion.

      Um, right. We’re not considering the ontology of any other philosophies.

      The existence of a supreme being is in fact an essential property of Christianity. Indeed, certain characteristics of that supreme being are *also* essential properties of Christianity.

      Yes, I mentioned that.

      This is a second error. You’ve avoided defining “religious” belief with rigor. This may lead to an unintentional (or intentional) strawman.

      Actually, I’d say I defined it rather rigorously. The definition includes all major religions and (to my knowledge) leaves none out. That seems fairly rigorous.

      “A religious belief is one that requires acceptance without empirical evidence in support.”

      But that definition doesn’t fit most religions. It excludes all nature religions and most pantheistic and polytheistic ones. It also excludes Judaism and Christianity, which both rely on empirical evidence.

      There is only one fundamental belief in atheism, which is in fact not religious.

      Indeed, I believe I mentioned that. But that does not mean that atheists do not have a religious belief (so defined).

      The first class (the Christian beliefs) are literally religious beliefs, as they require faith without evidence

      Anyone that tells you that Christianity requires faith without evidence is misleading you about what Christianity requires.Report

      • Avatar Pat Cahalan in reply to Joe Carter
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        says:

        @Joe Carter,

        I spent a substantial portion of my education in parochial school, my high school education was at a Jesuit high school, and my undergraduate degree was at another Jesuit institution. I grant you that may have gotten some of it wrong (my comparative theology background is certainly not that of a true scholar), but not the entirety.

        > Anyone that tells you that Christianity
        > requires faith without evidence is
        > misleading you about what Christianity
        > requires.

        That is not, precisely, what I meant. I should have been more clear in that last sentence, but I thought it would follow from the overall comment (it’s also a debatable point in and of itself, but that’s neither here nor there).

        > It excludes all nature religions and most
        > pantheistic and polytheistic ones. It also
        > excludes Judaism and Christianity, which
        >both rely on empirical evidence.

        Your pardon, but this is simply an unbelievable claim to me. Yes, I’m aware that at least one of those institutions do claim that there exists empirical evidence of their beliefs. I’ve found all of these claims to be either wanting, clearly fabricated, or much more easily explained by observer bias than by a paranormal explanation.

        Empirical evidence is that which you can measure by reliable observation. This is a slightly less rigorous standard than what I would call scientific empirical evidence, which is capable of being measured by repeated observation.

        There is no one alive who has seen the resurrection of Jesus. We have, in fact, only second-hand accounts of these events. We have no evidence of any paranormal event which I would regard as sufficiently rigorous to accept on anything other than faith. Several claims of the Catholic church, in particular transubstantiation, directly defy observation as well as what is commonly understood to be the laws of physics.

        A belief in miracles requires one to accept that unique, non-repeatable events are in fact common… and yet none have been observed using any sort of instrument which has even a decent degree of reliability. We’ve caught extremely unlikely events on camera just through serendipity, and yet every video recording of a claimed paranormal event has serious problems of provenance, outright fraud, vastly overinflated observer effects, or is of such dubious quality as to be regarded as unreliable.

        If you have some, I’d love to see it. I always accept the possibility that it’s out there.

        > We’re not considering the ontology of
        > any other philosophies.

        and

        > The definition includes all major religions
        > and (to my knowledge) leaves none out.

        These two statements are in conflict. Why are you involving other religious beliefs at all?Report

    • Avatar David Schaengold in reply to Pat Cahalan
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      says:

      @Pat Cahalan, This is the wrong way of looking at the truth tables. The traditional theistic claim is that G-d exists necessarily. If true, the claim “G-d exists” is therefore true deductively, and empirical evidence is irrelevant. One might indeed try to marshal some kind of empirical evidence for or against the proposition “necessarily p,” but it’s difficult to see what evidence that would be one way or another, at least in the general case. You’re probably safer, if you’re indeed a Bayesian, by sticking with Occam’s razor. You’re no doubt familiar with the idea that the explanative irrelevance of a personal G-d and the simplicity of a universe without G-d means belief in G-d is irrational. The notion that there could be an interesting absence or presence of empirical evidence for G-d, however, proves incoherent on examination (interesting in the sense of dispositive). If He does exist, everything that exists is empirical evidence for His existence—ex hypothesi. If He does not, then not. Not to say that empirical questions are irrelevant for claims that Christianity in particular makes about G-d. Obviously if one could establish empirically that Jesus’ body is still in the tomb, then Christianity is false.Report

      • Avatar Pat Cahalan in reply to David Schaengold
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        says:

        @David Schaengold,

        > The traditional theistic claim is that G-d
        > exists necessarily.

        This is then not an argument, it’s an axiom. If this is where we begin, then we begin we the theist winning by definition.Report

      • Avatar Pat Cahalan in reply to David Schaengold
        Ignored
        says:

        @David Schaengold,

        More thoroughly: “If He does exist, everything that exists is empirical evidence for His existence—ex hypothesi.”

        This does not follow.

        It’s certainly the case that some theists do in fact claim this. It’s also the case that a paranormal entity can exist and it didn’t have anything to do with the creation of the Universe; hence God might be hanging ’round in the astral plane and has been since before the Universe existed, and yet had nothing to do with its creation whatsoever.

        The existence or not of God has no direct link to the empirical evidential claims.Report

        • Avatar David Schaengold in reply to Pat Cahalan
          Ignored
          says:

          @Pat Cahalan, It does follow, actually, but non-obviously, and I didn’t explain it at all in my post, so your objection is a fair one. The traditional account claims that there is at most one necessary being. That is, if there is a necessary being, there is only one of them. This is because a necessary being cannot, by definition, undergo intrinsic change, nor can any of its attributes be related only contingently related to any other. So whatever its intrinsic attributes are, they cannot change. Since any necessary being has at least one intrinsic attribute, namely necessity with respect to existence, and since every attribute of a necessary being is related to every other necessarily, then every necessary being is in fact the same, single necessary being.

          The traditional account also claims that there is at least one necessary being. I assume this is where Joe is going with his argument, so I won’t go into it, but the notion is that its necessity is the ground of possibility for the existence of contingent things, so the existence of anything at all demonstrates its existence.

          Sorry if this was too brief, or confusing. Obviously one can object to the metaphysical framework employed here, but within the framework all these propositions are a priori. Here’s some Kant on the question, starting with “The necessary being is single”: http://books.google.com/books?id=0V8VAAAAYAAJ&printsec=frontcover&dq=Metaphysical+works+of+the+celebrated+Immanuel+Kant&hl=en&ei=qAfUTMjuO8L48AaysJzKCw&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=1&ved=0CCsQ6AEwAA#v=onepage&q=necessary%20being%20is%20single&f=falseReport

          • Avatar Pat Cahalan in reply to David Schaengold
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            says:

            @David Schaengold,

            Yeah, I’ve read Kant, I don’t particularly this argument compelling. He’s got some stellar insights in his body of work, but “the necessary being is single” bit is tautological.

            That’s not to say that it’s wrong. Lest anyone be mislead by the frequency with which I am posting on this particular thread’s metaphysics questions, I’m not an atheist. Nor, for that matter, am I a theist any more; at least, not by the classical definitions.Report

            • Avatar David Schaengold in reply to Pat Cahalan
              Ignored
              says:

              @Pat Cahalan, If by “tautological” you mean “analytic,” then yes, that’s the whole point. The reason for posting this bit about necessity and evidence is to suggest you walk back the following claim you made above:

              “The Christian believes in the existence of a particular God in the absence of empirical evidence to support this belief.

              The atheist does *not* believe in the existence of God due to a lack of empirical evidence to support this belief.”

              What counts as empirical evidence is determined by certain a priori propositions. Under classical theistic understandings of G-d, everything that exists counts as evidence for G-d’s existence. So the first step, at least given Joe’s approach, is to argue about the a priori propositions. Your claim above simply begs this question, presuming a metaphysics that requires no necessary being. Of course many people do deny that the whole classical metaphysical framework of necessity and contingency is correct, or relevant, but then it’s to these decidedly non-empirical questions that these people should address themselves.

              (This doesn’t meant that the truth or falsehood of theism cannot be investigated by any empirical means; if someone could establish the empirical claims of Christianity, for instance, a fortiori theism would be true)Report

  2. Avatar Kyle R. Cupp
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    says:

    Hmm. It may be that all religions consider something to be unconditionally nondependent – I don’t know enough about all religions to know – but I’m not sure if this consideration is really a religious consideration. It seems philosophical rather than religious, but I’m interested in seeing where Joe Carter goes with this and how Barrett Brown responds.Report

    • Avatar Joe Carter in reply to Kyle R. Cupp
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      says:

      @Kyle R. Cupp, It seems philosophical rather than religious,

      There’s obviously a lot of overlap between philosophy and theology. But I think a belief in something being “unconditionally nondependent” is something that is required of religions but not necessarily required of philosophies.Report

      • Avatar Kyle R. Cupp in reply to Joe Carter
        Ignored
        says:

        @Joe Carter,

        Well, sure, a number of philosophers today reject metaphysics altogether, let alone such talk as “unconditionally non-dependent.” So the belief in something unconditionally non-dependent would not be required of all philosophies, and it may be required of all religions, but it still seems to me to be a philosophical rather than a religious concept, though we may approach the concept from a religious standpoint.Report

        • Avatar Joe Carter in reply to Kyle R. Cupp
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          says:

          @Kyle R. Cupp, Philosophers may claim to reject metaphysics, but they still rely on things existing, having being, etc. Personally, I find that about as silly as Eastern philosophies and religions that claim that everything is an illusion.

          The problem, I think, is that some people just assume that because they don’t practice a particular form of religion that they don’t have “religious beliefs.” That seems as unlikely as a person claiming that they don’t have a philosophy or a worldview. All that they are really saying is that they have an unexamined religious belief/philosophy/worldview.Report

  3. Avatar Francis
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    says:

    “Obviously, atheists believe that something is divine because to claim that “nothing has non-dependent reality” would be incoherent”.

    FALSE. The argument leading up to this conclusion is an interesting combination of logical moves and definitional tricks. I’m not going to get into each one because I don’t want to lose the forest for the trees. But simply put I reject the entire underlying premise.

    Let’s start with “belief”. The simplest internet definition is “any cognitive content held as true”. Definitions that make more sense to me are “opinion lacking referenceable proof” and “subjective assessment of uncertainty” (the latter is more used in the context of Bayesian statistical analysis).

    Me personally, I try to have as few beliefs — defined as opinion lacking referenceable proof — as possible. It keeps me from being wrong. One of many beliefs I do not hold is in the existence of the divine (or Divine, or God — take your pick). The simple reason for the lack of belief is that I see no evidence in favor of the proposition.

    Turning this back on Mr. Carter, he fails to explain why he believes in a Christian god, as opposed to any other now or previously worshipped. His analysis strongly suggests that all religions are equally meritorious.

    A final point: a lot of what Mr. Carter wrote is word salad I recognize from college level philosophy. “a Being whose essence is existence”, “The divine is simply whatever is unconditionally, nondependently real” — I’ll bet that these phrases have no meaning to 99.9999999% of the planet’s population.

    What is nondependently real anyway? The Big Bang? Cosmic background radiation? The fundamental forces of the universe? I doubt that Mr. Carter finds divinity in any of these.Report

    • Avatar Michael Drew in reply to Francis
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      says:

      @Francis, Your internet definition of belief is more correct. Your other proceedings on the term are apparently freighted with a connotation that you take from the word proper (i.e. not just in contexts where it is an appropriate connotation, but in all contexts, since we are here discussing the pure definition of the word) that suggests it refers to the subset of belief that are religious or faith-based, i.e. lacking for evidence. but that is not essential to the notion of belief. You simply have to hold something is true for it to be a belief of yours. It is a belief of mine that the Earth revolves around the sun. I happen to believe that because there is evidence that it is the case. That is still a correct use of the term.Report

    • Avatar Joe Carter in reply to Francis
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      says:

      @Francis, Let’s start with “belief”. The simplest internet definition is “any cognitive content held as true”.

      That’s a rather quirky definition. The way that I am using it in this post is the standard dictionary definition: confidence in the truth or existence of something not immediately susceptible to rigorous proof.

      Me personally, I try to have as few beliefs — defined as opinion lacking referenceable proof — as possible. It keeps me from being wrong.

      Really? So you have rigorous proof for all of your assertion (including this one)?

      Turning this back on Mr. Carter, he fails to explain why he believes in a Christian god, as opposed to any other now or previously worshipped.

      If you’ll notice, that is outside the scope of this debate. If it becomes necessary, I can give reasons but that seems unnecessary when the position I am debating is atheism (and not other religions).

      “a Being whose essence is existence”, “The divine is simply whatever is unconditionally, nondependently real” — I’ll bet that these phrases have no meaning to 99.9999999% of the planet’s population.

      “A being whose essence is existence” is one of the most basic claims of classical theism. How can you claim to not believe in theism if you aren’t even clear on what it is? Since you are claiming that their is no reason to believe in such a concept it seems you should understand what it is you are claiming not to believe in.

      What is nondependently real anyway?

      As I said, my answer is God. I’m still waiting to hear what the atheists here claim it is.Report

      • Avatar Francis in reply to Joe Carter
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        says:

        @Joe Carter, Oh dear, now you’ve introduced yet another term: theism, which is apparently defined as belief in the existence of god. So when you write “How can you claim to not believe in theism if you aren’t even clear on what it is”, you are actually accusing me of not believing in the belief in god.

        Which is absurd. Of course I believe in the [generic] belief in the existence of god. You believe in God, or at least you claim to. [As I can’t see inside your head, I’ll use your statements on your belief as evidence of your beliefs.] There are literally billions of people (according to various polls) who claim to believe in god. So not believing in theism would be contrary to the overwhelming evidence.

        Of course, that’s not what I said. What I did say was I didn’t believe in any god. I have no need for a degree in theology to understand what most people mean by god (an entity that exists outside the universe, eternally existing, without a creator, that created this universe). Nor do I need a degree in history, biology, theology, philosophy or mathematics (although I have one) to understand that virtually all arguments regarding the existence of god are utterly unsupported by what lawyers and scientists would think of as acceptable evidence.

        Doubting Thomas, according to legend, actually got to stick his fingers inside god. Dial that trick up for me and I’ll revisit my skepticism.Report

  4. Avatar Francis
    Ignored
    says:

    On a procedural point — I encourage Mr. Carter to close comments on his blog and hold the whole of the debate here. From the comment count, the commenters here appear to be much more active. (Also, the glove was thrown down here.)Report

  5. Avatar bearing
    Ignored
    says:

    “What is nondependently real anyway? The Big Bang? Cosmic background radiation? The fundamental forces of the universe? I doubt that Mr. Carter finds divinity in any of these.”

    I doubt it too; but the point is simply defining terms at this point. I sort of think it was unwise for Mr Carter to use the term “divine” here, since in ordinary language it carries a lot of non-neutral connotations, but his point is not to use it as it is used in ordinary language, but instead as a convenient term for the answer to your question “What is nondependently real anyway?”

    So for the purposes of the discussion (and no other purpose), consider whether you have an answer to the question “What is nondependently real anyway?” If you have an answer, then for the purposes of this discussion you have something to call “divine.” If you don’t have an answer, i.e. if you say “nothing has non-dependent reality,” then now is the time for you to show that this is coherent. Only then will you have demonstrated that Mr Carter is in error.Report

    • Avatar Michael Drew in reply to bearing
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      says:

      @bearing, But “divine” does indeed have all those meanings, so even if it is true that one must hold that something must have nondependent existence, in the context of this debate it a huge self-favoring, unsupported leap to ask for that such thing be termed “divine.” I don’t see why Barrett would accede.Report

    • Avatar Pat Cahalan in reply to bearing
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      says:

      @bearing,

      > If you don’t have an answer, i.e. if you say
      > “nothing has non-dependent reality,” then
      > now is the time for you to show that this is
      > coherent.

      This isn’t the same thing as not having an answer. Not having an answer is not having an answer. An affirmation of a negative is by definition having an answer 🙂

      First, I don’t buy the definition as being useful (whether you call it “divine” or “cookietastic”); essentially what you’re asking is, “Do you believe that something can exist without having a measurable impact on the observable world?”

      It doesn’t necessarily matter how the atheist answers this question. One can accept the possible existence of immaterial entities without accepting the existence of a particular class of immaterial entities.

      Illustration:

      Alice may be a rational empiricist who posits that all reality is deterministic (there is no free will, all ideas are merely the result of atomic interactions in the braincase).

      Bob may be a rational empiricist who posits that all reality is probabilistic (our behavior is not foreordained, but is still influenced by the real world; there is no “free will”, but there also is no determinism).

      Charlie may be a rational empiricist who accepts the potential existence of the immaterial (positing there is sufficient evidence to regard as credible), but rejects the notion that the immaterial and material world can interact outside the mind. Here we get most free will rational empiricist atheists: they may believe in morality, beauty, truth… but they don’t believe in the supernatural; morality can affect how we think, but it can’t turn the moon into green cheese. Granted, these people can have troubles clarifying why they believe there is sufficient evidence to explain “reason” without simultaneously explaining “god”.

      Then you get rational empiricist deists, who believe that God might/does exist, but that he/she/it doesn’t necessarily interact with the real world. Typically agnostics and spiritualists fall into this bucket. These people cheerfully agree that the immaterial can exist, but disagree that it can interact with the world. They have a somewhat sticky widget explaining how the mind interacts with the spirit world, but it’s not necessarily insurmountable.Report

      • Avatar Joe Carter in reply to Pat Cahalan
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        says:

        @Pat Cahalan, “Do you believe that something can exist without having a measurable impact on the observable world?”

        No, actually, that’s not what I’m asking at all. To clarify, everything that exists either has aseity (existence originating from and having no source other than itself) or is dependent on something else for its existence.

        Since it would be incoherent to say that everything that exists is dependent on something else for existence, there must be at least one entity that has aseity.Report

        • Avatar Pat Cahalan in reply to Joe Carter
          Ignored
          says:

          @Joe Carter,

          > Since it would be incoherent to say that
          > everything that exists is dependent on
          > something else for existence, there must
          > be at least one entity that has aseity.

          This depends upon what you mean by existence (I’m not trying to be facetious here). For example, it’s a commonly held scientific principle that things shorter than the Planck length (1.61 x 10^-35) literally don’t exist in any way that has meaning in the physical universe.

          And yet, that’s clearly a non-zero number. If something is smaller than that, does it exist? Depending upon how you define existence, the answer is “yes”, “no”, or “it depends”.

          Let us posit that scientists are correct, and the Big Bang Theory accurately explains the formation of the Universe. The Big Bang Theory (quite properly) doesn’t say anything about what “existed” prior to the Bang, as the question literally has no meaning in our empirical reality. Indeed, in the first several moments of the existence of the Universe, what “existed” doesn’t resemble our reality in any way that most people can grok. Whatever it was that gave rise to the Big Bang (one actual definable unique event in the history of the Universe) literally cannot be expressed using any of the tools we have that we use to measure empirically. It’s impossible. Not difficult, not “it might happen someday”; it’s impossible. In order for us to express this in a meaningful way, we would have to be able to transcend the current limitations of our abilities to comprehend existence.

          Your logic is not necessarily flawed, but your premise can be wrong; everything may depend upon something else for existence, except for one thing (that has no definable existence using the same standards for which we define existence for everything that exists), from which everything else came.

          It doesn’t have to be turtles all the way down, but on the other hand there doesn’t need to be anything at the bottom… it presupposes that the question, “what is at the bottom” actually means anything.Report

          • Avatar Pat Cahalan in reply to Pat Cahalan
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            says:

            @Pat Cahalan,

            Grumble (tired) edit: “Whatever it was that gave rise to the Big Bang (one actual definable unique event in the history of the Universe)”

            That should read “Whatever it was that gave rise to the Big Bang (one actual definable unique event in the history of the Universe if one assumes that time T can equal zero)”.Report

        • Avatar Boegiboe in reply to Joe Carter
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          says:

          @Joe Carter, OK, it took me a while, but now I think I understand enough to answer Joe’s question, at least for this free-will atheist: There is nothing that is nondependently real. This is the axiom upon which I base my understanding of the physical universe, and therefore how I run my life.

          Everything that exists exists only inasmuch as it interacts with some other thing that exists. Everything is therefore dependent on some other part of reality.Report

          • Avatar Joe Carter in reply to Boegiboe
            Ignored
            says:

            @Boegiboe, Everything is therefore dependent on some other part of reality.

            In his book ‘A Brief History of Time”, astrophysicist Stephen Hawking relates a story about a well-known scientist who gave a public lecture on astronomy:

            He described how the earth orbits around the sun and how the sun, in turn, orbits around the centre of a vast collection of stars called our galaxy.

            At the end of the lecture, a little old lady at the back of the room got up and said: “What you have told us is rubbish. The world is really a flat plate supported on the back of a giant tortoise.”

            The scientist gave a superior smile before replying, “What is the tortoise standing on?”

            “You’re very clever, young man, very clever,” said the old lady. “But it’s turtles all the way down.”

            So when it comes to existence, you’re saying it’s “turtles all the way down?” ; )

            Whether there can be a infinite regress of causes of existence is certainly questionable. I think it’s logical and physically impossible, but let’s say that it is true.

            What the atheist is saying is that in order to claim that there is no single self-existent cause of existence we need to invoke an infinity of dependent causes of existence. The fact that this is likely to be impossible given our current understanding of the physical universe causes problems for this view. But I think the bigger problem is that to avoid acknowledging that their is a being that most people would call “God”, the atheist has to rely on an explanation that is not only infinitely more complex (literally) but has no evidence in support of it.

            Of course, that does not mean it can’t be true. But I think it provides a fairly reasonable reason to doubt it.Report

            • Avatar Jason Kuznicki in reply to Joe Carter
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              says:

              @Joe Carter,

              I suspect that what Boegiboe means is not that there have been an infinity of causes in the past, but rather that all things presently are inextricably bound with one another. There are no “other” realms outside of this one.

              As to first-cause arguments, most statements of them are either self-contradictory or incoherent.

              1. While all things that we observe have a cause, we cannot take this claim as an absolute, because it is inductive.

              2. There may be a set of non-caused things, and it may have one or more members. Induction can’t rule this out, no matter how many caused things it observes.

              3. The Christian god may or may not be in the class of uncaused things. It might even be in the class of caused things.

              So I don’t see arguments from first cause getting very far.Report

            • Avatar Chris in reply to Joe Carter
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              says:

              Jason, in referring to “first-cause” arguments, I assume you mean Aristotle and the Christian cosmological arguments, in which case, it is not the case that they are in the least bit inductive (that is, your 1. above is false). They are quite explicitly deductive: they move from the concept of contingency, namely that the existence of things is not necessary (there could be nothing, or things could not exist), which is not inductive, to the position that there must be a necessary, or non-contingent (or in Joe’s terminology, non-dependent) existence. It is an assumption, though an analytical, not an inductive one, that the world’s existence is contingent, and as I mentioned in another comment, this has been a point of dispute in philosophy for more than two thousand years, but neither position is incoherent or inductive.

              Your point number 2 is also a conceptual issue, and has nothing to do with induction. Anselm, for example, or at least those who’ve interpreted Anselm for the last 900 or so years, argue in such a way that there can be only one non-contingent (or necessary, or non-dependent, or redundantly, unconditionally non-dependent) being, because a necessary being has to be perfect, or at least more perfect than any other being that can be conceived. Again, this is a conceptual, a priori, analytic position, not an inductive one. That premise is pretty hard to dispute, too. That is, there’s nothing wrong with it conceptually. Where the disputes arise is generally on the issue of whether such a necessary being is possible, and there are all sorts of ways of approaching that from both sides. However, those are all conceptual approaches, which is to say, this is not an inductive issue either.

              Your point 3 is of course a matter of theology, and since the Christian God is, obviously, uncaused, it seems like a strange point of argument. Whether such a God exists is a point of contention, but the Christian God, conceptually, is uncaused.Report

              • Avatar Jason Kuznicki in reply to Chris
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                says:

                @Chris,

                I disagree. The cosmological arguments absolutely do rely on induction even if they are (obviously) at pains not to admit it. Invariably, they rely on the observation of motion in things, and on the observation of chains of causality. They observe, for instance, that things are caused by other things. And they proceed from there.

                (The claim that “the existence of things is not necessary” is certainly needed in a cosmological argument, but that’s not the part of the argument with which I’m taking issue.)

                As to uncaused causes, I still have no trouble asserting that they can be many. Aristotle’s argument to the contrary — “All things that are many in number have matter” — is laughable, and should have been so even in his own time.

                Of course, the concept of perfection may itself be a sophism. But in any event, this point 2 is not directly related to the objection from induction mentioned earlier. Why could the universe not have been created by an interplay of divine agents, each of which is eternal and unchanging? Some answer seems called for that is more than just “It would be inconvenient for monotheistic religions.”

                As to point three, I mean only the very old objection that Aristotle’s prime mover isn’t necessarily identical to the Christian god after all. It could just as easily be Brahman, or Voltaire’s supreme being, or any other entity. That the Christian god is given the attributes of Aristotle’s prime mover (among others) proves nothing, because Brahman and the supreme being also have those attributes, too, and yet are said to be different entities.Report

            • Avatar Pat Cahalan in reply to Joe Carter
              Ignored
              says:

              @Joe Carter,

              Joe, you’re calling on Hawking here… someone who claims not to believe in a personal God. This seems to be an odd choice.

              Your use of, “the fact that this is likely to be impossible given our current understanding of the physical universe” at least implicitly claims that you understand our current understanding of the physical universe.

              Counter-evidence to this tacit claim: many learned scientists do not in any wise believe that our understanding of the Universe has any bearing on this question of infinite regress. In fact, many scientists, mathematicians, and philosophers don’t even see infinite regress as the same sort of problem that you do.

              You’re calling upon claims, bolstered by expertism in a field, to help justify your argument, when the experts in that field do not use those very same claims to justify your argument.

              If you’re going to make arguments that rely even partially upon claims put forth by science or mathematics, you are going to have to explain why some or many of the people who actually did the science or the math in the first place are using precisely those same same claims to come to opposite conclusions, or regard their work as not relevant to the question at hand.Report

            • Avatar David Schaengold in reply to Joe Carter
              Ignored
              says:

              @Jason, “Aristotle’s argument to the contrary — “All things that are many in number have matter” — is laughable, and should have been so even in his own time.” Aristotle’s statement is a definition. Matter for him is the principle of individuation. Doesn’t mean what we mean now by it (though what we mean now by it is admittedly mysterious to me), but I don’t see how it’s laughable.Report

            • Avatar Chris in reply to Joe Carter
              Ignored
              says:

              @Joe Carter, Jason, if you admit that the existence of the world is not necessary, then no induction is needed. But just for the sake of argument, can you present an example (from the history of philosophy) of someone arguing that because observable things have causes, then there must be a first cause, or some approximation of such? It’s not present in Aquinas’ third way, or in Leibniz’ principle of sufficient reason. So I’m wondering where you find the induction.Report

              • Avatar Jason Kuznicki in reply to Chris
                Ignored
                says:

                @Chris,

                And from every effect the existence of its proper cause can be demonstrated, so long as its effects are better known to us; because since every effect depends upon its cause, if the effect exists, the cause must pre-exist. Hence the existence of God, in so far as it is not self-evident to us, can be demonstrated from those of His effects which are known to us.

                Aquinas, in other words, says that we infer causes from effects, and that we can do so for “every” effect. And from thence to God. That’s not an induction I’m comfortable making.

                Further:

                It is certain, and evident to our senses, that in the world some things are in motion. Now whatever is in motion is put in motion by another, for nothing can be in motion except it is in potentiality to that towards which it is in motion; whereas a thing moves inasmuch as it is in act. For motion is nothing else than the reduction of something from potentiality to actuality. But nothing can be reduced from potentiality to actuality, except by something in a state of actuality.

                Induction, I’d say. Based on observation.Report

              • Avatar David Schaengold in reply to Jason Kuznicki
                Ignored
                says:

                The crucial work there is being done by “since every effect depends upon its cause, if the effect exists, the cause must pre-exist.” Note that the first clause is presented as axiomatic.Report

              • Avatar David Schaengold in reply to David Schaengold
                Ignored
                says:

                Ah, sorry; I thought you meant that the principle itself was arrived at inductively. My comment was irrelevant.Report

            • Avatar Chris in reply to Joe Carter
              Ignored
              says:

              @Joe Carter, Jason, that’s not his cosmological argument. That is, it’s not his argument to a first cause. That’s him saying that we can know God from his effects, which is something quite different. The point he’s making is simply that if effects follow from causes, and we can know causes from their effects, then we can know God from his effects.Report

              • Avatar Jason Kuznicki in reply to Chris
                Ignored
                says:

                @Chris,

                We have a confusion about typology then. I think. I’d been of the understanding that arguments about God considered as the first cause were cosmological arguments, while arguments about god’s existence being implied in the structure of argument or reason were ontological arguments.

                Still, saying that we can know god from his effects, and that one of these is motion, and that we observe moving things, and so forth… is an argument relying on induction all the same.Report

            • Avatar Chris in reply to Joe Carter
              Ignored
              says:

              Jason, the passage from Aquinas that you reference is neither an ontological nor a cosmological argument, nor is it an argument to a (or from a) first cause. It’s something altogether different: an argument that we can know God from his effects. It’s only the beginning of a different argument.Report

              • Avatar Jason Kuznicki in reply to Chris
                Ignored
                says:

                @Chris,

                Are you deliberately ignoring the section about motion? I’m sorry, but I really don’t see how this fails to be an observation about things that move, and thus an inductive argument. The first section sets it up, and the second delivers. I don’t see how it could be any plainer.Report

  6. Avatar Francis
    Ignored
    says:

    bearing: I’m not particularly interested in complex definitional games. Down that road lies many a useless thread.

    JC asserted: “Divine” equals “non-dependently real”. My point: this is a useless definition, because most people have no idea what you mean by “non-dependently real”. It’s word salad, designed to obfuscate; you might as well write:

    “divine” = “trust me; i have a really complex idea but no ability to explain it” or
    “divine” = “everything that exists, except all matter and energy”.

    It’s also a nonstandard definition. Most people would, I expect, agree with Google’s web definition of “divine”: “emanating from God”, as in divine judgment.

    To then claim that all atheists believe something is divine is, then, false, useless and unnecessarily confusing. While different atheists hold different beliefs, the common uniting understanding (not belief) is that there is little to no evidence of god (some might argue that the existence of the universe is existence for a creator deity), and there is no evidence for an interventionist, omnipotent, omniscient god. If there is no activist God, then nothing is divine.

    Thus I show JC to be in error.Report

    • Avatar Joe Carter in reply to Francis
      Ignored
      says:

      @Francis, JC asserted: “Divine” equals “non-dependently real”. My point: this is a useless definition, because most people have no idea what you mean by “non-dependently real”. It’s word salad, designed to obfuscate; you might as well write:

      I think you are confusing the fact that you are unfamiliar with basic concept of ontology with the idea that it must be nonsensical.

      “divine” = “trust me; i have a really complex idea but no ability to explain it”

      It’s not that complex and an I can explain it rather easily: Everything that exists either has aseity (existence originating from and having no source other than itself) or is dependent on something else for its existence.

      Since it would be incoherent to say that everything that exists is dependent on something else for existence, there must be at least one entity that has aseity.

      “divine” = “everything that exists, except all matter and energy”.

      That’s not correct. Materialists, for example, consider the “divine” to be matter and energy.

      To then claim that all atheists believe something is divine is, then, false, useless and unnecessarily confusing.

      Since you seem to be hung up on the word “divine”, replace it with “aseity.”

      If there is no activist God, then nothing is divine.

      That’s incorrect. There are a number of religions that believe in the divine and yet do not believe in an activist God.Report

      • Avatar ThatPirateGuy in reply to Joe Carter
        Ignored
        says:

        @Joe Carter,

        Your argument is lame and pathetic. I have lost respect because your are one of those sad “Atheism is a religion too! ” christians. I was hoping you would at least have something other than this.Report

      • Avatar ThatPirateGuy in reply to Joe Carter
        Ignored
        says:

        @Joe Carter,

        I take it joe has heard of the greek gods. Are we to say that The gods created by Zeus are not divine?Report

      • Avatar bearing in reply to Joe Carter
        Ignored
        says:

        @Joe Carter,
        you wrote, “Since you seem to be hung up on the word “divine”, replace it with “aseity.””

        I think maybe that is what you should do in the first place. I don’t think you should have used the word “divine” (which has a great deal of subjective connotation) to mean something that it does NOT mean to almost everyone else that uses the word.

        I understand that you’re carefully defining terms here and do not intend to use the word “divine” in any of its excess connotations, but others who are not inclined to grant terms that smack of the meaning “something-to-do-with-God” are going to be suspicious of the term. Stick with “aseity.”Report

      • Avatar Jason Kuznicki in reply to Joe Carter
        Ignored
        says:

        @Joe Carter,

        I consider myself a materialist, and I do not think that matter or energy are divine, even by your very strange definition. It could well be that matter and energy are themselves dependent on aspects of reality of which we have no knowledge. Given that we do not have any knowledge about them, it is precipitous, maybe even foolish, to rule them out.Report

    • Avatar Jaybird in reply to Francis
      Ignored
      says:

      @Francis, you say “definitional game” but I see the definition as absolutely essential to moving forward.

      If we define God as an emergent property of society… perhaps analogous to “gender roles”, I’d have to say that, yeah, I believe in God.

      If we’re defining God as an entity that exists externally to humanity as an interested creator who loves us and has a wonderful plan for our lives, well… yeah, I don’t believe in one of those.

      Semantics are so much more fun to discuss than syntax.Report

    • Avatar Pat Cahalan in reply to Francis
      Ignored
      says:

      @Jason,

      “If it is also there what you say it to be here, then he offered a tautology ”

      Yes. Yes, he did.Report

  7. Avatar Jeff
    Ignored
    says:

    You already mentioned what atheists probably view as the non-dependent entity, the universe or multi-verse. Or maybe it’s the laws of physics.
    What’s interesting about God being non-dependent is that he’s dependent on our faith and love, is he not? What is God if nobody believes or loves him? A bit of a paradox there I think.Report

  8. Avatar Transplanted Lawyer
    Ignored
    says:

    A claim that “nothing has non-dependent reality” seems as likely to be coherent as not.

    JC’s definition of “religious belief” is “(1) a belief in something as divine or (2) a belief about how to stand in proper relation to the divine, where (3) something is believed to be divine provided it is held to be unconditionally nondependent.” Logically, element (2) presupposes element (1). If one lacks a belief in something as divine, then one cannot form a belief about how to stand in proper relation to it. Therefore, we may discard element (2) completely.

    Then we see that to be “divine” is to be “unconditionally nondependent.” Thus, “religious belief” is defined as a belief in something which is unconditionally nondependent.

    Which is to say, one has a religious belief if one believes that something, somewhere, exists in a way which is unconditionally nondependent upon the existence of any other thing (not just material things, I take it, but also concepts or abstract ideas like love or democracy, or perhaps energy or other non-corporeal phenomena like electromagnetism or gravity).

    Of course, this begs the real question – either something exists in a way independent of any other thing, or nothing exists independently of something else and everything is dependent upon everything else. We have to confront the issue of what “unconditional nondependent existence” means before we can evaluate whether a coherent understanding of the universe requires a belief in at least one thing which is unconditionally nondependent.

    I would ask JC to explain that term further. Are we talking about temporal phenomenology here, particle physics, or Descartian solipsism?Report

    • Avatar Joe Carter in reply to Transplanted Lawyer
      Ignored
      says:

      @Transplanted Lawyer, A claim that “nothing has non-dependent reality” seems as likely to be coherent as not.

      For it to be coherent, we would have to believe that everything that exists relies on its existence on something else. That means there is an infinite regress of things that rely on some other thing for its existence.

      I’m not sure how that is coherent at all.

      Of course, this begs the real question – either something exists in a way independent of any other thing, or nothing exists independently of something else and everything is dependent upon everything else.

      It’s not begging the question when one of them is possible and one is not.

      I would ask JC to explain that term further.

      The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy has a helpful entry on ontological dependence: http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/dependence-ontological/Report

      • Avatar Mike Schilling in reply to Joe Carter
        Ignored
        says:

        @Joe Carter,

        For it to be coherent, we would have to believe that everything that exists relies on its existence on something else. That means there is an infinite regress of things that rely on some other thing for its existence.

        You’re tacitly assuming an ordering in which if A depends on B for its existence, B is “realer” than A is.Report

        • Avatar Joe Carter in reply to Mike Schilling
          Ignored
          says:

          @Mike Schilling, You’re tacitly assuming an ordering in which if A depends on B for its existence, B is “realer” than A is.

          Technically, yes. Saying that something is self-existent could be construed as being “realer.”

          But for the purposes of this discussion, I mean merely the dependent relationship between existing entities. For example, while my mother had a necessary role in bringing me into existence, my sustained existence is not dependent on her. When she died, my life did not end also.

          However, if the earth were to cease to exist, the the couch I am sitting on would cease to exist. The couch has a dependent relationship to the earth.

          Presumably, though, we could follow the chain of existing entities to a termination point. Something has to exist that cannot not exist.Report

      • Avatar Transplanted Lawyer in reply to Joe Carter
        Ignored
        says:

        @Joe Carter, my apologies for my lack of familiarity with the philosophical jargon. I am guilty of the same thing when discussing law. The Stanford dictionary entry is dense and I’ll wade through it. (Or after trying, wake up feeling refreshed.)

        Is an infinite regress really such a problem if the universe is eternal? Or if time is curved rather than linear?Report

      • Avatar Pat Cahalan in reply to Joe Carter
        Ignored
        says:

        @Joe Carter,

        > It’s not begging the question when one of
        > them is possible and one is not.

        It is begging the question when your supposition (that one of them is not possible) is in fact a tautology. You believe it is not possible because your definition of what is possible excludes this possibility.

        You are presuming that since everything that exists, that you know of, comes from something that exists, that there must be a primal mover.

        This isn’t logically required, Joe. It’s perfectly possible to construct a consistent, non-contradictory existence that does not require a primal mover. All you have to do is revisit the assumption that everything has always and will always conform to your definition of existence. That is, in fact, *an assumption*. It is not provable from your other axioms. That makes it an axiom, not a point of contention.Report

  9. Avatar Francis
    Ignored
    says:

    JC:

    Re aseity: “Since it would be incoherent to say that everything that exists is dependent on something else for existence, there must be at least one entity that has aseity.”

    I’ll concede the point pending further analysis, so long as the Big Bang may be included in the list of possible entities with aseity.

    Re ontology: Formal logic class was about 30 years ago but the wiki definition sounds familiar: “ontology is a formal representation of knowledge as a set of concepts within a domain, and the relationships between those concepts.” You should resist making assumptions about the ignorance of your interlocutors.

    Re definitions: I’ve been practicing law about 20 years now; I’ve always found it poor practice, whether drafting contracts or writing briefs, to assign specialized meaning to words that have a widespread common understanding; it leads to confusion. I urge you to do the same.

    Re the scope of the debate: You write: “There are a number of religions that believe in the divine and yet do not believe in an activist God.” and yet you also write: “For the purposes of this debate, we’ve limited the range of competing philosophies to two: Atheism and Christianity.”

    That’s a no-no. If you get to bring in non-Christian religions for the purpose of expanding your definition of “divine”; then you have to live up to the obligation of establishing that Christianity outcompetes not only atheism but these other religions as well. Consistency, please.Report

    • Avatar Joe Carter in reply to Francis
      Ignored
      says:

      @Francis, I’ll concede the point pending further analysis, so long as the Big Bang may be included in the list of possible entities with aseity.

      I’m not sure the Big Bang would qualify since that is an event and not entity. However, the physical universe itself could be include in the list of possible entities.

      Re ontology: Formal logic class was about 30 years ago but the wiki definition sounds familiar: “ontology is a formal representation of knowledge as a set of concepts within a domain, and the relationships between those concepts.”

      That’s the definition of ontology used in information science. I was using the philosophical definition of “the philosophical study of the nature of being, existence or reality as such, as well as the basic categories of being and their relations.”

      You should resist making assumptions about the ignorance of your interlocutors.

      I’m not making assumptions about anyone’s ignorance. I’m merely trying to clear up the confusion by clarifying terms. However, I do assume that when people say “I don’t believe in X” that they actually understand what X is.

      That’s a no-no. If you get to bring in non-Christian religions for the purpose of expanding your definition of “divine”; then you have to live up to the obligation of establishing that Christianity outcompetes not only atheism but these other religions as well. Consistency, please.

      The reason I brought up the other religions is not to included them for consideration in the debate, but merely to show that the definition of “religious belief” is rather uncontroversial since it applies so broadly. If I had said that that the definition only applied to Christianity (it doesn’t really apply to atheism) then it would have not been broad enough to allow other considerations, which are necessary for the atheists to proceed.

      If it makes it easier, forget the part apart the “divine.” All that is really necessary is for us to come to an agreement on two propositions:

      Christians believe the that there is an entity that does not rely on anything else for its existence. They call that entity God.

      Atheists believe the that there is an entity that does not rely on anything else for its existence. They call that entity __________.

      Since it is necessary for us to establish a metaphysical foundation before we can proceed, we need to understand what each group considers to be non-dependently real.Report

      • Avatar Pat Cahalan in reply to Joe Carter
        Ignored
        says:

        @Joe Carter,

        > However, I do assume that when people
        > say “I don’t believe in X” that they
        > actually understand what X is.

        I don’t, and there’s no reason why you should, necessarily. I admit it is an annoying tendency of some atheists to start asking theological questions that have been answered (at least to some degree) centuries ago as if they’ve discovered something new and challenging, but that’s not necessarily a deal stopper.

        I don’t believe in random crazy person’s idea of flying blue magic fairy brain goblins. I don’t need to fully understand his idea of flying blue magic fairy brain goblins to make that statement with reasonable confidence.

        I don’t believe in Scientology, even though I haven’t been exposed to the full Xenu. I don’t need to be introduced to the mysteries of the Nth cabal or whatever to know I don’t believe it.

        Yes, one should have at least a ballpark idea of what X is before one decides to reject it, but at the same time it’s unfair on the flip side for someone to claim that I need to fully assimilate the ramifications of his (or her) theology in order to reject it.Report

        • Avatar Joe Carter in reply to Pat Cahalan
          Ignored
          says:

          @Pat Cahalan, Yes, one should have at least a ballpark idea of what X is before one decides to reject it, but at the same time it’s unfair on the flip side for someone to claim that I need to fully assimilate the ramifications of his (or her) theology in order to reject it.

          I’m glad that you mentioned this because it reminds me of an important clarification I need to make.

          I fully agree that one does not need to fully understand the ramifications of a belief before one rejects it. But one of the reasons we have for dismissing it is that we already have something filling that role.

          For example, the reason I know that their is no Xenu is there can only exist one non-dependent, self-existing entity. Since I already know who God is and what he’s like, anything that claims to be a replacement for God can be dismissed. My current knowledge of what fulfills that position leads me to reject other candidates.

          Presumably, that is what atheists are doing too. If they say that God doesn’t exist, it should be because there is already a self-existing entity and its called ______. If they are not saying this then it raises the question of what evidence they have that is crowding out the (so-called) evidence for God.Report

          • Avatar Pat Cahalan in reply to Joe Carter
            Ignored
            says:

            @Joe Carter,

            > For example, the reason I know that
            > their is no Xenu is there can only
            > exist one non-dependent, self-existing
            > entity.

            Why? If there can exist one self-existing entity, why can there not be two? Why can’t there be an infinite many of them? What essential property does a self-existing entity possess that makes this contradictory?

            Can there be a self-existing entity which is responsible for creation, and another self-existing entity that just parties out in the aether?

            > Since I already know who God is

            How do you know this? Let me make a distinction between knowing and believing. I know something is true when it does not contradict something else I know to be true. I believe something to be true when I must accept that it is true as an axiomatic statement. You *believe* you know who God is.

            > anything that claims to be a replacement
            > for God can be dismissed.

            How do you recognize God, then? Most definitions of God require the entity to be ineffable. How can you dismiss anything that claims to be God on the grounds that you know what God is, when an essential property of God is that you, a mortal man, cannot know what God is?

            > Presumably, that is what atheists are
            > doing too.

            This is actually *not* what atheists are doing, at all.

            > If they say that God doesn’t exist, it
            > should be because there is already a
            > self-existing entity and its called __.

            I think this is a catastrophic misunderstanding on your part of atheism. You are assuming, based upon your axioms, that your axioms are the only axioms that are workable. Since atheists in fact believe in different axioms, you’re incapable of grokking their position because you’re trying to reduce their principles based upon your axioms. If you honestly don’t grasp the concept that your accepted axioms are rejected as insufficient by the atheist, you literally are not going to go anywhere.

            This is the epistemic closure of the orthodox theist, writ large. It is one thing to reject the axioms of the atheist (I personally do, for the record). However, that does not mean that the axioms of the atheist are illogical. They’re *axioms*.Report

  10. Avatar Francis
    Ignored
    says:

    JC: Do you believe in Santa Claus? The tooth fairy? Dragons? Leprechauns? Thor? Zeus? Is there any mythical creature in which you lack belief? This atheist believes that the entire universe, including himself, is the result of unguided energy emitted at a singularity commonly known as the Big Bang. I lack the “belief that there is an entity that does not rely on anything else for its existence” in the same way you lack the belief in, say, Thor.

    Until you recognize that the defining characteristic of atheists (or, at least, the ones participating here) is a lack of belief, rather than an affirmative religious belief in something you don’t understand, this debate is going to be rather pointless.Report

    • Avatar Joe Carter in reply to Francis
      Ignored
      says:

      @Francis, I’m well aware that atheism is merely a lack of belief in a deity or deities. But that doesn’t get us very far. The atheist must then go on (as you have done) as explain what is self-existent, what cannot not exist. I’m not sure the universe can really serve that function, though, which causes a problem for those atheists who choose it as their substitue for a self-existing God.Report

      • Avatar Koz in reply to Joe Carter
        Ignored
        says:

        “The atheist must then go on (as you have done) as explain what is self-existent, what cannot not exist.”

        Yeah, I’m having a problem with this one too. I might be sympathetic to your half of the argument, but I think you need to be more careful in differentiating the things that a typical atheist thinks (or Barrett in particular) and the logical or other consequences of those beliefs.

        It’s not obvious to me why an atheist must go on to hold that there is something which cannot not exist. Among other things, it seems to me that as a practical matter of affirmation, a good percentage of them don’t.

        Furthermore, supposing that an atheist does affirm the existence by necessity of something, it doesn’t follow for me at least that that thing is divine for an atheist. Especially since your argument is that such things are divine for religious believers, and an atheist self-defines as not being a religious believer.Report

        • Avatar Joe Carter in reply to Koz
          Ignored
          says:

          @Koz, It’s not obvious to me why an atheist must go on to hold that there is something which cannot not exist.

          On of the problems for atheists is that they tend to treat the, for lack of a better term, “God thesis” as if it were an unimportant variable in a mathematical equation. Remove X (God) and everything stays equal. But that’s not the way it works.

          For theists, God plays a necessary role in explaining and understanding such concepts as ontology, epistemology, ethics, etc. For the atheist to dismiss theism implies that they have a solid foundation for these areas. That is, after all, part of the “evidence for God” that they are claiming to reject.

          Among other things, it seems to me that as a practical matter of affirmation, a good percentage of them don’t.

          Well, yes, that’s part of the problem. When people claim that many atheist are being intellectually lazy or philosophically unsophisticated that is what they mean. It’s not intended as an insult (at least not always). It is meant to point out that the atheist isn’t doing the necessary work to make their view intellectually respectable.

          Furthermore, supposing that an atheist does affirm the existence by necessity of something, it doesn’t follow for me at least that that thing is divine for an atheist.

          But that’s really all that “divine” means. It doesn’t imply that the atheist holds that entity in special reverence or anything. It merely means that they recognize what they are claiming is the foundation for existence and that they have what they believe to be an appropriate substitute for God’s role in sustaining existence of dependent entities.Report

          • Avatar Transplanted Lawyer in reply to Joe Carter
            Ignored
            says:

            @Joe Carter, it looks like once again, were back to “divine” = “aseity.” Your argument is that there must be an uncaused cause. Isn’t reference to such a thing resorting to special pleading?

            And even if a cosmological argument holds up, to criticism, as far as I can tell it only gets you to deism, not to Christianity.Report

            • Avatar Joe Carter in reply to Transplanted Lawyer
              Ignored
              says:

              @Transplanted Lawyer, Isn’t reference to such a thing resorting to special pleading?

              No, because I’m not trying to prove the existence of a self-existing entity—I don’t have to since it logically necessary to prevent an infinite regress of dependent existences.

              I’m actually not making a cosmological argument at all. I’m not going to wait until Brown explains what is self-existent and say “Aha, that’s God!” I’m simply interested in seeing if he can come up with such an entity since it is necessary for developing other parts of his worldview.

              And even if a cosmological argument holds up, to criticism, as far as I can tell it only gets you to deism, not to Christianity.

              I agree. But, of course, that is why I think the default state of belief should be some form of deism. I truly believe that if most atheists would simply think about it clearly and rigorously they would become deists (like Antony Flew). It’s certainly a more logical, defensible, and intellectually respectable (historically speaking) position than atheism.Report

          • Avatar Francis in reply to Joe Carter
            Ignored
            says:

            @Joe Carter, “For the atheist to dismiss theism implies that they have a solid foundation for these areas.” We do. They’re called people.

            Where did the Bible come from? People. Who claims to know and interpret the word of god? People. Who claims to know the true path to heaven? People.

            Yes, theists are desperate to discover that there are absolute truths, handed down by a superior being. There just ain’t; there’s just people, mostly just making it up as they went along. Leviticus wanted to keep people from getting sick, thus no shrimp. Moses was just a person, assuming he ever existed. The exodus from slavery is just a fairy tale. The various radical Jewish clerics who probably served as the inspiration for the gospels were just people, as is the Pope.

            Invoking the name of a deity is, at the end of the day, a cheap way to win any argument. How do you disprove it? Invoke your own god? Call the person a liar?Report

          • Avatar Koz in reply to Joe Carter
            Ignored
            says:

            “For the atheist to dismiss theism implies that they have a solid foundation for these areas. That is, after all, part of the “evidence for God” that they are claiming to reject.”

            Well, one odd thing about this debate (interesting as it is), is that no one is explicitly affirming or denying any particular propositions as a foundation, especially Barrett. So it’s difficult to say, why exactly Barrett needs a strong logical foundation for his worldview.

            “It is meant to point out that the atheist isn’t doing the necessary work to make their view intellectually respectable.”

            Ditto. I agree with you that atheism isn’t very plausible intellectually speaking (in contrast to agnosticism which is), but your line of argument requires stronger premises wrt Barrett’s actual beliefs than you’ve shown so far.Report

            • Avatar Joe Carter in reply to Koz
              Ignored
              says:

              @Koz, but your line of argument requires stronger premises wrt Barrett’s actual beliefs than you’ve shown so far.

              I have to confess that I expected a more robust defense of atheism than what Mr. Brown has presented so far. For him to say that atheism really doesn’t have many positive implications for man’s relationship to the State (the point I thought we were debating) sort of takes the wind out of the discussion. I sort of assumed we’d present atheism and Christianity as alternatives and see which was the strongest.

              I’m honestly not sure where this is heading now.Report

            • Avatar Pat Cahalan in reply to Koz
              Ignored
              says:

              @Koz,

              “Ditto. I agree with you that atheism isn’t very plausible intellectually speaking (in contrast to agnosticism which is)”

              I’ll generally agree that atheism is less interesting from a complexity standpoint than any of the alternatives, but I’m not sure how this translates to “implausible”.

              I’m genuinely interested in knowing why you regard an agnostic stance as plausible while atheism is not.Report

          • Avatar Pat Cahalan in reply to Joe Carter
            Ignored
            says:

            @Joe Carter,

            > For theists, God plays a necessary
            > role in explaining and understanding
            > such concepts as ontology, epistemology,
            > ethics, etc.

            Yes.

            > For the atheist to dismiss theism
            > implies that they have a solid
            > foundation for these areas.

            No, it doesn’t, Joe. They may, they may not. They don’t need one. They’re not positing an existence statement, they’re positing the lack of one.Report

            • Avatar Joe Carter in reply to Pat Cahalan
              Ignored
              says:

              @Pat Cahalan, They may, they may not. They don’t need one.

              Well, yes, actually they do. At least if they want to be taken seriously.

              It’s not enough to say what you are against. You have to say what you’re for too. And you should be able to explain how your views can be internally coherent and consistent.

              That’s why everyone scoffs at the New Atheists. For all their bluster, they really can’t explain why they have a basis for ontology, epistemology, ethics, etc.

              Now if you’re saying that all that should be asked of atheists is for them to be able to say what they are against . . . well, I guess that’s fine. But then why should anyone bother to listen to them after that position has been stated? If all they are expected to do is dismiss other views without being able to defend their own, then they probably shouldn’t bring up such issues in the public square.Report

            • Avatar Pat Cahalan in reply to Pat Cahalan
              Ignored
              says:

              @Pat Cahalan,

              > It’s not enough to say what you are
              > against. You have to say what you’re
              > for too.

              It’s indefensible for the theist as well as the atheist to say this (this coming directly from my comparative theology professor in college, who was in fact a bona-fide theological expert) 🙂

              One of the axioms of theism is that the divine is unknowable by the mortal. In the theist definition of God, you’ve left yourself an out. By *definition*, you cannot explain what you’re for. So why does the atheist bear this burden?Report

            • Avatar Pat Cahalan in reply to Pat Cahalan
              Ignored
              says:

              @Pat Cahalan,

              Oh, and I have *yet* to see a theology that is consistent, coherent, and complete. Which is unsurprising, since such an animal is impossible to construct.Report

      • Avatar Francis in reply to Joe Carter
        Ignored
        says:

        @Joe Carter, JC: you write: “I’m not sure the universe can really serve that function, though”.

        Why not? No one observed the Big Bang directly; we just have mountains of evidence that it happened (like the cosmic background radiation). The universe exists; you and I exist within the universe. What more do I need?

        You can claim that something must be prior to the Big Bang. But that’s a scientific question, not a philosophical one. And on that question, the jury is very much out.

        Also, what Koz said. I manage to get through the day and various disputes about the role of religion in society without making any positive claim about what is self-existent. The atheist side simply doesn’t have these issues, no matter how much you insist we do.

        To quote you: “The core religious belief of atheism is . . . well, that’s unclear. ” Really, you honestly think that? Try this: none. None needed; none had.Report

        • Avatar Joe Carter in reply to Francis
          Ignored
          says:

          @Francis, Also, what Koz said. I manage to get through the day and various disputes about the role of religion in society without making any positive claim about what is self-existent

          Indeed, that is likely because your worldview is parasitical—it feed off theism. I suspect many of your beliefs cannot be rooted in atheism at all and are simply theistic conclusions that were smuggled in.

          I don’t mean that as an insult to to be rude. That’s just an an honest assessment based on what you’ve written so far. You seem to think that saying you don’t believe in God is sufficient. Well, it may explain what you don’t believe in but it doesn’t even get us started on what you do believe, much less whether the beliefs can be tied together in an internally coherent and consistent manner.Report

          • Avatar Pat Cahalan in reply to Joe Carter
            Ignored
            says:

            @Joe Carter,

            Explain Japanese atheists, who have rejected Buddhism or Shintoism, and have a similar ethical code to Western atheists.

            Your accusation regarding Francis may be correct. It does not, in any way, generalize.Report

          • Avatar Jeff in reply to Joe Carter
            Ignored
            says:

            @Joe Carter,

            A common argument for God’s existence, asking why atheists believe what they believe in terms of morality. In order for moral law to exist, there must be a moral law-giver, which Christians interpret to be God to the exclusion of any other sources for moral law.

            But can’t morals originate from the extinct to survive? There is safety in community, so necessarily behaviors that disrupt the community make that community less safe and therefore should be discouraged if not prohibited. Do stealing and murder promote a sense of community or do they destroy it? As the saying goes, a house divided cannot stand.Report

          • Avatar ThatPirateGuy in reply to Joe Carter
            Ignored
            says:

            @Joe Carter,
            Actually you do mean it as an insult. It is an attempt to rile up your opposition.

            The problem is that your beliefs don’t provide what you think they do. They don’t give you a morality, they don’t give you an epistemology. They give you comfort and assumptions but no good justification.Report

          • Avatar Christopher Carr in reply to Joe Carter
            Ignored
            says:

            @Joe Carter, @Jeff,
            Of course there are competing Darwinian explanations for our present-day moral codes having been essential to group cohesion and therefore group selection, and it seems to me that these are far more parsimonious than there is a magical being who appeared as a burning bush 5,000 years ago who commanded us in the form of axioms from which we then pick and choose.

            In reality, we have a LOT of evidence that religion parasitized morality, and NOT the other way around. For one, the Greek and Roman religions had no interest in morality. The Gods and heroes of those traditions are flawed and evil by almost any moral standard. Essentially there is nothing underlying the claim that morality is dependent on religion.Report

  11. Avatar Koz
    Ignored
    says:

    “In addition to his editorial role at First Things, Mr. Carter served as Director of Research and Rapid Response to the presidential campaign of noted guitar virtuoso Mike Huckabee…..”

    Say it ain’t so, Joe.Report

  12. Avatar Andy Smith
    Ignored
    says:

    PC: “A religious belief is one that requires acceptance without empirical evidence in support.”

    I think this is the most important point in the entire thread. I also find it very telling that Joe Carter or anyone else arguing on behalf of religion would attempt to refute it, argue around it, disarm it, or whatever. I think anyone truly religious would embrace it.

    For example, mystics–who may be considered religious in a sufficiently broad definition of religion–claim to experience a higher state of consciousness (divine, if you like) for which there is no empirical evidence. Yes, there are neuroscientific studies that claim to find such evidence for a higher state, but in fact they don’t. Changes in the brains of meditators don’t prove that the meditators are experiencing a higher state. Such studies suggest that meditators are doing something that affects their brains (big surprise!), but can’t have any bearing on the question of whether they are experiencing the divine. I would argue that anyone who thinks that empirical evidence for a higher state could even in principle be obtained has no experience of the higher state.

    I think one of JC’s fundamental problems is that he is trying to apply the rules that work for our ordinary existence to something that he regards as beyond that existence. This is summarized for me in his concept of religious “beliefs”. As another poster pointed out, the word “belief” has a commonly accepted meaning or meanings which simply are irrelevant to the relationship one has with the divine. One does “believe” in the divine; one experiences it. Experience of it is very definitely not a belief.

    One can believe in things for which there is no compelling empirical evidence, but for which evidence might some day be found, e.g., UFOs. One cannot believe in the divine, because there is no possibility of obtaining empirical evidence for it. Again, if JC or anyone else thinks empirical evidence for the divine is possible, then I say JC hasn’t experienced the divine.

    PC makes the same point in this way: “How do you recognize God, then? Most definitions of God require the entity to be ineffable. How can you dismiss anything that claims to be God on the grounds that you know what God is, when an essential property of God is that you, a mortal man, cannot know what God is?”

    Jaybird makes another IMO million dollar point: “If we define God as an emergent property of society…”

    If we do, then it does not obviously have to have nondependent existence. The divine could be something that evolved. JC argues against this on the basis of nondependent existence, which he contrasts with dependent existence (which would seem to apply to anything that evolved):

    “For it to be coherent, we would have to believe that everything that exists relies on its existence on something else. That means there is an infinite regress of things that rely on some other thing for its existence.”

    In the first place, I don’t find this infinite regress any less coherent than the notion that something always existed. In the second place, quantum theory suggests that what we call “nothing” is not so much a bottom or originating state as a dynamic balance involving the play of matter and energy. It seems that something can pop into existence out of nothing.Report

    • Avatar ThatPirateGuy in reply to Andy Smith
      Ignored
      says:

      @Andy Smith,

      Don’t forget that it might even be nonsense to ask what happened before the big bang since as far as we can tell there was no time before it.Report

    • Avatar Boegiboe in reply to Andy Smith
      Ignored
      says:

      @Andy Smith, quantum physics, exactly. Existence–the Universe–is a roiling waveform of inextricable interconnection.

      Realizing that all is interconnected gives a good starting point for imagining the importance of Justice, Love, Art, etc. It isn’t lazy, and it doesn’t depend on theism to do the heavy lifting of ethics and morality.

      If Joe wants to say that I must believe that “Interconnectedness” is my nondependent exister–the atheist’s divine–then proceed from there, but recognize that the words “nondependent” and “divine” have thus been divorced from any of their previous meaning.Report

    • Avatar Pat Cahalan in reply to Andy Smith
      Ignored
      says:

      @Andy Smith,

      “I think this is the most important point in the entire thread. I also find it very telling that Joe Carter or anyone else arguing on behalf of religion would attempt to refute it, argue around it, disarm it, or whatever. I think anyone truly religious would embrace it.”

      Aw, shucks, thanks Andy 🙂

      For what it’s worth, there is a legitimate case to be made that something can exist without empirical evidence of its existence. There is a legitimate case to be made that something can exist *without there ever being the possibility* of empirical evidence of its existence. I don’t believe that the human condition can transcend the universe; no matter how close we get to T=0 in describing the universe, anything that describes the limit is going to be conjecture. Thanks to the observer effect, we can never truly know the universe as an axiomatic system, the best we can do is come arbitrarily close. I don’t believe that any logical framework that you can construct to describe anything can be complete, concise, and consistent; it will always be limited by the boundaries of the axioms.

      The question of the existence of God is not expressible in terms of evidence, empirical or no. The mere concept of “Evidence” is “something” supporting a construct that is *still* based upon axioms. The existence of God or lack thereof is axiomatic. It boils down to (channeling Jack Palance): “Believe it… or Not.”

      I personally choose to believe it, although I’m not certain what it is. I choose to believe it because I find it to be an *equally* intelligible way of explaining existence to the contrary proposition, and there is an ineffable something that encourages me to pick this one. Maybe it’s cultural. Maybe it’s social. Maybe it’s a human desire for causality. I fully admit to all those possibilities. I might be choosing to believe in non-existent existences because I’m gamed to do so. But the decision isn’t intellectually any less defensible than the alternative.Report

  13. Avatar Christopher Carr
    Ignored
    says:

    Wittgenstein’s concept of family resemblance is a more appropriate superstructure for the world’s many religions than a unified belief in the “divine”, by which Mr. Carter means an existence unconstrained by time and space it seems.

    Since we have no way of veryfying or falsifying such an existence, this debate as structured by Mr. Carter can be nothing but trivial.Report

  14. Avatar MFarmer
    Ignored
    says:

    Carter has a point, in that if Brown avoids the political question, then there’s no place to go but in circles. In a world with no God, where does the justification for authority originate? In order to address estrangement, there must be guidance, wisdom, and some justified power managing the process, because it appears the Hobbesian assumption is that humans can’t solve the problem among themselves. If both of you agree that estrangement is the problem, then what are the solutions? I guess Carter is saying Christianity, so what does Brown suggest, and what is his justification?Report

  15. Avatar Chris
    Ignored
    says:

    It’s interesting that Joe brings out the “no true atheists” trope in his first post, claiming that atheism is ultimately “incoherent” (at least as much as it implies the lack of a “non-dependent reality”). Charity bids me to assume that, instead of simply dismissing his opponents’ beliefs out of hand, as it might appear to anyone who’s been around these sorts of discussions long enough, Joe has in fact solved one of the most difficult and persistent antimonies, as Kant called them (this was actually one of his antimonies of pure reason), of western philosophy, namely whether the world (universe, reality, whatever) has its origin in something non-contingent (uncaused, etc.), or is in fact eternal and without a first cause. I look forward to his description of his solution. If he is simply denying the existence of his opponents’ position, well, I guess we all know how much is likely to come from this debate.

    By the way, you know you’re in for a fruitless debate on religion when one of the debaters uses the phrase “unconditionally non-dependent” (which is sort of like saying “obesely fat”), the other doesn’t recognize the idea of “non-dependence,” which is pretty much central to Christian philosophy (it’s usually described as non-contingent these days, though, and it’s at the heart of both the ontological and one of the two major versions of the cosmological argument), and the comments begin with a debate about whether modus tollens is true (with one of the deniers of modus tollens, a lawyer no less, confusing it with “affirming the consequent”), though I guess this last bit is not surprising. Seriously, this is a mess.Report

    • Avatar Pat Cahalan in reply to Chris
      Ignored
      says:

      @Chris,

      I was not, in fact, debating whether or not modus tollens was true. I’ll have to re-read what I wrote to make sure I wasn’t being clear.

      What I was attempting to show to Joe was that the atheist argument is of the form not P implies not Q. (There is no evidence of God, therefore there is no God).

      In order for this proposition to hold true, one must accept the premise that if there was a God, there would necessarily be evidence of His existence (we can quibble over what constitutes evidence after the fact, of course). This, of course, requires an axiomatic claim.

      A lot of classical logicians reject the premise of the atheist outright because they’ve been trained all their life to look at arguments in the form of P implies Q, and the immediate objection is: lack of evidence does not prove non existence.

      But the not-P argument is still logically valid if one accepts the premise that the default assumptions are all negative, rather than positive.

      If your assumption is that nothing exists without evidence, you can still built a workable logical framework that is just as concise and coherent as a workable logical framework that assumes that something can exist without evidence.

      The problem is essentially equivalent to Hume’s problem of induction; it is the metaphysical question of what is the default approach to existence claims. It is basically the same underlying problem exposed by 20th century mathematics: you cannot make truth claims about a logical framework that are provable inside the framework, if the framework is closed and consistent.

      You can argue that you don’t find the framework compelling. You can argue that the framework doesn’t answer questions you want answered (you must then, of course, explain why your framework *does* answer the questions you want answered). But you can’t argue that the framework is incoherent, because it is.

      It just relies on different assumptions. And you can’t prove assumptions to be true.Report

      • Avatar Pat Cahalan in reply to Pat Cahalan
        Ignored
        says:

        @Pat Cahalan,

        The problem with metaphysical arguments on a blog (beer & peanuts is much better) is that you can occasionally overstep your bounds unintentionally.

        Not all atheists reject classical logic; they don’t necessarily have to do so. One other workaround to the not-P construct is to rely on classical logic structures, but have a definition of evidence that excludes the paranormal.

        Thus, the atheist can say, “I agree, lack of evidence does not disprove God. However, by my definition of evidence, there can never be evidence that would prove the existence of God.”

        The greater point, though, is that Joe seems to be operating off of a default assumption that atheists must be incoherent, because he doesn’t understand either the logic or the ontology behind atheism. The logic, or the ontology, may be perfectly valid within its own axiomatic system.Report

      • Avatar Chris in reply to Pat Cahalan
        Ignored
        says:

        @Pat Cahalan, Pat, you never made the error.
        A lot of classical logicians reject the premise of the atheist outright because they’ve been trained all their life to look at arguments in the form of P implies Q, and the immediate objection is: lack of evidence does not prove non existence.
        But the not-P argument is still logically valid if one accepts the premise that the default assumptions are all negative, rather than positive.

        None of this really follows. ~P ⊃ ~ Q works the same way, logically, as P ⊃ Q. That is, ~P ⊃ ~Q also implies that Q ⊃ ~~P (modus tollens, but doesn’t imply ~Q ⊃ P (affirming the consequent), and so on. Logicians know this, of course, and to show that any positive statement can be turned into a negative, and vice versa, is a trivial procedure. That’s why the old canard that you can’t prove a negative is obviously false, for example. You’re not really arguing against the logicians here, present or past, as you’d be hard pressed to find one who makes the argument you attribute to them.

        Evidence is really a separate matter. No evidence for a proposition does not alone imply (logically or empirically or whatever) that a proposition is false. It just means that there’s no evidence for the proposition. What’s more, evidence for a proposition does not logically imply that it is true.Report

        • Avatar Pat Cahalan in reply to Chris
          Ignored
          says:

          @Chris,

          I’ll cop to a plea of trying to use the wrong tool for the job and fall on my sword (justifiably).

          The point that I was attempting to illustrate (badly, and I hope my freshman logic teacher doesn’t come across this thread now that I re-read it) is that existence statements can be either sufficiency statements, or necessity statements. Your underlying logic may also not be bivalent.

          This, in and of itself, makes direct comparison of the two constructs rather difficult.

          I ought not to have used the tools of a bivalent logic to attempt to demonstrate a non-bivalent one. Bad thinker! No biscuit!Report

    • Avatar David Schaengold in reply to Chris
      Ignored
      says:

      @Chris,”Seriously, this is a mess.”To be fair, this is a general interest blog. Maybe people will come away from this thread with the conclusion that obviously Christianity is true because whence the evident charity of Christians otherwise, but probably not.Report

  16. Avatar Francis
    Ignored
    says:

    As it’s Friday morning Pacific time now, I’ll put my new round of thoughts here at the bottom.

    JC: The whole “I’m not being insulting but you’re just stupid/ignorant” line of argumentation is both detrimental to your cause and incredibly insulting (as it was no doubt intended). I’ll lay off the jokes about you needing a Magic Sky Fairy as your little blankie because you’re too scared and weak to stand on your own if you lay off the comments about my beliefs (or lack thereof) being parasitic on theism.

    Here’s the basic agnostic principle once again: There is no acceptable evidence for the existence of any deity. Asserting the existence of a deity for the purpose of developing a code of ethics is, therefore, useless because one can assign to this deity whatever characteristics one wants.

    History, in fact, shows us that when people try to use religion as the basis for morality things go badly wrong. As an example, slavery, the persecution of homosexuals and the subjugation of women were and are asserted to have a religious basis.

    More generally, anyone who claims to have a clear line of communication with deity is a liar. The Pope, the authors of the gospels, and all the rest who claim to know god’s will are just lying, until they can establish some scientifically credible way of showing that the message they give is something more than their own desires dressed up in a cloak of ultimate authority.

    The Bible, Christians assert, is God’s Holy Word. Prove it. Show me that the oh-so-human authors of the Bible actually had a clear line of communication to a deity and accurately recorded what he dictated. Until I get this proof, the Bible and every single other ‘divine’ text are a series of tales by people about people that some people have decided are the word of their god.

    I absolutely and utterly reject this appeal to authority as a means of resolving disputes. First, it’s false; there is no reliable evidence of any such authority and there’s even less evidence of reliable communication. Second, it’s useless; anyone can claim that they are the ones who have truly heard the deity’s will and are therefore entitled to have their way. (see, eg, General Boykin: “I knew that my God was bigger than his.”)

    One final point made upthread but worth repeating: The existence of an unconditionally non-dependent entity is a necessary axiom of all theism. Atheists reject this axiom. We do not need it. It is irrelevant to how we see the world, debate religion, and shape our morality. Theists do NOT get to insist that atheists must hold this axiom, and are therefore incoherent because we have nothing to assign to it. You get your axioms and I get mine, thanks very much.Report

  17. Avatar MFarmer
    Ignored
    says:

    It seems like Brown will have to accept Carter’s belief and Carter will have to accept Brown’s atheism in order to move forward. The historical acceptance of God-given rights, God’s will, God’s protection and guidance — all these religious beliefs are being challenged — so, if Brown says there’s no God, then what deeper foundation than Might Makes Right justifies the State and how can it solve estrangement and bring about unity, community, happiness, etc? Even democratic societies have devolved into a few ruling over the rest, so you can’t say the authority is in the people to guide their own lives — unless you reject the State. I propose that the State has replaced God, and that if Brown has a religious belief, it’s in the benevolent, liberal, intelligent State. This seems to be where the debate should lead, with a third possibility — is a State-less, God-less society possible?Report

    • Avatar Francis in reply to MFarmer
      Ignored
      says:

      @MFarmer, In a word, no. Government is the means by which we solve problems while avoiding violence.

      Taking up the Schiavo case again, there were two competing and irreconcialable claims for Terri’s body. One — let her die. Two — keep her alive. This one can’t be settled. Either one contestant concedes, or they fight over it, or they submit their claim to a third party.

      Government is the name we give to the third party. Looking around the world, it seems to me that public law — government — works a lot better than private law. It avoids vendettas.Report

      • Avatar Joe Carter in reply to Francis
        Ignored
        says:

        @Francis, One — let her die. Two — keep her alive. This one can’t be settled.

        After all these years you’d think people would finally get the message that Terri wasn’t dying. She was not in the dying process. She died because she was denied food and water.

        If anyone wants to argue that the government should have the power to starve a person to death, them make that argument. But at least recognize the basic facts of the issue. If you go int the hospital and are unable to leave and you are denied food and water it would not be a simple case of them “letting you die.” That is being killed.Report

        • Avatar Pat Cahalan in reply to Joe Carter
          Ignored
          says:

          @Joe Carter,

          Joe, I agree that Terri wasn’t dying. She was already dead, in every meaningful sense of the word. There was no Terri there.Report

          • Avatar Joe Carter in reply to Pat Cahalan
            Ignored
            says:

            @Pat Cahalan, She was already dead, in every meaningful sense of the word.

            Well, I guess if you mean she was dead in every meaningful sense of the word . . . except the literal meaning of the word (no longer living) then I guess your right. Of course if she was already dead then why did they need to kill her?

            Good grief. That is quite literally the stupidest thing I have ever read on this blog.Report

            • Avatar Pat Cahalan in reply to Joe Carter
              Ignored
              says:

              @Joe Carter,

              Kill her?

              Joe, I could have put a sandwich in front of her and she would not have eaten it. Not because she didn’t possess the motor capability to pick up the food and eat it, she wasn’t a paraplegic. Not because she was in a coma and incapable of engaging her conscious mind to activate that motor system.

              Because she had no conscious mind anymore. It was gone. It wasn’t coming back. You could have kept her on a feeding tube until the physical body expired from old age, and she was never going to regain this function. She was brain dead.

              Now, you might regard that position has morally questionable. You can argue with me about the validity of my assessment.

              But to claim that it’s just “literally the stupidest thing I have ever read on this blog” would be pretty compelling evidence, to me anyway, that anything you don’t agree with, you reject as idiocy. I may believe you’re correct, I may believe you’re incorrect, but in order for me to believe that you’re an idiot, you have to present pretty compelling evidence that you’re an idiot… as in, “incapable of cognition”.

              Not as “based upon something I don’t agree with”, but “based upon something that isn’t derivable by a sane and intelligent mind”.

              So yes, I don’t think you’re going to get anywhere. Because you cannot conceive of the possibility that you might be wrong.Report

      • Avatar MFarmer in reply to Francis
        Ignored
        says:

        @Francis,
        But, can society have a government which protects freedoms and settles disputes without a powerful State — government protecting a (s)tate of freedom? Just call it a protection and dispute resolution agency contracting to the people, but no Federal Reserve, no public education, no universities, no Freddie and Fannie, none of the other parts of a powerful State. Has this become a form of heresy, rejecting the State? It’s almost like the resistance to protestantism during the Reformation — all the pomp and circumstance and top down control would be missed by the rulers — who will they manage and exploit?Report

    • Avatar Pat Cahalan in reply to MFarmer
      Ignored
      says:

      @MFarmer,

      I suspect that we won’t be able to move forward (although the writing may be interesting to read). Joe’s already put forth enough that I think he’s going to be closed about any further examination.

      He’s right. Moreover, he must be right because everyone else is wrong. They are wrong because there exists no possibility that they are correct; his way is the only coherent way of thinking. Since they are fundamentally wrong, moreover, their observations cannot be valid; if Brown makes a point (even if Joe agrees with the conclusion), by definition Brown’s point might be correct but his underlying thesis is still wrong. Joe’s already said this: “In order for moral law to exist, there must be a moral law-giver.”

      Thus, anything that Brown comes up with is by definition immoral law. Joe has already completely gamed the system to default win, at least in his mind.

      Any moral conflict circumstance that can be linked to a problem with the State and religion? Not a problem with religion, it’s problem of man or a problem of the State. It must be a problem with man or the State, because it *cannot* be a problem with religion. Any evidence pointing to a problem with religion must be flawed.

      Any moral conflict that can be linked to a lack of religion and the State? It will be a problem *caused by a lack of religion*, because the moral conflict can *only* be approached correctly using moral law, which by Joe’s definition must come from the primal mover.

      I knew we weren’t going to go anywhere when Joe pulled out, “Well, yes, actually they do. At least if they want to be taken seriously. It’s not enough to say what you are against. You have to say what you’re for too.” He fails to recognize that ineffability completely trashes his own side by this standard; in order to be taken seriously, you must be quantifiable. Atheism is not. Theism is. The fact that theists cheat by saying, “Hm, okay, anything that’s not quantifiable? That’s because God is ineffable! Look, a closed system, I win!”Report

      • Avatar Joe Carter in reply to Pat Cahalan
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        says:

        @Pat Cahalan, You can try to poison the well all you like, but the fact remains that the atheist has to provide a positive case for why their beliefs are even coherent. You don’t seem to want to do that. You think that simply saying that atheists don’t believe in God is sufficient.

        I know that this might be hard for you to understand, but many people think that atheism is simply incoherent and internally inconsistent. If you want to persuade people otherwise, you might try actually making the case for why it is not.Report

        • Avatar Pat Cahalan in reply to Joe Carter
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          says:

          @Joe Carter,

          You can try and poison the well all you like, Joe, but the fact remains that the theist has to provide a positive case for why their beliefs are even coherent. You don’t seem to want to do that (you’ve completely ignored the problem of ineffability). You think that simply saying that theists have a coherent belief system is sufficient, when you are relying upon a belief that the system is coherent by definition.

          I know this might be hard for you to understand, but many people thing that theism is simply incoherent and internally inconsistent. If you want to persuade people otherwise, you might try actually recognizing what the limitations are in your framework.Report

      • Avatar MFarmer in reply to Pat Cahalan
        Ignored
        says:

        @Pat Cahalan,
        Pat, I’m still trying to figure out how either Christianity or atheism have anything to do with answering problems related to the State and estrangement. It appears to me that conservative/Christian statism via Burke, and progressivism/statism via Bentham, have both contributed to estrangement. That’s why I think it’s best to remove both God and State from the ordering of society, protect freedom and allow spontaneous order. The problem, to me, is not how it all started, but what has happened until now, and how we deal with estrangement going forward — central planning and social engineering, through God’s representatives or the State’s representatives, haven’t worked, so let’s try something else. I enjoy reading and thinking about religion, but I can’t argue the issues with believers because it never gets anywhere. Spirituality, for me, is a personal journey that can’t contradict reason or it just doesn’t touch me. We’re limited when it comes to absolute knowledge about first causes — no one can know for sure, but we do have history and science to guide us with what we do know. I prefer to go with the best knowledge we have so far — that seems reasonable.Report

  18. Avatar Christopher Carr
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    says:

    I wrote a response to this for my own site. Please read it if you like:

    http://www.theinductive.com/blog/2010/11/5/family-resemblance.htmlReport

  19. Avatar Jeff
    Ignored
    says:

    @Joe Carter,

    If I understand you, you’re saying atheism isn’t coherent because atheism alone can’t or doesn’t justify or cohere with an atheist’s moral belief system overall?Report

    • Avatar Joe Carter in reply to Jeff
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      says:

      @Jeff, Sort of. However, I would broaden it to include more than the ethical.

      Atheism is simply a rejection of the idea that God exists. That’s merely a negative claim (I think it makes positive assumptions, but I’ll let that slide for now). While that is wrong, I don’t think it is necessarily fatal to coherence. What happens, though, is that the atheist tends to think that with this rejection he is free to pick and choose from a grab-bag of metaphysical, epistemological, and ethical concepts.

      For example, you’ll have people claim to be hardcore materialists—matter is all that exists!—and yet turn around and claim that they have free will. They don’t seem to grasp that the two are incompatible. Why they don’t simply discard one or the other and trying to find an alternative that is compatible is a question that never fails to intrigue me. Some do, of course (e.g., eliminative materialists) but few are willing to follow their beliefs to their logical conclusions.

      My contention (and I admit that I could be wrong) is thatReport

      • Avatar Christopher Carr in reply to Joe Carter
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        says:

        @Joe Carter, This may be a naive question (naive like a fox?), but I’m curious why we have to even have to have internally consistent systems? Why can’t we just say we haven’t quite worked everything out yet instead of settling for something that has produced such obvious absurdities as organized religion?Report

      • Avatar Pat Cahalan in reply to Joe Carter
        Ignored
        says:

        @Joe Carter,

        > For example, you’ll have people claim
        > to be hardcore materialists—matter is
        > all that exists!—and yet turn around
        > and claim that they have free will.
        > They don’t seem to grasp that the
        > two are incompatible.

        This is a valid point, but just because there are people who hold incompatible beliefs that self-identify as atheists doesn’t mean that all atheists hold these incompatible beliefs.

        It also presupposes that metaphysical existence is consistent, which (although I happen to agree with it) isn’t necessarily true. The universe may be inconsistent. Magic may exist. I tend to doubt it myself.

        Finally, it is possible that exactly one unreal thing exists: thought. So we have free will, but there is no other unreal thing. I personally think this is an odd collection of beliefs, but it’s not necessarily inconsistent. There are even workable parallels in frameworks that we use every day (there’s exactly one non-functional divisor, zero, in our commonly used system of mathematics).Report

      • Avatar Jeff in reply to Joe Carter
        Ignored
        says:

        @Joe Carter,

        I’ve had to do a bit of reading to familiarize myself with some of the terms being discussed. I’m not a fan of philosophy especially when it comes to the argument life is nothing but an illusion produced by the ego and the brain, etc. etc. But maybe we are little more than fuel for the Matrix.

        My initial reaction is to say the incoherence you see is a result of differing conceptions of free will or materialismj. Like you said, I suspect many atheists, like many Christians or Muslims or whomever, probably haven’t given much thought philosophically about what they believe and thus have no real understanding of the implications of their beliefs. To point to those instances for proof atheism with a capital A is incoherent seems unsatisfactory to me. So in what other ways to you see atheism as being incoherent?Report

  20. Avatar Chris
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    says:

    While I’m not sure that most people are proper materialists (as opposed to physicalists), even proper materialism doesn’t necessarily preclude free will. Compatibilism is not an incoherent philosphical position.Report

    • Avatar Joe Carter in reply to Chris
      Ignored
      says:

      @Chris, Compatabilism may not be an incoherent philosophical position, but I don’t see how it could be compatible with materialism.

      Materalism claims that all that exist are matter and energy, and therefore the only thing that can affect them are physical laws. Unless we claim that the human will is akin to the 2nd law of thermodynamics, then I’m not sure how they can be reconciled.Report

      • Avatar Christopher Carr in reply to Joe Carter
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        says:

        @Joe Carter, surely “will” can be a relative concept?Report

        • Avatar Joe Carter in reply to Christopher Carr
          Ignored
          says:

          @Christopher Carr, Sure it can. But to my understanding the laws of physics are not relative in the same way.

          If by “will” you mean “the illusion of being able to choose even though laws that were put in place at the Big Bang are really controlling my actions” then I guess it would be compatible. But I’m not sure how you can keep the popular conception of free will and still think that everything is material/physical.

          Of course, I’m open to being persuaded otherwise. How do you think they can be reconciled?Report

          • Avatar Christopher Carr in reply to Joe Carter
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            says:

            @Joe Carter, To start, the brain is a pretty sophisticated machine, many orders of magnitude more sophisticated than anything designed or produced spontaneously by humankind.Report

            • Avatar Joe Carter in reply to Christopher Carr
              Ignored
              says:

              @Christopher Carr, However sophisticated it may be, it is still just a bunch of matter that was thrown together by the laws of chemistry and physics. Materialists can’t smuggle in concepts like teleology, design, or purpose because those don’t exist in nature and, according to them, nature (the physical realm) is all that exist.Report

            • @Christopher Carr, Materialists wouldn’t need to smuggle in teleology nor design nor purpose since the universe is spontaneously ordered. For other examples, see the price system, why we drive on the right instead of the left, manners, etc. Nobody designed these systems; they happened as a result of independent actors acting in their own interest in unpredictable yet consistent ways. Our leading physicists have determined the same process applies to particles. It follows that the universe is spontaneously ordered. Now, whether we are confusing “cause” with “mechanism” is debatable. The role of spontaneity in existence is probably not.Report

      • Avatar Chris in reply to Joe Carter
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        says:

        @Joe Carter, Joe, compatibilism is the position that materialism (or physicalism) and freedom are not incompatible. If it’s a coherent position, then compatibilism is compatible with materialism by definition. That doesn’t mean it’s true, but it’s not obviously false. Compatibilism.Report

        • Avatar Joe Carter in reply to Chris
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          says:

          @Chris, No, compatibilism is not necessarily based on materialism. The definition is merely “the thesis that free will is compatible with determinism.” I know Calvinists that are not materialists, but that are compatibilist.

          If it’s a coherent position, then compatibilism is compatible with materialism by definition.

          That doesn’t follow. Just because some forms of determinism can be compatible with free will does not mean that all forms necessarily are. For example, it may be possible for God to be sovereign and yet man to have free will. There is no inherent contradiction.

          However materialism, by definition, makes a claim about what laws affect matter. How its even possible to speak of inert matter having a “will” is beyond me. But I don’t see how it makes any sense to claim that such a will could be “free” if you mean “free from the deterministic laws of physics.”Report

          • Avatar Chris in reply to Joe Carter
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            says:

            @Joe Carter, Even if we agree that it is not based on materialism (and most, if not all contemporary compatibilism is based on physicalism at least), then the fact that there are coherent philosophical versions of compatibilism by physicalists/materialists is still undeniable. You may disagree, and may even have arguments against them (and there are several versions, so you’ll need several arguments), but it’s not a given that materialism or physicalism are incompatible with free will. This is a conclusion, not an argument.Report

      • Avatar Jason Kuznicki in reply to Joe Carter
        Ignored
        says:

        @Joe Carter,

        I think you’ve just demonstrated you don’t know what compatibilism is. Compatibilism asserts that there is a materialistic universe, but that free will of a particular sort still exists.

        David Hume was famously a compatibilist. I suggest you look into him.Report

  21. Avatar Jeff
    Ignored
    says:

    @Joe Carter

    In terms of incoherence and Christianity, I’ve talked to Christians who believe in free will and an all-knowing God despite the two concepts being incompatible.

    Let alone the incoherence of God’s omnipotence.Report

    • Avatar Kyle R. Cupp in reply to Jeff
      Ignored
      says:

      @Jeff,

      The concepts of free will and omniscience are not incompatible. Just because someone (human or divine) knows that I do something doesn’t mean I am not freely doing it. Knowledge of x does not imply causation of x.

      The claim that God knows what I will freely do in the future goes along with the claim that God knows what I will do as I do it. Because God (as is claimed) is outside of time, all events in time – past, present and future – are equally present to God. Therefore God knowing what I will do no more causes me to do it than God, or anyone else for that matter, knowing what I am doing.Report

      • Avatar Jaybird in reply to Kyle R. Cupp
        Ignored
        says:

        @Kyle R. Cupp, if it is not possible for you to do anything *BUT* X, then the possibility of doing Y is zero, no?

        An omniscient being will know that you will do X… therefore, it is not possible that you might do Y.

        You’re going to do X. Period.

        Your assumption that Y was an option is a demonstration of the limits of your noniscience.Report

      • Avatar Jeff in reply to Kyle R. Cupp
        Ignored
        says:

        @Kyle R. Cupp,

        Here’s the thing. Before God created time and space and the universe, there was only him. Time and Space and the universe did not exist independently of him but came into existence because of him, because of his will. So, the instant before God created the universe, he either knew everything that would ever happen or he didn’t. If he didn’t, then he isn’t all knowing. But if he did, then how could time and space and all our actions unfold in any other way than how God foresaw it unfolding?Report

  22. Avatar Francis
    Ignored
    says:

    Good lord. I drop off the computer for a few hours and things go crazy around here. Lessee where to go:

    Can states stay minimalist? Some have; some haven’t. The lack of emigration from the US to really minimalist states (like Yemen, I’m bored of using Somalia as an example) suggests pretty strongly that the US govt provides sufficient benefits that people would rather stay and complain than leave. But there are certainly lots of dumb laws out there; I think it’s a great idea to try to build coalitions to roll them back.

    On T Schiavo: She wanted to die. Her wish was granted. Under our constitution, the govt can administer unwanted treatment — even food and water — only in very limited circumstances. I will fight to the death to preserve this idea; no one and especially no one claiming to know god’s will gets to control how I choose to die.

    On axioms: I accept that theists hold certain beliefs as axiomatic. I disagree, but I recognize that they are held in good faith. JC appears to refuse to recognize that atheists can, in good faith, disagree with those axioms. Until he’s willing to do so, further debate seems pointless. We’re now just talking past each other.

    I think I have free will. Maybe I don’t, but I don’t see the harm in pretending, If I do, it seems to me to be far more likely that my perception of free will is an emergent property of consciousness, rather than a gift from an omniscient god. After all, if the deity really is omniscient and this is just some predetermined game he’s running for his own ineffable purpose, then this is one p*ssdd off subroutine. Did he really have to be so cruel?Report

    • Avatar MFarmer in reply to Francis
      Ignored
      says:

      @Francis,
      ” Can states stay minimalist? Some have; some haven’t. The lack of emigration from the US to really minimalist states (like Yemen, I’m bored of using Somalia as an example) suggests pretty strongly that the US govt provides sufficient benefits that people would rather stay and complain than leave. But there are certainly lots of dumb laws out there; I think it’s a great idea to try to build coalitions to roll them back.”

      Yemen? Holy shit, I thought we were at least pretending to be serious. Nozick’s minimal state is a far cry from Yemen, especially in America which is just a tad more advanced than Yemen. Yemen’s problem is not the absence of a powerful State. I still can’t let this argument just roll off me, even after reading it the 2345th time. Weeeellllll, whut about SowMaleea! Huh? Whut about that, Mr. Smartypants LiburtareeanReport

      • Avatar Francis in reply to MFarmer
        Ignored
        says:

        @MFarmer, C’mon, it’s Friday afternoon after a very aggravating week. A little charity in reading what I wrote. Yes, of course Yemen and Somalia don’t count (nor the tribal areas of northern Pakistan, nor any of the dozens of failed states out there). And yes of the industrialized states the US proably has the smallest national govt, which makes exit hard. So the track record for relatively minimal industrial states is bad. (To me, this suggests that the problem of power-hungry busybodies is universal.) But if there’s no place to go that’s better, then we should all work a little harder on improving here. (having done a little lobbying professionally, I can assure you it sucks monkey balls. The alternative is leaving the field open for the other side.)Report

  23. Avatar R.C.
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    says:

    I think Joe Carter made a P.R. error in using the term “divine” for that which is unconditionally non-dependent.

    Atheism does involve belief of the same type as exists in things popularly called “religious belief.” But to call Atheism “religious belief” even though it is of the same species of belief merely offends the Atheists, just as to call (as the Romans did) Christians “atheists” because they denied the deity of the pagan gods offended the Christians.

    Likewise, to tell a Western Atheist that he believes in the “divine” because he (as a logical necessity) believes in something unconditionally non-dependent offends his sensibilities.

    But it is a logical requirement that he believe in something unconditionally non-dependent, and even if it weren’t, he invariably does. (I’m reminded of the amusing example of Steven Hawking speaking of the universe coming into existence “from nothing” (no – thing) and then going on to explain it as a fluctuation in gravity according to the observed laws of quantum mechanics, while failing to notice that gravity and the observed laws of quantum mechanics are quite obviously “things.” These things are either themselves unconditionally non-dependent, or not; in which case they were caused by other things either unconditionally non-dependent, or not. As it is nonsensical to appeal to an infinite temporal regress, in the case of cause-effect relationships which require the passage of time, because in the event of an infinite series of prior moments, we should never have arrived at the current one; and, as it is nonsensical to appeal to an infinite simultaneous causal regress, because causes per accidens (or instrumental causes) are always and everywhere mediators for efficient causes, without which they are mediating no change at all; it follows that whether you stop with Hawking at gravity or laws of nature, or whether you add additional layers for as long as you like, you must eventually stop at an unconditionally non-dependent thing, or sacrifice the explanatory power of all the dependent things which came earlier in your causation list.

    So it’s bad P.R. (at least in dealing with atheists…”A.R.” is perhaps the correct term?) for Carter to call the unconditionally non-dependent thing in the atheist lexicon “divine” just as it would be bad “A.R.” to call it “God,” but it necessarily exists nonetheless.

    I’m not sure what term he could have used for it other than “divine,” to avoid the irritation associated with that term. Perhaps “final cause,” or would that sound to Thomist for their sensibilities? The best bet might be some acronym: UNDRESS, perhaps, for “Unconditionally Non-Dependent Really Existing Singular Source?”

    *cough*

    Sorry. Couldn’t help myself.Report

  24. Avatar R.C.
    Ignored
    says:

    Argh. I meant “too Thomist.” How I wish one could edit posts right after posting; it seems that’s always when I locate my typos.Report

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