Debate: Response to Joe Carter’s Extended Opening Argument

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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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19 Responses

  1. Avatar Zac says:

    Your “anarcho-technocracy” concept intrigues me. Please, tell us more.Report

  2. Avatar mark boggs says:

    Yeah, I’m a bit confused why God can exist “unconditionally and non-dependently” but the universe can’t. Can’t the universe be eternal with a constant contraction and expansion? And if I’m forced to answer how that comes about, why do theists get off the hook from answering where their “unconditional and non-dependent” entity comes from?Report

    • Avatar Francis says:

      @mark boggs, Read the prior thread if you dare. The short answer is because Mr. Carter says so. Only his axioms are acceptable.Report

      • Avatar mark boggs says:

        @Francis,
        Oh, I’ve been reading and it finally became too much for me not to vomit that thought onto the keyboard. It’s funny, there’s a guy at work who asks me questions like, “You know, if the orbit of the earth were off like three feet, the world would not be inhabitable by humans; you think that’s not engineered by some designer?” And because this guy is technically one of many bosses I have, I just shake my head like it’s all very baffling, when what I really wanna say is, “If (and a big “if” it is) that’s true than I guess we just wouldn’t exist, and with it would go the human need to feel such warm fuzzies about our existence as some special and necessary condition to the existence of the universe.”Report

  3. Avatar Steve S. says:

    “If atheism is merely a negative critique that outlines what it doesn’t believe in, then what use is it for helping us to overcome estrangement and provide reconciliation for human beings?”

    Nonsensical. Atheism is a position statement on a particular proposition. How humans should relate to one another is an unrelated question.

    “what is the substitute?”

    Nonsensical. What is the substitute for any of the infinite number of propositions one is not convinced of?

    “the atheist must necessarily have a replacement for the ontological, epistemological, and ethical framework that is being rejected when they reject theism. For the theist, these pillars are rooted in the solid metaphysical foundation provided by God. But where does the atheist gather the material for his worldview?”

    Atheists get their ontological, epistemological, and ethical worldviews from the same place as you did; social influence and personal reflection. Before we can consider your thesis that a deity is the origin of these things you might want to give us a reason to think such a thing exists in the first place.

    “For the Christian, God is the only thing that does not rely on anything else for its existence—he is self-existent.”

    Without reference to religious dogma, what reason is there to think this?Report

  4. Avatar Elvis Elvisberg says:

    “Atheism is a concept holding that the entity referred to as “God” is a human invention stemming from the haphazard metaphysical determinations of unreasonable people. I probably speak for many atheists in saying that we regard it as akin to gravity.”

    I’m not sure it need be even that much. I’d argue that atheism is merely the condition of being unpersuaded, on the basis of the evidence we have before us, that supernatural beings exist.

    Like everyone else, I am failing to understand why there is a need to hypothesize the existence of– much claim we can and have received messages from– some entity that “cannot not exist.” I do not know why we have something rather than nothing. Nor does anyone else. We have a lack of knowledge on this point; we cannot insist that philosophy compels the conclusion that Allah or Vishnu or Steve or whoever exists outside of spacetime. It’s unknown and perhaps unknowable.

    I don’t mean to argue that theism is incoherent, just that it is a choice. We should embrace that choice honestly. If I’m not mistaken, Kierkegaard stressed the subjectivity of the choice to believe in God, writing that it was bad faith to pretend that theism was compelled by some verifiable argument. If he didn’t, well, OK, I said it.

    The notion that theism carries a program is easily contradicted by experience. Theists have, for all of history, had serious disagreements, up to and including murder of rival theists, because these views are deeply held and completely unverifiable. Steve S. is correct above when he writes that all humans get their beliefs from “social influence and personal reflection.” Were it otherwise, then the racism and sexism and homophobia of roughly every single Christian who lived for the first 1800 or so years after Christ’s death would not seem so foreign to us.Report

  5. Avatar Tony S. says:

    Steve S. writes: “Before we can consider your thesis that a deity is the origin of these things you might want to give us a reason to think such a thing exists in the first place.”

    Is that really the first thing that has to be proved in the context of a debate about Christianity, atheism, and God? It seems to me that the debate is not about the existence of God, but about the conditions for the possibility of civilization and about the conditions that need to prevail in order for a certain civilization to sustain itself. Carter’s argument seems to be that what we call civilization and culture — even if we only treat them as the root of our current “social influences” — could not have begun or lasted without the divine (irrespective of whether the divinity is something “real” or “empirically demonstrable” or not). What is at issue in any current discussion of that question is whether the original experience (whether it was an empirical experience or not) of the “cosmos that includes both gods and men” is still (or should still be) relevant to human action (e.g. should we treat myth as anything more than old, discredited stories?) — or whether it should simply be understood as a necessary moment in the progression of evolutionary psychology. Carter is saying that the divine is still relevant and even necessary. Mr. Brown, I presume, will be saying no.

    But the real question is this: what does the word “reasonable” mean in the context of this debate and what does that have to do with civilization? No doubt some atheists believe that the “unreasonableness” of belief endangers the kind of technological progress that must, in the absence of an after-life, be the “cosmic” pursuit of men – a progress which would eventually dissolve the need for particular cultures and civilizations. But the believer is not, therefore, unreasonable to believe that belief has been, in some sense, good or successful for the sustenance of humanity. Even for Marx, the opium is historically necessary. And then, once religious belief is world-historically denounced as opium, the void of consciousness must be filled with something else. And that something else, Carter would argue, can never be the collections of empirical observations that give the individual atheist, so he says, his picture of the world. The “something else” will always be the remnant of a world in which the divine was–whether “really” or not–operative.Report

  6. Avatar Steve S. says:

    Tony S. “Is that really the first thing that has to be proved in the context of a debate about Christianity, atheism, and God?”

    Really, it’s the only thing that requires evidence (I dislike “proved”) in the context of a debate involving atheism. Whether beliefs in “divinity” are culturally universal or necessary or part of an evolutionary process are entirely separate questions. Mr. Carter can make arguments to that end all he wants, but to me they are irrelevant to whether I will all of a sudden start believing in deities.

    This line of argumentation against atheism seems to come up frequently, colloquially paraphrased as “if you don’t believe in God what do you believe in?” Well, who cares? Atheism qua atheism isn’t about anything other than god-beliefs. If you have a reason to think a deity exists present it, if not go away. These other questions are nonsensical in a debate about atheism qua atheism. If you want to argue that religious beliefs are inevitable or necessary go ahead, but leave atheism out of it.

    “No doubt some atheists believe that the “unreasonableness” of belief endangers the kind of technological progress that must, in the absence of an after-life, be the ‘cosmic’ pursuit of men”

    No doubt some atheists think this. If they do it is in addition to their base atheism. Myself, I don’t “believe” this.Report

    • Avatar Tony S. says:

      @Steve S., My point is that the repetition of “nonsensical” does not address the kind of “substitute” that Carter is talking about or even the third term of the debate in general, which is “the state.” That’s what I’m trying to get at in my second paragraph above.

      “Nonsensical” is true insofar as the individual, analytic atheist is concerned, but untrue insofar as history, culture, and civilization are concerned. In other words, the debate is not about the verifiability of, or empirical justification for, particular propositions about the existence of God. The debate is about whether the culture in which propositional “proofs of the existence of God” have currency is fundamentally better than the culture in which they are, as Mr. Kuznicki correctly points out elsewhere, almost totally unpersuasive. And about whether the “empirical” and the “propositional” are sufficient grounds for culture and civilization. There is, therefore, a “sense” to Carter’s questions that is broader in its effect and historical reality than the “sense” of empirically verifiable propositions or than the individual assent to the same.

      Carter is assuming that responses like “nonsensical” or “unreasonable” necessarily require the destruction of “ancient man’s pre-commitment to hierophany”, a pre-commitment which resonates faintly in the articulation of metaphysical “proofs.” The atheist is not just making claims about the Christian religion, but about the ancients as well. He calls all thinking about the divine “unreasonable” and “nonsensical” yet he is still constrained to describe his theories of action in terms that belong, in some sense, to the divine. There is content and sense even to atheism as “mere” critique. I quote from the link at the beginning of this paragraph:

      A.) The Ethical Hierophany of the Ancients.

      In the throes of ancient piety, an ethical dimension was inextricable from hierophany. In other words, the divinities were not a landscape which some diviners had the luxury to gaze upon. Nor were they in some perhaps more mysterious way removed from their witnesses. They were rather the homeland itself, in the sense that they arose from and coyly inhabited the habitual haunts, the familiar ways and by-ways of the people, the ????. Such an inhabiting made itself known in and as the ????; the gods flashed in the sense of demanding prayer, sacrifice, and even housing (whether housing in myth under the roof of the mouth, or in the sacred precinct under the roof of the temple). In this way the pre-commitment of ancient piety necessarily entailed an ethical obedience which was itself entirely pre-reflective and unamenable to later conceptual elucidation. It was obeyed without being decided on or ‘cognitively’ known. It is important to recognize that on account of this ethical intimacy, even a man who was ‘impious’ was not a man who denied the pre-givenness of the gods, but a man who wished to supercede or resist their interventions or aims.

      Report

      • Avatar Tony S. says:

        I forgot to take the Greek characters out of the above quotation – the ???? above obscures the Greek for “ethos.”Report

      • Avatar Steve S. says:

        “‘Nonsensical’ is true insofar as the individual, analytic atheist is concerned, but untrue insofar as history, culture, and civilization are concerned.”

        I don’t know what this means. History, culture, and civilization are what they are, atheism qua atheism is something else.

        “The debate is about whether the culture in which propositional ‘proofs of the existence of God’ have currency is fundamentally better than the culture in which they are, as Mr. Kuznicki correctly points out elsewhere, almost totally unpersuasive. And about whether the ’empirical’ and the ‘propositional’ are sufficient grounds for culture and civilization. ”

        One can have that debate if one chooses, though it is unrelated to atheism qua atheism.

        “Carter is assuming that responses like ‘nonsensical’ or ‘unreasonable’ necessarily require the destruction of ‘ancient man’s pre-commitment to hierophany’”

        I fail to see how long deceased individuals will be put off by my personal worldview. If what Carter really means is that his own pre-commitment to hierophany is dealt a blow by my own personal worldview he needs to get a grip.

        “The atheist is not just making claims about the Christian religion, but about the ancients as well.”

        The atheist qua atheist is not making claims about Christianity, the ancients, or anything else, he/she is making a statement about a personal worldview. Mr. Carter should worry less about the hurt feelings of dead people and more about getting his definitions correct.Report

    • Avatar Tony S. says:

      @Steve S., My point is that the repetition of “nonsensical” does not address the kind of “substitute” that Carter is talking about or even the third term of the debate in general, which is “the state.” That’s what I’m trying to get at in my second paragraph above.

      “Nonsensical” is true insofar as the individual, analytic atheist is concerned, but untrue insofar as history, culture, and civilization are concerned. In other words, the debate is not about the verifiability of, or empirical justification for, particular propositions about the existence of God. The debate is about whether the culture in which propositional “proofs of the existence of God” have currency is fundamentally better than the culture in which they are, as Mr. Kuznicki correctly points out elsewhere, almost totally unpersuasive. And about whether the “empirical” and the “propositional” are sufficient grounds for culture and civilization. There is, therefore, a “sense” to Carter’s questions that is broader in its effect and historical reality than the “sense” of empirically verifiable propositions or than the individual assent to the same.

      Carter is assuming that responses like “nonsensical” or “unreasonable” necessarily require the destruction of “ancient man’s pre-commitment to hierophany” [http://seynsgeschichte.blogspot.com/2010/02/piety-at-heart-of-technology.html], a pre-commitment which resonates faintly in the articulation of metaphysical “proofs.” The atheist is not just making claims about the Christian religion, but about the ancients as well. He calls all thinking about the divine “unreasonable” and “nonsensical” yet he is still constrained to describe his theories of action in terms that belong, in some sense, to the divine. There is content and sense even to atheism as “mere” critique. I quote from the link at the beginning of this paragraph:

      A.) The Ethical Hierophany of the Ancients.

      In the throes of ancient piety, an ethical dimension was inextricable from hierophany. In other words, the divinities were not a landscape which some diviners had the luxury to gaze upon. Nor were they in some perhaps more mysterious way removed from their witnesses. They were rather the homeland itself, in the sense that they arose from and coyly inhabited the habitual haunts, the familiar ways and by-ways of the people, the ethos. Such an inhabiting made itself known in and as the ethos; the gods flashed in the sense of demanding prayer, sacrifice, and even housing (whether housing in myth under the roof of the mouth, or in the sacred precinct under the roof of the temple). In this way the pre-commitment of ancient piety necessarily entailed an ethical obedience which was itself entirely pre-reflective and unamenable to later conceptual elucidation. It was obeyed without being decided on or ‘cognitively’ known. It is important to recognize that on account of this ethical intimacy, even a man who was ‘impious’ was not a man who denied the pre-givenness of the gods, but a man who wished to supercede or resist their interventions or aims.

      Report

  7. Avatar Argon says:

    I think the problem for Joe is first that he is attributing far more power to theistic ‘moral frameworks’ than can be reasonably done. Garbage in leads to garbage out. That one can’t propose an absolute alternative doesn’t mean that theistic alternatives are better. Those are separate subjects: “Better”, as Joe uses the term here indicates nothing about the truth of his beliefs.

    Second, Joe doesn’t appear capable of conceiving the non-existence of a God even hypothetically for the sake of argument. Thus his assumptions about what atheism ‘is’ runs far wide of the mark.Report

    • Avatar Tony S. says:

      @Argon, “Better” was probably the wrong word to use and I don’t want to put words in Joe’s mouth (sorry for the double post above by the way). “More properly human” would have been better. However, the power that is attributed to moral frameworks is not best considered when we think about how they affect or motivate us now. It might be better to use Charles Taylor’s terms (see William Brafford’s post) : is there a non-onto-theological framework that grounds the future of the “buffered identity,” i.e., the identity that is “impervious to the influence of outside (spiritual) forces?” What motivates man when the “buffered identity” is his fundamental characteristic?

      Secondly, I don’t know that the use of “hypotheticals” are all that useful in an argument that is also concerned with history. This isn’t really about “proof” or empirical demonstration, is it? The “Flying Spaghetti Monster” or what one commenter at First Things called the “ambulatory land squid hypothesis” utterly ignores the role that the divine has played throughout history — and ignores what the non-buffered identity experiences as divine. I don’t know. It’s possible I’m misunderstanding the debate. When we look at Brafford’s quote from Charles Taylor, I think it describes what the atheist, as debater, must accomplish when the state is part of the debate:

      Now an utter absence of purpose can be experienced as a terrible loss, as the most dire threat leveled at us by the disenchanted world. But it can also be seen in the other positive perspective, that of
      invulnerability. In such a universe, nothing is demanded of us; we have no destiny which we are called on to achieve, on pain of damnation, or divine retribution, or some terminal discord with ourselves . . .

      Modern materialism takes up this legacy, but gives it the characteristically modern activist twist: in this purposeless universe, we decide what goals to pursue. Or else we find them in the depths, our depths, that is, something we can recognize as coming from deep within us. In either case, it is we who determine the order of human things–and who can thus discover in ourselves the motivation, and the capacity, to build the order of freedom and mutual benefit, in the teeth of an indifferent and even hostile universe.

      Report

  8. Avatar R.C. says:

    The argument is correct, though.

    There must be, or at least have been, something that exists (existed) non-contingently. (And if non-contingency exists through time, then it still exists.)

    Otherwise nothing would exist now, for lack of causation. If everything is matter and energy and laws of physics caused by other matter and energy and laws of physics, then there is or was some matter or energy or laws of physics which simply pre-existed and caused all the other to begin to exist.

    It’s confusing to call whatever is first cause “divinity” (as Joe Carter’s opening argument appears to do) if one holds it non-personal. So don’t. But buy the concept, because it’s logically required, whether it’s a Personal God or an Eternal Multiverse or the Flying Spaghetti Monster. (Maybe Joe Carter should ecumenically have used the term pastinity?)

    One other concern: I don’t think saying “I haven’t seen enough universes in my time…” is terribly helpful, as a refutation of the idea that there must be something that “cannot not exist.”

    The issue is that if something does not exist, it cannot, itself, do anything to bring itself into existence because it is not, yet…and nothingness doesn’t bring anything into existence. (I mean real nothingness, not a vacuum within space-time which has its own distinctive properties and laws and is roiling with cosmic foam.)

    If something cannot bring itself into existence when it does not yet exist, then the fact that it ever came into existence can only be explained by something else causing it to come into existence. This is as true of individual quanta (brought into existence by some law described in the Standard Model) as of babies (brought into existence by…well, if you’re old enough to read this blog, yet still need that explained, I can’t really help you).

    But if everything were contingent, for its existence, on some other thing bringing it into existence, then something must exist at all places and times (and perhaps outside of, before, and after the existence of the very contingent thing we call Time), in order to bring contingent things into existence. This thing cannot itself be contingent because there is nothing else (save some other non-contingent thing) to bring it into existence. But if it is not contingent, then it would have to have existed everywhere and everywhen, since as it didn’t rely on an exterior reason for existing, it could not have come into existence at a particular place or time. (If it did, you’d have to ask, “Why then and there, and not some other time and place?” and if that question could be answered in any way at all, you’d have just proven the thing’s existence to have been contingent after all.)

    So it’s just good philosophy — good in the sense of refusing to leave open or be agnostic about options which have already been demonstrated to be self-refuting or nonsensical — to say that something exists which has always existed, and which is not dependent on anything else for existence, and that this non-dependence is unconditional in the sense that it’s not kinda-sorta non-dependent, but really and entirely non-dependent.

    Again, could be The Multiverse. Could be the God whose Personhood is so three-dimensionally solid as to be described in Trinitarian Terms. Could be FSM’s leftmost noodly appendage, with all the other noodles proceeding from the leftmost noodle and the meatballs in an endless spiration of pasta.

    Whatever. But it’s something.Report

    • Avatar Argon says:

      I wonder how causality applies before time existed.Report

    • Avatar ThatPirateGuy says:

      Can you clarify why the first non contingent thing must still exist?

      Is it something to do with time? Otherwise I see no reason why something couldn’t cause that thing to stop existing after it kicked off the whole contingency process.Report

      • Avatar R.C. says:

        Good question, “ThatPirateGuy.”

        The logical arguments I have seen on this topic go farther than the topic of mere non-contingency, arguing that the non-contingent thing is also non-temporal; that is, residing outside our space and time.

        The reasons for this are sufficiently deep and complicated that (it now being 1:18 AM where I am) I don’t want to go looking them up just now to relate them all. But a dumbed-down summary version would be something like: If a thing exists in time, then it exists under the influence of something (namely, Time) which is itself contingent. Time is shown to be contingent because it apparently has a beginning (the Big Bang) and a direction (as indicated by entropy, “time’s arrow”) and quite likely will have an end.

        But if existence of Thing X is entirely confined within a contingent thing (Time), then it seems that Thing X itself must also be contingent, and cannot itself be the non-contingent thing which is the ultimate cause of all contingent things, including Time and Space and Matter and Energy and the Fundamental Forces.

        Therefore the first non-contingent thing cannot be within (bounded by) Time, but rather must be outside Time.

        But in that case the non-contingent thing could not have a beginning or an end…at least, not one measurable by our universe’s timeline. And since the same problem would exist on a grander scale if we were measuring by any other universe’s timeline, it follows that the non-contingent thing could not have a beginning or an end in the timeline of any Time-Space universe, either ours, or any other parallel universe. It cannot have a beginning or an end at all, for these would have to be measured as occurring at some point in a timeline, either ours or some other universe’s…but then that would cause the thing to be wholly contained in a contingent thing (Time) and thus, not the first non-contingent thing after all.

        So the first non-contingent thing must still exist, because it can’t logically either begin or end or be confined by any timeline in any way.

        Now if this non-contingent thing happens to be Conscious or Personal, then it would be something like God as described by Judeo-Christian Theists. If our line of Time is like a line drawn on a piece of paper, this non-contingent thing would be either the piece of paper, or the table the paper is on, or the pencil the line is drawn with, or — to get really Theistic — the Person drawing the line.

        And in that case, this personal non-contingent thing would have the ability to “look” at all the points of the timeline simultaneously. To it — to Him — all times would appear to be “Now.” God would be simultaneously experiencing all the events at every point in space and at every moment in time, in one big cosmic Now. (There’s no reason to think this creates problems for the notion of free will. I can watch you make a decision without forcing you to make it one way or the other. God, in this scenario, could watch you be born, watch you making every decision of your life, and watch you die, and watch your first ancestor being born, and your last descendant die, all at once, and all while maintaining a pure-observer status.)

        On the other hand, if the non-contingent thing upon which all else is contingent is not Personal or Conscious or anything like that, then it still must have some property which causes it to necessarily, of its own, create universes such as ours, thus explaining why it should have — one struggles not to use the term “created” — served to produce our very contingent universe, along with its contingent properties such as space, time, matter, energy, gravity, electromagnetism, nuclear forces, and such.

        Anyway, if the arguments showing that the non-contingent thing is non-temporal happen to be correct (and I think they are) then the non-contingent thing is not the “first” non-contingent thing, but the only, the sole non-contingent thing. How could there be any distinction between it, and some other non-contingent thing? They could not exist at different periods of Time, not being in Time. They could not exist at different positions in Space, as they are not in Space. They could not have any properties other than what they must have, for if two non-contingent things had different properties, one would have to ask “why,” which would give the game away: If there is a reason why the thing could be one way, or could be another, then whatever made it one way but not the other exerted causation on it…proving it to be contingent.

        In the end, the non-contingent thing is necessary, but whatever its properties are, they are what they must be…which means there’s no way one non-contingent thing could be different from another non-contingent thing in anyway, including where and when and what it is. There is no meaning, then, to the notion of having two “different” non-contingent things. It’s like the Highlander movie said: “There can only be one.”

        Thomists and Aristotelians put it this way: The non-contingent thing, upon which all else is contingent, is something whose very nature is, and always is, exactly what it must be, and the most fundamental thing about that nature of the non-contingent thing is pure existence: The fact that the thing unadulteratedly IS.

        The essence of the thing is that it non-contingently exists, even if nothing else does; and if they do, they only exist because it does. The essence of the thing is existence. If it is non-conscious, then the most fundamental thing we can say about it is that it IS existence, or at least the source of all existence. And if it is conscious, then the most fundamental thing it could say about itself is: “I am.”

        (Whether it chose to say that with, or without, being accompanied by a burning bush is mere stagecraft! So I guess we’ll leave such questions to the props-master.)Report