A Counter-Response to Counter-Apologist

On the Giunta-Dillahunty Debate

CounterApologist runs a blog where he “counters Christian apologetics with logic, reason, and evidence.” He recently posted "Debate Review: Matt Dillahunty vs. Blake Giunta." This reviews my July 12th debate with Matt Dillahunty, hosted in a bar by the Bible and Beer Consortium.

I have to, of course, thank him for this nice comment:

“I happen to like Matt and I actually like when I’ve heard Blake on various atheist podcasts, like Dogma Debate. He certainly comes off far better than the majority of popular apologists I’m familiar with.”

I wrote the following post in the comments section of his blog, but after writing it out I figured the information was good enough to turn it into a blog post of my own. So, this is now more of an open letter.

Edit: CounterApologist responded, and so Part 2 below is in response to this.

Part 1

Hey CounterApologist,

Excellent thoughts! I have to say, I love your writing style and approach. This is the first series of thoughts on the debate I’ve seen so far that I’ve really looked forward to responding to.

Ontological arguments

You start by writing, >“Unlike Matt, I’m generally accepting of S5 modal logic, though since I’m not an expert on logics in general, that shouldn’t amount to much of an endorsement. From my understanding though, it’s generally accepted … Blake then gives a kind of form of the ontological argument … The biggest problem, …[is] that if it’s possible that a maximally great being does not exist, then it follows that such a being necessarily doesn’t exist.”

I share some of your worries about the ontological argument(s) you’re going after, and so I what I wanted to do in the debate was present something more modest: a “modal argument from beginnings.” This is a very new class of arguments within the past few years, and it might have been wise of me present the argument before mentioning that God is conceived of as the greatest possible being. That’s because, as I’m realizing in retrospect, doing it the way I did set people up to think I was going to make an ontological argument and they filtered it through that expectation. It really isn’t an ontological argument, though (as you note later on). The conclusion of these arguments is instead always something like: “a necessary concrete object exists,” not “therefore God exists.” This new class of arguments make use of some very clever and modest moves that non-theists find very hard to reject, and consequently they are moves I don’t think classical ontological arguments can match.

Some side thoughts

You then made two sideline comments I wanted to respond to.
(a) I’m not sure I agree that your definition of natural, as being “the necessary something is physical stuff” is especially “useful” (I’d have to inquire about why you say that).
(b) I also wonder why you think the “necessary something” is going to have a bunch of contingent qualities, so maybe you can explain that another time.

Modal Arguments from Beginnings (MAB)

Ok, so going back to the argument, your first worry is this: >“[It is] possible that the first contingent thing does not have a cause, and exists as a brute fact.”

The argument I gave can actually run even granting this. In fact, it can run even on the hypothesis that the first contingent event is brute (having no explanation). In other words, what you’re saying might be a good way to start responding to a more traditional Leibnizian Cosmological argument, but this MAB argument put forward by Rasmussen et. al. is a little more crafty and far more modest. So notice that all you need is the possibility of “a” first contingent event that is caused. Is that kind of thing like a square-circle or not? Is there something incoherent in the notion? If it’s not (i.e. if it’s genuinely possible in the metaphysical sense) then a necessary causer of said first contingent caused event is also genuinely possible. See the move there? But once we've established genuine possibility, then by S5 we can run that theorem to get to its necessity and therefore actuality. It doesn't have to be God, but we do get a necessary entity that can at least possibly have causal power.

Your second worry: >“libertarian free will, has no coherent definition”

This is a big topic, lol. I’ll go ahead and shelve it for us to discuss at another time. Technically, all I need is an indeterministic kind of free will, of which libertarian free will is a type.

Your third worry seems to collapse into the second. You’re citing Dan’s “cosmological euthyprho dilemma,” but Dan’s argument assumes libertarian free will is not possible. If indeterministic choices by agents are possible, then God’s having a reason to choose/do x does not necessitate God’s choosing/doing x. God can have competing reasons, for example, and thereby be “torn between” options and exert a non-reducible power to “just choose” (to use Balaguer’s language) between them. As I noted in this debate, fundamental entities (or can) have fundamental powers, and so I see no problem with such a fundamental power. At least, that’s the model. So I collapse the second and third worry together, and it’s really a worry about the coherence of indeterministic choices.

In your final worry, you cite a different article. I think quote is the main idea of the article you are alluding to: >“How is it that a being, who is outside of space and time, can do anything at all? It seems as though performing any particular act requires us to be within time. And creating the universe is an action.”

As Craig has noted though, we need to distinguish between:

1. Not-possibly (God is timeless & God creates the universe)
1.´ God is timeless & not-possibly (God creates the universe)

The ambiguity can be compared to this: “It is not possible for the white house to be brown.” Do we mean that the house cannot be both white and brown, or that it is not possible for the white house to become brown? I see no reason to think “being timeless” is a property God holds by necessity. So in acting, God can bring about time as one can make the house white. Remember too that there are arguments for the coherence (and even actuality) of “simultaneous causation” where no time at all is required.

The Moral Arena argument

I have to start by saying how much I appreciate you representing this so carefully. You’ve picked up well on almost all the nuances which tells me a lot about you. That’s not always easy to do!

So the first worry I detect from you is this: >“Blake has to go through the same gauntlet of possibilities of embodied agents existing even on theism.”

First, I don’t technically agree, but let’s grant it. The likelihood of each of these events (a life-permitting universe, origin of life, evolved brain-like objects, consciousness etc.) are far far higher on theism even still, right? If a moral arena is not insanely unlikely on theism, and these things are required for a moral arena, then trivially a moral arena is not insanely unlikely on theism. Recall how modest I am with this. I only asked for a 1% likelihood, and you could set it even far lower than that if you wish. But the likelihood of of a moral arena on theism surely is higher than .0001%, right? That’s plenty to run this argument. I’ve just made this part so modest that I think it’s hard to disagree with.

As a second worry, you write:
>“Blake makes some allusions to the idea that we’d need bodies in order to maximize our moral agency and development, but… God certainly doesn’t… [nor do] angels… demons”

In the case of angels and demons (if one wants to believe in such things), they allegedly can interact with each other in their own physical way. This just replaces one kind of body with another. In the case of God though, you’re right. God can do a lot of good without a body. That said, I think the point remains that even God’s “options” for doing good are vastly increased in virtue of there being in a physical world with bodies. It is this embodied community aspect I want to call attention to, and a bunch of “gods/spirits” without any bodies at all, and absent space or space/time, seems to drastically limit the moral arena into a relative nothing. Right? (It is at last seriously diminished.)

For the third worry, you write: >“game theorists have constructed models that show a form of morality will inherently develop for any kind of biological species that could remotely be considered a moral agent.”

But a couple points:
(a) I understand your post isn’t necessarily meant to be comprehensive, but I’m of course obliged to point out that this skips over every improbability except the last one (and you say something about the mind-brain one at the end). So even if you’re right here, the moral argument can still run in almost all its strength!
(b) In fact, I even said the following: given that there are moral ‘biological species that could remotely be considered a moral agent’ (which I take to be an agent with moral beliefs), the likelihood of a moral arena can be set to 100%! I'm giving that to you for free! Remember, that was the last number in the calculation. That is to say, because of how modest I made the argument, your objection here does not affect the moral arena argument at all. It would only apply if I got technical and talked about how the likelihood of a moral arena, simply given the existence of persons with moral beliefs, is actually less than 100%.

As the final worry in this section, you write: >“saying that on atheism we’d think that brains would work the same regardless of whether or not there’s a ‘mind’ there… just denying superveniance of the mind on the brain.”

If you want to adopt the relevant kind of supervenience, then you’ve just pushed the question back. Of all the things on which mental states could supervene (e.g. electron states, internet states, star-burning states), what is the epistemic likelihood that it would supervene on brain-states in particular? Why would you set the likelihood consciousness supervening on these specific brain-body states higher than the other states in the Universe? It can’t be because of any predictable psycho-physics. Instead, it’s all ad hoc. Why predict psycho-physics involving brains (or brain-like things) instead of the internet, electrons, or stars? On atheism, I don’t think you can make conscious brains predictable, simply given the knowledge that brains have evolved. If you think you have a way to get that though, I’m all ears.

Anyways, those are my thoughts for now. Thanks for taking the time to listen to the debate and comment on it.

Part 2

Awesome. Thanks for the reply! Just diving right in, I think these are some of the most important things to cover.

A necessarily existing causer gets you theism?

You write: >“Basically, by simply introducing the idea that there is a contingent thing at all, you try to make the move to theism because typically one would think that given naturalism , everything would follow necessarily from the laws of nature and a starting brute contingent fact.”

Let NBE represent the proposition that
< A necessary something exists that can have causal power >.
I wouldn’t quite try to get to theism from NBE; that’s too bold even for on overzealous apologist like me! The relevance of NBE to theism is that it was one of theism’s entailments. With NBE confirmed, theism is to some degree less risky now--there are fewer ways for it to go wrong. At least in type, confirming < NBE > is to < God exists > as confirming < aliens exist > is to < red aliens exist >. I don’t think atheism had any such entailment, but either way, this makes theism more modest than it otherwise would have been. In Bayesian terms, doing this plays an important role in boosting theism’s “intrinsic probability.”

Maybe deny that there is a first contingent thing?

You also write: >“The other option of course is to reject that there really is a first contingent thing and that everything is necessary.”

Yeah, Turri’s premise can make it sound like there has to be a first contingent thing/event in the actual world. I think our best evidence suggests there is at the Big Bang. Even if it is not, recall that I discussed four reasons for thinking the Universe (or Big Bang) is not necessary, and so could not be the necessary entity in question:

  1. The hypothesis that the Universe is necessary is too ad hoc.
  2. The hypothesis won’t be justified by reason.
  3. It is easy to conceive of the Universe failing to exist.
  4. The idea requires a lot of complexity.

I discussed the relevance of these points in the opening statement. But rather than defend this further, let me do something more fun. My original opening statement had a simplified version of Rasmussen’s original Modal Argument from Beginnings, and people said even the simplified version was too complicated. So, I settled for Turri’s super-super-simplified version. But in the original version, you don’t need a first contingent thing at all in the actual world. You just have to believe the following:

M1 < Any genuinely possible contingent event is possibly caused. > M2 < A Big Bang event in which there is an ultimate beginning of contingent things is a genuinely possible event. >

You can broaden M2 like this: M2' < A first contingent thing/event is not an impossible kind of thing. >

A first such thing exists in some possible world (to use philosopher-speak). But notice that the only kind of thing that can cause that first kind of thing/event, is a necessary thing. So if you grant M1 and M2', you grant the possibility of a necessary entity with causal powers. And if you apply that S5 theorem, it gets you a necessary entity in the actual world, which possibly has causal powers. It’s a very cool move with shockingly modest premises!

What is naturalism?

You write: >“I got my distinction of naturalism vs. supernaturalism of being one where the fundamental constituent of reality is either physical or mental from my interactions with another (and also very kind) apologist, Randal Rauser.”

Ah yes, I like this distinction. I think it traces back to Draper. What I was concerned about was the tucking away of “necessary” fundamental physical stuff into the definition of naturalism, which you had done in the original post. I don’t think Rauser does that, nor does Justin Schieber (who I suspect Rauser inherited it from). Draper does not either, as far as I’m aware.

A temporal mind?

Next, you write: >“you make the move to go from a concrete necessary object to a causally powerful mind is to say that we only know of minds to have a kind of free will that can do this. The problem is that for any conception we have of a mind, it is necessarily temporal.”

Ok, so this isn’t a problem with the move so much as it is an attempt to say the conclusion of the move must be false. But I don’t think you should say our conception of minds is “necessarily” temporal. A thing with 1st person perspective, beliefs, desires and so forth can exist at a moment without any temporal duration whatsoever, right? I see no incoherence there myself.

The existence of the physical fits better on naturalism?

You also write: >“Per Paul Draper, I do believe this is counter acted by the fact that anything physical at all exists, which is itself evidence for naturalism over theism.”

Well, let’s put in some numbers. If naturalism is defined as the physical being fundamental, then we have to ask about the intrinsic probability of naturalism. Are there any arguments from pure reason that the physical would exist? If you were a perfectly rational individual with no sense perceptions, could you predict that space-matter and physical laws would exist? How? The intrinsic probability might be akin to the intrinsic probability of a flying spaghetti monster (to the hypothetical individual). On theism, I actually think the likelihood of a physical world would be higher. There are arguments that a physical world would best realize a moral arena, and so it is very much the kind of thing God could plausibly choose to bring about. That is to say, naturalism entails the physical, but only by shifting the massive improbability to the intrinsic probability of naturalism itself. Naturalism becomes ad hoc here. Theism does not entail the physical, but the physical is not severely improbable on. So in total, theism I think does better.

But let’s say you disagree. However improbable you think the physical is on theism, it wont be as improbable as the moral arena is on atheism. Try putting your numbers in and I think you’ll see this:
Pr(Physical|Theism) = ??
Pr(Moral Arena|Naturalism) = ?? [Multiply the 8 probabilities you chose during my presentation, leaving out the Pr(Universe|Atheism).]

Would God have a body then?

You write: “[Because being embodied is so good] the greatest possible being would have to start off being embodied” Again, this is not a problem with my move, so much as you trying to take the materials of my move and construct a brand new argument against theism with them. I don’t think it follows from the great value of a community of embodied moral agents that therefore the greatest possible being would be embodied (independent of a community), nor that the greatest possible being would be a community of embodied moral agents. Lot’s to say there, but I must press on. [Side note: this is a thoughtful objection though worth responding to—you definitely have the creativity of a good philosopher!]

Can love exist without bodies?

You ask: “How does love necessitate a body, given theism?” I don’t think love necessitates a body. The idea is that, whether in fiction or reality, many of the greatest goods are best realized in the context of a physical domain. (Here I showed an image of Jesus’s carrying the cross). It is in a physical community that people can give to charities, or steal from them. They can do physical damage to them, or help heal them. I could write essays on this. In terms of expressing and growing themselves, the new possibilities are endless relative to what non-physical spirits can do, especially if those spirits are not even spatially located. Even if we limit ourselves just to love (which I didn’t do), the ways to express love in parent-child relationships, among friends at school and work, in learning medicine etc. to help others… the possibilities are exponentially increased in a moral arena. We are in the ultimate context for character realization and development, and expressive opportunity for difference-making. Listing off some of the things that spirits could still do doesn’t negate this point, I don’t think. And remember how modest the premise was. I don’t need theism to predict a moral arena. You can say the likelihood of a physical world on theism is .0001% if you want. The argument still runs with stunning success if your numbers are on atheism are significantly lower, which they should be. (Right?)

Mind-Brain Coincidence

You note: “Certainly theism is just as in need of some kind of psycho-physics, as you put it for it's theory of mind to hold up” Yes, I agree that there are psycho-physical laws. The point is that, of all the psycho-physical laws there could have been, how interesting is it that they are such that they put minds in contexts where they are in a moral arena, and only in contexts where they are in a moral arena. The likelihood on atheism strikes me as unfathomably low for the reasons explained, whereas the psycho-physical laws determining brain-bodies (of creatures in communities) to be the substrate are precisely the kind we would expect God to choose, given that God chose to create a physical world. After all, if God creates a physical world, the most likely reason is to realize some great good, and a moral arena is the most plausible of the goods God would choose to make a physical world for. (Once again, it’s at least not super unlikely on theism that God would choose to hook up minds to brains in a moral arena, rather than rocks where no moral arena is realized.) I feel that as a naturalist, you should count your being hooked up to a brain rather than an electron a phenomenally fortuitous coincidence. Notice too, I can use this argument while being a theistic physicalist about the mind, like van Inwagen.


I wrote way too much! Lol. I know you were holding back and wrapping up whereas I probably started more fires than can be handled. I apologize for that. Maybe we could have a more official “debate” sometime with word limits some time and I’ll do better. You’re of course more than welcome to respond. I might not be able to reply as quickly as I did this time, but I will eventually. Thanks again for the wonderful thoughts. It’s really a breath of fresh air compared to a lot of the objections I’ve been seeing. Keep up the great work!