The Two “How’s” – On Multiple Causality


“So, when a ship has overcome the dangers of the sea, although the result be accomplished by great labor on the part of the sailors, and by the aid of all the art of navigation, and by the zeal and carefulness of the pilot, and by the favoring influence of the breezes, and the careful observation of the signs of the stars, no one in his sound senses would ascribe the safety of the vessel, when, after being tossed by the waves, and wearied by the billows, it has at last reached the harbor in safety, to anything else than to the mercy of God. Not even the sailors or pilot venture to say, I have saved the ship, but they refer all to the mercy of God; not that they feel that they have contributed no skill or labor to save the ship, but because they know that while they contributed the labor, the safety of the vessel was ensured by God.” – Origen, De Pricipiis, 3.1.18

One of the many criticisms laid at the doorstep of theists is that we attribute to God that which seems to be easily accounted for by natural factors. A person suffering from a great illness recovers after consulting a physician and undergoing the physician’s recommended treatments. A husband safely navigates icy roads to come home to his concerned wife. A student, after long hours of study, finally passes the last exam and wins for herself degree and title.

If the patient, man, and woman are theists and devout, they will thank God for the outcome.

This seems like foolishness to those who believe firmly that we live in a world of simple efficient causality. In a mechanistic universe where no room for freedom exists, no room for multiple causality can exist. But the Christian, Muslim, Jew, Hindu, or any other religious person, need not hold to a purely mechanistic universe. And, even if we did, the causation of God’s intent would still by no means be ruled out.

Let us put aside the question of mechanistic/non-mechanistic universes and consider a thought experiment with regard to causation.  We will see if we cannot get at what theists mean when they attribute to God some good event.

Imagine a man walking down a mountain path, hurrying to bring medicine to his daughter which he has acquired in a nearby village. The man is suddenly set upon by a mountain lion, and prays to God for help. In what seems a miraculous event, a fall of rocks at that moment crushes the mountain lion, allowing the man to pass by safely and rescue his child’s life. And so begins the story of a young woman who grows up to save her nation from poverty, despair, and invasion.

In a mechanistic appraisal of these events, we might say that the events could not have happened any other way. What appears to us as a shocking and favorable coincidence is, indeed, just one of the many patterns that emerges from the complex interaction of the factors of the universe. Those rocks would have fallen at that moment whether the man’s prayer had happened or not. Perhaps they would have fallen even if the man and mountain lion had not been there. Perhaps the motions or weight or sound of the mountain lion shook them free. Indeed, we could trace the physical causes of those rocks, that lion, and that man back through billions of years of determined causality to the moment of the Big Bang and say that the “why” of that moment was the exact formation of the energy and matter that first expanded in that principal moment.

Yet, we may see the events in another way. The “how” of the rocks falling and killing the mountain lion is also that I, the story teller, have made it happen. I have told the story, not putting the Big Bang first and leading up as a result of its form and matter to the inevitable encounter between man and mountain lion. Instead, the man’s experience, or the daughter’s life of heroism, are the center of the story. The story goes outward from there, and we follow it back to give it context and history. The “how” on this level of the events is my will and act of creating the story. It need not “begin at the beginning” if by “beginning” we mean the first chronological event.

Both “how’s” can exist together, simultaneously, but the mechanistic “how” exists due to the “will and act” how. This leaves out entirely the question of “why.” The why is also my will, but perhaps then it is my will that the young woman should save her country, or that the man should save his daughter, or that the wife of the man might not be widowed. In each case, though, the efficient causes are human efforts, or natural events.  Each person would be right in saying that, though they did their part, the accomplishment of their goal was given by the author of the story.

Benedick and Beatrice spar their way toward each other, but it is the Bard that is to be thanked for their marriage. Frodo may put in the very last of his strength to climb Mount Doom, but it is Tolkien who has ensured that the task is complete.

That we live in a story and not an accident of random events is a matter of perspective. One cannot demand scientific proof that we are in a story any more than Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy might. There is no experiment to run to tell us if we are in a narrative prepared with vast cosmic backdrop for our little lives of love, hatred, jealousies, nobilities, defeats and victories. One either considers the many elements and recognizes the master hand of the master storyteller, or one does not.

But it is clear that it is not contradiction or foolishness when, as the much maligned giant of Christian thought, the second and third century theologian, Origen, relates the situation of sailors above. For it is rooted deeply in the mystery of St. Paul’s teaching, “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who works in you both to will and to do for His good pleasure.” (Phil 2:12-13).

It is in the will of God that Christians identify their salvation in both mundane and spiritual things. This is not merely theologizing, for the idea itself is contained in the scriptures. For St. Paul speaks from the Areopagus speaking of God as the one “In [whom] we live and move and have our being.” (Acts 17:28).

I bring this last point up because some people who have not read much from the ancient world have an assumption that many of Christianity’s arguments are newly minted to defend an old system. But the argument for mechanism/fate is older than Christianity. The Stoics, as best I understand them, held a fatalistic view of a mechanistic universe. Origen, quoted above, lived at the end of the second century into the third century.

The debate is an ancient one, one that Christianity has been very active in from the beginning. And from the beginning we have maintained a very clear idea of (at least) two “how’s” of causality.




Can God Make a Rock?

We are often presented with “unanswerable” questions by those who find the idea of God to be either ridiculous or self-contradictory. One aspect or another of the divine fullness is attacked by those who question every minute of every hour. Many of us, who believe that God is the God of traditional Christian expression, have had the question put to us “Can God Make a Rock that God can’t lift?” This post is a short exercise in answering this very question from a number of different theological perspectives. The first approaches the logic of the proposed situation, the second approaches the logic of the question itself, and the third approaches it from a specifically Christian perspective.

1. The Logic of the Proposed Situation

The question is aimed at attacking the omnipotence of God, or even the concept of omnipotence itself. The general idea is that because there are conflicting and mutually exclusive potential realities that an omnipotent God cannot exist, because both alternatives cannot logically be accomplished. Thus, the question asks whether it is possible for God to create a rock that omnipotence cannot lift. If the creation of the rock cannot be done, then God is not omnipotent. If the rock cannot be lifted, the same outcome results.

The question assumes a model of omnipotence that no theologian that I am aware of holds or has ever held in the Christian faith (though I did once meet a pastor who thought this way). The most famous statement on this is from the Summa Theologiae of St. Thomas Aquinas, who states “whatever implies contradiction does not come within the scope of divine omnipotence, because it cannot have the aspect of possibility.” (Summa Theolog. I Q25, 3). Thus, whenever Christians say that God is all powerful, we mean specifically that all intrinsically possible things are within God’s power. Thus, God cannot make a square a circle and also leave it a square. It is possible for a square to become a circle, but it is not possible for it to also remain a square during or after the change.

Now that fact has major ramifications for many questions of Christian theology. For those who hold merely to forensic justification or imputed righteousness, one must ask how a person can be saved, i.e. have the life of God, and be in the very likeness of God, while remaining what they were beforehand. These models seem to propose that God can make a circle into a square and leave it still a circle after the fact. Such a thing is impossible, even for a God for whom all things are impossible.

Thus the question of the rock and God’s power, proposes a logically contradictory situation. God cannot create a rock that God cannot lift, not because it is a possibility that there can be rocks that omnipotence cannot lift, but because it is a sheer impossibility. A rock, being a rock, must have weight, even if it is by some miracle of physics, infinite weight. Omnipotence can easily create enough force to move the rock. The logical contradiction is if Omnipotence could not move the rock, for then it would not be omnipotence. Thus we are left with a situation in which God can create a rock of any size, but the fact that it could not be lifted by omnipotence is itself a logical contradiction, and as we have seen, nothing that implies contradiction falls under the omnipotence of God…or any omnipotence for that matter.

Now, if this means that omnipotence is impossible, in the sense that many of our detractors imagine it, then we must agree, and have always agreed. Omnipotence which implies the ability to do logically contradictory things has never been, to my knowledge, put forward as an attribute of God by any reputable theologian in the entire history of the Church. So, we may agree with our detractors in deriding this particular version of omnipotence. Thank goodness we’ve never actually proposed it.

2. The Logic of the Question

The question itself is structured in a way that most people do not notice. It essentially forms a double negative, and thus condemns God, not for a lack of power, but for actually being omnipotent. I found this answer while reading Gregory of Nazianzus’ Orations, but the answer is so obvious that I’m embarrassed that I did not see it myself immediately.

On the surface, the question proposes two powers that God may have. The first is the ability to create rocks of any size or weight. The second is the power to not lift a rock over a certain size. Immediately the problem comes out at once. The second is not a power at all, not an ability that God can have. The first is the ability to create rocks of any size at all. The second, however, is not an addition to power, but a subtraction of it.

To say that God lacks the ability to not be able to move certain sizes of rock is simply a very complicated way of saying God can move any rock. The fact that God can move rocks is a power, the ability to find a rock, or even to create a rock, that God can’t move, is not an addition to God’s power, but a subtraction from it. The trick to the question it that it shrouds the proposed lack of God’s power as if it were an addition to it. This would be like proposing the idea that I am a poor writer because I cannot write a sentence that I cannot read. (One need not resort, incidentally, to such complicated means to argue for the weaknesses in my writing). If I were a great writer, I could write any sentence. But I must not be a very good one, if there are sentences from my own hand that I cannot read. This is, of course, nonsense.

3. The Christian Response

This will not be a “Christian” Response in the manner that it will attempt to be nice. Christians should in fact be nice, as far as that goes, but they should also be as accurate as possible, and as faithful to the truth as possible. This answer is Christian, in the sense that it comes only from a Christian perspective. The first two answers could be given by anyone of any faith with a little logic behind them. This, however, turns on that most peculiar of Christian doctrines, the Incarnation.

For, it is true that God has made many stones that God cannot lift. One might guess that any stone much over a hundred and fifty pounds would be too much for the God of the Universe. For we, as Christians, believe that God emptied Godself in the act of becoming human, and dwelling among us. God, with human hands and feet, could not lift the vast majority of stones in the world. The body of a carpenter or stonecutter is strong, and Jesus of Nazareth could almost certainly bench more than I can. But the range of human strength is quite limited. Human beings are small things when it comes to the vast weight of many stones. And this Jesus, though God of the universe, was also a man.

And thus the answer particularly from Christianity is, yes. God can, and has, made many stones that God cannot lift. And this too is no detraction from His power. For the God of all creation to empty Himself, a process called Kenosis, is a vast and mighty miracle. To bridge the gap from that which is not created, God the Trinity, to that which is, the universe, and that particular bit we call Earth, is a miracle that even dwarfs the creation of the Universe itself. So mighty is God that God can walk with human feet, and hold things with human hands. But then, those hands can only hold so much.

Of course, we remember as well that Christ knew very well about humanity’s rock problems. So he offered us the power to move them, to become like Him, and to be able, through faith to move mountains. (Mt 17:20)

So ultimately, the question is not, “Can God make a rock so big that he cannot move it?” The question is “Can God make a rock so big, that those made to share God’s own nature cannot move it?” And the answer, thanks be to God, is no.

Ethics Without Teeth

Mr. Zindler has written a post that outlines why Atheism can in fact have ethics without divine fiat (found here:  The question has been addressed by numerous people, but bears some reexamination.  Mr. Zindler’s article can be broken down into a number of simple and worthwhile points.  I will address a number of these together immediately after, and then go on to some particular responses, following that.

1.  The ancient Greeks and Romans had ethics without divine fiat, especially some well known figures such as Aristotle and Marcus Aurelius.  These ethics were very serviceable at that time, though they would perhaps not be today.

2.  Religious people do not actually act good because they fear hell or hope for heaven.

3.  Our psychological makeup, formed by evolution, wishes to be surrounded by happiness, and thus drives us to make the people around us happy.  We are by nature, tuned to care for each other so that we ourselves will be happy.

4.  Altruism, or some form of it, is demonstrated by our near relatives in the animal world.  Heroism, is older than religion, and thus needs no foundation in religion.

5. Religious moral codes are stuck in previous times and places, and have not changed with the times.  Ethics are to be planted on the ground of scientific self-knowledge, and thus must change as our knowledge of science changes.

6.  Gods are not solid grounds of ethics anyway.  Either they decree whatever they will, and thus goodness is arbitrary, or they recognize universal truths outside of themselves, and then what do we need them for?

7.  Practice of Enlightened Self-Interest is the best way to gain prolonged happiness.

8.  Ethics is not a list of do’s and don’ts, but the practice of predicting outcomes and acting in the way that brings the most prolonged happiness to oneself.  Because we are social creatures, hard wired to find the most happiness when others around us are happy, then we would do best to keep as many other people as happy as possible to prolong our own happiness.

Each of these points is excellently made by Mr. Zindler.  However, the central theological question for Atheists is not, “can you have ethics without a God,” but “can your ethics have an imperative ground without a god?”  We may set up whatever rules for ourselves we like, but when push comes to shove, why should I do this or that?  For morality and ethics are the sciences of “should” and “should not.”  A man should not secretly murder a homeless man on the street, even if there is no chance of his getting caught, and every chance that the man’s death might make everyone on the street happier.  But by Mr. Zindler’s showing, there is no good evolutionary reason not to kill such a man, except that I should not do it too often and risk capture or reprisal.

In fact, the whole upshot of Mr. Zindler’s ethics is “if you do blatantly bad things too often, people will kill you.”  Yes, unless you are the strongest person in the room, or the one with the biggest weapons, or the one who has decided to make the other biggest, strongest, most well armed people happy and no others.  I may make a man with a machine gun happy, only to take the gun, shoot him in the head, and then be the man with the machine gun myself.  In a poor village with no one to stop me, and in a backwater that no world government cares about, who is to say, by Mr. Zindler’s definition, that I am wrong to rape and steal if I, or I and a few close friends, have machine guns, and the villagers do not?

There is no force of “should” to Mr. Zindler’s ethics, except “I should do this if I want to be happiest.”  But if the plunder of a village, and the rape of women and children makes me happy…as it seems to for quite a number of people in the history of the world, not simply the rare sociopath or psychopath, then where is the impetus to not do these things?  If, in fact, I do these things to increase the wealth of my own village, at the expense of other villages, I am not, by Mr. Zindler’s definition, being unethical.

Ultimately, Mr. Zindler has presented a method for treating human beings merely as objects through which we are to attain our own prolonged happiness.  But he has failed to show that there is any ground for me to follow these rules when they no longer suit me, or for me to make any claims against anyone else’s actions.  Nor has he shown good reason why rational sentient creatures should show the kind of heroism that he describes in his description of African Apes.  An ape may be driven by strong instinctual forces to die for those who can still reproduce, but a human can make a conscious choice.  And that choice, if driven by Mr. Zindler’s ethics, can never be made for the prolonged happiness of self if that choice leads to the death of the self.  In fact, when weighing between non-existence, and a semi-happy, or even miserable life, the life of any kind offers more chance of happiness than non-existence.  So, by Mr. Zindler’s ethics, anything at all should be chosen over the loss of one’s own life, since the pursuit of happiness is the ultimate goal of human ethics, and no happiness can come to a person who does not exist.

Thus, while Mr. Zindler shows that people can in fact have ethics, a statement that Theologians would not, I think, argue with, he fails to show that the ethics he can come up with are unworthy of the name.  In fact, he once more shows how weak such atheistic ethics really are when they are held up to simple reason and practical example.

Particular Responses:

Now, to some of his more interesting points.  (2)The fear of hellfire may not be the impetus for good action in many people, but can Mr. Zindler show that it is not the impetus in most or all religious people?  Certainly there are a vast number of religious personal accounts which contradict this statement.  One need only consider the piety of the late medieval period to find Mr. Zindler’s statement to be highly uniformed.

(6)His dissection of Plato is flawed as well, especially in a world where both Christianity and Islam have deeply considered Plato’s writings.  The Christian theological answer to this is that God, as the ground of being, forms all things in God’s own likeness, and therefore as a reflection of God’s own goodness.  Telling the truth is good because it reflects the Character of God who, being external to time and space, is not subject to predicates of condition.  Thus, we cannot say “God might have been a liar” because “might have been” is properly predicated of entities with a past and dependent on external conditions.  The Christian understanding of God is that neither of these apply, as God is external to time (Eternal) and unconditioned (no external power shapes God to be what God is).  Thus, ethics in Christian Theology are not merely the whim of a God, nor a God observing an external reality, but the very character of God, the ground of all being, reflected in the world that God created.  (5)  Thus, since God is unchanging, the structure of ethics and morals are unchanging.  If Christian ethics are stuck in an ancient time, it is not because they have merely been carried forward; it is because they reflect unchanging realities in the created world.  Therefore they carry the weight of “Should” because they are intrinsic to the very nature of the created reality.  We are made to follow them, and not following them does violence to ourselves and others, in either very practical ways (which he has shown through his explanation of our sociological and psychological norms) or in ways which we may call “Spiritual” that lead us further from these eternal moral realities.

(4) Mr. Zindler claims that Heroism is older than religion. Where is his evidence of this?  Certainly Heroism is older than the oldest Monotheistic religions, but where is this historical record of pre-religious humanity?  The simple fact is we have none.  Mr. Zindler is making a claim that cannot here be backed up by anyone, but is simply fueled by a myth propagated by people who dislike religion, and thus believe, without any kind of historical evidence, that early humans did not have religion.

Closed and Contradicted


One of the more difficult things about debating with many atheists is the very practical self-contradiction of certain positions they can take[1].  For example, I posted several months ago about someone who argued that “Only an idiot believes that things which cannot be/aren’t proved to exist are facts[2]”  and more recently a gentleman who I have debated with on my last post has argued on his blog “If something is 100% truth then it is not scientifically testable, thus not true. We can only say that things are 99.9(repeating)% truth, but not completely true[3].”  Now, one must ask very simply, how does he know that what he is saying is true?  He seems to say it with the authority of an agreed upon reality, but it is a reality which does not live up to its own test.

In other words, is his statement verifiable only to the point of 99.9(repeating)%?  Has his statement been shown to be consistently true through repeated independent experimentation?  Is there some doubt in his mind that, if further evidence appeared, we might find that his statement is untrue?

The answer, of course, is “no” to all of these questions.  The reason is that the statement “if something is 100% truth, then it is not scientifically testable, thus not true” is not a scientific statement.  It is a philosophical statement.  It has philosophical assumptions that it rests on, like “truth can only be gotten at by scientific means.”  Of course this is a self-contradictory philosophical statement, for it does not rest on scientific experimentation.  It thus fails its own rigorous standards.

This assumption and philosophical position is rampant throughout much atheistic debate.  And it reflects a move to subsume all human knowledge under the rule of scientific discovery.  But there is a category confusion here, as human knowledge is composed of two elements, pieces of information (premises), and the relationships between each piece of information (conclusions).  Now, science can give us new pieces of information, but the relationships between those pieces are left to logic.  And, as much as atheists claim “rationality” as their watchword, they have fallen into a very obvious and illogical blunder by attempting to subsume the logical connections under the rule of the pieces of information.  But this simply will not stand.

For it is only by the laws of logic that we see how things relate, and only by building on apriori truths that we can know anything at all.  Now, by arguing that “the only truth worth knowing is scientific truth” they are in fact obeying the basic laws of logic by asserting an a priori truth, one which is not assailable by any outside means.  However, we need not assail it by outside means, as it destroys itself internally by invalidating itself as a philosophical position.  If all philosophical positions are invalid, as they cannot prove themselves scientifically, so then too is the position that all philosophical positions are invalid.

So as to not be accused of a lack of rigor, let us simply state the argument in its most basic form.

1.  Truth can only be attained through scientific means

2.  Statement 1 is not attainable by scientific means

Conclusion:  Statement 1 is not true, and is self contradictory.

The basic pattern follows for all self contradictory statements:

1.  Only x is true.

2.  Statement 1 is not x.

Conclusion:  1 is not true, and is self contradictory.

This also follows for the basic structure of the negation of all truth:

1.  No statements are true.

2.  Statement 1 is a statement

Conclusion: Statement 1 is not true, and is self contradictory.

That this should not be obvious to anyone arguing for the “rational” position is shocking.  That they do not readily admit to it is not.  For to admit that their view of “worthwhile truth” is itself merely a philosophy (and a self-contradictory one at that) will remove the mystique that what they are doing is SCIENCE, that word that carries with it so much weight in the modern world.  They pass off as professional science done well what is actually amateur philosophy done poorly.

And this is the reason why science can never be sufficient for human purpose.  It is a category of facts, not truth.  Truth belongs to the realm of logic, not experimentation.  Now this too is an a priori position.  However, we can see very clearly that it is not self contradictory, as the statement “truth may be gotten by logical means” is not self-defeating.  It does not prove itself to be true, of course.  And we should point out that there are many positions like this that we fundamentally disagree with.

1.   Josh is the only person who can be right.

2.   Josh is the one who claims statement 1.

3.  Claim 1 is not self contradictory.

The reasoning may be valid here, but anyone knows that the reasoning is not sound.  So the point is not that “truth comes through logic” must be true, but that it is not self-contradictory where the opposite is self contradictory.  And since those are the only two possibilities, we conclude that “truth comes through logic” must be true, because its opposite is self-contradictory.

There seem to be two stances that a skeptic can take here.

1.  “Truth comes from logic, that’s fine.  But logic is incredibly unreliable at delivering that truth, so let’s rely on something else.”  The problem is, once more, how do you know?  You would have to argue from experience here, but that is very shaky ground for a skeptic.  Experience can be falsified.  And if we concede that logic is unreliable at delivering truth (which I do not actually concede), then how can we rely on it to tell us that science is the reliable source of information?

2.  A skeptic might argue that we need to show some evidence that this is the case.  We need not, in fact.  The reason we need not is because we accept that truth can come from logical means, not merely from factual evidence.  We can maintain this without evidence, but with logical certitude without self contradiction.  They however, cannot even say “I will not believe it without scientific evidence because only scientific evidence is truth” because the “because” that connects “I will not believe it without scientific evidence” and “only scientific evidence is truth” is a logical connection, not a scientific connection.


Now this brings me to the second point of a philosophy based purely on naturalism that insists that no other thing exists.  It can explain everything by means of itself.  This may sound like a positive, but when compared to the other systems that can explain everything, one sees how destructive it is to both rational thought and public discourse.  For the other systems which explain everything by means of themselves are Solipsism and modern Biblical Fundamentalism.

Both a naturalist and a solipsist can explain everything in the universe by means of their own philosophy and make room for no other.  The Solipsist says “I am the only thing that exists, and I, though at my current moment do not know how I am doing it, create all of the sense data that I experience.  Thus, even external verification or lack of verification of my experience is invalid, for it too must come through my senses.  Do you slap me?  I feel it, but that is merely sense data that I am imagining for myself.  Do you tell a different story of an event?  It does not matter, for the event never really happened.”  The naturalist says “you have spiritual experience?  That is really just natural experience.  You have seen miracles?  You are deceived by nature.  You believe historical documents about miracles?  We all know they don’t happen, so once again you are deceived.”

The modern Biblical Fundamentalist does the same when confronted with dinosaur bones or evolution.  They say that the Devil is at work, that God has placed things in the world to test our Biblical faith.  They say that people are deceived by anything other than the Bible.  Their mode of interpreting the Bible explains absolutely everything, and you can say nothing to them to bring them out of the tunnel vision of their monomania.

The closed systems then answer in the same ways, and interestingly enough, with the same paranoid and conspiratorial suspicions.  It is no wonder that paranoia itself is a disorder once diagnosed as a monomania.  If everyone is out to get you, no one, no matter how they tell you that they are not out to get you, can appear as a friend.  No information can come in but that which is filtered through the one single lense that you allow for.

Now what we do with closed systems is first, admit that they might, by logic, be true.  For there is no way to prove them false.  One cannot prove by logic that the outside world does in fact exist.  One cannot prove by science that God or the supernatural exists.  Thus we must admit with all rigor that they are possible systems.  But then, that is as far as we can go with them.  For from their little self-referential positions, they can answer all questions, and they do it in the same way.

They may shout “Yes!  Of course we can answer all questions, that is our point!  You should listen to us!”  But it will not do.  The paranoid person can explain all of your actions as well, sitting in his chair, back to the wall, staring out his window to make sure that “they” aren’t coming for him.  If you say you are a friend, he says you are part of the conspiracy.  If you shake him to get him from his madness, he laughs and says that you have revealed yourself  as part of the plot.  If you can explain all things by a single lens, you really fail to explain anything.

Next, it seems, we should then say about them as Confucious does “Those whose courses are different cannot lay plans for one another.” (Analects 15).  Their course, like the course of a Solipsist, is different.  Their system is closed; they can explain all things without room for other kinds of knowledge.  Our system, however, is open, and makes room for their knowledge, and the knowledge of logic, of experience, and of that special kind of experience called inter-personal experience.

Thus we come to what is an impasse, but it is an impasse between the actually open minded, who accept many sources of information, and the solipsist/naturalist/fundamentalist, who insists on only one piece of information.


There seem to be two ways of responding to this post.  First, a Scientific Naturalist or Positivist might try to argue logically.  This will not do.  They have stated that logic is not useful at getting to truth.  Why then do they insist on using it?  I invite them to stick to their guns, and to argue without logic.  Show me that scientific evidence is a superior source of truth than logic by doing so without logic.  If it really is what they claim, they should be able to show quite easily how this is the case through only evidence.

The problem, of course, is that all argumentation is rooted in logic.  One cannot say “if…then” without using logic.  One cannot say “I answer that…” without logic.  Nor can one even respond without the ground/consequent relationship underlying one’s response.  For the “if…then” of “If I wish to answer, I must respond” or “because I want to show him to be wrong, I will write…” is the ground consequent relationship.  We can see this here.

1.  I wish to answer an argument

2.  To answer an argument I must write/speak the answer

3.  I must then write/speak

All of this happens at such a basic level of human thought that we don’t notice it.  We simply do it.  But that is my point.  You cannot get at truth except by logic.  You can experience things, you can test things, but they do not have “truth” without the logical process that every thought of our minds use.  To show that science is superior, one must somehow stop using logic to how it is inferior to evidence.

The second way is to deny that their system is closed and to accuse theism of a closed system.  This will not work.  For theism allows for unknowns, and allows for doubt.  We allow that information can come from many different sources.  We explain dinosaur bones by science, we explain picnics by way of sunny days and groups of friends, and we explain miracles by way of the supernatural.  We are open to many sources of information.  We utilize all four of Aristotle’s causes, not just one.  And thus our system is open, embracing science, embracing logic, and embracing experience.

In other words, our system is human.

[1] Having argued against the position of fundamentalists myself, I appreciate the frustration they must often feel when arguing against us as well.

[2] The current post is an expansion of the ideas contained in this post from last July.

[3]  There is another problem here, of course, other than the one I am going to focus on here in this post.  It is the self-contradiction of the statement “if something is 100% true, it is not true” which equates truth and falsehood with each other.  This is not only an illogical statement, it is also a logically destructive statement, which functions simply and practically the same as the rest of this post indicates the larger philosophical statement does.

Self Existence

One of the major points of contention between atheism and theism in the modern popular debate, is the question of self-existence, or what theology calls Aseity.  Modern atheists will often critique theists who say that the universe needs to have an origin, but God can exist on God’s own.  The Atheists will often respond that theists give no good reason why God should be able to exist on God’s own, but the universe cannot.  This post is an attempt to explain what is meant by self-existence in its theological usage.

In short, self-existence is the property of a thing that exists and does not depend on any other thing for its existence.  It does not, as might be thought, mean that a thing causes itself to exist.  This would be a logical contradiction.  Instead, a being with self-existence has no cause, and simply exists on its own.  Because it has no cause, it must exist, for when we look for a cause of its existence, there can be none, and therefore no contingency involved in its being.  Thus, if a self-existent being exists, it also necessarily exists.

This should be distinguished from all other things that are not self-existent.  A wombat is composite and caused, and thus might not have existed.  It has its being in the composite parts and the universe that it exists in.  Its being is contingent on its creation in the past.  Thus any of these things might have been different, and therefore is neither self-existent nor does it possess necessary existence.

The concept of self-existence is what traditional theism applies to only one thing, God.  This is because God is believed to be simple, meaning that God is not made up of many different parts.  When we say that God has a mind, and power, and will, we are not saying that God has three different things that are all put together.  We are arguing that God, in God’s own being, is wholly and totally simple such that whatever it is that we call “mind” in God is the same thing that we call “being” which is the same thing that we call “power.”  However, they are not exactly like what we would call mind, being, and power[1].  For the way we define these things is dependent on definitions that exist within our universe.  Mind, power, and being all are categories that we understand as functioning within a physical system.  However, when we say that God has mind, power, and will, we are saying that God is something that we do not know, but that is best described with these terms, for we have no others to terms.

Now, when skeptics propose that the universe could be self-existent, we must be very specific about what we mean.  It seems that there could be two specific meanings to saying the universe is self-existent.

1.  The Material Universe

What some skeptics may mean when they say that the Universe is self existent, is that the whole composite universe of matter and energy, laws, fields, and so on, is itself self existent.  If this is the case, then the universe must be necessary.  But modern physics does not say that the universe is necessary, or at least not the universe defined like this.  Instead, there seems to be a general agreement that the universe as we see it might have been very different if one of a number of different factors had been slightly off, and there is no sense that they must have been the way they were.  As well, any system that involves randomness, which they state that the universe has[2], cannot be necessary as it depends on randomness resulting one way and not another.  Thus we see contingency in the universe when it is defined as the whole composite system.

2.  The Framework of the Universe

What some other skeptics might mean when they say that universe is self existent, is that the basic framework of the Universe is necessary and not contingent.   The very ground of the universe, the laws which determine how things exist, and how they interact, are self-existent.  Now this is far better than saying that the material universe is self-existent.  However, there are some major problems here as well.

First, we would have to postulate that there is in fact only one real law of the universe that defines how everything exists.  If there are multiple laws, we must ask what context they exist in together to interact with the universe.  Do they derive from each other?  If so, then the multiplicity of laws can exist within the context of the first law, and thus we really have only one law, even if we can identify many elements to it[3]. Now this doesn’t seem to be an insurmountable problem, as many physicists appear to be trying to find the one most basic law of the universe, one that unifies Quantum and Newtonian mechanics.

But what does cause a bigger problem is that that one law, or one law with many emanating laws, does not create matter/energy.  The one law determines how matter/energy act and interact, but it does not produce either a context for matter/energy, nor does it produce the matter/energy themselves.  There is no indication that the one law of physics has ever produced a single piece of matter, no indication that it has in fact ever caused anything to happen at all.  It is a descriptor, and the One Law of Physics, if it exists, will simply describe all objects and events in the universe.  For it to have any effect on anything, it must have a universe to work on, it cannot produce it.

Thus we find that even a self existent unified law of the universe, while it could exist, cannot be the origin of the universe…with one possible exception.

If the laws of physics somehow found a way to produce the material universe, we must see that they are outside of the universe.  For they cannot be made of matter or energy, or else they are merely the composite contingent universe we described in section 1.  But if they are neither matter, energy, nor space, nor time (for these are also part of that composite universe), then they are by definition supernatural.  They are outside of the universe in a way that Theists propose that God is.

It is possible that the law behind the universe, the one that determines why things do what they do, is conscious and powerful.  If it were conscious and powerful, it could choose to create matter, and be able to do it.  It could order all things, determine all things, and have the power to create them.  Being conscious, it could choose what laws applied to what objects, and perhaps, sometimes change how the laws apply.  Such a Law would also be a Mind, a mind that stands outside of the universe and determines that it should exist.

But then, this is Theism.

[1] See my previous post on “Beyond Words” to get some idea of what this means.

[2] A dubious assertion.  Instead, it seems that it would be more honest if they said simply “we do not see why these things happen.”

[3] Some may see a connection here between this logic and the logic of begetting and procession in the Trinity.  They would be right to do so.

Beyond Words

One of the major problems in the modern debate between Atheism and Theism is that both the Christians and the Atheists have lost a good understanding of what is called Apophatic Theology.  Apophatic Theology is that theology which insists that we can really say almost nothing about God because all of our language is inadequate to speak about God.  Apophatic Theology says that it is inappropriate to say that “God Exists” because “existence” is a category that we only understand within the confines of our universe.  God is not in the universe, and thus does not fit within the context of this category.  To say that God has a mind is inappropriate because all minds that we know are too small and too material for them to be adequate descriptions of the reality of God’s own self knowledge and knowledge of all other things[1].  To say that God is powerful is wrong, because power as we know it is the application of force within all manner of realms that God is not contained by.

This tradition of Apophatic theology is heavily associated with the mystical tradition of the eastern church.  Theologians and monks who prayed deeply and sought to be drawn into union with God did so because they realized that our words utterly fail us when we try to talk about God.  The greatest theologians, no matter how precise their words, no matter how technical their language, cannot escape the fact that the human mind is, and must, function within the constructs of human thought.  Human thought cannot contain the proper idea of God, because God is prior to human ideas.  Here I do not mean temporally prior, but logically and ontologically prior.  Nothing about God can be properly contained in human thought because human thought is a creation of God, and exists in a far more limited way than God.

Therefore human language is highly inadequate to speak about God in an ultimate sense.  Of course there are modern philosophies that say that human language is highly inadequate to talk about anything at all.  If these philosophies are true (and I don’t think they are) then a mode of communication that is inadequate to talk about cabbages is all the more inadequate to talk about the king of kings.  But we need not think that human language is wholly useless to know that, when we come down to the most rock bottom assertions about God, we do not have the tools to communicate the ultimate realities of a being who transcends our universe.

One might ask, after such a discouraging project as the above paragraphs, why we bother to talk about God at all.  If we cannot get at the real truth, then why are we so adamant about saying things like “God exists” and “God is good” when existence and goodness are, by our own admission, too small to describe God.  One might say that we are conceding ground to the skeptics who say that the “God Hypothesis” is a useless one.  If, they might say, we cannot talk about God, let us stop talking about him.  Problem solved.

First, we should say that those who were most adamant about Apophatic theology were also often some of the greatest Cataphatic Theologians.  “Cataphatic Theology” is the kind of theology that says things like “God is good” where Apophatic theology says things like “God is beyond goodness[2].”  The reason for this is because while Apophatic theologians insist that “God is beyond goodness and being” they also insist that the reality that is beyond those things is far more like them than evil and non-being.  Goodness, though inadequate, is a pointer to God in a way that Evil is most definitely not.  Knowledge, love, peace, mercy, and joy are all inadequate ways of describing God, for the ideas that they convey are limited and created ideas.  But they are all pointers to the unlimited and uncreated reality of God that is in a very real way continuous with them.

Thus peace, as we understand it, is not a big enough idea to describe the unshakable and imperturbable God.  However, peace when it is magnified, exalted, and brought to its uncreated ends, shows itself to be identifiable with God.  This is true for Goodness, being, joy, love, and mercy.  But it is not true for hatred, fear, destruction, and evil.  For when they are expanded, and made transcendent, they are not identifiable with God, they are identifiable with non-entity.  In other words, when peace is made big enough that our word “peace” no longer encompasses it, we say that that transcendent peace is God’s, though we no longer know what to call it.  The same is true for goodness and being and all of the attributes of God.

And for those who wish for a Biblical root for all of this, there are numerous examples of human knowledge failing to describe God well in Scripture.  Paul speaks of a “peace that passes all understanding” (Phil 4:7) and there is of course the well known statement about God whose “ways are higher than [our] ways.” (Is 55:9)  As well, it is important to remember that the highest of all divine revelations is not a statement, or a document, but a man.

What is so important about all of this, is that we must firmly say that there are some things that, when brought to their ultimate and transcendent state, are identifiable with that One who is ultimate and transcendent.  However, there are most definitely things that are not identifiable with God.  God may be “beyond good” in the way that goodness, when elevated beyond our conception of it, is true of God, but God is not “beyond good and evil” in the way that Nietzsche described.  God is beyond good because good is, to the reality of God, what a child’s drawing of the stars is to the real night sky.  God is beyond evil because, being beyond goodness, evil is hateful to God.

Now in our debates with Atheism, we must remember that God is ultimately beyond human predication.  We cannot expect God to be definable in the way that something in nature is definable.  And this is where what Stephen J. Gould calls the “non-overlapping magisteria” comes in.  Science’s job is to tell us about “stuff” in the universe, or about the universe.  God is not “stuff” in the universe.  God is not a “local cause” but a “transcendent cause” that is not compassed by human thought, scientific or logical[3].

Thus when an Atheist asks, as they have several times, “Would you be convinced if science somehow showed that God exists?” the answer must be “no.”   The answer is “no” because the thing is not possible.  Whatever science might show, it cannot encompass God, it cannot prove God.  God cannot be detected in nature, because God is not part of nature.  But neither can God be deduced with logical certainty, because logic does not encompass God.  And this is where revelation comes in.  No one deduces “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth;” it just shows up.  It appears, unlooked-for, and novel.  It is not the answer to a scientific or logical question, it is a lightning bolt from beyond the world.

And this is where I break with some of the more prominent Apologists of the Christian faith.  I do not believe that we can concretely and unavoidably prove God logically or scientifically.  I think that the transcendence of God necessitates this.  The nature of a created order necessitates this.  The thing is too big to prove, too close, to far.

And I think, if we continue to drive people away from the concept of revelation, the concept of personal experience, and into the laboratory, we will find that people will in fact lose their grounds for believing in God.  For it was never in answer to a philosophical question that the “God hypothesis” arrived.  Instead, thoughts came into people’s minds, and words came out of strange and remote places stating new and unlooked-for ideas.  Ideas that had no root in the natural progression of thought that came before them.

And then one idea came to life in a small village, again not looked for in the minds of men and women.  And He dwelt among us to show us what God, whom no idea or theory could encompass, is like.

[1] Even “Knowledge” is an ultimately inappropriate category for what God does, for all of our models of knowledge have to do with data storage, access, and association.  We cannot assume that the utterly simple God stores knowledge, accesses it, and associates it with things.

[2] It should be mentioned there that a thoroughgoing Apophatic Theology will also say that “God is beyond ‘beyondness’” and thus draw God back into the intimate relationship that transcends transcendence.

[3] Here we must say that while God transcends logical bounds, we believe that God is the ground of logic, and thus will not be “illogical” but instead, perhaps, “super-logical” in the sense of transcending what we can deduce.

Where Does God Come From?

If the Universe needs to come from somewhere, why doesn’t God?  This is the question that seems to be the rallying cry for amateur Atheists in the modern popular conversation.  People who believe that the universe requires a prime mover or creator are mocked because they can’t muster the defense against this question.  If Christianity and other monotheistic religions are unable to answer a glaring inconsistency such as this, clearly our arguments must be pretty shoddy.

The problem comes from the fact that the affirmation that Christianity makes is being misstated, either by Christians themselves, or by Atheists misunderstanding the Christian position.  Traditionally, the argument is not “Everything needs to come from something” but “everything that changes,  is composite, and has its principle of being external to itself needs an origin of its change, composition, and being.”  Something that is simple, non-composite, and that does not change, does not need explanation.  But of course, this means not only that it is not composite in substance, but not composite in substance and principle of being.  The Universe is none of these things.

The universe is something made up of many different things, all of which are constantly in motion and changing.  Now this itself demands explanation and origin.  But as well, the universe is composite not only in substance (the things that make it up) but in its principle of existence, meaning that the fact that the universe exists is not identical with its actual existence.  Or put another way, the manner in which the universe exists is not identical with the universe itself.  In layman’s terms, this means that there are things about the universe that are true that are not identifiable with the universe itself, such as the laws of nature.  Whatever causes atoms to interact in a certain way is not the same thing as the atoms interacting.  Observable science identifies them because observable science cannot get at the rules that govern the universe, the actual nature of the universe.  It is something like a scientist in a video game trying to understand why things move a certain way.  She can do experiment after experiment, but the principle of the rules of her world is not identifiable with the entities in her world.  They are somewhere else.

If this doesn’t sound like science, that’s because it isn’t, it’s logic.  Science can tell us that bodies move a particular way, but it can never tell us why in the true sense of the word.  It can explain more and more about the factors involved and how they interact with each other, but it can never tell us why they all, at the very bottom, work they way they do.  This is one of the reasons why we argue that there must be a God, because no matter how many dimensions there are, no matter how many universes there might be, the whole system is in need of explanation.

Thus, a universe that is composite, changing, and having its principle of being outside of itself, demands explanation.  Something simple, immutable, and having its principle of being within it does not require explanation.

So now that we’ve stated the actual Christian affirmation correctly, we can reframe the atheist question:  Why does something that is simple, immutable, and having its own principle of being within itself not need explanation while something that is composite, mutable, and having its principle of being outside itself does?

When put this way, the question is actually rather easy to answer.  A changing thing must exist in some kind of time.  Time forms a larger environment for the changing thing, and immediately creates ontological questions of relation between two different environments and their principle of mutual interaction.  How are time and space related to each other?  Here I am not specifically talking about Space-Time as argued by Einstein, though even that requires relational explanation.

Composite elements require explanation also on a ground of mutual interaction. What causes disparate elements to exist in a relationship so that they can interact with each other?  What causes the differentiation between elements and their environment so that they have a mutually shared reality in which they can affect each other?

Finally, things that do not have their own principle of being within themselves require explanation because, simply, if they do not have their principle of being in themselves, it must be in something else and the two are clearly related in some way.  They are either in the relationship of creator and creature, or they are both creatures in a created relationship.  Then the relationship itself has its principle of being outside of itself, and requires further explanation.

A simple, unchanging, being which has the principle of its own being within itself is not in need of an origin or explanation, as there are no contingencies that need to be explained.  There are not multiple objects that are in relationship to each other, whose relationship needs to be explained.  There is not change which requires an external environment of time that needs explanation.  The principle of being is the thing itself, thus no external object needs to be found to define that principle of being.  Thus, it is because we believe God to be simple, not composite, and having a principle we call Aseity, that we believe that God and the Universe are in different categories when it comes to the question of origin and creation.

Truth and Truth

BirchSama @BreakingSunday
Only an idiot believes that things which cannot be/aren’t proved to exist are facts.”

This is a statement that was recently posted on Kotaku regarding the Cristian Game Developers Conference.  The above person first stated that Christians have an imaginary friend, and then went on to make this philosophical statement about epistemology.  It is not a new statement, but one clearly defined as Logical Positivism.  Things are either tautological, like math and logic, or they are verifiable by scientific evidence.

One even mildly acquainted with logic will see a fundamental problem with this statement of course.  It is neither a tautology nor verifiable through scientific evidence that “only an idiot believes that things which cannot be/aren’t proved to exist are facts.”  This critique of Logical Positivism is not new, it is as old as the first logical mind to encounter this flawed point of view and subject it to its own rigors.  When put up to its own test, it fails.  However, if such a point of view can be shown to be so easily defeated, what is it still hanging around?

Our culture has undergone a mass transformation in values in the last few centuries.  Here I am not speaking about family or social values, about values of sex or economics, but instead about values of knowledge.  Before the enlightenment, a thing was said to be true if it bore the weight of authority, or if it showed itself through deductive argument to be necessarily true.  With less weight it was considered to be true through inductive argument, i.e. experience.   In the olden days, it was the church who stood as the great authority, and against whom the enlightenment railed.

This is not especially bad in my oppinion, as the church’s main task is to be the body of Christ in the world, spreading the good news that God has come close, tending to the sick, the hungry, the homeless, the needy, and the imprisoned.  Insofar as we ignore those tasks and instead attempt to become authorities on the composition of the cosmos, we are quite wrong.  In fact, the enlightenment still has much work to do I think in undermining the hubris of Christians who speak beyond their means.  The Christians statement, as a Christian, should be “God has come close, let us rejoice and obey His good teachings to love each other.”  All else is outside of the realm of Christian authority.

Part of loving each other, however, is telling each other the truth.  And part of that truth is logical truth.  And it is here that the enlightenment has aimed its other guns.  For the modern day shaman who says “not I, but my honest, reasonable, and mighty god” when asked about his authority, is no longer a man of logic or faith, but a man of science.  For the scientific mind is less concerned with arguments and more concerned with the evidence.  Well and good, for that is his or her job.  The scientist must not, if the evidence shows otherwise, bow to the argument of a man who can show that the sun is made of banana pudding.  The Scientist must in fact keep on with the good work of examining evidence, and leave it to the logician to show the pudding-man to be a fool on logical grounds.

Yet the work of science seems to have a tangent which is rather disturbing.  In the work of people like Hawking, knowledge is reduced to scientific knowledge in the popular mind.  I say reduced, not because scientific knowledge is a poor or paltry thing, but because it is only one of a number of kinds of knowledge.  Notice that in the expression Scientific Knowledge,  “Scientific” here is an adjective, meaning that it is only a type of knowledge, not the thing itself.

The danger here is that we begin to downplay the importance of other kinds of knowledge.  The human being is not a creature merely of evidence, but of multivalent epistemologies.  We stride through this world with knowledge gleaned from evidence, intuition, experience, and logical deduction.  In fact, the central apparatus for all knowledge is deductive knowledge, as we naturally do basic deductive logic with even the smallest experiences.

The central problem with a general feeling that scientific knowledge being the only kind of knowledge that is useful is that the idea itself is not a piece of scientific knowledge.  You cannot show, through scientific evidence, that all other information is in fact useless.  You can show that for scientific measurement, human observation is far less useful than experiments, but you cannot show that the kind of knowledge that comes from experiments is the only kind of knowledge worth having.

Thus the work of the church, as a body meant to love humanity into life through and by Jesus Christ, is in the modern age partially involved in stemming the tide of the logical positivist view.  It is not to try to usurp scientific knowledge from real scientists and stuff that into a book that is supposed to reveal the Character of God.  It is not to try to say that science is not science, but to insist that the human condition is more than empirical evidence.  If it is not, why are we bothering with science in the first place?

This is elementary argumentation for elementary difficulties.  However these elementary difficulties are rampant throughout a society which is poorly trained in clear thinking on both sides of the belief line.  Some clearer thinking will, I think, present better skeptical arguments which will in turn encourage better answers by people of faith.