First Rebuttal (2003)
In his Opening Statement, Chris McHugh (hereafter CM) declared that he would defend two theses, that it is more reasonable to be a theist than a nontheist and that it is more reasonable to be a Christian than it is to reject Jesus Christ. That stated aim is different from CM’s originally stated aim. As indicated by our Moderator at the opening of this debate, what CM said he would do is to “attempt to make a case for the existence of the God of Christianity.” I do not see any such case attempted in CM’s Opening Statement. Nowhere is there any definition of “the God of Christianity” or any argument leading to the conclusion that that deity exists.
CM divides his essay into six sections, the first four presenting what he calls “arguments for the existence of God,” the fifth on “God’s relationship to creation,” and the last aiming to support Christianity. I shall divide my rebuttal into six corresponding sections, attacking what CM has written.
I: CM’s Argument from Simplicity (AS)
CM divides AS into three subarguments, each with three steps. I shall deal only with the first of those. Premise 1 reads: “The ultimate reality (that which does not depend on anything else for its being) is either complex (having parts) or noncomplex (not having parts).”
- What does CM means by “depend on”? Is it a causal relation or ontological relation or what? CM supplies no definition and his only example is “a chair depends on molecules.” What molecules? The ones of which the chair is composed? Those are not something other than the chair, whereas premise 1 talks of “depending on something else for its being.” A definition and suitable example are needed here.
- The use of “the” at the beginning of premise 1 presupposes that there exists something which does not depend on something else. No argument is given for that. Why couldn’t everything that exists depend on something else for its being? Maybe there is a chain of “dependence” that extends back in time indefinitely. More is needed here.
- The use of “the” also presupposes that there is not more than one “ultimate reality.” No argument is given for that either. Why couldn’t there be several things which do not depend on anything else for their being? If numbers exist as abstract entities, it is unclear what, if anything, they might depend on for their being. How about particles which some quantum theorists say pop into existence uncaused? Are they “ultimate realities”? Space and time (and matter and energy) may have originated uncaused. Some recent cosmological theories take them as having done that. Would that make them “ultimate realities”? It is unclear what we are to say here because of the obscurity surrounding CM’s use of the verb “depend on.”
- The distinction between having parts and having no parts is also unclear. CM provides no examples of things without parts, so it is hard to comprehend what he is talking about. Because of the utter obscurity surrounding CM’s use of words, there is no point in discussing the rest of AS. It is supposed to be a theistic argument, but, instead, seems to be just a jumble of words without any clear meaning.
II: CM’s Argument from Freedom (AF)
- The ultimate reality is either:
- a set of blindly interacting deterministic or probabilistic causes; or
- a free will; or
- something that transcends a free will.
- Option (a) can be ruled out since there is no way that free-willed beings [i.e., humans] can be caused to exist by the blind interactions of deterministic or probabilistic causes.
- Hence, either (b) or (c) must be the case.
- All the objections pertaining to the phrase “the ultimate reality” that were raised above in connection with AC also apply here.
- With regard to option (a) in premise 1, nowhere does CM explain how a “reality” might be a “set of causes.” Is that supposed to be a set of events? It would make more sense to say that the (main) nontheistic view is that reality consists just of space, time, matter, and energy. Also, what are “deterministic causes” and “probabilistic causes” supposed to be? How do they relate to determinism (the view that all events are causally determined) and indeterminism (the view that some events are not causally determined)? All of this is utterly obscure.
- What does “free will” mean in option (b) of premise 1? In ordinary language, it means “voluntary choice,” as when one says, “You did it of your own free will.” How could it be some sort of “ultimate reality”? CM seems to be using it in some special sense. He calls his option (b) “the common theistic view,” but theists don’t describe their view as “a belief in a free will,” but rather, “a belief in a being who possesses certain extraordinary properties.” It would help if CM would clearly define “free will,” and provide examples of actions not done by free will (so we can know what it excludes).
- CM formulates option (c) of premise 1 as the view that “the ultimate reality is something transcendent to the positive concept of a personal free will, but is not something less than that notion.” He does not explain what a “positive concept” is supposed to be or what it is for something to “transcend a positive concept” or what it is for something to be “less than a positive concept.” None of that makes sense to me.
- CM concludes that either (b) or (c) is true and then restates that as “the ultimate reality is something like what has traditionally been called ‘God’.” I see no way to extract the “traditional God” from option (b), let alone from the obscure option (c). AF is supposed to be an argument for God’s existence, but it seems not to be that.
- AF’s premise 2 is itself an inference. I shall focus just on the “premise” part of it. There is a whole philosophical tradition, known as “compatibilism,” which goes back through the centuries and which aims to define “free will” in a way which makes its existence compatible with determinism. I make a case for it in appendix A of my book (Nonbelief & Evil). CM does not show that he has ever even heard of it. Combined with compatibilism, the theory of evolution would refute AF’s premise 2. As it stands, that premise is unsupported and undefended.
- CM talks of reflecting upon one’s inner life and directly apprehending that one’s act of will is neither causally determined nor something that just occurs spontaneously. But how can anyone directly apprehend that one’s act of will was not causally determined? That is impossible, since the causal determinants are presumably events that occur within the brain, which is hidden from us. And CM’s claim that the only alternative to his view is that “nobody has ever made any real decisions at all” is sheer balderdash. Compatibilism shows that “real decisions” can be made even if determinism is true.
- If a person, X, is making a “free choice,” in CM’s sense, what is the connection between that choice and X’s nature and deliberations? Do the nature and deliberations completely determine the choice? If not, then what is the connection, and is “free will,” in that case, something undesirable? What could the explanation be for the choice? It is really unclear just what such “free will” might be and whether it exists.
- CM seems to think that the existence of human “free will” (whatever that might be in his sense) would be more likely than not if God were to exist, but that is not at all clear. Would God be able to see into the future? (The Bible seems to assume that, with all of its emphasis on divine prophecy.) If God could foresee that you will choose A rather than B, then you could not choose B, for you can’t do something that God knows for sure you will not do. But then what might it mean to say that your choice of A over B was a “free will choice”? CM owes us some solution to this problem. As given, AF seems to be a total failure.
III: CM’s Argument from Morality (AM)
- If God does not exist, then real moral obligations do not exist.
- Moral obligations do exist.
- So, God exists.
- This is the first argument put forward by CM that explicitly mentions “God.” He owes us a definition of that term.
- There are many theories of moral obligation that would refute AM’s premise 1. According to consequentialism, for example, at each moment of choice our moral obligation is to perform that act that is likely to have the best overall consequences (in terms of reducing suffering in the long run, etc.). Certainly we could have moral obligations in that sense even if God does not exist. To make a case for premise 1, CM needs to refute all the various secular theories of moral obligation, but, in fact, he has not refuted any of them!
- How is God supposed to create moral obligations? By issuing commands for humans to obey? The Euthyphro problem would then come in when we ask why it is moral to obey God’s commands. The answer is either that morality just is, by definition, whatever God may command, no matter what it may be, or else God, by his nature, always commands that which is morally obligatory by other criteria. By the first alternative, God could command people to torture children for fun and that would make it morally obligatory for them to do so, which seems a bit unpalatable. However, by the second alternative, God is not the arbiter of morality. Rather, morality is determined by other criteria, which leaves open the possibility that moral obligation is ultimately a secular concept. CM needs to enlighten us as to which of these ways he goes with regard to the Euthyphro problem.
- CM has failed to explain how God is supposed to “give ultimate meaning and value (or objective meaning and purpose) to life,” as he puts it. If indeed life’s meaning, value, and purpose are supposed to be objective features of it, then there should be some way to observe or measure one or more of them. But CM has not suggested any way whatsoever to go about doing that. All of his talk of objective value ends up as mere assertion and totally unsupported.
IV: CM’s Argument from Negative Properties (ANP)
I shall not even try to formulate this argument.
- (A) The only definition of “God” provided in ANP is “that being which possesses the maximal conjunction of negative properties that can be possessed essentially by one being.” What is that supposed to mean? In note 7, CM says “The essential properties of something are those properties that are possessed in every possible world in which that thing exists. For example, an essential property of an apple is ‘being a type of fruit’.” Essential properties are apparently defining properties. The properties listed in the dictionary for the word “apple” would be the essential properties of an apple. But what could it mean to talk of a certain set of properties that are “possessed essentially by one being”? Here, we do not have any word to look up in the dictionary to get a list of essential properties, so the reference to “properties possessed essentially” can make no sense in this context.
- Presumably God is supposed to possess the properties of “not possessing one leg,” “not possessing two legs,” etc. There are an infinite number of those. What, then, would God be? There could be many such infinite sets of properties and we have no way to decide which of them is “the maximal” one, whatever that might mean.
- CM (following Richard Gale) says “A property P is negative if and only if it specifies no property which is not of the same quality.” I guess “specify” here means “imply” and “same quality” refers to sameness with regard to positive/negative. But this would make the definition circular. “Negative” is defined in terms of “same quality,” and “quality” is defined as “positive or negative,” so the word “negative” ends up being used to define “negative.” Maybe there is some way to get around this, but it is not made clear in CM’s essay. The obscurity surrounding the definition of “negative” is brought out in note 9, where CM admits that he himself made a mistake with regard to the property of “being necessary,” at one time classifying it as “positive,” but now classifying it as “negative.”
- Another definition is this: “A property P is negative if and only if there is no property of the same quality as it with which it is incompatible.” Here again there is the same circularity as above, but even aside from that, it is unclear just how the criterion is to be applied. Consider the terms “nonabstract” and “nonconcrete.” They seem to be of the “same quality” yet are incompatible with each other. By the given criterion, that would make them both express positive properties, which seems absurd. Consider, also, “being necessary” and “being contingent.” Those properties, too, seem to be of the “same quality” yet incompatible with each other, and so, they should both be classified as “positive properties.” Yet, in his note 9, CM calls “being necessary” a negative property. So far as I can make out here, confusion abounds.
- What about the properties “being the sort of entity that is worshiped in some possible world” and “being the sort of entity that creates things in some possible world”? (Each of these needs to be possessed in every possible world or in no possible world, since they are clearly not contingent properties.) CM should tell us whether or not his deity has them and whether they are positive properties or negative ones.
- As for CM’s actual formulation of ANP, I would say that all the steps in it are meaningless or obscure, since they all contain the expression “the divine essence,” which has not been given any clear definition. CM’s attempt to define it (in terms of “negative properties possessed essentially”) is a dismal failure.
- CM also needs to explain how ANP relates to the existence of the God of Christianity. He says that the relevant deity here is God “as conceived by the mystics,” and he quotes the Catholic Catechism in an attempt to clarify what that is supposed to be. However, I did not find the quotation to be intelligible, nor do I see any similarity between the deity of ANP and the deity referred to as “God” by almost all Christians in the English-speaking world. In effect, ANP is irrelevant to this debate.
V. CM on God and Creation
Because of CM’s failure to define “God” in an intelligible way, nothing that he says about “God” in the section called “What is the Nature of God’s Relationship to Creation?” makes any sense. But CM compounds the absurdity when he introduces the so-called property of “not being deficient in any sense.” What exactly does he mean here by “deficient”? Deficiency is a value concept and relative to the evaluator. It is “in the eye of the beholder.” This may be brought out by considering which of the following beings is deficient:
- one which has a desire to create something or one which doesn’t?
- one which can change or one which can’t?
- one which exists in space & time or one which doesn’t?
- one which is like a person (e.g., having emotions) or one which isn’t?
- one which has desires and hopes regarding humanity or one which doesn’t?
- one which is pleased and/or displeased by various human actions or one which isn’t?
- one which feels compassion for humans when they suffer or one which doesn’t?
- one which sacrifices himself/itself for others or one which doesn’t?
- one which knows for sure what he/it will do in the future (and so can’t do anything else) or one which doesn’t?
Different people can give different answers to each of these questions, expressing different values or preferences, and I see no way to prove, for any of them, that one of the answers is the “objectively correct” one and the other is mistaken. This shows that the concept of “deficient” is not one that can be used in objective argumentation.
VI: CM on Christianity
Here, CM’s discussion centers around the concept of “sin,” which he defines as “people rejecting the ultimate good for which they were created.” But CM has not shown that people were created (as opposed to having evolved), nor has he shown that they have exactly one “ultimate good” of which they are aware. (Note that they would need to be aware of the good in order to reject it.) So, all of his talk of sin is without any support.
Since CM’s discussion of Christianity is totally unsupported, there is no need to critique it further. It makes no effort towards formulating an argument for the existence of the God of Christianity, and so it is not relevant to this debate. If CM could formulate an argument (preferably with labeled steps) leading to the conclusion that that deity exists, and preceded by a clear definition of “the God of Christianity,” then he would have something genuinely worthwhile for us to consider, something that goes beyond mere recitation of theological slogans.
 The biblical definition of “sin,” which is different from CM’s definition, is given in I John 3:4 (KJV) as “the transgression of God’s law.” In order to make a case for sin in that sense, one would need to show that God exists, that God has given humans laws, and that the humans are aware of them. Needless to say, CM has not shown any of these things.
 Unfortunately, the space restrictions of this debate prevent me from presenting my objections in greater detail and from presenting additional objections (of which there are many!).
Copyright ©2003 Theodore M. Drange. The electronic version is copyright ©2003 by Internet Infidels, Inc. with the written permission of Theodore M. Drange. All rights reserved.