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Drange-McHugh Debate: Drange’s Third Rebuttal


Chris McHugh (CM) still has not done the thing that he had originally said he would do in this debate and that is to “attempt to make a case for the existence of the God of Christianity.” Nowhere in his first rebuttal is there any definition of “the God of Christianity” and nowhere is there any argument that leads to the conclusion that that deity exists.

In what follows, I shall retain the previous format, dividing my remarks into six sections, corresponding to the six sections of CM’s opening statement.

I: CM’s Argument from Simplicity (AS)

I asked CM what he means by “depends on” and he replied: “dependency is an ontological relationship in which a whole depends on its individual parts.” So, now AS seems to begin as follows:

  1. Every complex thing depends on its parts, which, in turn, depend on their parts, etc.
  2. This chain of dependency can’t go on infinitely: there must be some parts, finally, which are things that have no parts.
  3. Whatever has size has parts.
  4. Thus, the things which have no parts cannot have any size. [from 2 & 3]
  5. But that which has no size cannot contribute to the composition of anything.
  6. Therefore, the things which have no parts cannot compose the very things of which they are the parts. [from 4 & 5]
  7. It follows that the ultimate reality must create stuff out of nothing. [from 6]

The argument to step 6 is “the Paradox of the Infinitesimal.” Steps 1-5 strike me as prima facie reasonable and 6 does indeed follow from the preceding steps. However, step 6 is obviously absurd, which is what creates the paradox. Step 7 is also absurd, but we need not even go there. Why CM should want to try to derive God’s existence from a paradox is unclear, but in any case AS is a failure. No one can accept 6 as true. I have no easy solution to the Paradox of the Infinitesimal, but that does not commit anyone to God’s existence.

In my first rebuttal, I suggested that there might be several things which do not depend on anything else. One example was numbers, conceived as abstract entities. CM made no reply to that one. Another example was that of particles which pop into existence uncaused. I was then under the impression that possibly what CM meant by “dependence on something else” was a causal relation. However, in his second rebuttal, he said all he means by it is just having parts. He denies that the parts of a chair are identical to the whole chair. Thus, when the chair is dependent on its parts, according to CM, it is dependent on something other than itself. It follows that CM’s refutation of the uncaused particles example should be simply that even if there were such particles, they would still have (and be dependent on) parts, and so, they would not be things which do not depend on anything else.

However, that is not how CM attacked my example. Instead, he adamantly claimed that there are no such things as uncaused particles, and, indeed, there couldn’t be! It is as though he really does intend the relation of “dependence of something else,” on which AS is based, to be a causal relation after all. I shall not get into the matter of the existence of uncaused particles. Others have defended the point quite ably.[1] What I want to point out here is CM’s continued ambivalence over the “parts” interpretation of “dependence on something else” versus the causal interpretation of it. One of my main critiques of AS was its unclarity on this very point, and the unclarity is still there, even in CM’s second rebuttal!

CM continues in his digression by arguing that space and time did not originate uncaused. Nowhere does he try to explain how that is relevant to his AS. The claim that nothing ever begins to exist without a cause, which CM adamantly tries to defend, does not appear within AS, but is a premise of the kalam cosmological argument. Apparently CM has lost sight of what his AS is, for he seems to be confusing it with that other argument.

Another objection that I raised against AS was that it is obscure because we have no idea of what something without parts is supposed to be. CM provides no example of that. Is it supposed to be something like quarks, which some physicists liken to point particles? CM failed to address this objection too. In his second rebuttal, he says that whatever caused space and time to begin to exist is something without parts, but that comment is not only unhelpful, it is incoherent. At the end of that section, CM refers to “the theistic view that I have proposed in AS.” I do not find any such view proposed there. The term “God” does not appear in AS, nor is there anything sufficiently intelligible to warrant calling a “view.”

II: CM’s Argument from Freedom (AF)

In my first rebuttal, I raised nine objections to AF, labeled “(A)-(I).” CM only addresses objections (F) & (G) and omits consideration of all the others. And in what he says, he reveals that he did not even understand those two objections.

Compatibilism is not, as CM puts it, “a third option between genuinely free actions and those that are compulsory.” It is, rather, the view that not all causally determined actions are compelled (or compulsory, to use CM’s term). Only those actions that are determined by “interfering” causes, where that is suitably defined, are compelled, and all the others are free, even though they may be determined by prior causal factors. Freedom, according to compatibilism, is not the absence of causal determination, but the absence of compulsion, where “compulsion” is given a very specific definition in terms of interference with the agent’s desires.[2]

CM claims that I suggested that we are unjustified in the belief that we have free will. But I made no such suggestion. What I denied is that people can be directly aware that their actions have no causal determinants, a point which CM fails to address in his second rebuttal. As compatibilism shows, actions can be perfectly free even if they are causally determined. I readily grant that we have an intuition that some of our actions are free, i.e., not compelled, and have never denied that. What I do deny is that all causally determined actions are compelled.

CM regards a free action to be a kind of event which is neither causally determined nor random. That is very obscure. As I asked in my objection (H), if X is making a “free choice,” in CM’s sense, then what is the connection between that choice and X’s nature and deliberations? Do the nature and deliberations completely determine X’s choice? If not, then what is the connection between them, and is “free will,” in that case, something undesirable? What could the explanation for the choice possibly be? It is really unclear just what such “free will” might come to and whether it exists. One main reason why AF is a failure is that its concept of “free will” is totally obscure.

My objections (B), (C), (D), and (E) all sought clarification of AF’s premise 1. CM does not mention any of them or his premise 1. It is as though he would like to just forget about the whole business. Nor does CM mention my objection (I), which raised the issue of a possible conflict between human free will and God’s foreknowledge. Maybe he would like to forget about that problem as well.

III: CM’s Argument from Morality (AM)

My first objection challenged CM to define “God,” which is a term explicitly contained in AM. CM came up empty. He later attempts a kind of definition in connection with his argument from negative properties, but he makes no connection whatever between that concept there and AM. We still don’t know what the God of AM is supposed to be.

I mentioned consequentialism as one possible secular theory of moral obligation. CM’s objection to it is: “that says nothing about whether a given action (such as rape, for example) is objectively morally wrong.” This is incorrect. Consequentialism does indeed address the moral wrongness of actions. It says that certain actions (such as rape) are objectively morally wrong because they have bad consequences (in terms of causing suffering) in the long run. CM has done nothing to try to refute this theory.

Another possible secular theory of moral obligation is intuitionism, which takes the moral wrongness of actions as a nonreducible, objective property of them that we apprehend by our moral intuition. CM likes the idea of intuiting one’s own free will, so he should have no problem with the idea of intuiting one’s own moral obligations. Moral intuitions could be likened to logical intuitions and moral judgments taken to be a kind of a priori proposition. There is absolutely nothing within atheism that is inconsistent with intuitionism. According to CM, atheists must believe that “human beings are merely chemical reactions.” That is sheer rubbish that CM made up himself. Atheism need not have any such implication.

In my third objection, I raised the question how God is supposed to create moral obligations. CM replied: “moral absolutes proceed necessarily from our relationship to God’s perfect nature.” What is that supposed to mean? The word “perfect” is a relative term. What is “perfect” to one person is “not perfect” to another, and there is no fact of the matter there. Also, what is our “relationship to God’s nature” supposed to be? CM’s answer to the question “Why is rape morally wrong?” is “The wrongness of rape proceeds from our relationship to God’s nature.” That is gibberish. At least consequentialism and intuitionism provide intelligible answers to the question. CM’s “moral theory” does not.

Finally, I asked, given that life’s meaning and value are objective properties, as CM claims, how might one observe or measure them? CM says that not everything that is real is measurable and gives the example of mathematical truths. But those are abstractions. Life and its properties are not abstractions. There is a genuine problem how something concrete and observable such as life can have objective properties if those properties are not themselves observable or measurable. CM fails to address this fundamental problem that confronts his argument.

CM claims: “God created us humans for our ultimate good” and so “we must respect others as beings created by God for the sake of their ultimate good.” But how does that “ultimate good” differ from the “good in the long run” that consequentialism advocates? Once we agree what people’s “good” is supposed to be, we can also agree that right actions are those likely to lead to it and wrong actions are those likely to lead away from it. That is consequentialism. There is no need to bring in God. To do so only produces an unnecessarily complex theory. In the end, AM supplies no good reason to think that God exists (however “God” is supposed to be defined).

IV: CM’s Argument from Negative Properties (ANP)

ANP defines “God” as “that being which possesses the maximal conjunction of negative properties that can be possessed essentially by one being.” I cited three problems with this definition: how do you define the phrases “negative property,” “maximal conjunction,” and “possessed essentially by one being”? CM addresses the first two questions but omits the third one. Let me pursue those questions further:

  1. What is a negative property supposed to be? Two definitions are supplied. The first takes it to be “one that specifies no property which is not of the same quality.” The second definition also defines “negative property” in terms of “same quality.” I asked how “same quality” might be defined, other than “being the same with regard to positive/negative,” which would create a problem of circularity. CM gave no answer except to say that “same quality” is “more primitive than being positive (or negative) in quality.” That won’t do. We need an actual definition of “same quality” here. Without that, we cannot understand either of the definitions of “negative property” that were given.
  2. What is a maximal conjunction (of negative properties) supposed to be? In his rebuttal, CM replies that it “merely means that God [is that being which] has no positive essential properties.” This definition still suffers from problem (1), applied to the term “positive” instead of “negative.” It also gives rise to the question why there could not be more than one such being. Why couldn’t there be a thousand beings each of which has no positive essential properties and which are distinguished from one another by their nonessential properties? They would all have “the divine essence,” as CM calls it, and so could be called “gods,” yet they would also have various nonessential properties that distinguish themselves from one another. Why isn’t CM a polytheist?
  3. What does “possessed essentially by one being” mean? In note 7 of his opening statement, CM gave the example: an essential property of an apple is “being a type of fruit.” It seems, then, that an essential property is a defining property. To ascertain essential properties, one needs to have a word (like “apple”) which one can look up in a dictionary. But in the phrase “possessed essentially by one being,” there is no word to look up, so it is unclear what the phrase means. Things do not have essential properties in themselves, only in virtue of exemplifying some concept. If I hold an apple in my hand, and ask, “What are the essential properties of this thing?” the question would make sense only if the object were first categorized. One could answer, “Taking it to be an apple, one of its essential properties would be ‘being a type of fruit.'” But if I am just using it as an artists’ model, then one could answer, “As an artists’ model, one of its essential properties would be “being visible,’ and “being a type of fruit’ would then be a nonessential property of it.” The essential properties of a thing are relative to the concept or category under which it is being subsumed. When CM defines “God” as “that being which has no positive essential properties,” he fails to supply a concept or category relative to which the term “essential” can be understood, so the term has no meaning in that context. I raised this objection as part of my objection (A), but CM seems not to have comprehended it.

Another objection to ANP is that it makes no connection with the deity worshiped by most Christians. CM says, “the existence of the universe relies on God for its being, but this says nothing positive about the essential nature of God.” In contrast, almost all Christians define “God” as (among other things) “the creator of the universe.” They would not think, as CM does, that there are possible worlds in which God did not create the universe. So, not only is ANP a failure because of its utter obscurity, but it is also irrelevant to this debate since it fails to address the existence of the deity believed in by most Christians.

V: God’s Alleged nondeficiency

CM says, “God does not have any of the properties that entail a genuine inferiority to some possible being, such as “weakness’ or “stupidity’ or whatever.” He provides no criterion at all for ascertaining whether or not a given property “entails a genuine inferiority to some possible being,” so this part of CM’s definition of “God” is also obscure. I listed nine properties as possible divine attributes and claimed that CM could not objectively decide for any of them whether or not they are possessed by his deity.[3] CM did not address any of my examples. Thus, my charge that the terms “deficiency” and “nondeficiency” are not sufficiently objective to be used in reasoning went essentially unanswered.

VI: CM on Christianity

All of CM’s arguments for Christianity are based on the premise that sin occurs, where “sin” is defined as “people rejecting the ultimate good for which they were created.” My objection to that premise is that there is no reason whatever to believe it to be true. In order for sin, in that sense, to occur, people would need to: (a) have been created, as opposed to having evolved in the way described by the Darwinian theory, (b) have exactly one “ultimate good” (whatever that may be), and (c) be aware of their “ultimate good” (since one has to be aware of something in order to reject it). CM has not supported any of these three conditions for sin. Thus, there is no basis whatever for his premise that sin occurs, which is the foundation for all of his arguments for Christianity. Although I stated this objection in my first rebuttal, CM seems not to have comprehended it.

Beyond being totally unsupported, the very idea of “sin” in CM’s sense is conceptually peculiar. If people are aware of their “ultimate good,” why would they reject it? According to CM, the rejection is done deliberately by means of a free-will choice. What could be the motive for rejecting something beneficial to oneself? CM described people who: (1) “regard other things as more important than the ultimate good for which they were created,” (2) “do not care that God created them for the sake of their ultimate good” and/or (3) “do not care that God created others for the sake of their [the others’] ultimate good,” but he failed to explain why any of those people came to be the way they are and how it is somehow a free-will choice on their part to be that way. If a person is stupid or ignorant, then that is an unfortunate condition for which he need not himself be responsible. Why would God create people for some goal beneficial to themselves but then allow them to reject that goal as a consequence of their own stupidity or ignorance? It would be irrational of him to do that. In the end, CM’s whole notion of people freely choosing to reject that which is most beneficial to themselves is an incoherent idea.


[1] According to physicist Vic Stenger, “Since the early days of atomic and nuclear physics, we have had particles popping into existence uncaused (but still conserving energy), as in atomic transition or nuclear decay. Generally speaking, relativity showed that particles can be created and destroyed and quantum mechanics showed that uncaused events can happen.” For a brief account of the hypothesis of an uncaused universe, see his essay “Inflation and Creation.”

[2] In appendix A of my book, I gave three examples of compelled actions, those of people who: are robbed at gunpoint, are physically addicted to drugs, and have a brain implant that directs their behavior.

[3] The properties were: having a desire to create something, having the ability to change, existing in space & time, being like a person (e.g., having emotions), having desires and hopes regarding humanity, being pleased and/or displeased by various human actions, feeling compassion for humans when they suffer, sacrificing himself/itself for others, and knowing for sure what he/it will do in the future.

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