Theodore Drange Drange Mchugh Drange6

Closing Statement (2004)

Theodore M. Drange


In finishing up my debate with Chris McHugh (CM), I shall first deal with the remarks that he made in his fourth rebuttal and then, at the end, return briefly to my argument from nonbelief.

CM claimed that in his opening statement he had made a “case for Christian belief.” But in fact he did no such thing. Nowhere in his opening statement or in any of his rebuttals did he define “the God of Christianity” or make any effort to support belief in that deity. At best, what CM tried to do is formulate a version of Christian mysticism. If his aim was clarity, then he failed miserably. Anyway, he has not done the thing which he originally said he would do in this debate and that is “to make a case for the existence of the God of Christianity.”

I: CM’s Argument from Simplicity (AS)

The argument is still aimed at showing that complex things (i.e., things with parts) are made up, ultimately, of things with no parts, but that those things with no parts, having no size, cannot compose the very things of which they are the parts. Of course this is nonsense, but CM tried to draw inferences from it. He never told us what “things with no parts” are supposed to be, nor did he provide any example of them, but he called them “the most basic substance” and then went on to say, “the most basic substance of reality could not have caused other things to begin to exist by composing them with its own substance, but instead had to create them out of nothing.” He concluded with: “complex substances are ultimately reducible to ideas in the mind of God.” No definition was provided for the expression “ideas in the mind of God.” In fact, CM never even provided a definition of “God.” As a result, AS remains, as from the start, just a jumble of words that has not been supplied with any clear meaning.[1]

II: CM’s Argument from Freedom (AF)

CM claimed that I deny the existence of free will, but that is false. I said, instead, that free will is the absence of coercion and, as such, is indeed a common feature of our lives. CM also erred in calling compatibilism “determinism under a different name.” It is certainly not that. Many of my students were both compatibilists and indeterminists. They rejected determinism, but stated that even if determinism were true it would not conflict with the existence of free will, which made them compatibilists.

Contrary to what CM claimed, I did not try to make any case for determinism in this debate. All I did was to attack his AF. AF introduced a concept of “free will” that departs from ordinary language. Whereas speakers of English take free will to be an absence of coercion, CM instead tried to define it as an absence of both determining causes and randomness. That is a very peculiar notion and I sought clarification of it. I asked what connection there would be between a free choice in CM’s peculiar sense and the agent’s nature and deliberations. For example, could the agent (the person making the choice) have run through exactly the same deliberations but come to a different choice? Could the agent have had the same beliefs and desires but make a different choice? CM made no attempt to answer my questions. It is as though he had no comprehension of their force and significance for AF.

CM tried to refute determinism by saying: “People can choose to submit to their desires or resist them. They can choose to deliberate over an action, or to forego thinking about it. A person can choose to be compelled by biological drives, or can bring such drives into submission.” But this does not attack determinism. All it shows is that there are higher-order desires which sometimes override lower-order desires. For example, a person on a strict diet could refuse a piece of cake that he desires to eat. All choices are still determined by desires of one sort or another. CM has not shown otherwise.

I argued that it is impossible for a person to ascertain via introspection that his choice is not totally determined by the events in his brain, since those events are hidden from us. It would require surgery or special instruments for brain events to be revealed. CM sailed blithely by that point as well, continuing to make his dubious claim that people can intuit that their choices are not caused by brain events. He continued to recite his mantra that “people feel free,” not realizing that such a feeling is simply people’s apprehension that there are no coercive factors that force their choice. He continued to confuse coercive factors with causes, never having grasped the insight provided by compatibilism that there can be causation without coercion. These are points learned by every student in an introductory philosophy course. CM showed no comprehension of them in this debate. As a consequence, his AF, which is nothing more than the argument “God must have created people, since they feel free,” is a dismal failure.

III: CM’s Argument from Morality (AM)

I offered two nontheistic theories which would allow moral obligation to be objective: consequentialism and intuitionism. CM tried to attack them, but failed. Against consequentialism, he raised the question “What if the majority of people can avoid suffering by causing the suffering of a lesser number of innocent people?” Presumably he thought that such an action would be wrong but that consequentialism would incorrectly assess it as being right. This approach is naive. We need a fully developed example here. We cannot tell from CM’s brief description what sort of action he had in mind. Is it wrong, for example, for a society to draft people into the military to defend it from attack? That would be a case of the majority protecting itself by causing an innocent minority to suffer. It should also be noted that consequentialism is formulated in terms of consequences in the long run. CM totally ignored that aspect of it. It could be that the sort of case he imagined (whatever it might have been) has benefits for the majority in the short term, but bad consequences in the long run. Consequentialism would then deem the given action morally wrong, not morally right as CM mistakenly claimed.

CM also tried to attack consequentialism as providing no motive for being moral in the case of people who are not by nature altruistic. One could reply that being moral is always in one’s own interest because there is always a risk of punishment or retaliation for acting immorally. The only way to completely eliminate that risk is to make acting morally one’s general rule. As the saying goes, “Honesty is the best policy.” Another motive for being moral is self-image and self-fulfillment. People feel more pride in themselves and more self-fulfilled if they are moral than if they are immoral. Even people who are not by nature altruistic have such a sense of self-image and self-fulfillment which they feel inclined to try to foster. Both of these considerations provide motive for being moral. It should be noted, however, that even if no such motives could be provided, consequentialism could still be a perfectly correct theory of morality. CM has not put forth anything whatever to refute it.[2]

CM had no objection to intuitionism and seemed not to understand it. He took it to be the claim that atheists have moral intuitions, but that is not at all what it is. Intuitionism is a secular theory of morality that takes the moral wrongness of actions as a nonreducible, objective property of them that we apprehend by our moral intuition. That explains the existence of objective moral values: they are properties inherent in actions. They are simply there! Being nonreducible, they cannot be analyzed or defined in terms of anything simpler. And being inherent in actions, they are objective, as opposed to subjective or relative. We intuit the wrongness of an action quite independently of the issue whether or not God exists. That satisfies CM’s challenge to formulate an objective theory of moral obligation that makes no appeal to God. It also (along with the appeal to consequentialism) refutes the claim within AM that the God hypothesis provides the only way to account for morality as an objective feature of our world.

In my third rebuttal, I also challenged CM to justify the assumption within AM that morality is an objective feature of our world. He said that life’s meaning and value are objective properties, but that runs counter to our common understanding of those concepts. People say, “One man’s meat is another man’s poison,” implying that life’s meaning and value vary from person to person. CM has not at all addressed this objection, and, again, has seemed not to comprehend it. If it should turn out that morality is not an objective feature of our world, then AM would crumble for that reason alone.

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

I claimed that CM’s definition of “negative property” is circular. He tried to get around this by a new definition, but the new one is still circular. It makes use of the following definition:

A property is in class A if and only if (among other things) it is either incompatible with at least one other property in class A or it is entailed by every other property in class A.

Since the expression “being in class A” appears in the definition of “being in class A,” the definition is circular and hence useless.

I also argued that, by CM’s definition of “the divine essence,” there could be a thousand beings which have it, so there could be a thousand “gods.” CM replied, “Beings cannot be distinguished from one another if they have exactly the same defining properties.” This is quite wrong! Consider two apples in a barrel, say, one with a worm in it and one without. We could easily distinguish one of the apples from the other even though they have exactly the same defining properties (namely those given in the dictionary under “apple”). Thus, the “thousand gods” objection still stands.

In addition, I pointed out that the expression “possessed essentially by a being” has no meaning in the context in which CM uses it. CM tried to respond to this by appeal to the example of his computer. He said that it has essential properties, but “being possessed by CM” is not one of them. But he did not supply any example of one of those essential properties. Perhaps what he means is that since the object is identified as a computer, its essential properties would be the defining properties of a computer. But in that case, we are given a word, “computer,” which we can look up in the dictionary to get essential properties. That does not apply in the case of CM’s definition of “God” as “that which possesses every negative property that can be possessed essentially by a being,” since we are not there supplied with any word which we can look up in the dictionary to get essential properties. Thus, CM’s computer example is irrelevant to my objection. CM has still not supplied any meaning for the expression “possessed essentially by a being” as it appears in his definition of “God.” As a result, the word “God” as it appears in ANP is meaningless, and the whole argument, for this reason as well as others, is unintelligible.

V: God’s Alleged Nondeficiency

I had listed nine properties as possible divine attributes and invited CM to tell us which ones are possessed by his deity. His reply was: “[None] of the positive properties on Drange’s list apply to God.” It is unclear which ones are the “positive” properties, but presumably they are the following: (1) having a desire to create something, (2) being able to change, (3) existing in space & time, (4) being like a person (e.g., having emotions), (5) having desires and hopes regarding humanity, (6) being pleased or displeased by various human actions, (7) feeling compassion for humans when they suffer, (8) sacrificing himself/itself for others, and (9) knowing for sure what he/it will do in the future. CM is saying that his deity does not have any of these nine properties. But all, or almost all, of these properties are basic constituents of the Christian concept of God. It is clear, then, that whether or not CM has intelligibly defined the term “God,” he is very definitely not addressing the Christian concept of God. Thus, he has not done in this debate that which he initially said he would do.

CM also seems to have contradicted himself here, for he claimed that no positive properties apply to God, yet he ascribed some positive properties to God in his arguments. In AS, he ascribed to God the positive properties of having a mind and having ideas in its mind. In AF and AM, he ascribed the positive properties of having created humans and being the source of moral obligation. In his remarks on Christianity, he ascribed to God the positive properties of loving humans and wanting them to achieve their “ultimate good.” It seems, then, that CM’s remarks about the nature of God and God’s alleged “nondeficiency” are just one huge mass of confusion.

VI: CM on Christianity

CM’s remarks about Christianity all revolved around the concept of “sin.” My basic objection was that he never gave any good reason to believe that there is such a thing as “sin” in his sense. For CM to do that, he would have had to show that people were created rather than evolved, that they were created for some single “ultimate good,” and that they are aware of what that good is. But he has not shown any of these things. In his last rebuttal, CM did not even address this issue.

I had a secondary objection, which was that the very idea of “sin” in CM’s sense is peculiar in that it is unclear why people who are aware of their “ultimate good” would deliberately reject it. CM claimed that people do such a thing when they begin to smoke even though they know it will cause them health problems. But that is dubious. It is much more likely that people who begin to smoke have little or no thought at that time of future health problems. CM also claimed that people’s “ultimate good” calls for them to trust an incomprehensible God, which is hard to do. He said “it is very tempting to break this relationship of trust … in favor of having a sense of control or for the sake of some readily available pleasure.” And “God allows people to reject the purpose for which they were created if they so choose.” The truth of the matter is that people do not have knowledge of any “relationship with an incomprehensible God” or “the purpose for which they were created.” Those notions are pure speculation on CM’s part. For him to assume that all humans have awareness of their “ultimate good” and the “purpose for which they were created” (as CM sees it) is downright absurd. So, in the end, he still has not even located people who are aware of any such, let alone provide a reason why they might reject that which they are aware of.

My overall conclusion regarding CM’s attempt to support God’s existence and Christianity is that it is a complete failure. CM never did define “God” in an intelligible way, never did construct an intelligible argument for God’s existence, never connected his God-talk with (mainstream) Christianity, and so never even came close to accomplishing that which he initially claimed he would accomplish.

VII: The Argument from Nonbelief (ANB)

In contrast, my own positive aim in this debate was more modest. It was to put forward ANB as an evidential argument for the nonexistence of God, conceived of as possessing certain specific features. I described God as a rational, all-powerful deity who: (1) has unrestricted love for humanity, (2) desires that all humans be saved, (3) desires that all humans love him in return (and even commanded them to do that, calling it his “greatest commandment”), (4) commanded human missionaries to spread the gospel message worldwide (and even empowered some of them to perform miracles in order to get the message across), and (5) requires that people accept Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior in order for them to receive the gift of salvation. The fact that 2/3 of the people on our planet do not believe the gospel message counts as overwhelming evidence that such a deity does not exist.[3] And, as I pointed out in my rebuttals, even if property (5), above, were to be omitted from the description, the given fact about people’s nonbelief would still be strong evidence for the nonexistence of the described deity.

CM tried to reply to ANB but he never managed to focus explicitly on the deity described above [with or without property (5) included in the description]. Thus he never really came to grips with ANB, for it is only to the sort of deity described above [with or without (5)] that ANB is to be applied. As a result, CM never did manage to say anything relevant to the positive argument that I presented in this debate.


[1] There is indeed a kind of puzzle about the ultimate composition of matter. I referred to it as “the paradox of the infinitesimal.” Do things just keep being composed of smaller and smaller finite things, indefinitely? Or are there such things as “ultimate particles”? Would such particles have size, and if not, then how are they able to compose larger particles? These are problems for physicists to work out. There are many puzzles for scientists pertaining to the ultimate nature of matter, energy, space, and time. But to leap from the mere existence of such problems to an abandonment of science itself and to obscure talk of “ideas in the mind of God” is downright ridiculous. No puzzle has ever been solved by spouting nonsense.

[2] The whole issue of whether or not it makes sense to speak of “motives for being moral” is fraught with conceptual snares to which CM seems totally oblivious. For a discussion of the topic, including objections to a theistic approach to it, see my Secular Web essay “Why Be Moral?

[3] I referred to the deity in question as “the God of evangelical Christianity,” but the label is not of any great importance. What is important is the fact that there are indeed millions of people who do believe in a deity described in the given way. ANB is addressed specifically to those people.

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