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Drange-McHugh Debate: McHugh’s Fourth Rebuttal


Christopher McHugh

In this rebuttal, I argue that Drange has failed to demonstrate any problems with the case for Christian belief given in my opening statement.

Argument from Simplicity (AS)

Drange grants that the individual the steps in AS are reasonable, but objects that the conclusion cannot be believed, and should be regarded as paradoxical. I don’t see any absurdity in the conclusion. I recommend that the reader go back and review the version of AS from my opening statement, because Drange’s rendition of it in his latest rebuttal is misleading.

The first stage of AS shows that the most basic substance of reality cannot be something with parts.[1]

The second stage of AS shows that 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.[2]

The third stage of AS shows that if one tries to understand how the simple substance creates from nothing, then the best model is that of a mind conceiving ideas rather than that of a mechanistic process.

Drange did not attack any of the premises or inferences in any of these three stages of AS. Instead, he merely dismissed the conclusion as unworthy of belief. Drange’s dismissal seems to be based on deep confusion. Certainly there is no absurdity in the notion that the ultimate reality is something like a mind that creates other substances by willing them to be, but does not compose them directly. Indeed, the vast majority of people, being theistic, believe something like this to be the case.

The argument from simplicity forces one to adopt one of two options:

  1. One can believe that objects are ultimately composed of other objects that have no size at all. [This belief is unreasonable, and Drange admits this.]
  2. One can believe that complex objects can best be explained as being likened to ideas in the mind of God.

On Drange’s view, we are left with the paradox of the infinitesimal (and he admits this), but if one believes that there is a divine creator, then the problem is solved.

One important objection that Drange did not raise, but is worth consideration, is as follows:

Objection: If there are complex substances, then they must be ultimately composed of something. Since complex substances are reducible to simpler parts, they must ultimately be composed of something perfectly simple, but AS also argues that something perfectly simple cannot compose anything. Consequently, AS fails.

This problem disappears when divests oneself of materialist assumptions and adopts the view that complex substances are ultimately reducible to ideas in the mind of God. Ideas and abstractions are such that they do not necessarily require parts in order to be. Consider, for example, that the human mind can imagine a line without having to imagine the infinite number of individual points that would make up the line if it were to be analyzed. The idea of a complex object, like a line, can exist without being reduced to an infinity of subideas. The idea of a line can exist independently of there being ideas of its individual points. Similarly, it could be said that God can conceive of a complex object without having to conceive of all of the individual parts of the object. An interesting consequence of this view is that the smallest physical particles (which are really reducible to divine idea) would only exist under certain conditions (such as being observed by someone). It would be comparable to the situation in which a mind decides to analyze and observe its idea of a line, and consequently the ideas of the individual points on the line thereby begin to exist. But, when one is not observing the idea of the line in such a way, then the ideas of the individual points are not present.

So, knowing this much about how human ideas work, what is absurd about saying that the basic substance of reality is a divine mind that creates all complex realities by a process that can be likened to imagination? The physical world can best be explained as something like an idea in the mind of God. Drange would rather just give up the question as being unanswerable than posit a creator, but this appears to be nothing more than a presuppositional antipathy towards theism.

Argument from Freedom (AF)

Drange’s response to this argument is simply to deny the existence of free will as the term is commonly used. What he calls ‘compatibilism’ is merely determinism under a different name. On Drange’s view, all of our actions are causally determined, and no human actions are contracausally free in the sense that I am referring to in AF. Drange writes:

As compatibilism shows, actions can be perfectly free even if they are causally determined.

So, according to Drange, freedom is really a special case of determinism. On Drange’s view, one’s actions are completely causally determined by the internal processes within a person. This entails that humans are basically biological robots; a person is a very advanced chemical reaction playing itself out over seventy years or so.

On the contrary, 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.

Most people believe that their actions are not totally determined by prior causal factors, whether internal or external. Intuition and experience strongly suggest that our actions are not always causally determined, but are, in at least some cases, genuinely free.

Drange admits that he finds the notion of free will to be obscure. He writes:

CM regards a free action to be a kind of event which is neither causally determined nor random. That is very obscure.

People can experience the nature of their free will directly through introspection. Basic self-reflection reveals the intuition that at least some of one’s actions are neither causally determined, nor are they purely random. Instead, there is a third option, and almost everyone in the world understands the meaning of this third option without any difficulty. Indeed, most people would be deeply offended at Drange’s assertion that all of their actions are causally determined, for such a view is at great variance with human dignity. Ultimately, if the reader does not believe in free will, then there is nothing that can be done to convince them; any reasons given as evidence for freedom would be less evident than the direct experience of personal choice. The argument from freedom is meant for those who share the near universal belief that at least some human actions are neither deterministically caused nor are purely random. Since naturalistic processes alone are insufficient to bring about beings that can act with freedom of the will, the fact that there is such a thing as free will leads one to the conclusion that God exists as the creator of the human person.

Argument from Morality (AM)

I argued that if God does not exist, then there is no objective basis for morality. Drange responded that morality is objective even on an atheist worldview, and proposed some examples. He writes:

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.

One obvious problem with this theory is that morality becomes a matter of majority rule. What if the majority of people can avoid suffering by causing the suffering of a lesser number of innocent people? What if there are two competing nations with conflicting interests? Must the smaller nation submit to the larger one’s selfish demands so as to avoid frustrating the desires of a greater number of people?

Another problem is that there is absolutely no good motive for adopting this moral theory. If God does not exist, and there is no meaning to life, why should anyone sacrifice his own quality of life for the sake of another? Obviously, if a person has a desire to be altruistic, then that would be motive to act in such a way. But what about situations in which there is no desire to be kind, and there are strong desires to the contrary? Drange’s worldview offers no answer at all.

Drange suggests that we can know objective morality by intuition. He writes:

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.

Drange evinces a deep misunderstanding the issue. I don’t deny that an atheist can know and obey moral truth by intuition. The point is that, in the absence of God, there is neither a basis for explaining the existence of objective moral values, nor is there any motive for practicing them. If there is no God, then there is no objective meaning and purpose for human life, and the notion of moral obligation is nothing more than a genetic and cultural influence. As such, it is neither binding nor objective. Furthermore, the notion of choosing between right and wrong action presupposes the reality of free will (and hence, by AF, demonstrates the existence of God). It is easy to see that if all of one’s actions are causally determined or purely random, then the distinction between moral vs. immoral action is meaningless.

Argument from Negative Properties (ANP)

Drange persists in the belief that Gale’s definition of a negative property is circular. It is important to realize that Gale is a nontheist, and his theory of properties was conceived totally independently of my ontological argument. Gale’s definition has also remained as the default position on the matter for over twenty five years. There is no problem in constructing two mutually exclusive and jointly exhaustive classes of properties based on their entailment relations as Gale does with his definition.

Consider that one can construct two mutually exclusive and jointly exhaustive classes of properties, called class A and class B. Any given property must fit into one and only one of the classes.

A property belongs to class A if and only if it meets the following conditions:

  1. If it entails any other properties, it must entail at least one property from class B.
  2. If it entails any other properties, then it must be incompatible with at least one other property in class A.
  3. If it does not entail any other properties, then it must be entailed by every other property in class A.

A property belongs to class B if and only if it does not meet the criteria for belonging to class A.

If one attempts to allocate all of the properties into these two classes, one will find that there is only one consistent way to do it, and class B will consist entirely of what Gale and I call negative properties. Clearly, the definition works just fine.

Drange goes on to object that there may be more than one being with a strictly negative essence. He writes:

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?

Drange fails to grasp that beings cannot be distinguished from one another if they have exactly the same defining properties. In order for one being to be distinct from another, there must be a difference in their essences. But there can’t be a difference in the essences of two beings that are defined with exactly the same defining properties. Furthermore, a being with a strictly negative essence must be ‘nonfinite’, and there cannot be a multiplicity of beings that are absolutely nonfinite, for they would be limited against one another. Moreover, a being that has a purely negative essence must be without deficiency of any kind, and so cannot have the deficiency of being one among a number of equals. Instead, such a being would have to be utterly matchless.

Drange questions what I mean by the notion of a property being possessed essentially. An essential property of something is a property that a given being possesses in every possible world in which that particular being exists. Consider that there are possible worlds in which my computer exists, and I do not. So, ‘being Chris McHugh’s computer’ is not a property that defines the essential nature of the computer that I am using. Some properties, like “being worshipped by Christians” cannot be possessed essentially by anything because they are only exemplified by virtue of a set of beings existing in some contingent relationship. The definition of God that I am using here simply states that God possesses every negative property that can be possessed essentially by a being.

Drange also insists that my argument has nothing to do with the deity worshipped by most Christians. This is hard to understand given the quote from the Catholic Catechism and the long tradition of negative theology within Christianity.

Drange continues:

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.

Drange is simply wrong about this. Christians do not believe that God was required to create anything. To believe otherwise would be sharply contrary to Christian teaching.

God’s Nondeficiency

Drange argues that the property of ‘nondeficiency? makes no sense because there is no such thing as any objective value. This is a sad and disturbing stance to take, and it is refuted by Drange’s own arguments. Earlier, when attempting to refute the argument from morality, Drange claimed that there are objective standards of right and wrong. So, according to Drange, there is, at least, objective moral value. Therefore, God’s nondeficiency would at least entail that God is not morally evil. Drange has also claimed that my arguments throughout this debate have been bad ones. So, I assume he must concur that it is better to be ‘in the know’ than to be deceived about the nature of reality. Consequently, God’s nondeficiency would entail that God is not deceived about the nature of reality. Are there other objective goods? How about happiness? Certainly everyone can agree that it is better to be happy than unhappy. Of course, this entails that it is good to have the power to achieve and maintain happiness. Does Drange really think otherwise? It is obvious that there are objectively valuable situations and attributes. Drange’s gratuitous assertion to the contrary does not constitute reason to doubt the obvious.

Drange complains:

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. 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.

I answered this when I wrote that God’s nondeficiency is beyond all positive properties. Surely, that than which nothing greater can be conceived is something that is beyond the limits of the human imagination. Anything that can be positively conceived is something that can conceivably be improved in some way. Hence, I simply deny that any of the positive properties on Drange’s list apply to God.


Drange’s problem with my argument for Christianity is with the idea of sin. He writes:

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?

People act contrary to their own best interests very often. It usually happens as the result of desiring immediate gratification while disregarding the knowledge of the consequences of one’s actions (e.g., people begin smoking despite the knowledge that it will likely lead to future health problems). For some unknown reason, Drange seems totally unaware of this basic fact about human life. Has Drange ever done anything that he considers morally wrong? If so, why? On Drange’s view, is acting in a morally perfect way something detrimental to one’s good?

A person may choose to reject their ultimate good in favor of a lesser good because the ultimate good is not immediately available to be experienced, but the lesser good is. In a correct relationship between God and a human being, there is a situation in which a finite human will submits itself completely to the providence of the infinite and incomprehensible God, and so receives the full measure of the good that God offers it. Until and unless the human person enters this relationship of absolute trust, the ultimate good that God offers cannot be received or experienced. Necessarily, one can’t be in a perfectly loving relationship with someone who isn’t trusted. But, since a human being (as a finite creature) can never totally comprehend God, this act of trusting God can only be done if the human person radically chooses to accept God’s will despite not understanding it. Such an act of trust is what is commonly called ‘faith’. Without a constant decision to act in faith, it is impossible to be in right relationship with God. At times, trusting totally in an incomprehensible God can be quite frightening, especially, when one wants to have the security of knowing and controlling the future. Consequently, it is very tempting to break this relationship of trust, and reject a right relationship with God (and hence the ultimate good) in favor of having a sense of control, or for the sake of some readily available pleasure.

Drange goes on:

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.

God created people for the sake of being in a love relationship with Him forever. Since forced love is essentially rape, God allows people to reject the purpose for which they were created if they so choose.


[1] Drange raises the point that numbers and other abstractions do not depend on simpler parts, and so there can be more than one perfectly simple being. This does not really militate against AS though, because the reasoning therein is relegated to consideration of the most basic substance of nonabstract reality. The question posed is whether this basic nonabstract substance is simple or complex. AS shows that it must be simple.

[2] Drange alleges that I have confused AS with the kalam cosmological argument, but he has severely misunderstood me. I raised the issue of the origin of space and time in response to Drange’s criticism of AS that there may be more than one perfectly simple being. My point was that if space began to exist, then there could only be one simple being, for any differentiation between multiple nonabstract beings would presuppose space. Since space did begin to exist, Drange’s objection founders.

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