Monday, October 19, 2009

Vox Day vs Luke:
Nosing into a Discussion

I have quoted The Irrational Atheist by Vox Day in three major posts:

I added Vox Popoli -- Vox Day's blog -- to my reading list and, lo and behold, ran into the 6th letter (3 from each side) in a dialogue between Day and Luke Muehlhauser at Common Sense Atheism. Apparently, Luke requested this dialogue and kicked it off with his first letter at his blog
  1. Luke's 1st letter: Luke presents that, as opposed to me, he had spiritual experiences of God that his intellect eventually rejected:
    I grew up a non-denominational evangelical Christian. I loved God and had vivid spiritual experiences that transformed my life for the better. Then I did some studying and learned that all my reasons for believing in God were really bad reasons. I really wanted to be a Christian, and I begged desperately for God to show himself to me, but in the end I had to admit I had no better reasons to believe in God than to believe in Shiva or fairies.
    After the intro, the questions:
    1. Why are you a Christian?:
      . . . for the sake of argument let’s say all the theistic arguments succeed, and all the atheistic arguments fail. Let’s say the modal ontological argument establishes the existence of an omniscient, omnipotent, and all-good being. Cosmological arguments establish this God as the creator of the universe. Design arguments establish that he purposely designed the universe to host intelligent life. Historical analysis shows that Jesus rose from the dead. Let’s say all that is true. My question is, Why are you a Christian? A Christian asserts a huge number of highly dubious propositions that are not established even if all these arguments are granted.
    2. How do you know?
      It seems that to believe all that “extra” stuff of Christian doctrine, you must rely either on your own personal interpretation of the Bible (a library of texts written by dozens of authors with differing views across several centuries and cultures) or else you must rely on some personal revelation given directly to you by God (while denying the validity of personal revelations apparent to members of every other religion).
    3. Evolution:
      Common descent by natural selection and old-earth theory are extremely well-confirmed scientific theories, far better supported by the evidence than other well-established theories you would probably never think to question, like Relativity. Yet you seem to deny evolution and support Young Earth Creationism. Is this correct? If so, how do you conclude such things, given the evidence?
    4. God's morality
      You seem to be saying that someone who creates something has the moral right to do whatever he wants to it. But I don’t see how this can be supported. For one, it would mean that God could be morally right to sexually molest children, mutilate their genitals, torture them, and let them die slowly. Surely this is not what you mean? This principle would also mean that if we create a human baby through an artificial process and grow it in a petri dish, we would be morally permitted to rape, mutilate, torture, and kill this baby. Again: surely this is not what you mean?
  2. Day's 1st letter:
    • Old Business:
      1. Why are you a Christian?
        Because I believe in evil. I believe in objective, material, tangible evil that insensibly envelops every single one of us sooner or later. I believe in the fallen nature of Man, and I am aware that there is no shortage of evidence, scientific, testimonial, documentary, and archeological, to demonstrate that no individual is perfect or even perfectible by the moral standards described in the Bible. I am a Christian because I believe that Jesus Christ is the only means of freeing Man from the grip of that evil. God may not be falsifiable, but Christianity definitely is, and it has never been falsified. The only philosophical problem of evil that could ever trouble the rational Christian is its absence; to the extent that evil can be said to exist, it proves not only the validity of Christianity but its necessity as well. The fact that we live in a world of pain, suffering, injustice, and cruelty is not evidence of God's nonexistence or maleficence, it is exactly the worldview that is described in the Bible. In my own experience and observations, I find that worldview to be far more accurate than any other, including the shiny science fiction utopianism of the secular humanists.
      2. How do you know?
        I don't concern myself much, if at all, with the conventional extra-Biblical dogma that you describe and in which many Christians believe. I am dubious about the concept of the Trinity as it is usually described, do not await an eschatological Rapture, have no problem admitting that the moral commandments of God are arbitrary, and readily agree that the distinction between the eternally saved from the eternally damned appears to be more than a little unfair from the human perspective. On the other hand, I know that evil exists . . . I also know the transforming power that Jesus Christ can exercise to free an individual from evils both large and small because I have seen it in the lives of others and I have felt it in my own life . . . It may amuse you to learn that one girl who knew me only before I was a Christian happened to learn about The Irrational Atheist and wrote to me to express her shock: “The fact that you wrote this book proves there is a God.” . . . there's no reason this would mean anything to you . . . just as an observable transformation in one of my close friend's lives made a distinct impression on me. I certainly do not deny the experiences or revelations of those who subscribe to other religions. I merely question the specific interpretation ascribed to them by those who lived through or received them. After all, the Bible informs us that there are other gods and that those gods are capable of providing such things at their discretion. Among other things, I studied . . . the sacred texts of various religions . . . I have yet to encounter one expressing a religious perspective that can be legitimately confused with the Christian one, nor, in my opinion, do any of these alternative perspectives describe the observable material world as I have experienced it as well as the Christian one does. I think it is astonishing that an ancient Middle Eastern text is frequently a better guide to predicting human behavior than the very best models that the social sciences have produced despite having an advantage of two thousand more years of human experience upon which to draw. I suspect that unless you can understand why the first book in C.S. Lewis's Space Trilogy is called Out of the Silent Planet, unless you fully grasp the implications of the temptation of Jesus in the desert, you cannot possibly understand much about Christianity or the degree of difference between it and other religions.
      3. Evolution:
        I am not a Young Earth Creationist. I don't know how old the Earth or the race of Man is, nor, I contend, does anyone else. I have never been impressed with Bishop Ussher's reasoning or his chronology. I even did some similar calculations when I was seven or eight and concluded at the time that even if one took the Biblical account seriously, there appeared to be a considerable amount of missing information that rendered the chronology incomplete. . . . . . . I am a skeptic who is highly dubious about the theory of evolution by natural selection for three reasons. First, I see it as a dynamic and oftentimes tautological theory of little material value to science. . . Second, the predictive models evolutionary theory produces are reliably incorrect and fall well short of the standard set by the hard sciences. . . Third, the theory of evolution by natural selection does not rest on a scientific foundation, but a logical one; it is no more inherently scientific than the Summa Theologica.
      4. God's morality:
        I will simply note that if a different being had created the world, then a different morality would obviously apply. For more on this, consider reading the second appendix in The Irrational Atheist entitled “Two Dialogues”. I believe logic dictates that the Creator alone has the right to set the standards for His Creation. His game, His rules. In keeping with that principle, God always has the absolute right to do as He sees fit, which just so happens to be precisely the answer He gave to Job and company.
    • New business:
      1. Intellectual laziness:
        It would seem to me that reading the book and then asking questions would be the rational way to go about the process, so perhaps you could enlighten me as to why that is often not the case. I know you've read at least part of The Irrational Atheist, but had you completed it, you would know that some of your assumptions about certain Christian beliefs don't apply to me.
      2. No further discussion of evolution:
        Since our discourse is not intended to be about evolution, but religion proper, I will not go into further detail on the subject in this dialogue except to say that all three of those statements can be verified in substantial detail by anyone who wishes to investigate the matter.
  3. Luke's 2nd letter:
    • Old Business:
      1. Why are you a Christian? How do you know?
        You write as if Christianity is the only worldview that has an account of evil, but this is absurd. All religions have an account of evil. So evil is just as much evidence for their truth as for the truth of Christianity. In fact, many religions have a better account of evil than Christianity does. Consider Zoroastrianism. According to Zoroastrianism, evil is caused by Angra Mainyu, an evil god roughly equal in power to the good creator god, Ahura Mazda. Later, Judaism trimmed things down to just one God, which is theoretically simpler but introduced a major problem: the problem of evil. If there’s only one God, and he’s all-good and all-powerful, then how can there be so much pointless suffering in the world? Or consider Buddhism. Buddhism claims that suffering is the result of desire. Most philosophers today would essentially agree. Contrast this with the Christian concept of evil as a roaming magical force that hunts us down and seeks to destroy us. Which is more plausible? Or consider the atheistic/deistic hypothesis that the universe is indifferent to the joy or suffering of humans and animals. This seems to fit the facts much better than the hypothesis that an all-powerful, perfectly loving God controls our universe . . . you say that other gods probably do exist, and that members of other religions probably do have genuine experiences of non-Christian spirits. But, you say, Christianity is different than those other religions . . . No doubt, Christianity is different. Every religion is different from all the others. But uniqueness is no measure of truth.
      2. Evolution: Read most of Luke's reply there. I am going to cut out any non-theological discussion of evolution at this point. Luke had one theologically-oriented reply:
        You’re right, there isn’t. But there is also no conflict between the concept of Zeus as an origin of lightning followed by natural electric processes. The natural electric processes explain lightning by themselves, so there’s no reason to postulate an additional magical being hiding forever behind the curtain.
      3. God's moral rights:
        I don’t want to discuss the problem of evil here, but suffice it to say that an all-good, all-powerful God doesn’t fit very cleanly with the amount of pointless suffering we see all around the world. A conflict between an evil god and a good god, of roughly equal power, explains things much better. You seem to think that God is “morally right to sexually molest children, mutilate their genitals, torture them, and let them die slowly.” Why? Because he created them. In your words: “His game, His rules.”
      4. Intellectual laziness:
        that’s not an atheistic tendency. It’s a human tendency. We are all short on time. But I know how you feel. I have skim read your book, enough to know that you and I agree about much of what the New Atheists have written. But no, I did not read every word. I have not browsed your blog archives. And I wouldn’t expect you to read my book or blog archives, either. I think we can clarify our views for each other well enough as we go along.
    • New Business
      1. Existence of evil:
        I would like to see you argue for the existence of evil. I think you are adding unnecessary metaphysics to your observations about the world – extra metaphysics that should be shaved off by Occam’s razor. Perhaps you will say that evil is the best explanation for certain events we all dislike . . . To say that the situation requires us to posit “evil” in addition to ordinary things like beliefs and desires is like saying that lightning requires us to posit “Zeus” in addition to ordinary things like electrons. Or perhaps you will say that we know evil exists because we all strongly feel it to be so. But our feelings – even universally held feelings – are often wrong. For thousands of years, people felt they were at the center of the universe, that spirits lived in rocks and trees and rivers, that disease was the product of demons and sin instead of viruses and germs, and so on. Humanity was dead wrong about damn near everything for thousands of years because it trusted its feelings. Only when some of us started to trust rigorous testing and measurement instead of our feelings did our knowledge about our universe start making rapid progress.
  4. Day's 2nd letter: There is only old business - no new
    1. Evolution: Again, nothing theological - read Day's comments in his letter
    2. Intellectual laziness:
      I can only say that when I initiate a public discourse with an established figure whose views are well-known to the audience, I prefer to operate out of as little ignorance as possible. If you happen to feel otherwise, that is certainly your prerogative.
    3. Why I am a Christian? How do I know?
      I was a little disappointed by the way your second letter appeared to indicate that this discourse is already on the verge of devolving into the very sort of debate that you originally proposed avoiding. Fortunately, I think we can avert that by focusing on the question you originally posed to me, namely, why I am a Christian.
      • I have never denied that other religions possess accounts of evil. Every worldview except that of the rational materialist has a more or less coherent account of evil, but the salient point is that those accounts of evil are all very different. Therefore, the question is: of those various accounts of evil, which most closely parallels the evil that we can observe and experience in the material world? . . . Clearly your conclusion is incorrect because evil cannot provide the same evidence for the truth of competing accounts of evil. Also incorrect is your description of the Christian concept of evil as “a roaming magical force that hunts us down and seeks to destroy us”. Evil can be external but it is internal as well, because the Christian concept of evil is simply that which violates the Will of God. Satan is merely one of many evils, perhaps the greatest example of it, but far from the only one.

      • I very much agree with you when you write that “an all-good, all-powerful God doesn’t fit very cleanly with the amount of pointless suffering we see all around the world.” Of course, your statement does little more than confirm your unfamiliarity with both the Bible and Christian theology that I originally suspected, for . . . The Christian God does not rule this world. The being that Jesus described as “the prince of this world” in John 14:30 does. To fail to understand this vital point is to completely fail to understand Christianity

      • I have no problem whatsoever admitting that the resurrection of Jesus Christ, even if it were demonstrated to be an incontrovertible historical fact, does not conclusively prove that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, that there is an immortal soul, that Heaven exists, or that Jesus is the only way to it. This isn't in dispute; Jesus not only knew all this himself, but he outright predicted that there would be many men who would refuse to believe despite the wondrous signs they had been shown.

      • The reason Christianity is rationally justified even though the ontological argument, cosmological argument, teleological argument, the magical resurrection of Jesus, and the existence of evil do not entail the complete truth of Christianity – which, according to 1 Corinthians 13:11, every Christian knows we cannot know – but they still suffice to establish the Bible as the most credible authority regarding that which is unknown.
    4. Existence of evil:
      I am curious, however, in your interest in seeing me argue for the existence of evil. While I have no objection to doing so given the obvious relevance of the matter, I must first understand something about your definition of evil. Do you believe in the existence of objective evil or do you believe that evil is a purely subjective matter?
    5. God's moral rights:
      I am pleased that you find my perspective to be consistent. That you find it terrifying is entirely appropriate, since I think people should be terrified by the idea that the world is ruled by an intelligent, evil, genocidal being. I would find it terrifying too, were it not for the fact that I believe in a greater power that has given men the ability to be free of that rule. Fear, and freedom from it, is an important theme in the Bible as we would not so often be told “do not be afraid” if there was not something to quite reasonably fear.
  5. Luke's 3rd letter:
    • Old Business:
      1. Why I am a Christian? How do we know?
        [Regretfully, at this writing part of Luke's 3rd letter is inaccessible. I am not sure where Luke was going on the 1st page of his letter before the fold. We will have to derive his other answers from Day's third letter until his site programming is fixed.]
    • New Business:
      1. Violation of your own blog rules:
        I agree evolution is a tangent, but once again I can’t let you get away with what you’ve said. In your first letter, you made many unsupported (and false) assertions about evolution, . . . I responded by quoting your assertions verbatim and then directly rebutting them with relevant evidence, argument, and examples. In your second letter, you again refused to support any of your claims about evolution, and instead resorted to empty hand-waving . . . Your repeated refusal to support your own claims is a direct violation of your own rules for your own blog
      2. Accusation of obscurantism:
        You seem hell-bent on demonstrating that I misunderstand you at every turn. But it is not surprising that I misunderstand you, as you continuously make vague claims and then refuse to explain what they mean, let alone defend them.
      3. Knowledge of Christian theology:
        I am too familiar with Christian theology – or rather, Christian theologies. I know that Christians defend a bewildering array of contradictory doctrines, and of course I don’t know in advance which ones you adhere to. For example, you defend the view that God’s goodness is arbitrary (and thus God would be good even if he raped and mutilated millions of children for the fun of it), and that members of other religions genuinely experience their own gods. These are pretty non-standard doctrines, and I could not have predicted you would hold them. The same goes for your non-omnipotent concept of God, which we’ll come to later. The problem is not that I have incorrectly grasped the central aspects of Christian theology. The problem (for our discussion) is that you have rejected them, in favor of less popular doctrines.
  6. Day's 3rd letter:
    • Old Business:
      1. Existence of evil:
        I am certainly interested in discussing which religious or philosophical account of evil best fits the observable evidence as well as further exploring the details of your beliefs, especially those that concern what appears to be little more than a hedonistic spin on utilitarianism, we cannot reasonably move forward until you answer the questions I asked you in my previous letter. While your dissertation on desirism did imply an answer of sorts, it is necessary to clarify your precise beliefs regarding the existence of evil and its nature in order to avoid making any false assumptions about them. I will close by repeating them here now, with the addition of one more question raised by your third letter.
        1. Do you believe in the existence of evil?
        2. If you believe that evil exists, is its nature objective or subjective?
        3. If you believe the nature of evil to be objective, what is that objective basis?
        4. What is the mathematical equation you used to calculate the three probabilities for metaphysical naturalism, orthodox Christian theism, and desirism?
      2. Violation of blog rules:
        I am mystified by your decision to selectively quote the rules of my blog to me as if they were applicable here. But, as you have appealed to those rules, I shall quote the two that are most relevant as they will suffice to bring your repeated attempt to derail this discussion to an end.
        3. Cross-comments and off-topic comments will usually be deleted. If your comment gets deleted, deal with it. Don't try to argue with me about it, I'm truly not interested.
        10. Any insertion of evolution or Creationism into a post that is not directly and specifically related to either subject will be deleted. Repeated efforts to do so will result in banning.
        The mere existence of Rule #10 shows how your attempt to turn a discussion about Christianity into one about evolution and/or Creationism is tiresomely predictable . . . exactly the pointless sort of thing that this discourse was proposed to avoid.
      3. Obscurantism:
        To charge me with making false assertions and empty hand-waving because I made the mistake of directly answering one of your irrelevant questions is a very strange thing to do, especially when one considers that in that very same letter you neglected to answer the only questions I have asked of you. . . . you wrote that I failed to explain why Out of the Silent Planet is titled as it is, and what the implications of Satan's temptation of Jesus Christ in the desert are . . . “the Silent Planet”, refers to the Earth, which, being “bent”, is not ruled by the Old One (the Creator God) or Maleldil the Young (Jesus Christ), but by its bent Oyarsa (angelic planetary principality), who represents Lucifer/Satan. This idea of a world which is ruled by an evil being in rebellion against the Creator God is based on the fundamental Christian theological doctrine of the Fall [see Mere Christianity, "The Shocking Alternative"] , which has been told many times in Western literature and is most clearly demonstrated in the Bible by the temptation of Jesus Christ in the desert. When Satan offered Jesus all the kingdoms of the world in return for his worship, Jesus did not argue that the world was not Satan's to give as he presumably would have if it were a false offer . . . instead he merely refused it. This strongly suggests that the world is not completely under the direction and control of the Creator God as most atheists assume Christians believe, but is instead ruled by an evil, intelligent, and malicious being who seeks to be worshipped in the place of God . . . While the atheist can, as many Christians do, wonder about why a deity of sufficient power to end the reign of an evil ruler would not act immediately to do so, it is as illogical for a Christian to blame God for the actions of Satan . . . The inherent conflict between a benevolent Creator and a fallen world leads inevitably to the very mainstream Christian doctrine of free will, which is why some atheists such as Sam Harris and Daniel Dennett are so determined to prove that free will does not exist, or is at best an illusion.
      4. Knowledge of Christian theology:
        To paraphrase what I wrote in my first letter, if you don't understand that the world is fallen, evil, and bent, if you don't understand that Satan is the prince of this world and the god of this age, you cannot possibly understand the most basic concept of Christianity . . . you begin by errantly claiming that I denied God's omnipotence by asserting that Satan rules the world. But I did nothing of the kind. Would you similarly claim that I deny God's omnipotence because I also assert that King Henry VIII ruled England? You are making precisely the same mistake for which I criticize Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris in TIA, by confusing capability with action . . . note that a rejection of omniderigence is not a rejection of omnipotence because the two concepts are not identical. To be all-powerful is not synonymous with being all-acting, much less all-controlling, and the foundation for my critique of omniderigence and its concept of a Master Puppeteer God is the rather obvious observation that the God who knows that the sparrow falls is not necessarily the God who killed the sparrow
    • New Business:
      If you're looking to find the point where Christian orthodoxy and I part company, then note that it is actually divine omniscience that I question, because I don't see any Biblical claim or theological requirement for it.
  • My comments on this exchange
  • Luke's letter #4

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    How to debate charitably (rules are links to more description of rule):
    1. The Golden Rule
    2. You cannot read minds
    3. People are not evil
    4. Debates are not for winning
    5. You make mistakes
    6. Not everyone cares as much as you
    7. Engaging is hard work
    8. Differences can be subtle
    9. Give up quietly