Debate with Gareth Nelson

26 February 2006

My Opening Argument

Since I have finally found the time I am now opening up the first round of debate. As you requested, I will begin by arguing for what I believe “defines” God. After all, and as you mentioned, it is critical that we understand what we are talking about if our conversation is to have any meaning.

With that in mind, I would like to start off by saying that I believe there are two ways to define God- a minimalist way and a “religious” way. Now, a person’s “religious” definition of God is obviously going to change based on their religion or their particular beliefs within a single religion.

When debating the existence of God, however, I feel it is important that the “minimalist” definition be used. This is because debates on the existence or non-existence of the Christian God, for example, can get on lengthy and unproductive tangeants (for example, oftentimes the debate will degrade into questions of how you can “prove” omniscience or something such). By sticking with the minimalist definition, the theist and atheist can easily debate the existence or non-existence of such an entity without such distractions. IF the “minimalist” definition of God can be established, THEN the religious person may argue further that the God that exists has the attributes that they believe in. However, it is more important to establish the mere existence or non-existence of God first.

With this in mind, what would I define as the “minimalist” definition of God? Well, I would say that, first and foremost, He is an entity that is above and beyond the laws of the universe. He is not restrained or affected by the universe or by its laws, since He created both the universe and the laws by which it runs. Additionally, God has existed for an eternity. There has never been a time or a situation in which He was non-existent. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, God is an entity that is able to make decisions. He is not merely a robot, but is able to act freely according to His will.

I feel that if I showed good evidence that an entity like that described above existed, then I would have consequently shown good evidence that theism is true and atheism is false. If you have no major problem with the definition just provided, then we can continue on with arguments for and against the existence of such an entity.

Sincerely,

Kyle, Webmaster of www.skepticalchristian.com
————————————————————————————————————————

First Response from Nelson

I have no problem in debating the existence of this minimalist god though i would add one more attribute: creator.
while omniscience is also another attribute seen a lot in the deitys of major world religions, it is not common to all gods (some pagan religions for example view the world as being created by several different deitys: no individual deity of which is all-powerful).

if you are happy with this extra attribute (which i believe is common to virtually all theistic religions) then i suggest you begin with an argument for the existence of such a deity. the burden of truth rests on you here.

the creator attribute is necessary because the existence of this minimalist god does not have enough of an effect on our reality to be relavent to lifestyle or to reveal evidence other then pure ontological arguments. (all ontological arguments eventually resolve to either a fancy word game or god “might” be there, a mistake many theists make is claiming god might be there and then claiming theism to be the most logical conclusion even after the many flaws are pointed out in their concept of god)
————————————————————————————————————————

My First Response

Ok, I think we have reached some common ground, and I have finally found some
time to create a reply. So, since I agree to the stipulation you made in your
previous response, I can begin the meat of this debate by offering a couple of
arguments for God’s existence.

My favorite argument for God’s existence is the Cosmological Argument. In this
well-known argument, God’s existence is inferred due to the existence of the
universe. The three premises of this argument are as follows:

1. Everything which begins to exist requires a cause.
2. The universe began to exist.
3. Therefore, the universe requires a cause.

If [1] and [2] can be shown true, then [3] follows, and we must determine what
the cause of the universe might be.

First things first, however- how do we know that the first two premises are
true? Well, the first premise seems to be quite obvious after a moment’s
reflection. Whatever begins to exist requires a cause. It couldn’t just happen
for no reason. When you hear a thud outside your door, you instantly recognize
that there must be a cause for that thud.

This basic principle of causality is just as obvious in the case of the
universe’s origin. If, as premise [2] asserts, the universe began to exist a
finite time ago, that means that it must have emerged from absolute nothingness.
But how does something emerge from absolute nothingness without some sort of
outside cause? It is simply absurd to suppose that the universe popped into
existence from nothing and for no reason.

Premise [2] is surprisingly easy to support. In fact, it can be supported from
two separate angles- philosophical/mathematical consequences and scientific
evidence.

*- Philosophical/mathematical considerations:*

When one considers the existence of an actual infinite, numerous absurdities
become apparent. Consider the analogy of Hilbert’s Hotel:

”Let us imagine a hotel with a finite number of rooms. Suppose, furthermore,
that all the rooms are full. When a new guest arrives asking for a room, the
proprietor apologizes, “Sorry, all the rooms are full.” But now let us imagine a
hotel with an infinite number of rooms and suppose once more that all the rooms
are full. There is not a single vacant room throughout the entire infinite
hotel. Now suppose a new guest shows up, asking for a room. “But of course!”
says the proprietor, and he immediately shifts the person in room #1 into room

#2, the person in room #2 into room #3, the person in room #3 into room #4 and
so on, out to infinity. As a result of these room changes, room #1 now becomes
vacant and the new guest gratefully checks in. But remember, before he arrived,
all the rooms were full! Equally curious, according to the mathematicians, there
are now no more persons in the hotel than there were before: the number is just
infinite. But how can this be? The proprietor just added the new guest’s name to
the register and gave him his keys-how can there not be one more person in the
hotel than before? But the situation becomes even stranger. For suppose an
infinity of new guests show up the desk, asking for a room. “Of course, of
course!” says the proprietor, and he proceeds to shift the person in room #1
into room #2, the person in room #2 into room #4, the person in room #3 into
room #6, and so on out to infinity, always putting each former occupant into the
room number twice his own. As a result, all the odd numbered rooms become
vacant, and the infinity of new guests is easily accommodated. And yet, before
they came, all the rooms were full! And again, strangely enough, the number of
guests in the hotel is the same after the infinity of new guests check in as
before, even though there were as many new guests as old guests. In fact, the
proprietor could repeat this process infinitely many times and yet there would
never be one single person more in the hotel than before.”

Taken from Craig, found at http://www.leaderu.com/truth/3truth11.html

Since we can infer that the actual existence of an infinite is problematic, we
can further infer that it is impossible for the universe to be infinitely old.
Since an infinite amount of events would have occurred in an eternally existing
universe, it is logically impossible for the universe to have existed forever.

*- Scientific considerations:*

There are many scientific findings which demonstrate that the universe has
existed for a finite amount of time. For example, the universe is expanding so
quickly that it will never be able to collapse back. If the universe has been
expanding since its inception and is not capable of crunching back, then we are
forced to postulate a beginning of the universe a finite time ago. Furthermore,
even if the universe did happen to contract, there is no known physical
mechanism for a re-expansion. Even more condemning is the evidence from
thermodynamics:

“The effect of entropy production will be to enlarge the cosmic scale, from
cycle to cycle. . . . Thus, looking back in time, each cycle generated less
entropy, had a smaller cycle time, and had a smaller cycle expansion factor than
the cycle that followed it.” (Duane Dicus, et al)

But, even assuming that eternal-universe models could overcome these
difficulties, there is actually no positive evidence for an eternal universe.
Thus, it seems as though the scientific evidence refutes the possibility of an
infinitely old universe.

Since premises [1] and [2] are amply supported, we must arrive at premise [3],
which states that the universe requires a cause. What is that cause? Well, the
cause of the universe must be eternally existing yet timeless in order to avoid
the same philosophical and mathematical problems discussed earlier. The cause
must be beyond the laws of the universe. In addition, the cause must be a being
with the ability to make decisions, for that being had to will the universe into
existence. These are all very important attributes of the minimalist God, and
therefore the Cosmological Argument is convincing evidence of God’s existence.

Other Arguments

There are many other arguments for the existence of God, and a couple of them I
find quite convincing (or, in the least, mildly persuasive). For example, there
are a slew of “Design Arguments”. One could argue from the design apparent in
the universe. The universe is so fine-tuned to the existence of life that one
can infer that an intelligent cause is responsible. Additionally, there may be
design in the fact that humans are in such a good position in the cosmos as to
be able to attain significant scientific discoveries at all. One could argue
from the design apparent in life, both the first life (since it is improbable
that abiogenesis could be responsible for the existence of the simplest cell)
and the diversity of life (since it is improbable that evolution by purely
natural causes can account for all the diversity found in life, including the
design apparent in irreducibly complex mini-machines found in many forms of
life). In addition, the phenomena of consciousness and the existence of morality
seem to be more easily explained under the theistic paradigm.

The Meaning of Life

There is another argument that I would like to discuss in more detail. That is
the Argument from the Meaning of Life. According to this argument, one should be
a theist based solely on the fact that only theism can provide a meaning to
life.

If it could be shown that theism provides a potential for a meaning to life and
atheism provides no possibility for such a notion, then we should be theists by
default- no matter what the evidence indicates. For it is entirely foolish to
follow- by choice- a worldview in which there is no meaning and purpose. For, if
you are an atheist and atheism has no purpose, then you must admit that your
life, your values, and your beliefs (including your belief in atheism) are
worthless. And to voluntarily submit yourself to a paradigm in which this is the
case is worse than suicide.

No, it would be much better to take a chance with religion- a shot in the dark-
and accept a worldview in which there lies a potential for meaning and worth.
After all, you might get lucky and be right. Perhaps a theistic worldview is
true, and you benefit greatly from believing it. However, suppose you are wrong
and atheism is true. In such a case, your life and your beliefs are worthless,
whether or not you believe in atheism. So, you gain no advantage from believing
atheism is true either way. If you believe in atheism and you are right, life is
meaningless. If you believe in atheism and you are wrong, you are both wrong and
in big trouble.

Now, this entire argument assumes two things; (1) That atheism implies a
meaningless existence and (2) That theism can potentially provide a meaning of
life. These two postulates must be shown to be likely true in order for the
argument to be successful.

*- Does atheism provide a meaningless existence?*

Can atheism provide any sort of worth or value to life? On the face of it, it
may seem unlikely that it can. After all, we are really nothing but a highly
complex concoction of chemicals. What objectively makes us more or less valuable
than rocks or a pile of sludge? In addition, life ends at death under the
atheistic view, so it is impossible to assume that there may be some sort of
consequences for the choices you make during your life.

However, an atheist may suppose that their actions can have a positive or
negative effect on the future course of events. Perhaps each individual can
contribute to the world and leave their mark. If such is the case, it seems as
though life may actually have some worth. What if, however, such were not the
case? What if the actions we make have no effect on the eventual outcome of
reality? If that were true, it seems as though our lives are completely and
utterly meaningless.

Unfortunately for the atheist, this grim outlook is true. Since the universe has
not existed forever (as discussed above), it will eventually come to an end. The
universe will burn up all its energy and nothing but a dark, dead existence will
continue on. Worse yet, there is absolutely nothing that human beings can do to
effect this. The universe will die out eventually, no matter what course of
action men take. Therefore, the choices of each individual will not make a bit
of difference in the end. The same ultimate reality remains no matter what- and
that reality is nothing more than a dead and lifeless universe.

*- Can Theism provide a meaning to life?*

If it is established that atheism provides no opportunity for a meaning to life,
then we still have not reached a conclusion for the argument. For, if theism
cannot be shown to provide a meaningful existence, then it is just as worthless
as atheism. However, theism, particularly Christian theism, can easily supply a
meaning to life.

First of all, Christian theism does not suffer from the same problem as does
atheism- it does not imply a lifeless universe in the distant future. Rather,
Christian theism implies an afterlife. Even more critical is the fact that our
choices during this life can have an effect on our existence in the afterlife.
This makes every decision, every belief, and every action potentially have
extremely important consequences, and therefore, meaning. Additionally,
Christian theism means that there is a God who provides a moral code in which
humans should follow. We are not merely a concoction of chemicals- we are a
significant being with an existence that transcends the physical world.

As can be easily seen, theism provides much potential for a meaning to life, and
atheism implies none. Therefore, based on the first part of my argument, one
should embrace some sort of theism on prudential reasons alone.

CONCLUSION:

The arguments I have provided for God’s existence seem quite influential and
reasonable to me. We have good reason to believe in God based on the evidence of
nature, and we have an even better reason to believe in Him on the basis of the
need for a meaningful life. Thus, it is the most reasonable conclusion that God
exists.

Sincerely,

Kyle, Webmaster of www.skepticalchristian.com
————————————————————————————————————————

Second Response from Nelson

in order to attack your argument i will be looking at the 2nd premise of it: that the universe began to exist.
having shown that your 2nd premise is flawed, i will then show you how even if all 3 premises are correct, you have no reason to presume an intelligence is the first cause. (this is the classic error many theists make: they assume that if they can show god “might” be there, that he must be there and fail to resolve the contradictions inherent in the concept of god)

so, let’s look in detail at your 2nd premise:
you refer to a paradox inherent with infinity. i ask you: if the universe cannot logically be infinite then what was there before the creation of the universe? and how does god escape the hilbert’s hotel paradox?

the universe being infinitely old does not require that infinite events must have occurred. why?
well, we could have had infinite repetitions of the same event up until the big bang (or whatever first cause made the universe the way it is now). by stating god is the first cause, you are only begging the question “how can god be infinite?”. theism works backwards: you have reached the conclusion first and then looked for the data to back it up.

i am not denying that the current state of the universe as it is now has only existed for a finite length of time. what i am denying is that the universe itself is finite. consider the 11-dimensional model: the universe (for lack of a better term) we inhabit is just one of many and the “many” is in itself infinite.

from all this, i reject your 2nd premise, i therefore reject your 3rd premise.

assuming you could demonstrate that all 3 premises are sound: you next have to show that this first cause is in fact god.
let’s rephrase your support of this in a formal manner:
1.the universe requires a cause
2.this cause must be timeless and eternally existing
3.this cause must be beyond the laws of the universe
4.this cause must be an intelligent being
5.therefore god exists

the first premise i have already refuted, but for the sake of argument we shall act as though you have shown sufficient evidence for it. the second premise begs the question “why?”. why can the universe not be eternal but this cause can itself throw away the laws of logic and overcome the infinity paradox?
your third premise has no relavence until you can expand upon it further.
your fourth premise seems to be an attempt to lead the argument in your favour as there is no reason the first cause must be intelligent. the first cause could be just a natural process.

you state several other arguments in your e-mail. namely, you state the design argument. this argument is severly flawed for one reason:

why is life so special?

you assume life is something special, but it is in fact no more special to the rest of the universe then a speck of dust. if i tossed some random chemicals together by rolling dice, would i say the dice had been designed to choose those chemicals and therefore produce the correct product?

regarding conciousness:
this is why you assume life is special, but conciousness is no more important then gravity to the rest of the universe.

regarding morality:
my personal view on morality is that it is immoral to cause unneeded human suffering. and my justification for this system? it stops society breaking down and is good for everyone. consider the earth without any life, is there good and evil? no, because morality is a purely human concern, not anything metaphysical.

regarding the meaning of life:
i’m reminded of pascal’s wager….........
this is not an argument to show truth, but an argument to try and convince people to believe in god, even if such belief is irrational. (btw, your phrase “believe in atheism” is grammatically incorrect. do you “believe in the belief that there is no tooth-fairy”?)

you further presume that atheism offers no meaning at all. regarding death, there are 2 possibilities:
1.that you cease to exist
2.that you continue to exist in some form, but without memorys of this life. (since memorys are in the physical brain it is not possible for them to survive).

i personally do not care about what i mean to the rest of the universe. my life has meaning because i give it meaning. the people i love give it meaning, and i mean something to them. the whole goal of life to me is happiness, truth and freedom.

if your claim was true that life is meaningless without belief in god, then why did i myself once decide against suicide? because i knew i could go on, that life does have meaning.
————————————————————————————————————

My Second Response

In your response to the Cosmological Argument, you raise several objections to my arguments for the 2nd premise (The universe began to exist). You first ask “if the universe cannot logically be infinite then what was there before the creation of the universe?” You are essentially asking why it is that God can exist forever but the universe cannot. There are two reasons.

The first reason is that the universe shows evidence of having a beginning. There are numerous scientific evidences for a finite universe, and thus we are forced to suppose that it cannot have existed forever.

The second reason is that God is timeless, and thus faces no paradox with the philosophical reasoning that shows it is impossible for the universe to be infinitely old.

Next you state: “the universe being infinitely old does not require that infinite events must have occurred.” It seems to me that you are clearly wrong, for even if only one “event” occurred per year in an infinitely old universe, the number of events would still be infinite because the universe would have been around for an infinite number of years. However, you claim that there could be “infinite repetitions” of the same event. But this is impossible- no event can be the “same” unless it occurs at the same time, in the same place, and in the same way. Even if two identical events occurred 5 seconds apart from each other, they would still be different events because they happened at different times.

Your next line of attack is to mention the multi-universe model. Basically, you state that the universe we inhabit is just one of many (perhaps infinite?) universes. However, supposing that an unspecified number of other universes exist simply to avoid the conclusion of a personal Creator seems to me to be an exercise in special pleading. However, even if that was not the case, the multi-universe model does not overcome the problem of an actual infinite, which I don’t believe you have successfully addressed.

“why can the universe not be eternal but this cause can itself throw away the laws of logic and overcome the infinity paradox?”

The First Cause is not subject to the infinity paradox because it is timeless. Therefore, it hasn’t existed for an infinite amount of years.

Your response to the Design Argument is that it falsely assumes that life is special. However, you are quite incorrect, as there is one trait that life exemplifies that I think makes the Design Argument work. That trait is self-awareness. Life (or at least some types of life) are aware that they exist. Particularly humans are aware not only that they exist, but they are capable of wondering why they exist in the universe. This is the trait that makes life, particularly human life, a good benchmark for the Design Argument.

In dealing with the Argument from Meaning, you say: “this is not an argument to show truth, but an argument to try and convince people to believe in god, even if such belief is irrational.”

Not quite. The argument is that believing in God is the ONLY rational choice, since it provides a foundation for a meaning to life. It is purely irrational to accept a worldview which provides no opportunity for a meaning to life.

You claim that atheism provides a possibility for meaning because you can give your life meaning. However, that doesn’t really mean anything. Sure, perhaps you can convince yourself that your life has meaning, but that does not make it the case. Creating your own “meaning” could simply be an exercise in wishful thinking. In any case, I agree with you that life DOES have meaning, and suicide IS a bad option. However, life has objective meaning only because of a theistic worldview. And since I find that is the case, it would be absolutely foolish for me to reject that worldview.

Sincerely,

Kyle.






—————————————————————————————————————

  1. Something is missing: You had an opening, then he had a first response, you had a first response, he a second, you a second.

    Where are the conclusions, where is his opening statement?

    BTW, I have listened to your podcast and read a few of your arguments.

    I’m an atheist, but appreciate looking into the mind of a theist who is searching to bolster, or perhaps, explain?, his Faith with reason and science.


    daedalus    Jun 28, 05:45 PM    #
  2. daedalus,

    Thanks for the complements, I’m glad to know that you appreciate my work even though we come from different idealogical perspectives.

    As far as this debate is concerned, this was not a formal exchange, it was a relatively casual email debate. It ended because Gareth did not respond further, so I just posted everything we discussed.


    Kyle Deming    Jun 29, 07:15 AM    #
  3. The real question is NOT whether or not God exists. Rather it is existence versus God. To ask the question of the existence of God is to really deny God and the necessity of a God. The idea of a God to exist becomes superfluous to existence.

    To have a God to exist is far more complicated than just a universe. For existence to have a God, can even more easily have just a universe.

    BTW, God’s name means existence personified. Remeber God said to Moses, “I AM that I AM.”

    So the real question is Existence a conscious being or not.


    Paul S    Oct 13, 01:06 AM    #
  4. I’m still struggling with premise 1: “everything that begins to exist requires a cause.” Because, of course, nobody has, nor will ever have, witnessed anything “begin” to exist. A basic principle of physics, which we all learn as children, is the law of conservation of matter, which explains that matter can neither be created nor destroyed. Particles can only be rearranged. The ways in which our human minds define how the world is split up into distinct “objects” is an old topic in philosophy.

    The universe is a closed system of matter and energy interacting according to the laws of physics in space-time. I have not heard anyone refute the suggestion that causality could simply be circular. Matter and energy exist and interact: perhaps this is sufficient to explain why the stuff of the universe is in constant motion, and nobody had to “push” it to get it started.

    Even so, if the history of the universe can be read on a timeline and it did have a beginning, this does not mean that its matter and energy were necessarily created from nothing. It only means that the matter and energy existed in a very dense state before it all went “bang” and expanded. Currently we do not have an explanation of how it might have gotten that way or what happened prior, but to automatically hypothesize a god to explain it sure seems to be overreaching a bit.


    — Stutz    Dec 21, 02:40 AM    #
  5. Paul S., I concur.So, it is a question of which bud or bounce or even some other theory that accounts for the present Universe. Beisdes , Existence[ the universe] is all such that God can only be immanent.


    Morgan-LynnGriggs Lamberth    Dec 21, 11:32 PM    #
  6. I love reading this shtuff.


    SoopaFly    Nov 9, 08:13 PM    #
  7. Hey Kyle,

    Great conversation. I’ve had several of them going on at my blog throughout the years.

    I would like to say that your minimalist God isn’t truly minimal. IOW, when I begin conversations with atheists, I like to assume that God = the original motion maker (nothing more.. nothing less). Whatever you believe pushed this existence into motion, then I call it God.

    I try to point out that its not necessarily atheists don’t believe in God, but they just don’t believe in a being deity. They might believe God is time, matter, universe, an event.. whatever. Its just a matter of establishing the fact that it is pointless to argue that there is no God. They just need the push to say that God can mean and be something bigger than a single being.


    Miracle    Dec 5, 09:32 PM    #
  8. The reality of it is cause and effect. Every cause has an effect, just as every effect happened because of a cause. But maybe you could help me with this one question.. What came first, the chicken or the egg?


    Carol    Mar 31, 07:01 PM    #
  9. “What came first, the chicken or the egg?”

    The chicken came first.


    Yo    May 29, 01:05 PM    #
  10. Hey Uncle Gary!! Remember your sister Ruth?? I’m her last kid… Sorry to hear about Harry.. and the egg was here long before the chicken…. Dinos were producing eggs 1st..


    Huson (Huey) Johnston    Aug 7, 11:20 PM    #
  11. Did you ever believe in any form of God?


    James    May 7, 09:00 AM    #
  Textile Help