Second Statement: Michael Martin

Phil Fernandes/Michael Martin Debate

Second Statement: Michael Martin
A Response to Phil Fernandes


I am grateful to Dr. Fernandes for the courteous tone he has adopted in this debate and his thoughtful attempt to answer my criticisms.


In my opening statement I said that Dr. Fernandes misunderstood atheism because he claimed that atheism is committed to materialism, epistemological relativism, epistemological skepticism, ethical relativism, and the meaningless of life. In his reply he reaffirms these claims with the clarification that atheists who deny their commitment to these positions are being inconsistent. I affirm that there is no inconsistency in atheists denying these positions. Instead of bringing up solid arguments for his claims against atheism, Dr. Fernandes is inconsistent and begs the question. For example, he accuses atheism of being committed to both epistemological skepticism and epistemological relativism. Dr. Fernandes cannot have it both ways. Epistemological skepticism is the denial of all claims to knowledge; epistemological relativism is simply the denial of all claims to absolute knowledge. Relative knowledge is not denied but affirmed by epistemological relativism. If atheists are skeptics, they are not relativists and conversely.

In fact, Dr. Fernandes does not show that atheists are committed to either position. He simply assumes that human beings cannot know absolute truths without God being the source and thus begs the question against atheism. His basic argument seems to be this:

(1)   Human knowledge is possible.
(2)   (1) could only be true if God exists.
(3)   Hence, atheism is false.

I can find no arguments for premise (2) in his reply. What I find again and again is that Dr. Fernandes simply assumes that (2) is true. In fact, almost every contemporary epistemologist has attempted to give an account of knowledge that does not presuppose God and yet is committed neither to relativism nor skepticism.1 Perhaps all of these attempts fail but Dr. Fernandes does not show this. Indeed, he does not even try.

Dr. Fernandes also assumes that theism provides a solid foundation for human knowledge and that skepticism is incompatible with belief in God. Both assumptions are dubious. His argument for both assumptions relies on Genesis 1: 26-27 that God made humans in God’s image. Since God is a perfect knower, and God made humans in His image, He would create humans with a reliable cognitive apparatus. However, in what specific respects God was supposed to make humans in His image is not clear. After all in many respects humans are not created in God’s image: God has no body, humans do; God cannot sin, humans can and do; God is infinitely strong, humans are weak, and so on. Given all these disanalogies why should one expect human cognitive abilities to be remotely close to God’s?

In addition, as Evans Fales has pointed out in a recent article, the event specified in Genesis 1: 26-27 purports to be a factual event about our prehistory.2 But why should one believe that such an event occurred? There is also the mythical character of Genesis in which many of its themes are influenced by or borrowed from the myths of other cultures. In addition, Biblical archeology indicates that the stories of the Egyptian captivity of the Jews and the Exodus are mythical. All of this suggests that it is problematic to rely on Genesis as sources of accurate historical facts.

Fales also points out that the New Testament complicates the picture. Rom. 8:29., II Cor. 3:12-4:4, and Col. 3:10 imply that humans have lost the divine image and need to regain this image through Christ. On the other hand, I Cor. 15:29 suggests that we never had this image and will obtain it only when we enter the Kingdom of Heaven while 1 Cor. 11:7 suggests that men, and not women, are made in the divine image. Moreover, Fales also points out that Adam’s fall creates a particular problem for theists such as John Calvin who believe that human beings inherited cognitive depravity–not merely moral and volitional depravity–from this event.

In addition, as I pointed out in a footnote in my opening statement that was apparently overlooked by Dr. Fernandes: God may have good reasons for not providing us with reliable knowledge. If God has unknown but good reasons for allowing evil, He could have good but unknown reasons for allowing such an epistemological gap [between appearance and reality].3

Dr. Fernandes claims, as he did in his opening statement, that absolute moral truth must be based on God. He provides no non-question begging argument for this claim, however. He simply assumes without argument that prescriptive laws “need a prescriber” and this prescriber must be God. In my opening statement I pointed out that I argued for objective ethics in my book and that others have as well. Dr. Fernandes, far from refuting my position or other non-theistic foundations of ethics, shows no awareness of them.4

In addition, Dr. Fernandes seems to assume that a theological foundation of ethics is unproblematic. It is not.5 First, there is the Euthyphro dilemma: If something is moral simply because God commands it, morality is based on the arbitrary will of God. But if God commands something because it is moral, then morality is independent of God. In addition, if morality is based on the commands of God, how does one discover what God commands? There are many conflicting sources claiming to represent God’s revelation: the Koran, the Bible, the Book of Mormon, etc. I know of no rational way to decide between them. Moreover, even if one can single out one source, for example the Bible, there are still different interpretations of what God commands and no apparent rational way to decide between them. Finally, the Bible commands many things that sensitive moral persons find morally absurd, for example, the death penalty for homosexuality, bestiality, blasphemy, cursing one’s parents, witchcraft, working on the Sabbath and non-chastity.

Dr. Fernandes claims I have misunderstood him concerning atheists and the meaning of life. No, I think he has misunderstood me. I understood him to be saying that atheists have an inconsistent worldview if they suppose life has meaning. But, as pointed out in my book, atheists to be consistent should not claim that life has cosmic meaning. However, as I also pointed out, life can have meaning in other senses. I do not see why my life would have no meaning, as Dr. Fernandes implies, if I and those I love ceased to exist. (For example, I would hope that the significance of my life would be judged by such criteria as its contribution to knowledge, the happiness I provided my loved ones, and the contributions I make to my community. This significance is not affected by my life’s finite duration.) To suppose otherwise assumes what is at issue: that life cannot have meaning in a different sense from the cosmic sense. In my opening statement I urged Dr. Fernandes to study my arguments on this point. Apparently he has not done so. I urge him again.


1. Kalaam Cosmological Argument

Dr. Fernandes maintains that the Universe must have a cause. He provides no argument for this claim. He simply asserts that the view that Universe has no cause is “absurd” although he admits that such a view is not inconsistent. Dr. Fernandes does not care that this view has not seemed absurd to many leading cosmologists. Indeed, Dr. Fernandes seems to think that the indeterminacy of quantum physics is an absurd view despite the fact that this is a primary part of contemporary physics and at the present time there seems to be no plausible alternative to it. For support he cites Einstein’s opposition. However, although Einstein was a great physicist, he was capable of error and in the judgment of the vast majority of physicists he was mistaken in this case.

Dr. Fernandes suggests that I should offer logical guidance to cosmologists rather than accept the results of their poor reasoning. But Dr. Fernandes has not shown that acceptance of indeterminacy is the result of poor reasoning since has not given any counter arguments to this position. Moreover, the acceptance of indeterminacy in quantum theory is justified by good scientific reasoning, for example, the theory accounts in the simplest way for the experimental facts and it coheres with well-supported background theory. What it does not do, which is irrelevant to science, is to cohere with commonsense and long standing metaphysical prejudices.

I also argue that even if the Universe is caused, the cause need not be the theistic God. It could be a malevolent being or an impersonal force or a plurality of gods or a finite God. Dr. Fernandes says that if this is so atheism will be refuted. This is to miss the point. These other possibilities show that Dr. Fernandes’ argument from a cause of the Universe to a theistic God is a non-sequitur. Nothing he says rules out these other possibilities. As I pointed out, even if intelligence cannot evolve from non-intelligence, this would be compatible within non-theistic causes. However, Dr. Fernandes gives no argument for the impossibility of this evolution and simply appeals to readers of this debate to decide the issue.

I also maintained that God’s desires and intentions cannot be the cause of the Universe since a cause–especially one in terms of intentions and desires–must be temporarily prior to its effect. Since time and Universe began together according to the Big Bang theory, God’s desires and intentions could not be the cause. Dr. Fernandes dismisses this point too quickly. I believe he should carefully consider the ordinary concept of causality. According to this concept it makes no sense to suppose that someone’s desire at time t1 is the cause of something at time t1. Indeed, the notion of creation implies a temporal gap between the creative act and the beginning of creation.

2. The Thomistic Argument

Dr. Fernandes appeals to St. Thomas’ Five Ways to prove the existence of God. I criticized Dr. Fernandes’ by pointing out that (a) he misinterprets St. Thomas, (b) St. Thomas in the Third Way and Dr. Fernandes in his argument from dependency commits the fallacy of composition, and (c) the conclusion of St. Thomas’ and his arguments need not have the properties of the theistic God. Dr. Fernandes chooses only to try to answer (b). He attempts to answer (b) by distinguishing emergent properties and additive ones. However, he immediately begs the question by assuming without argument that the property of dependency is additive and not emergent.

With respect to his Third Way Thomas argues that contingent parts of the Universe could not make up a Universe that is necessary. It is certainly not obvious that he was correct. The following logical analogy is suggestive: Logically necessary propositions can be made of contingent propositions. (For example, “Either P or not P” is logically necessary while “P” and “not P” can be contingent.) Might not a similar thing be true with respect to metaphysical necessity? With respect to dependency?

3. The Design Argument

In his opening statement Dr. Fernandes argues that it is astonishingly unlikely that life could have arisen by chance and cites a number of seemingly impressive statistics to support his case. He then concludes that the theistic God must be the cause of life in the Universe. I criticized this argument by arguing that (a) the probability estimates used in the argument are illegitimate, (b) there are other naturalistic hypotheses to account for life and (c) other supernaturalistic hypotheses are possible. Dr. Fernandes chooses to ignore (a) in his reply although this argument is crucial. With respect to (b) without argument he dismisses my example of an alternative naturalistic hypothesis such as the world ensembles theory by saying I am grasping at straws, although this hypothesis is seriously considered by world class cosmologists. He claims in his opening statement he has answered (c), but a rereading of his opening statement has convinced me that he has not and has simply begged the question.

In this second statement he tries to eliminate the possibility of Deism by arguing that the Deistic God is problematic since (1) if He could create the Universe, He could have intervened in it and (2) if He cared enough to create the Universe, He would intervene. Dr. Fernandes assumes one common meaning of Deism: a god who creates the world and stays remote from it. But this is not the only meaning of the term or the one closest to the historical reality. However, even granting Dr. Fernandes’ sense of Deism, there is a problem in accepting his quick dismissal of it. Just as the Theistic God intervenes or does not intervene for unknown reasons, so a Deistic God might not intervene for unknown reasons. One cannot have a double standard–allowing that the Theistic God has some unknown reason for not intervening to prevent, for example, the Holocaust and yet disallowing that the Deistic God has unknown reasons for not intervening at all.


1. The Argument From Incoherence

In my opening statement I argued that the concept of God is incoherent: The Bible attributes contradictory properties to God and qualities specified in philosophical accounts of God are either in conflict with one another or are internally inconsistent. With respect to Biblical contradictions, Dr. Fernandes in large part attempts to explain them away by maintaining that they are based on the anthropomorphic and figurative uses of language. In regard to many of the examples I cite this reply seems far fetched. For example, Dr. Fernandes that says God does not do evil although He allows evil for a greater good. But in some of the passages I cited God Himself is portrayed as doing evil, for example, sending an evil spirit to torment people. (In other passages God is portrayed as merciful and just.) But what are the figures of speech involved in these passages? In fact, many of these passages seem rather non figurative. And even if a figure of speech could be identified, why suppose it should be translated in such a way that it eliminates the contradiction? Dr. Fernandes points out that some important thinkers have not found contradictions in the Bible. This is hardly a telling point since there are an equal number of important thinkers– many of them Biblical scholars–who have found them.

I argued that God could not know how to swim since He does not have a body and knowing how to swim is a physical skill. Dr. Fernandes wrongly supposes that knowing how to swim is an intellectual affair, something that goes on in one’s mind. There is long line of philosophical argument that knowing how to do X cannot be reduced to intellectually knowing that things are true about X.6 Dr. Fernandes ignores this line of argument; indeed, he does not seem to be aware of it.

I argued that God could not have knowledge by acquaintance, that is have direct experience of such things as fear, envy, lust and thus could not be all knowing. Dr. Fernandes admits that God could not experience such things but refuses to call this experience knowledge and considers my willingness to do so a confusion. But knowledge by acquaintance is implicit in our ordinary concept of knowledge–for example, one might say: “I know all the facts about poverty but I do not know poverty.”– and has long been recognized as a type of knowledge by epistemologists.7

Dr. Fernandes attempts to answer my argument that God could not know He was omniscient by arguing that God could know the set of mathematical truths in one eternal thought and not one at a time. As far I can see, this does not answer the crux of my argument that God would have to know there were no facts He did not know. Furthermore, this reply seems inconsistent with Dr. Fernandes’ rejection of actual infinities in his opening statement. Now he seems not only to accept them but to maintain that God could know them.

2. The Argument From Evil

I used the argument from evil in my opening statement and brought up several objections against Dr. Fernandes defense of moral evil and natural evil. Dr. Fernandes’ defense against my criticism of the free will defense fails to answer any of the problems I raised.

1)  I argued that contra causal freedom (CCF) assumes that human decisions are not caused by events in the brain and that no evidence is provided for this assumption. Dr. Fernandes counters by saying that if human decisions are caused by brain activity, this would make punishment impossible. No evidence is given for this remarkable claim. He also seems to assume that my argument commits me to materialism. But materialism entails that the mind is identical with the brain and not simply that human decisions are caused by the brain. Moreover, he wrongly takes me to be asserting that human decisions are caused by the brain. In fact, what I argued was that believers in CCF assume that human decisions are not caused by the brain and give no evidence for this assumption. The burden of proof is on them.

I argued that God could have made human beings with a tendency to do good and that this would have eliminated a lot of moral evil and yet would be compatible with CCF. According to Dr. Fernandes, humans were indeed so created and their present tendency towards evil is the result of the Fall. This reply raises more problems than it solves. There is no solid historical evidence for the Fall and, in any case, it unjustly punishes people for the sins of their ancient ancestors. In addition, why should people be blamed for their evil deeds when they have an innate tendency towards evil–a tendency caused by their ancient ancestors?

I argued that people could be created who were less vulnerable to physical attack and that natural laws could be created which made it more difficult to harm human beings. Both of these possibilities are compatible with CCF. Dr. Fernandes attempts to answer this by maintaining that if God did not allow people to suffer, there would be no incentive for compassion. But I never claimed that human beings should be made completely invulnerable or that they should be totally free from harm. If God is all powerful, He could have created less evil and still permitted the exercise of compassion. If God was good, He would want to do this.

Dr. Fernandes supposes that moral evil is no problem so long as it brings about some greater good. However, this is a plausible reply only if we have some assurance that this greater good could not bring about in less harmful ways. Many theists believe that part of this greater good is the exercise of CCF. However, I have shown that CCF is compatible with the existence of less evil. Other theists have argued that this greater good is the development of human character. But this too could have been accomplished with less evil.

2)  Dr. Fernandes’ defense against natural evil is contained in one short paragraph: Natural evil is a consequence of the Fall, and a world with the amount of natural evil contained in this world is the best possible way God has of persuading humans to desire His Kingdom to come to earth. I have already criticized the Fall defense. This second defense strikes me as even less plausible. Why should people be persuaded to desire God’s Kingdom by the existence of seemingly pointless suffering and seemingly needless premature death? Indeed, one would suppose that one of the greatest obstacles to accepting God’s existence is the existence of natural evil.

Dr. Fernandes again questions how atheists can have knowledge of evil and again assumes without any argument that atheists cannot have absolute standards of goodness. However, in order to use the argument from evil against theists, atheists only need to appeal to theists’ own examples of evil — they do not need any of their own. For example, theists judge that the Holocaust and the Lisbon earthquake are evil. How are these events compatible with an all good, all powerful God? My argument can be construed as a purely internal critique of theism: What theists themselves judge as evil events make their God’s existence unlikely.

3. The Argument From Nonbelief

I argue that the large number of nonbelievers in the world is itself evidence that conflicts with the tenets of evangelical Christianity. Dr. Fernandes objects to my use of this argument since he says he is only defending theism, not Christianity. This is puzzling since at least twice in our debate he has referred to the Fall and at least once he has appealed to a passage in Genesis. But neither the Fall nor Genesis is necessarily connected with theism per se. Be that as it may, my argument can be formulated independently of Christianity: If God exists He wants everyone to believe in Him. If God exists, He has the capacity to bring much more belief than there is now. Then why is there so much nonbelief? I suggested in my opening statement that there are various ways God could increase the number of nonbelievers without intervening with human free will. Many of these ways still apply in my reformulated argument.

Dr. Fernandes’ response to this argument is short and inadequate.

1) I suggested that God could have implanted a belief in God and His message in everyone’s mind. Dr. Fernandes says that God has done this but humans have repressed it. He supplies no evidence for this claim and makes no attempt to answer my detailed refutation of it that has appeared on the Internet.8 Moreover, this ploy simply pushes the problem back. Why are there so many people who repress their belief in God? God could have done many things to overcome their repression.

2) Dr. Fernandes says that if humans act upon the light God has given them, God will see that the Gospel message is presented to them. This is difficult to believe this. For example, for hundreds of years before the coming of missionaries, Native Americans and Black Africans had no exposure to the Gospel message. They lived and died in ignorance of it. How could Native Americans living in the 12th Century be presented with the Gospel message if they had acted on God’s light? The existence of Native Americans was not even known by Christians. To be sure, God could have provided 12th Century Native Americans with exposure to the Gospel message in some of the ways that I suggested in my opening message. But we have absolutely no reason to suppose that He did.

3) Dr. Fernandes’ attempts to answer my argument by advocating God’s foreknowledge, not just of actual events, but also of hypothetical ones. He says that God knows in advance who would accept His message if it was presented to them and thus has no obligation to proclaim His message to those who would reject it. How Dr. Fernandes reconciles this view with his assumption of CCF is unclear. Yet belief in CCF is an essential part of his defense against the argument from evil. Moreover, unless I seriously misunderstand him, Dr. Fernandes also seems to advocate some form of predestinationism. He says that God “foreordained” certain circumstances that would bring some people “to faith.” This undermines his belief in CCF and raises serious questions about the justice and mercy of God. Since belief in God is essential to humans’ eternal happiness, how can an all good God foreordained those who will be brought to faith? No only does Dr. Fernandes supply no answer to this problem, he does not seem to realize that there is problem.


Dr. Fernandes’ Second Statement has been characterized by question begging arguments, unargued for claims, seemingly incompatible positions, and non sequiturs. In his conclusion he continues this pattern of argumentation.

He claims that I refuse to defend materialism, epistemological relativism, epistemological skepticism, ethical relativism and meaningless existence. But Dr. Fernandes assumes without argument that I am committed to these positions. He claims that he has shown that the hypothesis that the Universe is uncaused is less reasonable than the hypothesis that God caused it. But let us recall that Dr. Fernandes gives no arguments for his view that an uncaused Universe was impossible. Indeed, he merely asserts that such a view is “absurd.” He assumes he has shown that my three arguments for atheism do not prove my case. But let us not forget that his criticisms are based largely on question begging arguments, misunderstandings, and implausible assumptions.

In the final paragraph and footnote of his response he attempts to defend Pascal’s Wager. In my opening statement I referred him to my detailed critique of this argument. Unfortunately, he does not deal with the brief critical point I made in my opening statement. Let me state it more clearly. Dr. Fernandes points out in a footnote that Pascal’s Wager is not an argument for God’s existence. He is correct. I would say it purports to provide humans with good pragmatic reasons for belief: If you do believe and God exists, you will be rewarded and if you do not believe and He exists, you will be punished, and so on. But as many critics have pointed out God might not appreciate people believing in Him for these pragmatic reasons. God may want people to believe in Him for purely nonpragmatic reasons and punish those who avail themselves of this argument. Dr. Fernandes makes no attempt to answer this argument let alone the other arguments I raised in my book.


1  Dr. Fernandes makes a lot of the fact that in my book I do not attempt to provide a systematic defense of induction and an extended account of epistemic justification. He makes it sound as if defenses and accounts of nontheistic epistemology are not available. But they are. For extended discussions of nontheistic epistemology, see for example, Lawrence BonJour, The Structure of Empirical Knowledge (Harvard UP, 1985), Arthur Danto, Analytical Theory of Knowledge, (Cambridge UP, 1968), Alvin Goldman, Epistemology and Cognition, Harvard UP, 1986), Karl Popper, Objective Knowledge, (Oxford UP, 1972). For a defense of induction see Michael Martin, “Does Induction Presuppose the Existence of the Christian God?” forthcoming in Skeptic.

2  Evan Fales, “Plantinga’s Case Against Naturalistic Epistemology,” Philosophy of Science, 63, 1996, pp. 447-48.

3  I argue this position at length in Michael Martin, “Does Induction Presuppose the Existence of the Christian God?” forthcoming in Skeptic.

4  See Richard Boyd, “How To Be a Moral Realist,” and Peter Railton, “Moral Realism,” in Moral Discourse and Practice, ed. S. Darwall, A. Gibbard, and P. Railton, (Oxford UP, 1997) and David O. Brink, Moral Realism and the Foundations of Ethics (Cambridge UP, 1989)

5  See Martin-Frame Debate and Michael Martin, The Case Against Christianity, Chapter 6, Appendix 1.

6  For an account of these two types of knowledge see Israel Scheffler, Conditions of Knowledge (Chicago: Scott, Foresman and Co. 1965).

7  See D. W. Hamlyn, The Theory of Knowledge, (Garden City, N. Y.: Doubleday, 1970), pp. 104 -106.

8  Michael Martin, “Are There Really No Atheists?” Sept. 11, 1996