Phil Fernandes/Michael Martin Debate
Third Statement: Michael Martin
A Response to Phil Fernandes’ Third Statement
Atheism in the positive sense is the view that the theistic God, an all good, all knowing, all powerful being who created the Universe, does not exist. Throughout this debate I have defended atheism in this sense in three different ways. First, I have shown that Dr. Fernandes’ objections are based on unsupported assumptions about what atheism entails. He does not argue for but merely asserts that atheists cannot give an account of knowledge, cannot have absolute standards of morality, cannot live meaningful lives, and so on. Second, I have shown that Dr. Fernandes’ arguments–variants of the Cosmological Argument and the Design Argument–for believing in God either contain unsupported premises or else “prove” something less than the theistic God, In addition, his attempts to rebut my refutations have been uniformly unsuccessful. Third, I presented three arguments for disbelief in the theistic God–the Argument from Incoherence, the Argument from Evil, and the Argument from Nonbelief– and have shown that Dr. Fernandes’ attempts to rebut these have failed.
Unfortunately, Dr. Fernandes’ Third Statement is almost exclusively a rehash of his early ineffectual defense of theism, his unsuccessful criticisms of atheism, and his unavailing rebuttals of my arguments. In what follows I will once again show the difficulties of Dr. Fernandes’ position.
CRITICISMS OF ATHEISM
Consider yet again Dr. Fernandes’ question begging. In his Third Statement he once more claims that human knowledge is only possible in a universe that contains God. But he still gives absolutely no reason to suppose that this is true. He tries to escape the problem by saying that he is merely suggesting a hypothesis. But hypotheses should only be taken seriously if they are supported. He provides no support.
Dr. Fernandes accuses me of not arguing for the possibility of human knowledge in a Godless universe and he insists that I personally must show how secular knowledge without God is possible. However, since he has not demonstrated any problems, it is not necessary that I do so. Indeed, I have already gone beyond what is required of me by pointing out to Dr. Fernandes important existing secular epistemological theories in order to show that secular knowledge is possible. Instead of attempting to refute these theories, he simply rejects my appeal to them out of hand.
Suppose the situation were reversed. Suppose I had suggested that knowledge was only possible in a Godless universe but I gave no argument for this position while rejecting appeals to theistic theories of epistemology as prima facie counterexamples to my hypothesis. In this hypothetical situation, I believe Dr. Fernandes would have been ill-advised to try to answer my unsupported charge. In fact, in my Second Statement I did raise problems with theistic epistemology. However, I did not merely assert these as Dr. Fernandes now asserts the impossibility of atheistic epistemology. I presented a four paragraph argument in direct response to Dr. Fernandes’ appeal to Genesis 1: 26-27. Does Dr. Fernandes answer this argument in his latest statement? In fact, he ignores this argument except to say that he is merely presenting a hypothesis. But why should we believe this hypothesis?
Dr. Fernandes uses similar tactics in his claim that absolute moral standards are impossible in a Godless universe. Again he give no argument for this claim but instead demands that I demonstrate the possibility of secular absolute standards. However, since no problem has been demonstrated with having absolute moral standards in secular ethics, there is no reason for me to do so. Again he rejects my appeal to existing objective theories of ethics as prima facie counterexamples to his claim. In addition, he objects to my appealing to the arguments for objective ethics I used in my own book on the grounds that he argues that he is debating me and not my 500 page book. But my discussion of ethics is not 500 pages–it is only about six. Since he has refused to read my book, for his convenience I will briefly summarize my position in a footnote. 1
To make matters worse, although Dr. Fernandes demands that I defend atheistic ethics although he brings up no problems against it, he refuses to defend theistic ethics against one of its primary problems which I have raised in this debate. One of the most difficult problems facing theistic ethics is epistemological: how does one know what God commands since what God commands is the standard of moral right and wrong? The traditional answer is that one knows by divine revelation. This answer raises the difficult questions of which purported source of God’s word should be chosen since there are conflicting sources and of how the chosen source should be interpreted since there are conflicting interpretations of any source. Surely any rational acceptance of theistic ethics must come to grips with these questions. Unfortunately, Dr. Fernandes has explicitly refused to answer this challenge to his position in this debate. 2
Dr. Fernandes attempts in two sentences to reply to another problem of theistic ethics: the Euthyphro dilemma. However, I presented serious problems with the sort of reply in a recent paper. 3 But since Dr. Fernandes refuses to respond to any argument not explicitly brought up in this debate, I will summarize my criticisms in a footnote. 4
Dr. Fernandes again begs the question by assuming that a person’s life can only have meaning if it is eternal. Thus, he assumes without argument that the goals of happiness, contribution to knowledge, and contribution to one’s community can only have meaning if one lives forever. 5
ARGUMENTS FOR THEISM
In his arguments for the theistic God Dr. Fernandes relies on two versions of the Cosmological Argument and one version of the Design Argument. The first version of the Cosmological Argument–the Kalam Cosmological Argument–maintains that since the Universe has a beginning it must be caused and that cause must be the theistic God. In response I have argued that the possibility that the Universe is uncaused has been entertained by many leading cosmologists. It should not therefore be dismissed as absurd, which is what Dr. Fernandes did in his Second Statement. Second, I pointed out that even if the Universe has a cause this need not be the theistic God. Third, I argued that because causality in its standard sense is a temporal notion, it is incompatible with the Universe (including time and space) being caused by God.
I am pleased to see that Dr. Fernandes no longer dismisses the possibility of the Universe occurring without a cause as absurd. Relying on arguments from quantum theory as interpreted by William Craig 6, his position now seems to be that quantum theory is irrelevant to the origin of the Universe since quantum theory assumes space and time. Since he assumes that I base my argument directly on quantum theory, he thinks that my argument fails. But careful readers of this debate will recall that I do not base my argument on quantum theory in any direct way. My point is that quantum theory indicates that science is not committed to causal determinism as Dr. Fernandes claims. In fact, the relevance of quantum theory to cosmology is much more controversial than Dr. Fernandes seems to suggest. Indeed, one finds cosmologists explicitly linking quantum notions and Big Bang cosmology. 7 I, for one, certainly have never implied that there is universal agreement among cosmologists. I have only wished to suggest that the hypothesis of the spontaneous generation of the Universe “out of nothing” is still considered plausible by many leading cosmologists and cannot be dismissed as an absurd view. (Of course, spontaneous generation cosmologists could be wrong. This goes without saying. But the same thing can be said about their opponents.) I will only add here that such cosmologists, despite Dr. Fernandes’ suggestion to the contrary, do discuss what is meant by nothing. 8
My second point against the Kalam Cosmological Argument was that even if there was a cause of the Universe, this cause need not be the theistic God. Dr. Fernandes attempts to counter this by arguing that his case is cumulative and that he has ruled out the other possibilities by his other arguments. But where has be done so? He refers us to his Opening Statement where he assumes a monotheistic and infinite God but gives no arguments in support of this. All of his various points–the causal beginning of the Universe, the design in the Universe, the meaningfulness of life, the existence of absolute moral standard–are compatible with polytheism or a finite god.
Dr. Fernandes dismisses my third point against the Kalam Cosmological Argument that causality in its standard sense is a temporal notion and, as such, is incompatible with the Universe (including time and space) being caused by God because he confuses the issue by introducing a discussion of other dimensions of time. My point, however, is that it makes no sense to speak of something in time–or, indeed, of the beginning of time–as being caused by something outside of time. Adolf GrŸnbaum has pointed out that the supposition that it does make sense has generated creationist pseudo-explanation in cosmology. 9
Dr. Fernandes’ second version of the Cosmological Argument is that, since parts of the Universe are dependent, the whole must be. I pointed out that Dr. Fernandes committed the fallacy of composition. He continues to do so when he assumes in his Third Statement that the dependency of the parts of the Universe with respect to Universe is like the color of the individual tiles of the floor with respect to the whole floor. Nor does it follow, as Dr. Fernandes assumes, that if the Universe as a whole is independent, it is “virtually synonymous with God.” After all such a Universe would not have most of the traditional properties of God: omniscience, omnipotence, etc.
Dr. Fernandes’ defense of Design Argument confuses two different points: the legitimacy of probability estimates in the Design Argument and the legitimacy of probability estimates in arguments that use the hypothesis of world ensembles. In his Opening Statement he argued that this Universe is astonishingly improbable if it occurred by chance. I replied that probability estimates are meaningful only given certain assumptions and that these assumptions cannot be made in the case of the Universe. Dr. Fernandes continues to ignore this.
In relation to the second point I said that IF such probability estimates could be made, they could be used to argue for the high probability of this Universe without recourse to design. It is at this point I suggested the world ensembles idea. To be sure, such an idea is speculative–I never assumed otherwise– but it is no more speculative than the hypothesis of a theistic God and has fewer conceptual problems. 10 However, nothing in my argument hinges on this idea. The important point is that my criticism of Dr. Fernandes’ appeal to probability estimates remains unrebutted. And yet the possibility of making such estimates is essential to his version of the Design Argument.
I also argued that the Design Argument, even if sound, does not prove theism and is compatible with other hypotheses. Since appeals to such events such as miracles and Christ’s resurrection have been ruled out of bounds for the purpose of this debate by Dr. Fernandes, he resorts to his “cumulative case” to support his theistic interpretation of design. However, as I have already pointed out, Dr. Fernandes’ cumulative case does not rule out other interpretations and is compatible with other hypotheses such as polytheism and a finite God.
I gave three arguments for atheism in my Opening Statement: The Argument from Incoherence, the Argument from Evil and the Argument from Nonbelief.
In the Argument from Incoherence I argue that God’s attributes are not only inconsistent (as specified by the Bible) but His essential attributes are in conflict with one another (as specified by philosophers). 11 Dr. Fernandes’ position on Biblical argument is difficult to understand. In his Second Statement he said that my Biblical arguments are irrelevant to this debate but he decided to address them any way. In my Second Statement I showed how his attempt to answer my argument was implausible. In his Third Statement he refused to address them at all since “Christianity is not on trial”. However, he appeals to Christianity to help his own case. 12
With respect to conflicts among the attributes specified by philosophers, Dr. Fernandes ignores completely my argument from knowledge by acquaintance, he fails to answer one of my main criticisms of the coherence of omniscience 13, and he unsuccessfully tries to answer the argument from knowledge how. He seems to assumes that knowing how to swim is reducible to knowing certain facts about swimming. Consequently, God could know how to swim without having a body. But a little reflection should convince him otherwise. On the one hand, paralyzed people can write knowledgeable books on swimming and not know how to swim, that is, not have the requisite physical skill. On the other hand, animals–not to mention many people–know how to swim and yet have no factual knowledge about swimming.
In the Argument from Evil I showed how the existence of evil makes the existence of an all good, all powerful God implausible. I showed in my Second Statement that all of Dr. Fernandes’ attempts to reconcile evil and the existence of God fail. I argued that his appeal to the Free Will Defense (FWD) as a defense of moral evil is unavailing and that his defense of natural evil is unsuccessful. In his Third Statement he appeals to a new justification for evil: the existence of evil is a mystery beyond our human ken. However, if this is his position, then what was the point of his arguments in his earlier statements? In these he assumed that evil was not a mystery and, indeed, that he had a good idea of why evil existed. Has Dr. Fernandes retreated to a new position in the light of my criticisms or he is simply confused? His unsuccessful attempt in his Third Statement to answer my earlier criticisms is inexplicable. If he now believes that evil is mystery, why is he still trying to provide reasons for its existence? 14
In any case, Dr. Fernandes’ appeal to the mystery of the evil is problematic in its own right. On most interpretations of the theistic God, He desires His creatures to love Him. However, the mystery of evil conflicts with this desire. It is difficult for rational humans to love God when they do not understand why there is so much evil. If the reasons for evil are beyond human’s ken, God could at least make THIS abundantly clear. Why does He not do so? Moreover, why does not an all powerful God have the power to raise human intelligence so humans can understand why there is so much evil? If there is reason for not doing this, then why is THIS not made clear? There is mystery on top of mystery here which seems to conflict explicitly with God’s desire to be loved.
In contrast, nonbelievers need not appeal to mystery in explaining moral evil. Murder, cruelty, genocide, torture are explainable in various ways–psychologically, sociologically, historically–depending on which particular moral evils one is talking about. Sometimes, of course, the reasons for some moral evil is not known. But there is no problem in principle. The explanation of moral evil will depend on the empirical evidence and the social scientific theories available. The same is true of natural evil. The explanations of, for example, hurricanes, floods, and many diseases that cause human death and suffering are fairly well-known. In some cases, of course, we may be ignorant of the cause of natural evil. Again there is no problem in principle. The explanation of natural evil will depend on the empirical evidence and the natural scientific theories available.
Dr. Fernandes wants to know what I mean by evil. I would have thought that the examples I used to illustrate moral and natural evil made that fairly clear. Indeed, I would be surprised if there is not a great deal of agreement between us on what counts as evil. At the very least I am referring to suffering and premature death. No doubt far more is included by the concept, e.g., dishonesty and unfairness. But such refinement is not really necessary for my purposes since a rather minimal account of the meaning of evil is sufficient for making the Argument from Evil. Dr. Fernandes asked what my remedy for evil is. Of course, remedies will vary with the specific evil at issue. For example, possible remedies for the evil of rape might include women’s self-defense courses and the elimination of gender stereotypes by education. Possible remedies for the evil of AIDS might include education in safe sex, developing an AIDS antidote, and needle exchange programs. These possible remedies, of course, would have to be tested in light of experience to see how they work.
In the Argument for Nonbelief which I presented in my Opening Statement I argued that if God exists He wants everyone to believe in Him. Since He has the capacity to produce much more belief than there is now, why is there so much nonbelief? I argued that there are various ways God could increase the number of nonbelievers without intervening with human free will. I showed in my Second Statement that all of Dr. Fernandes’ rebuttals fail. In his Third Statement, he again wrongly assumes that in order to increase belief God would have to force people to believe. However, his main rebuttal now seems to be based on an appeal to Molinism, the view that God has knowledge of certain counterfactuals about how people would respond if, for example, they were to be presented with the Gospel message. Thus, God knew from all eternity that 12th Century American Indians would not have accepted Christ even if Christianity had been attractively presented to them and consequently they did not deserve to be saved. But this suggestion does not explain the mystery of why a high proportion American Indians in later centuries did accept Christianity when given the opportunity. 15 Moreover, it is difficult to reconcile this idea with the assumed efficacy of Christian missionary work, that is, the assumption that there are many people who would accept Christ if they were preached to. 16
In his conclusion, Dr. Fernandes lapses into metaphor, claiming that I throw rocks at theism while refusing to give us the address of the glass house called atheism. I would have thought that, if metaphors are appropriate, the outcome of the debate so far reveals that the glass house of theism is completely shattered while the brick house of atheism (whose address believers know well) is without a scratch.
Metaphors aside, I have shown the utter failure of Dr. Fernandes’ case. Dr. Fernandes claims I either misunderstands his thesis or choose to ignore it. On the contrary, I understand his thesis all too well and, far from ignoring it, have refuted it point by point. What I have refused to do is attempt to answer Dr. Fernandes’ unargued for charges against atheism. For some unstated reason, he seems to suppose that when he fails to give arguments for his so-called cumulative case he can defend himself by saying: “Don’t forget. I am only putting forth a hypothesis”. For some unexplained reason, he thinks that the strength of atheism over theism is not manifest when his case for thesis has been destroyed and my atheistic arguments are successfully defended. For some inexplicable reason he believes I should be doing more than refuting the arguments for theism, defending atheism against criticisms, and providing reasons for denying God’s existence. In contrast, any reasonable person would suppose that doing this successfully shows the advantages of atheism over theism and provides a strong case for atheism. 17
1 Let us consider two ways in which atheism is compatible with objective morality. First, objective morality could be based on ethical naturalism–the view that ethical properties such as being good or being morally obligatory are identical with natural properties. Naturalism in ethics can take many forms and need not result in a position that would be characterized as objective ethics. However, naturalism is also compatible with analyses of ethical properties that are not subjective.
The late Roderick Firth, a Harvard philosophy professor, proposed the most plausible version of naturalism that is not subjective. According to his view, ethical terms such as “good” are analyzed in terms of what an ideal observer would approve under ideal conditons. These conditions would include being fully informed, being completely empathetic, being completely dispassionate and unbiased, and completely consistent. So to say that honesty is good would be to say that if there were an ideal observer under ideal condition, it would approve of honesty. This analysis entails a decision procedure for ethics: one makes ethical decisions by seeing what one would approve of when one approximates to these ideal conditions. Appealing to these criteria defines what moral good is and provides the criteria for adjudicating ethical disagreements: if there is disagreement over some ethical issue, one looks to see if there is agreement over the facts, whether there is hidden bias, consistency with analogous principles, and so on.
Objective morality could also be based on a sophisticated version of non-cognitivism–the view that ethical statements are neither true nor false and do not state facts but have other functions. On recent sophisticated versions of non-cognitivism ethical expressions are used to make proposals, recommendations, advice, and so on. In its most plausible versions these recommendations, proposals, and so on are to be made from a particular point of view: a point of view that purports to be fully informed, empathetic, unbiased, and consistent. Ethical disagreement would be attributed in the vast majority, if not all, of the cases to differences in factual belief, hidden biases, and so on. William Frankena, a University of Michigan ethical theorist, advocated this form of non-cognitivism.
2 He says: “The issues that Martin raises about conflicting sources claiming to represent God’s revelation and various punishments for crimes have absolutely nothing to do with this debate. Therefore, I will not address them here. This debate concerns theism verses atheism. Whether or not God wrote a book is an entirely different issue.”
3 Michael Martin, “Atheism, Christian Theism, and Rape,” July 23, 1997
4 Some theists suppose that the Euthyphro dilemma can be avoided by basing morality on the necessary attributes of God’s character rather than directly on His condemnation. It may seem that to say that God condemns rape as wrong because His character is necessarily good avoids the dilemma, but this is an illusion. For example, Greg Bahnsen argued that in the Euthyphro Plato set up a “false antithesis”: “The truth of the matter is that good is not independent of God. Certain behavior is good because God approves of it, and God approves of it because it is the creaturely expression of His holiness — in other words, it is good. To be good is to be like God, and we can only know what behavior is good if God reveals and approves of it. The important point is that good is what God approves and cannot be ascertained independent of Him. . . “(Theonomy in Christian Ethics, p. 284)
Unfortunately, however, Bahnsen’s position is not clear. The quotation suggests both that something is good because God approves of it and that God approves of it because it is good. But these two positions cannot both be maintained at once. Suppose that “X because of Y” means “X is caused by Y”. This would mean that when one says that rape is bad because God disapproved of it one means that God caused rape to be bad by disapproving of it. But if one says that God disapproved of rape because it is bad, this would mean that the badness of rape caused God to disapprove of it. But how can what God caused by disapproving of it have caused God to disapprove of it? If “X because of Y” means “Y is the reason for X,” a similar problem arises. If the reason for rape being bad is God’s disapproval of it, how can it be the case that rape being bad is the reason for God’s disapproval of rape?
In any case, appealing to God’s character only postpones the problem since the dilemma can be reformulated in terms of His character. Is God’s character the way it is because it is good or is God’s character good simply because it is God’s character? Is there an independent standard of good or does God’s character set the standard? If God’s character is the way it is because it is good, then there is an independent standard of goodness by which to evaluate God’s character. For example, suppose God condemns rape because of His just and merciful character. His character is just and merciful because mercy and justice are good. Since God is necessarily good, God is just and merciful. According to this independent standard of goodness, being merciful and just is precisely what a good character involves. In this case, even if God did not exist, one could say that a merciful and just character is good. Human beings could use this standard to evaluate people’s character and actions based on this character. They could do this whether or not God exists.
Suppose God’s character is good simply because it is God’s character. Then if God’s character was cruel and unjust, these attributes would be good. In such a case God might well condone rape since this would be in keeping with His character. But could not one reply that God could not be cruel and unjust since by necessity God must be good? It is true that by necessity God must be good. But unless we have some independent standard of goodness then whatever attributes God has would by definition be good: God’s character would define what good is. It would seem that if God could not be cruel and unjust, then God’s character must necessarily exemplify some independent standard of goodness. Using this standard one could say that cruelty and injustice are not good whether God exists or not.
This attempt to avoid the dilemma by basing objective morality on God’s necessary character has another problem. It assumes that there would not be an objective morality without God. However, this seems to beg the question against an objective atheistic ethics. After all, why would the nonexistence of God adversely affect the goodness of mercy, compassion, and justice? Yet, this is precisely what would happen if being part of God’s character created the goodness of mercy, compassion and justice. This point can perhaps be made in another way. One could affirm the objective immorality of rape and deny the existence of God with perfect consistency. There is no contradiction in claiming “Rape is objectively evil and God does not exist.”
5 He says: “Martin fails to realize that all these things lose any meaningfulness if the entire universe will some day die. What contribution to knowledge would there be when knowledge is no more? Can loved ones have happiness when they have ceased to exist long ago? Can a community enjoy Dr. Martin’s contributions when the community (along with Martin and the rest of the universe) is extinct? Without the existence of God and life after death, life becomes ultimately meaningless.” Note that no reasons are given for the first and last sentences in this quotation and his rhetorical questions are confused. For example, of course, my loved ones will not be happy when they cease to exist. But what is the relevance of this to the question of whether my contribution to their happiness while they are alive gives my life meaning? Dr. Fernandes’ other questions are confused in a similar way.
6 Craig’s criticisms of recent critiques of Kalam Cosmological Argument has been evaluated by Graham Oppy who concludes, “the points raised by Davies, Hawking, and Grünbaum do suffice to undermine the dialectical efficacy of the kalam cosmological arguments.” See Graham Oppy, “Professor William Craig’s Criticism of Critiques of Kalam Cosmological Arguments by Paul Davies, Stephen Hawking, and Adolf Grunbaum,” Faith and Philosophy, 12, 1995, p. 237.
8 See note 7.
9 See note 7.
12 He says: “Christianity can easily justify the possibility of human knowledge, for it teaches that a rational God created man in His image…” He goes on to mention Christianity two more time in this paragraph to support his case.
13 I said: “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.”
14 (1) In my Opening Statement I pointed out that the FWD assumes contracausal freedom (CCF) and CCF assumes that brain events do not cause human decisions. However, Dr. Fernandes gives no evidence for this assumption. In his Second Statement he confused the thesis that brain events cause human decisions with materialism. He still confuses this. Mind-body dualism is compatible with determinism. Dr. Fernandes thinks otherwise but gives no argument. I took him–apparently mistakenly– to suppose that if human decisions were caused by brain states, punishment would not be possible. He now says that his claim was that if brain events cause human decision, punishment would be absurd since people would not be responsible for what they do. Yes, criminal law assumes people must be responsible in order to be punished. However, unfortunately for Dr. Fernandes’ thesis, in a criminal trial the question of whether events in the defendant’s brain caused the defendant to act in illegal ways is not at issue. In a criminal trial the Court tries to decide questions such as whether the action of the defendant was a proximate cause of the wrong, whether the defendant intended to bring about the wrong, whether the defendant was acting under duress, and so on. I recommend that Dr. Fernandes consult any textbook on criminal law or consider what is at issue in any well publicized criminal trial to see how far removed his ideas are from legal responsibility.
(2) In my Opening Statement 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. In his Second Statement Dr. Fernandes maintains that humans were indeed so created and their present tendency towards evil is the result of the Fall. In my Second Statement I raised several problems with this idea none of which are answered by Dr. Fernandes in this Third Statement. He pleads now that he was merely suggesting a hypothesis. But the problems with a hypothesis must be answered if it is to be taken seriously.
(3) In my Opening Statement 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. In his Second Statement Dr. Fernandes attempted to answer this by maintaining that if God did not allow people to suffer, there would be no incentive for compassion. However, I argued in my Second Statement that 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. In his Third Statement Dr. Fernandes maintains that God might have good reasons–presumably which He has not revealed to us–for allowing so much evil– evil that is not necessary for compassion. This seems to be an appeal to the unknown reason argument and suffers from the same problems specified in the text.
15 Nor does it explain why there are so many more people in American and Europe than in Asia and Africa who accept Christ given the opportunity. See Theodore Drange, Nonbelief and Evil, (unpublished), p. 75.