Human consciousness – merely natural or something more?

The claim of philosophical naturalism is that life – and everything pertaining to life – is the result of the blind workings of the laws of nature alone. This viewpoint excludes any concept of intelligent design or external intervention in the operation of these laws. As nature – working without direction and control – can produce many different effects, both constructive and destructive, there is a sense in which material cause and effect can be described by the language of randomness (I am using ‘random’ in the sense of laws operating on matter blindly, and thus any possible effect within a given set of conditions could occur and such an occurrence could not be predicted).

An identical sequence
Let us consider the following analogy. I have two packs of playing cards, which I thoroughly shuffle. I have no skills in sleight of hand, and therefore no ability to influence the position of individual cards within each pack. I then lay out in a row all 52 cards of the first pack, and a particular sequence is displayed. Let us say that the row begins with two of clubs, followed by king of spades, then four of clubs and the row ends with ace of hearts.

Now could we say that there is a rule that somehow influences the packs of cards, which states that all subsequent sequences of a shuffled pack should never exactly match the first one? Well, of course not. It is possible that when I lay out the second pack of cards under the first one, all the cards may exactly match in both rows: two of clubs, king of spades, four of clubs and so on right up to ace of hearts. The probability of this occurring is extremely remote, but nevertheless if this event is not allowed as a possibility then we cannot say that we are dealing with a random (that is, unguided) process. Randomness implies that, in principle, an identical event can occur.

To use another example: I throw two dice and two sixes appear. If I throw them a second time, are two sixes now forbidden from appearing? Obviously not. The dice do not somehow ‘remember’ that that particular combination of numbers has been ‘taken’ and thus removed from all future possibilities. There is no memory in such random events. Therefore the same event can occur. The Gambler’s Fallacy is indeed a fallacy!

A necessary condition
This truth has implications for the idea of the natural origin and development of life. Assuming the universe is large enough and the laws of nature operate consistently and uniformly throughout, then whatever those laws can effect in one part of the universe, it can, in principle, produce exactly the same effect in another part. Assuming life can be formed naturally, then, of course, this is a highly improbable scenario, but nevertheless the possibility exists. In fact, we could say that the existence of this possibility is a necessary condition for the undirected and uncontrolled operation of the laws of nature. If it can be shown that this possibility cannot exist, then the laws of nature cannot be said to be undirected and uncontrolled, and in that case, we would have to posit the existence and operation of some kind of external agent intelligently guiding the process to create life. Such an agent’s work would include preventing the causation of effects identical to what had already occurred. Furthermore, if life can be formed by nature alone, and the universe is infinite in size containing infinite matter, then this possibility becomes an inevitability.

Now to return to the playing card analogy. Let us say that the sequence of playing cards laid on the table represents the entire history of life on earth leading up to the present moment which includes the life and consciousness of the writer of this article. Now it follows that the entire process is natural, according to the tenets of philosophical naturalism – there is no supernatural intervention or reality involved. This would mean that human consciousness, which appears late in the sequence, is a wholly natural phenomenon.

Now, as I have argued, this exact sequence can, in principle, be duplicated (within the same time frame) somewhere else in the universe. The possibility of this is a necessary condition for the laws effecting this sequence operating in a random – that is, undirected – fashion. It follows therefore that all the steps in this sequence can be duplicated (and in a universe of infinite size they will be duplicated). If it can be shown that any one of the steps in the sequence cannot, in principle, be duplicated, then the entire theory of the naturalistic origin and development of life collapses – just in the same way that if it could be shown that the second sequence of playing cards could never, in principle, correspond exactly to the first sequence, then we could prove that the cards had been tampered with!

Consciousness is a fundamental aspect of human life. If it is the result of natural laws alone then it can, in principle, be duplicated. Therefore within the paradigm of philosophical naturalism there could be two or more versions of my and your consciousness.

Let us consider this idea.

A divergent history
The history of our planet, and life on our planet, has taken a particular course. Within this sweep of history I was born at a particular time, in a particular place, with a particular parentage and with a specific genetic code. Throughout my life I have had certain experiences. So according to naturalism, all these influences formed my consciousness. Also within the history of our planet a particular event occurred: on 23rd June 2016, the electorate in my country voted to leave the European Union. This is an event of which I am conscious and I am conscious of the repercussions of this event.

Now let us imagine that all these above events have been exactly duplicated in another part of our vast universe. A person was born at the exact time I was born with exactly the same looking parents, with the same genetic code, and this person grew up with precisely the same experiences. However, when June 23rd 2016 occurred on this second “planet earth”, the people of that duplicate United Kingdom voted to remain in the European Union (or, for American readers, we can say that a few months later the duplicate “Hillary Clinton” was elected President of the USA).

Up until 23rd June 2016 the duplicate person on the duplicate earth is exactly the same as the person on this earth – the writer of this article. His entire experience of life is the same down to the last detail. Therefore it follows, that if his consciousness was produced by material events alone, then his consciousness is the same as the consciousness of me – the person here on this planet earth. If the person on the second earth is merely to be regarded as my identical twin, then that person is a different person to me. And a different person to me means a different consciousness. From the 23rd June 2016 our respective lives would diverge. He would experience the consequences of non-Brexit, while I experience Brexit. Or he would experience Hillary Clinton being President of the USA, while I would experience Donald Trump holding that office. Clearly we would be two different people with a different awareness of self and external reality, but for the first five decades of our respective lives every material thing would be the same. But our respective ‘consciousnesses’ would not be the same!

My consciousness is not only my awareness of the external world, but my unique awareness of being me. Since I cannot live divergent lives simultaneously, then it follows that my consciousness cannot be duplicated. A particular consciousness is, by its very nature, a singularity. But if a particular consciousness is the result of particular material events, then it is possible to duplicate that consciousness if those same particular events are duplicated, which they can be, if unguided material events formed them.

The right kind of atoms
A possible objection to this argument could be stated as follows: material events cannot be duplicated, because different atoms and molecules are used to construct the apparently duplicate body and environment. This is irrelevant, because it is the genetic information – and environmental information – which determines what we are physically. The particular molecules in our bodies can be replaced without any effect on our bodies or consciousness. To use an analogy: when I see something by the light of the sun, it doesn’t matter which particular photons are hitting my retina. What is important is that they are photons. Likewise, when my genes issue instructions, what is important is that my DNA is made up of the right kind of bases, and that these are made of the right kind of atoms. The actual atoms are irrelevant, as long as they are of the right kind.

Parallel universes
It is often claimed that we live in a multiverse of infinitely many parallel universes. Each of us exists in these universes living slightly different lives. In one such universe everything has been the same for me up to this point, except that today I am here writing this sitting up at a table, whereas there ‘I’ am sitting in bed writing it. Clearly if it is ‘me’ in both universes, then I would directly experience both different scenarios simultaneously. But I do not and I know that I do not! My consciousness is unique – a singularity in this universe and indeed in the multiverse (if such a multiverse exists).

Unguided material events can, in principle, be duplicated. The possibility of duplication is a necessary condition for such events being truly random. Consciousness is a singularity. It is unique to each person. It cannot therefore be duplicated. Thus it follows logically that consciousness cannot be the product of the operation of natural laws alone. The fact of consciousness therefore refutes philosophical naturalism.

To summarise:

1. Material events within philosophical naturalism are unguided by an external agent, and are therefore random (i.e. not the result of conscious decision and control).
2. The possibility of duplication is a necessary condition for random causation, because there is no control mechanism to screen out the production of copies of any material effect.
3. Philosophical naturalism asserts that all that pertains to life – including human life – is caused by unguided – therefore random – natural laws alone.
4. Consciousness is an intrinsic part of human life.
5. Consciousness is unique: a singularity which cannot, by definition, be duplicated.
6. Consciousness therefore cannot be formed by unguided natural laws alone.

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Religious radicalism and the cult of commitment

What is it that drives a religious believer to act in the most fanatical and obnoxious of ways? What kind of motivation drives such a person to abuse others? Why is it that some who profess belief in a God of justice and even a God of love act in ways that are hardly just and loving? Why is it that some people commit murder as an act of service to their God?

Many people argue that religion turns an otherwise good person into a raging fanatic, and the sooner the world is rid of religion the better. ‘Religion’ is blamed for conflict, terrorism and oppression, and often not without reason: the emergence of so called ‘Islamic State’ can hardly be understood solely in political and social terms. A recent presentation on the iWonder page of the BBC website asks Would the world be more peaceful without religion? A cursory search for “atheist quotes” on the internet will reveal that many famous and distinguished people would enthusiastically answer that question in the affirmative! An example is the extraordinary statement from Gwyneth Paltrow: “Religion is the cause of all the problems in the world”. Clearly the oppressed people of atheist North Korea and those who had lived in “officially atheist” Albania under Enver Hoxha or in the USSR, would find it hard to agree with such a statement!

Even though Gwyneth Paltrow’s comment can easily be debunked when exposed to the facts of human experience, it is nonetheless true that religion has been the source of much evil and suffering throughout history. No intelligent believer in God can deny this.

But why is it that a person, who professes to believe in a just, merciful and loving God, can act towards others in a way that is, at best, cynical and misanthropic, and at worst, downright abusive?

A psychological process
To answer this question we need to understand the psychological process of religious radicalisation. This process, which may be subtle or overt, takes place within a culture and atmosphere that I would like to describe as “the cult of commitment”.

I am presenting my view from the vantage point of a Christian, but it can certainly apply to other religions. Throughout my Christian life I have often heard people referred to as “committed Christians”, for example…”Oh, did you know that such and such a celebrity is not only a great actor (or musician or sportsman), but he is also a committed Christian…” or some such comment. It is as if the simple term ‘Christian’ is not good enough! There is a need to distinguish between a run-of-the-mill ‘Christian’, who is – or could be – merely ‘nominal’, on the one hand, and a ‘proper’ Christian – that is, a “committed Christian”, on the other. What is often forgotten by those who deploy this term is that it is also possible to be a nominal ‘committed’ Christian! After all, if someone can make a show of being merely a Christian, then why is it not also possible to make a show of possessing some level of Christian commitment?

Because God is perceived by many believers as primarily an authority figure, and He is also the moral judge of mankind, many religious believers regard personal sacrifice and observable commitment to be the only authentic and faithful basis to their relationship to the Supreme Being. For them such a response to God must be costly: it must involve giving up aspects of life which are perceived to be characteristic of normal daily experience. The natural life therefore has to be suppressed. The religious life has to be seen to be ‘different’ from the common life. Since love and compassion are part of daily life and relationships, then these values are reinterpreted in a more ‘muscular’ and austere direction, to the point where they are stripped of their normal meaning. The world is then divided into two camps: those who are committed to God and those who are not. The latter are then described in depersonalised categories: “the lost”, “the unregenerate”, “apostates”, “unbelievers”, “the infidel”. These descriptions then provide a subtle justification for different forms of abuse. The task of the committed religious believer is to convert such people, or, in extreme cases, to be the agent of God’s supposed judgment on them.

A competition to win accolades
We only need to observe the behaviour of certain aggressive Christian street preachers to see this dynamic in action, in which unsuspecting passers-by – people about whom the preacher knows next to nothing – are subjected to verbal abuse and unwarranted accusations delivered in a strident and completely non-compassionate tone of voice. The “sins of flesh” are emphasised – usually of a sexual nature – and the more deadly sins of pride, self-righteousness, abuse of religious authority and a lack of compassion towards the poor and needy (the greater sins denounced by Jesus Himself) are almost never mentioned.

As someone who was once a member of a Christian fellowship, which valued street evangelism above almost any other aspect of the Christian life, I can understand what most probably motivates these preachers, and I doubt it is the love of God. What drives such people is the need to be affirmed and praised within their Christian fellowship for having had the ‘courage’ to go out to “lost and fallen” humanity and do battle with the forces of evil. This is the narrative that is persistently reinforced within such fellowships. It’s a game – a competition – to win accolades within your faith community. The preachers may meet up after their ‘mission’ and exchange notes – and literal or figurative high fives – about what brave things they have done out in the devil’s backyard. This is the psychological reward within the cult of commitment. It has, of course, very little or nothing to do with genuine Christian discipleship motivated by the grace of God.

Driven by fear
The cult of commitment operates through fear: fear of God’s displeasure, and at the root of this is the fear of hell. The leader of the group plays on this emotion and reinforces the loyalty of his flock by focusing on certain passages of the Bible, which speak of the need to be ‘wholehearted’, ‘single-minded’ and “a living sacrifice” for the Lord. The word ‘cost’ appears with great frequency in the discourse of such a fellowship. The cross of Jesus Christ is primarily interpreted in terms of an example, which we should follow. And thus we have “the martyr complex” at the heart of the cult of commitment.

Now clearly this cult is not limited to Christianity. We know the tragic effect of the martyr complex on the followers of other religions, and we have seen that there is a very small step from being willing to die the death of a martyr to being willing to end the lives of others alongside your own. This murderous understanding of religious commitment is really a fanatical extension of the more subtle forms of the cult of commitment, in which misanthropy is justified with reference to God’s judgment on those who are viewed as outsiders. Normal human emotions, which should act as a check on such radical behaviour, are ignored as the temptation of the flesh and the devil – a force seeking to weaken one’s costly devotion to the voice of God. Healthy feelings of fraternity, community and sympathy towards others are viewed with suspicion and the devotee in this cult is taught to suppress such sentiments under the weight of “God’s holy word”. When the disciple then suffers rejection as a result of his obnoxious behaviour, his commitment to his religion is reinforced, because he is now proud of the ‘persecution’ he is suffering. Such a person is, of course, a victim of brainwashing, and young adults, who naturally are seeking a challenge in life, are particularly vulnerable to this.

The true basis of commitment
The way to combat the destructive influence of the religious “cult of commitment” requires a complete rethink of the concept of discipleship. Christian discipleship is based on the love and grace of God, in which we are not required to prove our commitment at all. In fact, any Christian who tries to prove how committed he is, is disproving his commitment by that very act. True commitment involves a complete trust in God, in which we forget about our own level of devotion to Him. Anyone who says “I am wholehearted for God” has proven that he is anything but wholehearted, because a truly wholehearted believer would not be talking about himself at all in such terms.

As the Bible says…

“I desire mercy and not sacrifice”. Hosea chapter 6, verse 6

“With what shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before the high God? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves of a year old? Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, or with ten thousands of rivers of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul? He has shown you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God?” Micah chapter 6, verses 6-8.

“Remind them to be subject to rulers and authorities, to obey, to be ready for every good work, to speak evil of no one, to be peaceable, gentle, showing all humility to all people.” Titus chapter 3, verses 1-2.

True committed discipleship involves a wholehearted embrace of those values which describe God’s character: love, mercy, justice, humility and respect for others. Any other form of commitment is bogus, no matter how costly, no matter how much it may require courage and personal suffering.

Can a godless universe explain logic?

Because of its denial of the existence of a personal, intelligent creator of the universe, atheism necessarily relies on a philosophy known as naturalism (more accurately: philosophical or metaphysical naturalism), which attempts to explain everything in terms of the materialistic laws of physics. This philosophy requires that every aspect of reality be understood as a product of natural forces. No part of reality can be exempt from this approach, otherwise atheism becomes nothing more than a meaningless word (or is limited to a partial meaning, an example being the case of early Christians accused of being ‘atheists’, due to their refusal to worship the Roman pantheon of gods).

Logic, reason and rationality are part of reality. Therefore, if atheism is true, then this fundamental component of human intelligence needs to be explained as a product of nature. Let us see where this explanation leads us…

An illusion fashioned by impersonal forces
Nature is impersonal, unconscious and mindless. According to atheism, the forces of nature are not controlled and applied by a higher personal and intelligent reality to achieve some desired effect, but rather they act on their own without any external guidance. Thus whatever such forces produce lacks any overall purpose. Such a product of nature is nothing more than an effect of impersonal causes, and any design it possesses is merely an illusion, rather like the chance configuration of clouds that just happens to form the image of a face.

Although this product of nature is not designed, it nevertheless must possess one fundamental property: it must reflect something of the nature of the forces which created it. Given that the forces of nature are impersonal, then they are necessarily deterministic. Within a deterministic system the properties of an effect must directly reflect the properties of its cause. Such an effect cannot truly possess free will, which would enable it to ‘rebel’ and distort its own properties such that they no longer reveal the nature of its cause. The properties of the human mind must therefore reflect nature, which (according to atheism) caused it. Free will is, of course, an illusion, within an entirely deterministic universe.

Merely a tool to aid survival?
Now if atheism is true, then reason is merely a property of human intelligence, which is itself an emergent property of the evolved (and presumably still evolving) human brain. This process of evolution – natural selection – is the means by which nature is believed to select properties which confer fitness on the organism, to enable it to survive and thrive. Reason, being thus considered an emergent property of the brain, would therefore have emerged as a tool to aid survival. Therefore it exists for entirely utilitarian reasons. How therefore can a mere tool tell us anything about reality as a whole? How can logic, being nothing more than a device of a finite brain, possess objective validity and absolute authority such that mathematicians can use it to solve problems that cannot be tested empirically (Fermat’s Last Theorem, for example), because of the impossibility of computing every example within an infinite series?

Now the answer to this question may run something like this: logic is merely human, but it is a human discovery of something that is part of nature; because nature is rational, so the evolved human brain has detected this rationality through the methods of science.

This answer appears at first sight to be sound, but it is actually deeply flawed, as I will explain…

Nature’s uncertain message
Firstly, nature (if it is the cause of human reason) has not only produced rationality within the human brain, but also irrationality. If the phenomenon of rationality within the human brain speaks of a fundamental rationality governing nature, then it follows that there must also be a fundamental irrationality governing nature, given the undeniable phenomenon of human irrationality. Naturalists cannot have it both ways. If we credit nature for our rationality, then we must also blame nature for our irrationality. As the saying goes… “a tree is known by its fruit”. If nature is the only ‘tree’ (cause) of the ‘fruit’ (effects, such as rationality and irrationality), then how can we trust any fruit from this tree, if we know that at least some of the fruit is bad? If we know that the tree produces ‘irrational’ fruit, then how do we know whether the so called ‘rational’ fruit is not also irrational?

Now the retort to this argument may be that we can sift the “good fruit” (what is rational) from the “bad fruit” (the irrational) by the methods of science. And this brings me to my second point…

Science operates by means of the empirical method of observation and experimentation. This method can only work on the basis of certain ‘givens’ or presuppositions, which are themselves beyond empirical testing. When an experiment is conducted in one particular place, we assume that the same result will obtain when the same experiment is conducted in a different place subject to the same or similar physical conditions. Thus a chemical reaction that works in Paris will also work in London, New York or Tokyo. In other words, a successful experiment in Paris allows us to infer that we would achieve the same result in these other places, unless there were known physical properties about those other places that would have a direct bearing on the experiment to produce a different result. Science therefore assumes that the laws of physics hold true throughout the universe; that they are universal and consistent. If we cannot make this assumption, then science is impossible, because no inference could be made from any observation or experiment. Of course, it goes without saying that we cannot empirically test the universality of the laws of nature, because we first have to assume that they are universal and consistent in order for the empirical test to have validity. It would be rather like someone trying to conduct an experiment to prove to himself that he existed, when his existence is a precondition for possessing the ability to conduct any experiment at all!

The method of making general inferences from observations and experiments is known as “inductive logic”. Inductive logic is the logic of probability, not absolute certainty. It is the method by which a general law or principle is inferred from observed particular instances. So the finite human mind observes phenomena in nature and then makes inferences about the fundamental nature of reality based on certain presuppositions. Hypotheses are constructed and then tested empirically and a general feeling of certainty and confidence is generated by the repetition of the same results. This confidence is by no means a proof, but considered a solid working theory, that may even be promoted to the status of “scientific fact”. Most scientific results, which impact on our daily lives, are so well established and tested, that only someone afflicted with hyper-Cartesian doubt would question them.

So the science of daily life is useful to sift the rational from the irrational, because of the power of human experience. I have no doubt at all that the computer, on which I am writing this article, actually exists. The reality of this computer bears down directly and powerfully on my own personal experience and I find a certain manipulation of the keyboard produces the desired result. Therefore an overwhelming confidence in the existence of my computer is continually confirmed to me by my behaviour, which is a form of empirical testing. If someone were to argue with me that my computer does not exist, then I would conclude that his view was irrational and that my belief in my computer’s existence was rational.

Now, because we find that the phenomena of daily life bear down on us and assure us of their existence and function, we assume that empirical testing can be applied to the whole of reality. Thus we are led to believe that the empirical method is the means by which we can discern the rational from the irrational, and that therefore science is the arbiter for all questions relating to any aspect of reality. This is a myth. The scientific method is itself entirely dependent on certain empirically untestable ‘givens’ and they themselves also rely on the objective validity of logic.

Instincts, reflexes and projection
The problem with naturalism (materialism) is that the empirical method is all we have, if that philosophy is true. If human rationality is nothing more than an emergent property of the evolved human brain (as indeed it must be if naturalism is true), then all we have is a finite perception of material phenomena. All we have is, as it were, what is in front of our eyes. We then perceive certain patterns and manipulate the world around us to aid our own survival. We learn through trial and error to make tools, and through the repetition of this process over millennia the instinct of thinking in terms of “cause and effect” is inculcated in us. And then we project that idea onto reality as a whole. But, of course, this is not a rational conclusion, but merely an assumption based on guesswork and conditioning.

Or over huge spans of time we perceive that certain objects are similar to each other, and so we may gather them together (say, rocks to build a wall or house), and the idea of categories and sets is induced in us. And we learn to compute by adding together similar objects. Or we emit certain noises, which we find we can use to communicate to other people, and associate certain sounds with certain objects and find the association useful. And so language is born, which generates a feeling of order within groups of humans, from which rationality is generated, which is then projected onto reality as a whole. But this ‘rationality’ is merely a collection of instincts and reflexes that seem to ‘work’ in order to achieve certain goals in human experience, the chief one being survival. This ‘rationality’ cannot tell us anything about the fundamental nature of reality.

Through this process of perception, the ideas of logic are developed, but only as a sophisticated method of survival. Such logic, being the product of finite human minds cannot tell us – with authority – what is absolutely true. Logic cannot be discovered, since a finite mind, by definition, cannot discover something which is infinite and absolute.

But then someone may argue that logic does not need to be absolute; it can serve as a useful tool, but its importance should not be overstated.

Well, this is simply false, as I will show.

The absolute authority of logic
As I have explained, the empirical scientific method employs the method of induction. Inductive logic is to be distinguished from deductive logic.

In deductive logic it is impossible to deny the conclusion of sound premises without contradicting oneself. It moves from premises to conclusion in a way that does not allow any room for probability or ambiguity. For example:

Premise A: All planets in our solar system orbit the sun.
Premise B: Mars is a planet in our solar system.
Conclusion C: Therefore Mars orbits the sun.

Assuming that premises A and B are true, then conclusion C is true without any doubt at all.

Now clearly if deductive logic did not possess absolute authority – in other words, there could be situations where it did not apply – then we could have the following syllogism:

Premise A: All planets in our solar system orbit the sun.
Premise B: Mars is a planet in our solar system.
“Conclusion” C: Therefore Mars
may possibly orbit the sun (but we can’t be sure!).

Well clearly this is absurd. If one such conclusion is to be doubted, then all conclusions in all syllogisms could be doubted. Thus certainty becomes impossible. If logic is not infinite and absolute, then it is nothing at all.

Mathematics (on which physics relies) requires logic to be absolute, as also does science. As I explained, the inductive logic of the empirical method relies on deducing from certain presuppositions (such as the universality and consistency of the laws of nature). Inferences are made on the basis of these presuppositions. Thus we have the following implied syllogism at the heart of science:

Premise A: The laws of physics are universal and consistent throughout the universe.
Premise B: (We observe that…) Matter – subject to the laws of physics – behaves in a certain way in the Milky Way galaxy.
Conclusion C: Therefore we infer that matter will behave in the same way elsewhere in the universe, where there are similar observed conditions.

If this kind of conclusion cannot be deduced with absolute confidence, then science is dead.

Now clearly logic can only possess absolute authority if it is, in some sense, ‘above’ nature. Indeed logic must even transcend infinity (as I will explain). How therefore can logic be merely the product of a finite human brain? Or how could a finite human brain discover something above nature, when, by definition, a finite being is merely a product of nature? Clearly it cannot.

Logic and infinity
The human mind is finite. Logic is infinite. Therefore logic cannot be a product of the human mind.

In what sense is logic infinite?

The answer to this lies in pure mathematics.

Fermat’s Last Theorem was solved in 1994 by Prof. Andrew Wiles, and it states the following:

x^n + y^n = z^n has no non-zero integer solutions for x, y and z when n > 2.

Now clearly Andrew Wiles did not attempt to solve the problem by ‘empirical’ sheer brute force calculation, because obviously n can be any value above 2. This is an infinite series. Likewise, for every value of n, there are infinite values of x and y to investigate in order to see whether they equal z to the power of n. On the contrary, Professor Wiles would have had to resort to deductive logic. His proof has been accepted by the mathematics community, and yet it is an argument that holds true for an infinite series. This indicates a belief that the logic employed in the proof has authority over the entire infinite series implicit within the theorem.

Of course, this is true of many theorems and hypotheses. The famous unsolved Riemann Hypothesis has been inductively shown to be (most probably) true, given that it has been subject to brute force testing by over trillions of calculations (of the non-trivial zeros all found on the critical line of the complex plane of the zeta function), but this inductive ‘proof’ simply does not count as a proper mathematical proof. It would certainly suffice within the natural sciences. Only a deductive argument, by which something could be said definitively about the entire (presumed) infinite series of zeros, would be recognised as a legitimate proof. Thus it is implicit within mathematics that the empirical method (brute computer calculation) cannot deliver a satisfactory proof, but that the tool of deductive logic can and must speak authoritatively about an infinite series of numbers. If a mathematician were to doubt the absolute authority of logic, then he would have to resort to inductive logic, and thus a further proof of the Riemann Hypothesis would be redundant, given that it has already been ‘proven’ on the basis of a high level of probability. In this case deductive logic would simply collapse into inductive logic.

Therefore the application of logic has to be infinite, otherwise mathematics is dead (along with physics, and, by extension, all the natural sciences).

Cause and effect
It is a given within science that an effect cannot be greater than its cause (‘cause’ taken here to mean either a single cause or a composite of causes producing a single effect). I have shown that logic has to have absolute authority and must be infinite in nature. It therefore cannot be the product of the finite human brain. If someone were to argue that the human brain did not produce logic, but merely discovered it, then the same argument holds true. A finite brain cannot discover something infinite, because such a brain would need the capacity to recognise the infinite. By definition a finite brain has a finite perception, and therefore has no such capacity.

However, as I have argued, we need to be committed to a belief that logic is both absolute and infinite, in order for both mathematics and science to work. In fact, no knowledge is possible unless this condition is fulfilled.

Philosophical naturalism (reductionist materialism) posits that the human mind is merely a product of the human brain, which evolved by the operation of mindless laws, and which developed for the purpose of survival. Within this theory, the human brain is merely a tool. Nothing more.

But human rationality requires the operation of an infinite mind, which cannot be merely the product of natural forces. This conclusion undermines the claims of atheism. The operation of logic itself clearly shows that there exists an infinite rationality and intelligence behind and above nature, which interacts with the human mind to enable us to make sense of our intelligible universe.

Only the reality of an infinite mind operating on the human mind can explain human intelligence and rationality. Otherwise all human rationality is an illusion.

Why atheism cannot be true (part 2)

In part one of “Why atheism cannot be true” I looked at the subject of the ultimate origin of the universe, and concluded that none of the options available to the rational human mind supports the view that an intelligent personal creator does not exist. In summary: the ideas of the universe from nothing, infinite regress and a beginning of the universe from a pre-existing impersonal state are all incoherent. On the other hand, the idea that the universe had a definite beginning which resulted from the actions of an intelligent, conscious, personal being with free will overcomes the difficulties inherent in the atheistic hypotheses.

But cosmology is not the only area in which it can be shown that the atheistic view of reality can be refuted. The most fundamental subject within human learning – an area of study that undergirds both science and mathematics – reveals the inadequacy of the view that reality can only be explained in purely naturalistic terms. This discipline is epistemology: the study of knowledge itself.

Every claim about reality stands or falls on its epistemological credentials. If epistemology judges a truth claim to be incoherent and self-refuting, then such a claim cannot conceivably be true. There is no proof more compelling than an epistemological one. Mathematics is often perceived to be the most ‘elemental’ of all subjects, but this is not the case. All mathematical proofs presuppose the objective validity of reason. If a claim about reality fails to uphold and explain reason itself, then nothing else can be proven to be true within that worldview.

Atheism and the idea of ‘evidence’
The following are frequent claims by atheists, and such assertions populate the internet as well as publications promoting the view that no God exists:

“There is no evidence for God’s existence and therefore all gods must be assumed not to exist” – anonymous atheist on the internet.

“Despite such well-financed efforts [by the ‘infamous’ Templeton Foundation], no evidence for God’s existence has yet appeared.” – Richard Dawkins

“That which can be asserted without evidence, can be dismissed without evidence.” – Christopher Hitchens (with reference to claims about God).

“Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” – Carl Sagan (as with the Hitchens’ quote, this is also with reference to claims about God)

All these comments have one thing in common: they tacitly claim some level of competence in the field of epistemology. All these authors assume that their naturalistic (therefore atheistic) view of reality is epistemologically sound and rationally valid, and therefore any other view of reality is to be rejected.

I will now investigate this implied claim, to discover whether it really is sound and coherent.

The anonymous internet atheist and the three well-known atheists quoted above all make comments which presuppose a certain definition of the concept of ‘evidence’. All four comments state, in different ways, that “there is no evidence for the existence of God” – or there is “no ordinary evidence” (therefore the only evidence that could be adduced for God has to be ‘extraordinary’, whatever that means!).

Because the claim that “there is no evidence for God” is often not explained, we are left to guess what kind of evidence the atheist would accept. If we define ‘God’ as “the intelligent, personal – and therefore conscious – all-powerful creator and sustainer of the universe”, then it is not unreasonable to infer His existence from at least certain aspects of reality (for example, high levels of order and complexity within nature, the validity of reason, free will, the moral sense, consciousness). Even if some people do not accept that we could ‘prove’ that God exists on the basis of these inferences, they cannot logically dismiss the validity of such an approach. It is not irrational to infer intelligent causation of intelligent and intelligible effects. If that were the case, then we would require proof that only a non-intelligent cause can produce an intelligent and / or intelligible effect, which is clearly absurd.

So obviously the atheist who claims that “there is no evidence for God” cannot include inference in his definition of the idea of ‘evidence’. If that is the case, then what are we left with? There are a couple of famous atheist analogies that can help us to answer this question…

Carl Sagan’s “Dragon in the Garage” analogy:

Someone claims that “a fire-breathing dragon lives in my garage”. This (apparently female) dragon is also invisible and floats in the air, so cannot leave footprints, if we try to capture images of them by spreading flour on the garage floor. The dragon’s fire also possesses no heat, so cannot be detected by an infrared sensor. The dragon is also incorporeal, so spray painting will not reveal her existence. Every physical test of her existence is countered with a “special explanation” of why it won’t work.

Sagan then asks: “What’s the difference between an invisible, incorporeal, floating dragon who spits heatless fire and no dragon at all?”

The other well-known atheist analogy is John Wisdom’s “Parable of the Invisible Gardener” which was later developed by Anthony Flew:

“Once upon a time two explorers came upon a clearing in the jungle. In the clearing were growing many flowers and many weeds. One explorer says, ‘Some gardener must tend this plot’. The other disagrees, ‘There is no gardener’. So they pitch their tents and set a watch. No gardener is ever seen. ‘But perhaps he is an invisible gardener.’ So they set up a barbed-wire fence. They electrify it. They patrol with bloodhounds. But no shrieks ever suggest that some intruder has received a shock. No movements of the wire ever betray an invisible climber. The bloodhounds never give cry. Yet still the Believer is not convinced. ‘But there is a gardener, invisible, intangible, insensible to electric shocks, a gardener who has no scent and makes no sound, a gardener who comes secretly to look after the garden which he loves.’ At last the Sceptic despairs, ‘But what remains of our original assertion? Just how does what you call an invisible, intangible, eternally elusive gardener differ from an imaginary gardener or even from no gardener at all?’”

Now both these analogies have something in common: they both assume that the evidence for the existence of something – or someone – must involve some element of direct observation or sense perception. Both are examples of “strong empiricism”, which claims that “all knowledge comes via sense perception” – i.e. we can only know what we can observe or perceive with our senses.

Of course, we assume that there is no “invisible dragon” in the garage or “invisible gardener” tending a plot in a clearing in the jungle. But these are not valid analogies of God, because these ideas are trivial, whereas the idea of God is non-trivial. Thus both analogies commit the fallacy of a category error. A trivial idea has no – or little – effect on reality, whereas a non-trivial idea has strong explanatory force. Therefore to lump Russell’s teapot, Sagan’s dragon, Wisdom and Flew’s gardener, the Flying Spaghetti Monster, the Invisible Pink Unicorn, invisible fairies down the bottom of the garden etc etc, in the same category as the intelligent, personal creator of the universe, is rationally inadmissible. The concept of a supreme, intelligent, personal creator implies something about the nature of reality, whereas these other ideas cannot imply anything at all.

If certain effects were observed, which could only reasonably be caused by an invisible dragon in a garage or by an invisible gardener in a jungle clearing, then we would be justified in stating that “there is evidence for the existence of these beings”, even if they were imperceptible to our senses. We would be constructing this theory on the basis of inference.

Science uses inference all the time. In fact, the scientific method is impossible without it. We could not infer the Big Bang, dark matter, most of the process of evolution or even draw conclusions about most of the functioning of the universe without inference. The only way we can draw any conclusion from any scientific experiment is to bridge the gap between that particular experiment and the general functioning of the universe by assuming – thus inferring – that the laws of physics and chemistry hold true throughout the whole of nature. If, for example, we observe matter functioning in a certain way in London, we infer that it would function in the same way in Paris or New York. Do we really need to repeat the experiment in every place, before we could draw a conclusion? We infer that matter is essentially the same in Paris and New York as it is in London.

Thus the atheist view of ‘evidence’ is far too restricted and unworkable even within science. The claim that “there is no evidence for God” has to be translated as “there is no direct observational evidence of the being of God according to the tenets of strong empiricism”. And I would agree. God is not a physical being floating around somewhere in the air. Indeed if He were, He would not be God, who transcends space and time.

The impossibility of the atheist theory of knowledge
It is not simply the case that atheists have a defective and limited understanding of the concept of ‘evidence’, but that their theory of knowledge on which their view of evidence is based, is logically impossible.

The quotes and analogies cited above all presuppose the epistemological theory of “strong empiricism”, which I will henceforth simply refer to as ‘empiricism’ (I say ‘strong’ empiricism to distinguish it from the ‘weak’ empiricism which is mixed with rationalism. Of course, some knowledge comes via sense perception – no sane person doubts that! But “weak empiricism” is really little different from “weak rationalism”, and is irrelevant to this debate.). Some atheists may dispute this point, and state that “of course, there are innate ideas which do not come to us via sense perception”. Fine. But then they have no grounds for asserting the philosophy of naturalism (aka materialism, physicalism), which requires a belief in strong empiricism, given that our only epistemic relationship with nature is through the senses. If they then argue that innate ideas have their origin in nature, they would be guilty of special pleading or question begging – assuming naturalism to be true as the means of concluding that it is true. That is, of course, dishonest.

The theory of empiricism is an idea, and is not derived from sense perception. There is no observation or scientific experiment that tells us that “all knowledge comes to us by means of sense perception”. The concept is not some physical thing floating around in the universe or discernible at the subatomic level. It is an a priori idea, and therefore it precedes sense perception. Therefore the idea of empiricism itself breaks its own fundamental rule: we cannot know empiricism to be true if we believe it is true. In fact, if we believe it is true, then we are breaking its own method of verification. It is the ultimate leap of faith.

Atheists often accuse theists of “taking a leap of faith” into the dark, or into irrationality. They often claim that faith involves ignoring evidence or is even exercised in spite of the evidence. Whether some believers do this or not, it is certainly true that an atheist, who subscribes to the philosophy of naturalism, makes just such a leap of faith. He insists on subscribing to a view of knowledge which is self-refuting, and therefore logically impossible. It defies all logic to hold to a view that “evidence can only be defined and verified empirically” when that very idea cannot be verified empirically.

But it gets worse…
But in the light of this, the atheist could still say, “well, OK, there are innate ideas, and we accept that not all knowledge comes to us by means of sense perception, but we still think that the philosophy of naturalism is most probably true, even if we cannot absolutely prove it, whereas the God theory is implausible.”

This is the position of “atheistically inclined agnosticism”. Firstly, such a position logically disqualifies any atheist from declaring a believer in God to be irrational, which should put an end to the vitriol of much debate on the subject of the existence of God. Secondly, the atheist is saying that a theory, which is logically dependent on a self-refuting theory of knowledge, may be true. Well, “may be true” implies the assertion “it is logically possible that this theory is true”. How can this be the case, when we have already established that the basis of the theory is logically impossible! Modal logic thus disqualifies atheistically inclined agnosticism.

The fundamental problem with atheism, is that this worldview cannot explain reason itself. We are being asked to believe that ‘reason’ derived entirely from the human ‘mind’, which itself derived from the physical human brain, and this evolved without any purpose other than mere survival. Thus, according to this view, reason emerged merely as a survival mechanism. If this is the case, then all ideas (beyond the most immediate perception – and perhaps even these) are equally valid. The “idea of God” is no more invalid than the “idea of naturalism”. According to the philosophy of naturalism both ideas emerged merely as aids to survival. Thus we are told that religious people believe in God, because it helps them cope with reality, but according to this logic atheists do not believe in God for precisely the same reason! Objective truth has nothing to do with it.

Clearly we can see that the philosophy of naturalism is entirely self-refuting. If all ideas (especially metaphysical ideas) are merely aids to survival, then we could never know whether the philosophy of naturalism itself were true (this philosophy being, of course, a metaphysical idea, given that it makes a claim about reality as a whole).

So the philosophy of naturalism is impossible. Of course, there are some atheists who claim to hold to some form of supernaturalism (which is the only alternative to naturalism). This kind of impersonal supernaturalism may really only be an extension of naturalism, but even if it is not, such atheists have no rational grounds for criticising anyone with a religious belief.

Why atheism cannot be true (part 1)

There is some debate about the definition of the word ‘atheism’. The term has been used in a variety of different ways encompassing agnosticism and even specific forms of belief in God / gods (for example, under Roman rule Christians were often term ‘atheists’). Fundamentally (and etymologically) ‘atheism’ is the negation of ‘theism’. According to a dictionary of philosophy edited by the celebrated atheist Anthony Flew (who late in life converted to a form of theism), ‘theism’ is defined as: “Belief in God, where God is understood to be the single omnipotent and omniscient creator of everything that exists. He is regarded as a Being distinct from his creation though manifesting himself through it, and also essentially personal, caring for and communicating with mankind, and infinitely worthy of human worship and obedience.” (A Dictionary of Philosophy, Pan Books Ltd, London: 1979).

For the purpose of the argument in this essay, atheism is defined in accordance with the above dictionary definition. Fundamentally it is a rejection of belief in a personal, intelligent Supreme Being, who is the creator of the universe. In place of this creator, atheism posits an impersonal reality (however that is defined), which is regarded as the origin and basis of all that exists.

The foundation of reality: personal or impersonal?
On the assumption that logic possesses genuine validity and authority as a tool for discovering truth, we need to consider the implications of different theories of ultimate causation. (If logic is not absolutely and objectively valid, then we can say nothing at all, and, in fact, even this very statement becomes incomprehensible, constructed as it is by recourse to logic! Therefore any attempt at the discovery of truth requires a commitment to the absolute and universal authority of logic).

Concerning the ultimate origin of the universe (which includes any hypothetical extension of the universe, such as the multiverse), we have four options:

1. The universe has always existed and had no beginning.

2. The universe popped into existence from absolutely nothing.

3. The chain of cause and effect, which we know to be our universe, began at a certain point in time, but it did not arise from nothing, but from a pre-existing impersonal timeless state.

4. The universe had a beginning, and was brought into being by a personal reality (usually known as ‘God’) outside itself.

Let us consider the logical coherence of each of these theories:

1. The idea that the universe has always existed as a chain of cause and effect presents us with the problem of infinite regress. A sequence of events spread over a period of time without beginning defies logic. Every event in the sequence would be preceded by an infinite – that is, unending – number of events. Since this series of unending events could not, by definition, end, then the event this sequence precedes could never be reached, and therefore could never occur. And this is true of every event in the entire sequence, and thus no event in this sequence could ever occur. Thus an infinite regress is impossible.

2. The popular theory that the universe just popped into existence from ‘nothing’ defies everything we know about science and logic. In a recent debate with an atheist on this subject, I was informed that… “The universe can, will, and does come from nothing. This has been observed.” Well, of course, this is absurd. ‘Nothing’ – by definition – cannot be observed, so therefore it is impossible to ‘observe’ the universe coming into being from nothing. Certainly it could be the case that certain parts of the universe (certain particles) could arise from a non-observed state, but we have no way of knowing whether that ‘non-observed state’ is ‘nothing’ or simply a dimension of reality which we cannot directly observe. Science gives itself the liberty to infer the existence of non-observed entities, such as dark matter, so it is entirely proper that science should apply the same rule to the apparent appearance of particles from ‘nothing’.

If it is really the case that matter can just pop into existence from ‘nothing’ (and remember ‘nothing’ means “not anything” – there is not a ‘something’ called ‘nothing’!), then the fundamental principle of the conservation of energy and mass is undermined along with the scientific method which relies on it. No conclusion could ever be drawn from any scientific experiment if we allow matter to arise from ‘nothing’. No reliable inference can be made from any experiment if the principle of causation ex nihilo is true: we would have no idea whether in another place, where we would expect the same experiment to work, some factor would not arise “from nothing” that would interact with and therefore skew the result. Scientific reasoning can only function if the principle of the conservation of mass holds true. Therefore we can dismiss this theory of “the universe from nothing”.

3. In an attempt to overcome the difficulties of “infinite regress” and “the universe from nothing” we could perhaps speculate that the universe had a definite beginning in time (which would release us from the infinite regress problem), but that this chain of cause and effect arose out of an impersonal primordial state of ‘something’ (thus preserving the principle of the conservation of mass).

The problem with this idea is that there would have been a change in this primordial state from a timeless condition to the activation of a chain of cause and effect. How did this change come about? An impersonal state or system cannot effect change from within its own resources, but has to be acted upon by something else. A machine, for example, which stands inert cannot suddenly start working unless something external to it causes it to begin functioning. An impersonal entity is, by definition, blind, unconscious and lacking free will. An unconscious entity does nothing unless acted on by something else. It cannot therefore act entirely on its own initiative powered only by its own resources. There is no factor within it that could effect change without an external influence programming it or acting directly on it. If such a state changes then an external influence brought this about, and if that external influence is itself impersonal, then it itself would have been acted upon by another impersonal influence. And so on ad infinitum. Thus we are back to the problem of infinite regress.

4. What about the “personal creator” theory? Can this idea overcome the difficulties outlined above? I affirm that it can, for the following reasons…

There is no infinite regress, because the creator brought the universe into being, and thus the universe had a definite beginning. There is also no concept of “the universe popping into existence from nothing”, because we have an agent who pre-existed the universe and drew on his own resources to bring the universe into being (I am well aware of the difficulty of tacking an agent onto “creation ex nihilo”, as if this solves the problem of matter being brought into being from absolutely nothing. Many theists sincerely believe that God created the universe “from nothing”. Unfortunately, an agent working with ‘nothing’ can no more bring something into being than something can come into being from ‘nothing’ without an agent. A potter needs clay. Do we really know what matter is at the most fundamental level? Certainly the Bible affirms that God did not create the universe “ex nihilo” but ‘spoke’ the universe into being. In other words, he formed it from information. Interestingly this idea is not lost on physics. The renowned Austrian quantum physicist, Anton Zeilinger, made the following statement: “In conclusion it may very well be said that information is the irreducible kernel from which everything else flows. Then the question why nature appears quantized is simply a consequence of the fact that information itself is quantized by necessity. It might even be fair to observe that the concept that information is fundamental is very old knowledge of humanity, witness for example the beginning of gospel according to John: “In the beginning was the Word”.”)

But in what sense does the personal “primordial state” (God) differ from the impersonal primordial state described in hypothesis 3 above? The fundamental difference is that this first cause is personal, and therefore possesses free will and consciousness. Therefore this creator can bring about change without needing to rely on any external factor. He can make a conscious, free will decision relying on his own resources. Free will involves, of course, the freedom to act in a certain way or not to act, irrespective of any external influence or factor. Free will cannot function without consciousness and consciousness determines whether an entity is personal or not. This is why the first cause of the universe has to be personal. An impersonal, unconscious and therefore unfree, first cause cannot rely on its own resources to bring about change, but must rely on some external influence. And thus it can never be a genuine first cause.

God of the gaps?
It is clear that the idea of a personal first cause is the only logical explanation for the origin of the universe. Some may argue that this is a case of “God of the gaps”. If this is the case, then we can equally argue that the other hypotheses are “gaps explanations”: “infinite regress of the gaps”, “nothing of the gaps”, “multiverse of the gaps” and so on… Any idea can be appealed to as a method of “filling a gap” in our knowledge. I have not resorted to the “personal creator hypothesis” as a gaps explanation, but have argued the case on the basis of logic and necessity.

Part 2 of “Why atheism cannot be true” will look at the epistemological arguments against the philosophy of naturalism, on which atheism relies. This will be published soon…

Is death the end? What does logic say?

In the aftermath of a tragedy, many people, in their grief, express the belief that their loved one is now in a better place. Messages such as these express this feeling of hope:

“You are now a star that will shine brightly forever”

“You are an angel in heaven”

“We will meet again one day”

…and many others, with similar thoughts and feelings.

All such expressions have one thing in common: they affirm a belief that there is some form of life after death. Even the simple “Rest in peace” could imply this.

There are other people who limit themselves to ‘telling’ their loved one that “you will always be in my thoughts”, “I will never forget you” and so on. These thoughts tend to suggest that all that will survive death is a memory remaining in the minds of friends and relatives still alive.

Wishful thinking?
A sceptic would dismiss the former kind of sentiment as mere wishful thinking, although I am sure most would appreciate the need to be sensitive to bereaved people at their time of grief. But from an intellectual point of view, such thoughts would be regarded by sceptics as essentially irrational and the product of desperate wishful thinking, which denies the “facts of reality”. Atheists, of course, would draw this conclusion.

Here are some typical comments by leading atheists, expressing their view that life is transitory and death is final. These quotations are featured on the website of the British Humanist Association:

“I believe this is the only life we have…” – Natalie Haynes

“Our lives are less than a thousand months long…” – Professor AC Grayling

“I have a strong sense of awe and wonder in the world, which my cells are so fleetingly a part of…” – Jim Al-Khalili

And I could quote many similar views from other atheist sources.

Now any true sceptic will demand evidence for any assertions. Such a person demands logically coherent supporting arguments. I therefore consider myself a ‘sceptic’, but my scepticism is directed at these atheists, who are making a truth claim that I believe they need to substantiate. In fact, I would argue that they are the ones indulging in wishful thinking and sentimentality, and that it is their view of reality, which lacks logical coherence, as I will explain.

Body and soul
What these atheists are essentially saying is: “Nothing survives the death of the body. When your body dies, that is it. No more life in any form. No consciousness. Nothing. Just an eternity of complete and total oblivion.”

Now, we need to consider the logical validity of this rather dogmatic assertion. What idea or ideas is this claim based on? What philosophy would cause someone to draw this conclusion?

Clearly if we believe that nothing (no mind, soul or consciousness) could possibly survive the death of the physical body, then we must assume that what we call the ‘soul’ is dependent for its existence on the body, because we would consider it to be part of the body. This would suggest that we are convinced that the entirety of reality consists of nothing other than matter and energy, and that there is no spiritual or supernatural realm above, behind or infused throughout nature. This is the philosophy of naturalism, also generally known as materialism or physicalism. Those who confidently assert that this life is our one and only life are at least tacitly affirming this philosophy to be true.

(It is possible that someone may object by saying that he denies life after death, but holds to some kind of supernatural view of reality. I have encountered this position, even among professing Christians. Anyone can say anything if it doesn’t involve being logically consistent. But I am arguing on the basis of logical consistency and coherence. It may very well be possible to believe in a ‘God’, who decrees that our lives should be temporary, but such a view is simply de facto materialism as far as human life is concerned, but with a “God-concept” tacked on as really nothing more than a theological construct. The view that we are simply bodies, and we cease to exist when our bodies no longer function quite obviously leaves no place for an objective spiritual reality – at least as far as human life and experience is concerned. Moreover, those who do affirm a supernatural reality, but deny an afterlife, hardly have grounds to dismiss belief in life after death as mere wishful thinking and sentimentality. It is the atheistic, naturalistic view of reality which drives the disbelief in life after death, and it is this, rather than a compromised pseudo-religious form, which I am challenging.).

The philosophy of naturalism is both a necessary and sufficient condition for belief in the proposition that physical death results in the total death of the individual. Now why would anyone believe this to be true? What theory of knowledge could justify this viewpoint?

Seeing is believing?
If the philosophy of naturalism is true, then the means by which we relate to the physical world, as far as knowledge is concerned, has to be the only means by which knowledge can be acquired. Since our only epistemic relationship with nature is through our five senses (or the extension of our five senses by means of scientific equipment, such as, for example, microscopes and telescopes), then it follows that if we could find a source of knowledge other than our five senses, then we could not justifiably assert that “physical nature is all that exists”, because we could not say that “the only reality we know anything about is the physical world”.

The physical world, of course, consists of such things as trees, dolphins, rocks, atoms, water and so on. It does not consist of ideas, in the sense that we perceive them in the way that we perceive the existence of the above mentioned entities. Ideas are not bits of ‘stuff’ floating around in the atmosphere and made up of atoms and molecules and which can be observed and measured by science. Ideas may be communicated by physical means, but paper and ink or pixels are not what ideas are made of. These are merely physical vehicles for the dissemination of ideas.

The theory that all knowledge comes via sense perception is known as ‘empiricism’. Empiricism itself is an idea, of course, and not a physical thing. Either empiricism is true or it is not true. If it is held to be true, then for the person who believes it to be so, it counts as ‘knowledge’. But empiricism itself claims that all knowledge comes via sense perception, so how can the idea of empiricism itself be counted as ‘knowledge’, since this idea does not come to us by sense perception? It is an idea and not in the same epistemic category as a tree, a dolphin or a rock. Thus empiricism is self-refuting. The idea of empiricism itself breaks its own rule. It claims to be knowledge and yet transgresses its own rule by which knowledge is defined.

It may be argued that this is not a correct definition of empiricism, because it is possible to be an empiricist and accept the validity of innate ideas. It is indeed possible for the subjective human mind to hold to any view, no matter how self-contradictory and try to pass it off as something it is not. This moderate view of ‘empiricism’ is not actually empiricism, but a hybrid of empiricism and rationalism. I could just as easily say that it is a moderate form of rationalism: a rational core with a bit of sense perception thrown in! But even if we accept that definition of empiricism, it does not help anyone who holds to the philosophy of naturalism.

A question of evidence
The philosophy of naturalism depends entirely on empiricism for its justification. If we take away the fundamental claim of empiricism – that “all knowledge comes to us via sense perception” – then naturalism will collapse, because we would have no grounds for claiming that physical nature is all that exists.

The celebrated atheist cosmologist Carl Sagan certainly affirmed the view that all valid evidence had to be empirical, hence his famous “invisible dragon” comment: “Now, what’s the difference between an invisible, incorporeal, floating dragon who spits heatless fire and no dragon at all? If there’s no way to disprove my contention, no conceivable experiment that would count against it, what does it mean to say that my dragon exists?” This was his attempt to shift the burden of proof away from atheists, but rather bizarrely, he failed to take into account that an entity, which is not detectable empirically, can be inferred to exist as an explanation for phenomena which can be perceived. Another well-known atheist analogy was John Wisdom’s The Parable of the Invisible Gardener – a view of evidence gathering that no competent scientist would ever accept, because it ignores the role of inference. Many scientific theories are based entirely on inference, such as, for example, the theory of the existence of dark matter, which is empirically undetectable. These examples clearly show that attempts to promote the philosophy of naturalism, by which atheism is established, are based entirely on strong empiricism. Once empiricism is compromised, then naturalism is compromised.

Built on an impossible foundation
The theory of knowledge – empiricism (or “strong empiricism”, if we want to use the “belt and braces” term for clarity) – on which the philosophy of naturalism is based, is self-refuting, because it is an idea, and ideas are not physical objects detectable by the senses. Because it is self-refuting it kills itself. Therefore it cannot conceivably be true. An idea that destroys itself by its own inherent content is the ultimate nonentity. It simply cannot exist and function. It only appears to function by being parasitic: stealing something from its host (in this case, the objective validity of ideas) and then using that stolen property to promote a certain false view of reality. And the hope is that no one will notice!

Thus any view of reality dependent on a self-refuting theory of knowledge must be false. A house built on an impossible foundation cannot stand. The philosophy of naturalism is therefore logically impossible. (And it is no good claiming that this philosophy is not self-refuting, because we can argue that ideas have their origin in nature or that brain produced mind. This is an example of “begging the question”, that is, including in the premise of an argument the conclusion, which one is attempting to prove. In this case, the philosophy of naturalism is assumed to be true, and then a conclusion about the truth of naturalism is drawn from this premise. It is a circular argument, and therefore completely fallacious).

Hedging one’s bets
Now it may well be that some atheists recognise the epistemological problems of naturalism, and so they assert that “it is most probably the case that nothing survives the death of the body, but, of course, we cannot be absolutely sure about this. The rational working theory is that death is the end, as we have no knowledge of an afterlife, but reality could conceivably prove us wrong, although we think that that is very unlikely”. Such agnosticism has been redefined as a form of atheism; a kind of de facto or practical atheism.

Well this just will not do, as I will show. Let us analyse this claim, and see where it leads us.

Let us say that ‘x’ represents the proposition that “death is the end and there is no afterlife”. If ‘xmay be true, then the following two statements of modal logic are true:

1. It is possible that x is true.

2. It is possible that x is not true.

If one of these two propositions is denied then it is impossible to say that “x may be true”.

And if both these propositions are true then we can use either one of them to prove our case. If x may be true, then it is true that “it is possible that x is true”.

The dogmatic atheist says that “x (= no afterlife) is true”.

The agnostic says “it is possible that x (= no afterlife) is true”.

What is the difference between these two statements from a logical point of view? Well not a lot. The first one is stating that a particular claim is true, and therefore being true it is logically possible. The second one is saying that because it is logically possible, it could be true. Both statements affirm that the truth claim in question is logically possible, and the only difference between the two statements is the fact that the agnostic is also saying that the denial of the truth claim is also logically possible (which, of course, is not the same as saying that the truth claim is logically impossible).

Since we have established that the truth claim relies on the philosophy of naturalism, which, in turn, is dependent on the theory of empiricism, and given that empiricism is self-refuting, then it follows that the logical foundation of the truth claim is impossible. How then can an idea be deemed to be “logically possible” when it is dependent on a theory of knowledge which is logically impossible?

A troubling conundrum
Even the celebrated atheist philosopher Bertrand Russell could not accept the implications of the self-refuting nature of empiricism. This is what he wrote:

“I will observe, however, that empiricism, as a theory of knowledge, is self-refuting. For, however it may be formulated, it must involve some general proposition about the dependence of knowledge upon experience; and that any such proposition, if true, must have as a consequence that itself cannot be known. While, therefore, empiricism may be true, it cannot, if true, be known to be so.” (From: An Inquiry Into Meaning and Truth, Allen & Unwin: 1940. Emphasis mine.)

Here he is saying that an idea, which he admits is self-refuting, may be true. An idea that is self-refuting destroys itself and therefore cannot be true. He refuses to go that far, and merely states that such an idea cannot “be known” to be true. Yet it may actually be true.

This is extraordinary. Russell is not talking about the limitations of the human mind, but rather claiming that an idea can be true which cannot be known to be true, in other words, no logical mind could ever know this ‘true’ idea to be true. Given that the very formulation of the idea of ‘truth’ relies on methods of verification, which involve logical correspondence and coherence, then it is inconceivable how, even in principle, an idea can be asserted to be true (even as a mere possibility) while acknowledging that it stands outside the realm of logical possibility!

Even Bertrand Russell drew back from the logical implications of empiricism. Because it is self-refuting, it is not true. It cannot be true, because it is logically impossible. And therefore any philosophy which relies on this idea cannot be true. And any proposition which relies on that philosophy – such as the belief that the death of the physical body is the end of life – is also impossible, even when considered as a mere probability.

Unfortunately many atheists have not thought through the implications of the philosophy of naturalism. They make assumptions about the human condition based on this philosophy, but seem unaware of how deeply flawed it is.

The real wishful thinking
Atheists are fond of telling us that they are the ones who uphold reason, and that so called ‘religious’ people are irrational, weak-minded and sentimental. Indeed many religious people do fall into this category, but it is completely illogical to make a sweeping statement about all people who hold to a view of reality, which includes the dimension of the supernatural. It is actually those who subscribe to the philosophy of naturalism, who are indulging in irrationality, because they hold to a view of reality which is logically impossible, being self-refuting. There is thus no epistemic basis to their assertions about human mortality (and this does not even take into account the serious problems of reconciling the functioning of the human soul with the philosophy of naturalism. I have already touched on this in the article ‘Reason, Freedom and Atheism’ concerning the fundamental nature of free will and reason itself. We can also ask whether consciousness could possibly have a material basis. That is a subject for another time, but the basic properties of consciousness do not sit well with a materialistic reductionist explanation).

Thus we can say that those bereaved people, who express the kind of sentiments listed at the very beginning of this article, are expressing an awareness of something that actually makes logical sense. We don’t need to rely on controversial NDEs (Near Death Experiences) or so called “paranormal research” to have confidence that there is an ultimate reality for humanity, which survives the grave. We just need to think. And to think critically and accurately.

As the above mentioned atheist Carl Sagan once said: “it can be dangerous to believe things just because you want them to be true”.

Exactly.

Let us apply that maxim to all ideas, including the idea of the philosophy of naturalism!

Does Romans 9 teach predestination? (part 2)

In part 1 of this Bible study, I explained that the saying “Jacob I have loved, but Esau I have hated” does not refer to either the salvation of Jacob or Esau or to any other individual. It has a specific application concerning the nature of the election of Israel within God’s purposes.

The Apostle Paul then anticipates certain objections. He lays these out at length in the following passage (Romans 9:14-24):

What shall we say then? Is there unrighteousness with God? God forbid. For he said to Moses, I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion. So then it is not of him that wills, nor of him that runs, but of God that shows mercy. For the scripture said to Pharaoh, Even for this same purpose have I raised you up, that I might show my power in you, and that my name might be declared throughout all the earth. Therefore has he mercy on whom he will have mercy, and whom he will he hardens. You will say then to me, Why does he yet find fault? For who has resisted his will? No but, O man, who are you that reply against God? Shall the thing formed say to him that formed it, Why have you made me thus? Has not the potter power over the clay, of the same lump to make one vessel to honor, and another to dishonor? What if God, willing to show his wrath, and to make his power known, endured with much long-suffering the vessels of wrath fitted to destruction: and that he might make known the riches of his glory on the vessels of mercy, which he had before prepared to glory, even us, whom he has called, not of the Jews only, but also of the Gentiles? (Emphasis mine)

Let us just stand back from this passage and consider the following question: why would Paul have needed to anticipate these (highlighted) objections from the believers at the Church in Rome? It doesn’t take immense powers of inference to read between the lines and work out how these early Christians thought. Paul knew how they thought, and clearly they had a strong sense of fairness, which was related to a person’s level of accountability before God. If this was not the case, then Paul’s words make no sense. Paul felt the need to address this issue, because he knew that it would cause some difficulty for at least some of his audience.

Roman ‘fairness’
Now I will anticipate an objection! Some perhaps may argue that Paul was trying to reform the thinking of Christians, by encouraging them to dispense with their current view of ‘fairness’ and replace it with a complete submission to an idea of the sovereignty of God which precludes ‘fairness’, at least as we understand it. Perhaps Paul believed that his brethren had picked up some kind of moral virus from the surrounding pagan culture, and his role was to disabuse them of this false notion. Well clearly this is absurd. Roman society was anything but fair! It was an authoritarian society, which made a mockery of the ideas of equality and fairness. Some people were free citizens and others were mere slaves. Some had a right to privileges by reason of birth, and others could not hope to obtain such benefits. So there is no way that the believers in Rome could have been infected by some kind of sinister “fairness bug”.

Good and wild grapes
The reason the believers in Rome would have objected to Paul’s ostensibly shocking argument is because they held to a healthy view of justice, because God is just. We know from numerous texts of the Bible that God upholds what we normally understand by ‘justice’. A good example is Isaiah 5:1-7:

Now will I sing to my well beloved a song of my beloved touching his vineyard. My well beloved has a vineyard in a very fruitful hill: and he fenced it, and gathered out the stones thereof, and planted it with the choicest vine, and built a tower in the middle of it, and also made a wine press therein: and he looked that it should bring forth grapes, and it brought forth wild grapes.

And now, O inhabitants of Jerusalem, and men of Judah, judge, I pray you, between me and my vineyard. What could have been done more to my vineyard, that I have not done in it? why, when I looked that it should bring forth grapes, brought it forth wild grapes?

And now go to; I will tell you what I will do to my vineyard: I will take away the hedge thereof, and it shall be eaten up; and break down the wall thereof, and it shall be trodden down: and I will lay it waste: it shall not be pruned, nor dig; but there shall come up briers and thorns: I will also command the clouds that they rain no rain on it. For the vineyard of the LORD of hosts is the house of Israel, and the men of Judah his pleasant plant: and he looked for judgment, but behold oppression; for righteousness, but behold a cry. (emphasis mine)

If the Calvinist view of reprobation is true, then God would not have made this appeal to His people. He would not have asked them to judge between Himself and His vineyard, in order to appreciate that His punishment of it was fair. He would simply have said: “I have decided to fashion this vineyard in such a way so that it does not and cannot bring forth good grapes. That is my decree. And because it has not brought forth good grapes, I will then destroy it. If you then think that is unfair, because I was the one who made it barren, then who are you to question Me?! I will do what I like whether it seems fair to you or not. End of.”

If this really is the way God speaks to His people, then there is no sense in explaining that He is judging the vineyard, because He has good reason to do so, on the basis that He did everything He could to enable it to bring forth good grapes, but instead it brought forth wild grapes. The people whom the vineyard symbolises have genuine free will, and they brought forth evil, because they wilfully resisted God’s work in their lives. God looked for justice from these people. He expected it. He had invested in these people, such that they would produce a moral return. But instead they wilfully rebelled against God. There was nothing forcing them to act in the way that they did. They could have obeyed God, but chose not to. Therefore God’s justice can easily be seen to be totally fair. Nothing to do with predestination, of course, and everything to do with their own stubborn will.

A controversial explanation
On the basis of this kind of text it is not surprising that the believers in Rome would have been horrified at any understanding of God’s activity, which appeared to be unjust and trampled on a person’s level of moral accountability. Hence Paul’s need to write: “You will say then to me, Why does he yet find fault? For who has resisted his will?” Paul was not merely hypothesising, setting up imaginary objections just to knock them down like an intellectual parlour game. No. He said “You will say then to me…” He knew how the brethren in Rome thought, and he realised that what he was trying to explain was controversial.

So why did Paul approach this subject in this way?

Was he really saying that God deliberately creates some people to be recipients of blessing and salvation and others to be evil and therefore worthy only of eternal damnation? If so, then this clearly contradicts the revelation of God’s justice in Isaiah 5, as quoted above, which reveals that it is possible to resist God’s will.

And if Paul is not saying that, then why not reassure the believers in Rome concerning the nature of God’s justice? Why is Paul’s answer to the objections a kind of ‘put down’, which stifles any attempt at thought, and, frankly, makes God look like a tyrant? How can we possibly trust such a God? After all, if His will is inscrutable and we cannot hope to understand even the basics of His idea of fairness, and if we are required to believe that He creates the wicked and willingly consigns people to everlasting torment purely by irresistible decree, then how can we trust Him and love Him as our Heavenly Father? After all, if He is willing to damn that person, then He is also willing to damn me and anyone else who happens to read this article. And He does so simply because He wills it. (And if anyone argues that “God would not do that to me, because I am elect”, then that person needs to understand that he could be mistaken. After all, if God’s will is inscrutable, then we have no right to use that kind of logic against God. No one is safe under such a divine regime.)

The Egyptian connection
The solution to the problem involves an understanding of how God works in the midst of evil and suffering. There is a profound mystery to suffering, and although the Word of God encourages us to have a healthy understanding of justice and fairness (hence the parable of the vineyard in Isaiah 5), sometimes this needs to be put on hold when we are faced with seemingly intractable problems in our lives. One of the most formative periods in the life of Israel was their captivity in Egypt. The miraculous deliverance from Egypt is repeatedly referred to throughout Scripture. It is as if this event is a model for understanding suffering and deliverance.

Paul specifically refers to God’s dealings with the Pharaoh, who ruled Egypt at the time of the Israelites’ slavery there. God hardened Pharaoh’s heart and he would not allow the Israelites to leave. This is an example of what could be called ‘reprobation’. It would appear that God deliberately caused Pharaoh to be an oppressive tyrant, and then judged him for being so. This appears to be grossly unfair to Pharaoh. The Calvinist would perhaps say: “So be it”. But an investigation of the book of Exodus does not support this interpretation. The question we need to ask is this: did God harden Pharaoh’s heart from the outset, or only after he had first hardened his own heart?

The second answer is the correct one.

In Exodus 5:1-2 we read: And afterward Moses and Aaron went in, and told Pharaoh, Thus said the LORD God of Israel, Let my people go, that they may hold a feast to me in the wilderness. And Pharaoh said, Who is the LORD, that I should obey his voice to let Israel go? I know not the LORD, neither will I let Israel go.

Pharaoh’s response was to increase the burdens on the people of Israel, and there is no mention of God hardening his heart. This is also the case in the account given in Exodus chapters 6 to 8, where we read that Pharaoh hardened his heart. It is true that Exodus 4:21 and 7:3 state that God would harden Pharaoh’s heart, but we can only assume that that divine action began when the text states as much. All we can rely on is the evidence of the text, and it is not until chapter 9, verse 12 that we read that “the LORD hardened the heart of Pharaoh”. There are numerous references prior to this verse that inform us that Pharaoh hardened his own heart or that “his heart was hardened” (7:13,22; 8:15, 32; 9:7). We also have to remember that Pharaoh was already oppressing the Israelites; he had proven himself to be a brutal ruler for many years prior to the appearance of Moses and the period of the plagues.

Furthermore, God reveals His purpose for hardening Pharaoh’s heart: “And I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, and multiply my signs and my wonders in the land of Egypt” (Exodus 7:3). Clearly therefore if God had created Pharaoh an evil man, then the signs and wonders would have been evident in Egypt from the moment Pharaoh began to act in a malicious and oppressive way. Even the earlier reference to God’s promise to harden Pharaoh’s heart (Exodus 4:21) indicates a future event, and yet we know at that time that Pharaoh was already a despot. Therefore it is not possible to say that God created Pharaoh to be a reprobate, but rather that God made use of an evil man to work out His own purposes.

At the potter’s wheel
This hardening of Pharaoh’s heart is the context of Paul’s reference to God fashioning “vessels for dishonour” (Romans 9:21). The metaphor of the potter and the clay of Romans 9:21 was well understood, and may be a reference to its use in Jeremiah chapter 18, verses 1-12. This passage is God’s call to the wicked to repent:

“O house of Israel, cannot I do with you as this potter? said the LORD. Behold, as the clay is in the potter’s hand, so are you in my hand, O house of Israel. At what instant I shall speak concerning a nation, and concerning a kingdom, to pluck up, and to pull down, and to destroy it; if that nation, against whom I have pronounced, turn from their evil, I will repent of the evil that I thought to do to them. And at what instant I shall speak concerning a nation, and concerning a kingdom, to build and to plant it; if it do evil in my sight, that it obey not my voice, then I will repent of the good, with which I said I would benefit them.” (Jeremiah 18:6-10. Emphasis mine).

This text in Jeremiah makes a complete mockery of the claims of Calvinism. If God creates people to be evil (“vessels for dishonour”) then how can they possibly be expected to repent? If the nation threatened with punishment is expected to repent, then how can it if it is reprobate, according to the eternal decree of God? And if God intends to do good to a nation, how then can it rebel against Him, if it is elect according to an eternal divine decree? Clearly the biblical metaphor of the potter and the clay does not support the Calvinistic doctrine of predestination.

God enduring His own will?
Romans 9:22 also informs us that God endured the vessels for dishonour “with much long-suffering”. How strange? If it was God’s will and pleasure that these people should be reprobate, then why would He have to ‘endure’ them at all? Surely, if the doctrine of reprobation is true, then it is His pleasure that they should be in this spiritual condition, isn’t it? After all, that is what Calvinism teaches! Are we to believe that God is some kind of masochist, who has deliberately caused some people to be profane, evil and corrupt, with the result that it grieves Him? How ridiculous!

The fact that God has had to endure these people with much long-suffering indicates that it is manifestly not His will for them to be in this spiritual condition of reprobation.

Likewise, why does the Apostle Paul have sorrow in his heart over the condition of Israel (Romans 9:1), if Israel has been rejected by God by decree? Surely Paul should be rejoicing in submission to the will of God, and delighting in the fact that God’s will is being done in the spiritual destruction of some of the nation of Israel? That is what predestination to reprobation implies. Surely Paul is admitting that he is grieved at the will of God (which is tantamount to blaspheming!).

Clearly the Calvinist interpretation is entirely false. It is a delusion. The text simply cannot bear this strange construction that has been put on it.

However, we do need to ask why Paul presented his argument in the way that he has.

A reassuring truth
There is no doubt that God is indeed sovereign. God in His sovereignty has created man with free will, but that does not mean that man can presume to live completely independently of his Maker. The reassurance that Paul is giving the Christians in Rome is that even the lives of the wicked – who are evil by their own choice – can be fashioned by God in such a way as to serve His purposes. This is the true meaning of the potter and clay analogy. For Christians suffering persecution within the Roman Empire, it is an important truth. God is not absent even when evil flourishes, but He is working out His purposes through those who persecute His people. The wicked are still responsible for their actions, even when the sovereign God uses those actions for His higher purposes. We don’t need to understand what God is doing in such situations, but we need simply to submit to His authority.

This is a far more positive and coherent interpretation than the Calvinistic theory. God is glorified, even when evil flourishes.