Materialism is the belief that matter is the ultimate reality, that is to say that everything is material so that there are no such things as souls or numbers.
In a previous post, I argued that materialism seems to be self-contradictory because the concept of “everything” itself is immaterial.
In the following blog post, I want to reformulate my argument in a way that makes it easier to be analysed and criticised.
It basically goes like this:
1) According to materialism, every truth corresponds to a material state of affairs, i.e. a combination of interacting particles located in space and time.
2) But the truth of materialism itself cannot correspond to any such combination of spatially and temporally located interacting particles.
3) Hence materialism cannot be true.
3) is entailed by 1) and 2).
Consequently, you have to reject at least one of these to avoid the conclusion.
Can the truth of materialism correspond to a material state of affairs?
First of all, readers might be astounded by my assertion in 2). I shall try to lay out here what I mean by it.
The truth of materialism means that ALL things are material. This in itself consists of two conditions.
A) Entity 1, entity 2…entity n (whereby n can be infinite) are material, that is to say combinations of interacting particles located in time and space.
B) Entity 1, entity 2…entity n (whereby n can be infinite) are everything that exists.
This is illustrated in the following figure.
Materialism cannot just depend on condition B). For it not only entails that the entities in the circle are material but also that they are ALL THERE IS, so that there is NOTHING outside the circle.
And that very property can neither be located in space nor in time. Nor can it consist of 100,00; 10E+34 or any other number of particles.
What are truths under materialism?
This naturally leads us to examine claim 1).
All materialists are nominalists which means that they reject the existence of abstract objects (such as numbers) that they view as useful human conventions aiming at describing the natural world.
They also believe that truths such as “It is dangerous to drive after having drunk a bottle of Vodka in five minutes” are ultimately nothing more than the product of human language describing material states of affairs, i.e. a representation in our brains of facts of the external world.
In that particular case, there is nothing over and above the fact that almost every actual human being having ever been in that state is totally incapable of coordinating a complex activity such as steering a car.
Now, what would it mean to reject claim 1)?
A first option would be to reject my assertion that a material state of affairs has to be a combination of particles located in time and space. It is certainly true that materialism itself isn’t well defined. But all materialists I know believe there are no objects outside of time and space and I think that any view denying this would deserve another name altogether.
Finally, you can reject my claim that materialism implies that every truth corresponds to a material state of affairs. That might perhaps be the best way to defeat my argument.
But at the moment, I fail to see how this can make any sense. Basically, this would amount to saying: “Everything is material but certain truths go beyond the material world” which sounds self-contradictory to me.
So I am under the impression that materialism cannot possibly be true.
I’d certainly be glad to learn where you think my reasoning is mistaken.
In a previous post, I explained why I believe that materialism (the belief that matter is the only reality) cannot make sense of the truth of materialism.
My reasoning was hard to follow and this prompted me to try to reformulate my argument.
Platonism and Nominalism
According to Platonism, abstract objects not existing in space and time (such as numbers, mathematical operations, concepts such as “everything“, “nothing” etc.) are real and necessary to talk about the world.
For instance, while considering the sentence
“All roses in my garden are red”
a Platonist will consider the words “all” and “red” as examples of abstract objects (or universals) which determine its truth or falsehood.
A Nominalist rejects the existence of abstract objects which are considered to be useful human conventions.
According to them, the above sentence can be rephrased as
“Rose number 1, 2, 3…. and N have roughly the same colour as tomatoes”
thereby seemingly doing away with the indispensability of abstract concepts.
It is important to realise that the plausibility of Nominalism stands and falls with its ability to reformulate such statements without the use of any abstract objects.
If abstract objects can be shown to be indispensable to give a meaning to a true sentence describing the real world, Nominalism is false.
What is the truth of materialism?
Materialists MUST be Nominalists as they reject the existence of anything not located in space and time.
At face value, the truth of materialism can be expressed in different equivalent ways:
“Everything is material”
“There is nothing immaterial”
“If (any object)* A exists, A is material”
“If (any object)* A is real, A is material“.
But is there a way to formulate this proposition without (explicitly and implicitly) appealing to any abstract entities?
It seems to me that in that specific context, all words I have underlined are abstract entities or require the meaning of abstract entities such as existence.
The sentences “there exists no such thing as the concept of existence” or “the concept of reality is not real” appear self-contradictory to me.
Note that I am not saying that the underlined words cannot be interpreted nominallistically in other situations.
But here it seems impossible to me to express the truth of materialism while only appealing to material entities.
If I’m right about that, whenever we assert the truth of materialism, we must resort to non-material concepts. In other words, if the truth of materialism is meaningful, non-material concepts must be meaningful as well.
Conversely, if non-material concepts are meaningless, so is the truth of materialism.
Are materialists cutting off the branch they are sitting on?
Another way of looking at this is to consider the truth-value of materialism, that is to say the state of affairs of the world that would make it true.
Suppose that 2 billions years later, our highly advanced descendants feel confident that they know everything that exists.
Would the state of affairs corresponding to materialism simply be: “Object 1 is material, object 2 is material…object N is material“?
No, for it must also include “And objects 1 to N are everything that exists” or ‘”there is nothing else than objects 1 to N”.
It thus appears that as an ensemble, objects 1 to N must have a non-material property (namely that of exhaustiveness) that is not localised in time and space and cannot be identified with any set of interacting primary particles.
Therefore, the impossibility of defining materialism without relying on immaterial concepts goes hand in hand with the impossibility of it being true.
I’d be interested to learn if you think I’m wrong and that you know such formulations which do not merely shift the problem. Of course, one solution of the issue might be to use more modest definitions of materialism that do not try to convey the idea of “nothing else”.
*Some might object that the sentence
If (any object) A is real, A is material
can simply be formulated as
If A is real, A is material.
This clearly raises questions about the implicit meaning of A.
If love exists, love is material
If telepathy exists, telepathy is material
can obviously not serve as the definition of materialism, although they naturally follow from its truth.
Nor can this role be played by the sentence
If Lyurmur exists, it is material
which concerns a specific entity called “Lyurmur“.
It is because of mathematical conventions and our use to them that we automatically assume that “A” in the original sentence means “any object having that property“.
It thus follows that we cannot do away with that concept in such a manner.
A creation of human brains
Someone answered that this isn’t a problem as “everything” can be viewed as an abstraction created by human brains.
If that is the case, without conscious lives in the cosmos, materialism couldn’t be true! Materialism would be a fact of the external world that would not be true if there were no consciousness. That’s certainly a very odd position to hold. Many would say it is plainly absurd as one of the main claims of materialism is the denial that consciousness is anything fundamental.
Moreover, if the concept of “everything” is only a useful convention to simplify our daily talks and theory building, then what does it mean in such a situation where it cannot be reduced to anything else?
I think that the following argument can be developed:
1) If the sentence M “everything is material” is true, then the concept of “everything” must exist either as such or as something reducible to other concepts or objects and not *merely* as a creation of the brain.
2) In that specific context, “everything” cannot be reduced to more fundamental objects.
3) Hence, if M (materialism) is true, “everything” exists as a fundamental object.
I have argued for 2) above and believe it is very implausible that anyone could reduce “everything” to something more fundamental and do away with abstract objects.
I shall thus take it for granted.
Denying 1) would mean that “A is…” can be true even though A does not carry any external meaning and is only correlated to a bunch of neurons. That too seems very implausible as the proposition “The fountain of youth is material” and “The fountain of youth is immaterial” are both false if the fountain of youth does not refer to a putative object.
Consequently, it is very hard to see how a materialist can consider that “everything” is nothing more than neural currents without meaning while believing that the sentence “everything is material” is true.
Not a noun?
Another person asserted that “everything is material” is perfectly fine for a materialist as “everything” is a pronoun and not a noun. I don’t think this is the case.
For an abstract object not existing in time and space does not have to be a noun in a specific language. Consider for example the sentences:
0 roses are red
3 roses are red
7 roses are red
9 roses are red
NO rose is red.
ALL roses are red
EVERY roses are red.
“No”,”All” and “every” are as much abstract objects as “3”, “7” and “9” are.
If “0”, “3”, “7”, “9” have no meaning, neither do the four first sentences.
If “no”, “all” and “every” have no meaning, neither do the three last sentences.
“all” and “every” depend on the concepts of everything in the same way as “something” depends on the concept of something.
The sentence “Fijhfhdfgx is blue” is meaningless without a concept of “Fijhfhdfgx“.
What is more, everything in that context can only mean “every OBJECT” as opposed to “every pineapple or “every wild bears”.
So, I still don’t see how “everything” (every thing) can have a meaning here without the concept of everything and the concept of object.
Replacing “every” by an enumeration
Someone suggested I could just replace “every” by an enumeration of all elements making up reality.
I also first thought of “everything” as a summation (U).
If all the materialist was claiming were that the objects KNOWN TO US are material, an enumeration such as
– This laptop is material
– This rose is material
– Donald Trump’s brain is material
would indeed be perfectly correct. The problem is that most materialists also include all potentially unknown object.And as such, the summation (U) will also have to explicitly mention
“and all potential objects we know nothing about are material“
so that the problem does remain the same.
This seems to be inevitable. Our descendants in 200 000 000 million years would also face the same problem as they too could not rule out the existence of unknown objects in, say, parallel universes.
So I remain convinced that phrases such as “and nothing else exists” cannot be replaced by any combinations of concrete objects.
Actually, in order to avoid a tautology (such as ‘all material things are material’), it appears to me that you must allow for the possibility that the object A could be non-material. And as such, A cannot be considered a physical thing of our universe from the outset without begging the question.
Here is the introduction to a novel I’ve been writing in English for eons…and perhaps even in some parallel world 🙂
Hier ist die Einführung in einen Roman, den ich auf Englisch seit Äonen geschrieben habe…und vielleicht sogar in irgendwelcher parallelen Welt 🙂
Ceci est l’introduction du roman que j’ai écrit depuis de très nombreux mois…peut-être même dans un monde parallèle 🙂
Magonland…a world not entirely unlike ours but not completely similar either.
Magonland…eine Welt, die unserer nicht ganz unähnlich ist, obwohl sie auch nicht ganz dieselbe ist.
Magonland…un monde qui n’est pas vraiment différent du notre, bien qu’il ne soit pas tout à fait identique. For countless centuries, the whole planet has been ruled by the iron fist of the “Grand Consil”, whose manipulative skills have grown so strong that they managed eventually to convince the large majority of Magoners that they live in a democracy and are sovereign over their own existences.
Seit zahllosen Jahrhunderten wird der ganze Planet von der eisernen Faust des “Großen Consils” regiert, dessen manipulativen Methoden so stark geworden sind, dass es ihnen schliesslich gelang, die grosse Mehrheit der Magoner davon zu überzeugen, dass sie in einer Demokratie leben und über ihre eigenen Existenzen entscheiden.
Depuis de nombreux siècles, l’entière planète a été gouvernépar le poing d’acier du“Grand Consil”, dont les techniques de manipulation sont devenues tellement maturesqu’ils ont finalement réussi à convaincre la grande majorité des Magoneursqu’ils vivent dans une démocratie et dirigent souverainement leurs propres existences.
But political oppression is far from being the only problem plaguing humans.
Aber die politische Unterdrückung ist keineswegs das einzige Problem, das Menschen plagt.
Mais l’oppression politique est loin d’être le seul fléau affligeant les humains.
Many eons ago, at a time when religions had not yet been eradicated, Ankou, a terrifying drug devouring the bodies and souls of its victims, had been introduced into the world by a powerful sect which disappeared shortly thereafter.
Viele Äonen zuvor, zu einer Zeit als die Religionen noch nicht vertilgt worden waren,wurde Ankou, eine furchterregende Droge, die die Körper und Seelen ihrer Opfer verzehrt, in die Welt hineingebracht von einer mächtigen Sekte, die kurz danach verschwand.
Dans un passé très lointain,alors que les religions n’avaient pas encore été éradiquées, Ankou, une drogue terrifiante qui dévore les corps et les âmes de ses victimes, fut introduite dans le monde par une puissante secte qui disparut peu après.
And so did belief in Kralmur, the God of all gods whose glorious return so passionately preached by forgotten prophets never happened.
Und ebenso verschwand der Glaube an Kralmur, den Gott aller Götter, dessen glorreiche Rückkehr, über die vergessene Propheten so leidenschaftlich gepredigt haben, nie geschah.
Et il en fut de même pour la foi en Kralmur, le Dieu de tous les dieux,dont le glorieux retour prêché tellement passionnément par des prophètes oubliés,n’arriva jamais.
Despite a wealthy existence, a fantastic girlfriend and a decent job he feels passionate about, Curt Sunbloom no longer wants to live on.
Trotz einer wohlhabenden Existenz, einer fantastischen Freundin und einer anständigen Arbeit, wovon er sich begeistert fühlt, will Curt Sunneblum nicht länger weiterleben.
Malgré une existence aisée, une fantastique petite amie et un travail décent qui le passione, Curt Sunbloom ne veut plus vivre.
Apart from having the same name as his dead father who tyrannized the planet for decades, he constantly feels a deep emptiness in his innermost being that nothing had ever been able to drive away for long.
Ausser der Tatsache, dass er denselben Namen wie den seines toten Vaters hat, der den ganzen Planet während Jahrzehnten tyrannisiert hat, fühlt er ständig eine tiefe innere Leere, die kein Ding dieser Welt auf die Länge hatte vertreiben können.
En plus d’avoir le même nom que son père décédé,qui a tyrannisé toute la planète pendant des décennies, il sent sans cesse un vide intérieur que rien au monde n’a jamais pu chasser pour longtemps.
As rumors of a gate toward another realm surface, he doesn’t hesitate and decides to search for it.
Als Gerüchte über ein Tor nach einer anderen Dimension auftauchen, zögert er nicht und entscheidet, danach zu suchen.
Lorsque des rumeurs concernant un portail vers une autre dimension surfacent, il n’hésite pas et décide de le chercher.
But at the same time, mysterious lights are beginning to move around in the sky.
Aber zur gleichen Zeit beginnen gerade mysteriöse Lichter am Himmel, sich herum zu bewegen.
Mais en même temps, des mystérieuses lumières dans le ciel commencent a se déplacer erratiquement dans le ciel.
And Ankou seems to be evolving into something more sinister than it ever was.
Und Ankou scheint gerade, sich in etwas zu verwandeln, das noch düsterer ist als es je gewesen ist.
Et Ankou semble être entrain de se transformer en quelque chose encore plus sinistre qu’elle n’a jamais été.
Soon, Curt finds himself in the middle of a confusing war whose significance might transcend everything he believes in.
Bald befindet sich Curt mitten in einem verwirrenden Krieg, dessen Bedeutsamkeit alles übersteigen könnte, woran er glaubt.
Bientôt, Curt se retrouve au milieu d’une guerre déroutante, dont la signifiance pourrait très bien transcender toutes ses croyances.
So, aside from my work as an emerging scientist, this novel is the main reason why I’ve been blogging less frequently for the last months.
Also, neben meiner beruflichen Tätigkeit als Nachwuchswissenschaftler ist dieser Roman der Hauptgrund, warum ich im Laufe der letzten Monate viel seltener gebloggt habe.
En plus de ma profession en tant que jeune scientifique, ce roman est la raison principale pourquoi j’ai rarement blogué pendant les derniers mois.
At the moment,I am undecided as to how to publish it.
Momentan weiß ich noch nicht, wie ich ihn publizieren werde.
En ce moment, je ne sais pas encore comment je veux le publier.
I consider it much more important to be read by many people than to make money out of it.
Ich betrachte es als viel wichtiger, von zahlreichen Menschen gelesen zu werden, als dadurch viel Geld zu verdienen.
Je considère beaucoup plus important d’être lu par beaucoup de personnes plutôt que de gagner de l’argent a travers cela.
In the parallel world I created, English is the common tongue but some people speak in French and other people speak in the Germanic dialect of my region.
In der parallelen Welt, die ich erschaffen habe, ist das Englische die gemeinsame Sprache aber einige Menschen sprechen Französisch während andere Personen den deutschen Dialekt meiner Region reden.
Dans le monde parallèle que j’ai créé, l’anglais est la langue principale mais certaine personnes parlent en français tandis que d’autres s’expriment dans le dialecte germanique de ma région.
So people interested in linguistic might like it 🙂
Also Leute, die an der Linguistik interessiert sind, könnten es mögen 🙂
Ainsi, les gens intéressés par la linguistique pourrait l’apprécier 🙂
I just listened to a talk given by Richard Dawkins.
For those who do not know him, he is the most influential “new atheist” (anti-theist) whose deepest wish would be to rid the world of all religions. Besides that, he is a very gifted evolutionary biologist and writer.
Given his track record and his habit of constantly lumping together all Christians and Muslims and his failure to appreciate the historical and religious contexts in which the Bible and the Koran were written, I expected a highly biased presentation of the facts.
I was pleasantly surprised by his (relatively) moderate tone and even ended up enjoying his show.
The same cannot be said of his followers and the person who titled the video. As we shall see, Dawkins did not “debunk” deism and the “simulation hypothesis”.
At best, he only showed that some arguments for these views are flawed.
In what follows, I want to offer my thoughts about several things he said, albeit not necessarily in a chronological order.
The origin of life and intelligent design
Dawkins recognises that at the moment, we don’t know how life originated. There are several theories out there but they all have their problems and no consensus has been reached.
Of course, our current ignorance cannot be used to argue that no natural phenomena could have been responsible for the appearance of the first self-replicating system.
Dawkins is ready to seriously consider the possibility that life has been seeded on earth by space aliens, which shows a certain mind-openness.
But he is adamant that such creatures could only have evolved through a slow process because the probability of their being formed spontaneously is extremely low.
This begs the question against people holding a religious world view who would say that the creator(s) of life are God(s) who always existed.
This also doesn’t fit in with his beliefs about the origin of the universe, as we will see later on.
Extraterrestrial intelligences and Fermi’s paradox
Dawkins endorses the principle of mediocrity which stipulates that we shouldn’t suppose there is anything special about us.
Thus, since we know there is (advanced) life on earth, we should assume it is widespread across the whole universe.
While being still popular among mainstream scientists, the Principle Of Mediocrity (POM= has grown more controversial over the last years.
Basically, the principle of mediocrity is justified through the principle of indifference (POI), according to which if we know nothing about a situation, we should attribute the same probability to each possibility.
I explained what I consider to be fatal objections to the POI here and here.
As Norton demonstrated, the principle of indifference conflates the difference between knowledge and ignorance and very often leads to arbitrary results (depending on the prior probability distribution one uses).
There is a fundamental distinction between
Situation A) We know that life on earth wasn’t the result of a fluke but that of non-random natural processes
Situation B) We know (almost) nothing about this.
Dawkins went into a paradox mentioned by nuclear physicist Enrico Fermi.
If advanced life is so common in the cosmos, why don’t we see any trace of it?
Several explanations (such as the near impossibility of interstellar travel, the short duration of technological civilisations or their reluctance to interact with such primitive beings as we) have been offered to solve the paradox.
To my mind, while these may be plausible reasons why ten or even hundred extraterrestrial races never approached the earth, they seem extremely far-fetched when applied to millions (let alone billions) of civilisations.
Therefore, I believe that Fermi’s paradox strongly calls in question the conviction that the universe is teeming with advanced life forms.
The fine-tuning argument and the multiverse
Physicists have long since been puzzled by the fact that the constants of nature must lie in a very narrow domain in order to allow for advanced life to exist.
Many theistic philosophers reason like this
All sets of parameter values must have the same probability of being true (applying the Principle Of Indifference mentioned above)
Therefore, the probability of their belonging to a small region is extremely (if not infinitely) small.
It is very unlikely that we are the products of purely natural processes not involving God.
While mainstream cosmologists agree with steps 1 and 2, they then go on to postulate the existence of a (nearly) infinite number of parallel universes covering all intervals of parameter values. A natural consequence of this is that the appearance of a universe such as ours is bound to happen even if no supernatural creator intervenes.
Dawkins considers this the most plausible explanation of the problem.
I have come to the realisation that the whole concept of a fine-tuning problem is misguided because of its reliance on the principle of difference.
The fallacy of doing so has been demonstrated by Norton.
Miracles in an infinite multiverse
According to Clarke’s law, any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.
Dawkins believes there are probably creatures out there who are so superior to us that we could only regard them as gods if they were to visit us. But he insists that they would have been created through evolutionary processes and would not be supernatural beings.
But this means that in order for him to dismiss out of hand the testimonies of witnesses of paranormal events and miracles, he would have to either show that they violate the laws of physics or give us plausible reasons as to why such creatures would not visit us.
He also faces another problem stemming from his belief in an infinite number of parallel universes.
In an infinite space, any event which is physically possible is bound to happen somewhere.
This has led physicists to consider the possibility of so-called Boltzmann’s brains which would pop into existence because of random fluctuations.
While physicists disagree about the frequency of their appearances in a vast multiverse, they all think they will at least exist somewhere.
Actually, to the best of my knowledge, nobody has been able to convincingly demonstrate they would be very rare.
Anti-theists like to mock Christians by comparing their belief in God to the belief in a flying spaghetti monster.
But if we truly live in an infinite multiverse, flying spaghetti monsters too will necessarily exist somewhere.
What is more, physically very improbable events (such as the resurrection of a man from the dead) are also going to happen somewhere through random processes.
As a consequence, the atheist can no longer say “your belief in the miracles of the New Testament is silly because they violate the law of physics”.
The best he could say would be: “While such events really occur somewhere, their relative frequency is so low that it is unreasonable for you to believe they really took place.”
This is no doubt a weaker position which has its own problems.
Finally, I want to go into how Dawkins considers the possibility of being judged by a God he didn’t believe in.
Dawkins says he would react like the late British philosopher Bertrand Russel:
“Confronted with the Almighty, [Russell] would ask, ‘Sir, why did you not give me better evidence?’“
This assumes that God would be mostly offended by Dawkins’ and Russel’s unbelief.
I have argued elsewhere against the notion (held by fundamentalist Christians) that atheism is immoral and that people dying as atheists will be punished because of their unbelief.
I think it is incompatible with the existence of a supreme being which would necessarily be more loving, just and gracious than any human.
But what if the dialogue between God and Dawkins went like that:
“Dawkins: So, you really exist after all! I did not believe in you because I couldn’t see enough evidence.
God: Fair enough. The universe I created is ambiguous and it leaves people the choice to develop a solid moral character or not. I won’t condemn you because you did not believe in me. Yet, we do have a score to settle.
Dawkins: What do you mean then?
God:I gave you a conscience and the knowledge of good and evil. You knew in your heart that you ought to treat your neighbour as you would like to be treated. But you often disregarded this principle. You and your followers have frequently bullied, mocked and ridiculed respectful opponents. You even loudly proclaimed this was the right thing to do.”
Of course, this conversation is completely fictional. I don’t know the content of Dawkins’ heart and cannot rule out the possibility he will be in heaven.
I find that this video of Dawkins is really intellectually stimulating.
I did not feel challenged in my faith/hope there is a supreme being.
On the contrary, this strengthened my belief that atheists cannot confidently assert that “there are probably no gods and miracles.”
Of course, I must recognise there are many atheistic philosophers who are far more sophisticated than Dawkins out there.
But it is worth noting that Dawkins’ books (especially the God delusion) caused many people to lose their faith.
I think that their conversions to atheism are due to his rhetorical skills and not to the strength of his arguments.
For many people having grown up in post-Christian Europe, this alleged event is nothing more than one of the numerous legends the ancient world was littered with.
In what follows, I had the immense privilege of interviewing Mike Licona, an amazing Biblical scholar and historian who thinks that an intellectual honest man of the twenty-first century can and even should believe that the Son of Man truly rose from the dead.
I think we can safely assume that, in his public persona, Jesus did not go around telling everyone he was the Messiah, let alone God.
But one must then ask whether these is a good reason to regard the process that follows, in which Jesus comes to be viewed as the second person of the Trinity, is a legitimate or necessary one.
Schenck also criticizes Ehrman for giving voice to older formulations of scholarly views, as though things had not moved on.
The only people who think that Jesus was viewed as a divine figure from the beginning are some very conservative Christians on the one hand , and mythicists on the other. That in itself is telling.
I’d be very interested to see further exploration of the idea that, in talking about the “son of man,” Jesus was alluding to a future figure other than himself, and that it was only his followers who merged the two, coming up with the notion of a “return” of Jesus. It is a viewpoint that was proposed and then set aside decades ago, and I don’t personally feel like either case has been explored to the fullest extent possible. Scholarship on the Parables of Enoch has shifted since those earlier discussions occurred, and the possibility that that work could have influenced Jesus can no longer be dismissed.
But either way, we are dealing with the expectations of a human being, either regarding his own future exaltation, or the arrival of another figure. We simply do not find in Paul or in our earliest Gospels a depiction of Jesus as one who thought he was God.
Here was my response to that:
“Well I’m not really a Conservative Christian (since I reject a fixed Canon and find some forms of pan-en-theism interesting philosophically) but I do believe that Jesus was more than a mere prophet. Along with N.T. Wright I think He viewed Himself as the new temple embodying God’s presence on earth.
I’m well aware that Jesus divine sayings in John’s gospel are theological creations .
But here there is something curious going on here.
Many critical scholars think that the historical Jesus falsely predicted the end of the world in the Gospel of Mattew “Truly I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place. ” Matthew 24:34
But if one does this, why could we not also accept the following saying
“37”Jerusalem, Jerusalem, who kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to her! How often I wanted to gather your children together, the way a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were unwilling. 38″Behold, your house is being left to you desolate!…” Matthew 23:37
which is located just several verses before Matthew 24:34. It seems rather arbitrary to accept the latter while rejecting the former.
This verse is intriguing in many respects.
In it, Jesus implies his divinity while not stating it explicitly, and if it was a theological creation such as in John’s Gospel, it seems strange that Matthew did not make this point much more often and clearly at other places, if such was his agenda.
What’s more, the presence of Matthew 24:34 (provided it was a false prophecy) has some interesting consequences about the dating and intention of the author.
1) Let us consider that Matthew made up the whole end of his Gospel out of his theological wishful thinking for proving that Christ is the divine Messiah.
If it is the case, it seems extremely unlikely he would write that one or two generations AFTER Jesus had perished. This fact strongly militates for dating Matthew’s gospel as a pretty early writing.
2) Let us now suppose that Matthew wrote His Gospel long after Jesus’s generation had passed away. He would certainly not have invented a saying where his Messiah made a false prediction. It appears much more natural to assume he reports a historical saying of Jesus as it was because he deeply cared for truth , however embarrassing this might prove to be.
And if that is the case, we have good grounds for thinking he did not make up Matthew 23:37 either.
I’m not saying that what I have presented here is an air-tight case, it just seems the most natural way to go about this.
I think that historical events posses objective probabilities, geekily minded readers might be interested in my own approach.”
To which James replied:
“Thanks for making this interesting argument! How would you respond to the suggestion that Jesus there might be speaking as other prophets had, addressing people in the first person as though God were speaking, but without believing his own identity to be that of God’s? I think that might also fit the related saying, “I will destroy this temple, and in three days rebuild it.””
“That’s an interesting reply, James! Of course I cannot rule this out.
Still, in the verses before Jesus uses the third person for talking about God:
“And anyone who swears by the temple swears by it and by the one who dwells in it. 22 And anyone who swears by heaven swears by God’s throne and by the one who sits on it.”
and verse 36: ” 36 Truly I tell you , all this will come on this generation.” is a typical saying of Jesus he attributes to himself.
And so it seems to me more natural that Jesus would have said something like:
” For Truly God says: ’37 “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing…”
“Well, the same sort of switching back and forth between first person of God and the first person of the prophet is found in other prophetic literature, so I don’t see that as a problem. Of course, it doesn’t demonstrate that that is the best way to account for the phenomenon, but I definitely think it is one interpretative option that needs to be considered.”
I mentioned our conversation because I think it is a nice example of how one can disagree about a topic without being disagreeable towards one another.
Would not the world be in a much better state if everyone began striving for this ideal?
This cartoon appears to be doing several things. But the point I want to focus on is a particular assumption about the nature of burden of proof. The assumption seems to be this:
Burden of Proof Assumption (BoPA): The person who makes a positive existential claim (i.e. who makes a claim that some thing exists) has a burden of proof to provide evidence to sustain that positive existential claim.
Two Types of Burden of Proof
Admittedly, it isn’t entirely clear how exactly BoPA is to be understood. So far as I can see, there are two immediate interpretations which we can call the strong and weak interpretations. According to the strong interpretation, BoPA claims that assent to a positive existential claim is only rational if it is based on evidence. In other words, for a person to believe rationally that anything at all exists, one must have evidence for that claim. I call this a “strong” interpretation because it proposes a very high evidential demand on rational belief.
The “weak” interpretation of BoPA refrains from extending the evidential demand to every positive existential claim a person accepts. Instead, it restricts it to every positive existential claim a person proposes to another person.
To illustrate the difference, let’s call the stickmen in the cartoon Jones and Chan. Jones claims he has the baseball, and Chan is enquiring into his evidence for believing this. A strong interpretation of BoPA would render the issue like this: for Jones to be rational in believing that he has a baseball (i.e. that a baseball exists in his possession), Jones must have evidence of this claim.
A weak interpretation of BoPA shifts the focus away from Jones’ internal rationality for believing he has a baseball and on to the rationality that Chan has for accepting Jones’ claim. According to this reading, Chan cannot rationally accept Jones’ testimony unless Jones can provide evidence for it, irrespective of whether Jones himself is rational to believe the claim.
So it seems to me that the cartoon is ambiguous between the weak and strong claims. Moreover, it is clear that each claim carries different epistemological issues in its train.
Does a theist have a special burden of proof?
Regardless, let’s set that aside and focus in on the core claim shared by both the weak and strong interpretations which is stated above in BoPA. In the cartoon a leap is made from belief about baseballs to belief about religious doctrines. The assumption is thus that BoPA is a claim that extends to any positive existential claim.
I have two reasons for rejecting BoPA as stated. First, there are innumerable examples where rational people recognize that it is not the acceptance of an existential claim which requires evidence. Indeed, in many cases the opposite is the case: it is the denial of an existential claim which requires evidence.
Consider, for example, belief in a physical world which exists external to and independent of human minds. This view (often called “realism”) makes a positive existential claim above and beyond the alternative of idealism. (Idealism is the view that only minds and their experiences exist.) Regardless, when presented with the two positions of realism and idealism, the vast majority of people will recognize that if there is a burden of proof in this question, it is borne by the idealist who denies a positive existential claim.
Second, BoPA runs afoul of the fact that one person’s existential denial is another person’s existential affirmation. The idealist may deny the existence of a world external to the mind. But by doing so, the idealist affirms the existence of a wholly mental world. So while the idealist may seem at first blush to be making a mere denial, from another perspective she is making a positive existential claim.
With that in mind, think about the famous mid-twentieth century debate between Father Copleston (Christian theist) and Lord Russell (atheist) on the existence of God. Copleston defended a cosmological argument according to which God was invoked to explain the origin of the universe. Russell retorted: “I should say that the universe is just there, and that’s all.” With that claim, Russell is not simply denying a positive existential claim (i.e. “God exists”), but he is also making a positive existential claim not made by Copleston (i.e. “the universe is just there, and that’s all”).
In conclusion, the atheist makes novel positive existential claims as surely as the theist. And so it follows that if the latter has a burden to defend her positive existential claim that God does exist, then the former has an equal burden to defend her positive existential claim that the universe is just there and that’s all.
Here is was my response.
This is another of your excellent posts, Randal!
Unlike most Evangelical apologists, you’re a true philosopher of religion and don’t seem to be ideology driven like John Loftus (for instance) obviously is. This makes it always a delight to read your new insights,
I think that when one is confronted with an uncertain claim, there are three possible attitudes:
1) believing it (beyond any reasonable doubt)
2) believing its negation (without the shadow of a doubt).
3) not knowing what to think.
Most professional Skeptics automatically assume that if your opponent cannot prove his position (1), he or she is automatically wrong (2), thereby utterly disregarding option 3).
All these stances can be moderated by probabilities, but since I believe that only events have probabilities, I don’t think one can apply a probabilistic reasoning to God’s existence and to the reality of moral values.
While assessing a worldview, my method consists of comparing its predictions with the data of the real world. And if it makes no prediction at all (such as Deism), agnosticism is the most reasonable position unless you can develop cogent reasons for favoring another worldview.
Anyway, the complexity of reality and the tremendous influence of one’s cultural and personal presuppositions on reality make it very unlikely to know the truth with a rational warrant, and should force us to adopt a profound intellectual humility.
This is why I define faith as HOPE in the face of insufficient evidence.
I believe we have normal, decent (albeit not extraordinarily) evidence for the existence of transcendent beings. These clues would be deemed conclusive in mundane domain of inquiries such as drug trafficking or military espionage.
But many people consider the existence of a realm (or beings) out of the ordinary to be extremely unlikely to begin with.
This is why debates between true believers and hardcore deniers tend to be extraordinarily counter-productive and loveless.
The evidence are the same but Skeptics consider a coincidence of hallucinations, illusions and radar deficits to be astronomical more plausible than visitors from another planet, universe, realm, or something else completely unknown.
In the future, I’ll argue that there are really a SMALL number of UFOs out there (if you stick to the definition “UNKNOWN Flying Objects” instead of a starship populated by gray aliens)
Of course, the same thing can be said about (a little number of) miraculous miracles.