Is there a God? I'm still not sure, Cecil.

I may or may not be an atheist- still in the decision making process, as I have been for the past ten years- but I hold no prejudice when I say that the Great Cecil’s column on the existence of God left me deeply wanting. Well, to be specific, it was the second column I had the most issue with, the first being a satisfactory (if admittedly oversimplified) primer to the introduction of the Theologica.

Allow me to ramble for a second. The basic problem arises when he attempts to posit things like “energy” and “11-dimension reality” as candidates for First Mover. This is, immediately and on its face, absurd. One of the more basic tenets of Scholastic ontology is the fact that while God chooses to constrain himself within a rational mode of being, understandable in large part by man (a largely idiosyncratic Catholic view), he is also transcendent of material reality (true of just about every Judeo-Christian faith, as well as Platonism and (to a degree) Aristotelianism); in other words, God doesn’t create the universe from within the universe. Those scientific candidates offered up by Cecil do suffer this conclusion, and some material thing arising from itself is offensive to our rational sensibilities. (Yes, yes, this is the place where the where-did-god-come-from cliche flares up. Separate issue for a separate topic. Besides, I doubt most “rational” atheists would want to attribute divinity to mere existence a la Spinoza, which would be the required next step were this line of thinking invoked.)

I understand that Cecil’s expertise is more science and less philosophy, but this is a rather basic oversight that any graduate-level student would immediately pick up on. Rather below Cecil’s usual standards. Am I missing something here?

Link to Cecil’s Column1 and Column2.

Previous thread on the topic.

I don’t think any atheist would do so, since that’d make them pantheists.

You’d be surprised at how often this argument is made by atheists, who clearly aren’t pantheists, without appreciating the implications. As an example:

Then there’s the fact that the word “atheist” has become a big tent term for all different kinds of things. Are you a soft atheist? A hard atheist? A deep skeptic? A pantheist? An antitheist? I’ve heard the term used in all of these ways and more at various times. Still, good clarification that I’ll make note of; the point of that aside was to try not to derail the discussion from the main issue.

I tnink the consensus at the time those columns came out was that Cecil really wimped out when he simply could have said “there is no God.”

If you do not accept that the Universe somehow created itself, or that it has always
existed uncreated then there is no default position other than God, is there?

And if there is a God IMO we should hope He is the impersonal One of Spinoza and
Einstein, because otherwise there is no coherent theodicy which can acquit Him of moral evil.

I wouldn’t disagree, but my problems are less “Cecil was soft-pedaling” and more “Cecil was making bad arguments.”

  1. That would be correct, yes. I’ll grant that the existence of this “God” (the metaphysical-construct god of the philosophers) tells us nothing about his nature, but it does open the door up for a whole new series of questions. The focus now shifts from “Is there a God?” to “What is this God like?”, which most theologians would tell you is a question answerable only through existential experience.

  2. Well, the pantheistic approach means christening the universe and existence itself as holy, which most atheists don’t really want to do. And regarding the theodicy question, I’ve found just the opposite to be true in my experience, i.e. that the problem of evil seems impossible to charge against God consistently. For two reasons:

-Absolute morality can come only from a transcendent creator. We may have moral intuitions about things, but it would seem exceedingly arrogant to me to prioritize our own moral judgments over those of a father God

-The “free will” approach answers the question in one quick stroke. Why is there evil in the world? Because man is fallen, and God continues to give men the gift of free will

If you have a problem with either point, I’d love to hear it.

(1) If they accept Spinoza’s God then they are not atheists.

(2) What does “holy” mean, and why is it necessarily an attribute
of a pantheistic universe? I do not think that was Einstein’s take,
unless perhaps figuratively.

Father God has the corpses of several billion innocent people piled
on His doorstep, and I think that entitles us to doubt His moral stature.

There is more than one way to answer this, but the surest is along
these lines: How does free will atone for suffering where will is not
a factor, say in the case of 100s million to billions of smallpox victims?


  1. See above. Unless otherwise stated, I’m using a “big tent” atheism (in large part because, as I’ve already argued, plenty of self-professed atheists buy into the Spinoza line of thinking when dealing with cosmological arguments, eg. Sagan).

  2. It’s “holy” in that it would have to transcend the rational laws which govern it. I’m not sure what Einstein’s take here was, but I will say that many people, especially in analytic philosophy, feel satisfied in reducing the issue to “I don’t like dealing with metaphysical questions.” Which is disingenuous to say the least.

While I won’t speak for you, I hear this from my more open atheist friends all the time, and it’s really just regurgitated New Atheism. Here’s a video starring Dawkins that can help demonstrate what I mean:

In the video, Dawkins responds to a perfectly legitimate point- the fact that absolute morality, i.e. morality with ontological status, cannot exist without a creator- by ignoring the point altogether and instead criticizing the moral commands of certain faiths. What this suggests is that we shouldn’t worry about if there is a God or what he’s trying to teach us; rather, we should wonder if we approve of his message. How comic!

It doesn’t help his argument that he completely misconstrues the teachings of the Bible, but then that’s characteristic of the four New Atheist figureheads.

There’s a simple solution here. As you rightly point out, the world is full of danger, disease, and countless other maladies which make existence painful and even deadly. And while there is great beauty in the world, those fundamentalists who want to understand “intelligent design” as the ridiculous idea that every pebble and scorpion and exploding star is in place to make human life as comfortable as possible are, it seems to me, delusional.

But our free will, says the Christian, means that where we don’t have control over health of the body, we have control over health of the soul. This is an idea which goes all the way back to Socrates and the Gorgias, where he makes clear it’s better to suffer injustice than do it. Why? Because spiritual health takes precedence over material health in the Platonic tradition. That’s where free will comes into play.

I think there are many gods. I differ from most in that I think the gods are usually worthless except for the people who create them and the disciples of the god creators. The gods are quite important to their creators and the disciples of the creators.

Euthyphro’s dilemma.

Epicurus’ trilemma.

See what above?

If Einstein can live with Spinoza’s God then I guess I can too,
although it would be my second choice.

I am not sure if Einstein would accept a God who transcended
the Laws of Nature.

Key to Einstein’s thinking from an atheist’s point of view is that
God takes no part in the lives of human beings, does not judge
them after death, and is not even aware of their existence.

I am not a proxy for your friends, or for Richard Dawkins,
whose work I am familiar with only slightly, by reputation.

I am not going to watch any videos, so do not bother posting
them in your replies to me. Text links I will always at least glance at.

I do not see anything comical about disapproving of this clause
of the Second commandment:

*I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, ***punishing the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation ***of those who hate me *

Go ahead and try to construe the passage above from the 2nd Commandment
in a manner which acquits God of prejudice against children not yet born.

It is reasonable to expect a God Who has the power to design the universe
to do so in a manner most conducive to the comfort and safety of His children.

Here is your argument in syllogistic form:

Premise 1 Free will gives us control over the health of the soul
Premise 2 It is better to suffer injustice than to do it
Premise 3 Spiritual health takes precedence over material health
Conclusion Free will comes into play

The conclusion is contained in Premise 1, so that part of your argument is circular.

Premises 2-3 are disconnected from Premise 1 and from the conclusion.

Taking Premise 2 at face value God should therefore suffer the “injustice” of
contacting disease Himself rather than inflicting it upon us, and if He declines
to do so then the fact that a victim may not infect others does nothing to relieve
the victim of his own suffering.

Similarly vis a vis Premise 3, the precedence of spiritual health over material health
does not relieve the suffering of those with poor material health in the form of disease.

Finally, I was challenging you to demonstrate how free will atones for suffering,
so even if your conclusion was not illogical, it would be unresponsive, since
being “in play” and “atonement” are not synonymous.

You’re not much of an atheist if this is as far as you’ve gotten. See below.

The word “holy” seems undefined.

Let’s break this down a bit. If absolute morality must come from God, then we petty humans must not be able to judge God. Ergo, there should be nothing that God instructs us that we can deem immoral. But there are plenty of examples from God’s word itself (i.e. the Bible) that we humans can judge as immoral. An example is the incident where God commands Abraham to sacrifice his own son. Abraham’s answer should be “It will be done,” then throw old Isaac on the barby. But notice that Abraham’s answer is to pray to God for a different answer. So Abraham questioned God’s morality. And rightly so! Another example pointed out is the Second Commandment, where God declares that he will hold children and their children responsible for the actions of adults. There are places he states he will do this to 10 generations. We mere humans find this kind of tyranny wholly unfair and, thus, very unholy. And yet we must now justify it, because it’s there in God’s word.

The first runaround to this is to immediately declare that any instances of God doing something immoral is really either (a) a human misunderstanding of God’s intent, or (b) meddling by Satan. These answers are dissatisfying. If God is trying to teach us a lesson, then he expects us to use our limited moral sense to make judgements. If our limited moral sense judges against him, then he has done a poor job with either his lessons or in giving us a moral sense. If the mistake is the meddling by Satan, well that’s a pretty handy bit of showmanship. “How do we know it’s moral? God did it. If God did something immoral, then God didn’t really do that, that was Satan misleading us.”

Of course, there’s a back door around all this that does not require God. It’s in your unexamined assumption. Who says that there is an absolute morality?

Free will is a complete fallacy. How could we have free will without the understanding of consequences necessary to make a fair decision? But God didn’t give us that understanding, and punished us for taking it. Man “fell” by obtaining the ability to understand the value of free will. So what is the value of free will again, and why couldn’t God have given us understanding of free will before he punished us for it?

And note that your argument hinges on very specific set of assumptions about the nature of God and humanity, i.e. Christianity.

Note: the topic of this thread is really more suited to Great Debates, even though spawned by Cecil’s column. Reported for forum change.

Noted. I agree, this is now a discussion beyond the scope of Cecil’s column. However, there are lots of threads in Great Debates about theology, so I’m going to leave the thread here (at least for now) and see what happens.

Lot to cover here, so apologies in advance for the long post. If this requires a subforum shift, then by all means.

To speak frankly, you don’t seem to understand these ideas. Euthyphro’s dilemma deals with the nature of the holy and whether or not it can exist independently of God’s will, not with the relationship between human moral intuitions and divine moral edicts. And the trilemma is solved (at least by the proponents of this approach) through free will, not the other way around.

Most of your post is extremely confusing to me (you seem to just be either repeating yourself, ignoring what I typed, refusing to look over evidence and links, or other such things), and this is a good example of what I mean. In no way does this address the point I was making. I’d appreciate it if you could read more carefully before responding next time, but I’ll do my best to try and cover as much as I can make sense of here.

The second commandment is simply an extension of original sin, a core teaching of the Judaeo-Christian tradition. Like most atheists I’ve talked to in the past, you seem content on drawing scripture out of context and sensationalizing the “evils” of the Bible without making substantive arguments. Which, in this case, would involve explaining why a meager human intellect has the authority to question the omniscient creator of the universe.

Original sin, i.e. that mankind’s ancient predecessors chose, of their own free will, to flee from God and His presence, and that their offspring are, consequently, in a fallen state. This applies not just to “children,” but all of mankind. This is where the New Testament comes in and all is forgiven, so I’m not sure what’s so morally offensive about this.

Even if it was something much more difficult to justify, this is still a deflection from the central question I outlined above. Even if it’s repulsive to us, why do our meager intuitions matter in light of transcendent divinity?

Except that it isn’t, and anyone at all familiar with… well, any Christian theology, really, would tell you that the natural world is not intended to be a paradise. It is fallen just as we are fallen. The material world isn’t supposed to be a Garden of Eden.

Yet again, you are very confused, as my conclusion has nothing to do with “free will coming into play.” Again, this point is symptomatic of a very hasty, poorly-planned response, and I find it rather amusing that you’d give me a freshman-level logical analysis of an argument I didn’t even make.

To freshen your memory, your original point was that our free will cannot overcome the physical dangers of the natural world. This is true. It’s also true, at least in Christian theology, that free will gives us control over our spiritual health, as we are free to make choices regarding moral action. And because spiritual health is most important, the maladies (or “evil,” as you referred to it) of the material world, which we have minimal control over, are eclipsed by our ability to come closer to God and cleanse our spiritual side. [And it never hurts reminding that our natural state is, in Christianity, a product of “the fall.” It’s not as though the human condition was this way from the beginning.]

I don’t know what part of

*I may or may not be an atheist- still in the decision making process, as I have been for the past ten years-
implies that I am some self-avowed atheist. Not sure what you were reading that gave you this impression.

We’ll go with a loose definition for now; try something like “transcending the rational, causal nature of the physical world.” In other words, the universe of Spinoza ultimately isn’t rational or explainable through natural processes, but rather has a mystical quality and point of origin.

As a matter of fact, no, the bolded part does not follow. If God is an omniscient and transcendent moral agent, and he provides us with a moral edict, then we are in no way justified in questioning his morality. Our intuitions may or may not agree with all such edicts, but that simply circles around to the question I posed above: namely, why should our petty human intuitions take precedent over transcendent divinity?

Neither of these are good examples (and both, unsurprisingly, are regurgitated New Atheist cliches; as a rule of thumb, most arguments made by NA figureheads are theologically vapid and philosophically bankrupt). I’ve already addressed the issue of the Second Commandment, and so much ink has been spilled over explaining the Abraham / Isaac dynamic that I wouldn’t even know where to begin (Kierkegaard, perhaps?). For the time being, I’ll start by pointing to the bolded and pose the same question again: that you’re suggesting, without compelling reason, our feeble human intuitions should take precedent over God’s will.

The more obvious answer, which you’ve apparently missed, is that we’re simply not using our moral faculties correctly. It’s also possible that because our moral faculties are so limited, only a small fraction of edicts will be fully comprehensible to us, the rest dimmed and vague.

No one said this. To quote myself again, *Absolute morality can come only from a transcendent creator. *In other words, the presence of a higher power is a necessary condition for there to be absolute morality. This suggests nothing about the presence of such an absolute moral framework to the universe.

I’m not touching this one again, since it covers the same problematic “I don’t like God and feel justified in condemning him” ground I’ve outlined in the last few paragraphs above, but I’ll add a couple of things that relate to this specific argument. One, the story of Adam & Eve is an allegory, and a complex one at that. Two, this doesn’t actually address free will itself, but rather the allegorical story behind man’s fall. What you should instead be looking at are a few basic assumptions in Christian theology, namely that

a) mankind has fallen (whether or not you approve of the origin story is irrelevant), and
b) God has bestowed his creation with free will, which circumvents the problem of evil (which is what I was discussing in the first place).


Let me help you out here: If the vast majority of your arguments so far point towards the deficiencies of atheist thinking, then you’re not an atheist.

Can’t believe I’m resorting to smileys, but really now, :smack:

People on this site are almost exclusively atheist, which means the arguments they’re presenting fall on one side of the spectrum. The Cecil article in question, too, takes a (roundabout) atheist stance on things. So me responding to weak nontheistic objections to theism speaks less to my own beliefs and more to the common beliefs of the community. Not complicated.

And nowhere did I claim to be some staunch, self-avowed atheist; what part of [I’m] still in the decision making process, as I have been for the past ten years implies I’ve taken a side?

Proposing free will doesn’t resolve the trilemma, it merely circumnavigates it. Though you’re right, I should have referred to the fundamental contradiction between omniscience and free will instead. If there is perfect certainty of the future, then our actions are preordained and our choices are illusory. If God only has knowledge of all possible future outcomes, then God has less predictive power than a weather station. Not to mention, there are two further issues: even in a materialistic worldview, there is the possibility that free will is illusory (Daniel Dennett certainly believes so). Then there’s the issue of the afterlife as proposed by Christians: if there is free will and perfect bliss in heaven, then why are we punished with a Earthly existence with its fleeting glory? If there is perfect bliss but no free will, then why are we punished for obedience to God’s scriptures on Earth?

I think you’re just wrong with Euthyphro’s dilemma. From its inception it was used to challenge the notion that morality exists in an independent sphere from human intuition and can be set by divine fiat. To rephrase it, can God declare rape good?

I may regret this, but I have never found this argument persuasive.

Given that we’re talking about a hypothetical being that created the universe, and given that time as we experience it is a property of that universe, it stands to reason that the hypothetical being would not – indeed, cannot – be subject to the normal rules of cause and effect as we understand them.

As a thought experiment, consider a being embedded in time as we are, but existing at a time after all other events in the universe have occurred. Posit that the being has perfect knowledge of every event that occurred in its past. Does the existence of this being and its perfect knowledge invalidate the concept of free will? I say no.

Consider, then, a supreme being, one that can see the entire dimension of time as easily as it can the other three dimensions, one that is not itself subject to the linearity of time. Does its ability to see all events that occur within the universe invalidate the choices that mortal inhabitants such as we have made? Again, I say no, because this situation seems no different to me than the one from the previous paragraph, as far as free will is concerned.

Both beings see the entirety of the timeline, and have perfect knowledge of every event on that timeline, without invalidating the free will of the people who chose those events.
Powers &8^]

I disagree: if the actions we take in the future are as certain to an outside observer as the actions we take in the past are to us, then we have as much capacity to change the future course of our actions as we have to change actions we have taken in the past.