Scolding an Atheist

I once was an atheist, and I have great respect for the tribe, since my branch of the tribe at least was willing to examine evidence and submit their beliefs to the correction of reason or the influence of proof. Consequently, I have less respect than most Christians for make-believe atheists, people who believe atheism out of blind faith, or for emotional reasons, and who pretend to be submissive to reason as I once was, and am.

Here is one such. I hope I will be pardoned for acting as a public scold, but I sense this is one of those times when a little bit of refreshingly blunt talk might cut through the mental fog, even at the risk of seeming rude or uncharitable.

“But the literalists do have this one advantage, considered as seekers of truth: They are willing to straightforwardly state what evidence would convince them otherwise. “

On this one topic, you argue incoherently. Notice that when a Catholic writer like Mr. Belloc decries the same Biblical Literalism you decry, instead of concluding, “Well, good, here is an ally against Creationism and ‘Young Earth’ nonsense, a man who like me respects science” you conclude, “Well, how dishonorable of him not to misinterpret the Bible and support Creationism and ‘Young Earth’ nonsense; how dare he respect science; it would display and honest concern for truth if he did not take allegorical writings as allegory, etc.”

It appears you are more consumed with distaste for religion than with concern for science or truth. You side with the Literalistic Protestants rather than with  mainstream Protestantism, Catholicism, Greek or Russian or Syriac Orthodoxy, Copts, et cetera, because bashing the Christian religion is more important to you than science or truth. If this is not what you intended, please clarify.

Let me ask you one pointed question: if we were discussing the correct interpretation of a disputed passage of a legal document, such as the US Constitution or the Edict of Milan, would you dismiss as intellectually dishonest those who rely on an authority to interpret the document, when and if such an authority makes reference to the context in which the document was written, the prior art, the terminology as understood by the writers? Or would you favor those who read the document without any examination of the intent of the writer, the surrounding precedent, and so on?

I submit that in an argument between ‘Strict’ and ‘Loose’ construction, you would not start with the assumption that those who, for example, make reference to the Federalist Papers or the Supreme Court opinions in interpreting the Constitution are motivated merely by the convenience needed for their intellectual dishonesty.

You use a different standard when discussing religious matters. You assume that the argument on our side is contemptible, non-existent, worthy of scorn and hatred, and is sufficient evidence of intellectual dishonesty. You would not make this assumption if we were discussing any other document or its interpretation.

“Again, you direct your arguments as though I were a Protestant arguing for Sola Scriptura; I’m not”

No. My argument is that you are misinterpreting the Bible in order to reach a strained and illogical conclusion. I pointed out a number of errors in your logic in the last post: you have not admitted or corrected any of them.

“They believed a certain set of facts as their religion; those facts were disproved; they dropped (most of them) their religion. This is not a comment on the superiority of their religion qua religion; false is false. It is a comment on the superiority of their commitment to truth-seeking.”

Catholics also believe a certain set of facts in our religion. Only an ignoramus would say otherwise.

Indeed, we Catholics have more documentation of our facts, not less. Do you know how long the Catechism is, or to how many volumes the Canon Law, the Bulls and Encyclicals, the writings of the Early Church Fathers happen to run? The many and frequently splintered Protestant groups allow for less, not more, uniformity of doctrine and opinion than do the Catholics, because we rely on both tradition and scripture whereas they rely on scripture alone, which consequently gives them the liberty to disregard more parts of tradition, any writings of the Early Church Fathers, any official teaching on matters of faith and morals, than happen to bind non-Protestants.

What was disproved was that their interpretation of analogical writing as literal writing was not the case.

“What fact would convince you that your religion is false? If there is none, how can you say that you seek truth?”

I am religious for the very simple reason that I saw Christ, and God, and the Virgin Mary, and they told me things that later turned out to be true, and cured me of physical ailment in a fashion that can only be described as miraculous, to the astonishment of the attending physicians. I also had the faith poured into my soul as wine into a dirty cup, and this only once I became aware that I had a soul. It is a primary awareness, like your awareness that you are alive and conscious. What would convince you that you are currently not conscious? If there is none, how can you say that you seek truth?

In other words, I am a Christian for the entirely empirical reasons. I believe because I have proof that is it unreasonable to doubt.

I believe for the very good reason that when I was an atheist and I said “I do not believe because I see no proof; show me the proof and I shall believe” that (unlike some atheists) I was actually telling the truth.

I believe in Christ because I met Him.

Unlike you, I am a strict empiricist. I believe what the evidence supports; I do not believe what the evidence does not support; I do not pick my beliefs based on their convenience or their emotional appeal.

I do not stoop to ad hoc and make-believe explanations to explain away things I find uncomfortable.

In order for me to explain away all these miracles as coincidences, or these visitations as hallucinations, I would have to assume so many unsupported and ad hoc assumptions that I would have to depart from my philosophical honesty and integrity, and indulge in special pleading like you do, you who are a man who sticks to his conclusion no matter what the evidence suggests.

Further, once having become Christian, many things that were either unexplained, or inexplicable, or labored under very cynical and flimsy explanations, are now coherent. My model of the universe is logical and coherent and has explanatory power; your “model” of the universe, if it can be called that, is an incoherent babble of disconnected assertions that explains little or nothing, not even the nature of cause and effect, nor the origin or purpose of natural law, nor the authority of morality, nor why and how you are awake and alive, or what you are nor where you are going, or whence the Big Bang arose.

Proof? We have written eyewitness accounts of the Resurrection, and  these same witnesses have been proven to be willing to suffer torture and die rather than repudiate those accounts. This is what lawyers call indicia of reliability; and they fall under the hearsay exceptions of witness being unavailable, being supported by surrounding evidence, and being dying testaments.

We have the miracles of Lourdes, investigated by the French government for hundreds of years, and doctors who will attests the cure have no medical explanation.

We have the testament of astronomers who can prove that the universe is not infinitely old.

We have the testament of your conscience, which, despite your protestations to the contrary, has some source of knowledge of the difference between good and evil, or else you would not speak in condemnatory tones against those you think do not seek truth.

We have living eyewitnesses like me, who has seen the risen Christ and experience miracles not to be explained otherwise.

We have hundreds, nay, thousands of years of such testimonies.

And we have the fact that the Christian religion is not a scientific theory.

You see, again and again you make what philosophers call a category error. What I have is a marriage to the Living God, a relationship, with all the complexities and moral obligations that relationships imply. It is as if I joined an army or fell in love, and you are asking who I can prove scientifically that I joined an army or that I am in love. We must separate the purely factual claims implied by that relationship from the other elements. Being in an army implies that you think the C.O. exists, which is a matter of fact, and that he has the authority to command you in battle, which is a matter of law. You cannot prove matters of law using the means of proving matters of fact.

Conflating scientific proof with legal and moral and theological proof is the same error you make over and over again, no matter how often it is corrected, and one which you do not make when discussing other topics when the error is not convenient to you, so I am left to assume you love this error more than you love the truth.

What fact would convince you that your blind faith in non-religion is false? If there is none, please admit you adopted you non-belief for personal rather than scientific reasons.

Prove to me now selecting one’s belief based on dishonest convenience is wrong? You have just accused me of this, and criticized me for it, so you must think it is wrong. What?! Is your belief that it is wrong not based on a proof? Where are the facts? Where is the scientific evidence? Where is your telescope that shows why intellectual cowardice and dishonesty is bad, or your microscope?

And if you admit that the moral proposition that lying is wrong is not a scientific proposition, and cannot be disproved by empirical evidence, I will laugh at you without restraint.

Let us start at a more simple level. First prove to me that consciousness exists, and then we can discuss how and where it arises. If you model of the universe cannot handle a simple question like that, then perhaps you should examine your model.

But I will answer your question honestly: show me the bones of the Virgin Mary, I will become a Protestant tomorrow. Show me the bones of Christ, I will become a Jew. Show me that the cave of Machpelah is vacant of the bones of the Patriarchs, and I will become a Deist like Tom Paine. Show me the universe is eternally old, not created, not purposeful, and that human consciousness does not exist and that moral law does not bind men, and I will repudiate even Deism.

Well? Put up or shut up. Produce your proofs. Make your case. Bring out your exhibits. The jurors are waiting.

Perhaps it is difficult to produce your proofs on demand. Perhaps the witnesses are dead or far away. Perhaps the physical evidence is hard to acquire. In such cases as this, honest and adult and rational men understand that the conclusions of rational men can differ. When you hear two witnesses who contradict, it is a matter of judgment about whom to trust, or, to use the older and more precise word, a matter of faith, which witness in whom you have faith.

If your model of the universe is correct, I am an insane man who hallucinates, even though there is no evidence of insanity or hallucination in any other aspect of my life or family history, and, unlike every other hallucination on record, it was one which sobered and improved my life rather than served as evidence of brain malfunction.

In order to believe your model of the universe you must take ON FAITH this unsupported idea that I am a madman, even though there is something of a dearth of evidence. You have not looked at my medical record; you have not spoken to my parents; you don’t know me.

The ground on which you take it on faith is your view or model of the universe. Your model does not have a place for a man who is both sane, alert, oriented as to time and place, aware of the nature of his actions, and yet who says he saw several supernatural events. Your model does not have a place for a man who says a spirit told him something that later on happened to be proved true, because in your model, spirits do not exist, therefore the information the man says the spirit told him must have existed in his mind beforehand, perhaps subconsciously, or his memory of the order of events must be wrong, or somesuch.  Again, these are ad hoc assumptions you make to shore up your model, not conclusions you draw from evidence.

What proof would prove your model wrong to you? The answer is none. Your model rests on metaphysical assumptions about materialism and causation. You merely pretend that your model rests on empirical grounds, or (more likely) you are ignorant of the grounds on which your model rests.

Asking for empirical proof or disproof of your model is futile.


  1. Comment by Rolf Andreassen:

    I do not accept your accusations of illogic and blind faith. (Or a-faith?) But I will admit that my desire to score cheap points led me to say things which, upon reflection, I do not care to defend. I apologise.

    Changing the subject completely, it has been some time since you said anything in our discussion of free will. Perhaps you missed my answer to your question about what is included in initial conditions? I’ll repeat it here:

    (You said) The reason why you are getting two answers from me is that I continue to labor under the apprehension that you are asking two questions. If the definition of “checkmate” and the strategy of the chessmaster can be deduced from atomic positions, then “every relevant atom” slyly includes non-atomic and indeed non-material realities such as Platonic forms of chess or Aristotelian final causes; if the definition and strategy is not inside the atoms and cannot be deduced from the atoms, then “every relevant atom” does not give you or Mentor of Arisia or the prophetess of Delpi the necessary information needed to make the deduction.

    We have agreed that I can correctly predict the position of an atom in someone’s brain, without knowing his thought; and that this will not tell me what his thought is.

    I want to work further from this. If I can predict the position of a single atom, I can predict the position of all the atoms.

    Further, if I know the position of all the atoms, then I can tell that, at time t, the positions of {some subset of atoms} is {x1, y1, z1, x2, y2, z2, …}.

    Now I move away from using only physics. The subset I referred to above is, when I come to interpret the situation (analogous to reading off the letters formed by the ink-atoms) a chess piece. Thus, using my knowledge of chess, my almanac of interpretation as you put it, I can go from my physics knowledge to knowing that the White Queen is on square d8, and Black is in checkmate.

    The first part involves only physics; the second part involves knowing chess, but does not involve detailed knowledge of the planning of the players. I say I can predict “The first move will be King’s Pawn to King Four” by looking at atomic positions, but I cannot predict what the player’s intention for that move is. However, if I predict the third and the fourth moves as well, I may recognise a particular opening, and then, if I know a lot about chess, I may make such inferences as “He’s planning to sacrifice a pawn in exchange for control of the center”.

    Does “taking into account every atom relevant to the problem” mean that you are taking into account the thoughts, goals, plans and means of the chessmasters and their brains, and the brain of whatever Muslim genius, lost to history, who invented the game and defined the word “checkmate”?

    Not directly; these thoughts are not atoms whose position I can predict. However, consider that if the unknown Moslem genius had made slightly different rules, then the chessmasters, when they were learning the game, would have heard different words; and this would result in a different set of initial conditions, for their brain atoms would be in subtly changed positions. Thus, I am indeed taking into account the physical correlates of those thoughts. Suppose Black were intending to use the Sicilian Defense; then the initial conditions of his brain would be different from if he intended some other plan.

    I do not understand how you can agree that I can predict ahead of time where the atoms will be, and yet not know (given that I understand how to play chess, and how to translate a list of atomic positions into a chess board setup) what the outcome of the game will be. Yet we have many times agreed that the atomic-position prediction is possible.

    • Comment by John C Wright:

      I am impressed by your apology and ashamed of my wild accusations. I hope you will accept my apology in return for speaking out of turn. I criticized your scoring cheap points off me by trying to score cheap points off you, which your gracefulness in responding makes sound all the more hollow and cheap on my part. I am sorry.

      As to the free will argument, you yourself here describe how, when making a prediction of a chessmasters move based merely on brain atoms, you would have to consult an almanac written by someone who knows what those chess moves MEANT and what their INTENTION and PURPOSE might be. Studying ink-atoms and measuring letters that compose the words that form the sentences describing those intentions and purposes and meanings are not themselves the thing we mean when we use the terms intention and purpose and meaning.

      Imagine, like Descartes, there are two realms of the empirical and the rational. Like stars and seas, the one is made of water and the other of starlight. Now further imagine the sea is calm, and as reflective as a mirror, so that every star has a corresponding image. It is patently obvious that the image is not produced solely by the water; and that the image is not the same as the star, nor interchangeable with it.

      They have different properties, and we know they have different properties because we use different words to describe them. The one test we can confirm proves the realms to be different is that what is in one realm cannot be communicated or translated into the other realm.

      To test this test, we try it. We try to describe the watery reflection of a star using the nomenclature of astronomy, determining its stellar type and age and absolute and apparent magnitude and mass and so on. Some of the properties will issue from the image, such as (if the water is perfectly reflective) spectral characteristics. Others, like size and temperature and mass, are simply not present in the watery reflection.

      Likewise here. Imagine a chessgame of three moves. The first move is ill considered: the chessmaster advances his King’s Rook’s pawn to no particular advantage. Another move is deceptive, meant to lure the opponent into a Scholar’s Mate. Another move is forced: the chessmaster has one and only one legal move. Another move is brilliant, involving the sacrifice of a major piece to force the opponent into checkmate.

      You take the image of the chessmove as it is measured in terms of material atom positions in the chessmaster’s brain. A brain atom does not have purpose, meaning, intention or any non-material and non-measurable properties, such as whether the chessmove is “ill-considered” or “deceptive” or “legal” or “brilliant”. It merely has mass, length, position, duration of movement, and other material and measurable properties open to observation by the senses.

      Now, the almanac has two columns. In the first are the descriptions of the move “ill-considered” or “deceptive” or “forced” or “brilliant.” In the second column are lists of numbers or signs describing the positions of the atoms on the chessboard, or in the brains of the chessmasters:PtoKRP3, QxQ, RtoQB8!, KtoK2, QxPmate, and so on.

      There is perhaps some relation between the first column and the second, but that is a matter of blind faith to say, without evidence and facts, that there is or there is not. For this argument, let us merely take it as a given that the two columns exist in the almanac, and they line up with each other.

      The left column is a description of the intention and the judgment involved in the game, which is a purposeful activity of man. The right column is a description of the position of the chessmen on the board or the position of the atoms in the chessmaster’s brains, or both.

      As the game progresses, both columns are filled in. The first line of the right column determines the next line of the right column, since no chessmen are created or destroyed, nor does the chessgame violate any laws of physics. But the left column is not defined and determined with the first line, but by the last line: every move in chess, particularly in a game between masters, is defined by the strategies and tactics needed both to obey the rules of chess and to achieve the checkmate defined in the last line of the left column, which always ends in a checkmate or a draw.

      Now, you claim that by knowing all the figures in the right column, you can fill in the left column. Let us assume so for the sake of argument: when you are doing this process of filling in, are you or are you not consulting another almanac, constructed in two columns as this one is, which has a left column telling you the meaning and the intention of the chessmaster’s moves? Can you or the Oracle of Delphi or the Great God Pan or Mentor of Arisia fill in the left column if the meaning of the rules of chess are unknown, merely by using the rules of physics?

      The “rules” of chess are descriptions of more or less arbitrary and imaginary ideas invented by some ancient genius, and these rules are rules because another group of people, including you and me, decided for whatever reason to abide by these rule when we sit to play this particular game: whereas on the other hand the “rules” of physics are a description of a presumed regularity of events metaphysically presupposed to exists and which cannot be changed or reprogrammed by any human effort.

      Because we use the same word “rules” to refer to two opposite and antithetical things, we are tempted to see them as similar. They are not similar in any way, shape or form. The rules of chess are voluntary and do not obtain on the planet Mars, where (at present) there is not a single chessmaster, board, or game piece. I could sit down and play a variation of chess where castling is illegal, or where the pawns move diagonally and capture vertically, provided I found another player likewise willing to play by these rules. I cannot sit down tomorrow, or on Mars, or ever or anywhere, and make a perpetual motion machine. The second law of thermodynamics forbids it. The universe, if it were so inclined, could however drop an singularity emitting energy into the viewfinder of my telescope, and I would have an object that seemed to violate this law of physics: physics text books depend on what the universe does, and not the other way around.

      Now, finally, your argument is incoherent for this reason: if you determine how to fill in the next line item in sequence in the righthand column, the column that describes the physical situation of the chessboard, using only the laws of physics, it is your contention that the lefthand column, the column that describes the non-physical aspects of the chessgame, such as its purpose and intention and the judgment whether or not the move was brilliant, or deceptive, or forced, or ill-considered, can also be filled in using the laws of physics, the laws of the right hand column, and nothing else.

      But in order to do so you yourself admit that you would have to consult something equivalent to an almanac with a lefthand column that described the intention and judgment of the chessgame in terms of its final cause and abstract concepts. This means, in effect, you are saying that the non-determined information in the left hand column is determined by the determined information in the right hand column if and only if the non-determined information in the left hand column is determined and not non-determined.

      You are in effect proposing an infinite regression. In order to fill in your table of chessmoves and equate each physical move with what it mentally means, you have to consult another almanac telling you what each physical chessmove mentally means: but to fill in this meta-almanac, you need a meta-meta-almanac, which in turn cannot be interpreted without a meta-meta-meta-almanac and so on and do forth.

      You are in effect proposing that the Lefthand column can be described by means of the right hand column, but the assumption of our hypothesis was that the lefthand column is determined by its last line, its purpose or meaning, and the right hand column is determined by its first line, its initial conditions.

      The reason why, in real life, we talk in two different ways about the acts of living beings and the motions of nonliving objects is that the acts of living beings cannot be described except in reference to what they mean and what they intend. Not even the motions of so simple a being as an amoeba can be understood unless it is known to the observer that he is looking at a living thing that acts for the purpose of obtaining food and avoiding danger. There are certain things, such as evolution, or economics, or the behavior of certain games, that have a non-intentional form of final cause which we poor philosophers have no agreed upon vocabulary to describe: and the poor virus hardly knows whether is it s living organism or merely a complex by dead molecule being moved by external impulses. Nonetheless, the presence of these gray areas and semantic ambiguities does not vitiate the necessary categorization any more than the ambiguity of a gray dawn means night as the same as day, or noon interchangeable with midnight.

      I have no expectation that you will understand my analogy or my argument: I give it only as a gesture of goodwill. But, in brief, we know two realm are distinct if one cannot be translated into another; we know that the translation from A to B is impossible if we must consult an A-to-B translation in the process of making the translation; or if the translation involves an infinite regress; or if the assertion that the translation is possible turns out to be a circular argument, i.e. I assume I can define the meaning of the checkmate by measuring the motion of the chessmen (without knowing what the shape of the chessmen symbolizes or what the moves mean) because I assume that all meaning can be defined by a measurement of motion without knowing any symbolic meaning.

      • Comment by Rolf Andreassen:

        I hope you will accept my apology in return for speaking out of turn.

        Surely. Few things are more annoying than rhetorical point-scoring; a weakness of mine, I must admit.

        Now, finally, your argument is incoherent for this reason: if you determine how to fill in the next line item in sequence in the righthand column, the column that describes the physical situation of the chessboard, using only the laws of physics, it is your contention that the lefthand column, the column that describes the non-physical aspects of the chessgame, such as its purpose and intention and the judgment whether or not the move was brilliant, or deceptive, or forced, or ill-considered, can also be filled in using the laws of physics, the laws of the right hand column, and nothing else.

        But in order to do so you yourself admit that you would have to consult something equivalent to an almanac with a lefthand column that described the intention and judgment of the chessgame in terms of its final cause and abstract concepts. This means, in effect, you are saying that the non-determined information in the left hand column is determined by the determined information in the right hand column if and only if the non-determined information in the left hand column is determined and not non-determined.

        I think we are a little at cross-purposes here. Let me first respond directly to what you say, because I think you are conflating ‘meaning’ and ‘judgement’ and causing some confusion thereby; and then try to straighten out the purposes.

        I would like to separate your left-hand column into two parts, one for judgement and one for meaning. Thus there are now three columns, running from left to right ‘judgement’, ‘meaning’, and ‘physics’. In the right-hand column I might make an entry such as “the atoms labeled 10660003 through 4058872 changed position from (X) to (Y).” This is done by physics, as we have agreed before. In the column labeled ‘meaning’, I would then make an entry saying, perhaps, “King’s Pawn to King Four”. Now, I agree that this requires some sort of translation, which is not itself a physical object. In other words, I must know chess to make even this simple translation. But I need not know a whole lot of chess. Just knowing how the pieces move would be sufficient. And it does not seem to me a matter of faith to say that there is such a translation. If I move the atoms in a particular way, there is a corresponding chess move which the wooden pieces represent; I cannot see this as controversial. Of course, if in a fit of temper I fling my captured Queen at the wall, the translation might be silent, or then again – if it covered other subjects than chess – it might say “A display of anger”. But it does not seem to me that the existence of some sort of translation can be denied.

        Then, in the final (leftmost) column, I might make such a judgement as “A good move” or “A mistake, it opens up his left flank to attack”. Again, this requires an almanac, a translation. But it requires a much better almanac than the one I used for extracting the middle-column entry; I now need to be a good chess player myself – perhaps, if the move is a brilliantly subtle one, as good as the player who made it.

        However, we have now got to the point where my purpose differs from yours: If all I want is to know a good chess move for a particular situation, then I do not really need the final column. I can just fire up my chess-player simulator, make the simple ‘meaning’ translation, and (supposing I am cheating in a chess game played by mail) send off the move to my opponent, without understanding why it is brilliant. (Admittedly I am taking the fidelity of my simulation on faith, but no matter – I make a point of never betting anything I cannot afford to lose.)

        Now, we know that this is possible with chess. Whether Deep Blue beat Kasparov or not is not really very relevant; it could certainly beat anyone posting here, as indeed can your average commercial program on a moderately modern desktop. However, the point I would actually like to make is that it’s also possible with poetry. You may recall that this phase of our debate began with my introduction of the Shakespeare-robot, and only later changed to consider chess. Getting back to poetry, what I’d really like is to make some good poems without all the effort of composing them myself, or supporting a poet by patronage. Thus I build my Shakespeare simulator, run it for a while, and make the simple ‘meaning’ translation from ink-atom positions to words of English. Voila, poetry! I do not need the third column, in which I make judgements about why Shakespeare might have chosen ‘host’ over ‘sea’, or vice-versa. All I desire is the poetry itself, which I shall publish as my own and gain fame and fortune from. (I trust it is understood that my Shakespeare simulation does not literally produce Hamlet’s monologue; I could not very well make money off that. That is only an example for ease of discussion. Rather, I would set up the initial conditions as though Shakespeare had, for example, been alive in 1645, and producing plays or poetry to comment on the English Civil War. I might do so, for example, by simulating the whole of England in the period, and reaching in ‘by hand’, breaking the laws of physics in the simulation, whenever Shakespeare was about to have a heart attack, or whatever it was that killed him. But these are all technical details.)

        I hope this clarifies what I have been driving at: Not that I can extract judgements and intentions from the laws of physics – at least not without a lot of knowledge of poetry, which (if I had it) would make the physics un-necessary; but rather that I can extract words and actions from physics, with a much smaller amount of knowledge, and thereby produce good poetry, or good chess moves, without necessarily understanding what makes them good.

        • Comment by John C Wright:

          “In the column labeled ‘meaning’, I would then make an entry saying, perhaps, “King’s Pawn to King Four”. Now, I agree that this requires some sort of translation, which is not itself a physical object. In other words, I must know chess to make even this simple translation. But I need not know a whole lot of chess. Just knowing how the pieces move would be sufficient. And it does not seem to me a matter of faith to say that there is such a translation. If I move the atoms in a particular way, there is a corresponding chess move which the wooden pieces represent; I cannot see this as controversial.”

          Far from being non-controversial, this is exactly the point of controversy. You are, without noticing it, brushing past not just a point, but the main point in contention, for you assume that an abstract statement which refers to no physical properties whatsoever is the same as or is translatable into a statements of physics, that is, a statement designed to refer to nothing but physical properties. You are saying A is not A.

          To make this more clear, let me bring three statements to your attention, a physical, a concrete, and an abstract.

          Physical: “Cylindrical object made of boxwood lacquered in gold hue standing three inches high, weighing 3 ounces, with a one inch diameter on a leather base is moved in one second from a location four inches north by northwest.”

          This is a complete description of the physical action that recites all pertinent physical properties, including volume, height, weight, mass, composition, direction of motion, duration of motion, and so on. Every one of these assertions could be checked against a sense impression and measured with an instrument. It is empirical fact and nothing but empirical fact.

          Concrete: “Pawn made of boxwood lacquered in gold (in this game, the gold chessmen are considered the ‘black’ instead of the white, because the opposing chessmen are silver) standing three inches high is moved from its starting position four inches on a chessboard north by northwest, moving from King’s Pawn Two to King’ Pawn Four.”

          Abstract: “Pawn to King’s Four.”

          Please note the difference between the physical and the concrete statement. The concrete statement contains information that cannot possibly be confirmed nor denied by empirical observation. You can prove a gold cylinder weighs three ounces by putting it in the pan of a scale. You cannot prove to a skeptic that it is a pawn who only captures diagonally without pointing the skeptic to an abstract mental concept with no physical existence, such as the concepts to which the words in a book on games point or refer or represent. There is no such thing as “pawn-ness” in the empirical realm. There is nothing to look at with your eye or touch with your hand.

          Please note the difference between the concrete and the abstract statements. The concrete statement refers to a specific physical chessman, but also tells the meaning of the chess move. The words “King” and “Pawn” and “Four” and “Black” and “White” are symbolic and entirely symbolic. They refer to abstract Platonic forms which have no physical reality, but which these physical chessman represent or pretend or play-act to be. The “King” is a chessgame is not a monarch selected by primogenitor, nor is the “Bishop” a duly anointed canonical authority of the church. Both of these objects are little more than sets of game-rules about movement and check and capture.

          Please notice that the words “chessboard” and “starting position” also do not refer to any physical or real-world object, but to abstract forms of ideas in the realm of the mind. The chessboard and the starting position are merely physical aids or reminders or representations to help chessplayers who cannot visualize the game blindfolded. If the game board is upset, the chessmen can be picked up and places back on the board, and the game can continue provided the men are placed where they were: and this proves the game is independent of the chessmen and the chessboard. Only the mental realm matters. Matter does not matter. If the board is now facing southwest rather than north by northwest, the game is unchanged and may continue.

          The abstract statement ignores as irrelevant the specifics of the material chessboard, the composition of the chessmen, the lacquer, the orientation of the board. It is the game move stripped down to its essential.

          Now then — in order to translate between statement one, the physical, and statement three, the abstract, you need an almanac, something that tells you “gold” is “black” and that cylinder three inches high is “pawn.”

          You also need something to tell you that pawns are in a thing called a “game” and that a game is something men “play” when they agree to something called “rules” and that “games” have things called “winners and losers” and the purpose of the game is to do this thing called “win”.

          Then you need something to tell you “pawns” in chess move may “move” “forward” one “square”, but on their first “move” can move two squares, and they “capture” diagonally. All these concepts, such as “move” and “square” and “capture”, are purely abstract and exist in the mental realm only, albeit they can be represented or play-acted as a visual aid using physical bits of wood or notes on paper or something.

          In normal speech, our statements and thoughts tend to be concrete and ambiguous.

          If I said “Kasparov moved his King to move out of check” whether I mean the physical black cylinder decorated by a pretend crown or whether I mean the abstract bundle of rules and moves called a chess King makes no difference. The sentence can represent both or either, since Kasparov moves the physical black cylinder called a King at the same time as the abstract game King in the mental realm is moved: the one REPRESENTS the other.

          The act of representation is a mental act. Hence, each time you approach the question of using material metaphors to describe mental and spiritual and abstract actions, you fall into the ambiguity of attributing mental acts, like representation, to purely physical statements.

          It is actually rather difficult to make a purely physical or purely abstract statement. That is why scientists (who makes purely physical) and philosophers (who make purely abstract) need training and need specialized vocabularies. Even in the example given above, the statement refers to a final cause: Kasparov’s move is described as being for the purpose of moving out of check.

          The difference between “meaning” and “judgment” you propose makes no difference to the argument. Meaning and judgment are mental entities existing only in the realm of the mind, and have no weight, position, duration, candlepower, moles of substance, or any other physical property.

    • Comment by John C Wright:

      Oh, and it does not matter to my argument one whit whether you can predict or not predict a chessmove, or the action of a free willed being. If I am playing chess, and I have only one move open to me, anyone who understand the rules of chess can predict my move, even if I am an archangel with an I.Q. of 1000000. But no one who does not understand the rules of chess can predict my move.

      “Predicting” my move by seeing my arm move, or seeing which chessman I reach for, or measuring the nerve impulse in my arm or my brain is not a “prediction” except in the limited and technical sense that a physicist “predicts” the outcome of an experiment based on the inductive assumption that all unknown variables will act in this case as they did in the last cast. The two types of “prediction” are two separate mental operations, the first relies on the understanding, which is rational, the second on statistics and observation, which is empirical.

      One can “predict” with one hundred percent accuracy out of one hundred trials that I will not lie under oath. It is not in my character, and it is opposed to my moral code. One can “predict” with one hundred percent accuracy out of one hundred trials that two weights flung off the top of the Leaning Tower is Pisa will strike the ground at the same moment. The first prediction cannot be made unless you understand my character and moral code. The second prediction will not be made by any scholar who believes Aristotle’s rule that heavier objects fall faster. The first is indeterminate, non-empirical and not predictable by physics; the second is determinate, empirical and not predictable by ethics or psychology. There is no ethics, no character, no psychology involved.

      Predictability is a red herring. It has nothing to do with the topic under discussion. Indeterminate actions can be predicted with perfect accuracy. Washington, form his point of view in time when he lived, certainly decided to cross the Delaware on Christmas Eve. He was not insane, not a child, not an animal, not an inanimate object: we are forced, we have no choice, but to place this action into the category of “indeterminate” merely because the boldness of the dangerous crossing has no merit if we place it in the same category as the reactions of things that have no ability to conform their actions to a moral code. Nonetheless, because Washington, to me, from my coign of vantage in 2010, can look at the past and see that Washington did cross the Delaware, as far as I am concerned, I can predict how the decision will turn out. He will indeed decide to cross. Martha Washington, or any friend or guardian angel who knew him well enough to make an accurate judgment of his character could also have made an accurate prediction. That does not mean the act was determined by the laws of physics. That does not mean it was the act of a madman or a child or a beast or someone else whom we do not hold legally responsible for his own actions.

      Just to be clear: “indeterminate” is a philosophical term of art that means “legally responsible for his own actions.” “Determinate” is a philosophical term of art meaning, “defined by the initial conditions of empirical fact.” I can think of many examples of actions that are both “indeterminate” (defined by the character and moral code of a being with free will) and “determinate” (defined by initial conditions of empirical fact).

      I regard all the discussion and debate about determinism and indeteminism to be wasted ink, based on a false dichotomy. The two variables are independent of each other.

    • Comment by Richard Bell:

      Your claim of being able to predict large collections of atoms based on being able to predict a single atom is laughable.

      Let us suppose that that my brain is mostly water and masses 1.5 kilograms, so a rough estimate of the amount of atoms is one hundred moles (6*10^25 atoms). If we assume that the computer performing the prediction calculations has a clock speed of 10^15 floating point operations per second (a speed we may reach if Moore’s Law holds for another twenty years) and predicting a single atom’s future for the next second takes a single operation (another huge assumption), accurately predicting my brain for a single second will take hundreds years to calculate. Of course, if the CPU does not have 6*10^25 words of L1 cache, it will take many millenia.

      Beginning an argument by asserting an impossible task is a solved problem does not help you convince others.

  2. Comment by Joe Cool:

    Is it me, or has Mr. Wright more and more resorted to personal attacks and putting conclusions into his opponents’ mouths? I don’t necessarily disagree with his conclusions, but the hostility with which he makes them is disconcerting.

    Sentences like “Unlike you, I am a strict empiricist. […] I do not chose [sic] my believes [sic] based on their convenience or their emotional appeal” make me sad. As the brother to the prodigal son, the one who has been faithful to his father his whole life, I am already tempted towards jealousy when my father chooses to show his love to my brother in a way he has never shown me. But to then see my brother, fat on my father’s calf, and drunk on my father’s wine, raving about how special he is for being shown that love, and whipping the servants for not showing father the proper respect–it burns me to the core.

    As dissenting posters on this blog go, Mr. Andreassen has been perhaps one of the least trollish (I’m looking at you, Gryphmon), even when he says silly things. Making him hate you, then telling him how much God has favored you is not going to help him come to love God.

    • Comment by The OFloinn:

      Sentences like “Unlike you, I am a strict empiricist. […] I do not chose [sic] my believes [sic] based on their convenience or their emotional appeal” make me sad.

      Did it make you equally sad when he was accused of doing those things by the poster to whom he was responding?
      — Gandersauce.

      • Comment by Joe Cool:

        I must have missed that from the other poster, but no, it would not make me equally sad. The other poster makes no claim to being Christian, or holding charity as a central virtue in his life.

        But I suppose I get Mr. Wright’s “joke” a little better now.

        • Comment by Edtrigen:

          Hey Joe….pull the stick out.

          I have not seen anything harsh in anything Wright has said. Certainly
          nothing that a grown man or woman would raise an eyebrow at. Besides, what does charity
          have to do with giving a sharp retort to a debate partner?

          Now my knowledge insofar as Biblical minutia is limited (I’m not a Christian), but last I checked didn’t Jesus himself scold his more obnoxious detractors (calling them vipers, hypocrites, and the like)?

          Why does Wright have to stand around like a Ned Flanders-shaped boxing bag?

  3. Comment by bibliophile112:

    As a long time follower of this blog, I must reluctantly agree with Joe Cool.

    You have grown more hot-headed of late Mr. Wright.

    • Comment by John C Wright:

      Why do you think I called this scolding rather than a reasoned response to a rational argument? Dr. A was claiming all Catholics were intellectually dishonest because we have tradition, reason, and scripture on which we rely, and we are not Biblical Literalists. When I pointed out the logical errors in this position, he did not react. When I scolded him, and fed him the same line he fed me, changing only the terms “theist” and “atheist” he apologized and admitted he was trying to score rhetorical points.

      What you are seeing is not hotheadedness, it is heated rhetoric on my part. I was using rhetoric rather than logic because I was trying to address his sense of honor and shame, not his intellect.

      You and I both know that windy claims denouncing the other person’s motives are meaningless, and rude. He knows it, too. God knows my boasts about being a Christian empiricist are pure comedy gold: no one who knows me will take them seriously, and those who do not know me have no basis on which to make a judgment about my in any case.

      Beneath the heated rhetoric is still a cold and logical point, which I assume any careful reader can unearth.

  4. Comment by NorthoftheBorder:

    Interesting post. I suppose an undressing makes everyone blush?

  5. Comment by ExOttoyuhr:

    Rolf, have you ever read Gabriele Amorth’s An Exorcist Tells his Story? Amorth is the official exorcist of the Diocese of Rome, and has had a career which has probably mostly been psychiatric counseling and calming down the hysterical, but has included some extremely interesting events; he discusses the obvious challenges to be made to his credibility in his preface.

    I think that a discussion of free will should wait until the question of preternatural events is resolved. The appearance of one preternatural event in the world — that is, one event which does not derive deterministically from the initial condition of the universe — establishes that it is possible for energy to be imparted to the universe from outside, and thus refutes the deterministic model on its own ground.

    Scientific theories are always explanations of phemomena in the world, and they must account for all phenomena which fall under their purview. The recalcitrant and embarrassing ideas which stubbornly refuse to behave according to the current theory have historically been the most interesting ones: Aristotelian physics was refuted by its inability to explain the movement of objects in a vacuum, and Einstein’s theory of relativity originates in his dissatisfaction with the behavior of light relative to a fast-moving observer in 19th-century cosmology — I believe Maxwell named the behavior of light as one of a small number of dark clouds on the horizon, all of which proved to be surprisingly important.

    Returning to Amorth (and omitting discussion of other subjects where science is increasingly plugging its ears these days), I’d recommend that everyone here read him; he’s made some discoveries which are outright surprising, and actually rather uncomfortable fits with Catholicism as we know it. He discovered that there is such a thing as a curse, although curses are dependent on God’s not intervening to stop them; he’s even encountered “twists” straight out of Russian folklore, which he didn’t recognize as such but which behave exactly as they’re described in Linda Ivanits’ Russian Folk Belief and other such sources.

    Most interestingly, he’s found out a few things about Heaven and especially Hell:
    1. The system works: those oriented towards the good go to Heaven; those oriented towards themselves go to Purgatory; those oriented against the good go to Hell.
    2. The traditional distinction between lost souls and devils, and between the blessed and angels, is invalid: the damned become devils, although they are doubtless less powerful than the famous ones. Amorth doesn’t say how he discovered this, but he does say that a key step in every exorcism is finding out the devil’s name… so I’m guessing that he asked a devil what his name was, and got an answer he didn’t quite expect.
    3. Hell is something the devils created for themselves, not something God created for them. (I wonder how many people alive today have had the experience of taunting a devil and being scolded by him?)

    I think this makes the doctrine of Hell a lot easier to reconcile with God’s mercy; even the doers of the worst evils never lose their efficacy, and are never reduced to helplessness — they choose their sufferings, and deliberately make them worse, to spite a God Who desires that no one suffer.

    • Comment by Tom Simon:

      From what you’ve described, I can frame two hypotheses just off the top of my head:

      1. The Catholic Church is indeed wrong about the nature of hell and the distinction between devils and lost souls.

      2. Satan and his minions are liars.

      Already knowing (2) to be the case, I find no need to invoke (1) to explain the observed data. I would like to be surprised at the sight of a top exorcist being taken in by devils’ lies, but if you hang around devils long enough, you may begin to believe their tales even while you know them to be evil. Dr. Goebbels repeated his lie about the Allies starting WWII so often, he came to believe it himself.

      Exorcism as a profession is, I believe, considered very dangerous to the exorcist’s soul; and this may well be one of the reasons why.

  6. Comment by H.L. Tanline:

    Dr. A’s amaranthine dissertation, On The Physical Nature Of All Interaction, is deliciously slow-cooked by his eldritch desire to willfully influence the trajectory of Mr. W’s mental billiard balls. Mr. W, verbose champion of free will and lobster in his own pot, discovers his desire to escape belayed by the siren call of poisoned pawns, his hamstrings hamstrung by dream venom from Shakespeare’s inkwell, and his too too ponderous flesh entrammeled groundhog style atop Dr. A’s incommodious dancing-pin. Once this scenery chewing is recognized as superlative, heady performance art, the epiphanous third act plays out via the audience retiring to their varied purposes, grateful to be free, with kudos to the principals. Five performances daily through 2419.

  7. Comment by Dave:

    “…I became aware that I had a soul. It is a primary awareness, like your awareness that you are alive and conscious. ”

    What would you say about the fact that others have different primary awarenesses?

    • Comment by Tom Simon:

      If you understand correctly the definition of ‘soul’ in Aristotelian philosophy (from which Catholic theology derives its acceptation of the term), you will immediately perceive that there is no possibility of ‘different primary awarenesses’. The existence of any kind of awareness requires the existence of a soul in the strict technical sense.

    • Comment by The OFloinn:

      Keep in mind that the original discussions were carried out in Latin. The word for soul in Latin is anima which means “alive/animate.” The question “Does Dave have a soul” therefore equates to “Is Dave alive?”

      Do not fall into the Cartesian error of the soul as an independent substance. The soul is the form of the living body; and no living body is formless. If triangles were alive, “geometric figure” would be the body and “three-sidedness” would be the soul. If basketballs were alive, “rubber and air” would be its body and “sphericity” would be its soul. Notice that in these two analogies, the soul itself is immaterial though embodied in some material like chalk on a blackboard.

      So whether soul/form exists is certain. The details may be debated; such as whether some portion of the form survives bodily death. When you deflate the basketball, what happens to its “sphericity”? If all ball in the universe were flattened, would sphericity cease to exist? So even with inanimate forms there is some question.

      • Comment by Tom Simon:

        That, O wise OFloinn, is exactly what I was driving at in the comment directly above yours. Thank you for expressing it more clearly than I could. My head is muddled with vertigo and trouble, and I could not frame the terms of art to define them properly.

    • Comment by John C Wright:

      ““…I became aware that I had a soul. It is a primary awareness, like your awareness that you are alive and conscious. ” What would you say about the fact that others have different primary awarenesses?”

      Good question. I am not sure what you mean by “awarenesses” since there is only two possible states under discussion: you are aware that you have a soul or you are not. This matter is not something that differs from denomination to denomination, nor does it differ between Christian and heathen. We are not talking about whether the soul is mortal or immortal, whether it faces one last judgment or the wheel of endless reincarnation. Those are doctrines and conclusions. We are talking about whether the thing about which different sages and saints reach different conclusions exists at all. Even Lucretius thought men had souls (he thought the soul was made of little fiery atoms, and dissolved at death, but he thought it existed). So there is not any range of opinion: either you are aware that there is a supernatural part of you, or you are not aware.

      Let us suppose I was blind and recovered my sight, and I saw the sun was shining, wherefore I said, “While the statement that the sun is shining is open to Cartesian doubt, the statement that ‘I see the sun’ is not. If this is a dream, or the Matrix maintained by an evil computer, or a hallucination, then I am mistaking what I am seeing. On the other hand, the fact that I do see it, no matter what the interpretation might be, is not open to doubt.”

      Suppose further than another man, a blind man, pondered this statement, and he said, “But what do you make of the fact that other people do not see the sun?”

      Since I am someone who passed from being unaware of the soul in me to being aware, I think I can speak with some authority about both positions. Either I am currently hallucinating and am insane, or the thing of which I am directly aware is something of which I am aware. Since there is no medium of distorting sense impression in the way, if my awareness is false, then the instrument of awareness, my mind, must be distorted, i.e. insane.

      So the two theories do not have a symmetrical relation to each other: a man asleep can be befuddled and think he is awake, but a man awake (if he is not insane) is perfectly aware that he is awake. A man blind from birth can toy with the idea that everyone around his is delusional, and that all their talk of sunlight and color is a shared madness, or a social convention they will not admit is false: but the sighted people around him cannot possibly doubt the fact that they see and he does not see.

      Since I do not evince any of the other symptoms of hallucination or insanity, we either must assume that the vast majority of people throughout all history are insane, so that the insanity of believing in a soul or being aware of it is (wrongly) considered a norm, but in reality atheists and only atheists are free of this particular mental disease, or we must reluctantly conclude that, even though I am a lawyer and a science fiction writer, I am not insane.

      Myself, I would propose that someone would have to look at my medical records or at least talk to my parents before reaching a conclusion about my sanity. It is not the kind of thing a skeptic assumes without evidence.

      • Comment by Tom Simon:

        Myself, I would propose that someone would have to look at my medical records or at least talk to my parents before reaching a conclusion about my sanity. It is not the kind of thing a skeptic assumes without evidence.

        Au contraire, monsieur. All too often, that is exactly the kind of thing a (self-styled) skeptic assumes without evidence, because it is the only way for him to continue in the state of defiant and comprehensive disbelief which constitutes his brand of skepticism. In popular usage, alas, skeptic means ‘a clever chap who doesn’t believe all that superstitious rubbish that other people believe’. That kind of skepticism can only be maintained by believing one’s own unsupported convictions to be a priori superior to other people’s evidence. If you actually examined the evidence, you might be convinced of something by it, and then you would no longer be a skeptic according to that usage of the word.

        Real skepticism is both honourable and rare. You, sir, are a skeptic, and I am a skeptic, and we have each of us been convinced of the truth of Christianity by demonstrations that an honourable skeptic must accept as valid. A dishonourable skeptic (and we both know they are far more numerous, because that kind of skepticism is fashionable and popular, whereas our kind only brings trouble) must dismiss the demonstrations to show that he accepts all the ‘correct’ conclusions of the other fashionable skeptics, come hell or high water.

        Alas for us all, and may God have mercy on us.

  8. Ping from The St. Angilbert Press » Almost Daily “Must Reads”:

    […] It is always fun to watch John C. Wright make hash out of atheist arguments. He does it both in the article and in the comments thereto; do go thou and read of both. […]

    Leave a Reply