Monday, December 7, 2015

Against the Naturalists: A Response to Stefan Molynuex

     I think it's perfectly possible for one to admire another whom they strongly disagree with on a particular issue. Branching out of your comfort zones, intellectually speaking, is a virtue. There is no better way to do this than to listen to those who disagree, sometimes vehemently, with a position you hold. I know many people who begin to pick up the torch of philosophy only to settle down at the nearest comfortable bench, where the crowd of like-minded appeasers gather. However, those of us who aim for truth know that we must constantly be tested and refined, criticized and mocked, in order for true knowledge to come about.

     Stefan Molyneux , a successful internet radio intellectual, is a lover of wisdom. He admirably promotes the study of philosophy, and no doubt possesses a philosopher's heart. I find many of his videos, particularly about self-ownership and freedom, informative. He no doubt surpasses me in many fields of knowledge, even possessing an M.A. in History. However, despite these praises, I disagree with him strongly on the idea of God's existence.

     He wrote a short book entitled Against the Gods? where he explains reasons why theism is false and why agnosticism lacks a compelling foundation. Although short, the book is dense but also accessible to those unfamiliar with philosophical lingo. Molynuex takes a very rare approach not only in how he defines atheism, but also in how he argues against theism. While most so-called atheists beat around the bush and talk about irrelevant concepts (e.g. why miracles are silly), Molynuex grabs the bull by the horns and attempts a frontal assault.

     However, despite the philosophical merits present within his work, I think he ultimately fails in his endeavor.  The goal of this short work is to explain precisely why this is so. I'll do this by focusing primarily on the first three sections of his work. My conclusion is simple: arguments in favor of atheism are no better off now than they were several decades ago. Most beg the question and lack theological consistency.


     Molynuex begins by critiquing the Oxford English Dictionary's definition of atheism. The OED defines atheism as a disbelief in, or a denial of, the existence of a god. According to Molynuex this is unsatisfactory because being in denial of something implies an emotional, or illogical, rejection of some reality:
"Denial" is a word associated with defensive rejections of reality, such as Holocaust
denier, climate change denier – or the generic avoidance of unpalatable emotional truths: "He’s in denial about her drinking."
 This is slightly overstretched, however. There's no reason to think that for any state of denial there is an emotional cause or reason for that denial. Moreover, he doesn't provide a definition of "denial" which supports his assertion. Although it's true that some people believe (or deny) things based on emotional premises, I don't think the OED was implying a specific motive for the denial in question.

     Continuing with his criticism of OED's definition of atheism, Molynuex argues that the phrase "a god" is problematic:
 [W]hy is the phrase "a god" used? If I say that supernatural beings such as leprechauns do not exist, why would anyone imagine that I only disbelieved in a single leprechaun named "Bob"?
Fair enough. However, he hasn't shown why this is the fault of the OED's definition. Although it isn't a practical definition, I don't think the OED is technically wrong. The problem isn't with definitions per say, but rather how the word is being applied. I think problems occur when we treat atheism as a worldview, rather than a byproduct of a worldview. For example, a Buddhist and an evolutionary biologist like Richard Dawkins are both atheists. However, they are atheists for very different reasons. The former rejects the existence of gods because Buddhism claims that 'the self' is an illusion along with any other distinctions, while the latter is a naturalist.

     I agree with Molynuex that the OED's definition of atheism is unsatisfactory, but only because it is impractical. With that definition alone, we all become atheists. As a Christian, I reject the existence of Allah, Krishna, Zeus, Thor, Athena, and any other god. Therefore, according to the OED's definition, I am an atheist several times over. This is clearly absurd. The definition fails because it attempts to define us negatively. Simply put, we don't define ourselves by what we aren't, but rather by what we are. This brings to light the basic properties of truth. For example, if I say I am a non-stamp collector, then I've essentially told you nothing about myself. I could be an indefinite number of things based on that weak utterance alone. However, if I say I am a Christian then I've told you a lot about myself and what I believe in practical terms.

     In a sense, Molynuex is correct in that claiming you disbelieve in the existence of leprechauns ought to rule out belief in a particular leprechaun named Bob. This is precisely how he will define atheism. Although not officially endorsing it, he provides the following definition in order to contrast it with the OED's:
Atheism: The acceptance of the non-existence of imaginary entities such as Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny and Bronze Age sky ghosts.
  Despite contrasting itself with the OED, this definition is too exaggerated. It brings into the picture nontheistic entities like Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny. Atheism (a'-theos) literally means, "without god" or "no god", and not "without imaginary beings" like Molynuex supposes. It's clear that this definition he offers is a result of a governing worldview he assumes to be true, and which he doesn't directly state. In short, Molynuex is a naturalist.

     Naturalism is the belief that there is no god or anything like god. Metaphysically, it assumes a form of materialism such that existence, or reality, is that which is physical. Methodologically speaking, it claims that only material causes should be sought to explain phenomena. Obviously atheism follows from this given that monotheists assume God is essentially immaterial.

     Molynuex isn't content with leaving it at that, however. He has one more qualm with the word 'atheist':
The word "atheist" also indicates that belief in gods is the standard, and atheism is the
exception – just as "sane" is the standard, and "insane" is the exception. This is a mere scrap of sophistic propaganda, since all theists are almost complete atheists, in that they do not believe in the vast majority of man’s gods. The rejection of gods is the default position; the acceptance of a deity remains extremely rare, though not as rare as atheists would like.
It's interesting to note that 'sanity' assumes what is normal, which implies an appeal to majority. Likewise, belief in a god is the norm as any sociologist will tell you. This is true today and throughout all of history. Molynuex attempts to avoid this objection by claiming that theists are mostly atheistic in that they reject all the other hundreds of gods out there. As I stated above, this is a fallacious way of applying atheism. I think Molynuex assumes that all gods are qualitatively the same, such that believing in one but disbelieving in another makes you a hypocrite bathed in prejudice. However, there is a massive difference between Yahweh and Thor, for example. In fact, the two share almost nothing in common besides the fact that they are worshipped by men. It's perfectly possible, and logically consistent, to believe in one and not believe in the other.

     There doesn't seem to be any compelling reason to assign the word 'atheist' to a Christian as a result of this, since it's implied that the truth claim "Jesus is Lord" excludes the proposition "Allah exists." Furthermore, Molynuex is committing the fallacy of equivocation. He previously defined atheism as the rejection of imaginary beings, which includes gods. A theist, by definition, is one who believes in a god. Therefore, a theist can never be an atheist according to Molynuex's own definition. Attempting to apply 'degrees of atheism' to theists is therefore fallacious.


     The following section, The Existence of Gods, Molynuex lays out some preliminary remarks we should consider when discussing the existence of gods. He notes that theists ignore the fact that gods cannot logically exist and that agnostics are too gentle by claiming they might exist. With regard to the former, it strikes me as a bit odd that he says theists 'ignore' the fact that gods cannot exist. Ignoring implies a deliberate attempt at blocking out information that might counter one's own position. How does he know theists are doing this? Perhaps a theist gives it their all, but fails to come up with a compelling argument. I'm sure Molynuex wouldn't appreciate the charge that he was ignoring facts about reality in order to defend his atheism (naturalism).

    Regardless, his path forward is pretty clear: gods cannot exist because they violate the laws of logic. It follows that agnosticism, with regard to the existence of gods, is erroneous. He states:
A being which does not contradict the properties of existence may exist – a proposed being which does, may not.
This is a valid foundation and no philosopher would disagree. However, this shifts forward Molynuex's fallacy of thinking that all gods are the same. When one groups Yahweh with gods like Thor and Zeus, then you know something went wrong. Without this clarification, he will attempt to apply a general criteria to all gods while declaring a single conclusion. Again, Yahweh and Thor share almost no properties together besides the fact that they are worshipped by men. Therefore, claiming that they all are contradictory, despite sharing nothing in common, is a heavy burden of proof.


     The remainder of this work will deal with Molyneux's section entitled Why Are Gods Self-Contradictory? In this section, he lays out his case for why gods cannot exist. Again, it's admirable that he does this given the fact that most atheists would never dare attempt to disprove the existence of gods, instead relying on theists to prove that they do.

     Despite the admirable attempt, Molynuex commits a devastating blunder in the first paragraph. He states:
At the very minimum, a god is defined as an eternal being which exists independent of material form and detectable energy, and which usually possesses the rather enviable attributes of omniscience and omnipotence.
What I shall call "Molynuex's fallacy" has struck again. Remember, his case is about showing why gods (plural) do not exist. However, he seems to overlook that fact that not all gods are the same. Contrary to his minimalist definition, not all gods are eternal, not all exist independent of material form and detectable energy, and not all possess omniscience and omnipotence. Reading Hesiod's Theogony will confirm my position. What he is describing is monotheism, particularly a deistic conception of god. So why the shift? I believe it's because monotheism is really the only philosophically worthy form of theism taken seriously in academia. However, by lumping monotheists in with polytheists, he is able to poison the well in order to make it seem like God is really like a sky-daddy (a strawman that I will deal with later).

     Ignoring the initial blunder, his first argument deals with God's lack of biological complexity:
First of all, we know from biology that even if an eternal being could exist, it would be the simplest being conceivable. An eternal being could never have evolved, since it does not die and reproduce, and therefore biological evolution could never have layered levels of increasing complexity over its initial simplicity. We all understand that the human eye did not pop into existence without any prior development; and the human eye is infinitely less complex than an omniscient and omnipotent god. Since gods are portrayed as the most complex beings imaginable, they may well be many things, but eternal cannot be one of them. 
But why think that? First, he's made it abundantly clear that God is defined as an immaterial being. Biology is impossible without matter. Therefore, the standards of biology shouldn't apply to God. Moreover, it's questionable how being complex or simple has any bearing at all on whether something is eternal. Molynuex never attempts to explain it. Finally, he merely states that theists argue that God is complex without citing any specific examples (a pattern that will exist throughout his book).

     So is God complex or simple? I'm inclined to go with the latter. Complexity is contingent upon the number of parts something has as well as its being difficult to hold in a thought at a given time. The former clearly doesn't apply to God since he isn't composed of parts. God is remarkably simple in that he is made up of spirit or, if you prefer, mind. God is only complex in the sense that his thoughts, and attributes, possess an infinite intensity. We are unable to put ourselves in God's shoes, for we lack the mental capacity to experience his infinite attributes. I am unaware of many theologians who argue for God's complexity, especially in terms of parts/wholes. Therefore, Molynuex's point is exaggerated and fails to reveal a contradiction.

     The second argument he puts forth attempts to reveal that an immaterial mind, like God would have, is nonsensical and contradictory:
Secondly, we also know that consciousness is an effect of matter – specifically biological matter, in the form of a brain. Believing that consciousness can exist in the absence of matter is like believing that gravity can be present in the absence of mass, or that light can exist in the absence of a light source, or that electricity can exist in the absence of energy. Consciousness is an effect of matter, and thus to postulate the existence of consciousness without matter is to create an insurmountable paradox, which only proves the nonexistence of what is being proposed.
Do we know that consciousness is an effect of matter? Unsurprisingly, Molynuex doesn't cite any scientific findings. He merely declares it and then hopes we trust him. The truth is, science has only shown a correlation between consciousness and brain activity. As Molynuex knows, or ought to know, correlation does not equal causation.

     This topic is hotly debated between three camps: realists, dualists, and idealists. Realists would represent people like Molynuex who believe that material objects are real independent of conscious observation. For example, if all conscious beings were wiped out, then the physical universe would carry on like it always has. A dualist is one who believes that the mind is fundamentally immaterial but which interacts with the physical world (primarily through the brain). A dualist is more or less inclined to say that the absence of human consciousness has no bearing on the physical world. An idealist, however, believes that reality is fundamentally mind. If all minds were wiped out, then an idealist would say that the physical world would amount to nothing. Idealists and dualists tend to agree on most things, and what they differ on is technical, philosophical, jargon, as well as the scope of their claims. Practically speaking, dualists and idealists are on the same side.

     Are non-realist conceptions of reality nothing more than systems of sophistry? Unfortunately, Molynuex never bothers to bring them into the conversation. In terms of arguing for the existence of consciousness without matter, I need not promote one over the other (i.e dualism or idealism). Instead, I'll begin with recent scientific findings and then work my way to a philosophical case.

    Science, particularly in the field of quantum mechanics, has made some stellar findings in this area. Scientists have noted that particles, prior to observation, exist in what is called a wave function. In this state, the particle lacks any definite properties, instead existing as various possibilities (see Schrödinger's equation). Only upon observation does the wave function collapse into what we call a particle. This has been confirmed by the famous double slit experiment.

     Quantum mechanics is relevant to the consciousness debate because depending on how you view the nature of the mind (i.e. whether you think the mind is physical or not) determines whether you encounter a contradiction. If the mind is purely the physical interactions within the brain, and the brain is subject to quantum mechanics, then we would have to be constantly observed by another in order to possess any definite properties. If reality is nothing but physical interactions, then this creates an infinite loop of physical-conscious observers. This is known as the measurement problem. In short, who is observing me and who is observing the one observing me? Ad infinitum.

     Those who reject that the mind is the brain are able to escape this chain by claiming that our immaterial consciousness, by definition, isn't made up of particles. Therefore, consciousness would be a non-local aspect unaffected by the chain. Our minds actively participate in reality, even if we aren't the architects of reality (contra solipsism). The architect of reality, the One observing us observing the world, is God. But I will not delve into that at the present time.

     The point is, Molynuex has an inadequate foundation for making the claim that immaterial consciousness is a contradiction. This larger metaphysical problem will always knock on his door until he finally opens it, thus acknowledging the inadequacy of realism.

     Finally, even with all this quantum lingo aside, Molynuex severely over-exaggerates the strengths of materialistic-based neuroscience. Consider the observations of Dr. Jeffrey Schwartz, a leading expert in the field of neuroplasticity:
Not even the most detailed fMRI give us more than the physical basis for perception or awareness; it doesn't come close to explaining what it feels like from the inside. (The Mind and the Brain, pg 27)
 To suggest that a series of neurons is anything at all like code is dubious. However, even if we assume that it was, we cannot derive semantics from syntax. This is precisely why neuroscientists must ask their patients what they are thinking about as they observe brain scans. The reason for this is that the subject has privileged, private, access to their own subjective life -- the semantical, qualitative, experience.

     In other words, Molynuex exaggerates the materialist's claim without citing any sources. He's dead wrong here. So far there is no contradiction between the properties of God.

     His third argument attempts to reveal a contradiction between God's omniscience and omnipotence:
[O]mniscience cannot coexist with omnipotence, since if a god knows what will happen
tomorrow, said god will be unable to change it without invalidating its knowledge. If this god retains the power to change what will happen tomorrow, then it cannot know with exact certainty what will happen tomorrow.

Molynuex's argument is based on a faulty understanding of omniscience and omnipotence. A being is omniscient if it knows all true propositions, including counter-factuals. Omnipotence is the ability to do any thing--- that is key. Omnipotence does not entail the ability to actualize a contradictory state of affairs. For example, a square-circle is not a thing. So the age old question "can God create a rock so large that He cannot lift it?" becomes nonsensical as if God is deficient for not being able to create contradictions (unless you think an infinitely extended rock is possible).

     In light of this, answering his third argument is rather easy. If God knows that X will occur at time t, then X will occur at time t. If God wills that X does not occur at time t, then he knows that X will not occur at time t (however, that is the same as saying that God knows that Y will happen at time t). God's knowing (and decisions) occurred prior to the creation of the universe. God's omnipotence doesn't override this, for if it did then a contradiction would occur. It would demand that what will be will not be. Since omnipotence doesn't entail the ability to actualize contradictions, then there is no difficulty.

     One might say this shows that God doesn't have any free will. However, free will is not determined by the number of choices available to a person. Imagine if I was presented with a red button and a green button. I must choose to press either one. However, if my brain was hooked up with electrodes such that my decision to press the red button would result in my deciding to press the green one, then if I originally decided to press the green button, despite the fact of only having that option available to me, I still chose to press the green button freely.

    Molynuex's third argument critiques an inadequate version of God that the majority of theists don't accept (with the exception of Martin Luther and Rene Descartes). It's like saying that God's omnipotence contradicts God's omnibenevolence because He lacks the power to do an evil deed. No, God lacks the ability to do an evil deed because it would contradict his good nature. Again, God can't actualize contradictions, which is what omnipotence presupposes. Thus far God has gone unscathed.

     His fourth argument is quite peculiar:
The fourth objection to the existence of deities is that an object can only rationally be defined as existing when it can be detected in some manner, either directly, in the form of matter and/or energy, or indirectly, based upon its effects on the objects around it, such as a black hole.
He continues:
Since "god" means "that which is undetectable, either directly or indirectly," then the
statement "gods exist" rationally breaks down to:  "That which does not exist, exists."
One can smell the naturalism emanating from his words. Regardless, it's actually not hard to conceive of something that is not detectable to others, either in the form of matter and/or energy, or based upon its effects on the objects around it. My intention to honor a particular agreement exists, yet is not detectable by anyone else. Appealing to brain chemistry won't help because a series of neurons {A,B,C} firing is not equivalent to my intention to honor an agreement. I'm assuming that my own self-perception counts under Molynuex's criteria. If it doesn't then he'd have to say his own thoughts and intentions don't exist because they (especially the content of the thought or intention) wouldn't be detectable by others.

     But even if self-perception counts, we still run into an issue. The proposition "the external world exists" becomes problematic. Not to get all solipsistic on Molynuex, but how would he be able to tell the difference between a virtually flawless simulation his brain is hooked up to versus the real world? He'd walk through the simulation declaring, "This apple before me exists because I can perceive it", all the while his body lies motionless on a medical bed hooked up to wires.

     Moreover, what about people who claim to experience God in their hearts? They are convinced that God is detectable. Obviously Molynuex would call such people deluded, but would he be justified in doing so despite being unable to tell the difference between a simulated apple and a 'real' apple? Furthermore, how would he explain the existence of goodness? Surely, I can detect someone giving a homeless person $5, but to say that somewhere in that physical data there exists 'goodness' is simply erroneous. Molynuex's criteria for existence simply fails to deal with all aspects of our experience. Therefore, it cannot effectively be applied to God.


    The rest of his book concerns agnosticism and his various criticisms of it, with a few sections dealing with ethics and the history of belief in gods. Since these particular sections are contingent upon the truth of his argument against the coherency of God, and given the fact that I have at least shown his arguments to be dubious, then I need not concern myself with these sections in any great detail. However, some brief remarks can be made about agnosticism as it appears to be wedded to atheism in most contemporary discussions.

     Agnosticism (a'- gnostikos) simply means, "without knowledge". What seems to go unnoticed in God-talks is the fact that one can be an agnostic with regard to any proposition. For example, if I have no idea about 19th century medical technology, and someone asks me to take a stance on some proposition related to the subject, then I would have to confess my ignorance by saying, "I'm sorry but I don't know enough to affirm or deny your proposition." As Molynuex would know, it's a philosophical virtue to confess your ignorance when appropriate.

     Both atheists and agnostics (with regard to the existence of gods) lack a belief in god(s). However, like the Buddhist I mentioned previously, they both come to that conclusion by different means. Again, the agnostic lacks adequate knowledge of some concept in order to affirm or deny the existence of god, while an atheist affirms that god does not exist based on deductive or inductive arguments. Those who claim to be agnostics, but dwell on denying the existence of god, will inevitably be asked to reveal the worldview responsible for their objections. There's a point beyond merely rejecting the form of a theist's argument that would require an agnostic to put forth their worldview (almost always some form of naturalism). Molynuex rightly criticizes agnostics who possess adequate knowledge of logic and science, yet flirt with the boundaries while refusing to commit to atheism.

     I think the appeal of agnosticism is its ability to grant the individual an advantage in debates. As an agnostic, you enter the discussion with no burden of proof. You can literally sit there with arms folded and demand that the theist present his case. Unfortunately this is often abused by atheists disguising themselves as agnostics. They'll criticize an aspect of a theistic argument, running out from the phalanx to deliver blows, only to retreat behind the wall of shields when the "going gets tough." This is passive-aggressive sophistry.


     To conclude, Molynuex takes the correct path in his attempt to refute theism. However, as my case clearly lays out, his arguments fail to hold weight. He relies on naturalism, often assuming that it's self-evident, and then tries to force God (or gods) to conform to his hotly contested standards. He never bothers arguing why naturalism is true, and in fact never even uses the term. Moreover, he never cites a single source for his claims, thus requiring us to have faith in him. Finally, and most importantly, he attempts to refute all gods by using arguments designed to attack deism. This makes all of his bravado early in his work lose its force. Despite Molynuex's sophistication, God passes through his arguments unscathed. Atheism, then, appears no better now than before.

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