The Raving Theist

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Thursday’s Post

November 10, 2005 | 26 Comments

This exchange between an anarchist poet (Gregory) and a traditional one (Syme) in G.K. Chesterston’s The Man Who Was Thursday highlights a number of philosophical confusions that frequently arise in atheist/theist debates:

[Gregory]: Why do all the clerks and navvies in the railway trains look so sad and tired, so very sad and tired? I will tell you. It is because they know that the train is going right. It is because they know that whatever place they have taken a ticket for that place they will reach. It is because after they have passed Sloane Square they know that the next station must be Victoria, and nothing but Victoria. Oh, their wild rapture! oh, their eyes like stars and their souls again in Eden, if the next station were unaccountably Baker Street!”

“It is you who are unpoetical,” replied the poet Syme. “If what you say of clerks is true, they can only be as prosaic as your poetry. The rare, strange thing is to hit the mark; the gross, obvious thing is to miss it. We feel it is epical when man with one wild arrow strikes a distant bird. Is it not also epical when man with one wild engine strikes a distant station? Chaos is dull; because in chaos the train might indeed go anywhere, to Baker Street or to Bagdad. But man is a magician, and his whole magic is in this, that he does say Victoria, and lo! it is Victoria.

The first misunderstanding concerns free will. A common atheist objection to God is that complete divine omniscience would defeat human autonomy. This position is expressed in the passage above by the anarchist’s complaint regarding the predictability of the train’s destination (or destiny). But the solution suggested by Gregory — arrival at an “unaccountable,” unpredictable, random destination — doesn’t make us any freer. We’re still at the mercy of the train, except that it’s operating arbitrarily, without any plan at all.

Notably, in most atheistic formulations, God’s omniscience is simply replaced by an equally rigid and problematic determinism, in which our conduct is dictated by the atoms of our brains rather by the words of the Almighty’s pre-printed script. Once again, introducing an element of caprice into the causal laws would not free things up, any more than epilepsy would relieve us from the tyranny of our brains. And another frequently overlooked point is that even the unexpectedness of an outcome does not necessarily prove escape from the operation of the causal laws. A train which plunges off a bridge may be acting just as much in accordance with the laws of physics as one which makes its regular stops; given the pre-existing circumstances, the failure to derail might be considered a miracle.

Syme’s theory better approximates what we recognize as freedom: the ability select and an accomplish a goal, out of an infinity of possibilities, in accordance with our desires. Or, in some circumstances, to recognize our desires and exercise the freedom to resist them. But this, too, is ultimately an unsatisfactory solution, insofar as we do not necessarily get to select or change what those desires are. Once again, for all we know, they may be as mechanistically determined as the flight of a rock falling off a cliff.

So the debate over free will is largely irrelevant to the God problem. God’s alleged omniscience does create a problem for theist, but not because of its effect on human free will. Rather, the better argument is that it thwarts the operation of God’s will, conflicting with His alleged omnipotence. A God who sees the future to its end has committed Himself to sit back helplessly and watch history unfold, unable to change anything in the smallest way without contradicting His prior foreknowledge.

The second confusion illustrated by the excerpt concerns the argument from design. Here, the difficulty arises largely with Syme’s thesis that “magic” is demonstrated by the accomplishment of a particular, presumably non-chaotic end. In theology, this corresponds to the notion that life, and particularly the human mind, must have been designed because they are too orderly and complex to have arisen from chaos. But as much complexity and orderliness, and hence “design” can be read into the structure of a rock, however dull, unshapely and random-looking it may be. So the distinction between chaotic and orderly is again immaterial. The argument is essentially a presupposition that everything is designed, topped with the question-begging conclusion that there must be a “designer.” But this tells us nothing about Its nature and attributes, or even whether It is conscious, and does not address any of the standard objections based upon the conflicts between omniscience, omnipotence, omnibenevolence, etc.

Finally, there is the confusion over the basis of morality. This (as I little suspected while reading the book) is apparently the key theme of Thursday. Although the thesis is not clearly articulated in the passage, Chesterton’s novel was intended as an attack on moral relativism. The anarchist rejects order and seeks to destroy simply because he can, because, in the words of another novelist, everything is permitted. Syme sees greater glory in the adherence to the presumably God-ordained moral law.

Once again, neither side is right here. Despite the caricature of atheists as anarchists or nihilists, neither immorality nor relativism are the inevitable consequences of atheism. The godless have plenty of reasons to conform their behavior to standards dictated by reality and the empirically observable, objective negative consequences of misbehavior. And the notion that God is necessary for morality, as I’ve noted before, is disposed of by the Euthyphro dilemma. It refutes divine-command morality by demonstrating that the concepts of “good” and “bad” are either independent of God’s will or nothing more than a set of arbitrary, ever-changing whims. Killing an old lady would be good if God commanded it; and it is no answer to say that “God wouldn’t command it because it is bad” because that implies a standard of morality outside of God’s control. If anything, religion promotes moral relativism by tying morality to the undeterminable desires of an undetectable being, with the consequence that each faith can, and does, differ on the proper resolution of every debated social issue — often with the most important consideration of all, human needs and desires, excluded from consideration entirely.

But again, none of these arguments addresses the actual existence of God. They focus instead on the supposed consequences of belief or disbelief. Theologically speaking, the debate should center on the problem of evil, where the burden passes to the theist to explain how a universe so full of suffering and death is compatible with ruler who is so infinitely good.


26 Responses to “Thursday’s Post”

  1. AK
    November 10th, 2005 @ 12:04 pm

    A very heavy, philosophical post. Refreshing. Thanx!

  2. Mookie
    November 10th, 2005 @ 2:28 pm

    Arguments that insist god exists and is necessary for maintaining social order tend to be very weak. “If we had an all-powerful judge lording it over us and punishing our misdeeds, then we would have a perfect society without malice or crime.” The “need” for one does not make it so. I think the real crime here is attempting to deny responsibility and to shove it on some non-exitent entity. If we want to have free will, we need to dump the gods and accept responsibility for our own actions and their consequences.

  3. qedpro
    November 10th, 2005 @ 3:24 pm

    This is actually too heavy for me….hopefully i’ve understood this enough to bring it down a notch
    Thinking that religion and belief give you morals is like R2D2 in Star Wars. As soon as you remove the restraining bolt, he’s off running to Obiwan Kenobi.
    so what religious folk are saying is there are millions of people who without this restraining bolt would be running around fucking sheep, raping children, etc etc etc. That to me is far scarier than anything i can imagine. and not only that but apparently religion can remove this restraining bolt and have the masses go “jihad” so to speak.
    As an atheist i don’t know why they need this restraining bolt. I don’t. why do they? are they defective?

  4. Joe
    November 10th, 2005 @ 3:35 pm

    From what I’ve read about the actions of around 5% of the Catholic priesthood, I think the ‘restraining’ bolt is missing from many of the theists as well…

  5. a different tim
    November 10th, 2005 @ 4:47 pm

    I like the Euthyphro dilemna. I hadn’t seen that before. I particularly like the uses of premises 3 and 6 which I don’t have to believe in but they do….hee hee hee.

  6. Jeff Guinn
    November 10th, 2005 @ 8:51 pm


    Very thoughtful post. Funny you should mention the Euthyphro dilemma, as that happened to be the subject of an excellent article and follow on discussion just a week or so ago.

  7. Dawn Eden
    November 11th, 2005 @ 2:06 am

    “Killing an old lady would be good if God commanded it; and it is no answer to say that “God wouldn’t command it because it is bad” because that implies a standard of morality outside of God’s control.”

    But isn’t that like saying, “If God’s so powerful, can He create a rock so heavy He can’t lift it?” You’re putting forth a flawed postulation–asserting that something can be ‘p’ and ‘not p’ at the same time.

  8. Anonymous
    November 11th, 2005 @ 8:16 am

    Determinism is clearly obvious to all rational minds. The why, the cause, the prompt, it is inescapable. Why choose chocolate? Because you want it? Why do you want it? Because it’s enjoyable to eat? Why do enjoy it? Because you choose to?

    And the “flawed proposition” regarding p and not p is a clue. Once you realize the contradiction can’t exist your preposterous god disappears in a poof of enlightenment.

    Euthyphro is seminal. Is something good because the gods love it, or do the gods love it because it is good?
    As I recall, neither Socrates nor Euthyphro could answer it, and I haven’t met anyone who could.

    As an aside to adt, I have examined some of the arguments against the oscillating universe and I believe I spot two weaknesses. One is the premise that no info can be given from one to the “next”. It may be that info did get passed, and some or all of the current laws of physics actually are that passed info. Second, the theory doesn’t seem to address the addition of the inevitable rise and impact of intellect.

  9. Anonymous
    November 11th, 2005 @ 8:20 am

    Sorry Dawn, I slightly misquoted you.

  10. a different tim
    November 11th, 2005 @ 2:49 pm

    Wow…we’re back to that? Shouldn’t we go to the physics thread? NB are you posting as defanatic there or is there another high functioning autistic about?

    Hawking proved that the universe had to begin with 1) a singularity or 2) the no boundary condition. No information can pass through 1) pretty much by definition although I concede that we don’t know everything about singularities. 2) is hermetically sealed. No information gets through that at all.

    However my argument against the oscillating universe was more based on the observed values of the Hubble constant, the history of universal expansion (it appears to be speeding up), and the sucess of inflationary theory. In other words, even if it could happen (which Hawking seems to argue against) the evidence suggests that it isn’t. Hope for a past oscillating universe rests on the very slim chance that information can somehow pass through a singularity. Hope for a future one is pretty much non existent.

    Wow. that was a long time ago, man. But I’m glad you seem to be back.

    Dawn – no, he isn’t. In both cases he’s arguing that theist premises lead to the flawed postulation. The technique is called reductio ad absurdem – the idea is to show that your opponents arguments are self contradictory and/or absurd. I think he’s on stronger ground with the Euthyphro argument. Even theologians are forced to admit that divine command theory must be false.
    He’s using it against the often-stated theist argument (Steve G is particularly fond of it) that atheists have no possible standard of morality that is not arbitrary. By showing that divine command necessarily leads to a contradiction, he shows that atheists have access to the same level of moral authority as theists, since morality cannot depend on God.

  11. a different tim
    November 11th, 2005 @ 2:53 pm

    PS missed something – there is no evidence that teh rise or impact of teh intellect is inevitable. Evolutionary theory suggests otherwise – it’s a lucky accident that we rose. We could easily die out before we have any impact in universal terms.

  12. kmisho
    November 11th, 2005 @ 3:07 pm

    I thought this post was pretty good but I have problems with the very first part of the commentary. It seems to dichotomize fatalism and randomness. Why does it have to be one or the other?

    A lot of these problems are semantical. What does free will mean? What does determinism mean? I normally make a distinction between rigid determinism (fatalism, that things can happen in only one way due to cause and effect) and determinism (things happen for reasons, but this alone does not necessitate that things can only happen in one way).

    If by determinism anonymous meant fatalism then I have problems. This implies that the only reason anon says there is fatalism is because he is fatalisticially determined to say so. The same would be true of the person determined to assert free will. In fatalism, then, no one ever says anything, nor is there even anyone to say anything, just mechanical action that does as it was programmed to do by the big bang (or beyond).

    As I see it, atheistic fatalism is identical to theistic omniscience.

    If by determinism anon meant probability, I would agree, and (at least currently) science bears this out. A probabilistic view supports neither global randomness or fatalism.

  13. a different tim
    November 11th, 2005 @ 3:10 pm

    Hang on…if you mean quantum type probability that is explicitly non-deterministic. I think anon knows this, so he can’t have meant “probability” by”determinism”.
    I know this leaves the question of free will up in the air. The brain could still work in a classical/deterministic way. I assume this is his claim.

  14. Anonymous
    November 11th, 2005 @ 4:12 pm

    “As I see it, atheistic fatalism is identical to theistic omniscience.”

    Occam’s (sp) Razor says no god needed. Or call the universe god, if it’s that important. But I also assert that there is no randomness. Every single thing, no matter how small or large, happens only because of what happens before it. To me this is as obvious as the sun. We have no free will, and even if we did, what would we choose? Whatever it is you would choose would be based on previous causes beyond your control. We are all puppets. All of our actions were dictated at the moment of the Big Bang. The play was written, including every time you picked your nose, every errant daydream, every fumbling attempt at copulation, every cough or sneeze.

    “there is no evidence that teh rise or impact of teh intellect is inevitable”

    If you believe you have intellect, then it was inevitable by my previous statement. It can be stated thusly: everything that is, is (and must be).

    Probability is a trick of the light perceived and misunderstood by humans. In my opinion there are two factors that make up the entire universe as far as humans can perceive it: perspective and processes. If everything is predetermined, then probability or chance is simply your perspective of processes. From your perspective the future is unknown. Since it’s fixed, any event you are attempting to predict can actually only go the way that it will inevitably go. It’s just that from your perspective you don’t know which way, so you attempt to predict using your imperfect knowledge of the causes preceding the event and place “odds” that it will happen. That is apparent probability, and it’s not real. It can only exist in a human’s brain, and only from a human’s perspective (just like good and evil).

    And so yes, I am a fatalist. But I can still feel happy simply to be able to ponder the ride.

  15. a different tim
    November 11th, 2005 @ 6:23 pm

    QM says otherwise, I’m afraid.

  16. a different tim
    November 11th, 2005 @ 6:36 pm

    About the “every single thing, no matter how small or large” I mean. The Aspect experiment on Bell’s theorem ruled out hidden variables.

  17. Anonymous
    November 11th, 2005 @ 6:37 pm

    No need to be afraid a different tim, you know I’m open to new knowledge.

  18. a different tim
    November 11th, 2005 @ 6:43 pm

    I will point you in the direction of Alastair Rae’s “Quantum Physics, Illusion or Reality” which offers the most relevant stuff on the determinism question. It gives a much better explanation than I can here. There is a little maths but nothing beyond basic algebra (which is handy for me).

    It isn’t very long, it’s a good read, and the philosophical implications will make your head spin like Linda Blair but hopefully without the vomiting.

    I don’t dispute that our brains may work in a classical manner however, so you may still be right re free will. Quantum uncertainty isn’t free will anyway. But seriously, have a look at this. It’s great.

  19. Anonymous
    November 11th, 2005 @ 6:49 pm

    I certainly will my friend.

  20. Bee
    November 11th, 2005 @ 10:06 pm

    I understand why you say statistics is a trick, but many physicists would disagree as I’m sure you’re aware.

    Also, modern physics allows room to doubt fatalistic causality. Of course this is still hotly debated, but current physics does not wholly support such an extreme causality.

    I still maintain that it is irrational to assert perfect causality because one who does so is just as much at the mercy of said causality as one who denies this causality. If things can truly happen in only one way, then, whether you assent to mechanical causality or not, you were fated to do so. Thus, no assertions are actually being made.

    As I implied, I think problems surrounding notions of free will and determinism are more a matter of semantics than with understanding their relation to phenomena. There are problems with the words themselves.

  21. Bee
    November 11th, 2005 @ 10:07 pm

    I understand why you say statistics is a trick, but many physicists would disagree as I’m sure you’re aware.

    Also, modern physics allows room to doubt fatalistic causality. Of course this is still hotly debated, but current physics does not wholly support such an extreme causality.

    I still maintain that it is irrational to assert perfect causality because one who does so is just as much at the mercy of said causality as one who denies this causality. If things can truly happen in only one way, then, whether you assent to mechanical causality or not, you were fated to do so. Thus, no assertions are actually being made.

    As I implied, I think problems surrounding notions of free will and determinism are more a matter of semantics than with understanding their relation to phenomena. There are problems with the words themselves.

  22. Bee
    November 11th, 2005 @ 10:08 pm

    Sorry. This is KMisho! I forgot to change the ID info in my post while on my wife’s computer.

    sorry again

  23. Anonymous
    November 12th, 2005 @ 8:23 am

    Your information is appreciated, and I will certainly attempt to upgrade my understanding. I am a humble student of the universe.

    I see a potential flaw even now. If there is such an event in the future that could be considered completely random, then its future impact on the universe must be unknown. Therefore, you can’t predict that the universe will ultimately do any specific thing, including continuing to expand ad infinitum.

    I also agree that a person asserting causality is as much at the mercy of it as everything else. There is no escaping it.

    Now, as I go to look into this new information, I only ask that this particular statement be refuted:
    Everything that happens, happens because of what happened before it.

  24. a different tim
    November 12th, 2005 @ 12:53 pm

    Only true statistically.
    measurement of spin on an electron, for example, will reveal that an electron is “spin up” or “spin down”. However which particular one it is is random with a 50% chance either way.
    Now the issue with QM is that the Bell’s theorem experiment alluded to above implies that this is NOT a result of our faulty knowledge, but that in some way the electron does not “know” which way it is spinning before measurement, and that the spin is undetermined at this time (this applies to most other properties at the quantum scale).
    Many philosophers are unhappy with this and have bent over backwards to find a way round it. Einstein didn’t like it although some of his discoveries played a crucial role in the development of QM, and proposed that these properties were in fact predetermined by what he called “hidden variables”. It is these that the Aspect experiment ruled out. Physicists and engineers, who build devices such as transistors and lasers that rely on quantum mechanics, carry on regardless.
    Quantum effects generally do not apply to large (“classical”) objects for reasons that are not fully understood, although if you google “decoherence” you’ll find a lot of work being done on it.

  25. kmisho
    November 15th, 2005 @ 10:03 am

    Everything that happens because of what happened before it.

    I agree with this, but I must insert a caveat that is often ignored. The ability to reason from current effects back to their causes is not sufficient to assume that causes can have only one effect. The problem is that this is exactly what the average determinist asserts. But, in doing so, he is exceeding the implications of the original reasoning.

    Suppose that any given cause can have multiple effects. If this is true, one will still always be able to reason from effects back to causes. Therefore, to assert the kind of absolute determinism that says things can only happen in one way some other information must be brought into the original argument. To my knowledge, modern physics not only dos not provide this extra information, it even contradicts to a certain extent the idea that this information exists.

  26. Anonymous
    November 15th, 2005 @ 12:07 pm

    “Suppose that any given cause can have multiple effects.”

    I don’t agree, and that’s a building block in the foundation of my determinism. However, I am predestined to learn more and more and my perspective is predestined to change.

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