Sunday, December 13, 2009


Steve Landsburg's Case Against God

Steve Landsburg's Case Against God
By Robert P. Murphy

University of Rochester economist Steve Landsburg is one of my favorite writers of popular articles and books. I often disagree strongly with him--indeed I use his “more sex is safer sex” thesis as a primary illustration of mainstream economic self-parody--but even when he’s wrong, he’s brilliantly wrong. It is with some disappointment, then, that I have to report his case against God is uncharacteristically weak.

Before proceeding to my critique, I should say that overall Landsburg’s new book, The Big Questions, is well worth the purchase price. (Although in my case, as a blogger who would likely review it, Landsburg arranged for me to get a complimentary copy. But hey, the book is definitely worth more than I paid for it!) In particular, Landsburg wrote one of the most succinct defenses of free trade that I’ve ever seen, and he also does a great job explaining the seminal contributions of Robert Lucas and his critique of old-fashioned macroeconometrics. If you are a fan of Landsburg’s previous books, there is still much to enjoy in his latest.

Yet as I said, if you are a theist and were expecting to be shaken to your core, I think you will be disappointed. Onward to Landsburg’s case against God.

Why Does the Universe Exist?

Before tackling Landsburg’s specific critique of theism, we need to first explain his own explanation for why we exist. To get things going, Landsburg first establishes that the “natural numbers (i.e. the counting numbers 0, 1, 2, and so forth)” are real things, not arbitrary social conventions: “You and I know the natural numbers are real. Not only are they real, they are necessary. By their very nature, they could not fail to exist” (p. 7).

Landsburg then generalizes to mathematical truths as a whole:
And likewise for other mathematical structures, of varying degrees of complexity….The natural numbers together with the laws of arithmetic form a mathematical structure of profound complexity. The human genome, with its combinatorial structure of A’s, C’s, G’s, and T’s, can be described entirely in the language of arithmetic, so the very least, arithmetic is as complex as human life, and therefore as complex as your brain and the pattern of your consciousness. (pp. 7-8)

Already I think Landsburg is in serious trouble, but let’s hold off criticism and let him make his case. In the interest of brevity I can’t reproduce his whole argument, but here’s the punchline:
The Universe itself, in other words, is a mathematical pattern, containing your consciousness and mine as subpatterns. The Universe exists because it can; a logically possible Universe is a mathematical object, and mathematical objects exist by necessity. (p. 14)

So we see that Landsburg thinks he has disposed of the need for God, by offering an alternative explanation for the most eternal of questions. Yet I think Landsburg’s “proof” suffers from the exact problem that he fingers in Saint Anselm’s famous “ontological argument” for the existence of God. I’ll reproduce Landsburg’s handling of this matter, and then circle back to show why Landsburg’s own explanation is similarly flawed:
Anselm defines God as “the greatest thing imaginable.” Now, existence is really really great, so if God didn’t exist, he couldn’t be the greatest thing imaginable, now could he? Therefore, by definition God exists! Case closed!

Regardless of what Anselm chooses to “define,” there can instead be something very great, and then something even greater, and then something greater than that, ad infinitum—just as there are numbers, and then larger numbers, and then numbers that are larger still, ad infinitum. Anselm starts by assuming that there is a greatest thing imaginable. Start with an unjustified assumption and you’re sure to reach an unjustified conclusion.
(pp. 34-35)

I think that Landsburg’s own explanation, while at first seeming quite profound, is just as question-begging as Anselm’s. Landsburg has replaced the traditional questions, “Why should we have consciousness? Why is the universe constructed this way, just-so in order to sustain our lives and allow us to ponder our existence?” with the question, “Why should mathematical structures exist, in such deep complexity?”

Landsburg spends most of his time going from the fact that purely abstract mathematical structures exist, to the conclusion that therefore we sentient beings exist and perceive “solid” objects around us. Now that leap may itself be invalid as well—I’m actually sympathetic to Landsburg’s arguments, which I’m not reproducing here—but my point is, Landsburg never really explains why these mathematical objects exist in such complexity so as to “give rise” to the traditionally complex subpatterns that every other philosopher seeks to explain.

For example, how do we know that mathematical patterns “really” exist? Maybe Euclid’s proofs just seem a priori true to us, because of the way our brains are hardwired. Perhaps other sentient beings could possess a “different logic” from ours. That strikes me as impossible, I grant you, but wouldn’t it seem impossible if what I am saying were true? Here’s what Landsburg has to say about the ultimate foundation of his whole worldview:
I am confident that mathematics exists for the same reason I am confident my hopes and dreams exist: I experience it directly. I believe my dining-room table exists because I can feel it with my hands. I believe numbers, the laws of arithmetic, and (for that matter) the ideal triangles of Euclidean geometry exist because I can “feel” them with my thoughts. (p. 6)

And so we’ve moved in a circle (assuming circles exist…). Landsburg explains the existence of everything we “know” in day-to-day life by pinning it on the ultimate existence of mathematical objects. And these exist because we directly experience them. As to why these mathematical truths have the form they do, Landsburg offers no other explanation except they have to have that form. How do we know? By thinking about them, in other words by “feeling” them with our thoughts.

When it comes down to it, I think Landsburg has done nothing truly deeper than to say, “Why do trees exist? Just look our your window, man! They do exist, that’s why.”

A Note on Complexity

I am by no means an expert on information theory, but I want to mention that some people also do not agree with Landsburg’s argument that arithmetic is more complex than human life. (I am grateful to Silas Barta for discussions on this topic.) In particular, it’s not true that one can “represent” all of human life—and especially human consciousness!—by a sequence of four nucleic acids (in DNA). It reminds me of a critique I read of Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park. In the movie (and presumably the novel, which I haven’t read), the scientists are able to grow a bunch of living dinosaurs from DNA they find preserved in a mosquito that had bitten a dinosaur millions of years in the past. But that alone wouldn’t be enough, because the dinosaur would have to develop inside its mother before being laid as an egg.

The same is true with humans. Contrary to science fiction plots, you couldn’t clone an adult replica of someone just from a blood sample. Someone’s DNA wouldn’t contain the history of that person’s environment as he grew up, and it wouldn’t contain the memories of his experiences and so forth. If lab technicians could provide an adequate simulation of the person’s mother’s womb, then at best they could reproduce an identical twin as a newborn infant. But in order to literally reproduce an exact replica of an adult human being, the scientists would need to reproduce (in principle) the entire universe in which the person grew up. And this all assumes that the philosophy of functionalism is true! If it turns out that people have immortal souls, for example, then the scientists still wouldn’t have truly reproduced the “person,” just at best his physical body.

Before leaving the point, let me share Silas Barta’s analogy to show (part of) the problem with Landsburg’s procedure: Landsburg is saying that if X can produce Y, then X is necessarily more complex than Y. But bricks and mortar can produce a house, and not many people would say they are more complex than the house. If you try to point out the “flaws” in this analogy, just realize that they apply with equal validity to Landsburg’s assertion that arithmetic (using just A’s, C’s, G’s, and T’s) can describe all of human life.

I Predict Landsburg Didn’t Really Try to Understand Theists

Although I think Landsburg’s argument about the existence of the universe is ultimately a non sequitur, at least it’s a serious argument and something that theologians should grapple with. I personally think the existence of mathematics is one of the most beautiful flourishes of God’s creation. Mathematical laws cannot be overridden, even by the most despotic of earthly rulers, because we simply perceive logical relations in the way we do; that’s how our minds work. (Landsburg would say, I believe, that this is so because our minds could not conceivably work differently, whereas I would say our minds work like this because God wanted us to live in an orderly, logical universe and so chose to design it this way.) Another neat thing about mathematics is that it shows the practicality of pure thinking. Pragmatists can deride poets for wasting their time daydreaming, but nobody doubts the usefulness of geometry textbooks.

So although I think the existence of mathematics per se can't bear the explanatory weight that Landsburg puts on it, I at least understand his fascination with the approach. Unfortunately, there are other sections of the book where Landsburg’s hostility to theism struck me as downright silly. Here are a few excerpts and my reactions:
Now, to a true religious believer, the conviction rate [after committing a crime] is 100 percent. God sees all, knows all, and punishes all. Based on everything we know about deterrence, true believers should almost never commit crimes. But I have not been able to uncover a shred of evidence that those who profess belief are any more law-abiding than their atheist neighbors….[H]ere we have a testable implication of the hypothesis that religious beliefs are sincere, and I look forward to seeing that test conducted. (p. 58)

This argument might hold for some religious doctrines, but not for Christianity. Christians believe that Christ died for their sins and that they are therefore forgiven. You don’t “get into heaven” by being a good enough person to pass some threshold. Once you accept Jesus as your Lord and savior, you are saved. (This is one of the reasons Christopher Hitchens finds Christianity repugnant, because it allegedly relieves individuals of responsibility for their actions.) Let’s get back to Landsburg’s testable hypotheses:
Many religions promise not just punishment for the wicked, but a glorious afterlife for the righteous, and if believers are sincere, this, too, should affect their behavior. Surely people who expect to survive their own deaths should be less reluctant to die, and should therefore invest fewer resources in self-preservation. Do those who call themselves religious spend less on health care than the rest of us? Do they buy fewer smoke alarms? Are they more likely to jaywalk? Less likely to flinch when a foul ball is hit in the direction of their foreheads? I’m guessing not, and if my guess is right, it becomes almost impossible to imagine that their “belief” in an afterlife could be sincere. (p. 59)

Again, I don’t think we should waste time collecting the data, because I am not convinced that Landsburg has in fact teased out a true implication of religious belief. Christians, at least, are also supposed to view their bodies as temples to the Lord; doing reckless things would be sinful for that reason alone. To see the point a bit differently, does Landsburg think believing Christians ought to go on murder sprees (at least among other believers), in order to send as many brothers and sisters to be with Jesus as quickly as possible?

Christians do not enjoy the suffering of this world, and they do indeed look forward to the day when they can be reunited with their Creator. But in the meantime, we have a job to do, namely to spread the good news to as many others as we can, in the short time we have on this earth.

I’ve saved my favorite for last:
Religious believers, then, should, by and large, be students of—well, of what, exactly? Religion is first and foremost a physical theory—a theory of how the Universe was formed, what keeps it going, how it will end, and what sort of stuff (souls? angels?) inhabits it. I predict, then, that true religious believers should have a passionate interest in fundamental physics—even if only to figure out what’s wrong with the mainstream theories. But I also predict that the bookshelves of the average churchgoer are no more likely than anyone else’s to contain a good survey of, say, quantum chromodynamics. I conclude that the average churchgoer is not a believer. [Emphasis in original.] (p. 62)

Landsburg has gone entirely astray here. He is fascinated by physical theories, and so that’s why he thinks that’s what religion is “first and foremost.” If you asked the average believer, “What is the Bible all about?” I doubt many would say, “It’s about the origin of the universe.” Of course it does explain the origin of the universe, but that’s, well, just the first two chapters. The heart of the book, of course, is the personal relationship between God and His children.

Let me offer Landsburg some rival “predictions” that are think are much fairer to the theory that some people really are sincere in their religious beliefs. It would be easy to say things like, “They go to church more than professed atheists,” or, "They have more books about God on their shelves than atheists," but Landsburg could dismiss that as a recreational activity.

Okay, what about this: I predict self-professed Christians donate more money than self-professed atheists. For sure, I predict they give more to churches, but I will go beyond the obvious and so they also give more to charities, if we include tithing in the total. This is a classic example of putting one’s money where one’s mouth is, so Landsburg should appreciate it. (To be really safe—and protect my prediction from people who really are just paying lip service—I could flip it around and say, “People who donate high fractions of their income are more likely to say they believe in God.”)

For another example, I predict that self-professed Christians are much more likely than atheists to travel to foreign countries—often at great personal risk—to help build churches and spread the gospel. Some things of this nature can be dismissed as vacations paid for by other people’s donations, so Landsburg can restrict it however he wants. For example, “mission trips” to countries where other missionaries have been imprisoned or murdered within the last x years. Assuming it turns out that more professed believers engage in this behavior than people who say it’s all nonsense, isn’t the most obvious explanation that they actually believe in it? Why else would someone risk his freedom or even life to spread beliefs he doesn’t actually believe? Landsburg is a clever guy and will surely come up with theories, but I think the most obvious one is staring us in the face: many people actually believe.


Steve Landsburg’s new book is very provocative and covers an audacious range of topics. Yet on the issue of the existence of God, I found his arguments to be below his usual excellence.

Robert P. Murphy holds a Ph.D. in economics from New York University. He is the author of The Politically Incorrect Guide to the Great Depression and the New Deal (Regnery, 2009), and is the editor of the blog Free Advice.

Bob, I've just started following you online. To wha I can see I'd agree that such a kind of argument is a nn sequiteur. However, I'm a bit surprised to discover that you believe in God.

If I came to you and put forward a claim, let's say that the economy works in a certain way, you'd ask me for proof to support my case or else you'd dismiss it.

Why don't you apply the same criteria on everything, including "God"?

To me it seems like religious people cannot be "shaken to their core" for the simple reason that they have abandoned reason, at least in that area.

I suppose you count yourself lucky to be born in a country where you could be informed of the existence of the Real God who came up with the workings of mathematics, and not some hammer wielding Thor.

Anyways.. I look forward to seeing more videos of your lectures on economics ;)
Some good thoughts Bob. I always like to hear the arguments against what I believe to be true, so I'll have to get my hands on Landsburg's book someday.

The arguments for and against the existence of a Diety are both ontological....but it's interesting how one side readily admits this while the other side vehemently denies this!
"Once you accept Jesus as your Lord and savior, you are saved."

You realize you are on controversial ground here, don't you? To a strict Calvinist, whether or not you are saved is foreordained, and you can't do a thing about it, not even accept Christ. On the other hand, for Catholics (and Episcopalians, I think), good works can enter into salvation.
"To me it seems like religious people cannot be "shaken to their core" for the simple reason that they have abandoned reason..."

It's just amazing to find this contention again and again. Go read Plato, Aristotle, Plotinus, Augustine, and Aquinas and see if they "abandoned reason" in order to conclude that God exists.
"But that alone wouldn’t be enough, because the dinosaur would have to develop inside its mother before being laid as an egg."

Yes, as I understand it, this sort of "DNA-ism" is largely abandoned in biology. DNA does not play its role properly without a complex of surrounding proteins.
Boy are you gonna be disappointed that you're not at all special when you're dead. Like those guys on TX execution's death bed saying a prayer. Yeah right. HAHAHAHAHA.

Koo Koo. Koo Koo.
I too usually admire Steven Landsburg, but actually his recent defense of free trade leaves me more skeptical than I was before. It seems that the explanation provided here depends on the assumption that the marginal utility of wealth is flat versus total income. Clearly that is false, and so goes the argument. Suppose that "Mary" is Bill Gates and Joe is very poor -- is it still the case that Gates' marginal $10 exceeds Joe's <$10 loss? Of course, we could remedy this situation by effecting a transfer from Gates to Joe, but this would probably take the form of...a tariff!

Regarding Calvinists, if they are merely saying that God knows beforehand if you will accept Jesus (sincerely), or even that you don't accept Jesus without God allowing it to happen (the opposite of Him "hardening Pharaoh's heart" so he wouldn't release the Israelites to Moses), that's fine. But if they're saying you can sincerely invite Jesus into your heart, and God can decide you are not saved, then I think that contradicts what Jesus and Paul quite clearly said.

As far as Catholics, a bunch of them bit my head off a few weeks ago when I said they believed you needed good works to get into heaven.
Boy are you gonna be disappointed that you're not at all special when you're dead.

Maybe. Wouldn't it be a shame if I am right, and you don't realize how special you are right now?

God loves you.
Calvinists: My understanding of extreme Calvinism is that there is simply nothing about you except, well, God picked you, that means you're saved.

"As far as Catholics, a bunch of them bit my head off a few weeks ago when I said they believed you needed good works to get into heaven."

Well, some Catholics think it's perfectly OK to use birth control and call themselves Catholics, don't they? Nevertheless, salvation by works is part of Catholic doctrine.

'The axe is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire."

'"What should we do then?" the crowd asked.

'John answered, "The man with two tunics should share with him who has none, and the one who has food should do the same."'

That passage seems to strongly suggest salvation by good works. does it not? (I'm not trying to say that settles things; I'm saying there is a reason it hasn't been settled easily for so long.)

I will atest that some extreme Calvinists that I have known were adamant that salvation could only happen if God chose you. Nothing you ever did or believed contributing anything to salvation. They, along with some Puritans, would speak of their "salvation experience" in which they felt God's saving grace come on them and they "knew" that God had saved them.
Bob says:"Regarding Calvinists, if they are merely saying that God knows beforehand if you will accept Jesus (sincerely), or even that you don't accept Jesus without God allowing it to happen (the opposite of Him "hardening Pharaoh's heart" so he wouldn't release the Israelites to Moses), that's fine."

K says: What Bob describes (in the first part of what he states) is called the prescient view of salvation. This is *not* what Calvinists hold. The second part of his statement makes no sense.

Bob goes on to say:
"But if they're saying you can sincerely invite Jesus into your heart, and God can decide you are not saved, then I think that contradicts what Jesus and Paul quite clearly said"

K responds: This is *not* what Calvinists hold either.

Somebody just ask, and I may be able to help on this, since I am one of these strange folks called a Calvinist.

Hint: Gene Callahan is closer to being correct, but does not catch the full flavor of the theology. Gene is also nearly correct on Roman Catholic soteriology. Let me clear this up:

Roman Catholic view: Faith in Christ+sacriments of Church (works of penance)=justification

Evangelical view: Faith in Christ+0=justification+good works
Go read Plato, Aristotle, Plotinus, Augustine, and Aquinas and see if they "abandoned reason" in order to conclude that God exists.

Yes. They have. You have to abandon reason to conclude that God (whatever the hell you may mean by that, but I assume you refer to something resembling the usual God of the Bible) exists.

To believe in God is a sign of intellectual retardation. Sorry, regardless of how smart you are otherwise, if you are a theist, you have an intellectual problem.
Brian Shelley,

*All* traditional Calvinists hold that God elects some sinners to recieve his regenerating grace, and freely leaves others to choose as they will. In the mystery of God's sovereignty, the election is not based on foreknowledge of who will choose to believe, or who will perform good works, since everyone, short of God's regenerating grace, will choose to pass by the cross of Christ. As Augustine put it, we are free to choose, but we are in bondage (Luther's word) to our own strongest volitions (full of sin), and our strongest volition (in our unregenerative state) is always to reject Christ. From this viewpoint, Calvinists understand that redemption is thus a free gift of God. Even our faith, through which the righteousness of Christ is imputed to us, is a result of his efficaceous grace.

It is important to realize however, that this theological viewpoint does not negate the fact that everyone (whosoever) who willingly comes to Christ in repentance and faith, is declared justified, with Christ's righteousness imputed to their account through the vehicle of faith in the divinity of Jesus of Nazareth, and in the sufficiency of his substitutionary atonement on the cross. Furthermore, no person ever comes to Christ against their will. All persons either come to Christ or reject him of their own "free" will.

As an aside, I'm not certain why some get so angry with this view of salvation, since everyone makes their own choice. If they choose the view is bunk, that is their free choice. Some folks get angry though, when I choose to believe in Christ, and then give credit to God, claiming that he sent his grace upon me. The alternative is to claim that my faith is the result of my intensic "goodness", which is like me saying that I am just somehow genetically better than the next guy or gal. This is pride, but unfortunately, it is really the logical extention of the semi-pelagian view. This view is not consistent with the theme of the NT, in my opinion.

After many years of studying the scriptures (and also my own former bouts of unbelief), I finally came to the conclusion that the view of Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, and Edwards (to name a few) was also the view of Christ and all of the Apostles. I may not be correct, but I truly believe this was the historical early church view.
K Sralla,

I understand the standard Calvinist position. However, I have had a number of experiences with Calvinists who believed that humans have no role in salvation whatsoever. I was told, "You can't repent because that's a 'work'. You can't choose because that's a 'work'. Nor can you resist because God's will is inviable. To them, there was no free will involved in salvation, only God randomly plucking people out of a hat.

Fortunately, (if I'm reading you right) I later ran across a number of Calvinists who held your position. Not that I agree with you, but at least it's not crazy.
Brian, Puritanism is a branch of Calvinism.
K Stralla, I think it is plausible to attribute a forerunner of the Calvinist view to Augustine, although he seems to hold out a role for the will in accepting salvation. I don't think it is as accurate to attribute it to Aquinas, since what he was doing was reconciling Augustine and Aristotle.
"To believe in God is a sign of intellectual retardation."

Ah, and here we have a strikingly sophisticated contribution to the conversation from an atheist! How charming, how intellectually flexible, how historically acute these atheists can be.
Gene, i'm equally inflexible when it comes to feng shui, reflexology, and crystal healing. I also don't give a damn which of the Great Ones believe in which mummery, sham, fallacy, or such like. Aristotle was wrong on some pretty important things - though he was less wrong than most people. Still, if Aristotle had believe in witchcraft, I'd still consider it humbug.

Theism is intellectual rubbish, just as belief in fairies, unicorns, and witches is rubbish. It's ridiculous and absurd.

An intellectual theist is a contradiction in terms.

When I read Saint Augustine, and then read Luther, it is obvious to me that they are saying the same thing using different terminology. After all, Luther was of the order of Saint Augustine, and definately saw himself as advancing these old views which were slowly superceded by subsequent ecumenical councils. There is no question that Luther was in fact a more strident predestinarian than Calvin, and it was only after Luther's death that Philipp Melanchthon moderated the views of Luther. I agree with you that St. Thomas Aquinas takes a bit more study to see these views, but I challenge you to dig a little deeper.
"I also don't give a damn which of the Great Ones believe in which mummery, sham, fallacy, or such like."

Since atheism is a deliberate self-crippling of one's mental capacity arising from hubris, it's not surprising that you are unable to grasp my point here -- it's not that these are 'authorities', it's that they arrived at their theistic positions through exquisite philosophical reasoning -- especially in the case of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, who, after all, were stating conclusions so contrary to the surrounding culture that they got the first of the three killed! To refer to this as 'retarded' is... projection!

One more point that I will labor. You are correct that Augustine held out a role for the human will. Calvin (especially) and Luther also held this view. They all argued that *all* persons who are to be justified must willingly come to Christ. The sticky point is that they also held that without the quickening of the soul by God's grace, that no person will choose to come, because their spiritual man is dead in sin and trespasses.

Much of the confusion on this point comes from the title of Luther's opus "De Servo Arbitrio" (Of the Bondage of the Will). It was a counterpoint to Erasmus of Rotterdam, and its title has caused much confusion throughout history as to what Luther actually argued. I suggest that all who are interested in these arguments take another look at Luther's work. These are *brilliant* men doing intellectual battle, regardless of what some contemporary commentors seem to think.
"These are *brilliant* men doing intellectual battle..."

Wait, I thought they were just retards?!
Gene, when I meet an otherwise intelligent human being waxing eloquently on the benefits of feng shui, i have little choice but to conclude that he is a damn fool. The same applies to theism.

Your statement that "atheism is a deliberate self-crippling of one's mental capacity arising from hubris" is a typical example of theistic rubbish. It's pure mumbojumbo that one could just as well turn around by claiming "theism is a deliberate self-crippling of one's mental capacity arising from hubris'.

But, since theists really haven't much going for them intellectually, its not surprising you can't come up with anything better.

You may be a smart economist, but when it comes to religion, you are the intellectual equivalent of a Marxist.

Again, there is no intellectual difference between believing in faeries and deities.

I'm sorry, Gene, but your make me laugh.
Regarding 'brilliance' - brilliance has nothing to do with truth. Soviet universities and Harvard's department of economics employ many brilliant 'economists' who can dazzle you with their econometrics and mathematical skills. They are still damn fools.
On Socrates: not only was he an ass (which is why he got into trouble to begin with), he also held some pretty dumb ideas about the state and the moral relationship between the state and the individual. Sure, he was smart in many other ways, but he clearly was wrong here.

And all we know about Socrates comes from that proto-fascist Plato. I guess you feel confident that the guy who wrote The Republic was a swell fellow with good ideas.

Let's walk down to your logical presuppositions.

Why can we assume that the material universe is all that matters? Because you say so. Or is it perhaps like Steve Landsburg, who wants math to be self-evident, therefore it is so.

So if we accept your assumptions that by definition do not include God, then we can believe your logic that proves that God does not exist. How convenient.

How about this? Nothing is self-evident. All assumptions are chosen. God, the flying spaghetti monster, the material universe, etc..they are all choices. Belief in God is no less legitimate than any other assumption.

We all have to believe in something, so we throw God in our basket and you throw NotGod in yours. Having sat on the fence for a long time, let me assure you that it is stunningly beautiful on this side.
Brian, all beliefs are equally legitimate? Great. There is no difference between a positive and a negative proposition. Anything goes. We can just make shit up as we go, because the scientific method is no more legitimate than arbitrary faith. Excellent. And so we have arrived at post-modernism, the last refuge of the theist. When out of arguments, go pomo.

So, Keynesian economics is just as correct as Austrian economics. Brilliant. Being alive is just as good or bad as being dead, and up and down are just social conventions. Nice.

In short, just because an argument is absurd does not mean a theist won't use it if it can serve to protect faith.
It's really difficult to have an intelligent conversation with atheists. They think insults are a major part of logic.

My reading of Calvinism is that they are spread out over a spectrum from one of a great deal of human free will to one of none at all.
"Your statement that "atheism is a deliberate self-crippling of one's mental capacity arising from hubris" is a typical example of theistic rubbish. It's pure mumbojumbo that one could just as well turn around by claiming "theism is a deliberate self-crippling of one's mental capacity arising from hubris'."

Bingo! Take that reasoning and apply it to everything you've been saying in this thread.

Some examples:

- "To be an atheist is a sign of intellectual retardation"
- "You have to abandon reason to conclude that atheism is true"
- "Atheism is intellectual rubbish"

You see? Reversing the meaning of the statements hardly changes them at all in terms of helpfulness.

Don't be so derisive of post-modernism. Just because you are desperately clutching onto warn out dogmas, doesn't mean that your working model of the universe has no value. The materialist assumption gives a robust model of reality that serves us well. It is however, only a tool and should not be confused with reality itself.
Now, Adonaier, I had begun to suspect you were a sock puppet for some theist trying to embarrass atheists a while back -- after all, what genuine atheist would try to make the argument the theists are irrational entirely through name calling? Obviously absurd. And not intelligent atheist could have missed the gulf between Brian's argument that you can't argue ground beliefs (I happen to disagree, but that's beside my point) with the idea that all ideas are equivalent?

But when you wrote, 'And all we know about Socrates comes from that proto-fascist Plato,' you really gave the game away! After all, that's the very idea ('Plato was a proto-fascist') that Voegelin gave as an example of the depths of philosophical ignorance in our time! You obviously just copied it from Voegelin in an attempt to make atheists look bad! I sympathize with your motives, but not your means -- you really shouldn't use deceit to make atheists look bad.
Brian Shelley says: "However, I have had a number of experiences with Calvinists who believed that humans have no role in salvation whatsoever"

The view Brian exposes in the above statement is called "hyper-Calvinism" or fatalism, and has been condemned by virtually all major orthodox Reformed theologians. This view is simply not Christian, and anyone openly teaching this view in 16th Century Geneva or Wittenberg would have likely been branded a heretic. Unfortunately, religious liberty in the 16th century was not valued to the extent that it is today.

Some today freely hold this very unbiblical view of election, nearly like a badge of honor, but it is not Calvinism. If you don't believe me, then dive into a copy of the Institutes of the Christian Religion and see if you find Calvin teaching such a thing.
Andrew, that was exactly the point of the remark I made.
The burden of proof is (if you want to have an argument based on reason) on the side claiming something (i.e. that God exists). You cannot prove the non existence of something which is why i wouldn't bother in the case of God either.
Gene, there is no point in making the case against theism once more, since theism has been soundly defeated intellectually a long time ago - even before Keynes was defeated. We are not treading on new ground here.

Regarding Voegelin: I don't even know who he is - and can't be bothered to google him, either - and I don't care whether you or he say something about Plato. Your continuous pompous appeals to authority are lame.

To have believed in a deity two thousand years ago was forgivable. To believe in deities today is simply absurd.

Andrew - of course invectives can be turned around. Duh. That's why they are invectives and not arguments. Except, of course, that to this day theists have not been able to grasp that to make a POSITIVE assertion creates the burden of proof. All an atheist has to do is say "so, where's the evidence?". You don't have any.

Pomo and the God of Gaps is all theists have.
Adonaier, now that you've been revealed as a theist covertly trying to embarrass atheists, can't you drop the obnoxious schtick?
Adonaier is right! Theism was defeated back when I was so young that i cant remember who it was defeated by or what arguments they used, but it was whuppped real good for sure. Plus all you theists is homos, and goat humpers too!
"the God of Gaps is all theists have"

Come on, man, if you're going to mock atheists, you have to do better than that! Even the most ignorant of atheists knows that the criticism of 'god of the gaps' style thinking originated with theists who were criticizing a stupid type of argument for theism. No atheist could be as dumb as this guy you are playing!
Gene, yes, that old trope again: "you can't use that argument because I used it first". Uh, no. Sorry. I take a good argument where i can get one, and if theists are gracious enough to provide one, I'll run with it.

Gene, you're just an atheist trying to make theists look foolish. Your reference to long dead people of whose real ideas we know almost nothing, but who you assert as authorities, is a dead give-away.

What's next? Proof by assertion? Ah, yes - that's actually what you LOVE to do. Just assert the same dumb trope often and loudly enough, and maybe people will buy it. Just because you are a good economist does not mean that you can't be a damn fool in other fields.

Pick your poison:

One more thing, Gene: your claim that "And not intelligent atheist could have missed the gulf between Brian's argument that you can't argue ground beliefs (I happen to disagree, but that's beside my point) with the idea that all ideas are equivalent?" is meaningless since Brian has just asserted that this is EXACTLY what he meant.

So, maybe you should set your supporters straight first before moving on to harder targets?

You are still left with the sad fact that the only argument you have is word acrobatics a la 'ontology', the god of gaps (and that even theists noted the idiocy of that should say enough), and sheer assertion.

Theists still repeat talking points that have been debunked millenia ago. A bit like supporters of state intervention in the economy.

The funniest thing is that theists accuse atheists of hubris, when it is the theist who makes assertions that cannot be backed by evidence, while the atheist simply points this out. The theist claims to know what is likely unknowable, while the atheist is perfectly capable of shrugging with his shoulders and say "why is there something rather than nothing? Dunno." and neither do you. But you CLAIM to know. And THAT's funny.
Actually, all arguments from theists - in the long run - boil down to this:

(1) [Christian asks "stumper" question.]
(2) [Atheist answers question.]
(3) [A lapse of time]
(4) [Christian repeats question.]
(5) [Atheist repeats answer.]
(6) [A lapse of time]
(7) [Christian repeats question.]
(8) [Atheist repeats answer.]
(9) [A lapse of time]
(10) [Atheist leaves in frustration.]
(11) Atheist, you never answered my question.
(12) Therefore, God exists.

Indistinguishable from astrologers, homeopaths, feng shui believers, and worshippers of faeries.
Yeah, like Adonaier said, you theists is a bunch of peacocks who is in distinguishable from firemen, child molesters, sheng fui people, Chinese folks in general, fascists, homo paths, homos in general, postal workers, and people who lines up little cups along their mantlepieces.

"Actually, all arguments from theists - in the long run - boil down to this:"

That's very funny, Adoniear, because:
1) No one has asked you any questions;
2) You haven't given any answers; and
3) You show no inclination to ever go away, whether in frustration or otherwise.

(If you recall, there was a reflective, intelligent discussion of some theological issues going on, when you barged in and began hurling insults at the discussants... and now you seem to be threatening to leave 'in frustration'!)
A reflective, intelligent discussion on the finer points of theological issues is about as useful as a reflective, intelligent discussion on the finer points of central planning. It's fun to spoil the party every once in a while.

you say:

"That's very funny, Adoniear, because:"

It's Adonai - er. spelling is hard. Just funny that a theist would have problems with a word as basic as THAT.


1) No one has asked you any questions;


True. That's the problem with theists: they wouldn't know how to ask a sensible question.

2) You haven't given any answers; and


True. Can't be bothered right now. it's another trick I picked up from the theists. Makes debating so much easier, and less frustrating.

3) You show no inclination to ever go away, whether in frustration or otherwise.

And why? unless Bob asks me to, I see no reason why i should leave. Unless I get bored. Likely to happen soon.

I was kidding when I confirmed your explanation of pomo. It's not that all ideas all equivalent, it's that there is no ultimate truth (in the sense that our minds acquire it).

Because there is no ultimate truth, we have to realize that a materialist universe is simply a working model of reality. We lean on this model to flesh out logical contradictions.

Does Fung Shei work? Well, you have to assume that the materialist model does not cover all of reality, just like the God concept. Are the assumptions of Fung Shei internally consistent and well defined? Unlikely, but I don't know much about it. Finally, do the assumptions and conclusions provide utility for you?

My assumption here is that the Fung Shei is not internally consistent or well defined. My guess is that Fung Shei has poor "theology" so to speak. From what I've seen it provides no utility to me personally. On those grounds I reject it.
Great post, Bob, and thanks for referencing me. It's too bad the comment section became an unhelpful flamewar :-/

I've elaborated on the information theoretic issues in a new post, which managed to draw Landsburg out of the woodwork.
Now we're getting somewhere:

"It's not that all ideas all equivalent, it's that there is no ultimate truth (in the sense that our minds acquire it)."

Excellent. so, some things are unknowable. Right?

If you accept that, and please say if you do not, then would it not follow that those who make positive assertions about things that are unknowable are on much weaker ground intellectually than those who do not make positive assertions about what is unknowable?

Also, would you not agree that human logic is simply that: human logic, and that humans can only argue logically about things that relate to humans affairs, and that we may be unable to argue logically about things that do not follow human logic?

And would you not think that it is reasonable to assume that the cause of the UNIVERSE, of ALL THERE IS, EVER WAS, and EVERY WILL BE (as opposed to the current 'universe', which may just be one of many)is outside our realm of logic?

To think that we can adequately grasp with the language we happen to speak the nature of the universe when it is almost impossible to properly translate meaning from one language into another - and all these languages only refer to human affairs - is utterly absurd.

To pronounce confidently on the ultimate nature of the UNIVERSE - and that's what theists do - is the ultimate hubris and abandoning of all sensible bounds.

Which is WHY theology is probably the most absurd of all human endeavors.

The hubris, to use once more the word Gene likes to throw around, is with those who think they can grasp the UNIVERSE with their puny little pathetic human minds developed exclusively to deal with human affairs - and barely accomplish that.
To illustrate what i mean simply realize this: human language is completely inadequate to describe the inner working of atoms. No quantum physicist would seriously entertain to describe verbally what is happening on the quantum level.

And yet we think we can use human logic to understand the UNIVERSE?

To say that we cannot grasp ultimate truth with our minds is one thing. To confidently move from THAT to THEISM is not even consistent with human logic on the human level.

If the religious people were truly humble - which they are not - they would accept the impossibility of their position.

1) No one has asked you any questions;


True. That's the problem with theists: they wouldn't know how to ask a sensible question."

But last post, you said they ALWAYS asked questions.

"2) You haven't given any answers; and


True. Can't be bothered right now."

But last post you were complaining how you had to keep answering again and again!

" ===
3) You show no inclination to ever go away, whether in frustration or otherwise.

And why?"

So, Adonrear, rather than being the way these conversations ALWAYS go, it turns out that not one of your features holds true!
"Excellent. so, some things are unknowable. Right?"

No. Ultimately, nothing is knowable.
Gene, your inability to understand what is written is only matched by your inability to think sensibly about theology. I wrote

"Actually, all arguments from theists - in the long run - boil down to this"

But you conclude that I'm saying "[that this is] the way these conversations ALWAYS go"

You do this a lot in your 'debates' with others. Then, in addition to the god of gaps, ontology, and sheer assertion, you reminded me of the other favorite trope theists and socialists like to use to (not very) good effect: the strawman.

You really ain't much of a thinker outside of economics.
Oh, Brian...when you say that

"Ultimately, nothing is knowable", are you saying that the existence of a deity is unknowable? So why then do you seem to claim otherwise?
"You really ain't much of a thinker outside of economics."

Yeah, you know, I'm spending a lot of time in the NYU philosophy department, with some of the top philosophers in the world, but what really concerns me is not their evaluation of my ideas, but whether some 15-year-old whose arguments don't extend beyond name calling thinks I'm smart! Oh please say you don't mean it, Adumrear!

so I should be impressed that you spend time with people you consider top philosophers, and at a state run university to boot (always fun to witness how libertarians are so often living directly of the tax dough)? Last time I checked, Krugman spends a lot of time in the economics department of Princeton University, often in the company of people he considers top economists.

you really seem to have a high need for trying to impress people with rank and references to authority. That speaks more about your psychological makeup than anything else.

If you got fired from NYU, would that mean you were less impressive?

And - when will you stop living on taxpayers expense?

By the way, what are you working for a tax-payer funded university to begin with? Why not work for a privately financed institution? Isn't Loyola hiring? Can't you call up Wally Block and ask for an honest job? Not only not much of a thinker, but a hypocrite to boot.
and, Gene, any comments on your obvious falsification of what i had written, and your lame attempt at shooting down a strawman when talking to me? Anything? Can't hack it? Caught AGAIN in an intellectual dishonesty?
Is a deity unknowable? As I am, yes. That is why I have faith, not that I know. If I had to know that he existed, that whole faith thing would become internally inconsistent. Have I experienced things that make him as tangible as the things in front my eyes? A few times, and it's beautiful.
For those of you who were interested in our discussion here, you might want to see Bernard Williams essay "Moral Luck," to see a modern, analytical philosopher take a "Calvinist perspective" against his more "salvation by works" oriented brethern.
Ah, Gene - and I thought you had abandoned our little mud slinging festival. So you are still here. Well, then, any interest in explaining why you had to resort to deliberate distortions to make your weak points? Hm?

Of course not. As i have said before, outside economics, you ain't much of a thinker.
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