An A-Z of Unanswered Objections to Christianity: F. Superhuman intelligences: angels, demons and aliens

Left: The Annunciation by Henry Ossawa Tanner (1898). Philadelphia Museum of Art. Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

Right: Diorama of a Grey extra-terrestrial by G. W. Dodson, Roswell UFO Museum, Roswell, New Mexico, USA. Image courtesy of mr_t_77 from WV, USA and Wikipedia.

Let me begin with a confession. Temperamentally, I’m very much disposed to believing in angels – and aliens too, for that matter. I would certainly echo Hamlet’s famous saying, “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” The notion that human beings are the most intelligent creatures in existence strikes me as a monstrous vanity.

Now, I don’t claim to know what other kinds of intelligences exist in our cosmos. But one thing I do know: both angels and aliens pose genuine conundrums for would-be defenders of the Christian faith. In a nutshell:
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An A-Z of Unanswered Objections to Christianity: H. Human Origins

[For a brief explanation of my “An A-Z of Unanswered Objections to Christianity” series, and for the skeptical tone of this article, please see here. I’m starting my A-Z series with the letter H, and I’ll be zipping around the alphabet, in the coming weeks.]

In this article, I take aim at the Christian teaching that there was a special moment in history at which humans, who were made in the image of God, came into existence, and that a sharp line can be drawn between man and beast. I argue that on purely scientific grounds, it can be shown that such a view is highly unlikely. If the scientific arguments I put forward here are correct, then Christianity is in very big trouble.

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An A-Z of Unanswered Objections to Christianity (A new series on the crisis in apologetics)

The sinking of the Titanic, by Willy Stöwer, 1912.

During the past 25 years, there has been a dramatic resurgence in Christian apologetics, as many talented individuals have written books and given public speeches in defense of the Christian faith. Some of these people have even gone so far as to claim that we are now living in the Golden Age of Christian apologetics (see here, here and here). More books are being published than ever before, and the New Atheist movement, which appeared so powerful ten years ago, has largely fizzled out. The future looks good – or does it?

In this series, I’m going to explain in detail why I believe this rosy view is utterly mistaken, and why Christians are actually facing a thirty-year winter. Continue reading

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Freedom, Flossing and Fake history: A Response to Robert Sapolsky (and a coronavirus update from Japan)

Yesterday afternoon, acting on a recommendation by evolutionary biologist Jerry Coyne, I sat down and listened to a 43-minute Scientific American podcast featuring Stanford biology professor and hard determinist Robert Sapolsky being interviewed by Robert Mirsky, on the topic, “Your brain, free will and the law.” Suffice to say that I was underwhelmed. I had high expectations, as Professor Sapolsky is not only a well-published author (whose most recent work is Behave: The Biology of Humans at our Best and Worst), but also a professor of biological sciences, neurology and neurological sciences at Stanford University and a research associate at the National Museums of Kenya. I was both disappointed and amused with what I heard: disappointed with the complete absence of any rigorous argument against the existence of free will, and amused by the fake history related by Sapolsky, in the course of his interview with Robert Mirsky. By the way, for those readers who are looking for a critique of the doctrine of free will that’s both hard-hitting and substantive, I’d recommend the online writings of physicist Sabine Hossenfelder – in particular, her articles, How to live without free will, Free will is dead, let’s bury it and The Free Will Function: Free will from the perspective of a particle physicist (but see also the conclusion to her prize-winning 2018 essay, The Case for Strong Emergence, in which she acknowledges a gap in her argument). [Full disclosure here: I have previously critiqued Dr. Hossenfelder’s arguments against free will, and although I continue to find her case less than convincing, I would now acknowledge her general point that top-down causation alone won’t rescue free will.]

Back to Sapolsky. Since he’s a professor of biology, neurology and neurosurgery, I had hoped that he would at least attempt to summarize the biological case against free will, but he didn’t. He alluded to experiments by Benjamin Libet, noted in passing that there were multiple interpretations of these experiments, and then proceeded to his central argument: the “shrinking pie” argument, which relied on a very heavy dollop of fake history. In a nutshell: science has already shown that we are not responsible for X, Y and Z, so in time, science will show that we are not responsible for any of our actions. (By the way, Sapolsky is a hard determinist, who has no time for compatibilism and who eschews any notions of personal responsibility for our actions: as he puts it in his podcast, “We have no control, ultimately, over anything we do… We have no agency, and the criminal justice system does not make any sense at all.”)

So, what’s wrong with the “shrinking pie” argument? Everything.
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Newman vs. Locke on Assent

Greetings from Japan! For those who may have been wondering, super-typhoon Hagibis caused no damage to my home, and my family is safe and sound. Around Japan, however, over 430,000 households are currently without electricity, including 148,000 in my prefecture. But tomorrow is another day, and Japan is an amazingly resilient country. People who’d like to know more are welcome to check out this Website.

Today’s post relates to an excellent one-hour movie on John Henry Newman (1801-1890), the Catholic Church’s newest saint (his canonization ceremony is on Sunday, October 13). The movie was created by Catholic theologian and author Bishop Robert Barron, founder of the Catholic ministerial organization Word on Fire. The movie, titled St. John Henry Newman: The Convert, may be viewed online here, but only until October 31. It is very professionally put together: the brilliant cinematography, combined with the uplifting music and Bishop Barron’s erudite narration, makes for thoroughly enjoyable viewing. The first half-hour deals with Newman’s life. at 30:54, Bishop Barron discusses Newman’s classic work, The Development of Christian Doctrine, elucidating its insights with limpid clarity in a segment which is well worth watching. At 40:00, the discussion switches to another work of Newman’s: The Idea of a University.

It has been a long time since my last post on this site. One reason for that is that I’ve been proofreading a forthcoming book (not by me), about which I shall say no more for now. Another reason is that I’ve been planning a talk which I hope to put up on Youtube next year. This is something I’ve never done before, so any technical, logistical and promotional advice would be greatly appreciated.

But the most interesting part for visitors to The Skeptical Zone, begins at 47:15, and relates to Newman’s masterpiece, The Grammar of Assent. In this work, Newman criticized the fixation philosophers have with the idea of certitude. Certitude, he argued, is the wrong starting point; the right starting point is assent. Bishop Barron, in his commentary, carefully explains the distinction Newman drew between the notional assent we give to abstract propositions (the example Barron gives is the proposition that slavery is wrong), and the real assent we give to concrete things (for example, that the reality of slavery, which I see here before me, is evil). Real assent affects the way we act and behave. Newman maintained that the ground of real assent in matters of religion is conscience, which he defined as “a certain keen sensibility, pleasant or painful … attendant on certain of our actions, which in consequence we call right or wrong”. Newman was struck by the fact that conscience is often likened to a voice. Through it we know that we please or offend a Person by our acts – in Newman’s words, “a Judge, holy, just, powerful, all-seeing.” The next segment, starting at 51:32 and lasting about four minutes, is the subject of this post: it relates to the assent which we give to a proposition. From here on, I’ll quote Bishop Barron’s own words, which I have transcribed below.

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What do we know about Jesus’ burial?

In his final reply to my review of Michael Alter’s book, The Resurrection: A Critical Inquiry, Professor McGrew takes issue with my claim that the story of Jesus’ burial is improbable at multiple points, accusing me of doing a priori history, of relying on doubtful assertions by Biblical scholars, of making too much of the argument from silence” (which he rejects in toto), of finding contradictions between the Gospel burial accounts where none exist, and of arrogantly alleging that the Gospel authors, who were far closer to the facts than we are today, must have fabricated details in their accounts, simply because they clash with our contemporary interpretation of Jewish law at that time. Am I guilty as charged? Or is it Professor McGrew whose understanding of history is faulty?

While reading Professor McGrew’s reply, it immediately struck me that there was one thing that he didn’t do: namely, quote from contemporary Biblical scholars who support his position. That’s because there are very few Biblical scholars who would agree with McGrew’s claim that the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ burial are internally consistent, free from contradictions, and free from historical inaccuracies. With the exception of Ehrman’s contentious claim (which I defended, but did not endorse) that Jesus’ body was probably left to hang on the Cross for several days before being dumped in a burial pit, all of the other assertions made in my review regarding Jesus’ burial fall squarely within the mainstream of Biblical scholarship. In setting himself in opposition to the conclusions reached in my review, Professor McGrew (who is a philosopher, not a historian) is arraying himself against an entire field of scholarship.

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The elephant in front of the cross

In a recent post over at What’s Wrong With the World, Professor Timothy McGrew asks, Did Jesus’ Mother and the Beloved Disciple Stand at the Foot of the Cross? Professor McGrew’s answer is a decisive yes. Readers will recall that last year, in a lengthy review of Michael Alter’s book, The Resurrection: A Critical Inquiry, I summarized the reasons for rejecting the historicity of this episode in John’s Gospel (see here for the arguments I presented). My arguments were taken directly from Alter’s book – a book which Professor McGrew has not deigned to read. Relying instead on the brief summary contained in my post, he roundly declares that he finds these arguments unconvincing and unsubstantiated. Had he consulted Alter’s book, however, he would have found scholarly citations in abundance, as well as the answers to some of the questions he poses in his post.

In this post, I intend to address and rebut Professor McGrew’s objections, and to supply further documentation to back up the claims I made previously. But before I continue, let me begin with the candid admission that I may be wrong, in casting doubt on the historicity of John’s account of Jesus’ mother and the beloved disciple standing near the foot of the cross. I have done a lot of digging and delving on the subject during the past couple of weeks, and I acknowledge that the issue is not as cut-and-dried as I had previously believed. Nevertheless, if I were a betting man, I’d still bet against the episode’s ever having happened, for reasons I’ll explain below. As I pointed out in my previous reply to McGrew, my chief concern is with those claims which a fair-minded historian would consider probable, when judging matters on purely historical grounds. Hence the title of my last post: Why there probably wasn’t a guard at Jesus’ tomb.

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Why there probably wasn’t a guard at Jesus’ tomb

Christian apologist Professor Tim McGrew recently defended the historicity of Matthew’s account of the guard at the tomb, in a post put up by his wife, Dr. Lydia McGrew. Professor McGrew’s post was written in response to a challenge he issued to me, in response to my (generally positive) review of Michael Alter’s book, The Resurrection: A Critical Inquiry (2015), which was published at The Skeptical Zone last year. Not wishing to address the bulk of Alter’s arguments, which he considered unconvincing, Professor McGrew challenged me to narrow the focus of our discussion, by listing three of Alter’s arguments which I had found particularly convincing. The first topic on my list which Professor McGrew chose to address was the question: was there a guard at Jesus’ tomb? However, it turns out that McGrew’s argument for the historicity of Matthew’s story of the guard is based on faulty math – a surprising flaw, coming from a man who has written extensively on the subject of Bayes’ Theorem and its role in Christian apologetics. Before we have a look at the math, though, I have a special announcement: Michael Alter himself has decided to weigh in on the controversy, and I have included his remarks in this post.

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How should TSZ handle racism and hate speech?

Elizabeth Liddle, who founded this Website, has recently declared that racist remarks on TSZ should be deleted. Moderator Alan Fox would like to additionally ban hate speech, incitement to violence, and discrimination, where these are proscribed by law. However, at the present time, nothing in the Rules of this Website prohibits racism or hate speech. And how does one define these terms, anyway? In this short post, I’d like to offer a few tentative proposals.

It seems to me that a rule that bans racism alone would be too arbitrary. Why ban racism but not sexism, ageism, ableism, homophobia or transphobia?

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Aphrodite’s head: Eight questions for Douglas Axe

Over at Evolution News, Dr. Douglas Axe argues that merely by using very simple math, we can be absolutely certain that life was designed: it’s an inescapable conclusion. To illustrate his case, he uses the example of a rugged block of marble being transformed by natural weather processes into a statue of a human being. Everyone would agree that this simply can’t happen. And our conclusion wouldn’t change, even if we (i) generously allowed lots and lots of time for the statue to form; (ii) let each body part have a (discrete or continuous) range of permitted forms, or shapes, instead of just one permitted shape; (iii) relaxed the requirement that all body parts have to form simultaneously or in sync, and allowed the different parts of the statue to form at their own different rates; and (iv) removed the requirement that the different parts have to each form independently of one another, and allowed the formation of one part of the statue to influence that of another part.

In his post, Axe rhetorically asks: if we’re so sure that a rugged block of marble could never be transformed by the weather into a human statue, then aren’t we equally entitled to conclude that “blind natural causes” could never have “converted primitive bacterial life into oaks and ostriches and orangutans”? In each case, argues Axe, the underlying logic is the same: when calculating the probability of a scenario which requires many unlikely things to happen, small fractions multiplied by the dozens always result in exceedingly small fractions, and an event which is fantastically improbable can safely be regarded as physically impossible.

In an attempt to persuade Dr. Axe that his logic is faulty on several grounds, I’d like to put eight questions to Dr. Axe, and I sincerely hope that he will be gracious enough to reply.

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Fact vs. Opinion: A Distinction without a Difference?

My interest was recently piqued by an article in The Atlantic (October 23, 2018) claiming that “Americans over 50 are worse than younger people at telling facts from opinions, according to a new study by Pew Research Center.” Author Alexis Madrigal summarizes the results of the study: “Given 10 statements, five each of fact and opinion, younger Americans correctly identified both the facts and the opinions at higher rates than older Americans did.” But is the fact vs. opinion dichotomy a viable one? Philosopher John Corvino thinks not. In a hard-hitting article titled, The Fact/Opinion Distinction (The Philosophers’ Magazine, 4 March 2015), he surveys several attempts to elucidate the distinction, and concludes that they all fail.

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Resurrection redux II

In this post, I’d like to comment on some issues that have been raised by readers over at Professor Joshua Swamidass’s Peaceful Science forum, in response to my article on Michael Alter’s book, The Resurrection: A Critical Inquiry, which convincingly demolishes Resurrection apologetics. But before I do that, I’d like to discuss the Christine Ford case, and its relevance to the evidence for the Resurrection.

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Michael Alter’s bombshell demolishes Christian apologists’ case for the Resurrection

It is not often that I encounter a book which forces me to undergo a fundamental rethink on a vital issue. Michael Alter’s The Resurrection: A Critical Inquiry is one such book. The issue it addresses is whether the New Testament provides good evidence for Jesus’ Resurrection from the dead. Prior to reading Michael Alter’s book, I believed that a Christian could make a strong case for Jesus’ having been raised from the dead, on purely historical grounds. After reading the book, I would no longer espouse this view. Alter has convincingly demolished Christian apologists’ case for the Resurrection – and he’s got another book coming out soon, which is even more hard-hitting than his first one, judging from the excerpts which I’ve read.

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Climate change killed the aliens and will kill us too: a case study in GIGO

Ever wondered why we haven’t met any aliens yet? Live Science Senior Editor Brandon Specktor thinks he knows the answer: technologically induced climate change (caused by excessive energy use) may have killed them all off, and it’ll kill us off too, if we don’t get our act together real fast and switch to sustainable sources of energy. In an eye-catching article titled, Climate Change Killed the Aliens, and It Will Probably Kill Us Too, New Simulation Suggests (Live Science, June 6, 2018), Specktor breathlessly reports on the findings of a new study by Adam Frank et al., titled, The Anthropocene Generalized: Evolution of Exo-Civilizations and Their Planetary Feedback (Astrobiology, Vol. 18. No. 5, published online May 1, 2018, https://doi.org/10.1089/ast.2017.1671). Dr. Adam Frank is Professor of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Rochester, New York.

Spektor’s summary of the study’s findings is sobering:

The results, as you might expect, were generally pretty grim. Of four common “trajectories” for energy-intense civilizations, three ended in apocalypse. The fourth scenario — a path that involved converting the whole alien society to sustainable sources of energy — worked only when civilizations recognized the damage they were doing to the planet, and acted in the right away.

“The last scenario is the most frightening,” [leading study author Adam] Frank said. “Even if you did the right thing, if you waited too long, you could still have your population collapse.”

But a model is only as good as the foundation upon which it is built. And it turns out that Frank’s model is built on a foundation of sand.
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If God expects us to pray for others, does that make Him a monster?

Scrolling through some recent comments, my attention was caught by this one, posted by keiths:

Besides not panning out scientifically, intercessory prayer doesn’t even make theological sense.

An old OP on the topic:

The (il)logic of intercessory prayer

So I checked out keiths’s OP, which describes the hypothetical case of a woman named Mary, suffering from a terminal illness, whose friends decide to pray for her. Keiths cuts to the chase:
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Feser’s fourth proof and the mystery of existence

If the Aristotelian argument for a purely actual Being (which I critiqued in my previous post) is the backbone of Feser’s five proofs of God’s existence, the Thomistic proof is the beating heart, as it gets to the very core of what God is: Pure Existence itself, according to philosophy Professor Edward Feser. Today, I’m going to argue that this notion of God is utterly nonsensical. But it is not merely the argument’s conclusion which is flawed: the Thomistic proof also rests on shaky foundations, as the real distinction it posits between a finite thing’s essence and its existence is a highly dubious one: the main argument cited in support of it actually points to a matter-form distinction, instead. The second argument for a real distinction between a thing’s essence and its existence establishes nothing of the sort: all it shows is that whatever causes a thing to have existence also causes the nature or essence of that thing. A third argument for the essence-existence distinction illicitly assumes that the term “existence” names a single perfection, which is inherently simple and unlimited.

In addition, Feser’s Thomistic proof trades on an equivocation between the notion of a Being whose essence is identical to its own existence and that of a Being whose essence is Pure Existence – an equivocation which is grounded in the background metaphysical assumption that the concept of “existence” is a simple and unlimited one. In reality, as I shall explain below, the concept of “existence” is neither simple nor complex, neither limited nor unlimited, but rather, indefinite – which is one reason why the attempt to characterize God as Pure Existence, or Being itself, is doomed at the outset. Finally, any attempt to construe God as some sort of activity – whether it be Pure Existence, Pure Actuality, or Thought thinking Itself, or Love loving Himself – is radically mistaken, either because it reifies an abstraction (Existence exists, Actuality acts) or because it generates an infinite regress (Love loves love loves love…). In plain English: We need to think of God first and foremost as a noun, and not merely as a verb – in other words, as an Agent, rather than simply as an unlimited act of thought or love or “be-ing.”

Despite its flawed conception of God, Feser’s Thomistic proof is not without its merits: Continue reading

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Flawed logic and bad mereology: why Feser’s first two proofs fail

In today’s post, I’m going to chop down two of Professor Feser’s proofs for God’s existence at the roots: namely, his first proof (in which Feser argues for the existence of a purely actual Being) and his second proof (in which he endeavors to show that an absolutely simple Being exists). Among Feser’s five proofs, his first proof has a special preeminence, as Feser uses it to deduce other attributes of the purely actual Being – its unity, immutability, eternity, immateriality, incorporeality, perfection, goodness, omnipotence and omniscience – which, taken together, warrant it being called “God.” Feser’s second, third, fourth and fifth proofs borrow from the arguments developed in Feser’s first proof, when deducing these same attributes, so if it turns out that the arguments Feser puts forward for these attributes rest on flawed assumptions (as I’ll show they do), then all five of Feser’s proofs of God will be flawed, in their conclusions at least.

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Has Feser proved that God is almighty, all-knowing, good, capable of free choice and loving?

In this post, I’ll be looking at chapter 6 of Dr. Edward Feser’s book, Five Proofs of the Existence of God, which deals with the nature of God, and I’ll be evaluating his arguments which purport to show that God is omnipotent, omniscient, good, capable of free choice and loving. I decided to begin by examining these “personal” attributes, because they’re the ones that really interest most people. Without these Divine attributes, any argument establishing that there exists an uncaused, fully actualized, necessary being, devoid of parts, whose essence is identical with its own act of existence could not be fairly called an argument for the existence of God, as such: it’s merely an argument for an Uncaused Cause.

My aim here is to evaluate Dr. Feser’s arguments in chapter 6, critically but fairly, in order to establish what they can tell us about God’s personal attributes, assuming that there exists an Uncaused Cause of the sort argued for by Feser in chapters 1 to 5 of his book. As we’ll see, Feser’s arguments for a personal Deity don’t prove much. All they establish is the following: (a) that everything depends on the Uncaused Cause, but not that it is capable of doing absolutely anything (or even anything which is consistent with its nature); (b) that universals exist in the Mind of the Uncaused Cause (a conclusion Feser argues for in chapter 3), but not that it actually knows any true propositions, let alone all true propositions; (c) that the Uncaused Cause is one-of-a-kind and free from defects, but not that it is benevolently disposed towards us; (d) that the Uncaused Cause is self-fulfilled and complete as a Being, but not that it is capable of free choice; and (e) that the Uncaused Cause brings about whatever is necessary for things to exist – whether it does so intentionally is another matter, however – but not that it cares about what happens to those things in the future, let alone that it cares about our future. After reviewing each section, I’ll discuss how Feser’s arguments could be strengthened, to make them more powerful. In addition, I’m going to throw in a bonus gift: I intend to show that Feser’s strong doctrine of the Purely Actual Actualizer (which he argues for in chapter 1) is false and untenable, before arguing that there is no need for classical theists to hold it: all they need to maintain is that God’s existence involves no actualization of potential (even if His activities do).

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