Can we trust reason if God doesn’t exist?

Photo: Getty Images/DiatoZen
Photo: Getty Images/DiatoZen

I respond to the assertion that if the Christian god does not exist we cannot trust our own reasoning.

C.S. Lewis and other Christian apologists often formulate arguments such that an atheist has no grounds to trust their own reasoning faculties if it is the case that the universe were not designed by the Christian god. C.S. Lewis, in his book The Case for Christianity, explains,

“Supposing there was no intelligence behind the universe, no creative mind. In that case, nobody designed my brain for the purpose of thinking. It is merely that when the atoms inside my skull happen, for physical or chemical reasons, to arrange themselves in a certain way, that gives me, as a by-product, the sensation I call thought. But is so, how can I trust my own thinking to be true? […] But if I can’t trust my own thinking, of course I can’t trust the arguments leading to Atheism, and therefore have no reason to be an Atheist or anything else. Unless I believe in God, I cannot believe in thought: so I can never use thought to disbelieve in God” (Lewis, 32).

Lewis’ reasoning has several flaws. First, Lewis assumes that we cannot believe our reasoning faculties are reliable/trustworthy if it is the case that random processes (rather than a supreme intelligence) lead to thought. Why is this the case? Lewis merely, at least in this passage, only asserts that random processes do not provide justification for believing our thought faculties are available – that thought processes can only be thought of as reliable if a supreme intelligence had created them.

The process by which thought came to exist, I think, has no bearing on whether thought processes can be thought of as reliable, but rather looking at perhaps the results and analyzing the accuracy (in most cases) of said thought processes should lead to whether we can be justified in believing our thought processes are reliable.

As I explained in a piece refuting presuppositional apologetics, believing induction — that the future will resemble the past given sufficient trials or experiences — is reliable…and the circularity of induction is not only a problem for atheists, but also a problem for theists which — in order to start reasoning at all — ought to be believed lest we live reckless, destructive lives.

We can distrust out own thinking when we have good reasons to, but in tasks of everyday life we have very good reason to trust our thinking. We believe that our toothbrushes are not going to randomly fly out of our hands or harm us in some way. We understand that when we pour water from a pitcher water will empty into a glass and not spill. Because of tremendous experience with mundane life tasks (and even more complex tasks) we have good grounds to trust our reasoning; our thought processes are constantly vindicated when we are able to properly function as human beings. God, then, need not enter into explanations about justification for reasoning.phillyflight

Another flaw in Lewis’ piece surrounds ‘arguments for atheism’ – as if disbelief in Christian theology is only justified if atheists can raise successful counter-arguments. While several good counter-arguments exist to cast significant doubt upon Christian belief (problem of natural suffering; incompatibility between free will and divine foreknowledge; similar epistemological methods leading to different conclusions about religious beliefs…) , it is ultimately the case that without Christians advancing good arguments for Christian belief there is no good reason to suggest Christian belief is true [the burden of proof is on the Christian who makes a positive claim].

Third, why does Lewis privilege the Christian god over competing religious claims; that is, why assume that the creator of the universe is the Christian god? Lewis’ argumentation, if we accept it for sake of argument, can only lead someone to believe a creative intelligence which created the universe exists or existed. After all, the Christian god is not the only possible ‘greatest conceivable being.’

Finally, Lewis’ argument just reeks of ‘God of the gaps’ or ‘mystery therefore magic‘ reasoning. Because the atheist can’t give an accounting for thought processes without assuming the Christian god exists, Lewis asserts, the Christian god must exist. Centuries ago (and even in decades past) theists almost certainly have used this line of reasoning with other natural phenomena such as earthquakes, diseases, lightning, etc.; because there appeared to be no explanation for x phenomenon God must exist – only an explanation appealing to God is viable since no good competing explanations exist.

Even if the atheist has no accounting for reasoning (or any other phenomena), the theist is not justified in asserting that because something can’t be explained one has good reason to suggest the Christian god exists. The atheist can say ‘I don’t know.’ How ought one bridge the gap from ‘I don’t know’ to the Christian god did it…and the story of the resurrection, Holy Trinity, various miracles, a global flood, etc. are also true by the way.

A more modern version of Lewis’ argument is recast by Christian philosopher Alvin Plantinga. Watch Plantinga discuss his evolutionary argument against naturalism with atheist philosopher Stephen Law below.

As always, feel free to comment below.


Prayer and the false cause fallacy

Three banners hang on 5/12/14
Three banners hang on 5/12/14

Just because you prayed for something to happen and later saw a result does not mean prayer was responsible.

Appeals to intercessory prayer — a request to God from one person aiming to better another’s life — as evidence of God existing are spectacularly weak, plagued by a fundamental error in informal logic known as the false cause fallacy.

The false cause fallacy occurs when one supposes that because one action (an initial action) had taken place before another (a result), the initial action must be the cause of the result [when this is actually not the case].

A Christian, for instance, may pray to God for a person to recover from a sickness. Upon recovery, the Christian may conclude that prayer was responsible for the recovery while falsely attributing prayer to the recovery. The fact that prayer alone happened before the recovery does not necessitate that prayer had caused the recovery; one would have to provide a very good explanation for why prayer had led to the recovery.

Humans are apt to find many ‘patterns’ among random events and draw conclusions when believing links between events exist. Some slot machine players, for instance, are especially superstitious and — although there is no good evidence to suggest certain superstitions are true (and plenty of evidence to suggest they are not) — believe that events wholly unrelated to a long or short-term outcome are responsible for winnings.

For instance, some slot machine players believe that hitting a button at a faster pace will lead to a better result (not just more spins per hour). Some slot machine players will believe that removing a player’s card, switching machines at certain frequencies, or rubbing a machine will lead to better results.

A slot machine player might, immediately following rubbing a machine (or even long after doing so) may believe that machine-rubbing was responsible for the positive outcome when it is actually the case that over the long-run — regardless of any rubbing — slot machines have random algorithms and pay schedules which lead to, in almost all cases except for rare lucrative casino promotions, the casino having an edge over slot players.

The Christian who believes that a prayer lead to recovery from sickness behaves similarly to the slot player who believes machine-rubbing lead to a jackpot winning; both detect patterns and wrongly attribute an initial action to an outcomes when there is no good reason to do so.

The prayerful Christian, too, uses similar thought processes as adherents to other religions; many religious individuals believe their prayers lead to divine intercession. Can a thought process be considered justified if similar thought processes lead to different results? The Muslims, Hindus, and Christians who claim that prayers lead to positive results cannot simply all be right…but they could all be wrong. Is the Christian believes the Muslim is wrong about Muslim appeals to prayer, and they both use a similar thought process, why should the Christian appeal be privileged?

As always, feel free to comment below.

More pieces on prayer — particularly in light of the ‘free will defense’ Christians often use to explain why God doesn’t intervene in human affairs to stop ‘moral evil’ — may be upcoming.

My thoughts on God’s Not Dead film

The movie ‘God’s Not Dead’ portrays non-Christians as monsters and does a disservice to Christians.

I must admit that I missed the hype surrounding the movie ‘God’s Not Dead‘ when it had released in theaters. Today, after becoming aware that the movie released on DVD, I rented the film and took copious notes planning to — as an atheist — combat the negative stereotypes I knew were on display in this film.

Almost every identified non-Christian in the film including a businessman, a philosophy professor, a reporter, and a Muslim father is portrayed as a monster.

An atheistic businessman fails to provide directions to his significant other — following her GPS being stolen — saying ‘what is in it for me,’ calls his significant other ‘not just another pretty face,’ says — upon finding his significant other developed cancer — ‘can this wait until tomorrow’ showing a complete disregard for her well-being in addition to saying ‘you are changing our [relationship] agreement and breaking the deal.’ The businessman ridicules love saying that it is overused and implies that people who love need to ‘grow up.’ He also repeatedly ridicules an elderly woman diagnosed with dementia (both in and not in her presence) and explains that seeing her is a waste of time.

An atheistic philosophy professor takes delight in failing his Christian students, ridicules his Christian students in front of others, assigns a disproportionate amount of homework to his Christian students, tells a Christian student that he plans to prevent him from attaining a pre-law degree, has a romantic relationship with a current students, fails to acknowledge others’ feelings of grief, implies that atheists cannot have relationships with Christians, repeatedly ridicules his girlfriend in front of others, says life is “full of nothing,” and shows almost every sign of being closed-minded.

An atheistic reporter is unprofessional, asks loaded questions, ridicules people during her interviews, claims that people are offended because Christians pray, and has no answer for where she derives hope in her life.

A Muslim father abuses his daughter and kicks her out of his house — not before slapping her in the face two times — because she listens to Bible readings.

Christians too, although they are often portrayed as heroic throughout the movie, don’t receive a great shake. When a philosophy professor is stricken by a vehicle and is dying, one person suggests someone call an ambulance, but almost no attention besides this suggestion (no one on screen used a cell phone although, at various other parts in the movie, cell phones are shown) is paid to physical well-being. Instead, the mission is to convert — as if belief in the Christian god is like a lightswitch which could be turned on and off — a dying person and a scene of death is regaled as a “gift,” “God’s mercy,” “a cause for celebration” (because a conversion happened…although someone died), and “joy” (because someone was said to have entered Heaven.”

Christians advance extremely poor arguments and assertions throughout the movie: ‘no one can disprove God exists’ (swapping burden of proof, appeal to ignorance), ‘science is wrong [we can’t trust scientists because ideas were revised]’ (ignoring the fact that belief revision is a strength and a sign of progress rather than a weakness), ‘there is no credible explanation for the universe without appeals to god’ (another appeal to ignorance – just because something is unexplained does not mean we can assert God did it), ‘if the universe created you who created the universe’ (begging the question – one is assuming God created the universe while arguing for such a claim), appeals to [inappropriate] authority (rejecting claims Stephen Hawking — a non-philosopher — makes about philosophy does not undermine philosophy or arguments against theism), and so much more…

The atheistic philosophy professor — called an expert in his discipline by his peers — says he hates God (rather than saying, as the Christian later did, that he doesn’t hate God but rather doesn’t believe God exists because the reasons Christians provide are inadequate) and does not even provide an accurate definition of atheism (he says atheism is the belief that there is no god).

The movie ends, saying the film was inspired by stories of Christians being condemned because of their faith, and generally cast Christians as persecuted individuals. This movie, cast as a drama, is more accurately thought of as a fantasy – that Christians are continually persecuted for their religious beliefs in America (when this is actually not the case) and atheists are monsters.

Might the Christian viewers, failing to be critical of themes presented in the movie, walk away thinking that they may cannot and should not have loving relationships with atheists – people who, in the movie, severely mistreat their partners? The movie even references the Bible verse urging believers to not be “unequally yoked” with dark and wicked unbelievers.

Sadly, Christians possess negative stereotypes about atheists — many of them on display in this film — and these may translate to real-world situations (beliefs do impact actions after all). This film ironically vindicates atheists’ claims that religion is often harmful because it warps moral priorities and causes division.

Many atheists — contrary to the message of ‘God’s Not Dead’ — can and do live meaningful, hopeful, positive, healthy, thoughtful, motivated lives. Atheists can and do have love for others, maintain positive relationships, express empathy, help others in need, treat people with fairness regardless of their religious beliefs, and examine others’ beliefs with philosophical rigor.

If you’re interested in more worthwhile philosophical discussion than that which was on display in the movie, please consider reading David Hume’s classic “Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion” (not to be confused with the non-existent piece ‘Problem of Induction’) and watching my debates and discussions with Christians who presented themselves far better than those in this movie. I can continue with my thoughts, but would rather not surpass 1000 words.

Consider also reading commentary on this film authored by Dr. David Kyle Johnson.

As always, feel free to comment below.

Pharrell Williams is un’happy’ about atheists

Pharrell Williams Performs At Ziggodome In Amsterdam
Pharrell Williams Performs At Ziggodome In Amsterdam By: Paul Bergen

Singer Pharrell Williams has recently made several uninformed comments about atheists and demonstrated a lack of intellectual rigor in basic philosophical argumentation.

Pharrell Williams, perhaps most famously tied to his hit song ‘Happy,’ has spoken with a UK magazine about atheists, his supernatural beliefs, and more topics. The Christian Post particularly reports on Williams’ statements on matters of religious belief and atheists quoting Williams saying, “How do you see the stars and think there is nothing else out there? It’s so incredibly arrogant and pompous. It’s amazing that there are people who really believe that. It’s unbelievable.” Williams’ argument is similar to ‘god of the gaps’ argumentation or, as Dr. David Kyle Johnson calls it, ‘mystery therefore magic.’

Just because a phenomenon is unexplained or not sufficiently understood does not mean that it is proper to suggest God is responsible. Why privilege the god explanation, anyway, particularly inserting a Christian god into the equation? Why not instead say, ‘I do not know?’

At best, Williams’ argument could be rephrased to a more sophisticated cosmological argument for God’s existence, but even then the argument has significant problems as I have explained as a follow-up to my 2013 debate with a Christian pastor Michael Brewster. If everything that exists must have an explanation, would not God need an explanation? Can we extrapolate our causal reasoning on what we have experience with here on earth to events we have no experience with (creation of universes) at a cosmological or quantum level? Can a simple ‘there has to be a cause’ lead to supposed truths within Christian belief?

Reverend Brewster and I pose following our August 31 debate.
Reverend Brewster and I pose following our August 31 debate.

Perhaps it is not the atheist who is arrogant in saying ‘I reject Christian belief because there is no good reason, argument, or evidence to support its supernatural claims,’ but rather the Christian who is arrogant when claiming they are especially loved by the creator of the universe, saying they know what the creator of the universe wants for them, claiming to have trivial prayers answered while people — their prayers unanswered — die of malnutrition and natural disasters, and claiming have ongoing communication with the creator of the universe. I am not a fan of advancing these claims, but note so only to point that the assertion of arrogance can cut both ways.

Williams also casts doubt as something not to be prized saying, “Every person who doubts is another person unconverted to better ways of thinking.” Doubt, rather than something to be lamented, is something to be prized…and happens to be antithetical to arrogance; the person who doubts is anything but arrogant because they are willing to change their beliefs given good reason, argument, and evidence and admit that they aren’t certain. If the atheist did not doubt, of course, there would be arrogance, but since there is doubt there may not be arrogance.

Pharrell Williams should keep to his musicmaking and cease from making uninformed philosophical comments which should even embarrass most Christians who — although I find their arguments lacking — can demonstrate far more philosophical rigor than Williams. Hopefully he is ‘happy’ to receive some feedback.

As always, feel free to comment below.



Decision-making processes are paramount – gambling and critical thinking

ReferLocal certificates usable for food within Mohegan Sun at Pocono Downs
ReferLocal certificates usable for food within Mohegan Sun at Pocono Downs

Critical thinking about gambling highlights the conclusion that decision-making processes, rather than results, are paramount. Critical thinkers — whether considering gambling, everyday decisions, or supernatural claims — should not focus on results on decisions, but rather the thought processes informing whether decisions are informed or not.

In recent months, I became very interested in gambling, specifically playing Jacks or Better video poker following amazing promotions offered by a website — — which typically charges $25 for printable vouchers which translate into $25 in free slot or video poker play and $25 in food at Mohegan Sun at Pocono Downs. Initially, without much knowledge of gambling or video poker, I thought these promotions were fabulous deals because — if I broke even or even received most of my money back — I could have entertainment and food at a very low price.

When I became more serious about gambling, thanks to these promotions, I started to learn more about gambling through careful research, reading, and listening to podcast episodes hosted by professional gamblers. Nearing the end of 2013, according to my records, I experienced a net loss of $200 — including tips — to gain hundreds of dollars in food and drink and entertainment through collaboration with friends, buying certificates of my own and gifting certificates – bankrolling others and incurring losses and wins through money out of my own bank account. I receive a near 97% of the expected return of my investment from video poker play and consider the food, drink, and entertainment to be well worth more than the 3% of my investment lost from play.

I discovered that many of my assumptions about gambling and video poker were incorrect following careful study. I also learned a great deal of new information which I applied to my arsenal of critical thinking tools. Perhaps the most important lesson I learned through my study of video poker and gambling is that short-term results and results in general do not matter as much as the thought processes which inform whether a [gambling] decision was a good decision.

Many novice gamblers, and people who do not know much about gambling in general, love to talk about short-term results and have many superstitious beliefs about gambling. Slot players in particular, from my experiences, talk about how they experienced ‘winning sessions’ or otherwise profited from gambling in the short term (and also often fail to remember or talk about their significant loses). Lottery players talk about how their play earned them a small jackpot and — because of this — they made a good decision…while they fail to realize that lottery play is among the worst form of gambling because the expected return is an abyssmal 50% of their investment (players can expect to lose half of their spent money in the long-term).

Family members, for instance, tell me about their ‘luck’ at slots and how certain machines are ‘lucky.’ Play a machine that ‘has not been hitting for a while’ some say. Others tell me that machines can be ‘hot’ and that I should play those machines. Some tell me that I should increase bet size when machines are ‘cold’ and others tell me to increase bet size when machines are ‘hot.’ Some believe that casino staff have control over computers in machines and, exercising this control, ‘pull a lever’ when a casino is busy – allowing someone to experience a jackpot and inspire others to play. These flawed beliefs are a dime a dozen, nothing any genuinely informed gambler would endorse.20130822_182540

Novice gamblers focus on the result of gambling, but fail to investigate or otherwise think about whether their gambling decisions were good gambling decisions. Short-term results will not helpfully determine whether slot play* — or really any form of gambling — is intelligent because gambling has its rises and falls; players will often, given a large enough sample size, experience positive and negative results.

Looking at one ‘blip’ is simply not enough to determine whether a gambling decision was a good one. After all, someone can sit down and hit a jackpot after five minutes of play while another person can, after a five minute session, lose their entire wager. Someone can make an informed gambling decision and experience extremely poor results in a short session of play.

If results of short-term gambling cannot determine whether a gambling decision was informed, what can? Some think that the casino always has an edge and that, by their design, would never allow players to come out ahead in the long-term…but this is false. Players who are relatively intelligent, have decent mathematical aptitude (or access to reliable information put forth by those who do), patient, not impulsive, and are willing to invest a sizable portion of money to form a suitable bankroll can profit in the long term — or at the very least play with a positive expected theoretical return — from gambling.

For instance, the South Point casino in Las Vegas regularly offers .3% cashback on coin-in – money put through a video poker machine. On certain days of the year, typically holidays, the casino offers ‘double point days’ which translate to .6% cashback. Playing a Jacks of Better ‘full pay’ machine with optimal strategy and no errors — without any promotions, cashback, etc. — offers a theoretical return of 99.54% of coin-in. Double point days, then, give players an edge of .14%.

Perfect play with a .14% edge won’t necessarily lead to great profit in the short-term, but, over a long period of play, ‘ups and downs’ will eventually ‘average’ and consistent gain will be had. In a five hour session, a player with an edge of .14% — utilizing perfect play with no errors — may walk away with a net loss of $500 while a slot player, playing with a return of approximately 85% of their investment , may walk away with a net gain of $500. Novices will say — looking at results — that the slot player made a good decision while the video poker player made a poor decision – failing to analyze the thought process which lead to the gambling decision including theoretical return and the fact that players, in the short-term, will experience ‘ups and downs.’

Following smart gambling decisions which result in either short-term losses and wins, friends are happy when I win and doubt my decisions when I experience short-term loses. People typically focus on the result while I — regardless of the result — maintain that the result doesn’t matter because the thought process and the expected theoretical return is what really matters.

It may be psychologically difficult to be stoic when walking away ahead or behind following a short-term gambling session, but it is the rational way to behave. Gamblers who make informed decisions — and those who do not — will simply experience short-term wins and loses. I will be content with losing $30 or even $300 in a short-term session provided I made an informed decision about gambling which allowed me to have a positive edge over a casino with a sufficient bankroll.

What, then, is the link between gambling and skepticism when thinking about decision-making processes and results?

In recent years, I have participated in numerous conversations with believers in many flavors of supernatural and paranormal claims — gods, afterlifes, reincarnation — who make appeals to results – that if people believe certain gods exist, supernatural beliefs are justified, or adhere to certain supernaturally-informed religious teachings the world would be a better place. People tell me that their religious traditions have made them better people and that religious teachings inspire them to do good [while often ignoring the harm religious belief can lead to]. Why not just believe when belief in a certain god and a certain religious tradition can result in Heaven while disbelief can result in eternal torment, they say.

I am not very interested in these types of discussions because they miss the point. I am interested not in whether a belief is useful or produces particular results, but rather am interested in the thought process which leads to a belief.

How does a person come to believe what he or she believes? What is the thought process which results in belief? Is the way be which we come to justified true belief reliable? Coherent? Internally consistent? Immune to rational inquiry or examination?

Supernatural beliefs and poor gambling gambling decisions might lead to great results in the short-term, but at the same time the thought processes informing such beliefs and decisions might be based on a faulty foundation. The thought processes, not the results, are what counts.

As always, feel free to comment below and consider listening to my Brave Hero Radio conversation with Karla Porter on the topic of advantage gambling for more information.

*Slot play with an estimated 85% expected return of investment is almost always a bad bet, but certain circumstances can make slot play allow for an edge over casinos. Consider a promotion, for instance, which offers players 100% of their losses up to a certain sizable amount in weekly installments of free play [a recent promotion in New Jersey actually offered this]. Going into this promotion playing slot machines which offered very large jackpots in proportion to wager size, in this circumstance, was a great way to take advantage of this promotion because of a possible large reward which was not paired with significant risk; players can make very high wagers and hope for a jackpot, cashing out if they experience a sizable positive return in the short-term or coming back to play, making most of their money back. The risk was very much worth it although the casino allegedly did not offer many players a fair shake – deactivating players’ cards, accusing honest players of cheating, etc.