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Woody Allen and the Secret to Lasting Joy

Woody Allen

The great 19th century philosopher Soren Kierkegaard spoke of three stages that one passes through on the way to spiritual maturity: the aesthetic, the ethical, and the religious. During the aesthetic stage, a person is preoccupied with sensual pleasure, with the satisfaction of bodily desire. Food, drink, sex, comfort, and artistic beauty are the dominating concerns of this stage of life. The ordinary fellow drinking beer at the baseball game and the effete aristocrat sipping wine in this box at the opera are both fundamentally enjoying the aesthetic life in Kierkegaard’s sense. The pleasures of this stage are pure and intense, and this is why it is often difficult to move to the next level, the ethical.

At this second stage, one transcends the preoccupation with satisfying one’s own sensual desire and accepts the moral obligation which ties one in love to another person or institution. The young man who finally abandons his bachelor’s life and enters into marriage with all of its practical and moral responsibilities is passing from stage one to stage two, as is the soldier who lets go of superficial self-interest and dedicates himself to the service of his country.

But finally, says Kierkegaard, there is a dimension of spiritual attainment which lies beyond even the ethical. This is the religious. At this stage of life, a person falls in love with God, and this means that she falls unconditionally in love, since she has found the infinite object which alone corresponds to the infinite longing of her heart.

For the religious person, even the objects of deepest ethical commitment—family, country, business, etc.—fall into a secondary position. When Thomas More said on the scaffold, “I die the King’s good servant, but God’s first,” he gave evidence that he had passed from the ethical to the religious stage of life.

This famous account of the stages on life’s way came to my mind as I was watching Woody Allen’s recent film “Vicky, Christina, Barcelona”. Like most of Allen’s movies, this one concentrates on the mores and behaviors of the cultural elite: wealthy business executives, artists, poets, and writers. Vicky and Christina are two young New Yorkers who have resolved to spend a couple of summer months in Barcelona. While enjoying a late meal at an elegant restaurant, they are propositioned by Juan Antonio, an infinitely charming painter, who invites the women to join him for a romantic weekend. Despite Vicky’s initial hesitation, they accept. Juan Antonio is a consummate bon vivant, and he introduces Vicky and Christina to the pleasures of the Spanish good life: the best restaurants, vistas, art galleries, music, etc. And then, of course, he seduces both of them. In order not to spoil the movie for you (and to keep a PG rating for this column), suffice it to say that they become involved in a love triangle—and eventually quadrangle. None of the lovers is capable of a stable commitment, and all make appeal continually to the shortness of life, the importance of enjoying the moment, and the restrictions of conventional morality.

What they all do—to varying degrees—is to reduce sexual relationship to the level of good food and music and art, something that satisfies at the aesthetic level. And what makes this reduction possible is precisely the disappearance of religion. All of the players in this film move in the world of the sophisticated European high culture, an arena from which God has been rather summarily ejected. Kierkegaard thought that the three stages are ordered to one another in such a way that the highest gives stability and purpose to the other two. When a person has fallen in love with God, both his ethical commitments and aesthetical pleasures become focused and satisfying. But when the religious is lost, ethics devolves into, first, a fussy legalism, and then is swallowed up completely by the lust for personal satisfaction.

This film is a vivid presentation of precisely this declension. And the end result of this collapse is deep unhappiness. What struck me throughout Woody Allen’s film was just this: how unhappy, restless, and bored every single character is. So it goes when souls that are ordered to God are bereft of God. There is, however, a sign of hope. As in so many of Allen’s movies—“Hannah and Her Sisters” and “Crimes and Misdemeanors” come to mind—religion, especially Catholicism, haunts the scene.

At the very commencement of their weekend together, Juan Antonio showed the two young women the sculpture that, in his own words, “inspired him the most.” It was a medieval depiction of the crucified Jesus. It’s as though even this postmodern bohemian, this thoroughly secularized sophisticate, realizes in his bones that his life will not hold together unless and until he can fall in love unconditionally. The joy that none of them finds can be had only when they order their aesthetic and ethical lives to the divine love made manifest in that cross of Jesus.
 
 
Originally posted at Word on Fire. Used with author's permission.
(Image credit: Hiper Cultural)

Bishop Robert Barron

Written by

Bishop Robert Barron is Auxiliary Bishop of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. He is an acclaimed author, speaker, and theologian. He’s America’s first podcasting priest and one of the world’s most innovative teachers of Catholicism. His global, non-profit media ministry called Word On Fire reaches millions of people by utilizing new media to draw people into or back to the Faith. Bishop Barron is also the creator and host of CATHOLICISM, a groundbreaking, 10-part documentary series and study program about the Catholic Faith. He is the author of several books including Thomas Aquinas: Spiritual Master (Crossroad, 2008); The Strangest Way: Walking the Christian Path (Orbis, 2002); and Catholicism: A Journey to the Heart of the Faith (Image, 2011). Find more of his writing and videos at WordOnFire.org.

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  • Peter Piper

    Humans are fiendishly complicated. Therefore, although it is easy to speculate plausibly about `stages on the way to spiritual maturity', what will `hold life together' and so on, it is much harder to make the essential follow-up of working out enough testable consequences of the speculation to allow it, even in principle, to be backed up by solid evidence. But without evidence, there isn't much reason to accept the speculation, especially in cases like this where there appear to be glaring counterexamples: I know lots of non-theists who are not fussily legalistic and whose lives are not swallowed up in the lust for personal satisfaction.

    • Kevin Aldrich

      Robert Spitzer has worked out this view (his own take of four levels of happiness can be seen here: http://www.spitzercenter.org/html/archive/our-approach/the-four-levels-defined.php) in several book-length treatments.

      I don't think your counterexample actually holds because the problem cuts across theist/atheist lines. Those who believe in God can be just as haunted or limited by living only for physical pleasure and avoidance of pain as the atheist or agnostic.

      • Peter Piper

        Are you saying that Spitzer has gathered evidence which supports the position in the OP? If so, please provide a link to such evidence, rather than to further plausible speculation.

        I don't understand what you are trying to get at with your last paragraph. I pointed out the existence of apparent counterexamples to the claims in the OP (namely: nontheists who aren't legalistic or selfish) and you have pointed out the existence of yet more apparent counterexamples (namely: theists who are selfish).

        • Kevin Aldrich

          Two of Spitzer's book are "Healing the Culture" and "Ten Universal Principles." I think Spitzer's levels are way more developed than what is presented in the OP.

          My point is that it is not so much whether one is a theist or agnostic but to what level of happiness one orders one's life. If you order your life to pleasure or status, you will get certain outcomes. If you order it to contribution or transcendental values, you will get different outcomes.

          • Peter Piper

            `way more developed' speculation is still speculation. You must be aware that it is perfectly possible to fill book after book with speculation, even if that speculation has no firm grounding in evidence. What I am asking for is such a firm (or even weak) grounding in evidence for the claims in the OP.

            The OP specifically states that for the third stage it is necessary to `fall in love with God': the clear implication is that this is not possible for the non-theist. That is, contrary to your claim, the OP appears to say that it is not possible for a non-theist to order their life around transcendental values of this sort. But the OP goes on to say that without this religious stage `ethics devolves into, first, a fussy legalism, and then is swallowed up completely by the lust for personal satisfaction': now the clear implication is that non-theists eventually become legalistic and selfish. My counterexamples are counterexamples to this claim.

          • Kevin Aldrich

            It's not speculation but philosophical insight and reflection on human experience.

            Spitzer is saying you can order your life around serving others and transcendental values--take a look at the link I provided.

          • Peter Piper

            Whether you want to use the word `speculation' or not, I would like to see some evidence for these claims, if such evidence exists. If I were to philosophise and reflect on human experience, I would probably come to very different conclusions with just as little evidence behind them. But why should you give much weight to my philosophy and reflections without some evidence?

            I did, in fact, look at the link you provided. It just gives definitions of the four levels, and there is certainly no claim there that level four is attainable. In fact, some of the language suggests the opposite, for example `all people have this desire for ultimacy, which psychologists call a desire for transcendence' suggests that nobody achieves this desire: not everybody has a desire for better supplies of food, because lots of people already have enough food. The language in the fourth definition instead suggests to me that the fourth level is just something that everybody longs for, not something that anybody on earth has.

            But even if Spitzer did claim that level 4 was feasible, that wouldn't change the fact that the OP appears to make the opposite claim (at least for non-theists). I was discussing the OP.

          • babydoc

            In your "scientism" you elevate science and "evidence" far beyond what they are capable of or claim to prove - your repeated appeal to this is tiresome. As a physician I use scientific evidence to chose the appropriate surgery for my patient. However, I do not expect that science will guide me in "proving" the truth of my philosophical world view or my christian faith.

          • Peter Piper

            You have accused me of scientism. As I understand it, scientism is the view that the scientific method is the only way to obtain knowledge about the world. I am not of this view: indeed, we have some common ground in that I don't hope to find scientific proofs for all aspects of my worldview either.

            I would appreciate it if you did not accuse me of scientism again without at least providing a specific quote in which I express such a view. It may be that you are working with a different definition of scientism, in which case it would be helpful for me if you were to explain that definition.

            I confess that I do value evidence, and that I try to give my beliefs a weight appropriate to the level of available evidence. This is why I have talked about evidence so much above. I'm sorry that you find this tiresome, but it is just something I find really important.

  • Kierkegaard thought that the three stages are ordered to one another in such a way that the highest gives stability and purpose to the other two. When a person has fallen in love with God, both his ethical commitments and aesthetical pleasures become focused and satisfying. But when the religious is lost, ethics devolves into, first, a fussy legalism, and then is swallowed up completely by the lust for personal satisfaction.

    This claim seems to be at least somewhat empirically testable. There are certain behaviors that are:

    1. Common
    2. Immoral
    3. Generally recognized as immoral

    Stealing or adultery could be two examples. We would then ask whether non-religious are more likely to steal or commit adultery than religious people. If all of ethics without religion devolves into "a fussy legalism" that is "swallowed up completely by the lust for personal satisfaction", then atheists especially should be less ethical for their neglect of religion.

    Does anyone here wish to wager on the outcome of such a study? My wager is that atheists are just as immoral as theists, and religious people just as immoral as non-religious people.

    • Paul, I struggle to see what this would prove, though. It would be like a cancer doctor comparing the lifestyles of those who 1) have never visited him and 2) those who have visited him but refused any treatment he prescribed.

      • Are you saying that being religious in and of itself has no impact on one's moral character?

        Would you agree that, if we look at people who convert to Christianity, we won't be able to record the effects of a positive moral progression, or conversely for those who leave Christianity a negative moral progression?

        As an aside, I have friends who are religious (genuinely so), and who are non-religious. They seem to have a similar range of moral character. In fact, the most noble person I know is a non-theist, and the most immoral person I know is a Christian, and he prays all the time. Now, maybe my noble friend would be better with religion, and my Christian friend worse without it, but I see no reason to believe that that's true.

        • Kevin Aldrich

          C.S. Lewis would say, the atheist would be that much better if he were a Christian and the Christian would be that much worse if he were not one.

          • 42Oolon

            We might be happier and better behaved or all kinds of false beliefs.

          • Kevin Aldrich

            Lewis means the standards we adopt affect our behavior for better or worse.

          • We might be happier and better behaved or all kinds of false beliefs.

            I am not sure why anyone would want to argue against a set of beliefs, even if false, that made people happier, unless there was another set of beliefs (true or false) that made people even happier. I would think that the belief of any religion is that its beliefs are true, and that the maximum happiness can only be achieved (at least ultimately) by living in conformity with the truth.

            I suppose it would be my position, if I thought that Catholicism was false but provided the best route to happiness, that I would try to promote Catholicism, or at least refrain from making arguments that called it into question. If there is ultimately no sense or purpose to our existence but what we choose to give it, why not choose to maximize happiness?

            I think saying that you would rather know the truth than be happy is not a particularly good answer, since if your highest goal is to know the truth no matter how bleak, then adopting a false belief system wouldn't, for you, be happiness. You would always know it wasn't true, and so it would provide false happiness.

          • Why should I believe Lewis? Do we have any evidence that those who become Christian become better for it, or that those who leave Christianity become worse for it?

            I can only give anecdotes. None of them really support the idea.

          • Kevin Aldrich

            My reply to 42Oolon was, "Lewis means the standards we adopt affect our behavior for better or worse." Isn't that self-evident?

          • I would probably agree with that. It just seems like ethical standards are nearly orthogonal to religious standards. One doesn't seem to affect the other much. Religious people are not that much worse or better morally than non-religious people as far as I can tell, although careful studies may show that I'm wrong.

      • I second Paul's questions, and I don't think your analogy is apt. Wouldn't religious people be considered people who "had treatment"? If they are found to fall short morally, they would be people who have had treatment and did not respond to it, not people who have refused treatment. Otherwise, you are relying on the "no true Scottsman" fallacy and saying that anyone who steals or commits adultery is not "really" religious.

        By the way, if you picked some objective criterion of religiosity, such as weekly church attendance, I would expect the incidence of adultery and theft to be lower in religious people than nonreligious people.

        • By the way, if you picked some objective criterion of religiosity, such as weekly church attendance, I would expect the incidence of adultery and theft to be lower in religious people than nonreligious people.

          You're on!

        • "By the way, if you picked some objective criterion of religiosity, such as weekly church attendance, I would expect the incidence of adultery and theft to be lower in religious people than nonreligious people."

          I'm curious why you would. What's magical about sitting in a pew every Sunday? Catholics certainly don't believe that showing up for Church necessarily leads to moral progress. In fact Catholic theology teaches the Sacraments are not only ineffective if the recipient is properly disposed, they are *dangerous*--they can cause serious spiritual damage to the person who blithely shows up and receives them while living with grave sin.

          • What's magical about sitting in a pew every Sunday?

            Nothing at all. However, weekly church attendance would be a fairly reliable outward sign of commitment to Christianity. Are you saying that people's beliefs and commitments don't influence their moral behavior? Weekly church attendance even influences voting behavior!

            In fact Catholic theology teaches the Sacraments are not only ineffective if the recipient is properly disposed, they are *dangerous*-

            Given the dramatic fall-off in church attendance by Catholics, and in confession and reception of communion, how many Catholics who show up for weekly mass do you imagine are not properly disposed?

          • Kevin Aldrich

            You're right. A similarity I see between going to Mass now and in the 1960s is many families with lots of children. A difference is the much more serious commitment these big families today have toward living their faith.

          • Catholics certainly don't believe that showing up for Church necessarily leads to moral progress.

            Necessarily is one thing. But do they believe it has no effect at all?

            Now, suppose we were able to do a study of two groups of people carefully selected so that the only difference between the two groups was that in the experimental group, everyone was baptized, and in the control group, no one was baptized. Theoretically (or so it seems to me) a Christian would expect that baptism would make a difference. I very seriously doubt that it would. If it did, that would be "magic" (or more respectfully, evidence that baptism had some supernatural effect). But weekly church attendance is quite different from baptism. As I said, it is good evidence of a person's commitment to religion, and that commitment should make a difference in their behavior.

    • severalspeciesof

      If divorce could be used as a 'moral' factor regarding religious vs non-religious, the Barna Research Group did a survey in the late 1990's: http://www.adherents.com/largecom/baptist_divorce.html
      Over-all, this link seems to be a fair and evenhanded breakdown of that study...

      Glen

  • 42Oolon

    Of course Woody Allen is an atheist who has said ""If you actually have faith, if you believe that there's more to life in
    a positive sense, then of course it's a wonderful thing." Then he
    added, "I can't bring myself to do it. If I'm sitting next to a guy and
    he has true belief, I look at him and think, ‘poor thing, you really
    are deluded'."

    He has commented on love directly, "The heart wants what it wants. There's no logic to those things. You meet someone and you fall in love, and that's that." He was speaking of his former spouse's 19-year old daughter and his falling in love and marrying her. I have a hard time believing that Allen, the worlds most famous secular Jew, was trying to suggest that earthly love is never fulfilling compared to a relationship with Jesus.

    I still see no evidence of any god and am waiting for ANY sign that he even exists. No one on this site has been able to tell me even what to look for.

    I would suggest that Fr Baron have a look at the 2008 film "God is not Good" or "Star Trek V". Films that actually engage the issue of the existence and intentions of a god, should one exist.

    • And let's not forget this quote, which I believe is in both Annie Hall and Love and Death.

      Woman: Sex without love is an empty experience.
      Woody Allen Character: Yes, but as empty experiences go, it's one of the best.

    • "I still see no evidence of any god and am waiting for ANY sign that he even exists. No one on this site has been able to tell me even what to look for."

      42Oolon, you've made this claim several times, and I've responded several times both with logical demonstrations and personal suggestions.

      I find it strange that while you claim there is absolutely zero evidence that God exists, you keep coming back to this site every single day. What draws you here? I just can't figure out why, if you were a 100% convinced atheist, you would spend any time on a site like this. Do you perhaps hope God exists?

      • 42Oolon

        I do not hope a god exists per say, but I do hope to live forever. If a god exists and give me everlasting life, I want to do what is necessary to get it. In that sense I hope a god exists.

        I keep coming to this site because I enjoy the discussion and it helps me learn how to do counter-apologetics better. In the last few weeks I have found myself crossing the line with you and some other people here and am learning how to not do that.

        I also am fascinated by how intelligent people can set their critical thinking aside on this issue. I get concerned when I see that. I think think that the suspension of reason in favour of hope and faith are dangerous. I think it was this kind of thinking that leads some to be terrorists and others to invade nations.

        The logical proofs you have provided are old and fallacious. The personal suggestions you and others are meaningless so far, but I have put them in practice. I stay here and repeat this, because I HAVE applied them and there has been no response, there is still no evidence of a god. I keep asking what will the personal experience of god be like. I get no answers. I think you and your readers need to know that. I want to dispel any notion that atheists don't believe because they refuse to try. I truly am trying.

        If you want me to leave, tell me and I will go. But I am trying to be an atheists here at a site that calls itself " the central place of dialogue between Catholics and atheists."

        In the end this may be a losing battle, but I believe that unjustified beliefs will eventually fall in the face of reason and good logical thinking. So I am giving it a try.

        • 42Oolon, thanks for the comment. I don't want you to misdunerstand my comment: I wasn't suggesting you should leave. I want you to stay! In fact, I always enjoy your comments which are insightful and refreshing.

          But I was sincerely curious why an atheist who claims to be convinced beyond any doubt that God does not exist continues to return to this sort of site day after day.

          "The logical proofs you have provided are old and fallacious."

          I, of course, disagree on both counts. I don't think you've shown any to be fallacious. And I don't see how being old invalidates an argument. We must be careful to avoid such chronological snobbery which dismisses an idea simply because of its age.

          "The personal suggestions you and others are meaningless so far, but I have put them in practice."

          Can you elaborate on this? Which suggestions have you implemented.

          "I keep asking what will the personal experience of god be like."

          Read the lives of the saints. There you'll find thousands of answers to this question. I suggest beginning with St. Augustine's "Confessions" and Thomas Merton's "Seven Storey Mountain."

          • 42Oolon

            Good to hear. I think I will read Augustine at some point but I won't be spending too much time reading tons of Catholic literature. But Augustine seems pretty important and is worth knowing about.

            I hear things all the time like "God is engaged in a personal relationship with me every day...if you open your heart God will speak to you." but when I ask for details of what to actually look for, I get answers comparing a relationship with God to one with a spouse, when I pointed out the vast differences between a living person who demonstrates her existence and value every day directly through my senses, I get no further responses. I am also told to "look for little things" daily that will show you God. I see lots of little things good and bad but none of them are distinguishable as evidence of a god or any pattern. I could pick some good or mysterious things and ignore the thousands of bad and commonplace occurrences and say that I see evidence of God, but I don't think that is ethical. The pattern has to come from the evidence. The only comment I got was "you are waiting".

            Personal experience is not an objective demonstration or the existence of a god or not, and atheists often discount it for that good reason. (Often because they had such experiences and realize now they were cherry picking and subject to confirmation bias.)

            But here is my argument on this ground. If the Catholic God exists and wants me to enter into a relationship, he knows what would convince me to choose him as millions say they have chosen. I do not think he would need me to read volumes of work or be antiquated with many saints. I do not think it makes sense that he would engage with me by "little things" which could be anything or random. I think he would do something more obvious. He hasn't. So either I am not being honest in some way, the god does not exist, or the god is not the God described above.

          • Loreen Lee

            I am having similar 'problems' with 'quantum mechanics' and 'parallel worlds'. I just have to 'believe' the physicists, I guess!

          • Kevin Aldrich

            Christ said in one of the beatitudes, "Blessed are the pure of heart for they shall see God." This implies those who are not pure of heart can't see God.

          • josh

            Speaking for myself, I check into this site on occasion in hopes of planting a seed of doubt in at least some readers that may lead to less religious belief in the future. I also try to correct various misconceptions that get passed around among the faithful.

            Brandon, many people have shown you where the assorted 'proofs' break down. The numerous flaws have been pointed out long ago, hence 42Oolon's comment about the proofs being old. Also, to my knowledge no one has put forth a complete proof on this site which even purportedly leads from some agreed upon facts to the Catholic conception of god.

          • "Brandon, many people have shown you where the assorted 'proofs' break down....Also, to my knowledge no one has put forth a complete proof on this site which even purportedly leads from some agreed upon facts to the Catholic conception of god."

            josh, thanks for the comment! I'm glad you're here. I'll agree that some atheist commenters have attempted to refute the many arguments for God's existence proposed on this site, but each of these proposals have proved deficient. Attempted refutations are not necessarily refutations.

            It's tough since we're speaking in vague generalities, so perhaps I can be more specific. I haven't seen one legitimate refutation of the kalam cosmological argument, which I consider one of the strongest arguments for God. It runs like this:

            1. Everything that begins to exist has a cause.
            2. The universe began to exist.
            3. The universe has a cause.

            We can deduce from this argument, as has been shown many times on this site, that the cause must by logical necessity be a transcendent, uncaused, eternal, spaceless, timeless, immaterial, enormously powerful being.

            Also, I'm not sure why you demand "a complete proof [which] leads...to the Catholic conception of god." What basis do you have for such a seemingly arbitrary demand? Why must only one proof accomplish this entire task?

            I of course agree the kalam argument doesn't directly lead to the full Catholic conception of God. I and others have never claimed it does (though strangely, many atheists keep maintaining that). The argument does, though, lead to an extremely large slice of God, far too big for any atheist to accept.

            From there we can offer other arguments that fill out the rest of the picture. The moral argument, for example, establishes that God must be all good. Proving Jesus' Resurrection was a true historical event validates his own claims to divinity, and leads to a Trinitarian conception of God. And so on.

            With all that said, I'm not interested in going back and forth on these topics here in this thread. There are several other places on this site for that discussion, and I don't want to take this conversation too far off topic.

          • josh

            By complete proof I don't mean that everything has to follow from a single premise but that all the 'proofs' must be able to be put together without contradictions to give the complete picture of god you are claiming to justify. You've kind of got the cart before the horse here: attempted proofs aren't necessarily proofs and you should be extremely cautious about accepting them as such when refutations are offered.

            Since you take the kalam as your example: premises 1. and 2. were shown in detail to be dubious or false by numerous commenters on the threads where it came up. These have to do with quantum mechanics, the ambiguousness of 'begins to exist', the ambiguousness of 'has a cause', the lack of solid evidence that the universe began to exist, etc. I corrected you on this last point just a few days ago. We simply don't know that the universe began to exist.

            3. is of course just your conclusion, which isn't proved because of the above. But from there to your list of attributes is another huge leap for which, again, I haven't seen the argument laid out here. For now, suffice to say that, 'transcendent, uncaused, eternal, spaceless, timeless, immaterial, enormously powerful being', so far as you could even in the abstract prove these terms from the conclusion 3., would apply perfectly well to the laws of physics, for example. No difficulty for atheism here, but all the contradictions within Catholicism remain.

            Do you honestly think that Jesus resurrection is a historically provable fact? Not not disprovable, but provable? If so, I've got better walls to beat my head against.

          • "I've got better walls to beat my head against."

            First, this sort of sarcastic comment is totally unhelpful. It does nothing to promote fruitful dialogue and is simply an attempt to make others look silly. Please cut out the sarcasm next time.

            "Since you take the kalam as your example: premises 1. and 2. were shown in detail to be dubious or false by numerous commenters on the threads where it came up. These have to do with quantum mechanics, the ambiguousness of 'begins to exist', the ambiguousness of 'has a cause', the lack of solid evidence that the universe began to exist, etc. I corrected you on this last point just a few days ago. We simply don't know that the universe began to exist.

            Every one of these statements is untrue. Taking one at a time:

            1. "These have to do with quantum mechanics" - We'll be dedicating an upcoming post to this specific objection, but I'll offer a cursory treatment in the meantime. First, you've offered no specific objection--just a phrase, quantum mechanics. Second, quantum mechanics do not invalidate the first premise. There is no instance in this field of something beginning to exist without cause. While it's true that in some instances, the efficient cause is unknown, that in no way falsifies the premise. In a certain sense it's an "atheism of the gaps" objection: we don't *know* whether this quantum particle has a cause therefore we'll assume it doesn't.

            2. "the ambiguousness of 'begins to exist'" - There's no ambiguity here. This simply means that something went from not having existence to having existence. I should point out that this transition is not temporal but causal. Until you understand this difference you will remain confused.

            3. "the ambiguousness of 'has a cause'" - Again, you remain vague so I'm not exactly sure what you're referring to, but I see no ambiguity. Something has a cause for its existence if it is not self-caused (i.e. if it did not bring about its own existence.)

            4. "the lack of solid evidence that the universe began to exist" - This is the most surprising claim you've made. The scientific evidence suggesting the universe began to exist is vast. We've noted this before. In particular, the 2003 Borde-Guth-Vilenkin theorem conclusively showed that all models of the universe--including a possible multiverse--must by necessity include a beginning. As Alexander Vilenkin asserted in 2012, "The universe most probably had a beginning."

            What's even more astounding, though, is that there is absolutely *no* empirical evidence I'm aware of that suggests the universe is past-eternal. If there is, I challenge you to reveal and promote it.

            Beyond the scientific evidence, there are also philosophical reasons why an actual infinite is impossible. We've covered these reasons both in featured articles and comment box discussions.

            5. "We simply don't know that the universe began to exist." I'd have to understand what you mean by "know" to determine whether I agree or disagree. But to put it simply, the scientific and philosophical evidence is overwhelmingly and almost exclusively in favor of a beginning.

            Finally, you claim that my logical deductions from the argument's conclusion are "another huge leap for which, again, I haven't seen the argument." I've explained this several times on the site and will do so again.

            If the universe had a cause, it must by necessity be transcendent (i.e. transcending the natural world.) Since the universe didn't cause itself (i.e. didn't bring itself into existence) then the cause must be uncaused. Since the cause is beyond the universe, and thus beyond space, time, matter, and energy, the cause must be spaceless, eternal, and immaterial. And for this cause to bring the entire universe into existence--the immense complexity and size and precision of our universe--it must have been enormously powerful.

            This is basic logic. The deductions naturally flow from the kalam argument's conclusion.

            "[The conclusion] would apply perfectly well to the laws of physics, for example."

            This is not true for at least two reasons. First, natural laws themselves do not create anything, they are merely a description of what happens under certain conditions. In other words, you're confusing laws with agency.

            Second, these laws are contingent. They don't *have* to be the way they are, and thus they require an explanation (i.e. a cause.) They cannot be the uncaused cause of the universe.

            "No difficulty for atheism here, but all the contradictions within Catholicism remain."

            I disagree. Understanding the problems above, all the contradictions remain within atheism--none in theism.

            "Do you honestly think that Jesus resurrection is a historically provable fact? Not not disprovable, but provable?"

            Yes. Though we'll wrestle with this question sometime soon, elsewhere.

          • English Catholic

            Great reply. I'd be very interested to hear anything you could recommend on how (if at all) quantum mechanics affects Aristotelian metaphysics, or the Thomistic arguments for God's existence, or indeed any argument for God's existence.

            It seems to me that, as you say, our not knowing the cause of something doesn't mean it's uncaused (as Feser argues very convincingly in TLS). But my knowledge of quantum physics is very limited, so I'd be interested to hear about specific arguments.

          • "I'd be very interested to hear anything you could recommend on how (if at all) quantum mechanics affects Aristotelian metaphysics, or the Thomistic arguments for God's existence, or indeed any argument for God's existence."

            I'm not sure if this comment was directed to me or someone else, but here's my answer: quantum mechanics has *no* effect on Aristotelian metaphysics or Thomistic arguments for God. You're comparing two different fields--physics and metaphysics. The former has no more effect on the latter than music, history, or athletics do.

          • Loreen Lee

            This just gave new/fresh meaning to Hegel's starting point in his logic: Being Nothing Becoming. It made me think that the physical universe must be 'Becoming'. I'll leave the rest to you!!!!

          • josh

            No sarcasm, if you can't see the problems with the historical claim you and I have such different understandings of the word proof that I probably shouldn't spend my time arguing with you. Nonetheless...

            1. It is not shown that any cause exists in quantum mechanical events. This has been covered in detail in previous threads. Therefore, we cannot accept the premise in kalam 1(k1). as part of a conclusive proof. This really is basic logic. You can argue that k1 isn't disproven but that doesn't give you a sound proof.

            2. Things don't actually go in and out of existence in an unambiguous way. The universe as a whole seems to transition smoothly from one state to another. Adding in the question-begging qualifier 'causally' does nothing to resolve this.

            3. Again, 'it's caused if it's not self-caused' is question begging. How does one tell if something brings itself into existence? It's also a false dichotomy if we don't have a good reason to rule out uncaused.

            4. That's not what the Borde-Guth-Vilenkin paper says, it doesn't cover all models (no theorem can cover all models). That's why Vilenkin uses the word 'probably'. And when he says 'has a beginning' he doesn't mean it in the sense you need. It means 'universe as we know it, as described by current models of physics has a finite length in past time'. It's pretty simple, usually when we get infinities in our theories it is taken as a sign that the model is no longer applicable. Near the big bang time we simply don't know what physics rules apply, so we don't know what happened before that point or if there was a before.

            Your philosophical reasons have, as usual, been taken apart by much more qualified people. They just don't stand as a matter of logic or science.

            5. Again, 'the universe in it's current state has a finite past', is a very different statement from, 'the universe (except for God) had a beginning'. The latter is ambiguous and not in evidence.

            If the universe can be said to have a cause, it may be self-caused or it may be an outside cause. This outside cause would not be the universe as you defined it in 'proving' that the universe has a cause but it doesn't follow that it wouldn't be natural. You have not shown that it couldn't be self-caused (you haven't shown anything I have to say). You haven't ruled out other spaces, times, materials, etc. just the ones you arbitrarily include in your initial definition of universe. By the same token, power is something that exists in the universe and can't be applied to something outside it. But these things, (spaceless, powerful, etc.) could all be said of the laws of physics.

            "First, natural laws themselves do not create anything..." we were talking about causes, now you are introducing ad hoc rules about creation, again, without defining anything or arguing for your statements.

            "Second, these laws are contingent. They don't *have* to be the way they are, and thus they require an explanation (i.e. a cause.) They cannot be the uncaused cause of the universe."

            Nothing in the kalam shows that the putative cause of the universe is uncaused. You simply don't know if the laws of physics have to be one way or another. Moreover, your argument for a cause was that a thing had a beginning, not that it was contingent or in need of explanation. (You also don't know if anything is contingent.) Worse for you though, is that you can't show that your god is non-contingent, he certainly doesn't look that way, and you can't show that he explains the laws of physics.

            Look, you're relying on a very unsophisticated argument here, full of vague folk-definitions of terms and gut-feeling premises. These things don't hold up when you try to make them apply to the whole universe and on top of that give you a divine being. If you want to go over these things in detail we can but let me suggest that you don't start from the position of trying to maintain a traditional argument for god. Start from a position of 'what exactly could I mean by words like 'universe', 'cause' and 'begin' and how would I judge true vs. false statements involving them.'

          • josh, thanks for the reply. As I mentioned earlier, I'd rather not let this thread devolve into points and counter-points for the kalam argument. I'll let this be my last reply to you in this thread. Feel free to have the last word. I'd certainly love to address these points with you more in future threads (or past threads.)

            I'd like to first address your initial point regarding the "quantum objection" because this particular objection has come up repeatedly in the comboxes. Unfortunately, the same confusion remains. You say:

            "It is not shown that any cause exists in quantum mechanical events. This has been covered in detail in previous threads. Therefore, we cannot accept the premise in kalam 1(k1). as part of a conclusive proof. This really is basic logic. You can argue that k1 isn't disproven but that doesn't give you a sound proof."

            The problem with this whole paragraph is that you've given no evidence or reason to believe something begins to exist without a cause. You've admitted, as I did earlier, that for some quantum events we haven't yet found a cause. Yet this doesn't mean they are causeless, and thus it doesn't violate the first premise.

            Also, all that's needed to arrive at the conclusion is for each of the premises to be shown more likely than their alternatives. And everything in our human experience that begins to exist--including us humans ourselves--has a cause. The evidence is simply overwhelming. You've given no reason why we should think it more likely that everything *doesn't* have a cause than the fact that everything does.

            "Things don't actually go in and out of existence in an unambiguous way. The universe as a whole seems to transition smoothly from one state to another. Adding in the question-begging qualifier 'causally' does nothing to resolve this."

            Your first assertion is interesting, but you never give any unambiguous evidence to support it. I'm not aware of any evidence to suspect the universe "[goes] in and out of existence." And I'd be interested to learn of examples *within* the universe of things floating into and out of existence. I'm simply not aware of any.

            "And when [Vilenkin] says 'has a beginning' he doesn't mean it in the sense you need. It means 'universe as we know it, as described by current models of physics has a finite length in past time'"

            I disagree with your first assertion. In fact, the quote you cited verifies, precisely, the first premise in the kalam cosmological argument. If something has a finite length in past time, then by metaphysical necessity it began to exist.

            "If the universe can be said to have a cause, it may be self-caused or it may be an outside cause."

            This assertion begs the question, since you assume that the kalam's first premise is wrong without evidence. You assume something can cause it's own existence, yet you haven't provided any evidence for this assertion. There's simply no good reason to believe the universe caused itself.

            "This outside cause would not be the universe as you defined it in 'proving' that the universe has a cause but it doesn't follow that it wouldn't be natural."

            Yes, it does follow that the cause must not have been natural. If the cause of the universe was natural, it would be observable and thus within the physical universe. Yet this would simply be to say the universe was caused by itself (i.e. self-caused.) We have no good reason to believe this is possible or likely, as I've shown above, and a wealth of reasons to believe that the universe was caused by something beyond itself (i.e. something super-natural, or transcendent.)

            "Worse for you though, is that you can't show that your god is non-contingent"

            I think you've misunderstood how the kalam argument works. The argument doesn't *begin* with a non-contingent deity and then work forward to the universe. Instead, it's a deductive argument. It begins with the existing, finite universe and deduces that, because nothing that begins to exist causes itself, the universe must have had a transcendent, timeless, spaceless, self-existent, eternal, immaterial, enormously powerful cause. I've showed how these deductions necessarily follow from the argument above.

            In other words, the kalam argument doesn't presuppose a non-contingent, transcendent cause. It leads to one through logical necessity.

            Finally, I really appreciate the back-and-forth, but I must say that your patronizing barbs really discourage me from engaging you. Instead of criticizing my arguments as "unsophisticated", "full of vague folk-definitions", and suggesting they "have,as usual, been taken apart by much more qualified people", simply respond to the arguments by showing where they're flawed. None of those vague criticisms do anything to disprove my arguments. They're just rhetorical posturing meant to belittle me and my views. In the interest of fruitful dialogue I only ask that in the future you treat my views with the same civility and respect that I give to yours. Thanks again!

          • Susan

            The problem with this whole paragraph is that you've given no evidence or reason to believe something begins to exist without a cause.

            This is not Josh's burden. The burden is yours to show that everything that begins to exist has a cause. You have never met that burden, let alone defined those terms.

            Also, all that's needed to arrive at the conclusion is for each of the premises to be shown more likely than their alternatives.

            No. What is required is that you (the person with the alleged "proof") demonstrate that each one of your premises is necessarily true.

            You can't offer up a deductive argument and change the rules as they suit you.

          • "The burden is yours to show that everything that begins to exist has a cause. You have never met that burden, let alone defined those terms."

            Thanks for the comment, Susan! Unfortunately, your two assertions are both untrue.

            First, I have met the burden by noting that *everything* we see and measure and study and experience has a cause: people, dogs, houses, computers, apples, music, marriages, mountains, rain, restaurants, and more. Yet there are *no* examples of something beginning to exist without cause. Since *all* the available evidence supports the premise, I've ably met the necessary burden.

            If an atheist would like to refute this premise, as Josh has attempted by suggesting some things (eg. quantum particles) can begin to exist without cause, then he must shoulder his own burden. So far Josh has not done this. He has not given any reason or evidence to believe something can begin to exist without cause.

            Second, I *have* defined the terms (both here and elsewhere.) By "begin" I mean to come into being or start at a certain time or place. By "exist" I mean to have objective being or reality (or, in Aristotelian terms, to be actualized.) By "cause" I mean a person, thing, or event that gives rise to something else. By "universe" I mean the whole of material reality.

            If you're still confused about these or other terms, I'd be happy to continue our discussion.

          • Susan

            First, I have met the burden by noting that *everything* we see and measure and study and experience has a cause: people, dogs, houses, computers, apples, music, marriages, mountains, rain, restaurants, and more.

            You haven't met the burden. This has been pointed out to you numerous times and Josh brought it up again in his very first sentence of his Point 1, where he said:

            It is not shown that any cause exists in quantum mechanical events.

            Here is an example of something that doesn't seem to have a cause.

            You must demonstrate that everything necessarily has a cause. Can you demonstrate that quantum mechanical events necessarily have causes? The burden is on you to show that this is the case or your argument crumbles.

            This is a deductive argument. All the premises must be necessarily true, not truish, not truthy, not probably true, or more likely true than not true. They must be necessarily true.

            Premise 1 cannot be established as necessarily true. That would require having access to everything in reality and demonstrating that each bit of it is caused. You can't do that.

            We already have one example of something that is not necessarily caused. Who knows how many others there are?

            The argument is full of flaws but we don't even have to move past premise 1, nor should we.

            If you can't meet the burden of the very first premise, then you should stop using the argument.

          • "Can you demonstrate that quantum mechanical events necessarily have causes?"

            I don't need to for the sake of this argument. The premise is "everything that begins to exist has a cause" not "everything that changes..." Which means this is no good reason to doubt the first premise.

            (For the record, I do think quantum mechanical events have causes that have so far gone undiscovered. But regardless, this is irrelevant to the argument I laid out.)

          • Susan

            The premise is "everything that begins to exist has a cause" not "everything that changes..."

            Please explain the distinction.

            For the record, I do think quantum mechanical events have causes that have so far gone undiscovered.

            On what basis do you think that?

          • severalspeciesof

            First, I have met the burden by noting that *everything* we see and measure and study and experience has a cause...

            You say this yet just a paragraph later you admit that:

            Josh has attempted [to refute] by suggesting some things (eg. quantum particles) can begin to exist without cause...

            AFAIK, physicists are fairly certain that these particles have no cause. Now you are correct that it doesn't mean that the particles don't have a cause because it's possible we haven't found it yet (but again, NONE have been found and that IS the point being driven here), and at first glance this would appear to save the first premise in the Kalam argument. It doesn't since the first premise states "EVERYTHING that begins....." and not "Everything that we know of that begins..." If the Kalam argument were phrased like the latter example (as I think it should regardless of quantum particles), then it becomes obvious that the Kalam argument is an 'uncaused cause' of the gaps argument, since the Kalam argument from the get go makes the assertion that everything that begins to exist has a cause since 'we know of nothing contrary' which is a gap.

            I think most of us here agree that the argument using the 'prove a negative' method is usually a bad way to push forward an argument. The onus is still definitely on (your) claim 'quantum particles have a cause' since no known causes are known to exist

            Glen

          • josh

            Brandon, I'm afraid I don't find that you treat my views with civility and respect. You seem to dismiss them out of hand and don't show much inclination to consider anything in depth or to even modify your initial stance. I'm an actual, working, PhD holding quantum physicist and I think several of the other atheists who hung around here until your moderation drove them away also had scientific credentials. If you aren't willing to be corrected by people like that on topics like causality in quantum mechanics or what physicists think about the 'beginning' of the universe, then what is the point?

            'Full of vague folk-definitions' isn't my way of insulting you, it is one of the reasons your arguments are flawed. The way you (and I) think about the everyday world of 'physical' reality isn't really how the world fundamentally is. We mostly think in terms of approximations. We think in terms of discrete, solid objects bumping into each other, in uncurved space with absolute motion, with determinate results, with a particular direction to time, etc. But on closer inspection, all those things turn out to be wrong, or at least completely dubious.

            So, for example, you can't just shrug off quantum mechanics; because everything you think you know about how reality works- your belief that 'everything in human experience [that begins to exist has a cause], is only an approximation to what is actually going on. And when the best minds in the world look at what is actually going on they tell you that it doesn't look like any common idea of cause and effect.

            Similarly, you argued that the universe probably began to exist based on the appearance of a singularity in our equations. But from there you think you can leap to some kind of immaterial transcendent super-being. If you bother to ask some actual physicists here's what you will find they think, roughly: An infinity in the equations probably means the equations are no longer valid so we can't say what happens at the point. The current phase of our universe can colloquially be said to have begun at some point in the past. Before that, it was in a different phase. This has already happened several times.

            Our current universe could be said to begin at recombination, when neutral hydrogen was formed and the average photon could now travel long distances, when the cosmic microwave background was established. Before that the universe was a plasma. Before the plasma phase the universe was a quark-gluon plasma, before that we need theories of quantum gravity probably, before that who knows? Any of these can be seen as the beginning of a universe, but it doesn't follow that the previous state was some metaphysical hodgepodge. You just can't say that any purported beginning to our universe indicates some non-physical, super-natural precursor. Began to exist in the loose sense that physicists might use the term isn't sufficient for the Kalam argument to work. Again, you are relying on ambiguity and equivocation to make your case. Your premise is that the observable universe looks like it has a beginning, but your conclusion tries to make this into the physical non-supernatural, etc. universe. It's a cheat.

            "In other words, the kalam argument doesn't presuppose a non-contingent,
            transcendent cause." I never said it did. Again, do me the respect of reading my comments for comprehension.

            "It leads to one through logical necessity." No it doesn't, the word contingent doesn't appear in the kalam argument. My point was that you argued that the laws of physics were contingent (again the kalam does not rule out contingent causes), but I countered that by the same standard, God is also contingent (to an astronomically greater degree).

          • josh, thanks for the response! A few things in reply:

            "Brandon, I'm afraid I don't find that you treat my views with civility and respect. You seem to dismiss them out of hand and don't show much inclination to consider anything in depth or to even modify your initial stance."

            I disagree. I've treated you with the utmost civility and respect, and have carefully engaged every single argument you've put forward. I'm befuddled by your accusation that I haven't "shown much inclination to consider anything in depth."

            "If you aren't willing to be corrected by people like that on topics like causality in quantum mechanics or what physicists think about the 'beginning' of the universe, then what is the point?"

            I'm certainly willing to be corrected for I'm interested only in the truth. But I haven't seen any good reason to change my mind on this question of necessary causality. I've seen no reason to believe something can begin to exist without a cause. So while I'm certainly open to believing it, I only ask for evidence. I think that's a fair request. Wouldn't you agree?

            "And when the best minds in the world look at what is actually going on they tell you that it doesn't look like any common idea of cause and effect."

            This assertion sounds interesting, but I'd need more elaboration and more evidence to back it up. Which "common ideas" of cause and effect have these "best minds" refuted? And how definitively?

            "Similarly, you argued that the universe probably began to exist based on the appearance of a singularity in our equations."

            To be clear, modern cosmology isn't the *only* bit of evidence I and other theists give to support the kalam argument's second premise. It's just one string, albeit a powerful one. There are also philosophical arguments showing why an actually infinite regress is impossible, and thus proving the universe must have had a beginning.

            "But from there you think you can leap to some kind of immaterial transcendent super-being."

            This is a poor caricature of my argument. I don't take an unfounded "leap" from the premise that the universe began to exist to a "super-being." Instead, I carefully lay out my argument, which relies on two premises, solid logic, and deductions which necessarily follow from the kalam's conclusion. I explain all this clearly in the combox above how assuming 1) all things beginning to exist have a cause and 2) the universe began to exist, then the universe must have a transcendent, immaterial, spaceless, timeless, self-existing, enormously powerful cause. If you disagree with that logical deduction, as outlined above, you can't merely dismiss it by calling it a "leap". You have to show where the logic is flawed.

            Note: you may still disgree with the first premise and we can discuss that. But the conclusions and deductions I draw from that premise, if true, are a whole different thing.

            "Any of these can be seen as the beginning of a universe, but it doesn't follow that the previous state was some metaphysical hodgepodge."

            No they cannot, at least as "universe" is defined by most scientists, and for the sake of this argument. By "universe" I mean everything that exists anywhere. Therefore, you equivocate the word "universe" when you say, "before that the universe was a plasma. Before the plasma phase the universe was a quark-gluon plasma, before that we need theories of quantum gravity probably." All of those things are *in* the universe, and thus not prior to it. Your proposal is akin to saying "your brain existed before you did" or "your memories existed before you did."

            "Again, you are relying on ambiguity and equivocation to make your case."

            I am not. I have very clearly and carefully outlined my entire argument, and have defined the terms when asked (both here and elsewhere.) By "begin" I mean to come into being or start at a certain time or place. By "exist" I mean to have objective being or reality (or, in Aristotelian terms, to be actualized.) By "cause" I mean a person, thing, or event that gives rise to something else. By "universe" I mean everything that exists anywhere.

            "I never said it did. Again, do me the respect of reading my comments for comprehension."

            I believe you're confused, Josh. I didn't attribute those words to you. I was simply elaborating on my own point.

            "the word contingent doesn't appear in the kalam argument. My point was that you argued that the laws of physics were contingent (again the kalam does not rule out contingent causes), but I countered that by the same standard, God is also contingent (to an astronomically greater degree)."

            I never said the word "contingent" appears in the kalam argument. I did say the laws of physics were contingent, and thus cannot be the ultimate cause of the universe, but I did not say this is so because of the kalam argument. This is so because of Thomas Aquinas' Second Way, the argument from contingency.

            I don't see how you concluded God is also contingent. The uncaused, self-existent being demonstrated by the different cosmological arguments--what Christians would call "God"--is necessarily non-contingent. If he *is* contingent, then he is not the ultimate cause of the universe (and also not "God.")

          • josh

            "...[I] have carefully engaged every single argument you've put forward." No, you don't even show signs of understanding some of the arguments I've put forward, you just keep repeating your initial premises. Maybe I'm not explaining myself well but you are not coming across as an engaged person willing to reconsider your beliefs.

            'Which "common ideas" of cause and effect have these "best minds" refuted? And how definitively?'

            The current best understanding of the universe is one couched in quantum field theory. This is a probabilistic theory: given some initial set of observations we can predict other observations, e.g. at future times, but only in a probabilistic sense. An unstable atom may decay, but we can't say that it will. This is contrary to any traditional notion of cause, which requires that a cause definitely have an effect in the absence of other contravening factors. People have posited that perhaps a given atom simply has some unknown associated variables/properties/whatnot that if we knew them would let us predict the decay, i.e. there are hidden causes. This has actually been proved an incorrect hypothesis. For quantum mechanics to work as well as it measurably does, there can't be any local hidden variables. There is no unknown number sitting in the atom that tells us when it will decay. So no traditional notion of cause.

            Now if you want to resurrect some idea of cause you will need to get into the weeds of QM, but at this stage there is more than enough reason not to accept kalam's cause premise as given. Our best theory of physics does not include causes.

            Similarly, the notion of 'beginning to exist' is not clear in modern physics. Consider a color spectrum. 'Orange' does not begin to exist at a definite point when 'yellow' and 'red' stop existing, instead there is a continuous transition from one to the other. Similarly, according to current physics, things are described in terms of continuous fields in time and space. So to say that a brick, for example, begins to exist in space is to ignore the continuous transition from the air around the brick to the brick. This is often a perfectly good thing to ignore but not when you are talking about some notion of fundamental ontology. Fundamentally, the brick is a local feature of a continuous whole and it does not have a beginning or end except as an approximation.

            Moreover, time in modern physics does not have a fundamental direction. The equations we use, (again, the best available theory), treat forward and backward in time as symmetric, the same as left and right in space. So physics allows us to extrapolate from one set of information to another at some other point in space and time, but it doesn't establish a cause. If A causes B then we can turn our perspective around and say that B causes A. This is like noticing that we don't say that a triangle's having three sides causes it to have internal angles of 180 degrees, because it is equally true that having 180 degrees causes a polygon to have three sides. Or consider, does the 'first' square inch of my desk cause the adjacent ones? No. It may be that one implies the other but that doesn't make it ontologically prior.

            So, you may now want to rescue some notion of ontologically prior, but you don't have evidence for it from the world we observe. You will have to actually answer my questions about how we know that one thing 'gives rise to' another, or actualizes another, etc. But I will warn you now, I can always formulate a shift in perspective that will make your view just another example of a description without a need for ontological priority. The fact that I can do that rather disposes of your ability to use your notion of cause in any persuasive argument.

            Note that your equivocations are confusing even yourself now: 'By "universe" I mean everything that exists anywhere.' Except that you want to argue that god doesn't have a beginning, so god can't be in your universe, so your universe isn't everything that exists anywhere.

            As I said, physical observations might suggest that our current universe had a beginning in some sense, but you can't get from there to a non-physical thing. The observations simply don't support that at all, so you are equivocating again. If we accept the kalam premises we aren't lead to your desired conclusions. The most likely 'cause' for our universe would be a larger notion of the natural universe.

            Now, I thought we were talking about the kalam argument and now you've switched to Aquinas second way. So you didn't clearly state your premises and arguments before. You are pulling in ad hoc crutches.

            Anyhow, needless to say, Aquinas second way also fails. We don't observe contingent things, there is simply no evidence that the universe could be any other way than it is. But, you feel like you can imagine that things could be otherwise. This doesn't prove that it is true, but regardless, by the same standard, I can imagine a universe without God, so god is also contingent. It does no good to define him as non-contingent since you can't define things into existence. Additionally, contingent things remain unexplained unless you can explain every feature of the thing in such a way that they could not have been otherwise, i.e. you have to make them non-contingent, but this obviously refutes Aquinas first premise.

          • josh, thanks for your most recent comment! It's your best one so far.

            Now, I'm already two comments past my "last comment" in this thread, so I'll let this short reply be my final one (promise!). I've really enjoyed our back-and-forth and hope we can keep it up on other posts.

            Unfortunately, you've just offered way too many thoughts to offer a comprehensive reply. I wish we could sit down and discuss all of this over a beer, but alas, we don't have that opportunity. Nevertheless, in this last reply I'll respond to your most significant points, as I see them:

            "There is no unknown number sitting in the atom that tells us when it will decay. So no traditional notion of cause...Our best theory of physics does not include causes."

            It seems to me you're confusing causal epistemology with causal ontology. Whether we *know* about a particular cause is independent of whether that cause *exists.* Again, to repeat the unanswered refutation I've made several times, just because we've yet to detect a cause (which I'm only granting for the sake of argument), that does not prove that no cause exists.

            Even understanding that fact, however, you've still yet to provide proof of anything *beginning to exist* without cause. You keep returning to the decay example, but as I've repeatedly noted, this is irrelevant to the first premise of the kalam argument. The premise only concerns things that begin to exist, not anything that changes (e.g., decays).

            "Similarly, the notion of 'beginning to exist' is not clear in modern physics. Consider a color spectrum. 'Orange' does not begin to exist at a definite point when 'yellow' and 'red' stop existing."

            But colors are not "things", they are abstract descriptions. They are useful fictions that neither begin to exist or stop existing. Saying that "orange" does not begin to exist is like saying "tallness" does not begin to exist. The first premise in the kalam argument is not falsified by either of these abstract categories since it only concerns concrete "things".

            "Fundamentally, the brick is a local feature of a continuous whole and it does not have a beginning or end except as an approximation."

            Again, this is to confuse epistemology with ontology. To say, "We don't *know* when the brick began to exist as a brick" (which I'm only granting for argument's sake--I don't agree with this) is not to say, "We don't know *whether* then bricks exists." I would like to think that if I held up a brick to you and asked, "Does this brick exist?" you would agree it does. And I'd also like to think that if we traveled back five-thousand years ago, before any brick buildings existed in what is now America, you would agree the brick did not exist as a brick. Therefore, at some point the brick began to exist--even if we have difficult determining when that was.

            "Or consider, does the 'first' square inch of my desk cause the adjacent ones? No. It may be that one implies the other but that doesn't make it ontologically prior."

            I appreciate this whole paragraph but I struggle to see how it's irrelevant to either of the two kalam premises. The first premise, remember, is that "whatever begins to exist has a cause." Not "whatever is adjacent has a cause."

            "But I will warn you now, I can always formulate a shift in perspective that will make your view just another example of a description without a need for ontological priority. The fact that I can do that rather disposes of your ability to use your notion of cause in any persuasive argument."

            I'll admit, this paragraph isn't at all clear to me. I'm afraid I'd need more comments and questions to unpack this. But your final sentence suggests on the surface that the idea of "cause" is completely unpersuasive--that nothing really causes anything else. Is this what you believe?

            "Note that your equivocations are confusing even yourself now: 'By "universe" I mean everything that exists anywhere.' Except that you want to argue that god doesn't have a beginning, so god can't be in your universe, so your universe isn't everything that exists anywhere."

            This is not equivocation. It's a confusion on your end. You're right that God doesn't have a beginning, and that he is not in the universe. Your conclusion doesn't follow from those two facts, however. First, God is not "a thing" among other things--this is not only what Christians believe but it is what necessarily follows from the cosmological arguments. Second, since God (or the Uncaused Cause) is necessarily beyond space, he has no geographical component--thus using the word "anywhere", as you did, betrays a serious confusion. Third, God doesn't "exist"--he *is* existence. He is, as Thomas Aquinas demonstrated, ipsum esse subsistens: the sheer act of 'to be' itself (this is why God only refers to himself as I AM). For more on why God does not exist but *is* pure existence (or pure actuality in Aristotliean language, I suggest Aquinas' short treatise, "On Being and Essence."

            "As I said, physical observations might suggest that our current universe had a beginning in some sense, but you can't get from there to a non-physical thing."

            You can, and I've repeatedly done so. If our physical universe had a beginning--a beginning to all space, time, matter, and energy--then the cause of that universe must be spaceless, timeless, and immaterial, by logical necessity. It must be "non-physical."

            "If we accept the kalam premises we aren't lead to your desired conclusions. The most likely 'cause' for our universe would be a larger notion of the natural universe."

            Your second sentence is telling as it reveals how we're operating with different definitions of "universe." When I say "the universe began to exist", I'm including in the word "universe" all natural, physical things that exist anywhere. Therefore, by definition, a "larger notion of the natural universe" could not have caused the universe" (if we agree that something cannot bring itself into existence) since the universe contains *all* natural things.

          • Susan

            Again, to repeat the unanswered refutation I've made several times, just because we've yet to detect a cause (which I'm only granting for the sake of argument), that does not prove that no cause exists.

            This is not a refutation. Not even close. It is not up to the person addressing your deductive argument to prove that no cause exists. It is up to you to prove that a cause exists. You haven't.

            just because we've yet to detect a cause (which I'm only granting for the sake of argument),

            You have no choice but to grant that. We have not yet detected a cause. Unless you can show a cause, this is the case.

            that does not prove that no cause exists.

            You don't seem to understand the burden. This is fundamental. It doesn't have to prove that no cause exists. You have to prove that it does or you can't have your first premise.

            Now, if your response to that is going to be:

            The premise is "everything that begins to exist has a cause" not "everything that changes..."

            then please explain the distinction.

          • Susan

            Now, I'm already two comments past my "last comment" in this thread, so I'll let this short reply be my final one

            As you keep returning to the Kalam Cosmological Argument as though it is sound, it wouldn't be honest to leave it here.

            If this is not the appropriate thread, I suggest that you refer everyone (especially Josh) to a thread in which it is appropriate and finish what you started.

            It would be unbearable and give the impression of dishonesty (intended or not) if you left it at this, and showed up somewhere else, having hit the reset button, acting as though this argument had any weight.

            For goodness' sake, you are claiming an unsound deductive argument is sound and have yet to show that it is the case.

            It's very important that you finish what you started without punting back to Aquinas or making bizarre statements like:

            Also, all that's needed to arrive at the conclusion is for each of the premises to be shown more likely than their alternatives

            That doesn't work.

          • josh

            This was a short reply? :) Well, I have no self-imposed limits on my number of corrections, so, once more unto the breach.

            "It seems to me you're confusing causal epistemology with causal ontology." Not in the least. I am pointing out that you are assuming an ontology which you can't epistemologically justify. The best available science does not indicate a cause in the traditional sense at the most fundamental level. The best available science in fact militates against such a cause through the no-hidden-variables conclusion. If you want to assert your premise the burden is on you to show how you know it is true despite this fact.

            "The premise only concerns things that begin to exist, not anything that changes (e.g., decays)." Colloquially, we would say that the decay, let's say Beta decay, is the moment when the neutron ceases to exist and a new electron, proton, and neutrino begin to exist. The neutrino and electron were not previously 'inside' or 'part of' the neutron. If you are going to call this only a change then we have to conclude that we have never observed anything beginning to exist, which is fine by me but destroys your argument handily.

            "Again, this is to confuse epistemology with ontology. To say, "We don't *know* when the brick began to exist as a brick" (which I'm only granting for argument's sake--I don't agree with this) is not to say, "We don't know *whether* the bricks exists." "

            Again, the only one confused is you. I'm saying that based on a more sophisticated understanding of what "a brick" is we can't know because there is in fact no well defined notion of beginning and end to it. It only exists as an approximation, which is perfectly good for building houses, but not for talking about the underlying nature of reality. Like 'red' as distinct from 'orange' it is a categorical division that exists for your convenience but not 'out in reality.' This is a tricky, non-intuitive point but it is an example of why I say that your folk-definitions aren't up to the task. Yelling at me that the brick wasn't there and now it is is the equivalent of yelling that your grandfather wasn't no monkey. It misses the point.

            "I appreciate this whole paragraph but I struggle to see how it's relevant to either of the two kalam premises." Then I'd say you don't appreciate it. The point is that I can equally conceptualize a beginning in space as I can a beginning in time. But the beginning in space doesn't demonstrate causal dependence on the adjacent space, so you also can't demonstrate causal dependence in time.

            "But your final sentence suggests on the surface that the idea of "cause"is completely unpersuasive--that nothing really causes anything else. Is this what you believe?"

            This is indeed what I am arguing. Or at least that our notions of cause and effect have to be very carefully examined and defined before you can begin to make anything like a cosmological argument.

            "God is not "a thing" among other things..." Doesn't matter if he's among other things or not, he's still a thing if he's not nothing. This is the beginning of a bunch of special pleading.

            "...since God (or the Uncaused Cause) is necessarily beyond space, he has no geographical component--thus using the word "anywhere", as you did, betrays a serious confusion." It's normally held that God is omnipresent so the confusion is on your part. Anyhow, 'anywhere' was a word you introduced and it relates to another mistake I'll discuss below.

            "Third, God doesn't "exist"--he *is* existence. He is, as Thomas Aquinas demonstrated..." Hold your horses, Aquinas didn't demonstrate anything except the inadequacy of his metaphysics. This is just the granddaddy or all special pleading. If god doesn't exist he doesn't exist, period. "Existence itself" isn't a coherent concept, it doesn't exist independent of an actual thing existing. It most certainly does not create things, or sustain them, or have a mind or purpose, to say nothing of having a son by a palestinian woman. Existence itself does not speak to you through a burning bush and give itself a dubiously translated name. If one could argue that 'existence itself' was a needed concept separate from 'a thing existing' then we would also need a meta-existence and a meta-meta-existence, etc.

            "If our physical universe had a beginning--a beginning to all space, time, matter, and energy--then the cause of that universe must be spaceless, timeless, and immaterial, by logical necessity. It must be "non-physical." "
            I'm afraid not. As before, you cited cosmological evidence as evidence of the 'universe's' beginning. But the cosmological evidence supports at most the idea that the current phase of our observable universe had a beginning, not that all possible physical universes have a beginning. The Borde-Guth-Vilenkin paper, even generously interpreted to say things it doesn't say, doesn't show that the physical universe, meaning all 'natural' things had a beginning. (This gets back to your 'anywhere' equivocation, we don't know about 'all things anywhere', we know about the observable universe.)

            So, when you say that all space, time and matter and energy [and anything else that you would call natural, an undefined term at this point] had a beginning I correctly say that there is no evidence for that premise. Moreover, if you can argue that the natural universe must have had an unnatural cause, then I can do you one better and argue that the unnatural universe, must have a natural cause, one which is spaceful, material, etc. by 'logical necessity'. Natural or unnatural, material or immaterial, you haven't actually set out a coherent notion of how to judge that one thing causes another.

            If you define 'universe' as in your last paragraph then you beg all the important questions. What does it mean for time to 'begin to exist'? What does it mean for an immaterial thing to cause a material thing? Why define universe in terms of arbitrarily limited, vague categories like 'physical' and 'natural'? Why do you think anything needs to be 'brought into existence' and what evidence do you have that it only applies to 'natural' things? I get that you don't understand how the universe works, but every time you try to solve those riddles with 'God' you are special pleading.

          • Thanks for the reply, Josh! Looking forward to more discussion in the future.

          • severalspeciesof

            "God is not "a thing" among other things..." Doesn't matter if he's
            among other things or not, he's still a thing if he's not nothing. This
            is the beginning of a bunch of special pleading.

            Well said...

            Glen

          • 1. Everything that begins to exist has a cause.
            2. The universe began to exist.
            3. The universe has a cause.

            We have discussed this in other threads, so I will be brief. (1) does not seem to be at all obvious. How do we know it is a valid premise? Why is it not, "Everything that exists had a cause?" (I believe from other things that I have read that there is an additional Muslim argument that everything particular that comes into existence has qualities that could have been different, and therefore something has to determine what those qualities are.) But of course saying that everything that comes into existence lays the groundwork for claiming there is one thing (God) that didn't come into existence. It seems to me the argument takes a conclusion (that there had to be a "first cause") and builds an argument to support it.

            We have already discussed at some length the current scientific theory that the beginning of our universe was a quantum event, and quantum events can happen without cause—(although there are disputes about the meaning of cause as well as the meaning of nothing. No doubt those arguments will be very seriously challenged by Stephen Barr's (hopefully) forthcoming post or post. (Warning to self and others who have been making arguments based on quantum physics. Barr really knows his stuff.)

            A lot depends on what is meant by universe. It seems clear that our universe came into existence. However, if by universe is meant the totality of everything that exists, including whatever it was from which our universe came into existence, then I don't see why that couldn't be outside of time (which is a feature of our universe—maybe!) and might not be said to have come into existence or to have begun to come into existence.

            And in any case, it is also not at all clear that if some kind of "first cause" or "uncaused cause" or whatever can be logically demonstrated, that it is the God of Abraham or the Trinity of Christianity. Proof of some kind of first cause or uncaused cause with leave me with at least as many questions about the meaning and purpose of life as I have now.

          • Speaking for myself, I check into this site on occasion in hopes of planting a seed of doubt in at least some readers that may lead to less religious belief in the future.

            What if you are wrong about religious belief, and you successfully plant a seed of doubt in the minds of people who are right? Or what if, ultimately, existence is meaningless, and false religious belief in meaningful existence makes people happier than knowing the truth about a pointless, meaningless existence? If life only has the meaning we give to it, who are you to try to influence others to come around to your way of thinking? Ultimately, if there is no meaning or purpose to life, what is the value of truth other than what people choose to give it?

          • josh

            What if I am wrong that the capital of Japan is Tokyo? What if I am wrong that the Nazis had some bad ideas? Then I am wrong, was this supposed to be a difficult question? I don't think religious belief is required for people to be happy, in fact I see the opposite on average. But do you normally make this argument, that we shouldn't pursue the truth because maybe it will make someone unhappy? I thought most people accepted the idea that we can discuss the truth as it is.

            If life only has the meaning we give it, which is true, then obviously I am exactly the person to decide that it is worth my time to try and influence other people. Who am I to... I'm the guy that makes the decisions for me. Duh. The truth is valuable to me. Maybe for some person it isn't valuable, but I have yet to meet them. Certainly, the posters on this site seem to think it important that their statements have something to do with the truth.

          • JS Frederick

            From my observation we don't seem to have an engineering limit on happiness. We want unlimited happiness that lasts forever. In this finite world, the only way to get this unlimited happiness would seem to be to participate in religion - a belief in God that is infinitely good and eternal.

            As I am Christian, I don't think "life only has the meaning we give it" is true. Life is not meaningless. Not my life, not anyone else's.

          • josh

            We also want unlimited energy that lasts for ever, it doesn't follow that it exists. There is simply no evidence that religion gives people unlimited happiness.

          • But do you normally make this argument, that we shouldn't pursue the truth because maybe it will make someone unhappy?

            But you didn't say your goal was to pursue the truth. You said,

            Speaking for myself, I check into this site on occasion in hopes of planting a seed of doubt in at least some readers that may lead to less religious belief in the future.

            It is one thing to seek truth. It is another thing to be so confident that you already know it that you actively try to undermine what other people believe to be true.

            If life only has the meaning we give it, which is true, then obviously I am exactly the person to decide that it is worth my time to try and influence other people.

            But I could then make an equally valid case that if my life has only the meaning I give it, I take the meaning and purpose of my life to be to maximize happiness, and if I think that requires manipulating people into believing things that are not true, I don't see that you can object. You can say that that's not what you choose to do with your life, but you can't argue that I shouldn't find meaning and purpose in leading people away from truth. If life has only the meaning we give it, then there is no way to quarrel with any meaning anyone choose to give his or her life. And yet it is your goal, apparently, if someone has found meaning in his or her life by believing in the Catholic Church, to undermine that person's belief. And when I ask, "Who are you to do that?" your answer is, "I'm me, and I get to make up my own rules."

            The truth is valuable to me.

            Why? And do you have any grounds for criticizing people to whom the truth as you see it is not important?

            You seem to be saying that you are you, your values are your values, and they are the only values that you need to take into consideration, because essentially we all make up our own values. It seems to me that such a view could result in two possible attitudes. (1) We all must find our own meaning and determine our own values, so I must humbly respect the rights of others to find their own meaning and determine their own values. (2) Since we all must find our own meaning and determine our own values, I am the ultimate authority, and what other people think is unimportant. I am right by definition, and everyone else is wrong by definition, so I must take only myself into account.

          • josh

            David, Pursuing the truth obviously must allow for the possibility of actually making progress. So of course I think I am probably right about some things, certainly enough to try and persuade other people that they are wrong about some things. There is no contradiction here.

            "You can say that that's not what you choose to do with your life, but you can't argue that I shouldn't find meaning and purpose in leading people away from truth." Yes I can. I can argue anything I want to, as can you. Now if we have absolutely nothing in common, no common feelings, no common interests or goals, then it is likely that my arguments are pointless and will never persuade you to change. If you care about other peoples' happiness then I can certainly argue that you should care about truth, since if you don't know the truth you can't know what will grant people happiness. Given that we both care about other people's happiness then we have grounds to argue about the best way to encourage it.

            'And when I ask, "Who are you to do that?" your answer is, "I'm me, and I get to make up my own rules."' Yup. The problem was, you started from a misconception, as though someone could prevent me from doing that. We all make our own decisions about what rules we adhere to, about who, if anyone we recognize as an authority to impose rules on us. That's just life. So when you ask 'who are you to do that', well, I'm the one that has to make that decision.

            What I am saying is that if I value another person's values, that is still ultimately dependent on my values. So you offer a false dichotomy. 1) We all will determine our own meaning and values but it doesn't follow that I must respect yours, particularly it doesn't mean I shouldn't try to change yours. 2) As the 'ultimate' decider I decide whether or not what other people think is important to me. Obviously, since I am trying to change minds, I do care what other people think. Only the most hard-core of agnostics or sociopaths don't care what other people think. My opinions aren't right by definition, but by definition I believe them to be right.

          • I can argue anything I want to, as can you. Now if we have absolutely nothing in common, no common feelings, no common interests or goals, then it is likely that my arguments are pointless and will never persuade you to change.

            If "life only has the meaning we give it," which you say is true, then your answer to "what is the meaning of life" is no better than anyone else's. There is nothing outside yourself to which you can appeal that will justify your view to anyone else. If there is no meaning to life other than what we choose to give it, every answer to "what is the meaning of life" is just as good as any other. If I think the most meaningful life is one devoted to minimizing suffering in the world, that's fine for me, but if I feel it's all pointless and I might just as well life for my maximum pleasure at everyone else's expense, that's fine for me, too. If you think striving for truth is the most important thing a person can do, that's fine for you and those who agree with you, but if someone else wants to stick to what they grew up learning because it makes them uncomfortable to change their mind and their ways, what's it to you? That is the way they give their life meaning.

            If people have chosen religious belief to give their lives meaning, who are you to plant doubts in their minds to undermine the meaning they have chosen for their lives? If we all choose for ourselves, there is absolutely no evidence you can adduce to demonstrate what you choose is in any way superior to what anyone else chooses.

            If "Big Jim" Rennie in Under the Dome wants to rule Chester's Mill as a dictator, that is how he chooses to find meaning in his life, and if he has to kill off his enemies to do it, then that is right . . . for him. If there is no meaning to life other than what we give to it, there's no arguing with him. Well, you can tell him what you think, but what you think cannot be demonstrated in any way to be superior to what he thinks.

          • josh

            David Nickol,
            I'm having trouble sorting out whether you are agreeing with me, disagreeing, or just repeating yourself. If life has no meaning then my answer 'Life has no meaning except subjectively' is objectively better than anyone else's who doesn't get the subjective part. As you say, if someone simply has no interest in any of the things I find important, if they just want to be a dictator, end of story, I cannot demonstrate that my way is, objectively, superior to that person. This is exactly what we find in the real world. You also can't demonstrate to them that they should care what you think, nor anyone else. This isn't some weakness in my view, it is my view addressing how the world actually works.

            Now luckily this is all fairly abstract. Most people aren't pure sadists, most people like having friends, most people like children, etc., etc. Even for the real sociopaths, these people care about their own well-being and experience the objective world in largely the same way as I do, so we can argue to them that their best interests are served by not antagonizing everyone else so much that we punish them. This seems to be a point you are not getting. Once we have any points of common interest, then there can be objective discussion. But the basis remains subjective.

            Let's take a simple analogy. You and I both like music let's say. I'm trying to get you to appreciate a band I like. I am trying to persuade you via argument that you should also appreciate this band. I am going to appeal to things I think we both like in music. Check out these evocative lyrics I'll say. Appreciate the skill of this drummer. You like this guitar riff, well, isn't this one pretty good too. I can make rational arguments that you should give my band a try. But, they rely on points of commonality that are arational. If you simply don't like music, there is no rational argument that can compel you to change. Music has a fundamentally subjective component and so does morality.

            You ask why I care what other people believe. Is it really such a mystery? For one thing, what other people believe affects my reality in all sorts of ways, many of which I find harmful. Terrorism, bigotry, ignorance, science-denial, tribalism and warfare, reproductive rights, etc. all these things are deeply entangled with religious belief and, again, are important to me. Beyond that, I find myself generally disturbed when other people repeat untruths as though they were true. I think it is generally dangerous because such people can't be relied upon, but it also just bugs me on some level. It's like living in a Twilight Zone episode.

            Incidentally, if you don't really care what other people think, why are you so set on what I think about what other people think?

          • I am merely exploring what I believe to be the ramifications of your position. I am neither agreeing nor disagreeing with you. I think it is possible that there is no God, and that each individual's life may have only the meaning he or she gives to it. But the ramifications of that position are enormous, and grow in enormity in proportion to the number of people who believe it to be true. If life really has no meaning other than what people give to it, then life in reality is meaningless, and in practical terms has no meaning for those who do not choose to assign it a meaning. And there is no arguing with them, since if they say their lives are meaningless, they are meaningless.

            I used to know someone decades ago, when the Manson murders were big news, who said what he found particularly frightening about Charles Manson was that there were no grounds on which you could appeal to him. If life has no meaning but what we assign to it, then that is potentially true of everyone. The best we can do, if there is no real meaning to life, is hope that we are lucky enough to deal with people who have chosen to think the way we do (or people who do believe God gives life meaning). If someone is about to kill me, and I say, "Please don't kill me. I have a wife who is sick and five small children who will have no one to take care of them if I am gone," the best I can do is hope that the potential murderer has a soft spot in his heart for dependent women and children. There is no way I can persuade him he should. If the welfare of children is not important in the meaning he has assigned to his life, then there is literally no case to be made that he should be concerned with the welfare of children. I could reason with him for years and years (if he was a very patient murderer), but I could give him no evidence to convince him to change his mind, because there would be no evidence to support moral propositions. It would be like trying to convince someone who did not like broccoli that broccoli was delicious. There is no evidence to support such propositions.

          • josh

            David, thanks for your reply, I was reading some of your previous messages as attempted gotchas that perhaps were meant as open questions on your part. I appreciate it if you are trying to actually understand my view.

            I agree that the 'Charlie Manson' scenario is disturbing, but it is the world we live in as far as I can tell. You can't give him evidence for moral propositions (in the abstract) that wouldn't boil down to statements about the non-moral world, and those don't elevate the moral claims above the subjective level. It's kind of like arguing with a volcano. There are no arguments that will change what the volcano will do and there are no moral facts that pertain to the volcano that can be said to be objectively true.

            When you think about it, any alternative is actually kind of weird. Like the world would be better if Manson just didn't understand some detailed argument about final causes. Like you would say 'well, he killed my family but in principle I should have won the debate'.

          • josh

            Let me add, David, that adding God into the equation does nothing for the 'meaning of life'. If God exists it would still be up to you, so to speak, to decide if that gives your life meaning or not.

          • Josh - If I can jump in, this begs the question - that is, assumes and re-states your premise. You say that if God exists, it would still be up to the believer to decide whether that fact gives his or her life meaning or not. But this assumes that fact is not a fact but a self-appropriated reality, and that the believer is constructing meaning (God is) where there is none (God is not). But if God exists, objectively, of course it changes the meaning of life inside and out, and not according to your ability to believe that it's the case.

          • josh

            You are welcome to jump in, although I'm starting to feel I've used up enough linear space on this thread as it is. However, you are misunderstanding my thought process here. When I say that life only has the meaning we give it, I am pointing out that meaning is an inherently subjective thing. So it is independent of whether or not God exists. For the sake of argument, I'm allowing that 'God is', but pointing out that it doesn't change my argument. The 'fact' that 'god is' wouldn't compel one to find significance in that fact except on an ultimately subjective basis.

            It's like this, if you say that a purely physical conception of the universe is a meaningless one, obviously that won't change if I say, 'but it also has a new galaxy that spells out your name in the stars'. You might like this new conception of the universe better but it doesn't suddenly become objectively meaningful if it wasn't before. But similarly, adding God to the objective universe doesn't suddenly grant non-subjective meaning to it. Nothing in the previous example actually depended on the word 'physical' or anything similar. God could exist and one could still decide that his existence was meaningless.

            If a universe without God is meaningless to you, what changes if we find out that this universe is actually a simulation being run on the computer of some advanced but perfectly physical aliens? 'Oh, now that I'm a pawn of inscrutable forces- life has meaning!'? Of course not. But if you think about the reasons why that would be true, you'll see that upgrading the aliens to God doesn't fix the problem. The aliens can love you, they can make you perfectly happy or immortal, etc., but they can't add meaning if it wasn't there before.

          • When I say that life only has the meaning we give it, I am pointing out that meaning is an inherently subjective thing. So it is independent of whether or not God exists. For the sake of argument, I'm allowing that 'God is', but pointing out that it doesn't change my argument.

            Well, first I would note that if you apply "meaning is an inherently subjective thing" to itself, the meaning of the statement is inherently subjective, and therefore meaning becomes objective. The statement is self-referentially incoherent, and can't be applied to itself without cancelling itself.

            But if I do grant that meaning is totally subjective, how could you assert that your computer exists, much less God? If meaning is subjective and there is no chance of the mind discovering the objective truth about the world, only representations and impressions, you can't finally concede that "God is" (or anything is) without arguing in a circle. All is subject to skeptical doubt, as illustrated by your universe-as-computer example.

            To really consider the postulate "God is," we have to believe that "is" is objective existence, not merely subjective belief. And it's clear that, taken as objective existence, "God is" alters the landscape of reality considerably - again, whether or not one believes, subjectively. (Gravity exists objectively, for example - whether or not a person believes in it, they will most certainly feel its effects leaping from their roof.)

          • josh

            I'd appreciate it if you would first note the argument I am making and not the one you are replying to that, so far as I can tell, only exists in your head. I have nowhere said that there is no objective truth or that the meaning of words can't be understood. We were discussing ideas about 'the meaning of life' and similar phrases.

            Now the argument is often advanced that without God life is meaningless. Obviously most atheists believe in some idea of objective reality, although, yes, statements about that reality are always subject to skeptical doubt in principle. So clearly, people who assert that 'life has no meaning absent god' don't mean that this statement only follows given the most radical sort of skepticism. Rather, they mean something about a sense of purpose or ultimate direction or absolute morality or immortality, etc. It's an intentionally vague phrase, David Nickol above seems to take it along the lines of "Why should I care?" My point is that if one can categorically say that about an atheist universe then one is equally free to say it about a theist universe.

            I agree that "God is" would be a considerable change of reality, but there are an infinite number of purely physical considerable changes to reality we could also imagine. If life is meaningless regardless of those changes then God doesn't add anything new. Neither objectively forces one to find meaning in these 'facts', even if they are objective facts.

          • The point, I think, is that in the "theist world," where meanings are "out there" instead of created by each individual for himself or herself, you might very well lose the argument with Charles Manson, but at least you would be right and Charles Manson would be wrong. You wouldn't have to say, "Manson did what he thought was right."

          • josh

            Of course you would, you would just think you can add 'but he was actually mistaken.' But, as I said, being in a theist world can't actually put meanings "out there".

          • Dave H

            Josh, sorry, your seeds just aren't germinating! Whenever I read all the "show me the evidence" type posts, it calls to mind the trenchant chapter in GK Chesterton's Orthodoxy, "The Maniac". For those who haven't read it (probably a small number on a site like this), you're missing out - it deftly presents so much of the modern, scientism-soaked atheist mindset. Plus it's Chesterton so it's entertaining.

          • josh

            Dave H,
            Barren soil and all that. I can only try. I find Chesterton simply unbearable.

          • Dave H

            Sure, barren soil if that makes you feel better. My guess is stale seeds. As for Chesterton, most non-believers I know are not able to bear him. Understandably, I suppose.

        • babydoc

          Brandon seems quite gracious to you; Why are you such a j*rk.

      • Kevin Aldrich

        I thought people on this site we supposed to use their real name? 42Oolon?

  • 42Oolon

    "But when the religious is lost, ethics devolves into, first, a fussy
    legalism, and then is swallowed up completely by the lust for personal
    satisfaction."

    I utterly disagree and await some kind of evidence of this. We see multitudes of religious and atheists being both ethical and unethical all the time. Certainly we know that being religious does not quarantine one from being unethical as the child sex abuse scandal in the Catholic Church shows. These priests had every opportunity, and in fact made the decision to devote their lives to this "divine love made manifest in that cross of Jesus". If it was real, one would have expected the deepest most fulfilling love to be found with god, and no lust for personal satisfaction, or whatever they got out of molesting children. What about the priests and leaders who knew about these crimes but did not report these priests to police immediately, but moved them to other parishes where the abuse continued.? Where were their ethics? How did a devotion to God and the Catholic Church fail to instruct them in their ethical duty here? Why did the Pope not stand up to Hitler and say "this man is evil, I may be killed for saying this but we must do everything we can to resist him!" Or is real ethics more about protecting the reputation of the Church, rather than justice, and the protection of children?

    • Randy Gritter

      I actually thought of Bill Clinton when I read that line. His ethics seem to be a way to make a legacy for himself. To redeem himself for other sins. You don't get a sense of real compassion for the poor. You get a sense of helping the poor to be seen as one helping the poor. Not that he does not have compassion. I am sure he had it once. I am sure it is still there somewhere. I just think that after so many decades and so much water under the bridge the focus slips to yourself.

      I can see that for Mother Teresa and for John Paul II it really didn't. They remained Christ centered to the end. Sure people can disagree. Everyone will pick his own examples. But don't compare bad Catholics to good secular people. Compare the best to the best. Do the secular people become more self-focused later in life than the Catholics? For the first examples that popped to my head the answer was Yes.

      • I can't see how it would tell us anything useful if a number of us proposed these kinds of comparisons, and it seems particularly strange to compare Bill Clinton to Mother Teresa and John Paul II! Also, what you are saying about Bill Clinton is not based on facts, but on your own very personal impressions or attempts at "psychoanalysis" from afar.

        Also, what do you mean by "secular people"? Do you mean those who are not clergy or members of religious orders? Bill Clinton had a religious upbringing and to the best of my knowledge still considers himself a Christian (and a Baptist). I don't see any point in comparing popes, bishops, priests, and nuns to "secular people" if by "secular people" you mean people who aren't popes, bishops, priests, and nuns.

        If you want to make comparisons, the only meaningful ones will be people in comparable positions, vocations, and walks of life who do claim or exhibit religiosity to those who don't. You will have to compare religious politicians to nonreligious politicians. You can't compare a president (and ex-president) to a pope, or a nun who founded a religious order. Popes have the luxury of putting themselves "above it all," and presidents (and other politicians and ex-politicians) generally don't. Pope Pius XII could claim neutrality during World War II, but Presidents Roosevelt and Truman could not. The only people you can compare popes to are other popes—religious popes to nonreligious popes!—or perhaps other heads of large religious bodies.

        • Randy Gritter

          I told you this was subjective. You think Bill Clinton was religious? Interesting. So find a better example. I don't mean just popes and nuns. I do mean people who live the faith with intensity. People who have it at the center of their lives. That is a judgement call. For me, sainthood matters. If the church has identified them as being of heroic virtue that means something to me. It may mean nothing to you. Still it should be possible to do some comparisons that means something. I don't think popes and presidents are impossible to compare. If you don't like it try comparing authors or scientists or businessmen.

          • I do mean people who live the faith with intensity.

            Why should it be at all surprising to find a difference between "people who live their faith with intensity" and everyone else, particularly when you get to decided who fits into the category of "people who live their faith with intensity"? And to challenge what you say, I can make up the category of "nonreligious people with high moral purposes who live a highly moral life with intensity." I would expect the groups to be comparable, because you would choose your examples, and I would choose mine. For example, one of the people I admire the most is Oliver Sacks, one of the most cultured, intelligent, and compassionate people on earth, who also calls himself an "aggressive atheist." Likewise, there's Albert Einstein, not just a brilliant physicist, but a great humanitarian and an "atheist saint." It strikes me that there are many humanitarians who are either atheists or people who are not doing their good works primarily with stated religious purposes.

            Still it should be possible to do some comparisons that means something.

            If all we are interested in is extraordinary individuals (religious and secular "saints,") then I don't think this thread has much meaning for the vast majority of people who do not have the capability or the calling to be extraordinary. Of course, in a very real since, every Christian is called to sainthood." But it is a rare person who becomes pope, or has a chance of founding a religious order. If we want to talk about the importance of religion in people's lives, it seems to me limiting it to an extraordinary minority leaves out the way religion influences the vast majority of people.

            It may mean nothing to you.

            I am not sure why you felt the need to make a remark like that. Do you feel that you are speaking out in favor of virtue and I am speaking against it?

            I don't think one needs to be famous or even appreciated by the people around them to exhibit virtue—even heroic virtue.

  • Loreen Lee

    The philosophy of Kierkegaard does indeed involve the process of achieving an integrity within one's 'personhood' by proceeding from the aesthetic, through the ethical to the religious. However, an elaboration on how these concepts may be understood will hopefully will throw some light on the 'ascent'. This will be but another attempt to find structural correlations between different interpretations of Truth, Beauty and Goodness, and to define this presentation of Kierkegaard within that broader perspective.

    The aesthetic perspective is indeed, according to Kierkegaard, the first or initial 'moment' of this quest. However, to reduce it to mere sensation is perhaps an injustice to Kierkegaard's philosophy. Certainly it contains the sensual. But it is also important to see it within the context of 'Beauty', and even the 'Powers of Judgment' and "Teleology" presented within Kant's philosophy.

    The ethical too is too easily conflated with morality, whereas it could also be interpreted as conformity to the 'law', be that the legalism of the courts, or that aspect of the categorical imperative which can be found to have some conformity with Catholicism's natural law, or reason and 'Truth'.

    Finally, religion, although it has a definition of 'being bound to God' as well as the more cultural association with 'organized religion', for Kierkegaard, it draws into context the relationship between 'reason' and 'faith'. In this way both Beauty and Truth contribute to the formation of 'The Good'. This pattern can be found not only in scripture but, I believe, within the 'naturalist?' philosophy of Kant.

    Kierkegard speaks of the 'Knight of Faith', as the person who has integrated into his being even the dynamics of logical as well as existential 'contradiction'. Indeed, the knight of faith is described by Kierkeggard as a person who does not make 'absolute' conclusions with regard to knowledge of essence, or the ontology of experience, but rather reserves judgment, and alternatively 'lives in faith'. This could be related then, to living in 'love', or the achievement of being close to God, within the context of the golden rule, through the existential commitment to such a love within social engagements, as well as within internal reflection.

    Kierkegaard is known within philosophy, as the 'father of existentialism'. His philosophy was an immediate reaction to the abstract idealism of Hegel. He wished to ground the dialectics of that master within 'experience'. In summary, as in the bible, he believed that the 'knights of faith' were very few; that it is the most difficult of aspirations to attain the spirituality and wholeness to live truly, and with beauty, the goodness that would be exemplified in a 'personal' 'religiousity'.

    • Hey Loren Lee - Thanks for offering a deeper look into Kierkegaard's thought! I'm really enjoying your comments here, which are always very rooted in philosophy and serve to expand the discussion.

      In another comment you mentioned hoping to synthesize - in Hegelian fashion, incidentally - your study of philosophy with the Catholicism of your youth. Something tells me you're embarking on a very exciting and very fruitful journey, and I hope Strange Notions will be a part of it!

      Please remember to drop in the "Recommended Books" section. Some of my favorite titles by Catholic philosophers are there (e.g., de Lubac, Pascal, Aquinas, Kreeft, etc.). You might also look into the works of Jean-Luc Marion and Charles Taylor (both still living), as well as Edith Stein, who studied with Heidegger under Husserl.

      • Loreen Lee

        Thank you. I'm aware of Pascal, and Aquinas through commentary. I read a book by Charles Taylor (I believe he's a Canadian?) and am familiar with Edith Stein. I've got a shelf of Books by Heidegger and Husserl, but I'll never 'read them all'. That's what I was planning to do in my old age. But I have found that I like company, so I'll just be content to have the 'general drift' on things.

        Am attempting to integrate what I have read, and 'think things through for myself'. Sometimes I write a comment in order to understand and find myself going back and rewriting, rewriting, rewriting it until it makes sense 'to me'. Like with the comment on the Stephen Hawkins book. I don't completely understand the 'problem' even now, but 'for me', I'll look for parallel universes within this one, and single UNI-verse. As I couldn't understand what 10^500 could possibly 'mean' within the context of multi-verses outside the system of our own 'little precious universe', and as they didn't really explain what and where these universes were, etc. etc. I'll go with my own understanding.

        You see, I'm still puzzled by 'it all'. I just don't believe it's necessary to be a rebel and 'go outside of the system', in this case. although I've always been tempted to do that in my life!!!! It just seems like 'these guys' are trying to piece together the puzzle, just like I am. It's hard to keep up though, because they definitely have a head start.
        P.S. My signature of a-theist Catholic seems to be changing as I go along. I'm not sure I can synthesize anything very deeply at all. My thoughts today, for instance, are just a simple laying of one map onto another. The philosophers at the university, I'm sure, wouldn't give it a 'second thought'. But writing these comments helps me understand. So thanks.

        • I hate just name-dropping, but given this response and your response also about Kripke, I was wondering if you've read much of Santayana.

          The two reasons I ask are because he's sort of in between the continental and analytic traditions, and also because he is the only other person I've known of, besides you, to identify as a Catholic non-theist.

          If you have read him, I'd be interested in your recommended reading. I tried to start one of his books, got confused and gave up.

          • Loreen Lee

            Thanks for the 'poke'. I didn't finish 'Santayana's. Scepticism and Animal Faith, but not for the reason that I couldn't understand it, but because I thought I had 'already been there'. Since coming to this blog, I have thought that I need to reread Hegel and especially Charles Taylor's commentary. It's funny how I thought I understood them on an abstract level when I read them, but now have not even a clear memory of most of what I have read. But the preface of 'Animal Faith' begins.

            "I have a great respect for orthodoxy; not for those orthodoxies which prevail in partiular schools or nations, and which vary from age to age, but for a certain shrewd orthodoxy which the sentiment and practice of laymen maintain everywhere. I think that common sense, in a rough dogged way, is technically sounder than the special schools of philosophy, each of which squints and overlooks half the facts and half the difficulties in its eagerness to find in some detail the key to the whole."

            "I am animated by distrust of all 'high guesses', and by sympathy with the old prejudies and workaday opinions of mankind; they are ill expressed, but they are well grounded."

            Chapters like: Dogma and Doubt. Doubts about self-consciousness. The discovery of Essence. Identity and Duration attributed to Essences. Essence and Intuition. Knowledge is Faith. Belief in Substance. On some objections to Belief in Substance.The Implied Being of Truth, Discernment of Spirit. and many more.

            Just to give you confidence that you shouldn't find any 'difficulty' in reading this book. In fact, 'let's read it together'.

          • Loreen Lee

            Paul. The Disqus 'alert' just came through. I've been reading about Santayana on line. Knowing the philosopher sometimes can be better than knowing the philosophy. Think I would rather recommend Henry James to you, especially as you are a pragmatist. Santayana is also a pragmatist, I understand, but his philosophy I find a little 'quizzical'. I call myself an a-theist Catholic, because I'm attempting to assimilate the paradox of the age; They are just contradictory as well as congruent perspectives, which in a way I 'keep separate'.

            Santayana I now feel held a different dichotomy within his philosophy than I do. Since I have recently realized that although I thought I understood some greats when I read them but now have to admit that they were total abstractions, and thus are not held in my memory, I'll just proceed in life without getting involved in yet another philosopher. I generally have found though that I have read only those philosophers thoroughly, with which I intuitively felt I had something in common. I recommend then that if something doesn't 'gel' with you, etc. that you are perfectly 'right' in 'leaving it alone'. The best.