One on One: punkforchrist and Squishes: Does God exist?

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Thanks to everyone, especially Knight and Squishes, for allowing this debate to occur. In my opening statement, I will defend three arguments that I maintain give us good reasons to believe that God exists.

The Argument from Change

1. Changing things exist. (Premise)

2. Changing things exhibit potentiality and actuality. (Premise)

3. No potentiality can actualize itself. (Premise)

4. Either some pure actuality exists, or else there is an infinite regress of potentialities being actualized. (Implied by 1 - 3)

5. There cannot be an infinite regress of potentialities being actualized. (Premise)

6. Therefore, some pure actuality exists. (From 4 and 5)

We know that changing things exist and that these changing things exhibit potentiality (what a thing could be) and actuality (what a thing is). For example, an acorn is merely an acorn in actuality, but in potentiality, it is something else, e.g. an oak tree. Yet, the acorn cannot actualize its own potentiality to become an oak tree. It requires water, sunlight and soil. If at any point these sustaining causes are removed, then the acorn will cease to become an oak tree.

The key premise, then, appears to be (5). Why can there not be an infinite regress of such sustaining causes of change? The beauty of this argument is that it is entirely consistent with an infinitely-old universe. It's just that even an infinitely-old universe is composed of finite intervals. Now, at each finite interval, the regress of sustaining causes of change begins anew. Since it is impossible to form an actual infinite by successive addition whenever one begins counting, it follows that at any finite interval, the regress of potentialities being actualized must be finite.

From (4) and (5), it follows that pure actuality exists. There are many divine attributes that one may infer about pure actuality. For one, it must be immutable, since only things that exhibit potentiality can change. Secondly, pure actuality must be eternal, indestructible and omnipresent, since there is no time or place at which pure actuality can not-exist. Next, pure actuality must be one. For, if there were more than one pure actuality, then there would be distinctions between them. Yet, to be distinct from actuality is to be non-actuality, which means the latter is non-existent anyway. Other existing entities share in the actuality of pure actuality, but are distinct insofar as they have varying levels of potentiality. Finally, pure actuality must be very powerful, if not omnipotent, in order to causally sustain the actualizations of all potentialities.

Therefore, we have an argument for a purely actual, immutable, eternal, indestructible, omnipresent, unique, and very powerful sustaining cause of all change. If this isn't God, it's certainly very much like-God.

The Modal Third Way

1. Something presently exists. (Premise)

2. Something cannot come from nothing. (Premise)

3. Either everything that exists is contingent, or else there exists at least one necessary entity N.

4. Necessarily, there was never a past time at which nothing existed. (From 1 and 2)

5. Possibly, there was a past time at which nothing contingent existed. (Premise)

6. Therefore, a necessary entity N exists. (From 4 and 5)

By reductio ad absurdum:

7. N does not exist. (Assumption)

8. Possibly, there was a past time at which nothing existed. (From 3 and 5)

9. (8) contradicts (4).

10. Therefore, (7) is false.

I'll simply allow Squishes to make his objections, if he has any, to this portion of the argument, and then I'll respond to those objections.

In addition, a reasonable case can be made that N is a personal agent.

11. N is either personal or impersonal. (Definition)

12. If N is impersonal, then it is a mechanical cause. (Premise)

13. If N is a mechanical cause, then it cannot cause any contingent effects. (Premise)

14. N causes contingent effects. (Premise)

15. Therefore, N must be personal. (From 11 – 14)

The key premise in this portion of the argument is (13). In support of this claim, all of the necessary conditions for producing an effect are already present in a mechanical cause. This means that if N is mechanical, then it will only produce necessary effects, which means everything that exists is necessary! Since this is manifestly false, it follows that N is a personal agent, as opposed to a mechanical cause.

The Argument from Desire

I feel this argument “hits home” to a lot of people, because it is such a personal argument. It goes like this:

1. Every innate desire corresponds with something that can satisfy it. (Premise)

2. Perfect and eternal happiness is an innate desire. (Premise)

3. Therefore, the innate desire for perfect and eternal happiness corresponds to something that can satisfy it. (From 1 and 2)

In support of (1), let's think about this inductively. If there is hunger, there is food. If there is curiosity, there is knowledge. If there is sexual desire, there sex. Examples abound, but I'll leave it at that for now. Now, someone may object: “children want to fly like Superman, but there's no Superman.” This is true, and it helps us clarify that we're not talking about any desires whatsoever, but innate desires – those desires found universally among human cultures, and that one possesses simply by virtue of being human. Wanting to fly like Superman is a socially conditioned desire, and so is impertinent to premise (1).

In support of premise (2), just ask yourselves: do you not have an innate desire to have perfect and eternal happiness, presumably with the Supreme Good, e.g. God? Only you can answer that question for yourselves. Yet, as C.S. Lewis aptly notes, “If I find in myself desires which nothing in this world can satisfy, the only logical explanation is that I was made for another world.” Since nothing in this world can give us perfect and eternal happiness, what we have is a persuasive argument for the existence of heaven and a God who cares about his creatures.
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Please visit the comment thread for public discussion.


I want to thank Punkforchrist for inviting open engagement with his theistic beliefs and my lack thereof. I would like begin with a short description of my views and my methodology, and I’ll offer a single argument against the existence of God.


I take a non-traditional view of theism / atheism / agnosticism, where theism is strong assent (say, 0.7 or above) in the proposition that God exists, atheism is low assent or dissent (say, 0.3 or lower) in the proposition that God exists, and agnosticism is the position occupying the middle space. My field of study is a sub-discipline of philosophy known as cognitive science (a mix of philosophy, computer science, neuroscience and psychology), and I have been led to the position that beliefs are much simpler mental states and can be naturally described in terms of neurophysics and can be mapped in the language of Bayes' Theorem. Since this is not a debate between frequentists and Bayesians, I'll note that what matters here is that, on my view, agnosticism is the position that there is some evidence for the existence of God, but there is not sufficient evidence for the existence of God. Since there is some evidence of the existence God, and since atheists, on my scale, must hold that there is little to no evidence for the existence of God, I believe that atheists are just as incorrect as theists.


Quite independent of agnosticism but more central to my way of thinking is what is (sometimes derisively) called "naturalism". I'm not going to explain in detail what naturalism is, but I will defend two central components:

A) My deep suspicion of "common sense", especially with regards to intuition and the very abstract. I assume we will see this play out with my interaction with punk's theistic arguments, but it would not be fair to mention this in my opening statement. Regardless, I align myself with a long and proud tradition of philosophers who like to say “And just what could you mean by that?”

B) My reliance on the natural sciences to fill out my worldview. Minimally, this means that I prefer the methods of science to inform philosophical propositions, and maximally, that most knowledge is pieced together from empirical science.

My agnosticism with my evidentialist naturalism means that it would be very odd for me to offer a priori arguments against the existence of God. Rather than detailing deductive arguments against the existence of God, I'm going to offer an evidentialist inductive argument that I believe provides powerful reasons to reject theism.

I do not believe that my argument are indisputable, or that my opponent will not offer considerations that move the scale towards theism. Rather, I admit that some theistic arguments provide evidence for the existence of God, but the following arguments are evidentially more persuasive.

The evidentialist argument from evil

Last November, a 3-day old baby was stripped naked and was thrown into a bonfire. Her mouth was taped shut so they (a sect, the sect leader along with the newborn's mother) did not have to listen to the screams.

Second, consider a goat that was tied up for the night outside. Unfortunately for the goat, a local colony of driver ants discovered the immobile goat and began swarming it, eventually crawling into it's nose and mouth. Over the next hour, the goat finds itself increasingly unable to breathe, and begins to asphyxiate as the ants fill it's lungs and throat. By morning, the goat has died.

I suspect that the following proposition is not controversial:

One ought to prevent extreme instances of suffering insofar as one is able to without loss of some greater good.​

There are a few different possibilities:

A) If a person were able to stop these events but refused, we would say they were immoral

B) If a person were able to stop these events but refused on the grounds that it was for the greater good, and then elected not to tell us what that further good is, we would say they are insane, evil, or lying.

C) If a person were able to stop these events but refused on the grounds that it was for the greater good, and then told us it was because they didn't want to infringe on their free will, we would exclaim that preventing a 3 day old baby from being thrown in a fire does not infringe on the free will of a psychotic cult leader, anymore than saving your old child from drowning infringes on their free will.

I don't doubt that there are acceptable occasions of tremendous suffering and pain, even on infants. What I do doubt is that over the course of history, every single of the billions of gut-tearing slaughters has been morally acceptable. Every time a goat is swarmed and asphyxiated by ants, the theist must hold that God approved of this event. Not only is this a probabilistic nightmare, but this is contrary to all moral sense; how many of us would say that "I would have stopped that wicked man from burning the infant", but can in the same breath say "Well, I would have stopped him, but I don't blame God for not stopping him". Every occasion of unexplained brutality tips the scales towards the implausibility of theism.

Note that it is not enough that every instance of evil has some moral net positive; every instance of evil must be the highest moral net positive. Consider the typical theist example of the oblivious child getting life-saving vaccinations. While this is morally required for parents, the example does not port to a God who is able to heal a child from disease without any suffering whatsoever. If any parent were to choose vaccinating their child rather than just snapping their fingers and fixing the medical condition, we would call them immoral or psychotic.

I submit that while it is always possible for the theist to maintain that there must be some unknown explanation for evil, they do so at a great cost to any rule of proper belief-formation or moral dignity.

I apologize to punkforchrist for cutting out divine hiddenness, but I simply ran out of room. Let it never be said that a philosopher ran out of things to say.
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I'd like to commend Squishes for his thoughtful opening statement. I expected it to be good, and I wasn't disappointed. With this in mind, let's take a look at his methodology and arguments to see if they pass philosophical muster.

First, like Squishes, I'd prefer not to turn this debate into a matter of the value of Bayes' Theorem. Nevertheless, I do think there are some inconsistencies in the manner in which Squishes approaches the evidence with his presupposition of skepticism toward what he calls “commonsense” and “intuition.” Let's dive right into it.


First, Squishes alludes to his skepticism toward human intuition.

Secondly, he states that he primarily relies upon the natural sciences to inform his philosophical worldview. I find this a bit curious, since the natural sciences are not practiced independently of philosophical presuppositions. In order for any of the natural sciences to provide the inquirer with any modicum of knowledge, they must presuppose the laws of logic, the laws of mathematics, the principle of induction, as well as the notion that there truly exists an external physical world.

These are all philosophical issues that cannot be demonstrated by the natural sciences, but must be presupposed by them. One might wonder whether Squishes's skepticism toward intuition extends to even these philosophical concepts. If he doesn't apply the same amount of skepticism toward these issues that he extends to arguments in favor of theism, then Squishes may be susceptible to the charge of special pleading.

The Argument from Suffering

First, a technical point should be made: even if the argument from suffering were a successful argument, it wouldn't undermine theism per se. Instead, it would only illustrate the implausibility of a God who is omnipotent, omniscient, and morally perfect. Perhaps the theist could say that while God is omniscient and morally perfect, he is not omnipotent, but very powerful and nothing more.

However, I don't want to refute the argument based on a mere technicality. I am, after all, a Christian theist who holds that God is omnipotent, omniscient, and morally perfect. From here on out, then, I'll be engaging the argument from suffering as a classical theist would.

I think Squishes is smart to defend the evidential version of the argument from suffering, as opposed to the logical version, the latter of which suggests that the reality of evil is logically inconsistent with a maximally excellent God. Had he chosen to defend the logical version, I or any theist could easily point out that so long as it's even possible for God to have a morally sufficient reason to permit suffering, then there is no logical inconsistency between the existence of God and the reality of evil. As even prominent atheistic philosopher, Michael Martin, concedes: “the conjunction of the following three statements [(1) God is all-powerful and all-knowing; (2) God is all-good; (3) Evil exists.] is not inconsistent” (emphasis in original). [1]

Instead of saying that God's existence is logically incompatible with evil and suffering, Squishes opts instead to say that the two are highly implausible. Before commenting further, I have to wonder if Squishes's skepticism toward intuition and commonsense undermines his own defense of the evidential argument from suffering. If our cognitive faculties have such tremendous limitations, then why trust that we can infer the implausibility of God's having a morally sufficient reason for allowing suffering?

Let's take one example Squishes provides: a three-day old baby being burned alive as part of a cultic sacrifice. I accept Squishes's axiom: One ought to prevent extreme instances of suffering insofar as one is able to without loss of some greater good. However, I don't accept his Scenario B. God may very well choose to withhold the reason for permitting suffering. In fact, to quote William Lane Craig, if God told us the reason for every instance of suffering, we would be living in a virtual haunted house, with God whispering, “here's why I'm allowing this”! How long would it take for any one of us to get annoyed at this hypothetical scenario?

Moreover, the suffering of a newborn child pales in comparison to an eternity of bliss with God. On theism, there is a heaven and hell, and surely the innocent child would enjoy all the pleasures of heaven. How many of us wouldn't be willing to accept a few moments of suffering for the sake of an eternity in heaven?

[1] Michael Martin, Atheism: A Philosophical Justification, Temple University Press, 1990, p. 341.
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I want to thank punk for an excellent presentation of two historical and important arguments in the history of philosophy. I'll give a short meta-analysis of the arguments and then jump into specifics.

Cosmological Arguments and Skepticism

As I noted in my opening statement, I am highly skeptical of metaphysics, especially metaphysics that relies on intuition. Cosmological arguments absolutely rest on the way the world seems to us. On my view, premises that contain terms like "potency", or phrases like "Something cannot come from nothing", come from ancient vestiges of the mid-sized world. The mid-sized world is the world humans inhabit, somewhere between the quantum and the cosmic, and we have a way of parsing the world in ways to patch things together that are very difficult to understand. What we are quickly learning is that the way the world seems to us is not the way the world is (quantum mechanics, cognitive science, etc). Minimally, a combination of anti-realist considerations with the continuous march of science (in particular, physics and cosmology) should be enough to cause you, the reader, to think very hard about what kind of metaphysical machinery is up the skirt of cosmological arguments.

The Argument from Change and the Modal Argument

I am going to present a scenario that I think is possible and (perhaps) plausible:

1) Time had a definitive starting point; there is a time t1 where there was no time before.
2) All objects had a definite starting point; it is logically possible and, for the sake of my argument, actual that at one point nothing existed.
3) The laws of physics are contingent.
4a) Causation is a description of events in the universe, but may not apply to the beginning of the universe itself.
4b) All evidence for causation is either intuition, relying on conceivability, or empirical, relying on descriptions of how the laws of physics happen to work.
4c) Causal laws are not necessary; that is, it is possible for things to begin to exist without a cause.
5) It is possible that the universe began to exist without a cause and for no reason.

I don't think there is a mountain of evidence that should lead anyone to accept all these premises as true. Rather, I think the absence of logical disproofs for key premises (especially 4c) forces the wielder of the cosmological argument to bank on:

* Empirical support, which I have an explanation ready for (4b)
* Intuition, which I think everyone ought to be skeptical of in metaphysical cases anyway

To make it clear which of punk's premises I think are within grasp of my skepticism:

3. No potentiality can actualize itself. (The Argument from Change)

I don't see why this is logically necessary. It may seem very weird or counter-intuitive, but then so does pretty much everything else in metaphysics.

2. Something cannot come from nothing. (The Modal Third Way)

Perhaps, in general, something does not come from nothing, but why elevate a layman's observation to a Deep Principle of Everything?

The Argument from Desire

I hope to offer a simpler explanation for these kinds of desires. Suppose, along with virtually every philosopher of action, that desires are intrinsically motivational states. Further suppose that intrinsically motivational states are capable of being graded on an evolutionary scale. Ask yourself, would a creature with easily attainable desires (and thus terminated motivational states) do better or worse than a creature with not-easily attainable desires (and thus not terminated motivational states)? The latter seems more likely to go into fixation in the population.

I realize this is very speculative, but it doesn't seem less speculative than your view. Further, it carries much less metaphysical baggage which for most is a virtue.


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In my second rebuttal, I'll be responding to some of Squishes objections and reservations regarding my theistic arguments. He begins by reiterating his skepticism. Do the terms “potentiality” and “actuality” mean anything? Well, surely they do, even if one rejects them in his or her metaphysical system. Not only that, but potentiality and actuality seem to be indispensable for any system that recognizes change as a real phenomenon, as the example I've used illustrates.

In addition, Squishes casts doubt on the metaphysical principle that something cannot come from nothing. He mentions quantum mechanics (QM), but as Christopher Ray points out, “it is a mistake to think of any physical vacuum as some absolutely empty void.” [1] QM does not provide us with any exception to the notion that something cannot come from nothing. Rather, quantum fluctuations, whether spontaneous or not, arise out of the existing energy contained within the quantum vacuum. We therefore have further confirmation that something cannot come from nothing, or that being cannot arise from non-being.

Cosmological Arguments

Squishes begins his critique of my cosmological arguments with five scenarios:

Squishes said:
1) Time had a definitive starting point; there is a time t1 where there was no time before.

2) All objects had a definite starting point; it is logically possible and, for the sake of my argument, actual that at one point nothing existed.

3) The laws of physics are contingent.

I agree with the first three of these statements. However, it's absolutely crucial to understand that I am not defending the kalam cosmological argument (KCA), which requires the universe to have had a beginning at some point in the finite past. Rather, I'm arguing that there must exist a necessary and purely actual sustaining cause for the here-and-now aspect of contingent entities. It's one thing to say that someone planted an acorn (originating cause), and quite another to have the acorn depend on its development on water, sunlight and soil, each of which are sustaining causes of the acorn's change.

To be blunt, I believe the universe had a beginning in the finite past and that God created the universe. However, I also believe that God sustains the universe, and it's the latter I'm most interested in arguing for. Here are Squishes's remaining scenarios:

Squishes said:
4a) Causation is a description of events in the universe, but may not apply to the beginning of the universe itself.

4b) All evidence for causation is either intuition, relying on conceivability, or empirical, relying on descriptions of how the laws of physics happen to work.

4c) Causal laws are not necessary; that is, it is possible for things to begin to exist without a cause.

5) It is possible that the universe began to exist without a cause and for no reason.

In (4a), Squishes assumes that the law of causation is a law of nature, but that's not what I'm arguing. What I suggest, for example, that no potentiality can actualize itself, this is a metaphysical principle and not a law of nature. The reason no potentiality can actualize itself is because that would make it self-caused, in which case X would have to exist and not-exist simultaneously in order to cause its own existence, which is absurd.

In my analysis above, this also undermines (4b), since while I value intuition, conceivability, and
empirical observation, the argument I just expanded upon shows that it's logically impossible for a potentiality to actualize itself. Now, (4c) and (5) may conflict with the modal third way (MTW), even though the MTW doesn't mention the beginning of the universe, but only that something cannot come from nothing. I want to suggest that Squishes must pick his poison: either abandon his philosophical Naturalism, which relies upon causal principles, or else concede that things don't come into being from nothing.

The Argument from Desire

With respect to this argument, Squishes suggests that innate desires may be hardwired into us as intrinsically motivational states, which are the result of the evolutionary process. I'm perfectly willing to grant this supposition, but I don't see how it conflicts with the argument. Evolution (in my view guided by God, but leave that aside for a moment) has also given us innate desires for food, knowledge, resting places, and sex. Each of these is attainable, so why should the innate desire for heaven be an exception? Unless I've missed something, Squishes doesn't explain why.

[1] Christopher Ray, Time, Space and Philosophy, Routledge, 1991, p. 205.
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In this reply I will be responding to punk's thoughtful criticisms of my presentation of the problem of evil.

The Inductive Problem of Evil

1) What kind of theism does my argument undermine?

I fully admit that my argument does not touch certain kinds of theism. This is not a weakness of the argument, but a component of inductive arguments in general. While I think someone who gives up omnipotence may have a way out, I do not think that Open Theists have such an escape route. I'll leave that discussion for another time.

2) Morality and intuition

Punk thinks that there may be a tension between my skepticism about intuition and the inferential process involved in evidential arguments. I wholly admit that humans perform poorly on certain (simple) reasoning tests, my target is not the methods of reasoning but the data gleaned from intuition. So it isn't that we cannot reason in such a way that we could not reliably come to true conclusions, but rather that arguments that are deeply reliant on intuition-- and not verified by either well-argued philosophy or the sciences-- are unlikely to yield true conclusions.

3) The haunted house scenario

Punk believes that if God were to explain why he allowed for 3 year olds to be burned in bonfires, we would be living in a haunted house with God whispering in our ears. The only reason this response fails is because it is assumed God ought to remain hidden from us like a ghost. In fact, parents who do not console their children and remain hidden in their time of need, especially when they do not understand why they are suffering so, are considered immoral.

4) Why being unable to understand God's reasons to allow evil undermines morality

I take it that it is obvious we ought to avoid burning children in bonfires, but theists must hold that occasionally it is morally obligatory to burn children in bonfires. This is not so controversial, because even the most hardened atheist would say that burning a child is better than, say, burning a village. But the theist is at a distinct disadvantage since everything that happens has at least tacit approval from God, whereas the skeptic can truly say that some event ought not to have happened. I think there is an issue with God staying hidden from moral decision-making, if he exists:

1) There may be horrendous evils HE that God is justified in permitting in order to attain some good.
2) If there are HE, then it is plausible that God would make his existence clear so that we would know that there is justification for HE.
3) But God's is not clear.
4) So it is plausible that God does not exist given that we do not know the justification of HE.

Note that I am not claiming that we need to know what the justification for evil is, only that we have a reason to suspect that there is some justification for evil. Divine silence in the midst of extreme suffering, in tandem with a lack of strong arguments in favor of his existence, leads me to believe that there is not a caring being in control of the affairs of the world.


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I'd like to begin by once again thanking Squishes for joining me in this debate. It's been a pleasure debating with someone of his intelligence and candor. In my closing statement, I'd like to wrap up the cases presented both for and against God's existence.

God Exists: The Affirmative Case

What we've seen in Squishes objections is that he doesn't generally trust human intuition to provide us with rationally compelling beliefs. However, you'll notice that I've defended these arguments not with respect to intuition alone, but also with empirical data, as well as logical necessities.

Some objections were possibly left out of Squishes's rebuttals simply because of a lack of space. I welcome further objections. For instance, I'm prepared to answer the objection that an actual infinite can be formed by successive addition. It's alleged there are infinitely-many fractions between 1 and 2. However, the objection fails for two reasons. First, whenever all of these fractions are added up, we get a finite sum. Secondly, 1 and 2 are the respective beginning and end of the interval. Hence, the objection presupposes what it sets out to disprove: providing us with a finite example of what's supposed to be infinite.

Another objection I was prepared to answer was that in order for X to change Y, X must also change. I think this objection is also unsuccessful. Imagine a man gazing upon a beautiful painting. The man is said to be “moved” (e.g. changed) by the painting's beauty, even though the painting needn't change. This is because the painting moves things by being an object of desire. I submit Pure Actuality is the supreme object of desire, which is one reason it's capable of sustaining all actualizations of potentialities.

God Exists: The Negative Case

Squishes's criterion for what our cognitive faculties are able to reliably infer seems arbitrary. Why trust our cognitive faculties with respect to the argument from suffering, but not with respect to the theistic arguments I've presented? In fact, Squishes's own defense of the arguments from suffering and divine hiddenness rest highly upon intuition, and not upon logical demonstrations or empirical data. The argument from divine hiddenness, I contend, is actually a textbook case of question-begging. It assumes that God has not made his existence known, which is exactly what I've argued God has done!

Moreover, throughout Squishes's defense of the argument from suffering, he has assumed that there are objective moral obligations. I agree that there are. Yet, which of our two worldviews better accounts for these obligations? If moral obligations truly are objective, then there is an immutable aspect to them. This makes much more sense on my presentation of theism, where God, as Pure Actuality, is the supreme object of desire, and would thus be sufficient as the locus of objective moral obligations. While the moral argument has not been our focal point thus far, I maintain that the reality of suffering, combined with an objective moral law, favors theism much more than atheism.
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