Atheists Can’t Trust Reason — Or Anything


I saw on Twitter another version of the old you-can’t-trust-reason-without-God argument, under the title “On the futility of attempting rational discourse with atheists.” It went like this.

1. Anyone who accepts atheism accepts naturalism.
2. On naturalism, the reliability of human reason is astronomically improbable.
3. Therefore, anyone who accepts naturalism has a defeator for any conclusion whatever reached on the basis of reasoning, including the conclusions of naturalism and atheism.
4. Therefore, atheism can never be accepted by anyone on a rational basis, since every atheist eo ipso has a rational defeator for his own acceptance of atheism.
5. Therefore, all atheists accept atheism on wholly non-rational grounds.
6. Therefore, every atheists just as such places himself outside the sphere of rational discourse.
7. Therefore, it is pointless to attempt to engage an atheist qua atheist within the sphere of rational discourse.

I thought this smelled familiar (e.g. “defeator”), and indeed the person who posted the argument points us later to Alvin Plantinga’s Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion, and Naturalism (highly recommended, incidentally) in which this appears.

Before tackling premise #2 (#1 is obviously true), but assuming it’s force, what is amusing are the atheists’ response to the posting. One fellow wrote, “Both empiricism and rationalism have brought us this far, and have served us well. To deny this fact is just a delusional claim.” Another said, “While that’s fortunate for theists, we can test our faulty reasoning against reality. Unfortunately, under theism we can’t trust reality.”

Premise #2 asserts the fallibility, untrustworthiness, and groundlessness of human reasoning under the assumption of naturalism, therefore to answer, as these atheists implicitly do, that “I love muh rationality and muh naturalism” is no better than saying “Is not!” to the argument’s “Is so!”

As we all know by now, all probability is conditional, and premise #2 speaks of probability. What are the conditions the argument has in mind that makes the reliability of human reason “astronomically improbable”?

Naturalism is, of course, the philosophy that supernaturalism is false; a theorem of naturalism is that all that exists is matter and energy and various forces between them, i.e. the material world. That’s one condition, and a restatement of premise #1.

We’re here and arguing and thus using some form of intellectual apparatus, so, accepting naturalism, we had to get here somehow and develop this apparatus. Call that somehow evolution, or whatever you like, as long as you don’t appeal to God and immaterial intellects and so on.

Now what guarantee is there that the mechanism that brought us to this point aligns our intellectual facilities with the truth?

None whatsoever. It is common to declare that evolution, operating in whatever mechanism you have in mind, caused our brains to produce ideas and convictions aligned with that which enhances our procreative abilities. Yet there no proof these ideas and convictions must be what is true. You can argue that they must be, but then you are arguing in circles, assuming what you wish to prove. Because it is logically possible that evolution caused us to believe what is false (at some times or even most times) or to reason badly. All we can say for sure is that we’re here. There is no proof on any conjecture beyond that.

After all, dear atheist, it is true, is it not?, that the vast, vast majority of those who have ever lived have accepted supernaturalism and have managed to reproduce just fine. Yes? Given the relative performance of baby making, the religious have been and are still superior — on average, of course. Thus, rationality, if it be true, appears deleterious, especially when rationality causes some kind of socialism (this is only a mild joke).

You may say you have designed an experiment to test whether our intellects are aligned with the truth, but this experiment, however it is constructed, must assume what it seeks to prove. At the least, we have to assume our intellects can map from experiments to truth, and there is no proof of that. It is only an assumption. It could be — it is logically possible — we have a built-in observational bias which causes us to misinterpret from only a few things to everything we see.

Of course, all of this is absurd; our intellects work just fine. Mathematics is in no danger, neither is philosophical argumentation like this. But that is because there is an Ultimate Grounding and reason for us to trust our rationality.

Review of Feser and Bessette’s “By Man Shall His Blood Be Shed: A Catholic Defense of Capital Punishment”

One Peter Five: Review of Feser and Bessette’s By Man Shall His Blood Be Shed: A Catholic Defense of Capital Punishment. Also see if there are any comments at Feser’s place.

Sometime in the mid-1990s in Colombia, Luis Alfredo Garavito Cubillos lured a 6-year-old boy into an isolated spot and sodomized and murdered him. There were bite marks and other evidence of “prolonged torture” found on the boy’s body. The boy’s head was discovered some distance from his torso; the boy’s penis was severed and stuffed into the corpse’s mouth. This act might have occurred while the boy still lived.

Cubillos, unaffectionately known as La Bestia (The Beast), confessed to the crime.

He also confessed to a second crime where he sodomized and tortured a young boy to death. And then a third. And a fourth. And fifth, sixth, seventh, …

Altogether, La Bestia admitted to sodomizing, maiming, torturing, and murdering 147 boys, but he admitted his memory was hazy, and some say the real total approaches 300.

Cubillos was arrested, tried, and found guilty of murdering (only) 138. Colombia’s constitution says “The right to life is inviolable. There will be no death penalty.” That same merciful attitude is responsible for the country forbidding lifetime imprisonments, too.

In 2006, the Superior Court of Bogotá reduced Cubillos’s sentence from 30 years to 22 because of a technicality. He is due to be released in 2021, though, if I understand correctly, with good behavior he can be out by 2018. La Bestia will be 61 in 2018.

Many Catholics would say that the mercy shown to Cubillos represents a true “pro-life” position, and that those who say Cubillo should be executed say so only because they themselves are “eager to kill” and are “bent on maximizing killing no matter what”.

The official stance of the Catholic Church, however, as reinforced by some 2,000 years of teaching, is that the death penalty can be, has been, and continues to be, a just punishment. In the case of Cubillos, it is surely his due. Scheduling his execution, offering him the sacraments, and then speedily carrying out the sentence is the best chance La Bestia has to save his soul. As it now appears (though only God knows), Cubillos is on a blood-greased slide to Hell.

I do not want to make light of this, but it is better than a good bet that unless Cubillos after his release is restrained by illness or circumstance or he is not killed or otherwise incapacitated by vigilantes, La Bestia will kill again. That blood, if God forbid it should flow, will be on the heads of those authorities who refused their Christian duty.

Why Capital Punishment?

Enter By Man Shall His Blood Be Shed: A Catholic Defense of Capital Punishment by Edward Feser and Joseph Bessette, a book so thorough and so relentless that it is difficult to imagine anybody reading it and coming away unconvinced by the lawfulness and usefulness of capital punishment.

Whether to hang any man is in each case a matter of prudential judgement, because the circumstances surrounding any crime always varies. Two Catholics can disagree whether Cubillos should be executed, but that execution might be a just punishment is a question long settled. Which makes you wonder why some, including members of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), say things like “human life is sacred…[which] compels us as Catholics to oppose…the use of the death penalty.”


If you’ve managed to escape the hangman’s noose, click over and read the rest.

Answering Ben Santer’s Trickle-Down Ignorance on Climate — Santer Responds Update!

Stream: Answering Ben Santer’s Trickle-Down Ignorance on Climate

Climatologist Ben Santer says living in the “darkness of the Trump administration’s scientific ignorance” is like the time he nearly killed himself by ineptly slipping on some ice.

Well, he ought to know.

Santer’s lack of surefootedness (and political lightheadedness) would be of no interest to man nor beast, except that Santer was able to convince the Washington Post to print his pitiful tale. Which makes it “worthy” of discussion. I guess.

So let’s discuss.

Santer spends most of his article—seven paragraphs!—telling us how important, noble, selfless, smart, and humble he is: “long apprenticeship”, “rigorous”, “years of your life” (he speaks of himself as “you”), “you are first author”, “you jump through hoops”, “You enter the public arena, and make yourself accountable.”

Somebody give this man a lollipop.

Now, the reason old Ben bares his tortured soul is that he is concerned that there might exist people who do not believe this proposition: “The balance of evidence suggests a discernible human influence on global climate.”


Our Ben—smart, gifted, diligent, dedicated, and most humble man that he assures us he is—doesn’t appear to understand this simple logical point. He is therefore angry at President Trump because Trump once tweeted “The concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive.”

Santer is far from the first, and certainly won’t be the last, public intellectual triggered into a foamy-mouthed spasm by one of Trump’s tweets. These fellows are like the pussy cat who chases the red light of a laser pointer: the pussy cat knows the phantasm is not a mouse, but it can’t help itself, so it attacks. It’s the nature of pussy cats to attack unthinkingly.

Same thing here. It must be obvious to Santer that Trump did not mean this tweet, or any other of his off-the-cuff utterances on the subject, to be a replacement for a complete scientific theory of fluid flow on a rotating sphere radiated by an external heat source. But Santer, like the pussy cat, can’t help himself and pretends to believe Trump meant precisely that.

This is why Santer is worried that Trump’s “ignorance” will “[trickle] down from the president to members of his administration, eventually filtering into the public’s consciousness.”

Wow! The public consciousness! That’s a lot to expect from a tweet.

Ben, if you want some advice from a colleague, or even if you don’t, I must tell you that you’re in danger of becoming CNN.


You know what to do.

Update I sent Santer a link to the article. He sent this (see if you can spot the fallacy):

Mr. Briggs,

Please do not write to me. I have no interest in communicating with you.

Ben Santer

Summary Against Modern Thought: The Soul Begins At Conception, Part II

This may be proved in three ways. The first...
This may be proved in three ways. The first…
See the first post in this series for an explanation and guide of our tour of Summa Contra Gentiles. All posts are under the category SAMT.

Previous post.

Part II of three parts, showing life begins at conception. Do your homework and review first, or else these arguments seem to come out of the blue.

Chapter 83 That the human soul begins to exist when the body does (alternate translation) We’re still using the alternate translation.

16 Then, too, whatever is subject to alternate phases of existence according to various periods of time is subject to the movement of the heaven, which the whole course of time follows. But intellectual and incorporeal substances, including separately existing souls, transcend the entire realm of bodily things. Hence, they cannot be subject to the movements of the heavenly bodies. Therefore, it is impossible that they should be naturally united during one period of time and separated during another, or that they should naturally desire this at one time, and that at another.

17 On the other hand, the hypothesis that souls are united to bodies neither by violence nor by nature, but by free choice, is likewise impossible. For no one voluntarily enters into a state worse than the previous one, unless he be deceived.

But the separate soul enjoys a higher state of existence than when united to the body; especially according to the Platonists, who say that through its union with the body, the soul forgets what it knew before, its power to contemplate truth in a pure manner thus being checked. Hence, the soul is not willingly united to the body unless it be the victim of deception. But there can be nothing in the soul that could cause deception, since, for the Platonists, the soul is possessed of all knowledge. Nor can it be said that the soul’s judgment, proceeding from universal scientific knowledge and applied to a particular matter of choice, is overwhelmed by the passions, as in the incontinent; for no passions of this sort occur without bodily change, and, consequently, they cannot exist in the separate soul. We are, then, left with the conclusion that, if the soul had existed before the body, it would not be united to the body of its own will.

Notes Sin is explained in that first bit, too.

18 Moreover, every effect issuing from the concurrent operation of two mutually unrelated wills is fortuitous, as in the case of a person who goes out to shop and meets his creditor in the market place without any prior arrangement between the two. Now, the will of the generative agent, whereon the body’s production depends, is independent of the will of the separate soul which wills to be united. It follows that the union of the soul and body is fortuitous, since it cannot be effected without the concurrence of both wills. Thus, the begetting of a man results not from nature, but from chance, which is patently false, since it occurs in the majority of cases.

Note And this is more proof chance is in your mind, not things.

19 Now, again, the theory may be advanced that the soul is united to the body by divine decree, and not by nature, nor of its own will. But such a supposition also seems inadmissitesble on the hypothesis that souls were created before bodies. For God established each thing in being in a mode congruent with its nature. Hence, in the Book of Genesis (1:10, 31) it is said of each creature: “God saw that it was good,” and of all creatures collectively: “God saw all the things that He had made, and they were very good.”

If, then, God created souls separate from bodies, it must be said that this manner of being is more suitable to their nature. But it is not becoming to the ordering of things by the divine goodness to relegate them to a lower state, but, rather, to raise them to a higher. Hence, it could not have been by God’s ordinance that the soul was united to the body.

20 Moreover, it is inconsistent with the order of divine wisdom to raise up lower things to the detriment of higher things. But generable and corruptible bodies have the lowest rank in the order of things. Hence, it would not have been consistent with the order of divine wisdom to ennoble human bodies by uniting pre-existing souls to them, since this would be impossible without detriment to the latter, as we have already seen.

21 Having this point in mind—for he asserted that human souls had been created from the beginning—Origen said that they were united to bodies by divine decree, but as a punishment. For Origen thought that souls had sinned before bodies existed, and that according to the gravity of their sin, souls were shut up in bodies of higher or lower character, as in so many prisons.

Notes A fallacy, but an understandable one!

22 This doctrine, however, is untenable, for, being contrary to a good of nature, punishment is said to be an evil. If, then, the union of soul and body is something penal in character, it is not a good of nature. But this is impossible, for that union is intended by nature, since natural generation terminates in it. And again, on Origen’s theory, it would follow that man’s being would not be a good according to nature, yet it is said, after man’s creation: “God saw all the things that He had made, and they were very good.”

23 Furthermore, good does not issue from evil save by accident. Therefore, if the soul’s union with the body were due to sin on the part of the separate soul, it would follow that this union is accidental, since it is a kind of good. In that case the production of man was a matter of chance. But such a thing is derogatory to God’s wisdom, of which it is written that “It ordered all things in number, weight, and measure” (Wis. 11:21).

24 That notion also clearly clashes with apostolic doctrine. For St. Paul says of Jacob and Esau, that “when they were not yet born, nor had done any good or evil, it was said that the elder shall serve the younger” (Rom. 9:11-17). Hence, before this was said, their souls had not sinned at all, yet the Apostle’s statement postdates the time of their conception, as Genesis (25:23) makes clear.

25 Earlier, in treating of the distinction of things, we leveled against Origen’s position a number of arguments which may also be used here. Omitting them, therefore, we pass on to others.

26 It must be said that the human soul either needs the senses or does not need them. Now, experience seems to show clearly that the former is true. For a person who lacks a certain sense has no knowledge of the sensible objects which are perceived through that sense; a man born blind has neither knowledge nor any understanding of colors.

Furthermore, if the human soul does not require the senses in order to understand, then sensitive and intellective cognition in man would have so ordered relationship to one another. But experience demonstrates the contrary; for our senses give rise to memories, and from these we obtain experiential knowledge of things, which in turn is the means through which we come to an understanding of the universal principles of sciences and arts.

Now, nature is wanting in nothing that is necessary for the fulfillment of its proper operation; thus, to animals whose soul is endowed with powers of sense and movement nature gives the appropriate organs of sense and movement. Hence, if the human soul needs the senses in order to understand, then that soul would never have been made to be in the first place without the indispensable assistants which the senses are. But the senses do not function without corporeal organs, as we have seen. The soul, therefore, was not made without such organs.

27 The argument that the human soul does not need the senses in order to understand, and thus is said to have been created apart from the body, necessarily implies that, before being united to the body, the soul was by itself cognizant of all scientific truths.

The Platonists indeed admitted this in saying that Ideas, which according to Plato are the separate intelligible forms of things, are the cause of knowledge; and thus, the separate soul, having no obstacle confronting it, received full knowledge of all sciences. Therefore, since the soul is found to be ignorant when united to the body, it must be said that it forgets the knowledge which it previously possessed.

The Platonists acknowledge this inference, also, adducing the following observation as indicative of its truth: If a man, however ignorant he may be, is questioned systematically about matters taught in the sciences, he will answer the truth; so, if a man has forgotten some of the things that he knew before, and a person proposes to him one by one the things he has forgotten, he recalls them to his memory. And from this they inferred that learning was nothing else than remembering.

This theory then necessarily led to the conclusion that union with the body places an obstacle in the way of the soul’s understanding. In no case, however, does nature unite a thing to that which impedes its operation; on the contrary, nature unites the thing to that which facilitates its operation. Thus, the union of body and soul will not be natural, so that man will not be a natural thing, nor will his engendering be natural; which, of course, is false.

Notes That learning is not recollection is proved in wading through this arguments, especially if it your first time!

28 The ultimate end of every thing, moreover, is that which it strives to attain by its operations. But man, by all his proper operations fittingly ordered and rightly directed, strives to attain the contemplation of truth; for the operations of the active powers are certain preparations and dispositions to the contemplative powers. The end of man, therefore, is to arrive at the contemplation of truth. It is for this purpose, then, that the soul is united to the body, and in this union does man’s being consist. Therefore, it is not union with the body that causes the soul to lose knowledge which it had possessed; on the contrary, the soul is united to the body so that it may acquire knowledge.

29 Then, too, if a person ignorant of the sciences is questioned about matters pertaining to the sciences, his answers will not be true, except with regard to the universal principles of which no one is ignorant, but which are known by all in the same way and naturally. But, if that ignorant person is questioned systematically later on, he will answer truly concerning matters closely related to the principles, by referring them to the latter; and he will go on answering truly as long as he is able to apply the power of first principles to the subjects about which he is questioned.

This makes it quite clear, therefore, that through the primary principles new knowledge is caused in the person questioned. This new knowledge, then, is not caused by recalling to memory things previously known.

Notes I’ve heard it said the highest form of reasoning is not forming analogies, but analogies between analogies.