Tsk! Tsk! Taking Trees To Task

Trees over at Anomalous Data is having a high old time beating up on some poor internet ‚theologian’ the Senior Pastor at Millersville Bible Church, Steve Cornell.

She is slowly dismantling his arguments against atheism which seem to me to be nothing but poorly written Christian apologetics framed in a rant about atheism. The fact that Mr. Cornell’s arguments are bad atheism mixed with even worse theology doesn’t give Trees a pass on proper argumentation. Tsk, Tsk, Trees!

In part three of her multipart post, Ms ‘I Will Take This Evil Individual To Task’ attacks the following statement so foolishly posted on the Intertubes by Mr Cornell. (And no I won’t link to him, go her post for the original link.)

Yet, ironically, the atheist has to believe in miracles without believing in God. Why? Well, one law that nature seems to obey is this: whatever begins to exist is caused to exist. The atheist knows that the universe began to exist and since the universe is, according to the atheist, all there is, the very existence of the universe seems to be a colossal violation of the laws of nature (i.e., a miracle). It’s hard to believe in miracles without God.

Trees seems to be able to dispel this argument with a simple schoolyard chant.

“OK, Mr. Cornell, if God exists, and if everything that exists must be caused to exist, what caused God?”



I’m so glad I started this. It is so fun to devolve into third-grade playground philosophy once in a while. I believe that the last time I engaged in this argument, I was on the other side of it. I was in my parent’s basement with several other grade-school girls. It was three in the morning, I was having a sleep-over, and we were all juiced up on Kool-aid and Oreos.

I believe the most intelligent summary of it would be:

“Oh yeah, and what came before THAT? Yeah? And what came before THAT? Uh huh, OK, what came before THAT? No, YOU have another Twinkie and shut up. I KNOW you are but what am I?…”

Alas and alack, this argument doesn’t quite hold up. Mr. Cornell was coaching an extremely old argument in a fairly silly form. This idea dates back to Plato and Aristotle who first framed the line of reasoning. It was Thomas Aquinas who then brought the claim into the world of Christian apologetics in his work Summa theologiae as one of the five proofs for the existence of God (Quinquae Viae).

Interestingly, of the five proofs, the only one to stand the test of time is the argument of the first cause (ex causa) used by our intrepid Mr Cornell. This argument isn’t, as opposed to the first, third, fourth and fifth arguments, illogical just tautological. Being the lazy slime I am, I will simply quote Wikipedia for the main discussion,

Gottfried Leibniz stated the problem in his conclusion, although his terminology included some assumptions. If his principle of sufficient reason is indeed universally applicable, then the First Thing must either (1) be its own cause or (2) have a non-causal explanation. The non-causal explanation would either (a) make the First Thing’s existence be in some way self-explanatory or (b) make it follow in an explanatory way from self-explanatory truths, such as the truths of logic.

All three options have had defenders. Thus, option (1), the causa sui option, is defended by Descartes. Option (2a) is held by some of those like Aquinas who think that God’s essence is identical with God’s existence, or by those who hold, more weakly, that God’s existence follows from his essence. Option (2b) essentially holds that there is a sound ontological argument for the existence of God, albeit we may not have discovered it yet. It follows from the principle of sufficient reason that one of the three options holds, but a defender of the Principle does not need to give an independent proof of any one of these options. It is, after all, the conclusion of the argument that one of these holds. In fact, this conclusion might be the starting point for responding to the problem of identifying the First Thing with God–that is how it is in Aquinas, for instance. Thus, if one could show the premises of the cosmological argument to be true and show that options (1) and (2a) were not tenable, then the cosmological argument would turn into an argument for the existence of an ontological argument. We would then know that there is a sound ontological argument, even if we did not know what it is.

I would phrase the argument slightly differently. Although the universe as we now experience it requires a chain of cause and effect, this does not either exclude nor prove the possibility of a creator, something (someone?, somegod?) that forged the first link in the chain. Existing outside both space and time the existence of such a thing can be conjectured. But even though the possibility of such a creator exists, for me, the ‘proof’ breaks down when one asks the question of the probability of that creator. For me the probability isn’t guaranteed as would be required to make this a proof.

I, agnostic that I am, can equally well postulate an infinite number of universes, each with a slightly different combination of physical constants. [Physical constants are those ‘fudge factors’ which don’t seem to have a mathematical reason, the speed of light, the charge on the electron, the mass of a neutron, etc.] It just happens that our universe has the exact balance of constants leading to an age of the universe appropriate for the formation of rocky planets having the correct amount of chemicals allowing life. We just happened to be on the rock orbiting just the right star at just the right time with conditions just right for life to occur. While there might be many, many such rocks, we just happened to evolve from the right combination of chances into a species able to postulate about why we are here and where we come from. It is impossible to prove what is outside the universe because that is, per definition, outside the realm of our knowledge.

One can create belief systems describing an extra -temporal and extra-spatial being responsible for everything. One could also describe many such beings. Equally well, one can generate thousands of pages and hundreds of books describing things called ‘strings’ and ‘super-strings’ which have an equally imaginary effect on the current reality. But what one shouldn’t do is use incorrect arguments to snark down the foolish. Especially foolish internet theologians who are trying to preach to the converted with all the logic of a wart hog.

Trees, you should have known better. Tsk! Tsk! Tsk!


5 comments so far

  1. Teresa on

    In my defense, I tend to answer the argument that someone is actually offering, rather than the one they should have offered.

    That sort of behaviour gets you dismissd as “putting words in their mouths” and possibly even “being a show-off”. I prefer to answer on the level of the playing feild and see if the need to argue with me forces them to elevate it.

    If Mr. Cornell had offered the argument that you did, it certainly would have taken more time, and been more engaging.

    But he didn’t. He offered the logic of a wart hog in misapplying an aproximation of the argument and claiming it refuted the athiest position or supported his particular vision of God.

    But I certainly appreciate the intent of your post, and your high expectiations for me.

    Also, thanks for the link.

  2. blc303 on

    I know. But to be honest, I answered your criticism not his argument.
    Rev. Braindead makes the WTF jump from the causal chain to miracles with nothing but a wave of the hand and a brief hammering on keyboard keys. That is the real hole in his ‘argument.’

    Your dismissal of the first cause discussion is simply wrong. The Christian idea of God being outside time and space and somehow outside physical reality (or is it physical reality that’s inside God? I never get that right!) is an improvable premise but not necessarily wrong. That was my point, that’s why I took you to task.
    The theological hole in that guy’s argument comes from claiming that atheists don’t think there was something outside the universe or that the creation of the universe requires a miracle. It doesn’t. The limits of imagination are all his and not on the atheists side. But then again we both know that.

    BTW, I do have high expectations for you. You also almost always meet them. Sure, a bit iffy on animal training issues but on the whole you do pretty well.

  3. Teresa on


    I see your point, but I think it’s important to note that my criticism was NOT of first cause.

    (although I will take note that I gave that impression and try to avoid it in the future)

    It was of the approach: “First cause canot be disproven ,therefore I am right”. Which has, in my experiance, ALWAYS ended with a sort of “Nuh-uh, Ya-huh, Nuh-uh, Yah-huh” feedback loop. Jumping to the end of an argument to show the ansurdity of it’s final destination is a time-honored tactic, particularly when it is an argument that is so sophomoric,and it is reasonable to assume that all invloved have been over that ground again and again.

    If his point has been “First cause can neither be proven nor disproven, but I believe in God so I believe he was the first cause and that it happened”, I would have had nothing to say about it. You can’t argue with that (although some athiests still do, and some of them are my friends, and we just don’t talk about that anymore.)

    The first cause argument is a show-stopper. The end of the line is determined by how you frame the argument. Framed well, it ends well, framed badly, it ends badly. I think it’s pretty clear where Mr. Smug Mug was going. I just took him there faster. Argumentative judo.

    The thanks for the high expectations were genuine. As were the thanks for the link.

    If Jay were not such a smart dog, I would not have rewarded self-correction, but since we have not had any further molestation of the table cloth, I think my reaction is vindicated (or at least didn’t cause any harm in this case) The issue of shoes is proving to be more intractible. He’s learning not to chew on them, but he refuses to see the harm in carrying them around the house and using them as his own personal cuddle buddies. We have had several instances of people having to leave the house, and not being able to find their shoes, and when they do, they are a sodden mess on one side. No teeth marks, but he just sort of “hugs” them with his mouth and that causes the saliva to flow into the shoe at a fairly alarming rate.

    Despite repeated correction, he just can’t seem to help himself where shoes are concerned.

    It’s amazing he doesn’t just dehydrate and turn into a puppy-sized decahedron of essential minerals.

  4. blc303 on

    We’ll agree to say Mr. Smug Mug (MrSM) is brain-dead.

    I however don’t agree that first cause is a show stopper, it’s simply a non sequitur. I also don’t think MrSM’s point is the classic “There must be a first cause; ergo there is a God.” That would be classic, if debatable and outdated, theology.

    I don’t think he is saying “First cause cannot be disproven, therefore I am right.” He might think that, but I don’t read his text that way.

    I think he is saying that first cause points to a god; ergo “atheists must believe in miracles.” Excuse me but WTF!!! That’s like saying chlorophyll is green therefore atheists must believe in clouds.

    That is his real misstep; that is the unforgivable logical error for which MrSM should be verbally castrated. MrSM’s incredibly stupid jump from a standard argument to bat-shit, brain-dead assumptions almost require his being tied to a quail during a Dick Cheney hunting trip.

    My understanding and your understanding on this are different. But the idea I got from your original post was that “first cause cannot be disproven” and that devolves into a “Did so. Did not! DID SO!” tit-for-tat. That doesn’t hold. That IS invalid.

    It is invalid because it doesn’t follow the standard theological game rules. You are allowed to say God is unbound by those pesky little ‘guidelines of nature,’ outside time and space, and God could have forged the first link in the causal chain. Just as scientists can say there was a big bang but we can’t say anything about prior conditions. Neither are proofs, neither have any real meaning. But neither are tit-for-tat and shouldn’t lead to it.

    But Trees. I KNOW you like to have the last word. And you live to be right and you live to be understood. And I understand 😉 But here, let’s agree to disagree and jointly imagine hunting with Dick and MrSM.

  5. Teresa on

    Actually, I live for chocolate.

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