“What’s going on in the believer’s frontal lobe?”
by Udo Karsten
In this article I will comment on the merit of Dr Piet Croucamp’s arguments and approach in his debate with Dr Richard Howe at the University of Johannesburg (note that the University of Johannesburg does not endorse nor were they involved in the organisation of this debate) on 15 August 2013 on the topic, ‘Does God Exist?’ (Henceforth: ‘Croucamp’ and ‘Howe’) I want to point out why the approach employed by Croucamp, which is often seen in debates about religious issues, does not foster any real understanding of the issues raised and neither does it encourage further positive dialogue.
The concerned reader can safely dismiss the notion of any personal attack on Croucamp. In this critique of his arguments and approach, no comment will be made on Croucamp’s character nor on any underlying psychological motives that might exist for why he said what he did.
The conscientious reader might first want to listen to the debate in its entirety for contextual purposes. But it would also be perfectly appropriate to merely read the transcript of Croucamp’s side of the debate. My analysis nowhere specifically addresses what Richard Howe said in the debate. Howe’s astuteness and elegance simply outrank this analysis by orders of magnitude and should be experienced in its own right. In some instances I did indicate when Howe said something relevant to my own comments, and there might even be some overlap between my own comments and what Howe himself said in the debate, but such would be incidental.
The impatient reader (or those who think that if the movie hasn’t come out yet, it can’t be real) who wants to delve right into the analysis, can follow the subheadings as a guide to the content:
- The X Files: I Want to Believe (The relation between belief and reality)
- Ghostbusters (The value, and limits, of science)
- Much Ado About Nothing (and everything, like the universe)
- Dazed and Confused (Thinking about the nature of evidence)
- The Gods Must be Crazy (…or must they be?)
- Lost in Translation (Misunderstanding the question of morals)
- Back to the Future (If we could have had a good debate)
The X Files: I Want to Believe (The relation between beliefs and reality)
One of the aims in a formal debate is for each side to set forth a positive case that serves as justification for affirming or negating the question of the debate. The debate question that was agreed upon was, of course, ‘Does God Exist?’ Since this is an analysis of what Croucamp said in the debate, we want to know what sort of justification there is for saying, ‘No, God does not exist’. Unfortunately, no positive arguments will be forthcoming, as this analysis will show.
The problem is that Croucamp isn’t interested in answering the question at all. On the contrary, he is quite forthright when he openly admits that, “I’m not here to defend atheism…” Of course, Croucamp doesn’t think that God exists, and says as much. But it does seem disingenuous to agree to debate the topic of whether God exists or not, and to then, at the debate, inform everyone that you are actually not there to defend the claim that God does not exist.
It seems the question that Croucamp would much rather have discussed was “Why do people believe?” There is a short answer to this: Many people believe because their belief corresponds with what is actually the case, namely that God exists. No doubt an atheist could respond, given his own specific beliefs about the fact that God does not exist, by saying that it is, in fact, not the case that God exists. In turn the theist might respond: “Whether the belief that God exists is rational or justified, depends on whether the God who is believed in, actually exists.” Ironically, that brings us right back to the question, and the original topic of the debate, ‘Does God exist?’ If you say ‘No’, what are the reasons for justifying such a claim? Yes, contrary to what Croucamp thinks, even the atheist, who makes a claim to knowledge, has a burden of proof.
It is therefore simply irrational for the atheist to merely retort and insist that the important question is not whether God exists, but why people believe what they do. It should be obvious that what makes a belief about God’s existence true or not, is not the state or act of believing it, but whether the object of the belief, namely God, really exists. Some atheists claim that they do not deny that God exists, but they simply lack any beliefs about God or whether he exists (and thereby trying to avoid any burden of proof). But again, someone’s lack of belief about God’s existence, says absolutely nothing about whether God actually exists or not.
From Croucamp’s opening remarks it is clear that one of the reasons he thinks that the question of God’s existence is irrelevant, is because there must be something wrong with anyone who believes in God. For Croucamp, God exists merely in believers’ minds. This indicates that all believers are in some way neurologically and/or psychologically challenged. Croucamp thus expresses contempt, clearly reflected in his derogatory tone and demeanor, about whether it even makes sense to debate with Christians (which of course is a thinly veiled attempt at poisoning the well, a kind of fallacious reasoning aimed at discrediting an opponent by creating a certain bias against him).
Yet somehow Croucamp found himself willing to debate yet another delusional believer after a past experience of the “most useless” sort. But let’s suppose that somebody like Richard Howe does indeed suffer from serious psychological deficiencies and that his frontal lobe is indeed a neurological muddle (and let’s also suppose, while we’re at it, that it could only be other deficient personalities with neurological muddles in their frontal lobes that will hire somebody like him to teach philosophy at a tertiary institution). What follows from this? Does this mean that God therefore does not exist?
The mistake in Croucamp’s reasoning is called the genetic fallacy. It could be the case that people believe or disbelieve that God exists, for all kinds of unjustified and irrational reasons and it might still be the case that God exists. For example, I might believe that e = mc2 because I’ve seen cats regularly cough up slimy hairballs. Observing feline habits might be the dumbest, most irrational reason for believing anything, but that doesn’t mean that it is therefore not true that e = mc2. Mathematical truths might coincide with my beliefs, even if there is no relation between the origin of my beliefs (why I believe something) and whether something is actually the case.
Consider another example of fallacious reasoning. It seems that Croucamp finds it somewhat acceptable, if not irrational, when he hears Christians say the following: ‘I have a personal relationship with … my God, which no one can take away from me, he loves me, I love him. I founded [sic] the architecture [sic] of my life upon which [sic] I perceive to be God’s will.’ He continues and says about such testimony of many Christians: “That might be wrong, in my view, but it is honest, it has integrity as a complexity of emotions and you don’t claim evidence. Your personal experience, which may or may not be real, is all that matters.”
Such a testimony, of course, is only honest if it reflects a real experience. For if it is not testimony of a real experience, then someone would be lying about it. But notice, according to what Croucamp has already intimated, that he thinks that even if such experiences are real, they are necessarily delusionary, mere psychological states of mind, with no referent in external reality. But Croucamp is simply begging the question, for how does he know that a specific experience of God is delusionary, especially if he hasn’t shown that such a God does not, in fact, exists? Personal religious experience would matter precisely when it corresponds with the God that actually exists. But you cannot, from the fact of someone else’s experience and beliefs alone (even if some religious experiences are, in fact, delusionary), deduce whether God exists or not. Again, that would be committing the genetic fallacy. It might well be the case that most Christians are “naively god-fearing” as Croucamp thinks. This fact alone counts neither against the actual existence of God, nor is it necessarily a sign of delusion.
There is yet another example of the genetic fallacy worth mentioning at this point. Atheists often claim, like Croucamp does, that believers are culturally indoctrinated to believe in God. But again, if I believe that God exists simply because of my cultural upbringing, how does this fact alone show that God does or does not exist in reality? Doesn’t the same reasoning apply to someone’s belief that atheism is true? Why should cultural or societal factors not have influenced someone’s lack of belief or their unbelief in the existence of God? Furthermore, how is it the case that only the atheist can make a deliberate and intelligent choice to believe that God does not exist, whilst the theist has simply no choice but to believe blindly, as Croucamp suggests? This is special pleading and patently false when one considers all the conversions of people from atheism to theism relatively late in their lives (highly intelligent people like Antony Flew, Francis Collins, Alister McGrath, and C.S. Lewis would be some notable examples).
Besides falling victim to these fallacies of reasoning, Croucamp also makes use of red herrings. Given that he declared the topic of the debate null and void, he diverts attention from the actual topic of the debate, to making his opponent seem ridiculous, and by doing so, have time to also poison the well. This occurs in the following two ways.
Firstly, by simply implying that someone is stupid or irrational for holding certain beliefs, one has neither shown those beliefs to be false nor that someone is actually stupid or irrational for holding them. It doesn’t help to merely suggest that a belief is false, you need to argue for its falsity. If Croucamp didn’t want to debate the question of whether God exists, but rather wanted to debate issues such as homosexuality, the existence of the devil, the age of the earth, evolutionary theory about human origins, the nature and purpose of hell, or the dual nature in hypostatic union of God Incarnate, then he should have said so – before the debate topic was agreed upon. Instead he chooses not only to skirt the actual topic of debate, but introduces brief references to these issues as a way of trying to discredit his opponent by suggesting that only a fool can believe such things. These are truly all red herrings because Howe’s views on most, if not all, of these subjects have no direct relevance to the question of whether God exists or not, and by raising them in the way he does, Croucamp engages in pure rhetoric.
Secondly, even if someone has shown that certain of his opponent’s beliefs are false, and even if it is irrational to believe them, then he still hasn’t shown by pointing to those specific set of beliefs, that some other of his opponent’s beliefs, are therefore also necessarily false or irrational to believe. Again, none of Howe’s views on abovementioned subjects, whether one agrees with him or not, would necessarily show that God exists or that he does not. His beliefs about these subjects might be completely false, it may even be morally reprehensible, and it can still be the case that God exists.
Ghostbusters (The value, and limits, of science)
Croucamp dismisses the question of God’s existence in another way. He claims that such a question is unimportant “because God has absolutely no consequences for our existence”. What Croucamp seems to mean is that nothing that exists, or any state of affairs in the world, needs an explanation with reference to God. Croucamp seems to think that any explanation that mentions God, would be a case of arguing for a God-of-the-gaps, where God is referred to as the explanation of something that is merely a gap in our knowledge. Thus no explanations can refer to God since the only true and meaningful explanations are scientific explanations. He says: “Science is everything, science is all the consequences [sic] for what we are, who we are, where we going to, where we’re coming from,” and somewhere else he says, “To me God is somewhere hidden in the complexities of science.”
Croucamp assumes at least three interrelated things when making such a claim. He assumes the truth of atheism, of metaphysical naturalism and of scientism. But none of these assumptions are based on the discoveries of science; all are philosophical stances on the nature of the world and on the nature of science. The interconnectedness of these philosophical views can be explained as follows.
If you believe that God does not exist (atheism), then it makes sense to also believe that all explanations about the world will be explanations that do not refer to God. Furthermore, if you believe that the physical world is all there is (metaphysical naturalism), then it makes sense to also believe that atheism is true. If science is the study of the physical world and if you believe that the physical world is all that exists (according to naturalism), then it makes sense to also believe that doing science can explain everything that can be known about the world (scientism).
The question is, of course, are any of these beliefs actually true? (I will spare the rhetoric of asking, “What goes on in the frontal lobe of someone who believes such things?”) Is atheism true? Well, it seems to depend on whether metaphysical naturalism is true, that is, whether the only realm that exists is the physical, material world. How would we know if metaphysical naturalism is true? That is up to the naturalist to show. But notice that it doesn’t help to appeal to all the wonderful results of science if the scientific method is supposed to only apply to the study of the physical world (this view is called methodological naturalism as opposed to metaphysical naturalism). For even if you can explain every aspect of the physical world, you still have said nothing about the truth of either atheism or metaphysical naturalism. By doing science you clearly haven’t, indeed cannot, show that any of the above mentioned three beliefs, is true. In fact, at least one of the beliefs has already been shown to be false. For if it is not true that science can give an account of everything that can be known about the world, such as whether atheism or metaphysical naturalism, and even scientism itself, is true, then scientism is false. (By the way, if you claim that the truth value of beliefs about atheism or metaphysical naturalism cannot, in principle, be known, then you should call yourself an agnostic. But then you are faced with the delightful task of showing why it is true that we cannot know what is true about such matters.)
So, it seems that the question about whether metaphysical naturalism or atheism is true and therefore by implication whether God exists or not, is in fact, very relevant and of tremendous importance. If it can be shown that it is more plausible to believe that God exists than not, then belief in naturalism and atheism should be discarded. This analysis shows that Croucamp hasn’t given any reason to justify belief in either atheism or naturalism. This doesn’t automatically make it false, but neither has Croucamp given us any good reason to believe it is true.
Croucamp’s appeal to the tremendous progress and success of science is noteworthy and commendable, but it is misguided as an attempt to address the question of God’s existence, for by itself it supports neither atheism nor naturalism (or theism for that matter). The answer to the question of whether God exists or not, does however, say something about the nature of the world we live in and would therefore definitely make a difference in how we view the world and how we live our lives. Even though science as a method of studying the physical world is significant and enriching, it is impotent to provide the answer to the ultimate nature of the world and of how we should live our lives.
Nobody denies that science is also very effective in dealing with any sort of God-of-the-gaps type of reasoning. But no responsible theist argues that God exists in the gaps of our scientific understanding. What the theist is saying is that not all explanations that can be given of the world or in the world, are best explained by science, since not all questions are of the type that can be answered by the methods of science. That is why Oxford philosopher Richard Swinburne says:
“Why believe that there is a God at all? My answer is that to suppose that there is a God explains why there is a world at all; why there are the scientific laws there are; why animals and then human beings have evolved; why humans have the opportunity to mould their characters and those of their fellow humans for good or ill and to change the environment in which we live; why we have the well-authenticated account of Christ’s life, death and resurrection; why throughout the centuries men have had the apparent experience of being in touch with and guided by God; and so much else. In fact, the hypothesis of the existence of God makes sense of the whole of our experience, and it does so better than any other explanation which can be put forward, and that is the grounds for believing it to be true.”
Given his philosophical predilection for the truth of atheism, naturalism and scientism, Croucamp will undoubtedly deny that any of these states of affairs that Swinburne mentions, are best explained by God. But the theist is willing to argue his case and is not asking anybody to just accept it, as Croucamp thinks, “because God said so”. A case in point is Richard Howe’s specific arguments for the existence of God.
Much Ado About Nothing (and everything, like the universe)
Before looking at some of the specific objections that Croucamp makes in response to Howe’s arguments, it is interesting to note that Croucamp objects that he doesn’t understand the arguments and then contributes this to the fact that, “If you don’t understand Richard at all tonight, it is because you are atheist, even if you don’t know it”. Besides insulting the intelligence of the atheists in the audience, his claim is summarily refuted when the very first person to ask a question in the Q&A period (not included in the edited version of the audio recording; the questioner merely wanted to know if Howe had any training in public speaking), makes the following comment to Howe: “You gave very compelling arguments in my opinion, even though I am an atheist.” But according to Croucamp’s line of reasoning such an admission could only mean that the questioner is lying about her atheism, or that she doesn’t understand what a ‘compelling argument’ is, or that she is actually a theist who doesn’t know it!
Furthermore, even if nobody understood Howe’s argument, the proper and default response to something you do not understand, is not simply to doubt or reject it, as Croucamp seems to think, but rather to make a concerted effort to come to a proper understanding. In fact, it is only after you have come to a certain understanding of something by acquiring sufficient knowledge, that you are then in any good position to assess its merits.
Croucamp is undeterred, for even though admitting his failure to understand Howe’s arguments, he nevertheless tries to respond to it:
“Richard has it that the universe must have a beginning, for if the universe had always existed, this would mean that the past is an actual infinite. Yes, the universe, as we observe it, must have a beginning, we’re in congruence [sic] with that, but before universe, but, but before the universe, science in various ways and forms existed, otherwise there would have been no universe. We know that matter changes, that the universe looked very different a few billion years ago. Just because you wouldn’t recognize it, it doesn’t mean that it didn’t exist. Scientists suspect that very different laws might apply to different universes – that’s true. In the same way as very different forces existed even before the Big Bang, we know that.”
This is a remarkable statement by Croucamp, because there are three concepts that he seems fairly confused about. His use of the words ‘beginning’, ‘science’ and ‘universe’, is muddled and strained. In trying to make sense of what he says here, these concepts need closer scrutiny.
When Croucamp says that he agrees with Howe that the universe had a beginning, he immediately contradicts himself by saying “before the universe, science in various ways and forms existed, otherwise there would have been no universe”. If the universe had a beginning, then any talk about ‘before the beginning of the universe’ is simply illogical. The word ‘before’ indicates a prior temporal state (a moment in time); but if the universe ‘begins’ then there simply is no ‘before’ since a ‘beginning’ is by definition the very first temporal state of the universe for all that follows after it.
Furthermore, what does Croucamp mean when he says that “before the universe, science in various ways and forms existed”? In what way does ‘science’ exist anywhere? Isn’t the idea of science simply a conceptualisation of what we do when we observe the physical world and draw inferences from it? Science certainly does not exist anywhere like some sort of entity. To give Croucamp the benefit of the doubt, he uses the word ‘science’ here in a very sloppy manner, for what he probably wants to indicate is that there must be ‘something’ before the beginning of the universe. But neither is this very helpful on account of Croucamp’s understanding of the word ‘universe’.
Croucamp seems to think that the concept of ‘the universe’ means something other than the entire space-time continuum which is the sum total of all physical substances that had a beginning. Why else would he differentiate between ‘the universe’ and ‘something that existed before the universe’? For when one refers to the beginning of ‘the universe’, one would normally refer to the origin of all matter, energy and space, which would include any fluctuating quantum vacuum state at the inflationary period prior to the expansion (the Big Bang) of the universe. Eminent cosmologists, with no philosophical axe to grind, like Arvin Borde, Alan Guth and Alexander Vilenkin, seem to have shown that any universe which has been expanding throughout its history cannot be infinite in the past and therefore must have a past space-time boundary.
Of course, Croucamp is entirely correct when he suggests (even if he doesn’t express himself very coherently) that for the universe to have had a beginning, it had to have a cause for its beginning. It seems self-evidently true that whatever begins to exist, must have a cause for its coming into being. But notice that if the beginning of the universe is understood as the beginning of the space-time continuum (that is, all space, matter and energy), then the cause of the universe cannot itself be understood in terms of matter or energy or space (even quantum energy) which necessarily exists in time. This means that the cause of the universe, although logically prior to the universe’s beginning to exist, cannot be temporally prior to its existence, since there is no time before the beginning of time.
Croucamp tries to solve the question of what the causal explanation of the universe is, by introducing a wonderful concept namely ‘nothing’. He tries to dress it in scientific garb, and by doing so, shows that this is yet another word and its meaning about which he simply seems utterly confused (no doubt due to the influence of someone like Lawrence Krauss). Croucamp scoffs at what he thinks is a biblical and philosophical understanding of ‘nothing’. Actually, all he does is to attack a straw man, the fallacy of disparaging the position of your opponent, when in fact, he doesn’t hold to the position you ascribe to him. No self-respecting philosopher, Christian or not, would ever accept the definition of nothing that Croucamp describes when he says:
“The most primitive way of looking at nothing is perhaps the biblical one and the philosophical one that Richard uses. And that is that ‘nothing’ is an empty space where there’s a vacuum, where there is nothing in there. But even if it’s an empty space there’s still this space and there’s still this emptiness, there’s still this vacuum. There’s not completely nothing, but in science, this type of nothing that Richard chases, doesn’t exist…”
Contrary to what Croucamp claims, the philosophical definition of ‘nothing’ is not “empty space where there’s a vacuum, where there is nothing in there” (it is also not clear why Croucamp thinks it’s a biblical definition). Croucamp is entirely correct that physicists refer to quantum vacuum energy that exists and from which subatomic or virtual particles continually pop in and out of existence. Informed philosophers are therefore fully aware that “empty space” is not ‘nothing’. When philosophers use the word ‘nothing’ they mean a state of non-being, that is, a reference to ‘no thing’ or ‘not anything’. But if quantum vacuum energy exists, then in what way can it be referred to as ‘not anything’? Isn’t quantum vacuum energy ‘something’ and therefore part of the space-time continuum?
One of the oldest principles in philosophy is ex nihilo nihil fit, that is, out of nothing, nothing comes. It is precisely this truth that exposes either the deliberate deception, or else the blissful ignorance, that many scientists like Lawrence Krauss are guilty of when they refer to ‘nothing’ but actually mean something like ‘quantum energy’ or ‘quantum foam’ or ‘vacuum fluctuation’. Croucamp simply perpetuates the myth that a satisfying scientific and causal explanation for the beginning of the universe is that “the universe can evolve and develop from nothing”. Some theists are accused of fitting God in where he doesn’t belong, but it seems that some atheists are equally willing to fit science into explanations that distorts its true meaning. Some scientists’ definition of ‘nothing’ is the paradigm example of woolliness. Therefore it is entertainingly ironic when Croucamp addresses Howe to educate him on nothing (also entirely appropriate to say that he educated him not on anything!):
“…[T]he difference between me and you is, that nothingness which you, because you’re not a scientist, describe in a rather woolly manner, that nothingness, that’s where you like to fit God in there. Because you don’t understand that, because it doesn’t make sense to you, and also because you have a vacancy, you need a vacancy somewhere for your God, you must fit him in somewhere, because God over the last hundreds of years was retreating all the time.”
At the end of the debate Croucamp addresses Howe condescendingly: “It’s easy, Richard, it works like this: When the facts are on the table, when the science is being done, you have to readjust your philosophical proposition to comply with reality and with facts.” On the contrary, what is very clear is that when the science is done, Croucamp misuses the facts to comply with his philosophical propositions, beliefs that do not reflect reality at all. Talk about ‘nothing’ when you mean ‘something’, is a case in point. Talk about ‘before’ the ‘beginning’ of the universe is another. Talk about ‘the universe’, no matter what its initial state, which does not contain all of space-time matter and energy, is another. Talk about ‘science’ as if it exists as an entity somewhere or as if it can give meaning to absolutely everything and even describing it akin to God, yet another.
Croucamp’s disdain for philosophy is therefore clearly seen in how he thinks about the nature of science and also in how he applies scientific facts. The irony is that while in the process of ridiculing and dismissing philosophy, he demonstrates all kinds of philosophical assumptions and fallacious reasoning that no amount of science can rescue him from. Again, his high regard for science is commendable, but his scientism is horribly misplaced as a defeater for anything that doesn’t agree with his atheism. Another example of this is when he says:
“I always make this joke, I say, 87% of America’s top scientists are atheist, and 87% of America’s jail population is Christian and Muslim. Pick your friends for you.”
No doubt that someone would find Croucamp’s statistics amusing, but what he fails to mention, for it makes it a lot less funny, is that there are questions that have a significant bearing on such statistics (and why these statistics are a fallacy of reasoning called hasty generalization): Is it because of science that people are atheists, or are people atheists despite being scientists or even before becoming scientists? Similarly, is it their religious beliefs that cause people to commit crimes, or do people commit crimes despite their beliefs? For example, there is nothing controversial about the fact that people often act contrary to the mores of the community they were brought up in. Perhaps Croucamp should have mentioned that the average socio-economical community would be a reflection of the fact that roughly 87% of the world’s population is religious. This would only be one reason, among others, for why convicted persons might affiliate with a particular religion on a prison intake form, even if their personal commitment has never been more than nominal.
Dazed and Confused (Thinking about the nature of evidence)
In one awkward moment in the debate, Croucamp lapses into a fit of rage, lashing out with foul language and aggression, apparently with no regard for the rules of civil discourse or any sense of professionalism (he was, after all, a representative of the University of Johannesburg, speaking on university grounds, using the university’s facilities). What upsets Croucamp so much?
Croucamp accuses Howe of being deliberately deceptive for talking about ‘evidence’ for God, when in fact there is no scientific evidence for God. He relentlessly laments this unacceptable usage of the word ‘evidence’ in reference to God. But during the whole debate he fails to realise that Howe is not using the word ‘evidence’ to refer to scientific evidence for God, but that he is talking about philosophical evidence. It is unfortunate that Croucamp couldn’t discern the difference. It could have made a world of difference to his troubled heart, if he understood this one truth: Scientific evidence is not the only kind of evidence that determines the truth about certain matters, for not all truths are scientific truths. For example, whether the latter statement is true or not, is not, will not and cannot be determined by doing science. But it seems that if you dogmatically believe scientism to be true, then it is easy to reveal your ignorance when you, as Croucamp does, refer to “the scientific word – ‘evidence’” or “because evidence is science”. Not only is this absolutely false, but embarrassingly so.
There are many different kinds of evidence that gives justification for the truth value of certain statements. There is historical evidence when studying history (such as evidence that Julius Caesar’s army crossed the Rubicon in 49 BC). There is juridical evidence applied in a court of law (such as evidence used to find person X guilty of committing crime Y). There is also philosophical evidence when studying certain questions about almost any area of life (such as evidence that indicate what the limits of scientific inquiry are, whether infinite numbers or sets exist, what a person is, or whether God exists). Something counts as philosophical evidence when a sound and valid argument has been established for affirming or negating a certain proposition. This happens when a certain conclusion follows logically from valid premises where the truth of a premise is more likely than its negation.
So, when Croucamp asserts again and again in the debate that “the evidence for God must be verifiable, pass scientific protocol, and be conducted in terms of a defined methodology” and then draws the colourful conclusion that “there is no f@&#g evidence for a god”, he simply makes a huge category mistake in reasoning. He might as well have said that if we go to the chemistry laboratory, we can prove that Julius Caesar’s army crossed the Rubicon.
No philosopher worth his credentials will ever say, “Here is scientific evidence X, therefore God exists.” Undoubtedly, this is what Croucamp thinks and therefore what he hears Howe as saying, but this is not how philosophical argumentation or evidence works. When sophisticated theists refer to scientific evidence in their arguments for the existence of God, it is to use a certain premise with scientific truth value in that argument, where the truth of such a premise is more plausible than its negation (for example, even Croucamp seems to agree that scientific research indicates that ‘The universe had a beginning’). But notice that in and of itself the premise says absolutely nothing about God. It is merely one part of the argument’s formulation, and even then the argument itself is never meant to serve as scientific evidence for God. If Croucamp wasn’t so disdainful and biased against the value and methods of philosophy, he might have known this and might have seemed less uninformed and abrasive.
The Gods Must be Crazy (…or must they be?)
Croucamp complains that Howe defines God in a way that nobody understands. Again, he simply insults the intelligence of everyone, especially his fellow atheists, for it is perfectly possible to understand something and yet not accept it yourself. But rather than show himself to have a proper understanding of what a sophisticated concept of God is and then give reasons for why he rejects such a concept or definition, he prefers to have his audience follow a red herring by asking: “…[T]his god we’re talking about, is it Richard’s god or any of the other 3000 gods that exist? Because we’re not sure which god Richard is talking about.”
Croucamp and many other people seem to think that the concept of God is like your favorite flavor ice-cream: some like chocolate and others like vanilla; some like Allah and others like Wotan. But it is precisely because we can think critically that we realise that not all concepts of God are rational or meaningful. People have been thinking about the nature of God for as long as there were people who could think, and the fact that some people have believed or still believe in the “Juju in the mountain” or in Zeus or in Shiva, does nothing to show that these gods actually exists, nor does it show that a rational and coherent concept of God isn’t possible (the genetic fallacy, remember). If there is a concept of God that is rational and coherent, then all other notions of God that are irrational and incoherent would be inferior and plausibly false, like the vast majority of the 3 000 gods that Croucamp mentions (as well as the 330 million gods in the Hindu pantheon).
Notice for a moment, that by judging conceptually what people believe, nobody is pronouncing judgment or condemnation on people for merely holding to beliefs that we find false. It is true that certain beliefs have certain implications that others find unacceptable (like the existence of hell, for instance, of which Croucamp’s medieval notions do not begin to address properly). But it is misguided to think that when we disagree with others who think differently and when we say that they are wrong in thinking it, that we have then at the same time passed judgment on whether they are good or bad people. If that were the case then Croucamp should stop telling Christians that what they believe is wrong (even if he merely implies it), for in doing so, he too would then be passing judgment on others in an unacceptable manner.
Traditionally God is thought to have attributes that make him maximally great and therefore worthy of worship. That is why philosophers (yes, even atheist philosophers who understand what it means to talk about God) would typically talk about God conceptually as having properties such as being immaterial, an unembodied mind, transcendent, personal, necessary, self-existent, eternal, omnipresent, omniscient, perfectly good and all-powerful. Contrary to what Croucamp thinks or suggests, none of these attributes of God, taken in isolation or in combination, is unintelligible or irrational, that is, conceptually incoherent. Croucamp may think they are, especially if he says he doesn’t understand any of them, but unfortunately it isn’t enough to just say they are; he needs to show them to be incoherent. In fact, that is precisely what atheistic philosophers have been trying to do; so I suppose there are atheists who really do understand something that theists say after all! Croucamp might be uninterested and bored by certain definitions of God, as he says he is, but how is his interests and psychological state of mind germane to the truth of anything?
It is clear that it is Croucamp who works with an inferior concept of God and that is why he finds it so easy to dismiss and ridicule it. Croucamp says that God is for him “hidden somewhere in the complexities of science”. What does that mean exactly? Surely he doesn’t mean that science is so complex that only God can account for its complexities. Besides the fact that such a view would fly in the face of his atheism, it would also be a God-of-the-gaps fallacy. So, who is actually guilty of defining God “in esoteric terms that … can be all things to all people”?
It also doesn’t help to think of God as some anthropomorphic entity that lives somewhere in the sky, or in a mountain, or anywhere else; a being with superhuman powers who cunningly evades the strongest Scanning Transmission Electron Holography Microscope and who masterfully hides from the biggest, nastiest orbital NASA telescope. Such a ‘God’ who is potentially detectable by doing science because he is some sort of physical entity and therefore part of the space-time realm (and on the endangered species list since the universe will implode in about 5 billion years), has never been what informed people meant when they have talked about God. Croucamp might prefer to create a straw man, burn it down with science or beat it to a pulp in a fit of verbal rage, but this does nothing to show that a coherent concept of God is impossible or that the actual God does not exist.
Some people have objected that there seems to be a big difference between the God of the philosophers and Yahweh of the Bible. It is true that references in the Bible often do not talk about God’s attributes with any kind of philosophical or theological precision. That is because the Bible is not a modern philosophy or theology textbook (nor a modern science textbook, for that matter). People of biblical times had all kinds of experiences of God and wrote about it as they reflected on it from their unique perspectives. These stories and references to God often include phenomenological language (language of appearance) and in many cases also anthropomorphic language. In many cases it is when a conceptual analysis is systematically applied to all of these stories and to all the references to God, that it is seen that Yahweh has indeed revealed such attributes as philosophers and theologians ascribe to him.
Another instance where Croucamp reveals a deficient understanding of some of the implications of God actually existing and having specific attributes, is when he says: “Sometimes when you listen to somebody who’s religious, you think it is absolutely madness. Imagine a virgin birth, imagine a virgin birth. There are people sitting here thinking it’s a fact, it’s science.”
Why does Croucamp think that believers think that a virgin birth is science? (They don’t!) First of all, Croucamp thinks that if something isn’t science, then it can’t be a fact. But this is clearly wrong. Something can be a fact and have nothing to do with science, as our previous discussion on the various fields of knowledge indicates. Secondly, what Croucamp actually means is that in a naturalistic world where only the laws of nature operate, something like a virgin birth is absurd. And we concur; in such a world, it would be absurd! But again, Croucamp owes us an explanation for why he thinks that naturalism is true, for he simply assumes it. If naturalism is not true and if there is evidence (yes, evidence!) that an all-powerful God exists, then miracles like a virgin birth, walking on water, turning water into wine and a divine incarnation, is not only possible but perhaps even eminently probable if God is indeed a personal agent. That doesn’t mean that any and all natural laws would then be violated willy-nilly so much as that the influence of such an external personal agent with specific aims, needs to be considered in cases where a naturalistic explanation simply does not account for all the facts.
So, Croucamp can deny that miracles can or have occurred, only on account of his scientism and only if he denies that the Miracle-maker exists. But it is yet again plainly obvious that Croucamp would have done atheism a great service, if only he was willing to provide the evidence (yes, evidence!) that would show that God does not exist as the debate topic invited him to do!
Lost in Translation (Misunderstanding the question of morals)
In one of the most ironic moments of the debate, Croucamp accuses Howe of entertaining “philosophical postulations and conceptual convolutions” when it is obvious who doesn’t understand the issues. Croucamp quotes Howe from somewhere else as saying:
“Since theists believe that God created the universe, theists believe that gravity exists because of God. Atheists that deny gravity…atheist deny that gravity…atheists deny that God created gravity, but just because atheists deny the actual cause of gravity, doesn’t mean that atheists float. Just as atheists experience gravity without believing in the existence of God who created gravity, in the same way atheists can experience moral reality without believing in the existence of God who is the grounding of moral reality.”
Howe’s argument might be formulated like this for easier assessment:
- God created gravity.
- Atheists do not believe in God.
- Atheists experience gravity.
- Therefore, not believing in God, does not mean that atheists cannot experience gravity (that is, atheists don’t float, simply because they don’t believe in God or that he created gravity).
What Howe then points out is that in the same way that people can experience gravity without believing in God, they can experience a moral standard and therefore behave morally without believing in God. The argument would look something like this:
- God’s character is the moral standard.
- Atheists do not believe in God.
- Atheists experience a moral standard.
- Therefore, not believing in God, does not mean that atheists cannot experience a moral standard (that is, atheists don’t behave immorally simply because they don’t believe in God or that he is the moral standard).
Croucamp responds to Howe’s argument with a less than profound one-liner: “I mean, really, where the hell are you going when you argue like that.” What is ironic is that Croucamp apparently thought that Howe was making an attack on atheism, when in fact Howe argued in favour of atheists being able to behave morally without having to believe in God! Croucamp should have, if only he understood Howe’s reasoning, welcomed this argument, even if he rejects the truth of premise 1. For atheists often think that they hear theists say that atheists cannot behave morally if they don’t believe in God. That is not true, as the latter argument shows and only uninformed theists would claim as much (which regrettably they sometimes do). Later when Howe tries to explain to Croucamp what he meant with the analogy between gravity and morals, Croucamp still doesn’t understand the argument, although it is clear that he perceives something of the fact that Howe wasn’t equating immoral behaviour with atheism. His triumphalism is therefore amusingly misplaced when he says that Howe suddenly adopted “a very liberal view tonight on morals when the pressure was a bit on, isn’t it?” Howe did nothing of the sort!
What Croucamp also doesn’t seem to understand, is that Howe’s argument is completely valid. The conclusion follows logically from the premises, even though atheists would deny that premise 1 of both arguments, is actually true. But Croucamp will have to do better than give a one-liner response if he wants to justify the denial of the truth value of premise 1 in both cases. For example, if Croucamp denies that God is the ontological grounding for human moral experience (premise 1 of the second argument), then he needs to suggest and defend an alternative that provides the proper grounds for an objective distinction between right and wrong, good and bad, ‘the ought’ and ‘the ought not’. It will have to be something that doesn’t merely reflect the subjective and relative notions inherent in socio-biological evolution, individualistic preferences or codified societal values.
Back to the Future (If we could have had a good debate)
Why do we have debates? People often find debates frustrating and disappointing, for we all have our own expectations and ideas of how, what and why certain things should be said in any particular debate. The structure of the formal debate, as opposed to, for example, the free-flowing dialogue format, might have certain drawbacks, but it is also very effective in achieving the goals it is designed for.
The formal debate affords the listener an excellent opportunity to hear clear positive presentations for a particular position which are supported by sound and valid arguments. It has the further advantage of allowing the listener to then assess the strength and validity of such arguments by way of the counter-arguments and possible defeaters being offered. I say it is an opportunity, for in reality it is often the case that inexperienced debaters (and listeners) do not understand the purposes of a structured debate (it’s not merely a soap box from which to make a rambling speech). When a debater fails to grasp these purposes, it not only contributes to the audience’s frustration and disappointment, but it also does not bode well for the debater.
A good debate is also not one in which issues are settled absolutely (such is almost never the case on any subject), but one in which the audience is stimulated to investigate the issues further for themselves. The skilled debater isn’t necessarily the one who can persuade all members of an audience to accept his point of view there and then, but he is the one who intrigues, at least some of his audience, to explore the points that he has raised further. A good debater is someone who inspires us through what he says as well as how he says it, to then go check out the truth for ourselves. That is why rhetoric as a main strategy in debate, is rather pointless, for if your arguments are only a clever exercise in rhetoric with no real substance, then it will be seen for what it is upon closer scrutiny afterwards.
It therefore gives me no pleasure to have come to the conclusion that Piet Croucamp exhibited none of the virtues that make for a good debater or that contribute to a good debate. The condescending and adversarial tone and manner of his arguments made them seem petty and disrespectful. It really is possible to disagree very sharply with an opponent’s point of view and still do so with utmost courtesy and decorum. I’ve watched many, many debates, and I’ve seen it done. In the few cases where a debate had gone awry, it was because a debater or debaters mistook clever rhetoric for a thoughtful argument. The difference is obvious, and while we might still excuse ignorance and inexperience, we denounce arrogance and flippancy.
As for the content of Croucamp’s arguments against God, this analysis shows that he did not offer any positive reasons for anybody to accept that the statement, “God does not exist” is true. Instead Croucamp preferred to glibly abandon the topic of debate and then mostly succumbed to various fallacies of reasoning.
Most people will go on believing much as they did before hearing a debate. This is to be expected, since paradigm shifts on significant matters do not happen instantly. But it does happen and it does start somewhere. For some people, like with members of an audience, it might start when they hear sound, valid arguments for the first time or when they see winsome and non-defensive presentations for a particular position. In as far as these aims can be achieved, and if at least some debaters understand this, we have reason to continue having debates.