Was I nervous? Yes, absolutely. Of course, this wasn't my ordinary speaking event. On April 5, about 170 people packed a room at Weber State University, to watch my formal debate with professor of philosophy Dr. Richard Greene. The question: Can there be objective moral values and obligations without God? Each debater had 20 minutes for opening arguments, a 10-minute rebuttal, about 40 minutes of joint Q & A from the audience, and a 5-minute conclusion.
Dr. Greene had home field advantage. He has been teaching classes at Weber State for about eight years and a number of his students came out for the debate. About 65% of the attendees indicated on a pre-debate survey that they held Dr. Greene’s view, that morality is best explained without God.
I won’t rehearse all the details of the debate here as I've posted the video below, but it was a lively give-and-take and I thoroughly enjoyed it (particularly in hindsight!). Certainly, as a rookie debater--this was my second formal debate in my ten years of work at Stand to Reason--there are areas I can grow in and arguments I can improve. Indeed, I knew I would make some mistakes and drop some balls, and in my immediate post-debate reflections, it was difficult not to obsess over those things. The experience reminded me of what rookie NFL quarterbacks say about the speed of the game and how fast it seems to be moving during their rookie year. However, seasoned veterans will talk about how the game has "slowed down" and how they see so much more now, after years of practice and game experience. Well, as a rookie debater I definitely felt the "speed" of the debate. Lots of things were said, I had organize my thoughts quickly, and then figure out what to respond to and how best to respond.
As I've reveiwed some of the "game film," there are several things I need to work on and improve. First, I needed to address more of the details that Dr. Greene discussed. In particular, Dr. Greene threw out a few possible ways he thinks we can have morality without God, mentioning Plato's view and utilitarianism as examples. I responded to his claim that all he had to show were mere possibilities, but I also I needed to spend a few moments showing how Plato's view is inadequate to ground morality. In regards to utilitarianism, I needed to distinguish between the meta-ethical foundations of ethics (which was the topic of our debate) from normative systems of ethics. Second, during the Q&A there was a question regarding free will and after my response, Dr. Greene claimed there was no free will (around 1:30:45 in the video). Unfortunately, I failed to hammer him on the incompatibility of determinism and moral action. Third, I really needed to draw the audience's attention to the fact that Dr. Greene did not knock down my contentions, nor answer a number of the arguments I raised. I think I needed to push him much harder in my responses. Well, I plan to go back and watch the entire "game film" a few times and also have some folks help me evaluate. I can and will learn from my mistakes in attempt to improve my debate skills and master the arguments.
For me, the highlight of the debate came from an unexpected source—a group of high school students. The debate was scheduled at the tail end of a Utah Mission trip I was leading for Upland Christian Academy, a Christian high school in Southern California. We had spent the previous four days sharing Christ with Mormons around the Salt Lake Valley. However, all week I was regretting the decision to coincide the mission trip and debate, feeling like my attention was torn between the two. In contrast, the high schoolers kept sharing their excitement about the debate. “That’s nice,” I thought to myself, “but I’ll never do this again!” God needed to change my perspective.
The afternoon of the debate, students helped with set up and created signs to post around campus. During the debate, they sat at the individual tables, collecting surveys from attendees and facilitating questions for the Q & A. Afterward, they helped clean up. When it was all said and done, we returned to our host church for a late night debrief.
But rather than being worn out from a long day, the students were beaming. Their excitement was palpable. They couldn’t wait to discuss the debate. As they shared their thoughts and feelings, it was clear this event was a huge faith-builder. They didn’t just get a behind-the-scenes peek at my debate preparation and nervousness. They didn’t just get to help with debate details, like room setup. They felt like they had just walked side-by-side with me, into hostile territory, and then watched as one of their own Christian leaders stepped up in a public venue to defend the truth of Christianity. And from their perspective, our arguments won the day. Here’s how sophomore Micah summarized it:
[L]ately, the secular world seems to dismiss Christians and Christianity, and theology in general, as an outdated form of science or philosophy. Brett totally proving them wrong was a very fun thing to see. Dr. Greene, the atheist professor, made bottomless and obviously last-minute mocked-up arguments that held no weight. He simply displayed possibilities, rather than giving a real objective moral basis without God.
After hearing from students, I realized the entire endeavor was worthwhile. Studying for countless hours was worth it. Balancing the trip and the debate was worth it. Constantly fighting back my nerves was worth it. It was all worth it to build the God-confidence of those 20 high school students.
Here is video of the debate for your enjoyment!
To accept the existence of miracles, one would have to accept the idea that a being without material properties (i.e., God) can move about, change, and otherwise affect objects in the physical world. Is this, in itself, an absurd proposition? I don’t think so. I can’t show you how the affecting of the physical by the non-physical is possible—such explanations are beyond my capability, but I can certainly demonstrate that this is not only possible, but commonplace.
Imagine you’re sitting on a park bench and spot a good friend approaching. You raise your arm and wave.
Why did you wave? There was nothing in the physical world that compelled you through the laws of physics, or chemistry, or anything else to raise your arm. Your action did not begin with a physical process; your action began with your will. Your will to raise your arm was not a physical part of your body. Your thought was non-physical—it couldn’t have been measured because it had no mass and took up no space. Try describing your thoughts and your will in physical terms—what color are they? How big are they? How much do they weigh? These questions are meaningless because our wills are not in the same category as objects in the physical world, which can be described in such terms.
Our wills are non-physical, and yet somehow our non-physical wills are connected to, and have power over, a part of the material world. Somehow our non-physical thoughts and wills are able to move physical objects—our own bodies.
Our limited minds are only able to move our own bodies, but is it so outrageous to think that it’s possible for there to be a greater mind out there who would have access to all physical objects? It’s difficult to rule out the possibility on principle when we see the same thing taking place on a smaller scale everyday, every time we make a move.
In this video, J.P. Moreland discusses with Robert Lawrence Kuhn (producer and host of the Closer to Truth show on PBS) the movement among intellectuals away from belief in the existence of a soul:
I think a lot of it’s sociological. I think we live in a day where scientism is the default position by a lot of people—that’s the idea that science, and science alone, can give us answers to our questions about reality. And I think it’s a big mistake to advance that view….
I don’t think the issue is scientific. The fundamental questions about the nature of consciousness and whether there is a soul are just not scientific questions. They’re questions like, “What exactly is a thought?” “What is a semantic meaning?”… There hasn’t been a single discovery in neuroscience or any other branch of science that a dualist (that is, one who believes in the soul and consciousness) could not easily accommodate within his or her theory…. [See here for more on that.]
Moreland explains some of the issues behind his belief in dualism—the definition of consciousness, the interaction between the brain and the self, objections to substance dualism, etc.—and then sums up the conversation this way:
The bottom line is this: Consciousness just isn’t the same thing as physical states of the brain because there are things true of one that aren’t the other. And the self is not identical to the brain because the self is a simple substance that isn’t composed of parts. And these questions are not fundamentally scientific questions, they’re philosophical.
In an article titled “The Heretic,” Andrew Ferguson tells the story of how and why atheist Thomas Nagel’s book Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False upset materialists who believe that most of what we experience in life is an illusion. Colors, sounds, our sense of self, free will, morals—all illusions. We’re just “molecules in motion,” “nothing but a pack of neurons.”
While there is currently some dissent amongst materialist philosophers and scientists over whether or not the masses ought to be told this truth about reality (Daniel Dennett is concerned that popular knowledge of this would destroy civil order), one thing they can all agree on is that Nagel’s view is outside the bounds of acceptability.
What is Nagel’s heretical view? He says materialism fails to explain the world we actually find ourselves in. From Ferguson’s article:
The neo-Darwinian materialist account offers a picture of the world that is unrecognizable to us—a world without color or sound, and also a world without free will or consciousness or good and evil or selves or, when it comes to that, selflessness. “It flies in the face of common sense,” [Nagel] says. Materialism is an explanation for a world we don’t live in….
If the materialist, neo-Darwinian orthodoxy contradicts common sense, then this is a mark against the orthodoxy, not against common sense. When a chain of reasoning leads us to deny the obvious, we should double-check the chain of reasoning before we give up on the obvious….
[Materialism] doesn’t plausibly explain the fundamental beliefs we rely on as we go about our everyday business: the truth of our subjective experience, our ability to reason, our capacity to recognize that some acts are virtuous and others aren’t. These failures, Nagel says, aren’t just temporary gaps in our knowledge, waiting to be filled in by new discoveries in science. On its own terms, materialism cannot account for brute facts. Brute facts are irreducible, and materialism, which operates by breaking things down to their physical components, stands useless before them. “There is little or no possibility,” he writes, “that these facts depend on nothing but the laws of physics.”
While it's true that using the scientific method leads to useful discoveries about physical causes and effects, it doesn't follow from this that only physical objects subject to this kind of study are real. Ferguson explains the folly of making this leap in reasoning:
In a dazzling six-part tour de force rebutting Nagel’s critics, the philosopher Edward Feser provided a good analogy to describe the basic materialist error—the attempt to stretch materialism from a working assumption [methodological naturalism] into a comprehensive explanation of the world [ontological naturalism]. Feser suggests a parody of materialist reasoning: “1. Metal detectors have had far greater success in finding coins and other metallic objects in more places than any other method has. 2. Therefore we have good reason to think that metal detectors can reveal to us everything that can be revealed” about metallic objects.
But of course a metal detector only detects the metallic content of an object; it tells us nothing about its color, size, weight, or shape. In the same way, Feser writes, the methods of “mechanistic science are as successful as they are in predicting and controlling natural phenomena precisely because they focus on only those aspects of nature susceptible to prediction and control.”
Meanwhile, they ignore everything else. But this is a fatal weakness for a theory that aspires to be a comprehensive picture of the world. With magnetic resonance imaging, science can tell us which parts of my brain light up when, for example, I glimpse my daughter’s face in a crowd; the bouncing neurons can be observed and measured. Science cannot quantify or describe the feelings I experience when I see my daughter. Yet the feelings are no less real than the neurons.
The point sounds more sentimental than it is. My bouncing neurons and my feelings of love and obligation are unquestionably bound together. But the difference between the neurons and the feelings, the material and the mental, is a qualitative difference, a difference in kind. And of the two, reductive materialism can capture only one.
Here's my answer to this week's challenge:
The New Republic has published an excellent review of atheist philosopher Thomas Nagel’s book, Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly False, by Alvin Plantinga.
Here are excerpts from the review listing the four areas where Nagel objects to materialist naturalism as being reasonable:
1. Mind and Cosmos rejects, first, the claim that life has come to be just by the workings of the laws of physics and chemistry…. As Nagel remarks, “It is an assumption governing the scientific project rather than a well-confirmed scientific hypothesis."
2. The second plank of materialist naturalism that Nagel rejects is the idea that, once life was established on our planet, all the enormous variety of contemporary life came to be by way of the [unguided] processes evolutionary science tells us about: natural selection operating on genetic mutation, but also genetic drift, and perhaps other processes as well…. [Nagel:] “[T]he more details we learn about the chemical basis of life and the intricacy of the genetic code, the more unbelievable the standard historical account becomes.”
3. [Nagel] thinks it is especially improbable that consciousness and reason should come to be if materialist naturalism is true. “Consciousness is the most conspicuous obstacle to a comprehensive naturalism that relies only on the resources of physical science.”
4. According to Nagel, materialist naturalism has great difficulty with consciousness, but it has even greater difficulty with cognition. He thinks it monumentally unlikely that unguided natural selection should have “generated creatures with the capacity to discover by reason the truth about a reality that extends vastly beyond the initial appearances.” He is thinking in particular of science itself.
Plantinga explains each of these areas in more detail, and his review is fascinating. I’ve resisted the temptation to quote more extensively because 1) there’s too much good stuff in there, and I wouldn’t know where to stop, and 2) you really should read the whole thing.
But I will close with an illustration given by Plantinga in response to an objection we’re likely to hear to the arguments above: “But the improbable happens all the time. It is not at all improbable that something improbable should happen.”
Consider an example. You play a rubber of bridge involving, say, five deals. The probability that the cards should fall just as they do for those five deals is tiny—something like one out of ten to the 140th power. Still, they did. Right. It happened. The improbable does indeed happen. In any fair lottery, each ticket is unlikely to win; but it is certain that one of them will win, and so it is certain that something improbable will happen. But how is this relevant in the present context? In a fit of unbridled optimism, I claim that I will win the Nobel Prize in chemistry. You quite sensibly point out that this is extremely unlikely, given that I have never studied chemistry and know nothing about the subject. Could I defend my belief by pointing out that the improbable regularly happens? Of course not: you cannot sensibly hold a belief that is improbable with respect to all of your evidence.