Friday, January 10, 2014

Dear Theologians and Apologists, About That "If"...

I'd dare say you've noticed, whether you're a theologian, apologist, an average believer, or someone who doesn't believe and has talked with them or read their writing on the topic. Apologists and theologians use the phrase "If God exists, then..." a lot.

But of course they do. I would go so far as to say that I think that this phrase is the hallmark phrase of theology, whether the person in question is your everyday pastor at a small, quiet church, one of the blogging/podcasting types (like Tom Gilson and Phil Vischer, with whom I've recently been discussing the term "faith"), or the so-called greats. I assert that this phrase--if God exists, then--is the central idea of all of theology, and I think that's a problem.

So, now, about that "if."

Theologians and apologists get a lot (read: all) of their play riding on the conditional word "if." "If there is a God, then..." Yes, if. And that's not established. But there's more.

"If" implies possibility, as every child knows. In fact, looking at how some children use the term--especially the question "what if?"--reveals that it often works like an indicator light to tell you that the imagination is engaged. "If," though, only implies merest possibility--supposing the object of the conditional isn't logically impossible (e.g. square circles). Possibility doesn't tell us much. As gets noted frequently, unicorns are possible, for example. (Note that, speaking of unicorns, people literally have no problem whatsoever dismissing non-theological claims of this kind. This indicates that something different is going on with theological claims, which I would chalk up to two primary phenomena: cultural protectionism and faith.)

It's not just "if God exists" and "let's go," then, because starting with an "if" and then making use of the object of that "if" presents the notion that there's some noteworthy probability that God exists, making the use of the conditional meaningful. Notice the shift from possibility to probability here--and notice further that with religious beliefs, the probability actually held by the believer is not likely to be a probability like 1/1000; it's very frequently absolute certainty. Note, in fact, that many belief traditions require full assent to the faith, including Christian "salvation" (in quotes because I think it's a nonsense idea).

Though I'm quite sure it is actually false, for the purposes of keeping this simple, I will grant that there's "always" some plausibility value for a hypothesis, e.g. the God hypothesis. With regard to the God hypothesis, I've argued in two books now (with much more detail in the second, Dot, Dot, Dot) that there are good reasons to accept that the probability value entailed by a mere possibility is zero (almost surely--a technical term). "If God exists..." is such a case.

I've gone on to describe the quality of "extraordinary evidence" required to overcome a probability zero prior for an existence claim (the answer is almost surely certain evidence). For example, we could (and most of us do) confidently assert that the plausibility of the hypothesis that Ewoks (from Star Wars) exist is zero, almost surely. Presented with an actual Ewok would constitute almost certain evidence to the contrary, and with that we could still reliably update our plausibility estimates, here to the same almost-certain existence we can say of dairy cows. Though the story goes that Jesus chastized him for it, so-called "Doubting" Thomas was no fool.

So, the apologist's and theologian's "if God exists, then..." statements all hinge on the plausibility hidden by that "if." Without a reasonable degree of plausibility, the statement is utterly empty and should be treated the exact same way you would treat a claim like "if unicorns exist, then their blood will keep you alive on the edge of death, but at a terrible price." If, indeed.

Note also that if X is a hypothetical, meaning something we don't already know exists, there is an important asymmetry in this respect between statements that assert "if X exists" and "if X does not exist." Any hypothetical could be covered by "if X exists," and thus it stands to reason that "does not exist" is the more sensible default if we wish to be careful enough to be taken seriously, especially if making important commentary in public discourse. Any public servant who proclaimed that the unicorns urged him to vote this way or that on a particular topic would be urged to seek medical help, not re-election.

And here we find the heart of the ongoing discussion about faith. So far as I can tell, when apologists present "if God exists, then," they have already concluded (on faith) that the statement carries significant weight. It does not. Possibility does not imply any nonzero plausibility--or if we must cede to the strict Bayesians who insist it must, it does not imply a plausibility large enough to require so much as a second glance. Plausibility must be established, and at the least a falsifiable model is required to do that, and even then the plausibility is quite low without some evidence that has been carefully screened for contamination by biases.


In short, "if X exists," by itself, is insufficient justification even to talk seriously about the topic, hence Boghossian's call to keep it at the "Kids' Table."


Note: I've added a tag to all of my posts in this evolving discussion about faith: Faith Discussion. Please check it out. It's been most interesting and had tons of attention already.

30 comments:

  1. I think it's interesting that all theist responses to this series of posts can be boiled down to, "IF the emperor is wearing clothes we have faith -- and our definition for that term means we can ignore the IF -- then those clothes are of the most extraordinary embroidery."

    Yeah, no, what?

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    1. It's fairly extraordinary.

      The other clear trend in their responses is "I define faith as confidence because I uncritically engaged in efforts guaranteed to be laden with confirmation bias."

      Fascinating how they don't realize that many of us, me included by my open and repeated admission, used to ride that train and now see why it just goes in a little circle in the backyard. Indeed, I got *way* into "spirituality" in my early 20s and was quite convinced for a short while that I had glimpsed the divine (so when I read a similar claim from Augustine in his Confessions a couple of years ago, I immediately knew what he was talking about).

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    2. "The don't realize that they ride that train and it goes in a little circle in the backyard."

      That's good stuff.

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    1. Do you not see that both sides of the God debate employ the use of if? Peter Boghossian in "A Manual For Creating Atheists" wrote:

      The possibility that the universe always existed cannot be ruled out. This by definition casts doubt on a creator. No faith is needed to posit that the universe may have always existed.

      What actual evidence does Boghossian or anyone, for the matter, have that the universe has always existed as a brute fact? If not even the elements that make up our physical world existed at t1 of the big bang, and experience shows that physical objects like stars, planets, dogs, people and cars all have causes for their existence what reason does Boghossian have for thinking that it's plausible that the universe has always existed as a brute fact?

      In another section where Boghossian describes his greatest intervention he asks a Mormon security guard what follows if the universe has always existed. The guard says that God wouldn't exist and Boghossian agrees with him. Why does Boghossian think that it follows that from the mere possibility that the universe has always existed that God doesn't exist, especially since several cosmological arguments for God's existence deal with the possibility that the universe is eternal?

      From the mere possibility that the universe has eternally existed as a brute fact Boghossian has devoted his life to combating belief in God and wants the DSM to label anyone who has a belief as having a psychological disorder. From the fact that theists can't conclusively prove to all rational people that God exists Boghossian has come to a near certain belief that God doesn't exist. The problem with this line of reasoning is that it isn't possible to conclusively prove to all rational people that most things we believe are true--including the existence of the external world. How is this not selective skepticism? Why don't people who know that the external world exists have a faith virus?

      Boghossian chides people who have certainty and who are doxastically closed, but he demands certainty when it comes to proving God. He writes:

      Once they’ve given their response [to the question, what would it take for them to disbelieve?], I thank them. If they’ve asked me what it would take for me to believe, I’ll use a variation of American physicist Lawrence Krauss’s example in his debate with William Lane Craig: if I walked outside at night and all of the stars were organized to read, “I am God communicating with you, believe in me!” and every human being worldwide witnessed this in their native language, this would be suggestive (but far from conclusive as it’s a perception and could be a delusion).

      Isn't this doxastic closure? He's saying that if there were a miracle he would chalk it up as a worldwide mass delusion. In other words, his mind is closed--there is no evidence that could convince him that God exists.

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  3. Keith, you seem intent on straw-manning Boghossian (and other atheists') position, as well as confusing terms like possibility, plausibility, probability, and certainty.

    Boghossian meant what he wrote. He explained his foundational approach to knowledge. He pointed out the gap between what is claimed by religions and how these claims are normally given a free pass (often invoking "faith") when it comes to justifying those claims. And he explained how asking a believer to explain and evaluate the "how" of their religious claims has, in his experience, been a fruitful way for believers to free themselves from their delusion.

    Honestly, most of your comment reads like psychological projection.

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    1. You say that Boghossian, "explained his foundational approach to knowledge," but where does he actually do this? My greatest disappointment with the book was that he talked a great deal about epistemology, but he never actually explained how his epistemological system works. I can only infer from what he actually wrote that only scientifically proven facts are given high probability. If this is indeed what he means then how does he account for the presuppositions of science, such as the existence of an external, testable world, which can't be proven or falsified? How does he deal with the problem of induction? Why does he think that if random forces created humans that it is plausible that humans are capable of ascertaining the truth?

      Instead of psychoanalyzing me over the internet why don't you answer my question about what evidence Boghossian has for believing that the universe has eternally existed as a brute fact?

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  4. KR: "Instead of psychoanalyzing me over the internet why don't you answer my question about what evidence Boghossian has for believing that the universe has eternally existed as a brute fact?"

    Two reasons. I tend to ignore questions that divert from the subject at hand, and also I try to avoid responding to questions that I think just embarrass the writer. Your question qualifies for both.

    This post is about the premise (God's existence) that serves as the launching point for every theological supposition, and why everything that follows "if" is rendered basically meaningless. I would think you'd want to address that question, and try to controvert it if you can. So I don't think your question is relevant to the discussion the post poses. (Which is fine, just don't think it's interesting enough to divert from the OP, so no response elicited from me.)

    But also your question is so malformed that I'm embarrassed for you. Your questions makes it seem that you don't understand terms like "evidence" and "brute fact" nor how arguments work. Possibility is a term of argument,. Evidence is a matter of empiricism. Brute facts are facts for which there is no explanation. So, asking for evidence for a brute fact is like asking for the color of an angle. One does not need evidence that a fact is brute -- a fact is brute as a result of limitations in the line of inquiry, and is declared such by those who are modest about what they actually know.

    But if you can clarify your question, or pose it in a way that's interesting or relevant to the topic, I'll do my best to respond to that.

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    1. Cal Metzger wrote: "Two reasons. I tend to ignore questions that divert from the subject at hand, and also I try to avoid responding to questions that I think just embarrass the writer. Your question qualifies for both."

      Cal, I will grant that since I recently finished "A Manual For Creating Atheists" I had a lot of thoughts on my mind and that some of my comments may have gone a little far afield, however my central point is germane to the topic at hand because it deals with someone reasoning from if x possibly exists then state y is true. In Boghossian's case he is saying if the universe has always existed then God does not exist. This line of reasoning is problematic for two reasons. First, to my knowledge, there is no proof that the universe has always existed, in fact the information we have indicates otherwise. Second, it doesn't necessarily follow that if the universe has always existed then God doesn't exist.

      I'll also grant, Cal, that I never brought my point home, so I'll try to correct that now. My point in all this is not to say that Boghossian is "pretending to know things he doesn't know" because I think that he believes the universe has existed eternally with near certainty and not absolute certainty. My point is that people on both sides of the God debate can hold beliefs with near certainty and not have faith as Boghossian sees it. For instance, I think that given the evidence around us God most likely exists. So, faith, as Boghossian sees it, does not apply to all if x possibly exists then state y is true
      reasoning--we can talk in terms of probability.

      As to your point of me embarrassing Boghossian, anyone who has read the book would know that he quotes Socrates as saying that to have ones beliefs challenged is greater than challenging beliefs so I don't see how he could be embarrassed by my challenging his belief. Given his stance on reason he should not want to hold a belief that doesn't stand up to the Socratic method.

      Cal Metzger wrote: "But also your question is so malformed that I'm embarrassed for you. Your questions makes it seem that you don't understand terms like "evidence" and "brute fact" nor how arguments work."

      You can hold onto your embarrassment for me because the misunderstanding is on your part. Even if the universe's existence has no explanation, the fact remains that either the universe has eternally existed as a brute fact or not, and in theory there should be some evidence that it has always existed as a brute fact. If we could determine that the universe has always existed then this would be necessary but not sufficient evidence that the universe has eternally existed as a brute fact. If we could determine that the universe has existed eternally and that there is no cause of the universe then we would have necessary and sufficient evidence that the universe has eternally existed as a brute fact. To my knowledge we don't currently have this evidence and I suspect we never will. So, Boghossian's near certain belief that the universe has always existed as a brute fact has no evidence and can't be currently falsified.

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    2. KR: "[M]my central point is germane to the topic at hand because it deals with someone reasoning from if x possibly exists then state y is true. In Boghossian's case he is saying if the universe has always existed then God does not exist."

      Well, no, you've misrepresented Boghossian. I went back and re-read the section you mention. In that section Boghossian is talking about someone who believes in God because of the First Cause argument.

      Boghossian merely points out, correctly, that if the Universe was not caused, then the creator God of the First Cause argument could not have existed. His argument is really that simple.

      KR: "This line of reasoning is problematic for two reasons. First, to my knowledge, there is no proof that the universe has always existed, in fact the information we have indicates otherwise."

      No problem there -- the "Universe" of the brute fact kind isn't the Universe that began at the Big Bang, but whatever existed "before" that time, as well as what could be a multiverse, etc. We know as much about that universe as we do about God (with the advantage that we know that at least one universe -- ours -- actually exists.)

      KR: "Second, it doesn't necessarily follow that if the universe has always existed then God doesn't exist."

      No, but it does necessarily follow that the creator God of the First Cause does not exist. (Think about that one. It should come to you...)

      I'm gong to stop there. Honestly, your comment is pretty hodge podge again. I think that you need to work on your writing and critical thinking skills, because your style is so herky-jerky I'm having trouble reading much of it charitably enough to even respond.

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    4. Cal Metzger wrote: "Well, no, you've misrepresented Boghossian. I went back and re-read the section you mention. In that section Boghossian is talking about someone who believes in God because of the First Cause argument."

      Am I really? When the Mormon guard responds to Boghossian's question about what if the universe has always exited by saying that God wouldn't exist Boghossian says, "yep." Boghossian doesn't play the role of a good philosophy professor by saying, "No, that's not exactly true," he just makes it sound like God couldn't exist because of the the mere possibility the universe has always existed.

      Cal Metzger wrote: "Boghossian merely points out, correctly, that if the Universe was not caused, then the creator God of the First Cause argument could not have existed."

      Wow, you're really understating the scenario. Based upon zero evidence that the universe has eternally existed as a brute fact Boghossian says all cosmological arguments fail and he goes on to say with near certainty that God doesn't exist and so everyone who believes in God has a faith virus and a psychological disorder.

      Cal Metzger wrote: "whatever existed "before" that time, as well as what could be a multiverse, etc. We know as much about that universe as we do about God (with the advantage that we know that at least one universe -- ours -- actually exists.)"

      Well, you're right that there is no evidence that the multiverse exists. You're also right that this universe exists. Of course, cars also exist, so should we assume that cars have eternally existed as a brute fact?

      Cal Metzger wrote: "No, but it does necessarily follow that the creator God of the First Cause does not exist. (Think about that one. It should come to you...)"

      It would seem to present a problem for the Genesis account, but it would not be a problem for the idea that an unmoved mover i.e. God would need to be the cause of the movement of everything else. There also still would be the question of why there is something rather than nothing.

      Cal Metzger wrote: "I'm gong to stop there. Honestly, your comment is pretty hodge podge again. I think that you need to work on your writing and critical thinking skills, because your style is so herky-jerky I'm having trouble reading much of it charitably enough to even respond."

      If you feel like you need to make up lame excuses to save face for why you're failing to defend Boghossian and the atheist position then that's you're prerogative, but I'm not buying your Arizona oceanfront property--you obviously just threw out a smoke screen here.

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    5. Keith, I don't find it productive to respond to all your comments. Basically, I don't think you write carefully. If you don't write carefully, I don't believe you can think clearly, and I think it's a waste of time to respond to comments that aren't well thought out. I'm kind of a snob that way. It's not you; it's me.

      Here's what I mean by not writing carefully:

      Keith: "Wow, you're really understating the scenario. Based upon zero evidence that the universe has eternally existed as a brute fact ..."

      I brought this up as a problem before (that you don't seem to understand what a brute fact is), and I see that you haven't bothered to correct it. This failure to correct your understanding, after it was pointed out to you, indicates to me that you are more interested in continuing to bloviate rather than enjoy the fruits of discourse -- clearer thinking, new understanding, better alignment of beliefs with reality, etc.

      We cannot have evidence FOR a brute fact. The brute fact is the evidence. By virtue of its being a brute fact, there is no (currently understood) way to resolve / explain the existence of the brute fact.

      You need to understand the terms you use, and show that you are capable of correction, before I will consider it worth my time responding to your comments. So if I don't respond to your comments addressed to me, please understand that that is my assessment.

      Good luck!

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    7. Cal, you answered my question when you said, "We cannot have evidence FOR a brute fact." In other words, the Boghossian/atheist belief in an eternal universe is nothing more than an unlikely, un-provable and un-falsifiable assumption. Boghossian's rejection of all cosmological arguments is based on this unlikely, un-provable and un-falsifiable assumption. His whole agenda hinges on an unlikely, un-provable and un-falsifiable assumption that the universe has always existed as a brute fact.

      Thanks for clearing this matter up and for the dialog!

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  6. James, I'm going to try and help you along on your atheist, anti-spiritual trek. Boghossian wants us to speak frank, so I'll take him up on his invitation. If atheism is true, why should anyone care what you have to say? Every honest atheist, at the end of the day, has embraced the absurd. If there is no God, there is no law--moral, rational, golden or otherwise. So by what standard or authority is so-called "truth" of value to atheists? The classics already rightly concluded, 'It isn't.'

    Why reason at all, Dr. Lindsay? By whose authority is reason good that we should care about it? Why kid ourselves by wasting our time in a fictional, self-righteous effort to separate the wheat ("enlightened atheists"), from the chaff ("the kids table")? After all, in a universe without law--nor end, nor design--we're all just creating our own meaning.

    I believe there is an entire history of far more honest atheist thinkers that oppose your arguments. Why agree with James A Lindsay over Bertrand Russell? "…only on the firm foundation of unyielding despair, can the soul’s habitation henceforth be safely built." Or agree with Peter Boghossian over Sartre? "…value is nothing but the meaning that you choose." Of course, if atheism is true, "pretenders" aren't really bad (value judgment), that's just a pretend value. Boghossian made it up. It's the meaning that he chose. Perhaps suckers will buy into the pretend values that Boghossian peddles that he may advance his will to power.

    James, I want you to be free. If there is no God you already know that you are a law "unto thyself." But perhaps you just haven't come clean with yourself yet. You create your own meaning, right? So why obey Boghossian's? Or mine? Or any human's? We are not gods that we have authority that you should obey us. If you are an atheist, simply obey yourself. If there is no God can't you see that you're just wasting your time quibbling over words like "faith" in a meaningless power struggle of ideas, in a universe in which, sooner rather than later, you will be forgotten? Nietzsche rightly concluded that in a universe without design, without end and without purpose, truth is just an illusion--a delusion. Even Hitchens admitted this shortly before his death "…there are no rules, golden or otherwise, even natural or otherwise." Why then should anyone obey James A Lindsay, p.h.D? Even the word "should" itself is contingent upon law. But wait, Foucault said 'the world knows no law!'

    James, may I be so frank then, as I continue to humor Boghossian's request, and suggest you stop wasting your time adhering to Boghossian precepts. I don't want you to lie to yourself. If you are truly an atheist, and if atheism is actually true, it's time to bite the atheist anti-truth-truth bullet. If there is no God, we already know which atheists are pretending--all of them.

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    1. Wow, Jonathan. This is an example of GOING NUCLEAR, if I have ever seen one.

      I would like to answer your question, though, with another question: Is what God commands good simply because he commands it, or does God command what he does for particular reasons?

      You may recognize this, it's called the Euthyphro dilemma. And it makes an important point that either God and his decisions are arbitrarily determined, or they are supported by reasons. And if one opts for the latter, then I hold that those reasons are every bit as valid for the atheist. God worshiping is superfluous (I like this word), and you are very confused about the nature of moral values...

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    2. Going Nuclear (religious): "Perhaps belief in reason is, ultimately, a dogma. However, if this person relies on reason in every other aspect of their life, and appeals to reason whenever it appears to support their particular religious beliefs, then they are guilty of hypocrisy."

      Brad, these prominent atheists themselves claim that reason (laws/standards--natural, moral or otherwise) are fake dogma in the absence of God. Which atheist then, alive or deceased, is not actually "making stuff up?" James A Lindsay? Peter Boghossian? Nietzsche? Russell? They have all acted and spoken in countless, meaningless, contradiction as laws unto themselves--that only the most honest among them have acknowledged as per their statements above in which they relent to the absurd.

      Varying religions may or may not reject/embrace reason, and do/do not, but--so as to avoid tu quoque--that's beside the point. I'll wait for an authoritative reply to, and over, Sartre and Nietzsche that doesn't advance their claims.

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    3. You have not given me one direct and coherent reply (Are you okay?).

      What does anything you said have to do with anything I have said to you? You did not respond to my previous post on faith, and you have not responded to me here. Please respond to the Euthyphro dilemma, because if you cannot provide God with reasons for his commands, then you live in no more a "meaningful" universe than the atheist. But if you do justify God's commands with reason's, then those reasons will be every bit as open for the atheist to use in a response to your critiques, I believe. Do you understand this point I am making, and how (i think) it undercuts your claims?

      (And you seem to have not understood Law's "Going Nuclear" argument at all.)

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    4. "...so as to avoid tu quoque--that's beside the point. I'll wait for an authoritative reply to, and over, Sartre and Nietzsche that doesn't advance their claims."

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    5. Brad Lencioni wrote: "I would like to answer your question, though, with another question: Is what God commands good simply because he commands it, or does God command what he does for particular reasons?"

      Brad, the Euthyphro dilemma was shown to be a false dilemma some time ago. The answer is not option a or b, but choice c: that objective morals are grounded in the perfectly good nature of God.

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    6. Keith, I beg to differ. This is a distinction without a difference, for the dilemma still remains: Either God's character, which informs his will, is of an arbitrary nature or it isn't. (I.e. is God's nature defined as "perfectly good" for arbitrary reasons or not?)

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    7. A necessary being's attributes can not be arbitrary, they simply are. However, we could be confused in thinking that God's nature is perfectly good, but if that were the case then the objective morals that flow from his nature would likely look different. If God were evil then the Golden Rule would likely be something to the effect of hurt other before they can hurt you. Stealing, murder, rape and greed would be virtuous. Helping others would be a vice. This is clearly not the state of the world as it seems that torturing and murdering little children is objectively wrong.

      Also, we speak of things as being bad or evil, but what are we saying if there is no good? Evil is just a privation of good. For something to be bad it must be lacking in good.

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    8. KR: "However, we could be confused in thinking that God's nature is perfectly good, but if that were the case then the objective morals that flow from his nature would likely look different."

      Ah, so you don't understand the Euthyphro Dilemma, I see.

      This might help you: If you know that "the objective moral values from God's nature" would look different if he were evil, then you must be referencing something outside God's nature to know this. What is this other thing that you're referencing?

      If you can grasp that question, they you will have grasped the Euthyphro Dilemma. And yes, it's a real dilemma; if you think you've "solved it," you have simply shown us all that you don't understand it.

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    9. Very good, and notice how you disassociated moral concepts from God--you talked about a whole bunch of things that are evil and judged that God would be evil if his nature coincided with these things.

      "...it seems that torturing and murdering little children is objectively wrong."

      Indeed, and this is true in and of itself, regardless of God, his nature, or his will. I.e. it doesn't seem this way because of what the Bible commands, but rather because we have personal experience of the evil of conscious pain and suffering. And these nonarbitrary reasons are the source of moral values, and they are just as valid to atheists as to theists.

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    10. "A false dilemma, or false dichotomy, is a logical fallacy which involves presenting two opposing views, options or outcomes in such a way that they seem to be the only possibilities: that is, if one is true, the other must be false, or, more typically, if you do not accept one then the other must be accepted. The reality in most cases is that there are many in-between or other alternative options, not just two mutually exclusive ones (http://rationalwiki.org/wiki/False_dilemma)."

      Aquinas showed hundreds of years ago that the Euthyphro Dilemma commits the false dilemma fallacy because both horns of the dilemma can be rejected by saying that God's nature grounds objective morality. There is nothing more to say as the Euthyphro Dilemma was buried long ago.

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    11. Keith, how do you know that God's nature is good? It can't be because of the golden rule, because then the golden rule is the standard by which you judge God's nature.

      So, how do you know that God's nature is good?

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    12. Keith, I'm going to give you the benefit of the doubt, assume you didn't understand me, and make the dilemma clearer.

      Your response to the Euthyphro dilemma I posed is, again, a distinction without a difference. You have merely shifted it from God's commands to God's nature. Here it is again, then:

      Is God's nature "perfectly good" simply because he is God--and for no other reason (and so what he commands is also good for no other reason than his nature has him command such things)--or do we say that God is "perfectly good" for the reasons that his nature is of a perfect moral kind (and his commands are necessarily good for the reasons that his nature is good and only permits him to command good things).

      There is the dilemma, again. Please don't just assert that it has been shown to be a false dilemma, but demonstrate this. Prove that both horns can be rejected.

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