An Army of Straw Men

Tim

Stratton

(The FreeThinking Theist)

|

August 3, 2015

In December of 2014, after three years of hard work and long hours of study, my colleague, Timothy “Orthodox” Fox, and I finally graduated from Biola University with a couple of Master’s Degrees in Christian Apologetics (both of us graduated with highest honors)! This field of study focuses on logic, science, metaphysics, the historical method, philosophy, and of course, theology. I was completely transformed through this experience and I highly recommend this course of study to anyone who wants to not just understand what a Christian should believe, but also, exactly why everyone ought to believe it’s true!

One thing I loved about the Biola experience is that we spent so much of our time trying to find the best objections to Christian theism. We would go to the world’s most esteemed atheists and read their very own words. Dr. Mike Licona (who is now a professor at Houston Baptist University) actually had us watch his debate against Bart Ehrman in his classroom so we could get the opposing arguments straight from the “horse’s mouth!” Dr. Scott Smith had me read the works of the most respected atheists in the world today, such as, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, and Stephen Hawking (among others) as I developed my thesis argument. There was no sugar coating anything.

Moreover, we would look at what we thought were the best arguments for the existence of God and the truth of Christianity and try to destroy them ourselves. We would put our arguments through the fire to see if they would stand. After all, Biola did not want to send us “Apolojedi” (as Dr. Craig Hazen called us) into the world with arguments that would fail. I highly valued my time at Biola and I can honestly say that God used all of the professors[1] and all of my fellow Eagle classmates[2] to sharpen me and transform me by the renewing of my mind (Romans 12:2).

It never fails to surprise me when, after I have logically demonstrated the probability of the truth of Christian theism, the atheist will often counter with something like, “Well you got your degree from a Christian University” (implying my arguments must be faulty because it is not a secular school). There are major problems with responses like these; namely, it doesn’t matter where these arguments came from, what matters is if my argument is structurally valid, and the premises are true. This is what makes for sound conclusion and probability judgments.

However, there is this arrogant assumption that education at secular schools is somehow better than the education one could attain at Christian institutions like Biola.

Recently, I have been having some conversations with a philosophy student at a secular university and I am utterly disgusted at what he has been sharing with me![3] It does not seem as if some secular universities hold the same standards I spoke of above. I mentioned that Biola would seek to interact with the best of the best arguments against Christianity, and then, we would try to disprove our best arguments to see if they would stand. This is not the case with this secular philosophy department.

The subject of ethics and morality was being discussed at this particular secular university recently. I’ve written a few articles on the moral argument for God’s existence which states that only if God exists, can objective moral values and duties exist. Apart from the existence of God, we are only left with subjective opinions and the majority vote (which is always subject to change).

The professor of this philosophy class attempted to refute this idea, not by rejecting the idea that atheism provides no grounds for objective morality, but rather, by attempting to show that Divine Command Theory cannot ground objective moral values and duties either. The professor seemed to have convinced the students and this young man shared the professor’s power point presentation with me in an attempt to change my mind. Of the thirteen content slides, there was only one that did not have some error, misrepresentation, or strawman attack.

In this article, I will examine each slide and expose its inaccuracies. Because of the many errors, this will be a longer article than normal, but I believe you will find it highly enlightening. Let’s begin with the first slide of the professor’s presentation:

THINGS TO REMEMBER
Some people have a strong emotional attachment to Divine Command Theory. We need to remember at least two central concepts in this course:
1-Rationality
2-Fallibility

Lastly, emotional attachment to a view can lead to cognitive dissonance and can harm your ability to think rationally about a issue.

I completely agree; however, that sword can cut both ways! In my experience, I am the one providing intellectual reasons and evidence for my theistic beliefs. The atheist, on the other hand, does not seem to have logic-based reason for their non-belief. It is usually rooted in emotion (as opposed to intellectual reasons) which influences their atheistic beliefs.

Moreover, as I demonstrated in my argument, the Freethinking Argument Against Naturalism (the topic of my MA Thesis), it is the atheistic naturalist’s worldview which provides a powerful defeater to the idea that one could actually engage in the process of rationality.

DIVINE COMMAND THEORY
Basically, divine command theory claims that all ethical truths come from God.
Such a view seems very popular among the general population of the US. However, among philosophers, divine command theory has fallen out of favor (though certainly not with every philosopher).

While not explicitly making this move, the professor is dangerously close to committing the logical fallacy of appealing to the majority. The young impressionable students in his classroom may easily jump to the false conclusion that since the majority of philosophers reject DCT, then it must be false.

DIVINE COMMAND THEORY
What is the first challenge that any Divine Command Theorist faces?

Does God exist?

When we know something exists, how do we come about knowing of its existence?
Russell’s two Kinds of Knowledge
1- Knowledge by acquaintance.
2- Knowledge by description.

This professor commits the Red Herring Fallacy with this slide. Notice he ever so slightly changes the topic from “Can God logically ground objective moral values and duties,” to “Does God exist?” The Divine Command theorist states that IF God exists, then, He would provide logical grounds for objective moral values and duties. The professor seems to intentionally miss the point, and then raises a related but different topic.

MAKING REFERENCE TO GOD
When someone uses the word, “God,” what object do we think that person is referring to?

What are the properties of this object?
Is that object all-knowing? (Omniscient)
Is that object all-powerful? (Omnipotent)
Is that object all-good? (Omnibenevolent)

Here the professor gets it right (besides referring to a personal being as an “object”). By definition, God is the Maximally Great Being (MGB). This means that if God does exist, then He possesses all properties to a maximally infinite extent. If one is thinking about a way in which God could improve in a specific area, then they were not thinking about God in the first place.

Now, one of my favorite theistic arguments to discuss is the Ontological Argument. It ultimately seeks to demonstrate that if it is even possible for a Maximally Great Being (God) to exist, then a MGB must exist. The soundness of this argument right now is not the issue; remember it is *IF* a MGB exists, then objective morality has logical grounds.

In the next two slides, the professor continues to miss the point, offers a red herring, and moreover, completely misrepresents the Ontological Argument (at least what is considered to be the strongest version of it). Here it is:

REDUCTIO AD ABSURDUM
An argument that is done by reductio ad absurdum is an argument that assumes the falsity of what it is trying to prove.

After the argument assumes what it is trying to argue is false, the argument proceeds (via a logical process) to a conclusion that is impossible.

If an argument has an impossible conclusion what can you conclude about the premises (your starting point)?

At least one of your premises must be false.

The ontological argument for God’s existence is a reductio ad absurdum argument. The argument assumes that God doesn’t exist.

The argument makes reference to “Alpha” to pick out God. The argument also makes reference to “Beta”. Beta just refers to an entity that is a lot like God, but Beta has existence. (Even if we assume that God does not exist, we could image something like God existing.)

ONTOLOGICAL ARGUMENT FOR GOD’S EXISTENCE
P1: Suppose Alpha doesn’t exist.
Therefore, there’s another conceivable being exactly like Alpha except that he exists. Call that being “Beta.”

P2: What exists is greater than what doesn’t exist.
Therefore, Beta is greater than Alpha.

P3: Alpha is greater than all other beings.
Therefore, Alpha is greater than Beta.
Therefore, Beta is not greater than Alpha. Contradiction!
Therefore, Alpha does exist. Q.E.D.

Do we see any problems with this argument?

Yes! I see major problems with this argument; namely, that the professor is attacking a strawman and not the strongest version of the Ontological Argument! I like Alvin Plantinga’s version of the OA (and similar forms):[4]

1- It is possible that a maximally great being exists (in a possible world).

2- It is greater to have the property of necessary existence than contingent existence.

3- If a maximally great being exists in a possible world, he therefore, exists necessarily in that possible world.

4- Whatever can be demonstrated to exist necessarily in one possible world must exist necessarily in all possible worlds including the actual world (i.e. logical and mathematical laws, shape definitions, etc).

5- Therefore, the maximally great being (God) exists in the actual world.

6- Therefore, God exists.

The only step of the argument in question is premise (1). Perhaps it’s logically impossible for a maximally great being to exist, but the atheist shoulders that burden of proof. They must demonstrate that God is on the same logically fallacious level as married bachelors and triangles with four corners. Until they do that, it sure seems possible that a MGB could exist. Moreover, we have good reason to think that God does exist through other arguments such as the Kalam Cosmological Argument, Contingency Argument, Teleological Argument, Moral Argument, Freethinking Argument Against Naturalism, the historical evidence of the Resurrection of Jesus, and many more.

Not only does it seem logically possible that God could exist, it seems we have many other reasons to think he does exist. This provides support for the debatable premise in the OA, and the rest of the argument follows the rules of modal logic ending with the deductive conclusions that God exists.

Again, let me reiterate that the soundness of the OA is irrelevant as the real question is this: If a maximally great being exists, could objective moral values and duties be grounded in his nature? Even if the OA fails (I don’t think it does), this would not prove that a MGB does not exist! The professor is distracting the students from the real question and then attacking a straw man version of the OA which is irrelevant to the main topic.

The next slide really made me nauseous…

COSMOLOGICAL ARGUMENT
P1: Everything has a cause.
Therefore, either an infinite regress of causes or there was something that started the cause chain to the present day.

P2: An infinite regress is impossible.
Therefore, something was the “first cause.”

Do we see any problems with this argument?
Quantum Physics

Yes we do see problems with this argument, Professor! You are offering and attacking an argument that I’ve never even seen or heard before! Remember what I said about my education at Biola. We would always try to find the best arguments out there and deal with the strongest arguments straight from the horse’s mouth. This university professor seems content with ignoring the strongest arguments. Instead, he attacks caricatures and weak “straw men” in front of his classroom. This seems to be a deliberate misrepresentation of one of my favorite arguments: The Kalam Cosmological Argument. It should be stated in the following manner:

1- Whatever BEGINS to exist has a cause.

2- The universe BEGAN to exist.

3- Therefore, the universe has a cause.

The key word to this argument is begins and it is noticeably absent from the professor’s presentation. I have written several articles regarding the Kalam, so rather than explaining it again, please check them out (part 1, part 2, part 3) to understand the conclusions and rational inferences derived from the Kalam. One is that the cause of the universe must be enormously powerful. While this does not prove the cause is omnipotent, it definitely points in that direction.

For more information regarding the Kalam, please watch this four-minute video:

The next slide deals with an argument that I don’t usually offer, but I know it well enough to see that the teleological argument this professor knocks down in his classroom is not the same teleological argument (a.k.a., “The Fine-Tuning Argument”) that is typically debated in academia. Let’s look at his next slide:

TELEOLOGICAL ARGUMENT
P1: The harmony of nature.
P2: The necessity of creative intelligence.
Therefore, the universe is the product of a creative intelligent mind.

The “watchmaker” analogy.
Do we see any problems with this argument?

Yes, the major problem is that this professor continues to attack straw men in front of his students so that they think there is no good reason to think God exists. This is deception at worst or ignorance at best. Either way, it’s becoming clear that this guy has no business being a professor at a major university! To save space, I’m simply going to demonstrate what the real thing looks like:

1- The fine-tuning of the universe is due to either physical necessity, chance, or design.

2- It is not due to physical necessity or chance.

3- Therefore, it is due to design.

If you’d like to understand the teleological argument correctly (and hear a short defense of it), please watch this short video:

Now the professor gets into a topic that has been a focus of mine: The Problem of Evil!

ARGUMENT AGAINST GOD: The Problem of Evil
Thought Experiment: Drowning child
Things you know in that thought experiment:
1- You know something bad is about to happen.
2- You have the power to stop it.
You conclude: You are ethically obligated to stop it.

ARGUMENT AGAINST GOD: The Problem of Evil
1- There is evil in the world (hard to deny, slavery, the Holocaust, etc.)
2- God is omniscient (all-knowing).
(God knows about the evil)
3- God is omnipotent (all-powerful).
(God has the power to stop the evil)
4- God is Omnibenevolent (all-good).
(God is obligated to stop the evil).

Contradiction! One of the above premises must be false.

What the professor doesn’t realize is that he has just provided the key piece of evidence to prove the existence of God by admitting that evil exists in the world:

1- If God does not exist, then objective moral values and duties do not exist.

2- Evil exists (the professor admits this in his first premise).

3- Therefore, objective moral values and duties exist (some things are really evil).

4- Therefore, God exists.

ONE RESPONSE TO THE PROBLEM OF EVIL: FREE WILL

P1: In order for the world to be good, we must be free.
P2: For us to be free, God must not interfere in our choices.
Therefore, If we choose to cause suffering, he can only intervene at the cost of depriving us of our freedom, which is, in itself, a good.

That might be one response, but allow me to tighten it up a bit with a more detailed formulation:

1- If a Maximally Great Being (God) exists, He is perfectly good and all loving (this is the property of omnibenevolence).

2- If God is all-loving, He desires a true love relationship with all mankind (1 Tim 2:4).

3- If true love is to be attained, all mankind must possess genuine free will.

4- If mankind possesses free will, then mankind can freely choose to do evil.

5- If a MGB (God) exists he is omnipotent.

6- Therefore, God could prevent evil by eradicating free will (He would have the power).

7- If God eradicates free will, then He eradicates the possibility of love with humanity.

8- Eternal love with God is the ultimate good humans can experience & humans freely choosing to love God brings Him ultimate glory.

9- Therefore, preventing love would be evil.

10- Therefore, it would be evil to eradicate libertarian free will.

11- Therefore, it would be evil for God to eradicate evil.

12- Therefore, since God is good, He allows evil.

In the next slide, the professor brings up objections to his Straw Man (not the real argument):

PROBLEMS WITH THE FREE WILL RESPONSE
Problem 1: Physical limitations do not hinder Free Will (for example, you are not able to fly under your own power). Therefore, God could disable the switch the Nazi is about to pull that will kill a lot of people. God could prevent the physical acts that are evil without messing with Free Will. The Free Will response does not prevent God from prevent evil in other ways.
Problem 2: Free Will does not entail that people have to do evil things, free will only entails that one has a choice between good and evil. Therefore, it is possible that everyone could have free will and everyone does the right thing (Heaven is an example where everyone has free will and everyone does the right thing). Therefore, God could have made the universe such that everyone has Free Will and everyone does the right thing (because he is omnipotent).

Regarding Problem 1, Can you imagine what kind of a “haunted house world” we would live in if every single time someone freely chose to commit a morally evil act, then God would intervene to make sure no pain or suffering occurred? Every time a person tried to shoot another human, the bullet would be transformed into a “Nerf” bullet, or anytime a person tried to stab another person, the blade would turn into soft rubber? We would have a world full of evil intentions with no consequences! Not only would science be impossible in a world where God was constantly “tinkering” with nature, it seems we could never really learn from our bad choices either. If knowledge is a good thing, then this would be a good reason for God not to create a world like this.

After all, Paul explains why a world full of suffering is good as these “light momentary afflictions prepare us for eternity” (2 Cor 4:17). That is to say, “no pain, no gain!” Perhaps God might allow a world suffused with evil, pain, and suffering to secure eternal election of the saints without violating human libertarian free will so that true love with God (the greatest good a human can experience) can be attained for eternity. Think about this:

“The gates of Hell are locked from the inside.” That is a famous quote from C.S. Lewis, but if that it true, then could it also be said that, “the gates of Heaven are locked from the inside?” That is to say, is it logically possible for a person in Heaven to freely choose to sin, blaspheme the Holy Spirit, and freely leave to go to Hell?

Perhaps, yes, but why would they want to? That would be an important question to ask. Those in Heaven would have experienced the imperfection of this world with all of its evil, pain, and suffering (including what seems to be gratuitous suffering from our perspective). Moreover, they would be in an epistemic position to know that Hell was even worse in the absence of God and all that is good.

On top of that, those in Heaven would be experiencing a personal relationship with the Maximally Great Being who lavishes them with perfect love and meets every single need with perfection. Why would a saint in Heaven, knowingly, and freely choose to leave this ultimate paradise and perfect love for the imperfection and horror of Hell? They would have the “knowledge of good and evil” and personally experienced it through pain, evil, and suffering. Moreover, in Heaven, they would have experienced maximal greatness. It doesn’t seem like anyone who has experienced the imperfection of this world and the perfection of the next, would freely choose to exist in a world that was worse than the imperfection of the one they just left and already experienced. Perhaps this is how God can guarantee free creatures will persevere into the infinite future!

This is just a thought, but this thought experiment completely destroys this professor’s objection.

Regarding Problem 2, This professor is correct that it is a logically possible world in which all people always freely choose to do the good and right thing in all circumstances; however, the logically possible does not equal the feasible! Although it is logically possible for everyone to always choose to reject sin, if free will really means free will (and this isn’t some word game), then humans can use this freedom to freely choose to do evil. Although it is logically possible for humans to never sin, in any world God creates and gives humans libertarian free will (LFW) to make real choices, it could be the case that no actualizable world exists in which humans possess LFW and never sin.

If people really are free, there is no guarantee that all people will freely choose to love Jesus, be saved, and never sin. It is logically impossible to force someone to freely do something. Although God is omnipotent, this does not mean that he can do the logically impossible. Therefore, even if God created a world in which all persons did hear the gospel, he could not guarantee that they would freely choose to respond in the affirmative and freely choose to love Jesus. As William Lane Craig writes, “For all we know, in any world of free people that God could create, some people would freely reject his saving grace and be lost.”[5]

It may be logically possible that a world exists in which everyone freely chooses to love Jesus and never sin however, it is not guaranteed that this is a feasible world for God to create if human freedom is also a condition of this world. According to Alvin Plantinga, it may not be possible for God to even create one person without him “going bad” (trans-world depravity).[6]

Now the professor questions the omnipotence of God if He cannot create a world in which people have LFW and always choose to do the good and right thing. What this professor fails to realize is that the omnipotence of God means that He can do all things that are logically possible. God cannot, therefore, create married bachelors or make a triangle with four corners. Moreover, God cannot force people to freely choose to never sin.

This philosophy professor needs to go do some more research on the difference between logically possible and feasible worlds before making overarching and erroneous statements such as these.

EUTHYPHRO PROBLEM
If one says, “Jack committed murder, therefore Jack committed a wrong act” then what makes that act wrong given divine command theory?

Two options:
Either (1) God created the ethical facts or (2) God did not create the ethical facts.

Supposing (1):
Could God make murder ethically obligatory?

Supposing (2):
Does this create a problem for God’s omnipotence?

Wow! I can’t believe this kind of thing is being offered in the philosophy departments at respected universities today! This professor is committing the fallacy of false dichotomy. That is to say, he is offering only two options (which are not contradictory statements) to pick from when other options are clearly available for consideration as well.

The professor offers the ancient Euthyphro Dilemma as a means to do away with the need for God. His options are basically that either something is good because God randomly wills it, or, God wills something because it is already good. If these are the only two options available, then Divine Command Theory does not make sense because God’s commands are arbitrary or He is just a “middle man” and we don’t need Him to point to whatever “the good” is.

However, to demonstrate a dilemma is logically fallacious, all one needs to do is split the horns of the dichotomy with a possible third option. Christian theists have one ready to offer: “The good is grounded in God’s nature.”

That was easy.

To understand more regarding objective moral values and duties, as well as the Euthyphro dilemma, please watch this short animated video:

Although I think there are many good arguments that demonstrate the existence of God, for the sake of the original question, if God does exist, can objective moral values and duties be grounded in his nature? This argument will assume God does exist to demonstrate why Divine Command Theory is valid on a theistic view. Let’s take a look:

Why Divine Command Theory Works

1- Objective truth corresponds to reality.

2- If a maximally great being (God) exists, He exists necessarily and eternally. God is ultimate reality.

3- God created humanity on purpose and for the specific purpose to know, love, and enjoy him forever (Inventors invent things for specific purposes. Creators create for specific purposes).

4- Therefore, this purpose is objectively true apart from human subjective opinion.

5- If God exists He is a maximally great being.

6- If God is maximally great then He is perfectly intelligent.

7- If God is perfectly intelligent then everything He does is for perfectly good reasons (This is the epitome of a good leader).

8- Therefore, every command God gives is perfectly intelligent and perfectly good.

9- Therefore if we are to correspond to reality we ought to obey His perfectly good and perfectly intelligent commands (That would be the objectively smart thing to do).

10- God gives us the freedom to do otherwise and freely choose to be objectively stupid.

To make a long argument short: God is good; therefore, anything He commands is for the ultimate good!

After examining the power point, I told the young philosophy student that I was appalled at the army of straw men his professor attacked during his presentation. When young minds are subjugated to only one side of the argument (and poorly) this is the epitome of indoctrination! Fortunately, this student is starting to see his professor cannot be trusted. I told him that his professor was doing him a great disservice and that he should ask for his money back. I recommend spending it at Biola instead!

On the side of Truth (John 18:37),

Tim Stratton


Notes:

[1] Not only did I get to learn directly from professors like William Lane Craig and J.P. Moreland, I was blessed to learn from R. Scott Smith, Clay Jones, Kevin Lewis, Craig Hazen, Mike Licona, John Mark Reynolds, Sean McDowell, and many more.

[2] Some of my classmates and I blog as The Apologers.

[3] I want to make it clear that the university I am referring to is NOT the University of Nebraska at Kearney (UNK). Since I live in Kearney, NE, I did not want anyone jumping to false conclusions. I highly respect the UNK philosophy department and I count these professors as friends.

[4] William Lane Craig answers some questions regarding the Ontological Argument here: http://www.reasonablefaith.org/misunderstanding-the-ontological-argument

[5] William Lane Craig, On Guard, Published by David C. Cook, Colorado Springs, CO, 2010

[6] Alvin Plantinga, God, Freedom, and Evil, 1977, Grand Rapids, MI, Eerdmans.

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About the Author

Tim

Stratton

(The FreeThinking Theist)

Tim pursued his undergraduate studies at the University of Nebraska-Kearney (B.A. 1997) and after working in full-time ministry for several years went on to attain his graduate degree from Biola University (M.A. 2014). Tim is currently enrolled at North-West University pursuing his Ph.D. in systematic theology with a focus on metaphysics, history, and biblical data.

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