Response to David @ Toongabbie Anglicans

I've been trying, for quite some time now, to post this response on Toongabbie Anglican's website. All I got was fucking fail:

 I'm a bit fucking annoyed about this. Still, I saved the comment and can post it here. Original thread HERE.

Hi David,

I can understand why you’d feel a little intimidated at the thought of entering a pub full of atheists. After all, you may interrupt us while we’re eating babies and plotting our next shopping mall rampage. Obviously we couldn’t let you out alive if that happened.

Note: that is a joke.

Anyway, as for discussion with Sydney Atheists as a group and with individuals:

We have an official blog at as well as other channels of group communication.

Dave the Happy Singer blogs at

Alan and Rachel blog at which is also the official seed point for the podcast of the same name

I personally blog at

From those you should be able to engage quite nicely.

Be warned, my blog is my own personal space for rants and raging. I pull no punches and I often employ a scorched earth methodology. Bring a very thick skin and a sense of humour if you want to go there. It’s not the shallow end, and there are no lifeguards. If you meet me in person, I am, for the most part, polite and civil. I’m not a psychotic maniac, but I play one on the internet.

I can give you my take on the four standard arguments pretty quickly: All four ‘arguments’ fall down if examined openly.

Ontological: These tend to be self-supporting, and not in a good way. All could be equally applied to Unicorns, Leprechauns or Gremlins. No evidence is offered, just self-contained logic. Easily dismissed.

Cosmological: Sorry, just because the universe is large and complex, doesn’t mean a god automatically exists. Science has good naturalistic explanations which do not involve gods, though you can maybe have the period before one Planck time after the big bang, where we can’t reliably apply strong theories. That’s the time it takes light to travel the Planck Length, or 1.6*10^-35 metres. It’s very, very small.

What happened during that first planck time, we cannot currently say. After that, there is no evidence for or requiring a god or gods. So you can have a maybe there was a god and maybe he/she/it did something during the first planck time.

We reserve the right, as science does, to revise the previous paragraph based on further scientific observation.

From Design: It’s kinda natural for humans to assume organised complexity must arise from a designer, but these arguments fall foul of recursion (if everything needs a designer, then who designed god?) and observable reality. We have many examples of self-organisation and ‘reversal of entropy’ within nature (starting with the most basic, simple crystals) and strong frameworks to explain the observable universe (See also cosmological arguments), none of which require an extraneous designer.

Incidentally, I have a blog post in draft at the moment about a prominently reported “letter of support” signed by scientists who doubt evolution. The letter in question was overwhelmingly from Engineering scientists, who specialise in human design, and are predisposed to seeing design even where it may not exist. Active biological scientists are conspicuous by their scarcity on the list, and those that are on the list are conspicuous by their lack of substantive recent work.

Moral Law: Again, science has very good explanations of how morality arose, some of which I tried to introduce on Sunday, though I’m not sure the format was good for this explanation. Suffice to say morality arises naturally in social creatures via selective pressure, and our particular forms of morality have a number of very good explanations, none of which include god or gods.

I’m particularly fond of the “intentional stance” theories outlined by Daniel Dennett et. al., if you want to know more, search wikipedia for “intentional stance”

Right now, on this planet, we are the creatures with the most complex society, but it’s not hard to draw observational parallels with behaviour in other social creatures, going downwards from Chimps and Bonobos through the entire gamut of primates, past wolves, bovines such as cows, oxen and deer, ovines such as wild sheep and goats and all the way ‘down’ to formicidae, apoidea and other cooperative species.

These are pretty darn good theories, and by theories, I do not mean hypotheses. One of your number tried the “evolution is just a theory” gambit on Sunday, and he’s about to be speared on the trident of my blog.

In summary

This a very quick throwaway rundown on my view of the four classical arguments. There is much more to be said, others may have more to add, and a blog comment is probably not the right place, but, in essence, classical arguments FAIL, badly.

I’m cross-posting this response at my blog, btw, just in case.

So, I did post this to my blog, and I'm posting a link back to the Toongabbie Anglicans. FFS, L2 blog, christards.

BTW, no fucking whining. I warned you earlier that this is not the shallow end. Comments whining about civility get burned.



posted @ Monday, January 26, 2009 8:56 PM


Comments on this entry:

# re: Response to David @ Toongabbie Anglicans

Left by Jason at 1/26/2009 11:02 PM
Note: David@ Toongabbie salvaged my comment and posted it - follow the link above

# re: Response to David @ Toongabbie Anglicans

Left by David Gawthorne at 1/27/2009 12:19 PM

This is the David of Toongabbie fame.

I tried to comment here this morning, but it did not work for some reason.

Now I notice that you say that a blog comment is not the place to go into the four 'standard' arguments.

Just to clarify, I did not dismiss those arguments on Sunday night. I said that they only work if we make certain assumptions. Those assumptions may be well-founded.

Is there somewhere else on-line we can carry on this discussion, or is this comments thread okay?

# re: Response to David @ Toongabbie Anglicans

Left by Jason at 1/27/2009 1:02 PM
Hey David,

This thread would be fine if you like. Sorry if I've misrepresented your presentation - it sounded to me like "These are the standard four and they're not very good. Moving on...."

Agreed, certain assumptions are required to make the standard four stand up. It is also possible to make assumptions that are well-founded. So far, I haven't had any joy in finding a set of foundational assumptions that actually make the arguments stand.

Just to lay down my position, and that of many of my associates: If good evidence could be found for the existence of a god or gods, I'll be happy to acknowledge it. If the evidence is strong enough, I'll happily say "OK, so based on that, god/gods exists/exist". I will not necessarily like or worship said god/gods, but with good evidence I'd certainly have to acknowledge existence.No such evidence has yet been forthcoming.

Anyway, feel free to continue...

(p.s. I'm currently behind a firewall at a client site, replies may be delayed significantly)

# re: Response to David @ Toongabbie Anglicans

Left by Andrew Skegg at 1/27/2009 1:39 PM
That's it - I am subscribing.

# re: Response to David @ Toongabbie Anglicans

Left by David Gawthorne at 1/27/2009 8:29 PM
Okay. Let’s get to it.

Ontological Argument

When you say that no evidence is offered by this argument, you seem to be ruling out immediately the possibility of an a priori argument for the existence of God. As a methodological conclusion, a bit more is required.

In any event, I agree that there is something wrong with this argument. Then again, there may be forms of the argument that get past your objection that it also proves the existence of any imaginary kind of thing. Consider this simple form:

1. God is, by definition, the most powerful person.

2. Persons that exist are more powerful than persons that do not exist.

3. Therefore, God exists.

The argument goes through for the most powerful person, but not for just any most powerful thing. For example, the following does not work:

1.1 Uni is, by definition, the most powerful unicorn.

1.2 Unicorns that exist are more powerful than unicorns that do not exist.

1.3 Therefore, Uni exists.

This second argument fails to introduce existing unicorns because there is a hidden third premise to the effect that at least one unicorn exists. Whereas, it is possible that all unicorns do not exist. Conversely, because God is introduced as the most powerful person that exists, and there are existing persons, God must therefore exist in order to be more powerful than them.

Even if that is not granted, it will become important for my position on 2 of the other argument forms for you to say where it is that this argument actually goes wrong. Suppose for a moment that I would actually be willing to contemplate the existence of the perfect unicorn on the basis of an ontological argument for such a unicorn (cracks about what Christians are capable of believing aside). What would you then say to counter the ontological argument?

Cosmological Argument

I have a favourite version of this argument that I would like to put to you, but first I need to get into the ontological argument more with you. While I don’t think that the ontological argument form works, I think that there is a valuable lesson to be learned from it.

In the meantime, I wonder about your approach of deferring belief until we have (scientific) evidence. Obviously, it is not the policy of Christians to only apportion belief to the evidence. That’s where faith comes in, or superstition if you prefer. This does not rule out that a Christian may accept defeating evidence and adjust their beliefs accordingly. It just means that we are not on hold while science tells us the ultimate truth. Yet, I will not be holding my breath for that answer as many philosophers of science now follow Kuhn in holding a fairly pragmatic/holistic line about what science is capable of telling us, anyway. It will always be possible (this side of the Judgement Day?) to say that science may give us a different answer later, if only we wait a bit longer. This becomes a fairly tiresome strategy to use against someone who does hold to beliefs beyond the support of scientific evidence. At best, it will lead to a stalemate, and an argument as to who raises their kids the right way.

On what basis do you hold that one should suspend judgement apart from the evidence, rather than commit to belief subject to defeaters?

My point for the Cosmological Argument form is that it provides support for a belief that we hold, subject to any defeaters that come along. The fact that it’s possible that there will be defeaters is not grounds not to believe in God, particularly when there is such an argument available. Of course, I have not yet provided the argument.

[Continued in a next comment]

# re: Response to David @ Toongabbie Anglicans

Left by David Gawthorne at 1/27/2009 8:31 PM

Argument from Design

I’m not going to try to argue against evolutionary theory. It’s pretty impressive as a way of explaining biological complexity. I’m not one for exploiting gaps…

…Except that I think that I can retreat to something like Paul Davies’ argument about cosmological constants and fine-tuning. I’d be interested to know whether you posit multiple universes or something else to deal with the improbability of life-friendly physical conditions.

As for the ‘who designed the designer?’ response, I think that there is something about persons that might respond to this. Again, I will need your response to the ontological argument, as it will affect how I answer this one, also.

Argument from Moral Law

When you say that science has explained how morality arose, you seem to be equivocating between explanation of a belief and explanation of the content of a belief.

First note that many people have had intuitions that some moral facts are absolute truths, such as, “Murder is wrong.” They believe that these are not contingent upon one’s social or evolutionary history. While you might say that these intuitions are subject to revision along with other folk intuitions displaced by scientifically supported theories, it is important to remember how those other intuitions were displaced.

When it was discovered that the Earth revolves around the Sun, rather than the reverse, it was not demonstrated by showing how evolutionary theory etc. could explain how we came to have the belief that the Earth revolved around the Sun. Rather, it was demonstrated by observations that were difficult to reconcile and, ultimately, inconsistent with the folk intuition.

Why, then, do absolute moral facts get treated differently?

Or, more pointedly, if I can show how evolution leads to people who espouse atheism, will I have demonstrated that atheism has nothing to say about the way the world is apart from our beliefs about it?

This is the psychologistic fallacy; a double standard on the part of evolutionary theorists who treat physical facts like proper facts; and, frankly, Dan Dennett should know better.

As for the intentional stance, there is one detail that Dan botches with that theory. We need to have intentional attitudes towards other people in order to attribute intentional states to them. While he claims that this can be achieved by applying the intentional stance to one’s self, that move actually entails that we do not really have intentional attitudes towards others. It leads to intentional nihilism, not the softened realism that he claims it does. I call it philosophising with a hot potato, as he has to hop between really having intentional states and then only pragmatically being treated as having intentional states for the argument to appear to go through.

This last point gets slightly off topic, but I couldn’t help but to respond.

David Gawthorne

# re: Response to David @ Toongabbie Anglicans

Left by Jason at 1/28/2009 2:01 PM
Hi David,

I'll be responding tonight, if all goes well with other commitments. It should be tasty. Put on your flamesuit. After you have been baked, there will be cake.

I'm currently undecided whether to respond via comment thread or to add new posts individually responding to your arguments. This dilemma will no doubt be solved soon. Either way, the responses or links to the responses will be posted in this thread.

A few other Sydney Atheists will probably pop by and put in their 2c worth also.

Toodle-ooo, be seeing you later,


# re: Response to David @ Toongabbie Anglicans

Left by Jason at 1/31/2009 3:09 AM
Post published. See top of blog or click here:

No whining.

# re: Response to David @ Toongabbie Anglicans

Left by Spong at 1/31/2009 7:46 PM
Sorry, what?

"Except that I think that I can retreat to something like Paul Davies’ argument about cosmological constants and fine-tuning. I’d be interested to know whether you posit multiple universes or something else to deal with the improbability of life-friendly physical conditions."

Sorry, life is improbable (you say), thus a god exists? If you're okay with the whole evolution thing, you'd probably grasp that life evolved to meet the needs of these (allegedly) life-friendly physical conditions. They're the only conditions we've ever had; we had to evolve into them. That they work for us is just part and parcel of us having grown up that way.

Do you believe that humans are the only life in the universe?

Well, how about that the Earth is the only planet in the universe on which any form of life has eventuated?

Imagine that... a whole universe, created just so that this planet could host life. And let's be more specific: human life. Which obviously didn't evolve. Wow.

Seems inefficient, though, and bluntly, I think a god might be out of carbon credits on that one.

It also seems grandiose, and arrogant, maybe even smug, and lots of other offputting adjectives.

Of course, if we discover any form of life anywhere else, ever, that argument is more or less shot to bits. Luckily*, that hasn't happened yet, and is unlikely to happen in our lifetimes. Pity, I'd love to hear it rationalized.

# re: Response to David @ Toongabbie Anglicans

Left by David Gawthorne at 2/1/2009 12:19 PM
The fine-tuning of cosmological constants argument relates to the empirically determined quantities that must be plugged into the formulas that constitute our best scientific theories in order to explain the way our universe has developed since the big band (or whatever if the big bang is out of fashion) at a cosmological level.

Apparently, even the slightest variation in these constants and life would not have been possible in the universe because conditions would be too hostile to even the most basic building-blocks of life. We're talking about the molecular and atomic levels, here. We're talking about the right conditions for stars and planets to separate out, even.

In order to make an argument against this view comparable to the argument that there are many, many planets (so that the probability that one of them will have the right conditions to support life approaches better than 0.5) it would need to be claimed that there are many, many universes and ours is but one of them. This is a kind of ontological profligacy that only someone in the grip of a theory could accept without seeing any evidence that there might be such other universes.

# re: Response to David @ Toongabbie Anglicans

Left by Jason at 2/1/2009 2:36 PM
I will reuse something I've posted in response to someone else.

Rubbing yourself up and down on the anthropic principle and moaning is not going to get you anywhere.

You still only get a "maybe" on the board, and a maybe that does not lead anywhere useful, at that. Fine tuning does not answer the case
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