Sunday, 25 October 2009

Luke Muehlhauser versus Vox Day

Letter to Vox Day I

Luke being an ex-Christian, is interested as to why Christians, such as Vox Day, is (still?) a Christian. Why Luke chose Vox out of all the bloggers on the internet I do not know, certainly this was my introduction to Vox Day, who has written a book called "The Irrational Atheist", maybe this was the reason?

Anyway Luke, in asking this question, states "I’m not familiar with your story; I hope you’ll share it." This is good, as many readers of this dialogue would not be expected to be familiar with Vox's (or Luke's for that matter) other writings. So even even if Luke were familiar with Vox's other writings, this should not be assumed in such a dialogue - ditto for Vox. Indeed this series of letters could serve as a record of a debate which may lead interested readers in following up with either Luke's or Vox's other writings (or both) standalone, such interest being most likely driven by the quality and content of the arguments provided on both sides.

The key question in this very first letter of this dialogue (or debate) is:
"I’d like to start with a question about why you believe what you believe about God. But I’d like to skip all the usual arguments. In fact, for the sake of argument let’s say all the theistic arguments succeed, and all the atheistic arguments fail. Let’s say the modal ontological argument establishes the existence of an omniscient, omnipotent, and all-good being. Cosmological arguments establish this God as the creator of the universe. Design arguments establish that he purposely designed the universe to host intelligent life. Historical analysis shows that Jesus rose from the dead.
Let’s say all that is true. My question is, Why are you a Christian? A Christian asserts a huge number of highly dubious propositions that are not established even if all these arguments are granted. For example, Christians believe that Jesus is God, that God answers prayers, that God is Triune, that God will send believers to heaven and unbelievers to hell, that God commands us not to murder or rape or lie or worship other gods or dishonor our parents or sleep with certain people, etc."
This is, I think, a very good question. Now I have not dwelled much on this blog on arguments over the existence of god. This is more than adequately covered elsewhere. Still, in past posts and comments elsewhere, I have intimated a view that however large the gap between reality and the existence of a god, there is, in my view, an even larger gap between the existence of a god and the various Christian versions of such a god. That is however improbable the existence of a god is, it is even more improbable that such a god is of any version expressed by a Christian theism (the same goes for Islamic and Jewish versions of god, but each as has to addressed on its own terms, and we are focused here only on Vox's theism - why he is a Christian, not anyone else).

Now Luke asks two other questions and I think this was mistake, but then this is not a formal debate, and in this more informal context this is certainly acceptable. Now the reason I think this was a mistake is only because it could enable the respondent, Vox in this case, to avoid tackling head on the key question above, Now the two questions were:
"Yet you seem to deny evolution and support Young Earth Creationism. Is this correct? If so, how do you conclude such things, given the evidence?"
I think this question is a distraction and will try avoiding commenting on this directly in the ensuing dialogue, indeed they both seem to come to similar conclusions themselves. Still, underlying this is how someone like Vox uses reason and evidence in their arguments in general. I will comment on that if it comes up over this question.
"My third question concerns your contention that God, assuming he exists, “has the right to define right and wrong,” including the ability to decide that genocide and baby-killing are morally right. Your reasoning is that “we are all his creations, [so] killing every child under two on the planet is no more inherently significant than a programmer unilaterally wiping out his AI-bots in a game universe.”"
This is indeed an extreme and dangerous moral position and is very likely tied in with why Vox specifically is a Christian. I am interested to see how anyone can given any remotely adequate response here. Now my main interest in this dialogue is primarily over any moral arguments used, by either side, and this, as one reads these letters, becomes the main sub-theme here, in answering both questions, which is what moved me to comment on this series.

So how does Vox reply?

Letter to Commonsense Atheism I

First he asks a "minor question" himself.
"I understand why many atheists wish to discuss religion with me. I have written a book on the subject, after all. What I do not understand is why so many of them wish to discuss religion with me without first reading the relevant book."
Please understand that in commenting here I have no interest in discussing religion with anyone. Further, as noted above, the approach of not assuming detailed knowledge of both sides position is a commendable one. Should Vox provide good and interesting arguments, this would certainly encourage me to buy his book. On the other hand should he provide bad and poor arguments, this would similarly discourage me. I love reading material critical of my views, indeed I encourage everyone to seek out criticism of their views, one can learn much that way. However, with limited time, I try and apply quality control in seeking out the best of those opposed to my views, such as reading series of letters, reading someone's blog, watching or reading online talks and debates and so on, which are all good ways of discovering interesting ideas and has led me to discover, buy and read many books I otherwise would not have been aware of.

Still many blog authors make poor arguments for the literature they endorse, for example debates I participated in a year or of two ago with Randoids come to mind. Their arguments were so poor that they gave me no reason to pursue the literature they recommended Now in those Randoids case one could say that the fact they had made poor arguments may not be definitive in dis-endorsing the literature they recommended. After all the poor arguments could have been due to their own inadequacies and limitations not reflecting that of the authors of the primary literature themselves. Anyway here we are dealing with primary author himself, so there is no possibility of coming to such a mistaken conclusion, as arguably I could have over the Randoids.

Now I am an advocate of what John Searle said (to Derrida as it happens, but this is a general principle) "If you cannot state it clearly, you do not understand it". So, granted Luke's original premise to which Vox was responding here, it is still beholden upon Vox can make clear and concise arguments in his favour, this is, after all, the primary basis to this correspondence. Here is the initial and key answer:
"Why am I a Christian? Because I believe in evil. I believe in objective, material, tangible evil that insensibly envelops every single one of us sooner or later. I believe in the fallen nature of Man, and I am aware that there is no shortage of evidence, scientific, testimonial, documentary, and archeological, to demonstrate that no individual is perfect or even perfectible by the moral standards described in the Bible. I am a Christian because I believe that Jesus Christ is the only means of freeing Man from the grip of that evil. God may not be falsifiable, but Christianity definitely is, and it has never been falsified. The only philosophical problem of evil that could ever trouble the rational Christian is its absence; to the extent that evil can be said to exist, it proves not only the validity of Christianity but its necessity as well. The fact that we live in a world of pain, suffering, injustice, and cruelty is not evidence of God's nonexistence or maleficence, it is exactly the worldview that is described in the Bible. In my own experience and observations, I find that worldview to be far more accurate than any other, including the shiny science fiction utopianism of the secular humanists."
There is much that is quite astounding in the above but it is not my job to respond to it. That is the role that Luke has taken on. Still there is no argument yet - nor should this be expected at this stage - it is Vox stating his view on why he is a Christian. Still he makes many assertions that look patently false such as that Christianity has not been falsified and is necessary but this is what Luke was asking Vox to explain, not assert, in the first place. At least here they agree upon what it is that is to be debated. So I expect in what follows for Vox to demonstrate that Christinity has not been falsified and is necessary. My interest here is over the critical dependence that Vox makes over the notion of "evil" here. As for the bible having a "moral standard" - high or low - well if Vox's argument from Evil leads to attempting to show that Christianity is necessary and falsified fair enough, however one cannot assume what one is trying to prove, and using the bible as evidence for this position is a vicious circularity. Regardless I think he has his work cut out. I am just following this core debate on the sideline, maybe this post (and its comments) could serve as a peanut gallery for proponents and critics on both sides to discuss these letters on this topic.
"Fortunately for many Christians, intellectual understanding isn't the metric upon which salvation is based. The Biblical God claims to know everything about the human heart and He would appear to recognize that thinking isn't for everyone."
Well thinking is required for these letters. It is up to Vox to show that this claim of the Bible is true as indeed his other claims quoted above.

So now the invitation has been accepted by Vox, how does Luke proceed?
Letter to Vox Day II

Luke deals with points I have either covered above (such as 1. Research and Discussion) or wish to avoid in his answer (such as 2. Creationism and Evolution). His response to Vox's argument from evil as to why he is a Christian is spot on:
"You write as if Christianity is the only worldview that has an account of evil, but this is absurd. All religions have an account of evil. So evil is just as much evidence for their truth as for the truth of Christianity.
In fact, many religions have a better account of evil than Christianity does"
In ethics one can grant the existence of a god and still find theistic based moralities as deeply flawed and woefully inadequate moral theories. Similarly here one could grant the existence of "evil" and still compare and contrast different religious (mono-theistic, polytheistic, pantheists and non-theistic) and non-religious theories.Vox has yet to show why his version of Christianity (whether it is an idiosyncratic "Vox Day Christianity" or mainstream Protestant theology that Vox claims to represent) is the best current explanation of such evil.

Luke also, correctly, challenges the metaphysical assumptions behind any such concept of "evil". He asks
"...I would like to see you argue for the existence of evil.2 I think you are adding unnecessary metaphysics to your observations about the world – extra metaphysics that should be shaved off by Occam’s razor."
As for Vox's ethics, what really interests me here, Luke notes that:
"You seem to think that God is “morally right to sexually molest children, mutilate their genitals, torture them, and let them die slowly.”4 Why? Because he created them. In your words: “His game, His rules.”

While I must congratulate you for at least being consistent, I must say your concept of morality is terrifying.
But rather than criticize your ethical theory, I’ll just let this thread of our dialogue die, as I suspect further argument on the issue won’t get us anywhere.5"
Indeed. Still it is also becoming clear how closely tied Vox' Argument from Evil for Christianity and his moral theory are connected, as we shall see in the following letters.

Letter to Commonsense Atheism II

It seems that Vox Day has a very high opinion of himself, especially his intelligence and here this is beginning swamp the useful content of these letters. I will not dwell nor waste time on such matters.

Now Vox accepts that different religions have different accounts of evil so "the question is: of those various accounts of evil, which most closely parallels the evil that we can observe and experience in the material world?". Exactly. However instead of providing his argument as to why Christianity is the best explanation of evil he mostly criticises what he thinks are Luke's misunderstandings of his position.What he does do is reject some of the classical Christian doctrines over omniscience and omnipotence and so on, his "omnidirigent" god is not in control on this planet, Santa (woops I meant Satan, I will leave that typo in) is. This is a not uncommon Christian view but it is still question begging. It is still required to show why this is a better explanation that alternatives. Vox does not do this here, but at least, albeit with some unnecessary obfuscation and diversions, makes it clearer the type of Christianity he is espousing. Still the case needs to made for it.

This is not helped by such statements as "Evil can be external but it is internal as well, because the Christian concept of evil is simply that which violates the Will of God".Vicious circularity rears its head. If Vox wishes to use his argument from evil for being a Christian he cannot assume such a god as a premise in the first place.

He also comes up with some bizarre lines of argument such as "Since your [Luke's] understanding of my argument was demonstrably incorrect and your criticism of it verifiably false, it is clear that my belief in Christianity remains rationally justified even if I cannot conclusively prove its truth to anyone else's satisfaction." Dear or dear, this is a non sequitur on many levels if ever I saw one. Apart from the obvious non sequitur, the whole thrust of this exchange is for Vox to provide a rational justification of why he is a Christian. This is a more modest challenge to Vox than to ask him to conclusively prove it truth to anyone else's satisfaction, and certainly the latter is not what Luke was asking Vox.

Relevantly given my interest in this dialogue here, Vox asks Luke:
"I am curious, however, in your interest in seeing me argue for the existence of evil. While I have no objection to doing so given the obvious relevance of the matter, I must first understand something about your definition of evil. Do you believe in the existence of objective evil or do you believe that evil is a purely subjective matter?"
This is addressing the second metaphysical point that Luke made in his preceding letter. Bear in mind that however this point is addressed it does not make any case for Vox's position in arguing that Christianity is a better explanation than competing religious and non-religious arguments. (As noted above one can grant, for the sake of argument, various notions of evil and see which theory best deals with them).

I am sorry to note that the noise content of these letters is growing but then it make it easier for me to focus in on the substance in the ensuing dialogues. Vox starts to end his letter with a rather ungrammatical sentence.
"The reason Christianity is rationally justified even though the ontological argument, cosmological argument, teleological argument, the magical resurrection of Jesus, and the existence of evil do not entail the complete truth of Christianity – which, according to 1 Corinthians 13:11, every Christian knows we cannot know – but they still suffice to establish the Bible as the most credible authority regarding that which is unknown."
No, this is the argument that Luke has requested Vox to make and one we are still waiting for. Nothing in ending of this letter provides any argument as to why this is the case.

Back to Luke

Letter to Vox Day III

After Luke dealt with points generated by Vox that are digressions his letter really just re-iterated the request as for Vox to make his case as to why he to why he is a Christian. To summarise Vox has been making assertions to establish what it is that he believes but has yet to show what the rational basis is as to why he believes what he does.

Luke follows on, upon the point of clarifying what is meant by "evil", to provide his own take based on desirism, the moral framework I currently espouse too. However it needs be noted that however strong the arguments for or against desirism, they do not substantially affect the requirement for Vox to make a case as to why he is a Christian. Indeed should Vox succeed in demolishing desirism, which as we shall see he has failed to do so, it does not affect one iota the strength or weakness of Vox's position over the rational grounds as to why he is a Christian, a case he has yet to make.

There is a caveat here, that is if desirism (and indeed many other modern ethical theories to boot) is correct about evil, then the underlying premise upon which Vox has yet to make a case is therefore unsound, making the requirement for him to present a case pointless. That is I grant that it is possible that he could make a rational argument, that is a logically valid argument, granted his premise over evil, still an argument he has avoided doing so far, yet even if he were to succeed at this, if he has an unsound premise over evil, then his argument still fails.

So there are two distinct yet related questions: one is over the soundness of Vox's evil premise and the other over what valid conclusions can be drawn from such a premise. So far we are none the wiser with respect either point. So how does Vox proceed?

Letter to Commonsense Atheism III

Well amongst much meta-debate noise Vox makes such ripostes to Luke as "Granted, it is not my custom to explain what I consider to be the obvious." The underlying thrust of the rest of that paragraph is just an exposition of the "every schoolboy knows" and similar informal fallacies. And none of this addresses the substance of the challenge to Vox. I am not going to hold my breath.

Vox makes some bizarre question-begging points such as "The nature of the being who rules over the world is a tremendously important point to understand for both the Christian and the atheist." Yes well the default is that there is no such ruler and it is up to Vox to show that there is, which he has made no argument for yet.

"While I am certainly interested in discussing which religious or philosophical account of evil best fits the observable evidence..." this is not just an interesting point but what has become of the two cruxes of this debate. It is the whole basis of Vox's (still unargued) case as to why he is a Christian! He asks a number of questions upon he wants clarity over in order to move the debate, as he sees it forward. Fair enough.
"1.Do you believe in the existence of evil?
2.If you believe that evil exists, is its nature objective or subjective?
3.If you believe the nature of evil to be objective, what is that objective basis?
4.What is the mathematical equation you used to calculate the three probabilities for metaphysical naturalism, orthodox Christian theism, and desirism?"
The fourth question is a red herring, but then Luke did himself no favours by providing percentage numbers to these views in the first place. The first three are the important ones but more for Vox to answer in order make his case, that is it is up to him to provide answers and ones that do not presume the answer he concludes with.

Letter to Vox Day IV

After the meta-debate noise Luke re-iterates the fundamental issue, which Vox has still failed to tackle.
"So it sounds like we’re getting closer to an argument about whether Christian theism is justified. Vox, do you agree with me that even if the traditional theistic arguments establish theism, and even if Jesus rose from the dead, this still would not establish the truth of Christian theism?"
I am not sure if we are getting closer to an answer from Vox. At least we are getting clarifications of Vox's version of Christianity, that is progress albeit one that could have been made far more easily, quickly, less arrogantly and more politely by Vox than he did.

Luke is still waiting, aren't we all, for Vox to show why his version of Christianity is the best explanation for evil. Whilst it might be necessary to show comparatively which of two competing approaches are better, this is insufficient to make Vox's case. He still has yet to show why his approach is better than other religious theories, let alone other theories in general. I do not think that Luke's presentation permitting Vox to directly criticise desirism helps Vox's case at all. At best it could merely shows that Vox's argument over evil is better than Luke's, but this would be woefully insufficient to make Vox's case. At worst it is a digression that enables Vox to yet again avoid providing the rational and evidential grounds for his Christianity.

The charitable point here is that unless there is shared understanding over what evil is then Vox's argument would not be accepted by those who disagree on the evil premise. Still, as already noted, a logical argument based on such a premise is still has not been made either. That is both the soundness and the strength or validity of Vox's reasoning for him to become a Christian have not yet been forthcoming.

Anyway Luke provides decent answers to Vox's four questions quoted just above. I wonder if Vox will provide his answers to these same questions (well the first three that are relevant here)

And finally, at least for now, Vox's latest reply:

Letter to Commonsense Atheism IV

After more meta-debate claptrap (how about you both stop doing this?) we get to the nub of the matter, or do we?
" was logically false to assert that the answer to the question “Do you believe in evil?” was somehow dependent upon my definition of evil. "
Vox then proceeds to provide a poor analogical argument over being a fan of football, it apparently not being dependent upon whether one reads that as American Football versus what is know as football in the rest of the world or "soccer" in the USA, such that both types of fans could provide the same answer. Still if they would proceed to discuss this topic, hey would find they like quite different sports, that share mostly just a name. So, contra Vox, what evil is defined as, is important in order to have mutual shared progress on such a topic.

He then proceeds to apparently(?) misquote Luke when he says ' "not influenced by personal feelings, interpretations, or prejudice; based on facts; unbiased: an objective opinion" ' and responds " - regarding the nature of evil clearly indicates that you believe evil is a fundamentally subjective concept". This is quite confused, Luke in his last letter makes no such statements let alone talks about "objective opinion". Luke does say "In ethics, one might suggest that a moral fact is objective if its truth is unaffected by everyone’s opinion on the matter." This is the objectivity that Luke is applying. So Vox by mis-paraphrasing or quoting someone else has erected a straw man.

Now if Vox is genuinely so concerned over not having a subjective definition of good, this is a strong reason to reject theistic based morality since these are based on such a being's subjective "nature" and any individuals take, such as Vox's, being relativised to that particular conception of god. Moral subjectivism and moral relativism are positions that myself, Luke and, by implication, Vox all reject. However I fail to see how Vox can retain this position consistently and coherently whilst arguing morality is based on a god's subjective nature. The fact that he has criticised someone else, Luke in this case, by seeing only a subjective basis for evil in Luke's position (which is a mistake of Vox's) only serves to make explicit the paradox that Vox needs to deal with regarding his own moral theory.

(In passing I note that the Euthyphro Dilemma was discussed earlier in these letters and Vox gave the usual non-answer that fails to resolve the paradox. I think the Luke should have pushed harder on that point, as once theistic "nature" is adumbrated one can see it for the non-answer that it is. I have spent to too much time on Euthyphro to go over this boring ground again here).

Vox goes on to make some quite strange and poor arguments such as
"Unfortunately, this rejection of the concept of objective evil renders it impossible for us to compare the Christian view of evil with other accounts of it because neither of us can possibly know what your definition of evil is for any single act or individual at any given point on the space-time continuum."
No, the same as ethicists who do not believe in god can grant god's existence for the sake of argument, similarly we can grant here the existence of Vox's form of "objective evil" and evaluate his theism against alternatives. (What we cannot grant is a question-begging definition that assumes his answer). Luke has already done that and Vox has failed to provide any decent riposte on that point. Vox is endeavouring to confuse the points at hand in his argument over the soundness versus the strength or validity of his case.

Indeed what is in dispute here is over whether there is a realistic basis for "good" and "evil" . Both sides agree that there is, yet only desirism relies on spartan and real-world entities, Vox's, as far as I can tell, fails by relying on baroque and fictional entities.

Vox then proceeds to provide a deeply mistaken critique of desirism. In his previous letter Luke said "But do not confuse this with desire fulfilment act utilitarianism. It is not as though desire fulfillment has intrinsic value and should be maximized." Now I find it surprising that someone of Vox's claimed intellect and erudition should make such a basic 101 error as to then proceed to criticise desirism by mistaking it for desire fulfilment act utilitarianism but this is what he does. Either he does not have the intellect he claims to have, in which case his mistake is excusable or he has deliberately erected another straw man. I will let the reader be the judge of that.

Some minor point amongst Vox's egregious misunderstandings of desirism include:
"This reasoning led you to an incorrect conclusion because you failed to realize that turning the knob all the way to the right means that racist desires are fulfilled and no desires of minorities are thwarted - because they don't exist either!"
Now whilst I do not like or use the "turning the knobs" metaphor, note it is a metaphor for how morality actually works in reality, regardless of which theory one subscribes to. That is morality is at least partly about the employment of praise and blame, reward and punishment, these being the vehicles of social forces in moulding and affecting the desires that people act upon. Vox compounds his straw man by thinking that turning up the racist knob does not cause harm to a minority - they may end up not existing, but much desire thwarting must be undertaken to get there. Unlike Vox's morality and reasoning the end does not justify the means.

Suffice it to add, for the point of clarification, that when desirism addresses the strength and distribution of the desire under question, it does so in order to provide a framework to indicate whether the strength and distribution of the desire under question be increased or decreased. The nature of such a question denies that one can use the current strength and distribution as an answer and desirism can be used to criticise any such approach that does, such as desire fulfilment act utilitarianism (and many other theories to boot).

Vox then finishes by going on about some Satanic morality which is concocted in his mind. Regardless this obviously again is question-begging. It is still up to Vox to establish that he not only does he believe in the existence of objective evil but that the evil he believes in is, in fact, objective. Unfortunately so far all he has done is assert this and other claims and avoided showing how the subjective and relative components of his theory, as much as can be discerned, do not contradict this. Now Satan does not help, what is the evidence for the existence of Satan as the ruler of the Earth? Merely forming such a question makes Vox's morality appear quite absurd and bizarre and indicates a very unsophisticated child-like understanding of the universe. Now wonder that many protestant Christians, who according to Vox believe as he does, keep quiet on this rather embarrassing point. Still if it were true, embarrassment would be irrelevant (indeed not a reason to avoid discussing this). I predict that there will be no argument from Vox to prove that Satan rules the earth and I would love my prediction to be wrong as then there might be something to write about.


So all in all rather disappointing. Nothing original from Vox and whilst Luke has been on point in all his letters he has let slip too many weak points of Vox. Still we all have limited time on our hands as one can tell from the lack of posts here recently. As for any challenges to desirism, well there is nothing decent yet from Vox and it looks unlikely to occur given his four letters so far. I will have to look elsewhere on that (as I have noted before I am going through Scanlon's work on this at the moment but that will be for another post)

So am I any wiser as to why Luke chose Vox as a debating opponent? Not at all, I can only presume that better debaters, from Craig down through to Gilson were not available. Certainly Vox has said nothing that could make me want to buy his book. Then again I doubt, given his tone, that he was engaging in this series of letters to get people to buy his book. In that he has certainly succeeded.


Anonymous said...

Wow! What a discussion. But it should be re-done to take into account 'Contiguous dimensional worlds' A brand new view that shows that it is wrong to only acknowledge our material world. There ARE more.
A hundred and sixty-six years ago Edwin Abbott wrote 'Flatland ' so that any logical person would understand that contiguous dimensional worlds allows any thinking person to geometrically know how Christianity's' spiritual world could be right beside ours. Now 'Techie Worlds' examines Christian phenomena: Trinity, Resurrection, Judgment, Soul, and finds that Abbott's concept provides mechanistically for those phenomena. This is the approach science uses: establish understandings of the real world by testing facts in the context of the theory. With such logical understandings, thinking people can accept Christianity's teaching of love without bending their intellectual integrity. 'Techie Worlds' gives pause to Moslems and pagans by showing how and why the Trinity is. It explains realities that profit all mankind.
It is so nice to be able to spread the word to people who want to learn important new views. 'Techie Worlds' is available at It completely reformats all discussions about God and where He is.

Alex said...

Love the summary. Being a fan of Luke's blog its a breath of fresh air to see someone really dissect Vox's fallacious and incoherent arguments, since Luke himself has been surprisingly spineless thus far.

Oh, and if you want some laughs follow that link in the post above mine. This looney toon actually thinks that a century old satire provides sound basis for the material existence of extra dimensional beings. The best part is that the poster and the book author are one and the same.


faithlessgod said...

Hi Alex

The previous commenter did not warrant a response for exactly the (amusing) reason that you gave.

If Luke is going to choose someone who calls themselves a "Cruelty Artist" - which, AFAICS, is rhetorical excuse for producing empty rhetoric - then I agree, Luke should give as good as he gets - the principle of reciprocity and all that. This is made all the more easy since Luke has sound, valid and strong reasons and argument on his side whereas his opponent has, so far, shown none. I certainly would no have reservations about Luke being cruel back, Vox more than deserves a taste of his own medicine.

Or Luke should not have bothered. I see he is also debating Tom Gilson now, who I did suggest(coincidentally no doubt) that he debate.