Michael Shermer on the Mexico Debate

In November, I participated in a three-on-three debate with three atheists, Richard Dawkins, Michael Shermer, and Michael Ridley. This was part of an international conference held in Puebla, Mexico. (See my account here.)

On January 17, 2011, Michael Shermer offered his take on our debate.

I’m inclined to comment briefly on a few of his remarks. Here are ten distinct points to consider.

First, in describing the debate, Michael refers to me and to William Lane Craig as theologians. Just for the record, my field is philosophy. My theology friends would no doubt want people to be clear about that.

On to more substantive points in Michael’s commentary:

Second, Michael argues in his review of the debate that arguments for the existence of God are irrelevant to the question, “Does the universe have a purpose?” This is a hard sell, for several reasons: (1) during the debate, the atheists wanted to be known as atheists who had a different conception of the purpose of the universe than we, the theists—so by their own testimony, what one believes about the existence of God makes a difference to what one thinks about the purpose of the universe; (2) the atheists took pains to repudiate our arguments for the existence of God (though they did not offer substantive objections to the arguments we presented); (3) the atheists were in disagreement with each other about whether the universe has a purpose; (4) of course the universe has a deep purpose if it was purposively created by God (as we argued), and does not have a deep purpose if its existence is not grounded in purposeful agency (as they believe).

Third, Michael has to state a very qualified sense in which the universe does not have a purpose, even if God does exist. He says, “whether there is a God or not, the universe per se cannot have a purpose in any anthropomorphic sense for which that term is usually employed.” This is a pretty baffling remark. Michael seems to confuse two senses of purpose, one where the universe has a purpose per se, and another where the universe has a purpose in some anthropomorphic sense. Since these two apparently separable senses are conflated by the grammar of his sentence, it’s nigh impossible to know what Michael is saying.

As a naturalist, and consistent with how he argued in the debate and has usually argued in debates with me, Michael must deny that the universe has a purpose in any ultimate sense. This may be what he means by his use of “per se.” So if the universe has a purpose at all, it will be relative to human interests. That is, the universe will have a purpose in a strictly “anthropomorphic” sense.

But this is what you have to say if you are a naturalist. It is not what theist’s believe. Again, Michael is mistaken. By his own conception of what “purpose” means, the existence or non-existence of God makes a difference to whether the universe has a deep, transcendent purpose. The theist says it does, and the naturalist says it does not.

Fourth, there is a practical difference, as well. A theist who believes that the universe has a purpose that is determined by God’s own purposes as Creator of the universe will want to know what this means for his own existence, so that he might live wisely and welcome human flourishing on God’s own terms.

Fifth, the atheists we debated have a stake in maintaining that it really makes no difference what one believes about God, since life is meaningful in any case. But whatever meaning the atheist wants to attribute to human existence, it will be whatever meaning humans can make of life without reference to God’s providential purposes. I can admire the moxie of such humanistic optimists. But I cannot agree that the meaning they manufacture in their way is the same meaning that my life has if God exists and if obedience to God’s loving will is the great condition for transcendent human significance.

Sixth, Michael asserts, without argument or evidence, that the laws of nature “have no purpose other than what they dictate matter and energy to do.” Here he betrays that he is a determinist. So I do not know what purpose could even be freely imagined, adopted, and pursued by human persons. After all, on his view, we are but by-products of the swirling mass of matter and energy that, in accordance with the laws of nature, dictate everything that happens.

Here again, Michael assumes that naturalism is true, and then infers that it must therefore make no difference whether there is a God when we ask whether the universe has a purpose. But what explains the existence of laws of nature? He may think there is no explanation. But the theist attributes their existence to the purposeful decision by God to create a universe that functions in accordance with such laws. These laws owe their existence and operation to God, and are operable only insofar as God deigns to leave them alone in their ordering of physical events. A supernatural being is sovereign over the natural laws. Hence, non-natural events are possible and will occur if God chooses to act supernaturally in the world of physical events.

Further, God has created human purposes, in God’s own likeness, with powers of self-determination, so that laws of nature do not strictly determine everything that happens.

Seventh, Michael mocks the notion that stellar stuff ponders its own purpose, as if this ludicrous notion would have to be true in order for the universe to have a purpose. This odd move invites four comments: (1) none of us suggested such a thing, nor is there any basis for thinking that we did, would, or should hold to such nonsense; (2) on Shermer’s view, human beings are little different than star stuff, and it would be as odd to attribute genuine thoughts and deliberations about purpose to humans as it would be to attribute such activities to stars; (3) but of course, we do attribute genuine thoughts, deliberations, and concerns about purpose to human persons, and this is evidence that Shermer’s general worldview is mistaken and that there are “objects in the universe” that have these powers; (4) while stars are naturally indifferent about the purposes they serve, that they serve a divine purpose is of real consequence for us.

Eighth, Michael boldly asserts that “life began with the most basic purpose of all,” that of “survival and reproduction.” How does he know this? Can he tell us how life began? If he cannot—and I’m sure he cannot, otherwise he would have told us by now—then how does he know what “purpose” is served by the existence of life?

Ninth, Michael contradicts himself when he says in one paragraph that even H. sapiens (that’s us!) do not sit around thinking about the purpose of things, and then says in the next paragraph that we are imbued “with a sense of cosmic purpose.” The paragraph after that begins, “Human beings have an evolved sense of purpose—a psychological desire to accomplish a goal.” Hmm. Then we come to the next paragraph: “How we define our purposeful lives may be personal . . . .” So we do define our “purposeful lives” personally. But how, if all is dictated by the laws of nature?

A couple paragraphs later, Michael compounds his inconsistency, admonishing us about how we should live. In answer to the question, “What type of purposefulness should we practice?” he describes specific purposes that he values. But why should anyone value these things? And what, in any case, could we really do to advance them—again, if all is determined?

Tenth, Michael concludes his article with the same proposal that ended his remarks at the debate. He invites theists and other non-atheists to try being an atheist “for an hour,” so that we all may see how little difference it would make to our lives. He has this backwards. Anyone who tries to be a genuine atheist without noticing a difference in his life either must not have oriented his life to the principles of theism, or he has failed to be an atheist, even for an hour.

I encourage you to read Michael Shermer’s account for yourself here. If I have erred in my understanding of his argument, feel free to comment on this post.

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About Doug Geivett
University Professor; PhD in philosophy; author; conference speaker. Hobbies include motorcycling, travel, kayaking, sailing.

5 Responses to Michael Shermer on the Mexico Debate

  1. Sam Harper says:

    I agree with your analysis, but I think the main point of confusion is in Shermer’s conflated the two different senses in which something or someone can have purpose. He says, on the one hand, that purpose is “a psychological desire to accomplish a goal.” But in the paragraph just before that, he said, “Life began with the most basic purpose of all: survival and reproduction.” Well, obviously the first life could not have had any purpose in the sense that defined “purpose” because the first life was not sentient. So he is using “purpose” in two different senses, which causes confusion.

    I think a theist can agree with him that the universe as a whole does not have a purpose in the sense of having “a psychological desire to accomplish a goal” because the universe is not a sentient being. And theists can also agree with him that human beings could have purposes in that sense even if there is no God.

    But there’s a second sense in which things or people can have purposes. They can have purposes in the sense that they are FOR something, or made for a reason, or serve some function. It seems quite obvious that if there is no God, then nobody meant for the universe to be here, so the universe could have no purpose in this sense. And it seems just as obvious that if God exists and created the universe, then he did so for a reason. The universe serves some purpose. God intended for it to be here.

    If Shermer were clear on this distinction, I don’t see how he could disagree with me.

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  2. Doug Geivett says:

    Right you are about Michael Shermer’s kindness, Richard. In fact, we are friends and have enjoyed our debates and other opportunities to get acquainted. So as not to be misunderstood about this, I’m revising my statement of the first point.

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  3. J.W. Wartick says:

    Thanks for your analysis! I particularly liked point 7, which is what I have frequently argued myself. On naturalism, we are not ultimately different from random clumps of matter, so there is no reason to value us.

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  4. Richard O says:

    I know Dr. Shermer to be a kind man, even-handed in his treatment of Christians. He’s definitely not like Dawkins or Hitchens. He’s probably more like Antony Flew, prior to his theism. Thus, I’d venture to give him the benefit of the doubt in the first objection; the others are simply his assertions of atheism.

    I’d say Dr. Geivett and Dr. Craig presented the more convincing case; the other side simply spouted platitudes masquerading as rational thought.

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  5. Pingback: Tweets that mention Michael Shermer on the Mexico Debate « Doug Geivett's Blog -- Topsy.com

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