A secular (atheist) philosopher and a layman Christian debate ethics and morality — Part 2 by Wade W. Stooksberry II and Franklin J. Hogue

This is Part 2 of the debate between Mr. Franklin J. Hogue, a Macon, Georgia attorney and self-avowed atheist, and W. Wade Stooksberry II, a self-avowed “lowly lay Christian.”  Wade is one half (with his wife Trena) of the musical duo The DOVES. For their part, Mr. Hogue and his wife, Laura, have been law partners, forming Hogue & Hogue, LLP in Macon, Georgia, where they practice criminal defense. 

Part 1 of this dialogue or debate ended with Mr. Franklin Hogue stating:

“By the way, it's false that “in the absence of God, all things are permissible.” Atheists can be highly ethical and good people, too, without the motivation of faith or the fear of damnation. 

W. Wade Stooksberry II: Of course atheists can be “good people,” Frank. After all, they — we all — are “made in the image of God.” In fact, some of the nicest people I know are secular atheo-agnostics, who as far as I can tell never give one thought to matters of God, religion, or faith. 

But the fact is, while there may be pragmatic reasons for being “nice” and “good” — which, of course, absent any absolute standards, are completely subjective terms — if there is no God, then the universe is mindless, unguided, random, and without meaning or purpose. There can therefore be no ULTIMATE reason to do, or not do, anything. And, indeed, “all things are (then) permissible.” Any rules regarding what is permitted can only be a function of what is agreed to by those with power. And power is, in the end, a function of who has the greatest force, in order to uphold it. 

That is the reality of the atheistic worldview. And if it sounds like it doesn’t make sense, that’s because it doesn’t. Or if it sounds like the guiding principles of Nazism or Stalinism — the Nietzschian “will to power” — that’s because it is. 

What we’re searching for is TRUTH, is it not? And, as Dr. Cummings wrote, let us utilize our reason and rationality in search of it. To that end, a good place to start is at the beginning. How did this universe, this temporal-spatial reality that we exist in, come into being? The great discovery of the 20th century is that the universe had a beginning — if it was infinitely old, it would be uniformly cold, which it isn’t. Btw — since it is not infinitely old, it is not infinitely large, either. Turns out, it is limited on both ends of the size spectrum; a subset of a hyper-dimensional “set.” Interesting, no? The question then is: what caused it — “everything that has a beginning must have a cause.” That is a universal truism; an axiom from which the universe itself is not exempt? 

And here we have two choices. Either the cause itself is mindless and unintentional, and the fact that the universe is cohesive at all is just a “lucky break,” a one-in-ten with a triple-digit-exponent chance event; or it is the product of an entity, or being, which possesses a Mind, Intelligence, and Will. The exquisite design, and limitless fine-tuning, that coheres our reality, and makes it possible to discover the natural laws which make it cohere, speaks to that conclusion. The evidence for God is that “everywhere we train our gaze in analyzing the natural world, we find that INFORMATION has preceded us.” And information is the product of intelligence. Music is information; sound ordered into an intentional design. Static is random — what we call “noise.” I’ll let you write your own punch line here. Are we together so far? 

Franklin J. Hogue: Long days in a long first week of the New Year don't leave me much time for detailed responses, but a short response acknowledges that I've read your post.

You write: “… if there is no God, then the universe is mindless, unguided, random, and without meaning or purpose." The universe is, in my view, "mindless, unguided, random, and without meaning or purpose." But, it hardly follows from that unsurprising observation that your life and mine, and the countless others who live on earth with us, don't live meaningful lives full of purpose and potential for good. My own life is filled with meaning and purpose, as I'm sure yours is. Part of your meaning includes devotion to God. None of my meaning includes a similar devotion. Yet our lives mean much. And for that we are happy and fulfilled.

The mistake you're making, and it's a deep one, is to assume, without factual or logical support, that only something outside space and time, outside the contingencies of life, can provide meaning to life. That, my worthy interlocutor, is a venerable assumption but, in the end, one that you will not be able to defend with coherence. However — and this is where our conversation will soon come to an impasse — there's nothing I can say that will change your mind on this point. And, to be fair, there's nothing you can say that will change my mind as well.

And that's not because we're both hardheaded intransigent people — we're not — but because logic is not what drives the decisions like the one we're discussing. Logic, however, can be a useful tool in defending one's position, however it was arrived at.

You are a foundationalist, epistemologically speaking. I am not. Therein lies a difference we will most likely never resolve. But the conversation about that fundamental difference can be a fun one. Peace.

WWS: Frank, I’ve had dozens of these conversations over the years with atheistic “Whateverists”, on anonymous message boards. But I do believe this one has been the most enjoyable. I’m sure the lack of anonymity plays a key role. But not as much as the ability to state one’s case without rancor or snark — and I salute you for that.

You say our lives have meaning and purpose. I’ll refrain from the question regularly asked of me, regarding the existence of God, or the event of the Resurrection: “What evidence do you have to support that?” One, because the question is essentially rhetorical in nature. Two, because I agree with you. Our lives DO have meaning and purpose. Only I can provide a reason they do. I wonder if you can? Our lives have meaning and purpose because we have value in the eyes of the eternal Being who spoke our physical reality into being from the contents of His infinite mind. A being capable of constructing an exquisitely designed and fine-tuned cosmic environment, now billions of light years in diameter (and possibly expanding — then again, possibly not. Lots of theories about the true nature of this environment we exist in, including that it is a sort of “digital simulation” in which distances are “synthetic”). And that Being values us so greatly — LOVES us so much — that He did what He did for us, in “the greatest story ever told.”

If that does not give us meaning and purpose in this life, I fail to see what can. If the universe is without purpose, as you concede — please explain to me how bags of randomly assembled chemicals, doing what is determined for matter to do under specific circumstances (whether we like it, or admit it, or are even aware of it — or not), can manufacture their own meaning out of whole cloth? It is a manifest absurdity. And so, with all due respect, is atheism. Starting with the absurdity of our universe coming into existence of its own accord, and arranging itself into unfathomable design by random processes. Faith may be required for theism — but not THAT much faith.

Question: Let’s say there is a dispute as to whether your life has meaning and purpose or not. You maintain it does. Someone else disagrees. And they have a handgun at your head, with the intent to provide evidence of your lack of meaning, purpose, and value by firing a bullet through your brain, because you are nothing but a temporarily-integrated system of molecules, of no more intrinsic worth than a cow, chicken, goldfish, or banana.

Two points of view. Who is right? To what transcendent standard will you appeal to support your case that you DO have value, meaning, and purpose, against the argument that in a random, meaningless universe, you don’t?

Perhaps you would begin your case by providing the inferential evidence for your intrinsic value and meaning. If so, that would be precisely the tact taken for the existence of God — starting with His being the uncaused cause; continuing with the argument for design; the origins of evil; the problem of pain; and the glorious tale of our Redemption, and eternal purpose and destiny outside this limited dimensional environment.

You are right about one thing, my friend. We will not change one another’s minds. No one is argued into the Kingdom of Heaven — though there are sound, rational, persuasive arguments, which have greatly influenced my trek along that path. But I could just as easily have ignored them, sloughed them off. I know that many seculars are offended when Christians say “I’ll pray for you,” so I’ll carefully refrain from that in regard to God moving your heart to reconsider those arguments referred to.

I don’t know if I’m a “foundationalist”, epistemologically speaking. I’d have to read a little more deeply than I just did, by goggling the word. But I can tell you that in my view, the source and origin of knowledge comes from OUTSIDE our time domain. Looking for knowledge by examining the machinery of the universe is like looking for a tune inside a piano. The very act of knowing, like language, is a triadic “supernatural” event.

Again, that is why our world, and our lives, have meaning. God Himself has made it so. Every cubic centimeter in our reality is fraught with, infused by, meaning and purpose. And is the contested object of a spiritual war; one in which we are the prey, pawns, and prize. Have a good weekend.

FJH: It’s quite likely that the most important event to explain your devotion to the Christian faith is an accident of birth — the time and place you were born and raised (something I alluded to earlier with the Xavier quote). The vast majority of Thai people are Buddhists for the very same reason. The same applies Saudis and Islam, Israelis and Judaism, and to my affinity with American pragmatism, of course.

This is some light watching when you have about an hour to wile away.

Peace.

P.S. Does this question have an answer: What is the meaning of English? (Don't forget, I'm a philosopher by education (albeit over a quarter century ago). It's related to your comments about the "meaning of life," to give you a clue to my point.

WWS: Frank, you surely know that people from all over the world have come to faith in Jesus Christ. Am I grateful to be born in a free society that is the product of centuries of Judeo-Christian faith and tradition? You bet I am. Am I mortified to see the jettisoning of that faith and tradition, and the appalling effects it has had on our experiment in self-government, and our culture? Indeed.

What we’re talking about is TRUTH, is it not? If Buddhism or Islam can be shown to present a more coherent, cohesive, consistent, rational — in short, “truer” — version and explanation of our shared reality than Judeo-Christianity (as you should know, all Christians are “Jews” — “grafted in,” in Paul’s illustration found in Romans), than I am anxious to hear how. Likewise, if Christianity is the most true — which is my assertion and argument — than a rational truth-seeker must embrace it, be they a materialist college professor, or an Australian Bushman.

As for your “meaning of English” question — not sure what you’re getting at, or how it relates to our discussion. At any rate, before we move on to that question, I want to be sure you have the opportunity to address some of my previous points.

FJH: "Truth" is a property of sentences, and only certain types of sentences. "Shut the door," for example, is neither true nor false. Only assertions, or propositions, submit to being labeled "true" or not. The assertion that I typed the words "Shut the door" is true.

What makes an assertion true? I will answer that question, but it would be more helpful to lay bare what your answer is first, which is implied in everything you've written here. I assume that you're aware of your own underlying philosophical assumptions, but maybe not.

You take the view that "truth" is a property of the universe and that knowers — us — are on a quest to align our assertions about the world with the way the world "really" is. In order to speak true sentences, those sentences must "correspond" to the way the world is in itself. (In philosophy, this view is known as the "correspondence theory of truth.")

Thus, when you assert as true that God made the universe, God has a will with respect to his creation, and that we humans, made in God's image, are to align our wills with his will, it follows that the task of knowing is discovery. That is, we are to discover the truth, which precedes our existence, and align our sentences (and actions) with it.

That is a venerable philosophical position, Wade. It is still the most common view of truth among non-philosophers. But, after a couple of centuries of attempts to defend it within modern philosophy, it has shown itself in the end to be an indefensible position, leading to contradictions, confusion, and dead-ends. That's a tale hardly suited for a forum of this kind, but we can talk about it elsewhere, and I can refer you to some clearly written and enjoyable essays by many different philosophers that have dealt with this issue, if you care to read philosophy.

As for my view of truth, again, I am a pragmatist. I take the view expressed by William James when he said (I paraphrase here) — I don't want to get up from my comfortable spot to retrieve his book off the shelf to quote him). "The 'true' is what is good in the way of belief." In other words, truth is a property of sentences that are good to believe, and good for an assignable expressible purpose. A true sentence is useful to believe, for myriad reasons, depending upon the context in which the sentence is uttered.

"True" is a compliment we pay to sentences that have been included within the corral of what we call "knowledge." Unsurprisingly, the vast majority of sentences you would deem to be true, I would, too. It's when we come to saying "why" they're true, that we would part ways. But, in the day-to-day living of our lives, that philosophical debate about the underlying theory of truth hardly makes a difference in the way we live. It's usually a matter of interest to philosophers, not the rest of us. We just want to live happy, healthy, fulfilled, and meaningful lives. I am living such a life. I can tell that you are, too.

WWS: That’s all very interesting, Frank. And I’m not being facetious in the slightest. A couple of things:

First — while we do indeed share a desire to live “happy, healthy, fulfilled, and meaningful lives,” I submit as an article of truth that the pursuit of truth does not necessarily lead to those qualities. Can, in fact, result in their opposite. Dr. Russell L. Blaylock writes, “Being a truth seeker has one very bitter drawback — it can be a very lonely life.” I believe that is a true statement. And if Christianity is true, as I contend it is, the evidence for the truth of my assertion is the countless numbers of people who have been persecuted, imprisoned, and executed throughout history — and still to this day — for believing and expressing that truth. Including nearly all of the original Christians, and for centuries following the birth of the new faith (until the Church became “married” to the world, when Rome established a religious form of Christianity [an oxymoron — Christianity is not a religion, it is a relationship] as the state religion, in an effort to unify the crumbling empire].

In fact, I would respectfully submit that if one’s highest goal in life is to obtain a “happy, healthy, fulfilled, and meaningful (life)”, then they probably should steer clear of a consistent commitment to truth, and adopt something more relativistic and situational — a more “pragmatic” philosophical approach.

The problem, from a Biblical perspective, is that “There is a way that seems right to a man, but its end is the way to death.” (Proverbs 14:12) Specifically, spiritual death, which was the first and immediate consequence of the first man’s disobedience to God (followed by the gradual death of the soul, and the ultimate death of the body. A process reversed by the action we call “Grace”).

Of course, that makes no difference, if you ignore or deny the claim of Biblical inerrancy. Or the existence of “spirit.” Which is, of course, a matter of our choice — our free will.

What I am saying is that it is possible to have a happy, healthy, fulfilled, and meaningful life (in a sense), that is built on entirely false premises. Which is pretty much the status of the happy, satisfied secularist. I wrote a piece that I hope Charles [Richardson of the Telegraph], Dr. Faria, or both will publish, called “Faith or Works? (Revisited).” It really addresses Bill’s oft-repeated mantra of “it’s not what you believe that’s important, it’s what you do.” Which is true for all religions (including secular variations of “Whateverism”) but is categorically reversed in — and only in — Biblical Christianity. One of the points I address in building my case is how we are all impressed by accomplishment and achievement — our own and others.’ And that money is one way of measuring accomplishment, of “keeping score.” But it is not a reliable one, because money can be made through dishonorable, and even criminal, activities. Hence the term “ill-gotten gain.” I mention that because I see a similar dynamic here. Happiness, fulfillment, etc., are unreliable indicators of the truth of one’s philosophical or moral principals. I’ll stipulate: “In my opinion.”

The second thing is your claim that in the past two centuries, “modern philosophy” has refuted what you call “the correspondence theory of truth,” in terms of it being “defensible” because of its being contradictory, leading to “dead ends,” etc.

I suppose that may be true, from one perspective. But I must note that the past two centuries has also witnessed the ascendance of materialistic atheism within philosophy, and academia in general, to the point where it is the default position in both — one that brooks no opposition or challenge. If God is the source of truth, and you deny God’s existence, then you necessarily deny truth, and are left with only Pontius Pilate’s question (John 18:38) — and share in his unawareness that the answer stood before him. And should we continue this dialogue, I intend to continue building the case that it is NON-theism that actually leads to a philosophical (as well as rational, scientific, and spiritual) dead end. While God’s truth has steadily upheld our reality, despite (and in the face of) all attempts to deny and reject it.

FJH:  A couple of quick observations: “… if Christianity is true …" is similar to saying something like "if marriage is true" or "if English is true" or "if baseball is true." Claims made ABOUT Christianity (or marriage, or English, or baseball) may be true or false, but "Christianity is true" is vague, overbroad, and, when pressed, nonsensical.

I think what you mean by this phrase is something like this: The essential claims made within Christianity about the world (God, the physical universe, Jesus, sin, redemption, salvation, etc. etc.) are true.

Now we're at the perfect place for you to become an epistemologist with me (my focus when I was in academic philosophy): With respect to any given claim to truth within Christianity — it matters not which one, or even all of them together — WHAT MAKES THE CLAIM TRUE? That is, what is the criterion by which you discriminate between the true claims and the false claims? Peace.

WWS: For something to be true, it must correspond to reality. The real question is, what is the true nature of our reality? Is it limited to the measurable temporal-spatial one that is subject to our senses and detection instruments? Or is our four dimensional (three spatial, plus time — which is a physical property subject to the effects or gravity, velocity, mass, etc.) physical reality, as the Bible claims (and many scientists agree with), merely a subset of an infinite, eternal reality that may be referred to as “spiritual”?

“So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.” — 2 Cor. 4:18

The answer to that question, as we have established, is a matter of individual choice. Not as to whether or not either is true — we categorically cannot choose THAT. But as to what we choose to BELIEVE is true. It is possible to choose either one (as I have stated, I believe nature has been skillfully constructed in order to preserve that choice, and the necessity for Faith). You have chosen the former; I, the latter.

I would like to return to the question concerning the source of meaning and purpose in our lives, as I don’t think it was ever properly addressed. I contend that if we are the creation of an infinite, eternal Intelligence — one that has a plan and purpose for our existence; one that loves us enough to become one of us, in order to redeem us and transform us from temporal creatures to eternal ones (that will be, like Him, OUTSIDE the boundaries of time and space): than there can be no higher, or fuller, form of meaning or purpose that is conceivable. Or possible.

If, on the other hand, we exist in a cosmic environment that is mindless, random, and ultimately without meaning or purpose (as you concede): I fail to see how meaning and purpose can be concocted, manufactured, within a universe that is fundamentally devoid of it. Can you explain how? This may be an esoteric consideration, and we can easily turn aside to massaging the meaning of the terms “meaning” and “purpose.” Or just ignore it altogether. But on a practical, pragmatic level, there are many people who are suffering from emptiness and despair from existing in a meaningless void. And the fact that in such a universe there is no rational argument for how a human is of any more value than a pig or a slug — and plenty of rationales as to why they might not be not as valuable as, say, a good beef steer… and the horrors that have followed from such arguments, since “without God, everything is permissible… (How is it not?)”

It’s like filling a basket with paper letters of the alphabet, and throwing them into the air, and then looking for the meaning of what’s spelled out on the ground. And if that sounds absurd — it is. And so is ignoring that the obvious order and design in the universe demands a Designer. I yield the floor…

FJH: Another short response from me because of the press of other matters, so please forgive the brevity and, in due time, I hope, I'll be able to say more.

Meaning is determined by context. A thing means what it means by virtue of its relationship to other things. That holds true for, say, the number 3 as it does, say, for the meaning of your life. Relationships, all the way up, all the way down, and all the way out in all directions.

Some folks tire of the philosopher’s penchant for answering questions with further questions. Forgive me when I resort to that, too, but it’s a useful tool in getting clear notions on the table. Only in that way can two people making honest efforts to understand one another, and themselves, make progress toward that laudable goal. So, please allow me a further question to press you on some of what you say:

When you say that “[F]or something to be true, it must correspond to reality,” how must it correspond? How does “cat,” for example, correspond to the domesticated feline I’m watching out the window stalk my bluebird nest? You have committed yourself to the “correspondence theory of truth,” so now let’s see what you mean by it; more later, duty calls.

Read Part 1

Read Part 3

____________________________

This ends Part 2. The debate continues next Sunday....

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Comments on this post

Interesting debate between a Christian and an atheist

This multi-part article detailing the online exchange between Mr. Stooksberry and Mr. Hogue is refreshing to read since both debaters remained civil and respectful to each other throughout the discussion. Most exchanges of this nature, that is between an atheist and Christian, degenerate into mere name-calling or an ad hominem attack. Not so here! I actually learned a lot and gained insights into the philosophical underpinning of each debater. I eagerly await Part 3 of the debate!