Categories
apologetics existence-of-god philosophy philosophy-of-mind philosophy-of-religion

The Atman, Part 7

Part 7 of 10: The Ten Commandments of Apologetics

For those who don’t know, apologetics is the attempt to come up with rational arguments in favor of the existence of God and other religious beliefs. Someone who participates in apologetics is called an apologist*. Some of the most famous Christian apologists include Blaise Pascal, C. S. Lewis, G. K. Chesterton, Alvin Plantinga, Richard Swinburne, William Lane Craig, Alister McGrath, Ravi Zacharias, and John Lennox**. Personally, I consider myself to be sort of an informal apologist, although I am not a Christian apologist because I no longer believe in Jesus. But I still believe in God. Jesus has left my belief system, but God is still there.

*(By the way, an apologist does not mean someone who apologizes for something. In fact, it’s pretty much the opposite of that.)

  • *(Not to be confused with John Lennon, whose name was only one letter different. Ironically, John Lennon was a vocal atheist.)
C. S. Lewis was a famous Christian apologist.

I have long been interested in apologetics. I’ve always been interested in the debates over the existence of God and the debates over religion. I’ve had numerous debates with relatives and acquaintances over religious questions. I usually don’t do very well in these debates, because I’m not good at finding the right words on the spot. I do better with written arguments.

In addition to my debates with relatives, I also often watch debates on YouTube between Christians and atheists over the existence of God. In these debates, the Christian representative is often William Lane Craig or John Lennox, while the atheist representative is often Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, or Christopher Hitchens (while he was still alive).

While my own religious views are somewhat unorthodox, I still believe that a personal God exists, and I still identify as Catholic. And my faith in God matters to me. Thus, when I watch these debates, I am rooting for the Christians. But my team keeps letting me down. In all honesty, I think the atheists are winning these debates. They shouldn’t be winning, but they are winning. It’s frustrating, because I think the real problem is not that religion is too hard to defend but that the Christian apologists are simply using the wrong arguments and the wrong strategies.

In this essay, I will give advice to apologists. Or, to put it more generally, I will give advice to anyone who has any religious affiliation and who has to debate with their atheist relatives at Thanksgiving dinner. I think we could do so much better in these debates.

I have ten pieces of advice (ten “commandments”) for apologists of religion:

1. Go for reassurance, not scholasticism.

2. When in debate, put on your “realistic face”.

3. Let’s leave Jesus out of it.

4. Use a smaller number of arguments.

5. Admit it when it’s hard.

6. The goal is to demonstrate that there exist non-scientific realities in the universe.

7. Put less emphasis on the cosmological argument.

8. Put more emphasis the insolubility of the mysteries of consciousness.

9. Give up on the omnipotence of God.

10. But don’t give up on the core beliefs.

Let me discuss each of these in turn.

1. Go for reassurance, not scholasticism.

It is estimated that about 86% of people in the world believe in some sort of god or gods and belong to some sort of religion. It is impossible to know that number with any precision, especially since people’s personal beliefs may differ from their cultural identity. But let’s just say 86%. And there are about 7.8 billion people in the world. Multiply that by 0.86, and you get about 6.7 billion. So there are about 6.7 billion religious people in the world. There are 6.7 billion people who believe in some sort of god or gods and who belong to a religion (at least to some extent).

There are about 6.7 billion religious people around the world. They belong to a variety of different religions.

Why do those 6.7 billion people participate in a religion? Why don’t they just become atheists, which is the “rational” thing to do? Well, it’s because their religion means something to them, and they don’t want to lose that. In one way or another, they use their religion as a source of comfort in their lives.

People use their religious beliefs to feel a sense of order amidst the slings and arrows of life. Religion gives people a sense of meaning and purpose. It allows people to feel that they’ve been forgiven for things that they’ve done wrong. It allows people to feel that they have inherent worth as a child of God even when the harsh realities of the world give them no such indication. It allows people to feel that they are a part of something bigger than themselves. It allows people to feel better after times in which they’ve embarrassed themselves, made a big mistake, or been punished (whether justly or not). It allows people to come to terms with the flaws in their own character and with the flaws in the character of friends and family members. It allows people to believe they have free will, even when neuroscience seems to suggest otherwise. And it allows people to believe that we get to go to a better place after death (whether that’s true or not). Clearly, the purpose of religion is comfort.

Let me relate how I use religious beliefs for comfort in my own life. I believe it is time for me to reveal a little something about my life: I am on the autism spectrum, and I may also have obsessive-compulsive disorder. I am high-functioning, and in many situations, I can behave as if I were a normal person (and that’s a good thing). Nevertheless, I do have these problems, and they come out sometimes, both in public and in my own mind. One particularly unhelpful aspect of my problems is that I am constantly brooding over the past. I brood over arguments, mistakes, and unhappy relationships from many years ago, and it makes me sad in the present, even though brooding is not doing me any good.

However, one coping mechanism that I’ve developed is to make use of religious sentiments. When I’m brooding over some painful memory from years ago, I might say something like, “God has forgiven me,” “I have inherent worth in the eyes of God,” or “It’s all part of God’s plan.” (Unfortunately, I cannot convince myself that that last one is actually true.) I use my religious beliefs to comfort myself. As do 6.7 billion other people. The purpose of religion is comfort.

Now contrast that with the way some atheists perceive religion. It’s a “fairy tale”. It’s a “delusion”. It’s a “system of control”. It’s a “logical fallacy”. It’s “Santa Claus for adults”. It’s a “superstition”. It’s “bullshit”. It’s “the opiate of the masses”. Wow — they’re mean.

According to some atheists, believing in a personal God is like believing in Santa Claus.

I am aware that not all atheists are as bad as that. Most of the atheists I’ve known have actually been pretty good to me. However, there are enough atheists who deride religion that we religious people are justified in wanting to fight back.

Furthermore, even the atheists who are not condescending still privately regard religion as something silly and outdated. Some of them do respect some aspects of religion (to their credit), but on the other hand, they usually regard the actual beliefs of religion as silly. Most of them think that religious beliefs are based on logical fallacies and wishful thinking. They think that concepts like a personal God and life after death are implausible. They think that we should just get used to the fact that these things do not exist.

It should be clear, then, that the purpose of apologetics is to reassure religious people that their beliefs are not just “fairy tales” and that they are plausible after all. It is to reassure them that the things they most deeply want to believe in — such as the existence of a personal and loving God, the existence of free will, and the existence of the afterlife — might be true after all.

As such, the purpose of debating an atheist is not to convince the them that you’re right and they’re wrong. That will never happen. Trust me, in any debate over the existence of God, neither party will ever admit that they’re wrong. In the debate, you want to make a decent argument for God, not because you want to convert the atheist, but because you want to reassure the 6.7 billion religious people that their beliefs are not just silly superstitions and that some of them could indeed by true.

It should also be clear, however, that trying to establish an abstract, neatly organized system of ideas is counterproductive and a waste of time. We should not be following the example of Thomas Aquinas, who tried to derive every doctrine of Catholicism through reason and established a complex system of metaphysical ideas and proofs (known as scholasticism). Thomas Aquinas may have been useful in the 13th Century, when he was alive, but he is not useful in the 21st Century.

When trying to argue for God’s existence, we should not be following the example of Thomas Aquinas, whose ideas were too formal, too detailed, and too specific to one religion.

There are three reasons why scholasticism is such a bad strategy.

First, the goal of apologetics is to reassure the 6.7 billion religious people, all over the world. But most of those 6.7 billion people don’t care about complex abstract proofs, in the style of Aquinas. So if you try to present your arguments as if they were mathematical proofs, you have alienated the very people whom you are supposed to defend.

Second, pure mathematical proofs are only useful in fields like mathematics and theoretical physics. In any other field (including philosophical debates), you have to make use of inductive reasoning and intuition, not just “A implies B, and B implies C …. and Y implies Z: QED.” For example, I could make a valid and sound mathematical-style “proof” to demonstrate that we should repeal Obamacare or that we should privatize social security. But neither of those things is true. That’s because it would be inappropriate, arrogant, and misguided to apply pure deductive reasoning to the field of politics. That sort of reasoning belongs only in mathematics.

I could design some purely logical argument to show that we should repeal Obamacare. But that doesn’t make it true.

And the same thing goes for debates about the existence of God. When I watch public debates between apologists and atheists, I have watched too many people — both the apologists and the atheists — make their arguments too abstract, too purely deductive. They fail to realize that a debate over the existence of God is not geometry class. We should use logic, but we should use it in conjunction with inductive reasoning and intuition.

Third, if you try to make your case for God too abstract and scholastic, then the atheist can pick apart some minor detail and go into semantics, and he can point out some flaw in one step of your argument, and then he gets to leave the room knowing that he’s won. On the other hand, if you make your arguments a mixture of deductive and inductive reasoning, then you could make such a better case. So just from the perspective of trying to “win” the debate, you will fare much better if you make your case a little less formal and a little more inductive.

The goal of apologetics is to argue that the beliefs that religious people hold most dear (such as the existence of a personal God) may actually be true after all. But we should not act as if they are certainly true, or that they can be proven to be true, or that we can derive complex metaphysical systems, or that every doctrine of any one particular religion is true. All of those things betray the 6.7 billion people who want to be religious. The goal is to reassure those 6.7 billion people that believing in a personal God is not so ridiculous after all ……… not to derive every theory of Thomas Aquinas.

2. When in debate, put on your “realistic face”.

I would say that religious doctrines can generally be divided into core doctrines and specific doctrines.

The core doctrines are made in general terms and are common to almost all religions. They are basically just establishing that God is for real. Examples of core doctrines include, “God exists,” “free will exists”, and “humans possess some kind of soul/Atman/self”.

Meanwhile, the specific doctrines are making claims that are specific to one religion and that are not necessary for believing in God. In Catholicism, for example, specific doctrines include, “Jesus was the incarnation of God,” “Jesus rose from the dead,” “Jesus was born of a virgin,” “We have one God in three persons,” “Hell exists,” and “Mary was conceived without sin.” Furthermore, I can think of one very prominent specific doctrine for each of the three Abrahamic religions. For Christianity, it’s the belief that Jesus rose from the dead. For Judaism, it’s the belief that the Jewish people are God’s chosen people. And for Islam, it’s the belief that the angel Gabriel dictated the Qur’an to Muhammad word-for-word.

The belief that Mary, the mother of Jesus, was conceived without sin is a specific doctrine of Catholicism. And it’s not actually true.

Most specific doctrines are not true. In reality, Jesus did not rise from the dead, God probably does not have a chosen people, the Qur’an was not dictated by the angel Gabriel (there is no angel Gabriel), there is probably no such thing as hell, and Mary was not conceived without sin. I realize that many people believe in those things, and that’s okay; but if you want to be a successful apologist, then you need to accept the fact that specific doctrines are not actually true. The core doctrines may be true, and I hope that they are. But the specific doctrines are not.

A smart apologist will defend the core doctrines while ignoring the specific doctrines. We want to defend the idea that we have souls and that God is real, but we don’t want to defend the specific doctrines, which are very unlikely to be true.

However, if you want to be a good apologist, you have to have two “faces” with regard your religion: a devout face and a realistic face. When you’re wearing your devout face, you sort of pretend that you believe in both the core and the specific doctrines of your religion. But when you’re wearing your realistic face, you make it clear that you still want to believe in the core doctrines but that you reject the specific doctrines.

When you’re talking to someone who is very devoutly religious, you should wear your devout face. For example, if you’re talking to your grandmother, and she tells you that Jesus was born of a virgin, you shouldn’t argue with her. Just let her believe what she wants to believe. A discussion with Grandma is not the time for a theological debate.

When you’re talking to your grandmother, you should just let her believe whatever she wants to believe.

Admittedly, I am quite a hypocrite on this point. I tend to wear my realistic face all the time. Sometimes, people tell me that they have a certain specific religious belief, and I just flatly tell them that they’re wrong. And I shouldn’t do that. And typically, I feel bad about it later on. I should work on wearing my devout face a little more often.

However, when you’re having a debate with an atheist, it is imperative that you wear your realistic face. If you’re wearing your devout face, the atheist will make a fool of you. And you don’t want that to happen.

When in debate with an atheist, you need to make it clear that you are trying only to defend the core doctrines and that you are not interested in defending specific doctrines. Your goal is to show that God might be real, not to show that Jesus rose from the dead. That brings me to my next point.

3. Let’s leave Jesus out of it.

Christianity has a lot of specific doctrines about Jesus. That he was born of a virgin. That he worked miracles. That he was the Son of God, the Messiah, or even that he was the incarnation of God. That he died for our sins. That he rose from the dead. That he ascended into heaven. That his death and resurrection saved us from our sins and opened up the doors to heaven. That he is seated at the right hand of God and will welcome us into heaven.

In reality, sadly, none of those things are true. As a kid, I believed that they were true, but when I became an adult, I realized that they are not true. In reality, Jesus of Nazareth was merely a person, and in some ways, I think he was a crazy person. And he probably did not rise from the dead. (I discussed the historical Jesus in a previous blog post.) God might still be real, but Jesus wasn’t actually divine. And if you want to be a successful apologist, then you need to accept that.

Now, when you’re talking to someone who deeply believes in Jesus, then you should put on your devout face and let them believe what they want to believe. Again, I need to do a better job at wearing my devout face sometimes.

Also, if you are someone who believes in Jesus, then I want you to know that I do not have contempt for you. I do not agree with you, but unlike Ricky Gervais, I will not mock you for your beliefs ……… especially since I used to hold those same beliefs myself, and I have several family members who still hold them. We agree to disagree.

But if you’re trying to be an effective apologist, and you’re debating an atheist, then you need to wear your realistic face, and as such, you should not bring up Jesus. There are two reasons for this.

First, as I explained above, if you are an apologist, your job is to represent the 86% of the world’s population that believes in some sort of God or gods. It’s not just to represent the 33% who are Christian. If you try to defend the specific Christian doctrines about Jesus, you will alienate all the people who belong to different faiths. You will also weaken your case overall, because the atheist could hit you with, “You only believe that because you were raised Christian. If you were born in Saudi Arabia, you’d be defending Muhammad.” (I hate that argument that they make. There are many paths to the same Truth! They are so obnoxious.)

United, we stand; divided, we fall. If you can stick to the core doctrines, which are found in almost all religions, then you can stand your ground in a debate with an atheist. But if you try to defend specific Christian doctrines about Jesus, then you have made your thesis too narrow, and you will lose the debate, as usual.

United, we stand; divided, we fall.

Second, arguments involving Jesus are too easy for the atheist to refute. In particular, I really wish that Christian apologists (like Richard Swinburne, William Lane Craig, and John Lennox) would stop defending the historicity of the resurrection. In reality, the resurrection of Jesus is not plausible, and there’s no good reason to believe that it happened. And the atheist knows that. If you try to defend the idea that Jesus rose from the dead, then the atheist will pick apart your argument, and then he gets to leave the room knowing that he’s won. When in debate with an atheist, defending the veracity of the claims about Jesus is a big mistake. We need to leave Jesus out of it.

Did Jesus actually rise from the dead? Probably not.

Whenever a Christian apologist tries to defend the historicity of the resurrection, he is shooting himself in the foot and will most likely lose the debate. But if we, the apologists, could set Jesus aside and focus on the argument from consciousness (see below), then we could win these debates.

4. Use a smaller number of arguments.

There are only three arguments for the existence of God that I consider to be passable, and only one that I really find compelling. I consider the cosmological argument and the fine-tuning argument to be decent arguments but somewhat ineffective. Meanwhile, the argument from consciousness is the one and only argument for God that I really find compelling. I will explain these three arguments in more detail below.

However, when I watch Christian apologists like William Lane Craig and John Lennox, they don’t stick to just three arguments. They usually make at least six. And that’s actually not a good strategy. If you make ten arguments, and only three of them are valid, the atheist is not going to focus on those three. He’s going to pick apart the other seven, and then he gets to win the debate. Thus, apologists should stick to a relatively small number of arguments, the ones in which they feel most confident. That gives them the best chance of winning the debate.

5. Admit it when it’s hard.

I would say that there are three realities about the universe that make it harder to believe in God: evolution, the problem of pain, and the vastness of the universe. None of those things disproves God, but they do make it somewhat harder to defend the existence of a personal God. (And that is a subject for another day. I won’t go into it here.)

Unfortunately, I sometimes hear Christian apologists say things like, “There is no conflict between evolution and God. In fact, evolution only strengthens my faith in God, because it shows the vastness of God’s creation.” While that may be a nice sentiment, it is not very honest. If we apologists are honest with ourselves, then we should admit to the fact that evolution makes it somewhat harder to believe in God. It does not disprove God, but it does present a challenge to our thesis that a personal God exists. And we should admit to that.

Evolution does not disprove the existence of a personal God, but it does make it somewhat harder to believe in.

You might think that if you admit that these things are making it harder for us, it would weaken our case. But the reality is just the opposite: it will strengthen our case. Honesty is the best policy.

6. The goal is to demonstrate that there exist non-scientific realities in the universe.

When debating an atheist, you don’t actually have to show that a personal God exists. It is sufficient to show that there exist some non-scientific realities in the universe — things that could never be explained, or even detected, by science. Almost all atheists are physicalists, and their physicalism is intimately related to their atheism. Thus, if you manage to demonstrate that some things in our lives exist outside of the realm of science, then you’ve won the debate.

Let me tell you a little story to illustrate this point. I recall having a conversation with an atheist colleague about three years ago. We were discussing the ethics of vegetarianism. Specifically, we were discussing the ethical difference between eating a chicken and eating a spinach leaf. I said, “Well, the difference is that the chicken has a soul.” He immediately laughed. “Nothing has a soul,” he scoffed, as if that were the most ridiculous idea he had ever heard. He went on to argue that the difference is that the chicken has the ability to feel pain. (So he’s in agreement with Peter Singer, then.) I didn’t press the point any further. Again, I’m not great at debating in person.

According to Peter Singer, nothing has a soul, and the only thing that matters is the ability to feel pain.

But suppose that I had kept that debate going, and suppose that I succeeded in proving that a chicken (or a human) really does have some kind of immaterial soul/Atman/self. Then I would have won the debate, because I would have proven him wrong.

Most atheists are used to thinking that anything that’s non-scientific is just a superstition. They think that an immaterial “soul” is just a silly religious idea, no more plausible than guardian angels or Marian apparitions. But if you could show them that there do exist some non-scientific realities in the universe (like souls, Atmans, etc.), then you could prove them wrong and thereby win the debate. Don’t worry about proving God in itself. Just focus on proving that there exist some phenomena in the universe which lie beyond the realm of science.

Furthermore, if you manage to prove that some non-scientific realities do exist, then that makes the concept of God seem so much more plausible, anyway. God has usually been thought of as a non-scientific being, so if you’ve shown the existence of one non-scientific entity (the soul), then why couldn’t there be another one (God)?

If you were to ask me for my degree of confidence that a personal God exists, then in all honesty, I would say somewhere around 50%. That figure varies over time, but it never goes below 20% or above 80%. I’ll just take the average and say 50%. But if I believed that the scientific universe was the only thing in existence, then my confidence in a personal God would be 0%. If science is everything, then there’s no God. Thus, my conviction that there exist some non-scientific realities in the universe has raised my confidence in a personal God from 0% to 50%. As you can see, proving that there exist non-scientific realities is by far the most important step in arguing for God.

Just as atheism is intimately related to physicalism, apologetics is intimately related to the refutation of physicalism. Thus, if you’re an apologist, all you need to do is refute physicalism, and you have won the debate. You don’t have to go the full distance and prove God.

7. Put less emphasis on the cosmological argument.

The cosmological argument is the famous question, “Why is there something rather than nothing?” It is by far the most famous argument for God’s existence, and all of the famous Christian apologists (e. g. William Lane Craig, John Lennox, Richard Swinburne) have made frequent use of it. The argument points out that there had to be a first cause, a prime mover, an unmoved mover.

William Lane Craig always uses the cosmological argument.

To be more precise, it points out that events are caused by previous events, but that this can’t go on forever. We have to wonder how the universe began in the first place. We have to wonder how our whole big sequence of causes and events began. There are only two possibilities. At the beginning of the universe, either there was an infinite regression of causes and events, or there was a prime mover who “got the ball rolling”. The former does not seem plausible, so it must be the latter. Therefore, the universe began with a prime mover.

How did the universe begin? It seems there must have been some kind of prime mover.

(And don’t be fooled by the atheists who say, “But who created God?” I said it was an unmoved mover. No one created it. Infinite regression doesn’t seem plausible, so we conclude there must have been an unmoved mover. Done.)

However, there really is a big problem with the cosmological argument, and it’s not the question of who created God. It’s the fact that a prime mover is not the same thing as a personal God. The prime mover could have been anything. It could have been a particle, a force, or some sort of inherent cosmic state. Or it could have been a “disinterested” God, as in deism. There’s no reason to conclude that it had to be a personal God, at least not from this argument alone.

Most people in the world want to believe in a personal God. They don’t just want a prime mover; they want to believe in a God who knows who they are and cares about them. But the cosmological argument only demonstrates that there was a prime mover, not a personal God. Thus, the cosmological argument is actually a rather ineffective argument for God.

By the way, the argument that goes “why are the laws of science true at all?” has exactly the same problem. It proves there was something, but it doesn’t prove that there was a personal God. However, that version of the argument actually strikes me as somewhat more compelling than the standard cosmological argument. But it’s still not a great argument, because it doesn’t prove that there was a personal argument.

Meanwhile, I consider the so-called fine-tuning argument to be slightly more effective than the cosmological argument, but only slightly. Unlike the atheists, I don’t think it’s a logical fallacy, but I do think it fails to provide any plausible explanation of God’s motivations. I plan to write a separate blog post about the fine-tuning argument, maybe in about a year or so.

There is, however, a very underrated argument for the existence of God, one that most Christian apologists rarely use. It’s the argument from consciousness, which I will explain below. It is not a definitive proof that a personal God exists — there will never be such a proof — but it is a much more effective argument for God than the cosmological argument. That’s why we apologists should emphasize it more. That brings me to my next point.

8. Put more emphasis on the insolubility of the mysteries of consciousness.

Here, we finally get back to the main ideas of this series, The Atman.

I began this series by presenting two “mind-blowing” questions. They were:

1. “How is it that I’m me and you’re you?”

2. “How (and why) does consciousness exist at all?

The second question is known as the hard problem of consciousness and has been extensively discussed by philosophers like Thomas Nagel and David Chalmers.

These two questions can actually form an argument for the existence of God. It’s called the argument from consciousness, and it has been promoted by Christian apologists like Richard Swinburne and J. P. Moreland. And furthermore, even if we don’t mention God, we can still use the two “mind-blowing” questions to debunk physicalism and thereby win a debate with an atheist.

The argument from consciousness goes something like this: The answers to those two “mind-blowing” questions are beyond the realm of science (see Parts 1, 2, and 3). That means consciousness is an immaterial phenomenon. That means that human brains get to be awarded this immaterial phenomenon, when nothing else in nature does. That seems too strange to be accidental. That implies the existence of some sort of immaterial being (God) who made it so.

Let me explain that in more detail.

In Parts 1 and 2, I argued that consciousness is an immaterial phenomenon. It’s beyond science. I claimed to be 95% confident of this. And presumably, we have an immaterial locus of consciousness inside our brains, which is what I’ve been calling an Atman. But even if we don’t exactly have a locus of consciousness, it is still an immaterial phenomenon, and so the argument still holds.

Now, only humans (and perhaps some animals) get to be conscious. A rock is not conscious. A leaf is not conscious. An atom is not conscious. The universe itself is not conscious. It’s only for animals. Furthermore, it’s located in the brain. Your intestines are not conscious. Your legs are not conscious. It is centered in the brain. And I have concluded that it is immaterial, beyond science. Therefore, human brains (and maybe some animal brains) get to possess this immaterial phenomenon, even though nothing else in the universe gets to have it. Why?

Human brains get to possess immaterial consciousness, even when nothing else in the universe does. Why?

Well, suppose that we were living in a godless universe, just like the atheists tell us. There was never any God. No designer, no guide, no cosmic mind, no nothing. And consciousness exists only by accident. No one intended it or desired it; it came about by accident.

But in our universe, we have this rule that human brains get to possess the immaterial phenomenon of consciousness, which makes us alive, even though nothing else in nature gets to have it. The physical organ that perceives the world and analyzes the world (the brain) also gets to possess this immaterial thing. Apparently, that’s the rule of the universe. But why? Why would this rule exist?

If we were living in a godless universe, it seems so implausible that this rule would exist. If we were living in a godless universe, then the human brain would just be a product of evolution and nothing more. It wouldn’t get to possess the immaterial phenomenon of consciousness. It would just be a bunch of matter, just like everything else is just matter.

The fact that the same organ that analyzes the world is also the only thing in the universe that gets to have this immaterial thing called consciousness really does suggest the existence of some sort of cosmic mind who decided that it should be that way. And that cosmic mind is what we call God. God is the one who decided that human brains get to possess consciousness, even when nothing else in the universe gets to have it. And honestly, it seems that he wanted it to be that way. He’s a personal God, and he wanted intelligent creatures (like humans) to have consciousness.

And that’s the argument from consciousness. It is not a definitive proof (there will never be one), but it is actually a far better argument than the cosmological argument, which only shows us that there was a prime mover. I can imagine that the laws of science and the Big Bang could exist just because, but I have a hard time imagining that consciousness exists just because — especially because I consider it to immaterial. Consciousness strikes me as too weird and too meaningful to be a mere accident. And I consider that to be the best available argument for the existence of God.

However, I also think that we do not even need the full version of the argument. I would like to make a new distinction. I think that there two versions of the argument from consciousness: the specific version and the general version. The specific version is the argument described above. It has been promoted by some Christian apologists, especially Richard Swinburne and J. P. Moreland. But I think there is also a general version which involves fewer steps but stops short of mentioning God.

I stated earlier in this essay that when you’re debating an atheist, you don’t have to go the full length of proving that a personal God exists. All you need to do is prove that physicalism is false. Almost all atheists are physicalists, so once you’ve demonstrated that there exist non-scientific realities in the universe, then you have refuted their physicalist worldview, and you have won the debate.

Thus, in my general version of the argument from consciousness, we simply use the mysteries of consciousness to show that there exist some phenomena in the universe which lie outside of science. Here is the general version of the argument from consciousness, as written by me, Matthew Gliatto:

1. The two “mind-blowing” questions cannot be answered through science alone.

2. Therefore, consciousness is an immaterial phenomenon.

3. Therefore, there exist non-scientific realities in the universe.

4. Therefore, the scientific universe is not the totality of reality.

5. Therefore, religions deserve to be respected, not ridiculed.

And that’s it. If we apologists could make that argument and stick to it, then we just might be able to win in our debates against atheists.

The argument from consciousness, whether specific or general, is a highly underrated argument, because it’s a compelling argument that no one seems to know about. Most Christian apologists don’t use it at all, and even the ones who do, mention it only briefly (with the possible exception of Richard Swinburne). They tend to put much more emphasis on the cosmological argument, which is actually a weaker argument. Furthermore, most atheists don’t know about it, either. To be fair, some of the atheist debaters, such as Sam Harris, do know about it, and they have proposed scientific means of explaining consciousness (which I do not find compelling). But there are quite a few other atheists who have never thought about it. Comedians like Bill Maher and George Carlin spent their whole careers mocking religion, but I’m willing to bet that neither one of them has ever thought about the two “mind-blowing” questions. They don’t realize that we, the apologists, have this powerful argument at our disposal.

Bill Maher mocks religion every day. But he has never wondered about the mysteries of consciousness. He doesn’t realize that there is good reason to conclude that the scientific universe is not everything.

As such, it could prove to be a highly valuable tool in a debate with an atheist. It’s an excellent argument, and the atheist would probably not be expecting it. If we apologists could consistently use the argument from consciousness in our debates with atheists, then we could fare so much better than we usually do. And then maybe — just maybe — we might be able to win the debate. How cool would that be.

9. Give up on the omnipotence of God.

Throughout this essay, I have been arguing that you need to put on your realistic face when debating an atheist. One aspect of your realistic face needs to be the concession that God is probably not all-powerful.

The atheists are actually correct about the implausibility of the omnipotence of God. If God were both all-powerful and all-loving, then he would’ve stopped Hurricane Katrina. If God had all the power in the world, he would cure sick children. But that doesn’t seem to be happening. Therefore, either a.) God is not all-powerful, b.) God is not loving, or c.) God doesn’t exist. I am very much averse to answer c, and I much prefer answer a over answer b. Therefore, it’s time for us apologists to give up on the omnipotence of God. God can still be a loving God, but he is not an omnipotent God.

If God were all-powerful, he would’ve stopped Hurricane Katrina.

Now, if you’re talking to someone who is very devoutly religious, and they say something like, “It was God who healed me after I broke my leg,” then that’s okay. You should put on your devout face and go along with it. But when in debate with an atheist, you need to put on your realistic face, and you need to admit that God is not all-powerful.

By the way, when I propose that God is loving but not omnipotent, I am very much influenced by Harold Kushner, who is a Jewish theologian and rabbi. Many decades ago, spurred on by the premature death of his son, Kushner began to question how God could have allowed that to happen. He ultimately concluded that God is loving but not omnipotent. He also concluded that when you suffer, God suffers too. He wrote down these conclusions in a book called When Bad Things Happen to Good People (1981). I’ve read this book several times, and it is quite possibly my all-time favorite book.

In “When Bad Things Happen to Good People,” Harold Kushner makes the case that God is loving but not all-powerful.

When we admit that God is not all-powerful, that raises the question of how much power God has. Does he have no power at all? Does he control the metaphysical world but not the material world? Does he have a small amount of influence on the material world? Does he have a significant influence on the material world but is not completely omnipotent? Well, I do not know. I will leave it to the theologians to figure that one out. But whatever the answer is, it is time for us apologists to admit that God does not have all the power in the universe.

10. But don’t give up on the core beliefs.

I have given up on a lot of beliefs which I held when I was younger. I have conceded that God is not all-powerful, that the Bible is merely a book, and that Jesus of Nazareth was merely a human being. But that doesn’t mean I’ve given up on faith completely. Nor does it mean that I’ve become a pantheist (which is essentially equivalent to atheism). I have not. I still believe that a personal God exists, that we have free will, and that we have some sort of Atman/soul/self.

In fact, if I were to start my own religion (which I am not going to do), my religion would have only four doctrines:

1. Some sort of diving being (God) exists. He knows who we are and he cares about us.

2. We have free will.

3. Humans possess an immaterial Atman. This can also be called a soul, a self, or a variety of other terms.

4. It is possible, though not certain, that our Atmans continue to exist after we die (i. e. the afterlife).

All of those claims are plausible. In particular, the third claim is not merely plausible, it is likely. Furthermore, those four claims are sufficient to give us a sense that our lives have a purpose, that we are part of something bigger. We don’t actually need to believe in things like the resurrection of Jesus or the omnipotence of God. But we really do need to believe in things like God and free will, and we should stick to defending those things.

When in debate with an atheist, we need to stick to defending those four claims. We should not shoot ourselves in the foot by defending things like the resurrection of Jesus or the omnipotence of God. If we do that, the atheists will make fools of us. But if we stick to those four claims, the outcome will be very different. In particular, we should put special emphasis on the third claim. The mysteries of consciousness cannot be solved by science, and that proves that the scientific universe is not the totality of reality. If we could consistently use that argument, then we could fare so much better than usual in these debates. And maybe — just maybe — we might be able to win the debate, for the first time in a very long time.

Other parts of this series:

Part 1: Consciousness is Beyond Science

Part 2: Responding to Counterarguments

Part 3: We Need Not Fear Immateriality

Part 4: Definition of the Atman

Part 5: Brain, Soul, Self, Atman, Mind

Part 6: The Views of the Philosophers

Part 8: The Atman is the Definition of Life

Part 9: Are We Always the Same Person?

Part 10: The Atman and Free Will


The Atman, Part 7 was originally published in ILLUMINATION on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

Powered by WPeMatico