Re: "Professing to be wise, they became fools..."

Kevin O'Brien (
Sat, 6 Mar 1999 18:51:56 -0700

>I received this from a high school senior, and thought the edu's might
>want to get a heads up on what's coming. :-)

Yes, as Wesley pointed out this is a strawman argument. I would like to add
a few comments of my own.

>"LET ME EXPLAIN THE problem science has with Jesus Christ."

This is the first error, because in fact science has no problem with Jesus
Christ. As I have explained in my discussions with Randy, the Christ is one
of those topics that science has recognized is beyond its jurisdiction.
Science in fact is neutral on the subject (though individual scientists
certainly are not!).

>The atheist
>professor of philosophy pauses before his class and then asks one of his
>new students to stand. "You're a Christian, aren't you, son?"
>"Yes, sir."
>"So you believe in God?"
>"Is God good?"
>"Sure! God's good."

Interestingly this may be a critique of what many ultraconservative
fundamentalists call the "namby-pamby" Christian, who believes only in
goodness and forgiveness and ignores the true meaning of righteousness,
which includes judgement and wrath. While I do not agree with these
fundamentalists in most of their opinions, I do agree that the view of God
as all good is too simplistic.

>"Is God all-powerful? Can God do anything?"
>"Are you good or evil?"
>"The Bible says I'm evil."

Actually, no it doesn't. There was a lot of controversy over this very
doctrine during the first four centuries of Christianity, with most church
leaders believing that man is more arrogant and selfish than actually evil.
It was St. Augustine who proposed that man was in fact truely evil, and that
he had no choice but to be evil. His view prevailed because the
christianized Roman Empire gave him the power to declare as heretics all
those who disagreed with him. (The Empire liked what Augustine said about
the inherent evil nature of man, because Augustine also said that it was the
responsibility of human governments -- as the worldly representatives of
God's divine judgement -- to keep evil man under firm control, by whatever
means necessary.) Since then, people have interpreted the Bible as
supporting this doctrine, but an unbiased reading demonstrates that the
Bible in fact does not.

>The professor grins knowingly. "Ahh! THE BIBLE!" He considers for a
>moment. "Here's one for you. Let's say there's a sick person over here
>and you can cure him. You can do it. Would you help them? Would you try?"
>"Yes sir, I would."
>"So you're good...!"

Here the Professor misunderstands the Augustinian meaning of good vs. evil.
Augustine recognized that inherently evil men can still do good deeds, but
to Augustine, evil was rebellion against God, and good involved surrending
one's life to God; good and evil was not determined by what deeds people

>"I wouldn't say that."
>"Why not say that? You would help a sick and maimed person if you
>could... in fact most of us would if we could...God doesn't." No answer.
>"He doesn't, does he? My brother was a Christian who died of cancer even
>though he prayed to Jesus to heal him. How is this Jesus good? Hmmm? Can
>you answer that one?"

Here the Professor is confronting the student with the proverbial question
of sufferring: why do bad things happen to good people, even Christians?
The Professor should be well-read enough to realize that people have been
struggling with this question for millennia; even Christianity has no good
answer, as the Book of Job demonstrates. At best, Christianity promises
that those who have faith, trust God and persevere will be ultimately
rewarded, if not in this life then in the next. It is thus unfair of the
Professor to demand an answer from a naive student that in fact he knows
does not exist.

>{No answer}
>The elderly man is sympathetic. "No, you can't, can you?" He takes a sip
>of water from a glass on his desk to give the student time to relax. In
>philosophy, you have to go easy with the new ones. "Let's start again,
>young fella."
>"Is God good?"
>"Er... Yes."
>"Is Satan good?"
>"Where does Satan come from?"
>The student falters. "From... God..."
>"That's right. God made Satan, didn't he?"

Again, the Professor is over-simplifying a complex topic. The concept of
Satan has evolved over time from that of God's heavenly prosecutor in the
time of the Davidic Kingdom to the author of all evil by Augustine's time,
in response to the need of people to blame an outside agency for their own
folly as well as to explain the question of sufferring without blaming God.
The Bible as a whole barely mentions Satan, and his role as God's ultimate
enemy does not appear until the very end. The Professor is trying to imply
that because Satan is evil, God deliberately made evil, but the whole
concept of Satan is simply too complex to make such a simplistic claim.
Again, the Professor should know this; as such his over-simplification is a
deliberate attempt to confuse the student.

>The elderly man runs his bony
>fingers through his thinning hair and turns to the smirking, student
>audience. "I think we're going to have a lot of fun this semester, ladies
>and gentlemen." He turns back to the Christian. "Tell me, son. Is there
>evil in this world?"
>"Yes, sir."
>"Evil's everywhere, isn't it? Did God make everything?"
>"Who created evil?

Again, this is a gross over-simplification. Most of the evil in the world
(whether Augustinian evil or specific deeds that are deemed to be evil) is
caused by men; man in fact created much of the evil in the world, not God.
Nor did God make us evil. God gave us free will; that means we have the
potential to do evil, but we are supposed to be intelligent enough to
recognize the difference and sympathetic enough to want to do good. If God
made a mistake it was in underestimating our capacity for selfishness and

>{No answer}
>"Is there sickness in this world? Immorality? Hatred? Ugliness? All
>the terrible things - do they exist in this world?"
>The student squirms on his feet. "Yes."
>"Who created them?"

The Augustinian view is that man created them by his rebellion against God,
but the more sensible view is that they are simply certain natural phenomena
coupled with the selfish attitude of mankind. As such, much of it could be
eliminated by a healthy dose of selflessness plus technological advancement.

>{No answer}
>The professor suddenly shouts at his student. "WHO CREATED THEM? TELL >ME,
PLEASE!" The professor closes in for the kill and climbs into the
>Christian's face. In a still small voice: "God created all evil, didn't
>He, son?"

This is an erroneous conclusion based on bad logic, something I would not
expect a philosophy professor to do. But considering the student is suppose
to represent a weak form of Christianity despised by ultraconservative
fundamentalists, he is not suppose to realize this in any event. In many
ways, this student is as much a strawman as the atheist Professor is.

>{No answer}
>The student tries to hold the steady, experienced gaze and fails.
>Suddenly the lecturer breaks away to pace the front of the classroom like
>an aging panther. The class is mesmerized. "Tell me," he continues, "How
>is it that this God is good if He created all evil throughout all time?"
>The professor swishes his arms around to encompass the wickedness of the
>world. "All the hatred, the brutality, all the pain, all the torture, all
>the death and ugliness and all the suffering created by this good God is
>all over the world, isn't it, young man?"
>{No answer}
>"Don't you see it all over the place? Huh?"
>"Don't you?" The professor leans into the student's face again and
>whispers, "Is God good?"

This Professor sounds more like a Marine Corp drill instructor, trying to
break down the student's concept of self so that he can then mold the
student into what he believes is best for society. I know that some college
professors believe that they are meant to do just this, but thankfully most
realize that their purpose is to educate and train students to think for

>{No answer}
>"Do you believe in Jesus Christ, son?"
>The student's voice betrays him and cracks. "Yes, professor. I do."
>The old man shakes his head sadly. "Science says you have five senses you
>use to identify and observe the world around you. Have you? "
>"No, sir. I've never seen Him."
>"Then tell us if you've ever heard your Jesus?"
>"No, sir. I have not."
>"Have you ever felt your Jesus, tasted your Jesus or smelt your
> fact, do you have any sensory perception of your God
>{No answer}
>"Answer me, please."
>"No, sir, I'm afraid I haven't."
>"You're AFRAID... you haven't?"
>"No, sir."
>"Yet you still believe in him?"
>"That takes FAITH!"

Yes it does, but interestingly Richard Dawkins has also pointed out that
science requires a certain amount of faith as well. Which is interesting
because Dawkins has also stated that religious faith is one of the worst
forms of insanity possible. I've tried to ask him how he reconciles one
opinion with the other, but he has so far declined to answer.

>The professor smiles sagely at the underling.
>"According to the rules of empirical, testable, demonstrable protocol,
>science says your God doesn't exist. What do you say to that, son? Where
>is your God now?"

Here the Professor is dead wrong. The best that "empirical, testable,
demonstrable protocol" can allow science to say about God is that God cannot
be studied because He cannot be observed. By claiming that the lack of
evidence in the existence of God is proof of his nonexistence, the Professor
is in fact engaging in the appeal from ignorance fallacy. In other words,
he is trying to claim that absence of evidence (no observable evidence of
God) is evidence of absence (no God at all).

>{The student doesn't answer}
>"Sit down, please."
>The Christian sits...Defeated.
>Another Christian raises his hand. "Professor, may I address the class?"
>The professor turns and smiles. "Ah, another Christian in the vanguard!
>Come, come, young man. Speak some proper wisdom to the gathering."
>The Christian looks around the room. "Some interesting points you are
>making, sir. Now I've got a question for you. Is there such thing as
>"Yes," the professor replies. "There's heat."
>"Is there such a thing as cold?"
>"Yes, son, there's cold too."
>"No, sir, there isn't."
>The professor's grin freezes. The room suddenly goes very cold.
>The second Christian continues. "You can have lots of heat, even more
>heat, super-heat, mega-heat, white heat, a little heat or no heat but we
>don't have anything called 'cold'. We can hit 458 degrees below zero,
>which is no heat, but we can't go any further after that.

Actually, you can. Absolute zero is the temperature at which all Brownian
motion (intermolecular motion; the so-called "drunkards walk" of individual
molecules) stops, and since Brownian motion is the source from which we
measure temperature -- and thus heat -- absolute zero can be considered the
absence of heat. But it is not the absence of energy, and I don't mean rest
mass energy either. Molecules bend and twist and distort themselves, even
at absolute zero, and the energy needed to do this is measurable, in the
form of microwave and radio energy. As such, if "heat" is defined as the
motion energy -- both intermolecular and intramolecular motion -- of a
molecule, then it is theoretically possible to speak of temperatures below
absolute zero. In fact, if we continue to define heat as intermolecular
motion only, then "temperatures" below absolute zero would in fact measure
increasing cold, rather than simply decreasing heat.

>There is no
>such thing as cold, otherwise we would be able to go colder than 458 -
>You see, sir, cold is only a word we use to describe the absence of heat.
>We cannot measure cold. Heat we can measure in thermal units because heat
>is energy. Cold is not the opposite of heat, sir, just the absence of

This student is developing a clever argument, but in the end he too will
come to a false conclusion based on a fallacious argument.

>Silence. A pin drops somewhere in the classroom.
>"Is there such a thing as darkness, professor?"
>"That's a dumb question, son. What is night if it isn't darkness? What
>are you getting at...?"
>"So you say there is such a thing as darkness?"
>"You're wrong again, sir. Darkness is not something, it is the absence of
>something. You can have low light, normal light, bright light, flashing
>light but if you have no light constantly you have nothing and it's
>called darkness, isn't it? That's the meaning we use to define the word.
>In reality, Darkness isn't. If it were, you would be able to make
>darkness darker and give me a jar of it. Can you...give me a jar of
>darker darkness, professor?"
>Despite himself, the professor smiles at the young effrontery before him.
>This will indeed be a good semester. "Would you mind telling us what your
>point is, young man?"
>"Yes, professor. My point is, your philosophical premise is flawed to
>start with and so your conclusion must be in error...."
>The professor goes toxic. "Flawed...? How dare you...!"
>"Sir, may I explain what I mean?"
>The class is all ears.
>"Explain... oh, explain..." The professor makes an admirable effort to
>regain control. Suddenly he is affability itself. He waves his hand to
>silence the class, for the student to continue.
>"You are working on the premise of duality," the Christian explains.
>"That, for example, there is life and then there's death; a good God and
>a bad God. You are viewing the concept of God as something finite,
>something we can measure. Sir, science cannot even explain a thought. It
>uses electricity and magnetism but has never seen, much less fully
>understood them.

Here the student is trying to claim that just as there are "invisible"
natural phenomena, there can also be an "invisible" God, but his logic is
flawed. Electromagnetism can be measured in ways that God never could be,
and these measurements give us an understanding of electromagnetism that we
could never achieve with God (beyond personal involvement with God). The
student is in fact committing a fallacy by claiming that because God and
electromagnetism share the characteristic of "invisibility" they share other
characteristics as well, such as being able to understand them. Except that
since the student doesn't believe God can be fully understood
(scientifically or philosophically) then he has to claim that
electromagnetism cannot be fully understood either.

>To view death as the opposite of life is to be ignorant
>of the fact that death cannot exist as a substantive thing. Death is not
>the opposite of life, merely the absence of it." The young man holds up
>a newspaper he takes from the desk of a neighbor who has been reading it.
>"Here is one of the most disgusting tabloids this country hosts,
>professor. Is there such a thing as immorality?"
>"Of course there is, now look..."
>"Wrong again, sir. You see, immorality is merely the absence of morality.
>Is there such thing as injustice? No. Injustice is the absence of
>justice. Is there such a thing as evil?" The Christian pauses. "Isn't
>evil the absence of good?"

Here is where the student makes his mistake, and it is the same kind of
mistake made above. He believes that because morality and immorality,
justice and injustice, good and evil, share with heat and cold, light and
darkness, life and death, the characteristic of being "opposites", they also
share the characteristic that the latter is simply a description of the
absence of the former. What the student fails to understand is that heat,
light and life are defined by what can be measured; hence cold, darkness and
death can only be defined by the lack of what can be measured. The student
is also deliberately equivocating over the definition of "definition". He
is deliberately restricting himself to a narrow, precise scientific
definition, while ignoring the more general definitions that in fact define
heat and cold, light and darkness, life and death, as being "opposites" in
the sense of being "substantive things". Yet because he does not state that
he is being specific, he fools the Professor into thinking that he is being
general, and thus the Professor forgets about the more general definitions
that treat cold, darkness and death as "substantive things".

The problem with the student's argument is that morality and immorality,
justice and injustice, good and evil, are true opposites, both in a specific
and a general sense. Immorality is not just the failure to be moral (this
is amorality), but the deliberate choice to be anti-moral. If it is moral
to feed and clothe the poor, then it is immoral to take food and clothing
away from the poor and to prevent others from restoring what was taken. If
it is moral to protect children from sexual abuse, then it is immoral to
hand children over to people who will sexually abuse them. Immorality is
not knowing right from wrong; it is deliberately choosing to do what is
known to be wrong.

(This in fact may be why many creationists believe that science is immoral.
Science realizes that it can say nothing about God, so chooses to ignore
Him, which should be considered an amoral stance, since an immoral
scientific stance would be to deliberately choose to believe that God does
not exist. However, if creationists believe that immorality is simply the
absence of morality, then to them science's normal amoral stance is pure

Same thing with justice and injustice. Injustice is not the absence of
justice, but the deliberate choice to deny and/or obstruct justice. If
justice involves treating the accused as innocent and forcing the
prosecution to prove its claim against the accused, injustice is the
deliberate assumption that the accused is in fact guilty and forcing the
accused to prove his/her innocence. Again, injustice is not the failure to
observe justice, it is the deliberate choice to deny justice.

Augustine believed evil was the deliberate rebellion against God. Though he
believed men had no choice but to rebel, nonetheless he considered it to be
the active choice to forsake God. (Which is what makes salvation so
powerful in the Augustinian worldview, since one must choose to give one's
life to God despite the innate tendancy to want to avoid God.) The view of
good and evil based on the nature of performed deeds claims that evil is not
the failure to do good, but the deliberate choice to do evil. If it is good
to protect life, it is evil to take life. If it is good to respect a
woman's body, it is evil to deliberately rape her. In other words, evil is
not the failure to do good, but the refusal to do good.

Another problem with the "evil is the absence of good" view is that the
opposite may also be true; i.e., good may be just the absence of evil. This
leads to the opinion that one is good simply because one does not do evil, a
view that is rejected by the Augustinian view and is contradicted by the
Bible itself. The Christian version of the Golden Rule is different from
the versions expoused by other religions because it does not simply suggest
that one should refrain from doing evil, but actually admonishes people to
do good. Christ's teachings are not just limited to "don't do this" but are
full of "do that". That indicates that Christ Himself believed that doing
good involved more than simply refraining from doing evil. In fact Christ
called on people to reject evil, which sounds like He considered evil to be
a "substantive thing" rather than simply the absence of good.

>The professor's face has turned an alarming color. He is so angry he is
>temporarily speechless.
>The Christian continues. "If there is evil in the world, professor, and
>we all agree there is, then God, if he exists, must be accomplishing a
>work through the agency of evil. What is that work, God is accomplishing?
>The Bible tells us it is to see if each one of us will, of our own free
>will, choose good over evil."

Which is in essence the doctine of free will, but it does not explain why
there should be evil at all, or suffering. There is also the moral question
of whether it is right to "play god" with beings who have free will. Let's
say I wanted to set up an experiment. I select a hundred people, put them
in an isolated community, then tell them that evil is defined as wearing
clothes, whereas nudity is good. I then tell them that anyone who wears
clothing will be killed. Even a hat (even a condom!) worn just once and
very briefly will be enough to get them killed. Then let's say that in a
year half the people defy me and wear clothing whereas the other half do not
and maintain scrupulous nudity. Do I really have the right to kill those
who defied me?

It could be argued that the law is trivial, but how important the law is is
not germaine to the central question concerning the exploitation of beings
with free will. It could be argued that as created beings the Creator can
do with us as He sees fit, but again this is not germaine to the question
under discussion. If I do not have the right to kill beings with free will
simply because they defied me, why should God have that right?

>The professor bridles. "As a philosophical scientist, I don't view this
>matter as having anything to do with any choice; as a realist, I
>absolutely do not recognize the concept of God or any other theological
>factor as being part of the world equation because God is not
>"I would have thought that the absence of God's moral code in this world
>is probably one of the most observable phenomena going," the Christian
>replies. "Newspapers make billions of dollars reporting it every week!

Here the student is trying to suggest that God in fact is observable by His
actions, or lack thereof, in this world. But if anything, if the existence
of God predicts that there should be a moral code in this world, then the
lack of any such code would actually call the existence of God into
question. It wouldn't disprove it (the absence of evidence is not evidence
of absence), but it doesn't support it either.

>Tell me, professor, do you teach your students that they evolved from a
>"If you are referring to the natural evolutionary process, young man,
>yes, of course I do."
>"Have you ever observed evolution with your own eyes, sir?" The professor
>makes a sucking sound with his teeth and gives his student a silent,
>stony stare. "Professor. Since no one has ever observed the process of
>evolution at work and cannot even prove that this process is an on-going
>endeavor, are you not teaching your opinion, sir? Are you now not a
>scientist, but a priest?"

Here the student is engaging in the same appeal from ignorance fallacy that
the Professor had used earlier: since no one can prove evolution is real,
it must be false. In fact, however, the student is wrong when he says "no
one has ever observed the process of evolution at work" and when he says "no
one...[can] even prove that this process is an on-going endeavor". As such,
his statement is factually naive as well as fallacious.

>"I'll overlook your impudence in the light of our philosophical
>discussion. Now, have you quite finished?" the professor hisses.
>"So you don't accept God's moral code to do what is righteous?"

Didn't the student earlier say that this code does not exist, because it is
the absence of such a code that allows the evil of the world to florish?
How can he expect the Professor to accept something that by his own
admission does not exist, especially when he criticizes the Professor for
believing in something (evolution) that he -- the student -- does not
believe exists?

>"I believe in what is - that's science!"
>"Ahh! SCIENCE!" the student's face splits into a grin. "Sir, you rightly
>state that science is the study of observed phenomena. Science too is a
>premise which is flawed..."

Which is the same over-simplification the Professor endulged in.

>"SCIENCE IS FLAWED·?" the professor splutters. The class is in uproar.
>The Christian remains standing until the commotion has subsided.
>"To continue the point you were making earlier to the other student, may
>I give you an example of what I mean?" The professor wisely keeps silent.
>The Christian looks around the room. "Is there anyone in the class who
>has ever seen the professor's brain?" The class breaks out in laughter.
>The Christian points towards his elderly, crumbling tutor. "Is there
>anyone here who has ever heard the professor's brain...felt the
>professor's brain, touched or smelt the professor's brain?" No one
>appears to have done so. The Christian shakes his head sadly. "It appears
>no one here has had any sensory perception of the professor's brain
>whatsoever. Well, according to the rules of empirical, testable,
>demonstrable protocol, science says the professor has no brain."

And here the student again engages in the same appeal from ignorance fallacy
that the Professor had engaged in with the other student. Only in this
case, we don't need to observe the Professor's brain to know that he has
one, since the existence of his brain is an established fact in the
biological and medical sciences. In an attempt to crack a joke at the
Professor's expense, the student in fact makes a travesty of both proper
scientific investigation and his own argument.

>The class is in chaos. The Christian sits·because that is what a chair is

I must admit this last reference eludes me. Does anyone have any idea what
is meant by this statement?

Kevin L. O'Brien