I first heard of Michael Nugent, the chair of Atheist Ireland, while watching a debate on the question “Does God Exist?” that occurred in March of this year at University College Cork, Ireland. He was debating William Lane Craig, of Reasonable Faith,
During Mr. Nugent’s opening remarks I was impressed with what he referred to as “twenty reasons why God seems implausible”. He listed off his reasons in rapid-fire succession, each leading into the next, and I felt that, cumulatively, they built a pretty strong case for his position. I also appreciated that he kept the conversation focused on plausibility and spoke with a respectful, reasonable tone.
I was so intrigued that I decided to parse Mr. Nugent’s twenty arguments to see what they were made of. So I transcribed them from the video and, as the old saying goes, one thing led to another and I now find myself publishing a series of five articles about what I uncovered when I dug into his list.
Before I go any further I would be remiss not to congratulate Mr. Nugent on receiving the International Atheist of the Year award for 2017. While he and I may currently hold diametrically opposed world views with regard to theism, Mr. Nugent seems to me a good, sincere person with a lot of strong ideas so I want to acknowledge his achievement. And on a personal note—and I admit this could just be wishful thinking on my part—the more I learn about Mr. Nugent and the more I pray for him the more I get a sense he could one day become a powerful ambassador for Christ. Even he admits, “I’m always happy to say, even on the question of God, that I might be mistaken.”
I listened carefully as I was transcribing Mr. Nugent’s list of arguments but I only heard nineteen distinct points for the implausibility of the Christian God. (Perhaps I missed one hidden among his commentary. If you’re reading this and can identify the point I missed please let me know!) As I was analyzing his points I noticed they fall into five general categories of arguments which I’ve labeled as follows:
- The Implausibility of the Existence of a Pure Mind
- The Impossibility of a Changeless God
- The Problem of Perfection
- God and the Nature of Goodness
- The Problem of Omniscience
In this series of articles I will address his arguments as grouped into these five general categories. And at times I will also comment on specific points he’s made because so many of them are worth responding to individually.
I should note that whenever a large number of arguments are made in rapid-fire succession like this the tendency to get lost running down rabbit trails is very high. So as I analyze Mr. Nugent’s points I’m going to do my best to keep the conversation focused on the big question in view for this debate (Does God exist?) and on Mr. Nugent’s primary assertion that the existence of God is implausible. I’ll deal with the first of the five categories below, and tackle the other four in subsequent articles.
The Implausibility of the Existence of a Pure Mind
Three of the arguments Mr. Nugent made fall under this first category. I’ve written them out below as he described them in his opening remarks of the debate. This, in my opinion, was his strongest line of argument for the implausibility of God. He opened and closed his list with it.
Mr. Nugent’s 1st Reason: A pure mind without a body is an invented convenience because we have no evidence that a mind can exist without a body or a brain or a source of energy and a lot of evidence to suggest that it can’t.
Mr. Nugent’s 2nd Reason: A pure mind might be aware of the existence of matter but it could not interact with matter because there would be no mechanism for it do so.
Mr. Nugent’s 19th Reason: All of this is just exploring hypothetically an invented convenience, which is that there can be such a thing as a pure mind without a body, or a brain or a source of energy.
The first thing I notice is that the items on which Mr. Nugent claims a mind is contingent—a body, a brain or a source of energy—all refer to material or physical sources. His second point specifically focuses on his view that a physical mechanism is required in order for a pure mind to interact with matter. He seems to be struggling with the idea that a mind can exist completely separate from the physical universe because he (like most atheists) subscribes to the theory of reductive materialism; the belief that only the material world is truly real and that all processes and realities observed in the universe can be explained by reducing them down to their most basic physical components, e.g., atoms, molecules, chemicals, etc. I would submit that reductive materialism is not only untrue but also irrational, and by extension Mr. Nugent’s arguments about a pure mind fail to provide sufficient evidence or logical reasons to support his premise. I say this for the following five reasons:
#1 Things Exist Outside the Brain
Reductive materialism asserts that immaterial things like information, logic, consciousness, energy and mathematics are all ultimately reducible to physics and chemistry and, thus, merely human constructs that don’t exist outside the human brain. Yet they clearly do exist outside the human brain. Humans may have given the names “information” or “logic” to certain phenomena we observed in the universe, but we did not invent those phenomena. We simply observed what already existed outside of ourselves and gave it a name. If no human being existed, the universe would still be full of what we’ve labeled “information”, and it would still operate under the rules of what we’ve labeled “logic”.
#2 No Scientific Evidence
I find the lack of scientific evidence for reductive materialism telling. We are unable to reduce the concept of logic down to atoms and molecules in a lab. We can’t identify the physical properties of a human thought. Reductive materialists are fond of saying we merely can’t do these things “yet”. They believe that over time as science advances we will be able to do all that and more. But this isn’t scientists following the scientific data wherever it leads, which in this case points to the existence of a non-material reality. It is, instead, scientists starting with the presupposition that God can’t possibly exist and taking leaps of faith in order to interpret the data in a way that supports their bias. Rather than the “god of the gaps” argument, this is a “science of the gaps” argument.
#3 Physical & Mental Properties are Not The Same Thing
Reductive materialism also doesn’t work because physical properties are not equal to mental properties. Your brain is not angry or delighted, you are. And “you” are different than your brain. Your “self” is an immaterial free agent who can cause effects in your physical body. For example, if you decide to throw a ball, it’s your immaterial volition that causes the subsequent physical effects. A thought in your mind causes synapses in your brain to emit electrical signals telling your muscles to swing your arm and release the ball. The three-pound, squishy, grey organ inside your skull was not the ultimate source of the ball being thrown. The genesis of that action was an immaterial thought that was then translated into the material world via your body.
#4 We have Evidence of Minds Interacting With Matter
In Mr. Nugent’s 2nd Argument he claims that a pure mind might be aware of the existence of matter but it could not interact with matter because there would be no mechanism for it do so. Here he’s making a truth claim, which is a logical concept expressed as a proposition. Concepts and propositions are the immaterial products of a mind. So in the act of verbalizing this immaterial truth claim Mr. Nugent is proving his claim false. Because in order to verbalize his immaterial thoughts his immaterial mind is causing effects in the physical world; his lungs expel air and his muscles operate his vocal cords to form the vibrations necessary to communicate his immaterial ideas into audible words.
Mr. Nugent may argue that he is able to do this because his mind is already inside his body and the idea of a pure mind without a body interacting with matter is an entirely different thing. But the principle is exactly the same, because in either case there is an immaterial mind interacting with matter.
When we talk about a human mind that lives inside a body we see an immaterial source of volition and intention that is interacting with and controlling physical matter—our minds interact directly with and control our physical bodies, using them as a medium to interact with the world around us. In the case of God, we claim the same thing is happening; an immaterial source of volition and intention is interacting with and controlling physical matter. But God is not limited to a finite physical body and, thus, He does not require a medium between Himself and the universe in order to interact with it.
I’ll admit that the question of exactly how a mind could interact with matter in this way is a mystery. But the mystery of how God, as a pure mind, is able to interact with the physical universe is the exact same mystery as how Mr. Nugent’s mind is able to interact with his physical body. Humans are empirical evidence that somehow, in some way as yet unknown to us, minds are able to bridge that gap and interact with physical matter. Which is why it’s not at all irrational or implausible for we Christians to believe that the genesis of the universe and life itself was an immaterial thought in the perfect mind of God that was translated into physical reality. Which leads me to my final point.
#5 A Pure Mind is the Best Explanation of the Origin of the Universe
The existence of a pure mind is implicit in the explanation of the existence of the physical universe itself. Science and Christianity agree that the universe is not past eternal; it had a beginning. In 2012, NASA’s Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe estimated the age of the universe to be 13.772 billion years, with an uncertainty of 59 million years. In 2013, The European Space Agency’s Planck spacecraft measured the age of the universe at 13.82 billion years. However long ago it happened, scientists agree that the universe had a beginning, an event often referred to as the “Big Bang”. Christianity offers an explanation of the origin of the universe as well, and it’s one that is not mutually exclusive with the Big Bang theory: in the beginning God created the universe.
We can argue about whether the cause of the universe was God, or gravity, or the Flying Spaghetti Monster. But since the beginning of the universe is the point at which all physical matter came into existence we know that, at a minimum, whatever caused the universe to begin must itself exist apart from the physical universe; it must be immaterial. We know this because if the cause of the universe were material in nature it could not have existed before matter existed. That’s a logical impossibility; X cannot be the cause of X.
Since the cause of the universe must be immaterial we cannot claim that a set of physical conditions was the cause of physical matter coming into existence. We must instead look to immaterial conditions. The best observed example we have of immaterial conditions acting as a cause for material effects is volition or intention, as demonstrated in my example above; the intention within a mind to throw a ball is the immaterial cause of the ball being thrown in the material world. Because volition or intention can only exist within a mind, the most plausible logical conclusion is that the cause of the universe was a mind.
Mr. Nugent may argue that a mind is not the only immaterial thing that can exist. One could claim that abstract concepts like numbers exist and are immaterial, which is true. However, abstract concepts do not contain volition and, therefore, cannot be the cause of anything. Likewise, laws (like the law of Gravity) are immaterial and also lack causal power. Laws can only describe an order or relation of phenomena under given conditions. For example, the Laws of Physics do not cause a ball to fall to the ground after it’s thrown; they merely describe or predict that the ball will fall based on known conditions such as the mass of the ball, the speed of the throw, the density of the air, the gravitational constant of the planet on which the ball is thrown, etc.
The only known immaterial source of causal power in the universe is a mind. Which means, perhaps ironically, that it’s more logically plausible to conclude that the universe was created by the Flying Spaghetti Monster than by the Law of Gravity. (Sorry, Dr. Hawking!)
Therefore, based on the arguments above—that reductive materialism is irrational and lacks scientific evidence, that there is empirical evidence of an immaterial mind interacting with matter, and that a pure mind is the best explanation of the origin of the universe—I believe Mr. Nugent’s arguments regarding the implausibility of the existence of a pure mind fail to provide sufficient evidence or logical reasons to support his premise that the existence of God is implausible.
Next in the Series—Part 2: The Impossibility of a Changeless God