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 Nugent’s opening remarks I was impressed with what he referred to as “twenty reasons why God seems implausible.” He listed his reasons in rapid-fire succession, each leading into the next, and I felt that, cumulatively, they built a fairly strong case for his position. I also appreciated that Nugent kept the conversation focused on plausibility and spoke with a respectful, reasonable tone.
I was so intrigued that I decided to parse Nugent’s twenty arguments to see what they were made of. I transcribed them from the video and one thing led to another and I now find myself publishing a series of five articles about what I uncovered when I examined 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 hold diametrically opposed world views with regard to theism, he seems to me a good, sincere person with a lot of strong ideas so I want to acknowledge his achievement. On a personal note—and I admit this could just be wishful thinking on my part—the more I learn about 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 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 analyzed 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, I will address each category of arguments in a separate article. I should note that whenever multiple arguments are made in rapid-fire succession like this, the tendency to run down rabbit trails and get lost is high. So as I analyze Nugent’s points I will do my best to keep the conversation focused on the big question in view for this debate—Does God exist?—and on Nugent’s primary assertion that the existence of God is implausible. Let us proceed to Nugent’s first category of arguments.
The Implausibility of the Existence of a Pure Mind
Three of the arguments Nugent made fall under this first category. I’ve transcribed them below, just 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.
Reason 1: 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.
Reason 2: 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.
Reason 19: 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.-Michael Nugent
Note that the items on which Nugent claims 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 real and that all processes and realities observed in the universe can be explained by reducing them down to their most basic physical components (atoms, molecules, chemicals, etc). I submit that reductive materialism is not only untrue but also irrational. Thus, by extension, Nugent’s arguments about a pure mind fail to provide sufficient evidence or logical reasons to support his premise. Here are five reasons why:
#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 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 aspect of reality. Rather, this is 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 Nugent’s second 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 to do so. In saying this, Nugent is expressing a logical concept as a proposition. Yet, concepts and propositions are the immaterial products of a mind. So in the act of verbalizing this immaterial truth claim, Nugent is proving his claim false. In order to verbalize his immaterial thoughts, his mind is the efficient cause of 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.
Indeed, let’s consider the science of verbal communication. Sound is simply air vibrating. In the purely physical realm, then, a conversation can be described as a series of particular vibrations emitting from one person’s vocal cords, being transmitted through the air, and ultimately vibrating the eardrums of another person. Yet we know that is not all there is to a conversation. Conversations do not just transmit vibrations, they also communicate information. And information is not a material thing that can be weighed and measured, like vocal cords, air, and eardrums. A proposition (e.g., “I am hungry”) begins as an immaterial thought in one person’s mind. It is then turned into a series of particular vocalized sounds that are transmitted into the air as vibrations. Those vibrations reach another person’s eardrums and are somehow converted back into information that means something to the recipient. So here we have two immaterial minds exchanging immaterial information using the physical medium of human body parts and air. (We won’t even get into the immaterial nature of words and languages!)
Nugent may argue that he is able to have a conversation with Dr. Craig 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. However, the principle is exactly the same. In either case, there is an immaterial mind interacting with matter. In the case of a human mind inside a living body, we find an immaterial source of volition/intention 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, Christians claim the same thing is happening: an immaterial source of volition/intention is interacting with and controlling physical matter. However, our Creator God is not limited to a finite physical body and, thus, does not require a medium between Himself and the universe in order to interact with it.
I admit that the question of exactly how a mind could interact with matter in this way is a mystery. Yet the mystery of how God, as a pure mind, is able to interact with the physical universe is the same mystery behind Nugent’s mind causing his vocal cords to utter audible words full of information. Indeed, human beings 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. Hence, it is not at all irrational or implausible for 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.
#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’s explanation of the origin of the universe (Gen 1:1) accords with science; we just believe we know Who “banged” it into existence.
One could argue about whether the cause of the universe was God, or gravity, or the Flying Spaghetti Monster. Even though no one was there to observe it when it happened, there are some things we can know about the cause of the universe. Science tells us that 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 above. Because volition or intention can only exist within a mind, the most plausible conclusion is that the cause of the universe was a mind.
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 is thrown; they merely describe or predict that the ball will fall based on known conditions such as the mass and speed of the ball, 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. This 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!)
In conclusion, we find that (a.) reductive materialism is irrational and lacks scientific evidence, (b.) there is evidence of immaterial mind interacting with material matter, and (c.) a pure mind is the best explanation of the origin of the universe. Therefore, 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