Here’s The Impossible Task For Atheists

Logic in many respects is the point where the debate between Christian and atheist advocates reaches the decisive questions each must confront: How does something come from nothing if God doesn’t exist and how can either’s answer be demonstrated?

I’m a journalist by training, not a philosopher and certainly not a mathematician, so I claim no such authority in this discussion. Being a journalist of an investigative bent and a man who has experienced the saving grace of Jesus Christ, however, I love engaging in civil discussion with others about these ultimate issues.

And I will be sharing regularly here on HillFaith quotes, references, links to, excerpts and analyses by people, believers and non-believers, who I find have something worthwhile to contribute to our discussion.

My friend Chris Shannon posted this lengthy excerpt from Christian philosopher and theologian J.P. Moreland addressing the decisive questions posed above:

“…you can’t get something from nothing…It’s as simple as that.  If there were no God, then the history of the entire universe, up until the appearance of living creatures, would be a history of dead matter with no consciousness.
“You would not have any thoughts, beliefs, feelings, sensations, free actions, choices, or purposes. There would be simply one physical event after another physical event, behaving according to the laws of physics and chemistry …
“How then, do you get something totally different- conscious, living, thinking, feeling, believing creatures- from materials that don’t have that?  That’s getting something from nothing!  And that’s the main problem …
“However … if you begin with an infinite mind, then you can explain how finite minds could come into existence.  That makes sense.  What doesn’t make sense — and which many atheistic evolutionists are conceding — is the idea of getting a mind to squirt into existence by starting with brute, dead, mindless matter.”

This quote is from Lee Strobel’s interview with Moreland, who is a professor at Dallas Theological Seminary, can be found in its entirety in Lee Strobel’s “The Case for Creator.”  Strobel is a former journalist, so, yes, I am perhaps a bit partial to him!

And after you consume Moreland above, go to BigThink for an alternative approach to the question.

Now, Moreland has set the table for what should be a helpful discussion for all concerned with things like knowledge, truth and logic. Let it begin! And by the way, if you work on the Hill, where you come out on these matters has a great to deal to do with how you resolve many of the seemingly mundane daily issues with which you deal.

Mark Tapscott is HillFaith’s editor, IT jockey, spiritual guide, chief bottle washer and overall Jack-of-All-Trades. Email him at mark.tapscott@gmail.com

Author: Mark Tapscott

Follower of Christ, devoted husband of Claudia, doting father and grandfather, conservative lover of liberty, journalist and First Amendment fanatic, former Hill and Reagan aide, vintage Formula Ford racer, Okie by birth/Texan by blood/proud of both, resident of Maryland.

15 thoughts on “Here’s The Impossible Task For Atheists”

  1. Interesting. At first, I thought this conversation was going to go the cosmological route. I figured that a conversations about “something coming from nothing” would focus on the history of the cosmos, rather than some particular subset of the cosmos.

    I’m intrigued that Moreland would instead focus on the origin of life. That seems a rather curious and entirely untenable position. Moreland states:

    How then, do you get something totally different- conscious, living, thinking, feeling, believing creatures- from materials that don’t have that? That’s getting something from nothing!

    However, he’s quite clearly contradicting himself, here– unless Moreland is attempting to claim that materials which are not “conscious, living, thinking, feeling, believing creatures” are equivalent to nothing, which I am fairly certain he is not.

    That’s not getting something from nothing. That’s getting something from something else.

    Let me offer a counter-example. I’m sure that we can all agree that electrons, protons, and neutrons are not wet. We can also agree that combining those particles into an atom of oxygen and two atoms of hydrogen does not create something wet. If I then combine those atoms into a single molecule of water, I still don’t have something wet. If I gather together 10, or 20, or 1000000 molecules of water, do I have something wet yet? Certainly, when I gather together a mole of water molecules, I now have something wet. So how is it that non-wet materials combined into non-wet configurations can somehow make something wet? Is that getting something from nothing?

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      1. Thanks for the response. My question for you is this: What is the origin of the electrons, protons and neutrons?

        Before we shift the goalposts, can we agree that Moreland’s position doesn’t make any sense, as presented?

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  2. No, I don’t know that I agree with you in your conclusion about Moreland’s position. And I don’t think asking about the origin of your hypothetical’s electrons, protons and neutrons is “moving the goalposts” in a discussion about whether something can have origin from nothing.

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    1. No, I don’t know that I agree with you in your conclusion about Moreland’s position.

      So when Moreland describes a situation in which living things came from non-living things, you agree with his claim that this is an example of something coming from nothing?

      And I don’t think asking about the origin of your hypothetical’s electrons, protons and neutrons is “moving the goalposts” in a discussion about whether something can have origin from nothing.

      It is moving the goalposts when I am talking about a specific argument made by Moreland, and rather than address my points directly you chose to switch tack.

      Now, I’m more than willing to discuss this further point. In fact, since I’m fairly sure I understand the direction you’re taking with the question, I’m perfectly willing to skip several steps right to the desired endpoint. I’m sure you and I will both agree that there must exist something which was not brought into existence by something else. I think we will simply disagree on what that entity is. You’ll very likely stand by the idea that it must be a spaceless, timeless, immaterial, personal, omnipotent, omnibenevolent being. On the other hand, I’ll stand by the idea that it is spacetime, itself, which was not brought into existence.

      The only reason that I was trying to insist on completing my previous line of inquiry before starting a new one is that there can be only two reasons why a person would disagree with the point I brought up about Moreland’s position. The first is that a person is being deliberately dishonest, but I do not believe that to be the case here. The second is that the person is operating under different definitions, assumptions, or premises than I am, and I believe this is the more likely of the two. However, if that is the case, any further discussion we have is likely to run afoul of the same problem unless we can resolve those underlying issues.

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  3. No, I think you are mistaking his ironic humor – “that’s getting something from nothing” – for a straightforward assertion. His point with the irony is an argument by analogy, that claiming a living organism can spring from a non-living substance or combination of substances is analogous to claiming, literally, that something can be created out of nothing.

    I very much appreciate your comment that we likely agree that something must be prior to a created thing, and where you assume I would identify that something as the deity, you would identify it as spacetime. But there can’t be time without non-time; otherwise we don’t know either of them. If that’s the case, then don’t you have to assume spacetime is eternal or else it had a beginning, thus bringing us back around to the question of its origin? And back to my question about the origin of those electrons protons and neutrons you mentioned in your initial response?

    This is getting interesting. Thank you!

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    1. His point with the irony is an argument by analogy, that claiming a living organism can spring from a non-living substance or combination of substances is analogous to claiming, literally, that something can be created out of nothing.

      If Moreland meant this analogy to be light or humorous, as opposed to a serious critique, that certainly escaped me. If he meant that living matter coming from non-living matter is directly and literally analagous to something coming from nothing, then he is quite clearly mistaken. Non-living matter shares absolutely no commonalities with nothingness. It is, in fact, quite the opposite of nothingness, since non-living matter is quite clearly something.

      But there can’t be time without non-time; otherwise we don’t know either of them.

      I am quite honestly not sure what you mean by this.

      If that’s the case, then don’t you have to assume spacetime is eternal or else it had a beginning, thus bringing us back around to the question of its origin?

      Whether or not time is past-finite, it remains true that it could not have been brought into existence from non-existence. This seems trivial in the case that time is past-infinite, sure. But it doesn’t require a great deal more thought to show that it must obviously be true in the case that time is past-finite, as well.

      If time is past-finite, then this tells us that there was a first moment of time. Time, quite obviously, exists in that first moment. And since it is the first moment, there are no moments of time which precede it. Even if time is past-finite, there was literally never any time in which time did not exist. To claim otherwise is obviously self-contradictory. One does not need a PhD in philosophy to know that the phrase, “There existed some time in which no time existed,” is completely incoherent.

      And back to my question about the origin of those electrons protons and neutrons you mentioned in your initial response?

      Electrons, insofar as the best physical models can tell us, seem to be elementary particles. Protons and neutrons are composed of quarks, which are themselves elementary particles. As to the origin of elementary particles, the only answer I can give is “good question.” Perhaps they are wriggling one-dimensional objects, as in String Theory; or perhaps they are point-particle excitations of space-time; or perhaps they have some other explanation and origin altogether. Regardless of what explanation they might have, I can certainly agree that it is preposterous to claim that they came from nothing.

      This is getting interesting. Thank you!

      I completely agree! Thank you for your time and patience in responding to me on this!

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      1. Your statement that “as to the origin of elementary particles, the only answer I can give is ‘good question’” is exactly my point – without the infinite mind/deity, that is the only answer.

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      2. Your statement that “as to the origin of elementary particles, the only answer I can give is ‘good question’” is exactly my point – without the infinite mind/deity, that is the only answer.

        Well, no. I offered two possible naturalistic explanations in my post. I don’t know if either is correct, but both are certainly plausible and ongoing subjects of research in physics.

        Even if I hadn’t offered those two, however, the presence of an unanswered question does not give one license to claim that some ad hoc explanation must therefore be true. That’s the very definition of an argumentum ad ignorantium fallacy. It’d be a clearly invalid argument to say, “You cannot provide an answer, therefore God must be the answer.”

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      3. But we can say “That’s a good question, we don’t know the definitive answer to it, but a reasonable inference would be ___________, one possibility being the existence of an infinite mind/deity.” At which point, my new friend, we must start talking about … faith.

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      4. I don’t quite see how that is a reasonable inference. Before it can be a reasonable inference, we would need to know that this being could actually create these elementary particles; and before we could know that, we would first need to know that this being exists. As I’ve not yet even been convinced of the latter, let alone the former, it would be impossible for me to agree that it is reasonable to infer that such a being created the elementary particles.

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      5. Quite the contrary, this discussion would be the logical next step in our investigation. First, we establish that a being exists. Then, we establish that the being has the capability to perform a particular act. Finally, we investigate whether or not that being actually performed the act of which it has been found capable.

        For example, some of my friends who practice the religion, Asatru, have a very bountiful blackberry bush which popped up in their yard a few summers ago. Their explanation for this occurrence is that the land wights with whom they share their land wanted to bless them, and caused the blackberry bush to grow as a result. Would you agree that before we can possibly consider this a reasonable inference, we must first establish that land wights exist and that these beings can cause blackberries to sprout spontaneously?

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  4. It seems to me that a basic assumption you both make is that we exist as you believe we do. That seems to imply faith on both sides of the argument. This is a wonderful and quite interesting discussion, but I have things to do today..

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