25 May 2009

Dennis Prager: If There Is No God, Part 8

(Note: This is Part 8 in the series started here.  The previous installment is here. In each post, I comment on one of the fourteen points made by Dennis Prager in his article, “If There Is No God.”)

Dennis Prager’s Point #8:

If there is no God, the human being has no free will. He is a robot, whose every action is dictated by genes and environment. Only if one posits human creation by a Creator that transcends genes and environment who implanted the ability to transcend genes and environment can humans have free will. (Note 1.) 

As is often the case with these items, I object to both the overall thrust of Mr. Prager’s assertion and the particular argument that he makes to support his case.  

The broadest issue here is that the statement is arbitrary and unfounded; there is no more reason to posit a God to explain free will than to explain any other observable entity or quality.  Free will - the ability of a human being to choose his actions - may be more difficult to understand than say, a simple object that one may hold in one’s hand, but it is nonetheless as ostensive and undeniable as any direct perception.  

If free will seems “mysterious,” it is so not because only miracles can it explain it (as if that were an explanation at all), but because we have gaps in our knowledge and an incomplete understanding of human consciousness.  As with all knowledge, the only way to improve our grasp of the operations of consciousness is to apply reason; faith can never yield an iota of knowledge of anything.  In any case, the advance of our understanding of free will is irrelevant to its simple identification, which is the issue at stake here.  No matter what our state of knowledge is or ever will be, the existence of free will is undeniable, for I can perceive it directly in myself (via introspection), and can generalize (via observations of others) to conclude that it is a quality of all humans.  God never enters into it.

Let us now examine the particular argument offered by Mr. Prager, the sentence upon which the logic of his point entirely rests: “Only if one posits human creation by a Creator that transcends genes and environment who implanted the ability to transcend genes and environment can humans have free will.”  

Is this really how creation in general works?  A creator must himself have the characteristic that he “implants” into his creation?  Prager’s proposition, in essense, states this: only a creator with quality x can implant this x into his creations.  

Let’s take this out of the supernatural realm to see if it holds true generally.  If it were so, I could replace “the ability to transcend genes and environment” in Mr. Prager’s sentence with some other quality.  For example: “Only if one posits the creation of a communication device by a creator that can travel at the speed of light, who implanted the ability to travel at the speed of light, can such a device exist.”  Well, I cannot travel anywhere near the speed of light (at least, not in the reference frame of my dear reader), yet the radio circuits that I create do indeed send information that fast.  It is simply not true that I myself must travel at light speed to create a device that can send radio waves.  Similarly, a painter need not possess physical beauty to make a painting that is beautiful; a computer designer does not need to be capable of performing millions of floating-point calculations per second in his head in order to design a computer to do so; an architect need not be extraordinarily tall to create a skyscraper.  Prager’s logic here (insofar as logic can pertain to God) is patently wrong.

Nevertheless, let us momentarily accept Mr. Prager’s premises to examine another aspect of his proposition.  He offered “transcendence” from a merely mechanistic universe as being one of the characteristics of his God, one which is necessarily possessed by God for Him to imbue it to man.(Note 2.)  We could substitute considerably less appealing characteristics without disturbing the validity of Prager’s logic.  For instance, it would be just as valid to say, “Only if one posits human creation by a Creator that is petty, cruel, power-lusting, superstitious, and foolish who implanted the ability to be petty, cruel, power-lusting, superstitious, and foolish can humans display such characteristics.”  I’m not sure Mr. Prager would wish to characterize God as possessing every possible human trait (though there is plenty of support for God’s power-lusting and cruelty in the Old Testament), yet it follows directly from his own formulation.  One might object that it is not fair to substitute free will, which offers only the potential for malevolent choices (cruelty, power-lusting, etc.), with those qualities themselves, but there is nothing in Prager’s logic that supports this restriction.  The objection would simply represent further mental contortions to escape faulty logic.

There is another curious implication from Prager’s point, too, that he probably did not intend.  From a certain perspective, he accidentally implies that except for free willed beings, nothing else would require God to be its creator.  Specifically, his emphasis that free will and human behavior require some sort of divine “transcendence” that is explainable only by introducing a God as a creator suggests that the rest of nature might be explainable in natural terms.  Again, this is not something that Mr. Prager is likely to agree with, for surely he believes that all of nature - inanimate objects and life-forms simpler than humans - were created by God.  If so, though, why introduce some special considerations for beings that possess free will?  Prager could have said simply, “God created humans like He created rocks, only He deemed that humans have free will.  Period.”  Instead, Prager used this “transcendent” quality of man as evidence of a transcendent God, which suggests that without man no such evidence would exist. 

In short, Mr. Prager’s assertion pertaining to free will is completely unfounded.  His proposition is demonstrably wrong, collapsing in defeat before any number of simple counterexamples, and it gives rise to some implications that are likely inconsistent with Prager’s own vision of a perfect, omnipotent God.  Man’s free will is directly observable, and is thus undeniable.  Any attempt to validate free will by referring to the realm of God not only is unnecessary, but actually sabotages its defense by implicitly accepting that no natural explanation is possible.  

(Note: The next installment in the series is here.)


1.  Dennis Prager, “If There Is No God,” http://townhall.com/columnists/DennisPrager/2008/08/19/if_there_is_no_god.

2.  I think Prager has used “transcendence” here in a meaningful manner, to distinguish free will from deterministic processes.  Nevertheless, I suspect he may have chosen the word to hint at the more familiar and vague “transcendence” of God from the physical, empirical, non-spiritual, etc., a trait that is no doubt appealing to those who tend to value mystery and poetry above precision.


madmax said...


I am really enjoying this series and this is another great entry. But I have a question on how to deal with this argument as I encounter if from conservatives all over the net. They are, among other things, trying to counter the secular materialists that argue for a mechanistic determinism. They are also trying to counter the argument that everything is matter.

Many religious apologists will use consciousness to argue for "transcendence" (that word is very popular). They will say that consciousness is non-material just the way "god" or the "super-natural" is. Here is where I have difficulty. Is it accurate to say that everything must reduce to material reality? That all that exists is either material or the product of the material such as consciousness?

The theistic apologists are heavily invested in the "supernatural" and I want to argue that there is no such thing, that only the *natural* exists. But in so doing I don't want to use philosophical materialism myself.

Stephen Bourque said...

That’s a good question, madmax, and I’m very glad you wrote in because I would not want to be ambiguous on this point.
As you probably guessed, I do not at all agree with philosophical materialism – the idea that everything that is real must reduce to physical matter.  This notion constitutes a metaphysical error. Certainly, every thing that is made of matter exists, but it does not follow that everything that exists is made of matter.
Consciousness is a perfect example of a non-material entity.  Sure, consciousness cannot exist apart from a physical entity – namely, a living organism with certain properties – but it is not reducible to the cells or atoms of the organism.  “You are not your brain,” admirably says the subtitle of Alva Noë’s book, Out of Our Heads.  One’s brain and one’s mind are two different things.
(High level concepts, like justice or friendship, are also non-material and quite real.  I do not know if a strict materialist would object to the reality of such concepts since they are not entities, but I’m inclined to think they would be rejected as well, for the same reasons.)

For your arguments, I would suggest that you try to prevent your opponents from drawing you down an irrelevant path. Here is the key: The proper guide to determine if something exists is not to ask if it is material or not, but to judge if it refers to something in reality. 
I object to God not because of a claimed transcendence from the material world, but because God refers to nothing in the universe, nothing that is real. 

One’s own consciousness is a first-level observation that cannot be denied.  (The very attempt to introspect on this matter validates the existence of your consciousness.)  In contrast, to postulate God’s existence is completely arbitrary; it is a mere assertion that by the religionists' own formulation cannot be reduced to observations on any level, cannot be restricted to any properties in particular.  There is utterly no justification for equating the existence of consciousness and the existence of God simply because they both happen to be non-material.  This basis is non-essential and irrelevant.
(To reinforce this point, notice that material things can be invented arbitrarily just as can non-material things.)

madmax said...


Thank you for your reply. If I may, I have a few points that I have questions on.

What I am trying to nail down is how do we know what is *real*; ie what is the bright line test? As I understand it, Objectivism says that to be real is to have identity. I take that to mean that, ultimately, it must reduce to the evidence of the senses.

So consciousness is a faculty of living beings. It could not exist without a biological being and further, humans can directly introspect its existence. Abstractions such as mathematical concepts exist in a human's mind and would not exist except for a mind able to grasp them. So both of those things have identity.

But God does not refer to anything that exists; ie to anything that can be reduced to sense perception. Would you say that is right?

Left Coast Rebel said...

Great points here and I glad to have found a blog that directly relates philosophy to the current day. I plan on reading a lot here, I see that you are a great admirer of Ayn Rand, as well as I am. I am following, please do the same for me at my political blog!

Stephen Bourque said...

Thanks for the comments, guys. It took me a long to time to get to your question, madmax, but I finally got around to it!

I think the key principle is captured by your formulation that validation must “reduce to the evidence of the senses.” There is no substitute for ITOE and OPAR here, but I will give my short answer in a paragraph:

Concepts, especially higher-level concepts that may be several levels of abstraction away from the perceptual level, are certainly real if they are constructed objectively. (They are not entities, such as Platonic Forms, but they refer to things in reality.) However, the conceptual faculty is fallible; errors are possible. The perceptual level is infallible. Thus, to check or validate our concepts, we must be able to work down the hierarchical chain, rigorously reviewing the units which are subsumed by each concept, until we get to the perceptual (infallible) level.