A Commentary On Barak Obama’s “You Didn’t Build That” Speech[1]
By: John D. Ferrer

You Didn't Build That
Conservatives have seized upon a line in Barak Obama’s July 13th (2012) speech and made it a touchstone for conservative ideals. Obama’s “You didn’t build that” is answered with, “Yes I did.” Liberals retort that the quote is taken out of context and misinterpreted. This quote is critically important since its use could potentially sway enough swing voters to generate a republican victory in November. A bit of context and commentary might show whether conservatives have treated this quote fairly or not. Below is the entire quote in its relevant context, with interspersed commentary.

Barak Obama: There are a lot of wealthy, successful Americans who agree with me — because they want to give something back. They know they didn’t — look, if you’ve been successful, you didn’t get there on your own. You didn’t get there on your own. I’m always struck by people who think, well, it must be because I was just so smart. There are a lot of smart people out there. It must be because I worked harder than everybody else. Let me tell you something — there are a whole bunch of hardworking people out there. . . .

The president has slipped his reference point from the “hardest worker” to “hard worker.” It can be admittedly that hard work does not guarantee success, and, especially in this economy, a lot of hard workers cannot keep their jobs or advance. But that is not as much the case for the hardest workers. It is literally impossible for everyone to work harder than everyone else. The person who works harder than his peers is largely preferred over the less hard worker. Such a person is more valuable to his employer, is more likely to keep his job, and more likely to be promoted than his peers. A “little hard work” is not the point at issue. Rather, the entrepreneur, for example, is invariably the hardest worker within his business. And his “hardest” work is a big part in success. The entrepreneur works the hardest because he has to. He innovates, and stays late, and digs deep, and cuts expenses because if he doesn’t succeed he is wrecked more than anyone else. He builds it because no one else will. If the hardest worker is an employee, he still distinguishes himself and earns his place and may be the boss one day in large part because he was the hardest worker. The person who works the hardest is a little safer and has a better chance of advancing than the person who just “works hard.” The same can be said of the “smartest” worker, and more so about the person who combines smarts and hard work to earn do a better job than his peers.

. . . If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help. . . .

Since this is more likely to have been private citizens, acting in a private capacity, the “government-help” connection that Obama is implying does not follow. If we suppose that Obama is not implying anything about government help then his point is trivial. Of course family, friends, and community help each individual to reach their level of success. But that help does not necessarily build anyone’s business. The individual still builds his business. They helped him/her become able to build, but they didn’t build it; the individual entrepreneur, the indidivudal farmer, the restaurateur, these are the people who build it.

. . . . There was a great teacher somewhere in your life. Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive. Somebody invested in roads and bridges. . . .

Perhaps the most offensive word here is “allowed.” Read strongly, this suggests that the collective “American System” is what possesses and doles out businesses to entrepreneurs. It is the collective system, the “we” that gives the entrepreneur permission to start his business. Since Obama likely understands government as part of that “American System,” this strong-reading sounds a lot like a Nanny State. Presumably, that implies that people owe some great gratitude and service (perhaps servitude) to their government for its great generosity of allowing them to have a business. That is a “strong-reading.” But it can be read more charitably too. By this “soft-reading,” the word “allowed,” is an open term for some broad preconditions which made the individuals success possible. The line would thus say, “Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that [was sufficient to enable] you to thrive.” While this charitable reading is possible, I do not think Obama meant this. The thrust of his speech is towards some sense of indebtedness towards the collective help and support of others. He is rebutting the idea that individual citizens have built their own business pretty much on their own efforts. That entrepreneur, according to Obama, did not just receive help in building his business. He is indebted to those who helped him. Therefore, I think, Obama intends this strong sense of “allowed.” The collective American system is a/the rightful claimant of businesses, and it has granted individual entrepreneurs the permission to steward those businesses.

Moreover, Obama has mentioned some interesting examples of collective initiative in citing roads and bridges. The roads and bridges were funded by tax dollars, from individual citizens, with private interests, many of which would be just as willing to use non-government means to build those roads if the government allowed them too—it follows then that we the people built those roads. Government “help” is largely indirect and often done in an overblown, inefficient, and mismanaged way compared to free-market private sector answers where people are spending their own money. Interstate roads, and much infrastructure does require wide-scale cooperation and support, but that does not reach the heart of the issue. No amount of roads or rails directly builds my business. Then are preconditions for it, but they do not do the actual work of building anything.

If you’ve got a business — you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen. The Internet didn’t get invented on its own. Government research created the Internet so that all the companies could make money off the Internet.

Here the President gives his infamous quote. He could have said, “You didn’t build that yourself,” or “You aren’t the only one who built that.” These variations are a little less offensive, but they still fail to solve the key problem of this speech and they aren’t what President Obama said anyway. Instead, he says more strongly “You didn’t build that.” This point is patently false. Even if other people helped build my business, I still built it, I just didn’t build it alone.

Someone may object that the President was referring to something other than businesses. But the word “that” is singular. Since its most immediate object in the preceding phrase is “business,” then he is likely saying, “You didn’t build that [business].” If he meant those other elements mentioned earlier, like “roads,” bridges,” etc. then he should have said, “those.” He seems to mean the other people who helped individuals along the way—they are the ones who built this.

Taken one way, this line is self-refuting. A better interpretation is possible but let’s first see how that line can defeat itself. If nobody built anything, and others have actually done it for them, then neither did those other people build their respective “roads, bridges, teaching, etc.” In short, the ad infinitum ad absurdum conclusion follows that no one built anything, but neither did the other people who helped them, neither did they build anything since they had people who helped them, and so on and so on. No one built anything.

I don’t think this reading is necessary. There is a gentler way to read Obama’s infamous line. Perhaps “you” (singular) did not build that, but “we” did. We all have some kind of help and this is easily admitted. I’ll assume this gentler reading is what Obama meant.

Still, this line “You didn’t build that,” is patently false. If Joe Plumber builds his plumbing business then he has to have help from all sorts of things that aren’t really “building” his business. He needs police to help in case a customer assaults him and steals his wallet. He needs water to exist and have the properties of water or else he can’t be a plumber. He needs the senate and house to establish laws and the court system to enforce laws of the land so Tyrants don’t collect all the power and run the country into the ground ruining his plumbing business. Keeping the “building” analogy, all of these contributing factors provide the individual citizen with the building tools—the bricks of technology and culture, the mortar of family and community, the tool belt of education, the cement of constitutional law, and so on. But none of that builds my business! The individual must take the initiative to collect those resources then sweat and bleed over them till that business is built.

Obama’s line is therefore patently false for treating the brute materials of society like they somehow construct themselves without private citizens infusing the critical factor of actually building the business. No amount of other people’s help ever builds our businesses.

The point is, is that when we succeed, we succeed because of our individual initiative, but also because we do things together. There are some things, just like fighting fires, we don’t do on our own. I mean, imagine if everybody had their own fire service. That would be a hard way to organize fighting fires.

Obama’s commentary here is only trivially true. We can all admit that we are contingent, interdependent beings, who did not give birth to ourselves, feed ourselves as infants, sew all our own clothes, mill our own flour, etc. etc. So what? Many many things require outside help. And more towards Obama’s line of thought, many things require government help such as fire-fighting, policing, and military efforts. Obama’s example is not helpfully related to individual entrepreneurship unless perhaps we are talking about Bounty Hunters or Private Military Contractors.

So we say to ourselves, ever since the founding of this country, you know what, there are some things we do better together. That’s how we funded the G.I. Bill. That’s how we created the middle class. That’s how we built the Golden Gate Bridge or the Hoover Dam. That’s how we invented the Internet. That’s how we sent a man to the moon. We rise or fall together as one nation and as one people, and that’s the reason I’m running for President — because I still believe in that idea. You’re not on your own, we’re in this together.

This point would be more penetrating if he retained a private business context, and distinguish between “allowing” (passive) and “building” (active) business. The government does not and should not build my business. That is what China does by limiting and directing people’s career options regardless of what the individuals themselves would prefer to do. Instead, the Government should help clear the field of lawlessness gross injustice and monopolistic imbalance (including government monopolies) and establish a wide perimeter fence to protect against foreign (military) threats so as to allow cement of constitutional idealism to set. The government has not built my business, but rather has built a large perimeter fence so that there is a free and wide field for me to build my own business, how I want it, to serve my interests, and meet the needs I intend to meet. So, sure, we are in this together and we can help each other. But no one else builds my business, just as no one else has to take the fall when my business fails, and no one else writes the checks for my business investments.

In conclusion, Barak Obama’s now infamous quote, “You didn’t build that,” is well understand by his opponents. The general reading of it at the Republican National Convention is fair. The critical distinction seems to be between “allowing” a business and “building” a business. People can help, and people can get out of the way, and the government can certainly support or oppose individual business, but it is invariably the entrepreneur who is actually building that business.

 

[1](Barak Obama, Roanoke, VA: Speech, 13 July 2012, accessed July 26, 2012 at: http://radio.foxnews.com/2012/07/26/president-obamas-you-didnt-build-that-transcript/).

cogito brain

Reductive materialism says everything can be traced back by purely material causes to material itself. This is the most common view in modern science and predominates among atheists, skeptics, humanists, and many agnostics. One key claim in this camp is that mind is just brain or just a product of the brain. While these two options have some critical differences I’m going to treat them together under the heading “mind-brain identity thesis”. This thesis is quite popular, but are there reasons to reject? I think so.

1) It amounts to a universal negative claim, and those are notoriously hard to prove. To say with 100% certainty that “the mind is nothing but the brain” one must know EVERYTHING about ALL brains and minds. That’s a lot to know, and its doubtful that anyone knows that. To be fair though, we rarely operate on 100% certainty. We can still have epistemically responsible claims with imperfect knowledge. Suppose we graded that context back a bit and made that claim, not with 100% certainty, but with “high probability”. Is it still a responsible claim to make? Still no. We do not know even MOST everything about MOST brains and minds.

2) Materialism is riddled with holes. Materialism has a remarkably hard time accounting for things like qualia (subjectively felt bits of experience), feelings, consciousness, deliberation, intentionality, free-will, and most everything located under the derisive term “folk psychology.” Now that doesn’t stop materialism, nor should it. Most every theory of mind today has a lot of explanatory gaps and we can be fine with ignorance as long as we are trying to pass through it (instead of camping there). But, materialism has a tendency to not “explain” so much as “explain away” things that you and I directly experience as real. This tendency to explain away things like free-will or consciousness (see eliminative materialism for example) counts against the theory to the extent that those things seem likely, or are otherwise known to be real. If materialism EXPLAINED them without trying to go further and EXPLAIN THEM AWAY then materialism might not seem very porous. But in the meantime, it does little good to tell people that their conscious experience is ultimately illusory since our free-will is just a mysterious shadow cast upon a jumbled set of innumerable deterministc forces making us say, do, think, believe, and be everything about us. That’s a fine assertion, but unless that assessment is just as compelling, just as obvious, just as directly known or directly observed as our own first-hand immediate experience of our own selves then it hasn’t earned our agreement.

3) Materialism argues from silence. There are valid and invalid ways to make an argument from silence. A valid way to do it is to find a context where some “voice” is rightly expected. For example, “Senator Coburn could not be reached for comment in the last three weeks ever since his step-daughter spoke out about the sexual assault.” That is a valid argument from silence. For a senator to keep his mouth shut for 3 weeks is itself a miracle, but when any words of his would be met with uncomfortable questions about the recent accusation, then his silence suddenly takes on a meaningful sheen. He may not be guilty, but the silence is at least suspicious and can count as some evidence if not conclusive evidence against him. That would be an argument from silence if the conclusion one draws is that, all else being equal, Senator Coburn is more likely (than not) to be guilty of something related to his stepdaughter given his 3-week silence about that accusation. However, there are invalid ways to argue from silence too, hence we have the category of “argument from silence fallacy.” Materialism has basically two ways to account for mind. 1) Deny it’s existence entirely (as in eliminative materialism, or related forms) and 2) Emergence (which is sometimes overlaid or identified with the term “supervenience”). With the second category, the mind is said to be an emergent property of the brain. The theory is that when the neurons that compose the brain are sufficiently developed and properly arranged and activated “mind” emerges as a product, function, feature or description of that brain. Just as three adjoining lines can have the property of ‘triangle” so billions and billions of neurons can have the property (or function, or feature or description, etc.) of “mind.” This is all well and good as far as it goes, but there’s a conceptual problem. How does mind emerge from brain? Best I can tell, most every reductive materialist eventually has to admit that they don’t know. There is a complex causal cloud of material forces and somewhere in there, they believe, mind emerges. The sense of “free will” emerges from so many deterministic material causes that we honestly think we have free-will but we just don’t know enough about that causal cloud to be able to make concrete proofs from it to show HOW (the illusion of) free-will reduces to determinism. But have faith, neuroscience and clinical psychology are making great strides every day pointing us back to materialism with every new discovery. Or so they say.

Meanwhile, even the amateur dualist, believing that the mind and brain are both real yet not the same thing, should be able to sense that the materialist just swept his ignorance under the rug even as he argues from that ignorance to achieve his conclusions. And all that neuroscience and psychology does not seem to point strictly to materialism unless one was interpreting that data through a filter of presumptive materialism (like methodological naturalism/methodological materialism/reductive materialism). The claim then sounds something like this: “We don’t know how, but we assure you that all the immaterial stuff somehow comes from only material stuff. Now let me tell you about how all of this conversation is really just a meaningless result of so many mindless material forces pulling our puppet strings.” The “great cloud of mystery” (the entire causal set of material forces, known and unknown) is so far silent on how mind would emerge from brain, yet materialists believe (imagine, feel, hope?) that it is saying something to them, something so plain and obvious that you should believe (i.e., put faith in their claim) it too no matter what your own immediate and direct personal experience of “mind” may be. That is a fallacious argument from silence. The materialist is reading into the silence (a.k.a., ignorance) where we lack sufficient context suggesting that inference is in there.

3) Materialism is often self-defeating. So far I’ve treated materialism as a single idea. In fact, materialism can be broken down into many camps. Some of them don’t necessarily submit to this next objection. But not being a materialist myself, I’ll leave the materialists to parse out their own system and see if they can avoid this objection. Here it is: if “everything is ultimately just material” then the immaterial meaning of that very sentence doesn’t exist. Likewise, an idea is not strictly material, so the very idea represented in this sentence, “Everything is material” does not exist. Literally speaking, if materialism were true we could not know that it is true. I’m just an amateur in philosophy of mind, but this conclusion has been reached by greater philosophers than I such as Thomas Nagel (see, Mind and Cosmos).

Phrased more generously, it becomes difficult if not impossible to account for meaning in a clean and consistent manner if everything is forced into material categories. Semantics–the realm of linguistic meaning–becomes a rather odd duck if one assumes that meaningfulness is just a relation, property, or substance. Meaning is not strictly identical to the letters and words and sentences that people speak, since then we couldn’t interchange different symbols (as with different languages or different wordings of the same idea) for the same semantic idea. But we CAN use different symbols for the same semantic idea, for example, “I don’t speak Spanish” or “No habla espanol.” But neither is it clear that meaning is always strictly a product of material forces. Some such meanings might be: a bird goes into a mating dance, perhaps having no “mind” in the matter but pure instincts, and that dance MEANS “Let’s mate.” But we humans seem to experience something besides mere instincts, wherein “I-me” dialogue can happen, deliberation, a felt sense of “self” exists, self-transcendent awareness occurs (like, “I wonder how I would look with red high heels and a pigeon on my head?”). All of that “folk psychology” remains as a seemingly real and irreducible experience, which we individuals cannot explain simply in terms of other material things. My sense of self has an apparently immaterial quality which seems odd if not categorically distinct were we to try to account for it in strictly material relations. So if my sense of self were entirely derived from strictly material causes there would seem to be fitting relations between that immaterial experience and the world of material objects. But I cannot honestly say, my experience of “self” is made up of the physical properties of rocks, or of trees, or of pigeons, or of apes, etc. Perhaps my subconscious behaviors can be identified as relations tracing back to neural synapsis in my brain–I have no problem admitting that reality. But when it comes to the conscious experiences I myself have, that seems to what distinguishes me from, say, a zombie replica of me or a robot replica of me. Even if all the physical parts were identical between me and that zombie or me and that robot, we would have to have the numerically same self-experience for the mind-brain identity thesis to hold up. But neither the zombie nor the robot have that self-experience whereas I do. Were I to identify my mind with physical substances metaphorically, then that might work. For example: “My self of commitment is like rock”, but then we’re back into the immaterial realm again. Metaphors and similes point back to the murky waters of semantics and poetic language–neither of which are clearly material. And the whole point of this exercise is to get back to material stuff through causal analysis of (apparently) immaterial stuff.

In summary then, crude materialism suffers from self-defeat since the very statement of materialism is not itself material. A more nuanced sense of materialism might allow immaterial properties and relations as emergent features of material stuff, but then the mind still poses a reductive problem if one hopes to account for it by referring to material components. One is left then in the argument from ignorance/argument from silence where it is assumed that sophisticated things like “mind”–which seem to many of us, by direct awareness, to be immaterial–are just properties or relations emerging from a mysterious complex of material causes.

4) The supposed transition from purely material causes to immaterial effects remains an explanatory gap plaguing the reductive materialist. Underlying all of this critique so far is the abiding challenge of how to account the emergence of immaterial things as properties or relations derived from strictly material things. It is not enough to say that meaningful sentences like “materialism is true” can arise if materialism is true, since that only presumes what needs to be proven, namely, that the meaning of THAT sentence is consistent with materialism even though no such thing seems yet to have been proven.

5) Deterministic implications also generate self-defeat. It is quite common for materialists to go so far as to deny free will entirely. Free will is a stubborn citizen that does not submit to the natural laws asserted by reductive materialists. It doesn’t fit in Newton’s laws, or Einsteins theories or in Quantum Theory. It seems to operate, literally, “free” from all of those. In free will, the individual is himself a sufficient and irreducible cause of at least some of his actions. Those actions are his own. And he could have done otherwise. And he is personally responsible for at least some of them. But not everyone believes in free-will. Some folks are determinists, for scientific, philosophical or theological reasons. Determinism says there is no free-will. Reductive materialists are overwhelmingly fond of determinism. So in their view, all states of affairs are caused by prior non-free forces. Now, here’s the problem. If a materialist asserts that “there is no free will” and indeed there is no free will, then that very sentence was forced onto his lips and he had no choice in the matter. He is a coerced witness, and so his testimony should be thrown out of court. He had no ability for rational deliberation since he had to say, do, think, and believe everything that was forced on him. His claim is no more meaningful than if a computer program is made to say, “I’m not a computer, I’m a real boy. I want to sing and dance.” The computer doesn’t “mean” that; it is just rendering the text that was typed into it. Likewise, no person ever “meant” anything, even if they are uttering things like, “There is no free will.” If materialistic determinism is true and the mind-brain identity theory nullifies free will, then that very statement asserting determinism should not be trusted since it is coerced testimony. It was drawn without rationality, without free deliberation, devoid of semantic content, apart from any intentional attitude, and forced upon the witness by a mysterious cloud of unthinking mindless prior forces.

In conclusion, these are just a few reasons to object to simplistic materialism, and the mind-brain identity theory specifically. I have not given a positive case for dualism specifically. But it has been shown here that the mind-brain identity theory is highly problematic.

According to the reactions from various pro-choice and liberal camps to the recent Hobby Lobby decision, one would think it’s the job of employers to involve themselves in the private matters of women’s personal sexual choices. Under the aegis of the Healthcare mandate conservatives should GET BACK INTO women’s uterouses. Never mind the previous logic that said we are supposed to stay out of their bedrooms and uterouses and not interfere in whatever they want to do with their body. In response we can say that if it’s our money they are demanding then we should get to choose how it’s spent. If they don’t want interference in their bedroom then they shouldn’t steal our wallet and hide it under their sheets.

hume
You might have heard of David Hume the empiricist, or David Hume the skeptic, or David Hume the atheist humanist, or David Hume the rational anti-religious critic. But have you heard of David Hume the deist? Beneath all the others labels for David Hume, some accurate some not, the 18th century Scottish Philosopher was some brand of theist or deist. He has famously argued against the possibility/knowability of miracles, so it might be a stretch to call him a theist–in the modern sense of the term. But Hume makes some telling statements in “The Natural History of Religion” that show he is not so easily assimilated into the contemporary anti-theistic fervor of some of the New Atheist and Militant atheist camps.

In Natural History of Religion Hume sets out to give an account of religion as it ties into the “universal and essential properties of human nature.” He contrasts “vulgar,” “superstitious,” and “popular” religion from more sophisticated God-belief (pg. 41, 73, 76). He cautiously avoids any specific appeal to miracles, that is, except for one. Hume grants as a point of rational induction that the various “designs” of nature point back to a supreme designer.

He says, “the whole frame of nature bespeaks an intelligent author; and no rational enquirer can, after serious reflection, suspend his belief a moment with regard to the primary princples of genuine theism and religion.” (Authors Intro., 21). Whatever else may come of religion among the diverse and sometimes ignorant masses, it remains true–in Hume’s view–that a designing Deity is a sound inference from the evidence of nature. Indeed he argues over the course of the book that mankind tends to corrupt that core religious/theistic instinct; religion may be pure and true but can “easily be perverted” (Ibid.).

Not only does Hume favor monotheism, he considers it a more enlightened form of religion than polytheism. He affirms a religious evolution view wherein man first imagines the higher powers as “groveling and familiar” characters before conceiving of the sophisticated and simple monotheism found among enlightened races (ch. 1, pg. 24).

Later Hume makes a telling point about applying critical thought (he terms “philosophy”) to religion. I will quote him at length to give a sense of his context as well as his claims.

Many theists, even the most zealous and refined, have denied a particular providence, and have asserted, that the Sovereign mind or first principle of all things, having fixed general laws, by which nature is governed, gives free and uninterrupted course to these laws, and disturbs not, at every turn, the settled order of events by particular volition. From the beautiful connexion, say they, and rigid observance of established rules, we draw the chief argument for theism; and from the same principles are enabled to answer the principal objections against it. But so little is this understood by the generality of mankind, that, whatever they observe any one to ascribe all events to natural causes, and to remove the parituclar interposition of a deity, they are apt to suspect him of the grossest infidelity. A little philosophy, says lord Bacon, makes men atheists: A great deal reconciles them to religion. For men, being taught by superstitious prejudices, to lay the stress on a wrong place; when that fails them, and they discover, by a little reflection, that the course of nature is regular and uniform, their whole faith totters, and falls to ruin. But being taught, by more reflection, that this very regularity and uniformity is the strongest proof of design and of a supreme intelligence, they return to that belief, which they had deserted; and they are now able to establish it on a firmer and more durable foundation.” (ch. VI., pg. 42)

Hume has a lot going on here. First, we might need to parse out his use of “theism.” He does not offer any distinctives from deism, so he might mean by theism “god exists” or “belief in God.” If that God turns out to have engineered nature like a great watch and then he left it untouched to run on its own, then that particular form of theism would be “deistic” in nature. Second, Hume shows his generally low view of the masses. Throughout the whole book Hume throws verbal darts at the various “barbarous” and “vulgar” “wretches” that are the unenlightened masses. He is quite discriminatory, biased, and classist. This might be attributed to his education, plus his English affiliations, and his era–he wasn’t exactly standing in the high tide of human rights. Altogether, those features might be enough to infuse in Hume an air of intellectual superiority. Third, Hume has argued in the broader course of this book that these “barbarous” peoples take an otherwise responsible and reasonable theological/religious sentiment and abase it with polytheistic and superstitious corruptions. In particular, they decline the sublime and rational inference of a designer and turn instead to all sorts of anthropomorphic forces that they can manipulate for gain and with whom they can superstitiously appease their irrational and immoral interests. Fourth, the deity he has in mind is a “supreme intelligence.” The logic, summed up, is this: Premise 1: Elements in nature are designed such as the “regularity” and “uniformity” of nature (pg. 42), the “beauty of final causes” (ch. VI, pg. 41), the apparently “destined” finery of the human hand (Ibid.). Premise 2: Design implies a designer. Conclusion: Therefore nature manifests evidence of a grand designer. Hume, therefore, dignifies the design argument, natural theology, and in prescient terms, a theological application of Intelligent Design.

To be sure, Hume does not give just any monotheism a pass. He does see monotheism as a cleaner or more rational belief, in itself, than polytheism. But he allows some stiff criticism to come through such that he is not any sort of orthodox Christian (see, ch. XIII, footnote 1, pg. 68-69). Yet, without stretching credulity, he might be a nominal or unorthodox Christian. He says, “nothing indeed would prove more strongly the divine origin of any religion than to find (and happily this is the case with Christianity) that it is free from contradiction, so incident to human nature” (ch. VI, pg. 45). Very interesting!

In the concluding pages of this short treatise, Hume gives an even clearer approval of the design inference. He calls people “barbarous and ininstructed” who do not see a “sovereign author in the more obvious works of nature.” (Ch. XV, pg. 74). He adds,

[I]t scarcely seems possible, that any one of good understanding should reject that idea, when once it is is suggested to him. A purpose, an intention, a design is evident in every thing [sic]; and when our comprehension is so far enlarged as to contemplate the first rise of this visible system, we must adopt, with the strongest conviction, the idea of some intelligent cause or author” (ibid.).

Bear in mind that Hume has nowhere in this book called himself a deist, but his favorable treatment of God-belief is everywhere consistent with deism, specifically pointing out an intelligent designer at back of nature.

But Hume goes on in the same passage.

[T]he uniform maxims, too, which prevail throughout the whole frame of the universe, naturally, if not necessarily lead us to conceive this intelligence as single and undivided, where the prejudices of education oppose not so reasonable a theory. Even the contrarieties of nature, by discovering themselves everywhere, become proofs of some consistent plan, and establish one single purpose or intention, however inexplicable and incomprehensible” (ibid.).

Hume could hardly be clearer in his affirmation of natural theology. Hume is at least a deist, and perhaps a qualified theist with protestant Christian leanings (he rejects the eucharist, and is averse to the Catholic church, ch. X, XI, pgs. 52, 55-56).

*All quotations are from: David Hume, A Natural History of Religion. H.E. Root, ed. and intro. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1956, reprint 1957.

My personal Bible study has taken me to the book of Job. I’ve been feeling a little like Job lately, and have always wondered what in the world am I supposed to do with those 30-some chapters between the stage-setting beginning and the divine resolution in the end. The question still troubles me since about half of that middle material is still supposed to be understood as bad advice. But here too is where it gets interesting.

Job is wisdom literature. Wisdom literature refers to that genre of Scripture dedicated to the mysterious but desperately needed proficiency between the black and white letters of the law. To understand wisdom literature it helps to contrast it with the equally instructive genre of law. It is not the same genre as law, but neither are these genres enemies. They might be thought of as brothers with different points of emphasis. There are no “ten commandments” of wisdom literature, as that would blur the firm specific demands of law with the fluid contextual principles of wisdom. Wisdom is not so much about “what to do” as it is about how best to do it. It is not just about the right ends but also about the right means. A biblically well-rounded person will be obedient to and versed in the law, but also wise in how he goes about applying it. Wisdom might be thought of as the art of living, and law as the science of living. Wisdom is the skill for navigating the gray areas in life; law is the judgment between the black and white areas of life. Wisdom gives general principles, law gives commands. Both elements are indispensable for righteousness.

My own understanding of the wisdom literature has been shaped primarily by the other books of wisdom lit., Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes and Song of Solomon. I have seen a wide ranging landscape of worship in Psalms, the sage parental counsel to young men in Proverbs, the despair of secularism in Ecclesiastes, and the art of romance in Song of Solomon. But Job has, customarily, been filed away in my mind as a book about the problem of evil (i.e., how can a good God exist when there is so much evil in the world). I’ve since come to reject that characterization since the existence of God is never in question in the entire book. Job is not struggling with his belief in God, nor even with his belief in the goodness and justice of God. Great evil has been done to Job and in his simple judicial worldview, he expects blessings to hover about righteous people and cursing about the the unrighteous. His friends agree and erroneously press the point. Yet Job manner of righteousness is qualified. He’s not perfect, nor does He claim to be. Instead, He claims to be right before God–with no unconfessed sin, following proper sacrificial atonement, having kept his standing covenants, and having a pure heart. As such, God deems Him righteous–as a narrative insight, unknown to Job (Job 1:8). Job is left questioning God over how such punishment could rightly befall him when he knows that he has no secret sin, no gross indiscretion, no evil without sacrifice. He does not seem to expect a perfect or easy life, but, come on. This is ridiculous. Job lost everything in a day, and none of his neighbors nor anyone he’d ever known, lost so much so fast while their neighbors look on. He knows God is the rightful judge of all mankind, implying that he still believes that God is just; so Job pleads for a trial before God (Job 23:1-7, et al.)

I think the hardest thing for Job to handle, though, is that God seems distant. God has raised his hand against Job without any answer as to why (Job 12:10). God’s justice seems distant–hence the wicked prosper and the righteous suffer (12:6, 21:7, et al). God doesn’t (yet) answer Job’s distraught prayers, though Job remembers when God used to answer him (12:4). Without any answer from God nor any account in God’s court, Job’s suffering is meaningless agony, wasted pain without redemptive purpose. Job desperately wants relief, but he’s at least as concerned to see his fellowship with God restored. Job cries out because God seems to have abandoned Him, without even a goodbye letter. That kernel in Job’s cries is entirely justified.

It is in this context that the “wisdom” status of this book takes on a unique light. As with other books of wisdom literature, (1) wisdom is characterized as mysterious, “but wisdom–where can it be found? Where is the place of understanding? Mankind does not know its place; it cannot be found in the land of the living” (Job 28:12-13). It is not found in conventional places, and it’s elusive enough to be overlooked. People who claim to be wisdom are not often so. Job does not claim to be wise, but neither do his friends seem so either.

(2) Wisdom is of inestimable value. No gold or silver or precious jewels could have been traded for it. It is beyond value (28:15-19). For Job this fact means that all his suffering might still be worthwhile if he gains wisdom from it.

(3) Wisdom is not so much an “arriving” as a “pursuing.” Chapter 28 continues with Job describing a worldwide investigation into the whereabouts of wisdom. He states how the deep does not contain it, nor the sea engulf it. The birds do not know where it is (28:21). Yet interestingly, in 28:22, Job says, “Destruction and Death say, ‘With our ears we have heard a rumor about where it can be found.” Akin to Ecclesiastes, the book of Job seeks wisdom amidst existential crisis. Job’s horrible conditions might possibly be worthwhile since his proximity to death and destruction give him some hint of that elusive wisdom.

4) Wisdom is found in God alone. In the next verse Job turns to say, “God understands the way to [wisdom] and he alone knows its place. For he looks to the ends of the earth and observes everything under the heavens.” God being master of all knowledge is the sovereign director of all things. He created all the operations of the earth and it is man’s role to discover those ways and align with them (28:24ff). That is wisdom, skillful living. God has grounded all wisdom, and by pursuing God man approaches that sacred ground. In Job’s terms, man arrives at wisdom by fearing the Lord, “the fear of the LORD–that is wisdom, and to turn away from evil is understanding” (28:28).

The book of Job is genuine wisdom literature. It is other things too–a theology of suffering, a historical narrative, ancient literature–but it is also a story of one man’s pursuit of wisdom. We can glean wisdom for living by understanding his story, his travails, and how God never left him, even when the answers weren’t forethcoming. God does arrive in the end, and the end proves far greater than the beginning. Yet we are in the in-between, there with Job, crying out to God for answers to our hurts and harms.

To carry this point further, simply pleading with God is not itself the heart of wisdom. Only when our pursuit of God is to “fear the Lord” are we beginning in wisdom. Fortunately, we can desperately pursue God, craving His fellowship, needing His answers, longing for His favor even as we revere His Holy name. Job’s message to us is not quite as “romantic” or buddy-buddy as our contemporary Gospel expressions might prefer. Job does not say, “the love of God is the beginning of wisdom.” Job’s sufferings cannot be redeemed if God were just a pleasant happy hippy. Our God, Job’s God, is also the rightful judge of the universe. God is to be feared. Yes, He is to be loved, but also to be feared. God is not a “tame lion” (C.S. Lewis). And we aren’t loving the true God if we love a non-judgmental, passive, sin-accommodated Divinity excusing just about anything for the sake of having his friends near Him again. That is not God but an idol (i.e., Buddy Jesus, or Moralistic Therapeutic Deism, etc.). God’s love for us is fierce and jealous. His plan of salvation is audacious and amazing. He wants us all to Himself. And He wants us to become something different from what we were, to change us from the inside out. In Job’s story, he never seems to question whether God has the right to do what He wants, to issue pain and punishment as He sees fit. Job seems to trust that God has His reasons, but Job is dying to hear even some of those reasons since this pain seems a lot like punishment and he can’t think of anything he’s done to deserve this.

Job is indeed wisdom literature. As we read this book, we too might take a heartening look at our own lives. Job says that destruction and death have heard the rumors of where wisdom is found (28:22); no other natural phenomenon is like that. All other realms of nature are ignorant of wisdom. The author of Ecclesiastes concurs, “the heart of the wise is in the house of mourning” (Ecc 7:4). I do not think Job is celebrating death or destruction as such. He is not morbid, though he is melanchonic. He is saying, I think, that we should be contemplating the brevity of life, reckoning upon our own mortality and deep vulernability, feeling the weight of human sorrow, for somehow in that punishing position our human hearts are softened enough for wisdom to take root and sprout. It’s blossom is clear when men obey the Lord, the evidence of understanding. Job learned a new level of “fearing the Lord,” and the Lord, and the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. 

 

I’m finding it common among atheists to argue in a circle. It goes something like this.

Naturalism proves naturalism therefore naturalism.

This is obviously invalid and nary an atheist can be found who would support such clearly circular reasoning.

However, if you dig a little you can often find that when an atheist has a purported disproof of theism/religion/christianity and he uses “science” as his evidence he often is importing methodological naturalism (MN) somewhere in the mix.

MN should not be treated as evidence since MN isn’t operating as evidence here. It is a method of interpreting evidence, and even a method of perception, assumption, expectations, and thinking. If someone wants to show that naturalism is true one cannot call it an argument to prejudge in one’s methods that there are no supernatural causes. But that’s what MN does if it is used as evidence. It is a prejudicial premise, and therefore circular. It’s invalid. It would be just as invalid for a jury to render a ruling before having the trial.

Negative atheism, also called “soft atheism,” “weak atheism,” or just “atheism” refers to the state of lacking belief in any god/s whatsoever. You might say it is unbelief in God whereas theism is belief in God. I previously posted on this subject before, quibbling over the definition of atheism. In short, I argued there that “atheism” does not classically mean this “negative” sort of atheism, but rather the “positive” sort which makes a claim about reality, namely, that no God exists. Without rehashing that whole case, these two brands of atheism can be contrasted as such.

Positive atheism–belief in no God. Makes a claim about (extra-mental) reality. Carries its own respective burden of proof. It’s reference point is the world/cosmos/reality. Classical distinct from all forms of agnosticism.
Negative atheism–no belief in God. Makes a claim about psychology. Does not carry its own burden of proof. It’s reference point is one’s own mind/belief system. Practically indistinguishable from agnosticism.

For clarification, agnosticism is the position of having no knowledge of God, or, more specifically, the belief that knowledge of God is either impossible (hard/strong agnosticism) or it is possible but not yet actual (soft/weak agnosticism). Agnosticism has sometimes been contrasted with negative atheism by pointing out that agnosticism refers to knowledge and negative atheism refers to belief, but that may be a distinction without a difference since all knowledge is some kind of true belief (i.e., warranted true belief, justified true belief, etc.). Belief an knowledge are coextensive regarding our own cognitive part in the process. A belief is knowledge if it’s true and justified/warranted. Knowledge is always a state of belief. The human part in both of these is identical, both are states of belief. Agnostics don’t believe in a God, and neither do negative atheists. Agnostics don’t know there is a God, and neither do negative atheists. Negative atheism entails agnosticism, and agnosticism entails negative atheism. One cannot be one without the other since all of agnosticism’s “non-belief” is equally a state of “no-knowledge” of God (existing). It is literally impossible to know that God exists and yet refrain from believing that God exists. It is equally impossible to lack belief in God without also lacking knowledge of God (existing).

Returning to the issue of negative versus positive atheism, I’ll suspend the argument, for the moment, that the term “atheism” most properly fits just one of these (positive versus negative) and, instead, allow that both of these ideas are currently expressed under the broad domain of “atheism” today. Many self-proclaimed atheists do in fact mean either or both of these when they say “atheism.”

Why then would a person choose negative atheism over positive atheism?

1) Less to defend
In refraining from any claim about extra-mental reality, one does not have to defend any truth claims about anything outside of his own psychology. If he, in fact, does not believe in any God then he is an atheist. It is directly and immediately known by that particular atheist that his atheism is true. He claims to not believe in God, and, in fact, he does not believe in God. No reference is made to the outside world and so his view is virtually beyond dispute. To contest his claim someone else would need to somehow knows his mind better than he does, so he could honestly say, “Ugh uh, you do too believe in God!” Negative atheism is falsifiable but not by any classical arguments for God’s existence, or through Intelligent Design, or fulfilled prophecy, etc. If it is falsified it is through lie detection; the person claims he does not believe in God when in fact he does believe in God.

2) Humility
It has been argued that one would have to know everything there is to know before one can rightly claim to know that God does not exist. Atheism, in that case, would be a universally negative claim about reality–asserting that in all of reality there is no God. The negative/soft/weak atheist may have such humility that that he is averse to that bold position. Candidly, none of us human beings knows everything. And universal negatives (i.e., “No God exists [in all of reality]“), with that size and scope, are notoriously hard to prove. By holding to negative atheism one can don the modest position that God’s existence or non-existence is still uncertain. Remaining agnostic on the issue, the individual makes no knowledge claim that either God exists or God does not exist but simply refrains from belief in God. Sure, there may be a tactical advantage here–having less to defend for the sake of one’s own intellectual/rational integrity. But there is also a bit of humility here since one is allowing that there is more to be learned before he can rightly claim to know (justifiably believe as true) that God exists or that God does not exist. Perhaps the individual is waiting for the Encode Project to advance genetic studies a little further, or maybe he’s waiting for neuropsychologists to find the “god nodule.” Or maybe he thinks God’s existence is almost certain, but lacking certainty he refrains from intellectual assent. Whatever the reason, negative atheism can carry a tone of humility admitting that we don’t know everything.

3) Problems with Positive Atheism
One may opt for negative atheism because positive atheism seems problematic. Obviously, the negative atheist does not think theists (*I’m referring to those who believe in any God/s whatsoever) have made their case. But they are also implicitly admitting that positive atheists haven’t made their case either. It could be that God’s existence seems highly unlikely, but still plausible if, for example, a few distinct prophecies from the ancient world are vindicated with further study. Or, a person may have such a compelling personal experience to where he or she is epistemically justified in God-belief. That might not be good public evidence, but perhaps it’s minimally adequate private evidence. A person may grant that God’s existence is a coherent, clear, and plausible belief, but there just isn’t yet enough of the extraordinary evidence to merit that extraordinary belief. In this case, the positive atheists might not have defended their case well enough to win over the reasonably-minded negative atheists (assuming negative atheists are reasonable).

So there are some sensible reasons to choose negative atheism over positive atheism. There are still some weaknesses to negative atheism, some of them quite troubling.

1) Negative Atheism Counteracts Positive Atheism
As noted above, negative atheism implicitly claims that positive atheists haven’t made their case. The problem here can be practical, atheists may be a growing minority but they are still not such a populace as to find it an expedient luxury to revel in disparate diversity. Those atheists who want a stronger voice for their cause and want greater respect in the marketplace of ideas might not like the idea of divvying up their influence among the “Nones” (i.e., those who claim no religion for themselves). In my experience, most negative atheists tend to think (generally) well of positive atheism and positive atheists themselves. Yet by refraining from positive atheism they are implicitly asserting that there just isn’t enough evidence in front of them to merit denying God’s existence. Refraining from belief is epistemically less expensive than believing something. We are all the time refraining from belief about things, for example, lacking an opinion on 17th century cooking techniques with vinegar. We just don’t know, don’t care to know, or have no informed opinion on the matter. We neither believe, nor disbelieve much of anything in that area. And frankly, most all potential knowledge there is in the world today is beyond our current grasp so that we are “negative atheists” (metaphorically speaking) on almost all of it. To (reasonably) believe something is not the case (akin to positive atheism), one needs a reason, and that entails at least some informed opinion or knowledge about that matter. Negative atheism suggests that positive atheists have no given sufficient reasons to justify that stronger step of believing that reality lacks God.

2) Negative Atheism still carries an implicit burden of proof
In my experience with negative atheists, they have often claimed to have no burden of proof and I, as a theist, am challenged to shoulder my burden of proof for theism. I gladly accept that challenge but also retort that negative atheists seem to be carrying a burden of proof as well. Here’s how. Is negative atheism reasonable? If yes, then that means it has it’s respective reasons so that, ideally, whoever is a like-minded, reasonable person, he or she should also be a negative atheist upon seeing the same sorts of evidence and experiences for themselves. If negative atheism is not reasonable, then, of course, reasonable people do not have sufficient reason to agree with it. I have yet to find a negative atheist who thinks his or her brand of atheism is unreasonable, unjustified, or somehow a mere “faith” position. Instead, I find negative atheists to be quite courageous in asserting that they have winsome and compelling evidence in their favor suggesting they are vindicated in their non-belief. Strictly speaking, negative atheism makes no claim about extra-mental reality and is only a claim about one’s own personal psychology. In that sense, it has no public burden of proof. But the implicit claim that, “Negative atheism is reasonable” still carries a burden of proof. If it is not reasonable then I literally have insufficient reasons to agree with it.

3) Negative Atheism is Compatible With God’s existence.
An odd implication of negative atheism that it can be true even if God exists. Negative atheism, remember, makes no claims about extra-mental reality but is instead entirely a claim about one’s own psychology. Joe claims for himself, “I lack belief in a God” and to the extent that he does in fact lack that belief then that atheistic claim is true–even if God exists. This isn’t a metaphysical or sophisticated problem, but it is a bit confusing for the English language. It’s tough to communicate well when a person says, “I’m an atheist, and my atheism is true, and God exists.”. This position would make Antony Flew, the original negative atheist (who coined the term), roll over in his grave. Before becoming one of the most famous converts (to deism) in history, Flew was a celebrated atheist who dove deep into the arguments for and against God and though he admitted that classical atheism is the positive sort which claims that “No God exists” he considered himself a negative atheist, largely equivalent to agnosticism (see his respective definitions of “atheism” and “agnosticism” in his “Dictionary of Philosophy”). He did not revert simply to agnosticism however because, and he would admit this, he still believed there was probably no God. He had an underlying positive atheism. But he employed negative atheism for public debate, writing, and thought experiments (in his realm of philosophy and occasionally parapsychology–he was a “debunker”). This implication, however, shows that negative atheism is conceptually confusing unless one’s negative atheism were pretty much “storefront” to a deeper abiding commitment to positive/classical atheism.

4) A clearer term for this category already exists
Agnosticism was coined in the late 19th century (1889) by Thomas Huxley to describe his lack of knowledge regarding God’s existence or non-existence. In many ways he allied with atheists and other “nones” but he had to forge a new term to describe his particular brand of non-theism. Before Huxley, there was a wide range of skeptics who likely overlapped significantly or entirely with his agnosticsm, before that term was even coined. Skepticism was a general term for “non-belief,” and that could be applied to anyone who refrained from believing any claim. A person could be skeptical of math doubting the reality, existence, or coherence of mathematical concepts. One could be skeptical of one’s senses, distrusting the existence or reliability of sense perception. A person could be skeptical of morality, doubting whether any moral claims can be known as true. One could be partially or totally skeptical (at least in theory). One can employ skepticism as an overall disposition (Cartesian skepticism) or as a temporary method (methodological skepticism) Regarding God belief, a person would be theologically skeptical if he or she refrained from God-belief. The term/phrase “Theological skepticism” already described the entire domain of negative atheism, long before people ever started calling themselves “negative atheists,” and it did so without any confusing consequences like, “God exists and my brand of atheism is true.” The self-proclaimed “atheist” who means “negative atheism” would do well to describe himself instead as “theological skeptic” or, if underneath it all he really does believe there’s no God, he could also call himself a “positive atheist” or, just “atheist” since “atheist” classically means belief that there’s no God distrusting all claims of God’s existence.

So we see that negative atheism is not a simple glowing option, it has some drawbacks. Of course, it may turn out that theism or positive atheism have the better case and so negative atheism would be unjustified either for being contradicted by theistic evidences or for being too meek and mild in light of atheistic evidences. Either way, negative atheism can be a conceptual middle ground for those unsure of either theism or positive atheism, but they’d do well to call themselves “theological skeptics” as that is a clearer phrase to describe one’s views on God, and because they might otherwise come across as duplicitous–wanting the sexy rebellious implications of “atheism” but without the intellectual risks involved therein (i.e., having a burden of proof).