Usually, when we talk about apologetics we’re talking about Christians’ attempts to make the existence of their god seem less ludicrous. But today, we have a rare treat: an evangelical named Thaddeus Williams is going to try to make the existence of a soul sound less ludicrous. And he does it by using the worst imaginable logical fallacies!
Oh, yes. Folks, dis gon’ b gud.
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Thaddeus Williams is back with a funny new apologetics rap
Earlier today, I found this post on The Gospel Coalition (TGC), where the truth goes to die. It’s called “9 Proofs You’re More Than Matter,” and it’s by Thaddeus Williams.
We’ve run into Williams before. He wrote the awful social justice chapter of Before You Lose Your Faith! (Get it for free here!) He’s a product of his tribe’s objectively-worst apologetics teachings. Of interest, though, his blurb on TGC stresses his legal background a lot more than the book does:
He has taught jurisprudence at Trinity Law School, worldview studies at L’Abri Fellowships in Switzerland and Holland, and ethics for the Blackstone Legal Fellowship and the Federalist Society in Washington, D.C.
I’m not in the least surprised to learn this. If anything, evangelical lawyers glom even harder onto fallacies and bad arguments more than regular evangelicals. Lawyers learn to win arguments. Uncovering the truth is a very distant umpteenth in priority there. So I’ve no doubt Williams can spin circles around unprepared opponents.
And now, let’s run through his apologetics arguments. By the way, I will be referring to “the soul” in this post. He doesn’t dare actually say the S-word himself. I think he knows better. But he does want us to think that there’s some definitely ethereal quality about humans that cannot be detected or measured, and that his god created us to have that quality.
(I could just as easily refer to that quality as “spirit,” another term our cowardly lawyer refuses to use. But that term has far too many other meanings, while “soul” is more easily understood.)
Bad Apologetics Argument One: An Appeal to Choice Making
You’ll be shocked to know that your ability to make choices only exists because Yahweh decided to create humans in his own image:
We make a thousand choices every day. If you were created in the image of a choice-making Mind, this comes as no surprise. Can meaningful choices be reduced to a natural world that operates by machine-like determinism (or random quantum indeterminism)? If we could so reduce freedom, then no one chooses to believe or disbelieve in God—and the entire debate is reduced to the involuntary buzzing of biological machines.
Hm! Well, I guess that tears it. Let’s get our asses to (King Thaddeus’) church!
Oh, wait. This is just a logical fallacy, an Argument from X. Let me rephrase it:
- Humans make choices.
- Only Yahweh could have made us that way, because he makes choices too!
- Therefore, humans have souls.
We also know a lot about how and why humans make choices. Some stuff we do isn’t much of a choice at all: breathing, blinking, digesting food, etc. Our brains do that stuff on autopilot. Some stuff we have a little leeway in deciding: when to relieve ourselves, when to eat and how much to ingest, what clothes we’ll wear, etc. And still other stuff seems to be entirely done on a whim, like playing games alone. With still other stuff, like soothing and coping mechanisms, things get a little murky, with both biochemical pushes and conditioning determining how well we’ll handle bad stuff.
Scientists are getting closer all the time to figuring out how and why humans (and other primates) make decisions. So far, they haven’t had to invoke anything imaginary yet. So far, it’s all just basic evolutionary science.
It’s very sad to me that Thaddeus Williams can’t envision any other options beyond “machine-like determinism” and a magical wizard friend who made us to make choices just like he does. (That’s a false dilemma too, by the way!)
What a strange poverty of imagination. But he has not, in any way, demonstrated that humans have some ethereal component that exists apart from our bodies.
Adding to Thaddeus Williams’ difficulties
There’s nothing wrong with a little automatic pilot, either. In fact, I was reading yesterday about how sperm figure out where an egg is in a human body. Did you know they use something called chemotaxis to navigate? That means they can “smell” the chemicals around the egg, and they head toward it. And did you know that they have to grow and change a bit first (in a process called capacitation) so that’s possible? Yes! They’re not pregnancy-causing right after ejaculation. How cool is that? And no gods are required for any of it to happen.
Let’s also remember Calvists’ doctrines of predestination and “irresistible grace” here, too. According to them, nobody has a choice about being Christian or not. If their god decides to turn people into his zombified followers, they shall become so whether they like it or not.
And I’ve got to ask: How can Yahweh make choices when he’s perfect and knows everything? What choices does he make? Does he decide to heal someone’s child of cancer, but only if they pray super-hard for it and get lots of Facebook likes?
Most of all, how does human choice-making indicate that Yahweh, out of all kabillion gods we’ve ever invented, had a hand in making us that way? Choice-making isn’t signed by any deities, after all. It could have been Thoth, or even Dionysius while he was on one of his benders. Or it could have been one of the gods that humans have all but forgotten, or one long-forgotten. Heck, maybe it was Arnie the Giant Incredible Invisible Magical Pink Unicorn!
Williams happens to think that Yahweh must have created humans because he himself is an evangelical. However, the problem with Arguments from X is that they never establish a link between the appealed-to object and the cause. They just insist in their conclusion that this link exists.
Bad Apologetics Argument #2: “Oughts”
Get ready for another Argument from X:
Can normative values like good and evil come from the material world of mere descriptive facts? Can nonmaterial realities like ought-ness sprout into existence from the soil of material is-ness?
Then he offers a quote that doesn’t actually support his premise:
As Don Delillo asks in his novel White Noise,
They can trace everything you say, do, and feel to the number of molecules in a certain region. . . . What happens to good and evil in this system? Passion, envy, and hate? Do they become a tangle of neurons? . . . What about murderous rage? A murderer used to have a certain fearsome size to him. His crime was large. What happens when we reduce it to cells and molecules?
This appears to be his piss-poor argument:
- Humans tend to believe in concepts like good and evil, and they feel emotions.
- These are all completely ethereal qualities that can’t possibly be detected in “cells and molecules.”
- Therefore, humans have an ethereal component that is separate from their bodies.
If Thaddeus Williams actually learned some science instead of wasting his life polishing apologetics turds so he can tickle evangelicals’ itching ears, then maybe he wouldn’t sound quite so ignorant.
In fact, that’s the exact logical fallacy he’s guilty of using here.
Dismantling the Argument from Ignorance
An Argument from Ignorance insists that something is true because the arguer can’t figure out how it’d work otherwise. Thaddeus Williams has no clue how people evolved concepts of good and evil, nor in how our brains and brain-chemicals and hormones create and shower emotions upon us. To him, goddidit.
However, scientists have some good ideas about how morality might have evolved naturally. None of their models require the intervention of any gods. For that matter, before we were even actually modern humans, we helped each other in all kinds of ways.
As for our emotions, they are floods of chemicals from our brains and other organs. And yes, we can detect them:
Let’s say you have an emotionally charged experience or memory. That experience activates the brain’s limbic system, where it gets filtered and associated with other information and catalyzes a chain-reaction release of ligands (peptides, hormones, etc.). [. . .]
But once these peptides have been released, what do they do? They start swimming. If you were to watch this process under an electron microscope you would be able to see individual peptides heading directly for their target receptors, much like sperm cells wiggling toward egg cells, but much faster.
JFC, this is just so embarrassing for Thaddeus Williams. Both refutations so far have taken me about ten minutes of searching and reading. I’m so embarrassed for him, that he puts these ridiculously stupid arguments forward as PROOF YES PROOF of the soul or something.
Nope. They’re PROOF YES PROOF, everybody!
Lordy, this is bad: Bad Apologetics Argument #3, the fucking laws of fucking physics
My spine is cringing right out of my body. Here’s Argument 3:
Physical stuff follows physical laws. Your mind, however, can operate by nonphysical laws of logic. Take, for example, the logical law of transitivity: If A = B and B = C then A = C. Is this law physical? If so, what’s its chemical makeup? What genetic mutation in our evolutionary past produced the law of transitivity or the law of noncontradiction or any other logical law?
Oh god, this poor man. He really thinks this Argument from Ignorance is PROOF YES PROOF of a soul.
Let’s reword it first, though, as is our new custom:
- The laws of physics and matter dictate how the physical world runs.
- Human minds totally don’t follow the physical laws, which he is sure is true because he simply can’t figure out how we know the laws of physics and matter are real.
- Therefore, the soul is real.
By the way, the quoted paragraph, like the one above from #2, are the entirety of his arguments. I’m doing him a service he doesn’t bother to do for us in arranging his arguments to flow like actual arguments. We must infer all of this. And I’m doing my best to steelman him before I eviscerate his flimsy bad reasoning.
The guy thinks he’s oh so impressively smart in smarmily asking if “our evolutionary past” produced the law of fucking transitivity. (That means that if A=B and B=C, then A=C.)
Dismantling this new Argument from Ignorance
Thaddeus Williams needs a god to have created everything, including the laws of physics, logic, and matter itself. He doesn’t like the idea that those laws are just natural parts of our universe, which looks exactly like one without gods. So he’s asserting that non-Christians must think that humans somehow created those laws, or that evolution wrought them.
Yes, he’s got that whole Law of Conservation of Worship going on here. I mean, if Yahweh didn’t make those laws, then someone else must have! Who else would non-Christians pin the job on, if not themselves in their arrogance and off-limits-sex-having?
In reality, those laws existed well before humans were humans. They existed before primates came onto the scene, and well before that even. In a universe governed by the laws that govern ours, these laws dictate how matter works. No gods have ever been required for any of them to exist. And no evolutionary process could change them. (Rather, they have in many ways dictated how evolutionary processes work.)
I’ll cover this more in the conclusion in a minute, but a bees-headed assertion like this could only come from an evangelical lawyer who fancies himself a pro-level apologist.
Bad Apologetics Arguments #4 and #5: “Semantics” and “Creativity”
I’m going to put these together, because they’re largely the same thing. He thinks that our ability to read words on a screen and create art means that souls exist:
This article is full of what philosophers call “semantics”—the meaning conveyed through, but not reducible to, the physical syntax. [. . .]
Is every masterpiece on canvas or construction paper—every song, poem, play, dance, or dinner—merely the mechanistic byproduct of matter in motion? Is the artist no more than a bundle of swirling chemicals?
It’s all more ignorance on his part. If he can’t figure out how humans evolved language and art, then obviously his god did it, and obviously these are evidence of the existence of souls.
In reality, the evolution of human language is a favorite topic of study. It’s been so for years. We actually know how syntax and “semantics” interact, and we know that there’s a lot of cultural and social understanding behind it all. That’s why evangelicals can’t say (with any honesty) that they know exactly what their favorite anti-gay clobber verses are really saying: we’re too far removed from 1st-2nd century Middle Eastern culture to know what those specialized words mean anymore.
As for art, why is it bad if an artist (like everyone else) is “no more than a bundle of swirling chemicals?” To me, that makes art even more amazing and meaningful. He appears to think that if he wasn’t created by a real live god, then art can’t be art.
And yet it moves. As far as we’ve ever been able to tell, we’re all just bags of meat, chemicals, old viruses, and genetic code. For all of that, though, we love, we laugh, we create sublime art and architecture, we find common ground, we establish dynasties and countries, we dream big, and we alter the very face of our planet.
If he thinks something besides the meat/chemicals/viruses/genetic code is doing that, it is on him to show us what it is and demonstrate its existence. So far, he hasn’t done any of that.
(Will he surprise us?)
Bad Apologetics Arguments #6 and #7: Consciousness
Next up in The Thaddeus Williams Can’t Google Show, we have him arguing that “intentionality” and “owned experience” PROVES YES PROVES that humans have souls:
Consciousness has the power to be about things (what philosophers call “intentionality”). Could genetic mutations in the concrete world of matter produce something nonphysical like an abstract thought? [. . .]
What does it feel like to fly blind through the darkness [like a bat], sending out sonar shrieks to swoop full speed at an unassuming insect dinner? How do we explore I-ness and what-it’s-like-ness from the unconscious “It” of the physical world?
And again, these are both the same thing. He’s referring here to an evolutionary concept called decoupled cognition, though he very clearly has no clue what that is. The term means that we can think about and imagine stuff that isn’t real, isn’t right in front of us, and maybe isn’t even possible.
Scientists not only know why modern humans can wonder about what it’s like to be a bat, or imagine the Sistine Chapel, but they’ve even figured out what part of the brain does it: the ventrolateral anterior temporal lobes (ATLs). (It’s the stickie-outie bits lower down on either side of the main part. This concludes my official science talk about brain structures.)
And guess what? That part of the brain evolved just like everything else! It’s so amazingly cool! There was a time when our forebears didn’t have it. Modern humans have it, so we can dream and wonder what bats feel like—along with toys, bugs, monsters, superheroes, cars, rats, robots, dogs, Scotland, and even feelings themselves.
Bad apologetics arguments #8 and #9: Meaning and purpose
Our next Argument from X covers “underlying purpose” and “significance.” These, too, feel like the same things, so I’m combining them. Williams writes:
The “It” of the physical world is what philosophers call nonteleological. Physical stuff doesn’t think about underlying purposes. A beaker of mercury doesn’t think, My goal is to boil at 574 degrees. It just does it. Consciousness, however, is teleological. [. . .] Can the purposeless it-ness of the physical world generate the teleological for-ness of the conscious world? [. . .]
How does the significance dimension of our conscious worlds—the why-ness of our existence—emerge from the physical world of mere is-ness? Is Dawkins right that “at bottom, [the universe has] no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but pitiless indifference”?
As I think I’ve demonstrated repeatedly in this post, yes, the “purposeless it-ness of the physical world” can and does generate our desire to set and meet goals, as well as giving us our sense of meaning and significance. Williams’ blithering ignorance about the natural world does not rise to the level of PROOF YES PROOF of his god injecting a spirit, soul, or anything else into human beings.
That last bit is an Argument from Consequences, by the way:
- Gosh, it’d sure suck if the universe has no design or purpose, no good or evil, and is just indifferent to us.
- But our religion says otherwise, and we like that scenario better.
- Therefore, our religion is true.
Unfortunately, he has not once actually demonstrated the existence of anything ethereal and impossible-to-measure about humans. All nine of his arguments fail miserably as “proofs.”
But let’s end with one last logical fallacy: an ad hominem
I love how Creationists misunderstand evolutionary biology so egregiously that they seriously think anyone cares what Charles Darwin thought of his ideas. But it’s another example of the Law of Conservation of Worship. If he wrote the following about some big-name leader of evangelicalism, like Charles Spurgeon, it would rock the entire evangelical world. So Williams naturally thinks this will make non-Christians’ eyes widen in horror and shock while evangelicals sneer with unearned feelings of superiority:
Darwin himself seemed plagued by such problems when he wrote in a personal letter, “The horrid doubt always arises whether the convictions of man’s mind, which has been developed from the mind of the lower animals, are of any value or at all trustworthy. Would anyone trust in the convictions of a monkey’s mind, if there are any convictions in such a mind?”
In a lot of ways, Williams himself is guilty of the same flaw he accuses Darwin of having: his convictions are not trustworthy at all. He can’t show how he knows anything he claims. Instead, he simply asserts his opinions as facts, then ladles logical fallacies across it all to make it sound less ludicrous to evangelicals (who have been carefully trained for centuries to accept this hilariously bad reasoning as PROOF YES PROOF of their claims). The sloppy results are nothing but a house of cards that collapses upon the slightest inquiry.
But we don’t have to depend upon “convictions” to figure anything out. Neither did Darwin. The scientific method, one of humanity’s all-time greatest tools ever, helps us sift our opinions from the real-deal truth of reality. Slowly but surely, the arc of scientific inquiry bends toward truth.
The sad part of the show comes now: Egad, this poor guy
I’ve touched on a lot of science-y stuff today that floors me with its amazing awesomeness. We are absolutely amazing creatures, we humans. Sure, we fuck up sometimes. Maybe we even fuck up a lot of times. But holy cow, we do some stunningly beautiful and compassionate things sometimes. We come up with some truly awe-inspiring ideas and art and inventions. We feel emotions so deeply and intensely that we can even die of it all. It makes me tear up just thinking about it.
Being born as one of WereBear’s cats would definitely be nice, yes. But being a human makes me so incredibly happy as it is. For all the tragedy and scary stuff I’ve faced and endured, a fierce light burns brightly inside me.
But all that sublime stuff comes out of meat. And it’s meat that has, for millions upon unthinkable billions of years, been driven forward with just one directive: adapt and pass on those completely wackadoo genes. All the stuff humans can do has grown out of those adaptations and damned near infinite gene-mixings and -passings. If our beautiful modern brains hadn’t helped us do that, we’d have lost those abilities.
And y’all, no irony here, no sarcasm, not even any poking fun. It completely breaks my heart that Thaddeus Williams is so impoverished in his spirit that he cannot appreciate any of this unless an imaginary wizard made it that way. I’m still gonna make fun of him for this junior-grade set of laughably bad arguments, yes, but know this: there’s a root of sadness and frustration under it all.
As educated as he is, he reminds me of those idiots who think aliens made the pyramids, ya know? They’re so completely locked in their own preconceptions and prejudices that they can’t even imagine that ancient humans could really do all that. I keep wondering what he could have added to our species if he hadn’t been locked up in his own mind that way.
And the really bad news for big-time evangelical lawyer Thaddeus Williams and his apologetics two-step BS
The person who figures out if humans have some ethereal part of ’em that stays around after death will not be a lawyer. It won’t even be an apologist.
Oh, especially it won’t be an apologist. Apologetics is what we get when an evangelical desperately needs their belief system to be literally 100% true, but has no evidence whatsoever to support anything they claim. Apologetics is what evangelicals use instead of evidence, because they have no evidence.
Rather, if anyone ever figures out that we have a soul, it will be a scientist. It will be someone trained to uncover the truth as reality shows it. And that person will almost certainly win a Nobel prize for their work.
(We could say the exact same thing about Creationists. I can’t ever forget that one of the most important modern Creationists ever, Phillip E. Johnson, was a law professor and not anything close to a biologist, just like Thaddeus Williams himself! See also: Project Steve, a bit of poked fun at the fact that most Creationist “scientists” aren’t biologists at all and aren’t qualified in the least to speak about the origins of life or its evolutionary processes and timeline.)
However, Williams is no scientist. Spinning arguments to try to PROVE YES PROVE that people have souls is worse than useless. Who’s even shocked, though? For his entire life, he’s been about being the best, most argument-winning princess at the ball.
The truth would only interfere with that self-perception.
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