A Review of the Gilmore- Rosenberg Debate
The debate between Ralph Gilmore and Alexander Rosenberg on the topic of suffering, morality, and the existence of God was held September 27, 2016, at The Ohio State University in Columbus, Ohio. Rosenberg, Professor of Philosophy at Duke University, affirmed in the first half of the debate the proposition, “Since I know that there is vast human and animal suffering, I know that a benevolent, omnipotent God does not exist.” Gilmore, Professor of Bible and Philosophy at Freed-Hardeman University, affirmed in the second half of the debate the proposition, “The use of suffering as a moral criticism against God implies the absolute moral law of God; therefore, God exists.” Each half of the debate was structured with a twenty minute affirmative and a twenty minute negative speech, followed by a twelve minute affirmative and a twelve minute negative speech, and closed with a four minute rejoinder from each side. This review will recap and discuss the main arguments of each side, and can serve either as a primer before watching or reading the debate, or as a recap and follow up to the debate.
Rosenberg makes clear that the God that he has in mind is the traditional God of theism—omnipotent (all-powerful), omniscient (all-knowing), omnipresent (all-present), and benevolent (all- loving). It is this traditional view of God, the Judeo-Christian concept of God, that he claims is inconsistent with the existence of suffering. Rosenberg says that suffering is unpleasant and nobody wants it; he then gives examples of suffering, such as the Holocaust, starving children, natural disasters, and other terrible diseases. Not only do humans suffer, but there is great animal suffering as well—Rosenberg references examples from the size of mass extinction events down to the stepping on a dog’s tail. The core of Rosenberg’s argument is essentially the classical argument from evil. He does make the distinction that it is not technically the argument from evil but very close to it. If you say that suffering is evil or at least morally bad, which Rosenberg hopes we would, then it is the classical argument from evil. Thus Rosenberg’s main desire for an answer to his argument is a reason God could have for even allowing suffering in the world. He demands a non-begging answer to the question—meaning an answer that does not assume the existence of God. Answers that Rosenberg rejects, that he calls cop out answers, are answers like: “God works in mysterious ways.” “We are too feeble minded to know what the reasons are.” Rosenberg argues that no aims of God logically require the smallest amount of evil. Therefore, if there is even the smallest amount of evil, then there is no God.
To clarify, the classical argument from evil is this:
1. If an all-powerful, all-knowing, all-loving God exists, then evil does not occur.
2. Evil does occur.
3. Therefore, an all-powerful, all-knowing, all-loving God does not exist.
The reasoning given in support of the first premise is usually along the lines that if God is all-powerful, He has the ability to prevent evil; if God is all-knowing, He knows how to go about preventing evil; and if God is all-loving, then He would want to prevent evil. This argument has been used as a logical problem— meaning that it is logically impossible for the traditional God of theism and evil to both exist. However, the logical problem of evil has, for the most part, been abandoned in favor of an evidential argument from evil—meaning that given the amount of suffering in the world it is highly probable that God does not exist. This is the claim that Rosenberg makes—that it is extremely improbable given the existence of suffering that God exists, and therefore the most reasonable thing to believe is that God does not exist. [Gen. Ed. Note: It should be noted that the two propositions in this debate are the affirmation of a strong atheistic and theistic position respectively. Each of the disputants affirmed his proposition as a matter of knowledge. In harmony with the proposition signed, the debaters were not taking an agnostic position or a position of mere probability.]
One of the leading factors in putting the logical problem of evil to rest is the theist’s reply of free will. It is free will of human creatures that allows for the possibility of suffering and evil. Even if it were not a likely answer to the problem of evil, it shows a way in which the traditional God of theism and evil can logically both exist. Rosenberg, however, makes the claim that free will is irrelevant to the discussion at hand. For one, he does not believe in free will because, according to his materialist view, we are just physically determined systems and free will is only an illusion— likely a side effect of being adaptive for survival. But Rosenberg grants free will, for the sake of argument, and claims that God could have still given us free will and arranged a world where there is no suffering to animals, others, or ourselves.
Rosenberg uses the following thought experiment to make his case that free will is irrelevant: Imagine you are taking an arithmetic test with ten simple questions. You can freely choose to write down the wrong answer because you have free will. But now suppose that the stakes are high and you get a $10,000 prize for every right answer and an immediate, painful death for just one wrong answer. The test is so incentivized that we would not use our free will to choose a wrong answer. Rosenberg argues that God could have arranged the world in such a way that, despite our having free will, He could have incentivized our choices so that we only make the morally right choices. Thus we are free and never cause suffering or do evil. So, Rosenberg asks, why did God allow suffering? Rosenberg closes his first affirmative speech by concluding that either God likes suffering since He made so much of it; He does not like us or animals much at all; He does not care how much His creatures suffer; He is into evil, or He does not exist.
There are several criticisms of Rosenberg that could be made here. First, is to reject the thought experiment of the high stakes arithmetic test as a good analogy to free will and the possibility of suffering. To reduce the concept of human free will to an analogy of a simple math test does not do justice to the complexity of the free moral choices that humans make as they are confronted with various decisions. Second, Rosenberg says that for the free will defense to work it must logically necessitate our doing evil. Since the free will defense does not logically require evil—this is what he has shown with the arithmetic thought experiment— then the free will defense is put to rest. However, as Gilmore will point out as well, the free will defense does not need to logically necessitate that evil will occur as a result, but rather that free will must present the real opportunity or potential to make the wrong choice. Again, since Rosenberg has made it clear that his argument is an evidential one (it is highly improbable God exists given suffering in the world) and not a logical one (God and suffering are logically inconsistent), then the theist is making the claim that free will allows the logical possibility for evil, but does not logically necessitate evil. Therefore, while Rosenberg thinks it likely that God could have arranged a world with free will and humans never making a bad moral choice, the theist makes the claim that given free will there is no guarantee that humans will not make bad moral choices, and, therefore we should not be surprised that there is suffering and evil in the world.
Gilmore begins his first negative speech by sharing a quote from Rosenberg’s book: “Knowing the truth makes it hard not to sound patronizing of the benighted souls still under religion’s spell. So from time to time, some of the tone of much that follows may sound a little smug.” Gilmore suggests that it may not necessarily be Rosenberg that is smug, but rather the position of atheism generally. That is, the atheist says he has surveyed the evidence and concluded, for you and me as well, that God does not exist. Gilmore then makes clear that he intends to defend the Judeo- Christian concept of God in the face of the problem of suffering. While suffering is indeed unwanted, Gilmore intends to show how the God of the Bible is compatible with a God who allows suffering.
First, Gilmore establishes what is meant by omnipotence. Rosenberg argues that if God is omnipotent He could have created a free being and prevented any suffering whatsoever. Gilmore says this is mistaken—even God cannot make a free being and guarantee that he will never make a bad or evil decision. Gilmore defines omnipotence as “God can do anything that which can be accomplished by power.” For example, someone might ask, “Can God create a rock so big He cannot lift it?” While this may be troubling to someone hearing it for the first time, we should realize that this is no threat to God’s omnipotence. Creating a rock so big He cannot lift it is a logical contradiction. It is like saying, “Can God create a round square?” Such a thing cannot logically exist and is a contradiction in definition. These kinds of questions are like saying, “Can God blah, blah, blah?” They are meaningless statements that are no threat to His omnipotence.
Another distinction commonly added is that God cannot do anything contrary to His nature—e.g., Hebrews 6:18 tells us that God cannot lie. We should not be surprised by this given His nature, and this inability to lie does not violate God’s omnipotence. Second, Gilmore makes the argument that God does not always get what He wants by distinguishing three aspects of the will of God: (1) God’s ideal will. For example, God wishes that no one should perish. Can man defeat this aspect of the will of God? Yes, there will be those who reject God. (2) God’s circumstantial will. For example, what God has planned to do and has done in the circumstance of our sin. Can man defeat this aspect of the will of God? Yes, he can reject what God has done for him. (3) God’s ultimate will. That is, the punishment of the wicked and the reward of the righteous. This aspect of God’s will cannot be defeated by man. This distinction is helpful as we think about suffering and evil in the world while acknowledging that not every human action is ordained by God. While God’s ultimate will cannot be overcome by humans because we are free agents, we can work against the ideal and circumstantial will of God.
Gilmore next turns to a discussion of animal suffering and introduces several approaches one can take towards creation. He also reduces the evidential force of animal suffering by arguing that animals do not feel pain the same way humans do; pointing out what would happen in an unbalanced ecosystem; and by making the case that the universe is anthropocentric (centered on people). While animals are important and should not be mistreated, it is the human condition that is of greatest concern. It is at this point that Gilmore introduces the concept of soul-making—that is, that the world provides the kind of environment that is conducive to moral development or relationship building with God.
The rest of Gilmore’s first negative speech attacks Rosenberg’s worldview. Topics that are quickly covered are: Rosenberg’s “nice nihilism”—belief that there are no objective moral principles; Rosenberg’s denial of free will and thus by implication intentionality—our ability to have the intention to do anything; and theory of mind—the distinction between the mind and the brain and the difficulty of showing personal responsibility. While Gilmore is trying to show the contradictions of Rosenberg’s worldview, some may become distracted from the main proposition of the argument and not see how it relates. In one sense it may not seem as relevant since Rosenberg has assumed, for the sake of argument: (1) free will, and (2) suffering is a bad state of affairs. However, I believe Gilmore is trying to show that Rosenberg’s worldview is so inconsistent that Rosenberg is not even in a position to be able to make the proposition claim that he is arguing for, and thus, shows the weakness of Rosenberg’s position.
In Rosenberg’s second affirmative speech he begins by saying he fails to see the relevance of much of what Gilmore has said in response. Rosenberg also considers the claim that God does not always get what He wants as incompatible with traditional theism. Rosenberg thinks his thought experiment still stands and needs a satisfactory answer to why God would create a world in which suffering exists. God should only be limited by laws of logic and therefore can lay out the laws of nature however He chooses so as to avoid any suffering. Rosenberg argues that one of the burdens that theism faces is to explain why God, logically speaking, had to choose the laws of nature and the starting conditions that made human and animal suffering unavoidable. Rosenberg also goes on to briefly explain what he means by his term “nice nihilism” since it was brought up by Gilmore. The reason he calls it “nice” is because we were strongly selected for being nice in order to survive and evolve, and therefore, the origin of our morality is a result of evolution rather than an indication of objective moral principles.
Gilmore covers a lot of territory in his second negative speech. Again, he begins by discussing free will and the consequences of true moral autonomy. Gilmore also argues that pain can actually be beneficial, because it helps us realize what is dangerous so we avoid things that may harm us. Gilmore argues that Rosenberg’s thought experiment of the high stakes arithmetic test breaks down because the controlling constraints of being killed if you do not answer a question correctly removes the autonomy of the individual. Also, the free moral decisions of humans do not make God responsible for the suffering that may occur as a result. Just as we cannot guarantee the actions of our children, neither can God guarantee that man will always make free right choices. Gilmore also makes the clarification, as I mentioned earlier, that free will does not logically require evil, but only the possibility of it. In fact, Gilmore points out the Garden of Eden was a place free of suffering, but suffering entered the world because of man’s decisions.
Another important distinction made by Gilmore is that sin is the only intrinsic evil because sin, disobedience to God’s will, is the only thing that can separate us from God and interfere with our relationship building with God. Hurricanes and cancer may be instrumentally evil if they are instrumental in affecting our relationship building with God, but they are not intrinsically evil. Continuing with the idea of soul-making, Gilmore’s main argument for the compatibility of God and suffering is that God made a world that is for relationship building. There are bad things that happen in the world, but it is at least as good as any possible world given the purpose that God had in creating it—i.e. building relationship with God. Gilmore argues that the world should at least meet the following criteria: (1) meet people’s physical needs, (2) allow people to be free, and (3) challenge people socially and morally by allowing people to learn from their environment and support relationship building.
In Gilmore’s short rejoinder he reiterates that God is perfect in all His attributes, that God has endowed us with free will, the only intrinsic evil is sin, and the world is at least as good as any other possible given the purpose that God had in making it. Gilmore again points out that Rosenberg does not believe in free will, intentionality, or the soul. Rosenberg is a monist, and a nihilist, and therefore believes there is only the body, and there is no objective morality. Gilmore closes with saying that Rosenberg may try to define “nice” from a Darwinian perspective, but it is a moral claim, and thus requires a moral argument. Again, I think Gilmore’s intention here is to show that Rosenberg cannot claim to know that God does not exist, because he is not even in a position to make a moral claim, much less the moral judgement that suffering negates the existence of God.
In Rosenberg’s rejoinder he says that he has still not heard answers to his challenges. First, Rosenberg asks why God made all the dangers we face. Second, if God gave us this great gift of free will, why not the greater gift of free will plus eternal happiness in this world? Third, it is not enough to establish that God’s goodness is compatible with the possibility of evil but rather the theist must explain why God made evil actual. And, in order to avoid judgments of morality, Rosenberg has chosen to focus on suffering because we can agree that it is undesirable while we may disagree about deeper fundamentals of ethics. He closes by explaining the distinction between normative and meta-ethics, but says that this is irrelevant to the issue of why God would allow or create suffering.
What the first half of the debate boils down to is Rosenberg making the claim that any suffering is the responsibility of God because He is the one that put the world into place and He should be all-knowing, all-powerful, and all-loving so as to be able to create a world free of suffering. Free will is irrelevant, because God could incentivize all of our decisions so we never make a wrong choice, and suffering and evil never enter the world. Gilmore is making the case that a world that is guaranteed to be free of suffering is not possible. As long as there are free moral agents in that world, there is the real possibility for those moral agents to make a wrong decision. When free moral agents make bad decisions, God is not to blame, but rather the free moral agent that is the source of the decision. It is not God that makes suffering actual, but rather the introduction of suffering and evil through the decisions of man. The only intrinsic evil is sin and God provided an answer to the problem through the death and resurrection of Christ.
The second half of the debate begins with Gilmore affirming the proposition, “The use of suffering as a moral criticism against God implies the absolute moral law of God; therefore, God exists.” Gilmore argues that Rosenberg is a methodological atheist rather than an epistemological atheist. What Gilmore means by this is that Rosenberg follows the method of denying God in his worldview, but he cannot justify his atheism rationally or epistemologically, because to do so would mean being able to explain and know how the universe and life originated. Gilmore’s main argument is:
1. Either theism or physicalism is true.
2. Rosenberg’s physicalism cannot be sustained.
3. Therefore, theism is true.
The second part of his argument is:
1. If there is a universal moral law, then theism is true.
2. There is a universal moral law.
3. Therefore, theism is true.
Gilmore also gives a couple other options for substitutions that can be placed in this kind of argument, called a modus ponens (P implies Q; P, therefore, Q), which all imply theism is true. I suppose the reason Gilmore takes this approach with the first part of the argument is because Gilmore says that Rosenberg has written in one of his books that theism and physicalism are mutually exclusive—meaning you cannot believe both, and only one can be true. Therefore, Rosenberg will accept premise one (“Either theism or physicalism is true.”), and it will be Gilmore’s strategy to defend premise two (“Rosenberg’s physicalism cannot be sustained.”). In regards to the second part of the argument, Gilmore is pointing out that by Rosenberg using the problem of suffering as a criticism of the existence of God, he is making it a moral claim and thus appealing to a moral law; and if there is a moral law, then theism is true.
Gilmore briefly mentions different arguments for the existence of God from natural theology—appealing to nature and common human reasoning rather than divine revelation. These arguments include the cosmological argument (based on cause and effect and the beginning of the cosmos), the teleological argument (based on design found in nature), and the moral argument (if there is a moral law, there must be a moral law giver). It is a version of the moral argument that is the focus of the second half of the debate. Gilmore also emphasizes that truth is found in more than just science. Rosenberg embraces scientism, which means all our knowledge comes from the empirical evidence of science. Gilmore lists a variety of truth claims, and examples of each, from which we can have knowledge. These include: empirical truth, intuitive truth, analytic truth, axiomatic truth, and supernatural truth. This is another point at which we can see the divergent worldviews of Gilmore and Rosenberg in conflict with one another. However, Gilmore is also using it as an opportunity to point out inconsistencies in Rosenberg’s view. For example, Rosenberg’s scientism would entail a rejection of intuitive truth such as the laws of logic. And yet, Rosenberg earlier said that God is only limited by the laws of logic. How can Rosenberg appeal to something which his own view cannot account for?
This brings us to the next step in Gilmore’s argument in which he points out that Rosenberg, by judging the actions of others as undesirable, such as the suffering caused by Hitler, is appealing to a moral standard; and yet, given his nihilism, Rosenberg believes there is no objective morality. Gilmore puts the argument as follows:
1. The action of attempting to evaluate the moral conduct of a person or group implies a moral standard.
2. A moral standard implies the existence of God.
3. Therefore, the action of attempting to evaluate the moral conduct of a person or group implies the existence of God.
Gilmore then takes a moment to ask if Rosenberg is perhaps angry with God. While I agree such a question may be relevant to point out that many times there are personal obstacles of our own baggage that may get in the way of our belief or relationship with God, it distracts from the line of argument that Gilmore is trying to pursue.
Gilmore does quickly return to pursuing his line of thinking regarding moral arguments and spends the rest of his first speech making the case that even though Rosenberg claims to be able to explain where our sense of morality comes from—even if it is not objectively real—his view is inconsistent and cannot adequately explain morality. Gilmore does this by criticizing Rosenberg’s theory of “core morality”—which Rosenberg argues is a result of our natural selection—and the inconsistency between it and Rosenberg’s scientism and nihilism. For example, Gilmore argues that you cannot personify nature to say that it selected the development of moral sense and then excuse yourself from doing so. Gilmore points out that nature is a thing, not a personal agent, and is therefore unable to give us any sense of moral laws. Gilmore closes by saying universal moral law is something that is obvious and evident within us and yet is very difficult for the atheist to explain.
Rosenberg begins his first negative speech by pointing out what he believes to be four mistakes in the proposition as stipulated by Gilmore.
1. Suffering is not being used as a moral criticism but rather a natural fact of creatures.
2. The use of suffering does not imply any moral law.
3. God did not make the morality of His laws.
4. So nothing follows about His existence from morality.
The first two statements are a reiteration of Rosenberg’s point that while the problem of suffering is close to the problem of evil it is not the same. It only becomes a moral criticism when you say that suffering is evil or at least morally bad. However, Rosenberg is going to assume, for the sake of argument, that suffering is morally bad and we ought to mitigate it (again, this is a moral claim). Even so, Rosenberg claims in the third and fourth statement that the existence of moral laws, if there are any, does not entail anything about the existence of God because God did not ordain such laws. Essentially, he is denying Gilmore’s premise: “If there is a universal moral law, then theism is true.”
Rosenberg makes the case that nothing follows about the existence of God from moral law by imagining that there is an 11th commandment: “Thou shalt not inflict suffering.” He goes on to ask why God would choose such a commandment for us. Rosenberg says there are two options: God chose it because it is morally right, or it is morally right because God chose it. As he will point out shortly, this is a version of the well-known Euthyphro’s dilemma from Plato’s dialogue. The dilemma presents us with two options, neither of which is attractive to the theist. For example, if God’s choosing the 11th commandment is what makes it right then the rightness of the 11th commandment is based on nothing but God’s choice. Thus, morality is arbitrary. God could have said the 11th commandment is bad and therefore it would have been bad because God said it. God could have told us “Thou shalt inflict suffering” and this would be right. Such a position is called divine command theory—i.e. whatever God says is good is good, and whatever God says is bad is bad. But, this is not an attractive option given the arbitrariness that it implies and the other possibilities that could have been a result if God had simply decided on a different set of moral standards—e.g., “Thou shalt inflict suffering.” Rosenberg argues that this option actually undermines morality, instead of justifying it, because of its arbitrariness.
What then is the other option? God chose the 11th commandment because God’s good nature recognized the goodness of the 11th commandment, “Thou shalt not inflict suffering,” and thus God chose it because it was morally right. But this implies that the rightness or morality of the 11th commandment is independent of God and His choosing it, and thus independent of His existence as well. If we take this option then there is something independent of God, and therefore God’s existence is not necessarily implied by moral law. Rosenberg argues that the theist is stuck with this dilemma, either morality is arbitrary or morality is independent of God. In oversimplified terms it is the question of which came first, God or morality? It is important to note here that even if we think Rosenberg has given us a bad example with his 11th commandment, the point of the dilemma still stands. We could argue that there are times where it would be good to inflict suffering, for example as Gilmore will suggest, a nurse or doctor giving a shot to help a patient. So as not to get distracted with Rosenberg’s example of the 11th commandment we could just say: “Why did God choose X?” to make the point that the morality of X is either arbitrary or independent of God.
In the remaining part of Rosenberg’s first negative speech he briefly comments on his nice nihilism and brings back the distinction between normative and meta-ethics. Meta-ethics tries to examine the nature of ethics whereas normative ethics are particular ethical theories by which we make ethical judgments. Rosenberg says that he is a utilitarian in making his ethical decisions but that his nice nihilism is a meta-ethical approach in which he describes the development of our sense of morality. However, Rosenberg turns his attention back to the proposition and asks Gilmore to explain what it is about the absolute moral law that makes it moral. Rosenberg says Gilmore cannot take the option of “because God said so” since this would make morality arbitrary in the same way that Gilmore is charging Rosenberg’s nihilism of being arbitrary.
Gilmore makes four points in his second affirmative speech. (1) He responds to the Euthyphro dilemma. (2) He comments on the holiness and severity of God. (3) He points out a problem for utilitarian ethics. (4) He points out the complexity in cellular structures that he believes evolution cannot explain. Gilmore points out that the Euthyphro dilemma is in the context of polytheism. A lawyer is taking his father to court, and Socrates (as expressed in Plato’s dialogues) is asking how the lawyer is justifying his actions and decisions. In a world of many gods, what standard will you go by? Socrates is not addressing a monotheistic God, but it is still a question that needs to be answered. Gilmore says he is not a divine command theorist (something becoming morally good because God says it) but also that the goodness of morality is not something independent of God. Gilmore says it this way: “GOD IS WHO HE IS BECAUSE HE IS. His eternal attributes and His existence are co-eternally bound.” Essentially, Gilmore is arguing that it is a false dilemma that the theist faces, instead there is a way between the “horns” of the dilemma. You do not have to say that morality is arbitrary or that morality is independent of God, rather morality flows or emanates from God’s nature. This may sound like a cop out answer to Rosenberg but it is a satisfying answer to the theist who is more comfortable with statements that God makes like “I AM WHO I AM” (Exodus 3:14). As Gilmore reminds us, we do not understand everything about God, and Christians will be more comfortable with that than Rosenberg.
This leads Gilmore into a brief discussion of the holiness and severity of God. Gilmore makes the case that God should not be treated lightly. What Gilmore is trying to get at is that we should approach the topic with respect and not treat God as easily understood and grasped, and therefore, we should not make flippant claims about what God should or could have done. Gilmore says the divine dilemma is this: “God loves you. He wants a relationship with you. You are a sinner. God cannot dwell where sin is. What is He going to do? He is going to send His Son. This is what He is going to do! He is going to die for us so that we might stand before Him, justified, not on the basis of our own actions, but on the basis of the fact that God loves us” (72).
Gilmore again points out the difficulty and the inconsistency of Rosenberg in making any sort of moral claims. For example, Rosenberg says he is a utilitarian in his ethical decision making. Gilmore says that utilitarianism may be able to judge whether an action gets closer to the goal, like a soccer ball headed for the goal, but the problem is that utilitarianism or any other teleological ethical system cannot define what is the actual goal. How can you define what the goal is of your action if you are a nihilist with no objective standard? In the last few minutes of Gilmore’s second affirmative speech he turns his attention to the complexity of ribosomes and DNA in cells to make the case that it is so complex that evolution cannot explain it. While this diverts from the main topic of discussion, Gilmore is making the point that the complexity of design, especially the smaller you go, cannot be explained by evolution.
In Rosenberg’s second negative speech he makes three main points. First, he argues that much of what Gilmore has to say is not relevant to the proposition at hand. Not only that, but Rosenberg is not sure what Gilmore means by statements such as “God is who He is because He is” and “God’s existence and attributes are co-eternally bound.” Rosenberg argues that his focus has been on the coherence of theism and, particularly in the second half of the debate, the relation between the existence of an absolute moral standard and God’s existence. Second, he discusses Darwinism and natural selection since Gilmore has brought the topic up several times. Basically, Rosenberg says that natural selection is a poor metaphor since the appearance of design is actually the result of blind variation and environmental filtration. By blind variation, he means that there is no guiding force behind the variations that occur over time; and by environmental filtration, he means that this is a passive process in which these variations are just barely good enough to survive to the next generation as the environment works as a sieve to filter out those variations that are less fit for the environment. Third, Rosenberg references Gilmore’s discussion of DNA and RNA and says that the “God of the gaps” has repeatedly been withdrawn as science becomes better at providing the mechanistic explanation of how things work and that the appearance of design or purpose is merely that—appearance. Thus, Rosenberg concludes, appealing to God as the force of design behind something we cannot yet explain scientifically is employed by fewer and fewer theists, because it has repeatedly given way to scientific explanation.
In Rosenberg’s closing rejoinder he argues that Gilmore must pick one of the two alternatives from the dilemma and that he must explain, in logical terms rather than theological terms, what binds God and the moral law together so that it guarantees God’s existence. Rosenberg says that if we need Sunday school and sermonizing to keep us doing right then that is just a social or psychological fact about us, but does not provide a solution to the problem. Rosenberg closes by saying that if we take anything away from the debate it is that the questions we address in theology need to be addressed with the same rigor and clarity that we would use to read IRS regulations or conditions of a mortgage we are about to sign—that we must hold to the same kind of reasoning and logic we use in other aspects of our everyday lives.
In Gilmore’s closing rejoinder he recounts how he has addressed the topic at hand: First, he laid out his argument that either theism or physicalism is true. Gilmore gave several reasons why Rosenberg’s physicalism fails. Second, he talked about Rosenberg’s core morality and made the case that it cannot provide grounds for morality. Third, he talked about the DNA/RNA to make the case that naturalism cannot explain such complexity. Fourth, Rosenberg, as a nihilist, has no source for moral rules. The other part of Gilmore’s argument was that either theism or naturalism is true, and he tried to prove that there is a moral law which also implies theism. Gilmore argues that Rosenberg cannot sustain his case as an atheist. Gilmore recaps that as he talked about God and suffering he talked about people, evil, and the world—and that it was Rosenberg that never addressed these things. Finally, Gilmore addresses Rosenberg’s comments on blind variation and environmental filtration and asks where variation comes from if it is a completely passive process. Without any variation, there is no selection; and if no selection, no evolution. Gilmore closes his last speech by reminding the audience that God is not a moral monster but is the God of love and truth. God loves us, and wants a relationship with us, and some day we will be in a world in which there is no suffering.
The second half of the debate boils down to Gilmore focusing on two strategies: first, challenging Rosenberg’s physicalism; and second, arguing that if there is a moral law, theism is true, and that Rosenberg is implying there is a moral law by using suffering as a criticism for God’s existence. Rosenberg’s strategy is to apply the Euthyphro dilemma to make the case that morality is either arbitrary or independent of God’s existence—and thus moral law is not a guarantee of God’s existence. Gilmore responds by arguing there is a way to escape the horns of the dilemma based on the nature of God, but Rosenberg thinks Gilmore’s answer is not meaningful. The other central topics that are discussed is whether or not a nihilist can ever make any sort of moral claim, and the viability of natural selection as an explanation for biology. Rosenberg argues he can use a normative ethic to make decisions while still maintaining his nihilism, and that evolution has brought us to where we are; Gilmore argues that Rosenberg is inconsistent in any moral claims he makes, and that physicalism fails as a worldview.
As I close out this review of the debate, let me make clear that any criticisms I make are done with the deepest respect. It is easy as an observer of the debate to say Rosenberg or Gilmore should have said one thing or another, while forgetting that the debate participants had to prepare for the unknown, not knowing where exactly the other would go, and to think on their feet as they respond to each other’s challenges. It is much easier to criticize a debate, rather than actually take part. I must also confess that while I was not familiar with Rosenberg before this debate, I have known Gilmore for some time, initially as his student, and have tremendous respect for him personally and for his intellect. Thus, readers should determine for themselves what they think of the debate, even though I will offer my own impression of both participants.
In regards to Rosenberg’s performance, I found him to be clear, concise, and easy to follow. Rosenberg did what philosophers are trained to do—define terms, lay out premises, use clear reasoning, and clarify any challenges. In his first affirmative he defined suffering, made his case for why it is a problem for theism and why he thinks free will is irrelevant to the debate. In his first negative of the second half of the debate he laid out what he thought were four mistakes in the debate proposition and developed the Euthyphro dilemma as a challenge to Gilmore. In his shorter speeches he did respond to some of the challenges from Gilmore by offering additional explanation, but he also made the comment several times that he did not see the relevance of many of Gilmore’s points. Rosenberg was more narrowly focused on the propositions at hand, while Gilmore raised challenges to Rosenberg’s worldview. Whereas Rosenberg seems to think this is not relevant to the propositions, I think that many of the points Gilmore made were relevant, but it was a broader approach to weaken Rosenberg’s support or denial of the proposition in question.
In regards to Gilmore’s performance, it became clear through the course of the debate that there was a tremendous amount of preparation—Gilmore even makes a reference to the amount of slides he has on potential references to Scripture that Rosenberg never brings up. It is also clear that Gilmore has done his research in reading Rosenberg’s published work. The amount of time that Gilmore spends addressing Rosenberg’s broader worldview of scientism and nihilism may initially come across as an apparent weakness of his argument—Rosenberg must think this when he criticizes that Gilmore is not on point. However, when looking at Gilmore’s overall strategy in the debate it should become clearer that it is actually a strength of his approach; Gilmore is building the case that Rosenberg is in no position to make the claims that he does. Initially, it can seem that Gilmore is jumping around from point to point, but towards the end he is able to bring together his main points and show how they are indeed relevant to the propositions and support his overall argument.
Both Rosenberg and Gilmore did an excellent job in the debate and it will be up to individuals to make their own conclusions regarding who made the better case. Obviously, as a Christian, I side with Gilmore, but as I wonder how an agnostic would feel about the debate I am left with the following thoughts. Rosenberg closes his last rejoinder with the appeal that we should approach questions of theology in the same way we do IRS regulations or mortgage terms. While I understand he is stressing the importance of using good reasoning in all areas of our life, including theology, it strikes me as odd to equate approaching questions of the divine in the same way I approach taxes or mortgages. Yes, we should use good reasoning, but to me, this highlights one of the many unattractive features of Rosenberg’s scientism, that is, that the only knowledge we can have is from empirical science. Although we will still have questions about God and suffering, I would assume it is appealing to the agnostic for the possibility of broader knowledge that the Christian worldview claims we can have. I wonder if this is a general way in which the agnostic may be attracted to further exploring the possibility of knowing more, rather than limiting oneself to the scientism of Rosenberg. Rosenberg’s worldview holds there is no God, no soul, no spirit, no free will, and no objective morality. Even if science could answer every question of how the world works it still leaves us with the question of “Why is there something, rather than nothing?” The Christian worldview provides robust answers to fundamental questions of life and has the greatest love story ever told. I would hope that, even with the challenge of suffering, the agnostic would be attracted to pursuing more than what Rosenberg’s worldview has to offer, and would turn towards a Christian worldview and ask questions that would ultimately lead toward God.
Matthew R. Sokoloski
Matthew Sokoloski received a Ph.D. in philosophy at the University of Arkansas, an M.A. in Philosophy from the University of Mississippi, and a M.A. in New Testament from Freed-Hardeman University. He presently serves as assistant professor of Humanities at Faulkner University and teaches the Western Cultural Heritage courses. Sokoloski also serves as assistant director of the Great Books Honors program. He may be contacted at email@example.com.
This review was written from my own notes and partial transcription of the debate. Thus any verbatim phrases or sentences that are found without quotations are unintentional. The ideas discussed are Gilmore’s and Rosenberg’s.