5 / 06

#85 Four Questions to Make your Brain Hurt

November 30, 2008

Dear Dr Craig,

May I begin by thanking you so much for your ministry, and for making so much content freely available. I have learnt much and grown through listening to the Defenders and Reasonable Faith podcasts, and also from the blogs on your website.

This is really just a quick one to make you aware of an article you may have missed on the BBC News website, called “Four philosophical questions to make your brain hurt” [http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/magazine/7739493.stm]. (I live in London, so this is my standard news site).

The four supposedly difficult or unanswerable questions/propositions are:


Now I’m not a philosopher, but it is obvious to me that some of these present a much greater challenge to a naturalist than they do to a Christian.

1. Thou shalt not kill!

2. ‘You’ are more than the collection of the cells in your body, and the immaterial self has not changed in substance or essence since reading the article. The brain is indeed ‘a machine that a ghost can operate’, and that ghost is my spirit.

3. Can accept that this is an interesting one, which I suppose is why Hebrews 11:6 says ‘And without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him.’ So don’t we ALL operate through beliefs and faith? Naturalists would hate to concede that...

4. Why not just say God instead of Fred?! Anyway, we understand that God created us to freely choose to love and serve Him, which is why the very first story in the Bible is about a couple who chose against God. Incidentally, I wonder what this particular philosopher would have to say about the cause of the Big Bang?

Anyway, I just thought that you might be interested to know what’s going on in the popular press in England. Am I being too simplistic in my reaction?

For me, I’m just thrilled that time after time, the Christian worldview gives an understanding of the world that no other worldview offers. Praise be to God!

In Christ,


United States

Dr. craig’s response


I Googled the article after reading your question, Phil, and although David Bain’s main point in sharing these problems is a good one—namely, that if you reject a conclusion, then you need to diagnose where the argument for it goes wrong—, still I have to agree with you that the conundrums he poses are, indeed, more difficult for the naturalist than for the Christian theist. If Christian theism is true, then in each case the way out is much more evident than on a naturalistic worldview.

Take the first question of what is moral to do. Although the naturalist can successfully point out disanalogies between killing a healthy person to harvest his organs and the other cases Bain mentions as purported justifications, what is more difficult for the naturalist to do is to justify the assumptions that human beings have intrinsic moral value in the first place and that we have any moral obligations toward one another at all. The photo of Sartre accompanying the article reminds us that on Sartre’s atheistic view there are no pre-established values: All we are confronted with is the bare, valueless fact of existence. Each of us must therefore choose his own values. It’s hard to see why, given naturalism, Sartre was mistaken. So what’s wrong with killing healthy people to harvest their organs? Of course, Sartre could not live with the implications of his own denial of moral objectivity. In his essay “Existentialism Is a Humanism,” written after the Holocaust, Sartre condemns anti-Semitism, declaring that a doctrine that leads to extermination is not merely an opinion or matter of personal taste, and struggles vainly to elude the contradiction between his denial of divinely pre-established values and his urgent desire to affirm the value of human persons. This debacle only goes to show the unliveability of atheism.

As to the second question of personal identity over time, this problem is far more difficult for the naturalist who denies the reality of the soul or mind. Bain’s questions arise only if we assume that a human person is a material object like a humanoid body or a brain. But if there is a substantial self which is the possessor of the mental states Bain mentions, then none of his conundrums applies. Of course, new puzzles might be posed about how the soul can undergo intrinsic change in its contingent properties over time. Interestingly, the question raised here becomes really pointed when you pull in theories of time. For if you are a partisan of tenseless time (the so-called B-Theory) and deny the objective reality of temporal becoming, then you do seem to be committed to the conclusion that you are not the same person who started reading this article, for that individual is just a segment of a four-dimensional spacetime “worm,” a segment which is not identical to the present segment, since they have different properties. Thus, tenseless time theorists face real problems about identity over time, problems which are avoided if we say with so-called A-Theorists that the only temporal things that exist are those that exist presently. (See my book Time and Eternity for more on this issue.)

The third question about the veridicality of our senses has been employed to the advantage of theism by Alvin Plantinga in his work on properly basic beliefs. On pain of scepticism, beliefs like belief in the reality of physical objects must be taken as properly basic, grounded in experience but not inferred from more foundational beliefs. But then Plantinga wants to know why belief in God cannot be similarly properly basic. Plantinga’s whole religious epistemology explained in his trilogy on warrant springs out of attempts to answer Bain’s puzzle. Moreover, Plantinga’s evolutionary argument against naturalism shows that naturalism is a self-defeating system of beliefs, for given that our cognitive faculties are selected for survival, not for truth, we can have no confidence that, for example, our beliefs about the reality of physical objects are true nor, in the end, that naturalism itself is true. By contrast, on theism God has designed our cognitive faculties in such a way that, when functioning properly in an appropriate environment, they deliver true beliefs about the world.

Finally, the fourth problem also treats human beings naturalistically as purely material objects. Their choices are, accordingly, either causally determined or else random events. I must say, once again, that it’s very hard to see why on a materialist anthropology, this conclusion would be mistaken. Ironically, however, it also seems to be a conclusion that a naturalist could never rationally draw. For if all our choices are causally determined or merely random, then the choice to believe in naturalism can be no more rational than having a toothache or a tree’s growing a limb. Thus, determinism seems to be rationally unaffirmable. By contrast, theists believe in the reality of immaterial agents, first and foremost God Himself and, secondarily, embodied, finite persons. Hence, everything is not predictable on the basis of scientific laws and initial conditions. Notice that God cannot be substituted for Fred in Bain’s illustration, since the basis of God’s foreknowledge is not causal determinism, at least if you are a libertarian theist.

Bain doesn’t even mention theism as one of the most important questions of philosophy. But then his purpose is not to review the most important questions but to present some plausible arguments for conclusions that are very counter-intuitive and ask what went wrong. Theism is an eminently sensible belief that doesn’t have the counter-intuitive character of conclusions like my non-identity with the person who started writing this article. I like Bain’s use of T. S. Eliot’s quotation at the end of his article. We need only remind ourselves that theism can shed great light on the traditional puzzles of philosophical thought. To quote another English literary figure, C. S. Lewis, “I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen: not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.”

- William Lane Craig