<img height="1" width="1" style="display:none" src="https://www.facebook.com/tr?id=1906385056278061&ev=PageView&noscript=1" />
Skip to main content Accessibility feedback

Debriefing the O’Connor Debate on God’s Existence

Audio only:

In this episode, Trent is joined by John DeRosa of the Classical Theism podcast who interviews him about his recent debate with Alex O’Connor on Pints with Aquinas.

Welcome to the Council of Trent Podcast, a production of Catholic Answers.

Trent Horn:
Hello everyone, and welcome to another episode of the Council of Trent Podcast. I’m your host, Catholic Answers apologist and speaker, Trent Horn. And today we’re going to do a debrief of my debate with Alex O’Connor on the question of the existence of God. So I recently had this debate last Thursday. It was on Matt Fradd’s Pints With Aquinas YouTube page and podcast page.

So if you want to go and check it out, it’s had over 50,000 views already. So Alex has a pretty large following among atheists. I’m excited to share the debate with you here on this podcast in a few weeks. But until then, I wanted to do a debrief of the debate. Even if you haven’t seen the debate, I think this debrief will be useful for you to understand issues related to defending the existence of God, philosophy, science, a lot of things that I think you will greatly appreciate.

And help me do that, we have John DeRosa here on the program. John has a podcast called the Classical Theism Podcast. He’s got great guests on. Really bright, theistic philosophers and thinkers and theologians. And in fact, the Classical Theism Podcast was helpful for me when I was preparing to do this debate with Alex O’Connor. So previously I’ve done these debriefs just by myself, talking with you about my debates, my discussions, how I thought they went.

I really enjoyed sitting down with Matt Fradd to talk with him about my debate with Sam Rocha on socialism. So I think I’m going to start a pattern here of doing debriefs and inviting other people to come on the podcast, to chat with me, to see what they thought of my dialogues and debates, and to have a conversation for you to glean our insights from these engagements. So joining us now is John DeRosa from the Classical Theism Podcast. John, welcome back to the Council of Trent Podcast.

John DeRosa:
Trent, thanks for having me on. I thought it was a great debate and I’m happy to be here to debrief it with you.

Trent Horn:
Well, I thought of you in particular, John, because as I said, I did a lot of study actually for this debate because Alex is no slouch. I mean, some people, when they looked at my debate opponent, who is a 22-year-old Oxford student, they said, “This guy is just a kid. What do you have to worry about?” I said, “This guy is actually pretty smart.” I went and watched his YouTube videos.

I saw that he had engaged in an hour and a half discussion with William Lane Craig on the Kalam cosmological argument. And he was able to hold his own. So I knew that the person I was engaging, as I said, would be no slouch. And we had a vigorous, excellent discussion and debate. And I think the preparation really paid off. And part of the preparation was I listened to some episodes from your podcast because you featured theistic philosophers and guests whose arguments I had studied in journals and in books, but I also wanted to get the information from the horse’s mouth.

And I also think it’s important what you’re doing in the Classical Theism Podcast, because when I’m trying to reach atheists, I think sharing classical theism is something that is not done enough today. I tried very hard to do that in my debate with Alex. I think we need to do more to put that out there because there’s a lot of people who are defending the existence of God, but maybe not in the most robust or ideal way. So does that kind of factor into your mission behind Classical Theism Podcast?

John DeRosa:
It definitely does. Like I say every week on the show, my goal is to kind of aim a little bit higher and raise the intellectual bar and bring on some of those great guests to help defend three core pillars of the Catholic Christian worldview. So we’re going to bring on philosophers to help us defend God’s existence. We’re going to bring on historians and theologians to look at Jesus as Lord and Messiah, as well as that he founded the Catholic church.

And you bring up the idea of classical theism being a very robust type of theism. I also think it’s ensconced in our tradition. So when you look back to ancient Greek writers, when you look back to early church fathers, medieval thinkers, you’re going to find that they don’t just hold to a view of God where he’s kind of like us, but just his limitations are stripped away and he’s got a few more superpowers. No,

They hold to a radically transcendent first cause, which I think you articulated well in the debate, who is also distinct from the universe and has some unusual properties like immutability and being eternal and being impassable. And these things can kind of sound weird at first. But I think as you get into the philosophical tradition and the roots of the Christian tradition, you’re going to find a lot of good reasons to hold the classical theism.

Trent Horn:
Right. And I think that’s important because as you said, it’s firmly entrenched in our Catholic faith. And one place to find that also would be in ecumenical councils that talk about God. I mean, we think about the first Vatican council, which dogmatically declared that you can know that God exists by reason alone. I mean, you can’t know everything about God like that God is a Trinity, but you can know that the God of classical theism exists through an act of reason to come know that he exists.

And in particular, as you said, God is not just some powerful, cosmic being. There’s more of an ultimate nature behind him. The Fourth Lateran Council says this in the beginning of its confession of faith, “We firmly believe in simply confess. That there is only one true God, eternal and immeasurable, almighty, unchangeable, incomprehensible, and ineffable; father, son, and Holy Spirit, three persons, but one absolutely simple essence substance or nature.”

So that’s why I’ve loved listening to your podcast, how you’ve tackled issues like divine simplicity, divine immutability. Do you think though, that when we understand this robust view of theism, I find it’s very helpful to answer many of the objections that atheists pose towards God that maybe other philosophers and theologians who have a more limited view of God, even if they wouldn’t say that it’s limited, can have a tough time answering.

John DeRosa:
I would agree with that. I think every version of theism is going to have its own challenges and its own arguments in its favor. But I think classical theism definitely sidesteps some of the issues or at least the particular formulations of certain issues, which actually we might get into today when we talk about the problem of animal suffering and evil and so forth.

But the way certain objections are formulated, oftentimes, if it at all… Let me just say this as a general point. If it at all involves conceiving of God anthropomorphically and forcing him to fit into a basket where he’s just another person alongside us and basically like us; if an objection thinks of God in that manner, it’s not going to go through on classical theism.

So any objections in that vein, we’re going to be able to brush them aside. But that doesn’t mean we don’t also have to deal with other objections to the things you brought up like divine simplicity. So yeah, it’s a lot of fun and honestly, I’m learning a lot. I don’t have degrees in this stuff, but we try to bring on the best guests to help us learn in the Classical Theism Podcast.

Trent Horn:
All right. So here’s what I want to do now, John: we’re going to switch roles. I’m going to toss it over to you. You’re going to be the interviewer and you can ask me about my debate and we’ll do a debrief from your perspective. So take it away.

John DeRosa:
Let’s do it. So first question is what was the question of the debate, Trent, and who were you debating against? You already said a little bit about that, but tell us more of the question, the set up and who your opponent was.

Trent Horn:
Yeah. So Matt Fradd reached out to me and he said, “Would you like to do a debate on atheism, on Pints With Aquinas?” And he said he’s trying to do one debate a month actually on various subjects, which I think is great, actually. There are hardly any venues like that. And especially, it’s hard to find those even in the Catholic world. In the Christian world, there’s one show that does do this with regularity.

It’s a British Christian show called Unbelievable with Justin Brierley. “Welcome to Unbelievable with Justin Brierley.” It’s a wonderful show. Justin is a great guy. And he brings on a lot of Christians and non-Christians or even Christians to debate one another. So I’m excited that Matt was doing this. And then he asked me to come on and he proposed Alex O’Connor as my debate opponent. The resolution was not a question really like, does God exist? It was more resolved, God exists.

And then I would be arguing for the resolution, Alex against. So Alex actually did not have a burden per se to show that God did not exist, but he did choose to take up that burden a little bit with some of his arguments. So if you had to summarize it for a lay person, it was basically the classic debate, does God exist? So we argue that… Alex is an interesting gentleman. He is a 22-year-old student at Oxford.

He is an atheist, but he is studying theology and philosophy at Oxford University. And so he’s well versed in these subjects. He has a very popular YouTube channel. Has something like close to 300,000 subscribers at least on his YouTube page. Many atheists know him. They know him more so in recent years. He’s become very vocal as a proponent of veganism, of people have an ethical obligation to not eat animals or use animals for…

Well, I don’t know necessarily, probably for clothing, but at least for food and animal products that causes animal suffering. He is promoting a particular ethical view on preventing animal suffering by promoting veganism. But for this debate, it was strictly just on atheism.

John DeRosa:
Very good. Well, you could definitely tell you studied a lot for this debate. You jam-packed a ton into your opening statement, which was only 15 minutes long. And as folks got to know, you can’t summarize and get into every detail in 15 minutes, but you did a nice job. I thought the structure of your opening statement, the way you presented it was intriguing and like a little bit different. So I’m going to ask you, what arguments did you present for God’s existence? How did that go? And then what arguments did Alex present against God’s existence, if you had to give us a quick summary?

Trent Horn:
Sure. So from my perspective… Now, I’ve done several debates on the existence of God. And as a student of debates, I study William Lane Craig, I think is one of the best debaters out there. So at the very least when it comes to the tactical question of how you engage people in a debate, I’ve studied a lot of different people, but I think he is one of the best. And so what I’ve learned from him are things like make sure your opening statement is as efficient as possible.

Make sure your well-planned in your rebuttals. Ask cross-examination questions that you know the answer to so you’re guiding the conversation, where you want it to go. And so in my previous debates, when I debated Dan Barker twice, one time on atheism, one time on Christianity. I’ve certainly followed… I usually follow Craig’s pattern, which would be here’s my first argument.

Here is an argument from contingency. Premise, premise, premise, conclusion. Here is the Kalam argument, premise, premise, conclusion. Here are my five arguments. I’ll do one argument at a time and it leads to the existence of God. I wanted to try something different in this debate. I wanted to have more of a holistic case where everything ties together.

So I tried an approach that I consider a presentation by disjunction of asking a series of questions where the answer is yes or no and then seeing… Kind of like a flow chart. If you ask these yes, no questions on a flow chart, does it get you to God? And so I start with the universe. Does it have an explanation? Yes. Does it explain itself? No. Okay. So we get to there is an ultimate explanation for the universe.

What can we know about this explanation? And then fill in the attributes. Because I’ve noticed also, John, that in debates on the existence of God, I think the premises, the elements that atheists want to attack the most that actually are the weakest links. This is something that Alex press and others have called the gap problem, which is you have an argument that leads to an uncaused cause or an ultimate explanation of reality, but how do you know that that is God?

Many atheists will say, “I’ll agree with you there’s a cause. I’ll agree there’s something out there, but haven’t proven that it’s God.” And so what I tried hard in the debate was after the first two questions, I tried to get divine attributes on the floor like, well, it’s immaterial. It’s timeless. It’s changeless. It’s not limited. It’s necessary. And it would be personal in some way and it would be all good and it would have all knowledge.

So actually the majority of my debate I tried to really get the divine attributes out of this argument. And one more point I’ll add to all of this to get your thoughts on… Well, let’s start with that. Is that helpful to answer your question?

John DeRosa:
That’s a good summary. You make a good point about how they will target the weakest links and often it’s that personal attribute that they will target. They’ll say, “Okay, maybe there’s this fundamental reality, but there’s no reason at all to think that it’s personal.” That’s not an uncommon [inaudible 00:12:44]. I actually really liked that you presented I think maybe four or five different reasons to think that God is also personal in some way.

And at least you’re getting an argument on the table and you avoid them being able to say, “Oh, you gave no reasons to think it’s God.” If he’s going to respond to that, he’s going to have to tear down those reasons in addition to his own reasons. So maybe talk a little bit about that. What were some of your arguments for why God is personal or why the ultimate reality is personal? And then perhaps you could bring up in Alex’s opening statement, what was his fundamental arguments against God’s existence?

Trent Horn:
Yes. Well, first let’s start with my arguments. I presented arguments that are traditionally you would call them the contingency argument. Things that can fail to exist must be explained by a thing that has to exist, which traditionally is defined as God. The argument from motion, which would be traditionally St. Thomas Aquinas’s first way, though taking a lot of cues from Ed Feser in his articulation of the argument for motion.

That there is something that is pure actuality that initiates or is the cause of all change or motion. I also did an argument that’s similar to the Kalam called causal finitism, saying there’s an uncaused cause that leads to a finite past, relying on thought experiments from Alex Pruss and Robert Koons. And then I made a specific kind of moral argument. So the moral argument was one argument in favor of personhood, because I believe morality is essentially a personal trait.

You don’t have moral questions with impersonal. If everything involved in a situation is non-personal, you can’t have morality there. Morality is something connected to persons. So if this ultimate cause is an ultimate cause of morality, I would say that it has to be personal. And that’s why I argue that it’s morally good. I also talked about how this cause can’t be a purely scientific cause like a law of nature because it made everything from nothing.

So I had arguments where it’s either scientific or personal. It’s either abstract or concrete. And since half of those explanations don’t work, you either get a concrete, immaterial thing like a mind, or you get a personal explanation. And so I put those out there. I will say, when I’ve read… It was interesting going online to read the criticisms of this debate. Actually, there were hardly any. Everyone seemed to really enjoy it. Alex is a very likable guy.

When it came to atheists criticizing me, there were two things I noticed. One was on quantum physics, which we’ll get to probably later here in our discussion. And two where some atheists accused me of doing what is called a Gish gallop. This is named after the creationist Duane Gish, where when he would debate evolution with people who would defend the theory of evolution.

What Gish would do is he would say, “What about this problem with evolution? What about this problem? And what about this? And you can’t explain this transitional fossil. You can’t explain this.” And he would throw out like 50 things that couldn’t be explained and it takes longer to explain them. And so he would just overwhelm his opponents. And so some atheists accused me of doing the Gish Gallop.

But my reply to that is no, it’s not a Gish gallop because I systematically built up my case. And I’m not going to apologize that I have a lot of evidence. Alex would have responded to each one in turn. And frankly, John, I had been the victim of the Gish gallop before in my debate with Dan Barker on whether the Christian God existed. Dan threw out like 20 problematic Bible verses and thought that that would rest his case.

So I prepared. I knew Dan would do this. And so I had a tight rebuttal ready, responded to every single one as efficiently as possible. And then I threw it back at him and he couldn’t go anywhere after that. So I reject the the conclusion. And we can move on to Alex’s arguments here shortly after this, but I reject the insinuation I did some kind of illicit Gish gallop.

John DeRosa:
No, I don’t think you did a Gish gallop. I think you were just making a cumulative case. But I think it was different because it… Actually, it was really cool with the questions, but you started with contingency. You started with ultimate explanation and then you kind of built up from there. But along the way, for certain points, you would kind of make a cumulative case.

Okay. Maybe you don’t think it follows with demonstrative certainty that the cause is personal, but it seems to be the best explanation of all these different points and this morality. And I think that’s a good argument. It’s not enough to just say, “Oh, well, the theists didn’t prove something with absolute certainty to my liking.” No, they got to respond to the evidence that you put on the table. So that being said, how did Alex respond to your opening statement? What arguments did he present?

Trent Horn:
Well, primarily in his opening statement, he leaned on a argument to make us doubt the existence of God. So he didn’t put forward an argument to demonstrably prove there is no God. Rather he wanted us to doubt the existence of God because of the existence of suffering. And in particular, he brought up the question of animal suffering. And so his claim was that the suffering that animals undergo, there does not appear to be a justifiable reason for that, but along with other suffering humans undergo as well. But he had an emphasis on animals.

This is called an evidential argument from evil. The idea here is that maybe there’s a good reason for all this evil or suffering we see. Alex admits its difficult for an atheist to define evil. So he just strictly focuses on suffering. And so he says maybe there’s a good reason, but the odds of there being a good reason are really, really low. So I think he said that this should cause us to doubt that that God exists.

I can’t remember whether it was his rebuttal or opening statement. I think his opening, he brought up quantum physics to undermine my contingency argument and my claim that whatever exists has an explanation for its existence. But the number one argument he gave was an evidential argument from evil, focused on animal suffering as just making it seem more likely there is no God and then a little bit on science and the principle of sufficient reason.

John DeRosa:
Well, why don’t we get into those a little bit? Because I agree. When I was listening back to some of this in preparation, yeah, those were his major things: animal suffering to cast out on God’s existence, but also objections to the principle of sufficient reason, particularly he said it violates free will and that’s why your principle of sufficient reason we should doubt it because it violates freewill.

And so that kind of cast out on one of the first couple of steps of your argument. But other than that, as far as I remember, he didn’t have a ton to say about the other steps in your argument. Of course, you can’t respond to everything in limited time, but I think kudos to you for making a lot of good points and in future discussions and future sit downs, you might get to more of those specifics.

But why don’t I give you a chance? How did you answer that? How did you go about that? Why don’t we do the principle of sufficient reason and quantum physics first and then we’ll spend some more time on animal suffering. So I think that was probably the main theme. But how did you respond to this idea that freewill violates the principle of sufficient reason?

Trent Horn:
Well, the idea here is Alex is arguing against a strong form of the principle of sufficient reason, which is that every thing or every event has an explanation for why it is the case that that event happened. And so he thought that either quantum physics. There could be a random events in quantum physics. That there is no reason for that particular event.

Or when it comes to free will, trying to say that if there is a principle of explanation, if there’s a reason for everything that happens, then you’d have to have some kind of infinite regress of reasons which would lead to determinism so that all of our actions are just caused by other reasons or things in an infinite chain, or at least the chain going back to the Big Bang.

Or if you are able to undergo freewill and choose something. If you’re able to be a prime mover, so to speak, of your own actions, then this would undermine the principle of sufficient reason. Now, John, what I tried to do, seeing that this was a target in the debate… And this is a strategy in debates: you must be sure not to chase rabbit trails. So I did not get into a long discourse about the metaphysics of free will.

How can it be that we can freely choose to do things? What is the difference between something causing a behavior and solely determining that that behavior happens? That’s why at numerous times in the debate, I brought up the point that well, we do have free will. We can know that because we’re morally responsible beings. Even if we can’t completely explain how freewill works, we know it does work.

In the same way, the analogy I made is that atheists would agree we have consciousness, even though atheists have a notoriously hard time explaining how physical matter can give rise to immaterial conscious states. I also said that, look, if this is a problem for you, you could be a theological determinist. You could believe God exists and that we just don’t have freewill. It doesn’t disprove the claim we were arguing for that night.

But then I showed that no, if God exists, he can give us the ability to use our acts of reason to freely choose to do things. And so there is an explanation for why we choose to do what we do. It doesn’t undermine PSR. Now, when it comes to quantum physics, he brought this up. And if I would have changed one thing, John, it would be I didn’t quite track with him what he was referring to.

I thought he was referring to in the debate saying that quantum events can happen like particle decay or virtual particles coming into existence seemingly for no reason. And I replied to that saying, “Well, no, it doesn’t follow that there’s either a determinant cause for an event or no cause. It could be a probabilistic cause. There’s a reason something happens, but the reason gives you only probabilities like this cause results in X 50% of the time and Y the other 50% of the time.”

But what Alex was talking about that I put through later in the debate and wish I had more time to articulate, he kept saying this experiment in 2015. I didn’t know what he was referring to. And later I realized, oh, he was talking about what is called spooky action at a distance. I don’t want to go into this in too detail because quantum physics gets difficult to understand.

But the idea here is that these are experiments done in the late 2010s to show that atomic particles like electrons, they have properties like spin. If you affect one, it affects another one even miles away. Or they’re doing experiments now to show this affects things light years away. So there’s this causal relationship between subatomic particles we can’t explain as being a local phenomenon.

But that doesn’t mean there’s no reason for why this happens. This is clearly the case. If you affect one electron, it’s causing a relationship to the other. We don’t know how it’s crossing the spacial divide. Is it communicating faster than light? Is there some other hidden variable? We don’t know. But the point I made at the debate, John, was that look, even if you have these unexplained mysteries in quantum physics, it doesn’t refute the principle of sufficient reason.

Because scientists, quantum physicists can do these experiments with regularity in the labs to show people what they mean and they always turn out the same way. Even at the quantum level, there is regularity in their experiments, which is actually evidence in favor of the principle of sufficient reason.

John DeRosa:
I think that’s a really good answer. I want to make a quick comment on that because obviously you don’t have time to chase all the details in a quick debate, especially the rebuttals were quick. But I don’t think it in any way violates the principles of sufficient reason in different formats. One formation I like or formulation from Ed Feser’s book is just everything, which is, has a sufficient reason for its existence or for its being.

And we could point to both human beings as well as these particles that decay or don’t decay and say, well, they have a sufficient reason for their existence as such in their substantial form. And it’s part of the substantial form of human beings that they have this freely choosing power to go one way or another. And it’s also part of the substantial form of this particle that 50% of the time it’s going to decay this way or that way. And that’s actually enough to explain the reality of the particle or of the human being. But I know there’s limited time into what you could go into.

Trent Horn:
Sure. And what’s hard is I remember Alex on his final rebuttal ended with the idea that, well, if events don’t need an explanation, then maybe the Big Bang caused our universe and therefore it’s an event that doesn’t need an explanation. One sentence rejoinder I would have said: that assumes that events cause things, but things cause things. Events don’t cause things. Events describe causal relationships between things. When you do debates, there’s always a point where you wish you could interject, but the format you have to move on, which we should probably do. Should we talk about his main problem with…

John DeRosa:
Yeah, let’s get into that. Sorry. Let me introduce that because I wrote this down based on I’ve seen a bunch of things on animal suffering in the Catholic world. It’s probably the main thing so I want to give you a chance to talk about this. I would say Catholicism has a big tent on this issue. I’ve seen Dr. Trent Dougherty, as well as father Christopher Steck, who’s a Jesuit, they’ve both written books that incorporate animals specifically into theodicies that allow for their flourishing, not just in this life, but in an afterlife as well.

So that’s like one side of the spectrum. On the other side, you’ve got traditionally Thomists and they’ve emphasized that when you have animals suffering, you have some goodness curtailing other goodness, like when a lion eats a lamb, but it’s all part of the good of the material world as a whole and God’s not obligated to create some non-material world or a world with more goodness. So there’s different options to respond. That being said, what did you choose to focus on with regard to animal suffering? And how do you think we should approach this apologetically?

Trent Horn:
Well, I think we should approach animal suffering just like we approach any kind of suffering and first and foremost recognize our epistemic limits and God’s unlimited nature. The main defense against evil, which I think St. Thomas Aquinas first articulated. I don’t know if he first articulated it. Well, Agustin articulated even before him. But Aquinas says that, look, God can allow evil. Evil is a privation.

It’s not a thing God made. God can allow this privation or absence of good if he can bring about greater goods or prevent greater evils. I think nearly all theodicies that recognize… There’s a defense of God’s existence saying that evil doesn’t disprove him. A theodicy would be a fuller explanation of the precise reasons and goods God attains to by allowing evil to exist. There’s many of them.

So I think we should recognize our limits saying that first we can just say there are these reasons, even if we have no idea what they are. We’re not in a position to say they don’t exist or to say that God doesn’t have them. But I also tried in the debate to say, look, here are some plausible candidates, even for animal suffering. So I talked about the traditional thomas’ view that when you make finite physical creatures, they’ll increase in decrease in goodness, which will cause an increase and decrease in their very being, which will result in suffering.

There are goods present in the animal world. I floated the idea of compensation for animals. That it is possible, and you can believe this is a theist, that God will compensate animals in the next life. I know Peter Kreeft has alluded to that and we’ve talked about father Steck has a book on that, which I haven’t read. I’m familiar more with Trent Dougherty’s book on animal suffering.

Though I will say this, John: I’ve some of Dougherty’s arguments. I haven’t seen the full argument. But it’s going to be really hard to convince me of Dougherty’s thesis. In his book on animal suffering, this is his conclusion: he believes that animal suffering will be justified because in the next life, God will deify animals. He says, “They will become in the language of Narnia, talking animals.”

“Language is a characteristic mark of high intelligence. So I’m suggesting they will become full fledged persons who can look back on their lives and form attitudes as to what happened to them and see how they fit into God’s plan.” So Dougherty claims that maybe God will just turn animals into persons in heaven and they’ll look back on their suffering and see the goods that came from it.

I am highly, highly, highly skeptical of that view. I don’t see how it could work. But I think there’s other views that maybe if animals have continuity of their experience without being persons like… I mean, dogs remember… If you beat a dog with a newspaper and he sees the newspaper, he’ll waggle his head down and remember it’s an instrument of pain. Some animals have some kind of memory or continuity, even if they’re not full fledged persons.

So they might be candidates for some kind of good that they’ll receive in the next life while having some kind of continuity with this life. But I just wanted to put out all those different kinds of elements. Although mine, the main argument that I put in response to Alex was a thought experiment on just the goodness of animals in this life. But how’s that as a start for us to chew on?

John DeRosa:
I think that’s really good as a start. And personally, I don’t lean towards those different, new contemporary views either. But if you have someone, they’re perfectly acceptable for a Catholic to speculate as to different possible answers to the question of animal suffering. I’ll tell you what, and I’m going to tell you to follow up. But one thing I was surprised that didn’t come up and maybe if we had more time was the levels of consciousness that different creatures have.

And I know obviously you only have so much time, but personally I’ve always found it really intriguing because there’s just a different experience going on when certain types of animals at different levels, whether you’re talking about bacteria, whether you’re talking about a primate. When they experience different things, we don’t really have the access of what that’s like. You can talk about Nagel’s article, What It’s Like to Be a Bat.

We have no idea what that is and what it’s like to be a certain kind of animal and suffer in that way. Again, we have to have some epistemic humility, I think, as to what that’s like. If we have quick time. I’ll talk real quick. I hurt my back this year in February and I was in so much pain and I couldn’t even roll over in bed. And apparently, I had set my alarm clock and it’s on the other side of the room so I have to get up and go over to it.

But apparently, while I was sleeping, I rolled over, shut off the alarm clock after it went off and then went back to bed. But I was kind of sleepwalking in a subconscious state. But then I woke up hours later and I said to my wife, Christine, I’m like, “Wait, who shut off the alarm clock?” And she’s like, “Oh, you did. You said you were doing it.” But I didn’t remember doing it at all.

And my kind of revelation on that is, well, hey, if it’s possible for me… And I must have been in pain at the time, because I was just in constant constant pain with this back pain. If it’s possible for me to be in some sort of functional pain state yet not fully aware of it, perhaps that’s possible for animals. Perhaps God won’t let them experience pain beyond a certain threshold. Maybe he’ll quell that in a way we don’t know. But those are just other possible things to talk about.

Trent Horn:
It is. I floated that out there a little during the debate. A book that covers this is Nature Red in Tooth and Claw: Theism and the Problem of Animal Suffering by Michael J. Murray. So he explores that thesis more. I put it out there. Though what’s funny though is that, John, I did not explore this as my main reply to the problem of animal suffering because many online atheists who are debate junkies that go over the stuff all the time have reacted very negatively towards Murray’s work.

And I would say a lot of times misrepresenting him as if that he claimed animals don’t suffer at all or something like that. Now, I think his argument has a lot of merit, should we put that out there, as a possibility to explain why some animals are not in the pain we think they’re in, because we have a bad habit of anthropomorphizing animals and thinking they have emotions like we do because we watched Disney movies and lion King and things like that. No.

My main thing, what I wanted to try with this thought experiment for Alex, asking him, look, if we all colonize another planet and no humans were left on earth, should we destroy the earth instantaneously so that nothing exists on it? Because if we didn’t, if you choose not to do that, you’re going large amounts of animal suffering to continue. And you could tell Alex…

John DeRosa:
What did he say to that? That was really good.

Trent Horn:
Well, he said he wasn’t sure what he would do. Now, he tried to say there’s a difference between God making a world where animals suffer and us extending that world. But I don’t think there’s that much of a difference between the moral elements there. That if we recognize there is a good in animals existing, even if they suffer.

Because if it’s such an intolerable state that God should have never made it, then it seems that we as humans should not allow it to continue if we could end it instantly with some kind of anti-matter device that destroyed the earth instantly so the animals aren’t even aware of it. And so Alex said that, well, he wasn’t sure. But I think that that really should sow seeds of doubt in those who try to put forward animal suffering as some kind of evil that can’t be justified.

Because if you are just as unsure of Alex, you do see there could be goods in allowing animals to exist in a physical environment, even if they suffer. And if we allow it, that paves the way for saying, it’s not unreasonable for God to make it in the first place. Now, Alex did have a nice rejoinder that I fumbled over a little. I could have articulated more clearly my response to it. And his reply was, well, would you push a button that would decrease animal suffering by 50%?

And I wasn’t sure the reply. But here’s the difference I believe between both of our unsurities: Alex’s was about this end goal, whether it’s worthwhile or not. My unsurity and the thought experiment is that for me, it was an unclear thought experiment. It was incomplete. I gave Alex a very complete description. It’s an anti matter device that will vaporize the earth instantaneously.

We can understand what that is and what will happen. Even if we don’t have it technologically, I can wrap my head around it. But he just said, “Push a button and animal pain decreases by 50%.” And so for me, well, what does that mean? What happens? Are 50% of animals go out of existence? Are there pain sensors dulled by 50%? I’m not sure what that means or how that follows from it. Though I did say… So there were two points in my reply that I would have liked to articulate more clearly, but still came out.

One was even if I have a moral duty to reduce animal pain, it doesn’t follow God has similar moral duties. God doesn’t have moral duties to anyone. He’s goodness itself. So even if I’m called to do it, it doesn’t mean God has to. Second, if we get to a point where, why doesn’t God just make a world where animals don’t have pain, but they’re animals? I referenced something called the philosophical zombie.

That’s the idea of something that looks like a person or a human being, but there’s nothing going on upstairs. It’s a philosophical zombie. It looks and acts just like us, but there’s no interior mental state. So I just don’t think it’s possible. It may be metaphysically impossible for God to make animals that are truly animals that don’t feel pain because if they don’t feel pain or they don’t have sensory input, they’re really more like complex audio animatronics, like a Disneyland.

If they don’t feel things in an interior way, they’re more like robots and animals. So the atheist claim, why doesn’t God just make animals that don’t suffer? I’m not even really sure they’d be animals at that point, was a part of the reply that I was giving.

John DeRosa:
I think it’s a good reply because often these thought experiments, they’re tough because you can spell them out in 10 seconds or less. But to actually dig into the details of what they mean and what they entail is going to be a lot more complicated. So you make a good point. His proposal, he’s got to spell it out. We’d have to look at it and see if it’s even coherent.

And then we can decide, okay, what might be right to do? But yeah, as you emphasized, our epistemic limits, God’s unlimited nature, it doesn’t follow that God has similar moral duties to degree suffering here or there. I think those are all main points that you brought up and that came through. Why don’t we do this? Because I know we’re getting close to the end of our time. Is there any other part of the debate or part of your case that maybe you’d like to modify or go deeper into based on something Alex raised or just researching more and then we’ll close it out?

Trent Horn:
No, I don’t think so. I think we covered the ground very well. I think that when it comes to debates like these, you always have to be strategic. So you’ll notice that in my replies, I plan on doing this. And my wife, Laura, actually said she was grateful I did this. But when we moved into cross-examination, I chose deliberately to not focus on the argument from motion or contingency or causal finitism.

I focused more on morality because I believe that has just a bigger punch with lay people. That’s why the moral argument, even though it’s looked down upon by a lot of professional philosophers, I find it’s one of the arguments for God that just has the biggest punch for people to see, especially the idea that a unlimited, personal being exists. To me, that argument has such a big punch.

I’m just not ready to get rid of it, even though some philosophers don’t like it. And I think in the debate, it shows when you have an atheistic morality that can lead to these very counterintuitive situations like where Alex defended how some things are not always wrong or that human beings don’t necessarily have intrinsic worth. For me, when we do a debate like that, and that can be on the stage to see the Christian worldview defending common sense, moral intuitions and the atheistic worldview, defending counterintuitive or possibly barbaric intuitions. I think that Christian theism fares very well within context, especially among lay people who aren’t going to follow quantum physics or discussions about contingency and metaphors.

John DeRosa:
Yeah. I once heard a… It might’ve been Fulton Sheen. It might have been somebody else. But they talked about how they would present different arguments to folks and the moral argument was always the one that resonated. So I do think you did a nice job. And also strategically, he didn’t really challenge the arguments from causal affinity. I don’t think he brought up anything much about the argument for motion.

Trent Horn:
No, he didn’t.

John DeRosa:
Yeah, he didn’t. So you know what? The onus isn’t on you to bring those up again. If he wants to critique them, that would be fine. And of course, we could go deeper. I know some people might criticize your version of the argument for motion because you kind of gave it in a condensed format and maybe some of these calls will change and might get to a purely actual reality, but how do you know that there’s exactly one? You might have to do some more existential reasoning like Feser does. And you had studied all that, it’s just, how much can you get across in a few minutes? And he didn’t challenge it.

Trent Horn:
Yeah, he didn’t challenge it. And what’s important, John, when you do debates, when you put forward your opening statement, you don’t have to rebut. Common rebuttals for your opening statement is for providing evidence. You don’t have to rebut things in your opening statement. You wait for rebuttal to do that.

John DeRosa:
That’s a great point. Oh man, Trent, one day you’re going to have to teach a bunch of us how to get better at this idea of doing debates, studying for them. I think it was a great debate. I emphasize and recommend everyone to check it out. And I’d love to watch a part two if you’re ever debating Alex or another atheist in the future.

Trent Horn:
Oh yes. I look forward to hopefully having a sit down dialogue with Alex. He was easily the most pleasant person I have debated when it comes to atheism. And that was the overwhelming consensus on the debate online from both sides when it comes to comments about the debate, was that it was charitable, it was engaging, it was intelligent. It was the exact kind of debate people want to see.

And the more Christians can… Even if you don’t prove your case, dropping the hammer down, it’s undeniable. If you can get out there and atheists walkway like, “Well, that Christian was intelligent, polite. They both had a really great back and forth.” That keeps the faith in their minds as not just some kind of fairy tale to be hand waved away, but something to seriously grapple with.

John DeRosa:
Yes. I love it and I hope to be back again for a next debate debrief on atheism. If you want to have me back, I’d be happy to be here.

Trent Horn:
I’d be happy too, John.

John DeRosa:
Trent, this was awesome. Thanks so much for inviting me.

Trent Horn:
Hey, thanks for coming on to debrief with me, and thank you all for listening and supporting the Council of Trent podcast. If you want to help me do more debates, do more preparation work, do more rebuttal videos on our YouTube channel. We’re doing a lot of great stuff here at the Council of Trent. If you want to support that, be sure to go to trenthornpodcast.com.

For as little as $5 a month, you get access to our bonus content and you’re able to support us doing all this great work. And be sure to go and check out John DeRosa’s podcast, Classical Theism Podcast with John DeRosa. You’re going to enjoy it. I’ve enjoyed listening to it and I think you will like it as well. Thank you All for listening and I hope you have a very blessed day.

If you liked today’s episode, become a premium subscriber at our Patreon page and get access to member-only content. For more information, visit trenthornpodcast.com.


Enjoying this content?  Please support our mission! Donate