The Argument from Scale (AS) Revisited, Part 1

There is something about Nicholas Everitt’s argument from scale for atheism that appeals to my intuitions, but I haven’t been able to quite put my finger on what it is. So I’m going to try to reformulate the argument from scale as a Bayesian argument. Before I do, however, let’s review Everitt’s formulation of the argument. In his book, The Non-Existence of God, Everitt begins by introducing the generic form for the family of arguments of which the argument from scale is a member:

Everitt’s General Argument Form
(1) If there is an agent with nature N, beliefs B, and intention I, then he will produce change C in the world.
(2) The world does not display C. So:
(3) There is evidence against the hypothesis that there is an agent with N and I and B.[1]

Everitt then turns to his argument from scale.

We are now in a position to present Everitt’s formulation of the argument from scale:

Everitt’s Argument from Scale (AS)
(1) If the God of classical theism existed, with the purposes traditionally ascribed to him, then he would create a universe on a human scale, i.e. one that is not unimaginably large, unimaginably old, and in which human beings form an unimaginably tiny part of it, temporally and spatially.
(2) The world does not display a human scale.
(3) Therefore, there is evidence against the hypothesis that the God of classical theism exists with the purposes traditionally ascribed to him.[2]

At the outset, notice that the AS does not exactly match the general argument form we reviewed earlier. Whereas the first premise of the general argument includes references to the agent’s nature, beliefs, and intentions, the AS explicitly only refers to God’s nature (“classical theism”) and intentions (“purposes traditionally ascribed to him”). It says nothing about God’s beliefs. Whether this is a problem remains to be seen.

Premise (2) is undeniable. For a very cool graphic demonstration of the scale of the universe, see here. (HT: Luke Muehlhauser)

As for premise (1), I am much less confident about the truth of premise (1) than I am about premise (2). As I read him, Everitt gives two supporting arguments (or sketches of such arguments) for (1).

First Supporting Argument
(4) If classical theism is true, then humans are the “jewel of creation.”
(5) If humans are the jewel of creation, then “the rest of the universe will be at least not unremittingly hostile or even indifferent to human flourishing.”
(1) If the God of classical theism existed, with the purposes traditionally ascribed to him, then he would create a universe on a human scale.

One worry I have about this argument is (4). The key terms “classical theism” and “jewel of creation” are not as well defined as I would like. As I understand the terms, “classical theism” does not logically entail that humans are the “jewel of creation;” furthermore, it’s not obvious to me that “classical theism” makes it probable that humans are the “jewel of creation,” especially if “classical theism” means “generic theism.” Given classical theism, God could have created creatures which are more impressive than humans, in other parts of the universe or even in other universes (if there is a multiverse).

Premise (5) is also questionable. Even if humans are “the jewel of creation,” it is not obvious that “the rest of the universe will be at least not unremittingly hostile or even indifferent to human flourishing.” Humans do not occupy “the rest of the universe,” so it’s not obvious why God would need to create the rest of the universe in such a way that it is supportive of human life. For example, the purpose of my car is to transport humans; the inside of my car is quite comfortable. The rest of the car (e.g., under the hood, the tailpipe, the gas tank, etc.), however, is indifferent or even hostile to human flourishing. Indeed, there may be a further analogy between my car and the scale of the universe. Just as these other parts of my car are necessary for it to work, perhaps (for reasons relating to the so-called ‘fine-tuning’ of the universe) the rest of the universe is somehow necessary for the flourishing of human life. This isn’t a perfect analogy, since an omnipotent being presumably could have created a universe with radically different physical laws such that the rest of the universe were unnecessary for the existence of human life. Nevertheless, I think (5) is doubtful.

Let’s turn, then, to what I consider to be Everitt’s second supporting argument for (1).

Second Supporting Argument
(6) The human scale of the universe described by the Genesis stores of creation is just what we would expect “[g]iven the hypothesis of theism and [the author(s) of Genesis had] no scientific knowledge.”
(7) Metaphysical naturalism provides no antecedent reason to expect the universe to display a human scale. [implicit premise]
(1) If the God of classical theism existed, with the purposes traditionally ascribed to him, then he would create a universe on a human scale.

I’ve added premise (7) to the argument, which I consider to be an unstated and implicit premise.

This argument is invalid: (1) does not follow from (6) & (7). The argument seems to move from a conclusion about the human authorship of the Genesis stories to a conclusion about God’s purposes in creating the universe. While there might be an argument against Biblical inerrancy looming here, I’m not sure this argument works against classical theism.

I conclude, then, that (1) is unsupported. Nevertheless, there is something about the argument from scale which appeals to my intuitions. In my next post on the topic, I will try revising and reformulating the argument in Bayesian form to see if I can build a stronger version.

Series on the Argument from Scale

Notes

[1] Everitt, The Non-Existence of God, p. 213.

[2] Everitt, p. 225.

About Jeffery Jay Lowder

Jeffery Jay Lowder is President Emeritus of Internet Infidels, Inc., which he co-founded in 1995. He is also co-editor of the book, The Empty Tomb: Jesus Beyond the Grave.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/10212971606135991995 Wes

    By the modest surprise principle, it does seem that an unimaginably large universe is surprising given theism (i.e. given certain theological assumptions), but not surprising at all given metaphysical naturalism. It's not necessarily what one would expect simply given naturalism (there's no reason to think the universe would be large rather than small given metaphysical naturalism), but given theological assumptions such as God's limited interest in humans as the pinnacle of creation, it is surprising if theism is true.

    Why surprising given theism? The surprise is the highest given Christian theism. According to Christian theists, God cared enough about Earth to send his son to die for humanity. If the death of Jesus is "special" in any sense, it must be rare. It could not happen on many planets across the universe and still retain its uniqueness.

    If this is correct, the expanse of the universe is unnecessary for this purpose.

    E: the unfathomable expanse of the universe
    M: metaphysical naturalism
    T: theism

    Pr(E|M)>Pr(E|T)

    I don't think it will be a great argument, but could add to a cumulative case.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/17668854596329493360 ZAROVE

    I have always marvelled at the credulity of Humanity. Oftentimes we accept fatally flawed Arguments simply because they support our predisposition, rather than because they have actual merit. You of course see this on the Christian, or general Theistic side of he debate as well. Whenever we seek to argue for something we often sacrifice critical evaluation, and instead simply seek an argument to “win’ or to at least “Score points”.

    I’ve always had problems with this particular argument myself. For one thing, “Classical Theism’ means “Christian” and somehow all Christians must believe that Humans are “The jewel of creation’ thus, from there, the purpose of Creation.

    I do not see how one goes from the unspecified “Jewel of Creation” to the assumption that the whole Universe was made for Humanity. In fact, if we follow the Crown Analogy, that means the Crown was made for the jewel, not the Jewel for the Crown; but we all know that Crowns are not made to display Jewels and neither should man as “The Jewel of creation’ be seen as the purpose of Creation.

    That is in addition to your other most excellent points to which I agree.

    Now, I will say one other, the usual rebuttal I get is “but you still haven’t proven that God exists”. I hate that rebuttal with a passion because it is immaterial whether I have, the question assumes God’s existence can be disproven by one thing, and it can’t. While it is true that rebuttal of one flawed argument is not proof that God exists, its still noteworthy.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/17668854596329493360 ZAROVE

    Wes, there are numerous problems with your assertion. The first is, the Uniqueness of Jesus’ Sacrifice is actually made more Unique in a Large, and liveable Universe with loads of habitable Planets and intelligent Life, not less so.

    Then there is the fact that the Mormons preach exactly this; that thee are many worlds and many peoples o those worlds, and even the Sacrifice of Jesus is relayed on them in some way, shape, or form. Would Mormons not be an offshoot of Christianity? Are Mormons not Theists? Or perhaps not “Classical” Theists?

    Furthermore, not all Christians see man as the Pinnacle of Creation, and even in Antiquity it was common to believe that some things, such as Angels, were in some ways Superior to man.

    The Catholic Church is another example. The Catholic Church doesn’t teach that man is the sole purpose of creation, and even says Life on other words is possible, though it remains Agnostic as to whether such Life exists on other worlds.

    If life on other planets doesn’t contradict Catholic Assumptions about the Universe in and of itself, and is integral to Mormon belief, and as neither the Church Of Jesus Christ of latter-Day Saints not the Holy Catholic Church actually claim that all the Universe was made solely for life on Earth and specifically Humanity, then I have to question whether or not Christian Theism is really all about making man the pinnacle and ultimate purpose of Creation, and thus the basis of the Question.

    The Eastern Orthodox find themselves in a Similar position. Given that Orthodoxy and Catholicism define almost 2/3rds of all Christendom, it becomes increasingly difficult to really define Christian theism as incompatible with a large Universe, or even use the Argument from Scale to counter pre-existing beliefs.

    While some Christians undoubtedly do believe this, such as Ken Ham, it’s hardly a Universal principle. Its not even Universally accepted in Protestantism. EG, Anglicans don’t believe it, nor do many different branches of Methodism.

    This argument really only holds merit in light of a very minority Evangelical Christian and Pentecostal perspective, neither of which should be termed “Classical Theism” nor should they be properly seen as “Classical Christian theism’ as Evangelicalism didn’t exist till the 1850’s and Pentecostalism didn’t exist till the early 20th century.

    Mist Christians for most of Christianity’s History really didn’t have a problem with the idea that God could create life on other worlds. The Biggest problem with the belief was actually a Pagan Idea, the Ptolemaic Model of Creation. However, even before Galileo, or even Copernicus, the idea of other worlds with Life existed, and even the Idea that Ptolemy was wrong.

    Ptolemy was not the Father of Classical Theism, and his Model held sway base don Observation of the Universe and other odd notions such as the perfection fo Spheres and Spherical Orbits, not due to Theological Concerns.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/01157848127817789790 Flagellum

    You may want to take Tim McGrew's review of the book into account when revising the argument. He thinks this argument was hopelessly debunked by Thomas Chalmers nearly 200 years ago.

    http://www.amazon.com/review/R3PWX7V3JO61XZ/

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