Paul Draper, the Fallacy of Understated Evidence, Theism, and Naturalism

Paul Draper has usefully identified a fallacy of inductive reasoning he calls the “fallacy of understated evidence.” According to Draper, in the context of arguments for theism and against naturalism, proponents of a theistic argument are guilty of this fallacy if they “successfully identify some general fact F about a topic X that is antecedently more likely on theism than on naturalism, but ignore other more specific facts about X, facts that, given F, are more likely on naturalism than on theism.”[1]

What makes this so interesting is Draper’s assessment of how various (inductive) theistic arguments commit this fallacy. By reviewing his writings, I’ve compiled the following summary of Draper’s assessment of the evidence, illustrating how Draper believes the fallacy of understated evidence applies in practice to contemporary arguments in the philosophy of religion.

Theistic Argument NameGeneral FactMore Specific Facts
Cosmological ArgumentFinite Age of the UniverseHumans do not occupy a spatially or temporally privileged position in the universe.[2]
Argument from ComplexityComplexity of the Universe1. The universe arose from a much simpler early universe.[3]
2. Micro-level simplicity.[4]
Arguments from Spatial and Temporal OrderIntelligibility of the UniverseSo much of our universe is intelligible without any appeal to supernatural agency.[5]
Fine-Tuning ArgumentExistence of Intelligent Life1. Our universe is not teeming with life, including life much more impressive than human life.[6]
2. The only intelligent life we know of is human and it exists in this universe.[7]
3. Intelligent life is the result of evolution.[8]
Argument from BeautyBeauty (Goodness)1. While the universe is saturated with visual beauty, it is not saturated with auditory, tactile, or other sensory beauty.[9]
2. Pain and pleasure are systematically connected to the biological goal of reproductive success.[10]
3. Our world contains an abundance of tragedy.[11]
Arguments from Free Will and ConsciousnessLibertarian Free Will & Phenomenal Consciousness1. Conscious states in general are dependent on the brain.[12]
2. The very integrity of our personalities are dependent on the brain.[13]
3. The apparent unity of the self is dependent on the brain.[14]
Argument from Moral AgencyMoral Agency[15]The variety and frequency of conditions that severely limit our freedom.[16]
Religious ExperiencePeople have religious experiences apparently of God1. Many people never have religious experiences. Those who do almost always have a prior belief in God or extensive exposure to a theistic religion.[17]
2. The subjects of theistic experiences pursue a variety of radically different religious paths, none of which bears abundantly more moral fruit than all of the others.[18]
3. Victims of tragedy are rarely comforted by theistic experiences.[19]


[1] Paul Draper, “Partisanship and Inquiry in the Philosophy of Religion,” unpublished paper. Cf. Paul Draper, “Cumulative Cases,” in Charles Taliaferro, Paul Draper, Philip L. Quinn, Blackwell Companion to the Philosophy of Religion (John Wiley and Sons: 2010), 414-24 at 421-22.
[2] To be precise, Draper mentions this fact under the category of “cosmological evidence” and not specifically in reference to temporal versions of the cosmological argument such as the kalam cosmological argument. But the only other evidence he mentions in that same category is evidence for the finite age of the universe, so I think it’s appropriate to list the two items of evidence together. See Paul Draper, “Seeking But Not Believing: Confessions of a Practicing Agnostic,” in Daniel Howard Snyder and Paul K. Moser, eds., Divine Hiddenness: New Essays (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2002), 199-200. Cf. my attempt to formulate a Bayesian argument for naturalism based upon the fact that humans do not occupy a privileged position in the universe in “The Argument from Scale Revisited, Part 4.”
[3] Draper 2010, 421.
[4] Draper 2010, 421.
[5] Draper n.d., 13.
[6] Draper 2010.421.
[7] Paul Draper, “Collins’ Case for Cosmic Design” The Secular Web (2008),
[8] Draper 2002, 201.
[9] Draper 2002, 204.
[10] Draper 2002, 203.
[11] Ibid.
[12] Draper 2010, 421; Draper n.d., 12; and Draper 2002, 202.
[13] Ibid.
[14] Ibid.
[15] Paul Draper, “Cosmic Fine-Tuning and Terrestrial Suffering: Parallel Problems for Naturalism and Theism.” American Philosophical Quarterly 41:4 (October 2004): 311-21.
[16] Draper 2010, 421.
[17] Draper 2010, 421; Draper n.d., 12-13; and Draper 2002, 204-205.
[18] Draper 2010, 421; Draper n.d., 13; and Draper 2002, 205.
[19] Draper n.d., 13; Draper 2002, 205.

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.

  • exapologist

    Thanks for this excellent post, Jeff.

  • Sabio Lantz

    Great table- dissecting someone's argument is very helpful. This table helps keep categories clear. Thanx.
    I just did a post on "Dissecting God
    ". I think, as you chart, it is important to understand the very different ways Christians understand the world.

  • Chris W

    Very interesting. Is that unpublished paper available online?

  • Jeffery Jay Lowder

    Chris W — No, not yet. But Draper tells me he is working on an expanded version with a co-author which he hopes to get published somewhere. I'll make an announcement when it gets published. With that said, virtually everything in the table can be found in other writings by Draper. When I am feeling less lazy (sometime in the next 4 days), I'll update this post with endnotes for references to the other writings.

  • Pete Hoge

    Thank you. That is a helpful table.

    Perhaps some expansion of the moral

  • Hiero5ant

    You neglected an even more delicious "general vs. specific" pairing.

    Creationists argue from the general fact that the universe is life-permitting to the conclusion that it was designed to accommodate the origin and evolution of creatures like us.

    In the next breath, they argue from the specific "fact" that the universe is designed in such a way as to make the origin and evolution of life physically impossible!

    A similar point applies to the "ensoulment" of the third chimpanzee. Apparently when it comes to designing a complete organism, God is so incompetent that he needs to miraculously intervene in his creation each and every time a human is conceived to "patch up" the fact that our brains don't come with consciousness out of the box!

  • Chris W

    Thanks, Jeff. What little I've read I'd Draper, I've liked. BTW, has he ever wrote about arguments from miracle? I'd be interested in how much weight he gives to the evidence for the resurrection of Jesus and the like.

  • Jeffery Jay Lowder

    FYI: I've now added endnotes which provide references to published works by Draper in which he provides examples to support his claim that specific inductive arguments for theism commit the fallacy of understated evidence.

  • Jeffery Jay Lowder

    Pete, Chris, Hiero5ant — Please keep in mind that the purpose of this post was and is solely to document Draper's assessment of the evidence. In this context, to the best of my knowledge, Draper has not claimed that any theistic arguments related to morality commit the fallacy of understated evidence. Draper believes that arguments from the existence of objective moral values to theism are evidentially worthless and provide no evidence whatsoever for theism over naturalism.

    The cloest thing to a moral argument as such mentioned by Draper in the context of understated evidence is the argument from moral agency. That argument was formulated by Draper; Draper himself has identified other, more specific facts about moral agency favoring naturalism over theism. Also, it should be noted that Draper believes the argument from moral agency is the strongest argument available for theism and against metaphysical naturalism.

    Regarding arguments from miracles, I'm not aware of Draper having written anything about such arguments in the context of the fallacy of understated evidence. About the only time he's written on that topic is his commentary on the Craig-Flew debate. In that commentary, he does not give that argument much weight.

  • Angra Mainyu

    Thanks, Jeffery

    That's an interesting table.

    With regard to the issues raised by Pete and Hiero5ant, perhaps they might be considered for future arguments?

    In the case of moral agency, I think one might include the existence of moral agents with false moral beliefs and imperfect mechanisms for acquiring moral beliefs, as understated evidence (though I don't know what Draper's take on that would be, or why he considers the argument from moral agency to be the strongest for theism, so maybe he wouldn't add that?)

  • Jeffery Jay Lowder

    Angra — Yes, the issues raised by Pete and Hiero5ant could certainly be considered for future arguments. I suppose we could create a second table which lists other purported example of understating the evidence, which could include examples not stated or necessarily endorsed by Draper. I would want to keep such a table separate, though, since I think Draper's assessments are interesting in their own right.

    Regarding moral agency, I don't have anything to say right now. I'd have to re-read his article before even attempting to speculate.

  • Jeffery Jay Lowder

    FYI: I've just added a couple more references to the endnotes, including a new endnote which provides a reference for Draper's formulation and defense of his very interesting argument from moral agency to theism.

  • Angra Mainyu